Writers want to sweep you up into their stories

“Magic doesn’t sweep you away; it gathers you up into the body of the present moment so thoroughly that all your explanations fall away: the ordinary, in all its plain and simple outrageousness, begins to shine — to become luminously, impossibly so. Every facet of the world is awake, and you within it.” – David Abram, “Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology”

An ancient campfire beneath a fetching moon. Trees standing close, listening to a storyteller spin out a tale that captures the imaginations of those sitting around the fire so completely that the listeners see no boundary lines between themselves and the characters within the story. Truly, there is no outside at this point, no separation between the words and the trees and the moonlight and the derring-do of the far-away people whom the storyteller conjures into the world of that very moment.

As Wikipedia says, “Through the telling of the story people become psychically close, developing a connection to one another through the communal experience. The storyteller reveals, and thus shares, him/her self through his/her telling and the listeners reveal and share themselves through their reception of the story.”

Creating such shared moments is more difficult in a book because the storyteller and reader are worlds away from each other physically until or unless the words are strong enough and vibrating powerfully enough to dissolve the illusion of physical distance. When the book works for a reader, the experience becomes as powerful as the campfire scene where all is connected.

To be sure, the connection between writer and reader depends not only on the skill of the writer, but the a reader’s (often) long-time experience with books (how they work), the subject matter, the reader’s state of mind and (probably) physical comfort. When conditions are optimal, the reader is swept up into the story as though s/he is sitting with the storyteller next to a fire in a quiet forest or within cabin’s sweet shadows.

Books for prospective writers try very hard to teach us what we need to do while researching and writing to ensure that conditions are optimal. My approach–which doesn’t necessarily work for all writers–is that the writer must first be swept up by the story and its characters before s/he can produce a novel that sweeps up readers in the way David Abram suggests.

No matter how a writer connects with his/her story, getting those conditions right takes practice. Nobody sounds like Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz, or John Coltrane the first time they pick up a tenor sax. Nobody writes like Stephen King, John Hart, or Neil Gaiman the first time they pick up a pencil or sit down at a computer. All of these people evolved into the people they became. 

Time seems to fly while writers are becoming comfortable with words, plots, techniques, character development, and magic. In a world where many people want everything right now, it’s difficult to submit to the necessity of practice. Even the wizards at Hogwarts needed to practice their spells. So do storytellers dreaming of campfires and writers dreaming of books and short stories.

After that, the magic begins to work behind the scenes and become second nature to the man or woman with the pencil. 

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism series of novels that begins with “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and ends with “Fate’s Arrows.”

 

Review: ‘Widely Scattered Ghosts’

Widely Scattered Ghosts begins with Moonlight and Ghosts: A couple visits an old abandoned mental hospital and development center at night, to quell some troubling dreams. This story draws you in quickly and kept me on tenterhooks until the very end. It had the right amount of tension to be spooky and just enough heart to leave a smile on my face.

Source: BigAl’s Books and Pals: Review: Widely Scattered Ghosts by Malcolm R. Campbell

I like this review, not just because the reviewer liked the book, but because she made a comment about each of the collection’s nine ghost stories.

If you’re not famous, it’s hard to find reviewers willing to consider short story collections. Those who do really earn their keep since they have multiple plots and characters to consider.

–Malcolm

‘Haints in the Woods’ excerpt

“Haints in the Woods” is one of nine short stories in my recently released collection Widely Scattered Ghosts. Here a brief excerpt featuring characters from my novel Lena:

Praise the good Lord, as the deacon would say, for Pollyanna chose that moment to drive her grey Ford truck through the busted section of the wrought iron fence into the back yard. She wore her favorite green capri pants, black blouse, black slingback sandals, and a wide smile that showed off her new black lipstick and matching nail polish.

“Young people,” whispered Eulalie.

Pollyanna came up to the porch with an Alligator Supreme orange crate chuck full of who knows what covered over in butcher paper.

“Did you see a soused sinner riding his hinny back home?” asked Eulalie.

“Why, is one missing?”

“I was just telling Lena that I think Willie’s sharing jelly and juice with some dusty butt miles away from where he’s supposed to be.”

Pollyanna set down the orange crate. “I don’t even know what that means.”

“Sex and booze with a ho,” Eulalie said.

“Holy shit.” Pollyanna slumped down into the sagging couch with a fading smile. When Eulalie handed her the Mason jar of shine, she wasn’t shy about drinking her fill.

