Welcome to the seventy-sixth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with multi-genre writer Don Britt. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello Don. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Don: I was born in California, brought up in Cape Breton and now live on the Canadian Prairies with my wife Georgia. We have two daughters, Crystal and Caley. I’m a hopeless liberal democrat trapped inside a kind of C.S. Lewis Christian. These aspects collide inside me all the time. I learned a long time ago, oh about fifteen years, that writing was the release valve on the steam kettle of my psyche. It’s the best way to stop my head from blowing up. The sad part is I’m not joking.
Morgen: It does have that effect on a lot of people. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Don: My first novel is historical fiction. My last one is pedal to the metal horror. My current project, which is seeing me write twenty four 3-Day novels in one year, all live online, is all over the map. There’s historical fiction from my native Cape Breton Island, there’s police procedurals set in Chicago and Louisiana Bayou Country, there’s fantasy, horror, and even a romance. About the only genre I haven’t tried is Science Fiction. But I am a fanatical Star Trek fan.
Morgen: That’ll be next then. 🙂 What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Don: Thus far I’ve self-published twice. The first story in my 3-Day novel marathon, The Fall Man, is now a very limited edition book. And my full-length horror novel Cambrian is available as an ebook through Kobo. When I received the first copies of The Fall Man in the mail I broke down and cried. Holding my words in the form of a book, even one as modest as a tiny self-published run, was an astonishing feeling. The touch of it is what made me cry. It gave substance to my dream.
Morgen: And keeps you going. 🙂 How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Don: Yes, I see myself as a brand. That’s what my entire act of insanity has been about. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that pitching polished prose with a P.T. Barnum zeal isn’t enough, although it is a damn good start. Today writers have to ravage their world to set themselves apart. We have to find a stage and sing our aria with all that we are. I’ve done that literally. This Spring I wrote a 3-Day novel on stage at West Edmonton Mall, North America’s largest shopping centre. The story I wrote there is called Curtain Call, which you can find in the library on my website. The opening line pretty well sums up the whole experience for me. ‘It may be true that all the world’s a stage, but stages are even more so.’
Morgen: With so much writing under your belt, have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Don: I’ve entered precisely one contest in my life, and no I didn’t win. But it just so happened to be the defining creative experience of my life. It was the International 3-day Novel Contest in 2010. It was the first time I ever wrote to a deadline, and it was a creative crack binge, only without the slipping pants. It birthed my year-long marathon. I’ll always be indebted to Melissa Edwards and the good folk at 3-Day. Their contest opened up a creative floodgate inside me which hopefully won’t be closing any time soon.
Morgen: 🙂 I love deadlines (and Douglas Adams’ quote about them and the sound they make as they ‘woosh’ by :)), but unlike him I’m pretty good at sticking to mine (although my editor doesn’t set any so that helps!). Do you have an agent Don? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Don: No I don’t, and all I can do is hope that the answer to the second question is no as well.
Don: I’ve become a guerrilla writer after years of overtures to the industry, both to agents and to houses, with only blood, sweat and tears to show for my efforts. The rise of Indie authors is a tectonic shift that’s shaking the whole writing world. That said there are very few ‘indies’ who get to live the life of my dreams, that of a full time author. That’s certainly the route I’m trying right now, but only because I haven’t been offered a contract with a traditional publisher to date.
Morgen: Me too, although I like the fact that now I can choose my cover, title, and content (with steering from my freelance editor). Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Don: My horror novel Cambrian is now available as an ebook through Kobo. It was a completely effortless process. Kobo offers an excellent contract for independent writers. Straight royalties, no upfront fees. I highly recommend them. I should point out though that I had a computer wizard in my corner, and a very creative soul to boot. My sister-in-law Rhonda Gunaratnam did the book and cover design, and submitted all the files for me. If it wasn’t for her I certainly wouldn’t be able to call the process effortless. It wouldn’t have gotten done without her help. I’ll confess that I’m not an ebook reader yet. I’m still a Luddite when it comes to reading. But the gift of an iPad would likely change that.
