Showing posts with label Crafting a Novel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Crafting a Novel. Show all posts

26 May 2018

Top Ten Peeves of Writing Teachers

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl) 

Recently, a jovial colleague asked me if I was a good teacher or an evil one.
I'm definitely on the kind side of the equation.  The last thing I want to be is a Dream Killer.  But even the kindest, most dedicated writing teachers can get frustrated.  So when a colleague suggested I rant on these pages, I gracefully accepted.  (With the sort of grace that might be associated with a herd of stampeding mastodons.)

So here are my top ten peeves as a writing teacher:

THE OBVIOUS

1.  "I don't need no stinkin' genre" - aka Students who turn their noses up at the genres.

In addition to basic and advanced writing skills, I teach the genres in my Crafting a Novel course.  Meaning, we deconstruct each of the main genres of fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, western, literary...) to see what publishers expect.  This is particularly important when it comes to endings.  Mickey Spillane said those famous words:  "Your first page sells this book.  Your last page sells the next."

Most publishers categorize the books they accept into genres.  Most readers stick to a few genres they like best for their reading pleasure.  So it stands to reason that if you can slot your work into an already active genre, you have a better chance of getting published and read.

Many students refuse to classify their work.  They feel it is 'selling out' to do so.  (Yes, I've heard this frequently.)  They don't want to conform or be associated with a genre that has a formula.  (One day, I hope to discover that formula.  I'll be rich.)

So I often start out with half a class that claims to be writing literary fiction,  even though not a single student can name a contemporary literary book they've actually read.  *pass the scotch*

2.  The memoir disguised as fiction.

These students have no interest in writing fiction. They really only want to write one book ever, and that is the story of their life.  (Ironically, many of these students are only twenty years old...sigh.)  But they know that memoirs of unknown people don't sell well, so they're going to write it as a novel.  Because then it will be a bestseller.

Here's what I tell them:  What happens to you in real life - no matter how dramatic and emotional it is for you - usually doesn't make a good novel.  Novels are stories.  Stories have endings, and readers expect satisfactory endings.  Real life rarely gives you those endings, and so you will have to make something up.

If you want to write your life story, go for it.  Take a memoir writing class.

3.  "My editor will fix this" - Students who think grammar and punctuation are not important.

Someone else will fix that.  They even expect me - the teacher - to copy edit their work.  Or at least to ignore all seventeen errors on the first page when I am marking.  *hits head against desk*

I should really put this under the 'baffling' category.  If you are an artist or craftsman, you need to learn the tools of your trade.  Writers deal in words;  our most important tools are grammar, punctuation and diction.  How could you expect to become a writer without mastering the tools of our trade?

4.  The Hunger Games clone.

I can't tell you how many times students in my classes have come determined to rewrite The Hunger Games with different character names on a different planet.  Yes, I'm picking on Hunger Games, because it seems to be an endemic obsession with my younger students.

What I'm really talking about here is  the sheer number of people who want to be writers but really can't come up with a new way to say things.  Yes, you can write a new spin on an old plot.  But it has to be something we haven't seen before.

There are just some plots we are absolutely sick of seeing.  For me, it's the 'harvesting organs' plot.  Almost every class I've taught has someone in it who is writing a story about killing people to sell their organs.  It's been done, I tell them.  I can't think of a new angle that hasn't been done and done well.  Enough, already.  Write something else.  Please, leave the poor organs where they are.

THE BAFFLING

5.  The Preachers:  Students who really want to teach other people lessons.

And that's all they want to do.  Akin to the memoir, these students come to class with a cause, often an environmental one.  They want to write a novel that teaches the rest of us the importance of reuse and recycle.  Or the evils of eating meat.

Recently, I had a woman join my fiction class for the express purpose of teaching people how to manage their finances better.  She thought if she wrote novels about people going down the tubes financially, and they being bailed out by lessons from a friendly banker (like herself) it would get her message across.

All noble.  But the problem is:  people read fiction to be entertained.  They don't want to be lectured.  If your entire goal is to teach people a lesson, probably you should take a nonfiction course.  Maybe a PR one.  Or here's a novel <sic> idea: become a teacher.

6.  Literary Snowflakes - Students who ignore publisher guidelines.

"A typical publisher guideline for novels is 70,000-80,000 words?  Well my book is 150,000, and I don't need to worry about that because they will love it.  Too bad if it doesn't fit their print run and genre guidelines.  They'll make an exception for me."

I don't want to make this a generational thing. Okay, hell yes - maybe I should come clean.  I come from a generation that was booted out of the house at 18 and told to make a living.  'Special' wasn't a concept back when we used slide rules instead of calculators.

