The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Archive for the tag “storytelling”

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.





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.



Tell me a story

Those of us who were lucky had parents and grandparents who read us stories at night before we went to bed. I have no idea why the authors of my favorite stories wrote them, but those stories showed me an infinite number of cultures, situations, incidents, people, events, settings and stuff that excited me or scared me.

We all tell stories, I think. Whether it’s the grim afternoon of a funeral, the happy afternoon of a family barbecue, or people sitting around a bar or a pool, the conversation invariably gets around to “remember when” and “did I ever tell you about the time when we did such and such?”

Some people say our lives are stories and/or that we see our past as strings of events in story form. Perhaps so. I don’t know if fiction writers make up more stuff than people spinning yarns about the wild and crazy things they did years ago, but we do see the possibility of many things that may never have happened or might not happen in the future.

We take storytelling a step further than everyone else: we write down our stories and put them in books and magazines and hope the resulting derring-do, boy-meets-girl, police procedural or spy thriller finds readers who enjoy those kinds of plots. We may add magic or we may set the story in the future with technology not yet available.

Somehow, we all understand stories, and use them to understand each other as well as ourselves.

Somehow, we all understand stories, and use them to understand each other as well as ourselves.

Some authors have an overwhelming reason for writing what they write. They want to inspire people, point out the insanity or war, shine a light on racial problems, show strong people surviving hideous family situations, or explore challenges of the environment or the social or political scene. That’s okay, I guess, as long as the story reads first as a story and not an editorial with a bare-bones plot tacked on.

When people ask me why I write, my answers don’t usually satisfy them. If I were Stephen King, they might write down the same response as wisdom and gospel. As it is, I say I like playing make-believe with various kinds of characters and situations until I suddenly have a story with a reasonable beginning, middle and and end.

If you write, you might have different motivations.

One motivation that seems to be a waste of time is to have a goal of selling a hundred million copies of our books. If that’s a writer’s primary goal, I think they’ll have trouble writing their first salable book. And it it happens, I think they’ll need to be a very special kind of person to keep such sales figures from jinxing the next book they plan to write.

I’ll admit, it’s a bit discouraging to tell somebody–in response to the “what field are you in?” question–that I’m a writer, and then when they ask for the names of my books, they say, “never heard of them.” I don’t usually point out that most people also know very little about the names and titles of more than a few of the nation’s top writers. Those of us who read a lot, read books most non-readers have never heard of.

This is part of the business–people who’ve never heard of you and people who think you should have a really exciting answer to the question “why do you write.”

Even so, we’re the people who provide the words for the parents and grandparents who are there with a book when a child says “tell me a story.” No doubt, that is another reason why we write.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “The Sun Singer,” “Sarabande,” “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “At Sea,” and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.”

Storytelling: Possibly a Key Part of Human Brain Development

“In Melissa Bowersock’s article, Conflict: The Heart of Storytelling, she wrote, ‘Storytelling is as old as human DNA. As old as language. As old as Joe Neanderthal sitting around the fire at the mouth of his cave, telling the group what happened that day. ‘Me went hunting, threw rock at rabbit, killed it, brought it back. Good day. Ug.'”

Source: Storytelling: Possibly a Key Part of Human Brain Development ‹ Reader —

Whether it’s yarns told around the old pickle barrel or status updates on Facebook, we’re always telling stories. Writers are asking “what if” and everyone else is saying, “guess what.”

Interesting post from Indies Unlimited about storytelling and the human way of communicating.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Emily’s Stories” and “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

The Importance of Story in Everyday Life

The Importance of Story in Everyday Life | smokyzeidelbooks.

“Long before the dawn of the written word, people told stories. Indigenous people from around the world have rich storytelling histories. Go to Amazon and plug “Folk Tales from Around the World” into their search box and you’ll immediately find books of tales from Ireland, Africa, China, and the Amazon, not to mention anthologies filled with tales from different lands. And that’s just on the front page; in fact, Amazon reports there are 623 books that fit that description.”

