writing on the edge or, perhaps, over it

In The Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy writes of a man in the throws of sex with his wife, shouting “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.”

If I read such a thing on Facebook, I’d probably say, “TMI.” But it’s typical Conroy, obvious in most of his books, writing on the edge describing the most strange, outlandish, sick, and horrific moments in the lives of his characters, moments we can’t un-see, would be shocked if we thought of such things, and having stepped over the edge with a writer who is “out there,” we are drawn “out there,” too, and for my money, nothing beats the mind’s confusion of such prose that’s better than torrid sex (“thank you, Jesus”).

I am in awe of anyone who can write on (or over) the edge and remain mostly sane.

Conroy’s inclusion of such moments in his plots is heightened by the fact they do not comprise a farce, but a balanced interaction between the most absurd and the most beautiful, and between the best of sin and the best of grace. Writing also in The Prince of Tides, he says:

“I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,’ and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater. My soul grazes like a lamb on the beauty of indrawn tides.”

The Prince of Tides is my living Bible of how to write well from well-formed characters to well-formed locations. I keep the book close at hand on my desk next to my copy of Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel which–if read carefully– teaches prospective writers how to write on the edge or, perhaps, over it.

Some say Stephen King’s On Writing is better.  Perhaps, but it doesn’t speak to me because I want writing books that show me how to jump off cliffs and walk through fire and say things that cause readers to blush and shout, “TMI.”

There’s a danger to writing at the edge: “it might kill you.” But what if it doesn’t? You look down, read what you have written, and find blood on the page. If you can see your blood holding the words together, then the edge didn’t kill you. Maybe tomorrow, but today the words are wonderful and they sing songs the world needs to hear.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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This is a terrific story, filled with fabulous characters, some definitely nastier than others, and great fun, too, at least in parts. Others are still horrible to contemplate from our slightly more secure seats nearly 70 years on. Reader Review of the audiobook.

You’d think a writer would be good at Scrabble

I lose most of the “Words with Friends” games I play on Facebook because I just can’t see prospective words in a pile of letters. I was never very good at the original Scrabble with the wood tiles. I wonder if they’re made out of plastic now. I’m sure I’d be doubly bad at the various sanitized versions of Scrabble that are weeding out words that aren’t politically correct.

There’s a joke floating around Facebook that shows an Ikea-style, assemble-it-your-self novel that arrives on your doorstep as a box of letters. I get nightmares thinking about it it.

I can’t speak for other writers, but I have never viewed words as collections of letters that must be assembled into what I want to say. I think of the word first and then type the letters without really noticing them. So Scrabble is the exact opposite of how my mind works. It’s embarrassing, though, because people who see writers as wordsmiths expect them to be impossible to defeat in a game about words.

I console myself by thinking that most carpenters and others who create miracles out of wood know little or nothing about the building blocks of matter. If you gave them a box of protons, neutrons, and electrons, they probably couldn’t turn them into a birdfeeder or a table. They’d be even more lost if the box contained quarks and other elementary particles.

Most craftspeople don’t make their raw materials from scratch. Writers don’t either. This is my excuse and naturally, I’m sticking to it with the determination of a covalent bond.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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The ending I did not see coming! You think you know somebody then BAM, right out of left field it knocks you for a loop! I found Fate’s Arrows well told with several threads woven together to make it an encompassing tale of the era. It’s raw and fraught with danger. The Klan may operate differently these days, but it is still alive and well. – Big Al’s Books and Pals

First rule: love your stories’ locations

This is a book that packs a lot into its 166 pages. Despite this bleak subject matter the book is beautifully written, allowing this Brit a vision of a place which the author knows well and clearly loves. The contrast of the natural beauty highlights the ugliness of human behaviour. – Zoe Brooks review of “Conjure Woman’s Cat”

One of the greatest compliments a writer can receive from a reader or a reviewer is an acknowledgment of his or her love for the novel or short story’s place setting. To love a place unconditionally means accepting its beauty along with its flaws. When I think of a place, I think first about the land whether it’s swamps and marshes or glacier-carved mountains and pristine blue lakes.

