The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Archive for the category “writing”

Are you writing for immediate impact or to create a legacy?

In an interview in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Lidia Yuknavitch (The Book of Joan) said that a well known male writer friend is “always talking about how he wants to leave a legacy with his books, and I’m always talking about how I want to create energy in the present tense among other mammals and I could give a shit about a legacy … What I’m finding is, I am more interested in the intense, temporary energy books create.”

Up until Amazon and self-publishing made it easier for more authors to see their books in print, I’m guessing that more writers thought about legacy than immediate impact (other than getting on the bestseller list, perhaps). After all, we grew up with the idea of a writer’s legacy because most of the books we read in school were part of the writing legacy of a famous author; after that, many readers shifted over to current well-known writers who are creating a legacy now.

Several things seem to have changed. First, self-publishing has made getting words into print so easy that I see a lot of writers rushing books into print, trying to create instant bestsellers, publishing free books for the purpose of capturing readers’ attention and then directing them through links in the book to the books the author is charging for, and basically trying to keep a roller coaster of writing and promotion and platform and mailing lists constantly growing and building.

I’m not convinced those authors are thinking ahead to such things as legacy; it’s almost like they’re in a mad rush to build a following. And then, maybe, once they have it, they intend to shift over to writing books that will last and be their legacy.

The other thing is Donald Trump’s election and the campaign that led up to it. This has stirred an interest among both mainstream GOP and mainstream Democrat writers to create novels, plays, poems and nonfiction that matter now. These writers are– like Yuknavitch, perhaps–so focused on the polarized political climate and how it impacts their core values about diversity, big business, the environment, immigration, education, birth control and other issues, that they want books that focus on these issues right now in the present.

I’ve thought about the idea of immediate impact lately because there’s such a push amongst writers for all of us to get involved in writing something with a tie-in to current issues. I realize that I don’t do that. Sure, I make a few comments on Facebook (and usually get burned for saying anything), support various environmental and social service groups, and occasionally post things on my other blog about environmental issues. But my fiction hasn’t changed with Trump’s election any more than it would have changed with Hillary Clinton’s election–or anyone else’s election.

I care about the political issues and have an opinion about them. Most people do. I’m just not moved to write about it. As for a legacy, no, I don’t care about that either because short of having Oprah call me out of the blue, my books will be forgotten soon after I depart for the writing room in the sky. I’m realistic about that. So it comes down to just telling stories, hoping people like them, and in being aware that something in this story or that story might impact how a person feels about my stories’ themes.

That said, I tend to agree with Yuknavitch’s point of view because it seems to me that consciously trying to create a legacy destroys the experience of writing a meaningful story in about the same way that posing for hundreds of selfies destroys a person’s involvement in the tourist locations they’re visiting. Legacy creation probably ruined a lot of otherwise promising careers because those who approached storytelling this way were overly particular and/or restrained because they imagined what their words would look life when they were engraved in stone. In a way, those writers are like the politician who always minds his words because a camera might be recording him as he speaks.

Of course, we may end up with both immediate energy and a legacy if we don’t try to force the issue.

FREE KINDLE BOOKS

Carrying Snakes into Eden (two short stories) and The Lady of the Blue Hour (short story) will be free on Kindle April 22 through April 24, 2017.

–Malcolm

 

 

Amazon UK Kindle Storyteller Award

The Amazon UK Kindle Storyteller Award is open for entries. The Kindle Storyteller Award is a new literary prize recognising newly published work in the English language across any genre and includes a £20,000 prize.

via Amazon UK Kindle Storyteller Award – Indies Unlimited

This looks like a great opportunity if you have a potential Kindle Direct Publishing manuscript ready or almost ready. The big plus, in addition to the award, is the publicity. That can be a nice boost for your writing career.

Thanks to Indies Unlimited for posting this.

Malcolm

On location: Liberty County Florida

Traveling to the Florida Panhandle today.

These “On Location” posts show my rationale for choosing various place settings for my books. They’re not gospel! They might not even be viable rationale. But, I post them anyway as indirect tips for other writers to consider as they decide how to choose place settings for their stories.

