Nobody’s Fault But Mine

“It is sufficiently honourable and glorious to have been willing to make the attempt, though it should prove unsuccessful.”

Pliny the Elder


It’s an ugly word, one not found in my vocabulary. Honestly, I utter it so rarely I actually had to look it up just now to find out if there was an “i” after the r or an “o”.


Got it. Commit to memory. Or…maybe not. After all, how often will I end up using it?

Some writers see bending to the will of agents or editors or the grand-all-powerful marketplace as a necessity if one wants to be a published, successful author. They see no problem letting outside parties tamper with story lines, suggest the addition or removal of characters, chapters, subplots. I read one account in Poets & Writers magazine where an author sat down to lunch with his agent, outlined a couple of different ideas for a novel and let his rep pick the one he would work on next.

My immediate and visceral reaction: what an asshole. Imagine giving someone that much influence over your writing. Now, I don’t really have a lot of hard and fast rules when it comes to my work but there are certain tenets that I live by and here are a few, strictly FYI:

1) Editors should remain unseen and unheard. They are non-entities. Spell-checkers and proof-readers and if they try to raise themselves above that lowly status, slap them down. Hard. Writing is not, repeat not a collaborative exercise. Anyone who credits an editor for saving a manuscript didn’t work hard enough on it, chickened out when the going got tough.

2) Agents have one job and one job only: protect their clients from greedhead publishers. Pitbulls when it comes to negotiating rights and contracts, pussycats when it comes to dealing with their clientele. No creative input, no vetting of manuscripts. No career advice. Here’s my completed manuscript–now it’s your job to sell it and get the best deal you can. Oh, and by the way, I expect to have final clearance over cover art and jacket copy. Make sure I get it…or you’re fired.

3) The writer is always right. There might be rare exceptions but, for the most part, the writer should know his/her work, its strengths and weaknesses, better than anyone else. Any wordsmith willing to abdicate responsibility, autonomy over a book or story, should take up flipping fucking burgers for a living. You don’t belong in our sacred guild of artisans. You ain’t good enough, strong enough…so do us all a favour and fuck off.

Now, admittedly, some authors aren’t comfortable with such a stance. Timid, insecure creatures, they need to be reassured, stroked. They’re willing to cede control of their self-esteem, their vision and integrity, as long as they have a pretty book they can show their friends and impress the proles. Their greatest dream is getting published and if that means opening themselves up to every indignity and humiliation, well, that’s part of the price they’re willing to pay.

I’ve been on-line for a couple of years now, poked about hundreds and hundreds of blogs and websites devoted to authors, established or otherwise. With very few exceptions (my friend Peter Watts being one), few scribblers take issue with the treatment accorded to writers and fewer still express the slightest antipathy toward a system designed to belittle their importance.

It’s fear, I suppose, but it’s something more than that too–an innate cowardice, a reluctance to make waves that is nothing less than craven. This fawning, milquetoast attitude I find in our little community makes me nauseous.

Other disciplines feature far more mavericks than the literary world.

How about a band like Tool, who refused to release any new albums for four years until they finally secured complete artistic freedom from their record label? I’ve already alluded to Trent Reznor, Ani DiFranco and Radiohead, musicians who tired of executives and A & R people fucking with their musical direction.

On the cinema front, I can point to stubborn auteurs like Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles, even Jean-Luc Godard (cheerily slipping into obscurity as long as he can keep making the movies he wants).

Kubrick demanded and received “final cut” throughout his career. MGM treated him with something akin to awe, enduring the lengthy hiatuses between pictures, editing suites booked for months of expensive post-production, mediocre or insignificant box office receipts…as long as he kept making films for them.

Welles wasn’t so lucky. After “Citizen Kane”, Hollywood never again granted him creative control. “Magnificent Ambersons” was butchered and rather than accept his reduced status, Welles broke away and spent the rest of his life in the wilderness, scraping together financing for films that were never made, left half-finished or suffered badly due to poor production values. There were occasional signs that his genius was undiminished–portions of “Chimes at Midnight”, “The Stranger”, even “F For Fake”.