We live out our stories, I think. I enjoyed reading Smoky’s post to see what others think. Why do we read? Why do we tell stories?  Some nice ideas here.


How to Ignite Audience Word-of-Mouth through Story, No Matter the Genre

How to Ignite Audience Word-of-Mouth through Story, No Matter the Genre ‹ SSN Insider.

“Box office word-of-mouth was the beginning of ‘power to the people’. Viral media began here with expressions like ‘What’s the buzz?’ ‘What have you heard?’ ‘What’s on your list?’ In reality, no one truly trusts marketing, but they love to keep their ear to the street. And part of the ‘love of the street, is the sense that you have your finger on the pulse. The zeitgeist.”

Very interesting article. Can we translate these ideas to books? And, if so, is the concept equally viable after the fact as critics, reviewers and readers assess why a book works?

Publishers and studios have spent millions trying to make and promote books and movies they thought would work. Did they miss the spirit of the age?



Do Popular Culture References Add Depth or Badly Date a Story?

“There were always tales passed from mother to daughter, father to son. Down through the generations they came, so that we would never forget that place, that magic, that elemental and awesome power that abided in our forbears. In each generation the power of the tales rests with us, the storytellers. I weep, I cry with joy, I exult in the God-power of the words.

“And so I have tried to pass them on to another generation, to keep alive the mortal power of our earlier selves, even as the world changes and dies, sleeps and awakes anew to the force that gives life to our souls. So that some child can hear the tales and find them awakened in herself to pass on to yet another generation. “

– Evangeline Walton

When my grandparents told stories about the days of their youth, I wasn’t conscious of a overt attempt on their part to pass on bits and pieces of a past that changes and dies with every generation. Their tales seemed more like memories, funny or odd or sad, that were somehow tied to the present moment.

If they intentionally wanted to pass on the knowledge and wisdom and popular culture of another age, they hid those intentions well. What I heard were stories. I never knew if they were true. But that didn’t matter. They made me laugh or they made me admire the storyteller for surviving a chilling moment. They made me feel that the past isn’t gone as long as we remember it and then tell somebody else about it.superbowl

Writing gurus often tell beginning writers to be very careful with references to popular culture. Today’s fad may be gone and forgotten before a manuscript reaches a publisher and–with luck–comes out as a novel or short story a year later. Such references date a story in a bad way because they pull readers out of the scenes rather than enhancing the scenes.

If you’re writing a story about a coach and his high school football team and insert a reference about deflated footballs, will anyone know what you’re talking about eight months from now? Football fans, yes. The general public, maybe. On the other hand, if deflated NFL footballs continue to be an issue for many years, then the reference may turn into something that endures, for better or worse, and is worth passing on when it fits the context of a story.

scandalIt’s tempting, I know, to include the latest celebrity moment or a comment about an exciting scene from, say, a TV show like “Scandal.” There’s something empowering, especially when we’re young, in keeping up to date. Yet, if I say something about Olivia Pope being kidnapped in the story I’m writing today, I may have lost you already if you don’t watch “Scandal” every Thursday night. How many more readers will I lose a year from now or five years from now?

During the days when “Dallas” was watched by almost everybody and talked about by almost everybody else, there were plenty of references in comedians’ stand-up bits, feature stories and commentaries about Who Shot JR and how the writers figuratively threw away the plot line of an entire year of the show by having Bobby Ewing step out of the shower.

dallasWhen I search for “Who Shot JR” on Google, I get a large number of hits, including a Wikipedia article that explains it. In spite of all those entries, “Who Shot JR”–in and of itself–has probably become too weak a reference for use in most fiction some thirty years after the episode of “Dallas” aired on CBS.

When I search for “Bobby Ewing Shower,” I also get a lot of entire, including a Wikipedia article that describes how the character played by Patrick Duffy was killed in the 1984-85 season and then returned to the show a year later by stepping out a shower, indicating his death had been a dream.

