Setting the bar high

What are your goals as a writer, as a creative person?

This question has been much on my mind for the past while.  I’ve been accused of being an “elitist” and what have you because I insist that if you write for the purpose of making money, seeking fame and fortune, you are little more than a whore.  I have also been pretty clear that I have no interest in pursuing some big, fat publishing contract, nor do I give a tinker’s damn whether you’ve won a Hugo, an Edgar or the fucking Nobel Prize for that matter.  Baubles and trinkets.  Bullion and bullshit.

Kids, I’ve been offered the chance to write franchise novels (“Star Wars” or “Star Trek”) and told the agent involved to shove it.  As far as I’m concerned, you do something like that, “sharecrop” someone else’s universe, you are off the artistic roll call.  (Thanks, Bill, couldn’t have said it better myself.)

I don’t go to conventions, suck up to editors, try to flog my work to them like a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.

I don’t shill myself by teaching writing workshops—such ventures help spread the abhorrent lie that good writers can be stamped out like fucking cookies.  I’ve written about that in more detail here (the more delicate among you may have to avert your eyes at certain points in the essay).

Okay, so that’s what I don’t want…but what is my greatest aspiration as a writer?

To be the best.  To push myself to the limit and produce work that breaks new ground, written in language so finely wrought it’s like reading through a score by one of the great classical musicians.  Note perfect.  I want to be held up there with the finest authors in the world and not be found wanting.

I have no interest in being average.  A “decent” writer.  Ugh.  Better to be forgotten than instantly forgettable, which pretty much sums up most of the books being released these days.

Because I have chosen to go the indie route, I have automatically rendered my writing suspect in many people’s eyes.  If I’m acting as my own publisher and printer that must mean my stuff is no good, rejected by mainstream places because it fails to meet their exalted standards.  Which automatically begs the question:  have you been in a book store recently, seen the kind of shit the traditional publishers are spewing out like a drunk’s partially digested lunch?

I expend an incredible amount of time and effort revising and polishing my work—my novel So Dark the Night took over three years to write (not including the research that preceded it).  And I’m a full time writer.  Imagine that.  Day in and day out for 3+ years.  (Shudder)  But I knew I had a wonderful book, was confident that once it was finished and released, people would love it.  And I was right.

But, again, because I’m not a self-promoter, I think I’ve hurt sales of both my novels.  I even resisted sending out review copies, partially because I knew that no matter how good the books were, how professionally executed and bound, there would still be the stigma of the indie/self-published label.  This despite a professional writing career spanning over 25 years, many publication credits, anthology appearances, critical raves.  I haven’t sent copies to some of the famous authors I’m acquainted with, seeking their praise and approbation.  There’s just something within me that balks at the notion.  I want my books discovered, not read because of some kind of viral ad campaign.

So Dark the Night and Of the Night are superb literary efforts.  They are sprinkled with genre elements (mystery, horror/dark fantasy) but they are intended for an intelligent, discerning mainstream audience.  They have enormous cross-over appeal thanks to winning characters, snappy dialogue and homages to film noir, pulp fiction, and cult cinema and TV.  Fans of Paul Auster, Jonathan Carroll, Nicholas Christopher, David Mitchell, Philip K. Dick and Jorge Luis Borges will find a lot to like in both novels.

What they won’t find is the kind of incompetent, derivative, semi-literate drivel that is prevalent both in the self-published world and, as I’ve just related, on the traditional publishing scene as well.  You wanna read the next Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown or J.A. Konrath?  I’m sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place.  I’m a real writer, boys and girls, I seek to create ART.  I want to destroy your preconceptions and offer you prose that is exciting, intoxicating and pitch perfect, right down to the placement of commas.

I want to be the best writer in the world.

There.  I’ve said it.

It’s a pipe dream, of course, there’s no such thing.  But for me, the bar is raised to the highest possible peg and I won’t lower my expectations for any market niche, slot on the bestseller list or dollar figure you can name.  My literary heroes are men and women who slaved away tirelessly, selflessly, stubbornly, refusing to conform to the whims of agents, editors or readers.  Iconoclasts and artisans, defending their work, their legacies, with the ferocity of pit bulls.  Facing penury, enduring lives of desperation, anonymity, pain and hopelessness, yet never forsaking their vision or abandoning their ideals.

