Several years ago I met John Burridge online in a forum for folks of a certain liberal spiritual persuasion. When I met him, he was relatively new at the work at home dad biz and had his hands in several creative pots. Oddly, it was a year or more before I realized he was also a writer. I stumbled on his blog and became a fan. Since then, I have committed more fully to my own writing. Following John's work has helped keep me on task.
Following are some questions I recently posed to the magnificent Mr. Burridge and his, not surprisingly, magnificent answers.
How long have you been writing?
I remember writing some science fiction and fantasy as a 7th grader in 1978. Thankfully, those manuscripts have been buried or lost as they read like fantasy role playing game logs. I got a little more serious in high school -- I would take ten vocabulary words from my English class and weave them into a two-page installment for a serial that lasted the term. I also did a spoof of Dante’s Inferno. I wrote for myself, friends and family for a long time, but did not start submitting to professional markets until 2001.
When and how did you come to realize you were good at it?
Being “good at writing” is so wrapped up with public validation and commercial success. On good days, I’m delighted with my writing. On good days, the words flow from my mind, only pausing long enough for my fingers to type them out on the keyboard. On bad days, my taste in writing is pedestrian and so 1980’s. Or I write ideas which ramble desperately in search of a plot and characters.
I suspected I might be good at writing when, for unassigned extra-credit in high school AP English, my instructor said the rest of the department had discussed it and said that I had fixed the mixed metaphors in Janice Appleby Succorsa’s "My Garden." Since the 1990’s, friends and family always told me that my writing was good.
The first story I ever submitted--in 2001--to Writers of the Future was a semi-finalist (meaning it was in about the top 50 stories submitted to the contest that quarter). I turned around and submitted it to Ellen Datlow, who was editing scifi.com at that time. She rejected it, but hand-wrote a message encouraging me to send it to four markets. I knew I was close then. When I placed in the Writers of the Future anthology in 2007 (after twelve attempts), I knew I was good enough to be published. Maybe not make a living, but at least be published.
And then I hit the Child Pause. I’d write and submit some, but not sell anything. “Glowing Rejections” are all very nice, but when too many rack up it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re doing something wrong. Recently, I’ve sold two short stories to On the Premises, which makes me feel like a real writer again.
Is being published a part of what defines your success for you? Could you consider yourself a good writer even if you had never been published?
Yes; publication is the business part of writing--there's also a skill to writing, and an art to writing. If I want to be a well-rounded writer, I need to be good at all three aspects.
Publication is such a tangled knot. It's validation. It's payment. It's endorsement by my writing peers. It's the salve to all those paper-cuts inflicted by form manuscript rejection letters. (It's not the job of editors to give detailed critique of unpurchased stories, but I can tell you that "ten reasons your story may suck (so guess)" form letters are A) frustrating and B) indicators that I haven't told the story well enough or marketed it correctly). Publication is the way that the story jumps from my brain to another's. It's proof to my family that I'm not crazy or wasting my time (much). The more I publish, the more likely I'll be famous (hah, Ozimandius who?) It's the thirty silver coins.
Someone made the distinction that an author can always be called an author once they publish a piece, but that a writer is only a writer when they are writing. Mercedies Lacky once made a distinction between the authors at a party talking about Art and the "real authors" at the party who were talking about agents and contracts. But the final thought on publication in my mind is that part of being a Wordo (see below) is that we are writers who are actively seeking publication.
To answer the second part of your question.... considering how often I've groused, "What? They bought that story, but they didn't buy mine?" I'd have to say "Yes, I'd consider myself a good (unpublished) writer. But to follow up on that, often my grousing was followed up by doubts that my writing style might be too quirky.
I know you are a part of a writer’s community. Can you share some info about that and tell me how that has informed, influenced, improved (or not improved) your work?
Since 2001, I’ve been an active member of the Eugene Wordos, a professional writers’ workshop. Since 2003-ish, I have served as both chair and co-chair. In the early 00’s, the Wordos helped me to move away from novice manuscripts. If it hadn’t been for them, I would have never heard of Writers of the Future.
