I became a writer because of Ray Bradbury.
Over thirty years ago, I first considered becoming a writer. My favorite author, Ray Bradbury, had made me do it. Over the years, he had grabbed me and engaged me with his words and especially his short stories. He opened my eyes to the limitless possibilities of words and books. Mainly through the influence of his short stories, he urged me to keep reading and start writing.
One of Ray's books in particular—and a subsequent meeting with him—set me on my way to becoming a writer. The book was Dandelion Wine. I had read many of Ray's books, including Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, but when I read Dandelion Wine, it was the first time I could truly visualize the overarching story as I read it. It was the first time I became part of the story. It was the first time I experienced words and sentences strung together in such a unique way: literature with doses of realism and lyrics and poetics. He hooked me. I thought to myself: I want to be able to write a book like that someday. I'm a big dreamer.
In 2003, while in San Diego on business, I had the opportunity to meet Ray. I had heard about a seminar he was conducting at San Diego State University, and on a whim, I changed my afternoon plans to attend. Ray's two-hour talk about his "love of writing" was truly inspirational, and his words made me wonder even more about becoming a career writer. Afterward, I met Ray, and he signed a book for me. He asked me if I was a writer, and I told him that I wanted to be one someday. He said, "Just do it," and I replied, "Okay, I will." Four years later, I became a writer. Although I had been writing for years, I made it official, with a total commitment to writing and publishing my books.
The number one thing I learned from Dandelion Wine is there are no definitive rules for how to write a successful book. Although Ray's publisher marketed and categorized the book as a novel, Dandelion Wine is a loosely connected collection of short stories. Ray was a great short story writer, and he weaved together the many stories he wrote over the years about Greentown, a town he created. Many of his Greentown stories are autobiographical, depicting his experiences as a child growing up in rural Waukegan, Illinois. His book is a mash-up of many forms of writing. It's a novel of short stories that's also an autobiography that includes elements of prose poetry—told through the eyes of a child. I think until his dying day, he lived his life and told his stories with the heart of a much younger person. Isn't that great?
As I began to write my own short stories, Ray's books, storytelling approaches, inspirational writings and quotes, and love were always nearby. My first published story collection, No Turning Back: Stories, includes a heart-warming story "An Unexpected Guest," which recounts a fictional birthday dinner with my family and Ray. What a dinner it was!
Ray continues to be an inspiration for my writing. My newest book, Grace: Stories and a Novella, includes the story "The Final Countdown." In the year 2110, the Earth struggles to survive, ravaged by overpopulation and greed. Food is scarce, and the youth-run government has no choice but to implement a plan devised decades earlier: deport the elderly population to a remote outpost—on the moon. "The Final Countdown" is also the opening chapter of my new in-progress stories-as-a-novel, Elderworld.
I became and continue to be a writer because of Ray Bradbury. He is an endless source of inspiration.
Dan Burns is the author of the novels A Fine Line and Recalled to Life and the short story collections No Turning Back: Stories and Grace: Stories and a Novella. He is also an award-winning writer of stories for the screen and stage. He resides with his family in Illinois and enjoys spending time in Wisconsin and Montana, where he stalks endless rivers in pursuit of trout and a career as a fly fisherman. For more information, please visit www.danburnsauthor.com.
I became a writer because of Ray Bradbury.
Cyrus Webb: Hello everyone, and welcome back to Cyrus Webb Presents here in the beautiful city of Chicago, Illinois. I'm so excited to be sitting down with my friend, Dan Burns, today. This is a pretty big day for Dan because he's celebrating the release of his new book, Grace. We're going to be talking to Dan not only about the new book, but also about his love of storytelling, what it's been like for him to share that with all of you, and of course, let you guys know how to get your own copy of the book and stay connected with him. Dan, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.
Dan Burns: It's so great to see you. We've talked for so many years on the phone. To see you in person, it's quite a treat.
Cyrus Webb: Well, no, I thank you for the opportunity because you are—and I said this on a post on Facebook yesterday—you are such a gift for readers like myself because you're able to create these stories, Dan, that I think people are able to not only enjoy, but, like with "Grace," able to see themselves in. So what has it been like for you as a storyteller to do what you love and see the response from readers?
Dan Burns: It's an unbelievable opportunity to, every day, have fun and explore ideas, explore writing, and try different things. I think that's probably what I attempted to pursue the most with this book. You've read my other books, and they're all unique and different in their own way. With each new book, I try and make it better than the last one, but also need to try different approaches to storytelling. This was certainly the case with Grace. What I was really trying to explore was how to look at telling the story from different perspectives. Most of all my other stories and novels were told from the third person omniscient point of view, which is a very safe way to tell a story, but you can never really tell the true thoughts and feelings of a character because, how all-knowing can you be?
With the opening story, "Redemption," and two others in this collection, I took the first person perspective, and really dove into the mind of the character. It was enlightening and invigorating and exciting, and I was able to say things from the character's perspective that I don't think I've ever said before. And so, the stories came across much differently. I think readers are going to be surprised, excited, interested, and engaged just because of the difference in perspective.
Cyrus Webb: You mentioned a really good point here, Dan, because I will say this, and I finished the book on my trip to Chicago, and one thing that I will say about this book is that this book is us. I think that's maybe the connection people will feel, that they will see pieces of themselves in this collection. And, I think that's the gift that you've given us as a storyteller and with the first person narrative, because you allow us to see that we are more connected sometimes than we might think. What was that like for you to explore, as the stories came together, the fact that, here you are, creating these characters, but really are telling the stories of so many people?
Dan Burns: What I thought was most interesting was, as I was pulling the stories together for the collection, that they were all thematically connected. That wasn't intentional as I was writing each individual story, because I wrote them over several years at different periods of my life and from different perspectives. And so, when I read them, I saw that they were all thematically connected through a form of personal impact. You made a point that people will recognize themselves in these characters. I saw that myself.
It's magical when you write because you write a story, and then afterwards, all sorts of other things come to you that you didn't intend in getting across to the reader. And then when you get the reader perspective, which is subjective and enlightening, it's really fascinating. So, I'm looking forward to hearing how people react to the stories by seeing themselves in these characters. I think there's a lot to draw from these stories.
