Edgar-winner James Lee Burke is the bestselling author of more than 30 books, most recently House of the Rising Sun. Burke shares his writing tips.
Robert Frost once said a poet must be committed to a lover's quarrel with the world. He had it right. If a person writes for money or success, he will probably have neither. If he writes for the love of his art and the world and humanity, money and success will find him down the line. In the meantime he must work everyday at his craft, either at his desk or in his mind and sometimes in his sleep. It's a lonely pursuit, one without shortcuts.
The best teachers are the books and poems and plays of good writers. For me, that was Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, John Steinbeck, James T. Farrell, Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. There were many more as well. The ones I did not read, and whom I recommend no one read, are those who wrote sloppy and lazy prose and who are a contagion if you are influenced by them.
I published my first short story when I was nineteen. I wrote on my own for two years and met many dead ends and received many rejection slips, then I enrolled in a fiction writing class with William Hamlin and a poetry class with John Neihardt at the University of Missouri. I learned in weeks what I could not have learned in years through trial and error. For that reason, I recommend that a beginning writer find a group, either at a community college or university or city library or church, it doesn't matter, so he can share his work with others.
A good writer is a good listener. The great dialog of the world is all around us, if we'll only listen. In similar fashion, the great stories are in situations we see everyday, just as the great heroes, the real gladiators, are usually standing next to us in the grocery checkout.
At some point we start to send off our work. When I was twenty I worked on an offshore exploration rig, ten days off and five days on. Before I left shore on the hitch, I mailed off all my manuscripts. Ten days later, they would be waiting for me in my rented mailbox with a rejection notice. But I learned a system I've kept all these years, namely, that no manuscript stays at home more than thirty-six hours. If you keep a manuscript at home, its failure is guaranteed.
You write about what you know. You also write about injustice and you write to make the world a better place. I believe talent comes from outside oneself. I also believe it's a votive gift. When an artist claims credit for it, it's usually taken from him and given to someone else. That's why I believe humility in a writer is a necessity rather than a virtue.
I know of no better life than that of a writer. My father used to say a wise man should fear approval and seek excoriation. Like Robert Frost, I think my father had it right. A great artist finds his voice and then uses it in ways others do not. It's the iconoclast who leads us away from ourselves. We address ourselves to what is best in people. I think that's why George Orwell wrote so well. He believed the human spirit was unconquerable, and as a result the reader is immediately drawn to the humanity in all of Orwell's essays.
If I have learned any wisdom as a writer, it is to say thank you to the people who have helped me on the way. Most of these people -- editors, reviewers, publishers, book sellers, and book readers -- get little credit. Without them, I would not have had the career I've enjoyed.
I hope what I have said is of some help to others.