So, you’re writing a novel and can’t think of a title for it

My muse tells me what my titles are going to be, so there it is.

But there are other approaches. Maybe a line out of a poem or your story’s plot in three words or the name of the main character along with a nice key word like “Joe’s Plague” or “Bob’s Dungeon” or “Mary’s Escape.”

booktitleTucker Max says, “The title is the first piece of information someone gets about your book, and it often forms the reader’s judgment about your book. Let’s be clear about this: A good title won’t make your book do well. But a bad title will almost certainly prevent it from doing well.”

Whether you’re shopping on line or in a bookstore, the title and the cover art are the first things you see. Their potential impact on sales is enormous.

Lynne Cantwell’s post in Indies Unlimited surveys a number of authors who have a smorgasbord of ways they come up with titles for their books. For me, it’s fun to see how others do this in case they have a technique worth borrowing.  Since I’m familiar with these authors’ books, it’s also instructive seeing when and how they decide on their titles.

Looking at what successful authors and teachers say about titles seems more reasonable than going to an online book title generator even though the headline of this post makes it look like a software-generated title is best: Book Title Generators: Free Tools To Help You Pick A Winning Title.

Agent Rachelle Gardner writes , “I was talking to a writer who mentioned she hadn’t worked too hard to come up with a great title for her book. When I asked her why, she said she’d been to a workshop taught by an editor at a major publishing house, who said, ‘Don’t get too attached to your title — there’s a good chance the publisher will change it anyway.’” Perhaps there’s some truth in that if you’re going with a big New York publisher. But most of us aren’t.

She quickly adds that you need to start with your best possible title even if you’re presenting the book to agents and editors who might ultimately suggest you change it. She follows that up with links to her post called How to Title Your Book.

Everyone who sees your book from beta reader to freelance editors to publishers will be impacted by your title. It shows them a lot about your intentions when it’s paired with your synopsis and/or sample chapter. So, what’s in a name?

Almost everything.


Campbell’s Kindle books “At Sea,” “College Avenue,” and “Lady of the Blue Hour” will be free on Amazon on Black Friday. Click here for my website which has links to the books at the top of my home page.

Writing magical realism: step-by-step suggestions

When the magic within a story is accepted as usual within an otherwise realistic setting, you’re probably reading or writing magical realism. It requires a light touch: if the magic becomes too overt or too over-the-top in terms of Hollywood special effects, then you’re out of the magical realism genre realm into fantasy, occult or science fiction.

Here’s an example

gardenspellsIn her novel Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen tells a story about a woman named Claire Waverly living alone in the family’s old house in a small town. Her family has always been viewed by others as odd or unusual in some way. She runs a catering business that’s in high demand because she’s not only a great cook, but uses the products of her own garden to enhance her dishes in ways that seem to help those who need to be helped: their luck or their emotions improve, they feel better, find their lives improving. She doesn’t advertise this: if she did, it would sound like an unbelievable health food scam and would no longer be magical realism. Each member of the Waverly family has a special gift that causes others to see them as slightly odd and/or highly talented.

The novel works on many levels as magical realism because: (1) We’re not seeing Harry Potter magic, (2) The small town setting lends itself to local legends and gossip that create an eerie overlay of maybe and perhaps that’s never quite analyzed in the light of day, (3) The magic is low key, not the kind that in other novels would turn into a thriller, witchcraft hysteria, (4) Her characters do what they do without overtly using “magical techniques” that require practice, meditations, or the stuff of either fantasy or dark arts novels.

If you  want to write magical realism, it helps if you’ve read a lot of it and have a feeling for the genre as well of being comfortable leaving a lot of things unsaid or hinted at rather than approaching the unusual in your story with a full-bore emphasis on “creepy stuff” as  Stephen King might approach similar material. Here are a few suggestions

Tips for Writing Magical Realism

  1. This magical realism book review site is a great place to learn tips about what works and what doesn't.
    This magical realism book review site is a great place to learn tips about what works and what doesn’t.

    Unlike fantasy, magical realism has strong plots and characters that would draw readers through the story if there were no magic at all. It’s hard to imagine the Harry Potter books without wizards and their magic. Garden Spells might work as a story in a small town even if the Waverly family didn’t have unusual talents.