The most important things I’ve learned from the Wordos are A) that a critique group is not a silver bullet that will turn one’s manuscript into a pile of cash, but rather a process to think about story craft; B) nobody cares about your manuscript as much as you do; and C) submit, submit, submit. A contaminate result of submitting is how to write a cover letter.
Being a part of Wordos has allowed me to meet editors like Ellen Datlow and Gordon Van Gelder. I’ve been able to read (and critique) the works of Jerry Oltion, Nina K Hoffman, Devon Monk, and Jay Lake. Wordos have also put me into the same community as writers like Cat Rambo, David Levine, and Mary Robinette Kowal.
The peril of Wordos, like any critique group, is that one can make the mistake of trying to please everyone at the critique table, which turns a manuscript into a generic mess and is a good way to lose touch of one’s unique voice.
Another other peril of Wordos is that it is a short story critique group. Short stories are cool, and I love them. However, to make a career as a writer, traditionally, one needs to write novels and build up a library of work that will generate royalty checks during one’s retirement. We have a good group, but I wish we could return to the days when we were larger and had more professional novelists.
A final peril of being in Wordos for so long is that I’ve become very good at critiquing. This means that I read like a critic and I write like a critic. On particularly frustrating days part of me wonders if I should throw in the writing towel and become an editor instead.
OK. The other final peril of being in Wordos is connected to being a chair. Most of the time (knock on wood) the Wordos are a wonderful group of writers who meet to critique manuscripts. But every so often we have a round of Writers Playing Badly. And then I have to not write and play referee. I consider these times as “paying it forward.”
What do you write?
Mostly speculative fiction. I try to make my science fiction hard, but I write science-fantasy too. I like urban fantasy, and write high fantasy as well. My favorite fantasy world to play in is a parallel world where magic works (song is their physics) and the Catholic-like church has a four-fold deity (I’m sure there’s multiple heresies there). My favorite science fiction world to play in is about a thousand years from now, and has interstellar travel and cool aliens.
Apparently I also write horror. I think that comes from my cynical, sarcastic side. I start out writing dark speculative fiction, and sometimes I get carried away. I've only written one (flash) story for the horror genre. In my mind, horror is gore and zombies and chainsaws. I write things I like, which apparently creep some people out.
I tried to write non-fiction book for gay Neo-pagan men, but it came out terribly acerbic and I realized that it was self-therapy disguised as a writing project. I have a blog where I unleash my non-fiction, book reviews, NeoPagan theological analysis, and stuff about me!
This is the question authors love and hate. Do you have a stable work process? a schedule? Do you plan your working hours and how easy is it to adhere to any plan you make?
I’m terribly undisciplined at writing and I’m wishing and trying to change that--much of this has to do with the perception that I only have an hour of protected time to write, the pressure to perform during sixty minutes, and the anxiety that it’s not enough time. I wish I could sell more short stories, and feel stupid and frustrated sometimes by repeated rejections from certain markets. Oddly, Duotrope tells me, “ Congratulations! Your acceptance ratio is higher than the average for users who have submitted to the same markets.”
If I had my druthers, I’d start writing around 8 PM and go until 2 AM. For a while, when I was gainfully unemployed in 1996, I did just this. And it was wonderful--but also embarrassing in a 32-year-old-boomerang kind of way.
Before that, when I lived at Acrosanti in the 1990’s, there wasn’t much to do at night except drink and watch old Star Trek:TNG reruns. I wrote about three hours every night for about two years.
These days, my writing takes second place to my work and family schedule. I have about ninety minutes in the afternoons between getting off of my technical support job and after-school pickup. Lunch is supposed to happen during this time; also any vet, mechanic, or doctor visits. It’s easier in the summer when camps run later. My husband is supportive and will sometimes send me away to write or empty out the house for a few days.
My usual plan is write. I try to write just one story at a time. If a story has been critiqued, then I line-edit. If I don’t have enough umph to write or line-edit, I submit... If you don’t have enough umph to write or line-edit, submit. Oh, and critique this week’s manuscripts before Tuesday night. Critiques are more resilient to interruption, so I tend to save those for times when the family is home but doing something without me (like going to bed).
