Review: ‘The Paper Magician’

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The Paper Magician (The Paper Magician Trilogy, #1)The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book just doesn’t work, though it has an interesting (and brave) main character as well as an inventive premise. A young woman graduates at the top of her class at magic school, is apprenticed against her hopes and dreams to a magician named Emory Thane who does magic with sheets of paper, and before she can learn more than a few basics is suddenly thrust into a battle with a master magician who hates her new mentor.

The problem is simply this: a vast portion of the book is taken up with a very lengthy vision sequence in which most of the elements are symbolic, old memories, wishes and dreams which the reader has no way of understanding or relating to. This is rather like reading a long drug trip experience with characters one doesn’t yet know well enough to understand most of the imaginary stuff, much less how (or if) it connects to the plot.

Secondly, since the protagonist, Creony Twill, has only learned a few minor paper folding techniques, the idea she can defeat the master magician who dislikes Thane is about as believable as, say, Harry Potter going up against Voldemort after who days at Hogwarts while on LSD.

The characters and story have a lot of promise, but the vision/imagination trip is not well anchored and just seems to float out there in space where nothing is real and nothing seems to matter. Even fantasies must be plausible.

Malcolm

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Writing based on the slings and arrows of outrageous childhood

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“I see shame as part of a process of becoming free: to create or, yes, to love. These sometimes have to be fundamental acts of disobedience to one’s upbringing or conditioned view of the world. In other words, one can feel ashamed of what one’s doing while at the same time knowing it’s the correct thing to do. I don’t doubt that, for me, part of the satisfaction in the act of writing is that it violates numerous taboos of my childhood that still weigh heavily on me. In the moment of writing, I can be free of them.”

– Rachel Cusk (“Outline,” “Transit”), in her Interview in BOMB

“One learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence,” Canadian author Robertson Davies said. That is not only true of those cursed to write, but often serves as the reason they write and what they write about.

tabooThe taboos of childhood come in all shapes, sizes, colors and strengths. Some are merely household rules which seem odd, unfair or simply different than the household rules of one’s friends. They twist into the more grotesque shapes of poverty and abuse and every sacred truth that becomes a lie through the epiphanies of growing up. They are the political and social injustices we see through young eyes and the corruptions we feel to the marrow of young bones.

For Rachel Cusk, they are the seeds of the stories we will write, and we can thank our lucky stars that writing is the manner in which we learn to be free of them rather than everything ill begotten from drugs to terrorism. What the psychoanalyst’s couch cannot cure, our fiction finally harvests the strange fruit of those tainted seeds sown long ago.

Unfortunately, one must re-live those slings and arrows to bring them to life in a story. Doing so is like choosing a nightmare over a good night’s sleep. But the process is very cleansing and the weight of the world, or at least one’s past, becomes noticeably lighter and happier once the mystery behind the writer’s life and work is finally understood.

The results need not be heavy, depressing books. They might be mainstream, commercial romances and thrillers. Sometimes they’re page-turning yarns with exciting plots and an unobtrusive message (or no message at all). Yes, they’re also comedies and satires, and even poetry so sweet and dear that no one sees the vinegar within the words. Perhaps they only hint at the taboos they cast out, and that can be a fine thing.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman” that came about through banishing devils that were held close for half a century.

 

Writers, who’s your fashion icon?

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Flavorwire has a regular feature called “Sweetest Debut” in which they interview emerging authors to “find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.”

On February 15, they featured Teresa Messineo (“The Fire By Night”), on February 14, the column’s author, Sarah Seltzer, talked to Ethel Rohan (“The Weight of Him”), and on February 9, the focus was Kathleen Kent (“The Dime”).  The interviews begin with the question: What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

fashionOkay, fair enough, “elevator pitch” is today’s jargon for a short, logline kind of statement that quickly explains a novel without getting boring. The point is, you’re in an elevator and have just moments to speak. If the whole “elevator pitch” thing has value, it teaches authors to get to the point, whether they’re trying to sway an editor, movie producer, or a reader.

I’ll stipulate that Flavorwire is a pop culture magazine. The column is, no doubt, supposed to make writers human, to dredge up fun facts about them that everyday folks (e.g., non writers) will find absolutely fascinating. That said, I stumbled when I saw that the column’s guests were being asked to name their fashion icon as well as the name of the TV show they “binge watch” when they’re not writing.

