The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Archive for the category “Authors”

Do we really need to see Sylvia Plath’s private letters?

A story in The Guardian, “Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Hughes,” focuses on letters Sylvia Plath wrote to her former therapist between 1960 and 1963, the last of which was sent a week before her suicide.

Sylvia Plath – Wikipedia photo

Scholars have sought information about this period of the author’s life for years and are drooling over the secrets contained in correspondence that isn’t part of any official public record (such as court proceedings) in hopes of understanding Plath, her poetry, and her marriage better. Frankly, I think the right of privacy shouldn’t end with a person’s death–and that goes to show that I would never make a literary scholar.

Fortunately, the letters won’t become wholly public yet because there’s a legal dispute over who owns them that may take a while to resolve. But the story in the Guardian gives everyone the gist of what, in my opinion, the public has no right to know.

I’ll stipulate that literary scholars and critics have always tried to more deeply understand authors’ influences, motivations, and output by looking at their lives through a microscope. This looking almost always includes studying and publicizing diaries, letters to friends and family, correspondence with agents and publishers, and other details that (when created) were considered to be private.

While the literary world sees the publication and analysis of such materials as scholarship, I see it as voyeurism that’s no higher in purpose than the scandal-oriented publications on display next to cash registers at grocery stores and gas station convenience stores. Sure, the analysis is usually better researched and better written, but it displays information that was never meant to be displayed.

Money often seems to drive such efforts. Person A, who was a close friend of Famous Person B, has a  box filled with the letters they received from that well-known author, actor, or artist. They see that they can make a lot of money by offering them to the public through an auction house. A scholar, museum or library archive buys them, Person A (who is now rich) believes without guilt that s/he has done nothing wrong, and the content of those letters is now open to everyone.

Unless Famous Person B tells Person A that it’s okay for the letters to be shown to biographers or donated to institutions engaged in scholarship, I believe such letters should be destroyed. They were never intended for public consumption and the death of Famous Person B doesn’t change that fact. Prying into an author’s private life may, indeed, shed additional light on his/her works, but the end does not justify the tawdry means.



Books for Writers

“We updated our Resources page at the website, so take a look. These are gold nuggets of how-to books for writers that I’ve vetted, often used, many of which are on my book shelf right now that are too dog-eared and highlights to give away. Great avenues for eager writers to get grounded in how to do this writing thing right. ” – Hope Clark at Funds for Writers

I have nothing much to add here except the link:

and, to say that I also have a lot of these books on my shelf. My favorite is “Writing the Breakout Novel,” in part because it takes a different approach from many of the how-to books I’ve seen over the years.

Happy reading,


Add a few fun facts to your media kit

“People love reading fun facts, like these, about their favorite authors:Stephen King said that if he had the chance to live his life all over again, he wouldn’t change a thing, except he’d want to appear in an advertisement for American Express.”

Source: Dress Up Your Author Media Kit with “5 Fun Facts You Didn’t Know About Me” – The Book Designer

When I was interviewed once for a local newspaper, naturally they asked about my latest book. But they also wanted a human interest approach. That makes those being interviewed more approachable, especially when the very human thing is rather universal.

I agree that this can spice up a media kit or a website or a blog post as long as it doesn’t get out of hand and make your look like an amateur rather than a professional writer.


Why The NEA Is So Vital To America

“The NEA’s Creative Writing Fellowships enable recipients to set aside time for writing, research, travel, and career advancement. While this nealogosupport – both financial and non-financial — can be important at any stage of a writer’s journey, it can be particularly encouraging to someone just starting out, trying to gain recognition and get a foothold on what a writer’s life can be. Examples of this abound. Take Alice Walker: she received her NEA fellowship in 1970; in 1983, she became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for “The Color Purple.” There’s also Louise Erdrich, Michael Cunningham, Maxine Hong Kingston and current Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Hererra. More recent fellows include Celeste Ng, Major Jackson, Sandra Beasley, Teá Obreht, and Justin Torres.”