Cyrus Webb: There is. I think that's the great thing about being a storyteller, right? That you're able to present this to us, and then of course let the audience can see what they're able to connect with. You mentioned something about Grace that you've also been able to accomplish with your previous work, Dan. And that is to be able to draw from things over the years, through your own journey as a storyteller. What has it been like for you to look at your own growth, to look at where you were when you were creating these stories, and then look at where you are now?
Dan Burns: One of the stories, I wrote three years ago. And to reread it again, the first impression was, "Where did that come from? And who was I at that time?" I can then go back and recall where I was and where I'm at today, which is a very different place. But I don't change the stories, because all of my stories are defined as a point in time. It's the storytelling from my perspective at that point in time given my experience up until that time. The story marks a history for myself as a writer. And, with each new one, if I can make it a little bit better and approach it a little bit differently and make it more interesting, even better.
One of the things I'd like to mention: the last story, which is the title novella, "Grace," is a story that started as a poem. If I could just tell a quick story?
Cyrus Webb: Oh, definitely. Sure.
Dan Burns: I showed up at my office one morning, and I'm about to open the door of my office, and I look down the hall, and my neighbor is having difficulty getting his key into the lock. It seems he'd had a rough night. On the third attempt, the key hits the deadbolt key hole and he stumbles in to his apartment. I sat down at my desk and was working on a story from the day before, and I could not stop thinking about this guy. Where had he come from? What was he doing? And I figured you'd have some explaining to do. So, I sat down and wrote a poem that helped me explore what he was going through at that time.
And that started this snowball effect of ideas. It went from a poem, to a short story, to a stage play script, which I hope to see on a Chicago stage sometime soon, and into the novella that is in the book.
Cyrus Webb: Wow.
Dan Burns: So, when you ask about development as a writer and where stories come from, they can come from anywhere and they can grow organically over time. Sometimes an idea simply does not leave me alone, and I have to explore it further. And "Grace" in particular, when you made the comment that people will see themselves in these characters, there's a lot of characters in that novella. I think people will be able to identify with not only one, but many of the people, not only as themselves, but people they know, people in their family. I think it's just a glorious story that will make people laugh and maybe cry and-
Cyrus Webb: Yeah, definitely make them cry.
Dan Burns: Maybe shocked as well. The ending is quite interesting.
Cyrus Webb: Well, you brought up something I want to talk to you about. I mentioned before we began the segment, I wanted to talk to you about the association, pun intended, of individuals you've been able to surround yourself with that are also writers. But you said something just now that I definitely want to go back to, because this is something I didn't know about you and your work, that you don't change the stories. What I thought about when you said it, that the stories are almost like history, right? History is what it is. And we might like it or be able to add to it, but it is what it is. Is that a conscious decision you made to just say that, "This is what I wanted to write at that time, and I'm going to honor that time and honor those characters and where they were"?
Dan Burns: Absolutely. As I mentioned, the stories mark that history, that point in history, in my life. And I need to leave them be. I could go back and edit and change all the stories I've written. But there's so much more to work on, so many new ideas and stories to tell. So I'm going to leave them where they're at. And take it from there.
Cyrus Webb: For those who are just tuning in, and no matter on what platform you may be joining us, whether it's our TV program or through our web series and other platforms, you're watching Cyrus Webb Represents. I'm sitting down with my good friend, author Dan Burns, for our very first in-person conversation together. Dan has been a guest on the radio show, Conversations Live, several times. We're meeting for the first time here in Chicago to discuss his career and his brand new book, called Grace. We're going to be letting you all know how you can get your own copy of the book and stay connected with Dan as well.
So Dan, let's talk about this group that you've been able to form, because I think what's so interesting is that we need to have people around us to support us, who understand the process and what we go through. You've been able to do that with fellow authors as well. Why has that been so important for you?
Dan Burns: Being a writer is a very solitary endeavor, right? We lock ourselves in our room. We try to get the words down onto the page. And then when we're done, what do we do with it? Where do we go? I think it's very important that we have friends, fellow authors, family members, whoever, to talk with about our writing and our stories. When we saw each other yesterday at the Chicago Writers Association event, this is a group—I'm on the board—that's the largest writers' association in the Midwest. We have close to 1,000 members across the country. But the most important part of it is that it is a group of people that has the ability to get together and share their experiences in a variety of ways, whether it's in person, at events, education events, online, however. It's critically important.
Let me share a recent experience I had with the new book. My biggest concern was that the book be perfect when it gets out. So, editing is tremendously important as part of the publishing process. Once it was ready to go to print, I asked my fellow Chicago Writers Association friends if they would be interested in being advance readers. And twenty people immediately responded within an hour.
I took everyone up on it, and they all spent the time to read the book and share their personal comments about how to make it better. Not how to change it, not a critique, but how to make it better for publication.
Where do you get that kind of support and interaction when you're a writer sitting in your office? You can't get that. So thank you again to all of my friends at Chicago Writers Association who helped make the book perfect. I am indebted to you.
If you're a writer and you're looking for support and inspiration and fellowship, you might consider joining us at the Chicago Writers' Association. Our website is chicagowrites.org.
Cyrus Webb: All right. And we'll make sure that we link that up at the end as well.
Dan Burns: Awesome. Thank you.
Cyrus Webb: Dan, I want to go to something else about that, because one thing at the event that I attended yesterday, again, something I was afraid to say I was going to be able to attend because I didn't know if I was going to be able to make it. But I was so glad because I sat in the very back and it was so interesting to watch people of different ages come together, to come together to support the written word. I think that is one of the beautiful things about what books are able to do. How does it feel to know that you've been able to find people around this country who appreciate what you've been able to put on paper?
Dan Burns: It's unbelievable. It's hard to put it into words. Often, as a writer, you write for yourself, to get the words down onto the page and prevent yourself from going nuts. The ideas are there and you have to get them down. But to think that someone else—whether it's one person or a thousand, whether they're in Chicago or California or New York—is interested in reading my book and then taking the time to get back to me and share their perspective and thoughts and ideas, it's incredible. It's humbling. I appreciate every single one of the readers that plunks down their hard-earned money to read my books, because it means everything. It means the world to me.
I mentioned before, and it's worth mentioning again, that reading is a subjective activity, right? These are just stories, words on the page, flat characters. But each individual reader will interpret the story his own way.
