I’ve been a professional author for 30-odd years now and I think it can be fairly said that I’ve earned a reputation as someone who stubbornly (ruthlessly?) defends my aesthetic autonomy.
With that in mind, I guess it’s understandable that I field the occasional question from other artists who find themselves wondering whether or not they have the right or strength of character to resist the suggestions and/or demands of editors, agents and fans.
I tell them:
Listen, as far as I’m concerned your inner editor should always take precedence over any external influences. It’s your name on the story or book or painting or piece of music, not someone else’s, which means you have a personal, vested interest in making sure your work is presented exactly the way you envision it. Brook no compromises or attempts to dilute the power and integrity of your project.
Editors and agents aren’t collaborators, that is a mindset that must be impressed upon them right from the get-go. You might welcome their opinions, but their input is not necessarily required and won’t be followed if it runs counter to your own thinking. I have encountered more than a few inept, dim-witted editors in the past three decades and I’ve learned to take everything they say with a grain of salt. They aren’t all bad, of course, but, truthfully, most are poor-to-mediocre, their contributions to literature existing largely in their own heads.
Agents, well, agents want to make money. That’s their primary focus and never think otherwise. They aren’t interested in developing the next DeLillo or Nabokov, they’re seeking clients who follow trends and deliver bright, shiny, commercial product. For which they will collect a tasty percentage. It’s all quite cold-blooded and transactional. Why should they hold your hand when they’re more interested in the contents of your wallet?
As for fans, who gives a shit? Your role as an artist is to frustrate expectations and short-circuit preconceptions. Your work shouldn’t reassure or offer words of comfort; if it does that you are kowtowing, truckling to popular opinion. Wrap everything up into a nice, tight bundle, adhere to formula, offer happy endings and you might as well be a ten-dollar hooker on a seedy street corner. You’re laboring on behalf of filthy lucre, rather than contributing to the legacy of creative endeavors extending back to the timeless cave paintings of Lascaux.
Art that resists imitation, that refuses to be derivative, is the work that lasts, achieving posterity because of its uniqueness, a courageous, unprecedented approach to your chosen discipline.
Why yearn for fifteen minutes of fame when you should be seeking something far more permanent and profound?
Finally, on a completely unrelated topic, let me say to those idjits who insist there are no new stories to tell, that they’ve all be told, you are out of your tiny fucking minds.
Every single minute of every single day, billions of human beings are interacting with each other, talking, engaging, sharing space, and each of these encounters represents a narrative that is distinctive and unrepeatable.
Each restorative walk you take, a trip to the bank or back fence discussion with your neighbor is a short story waiting to happen. No two individuals are exactly alike, every encounter potentially fraught with drama or humor (or, ideally, a bit of both).
Open your eyes, ears, hearts to possibility and it will find you.
Remember that the next time you’re out and about.
Turning a corner, bumping into a stranger…watch what can happen when two ancient souls meet for the first time.
Sometimes it makes for great Art.
This blog is now ten years old. Ten years to the day.
Well, well, well.
Who could’ve imagined “Beautiful Desolation” would still be around? I’ve seen the stats: most blogs sputter out after a year or two, the individual(s) involved eventually losing interest or not finding the time or unable to post regularly enough to keep it up to date and viable.
I can understand that. Over the lifetime of this blog, I’ve written 450+ posts, averaging about one every ten days or so. Which for a full time scribe and stay-at-home dad is a pretty hefty investment of time and energy. Plus, I’ve never posted just for the sake of posting, I’ve always had something to say or share (even if it’s frequently, especially in the early days, invective and bitter, icy fury).
Right from the beginning, “Beautiful Desolation” was a platform, a bully pulpit from where I could hold forth on subjects near and dear to my indie, contrarian heart. My thirty+ years as a professional author provides me with a host of experiences and encounters to draw from, and I must say it gives me considerable pleasure when young writers contact me and tell me how a certain article or mini-essay or rant I’ve posted inspired them or bucked up their courage during a low patch in their life. My entire career, from the get-go, has been all about empowering myself as an artist and not allowing others to tamper with my work, diluting its emotional, aesthetic and spiritual intensity and passion. That was an obsession for me even before I “turned pro” way back in 1985. I have always fiercely defended my work and questioned the effectiveness/competence of editors who take it upon themselves to “improve” my writing, “smooth out” the rough spots, etc.
