Year-End Reflections

This time last year, I was in a dull funk as far as writing was concerned. Earlier in the year, I had started work on a historical crime fiction. It was to be a challenge for me but one I deemed worthwhile. I had to deal with selling my late parents’ home long distance. The process started out rather simple then devolved into chaos and confusion coupled with unprofessional people who I needed to trust. By the time that was resolved, it was the madness of the holiday season.
But in May, I recharged, going down to Oklahoma for my fourth OWFI conference, hooking up with my friend, Nick Lyon, meeting the amazing Les Edgerton, and generally reminding myself that I was still a writer.
Well, I completed the first draft of that book and am on the second edit now. John Lennon said it best: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. I’m just fortunate to have been able to get back to those plans.

Les Edgerton

9 mm Centerpiece

I moved to Wichita, KS twenty years ago from Boston, MA. Yet, I find this community as filled with artistic talent. I’ve met writers and poets, sculptors and artists, musicians — the gamut of what truly invigorates me. My wife and I had season tickets for several years to the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, regular attended shows at Music Theater Wichita, saw Cirque du SoleilTHREE times, and attended some great concerts over the past year at the historic Orpheum Theater.
But something makes me feel I haven’t explored as much of the arts scene as I could have and definitely should have. John Donne indicated that no man is an island unto himself. No man or no one interested in developing their art. I know I need to get out there more and meet some more people in this community who are passionate about creating something special and are urged on by a compulsion that can not be defined.

Why is it so difficult to disagree any more? Notice how I didn’t ask why we can’t get along. Personally, I think that’s overrated. But we seem to have lost our ability to disagree, civilly and intellectually. There is a pervasive attitude of “If you’re not with me, you’re against me” as opposed to “I disagree, but let’s hear what you have to say.” You see it in politics and in every aspect of contemporary culture, especially Facebook.
I went on a rant recently regarding something rather innocuous. A lady (who was a Facebook friend because she was a friend of a friend) commented, as was her right to do so. When the commentary started to become personal, I took offense. If you know me and can “analyze” me, fine. If you don’t know me, it’s best to stay away from that line of response. And I said so.
A couple of weeks later, after the rant had fully passed from my mind, I recalled with childish humor the whole exchange. I looked up the lady. Sure enough she had unfriended me. I figured it was her loss because I feel I am interesting and a good conversationalist. The real point is that she could not accept my comment on her comment and left.
Disagreement is not dissension.

I find myself more intrigued by experimental fiction. Metafiction, transgressive fiction, fonts and colors, non-linear story-telling. I still maintain my passion for noir and hard-boiled. Yet, I use the alternative styles as a playful experiment and wind up discovering something new.
I am fortunate to be friends with Eckhard Gerdes on Facebook and I follow an Experimental Fiction group. These writers are light years ahead of me but my fascination is part of the learning process. At 53, I am content to know that I am not stuck in a groove and have miles to go before I sleep.

Advertisements

Be different. Better yet, be yourself.

Dr. Paul Nagel was my screenwriting professor at the University of Miami back in the early 1980’s. He said something (which I have since heard paraphrased numerous times) that has stuck with me since: Don’t write like everyone else in Hollywood. They’ve already got everyone else in Hollywood. The bottom line is that nobody was writing like H.B. Berlow. Unfortunately, at that young age, even I wasn’t writing like H.B. Berlow.

A divorce and a poetry anthology got me moving emotionally and intellectually. A five years span in Boston immersed me into a scene populated by the widest range of writing styles. It was there I became a writer. That was the poetical me. The fiction me took a while longer. Whereas I was fascinated by Hammett and Chandler and Ellroy and Jim Thompson, I didn’t live in 1930’s or 1950’s Los Angeles or 1950’s Midwest. I was living in Wichita, KS in the 1990’s and into the next century.

You learn, you read, you grow, and, hopefully, you find yourself. Therein lies the rub, as the Bard would say. The Writing You that you find may not be the one that agents and editors and publishers want. And if immortality is what you’re looking for (or at the very least, publication) then you have a serious choice. You can either violate the years of work and effort and inner retrospection to “write what sells” or you can stay on your path.

