I’d assembled a “Best of…” collection of tales and spent more than a year trying to find a publisher for it. All of the stories in that collection, titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination, had been previously published, some in pretty prestigious publications. A couple had aired on CBC Radio and I’d even received a generous grant from the Canada Council that helped pay for writing part of the book.
See, the widely held view is that single author short story collections, regardless of the stature of the writer, just don’t sell. Sadly, I can tell you from personal experience that this is not an urban legend, for some reason contemporary readers shun the short story format. God knows why. Regardless, publishers tend to shy away from anthologies and such and my little offering was no exception.
“These stories are well written but as you know in today’s marketplace short story collections do not attract significant sales, etc….”
Heard that one a number of times.
But, curiously enough, the one sentiment repeated over and over again was this: good writing, exciting plots and themes, but we don’t publish this type of thing.
What exactly was “this type of thing”?
My own bizarre concoction, a spicy stew of science fiction, horror, fantasy and mainstream, literary prose. A mash-up of every genre under the sun, defying categorization and safe niches. Which didn’t help matters. As far as Canadian presses were concerned anything with the slightest taint of genre was out—more than one Canuck editor gave me the impression that my stories weren’t, well, Canadian enough, didn’t conform to some weird, unwritten cultural checklist.
And as far as the Americans and Brits were concerned, I was a young, emerging writer, no following, and while my work showed originality and creative spark, it wasn’t worth risking a significant investment of time and resources.
So my book was effectively dead in the water.
But I couldn’t help thinking about a fellow I’d heard about out east, a guy who’d made it his mission in life to stick a pin in the Canadian publishing industry and, in general, make a nuisance of himself. Crad Kilodney’s best stunt, in my view, was submitting classic stories by Kafka and Hemingway and others to a national literary contest and then publicly embarrassing the judges and administrators for failing to recognize their literary merit.
Crad, understandably, found it difficult to place his work so he started publishing it himself and selling it as limited edition chapbooks on the streets of Toronto. My wife brought me back a copy of one he dubbed Bang Heads Here Suffering Bastards in the late 1980’s and I was immediately impressed by the author’s chutzpah and creative passion.
When my Sex collection was passed over by every publisher north of the Rio Grande, I recalled Crad and his fuck you, DIY mentality and thought to myself, shit, I can do that too.
It took me months to put it all together, find the right cover art, a printer and bookbinder, and the final price tag was (gulp) just over $3000 to print 500 copies. Money I did not have.
Fortunately, the entire print run sold out in about five months.
It was astonishing.
I think my old chum Mark Ziesing sold at least 70 copies through his small mail order company alone. The Regina bookstore I worked for at the time also moved a lot of copies and every time Sherron and I travelled somewhere, we always took a box with us, nabbing consignment sales in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto.
There were no returns.
The crowning moment was when our bookstore staff had dinner with Canadian literary icon Timothy Findley. Once he heard I had a new book out, Tiff generously asked to see it. After reading it, he sent me the most beautiful blurb possible. I was unable to use his kind words on that edition of Sex and promised him I would never employ them on any other title except the one for which they were intended. And so when I re-release Sex and Other Acts of the Imagination on its 25th anniversary early next year (2015), it will finally feature Tiff’s warm praise:
“This is a book of hot dreams and frozen nightmares. It floats on a plane few writers achieve, where the imagery is raw but the insights are tender. The people in these stories will stay with me for a long time to come.”
Thanks, Tiff. You dear, sweet man.
I’ve published a couple of short chapbooks and a collection of novellas (Righteous Blood) through other small presses but I have to say none of those experiences came close to the joy I felt writing, editing and publishing my own work. No middle men, no editorial interference, no bullshit. Controlling all the creative and aesthetic decisions, right down to the choice of font and margins.
I was hooked.
I released books through my imprint, Black Dog Press, in 1994, 1995, 1997…but that last title (another short story collection!), The Reality Machine, cost me close to $7000 and put a serious strain on our finances. It took us awhile to recover and then I embarked on a 3 1/2 year odyssey that became, eventually, my occult thriller So Dark the Night.
The completion of that novel coincided with the arrival of print-on-demand publishing, the biggest change to the book biz since Joe Gutenberg opened his first copy shop in Mainz. Thanks to POD, publishing on a smaller scale has become much more affordable, plus I now have access to the international marketplace I’ve always coveted. Physical book or digital version, it’s up to my readers.
