Writing Discussion With Cliff Burns — Part I

When I asked Cliff Burns, author of So Dark the Night, if he’d like to guest host my blog, he responded that he’d rather have a discussion. I was thrilled. I enjoy talking about writing, but even more than that, I love learning how other writers approach the craft.

BERTRAM: For me, writing is like the world’s longest crossword puzzle, one that takes a year to complete. I like playing with words, finding their rhythm, and getting them to behave the way I want. I like being able to take those words and create ideas, characters, and emotions. What is writing like for you?

BURNS: I think your analogy is very good. Each story or novel is a puzzle, as you say, an enigma, a conundrum, a locked door mystery that demands great intelligence and ingenuity to solve. Finding the exact right combination of words (out of half a million or so) in common English usage that will perfectly express the mood or feeling you’re trying to get across . . . and then doing it again and again for ten or twenty or four hundred pages. It’s a miracle when we manage to get it right. Which is why I ended up dedicating So Dark the Night  “to my Creator”. There were times when I thought that novel would never get written, I’d never finish it. But something kept me going, supplied the word or image I needed at a crucial moment. Often, the impetus or inspiration seemed to come from outside. I know that sounds weird and creepy but it’s the truth. Have you ever experienced anything similar?

BERTRAM: Many times. And it was usually more than just inspiration. For example, when I began researching my current work and needed to know about relatively unknown extinct animals, every day when I opened my email, there would be an article about one of them on the today’s news page. And when I needed a reason for some gold to be hidden for another story, I happened on a book about the killing of the gold standard in the USA. And when I needed a place for my aliens to come from (and a reason) I happened upon a mention of the Twelfth Planet by Zeccharia Sitchen. Someone, I don’t remember who, called such serendipitous offerings “gifts from the library gods.”

BERTRAM: Writing, editing, and promoting are all time- and mind- consuming occupations. How do you manage?

BURNS: Barely. And my heavy work schedule is one of the reasons I’m just getting over a severe lung infection — my body was over-worked, my immune system screwed and so I was really knocked on my ass. I’m going to make some adjustments, see if I can find a hobby or some mode of relaxation to take a portion of the strain off. I’ve reached middle age and I just can’t maintain my punishing routine without doing lasting harm to myself. How about you? What’s your routine like and how do you cope with the pressure of creating?

BERTRAM: I have no routine. I used to write every day until I got a computer and the internet (about a year ago) and then my words got used up writing articles and commenting. But I was never one who was consumed by inner demons. I wrote because the publishing companies stopped releasing the books I liked to read — ones that couldn’t easily be slotted into a genre, yet not written with a “literary” style, and I figured if I wanted to read that kind of book, I’d have to write them, so I did. I say I don’t write every day, but I’m either thinking about the story and characters, researching, or editing. And now promoting. But come winter, my creative juices start flowing, and that’s when my novels get written.

BERTRAM: Are there any particular themes that repeat themselves in your work?

BURNS: Hmm . . . I’m not sure. I suppose many of my characters have been rendered powerless by the circumstances of their lives and are struggling to hang on by their fingernails. Robert Runte (an academic and nice fella I met at a convention years ago) commented along the lines that my characters seem to come from lower class backgrounds and that’s a rarity in spec fic. I agree with Nicholas Christopher (excellent author) when he says that each new work presents fresh challenges and one must learn to write all over again. If you’re doing it right. I never want to fall into the formula trap . . . that’s the death of art and the beginning of commerce.

Writing Discussion With Cliff Burns — Part II

Writing Discussion With Cliff Burns — Part III

11 Responses to “Writing Discussion With Cliff Burns — Part I”

  1. Cliff Burns Says:

    It has been my great pleasure to come across Pat Bertram in the blogosphere: she is a pro without pretension, a person of wit and wisdom. Chatting with her is always a pleasure, tapping into her keen, practical mind. Like me, she has grown disenchanted with the stupidity of the traditional publishing scene but is determined to forge on with her writing regardless. To which I say:

    Write on, Pat…

  2. Pat Bertram Says:

    Cliff, I am overwhelmed by your kind words. The discussion was a joy — thank you very much.

  3. Aaron Paul Lazar Says:

    And I agree with Cliff! Pat is a breath of fresh air! I’m delighted I’ve discovered her!

  4. Ken Coffman Says:

    Great conversation, Pat. It’s insane, but I know many of my ideas come from somewhere else and I’m just the vehicle. The characters do what they do, sometimes acting out in ways I don’t approve of and don’t want.
    Keep hammering away!

  5. Pat S. Says:

    Excellent discussion, Pat and Cliff! It was wonderful hearing how your characters come to life!

  6. Yosis Says:

    In such a competitive arena, how wonderful to see “pros without pretension” respectfully swapping philosophies and admiring each other’s works. Thank you for sharing this discussion, both of you!

  7. clairecollins Says:

    Great discussion. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  8. Judi Fennell Says:

    I love the puzzle analogy – as much as I love the feeling when those puzzle pieces fall into place. I love when I’ve put something innocuous, or throw-away, in the story then it turns out, five chapters later I need just that thing. I have no idea how this writing thing works; it just does. And, for that, I’m very thankful!

  9. ~Sia~ Says:

    It was nice to see Cliff not blow sunshine. Promoting is hard work. Finding the balance that lets you do both writing and promoting without killing yourself isn’t easy. It was nice to see that I’m not the only one that struggles with balance, lolol!

    It was also nice to see both of you addressing inspiration and the help you get to maintain that inspiration. I don’t know if we see the help from outside forces because our eyes are open to it because of the research or when you hit a wall, the answers just fall into place with a little help.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the next installment of this ‘discussion’.

    They’ve got you pegged, Pat. You’re a breath of fresh air.

  10. James Rafferty Says:

    Pat, Cliff,

    Excellent conversation about the practicalities of creating words that mean something. Pat, I read about a related “law” years ago in a book called “Work with Passion”. The basic idea is that once you start to focus on a particular thing, such as an area you need to research, you will notice related items that might formerly have escaped your attention. As you have both indicated in the blog, it works!


  11. Second Wind Publishing Says:

    Wonderful discussion with insights into both Pat and Cliff. I loved the descriptions on writing and the ups and downs of being a writer–how to juggle everything taking care of your health at the same time. Thank you! Chris

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