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…
You’ll find all the relevant biographical info about me here.
I offer a sizable batch of my stories for free reading and downloading, you’ll find them here.
A number of my books are available for purchase and you can find ordering info here.
I know some of you (many of you? most of you?) view indie/self-published writers with a great deal of misgivings. I don’t blame you. The advent of blogging, print on demand and e-books has led to an explosion of self-published novels and volumes of poetry and the vast majority of them are unbelievably horrible. So bad, I wouldn’t wrap fish in them (real or virtual). In my view, when it comes to self-published offerings, Sturgeon’s Law is too kind—at least 98% of the self-published efforts I’ve tried to read are embarrassingly juvenile and inept. Derivative, tuneless, execrable drek.
I acknowledge that.
Now I want you to pop back to my roster of professional credits, scroll down until you get to the blurbs appearing below them. I think it’s pretty clear I’m no dabbler. For the past twenty-five (+) years, day in and day out, I have been putting words on paper. Writing is my obsession, an essential article of my faith, the activity that keeps me from absolutely losing my mind. Have a glance at one of my stories, a tale like “Daughter”. If that one doesn’t have you hooked within about ten lines, kid, you’re reading it upside down.
I became an independent author and publisher by choice. Producing and releasing my own work allows me to present it in the manner I intended; every choice is left to my discretion, from the cover art to the layout. It’s time-consuming, frequently maddening but, in the end, worth it for the control it gives me over all aspects of book production, promotion & distribution.
I hope you’ll take a chance on an author who has taken advantage of the new technologies to present an alternative to the rather dreadful crop of books the trads (traditional publishers) have been releasing since they went corporate and lost their souls. My stories and novels are thrilling, original and literate. They transcend easy genre classification; years ago, someone referred to my odd oeuvre as “Twilight Zone on acid stories” and I suppose there’s some truth to that. I draw inspiration from the surrealists and my work frequently displays more than a passing affection for the macabre.
If you’re feeling a bit flush this month, experiencing a craving for a much-needed mental goose, give some thought to picking up one of my books or downloading some of my stories. It’s simple, just a matter of a few clicks of your mouse. Remember how bored you were the last time you walked through a bookstore? Unable to find anything that spoke to your particular zeitgeist. Now’s your chance to veer off the beaten track and discover an author who makes no attempt to cater to the marketplace or kowtow to editors and agents.
But be warned: here there be tygers. My writing takes a toll on readers who have been lulled into lazy modes of thinking. My fiction is a wake up call, a warning klaxon, a condemnation. You can do a lot of damage with a steady hand and a sharp scalpel.
Time to check out some of my work. Go ahead. What are you waiting for? You’re not scared, are you?
It’s Thanksgiving for our American cousins—it strikes me that late November is a weird time to be giving thanks, especially if you happen to live above the Mason-Dixon Line and your kids have already built a congregation of snowmen in your front yard.
And, frankly, I don’t need the excuse of a national holiday to carve up a turkey and then subsist for the next week on turkey leftovers, turkey sandwiches and, finally, turkey soup (sorry, I just drooled all over my keyboard). Turkey, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, with pumpkin pie for dessert. If I somehow manage to gain admission through the Pearly Gates I fully expect that to be the first meal St. Peter and his horde of super-efficient seraphim waiters place in front of me.
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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
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.
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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…
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.
No argument. The hours I was putting in, working for weeks on end without a break, shut away in my office, tapping and scribbling like a maniac, was incredibly stupid and detrimental to my health. I was definitely feeling the strain by the time I wrapped up rewrites on Of the Night. Lots of shoulder and back pain but also a sense of being artistically and spiritually drained. The tank right on “E”.
The only problem is, what does an anal retentive obsessive compulsive workaholic do when he has time off?
Answer: he doesn’t take time off.
Oh, I know it’s ridiculous, completely irresponsible but I can’t stop myself. I promised Sherron, swore high and low that I would start thinking of my health first. I’m forty-five years old in October and my family has a long history of heart disease. Not a lot of 90-year olds on either side, if ya know what I mean. It’s time to start devoting more thought to maintaining a healthier lifestyle, a better mindset.
Stress is a killer and I’ve got it bad. Always trying so fucking hard to meet the high standards and expectations I place on myself, pushing myself to get better, improve as a craftsman and artist. I don’t want to write like everybody else, I want my own, unique take on reality, unfiltered and with the bark on. No compromises, no pandering…no exceptions.
My promise to Sherron was honestly made but I think it will be hard to observe “in the breech”, as it were. Habit draws me to my office first thing every morning. It’s directly across from our bedroom and as soon as I’m awake and mobile, I wander in, check out the state of my desk, shuffle papers about…or just stand in the middle of the room, revving up for the day.
