Do you ‘see’ what’s happening in a novel while you read it?

I’m reading a thriller in which the good guys are following a bad guy who doesn’t realize he’s being followed by another bad guy who doesn’t earlize he’s being tracked by a team of bad guys. The good guys notice this parade of trackers tracking trackers and have to decide just what the hell’s going on. In a Peter Sellers movie, this would be funny. In an action/thriller novel it should keep readers turning pages. As it is, it’s a mess.

Recently, I asked “Do you ‘see’ your story as you write?'” As I read about this mess of people following people, I can’t see it. In some ways, it’s too complex. But more importantly, the action is happening so fast, the author (apparently) didn’t have time to take breath and describe anything coherently. So, I can’t ‘see’ what’s going on or the ‘arena’ in which it’s going on.

At this point, I feel like I’m reading the author’s rough sketch of the action without being allowed to see the action because, probably, the author couldn’t see it either. To some extent, this is yet another show don’t tell issue. Obviously, a writer cannot show everything unless s/he wants a thousand-word novel. But s/he has to show enough for the reader’s imagination  to be drawn into an event that seems real rather than a mind game–or an outline.

In the novel I’m reading, the author has a penchant for followers following the followers. But he isn’t controlling his material because the reader is being lost in the shuffle without a clue, especially after multiple scenes in which everyone seems to be following everyone.

This is the last thing a reader wants and should be the last thing an author wants. Do some editing. Fine-tune the settings and the people moving about within those settings. Otherwise, there’s nothing to see–and that means readers throwing down the book in disgust. If the reader can’t ‘see’ it, the writer has failed big time.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of multiple novels and short stories:


A rare interview with Malcolm R. Campbell

We found the reclusive Mr. Campbell at a mostly forgotten Bandit’s Biker Bar that fell on hard times when Hell’s Angels switched over to IHOP. Wearing his traditional Levi’s and a navy blue polo shirt, Campbell was halfway through a bottle of Talisker Distiller’s Edition Scotch when we arrived. He consented to talk to us as long was didn’t ask why he left the gigolo business for the low-paying career of a writer.

Newspaper: Do you come here often?

Campbell: It’s my second home.

Newspaper: You’ve done wonders with the place.

Campbell: My designer loves the concept of belligerent neglect.

Newspaper: Now that we’ve gotten the ambiance of our setting out of the way, do you have any secrets you want to tell us?

Campbell: I’m not the same guy who raced cars in the U.K or the guy who wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Newspaper: We didn’t think you were. Got anything else, something that will make a scandalous headline?

Campbell: I was an Eagle Scout.

Newspaper: Good Lord, are you serious? You’re such a badass, nobody would suspect you once worked on merit badges and gone on camping trips.

Campbell: You’re the first person I’ve told other than my mother.

Newspaper: So, now that you’ve finished Fate’s Arrows, what are you working on now?

Campbell: A tell-all about how to use time travel for fun and profit.

Newspaper: Aren’t you afraid most people will think it’s another contemporary fantasy being released under the fiction that it’s really nonfiction?

Campbell: Most of the world’s nonfiction never happened. Most novels are true. So in this case, readers who think the book is really fiction are ahead of the game.

Newspaper: What game?

Campbell: The game we’re playing right now where you ask me questions, I tell you lies, and you print them in the feature section of your newspaper as God’s honest truth. 

Newspaper: So, when it comes down to it, this interview is a farce.

Campbell: Pretty much. But it serves a need. The readers think they know more about me than they did before even though they suspect they’re being played for suckers.

Newspaper: One is born every minute.

Campbell: More than that, I think.

Newspaper: Are you this messed up in “real life”?

Campbell: If there were such a thing as “real life,” I would hope so. But there isn’t, so I’m not. Readers who suspect “real life” isn’t real are drawn to my books because they want to know why everything is always in a mess, so the best I can do is offer them a way to escape the illusion of the daily news.

–Stargazer News Service



Find Your Happy Place to Write During COVID 

COVID is changing a lot of people. I have seen a range of emotions coming out of folks craving normalcy.

What started off as families coming closer has turned into families tiring of the confinement and frustration. People who fear going out and about turn angry at those who have decided they’ll return to pre-COVID normal and continue on. Parents and teachers are fussing with each other over how children will return to schools, with both sides scared.

Source: Find Your Happy Place to Write During COVID | | FundsforWriters

Even if you’re not a writer, you need a happy place. If you are a writer, you need a place where you can block out the slings and arrows and polarized politics of the day and write stories that may ultimately help others cope with the world.

