I suppose it’s understandable that young and developing writers mine personal experience for inspiration, borrow from real life for key characters, settings and episodes in their narratives.
But sooner or later, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to abandon this rather narcissistic approach and begin to invent, extrapolate, imagine, conflate, collage, transpose. Eschewing a slavish imitation to the “facts”, finding the courage and tenacity to follow a story no matter what strange paths and nooks it might choose.
For a good many authors, the idea of leaving their safe, tidy, self-appointed microverse and venturing Outside is too terrifying to ponder. Their protagonists thinly disguised versions of themselves, storylines and essential details paralleling their own life arc. To these literalists, their writing is a chance at redemption, to make sure their viewpoint is somehow vindicated and wins out in the end. Writing is not an act of imagination, it is a form of exoneration. But is such a mindset healthy—for them or for literature? I would offer a firm “No”, on both counts.
I confess that on occasion I’ve written “autobiographical” stories, tales that include some detail or nugget from life, a small touch that adds to the overall atmosphere, a dab of authenticity. Other offerings contain what I would call “emotional truths”, characters reliving some trauma drawn from my convoluted psychological history. Primal terror, feelings of self-loathing and disgust; manic spasms of joy, rapid disillusionment.
I think of older short stories like “Invisible Boy” or “Carl” (from Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination). Raw and edgy. Spare and relentless and credible…and all the more powerful and frightening for that reason.
More recently, my novella “Second Sight” (from Exceptions and Deceptions) features a married couple that bear a strong resemblance to Sherron and I. If you want a semi-accurate portrait of what daily life around Casa Burns is like, check out “Second Sight”. Not a word of it is true, of course, but the couple at the heart of the tale have a depth and subtlety that take the offering to another level.
The unnamed narrator of my last novel, Disloyal Son, is a Canadian writer and some of his genealogy is borrowed from my family history, but Mr. X, candidly, is a lot nicer than me, much more passive and considerate. Yin to my Yang.
It could even be fairly said that I share some traits with my all-time favourite character, Evgeny Nightstalk (So Dark the Night). I certainly manifest Nightstalk’s ferocious loyalty and hair-trigger temper. His twisted moral code is like an externalization of my id.
But while there are definitely similarities, I would argue that none of these characters is really me—they’re all composites, Frankenstein monsters, a jumble of body parts. I made them up. In my humble opinion, working exclusively from real life is boring, not to mention lazy.
The art is in creating individuals and scenarios from dust and mud, shaping them with your own hands, breathing life into them with each word, each sentence.
On those rare occasions when I recognize that I’ve come up with something undeniably original and unique, there’s a thrill of joy and accomplishment that quickens my very soul. It’s the ultimate high. Nothing else I’ve experienced in my creative/artistic life compares to that peak moment.
So put away your diaries and journals, smash every mirror in the vicinity.
Time to write stories that defy expectations and conventions, yarns that even the author cannot control or confine.
Surprise us, amaze us, take us somewhere we haven’t been before.
Make us laugh and cry.
Anger us, if you have the nerve.
Show us a face other than your own.
I get quite a number of notes from individuals requesting my advice on matters relating to publishing, indie or otherwise.
Recently, two or three people queried me about how to better “monetize” their writing.
Folks, anyone who has spent even a brief period on this site or has read a mere handful of my Tweets would know that I hold such attitudes in absolute contempt.
Trying to break into writing to make money, seeking fame, fortune and bestseller-dumb? Sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place.
If you’re a purveyor of fan fiction, you should have your hands burned off with an acetylene torch. You are the shit real writers scrape off the bottom of their shoes.
If you concoct shapeshifter/paranormal romance you are a literary pornographer. You exhibit Grade Six-level writing and, it’s clear, retain an absolute horror of penetrative intercourse. As Bill Hicks would say: case fucking closed.
If you “lease” your talent to some franchise, averring that your penny dreadful writing subsidizes your “good” stuff, you’re only fooling yourself…and the gods of Literature can be very, very cruel. Regardless of how you rationalize it, you are whoring your Muse, peddling her ass for a fistful of loot. Your self-righteousness, the ferocity of your denials, only reveals the depth of your insecurity, your secret shame. You disgust me.