I’ve tried to take it easy but over the last couple of weeks I’ve reorganized my office, caught up on paperwork, starting planning my next major project and spent long hours on-line, promoting this blog and flogging my novels So Dark the Night and Of the Night to whoever might be interested. I’ve sent notices to horror sites, science fiction sites, occult sites, paranormal romance sites—if I’ve missed anybody, I dunno who it might be.
And I’ve also somehow managed to find the time to write a twenty minute radio play, “The First Room”. Very intense and personal. Kelley Jo Burke, producer at CBC Radio, dubbed it “Portrait of the Artist as an Abused Young Man” and I think she’s bang on.
What’s wrong with me, why can’t I take a week, a solid week and do nothing more than lounge about in my bathrobe, watching old Bunuel movies and reading fat science fiction tomes?
Well…like Graham Green I am afflicted by boredom. Bedevilled is more like it. He claimed it sometimes reduced him to suicidal thoughts and I can empathize. My brain can’t stand being idle. Even when I’m watching movies I keep a notepad close at hand so I can scribble down good lines or salient plot points, often writing up a short review of the film later on. Why? To what purpose? Because I must analyze, dissect, critically assess. Same with books. I’m on my third book journal, hundreds of reviews no one will ever read. I take great pains with my critiques, have developed a strict rating system…again, why?
Because unlike Sherlock Holmes I don’t have a 7% solution of cocaine to ease me through fallow periods. There’s only my work. It is my purpose, the reason I was put here on earth; it is an essential, irreducible part of my identity:
“Most of us develop and mature primarily through interaction with others. Our passage through life is defined by our roles relative to others; as child, adolescent, spouse, parent and grandparent. The artist or philosopher is able to mature primarily on his own. His passage through life is defined by the changing nature and increasing maturity of his work, rather than by his relations with others.”
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Thanks to one and all for reading and/or downloading my novels over the past few months. I’m encouraged by the number of people popping in, a steady growth in visits as word spreads throughout cyberspace.
This blog has been a godsend to yers truly and has finally granted me the direct connection to readers I’ve been seeking for ages. Back in 1990 I self-published my first book, Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. It was the product of desperation, a Hail Mary pass that somehow resulted in a game-winning score. The print run sold out in less than five months and the book went on to garner good reviews and excellent word of mouth. Readers loved it and cling tenaciously to their copies—just try to find one available for sale anywhere. It is well-nigh impossible to lay your hands on a copy (believe me, I’ve looked on behalf of friends and a treasured relative who lost hers in a house fire).
The success of Sex convinced my that my future lay outside of corporate publishing and marketing and nothing I’ve experienced in the nearly two decades that have elapsed since has convinced me otherwise. Thanks to the internet, I now have the ability to get my work out there and anyone, regardless of their physical location, has access to it. I’ve got readers in the Philipines, India, Vietnam, Australia…
That still takes my breath away.
The indie musicians showed me the way. I watched people like Ani Defranco seize control of their careers and message and I was inspired…if somewhat slow off the take. Writers, as a rule, are a lot more conservative and stodgy than their colleagues in other disciplines. I don’t know how many aspiring scribblers have responded to postings I’ve made on LibraryThing forums and elsewhere, pooh-poohing the notion of publishing their work on-line because they need the reassurance of an actual physical book, it gives them some kind of affirmation or some fucking thing. This past week we were in Saskatoon shopping for back-to-school stuff and we stopped by a gaming place my kids like to frequent. Its shelves are overflowing with Forgotten Realms books and all kinds of novelizations based on Dungeons and Dragons and what have you. The most dreadful, awful, amateurish tripe you can imagine.
Those are real books: does the fact that they exist as “dead tree editions” give those writers, as execrable as they are, more credibility than me? Are hacks like Margaret Weis, T.H. Lain and D.J. Heinrich superior to me because TSR et all churn out their shite by the truckload to gamers with the reading skills and mental age of an elementary school child?
I dunno, what do you think…
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* We’re still working on the podcast of excerpts from So Dark the Night. Figuring out the technology has been a real learning experience for Sherron. I won’t go near the stuff, I’d fly into a rage and boot the computer desk across the room. We’ve tried loading it on iTunes a couple of times but apparently we need an RSS feed and…aaaaaugghh!
* This summer I have gone to a spa and endured a massage at the hands of someone other than my wife. I know. I’m having a hard time believing it myself. What next? Crystals? Scientology? Membership in Opus Dei?
* No news re: the movie version of my novel “Kept”. I’ve heard rumbles of a summer/fall, 2009 release but that’s only speculation. Stay tuned.
* Lots of good music playing lately…until the much-beloved Yamaha stereo in my office conked out. I’ve been bopping through the latter part of summer with Bob Mould’s “Body of Song” album, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s “Baby 81”, Interpol’s “Antics”, Elbow’s “Leaders of the Free World”…as well as Trent Reznor’s double ambient album and a wonderful instrumental disk titled “The Last Drive-In” by Jo Gabriel. Fantastic to write to—thanks for sending it, Jo, and get well soon!