Tag Archives: authors

Those messy website blues

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Like a new car, a new website looks sleek, clean, and is the envy of everyone who sees it. However, like cars that get older and no longer are washed or given scheduled maintenance and oil changes, websites start showing their age as well.

Last night on MasterChef, chef Ramsay told one of the contestants that his dish was confusing because it wasn’t cohesive and was more like a smorgasbord of flavors that didn’t go together. This is another way of saying that–like the old car–a website that’s messy, confusing and probably difficult for new visitors to figure out isn’t helping you.

When I set up my website (Conjure Woman’s Cat), I had great intentions. I was going to keep it squared away (a navy terms that means “shipshape”) rather than than letting it look like our old Buick or the top of the desk in my office.

I chanced upon a writer’s website article that basically said, if you’re website is screwed up, you won’t be kissing your books goodbye because nobody will be buying them. This caught me attention because sales have been lower this year than last year. Partly, that’s Amazon’s fault for establishing a new ranking system that’s biased in favor of bestselling books from mainstream publishers. Even though the rest of us are in the chopped liver category, it was obvious to me that I needed to clean up and streamline the website.

This has taken the better part of two days. It’s by no means perfect. On the other hand, it no longer has a garage sale kind of ambiance surrounding it. One thing I tossed out was a synopsis of each of my older books. This made the site too wordy and added pages. So, I’m featuring my two latest books and putting everything else in a catalogue of covers. Might be a mistake, but the result is certainly a lot easier to figure out.

In the business world some years ago, the word “agile” was often used to refer to companies that could change quickly with the times whether they needed new products or new ways of talking about their current products. I think authors need to be agile in this way in their presentations and promotions. While the books are the same books we published some years ago, we need to find new ways of capturing people’s attention.

So, I cleaned up my website an hour ago. So far, neither Oprah or Warner Brothers has called, but I can always hope.

–Malcolm

A new poll says people are still reading

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A new Gallup poll summarized by Art Swift and Steve Ander shows the following:

  • 35% say they read more than 11 books in the past year
  • 53% of young adults read between one and 10 books in the past year
  • 73% prefer printed books to e-readers or audio books

According to Swift and Ander, “Despite the abundance of digital diversions vying for their time and attention, most Americans are still reading books. In fact, they are consuming books at nearly the same rate that they were when Gallup last asked this question in 2002.”

Writers’ magazines love including essays with titles like “Death of the Novel.” While it’s true that most commercial magazines no longer carry serialized novels or short fiction, bricks and mortar stores and online booksellers are still moving books into people’s hands and hearts. And just type the words “book blog” into a search engine and look at the number of hits. A lot of people are talking about books.

galluppollSome say the business is easier for authors these days because we’re not shackled to BIG PUBLISHERS, some of whom won’t even consider a book unless it can sell 50,000 copies. So we self-publish and bring out our books through smaller publishers. Unfortunately, our main sources of editorial reviews have declined so there are fewer ways for new and so-called “midlist” authors to reach the public’s consciousness. It wasn’t too many years ago that solid newspaper review sections were written by local editors and staff writers, and–in addition to mainstream authors–covered local and regional authors as well as metro bookstore readings and signings.

In spite of that, readers are finding books. It’s a pity so many of them rely on Amazon and that so many of them think books ought to be free or nearly free. I often argue in this blog that while it’s true that a Kindle file doesn’t have the physical costs behind it that a hardcover book has, it still represents (possibly) a year or so of the author’s life in addition to the expense of editors, cover designers, proofreaders and publicists. As authors, we’re not selling the file: we’re selling what’s in it.

I still prefer printed books because I like the art and craft of them and find them easier to read in bed, in a car, on a bus, on the beach. Plus, I stare at a screen all day, so the last thing I want to do when I relax with a good book is stare at another screen. But that’s me. Reading from a screen is better than not reading. And, as we’re hearing, audiobooks are doing a lot better than most of us would have guessed if we’d been asked about their future ten years ago.