  2. Choose a setting that lends itself to magic, unanswered questions and unusual events without attracting the attention of, say, the news media or the police or others who might shine a strong light on it. Small towns and rural settings both have legends and myths (whether you make them up or do a riff on those of the real place where you set your story).  Since a lot of people in today’s society get spooked by swamps, remote mountains, piney woods in the moonlight–along with the real or imagined creatures that might be there–going off the beaten track for your story gives you a lot of opportunities for implying that, say, the land is conscious or that birds and animals have unusual motives, or that keeping on the “right side” of folk beliefs is the healthy thing to do.
  3. The people who create the magic seldom talk about their magic; if they do, they don’t see what they do as any different from the way anyone else uses the tools of his/her trade to do or to create what most people cannot do or create. If you borrow from a real magical tradition such as Voodoo, witchcraft or hoodoo, research (or your own knowledge) will bring you a lot of ideas about ways of living a magical without turning the practitioner into a caricature.  As the author of a magical realism story, you never ever demean the myths, legends, beliefs, spells and practices of your magical characters or the enchanted landscape in which they live.
  4. If you use a real wilderness or other remote setting, your book will be more believable if you research the flora, fauna, weather and people who live there now–or lived there in the past.  For one thing, you need realism to play off against the magic. For another, it’s hard to show characters moving around in an area if you don’t know what it looks like. And finally, natural magic uses things from the land that witches and conjurers grow, harvest or find. Don’t make this up: it will kill your story. Find out what kind of leaves are used for the spell you want, research what the plants look like and whether they grow in the area where your story is set, and make that a natural part of your narrative.
  5. Refer to an area’s legends and myths. For real settings, you’ll find these from folklore societies, books with titles such as “The Ghosts of Quincy” or “Florida Legends” and “Creation Myths of the Sunshine State.” Your job is usually not to retell any of these stories, rather to refer to them the way people in a city might mention in passing the day the trolley car first came by the house or the fact that some accident happened years ago in a certain place. For example, in my novel in progress, one character tells another not to eat gopher tortoises because they were created by the devil. The legend about that is longer than this post, but in a magical realism book I can simply refer to that as a fact and move on. I always prefer to use nuggets out of the real myths and legends from a place rather than making them up from scratch. For one thing, they fit the place well. For another, they convey a folklore truth that many people living there have heard before and/or a bit of folklore I want to help keep alive.
  6. Certain events/feelings that are told as metaphors in a mainstream realism novel can be told as though they actually happened. Be careful with this, or it won’t seem believable within the story’s context and the character’s beliefs. For example, in realism, a character who needs to apologize to another might say, “I felt as though I was so small, I could hide under the dining room chairs until my parents left for work.” In magical realism, you don’t include the words “as though” or “as if.” You state it like it’s temporarily the case. Interior monologue and/or lyrical propose are two ways you can do this so that a typically unrealistic event suddenly seems plausible within the magic of the moment. For example: “When my conjure woman is angry, she is taller; she doesn’t look smaller when she walks down to the far end of the beach.”


There’s no recipe here. In a sense, you have to feel it and sense it before you can do it. Once you practice the genre a lot, you don’t have to consciously think about the components any more than a person with years of experience thinks about what s/he does to make a bicycle work. It also helps if you have an open mind and a sense of wonderment or even magic about people and the natural world.

At any rate, I toss off these suggestions as ideas that might work. Or might not.


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

Webinars and Courses that Rip off Writers

The other day, I saw a promotion for an online course that claimed to be filled with secrets for increasing Kindle sales of your books to high, money-making sales numbers. The plan was advertised as being easy to implement and took so little time to keep going that it would free up a lot of the writer’s time for writing and researching future books.

I have no idea what the plan is because in order to find out, one had to sign up for a course costing almost $200.  Quite possibly, that could be the best $200 I ever spent. But I’m not willing to risk the money without more details about the plan. Apparently the course is a one-time deal before the webinars are released at a cost of $900 or more.

These prices are exorbitant.

money2If somebody has a marketing plan that’s really working for them by bringing in money like they’ve never seen before, why must it be sold sight-unseen to the rest of us rather than offering the details in a magazine article or in an appropriately priced Kindle or paperback book?

While this not be the case with the plan I’m thinking of, many no-fail plans require writers to do what they may not want to do: change genres, write shorter books, write faster, be more commercial, have a monetized website, sign-up for third party services that also cost money, attend conventions and participate in panels and book fairs, or other tasks which may not fit some writers’ lifestyles, abilities, and budgets.

