‘How?’ – the motive power of the novel

Journalists are taught that basic news stories focus on the 5Ws and the H, that is, who, what, when, there, why, and sometimes how. Consider this lead to a news story:

City council members Roger Daniels and Steve Tanner were killed when their sports utility vehicles collided at the corner of 5th and Main during the morning rush hour here today.

  • Who: Roger Daniels and Steve Tanner
  • What: Two Deaths
  • When: This Morning
  • Where: 5th and Main
  • Why: Automobile collision

If the story was written soon after the wreck, the how isn’t known? Since those involved were city council members, there may be a follow-up story explaining how it happened even before a police investigation is completed. In terms of the 5Ws, there aren’t many variations of automobile crashes at intersections.

Some gurus suggest that there aren’t many plot variations available to novelists either. They say the number is finite and/or that–in terms of the basic who-what-when-where-why series of events–all of the universe’s stories have already been told. So why, then, are writer still writing?

Because of the how.

In an interview in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers, Salman Rushdie says that James Joyce’s novel Ulysses doesn’t have much of a plot, that is to say, the who, what, when, where and why are very spartan. As he puts it, “Man works around Dublin for a day.” A lot of people do that, if not in Dublin, in some other city.

Wikipedia photo

“But the how,” he adds, “is what makes this a gigantic work of literature.” A story, he believes, “works” or “doesn’t work” based on the how. He suggests writers should take an organized approach when they contemplate writing a new story, asking themselves what are they writing about, what’s the story there, whose story are you telling, and why are you telling it?

But the important questions are how are are doing it? and why are you doing it like that?

Whether you take an organized approach via such questions, outlines, and other pre-planning or begin with a notion and simply start writing to see where the story goes, the how is the real story. A Dylan Thomas fan, I’ve always liked his poem “The Force That Through The Green Fuse” that begins: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/Is my destroyer.” That force is energy.

I see that force in stories as roughly defined by the “how of it all.”

If you were to develop a short story using the events in the accident story above as the plot, it’s likely that the story wouldn’t become a gigantic work of literature if how it happened turned out to be that one of the drivers was texting and ran a red light.

But what if it was a murder/suicide? What if criminals jimmied the brakes in both cars? What if one or both men were being controlled by a witch? Okay, now we might be going somewhere readers can’t help but read about.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Eulalie and Washerwoman.” People are kidnapped everyday, but how Eulalie stops this from happening is the true energy behind the story.







‘Waking Plain’ Free on Kindle December 14-18

WakingPlainCoverFor years, I wanted to take a famous fairy tale and turn it upside down. The result is my Kindle story “Waking Plain” which is a fairy tale while poking fun at “Sleeping Beauty.”

In “Sleeping Beauty,” like other tales, the woman is always beautiful, needs a man to rescue her, and that man is somebody who (after waking her up or otherwise saving her), sweeps her off her feet because he’s not only a rich king or prince, but is really handsome.

What if “Sleeping Beauty” had been a hag? Yes, she’d probably still be asleep.

What if the guy who kissed her was the castle janitor? Does she wake up and die of fright? Does the king give him a meaningless title so he’s fit to marry the princess? Or, maybe the janitor is thrown in the dungeon?

These are the kinds of questions that need to be asked.

But, more could be done. So, I made the sleeper a rather plain prince who, as the story unfolded, was more of an out of sight, out of mind kind of royal. Who’s going to wake him up? Maybe nobody, God willing.

Enjoy the story.


Jesus, a Sun Deck, a Kimono and Magical Realism

“You can imagine then how distinctly I remember the day Jesus of Nazareth, in person, climbed the hill in our back yard to our house, then up the outside stairs to the sun deck where I was sitting. And how He stayed with me for awhile. You can surely understand how clear those details rest in my memory. ” – Gloria Sawai, “The Day I Sat With Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts” in ‘A Song for Nettie Johnson’ (2002)

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that this short story, first published in 1976 or 1980 (depending on which source you use), has been anthologized and discussed a great deal due to its unusual title.  I find magical realism flowing through the story while others think the author merely came up with a clever title and couldn’t do it justice. (You can read the short story in PDF form here.)

nettiejohnsonI like Morny Joy’s take on the short story in Voices and Echoes: Canadian Women’s Spirituality: “No ecstasies, stigmata, fasts undo death or masochistic indulgences for this visionary. No cloistered convent or perpetual vows of chastity in the name of a temperamental divine lover. No proclamations of salvation or indictments of this perfidious, lascivious world. Instead, a woman has a neighborly chat with Jesus on the deck of a house on the outskirts of Moose Jaw.” (You can read the rest of her commentary here.)

As Joy notes, this story “illustrates the extraordinary in the ordinary,” and that is what we expect when reading magical realism.