Source: Why The NEA Is So Vital To America – Culture –

If you’re an emerging author–or would like to become one–the NEA offers some programs that might help you. Check out their grants here.

You may also find their news and publications useful. (Check out their literature page.) The arts are what we do. The National Endowment for the Arts is one of our valuable resources for networking, information, trends and financial assistance.


Yes, life can knock the words out of you.

“Point of all being – I stopped writing. What I had written when I returned to the page to rewrite I didn’t like. I didn’t feel like I was at that place anymore because I wasn’t. My life, my experience, my hopes, my dreams had changed. It took me awhile to stop lamenting and look forward.”

– River Jordan in Life Knocked the Words out of Me

I was happy to see author River Jordan’s post. While it was hard reading that life’s troubles had taken away her words for a time, it was wonderful seeing that she had fought back and had new words flowing across the page.

stormyweatherShe shared something a lot of authors won’t talk about: the fact that bad things can stop a writer from writing.

If the author of The Miracle of Mercy Land and The Gin Girl could be stopped in her tracks, than any of us could. A recent article in a writer’s magazine said we should write through our troubles. Perhaps there are times when we can. Gurus say that writing is a business and that we should write every day just as those who work 9-5 jobs go to work every day even when they’re feeling blue.

Writing every day is a crock of an idea for a writer to follow when s/he is down and out and finds the words have been knocked out of him or her.

Today is the 31st anniversary of the Challenger disaster. I saw it happen on TV. I hope the other writers who saw if in person or on television didn’t slog back to their dens and continue writing as usual. I felt the same way on 9/11. I was already at work when the horror began. None of us got a lot of work done that day.

Personal slings and arrows impact us, too. Deaths in the family. Sick spouses and friends. Lost pets. The best writers are, I think, very intuitive, often empathic, and so it is that their strengths become stumbling blocks in stormy times because the vibes/impressions/intuition are simply off or off the scale.

When writers share the fact that there are days when they cannot write and that there are days when they finally dredge up wht wherewithal to begin writing again, the rest of us feel stronger for knowing it.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of The Sun Singer which is free on Kindle January 28 and 29.

Dear Nora and Catherine



Listen, I understand that romance authors have to use authors’ photographs on the back covers of their novels that make them look like the kind of people who know something about romance.

But give me a break. Catherine, you’r older than I am, yet your picture on the back of the FBI thriller Nemesis makes you look 20 years younger.

Nora, you’re a bit younger than me yet–as I’ve often mentioned to my wife–I think you’ve been using the same high school yearbook photograph on your novels ever since, well, high school. I should compare the picture on the back of Island of Glass with your Montgomery Blair High School senior picture.

On the other hand, my author’s photograph is almost as bad as my driver’s license photograph. You can take that to mean I look like I just got out of prison and immediately turned to alcohol and TV dinners as my new lifestyle of choice.



If you ladies want me to think you look like the images of yourselves in those photographs when you gas up your cars and buy fresh radishes at the local farmer’s market, I don’t believe you. Yet, far be it from me to suggest that somebody took your driver’s license photographs and photoshopped them into stylish wonders suitable for the cover of “Vogue.”

If you subscribe to AARP magazine–and I’m sure you do–then you know that the back page of the magazine shows a lot of elderly people under the guise of “look how great these people look.” If you really look like one of those people, you have my compliments.

Just tone it down a bit because an everyday guy like me can’t compete at the bookstore with a goddess.



What makes for strong nonfiction?

Traditionally, nonfiction has been a more stable business for authors than fiction because so much of it’s sold via books, magazine articles, newspaper feature stories, and even blog posts.

My mantra in this blog has always been to look at your proposed subject and ask: “What’s in this for the reader?” Unfortunately, people often write about pet subjects and focus on their involvement in them or on the offerings of a museum or other nonprofit without answering this question.

While we may decry Horace Greeley’s advice to a fledgling newspaper man that the reader’s self-interest is a major motivator when subscribers wade through hundreds of stories competing for their time, it’s probably still true.

