Tag Archives: writing

How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?


In his Salon interview with five authors (“Figuring out that page-turning quality is tougher than it looks”), Teddy Wayne asked, “How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?”

I especially liked Sara Flannery Murphy’s (“The Possessions”) answer: “I always remind myself that I’m not entitled to anybody’s attention. That way, I feel a lot of gratitude for the people who do listen, knowing that they’re giving their attention to me freely and generously.”

Authors have been asked this question for years. Some are considered arrogant, egotistical, and vain, filled with self-importance as though they are kings and queens who must be served by millions of little readers. Some write that they write and hope the readers who like their plots and characters find their books.

Some authors are very commercial: they have a knack for knowing what sells well and how to keep writing it so that over time they develop a reputation for delivering stories in their genres of choice that are guaranteed to keep their fans forever turning pages and waiting for the next book.

Some authors are more comfortable in niches and (perhaps) believe they’re lucky if anyone finds their books.

Today, a lot of authors think the way to success is to sell stuff cheaply. Maybe that works. But really, the thing all authors are asking their readers to give them is their time. Whether those readers pay 99¢ or $29.95 for the book, the time it takes for them to read the novel, short story collection, or nonfiction is more valuable to them than the cash. Whether they read the book in an afternoon, a long weekend, or a few pages every night for weeks before going to bed, they had unlimited options for spending that time. But they chose the book.

That’s why I like Murphy’s answer. And frankly, there’s no way to truly thank a reader who has spent many hours “freely and generously” reading something we’ve written other than doing our best to tell the story well.



What if our muses are aliens from other worlds?


“The Muses are the inspirational goddesses of literature, science, and the arts in Greek mythology. They were considered the source of the knowledge embodied in the poetry, lyric songs, and myths that were related orally for centuries in these ancient cultures. They were later adopted by the Romans as a part of their pantheon.” – Wikipedia

museMany of us learned the classical definition of muses in school. We had to memorize their names along with those of all the other Greek and Roman gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines, and ill-defined entities.

When we studied long-dead writers whose books were part of the acceptable canon, we quickly saw that many of their muses weren’t from the pantheon, but were imagined as wispy, ephemeral (real or imagined) women who–when captured by artists–looked like they were dying of consumption or, possibly, syphilis.  I told my professors I didn’t want anyone or anything like that hanging around giving me writing advice. This met with disapproval.

Later, when my muse showed up on a dark and stormy night, she turned out to be a whisky-drinking, spell-casting woman who looked (I’m not making this up) like a hell’s angel biker. She had a “write this or else” kind of attitude. It took us a while to come to an understanding.

But now I’m starting to wonder if all those Greek goddesses, consumptive women, and more modern whisky-drinking muses are illusions or, worse yet, aliens taking their instructions from a fully cloaked mothership in orbit around the earth. I often thought cats got their instructions from a similar source, but that’s another post.

So, here we are, slaving away writing fiction, all the time thinking we’re making it up, using our imaginations, joking about what our muses want and don’t want, &c., when it turns out, we’re drones taking dictation from a race of beings from (possibly) the Klingon Empire who want to hack into our brains and influence our destiny via what we perceive to be home-grown works of art, music, drama, and literature. Sort of like the matrix, but worse.

Is there a way to prove this? Of course not. All attempts at proof will–due to the prime directives of our otherworldly muses–sound like fantasy, science fiction, fairy tales, and insanity. I also notice that whenever I try to sabotage my muse as a way of protesting the mothership scenario, I get writer’s block. The only way I’m getting this post written at all was by drinking my muse under the table. (I’m trying to hurry before she wakes up.)

I’ve tried a variety of witches’ and conjure women’s spells, but they seem (so far) capable of getting rid of haints, demons, and the hexes from bad people. Muses are another kettle of spirits. So far–after a lot of dutiful testing–I’ve learned that they’re susceptible to booze. Here’s what that means. You’ve got to practice learning how to hold more liquor than your muse can hold. When she’s drunk and you’re not yet drunk, you can write, paint and compose without interference. For me, that means keeping a bottle of single malt Scotch and/or a quart jar of moonshine on the desk at all times.

If you want to be your own writer rather than the pawn in somebody’s cosmic game of chess, you might want to consider the benefits of this approach. Sure, you might go broke or die of liver failure, but that’s a small price to pay for the sanctity of your art.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Eulalie and Washerwoman” and “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” novels he wrote while trying to get rid of haints.

Writing based on the slings and arrows of outrageous childhood


“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 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.


Jock Stewart’s Writing Prompts for ‘Dummies’


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


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

When does the research for a novel get out of hand?


