Category Archives: writing

Monday Musing: Beautiful Landscapes

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“Think of a memory in a beautiful landscape—maybe from a family vacation, or your favorite childhood destination. Now think of a scene from a story, novel, or movie that describes a landscape, and that has stuck with you. What makes these moments special? So many of the memories and stories we share are connected to place—to the landscapes of the Earth and the landscapes of our own imaginations.” – “Carving Stories from Trees” in Poets & Writers

Key West when postcards could be mailed for a penny.

Poets & Writers Magazine has a daily online writing prompt or “Craft Capsule.” I enjoy reading these even if I don’t follow up and write something based on the prompt.

For those who grew up in a wonderful place and enjoyed day trips, or went on yearly summer vacations, or traveled after graduating from high school or college, the landscapes we saw in the past are a gold mine of writing prompts and potential short story or novel location settings.

Our family traveled every summer. This meant many long days in a car, most before air conditioning. We saw sites from Fort Ticonderoga and Niagara Falls to Key West, Mammoth Cave and the Smoky Mountains. Even though I didn’t keep a diary, my memories–incomplete as they may be–make a wonderful starting point when I’m thinking up a new story.

Since I’ve been to these places, it’s less difficult to find a book, magazine or a website to help me fill in the details. I came away from those vacations with a strong sense of each place. And, that’s almost more valuable than a guidebook.

Perhaps you have memories of long-ago trips that might serve as writing prompts and short story locales.

Malcolm

Click on my name to visit my website.

The many worlds of fiction are calling you away

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“I know I walk in and out of several worlds each day.” – Joy Harjo

I won’t try to second guess what Harjo, winner of the 2017 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, meant exactly when she mentioned several worlds. If you’ve read her 1983 book She Had Some Horses, you might suspect–as I do–that her “several worlds” are more than figurative. The title poem, which I can never read often enough, says the horses are sand, are maps, contain ocean water, are the sky’s air, fur and teeth, breakable clay, and splintered from a cliff. Throughout the poem, those horses are everything else.

Nothing figurative there. I see it as real because when I’m there, reading, I’m in that world, and she did not say, like sand, like maps, like fur and teeth, etc. When you read and when you are where the words take you, you are no longer in your safe bed or your easy chair or at your desk. You are in a place where “She had horses with eyes of trains.”

NASA Photo

If you write, you are where the words have taken you, perhaps with Joy Harjo, in a place where “She had horses who licked razor blades.” The typewriter, yellow tablet, or PC slip away, and now you see the bright cold day where the clocks were striking thirteen, where the screaming comes across the sky, where there was a dark and stormy night where the rain was falling in torrents, where Mrs. Dalloway bought flowers for herself, or where stars are living and dying.

If you read and/or write, it is hard not to talk in and out of several worlds each day. The words conjure you there. Those words are your quantum entanglement, placing you simultaneously at one place and another place, and the place with the strongest attraction is where you attention is, often more within the book than your safe bed or easy chair. Perhaps the call of sleep, the ringing of a phone, another person entering the room, or a thunderstorm will draw you away from the horses “who whispered in the dark, who were afraid to speak.”

That sudden change of worlds can be like dying or being born. It’s often wrenching like being pulled suddenly out of weep water or stepping into a fire. Sometimes the worlds blur the way dreams and waking moments tangle together at dawn. Sometimes you’re sure you safe bad is made of sand, is a map, contains ocean water, is fur and teeth, breakable clay, and a splintered sliver from a red cliff. Worlds can tangle for readers, writers, dreamers, and anyone else with an free-ranging imagination.

You become a shaman when you read or write. To the logical observer, you appear to be a man or woman reading in bed or a man or woman writing a book at his or her computer. They can’t quite see that you are the sky’s air and the ocean’s water.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

Writing Prompts from Hell

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Disclaimer: The devil didn’t make me write this post.

