Bilko’s 1962 Topps card

My lifetime love affair with baseball was often unrequited. A chubby kid in high school, I made the baseball team, but never cracked the starting lineup. I had a large collection of Mickey Mantle cards, but my first wife threw them out after our separation. I played softball well into my sixties, but by then I ran so slow, my baserunning was a huge team liability. (In a footrace, bet on the glacier.)

As an author, however, my love of baseball yielded a treasure trove. Five decades of reading, watching, and playing left me with material for a dozen novels. How to narrow my scope to a single book? While planning The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song, I went back to the essentials of my own failed infatuation—fat kid falls short.

And I remembered Steve Bilko.

Steve Bilko was a minor league slugging star who had two nice seasons in the majors—a pair of intriguing bookends to his largely unknown career. Bilko played most of the year for the Cardinals in 1953, hitting 21 home runs. But the Cardinals were never comfortable with Bilko’s weight. Manager Eddie Dyer put Bilko in a rubber suit to sweat the pounds off. Dehydrated, he could still knock a ball 400 feet. But when the Cards sent Bilko to the Cubs, he was demoted to the minor leagues, where he spent most of the next seven years.

During that time, Bilko hit more than fifty home runs in a season twice (55 in 1956 and 56 in 1957). Playing for the Los Angeles Angels, a team in the Pacific Coast League, Bilko was a fan favorite—so popular that the team was dubbed the Bilko Athletic Club. Phil Silvers named his CBS-TV con artist character “Sergeant Ernie Bilko” after big Steve.

Bilko had some interesting off-the-field skills. After a game, he would seal the motel bathroom door with towels and turn on steamy hot water so he could drink extraordinary amounts of beer without getting intoxicated.

Teammates and fans adored him. By all accounts, he was the nicest guy on the team—a regular guy from a coal mining town who happened to have a great swing.

Near the end of his career, Bilko was drafted by the expansion Los Angeles Angels. With just 294 official at-bats, Bilko had another 20-homer season. The following year, a leg infection landed him in the hospital, and soon, he was out of baseball.

Future all-star Bobby Grich said, “He was our Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams all rolled into one.” Bilko was elected to the Pacific Coast League’s Hall of Fame in 2003. So why was his major league career so short? Officially listed at 230 pounds, Bilko’s weight was certainly more. (According to Bilko, he was “between 200 and 300 pounds”). Teams didn’t believe in him because of his weight.

I wrote The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song thinking, in part, of Steve Bilko. I still have his 1962 Topps baseball card. He’s one of three men to whom I dedicated my novel. My protagonist, Parker Westfall, is a chunky, beer-loving first baseman who has a fabulous season for an Indy league team. Part minor league legend, part high school fat kid who never got off the bench, the fictional Westfall is the greatest hitter who never was.

Steve Bilko died in 1978, but in a happy twist of fate, his fictional counterpart is still unashamedly overweight, still hitting the long ball.

Thanks to the following sources:

The Bilko Athletic Club Blog,

Warren Corbet, Society for American Baseball Research

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Poke a Wound


Art by Nonnetta

Should you write about what you know, or something you don’t know? Let me answer by going sideways. Write about what hurts.

I attended Colorado State University at the turn of the century (sounds so long ago when I phrase it that way), studying English Literature and Creative Writing. I had already published poetry but wanted to hone my skills, so I took a senior workshop course under the state’s poet laureate, Mary Crow.

The class was excellent. I submitted poetry and the class workshopped each piece. Later, Ms. Crow went over my work, praising some and making spot-on suggestions for most. One poem caused her to pause. She handed me the poem—no comments on the page—and said, “This subject isn’t worthy of you.” She was right.

So, what makes poetry (or prose) worthwhile? Craft matters, of course. What about the subject matter?