With role models like that, it’s impossible to even entertain the possibility of selling out.

My idols would never forgive me.


  1. megan.findlay

    Very forceful, Cliff! I don’t agree entirely, but I sympathize with your position and admire the route you and your wife have beaten down through an otherwise hostile jungle. And judging by the praise cataloged on your “About” page, you’ve done quite well!

    But, see, that’s my only caveat. I agree that there is a heartbreaking amount of drivel that’s cheapening the craft and crowding out better, far more deserving writers. But is it really possible to live outside of that race for critical approval? You yourself say that you want to be help up against the world’s best authors and judged their equal. Is that pure artistic motivation?

  2. Cliff Burns

    To be the best artist you can possibly be is serving a higher power than mere ego gratification and a desire for fame.

    As an author, I impose the loftiest, most exacting standards on my work—not content with being a mere hack, someone who churns out words for money, prestige, what have you. I say why not aspire to be the BEST? Aren’t you letting yourself (and your readers) down by settling for anything less?

    I have argued here that the indie world needs to be more discerning, weeding out the wannabes and hobbyists from the authors who went it alone because they wanted to have complete control over their writing, right down to selecting cover art, fonts, typesetting, what have you. I don’t WANT to be associated with the vast majority of self-publishers out there; they utterly fail to meet the exacting standards I demand of myself. I’m a DIY-er but my writing is far better than most of the junk released by conventional, traditional presses.

    That is one of the goals I set for myself when I published my first book 21 years ago and that mentality still applies these many years later.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond and keep writing. All the best to you.

  3. MIAfitsMe

    I admire your goals for being the best and setting the bar high. Being AVERAGE is a waste…
    I read to learn, expand my mind, keep me on my toes…
    Thank you for your response to my blog. I am ALWAYS open to suggestions on books that have been interesting to people…


  4. Cliff Burns

    Mia: I love hearing from fellow writers and smart readers. And always keeping an eye out for more of the same.

    Great to hear from you and KEEP READING.

  5. sammiunstoppable

    I am reading this post as I sit in class, doing the university degree that will allow me to work in the Australian publishing industry. I read this and realise there is hope for me in other areas of writing, but I do wonder, as a reader of both non-fiction and fiction and a writer of predominatly non-fiction, how would one apply your principles (which very much mirror my own) to life as a non-fiction writer?

  6. Cliff Burns

    Wow, good question.

    Superb writing is superb writing, whatever field you work in. Learn the basics and compose sound, well-constructed sentences that feature excellent syntax and say what you want to say as simply and directly as you can. I’m a minimalist, I detest over-writing and padding; exposition is exposition, regardless of what sort of writing you do.

    In terms of your own personal principles, as a journalist or non-fiction writer, never cater to the marketplace or allow your work to be censored or mangled by editors. Write about the things that appeal to you as honestly and directly as you can. Stand by what you believe in, live and die by your convictions.

    I hope that’s helpful—and I wish you all the best with your literary endeavors, wherever they take you…

  7. sammiunstoppable


    I do believe every word you have said is exactly what I was thinking! Good job on being one of the few sane ones left in the wonderful world of writing!

  8. Cliff Burns

    Glad to render what assistance I can to a young colleague—and we ARE colleagues, whatever your work experience.

    Hunter Thompson is my kinda role model as a journalist. He told a funny story about lasting less than a week at TIME magazine, his editor ripping his employee card up “in a stuttering rage” (I recall the line exactly) and telling him to get the fuck out of the building. You can imagine the King of Gonzo in such a staid atmosphere as TIME in the early 1960’s. What a hoot!

    Keep reading and keep writing, my young friend…

  9. Jess C Scott

    Perhaps ignorance and illiteracy are the new “genius” and “literary competence,” respectively 😛

    Cliff, I admire your passion for the written word. As a writer, I need to work with a clear conscience too. I’m often inspired by Roald Dahl (who wrote for both adults and children, and was commercially successful without sacrificing some of the more artistic/demanding aspects of the writing craft).