  • A man buys a round trip ticket to hell without reading the fine print on the on the ticket. He’s dressed for a warm climate because he’s heard stories. When he arrives in a hand basket, hell looks like the Mauricio García Vega painting shown here. He looks for a lover to share the experience with.
  • A 737 crashes into a farmer’s empty chicken house in a ball of flame that’s so large it scorches the low-hanging clouds. Before he can call 911, the passengers and crew walk out of the chicken house as though nothing unusual has happened.
  • Your protagonist learns on page one that he has one hour to live. Since he was on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth, he goes on Twitter to find a quality person with whom he can share his secrets so that once he’s gone, the journey will continue.
  • A stick falls into a mud puddle during a rain storm.
  • A young woman sincerely believes she’ll bump into her soul mate by running up the down escalator. Her friends have warned that she won’t accomplish her goal if she’s thrown out of the store/airport/theme park, if she’s arrested, if she gets sent to the asylum, or if she gets pulled down into the gears and ends up looking like chopped liver, all of which will discourage Mister Right.
  • A man believes he’s died when, if truth be told, he’s merely roaring drunk and trapped in a house of ill repute. Luckily, he has plenty of money and decides death is really the way to go. “Bless his heart,” says the madam, “what’s going to happen to that poor fool when he wakes up.” They decide to keep him drunk so that he won’t discover the truth of the matter.
  • A minister is discovered having sex with a woman who’s not his wife on the communion table by church goers who arrive for Sunday morning services several hours earlier than expected. After a brief discussion, everyone decides there’s a way to make this event a win-win moment for everybody.
  • Two roads diverge in a wood. Several hikers decide to test Robert Frost’s poem and determine whether the problems (if any) of taking one road or another amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
  • After a man hypnotizes himself into believing he is totally innocent of any discretions, errors in judgement, jilting of lovers, or ever saying an hurtful things, he keeps meeting people who think otherwise. He must decide whether or not they are lying and, if not, whether the easiest way to remain innocent is by murdering those who claim to have evidence that he’s guilty OR simply to run like hell. As the story unfolds, readers learn this choice wasn’t easy.

Disclaimer: If anything bad happens while you’re using these writing prompts, you’re on your own because I don’t warrant that they are safe or any damn good at all, and further that they’re displayed here merely as curiosities.

Malcolm

Cool, an error screen instead of a book piracy listing

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After going through several e-mail addresses, my persistent publisher (Thomas-Jacob) has gotten a pirated copy of my novel Eulalie and Washerwoman removed from one of those sign-up for free downloads sites. We have no idea how they got a PDF file: we’ve never released the book in that format. Did they create it from the Kindle edition, use conjure, break into my house while I was having a late-afternoon glass of wine? We may never know. But, the error screen is a welcome sight when we click on the link.

Florida Folk Magic Stories: Speaking of conjure, your response to Eulalie and Washerwoman and Conjure Woman’s Cat has been wonderful. Thanks for your support. I said I wasn’t going to write another conjure book because it was time to move on. But people kept asking when I was going to have it ready. Er, well, I dunno, maybe later.

Novel in Progress: Okay, I’ve changed my mind and have gotten started on the third book which will be called Lena. I know how it begins: things don’t look good for Eulalie. I have no idea how it ends. Finding out is just as much fun for an author as it is for a reader.

Review: My colleagues and I at Thomas-Jacob Publishing don’t review each other’s books on our blogs, Amazon or GoodReads because, quite frankly, it wouldn’t look good. I think it’s okay for me to include the link of a review of one of those books written by an impartial (and sometimes, hard to please) reviewer: Big Al’s Books & Pals.

Big Al didn’t see the ending coming. I have to admit it: neither did I.

Satire: For those of you who missed the last post, it’s another one of my “Jock Stewart” satires: Feds Bust Sneezeweed Resisistance Movement Scam. The headline alone tells you this is solid news reporting.

For Writers: For actual solid news reporting, check out Melinda Clayton’s How to Set Up an eBook Ad with Amazon Marketing Services at IndiesUnlimited. If you’ve looked into Amazon book ads and found that the setup resembles a Greek tragedy written in Greek, this handy post will help your sort it out.

–Malcolm

Remembering Robert M. Pirsig

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“Robert M. Pirsig, whose “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” a dense and discursive novel of ideas, became an unlikely publishing phenomenon in the mid-1970s and a touchstone in the waning days of the counterculture, died on Monday at his home in South Berwick, Me. He was 88.” – New York Times

I’m not a philosopher, so I’ll leave it to the philosophers to put Pirsig’s philosophy of Quality into perspective. I never met Pirsig, so I’ll leave it to those who knew him to talk about what they talked about and what it meant to them.

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

Nonetheless, my memories were personal because–even though I didn’t subscribe to Pirsig’s passion for Quality (as he saw it)–I felt like all of his sentiments surrounding it were things I was then in the process of discovering; or, as the sages who believe we know everything before each earthly incarnation suggest, remembering.

As I looked out the windows at the landscape from my coach seat in the Empire Builder and saw Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana flying past, I had to smile because this was the route Pirsig took on his motorcycle. Except that he said seeing such sites through a car window was pretty much just more TV. The train window views weren’t real because I wasn’t inside those views.

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

He believed the journey was more important than the destination. So did I. I still do. I loved the train, but I also preferred the experience from my motorcycle trip in the Rockies or perhaps from my 6,000 miles in an open-topped Triumph TR3. Mountain climbing and walking were even better. So, I believed that experience trumped books and sages and presumed logic.

