“…these people…want to be considered serious writers; but they have come to believe that they can accomplish this by means of a convenient shortcut. And the industry that produces how-to manuals plays to them, makes money from their hope of finding a way to be a writer, rather than doing the work, rather than actually spending the time to absorb what is there in the vast riches of the world’s literature, and then crafting one’s own voice out of the myriad of voices.
My advice? Put the manuals and how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated.
This work is not done as a job, ladies and gentlemen, it is done out of love for the art and the artists who brought it forth, and who still bring it forth to us, down the years and across ignorance and chaos and borderlines. Riches. Nothing to be skipped over in the name of some misguided intellectual social-climbing. Well, let me paraphrase William Carlos Williams, American poet: literature has no practical function, but every day people die for lack of what is found there.”
Richard Bausch, in The Atlantic Monthly
Would the posers and wannabes out there PLEASE note: when you’re a real writer, every fucking month is “national novel writing month”.
Now go back to flipping burgers or whatever it is you do, and leave literature to the professionals…the people who, through years of sweat and sacrifice, have earned the right to call themselves authors.
Shame on you for daring to include yourself in their company…
Well, y’know…as I believe I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m a lousy self-promoter. I’m really bad at plugging this site and shilling my books. Daily blog entries, comments on other sites, utilizing social networks, joining on-line forums and groups, indulging in high profile flame wars, appearing at every convention, doing all the right things to draw attention to yourself…not for me. The problem, of course, is time.
I write every day. Every. Single. Day. Get up, usually around 7:30, and the first thing I do is cross the hall to my office and turn on the computer. Within ten minutes, I’m holding a really strong, well-sugared coffee and doing a quick scan of my emails, checking the overnight news. The past year or two, the good ol’ BBC has been my primary reality filter. Love their radio comedies and dramas too. Michael Hordern and Richard Briers as “Jeeves and Wooster”. Sublime.
From quite early in the morning until, often, after supper, I’m tapping away, composing or editing, and I do it about 360 days of the year (the rest, I’m either sick, dead or it’s Christmas). I’m only fully alive, fully realized when I’m hard at work on a project, all of my senses engaged. And so, as soon as I finish one book, I abandon it and move on to the next, my mind already seeking fresh material, a new intellectual or aesthetic puzzle to solve.
It’s almost machine-like, as if I’m programmed to sketch and shape words, to the detriment of almost everything else. Sometimes I’ve sacrificed valuable, irreplaceable time with my family in order to stay glued to my desk. That’s a shameful admission but also an unflinching depiction of my devotion to my work.
And I’ve been doing it, basically, since 1985, the year I turned “professional”. Over 25 years of toiling, day by day, to improve at my craft, sharpen my skills, be the best writer I can possibly be. Innovative and original and daring.
That’s why I’m so hard on wannabes and ridiculous enterprises like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Art is a serious, full-time business. It is a calling on the spiritual level, a voice in the absolute inner silence of your soul that insists, regardless of the circumstances, that you must pick up a pen or sit before a keyboard, marshal your tangled, chaotic thoughts and…create. And you do that not just for a month, not until you reach some artificially imposed plateau, but every single day until you are dead.
Tomorrow I’ll finish the second draft of my new novel. At this point it hovers around 200 pages and 50,000 words.
That’s what I’ve been working on, without pause, since August 3rd.
My so-called life.
Did manage to see a good movie at the Broadway Theater in Saskatoon. You’ll find my review of “Blancanieves” over at my film blog.
The last couple of nights, Sherron and Sam set up a backyard movie theater, projecting films on the side of our house. “The Artist” was smashing, earning an ovation at its conclusion, and last night it was “Amelie”. Dunno if there are going to be too many more showings. The temperature dips awful quickly after dark in these parts around this time of year.
It’s been a beautiful, warm autumn. The colors in our river valley would entrance Van Gogh (and our clear, starry nights can’t be beat). Feeling inspired, enlivened by a clarity of purpose, the certainty I am working on a project worthy of my efforts, a book that challenges and scares me a little. That frisson I experience when I sit down and open the file, stare at the screen, wondering if I can find it within me today to summon the courage and faith required to be the best writer I can be.
And then, gradually, sensing the spell begin to take hold…
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…
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?
My name is Cliff Burns and I chose the path of “indie” writer after enduring more than two decades of stupidity and folly at the hands of editors, publishers and agents. I gritted my teeth and pounded my fists as my work was tampered with by inept, second rate minds, dolts offering all sorts of career advice that often amounted to selling out, prostituting my talent and imagination. Despite these obstacles I still managed to accumulate a body of work that drew readers from around the world and praise from authors like Kim Newman and Timothy Findley. My tales appeared in some pretty high profile anthologies, including The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, City Dreams and The 20 All-Time Best Science Fiction Stories. Both novellas from my book Righteous Blood were optioned for adaptation into films–“Kept” is currently in pre-production at Twisted Pictures/LightTower, slated for release sometime in 2009.
