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Posts from the ‘writing’ Category

Review: ‘Redemption Road’ by John Hart

Redemption RoadRedemption Road by John Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s enough darkness in this book to cause an eclipse of the sun soon after you begin reading. Elizabeth, the protagonist is a good cop with a good heart that is filled with life-affirming love and infinite grit. Her past was cruel to her and it’s neither gone nor forgotten.

Her story in this thriller will carry you through the darkness stemming from multiple characters whose self-righteous evil is as unflinching as Elizabeth’s heart. Thirteen years prior to the beginning of the novel, a policeman was convicted of killing a young woman and leaving her body on the altar of the church where Elizabeth’s father preaches. Elizabeth, who was a rookie cop at the time thought he was wrongly convicted. As a cop, he has a hard time surviving prison. When he gets out, the killings start again with the same MO. This appears to prove that everyone else on the police force is right about him and that Elizabeth is naive.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth is having her own troubles with the authorities over a case she’s involved in. The plot is complex and well constructed, the writing is superb, and the characters have more dimensions, secrets, and agonies than you can shake a stick at. At all times, the notion of a redemption road out of this chaos seems to many as an unlikely nirvana or simply a dead end.

The story is adeptly told and highly recommended.

–Malcolm

View all my reviews

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Wow, I’m gonna be rich

Eulalie and Washerwoman

No, I didn’t enter the lottery or the latest Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes.

There’s a slight glitch on the title page in the proof copy of Eulalie and Washerwoman. Fortunately, it was easily fixed.

You’ve read about misprints on stamps and how they turn into exceedingly rare collectors’ items that are worth $100000000. I figure this misprinted title page is going to make this proof copy a one-of-a-kind rarity that, say, a hundred years from now, will be worth millions of dollars or euros or whatever we’re spending in those days.

I’m going to hide this copy under a fake rock in the flower bed or some other place nobody would look for it until it’s time to cash in.

Widely Scattered Ghosts

I dedicated my new short story collection to my granddaughters. They don’t know it yet because they’re seven and ten and not old enough to read ghost stories. So, I sent two signed copies to my daughter and she said she’d hide them until the girls are old enough for some like-weight spooky stuff. By the way, I posted a brief excerpt from one of these stories on my web site here.

Dark Arrows, Dark Targets

This is the working title of a new novel based on the Pollyanna character you met in Lena. However, I haven’t made a lot of progress with it other than researching 1940s women’s clothing and the kinds of bows and arrows that were popular in the early 1950s.

I’ve never been able to write when anything stressful is happening. This time it’s a scheduled biopsy on Thursday. I’ve been worrying about the negative results of a blood test for months and now it’s gotten bad enough to see what’s causing the high number. It might be, you know, or it might not.

As usual, the characters want to know just what the hell I’m doing when I’m not working on their stories.

Mother’s Day

It’s raining here for Mother’s Day, but since I’m a dad, that’s not my problem. I did wish my daughter, who lives faraway in Maryland–where there’s a 47% chance of rain–a happy Mother’s Day AND one of my granddaughters a happy birthday.

If you’re a mom, I hope the weather is wonderful wherever you are.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

What’s a writer’s first goal: sharing ideas or making money?

“Recently, though, it occurred to me that the end goal for aspiring writers always seems to be ‘getting a book deal’ or ‘getting published,’ and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I might not be entirely happy about that.” – Paul Hogan in his writing newsletter “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives.”

Hogan, a successful writer, writing consultant, and blogger at the granddaddy of literary blogs (Beatrice) finds it interesting that a lot of people pick up hobbies such as painting or guitar playing with no thought whatsoever of becoming an illustrator, performer, composer, or anything else that has to do with making money. Yet, when people decide to start writing, they soon turn toward the question of becoming a professional one way or the other.

If this is your number one goal, you might be putting the cart before the horse.

I might speculate that with traditional writing and diary keeping being less of a fad these days than they were in our parents’ and grandparents’ and great grandparents’ eras, people don’t generally perceive writing as a form of recreation. While painting and guitar playing are a form of communication, people als0 see them as relaxing ways to play. Somehow, writing as relaxation falls away in people’s minds. They see it as communication. And not long afterwards, a way of making money whether they have a monetized blog, write freelance articles, or turn to fiction.

Hogan thinks aspiring writers will be happier if they are less frantic about making money and more interested in deciding why they are writing. He suggests discovering your passions (and possibly yourself) and developing those as something you wish to share with others. Is all this fulfilling? If so, then perhaps it leads to something that makes money at some point. If a writer begins that way and ultimately becomes a professional, s/he might be better off in the long run–and happier on his/her way to wherever that passion might lead.