“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. ”

Today we’re even in more of a hurry. Perhaps TV dinners and instant coffee were the first omens of the world to come. Hurry up and wait: we said that in the navy. Now we’ve gotten rid of a lot of the waiting thanks to satellite TV and the Internet. By any real definition of the term, quality has suffered.

Pirsig’s work had a profound influence on my thinking. It still does. There was a time when my ideas were called “New Age.” I disliked the term because the ideas it included were very old, presented in today’s terms. One might say the same thing about many of Pirsig’s ideas; though he presented them in such a monumentally different way, they had more impact than the dusty manuscripts in the forgotten section of the library.

“Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all.”

That sounds very parental, doesn’t it? So, I expect many of today’s young people would say, “hell that’s the kind of crap my father and grandfather tried to get me to swallow.” Perhaps they did, but you didn’t understand what they were talking about.

I used to work at a place where my sarcastic comment about the general work ethic was that “a half-assed job saves time.” Just get the work out the door. If it doesn’t last, it’s somebody else’s problem down the road.  I think a lot of places consider that work ethic to be the guiding force of business and industry and, hell, maybe even literature. If so, they need to get a copy if Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and repair themselves.

–Malcolm

Don’t cheat your muse

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“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.” – William S. Burroughs

In Casablanca, Ilsa says, “Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time.”

I wonder if we should write like that, as though the story or novel in progress is going to be the last thing we do before we retire to Hawaii or the asylum or bee keeping. If we wrote like that, we’d make everything matter, the best we could do, like kissing a lover for the last time.

Burroughs says you can;t fake a good meal. Sure, we can throw something together in the kitchen or nuke a TV dinner or stop by a fast food place on the way home. It saves us a lot of trouble. I see a lot of advice on the Internet that urges us to write like that: write a novel in a month, turn out multiple books in a year, getting from nothing to a bestseller in 30 days. You can even get plot generators at some place called McNovels (or whatever it is).

What’s the hurry?

Myth: The sooner the book gets on Amazon, the sooner you’ll be famous. The money and the five-star reviews will come rolling in. A big publisher will send you $250,000 for your next book. Agents will actually call you.

Writing in a hurry as though that myth is true might be one way to cheat your muse. Or, possibly, cheat on your muse by sleeping with scam artists who make more money selling books and webinars that promise you ways of writing faster and faster and becoming famous before the ink dries.

It’s tempting, I know. A program or a method or a recipe usually promises us the world. It even comes with a lot of testimonials from writers that–guess what–you’ve never heard of. Nonetheless, when somebody says, “Last year I was digging graves in the rain at minimum wage, but then I saw Joe Smith’s miracle writing plan and I put down my shovel and followed his advice and became richer than J. K. Rowling.”

If you haven’t heard of the former grave digger’s books, Joe Smith is selling broken shovels.

The Muses Clio, Euterpe, and Thalia, by Eustache Le Sueur – Wikipedia

The alternative is listening to the inspiration we have, that we know we have, and writing that story word by word by word the way we know we can do it even though the first draft might take months or years, and then the second draft might take more months or years. And even though we’re not on Amazon yet, we know the stuff we write when we write like that is good because we’ve read through it late at night and felt a chill run through us as we wondered where it came from and how we pulled it all together.  When we re-read it just to make sure we’re not dreaming, it reminds us of the last kiss we gave somebody that we cared about who–for reasons unknown–disappeared from our lives as soon as we stepped away from each other.

Our muses get stronger when we try to write pages than send those chills through us or make us laugh harder than we did the last time we saw a Robin Williams comedy bit or make us shed more tears than we did when Ilsa got on that plane and left Rick standing there in the airport in “Casablanca.”

If Joe Smith reads this post, he’ll probably say, “Don’t you believe that goody-two-shoes stuff.” (Does anyone say “goody-two-shoes” any more?) Well, Mr. Smith, it doesn’t take much to see that the opinions of all the get rich quick gurus don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday we’ll understand that and write everything we write as though it’s the last time.

Malcolm

 

 

 

Ruminate’s Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize Deadline is May 15th

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“For people feeling overwhelmed by life’s frantic pace, a contemplative and imaginative space changes everything. Join our community, and let’s practice staying awake together.” – Ruminate Magazine

  • What: Two previously unpublished poems per entry; 40 lines each or less
  • Entry Fee: $20. Includes copy of the magazine
  • Deadline: May 15th; winners notified in August
  • Prizes: $1,500 + publication for first place, $200 + publication for second place
  • Submission Page: https://www.ruminatemagazine.com/pages/poetry-prize; full guidelines page (more info than the submission page)
  • Finalist Judge: Shane McCrae
  • More: Scroll down from the submission page for a link to a free excerpt of the winning poems from a past year. This will give you an idea of what the magazine is looking for if you’re not a subscriber.