Writers write: that’s what we do

I don’t know whether writing is an addiction, a calling, or just one job out of the many we could have chosen. The down side to writing novels is that if one doesn’t become famous or sort of famous, there’s no money in it. I often wish I’d become a freelance writer with a lot of magazine and newspaper writing opportunities.

I’d be earning a living with my words even though it wouldn’t be James Patterson, Dan Brown or Nora Roberts kind of money. Since I write contemporary fantasy and magical realism, it’s a paradox that the money I did make from writing came from writing computer documentation and help files. I can be intensely logical when I want to, so my user manuals were always well thought of.

The thing is, being intensely logical isn’t the real me. In fact, though I often rely on it, I’m not a fan of logic because I think it gives us an inaccurate picture of the world. While I was working on my novel-in-progress today, I thought of all this.  I thought, “why do writers have to write” and “There must be another occupation that pays better.”

Like being a grave digger, maybe.

I thank the writing gods and the muses that I don’t want to write poetry. Good Lord, there’s a thankless task, more thankless than writing novels. I admire poetry, but really, I can’t write it and don’t ever buy books and magazines filled with it. I grieve for the poets.

But I also mourn the fact that writing novels is partly skill and craft and partly a popularity contest. If your name is James Patterson or John Grisham, you make money no matter what you do. Everyone else is ignored by reviewers and bookstores and don’t really want to tell friends they write novels because they’ll say they’ve never heard of them.

Early on, I wanted to work for the railroads. That would have been a much safer choice. I like trains, I really do. I was once a volunteer at a railway museum. Most of us there were jealous of the people who worked for Amtrak or the freight railroads. Whether they loved their jobs or not, they made a living wage. Writers don’t. But we keep writing because, in many ways, writing is not only a lot of fun, it’s a career we can’t do without.

So, maybe writing is an addiction.

But, it’s a fun addition once you realize there’s not going to be any money in it anymore than few of those who play little league baseball are going to end up playing for a major league team and being selected for the All Star Game.

If you’re an aspiring writer, I know this post doesn’t sound very encouraging. As Patti Smith acknowledged in M Train, writers are bums.  So, it’s best to know that’s the reality of the biz at the outset.

–Malcolm

 

The time at the tone is: NOW

“If I write in the present yet digress, is that real time? Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers of the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time. Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory.”

– Patti Smith in “M Train”

Writers are seldom in real time. We’re writing about yesterday or years ago and we’re writing about tomorrow and aeons into the future, creating time machines with words. If I’m sitting in a room in the purported here and now and you walk in and sit down in a vacant chair, you may soon observe that I’m not really there; I’ve gone deep into the past where time and space are so real that I can taste her breath in my mouth while noticing that the color of her lipstick matches the color of the dawn’s “sailor take warning sky.”

Patti Smith follows–figuratively speaking in her own time–the gurus who postulate an “eternal now.” Interesting, perhaps true, but that concept doesn’t help us get to work on time or remember when to feed the cats. Time used to be all mixed up before the railroads created time zones at high noon on November 8, 1883. Before that, time was a roll-your-own approximation of the sun, moon, stars and custom. But, you cannot run a railroad–other than the Polar Express–through roll your own or the eternal now.

As the New York Times said looking back at the date and time in 1983, “Some citizens grumbled about ‘railroad tyranny’ and tampering with ‘God’s time.’ The Mayor of Bangor, Me., deplored the change as an ‘attempt to change the immutable laws of God Almighty.’ The Indiana Sentinel lamented, ‘The sun is no longer boss of the job.'”

I’m reminded of the verse in Isaac Watts’s old hymn “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past”:

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

That verse made quite an impression on me the first time I sang it in church. I felt small, awash in an almost-timeless universe, awash in the power of my own thoughts and words to take me away from the “now”–as defined by the railroads–into fluid moments so far away most people have forgotten them or not yet imagined them.

When a writer writes, the time is always now or, if not now, whatever we say it is. From time to time, I ask people, “Is it yesterday yet?” Nobody seems to know. They haven’t yet noticed that the right creative thought and/or the well written book will take them into yesterday with or without clocks and time zones.