I met a young lady several years ago and asked her what she wrote. She informed me that Steampunk was her genre. Not fully aware of its scope, she provided me with an explanation that fascinated me. I asked how she got into it and she replied that was what was currently selling.

I nodded my head and walked away.

Having spent so many years working through prosody and the craft of fiction, taking the steps to read works in my preferred genres of noir, hard-boiled, dark fiction, and Transgressive fiction, I found it hard to believe that someone would simply choose a genre for the financial gain with perhaps no abiding or deep-rooted connection to it.

When it comes to contests, I also try not to get too uptight that a work does not receive recognition. The judges of that particular year may not have appreciated the nature of my work. I guarantee resubmitting to the same contest the following year (assuming the judges change) would have a different result. There is no reason for me to review the winning entries and try to write something “just like that.”

I am at a point in my life that could be a literary crossroads, if I allow it to be. The desire for publishing success is great. I won’t deny that. Anyone who says they are writing for the pure aesthetics is delusional. By the same token, at the age of 53, I am only too comfortable in my literary skin to simply change with the prevailing winds. There IS a market for me and my work. There IS an audience.

It has taken 53 years to become H.B. Berlow and right now the writing world does not have H.B. Berlow. I’m staying the course.

How dark is too dark?

So, maybe you’re a teenager or twenty-something, goth or just likes to wear black, thinks deep thoughts about death and realizes your life is going nowhere even though it’s just begun.

You might be a thirty to forty-year old, well established, married, homeowner, good to decent job with benefits, flashing back to your youth and realizing you didn’t get as wild as you wanted to before all this normalcy set in.

You could be fifty plus, grandparent or simply elder statesman, looked upon with a kind of reverence only because the young people you encounter don’t usually deal directly with someone your age and they somehow seem appealing to you.

Everyone has dark thoughts but manages to suppress it. Those who don’t are arrested. In truth, they are a small minority. Then, there is the writer of dark or transgressive fiction. That would be me. Some of the stuff I think of and consider initially make me go “Wow! I don’t think I should write THAT!” Immediately after that, there is an article on Yahoo! or on t.v., something that really happened, somewhere in the world, the U.S., your own state, your own neighborhood. And you say “Wow! What I’ve just thought of is nothing compared to the real world.”

I’ve read some dark fiction that seems to be trying to shock, going to an extreme to see if it can fit in with a reader’s sensibilities long enough to whack them over the head. That kind of writing reminds me of cheap B horror movies anywhere from the late 50’s to the mid 70’s. They are no better off than cheap porn, offering no substance and riding the coattails of shock only.

What I find the most tantalizing and scary are tales of the real world, real people, who react against the grain of the normalcy they project. Underneath, the maggots are already eating away at their soul and they won’t stop until everyone around them feels their suffering.

Manson is boring. He looks like a psycho and acts like one. Dahmer is fascinating. The boy-next-door with the angelic face and the dark desires. Rader is interesting because the president of a church is not supposed to have desires to Bind, Torture, and Kill. Too many people lump all these killers into one dark bunch, as though the act itself is what creates the darkness.

To me, it is the attempt at hiding it and covering it up that is darker. It is not the cheap porn of Helter Skelter. It is the darkness within that blinds our eyes when it is eventually revealed.

Notes on a Writer’s Conference – OWFI 2015

This was my fourth year attending and was, for me, the best ever. One of the primary reasons was due to the fact that there were more faculty and speakers who dealt with crime/thriller/transgressive/dark fiction genres, thereby making it more relevant for me.

Tops on the hit parade was Les Edgerton, the keynote speaker. Look up his bio on Wikipedia and that only scratches the surface. Les doesn’t have a filter, hates political correctness, has a wise-ass sense of humor and an absolute passion for the craft of writing. That kicks it into high gear beyond anything else. He graced our table at the Saturday night banquet. Trust me; that was an honor.

Richard Thomas is the editor in chief of Dark House Press and has proven that transgressive and dark fiction still has a place in publishing. He was self-effacing, personable, and accessible. I pitched my fully realized novel “Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing” (which I have commented on in this venue before). We’ll see where that goes (he said with painfully crossed fingers).

Andrew E. Kaufman doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would write “Twisted” or other psychological thrillers. But, again, the passion for the craft drives him and has brought him an incredible amount of success.

