Category Archives: Writers and Writing

Books, writing, and the writers’ life and trials

In the Bleak Midwinter

My dad loved Christmas. He even raised poinsettias. I believe they were the only plants he ever raised. Whatever time he could squeeze from life, he would take us around to wonder at vistas of lights, and to buy a thick and symmetrical tree. The presents he gave us were always thoughtful. Then he died, late one Christmas night long ago.

Perhaps his dying on Christmas is the reason my emotions reach deepest during each December, and why I have become something of an expert at minimizing the stress the season commonly delivers.

In case some advice might help writers and other driven and sensitive folks, I’ll note a few of the attitudes I find most helpful.

Most importantly, we ought to give up any idea of accomplishing much of anything during this month. Sure we can continue working, but without expectations. Because not only will shopping and entertaining or being entertained add to our normal workload, but old friends may drop in, home for the holidays or prompted by high or low spirits. If we let go of expectations and give the season over to appreciation of the best of what it can offer, by year’s end we might feel rejuvenated rather than wrung out.

Those of us who are physically capable ought to walk a lot, especially if we live in blizzard-free regions. Not only can walking relax us and burn calories, allowing us to feast with more abandon and to consume more seasonal goodies, it can also free us from traffic jams. Ever since I got stuck for an hour trying to leave a parking lot, I conclude my gift shopping with a morning’s walk to and from a mall about a mile away. The gifts I buy that day are small and light.

I begin shopping early by getting my groceries at Target. Not so much variety but who needs 500 brands of tomato sauce. And while there, I take a few minutes, wander away from the grocery section and browse an aisle or two for gifts.

Though I’m skeptical about what we call progress, shopping online is a treat. Let the UPS guy do the driving and parking. And if we care to do a bit for charity in the process, we can start from a site like Escrip, one portal to which you can find at Perelandra College (where I happen to teach).

And Christmas songs can shift our perspective from any kind of woes toward more universal themes, if we go for the old hymn-like sort. Even if we’re not inclined toward the spiritual in general or toward Christianity in particular, the best of them are mellow and uplifting. My current favorites are The Roches version of “Unto Us A Child is Born” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Oh Holy Night”. Both available on Itunes.

And I’ll take the liberty of recommending my favorite Christmas poems, T.S. Elliot’s Journey of the Magi and In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti, which has also been set to music. James Taylor did a lovely version.

If I can get an evening alone during the week before Christmas, I’ll light a fire and spend a couple hours in the living room, avoiding my computer and phone while I listen to whole of Handel’s “Messiah”.

And, since I’m both driven and forgetful, each day I remind myself not to expect to accomplish anything except to enjoy the season and embrace some gentle thoughts and good will.

Those employed (or self-employed) by a Scrooge should tell him or her to lighten up for a few weeks. If you get fired, move on.

And if you’re called to create a blog post, don’t kill a bunch of time revising.

Bless you, one and all,  Ken

To Theme or Not to Theme

To Theme or Not to Theme

My new novel, The Good Know Nothing, scheduled for summer 2014 from Poisoned Pen Press, not only has an overall theme, it uses the theme as its title.

Being so forthcoming has concerned me, since I studied and taught in several university writing programs where the concept of theme was commonly viewed with disdain.

No doubt that attitude developed in opposition to the tendency of many student writers to approach a story as if it were a fable, only valuable insofar as it offered a warning or a moral. The stories written from that perspective were usually painful to read.

Yet I’m convinced that trying to avoid theme is equally mistaken. A few years ago, while judging a competition for a state writing fellowship, I read 100 stories. The language and style of about ninety of them were so polished, I imagine most the writers had attended university writing programs. But only five of the 100 stories gave me the least satisfaction.

So I’ll argue that either writing with a theme as the goal or with disdain for themes is courting failure. To create something that will captivate, entertain and satisfy, better to allow the story to flit here and there until it finds its own theme (or themes), then to use it (or them) as a guide.

I wrote about half of what is now The Good Know Nothing before I came upon this quote: “For only the good doubt their own goodness, which is what makes them good in the first place. The bad know they are good, but the good know nothing. They spend their lives forgiving others, but they can’t forgive themselves.” Paul Auster, Man In The Dark, New York: Henry Holt and Company, p. 63.