One positive note in this year’s survey over the one done in 2002 comes from the fact older Americans are reading more books than they used to. The poll doesn’t say why, but I like the increase in the numbers. Another thing I can’t tell from the poll is whether (or if) avid readers skew the numbers, making the averages look better than they are. Comparing notes at the end of 2016, another writer and I figured we read almost one book a week. So, do my 52 books per year counteract the answers from 51 people who didn’t read at all? In changing McCoy’s of Star Trek line, my response to that is, “Jim, I’m not a mathematician, I’m just a country storyteller.”

Yes, arts/humanities education is suffering

Every year, I read that one school system or another has further diluted the classroom hours devoted to the arts, what we used to get in courses labeled “Art” and “English” and, sometimes, “Humanities.” This introduction to books and other arts seems indispensable if we want a nation of informed readers, so it’s a pity we’re losing it. I wish those who have national platforms (talk show hosts, actors, singers) would talk about the value of reading. When Oprah’s show was going strong, she did a lot for the country’s authors because she had a popular platform. We need more of that, I think, before diminished exposure to the arts in school finally impacts a future Gallup poll.

Like the long-time literacy-based organization says, Reading is Fundamental. It’s sobering to see on their website that 93 million Americans can’t read well enough “to contribute successful in society.” For people who can’t negotiate all the forms, signs, jobs, news sources and other writing they require for day to day for basic needs, books aren’t even on the radar. I think we need to understand why this is the case before we understand why reading ten or eleven books per year is a pitifully low number for our national average even though the poll says things haven’t gotten worse.

When I served as a literacy volunteer between college and military service, I thought the need was incomprehensibly large and that progress seemed so slow at times, it was like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble. Yet, we can’t stop, can we? I’d like to see a Gallup poll that shows more people not only know how to read, but are reading more books and magazines as well.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical, paranormal, contemporary fantasy and satire novels and and short stories. You can learn more about them on his website here.

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

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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.

–Malcolm

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.

Getting comfortable in your writing shoes

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Comfortable doesn’t mean complacent. If you hike or climb mountains, you know that new shoes often hurt and need to be broken in before a major trek. The wrong kind of shoes and the wrong size shoes are often worse because the shoes have to match what you’re doing. The same thing is true of writers, figuratively speaking, because while genres and styles have a lot of things in common, each requires an approach you need to be comfortable with.

oldshoesDepending on which survey you look at, romance, action/adventure, science fiction and fantasy usually sell the most books. Unfortunately, some of the sub-genres in those groupings aren’t carried on the coattails of the most popular books.

For me, that means magical realism–which is what I write–is down at the 2% or 3% range of sales. Obviously, the the size of a writer’s audience will skew the figures for individual books, though J. K. Rowling discovered that as Snape said to Harry Potter, “fame isn’t everything” affects authors asd well as wizards. (Her fans hated “A Casual Vacancy.)

For me, “comfortable writing shoes” work best with magical realism. They work as poorly for other genres as wearing flip flops or high heels in the world series. To some extent, finding comfortable shoes is part of the journey to being comfortable with oneself. I’ve always wished I could be fluent in multiple language, play a Bach toccata and fugue on a massive pipe organ, water ski all the way across the bay and back without falling off, and knowing how to repair my own cars. After many years of discord about these things, I had to accept that they weren’t me.

I love writing and reading magical realism, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t wished I could turn out a great romance or spy novel from time to time to support my magical realism habit. But I can’t do it even though I have enjoyed many spy and FBI-related novels over the years just as I’ve enjoyed a lot of recordings of Bach over the years. But liking something doesn’t always translate into being good at it–though, it’s a nice start.

The hints and signs about our authentic selves are available for us to see early on, but we either don’t recognize them or actively deny them. Growing up, I spent most of my time out doors or reading about magic. These interests are closely linked in most magical realism. I learned more from nature than I did from school, especially my literature and other English classes. I was a fish out of water in those classes because the approach to writing and the great classics of the written word seemed counterproductive and false to me. I was the worst student in English classes and the most likely to openly defy the teachers.

I had one wonderful writing teacher. He didn’t give us theories, he asked us to write, and then we talked about what worked. This is how most of us learn most of what we know. We try things out. We experiment. Some things fail either because we don’t really like them or aren’t skillful in those areas or are just incompatible with them. Other things work. Finding out why they work is a Nirvana-like experience. You want to shout YES!!!!!!!!!!!!. Learning in this teacher’s class was about the only worthwhile course I had in my English minor in college. In that class, we focused on pure storytelling rather than on an approach better suited to a doctoral dissertation in literary or communications theory.