I am fully convinced that all you need to fully understand the intricate details of the police procedural is to consult with Lee Lofland. Everything about the sessions with this former police detective was filled with the most significant information to bring your story alive. Again, another interesting speaker with a unique sense of humor.

You have to consider all the sidebar events, gatherings, buzz sessions, pitch sessions, drinks at the bar, after-banquet jam sessions and impromptu conversations. I am convinced that the Embassy Suites in Oklahoma City is never as alive as it is when OWFI invades.

I’ve mentioned people. But this conference also instills hope and motivation. It provides not only the tools but the confidence to proceed in this journey of creativity. When Sunday rolled around and people were leaving with their suitcases, I knew it was all over. Whereas I would have preferred to stay and live in that hotel until next year, I knew that “real life” was beckoning. Part of that “real life” includes writing.

It wasn’t a dream. And the adventure continues.

I’m back! (Kinda. Sorta. Almost.)

When my mother passed away last year, it was one day before the OWFI Conference. Certainly, it was difficult, but there was no other option but to go and it is what my mother would have wanted. She and my late father always supported and promoted my writing. Creativity has long been a part of my family.

Over the course of the next several months, there were the legalities to go through involving the sale of her house. This was to be a long distance venture: the house was in Florida and I’m in Kansas. I chose who I thought was a reputable title company and went through an excruciating process based on my inability to make calls from work and time zone differences. There is far more to this part of the story but the details are not the issue. The bottom line is an unnecessary amount of stress was placed upon me by people who were far less than professional.

Then came the holidays.

In the meantime, I had to take a hiatus from my critique group. What started as temporary seems permanent. I had to recuse myself from attending meetings of the writer’s support group which I started. I pulled back and into a shell. The last quarter of the year I didn’t do a single bit of writing. I did some editing on a work in progress once or twice. In essence, I disappeared as a writer and, in so doing, lost my identity.

Well, the holidays have passed, my New England Patriots have won the Super Bowl, and I’m ready to start up again. I have to; there is no other choice. The alternative is to wind up like Amos Hart from “Chicago” (i.e. Mr. Cellophane). Life is too short to be occupied solely with the mundane and trivial. As writers, we create and bring to life the widest possibilities that exist around us. It is a feeling which I need to have again.

I will be doing a final draft on my Transgressive fiction piece, expanding it and making it even wilder than it is. I will be working on a second draft of the Meta-fiction, trying to expound on the notion of the Writer vs. the Writing. I will be picking up where I left off on my historical crime fiction.

Now, notice how I said “will be.” There are still a few plates that need to be cleared from the table, a better organization of my time, and a renewed dedication. So, I’m back, just not all the way yet.

I hate lists, but here’s one anyway.

Recently, my nephew’s girlfriend was telling me about a story she was writing. Just took up writing recently but she’s already been doing some acting in high school.

The son of my wife’s cousin reached out to me, wanting to know how to be a better writer. Says he enjoys English class and takes honors courses.

All of a sudden, it would appear, young people are considering either my publishing history or my accessibility in terms of being a viable go-to person. I hesitate to use the word ‘mentor’ because I don’t know what it means in this day and age. Nevertheless, I feel honored and pressured not to disappoint.

So, I came up with some random thoughts, heartfelt enough to be taken seriously but generic enough to fit into any circumstance. I can’t rightly call them Rules because I certainly don’t follow any. I knew what they were until I broke them. After all, how can explain Transgressive Fiction and Metafiction? I wouldn’t presume to call them Guidelines because I don’t want anyone to follow my path or some other successful writer’s path. I want them to find their own way.

Therefore, these are just “H.B’s Thoughts on Writing” and you can take them for what their worth.

(1) Writers are essentially story-tellers. Technical proficiency comes in second.

(2) Write so that your reader is invested in the story you are telling.

(3) Be true to the story. It knows how it needs to be told. A writer’s task is to discover that way.

(4) Write for yourself. Edit for publication.

(5) Know what has come before you. Read those works similar to your interests in order to identify your own voice.

(6) Writing is a solitary endeavor. Sharing the frustrations and struggles doesn’t have to be.

