Sunday, July 13, 2014

Inspiration from 'Approaches to Writing'

Though he probably has a small following now, Paul Horgan (1903-1995) was a prolific author of fiction and nonfiction. Things as They Are and A Distant Trumpet, (shown here) among others, are available on Amazon.
I don't recall ever reading his fiction or his Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction. Yet he had an influence on me through his 1968 book Approaches to Writing: Reflections & Notes on the Art of Writing from a Career of Half a Century. I think my father, who was a nonfiction writer and college teacher, gave me this book when I went off to journalism school.

What I liked best about the book were the "notes." These, says Horgan, are short thoughts and epiphanies as might be recorded in an author's notebook. I returned to these again and again, reading them in random order. Here are a few for this late Sunday afternoon:

  • How important for the novelist is a highly developed sense of place, and how rarely is it richly realized. When well done, it compels the reader to supply details in his imagination which are not described by the author.
  • Every true novel is a historical novel.
  • We begin to "create" when we see everyone else in ourselves.
  • Every fictional character is like life--but must seem larger.
  • One can learn much about the "grown-up" world by listening to children at play.
  • A test of characters in fiction: can you imagine how they would write letters?
  • If it is to be any good, a writer must positively inhabit his book as he writes it.
Imagine many pages filled with such ideas. Whenever I thumbed through the book, "luck" seemed to always lead me to the quotes I needed to read for whatever writing I was going that day. Every writer should find such a book to serve as his muse when his muse is asleep.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of "The Seeker," "Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire," and "Emily's Stories."

Saturday, June 28, 2014

What do you do after you finish your story?

Did you ever notice how those who rebuild old cars still tinker with them after the job is complete? If nothing else, an extra bit of wax or yet another tuneup.

Same thing seems to happen with gardeners and those who like to constantly change with the way the rooms in their houses look. New paint job? Add a hardwood floor?

Once a project has been around for a long time, it's hard to let go.  This is often true of writers, whether they focus on novels and short stories, lengthy feature articles or collections of poetry. As writers, we miss our characters once we submit our story or novel to a prospective publisher. Of course, if the material has already been accepted, it's time to go back to your platform building and other marketing tasks to prepare readers for the release of the book.

I'm in limbo now because I just finished a novella about a conjure woman and her cat. Every day, I come into the den and feel that I should open the DOC file again and do something more with the manuscript. I thought about the writer's wont to tinker as I read and reviewed Theodora Goss' book of poems Songs for Ophelia. My sense, as I read the poems, was that this was and is a very personal work. How did she move on, I wondered, when the manuscript was done?

If you've every worked for a magazine or a newspaper, you may find moving on to the next project easy because you will be used to deadlines, a constant queue of projects, and a paycheck. That paycheck is a wonderful incentive to doing the next feature article or news story rather than staring at Facebook all day. While our writing may, at times, seem more like a hobby than a business, the business side of it also necessitates find ways not to brood for weeks in between manuscripts.

If you have a hard time changing gears, consider. . .

  • Reading a novel that's in a different genre than the story or novel you just finished writing. If you wrote a fantasy, consider a crime or an international intrigue novel.
  • Having an old "comfort food"  novel on hand. Like movies that we watch multiple times, these are the books that keep us reading even though we know them well.
  • Once your complete novel is accepted and has a definite or even a general release date, start writing blog posts about it. You can do this even if it's too soon to include any excerpts. Since my recent novella is about north Florida, this has given me an excuse to write some "on location" blogs about the real places in the novel. The benefit of these is that they're informational in nature rather than spammy ads for your work.
  • Do preliminary research for your next story or novel. Maybe you need more details about its settings or the jobs held by the primary characters. 
  • Stop writing for a few days and catch up on work around the house. Simply mowing the yard or weeding the garden can pull you away from your recent story; and the work is repetitive enough to be done without deep thought (if you're too zoned out for deep thought).
  • If you write nonfiction, going out and doing an interview with one of the sources for your next article or book will help pull you away from the story you just finished.
Those of us who are always writing, tend to develop lists of things we can do when we need to change gears from one project to another. If you write, do you have any suggestions to add to the list?

