Welcome to the one hundred and seventy-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with children’s and sci-fi author, playwright (and more) Dal Burns. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. You can also read Dal’s ‘Writing for radio and theatre’ guest blog posted last night.
Morgen: Hello, Dal. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Dal: I’m a 4th-generation entertainer. I’ve been in TV, movies, radio, recording studios, rock band, theatre etc. I’ve done almost every job in the ‘biz, including writing. I’ve written for radio ads, theatre programs, screenplays, radio plays (they were fun!) theatre plays (2 of which were produced and quite successful). I’ve actually been a stunt man in Australia and in the U.S. on top of everything else. I wrote my first short story at seventeen, after a mentor suggested I enter a writing competition. He said that because I was rather well known in my village (in the wilds of Northumberland) as the local storyteller. As I recall, I won the competition. I didn’t pick it up again until I was in my thirties and working with a theatre company.
Morgen: Definitely born to do it. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Dal: I don’t write for any genre. I write what I love. Stories are my genre, if you will. I have always loved stories and when I was living in the Australian bush (in my late teens) I heard stories from Aborigines, carnival workers, jackaroos and the like. Stories I heard while on walkabout with Aborigines or sitting by a campfire in the deep bush with an opal miner or a carnie or a swagman I chanced on in the bush.
Morgen: What an experience. What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
- Outback! – One-man play that became an audiobook. Suitable for YA to adult
- The Kookaburra and Other Stories – Audiobook of seven stories and a paperback with twenty-three stories. Suitable for 6-11 years, though many adults love the audio version
- The Adventures of Phoo – The story of a boy jester and his robot friend Clunk, on the planet Mars. Suitable for 6-11 years
- Alien Race – Sci-fi novella for YA to adult
My Kookaburra book first appeared at Copperfields book store. I once got a phone call from the lead editor of the Sydney Morning Herald who called to tell me my Kookaburra CD had supplanted the Game Boy as the favourite object for his two sons to fight over!
Morgen: Oh wow! This leads me perfectly on to my next question, have you ever seen a member of the public (whom you don’t know!) reading your book… in any unusual locations?
Dal: My books and audio have turned up in England, Saudi Arabia, China, Australia, Chile and a few other odd locations. I have never seen one in the hands of a stranger, though.
Morgen: Yet. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Dal: Not a lot. Once I have written a piece, I tend to let it go. I am changing that attitude and am working on social and commercial web media to help get my work more into the public eye. YouTube videos will be a part of that, along with the usual blog and Twitter accounts.
Morgen: Trailers are becoming more and more popular. I’m not strictly a novelist so it’ll be interesting to see whether they work for other mediums, I suppose they do. See, I’m hammocking in the learning curve. You mentioned competitions, do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Dal: Not really sure they help unless they are studied by a publisher who is interested in acquisitions.
Morgen: Do you write under a pseudonym? If so why and do you think it makes a difference?
Dal: I don’t use a pen name. I figure if someone wishes to hunt me down for writing a terrible book, they’ll find a way!
Morgen: But hopefully not. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Dal: I don’t have an agent. I believe that agents were once vital to a writer’s career. With the advent of the web and eBooks, that is changing, rapidly.
Morgen: I agree, or at least by going my own way, I hope so. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Dal: Alien Race is purely an eBook. My Kookaburra stories and my Adventures of Phoo will become eBooks next year, when my publishing contract expires and the books are mine, once again. My next two books will also be eBooks, at least at first. I currently own a Kindle and a Nook and I use my iPhone for some, smaller books.
Morgen: I’m hoping, as a short story writer, that that will work to my advantage. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Dal: Gosh, that’s hard. I first started writing radio ads and theatre programs. I had a short (horror) story published by a magazine and I loved it. Anytime someone likes my stories, I get a big thrill.
Morgen: Presumably in amongst these successes you’ve had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Dal: Hundreds. I just figure that if Parlophone records turned down the Beatles because ‘guitar bands’ were on the way out, no-one is perfect and the agent / publisher is probably wrong about me, too.
Morgen: JK Rowling was turned down by over a dozen (14-16 depending on where you read about it). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Dal: Letters from Chile is an (adult) collection of short stories. Releasing as an eBook as soon as I can get it finished.
The Neighbour’s Cat is an illustrated book for young children. Working with Kari Wishingrad (co-author) and SonaJacob (illustrator) on this project, releasing as an eBook and possibly an iPad app., this winter
The Hidden Path is a YA Faerie story that is on my list for next year, as an eBook.