Sometimes I write at night. The difficulty with that is that it pulls me into night-owl mode, and my family are morning larks who spring awake with alarming alacrity. Other writers with families I know get up at 4:30 and write for two hours. I tried that for about a three weeks, and then I got sick -- and then I was getting up at 5:30... then 6:00... then 6:30... and if I didn’t force myself into the arms of Morphius by 8:45 PM, my writing session consisted of me stumbling around the kitchen while brewing Ceylon OP followed by sitting in front of a blank screen while my neurons mis-fired and my tea got cold. And then, just as the caffeine began to work, my family would spring awake in that alarming fashion I mentioned.
Um... the Internet is the bane of my writing and I highly recommend leechblock or the Scrivener Full Page feature that greys out everything. When I’m really good, I use my other hobbies--photography, graphic design, 3D modeling--as rewards for writing. When I’m not so good, I churn out some really cool story prompts.
I know you have a family. How easy is it to be a full-time family guy and keep on writing?
I know various writers with families who manage to churn out novels, and--by gum--I wish I could figure out how they do it. I have to manage my time well.
My husband and I agreed that I would be the stay-at-home parent. There was a fantasy that I would write between changing diapers--but between sleep deprivation and the child eating my brain, that didn’t happen. Somewhere there’s a picture of me writing while I wear a baby in a front-slung sling.
I don’t know about all parents, but becoming a parent diverted a significant portion of my cognitive resources into putting a laser-weapons-lock-and-load tag on every potential threat in a city-block radius. No one warned me that I had a latent cyborg-mama-grizzly-with-a-cub gene (my sister still hasn’t forgotten the time I karate-chopped her German Shepherd...). It is so easy to want to write, but either be too tired to write, or only have five minutes to write.
My husband knew he was marrying a writer--and he’s been supportive. I can’t imagine writing as a single parent. And I’m grateful for all he’s done to keep a roof over our heads.
After eight years, it’s getting easier. I’m not quite so paranoid, and some of my cognitive processes have freed up for writing.
Well... When the hidden nails, electrified barbed wire, rabid dogs, broken glass and extremely pointy furniture fail to Appear and Do The Child In, much less be an active menace, after eight years one's vigilance relaxes.
And I’ve had to work on actually sleeping if I’m too tired to write or accept that I have to do the best that I can with only five or ten minutes (Mary Robinette Kowal is the queen of writing in short bursts and I need to emulate her better). Although I have to be more careful that inappropriate manuscripts don’t get into tiny hands.
Is there one piece of work that makes you proud when you think of it?
I’m always proud of what’s been recently published--but it’s funny how laurel crowns can so quickly turn into bedding to rest on. Proud... Hmm. I think “pleased with my own cleverness” might be closer.
I was proud of “Briallen Dreaming of Myrmidons,” the retelling of Sleeping Beauty that Ellen Datlow liked enough to hand-write a response to. I was also inordinately pleased when the illustrator of “Mask Glass Magic,” managed to distill the feel of the story into the artwork for the Writers of the Future Anthology (her work won the 1987 artists’ grand prize for illustration), because the vision in my head had jumped into hers.
Tell me about your research. I know you write very stylized and period specific science fiction. How do you research it? When creating alternate realities, how much planning is involved? How often do you know where a story is headed before it gets there?
I love research, probably too much. I use Wikipedia for light research on topics that don’t seem too political. Then I hit our wonderful downtown library. Children’s section books are good for quick light research; for more detailed research I’ll go to the adult stacks. The danger of research is that my stories sometimes get the critique that they’re wiki-stories: something you need to read with a Wikipedia session open for reference.
Also, it’s easy to get bogged down in details. When I wrote “A View from the Top,” one of the critiques I got was that one of the details seemed wrong until the reader double-checked. Truth sometimes is stranger than fiction.
When I create alternate realities the part I love the most is not what I would call planning, but rather--and I’m going to make up a term--lavish imagining. Tolkien created Middle Earth because he was lavishly imaginating it for thirty years. By imagining it so and for so long, he was able to write about it authoritatively.
I love alternate reality stories, because they give an author a chance to explore what-ifs. The trick with alternate reality is that seemingly small changes can have far-reaching effects.