Pitcher plants in Florida’s Tate’s Hell Forest

Experience helps supplement an author’s research. I lived in the Florida panhandle from the first grade through college. Family day trips, Scout camping trips, and recreation in various places shows an author what the guide books and maps miss: your perspective through first-hand research.

Quite often, this first-hand experience teaches you about the land’s history, myths, ghost stories, and folklore, all of which become a part of you and your view of life in that place which is much more real than picking a place on the map and then looking up its myths and folklore on Wikipedia or Amazon.

As people say, a map is not the territory. Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, said that riding through the countryside and seeing it through your car windows was pretty much like watching TV. You’re in your car, maybe on an Interstate racing toward your destination at 75 mph. Suffice it to say, you’re not really at any of the locations alongside the road. To know the location, you have to live there or explore it on one or more extended vacations. This way, you come to know and love the land–or you decide it’s not your kind of place.

If you love the land, it takes part in shaping you just as surely as a spouse. If you don’t love the land, then you’re either unhappy in that place or you try to ruin the land to suit your needs. If the land has, in part, made you who you are, this fact will be obvious to the readers of your work and–like you–the characters in your work who live there.

Good fiction, I believe, depends on recognizing the importance of the land on your plot, characters, and theme.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Where were you last Friday at 3 p. m.?

Don’t you just hate it when a police detective asks you a question like that? My first thought would probably be, “Uh oh. I need an alibi for something, probably something bad.” In “real life,” I wouldn’t have a clue even though suspect characters in police dramas seem to have a clock inside their heads that remembers, “No, yeah, I was drinking sidecars with Bill Smith and Bob’s bar on 79th street.”

No worries, though, I’m not a cop. According to WordPress statistics, a fair number of you were reading this blog last Friday at 3 p. m. Why I wonder.

  • Did you just get home from school?
  • Did you wake up from last night’s drunk (all those sidecars with Bill Smith)?
  • Did you get bored staring out the windows of your corner office on the penultimate floor of a downtown office building where workers assumed you were making important decisions on behalf of the company?

On the other hand, there might be positive, less frivolous reasons why you were here last Friday at 3 p. m.

  • You were looking for information and didn’t want to go to one of those websites with a paywall there it costs $45/hour to read something that only a person with 25 PhDs can understand.
  • Reading my words has become a religious experience; no drugs or costumes required.
  • You keep hoping I’ll blurt out the endings of my novels so you have an “edge” for the book report in Mrs. Johnson’s 4 p. m. English 401 class.

Quite possibly, you’re stalking me because you think that, as a writer, I have $10000000000000 in my checking account. If so, you’re wasting your time. Most writers, not counting people like James Patterson, don’t make enough off their writing to pay the bills. But it’s flattering if you think that I do.

Frankly, I’m happy you stopped by even if it wasn’t on a Friday at 3 p.m. Of course, reading my blog isn’t much of an alibi. But then most of us don’t need an alibi. We don’t, do we?

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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If you like satire, “Special Investigative Reporter” is the novel for you. Have a friend take a picture with a date/time stamp of you reading it in case you need an alibi.

when the gods intervene on your behalf, is that “success”

“Chance favors the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur

Chances are, most people will believe that a writer is more likely to benefit from sudden good luck if s/he is ready for it. Perhaps not being ready for it means the chance won’t happen. Aside from that, if an editor appears and says, “If you have a great short story, I’ll publish it and pay you fairly for your work,” then it helps to have a great short story ready.

So, I suppose practicing one’s writing skills and being ready for “a lucky break” can be called success.

Nonetheless, as I think of this now, I remember a shouting match–via snail mail–I had with a widely a known writers magazine many years ago. The magazine purported to offer everything a prospective writer might need, from learning the craft to the techniques necessary for finding a magazine editor or a book publisher. They did a reasonable job of covering the basics of creating a salable work and understanding how and when to pitch it to the right place at the right time.

