The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Archive for the category “Authors”

Do you have a favorite book the critics didn’t like?

I do. It’s Pat Conroy’s 1991 novel The Prince of Tides.

I first read the book soon after it was released. I’ve read it multiple times since then because–all I know to say here–is that it “speaks to me.”

Some reviews, like the one in Publishers Weekly, approved: “For sheer storytelling finesse, Conroy will have few rivals this season. His fourth novel is a seductive narrative, told with bravado flourishes, portentous foreshadowing, sardonic humor and eloquent turns of phrase. Like The Great Santini, it is the story of a destructive family relationship wherein a violent father abuses his wife and children.”

The New York Times’ assessment is probably closer to the way a lot of people see the novel now after the acclaim from the book and film versions of The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline have faded into the the past: “In The Prince of Tides, the smart man and serious writer in Pat Conroy have been temporarily waylaid by the bullying monster of heavy-handed, inflated plot and the siren voice of Mother South at her treacherous worst – embroidered, sentimental, inexact, telling it over and over again as it never was.”

While I agree with both reviews, the siren voice of the novel still pulls me in toward the rocks of Conroy’s near-purple prose, sentimentality, and other manipulative techniques. All in all, The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline are probably much better novels. Amazon calls The Prince of Tides a family saga. I call it southern Gothic.

In Prince of Tides, protagonist Tom Wingo has enough self pity for ten men. Yes, he has cause–in spades, I would say. He knows he’s been damaged beyond repair by his childhood along with his brother and sister. He knows the damage is obvious, so he deflates prospective criticisms of himself by mocking himself.

But, I still like the book. I’m less generous toward the movie which, frankly, needed a different cast even though the New York Times gave it a positive review. I like the book because there are grains of truth in Tom Wingo’s most pitiful and sarcastic comments, because Tom loves his more-damaged sister unconditionally, and because–when Conroy is at his best–his descriptions of the country along the South Carolina coast are the exceptional. (You can also see such descriptions in South of Broad which, fortunately, was less overwritten.)

Grain of Truth: “There is such a thing as too much beauty in a woman and it is often a burden as crippling as homeliness and far more dangerous. It takes much luck and integrity to survive the gift of perfect beauty, and its impermanence is its most cunning betrayal.” 

South Carolina“It was growing dark on this long southern evening, and suddenly, at the exact point her finger had indicated, the moon lifted a forehead of stunning gold above the horizon, lifted straight out of filigreed, light-intoxicated clouds that lay on the skyline in attendant veils. 

“Behind us, the sun was setting in a simultaneous congruent withdrawal and the river turned to flame in a quiet duel of gold….The new gold of moon astonishing and ascendant, he depleted gold of sunset extinguishing itself in the long westward slide, it was the old dance of days in the Carolina marshes, the breathtaking death of days before the eyes of children, until the sun vanished, its final signature a ribbon of bullion strung across the tops of water oaks.” 

I’ll probably read the novel again, but not for a while. Too much self-pity. Too much sugary sarcasm. I need some time to recuperate.

Malcolm

Click on my name to learn more about my books.

 

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Ten years of trying to get a book deal

“So after 16 years of writing books and 10 years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

via Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After 10 Years – The Atlantic

Many of us ask ourselves this question, if not daily, than multiple times a month. Anjali Enjeti’s concerns will resonate with most of us even though she’s not exactly representative of most of today’s struggling, unknown writers.

First, she isn’t unknown inasmuch as her work has appeared in prestigious publications. (This essay is in the Atlantic!) Second, she’s trying the traditional route by trying to find a publisher by going through agents. Not a bad route, though most of us don’t do this.

However, we can identify with this” “Some of my resolve to get published stems from my ego. Aren’t my words important? Isn’t there something of value here? Wouldn’t this story bring joy or peace to a reader? Another part of me craves having a visceral connection to an audience; it’s isolating to keep these stories to myself, to experience them alone.”

