How to Hook a Reader

The age of writing long descriptive passages (or even short ones) at the beginning of a novel has passed. Today people want to be drawn immediately into the story without wading through such excess. An editor might look at the first five pages before tossing aside your manuscript, but potential customers will give you a mere twenty seconds to draw them in. Once you have caught their attention, they might read a little further, and perhaps they will even buy the book. They certainly will not wade through five, ten, fifty pages until they get to “the good part.”

That “good part” must be right up front, especially if you’re a first-time writer. That’s all you have going for you — the ability to get off to a fast start and capture the reader’s attention. Your name certainly won’t do it; no one knows who you are yet. Your credentials might help, but only to establish your credibility after a potential reader has been hooked. And they will never be hooked by your ability to turn a clever phrase.

So what will hook the reader?  A character. Always a character. No one reads a book for a description of the weather, a place, or an issue. They don’t even want a description of the character. They want to meet him, to see life through his eyes, to bond with him. They want to know what he wants, what his driving force is. And they want to know who or what he’s in conflict with.

Without conflict, there is no story, but without a character for the reader to care about, there is no story either. Character and conflict are inextricably combined, and together they create the tension necessary to sustain a story. I know you think it’s okay to let the tension rise slowly, which it is, but the tension level at the beginning must be high enough to let the reader know something is going on.

I rewrote More Deaths Than One four times, and each time, the story fell flat. It wasn’t until I realized I’d spent too much time describing things or had Bob alone meandering through much of the story that the book took on life. I gave Bob a love interest, a server he met at a coffee shop.

More Deaths Than One begins:

“What do you think of a guy who embezzles from his own business?”

Bob Stark recognized the voice of the graveyard shift waitress, the attractive one with the black hair. He glanced up from his contemplation of the scars on the laminated plastic table and saw her standing by his booth, gazing at him, her eyebrows quirked. She seemed to expect a response, but he had no idea what to say. 

This isn’t the real hook, it’s just enough to capture your attention so I can reel you in for the punchline.

Reviewer Sheila Deeth said, The first three pages of “More Deaths than One” have to constitute a serious contender for the best opening scene of a novel. Two main characters are introduced, a garrulous waitress and a taciturn hot-chocolate customer. They meet. She talks, a lot. He reads the paper. “And Lydia Loretta Stark was dead. Again.” With two such immediately real and appealing characters, and a line like that, I’d challenge anyone not to want to keep turning the pages.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

When Describing Your Characters, Don’t Forget Their Hands.

I’m not sure it’s true any more that a picture is worth a thousand words considering that a thousand words takes up only a few kilobytes of computer memory while a good high resolution picture takes up three to four megabytes. And anyway, it doesn’t take a thousand words to describe something so that it becomes real. It takes only a few words, if they are the right words, to create vivid portraits. The secret is to choose significant details — details that mean something, that promote the story, that evoke emotion — rather than to write long passages of trivia.

Take hands for example. By describing a character’s hands, we can describe the character. A man with manicured and buffed fingernails is different from one with grime permanently etched into his cuticles. A woman with bitten fingernails is different from one with dirty, broken nails, and both are different from a woman wearing designer acrylic nails. The color of nail polish a woman chooses tells us about her character. And clear nail polish on a man would tell us about his character.

We can describe hands in many ways: claw-like, thin, scrawny, big-knuckled, blue-veined, plump, fat, chubby, arthritic. Characters can have tattooed hands. They can wear gloves, a simple wedding band, or multiple rings on each finger.

Hands also do things. They wave, point, gesture, touch chins or noses, and each of these gestures and mannerisms tells us about the character. Hands can slap another character or caress a cheek, and such actions tell us about the relationship between the characters.

Here are a few examples of hands and what they do, taken from Light Bringer,.

The kid smoothed his neatly combed hair, swung his callused hands front to back as if he didn’t know what to do with them, then stuck them in his pockets.

Arthur Shillitani took his thin, long-fingered hands off the controls and slicked back his dark hair.

Rena studied her hands. . . . They were paler than usual, making the blue veins seem more prominent, and the nails were in need of a clipping, but otherwise they looked like the hands she’d lived with for the past thirty-seven years. What made them different from anyone else’s? What made her different?

