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Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Archive for the tag “novels”

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?




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.



Does the book you’re promoting have a sell sheet?

“Book sell sheets are an essential and integral part of a book’s marketing and publicity plans. For this reason, it is important for you to understand what goes into a great sell sheet. So, to help you get a firm handle on the basics, here is a list of terminology that you will need to know when preparing your sell sheet for your book’s marketing plan.”

Source: Sell Sheet Terminology For Book Marketers

Joseph C. Kunz posted this blog about the importance of sell sheets last fall. I didn’t mention it here at the time because I was working on other things. However, now that I’m actively seeking reviewers for my latest novel, I’ve been updating the sell sheet.

Sell sheets are not a new technique, though I seldom see them written about. Kunz has a good overview. If you want more information, simply type “author’s sell sheet” into your search engine and you’ll get a lot of advice and examples.

I see the sell sheet as indispensable, even if you just paste it into an e-mail and never make printed copies, for giving prospective reviewers, article writers and others a quick capsule look at your book and it’s “vital statistics.”


Without a sense of place, your story floats in limbo

“Place matters. That’s what so many people seem to have forgotten. Is it because they spend most of their time indoor or online–so that they’ve lost touch with their environment? Is it because every city contains the same neon-and-concrete gauntlet of Targets, Little Caesars, Subways and Great Clips–so that every place looks like every other place else?” – Benjamin  Percy, “Move Mountains, Activating Setting,” in “The Writer’s Chronicle.”

I wish every aspiring writer would read, study and discuss this article because–in my view–if they fail to deal actively with the places where their stories are set, they will forever remain aspiring and never emerging.

Percy says that some aspiring writers are vague about place–or perhaps, too lazy to consider it–because they want readers to think their stories and novels could have happened anywhere. I agree with Percy when he says, “huh?” Stories don’t happen in nowheresville; they happen at specific places, and if you handle them well, the reader will still see that those stories have universality running through them from start to finish.

There's a lot going in in this busy street scene from the style of the buildings, to the trees, to the people and their conversations. What a shame to miss it by not showing it to the reader.

There’s a lot going in in this busy street scene from the style of the buildings, to the trees, to the people and their conversations. What a shame to miss it by not showing it to the reader.

I noticed this article because I feel strongly about the statement “place matters.” Percy has done too good a job with this feature article for me to try an sum it up in a post. But here are two things that stand out–possibly not the two things he would pick, but so it goes:

  1. Never start a story with dialogue. Yes, that can work. Usually it doesn’t. Why not? Because the voices doing the talking aren’t anywhere–words out of the fog in no room or house or field or forest. When you do this, the reader is lost, and s/he remains lost until you finally deign to say where the conversation is happening.
  2. Place–in modern stories and novels–isn’t a dry recitation of facts. Some readers say they only scan descriptive text (especially in the older novels we were assigned to read in high school) because nothing’s happening. The way to “fix this” is to show movement, characters or natural phenomena, so that something is always happening there.

I’ve approached this in multiple ways in my Florida Folk Magic Series. People move through places, talk about places, fight strange weather in places, talk about the magic lurking in places, and live in places that look one way and not any other way and go about their day to day activities in a setting rather than on a blank slate. When people talk, they might be sitting on a sofa on the back porch, spitting tobacco juice into the back yard, listening to the creek or throwing things off the bridge over the creek. They exist in a place the reader comes to know well.

Percy quotes a favorite passage of mine from the Great Gatsby to show that the description of a place can have activity and movement, a style that’s certainly more interesting than saying a room had some chairs and windows in it:

“We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling—and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

“The only completed stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”

Okay, so may not like this novel or even this passage. I won’t try and convert you. But it shows movement rather than dry objects. You can do the same with a sex scene, a car chase, or a killer stalking his victim through an old house or a dense forest.

Food for thought, but for more of a full course meal, read the article or check out the fine writing books by Donald Maass, including Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: Writing Exercises to Put the Instruction into Action.



