Skip to content

Posts from the ‘writing’ Category

New Pages: a great resource

NewPages.com is news, information, and guides to literary magazines, independent publishers, creative writing programs, alternative periodicals, indie bookstores, writing contests, and more.New Pages

Literary magazines and writing contests have been a traditional training ground for aspiring writers for years. Some magazines pay. Some don’t. Contests usually pay, but sometimes offer publication and author’s copies. Either way, they give writers a way to practice their craft and potentially earn a few dollars and some writing references.

If you look at the website of a successful author, you will often see a long list of literary magazines where his/her work has appeared; so, too, grants and fellowships. Traditionally, mainstream/large press publishing has found these credentials more important than some of the newer small presses because the “resume material” helped show an aspiring writer had already received some validation elsewhere. While those who self publish don’t need a resume to publish a Kindle or CreateSpace book, magazine credits and awards still look nice on the website.

Many writers rely on the Poets & Writers database of upcoming writing competitions, grant opportunities, and fellowships. As a writer, I think more is more when it comes to keeping up with resources. So, I highly recommend New Pages. They offer multiple resources in addition to information about literary magazines, bookstores, competitions, as well as book reviews.  One unique feature is their publication of the titles of books received for review. This is kind of nice whether your book is reviewed there or not.

They also review literary magazines and keep readers up to date on news magazines. This feature helps authors choose where to submit as well as an easy way to learn more about the magazines before sending in an MS.

This is a writer-friendly site with multiple menu selections, options, and resources. It’s been around for a while and has a good handle on the subjects it presents.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s short story “Shock Treatment” appears in the Tulip Tree Publishing’s 2019 anthology “Stories That Need to be Told.”

 

 

 

Withhold judgement about your characters

With fiction [as opposed to writing a column], the process is different because I don’t know where the story is going. I’ll know that I want to write, say, a story about a young woman whose father dies. And I’ll know I want that story to explore grief. But I never exercise any moral judgment on the characters. To me, they are just characters. By withholding judgment, I can look at the world, through their eyes, with humility. I don’t judge them as “good” or “bad”; they are all flawed human beings. I would say this kind of writing uses a different muscle—it relies much more on the powers of empathy.  – Laila Lalami in an interview here.

Wikipedia Photo

I’ve been following this author’s works for ages, beginning years ago when she had a blog called Moorish Girl. The blog’s archives may still be out there, but she more or less stopped writing it when she published her debut novel Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits in 2005.

Most of us cannot replicate the prose, much less the intelligent world view of this award-winning Moroccan-American novelist and college professor. Yet, when I read her ideas about literature and especially the writing of fiction, I see goals worth striving for. In general, I try not to judge my characters, that is to say, to give the reader an author’s view about which of them are good and which of them are bad.

To the extent that we can withhold judgement, we increase our ability to create a memorable story because we let the characters speak for themselves and form their own opinions without allowing our beliefs intrude into the story from the outside. I found this difficult to do when writing my Florida Folk Magic Series because my longtime hatred of the KKK made it almost impossible for me to treat them objectively.

Lailami believes that “the development of empathy is crucial to personal growth as a human being but also as a writer.” I agree though I’m not sure I can achieve it. Yet it seems to me that everything from world peace to family harmony depends on the empathy we have for others. That empathy makes us more real and accepting and does the same for our fiction.

–Malcolm

 

Giving yourself permission to quit

Sometimes short stories, novels, poems, and even science fair projects get tangled up like wet kite string and no matter what one does, the whole thing gets worse and one starts to doubt himself or herself about all projects. Nobody likes telling characters to get out of their lives when a story won’t come together, and yet, trying to force it to come together sort of guarantees that it will never come together.

So, we start avoiding the manuscript for weeks at a time. The next time we look at it, the thrill is gone. What we thought was going to be a joyous story looks more and more like raw sewage.

Have you been there?

If so, you know that the manuscript is sitting on your computer like an evil spirit. It knows you’ve been taught to push through the problems in a story, and fight your way to the end of it. Now, if you’ve signed a contract with the publisher to finish this manuscript, you may have no choice but to get drunk and just do it. Otherwise, it’s causing more trouble than its worth.

