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SEX:coverTwenty-five years ago, I was a frustrated, angry writer.

I’d assembled a “Best of…” collection of tales and spent more than a year trying to find a publisher for it. All of the stories in that collection, titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination, had been previously published, some in pretty prestigious publications. A couple had aired on CBC Radio and I’d even received a generous grant from the Canada Council that helped pay for writing part of the book.

Didn’t matter.

See, the widely held view is that single author short story collections, regardless of the stature of the writer, just don’t sell. Sadly, I can tell you from personal experience that this is not an urban legend, for some reason contemporary readers shun the short story format. God knows why. Regardless, publishers tend to shy away from anthologies and such and my little offering was no exception.

“These stories are well written but as you know in today’s marketplace short story collections do not attract significant sales, etc….”

Heard that one a number of times.

But, curiously enough, the one sentiment repeated over and over again was this:  good writing, exciting plots and themes, but we don’t publish this type of thing.

What exactly was “this type of thing”?

My own bizarre concoction, a spicy stew of science fiction, horror, fantasy and mainstream, literary prose. A mash-up of every genre under the sun, defying categorization and safe niches. Which didn’t help matters. As far as Canadian presses were concerned anything with the slightest taint of genre was out—more than one Canuck editor gave me the impression that my stories weren’t, well, Canadian enough, didn’t conform to some weird, unwritten cultural checklist.

And as far as the Americans and Brits were concerned, I was a young, emerging writer, no following, and while my work showed originality and creative spark, it wasn’t worth risking a significant investment of time and resources.

So my book was effectively dead in the water.

But I couldn’t help thinking about a fellow I’d heard about out east, a guy who’d made it his mission in life to stick a pin in the Canadian publishing industry and, in general, make a nuisance of himself. Crad Kilodney’s best stunt, in my view, was submitting classic stories by Kafka and Hemingway and others to a national literary contest and then publicly embarrassing the judges and administrators for failing to recognize their literary merit.

Crad, understandably, found it difficult to place his work so he started publishing it himself and selling it as limited edition chapbooks on the streets of Toronto. My wife brought me back a copy of one he dubbed Bang Heads Here Suffering Bastards in the late 1980′s and I was immediately impressed by the author’s chutzpah and creative passion.

When my Sex collection was passed over by every publisher north of the Rio Grande, I recalled Crad and his fuck you, DIY mentality and thought to myself, shit, I can do that too.

It took me months to put it all together, find the right cover art, a printer and bookbinder, and the final price tag was (gulp) just over $3000 to print 500 copies. Money I did not have.

Fortunately, the entire print run sold out in about five months.

It was astonishing.

I think my old chum Mark Ziesing sold at least 70 copies through his small mail order company alone. The Regina bookstore I worked for at the time also moved a lot of copies and every time Sherron and I travelled somewhere, we always took a box with us, nabbing consignment sales in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto.

There were no returns.

The crowning moment was when our bookstore staff had dinner with Canadian literary icon Timothy Findley. Once he heard I had a new book out, Tiff generously asked to see it. After reading it, he sent me the most beautiful blurb possible. I was unable to use his kind words on that edition of Sex and promised him I would never employ them on any other title except the one for which they were intended. And so when I re-release Sex and Other Acts of the Imagination on its 25th anniversary early next year (2015), it will finally feature Tiff’s warm praise:

“This is a book of hot dreams and frozen nightmares. It floats on a plane few writers achieve, where the imagery is raw but the insights are tender. The people in these stories will stay with me for a long time to come.”

Thanks, Tiff. You dear, sweet man.

I’ve published a couple of short chapbooks and a collection of novellas (Righteous Blood) through other small presses but I have to say none of those experiences came close to the joy I felt writing, editing and publishing my own work. No middle men, no editorial interference, no bullshit. Controlling all the creative and aesthetic decisions, right down to the choice of font and margins.

I was hooked.

I released books through my imprint, Black Dog Press, in 1994, 1995, 1997…but that last title (another short story collection!), The Reality Machine, cost me close to $7000 and put a serious strain on our finances. It took us awhile to recover and then I embarked on a 3 1/2 year odyssey that became, eventually, my occult thriller So Dark the Night.

The completion of that novel coincided with the arrival of print-on-demand publishing, the biggest change to the book biz since Joe Gutenberg opened his first copy shop in Mainz.  Thanks to POD, publishing on a smaller scale has become much more affordable, plus I now have access to the international marketplace I’ve always coveted. Physical book or digital version, it’s up to my readers.