Creative control is my obsession. I have not the slightest interest in collaborating with editors and agents to make my work more commercial and palatable, watering down my vision, creating derivative, saccharine prose. I’ll say it again: I’d rather be a bum, living on the street, than a whore in a mansion.
Thanks to new technologies, writers can now bypass the gate-keepers of traditional publishing, the agents and editors who for too long have imposed their pathetic, brain-dead aesthetic on the reading public. This blog enables me to present my work without altering it any way to conform to some real or manufactured “niche” market; the internet allows me to disseminate my writing to a worldwide audience; podcasts help me promote it; print-on-demand will put actual published books in your hands. I can do this without any of the organs of corporate publishing or catering to the lackeys who serve that impersonal machine.
On this site you’ll find more than a quarter million (250,000) words of prose. That includes two full-length novels, numerous short stories, several volumes of prose poems and two complete poetry collections.
My writing frequently features the macabre and surreal; I once referred to my oeuvre as “Twilight Zone on acid stories” and I don’t think I’ve come up with a better description since. My influences range from Richard Matheson, Paul Auster, Jonathan Carroll to the sublimely weird visions of Terry Gilliam, Rene Magritte and Roman Polanski.
I labor long and hard on my efforts–in the case of my novel So Dark the Night that meant three years of writing and revising. Don’t confuse “indie” with “amateur”. I could have continued on the course that gained me scores of anthology appearances and professional publications…but I made the determination that to maintain that path would have meant on-going frustration from having to deal with those aforementioned gate-keepers, who were, in my view, butchering my writing and destroying my artistic spirit. I place enormous demands and expectations on my work and will not release anything that doesn’t have my complete confidence. The novels and various efforts on this site are of the highest literary quality, as good as (or better than) anything you’ll buy in a bookstore–that is my personal pledge to you. You might not like everything you read but I will never waste your time or insult your intelligence.
A quick overview of what you’ll find here on Beautiful Desolation:
The “Home” page features news and updates, as well as short essays and rants on subjects near and dear to my heart. That includes everything from the contemporary publishing scene, indie writing, the idiocy of National Novel Writing Month, etc. etc.
“About” gives some background and biographical information on yours truly; you’ll also find reviews of my various publications and a partial bibliography stretching back more than two decades.
“Bookstore” is where I offer some of my books and collections for sale–these are limited edition offerings and supplies are scarce. Most of my books sell out within months of being published and some have, to my delight, become collector’s items (with the inflated prices to prove it).
“Non-Fiction“–lots of book reviews and essays on literature and the writing life. You’ll also find pieces on film and music, two other great passions of mine.
“Novels“–should be your first stop. You can read and/or download two complete novels at no cost. So Dark the Night and Of the Night are supernatural thrillers, employing aspects of noir, mystery and horror. Terrific reads: I dare you to read the first ten pages of either and then try to quit. Good luck…
“Rarities” is a recent page I’ve added. This is where you’ll find out-of-print and older editions of my work, prose poems and verse. Also some of my monologues and the writing I’ve done for the stage. Material that hasn’t seen the light of day, in some cases, for more than fifteen years (if at all).
“Stories“–the best of my tales, some of them previously published, many of them composed after I started this blog. I no longer submit my work for publication so if you’re looking for fiction by Cliff Burns, this is the only venue where you’ll find it.
Tired of the same old crap, looking for writing that (to quote one review) is “a breath of fresh air”?
Beautiful Desolation is a site for those who treasure finely crafted prose and uncompromising and original visions. It is compelling evidence that there are authors out there who eschew (and revile) the contemporary publishing scene and are capable of producing ground-breaking, genre-bending and (above all else) entertaining literary endeavors.
And it’s a beacon of hope for those who feel, as I do, that writers and readers are poorly served by monolithic, impersonal, arrogant publishing houses that expend enormous efforts and revenues on mediocre “talents”, whose main claim to fame is that they are capable of delivering the exact same novel over and over again.
I offer you an alternative.
Come in, have a look around.
You’re in for a very pleasant surprise…
That’s a picture of my latest acquisition, a leather attache case. Been looking for something similar for ages but the models I like are usually wayyyy out of my price range and the ones I can afford are uglier than Dan Brown’s prose or, for various reasons, just not me.
