Showing posts with label Margaret Atwood. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Margaret Atwood. Show all posts

27 July 2019

Themes in Novels (in which Bad Girl discovers she’s not so flaky after all…)


by Melodie Campbell

One of the great discussions in the author world is whether your book should have a theme or not. Of course it’s going to have a plot. (Protagonist with a problem or goal and obstacles to that goal – real obstacles that matter - which are resolved by the end.) But does a book always have a theme?

Usually when we’re talking ‘theme’, we’re putting the story into a more serious category. Margaret Atwood (another Canadian – smile) tells a ripping good story in The Handmaid’s Tale. But readers would agree there is a serious theme underlying it, a warning, in effect.

Now, I write comedies. Crime heists and romantic comedies, most recently. They are meant to be fun and entertaining. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered recently that all of my books have rather serious themes behind them.

Last Friday, I was interviewed for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) mini-documentary featuring female Canadian crime writers. During this, the producer got me talking about the background to my most awarded series, The Goddaughter. This crime caper series is about a mob goddaughter who doesn’t want to be one, but keeps getting dragged back to bail out her inept mob family.

I know what it’s like to be a part of an Italian family that may have had ties to the mob. (In the past. My generation is squeaky clean.) The producer asked me If that informed my writing. Of course it did. But in our discussion, she stopped me when I said: “You are supposed to love and support your family. But what if your family is *this* one?”

Voila. There it was: a theme. All throughout the Goddaughter series, Gina Gallo grapples with this internal struggle.
So then I decided to look at my other books. The B-team is a spin-off from The Goddaughter series. It’s a funny take on The A-team television series. A group of well-meaning vigilantes set out to do good, but as this is comedy, things go awry. In fact, the tag-line is: “They do wrong for all the right reasons…and sometimes it even works.”

Was there a theme behind this premise? Was there a *question asked*? And yes, to me, it was clear.

In The B-Team, I play with the concept: Is it ever all right to do illegal things to right a wrong?

Back up to the beginning. My first series was fantasy. Humorous fantasy, of course. Rowena Through the Wall basically is a spoof of Outlander type books. Rowena falls through a portal into a dark ages world, and has wild and funny adventures. I wrote it strictly to entertain…didn’t I? And yet, the plot revolves around the fact that women are scarce in this time. They’ve been killed off by war. I got the idea from countries where women were scarce due to one-child policies. So what would happen…I mused…if women were scarce? Would they have more power in their communities? Or would the opposite happen. Would they have even less control of their destinies, as I posited?

A very strong, serious theme underlying a noted “hilarious” book. Most readers would never notice it. But some do, and have commented. That gets this old gal very excited.
I’ve come to the conclusion that writers – even comedy writers – strive to say something about our world. Yes, I write to entertain. But the life questions I grapple with find their way into my novels, by way of underlying themes. I’m not into preaching. That’s for non-fiction. But If I work them in well, a reader may not notice there is an author viewpoint behind the work.

Yes, I write to entertain. But I’ve come to the conclusion that behind every novel is an author with something to say. Apparently, I’m not as flaky as I thought.

What about you? Do you look for a theme in novels? Or if a writer, do you find your work conforms to specific themes?



Got teen readers in your family? Here's the latest crime comedy, out this month:

On AMAZON

24 June 2017

How I Became an Overnight Success in 26 years


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Three years ago, I wrote a crazy little book that won two crime writing awards. (Okay, not three years ago. It won the Derringer and Arthur Ellis three years ago, which means I wrote it two years before that. Trad publishing takes time…but I digress.)

That year, I also won a national short story contest, with prize money of $3000. The year after, I was shortlisted along with Margaret Atwood, for another fiction award. (That was the year pigs learned to fly in Canada.)

The Toronto Sun called to interview me. They titled the article, “Queen of Comedy.”

“You’re famous!” said an interviewer. “How does it feel to become an overnight success?”

“That was one long night,” I said. “It lasted 26 years.”

This blog post was inspired by Anne R. Allen

Not long ago, Anne had a post on her Top 100 blog: 10 Reason Why You Shouldn’t Publish that 1st Novel

(It’s terrific. Check it out.)

But that got me thinking about my own “overnight success.”

Here’s the thing. I started writing fiction for money in 1987. (Nineteen Eighty-Seven!! Big shoulders and big hair. Wasn’t that two years before the Berlin Wall came down?)

I won my first award (Canadian Living Magazine) in 1989. By the time my first novel hit bookshelves, I already had 24 short stories published, and had won six awards.

Plus The Goddaughter’s Revenge – the book that won the Derringer and Arthur – wasn’t my first novel published. It was my fifth.

