Writing Discussion with Cliff Burns — Part II

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. This is the second part of our discussion.

BERTRAM: How do you see the “indie world.” Is there hope for independent authors? By that I mean, is there a chance for independent authors ever to make a living at writing?

BURNS: The technologies are still evolving. Obviously, the two major concerns for indie writers is a) preserving and protecting copyright so someone doesn’t rip off your ideas without credit and/or compensation and b) getting paid for your efforts. 

BURNS: Right now, I have two full-length novels on my site and a good number of short stories — all available for free download and reading. There’s a “Donation” button for those who wish to voluntarily leave a small stipend but admittedly few people have taken me up on the offer. But money has never really been the object to me — it’s more presenting my work without editorial interference. Soon I’ll be moving into the world of podcasting and POD printing and hopefully that will spread the word . . . and earn a bit more money. We’ll see.

BERTRAM: Is the book publishing business as we know it coming to an end? How will that effect the “indie world”?

BURNS: The era of corporate book publishing is coming to an end. Media giants swallowed up various publishers in the 1990’s, hoping to milk them for as much profit as they could. Unfortunately, business models don’t work that well with publishing; book-lovers are notoriously eccentric and eclectic in their tastes and it’s hard to predict or graph or pie chart a bestseller. J.K. Rowling came out of nowhere. Profits are not nearly as high, stable or predictable enough in publishing, which is why I think many of the Big Boys will be dumping their publishing arms in the next 3-5 years. And, as I’ve written, this is the best thing that could happen for readers and writers. Smaller, more intimate and committed publishers will supplant the media giants and better books will be released as a result. Lower advances but maybe larger royalties (though writers will have to stay on their toes and make sure the people keeping the books are honest with actual sales figures) . . .

BERTRAM: Did you happen to see the New York Magazine article about the book business not living happily ever after?

BURNS: The New York Magazine article was brilliant, I printed it to have around. Confirms my view that the corporates are on the verge of dumping publishing from their portfolio . . . and also my opinion that most editors and agents are idiots. Some of the money they throw around for the worst sort of crap infuriates me. And meanwhile, their midlist authors (the most interesting of the lot) get no promo, no notice . . . and so they’re dumped from the roster for under-achieving (a classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy).

BERTRAM: I wonder if the insistence the major publishers have in slotting all novels into niches was one of the things that’s leading to their downfall. It used to be that most books did not fall into the genre category except for, obviously, the different genres. There used to be the genres, which were just a step up from pulp fiction, and at the other end of the spectrum was literary fiction. I liked the books that fell in between — books with readable styles that could not easily be categorized. What I like to read or write cannot be considered literature, but I do prefer fiction that isn’t quite as trivial as that which is on the market today.

BURNS: I’m with you, I like fiction that crosses all sorts of boundaries and defies easy categorization. But, unfortunately, (back to the corporate model), editors and agents like fiction that can be easily slotted. Someone who writes “in the tradition of . . .”. In other words, derivative stuff. Yet another Dan Brown or Stephen King knock-off. Is it the chicken or the egg? Do we blame readers for being undemanding, reading the same old crap over and over again or do we point the finger at editors and agents for not challenging readers? Or both? The corporate model of publishing does trivialize and does not encourage innovation of any kind.

BERTRAM: I guess what I’m really wondering is if people are still reading. I wonder if there are far more writers than readers, thanks to the self-publishing industry. Two of my novels are being released by Second Wind Publishing, a new independent doesn’t yet distribute to bookstores, but I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. With independent bookstores disappearing all over the world, it only matters what is available on-line. People keep pointing out to me that less than fifteen percent of books are sold on-line, but if the vast majority of books that are sold off-line are the grocery-store books by best-selling authors, does it matter?

BURNS: My colleague Alexandra Kitty (she runs an alt.news site) insists that people are reading as much, if not more than ever, they’re just doing so on-line (and free!), rather than shelling out money for books. The free culture of the internet creates a mindset of “why should I pay for something when I can get it for nothing on-line?”. And that pertains to newspapers, music piracy and, increasingly, publishing. I used to be on the local library board and I recall figures that indicated people were checking out more books, our numbers went up year by year. Could the expense of buying books have something to do with that?  Hardcovers are getting close to that fifty buck threshold and even paperbacks are pricey items (especially up here in Canada).

BERTRAM: It seems to me that this is one of the best times to try to peddle a book because of all the online resources, such as blogging and discussion forums. It also seems as if this is one of the worst times because of the hundreds of thousands of writers looking for readers. I’m hoping that someone like me who is willing to do the work to promote can reap the rewards.

CLIFF: Yes, everyone can claim to be a writer these days and the new technologies allow people to publish their crap, regardless of the quality of their work. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? I chose to publish on-line, I chose the “indie” life because I detest the notion of anyone having control or input re: my writing. Some folks who don’t like me would say I’m doing it my way because I’m not good enough for traditional publishing. I say the quality of the work wins out in the end and I’m willing to let readers decide if my work is worth reading. But the surfeit of bad writing on-line drags down the professional status and quality of craftsmanship of those of us who struggle mightily to compose good work. I implore potential readers to use their critical thinking skills and don’t lump us all together.