Found this beauty at a thrift shop (secondhand goods) in Saskatoon. Spotted it and let out a crow of pleasure which was slightly mitigated when I discovered that the case sported a hideous logo from some hog producers convention. Well, shit, I’m supposed to be creative, aren’t I, I figured I could come up with some method of fixing the problem. Bought the briefcase for five bucks, brought it home and immediately set to work. Taped off the edges and used black spray paint to get rid of the logo. Still left with a shiny area that had to be covered up with…something. But what? How about a patch or sticker of some kind? Which led to me going ’round and ’round, trying to think of a symbol or design that distinguished the case as mine.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading on anarchy lately, its history and proponents, and have increasingly come to see that for an independent-minded, stubborn, recalcitrant asshole like me, anarchism is the perfect philosophical system. No bosses, no hierarchy, no cant. Found a place in England that sold a sticker that was just about the perfect size to do the job and while I was scrolling through their catalogue, came across the “Kill Your Television” decal.
I hardly ever watch television, except for the news and hockey on Saturday night. We have a grand total of two channels in our house, and one of them doesn’t come in very well. No cable, no satellite, no need. That old Springsteen song comes to mind: 57 channels and nothin’ on. During those rare occasions when we stay in a hotel, I always have a quick troll through the available stations and rarely find anything worth watching, except if I’m lucky to catch an episode of “South Park” or, thanks to a tip from my sons, one of the weird send-ups featured on “Robot Chicken“.
Whenever I go into one of my tirades about television and other time-wasters, I usually get some sort of feeble response like, “well, I only watch television to relax”. A sentiment that is lost on me.
Relaxation? What’s that?
I checked my daybook last week and out of the last 365 days, I’ve taken a grant total of nine days off from writing. Nine days. And that includes weekends, holidays, everything.
And so, I suppose, I have no one but myself to blame for my recent big crash, a eight-day bout with pleurisy (lung inflammation) that knocked me on my ass. My body was simply worn out, my immune system utterly fucked. Couldn’t work, found myself stuck on the couch with a pile of James Crumley books and a stack of movies. I might have tried to work…except I read up on the condition (curse the internet!) and discovered that in severe cases, doctors have to stick a long needle in your lung to siphon off the fluid. Oops. And then I read about some of the famous people, including Thomas Hardy, who have croaked from pleurisy.
Where’s that couch? Rest, rest, must have rest!
I know writing will eventually kill me but not yet. My sons are still only teenagers and I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me before I turn up my toes and start taking harp lessons. When the time comes, I intend to go out like David Gemmell, who was discovered by his wife, sprawled across his keyboard, dead of a heart attack. That’s an author’s death.
Real writers don’t need an idiotic event like National Novel Writing Month to get them kick-started. Every year when November rolls around I cringe because I know a horde of amateur fuckwits will be filling forums with progress reports on their masterpieces, playing at being authors. Romance writers and fantasy wannabes, hobbyists who do great disservice to those of us who pay the price day after day, year after year, as we go about honing our craft. Do these fucking morons have any idea the kind of sacrifice and pain the writing life demands from its practitioners? Do they really believe their pathetic, semi-literate efforts are deserving of any kind of respect or approbation?
And listen to them scream in outrage if one presumes to set them straight: how dare a professional writer tell them that their efforts aren’t taken seriously and mock them for their silliness. Lemme tell you something, kiddies: someone who unclogs a toilet isn’t a plumber, someone who screws in a light bulb isn’t an electrician…and someone who scribbles a few thousand words into a notebook with a flowery pattern on the front ain’t an author. Sorry to prick your balloon.
I’ve been writing for nearly 25 years and each day the process of sitting at my desk and commencing work requires discipline and courage, consuming enormous amounts of physical, mental and spiritual energy. The other day, I received a note from one of my favorite authors, Nicholas Christopher (Veronica, A Trip to the Stars, The Bestiary). He wrote:
I am working my through the first 100 pages of a new novel…and finding, as always, that writing of any kind, but especially the writing of novels, is a humbling profession. You start all over again and realize it doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many books you’ve written — nor should it get easier, if you’re doing what you’re supposed to and trying to reach new places with your work.
This from a man who has more talent in his big toe than I’ll ever possess, even if I lived to be three hundred.
NaNoWriMo is a gimmick, a fallacy and a fraud. Those who play that game are beneath the contempt of the authors they’re trying so hard to imitate. For thirty days they get to pretend to have the drive, talent and passion of their betters.
Then reality intrudes. Writing, it turns out, is hard work, doncha know? Shucks, you even have to know how to spell .
For many participants of NaNoWriMo, even that is too much of a reach…