My Point:

I’ll drill down even more. It wasn’t even my fifth novel written. It was my seventh. The first two will never see the light of day. One has gone on to floppy disk heaven. Although if God reads it up there, he may send it to hell.

I would never want ANYONE to read my first two novels. Writing them taught me how to write. I got rid of bad habits with those books. I learned about the necessity of motivation. The annoyance of head-hopping. And the importance of having a protagonist that people can like and care about.

Yes, my first novel had a TSTL heroine who was naive, demanding, and constantly had to be rescued. (For those who don’t know, TSTL stands for Too Stupid To Live. Which may occur when the author is too stupid to write.) Even I got sick of my protagonist. Why would anyone else want to make her acquaintance?

In my first two novels, I learned about plot bunnies. Plot bunnies are those extraneous side trips your book takes away from the main plot. Each book should have an overall plot goal, and ALL subplots should meander back to support that one plot goal in the end. My first book had everything but aliens in it. All sorts of bunnies that needed to be corralled and removed.

Speaking of bunnies, I’m wandering. So back to the point:

IN 2015, some people saw me as an overnight success. I was getting international recognition and bestseller status. One of my books hit the Amazon Top 100 (all books) at number 47, between Tom Clancy and Nora Roberts.

But that overnight success took 26 years. I had one long apprenticeship.

I tell my students to keep in mind that being an author is a journey. No one is born knowing how to write a great novel. You get better as you write more. You get better as you read more. You get better as you learn from others.

Being an author is a commitment. You aren’t just writing ‘one book.’ You are going to be a writer for the rest of your life. Commit to it. Find the genre you love. Write lots.

And you too can be an overnight success in 26 years.

(The Goddaughter. She’s a much more likeable protagonist, even if she is a bit naughty.)


On Amazon

25 April 2015

Bad Girl's Tricks for Writing with Kids...


In honour of the Arthur Ellis Awards for Crime Writing shortlists being released this week, a good friend asked the question:  how the heck do we actually find time to write the stuff that is up for the awards tonight?
My tricks...

By Melodie Campbell

Okay, these are not the definitive rules for Writer-parents. I would never claim to be an expert.  But I did raise two kids while writing stand-up on the side and penning a syndicated humour column every two weeks. So I learned a few things about survival along the way.

Bad Girl’s Tricks for Writing with Kids:
  
    1.  Probably you shouldn’t lock yourself in the bathroom, so the kids can’t get at you. Equally, you shouldn’t sit in the playpen with your kid on the outside, screaming and shaking the thing.  Okay, at least not more than once a day.

    2.  Never put a package of Twinkies in front of a toddler so that you can continue to write. (Remove them all from the plastic wrappers first so the kid doesn’t choke.)

   3.  A kid won’t die if they drink half a mug of cold coffee.  But watch the wine. In fact, you might want to finish the rest of the bottle right now, just to be safe.

   4.  Breast-feeding can be a real timesaver, but not during Bouchercon book-signings.

   5.  Other kid’s birthday parties are a great thing for a writer. But you really should pick up your own kid when they’re over. (Eventually. Before winter.)

   6.  It’s okay to get someone to babysit your kids while you move into a new house. But it’s not okay to forget to tell anyone where that house is.

   7.  When your kid leaves home for university, it is not recommended to immediately change their room into a study or writing room. Wait until after Christmas. The sales are better.

Re “Leaving the nest”: Every mother gets emotional about this. But probably you shouldn’t do it until your kids are grown up.

Do you have tricks?  Leave them below in the comments.  Please.  Hurry. 

Postscript: The Arthur Ellis Award shortlist events were held two nights ago in major cities across Canada.
The jaw-dropping surprise: I am shortlisted with Margaret Atwood for the Arthur!   Never, not ever, did I expect to see my name linked with CanLit Royalty.  Damned honoured.

The Opening to THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE (Orca Books)

Okay, I admit it. I would rather be the proud possessor of a rare gemstone than 
a lakefront condo with parking. Yes, I know this makes me weird. Young women today are supposed to crave the security of owning their own home.

But I say this: real estate, shmeel estate. You can’t hold an address in your hand. It doesn’t flash and sparkle with the intensity of a thousand night stars. It will never lure you away from the straight and narrow like a siren from some Greek odyssey.

Let’s face it. Nobody has ever gone to jail for smuggling a one bedroom plus den out of the country.

 However, make that a ten-carat cyan blue topaz with a past as long as your arm, and I’d do almost anything to possess it.

 But don’t tell the police.

The Goddaughter’s Revenge, winner of the 2014 Derringer (in US) and Arthur (in Canada) is available at Chapters/Indigo stores, Barnes&Noble, and online retailers everywhere.