I had no argument with that. What bothered me were their “success stories,” published in every issue to show that their teaching could lead to a successful writing career. What started this shouting match was the fact every “success story” never showed the magazine’s “pitch” techniques working. In every so-called success, the writer labored away at their craft and didn’t get it published until an influential author, agent, editor, or publisher moved into the house next door, ultimately took a look at the prospective author’s work, and showed it to the powers that be, sidestepping the normal submissions process.

My argument was that since the magazine was teaching how to successfully write and how to successfully submit work on speculation or on assignment, that the appearance of a “god” next door didn’t equate with success. The magazine’s submission system included building a platform of acceptances from little magazines or regional magazines or the local newspaper, writing a proper query letter, crafting a synopsis for an agent/editor/publisher, and doing all this according to accepted standards. There was no “god” in the system.

They argued, like Pasteur, the “god” next door wouldn’t have been of much help if the writer weren’t ready. I stipulated that. But I also said the magazine was teaching the standard route to finding a publisher for the created work, and that did not include having Ernest Hemingway or Bennet Cerf moving into the vacant house next door. I said I wanted to read success stories that showed writers following the magazine’s advice from A to Z. They never showed that, so I canceled my subscription.

There’s a lot of luck going around in the publishing business. Yet, I think emerging writers need more to do than sit and wait for it to appear. They need to know how to write and how to find a publisher. Of course, if John Grisham moves in next door and offers to help, I see no reason to turn him down.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Shoot them now while they’re still happy

That was Dorothy Parker’s advice for those who had friends who wanted to be writers.

When I was a college English department instructor, my “Bible” was The End of Intelligent Writing: Literary Politics in America (1974) by Richard Kostelanetz. My colleagues thought it was overly grim, though they didn’t worry about literary politics because they weren’t teaching their students how to become writers. Their students were simply supposed to enjoy literature and then if they enjoyed it enough, teach it to others.

It was a closed-loop quite soundly divorced from considerations of what it took to write and produce that literature. According to my “Bible” prospective writers were up against a closed club. The author called “The New York Review of Books” the New York Review of Each Other’s Books. The club would let you in if you, say–killed somebody and wrote a book about it or if you were a famous, and hopefully infamous, celebrity submitting a tell-all book about almost anything. But fiction: a hard sell then and now.

I should have been a firefighter.

I’ve been haunted for years by the words of author Lila Shaara posted in Beatrice in 2006: “I grew up seeing writing as something that gripped you in poisoned talons, gave you little or nothing back, drove you to addiction and depression, and killed you young.”

Some writers will disagree. They are the 1% who dodged the bullet when we tried to shoot them and somehow clawed their way through the politics of publishers and agents and against overwhelming odds, and are still happy. (Too happy, I would say, from what I read in their newsletters.) The other 99% are insane or selling used cars in Fargo.

Once upon a time, there was a gag that most newspapermen and women thought they had a book inside them, the response being, that was a good place for it to stay. I agree. These days, they can self-publish and potentially earn enough per month to buy a happy meal. I’m not sure that’s an improvement over the world of 1974 when who you were dictated whether or not you succeeded. Or met with an “accident.”

I think the Mafia operates the same way,

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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The Hunt for Red October

“The Hunt for Red October is a 1990 American submarine spy thriller film directed by John McTiernan, produced by Mace Neufeld, and starring Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, and Sam Neill. The film is an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s 1984 bestselling novel of the same name. It is the first installment of the film series with the protagonist Jack Ryan.