We have stories to tell and a lot of people who love reading stories and who are demanding and picky when they choose what they read have said they love our work. Yet, whether we’re self-published or part of a small-press catalogue, we still wonder why things never quite match our dreams and expectations.

This essay is food for thought. Perhaps it will help us question what we’re doing and/or whether we ought to be doing it a different way–if at all.

–Malcolm

Trying to re-discover the joy of writing

Contrary to popular belief, most fiction writers don’t start out dreaming of becoming the next John Steinbeck or J. K. Rowling. We start out because writing a story that springs from our imagination is a joyful experience. That’s it. Some of us find agents and are published by HarperCollins. Some of us find small, boutique presses that publish five to ten books a year. And some of us publish directly on Amazon. Most fiction writers don’t make enough money to live on from their novels.

Those who do, whether it’s by luck, talent, and/or a flair for publicity are rare, rather like the number of sandlot baseball players who make it into the major leagues. Most don’t.

We’re happy, many of us, if we can sell several hundred copies of a novel and then move on to the next book. Unfortunately, Amazon has thrown a wrench into the works even though they court indie authors. The best we can figure out is that it has changed the algorithm that controls book rankings to favor large presses and/or higher priced books.

Here’s what that means for the rest of us. Used to be, we could reduce the price of our novels to 99 cents, run a modest ad in a readers’ newsletter, and easily sell 25-50 copies or more. This would cause our books to rise in the rankings enough to be spotted by people who hadn’t seen the ad, so we’d get additional sales during the following days at the full price. With the new algorithm, our books don’t rise much in the rankings, or if they do, they quickly drop back to their pre-sale level, and there are few residual sales. This leads to fewer reader reviews and fewer reviews means even lower rankings and fewer sales.

A writer friend and I talked about why neither of us has made any progress to speak of on or novels in progress. We realized that our fixation on “the Amazon problem” has killed our joy of writing. Yes, we’re both pissed off about our fixations. We think we should be able to keep writing and not worry about sales at all because the act of writing is where the fun is. However, one has to have some sales or s/he runs in the red when you consider the cost of ISBN numbers, copyright registration, cover art work, and an editor to weed out the typos, and office supplies.

All authors have to consider the business side of their art, like it or not. That is part of being a writer. Those of us who write, knew going into this sloppy business that the deck would always be stacked against us in favor of the BIG PUBLISHERS, BIG AGENTS, and BIG AUTHORS. No, we’re not happy about that, but before “the Amazon problem” emerged, we could at least be content with selling a reasonable number of copies, attracting some nice reviews, and having a group of readers who looked forward to our next book.

So it is that my writer friend and I really need to ignore sales. That doesn’t mean giving up our blogs, websites, Facebook announcements of new books, or Twitter accounts. It means remembering why we’re doing this, writing, I mean. We joke about getting a call from Oprah letting us know our latest book is her new book club pick or that Warner Brothers just bought a $10,000 option on our latest novel. We’re not masochists who want to live in poverty for our art.

In spite of a strong reliance on our imaginations for concocting novels and short stories, we are capable of being realistic about our place in the writing universe. We didn’t set out with a John Steinbeck of J. K. Rowling goal. We need to remember that when we start agonizing about Amazon’s new algorithm that helps the rich and famous become more rich and famous. Let it go, I want to say. I never planned to become rich and famous. (Frankly, I don’t think I could cope with it.)

We like to tell stories. We’re happy while we’re telling them and we’re happy if  a few people find them and enjoy the novel or short story. That’s where the joy of the work is found. Sure, I have to give a wink and a nod to book promotion, but if becoming a slave to it is destroying me–and the books I want to write–then to hell with sales figures.

Okay, enough is enough. I’m taking a one-week vacation to the mountains. When I come back, I’m ignoring Amazon, the number of copies I’ve sold, and the number of reader reviews I have. None of that matters. Actually, it does matter, but I’m going to stop focusing on it and do what I want to do: write.

–Malcolm

 

 

Tick off a writer and s/he will kill you in the next book

Or so they say.

Okay, it could happen, perhaps it has happened, and–if so–it might happen again.