Like many others, I spent time trying to fit in because when you’re the only one in the class who disagrees with the teacher’s approach, it’s hard not to cave in to the pressure of the rest of the students and the system itself.

Now that I’m not in school–or teaching in one–I don’t have to answer to those who support the system. I can write what I want to write and wear the kinds of shoes and attitudes that fit my chosen genre. I’m comfortable with this now, though I certainly wasn’t comfortable with it in high school and college because I was a rebel when it came to the course syllabus and (as they call them) the expected “learning outcomes.”

I guess it comes down to the fact that I’d rather be happy than rich and I’d rather be comfortable as myself and as a writer than being part of the crowd making the scene at popular parties, bars like the fictional “Cheers,” or being the guy all the girls want to dance with. Life would have been so much easier if I’d figured all this out 40 years ago. So would my writing.

If you’re a writer, you probably know what you love to write even if nobody wants to buy it or Oprah doesn’t call or MGM doesn’t option your novels for movies. If you love writing fiction that catches on with huge numbers of readers, then that’s a mixed blessing. Financially, you’ll be secure, but as Snape said, “fame isn’t everything.” Fame tends to get in a person’s way and keep them from wearing their most comfortable shoes.

–Malcolm

ewkindlecoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released novel “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” a folk magic story set in the Florida Panhandle in the 1950s. 

Speaking of shoes, Campbell still wears the climbing boots he bought in the 1960s even though his knees really complain if he tries to climb anything higher than an ant hill.

 

Returning to Sunetra Gupta’s ‘Memories of Rain’

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memoriesofrainIt’s been 24 years since I first read Memories of Rain by Calcutta-born Sunetra Gupta who, when not writing fiction and translating Tagore Poetry, works as a Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford. It’s one of my “go to” books whenever I run out of factory fresh books. I’ve read it numerous times and find the prose fresh and new every time I return to it.

Moni, who is Bengali, marries an Englishman who, in those early days that began on a rainy day, ignited her passions and promised her everything. Years after that day, Moni is planning to leave him because he not only has another woman, he has brought her into their home in what he sees as a perfect love triangle. Flashbacks tell much of the story.

When the book was released, Kirkus reviews said: “A stunning, luminous debut set in Calcutta and London by a young, true heir to Virginia Woolf. The forward action of Gupta’s hypnotic novel takes place during a single weekend: Calcutta-born Moni, despondent over her English husband’s infidelity, secretly plans to take their daughter and return to India on the child’s sixth birthday. But the stream- of-consciousness narrative weaves together memories and images, providing not just the history of a fragile love but of a woman’s psychology and soul.”

Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers, so I was stunned to see such adulation on the back cover of the novel. It turned out to be true, though I wonder how Gupta survived it and was able to write four novels after that one without losing her nerve or her voice. Her most recent is So Good in Black (2011).

Unfortunately, the book is out of print, though you can still find used copies available on Amazon. Several reader reviews on Amazon’s US and UK sites are less than kind, proving my thesis that if you don’t normally read a book in a certain genre, you shouldn’t be writing a review. Such reviewers lambaste the style which is essential to the kind of book it is.

The Independent said, “Do not be put off by this (Kirkus’ viewpoint) – the comparison might have been provoked by the stream-of-consciousness narrative, but Ms Gupta has a refined sensibility and a graceful style all her own. She shows an intelligence, wisdom, and judgement astonishing in so young a writer – she is only 27.”

Ms. Gupta and I have corresponded by e-mail from time to time, and when she came to Georgia for a medical conference several years ago, we planned to meet for a cup of tea. Unfortunately, the conference schedule changed, and we couldn’t make our schedules match. I was one of the early reviewers of So Good in Black and had despaired that it took so long for a U. S. publisher to discover and publish the book, so I expect we might have talked about the book.

Her research of infectious diseases has brought her awards. I marvel at how she juggles two loves, science and art, biology and fiction, and novels that immerse readers in other worlds while she is otherwise focused on the health of this one. Is she Woolf’s heir? Yes and no. If she wrote more fiction, then yes. But since she doesn’t, then probably not. Either way, I think Woolf would appreciate her work.

