What if…

Those two words are the only magic a writer needs. They have been a mantra for me for many years as stories have developed from the mere notion of possibilities.

What if…A disgraced former Wichita cop who now is the chief of security at a casino in Minnesota is drawn home because of a mysterious phone call referencing the fate of his younger brother. (“Swan Song”, currently out of print.)

What if…A series of murders are occurring around the country in which criminals who haven’t been prosecuted or got off are being executed and a team of profilers finally determine it is the same perpetrator. (“The .9 mm Solution”, currently out of print.)

What if…A disfigured World War I veteran, now a beat cop in a small Kansas town, determines a new guy in town is likely a Chicago gangster and a key to his past. (“Ark City Confidential.“)

What if…A divorced forty-something man who hates his job and the petty commercialization of today’s society takes up contract killing to relieve his boredom. (“Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing”, unpublished.)

You watch the news, read a magazine article, have a general conversation, and, if you are perceptive, the possibilities materialize in your mind’s eye like a High Definition Wide-Screen movie and you follow along gleefully. That’s the key: being aware, being open, making yourself ready to recognize when stories fall into your lap.

We know there is much work after that. Outline, plotting, story arc, character development, your agent, your publisher, your editor, etc. But it starts somewhere very special. All with a simple…What if!


The public and private face of a writer

You may have seen me at book signings or a writers conference. We could have run into each other at the grocery store. I know we’ve talked about the current book, the new book, the audio version while at work and wondered if you, too, can get your name included (i.e. “be a character”). This is the outgoing face of a writer, the person who recognizes that the product IS the person. However, in order to get to that point, there is an awful lot that goes on behind the scenes, shall we say, that most people are not aware of.

First, most writers have their own special place where they reside: an office, an unused bedroom, even a corner of the dining room table after the meal is over. Many writers also retire to the confines of a coffee shop or small bistro with wi-fi in order to get away from the staid old surroundings of the familiar in hopes of generating the energy required to write. By this, we refer to mental energy, the fuel for any creative effort.

Depending on whether your “old school” or not, there is a kind of notebook, whether written or digital, that contains ideas and research material, character bios and possible plot lines. This goes alongside the laptop, tablet, or one-subject notebook where the work is being created.

While the external world provides the sensory data and experiences that are necessary, it is necessary to exclude it during this process. Perhaps if I were writing poetry and wanted to be inspired, I would be like Wordsworth and remain outdoors. When writing historical crime fiction, as I do, I need to be able to eliminate modern contrivances to allow my mind to inhabit a time period seventy or eighty years prior.

“Sorry to bother you” is an expression that, although gracious in its sentiment, breaks the concentration, especially if a scene was progressing fabulously. Gritting teeth and almost pounding the fists after an intrusion does nothing to regain composure but is a required outlet.

“I really need to get this done” is a comment made with a trembling of guilt in the voice because, after all, is writing more important than anything else? The answer is Yes.

As with all other efforts, there will be a time when the writer tires. It takes a great deal of that mental energy to write a chapter or edit a manuscript. If you are not a full-time writer (i.e. you have a day job and other domestic responsibilities), you may go into a writing session already short on energy. However, just being able to get something accomplished provides a great feeling of satisfaction.

In a rush, there is reaching out to your publisher, working with your editor, doing a cover reveal, announcing the release date, making marketing plans, creating a book trailer. All this requires yet another form of energy and specific mental calculation.

And everything leads to that guy you see at a writers conference or in the office, energetically talking about his book and the writing process. You will only ever see the public face.

Progress, at any speed

I suppose it is only natural to desire artistic success at a young age. I knew early on I wanted to be a writer. There were plenty of classes in school. I was raised in a home filled with books and art and culture. But I also recognized I just didn’t have it in college. Oh, there was desire and creativity. However, in terms of craft, I was not fully developed. Hard to tell in retrospect if it was lack of discipline or lack of understanding. Then again, it could have been lack of experience.

Then came the period from 1990-1995. The Boston Poetry Scene. Much diverse reading. Much experimentation with form and prosody. An even more diverse group of people to share and talk and commiserate. “Craft” with a capital C. It wasn’t anything you could hang a professional hat on. By the time I moved to Kansas, I was 33, still wanted to be a writer, but didn’t know where I was going.

Project Greenlight got me back into writing screenplays, something I studied in college in my 20’s. That effort went nowhere. Then I learned about NaNoWriMo and I figured it was the best way to jump-start my fiction writing. By that time I was 45.