My personal opinion is that a webinar is a horrible way for dispensing detailed information because it’s linear. If the information were in a PDF, a Kindle book, or a paperback, one could see large blocks of information, headings and graphics at a glance rather than waiting for the webinar/podcast to get to them. Adding insult to injury, many of these video presentations include guests and that means time is wasted introducing them and chatting with them and adding happy talk throughout the presentation. Even if you love webinars, if they’re not free, then they are more costly than reading a e-book with the same information in it. You may not agree, and that’s fine. I primarily resent the prices.

I subscribe to “Poets & Writers Magazine” and AWP’s “The Writer’s Chronicle” because I want professional advice and tips. “Writers Market” is another alternative as well as local and state writing organizations. Writers are, as many will tell you, not really competing with each other, so sharing techniques at a reasonable price (book/speech/article) rather than doling them out for a giant profits seems to me too be the professional thing to do.

A lot of promotional experts offer free PDF and Kindle files filled with tips in hopes that after reading those, the writer will subscribe for more expensive services. The tips vary in quality and application. They’re great idea generators even if you can’t use all of them. The more expensive services are described in detail so that the author knows what s/he is getting.

I might have just missed out on a money-making secret by turning down the $200 course. On the other hand, I’ve been around long enough to worry about buying a pig in a poke.



Sometimes writer’s block gives you a chance to figure things out in your work in progress

I knew before life got derailed in April and May with unexpected trips to the hospital for unplanned surgeries, that a new character was about to appear in my work in progress, a guy named Rutherford “Rudy” Flowers. I also knew he was going to show up in the next scene in the book.

But after the surgeries–and a reasonable recovery period–I couldn’t write that scene. Uh oh, writer’s block. I even knew what critical piece of information he planned to tell my protagonist. But still, I hadn’t figured out the character, and that meant–well, the writer’s block.

Wikipedia photo.
Wikipedia photo.

This is a potential problem for those of us who write with no outlines and with no nailed-down sequences of events in mind for our novels and short stories. Every once in a while, something is supposed to happen. We don’t know why, and we can’t move until some of that why comes to mind.

When this happens to me–as it just did–I tinker around the edges of the book without writing anything. Since it’s set in the 1950s, I can always go more research into slang, clothing, events, foods and products of the time period. Some of what I learn actually comes in handy. This tinkering, though, ultimately unlocks my writers block. It’s odd, I know, but research often brings things to light that I wasn’t looking for, things that turn out to be vital to the story.

If you believe in muses–and I do–it’s almost as though the muse has put a hex on my being able to open the Word file with the story in it until I figure out there’s something I need to know before I go back to it. Now that I’ve found that something, I see there were clues to it all over the place that I just wasn’t noticing. Now I know who Rudy Flowers is and how vital he and his mother are to the story.

Writer’s block is usually aggravating, especially when your publisher is waiting for you to hand in the manuscript. I’ve never been able to force myself out of writer’s block like those writers and teachers who say it’s better to sit down and write anything at all rather than to write nothing. I’m better off writing nothing (not counting blogs and tweets) than trying to force a story to happen when the words aren’t there.

If you’re a writer, how do you face writer’s block and finally get back to work? As for me, I’m back to my story because the muse has come home.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Emily’s Stories.”


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.

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about those days when we fight with our words

We try, don’t we, to make the words in our stories and novels flow smoothly like a languid river on a summer day. That seldom happens naturally; that smooth flow is often created with a lot of fits and starts before we get the words right.

There are days, though, when we fight with our words. On those days, smoothly flowing prose seems impossible.

If we don't relax, we'll never get the words right.
If we don’t relax, we’ll never get the words right.

That often happens when we go into a scene not fully decided what it’s supposed to accomplish. Or, if we do know, then something else is out of sync: the character’s motivations and beliefs, our background research about subject matter outside our comfort zones, or that we’re trying to cram far too many things into a scene–which, in reality–would play out as a very casual moment.

What do you do when this happens to you?

I glanced at my last post here which was about moonshine, and thought maybe a few swallows of white lightning would smooth out the words. As tempting as that may be, it seldom works.

Fighting with the words usually doesn’t work either because the longer it goes on, the worse the scene looks. Pretty soon, it’s real easy to think that one ought to just quit the writing business and do something more honorable like teaching or working on the railroad or beekeeping.

