An old post of mine is causing a stir, some folks calling me out for my on-the-record dissing of wannabes and pretend writers.
I guess it’s November, the silly season as far as creative writing goes, everyone and his parakeet sitting with fingers poised over their keyboards, knowing they’ve only got one month (30 days!) to get started on the literary masterpiece they’ve been nurturing many a long year. Their one shot a fame and fortune, the right to thrust out their chest and proudly proclaim: “I…am…an…author.”
NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month. Your chance to discover what the life of a real writer is like, a limited time offer whereby you can get an idea of the hardships and tribulations your literary heroes face without, y’know, having to work too hard at it. And better yet, it’s free…
As my pal Mike Cane has rightly pointed out, playing at being a writer for 30 days is bad enough but then some of these idjits actually seek to publish their wretched scribbling. Excrete a malodorous e-book or, at the very least, dump long excerpts of it on their blogs or places like Scribd and Smashwords. Their deftless whack at a romance novel or derivative vampire potboiler or, yes, yet another zombie apocalypse.
Look, kids, you wanna write, write. Seriously. Have at it. Sit down and write your story/novella/book but then work on it, edit and grind away at it tirelessly, revise it with utter ruthlessness. For months and months. When you’re sick and tired of it, show it to someone whose opinion you trust, swallow deep, accept any criticisms they offer and then…back to work again.
DON’T post excerpts of your masterpiece in progress. You might be tempted but please spare the rest of us your early drafts. Save ’em for the archives.
DON’T rush it out as an e-book just because the process is quick, cheap and easy. Invest the time, make your manuscript as flawless as a perfectly cut diamond. Polish it until it sparkles.
DON’T take on airs of a professional, published author. Laurels must be earned.
DO join forums where you can share unpublished work with other writers, get more feedback from peers.
DO read and I mean seek out the best authors, not hacks and their semi-literate drivel.
DO remember you’re part of a literary legacy extending back centuries. You’re seeking to join a fellowship of authors who suffered pain, obscurity, poverty, despair, personal trauma, yet never once abdicated their responsibilities as artists and visionaries. They refused to compromise or release sub-standard/unfinished work. Anything they put their name on had their stamp of approval…and still retains its original relevance and power despite the passage of years.
The singer is gone, the song lives on.
* * * * * *
I’ll admit that I’ve been a fierce opponent of NaNoWriMo right from the moment I learned of its existence. I approach the subject from the point of view of a professional writer with over 25 years in the harness. Writing is a daily activity to me—I’ve made a lot of sacrifices, paid a big price (physically, mentally, spiritually) for my vocation/obsession. I take the craft of writing very, very seriously.
And I retain all the respect in the world for colleagues, young and old, who pursue their literary calling with diligence and consistency, not just 30 days of the year but every day, year after year. I don’t care how many books you’ve sold, where you live or what your field happens to be. If you’re committed to the regular practice of writing, expend enormous time and energy (whatever you can spare) improving in your craft, showing unstinting reverence for the printed word, you are deserving of the honorific “author” and I’m delighted to make your acquaintance.
Now, let’s go out and stomp some wannabes…
What can I tell you? This one’s a stunner. I love it to pieces. A marriage of two great loves, history and sky fy.
10,000 words and guaranteed to be one of the best SF tales you read this year. How do I know that? Well, if you’re like me, you read damn few SF stories so, honestly, I don’t think the competition is all that fierce.
Here’s the pitch:
“Eyes in the Sky” features an intriguing “What if…” scenario, a captivating vision of a possible past:
What if the atom bomb hadn’t worked and the Space Age was a bust?
What if Cold War adversaries employed less traditional tactics in their efforts to keep tabs on their intractable enemies?
What if history’s dark, turbulent course had veered off in a different direction?
“Eyes in the Sky” is accompanied by original cover art by John Enright. John is a talented artist I found through the “Epilogue” site but the link I’ve provided will take you directly to his gallery.