In her latest Funds for Writers newsletter, author Hope Clark adds another mantra: GREAT NONFICTION = SIMPLIFICATION + CLARITY

As she puts it, “Most people love a strong, educational, how-to book that makes a difference in our lives. Nonfiction is quite popular and can be trendy if the message is strong enough and quite universal. But what makes for great how-to versus the average? What is the magic ingredient for a nonfiction, how-to book that flies off book shelves?”

Her advice reminds me of the UNITY, COHERENCE, EMPHASIS admonition we used to be taught in high school English classes prior to our first term paper assignment. As Knoji  puts it, “A good paragraph has the characteristics of unity, coherence and emphasis. In unity a paragraph must be unified on its structure. In coherence a paragraph must establish continuity within or towards the other paragraph. In emphasis the idea within the paragraph should be given importance and made to stand.”

As a former college journalism instructor, I always asked students to apply the WHO WHAT WHEN WHY WHERE HOW of news reporters to their feature stories and editorials. Basically, the reader needs facts s/he can use in a form in which they can be easily and accurately understood.

And then, before you put the final touches on the article or post, consider this: As the piece stands now, what’s the most likely unanswered question a reader might ask you after finishing this article? If there isn’t one, then you’ve probably covered the basics. If there is, either clarify the piece or add some additional facts.

Case in point about unanswered questions: Recently, there were news reports about an old variety of peanut that was brought to this country during the slavery days from Africa. Over time, it lost out to other varieties even though it had a very distinctive and appealing taste. Using just a few saved seeds, researchers carefully brought the variety back to viable production.

So here’s my unanswered question that the article writer should have addressed: When the peanut died out in the States, did it also die out in Africa where it came from and, if not, why didn’t U.S. researchers simply go there for more seeds?

Unanswered questions in the readers’ minds can easily kill the value of an article, especially in a how-to feature. Sometimes those come out of lack of clarity and sometimes they come out of incomplete research–or when the writer forgets to ask “What’s in this for the reader?”




Your one story – have you figured out what it is?

“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

― Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton

Claire Messud writes in her New York Times review of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton that “Lucy Barton’s story is, in meaningful ways, about loneliness, about an individual’s isolation when her past — all that has formed her — is invisible and incommunicable to those around her.”

Lucy Barton, who is an aspiring writer, is told by a writer and teacher that she only has one story. For Lucy, that story might be the multiple shades of loneliness. She has felt it and she has chosen to write stories that help people feel less alone.

lucybartonMy Name is Lucy Barton, like Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, is so unadorned and lacking in sentimentality that I kept wishing Strout would suffer a mental lapse and write one purple prose phrase to inject life–even false life–into what I thought in the opening pages was a going to be a barren novel, a story so deadpan it was dead.

But as I read, I saw that the story was being raised from the dead and began to wonder if the author was animating a monster or a human being too beautiful for ordinary words. A little of both, perhaps. By the time I finished the book, I saw that it could not have been written any other way and that perhaps the life in it was precious and dear like the one blooming flower in the middle  of the desert.

The bookseller protagonist, Jean Perdu, in Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop can “read” his customers’ needs in somewhat of a psychic sense and then hand them the books they require for whatever ails them. Perhaps he would hand his lonely customers copies of My Name is Lucy Barton because it’s a wonderful antidote to loneliness, fulfilling the desire of the fictional writer Lucy Barton and, for all I know, of Elizabeth Strout as well.

Do people really have only one story? If so, is this the story of their lives? What does it mean to apply this notion to a writer? Certainly writers don’t write the same book over and over as the output of most widely known writers attests. So maybe that story is something other than the plot itself, a theme maybe, or a focus on something like injustice, or triumph over adversity, or–yes–loneliness. Put that way, maybe we do have one “story” that we come back to in all kinds of ways whenever we write. Put that way, that one story is our great strength, the kind of strength that produces books Jean Perdu might dispense to his book shop’s customers who need them most.

