Olympic Athletes: a lifetime of work

I enjoy watching the Olympics in spite of all the reasons people have for not watching the Olympics.  As a so-called “winter person,” I liked the winter Olympics best, though I’m a fan of the swimming, diving, and gymnastics in the summer games. One thing I noticed during reporters’ brief talks with the medalists is the athletes’ coments that they’ve been working all their lives to reach–and triumph in–the Olympic games.

I think all but the most avid sports enthusiasts are unaware of most of that work. We may hear about the hours of training, but we don’t see (or know about) the meets and competitions that lead up to a place on a country’s Olympic team.

While sports is quite different that the careers most of us choose, I think those of us in many areas can say we’ve been working a lifetime to move up the chain of command (instructor to full professor, line supervior to middle manager, resident to fellow to attending physician). I see this, of course, as a writer sees it as s/he “moves up” from a staff writer, to a paid freelance, to a successful novelist or nonfiction author. Other than reaching bestseller lists or winning prizes, the “best” authors appear at convocations and panels, serve as faculty in MFA programs, and/or teach upper level college writing courses.

When comparing a writer’s version of working for a lifetime with an Olympian’s version of working for a lifetime, most people in both groups are those who either don’t make the team or–if they do–don’t medal. For writers, we at least don’t have careers that can be cut short so quickly by physical injury of age. (You don’t know how much it raises my level of hope to see that Clint Eastwood, at 91, is coming out with yet another movie.)

Needless to say, there aren’t a lot of Olympic sports that have 91-year old competitors. It’s sad that whether it’s the Olympics or other sports, the window in which competing is possible is so short. Writers and actors and directors and doctors have more time. Yet time is always mving fasters than it appears: what seems like forever to a young writer (for example) suddenly becomes a time crunch with age.

So, we keep at it, happy that we don’t have to hang up our skiis or gloves or rackets (not counting the Williams sisters) when we’re only forty. The snare, of course, is always thinking tou have plenty of time. Ha! You might write your best book when you’re reach Eastwood’s age, only it doesn’t take off, only nobody believes in it enough to nominate it for a Pulitzer, only when the book fades from the scene, you feel no closer to your goals than you did when you were 18,

Time runs on so many continuums: sports figures probably have the shortest, college teachers don’t have forever to advance in rank; neither to officers in the military where the phrase is you either move up or you move out. Perhaps writers have it easy: we “get” to keep working on our lifetime dreams long after people our ages have already retired in other disciplines.

But we know what it means when an Olympic athlete a third of our age says, “I’ve been working a lifetime to get here.” I watch the Olympics partly because I enjoy the compeditors’ success. And, I feel sad then they come in .002 seconds behind the bronze medalists. “All glory is fleeting,” General Patton supposedly said. Yes it is. But experiencing it for a moment is a special honor whether you write or direct or care for the sick or swim 1,500 meters into the history books.


Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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You’d think a writer would be good at Scrabble

I lose most of the “Words with Friends” games I play on Facebook because I just can’t see prospective words in a pile of letters. I was never very good at the original Scrabble with the wood tiles. I wonder if they’re made out of plastic now. I’m sure I’d be doubly bad at the various sanitized versions of Scrabble that are weeding out words that aren’t politically correct.

There’s a joke floating around Facebook that shows an Ikea-style, assemble-it-your-self novel that arrives on your doorstep as a box of letters. I get nightmares thinking about it it.

I can’t speak for other writers, but I have never viewed words as collections of letters that must be assembled into what I want to say. I think of the word first and then type the letters without really noticing them. So Scrabble is the exact opposite of how my mind works. It’s embarrassing, though, because people who see writers as wordsmiths expect them to be impossible to defeat in a game about words.

I console myself by thinking that most carpenters and others who create miracles out of wood know little or nothing about the building blocks of matter. If you gave them a box of protons, neutrons, and electrons, they probably couldn’t turn them into a birdfeeder or a table. They’d be even more lost if the box contained quarks and other elementary particles.

Most craftspeople don’t make their raw materials from scratch. Writers don’t either. This is my excuse and naturally, I’m sticking to it with the determination of a covalent bond.


Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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The ending I did not see coming! You think you know somebody then BAM, right out of left field it knocks you for a loop! I found Fate’s Arrows well told with several threads woven together to make it an encompassing tale of the era. It’s raw and fraught with danger. The Klan may operate differently these days, but it is still alive and well. – Big Al’s Books and Pals

the gods conspire

Many writers speak of the joy of writing, how the day is not complete unless they can sit down and work on their latest story, how they would write if nobody knew they wrote, how writing completes them like icing on a cake. Most writers also know that even on the best of days, the gods conspire to defeat their best efforts, or cause mischief, or add a few roadblocks where logic says there should be none.