Morgen: Is that a hint Don? 🙂 Christmas is only… oh heck, just under 5 months away. I have an eReader but only use it when I go away for a weekend or more as I have plenty to read at home, so I’m only just ahead of you on that score. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Don: I’ve been rejected more times than a university freshman who street walks in drag with a fake herpes sore on his lip, as part of his fraternity’s hazing ritual. And it’s understandable. Agents have to be highly selective about the authors they take on. Publishing houses require submissions that are a perfect fit for their list, and which are compatible with their current needs.
Morgen: They do. And the ones I’ve spoken to are all after crime and historical.
Don: I could fill a Tolstoy epic with rejection letter quotes.
Morgen: I bought Anna Karenina for a book group I belonged to so know how thick (over 700 pages) that is. 🙂 Don: You learn to roll with it. If you don’t, the dream will die.
Morgen: That’s the best way to look at it. And having a dream is the best kind of motivation. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Don: I’m working on my first non-fiction project. It’s the story of my year-long act of insanity. I’ve just started sending out queries. In fact I put the query up on my website: http://24novels.com/?p=576. Any interested parties are warmly invited to contact me through my site. There’s a contact email right under the feedback link.
Morgen: Yes, please take a look (after this interview of course :)). Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Don: The answer to that question used to be easy; 1,200 words a day. My year-long marathon has revved that up with a vengeance. Each 3-Day novel is actually a novella, coming in around 22,000 – 25,000 words. So I need to clock in at around 8,000 words a day. Between stories I try to live, and don’t mind taking days off. Once my marathon is finished, hopefully by October’s end, I plan to settle back into my habit of daily writing, which of course should be the habit of every novelist.
Morgen: Should be (I’m just as guilty as most other writers… doing everything else but). What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Don: I’ve heard writers argue that it doesn’t exist.
Morgen: They have… in these blog interviews. 🙂
Don: I don’t know if I can be that bold. I have suffered from hypergraphia in the past.
Morgen: Ooh, I’ve heard of that but don’t know… back in a tick… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypergraphia says that it’s “an overwhelming urge to write. It is not itself a disorder, but can be associated with temporal lobe changes in epilepsy and mania in the context of bipolar disorder.” Wow. I was going to say that always have an overwhelming urge to write but everything else gets in the way but that would sound too flippant. I’ll call my affliction ‘passion’. 🙂
Don: For one stretch of about a year I wrote about 5,000 words a day. None of the words went anywhere. A defining aspect of that time was a terror of narrative. Whenever I tried to settle into a story I’d panic, and scamper back into a pointless flow.
Morgen: There’s something about having the words down but actually that sounds a terrible, almost frightening, way to do it.
Don: I consider that the worst case of writer’s block in my life, even though it was an endless torrent of words. My ‘cure?’ I stopped writing cold turkey for three months straight. When I came back I could write coherently again.
Morgen: Phew. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Don: I think it was from Kurt Vonnegut that I first heard of writers being divided into two groups, bashers, the outline types, and swoopers, who just wing that mother. I’ve tried bashing, but it doesn’t work for me. Whenever I proceed from an outline everything flatlines. The weight of predestination makes my characters stop and stare at the camera in my head. They know I know.
Morgen: I love that image. 🙂
Don: It’s just a matter of putting up a series of painful obstacles before reaching that preordained conclusion. What I’m forever looking for is a character and a circumstance. Once I have that I hop in a car and tear off down an unknown road to see where it takes me. The more you swoop the easier it gets. I’ve gotten to the point where I can usually see at least the start of the next chapter as the last one is winding down. Swooping, with all its uncertainties, is what gives my work the energy and flow I’m after. One quick caution though. I’ve filled hard drives and countless notebooks doing this. That’s why my ‘swoop engine’ hums along as well as it does today. If you’re not willing to make that kind of commitment then swooping might not be for you.
Morgen: Filled hard drives, wow, that’s some going. Who do you first show your work to, Don?
Don: My wife Georgia is my first reader, and so much more. She’s an uncompromising editor too, and she’s given me the kick in the butt I’ve needed on many occasions.
Morgen: I think we all need someone like that.
Don: During one of my three-day novels I woke up with the flu, and decided to abandon the story. This was right after my marathon received national coverage, with CBC’s ‘As It Happens’ and in The National Post. (The Telegraph in the UK also chimed in with a few words that can best be described as a contemptuous snort. But that was earlier, I think.)