An article in The Guardian “Writing at risk of becoming an ‘elitist’ profession, report warns” notes that working writers’ incomes are continuing to fall making it more necessary for professionals to be subsidized. The subsidy usually comes through the writer’s primary job and/or from the money brought into the household by a spouse or other partner. One point of the article is that people with lower paying jobs won’t have enough money to subsidize the kind of writing schedule required to a professional author.

The falling income part of the equation might make writers focusing first on profits and salability to be frustrated and frenzied than those who begin by developing and sharing passions before becoming overly concerned about writing income.

Hogan makes a good point when he suggests that getting a book deal shouldn’t be the first thing on an aspiring writer’s TO DO list.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s novels include The Sun Singer and Conjure Woman’s Cat.

 

 

Our writing takes us back to our childhood

“Other than childhood, what was there in those days that is not here today?” – St-John Perse from “To Celebrate a Childhood”

Perse is not well known today. I know his work because my mother bought a copy of one of his books in 1944, and I found his memories of childhood to be similar to mine in tone as I left home, grew older, and thought back to those formative years before I grew up and started losing my innocence.

Photo by Kal Visuals on Unsplash

If my parents were still here today, they would tell you that I was dragged kicking and screaming out of the Pacific Northwest into the Florida Panhandle just before entering the first grade. If the acronym had been around in those days, I would have been shouting WTF–and probably incurred the wrath of everyone!

Oddly enough, Florida won me over. I “blame” the Boy Scouts and their camping trips for this as well as friends who had beach cottages, and my mother, too, who organized family day trips to all kinds of tempting places.

Florida has been showing up in my work of late. I set my first novels in Montana and then placed a satire in Texas. But I finally came home, and I guess I think of Florida that way now, and concentrated on the world where I grew up. My childhood in Florida was actually quite good once I started looking around at the neighborhood and finding an environment I liked. Basically, I grew up on the beach and in the piney woods.

Now, as those days draw me back now in my fiction, I wonder how many other authors discover that not only can they go home again, but that that is where their most powerful inspiration can be found. Childhood is such an impressionable time that it variously haunts us or inspires us for the rest of our lives. So many people are writing memoirs these days as though the writing itself helps them understand where they came from and what happened there. We do that in our stories as well.

Then, as now, I was struck by the conflict between the land and its beauty and the politics of Jim Crow. That disconnect still makes no sense to me. So, I write stories about it and try to figure it out. I have a feeling a lot of other writers are doing the same thing in fiction and nonfiction. We want to understand what turned us into the people we are today. Nature? Nurture? Probably both. For all I know, fate dragged me to Florida so that I would one day write Conjure Woman’s Cat.

That’s probably not the case. For one thing, I don’t believe in fate. But I do see that childhood wields a lot of power over us and that try as we might, we can never really escape it–supposing that we want to. I don’t want to, though I once did. Stories from a writer’s childhood are always there waiting to be told, to influence what s/he writes many years into the future. Those stories hold a lot of power over us and, frankly, life is much easier if we listen to them and share them with others.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘Rules’ on Writing Inner Thoughts in Books

Sometimes a disagreement gives me pause to explore how I see a certain style of writing and why. In this case, a member of my critique group and I differed on the use of italics for inner dialogue, or thoughts. He hates them. I use them. It has caused some strong discussion. (Yes, we remain good friends.)

Source: The “Rules” on Writing Inner Thoughts in Books ‹ Indies Unlimited ‹ Reader — WordPress.com

Basically, how you approach a character’s thoughts comes down to personal preference unless your work is going to a publisher with a strong editor and/or a strong style sheet.

In my novel Conjure Woman’s Cat and its two sequels, I used italics to indicate that the cat was using telepathy to talk to the conjure woman. My editor thought I didn’t need to do that, but I didn’t want to go through entire pages of “thought speech” with “Lena thought” and “Eulalie thought” tied onto all the lines. That might make readers think they were just thinking about those things when they were communicating them.

Italics becomes a bit of a problem when passages become lengthy. It’s generally considered harder to read–or a “put off” to readers–when it covers entire pages.

This piece in Indies Unlimited is, I think, a catalyst for us to think about what we’re doing when we write.