Some examples from More Deaths Than One:

The staff sergeant was only 5’9” or 5’10”, but he had a powerful build with thick wrists, a massive chest, and hands that looked able to crush a larynx without any effort at all.

No one who crossed the threshold had the pampered arrogance of Evans’s men or the soft hands of a corporate drone.

The backs of his hands were crepey and mottled with age spots, but he seemed only about ten years older than Bob.

Kerry folded her hands primly in her lap, but her body seemed to vibrate with suppressed excitement.

And a couple of examples from Daughter Am I:

Mr. Browning shuffled through the papers on his massive black walnut desk. His age-mottled hands moved slowly, as if weighted by the six turquoise rings he wore.

Not hearing Happy, she looked back — he was heading her way, fumbling with his gun. He seemed to be trying to point it at the woods, but his hands shook so badly, the weapon wobbled all over the place.

So, when describing your character, don’t forget their hands. Hands make the character.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Character as Fate and Fate as Character

Heraclitus believed that a person’s character is their fate. Character — the sum total of a person’s traits — influences the choices a person makes, and the consequences of those choices ultimately become that person’s destiny. Or not. Much of life is luck, happenstance, and totally out of our control, though we tend to believe we have much more control over our lives than we really do. But that’s not an issue here because this is a writing discussion, and in our story worlds everything is under our control, and what our characters do determine their own fate.

This is most obvious in a tragedy — a character comes to an unhappy end because of a flaw in his or her own character, though in today’s stories, because readers like a more optimistic ending, that fatal flaw is often balanced by a special strength. But character/fate works for other types of stories, such as a thriller where a character becomes obsessed with finding the truth, and that obsession leads to both the character’s fate and the end of the story.

For example, In Daughter Am I, a young woman is determined to find out the truth of who her grandparents were and why someone wanted them dead. That determination overrides her usual placidity and takes her on a journey that eventually leads her home again, changed forever. She really did find her destiny because of her character.

I wonder if the opposite is more true (if truth has degrees), that destiny is character. Does what happens to us, both the actions under our control and those beyond our control, determine who we are? Determine who our characters are? This was a theme I explored in More Deaths Than One. So much happened to my poor hero Bob that was not under his control, yet what was under his control — how he handled his fate — made him the man he became.

Any discussion about fate and writing would also have to include the question: does the writer’s fate affect the character’s fate? None of my books have totally happy endings. There is always a pinprick of unease in the background, but the book I am now contemplating — the story of a woman going through grief — is going to have even less of a happy ending. Perhaps because I know the ending of my own love story? Not my story, obviously, since I’m still here, but the story I shared with another. Except for my work in progress (the one that’s been stalled all these years) the stories I’m thinking about writing now all end up with the characters alone.

When I wrote the first draft of my novel More Deaths Than One (and the second draft and the third) I had the hero Bob meandering around his world trying to unravel his past all by himself, and it was boring. Did I say boring? It was moribund. The story went nowhere because there was no one for Bob to butt heads with.

In the fourth draft of More Deaths Than One, I gave Bob a love interest, a waitress he met at a coffee shop. (Hey, so it’s been done before. The poor guy spent eighteen years in Southeast Asia, and didn’t know anybody stateside. How else was he supposed to meet someone?) That’s when the story took off. He had someone to butt heads with, someone to ooh and aah over his achievements, someone to be horrified at what had been done to him.

From that, I learned the importance of writing scenes with more than one character. And yet here I am, once more falling into the black hole of writing characters alone because I can’t visualize them ending up with anyone.

Which leads me to my final question: could the fate of the character also influence the writer’s fate? If so, maybe I should decide where I want to go from here, and write my destiny. Or  I could just wing it and see where destiny takes me and my characters.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Dazzling the Audience

When I was invited to speak at the Scribbler’s Retreat Writers’ Conference in St.Simons Island, I accepted, though I hadn’t a clue how to give a speech. The last time I stood in front of a group to give a formal talk was during a speech class freshman year in high school. We were supposed to give a demonstration speech, I remember, and I decided to be clever. So, when my scheduled day came, I stood in front of the class and announced I was the representative of the Emperor’s New Clothes Manufacturing Company. I held up one invisible garment after another and proceeded to describe every style, every fabric, every frill. When I finished, the teacher frowned at me and said, “Your speech was very good, but it would have been better if you had used real clothes.”