    I’ve always chosen to focus on style and substance, over short-term success with current fads and marketing hype (regardless of genre). If only because I need to work with a clean/clear conscience. If this makes me an “elitist” in some people’s eyes, then so be it (it’s interesting to see that these are often the same types who have no understanding of — and/or little to no respect — for the actual craft of writing).

    I’ll be turning 25 soon — the artistic versus mainstream/commercial dichotomy used to cause me some trouble in the past. It’d make me sometimes wish I didn’t have any literary/artistic talents or temperaments, or ethics/integrity (personal or artistic). However, since I can’t seem to “divorce” myself from those personality traits of mine, I’ll keep doing the best work that I can while keeping myself “in check” each step along the way (to maintain a clear perspective on what I want to achieve with my writing projects, how I’m going to do it, and why I’m doing it). I hope to get it right one day (to produce something that has mainstream appeal but isn’t rubbish, basically).

    When the focus is as clear as the perspective you adhere to for setting the bar high (in your own way), I guess that’s when I’ll know I’ve gotten it “right” for myself 😉

    P.S. Thank you for your blog post(s). It’s always nice to come across people who genuinely care for the real value of books and literature (“literature” in the old school sense…).

    “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” — Truman Capote quote.

    “Hollywood money isn’t money. It’s congealed snow, melts in your hand, and there you are.” — Dorothy Parker

  10. Cliff Burns

    Wow, ever notice how many of the folks showing up here are smart and articulate? Makes running this joint worthwhile, it truly does.

    Jess: great note, great sentiments. Set the bar at a height that scares you, always shoot for a “personal best” and you’ll never let your readers down. The struggle between art and commerce is an ancient one and thank God there are always a few individuals who refuse to run with the herd. It’s the mavericks and iconoclasts who break new ground and present us with exciting and original perspectives on this mad, mad, mad, MAD world.

    Thanks for telling it like it is, kid. Keep on keepin’ on…

  11. Dr.Robert Runte

    Okay, random trigger: your assertion that anyone writing a Star Wars novel is little better than a whore gives me pause. Besides a rather stereotypical, uncharitable, and largely inaccurate understanding of the circumstances and motivations of most sex trade workers, I think it misrepresents the motivation of at least some sharecropping novelists. Although I grant that some, perhaps most, ST/SW novelists do it for the money (at least one such author told me it was easy money for him), it may also be motivated by other, one dare say, artistic reasons.

    (1) One novelist told me that she had been a fan of that universe all her life, that the chance to ‘give back’ to that universe had been rewarding, and rather than seeing it as writing in someone else’s universe or voice, saw her novel as contributing to a communal work. An argument could be made that male egos insist on individual work, while women build community and are more open to collaboration. Indeed, I’m considering a major research project on the the Okal Rel group where the line between author, fan fiction and reader has become so blurred that the collaborative nature of the evolution of the work cannot be overlooked. And for many of the young writers growing up in that environment, their own artistic vision has been developed and stretched by participation as no other opportunity could have done. And the work is, sorry, not half bad.

    (2) As an educator, I greatly appreciate Timothy Zahn having written some SW novels. Because I can often get reluctant (that is non) readers to read an SW novel if they’re into the movies. And when they finish I can say, hey, did you know this guy has a couple of other novels — they’re not SW but, you know, they’re okay.” And I have taken many high school students from Zahn SW through Zahn’s Crusade series to, you know, real lit like Canticle for Leibowitz. Or from John Ford’s ST novels to say, “Growing Up Weightless”. Maybe they were looking for money, or increased sales of their own books, but whatever their motivations, it has allowed me to move a lot of kids from drek (e.g., average ST/SW novel) to the good stuff. If all the decent writers took your attitude that writing mass market was for whores, there would be less opportunity for me to educate your potential readers…at least a few good writers need to work among the masses, or the masses will never be exposed to the possibility of better than crap writing.

    (3) And then there is my friend Adrian whose artistic vision is, well, mass market defined. Is he a whore because what he is driven to produce happens to be what’s popular? Because I know this guy, and he would live in a garret if that is what it took to follow his dream, his passion. In a parallel universe where musicals were as commercial as say, poetry is in ours, he would still be out there producing musicals. By extrapolation, I am not prepared to assume that everyone writing ST novels or other sharecropper work is necessarily whoring themselves. They may, you know, actually need to write ST novels.