I guess people notice the eternal now when they read and become lost in the story. Writers are always lost in the story, and I think that’s a blessing even though it plays hell with temporal appointments ruled by clocks.

1960 movie poster

When I read H. G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine, I thought what a wonderful invention that would be, this long before “Star Trek” invented the “temporal prime directive” stating that the people in our time couldn’t tamper with the people in another time.  Science fiction writers love playing with the notion that if a person simply strolls through the past, his/her presence there might change the world. What would happen to you if you accidentally killed your great great grandfather?

If there really is an eternal now, then the answer to that question is probably “nothing.” For years, writers have wondered if a time machine might make it possible to “go back” and save President Lincoln. Some say that, had he lived, reconstruction wouldn’t have become the hellish mess that it was. A character in Stephen King’s 11/22/63 figures out how to return to Dallas on the date in question and save President Kennedy. The world resulting from that was a horrible mess, darker than the dark ages. As it turns out, playing God is dangerous because we don’t know what God knows in the “evening gone” since Lincoln and Kennedy were shot.”

Yet, when we write, we are playing God. Sometimes I wonder if our play is confined to the pages of our novels. Perhaps our stories have impacts we can’t imagine and will never know. Best we can do is hope that our muses keep us on the straight and narrow so that we always write the right thing when the time is right.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and contemporary fantasy novels, a fact that shouldn’t surprise you after reading this post.

Where did I get the name for my previous blog?

In 2004, I self-published the first edition of my contemporary fantasy novel The Sun Singer. The second edition, from a small publisher, came out in 2010. When that edition went out of print, I self-published the current edition in 2015.

The story is about a young man named Robert Adams who travels to a look-alike version of Glacier National Park, Montana, where he finds a raging battle in progress between the evil king and a rebel group. While Robert has had some psychic skills for many years, he buried then as deep in his mind as possible because he stopped trusting them. Now, to survive the battles and find his way home to our world, he must rely on them once again.

The Sun Singer is a hero’s journey novel, that is to say, a story about a person who undertakes a journey and comes back from it forever changed. Oddly enough, I began dreaming about this story when I was in junior high school. On a visit to see my grandparents in Illinois, we visited Allerton Park, now owned by the University of Illinois, which serves as a convention center and nature preserve with a collection of outdoor statuary including The Sun Singer. It was almost as thought my seeing that statue created the connection to a story I was destined to write.

In some ways, I am the Sun Singer. Each of us is, when you consider the fact that our life’s journey seems to be intended to transform us into the very best we can be. With that in mind, it seemed fitting to name original blog “The Sun Singer’s Travels.” It was about the hero’s journey, my own journey through my published books, and–through its writing posts–the journeys each of us take when we write a novel or short story. A few months ago, I merged that blog into this one to reduce the amount of time it took to keep two blogs active and up to date.

The sequel to The Sun Singer, Sarabande, is a heroine’s journey novel in which a young woman comes from the look-alike world into our world to search for Robert Adams. She doesn’t have an easy time of it. Even though I’m no longer using the original blog name, I’m still focused on the same kinds of ideas and subject matter.

I’m very definitely a child of the new age, a long time student of magic, and a strong believer that each of us is much more powerful and complex than we appear. The challenge is finding out how and why that is so and then creating a world that mirrors our highest goals.

–Malcolm

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Too much interior monologue will kill a good story

“Interior monologue, in dramatic and nondramatic fiction, narrative technique that exhibits the thoughts passing through the minds of the protagonists. These ideas may be either loosely related impressions approaching free association or more rationally structured sequences of thought and emotion.” – Encyclopaedia Britannica

True stream-of-consciousness fiction can yield a lot of exciting passages about a character’s inner life (which s/he may or may not confuse with reality) as well as plot-advancing impressions that mesh well with the story line.

When I think of “too much interior monologue,” I’m not bashing well-written stream of consciousness techniques in spite of the fact that readers who don’t like literary fiction will hand out one- and two-star reviews for such novels on Amazon. When an author’s protagonist thinks about the situation s/he is in, that’s interior monologue.

