How to be doomed as a writer

“Get out and see the world. It’s not going to kill you to butch it up a tad. Book passage on a tramp steamer. Rustle up some dysentery; it’s worth it for the fever dreams alone. Lose a kidney in a knife fight. You’ll be glad you did.” – Colson Whitehead

RIPI found an old book in the garage called “How to Get Started as a Writer.” Looked it up on line and saw that when the thing  came out in 1965, Kirkus hated it. I glanced through it to see why I kept it and decided that it’s still in the house because I forgot about it.

I was going to write this post about it, but it drove me nuts reading the book’s advice. I took a Xanax and now I feel better. (All serious writers need to go nuts once or twice during their lives.)

If you type the words “how to be a writer” into your favorite search engine, you’ll find –well, let’s go check–161,000,000 hits. Sure, you may stumble across the Colson Whitehead piece or Stephen King’s On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft. If so, fate has smiled upon you.

If you start reading the rest of the advice, you’re doomed. As a prospective writer, you would only be in worse shape if you stayed in school until you were 35 years old getting a B.A. in English, an MFA in creative writing, and a PhD in God only knows what. Your head’s now filled with rules and, sad to say, not much else.

None of your teachers will suggest getting dysentery because that’s crude, unpleasant and harder to control than, say, using too many adjectives.

I’ve had dysentery several times. Changed my life. Just how, is one of the most guarded secrets every writer has. Hint: you know how to see what if situations (King likes “situations” better than plots) and turn them into stories. A lot of advice sites say you have to have passion. Well, okay, but it doesn’t beat dysentery or losing a toe to frostbite. (I tried to do that but failed and I really think that failure has kept me from selling as many books as King and Rowling.)

I don’t know if either of them lost toes, but I do know neither of them studied the rules in school until they were 35 and then suddenly sold a billion copies.

Doom, is thinking you need advice. Fatal doom is taking whatever advice you find.

Doom is thinking that somebody else knows better than you how to turn your own dysentery, lost toe, going nuts or a frightful encounter with _________ (fill in the blank) into the kind of “been there, done that” raw talent that makes memorable stories happen.

It helps to trust where you’ve been and what you’ve done and how you reacted when you saw what you saw. That is you. This isn’t to say you need to become a serial killer before you can write a novel about a serial killer. TMI, as people say in chat rooms. On the other hand, if you lose your kidney in a knife fight, you’ll be more apt to write memorable prose about killers than the poor doomed soul who studied language for 35 years instead of living a life.

Reading this post will also doom you as a writer. Too late now. But there is an antidote to everything I’ve said here. Get drunk and/or stand in the snow until one or more toes fall off. Only then will you have the passion and instinct to write. If you still need more passion, eating rancid pork is better than reading another “show, don’t tell” article.

Whatever you do, you need to stay alive long enough to write your stories. But fever dreams, oh yes, those will get you on the bestseller list as long as the fever breaks long enough for you to pick up a pencil before your spirit hears a doctor saying “time of death.”

Malcolm

 

 

Fall Reading: See anything you like?

Once the barrage of lightweight summer books has come and gone, readers’ thoughts to turn fall reading and holiday gifts. To help us make our choices, the usual flurry of best books of the year articles and lists is showing up all over the Internet and in your favorite book stores. For this, you can always start with the list of 101 best books of the year on Publishers Weekly.  (The feature has site errors in it, but click on OK and get past them.) Or you can look at USA Today’s list of fall books here.

Indie Bound publishes a “Next” list for upcoming books. Here are their favorites for November:

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Likewise, Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) keeps up with bestsellers for bookstores in the southeast. Here’s the link to their hardbacks PDF. On the download, they’ve highlighted several books, including:

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When people ask me about fiction and poetry, my answer depends on what (if anything) I know about the person. Do they like romance, fantasy, general fiction, crime? However, my three top picks of the year in fiction are:

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And, for those who like poetry (I think Bryant’s latest book is only on Sams Dot Com):

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I’m intrigued by these short stories, but they may not work for everyone:

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In  the crime category, I liked Robert Galbraith’s (J. K. Rowling) The Cuckoo’s Falling and  Stephen King’s Joyland. In plays, I liked Elizabeth Clark-Sterne’s On the Doorstep of the Castle. Also, Tracy R. Franklin’s strong collection of poetry and essays Looking for the Sun Door is a beautiful book. And, since a short story of mine appears in the anthology, I have to mention Spirits of St. Louis: Missouri Ghost Stories. Of course, I wouldn’t mind if you clicked on the banner below to take a look at my new contemporary fantasy The Betrayed.