Morgen: Oh dear, the UK says sorry about that. 🙂
Don: It was Georgia who made me realize that a lot of people were watching for the first time, and that I simply had to soldier on. I thank God for her every day.
Morgen: 🙂 What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Don: Here’s a great spot for an LOL. When I say I’m a swooper I mean I am a hopeless swooper. A character and a situation is all I bring to the table. And trust me I’ve kicked myself because of it. I’ve showed up to write 3-day novels in public venues with nothing but a notion, which now has to be transformed into a workable linear dump while the clock ticks down to doomsday. That’s when I take the quotes off from around the words act of insanity. I tell ya it’s just loopy. But so far it’s worked for me.
Morgen: Well then, keep doing what you’re doing. 🙂 But public venues… that’s brave. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Don: I’m now finally converted I think. I wrote everything out on paper for years before taking it to a computer. Now I use a single page of foolscap while I write my 3-Day novels live online. I also wrote Cambrian that way, come to think of it. That single page mainly holds my cast of characters. Name drift is a real problem for me.
Morgen: What sort of music do you listen to when you write?
Don: I don’t usually listen to music while writing. But I’m a big fan of taking breaks where I leap around the house and dance to ridiculous tunes that have reached dizzying viral heights on the internet. Recent selections have included The Moosebutter’s ‘John Williams is the Man’, Katy and Elmo’s ‘Hot N Cold’ and, of course, ‘I’m a Gummy Bear’.
Morgen: er…. pass. 🙂 What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Don: Third person deep immersion. Many have suggested that people stick to this until they make the break, and I think it’s good advice. That said, my first novel was written in the first person. I just couldn’t imagine telling that story any other way. As for second person, uh, no. I hate telling people what to do.
Morgen: Ah, that’s where we differ. I don’t… especially to my brother (who’s 46!). Probably why second person is my favourite. 🙂 Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Don: I don’t like prologues. I prefer starting right with the action, preferably with the main character on page one.
Morgen: Yes. I agree. A story should start with the action and I rarely read prologues although I used one for novel no. 2 but I’m converting it to a novella (losing some coincidences and making the whole thing tighter / sharper) so we shall see whether the prologue stays or becomes chapter 1).
Don: Prologues have always felt like voice overs in movies to me, and I’ve never been a fan of them either. They proceed from a writer’s desire to explain things. Readers are smart. We should trust their ability to pick up the necessary details on the fly, while the story unfurls. As for epilogues, I really don’t think they’re necessary if the denouement is handled well. Often they feel like painting on the frame.
Morgen: No, I’ve never done an epilogue. I’ve recently seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt2 and while it was good to know what happened to him in the end (well, thereafter), it did feel a little flat. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Don: Other than every last word I’ve written in my life you mean?
Morgen: No just the early ‘got to practice at this thing called writing’ stuff. 🙂
Don: Sometimes it feels like nothing ever will. But now, oddly, every single paragraph is seeing the light of day.
Morgen: Yay! See, it’s just practice.
Don: Everything in my marathon goes straight to web as soon as it’s written. The counter on my homepage has gone up over 12,000 in the past four weeks. That’s far from ‘Gummy Bear’ territory. But someone is reading.
Morgen: Another yay! What do you like to read?
Don: My favourite novel is Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. When I die I would like to go to heaven and write like her.
Morgen: That would be a bit inconvenient, unless Amazon expands further than they already do. Can you not try for it a little earlier than that? 🙂
Don: I love Margaret Laurence, Yann Martell and Stephen Leacock (to show my Canadian Colours.) At the same time I grew up reading Stephen King and Star Trek novels. I once sent Stephen a fan letter saying ‘I grew up reading you and Star Trek novels!’ I haven’t heard back yet.
Morgen: Tush Mr King but then I blame him for me wearing glasses (book* / duvet / torch) so I shouldn’t be surprised. 🙂 *Christine, Firestarter, Pet Semetary…
Don: A few other writers I admire are Neil Gaiman.
Morgen: Oh yes, such a nice guy. I have Coraline in paperback (it’s only thin) and want to read it before I see the film (not sure why it passed me by as the cinema’s my second home). Note to self: move Coraline up the pile. 🙂
Don: Kim Stanley Robinson, Chuck Palahniuk, Elmore Leonard, Jack Whyte and Carol Shields.