(7) Your first draft is not ready for publication. Neither is your second.

(8) Your third draft is probably not ready for publication. But know when to stop. Overthinking can undermine the passion and joy you have infused into your work.

(9) If you don’t believe, neither will your reader.

(10) Don’t: Think about; Talk about; Plan to; Contemplate; Consider — Writing. Just do it. Just write.

Where Are You on the Time Continuum?

There will always be a debate regarding your individual relationship to the Past, Present, and Future. On a personal level, there is much to be said. Is there an event from your past that has permanently marked you and defined you? Are you afraid of your future to the extent that you focus intently on the here-and-now? I’m not here to discuss or contemplate those issues. As previously stated, this blog discusses the writer and the writing life.

So, let’s talk about what we do as writers in terms of past, present, and future. I know much of what I write in the past was, well, crap. I re-read it and see how much out of my element I was. I’m proud of my “creativity”, the notion that I had good ideas. But the overall execution was poor, to say the least. Currently, with one published novel and another on the way, I can definitely say I’ve gotten better. But is that enough? To have moved from ‘crap’ to ‘better’ is an improvement but not an ultimate goal. So what IS the ultimate goal?

I have a delightful piece of Transgressive Fiction which is well-developed but could be expanded. I’m currently working on a piece of meta-fiction as well as a novel of contemporary literary fiction. Additionally, based on my associations with a small but impressive group of poets, I have started writing poetry again. It is obvious that I am willing to move forward. But in what direction?

My association with my current publisher is solid. However, if I provided him with something totally off the wall, would he be interested? Do I do a sequel to my first published piece simply because a couple of reviewers suggested it be done? Is it reviews, royalties, or literary satisfaction that I am seeking?

The bottom line goal is perfecting the craft of writing. In this attempt, it may take several methodologies, many different courses of action. As a married homeowner with a full-time job, can I afford to be artistic or should I focus on commercial success?

There are not rhetorical questions nor are they even answerable. If I am fortunate enough to awake each morning, there is a protocol that must be followed with desires interspersed. What has happened has brought be to this point. What I do will take me forward. A sense of hope permeates my thoughts of tomorrow.

So, where are you?

The Evolution of a Novel – “Swan Song”

Why do writers write? It is the fascination and obsession with the Word. Their connection, their sound, their emotional weight. We are story tellers and we tell our stories with words.

This is the story of “Swan Song”, my debut novel published by Deadly Niche Press. {The Kindle Edition is available at Amazon.com; the print version will be available after the first of the year.}

In 2007, I won a prize in the Adult Poetry Division of the Kansas Writer’s Association’s yearly contest. At the presentation and corresponding reading at Watermark Books in Wichita, KS, I talked with Storme Maynard who told me about a strange thing called NaNoWriMo. All you had to do was write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. No problem, right?

The stress of the thing was palpable. Writing poetry in Boston in the mid 1990’s was a thought-provoking, emotional, and at times intellectual process. But we took our time until we got it right. This thing was literary insanity. But I finished it; I completed a “book”, such as it was. However, looking over my effort in December was out of the question. The holidays were approaching and I didn’t want my sloppy 50,000 words to depress.

I did work on it. Many times through several years. Eventually I came up with a piece of neo-noir hardboiled fiction that still captures my attention and creates striking images in my mind. Keep in mind that it is still nothing more than a manuscript at this time.

That is until I met Dan Case of AWOC.com. He was a speaker at the KWA Scene Conference in 2012 and a panelist for Pitchapalooza, sponsored by The Book Doctors, David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut. In a what-the-heck kind of moment I decided to pitch my Transgressive novel, Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing. I got an honorable mention for my pitch and some additional people looking in my direction, one of whom was Dan Case.

I ran into him at the OWFI Conference in May. We talked; he said he was interested and so was I. I sent him the manuscript for both. Knowing that the Transgressive piece might be a harder sell, he opted to start with “Swan Song” which has just been released as an e-book.

I am thrilled and pleased and know that the work has just begun. But consider the evolution: writing contest to casual conversation to online writing event to writer’s conference to pitch session to another writer’s conference…

There are those who say that NaNoWriMo is silly and it’s not really about the art and craft of writing. There are those who say that writing conferences are a venue for published novelists to garner attention. There are those who think that an e-book is somehow not a “real” book.