The writer’s first duty is, perhaps, not getting so frustrated when the gods conspire that s/he comes to a point where s/he can no longer write. At the same time, it’s considered bad form for a writer to complain in public, so other than having a sympathetic and patient spouse, writers seldom have anyone willing to listen to their frustrations.

When I think of my own frustrations about major publishers and reviewers, I remember my college writing instructor Michael Shaara’s frustrations. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1974 novel The Killer Angels. Even so, most people never heard of it until after the movie based on the novel was released in 1993 five years after Shaara died of a heart attack at 59. Then reviewers started saying The Killer Angels was the best civil war book ever written. I can’t help but think how the gods conspire when he never heard that or saw that readers finally discovered his work.

But that’s not the half of it. His best novel The Rebel in Autumn, written prior to The Killer Angels, never found a publisher in his lifetime. Written about the protests of the 1960s, it was (perhaps) too current for publishers to accept. Like his baseball novel For The Love of the Game, which became a Kevin Costner film in 1999, Rebel was published through the influence of his children Jeff and Lila (both are authors) posthumously in 2013.

I doubt it does an author any good to have some close friend say, “You feel unappreciated now, but after you’re dead, people will love your work.” When the gods conspire, they love this scenario. Loners at Florida State University in the 1960s–myself included–were drawn to Shaara as a kindred spirit. We all felt out of place and we talked about this between classes at a spot that served decent coffee and didn’t mess with while you used to booth without paying rent. We all knew what the gods did and we all felt that one day our numbers would be up.

So, The Rebel in Autumn doesn’t surprise me as a novel (other than how good it is and how wrong the rejecting publishers were) because we talked about protest, the war, the establishment government, most people over 30, the political vicissitudes of a university, and the survival of the nation. The novel was and is about our shared experience, our common worries, and our frustrations with the absurdities of our daily lives.

I do not feel comfortable reviewing my mentor’s novel, but I can say that I share his frustrations about the lack of good sense of major agents and publishers. 


Glacier Park Novel – Audiobook Edition

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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When you were in high school, did you have a career plan?

Lots of people do. They take the courses they need to take to prepare for the college degree(s) they want. A fair number plan to do what one or both of their parents did–law school, med school, sales, science, the military. And, I’m not counting the jobs people want when they’re kids; in my era, it was often a doctor, a policeman officer, or a firefighter.

From time to time, people on Facebook ask questions like, “How close is your career to the one you wanted as a high school student.” My answer is a rare one because I say, “It’s the same.” What about you? Did you always know what you wanted to do? If so, did you end up doing it?

I ran one of these at a rail museum though my wife was better at it than I was.

There have been times when I wanted to be a clinical psychologist (college degrees Radio/TV and Journalism didn’t prepare me for that) National Park Ranger (NPS was looking for people with biology or law enforcement backgrounds when I inquired), passenger railroad engineer (AMTRAK killed that dream even though I have run a locomotive).

At the times when I was looking, magazines were always in the middle of cutting back on their staff and newspapers were paying poverty wages for beginning reporters even though I had a lot of newspaper credits from news releases written while in the Navy.

Oddly enough, I earned most of my income over the years from technical writing and corporate communications articles. Like my wife, I learned how to write code as well as the manuals that accompanied the applications that grew out of that code. Several computer companies on my resume wondered why, as a technical writer, I caught more programming bugs than those hired to test the programs. My answer was simple: as a writer, I loved the “what if?” game. When going through a new program, I always thought, “What will  happen if I do this?” Of course, “this” was something neither the programmers nor testers anticipated, so they didn’t find the weak areas in the code. Hahaha–a good old liberal arts education was actually good for something.

However, by the time those Facebook career questions came along, the corporate jobs were long gone, and–finally–I was doing full time what I wanted to end up doing when I was in school. Most of us who write,  follow a twisted route of blind alleys and dead-end streets to get there.

Did you follow that kind of route, first one thing and then another, and then suddenly a side street you never knew about turned into an avocation and then a career? A lot of us have been there and done that and wondered just where our careers were going, if anywhere.


Writers: How to know when you’ve got your groove back

Some manuscripts have a meh quality to them. That’s not good. If you’re bored with it, the publisher will also be bored along with prospective readers. Take two aspirin or a double Scotch and go back to it in a few days. If it’s still meh, get rid of it, at least let it set for a while and go on to something else.

