Category Archives: writing

My memoir would only be full of lies

Standard

This is the era of the memoir. That’s okay. Everyone has a story to tell. If you’re already famous, so much the better, especially when the real story includes sex, scandals, and heroics that the biographers and fan magazines missed.

I used to tell people I was raised by alligators near the town of Immokalee, Florida and that my dad, Papa Gator, was the inspiration for the section of road through the Everglades called Alligator Alley.

Surprisingly, few people thought this was true even though they appreciated the wisdom of Papa Gator and his attempts to gain respect from the snowbird northern tourists without having to sacrifice his eating habits. There’s no need to talk about that here because most of you would probably file those truths under Too Much Information.

In “real life” I was a college professor’s son in a middle-class brick house in a middle-class neighborhood. I delivered the morning newspaper, had a ham radio receiver and transmitter in my bedroom along with fresh water and salt water aquariums, and was an Eagle Scout. Where I “went wrong” was discovering that I could lie in such a way that people believed me, including my parents, teachers, pastors, and ladies of the evening whom we snuck into the church basement.

See, already you have here the basis for a successful lie. Looking at the previous sentence, most people will assume we snuck in hookers, while others will wonder if–inspire of the Oxford comma–we also snuck in parents, teachers, and pastors. I learned early on that successful lies needed to include enough verifiable facts to make them seem true along with certain areas of vagueness that were misleading. Case in point, when I told my parents I was going to swing by the library, they thought–as I knew they would–that I was actually going to go inside and study. I never said that but I was content with their view of my plans for the evening.

I didn’t like staying inside the house. So, during an evening when I said I was swinging by the library–which was the gospel truth of the matter–my 1954 Chevy and I were likely to be a hundred of miles away from home, usually following sandy roads through national forest lands and visiting places with multiple meanings in their names like the River Styx, Tate’s Hell Swamp, and Florida Garden of Eden.

A family friend wrote a popular book called The Other Florida about the state’s panhandle and I was determined to explore all of it. I thought I was simply getting away from it all. Little did I know I was inadvertently gathering facts and impressions about a series of conjure woman books I would one day write some fifty years in the future.

Of course, fiction and fact blur together. Such is my imagination. Is it a lie or is it fiction? When I write fiction, I always blur the lines between truth and myth, impressions and reality, and night and day. That’s who I am, and it grew out of the need I felt as a child to be secretive and to keep people from knowing who I was or where I was, and so it evolved into a writing style in the genres of magical realism, contemporary fantasy, and paranormal. Yes, I know, the who business might be an early sign of dementia.

This is clip art and not a drawing of anybody I knew. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

All this comes to mind because I’m working on a short story about a man who’s put in a rest home because his kids convince a judge he’s too eccentric to be left alone in his home where he’ll probably spend all the money they want to inherit on frivolous stuff. Not that I think my family would do that. But if they did, I’m sure they’d tell the judge that I think I was raised by alligators or that I snuck a hooker into the church basement.

Writers not only have to worry that their search history on their computer might one day be snagged by the FBI in an attempt to prove they did some hideous thing when, in fact, they were doing research for a book, but they (the writers) also have to worry about being put in a home when people figure out that the stories and novels they publish sound oddly similar to the lies they told their parents when they were kids.

My imagination has always ruled my thinking. It has taken precedence over logic and so-called verifiable facts. I justify my lies by pointing out that quantum mechanics tells us that what can happen, does happen. With that in mind, it’s impossible to tell a lie. Plus, if I appeared to be telling a lie–in “real life” or a memoir–I was simply working on the rough draft for a short story, novel, or alibi.

I suspect that most of my life actually happened. But as I grow older, I’m not sure how or where it happened. Papa Gator seems so real

Malcolm

 

 

 

Advertisements

Don’t assume your readers know what you know

Standard

Fiction writers often assume readers know what they know. Why wouldn’t they? For one thing, you might be older than your readers, so terms from thirty or forty years ago that make sense to you might have no impact on a 25-year old. For example, if I write that a character in a novel set in the 1950s made a station-to-station long distance call, that term is so long gone, few people will understand it today.

Ghost light. Wikipedia photo.

For another thing, your readers might live in another country. In the southern U.S., most of us grew up eating deep-fried cornbread balls called hushpuppies. Then, several chain restaurants that specialize in fish added these to their menus and the rest of the country became familiar with them. Yet, as a question from a reader of this blog indicates, this food is unknown in the U.K. She asked if I was talking about the brand of shoes named Hush Puppies. She hoped so because eating shoes seemed better than eating actual puppies.

