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.