Within A Song for Nettie Johnson, the story is unique, for it is the only one where magic is overtly mixed with the days of the characters’ lives. Some reviewers think the story doesn’t fit and should have been left out. I see their point, but I don’t agree. This story presents another viewpoint in a collection that Cocteau Books says “examines the heartbreaking lives of people on the margins.”

Consider the book’s descriptionA group of young school students prepares a memorial for the town’s deceased doctor, at the inadvertent risk of deeply offending his widow. A young girl learns important things about herself – some of them extremely unpleasant – on a storm-ravaged Mother’s Day weekend. A woman on a road trip in search of her erstwhile husband finds instead the one thing she never expected to see again in her lifetime. A woman sitting on the deck outside her Moose Jaw home receives an unusual and unexpected gentleman caller. And, in the title story, an outcast and misunderstood woman and her disgraced lover struggle toward what may be their last chance at redemption.

canadacouncilThe short story collection won the Governor-General’s-Award in 2002. The winner’s news release said, “Gloria Sawai brilliantly creates a world in which love and light redeem human failings. With clarity, deftness and generosity, she celebrates a universe in which even the least of her characters can achieve a vision of the infinite.” The finalist news release said, “A Song for Nettie Johnson is a profoundly light-filled collection of short stories set on the Prairies and peopled with holy sinners, visionaries, children and so-called ordinary folk. The power of grace illuminates her world.”

I read this collection years ago and I think I wrote a post about it–because she is among the writers who have influenced my own writing–but that must have been in another blog because I can’t find it in the archive.  I find myself thinking of her from time to time along with her stories which, as the Canadian Encyclopedia describes them, are “filled with gentle humour. Her stories often focus on characters in pious communities, set amid the majestic extremes of weather and landscape on the prairies. They emphasize the power of grace to bring forth hope, wonder, and goodness out of circumscribed lives and straitened circumstances.” (Sawai, of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, died in 2011 at 78 years of age.)

Here’s a brief excerpt from the story: “First He was a little bump on the far, far off prairie. Then He was a mole, way beyond the quarry. Then a larger animal, a dog perhaps, moving out there through the grass. Nearing the quarry, He became a person. No doubt about that. A woman perhaps, still in her bathrobe. But edging out from the rocks, through the weeds, toward the hill, He was clear to me. I knew then who He was. I knew it just as I knew the knew the sun was shining…And there He was. Coming. Climbing the hill in our back yard, His body bent against the climb, His robes ruffling in the wind. He was coming. And I was not ready. All those mouldy clothes scattered about the living room. And me in this faded old thing made in Japan, and drinking—in the middle of the morning.”

Perhaps some of you will enjoy this collection, the art and craft of all the selections, and the lighthearted but powerful “The Day I Sat With Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts.”


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”


Announcing a new book of short stories and poems

collegeAvenueCoverCollege Avenue, released June 3 on Kindle, features three short stories and four poems. The title story “College Avenue” is set in 1965, a time long before cell phones gave women on dark streets a viable means of calling for help. In this story, Anne tries to communicate to her far-away boyfriend how an assault by another student took place and how it has changed her.

“Mr. Déjà vu Upsets the Apple Cart” is a fanciful story about a girl selling apples who thinks a conversation with a customer has happened before. “Storybook is about a long-ago society that used a meaningful event from a young man’s formative years as a basis for his adult name. As he stands in line waiting for his new name, our protagonist can’t think of a single memorable event from his childhood. And, in “Again and Again Throughout the Long Night,” a son must tell his Alzheimer’s-stricken father that his wife has died–and that’s problematic and hurts both the father and the son.

The poems in the middle of the book are a varied batch, my hope being that each reader will find one or two that s/he likes and then move on to the rest of the stories.

I hope you enjoy the collection.



The gold in old manuscripts

Those of us who aren’t poets occasionally think up interesting couplets and quatrains that never go anywhere because the rest of the poem never comes together. Maybe professional poets also have this problem.

manuscriptWhat’s more likely for novelists is writing about a wonderful character or an exciting event in novel manuscript that never gels as a whole. Perhaps we write the entire novel, but see that it doesn’t quite work. Unlike the couplet that comes out of the blue without a poem to go with it, the pure gold scenes in unfinished or unsubmitted novels might not have originally caught our attention when we viewed them as part of a larger work.

Old manuscripts gather dust if we printed them out or were often saved in earlier versions of Word and filed away in an archive with a directory (folder) name like “OldStuff” or “Archive.”

If you’re in between major projects–or stuck in your current work in progress–reading through those old manuscripts might be the jolt you need to throw off your temporary writer’s block; or just maybe one of your favorite scenes with a memorable character can be pulled out of the “OldStuff” bin and turned into a short story.