Just goes to show you, one shouldn’t try to be too clever. And I took that to heart when I wrote my speech on “Creating Incredible, but Credible, Characters” for Scribbler’s Retreat. It was simple, more of an introduction to the art of creating characters than a full-blown exposition. I wanted to spend most of my hour showing them how to create great characters, not telling them, so I prepared a character questionnaire to help them delve deeper into the social, physical, and psychological aspects of their character. My plan was to have them create a character as a group so they could see how conflicts, plot, and subplots grow along with a character.

I didn’t have time to practice my speech before I left, so I figured I’d do it on the plane. Yeah, right. It had been so many years since I’d flown that I didn’t realize how impossible it was to do anything on a flight except get through the hours. When my idea of studying my speech on the plane didn’t work out, I figured I could do it once I got to St. Simons. That would have been a good idea except for . . . Did I mention this was a resort area? Right on the ocean? In the south? I went for a walk on the beach, and happened upon a trolley leaving for a tour of the island. I hopped aboard and was entertained with tales (and some tall tales) of the island’s history. When we returned, I was still in tourist mode, so I went to the lighthouse, and walked up all 129 steps to the top. And so the time went.

Despite not studying my speech, I wasn’t nervous. Until . . .

I’d met fellow speaker Chuck Barrett, author of The Savannah Project, so I particularly wanted to hear his speech, which came right before mine. He talked about point of view, a difficult topic that he handled well, and at the end, everyone applauded. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that people would applaud at the end of my speech, and that thought panicked me. So I went to the front of the group, thanked the woman who introduced me, and froze. Just for a second. Then I remembered that this was my party, and I could do what I wanted, so I smiled, told the story about my Emperor’s New Clothes Speech, and sailed right through the rest of my talk. I think I might have stammered a few times, but people were kind. Then, when we got to the questionnaire, I dazzled!!

Well, it was more that the audience dazzled me. When they caught on to what we were doing, their eyes lit up, and I knew I had them. Many people contributed to our character — a beautiful 27-year-old woman of French descent and a shady past. A certain fellow in her life wanted her to make them a fortune as a stripper, but she was resisting him. She wanted a simpler life, the life of a writer. She had a best friend, who loved her, and a sister who hated her. And she had a daughter she’d given up for adoption when she was sixteen.

We could all see this woman, as if she were a part of the group. Afterward, several people told me that I helped them see how to overcome problems they were having with their own characters, which is exactly what I’d hoped for. Oddly, I can’t remember the applause. I only remember looking at each of the participants and thanking them for making the experience so wonderful.

Getting Sass From My Character

Sometimes when I can’t think of where I am going with a story, I talk to my characters. Sort of. My characters don’t take on a life of their own — I am always aware they are my creations — but sometimes when I begin to make choices for a character, the character seems to be determining her own fate. If a character has a particular daughter, a particular problem, a particular job, then all those things bind the character and make her act a particular way.

In the case of poor Amanda, the hero of my newest work in progress (the one that got its start as a NaNoWriMo project), her life is bound by a dead husband, a rebellious twenty-something daughter, and an online lover she’s never met. Once a preacher’s wife with an entire support system, she now has to deal with everything on her own. In addition, she’s going to have to leave the parsonage where she’s lived for the past fifteen years, and she barely has enough energy to get out of bed in the morning. All these problems bind the poor woman, creating more dilemmas than she can handle. Still, with all her trauma, she seemed boring to me, so I sat her down and tried to find out why I am having a problem with her. Don’t know if I solved the problem of why I find her so boring, but at least I got a better understanding of who she is and where to go with the story.

Bertram: I can’t get into writing your story. You’re nothing special, just a woman grieving. Boring.

Amanda: Sam thinks I’m special and unique.

Bertram: Who’s Sam?

Amanda: Don’t you know?