I made it plain from those initial posts that this blog is devoted to the celebration of literary, intelligent, innovative, genre-busting fiction that defies fashion and formula and seeks truly new and unique representations of the world around us. I’m contemptuous of amateurish drivel and people who think insisting on proper grammar and syntax is “old school”. I respect authors who make herculean efforts to write and revise their work, laboring tirelessly, excellence their only goal. I’ve been a full-time author for a long time and struggle each day to find the courage and inspiration to go on. It takes me weeks to polish a story, years to finish a full-length manuscript. So you’ll excuse me if I say that, by those standards, dabblers and weekend scribblers and NanoWriMo wannabes just don’t make the grade, sorry.
It’s been interesting to go back to some of those early posts on “Beautiful Desolation”—some of them are very, very angry and confrontational. I’m thinking of my pointed words on contemporary science fiction, Cormac McCarthy’s rather lifeless interview on “Oprah”, the mediocrity that is CanLit and my repeated diatribes against the idiocy that is National Novel Writing Month (“part-time writers unite!”)
The nastier stuff kind of flickered out after the first couple of years, though I’m still capable of delivering withering scorn on command. I’ve said a few things about paranormal romance and shapeshifter-erotic-fiction that had a few people gnashing their teeth and hastily “unsubscribing”.
Ah, well. Some folks are touchy about being sub-literate and dull-witted.
Recently, this blog has taken on a more overtly political tone, which reflects my growing interest in leftist politics, socialism, Marxism…really, anything that is an alternative to the capitalist juggernaut devouring all the resources on this planet, rendering it unsuitable for a growing number of species (a list that will eventually include, y’know, us).
The election of CEO Trump to head Corporation America, the emergence of the far right around the world, as well as the on-going shenanigans of the neo-liberals and their wealthy sponsors, have alarmed progressives and activists, who view the rising intolerance and racism as part and parcel of a system that disenfranchises and impoverishes the masses, in order to fatten the wallets of the elite.
A concerted effort to unite disparate voices and causes under the banner of freedom, true freedom, must be undertaken or we are headed down a long, dark, scary road. I hesitate to predict what our society will look like when we reach the end of that particular journey. My imagination quails at the notion, quite frankly.
But, as I’ve come to realize, one can’t always dwell on these gloom and doom scenarios; for the sake of balance (and sanity), you have to be able to conceive of a better, healthier, more equitable world, a chance at a brighter tomorrow. And so I’ve sought out individuals and organizations, voices that offer entirely different perspectives on where the human adventure might lead us, given the right kind of moral and spiritual leadership. I’ve been fortunate enough to discover people like David Harvey and Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Zizek; Paul Mason, Naomi Klein and Tariq Ali. The LEAP Manifesto and the existence of good, ideologically committed leaders like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders offer at least the hope for change, the introduction of real ideas into a partisan, over-heated discourse.
Books like Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism, Klein’s This Changes Everything and Karl Marx’s Capital provide us with workable blueprints for correcting our course, indicating different, less spooky paths to travel, and once absorbed they alter your whole mode of thinking—I’m talking a complete paradigm shift. We don’t have to live the way we do, there are methods we can employ, mindsets we can adopt to alter our lives, our ingrained habits and actually make the world a better place, just by our example.
I’m sure I’ll be writing about this in more detail in the months/years to come.
In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed “Beautiful Desolation” in its various guises. Ten years has given me the time and scope to cover a lot of ground and during that interval I’ve undoubtedly said some things I probably shouldn’t have and managed to piss off an impressively wide assortment of people. But all along I’ve made it manifestly clear to even the most desultory, unwary visitor: if you’ve come to this blog looking for reassurance and treacle, a collegial atmosphere and warm, fuzzy support system, you’ve opened the wrong door, I’m afraid. This site is about the price we pay for having feelings, for being alive and sentient in a world that’s increasingly chaotic and disorienting, our “civilization” gradually losing its thin veneer of humanity, revealing the glistening skull beneath its skin.
