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Posts from the ‘writing’ Category

Be careful when asking for opinions about stories you haven’t started writing

“Hold off asking for opinion. The earlier you ask for feedback, the more likely you are to get deterred from what might be your best writing. The best judge of a good idea is you, but only after you’ve mulled it over for a long while, or tested it by writing a draft, or rewritten it three or four times. After you’ve read similar works to compare. After you’ve honed your writing skills to develop the chops to even write the concept.” C. Hope Clark

I can’t find the quotation now, but Hemingway once warned writers against talking their ideas away. That is, telling others the plots of stories they were about to write. After all was said and done, possibly at a table with several bottles of wine, the author would realize that in all the give and take about his or her prospective project, s/he had lost it.

In this week’s Funds for Writers newsletter, Hope Clark expressed similar reservations about rushing out and telling friends, fans, and other writers what you’re thinking about writing–all in hopes of getting feedback about its viability.

Personally, I don’t understand this at all unless, perhaps, you’re floating an idea with your publisher or agent about what you want to write next. Otherwise, early on, what the hell kind of feedback could anyone possibly offer? So, telling–let’s say–your usual beta readers that you’re starting a new series may elicit a lot of pats on the back with little useful feedback.

The more you say, the more likely it is that their comments and questions will derail the project or somehow change it into something outside the scope of what you want to do.

Personally, I don’t like or understand the concept of beta readers unless I’m writing nonfiction and am looking for an unofficial peer review of my approach before devoting too much time researching the project. So I never ask anybody what they think of a prospective story idea because any input I get is doing to be detrimental to what my muse and I are considering.

If you feel better asking for feedback, my suggestion is to wait until you have the first draft. At that point, you have enough of a story for others to understand your plot, theme, characters, and style. When you wait, you’re more sure of yourself and your story, including its focus and ending, and distracting and negative comments are less likely to derail you. Now, quality beta readers may, in fact, find holes in the story, inconsistencies, and other issues that fall far short of destroying your work in progress.






The Writer’s Solitude 

“A psychiatrist friend once pointed out to me that one of the definitions of psychosis is a fixed belief in an imaginary world lasting months or years, which no one but the patient himself is able to perceive. He wondered aloud if this wasn’t also a decent definition of a novelist. Having recently emerged from five years of concentration on my own imaginary world of my latest book, I think he has a point. Which has left me considering the disposition that leads people to write in the first place, and the relationship between their actual and imaginary lives.”

Source: The Perpetual Solitude of the Writer | Literary Hub

Adam Haslett adds that in order to interact with others through our writing, we have to have periods of alone time first.

It’s odd, I think, that those who choose solitude are viewed as antisocial, perhaps nuts, by others until they publish a well-received book. It’s culture shock to come out of one’s cave and interact with others and those others, while they like saying they know those authors, react to their emergence from that cave with the same concern they do when a mental patient escapes.

What a strange world writing is.


Do I want to go into the woods and write?

The short answer is no.

I subscribe to several writers’ magazines. I enjoy the articles and interviews. My eyes glaze over when I see ads for writer’s retreats. Many of these–some you pay for and some you compete for–feature cabins in the woods for writers who want to get away from it all and do nothing but write.

That’s supposed to be a writer’s ultimate dream, well, not counting having a bestseller, lunching with J. K. Rowling, or watching a blockbuster movie with your name in the credits.

The first thing that comes to mind about writing in the woods is that it’s not hard to live in the woods and that if a writer needs to live in the woods in order to write, then s/he would live in the woods all the time. The whole idea of traveling across country for 500 or 1000 miles (which is a lot of hassle) to stay in a special in-the-woods house seems like the worst thing I could possibly do because it would add pressure to the work.

Our family has rented vacation cabins in the woods. They’re often cheaper than hotels near tourist areas. We have a nice setting, plenty of space (especially when kids are around), and a place to use as our HQ for going on sight-seeing day trips. Plus, we can cook a lot of our meals there cheaper than restaurants, play games, and enjoy quality family time.

That’s relaxing. But to go to one of those same cabins, set up my computer, and say, “Okay, Malcolm, write something” pretty much guarantees that I won’t be able to write something. I don’t want to get away from it all to write because I really need “it all” to be able to write. That is, I write in my natural setting in between taking out the garbage, washing dishes, going to the grocery store, etc.

Sure, it’s harder to find time to write if one has to commute an hour to and from work, bring work projects home, or has a noisy family life in a small house. And, if that’s where a writer is and if s/he needs to escape for a week or a month to get any real creative work done, I’m okay with that.

It just doesn’t work for me. Neither does going to a college or a writer’s retreat where one has quiet time to write but is expected to meet other writers daily for specified amounts of time to talk about writing or to meet with students and give seminars about writing. Talking to other writers about writing bores me because I don’t care about everyone’s pet theories any more than they’re going to care about mine. I guess such discussions are supposed to help us grow. I’m overly cynical about those kinds of discussions because, well, I have no idea how I write because I just do it. So, I want to stay at home and not go someplace else where I have to talk about it in exchange for sitting in a cabin somewhere on the grounds of the retreat’s fields, woods, beach, or swamp.

On the flip side of the coin, what if I tried out the cabin in the woods or the writer’s retreat and got addicted to it? If that happened, I’d probably no longer be able to write at home. Well, there’s a built-in excuse for writer’s block as well as a justification for spending more money on renting cabins in the woods than my books can possibly earn.

It just seems easier to write where I am.


Coming soon, “Widely Scattered Ghosts,” a collection of nine stories. To learn more, click on the cover picture.

How do experienced editors find all the mistakes?

If you’ve come here looking for editing help, all hope is lost.

I asked the question because I’ve been going through my collection of nine ghost stories, cleaning up the typos and spelling errors. I finally sent off the corrected manuscript this afternoon.

Evil Spirit

But here’s the thing. I know for a certainty that if I read through the manuscript again, I’ll find more typos. They (various gurus) say that a writer is the last person that ought to be proofreading his or her work. They are right. We get distracted by the story and start tinkering with the dialogue or the action and forget all about looking for mistakes.

I’ve decided that experienced editors are bionic in some way or (if you’re a Star Trek fan) part of an inhuman collective called the BORG. Otherwise, they couldn’t find all the mistakes the rest of us miss. The trouble is, these people charge $100 a minute, much more than the book will probably earn. So, we proofread our own stuff and hope we don’t get dinged by a reviewer who writes, “This story was pretty good except for a shitload of errors.”

I’m not sure I want to trust a reviewer who uses the word “shitload.”

But readers trust those reviewers and once they see the book is sinking like a stone on Amazon (due to the weight of that shitload), they (the readers) start looking for more mistakes. BobsYourUncle from Champaign Illinois comments that he has never seen a green cardinal except in a bad dream. RomanceGirl from South Florida comments that the sex was unrealistic and that she ought to know. FlyingNun from Rome says the book has too many pagan references in it and that the author and all the characters are going to hell.

The whole shebang starts because somewhere in the novel, the author accidentally used “your” instead of “you’re.” Once those comments get started on Amazon, they spread to Twitter where mobs of unwashed critics slam the book even though they haven’t read it. If you’ve read the news lately, you know this can happen, especially in the YA world.

There are days when an author thanks his or her lucky stars that the grammar Nazis and the worst of the general public haven’t heard of him or her because if you miss a typo, you have a target on your back. So does your book.

Let me suggest a solution. If you learn hoodoo or Voodoo, you can hide hexes within your books. When you do this, innocent-looking descriptions and inane dialogue passages contain groups of letters that summon evil spirits who don’t like people who go on Twitter, Amazon, or GoodReads and say nasty things about books. Readers who aren’t doing anything wrong have nothing to worry about (usually).

According to a recent poll, evil spirits charge less than editors. So, when it comes to choosing whether to pay $100 a minute for an editor or mixing up some graveyard dirt and rusty nails for evil spirits, what do you think most savvy authors are going to do?





Allowing the story to go where it wills

“Trot your horse wherever he wants to go, putting pressure on with your legs when he goes away from the scary spot, and releasing pressure when he goes towards it. Resist the almost overpowering urge to steer your horse. Trust him! Hold on to the saddle with one hand if he is ‘ducking and diving.’ Keep trotting, he is looking for an answer, let him find it. When he finally goes to a spot in the arena he hasn’t been to yet – let him stop and rest. Just hang out with him there, or get off if it’s time to end your session.” – Logan Darrow

I haven’t ridden a horse in years, but when I did ride, I enjoyed dropping the reins to see where he would go. Logan Darrow’s exercise, posted on The Mindful Horse Woman four years ago, is wise advice for everyone with a horse. I enjoyed trusting the horse and I think he enjoyed the fact I wasn’t controlling what he was doing. In the same fashion, I enjoyed driving my old car aimlessly to see where I would end up. It wasn’t quite the same since I really couldn’t let go of the steering wheel.

But the concept was similar, somewhat like following winds, currents, and tides in a boat: giving up control and enjoying the ride. More often than not, whether it was by horse or car or sailboat, such rides took me where I needed to go even though I didn’t consciously know it. What I saw changed me. Where I ended up the was a person I needed to meet or something I needed to witness.

I feel the same way about poems, short stories, and novels. While we may have a theme, a set of characters, and a general plan for the action, the work ends up better if we trust ourselves and the material enough to drop the reins. No, I’m not advocating typing gibberish or writing while drunk. Yet stories seem to flow in a natural direction once you get them started. Like trying to force water to flow uphill, forcing a story away from its natural direction is not only a lot of hassle, the result looks unnatural.

I was reminded of this several days ago while working on a short story about a man in a rest home. Unusual for me, I intuited how it was going to end. I seldom know that. This time I did know it and I didn’t like it. So, like gently neck-reining your horse one direction or another, I “encouraged” the story to go down a path that didn’t lead to that ending.

A fight ensued. Clearly, like a horse who wanted to head for the barn, the story refused to go anywhere that didn’t lead to that ending. Yes, I know, if you can’t stop your horse from racing to the barn, you’re a poor rider. So, there always needs to be a meeting of the minds between you and your horse about what it is you’re doing. The same is true for a story. So, my story knew we weren’t going to gallop toward that ending on page one. And I learned that no matter what else happened in the story, its natural ending was a destiny the characters couldn’t avoid.

We can’t always drop the reins when we’re riding or writing, but we probably don’t drop them enough. The story’s almost finished now. The ending the story wanted makes sense. It also coincides with what I wanted to say better than ending the story some other way. I have no idea why this process works the way it does. We could speculate, I suppose, but even if we found the answer it wouldn’t change the process for the better.

If you don’t like the story you end up with, you can hide it at the bottom of your sock drawer and move onto something new.


Coming soon, a collection of nine short stories that more or less did what they wanted.



Writer’s Platform: Writing About Your Novel’s Subject Matter

The experts–and I use that term cautiously–tell authors not to write posts, tweets, and Facebook updates that say, one way or another, “Buy my book.” Why not? For one thing, it’s SPAM insofar as others are concerned. For another thing, it’s boring.

I think the experts are right when they say prospective readers won’t flock to your blog or Facebook page if all you’re doing is running a series of advertisements. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that most readers of popular fiction are drawn to mainstream novels because they’re interested in a novel’s location, the careers/hobbies of the characters, or the various tie-ins the novel has to old myths and legends.

Most of us buy books for a compelling story. I read a fair number of black ops books. Right now, I’m reading Agent in Place by Mark Greaney. I picked it up at a CVS and thought it looked interesting. I wasn’t attracted to it because I’m a student of guns, spies, conspiracies, or anything else related to the plot of the thriller. I think a lot of readers are like me in this respect.

We see a few reviews, we hear friends talking about what they’re reading, and we read the back covers of the novels we see in the local Barnes & Noble. I doubt that many of us consider ourselves experts in the subject matter itself except, perhaps, in historical novels where we like certain time periods and dynasties.

So why do the experts tell us to write about the subject matter behind our novels? Obviously, they think that we’re writing for people who like certain subjects and might tend to read novels about those subjects. I can see that readers might choose novels about witchcraft or political intrigue or rogue lawyers. Yes, they may find an unknown author’s novel by using search terms focused on the subject matter and discover his/her novel in the process.

While this seems logical, my experience is that very few of the readers who come to this blog and read about the hero’s journey, hoodoo subject matter, or magic ever purchase my books related to those subjects. They read the blog, enjoy a few hundred words about a subject they like, and then move on. That’s to be expected because most fiction readers buy books by authors they’ve already heard of.

I’m not a typical reader. I buy black ops books and I buy magical realism books. I suspect many readers are like this: they have likes that nobody suspects. Yet, the marketing gurus have to tell little-known writers something. They tell me to write posts about hoodoo, magic, 1950s racism, and Florida. So that’s what I do, but not because I think those who read those posts will zoom out to Amazon to buy my novels. I write posts about those subjects because I’m interested in them.

It’s gratifying to see–from this blog’s statistics–that a fair number of readers have been lured to Malcolm’s Round Table to read those posts. I read similar posts on other people’s blogs and get a lot out of them. In fact, finding readers for our posts is almost as good as finding readers for our novels. We’re exchanging facts and ideas, and that’s a good thing.

As a writer doing research, I love finding blogs and websites created by people who believe in their subjects and freely give away information and ideas. I compare such information to Wikipedia, peer-reviewed books about the subjects, and professional websites hosted by museums, societies, and foundations. One has to double-check everything. But those who offer information for free on their blogs have my respect and admiration. Many hope that I will click on the Amazon links to their books, but as a poor, starving author, I can’t buy from everyone!

I wish I could. I’m often tempted. Yet, months or years later, I see novels by those blog posters and recognize their names. I read the blurb on the Amazon listing or, in bricks and mortar store, the back cover of the book. And I think, “I’ve seen this author’s name somewhere before.” So I buy the book. That’s what most of us hope will happen even if it takes a while.



My memoir would only be full of lies

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





Don’t assume your readers know what you know

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.


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

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 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

“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?