Thing is, these students don't believe me.  They simply don't believe that they can't write exactly what they want and not get published.  And I'm breaking their hearts when I tell them this:  Publishers buy what readers want to read.  Not what writers want to write.

7.  Students who set out to deliberately break the rules in order to become famous.

There are many ways to tell a story.  We have some rules on viewpoint, and we discuss what they are, the reasons for them, and why you don't want to break them.  The we discuss why you might WANT to break them.  Apparently this isn't enough.  *sobs into sleeve*

I have some students who set out to break every rule they can think of because they want to be different.  "To hell with the readers.  I'll head-hop if I want.  And if Gone Girl has two first person viewpoints, my book is going to have seventeen!  No one will have seen anything like it before.  They will think I'm brilliant."

Never mind that the prose is unreadable.  Or that we don't have a clear protagonist, and thus don't know whom to root for.  e.e.cummings did it.  Why can't they?

8.  Students who come to class every week but don't write anything.

They love the class.  Never miss a week.  But struggle to complete one chapter by the end of term.  Not only that, this isn't the first fiction writing class they've taken. They specialize in writers' workshops and retreats.

It seems baffling, but some people like to hobby as aspiring writers.  They learn all about writing but never actually write.  Of course, we veterans can get that part.  Writing is work - hard work.  Writing is done alone in a room.  In contrast, learning about writing can be fun.  Especially when done in a social environment with other people.

THE 'I COULDN'T MAKE THIS UP'

9.  Other writing teachers who take our classes to steal material for their own classes and workshops. *removes gun from stocking*

Not kidding.  I actually had an adult student come clean about this.  By class seven, he hadn't done any of the assignments and admitted he was collecting material to use for the high school creative writing class he taught.  I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

10.  Students who don't read.

This is the one that gets me the most.  Last term I did a survey.  I asked each student to write the number of books they had read last year on a small piece of paper and hand it in.  I begged them to be honest.  They didn't have to write their names on the paper, so I would never know who had written what total.  Here's the tally of number of books read:

Highest number by one person:  26

Lowest number by one person:  0-1

Average:  7

Yup, I'm still shaking my head over that low.  He couldn't remember if he'd actually read a book or not.  (How can you not KNOW?)

And these people want to be writers.  *collective groan*

To be clear here:  I read 101 novels last year.  I read for one hour every night before bed and have done so for years.  That's seven hours a week, assuming I don't sneak other time to read.  Two books a week.  And that doesn't include the hours I spend reading student manuscripts over three terms.


If reading isn't your hobby, how can you possibly think you can write?  Why would you want to??


FINAL THOUGHTS

Here's what I've learned:  Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college credit course.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that escape, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  When I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.

There is no greater high.

Melodie Campbell writes capers in between marking assignments.  Or maybe to avoid marking.
The B-Team is her latest.  You can get it at all the usual suspects.

on AMAZON





26 November 2016

Want Street Cred? Write for Magazines!

by Melodie Campbell

Many readers here know I teach Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College in Suburban Toronto.  (I started teaching fiction writing there before the wheel was invented.  We had to push cars uphill both ways to get them to campus...okay, I'll stop now.)


Students often ask me how to get a novel published.  I say: "Walk out of this classroom right now and become a media personality."

Everyone in the class laughs.  But it's no laughing matter, really.  Most of the bestselling crime authors in Canada were media personalities first.  It's no coincidence.  Being a newspaper or television 'name' gives one a huge visibility advantage.  You leap the slush pile.  And chances are, you know someone who knows someone in publishing.

But launching a new career doesn't work for all of us, particularly if we are mid-career or soon to qualify for senior's discounts.  (Of course, you could still murder someone and become a celebrity.  I have a few names handy, if you are looking for a media-worthy victim...)

In order for a publisher to buy your book, they have to read it first.  I know at least one publishing house that receives 10,000 manuscripts a month.  How in Hellsville can you possibly get noticed in that slush pile?

Here's how:  Develop street cred by publishing with magazines!

How I got my start:

In 1989, at the tender age of twenty plus n, I won a Canadian Living Magazine fiction contest.  (Canadian Living is one of the two notable women's magazines in Canada. Big circulation.)  After that, I pitched to Star Magazine (yup, the tabloid) listing the Canadian Living credit in my cover letter.  They said, "Oh look.  A Canadian.  How quaint.  See how she spells humour."  (I'm paraphrasing.)  Anyways, Star published several of my short shorts in the 90s.  The Canadian Living credit got me in the door.

