The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

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

 

 

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Nightbeat: How to live long, if not prosper

Rome, Georgia, August 12, 2017, Star-Gazer News Service–At my age, several things are happening, especially on my birthday. First, my newspaper is trying to force me into retirement because I refuse to write opinionated news like to many of today’s modern “journalists.” Second, people keep saying, “Jock, you look so young.” And finally, folks want to know how to live a long life.

It’s tempting to just toss off my dear old daddy’s prescription and then get the hell away from everyone asking that silly question. He always said, “Drink a pint of moonshine everyday while smoking three packs of Marlboro cigarettes. “ He said this before Marlboro started marketing pot cigarettes in green boxes.

Actually, when my wife isn’t listening, I say the true solution is booze, books and blondes. If she hears me, she ruins the ambiance of the moment by saying, “Didn’t I tell you to lay off those blondes?” She’s a brunette whom I met at work when we both really looked good enough to meet people at work. She also tells me to cut back on “the sauce,” which leads to further trouble when I say a half a bottle of single malt Scotch either makes brunettes look like blondes or makes it not matter.

So, that leaves me with the books. Studies have shown (I’m not making this up) that books lead to a longer life. Of course, you gotta start early. It’s not like asking God for forgiveness on your death bed after a life of sin.

Books won’t save you if you wait until your at death’s door before you pick up, say, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and expect it to work like the fountain of youth. Books save you slowly over the long haul and–except for Finnegans Wake–are less dangerous than blondes for men or women with a brunette spouse.

A psychologist–and we know how “sane” they are–suggested on Facebook that it takes 65 days to create a habit. Let’s say she’s right. If you had read your English teacher’s book report assignments in middle school and high school, you’d be all set by now no matter hold old you are unless you’re in the 5th grade. Booze and blondes don’t take 65 days to become a habit, but in most school systems, they’re not assigned as middle school or high school homework–and if they were, woe be unto the kid whose dear old mama finds either one in his/her room after the lights are out.

One thing to avoid when you reach AARP age is trying to play one-upmanship with other AARP friends about your illnesses. After 65 days of that, you’re en route to an early grave. Plus, young people hate sitting on a front porch while granny says something like, “You think alcoholism is bad, I’ve got hemorrhoids.” If granny had just read a book, that wouldn’t have happened. Too late now, though.

Mark Twain once told a joke about an old lady who went to the doctor with some illness or other. The doc told her to give up smoking, and she said she didn’t smoke. When he suggested giving up chewing tobacco, she said she didn’t partake. He listed a long string of other real of imagined vices to which she said she didn’t do any of that stuff. Twain’s comment to the audience was, “So there it was. She was like a sinking ship with no extra freight to throw overboard.”

I heard this joke when I was a kid and it made a strong impression on me. I picked up as many vices as I could and as I got older, I’ve have plenty of dead weight to jettison in order to stay healthy. True, my wife might force me to throw the blondes overboard along with most of the booze. But, like Paris, I’ll always have my books.

Editorial Column by Jock Stewart, Special Investigative Reporter 

Aw, those poor authors of ‘overlooked books’

Yes, I know, some publishers won’t turn your manuscript into a book if they don’t think it’s going to sell 50,000 copies or more. Gosh, 40,000 copies must be a real downer causing middle management shake-ups, angry calls to agents who promised everything, and getting the book tagged as one of the most overlooked books of the year.

While headlines such as this one on Kirkus (The 9 Most Overlooked Summer YA Novels You Should Read) give a publication a cheap and easy feature story to write, they’re an insult to mid-list and small press authors whose books really have been overlooked. Readers, especially on-line readers, probably love these lists because (a) they (the lists) don’t require much of an attention span, and (b) might include a gem that the readers didn’t notice earlier in the year.

  • The first book on Kirkus’ young adult list is Solo, by by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess. It looks good, by the way. However, since it’s displayed on Kirkus’ list with a Kirkus starred review, the book wasn’t overlooked.  The second book on the list, Saints and Misfits, also had a starred review from Kirkus as did every other book on the list. “Overlooked” is a category for books that Kirkus won’t review.
  • Solo’s current rank on Amazon is #1 in teens fiction. I’ll stipulate that its publisher would probably like to see a better overall ranking than 2,949. However, “overlooked” better describes small press books that hardly ever get into the top slots of Amazon’s genre rankings which (due to recent changes) are biased in favor of major publishers and higher priced books.
  • Solo was also reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal, BookPage, and others. Sure, more would be better. But “overlooked” really refers to books none of these outlets consider at all.
  • So as not to unfairly single out Solo, I should mention that in addition to actual reviews, the authors of the books on this list were also interviewed.  For example, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) featured a Q&A with the author of Saints and Misfits (S. K. Ali). I like the ABA’s “Indies First” program that supports independent bookstores. Unfortunately, the ABA doesn’t lend this kind of support to indie authors even when their books are distributed by outlets where the bookstores get their titles. Truly “overlooked” is being off the ABA’s radar altogether.
  • Many less-well-known book review sites claim that they support indie authors and (thankfully) a lot of them make good on this claim. However, these outlets–even when they have a regional books flavor–want readers, too, so they often fill many of their review slots with mainstream bestselling books that certainly don’t need any help. “Overlooked” is being passed over by a small review site by monthly features about books by top-100 authors.

Overlooked? I think not.

As the year goes on, we’ll see more and more lists of BEST BOOKS even though there will be more stuff published by December 31: these lists really do overlook books because everyone and their brother tries to be first out of the gate with proclamations about the best of the best of the best. And, we’ll see more lists of OVERLOOKED books, too. Suffice it to say that if a book is noticed by the organization creating the list, it hasn’t been overlooked even if higher sales for it had been expected.