The excerpt (about fifteen pages), will give you an excellent preview of the novelette and if you’d like to read more, it will shortly be posted, in its entirety, on Amazon (along with an Afterword I’ve written on the story’s origins and influences). I’ll add a link as soon as it’s available. Or, if you’re willing to wait awhile, “Eyes in the Sky” will be included in my upcoming short story collection, Exceptions & Deceptions (due out December, 2012).
I’m hoping the folks at Amazon will allow me to list the novelette at 99 cents—a bargain price for a terrific read. Cheaper than a lot of dumb, useless apps.
Meanwhile, click on the link below for the excerpt.
Hope you enjoy this sample from “Eyes in the Sky”.
Received word from Greg Freed, an administrator of the Galaxy Project science fiction writing competition, that my tale “Eyes in the Sky” garnered an honorable mention in this year’s contest.
Placing in the top five with over 100 entries ain’t half bad…but what made my day was when I received an e-mail containing words of encouragement from none other than Barry Malzberg. As I wrote to Greg Freed, having folks like Monsieur Malzberg and Robert Silverberg judging the contest was one of the reasons I decided to submit my tale in the first place. The notion that one of those luminaries might read my work…well, that made it irresistible to me. Those few short sentences from Barry Malzberg meant a lot to this scribbler—a classy act by a classy guy.
Congratulations to co-winners Susan Forest (Canuck gal!) and Robert Walton, as well as my two fellow honorables, D.K. Paterson and John Hemry.
Kudos to Greg Freed and the folks at Rosetta Books for sponsoring the competition and doing such a good job organizing the entire venture, making sure winners were notified promptly, etc. All in all, a pleasant experience though unlikely to get me back on the ol’ submission treadmill again. These were special circumstances and now that the results are in, I’ll be sending “Eyes in the Sky” off to the Amazon Kindle people.
I’m interested in the “Singles” program Amazon offers, short works for budget prices. I’ll charge a buck or two so folks can download “Eyes in the Sky” and hope that readers—sci fi fans or otherwise—will be drawn by the same elements and strengths that attracted the attention of Messrs. Malzberg, Silverberg and Drake.
“Eyes in the Sky” features a classic what if... scenario, an alternative history where the Space Age never happened, the nuclear bomb was a dud and the Russians and Americans are locked in a very different kind of Cold War. Ten thousand words and every damn one of them counts.
Sound intriguing? Keep popping back here for further developments.
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.
Couldn’t get into serious writing yesterday–still catching up on research on my western novel, The Last Hunt, and I’m not yet at the point where I can begin to tackle necessary revisions.
My science fiction story needs one final polish/run through before I send it off. I’ll likely get that done today.
Decided to create a little something with Garageband. The first effort wasn’t very good but the second tune had promise (as soundtrack music for the creepiest film ever made maybe) and then came the third number…
Well. I didn’t really set out to create a spoken word bit, but that’s how it came out. I was poking around my notebook and came across a series of phrases that, if you put them together, would almost make a kind of narrative…
I plugged in the microphone and gave it a shot. The very first vocal track was perfect and then I started building and shaping music around it.
The end result is “The Midnight Detective”, a 2 1/2 minute effort that plays around with noirish conceits and comes together for a rather tasty finale.
This piece should work on whatever audio player your computer employs (if it’s fairly new) and, of course, you’re free to download it and share it with pals and like-minded folks who might get a charge out of my whacked out, postmodern detective.
You’ll find more of my musical noodling and spoken word efforts on my Audio page.
Click here to listen to Midnight Detective
* This post is dedicated to Caroline Ames–Happy Birthday, kid.
This morning I was sitting at my desk and happened to glance out the window, at the ungainly maple tree in our backyard that is always in need of trimming back.
Last night we had a substantial amount of rain. The air rich with a variety of living scents, pouring into my home office, filling the room. All at once, I started scribbling…
dripping morning light
brushed by the wind
its relentless entreaties
A number of longtime readers have written to me, noting the recent updates and retooling on this blog.