Bertram: Of course I know. I created him. I just wondered if you knew.

Amanda: I know he’s a special man. We met online at a support group for people whose mates are dying of cancer. His wife and David—my husband—were both told they had three to six months to live. Having something so real to talk about cut through all the usual crap people go through when the meet, even online, so we got to know each other very quickly. And we fell in love. Took us both by surprise. Neither of us were looking for that, and we didn’t know you could develop such powerful feelings without ever having met.

Bertram: What happened to Sam’s wife?

Amanda: She rallied. Is in remission right now. Still not well, but doesn’t seem to be terminal. Sam is staying with her. We want to get together, but he lives halfway across the country. In Ohio. I need so much to feel his arms around me. I am stunned by the depth of my grief for David. I thought I was over him—he took such a long time to die, you see. Over a year. I thought I’d finished with my grief and moved on, but when he died, it felt as if I were dying, too. If I didn’t love Sam, I couldn’t have gone on.

Bertram: I don’t understand how you can love one man while mourning another.

Amanda: I don’t understand it either. Sam says I’m a complicated woman. He says that there’s a part of me that will always belong to him, a part David never knew. Apparently I need to men to fulfill me. Yet here I am . . . alone. And grieving.

Bertram: What part belongs to Sam?

Amanda: The passionate part. I always thought I was a passionless woman—I’d have to be, being David’s wife. He wasn’t much for sex. I think it had something to do with his childhood, something that happened to shape his life, but he never talked about it. I’ll find out, though—it’s important to the story. See, when I find out that he’s different from the man I knew, then I panic and wonder who I am. For most of my adult life, I defined myself by my relationship with him. He gave my life focus and meaning. Which is why finding out the truth about Davis is important. I need to know who he is so I can find out who I am.

Bertram: And who are you?

Amanda: I don’t know. Isn’t that your job, to create me?

You can read the entire conversation here: Pat Bertram Introduces Amanda Ray, Hero of a New Work-in-Progress

My Books, My Way — Yay!

This is the second to last day of my blog tour. I wasn’t sure I’d manage to do all the work — 52 stops in 35 days. When you count the posts I did here to promote the tour, that means I wrote eighty-seven articles in five weeks. Whew! I truly did not intend the tour to be so long and involved — somehow it just took off on its own. I have a lot of sleep to catch up on — too many late nights — but the tour was worth it. Not in sales so much, but in what I learned about my books, me, other blogs. Because of all the interviews, I had to think about where I came from in regards to writing, and where I want to go. It turned out to be quite intensive. I do not recommend such a long tour, however. A week or two is sufficient.

Today I am at Book Reader’s Heaven with Glenda Bixler talking about My Books, My Way: Experiences With a Small Independent Publisher. It’s a bit ironic. Yesterday I started reading Dan Brown’s Demons & Angels for no other reason than I somehow ended up with the book, and it struck me that the main difference between small presses and the large corporate publishers is the distribution capacity the big guys have. It certainly is not quality. I have seen some excellent books published by small presses, and Demons & Angels doesn’t even come close.  There are way too many inconsistencies, both internal and external.

Robert Langdon is supposed to be an intelligent fellow, knowledgable about symbols, yet when he finds out that physicists are trying to answer such questions as where we came from, what life is made of, and the meaning of the universe, he is astounded. Why? That’s what physics is. Or what it does. Any halfway educated person knows that. He’s also astounded when he discovers that a scientist was also a priest. Why? If he knows anything at all about ancient symbols, he would know that many of today’s religious symbols were ancient scientific symbols. He would also know that the “priests” in ancient times were scientists — science was religion, or perhaps religion was science — and that the division between church and science is a relatively new occurence. This post is not supposed to be a dissertation on religion, but a refutation of Langdon’s character. He simply would not have been surprised if he was as smart and knowledgable as he was supposed to be.

Perhaps that example is a bit esoteric. So try this: the scientists explain to Langdon that a bit of anti-matter  is suspended in the center of a container, held there by two magnetic fields. Yet when Langdon looks for the bit of matter, he searches for it on the bottom of the container, and then is surprised to find it suspended in the center of the container. Sheesh. If that’s the kind of writing that is acceptable to corporate publishers, I’m glad not to be a part of it. Though I wouldn’t mind a bit of their cash.