With several Star Mag credits under my belt (weird term, that - I mean, think of what is under your belt) I went to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  They liked the Star credits and published some of my stories.  Then I got a several-story contract with ComputorEdge.

So ten years ago, when I had a novel to flog, I already had 24 short story publications in commercial magazines.  That set me apart from everyone else clawing to get in the door.

Writing for magazines worked to launch my author career.  I'm now with two traditional publishers and my 11th book (The Bootlegger's Goddaughter - phew! Got that in) comes out in February.

Writing for magazines tells a publisher several things:

1.  You write commercially salable stories.  This is important for book publishers.  If you have published in commercial magazines, it tells a publisher that someone else has already paid you for your fiction.  They deemed your obviously brilliant stores worthy of a wide enough audience to justify putting their money into publishing them.  It's much like the concept of 'peer review' in the academic world.

2.  You accept editing.  A magazine writer (fiction or nonfiction) is used to an editor making changes to their work.  It's part of the game.  If you have been published many times in magazines, then a novel publisher knows you are probably going to be cool with editing.  (Okay, maybe not cool, but you've learned how to hold back rage-fueled comments such as "Gob-sucking fecking idiot! It was perfect before you mucked with it."

3.  You work to deadline.  Magazines and newspapers have tight deadlines.  Miss your deadline, and you're toast.  Novel publishers are similarly addicted to deadlines.  Something to do with having booked a print run long in advance, for one thing.  So they want authors who will get their damned manuscripts in on time.

Here's something to watch out for if you are going to write for magazines:

Kill Fee
If you are publishing with a major magazine, negotiate a 'kill fee.'  (This doesn't mean you get to kill the publisher if they don't print your story.)  A kill fee is something you get if the mag sends you a contract to publish your story or article, and then doesn't publish it.  Usually a kill fee is about half the amount you would be paid if they had printed it.

Why wouldn't they print your story after they agree to buy it?  Sometimes a publisher or editorial big wig leaves and the new big wig taking over will have a different vision for the mag.  Sometimes a mag will go under before they actually print the issue with your story.  That happened to me with a fairly well-known women's mag.  I got the kill fee, and the rights back. I was able to sell the story to another magazine.

Which brings me to a final point:  Note the rights you are selling.  Many mags here want "First North American Serial Rights."  This means they have the right to publish the story for the first time in North America, in all versions of their magazine.  (For instance, some magazines in Canada publish both English and French versions.)  But what happens after that?  When do rights return to you?  Two years after publication? (Very common.)  Or never?  Are they buying 'All Rights?"  It's good to get rights back, because then you can have the story reprinted in an anthology someday.  Make sure your contract stipulates which rights they are buying.

Of course, I always say, if they pay me enough, they can keep all rights, dress them in furs and jewelry, and walk them down Main Street.  I have the same attitude re film companies that might want to swoop up my novels for movies.

Melodie Campbell writes the multi-award-winning Goddaughter series of mob comedies, starting with The Goddaughter.  It features a different kind of 'kill fee.'

 On Amazon

23 April 2016

Where have all the Readers gone? (in which our Bad Girl gets serious for a change...)

Read interesting stats today from Kobo.
Apparently, 75% of ebook readers are women.

(Back in the days when I first started teaching about writing, the early 90s, the stat was 60%. That is, 60% of readers were women .)

Back to the Kobo study:
Of that 75% of readers who are women, 77% are 45 and older.

The largest single group (30%) are 55-64 years old.  (I now fit in that age group. Curses.)

The reports states that the typical prolific reader (that would be me) buys on average 16 print books a year and 60 ebooks.

For all you math types, that's a total of 76 books.

Back up to my college class two weeks ago.  I ran a quick poll.  "How many books do you read in a year?"  I asked.

The poll was confidential.  I ripped up pieces of paper and had them write down their total.  They dropped the anonymous slips on a table on the way out.

The results were shocking.  Let me state first that this is a college credit continuing education class, so we have students of all ages in it.  Crafting a Novel is at the top end of the Creative Writing Certificate - most people take it last, because it is rigorous.  (You have to write a full synopsis and many chapters of your novel by the end.)  So these aspiring novel writers would be avid readers, right?

Books Read in a Year:

Most number of books read:  26
Average number of books read:  7
Least number of books read:  1

Yes, in a writing class of 20, only one person reads 2 books a month.
And one fellow manages to read one book a year.  But he wants to write a novel.

By now, if you are a writer, you should be hitting your head against your desk.