One of my writer’s groups discussed one member’s difficulty with a novel. The subject was autobiographical, and the writer in question kept restarting the project. Perhaps the subject was wrong: “Maybe you’re too close. Maybe you need a little distance.”
I disagree. I think that if a subject makes you uncomfortable, touches a raw nerve, and leaves you conflicted, then that subject is worth exploring. If the act of writing becomes painful (more so than usual), then the emotion may well find its way to the page. If too painful, you won’t finish, but if you finish, the work will be important because it’s important to you.

My advice—poke a wound.

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The “Other” Home Run Record

bauman1Where do writers get their ideas? Something as small as a few lines in a record book can spark an entire novel. That’s the case with my novel, The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song.

Joe Bauman was an Oklahoma boy in the Great Depression, raised on spankings and doses of castor oil. His dad taught him to play ball. A three-sport star in high school, he signed a baseball contract just out of high school in 1941. After serving in the Second World War, he bounced around the minor leagues for a while before settling for a semi-pro team in a town now famous for alien visitations. You probably don’t recognize his name or know his claim to fame.

Playing in 138 games in 1954 for the Roswell Rockets, Joe Bauman gave the New Mexico fans a performance that was truly out of this world. He batted .400, drove in 224 RBIs and hit an unprecedented number of home runs (72). The Pacific Coast League noticed and made him an offer, but Joe decided one minor league job was the same as another and opted to stay in Roswell.

Despite being a lifelong baseball fan, I hadn’t heard of the big first baseman until I saw a short blurb in Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract. A man who could hit that many home runs in any league fascinated me.

Why weren’t the major leagues interested in a man who could hit that well? Baseball folks knew about Joe. The Associated Press reported his feats, once detailing a home run that cleared the park and landed in the adjacent rodeo grounds. Perhaps the class-C Longhorn League wasn’t respected enough to merit attention.

A fine player, Joe was reputed to be an even finer man. Newspapers sometimes referred to him as “the gentleman first-sacker.” A local meat packer gave him a ham after every home run. He gave most of them away to teammates, often young Cuban players with small salaries.

Did he ever regret not playing in the big leagues? “I still have that question in my mind. Could I have done it or not?” Regrets aside, he had a certain quiet pride in his minor league accomplishments. “Hell, it’s a record, it’s something.”

The best thing about Bauman’s story was the happy ending. Bauman made a lot of money for a minor leaguer. Fans loved him, often shoving cash to him through the chain-link backstop after another monster home run. He was frugal—a child of the Depression—and parlayed his earnings into ownership of two gas stations and a tire distribution center.

After another stellar season in 1955, Bauman slipped in a snow storm and injured his ankle. He wanted to retire then, but the fans wanted him back. He played a short season and then hung up his glove to run his businesses. He later became a sales manager for a beer distributor.

When Barry Bonds hit his 73rd home run, Joe was philosophical. “It didn’t bother me or anything. I just thought, well, there goes my record.”

Today, the top home run-hitting minor leaguer receives the Joe Bauman Award—a trophy and $200 per home run the winning player hits that year—a welcome reminder of baseball’s “other home run record”!

A huge thanks to the following sources:

Leo Banks, Sports Illustrated, August 1991

The Baseball Almanac,

Richard Goldstein, New York Times, September 22, 2005

Bob Rives, The Society for American Baseball Research

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Seminar Links


Setting up the Conference Bookstore

Writing to you now from the Northern Colorado Writer’s Conference in Fort Collins, Colorado. I’m giving a two-hour seminar on self-publishing. Below, you’ll find a series of links that will be mentioned in the seminar. Feel free to copy and past these resources. My best wishes to those that forge ahead and put their dream in print!

If you are looking for traditional publishing venues and want to go beyond the Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, I recommend the pay service ($5 a month subscription).

If you are considering POD template companies, the following website will help you compare them:

Crowd-funded hybrid companies include Inkshares and Unbound:

Other hybrid links: Hybrid for Romance writing only

Want to publish an eBook with Kindle Direct Publishing? Start here:

Or Smashwords?

Publish that eBook on Kobo?

CreateSpace will print books for you, with or without your company imprint (depending on whether you buy an ISBN or use CreateSpace’s ISBN).

