Extended Interview with David Burns, WD's 14th Annual Popular Fiction Awards Grand Prize Winner

Writer's Digest 14th Annual Popular Fiction Awards Winner David Burns reveals how to write a killer fantasy story and where he finds writing ideas.
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David Burns, a trial attorney from New Jersey who squeezes writing into whatever free time he can muster, won the Writer’s Digest 14th Annual Popular Fiction Awards with his short story “Night Surf.” (Read it here.) In the fantasy story, an old man returns to the beach his seven-year-old daughter disappeared at decades ago in order to search for answers to the tragedy. Despite his loss, the man clings to the hope that there is some chance of redemption.

“Night Surf” was chosen as the grand prize winner out of over 1,200 other entries. Burns’s prizes include $2,500 and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City.

View a complete list of the 14th Annual Popular Fiction Awards winners.

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Where did the idea for “Night Surf” come from?

It’s a story that’s been bouncing around in my head for about eight years. I wrote the very beginning many years ago. I had a very strong image of this man on this desolate boardwalk at night keeping a vigil on the ocean. I knew he was tied to the place for some reason, but I wasn’t sure why. I had sensed that he had either come there to find a way to live or to die.

The more I mulled it over, the more I realized it somehow had to do with his daughter. So then the story sort of came and developed from that. I got the point where his visitor arrives, and then I hit a block because I wasn’t sure how to get to the finish. I knew how I wanted it to end, but not how to get there. I picked at it from time to time while writing other things until I finally decided to put myself on a deadline and make it happen. One I committed to that, I finished the second half of the story in about a week.

What are some places that you look for writing ideas?

I get ideas from the strangest places. Once I was sitting in the doctor’s office. It’s a crowded room and I’m looking at the magazine rack. There’s a magazine with an entirely black cover and very thin letters on it in gray, and I think it says “The Last Village.” In the half hour to hour that I’m waiting for the doctor, I’m mulling over what this article could be about. By the time I go in to see the doctor, I’ve got an entire story about what the last village might mean—in my mind, it was an apocalyptic story about a fortress holding its own against a plague.

On my way out, I got a chance to look at the magazine cover and it said “The East Village.” So I had completely gotten the title wrong, but it gave me a really good story idea, which I then wrote. I also get a lot of ideas listening to music, particularly movie soundtracks trying to imagine what scene might go with them.

What advice do you have for writers to get the right pacing in their short stories?

It really is a process of trial and error. Over the years, I think pacing has become one of my writing strengths. I get a lot of good feedback from my circle of readers, and lots of times it has to do with pacing. Over time, I’ve become very attuned to that. In a short story, the pacing is crucial and what frustrates a lot of people when they read a story is that they feel like there was a conclusion that wasn’t earned. You see it a lot in TV, movies and stories where it looks like a person is going to make one decision and then they make a different decision and there’s no real explanation why there was that pivot. The pacing is best learned first by getting a lot of constructive criticism and being open to that. You’ve got to take that seriously.

I’ve also learned over time to be very self-critical as well, where I will read a story after I’ve left it alone for a while. It’s only when you give yourself a little distance from the act of creating it that you can objectively read it for the purpose of asking Is the pacing too fast? Is the pacing too slow? You’ve got to be your own first critic, where you look at your work as if it was written by someone else and ask Did that satisfy me?

Do you write anything else?

There’s always got to be some fantastical element to give me the initial inspiration. I dance around the fantasy and science fiction genres loosely. I’ve written a novel about a modern-day gorgon in Chicago working as a contract killer. I need a story to have something that takes it out of the realm of the possible to get the initial desire to write it and have the core idea that works as the anchor for the story.

Can you tell me more about your novel?

I shopped it around briefly, then got too busy with other things. The novel is called Heart of Stone.

Are you planning on shopping your novel around more to get it published?

Absolutely. I’ve learned that you really have to put most things on a deadline, otherwise life always pushes your plans to the side. During the next few months I’ll be hunting for an agent to take it on.

How long have you been writing?