One way or the other, one needs to take a break from the words whether it’s for an hour or a day and think about something else. This is why so many of us surf the Internet: we’re doing something else so we can avoid looking at that messy paragraph where we’re temporary bogged down.

If I stay away from the manuscript for a while with things seriously divert my attention, I’ll sooner or later start hearing the words of that troublesome scene flowing like a river again. Then I go back to it and start typing, wondering why the solution wasn’t obvious from the beginning.

Knowing when to step away is, I think, an important part of the writing process. Since none of us quite know how the creative process works, it’s easy for a fight with words to turn into serious doubts about our abilities as writers: How can such a simple scene become impossible to write? Why don’t we know what the characters need to say and do here? Where’s that smooth-flowing river of words?

I’m guessing most writers know what I’m talking about. We might follow different prescriptions for curing the problem? Maybe you go to a movie, read a magazine, work in the yard, stop at a bar where your friends hang out, anything to take your mind off the words that aren’t coming out right.

If you have a sure-fire cure, tell us about it in the comments. Your secret won’t make you rich, but you’ll feel better about yourself for sharing it.



Librarians: My novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat” has been selected by Library Journal for its national Self-e Selection listing.  If your library is not already part of the program, click here for more information.

Magical Realism Writing Tips – Importance of Belief

When an author writes a novel or short story in the magical realism genre, magic is always a natural  and unquestioned component of the characters’ lives and the environment in which they live. As an author, you’re more likely to write a believable story if–while you’re writing, at least–you assume the magic is real.

This is my favorite blog because the writer has many years of experience and a great archive of posts for many Hoodoo subjects.
This is my favorite blog because the writer has many years of experience and a great archive of posts for many Hoodoo subjects.

This doesn’t mean you must personally subscribe to the philosophy and practices of the magical system in your story whether that system is a known collection of beliefs such as hoodoo or Voodoo or a fictional system you built from scratch.

I prefer using practices based on actual belief systems because they already have a rich, varied and somewhat known lore that is often much deeper than anything a most of us can make up.

When I wrote Conjure Woman’s Cat about a root doctor (another name for a conjure practitioner), I began by reading books and web sites written by people who practice hoodoo. When I had a question, I asked them, usually making it clear that I was researching a novel rather than following the belief system myself. (You’ll see some of the sites/books I consulted in the folk magic category of my Myth and Magic Resources post.)

At times, I’ve read paranormal and magical realism books by authors who take a known system–say, witchcraft–and have their characters doing things that are completely outside the realm of the practice whether it’s Wicca or the traditional craft. Hollywood has done this a lot, but I feel more anger about it when I find it in a novel by a known writer who can look stuff up and talk to experts and keep the magic within the realm of what a system claims is possible. Witches do not worship the devil nor utilize spells that look like they originated in the Harry Potter series or Lord of the Rings.

This is a more commercial site with products to sell. However, it also has a wealth of information about spells, herbs and candles.
This is a more commercial site with products to sell. However, it also has a wealth of information about spells, herbs and candles.

Yes, we all take liberties when telling a good yarn, and even when we don’t, it’s probable that (in my case) a real conjure woman will find things in my book that are unrealistic. I try to make the material as accurate as possible for a fiction writer–as opposed to a real practitioner who writes a novel based on their own experiences.

One way to make your story accurate is through the use of multiple sources. This helps you understand the magical approach well enough to write about it in your own words.

Of course, if you make up the magic from scratch, it helps if you set limits on it (so that your characters aren’t all-powerful) and keep it consistent. Don’t state a magical rule on page 25 and then have a character successfully ignore that rule on page 250.

For your readers to believe, you have to believe. Most of them will believe while they’re reading the story. That’s how you need to feel. I didn’t become a conjurer after I wrote Conjure Woman’s Cat, and I don’t expect my readers to do so either.

If you don’t believe while you’re writing, the story won’t ring true because your author’s point of view is that it isn’t true.

There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that a fair number of people believe witchcraft, hoodoo and Voodoo work. Frankly, I don’t have an opinion about that and did everything possible while writing to refrain from judgement.

What we hope for when we write magical realism is that our readers will be carried away by the story as though everything in it is absolutely possible, maybe not in their own lives, but in the lives of our characters.

When magicians like Penn and Teller walk out on the stage in front of you or when you see them on TV, you know that what they’re doing is an illusion. You’re in the audience to be fooled and when the magician carries off a trick perfectly and you can’t figure it out, you laugh and applaud and ask for more.

