In October 2008, when I asked Cliff Burns, author of So Dark the Night, if he'd like to guest host my blog, he responded that he'd rather have a discussion. I was thrilled. I enjoy talking about writing, but even more than that, I love learning how other writers approach the craft. This is a transcript of that conversation.
BERTRAM: For me, writing is like the world's longest crossword puzzle, one that takes a year to complete. I like playing with words, finding their rhythm, and getting them to behave the way I want. I like being able to take those words and create ideas, characters, and emotions. What is writing like for you?
BURNS: I think your analogy is very good. Each story or novel is a puzzle, as you say, an enigma, a conundrum, a locked door mystery that demands great intelligence and ingenuity to solve. Finding the exact right combination of words (out of half a million or so) in common English usage that will perfectly express the mood or feeling you're trying to get across . . . and then doing it again and again for ten or twenty or four hundred pages. It's a miracle when we manage to get it right. Which is why I ended up dedicating So Dark the Night "to my Creator". There were times when I thought that novel would never get written, I'd never finish it. But something kept me going, supplied the word or image I needed at a crucial moment. Often, the impetus or inspiration seemed to come from outside. I know that sounds weird and creepy but it's the truth. Have you ever experienced anything similar?
BERTRAM: Many times. And it was usually more than just inspiration. For example, when I began researching my current work and needed to know about relatively unknown extinct animals, every day when I opened my email, there would be an article about one of them on the today's news page. And when I needed a reason for some gold to be hidden for another story, I happened on a book about the killing of the gold standard in the USA. And when I needed a place for my aliens to come from (and a reason) I happened upon a mention of the Twelfth Planet by Zeccharia Sitchen. Someone, I don't remember who, called such serendipitous offerings "gifts from the library gods."
Writing, editing, and promoting are all time- and mind- consuming occupations. How do you manage?
BURNS: Barely. And my heavy work schedule is one of the reasons I'm just getting over a severe lung infection -- my body was over-worked, my immune system screwed and so I was really knocked on my ass. I'm going to make some adjustments, see if I can find a hobby or some mode of relaxation to take a portion of the strain off. I've reached middle age and I just can't maintain my punishing routine without doing lasting harm to myself. How about you? What's your routine like and how do you cope with the pressure of creating?
BERTRAM: I have no routine. I used to write every day until I got a computer and the internet (about a year ago) and then my words got used up writing articles and commenting. But I was never one who was consumed by inner demons. I wrote because the publishing companies stopped releasing the books I liked to read -- ones that couldn't easily be slotted into a genre, yet not written with a "literary" style, and I figured if I wanted to read that kind of book, I'd have to write them, so I did. I say I don't write every day, but I'm either thinking about the story and characters, researching, or editing. And now promoting. But come winter, my creative juices start flowing, and that's when my novels get written.
Are there any particular themes that repeat themselves in your work?
BURNS: Hmm . . . I'm not sure. I suppose many of my characters have been rendered powerless by the circumstances of their lives and are struggling to hang on by their fingernails. Robert Runte (an academic and nice fella I met at a convention years ago) commented along the lines that my characters seem to come from lower class backgrounds and that's a rarity in spec fic. I agree with Nicholas Christopher (excellent author) when he says that each new work presents fresh challenges and one must learn to write all over again. If you're doing it right. I never want to fall into the formula trap . . . that's the death of art and the beginning of commerce.
BERTRAM: How do you see the "indie world." Is there hope for independent authors? By that I mean, is there a chance for independent authors ever to make a living at writing?
BURNS: The technologies are still evolving. Obviously, the two major concerns for indie writers is a) preserving and protecting copyright so someone doesn't rip off your ideas without credit and/or compensation and b) getting paid for your efforts.
Right now, I have two full-length novels on my site and a good number of short stories -- all available for free download and reading. There's a "Donation" button for those who wish to voluntarily leave a small stipend but admittedly few people have taken me up on the offer. But money has never really been the object to me -- it's more presenting my work without editorial interference. Soon I'll be moving into the world of podcasting and POD printing and hopefully that will spread the word . . . and earn a bit more money. We'll see.