Hope Clark writes great novels. She also has great advice in her Funds for Writers website and her free weekly newsletter. Her words are always comforting, yet pragmatic. When it comes to happy places, we need to find one and keep writing.


Author’s error: violating your point of view choice

Very few authors these days use an omniscient point of view, so I find it quite jarring when an author writing in third person restricted suddenly tacks an omniscient sentence onto the end of a scene or chapter as a cheap way of creating suspense.

If the reader thinks your writing process looks like this, s/he might not finish the book.

When you’re writing in third person restricted, the reader only knows what the character knows. That said, it’s a foul to have the main character step out of a house, get in his car and drive off, and then follow that with Bob didn’t see the man in the woods across from his house taking pictures.

If Bob didn’t see it, it can’t be in the book.

I’m reading a black ops book by a name author who writes a lot of these novels, and he’s been cheating on his point of view with these kinds of sloppy POV deviations  throughout the book. I’m used to them, but I don’t like them. And I wonder why the line editor at his publishing house let them get into the published copy.


You better not hurt that kitty

When I began writing Conjure Woman’s Cat, I didn’t know how it would end, much less that it would lead to the sequel Eulalie and Washerwoman. When I started writing the sequel, I didn’t know how it would end, much less that it would lead to a third book named Lena which–of course–I had no clue what the ending was.

I did know one thing for sure: Eulalie, the conjure woman, and Lena, her cat, weren’t going to get killed no matter what else happened.

So, each time I told people I had started a new book in the series, I began getting comments like, “You better not hurt that kitty,” “Promise me I don’t need to look at the ending first to make sure nobody (you know who I mean) is dead,” and “If anything happens to that kitty, don’t think you can fix it with a bunch of that rainbow bridge stuff and that will make everything okay.”

It was fun hearing that a lot of people had connected with the main characters and were concerned about their welfare. After all, things were always touch-and-go in these books, what with bad cops and noxious KKK thugs. One person said she really liked the Pollyanna character who appeared in Lena and was happy to see she made it to the end of the book without dying.

Then she added, I want to see a Pollyanna book and she better be alive when I get to the last page. Okay, okay, I’m writing the Pollyanna book right now and she doesn’t get killed.  (I hope you’re happy, Linda, knowing you can read the book without worrying about the main character.)

Previously, while I was writing my contemporary fantasy Sarabande, the sequel to The Sun Singer, people started saying “You better not kill off that black horse.” (I didn’t.) You see the pattern here, right? People don’t trust me, assume I’m hard-hearted and cold enough to kill off magical critters. My mama didn’t raise me that way.

I’m tempted to write a novel where all the main characters die on the first page of the book. That will prove I’m not some wimpy author who’s controlled by his readers and doesn’t have any artistic integrity. Perhaps it will begin, “Everybody is dead.” Then, the next chapter will be called SIX MONTHS EARLIER and we’ll see how it happened.

Naah, I don’t think I’ll do that. But I might. I might drink some bad whisky and go over to the dark side at any moment.




Ad Hoc Writing Research

If I were writing historical novels, I would probably do a lot of research before I even committed to writing each book. My novels are written without an ourline or any idea how they will end up. This means I do the research for each scene when I get to it. While the novel in progress is set in 1955, the fact that I was an elementary school kid in that year doesn’t mean I know a lot about the time period.

So, it’s time to Google everything.

  • The last scene took place at a grocery store. Okay, when somebody entered the store, what kinds of posters, die-cut signs, and hand-written specials did they see on the window sill or window? I found a great Noxzema suburn cream sign, a nice Planters Peanuts poster, and a list of the meat prices per pound.
  • The current scene takes place in the backyard of some well-to-do people. While we had cheap pre-Weber metal barbecue, the fru fru people often had barbecue grills made of brick, 44 inches wide are larger.
  • What are they having to eat? I knew part of this already, but did a bit of online checking. The menu: porterhouse steak, corn, collards with ham hocks, baked potatoes, corn bread, and macaroni salad. The men are drinking either Jax Beer or Old Overholt Rye whiskey. I would enjoy all of this except for the Rye which I never liked.
  • The family wanted music. So, after verifying that long playing records were, in fact, available in 1955 AND that RCA had a three-in-one (78, 45, and 33 and 1/3 rpm) record player, I needed to make sure they had something to listen to. Since the men in the family are KKK members, they won’t be listening to jazz, blues, or gospel. Glenn Miller seemed like a safe choice.
  • Now, if I can, I’d like to find out how long each of the tracks is so I can time the action with which song would be playing at five minutes into the dinner and ten minutes into the dinner, etc.  (I did this once before when I timed the cuts on a Scott Joplin CD with a ride between Tallahassee and St. Marks, Florida. Probably nobody checks these things, but I wanted to know what song would be playing as Emily and her father (in Widely Scattered Ghosts) reached various landmarks along the way. Heck, I even check the weather reports for the dates and cities where my novels are set to make the weather in the novel the same as it was in “real life.”