That one’s easy, because my mother never used to tire of telling that I wrote a story when I was six—complete with pictures—called “The Foolish Frog.” I’ve been writing pretty steadily since then, always something but a lot of it not marketable or publishable. Over time, I evolved, working up from short stories to novels. I even wrote a trilogy that I’ll have to shop around at some point.

I love the act of writing. I write for myself first. I write what I want to see on the bookshelves, in a magazine. If I don’t see it there, that motivates me to put pen to paper or pen to keyboard myself.

Can you tell me more about your day job?

I’m a trial attorney. I’ve been doing that for decades now. It’s a pretty demanding occupation in terms of always preparing for your next court appearance and representing clients. Because trial work frequently puts you in front of juries to provide an account of your client’s story to them, there’s a strong storytelling aspect to it. That’s the aspect of the trial that I enjoy the most, is having the opportunity to tell what I hope is a true story to a jury and then letting them weigh in on what they think of it.

What authors have inspired you?

When I was very young, I was an avid comic book collector. I was lucky enough to be reading comic books at the time there were some really, really good writers of those stories. Chris Claremont, who wrote for Marvel, had some very deep, introspective characters that still resonate to this day with me. Alan More wrote fantastic stories for DC. Those were very inspiring to me, and they sort of touched on having a very visual imagination, which I count on with my stories.

I’m probably indebted eternally to J.R.R. Tolkien, because Lord of the Rings gave me my understanding of epic fantasy. When I was a little older Steven R. Donaldson, who wrote The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series, showed me how to take a Tolkien-esque world and take it into a modern sensibility. Plus, his use of language is just gorgeous. I must have gone through long phase where my style of writing copied his so closely that people that people who read [my writing] said that I was going through his trash bin. It took a while to separate myself from that.

In terms of mood and atmosphere, I was inspired by a lot of Steven King stories. He wrote such great characters, and I remember reading an interview that Steven King gave many years ago where he said his grandfather once told him that a good ghost story is connected to real life at 100 different points. That always stuck with me—that you really have to make your characters react believably even when they’re in unbelievable circumstances. The believably of the characters in the story absolutely strengthens the chances that the reader will read on to the end.

What are the challenges as well as your favorite parts of writing fantasy? How do you overcome these challenges?

The challenge is probably one in the same with the benefit of writing fantasy. There are no limits to where you can go. That’s great, but it’s also very daunting. I find the world-building aspect of fantasy and science fiction to be very challenging. In any story, you want your characters to be believable, but in fantasy you also have to build a world that is believable and has to function according to some internal logic.

To have that happen, you have to do one of two things. You either have to sit down with charts and outlines and do a lot of pre-planning, or you have to be very willing to re-write your work as the world that you’re creating organically changes and develops over time as you’re writing it.

You can do that sometimes without a lot of exposition. I was thinking while my kids and I were watching the first Harry Potter movie that Hogwarts as the characters are first seeing it looks exactly like I expected it look from the book. I looked back at the book, and Rowling’s description of the scenes is very minimal, but it was enough to trigger in the reader a whole set of associated images.

World-building can be a matter of many, many intricate details, or it can be a matter of just placing the right archetype language in at the right moment in the story and letting the reader do the rest.

How do you balance your writing process with your work as an attorney?

Balance is something that we’re all still seeking in our lives, no matter what you do for a living. There’s a surprising amount of downtime that randomly occurs in a trial lawyer’s daily routine. You could be sitting and waiting for a judge to call your case or your jury to come back with a verdict. There’s nothing more for you to do at that point except wait around. A laptop or an iPad at hand gives me a chance to catch up on writing then.

I steal time whenever I can—If I get up before it’s time to get the kids on the bus, I can write for half an hour. The nature of my work and family life demand change day to day. The only way to keep that ball in the air consistently is to give myself some deadlines to force [writing] to be a priority. If it’s something that you’re passionate about, you’ll find the time to do it.

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?

A writing professor gave me the best advice I’ve ever received, even though when he gave it to me, I was unwilling to listen to it. He said writing 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration. I thought everything could be done on the basis of passion and inspiration. You need that to be the fuel that ignites the story, but you really do have to be willing to do the long, solitary process of writing and then the painful process of re-writing before it’s really something that you can be proud of.