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy novels and paranormal short stories, including "Spooky Stories" which was just released on audio.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Looking at how far you have come as a writer

When a writer comes out of nowhere with a big book and a lot of media attention, the public often thinks s/he worked in other fields and suddenly decided to write a book and then got really lucky when a big publisher snapped it up. Most readers miss the blog posts and more lengthy reviews with titles like "The Overnight Success That Was Twenty Years in the Making."

Those who are "suddenly successful" usually pay their dues for years. They have a resume filled with short stories published in journals most people have never heard of. They have files filled with rejection slips and, in the e-book era, probably a few books published on Lulu or Kindle.

They also have something else. Old manuscripts. There was a time when these were created on a typewriter and sent by snail mail to prospective publishers. Now they're usually created on a computer and sent by e-mail to prospective publishers. Either way, many of us keep them for years because, in spite of their rejection, we see something special in them including all the hopes we had for them when we submitted them to a magazine or a book publisher.

I thought of old manuscripts today when I came across several file folders of typed short stories my mother wrote in the 1930s and 1940s and submitted to a variety of publications. Many of them were children's stories. Once the family grew, she never wrote again as far as I know. When she wrote these stories, she was a high school publications adviser and probably wanted to try her hand at fiction in her spare time.

I wonder if she got these stories out from time to time as my brothers and I grew older and began leaving home to start our own lives. Did she look at them and think about rewriting them and submitting them again? I'll probably never know.

Most of my old stories aren't worth submitting again. I've moved on both in terms of my perspective as well as my skills as a writer. Sometimes when things are going badly--meaning the latest book isn't selling well and/or the reviewers ignored it--I often look through old files hoping for new ideas.

I don't come away with hidden masterpieces that can be punched up and sent off to big New York Publishers. But the writing shows me I have come a long way since I wrote them. My plots, characters, descriptions, themes and techniques have gotten better. Sometimes I can tell at a glance why a story was never accepted for publication. Sometimes I study them for a while to see what worked and what didn't work.

There always days when writers feel stuck in limbo, hoping against hope they'll see progress somewhere. A good place to look? Those old stories. They show you how far you've come.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of paranormal short stories and contemporary fantasy novels.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Use News Stories as Writing Prompts

Writers often find some of their best prompts when a news story catches their fancy and they begin to think about the multiple angles and outcomes involved. The story need not be breaking news with local, national or international attention. It might be a dog bites man story with an odd twist to it or the theft of jewelry in an upscale neighborhood in which everyone looks guilty.

In such cases, you might pretend you're the owner of the dog, the man who was bitten, a neighbor watching the event who knows something the victim doesn't know. You might pretend you stole the jewels, that they were your jewels or--perhaps--that they weren't really stolen. This is a great way to play with ideas, characters and plots.

The Missing Malaysian Passenger Plane
The missing, and presumed lost, passenger plane MH370 is--as I write this--still the object of one of the largest passenger aviation searches in history. At present, no debris has been found and the Navy's Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle is set for another attempt to map the ocean floor.

The prevailing theory, based on the radar, satellite, pings and other evidence at hand is that the plane's course was intentionally altered for reasons unknown so that it ended up flying until it ran out of fuel before crashing into the ocean at or near the primary search area.

Theories about what might have happened, from mechanical failure to hijacking/terrorism to abduction by aliens have run rampant through the social media and the panels of experts gathered by major news organizations to discuss the disappearance and search.

For now, without getting into the need to do a lot of research about the technologies involved with commercial aviation, radar, satellites and air traffic control systems, this mystery easily lends itself to multiple qhat if questions and story ideas.