I’ve had one or two short stories write themselves. I’ve had a couple of stories suggest themselves in dreams--my fantasy alternate world started out as a dream. I tend to discover my plots. I’m working on plotting because it saves time.
What comes first: plot or characters or something else?
Usually a character presents her or himself. Sometimes as a drawing; I carry around a small sketchbook for story ideas and to make mapes and draw characters. Or a strong visual image will come to me.
Often, the language of a story--how the characters speak or the narrative style--has a strong predisposition.
I’ve tried to use Pinterest to garner story prompts. I haven’t had much success with this strategy, probably because I get too easily distracted by all the pretty pictures. I know a few writers who’ve had better luck, so I will give it another go around before consigning it to a reward for writing.
I’m terrible at plots. When I outline them, I feel constrained and resentful, and then the characters do something unexpected; I hope this makes me sound creative, but I’m afraid it means that I have a poor handle on plot.
Describe your work space.
It’s occurred to me as I answered this that I write wherever I can clear enough of a flat work space.
When we rented, our house had a four by eight attic / loft (you couldn’t stand in it), with some repurposed wooden crates as shelves and computer stand. For a while, I had an office space using a Windows 98 computer in a unheated, former sauna turned guest cottage--what was nice about that was that I had a large desk and some second-hand lateral files for old manuscripts. When I became a stay-at-home dad, we got an iMac (running OS 10.4), and I did some writing on that.
We moved out of the rental and into the 900 square foot house we now own. Unfortunately, the house has neither a study or craft room. My Win98 machine wound up in the child’s bedroom closet with the desk shoved into it. I have to open the closet door to get to the desk--assuming there isn’t a barricade of Lego pirate ships in front--and slowly it’s become a junk closet. The lateral files got buried in the garage, so they’re long-term archives. The iMac lives in the other bedroom, on a wonderful floor-to-ceiling bookshelf (which isn’t exactly ergonomic).
For a while, I wrote on a WinXP laptop which sat top of a rotating CD rack in the kitchen/dining nook--so I guess I was into standing desks before they were hip. Recently we purchased a two foot by three foot computer desk which sits in our living room, and I moved the laptop there.
A couple of years ago, I got a second generation iPad. This has been helpful, as I use it with SimpleNote, and then sync files onto Scrivener (on the iMac). I also found that I had a lot of inconveniently structured time slots, and having a mobile device with me allows me to write waiting during child pick-up or while I’m at lessons. The only drawback to the iPad is that I use my sketchbook less.
On pleasant days (usually the Spring or Autumn) I set up the round patio table as “Café John”, with tea, cucumber sandwiches, or other snacks, and write (or critique). On rainy or super-hot days I work on the round kitchen table.
When my notes and roughed-in scenes reach a critical point, I start working on them in Scrivener. For a while I was using the Windows/laptop version of Scrivener, but I’ve gone back to the iMac version -- I love DropBox, and use it to sync everything (and yes, once I “crossed the beams” and really messed up a manuscript trying to edit it with Windows and Mac OS Scrivener at the same time.)
Please share anything here about your background that you would like to share.
I test out as an ENTJ. ♑ I'm a Capricorn. Depending on the day and hour that means different things. It's safe to say that it's a useful metaphor. Mark, my unlawful husband, came up with the slogan for Capricorns, which is How Can I Love You If You Won't Do What I Say? I need to make a T-shirt with the Latin translation: Quomodo te amare possum nisi facere vis quae praecepi?
My short story, "The Gear Master's Wife", may be found on the On The Premises, web site (http://onthepremises.com/issue_19/story_19_3.html). Also there is my short story, "Reset Romance," (http://onthepremises.com/issue_18/story_18_2.html). My micro-fiction, "The Book Deal," may be found in the Delving Press anthology, "Twisted Tales in 66 Words." My short story "The View from the Top" may be found on the Analog web site (http://www.analogsf.com/201009/vft-johnburridge.shtml). My short story "Up" won the Whidbey Student Choice Award. My short story "Mask Glass Magic" may be found in the anthology "Writers of the Future, vol 23." I miss Thaumatrope, a Twitter Fiction venue to which I contributed.