I used Liberty County in my books Eulalie and Washerwoman, Conjure Woman’s Cat, The Land Between the Rivers, and Mountain Song. It’s Florida’s least populous county with easy access to the Apalachicola River, the forbidding Tate’s Hell Swamp, the Gulf Coast, and Florida’s “Garden of Eden” trail, along with many square miles of swamp land and forests.

Why I chose the county

  1. River Styx in Liberty County – Florida Memory Photo. Needless to say, place names like this one are made to order in a conjure book.

    I grew up in the adjacent Leon County (Tallahassee) and spent many hours of Boy Scout camping and family day trips at sites in or near the county. I was not only writing about what I know, but about a very diverse and unique landscape with rare trees, rare wildlife, and an environment that’s off the beaten trail of the kind of development and tourism found in the peninsula section of the state.

  2.  My two conjure woman books lent themselves to a small-town environment in the part of the state known as “wire grass country.” That is, it was more natural to place a conjure woman in a far-away piney woods part of the state than a more populous area. The area also had a variety of legends, remnants of Indian settlements and their recurring cultural influence, and a small-town, insular world view.
  3. My old friend, the late Gloria Jahoda wrote a book about this part of the state called The Other Florida. For my purposes of telling a magical realism story, I wanted an area that was about as “other” as one can find. Her book also included legends that I grew up with, making them a lot easier to refer to in the story than the legends of a place I’d never visited with legends that would have been quite foreign to me. To some extent, magical realism uses legends and tall tales about a place as though they are real. These not only add ambiance to the book, but give readers from Florida bits and pieces of information they’re already familiar with.
  4. Florida, in years past, had a very strong KKK presence, a presence more pervasive in outlying areas. Since both of my conjure woman books pit a woman of magic against the Klan, this made the location a viable and historically accurate place for such a story even though I created a fictionalized small town to avoid any hard feelings (or law suits) with the residents and governments of an actual town. I named my town Torreya, after Florida’s unique and highly endangered tree that grows in this area and nowhere else.
  5. While my conjure books were set in the 1950s, The Land Between the Rivers at the dawn of time, and  Mountain Song in the 1960s, the area–when compared with major tourist destinations and development–is still remote. This helps an author do research because many of the attributes of the place in years gone by still exist today.

I consider a story’s place setting to be a very integral part of the fiction I write. If you like strong place settings, perhaps you will go through some of the same thought processes as I did when you choose the country, state, or town for your novel or short story.

Malcolm

Strategies for Revising Your Novel

“You’ve done it: typed The End. Those two wonderful words mark your graduation from always-wanted-to-write-a-novel to someone-who-did. Congratulations. Other ideas might be cooking away in the back of your brain, making you eager to start a new project. Often, this is where the spirit wanes as new writers lose momentum for the old manuscript. Because, you didn’t finish, did you? You only finished the draft. Now you have to focus on revising your novel.”  

7 Strategies for Revising Your Novel, Writer’s Digest

I generally take a dim view of checklists, laundry lists and other recipe-approaches to writing and rewriting. However, this Writer’s Digest article has decent ideas for what we should/might/sort of consider doing after we finish the first draft.

Here’s an interesting quote: “The rewrite is tougher than the draft. The draft is infatuation. The right rewrite strengthens your fiction into something that lasts to publication and gains a significant readership.” That seems to be the way it is. We roar through the first draft, having fun, slipping past the known flaws and lame sentences, because we’re blazing a trail into new territory.

Once that’s done, we need to see the story the way the reader might see it, or want to see it, and even though this article presents a checklist, it’s not half bad.

–Malcolm

 

 

Why does the blank page or empty screen scare so many people?

When the page or screen is empty, anything can be written on it. Looked at in another way, that page/screen represents infinity before you touch it; it represents the universe and the world as science understands them, and it represents all the probable worlds and possible futures and imagined places and circumstance the writer is capable of writing down or dreaming up.

No wonder it’s frightening. It has no boundaries to it.

Fence out what you don’t need.

Psychologists say we need personal boundaries in order to define who we are and who we’re not, what we believe in and what we don’t, and what we’re willing to do or say or think–or not. Sometimes people who don’t have sound emotional boundaries feel worthless.

Perhaps we get a sense of that worthless feeling when we stare at a blank page/screen and can’t seem to get our story, novel, essay or report started. Writing, while usually presented as a creative, mind-expanding activity (as in, “how to you think up stuff like this?”) is also a limiting activity.