Barnes & Noble Press will print books or format eBooks for you:

Here’s the eBook formatter I use.

Here’s another (less expensive) formatter option:

Starting a company? In Colorado, you’ll search for a trademark.

Have a company name? You’ll need to apply for a business license.

You’ll have to pay sales taxes, of course:

Colorado Department of Revenue

Purchasing ISBNs?

Lightning Source and Ingram Spark:











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Punctuation is Sound Direction




James Joyce was rumored to follow music notation when playing his favorite tunes.

Given that so much of today’s writing is done via text, punctuation might not seem important 2 u. But for the author, there’s a good reason (beyond convention) to adhere to an internally consistent set of rules. Punctuation is a clue, from the author to the reader, as to how the author’s sentences ought to sound. The author writes a verbal song, and it should be sung as the author envisions. If the author writes down the wrong notes and beats, there is no chance for the reader to enjoy the original vision.


For example, if a sentence reads aloud like two sentences, make it two sentences. Read this out loud: She was angry, her voice carried into the next room. The structure allows the appearance of a longer, more complex (read artistic) sentence, but read out loud, the passage will sound like two sentences. Why not make it so?

Commas place pauses. Parenthesis sets off an aside. Italics denote emphasis. A dash shows an interruption. Use these devices to make the sound of your word-song come alive.

James Joyce’s Ulysses didn’t need punctuation. But you and I are not James Joyce.

The following website helps me:
Start with the discussion of commas. No one, myself included, gets commas right.

Now, for a good counter-argument, visit another website for a list of great authors who ignored the advice I just gave you:


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Story Openings: Simple Advice

Bob Denver

‘How on earth did Brian work me into this essay on writing?”

Story openings are daunting. Just trying to start can bring you to a full stop. Like a golf swing, there are so many things to bear in mind:

  • Grab the reader.
  • Introduce the POV protagonist.
  • Initiate character and thematic arcs.
  • Start immediately with the inciting incident.
  • Craft a memorable first line.

These bits of advice (grab the reader is more of a demand) can freeze a writer at the keyboard. At the risk of turning a natural chill to perma-frost, let me add one more bit of advice that might help with the rest. Start simple.

Let me explain with an example from music. When I was in my twenties, I played guitar in several bands. A friend (who looked like Bob Denver from Gilligan’s Island and played like Eric Clapton) offered this advice for soloing. “Start simple. Play a few licks they’ve heard before you launch off into your crazy shit. If you give them something they can wrap their heads around to start with, they’ll stick with you.” (A lick is a stock pattern or phrase that catches the ear.)

Let’s translate the advice to writing. Don’t use complicated or cluttered sentences. Don’t be abstract. Don’t be overly poetic. Save your adjective and adverb modifiers for later. Let readers get the rhythm of your prose before you yank them down your dark path.

As an editor, I often see story openings that try to impress with complex poetics, only to slip back into the author’s natural voice. A false opening voice is a death knell for a submission.

Instead, focus on your characters and plot. This means that in the hierarchy of imperatives, where you start your story might be more important than how you start. When you revise, ask yourself the question would-be time travelers ask: What would I change if I knew then what I know now?  Writing a novel? You started months or years ago. Luckily, authors can go back in time, knowing full well how things turned out.

In fact, your story’s opening may just be the last thing you write before finishing the novel. And when you revisit that opening, my advice still holds true. Start simple. Let the story unfold—you have miles of pages to go before the end.

A parting thought…if the beginning is the last thing you write, then the pressure is off. You are free to write.

Interested in some inspiration? Visit the following website, which opening lines thought to be the best in the history of literature:

And because breaking rules is the only sure rule, some of these classic lines don’t follow my advice. Can you spot which ones?


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“Set in the outback of the independent leagues, Kaufman has written a poignant baseball romance twice over—aging, iron-gloved, home-run slugging Parker Westfall’s love for the game and for a young knuckle-balling female pitcher. Refreshing and real. Read it and weep for all of us who love the game of baseball beyond reason.”