So who is reading books out there?
Women
Aged 55-64

And what are they reading?
Romance
General Fiction (whatever that is)
Mystery
(But twice the number of romance books as the other two categories.)

I have 20 students in my Crafting a Novel class.
No one is writing romance.
No one is writing mystery.
Almost everyone is writing a Hunger Games clone.  (Not the exact title. You know what I mean.)

Stephen King said it best.  "If you want to be a writer, you have to do two things: read a lot and write a lot."

If you are an established writer, reading is part of your professional development.  Every published novelist I know reads several books a month.  I read an average of two books a week.  That's over 100 books a year.  (One hour a night, people.  That's seven hours a week.  Not unreasonable.)

I weep.  I weep for the waste of time, effort and paper.  Can somebody please tell me why anyone would set out to write a novel when they don't read and read and read as a hobby?

(Bad Girl isn't usually this grumpy.  But it's marking time.  I may just kill someone.  I may kill myself...)

www.melodiecampbell.com







28 November 2015

I’m Not My Protagonist! Oh, wait a minute…

by Melodie Campbell

My college Crafting a Novel students often hear me say, “You can’t make every character sound like yourself.” And it’s true. Most beginning novelists (at least the ones in my class) write themselves into their books. The star of the book – the protagonist - sounds and looks an awful lot like the writer himself. Has the same likes, dislikes, and insecurities. But is of course, more heroic.

In fact, we come slamming up against the famous saying, “Write what you know.”

And some know themselves pretty well. (Others, not at all, but I digress…)

A protagonist who is a barely veiled, idealist version of yourself? We’ll allow you that for your first book. But if an author persists in writing the same protagonist over and over again, in every book and series they write, things get pretty stale.

So that prompted me to look at my own series to see what I had done. Ten books in now, I held my breath.

The Character I wish I was

I started the Land’s End Fantasy Trilogy when I was dearly in need of escape. My mother was dying. I remember looking at her hospital bedroom wall, and thinking, ‘if I could walk through that wall into another world right now, I would.’ That’s how the first of the series, Rowena Through the Wall, came about. I started writing it in the hospital.

Rowena isn’t me. She is the ‘me I wish I was,’ at least at that difficult time. I wrote the character I wanted to be. She’s prettier than me, more generous than I am, and in the end, more courageous. I was dealing with the issue of courage at that time. Courage to face what was coming and what was inevitable. I wonder how many readers of that series would nod their heads, hearing me say that now?

The ‘Me’ my Mother Wanted Me to Be

Next I grabbed A Purse to Die For off my shelves, a book I co-wrote with Cynthia St-Pierre. This book is in a different genre – it’s amateur detective, or classic mystery. The second book in the series, A Killer Necklace, has just come out.

The protagonist is a fashion diva – a television personality from the Weather Network. She’s drop-dead pretty, and always put together.

I am not. Spending more than ten minutes on my long hair is an impossible chore for me. You won’t find high heels in my closet. I like clothes, but am not a slave to fashion.

But my mother was. My mother was a fashion diva until the day she died. We’re pretty sure she was the longest subscriber to Vogue magazine, ever. Mom dressed me in designer clothes all my childhood. She was delighted when I did a little modeling as a young woman.

I never quite came up to her standard of fashionista though. “Put on some lipstick,” she would say.
“You look like a ghost!”

Looking at the series now, I can see that the main character is the ‘me my mother wanted me to be.’ It was, in a way, my tribute to her. Wish she could have been here when the first book was published.

The Closest I get to Me

So where am I in all my books? That’s easy.


I’m The Goddaughter. Sort of. In this wacky crime caper series, the protagonist is a mob goddaughter, who doesn’t want to be one.

I’m half Sicilian. I had a Sicilian godfather. I had to wait until certain people died in the family before I wrote this series.

In Gina Gallo, the ambivalence is there. ‘You’re supposed to love and support your family. But what if your family is this one?” Gina says this in every book of the series. Those words came directly from my mouth.

This book is meant to be laugh out loud funny. I let loose with my own wit, and shook off the inhibitions. Not that I’m very inhibited normally. But in The Goddaughter series, you get the real me peeking out. Not idealized. Not always upstanding. Sometimes just looking for a way out of a real mess, possibly of my own creation. But kind of fun to be with, I think.

So that brings us back to the beginning. One of the delightful things about being an author is allowing yourself to ‘become’ a character other than yourself, as you write. Fitting yourself into their skin, so to speak. As you write more, this becomes more fun, and more of a goal. I LOVE putting myself into the mind of a killer in a short story, if only for a little while. It’s a kick to ‘pretend’ to be someone else, by writing their story.