Naturally, it’s normal and relevant to think about the situations we’re in. On the other hand, when this thinking does on for hundreds of words in multiple places in a novel, then it is likely to ruin the story. Writers are told that most of what they put in a novel should advance the plot. Overused interior monologue doesn’t advance the plot: instead it puts the plot on hold.

I just finished reading a novel with an interesting plot. A protagonist with a history of panic attacks which s/he manages with prescription medication (as much as possible) undergoes a traumatic experience before being put into an unrelated but more dangerous situation where her life and the lives of others is at risk.

I’m not going to identify the novel or even count the number of words in it and compute what percentage of it is plot-stalling interior monologue. My impression, though, is that 40% of the novel is interior monologue along the lines of. . .I need to keep my self from screaming. . .I need to relax. . .maybe I didn’t see what I think I saw. . .can I trust person XYZ. . .maybe if I told my story and/or got certain people to trust me, they would believe me and/or help me.

Stop Talking to Yourself and Do Something!

A little bit of this is fine. But when it goes on and on and on, there’s really nothing happening. Yes, maybe this would happen in real life, but writers are also told that writing fiction that copies real life–as a 24/7 video camera might view it–is bad because a lot of that real life stuff is trivial. In the novel I just finished, the character’s fight to keep her panic under control and her considerations about what may or may not be happening can be conveyed to the reader much faster.

When I see excessive amounts of interior monologue, my first thought is that the writer doesn’t really have enough depth in the plot to make a novel. That is, there are two few events and dialogue passages to sustain a book-length story. So, the interior monologue pads the length of the book out to the minimum number of words the author or publisher feels are necessary to call the book a novel rather than a short story, novelette, or novella.

I liked the plot of the novel I just finished. I liked the satisfactory ending and the fact that the protagonist’s experience ended up making her a stronger person ready to take stock of a lot of decisions about her life that had been stalled. I think it’s a shame, though, that the story was dragged down by the interior monologue instead of being pushed forward with a greater number of plot elements.

Dan Brown’s “Teaching Moments” Come to Mind

Dan Brown and others who write novels about ancient secrets with a modern twist to them are often criticized for stopping the action through the insertion of a lot of exposition in which one character tells another character what the ancient secrets are all about. This is a slick way of telling the reader what those secrets are about. If you were going to write a spoof of such books, you’d have one character pull a knife on another character and then–so to speak–freeze the action while the character tells somebody else why all this matters (for, say, a thousand words) and then go back to the knife fight.

That really tears apart the pacing of the action. It’s also very frustrating to the reader. Excessive interior monologue has the same negative impacts.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and other magical realism and fantasy novels.

Feds Nab Bad Writers Committing Crimes With Plot Generators

Washington, D.C., January 2, 2018, Star-Gazer News Service–Homeland Security Agents announced here today that a massive sting operation has resulted in the arrest of thousands of writers with low Amazon rankings committing crimes with the help of plot generator software rather than writing great American novels.

Chief of station Liberty Valance said that the writers were caught when the modus operandi of a “larger than usual” number of crimes matched the formal structure of short stories and novels.

“Over and over again, we were seeing exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution,” said Valance. “We also saw a correlation between writers who purchased plot generator software who were getting rich even though their Amazon rankings–with numerous one-star reviews–were in the toilet.”

Publishing insiders have worried for years that plot generator software was more likely to be used for planning perfect crimes rather than perfect fiction.

“If a writer’s any good, s/he doesn’t need a software package to create the plots for his or her novels,” said Bennett Surf, director of the American Association of MFA (manufactured authors) Colleges and Universities.

Analysts discovered that writers were launching their plot generator apps and typing in phrases like “knock over liquor store,” “make money via insider training,” “run over granny with a reindeer,” and “overthrow government” rather than using the software for the purpose for which it was intended.

“That purpose,” said Surf, “was bilking prospective writers out of hundreds of dollars by selling them a product that promised that a lack of imagination and writing skill need not keep their fiction off the New York Times bestseller list of the Pulitzer and Booker prize winners circles.”