A twenty-something twat knows fuck all about life and has no right to claim an authoritative view on anything. You are also far too young and insignificant for a memoir. No one gives a shit about the suffering and pain (largely self-inflicted) you’ve endured during your brief existence. Your life is not unique or particularly interesting. You are part of a growing demographic: an egotistic, narcissistic non-entity with delusions of self-importance. There’s a lot of that going around nowadays and no vaccine in sight. Pity…
Demanding correct spelling and competent syntax is not “old school” thinking.
Unless you approach your craft with devotion and seriousness, work tirelessly and daily at improving yourself, you are a dabbler. A wannabe. Your efforts the equivalent of macaroni art: the gold paint may be slightly more gaudy, the noodles more generous, but it amounts to the same, unsightly mess stuck to the front of your fridge.
This blog is dedicated to a higher purpose, a celebration of the power and majesty of the printed word.
There are plenty of sites for people who compose in crayon, scribble on walls or any available surface and congratulate themselves for their artistry.
If that last sentence describes where you’re at, I think you’ve overstayed your welcome.
There’s the door.
Don’t let it hit you on the ass on the way out.
Down to the grind now, my novel really tightening up and starting to take on a polished appearance.
Just about finished my “Sherron Draft”.
I started this book last August (2013) and, except for a few breaks to work on small side projects or conduct research, I’ve been pounding away on the manuscript ever since, grappling with it, trying to find the shape within the stone (if you know what I mean). When discussing the book with my wife, I’ve spoken only in generalities and other than a broad outline, she really isn’t privy to plot details or my approach to the material. But in 2-3 weeks I’ll print what I have, a complete third draft, 225 pages, and hand it over for her perusal.
Sherron’s a smart, discerning editor and she knows my aesthetic—she’ll spot any lapse, identify shortcomings, ruthlessly point out awkward passages. She’s well read and has a sharp, critical mind. She won’t soft-pedal or candy-coat her remarks. We both want the same thing: to make this the best possible book and, in that sense, there’s no room for wishy-washy critiques.
No one likes criticism, we all like to feel that every word we commit to paper is the very essence of perfection. Sadly, that isn’t the case.
If you want to know the biggest difference between me and 99.999% of the “self-publishers” and indies out there, it’s the time and effort I lavish on my novels, short stories, poems and essays.
You think those assholes who excrete paranormal romance and shapeshifter erotica will spend over a year going through their work line by line, meticulously editing literally every syllable? And, I want to emphasize, I’m a full-time author, I do this every single day of the year, from eight in the morning until eight at night. Yup, weekends and holidays too. Each paragraph, each individual comma is carefully, endlessly, tirelessly scrutinized and weighed and measured.
And I’m not close to being done yet.
After Sherron’s had a chance to read and comment on the manuscript, there will be yet another complete draft and more editing until the book finally meets my exacting standards. Tentative release date in April, 2015, so I’ve got, by my estimation, five more months of work ahead of me.
And you wonder why writers drink like fish and use every substance known to Nature to soothe their jangled nerves and quiet their raging minds?
I’m a fortunate man to have someone in my life who is able to contribute in such a practical, selfless manner to my obsession and is as serious as I am about my writing and my desire to achieve the status of elite literary author. A world class talent.
We’re a team dedicated to excellence and we will countenance no slapdash writing or unoriginal thinking.
We’re creating literature for the ages.
Nothing else will suffice.
I’ve put together a short roster of the best of the best of these queries and my responses (though, in some cases I’ve pared the original question down and added more detail to my replies).
Here are the top ten:
What’s the difference between calling yourself a “self-publisher” and an “independent author”?
In a word, talent. Oh, and professional credentials. Oh, and the seriousness with which you approach your craft.
Before I started my own imprint back in 1990, I’d already received a Canada Council grant and published a good number of tales in various venues around the world. I toiled every day on my writing and though the money was almost nonexistent, I didn’t care, it was all about becoming the best writer I could possibly be. I was focused, obsessed with my work. I created Black Dog Press because I detected a dearth of vision and intelligence among the editors I was dealing with and since I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t take rejection lying down, I decided to empower myself, rather than accept the verdict of dingbats.
