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Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Archive for the category “writing”

Tarot and Writing

Everything old is new again, if you wait long enough. Every now and then, I run across an author on the internet who says, “I just had an amazing idea! I’m going to use Tarot cards in my next story! I bet nobody’s ever done that before!”

via Writing and the Tarot – Indies Unlimited

I enjoyed reading Lynne Cantwell’s post because (a) I’ve used Tarot cards ever since I was in high school, (b) They appear in some of my novels, and (c) They have definitely been used for hundreds of years in stories and novels

She’s right when she says that the so-called “Fool’s Journey” (Major Arcana 0) has similarities to the Hero’s Journey popularized first by Joseph Campbell in the 1940s and that there are nice associations between Jung’s archetypes and the cards. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life is also linked to the cards.

–Malcolm

I use a different deck than Lynne, the Thoth Deck. You can learn more about it and the Tarot in general at Raven Tarot.

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 Yet, according to the story, it’s unclear whether or not any material has been destroyed or whether copies of Albee’s unpublished works might be also elsewhere.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

Briefly Noted: ‘Florida’s Wetlands’

What does an author do when s/he can’t visit the locations used in a novel? One could hire a team of researchers or use Google Earth to look at the chosen place. Using a guidebook such as Florida’s Wetlands is an easier way. The guidebook won’t tell you everything, but it may tell you enough to accurately sketch in the world where your characters live.

Publisher’s Description

“Taken from the earlier book Priceless Florida (and modified for a stand-alone book), this volume discusses Florida’s Wetlands, including interior wetlands, seepage wetlands, marshes, flowing-water swamps, beaches and marine marshes, and mangrove swamps. Introduces readers to the trees and plants, insects, mammals, reptiles, and other species that live in Florida’s unique wetlands ecosystem, including the Virginia iris, American white waterlily, cypress, treefrogs, warblers, and the Florida black bear.”

This wonderful guide is enhanced through its use of short descriptions, easy-to-navigate sections, photographs, and lists of the flora and fauna in Florida’s variety of swamps and marshes. These lists make it easy for the writer to find additional information on the Internet about a particular tree, fish, flower or bird. Once you know these names and the habitats they call home, it’s easy to do follow-up research online or in other books for more details. In Florida, for example, you can use the information gleaned from this book to explore the online Florida Natural Areas Inventory or the detailed information you can find from a specialized guidebook such as Florida Wildflowers: a Comprehensive Guide by Walter Kingsley Taylor.

Such books, and the sites they’ll lead you to, are windows into a world that’s out of reach due to time constraints, health, jobs, and family responsibilities. And then, too, you’re writing a novel and not a habitat handbook, so you don’t need lengthy and/or definitive descriptions of your locations.

Fortunately, writers can find such popular guidebooks for most states and countries.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” set partially in the wetlands of the Florida Panhandle.

 

Contests: hard to win but worth the effort

Lenz

Shortly before my debut YA novel was published in 2016, I spoke to a local writer’s group about my path to publication. Year by year, I recounted the numerous ups and downs of my lengthy journey. After describing a series of setbacks and close calls with agents and editors, I finally recognized that every face in the audience looked absolutely horrified! From then on, I’ve given a swift summary instead: over ten years, three manuscripts, two agents, far too many rejections, just enough praise, and numerous contest finals and wins that validated my work. Indeed, I ultimately found my agent and publisher through contests.

via The Power of Contests: Create Your Own Luck | WritersDigest.com

Some writers say contests are scams because they think the organizations managing them are getting rich off the entry fees. I don’t agree, and was happy to see this “Writer’s Digest” post by Kristin Bartley Lenz about their value.

She not only shows us how contests helped her, but adds three tips to help other writers navigate the world of competitions and increase the odds of getting a foot in the door with a win.

–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

 

 

Even our best teachers can give us bad writing advice

“Here’s a writing craft tool that you can remove from your toolbox and throw away: description. It’s the stuff that most readers skim. Even when deftly done using the five senses it’s a lead weight. It isn’t needed anymore.” ― Donald Maass

I have one of Donald Maass’ writing books on my shelf. It has some of the best writing advice I’ve read. But, if he’s going to suggest we need no description, he should have stopped and imagined a few things before saying something so flippant:

  • Characters without any physical characteristics–height, weight, eye color, hair color, clothing styles–because the reader learns that through description.
  • Characters who live in unknown houses and who drive unknown cars. Yes, description tells us such things.
  • Monsters we have to take on faith because without description we don’t know whether or not they’re really scary and capable of hurting the protagonist. Same thing can be said about the bad guys and bad women.
  • Imagine being blind to everything in the story. Imagine the characters also being blind because without description, they can’t even imagine what the people they’re talking to (or about) look like.

We seldom need lengthy descriptions like those we found in the old novels many of us had to read in high school. Maybe you read a few of them too, books in which the author started describing a palace and its grounds on page 17 and was still describing it on page 27. I’m glad most books don’t carry on about the looks of things with several thousand words at a time.

Maass’ advice contrasts sharply with those who advocate so-called “thick description,” description that’s multilayered and tells us more than one thing about a person, place or thing.

Maass also suggests that good fiction should be entertaining and about something that matters. I agree. The depth of stories that matter can come from a lot of sources, including the theme, plot, characters, and dialogue. Frankly, I think if a clever author weeded out every single descriptive word and phrase in an otherwise masterpiece of a novel, Maass wouldn’t like the result. Few people would.

Malcolm

 

Are writers outsiders?

“Writers are outsiders. Even when we seem like insiders, we’re outsiders. We have to be. Our noses pressed to the glass, we notice everything. We mull and interpret. We store away clues, details that may be useful to us later.” – Dani Shapiro

I’m not sure the answer is a simple yes or no.