Whoever those people are, I do not agree with them.

I Write Transgressive Fiction; Does That Make Me a Bad Guy?

I got a Tweet from David Henry Sterry, one half of The Book Doctors. I had met him and his wife, Arielle Eckstut, at the KWA Scene Conference in March of this year while competing in Pitchapalooza. I pitched my dark comic Transgressive novel Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing and was well received.

The Tweet from David was “what exactly is transgressive fiction?” I responded “Main characters who feel confined by the norms of society. Think Fight Club & American Psycho. (was this a test?)” He came back with “not a test. just curious. is curious george transgressive character? cat in the hat? certainly max from wild things, right? ” Interesting. I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective. I clarified: “Got to add drugs, sex, violence and other taboo subjects into the mix. For the characters, THAT’S normal.” Sometimes the Socratic method does work best.

For my own interests, I looked researched on Wikipedia and found this definition by LA Times literary critic, Michael Silverblatt:

“A literary genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premise that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge.”

I looked back at my novel and the other collection I put together, Unemployed and Dangerous: A Trilogy of Transgressive Novellas. Was my work really like this? It was true that I explored very dark themes. The approach was offbeat, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, somewhat lyrical. There was an off-handedness to the extreme behavior, as though it were all just normal.

I have worked in customer service or retail for the better part of thirty years. I am certain that my life experience has informed my writing. I have always enjoyed film noir from the 40’s and 50’s, especially with the deep and dark psychological undertones. There is more than just crime in good crime fiction.

I had to go very deep within myself for that collection of novellas, scaring me at times and my wife just enough, before we both realized that I was lowering myself into a well but also pulling myself back up. And yet I know it’s there.

So, I conclude that I am NOT a bad guy but one who recognizes the possibility of badness, madness, degradation, and despair. Just as it is within all of us. And it is daring and scary to dive into those waters for the sake of a piece of writing and it is a dangerous journey to come back to stable ground. It creates an understanding of duality. It forces self-examination, which is necessary on both a personal and artistic level. It broadens the scope of character and literary skill.

I choose to go there knowing that I have the strength of will and the love of my wife to get back. I would not be satisfied any other way.

2012 OWFI Conference

If there was a writer’s conference but there was not a single editor or agent in your genre, would you attend? Heck, yeah. It’s not always about you and your book but the kind of insight you can get, the tidbits of minutiae, the alternate perspectives, that added to your writing and your writing life.

This was my first conference of the Oklahoma Writer’s Federation, Inc. and it was rather impressive. Held at the Embassy Suites hotel not far from Will Rogers Airport, it featured several speakers, an editor/agent panel, two dinner banquets (one with keynote speaker Steven james and the other the contest awards presentation), and various late night buzz sessions.

The highlights for me were:

C. Hope Clark, whose newsletter Funds For Writers, provides practical insight into venues for freelance writers. Her maxim, “You have to be known as a writer first before you are known as a novelist” really hit home.

Dan Case of AWOC Publishing. I had already met Dan at the KWA Scene Conference in March. His enthusiasm and laugh is contagious. He’s reading one of my pieces now, the hard-boiled crime fiction “Swansong”. So, we’ll wait and see.

Chuck Sambuchino, whose blog Guide to Literary Agents is one of the most useful tools out there. i had a one-on-one with Chuck while he reviewed my pitch for the Transgressive fiction piece, “Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing.” Very perceptive feedback plus additional directions that might help me secure and agent.

Thomas B. Sawyer, screenwriter, novelist, teacher, and one heck of a storyteller. He was entertaining OUTSIDE of the session. I was very fortunate to have he and his wife sit at our table for breakfast the next morning.

No, i did not secure an agent or a three-book deal or any of those other fantasy illusions we have of attending such events. I met some very talented industry professionals who were accessible and met me on an equal level. I met some really wonderful folks who did seem impressed by some of my louder Hawaiian shirts.

More importantly, I retained and expanded on the main things it takes to be a successful writer. Hope and confidence. Add to that my enduring desire and I can assure you this thing ain’t over yet.

« Older entries