Truth is, authors are influenced by everything that happens to them, the people they know, the offices where they work, the regions where their families came from and where they grew up, and by all the places they’ve visited. The rely strongly on these even though their fiction may well be a long way from autobiographical.

I’ve written novels and short stories set in the Florida Panhandle because I grew up there. I’ve used Montana because I worked there and have been back for numerous vacation visits. Decatur, Illinois, has figured in my stories because my mother grew up there, we visited my grandparents there while I was growing up, and one of my brothers was born there. So, it’s fun using my knowledge of these places–and, the little known legends from these places–in my stories.

None of my friends, family or enemies has been killed off in any of my books.

Like many people who have visited Paris, London, and Berlin, I have often thought about getting a story in one of those places–or, maybe a scene. I set a couple of scenes in the Netherlands because I worked there one summer while in college. As for the other places, I think I would be behind the eight ball trying to catch up with the common knowledge about those places that’s firmly known by those who did live there and/or who have spent a considerable amount of time there. It’s very difficult–if not impossible–for an author to write a credible story set in a known place if he doesn’t really know that place.

There are a lot of reasons why my Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman novels are set in the 1950s. Primarily, it’s because the racist situations my characters fight against were common then. But there’s also another reason: that’s when I lived there, and I haven’t been there since 1986.  My knowledge of the Florida Panhandle as it is now isn’t strong enough for me to write a book set there in 2017.

One can get around this to some extent if one gets a grant that includes travel, if one has a bestselling author’s budget and can travel there or pay a staff to travel there. You’ve probably heard the expression many times that “the map is not the territory.” Likewise, I think that–for a writer needing facts that are only apparent when s/he lives in a place or can afford extensive visits to a place–the Internet is also not the territory. One cannot Google his or her way into knowing what a native knows.

I’ve never felt limited by restricting my self to places I’ve lived or worked or seen extensively during trips. The joy for me is having a wealth of information that can become part of the stories in such an organic way that no reviewer can say “my research shows.” That usually happens when a writer doesn’t really know a place, does a lot of expensive research, and tries to jam it all into a novel whether it naturally fits or not.

One of my characters in the 1954-era novel in progress just took some photographs on a Florida road with a Brownie Hawkeye Camera. I’ve seen that road and I took pictures in that area with a Brownie Hawkeye when was a kid. I still have the camera. Using such details–things that relate to my life and experiences–is a lot more satisfying than writing down the names of people who tick me off so that they can be “taken care of” in my next novel or short story.

At least, this is my story and I’m sticking to it.

–Malcolm

 

 

What’s blooming right now?

Known by many names such as Camphorweed, Stinkweed, Salt marsh fleabane, Sourbush and Cattle-tongue, Sweetscent is a short-lived perennial wildflower that occurs naturally in freshwater and salt marshes, swamps and coastal hammocks throughout Florida. It typically blooms summer through fall. Its sweet-smelling leaves and flowers are very attractive to butterflies. Bees love this plant, too.

via Florida Wildflower Foundation

SweetscentIf you live in Florida, you’ll find a wealth of wild flower information on this site, including news about what’s blooming right now to growing your own wildflowers.

If you’re a writer, this site keeps you from saying your characters walked in the woods at a certain time of year and enjoyed the wildflowers–and then finding out after your novel is published that those flowers don’t bloom for another month.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find similar resources in your state.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Conjure Woman’s Cat, a magical novel set in the Florida Panhandle. The Kindle Edition is on sale for 99 cents 7/21-7/23/17

 

Review: ‘Unfinished’ by Pat Bertram

Author Pat Bertram, who previously explored her own encounter with the loss of a loved one in Grief: The Great Yearning (2016), has brought her wisdom into the world of fiction in Unfinished (Stairway Press, June 27, 2017). The story will capture your heart and soul, while shining a spotlight on the fact that most people want those who grieve to get over it quickly because they make us uncomfortable.