Cyrus Webb: Yeah. This is true.
Dan Burns: To hear that feedback of how a story impacted somebody, and what it meant to that person, is incredibly enlightening. It makes me think about, "Was that my intention?" Or, "Maybe there was something stuck in my subconscious that I wasn't even thinking of that I snuck in there and that person caught it." Anyway, it's incredible, the relationship between writer and reader.
Cyrus Webb: Everyone, Dan Burns has been our guest. Grace is his new book. A great title. You guys will definitely enjoy the novella as well as the short stories included in this book. It's available through our friends at Amazon.com, of course. Dan, how can our audience stay connected with you?
Dan Burns: Check out my website at www.danburnsauthor.com, and feel free to like my Facebook page—Dan Burns Author—to keep up on all the activities and exciting things that are coming up. I realize a lot of people love the print book, which is available in hard cover and soft cover. It's also available as an E-book.
And, for you audio book lovers, it's coming out Tuesday, and it's narrated by Mark Bramhall, who is just fantastic. If you love the audiobook, and I'll say, even if you don't, or haven't tried it, what a great companion to the book to hear Mark bring these characters alive. He is an award-winning narrator, an actor by trade, and he really brings these stories to life. What a great experience.
Cyrus Webb: Something to look forward to. And make sure you guys do check out chicagowrites.org as well, to be able to stay connected with the association.
Dan, thank you so much for this enlightening discussion.
Dan Burns: Thanks so much. Great to see you.
Cyrus Webb: Really appreciate this. And we thank you, our audience, for tuning in to this edition of Cyrus Webb Presents.
THE NEW STORY COLLECTION FROM AWARD-WINNING AUTHOR DAN BURNS
"We're all flawed and confronted daily with sometimes slight but often apparently insurmountable challenges. But if we dig deep, what we unearth from the depths of our souls, if we're lucky, can allow us to overcome and carry on to live another day with an untortured heart."
This is the sentiment Dan Burns explores in his exciting new collection. Five stories and a novella highlight Burns's range as a storyteller and his ability to see life and all its emotions through a unique lens. This collection features his most personal and insightful stories to date.
Redemption—In a quiet Montana town, an aging writer and his nephew are forced to weave the past and the present into a future of more significant meaning.
The Plight of Maximus Octavius Reinhold—In the new story featuring private investigator Sebastian Drake (from the novel A Fine Line), the local patrons of a rural Wisconsin town test Drake's resolve as he stares into the barrel of a .44 Magnum revolver.
Hardwired—A dying man contemplates the end of his life while hoping to pass along a secret legacy to his family.
Adrift at Sea—To fuel his creative desires, a seabound journeyman leaves behind the anchor of distraction in pursuit of a natural world.
The Final Countdown—In the year 2110, the Earth struggles to survive, ravaged by overpopulation and greed. Food is scarce, and the youth-run government has no choice but to implement a plan devised decades earlier: deport the elderly population to a remote outpost—on the moon.
Grace: A Novella—A story of impaired love, betrayal, and redemption as realized by characters who experience life through the perception of liquor-bottle glasses. Life is never what it seems. Everyone has secrets. The question is whether the skeleton key of alcohol will open the closet door and let out the hidden truths.
The collection includes notes about the thoughts, ideas, and inspiration behind the stories, offering an exclusive behind-the-scenes perspective of the author's writing process, along with twenty-six illustrations by artist Kelly Maryanski.
Hardcover First Edition (October 25, 2019), 292 pages, Signed by the author
Retail: $26.95 Only $20.00
Trade Paperback First Edition (October 25, 2019), 292 pages, Signed by the author
Retail: $18.95 Only $15.00
CLICK HERE to order your signed copy today!
Also available in the following editions:
Audiobook (October 29, 2019), Narrated by Mark Bramhall
Available at Audible.com, Amazon.com, and Apple iTunes
E-book (October 25, 2019)
Only $5.99, Available wherever E-books are sold.
Behind the Pen: Meet CWA Board Member Dan Burns
Interview by Meryl D'Sa
How much time do you spend researching, planning, or world-building before you begin writing?
The amount of time I spend researching and world-building depends on the story idea, and that effort typically comes after I've flushed out and written the first draft of the story.
I get a lot of ideas for stories, which I think about often and let germinate in my conscious and subconscious mind. The idea that will not leave me alone, that nags at me, is the story I must write, and it's crucial that I sit down and write the story while the idea is fresh in my mind. Then, I can go back and develop it further with details from my research.
Planning is different, especially for longer projects like a screenplay or a novel. I've always had a fear of spending months or even years on a project only then to realize that the story isn't good. I'll typically work on a story idea first in a shorter form, like a poem or short story. Afterward, if I still like to idea, then I'll develop it into a longer form. And those longer-form projects typically start with an outline. Minimally, I need to know the opening scene of the story and the ending, and with those key elements and place, I can create the critical scenes for getting from the beginning to the end.
I must get the words down onto the page so that I have something to refine and edit. I try not to let any non-writing activities get in the way. I can always improve the story after it's written, but without the story—even in its original draft version–I run the risk of losing the idea forever, which would be unfortunate.
As a writer, what inspires you daily to continue writing? Have your inspirations changed over the years, or are they the same?
I write because I must, to extract the stories from my brain and fend off the otherwise resulting madness (sorry, I had to use that line, which I pulled from a recent story I wrote). But really, if I don't write, I'm not a writer, and if I'm not a writer, then what am I?
Inspiration for a story can come from anywhere—a book I read, a news story, an experience, a memory, or an interaction with another person. I'll take inspiration however I can get it. Let me share an example:
For over ten years, I've rented a small office above a restaurant that overlooks the downtown main street in La Grange, Illinois, where I live. I'm a disciplined writer except when I'm home, so I need the distance and solitude my office provides to get my work completed. I arrived at my office one morning and was about to unlock the door when I noticed my neighbor down the hall having difficulty opening his apartment door. It appeared he'd had a rough night and was struggling to get his key into the deadbolt. He was successful on his third attempt and staggered into his apartment. I figured he'd have some explaining to do. As I sat at my desk trying to finish the story I'd been working on the day before, I couldn't stop thinking about my neighbor and his predicament. Where had he come from? Why was he drunk at eight o'clock in the morning? What did his wife say? What was his explanation? The encounter intrigued me, so I switched gears and started to write a poem that I hoped would provide some answers. Later that morning, I had completed the poem, "Grace."