I think it’s better at some point to give yourself permission to quit. Set the MS aside and search for something new to write about. I just did that, and it feels like the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders. Until the moment I cried “uncle” on the story, I was becoming convinced I’d never write anything again. Now I’m free.

Every story, I think, begins as something with potential, yet it’s still an experiment of sorts. We’re not duty-bound to see it through if it isn’t working for us. Maybe it will work in a year or ten years, but today, it’s sapping our strength.

Let it go.

Malcolm

My short story “Shock Treatment” appears in this new anthology.

 

‘Elmer Gantry was drunk’

Here’s how you can make your eyes glaze over. Consider writing a post about the first lines of novels, go online and read through the 100000000 sites listing famous first lines, and then after you’ve absorbed a lot of icing and no cake, you won’t want to read another book for the rest of your life.

But you will. So will I. We can’t help it.

Just to get it out of the way, “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” is my favorite first line because it so aptly sets the stage for Sinclair Lewis’ 1926 satire. It’s likely there aren’t a lot of people reading that book these days, though there was probably an upsurge when the powerful 1960 film starring Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, and (in a role like no other in her filmography) (Shirley Jones. I enjoyed both the book and the movie even though they’re very different.

Before my eyes glazed over, I was going to talk about opening lines, why I liked some, why I didn’t like others, and then see what your favorite lines are.  But now I’m overwhelmed, and not in a good way, with all the choices. Sure, most lists include Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov, Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy, One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve read these books and all the first lines (except for Marquez’ line which I detest) might make an interesting discussion. But then, I had to look at longer and longer lists and discovered that not only were my eyes glazed over, but my consciousness as well: there was no way to limit the discussion and I felt like I’d just suffered through the punch lines of a hundred jokes.

I have similar feelings about lists or discussions about favorite songs, favorite movies, favorite poems, favorite paintings, and even favorite novels. It’s lame to put it this way, but all those favorites are like comparing apples to oranges–or possibly, apples to anchovies. My mood, and possibly who I was with, is often a big factor in my choice of a favorite anything. Sometimes I disappoint myself by re-reading a favorite novel and finding out that I don’t like it any more.

When I see a first line while reading a book for the first time, I might think, “Oh, that’s nice,” but when I see it in a list of first lines, it seems more like trickery. Unfair, I know. I guess I like the lines in context rather than pulled out of their novels like teeth.  When they’re glommed together, I feel like reaching for a drink or two or ten, and then writing, “Malcolm Campbell was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. He leaned against the bar of the Old Home Sample Room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri, and requested the bartender to join him in ‘The Good Old Summer Time,’ the waltz of the day.”

Actually, I’d probably swap out “The Good Old Summer Time” with Ellington and Webster’s 1941 “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” because it really is a cool song title. I’m sure there are other worthy titles I could have chosen, but I didn’t want to look.

Well.

If you have a favorite opening line, please add it in the comments list. If you have a hundred, don’t add them.

Malcolm

 

 

Why do I write?

Why do I write?

The short answer to that question is, “I don’t know.”

When asked, I usually respond with:

Why do you read?

Most people have trouble answering that question other than listing the reasons other people read and using them to make people go away.

I know why I read: so I have less time to write. I was actually a writing mentor once and gave it up after a while when I realized I was teaching my mentees all my bad habits. My bad writing habits have saved me from a life in an institution, a university or a mental institution, places like that.

When people ask me why I write, I usually tell them that as I got older the gigolo business wasn’t supporting the lifestyle to which I’d become accustomed. As it turns out, writing isn’t supporting that either.

Storytelling, perhaps.

We’re told by gurus that we read and write stories because they tell us the important things about the world. I think I’ve learned more from reading fiction than from history books or the nightly news. I’ve probably discovered a lot more from writing than I have from any other journey. But then people ask me why I write, I can’t really say that because it sounds crazy.