–Malcolm

 

Write what you know: but I’ve never been a bag lady

“BAG LADY: A poor woman, often homeless, who uses bags or shopping carts to transport her possessions and collect things that might be of use or traded for money.” – Urban Dictionary

Authors often joke about the feds tracking them down after they (the writers) use the Internet to learn how to kill people in various ways, break into banks, and commit other nefarious deeds for use in upcoming novels.

Yesterday, I looked at dozens of sites to learn more about bullet and arrow wounds. I found a wealth of information. So far, the police haven’t knocked on my door to talk to me about cold cases involving arrows in the ass.

Years ago, I asked a vet on a pet forum how much chocolate it would take to kill a large dog. Figured I’d get turned in ASPCA. I was surprised that we actually had a good discussion about it: he knew I was an author and not a nasty pet killer.

And then there the time I asked a forensic scientist what a dead lady would look like after she’d been buried for three months. He told me and asked for a copy of my book in which I gave him credit in the acknowledgements. Apparently, I didn’t sound crazy enough for him to suspect I was a grave robber.

It just goes to show, authors not only write what they know but write what they don’t.

So now the novel in progress has a bag lady in it. Needless to say, I’ve never been a bag lady. I once knew a lady that people in town thought was a bag lady. She looked like she was 150 years old (she wasn’t) and had the dried out look old people get who’ve smoked ten packs of cigarettes a week for 80 years. She was the cashier at a small grocery store. One time when the credit card reader was taking a long time, she asked that the screen was saying.

“Waiting for bag lady,” I said (because she bagged the groceries as she scanned them). “Most people around here think I’m a bag lady because I walk everywhere when my car won’t run which is near about always.” After that, she got ticked off if I didn’t come to her register or take her advice on my grocery buying habits. Seems like I saw her everywhere in town and about every time we’d stop to chat, somebody would ask me a few days later why I was talking to “that old bag lady.”  I told people she was giving me brokerage tips.

She’s long gone now, but I think of her as I try to come up with what the bag lady in my new novel will look like and act like. Whenever I have a female character in a novel, I have to ask my wife what kind of clothes she’d wear. I’m aware that women wear clothes, but I have no idea what any of the clothes are called or what for what occasions they’d be appropriate. My wife can’t help me as much this time out because my 1950s bag lady is wearing clothes from the mid-1940s.

Government restrictions seriously impacted the clothing people could buy. My wife wasn’t around then, so I’me learning about color and fabric restrictions, knitting socks for troops, and the no-nonsense styles men and women wore then on line. Even Mrs. Roosevelt was purportedly knitting socks for the war effort. Needless to say, my bag lady doesn’t look like the lady on the cover of that sheet music.

If there’s a crime spree in your neighborhood targeting bag ladies, I have an alibi–enough browser history to prove I’m here in my den doing research.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released short story collection “Widely Scattered Ghosts.”

 

 

National Poetry Month: ‘Sharks in the Rivers’

If Ada Limón stopped writing poetry today–hard to imagine as that is–she would probably be remembered for Bright Dead Things and her most recent collection The Carrying. However, I want to mention her 2010 collection sharks in the rivers because–as with many singers, for example–a writer’s earlier words are often created and executed through raw, wild power that, in time, often becomes more polished as the years go by. I think this searching, magical volume will always stand out as a primal voice that time will always be trying to tame.

Review

In his review in The Brooklyn Rail, Jeffrey Cyphers Wright wrote,

“Rivers and sharks are grand metaphors in these ruminative soliloquies—as much about going with the flow as facing down your demons. Bravery and fear, like opposing eyes peering through the murk, inform Ada Limón’s vision. Not one to be obsessively reductive, minnows, angelfish, and barracudas round out “the City of Sharks” she navigates.

“Limón allegorizes other creatures as well: owls, sparrows, cormorants, and butterflies. ‘Every one of us with a bear inside.’ This penchant for mixed metaphors could be disastrous in a more rigid, less expansive treatment, but here it is compelling. Candor and artifice intertwine with (human) nature and Surrealism—think Sharon Olds (her teacher) dancing with Pablo Neruda.”

Publisher’s Description

“The speaker in this extraordinary collection finds herself multiply dislocated: from her childhood in California, from her family’s roots in Mexico, from a dying parent, from her prior self. The world is always in motion — both toward and away from us—and it is also full of risk: from sharks unexpectedly lurking beneath estuarial rivers to the dangers of New York City, where, as Limón reminds us, even rats find themselves trapped by the garbage cans they’ve crawled into. In such a world, how should one proceed? Throughout Sharks in the Rivers, Limón suggests that we must cleave to the world as it ‘keep[s] opening before us,’ for, if we pay attention, we can be one with its complex, ephemeral, and beautiful strangeness. Loss is perpetual, and each person’s mouth ‘is the same / mouth as everyone’s, all trying to say the same thing.’ For Limón, it’s the saying—individual and collective — that transforms each of us into ‘a wound overcome by wonder,’ that allows ‘the wind itself’ to be our ‘own wild whisper.'”