Since these are emerging authors, they’re a lot closer to being everyday folks than, say, the Hollywood celebrities who try to pretend like they’re regular people even though they own two or three houses with a combined value of $50 million. After all, most debut authors haven’t had a chance to get filthy rich and start acting, well, uppity.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m not really drawn to an author who has a fashion icon. I don’t even like the term “binge watching,” because it sounds like a slovenly thing to do. Worse yet, since the authors being interviewed are younger than I am, they’re listening to music and watching television shows I’ve never heard of. One of them did say The Great Gatsby is overrated, and so I crossed her off my list immediately, though I was pleased she mentioned a book that wasn’t about the rise and fall of the little black dress.

I don’t know how long “The Sweetest Debut” has been running because, the columns I saw didn’t interest me enough to drag me back to past months. I did hope to see a man interviewed to find out if he would get a different set of questions, I dunno, something stereo-typically masculine like “What fashion model do you wish you were having sex with?” or “Who’s the most famous NFL quarterback you beat up back in a high school PE class?”

I’m not saying the column is asking “women’s questions,” but I’m suspicious.

Could be, I’m just out of touch. If they interview me (fat chance), I’ll tell them my fashion icon is Levi Strauss and that I binge watch old episodes of “Walker Texas Ranger.” Actually, I watch Masterpiece Theater, but I have a feeling that answer might get edited out for lack of, well, popular flavor.

As for fan-fiction fantasies, Flavorwire, you’ve got to be kidding.

–Malcolm

 

 

Briefly Noted: ‘Hoodoo Food!’ with conjure cook-off winners

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Some of the best recipes often come out of special cookbooks published by church groups, friends of the library committees, clubs, and historical societies. The recipes in Hoodoo Food! The Best of the Conjure Cook-Off and Rootwork Recipe Round-Up are no exception.

hoodoofoodNot only are the book’s recipes solid and well-thought-out by traditional cooking standards, they’re grouped by type, that is to say, the conjure category where they’ll provide extra blessings and benefits:

  • New Year’s Luck
  • Money Matters
  • Affairs of the Heart
  • Enemy Tricks
  • Dreams and Divination

The book was published in 2014 by the Ladies Auxiliary of California’s Missionary Independent Spiritual Church and includes the first-, second- and third-place winners of  conjure cook-offs held between 2010 and 2013.

In addition to the handy categories, the recipes’ ingredients include parenthetical notations showing their conjure benefits. As a fan of Hoppin’ John, I see that the New Year’s Luck recipe notes that the beans, diced bacon, spicy sausage, and red onion are great for luck, that the rice helps with prosperity and fertility, and that the spices help with protection.

Under Money Matters, who can resist “Valentina’s Hot Money-Draw Texas Chili” even if they already have plenty of money? The recipe is filled with ingredients for protection, pleasure, gold, blessings, and love luck. If you want more love luck, then feast your taste-buds on the treats listed under Affairs of the Heart, including “Love Honey” and “Ashta Special For Romance and Seduction.” This is the book’s largest category.

When you’re ready for more than a good night’s sleep, I like the “Astral Travel Tea” in Dreams and Divination, and suspect that the roasted dandelion root is a key ingredient here. Of course, good food is good food, and that applies to recipes like “Haters Be Gone Hot Wings” even if everybody loves you, and “Red Eye Gravy to Keep Your Man Working” even if he’s already busy.

You’ll notice as you read the book, you’ll find words of wisdom in the header at the top of every page. My favorites are “Men may come and men may go … but pie goes on for ever” and “The most dangerous food is a wedding cake.”

With this 96-page cookbook, you’ll eat well, live long, and prosper. Of course I can’t guarantee any of that, but it’s worth a try if you like having fun in the kitchen.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Conjure Woman’s Cat.

 

 

Jock Stewart’s Writing Prompts for ‘Dummies’

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My name’s Jock Stewart and I’ve taken over this blog with a guest post for writers who can’t do squat without a writing prompt. Frankly, as a newspaper reporter, I’ve discovered that the best writing prompt in the world comes when the editor says something like, “Hey, Stewart, a dogshit truck tipped over at the corner of Fifth and Main. Write me a front page story without using the word ‘shit’ or making any jokes.”

