When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

Interviewers, especially those who aren’t very creative, inevitably ask emerging writers that question. I don’t think readers care.

Since I don’t like the question, my flip answer is, “When I got too old for the gigolo business.”

My wife and I have seen so many 1940s movies where the characters, when asked why they did something stupid, said, “Well, there was a war on,” that that has become our standard rationale for just about everything.

My father, Laurence, teaching journalism at Florida State University – (State Archives of Florida/Kerce)

I guess that’s my real excuse. Those were desperate times and people did desperate things, blew their savings in a poker game, married somebody in Vegas whom they’d known for twenty minutes, wrote the words “once upon a time” on a scrap of paper grabbed from the clutches of an ill wind on a dark street corner.

Truthfully, I could say that both of my parents were teachers and writers and that they passed the curse down to me. I’m sure a sophisticated DNA test would prove that. They both read a lot of books, and passed that mixed blessing down to me. It’s mixed because it leads to a house full of books.

My folks, who didn’t know anything about the gigolo business or the fact that my life’s work started because there was a war on, were a bit pushy about my writing. When I called home, Mother asked, “Have you been keeping up with your writing?” before she asked how I was or if this was just another call for bail money.

Maybe she knew my distrust of straight answers made me unsuitable for other careers such as the ministry, police work, or counseling. Years before the movie “Fargo” was released, she worried that I’d throw my principles into a wood chipper and become a used car salesman.

She had good reason to worry: I made my worst grades in school in English classes. That never went over well when report cards came out. “My teachers hate me because they think I think I know more than they do.” Mother acknowledged that I might, but said, “I think those teachers are like dogs. They can smell fear.”

She was right about that.

My teachers also smelled lack of interest. I told them I was already fluent in English and shouldn’t have to take it.

Chances are, I have a negative attitude about all this.

Malcolm

 

Thanks for trying out the free copies

I appreciate everyone who grabbed up a free copy of my Kindle short story “Waking Plain.” There used to be a TV bit called “Fractured Fairy Tales;” I suspect I got brainwashed by that so that I take sweet old stories and turn them upside down.

Meanwhile, my soon-to-be released novel Lena has made it past the editor. One always worries about hearing something like, “Malcolm, you know that guy who dies on page 23? How did he come back to life on page 97?” Oops.

Lena is the third and final book (you can quote me on that) in the Florida Folk Magic Series published by Thomas-Jacob. With luck, we’ll be able to show you the cover soon and then announce a release date.

Meanwhile, we have another late afternoon thunderstorm roaring through northwest Georgia. This is getting tedious because the low barometric pressure impacts both our (my wife and I) sinus conditions while all that water makes the grass grow faster than we can keep it mowed.

Fortunately, I have beef stew to warm up in the Dutch oven for supper, so no cooking required tonight. And, the cats have been fed; that means they’ve stopped hovering around my desk and bothering me.

My brother and his wife and grandson will be stopping here briefly next week. Oh hell, that means we have to clean up the house. We’ll have fun while they’re here, though.

Malcolm

Writing is like living in a fixer-upper house

“You know those people who buy fixer-upper homes, move into them, and live there while they renovate them? That’s what a story is like. You move into the story, you occupy it like a house, and you live there until it’s completely done.” –Thrity Umrigar

In an earlier post called About Waiting for Inspiration, I noted that serious professional writers work every day rather than sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. That post suggested things writers can do to make inspired story ideas more likely.

Likewise, there are things writers can do once they have a story idea that will make it more likely the plot will unfold. Better to let the plot and characters come to mind naturally rather that sitting down, staring at a blank screen, and waiting for something to happen.

I like author Thrity Umrigar’s fixer-upper house analogy. First, it paints a very accurate picture about what goes on during an author’s waking hours while s/he is actively working on a short story or novel. Second, it suggests one reason why authors often stare off in space or seem not to be listening while they’re around others. They’re physically in the room, but mentally they’re conversing with their characters or chasing bad guys through a bad section of town.

Unrigar adds that when you’re committed to a story, “That means you’re thinking about your story all the time, living with it, never letting it wander too far away from you. A story is like a newborn–you have to tend to it, feed it, be aware of it all the time.”

When you’re living in a house white renovating it, you’re on the scene 24/7. You not only notice what needs to be done, but think of new ideas that didn’t occur to you when you first walked in the front door. A story is like that. Authors don’t see every detail of every character, scene, description, and plot twist when they first think of an idea.