Most self-publishers, however, are hobbyists, part-timers, dolts with little knowledge of what entails good writing, they merely want to see their name on a book, regardless if it’s any good. They don’t labor over their work, endlessly polishing and editing, growing and developing as artists. Such notions are beneath them. Some have the decency to confine themselves to giving copies of their amateurish efforts to friends and family and I have no bone to pick with them. It’s the morons who’ve written a memoir about their so-called interesting life or a spin-off novel lifted from some popular franchise and are deluded enough to believe they are “real” writers that raise my ire.
Why are you such an asshole?
Yes, I’ve received a number of communications along these lines, usually from the aforementioned amateurs and wannabes. They demand that I take their vampire porn or zombie splatter or “poor me” memoirs seriously and resent the notion of applying professional standards (y’know, like spelling, syntax, grammar) to their abominable tripe.
To them, there’s no difference between great writing and garbage, since such standards are arbitrary and unfair (usually they have trouble with big words like “arbitrary”, but I digress). As I’ve written previously, I have nothing against aspiring writers, beginners, folks who genuinely care about the printed word and want to create the best work they can. It’s the ones who foolishly believe their 10-book vampire series (released as super cheap/free e-books to inflate their “sales”) is imbued with true genius that I take exception to…and vilify accordingly. They read shit, they watch shit, they write shit. I dismiss (and diss) them out of hand. They are part-time turd-peddlers and pretenders and they deserve nothing but contempt. And I give it to them…in spades.
How much money do you make?
Seriously? Dude, you think I’m gonna open my bank records to you? Let’s just say that if you got into writing (or any art) for the money, you’re a fucking prostitute, and I mean the kind of gutter trash that solicits around public toilets and drops to their knees at the slightest indication of praise or approval.
I doubt I’ll ever become rich from my writing but a number of my favorite writers lived and died in poverty and anonymity, yet their body of work out-lives them and most of their popular contemporaries. I’m in this for the long haul and will trust posterity to determine my stature as an artist. I’ve stated on numerous occasions that I’d rather have a million readers than a million dollars and anyone who knows me is well aware that I’m not joking or resorting to hyperbole. I’m an author’s author…and it’s unlikely that the fuckwits who read Fifty Shades of Grey will have much affinity for my work.
No regrets there.
You’ve been called an “elitist”–do you agree?
Yup. No question. I place high standards on my work, set the bar higher and higher with each new effort. I don’t confine myself to formula and refuse to cater to anyone’s expectations. Sales figures (see above) are irrelevant, the most important thing is releasing a work that is a celebration of the best in literature, a novel, poem or short story that pushes me to the limits of my abilities and sometimes beyond.
I write with intelligence and insight and I demand that from every film, book or artwork I see. I don’t waste my time on “popcorn movies”, mind candy or escapist entertainment. I feed my spirit and get inspired by innovative, original work.
Are you a horror writer? A fantasy or science fiction writer? How do you categorize yourself?
Well, I don’t. Not really. I utilize some of the devices and tropes from all three of the genres you mentioned but only to further the aims of my storylines. I suppose you could also call me a fabulist or surrealist…but I think any niches or slots are distinctly unhelpful when it comes to work as singular and unusual as mine.
I’m a literary writer, that’s the way I perceive myself. As for the rest…
I really think you’d like my writing. Can I send some of my stuff your way to critique?
No. Absolutely not. It’s not my role to be your editor or ego booster. Real writers write and that’s that. A thousand rejections and the opinions of others should have absolutely no effect on you if you’re truly devoted to the calling. Nabokov talked about “writing in defiance of all the world’s muteness” and that’s advice you should take to heart. Write and write and write. If you need feedback, there are plenty of opportunities for that through local writing groups and guilds and God knows how many on-line venues where up and coming writers gather to talk turkey and swap story samples. But leave the pros alone. We have our own schedules, deadlines and pressing projects. Don’t annoy us with your self-centered, egotistical lobbying.
You seem to genuinely hate traditional publishing and your harsh language must have drawn their attention. Don’t you worry about ruining your chances of becoming a truly famous writer?