Perhaps I should hold a seance and talk to Ms. Woolf. Who knows what she would say. Or, if Ms. Gupta comes to Georgia again, perhaps our schedules will match. Meanwhile, I read and re-read Memories of Rain and continue to wonder at its words.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and fantasy, including Conjure Woman’s Cat.

 

Storytelling, dreams, and magic

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Life in Truth (as opposed to the “life actual” world we see with our eyes) “tells us of the world as it should be. It holds certain values to be important. It makes issues clear. It is, if you will, a fiction based on great opposites, the clashing of opposing forces, question and answer, yin and yang, the great dance of opposites. And so the fantasy tale, the ‘I that is not you,’ becomes a rehearsal for the reader for life as it should be lived.” – Jane Yolen in “Touch Magic”

MRbloghop2016When we wake up from a dream, we’re aware of the fact that we didn’t realize we were dreaming while we were dreaming, but accepted what was happening as real no matter how improbable it seems in the light of day. Daydreams are somewhat the same. We’re imagining surfing in Hawaii or climbing Mt. Everest when somebody says, “you look like you’re a thousand miles away.”

Authors hope readers will react to their books like this. We want the reader to step into the story and, as the words flow forward along the pages, believe a little or a lot that the story is real. When a book is compelling, readers are often startled when the phone rings or somebody knocks on the front door and they find themselves back in “life actual” in somewhat the same way they react when they wake up from a compelling dream.

It’s said that Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that when stories contain human interest and a semblance of truth, readers will temporarily suspend their judgement about the implausibility of the plot, setting and characters. Readers willingly suspend their disbelief and see the novel, short story, play or movie as life actual rather than life in truth.

A general fiction author will take us to a real place, or at least a realistic place, in our own comfortable domain of life actual (sometimes called “consensual reality”) and tell us a story that could happen (or might have happened) in the “real world.” (I put “real world” in quotation marks because both Quantum physicists and spiritual gurus have called into question whether the world we perceive as real is real.)

Contemporary fantasy authors will take you to a hidden place within the world we know where magical events occur. The Harry Potter series is a good example of this. Most of the magic within Rowling’s books was confined to Hogwarts and other magical locations. The consensual reality at Hogwarts was different from the consensual reality in London, and both readers and wizards knew that they were traveling between parts of the world with different rules.

perception2Magical realism authors bring magic into the world we know. In a magical realism story, the magic is part of the characters’ everyday life and is accepted as just as real and viable as the cars they drive and the pots and pans in their kitchens.  The characters don’t see magic as something with the world “maybe” attached to it whether that magic comes from the land, from ancestors or spirits, or from the spell casting or innate abilities of the people involved.

The authors of general fiction (or realistic genres), contemporary fantasy, and magical realism all want readers to suspend their natural disbelief in the reality presented in the novel, and accept it as real in the same way they accept dreams and daydreams as real. In some ways, readers are like those who go up on stage during a hypnotist’s or magician’s performance and say, “Yes, I’m willing to be hypnotized” or “Yes, I’m willing to be fooled by your illusions.”

Perception is Reality

Storytellers, hypnotists and stage magicians (illusionists) can place you into somewhat of a dream state in which you accept what’s happening as real because we believe that perception is reality in one or more of these ways:

  • Psychologists might say you see the same reality as everyone else, but are impacted by it differently because of how you feel about it or yourself.
  • Quantum physicists might say that reality is more than we perceive with our physical senses and that our thoughts or our presence impact it in ways we may not realize.
  • Those who study and accept what used to be called “new age” belief systems will say that our perception and our thoughts create the reality we experience and that we can be taught how to do this consciously.
  • And others will say that our perception of what is real can changed temporarily due to hypnosis, strong emotions or other traumas, alcohol or drugs, or some other life actual cause.

When it comes down to it, most authors don’t think about “perception is reality” while they’re writing. Learning one’s craft brings authors the techniques they need to tell a page-turning story that readers perceive as real while they’re reading it. Most of us want to be tricked one way or another when we watch a hypnotist’s or a stage magician’s performance. We don’t usually think about being tricked or enchanted or hypnotized when we pick up a novel, but that’s what happens if the story on that novel’s pages is well told.