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

 

 

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

Rereading ‘The Horse Whisperer’ by Nicholas Evans

Did you read The Horse Whisperer when in came out in 1995 or see the movie when it was released three years later?

I liked both the book and the movie although their endings are slightly different. I liked them because I love Montana, horses, and the grit people and other animals find within themselves to triumph over what seem to be insurmountable odds. When I first read the book, it was one of the few I wished I’d written. I still felt that way today when I finished rereading it for the first time in twenty-two years.

When I read the book now, I see the characters as they were in the movie. And, I also see the horse being struck by the tractor trailer as it happened in the move. This always happens to me. Perhaps it’s the Rhett Butler syndrome, that is, being unable to read Gone With the Wind without seeing Clark Gable playing Butler.

I was looking for something new to read several days ago, saw this book on the shelf, pulled it off and started reading it. Once again I was hooked. This time, of course, I knew the story like those people who pick up a book and look at the ending to make sure their favorite characters are still alive and kicking when the story ends.

Knowing the story this time didn’t make any difference because I’d forgotten many of the details. Part of rereading (for me) is having a chance to observe how the author achieved what s/he achieved, things I miss the first time through. What a good learning experience, and one that’s helped me through the rereading of numerous books.

When I know more or less where the story’s going, I can see the technique–how the author built the story through description, narration, interior monologue and dialogue for the climax of the story, how the author keeps me reading, how the author makes the story believable.

If you’re a writer, so you do this?

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

 

Book Bits: Junot Díaz, Theodora Goss, Harry Potter

Whenever I’m working on a novel–which is most of the time–my desk gets cluttered with notes and stacks of nonfiction books that focus on the location where my story is set. Right now, for example, the two books hogging desk space are Florida’s Wetlands and Florida Wildflowers. As much as I enjoy these reference books, it’s a pleasure finding time to read fiction. What a surprise, then, to pick up a copy of Theodora Goss’ The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and discover I was reading the best fiction I’ve read in years. See my review below (Item 2).

Books an Authors Links

  1. Upcoming Title: Next From the Novelist Junot Díaz? A Picture Book, by Alexandra Alter – “Even by Mr. Díaz’s glacial standards, his latest book, ‘Islandborn,’ is long overdue — about 20 years past deadline. And it’s a mere 48 pages long. ‘Islandborn’ is a picture book — Mr. Díaz’s first work of fiction for young readers. It grew out of a promise that he made to his goddaughters two decades ago, when they asked him to write a book that featured characters like them, Dominican girls living in the Bronx.” New York Times
  2. Review: “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter,” by Theodora Goss – “Imagine “monsters” from science fiction and horror classics written by H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Robert Lewis Stevenson working together with Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade to track down the killers in a string of gory London murders.” Malcolm’s Round Table
  3. News: Libraries Clear First Budget Hurdle in Congress, by Andrew Albanese – “The budget battle is kicking up again in Washington, but this time with a note of optimism for libraries and library supporters. Last week, a House Appropriations subcommittee voted to recommend level funding for libraries in FY2018, which would mean roughly $231 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), $183 million for the Library Services and Technology Act, and $27 million for the Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL) program.” Publishers Weekly
  4. News: Bloomsbury goes full Hermione, set to release two Harry Potter ‘History of Magic’ titles in the fall, by Proma Khosla – “Bloomsbury has yet to share an official press release, cover art, or exact dates for the titles, but they will release in October alongside the exhibition opening. It’s unclear if or how J.K. Rowling is involved since the texts have historical context, but they will undoubtedly tempt the obsessive Potter fan.” Mashable
  5. Interview: JOSHILYN JACKSON: “Lives are this way. They have many pieces, and all the pieces touch,” with Andrew Catá – “Well, sure. I am such a coward. I never want to go down into the places that hurt, or might make me look bad, or where I confront my ugliest self. But my characters always seem to want to, and I have learned that if I fight them, I end up with 30,000 words of drivel I have to throw away.” Book Page
  6. Essay: Rebecca Solnit on a Childhood of Reading and Wandering, by Rebecca Solnit – “There are ecological reasons to question how books are made out of trees but metaphysical reasons to rejoice in the linkage between forests and libraries, here in this public library, in the town I grew up in, with the fiber from tens of thousands of trees rolled out into paper, printed and then bound into books, stacked up in rows on the shelves that fill this place and make narrow corridors for readers to travel through, a labyrinth of words that is also an invitation to wander inside the texts. The same kind of shade and shelter that can be found in an aisle of books and an avenue of trees, and in the longevity of both, and the mere fact that both, if not butchered or burned, may outlive us.” Literary Hub
  7. Feature: What makes us curious? New book asks ‘Why?,’ by Matt McCarthy – “I have a friend who is immune to clickbait. She can stare down the link to a provocative article, ponder its potential significance, stifle her own curiosity, and move on with her day. How does she do this, I have often wondered, and why am I such a sucker?” USA Today
  8. Quotation: That’s one of the things setting us apart from the big box bookstores.  They have a lot more things, but we have some highly curated, important things. I hate to sound cheesy, but it also creates buy-in for the staff. This is their section. They’re proud of it. They keep it tidy. They write shelf-talkers so people know what books they’re excited about.” – Aja Martin, Indigo Bridge Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, from Shelf Awareness

“Book Bits” is compiled randomly by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of contemporary fantasy, magical realism, and folklore novels and short stories.

 

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.

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

 

 

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