Morgen: I have some of Carol’s short stories and haven’t read them yet (slap wrist). Sorry, I keep interrupting (slap other wrist :)).
Don: The writer who has probably influenced me the most is Kurt Vonnegut.
Morgen: I have his Slaughterhouse 5 and haven’t… sorry, I’ll stop now. 🙂
Don: My soul just clicks in agreement when I read his stuff. I wish he were with us still. I can’t stop there though. My writing has more allusions to the Bible than anything else. In the end the library at the core of my faith has shaped me most profoundly.
Morgen: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Don: I think I can only answer this question with an anecdote. Years ago I was driving along a country road in the Maritimes, listening to a book on tape. One of my favourites, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones. At one point a few words from that book hit me so hard that I had to pull over as I wept bitterly.
Don: I cried in heart and soul agreement with these words: “I used to think freedom meant doing whatever you want. It means knowing who you are, what you are supposed to be doing on this earth, and then simply doing it.” Writing is that for me. I have had so many people tell me that it isn’t. I’ve had loved ones assure me that I’m wasting my life, sometimes with tears in their eyes. I’ve been told that God has other plans for me, and that I need to quit this self-obsession. I never will. That is the most wonderful and terrible truth about my life as a writer. It is all consuming. If I’m wrong, if this really isn’t my destiny, then I will die a fool, having tilted at windmills all my life. This is the ground on which I am prepared to bleed and die. I’m a writer. My year-long act of insanity is my attempt to get the world to agree that I am.
Morgen: I’ve done three month-long insanities (http://nanowrimo.org) so I’m right there with you. 99% of the people around me are supportive and the others just don’t understand what this feeling feels like. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Don: I’ll address these final remarks to writers with professional aspirations. Writing can be a wonderful hobby. So is chess. But for all who want to make it their vocation I say assess your desire. Do you want this life as much as you’d want to escape a burning building? Are you willing to drag your pride kicking and shrieking to an altar and gut it, so that you can become truly and profoundly teachable? Are you willing to devote yourself to a hard daily grind that doesn’t neglect any of these key areas – writing, marketing and professional development? And is there any other way in the world that you can find happiness? If so pursue it, with all your heart and soul and mind.
Morgen: I can answer your first question: I’d save the dog and laptop (and back-up external hard drive if I had time) closely followed by my new (to me) BlackBerry mobile – I love it but not as much as my hound and laptop. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Don: The gateway to it all is my website, http://24novels.com.
Morgen: And you’re on Twitter (if you’re reading this and you’re on Twitter, please do follow Don). Is there anything else you’d like to mention Don or perhaps provide an extract of your writing?
Don: Here’s an excerpt from my latest 3-Day novel, The Bulwark by the Sea:
There came a familiar jingling sound behind Cartwright, who closed his eyes and lowered his head, still kneeling there as though for prayer. There was that rock and hard place. That devil and the deep blue sea. Now Dale Cartwright, pit manager of Glace Bay’s Number Two Colliery and veteran of the Second World War, was trapped in that hell between them.
A slow rhythmic clapping began behind him, set against the persistent barking from his comrade in the cause, who was stuck out in the hallway. Cartwright felt a sudden pang of sorrow for that. They should have stayed together to the end. No man left behind. No beloved pooch either.
Then the fiend spoke, in that sing song high-pitched voice. “You’ve got a lot o’ heart, I’ll give you that. But isn’t that what they always say about losers? You’re like that brain-damaged bag of puss and blood who went the distance and still lost, instead of taking a dive for the same prize money in the second. You’ve got a lot o’ heart Dale Cartwright. Oh yes indeed you do.”
Morgen: Ooh. Thank you Don (my dad’s name was Don :)). It’s been great getting to know you a little better.
Update From Don, June 2012: there’s an audio link now up at my site. I’ve recorded a couple of stories from my 3-Day novel marathon. It’s a latte to go world out there. I’m hoping that podcasts will be more in keeping with it. Here’s a link to my audio page: http://www.24novels.com/audio.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
Alternatively, if you’d like a free Q&A-only interview, I now have http://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com on which I’ve rerun the original interviews posted here then posted new interviews which I then reblog here. These interviews are Q&A only, so I don’t add in my comments but they do get exposure on both sites.
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