If you want to know why I am glad to be published by a small independent press, you can find the article here: My Books, My Way: Experiences With a Small Independent Publisher.

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Sex SCENE not SEX Scene

One problem new writers have when they approach a sex scene is that they think of it as a SEX scene rather than a sex SCENE. Any effective scene — sex or not – serves multiple purposes. This is especially true of a sex scene, otherwise it will seem unconnected to the story, as if you just threw sex in the mix because you felt it was time to titillate your readers.

One good use of a sex scene is to show character. One of my favorite scenes in my novel A Spark of Heavenly Fire is when Jeremy King, a world famous actor, sleeps with a woman he just met in a bar.

The sound of weeping woke Jeremy. He turned his head toward his companion and saw one trembling shoulder and a tangle of gleaming hair.

He stretched luxuriously. The red hair hadn’t lied. The girl had been all fire, kindling a passion in him he hadn’t felt in years. The memory of it made him hard.

He reached over and pulled the girl into his arms. He smoothed back her hair and kissed away her tears, murmuring, “Honey,” and “Sweetheart,” and “Dear.”

“I’m such a terrible person,” she said, sobbing.

“Shh. Shh,” he whispered between tiny kisses.

Her arms stole around his neck, and her lips sought his. In a surprisingly short time she bucked beneath him, calling out his name.

You’ve still got it, King, he thought exultantly. Then, after one final thrust, he tumbled into oblivion.

I always liked that scene. It’s not very graphic, but it did what I wanted it to — define the characters

Another good use of a scene is to show the ebb and flow of human connection. For example, you could have three scenes spread throughout the story. In the first scene, perhaps, the man climaxes, feeling connected to the woman. When he immediately goes to sleep, she feels disconnected. In the second scene, perhaps he can’t get it up, leaving him feeling disconnected, but since he tries to make it up to her by cuddling her, she feels connected. In the third scene, they climax together, perhaps cuddle afterward, so they both feel connected.

In addition to the sex, then, you show a pattern of connection and disconnection between the couple (in other words, conflict), you show a whole new perspective of the characters, and you show a change in their relationship. You also end up with a subplot that adds to the overall richness of the story. In other words, you end up with a series of sex SCENES, not just SEX scenes.

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Sports As Story

The one thing that separates humans from other animals is not our ability to communicate; most (perhaps all) creatures possess that ability to some degree. What separates us from animals is how we communicate: by words, by stories.

We all have stories to tell. At work, we tell colleagues, “You’ll never guess what happened to me last night.” At home, we tell our families, “You know what Sally did today? She . . .” Out with friends, we top each other’s jokes.

Stories. That’s what we’re about.

We love to hear other people’s stories, we love to tell stories, and we love to read stories, both real and imagined. “I don’t like stories,” you might say; “I like sports.” Ah, but sports is all about story. The hero, the villain, the conflict, the passion, the suspense, the unexpected or the hoped-for ending. We identify with the characters; we empathize with their plight; we feel as if we have a stake in the outcome of the game. All elements of story. No wonder so many sports movies have been made, so many sports novels have been written. The story of a game within the story of a character. Heady stuff.

Conflict keeps us reading a story, conflict keeps us watching a game. When a character or a player with whom we identify runs up against an obstacle, we want to find out how things will turn out. That conflict forces us to pay attention. When a book is too slow or too predictable, we will toss it aside. When a clear winner of a game is indicated, we will leave the ballpark or turn off the television. When a game is desultorily played, neither team giving that fabled one hundred and ten percent, we lose interest.

We might try to avoid conflict in our lives, but when in comes to story, we need conflict. We need characters, we need to care, we need the contrast and the conflict between the hero and the villain, and we like to see characters change. We love when underdogs win, when they pull out the best in themselves and change from loser to champion. Doesn’t matter whether we hear an anecdote, tell a joke, read a book, or watch sports. It’s all the same.

We are human. We are story.