I read the poem, and it piqued my curiosity. But I felt I'd created more questions than I'd answered. I couldn't stop thinking about the couple in the poem. I couldn't stop thinking about him. I thought about him walking out on his wife at the end of the poem and wondered where he went. I needed to find out. I needed to understand how his story continued and ended.
His story evolved into a short story, a stage play, and the novella included in my forthcoming book, Grace: Stories and a Novella. That's an inspiration!
What literary resources do you work best with and why?
Writing, like any career, requires continuous learning. I have an extensive library of writing-related books and resources to help guide my path and help me improve my writing. As Stephen King says, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write." So, I read a lot—fiction, non-fiction, how-to, poetry, essays—whatever I need, or that interests, me on a given day.
The Chicago Manual of Style is an indispensable reference book that is always by my side as I'm writing. I also use the online tools Grammarly and ProWritingAid to help me improve my writing after I've drafted a story. Also, the "Resources" page on our CWA website (https://www.chicagowrites.org/resources) is an invaluable collection of resources for any writer.
What do you think are the most important elements that make good writing?
I think the essential element for good writing is honesty—the writer being true to the story and the way it was meant to be told.
For most of my past writing, I've gone out of my way not to fall back on vulgarity as a crutch to make dialogue or exposition sound better.
When I was writing the stage play for Grace, the character Kenny Santorini just "walked in" later in the story. His unplanned entry came from some dark place, but upon my introduction to him, I was intrigued, and when he started to talk, I knew he had to stay. But I didn't have the ending. After letting the story simmer in my subconscious mind for a few days, I returned to my office one afternoon and pounded out the final scene in a two-hour frenzied burst of writing. It was crazy—the words flowed out of me as though I were taking part in an exorcism. And when I reread the scene, I thought: What the hell was that? Kenny had talked, in his way, and I felt his dialogue might come across a little heavy-handed. But after much consideration, I realized that he's a real person. I know people like him, who talk like him. You likely do too. I thought about rewriting the scene, to make it less vulgar, but felt I'd be a dishonest writer if I cleaned up Kenny's language. So, Kenny and his language stayed, as written, and I love it!
What genre do you write in? Do you explore other genres?
I try not to let genre paint me into a corner. The story dictates genre, form, and style, and I need to explore and push the boundaries of what I am most comfortable writing.
I've written two collections of short stories reflecting an eccentric and diverse range of genres. I've also written a dramatic novel and a mystery novel. I love to write poetry and have completed a manuscript for a collection I hope to publish next year.
The options and approaches for writing stories are endless, and I want to explore them all!
What is your role within the Chicago Writers Association? What special projects have you worked on? What is your favorite moment of being a CWA board member so far?
I am a board member and the treasurer for the Chicago Writers Association. I'm also the program coordinator for Windy City Reviews, the volunteer-run and free book review service of the Chicago Writers Association. Do you have a recently published book or one coming soon? If so, send us your query (submission details at http://windycityreviews.org/submissions/). At Windy City Reviews, our goal is to provide authors of all genres and areas of specialization an opportunity for increased exposure, valuable feedback, and deserved recognition.
I experienced my favorite and proudest moment last year, when we celebrated our tenth anniversary as an organization. We had come so far, and yet our next ten-year journey is just beginning. The best is yet to come!
What advice would you give to any new aspiring writer? What do you want them to know that you wish you had known when you began your journey?
My advice to any aspiring writer is simply this: write! Many people talk about wanting to be a writer, and the effort stops there–with only talk. Differentiate yourself from all the rest by getting the words down onto the page. Only then are you a writer. Go even further and publish your book and differentiate yourself even more
Since I have a few lines left, I'll also suggest that a writer work on several projects at the same time—novel, short story, essay, blog entry, poem, etc.—which is the perfect cure for writer's block. If you get stuck on one project, set it aside, and work on something else. You'll be surprised at how many writing projects you'll complete in a given year without a pause.
I also think a writer must understand that writing is a business, and you cannot have a successful business with only one product. Is think I knew this when I began my writing career, but it became more evident after the publication of my first book, particularly when friends, family members, and readers asked, "When's the next book coming?" So, on any given day, I'm marketing, publicizing, and selling my last book, writing the current one, and planning for the next one.
About Dan Burns
Dan Burns's new story collection, Grace: Stories and a Novella, is available for pre-order and will be released October 25, 2019. His previously-published books include the novels A Fine Line and Recalled to Life and the short story collection No Turning Back: Stories. He is also an award-winning writer of stories for the screen and stage. He resides with his family in Illinois and enjoys spending time in Wisconsin and Montana, where he stalks endless rivers in pursuit of trout and a career as a fly fisherman.
Dan is a board member and the treasurer of the Chicago Writers Association and oversees the book review program, Windy City Reviews.
For more information, please visit www.danburnsauthor.com.
Paul Brodie: Hello, I am Paul Brodie, and thank you for joining us for another episode of the Get Published Podcast, where we help authors get published with a proven system that works. Today we are being joined by Dan Burns, the author of four published books, including his recent Chicago mystery novel, A Fine Line. Dan, welcome to the show.
Dan Burns: Hi, Paul. Thanks so much for having me on your show today.
Paul Brodie: Alright, question number one: What is the one piece of advice that you would give to a first-time author who is currently writing their book?
Dan Burns: The one piece of advice that I'd offer, and this would be to any writer, is to make the effort to set specific, measurable, and quantifiable writing goals. Develop those goals, develop a plan to accomplish your goals, and then manage your life around that plan. That may sound simple enough, but why are goals important? I think they are tremendously so. Setting goals are important because your goals and your plan keep you on track and propel you forward to actually write, which is what being a writer is all about.
I find it interesting that of all the people I know and meet that talk about being a writer or express the desire to write, very few actually write on a regular and consistent basis, and some if at all. Even fewer of those people actually get published. I think it's very easy to differentiate yourself in what often seems to be a crowded and competitive marketplace, simply by defining, in writing, your writing goals, developing your plan, managing your life around that plan, and simply sitting down to get your work done, and in doing so you'll set yourself apart from all the rest.