When you’re living in a fixer-upper house, it’s easier to see potential traffic flows, floor plan changes, and value-added features than it was while the house was something you might buy. When you see what your fictional characters see–or might see–it becomes more apparent whether they’re moving in the right direction or not, wearing the clothes that suit them, or adding to the prospective reader’s excitement by doing this or that or something else.

Seriously, when you’re committed to a story, it never goes away until you finish it–and maybe, not even then. Like the fixer-upper house that’s ready to sell, you have to resist the urge to tinker after it’s time to send your story or novel off to an agent, magazine, or publisher. It takes self-confidence to know when the story is truly finished and when the fixer-upper house is ready to list with a realtor.

Either way, living in the story and the fixer-upper house is a necessity.

–Malcolm

Do You Want to Write a Series?

“A series can be great for authors because it can draw in readers and keep them. If they like your first book and its characters, they’re likely to forge ahead and buy more books in the series. This is why there are so many series out there.”

Source: So, You Want to Write a Series? – Indies Unlimited

Very helpful post for authors, beginning with whether there’s one plot that continues throughout all the books or whether a character or a setting remains the same while the plots change.

When done well, a series will make for a continuing use of a great plot or a great protagonist and engage readers for (possibly) many years.

There’s a lot to consider, and R. J. Crayton does a great job with this thorough post.

–Malcolm

Review: ‘Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance’ by Ruth Emmie Lang

Beasts of Extraordinary CircumstanceBeasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first sentence of the publisher’s description sounds like a writing prompt: “Orphaned, raised by wolves, and the proud owner of a horned pig named Merlin, Weylyn Grey knew he wasn’t like other people.” Going back to the Romulus and Remus myth and wolves appearances in fairy tales, the notion about a young boy growing up amongst wolves is old and filled with so much symbolism that it’s almost archetypal.

As a writer, I like playing “what if?” So, it would be interesting to hear that Lang stumbled across such a writing prompt and wondered what would happen if she made a serious attempt to create an engaging story out of it. “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance” is definitely engaging. It’s also beautifully written. However, in a recent interview with “Library Journal,” Lang said the story arose out of an idea about an adept beekeeper, and I don’t see it as a spoiler to say that Weylyn knows a lot about bees.

This is a nearly wonderful debut novel. It’s been praised in reader and editorial reviews that are well deserved. Lang has great promise as a successful author, but I hope that in subsequent novels, she develops a stronger focus. The story is told through multiple points of view, some more relevant than others. While this approach serves to make Weylyn more mysterious, it also introduces us to some characters that don’t have recurring or important roles to play. This dilutes the book’s focus because, in spite of the truths the weaker of these characters have to offer, we have no reason to care about these people or to appreciate their intrusion into the story.

The book is billed as magical realism. That’s probably the “proper” genre for it. However, the book is more of a mythic story or fairy tale because the its realism is weak–and it shouldn’t be. While Lang’s wont for Weylyn to drift in and out of other people’s lives is realistic and well handled, the wolves–and to some extent, the bees and other critters–are unrealistic. Weylyn knows what he knows about wolves and bees from his own unique talents and experiences. Yet, the wolves and bees are present in the story when Weylyn isn’t involved and their actions need a stronger basis in fact-based truths about how they would interact “in real life” with people who aren’t magical.

The lack of realism reduces the impact of the novel’s magic. The extraneous characters muddy the novel’s focus and keep readers forever at an arm’s length from Weylyn. I liked reading “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance,” but was distracted by the missing components that could have made it a much stronger story.

View all my reviews

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, paranormal, and magical realism novels and short stories. His most recent magical realism novels are “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

Review: ‘Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare’

If you’re taking a dance class and its members find out you’re a writer and ask you to write a murder mystery about the class, what will you do? I happen to know author Pat Bertram has been taking a dance class or two or three and that her friends thought such a novel would be a real hoot.

That said, I’m surprised that Pat’s publisher didn’t put a disclaimer at the beginning of the novel that claimed “No dance class members were killed during the writing of this book.” But, Pat and her publisher Indigo Sea Press threw caution to the winds, so one wonders where the fiction begins and the truth ends–and vice versa.

The result is a very readable hoot.