If an empty page equals infinity, then a page with several words on it equals infinity narrowed down to what you wrote. One word, or at least, one sentence, cancels out a lot of the things that could have been on that page or screen. Scientists say that the human mind cannot logically or emotionally conceive of infinity. So, we have to start chipping away at the possibilities and probabilities until we have something manageable.

Suppose the first sentence you write is “Bob walked into the sunlit gulf waters at Apalachicola, Florida.” The limits set by that one sentence are huge. Most of what could have been said, is now out of consideration because it doesn’t fit with a real-world story set in the gulf waters off the Florida Panhandle.

Some writing gurus suggest that when you can’t think of the precise way you want to begin your story or essay, it’s better to write something–anything–rather than stare at the page or the screen for hours. For one thing, if you stare for a long time, then maybe you’re trying to think of a first sentence as what it will be in the final draft of the material when you’re just now starting the first draft. Tip: it’s easier to edit a sloppy sentence into a great final draft sentence than to try to think it up from scratch.

In order to chip away at the scary infinity of that empty page or screen, you don’t even have to write a bad opening sentence. You can simply say, “this is going to be an essay about how love conquers all even in a state prison” or “this is the beginning of my short story about Bob going swimming in the Gulf of Mexico and coming eye to eye with a shark.”

See, you’ve suddenly counteracted the “everything is possible” immensity of the blank page or screen. You’ve set some boundaries within which you plan to tell your story or state your philosophy. Any statement about what you think you might do is almost as valuable as a shoddy, first draft sentence. Or, if you love key words, you can type LOVE, POWER, PRISON or BOB, GULF, FLORIDA, SHARK. If you’re a Twitter person, put a # symbol at the beginning of each word and you’re getting to the gist of your intentions with hashtags.

If you have an outline, it might help. If you have a list of key points, it might help. Anything that “ropes off” your intended subject from the rest of the known universe gives you something your mind and the reader’s mind can deal with. Your little acre of infinity might indeed be mind expanding and totally outside the box when you get done with it. All of that’s easier to get down on paper or on  your Microsoft Word screen once you set some limits to infinity.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism, fantasy, and paranormal stories and novels. However, the idea of getting something down on the page worked equally well when he wrote news stories, educational materials and computer documentation.

Writing: an essential task in a polarized world

Articles, essays, poetry and social media interactions suggest that a seemingly infinite number of people feel ground down by the recent Presidential campaign. The country appears more polarized about directions, methods and issues today than it did with the election of George Bush. A quick look at such digests of literary happenings as the news and links of Poets & Writers and Literary Hub, has–since the election–shown more politically oriented stories than usual.

George Saunders (“Lincoln in the Bardo”) said in an interview in the March/April edition of Poets & Writers Magazine that, “It’s a tremendous literary mission to ask, ‘Can we re-imagine our country?’ It’s going to take some legwork, and it’s going to take some curiosity, which is in short supply these days. But I think for writers, it’s actually an exciting time. I don’t think I’ve ever felt in my life that writing was a more essential task.”

What do we write? Facts and inspiration, I would say. That’s important whether one supported Clinton or Trump or Sanders. A lot of the legwork Saunders mentions is going to be digging up the facts. Some are calling this the post-truth era. For writers, like everyone else, weeding out the lies and slanted material is a large part of the legwork we need to do.

I’m appalled by the number of people on Facebook, for example, who read and listen only to the news they agree with and/or who presume without doing their own fact checking that their favorite essayist or commentator is always presenting objective information that fairly considers all sides of an issue. As writers, we not only need to fight this assumption, this outright laziness, but we need to prove to those who read our material that we’re as honest as we know how to be.

The inspiration  comes from not only addressing changes in the political focus and philosophy we consider negative, but in speaking well of those we like. The election and inauguration represent a fairly large change–or so it appears–in how we, as Americans, are being asked to view out country, what it stands for, and how it will operate within its borders and on the world stage.

Inspiration–like a good newspaper editorial or magazine essay–starts with facts. This concept was one of the hardest ideas for me to get across to students when I taught college journalism courses. Many students thought that stating an opinion meant that one could say anything they wanted. Maybe in a bar, but not in a reasonable newspaper, book or blog post. Inspiration that doesn’t begin with the truth isn’t worth anything. Passionate writers often need to rein in their zeal and ask “can my fervor be supported in the light of day?”