  • If you like human interest approaches, then you put yourself in the shoes of one or more of the passengers. Or a crew member trying to save the plane.
  • If you like international thriller/spy novels, you can put yourself into the shoes of those who--let's say--could have stolen/sabotaged the plane for political reasons.
  • If you like police, private eye and other mysteries, you can use the point of view of an FBI agent or other investigator looking at the disappearance as a crime.
  • Or, perhaps you're the pilot trying to save the plane or a member of the search team trying to find the plane, or an operative of one kind or another who has classified information about the matter that hasn't been shared with the public or the search teams.
Plot Possibilities

Sooner or later, I expect somebody will write a novel or a screenplay based on one or more aspect of the disappearance and search. Perhaps it will be you. If not, the event is very good for your writing practice. For example:

  • Is it logical that a flight crew (or a hijacker) with enough savvy to alter the plane's course and avoid detection would simply fly the plane until it ran out of fuel, killing everyone on board? What motives might be behind that scenario?
  • What if the flight crew (or a hijacker) miscalculated the amount of fuel and thought it was possible to reach Perth? What motives might account for that?
  • Is it logical to presume the plane has been lost? Could the plane have, as it did, avoided detection and communication with the ground, and then successfully landed in a country that wanted the plane (you pick the reason)? What if people on the ground "played stupid" and didn't share information showing they knew all along where the plane was headed?
  • Speculate further about another plane dropping black boxes in the search area to mimic those of MH370 and/or creating the apparent satellite data that suggests the plane is where the search is being conducted? How would this be accomplished? How would it look from the point of view of the pilot, the passengers, the perpetrators and the investigators?
  • If the plane is found where searchers think it is, multiple stories exist. If we find out what happened and why, the true story may well be the most compelling. What if you are on the plane? What if you're the pilot? What if you're waiting at home for a relative or friend on the plane?
The Human Story

Ultimately, investigators will look at all of the hardware, software, and procedures involved in the disappearance of MH370 once the causes are known--or even if they're never known--to make air travel safer and search operations more efficient.

Yet, the human side of this tragedy and its expected outcome is immense. That's what haunts us, scares us, and stirs up our sympathy and compassion for the hundreds of people impacted by this event. Within that human side, there will be real triumphs and defeats, real heroes, bad guys and good guys, and dedicated investigators and searchers. If I were an aviation expert, I would love to write a non-fiction book about such a story. But since I'm not, I can see a dozen ways to ask "what if" and then to practice writing various scenes.

There is a lot to speculate and write about (for practice), especially now when none of the likely causes and outcomes has become the real one.


Friday, April 04, 2014

Time management: Getting Swept away on words

"Writing must have an element of magic to it. When that magic takes over, the writer himself loses track of time during the writing--and the reader will lose track of time during the reading. If you're happy at work and think of it as your private briar patch--a place of escape from the word in which time is your time--the clock of life becomes your clock, and even the thorns in that briar patch are of your own choosing." - Kenneth Atchity in "A Writer's Time"
We want to be swept away on words. That's one reason we read. The better the book, the farther the words will take us. Time disappears: suddenly our planned twenty minutes of reading before falling asleep at night turns into an hour of reading.

Writers love being swept away on words while they write. This happens when the story is coming together and the writer is having so much fun letting it happen, that s/he no longer keeps track of the clock or the number of words written that day, or what might be waiting on Facebook or Twitter.

Atchity presumes that writers are people who love to write and that they want to write well. The premise of his book, as Library Journal pointed out in its review, is that success in writing requires more than perfecting writing skills, but mastering one's use of time. It's strange perhaps, that the best time management will lead us to lose track of time.

It's harder than ever these days. Something--life, the Internet, the cell phone or cosmic vibes--is shortening our attention spans while drawing us away into dozens of preoccupations that compete with a writer's need for sustained periods of time for working on the short story or novel in progress.

Years ago, somebody said that a lot of people don't want to write, they want to have written. That is, they imagine what it will be like to have a successful book out there rather than imagining sitting down and doing the work. Others mistake talking or blogging about the work as doing the work. Yes, connecting with others, marketing, commenting on blogs and having an online presence are part of the work.