When the students at a small town’s studio class find out that one of them is an author, they think it would be fun for her to write a novel about their classes in which one is killed and everybody else is a suspect. A superstitious person would know such games lead to real trouble; so would anyone who suspects the fates have a dark sense of humor. But they don’t stop to think about consequences. One of them even volunteers to be the victim. The rest of them talk about motives and murder methods.

But then somebody dies and the book thing is no longer a game. Suffice it to say, the cops are not amused by the book idea and think the writer is the killer. In this dandy mystery, everyone has a secret, a reason for covering it up, and a possible motive. The characters are well developed, the introspective protagonist wonders if she inadvertently set the stage for a murder by agreeing to write a murder mystery based on the dance class, and the cops tell her that in real life, most amateur sleuths and up dead or worse.

Readers who love mysteries will enjoy this book. Writers who write mysteries will consider being more careful when pretending to kill off their friends in a novel. And those who’ve been thinking of taking a dance class will see the story as a cautionary tale.

Pat (More Deaths Than One, Daughter I Am) has, with Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, written another compelling story.

Malcolm

 

Too much interior monologue will kill a good story

“Interior monologue, in dramatic and nondramatic fiction, narrative technique that exhibits the thoughts passing through the minds of the protagonists. These ideas may be either loosely related impressions approaching free association or more rationally structured sequences of thought and emotion.” – Encyclopaedia Britannica

True stream-of-consciousness fiction can yield a lot of exciting passages about a character’s inner life (which s/he may or may not confuse with reality) as well as plot-advancing impressions that mesh well with the story line.

When I think of “too much interior monologue,” I’m not bashing well-written stream of consciousness techniques in spite of the fact that readers who don’t like literary fiction will hand out one- and two-star reviews for such novels on Amazon. When an author’s protagonist thinks about the situation s/he is in, that’s interior monologue.

Naturally, it’s normal and relevant to think about the situations we’re in. On the other hand, when this thinking does on for hundreds of words in multiple places in a novel, then it is likely to ruin the story. Writers are told that most of what they put in a novel should advance the plot. Overused interior monologue doesn’t advance the plot: instead it puts the plot on hold.

I just finished reading a novel with an interesting plot. A protagonist with a history of panic attacks which s/he manages with prescription medication (as much as possible) undergoes a traumatic experience before being put into an unrelated but more dangerous situation where her life and the lives of others is at risk.

I’m not going to identify the novel or even count the number of words in it and compute what percentage of it is plot-stalling interior monologue. My impression, though, is that 40% of the novel is interior monologue along the lines of. . .I need to keep my self from screaming. . .I need to relax. . .maybe I didn’t see what I think I saw. . .can I trust person XYZ. . .maybe if I told my story and/or got certain people to trust me, they would believe me and/or help me.

Stop Talking to Yourself and Do Something!

A little bit of this is fine. But when it goes on and on and on, there’s really nothing happening. Yes, maybe this would happen in real life, but writers are also told that writing fiction that copies real life–as a 24/7 video camera might view it–is bad because a lot of that real life stuff is trivial. In the novel I just finished, the character’s fight to keep her panic under control and her considerations about what may or may not be happening can be conveyed to the reader much faster.

When I see excessive amounts of interior monologue, my first thought is that the writer doesn’t really have enough depth in the plot to make a novel. That is, there are two few events and dialogue passages to sustain a book-length story. So, the interior monologue pads the length of the book out to the minimum number of words the author or publisher feels are necessary to call the book a novel rather than a short story, novelette, or novella.

I liked the plot of the novel I just finished. I liked the satisfactory ending and the fact that the protagonist’s experience ended up making her a stronger person ready to take stock of a lot of decisions about her life that had been stalled. I think it’s a shame, though, that the story was dragged down by the interior monologue instead of being pushed forward with a greater number of plot elements.

Dan Brown’s “Teaching Moments” Come to Mind

Dan Brown and others who write novels about ancient secrets with a modern twist to them are often criticized for stopping the action through the insertion of a lot of exposition in which one character tells another character what the ancient secrets are all about. This is a slick way of telling the reader what those secrets are about. If you were going to write a spoof of such books, you’d have one character pull a knife on another character and then–so to speak–freeze the action while the character tells somebody else why all this matters (for, say, a thousand words) and then go back to the knife fight.

That really tears apart the pacing of the action. It’s also very frustrating to the reader. Excessive interior monologue has the same negative impacts.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and other magical realism and fantasy novels.