It’s easy to be reactive, to read an editorial or a news story and scream “that just totally sucks.” But what good is this outrage if that’s as far as it goes? As writers, it’s essential, I think, to do better than that. I think that if we can take care in creating balanced, realistically functioning worlds for our fiction, then we can take the same amount of care in looking at the real world we have here and just how it needs to be viewed or re-imagined.

It’s also easy to see our personal circumstances as universal. In my journalism class, a student wrote an editorial against a specific make of car, proclaiming that it was a real lemon. His proof: his grandmother had one that never worked right. That’s not proof. It might make for an interesting human interest story, but such an editorial is not the way to fight against the perceived abuses of an company or an industry. We can do better than basing our “facts” and inspiration on personal anecdotal “evidence.”

The hard things are doing the legwork and analyzing how are personal feelings about the issues of the day stack up against the facts, the apparent majority attitudes, and true win-win approaches to making things better. Neither rational democracy or rational writing are easy. Doing better might be more exciting than we think. Goodness knows, doing better is more effective than slinging insults and preaching to the choir.

–Malcolm

 

Research falls out of the sky from the strangest places

Writers never know when a fact’s going to be needed. So, we jot things down in notebooks and/or keep links in a DOC file.

adamI like looking at the wild sheet music covers on American Memory, the Library of Congress site filled with recordings, photographs and articles from long ago. There’s a lot of good stuff out there even though the search engine can use some work; by that I mean, stuff shows up in the list of hits that has nothing to do with the search terms.

Old sheet music had covers that don’t match today’s political correctness, music lovers’ styles and fads, or even the kind of music we like. That’s why they’re fun to look at.

Needless to say, when I saw the cover for “Why Adam Sinned,” a song written in 1904 by Alex Rogers and performed by Aida Overton Walker, I wanted to know why.

Due to copyright restrictions, I can’t reproduce the lyrics here, though you can find them elsewhere if you keep looking. But the why of it is this: He sinned because he didn’t have a mother to teach him right from wrong.

Now, since Eulalie–my African American conjure woman in “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman”–is also a singer and makes a lot of references to music, this “why” about Adam is perfect for her to say in a conversation about the good Lord. Who knows when and where I’ll use it, but sooner or later she just might tell the deacon something like this:

“‘It’s just like the song testified about: He didn’t have no Mammy to teach him right from wrong,’ said Eulalie.”

OR IF I WANT TO ADD A BIT OF HISTORY:

“‘It’s just like Aida Walker sang: He didn’t have no Mammy to teach him right from wrong,’ said Eulalie.”

The deacon probably won’t like hearing that, but she won’t care because she likes stirring things up.

Writers collect bits and pieces of stuff like some people save baseball cards or have rooms filled with old car parts or stuff from along the side of the road that might come in handy some day.

You just never know. . .

–Malcolm

cwcBoth conjure woman novels are available in audiobook, e-book and paperback from major online booksellers; you can also ask your nearby bookstore to order them from their Ingram catalogue.

Keep your research within your character’s knowledge base

When you write in the third person, your characters’ thoughts and actions are not only stated from the person’s point of view, but are also constrained by what that character can possibly know.

sixthjupiterbrassUnlike an omniscient narrator who can show what others are thinking, in third person, you can’t place your protagonist, let’s call him Jim, in a conversation with, say, Bob and in the middle of it show what Bob is thinking. Jim doesn’t know that. And in third person, you–as the author–can’t come in out of nowhere and tell the readers what Bob is thinking.

Likewise, main characters are a product of their time, their education, their skills, and their attitudes. If a character suddenly knows something outside of their realm of experience, it’s disconcerting. Sometimes when this happens, critics and reviewers will say that the author is letting his or her research show. That could be showing off or maybe it took time to gather the research and so the author adds it to the book.