But some manuscripts sing. That’s the first clue about getting your groove back. Then more stuff begins to happen:

  • You’re reading a compelling novel like Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain and here come your characters right in the middle of it, talking the dialogue right out of the book (You got a girl? Shit no. You sound like you’ve had some bad experiences. Who aint? You fool with them and that’s the kind you’ll have.)
  • You’re watching one of the final episodes of “How to Get Away with Murder” and after Annalise Keating says, “Prayers are for the weak–I’ll stick to beating your ass in court,” one of your characters blurts out “Say which?” and you find yourself writing dialogue for your book while people on the show are getting away with murder.
  • Taylor Swift is singing “The Man” and you get it mixed up with Burl Ives’ “The Big Rock Candy Mountain because your story is pushing on your hand like the dog that’s not getting petted.
  • You’re ready for a good night’s sleep, turn out the lights, the cat snuggles in close and purs outs a lullaby, and ten minutes later you realize your seeing scenes from your story rolling through your mind’s eye like big trucks on a long-haul highway.”
  • Your spouse and/or significant other says, “Do you want sex,” and you say, “No, I’m busy, but thanks for asking.”

Storywise, you got it bad and that ain’t good because you won’t have your life back until you finish your book. The groove’s got you.


Do all your characters sound like you?

When creative writing students turn in their first short story or dialogue exercise, the teacher’s response is frequently, “All of your characters sound like you.”

The writer had certain points to communicate via dialogue and distributed them amongst the characters as though their manner of speaking is interchangeable. Or, as the teacher might say, “You should be able to tell which character is talking by what they say and how they say it.”

Several student responses are likely: (1) A dozen synonyms for said. (Yes, there’s a difference between “he said,” “he yelled,” and “he whispered.”) But they don’t help if the words that are said don’t sound any different in tone, structure, word choice, accent, and focus than the three other people in the conversation. (2) The student thinks up a list of eccentric phrases and distributes these amongst the characters, rather like dealing out cards, so that EVERYONE TALKS FUNNY. The teacher is likely to say, “The people sound like they just escaped from a carnival freakshow.”

One of the hardest things for a writer to do is getting to know his/her characters so well that the way they talk arises naturally out of the person. People talk differently because they are different. The writer’s at a disadvantage here if s/he hasn’t spent any time listening to how “real people” express themselves. Some use slang, some have accents, others speak in short sentences while a few speak in paragraphs. Children sound like children and are influenced by fad words from school or (in modern times) words from texting. Older people may use terms from 40-50 years ago that young people may never have heard, as in “You ain’t got no gumption.”

One way to figure all this out is by reading the works of authors who write great dialogue. TV viewers and critics used to say “‘The West Wing’ has great dialogue.” Listen to a few of these shows and figure out what Aaron Sorkin did to make his characters’ dialogue memorable. Here again, the characters all had their issues, likes and dislikes, fears, joys, etc., so what they said fit who they were.

Resist the urge to pepper conversations with small talk. That slows down the story even if it does sound just like a conversation you heard in a store or on the subway. You are advancing the plot, not shooting the breeze. Read your words aloud. So they sound like they’re words to be read or words to be spoken?

If you look up “writing dialogue” online, you’ll find some decent advice that’s almost as good a learning by reading well-written novels.



Perhaps I’ll Write Today

You don’t stop brushing your teeth during the holidays, so don’t stop putting a few words on paper. It’s your habit. It’s your mission. Unless it’s a hobby, which in that case you only write when you feel like it. Only you know the difference. – Hope Clark

So, what do you think about this quote?

Hope Clark tries for a thousand words a day. But if something gets in the way, she tries to put as many words down as possible. Maybe it’s a hundred, maybe it’s a thousand. It’s something, though, because she’s a professional novelist and that means putting words on the page is just as important as an otherwise employed worker showing up at the office every day.

She’s the author of “The Edisto Island Mysteries” and the “Carolina Slade Mysteries.” They read well and she’s developing a platform and a lot of satisfied readers. I mention all this, not to promote Hope Clark, but to note that while many of you may not have heard of her, she’s a successful novelist.

Many of us are not successful novelists, as the industry views the phrase, because we don’t write every day. We may have a few published books out there via small presses or self-publishing, yet we write more from the perspective of hobbyists than professionals. I suppose that if a writer’s books have never made money, then s/he finds it hard to see himself/herself as a professional. If you’re not making money or slowly gaining a list of satisfied readers, there’s no incentive for writing 200 words or a thousand words a day.

So, we rely on bursts of creativity and sooner or later we finish a book or a collection of short stories and then it gets published and appears on various online bookseller sites. Sure, we wish either that Oprah would call and tell us our latest is her next book club selection or that a Hollywood studio found our latest and has put down the cash for an option on the material. But, the chances of that are slim to none, so there’s no reason to try and turn out as many novels per year as James Patterson.