Valance said that most of those caught designed first person crimes rather than third person or omniscient narrator crimes, making it easy for profilers to “pin the tales on the wannabees.”

A white paper issued by attorneys for the top ten plot generation applications said that the programs were dispensed for purposes of fun and relaxation, and that all of those “spending hard-earned cash” for the products signed terms of service agreements in which they promised not to use computer-assisted plotting for anything other than novels, novellas, novelettes, and short stories.

“We even banned the use of plot generators for poetry because sonnets and limericks are usually horrible and potentially criminal,” said Plots-R-Us CEO Bill Smith.”

“There never have been any writing shortcuts (other than sleeping with somebody in the publishing business) and now–thanks to the Homeland Security Department’s agents and analysts–crime no longer pays as well as it did,” Valance said.

The White House praised Valance for no longer being a decorative drapery. “Today, it’s curtains for wordy criminals,” President Trump tweeted.

–Story by Jock Stewart, Special Investigative Reporter

 

 

 

Excellent Source for Self-Publishing Help

“I was recently tasked with putting together a publishing workshop for my local library. As I researched and gathered information, I realized everything they needed to know was available right here, on IndiesUnlimited.com.”

via Everything You Need to Self-Publish – Indies Unlimited

As author Melinda Clayton says, there’s a wealth of information stashed under the Knowledge Base and Resource Pages menu selections on the Indies Unlimited main screen. Sometimes I think we become so accustomed to the menu selections on blog-oriented sites, we forget they’re there and miss out on the links and other information they lead to. We read the posts of the day and move on.

Self-publishing can seem like a daunting process when an aspiring writer first decides to take the plunge. In addition to Indies Unlimited, you can find helpful resources on sites such as Poets & Writers, Association of Writers and Writing Programs, Jane Friedman, and Writers Digest.

The information is “out there.” Half the battle is knowing where to look.

–Malcolm

Magazines That Just Couldn’t Cut It

For every successful magazine, hundreds fail either because they’re flat stupid, were published before their time, or were written and edited by nuts. Here are my memories of those that didn’t make the grade.

  • Jupiter Images graphic

    Bad House Keeping – Written by trailer trash for trailer trash, but went off the rails when it also tried to appeal to artists, writers and other dreamers who didn’t have time to keep house.

  • Bizarre – Featured photographs taken by readers while they were drunk about stuff that seemed funny at the time but, as it turned out, was trivial and boring later on.
  • Croquet Digest: Readers were never sure whether this magazine was about the game or fried rolls of bread and meat. Those who thought it was about croquettes unsubscribed then many of those who thought the magazine was about croquet claimed to be using croquettes instead of balls because what else were they good for?
  • Hades Home Journal: Editors thought this take-off on “Ladies Home Journal” would document what life was like for most housewives, that is to say, life in a hell of dirty diapers, burnt food, endless dust, and unfaithful husbands. Even those who sent in true stories hated the magazine because they wanted to pretend life in housewife hell didn’t exist.
  • HayBoy: This original spoof of “Playboy” failed because–contrary to marketing predictions–nobody wanted to see cartoons and photographs about scantily clad men working on a farm.  Even the dazzling articles about crop rotation and the center spreads featuring John Deere, Ford, Massey Fergusson, Case, and Farmall tractors couldn’t save the magazine.
  • Homewrecker: Based on high divorce rates, publishing moguls decided there was probably a huge audience of wanton women who were being neglected by mainstream media. This publication pioneered in the publication of ground-breaking techniques for stealing a man away from goody-two-shoes women who were reading “Good Housekeeping” and “House Beautiful.” Basically, the church got ticked off at this magazine and said everyone associated with it was going to hell, so that pretty much scared advertisers and readers away.
  • McBalls: This magazine, aimed at the husbands of women who lived their lives by the gospel of “McCalls,” focused on dangerous methods of barbecuing, high-energy and potentially fatal sports, living lives based on the “hey, honey, watch this” philosophy, and featured centerfolds of stuff that blew up or caught on fire. The magazine had a spectacular first year, but after that it lost readers when most of them died.
  • Photoclay – A bunch of potters in a collective run by visionary manufacturers of wheels, kilns, and other craft supplies, saw the success of “Photoplay” and thought, “why not clay?” As it turned out, nobody much cared about pictures of clay or even the gory pictures of stuff that blew up in the kilns.
  • Popular Seance – This magazine was the best of the best during the spiritualism craze, featuring articles by spirits such as Patience Worth, Ouija Board techniques, and how to contact uncle Danny in the afterworld to find out where the hid all his gold. Then a horde of spoilsports came along and said spiritualism was mostly frauds taking people’s money. Subscribers thought that was a real downer and left the magazine to become Tarot card readers.
  • Everyone can’t produce a successful magazine.