Like many spouses, Amanda Ray defined herself as one half of a married team, leaving her without a sense of self when her husband David dies at 59 after a long illness. Her husband was a minister. Amanda’s role as the traditional minister’s wife  (hostess, assistant, secretary, and help meet) didn’t lend itself to separate goals or careers.  While she doesn’t know if she would cope with her loss differently if she’d had her own career to fall back on after her husband died, Amanda does know that the same friends whose visits grew more and more sparse during David’s illness have little or nothing comforting to say during or after the memorial service.

“I’m sorry for your loss” and “It’s time to get on with your life” are among the most popular sentiments. Yet, the grief is like a tide that’s always high and always coming in. Her daughter, already grown and on her own, exhibits an overt lack lack of empathy or sympathy when Amanda cries at everything, can’t sleep, can’t eat, and can hardly hope. Amanda looks for David, expects him to be in his study, wonders why he did this to her and why he was so distant once he learned that his illness was a terminal and painful cancer.

One small hope is a prospective relationship with a man she met at an online forum for cancer caregivers before David died. Sam’s wife also has cancer and isn’t expected to survive it. Amanda and Sam are drawn to each other in part because Sam doesn’t react to her tears and doubts with cliched platitudes. Some of their online chats become steamy. At times, she wonders whether he’s sincere or a predator because while he claims to love her–though they’ve never met in person–Amanda sees that he has less time for her than everyone else in his life. Is there a future here or not?

David, kept secrets from her. They are hidden in a computer file he didn’t want her to read until after he was gone. Now she can’t find the password. She did find the gun in the pocket of his robe and wonders if he bought it to end his life when the pain became more than he could bear. But then she discovers the gun has a longer history. At times, Amanda thinks she’s grieving for a man she didn’t wholly know, and that’s one of the things that makes her feel like everything is unfinished.

Bertram knows grief’s uneven terrain and has created a believable, three-dimensional protagonist who must not only deal with the uproar inside her head and body, but the secrets, the online comings and goings of Sam and the fact that she must face and box up all the mementos of her life with David and quickly move out of the church’s parsonage. Sam, while slightly less believable due to his gushing online endearments, plays a realistic role as a sounding board and–after most of the tears have fallen–a prospective future. The secrets unravel in a cruel progression that keep Amanda–as well as the book’s readers–off balance as though there’s continually another shoe waiting to drop.

Amanda’s story is a poignant story that delivers a heavy punch in a relatively short book. The lessons to be learned will last long after the last page has been turned.

Malcolm

 

 

Should Albee’s Unfinished Work be Destroyed?

“Edward Albee died last fall. But the renowned playwright is making one last request from the great beyond.

“Albee wants two of his friends to destroy any incomplete manuscripts he left behind.”

via Edward Albee’s Final Wish: Destroy My Unfinished Work – The New York Times

The public probably best knows his play and movie “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Scholars say the playwright’s wishes should be ignored, stating that unfinished works (and presumably any letters or notes) will help the world better understand his creativity and work processes.

The executors of the estate say they will follow his wishes. Yet, according to the story, it’s unclear whether or not any material has been destroyed or whether copies of Albee’s unpublished works might be also elsewhere.

If I were the executor, I would destroy the work simply because there’s no inherent right for the public to see it. The only exception might be a work that he planned to publish that has, to back up that prospect, supporting letters and other materials showing he was negotiating with a publisher at the time of his death.

What do you think?

–Malcolm

If you know where you’re going, you shouldn’t be going there

If you’re writing a piece of fiction, I’d urge you not to try to show anything—instead, try to discover something. There’s no way to write anything powerful unless your unconscious takes charge. – Ethan Canin in The Best Writing Advice of 2016

When I was in  school, authors and writing teachers preached the dogma that the first thing a writer had to do before writing a story was figure out the ending and then write in that direction. This advice was supported by psychologists and coaches who said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?”

My response to the psychologists and coaches is that I’m always exactly where I need to be. There is no there to head toward. And to those authors and writing teachers, I prefer to discover the ending rather than sabotaging the story by engraving the results of the experiment in stone before I begin.