Yes, I’ve heard through the grapevine that some of my remarks have made poobahs in publishing extremely cranky with me. How dare I question their intelligence, their professionalism, their psychopathology and their integrity? But, see, I’ve dealt with these bird-brains (editors, agents, publishers) for over twenty years and as I wrote in a recent post on RedRoom, I despise the vast majority of them. I hope I run into a few of the biggest arseholes before my arthritic hands wreck my chances of punching their fucking lights out. A substantial proportion of the people who decide what books get published are too stupid to be trusted with sharp objects and should be, if there was any justice in the world, employed as assistant managers of a fast food restaurant, a job more befitting their low intelligence quotient and lousy inter-personal skills.
As for being famous…it just isn’t a priority. Obviously.
I want to become an independent author too–how do I get started?
First of all, I wish you’d take a long, hard look at your work and decide, as objectively as possible, if you have anything to contribute to literature. Is your writing really that unique and unprecedented? Is it even literate? Have you spent years learning the craft of editing, ruthlessly paring and polishing your poetry/prose until it shines? There are quite enough bad, self-published books out there, why contribute to the dung pile?
But, really, if you’re determined, there are sites you can go to for advice (a couple are on my blog roll). A good ol’ Google search under “independent writing and publishing” will probably take you somewhere helpful. It’s a long, arduous process and the learning curve can be steep. And once your book is published, then you’re faced with marketing and distribution—and good luck getting your self-published offering into most book stores. I still find it a chore and I’ve been at it a long time.
Why are you so jealous of writers more successful than you (i.e. Amanda Hocking, Stephenie Meyer, E.L. James)?
Jealous of…? Er, no, I’m not jealous of rich writers or sub-literate authors who manage to score a book deal. Literary whores with the skill set of a Grade Eight diarist and the aesthetics of a village idiot. Personally, I’m envious of scribes whose talent leaves me gasping like a fish washed up on some sandy shore. I’m referring to giants like Thomas Pynchon, James Crumley, Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard—artists of the highest caliber, whose books will stand the test of time. I labor in the shadow of greatness. Daunting? You betcha. But it’s a challenge I accept every time I enter my home office, sit at my desk and commence another day of work. I crave to be an author of stature. And that has nothing to do with the size of my bank account.
I sense you’re a lonely, bitter, isolated man. Is that an accurate representation?
I’m still chuckling over this one. I don’t think the correspondent in question was trying to be offensive or “trolling”, merely curious and so my response was quite tolerant (for me).
I’ve been a loner all my life and require little in the way of companionship. I belong to no professional writing organizations, nor do I seek out other authors to befriend or chat up. I’ve been happily married for over 20 years and have two teenage sons. Between my work and my family, there’s little time left over for leisure or company. It’s just never been a priority to me. I have a small, intimate circle of friends who are fiercely loyal and who have been around me long enough to inspire my affection and trust. They understand my hectic schedule and introspective lifestyle and place no demands on me. But they also know I’m the kind of guy who’d walk through a wall of fire for a loved one and would defend a pal to my dying breath. It’s the Scotch/Irish in me, I suppose. The rage, the violence…and the passion I bring to every aspect of my life. Those who know and love me respect that and tolerate the long silences that are part and parcel of my calling.
As for everyone else…who cares what they think or believe? They don’t know me and I don’t spare a moment for their views and opinions.
* * * * *
Thanks for the questions and feedback. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Always pleased to hear from you…
It’s Thanksgiving for our American cousins—it strikes me that late November is a weird time to be giving thanks, especially if you happen to live above the Mason-Dixon Line and your kids have already built a congregation of snowmen in your front yard.
And, frankly, I don’t need the excuse of a national holiday to carve up a turkey and then subsist for the next week on turkey leftovers, turkey sandwiches and, finally, turkey soup (sorry, I just drooled all over my keyboard). Turkey, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, with pumpkin pie for dessert. If I somehow manage to gain admission through the Pearly Gates I fully expect that to be the first meal St. Peter and his horde of super-efficient seraphim waiters place in front of me.
* * * * *
Yes, indeed, busy times here at Burns Central: Sherron seems to have been on the road since her first day back at work in September. Driving hither and yon throughout her massive, far-flung school division, giving workshops and presentations. She’s seen more of this area of the province than this homebody ever will.