Here’s a short paragraph from my novel “Eulalie and Washerwoman.” In this 1950s story, Eulalie is a conjure woman who lives in the piney woods and who uses folk magic and herbs based on what her mother taught her. However, her cat is the one telling the story. Here’s the snippet: “We didn’t have long to wait. Eulalie brought the deacon’s chair out on the porch, aligned it carefully at the top of the steps and sat down in it with her hands in her lap. She was dressed for church, a dark floral pattern dress with a wide-brimmed hat perching at a jaunty tilt on top of her granny knot. She wore a brass pendant, the sixth pentacle of Jupiter, highly polished and drawing down the light that conjured the cross within circle into the sun.”

 

Pentacle of Jupiter Talisman

Diagram from Mathers' book

Diagram from Mathers’ book

Like many hoodoo practitioners, Eulalie believed strongly in talismans. Strange as it might seem, these talismans contained a lot of renaissance-era magic that one might not expect a backwoods conjure woman to know. However, curio catalogues and mail order houses did a brisk trade in ancient wisdom. They sold inexpensive tracts that basically told the benefits of old spells, Bible verses, and magic ascribed to Moses and Solomon. A lot of what was known came from materials that originated and/or were translated and edited by the well-known Hermetic organization The Golden Dawn.

While Eulalie could have easily sent off for a pewter or brass pendant such as the one shown in this post, she probably wouldn’t have had a copy of the Golden Dawn leader S. Liddell MacGregor Mathers’ The Key of Solomon. So here are the decisions I made about that paragraph–just as a sample of one writer’s way of looking at the information.

  1. I could have said “a mail order brass pendant,” but I think that would have cheapened the thing and made it less mysterious.
  2. While it’s likely Eulalie would know that the Hebrew names on the cross are the angels who govern the four elements (Seraph, Cherub, Tharsis, and Ariel), saying that would have made the paragraph longer and slowed down getting to the action that came after it. The same can be said about the verse in Hebrew around the edge from Psalm 22. Plus, mentioning it might give readers the idea she spoke Hebrew which, of course, she wouldn’t have.
  3. I definitely think having a statement in the scene about Mathers or the Golden Dawn or ritual magic from the renaissance could push on the readers’ notions about what an ancient 1950s conjure woman would know. Plus, if she had known it, she wouldn’t have said it here because she didn’t need to say it. That is, she believed the talisman would work without having to cite references for it.

This paragraph could have been handled many ways. However it was done, it needed to fit what Eulalie knew and would be likely to say or think during the scene. (For those who have read the book, Eulalie’s cat tells the story, but in general the readers see that when it comes to magic, the cat more or less knows what Eulalie knows, but would be even less likely than Eulalie to cite reference books.)

–Malcolm

ewbookcover“Eulalie and Washerwoman,” published by Thomas-Jacob of Florida, is available in e-book, paperback and audiobook editions.

 

 

You gotta ask yourself, “Do I feel lucky?” (nope)

Aspiring writers who have yet to publish or whose books seem to sit on Amazon with very few sales, often suggest that more successful writers were lucky–in one way or another–to become successful.

Nope, asking, “Do I feel lucky” is the wrong question (unless you are really adept at using the Law of Attraction to seemingly manifest your desires out of thin air.

goodluckIn her recent Funds for Writers newsletter, Hope Clark writes, “First of all, there is no serious luck in this business. It’s a matter of constantly putting yourself out there in terms of writing, publishing, appearing, working social media, fighting to be current, taking chances. There is no one right way or best way, only the way that happens to work for you at that moment in time. “

Sure, we hear the occasional story where an English Department student taking a short story class just happens to live next door to a senior editor at Random House who reads her story and turns it into a bestseller. But counting on that, or any other kind of lucky break, is probably worse than expecting lottery winnings to pay off your credit card debt.

Hope looked for paying markets, building up writing credits, publicizing them, and then repeating what worked to improve her Google ratings.