“Beautiful Desolation” is, in that sense, the perfect title for this blog.
The more I think of it, what could have been more appropriate?
* * * * *
A few recent developments I should mention:
The Mindful Word, a site devoted to conscious creativity and holistic wellness (hey, how can you argue with that?), has published two short essays I composed, offering advice to young, developing writers…and warning of the possible perils of semi-autobiographical fiction and memoirs. Pop over there to check them out and then take some time to poke around–it’s a cool site.
I also somehow managed to place an extremely odd piece, “A Personal Cosmology”, with The Oleander Review, a literary journal published by the University of Michigan—the issue in question is due out in April. Here’s a sample from “Cosmology” I posted awhile back. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
Finally, “Happy Birthday” to my pals Laird and Karen—who share the same birth date and the unfortunate tendency to root for two historically dreadful hockey clubs (the Leafs and Canucks, respectively). This lifelong Bruins fan tries not to hold that against them, although sometimes, I admit, it takes concerted effort to restrain my natural tendency to trash talk. But, then again, it’s hard to feel smug when your favourite team includes an unrepentant arsehole like Brad Marchand.
Note: the accompanying pictures are drawn from our Summer, 2016 visit to Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Istanbul, in particular, continues to haunt our memories (and sometimes our dreams). What a magical, terrifying, wondrous metropolis. One day, we hope to make it back…
Righteous Blood is in the house.
The proof is well-nigh perfect and I’ve gone ahead and ordered copies for friends, Saskatoon bookstores, reviewers, etc.
The book retails at $19.00 and the shipping costs will be similar to my previous offering, Disloyal Son. Check my Bookstore page for further details.
Come ‘n git it!
Righteous Blood slowly creeps toward publication.
Susan, who’s been handling my interior layout, has delivered a text file for Lightning Source and is currently working on Kindle and ePub versions (to be read on tablets and other devices).
Chris, as you saw from my previous post, has devised another wondrous cover.
Both text and cover files were submitted to Lightning Source two days ago and the book remains in “pre-media”. If there are no glitches (there usually are), a proof of the book will be printed and dispatched to me via courier for close examination. At that point, if all is well, I give the go-ahead for publication, order however many copies I want to sell to booksellers and friends…and from then on, Righteous Blood is officially back in print.
But we’re not quite there. I mentioned previously that the folks at Lightning Source are more than a trifle finicky; their system has very strict specifications and that can be maddening. With previous books, I’ve had to re-submit either the text or cover files two or three times before I got it right. Crossing my fingers I’ve nailed it on this occasion and should know for sure in the next day or so.
Since I began posting about the process of publishing Righteous Blood, I’ve received a number of queries from individuals regarding various aspects of indie/self-publishing. Thought I’d post those questions and my replies for the benefit of all:
Q: You’ve complained various times about the difficulty and complexity of using Lightning Source as your printer—why stick with them when there are other platforms available?
A: Well, you know that old saying about the devil you know…but, really, I suppose I continue to do business with Lightning Source because they produce such lovely, professional looking books, plus they’re the platform that, in my view, promises the best potential access to booksellers around the world. As long as I pay my $12 annual fee, my books remain in Lightning Source/Ingram’s vast catalog, available to anyone who wants to order them, anywhere on the globe. I also like the fact that many mainstream, commercial publishers use Lightning Source as their printer—with over 30 years as a professional writer under my belt, I want all the benefits of high-quality services and standards. My books are created and designed to look identical to (or better than) any title released by traditional publishers. That’s my goal and Lightning Source helps me achieve it.
Q: Have you had any experience with Amazon’s CreateSpace or Lulu.com?