It may be easier said than done, but I've been doing it for many, many years, and the approach can take many forms but for me what works is I set annual goals, things that I'm going to accomplish over a years' time, monthly goals that will allow me to accomplish those annual goals, and then I break it down into what am I going to accomplish this week and next week to meet my monthly goals and annual goals. It works very well for me. I'm a very goal oriented person.
At the beginning of each year, I sit down and think about and define all the writing projects I want to accomplish. I hope you noticed I said projects, and it's plural, because let's say you're a writer and you want to write your novel in the next year. That's great but what else are you going to work on? You're a writer and there has to be more and I'll contend there needs to be more.
Simply put, having multiple projects to work on at any one time provides diversity and variety in your daily writing life, which I think is great, and I think the best thing is that by having multiple projects, you never experience writer's block. If you get stuck on a project, set it aside, let your subconscious work on it for a while, and move on and work on the next thing until you're ready to go back. I'd like to share a couple of suggestions for all the writers who are listening to this podcast.
Over the next year, as you're working on your book, what else are you going to do? Can you, for example, write one short poem every month? Piece of cake. Even if you've never done it before. At the end of the year you'll have 12 poems that you can send out for publication or you can add to your growing collection that you can publish down the road. Can you write one short story every six months? Of course. How about a quarterly essay to post to your website blog? Again, it should be no problem. Here's something I try and follow as best I can: can you write one entry, even if it's a small paragraph, in your writer's journal every single day to record your ideas and experiences?
I don't know about for you or other writers, but if I get an idea and I don't write it down, I potentially lose it forever. So, that's my advice. Develop and set your goals, develop a plan, manage to the plan, accomplish your goals, and differentiate yourself from all the rest.
Paul Brodie: That is a great answer, and what do you feel is the hardest part about getting published?
Dan Burns: For me, the hardest part of getting published is that collective amount of effort and time that is absolutely required to get your book ready for publication. Once it's ready and perfect I think an author today has so many options for getting a book published, whether it's through an agent and a big publisher, an independent publisher, or even self-publication, but none of those options can really happen until you're absolutely sure that the book is ready, perfect, to the extent that that's possible.
Getting the book ready for publication is the hard part. For me, that process includes a number of things. First and foremost, it's necessary get the first draft complete. Sit down, do the work, and complete the first draft. Otherwise there's nothing to move on to. You can't revise or edit or improve something that's never finished, so finish the book, differentiate yourself.
After I finish the draft, I let it sit for a while. It's always a great time to move on and work on one of those other projects I may have lined up. Then, when I'm ready to go back to it, that's when the editing process begins. For my last book, A Fine Line, I completed three full revisions of the manuscript before I was comfortable letting anyone else read it. The next step, then, was to bring in the professional editors, and I always use two. One specifically to focus on developmental editing, to make sure all the pieces are effectively in place, and then another, different editor to focus on copyediting, to make sure the many paragraphs and sentences are all perfect.
I want to make a point. The other reason you need to have more than one editor is that no one person, no matter how good he or she may be, is going to catch everything, so you absolutely have to have the second pair of eyes. When I complete copy editing, it's ready for me then to move to the next stage and that's the advanced reading copy process, which is, for me, a very important stage to help me get a book perfect and ready for publication.
By example, for my last book, I was fortunate to get 20 volunteer readers from my writer's group, the Chicago Writers Association. I had 20 great people who agreed to read and critique my book. At this stage of the process, I'm looking to identify any remaining punctuation or grammatical errors or something that just isn't right. There's nothing worse than publishing your book and then hearing back from a reader who found a punctuation, spelling, or grammatical error. It's terrible. So, having 20 readers, that's a lot to manage but it's worth it. I received comments and suggestions from 20 readers and you know what? Every single perspective was different. Each person caught different things, so the process was absolutely advantageous.
The process works for me. I think it's critical, and upon completion of that stage, then I think you're ready to publish the book. So, that's the hard part. All the work involved to get the book ready for publication.
Paul Brodie: Okay, and please share a marketing strategy that you have used in your book launch that worked well.
Dan Burns: Well, for any marketing effort that I may pursue or dollars I may spend, it's critical that I'm able to quantify the value I actually receive from that effort. The one marketing strategy that has been most effective, time and again, is the GoodReads Giveaway. For those who aren't familiar, through GoodReads.com, through their giveaway program, you're able to set up a free giveaway for your book and you can very specifically quantify the value of that giveaway.
For example, again I'm using my last book, A Fine Line, as an example, I ran two consecutive giveaways for a total of 75 books. Through that process, 2,700 readers, two thousand, seven hundred readers, requested the book and most of those people put it on their to-read list, and it was 2,700 individual impressions that my book made on someone. There were 75 winners who received the book. The total cost included the cost of the book plus postage, which was around $800, and as a result, from 75 readers I received 35 ratings of my book on GoodReads, 22 written reviews, many of which were shared on Amazon and on social media platforms, and I also received a number of blurbs that I could use in other marketing campaigns and strategies.
The GoodReads giveaway is awesome. It's been extremely effective for me. I've used it for all my books and I will no doubt use it again on my next one.
Paul Brodie: Well, let's talk about your favorite book. So, what is your favorite book and what was the number one thing that you learned from it?
Dan Burns: That's a hard question. As I get older, and with each new book that I read, that question becomes more difficult, but my favorite book hands down is still Dandelion Wine written by Ray Bradbury. The number one thing that I learned from book is that there are really no definitive rules for how to write a successful book. Let me explain what I mean. Dandelion Wine, while it has been marketed and categorized as a novel, is actually a loosely connected collection of short stories. Bradbury was a great short story writer, and he effectively pulled together the many stories he wrote over the years about his fictional Greentown, which is this town he created. Many of the stories are autobiographical in nature, depicting his experience as a child growing up in rural Waukegan, Illinois with his family.
His book is a true mash-up of all of the different forms of writing that he employs to tell his stories to the world. It's a novel of short stories that's also an autobiography that includes elements of prose poetry and all told through the eyes of a child. I think until his dying day, he lived his life and told his stories with the heart of a much younger person. Isn't that great? There are no rules. Just tell your story the best way you know how.