Writers who sound crazy tend to earn more and find more readers than writers who sound sane. I think this is because sanity is boring. Books that are boring don’t end up on the New York Times bestseller list. Or in Oscar-winning movies.

What’s Important?

I think we all want to know. We see that the world appears to be in a mess: War. climate change. Murder. One religion vs. another. BS on the evening news every night.

Most of us want to know the truth, the real truth behind all the BS. We learned early on that stories, especially old stories that we linked to ancient legends and myths, might have clues for us. I think that’s why I read and write.

The clues I’ve found, or think I’ve found, don’t make sense if I discuss them at the local Waffle House. People say, “Well, that’s just crazy.” I know it sounds crazy, but then that’s why I think it’s true. That’s the great paradox of living in this world, I suspect. The truth always sounds like it isn’t the truth.

Yet, we continue to believe that while reading and writing, we catch glimpses of the truth. So, we keep on playing our games with words. It’s like a journey into the unknown. When I start reading or writing, I have no idea where I’ll end up. Yet, I see a pattern to what I’m doing as I read books with a common theme that support each other and as I write books with common themes that support each other.

When people ask me why I write, I give them the short answer: “It beats driving a truck.” The real answer is too difficult to pin down just as the real answer for why I read what I read is hard to fathom. What about you. Do you have a short (and true) answer for why you read an/or write?

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Lena.”

I Just Published a Book: Why Am I Depressed?

But back home in Maine, after the rush of congratulatory e-mails dwindled and my modest book tour ended, the dark chill of fall descended and a depression set in. For years, I’d been laser-focused on writing during the hours my son was in school. Now I drifted around the house in my gray sweatpants, refreshing Twitter and Instagram, and reading Knausgaard and Cusk. I felt despondent. Rudderless. Tired. Inexplicably, I felt like a failure. Rather than feeling gratitude for what had happened, I obsessed over what hadn’t. My book hadn’t become a bestseller, received a rave (or any) review in the New York Times, or landed me my ever-since-girlhood fantasy interview with Terry Gross. I judged myself for the brass rings I hadn’t grabbed. As much as my memoir mattered to me, to the rest of the world it was just another book.

 

Source: I Just Published a Book: Why Am I Depressed? | Poets & Writers

Jessica Berger Gross talks honestly about a common problem many writers share, the depression that often follows the release of a new book. Bestselling authors may be too busy to be depressed, or possibly the depression takes longer to arrive. Finishing a book is a personal triumph, all the work from A to Z, that one’s expectations are high, not so much expectations of fame and fortune, but of euphoria or at least quiet satisfaction.

As Gross writes, it’s not so much what happened, but what didn’t happen. After the initial hoopla, the author goes back to his or her desk, plays a few games–or maybe a lot of games–of Angry Birds or Words With Friends, and starts wondering whether or not they have it in them to go through the process again.

It’s like climbing Mt. Everest and realizing nobody noticed. It was a dangerous thing to do, especially Alpine style without oxygen or ladders or fixed ropes, but back on Facebook where it seems like somebody might want to hear about it, there’s mostly silence. Fortunately, the depression keeps one from caring about that even though that is one component of the depression.

Small-press and self-published writers have the added burden of realizing that their yearly website fees are costing them more than they’re earning.

I don’t think vanity leads to this depression, that is, thinking one should be famous, should be talking to movie studios, should be recognized on the street, or be receiving invitations to speak at book fairs and panels. It’s more that one finds himself/herself fretting about lack of satisfaction, lack of happiness, and the lack of all the feelings s/he thought would be center stage in his/her consciousness.

After a while, the muse screams, “Suck it up; you felt all those wonderful things while you were writing and now you’re not writing.” You protest this for a while until you give in and say, “Okay, I’ll climb K2 solo via the famous ‘Magic Line Route’ and if I don’t come home dead, I will have had a wondrous time.”

Or you say, “I’m thinking about 75,000 words of storytelling about a man and a woman who discover they’ve ended up married after a drunken Vegas weekend and God wants them to figure out whether they’ve been cursed or blessed.”