I read an interview with Welles reprinted on the website for Senses of Cinema and, despite his frustrations, the soul-sucking necessity of expending 95% of his energies on searching for financing, he remains as defiant as ever, God bless him.

Orson was one tough sonofabitch.

But I don’t see the equivalent of these strong-willed personalities in the writing world. A willingness to break with convention, defy authority, maintain one’s independence and vision even if it costs you any chance of achieving fame and fortune.

And that says something.

After my Mediabistro rant was published, where I “burned bridges” and “committed artistic suicide”, I received a few cranky notes but I also got quite a show of support from other writers…most of whom were unwilling to go on the record with their remarks.

“Good for you”…”Glad someone’s finally taking these fuckers to task”…etc.

The point I was trying to make was that you can tell editors, agents and publishers to take a flying fuck at a rolling hand grenade and it doesn’t mean the end of the world. Thanks to the burgeoning indie movement that the new technologies are facilitating, authors can achieve a decent readership, gain fans and followers around the world and not have to jump through hoops to do it. The balance of power is shifting, the old edifice is crumbling. POD means “print on demand” but also “piss on dickheads”.

Dickhead editors. Dickhead agents. Dickhead publishers.

Poets and writers: your readers are out there, waiting for you. Take my word for it. Seize control of your career, refuse to cater and kowtow to people who move their lips when they read and have the social skills of a badger with mange.

Friends, colleagues, fellow wordsmiths:  the revolution starts NOW.


Coming soon: So Dark the Night (the podcast).

That’s right, Sherron and I have been spending long hours up in my office, figuring out the software, doing sample recordings, trying out theme music. We’re laying down the tracks, baby, getting ready to release a full-length, unabridged audio version of the best occult thriller around.

Keep watching this space…


  1. John

    Cliff, I love what I am reading in So Dark the Night. It is terrific material and you’ll hear more from me on it. But I’ll be honest too, I count on the input of outsiders to show me my blind spots, in writing, in life. But heh, what you do seems to be working for you. Can’t wait for the podcast.

  2. (S)wine

    Only editor I’d trust to take his pen, heavily, to my manuscript is Maxwell Perkins. But he’s dead.

    I loved Kubrick to the end, despite his horrific “Eyes Wide Shut.” The problem there is that he sequestered himself for so long, he lost touch with just about everything. He picked a fucked book and made a fucked film with two fucked actors. Everyone is allowed a slip now and again. It’s just too bad he went out on that piece of rubbish.

  3. Oscarandre

    I think there is a difference between seeking critical advice and surrendering artistic honesty – one is the pursuit of perfection, the other the pursuit of gammon.

  4. derekcatermole

    You macho, posturing jackass. You think your “uncompromising” attitude is comparable to Welles and Godard? Here’s the difference: they were successful artists who refused to accept that their ideas were wrong; you’re a failure who refuses to understand that his work is trash. Simply having a tough-guy pose doesn’t make you comparable to the greats. You need to actually have a skill too, and you don’t. All you have is a delusion that you cling to with astonishing tenacity. Any editor would remind you to change “nauseous” for “nauseated” (unless you mean that you make other people feel nauseated, which is accurate), and to drop redundancies like “fellow colleagues,” and in fact any editor will do his or her solemn moral duty and tell you to take your crappy work elsewhere. Get the message: the ten-millionth vampire noir novel is just as bad as all the rest. We don’t need it. There are too many books to read already. Thank god the publishing industry rejects you. And don’t offer that nonsense about you being disadvantaged because you’re white and you’re a man. That’s simple horseshit. Hardly anyone gets published and even if you were a purple lesbian hobgoblin (maybe you really are), your prose would still be stilted drivel, your story contrived and unoriginal, and no-one would publish it.

    I feel bad for your family. Your poor wife must be the most brow-beaten human alive. Do you have a podium at the dinner table so you can spout your grievances extemporaneously? Or perhaps you’re like the great Goofy cartoon, where mild-mannered Mr. Walker becomes demonic Mr. Wheeler when he climbs into his car. In person maybe you’re meek and pliant, but when you get on your blog-horse, you’re a mighty warrior, dealing death to your enemies.