Since the 2010 publication of So Dark the Night, this press has released 5 more titles, each of them professionally designed and formatted, featuring eye-poppingly gorgeous cover art. You’ll find them in my bookstore and, I think you’ll agree, they look as good as any offering you’ll come across in your favorite book store. The writing isn’t bad either.

So that’s the story behind Black Dog Press, my eccentric little publishing venture. Twenty-five years  and eleven titles later (two more in the pipeline), and we’re still going strong.

I may never get rich but at least my work is out there, available to readers who seek prose that veers from the familiar and mocks the very notion of consensual reality. In this era of corporate publishing, a profit-mongering environment that encourages the proliferation of sub-literate, derivative fiction, independent presses like mine offer hope and inspiration to those of us who revere the printed word and refuse to kowtow to the mediocre and witless.

Thanks for your support over the years.

The best is yet to come.

Write on…

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Vacuum FlowerFinally a warming trend around here. February in Saskatchewan has been a spine-stiffening experience; the one saving grace, there hasn’t been massive snowfalls to add insult to injury.

But according to the forecast, the temps will hover around -6 or -8 for most of the coming week. Balmy weather, compared to what we’ve been enduring up ’til now.  Frankly, I always feel better once the first of March rolls around—I can practically hear the crocuses stirring, even under four feet of packed snow.

A flurry of e-mails and communications after my last post and I guess I should have known better. Even by alluding to my novel-in-progress I was opening a can of worms. Now everybody wants to know details about the plot, genre, etc.

Now, you folks ought to know me better than that. I know some writers talk about their on-going projects, post excerpts, furnish plot details and teasers, seeking feedback from fans and readers.

How nice.

How not Cliff.

Kids, not even my wife knows more than the absolute bare bones of my current project. I keep my books, stories, poems under wraps until I’m ready to release them to the world. I want her to be surprised, amazed at my audacity (or, just as likely, dubious of my sanity). I seek no editorial input until a project is very near completion…then I’ll pass it on to Sherron and let her pick at it for errors, oversights or continuity problems. As much as I respect my small cadre of dedicated readers, they have no say in any aspect of my work…nor will I make adjustments to a book or story with the aim of pleasing them (or anyone). I don’t write Choose Your Own Adventure” books, y’know?

Here’s what I will tell you:

My novel is tentatively titled Based on a True Story and it will clock in at around 220 pages (60,000 words). About the same length as my western, The Last Hunt. Genre? Mainstream, crime fiction (of sorts), an old mystery coming to the surface. No fantastic elements whatsoever.

Let’s see, what other questions have people been asking…

Is it a personal project?

Huh? All of my work employs my odd, personal take on things. And while much of it might contain incidents from life, very little of my writing is strictly autobiographical. Characters and situations entirely the product of my fertile and perverse imagination. You wanna write about yourself? Start a fucking diary…

Is it another case for Zinnea & Nightstalk?

No.

Will there eventually be another Zinnea and--

Yes. When it’s time and I clear some of the other stuff off my desk.

Other projects? Like what? Can you give me an example?

Aha. Good for you. Not a chance.

Why do you take so long to release your books?

Because I want to get them right.

Why are each of your books so different?

I don’t want to get stuck in a rut. Look, my own tastes are wide-ranging and eclectic and I want to see that reflected in my literary efforts. I disdain writers who author the same book over and over again or explore the same universe in a ridiculously long and convoluted series, milking their invented world for all it’s worth. That’s why I’m not pounding out one Zinnea & Nightstalk mystery after another, even though, God knows, that would delight many people out there. I’m not a hack, I’m a creative artist who wants to challenge himself, push the limits of a very finite and modest-sized talent. That’s the way I’ve approached literature for the past thirty (30) years and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Is this latest book cinematic like the others? Your stuff always seems like it could easily be adapted into movies.

Hmm. Yes, definitely. I see what you mean. And a number of my efforts have been optioned…but it never seems to go anywhere. Last month a film-maker contacted me about one of my novellas and it ended badly. I wrote about it over on my RedRoom blog. It isn’t pretty. Hope it serves as an object lesson to other writers out there who might be going through the same thing. Stand up for yourself and remember: until you sign that contract, you hold all the power. Do your homework and work your ass off to get the best possible deal. Don’t get screwed because you’re humble, shy and/or dislike confrontation. People like that get eaten alive.