There was self-teaching in blogs, self-publishing, social media. I was developing a platform (you know, whatever THAT is) and went to writer’s conferences and hung out with younger poets and could sense something was happening.


Ten years after the first NaNoWriMo, I had two books published (which have since been removed from print by the publisher), found a new publisher, got a book published, am currently working toward having that book turned into an audio book, working with an editor on the follow-up, and am writing the third in the series. I’m 55. I’m not a 20-something prodigy. I’m a married homeowner with a full-time job and a bunch of personal responsibilities. BUT…there is progress.

Is a dream any more desirable because it is achieved earlier in life? Is following your dream, at any pace, still as satisfying? I think of my perceptions in my 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, to now. When the movie “10” came out, I was 16 years old and fascinated by Bo Derek’s slow motion jog down a beach in a one-piece swimsuit. Thirty years later, I empathized with Dudley Moore’s issues with aging. The movie hadn’t changed; I had.

The only thing that has not changed is my passion for words and writing and the literary world. Progress, at any speed, is desirable and satisfying largely because it means you have not allowed your dreams to die.

Keep dreaming. Keep writing.

What’s normal?

A while back, I came up for a unique idea for a novel. It was to be the fictional biography of an author (not me) named H.B. Berlow, being written by me, H.B. Berlow. The whole thing was designed to explore the nature of identity and how important it is to know more about the author than just reading the book.

Shortly thereafter, I read an article in Writer’s Digest that referenced ‘metafiction’ and upon further review, I discovered that was the concept behind what I had thought about writing. Then, I came across Eckhard Gerdes on Facebook, discovered the Journal of Experimental Fiction, and realized that my mind was naturally bringing me on a different course.

Background check: I was a young writer who wrote short stories. Then I was a college student studying film-making and screenwriting. That was followed by a thirty-something semi-bohemian poet who morphed into a writer of crime fiction. It’s what writers do: grow, change, progress, learn, develop craft, take from their life experience. Perhaps I had thought that writing experimental fiction was something for someone considerably younger. Then it occurred to me that I had ALREADY considered something different for me, discovered it WAS a genre, and determined my curiosity was still piqued.

I twice entered the Kenneth Patchen Award competition through JEF simply as a way to validate my efforts. While not a winner, I eventually came across a call for submissions to an anthology that Mr. Gerdes was editing. My entry was accepted. Offbeat/Quirky is an enticing collection of stories of a far-ranging nature. It is an honor to be included.

Since the acceptance (which was some time back), I’ve gone on to publish a historical crime fiction (Ark City Confidential) and am working on the next entries in the series. But something compels me to return to experimental fiction. The unique opportunities it presents allows me to break out from rigid structures and tell stories in a way that might hit directly to a reader’s core or open up their minds to another way of viewing the world around them.

The notion that literary fiction (or even genre fiction for that matter) is more “normal” is absurd. Anyone viewing the wide gamut of movies, television shows, music, even theater, can see that the “standards” have been broadened as artists seek to reach out to more and more people. For me, experimental fiction is like another cuisine to cook, keeping my culinary interests fresh, serving a meal that is not like yesterday’s or the day before.

As I challenge myself, I also challenge readers to step outside of their so-called comfort zone. Find something that is intriguing that may not be your standard. Don’t worry: it’s perfectly normal.

Something like a guitarist

I came across an article on Facebook recently about a listing of the all-time great guitarists. These are subjective discussion starters (or perhaps argument starters depending on your level of passion). Naturally, I read the article, then Googled other lists. The usual suspects appeared in the top 10 most of the time: Hendrix, Page, Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and on and on.

As I read through these lists it was quite natural for small sections of music to come to mind with each article about the individual. Being 55, having grown up in the late 60’s and 70’s, many of these figures were part of my formative musical education. Not being a musician myself, I learned later on about a guitarist’s tone based on the guitar used, the type and weight of the strings and how he pulled or bent them. Other factors, such as amps and feedback and wah-wah bars, also contributed to that guitarist’s unique sound.

It occurred to me in a very delightful fashion that writers have a tone as well. It’s the way we use words, phrases, slang. It’s evident in the outlook on life that our characters express. Even the resolutions to our stories set an indelible tone.

I can easily ascertain a difference between Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich, Thompson, and Ellroy. It would be cool to provide an analogy of a guitarist to each writer but that would belabor the point.