The truth of that statement startled me, and as I recovered I recognized that my new novel (like most detective novels) was about somebody attempting to get at the truth. But, at least in reality, the truth is damned illusive. Even “facts” are slippery.

As I returned to the novel with that theme in mind, elements that hadn’t quite worked began to feel right. I hope readers feel the same. If they do–thanks, Paul Auster.

To read about the Tom Hickey California Crime series including The Good Know Nothing, go to:


I was hanging out with writer friends when someone suggested that the best move we could make was to, at the appropriate time, put aside writing for a few weeks or months and devote ourselves to promotion. Afterward, we could return to writing with more optimism about the fate of our books.

One writer commented: “But promotion isn’t any fun.” When all the others heartily agreed, I found myself wondering, are most of us wedded to this vocation mostly because it’s fun?

If that’s the case, I thought, what if we could make promotion fun? To that question, my rather childish mind responded, “Think about Mary Poppins.” In the Disney film Zoe and I have watched a dozen times. Mary sings, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun…. Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

My big daughter Darcy found high school so tedious and irrelevant, she often made a detour somewhere between my car and the classroom and spent her days at a mall or a friend’s house. But, the semesters when she had an art class, she attended art and also her other classes. And in college as an art major, she not only enjoyed the art classes but discovered she appreciated some others.

So what if we could isolate the part of promotion we enjoy and devote serious time to that. Maybe the rest of the medicine would go down easier, and actually get done.

Perhaps each of us finds different parts of the promotion efforts fun. I enjoy tinkering with web sites and watching ideas take concrete form. When I ran a bookstore, I enjoyed stocking the place and organizing the shelves, while I didn’t much care for dealing with customers. Some days I would mutter a line of John Paul Sartre’s: “Hell is other people.”

Not that I don’t care for people. Most of them I either like or love. But they wear me out. I suppose that’s why you won’t find me involved in much tweeting or facebook chit chat. It’s a self defense technique, guarding my energy. But I do like to blog, and to link this to that, which gives me the illusion that I’m in control of something.

And if the day goes well, if I don’t encounter a legion of computer mishaps or run-ins with demanding, manipulative, or ornery people, I may find myself in such an upbeat mood, even tweeting feels fun.

Ken Kuhlken and his books reside at


“What we have is a crisis of imagination.”

That’s a quote from Warren Buffett’s son Peter, a writer of music, in an article called “The Charitable Industrial Complex”. It’s about the capitalist mindset of philanthropists who spend their lives making sure that they and their cronies get richer at the cost of most everybody else, and who then attempt to help struggling people without recognizing that to do any substantial and lasting good they might need to revise their mindset.

But that’s another person’s topic. Mine is imagination.

A couple days after I read the excellent Buffett article (which you could access from my facebook page) I read something else and sensed it connected to the line I quoted above.

From Ross Douhat in the New York Times: “Before political movements can be understood by others, they need to understand themselves: what they want to be, what they actually are and how they might bridge the gap between aspiration and reality.”

Political movements aren’t my obsession, so I translated the Douhat quote to apply to us writers.

My translation: Before we can be understood (bought, read, and appreciated) by readers, we need to understand ourselves: what we aspire to be (rich, famous, infamous, praised by critics, thought-provoking, evangelical, worshipped by a cult); what we actually are; and how we can bridge the gap between what we are and what we aspire to be.

If we haven’t yet built or discovered the bridge, then we have a crisis of imagination.

I’ll speculate that our best chance of overcoming the crisis is to fully engage our imaginations in the pursuit of a solution.

Most of us writers, when creating our stories, are beset with torrents of ideas. But once the story is told, when the time comes to sell or promote the beast, we either turn the jobs over to marketing pros or attempt to think like those pros do, and find ourselves groping in mindsets that feel like stuffy rooms from which we need to rush out for fresh air. As if we were forced to write an epic length novel based upon someone else’s stale outline, flat characters, and hackneyed theme.

Those of us who don’t feel free, or completely alive, unless we’re using our imaginations should perhaps engage our best gift, our imaginations, in the service of marketing.

Instead of submitting ourselves to a prescribed outline, we could humbly request of our muse that she send us an original method or ideas we can develop. Sure, we might need to devote month or two each year, or all day every Saturday, to wandering in the haunts of our muse. So it goes.