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That’s it for now. Still have a full day of editing ahead of me. Should be finished this latest run-through (draft #3) in the next three or four days. Then some time off (it’s been 32 days straight of 10-12 hour writing sessions), do some background reading and research and then…on to draft #4.

Write on…

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UnidentifiedFolks:

Sorry. Geez. Talk about belated.

Several weeks since my last post and I offer no excuses, no rationale. Yes, I’ve been editing the third draft of my new novel, going through its 200+ pages over and over, shaping and paring, trying to find a consistent voice, a smooth, narrative flow. And, yes, my days are long and intense and my focus can be downright scary at times. That need to immerse myself (there’s no other word) in the world I’m building, basically from scratch. It’s important to envision that creation in as much detail as I possibly can so that it seems credible and fully formed. I know my readers are pretty discerning people.

You have to understand, at times like this, when I’m going full-bore on a project, it’s easy for the rest of Earth Prime to fade away…and that means all ties, all friendships, all responsibilities become, well, superfluous. Wish I could put it more nicely but that’s just the way it is. Sometimes in order to meet the demands of my work I have to become selfish and solipsistic…it’s one of the least attractive aspects of being a creative artist. When a project reaches this state, I literally have to take a leave of absence from my regular life and that can be hard on family, friends and, yes, my small circle of readers and blog followers.

The end result is a completed novel or short story but getting there, while still retaining contact with the people who mean the most to you…that can be a struggle.

I guess what I’m trying to say is be patient with me, know that I’m operating in the thrall of my Muse, my imagination racing, my brain clicking on all cylinders. If in the performance of my duties I’m negligent in terms of my worldly obligations, it is, for me, a necessary (even mandatory) state of affairs.

You want to know what life is like for a full-time, independent author?

Well, there it is.

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In the pipeline…

Some publication news for you: as well as the novel, this year I’ll  be working on a new edition of my very first book, a short story collection titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. The collection was released back in 1990, the entire print run selling out in a matter of months. It’s virtually impossible to lay your hands on a copy of Sex and I’m going to address that by re-issuing it with a new cover, Introduction and Afterword. I’ll be formatting and correcting the manuscript this summer and will publish it through my Black Dog Press imprint either later this year or in early 2015 (the 25th anniversary of its original publication).

The new novel, meanwhile, is slated for a Spring, 2015 release.

Drop in for further updates as the year progresses.

Like Rothko

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HeadIn previous years, I’ve posted about Christmas in a variety of ways.

A few years back I provided some background into the real story of St. Nicholas

…and let us not forget the Christmas tale I wrote employing the two main characters from my supernatural thriller, So Dark the Night. “Finding Charlotte” is a case from Zinnea and Nightstalk’s early days and it’s available for free download and reading.

To my friends and readers, everyone who follows my work:

MERRY CHRISTMAS.

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fireplaceGene Autry crooning from the CD player, the Christmas tree filling the house with its pine scent, wood popping in the fireplace…ah, yes, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

Those who follow this blog are aware that I love Christmas and still cling to the faint possibility of Santa Claus (hey, the cookies I leave out are always eaten when I get up in the morning, explain that).

This year possesses an extra poignancy, I suspect, because it’s our last Christmas before our youngest lad moves out, leaving us with ye olde empty nest. And a much smaller food bill (but I digress).

Hectic around here, as it is for everybody else this time of year. Trying to finish last minute shopping, get parcels away to relatives and loved ones, keeping the walk shoveled and the house warm during some recent cold snaps.

I’ll probably do a year end review at some point but not on this occasion.

Instead I want to announce a special Christmas treat:

I’ve created, with the help of those over-priced buggers at Cafe Press, some pins/buttons. The button with the smallest print reads “Frustrate algorithms.” Sorry, despite my best efforts, I remain mediocre at taking still photos.

Button

(Click on images to enlarge)

These pins reflect aspects of my personal philosophy, that subversive, non–conformist attitude I’ve had for as far back as I can remember.

I’m giving away three sets of pins along with three personally inscribed copies of my latest book, Exceptions & Deceptions, for the best questions or comments submitted in the next month. Post your remarks, then, if you want to be eligible for a prize, send your particulars (address, etc.) to blackdogpress@yahoo.ca. I’ll make my choices sometime in mid-January and post the names of winners at that time.