  • Paying markets are better resume material than free markets other than, perhaps, top-flight literary magazine that are widely known. Start with the easy markets. Work up to the harder-to-crack markets. Each level of improvement helps you break into the next level. Editors don’t credit you with much if you’re not being paid.
  • Build a website where you talk about and link to your published work, while adding value of some kind (free articles, links to writing or subject matter resources, and other interesting material that keeps people coming back. Talk about your successes in a blog, careful, though, to keep the blog interesting for readers rather than turning into an “all about me” advertisement about you. At some point, consider a newsletter to keep people up to date, especially if you start appearing at workshops and conventions and want people to know your schedule.
  • Once you find out what works, keep doing it so that you draw a following while improving your search engine ranking. The more you do within a niche, the more people who will find you, including editors who begin to notice you have a track record.
  • Use this platform as a base if and when you decide to write a novel. Your platform will show potential publishers you weren’t born yesterday and that you have a following. But don’t kill off the platform just because you’ve submitted a novel and want to quit writing nonfiction and/or short stories for magazines. Keep your audience alive because they will be interested in your books once a publisher gets interested in your books.

Maybe you’ll catch a so-called lucky break or perhaps “chance” does favor those who are prepared and who have done their homework, paid their dues, and kept trying.

Malcolm

Learning from cats makes us better writers

People who don’t own cats say they don’t understand cats.katycloseup

Others say that households with cats are, in reality, controlled by the cats through a complex mechanism of cat behaviors, including purring, biting, pretending to act screwed up, doing things they know are “wrong” without caring about so-called “house hold rules,” and mind control.

For example: our three cats expect my wife and I to follow a daily schedule based on the following rationale:

To every hour – tick, tock, tick, tock
There is moment – tick, tock, tick, tock
And an instant for every mandate between dawn and dusk

A time to eat, a time to sleep
A time to run, a time to lurk
A time to pounce, a time to purr
A time to sit on laps, a time to refrain from sitting on laps

There are more verses to the cats’ song of life, but they would take more space than I have in this post and, quite frankly, making sense of them (the verses) is about as difficult as fully comprehending the relationship between, say, the Qabalistic Tree of Life and one’s favorite deck of Tarot cards.

As a master magician might advise, meditating on cats is the key to finding one’s muse and one’s writer’s voice.

Since I’m 37.5% psychic, I know what you’re thinking: “Malcolm, that’s a load of crap.”

Yes it is, but the important point here is that it’s high-quality crap, illustrating (among other things) that the importance of crap is often undervalued by folks with a constipated value system.

The first step to meditating on cats is to stop asking the question: “What do the cats think they’re doing?”

katyreflectionAsking that question proves you’re not meditating, and besides, it’s a fool’s journey because cats operate totally on either (a) expedient and evolutionary instincts, or (b) instructions beamed down to them from the cat mother ship circling the earth.

When a writer meditates on cats, s/he finds that his or her instincts begin to work in mysterious ways during the writing process. Basically, s/he stop’s questioning what s/he is doing and why because wondering why one writes the way one does is a fool’s journey because (a) applying logic to the creative flow of a story gums the damn thing up, and (b) it’s akin to trying to observe an electron without your observations changing the electron’s location and momentum.

The second step to meditating on cats is (hence), don’t look at the cats.

DCFC0057.JPG

Like electrons, cat’s know when you’re looking at them, so they throw up either a hairball or a smokescreen to keep you from truly seeing anything other than what you expect to see.

Cats, on the other hand, are more likely to do their own thing when they think you’re unaware of them. When it comes to the daily schedule (eat, sleep, run, lurk, and laps), they probably think my wife and I are stupid and can’t see the obvious: that the schedule is “off.” The more we ignore them, the more they create a sense of wrongness throughout the household until we resume doing what they expect us to be doing at various hours of the day.

That said, if you try to meditate on cats by looking at them or logically understanding them, you’ll be stumbling over cats and the wrong words on the page from dawn to dusk. When it comes to potential story lines, authors are encouraged to think of situations and ask “why not.” When it comes to accepting the results of that question, asking “why” about the story you need to write is a fool’s journey and just as dangerous to your peace of mind and writing prowess as asking why the cats you’re meditating upon are doing whatever they’re doing.

When you truly meditate upon cats, why is never an issue. It’s best to sense cats while pretending you don’t know they’re in the room. When you can do that, your writing will improve a hundredfold because in sensing cats, you will have discovered that your relationship to your story is the same as your relationship to your cats. Let your cats be cats and your story be your story without getting in the way of either.

When you deviate from this approach, you gum the damn thing up, and that’s akin to trying to observe a story like an editor without those observations changing the story into low-quality crap.

Basically, you should always wear a pair of the cat’s pajamas when you write.

–Malcolm

 

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