When we choose references for our stories that we hope won’t become dated, we’re being subjective, I know, deciding like gods that one thing has endured (or will ensure) with enough power to help a story and another thing has faded away (or will fade away) so much that it can only weaken a story. As I think of this, I remember what I was taught in journalism school: nearest=dearest. If something relatively small happens in a town far away, your newspaper probably won’t mention it. If the same thing happens where you live, it might be front page news. Only “large events” or small evens that keep happening from far away get noticed.

I see popular culture references the same way. Large events–however you choose to define the term–are going to endure. So will small events that happened over time. World War II was large, so I can safely mention it in a story even though (unfortunately) many of today’s readers won’t know when it started. Party line telephones aren’t large in the same way, but they were a fact of life for years. Perhaps, with a short description, I can mention them even though some of today’s readers don’t know what a land line phone is, much less a phone line shared by multiple families.

Can we mention Bobby Ewing and JR? We can, but we’ll have to be more descriptive by saying something like, “Those were the days when we all watched the soapy TV drama ‘Dallas’ and argued about who shot JR Ewing and whether the Bobby Ewing shower scene was the best or the worst screenwriter’s idea in a month of Sundays.” Now, even readers who have never heard of the show will “get it.” The protagonist is talking about a long-ago TV program. Readers can move on without feeling misled or derailed the way they would be if the author wrote a line of dialogue like, “Hey, after all, I’m not the one who shot JR.” That dialogue will lose almost everyone to the detriment of your story.

storybookWhether or not you as a writer want to mention a TV show or whether you as a reader care about it is a hard call for anyone to make. When we make that call as authors, we try our best to remember how our grandparents took the large and small events of their earlier days and made such wonderful stories out of them. Sometimes, the stories were good because of the way the stories were told and sometimes they were good because the references in them were near and dear and large enough to endure on their own.

When we make the call to include a popular culture reference or a current news event, we’re always taking a risk. If we’re truly psychic, perhaps we can look into the future and say “this is something that will be remembered, so it will work in my story.” It’s easier to include references to history when you’re looking back in time because we know whether the subject or the event or the product has endured or not.

Some writers have an innate sense about what will endure with enough strength of make sense twenty years down the road in the stories they’re writing today. The rest of us write about the past and hope that we’re not the only ones who remember the references we’re including. Either way, the purpose of the references is to advance the plot, add detail to your descriptions, enhance the reader’s understanding of a character, or add depth to your theme or setting.

That’s why we’re told by writing gurus not to use references that soon become dated. When we do, they’re like anti-matter in a story that is otherwise the kind we loved to hear grandpa tell on an rainy night when the power was out across the neighborhood. Grandpa passed on a lot of knowledge to me about storytelling.


KIndle cover 200x300Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a 1950s-era novella set in the Florida Panhandle that will be released in March by Thomas-Jacob Publishing.

The Last Word: E.L. Doctorow

The Last Word: E.L. Doctorow | Library of Congress Blog.

“The story is the most ancient way of knowing. It preceded writing. It is the world’s first system for collecting and transmitting knowledge. It antedates all the empirical disciplines of a modern society. For millennia, it was the only thing people had.

“In the Bronze and Iron ages purely factual discourse did not exist. There was no learned observation of the natural world that was not religious belief, no history that was not legend, no practical information that did not resound as heightened language. Science, poetry, the law and daily speech were fused. The world was a story.”

In today’s world of tweets, texts and instant everything, we often forget where stories began and how important they still are. Click on the link to read the article.


Why is this scene in your novel?

“The one thing your work gets there [Hollywood] is a lot of criticism, which boils down to: ‘Nothing is happening, what is driving this scene?’ These are pertinent questions of the type a novelist is rarely asked, and without a doubt my sense of storytelling has been hugely enhanced.” – author and screenwriter William Nicholson in his Guardian Interview

A sailor telling a tale that keeps his audience's attention.

A sailor telling a tale that keeps his audience’s attention.