Feeling very positive as this year comes to a close. There’s a desire now that I’m fifty to start living a more spiritually and aesthetically fulfilling life, to continue to expand my horizons by exposing myself to smart, daring books and films and music, eschewing the trivial and formulaic. Off with the old skin, on with the new.

“…Identity is the daughter of birth,
but in the end, the invention of its owner,
not an heirloom from the past.”

-Mahmoud Darwish, from Almond Blossoms & Beyond
(Translated by Mohammad Shaheen)

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I posted a roster of my favorite reads of 2013 for the benefit of my LibraryThing group, thought I’d reproduce it here. Most of these books aren’t new releases…and as I compiled this year’s list, I quickly realized I read more non-fiction than fiction, hardly any genre stuff, almost no “commercial” fiction.

Fascinating how my reading has changed over the past decade…

Fiction:

WEREWOLVES IN THEIR YOUTH (short stories) by Michael Chabon
I AM A BEAUTIFUL MONSTER by Francis Picabia
THE BLUE OCTAVO NOTEBOOKS by Franz Kafka
HANGOVER SQUARE by Patrick Hamilton
TENTH OF DECEMBER (short stories) by George Saunders

Non-fiction:

LEGACY OF ASHES by Tim Weiner
THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILIZATION by Robert Fisk
AN ARMY AT DAWN: THE WAR IN NORTH AFRICA by Rick Atkinson
EVERY STORY IS A GHOST STORY by D.T. Max
NIXONLAND by Rick Perlstein
KAFKA: THE DECISIVE YEARS by Reiner Stach

Have you assembled your “Best of…” list for 2013 yet?

If you have, let’s hear it…

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Poems:CoverThis just in:

My volume of New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) has been shortlisted for a 2013 ReLit Award.

Read about it here.

The ReLits celebrate the best books released from independent Canadian presses and I’m pleased to make the final roster and delighted to be in the company of some really fine writers.

My thanks to the administrators and sponsors and all involved.

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CliffBurns1A number of things on my plate in the past while, which leads, inevitably, to another long gap between posts.

Starting with the fun stuff, I attended a screening of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Nosferatu” and wrote about it over on my film blog. Some musicians from the Saskatoon Symphony provided accompaniment and, what can I tell you, it was an absolutely brilliant evening. The following day I turned fifty and couldn’t imagine a more fitting way to celebrate.

Yeah, I said celebrate. I’ve hit the big five-oh and, okay, physically I’m not as strong or durable as I was twenty years ago, but mentally and artistically I feel close to the top of my game. Growing spiritually, as well, and that’s an ongoing process. I’m in a good space, some of the fears and obsessional thinking that once upon a time dragged me down are either gone or have eased to the point where they no longer cause the kind of damage they used to. My family played a huge part in that transformation and also the sense that my life and work are serving a tiny role in a Grand Design God-knows-how-many years in progress. My faith life is essential to my entire sense of well-being; without it, I’m a miserable cur, hardly worthy of consideration, barely rating a glance.

In terms of my work:

Researching for the novel, reading reference books and trolling on-line for more info, looking for those obscure little tid-bits that add the perfect dollop of detail to a scene, imparting an authenticity that makes the Reader shiver (love those moments).

I collaborated on a sound collage with my youngest son, Sam. He’s getting to be quite the musician so when my wife asked the two of us to put together an “environment” for a puppet and mask project she’s creating, I was curious to see what we came up with. Turned out to be a weird, ambient piece nearly four minutes long. Now we’re going to edit together a short film using that soundtrack and footage Sherron’s assembled over the last couple of years. Hope to have that done in the next week or so.

What else…well, I’d been giving some thought to writing something for the CBC/Enroute Short Story Contest but every time I checked my well of inspiration, it was dry as fossilized bone. So with the deadline looming I’d pretty much given up any notion of sending anything…until a couple of days ago, when I sat down and started tapping away, managing to complete a tale that adhered to the 1500 word limit (barely) and turned out to be a darn good story. Imagine that—posted it yesterday, just under the wire.

Have to confess, I hate entering or submitting my work anywhere—as an indie, I’d rather publish it myself. But the prize money for a six page story is unbelievable, ridiculous, and the notion of spending two weeks in residence at Banff…how could I resist?

From what I’ve heard, the contest receives between 1800-2000 entries annually, so I’m not holding my breath.