    Popular Quantum Mechanics: When the magazine came out, nobody knew squat about quantum physics, so naturally they thought everything in the magazine was about a bunch of frauds taking people’s money.  How, people asked, could there be multiple universes when one was bad enough? How could a butterfly flapping its wings in Tallahassee, Florida, cause a rain form in Walla Walla, Washington? The magazine was a true gem that failed before people were ready for it.

  • La Vie Fille de la Joie: Hookers, according to the magazine’s cover blurb, brought an infinite amount of joy to men who “weren’t getting any at home.” The photographs and articles, according to even the most Victorian critics, were tastefully done and “made calling a call girl seem like a religious experience.” As had happened before with people just having a bit of fun, the church got ticked off at this magazine and said everyone sleeping with daughters of joy was going to hell. This idea bothered people and they canceled their subscriptions even though they continued to find love with unknown ladies leaning against lamp posts.
  • New Porker: This brave magazine was the champion of pigs and could tell you how to bring home the best bacon, carve a pork roast, and cook center-cut pork chops with out drying them out. The trouble was, most people think pigs are  gross, stupid, and filthy and balked at the idea of leaning anything more about them. Even the hog-calling “Sooie Short Stories” series couldn’t save the magazine.
  • Saturday Evening Fencepost: The trouble began when the magazine couldn’t entice Norman Rockwell to do their covers art featuring farmers, farmers’ wives, and hired hands sitting on fence posts creating sonnets about barbed wire, gates, barns, and silos. Somehow, a nasty campaign by other magazines convinced readers that this magazine was for people who were “dumb as a post.” Even those who knew they were dumb as a post didn’t want to be told they were dumb as a post.
  • Silver Scream: Since “Silver Screen” was a popular magazine, why not focus on the dark site of making movies, starting out with some of the best screams anyone ever heard in a feature film? As it turned out, readers didn’t want to focus on the shower scene in “Psycho” as much as editors thought, so the magazine went under with a whimper a few years after it began.
  • The Smart Seat: This magazine, a jibe at the popular “Smart Set,” featured seats, mainly toilet seats, but occasionally various hot seats and other places people found themselves sitting. The magazine was funny at first and then it wasn’t, some say because a story called “Toilet Seats I’ve Known and Loved” grossed people out. Then, too, legislatures claimed that using the word “ass” in a periodical made the whole thing obscene and got the copies removed from the shelves.
  • If you can’t be Vogue, be Vague.

    The UnAmerican Girl: With “American Girl” all the rage in those days, girls who weren’t American weren’t getting any news coverage. Unfortunately, the name of the magazine gave readers the impression that the magazine was about commies and other nefarious women who were out to take away America’s freedoms. Actually, that was probably true, though it was never proven. Even though many men thought dating an unAmerican girl was sexy, the FBI thought it wasn’t, and that pretty much killed the magazine.

  • Vague: The publisher wanted to compete with “Vogue,” but never figured out how to do it. The result was a wishy-washy magazine that wasn’t about anything other than people who had no idea what they were doing. It was not surprise that those people didn’t have any money, consequently they could afford subscriptions or buy anything from the magazine’s advertisers. The whole thing was so nebulous that nobody ever knew when there the magazine was sold, what it was about, or when it went out of business.