It was time for a change. It always bothered me that I’d chosen a lunar motif as a background—it brought to mind Buzz Aldrin’s famous depiction of the moon as “magnificent desolation”. While that phrase may have been in the back of my mind, a subconscious influence when choosing a title for this blog, the allusion was not a deliberate one, I assure you.
I recall quite clearly when the name came to me. March, 2007. Sherron and I were standing in a school library and she was trying to interest me (for the umpteenth time) in giving the on-line universe another shot. She told me the technology had changed since I made the first, tentative foray into cyberspace—she showed me the WordPress site, a sample template…
I finally gave in. Why not? I was a fool to ignore the march of progress; miles behind the technological curve, trying desperately to play catch up (still am). But I knew one thing: wherever readers went, it behooved me to follow.
“What are you going to call your blog?”
Ah, now, that was a poser. Obviously the purpose of the site was to highlight my writing, but just calling it “Cliff Burns’ Blog” or what have you sounded rather self-centered and pompous to me. “Hmmmm…” Wracking my brain.
“You can always change it later.”
I think I might have been channeling Bob Dylan. “Beautiful desolation,” I blurted.
Sherron said it a few times, pronounced it acceptable.
And that’s what it’s been ever since.
Sorry, Buzz, but no homage intended.
Before I go, a tip of the hat to photographer Alain Derksen for allowing me the use of his eye-grabbing picture. I found a number of images relating to Mario Irrarrazabal’s amazing sculpture but Alain’s was the one that, to me, perfectly captured the piece’s remote, austere beauty. Sadly, the sculpture has been defaced by graffiti and messages left by stupid tourists with no respect for a cultural artifact.
There’s a special ring of hell waiting for them. Gibbering demons poised with blunt tattoo needles, hydrochloric acid instead of ink…
Ah, well, as previously reported, my muse can be pretty fickle and strange.
And just to prove that’s the case, I’ve added another recent ambient effort, one I’m very taken with, titled “String Theory”. Bizarro space music and incomprehensible poetry…good grief. Well, maybe now that Spring has returned to these parts I’ll feel compelled to get back to my real work, a project I shall elaborate on soon, very soon.
Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy today’s little treats:
you could see the wires
stars hung off-kilter
Earth just a rubber ball
a funny shadow where
someone lurked, just out of frame
* * * * *
Those Of Us
who dream in slow motion
and have leaky prostates
and try so fucking hard
and who succeed, often in spite of themselves
and have no mother or father
and who must combat fear and depression
and who find ourselves inexplicably loved
and who are thankful for each blessed moment
and who know someday it must end
* * * * *
You could hear birdsong
incongruous, but it was there
from the safety of the trees
* * * * *
I am tired of my role as resident cynic
the last angry man
critic of all he surveys
offering contempt in lieu of solutions
shouldering my burden of shame
well-versed on the subject of sin
while passionately opposing any notion of free will
* * * * *
And, finally, a few more minutes of music, a soundscape courtesy yours truly. Here’s a thought: play this while you’re reading the poetry—and let me know how the experiment goes.
Just click here: String Theory
Some of you have been around since the beginning (God bless you), while others have been late arrivals (we left you a few beers in the fridge, but be sure to leave the last one for your host). In those four years, this site has been visited by tens of thousands of folks, over a thousand of whom have seen fit to leave comments, the vast majority of which have been smart, sharp and thought-provoking.
Thank you, one and all.
About a year ago, I added a feature to Beautiful Desolation, namely a “ClustrMap”, which shows where on the planet my visitors call home—every single time I look at that darn thing, found on the lower right side of my menu, I have to smile. Man, isn’t technology something? It allows people from every part of the world to reach out to one another, make contact with another human being, regardless of political, cultural and geographic divisions. People drop in from as far away as the United Arab Emirates, even the supposedly walled off Islamic Republic of Iran. I can’t tell you how much that moves and thrills me. God knows what they think of this place once they find it but the important thing is they can find it and, perhaps, discover a community of folks with whom they have more in common then they ever imagined.