Morgen: It’s encouraging that you write so many different things (as I do) but then that’s the joy of eBooks, it pleases so many more markets than being streamlined into one. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Dal: I don’t write every day. Some days I wander around the forest around my little town, sometimes with my horse and sometimes alone. I use that time to think and let my mind formulate stories. I think the most I ever wrote in one day was 3,000 words and they were awful.
Morgen: Oh dear.
Dal: With Alien Race, I wrote 2,500 in one day and was delighted with all of them!
Morgen: Oh good – only an average of 50 awful words then. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Dal: Writer’s block is not something I have experienced. When I am in the right mood, I write. If the ‘feel’ is not there, I do other things.
Morgen: Best plan. A question some authors dread, where do you get your inspiration from?
Dal: My life, principally. I am very well-travelled and adventurous. I recently backpacked through Patagonia, mostly alone. Got a few good stories right there! Last year I bicycled 800 miles through Morocco with a friend. We just biked wherever we felt like going. This year I spent a week in the Nevada desert, driving cattle to the Reno Rodeo. Between the ages of seventeen and twenty I travelled the Australian bush, often alone. I still get inspiration from the bush. I have so much life to draw from that I have no excuse not to be inspired, all the time.
Morgen: Wow, you sound like my friend Caroline, she’s always off somewhere, and my brother’s a big traveller. I’m more of a home bird… a one-room writer. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Dal: I do both. Sometimes a story comes to me fully-fledged, as Alien Race did. With Phoo, it took me six months of hard slog to build the plot and write it up.
Morgen: But rewarding when you got there, hopefully. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Dal: I do not. I most often draw from life and will create my characters from an amalgam of ‘characters’ I have met in life. Naming is fairly easy as I tend to make up a name that ‘suits’ the character I have created. Taking inspiration from life helps make my characters ‘believable’.
Morgen: And that’s what we’re after. Do you write any non-fiction? If so, how do you decide what to write about?
Dal: I write non-fiction in a fiction format. I take real events from my life and the lives of others and mould the events into fiction, using a little ‘poetic license’.
Morgen: Do you write poetry? If so, do you write to form or free verse? What would you say is the difference between a piece of prose and a prose poem? Why do you think poetry is so popular and yet so poorly paid?
Dal: I do write some Hai-Ku, though mostly for myself. To me, a prose poem is just a piece of prose set to a particular cadence. Poetry is not taken seriously in schools and, therefore, the adults don’t take it for the art form it truly is.
Morgen: Isn’t it, it’s a shame. I’m still learning poetry (not sure if I ever will as I don’t write much of it) but it would be nice to ‘get’ it. Do you write short stories? If so, apart from the word count, what do you see as the differences between them and novels and why do you think they’re so difficult to get published?
Dal: I believe that quantity often overshadows quality. If we don’t get 250,000 words, we feel robbed. Unless we get a Hummer or a triple Big Mac, we are not getting value for money. That’s the principle difference as I see it. That and most publishers cannot see past their own noses.
Morgen: Hopefully eBooks will change that. Novel length for eBooks is already been talked about at least. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Dal: Not at the moment. Something comes up, I will jump at it.
Morgen: Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Dal: I have friends in California and the UK who get to see my work before I send it to market.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Dal: I edit. I hate editing and I edit.
Morgen: I’m not its biggest fan either.
Dal: I want to distil a story to its essence so I write it, leave it to sit a while and then hack at it with a blunt instrument until I remove the useless words.
Morgen: What an image. How much research do you have to do for your writing?
Dal: I do research. Often by going out and living what I want to write about. I tend to read a lot anyway, so I get facts and snippets and tuck them away for future use. I rarely research just for a single book / story.
Morgen: What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Dal: There are times when writing is so easy, it’s not fair. Some days I can’t type fast enough to keep up. Other times, it’s like trying to pass a rather large and spiky kidney stone!
Morgen: I’m embarking on NaNoWriMo tomorrow so I’m hoping it’s the former for me, although this’ll be my fourth time so I know what I’m letting myself in for. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Dal: I make notes on paper. I always have a small, spiral pad handy. When actually writing, I use my computer.