A magical realism short story or novel is also an illusion. If both the magic and the realism in the story are done well, you’ll be fooled into thinking everything you read did happen or could happen. Neither the stage magician nor the writer dares approach his or her audience with any doubts about the effect s/he is trying to achieve. Doubts kill the performance, on stage or in writing.

And then, too, sometimes that stage magician and that writer include a bit of real magic under the guise of illusion. We always want you to think, “hmm, I wonder.”


KIndle cover 200x300(1)SarabandeCover2015Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the contemporary fantasy novel “Sarabande” and the magical realism novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”




Listen, writers, this is gospel or my name’s not John Doe

A Facebook friend of mine claims that every story you want to write is sitting “out there” in limbo or maybe Topeka waiting for you to discover it, copy it into a DOCX file, and send it off to HarperCollins for $1000000000000000.

Does that sound crazy or what?

actorsFar be it from me to dispute it because the gospel truth is stranger than fiction. Working writers use meditation, dreams, magic, quantum entanglements and whiskey to meet with their characters once a month and talk about stories. Think of these people as, not beta readers, but beta writers.

Every one of them has ideas. Like actors, they all want to direct. These meetings are like casting calls (when you have a new story to write), brainstorming sessions (when one of them wants to run an idea of the flagpole) or encounter groups (when the sock puppets get out of control).

It’s completely safe because weapons are checked at the front door and watched over by a guy who looks like Dirty Harry. If you get too close to the guns, he says, “Well, you gotta ask yourself, do you feel lucky punk?”

theoaksI meet with my characters at a seafood joint called The Oaks in Panacea, Florida. The real Oaks has been closed for years, but with powerful meditation techniques and/or a shot of Scotch, the place returns out of the Ochlockonee River mist with the same reality that Brigadoon appeared to Tommy Albright and Jeff Douglas in the Scottish Highlands.

Since Eulalie (Conjure Woman’s Cat) is the best cook, she fixes fried mullet, hush puppies and slaw for the crowd while we shoot the breeze over old times, swap recipes for cathead biscuits and saw mill gravy, and stay away from the guy guarding the weapons.

Last night, Eulalie asked how her next story was coming along and I had to tell her it was running behind schedule. Emily (Emily’s Stories) said I promised her she could look for ghosts at the old Perkins Opera House in Monticello, Florida. “I know where it’s hiding,” she said.

nogunsRuby (The Seeker) wanted to know why she didn’t didn’t have a part in Snakebit. “Anne and I are like family,” she reminded me. “Who the hell do I have to sleep with to get another story?”

Laurence Adams (The Sun Singer) showed up even though his story doesn’t take place in Florida and said, “If you had finished writing another story set in Glacier National Park, it would be selling like hot cakes this summer during the hotel’s 100th anniversary. Please tell me you people aren’t eating mullet. High class Floridians don’t even eat mullet.”

You can see why we check our weapons at the door.

Okay, here’s what you do.

  1. meditationChoose a real place for your meeting. Make sure the owners (if any) don’t know about the meeting.
  2. If you know the names of your characters or prospective characters, write them on a piece of paper in blood (hopefully not yours) and bury it (the paper) in a deserted graveyard while nobody’s watching. If you are looking for fresh ideas, include words like “Chainsaw Killer,” “Honest Lawyer,” and “Sexy Vixen.”
  3. Steal somebody’s meditation techniques off the Internet and suddenly feel like your eyes are getting tired, that your brainwaves are entering the alpha state, and that you can “see” your meeting hall filling up with wonderful people and probably a feel wannabees. (Don’t over-do the meditation and go into a stupor.)
  4. Check all weapons.
  5. After finishing your favorite foods and beverages, ask your current and prospective characters if they believe stuff like “every story you want to write is sitting ‘out there’ in limbo or maybe Topeka waiting for you to discover it, copy it into a DOCX file, and send it off to HarperCollins for $1000000000000000.”
  6. When they say, “Does that sound crazy or what?” tell them you’re ready to hear some better ideas. Listen carefully with an open mind and an open heart. (This means not saying, “Hey, dirtbag, what kind of bozo idea is that.”)
  7. tonightshowNow, listen, writers, this is gospel or my name’s not John Doe: When you come out of your meditation (assuming you come out of it), you will have the best darned ideas for the best darned stories in the best of all possible worlds.
  8. This is important: Don’t discuss your new idea with anyone specially friends and family for they’ll share it with everyone and before you know it, some clown from Chicago or Miami will be sitting in a chair on the “Tonight Show” telling the world about YOUR BOOK. Well, it would have been your book if hadn’t blabbed the storyline to people who can’t keep a secret.
  9. Write the thing. Then give Jimmy Fallon a call. I know, I know, he’s no David Letterman or Johnny Carson, but he’s probably good for couple hundred grand in sales.