De-Creating a Sea Beast

Today I created a marvelous sea beast. It had the body of a crocodile and a knobby round head with flat features perched atop a long neck. It moved with the speed of a snake strike, and its breath smelled of wildflowers. It was supposed leap out of the water to try to ravage my hero. What would save the poor guy was the beast’s inability to gain purchase on the pebbly beach.

Today I also de-created the beast. The problem? It was a duplication of effect. Two pages before the beast’s emergence, I had a similar scene involving a tiger attack, and as the saying goes: when it comes to writing, one plus one equals zero.

It’s hard to move an episodic story forward. How many times can one guy manage to survive dangerous situations in a hostile new world without it beginning to seem contrived? But if he isn’t beset by multiple problems, why would he ever let himself be maneuvered into entering a human zoo? Duplication of effect would take away the immediacy of his problem, making it seem more humdrum and less of a conundrum.

No wonder each book I write takes longer to write than the last. I don’t like to follow in my own footsteps, so I always choose stories (or they choose me) that I don’t know how to write. Not only do I have to write the book, I have to teach myself how to write it. But that’s my own conundrum: Writing that which I don’t know how to write.

At least I had fun creating my leviathan. And perhaps someday I will be able re-create him, if later in not in this book, maybe in the next.

Writing Discussion With Cliff Burns — Part III

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 third and final part of the discussion.

BERTRAM: National Novel Writing Month is coming up, and its adherents are a heated bunch — they don’t seem to like anyone questioning the process. You’re one of the few I’ve come across who speak out against it. 

BURNS: I know people have really taken me to task for lambasting NaNoWriMo and its adherents. To me, the concept is a stupid one — write a novel in a month, give me a break! It devalues the professionalism of the vocation, the enormous amount of time and energy authors put into learning and developing their craft. Anyone can claim to be an “author” or “artist” — the arts seem to condone this sort of thing. I suppose I’m an elitist and a snob. It took me ten years of daily writing and scores of credits before I was able to call myself a writer without feeling self-conscious and phony. As I wrote in a recent post: you’re not a plumber if you unclog a toilet and you’re not an electrician if you screw in a light bulb. Each of those trades requires training, a lengthy apprenticeship period. Why should the arts be any different? 

BERTRAM: I can’t even imagine what it would take to write a novel in a month. The writing of a novel takes me a year, and some of the research I’ve done has taken more than that. But then, I am not an intuitive writer. I have to drag each word out of hiding and find its place in the puzzle that is a novel. I suppose two types could write 50,000 words in a month — the intuitive writers who spew out words, and the logical writers who have the whole thing outlined before they begin. Me? I fall somewhere in the middle. I so hate tossing aside my hard work that I habitually rework my writing as I write. (Though I have rewritten one of my novels four times, and deleted 25,000 words from another..)

BURNS: My first drafts come out in a huge gout of words — I try to get it all down as quickly as I can.   I think I wrote the first draft of one of my novels in 45 days. But . . . then I spend the next eighteen months (or more) revising, editing, polishing, going over each syllable with painstaking care. I outline a little bit, scribble down character names, some ideas for certain scenes, but that first draft usually becomes the outline I work from. It’s incredibly labour-intensive but the only method that works for me.. I would say only a few words or phrases survive from my first draft by the time I’m finished. It’s only a roadmap, nothing more. And I never grow attached to a character or scene — “everything in service to the story”, that’s my motto. All else is expendable.

BERTRAM:  I was going to ask if you push for a daily word count, but you mostly answered that. So how about: do you write at the same time and in the same place and in the same manner (computer, pen/paper) everyday?

BURNS: My office is right across from our bedroom so it’s the first place I visit in the morning. Moving things around on my desk, gearing up for the day. I play lots of music to get warmed up, start the juices flowing. Commence work when my family leaves for school or work, break for lunch, maybe tea later in the day, popping downstairs when my family returns. We have supper together and then often it’s back to the office to square things away, tie off loose ends and set things up for the morrow.

BURNS: First drafts are almost always handwritten (even my 450+ page novel So Dark the Night) and then tapped into my ancient Mac computer with fingers swollen and aching from arthritis or nerve damage.  Twenty-five years or more of three or four-fingered typing has taken its toll. How does that compare to you? I hope you’re a lot saner in your work habits than I am. You strike me as a pretty levelheaded individual . . . or am I wrong?