Magical Realism or Just Plain Realism?

I see the world as a child of the new age. I’ve had arguments with publishers about whether my novels and short stories should be called general fiction or magical realism because I believe everything in my stories is real. But, publishers, bookstores and readers tend to like seeing the genre labels because those labels help them choose the ways they like being hypnotized or enchanted (in a magical sense) by an author.

What do you see?

What do you see?

I’ve always written about the world I perceive. Until others pointed it out, I didn’t realize I was writing magical realism. I had to ask, “What makes my stories fit into that genre?” Publishers, editors and writing gurus kept telling me, “You and your characters. . .”

  1. View the spell for creating a pillar of fire or jinxing a troublesome neighbor as no different than a recipe for mac and cheese.
  2. Assume haints and other spirits are just as likely to be in the forest as deer and raccoons.
  3. Give myths and legends just as much credence as recorded history–or suggest they’re more accurate
  4. Think trees, rocks, storms and the land itself are conscious.

I said, “Yes, of course I perceive everything that way. Doesn’t everyone?”

As it turned out, most other people don’t share my perception of reality in their day-to-day lives; however, enough of them like being lured into short stories and novels with that kind of perception to make magical realism a popular genre.

I think I was the last to know.

The world as we know it draws lines between our dreams and our waking hours, between illusion and five-senses perception, between magic and non-magic, and between life actual and life in truth. Magical realism takes away all those lines.

Malcolm

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the frog button for a list of other blogs in the hop. Links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.

How does your worldview influence your writing?

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When you read a hard-as-nails police or espionage novel, do you wonder about the worldview of the author? Do you assume s/he’s politically conservative, possibly career law enforcement or military, and/or heavily interested in weapons, military strategy, law and order issues and personal and national security?

When you read a novel about people coming of age, discovering themselves in hero’s journey styled stories, or finding love among the ruins, do you wonder if the author is writing out of his or her own philosophy of life and “the big picture”? Do you assume s/he is politically liberal, possibly a teacher or a psychologist, and/or heavily interested in social programs, personal and religious freedom and a lifetime of learning?

I’m not sure we should make these assumptions. If we do, we might be surprised how often an author writes “against typecasting.”

worldviewOn the other hand, many of us write short stories and novels that are heavily influenced by our “philosophy of life” or our view of the universe and an individual’s place within it. When I read a page-turning espionage novel and marvel at the author’s knowledge of weapons and tactics, I see quite clearly that I could never write such a book. I have no experience with military weapons and have never been drawn to study them, much less to form a clear picture about their technical differences or what it would be like to use them in a real world situation.

On the other hand, when I read a magical realism novel I assume that the author has an affinity for the magic and the stories generally associated with the time and place in which the story is set. A good researcher can find out what myths and legends might apply to a town or a region. But blending those into a story probably requires a sense of magic just as a spy novel often requires its author to have a sense of weapons and combat situations.

Perhaps somebody has written a doctoral dissertation or a definitive book about stories and the authors who tell them. Perhaps there’s research out there that shows the connections (or lack of connections) between authors’ books and authors’ political/philosophical/religious beliefs.

Personally, I see writing within–or somewhat within–one’s worldview as another way of writing what you know. Expediently, it’s a practical approach because in general terms, our worldview is our comfort zone. We know more about how situations within that view might unfold and how characters embracing our attacking that worldview might develop, react and think. Some (perhaps many) authors might refute this idea by showing how they have been a chameleon–so to speak–by writing books that contrast so greatly with each other that readers could only conclude that they have no worldview at all, have multiple worldviews, or changed their worldviews over time.

That said, perhaps my musings on this subject boil down to this opinion: If you’re an emerging writer, writing from within your worldview gives you a greater chance of “getting it right” than writing about characters and events you don’t grok in your daily life.

That’s my experience. What’s your experience?

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of fantasy (“The Sun Singer,” “Sarabande”), paranormal (“Moonlight and Ghosts,” “Cora’s Crossing), and magical realism (“Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Emily’s Stories,” “Willing Spirits”) novels and stories.