Getting a good start: the first line

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

– Mary Jane Hathaway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Memory Lane: Studebaker’s Popular 1949 Pickup Truck

Researching a novel set in the 1950s–during my childhood–brought me many memories as I looked at the political issues, the fads and the products. Among these were the cars and trucks people drove. If the word “badass” had been around in those days, I would have said that I preferred the badass look of the late 1940s models over the sleek early-1950s models–especially when the cars came out with fins.

2rtruckIn Junior high and high school, a group of us rode out to a farm every Saturday morning in a hulking old 1940s black car that almost had as much room in it as a Checker Marathon. I know longer remember what it was. But it ran fine and if I could have found one, I would have preferred it over the family’s 1953 Chevy. When that Chevy broke down, the dealer’s loners–which my parents despised–were clunky 1948 and 1949 cars that, frankly, looked like they had been shot up in a war movie.

So, I had fun with the memories of all this when I thought about the vehicles I wanted to use in Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman. I decided that Lane Walker, owner of the local general store needed a cool looking 1949 Studebaker truck because the war had postponed his buying new wheels.

Automakers switched to production for World War II between 1942 and 1945, so when the war ended, civilians were ready for something classy. They got new designs, paint schemes and engines, and among these was Studebaker’s popular series of 2R trucks that had a very streamlined look when compared with earlier models. While the 1949-1953 2R had a lot in common under the body with the older model M, it had a very modern look with its double-walled sides and the absence of running boards. The 2R has been called Studebaker’s most successful truck, increasing the company’s share of the truck market. I selected Clover Green for its color.

Every once in a while, I see a 1940s car or truck on  the road. They’re almost like living, breathing time machines.


Malcolm R. Campbell’s new 1950s novel is called “Eulalie and Washerwoman.” It’s the story of a conjure woman who uses folk magic to fight a corrupt businessman in her small Florida Panhandle town.

Always at loose ends after finishing a book

The work in progress always takes center stage.

ghostlightOnce the manuscript is turned over to the publisher, that stage gets rather quiet, almost like a theater at night with nothing but the ghostlight providing enough light to move around without tripping over something.

While there’s still work to be done (edits, proofreading, description, cover art, promotion), I always feel at loose ends. I suppose it’s that way with other major projects whether one is cleaning out the attic or garage or building a shed for yardwork tools.

This would be a great time to tidy up my den, go through filing cabinets looking for stuff that ought to be thrown away, polish up the web site, or write blog posts with titles like “Always at loose ends after finishing a book.” Trouble is, it’s hard to concentrate on them because when one is writing a book, one becomes addicted to writing the book. When the book project changes from author to publisher, not writing the book is like giving up cigarettes or maybe heroin.

Maybe this is why some writers drink. If one stays drunk for a few weeks or so, s/he won’t feel at loose ends. Tempting, but I don’t think that’s how I’m going to handle this loose ends thing. Some writers have lists of the books they want to write, complete with either scribbled notes (while drunk after finishing the last book) or outlines and synopses. I don’t. I’m a one idea at a time kind of person. Sure, I often joke about tossing out books with titles like Lust Behind the Billboard, but I’ll never do it.

Other ideas:

  • Take up bird watching. (Unfortunately, most of the rare birds are in Walmart and I really don’t like going there.)
  • Clean out the garage. (I have no idea where to put all that crap.)
  • Go through filing cabinets. (After cleaning out one filing cabinet drawer this morning, I was so bored, I almost started writing a cautionary tale called Lust Behind the Billboard.)
  • Dress up like John Grisham and shake people’s hands at bookstores. (Naah, the police would probably show up and then the whole thing would get on CNN when a novice journalist writes a story called “Author John Grisham Thrown In The Slammer.”)
  • Do what I’ve always wanted to do. (Too old to do it.)
  • Borrow a time machine, go back in time, and change my birthday so I’m young enough to do what I always wanted to do. (When this happens in novels, hideous things happen. Just look at the mess in Stephen King’s 11/22/63 when some guy goes back to Dallas to save Kennedy.)