    (4) And I speak from personal experience. The first time I seriously thought of writing a novel, it was a response to someone else’s universe. The authors had done such a fine job of world building, that I not only thoroughly enjoyed the series, but I had been intrigued by the economics of their world, and wanted to write the Marxist critique of it — the novel of the inevitable revolution as the contradictions between means of production and social relations came to a head. The series drifted off into obscurity before I had a chance to seriously contact the authors, but I’m telling you, tearing that world apart in a post marxist revolution would definitely have fit my artistic and sociological instincts, and I’d do it for no money if I could find away around obvious copyright issues. So maybe that makes me a fanboy fanfic writer, but um, not sure that automatically makes me a bad writer or a whore.

  12. Cliff Burns

    Robert, I guess we all have thresholds, tolerances, and mine are, admittedly, a good deal more severe and restrictive than most.

    Perhaps you’d have a tad more empathy if you had been on the extension when that cocksucker of an agent spoke so smugly, telling me “we’ll get you started on a franchise novel, get your name out there, get you more fans, more money…” That was essentially his pitch to me. Money and fans for me, money (just money) for him. Fuck him, fuck his mother.

    “Giving back” to a universe by share-cropping it? That seems a bit weird to me, pal. Sorry, I don’t buy it. Fan fic is all right, in its place but it ain’t literature, it ain’t composed out of passion and reverence for the printed word. “Need” to write Star Trek novels? Perhaps these folks need to get working in the real world, accumulate experience, characters that will help them write authentic, well-considered stories. Just a thought. And maybe, just maybe, they need to be reading better authors, like Beckett, Borges and scribes of that ilk.

    And I’ve heard this stuff about Star Wars and Trek novels being “gateway” offerings, leading fans to better, more literate efforts. I say you read franchise novels when you’re fifteen or sixteen years old. You read them beyond that age, you’re an emotional and aesthetic retard. Personally, I have no more respect for Timothy Zahn than I do Alan Dean Foster, David Gerrold, L.E. Modesitt or Kevin J. Anderson. More hacks in that roster than in a tuberculosis ward. Scribblers with vast volumes of work, filling up pages of bibliography. How long does it take them to pound out one of their efforts? How much care do they devote to crafting expert, lyrical sentences?

    That’s what it comes down to, Robert, excellence. Not humping that yellow line in the middle of the road. Raising the level of your writing to the highest possible level, pushing yourself to the limits of endurance and sanity to compose prose that will stand the test of time, the closest critical scrutiny. My stance on this is firm and unshakeable. The problem with writing these days is that the hacks—professional and non-professional—are flooding the marketplace with the most appalling shite and it is getting difficult, well-nigh impossible, to sift through the turds for a faint glimmer of a pearl.

    I have no intention of adding to the offal—not for any amount of money or by compromising my small talent to fit the whims of shit for brains editors and greedy, sub-literate agents. I don’t care about money or meeting the incredibly low expectations of casual, part-time readers. The folks who read Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer novels are unlikely to be interested in the likes of me. And that goes both ways.

    You’ve woken up my brain this morning—I’m reading this bright and early, neurotransmitters going off like Times Square fireworks. I’ll get you for this, Robert, I truly will…

  13. Pingback: My views on things that matter « Jess C Scott :: Author, Non-conformist, Artist
  14. Cliff Burns

    Hey, Keith, thanks for the note.

    Anything intended for public consumption should be thoroughly vetted to ensure its professional quality–keep journal entries, poems about your beloved cat, etc. to yourself unless you can write like Kafka or create verse as sublime as T.S. Eliot. Amateur writers should NEVER publish their amateurish scribbles; I know it’s tempting to seek feedback and, God knows, we all need a little love and support every now and then, but if that’s what you seek as a writer/artist, start a writing club, share your work with them, discuss and dissect it but keep it away from the general readership. Writers, real writers, develop their craft in secret rooms, never showing their work to anyone until every “I” is dotted and “t” crossed.

    Great to hear from you and hope you and yours had a wonderful holiday season. Have a smashing 2012–and fuck the Mayans. If they were so smart, where the fuck are they now?

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