I mean to return to a little book I wrote for my students, and consider its suggestions for summoning inspiration, only this time as if I were an aspiring marketer rather than a writer.

Anyone who would care to join me can find an ebook of Writing and the Spirit at Smashwords, and get a free copy by using the coupon code LN38V.

Of course, once our imaginations have spoken, we need to put in the labor required to do our imaginations justice, or else we have imagined in vain.

Give It Up?

I was finishing draft five or six of a novel and wondering how many times more I would go through and make changes, when I realized I had best give it up or I might still be working on it when death does us part.

Raymond Carver commented that we know we should quit working on a story when we find ourselves going back and inserting the commas we removed last go through. But he was a short story writer, whom I believe never fulfilled his intention of writing a novel.

Once Dashiell Hammett got mixed up, through Lillian Hellman, with the “literary” set, he spent many years on a novel he never finished, though the part he wrote is mighty well-honed.

I have a friend, the wife of an English professor, who wrote a novel about Sigmund Freud and an “hysterical” patient. During the very early 1980s, she completed a compelling and finely crafted draft. She was ready to submit to agents, but changed her mind when an idea for revision came. The last time I checked, a couple years ago, she was still revising and had still submitted it to no one.

When Alan Russell and I team up for book tours, he tells about the short story I once began and didn’t stop writing until 1500 pages later. But that’s only part of the truth, which is that I have cut and reformed and made those pages into a trilogy, then condensed them into one novel, then expanded again. Though I’ve been working on the project for slightly over half my life, I’m still determined to finish it to my satisfaction.

And there’s the answer for which I’ve been groping. When I’m satisfied, I will give it up.

For now, I will submit this blog post and get back to revising a novel.

The Path to Fame and Fortune

Through a lot of years writing and teaching writing, I have noticed that to earn a living as a writer of fiction, we should adhere to this simple formula:

Get born and/or raised with a moderate or better gift for storytelling; then learn the essentials of the storywriter’s craft; then find, create, or get crammed into a niche.

The ideal journey leads through an agent who is both delighted with our work and with the potential of our work to make a fortune, who then places the book with an editor who is both delighted with our work and with its potential to make a fortune.  An editor like the one who phoned John Irving and said, “Now you can quit your day job.”

Should the ideal path elude us, we’re faced with a perilous excursion to locate the crossroads of what we choose to write and what a sizeable number of folks want to read.

Here darkness and light may collide. We might find ourselves confronting a Faustian choice. Do we base our decision on cold-blooded business logic, or on what new age gurus mean when they advise us to follow our bliss?

For those of us born to and raised by idealists and dreamers, the business option leads nowhere. When we take that direction, sooner or later we snooze at the wheel and crash.

If we survive, we hobble back to the crossroads and onto the bliss route. There, while searching out readers who share our passions and concerns, we get stopped by the need to take on a label, a genre, sub-genre or niche.

Take me, for example: my books have been labeled as literary, mystery, PI, male PI, historical, and noir. But the rub is, in each of those categories are somewhere between a thousand and six million other novelists.

To become visible in the midst of that great host, we’ll need to create or discover a sub-sub-genre, or a sub-sub-sub one. A hyper-targeted marketable niche.

Here we idealists may pause to wonder where we made the wrong turn that led back to the business route.

For about ten years, since my dreams of the perfect agent to perfect editor path got banished by fatigue and/or wisdom, I have been seeking a marketable niche. But until lately, every one that came to mind was too abstract. While learning the writers’ craft, I began to prefer the concrete over the abstract.

Not long ago, as I strolled past an antique shop, a series of experiences reached a climax. The light bulb flashed. I discovered my concrete niche.

My novels are about crime and 20th century California. Or, those obsessions are what marketing folks might call the platform, the brand.

Such marketing fellows insist that wherever we meet the public, whatever represents us–business cards, facebook templates, every item in the labyrinth of marketing opportunities–must announce our brand.

I’m looking for a hand painted tie like detective Tom Hickey wears. Maybe it will feature a trained bear eating somebody or a guy falling from the Golden Gate. And already I have a new web site. Check it out, please, and shoot me a comment. Please.