The thing is, sometimes all of that takes over the day. That's why it's wonderful to be so passionate about the story we're writing, we'd rather begin the day working on that than reading the blogs, Facebook news feeds, e-mails and writing newsletters we're following. Life these days gives us the impression we'll miss something important if our cell phone isn't next to the keyboard or if we go 30 minutes without looking at Facebook.

If a writer agrees with Atchity, s/he will sooner or later decide that the important thing s/he is missing by becoming preoccupied with "being connected" with everyone else is being connected to the plot, theme, and characters in the story.

Some people say we should write at the same time every day, viewing the work in the same way we view a full time or part time job. Others don't like to say "when it's time to work, then work" because then working on a novel becomes too much like work. Well, it is work, even when there's magic in it.

Others need to support our writing time and not act as though we're available to run errands, do chores, talk or anything else when we're sitting at the keyboard writing. But the first trick here is supporting ourselves in doing that work, arranging everything we can to keep the story flowing and getting so swept away by what we're writing that nothing can distract us.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Keeping readers reading

Plots that go nowhere or characters that inspire no interest are death to your stories. If nothing interesting happens in a novel, readers are likely to put it down. If characters don’t engage the readers—their minds or emotions or curiosity—you get the same result—readers tossing aside the book without reading to the end. - Beth Hill in her post "Making Readers Care"

What we care about as readers can often be swayed by what everyone else is reading or about our best friend's favorite book. After that, the author's got to keep us caring.

As I read the reader reviews on Amazon for Amy Greene's Long Man and Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, I was surprised by the number of people who panned the books for being too slow, too detailed, too lyrical or for not packing enough punch per paragraph.

I liked both books a lot. Both books made me care about what was happening enough to settle in for a leisurely read rather than something that ended before dinner.

Beth Hill says that today's readers want things to happen faster. She's probably right. I don't like the trend, but whether the story is action-packed and 80,000 words or leisurely and 150,000 words, the authors need to engage us with the characters, plots, themes and places to make us care enough to turn the page.

Most gurus suggest that emerging writers get to the point faster in their first several books. Unless you have a big publisher behind you who can get your books into bookstores and reviews of your work into major outlets like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, shorter is probably more likely to attract a small press and/or readers on Amazon.

Basically, if you're not passionate about the story you're telling, it will be difficult to make the readers passionate about it. If your story seems so real to you that you can't stop thinking about it and sometimes wonder if it might have happened somewhere, then your feelings are going to shine in the book.

Our passion for a story helps us see our characters' pros and cons and how their strengths might help them triumph in difficult situations and how their weaknesses might lead them into trouble. Maybe their lives aren't at risk, but something is--their job, marriage, friends, career. When whatever they want or want to keep is in jeopardy, readers are more likely to turn the page and keep reading. The character and his/her life and goals has to matter. That's what I look at first when deciding whether or not to buy a book.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Magic favors the prepared writer

"But of course, the whole process is a mystery, in all the arts. Creativity, in literature, painting, music. Or in performance: those rare lovely moments in the theater when an actor has the whole audience in his hands suddenly like that. You may have all the technique in the world, but you can't strike that spark without some mysterious extra blessing -- and none of us knows what that blessing really is. Not even the writers, who talk the most, can explain it at all." - Susan Cooper in Terri Windling's Myth & Moor

Clear your mind with a walk in the park.
Louis Pasteur said in an 1854 lecture, "In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind." This quote is often simplified to "Chance favors a prepared mind."

The Boy Scout motto is "Be Prepared." In fact, in almost all areas of survival and commerce and art, teachers stress preparation. We carry a knife, matches, compass, map, water and food on short hikes in case we are lost or injured and end up out there longer than expected. Soldiers prepare for multiple eventualities as do lawyers, police officers and corporate presidents.