Or, you might know a subject like the back of your hand and have no idea that some of its common terms aren’t that common to those who aren’t fans of that subject. A proofreader who was going through my recent short story about ghosts in an old theater stumbled over the term “ghost light.” I mentioned it in the story but didn’t define it. Was it an eerie light caused by a ghost or something else?

It was easy to change my sentence from “Bob put the ghost light on the stage” to “Bob brought out the ghost light, a bare bulb on a stand and turned it on.” I knew what they were because I’d seen people doing that in old movies about theaters and knew that the light served as a night light (for safety reasons) so that when the house lights were turned off, the place wouldn’t be pitch black. (One might trip over a set or fall into the orchestra pit.

According to an old superstition, theaters always have ghosts. This light gives them a welcome-lit stage of which to perform at night when the theater is closed.

I don’t particularly like slowing down a story and/or ruining the flow of the prose by describing objects or customs that I think ought to be clear to everyone–or, at least, clear within the context where they’re used. Yet, when a reader stalls on a word or phrase that’s important to the story, a parenthetical description is better than confusing a reader.

I’ve read enough British fiction to know that spotted dick is a suet and fruit pudding, not a man with a venereal disease and that cock a leeky is not a slang phrase for relieving oneself in the restroom, but a soup that includes chicken and leeks. The first time I saw those phrases, I thought they were crude jokes of some kind. There’s no problem with such phrases when they appear in the U.K. editions of a book, but in the U.S. editions, a bit of translation would help.

Okay, I missed “ghost light” in my short story, but more often than not I try to scan my work for words and phrases that might confuse or mislead the readers. And no, I’m not going to start using footnotes for them.

Malcolm

The “Florida Folk Magic Stores” e-book includes the novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and “Lena” in one handy Kindle edition that costs you less than buying the novels separately.

 

A cat, a paperback, and a pillow

Standard

Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m older than most of you.

Bookwise, this means that I grew up reading hardbacks and paperbacks and still prefer them to Nooks, Kindles, and whatever else people use to read off the screen.

As 2018 ended, I tallied up the number of copies sold for Conjure Woman’s Cat, Eulalie and Washerwoman, and Lena. (Actually, my publisher did this.) Anyhow, what continues to surprise me is that for all of these books, the paperback editions represent a very small percentage of total sales.

I have Kindle for PC, so I do read books off the screen. However, I spend the entire day looking at a screen, so the last thing I want to do when I relax with an interesting book at the end of the day is read it off the screen. I buy paperbacks when I can and hardbacks when I can’t wait for the paperback edition to come out. Every night before I go to sleep, I prop up in bed with a calico cat named Katy, a paperback book (currently, Tom Clancy’s Dark Zone) and a comfy pillow. The ambiance would be totally spoilt with a Kindle or a Nook.

Yet, even though I’m older than most of you, I don’t feel that out of touch. I have this blog, a Facebook account, and can be found on Twitter. So, I’m not a 1950s person trying to navigate the new millennium. That means, I thought more people would be reading paperback and hardbacks because those are real books. Yes, I know, they cost more, but you really never own the books, do you? They’re saved on Amazon and you’re just accessing them.

If Amazon were to crash and burn, which might not be a bad thing, all of my physical books would still be on the shelves in my office the next day. I have no clue where all my Kindle copies would be. I suspect the answer is “nowhere.”

Plus, if you have a cat next to you in bed, that cat doesn’t want to compete with a Kindle, a tablet, or any other kind of electronics because those cat ears pick up the sounds from the unit, including the demons hard-coded in the software, and they’re (those sounds) not soporific in spite of my white noise machine that covers up the outside world.

So, my advice–not that you’ve listened in the past–is keep the cat, keep the pillow, and ditch the e-book. Yes, I know, there will be a period of withdrawal as you wean yourself from movies and books watched/read off of cell phones. But once you succeed, you’ll feel better about yourself and your reading habits. Seriously, you don’t want to be hooked into the Internet like just another computer, do you?

The other day, I saw an article bemoaning the fact that nobody fixes stuff anymore when it breaks. They just replace it.  So, what happens to your Nook or Kindle when it breaks? You throw it in the trash since recycling centers seldom take electronics. Bad for the Earth, right? When a physical book “breaks,” we can either throw it in the fireplace (which somehow seems wrong) or we can throw it out with the sure and certain knowledge it’s biodegradable.