Both my sons are deeply involved in their individual obsessions, namely, submission wrestling and film-making. Sam and his creative partner Sean hope to have a short movie ready to enter in the “Youth” component of the Yorkton Film Festival and are collaborating on a script. I accompanied Liam to his twice-a-week wrestling session last night and my 48 year old body recoiled and quaked when I saw how those young lads (and one lass) were bending and twisting each other, their bodies impossibly elastic. I was one of those seriously inept, uncoordinated kids who couldn’t even stand on his head so watching my athletic oldest son going through the paces with grace and strength fills me with immeasurable pleasure…and pride.
Meanwhile, I continue to labor away on my western novel, The Last Hunt. Two consecutive weeks of 12 hour days, grinding and polishing, adding in some of the research material I gathered during my Montana sojourn this summer. Still insisting that I will release the novel in late March (2012), come hell or high water. But it ain’t been easy and my body is feeling the effects of the strain.
You’d think after 25+ years I would have learned how to pace myself, manage my time and energy more effectively. Er, no. Instead, I completely immerse myself in a project for prolonged intervals, work myself into a state of exhaustion and then, literally when my body-mind-spirit can take no more, I pronounce the story/novel finished…and collapse. At that point, I usually come down with a nasty virus which lays me out for a week (complete with cold sores, intestinal problems…ah, fun).
How does that gibe with your methods?
And then I read a comment by self-publishing’s latest superstar, Amanda Hocking. Yes, she of a million Kindle sales. She states, without an ounce of self-consciousness, that she writes her juvenile vampire novels in about 2-4 weeks. That’s right, all you fuckheads who were stupid enough to download her awful tripe, a month (usually less) to write a novel. And some of you “writers” out there actually hold her up as an example of a successful author, someone you’d like to emulate. Message to you wannabe assholes: I spit in your face. You disgust me. May your fingers rot off your hands and your putrid brains liquify in your paper-thin skulls. Leprosy and ALS are too good for you. I loathe you and what you and your ilk are doing to literature. You are nothing more than ambulatory turds.
But I won’t cede the field to you, do you hear me? I refuse to allow your excremental scribbling to carry the day. To my last, dying breath I will be composing literate, intelligent, innovative fiction, even if only six people on the planet read it. I will follow the lead of the Masters, write in defiance of all the trends and market niches, write despite the Amanda Hockings of the world and the offal they disgorge. Hocking will be nonexistent in a very short time, her moment in the sun is almost up—let her have her money, it will keep her warm as she wallows on literature’s scrap heap, where all the non-talented hacks end up.
I’ll trust posterity and put my faith in the notion that as long as humankind exists, there will be discerning readers and that, eventually, my work will find the audience it deserves (even if I’m long gone).
I’d rather work for nothing than be stinkin’ rich and unable to look at myself in the mirror.
Which begs the question: what price do you put on your soul?
“B.C.” comic strip by Johnny Hart
This is a cartoon by Mike Twohy—my pal Robert Runte sent it (so blame him, wannabes).
Now, let me be clear—when I say that, I’m talking about a certain segment of people, who meet a very specific criteria. I’m not referring to “young writers”, “aspiring writers” or “beginning writers”; those are entirely different categories (to my mind). Aspiring authors are humble and don’t take on airs. They possess few, if any, professional credentials; they might have a couple of poems or short stories published or filled dozens of notebooks with their secret writings over the years, but they certainly make no claim to any kind of status.
The wannabe is far less circumspect. These folks make all sorts of exalted statements and assign themselves great prominence in the literary community. They’re very quick to proffer advice, usually in the form of smug, self-assured pronouncements that speak of enormous (alas, unrecognized) talent and a vast breadth of wisdom and worldly experience (ersatz). That they have virtually no standing among accomplished, professional, full-time writers is entirely beside the point. Why, they’ve written dozens of books (no one has read) and have been putting words on paper all their lives (no one has noticed). They offer their services as experienced editors and are quick to thrust their work on you, in order to prove they should be taken seriously. God help anyone who questions their undisputed brilliance.