Readers doing reviews on Amazon often say a book has bored them, that it went on and on without much to show for it. Let’s stipulate that some of these reviews come from readers who are like commercial fiction and don’t quite know what to make of literary fiction’s penchant for more description, interior monologue, lengthy back stories and other diversions.

Nonetheless, when they’re reading within their favorite genres and say a book is boring, reader reviews often make good points. Sometimes they can’t find the novel’s story at all; or, it otherwise took too long to tell. When a novelist hasn’t asked himself/herself why each of his/her scenes is in a novel, s/he’s like the teller of a joke who takes too long getting to the punch line.

“Screenplays,” says Nicholson, “are done on the basis of asking who is my hero, why should anyone love this person, what do they want, what is stopping them getting it, so how are they going to achieve it, and how can we admire them for achieving it?” While the pacing of a novel is much different than a movie which must fit into a 90-120-minute block of time, these are still viable questions to ask when planning a novel.

What, exactly, is the story here? Once you know, then every scene should advance that story within the scope of the protagonist and his or her progress throughout the novel. Is s/he going some where, looking for something, fighting somebody, wrestling with inner demons, seeking a relationship, covering up a dangerous secret, planning a crime, or what?

When we ask “why is this scene in your novel” the best answer is that it moves the story forward toward the ending the writer has planned.  One need not write the terse, action-packed short chapters of a Dan Brown to move a story from its initial question/hook/challenge to the outcome at the end.

Veteran writers/teachers often say “we must kill our darlings.” No, these are not our favorite characters; they’re the scenes we enjoyed writing that really don’t belong in the book. It’s hard to cut them, and we don’t always have to. Yet, like every other scene in a novel in progress, they need to be viewed ruthlessly in light of Nicholson’s question: “what is driving this scene?”

The length of the novel isn’t the defining criterion here. Whether the story takes 60,000 words or a 150,000 words to tell, it’s important to remember that we’re telling a story, and stories have within them a constant flow of movement from beginning to end.


SOF2014lowresMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the comedy/mystery “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.”

Friday Morning Nostalgia and Storytelling

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” – Marianne Williamson

The Sun Singer's Setting

The Sun Singer’s Setting

It’s rainy and gloomy in northeast Georgia as it has been for days. (My lawn mower can’t cope with the fast-growing yard and neither can I.) Rainy days work well for me as a writer. My imagination is sharper and my intuition fills my notebook with ideas.

Rain also brings memories. Even though I’m working on another paranormal short story today while talking on Facebook and Twitter about my fifth novel, The Sailor, today’s memories are about my first novel, The Sun Singer.  It came out in 2004 with a second edition in in 2010.

In this book, I stirred my passions for Glacier National Park, magic, and the hero’s journey tradition of storytelling into a contemporary fantasy about a young man who is suddenly thrust into a parallel universe where a small resistance group is battling an evil king. He learns a lot about himself and his psychic abilities while trying to figure out where he is and what’s going on.

Only $4.99 on Kindle.

Only $4.99 on Kindle.

I will always maintain that hero’s journeys and magic are real even though my publisher and the bookselling world are always going to place such novels on the fantasy shelves. (That’s okay: I read a lot of fantasy.) Yet, when I wrote The Sun Singer, I saw all the magic performed in the book has possible. I still do.

At the end of a hero’s journey, one expects the hero to be transformed. One way or another, s/he is smarter, wiser, and potentially more spiritual and compassionate than s/he was when the journey begin. I have this hope for each of us on our individual journeys no matter what our occupations and avocations may be. When I wrote The Sun Singer, I didn’t intentionally put a message in it. Today when I read it, I see that it has one: If young Robert Adams can discover and develop his talents under trying circumstances and become an avatar, so can each of us.

Joseph Campbell, who popularized the hero’s journey in his 1940s book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, saw myths and journeys as inspiration for every man and every woman, not just the larger-than-life personages found in mythology books. Robert Adams learns, as I have been learning, “who am I not to be?”

Storytelling (with or without the rain) often helps us find our answers.


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