The bottom line is this: Kindles and Nooks have zero reading ambiance when you’re propped up in bed with your calico cat, but worse yet, they’re not Earth-friendly. Personally, I hope the Earth stays around for a while, so I read paperbacks and hardbacks and see that as part of my bit for humanity. No, it’s not the same as discovering a cure for cancer or a cost-effective way of getting all the plastic out of the oceans, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of three folk magic novels set in the Florida Panhandle during the Jim Crow Era in which a conjure woman named Eulalie and a cat named Lena fight the evils of the day

 

 

 

 

What It Felt Like When ‘Cat Person’ Went Viral

Standard

“So what was it like to have a story go viral? For a few hours, before I came to my senses and shut down my computer, I got to live the dream and the nightmare of knowing exactly what people thought when they read what I’d written, as well as what they thought about me. A torrent of unvarnished, unpolished opinion was delivered directly to my eyes and my brain. That thousands—and, eventually, millions—of readers had liked the story, identified with it, been affected by it, exhorted others to read it, didn’t make this any easier to take. The story was not autobiographical, but it was, nonetheless, personal—everything I write is personal—and here were all these strangers dissecting it, dismissing it, judging it, fighting about it, joking about it, and moving on.”

Source: What It Felt Like When “Cat Person” Went Viral | The New Yorker

Most authors hope this will happen to one of their articles, short stories, or blog posts because they have been working for years as a virtual unknown writing what reviewers and friends tell them is good stuff even though none of that good stuff sells well on Kindle or anywhere else.

We don’t think about the flip side. Do we really want the world peering through our online windows asking who the hell we are, why the hell we wrote what we wrote, and what exactly was the whole point of it?

When a writer’s novel suddenly becomes a bestseller, the old joke is that s/he is an overnight sensation that was years in the making. That his to say, the public discovered the writer today even though s/he has a resume full of books written over a decade or more that few people noticed.

The dangers of things going viral are, I think, greater with a magazine article or a short story because even if the primary version appears in print, the online version will have a link that makes it easy to access and read quickly in its entirety–as opposed to a 400-page novel. Suddenly, everything about the author and his/her piece is all over the Internet and people are saying this sucks or this is great. Yes, writers dream about becoming known, seeing their work sell, and actually earning a living off their efforts.

I’m not sure going viral as Kristen Roupenian describes in her article is the way I’d want to go. How about you? If you write a short story that does viral, you’ll probably be able to get an agent and a publisher for your book. Yet, are you sure the intrusion of the universe into your writing room is worth it?

Malcolm

A Few Creative Book Marketing Ideas

Standard

“I was talking with a class that I was teaching this past week about marketing strategies and realized we haven’t had a marketing post in a while. Twitter and Facebook are what I think of as old marketing standbys, but there are other, more creative ways to market. Of course, as the kids say, YMMV (your mileage may vary) with all of them. Below is a summary of what we discussed.”

Source: Creative Book Marketing Ideas – Indies Unlimited

As an author, I like reading posts about book marketing because there’s usually something new to me in each one. Plus, times change, and what worked five years ago may not be quite as effective now. Melinda Clayton is a publisher and a university teacher, so she sees more of what works and what doesn’t work than most of us.

She also includes links to other articles for writers at Indies Unlimited.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and “Lena.”

‘Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder’

Standard

“Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder.” 
― Raymond Chandler

I just finished a novel (see picture) that was 99% technique and 1% nonsense. The author used a technique that’s so ubiquitous these days, it’s got to be more than a fad. It’s an epidemic.

It works like this. You’re reading a high-stakes chapter, probably a thriller, and at the end of the chapter something untoward happens such as, “Bob kicked open the door and noticed 25 men pointing their guns at him.”

You turn the page wondering, more than idly, how the hero’s going to get out of this mess. Do you find out? No. What you see is the beginning of a new section of the book called SIX MONTHS EARLIER and most of that section seems completely irrelevant or, in writer talk: a very intrusive backstory.

There’s no passion in this, and I’m not talking about the kind of passion Raymond Chandler was referring to when he wrote, “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” The story would have been more interesting if it had been a house of cards rather than a house of gimmicks.

The story lacked passion because when it came down to it the story and the characters didn’t really matter. Instead, they were cheap tricks strung together like the kind of necklace you can buy at a pawn shop for a couple of bucks. Unfortunately, the book cost more than that and didn’t have the gumption to acknowledge that, when compared to cheap hookers, it was more false.