BERTRAM: Is the book publishing business as we know it coming to an end? How will that effect the "indie world"?
BURNS: The era of corporate book publishing is coming to an end. Media giants swallowed up various publishers in the 1990's, hoping to milk them for as much profit as they could. Unfortunately, business models don't work that well with publishing; book-lovers are notoriously eccentric and eclectic in their tastes and it's hard to predict or graph or pie chart a bestseller. J.K. Rowling came out of nowhere. Profits are not nearly as high, stable or predictable enough in publishing, which is why I think many of the Big Boys will be dumping their publishing arms in the next 3-5 years. And, as I've written, this is the best thing that could happen for readers and writers. Smaller, more intimate and committed publishers will supplant the media giants and better books will be released as a result. Lower advances but maybe larger royalties (though writers will have to stay on their toes and make sure the people keeping the books are honest with actual sales figures) . . .
BERTRAM: Did you happen to see the New York Magazine article about the book business not living happily ever after?
BURNS: The New York Magazine article was brilliant, I printed it to have around. Confirms my view that the corporates are on the verge of dumping publishing from their portfolio . . . and also my opinion that most editors and agents are idiots. Some of the money they throw around for the worst sort of crap infuriates me. And meanwhile, their midlist authors (the most interesting of the lot) get no promo, no notice . . . and so they're dumped from the roster for under-achieving (a classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy).
BERTRAM: I wonder if the insistence the major publishers have in slotting all novels into niches was one of the things that's leading to their downfall. It used to be that most books did not fall into the genre category except for, obviously, the different genres. There used to be the genres, which were just a step up from pulp fiction, and at the other end of the spectrum was literary fiction. I liked the books that fell in between -- books with readable styles that could not easily be categorized. What I like to read or write cannot be considered literature, but I do prefer fiction that isn't quite as trivial as that which is on the market today.
BURNS: I'm with you, I like fiction that crosses all sorts of boundaries and defies easy categorization. But, unfortunately, (back to the corporate model), editors and agents like fiction that can be easily slotted. Someone who writes "in the tradition of . . .". In other words, derivative stuff. Yet another Dan Brown or Stephen King knock-off. Is it the chicken or the egg? Do we blame readers for being undemanding, reading the same old crap over and over again or do we point the finger at editors and agents for not challenging readers? Or both? The corporate model of publishing does trivialize and does not encourage innovation of any kind.
BERTRAM: I guess what I'm really wondering is if people are still reading. I wonder if there are far more writers than readers, thanks to the self-publishing industry. Two of my novels are being released by Second Wind Publishing, a new independent doesn't yet distribute to bookstores, but I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. With independent bookstores disappearing all over the world, it only matters what is available on-line. People keep pointing out to me that less than fifteen percent of books are sold on-line, but if the vast majority of books that are sold off-line are the grocery-store books by best-selling authors, does it matter?
BURNS: My colleague Alexandra Kitty (she runs an alt.news site) insists that people are reading as much, if not more than ever, they're just doing so on-line (and free!), rather than shelling out money for books. The free culture of the internet creates a mindset of "why should I pay for something when I can get it for nothing on-line?". And that pertains to newspapers, music piracy and, increasingly, publishing. I used to be on the local library board and I recall figures that indicated people were checking out more books, our numbers went up year by year. Could the expense of buying books have something to do with that? Hardcovers are getting close to that fifty buck threshold and even paperbacks are pricey items (especially up here in Canada).
BERTRAM: It seems to me that this is one of the best times to try to peddle a book because of all the online resources, such as blogging and discussion forums. It also seems as if this is one of the worst times because of the hundreds of thousands of writers looking for readers. I'm hoping that someone like me who is willing to do the work to promote can reap the rewards.