Since the 2010 publication of So Dark the Night, this press has released 5 more titles, each of them professionally designed and formatted, featuring eye-poppingly gorgeous cover art. You’ll find them in my bookstore and, I think you’ll agree, they look as good as any offering you’ll come across in your favorite book store. The writing isn’t bad either.
So that’s the story behind Black Dog Press, my eccentric little publishing venture. Twenty-five years and eleven titles later (two more in the pipeline), and we’re still going strong.
I may never get rich but at least my work is out there, available to readers who seek prose that veers from the familiar and mocks the very notion of consensual reality. In this era of corporate publishing, a profit-mongering environment that encourages the proliferation of sub-literate, derivative fiction, independent presses like mine offer hope and inspiration to those of us who revere the printed word and refuse to kowtow to the mediocre and witless.
Thanks for your support over the years.
The best is yet to come.
When I consider the amount of writing that represents, the amount of words, I’m more than a little taken aback.
I find it fascinating how much the blog has morphed in the past six years. It started out as a platform for an angry-not-so-young man venting about the stupidity of traditional publishing and now it’s pretty much anything goes. A couple of years ago I started adding music and short films and recorded spoken word pieces—that was exciting. New technologies put film-making, the creation of music and visual art, into the hands of more of us and while that’s led to an explosion of amateurism and incompetence, it has also allowed a few bright lights to shine as they try out new disciplines (and make some rather brilliant beginner’s mistakes).
But the absolute best part of having this blog is that it puts me in person-to-person contact with my readers. I was somewhat slow getting on the whole blogging bandwagon but now I can’t tell you how thrilled I am at how many people have written and reached out to me through this site. I soon came to realize I have readers from virtually every part of the world—I recall one chap who wrote to me from a university classroom in Melbourne, Australia. Bored with his instructor, wanting to talk about writing. Still makes me smile.
I’m also pleased that Beautiful Desolation has put me in touch with fellow indie artists, writers and musicians who have little truck with the corporate scene and want to express themselves without interference or compromise. I think after close to 30 years in this biz, I’m seen as some kind of “grand old man” of indie writing/publishing. Occasionally, I’ll get calls or e-mails from someone in the press, a reporter seeking my views on independent publishing, e-books, the state of writing in general, and I have to smile. As a prognosticator, my record isn’t exactly stellar. I think I’m on record as saying a few years back that e-readers were mere gadgets and people would eventually tire of them and return to physical books.
Let’s face it, life ain’t easy for us indie types. Most publications refuse to take us seriously or review our work so it’s very hard to get any “buzz” going when we release new material. On top of that, there’s the absolutely unprecedented amount of writing being released these days (see my last blog post), and that flood of material, that deluge of (mostly) offal, renders it well-nigh impossible to draw readers to excellent, literate, world-class writing. Who wants to pick through a reeking dung pile in the faint hope you might find a glistening pearl?
But I’ve stuck it out for nearly three decades, refusing to be cowed by idiotic editors and scumbag agents. Yeah, the money is lousy and the rewards few and far between but, y’know what? My strange little imprint has released some really fine titles over the years and there isn’t one of them I’m not honored to call mine. No hackwork, no sharecropping, no selling out. Every one of my books, right from the first, is original, innovative, literary, intelligent. How does that compare with the shite polluting the last box store you browsed?
* * * *
A couple of weeks since my previous post and you know what that means:
25,000 words on paper in the last ten days. A new project in a new “genre” I’ve never tried before. Good Lord. Sometimes even longtime readers must just throw up their hands and wonder what possesses me. I wish I knew. All I can do is follow my Muse, wherever she leads me. And often that’s taken me into some mighty strange territories. I mean, a western, for heaven’s sake?
I’m quite encouraged by this new project (still unnamed) but it’s going to involve a lot of research at some point. As soon as this rough draft is completed, I’ll be Googling like a sumbitch, trying to find out all about—well, never mind. Think I’ll wait a bit, hold off until this piece is further along before I open up about it. Even my wife is in the dark as to what I’m up to.
Not much time for leisure and entertainment in the past while, but my sons and I did manage to zip in to Saskatoon to see Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest flick, “Only God Forgives”. My review appears over on my film blog.
One last thing: three hundred blog posts deserves some kind of special recognition. So I’ve prepared a treat for #300, a little freebie for everyone who’s dropped in out of curiosity and came back because they liked what they saw.
My thanks to you, one and all.