I hope you find plenty out there for your to-be-read list and for the lists of your friends and family.

Malcolm

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Your authentic author’s voice is who you are

“When you engage in a work that taps your talent and fuels your passion — that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet — therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code.” – Stephen Covey, quoted in Terri Windling’s blog

“Each life is formed by its unique image, an image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny. As the force of fate, this image acts as a personal daimon, an accompanying guide who remembers your calling.” – James Hillman, in “The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling”

“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.” – Virginia Woolf, in “Orlando”

booksartIn school, we are taught to emulate the great masters and/or to consider many overlapping recipes for how short stories and novels should be written so that it takes most of us a fair amount of time to discover our “author’s voice,” the mix of style and syntax and word choice that makes our writing “us” and not somebody else.

Editors look for a distinctive author’s voice. Without it, the writing is flat or an imitation of authors the writer likes. Sometimes, an editor can tell who a writer’s favorite author is by reading a page or two out of a submitted manuscript. If an author admires Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, the last thing s/he needs to do is try to write like either of them. At best, we end up with a parody. At worst, we have “false fiction,” that is to say, “Joe Doaks pretending to be Stephen King while writing a novel called ‘Carney Land.'”

The real Joe Doaks and what he might have been gets lost in the shuffle. Perhaps, had he allowed himself time to discover his own true voice and to develop his craft into the art that was possible in the beginning, he might have become a better writer than King. Or just as good as King, but different.

As James Hillman might suggest, Joe Doaks is ignoring his own calling, the themes that are really important to him, and spending his talents on other things.

In her post “Craft and Art,” author and college professor Theodora Goss says that in her creative writing classes, she focuses on the craft of writing. When a student with talent applies himself or herself to the writing craft, Goss says that she can then “point the way to art and say, if you wish, that’s where it is, in that general direction . . .” The same is true, I think, of an author’s voice.

Perhaps an author can hide who s/he is from the novels s/he writes, but it’s a lot of trouble. If we hide, we distort our author’s voice and the flow of intuition running through our consciousness as we write. If we’re not hiding, then it’s quite likely that our world view will lurk between the lines of our fiction even if the fiction is about characters that don’t resemble us in any way.

Most of us learned as children that there was a difference between “Dad telling a story,” “Mother telling a story” and “Grandpa telling a story” even when it was the same story. The difference was voice. Dad approached stories like a journalist, Mother like an ever-hopeful teacher, and Grandfather like a farmer who saw life in its most basic form. Their voices turned a potentially flat story into a “story being told by [Dad, Mother, Grandpa].”

We are, I think, drawn back to our favorite authors over and over again because we not only like their plots and characters, but the way they tell their stories. Of course, this factor in the public’s purchase of books makes it hard for young writers to get started. We saw an example of this in the recent revelation that Robert Galbraith (“The Cuckoo’s  Calling”) really wasn’t a debut author, but J. K. Rowling writing under a pseudonym. While, reviewers gave “Galbraith” high marks, few people bought the book before they found out Rowling was the author.

To some extent, those purchases are partially celebrity worship. But they also suggest that a fair number of readers like what they’re reading when the book is “Jo Rowling telling a story about ABC or XYZ.” Whether it’s our stories at bedtime, tall tales told around a campfire, or the novels we buy at the local bookstore, we discover that a hard-to-define mix of genre, craft, art and voice draws us to one storyteller more than another.

Starting out, it’s hard to resist the temptation NOT to write like King or Rowling because, after all, the bestseller list is so clearly telling us that is what readers want.  We might even sell our first book because we’ve written a book kind of like King’s “Joyland” or kind of like Rowling’s “The Cuckoo’s Calling.” But that kind of “success” really represents a great loss, the loss of our own author’s voice and our own storytelling passions.

When we follow our intuition and allow our stories to develop naturally as we write them, there’s a lot of ourselves in them even though they’re not about us. Our author’s voice develops and becomes stronger when we admit (to ourselves) “this novel is ‘me telling a story.'” I’m not talking about vanity here, but authenticity.

Or, more simply said, in being himself or herself while writing, an author is engaged in honest storytelling.

Malcolm

My world view, that each person has unlimited potential, is clearly visible in “The Sun Singer,” “Sarabande,” “The Seeker,” and “The Sailor.” I knew no other way to tell these stories.

Only $2.99 on Kindle.
Only $2.99 on Kindle.