There you go.


KIndle cover 200x300(1)99centsMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Jim Crow era novella, “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” which is on sale on Kindle today (July 18th) for only 99 cents. Eulalie claims she gets a 50% cut of the action or else.



What’s wrong with ‘he said’ and ‘she said’?

Victor Appleton, author of the Tom Swift series of books, went to a lot of trouble to avoid using the word “said.” His gyrations gave rise to the “Tom Swifty,” a gag line of dialogue and attribution that basically made fun o Appleton’s approach to dialogue.

The Wikipedia entry for the Tom Swifty provides typical examples such as “‘Who left the toilet seat down?’ Tom asked peevishly” and “‘Hurry up and get to the back of the ship!’ Tom said sternly.”

saidThe gurus of writing suggest “he said” and “she said” for most of your dialogue needs because most attempts at variety call attention to themselves and–in time–annoy the reader.

I’m reading a thriller novel by a New York Times bestselling author of some 30 books. I won’t mention his name or the book because I really have no need to speak ill of another author. I’ll stipulate that authors always face difficult decisions when one character has a vast amount of information to convey to another character.

No author wants to have a five page quote. So, s/he is likely to try to orchestrate some back and forth dialogue between the “teacher” and the “learner.” This helps. But it can soon lead to another annoyance: The learner asks a three-word question and then the teacher replies with a half a page of information, followed by another short question and another long answer.

The author of the thriller did a little of this, but his habit (and I’m making up the name of the character to obscure who I’m talking about, was the use of paragraph openings consisting of “Joe went on” and “Joe continued” and “Joe shifted to his next point,” all followed by long paragraphs of information. The author’s habit stood out because he used the same construction multiple times per page.

I hoped that once we got past the section of the book where the leaders of the black ops mission were done filling in the new operatives about the scenario, I wouldn’t keep seeing that clumsy writing. Unfortunately not. While this author doesn’t date himself by using Tom Swiftys, he continues with his awkward dialogue in a way that makes me consider flinging the book into the next box going to the library’s used books sale.

Here’s an example (without the characters’ real names and real dialogue) from one page:

“We can’t,”Bob replied, but we can work around it.”

“We’re in a major city,” I reminded him.

Bob replied, “We are now, but we won’t be tomorrow.” He further informed us, “The day after tomorrow, we’re talking the back  roads to a more lawless area.”

It seemed to me that this plan had flaws.

Sam let us know, “We can’t be certain that this will draw The Hyena out of hiding, but it’s our best shot.”

A fair amount of the book’s dialogue is written like this. It’s so over-the-top stylistic in an unattractive way, that such a paragraph would be covered with red pencil marks if it were handed in as an assignment in a college creative writing class. Most teachers would scribble in giant letters at the top of the page, “What’s wrong with ‘he said’ and ‘she said.”

One might otherwise suggest–even though Dan Brown certainly kept his readers even though many of his characters gave long lectures in history in the middle of action scenes–that giving one character a thousand words of facts to tell another character makes for a larger flaw in the book.

I found Dan Brown’s novels compelling because of the short chapters and the on-going action. Yet I did have to smile when professor ABC spent ten minutes lecturing police inspector XYZ about ancient history while they were in a shootout with the bad guys.

I’m about 20% of the way through the thriller on my nightstand, and the vast amounts of information being conveyed from one character to another in such an awkward fashion is so tedious that I want to quit reading. If I had another fresh book from the store, I would.

Obviously, this author has sold a lot of books. That alone makes me hope that this book delivers in spite of its style. Those of us who aren’t New York Times bestselling authors don’t need to throw out “he said” and “she said” as our primary dialogue tags because doing so will lose us a lot of readers.

You may also like: The Invisible Said—Three Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Ban Said.


EScover2014Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of paranormal fantasy stories including the three-story set “Emily’s Stories,” now with a brand new cover.

How a writer sees locations for prospective stories

In How to be doomed as a writer, I mentioned that author Stephen King prefers to look at story possibilities as situations rather than plots.