Paul Brodie: That's a great answer, and I want to ask you, for a final question, what is your favorite quote and why is it your favorite quote?
Dan Burns: There's a lot of them but there's one that comes to mind. In addition to writing short stories and novels, I also write scripts for film and for the stage, and one of my favorite playwrights is Sam Shepherd. There's a quote of his that I think really hits home regarding something that every writer struggles with at some point in their career, and the quote is this: "When you hit a wall of your own imagined limitations, just kick it in." It's very simple, isn't it? A writer, whether he or she believes it or not, has complete control over what can be accomplished, and I truly believe that.
All I can do is follow Sam's guidance and keep it simple: I sit down at my desk, I get the words down onto the page, and if I get stuck, I forge ahead. It's really all I can do.
Paul Brodie: I agree with you. Simplicity is key. Well, Dan, I want to thank you again for being a guest on the show. What is the best way for people to find you online?
Dan Burns: Well, my books are available in print, e-book, and audiobook wherever books are sold, and also at my website along with a lot of other great information. My website is www.danburnsauthor.com, and my Facebook page is Dan Burns—Author. I do want to mention, for all the listeners who are audiobook fanatics, check out Audible.com and specifically my book, A Fine Line. I had the fortunate opportunity to work with the most prolific and I'll say the best audiobook narrator, George Guidall, and he did a masterful job with my book, A Fine Line.
Paul Brodie: All right, well Dan, thank you again for being a guest on our show and I wish you all the best in your author journey ahead.
Dan Burns: Thanks so much. Best wishes to you as well.
Writing notes on napkins, in a sense, is such an ancient cliché, but when you're by yourself having a drink in a bar, it beats the alternatives, which are gazing endlessly—like a self-absorbed dope succumbing to mind-numbing consequences—into the idiot-slab (iPhone), or making conversation with someone I meet, which I may enjoy, but then again, sometimes it's just better to write than speak. And bar napkins and a pen are always available.
Writing requires thought; speech does not. I can attest to this fact. When forced to speak, I usually have no control over the thoughts I dredge up from the depths of my insanity (we're all basically insane, and it's how we project our insanity verbally that determines if we are normal or not, a determination which is quite subjective and based on the insanity of the person hearing the words), and after a few drinks, all bets are off. Who really knows, or can effectively plan and manage, which words will spring forth and in what order?
If forced to speak, it's important to realize that conversations in a bar have a one-drink limit. Meet someone for a drink, catch up and say all the meaningful words, if there are any, then get the hell out. As I learned from an old customer friend, after the first hour in a bar, the law of diminishing returns kicks in, meaning that with each passing minute, any value—meaningful or memorable in any way—diminishes until you get to the stage of regurgitated, uncensored ramblings, which is a sure—though not obvious—sign that it's time to go home, slip into your casket, and hope that you'll rise from the dead with the sun to see another day and relish the time you have to suffer and harbor the spoken regrets of the prior evening.
Drinking alone, in most cases, eliminates many potential problems, and writing instead of speaking offers the much-needed steps of thought, review, and revision, and revision, and revision . . .
When I sat down to write my latest novel, A Fine Line (Chicago Arts Press, June 6, 2017), I wasn’t embarking on a new project. The project was old. The protagonist, Sebastian Drake, was old, and the idea for his story had been in my mind for over five years. Over those years, Drake and I had shared some experiences, had learned about each other, and I knew he and his story had to be shared in novel form. He made me do it.
Since my earliest days as a writer, I have always been apprehensive about big and lengthy projects, the novel in particular. It’s been a fear I’ve had, that I would spend months or even years on a project, tens of thousands of words down onto the page, only to realize that the story wasn’t any good. That would be a shame, and an unfortunate mismanagement of my time. I had to start small and build an idea over time, one successful step at a time. I’ve been writing that way ever since.
When a story idea is pressing on my mind, urging me to act upon it, I always try to explore and develop the idea quickly and with a minimal investment of time, as a poem or a short story or any shorter form that might work. After a couple hours or days, I’ll have something finished and concrete. If it’s good, I can consider publishing the poem or short story. If it’s very good, the story idea will not leave me alone; it will nag at me to continue. At that point, I might consider developing the story further as a screenplay or novel.
That’s what happened with my protagonist, Sebastian Drake, and his story, A Fine Line. In April of 2010, Drake first appeared in a short story titled, Letting Go. The story was my first effort to find out who Sebastian Drake really was, and what he had the potential to become. I needed to know what he was doing at the time, and I also needed to get some insight into his past, his demons, his special skills, and his possibilities for the future. I sat him at a table in a coffee shop, across from a friend he hadn’t seen in twenty-five years, and I let them talk. What happened in that coffee shop scenario changed my writing career forever.
When I finished the story two days later, I found that I had created more questions than I’d answered. Actually, I’m not sure I answered many questions about Sebastian Drake at all. But I was intrigued by what happened in the story and I thought I might want to know more. Actually, I needed to know more.
Subsequently, in January of 2012, I wrote a twenty-two-page screen treatment based upon Letting Go, which outlined the screenplay I was going to write for a feature length film titled A Fine Line. Sebastian Drake was going for the big screen. It took me a year, many long days, and a severe amount of revision and cutting, and when I was finished with the screenplay, Drake’s story had taken another big step forward.
At each step along the way—the short story, the screen treatment, and the screenplay—the character of Sebastian Drake had become more interesting, more challenged and conflicted, and I was compelled to find out what was next for him. He simply would not leave me alone. I’ve often said that as a writer, I don’t always get to write the stories I necessarily want to write. More often than not, I write the stories I need to write. Something (or someone?) in my head nags at me until I finally give in and get to work, and ultimately, until the deed is done. Those ideas and characters that repeatedly pop into my mind direct me as to what I will work on next, and Sebastian Drake was on my mind a lot. He still is.
Two years ago, I embarked on a project to bring Sebastian Drake to his ultimate story platform: the novel. In a reverse adaptation process and using the screenplay as a basis (the same process that I used for my first novel, Recalled to Life), the newest chapter in the life of Sebastian Drake took form. His story was complete. The book was published in June and is now being shared with the world. I wonder where he will take me next.