Stephen King, Joyland and the Lure of Pulp

joylandA haunted carnival funhouse gives a supernatural spin to events in Thriller Award–winner King’s period murder mystery with a heart. In the summer of 1973, 21-year-old college student Devin Jones takes a job at Joyland, a North Carolina amusement park. Almost immediately, a boardwalk fortune-teller warns that Devin has “a shadow” over him, and that his destiny is intertwined with that of terminally ill Mike Ross, a 10-year-old boy who has “the sight.” – from the Publishers Weekly review of Stephen King’s “Joyland” (June 2013 release)

Anyone Stephen King’s age or older has been impacted by pulp fiction whether we’ve read any of it or not. Pulp, referring to the cheap paper, covered a lot of genres from westerns to mysteries to sports to gangsters. It was cheaply produced and, so some people say, never could have seen the light of day in the up-scale “slicks” or “glossies”—the magazines and books printed on better paper.

The cover art, which was usually suggestive, garish, colorful, and over the top, meant that readers typically wouldn’t let their parents, teachers, office workers, pastors, and spouses see the books. In terms of magazines, most pulps died out during the 1950s as the sixty-year-old publishing approach began to run its course. Today, the book covers that were once considered scandalous are now considered “camp” and/or treasures of a bygone era that began with Argosy Magazine and included authors H. Rider Haggard,  Edgar Rice Burroughs and Talbot Mundy.

“Undeniable…charm [and] aching nostalgia…[JOYLAND] reads like a heartfelt memoir and might be King’s gentlest book, a canny channeling of the inner peace one can find within outer tumult.” – Booklist

The cover of Stephen King’s upcoming novel Joyland screams PULP. Published by Hard Case Crime, the look of the book is intentional as its author takes a nostalgia trip back to his roots and the fiction he grew up reading. The publisher is a friend of pulp:

Hard Case Crime brings you the best in hardboiled crime fiction, ranging from lost noir masterpieces to new novels by today’s most powerful writers, featuring stunning original cover art in the grand pulp style.

Though King embraced e-books early on, Joyland will be available in paperback only. That’s made bookstores happy and caused other people to wonder what King is up to when he says, “I have no plans for a digital version. Maybe at some point, but in the meantime, let people stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore rather than a digital one.”

Pulp seems to be less pulpy on a Kindle or a Nook. Perhaps that, and the nostalgia of those pulpy old days is sufficient rationale for the paperback-only release. Personally, I would like to see some other major writers delay the release of the digital versions of their books. Only the prosperous could afford to do that, to go against the tide that often washes e-books up on shore before the paperback and hardcover releases.

Some years ago, literary agent Mort Janklow said of King, “That’s a fellow sitting up in Maine having fun, but it’s not a way to run a business.”

No, it probably isn’t. But I like it. I like it even on a day when I’m talking to the regional library system about including e-book editions of my novels on their e-lending lists. I like it because it’s fun. And yes, I’ll buy a copy at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore because that’s part of what pulp fiction is all about, walking in, making sure Mom, Dad or the school teacher aren’t around, and grabbing a copy of the latest hardboiled story off the spinning rack of books.

I remember the thrill of all that and I’ll enjoy going back in time to renew my memories. Unlike the old days, this book has glowing reviews from mainstream reviewers. I almost wish it didn’t.

–Malcolm

Love that writing advice, the good, the bad, and the strange

If you spend a lot of years writing, you’ll hear a lot of advice. In addition to writing books and the features and lists of tips on Internet sites like NPR, Flavorwire, The Millions and Brain Pickings, Facebook and Twitter supply advice. I visit these sites every week to keep up with books, authors and publishing for my Book Bits blog of links to reviews, author interviews, book news, and “how to” articles for writers.

gallicoSome wise and/or humorous words about writing have been around for so long, they’ve become almost lame, yet each new generation of readers and writers discovers them and posts them in writing blogs and Facebook. You’ve probably seen a few of these before:

  • “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” – Red Smith, Ernest Hemingway and Paul Gallico have been credited with versions of this one.
  • “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”  – Stephen King and other authors tell us that if we don’t read, we can’t possibly write. (Aspiring writers have enjoyed King’s advice in “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.”
  • “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” – It’s not surprising that William Faulkner’s version of that advice is longer.
  • stephenking“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” – Mark Twain’s version of this age-old wisdom is memorable.
  • Professional writers don’t sit around every day waiting for their muses to contact them or for imagination to strike. They sit down and write. – So many people have said this, it would take the rest of this post to list them all here.