Morgen: I’m the same really then I do most edits on paper. Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Dal: I far prefer quiet to write by. Taking notes is different. Whenever the fancy strikes, I can write my notes in any environment. Oftentimes the environment helps me to come up with ideas. An old friend of mine, Charles Schultz (creator of Snoopy) used table napkins to jot down ideas for his strip. He liked the local ice arena café and ate lunch there every day (he built the arena for his daughter to skate in). When we had lunch together, he’d be scribbling away on the napkins. I liked that and have copied it.
Morgen: I grew up with the Peanuts strip… so funny. Let’s hope some of his napkin magic rubs off. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Dal: First person is fine. Third I use a lot. I once wrote a short horror story in the second-person and just scared the living daylights out of the magazine editor. I wanted to drag the reader into the story and second person worked a treat on that one.
Morgen: Doesn’t it, it’s great for dark (I love it). Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Dal: Don’t use them. I may, if I need them. Just depends on what I need to drive the story along.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Dal: Absolutely. Some of them are junk but I like them, anyway. Some are scraps of stories I just cannot find the wherewithal to finish.
Morgen: Practice pieces then maybe. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Dal: Favourite is coming up with a new story, a new character to become friends with. Least favourite is actually typing out the story.
Morgen: If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Dal: That adults love my kids’ stories.
Morgen: Oh I’m a real child (I still love the Peanuts humour). What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Dal: Get out and live. Go out and get into scrapes and adventures. Scare yourself half to death by doing things like parachuting, or Ropes Courses or backpacking alone in the wilderness. Go and hang out in seedy bars and dangerous street corners and listen to other people’s conversations. Experience every possible emotion to its fullest. Get some scars, emotional and physical. Fall in love with the (totally) wrong person and get a broken heart. Then write about it all.
Morgen: I’d say most of us have done some of those. What do you like to read?
Dal: I love sci-fi, funny books, biographies, Stephen King, Brian Greene and anyone who strikes my fancy at that moment.
Morgen: Stephen King’s a popular choice in these interviews. Is there a quote or phrase you like.
Dal: Yes, there is. A very long time ago, a friend said to me, “Burns, you have this unique inability to understand that some things are impossible.” I’ve never found out whether this was intended as a compliment or an admonishment. I have always taken it as a maxim to live by.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Dal: I run on the wooded trails around my home. I ride my Peruvian Paso horse. I read a lot. I do some gardening and I potter around my home and truck, fixing things that get broken. I learn about new technology. I help out with the local Theatre group, on stage and behind the scenes. I look to get into adventures and to learn new skills.
Morgen: Wow, what a life. Northampton’s a little lacking on that score. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Dal: My favourite book on writing is Stephen King’s book, On Writing. Other than that, every book I read helps me to be a better writer.
Morgen: A popular choice. In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Dal: I live in California, high up on a mountain, overlooking the Napa Valley wine-growing region. I’m pretty remote but the web is increasing my ability to reach people.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Dal: I have a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a Google+ account, a blog site, a web site or two and I am a member of LinkedIn. I believe they will all help me as I learn how to use them effectively. They are the future, IMHO, LOL ;->.
Morgen: I agree, especially for those (like me) going solo (well, solo with an editor) and most interviewees have said that. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Dal: http://dramaworksinc.com, http://dburnsinc.com (older site, needs work), http://dalburnswrites.com (blog), Twitter – @dalburns, Facebook – Dal Burns, iTunes, Amazon.com, AmazonMP3, Rhapsody, CD Baby, Napster etc, under ‘Dal Burns’. I have books, audio, songs and even some ringtones (for the iPhone). I also lead the ongoing children’s writing competition ‘Write Across America‘.
Morgen: My goodness, you have time to write? What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Dal: A lot of hard work. We will have to be our own writer, editor, agent, publisher and marketer. Still, we’ll get paid more than the average 5c a word for all our work!
Morgen: Let’s hope so. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Dal: Yes. That inspiration and hard work can really come from the least expected sources. ‘Alien Race’ is a great example. I was having a drink with a friend one evening and we were talking about writing. She is not a writer and she was picking my brains about it all. She gave me a funny look and said “I’ll bet you $100 you can’t write me a story of over 20,000 words, in two weeks, if I give you the last line you must use for the story.” I took the bet. She continued, “The last sentence of the story is to be…” and she told me what it would be (Can’t give that away, though). I wrote Alien Race in ten days and won the bet.
Morgen: And you’re clearly very proud of the result. Thank you Dal.
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