I know it’s not politically correct to use the word “Dummies.” First, I don’t care. Second, the word adds spunk to the title of this post. Third, I put it in quotes and that means it’s tongue in cheek.

Here are your prompts:

  1. writerpromptsA reporter at a small-town newspaper learns that a dogshit truck tipped over at the corner of Fifth and Main. When he arrives, the truck driver screams, “It’s a Commie plot” before a one-armed man pushes him into a porta-potty that mysteriously slides down hill into the river. When the reporter tells the police what happened, they laugh, and say he’s acting like a fugitive. Possible title: IN A WORLD OF IT
  2. Bob and Monique are kissing on the front porch of Monique’s house after a rather successful date on lovers lane when the porch light goes out. “Oh hell,” shouts Monique, “Daddy’s caught us.” When Bob investigates rather than running like a bat our of hell, he discovers Daddy leaning stone cold dead against the wall in the front hallway with his fingers on the light switch. The police tell Bob he’s a fugitive. Possible title: THE LIGHT THAT FAILED
  3. A man who fell asleep twenty years ago while making out on lover’s lane, wakes up today to discover he’s a father and has five or more kids running around loose acting like he’s a no-account drunk that can’t do any better than sleep his life away in an old Buick on an overgrown road. When he asks, “Who’s your mama,” none of the kids know. Possible title: GETTING LUCKY
  4. A woman who got hit on the head by a baseball from a nearby semi-pro game, gets amnesia and can’t remember the address if the brothel where she believes she was working just a short time ago. The team manager, who claims he can get to first base whenever he wants to, tells the woman she’s not “the type” to be a lady of the evening and is more likely a preacher’s kid. Now she doesn’t know whether to fish or cut bait. Possible title: GET THEE TO A NUNNERY
  5. Two men walk into an abandoned house where absolutely nothing happens. Possible title: BEING AND NOTHINGNESS
  6. An owl and a pussy-Cat go to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat. Even though they have money, honey and a five pound note, they hit an iceberg and while the boat is sinking have a dream about Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and a nude scene involving a valuable necklace.  When they’re rescued, police force them to eat mince and slices of quince with a runcible spoon while interrogating them about a jewelry store heist. Possible title: HEARTLESS OF THE OCEAN
  7. Vladimir and Estragon go to a train station to kill a man named Godot, but they can’t find him. They decide the whole mess they’ve gotten themselves into is Carl Jung’s fault and so they start waiting for him. After a while a lady who calls herself Mrs. Freud tells them they’re both crazy. They’re so pissed at her, they offer her an exploding cigar. Possible title: SHOULD A GENTLEMEN OFFER A LADY A TIPARILLO?
  8. A guy has a dream that he’s a robot from the future who’s been sent back in time to kill himself before he can kill himself and change a future that couldn’t possible happen if he’s successful. The police waste lots of bullets without hitting anything. His first act is to decide whether it’s live or it’s Memorex. Possible title: INDETERMINATE

Eight is enough, don’t you think?

–Jock Stewart, Special Investigative Reporter

The author as a crystal gazer

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Let’s go out on a limb here with this idea. . .

The term “scrying’ is often called crystal gazing whether the medium/psychic stares into a crystal ball, a mirror, or the clear surface of a bowl of water to help them “see” the future. I thought of the term while writing about Tarot cards because many card readers use a form of scrying to better understand each card in the Tarot deck.

Wikipedia photo

Wikipedia photo

However, instead of staring at a crystal ball, they stare at the image on the card and, so to speak, imagine stepping inside the card to better see the image. If one does this often, one “sees” more than the symbols and drawings on the card and begins to imagine other things, visions or day dreams, perhaps, that begin as an active process of relaxed imagination and end up supplying information not previously known.

Of course, you can do that with a photograph of a person, a house, an outdoor scene, or anything else and imagine what is going on there.

Many writers do something similar when they write without necessarily thinking there’s anything like psychic ability or mediumship or fortune telling associated with it. What happens is this: when concentrating on a scene in the novel or short story in progress, the writer stops typing to use logic for puzzling out what needs to happen next in the story. They casually think about it. The imagination can be unleashed in much the same way a Tarot card reader’s imagination is given free reign while s/he looks at the image on a card.