~Jean Hastings Ardell, Co-author, Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey

Full Cover

Today at Chase Field in Arizona, my Colorado Rockies start the 2018 season against the Diamondbacks. For two reasons, I am looking forward to this season more than any in recent memory. First, the Rockies were competitive last year, and may contend for a championship. Second, my novel, The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song will be released by Black Rose Writing in time for the All-Star Game.

Much like the Rockies decade-long quest for contention, my novel is the work of ten years—slow going for such a compact novel. I started and stopped numerous times, trying to tell the story the right way. I finished the first draft on Christmas morning of 2016, while everyone else in the household ate breakfast.

 The pre-pub reviews have been excellent. A special shout out to Jean Hastings Ardell for being so generous with her time and her review. Stay tuned…it’s going to be a great season.

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Blunt Advice

hqdefaultYou may have a friend who is plain-spoken to the point of being blunt. Someone straddling the line between honesty and bad manners. Someone uneasy around sensitive people, often responding to a frown with, “Just kidding!”

Some of my favorite writer’s quotes are “blunt.” Whether frank or bitter or both, there’s a blend of economy and acumen in the quotes that follow. (The Hemingway quote, for example, applies directly to my own work. Perhaps he transcended death in order to read my latest work-in-progress…) Enjoy!

“The first draft of everything is shit.” ~Ernest Hemingway

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time—or the tools—to write. Simple as that.” ~Stephen King

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” ~Oscar Wilde

“Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” ~Kurt Vonnegut

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” ~Elmore Leonard

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” ~W. Somerset Maugham

“When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.” ~Raymond Chandler

“Get comfortable with your day job.” ~Michael Pemental

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Write Your Obsession

FessYou may have heard the advice— “Write about what you know.” I’ve read good arguments on this theme, both pro and con, and have come away with the thought that there’s better advice to be had. My advice is to write what obsesses you.

I’ve started a few books that were stillborn. The plots were clever, and the characters were compelling. The books never jelled. When a project involved a subject or thematic question that I could obsess over, the stories seemed to work.

Obsession is an issue or idea that intrudes and preoccupies your thoughts. Let me give you an example. When I was five years old, I saw Walt Disney’s film, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Fess Parker, who starred as Davy, looked a bit like my father. (Make whatever psychological inferences you will.) At the age of nine, I read Robert Penn Warren’s Remember the Alamo. By then, I was hooked on the Alamo story. I had a Davy Crockett shirt (at the peak of the Disney craze, fully a tenth of all children’s clothing featured Davy Crockett). As an adult, I own nearly every Alamo movie ever filmed, and a shelf full of collector’s editions of key books written on the subject. I’ve published essays, maintain friendships based on a shared fascination, and drink Fess Parker’s Pinot Noir (highly recommended).

When I decided to write a novel, I stuck with a subject I could obsess over. The Breach (Last Knight Publishing, 2002) is the Alamo story, told from the Mexican side of the conflict. Why might obsession be important to the writing process?

  • Writing a novel is a long haul. If you’re obsessed with a subject, you have a better chance of sticking with the process until the novel is finished.
  • Writing that fires your imagination increases the chances that the enthusiasm will end up in the prose.
  • Pitching a novel involves unrelenting rejection. The Breach was turned down 103 times before I found a publisher willing to take a chance. If the book had been less of a crusade, I probably would have given up.
  • Marketing a published novel is tough because selling requires social skills. What makes selling easier for a reclusive writer? An obsession, bordering on the spiritual.

Because every author is different, obsessions are diverse. Instead of a herd of writers chasing market trends, imagine books that distill the sparks animating various topics, translating those sparks into prose.

As for writing about what you know, if you obsess about something long enough, you’ll come to know it by your book’s end…

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elephantAuthentic-sounding dialog is tough. But the presentation of that dialog on the page is also problematic. Common mistakes include simple punctuation, word choices, and tag strategy. Going over a few examples can help make a positive impact in your writing. We’ll start simple and move to complex.