BURNS: Yes, everyone can claim to be a writer these days and the new technologies allow people to publish their crap, regardless of the quality of their work. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? I chose to publish on-line, I chose the "indie" life because I detest the notion of anyone having control or input re: my writing. Some folks who don't like me would say I'm doing it my way because I'm not good enough for traditional publishing. I say the quality of the work wins out in the end and I'm willing to let readers decide if my work is worth reading. But the surfeit of bad writing on-line drags down the professional status and quality of craftsmanship of those of us who struggle mightily to compose good work. I implore potential readers to use their critical thinking skills and don't lump us all together.
BERTRAM: National Novel Writing Month is coming up, and its adherents are a heated bunch -- they don't seem to like anyone questioning the process. You're one of the few I've come across who speak out against it.
BURNS: I know people have really taken me to task for lambasting NaNoWriMo and its adherents. To me, the concept is a stupid one -- write a novel in a month, give me a break! It devalues the professionalism of the vocation, the enormous amount of time and energy authors put into learning and developing their craft. Anyone can claim to be an "author" or "artist" -- the arts seem to condone this sort of thing. I suppose I'm an elitist and a snob. It took me ten years of daily writing and scores of credits before I was able to call myself a writer without feeling self-conscious and phony. As I wrote in a recent post: you're not a plumber if you unclog a toilet and you're not an electrician if you screw in a light bulb. Each of those trades requires training, a lengthy apprenticeship period. Why should the arts be any different?
BERTRAM: I can't even imagine what it would take to write a novel in a month. The writing of a novel takes me a year, and some of the research I've done has taken more than that. But then, I am not an intuitive writer. I have to drag each word out of hiding and find its place in the puzzle that is a novel. I suppose two types could write 50,000 words in a month -- the intuitive writers who spew out words, and the logical writers who have the whole thing outlined before they begin. Me? I fall somewhere in the middle. I so hate tossing aside my hard work that I habitually rework my writing as I write. (Though I have rewritten one of my novels four times, and deleted 25,000 words from another..)
BURNS: My first drafts come out in a huge gout of words -- I try to get it all down as quickly as I can. I think I wrote the first draft of one of my novels in 45 days. But . . . then I spend the next eighteen months (or more) revising, editing, polishing, going over each syllable with painstaking care. I outline a little bit, scribble down character names, some ideas for certain scenes, but that first draft usually becomes the outline I work from. It's incredibly labour-intensive but the only method that works for me.. I would say only a few words or phrases survive from my first draft by the time I'm finished. It's only a roadmap, nothing more. And I never grow attached to a character or scene -- "everything in service to the story", that's my motto. All else is expendable.
BERTRAM: I was going to ask if you push for a daily word count, but you mostly answered that. So how about: do you write at the same time and in the same place and in the same manner (computer, pen/paper) everyday?
BURNS: My office is right across from our bedroom so it's the first place I visit in the morning. Moving things around on my desk, gearing up for the day. I play lots of music to get warmed up, start the juices flowing. Commence work when my family leaves for school or work, break for lunch, maybe tea later in the day, popping downstairs when my family returns. We have supper together and then often it's back to the office to square things away, tie off loose ends and set things up for the morrow.
BURNS: First drafts are almost always handwritten (even my 450+ page novel So Dark the Night) and then tapped into my ancient Mac computer with fingers swollen and aching from arthritis or nerve damage. Twenty-five years or more of three or four-fingered typing has taken its toll. How does that compare to you? I hope you're a lot saner in your work habits than I am. You strike me as a pretty levelheaded individual . . . or am I wrong?
BERTRAM: You're not wrong, but when it comes to writing, I'm not so much level-headed as undriven. Each of the words has to be dragged out of me, an act of will. And sometimes the words are not there. But I don't sweat it; I edit, I blog, I promote. And when the words come, I'm ready. I also write handwrite my first drafts -- I think one reason for the crap published today is that authors lack the brain/finger/pencil/paper flow. I read once that the only place other than the brain where gray matter is found is on the fingertips. May or may not be true. But it feels true.
When does a writer become an author? I used to think it was when a writer got published, but now that anyone can get published, it's not much of a criterion. Nor does a writer become an author when they can make a living at it; good writers seldom can. The hacks usually do.