BERTRAM: You’re not wrong, but when it comes to writing, I’m not so much level-headed as undriven. Each of the words has to be dragged out of me, an act of will. And sometimes the words are not there. But I don’t sweat it; I edit, I blog, I promote. And when the words come, I’m ready. I also write handwrite my first drafts — I think one reason for the crap published today is that authors lack the brain/finger/pencil/paper flow. I read once that the only place other than the brain where gray matter is found is on the fingertips. May or may not be true. But it feels true.

BERTRAM: When does a writer become an author? I used to think it was when a writer got published, but now that anyone can get published, it’s not much of a criterion. Nor does a writer become an author when they can make a living at it; good writers seldom can. The hacks usually do.

BURNS: A writer writes. That’s it. Every single day. Publication credits are meaningless (especially today) and critical acclaim doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Sales figures? Well, Dan Brown sold millions, as did Stephanie Meyer and, in my view, their work is sub-literate.  he way you can tell is read it out loud. Just one page, any page will do. If you’re not crying with laughter after a couple of paragraphs, it’s time to get a funny bone transplant.

BURNS: Aspiring authors: apply yourself to the task of writing with discipline and courage and perseverance. I love the quote from Nabokov about “writing in defiance of all the world’s muteness”. Not just scribbling the same thing, working to the same formula but trying to stretch your talent as far as it will go . . .. and beyond. Working outside your comfort zone, writing prose that scares and intimidates you. But it’s the daily practice that, to me, reveals those who are serious and distinguishes them from the wannabes I loathe.

BERTRAM: is possible to become an author people will read even without the “help” of corporate publishing?
 
BURNS: I self-published my first book back in 1990 — it sold out its print run in less than 5 months and earned praise from various reviewers, as well as Governor-General Award-winning writer Timothy Findley. I started my blog, “Beautiful Desolation” 18 months ago and since then I have ceased submitting work to other venues — my work (including 2 novels) now goes directly to my blog and I’ve never been happier. Corporate publishing is dying, the profit margins aren’t big enough and soon the Big Boys will be dumping their publishing arms. The new technologies allow writers to have access to readers around the world–I only wish this stuff had been around ten years ago, it would have saved me a lot of frustration and fury. Kindle? E-books? POD? Why not? Anything that allows the writer to get a bigger slice of the pie is all right with me…
 
BERTRAM: How did you promote your self-published book in 1990? What would you do differently today?
 

BURNS: That was my book Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination and a lot has changed since then. For one thing there are far fewer independent bookstore and those were the folks who sold the lion’s share of Sex. I took copies with me everywhere I went–Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto–approached every indie bookstore I could and sold them (usually on consignment). The vast majority of those book stores are gone now, sad to say. Sex cost $3000 to publish, my second collection, The Reality Machine, cost $6000 in 1997. Nowadays print-on-demand might save me some money–that’s something I’m looking into, likely using Lulu.com. Can’t quote you any price for that (as yet) but I’ll be using my blog and the vast reach of the internet to spread the word..

BERTRAM: Is there one website more than another that brings you readers? Any suggestions for authors just starting to promote?

BURNS: Hmmm . . . well, I try to reach out to sites that discuss writing and publishing and I have a RedRoom authors page. I comment on a lot of blogs, replying to posts that amuse or annoy me for one reason or another. My blog, Beautiful Desolation, is my primary promotional venue, to tell the truth. I’m also on LibraryThing, a place where bibliophiles can hang out and chat. They don’t encourage “blog-pimping” (a term I loathe, by the way), which is ridiculous because often I’ve written a lengthy post on “Beautiful Desolation” regarding a point under discussion. So I refer people to the post anyway and slap down anyone who dares accuse me of self-promotion.

BERTRAM: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

BURNS: Interesting the similarities and differences in our approaches and processes, our views toward the life and business of writing. Thanks for the discussion, it helped me better define and synthesize my thoughts.

Writing Discussion With Cliff Burns — Part I

Writing Discussion With Cliff Burns — Part II

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