Writing Discussion with Cliff Burns — Part I

Writing Discussion with Cliff Burns — Part III

When a Writer Defaults — Muse on Writing

Karl C. Klein, author of Unnatural Girl soon to be published by Second Wind Publishing, muses about writing:

I cover a lot of ground.
1)defaulting
2)modifiers
3)blonde/blond
4)OK/okay

Reminder: I don’t have the benefit of a formal education. This essay is from my observations. 

The difference between an archetype and a stereotype is vast. The archetype stands as bones upon which we hang flesh — a stereotype is a cardboard cutout we allow our readers to flesh out. I’ve come to call the use of stereotypes defaulting.  

People assume what they assume, shorthanding the world. (I know shorthanding isn’t a word.) We pre-decide many aspects of life. I believe this to be a gift from Darwin, but I’m not going into that aspect. I want to talk about literary fiction.  

When a writer defaults.  

Reading a short story some years ago, I was introduced to many characters. Finally, a new character entered the story. The writer wrote: 

“He was a black man.” 

I wondered about the racial background of all the other characters. I wondered why the writer found it important to mention his race and not the race of the other characters. I wondered: what does he really mean by “He was a black man.” 

The writer used a default. Obviously, all his characters were white, unless otherwise noted. But still, what does he mean by “He was a black man.” I think of the many, many black males I’ve known over the years, their similarities and their differences and realize the statement doesn’t tell me anything worthwhile. After all, Colin Powel and William Drayton (Flavor Flav) are both black men and from where I’m sitting, have little in common. 

“He was a black man” is meant as a default, a stereotype, a cardboard cutout, a straw man merely to take the place where a real character might stand. The reader has the responsibility to hang the flesh on this character based on the reader’s prejudgment of what a black man looks like and how he might act. 

Let’s bring another character into the room: “She was a blonde.” 

OK, now we have a story populated with Will Smith and Brittany Spears. 

Note: Blonde is a person, normally female, with blond-colored hair. This term in many circles is consider derogatory (The color of the hair is not the person. To say, “See that blonde over there” is akin to saying: “See those tits over there?”) To me, in literary fiction, I see ‘Blonde’ as a meaningless term, saying nothing about the character. The term blond refers to a range of colors from sun-faded wicker to light walnut. 

Allow me a copy and paste here, a snippet from a short story, “Remembering the 4th:” 

“Minutes before lunch, I found myself suspended against the lockers outside English class, angry faces like an animated Whitman Sampler pushed shouts at me. The walnut face holding me leached so close, I knew we’d be having pizza for lunch.” 

Let me backtrack a moment and say this: there’s nothing wrong with populating your work with straw men, allowing the reader to flesh them out. It’s been a style growing in popularity, some people arguing we should describe characters and scenes as little as possible, allowing the reader to be more involved in the creation of the story. I have no idea what the style might be called, but I call it ‘reductionism.’  

The rewrite of “Waiting for Godot:” 

The curtain opens, the stage is bare. For sixty minutes the audience stares, waiting for something to happen, imagining what Estragon and Vladimir might do if they were there. Now that’s existentialism.  

OK 

(Note: OK is the preferred spelling over okay, though I prefer okay, I write OK with clenched teeth just like I drop the *@%* comma between two independent clauses connected with a conjunction, though I hate that comma with the passion of 10,000 suns. However, I’ll only give up my comma splices when they peel the pen from my cold, dead hand). 

Anytime we drop something generic on the page, we’re defaulting. When we say ‘his eyes were brown,’ we’re assuming the reader is going to know what we’re talking about when in reality, brown for eyes is a generic color.  

Again, a copy and paste, this time from a book in process I’m editing as she writes, “As Time Goes By:” 

“I thought her eyes should be blue like the midday summer sky, but they were like oiled rawhide with splotches of suede and a baker’s chocolate corona.” 

(there’s that comma I hate with the passion of 10,000 suns) 

Note, too, the ‘midday summer sky’ is a different blue than a winter sky or even a morning sky. 

Another copy and paste from the same work: 

“Uncle Mike’s eyes are dark and rich like winter evergreen in the shadows but with a hint of moist soil. His hair’s black, almost blue with a curl flipping in the front like Superman. I had to look up, standing under him.” 

Let me address modifiers while we’re here. As the writer, we often get in the story and write from our point of view and not the character’s. We want to make a statement like “He was very tall,” which in reality is meaningless to the reader. First off, ‘very’ is not a very good modifier because it doesn’t say much.  

Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. —Mark Twain 

“Very” isn’t a very good modifier.

“Very” isn’t a good modifier. 

Both say the same thing. “Very” is great in dialog, particularly with excited tweens, but in narrative, similes and comparisons are better. 

“I had to look up, standing under him.”

is much better than:

“He was very tall.” 

Another example of ‘show’ instead of ‘tell.’ 

Another example from a short story: “Love Letters,” by Kacie Kameron: 

“I had the gift of a perfect love. 

I was fifteen, spellbound by his brown-green eyes, the color of wet cow dung, intoxicated by the moist sea air and hot summer morning.” 

I think when people say a story needs to open with a hook, this is what they’re talking about.  

“wet cow dung” is wonderful. 

Good writing is hard work. Great writing is damn hard work.