Odds are, the scene will require rewriting so that it stands on its own as a short story with a beginning, middle and end rather than being a wandering slice of life that disappoints readers. Your options are unlimited because the scene you choose no longer has to fit into the novel you extract it from.

goldmineI’m thinking of this idea because I have some older books that are out of print that include a few scenes I happen to like a lot. Fixing them up was a lot more fun than I expected. Characters I liked when I wrote the original, suddenly emerged more fully formed in the revision. If they were evil, they became really evil in the short story. Or, if they were funny, they turned into first class hoots.

We often waste time trying to resurrect old novels that we already know are hopeless messes–good practice works, perhaps. But when we find a scene we can upload as a great Kindle short story, it’s like going into an abandoned mine and finding a shining nugget that got overlooked the last time anyone was there.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a 1950s-era story about granny vs. the KKK that will be 99¢ on Kindle February 4, 2016.

Learn more at: http://www.conjurewomanscat.com/

Book club extras for ‘Emily’s Stories’


Emily’s Stories is a three-story set about a teenager who solves problems with a combination of logic and intuition, and that includes talking to birds and ghosts. The book, from Vanilla Heart Publishing, is available in paperback, as an e-book in multiple formats and as an audio book.

The book is an excellent selection for library programs and book clubs that focus on family reading. If your club is considering Emily’s Stories, you can download the free “book club extras” PDF for more information about the book. The PDF includes starter questions for both teen-oriented and adult-oriented clubs.

Click on the graphic for your free download, and then enjoy reading and talking about Emily’s Stories.

Two of the stories are set in the Florida Panhandle; the other is set at Iceberg Lake in Glacier National Park. You can learn more about the book at its Amazon page.


You have three more days to stop by GoodReads and enter the give-away for a chance to win a free paperback copy of my contemporary fantasy novel “The Sun Singer.”

Spotlight on ‘Emily’s Stories’

emilyebookEmily Walters is a sharp, inquisitive fourteen-year-old north Florida girl who loves maps, her rusty old bike, and the forest behind her house. Sometimes her dreams tell her the future and sometimes her waking hours bring wise birds and other spirits into her life.

When her family vacations in the mountains in “High Country Painter,” a wise Pine Siskin tells her she must quickly learn how to paint dreams into reality to prevent an afternoon hike from becoming a tragedy.

In “Map Maker,” she’ll need her skills—and the help of a Chuck-will’s-widow—to a fight a developer’s plans for from bulldozing the sacred forest behind her house and replacing it with a subdivision.

In “Sweetbay Magnolia,” she’ll learn the secrets of her grandmother’s favorite tree, the crumbling almost forever house down on the river, and why some ghosts would rather visit than haunt.

An Amazon reviewer liked Emily’s positive attitude and the “Secret Garden” ambiance the stories, two of which are set in the Florida Panhandle. The other is set in the Montana Mountains. I hope parents and children will share the stories, either by listening to the audio version together or reading them at bedtime.

While Emily doesn’t solve crimes, I did have a Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew feeling in mind when I wrote them.

Mountain setting for High Country Painter
Mountain setting for High Country Painter

Excerpt from “High Country Painter”

Her dream was contained within the rough branches and prickly needles of an Engelmann spruce. She hung by her legs from a limb as though it were no higher up than the trapeze on her backyard swing set. An upside down pine siskin hung from the pointed tip of a cone, extracting a seed.

“I am Paiota,” he said.

“Good evening, Paiota. I am Emily.”

“Emily, would you care for a seed?” he asked.

“No, thank you,” said Emily.



Pine Siskin
Pine Siskin

“Wait here,” said the pine siskin as though Emily had a clue how to get out of the tree other than by the intervention of: (a) loggers, (b) wind, (c) lightning, or (d) tired legs.The bird returned while she was yawning without covering her mouth and, viewing her like a fledgling, poked a sweet-tasting red flower petal into her mouth. She swallowed it with the same lack of enthusiasm reserved for anything resembling salad.

“My goodness, what did I just eat?”

Paiota’s wings ruffled the moonlight as he flew back to the cone and regarded Emily with curious brown eyes that probably saw more than her brown eyes.

“Indian paintbrush.”

“What a pretty name.”

“You will find them while eating lunch at the small, icy lake tomorrow where you must paint your dreams into the world.”

“Paiota, I don’t know what that means.”

“For your father’s sake, you will learn,” said Paiota.

He dropped away from the cone into the river of night flowing between the spruce branches, leaving behind a goodbye chirp—or, possibly a warning.

You’ll find Emily’s Stories on Kindle, OmniLit, B&N paperback, Amazon paperback, iTunes, Nook, Audible/Amazon and Smashwords. The audio book is narrated by actress Kelley Hazen.

Write sloppy, then cut

penBeginning writers often lack the confidence to write sloppy, anything-goes first drafts. Veterans will tell you these writers have an internal editor that judges every word before it reaches the page or screen.