Over time, a writer becomes attracted to certain kinds of settings and the kinds of situations that might occur there. I’m attracted to natural wonders, especially mountains, as well as old buildings. My novels The Sun Singer and The Seeker both arise from a natural wonders setting, Glacier National Park. When I contemplated writing about the park, my first thoughts were about the kinds of things (situations) that might happen there. My Kindle short story “Moonlight and Ghosts” came to mind when I looked at an abandoned building near the house where I grew up.

Suppose you’re in a writing class and the instructor shows you the following picture obtained from the Florida Division of Historical Resources. All you’re told is that it’s an old and restored opera house in a small north Florida town.


Perhaps the instructor has influenced your brainstorming about this picture by showing you the building on a sunny afternoon with cars along the street. If s/he had shown you a photograph of the same structure as it sat on a moonlit night with the trees missing leaves during December, you’d come up with a different set of situations.

  • If you’re a fan of TV police shows, perhaps this looks like a place where a crime is committed.
  • If you’re drawn to opera and/or to theater, maybe you’ll think of stars, set designers, directors, little theater groups, professional “theater people” or amateurs coming together to put on a play that somebody hopes will fail.
  • Maybe there’s a secret about the building, some old legend or a will uncovered in a dusty attic that describes how, when the building was constructed, several hundred bars of gold were hidden beneath the box seats.
This picture gives you a very different feeling about the building.
This picture gives you a very different feeling about the building. – Florida Division of Historical Resources.

Okay, I’ve withheld some information, so with a few more facts, are your prospective story situations the same or do you change them?

  • The Opera House, which consists of a large second-floor theater and first floor shops, was built in 1880.
  • Traveling productions, including vaudeville groups, put on shows at this theater for a number of years. But then, when the railroads re-routed their lines and there was no easy way for out-of-town visitors to get to town, the theater fell into disuse.
  • Ghost hunters claim the owner died of a broken heart and still haunts the now-restored building. Purportedly, the former owner has been “seen” by the ghost hunters and a glowing orb of light.
  • The building is now used as a venue for weddings, local-area stage productions, and other functions where a seating capacity of 600 is desired.

If your instructor asked you to write a short story about this building, would you see it as just a building where anything might happen, a setting for a theater-oriented tale filled with clashing egos and temperamental stars, or would you try to link the local legends and the history of the building into your story? The only catch is, the instructor will expect you to convey–one way or another–a sense of the building. So, it can’t be a generic structure.

Well, unless you know the building already and/or are a historic preservation specialist, you’rre at a disadvantage when you try to describe it. If I were the instructor, I’d have several information sheets prepared as handouts.

  1. Those who wanted to use the building as a place setting would get a general description of the interior and some architectural information about the architectural style of the building, it’s size, etc.
  2. Those who wanted to use the location for a theater-oriented story, would receive information about the stage, the seating, the lighting, and the dressing rooms.
  3. Those who didn’t know yet what was going to happen but wanted real background, would be told about the building’s history and the ghostly legends.

What do you see here?

Interior as it looks now. - The Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida photo.
Interior as it looks now. – The Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida photo.

In a classroom exercise, you’re “research”–if you think any is needed–is limited by what you see in the photograph and what the instructor will tell you either in a lecture, a question and answer session, or via handouts. Since I am attracted by legends, especially paranormal stories, I’m going to see this as a place where something ghostly will happen.

How you tend to view real locations, whether they’re lakes, mountains, buildings, or city streets, will influence what “your muse” draws you to consider. Your inclinations may suggest that the instructor should have had several more handouts about the building. One might be how the building is used today. Another might be the kinds of businesses on the first floor and on adjacent streets.

As writers, we look at locations as places where something might happen or where something did happen. Whether you like tying in real history and legends or whether you see locations in terms of what’s happening there in the present day, once you’re attracted to a setting for who knows what reason, story situations may come to mind as you Google (or go to) the setting.

When I first saw pictures of this building, my first thought was, “Good, here’s a cool old building in the Florida Panhandle where I’ve been placing many of my recent stories.”

As I learned about the building–its history, its ghosts, its restoration–ideas began to float around for prospective stories. As this process unfolds, we may never write a story…unless we’re in a classroom and have no choice. If a story comes out of it, the setting was the catalyst and the result was a marriage of the real and the writer’s imagination.


P.S. If the actual building intrigues you, you can learn more about it here.