In contrast to Dani Shapiro’s statement, Joe Bunting in Are the Best Writers Insiders or Outsiders? says, “Perhaps the insider/outsider question is a false dichotomy. If Cormac McCarthy can write masterpieces in his solitude and Salman Rushdie write them while dating supermodels and going to international parties, then maybe it’s not about being in or out. Perhaps the secret is to never stop being you, whether or not you’re inside or outside.”

Maybe Joe Bunting’s “you” can change personas and step into the mix and be a part of it when necessary or watch from the sidelines and observe when necessary. Or, maybe it comes down to whether a person is an introvert or an extrovert, facile or clumsy in social situations, or easily moves between a huge number of friends or feels more comfortable spending most of his or her time with a small group.

We’re always observing, I think. To some extent, that puts us somewhat outside. We do store away clues, as Shapiro says. In Bunting’s post, it’s not surprising to read that J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon are among the outsiders–far outside, as it turns out. Or, that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Mark Twain were considered insiders.

When I read an author’s novel, I don’t know if s/he’s an insider or an outsider in any social group, town or career. I might leap to conclusions if I thought about it and consider those who write literary fiction to be outsiders and those who write romances and thrillers to be insiders. But, I might be wrong.

Perhaps insider vs. outsider doesn’t matter. Maybe the true consideration is: who do you need to be to write what you want to write?

Personally, I need quiet. I don’t want every week to be filled with dinners, barbecues, parties, movies, and day trips. That’s what works for me. Maybe you need a lot of activity, friends trooping through the house 24/7 and a full dance card, so to speak. If it works, what more could one want?

The late William Trevor (“Love and Summer”), a prolific Irish writer believed that “writers were outsiders, that they had no place in society because society was what they were watching.” I can understand the feeling even though I’m not convinced all writers feel this way.

If you’re a writer, how do you feel about this? (Yes, I know, maybe the insider/outsider discussion is about as meaningful about the old debate about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.) But I’m curious. Can you “make the scene” and still write about it or do you have to stand amongst the wallflowers and watch it before you can write about it?

Malcolm

 

Writing Craft: Staying out of the reader’s way

The intention of the writer of a novel is to guide readers into a dream-like state where the story comes alive in their minds, and they forget about everything else. Including – especially including – the fact that there is an author manipulating their emotions. Every time any reader is for any reason made aware of the presence of an author writing the story, that reader is tossed for a brief moment out of the emotional bond you have been working so hard to create.

via Make Your Writing Invisible – Indies Unlimited

The best authors and writing teachers have been saying this for years. Gordon Long approaches the idea a little differently in the way he leads into the paragraph I’ve quoted here. One way to allow his ideas to sink in, is to look for his examples of what you shouldn’t do while your reading novels in your favorite genre. Once you start noticing the flaws, it will be hard to “un-see” them. That may impact your pleasure reading for a while. But not forever because you’ll get used to putting up with authors’ mistakes and getting past them–unless they’re your own which aren’t too broke to fix.

As usual, helpful advice from Indies Unlimited.

–Malcolm

 

Lead readers to the water OR force them to drink?

“Different people will take different things from the story. I want to encourage readers to think rather than tell them what to think.” – Graeme Simsion (“The Best of Adam Sharp”) in a May 3 bookreporter interview.

What do you think?

Do you want to be led to the meanings behind an author’s characters, plots and themes? Or, do you want the author to tell you what it all means?

Author’s website photo.

When you read the classics,  you’ll sometimes find an authorial voice lurking directly or indirectly throughout the story, commenting on what’s happening. For example, in reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence again for the first time in years, I have to smile at the gentle mocking narrative in which Wharton makes it quite clear how she feels about the so-called upper class in New York’s society of the 1870s.

Yes, it’s fun to see that when I look back on a classic but, other than in satire, overt opinions from the author of a novel are generally frowned upon today. You can easily see them for what they are when something snarky is said about a character without any attribution. There’s a big difference between writing, Bob and his friends never looked for guidance from a supreme being because they thought them knew it all AND writing, Sam and his brother often said that Bob and in friends never looked for guidance from a supreme being because they thought them knew it all.

The first version is the author’s opinion that “forces you” to drink in what s/he thinks. That’s a weak way to write. It’s a little better to have another character say it or think it. It’s much better to show (in this case) Bob and his friends talking and acting in ways that lead you, as the reader, to the conclusion they have no need for God.

I enjoy puzzles in the books I read and write. So, the fewer tips from the author, the better I like it. Other readers, from what I hear, prefer a few hints as long as those hints aren’t too blatant.

Of course, if you want a bit of satire–and can remain consistent without throughout your story–you can write, Gentle Reader, are you beginning to wonder if Sam think’s he created the Lord in seven days?

Otherwise, strong hints bother me. In fact, they make me feel like the author is (a) Too lazy to keep his/her beliefs out of the book and/or (b) Thinks I’m too stupid to figure what the deeper points of the story are.

How about you? (Please don’t tell me you skip to the end of the book first to make sure the main characters don’t end up dead!) Are you in the mood for hints or puzzles?

–Malcolm

A contest that wants work outside the box

The Unclassifiables Contest is officially open. This is our third year of reading manuscripts that don’t quite fit the rigid labels of prose or poetry. Send us work that blurs, bends, blends, erases, or obliterates genre and other labels.

via The Unclassifiables Contest is Now Open – Arts and Letters

Writers are often constrained by the rules of the genres they favor. When a genre is involved, it’s hard to think or write outside the box. So it’s nice to find contests, magazines, and publishers who want you to think outside the box.

So here’s an opportunity to bend the rules or forget the rules. The deadline in July 1.

Malcolm

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