Okay, I only have one more thing to check. What happens if somebody gets shot in the arm with a target arrow? There’s so little history taught in med school, that doctors can’t tell me what they would have done in 1955. I was e-mailing back and forth with a medical museum curator who admitted that doctors seem to believe that their speciality “rose like a Phoenix out of the ashes of ignorance” just before they got out of medical school. So, on treatment, I need to skirt around the specifics I don’t know. I’m not happy about that, but as Vonnegut always said, “so it goes.”




Giving yourself permission to quit

Sometimes short stories, novels, poems, and even science fair projects get tangled up like wet kite string and no matter what one does, the whole thing gets worse and one starts to doubt himself or herself about all projects. Nobody likes telling characters to get out of their lives when a story won’t come together, and yet, trying to force it to come together sort of guarantees that it will never come together.

So, we start avoiding the manuscript for weeks at a time. The next time we look at it, the thrill is gone. What we thought was going to be a joyous story looks more and more like raw sewage.

Have you been there?

If so, you know that the manuscript is sitting on your computer like an evil spirit. It knows you’ve been taught to push through the problems in a story, and fight your way to the end of it. Now, if you’ve signed a contract with the publisher to finish this manuscript, you may have no choice but to get drunk and just do it. Otherwise, it’s causing more trouble than its worth.

I think it’s better at some point to give yourself permission to quit. Set the MS aside and search for something new to write about. I just did that, and it feels like the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders. Until the moment I cried “uncle” on the story, I was becoming convinced I’d never write anything again. Now I’m free.

Every story, I think, begins as something with potential, yet it’s still an experiment of sorts. We’re not duty-bound to see it through if it isn’t working for us. Maybe it will work in a year or ten years, but today, it’s sapping our strength.

Let it go.


My short story “Shock Treatment” appears in this new anthology.


I Just Published a Book: Why Am I Depressed?

But back home in Maine, after the rush of congratulatory e-mails dwindled and my modest book tour ended, the dark chill of fall descended and a depression set in. For years, I’d been laser-focused on writing during the hours my son was in school. Now I drifted around the house in my gray sweatpants, refreshing Twitter and Instagram, and reading Knausgaard and Cusk. I felt despondent. Rudderless. Tired. Inexplicably, I felt like a failure. Rather than feeling gratitude for what had happened, I obsessed over what hadn’t. My book hadn’t become a bestseller, received a rave (or any) review in the New York Times, or landed me my ever-since-girlhood fantasy interview with Terry Gross. I judged myself for the brass rings I hadn’t grabbed. As much as my memoir mattered to me, to the rest of the world it was just another book.


Source: I Just Published a Book: Why Am I Depressed? | Poets & Writers

Jessica Berger Gross talks honestly about a common problem many writers share, the depression that often follows the release of a new book. Bestselling authors may be too busy to be depressed, or possibly the depression takes longer to arrive. Finishing a book is a personal triumph, all the work from A to Z, that one’s expectations are high, not so much expectations of fame and fortune, but of euphoria or at least quiet satisfaction.

As Gross writes, it’s not so much what happened, but what didn’t happen. After the initial hoopla, the author goes back to his or her desk, plays a few games–or maybe a lot of games–of Angry Birds or Words With Friends, and starts wondering whether or not they have it in them to go through the process again.

It’s like climbing Mt. Everest and realizing nobody noticed. It was a dangerous thing to do, especially Alpine style without oxygen or ladders or fixed ropes, but back on Facebook where it seems like somebody might want to hear about it, there’s mostly silence. Fortunately, the depression keeps one from caring about that even though that is one component of the depression.

Small-press and self-published writers have the added burden of realizing that their yearly website fees are costing them more than they’re earning.

I don’t think vanity leads to this depression, that is, thinking one should be famous, should be talking to movie studios, should be recognized on the street, or be receiving invitations to speak at book fairs and panels. It’s more that one finds himself/herself fretting about lack of satisfaction, lack of happiness, and the lack of all the feelings s/he thought would be center stage in his/her consciousness.