01 March 2012

Off the Literary Reservation




by Janice Law

It is always interesting to see writers operating off their usual turf. Sometimes, the results are disastrous – John Le Carre’s The Naive and Sentimental Lover comes to mind. Other times, skills that flourish in one genre turn out to be dynamite in another. Arguably P.D. James’s best novel is The Children of Men, her futurist tale of a disastrous population crash in near future Britain. The careful characterization and thoughtful prose of her mysteries seem even better when unhitched from the genre requirements of red herrings and planted clues.

Similarly, the Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood hit it big with The Handmaid’s Tale, another futurist foray about an infertile future. (It’s a nice question why this theme resonated with two female novelists in a time of over population). The narrator has a poet’s grasp of the language and the combination of a flamboyant style and a thriller plot made it no surprise that Handmaid later showed up on the screen – and in an opera.

With 11/22/63, Stephen King is the latest writer to move off his particular literary reservation a novel about a time traveler who heads off to Dallas to block the Kennedy assassination. Like Atwood and James, he brings a heady literary arsenal, particularly his gifts for visceral effects, violent action, morbid atmosphere and imaginative plotting.

He doesn’t completely avoid his patented horror effects, either, nor his affection for schools and teenagers, who, in the main, get a charming and sympathetic treatment. Indeed, many of the characters, particularly the minor ones, are sharply observed and appealing.

So is 11/22/63 in the rare category of the totally successful and unexpected? To my mind, not quite, though to be honest, I am a fan of his non-fiction, not his stories. Some of it is excellent, and who can say too much against a writer who comes up with a line like : “A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.” He also has some trenchant observations about life, American politics, and human limitations, and the ending is genuinely touching.

On the down side, the book is enormously long, too long, I think, to be carried by Jake Epping/ George Amberson, the English teacher time traveler, who finds a ‘rabbit hole’ to the past in the back room of his friend Al’s diner. He steps out into September of 1958, the Land of Ago, where he first attempts to reset the life of his school’s handicapped janitor before setting his sights on changing history big time.

George is a fine functional character. He is good at any number of things and abundantly gifted with the savoir faire that enables him to make a living without documents in 1958 and fit into the ‘Sixties without more than a few linguistic slips and some unwise song lyrics. The heroine falls for him; his colleagues like him, and even derring-do is not beyond his brief.

But he does not seem to have much of an interior life. Until the very end, he seems to have few conflicts and, like most of the characters, he belongs to a universe where good and bad are sharply separated. George once confesses to cowardice, momentarily, otherwise he’s a white hat all the way.

Towns, too, are clearly on one of the other side of the moral scale. Derry, Maine, where George first goes to change destiny, is a creepy place, and King can’t resist suggesting a real monster in an old chimney. Dallas, similarly, is haunted by evil, and the famous Book Depository is almost the personification of brooding malice. In contrast, Jodie, the small Texas town where George finds happiness, is almost overflowing with good will and good folks.


11/22/63 is clearly and vigorously written but at over 800 pages, I, at least, began to find the five years before that November day in Dallas very long indeed. Part of the length is caused by the way King has set the parameters of his time travel scheme. It is always September 1958 when one leaves the rabbit hole and precisely two minutes later in modern time when one returns.

Furthermore, every time George re-enters the rabbit hole, the past is reset and any changes he made on his previous visit are erased. You can see the potential for a Groundhog Day scenario, and there is something exhausting about the resets and the repetition of events. I’m probably a minority opinion, but I think 11/22/63 would, indeed, have been masterly at about two thirds of its present length.

Still, there are plenty of things to like as well as some curious touches. The importance of dancing is not so surprising ( Dancing is life) in a man clearly fond of music and devoted to art. But the sense that 11/22/63 conveys of the fragility of reality and the contingency of all our perceptions surprised me in a writer whose great gift is the transcription of violent bodily states.

Indeed, the last writer I would compare to King is Nathaniel Hawthorne, though like King’s narrator, he was often criticized for lacking red-blooded emotions. But early in The Marble Faun, Hawthorne has an interesting passage about the sorts of stories, touched with the uncanny and the supernatural, that both he and King construct.

Of the ruins of Rome, which attracted him as the ruins of our old industrial towns attracts his modern counterpart, he writes of the ‘ponderous remembrances’ of the city where “our individual affairs and interests are half as real here as elsewhere. Viewed through this medium, our narrative– into which are woven some airy and insubstantial threads, intermixed with others, twisted out of the commonest stuff of human existence– may not seem widely different from the texture of our lives.”

English teachers as they are, Jake Epping/ George Amberson would heartily agree.