The novel, written by an author whom the blurbs said was the next Stephen King or the next Michael Crichton, had an inventive beginning in which a passenger jet arrives at a small airport where the flight pilot and copilot discover that everyone on the ground is apparently dead. Unfortunately, the main characters immediately out themselves as dysfunctional. Suddenly, the novel reminds me of Chandler’s line, “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

At a distance, the story has possibilities worthy of King and Chrichton. Up close, it’s dysfunctional characters and a lot of technique. The author has chosen a distasteful stew of technique, characters who are too broken to even speak to each other, and techno-speak with which to engineer this costume jewelry of a story.

Here’s a spoiler: Google, we learn, might be developing products that aren’t good for us even though they have plenty of technique in them and look like they are good for us. Well, that’s hardly a new idea. Nonetheless, it’s the driving force behind why the ground crew at the airport seem to be dead.

In the final analysis, there’s nothing to see here or, as Chandler says, “The moment a man begins to talk about technique that’s proof that he is fresh out of ideas.”

It takes guts, I think, to tell a story straight rather than relying on stale smoke and cloudy mirrors. Dead on Arrival is dead on arrival.

Malcolm

 

Getting rich writing? Some are, most aren’t!

Standard

“The world’s 11 highest-paid authors sold 24.5 million print books combined in the U.S. during our scoring period, logging $283 million. The prolific James Patterson takes first place, earning $86 million and selling 4.8 million books in the U.S. alone, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks 85% of the domestic print market.” – Hayley C. Cuccinello, Forbes

Most authors pay little to no attention to this list. We don’t expect or aspire to be on it because we don’t need that kind of money, don’t want to be public figures, write because it’s what inspires us and drives us, and really don’t want to be busy picking out red leaf lettuce in Kroger when somebody comes up and says, “Hey, aren’t you what’s his face?”

I don’t know why clip artists think we still use typewriters.

The worst thing about this list is that it gives many readers the idea that all authors make more than we do and are probably charging too much for our books. But otherwise, hearing that James Patterson, J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, and John Grisham are the top four authors on this year’s list isn’t surprising or exciting, nor does it provoke feelings of jealousy.

Every once in a while, I look at the advertising for book promotional sites to see what they’re pushing. All too often, I see that they provide studies and algorithms that will tell me what topics and plots authors should choose in order to make the most money. When I see that, I click on the X in the upper right corner of my screen and the site goes away. I have no interest in a list of hot themes and hot character types that the public is currently excited about. This is not to say that authors should pick ideas that nobody cares about and stubbornly write about them.

Most of us have our comfort areas, themes that interest us, character types that we love writing about, and locations that lend themselves to the kinds of plots we prefer. Most of us do our best work within our comfort areas and probably would fail miserably if we tried to write a novel that sounded like something any of the top writers on the list are writing. That truth has more to do with who we are than the fact we’d be in competition with a well-known author.

Some of my readers might think that I wrote the Florida Folk Magic trilogy of novels about racism in Florida during the 1950s because racism has become a hot topic again.  But I didn’t. The racism I saw when I was growing up in the Florida Panhandle had been on my mind for a long time. While working on the first book in the series, Conjure Woman’s Cat, I had no idea that the topic was “trending.” I’m pretty sure that when Michael Wolff wrote Fire and Fury, he knew his topic was trending. Did he think his book would catapult him into the list of top-earning authors? I doubt it. I think his book did better than he expected. At the same time, my trilogy didn’t capture the attention I expected.

According to Forbes, Wolff’s book has sold over a million copies in the U.S. Most writers don’t think about sales figures like that. We do think about selling a few thousand copies of each of our books per year. That’s not easy to do for self-published or small-press authors. For one thing, we’re too dependent on Amazon though they certainly can’t be faulted for focusing their efforts on the books that bring in the most bang for the buck, that is to say, the top writers on the Forbes list. For another, reviewers tend to focus on books from large presses that everyone is talking about. That’s simple economics: what brings readers to your publication or website: reviews of books nobody’s ever heard of or reviews of books everybody’s talking about? Not a hard question to answer.

Most readers don’t have enough time to read everything they want to read. I sure don’t. So we all make choices: what books are the most likely to be worth an investment of our time? I read books from many authors on the top of the book selling lists because I like their books and they aren’t likely to disappoint me. But still, I don’t think it’s that hard to add a few self-published or small-press authors to my reading list for the year. Many of them surprise me: wow, these books are great. When I feel that way, I try to post positive reviews and tell my friends about them. I know those authors face the same barriers that I do when it comes to people finding out about their books.

Goodness knows, my opinion isn’t going to send an author’s book into the the James Patterson/Jo Rowling stratosphere of book sales. Yet, if we talk about the self-published and small-press books we like, more people will purchase them and keep those authors busy writing and finding readers who enjoy their work.

Malcolm