Sometimes the internal editor looks like Mom, Dad, Reverend Johnson or Professor Smith in the English department. These people have opinions about writing, right and wrong and what you ought to do with your life. If you can hear them saying “tisk tisk” while you write your first draft, that draft is probably going to be anal.

Neither your imagination nor your flow of words needs to be restricted when you write the first draft.

It also takes confidence to cut words. Veteran writers refer to a writer’s favorite scenes and sentences as “your darlings.” These are wonderful in the wrong way. They’re funny, tragic or the best poetry you’ve ever seen. The problem? They don’t fit the story.

Many students in a creative writing or basic news reporting classes are shocked when their short stories and practice news reports come back marked with a red pen. Instructors cut unnecessary words we use in conversation but shouldn’t be using when we write.

Adverbs have a bad reputation. Adjectives are next on the list of suspects. So are weak verbs. Look at each one while you’re cutting words and see if it adds anything to the sentence.

On Facebook these days, it’s rather a fad to say “I’m totally addicted to this TV show.” The word “totally” adds nothing because addicted is addicted. Many TV news reporters didn’t get the message when they took basic reporting in college and heard the instructor say “stop using the words ‘totally destroyed.'” A destroyed condition is already total.

Saying “so totally addicted” might sound “in” on Facebook and at the local mall, but the words slow down your writing. Worse yet, they date your writing; by that I mean, once they do out of style, your story will go out of style, too.

Consider this exercise: Look for short story and creative nonfiction writing competitions with strict maximum word counts. Think of a plot or subject and then write the first draft with the idea that you’re going to have twice as many words as you need. Now cut the first draft so it fits the competition’s requirements. You’ll be amazed at how much stronger the work becomes when the unnecessary words are polished away.

Sculptors have said that creating a statue out of a block of marble is a process of taking away the unwanted stone. You’re doing this when you delete the words you don’t need.  The resulting writing sings just as the sculptor’s best work looks like stone that lives and breathes.

Your first-draft sloppiness gets all the ingredients in place. Editing smooths away everything that will get in the way of the final story.


LandBetweenCoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasies, folktales and paranormal short stories. His latest three-story set, “The Land Between the Rivers,” was released on Kindle September 29.

‘Emily’s Stories’ giveaway winners

emilyaudibleThank you to everyone who left a comment here in to enter the giveaway for one of the three free copies of my three-story set called “Emily’s Stories.”

From the midnight, July 6th drawing, the winners are:

  • Dayna Gosnell
  • Robert Hays
  • Barbara Rogan

Congratulations, and I hope you enjoy the audio book. Please e-mail me at at malcolmrcampbell [at] yahoo [dot] com if you have any trouble with the coupon code for Audible or if several days go by and I haven’t been able to find your e-mail address and tell you that you won.

Coming Soon: “Emily’s Stories” was narrated by actress Kelley Hazen, whom many of you will have seen in “Nightingale in a Music Box,” “What Women Want,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and other film and television productions. I’ll have an interview with Kelley here on Malcolm’s Round Table soon.



‘Emily’s Stories’ Audio Book Give-Away

emilyaudibleWhen my three-story set called Emily’s Stories about a fourteen year old Florida girl who talks to spirits came out on Kindle in March, it never occurred to me that my publisher would soon bring it out as an audio book as well. Hearing my words read back to me is an interesting experience.

Two of the stories are set in the Florida Panhandle and one is set in Glacier National Park. All of them are suitable for family listening on car trips or during quiet times around the house in the evenings.

I have three FREE BOOK coupons for the Audible version of Emily’s Stories. So, it’s time for a give-away. Leave a comment on this post by midnight (eastern) July 6, 2013 for a chance to win a copy. I’ll put all the names in a cat chow sack, and draw out three.

The coupon code is, of course, the easiest to redeem if you already have an Audible account. If you don’t have one and happen to win, you can start an Audible account on Amazon and see if you like the subscription service. (It’s free for a month and you can cancel before the trail period ends.)

From the Publisher

Emily Walters is a sharp, inquisitive fourteen-year-old north Florida girl who loves maps, her rusty old bike, and the forest behind her house. Sometimes her dreams tell her the future and sometimes her waking hours bring wise birds and other spirits into her life. In these three short stories, join Emily in adventures and mysteries.

When her family vacations in the mountains in “High Country Painter,” a wise Pine Siskin tells her she must quickly learn how to paint dreams into reality to prevent an afternoon hike from becoming a tragedy.

In “Map Maker,” she’ll need her skills—and the help of a Chuck-will’s-widow—to fight a developer’s plans for bulldozing the sacred forest behind her house and replacing it with a subdivision.

In “Sweetbay Magnolia,” she’ll learn the secrets of her grandmother’s favorite tree, the crumbling almost-forever house down on the river, and why some ghosts would rather visit than haunt.

Best of luck ,