Famous Authors often Dispense Advice in Lists

  • “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” – W. Somerset Maugham – Okay, this is actually a non-list and probably not very helpful.
  • “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” – from Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips.
  • kerouacphoto“Write the way you talk. Naturally.” – from David Ogilvy’s ten tips. Actually, most people don’t talk like anything I want to read, especially if they use the words “you know” ten times in each paragraph.
  • “Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind.” – Jack Kerouac’s advice from his thirty beliefs and techniques, most of which are as unclear as this one…even if it’s true.
  • “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” – from John Steinbeck’s six tips. . .this one probably annoys writers who begin with an outline and a list of character traits and motivations for each character.
  • “Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.” – from Henry Miller’s eleven commandments

And then there are the random gems

  • woolfphoto“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” – Virginia Woolf…probably true, though most of us try to keep some semblance of love in it.
  • “The first draft of anything is shit.” ― Ernest Hemingway…typical Ernest.
  • “Write the kind of story you would like to read. People will give you all sorts of advice about writing, but if you are not writing something you like, no one else will like it either.” ― Meg Cabot…this sounds reasonable, though it has a sting to it for those of us who like reading James Joyce.
  • “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” ― Flannery O’Connor…this seems more true today than when Flannery said it.
  • Every journalist has a novel in him, which is an excellent place for it. – Russel Lynes…Russel is obviously more cynical than Flannery.
  • “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald…this one ends my lists on a more practical note while also serving as another example about why we shouldn’t write like we talk.

What are your favorite tips, even the ugly ones?

Malcolm

99 cents on Kindle
99 cents on Kindle

Malcolm R. Campbell, who used to dispense writing tips as a college journalism instructor, has turned his talents over to the dark side of writing paranormal short stories and contemporary fantasy novels.

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Earth Language

“To our indigenous ancestors, and to the many aboriginal peoples who still hold fast to their oral traditions, language is less a human possession than it is a property of the animate earth itself, an expressive, telluric power in which we, along with the coyotes and the crickets, all participate. Each creature enacts this expressive magic in its own manner, the honeybee with its waggle dance no less than a bellicose, harrumphing sea lion.” — From Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram, quoted by Terri Windling in her recent series of posts.

The plots and imagery of my short stories and novels frequently evoke the powers of Earth and invite meditations on and respect for the natural world. This is especially true in my 2011 heroine’s journey adventure novel Sarabande.

The phrase heroine’s journey indicates that this is a woman’s adventure story and that the trials and tribulations will strongly test the main character. The story is written with a feminine point of view, that of Sarabande, the young title character. Since Earth and the forces of nature are often viewed as feminine, the title character’s adventure is supported by “Earth language.”

Sarabande is attracted to rivers, the earth’s life blood and she is healed by an Indian’s Earth-centric approach. And, for a short period of time, she truly experiences becoming animal when she merges with Coyote, a magical creature in the mountains where she finds the ghost who has been haunting her.

I’m attracted to David Abram’s books because they place humans back into nature rather than as creatures at odds with nature. In Sarabande, the title character’s interactions with nature are important to her physical survival and to her inner growth. As readers will soon discover, her life is in danger quite often: knowing “Earth Language” will be essential.

David Abram suggests that rather than describing nature, we should listen to and talk to nature. He relates the story of a man who has trained himself so well to understand “the dialects of trees” that he can be taken blindfolded to any location in the Pacific Northwest. Once there, he will tell you who the nearby trees are. Perhaps our best contemporary fantasies can lead readers back to an appreciation for such skills.

In Sarabande, I hope readers will not only enjoy the adventure, but will take away a bit of Earth language.

Today’s Writing Links

  • Why We Have Both “Color” and “Colour” by Mignon Fogarty for Grammar Girl – “Have you ever wondered why the British spell “color” with a “u” and Americans don’t? Or why the British spell “theater” with an “re” at the end and Americans spell it with an “er” at the end? We all know that these spelling differences exist, but not everyone knows why they exist.”
  • The Stephen King Guide to Marketing by Jason Kong for Jane Friedman’s blog – “…you need both good writing and good marketing. Many writers see this as two steps. Write first, then worry about marketing once the words are published. The belief is that the writing and marketing processes are distinct.”
  • Quote: I am obsessive about titles. Even for my second and third book in the series, I couldn’t move forward until I had the right title for it. With Crewel, I didn’t want it to be so sewing-based that it would be off-putting. I stumbled upon “crewel,” and I thought, obviously this is the title. I take liberties with it. There’s someone out there who does crewel who’s going to say, “There isn’t one crewel work in the book.” – Gennifer Albin, author of “Crewel” – from Shelf Awareness

Malcolm