Richard Burley – Author
1. Did you have / how did you overcome fears that you would fail when you started publishing your work?
So the first thing is, there’s a lot of talented people who’ve had their work published. There’s more talented writers out there than I’ll ever have the time to read. But I realized fairly early on that writing well and being published are totally different achievements. There are so many amazing writers out there who haven’t ever been published, and plenty of totally mediocre ones who’ve made it big. And mediocre ones who got published early and improved over time. I keep a copy of Dan Brown’s first published novel, “Deception Point,” on hand for whenever I’m starting to feel like I’m not good enough to be published. Here’s how it starts:
“Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. Geologist Charles Brophy had endured the savage splendor of this terrain for years, and yet nothing could prepare him for a fate as barbarous and unnatural as the one about to befall him.”
I just read that and think: this guy has sold more books than I ever will. He’s had blockbuster movies made about his books. And he started his first book with a series of clichés so profound they could be put alongside the definition of “cliché” in the dictionary. It’s not about how well you can write. It’s about throwing your stuff at people until you get lucky enough to find the right one who, (a) reads it, (b) likes it, and (c) can get others to do (a) and hopefully (b), too. Hell, Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated” was rejected by five agents before becoming a NYT bestseller and winning more than half a dozen awards. Not that I’m as good a writer as that, but you know.
2. What is one piece of advice you now rely on, but wish you knew before you started the process?
Done is better than good. No matter how much you want a piece of writing to be good, you can’t even really show it to anyone until it’s done. “Done is better than good, because good is never done.” If I owned my walls, I’d paint it on them.
3. What is the most positive part of having your work in the public eye?
I mean “the public eye” is still a pretty quiet place if you’re not famous. But every now and then you get a nice review from someone who just read something you wrote and felt like they had to tell someone. It’s a pretty great feeling, but it’s not the most positive part.
The most positive part is also the most negative one, so this is an answer that crosses over with number four. It’s that people read your work, and it affects them. There’s a lot of harm that can be done by (and a lot of criticism lying in wait for) an author who represents someone of a particular demographic in a way that others from that demographic don’t like or don’t identify with. Hell, I was afraid autistic people wouldn’t like Mouse because he wasn’t autistic in the precise way they were, and I’m autistic! I don’t want to tell stories that aren’t mine to tell, but I want my worlds to be real, and reality isn’t homogeneous. It’s never going to be all people like yourself. So on the one hand, it’s scary, because you don’t want your work to hurt anyone. On the other hand that fear that you’re going to screw up drives you to be better, to write better. To get perspectives you wouldn’t have had before. To get sensitivity readers. It’s made me a better writer, even as it’s scared the heck out of me that I’m going to do wrong by someone without meaning to.
4. In what way has having your work in the public eye proved to be a negative?
5. What advice would you have for someone looking to get started publishing their work?
Once you’ve let friends read your work, and once you’ve listened to them and taken in their criticisms and fixed the things that are broken, after all the writing and rewriting is done, you have to learn about publishing, because it’s a different line of work entirely. Learn how to write a query letter, decide whether you want to go agent or no agent, whether you’re aiming for the big five or small presses or for self-publishing (and don’t be judgy of folks who pick differently than you). Listen to anyone who’ll give you advice, and then take it all with a grain of salt because a lot of it is going to be contradictory. And, I guess, get used to rejection, because you’re going to get a lot of it.
But even if you don’t make a lot of money (you probably won’t) and you don’t get famous
(again, probably not) there’s something warm and quiet and rewarding about knowing
someone’s picked up your work and enjoyed it. So if you’re going to do it, do it for that.
Richard Ford Burley – Author