If you’ve been reading my posts for a long time, you know I take issue with fiction that spends a lot of time teaching its readers something rather than telling a story. In different ways, The Da Vinci Code and the Celestine Prophecy are examples of this. Actually, I enjoyed both books–probably because I liked the messages. I’ve also like Katherine Neville, whose 1988 novel The Eight more or less introduced the heavy-on-teaching/mystery-thriller/ancient-secrets approach to fiction that Brown, Raymond Khoury, and others have used  in a fair number of other novels. When one finds the secret and/or the message fascinating, it’s easy to forgive the fact that these novels have too much lecturing in them.

researchFor the rest of us, our research gets out of hand when we become so fascinated by it, that we left it take over our fiction–presumably, this happens when think our readers will love that research as much as we do or when we’re just sloppy.

Before I write, my research always gets out of hand, as others see it, because I insist on knowing a lot more about the novels’ subject matter, location, and characters than I can possibly use. My conjure-related, blues-related, and other historical notes for Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman are longer than the combined word count of the books.

I do this because I want to internalize the information so that whenever and wherever it’s needed in the story, it naturally appears there without seeming to intrude. In “real life,” most of us act in accordance with our views and beliefs without the need for a Dan Brown-style lecture in the middle of an event that explains to others who are there why we’re doing what we’re doing.  I do too much research because I want the result of it to be a correct novel that doesn’t have to tell the readers why it’s a correct novel insofar as, say, conjure or the blues or the Florida piney woods go.

One never wants a reviewer to say “the research shows” about a book. When it does, it’s gotten out of hand.

One thing one learns when writing nonfiction is that the more often one quotes other people (other than in research papers where you have to do it), the less one understands the material. If you understand it, you don’t need to tell it through others’ words. I believe the same thing about research and the novel. If you have to keep pasting in globs of research, then you probably don’t understand your own subjects, locations and characters well enough to just tell the story.

Yes, it’s easy to say a little too much here and a little too much there and only realize later (probably after the book has been printed and it’s too late to change it) that while correct facts and ambiance are important, they need to support the story and the story’s wont to be continuously moving forward. Right now, my research for an upcoming novel is almost out of hand because I’m fascinated with the subject matter and could just as well keep reading about it if I don’t admit that–past a point–I’m delaying writing the book rather than creatively getting ready to write the book.

So, it’s almost time to stop and to let what I’ve learned become a part of me. Only then will it help the story. Just a few more pages to read, and then I’ll start writing, oh and just quickly check another book or two, yeah, right, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


To learn more about my two conjure novels, read my spooky web page. 


Tarot cards after all these years


“Tarot reading is an excellent way to learn more about one’s self, have a closer look at your inner self or to examine your very own intentions and ambitions.”

Raven’s Tarot Site

I’ve been tinkering with the I Ching and the Tarot since I was in high school. I don’t do readings for other people. In fact, most people don’t know that I know anything about these divination systems because once they know, they walk on the other side of the street whenever they see you.

knightofswordsI was happy that C. LaVielle contributed a Tarot and storytelling guest post on January 11th because she focused one of the reasons I like both the I Ching and the Tarot: understanding the characters in my stories.

Like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, both the I Ching and the Tarot present ways of looking at the world. The Tarot, of course, is closely linked to the Tree of Life of the Kabbalists.  The future isn’t fixed. At least I don’t think it is. So I don’t use any of these ways of looking at the world for predicting the future. In fact, they tell me what I know that I don’t know that I know. That is to say, they tell me what the unconscious part of me knows to be true even though the conscious part of me hasn’t figured it out yet.

My sun sign is Leo and the card representing me in the Tarot is the Knight of Swords (called King of Swords in most decks). This is why the URL for this site includes “knight of swords.” When I do Tarot readings for myself, the knight is me. When I do readings about novels I’m writing, the knight is always the logic of the story, cruel at times, to be sure, but nonetheless the fiery part of air as the card is described.

As a character in one of my novels said, he doesn’t want to see the future because that would spoil the surprise. It would also impact what he (or any of us) choose to do right now. Our power is always in the now. I see that, but the characters in my stories don’t always notice it. Plus, seeing the future would give us the false idea the whole shebang out there is engraved in stone when, actually, nothing except epitaphs are engraved in stone.

As a knight of swords, I’m a trickster (among other things), so that means I’m always stirring things up. That’s one reason I write fiction–to stir things up. That’s also why I like my Tarot deck: it shows me that even when I don’t consciously know I’m doing it, I’m stirring things up–and creating ideas that I let other people carry out to completion after I’ve wandered off to something new.

I see this as the author’s first duty–sowing seeds, suggesting things that bother people while making them think, suggesting that things aren’t what they appear to be, telling people that whatever goes bump in the night is real, finding the story inside everything that happens.

It’s one hell of a thing to do, but somebody’s got to do it. Fortunately, my Tarot deck “advises me” when it’s time to step back before the mob shows up on my door step.