As you read these poems, you might not always be sure whether the lines are magical realism or metaphor. Or both. Or, just how the speaker has seemingly merged with that about which she speaks.

“I saw myself by the Rio Grande watching
a crane swoops down over the collection pond.

I was the fish in the drainage ditch,
you, the crane’s scissoring shadow.”

“Every one of us has a sparrow
underneath her tongue,
bouncing and burrowing.”

“(Sharks are listening right now, I’m sending out signals.)

I’m dreaming of them. I’m wrapping my arms
around their cold, gray, magnificent bodies.

We’re both sleeping
with our shark-eyes open”

The object (or critter) and the observer become one and the same.

Malcolm

Blogging, what’s it all about?

Writers are usually advised to have websites and blogs. There are lots of reasons even though blogs aren’t as popular as they were, say, back in the 1990s when the concept began. Blogs become, so say the experts, part of your platform or presence on the Internet.

Nonfiction

No, I don’t look anything like this clip art.

Not counting widely known writers, blogs seem almost mandatory for those writing nonfiction because they help establish subject-matter credibility. Such blogs have a built-in niche and tend to draw readers who are interested in beekeeping, home repair, investing, or whatever the author’s subject matter is. If the author is busy, s/he may have announcements of upcoming events related to that niche along with links to his/her articles along with resources links to sites and articles written by others. So the blog becomes another clearinghouse of information and (so the author hopes) will be a way of publicizing the books.

Fiction

Widely known fiction writers have a built-in audience of readers who are looking for them; they want to know the latest news about new books, presentations, panels, signings, etc. Unknown writers don’t have people looking for them. So, they are often told to blog about the subject-matter and locations of their books more than their books. If they write several posts a week about their books, that’s often considered SPAM. On the other hand, after maintaining this blog for a number of years filled with posts about Montana, Florida, mountains, swamps, hero’s journey, hoodoo, the environment and related subjects that relate to my novels, I can say that after a while, the writer runs out of book-related subject matter to talk about.

And, as far as I can see, there’s little correlation between those who read my posts about hoodoo, for example, and the sales of my books in which the main character is a conjure woman. Of course, most of the people who read this blog aren’t fans of hoodoo and related subjects, so I can’t establish a “hoodoo niche” and write about that all the time. But even if I did, I suspect that readers searching on hoodoo and conjure are looking for how-to more than fiction.

This brings me to the point that some writers make: blogging takes time away from writing the novels one is supposed to be writing. Yes, it does, and while I appreciate all of you who follow this blog greatly, I’m wondering if the blog is “earning its keep.”

Politics

J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, and other well-known and wealthy writers can make political comments on Twitter all the time without harming their authors’ reputations. They may lose a few readers, but I’m sure they don’t care. I wrote a political post on this blog yesterday and deleted it today. Why? I guess I wish I hadn’t written it even though writers–among others–are being urged to speak out more and more about political matters. The thing is, politics has become so polarized these days, one can hardly say anything that doesn’t bring down the wrath of the multitudes. Suffice it to say, I’m a political moderate, yet the polarization in venues such as Facebook is so extreme that moderates get beat up by both conservatives and liberals. I don’t see a lot of real dialogue on Facebook. Just a lot of nastiness from people who wouldn’t dare say the things they say at a backyard barbecue or a bar or a party. I don’t think I want to bring that nastiness into this blog even though my political views are just as real as everyone else’s views.

So, What’s Left to Say?

My first thought is “not a lot.” I’ve been blogging for a long time on many platforms over the years. I’ve met a lot of cool people, found interesting discussions, been lured into exciting blogs of others, and had fun shooting off my mouth. But after 25 years of that, I’m not sure I know what I’m doing here on WordPress. As people reach my age (I’m not telling you what it is) they often find they’re out of sync with the world. That is to say, it becomes more and more obvious with each passing year that they are part of the older generation which is variously considered to be: (a) responsible for what’s wrong with the world, (b) out of touch with the major thrusts of culture and popular culture, (c) trapped in the past.

The days are long gone when old people were venerated for their wisdom.  (Hell, my generation grew up with the admonition not to trust anyone over 30.) Not that I have any wisdom. When I was a kid, I thought I would know lots of stuff by the time I was a grandfather. Boy, was I fooled!

This is almost goodbye, I think.

Malcolm

 

An infinite number of writing prompts

I try to stay away from badly written books and totally worthless movies. Yet, they might be goldmines! A writing professor of mine once said that he finds a lot of value in both because he used them as writing prompts. How? The challenge he saw in them was figuring out how to fix them.

Wikipedia photo

In the world of major publishers and agents, this is one of the editor’s jobs, though they don’t intentionally begin with something worthless. They begin with something that has promise but needs a lot of work. They help the author turn the work into something much better.

You can practice your writing skills in a similar way by taking badly written books or movies and figuring out what makes them badly written and how you would fix them if you happened to work for a major publisher as the author’s editor. If you like writing prompts, fixing bad books–or scenes out of bad books–gives you an infinite number of exercises.

Think of the kinds of complaints you read in one-star Amazon reviews: thin or unbelievable plot, one-dimensional characters, skimpy information about the novel’s setting, storyline padded out with too much description or lengthy and inane conversations that don’t move the plot forward, etc.

Pick one scene and make it work. Make sure it’s a scene that requires better writing and not a scene you would cut altogether. For example, if there’s a section of lengthy description, try to re-write it at half the length. If the dialogue is inane, what can the characters say to each other at that point in the story that makes more sense? You can give yourself a bigger challenge by writing within the original author’s voice and style rather than your own.

My professor thought that one way of learning how to diagnose and fix weaknesses in our own work was by diagnosing and correcting problems in the works of other writers. It’s an interesting exercise and, goodness knows, there are hundreds of books out there we can use for raw material.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently release short story collection “Widely Scattered Ghosts.”

Having fun with my research

Now that I’ve finally promised my publisher a new novel and floated the general premise past her (she liked it), it’s time to do some research.

Typical poster used to get the public to do their own knitting and donate a lot of it to the cause.

Like the Florida Folk Magic Stories, this novel will be set in the Florida Panhandle, so I already know the area. This is one of the benefits of writing a series, or doing a standalone novel that uses the series as a starting point: you have a lot of location information on file that wasn’t used in the previous novels.

Since my main character is a bag lady in 1955, I’ve been looking at clothing manufactured during the 1940s. Needless to say, a bag lady isn’t going to be wearing the latest thing from Paris or even from Sears Roebuck. There’s a lot of material available about 1940s women’s clothing inasmuch as it was greatly influenced by rationing and shortages.  A lot of people were mending old clothes, making do with fewer fabric selections, and knitting socks for the troops (and themselves).  So, I think I know what my bag lady’s going to wear.

While the novel isn’t historical, I want the cultural references to be right. So, what was happening in Florida in 1955? I already know that the KKK was strong in those years. And I know that educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune died in 1955 in Daytona Beach. My bag lady would know that because even though 1955 is part of the Jim Crow era, the story would be covered by the press.

My bag lady is–for reasons I won’t divulge now–an expert bow hunter. This means checking on the kinds of bows and arrows used by hunters in those days. I had good luck with this. I found information about the most widely known brand of bow at the time along with a selection of arrows.

Now, since this novel starts where the series ends, I have to make sure that I don’t contradict anything that happened in the series. So, I’m researching my own stuff to make sure there aren’t any continuity problems. For example, if a bad guy was killed in the series, I don’t want him showing up in the new book fit as a fiddle. By the way, “fit as a fiddle” is the kind of thing my bag lady would say–checking the slang of an era is part of the process. I’m surprised at the number of TV series that have characters from years ago using modern slang such as “whoa!” (meaning “wow!”) and other phrases that nobody said twenty or thirty years ago.

When Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and I were both in an ancient CompuServe literary forum, we found that we had one thing in common that a lot of writers weren’t understanding. The research has an impact on the story the writer is about to tell because it tips him/her off to things s/he didn’t know and is responsible for altering the plot of a novel in ways the writer wouldn’t have considered before the research phase began.

I didn’t care for research projects in school–often for the purpose of writing “themes” as they were called in those days–but I enjoy them now. I once read that writers like Nora Roberts have a staff that includes researchers. While there are times when I wish I could pick up the phone and ask an assistant a question and get an immediate answer, I feel much more in touch with my characters and my story when I have to look up all the stuff myself.

Malcolm