“The story is set during the late Cold War era and involves a rogue Soviet naval captain who wishes to defect to the United States with his officers and the Soviet Navy’s newest and most advanced nuclear missile submarine, a fictional improvement on the Soviet ICBM capable Typhoon-class submarine. A CIA analyst correctly deduces his motive and must prove his theory to the U.S. Navy before a violent confrontation between the Soviet and the American navies spirals out of control.”Wikipedia

I’ve seen this film multiple times and always enjoyed it for the story, special effects, and acting.  Fortunately, by the time Connery made this film, the public was getting used to him playing roles other than James Bond even though his last Bond film was made in 1983 “Never Say Never Again.” He was convincing as the aging captain of the Russian submarine Red October. The film did well, including a good review from Roger Ebert.

I doubt I was reading anything in the military/thriller/espionage genres in those days, so I hadn’t read the novel, a book that was well received and, needless to say, transformed the life of 30-year insurance broker Tom Clancy. Fans of Clancy know that his books became (and remain) an ongoing publishing business even though he died in 2013. His name is on the covers of the books though they’re all written by somebody else for the franchise. I’ve read many of these–and similar novels–in recent years and have found them cathartic, a mental health intervention so to speak, for those of us who are often overpowered by the evils of the world, including the books we write.

A copy of the novel arrived today. I’m looking forward to it, partly for mental health reasons, but mainly out of curiosity. I want to see the original version of the story, one that was loosely drawn on true events, and see how it was translated to the screen.

The book is, by the way, cheaper than paying a Jungian analyst $300 per session to help me cope with my own writing.

Me: Doc, it hurts when I write.

Doc: Stop writing.

Me: I’m under a spell that won’t let me stop.

Doc: Probably your shadow.

Me: You got that right. 

–Malcolm

Glacier Park Novel – Audiobook Edition

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Discovering ‘The G-String Murders’ by Gypsy Rose Lee

The tall bookshelf on the righthand side of our living room fireplace was either magic or was monitored by my parents who put books there–from some hidden trove–during my junior high and high school years when I was deemed ready to read them.

One of these was a small book in a plain brown dustjacket written for young men who were old enough to learn how sex was accomplished. I read it in my bedroom and then put it back on the tall bookshelf from which it soon disappeared until it was time for the middle brother to read it. I have no idea what the book was called or when it was published. In general, the words and illustrations were more accurate and of higher literary quality (less profane, too) than the information written on the restroom stalls in the men’s bathrooms at school.

I still have the second book that appeared about the time the movie “Gypsy” was released in 1962. When I didn’t return it to the tall shelf, nobody mentioned it. It appeared after the book about how to have sex, though I didn’t need a set of instructions to enjoy Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1941 detective novel The G-String Murders. I liked the book. I still do. And I think she wrote it or wrote most of it in spite of the fact various people think somebody else wrote it.

It’s set in a burlesque theater with a narrator named Gypsy. According to teacher and scholar Maria DiBattista, “The book is still readable today for its brisk, sometimes witty, and unapologetically randy account of the personal and professional jealousies, the routines and props (the grouch bags, pickle persuaders, and, of course, G-strings), even the substandard plumbing common to a life in burlesque.” 

Letters that Lee sent to Simon and Schuster while she was writing the novel tend to prove that she wrote it rather than W. H. Auden, Craig Rice, and other suspects. The book is still in print.

Amazon Description

Lee – Wikipedia Photo

“Narrating the twisted tale of a backstage double murder, Gypsy Rose Lee, the queen of the striptease, provides a tantalizing glimpse into the underworld of burlesque theatre in 1940s America. When one performer is found strangled with a G-string, no one is above suspicion. A host of clueless coppers face off against the theatre’s tough-talking guys and dolls, and when a second murder occurs, it’s clear that Gypsy and her cohorts will have to crack the case themselves. A dazzling and wisecracking murder mystery noir that was the basis of the 1943 film Lady of Burlesque, starring Barbara Stanwyck.”

In part, I think it’s the movie (inspired by her memoir Gypsy: A Memoir) “Gypsy” with Natalie Wood and this novel that keep Gypsy Rose Lee’s name from fading out of the public’s consciousness. After all, burlesque is long gone. She lived between 1911 and 1970. In her later years, she appeared here and there including “Hollywood Squares.” In 2010, novelist Karen Abbott released the novel “American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee” to high acclaim.