BURNS: A writer writes. That's it. Every single day. Publication credits are meaningless (especially today) and critical acclaim doesn't amount to a hill of beans. Sales figures? Well, Dan Brown sold millions, as did Stephanie Meyer and, in my view, their work is sub-literate. he way you can tell is read it out loud. Just one page, any page will do. If you're not crying with laughter after a couple of paragraphs, it's time to get a funny bone transplant.
Aspiring authors: apply yourself to the task of writing with discipline and courage and perseverance. I love the quote from Nabokov about "writing in defiance of all the world's muteness". Not just scribbling the same thing, working to the same formula but trying to stretch your talent as far as it will go . . .. and beyond. Working outside your comfort zone, writing prose that scares and intimidates you. But it's the daily practice that, to me, reveals those who are serious and distinguishes them from the wannabes I loathe.
BERTRAM: Is possible to become an author people will read even without the “help” of corporate publishing?
BURNS: I self-published my first book back in 1990 -- it sold out its print run in less than 5 months and earned praise from various reviewers, as well as Governor-General Award-winning writer Timothy Findley. I started my blog, “Beautiful Desolation” 18 months ago and since then I have ceased submitting work to other venues -- my work (including 2 novels) now goes directly to my blog and I’ve never been happier. Corporate publishing is dying, the profit margins aren’t big enough and soon the Big Boys will be dumping their publishing arms. The new technologies allow writers to have access to readers around the world–I only wish this stuff had been around ten years ago, it would have saved me a lot of frustration and fury. Kindle? E-books? POD? Why not? Anything that allows the writer to get a bigger slice of the pie is all right with me…
BERTRAM: How did you promote your self-published book in 1990? What would you do differently today?
BURNS: That was my book Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination and a lot has changed since then. For one thing there are far fewer independent bookstore and those were the folks who sold the lion’s share of Sex. I took copies with me everywhere I went--Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto--approached every indie bookstore I could and sold them (usually on consignment). The vast majority of those book stores are gone now, sad to say. Sex cost $3000 to publish, my second collection, The Reality Machine, cost $6000 in 1997. Nowadays print-on-demand might save me some money--that's something I'm looking into, likely using Lulu.com. Can't quote you any price for that (as yet) but I'll be using my blog and the vast reach of the internet to spread the word..
BERTRAM: Is there one website more than another that brings you readers? Any suggestions for authors just starting to promote?
BURNS: Hmmm . . . well, I try to reach out to sites that discuss writing and publishing and I have a RedRoom authors page. I comment on a lot of blogs, replying to posts that amuse or annoy me for one reason or another. My blog, Beautiful Desolation, is my primary promotional venue, to tell the truth. I'm also on LibraryThing, a place where bibliophiles can hang out and chat. They don't encourage "blog-pimping" (a term I loathe, by the way), which is ridiculous because often I've written a lengthy post on "Beautiful Desolation" regarding a point under discussion. So I refer people to the post anyway and slap down anyone who dares accuse me of self-promotion.
BERTRAM: It seems to me that this is one of the best times to try to peddle a book because of all the online resources, such as blogging and discussion forums. It also seems as if this is one of the worst times because of the hundreds of thousands of “writers” looking for readers. (Some of those so-called writers are barely literate.) I’m hoping that someone like me who is willing to do the work to promote can reap the rewards.
BURNS: Yes, everyone can claim to be a writer these days and the new technologies allow people to publish their crap, regardless of the quality of their work. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? I chose to publish on-line, I chose the “indie” life because I detest the notion of anyone having control or input re: my writing. Some folks who don’t like me would say I’m doing it my way because I’m not good enough for traditional publishing. I say the quality of the work wins out in the end and I’m willing to let readers decide if my work is worth reading. But the surfeit of bad writing on-line drags down the professional status and quality of craftsmanship of those of us who struggle mightily to compose good work. I implore potential readers to use their critical thinking skills and don’t lump us all together.
BERTRAM: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
BURNS: Interesting the similarities and differences in our approaches and processes, our views toward the life and business of writing. Thanks for the discussion, it helped me better define and synthesize my thoughts.