Authors are trying to figure out the answer to that question all the time. The answer is “both,” but don’t quote me on that.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the satirical mystery “Special Investigative Reporter.”

If you’re writing a novel about a slaughterhouse. . .

then you need to tour a slaughterhouse. Or, at least read a lot about slaughterhouses, what happened inside then and what became of the people who worked there. In his essay in “The Writers Chronicle,” Colson Whitehead suggests writing what you don’t know, otherwise, you’ll and up writing the same book over and cover. So, you probably don’t need a slaughterhouse career to craft a novel about them. Frankly, that’s the last place I want to work.

Many things fall into the category of research that makes writers sick. Researching the KKK for my novel in progress fits into that category. And yet, since I never belonged to the KKK, I need to find out what happened in their meetings or my scenes and descriptions won’t be correct. I could say, “who will know?” Well, I would know. So here’s a selection of KKK books you’ll find on Amazon if you go looking. Fortunately, I found what I needed on free sites and didn’t have to buy any of these.

In addition to those, older books have been captured by Google or reside in various libraries and archives. If you look on state-operated photo archives (such as Florida Memory), you’ll find photographs of KKK fliers, pamphlets, parades, and posters. I grew up in an area with an active KKK presence, so I have a sixth sense when it comes to tracking down the filth.

Looking at this shit is about like being forced to eat a food you detest, like turnips, for example. Do you eat the entire crock of turnips in one sitting, do you eat one bite every week smothered in something that disguises the taste, or do you say to hell with the turnips—or the KKK–and give up on your book? I think that historically accurate novels that mention the KKK are important to our understanding of the Jim Crow years of our past and (sadly) to the deluge of white supremacy groups we’re seeing around the country today.

When I was in high school, I got physically ill reading All Quiet on the Western Front. Later, I felt the same way when I read Hiroshima. I wondered how the authors were able to suffer through the facts and put words on the page. Such questions are a consideration, I think, for anyone writing a novel with horrifying sweeps or history and the bad guys responsible for them.

Anger is good motivation, and suffice it to say, I feel plenty of anger about the KKK. I researched the KKK when I wrote the Florida Folk Magic Series. My work-in-progress novel follows up on that trilogy, so that means reading more about the KKK than I want to know. You might find yourself in a similarly uncomfortable research situation. if you decide to write a novel about the prison at Guantanimo, the rape culture, terrorist attacks, or even a tour of duty in the House of Representatives.

When it comes down to it, you have to learn about it before you can write about it.

Malcolm

 

If you’re an author, why’s your online stuff out of date?

Presumably, part of an author’s platform is composed of a Facebook page, a blog, a website, and a Twitter account. Letting these go out of date seems about as silly as a bricks-and-mortar store publishing an old phone number on a billboard. So, why does it happen? Better things to do, perhaps. Or, tired of social media, perhaps. Or dead, perhaps.

Reasonable excuses, perhaps. Yet, I feel a bit discouraged when:

  • I try to follow an author on Twitter and find that the author’s Twitter link in their Facebook about page or their website leads to a message telling the account doesn’t exist.
  • I click on the blog menu selection on the author’s website and find no new posts for four or five years.
  • I notice that an author’s Twitter profile touts a NEW BOOK that was new a year ago.
  • An author’s Facebook page or profile sits there for months with no activity.

Nobody asked, but it seems to me it would be better to delete these out-of-date references and accounts until the author needs them again. In the old days, misspelling a source’s name in a newspaper was considered especially egregious sin, partly because it was sloppy and partly because one figured that if the name was wrong, perhaps other “facts” in the story were also wrong. At best, an out-of-date platform is a similar bad sign to prospective readers, agents, and publishers.

I get it. Promotion via blogs, websites, Twitter, and Facebook tends to ramp up when a new book comes out. Makes sense, I suppose. However, a continuing presence of up-to-date online material will be vital if an author starts looking for a new agent or publisher and discovers the platform has fallen into disuse for five years. That tells an agent the platform isn’t a positive factor in the decision about representing an author.