A: No, I haven’t. My understanding is that Lulu is more geared to beginners and amateurs. It’s where you should go if you want to print a few copies of your family history or a collection of your grandmother’s poems (or whatever). CreateSpace seems to produce a lot of stuff I have little use for: fan fiction, erotic shapeshifter romance, the silly shit produced by wannabes and sub-literates. Much of it only available digitally (because it’s so cheap and easy to set up). Both CreateSpace and Lulu are less costly and more user-friendly than Lightning Source, which is why certain kinds of “authors” are drawn to those other platforms. With Lightning Source, there are more hoops to jump through and that tends to discourage non-professionals. I guess that’s yet another reason I use them.
Q: I find the self-publishing process confusing and labor-intensive and I have limited computer skills. Your advice?
A: There is a learning curve and you can expect a great deal of frustration along the way. There are agencies like Upwork, who can provide you with connections to skilled men and women who have extensive experience typesetting and designing books. For a relatively modest fee, they can prep your manuscript so that it is printer-friendly, even set up a cover for you. The more services and help you require, the more expensive it gets. Again, if you’re only publishing a vanity book, something of questionable literary or commercial merit, go to Lulu, get it done on the cheap. You don’t need an ISBN, you’re not looking to get on bookstore shelves, you just want a couple of copies of a title for sentimental reasons.
Q: Even after all this time, do you find there is still a stigma toward self-published books?
A: Undoubtedly, and in my opinion that stigma is well-deserved. Technology and print-on-demand is allowing far too many people to publish their godawful, inept scribbling. It has empowered the wannabes, convinced them that for a few hundred bucks they can be SERIOUS writers. The cult of the amateur has done lasting damage to literature, reducing authors in stature and cultural importance since, after all, “everyone has a book inside them”. That kind of twaddle has enriched creative writing programs (and instructors) for decades.
Q: How much can I expect to spend publishing my book?
A: That varies. If you’re computer-savvy and can handle the set-up yourself, it saves a lot of time and money. Finding and purchasing cover art is another expense—again, if you have some design background, perhaps you could cobble together an eye-catching cover without having to resort to using someone else’s work. My books usually range from $1200-1800 (each), depending on if I’m using my own cover art, the length of the book in question and the number I want printed to sell or send out as promo copies.
Q: How do you promote your books?
A: Short answer: badly. I send out review copies but that’s usually a waste of time. Book reviewers are a dying breed and most of them have a dim view of self-published books, regardless of the quality. Last time I heard, something like a quarter million books are published in North America every year, and self-publishing has only contributed to that deluge. So much crap being printed and so many different forms of entertainment and distractions available to our potential audience. How do you draw attention to your work in that maelstrom? If you figure that one out, you’re on the fast track for a Nobel Prize…
* * *
That’s it for now. If you have any further questions about self-publishing or indie writing in general, drop me a line at email@example.com.
I suppose it’s understandable that young and developing writers mine personal experience for inspiration, borrow from real life for key characters, settings and episodes in their narratives.
But sooner or later, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to abandon this rather narcissistic approach and begin to invent, extrapolate, imagine, conflate, collage, transpose. Eschewing a slavish imitation to the “facts”, finding the courage and tenacity to follow a story no matter what strange paths and nooks it might choose.
For a good many authors, the idea of leaving their safe, tidy, self-appointed microverse and venturing Outside is too terrifying to ponder. Their protagonists thinly disguised versions of themselves, storylines and essential details paralleling their own life arc. To these literalists, their writing is a chance at redemption, to make sure their viewpoint is somehow vindicated and wins out in the end. Writing is not an act of imagination, it is a form of exoneration. But is such a mindset healthy—for them or for literature? I would offer a firm “No”, on both counts.
I confess that on occasion I’ve written “autobiographical” stories, tales that include some detail or nugget from life, a small touch that adds to the overall atmosphere, a dab of authenticity. Other offerings contain what I would call “emotional truths”, characters reliving some trauma drawn from my convoluted psychological history. Primal terror, feelings of self-loathing and disgust; manic spasms of joy, rapid disillusionment.