So, Gypsy is still here one way or another, and that first edition copy isn’t leaving my shelf.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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quid pro quo

Quid pro quo (“something for something” in Latin[2]) is a Latin phrase used in English to mean an exchange of goods or services, in which one transfer is contingent upon the other; “a favor for a favor”. Phrases with similar meanings include: “give and take”, “tit for tat“, “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours”, and “one hand washes the other”. Other languages use other phrases for the same purpose. – Wikipedia

Have you ever noticed on social media sites like Facebook that famous writers want you to join their stables of followers but once you join, you never hear from them? They often seem to have a clique of friends they respond to in comments to their posts. Everyone else is chopped liver.

They never stop by your profile or wish you happy birthday or even say, “Wow, thank you,” when you tell them how much you enjoyed their last book.

I expect more of a quid pro quo in the social media; otherwise the BIG TIME WRITERS use it for advertising while the rest of us talk to each other, share recipes, commiserate over tax bills, and in general, try to support each other in good times and bad. Facebook alerts us to birthdays and says stuff like BIG TIME WRITER is having a birthday today. I look and see that they haven’t stopped by my profile since sliced bread, so I’m going to wish them a happy birthday when hell freezes over.

Yes, I know, when hell freezes over I’m going to have a long TO DO list.

I’m not very happy when the government mucks around in everyone’s personal business. But as long as they’re doing that already, I’m proposing new legislation: When an unknown writer buys a book from a big time writer, that big time writer must buy a book from the unknown writer.  

It’s the right thing to do, tit for tat and all that. If you’re a famous writer, click on the image below to get yourselves right with the universe.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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New Blog Theme – No Longer Contains Subliminal Messages

No, I’m not turning over a new leaf with this new blog theme, nor launching a series of books that knocks James Patterson off the bestseller list. I get bored with themes fairly quickly. When products come out with new packaging, they write something like “NEW LOOK” on the packaging often followed by “SAME GREAT STUFF.”

Makes me wonder why the new look. Perhaps the manufacturer removed something bad from the product. If so, they can’t really say, “No longer with traces of mercury.” Or, “No longer infringes on patents of three competing products.” Maybe they just wanted to attract the younger generation.

Years ago, we worried about subliminal messages, primarily at movie theaters when we learned that some theaters were flashing messages on the screen so quickly that the eye couldn’t register them, stuff like “BUY POPCORN.” I can’t remember how effective those messages were. People took a dim view of them because behind the fairly harmless urge to rush out to the concession stand, there lurked darker possibilities.

Those were the days of the BIG RED SCARE. Or, as the McCarthy hearings thought: “There’s a communist in every pot.” Or maybe it was a chicken. Whatever McCarthy thought was in the pot–and I don’t mean marijuana cut with oregano–it all led back to Stalin, Lenin, Marx, spying, and other nefarious stuff that might be hidden in those subliminal messages.

Even today, hidden code lurks amongst the pixels of the graphics in the PR and ADS we get via e-mail. They mainly tell the sender whether you opened the e-mail or not. That seems a bit intrusive to me, but I’m not worrying about it unless the code in the graphics is telling me to buy popcorn, join the communist party, or cheat in Angry Birds games.

If I stooped that low, I’d say “BUY MY BOOKS” and you would have a sudden urge to buy hardcover editions of all of my novels. Or, possibly, “SEND MALCOLM $1000000 TO LEARN THE SECRET OF LIFE.” There are endless options here.

I do suspect the major political parties of using subliminal messages, and they sure as hell aren’t “BUY POPCORN.” There’s a lot of weird stuff happening these days that can’t possibly be attributed to fate, rogue conjure women, or haints. But that’s a subject for another post, and possibly somebody else’s blog.

I just wanted to set your mind at ease that there’s no hidden agenda behind this blog’s new look. Of course, if there were, I’d say there wasn’t.

Malcolm