The on-line universe has been a bonanza for wannabes. If they have written anything—some of them, like the proverbial hundred monkeys at keyboards, are amazingly industrious, despite their utter lack of talent—they can post every word of it on their blog and to hell with the editors who never responded to their submissions or the people in that stupid writing group who said their suite of poems about losing their virginity was “childish and cliched”, “needs a lot of work” or just “ARE YOU KIDDING?!!!”.
Sometimes I’ll skim through some of the literary sites in the blogosphere and far more often than not I’m appalled by the really sub-literate tripe that people post on a public forum. Puerile verse and poorly rendered soft porn/romance and slightly fictionalized episodes from real life. Juvenilia. Artlessly composed and stupefyingly dull. Painful and embarrassing stuff, the sort of thing you might find in the locked diary of an emotionally disturbed adolescent. Some are clearly cries for help: look at me…aren’t I special…I feel things more deeply than most people…love me…I’m lonely…no one understands me…I need affirmation…
There might be a few sympathetic comments left by either kind-hearted readers…or fellow wannabes offering cautious praise before inviting them over to their site (presumably to see what real writing is all about).
I have heard it said that the explosion of on-line writing has led to an explosion of bad writing and I have to admit that this is demonstrably true. The vast majority of what people post on the web is dreadful, godawful stuff, unfit for human consumption. The lousy rep e-books have is well-deserved (most of the time).
One of my roles as an indie writer who publishes exclusively on the net is to work hard to demonstrate that cyberspace is not solely the domain of amateur hacks and weekend scribblers. There are some truly gifted writers out there, producing original and ground-breaking work. Some, like myself, have chosen to put their writing on-line because of the desperate state traditional publishing is in these days. These are experienced authors with real world credentials and undeniable literary chops. By maintaining the highest standards, tirelessly subjecting our work to the most intense scrutiny, editing ruthlessly, eschewing conventions and formula, we wish to reward intelligent, discerning readers who are tired of the status quo and are exploring other venues, seeking alternative visions and fresh perspectives.
But it can be disheartening for readers, sifting through the thousands upon thousands of blogs and literary sites, trying to find something of value. And that’s why a credible on-line critical community is required. With the newspapers cutting or drastically paring down their book sections, I’m hoping more good critics will start web sites and help single out particular writers who shine amidst the dross…and dismiss those who don’t make the grade.
And it would be most helpful if amateur writers used the new technologies to better develop their skills before they foist their cringe-worthy efforts on the rest of us. I’m talking about searching out like-minded souls, joining on-line writing groups and vetting their work with a diverse assortment of fellow writers (from around the world), getting feedback. Sharing their work privately, rather than punishing the general public, exposing not their beautiful, unblemished souls (as they hope) but their ineptitude. If you truly wish to be seen as someone with designs on being a serious writer, worthy of respect, give some thought to what you’re making public—believe me, you’re doing no one any favors if it’s garbage. You’re hurting yourself…and you’re making it more difficult for your talented, hard-working colleagues to reach potential readers.
Naturally, these words of caution will not sit well with wannabes. They’ll sniff that I’m being “elitist” and that the internet belongs to everyone. Unfortunately, the democratization of the web means that an entrenched cult of amateurism has developed and these people guard their domains like pitbulls. They brandish their imaginary credentials and howl in outrage should anyone refuse to defer to their alleged expertise. Why, their writing has been read by thousands of people (who knows how many?) and they’ve published everything from young adult novels to a ten part vampire series, not to mention their “erotic” fiction and two volumes of poetry about a beloved Pekinese that recently went to doggie heaven (all of it available in e-book format, listed on a site with a thousand other books no one in their right senses would attempt to read).
I plead with new and aspiring and upcoming writers to avoid such a ridiculous mindset: recognize your limitations, don’t publish precipitously, before your work is ready for public perusal and consumption. Have respect for the legacy of fine writers and great literature that preceded you; after all, you initially dreamed of becoming a writer because of the joy and succor and inspiration the printed word gives you. Your favorite authors wrote hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words before they had mastered their craft to the extent that they were, at last, worthy of publication.
Why, in God’s name, should it be any different for you?