I’m referring to a recent post over at Mediabistro (why do I continue to subscribe to them, they only depress me) crowing that over 235,000 self-published books were released last year. That’s physical books and their digital cousins.
Sturgeon’s Law would have you think 90% of those titles are complete crap but, based on my own investigations, I would say the actual figure is closer to 99.8%. Which means, according to my very rough calculations (I’ve detested math all my life), less than 500 of the aforementioned books are worth even glancing at.
Nearly a quarter million books, only 500 possessing any kind of literary merit. Pretty grim, huh?
But when was the last time you walked through a Chapters or Barnes & Noble book barn? Of the thousands of books your eyes passed over, what percentage looked intelligent enough to warrant a closer look? I’m guessing it was a very tiny proportion. Crap is crap, whether it’s produced by a bad cowboy poet from Dubuque, or issues forth from Random House, with the full weight of their publicity machine behind it.
I’ve just about given up on the big box stores. This past week we were visiting Edmonton and I had the great fortune to spot Old Strathcona Books, a wonderful used book place on Gateway Boulevard. The selection was amazing and the two gals behind the counter friendly and welcoming, real book-lovers, with in-depth knowledge of their wares. My kinda joint.
Get out there and support first rate bookstores like Old Strathcona, marvel at the wide selection of titles they offer, hard to find tomes and marginalia that highlight the diversity of fine fiction available to discriminating readers, unheralded authors waiting to be discovered. Because despite the flood of offal being spewed out these days by traditional publishers and the self-publishing gits, superb works of literature are still being produced…you just have to dig around and search for them.
Don’t be discouraged, steel your nerves and have at it.
The reward, finding a book that changes your perspective, alters the way you think and look at the world, sends seismic shockwaves through your soul and soma, makes all those tireless efforts worthwhile.
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…
Awhile back I noticed that sales of the e-book versions of So Dark the Night and Of the Night had really flattened. No growth, which meant my best marketing device (word of mouth) wasn’t having much of an impact.
Then I came across a blog entry from a gal who had read the e-book of So Dark the Night and complained that its formatting was funky and created a number of annoying glitches. Not good news.
Not long afterward I learned about the ePub format, which supposedly renders text compatible with most tablets and reading devices. So I contacted my chum Daniel at Scribe Freelance and had him whip up ePub versions of both my “Ilium” novels and dispatched them to Lightning Source, instructing them to replace the old files with this latest batch. Now we’ll wait and see if this helps re-ignite sales.
I admit (eyes cast down) I’m a very poor self-promoter. As a publisher, I complain bitterly but as an author I won’t be moved. I leave it up to readers to discover my work and I’m absolutely convinced that once they do, they become fans for life. And only too happy to spread the word about this whacked out Canuck writer who defies all conventions, tackles every genre and has carved a different path for himself, independent of the mainstream.
I’ve sent out some review copies of The Last Hunt to some western-themed magazines but, honestly, does anyone read book reviews any more? In those few publications that still deign to leave some space for something as retrograde and uncool as books…
It can be disheartening. How do you draw attention to one particular title when the media is flooded with thousands of new releases (books, e-books, CDs, DVDs, games) every day? You begin to feel like a tiny, insignificant figure lost amidst all the others in one of those Where’s Waldo? books.
On the other hand, this tiny press has been responsible for some pretty fine books over the past twenty (+) years and my readership is growing, albeit very, very slowly. My wife reminds me that I’m always been a late bloomer…let’s just hope it’s not too late. At some point, I’d like to enjoy the fruits of my labor. Instead of getting pelted with them.
What I wouldn’t give to be able to make the “Grand Tour”—see all the great capitals of Europe, capping things off with a long-anticipated visit to Thermopylae.
But will it ever happen? Will my workaholic nature and bouts of agoraphobia allow such a scenario? I’m dubious.
If nothing else, it’s a helpful, distracting fantasy.
A possibility, however remote, that some day all this craziness will lead to better, happier times.
A golden age, yet to come.
I was talking to someone recently and spoke of the pressure I feel as an independent writer and publisher to ensure my work achieves professional standards. I’ve been an indie guy for over twenty (20) years and I can tell you I take what I do very, very seriously. I labor without respite, without consideration to either health or sanity, to release volumes of the highest possible caliber, painstakingly conceived and lovingly produced.
To me, it’s important to present readers with a complete package: a book that’s lovely to look at and hold, the formatting easy on the eyes and, most important of all, the quality of the writing is in evidence in every line.
Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover.
Self-publishers, especially those who primarily favor the e-book format (for cheapness and ease), select the most generically ugly covers imaginable. Artless, crude, formulaic. And, chances are, those adjectives can also be applied the prose they excrete at an alarming rate. It’s amazing how many books you can churn out when you don’t edit or proofread. Or spell check.
I look at these efforts by my “colleagues” and shudder. And feel an even greater motivation to somehow separate my fiction from the terrible slop that people are constantly releasing thanks to e-books, blogs and print-on-demand (POD). How can I convince readers that my work is the exception that disproves the rule: not all independently produced writing is sub-literate, juvenile, asinine tripe?
That question has bedeviled me for a long time, my friends. I can’t describe to you what a downer it is to walk into a bookstore with some of my books and see the manager’s face fall when I tell him/her my work is released under my own imprint. Book employees are constantly being approached by people pushing their dreadful poetry, memoirs and cookbooks on them, demanding precious shelf space, while simultaneously giving every impression of enduring lives of endless persecution and unacknowledged suffering. But I have to say, the book people I’ve dealt with usually do an abrupt volte-face when I pull out a copy of a Black Dog Press release and show it to them. The covers are always eye-grabbers and that helps, then they spot the glowing reviews and blurbs, open the book, feel the pages, glance over the formatting…more often than not they end up taking a few copies. And not begrudgingly either.
I’m learning to accept that I can’t do much about the silly, deluded people who are determined to foist their unpolished, inept scribbles on the world, flooding the market, reproducing themselves with the prodigious energy of hormone-laced hares. I must keep on keeping on, positioning myself before this keyboard every single day as I have for the past quarter century or more. Seeking no fame or recompense, wishing only to improve my craft, grow and develop an an author. Clinging to a kind of belated faith that there are still serious readers out there, bibliophiles avidly seeking out literate, well-honed prose.
If I keep at it long enough, remain devoted and true to my calling, they’ll eventually find me.
It’s kind of like believing in God, only the evidence is far more tenuous, the suspension of disbelief even harder to maintain…
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 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.
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)
Peter Darbyshire has just published an article in the Vancouver Province, discussing the future of books and publishing—you’ll find it here. He was good enough to ask me about my experiences as a long-standing independent author and publisher (21 years and counting) and I was only too happy to oblige.
Smart man, Peter, a guy who knows what he’s talking about. He’s had his own adventures in the publishing biz and is familiar with the new technologies that are allowing authors the chance to by-pass traditional gate-keepers and take their work directly to readers, via e-books and print on demand efforts.
As I wrote to Peter in a followup note, one of my fears is that while these technologies may empower good authors turned off by a corporate system that slots and niches books, producing dozens of copy-cat knockoffs of popular titles, it also accords terrible scribblers the opportunity to foist their mindless, adolescent crap on the world. Thus, the marketplace is currently overwhelmed by dreadful vampire porn, brain-eating zombies and godawful tripe that wouldn’t pass muster in a high school yearbook. Anyone can call themselves a writer these days and with a minimum investment can produce a decent-looking book with their name on the cover. “Look at me! Aren’t I great? And you all thought I was a loser!”
I recently posted similar views on a couple of sites frequented by amateur writers and wannabes and was soundly taken to task for my arrogant insistence that there is a difference between good writing and bad writing. One remark I’ve heard a number of times is that “we live in a post-literate society and the old standards no longer apply”. You know, standards like good spelling, syntax that isn’t tortured beyond recognition, an ear for dialogue, an aversion to over-writing, etc. etc.
In the old days, these dingbats would be working in the rightly discredited sub-sub-genre of “fan fiction”, read by a few geeks with too much time on their hands and a roomful of Star Wars action figures. Now they can inflict their offal on a far wider audience, pricing their e-books at 99 cents to draw the most possible readers and congratulating themselves for their genius.
It’s truly sickening.
I do not want to be lumped in with folks who have no respect for the printed word, who wish to emulate literary idols like Stephenie Meyer, James Patterson…the very worst of the worst. I revere great writing and devote enormous time and effort to producing the finest, most literate work I can; to hear these people crowing about how many e-books they’ve sold, how much money they’ve made, goes against everything I believe in, as an author and an artist. Their attitudes revolt me, their “writing” makes me shudder, their success impresses me not one whit. They are bottom-feeders and pornographers and if that’s what sells these days, the literary world is in more trouble than I ever imagined.