Let’s be honest: who needs drugs, if you’re an author? THIS is the ultimate escape.

Do you relish creating characters and living their lives through your fiction?

On Amazon

13 September 2014

Tagged and Bagged! This Writer of Mob Comedies Spills the Goods

by Melodie Campbell.

I should have known there would be a price. 

Back in 2012, when Steve Steinbock reviewed The Goddaughter in Ellery Queen’s Jury Box, I was ecstatic.  <So was my publisher.  Ellery Queen ROCKS!>

Steve called my book hilarious. I called Steve my hero. Little did I know, two years and three books later, that he would be tagging me on SleuthSayers.

Oh Steve, thy devilish one.

Many of you remember Steve from the days of ‘Criminal Brief, the blog.’  <There are a hundred ways in which I want to play with the word ‘brief’ right now, but I will refrain.>  Steve and I met years ago at a Bloody Words Mystery conference in Toronto. We discovered that, as teens, we shared a mutual pash <lovely Brit expression there> for Dark Shadows, the original series.

I like and respect Steve.  I also fear him slightly <EQ and all> so hastily accept the tag.

What Am I Working On?

The Goddaughter Caper.  Or A Coffin for the Goddaughter.  Or A Body for the Goddaughter.  Or The Goddaughter’s Coffin Caper.

Somebody help here!  Book 4 of the Goddaughter trilogy <sic> is nearing completion, and I need a title.  I started with the 3rd example in the list above.  I’m leaning toward the first.  Of course, Orca Books may throw all those out and come up with their own, but I’d still like to hear from readers in the comments below.

Gina Gallo and her inept mob family are back in biz.  This time, bodies are showing up in all the wrong places.  The second book in the series, The Goddaughter’s Revenge, won both the 2014 Derringer and Arthur Ellis awards for best crime novella. <author is over the moon>  The third in the series, The Artful Goddaughter, came out last week.

For those new to the series: Gina is a mob goddaughter in the industrial city of Hamilton (The Hammer.) Try as she might, she can’t seem to leave the family business.

How Does My Work Differ From Others In The Same Genre?

Library Journal said it well:  “Campbell’s comic caper is just right for Janet Evanovich fans.  Wacky family connections and snappy dialog make it impossible not to laugh.” 

When people ask what I write, I say ‘comedies.’  Then I give the genres (crime capers and time travel fantasy.) My books are comedies first and foremost.  I look for plots that will lend themselves to laughs.   
 
Why Do I Write What I Do?

A Greek Mask

Some people are born beautiful.  But most of us aren’t, and we look for ways to survive the slings and arrows of life.  Sometimes we choose to hide behind a mask.  That Greek Comedy mask was the one I picked way back.

Comedy is Tragedy Barely Averted

My younger brother is autistic.  Our home life was stressful and at times, sorrowful.  When I was a teen, as a means of self-preservation, I looked for the ‘funny.’  More often than not, I made fun of myself.  This was easy to do.  I knew the target well and there was a wealth of material.  And it didn’t hurt anyone else, so people liked it.

When I left school and had a ‘real’ job, I started writing stand-up on the side.  I rarely delivered it – usually I wrote for others. That led to a regular newspaper humour column, and more.
So when it came to writing novels, I fell back into ‘safe mode.’  Write it funny. 

How Does My Writing Process Work?

I teach Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College in Toronto, so I’m pretty immersed in craft.  Not surprisingly, I’m a plotter. I don’t start writing until I know the ending.  But I’m a forgiving plotter.  I don’t plan out every scene.

Sometimes a plot idea will trickle around in my mind for a year.  When the ending clicks in, I sit down to do a basic three-act plot diagram.  I teach this method, and I use my own books as examples.

So… once I have my inciting moment, first, second and third crisis, and finale firmly in my head, I sit down to write.  I start with the opening/inciting moment.  Then I usually skip to the ending, and write the climax and finale.  Then I go back to the beginning and write forward.

For me, it’s important to know that I like the characters and plot enough to stay with that story for the months to come.  That’s why I write the beginning before I spend much time doing outlines.  I need to know that I can live in that world, and enjoy it.

Advice to aspiring writers:

It's not romantic.  But it's the truth.  If you are going to be a writer, you have to love the actual act of writing: by this I mean, hands on keyboard, butt in chair, all by yourself, pounding out stories that the characters in your head are demanding you tell.

Of course, coffee and a wee dram o’ whiskey help.

Melodie Campbell drinks coffee and single malt somewhere south of Toronto.  The Artful Goddaughter is now available in stores and online.