When a writer does it, they’re not telling fortunes. They’re better seeing the story, daydreaming it–in a sense–to learn what’s going to happen next.

  • If you haven’t tried this, you can stare at your writing on the screen, say, an action scene or the description of a room or a character, with a “hmmm” kind of attitude. Basically, you let your eyes blur so that you’re not reading the words on the page over and over. Instead, you’re “looking at” or “stepping into” whatever it is those words are saying. If the words describe a room in a house, you’re pretending to be inside that room. If they’re describing a chase scene, you’re pretending to see the scene unfold before your eyes as though you’re watching a TV show.
  • If you have a photograph or drawing of a real or imagined place setting where your story is set, you can do the same thing. Look at it and imagine being there and watching the action. Some writers have found this works when they’re doing research and find themselves staring at the words on the page of a book about the subject their novel is about. Suddenly, new ideas for the story begin too come to mind–rather like free association.

Anyone who writes fiction over a period of time will find ways to jump start his or her imagination. Some of us idly think of our stories while driving or doing repetitive tasks. Others think about their stories while listening to music. And then, there’s being a crystal gazer (so to speak). All these things tend to put the author into the scene one way or the other so that the subconscious mind gets involved and shows you what you’re intending to do.

It beats fighting with words on the page while logically trying to brute force the story into place.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism, contemporary fantasy, and paranormal books and stories, including Eulalie and Washerwoman.

Have you ever considered writing nonfiction?

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“Selling nonfiction articles is most often done by pitching editors with article ideas that fit the publication’s needs, whether you’re pitching a magazine, newspaper, or online publication. It is key that you understand the needs of the specific publication and the audience, as well as the sections of the publication that need freelance writing.” – Writer’s Market

There’s more nonfiction published every year than fiction. Books aren’t the whole of it; there are also magazines and newspapers and a variety of online sites. So, where’s the biggest opportunity for freelancers? If you’ve been writing poetry, short stories and novels and are serious about increasing your published output and earnings, check sources like Writer’s Market for advice, lists of publications, and submission guidelines.

Here are a starling ideas list:

  • newsstandAs with fiction, you need to develop a platform. This includes ever expanding lists of articles in better and better magazines that show you can develop what editors want, get it finished on time, and have a certain level of acceptance in your specialty subjects.
  • Credentials are important. Think of this as resume material. In terms of subject matter, do you have college or technical school degrees to back up your writing, or profit and/or nonprofit work in your specialty areas? Working as a full-time staff member for a newspaper or magazine where you covered your specialty areas also helps. Unlike blogging, newsstand and prestigious quarterly publications don’t accept facts gathered from Wikipedia or a few hobbyists’ blogs as either research or solid credentials.
  • Follow the directions in the submission guidelines. Notice that many magazines are working on articles for issues that won’t be published for 6-9 months. Others have yearly themes or special themes. If these themes aren’t listed in the submission guidelines and/or aren’t obvious from reading the magazine, go to the publication’s web site and look for advertiser information. Quite often there will be a calendar there of one kind or another that lists the focus of the year’s issues.
  • If you can pitch an article, you’ll normally save time and have a better chance of acceptance even though competition for paying markets is tough. First, if you write an article and send it in unsolicited, the odds are about as bad as winning the lottery to expect that article to arrive in the mail at the same moment the editor is wishing s/he had such an article. If you send a query, including your credentials, focus/angle, and word count, you haven’t wasted time writing and researching anything that may not be what the editor needs; secondly, the editor may wish to ask you if you can write something slightly different than you’re proposing. Assignments, guaranteed or not, are always better than sending stuff in out of nowhere.
  • Knowing the magazine’s style, depth, and focus will help you deliver what makes sense to that magazine’s editor and readers. Articles are always written to address the needs of the readers, as in, what’s in it for them if they take the time to read the material? Some magazines like easy checklists; others use a lot of humor; some like a first-person approach; some want in-depth material that’s heavier in tone.

There are a lot of opportunities out there for freelance writers who develop their track records, specialties, abilities to adapt to editorial demands and deadlines, and a reputation for delivering high-quality material when promised.

If you go this route, you may never be as well-known as mainstream novelists, but you’ll make more money than writers who submit short stories and poetry alone.

–Malcolm