On Navy ships, one speaks of "conditions of readiness" depending on the circumstances so that the vessel and crew can meet expected and unexpected conditions.

How About Writers?

Listen to music.
In Terri Windling's post, the focus is that as writers, we're not quite sure what makes the magic work. Some days, getting each word on the page is like pulling teeth. On other fays, the words flow almost faster than we can type them and by dinner time we end up with some of the best passages we've ever written.

If your writing process works for you, then whatever you're doing is preparing your mind for the work whether it's fiction or nonfiction. Professional writers often look askance at amateur or part-time writers who claim they must wait for inspiration before they can write. That may work if you plan to write one or two novels in your lifetime, but journalists, TV and magazine writers, script writers, and novelists who are earning a living through a steady stream of articles, plays or books can't afford to write only an hour or so a month whenever the mood finally strikes them.

Establishing a System

Trails clear the mind.
Far be it from me to ever suggest a step-by-step process for going from, say, mowing the lawn and buying groceries, to sitting down and writing or re-writing a short story, novel or feature article. Of course, if a series of steps works for you, keep on taking those steps.

Preparing for the magic of a good writing session seems to be to be more of arranging the environment and one's attitude so that that magic is most likely to happen. Some writers:
  • Require solitude
  • Need no distractions (Internet, doorbell, cell phone)
  • Listen to music that somehow matches the work--I wrote one novel while listening to "Beneath the Raven Moon," finding that ideas began coming to mind the moment I started the CD.
  • Take frequent breaks (even getting up and making a coup of coffee between scenes)
  • Keep multiple files open at once so they can flip between the story and their research note
  • Take a long walk or sitting in a park just before sitting down to write where they avoid thinking of anything other than the work
  • End the work of one day with a sentence or scene that lead obviously to where they need to start work the next day
  • Place things in the writing room that are inspiring--pictures, shelves of books, mementos from trips, art objects; conversely, other authors life a writing space that looks like the cubicle in a large office building, a virtually empty room, or a back porch overlooking a serene yard or a bustling city
  • Journalists, travel writers and parents can seemingly write in the midst of chaos; it's as though they're oblivious to the chaos or empowered by it--seek it out if it helps you, whether it's the room where the kids are playing or a busy coffee shop
  • Outlines help many people because there is comfort in the plan, each step being a reminder not only about the necessary focus of each writing session but about the scenes they might mull over (or even dream about) prior to the next writing session.
  • A lot of writers keep notebooks because they discover that while they're doing routine tasks such as taking kids to school, cooking a meal or washing the car, they come up with some of their best ideas--the pressure is off and the mind just seems to relax and come up with answers to place where the work was stuck or bits and pieces of dialogue for the next chapter
In time, almost every writer out there will develop a list of what needs to happen for his/her writing to
Some of us "need" clutter for our best work.
go well. Drink whiskey. . .get in bathtub. . .light white candle...write. Or, walk into office at the same time each day...pour coffee...look at the last scene completed...start writing the next scene. There are an infinite number of variations and, while many writers have a lot of techniques in common, the preparation with the best chance of producing a viable draft--or even a magical draft--will be a routine and a room and a schedule that has been personalized.

A writer friend of mine told me yesterday that she not only must write in solitude, but that she can't be anywhere near the Internet. I also like solitude, but rely on the Internet for quickly going out and checking facts. She wants to focus on the work and not get detailed by the online world.

Another writing friend writes in bits and pieces when she isn't sure about the transitions between scenes or has a missing fact. She likes to rush forward with the scene and not get derailed either by passages she's not yet ready to write or things she needs to look up. So, she leaves gaps in the manuscript.

I feel uncomfortable leaving gaps in the manuscript and write straight through it, looking up facts on the internet as I need them.

What's comfortable for me may sound like lunacy to you and vice versa.

We may not know exactly what makes our best writing happen. But we can set the stage so its more likely. That's something we must learn along with all the writing class information about showing and not telling, developing strong characters and having everything in the work advance the story.