Writing using this building-block process works for me, and when I finish a larger project, I’m comfortable that the story is good, because I have put it to the test at each step along the way. There are other benefits to the building-block process as well. Most important, with a smaller and completed project, I have a basis, a springboard, for moving forward. I also have another marketable product. It’s hard to become a successful writer based upon one book or project. With each new project I complete, whatever form it make take, I’m better able to substantiate my credibility as a writer.
I especially enjoy the process of adapting a screenplay into a novel. I’m a big movie fan, and I love the visual and dialogue-driven aspects of films. I find it beneficial to visualize the characters and story, like I might see it on the screen, and that visualization guides me as I develop a story. When I finish a screenplay, I have a solid plotline in place, along with all the characters and what they have to say, all in 120 pages or less, a reasonable investment of time and effort. Then, to develop the story as a novel, it’s a matter of adding the necessary exposition and description, which is no easy feat, but I’m not starting from scratch. I’m building upon my past, completed work.
Are there any negative aspects to my building-block approach? I really have not experienced any, except for the fact that it might take me longer to get a bigger project, like a novel, completed and published. I can live with that fact, because in the end I know the project is well thought out, is more fully developed, and I’ve given the story the time necessary to come to life.
Writing A Fine Line was a rewarding process, but to make the book perfect and ready for publication, I knew I had to have a great book cover. It was essential that my cover be eye-catching and able to both fit in and set itself apart from other covers of published books from my heroes in the mystery genre. That’s where Reedsy stepped in to help. I learned about Reedsy.com from a friend, and I quickly set up my profile and project on the site. Within days, I had five, interested book cover designers. The process was simple and efficient. I knew what I wanted, and it was easy for me to select Tom Sanderson (www.the-parish.com) to help me design the perfect cover. I live in the U.S. and Tom was in the U.K., but with Reedsy, geography is no barrier. Tom was great to work with. I told him that I wanted my book to “fit” nicely on any bookstore table between the books of Lee Child and James Patterson. As you can see, Tom hit the mark. Read More
This week it’s an honor to bring you insights from author, screenwriter, and poet, Dan Burns. Dan is a fellow Chicago Writers Association member and his fourth published book (third work of fiction) A Fine Line was released on June 6, 2017 by Chicago Arts Press.
Another highlight I want to mention is a short film that Dan wrote, Out of Touch. The film is absolutely worth watching and was named an “Official Selection” for the Chicago International REEL Shorts Film Festival and for the Los Angeles Lift-Off Film Festival.
You can find information his books, screenplays, and MUCH more on his website.
Let’s see what Dan has to say…
KELLY: Question #1 - Where do you write and why do you write there?
DAN: Every morning, I walk from my home to my office in downtown La Grange. I have this great, small office above a restaurant, like one of those private eye offices in old noir movies, that provides the quiet and secluded environment I need to be productive. When I'm at home, there are too many distractions and I have no self-discipline, so having a place to get away and get my work done is a necessity. In my office, I'm surrounded by my books and memories of my writing mentors and have no distractions. No phone. No Internet. Just writing. If you're interested, you can check out this short video of my office environment.
KELLY: Question #2 - What is unique about writing for your particular genre?
DAN: For me, what is unique is that I'm not locked into a particular genre. I love the boundless flexibility of being able to write in a variety of forms and genres. My first novel was a contemporary family drama. My second book was a collection of short fiction that really pushed the boundaries of genre. My newest novel is a Chicago mystery. My hope is that every story I write pushes me out of my comfort zone to try and explore something different. Writing a mystery novel was my most challenging project to date. Research was a necessity to make the story believable, and I spent an extensive amount of time understanding Chicago politics and police procedure. My protagonist, Sebastian Drake is an expert marksman, and I had to spend dozens of hours at the gun range, shooting his gun, to fully understand what was possible. Plot also played a big role in my mystery novel, more so than my other stories. Nothing can be left out and every question must be answered. The writing process was quite fun and extremely challenging at the same time.
KELLY: Question #3 - What are some of your grammar or punctuation pet peeves?
DAN: What drives me nuts are all the grammar and punctuation errors that I'm guilty of, and my first drafts are laced with them. The editing process is critical to get my story ready to publish, and I'm fortunate to have a number of editors and trusted readers who allow me to get the story down onto the page and then help me to make it perfect. I find that I just get too close to my work, so close that I can't see the errors. I can edit and revise a story a dozen times, and then my editors and readers help me to realize that I'm not a very good editor. But I'm learning. I find that the editing process is the most important step in helping me to become a better writer.
I find that I'll often get stuck on a word, maybe like it too much, and then use it too often throughout a story. I have to cut the repeat offenders. Adverbs also seem to come easily (you see!) as I'm writing, and I have to go back through and search for all the "ly" words and cut them all. Adverbs seldom add value to the sentence. I don't think much of the word "got" and try to eliminate it from my writing. For dialogue attribution, I use "said" and "asked," nothing else, and I try not to use them only when necessary to maintain flow and understanding. Contractions and hyphenated words also seem to find their way into my stories, and I have to go back and review each one to make sure they're correct and appropriate. Spelling is a killer for the reader's flow of the story, so spell-check and people-check are critical steps. The most valuable aspect of the editing process for a book is the Advance Reading Copy. After I revise a manuscript a dozen times and go through several iterations of developmental editing and copyediting, it's important to print the book and get it into the hands of my trusted readers. They are the ones who let me know if it's ready to officially go out into the world.
KELLY: Question #4 - At what point in your writing process do you start to bring other people in to review your work?
DAN: I bring people into the process when the story is finished. Often, there are so many potential roadblocks for completing the story, that I have to focus on that single goal. For me, "finished" is flushing out an idea fully and getting the words out of my head and the story down onto the page. Afterward, I let the story sit for a month before going through and revising to the best of my ability. Then it's time for a fresh look from different eyes and perspectives, from people I trust to tell me honestly about how to improve the story.
KELLY: Question #5 - What advice would you give to a new writer about the writing process?
DAN: Sit down and write, as often and as much as you can. Many people talk about being a writer, but only by actually getting the words down onto the page can you actually be a writer. Read books by authors who you admire and who have been successful writing the stories you want to write. Develop your idea, write your story, and don't stop until you're finished. Don't edit or revise until the story is written, for those activities can develop into insurmountable distractions and roadblocks. Better to have a completed story that you can improve than to have an idea that you never fully act upon that fades away. And keep a journal of all your ideas. If I don't write down my ideas, they tend to vanish, never to return again, and that's a darn shame.