Hard boiled. Noir. Dark. Sure, maybe they all share those components. But the reason I read them and like them is for their differences, the subtle nuances that declare each man to be an individual and not part of a collective genre. Something like a guitarist. Once you get past the external and dig deeper, you can recognize the tone that each writer sets and understand how they are captivating and bring you in to their world. I choose not to make lists or prioritize preferences. “I like X over Y” seems to diminish Y. “I like X because…” and then “I like Y because…” says you understand how a writer works his magic on you.

Blues rock vs. heavy metal. Hard-boiled vs. police procedural. Doesn’t matter. Like the music, give me good quality writing with an individualistic tone and you got me from cover to cover.


I just started working with a new editor on the follow-up to Ark City Confidential. From one of her earlier e-mails she wrote:

“I enjoy your writing style and the tight control you have on writing.”

This is amazingly gracious especially from an editor. It was also something that got me to thinking more about “my style” and more importantly, my voice. I don’t believe that either develop from a conscious effort. Much as learn and develop your craft, your style and voice emerge from it.

Prior to actually reading classic hard-boiled fiction, I was very interested in film noir, even more so as I was attending the University of Miami in the early 80’s and studying screen writing and film-making. The genre, whose name was coined by the French, emerged from the German expressionists of the 20’s. Blacks and whites and grays combined with disorienting angles all for the purpose of revealing the uglier side of the human condition. Just check out The Lady From Shanghai or Touch of Evil, both by Orson Welles.

Now, I’m not a tough guy by any means. But as I developed a penchant for writing crime fiction, the lyricism of Raymond Chandler, the desolation of Cornell Woolrich, the rugged individuality of Dashiell Hammett, and the scatological poetry of James Ellroy all influenced me. Like ingredients in a fancy cocktail, these authors and their work were shaken up and filtered through my background, my sensibilities, and even my strengths and weaknesses as a person.

I certainly can’t describe my style or my voice. It would be like finding definitive attributes as to why I love my wife. Sometimes a thing exists, can be sensed and experienced without words. This would be the truest irony: being unable to define my own voice.

It is possible that, over time, that voice may change, much in the way that my style has developed up and around the craft itself. For right now, I deeply enjoy getting to know myself as a writer.

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…

It’s not my intention to have you visualize Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde from “Reservoir Dogs.” I’m simply using a song to identify a pleasant crossroad for a writer.

I’m currently in the process of submitting the second book in the Ark City Confidential chronicles. (No news yet, but you’ll be the first to know.)

Obviously, there is also continued marketing and exposure for the first book while waiting for the “draft” of the audio book to review once it is prepared. (That means listening to MY book read by someone else. Which is cool and scary at the same time.)

If I get a contract for the second book, there will be a conscientious editing process. Of course, I have been meticulously outlining and researching the third book in the series. (I’ve learned that when you write historical crime fiction, there is more than just character development and plotting.)

I don’t know if the use of ‘crossroad’ earlier was correct. It feels more like being on a single path in which there are marionette-like strings attached to me pulling me backward and forward and holding me in place all at the same time. I’ve never been in this position before, working on the past, present, and future simultaneously.

Not exactly sure if I’m a clown or a joker. Right now, just a writer enjoying the process.

A Tribute to a Black Cat

During the 1930’s, Chandler had a black Persian called Taki. He often spoke to her as if she were human. Sometimes he called her his secretary, because she frequently sat on the paper we was about to use or on copy that needed revising.

I first read this about Raymond Chandler in The Book of Lists 2 under the category 12 CAT LOVERS. The book was published in 1979. Along with it was this photo:

At the time, I was in high school, thinking I might want to be a writer, maybe a journalist, possibly in film-making. I didn’t read classic crime fiction like Chandler and Hammett, preferring mostly to watch the classic noir movies. But the thought struck me that crime novelists had black cats. I mean, what else would they have?

So, time goes along. I study screenwriting in college and didn’t do much with it. Wrote a lot of poetry, mostly tragic sobbing over a bad relationship. Got intellectual but still wasn’t writing anything worth a darn. It was in 2007 that I finally tried NaNoWriMo and the first thing I worked on was a hard-boiled noir crime drama. As dark and nasty as I could get. At the time, Mongo had been part of our household for three years along with Camille (a black and white bi-color) and Rupert (a tuxedo cat). Initially, they reminded me of Butch and Sundance and Etta, with Rupert being Butch (the thinker) and Mongo being Sundance (quick to shoot) and sweet Camille as Etta.