    Get over it a little. Sorry you’re not going to have the glittering career you imagined for yourself, but at some point you have to deal with this plain fact: you’re not good enough. Find something else to devote your energy to and give up your death-grip on the illusion of your talent. Quit letting other frustrated nine-time losers encourage you with this quixotic foolishness. Let someone who actually knows something (me, for instance) tell you what goes on. It’s never going to happen, and nor should it. Justice, art, morality, human decency all cry out, “Cliff J. Burns does not deserve an audience.” Take pity on us, and on yourself, you sad fellow, and stop.

  5. mikecane

    There are times when editors and agents are your adversary and there are times when they are not.

    We will never, ever precisely know what many print books were like before an editor edited it.

    There have been editors who have been praised by classic authors for bringing out *what they meant*.

    One story I can cite of editorial intervention is in the novel The Fountainhead. Rand had Roark in an affair with someone. The editor said that should be cut. It was. Had it not been cut, I think Roark would not be the character everyone thinks of today. So, who was right? Rand or the editor?

    Another story. I won’t cite the author. Only to say she is a top-ten seller. She submitted her latest novel and it was, to put it kindly, a “mess.” The editor had to go through it line-by-line to make it publishable. In my mind, this is an example of author abuse. The author thought she was so hot shit, they’d take anything she gave them.

    Just like that hack Harold Robbins. You can read about him here:

    Lastly, there is the case of best-selling author Og Mandino. His books were to help everyday people lift themselves up. People laugh at them as being simplistic and using simple language. What most people don’t know is that they started out as very different books with a large vocabulary. He would give the ms to his wife to read and she kept having to look up words. She confronted him and told him he wasn’t going to sell unless he modified his vocabulary. She was right. (Ever tried to read Henry Miller? Have a ginormous dictionary handy!)

    Hell, a good copy editor is a joy too. I’ve had sentences made clearer by them. I wish I could damn well marry a good copy editor and set her loose on my text before I hit Publish on my blog! (Not that what I do there is what I consider writing — but it’d at least save me a lot of self-embarrassment!)

    Good editors and good agents are being crushed by the same people as writers: the bastards who only see “maximizing shareholder value” as the be-all and end-all of corporate efforts.

    Finally, there’s the advice of Randy Pausch:

    Have the wisdom to see criticism as *caring*.

    I wouldn’t trust *anyone* who told me my work was flawless. *It never is!*

  6. pandemonic

    Wow, that’s some manifesto there, Dude.

    I know some “published” authors, and in fact bought my home from a successful romance novelist. We discuss this among ourselves all the time. There’s a bit of “dissing” the self-published start ups as not being “real” writers. Anyone can publish anything these days, so you don’t need agents and editors. Indeed, some of the self-published books are absolutely awful – story lines that are faulty, bad grammar, homophone abuse, you name it – but some are worthy. We’ve also had similar discussions on the “mill” process of writing: “they” tell you what to write and how to write it. That’s the trade off for being published by the “big box” companies.

    My novel is just in its early stages. I’m looking forward to having my book edited and examined, but I’m happy to know that if I don’t want to compromise, I can take my work and publish it myself.

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  9. davidrochester


    I think there’s a difference between an editor who wants to make something marketable, and one who wants to bring it into its fullest flowering of potential.

    The first kind should be told to fuck off, in no uncertain terms … the work is yours, and if you don’t want to alter it to suit the flavor of the day, you shouldn’t.

    But the second kind … probably worth listening to. It’s a rare artist who can see his own work clearly. A good editor is the equivalent of a colleague whose opinion you would solicit.

    I suppose one could try to ascend the heights of Kubrick and Welles, but … I don’t know. There’s a lot of hubris inherent in that kind of attitude. Personally, I’m not so convinced of my greatness that I’m not grateful for thoughtful input from people who care about my work. And I’d say more editors fall into that camp than into the bloodsucking camp.

  10. kswolff

    Yes, yes, and YES! Keep up the good work, Cliff. Too many drones and philstines making the important decisions, willing to sacrifice anything to the Cult of the Bottom Line. I can just imagine some idiot editor trying to persuade Ferdinand Celine to make his work more “upbeat.”

    Sometimes the most sensible thing to say is: “Eat shit! Fuck you! Go fuck off and die!”

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