KELLY: Thank you Dan for these incredible answers. I also keep a journal of story ideas! I also love the advice, “Develop your idea, write your story, and don't stop until you're finished. Don't edit or revise until the story is written, for those activities can develop into insurmountable distractions and roadblocks.” I’m guilty of this all the time, pouring over a passage over and over again when I should move on. Very good to keep in mind!
Please learn more about Dan and his books and works on his website. More importantly, go out and buy his new book A Fine Line. I have my copy! You can also follow him on Facebook, on Twitter, or you can subscribe to his YouTube channel.
DAN: Thanks, Kelly.
LISA: Dan, what do you love about this book?
DAN: What I love most about this book is the path I had to take to see the novel come to fruition. My protagonist, Sebastian Drake, appeared first in a short story, Letting Go, which I wrote back in 2012. My process for the story was simple: put him at a table in a coffee shop, have him meet a person from his past, and see what happens. When I finished the story, I learned a little about Drake—who he is and where he came from—and I thought that was the end of his story. But Drake would not leave me alone. He had more to say and forced me to develop his story further. So, I went back to work and wrote a screenplay for a feature film that put him in the middle of a cold murder case in Chicago. The process was exhilarating and fun, and again, I thought that was the end of the story. The screenplay received national recognition and won the Best Screenplay Award at the Naperville Independent Film Festival, and fans at the festival asked, “What’s next for Drake?” I thought about the question often, and it seemed to me that the story I told in the screenplay was not quite complete. I could not get the story or Drake out of my mind, so I forged on and developed the story as a novel. I love the book and the story, and through the process, I came to the realization that Sebastian Drake is a part of me. He’s taking the lead now, and his story is just beginning. Where he will take us is anybody’s guess.
LISA: Congratulations! What a great way to find a story.
LISA: Introduce us to the character you had the most fun creating.
DAN: I had the most fun creating Sebastian Drake because he needed to be a complex, conflicted, and sympathetic character. He also had to be different, with character traits, experiences, and skills that we haven’t seen in other mystery series characters. I feel I accomplished that objective. However, I also feel I’m just getting to know who he is and what he can become. He’s not a typical protagonist or hero—he’s really an antihero, since he lacks the conventional attributes of a heroic character. Drake continually walks the fine line between the past and the present, right and wrong, and reality and the fiction he writes. His life is an endless high-wire act, and there is no safety net.
In a mystery novel, there has to be a nasty character, an antagonist, and in A Fine Line, there are many of them. But I especially enjoyed developing the character of Jerry Fitzsimmons: “an older man, thin and gaunt, almost sickly looking.” “He’s always grinning, like a cat who just ate a mouse.” From his “thin lips pressed together like a cadaver” to his “yellow teeth,” I found I disliked him more with each sentence I wrote about him. He gives me the creeps, and he adds a necessary dimension and complexity to the story. Fortunately, Drake doesn’t care much for him either and effectively addresses all of Jerry’s issues.
LISA: Those are fun characteristics put together in a believable way!
LISA: Share two things you learned either researching or writing-related during the production of this book?
DAN: A Fine Line is a murder mystery set in Chicago. To make the story interesting and believable, I felt it was necessary to make the city a character and include details about the city that would pull the reader in, whether local or not. I grew up on the North Side, but the story had to take place in and around areas I didn’t know about, where I haven’t been—unknown places, darker places. The Chicago Police Department also plays a large role in the story, and I had to make sure I understood the hierarchical structure of the organization and the basics of police procedure, especially because there’s at least one character who doesn’t follow procedure.
In researching both topics, what I learned is that even though I have lived in the Chicago area for fifty-four years, there is so much I still don’t know. I find that realization fascinating. There’s always more to learn and experience, and I think Sebastian Drake will make sure my education continues.
LISA: Readers--take this and run with it! Explore your own community.
LISA: What are you reading now?
DAN: I just finished reading Speed the Plow, by one of my favorite writers and playwrights, David Mamet. I’m in the middle of a memoir by Oscar Levant titled, A Smattering of Ignorance. He was a talented musician, composer, actor, and writer, and I find his writing insightful and humorous. I used one of his quotes as the epigraph for my book: “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”
LISA: Dan, what's next for you?
DAN: I’m always juggling several projects. I recently completed a stage play script, Grace, and I’d love to produce it at a Chicago theatre. I am also continuing to write short stories and hope to have another story collection ready for publication next year. And Sebastian Drake continues to pester me. He has another story to tell, and together, we’re in the process of figuring out what that story is.
LISA: Theater is fun! And I'm looking forward to seeing what trouble Drake gets into next.
Thanks for sharing about you and your work.
Review of A FINE LINE by Lisa Lickel
The premise of Burns’s thrilling detective story grabbed my attention. Sure, Sebastian Drake is almost a Sam Spade pulp-alike, a forties-era anti-hero for today, but honestly, how can you not love the wounded but capable man-of-few-words detective with a soft spot for his family? Who’s also an author!
Drake’s initial success has not led to the subsequent best-seller notice he needed to survive in the authorial world. His agent dug deep and found a contract for a book he has yet to complete. Time’s running out and he’s desperate. Unlikely help comes through his former secret life. His shadowy employer knows things Drake would rather not remember, but Drake is fascinated by the request to dig back into a long-cold mystery.
Drake’s hefty financial reward for a little detective work isn’t necessarily the main attraction to get his hands dirty once again. He’ll hopefully reap the material he needs to finish his novel—if he survives. Combing his acquaintances for help and returning to the scene of the crime as well as revisiting the original police files is not quite like old home week. Enemies and friends are suspiciously hard to differentiate. Drake slowly peels off layers of dust as well as fresh scabs from wounds both professional and personal, until the answers are bared.
Told through Drake’s perspective, readers are pulled into a side of Chicago off the tourist trail. A Fine Line is a tale of winners and losers, and the chance to move forward and find both retribution and redemption. Those who enjoy detective adventures, particularly set in a familiar town, will find much to like about this novel.
DAN: Thank you, Lisa!