If you write, I hope you have discovered–or are in the process of discovering–what your one story is. Among your talents and gifts, knowing that is like finding the philosopher’s stone. But don’t tell anyone. Let them find it for themselves the way I found the life in My Name is Lucy Barton. When readers discover your strengths while reading your work, those strengths have a much greater impact than any sentimental prescription in the author’s note at the front of the book that explains what you’re trying to do.

If you haven’t discovered your one story yet, it’s always possible that your muse already knows what it is and that you’ve already been writing that story many ways. Perhaps you’re so close to that story, you don’t have its name or summary inside your head. Your readers probably know it.

Perhaps your muse doesn’t yet know what your one story is because you are still discovering yourself, a thing you must do before your writing takes flight. Don’t stop looking, for I can promise you one thing, on the day you find your one story, you will feel that same joy Lucy Barton did when she said, “I was so happy. Oh, I was happy.”


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the the Florida Panhandle novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”






If you want to succeed at self-publishing, don’t be discouraged

“I strongly recommend resisting the urge to publish your first work as quickly as possible. Rather, proof it, reread it, get comments, proof it again, and devise a pre- and post-publishing marketing plan…Don’t be discouraged by rejection or settle for good-enough. In marketing-speak, make it the highest quality product you humanly can, and — with some doggedness and hard work on your part — the product will then sell itself.”

Source: Want to Succeed at Self-Publishing? Don’t Be Discouraged: Tips from an Indie Author

Ben Batchelder has certainly been there and done that even though writing wasn’t his first career.

I like his message partly because I hear a lot of indie authors talking about speeding things into print, getting as much stuff out there as possible, and–often–skipping the quality control side of the work.

What’s the rush, I often wonder.



Getting a good start: the first line

“All great authors know that a killer first line is almost more important than the first few pages, and authors put in hours of work just to get the right sentence on paper.”

– Mary Jane Hathaway

If you’re planning to plagiarize bits and pieces out of other people’s novels, stay away from the first line because if you find one that’s great, it’s probably on somebody’s list of first lines that are great. Even if people think your first line is great, it’s easy to Google it and see who–if anyone–wrote it before you wrote it.

As authors, we know we have to start our novels out with a bang. Some authors choose an explosion. Some authors choose sex. But far more authors figure out how to say something unexpected that also sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

A lot of us can think of great first lines. The trouble is, we can’t think of novels that go with them. Same is true with poetry, especially if you don’t usually write poetry. Sooner or later, those of us who write, will wake up and scribble down a perfect couplet. But then what? Usually, nothing. That’s all she wrote.

Since I don’t feel researching all the authors of my list of great lines to see whether they just wrote them or whether they spent years tinkering with them, I’ll say it’s better to just start your novel and get on with it rather than staring at a blank page or a blank screen waiting for an inspiring first line. That’s like “Waiting for Godot.” The line will never show up. So just forget about it and start writing. Once you’re done with your first draft, you can go back and see if your beginning not only sets the stage for the story, but hooks the reader.

There’s such a thing as being too cute and/or too clever with that first line. Once you have your darling line typed, can you keep up with it for another 40,000, 60,000 or 80,000 words? And if so, do you really want your entire novel to sound like that? For years, I’ve threatened to begin a novel with a line like: “Bob and Mary were killed while having unprotected sex when the tornado blew the condom billboard down on top of them.”

But then what? You’re right, nothing. I don’t know where to go with that, but if you do, feel free to use it as long as long as you list my name in your book’s acknowledgements as the “guiding force in my writing life.”

Having said all this, here are some of my favorites:

  • wintersnight“Congratulations. The fact that you’re reading this means you’ve taken one giant step closer to your next birthday.” – James Patterson, Maximum Ride, The Angel Experiment
  • “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”- James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
  • “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984
  • “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” – Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler
  • slaughterhousefive“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  • “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer
  • “All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
  • “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” – Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
  • “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” – Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche

Some first lines stay with me for a long time, haunting me like ghosts while I’m reading the novels they began. What about you? Any favorites?


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