The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Archive for the category “writing”

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

 

 

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How to pitch a blog guest post

So you’ve read through all the advice about how to guest post, you’ve got a lot to write about, and you’ve even researched a little bit of search engine know-how. You’ve learned that you can help the site out by putting relevant keywords in the title of your post and in the subheadings.

You pick your most brilliant idea, and you send it out to the site editor of your favourite blog (only do this one at a time!). But no one is replying to your emails.

via How to PITCH a Guest Post to a Blog ‹ Indies Unlimited ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

I like Ben Steele’s approach to this problem. If you want to write a guest post on somebody’s blog, you need to do some homework–just as you do when you pitch a book to a prospective agent or publisher or a story idea to an editor.

Magazine editors say “read the magazine before you submit an idea.” This keeps you from sending a romance short to National Geographic or an epic fantasy set on another world to National Parks and Preservation Magazine. Reading the blog is a good place to start.

–Malcolm

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

 

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