That’s all she wrote, idea-wise. Plus, I know better than to tinker with loose ends. When I was little, my mother and grandmother got really pissed off whenever they saw me pulling on a loose thread in my favorite shirt or sweater. (“Malcolm, you ignorant slut, if you pull that thread, the whole shebang will unravel.”)

You’re in a world of it whenever the whole shebang unravels.



Herbs, magical spells and copyright

When we wrote those dreaded term papers in school, we were always told to use multiple sources. This made it easier to verify facts and ascertain what kind of bias (if any) a source had. Journalism students are taught to do the same thing because some sources are more credible than others and most sources don’t know everything about a news or feature story.

Oregano - easy to grow and applicable to a variety of spells. - Wipkipedia photo

Oregano – easy to grow and applicable to a variety of spells. – Wikipedia photo

Multiple sources help novelists nail down facts and come across information we might never discover if we relied on one book, website or individual for 100% of our information about a subject that’s new to us.

When I wrote my folk magic novel Conjure Woman’s Cat, I already had books on my shelves from years ago about the supposed medical, magical and cooking uses of herbs from parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme to those one only finds in health food stores and herbal shops. I couldn’t rely on these, however, because they came out of a new age environment rather than a conjurer’s environment.

Multiple sites and books describe spells and herbal uses by root doctors (conjurers), allowing a writer to verify whether an herb is, say, only used by a traditional craft practitioner in England, a Native American nation in the Northwest, or a conjure woman in the South. There is a lot of crossover here, but it’s best to make sure the spell/herb you mention in your book is one that has been shared.

Copyright can haunt you if you’re not careful. If site ABC or book XYZ has a spell for, say, bringing good luck, obviously that cannot be copied into one’s novel. I wouldn’t even list the ingredients in my novel from one source because that not only smacks of sloppy research, but can give rise to claims one has based all of one’s work on the work on a particular author. Fortunately, conjuring spells come in many forms with multiple recipes. So, you can include bits and pieces or say that your character mixed herbs A, B and C, along with X, Y and Z, taking some herbs/techniques from various recipes and possibly not mentioning every single thing in the mix.

Rosemary is my favorite herb for cooking, provides a nice scent in the garden, and is said to bring good luck and ward off evil.

Rosemary is my favorite herb for cooking, provides a nice scent in the garden, and is said to bring good luck and ward off evil. – Wikipedia photo.

The spell needs to look correct to somebody not versed in folk magic and it doesn’t need to look wholly wrong to somebody who is. The variety of spells and techniques makes it easy to write about them without running into copyright problems or be accused of borrowing too heavily from one source.

When I use spells in a book, I don’t put them in cookbook like passages. There’s no reason to. The reader doesn’t need or want a page with a bullet list of 30 plants. Also, for accuracy sake, I look at the year in which my book is set so that I’m using what they knew at the time while ensuring that since hoodoo and Voodoo are not the same, I’m not inadvertently using a Voodoo-only practice.

If you write about folk magic, you will find dozens of conjurer practitioner sites with many listed spells. Mix and match these, not only to get the look and feel and ambiance of your story correct, but to maintain a high degree of accuracy. Be wary of sites that jumble hoodoo, traditional witchcraft, Wicca, Voodoo and other disparate approaches into one set of rules, techniques, spells, and plant listings. In spite of crossover sharing, these disciplines are not the same.

Reading historical information about the discipline you plan to use in your story will help give you a sense of its flavor and parameters as well as a means of separating fanciful websites and books from those that are real.

My two cents for today for those who plan to dabble in magic.

CWCaudioMalcolm R. Campbell’s “Conjure Woman’s Cat” is also available as an audiobook.

Learn more on the book’s website.


Stephen King, you’re driving me crazy

I once told my publisher that when I write a scene in a novel set in the past and mention the day, time and place, I check the weather report for that location to make sure my weather isn’t at odds with the actual weather.

