James Lee Burk’s Writing Tips

Thoughts while reading “Writing Tips: James Lee Burk” on the Publisher’s Weekly website.

Burk seems like an honorable dude. Right off the bat he says, “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.”

He advises the standard stuff, i.e. to write every day. But he advises doing the work in one’s mind– even in one’s sleep–if it’s not possible to sit down and write.

I’ve heard of authors who have vivid dreams, and that have some control over them to the point they can revisit a dream each night, exploring within the theater of their mind and then writing down each day what they saw. Lewis Carroll, was it?

More standard stuff: that the “best teachers are the books and poems and plays of good writers.” In this case Burk is talking about 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.

And to leave off with badly written works; they’ll infect you if you let them.

I’ve seen some writers advise staying away from writing co-ops, or to not take any writing classes, but not Burk. After two years of false starts, he enrolled in a poetry class and a writing class. The result? “I learned in weeks what I could not have learned in years through trial and error.”

He advises the budding writer to join any sort of group that allows for the sharing of one’s writing with others.

The only writing class I ever took that was worth a damn was at Stanford University. We shared our work a little bit. Several good lessons were had, such as writing around your character when you fell into a rut, until you got back in the groove (meaning to imagine the mundane part of a character’s life, like what’s under the character’s bed or in her closet, and write it down).

Burk says the everyday world is the best source for finding good story ideas, and for dialogue. You gain access by listening, and by watching. (He seems like a sit down, shut up and pay attention sort of person.)

I like his observation that real heroes are to be found in everyday people, because it reminds me of the time I spent at Jack’s Bar in San Jose, CA, learning about the people sitting either side of me or behind the bar: the ones that once trained to be professional figure skaters or gymnasts; the pilots that liked to nudge Learjets closer to space than to the earth below; that performed autopsies on deceased infants in pursuit of a degree in forensics; the engineers that had been aged out of the big name companies and signed on with startup outfits; the loan sharks that were as susceptible to alcohol as anyone else, but always remembered to make you swear to not tell; the liars who just wanted someone to tell their tall tales to.

Like Burk says, “a good writer is a good listener.”

A system Burk learned is to send off a finished manuscript pronto. A manuscript left sitting for more than a day and a half is a “failure guaranteed.”

This would be how Burk gets over the last hurdle of Resistance–that is, the concept as of Resistance as presented by Steven Pressfield in his book Do the Work, which was required reading in the Stanord writing class–in the writing process.

Burk’s point about writing what you know is familiar enough, but for him that’s just the start; writing ought to include the topic of injustice; writing should be done to improve the world we live in.

Here’s something interesting: toot your own horn after you succeed at writing and you’ll lose what talent you have. Simple as that according to Burk; he believes skill at writing is “a votive gift,” and if you’re not worthy of that talent then it’ll find its way to someone who is. If you want to preserve your talent, practice humility.

“Humility in a writer is a necessity rather than a virtue.” Think about this for a second. Burk advises that a writer do good, but he differentiates on the topic of humility by saying it’s a writer’s tool, just like good grammar and the ability to trim the fat from a first draft.

“A great artist finds his voice and then uses it in ways others do not.” How? According to Burk, by speaking to the good in others. How not? By attacking others, by being the sort of skeptic or critic that sees no good, or otherwise ignores it, when writing.

A writer can draw in the reader with the right voice. This is done by lacing one’s writing with humanity. Read George Orwell for examples of this.

Another way to fail is by seeking approval. Approval is something a writer should fear. Burk’s father’s approach to life apparently shared something in common with the poet Robert Frost: seek criticism.

Seems like a recipe for getting knocked around. A lot.

Burk states that Orwell believed the human spirit is unconquerable, however, so I think if one takes this idea to heart then it follows that the means to push on through a headwind of deliberately sought out criticism comes from believing that somewhere up ahead are the readers you must connect to through the words you write.

The brighter our common humanity shines through in one’s writing, the easier it will be to connect with readers–and for them to find you, no matter what the critics are saying.

Remember to say thank you to the ones who’ve helped you along on your journey as a writer.


“Without them, I would not have had the career I’ve enjoyed,” according to Burk.

This jives with your thoughts on the importance of Tabitha King to Stephen King’s career.

King’s writing is so raw, but there’s a visceral truth to it. The raw stuff, like his description of the townsfolk in The Tommyknockers who’d beaten their wives “into entirely new shapes” because that’s how things were done in that part of the world, is entirely believable.

The words are so simple, but so powerful; they compel you to imagine just what sort of beatings would need to be administered, and what the results would be.

I think when Burk talks about connecting to readers by doing good with one’s writing, and by using the world as a source of inspiration, and by remembering that the real heroes are all around us, what he’s really saying is to be truthful. Sure it’s fiction we’re talking about, but the closer one’s writing is to the real, the easier it is to connect to the reader.

This is why King is able to describe the everyday people who aren’t heroes and render such a believable backdrop in which to set his characters. This is one way King’s writing compels the reader to care what happens next.

{Back to Writers on Writing}


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