After a while, the muse screams, “Suck it up; you felt all those wonderful things while you were writing and now you’re not writing.” You protest this for a while until you give in and say, “Okay, I’ll climb K2 solo via the famous ‘Magic Line Route’ and if I don’t come home dead, I will have had a wondrous time.”

Or you say, “I’m thinking about 75,000 words of storytelling about a man and a woman who discover they’ve ended up married after a drunken Vegas weekend and God wants them to figure out whether they’ve been cursed or blessed.”

Authors are trying to figure out the answer to that question all the time. The answer is “both,” but don’t quote me on that.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the satirical mystery “Special Investigative Reporter.”

If you’re an author, why’s your online stuff out of date?

Presumably, part of an author’s platform is composed of a Facebook page, a blog, a website, and a Twitter account. Letting these go out of date seems about as silly as a bricks-and-mortar store publishing an old phone number on a billboard. So, why does it happen? Better things to do, perhaps. Or, tired of social media, perhaps. Or dead, perhaps.

Reasonable excuses, perhaps. Yet, I feel a bit discouraged when:

  • I try to follow an author on Twitter and find that the author’s Twitter link in their Facebook about page or their website leads to a message telling the account doesn’t exist.
  • I click on the blog menu selection on the author’s website and find no new posts for four or five years.
  • I notice that an author’s Twitter profile touts a NEW BOOK that was new a year ago.
  • An author’s Facebook page or profile sits there for months with no activity.

Nobody asked, but it seems to me it would be better to delete these out-of-date references and accounts until the author needs them again. In the old days, misspelling a source’s name in a newspaper was considered especially egregious sin, partly because it was sloppy and partly because one figured that if the name was wrong, perhaps other “facts” in the story were also wrong. At best, an out-of-date platform is a similar bad sign to prospective readers, agents, and publishers.

I get it. Promotion via blogs, websites, Twitter, and Facebook tends to ramp up when a new book comes out. Makes sense, I suppose. However, a continuing presence of up-to-date online material will be vital if an author starts looking for a new agent or publisher and discovers the platform has fallen into disuse for five years. That tells an agent the platform isn’t a positive factor in the decision about representing an author.

Really, it’s not that hard to delete links to Twitter accounts and blogs that are no longer active. Worse yet, authors are disappointing their readers by letting a blog sit there with nothing new to read.

By the way, if you find out-of-date links on any of my sites, please let me know. Seriously, I like to practice what I preach even though I’m as disorganized as anyone can be. (I just updated my Twitter profile picture before writing this blog.)


Smothered by Others’ Expectations

Many children, teens, and adults go through life with little or no support from anyone including parents, teachers, spouses,  and friends. This lack is often the theme of TV shows and novels: we see a person who’s been through hard times finally getting a little support from somebody else and finally believing in themselves enough to try.

The flip side of that record can also be a problem. Some kids’ families–through tradition and/or grades and/or the results of various tests–are overtly expected to do great things. That scenario can be better than one in which everyone expects you to fail. However, it can also become a burden.

As a teenager and a young man, I was always expected to become a writer, partly because my father was a writer and partly because I had shown some early inclinations in that direction. Life–as people often say–got in the way. So, I ignored my writing many times because I was tired of being pushed and I was tired of being asked about it.

It got to the point where–had I just survived some hideous accident–somebody would say, “Well, in spite of that, I hope you’re keeping up with your writing.”

“Hell no, I’m not.”

As a former college teacher, literacy volunteer, and writing mentor, I still don’t know where the line is between too little support and too much support. So, more often than not, I remain silent in day-to-day life about writing because I really don’t know what to say. The support I received was damaging, representing a constant pressure to have a manuscript accepted by a magazine or book publisher, to win a contest, or to put together a winning column in a magazine or newspaper.

The constant pressure to perform brought me to the point where I ignored or sabotaged my own goals. I never want to bring another person to that point. My daughter was an excellent documentary editor, then gave up her career to raise a family. I said nothing, for I didn’t feel the right to second guess her choices the way so many adults second-guessed my choices. She has a great family and has done some great volunteer work. I’m proud of her for that.

It’s hard to stay carefully silent when one’s children and one’s students go out into the world. I want them to know that I’m here if they need me, but that I’m not here to smother them with my expectations. I hope they will be happy and successful because that’s what I always wanted people to hope for me when I was young and rebellious and uncertain about the future.