Perhaps writing when we feel like it is an expensive hobby, but more exciting than collecting stamps and coins, taking photographs of every national park, or joining a quilting club. Early on, we decided we are who we are and so that’s the way we’re going to write. If you’re young, maybe you want to keep pushing. If you’re not young, maybe you don’t.

I have no regrets about being who I am. I hope you feel the same about yourself and the number of words you write per day. We need to follow our hears when it comes to who were are and how often we write.


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We’re saying goodbye to the natural world

I think many poets, myself included, are struggling with how to keep writing in the face of the environmental degradation that is looming over us and our children, the beauties and seasons that will be lost, the diversity of flowers and trees and butterflies and fish. These are in danger of vanishing before the words for them do. Poetry is extremely hardy—it was around before the alphabet and will outlast many kinds of human technology. I am robustly optimistic about poetry, but that is maybe the only thing I am optimistic about.

I think a lot about Richard Wilbur’s “Advice to a Prophet”: “Whether there shall be lofty or long-standing / When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.” So much of our language is rooted in the old seasons, and in a miraculous natural world. It is terrifying to think that the language will outlast some of these. On the other hand, I suppose there will be new metaphors, and the poets of the future will find a way forward. – A. E. Stallings

Should writers be political? I think the answer is “yes,” though in many countries being political results in a death sentence or life imprisonment. Each of us does this in our own way. We don’t write in a vacuum. It’s hard to ignore the slings and arrows of fads, bad government, and horrible business decisions. However, many of our potential readers say they’re tired of logging on to Facebook and other services, much less the news sites, and seeing a continuous flow of bad news.

I’ve been an environmentalist for a long time, so Stalling’s words resonate with me. My response in my fiction has usually been to celebrate the natural world. Perhaps this is not enough. It appears that more people want to celebrate suburbia than the world as it was created. So, how do writers approach that point of view?

Many writers have focused on climate change. Yet readers seem to think such works are “over the top” and that climate change either isn’t happening, isn’t caused by humankind, or that the worst scenarios won’t play out for hundreds of years. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t say how soon the Earth’s environment will collapse. But we’ve been warned, I think. The least writers can do is celebrate the environment and have their fictional characters worry about global chaos.

The best we can do, perhaps, is allowing our characters the opportunity of expressing the kinds of fears we have. This way, we’re not beating our readers over the head with politics and activism. We’re telling stories in which folks have the same worries many of us have. I doubt that most people read stories that sound like a list of the political arguments of the day.  So, unless we have a seriously hardy theme, we need to be careful about how political we are.

Our readers want stories, not political tracts. Yet, we can inject our opinions if we are careful about how we do it.


Ten Questions for Xuan Juliana Wang from Poets & Writers

“What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?

“I would have to say the loneliness of falling out of step with society. When I’m out celebrating a friend who has just made a huge stride in their career, someone would ask me, “Hey how’s that book coming along?” Then having to tell them that I have a desk in an ex-FBI warehouse and I’ll be sitting there in the foreseeable future, occasionally looking out the window, trying to make imaginary people behave themselves.” 

Source: Ten Questions for Xuan Juliana Wang | Poets & Writers

Many writers and aspiring writers might easily share Wang’s answer to the challenges of writing books. You have to be able to accept a lot of prospective loneliness that comes with being out of sync with everyone else.

Personally, I don’t like the question “Hey how’s your book coming along” because most people want a quick answer. They don’t want to hear about the plot or your trials and tribulations and doubts. Chances are, they would be impressed if you told them you’d just signed a $100,000 deal with HarperCollins and that your agent is already in negotiations with Hollywood. Otherwise, the best answer is “slowly, but surely.”

Anything other than that, and people’s eyes glaze over and they find excuses to go to the bathroom, head over to the bar for another drink, or simply disappear. You have to be crazy or filled with a lot of passion to sign up for this.

If you’re a writer, do you feel that you’re not part of the hustle and bustle of “real life”?



Of Calendars and Deadlines

“Know what direction you are going instead of waking each day without defined purpose. Of course you have days off. Of course you build in a day of rest. But having missions and goals give more substance to your dreams. And the more organized you are, the more you accomplish, and the more efficient you become at reaching more dreams. The planning makes you seem oh so shrewd and wise.”

Source: Indie Spotlight on Mystery Writer C. Hope Clark – Anita Rodgers Mystery Writer

Sound advice from author Hope Clark as part of her current blog tour in support of her latest novel Newberry Sin. I’m the worst person to advise anyone about planning because I seldom do it. That’s my loss. But I see that those who keep their priorities straight tend to get more done. That certainly applies to writers. If everything else comes first, then a person really doesn’t want to be a writer.


P.S. I’m currently reading and enjoying “Newberry Sin” and plan to post a review of it here soon.