Freaks of the world, unite!
I am honored to be one of those freaks, a mutant, a rebel and non-conformist, an indie, an artist, a—a—an errant penguin.
I’d better explain that last part.
Awhile back, I watched Werner Herzog’s documentary “Encounters at the End of the World”. It’s filmed in Antarctica, a hostile and brutal region of the world which, understandably, offers up a range of features and fauna found no where else on the planet. It also tends to draw people who are quite unusual and Herzog introduces us to a number of them, including some who would definitely fall into the category of “freaks”.
But what I found most fascinating about the film is when Herzog explains the phenomenon of the “rogue penguin”. Every so often, a penguin leaves the regular nesting area and heads off into the interior of the continent. There’s no water, no food and eventually the penguin will just run out of gas, lie down and expire. There aren’t any theories, nothing that explains the bizarre behavior of these creatures and here’s the strange part:
Initially, when humans came upon one of these rogue penguins waddling along inland, miles from where it should be, they would scoop the critter up and take them back to the other penguins, congratulating themselves for a job well done.
Only one problem: the penguin would immediately turn around and start right back, retracing its tiny footsteps and damn the torpedoes. People in Antarctica are now instructed to leave the determined creatures alone, let them go, even knowing it’s to their certain death. Defying nature, defying logic, stubbornly persisting in behavior that is, apparently, purposeless and self-destructive.
I relate to those crazy little fuckers. I empathize with whatever quirk in their mindset that draws them away from the herd mentality and compels them to strike out on their own, regardless of the consequences.
Frankly, I think it’s a perfect, though admittedly weird, metaphor for my writing career. While it might be more safe and comfortable to behave like everyone else, compose work indistinguishable from a host of other authors, there’s some kind of kink in my personality or brain chemistry that simply won’t countenance it. I won’t be controlled or managed or “handled”. I refuse to create material that tries to conform to the marketplace or caters to fashion. I do not submit to the judgments of editors and agents and couldn’t care less if my books become bestsellers or earn so much as a dime. I won’t prostitute my talent by writing “franchise” novels, based on someone else’s conception. You do that, fellow scribbler, and, to quote the great Bill Hicks, you’re off the artistic roll call. Forever. End of story. You’re another fuckin’ corporate shill. Everything you say is suspect, everything that comes out of your mouth is like a turd falling into my drink.
So sayeth Saint Bill.
I am an errant penguin, tottering off to my doom. I am that freak who for, whatever the reason, can’t help veering off the beaten track, saying unpopular things, creating work that no one has seen before. Don’t bother trying to reform or cure me, there’s no hope of that happening. Just let me continue on an odd, meandering path that will, eventually, peter out, my body surrendering to the elements, dropping in my tracks, eyes still on a far horizon I know I’ll never reach.
* * * * * *
Lots more ahead in the months to come. Soon I’ll be making an announcement re: my next book projects and I think you’ll be surprised—hope it’s a pleasant surprise but, regardless, let’s just say this errant penguin won’t be dissuaded from his course. You can follow me or not; that’s up to you.
Thanks for coming by and keep those comments and suggestions coming. It’s a pleasure conversing with folks of your intelligence and perceptiveness. All I’ve ever wanted is an insightful, literate readership. And, boy, you folks definitely fit the bill.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I’ll close off this special anniversary post with a few of the poems I read at last night’s “Open Mike” at our local library.
It feels like the end of something
a dead zone spreading outward
from some remote Pacific atoll
I remember when the weather was normal
and the bees weren’t dying
and you could see the stars
Since when did the natural become un-natural
the grass eating holes in our shoes?
And who will feed all the hungry mouths,
if you take sick and wither away?
Remember, thou art mortal
as doomed as a spring flower.
Shine brightly in your scant time
a dazzle of colors until you are plucked.
in miniature rooms
furniture built to scale
stiff, painted figures
coiffed hair, handmade clothes
placed with faces averted
subdued for the sake of the kids
a scandal in smallville
plastic lawyers on their way
The 20th century is a skull
gleaming in a dry creekbed.