Let’s stipulate that a lot of great authors knew where they were going, got there, and delivered entertaining and meaningful fiction in the progress. Perhaps their unconscious minds tipped them off and they were left to figure out how such an ending could possibly occur. Or, perhaps they succeeded in spite of their methods.

More and more authors these days are looking at their writing as a grand experiment, one without advance parameters (including various “rules”) that is in every way an act of faith and a means of discovery like walking into the forest primeval without a compass or a map or a box of matches. Why would one do such things?

To see what will happen. En route to that, the author discovers a lot about this evolving theme and characters because s/he’s given them free will. They do what they do and we write that down. If they’re puppets, then they’re simply computers following a code that’s all lock-step toward the only solution(s) the programmer or the writer will allow.

Joseph Campbell maintained that if you’re following a trail, it’s somebody else’s trail. There’s no spontaneity in that. few surprises, and the end result is that you end up where somebody else has already been. As writers, we don’t want to do that.

We need to surprise ourselves–and our readers as well.

Malcolm

 

 

Does one need to feel numb before writing a sad scene?

Probably not, but it helps.

It’s rather like sadistic directors during the years of the Hollywood studio system telling child actors and actresses their puppy died to get them to cry for a scene in which they needed to cry.

Goodness knows, today’s headlines are enough to make one feel numb, lonely and a bit hopeless about the state of things.

I have a sad scene staring me in the face, one in which I want the hopelessness of the situation to be thicker than fog. I’ve been avoiding writing it. I knew what it needed, but I wasn’t numb enough to create that.

So, to solve the problem, I raced through two, high-adrenaline, page-turner spy books. You know the type: ISIS vs. the U.S., Russia vs. the U.S., the kind of books where the authors explain weapons and commando methods in detail, the kind where both the good guys and the bad guys kill a lot of people like they’re just playing a video game.

The books are a rush, but when I’m done reading, I feel numb, wondering whether such tactics are what we need to keep a democracy safe. Human life in these books is very expendable. Now I’m depressed enough to write the scene.

It’s almost like somebody told me my puppy got run over.

–Malcolm

Michael Shaara and ‘The Killer Angels’

Dedicated to Michael Shaara, Author, who so poignantly reminded us of the mortal sacrifice made by the soldiers who valiantly fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1st – 3rd, 1863 Presented to The Pickett Society by Stephen Lang, Board Member, Thespian & Playwright

 

When Lesa and I visited Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond earlier this week where 18,000 Confederate soldiers are buried, we sound this bench dedicated to author Michael Shaara next to the grave of General Pickett. Pickett survived Gettysburg and was among those who facilitated moving the remains of the dead to Richmond. (He died in 1875.) Information about the bench’s dedication can be found on the Pickett Society website here.

Very eerie hill with so many gravestones from one battle.

On a hill where so many of the dead from Gettysburg (many unknown) finally rest in peace, this is a fitting place to honor Shaara. His Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Killer Angels,” about the battle of Gettysburg, is considered one of the best civil war novels.

“A gripping novel about the four days of the battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels is alive with noble figures and moves through its fated courses in a prose both simple and epic. Happily, a leading character is Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, a young professor of rhetoric from Maine, who speaks to his men with a power that Mark Antony might envy. When the largest gatherings of both the Union and Confederate armies meet by chance at Gettysburg, a battle follows that neither army wants at that time and place. But General Robert E. Lee, the proud rebel, is utterly set on dealing a death blow to the Union and stakes everything on the battle that forms around Cemetery Hill. After the first day’s fighting, Southerners sing victory songs. But Lee’s cavalry, led by gallivanting J.E.B. Stuart, has left Lee blind: he has no idea of the size or placing of Union forces. In a uselessly stupid gesture, he attacks the untakable hill. A strong, spirited, bloody book, equal to its subject.” – Kirkus Reviews

Shaara was a good friend and by far taught the best college writing class I ever attended. His influence on the work of those of us who met in his living room once a week is substantial.

–Malcolm

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