But then, as Mongo started to hang around in the office while I wrote, I was reminded of that Chandler photo and I realized I had Sam Spade, Joel Cairo, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy:

I was writing crime fiction and I finally had my black cat. Now all I needed was the photo:

This was the first take. I was lucky because the rest didn’t come out so well. Maybe Mongo didn’t realize what I was up to at first but he didn’t feel much like cooperating after that. I’m certainly not Raymond Chandler, but this crime writer has HIS photo with his black cat.

Mongo crossed over The Rainbow Bridge two days ago, worn out by his fight against cancer. He was truly a partner who showed me that all the best cat qualities can be found in the characters I put on paper. I will keep writing and keep reminding myself that a black cat possibly taught me more about human nature than over 35 years in customer service.

I’m doing it backwards!

In past posts, I have discussed differing writing styles, tendencies, and trends that I have in comparison to other writers. The “way” they tell you to do it in books. The “best practices” that are instructed in writers conferences or even in schools (although it has been 34 years since I last took a Creative Writing class).

I am a big advocate for doing what works best for the individual. By the time you are connected to an editor through a publisher, your “style” may be forced to change to meet the deadlines placed before you. In the meantime, until you get to that point, write as you wish.

If I actually paid attention to the books and the instruction, I would have to admit that I am doing things…backward! Assuming that the editing and revising process is for chipping away at a bunch of extra stuff you threw in on the first draft, a la a NaNoWriMo effort, all subsequent drafts are a purge and a cleanse. However, I am creating characters and telling a story in my first draft and am driven to just, for lack of a better description, getting it out.

In both my first historical crime fiction, “Ark City Confidential”, as well as the recently completed follow-up, I have come to realize that I am adding on to drafts two and three before purging and cleaning in draft four and onward. I look for logic errors in terms of character description or designation, add scene enhancements to color and flavor, maybe even throw in a red herring I hadn’t considered before.

I remember seeing a video on YouTube by Les Edgerton, who I had met at the OWFI conference a couple of years ago. He was fascinating and had some definitive ideas about writing. In the video, he talked about the process of being meticulous in his first draft in terms of sentence structure, word choice, and storytelling. There was an absolute precision about the first draft, no matter how long it took.

While I respect Les and his craft, that doesn’t work for me. Some people might point to his publishing success as an end result of his process. While there may be a correlation, I enjoy writing, the process of writing, and the craft. Publishing is a by-product of that process. So, while I respect and admire teachers of any sort, I also recognize the myriad methodologies that exist and the countless writers honing their craft.

Direction is a matter of perspective. Am I doing it backwards? Depends upon your point of view.

What’s your style?

With regard to the aforementioned question, I am not inquiring as to genre or even fiction versus non-fiction versus poetry. I have come to realize that all writers have a different style in the manner in which they write. For the longest time, we have accepted the notions of Plotters and Pantsers. Plotters are meticulous and detail-oriented, outlining their stories and creating intricate biographies for their characters. Pantsers, as the name implies, write by the seat of the their pants. They have a rough idea of a story and characters but are content to discover what happens along the way.

As we all realize, there is no correct way or proper methodology. But I would like to present two new concepts to you for thought as well as discussion. Flauberts and Black Maskers.

Gustave Flaubert was a French writer of the mid-nineteenth century, a leading exponent of literary realism, and known especially for his novel “Madame Bovary.” He had a scrupulous devotion to style and aesthetics and pursued the principle of finding le mot juste, “the right word.” There were other prominent French writers in literary realism of the time, including Honore de Balzac and Emile Zola, whose output was far more prodigious than Flaubert. As such, he can only be evaluated by a smaller group of works.

The pulp writers of the 20’s and 30’s, primarily those writing for magazines like the Black Mask, were paid by the word. Too often we find whole sections of action thrillers and crime and mystery fiction to be endless description or first-person narrative that drones on. It’s understandable when you consider the payment structure. However, you might come across a truly brilliant piece of writing, such as Jim Thompson’s “The Killer Inside of Me” that is as haunting as anything Stephen King wrote. These guys have long lists of short stories and novels.

Now this may be nothing more than a new take on the Plotters versus Pantsers. But I’d like to know: Are you a Flaubert or a Black Masker?

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