But wouldn’t it be nice…

What else? Ah, I’ve been in my basement cave, doing some more painting. A couple of canvases currently being prepped, exercising my visual muscles, expressing myself beyond the precincts of the printed word. Who cares if I’m any good at it?

And music, lots of music playing, which is always an indication I’m in an inspired state of mind. Frequently heard these days: The Eels, Bob Mould, Brain Jonestown Massacre, Jimmy Eat World, R.L. Burnside, Radio Moscow, old Dylan. Keeping it eclectic.

I guess that just about sums things up. Heading into November around here, but the yard work is pretty much done, all I have to do is order some pine wood and see about winter tires for the car.

The next six to eight months will be spent on the novel (mostly), so by Spring, 2014 I should have the lion’s share of the editing done (crosses his fingers). I’ll keep you apprised of developments and, hopefully, will be posting more frequently than I have been of late.

But no promises…

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My pal, award-winning Brit science fiction author Ian Sales, posted this Tweet after somehow securing a copy of my first book. I only printed 500 copies back in 1990 and they all sold out in less than five months.

Almost impossible to find my Sex collection—which is why I’ll be publishing a 25th anniversary edition in 2015.

Picture 1

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DSC00298Over two weeks since my last post. Two weeks. That’s a ridiculous interval of time between messages. What kind of an excuse can I possibly make? Abducted by UFOs (again)?

Well, y’know…as I believe I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m a lousy self-promoter. I’m really bad at plugging this site and shilling my books. Daily blog entries, comments on other sites, utilizing social networks, joining on-line forums and groups, indulging in high profile flame wars, appearing at every convention, doing all the right things to draw attention to yourself…not for me. The problem, of course, is time.

I write every day. Every. Single. Day. Get up, usually around 7:30, and the first thing I do is cross the hall to my office and turn on the computer. Within ten minutes, I’m holding a really strong, well-sugared coffee and doing a quick scan of my emails, checking the overnight news. The past year or two, the good ol’ BBC has been my primary reality filter. Love their radio comedies and dramas too. Michael Hordern and Richard Briers as “Jeeves and Wooster”. Sublime.

From quite early in the morning until, often, after supper, I’m tapping away, composing or editing, and I do it about 360 days of the year (the rest, I’m either sick, dead or it’s Christmas). I’m only fully alive, fully realized when I’m hard at work on a project, all of my senses engaged. And so, as soon as I finish one book, I abandon it and move on to the next, my mind already seeking fresh material, a new intellectual or aesthetic puzzle to solve.

It’s almost machine-like, as if I’m programmed to sketch and shape words, to the detriment of almost everything else. Sometimes I’ve sacrificed valuable, irreplaceable time with my family in order to stay glued to my desk. That’s a shameful admission but also an unflinching depiction of my devotion to my work.

And I’ve been doing it, basically, since 1985, the year I turned “professional”. Over 25 years of toiling, day by day, to improve at my craft, sharpen my skills, be the best writer I can possibly be. Innovative and original and daring.

That’s why I’m so hard on wannabes and ridiculous enterprises like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Art is a serious, full-time business. It is a calling on the spiritual level, a voice in the absolute inner silence of your soul that insists, regardless of the circumstances, that you must pick up a pen or sit before a keyboard, marshal your tangled, chaotic thoughts and…create. And you do that not just for a month, not until you reach some artificially imposed plateau, but every single day until you are dead.

Got it?

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Tomorrow I’ll finish the second draft of my new novel. At this point it hovers around 200 pages and 50,000 words.

That’s what I’ve been working on, without pause, since August 3rd.

My so-called life.

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DSC00287Did manage to see a good movie at the Broadway Theater in Saskatoon. You’ll find my review of “Blancanieves” over at my film blog.

The last couple of nights, Sherron and Sam set up a backyard movie theater, projecting films on the side of our house. “The Artist” was smashing, earning an ovation at its conclusion, and last night it was “Amelie”. Dunno if there are going to be too many more showings. The temperature dips awful quickly after dark in these parts around this time of year.

It’s been a beautiful, warm autumn. The colors in our river valley would entrance Van Gogh (and our clear, starry nights can’t be beat). Feeling inspired, enlivened by a clarity of purpose, the certainty I am working on a project worthy of my efforts, a book that challenges and scares me a little. That frisson I experience when I sit down and open the file, stare at the screen, wondering if I can find it within me today to summon the courage and faith required to be the best writer I can be.

And then, gradually, sensing the spell begin to take hold…

DSC00288

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