“I ain’t really po’ moufin’ my brand-new husband,” said Eulalie. “I’m hopin’ he is a soused sinner today.”

“I know I’m repeating myself, but holy shit.”

“Beats bein’ among the dead. I threw the bones an hour ago, and they said he’s with the dead. Then Lena went lookin’ for him on a spirit journey, and she saw nothin’ but ace-of-spades blackness. As you white folks sometimes say, we’re on tenterhooks.”

Copyright © 2019 by Malcolm R. Campbell

Short Story Collection Released Today (careful, it’s about ghosts)

Publisher’s Description

A readers’ advisory for this collection of nine stories forecasts widely scattered ghosts with a chance of rain. Caution is urged at the following uncertain places: an abandoned mental hospital, the woods behind a pleasant subdivision, a small fishing village, a mountain lake, a long-closed theater undergoing restoration, a feared bridge over a swampy river, a historic district street at dusk, the bedroom of a girl who waited until the last minute to write her book report from an allegedly dead author, and the woods near a conjure woman’s house.

In effect from the words “light of the harvest moon was brilliant” until the last phrase “forever rest in peace,” this advisory includes—but may not be limited to—the Florida Panhandle, northwest Montana, central Illinois, and eastern Missouri.

Widely Scattered Ghosts is available in paperback and e-book at online booksellers and leading bookstores. (If your favorite store doesn’t have it, tell them they can order it from their Ingram catalogue.)

You can learn more about the stories’ location settings on the spotlight page of my website.

Before it was torn down some years ago, this old Florida building was a favorite of ghost hunters. I was in the building when it was a clean and functioning facility.

Buy the Book Here

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Another ‘this-and-that’ post

  • This week’s thriller (my escapist reading) was The Terminal List by Jack Carr. It’s one of the most high-pitched novels I’ve read in a while. It’s hard to say anything about it without spoiling the story. Suffice it to say, when a SEAL team walks into an ambush, the bad guys turn out to be Americans out to make a buck rather than ISIS or the Taliban. The LCDR in charge of the team is more than ticked off about the loss of life and who’s responsible for it. Written by a SEAL, a few parts of the story are blacked out because the powers that be thought he gave away too much.
  • My editing changes for an upcoming book of short stories called Widely Scattered Ghosts have been sent to the publisher. Now we’re waiting for a proof copy to see if any fixes need to be made before the book is released. You can see what it’s about on my website’s Spotlight Page.
  • I’ve also been working on a rather dark story about a man who was put in a rest home because his kids thought he was spending all the money they “deserved” to inherit. This story has been sent off to a magazine that’s very hard to get into, but I always remain hopeful about these kinds of things.
  • I seldom unfriend people on Facebook. I did today because, in a thread about rape, she said it’s not up to women to fix the rape problem. I didn’t disagree but suggested that while we’re looking for ways to change the rape culture, more women could at least take advantage of defense courses. She said women shouldn’t have to. After more back and forth about that, she said I wasn’t a real man and needed to respect women. I finally lost my patience when she got into slamming me as a person rather than debating the issue.
  • Speaking of websites, I’ve spent some time lately trying to make my website more interesting. I see the visitor counts going up, so perhaps some of the new pictures and copy are luring people back for multiple visits. Now, we’ll see whether any of those people buy my books which, of course, is the point of having an author’s website.
  • For reasons unknown, my old post about fairy tale structure still gets more visits every week than most of my other posts combined. Those of you who like fairy tales might enjoy this new collection of re-imagined fairy tales by Dora Goss. I’m enjoying it. I’m a long-time fan of her writing, including The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and its sequel European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman.
  • I tend to post quotes on my Facebook profile at the end of the day. My current favorite comes from musician and poet Joy Harjo: “The creative act amazes me. Whether it’s poetry, whether it’s music, it’s an amazing process, and it has something to do with bringing forth the old out into the world to create and to bring forth that which will rejuvenate.” Frankly, I don’t know how the creative act works. That’s why I said in my last post that I get bored reading or talking about it with other authors. We all do what we do without the need for theories.
  • Now, I’m looking for a new story to tell. When an author finishes a story, s/he suddenly feels empty because all the characters have left. It’s like the end of a summer romance. You know it’s going to happen, but you’re never ready for it.

–Malcolm

‘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

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.

Malcolm

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

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.

–Malcolm