A dialog tag is a small phrase at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence that identifies the speaker. Punctuation is an important part of the process. The comma offsetting the tag sits inside the quotation marks that bracket the dialog:

“I really dislike elephants,” she said.

Placement of the dialog tag is important. If you have a long speech that ends with the tag, that tag is too late to matter:

“My friends all love elephants and think they’re cute. I never understood how mottled, dirty skin could be cute. I think I liked them well enough when I was young, but my uncle took me to the zoo one day, and, well…let’s just say it was a bad experience,” she said.

The great Elmore Leonard (author of “Get Shorty”) famously said, “Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.” I agree in principle, but I tend to use asked to tag questions because it reads better:

“What is the big attraction?” she asked.

What Leonard wants to avoid is a thesaurus full of dialog tags that remind the reader they are reading. Said and asked are neutral tags—they don’t interfere with the story because the reader’s eye slides over them. But other tags stick out, and interrupt the reader:

“Elephants are intelligent,” he lectured.

“Then why are they in the zoo?” she queried.

“That is our great shame,” he confided.

A similar problem involves dialog tags that don’t describe the speaking process, like “Hello,” he smiled. At the risk of being picky, people don’t smile words, they say them.

Portraying a conversation can become tedious if “said” anchors every line. There are several solutions to this problem. First, not every line needs a tag. In a conversation between two people, readers are quite able to keep the scorecard straight without constant tags, especially when the speakers have distinct voices:

“You like animals more than people,” she said.

“Actually, I simply adore all living things.”

“Actually? Actually?”

“It’s a word, my dear. It has meaning.”

Add a third person into the conversation, and tags become more important. Luckily, action can be used to tag a conversation. Action tags can be as non-intrusive as the tag said if they’re used correctly:

“You are a pompous ass.” She stood, hands on hips, glaring.

“Not so. But I am empathetic to our friends in the animal kingdom.”

“Elephants are not your friend. They’d crack your head like a peanut.”

He closed his eyes and shook his head. “You are so misguided.”

Notice that the punctuation for an action tag is different. When a separate sentence depicting action replaces a dialog tag, close the actual dialog off with a period, not a comma. The difference looks like this:

“I am not,” she said


“I am not.” She turned away.

Let’s go deeper. Remember that people don’t always speak in complete sentences. They trail off. They interrupt. The ellipses and em dash depict this nicely:

“My father used to say that…” Her eyes misted over.

“Perhaps he had a reason—”

“Yes, he had a reason! He was a jerk!”

The potential for repetition still exists if you limit yourself to simple actions:

“You are quite judgmental.” She scowled.

He shrugged. “I don’t think so. You’re the one who hates elephants.”

She closed her eyes. “I don’t hate them.”

He laughed. “Be honest.”

To avoid the herky-jerk prose of “she scowled/he shrugged,” make your action tags serve a descriptive purpose. Instead of front-loading your scene-setting in a descriptive paragraph that readers skip over anyway, set the scene in the body of the dialog. Put meaningful description directly into the conversation:

“I am honest. I’ve been honest all along,” she said. She stepped back and glanced at the elephant in the pit. The elephant seemed to catch her with sad, black marbles for eyes.

He shoved his hands into his designer jeans, his lower lip jutting. “You can say you’re honest, but what does that even mean?”

She held the elephant’s gaze for a long moment. “It’s a word. It has meaning. Let me demonstrate. Right now, I like that elephant a whole lot more than I like you.”

The groundskeeper passed by, silencing them both. He seemed to be minding his own business, but as he passed her, he shoved a bag of peanuts into her hands. “For you,” he said. His voice was mottled and muddy, though she didn’t seem to mind.

Our discussion of dialog tags and action tags goes beyond the simple admonition to “stick with said.” Experiment with your current project by finding a conversation to edit. Check to see that your commas and periods are in order. Cut some tags. Refine character voices to make them distinct. Make your action tags serve the story. If you can do that, you’ll have greatly improved your writing. Good luck!




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