Really, it’s not that hard to delete links to Twitter accounts and blogs that are no longer active. Worse yet, authors are disappointing their readers by letting a blog sit there with nothing new to read.

By the way, if you find out-of-date links on any of my sites, please let me know. Seriously, I like to practice what I preach even though I’m as disorganized as anyone can be. (I just updated my Twitter profile picture before writing this blog.)

Malcolm

Are you taking the plunge into NaNoWriMo this year?

“National Novel Writing Month began in 1999 as a daunting but straightforward challenge: to write 50,000 words of a novel during the thirty days of November.” – NaNoWriMo

A lot of writers and aspiring writers ask themselves one important question every year about now: “Am I going to commit to writing 50,000 words in November?”

According to the organization’s website, 306,230 said “yes” in 2017. The organization has grown since 1999 and runs multiple programs year-round. It’s larger and more influential than most of us know. Explore its website and you’ll find that there’s a lot more going on there than writing 50,000 words in November.

Yet, 50,000 words is how it began and making the commitment November 1 after all the Hallowe’en candy as worn off isn’t easy to do even though the decision is often made on a dare or during a transcendent moment of infallibility without realizing what it means to say “yes.”

I’ve been writing for a long time. Sitting here on my PC are the first two chapters of a novel that I havent touched for the last forty days and forty nights. Will NaNoWriMo help me get it moving again? It helped me finish a prior novel, though I won’t tell you which one.

Of course, one has to sign up with the organization to make it official and then tell everyone you did it. That alone makes the yes/no decision about as daunting as telling everyone on the first day of the month that by the end of the month you will have stopped smoking, given up booze, or completed a rehab program for hard drugs.

I can look at the entire process as a positive kick in the pants or as writing under the bright spotlight of a lot of peer pressure. So, if were to take the plunge this year–don’t quote me on this because I’m not saying I going to do it–maybe it’s better to do it unofficially and quietly so that if things go wrong, nobody will know. That’s how I finally stopped smoking. I didn’t tell anyone that on day X I was going to be making my one-hundredth attempt. I just stopped. After a while, people began to notice. By the time they did, I had several weeks under my belt without the pressure that I had the strength to continue.

I could do that with NaNoWriMo. Yes, I know. If I don’t tell anyone that I’m trying it out again, nobody will be around to say, “Well, Ace, so you only wrote 2,000 words by the end of the month, then?” At least everyone on Facebook won’t know. Of course, I’ll know. That’s the real problem, isn’t it?

But you, if you’re feeling brave this year, can fire off rockets, chart your word count on a daily blog, and shout to everyone who knows you on December 1, “I did it.”

Are you game?

Malcolm

Angie Kim: Learning from ‘Mystic River’ to Write ‘Miracle Creek’

What I really wanted was a Dennis Lehane master class, which he sometimes teaches, though nowhere near me and not at that moment. So I made one for myself: I sat in my tiny writing nook and reread Mystic River from cover to cover, multiple times, and dissected it down to its component scenes. I created a detailed outline, color coded by character, and used it to make timelines, chronologies, and charts to figure out the book’s structural skeleton — the major evidentiary discoveries, the twists and the red herrings, the whodunit reveal to the readers and the various characters. Eventually Miracle Creek took shape, and along the way, I learned a few key lessons.

Source: Angie Kim on Using ‘Mystic River’ to Write ‘Miracle Creek’

Most of us don’t have the time or money to take a master class from one of our favorite authors, much less attend an MFA program where that author is part of the core faculty.  If the author’s writing in the genre you want to attempt, you have an alternative. Read and re-read one of your favorite books.

In fact, that might be better than the class, as inspiring as the class will be. Many of us learnt more about plotting, character development, and dialogue from reading the kinds of books we wanted to write. In my case, it was Dune and Earth Abides. Ultimately, I would change my mind about what I wanted to write, but the lessons and discoveries made while reading those novels were of lasting value.

It’s a choice, we all grapple with: learning through lecture and discussion OR learning by seeing a final product that illustrates how it was done by the master.

–Malcolm