That is, I don’t want to say that on January x, 19xx was a snowy say in St. Louis and then find out later that was the year of the freak heatwave. And, I don’t want to say that Bob and Carol ran for their lives to get away from tropical storm winds on a Florida beach on August 12, 19xx and then learn that historically, there were no tropical storms anywhere near on that date.

king112263Most people tell me that kind of extreme fact checking is not only anal, but sheer lunacy. They say that it’s probably important in a historical novel where it would be kind of stupid to say the battle of such and such was fought on a hot day when historians know it was snowing, or to say that Bob and Carol hated the Superbowl in 19xx because it was played in a monsoon if, in fact, it wasn’t.

My publisher, who’s also a psychologist, told me she also checks the historical weather for a time and place whenever she mentions a real time and place in a story. We have decided we’re thorough rather than crazy.

So What About Stephen King?

Stephen King often sets stories in the past. I’m currently reading 11/22/63, a novel in which the main character goes back in time to try to stop the Kennedy assassination. I’m enjoying the book, really. But it’s driving me crazy because of the hundreds of references to the slang, hairstyles, popular songs, books, news events and trends of the era which–for the story’s purposes–begins in 1958.

Even though I remember those years, my memory is by no means photographic. So, I know how much trouble it is when you write that a character was listening to a certain song on the radio or went to the library to check out a book. Checking to see when songs and books appeared is time consuming. Now, I don’t know how thorough King is, but it’s one thing to know what year a song or book came out; it’s quite another thing to know when during that year it was available. Personally, I wouldn’t want to say Bob and Carol listened to “Lust Around the Block” in January of 1959 if it didn’t come out until that summer.

An author of a Civil War novel once told me he made an hour-by-hour timeline of the Battle of Atlanta so that he could keep the locations and actions of historical characters straight. Lunacy, some people might say. However, it’s necessary in a historical novel because historical accounts tell us where the people were and what they were doing as campaigns unfolded.

King has to worry about historical facts, too, because Lee Harvey Oswald’s actions before and after 11/22/63 have been documented. Like a true historical novel, King’s fiction–except for his fictional characters–has to fit the known facts.  These facts aren’t that hard to track down if one has been drawn to the Kennedy years and has already read everything in print about them. But tracking down popular songs, books, hairstyles and slang words is almost more difficult because there are fewer places to look this stuff up.

For the writer, many of the sites that focus on slang on the 1950s or clothes of the 1960s are maintained by well meaning hobbyists and often conflict with each other and frequently leave out the provable factual details a writer wants. They say helpful, but slightly vague things, like during the 1950s, guys started cutting their hair in XYZ style or during the 1960s, women started wearing such and such. Well, what do those statements mean if you’re writing about a specific year? When during those decades can you safely say your protagonist wore a certain dress or hairdo? It takes time to figure that out.


So, as I read this novel and see the countless references to the products and styles of those times, I’m not only impressed that King has included them, but rather amazed at their number and specificity. I wonder–jealously–did he have a research staff, a magical research book called “When Every Little Thing Happened?” or a fleet of fact checkers? Thinking of checking those facts is what drives me crazy, Mr. King. I’m hoping I won’t need therapy when I finish reading the book.


AtSeaBookCoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of “At Sea,” a navy novel set during the Vietnam War, the writing of which proved he had to look up a lot of stuff even though he was there.

Ten Books About Loneliness

“The strange, almost magical thing about these books is that in examining loneliness they also serve as an antidote to it.”

Source: 10 Books About Loneliness

earthsea2In her “Publishers Weekly” article, Olivia Laing says, “I’m fascinated by loneliness – what it looks like, how it feels, what it does to people – and it seems I’m not the only one. There is a substantial literature of loneliness; unsurprising considering that separation and connection are among the abiding preoccupations of the novel.”

Many of the books on her list are highly popular. Some say that one reason we read is to experience events and states of mind that match our own or that are very different than our own. Perhaps a lonely person reads stories about loneliness to feel less alone and to see how loneliness is handled by another person.


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