Emaciated goats graze nearby
while, high overhead,
the sun sets fire to the sky.
No sound but the wind,
the awful inescapable wind.
“Darkness, take my hand”
Here come the shadows
here they come
watch them come
here they come
here they come
© Copyright, 2011 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
My, my, how time flies.
It seems like only yesterday we were having the book launch but I see that a significant amount of time has passed since then, the summer well in progress…and I’m overdue for an update.
You know how it is, when this blog goes silent, that means I’m working. So deeply immersed in a project, I’m thinking of nothing else. Including food, water and most of the other basic necessities of life.
I’ve been feeling in a rut, writing-wise, which sometimes inspires me to bend my brain in other directions. I know very little about visual art, theory or practice, but every so often I like to pick up a paintbrush, find an old slab of board and have at it. This time around, my medium of choice was collage. I keep files of visual images and dozens of issues of old magazines lying around just in case I get it into my head to try something like this. Collage is a cumulative process; I moved the images here and there, tried them against different backdrops…but the key for me came when I decided to incorporate small blocks of text, usually relating to economic theory (the most savage form of social Darwinism imaginable).
It struck me as I was going through the literally hundreds of images I’ve collected over the past X amount of years, that I am an astonishingly morbid person. I mean, Jesus, click on the image (above), you should get a larger sized version. Would you trust someone who saves pictures like this to babysit your kids or date your daughter?
This is some sick, sick shit.
But as I was piecing everything together, as it all started to fall into place, I realized that what I was creating was a depiction of humanity run amok, the awful, indescribable damage we, as a species, have inflicted with our ideologies, our stupidity and greed. Depressing, yes; sick-making? Undoubtedly. But is this vision inaccurate, flawed or misleading? Well, like any creative endeavor, it’s up to each individual to decide for themselves.
The end result of that little experiment pleased me to some extent but I didn’t feel like I was quite done with cutting things up. My eyes happened on a pile of books I’ve snagged from various thrift shops and library book sales over the years. I decided I wanted to create an homage to one of my literary heroes, William Burroughs. I’m sure you know all about the “cut-up method” that was developed by Burroughs and his mentor, Brion Gysin. Take any number of literary texts, carve them up, piece them together and marvel at the wonderful word collisions and strange juxtapositions that are created.
My project started out as a noble venture but, as with most activities that involve me creatively, my Muse took over and things quickly got out my control.
I used scissors to pare out sections of a 1960 thriller called Operation Terror! I then snipped out various portions of the other books I had lying around: an anthology of detective fiction that included Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, a forgotten novel by Ngaio Marsh, etc. etc. Found a heavy sheet of black cardboard, set up on our basement workbench and proceeded to play with the various passages I’d selected.
At one point I realized I was probably defeating the purpose of the whole intention of “cut ups”, that my method was too conscious and controlling but by then it was too late. I was caught up in creating an all new narrative, trying to come up with a satisfactory climax–
Once I’d arranged the text into a coherent storyline, I decided I wasn’t done: I would then write a story based on the outline I’d created using the borrowed snippets. A completely original work utilizing pre-existing text. And I’d frame it as a teleplay for a long-forgotten TV series…
I repeat: Good Lord.
But there’s no use trying to talk sense to my Muse: she simply won’t be reasoned with. Once she gets an idea into her head, I am powerless to resist her.
So at the conclusion of this article you’ll find a link to the PDF version of my weird, whacky “mashup”. It’s an homage to Mistah Burroughs in the form of a script from a 1950’s crime drama that never was. Go figger.
I make no apologies for this story and predict it might annoy a significant proportion of readers. But fans of Burroughs and Gysin might be more inclined to give grudging approval to the thought behind this bizarre creation. They would see it, quite rightly, as a labour of love and even if they found fault with its execution, they’d think kindly of me for at least making the attempt.
Click on the link directly below for a free download of my story: