Some books go nowhere fast

“I’m currently reading a book published by one of the major companies, and nothing happens. Well, that’s not exactly true. Stuff happens. Then more stuff happens. And even more stuff happens. But I am now three-quarters of the way through the book, and all I’ve gleaned from the story is that a lot of stuff happens.” – Pat Bertram

Years ago, we might have labeled such books as “nowheresville” and said that their authors had it “made in the shade” financially speaking because readers were being lured into their novels with catchy titles that never delivered the goods. For one thing, there probably weren’t any goods. Or, if there were, they (the goods) went bad in the first draft and got worse during the revision process where the introduction of lovely scenery, philosophical debates, backstories about characters with no substantive roles in the story, and sex scenes in flea-infested cat houses failed to turn up a storyline. Reviewers could at least say, “All the smoke and mirrors were pretty.”

As it turns out, somebody dropped a gun in a bunch of finger paint.

Recently I’ve been reading novels with seductive titles like When the Grim Reaper Smiles, The Quantum Murder Syndrome, and Terror Strikes in The Old Familiar Places, and I’ve discovered that when the author doesn’t have a clue about a plot, he fills the books with backstory bios of all the bad guys, apparently to impress us about just what the good guys are up against. What they (the good guys) are up against appears to be the fact that they haven’t done enough significant stuff to merit a Wikipedia page, much less a starring role in When the Grim Reaper Smiles.

Perhaps they say something snarky like “ask not for who the grim reaper smiles, it’s just gas.” Well. I really don’t want to pay $14.95 for a novel where that’s the high point of the story. Using my best Jack Nicholson impression from “A Few Good Men,” I want to say (to the author), “Please tell me you have more to offer your readers than a few lines that are so lame they can’t even walk with crutches.”

In the old days (whenever the hell they were) prospective authors were told to create a list of characters and write down a list of physical attributes and a résumé of their lives prior to the beginning of the novel. Somewhere along the line, authors started sweeping all these notes into the manuscript without adding “the goods.” Sometimes the authors added a lot of statistics about military hardware and what the bad guys might do with it should anything happen in the novel.

Look, I read novels to escape from the sins of the world. When they don’t help me, even during a lost weekend, I feel cheated and want to leave a -5 star review on Amazon. After becoming an addict to one drug or another, I want to sue the author for creating my need to escape the sins of his or her novel. Now, suddenly, I’m going nowhere fast and can’t find a book to save me.

Frankly, I want to read novels that go somewhere and tempt me to come along for the ride.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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One reviewer said that while the book was funny, it was just an excuse for a lot of sex and booze. No kidding!

Shoot them now while they’re still happy

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

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

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

I should have been a firefighter.

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

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

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

I think the Mafia operates the same way,

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

Website

Facebook Author’s Page

Amazon Author’s Page

‘Firefly Lane’ by Kristin Hannah

Best I can tell, we really escaped 2020 and are now slogging our way through 2021. If this true, then I’m 12 years behind the times reading Firefly Lane.

It’s a well-written story about two schoolgirls who, though opposites in many ways, become close friends and make a pact to remain best friends forever. One  (Tully) becomes a rich and famous news anchor. The other (Kate), who showed a lot of promise as a writer, ended up having a busy family life as a stay-at-home mom.

There’s a lot of realistic push-me/pull-you between Tully and Kate because their lives unfold quite differently, leading to differences of style and opinion, including the question of whether or not Kate is overprotective when it comes to her daughter. Tully and the daughter think so.

If you read Hannah’s afterword, you probably understood why she ended the book as she did. She handled it well. Nonetheless, I didn’t like it. I saw it as adding insult to injury insofar as Kate’s role in the story was concerned. Kate’s life was rather that of the Biblical Job and the ending made her a tragic character rather than a gracefully aging mother contentedly watching her children grow into adults partly in spite of Tully and because of Tully.

Worth reading,  but it needed something different and less predictable in the final chapters. I haven’t watched any episodes of the Netflix series.

Malcolm

Some readers wanted a bombastic ending to “Sarabande.” I chose a minimalist approach that reflected, in my view, who the character was and how she had changed.

Explaining research to a non-writer

Every time a feature film set in the past is released, it doesn’t take long for the press to start finding research gaffes from minor stuff like cars on the street before they were made, songs being sung before they were released, and then major problems such as battles being fought in the wrong country and world leaders showing up after they were dead.

It’s hard to explain how such things happen to our readers and viewers. Hollywood, of course, is more of a problem because so many people are involved with each production. Major authors have multiple editors and fact checkers. Small press authors usually have to roll their own research and hope for the best.

When authors write novels, they are primarily concerned with the storyline and the characters. Yet, as one writes, there are dozens of things to check:

  • The characters, such as my protagonist in Fate’s Arrows drive cars. Okay, what makes were they and when were they available?
  • My protagonist is an archer. What kind of bow did she use  and what kind of damage would an arrow inflict when it hit a person?
  • My protagonist, Pollyanna, was a Marine who learned Karate in Okinawa like a lot of other soldiers at the end of WWII. So, what techniques will she use when attacked back in the states?
  • Most people know little or nothing about the Korean War. Fortunately, I had a good source book and that allowed my character to mention things that happened, along with the exploits of the forerunner of the CIA.
  • In the novel, she’s auditing the books of a small grocery. Fine. What products are in the store?
  • And since the KKK is involved–this is Florida in 1954–that means reading more about that group than anyone would want to.

Basically, if somebody coughs in your novel and grabs for a bottle of cough medicine, you have to find out whether that cough medicine even existed when the novel was set.

If you were around at the time and place your novel is set, you can’t even rely on your memory.  Most people don’t remember nitty gritty specifics. They know they grew up listening to a song on the radio, but do they know what date it was released? Probably not.

When we write our novels, everything is open to question even though we’re writing fiction.

Malcolm

I could’ve been a sheep rancher

When my wife and I moved to Atlanta from North Georgia in 1980, we were having trouble making ends meet. I suggested Montana.

What would I do there, she wondered. I said that I’d hire on at a sheep ranch and/or drive concessionaire busses trucks in Glacier National Park.

She didn’t think either of those jobs sounded like the real me. Plus, she had no intention of living in Montana.

As it turned out, I was writing a book about sheep ranching and had a folder filled with everything one needed to know to get started–or to stay solvent if one had already gotten started. Fortunately, I didn’t become a full-time sheep rancher: the Montana wool business has been in decline for years.

The more one looks into the ranching biz, the more one discovers there’s a lot of down-in-the-muck stuff going on that we never saw on “Fury” or “Bonanza.” I didn’t mention this to my wife.  Plus, Montana’s high range isn’t very hospitable to humans who grew up in the South. My wife already knew this so there was no way I could spin the weather situation.

She didn’t know that ewes, as Bill Stockton tells us, let gravity drop the new-born lambs out on the ground. Or, if that doesn’t work, they spin around and sling them out. This information was not in my wife’s “need to know” classification.

One thing I didn’t know at the beginning was that my wife’s allergic to wool. That much pretty scuttled the sheep rancher “dream.”

Malcolm

Several of my older novels are out of print, but my sheep rancher can still be found in “Mountain Song.” It is the tamest of my sheep books.

Christmas is for restocking books

Adults are hard to buy for unless they all live in the same house like the Waltons. When we’re living far flung around the country, we seldom know what people might want, and should we guess wrong and send something without checking, they’ll probably already have it or they won’t like it.

I know better than to put F-Type Jaguar on my list or even a new Jeep, so I try to be reasonable when I compile my wish list. If anyone wants to send me an F-Type Jag, they’ll have to pay the insurance costs. Allstate is fine, by the way

The grandchildren are easy to buy for because their mother knows what they like/want/need, creates a big list, and shares it. We split the list up with others in the family so there are no duplicates. Occasionally, we’ve teamed up to give gifts that are too expensive for one of us. This only happens when “the big present” costs $10000000 and none of us wants to mortgage our house to buy it.

But, the adults can do nothing for each other without a list. For better or worse, the older I get, the less “stuff” I want. If I need it, I’ve already bought it. So, that leaves books. I give the list to my wife, she picks something and gives the rest of the list to my brother and his wife. 

I try to avoid placing books on the list before they come out in paperback except for those times when the hardcover is cheaper than the paperback (presumably when the publisher had too many hardcover copies printed and needs to get rid of them.) You’ll notice that there are no Kindle books on the list. As I tell Kindle lovers, I read off the screen all day and don’t want to read off the screen when I’m propped up in bed enjoying a novel. I maintain that Kindle books are (a) not real books, and (b) don’t counteract the eyestrain of the day.

But, I digress. (At my age, I’m allowed to digress. In fact, most people expect it of me because they don’t think “old people” can remember what they’re talking about.)

I’ve read most of Shaara’s books and like them a lot. When this book about Pearl Harbor first came out, an early reviewer on Amazon said Shaara’s research on To Wake a Giant was sloppy. Fortunately, another reader reviewer proved that the first reviewer was incorrect. Thank goodness! Shaara tells readers in most of his books that he’s a novelist rather than a historian. Yet, he takes special care to be accurate. Authors are not supposed to take on reviewers, but I hoped he would correct the Amazon reviewers who offered up fake history to prove he didn’t know what he was talking about.

Without a doubt, I’ve read most of Allende’s novels that were published in English. A Long Petal of the Sea looks good, so it’s number two on my Christmas list. I hesitate to say this, but I think she’ll have a hard time duplicating the magic, wonder, and power of her earlier novels, mainly The House of the Spirits (1982), Of Love and Shadows (1985), and Eva Luna (1987). I certainly don’t want to discount what she’s written since the 1980s even if I keep getting stuck on liking those novels the best.

John Hart writes tough, detailed novels such as The Hush. While I’m looking forward to The Unwilling, a book Hart held back a year due to the pandemic, it’s still in pre-order status. So, I opted for Down River for my list. You’ll notice I only have books from major publishers here.

There’s a reason for that. Small press authors such as myself have no way of getting noticed except by people who follow them on sites like Facebook. It goes without saying, I suppose that I can’t read books I’ve never heard of. 

There are a lot of Alice Hoffman books on my shelves, including The Dove Keepers and the practical magic series. So, why not add another? The World That We Knew takes us back to World War II and the atrocities of the Nazi regime.

If all of these books show up beneath the tree, I’ll be all set until the new John Hart book comes out. Sure, I’ll probably add a few grocery store books by James Patterson and “Tom Clancy,” but I don’t want the family to know I read that stuff.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Fate’s Arrows,” a novel set in 1954 when the KKK was in power and the protagonist, Pollyanna (who is more dangerous than her name suggests), decides it’s time for the Klan to go.

Parents aren’t supposed to like one of their children more than the others

Shameless promotion from your sponsor (me)

Southwest Airlines used to raise eyebrows during the flight attendant’s monologue about the plane’s safety features when s/he said, “If the masks are lowered during a flight put yours on first and then put the next mask on the child most likely to support you in old age.” Or, “The child you like best.”

I thought of this when a friend asked several days ago which of my novels I liked best while acknowledging that that might be impossible to do. I can pick one even though that doesn’t mean I’m discounting all the others. I told her it’s Conjure Woman’s Cat.

Here’s why.

  • It represented a change of focus for me in that I finally decided to address a hot-button issue for me: racism, Jim Crow, and the KKK as it was in Florida during my childhood.
  • After focussing on contemporary fantasy and one satire, I embraced magical realism with a story that would give rise to two sequels (soon to be three) while exploring the folk magic that was all around me in the Florida Panhandle.
  • While two earlier novels, The Sun Singer and Sarabande, focused on the somewhat esoteric themes behind the hero’s journey and the heroine’s journey, Conjure Woman’s Cat focused on backyard magic with a lot of folklore and a lot of ingredients close at hand.
  • I had a chance to do something unique and that was using a cat as the narrator. Why did I do this? Because, after having one or more cats in our household at all times for thirty-five years, I thought it more likely I could accurately write from a cat’s perspective than that of an African American woman who was (as she puts it) “older than dirt.”
  • My publisher, Thomas-Jacob, and I were lucky in that we found a wonderful and highly talented narrator in Wanda J. Dixon for the audio edition. She’s gotten rave reader reviews on Audible and a coveted Earphones Award Winner review from AudioFile Magazine. (“Most distinctive is Eulalie’s recurring sigh, which conveys her frustration with Florida in the 1950s, when Jim Crow laws and ‘Colored Only’ signs were routine.”)

Long-time readers of this blog know that I’m partial to Virginia Woolf’s statement in her novel Orlando: “In short, every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.” I think that’s a given if an author is true to himself/herself. Yes, parts of me–my experiences and approach to life–live on in all my novels. But they loom the largest in Conjure Woman’s Cat.

The novel takes on more significance in my thoughts as riots and racism are looming large in the national consciousness–and major cities’ streets.

Malcolm

Out, out damn trope

“A literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.” – Wikipedia

Siskel and Ebert

On Siskel and Ebert’s long-ago TV show of movie reviews, whenever they showed a clip of a movie with a car chase along narrow streets in an Asian city, they would often shout “FRUIT CART” when (inevitably) one or both cars would plough into a vendor’s cart or tent, sending chickens, fruits and vegetables and everything else sky high. This is a trope, often used (variations of it probably show up in the Bond films) and always a lame groaner.

Dark and Stormy Night

“It was a dark and stormy night” is a cliche, one used so often that it’s often pointed at with laugher and derision whenever it shows up. Stormy nights are often included in a series of tropes that used to appear in old movies:

  • A young woman is alone in a rambling mansion on a dark and stormy night, sitting at a dressing table with an open window behind her.
  • The musical program on the radio is interrupted with the breaking news that two dangerous men have just escaped from a nearby prison or asylum.
  • The power goes out. She finds a candle (which will blow out numerous times) and uses it to go through the house shutting windows where curtains are flying up toward the ceiling creating eerie shadows.
  • She hears a crash somewhere off in the house and wonders whether an old tree has fallen through the glass doors that lead to the garden or the escapees have broken into the house.
  • There’s a gun in the house and, while searching for it, she will open a closet door out of which an ironing board will fall (scaring her and the audience), make her way down into the seldom-used basement where we know a gruesome murder once occurred, or up into the attic where mannikins and other objects that look like ghosts or deranged people are stored.

Each of these tropes increases the audience’s fear, not only because they’ve seen them before, but because something in our human conditioning or nature makes us fearful of such moments.

Don’t Use The Damn Tropes

Stay away from such tropes unless you’re writing a comedy or satire that pokes fun at hackneyed set pieces. You can play on the readers’ knowledge of such tropes by coming close to using them, but then veering away, or by constructing a scene that’s the exact opposite, e.g., rather than a dark and stormy night, use a bright, sunny afternoon. Instead of sitting at a vanity, the woman alone can be cooking, vacuuming the floor, or using the Internet to do office work at home.

If you go to websites that list novel and film tropes, you’ll probably be surprised at how many there are. Gosh, there’s a lot of stuff out there a good writer has to avoid.

Malcolm

 

Car Shopping for My Characters

Cars are often one indicator of a character in a novel. Black ops characters usually drive something with many tactical advantages in a fight; other characters are often described by their sports cars or family cars, most of which cost more than the readers of the novels make in a year.

In my novel Lena, (set in 1954) I introduced a new character to the Florida Folk Magic Series named Pollyanna. The name made her sound like a spoiled brat who lived at the estate of wealthy parents. In fact, she grew up at a fish camp and knew her way around the business and everything that went with it. She needed a practical vehicle:

This is a 1949 Ford F-1, 1/2-ton Silvertone Grey pickup truck. It was the lowest of the line of Ford F-series trucks made between 1947 and 1952. Perfect for a fish camp, though Pollyanna would have gotten a 3/4-ton F-3 if she could have afforded it. Pollyanna always had a 1935 Smith & Wesson model 27 .357 magnum revolver in the glove box or in a thigh holster.

Since she lives near a small town, everyone recognizes her truck. This  isn’t helpful when she’s spying on bad guys. So, along with a blonde wig, different clothes, etc., she drives the family’s seldom used Blue 1949 Dodge Wayfarer coupe:

oldcaradvetising photo

When I visualize a character, I try to see what kind of car fits who they are. The town storekeeper drives a 1949 2R clover green Studebaker pickup. The Sanctified Church uses a Buick Roadmaster hearse. The fuel hauling company drives an Autocar surplus tanker truck. The police drive Chevrolet Bel Air squads.

Finding the right car for each character is sometimes a thrilling treasure hunt and sometimes an exasperating search when years and models seem to be missing from the Internet.

For me, tracking down cars is a heck of a lot more fun than trying to figure out what kinds of clothes my female characters would be wearing years ago.

–Malcolm

The Kindle edition of Malcolm R. Campbell’s contemporary fantasy novel The Sun Singer is FREE on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You better not hurt that kitty

When I began writing Conjure Woman’s Cat, I didn’t know how it would end, much less that it would lead to the sequel Eulalie and Washerwoman. When I started writing the sequel, I didn’t know how it would end, much less that it would lead to a third book named Lena which–of course–I had no clue what the ending was.

I did know one thing for sure: Eulalie, the conjure woman, and Lena, her cat, weren’t going to get killed no matter what else happened.

So, each time I told people I had started a new book in the series, I began getting comments like, “You better not hurt that kitty,” “Promise me I don’t need to look at the ending first to make sure nobody (you know who I mean) is dead,” and “If anything happens to that kitty, don’t think you can fix it with a bunch of that rainbow bridge stuff and that will make everything okay.”

It was fun hearing that a lot of people had connected with the main characters and were concerned about their welfare. After all, things were always touch-and-go in these books, what with bad cops and noxious KKK thugs. One person said she really liked the Pollyanna character who appeared in Lena and was happy to see she made it to the end of the book without dying.

Then she added, I want to see a Pollyanna book and she better be alive when I get to the last page. Okay, okay, I’m writing the Pollyanna book right now and she doesn’t get killed.  (I hope you’re happy, Linda, knowing you can read the book without worrying about the main character.)

Previously, while I was writing my contemporary fantasy Sarabande, the sequel to The Sun Singer, people started saying “You better not kill off that black horse.” (I didn’t.) You see the pattern here, right? People don’t trust me, assume I’m hard-hearted and cold enough to kill off magical critters. My mama didn’t raise me that way.

I’m tempted to write a novel where all the main characters die on the first page of the book. That will prove I’m not some wimpy author who’s controlled by his readers and doesn’t have any artistic integrity. Perhaps it will begin, “Everybody is dead.” Then, the next chapter will be called SIX MONTHS EARLIER and we’ll see how it happened.

Naah, I don’t think I’ll do that. But I might. I might drink some bad whisky and go over to the dark side at any moment.

Malcolm