I think of older short stories like “Invisible Boy” or “Carl” (from Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination). Raw and edgy. Spare and relentless and credible…and all the more powerful and frightening for that reason.
More recently, my novella “Second Sight” (from Exceptions and Deceptions) features a married couple that bear a strong resemblance to Sherron and I. If you want a semi-accurate portrait of what daily life around Casa Burns is like, check out “Second Sight”. Not a word of it is true, of course, but the couple at the heart of the tale have a depth and subtlety that take the offering to another level.
The unnamed narrator of my last novel, Disloyal Son, is a Canadian writer and some of his genealogy is borrowed from my family history, but Mr. X, candidly, is a lot nicer than me, much more passive and considerate. Yin to my Yang.
It could even be fairly said that I share some traits with my all-time favourite character, Evgeny Nightstalk (So Dark the Night). I certainly manifest Nightstalk’s ferocious loyalty and hair-trigger temper. His twisted moral code is like an externalization of my id.
But while there are definitely similarities, I would argue that none of these characters is really me—they’re all composites, Frankenstein monsters, a jumble of body parts. I made them up. In my humble opinion, working exclusively from real life is boring, not to mention lazy.
The art is in creating individuals and scenarios from dust and mud, shaping them with your own hands, breathing life into them with each word, each sentence.
On those rare occasions when I recognize that I’ve come up with something undeniably original and unique, there’s a thrill of joy and accomplishment that quickens my very soul. It’s the ultimate high. Nothing else I’ve experienced in my creative/artistic life compares to that peak moment.
So put away your diaries and journals, smash every mirror in the vicinity.
Time to write stories that defy expectations and conventions, yarns that even the author cannot control or confine.
Surprise us, amaze us, take us somewhere we haven’t been before.
Make us laugh and cry.
Anger us, if you have the nerve.
Show us a face other than your own.
I get quite a number of notes from individuals requesting my advice on matters relating to publishing, indie or otherwise.
Recently, two or three people queried me about how to better “monetize” their writing.
Folks, anyone who has spent even a brief period on this site or has read a mere handful of my Tweets would know that I hold such attitudes in absolute contempt.
Trying to break into writing to make money, seeking fame, fortune and bestseller-dumb? Sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place.
If you’re a purveyor of fan fiction, you should have your hands burned off with an acetylene torch. You are the shit real writers scrape off the bottom of their shoes.
If you concoct shapeshifter/paranormal romance you are a literary pornographer. You exhibit Grade Six-level writing and, it’s clear, retain an absolute horror of penetrative intercourse. As Bill Hicks would say: case fucking closed.
If you “lease” your talent to some franchise, averring that your penny dreadful writing subsidizes your “good” stuff, you’re only fooling yourself…and the gods of Literature can be very, very cruel. Regardless of how you rationalize it, you are whoring your Muse, peddling her ass for a fistful of loot. Your self-righteousness, the ferocity of your denials, only reveals the depth of your insecurity, your secret shame. You disgust me.
A twenty-something twat knows fuck all about life and has no right to claim an authoritative view on anything. You are also far too young and insignificant for a memoir. No one gives a shit about the suffering and pain (largely self-inflicted) you’ve endured during your brief existence. Your life is not unique or particularly interesting. You are part of a growing demographic: an egotistic, narcissistic non-entity with delusions of self-importance. There’s a lot of that going around nowadays and no vaccine in sight. Pity…
Demanding correct spelling and competent syntax is not “old school” thinking.
Unless you approach your craft with devotion and seriousness, work tirelessly and daily at improving yourself, you are a dabbler. A wannabe. Your efforts the equivalent of macaroni art: the gold paint may be slightly more gaudy, the noodles more generous, but it amounts to the same, unsightly mess stuck to the front of your fridge.
This blog is dedicated to a higher purpose, a celebration of the power and majesty of the printed word.
There are plenty of sites for people who compose in crayon, scribble on walls or any available surface and congratulate themselves for their artistry.
If that last sentence describes where you’re at, I think you’ve overstayed your welcome.
There’s the door.
Don’t let it hit you on the ass on the way out.
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.