Showing posts with label Melodie Campbell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Melodie Campbell. Show all posts

28 January 2023

We, The Jury


It's Derringer time, and that's prompted me to think about the whole literary jury process.  I've been on several, and this guest post below, by my good friend and author Jayne Barnard, really speaks to me.  How about you?  Have you ever been on a literary jury?  Please tell us your experience in the comments below.

We, the Jury...

by J.E. Barnard

When a crime writer hears the 'J' word, they can be forgiven for thinking Twelve Angry Men, A Jury of Her Peers, or any book, movie, or news article about a trial.  Maybe our minds veer to Grisham novels about juries or the Richard Jury mysteries by Martha Grimes.  Rarely do we consider the other kind of jury:  the one that decides on a writers' award.  Whether it's the National Book award, the Giller Prize, the Governor General's Award, the CBC or Writers Trust, or--particular favourites of crime writers--the Edgars, Agathas, Daggers. Derringers, Theakston's Old Peculiar, and Canada's own Crime-writing Awards of Excellence (formerly the Arthur Ellis Awards,) there's a jury behind it.

After two decades of serving on writers' juries in the Canada and the USA, for fiction and non-fiction, children and adults, short fiction and long, even for plays and scripts, I've got some thoughts to share about what makes a good juror and why writers would, indeed should, try jury work at least once in their literary career.

Who sits on a writers' award jury?

The fact is, juries are made up mainly of readers and writers like you.  Award-winning authors, multi-series authors, one-book authors, true crime authors, short story authors, journalists, bloggers, reviewers.  Other seats are filled by those working in the publishing industry, or in libraries, or those with subject area experience like lawyers, prosecutors, criminologists, pathologists, cops.  But mainly writers and readers.

What makes a good crime writing juror?

1.  Someone who loves crime writing.  Writing it, reading it, listening to it, watching it.

That juror represents all readers of that crime category.  Ideally, they're aware of what's hot in crime writing and tropes that are past their prime.  The good juror accepts that, as much as they personally may love the Golden Age detective authors like Agatha Christie and Dashell Hammett, the genre has moved on, and the awards moved on with it.  The good juror knows that even though they personally love cozy cat mysteries with recipes or serial killer POV scenes in alternating gory chapters, the genre is far wider than both and they must evaluate all entries in their category not on what they personally prefer but on how well the author has executed a work according to its place on the crime writing spectrum.

2.  Collaboration.  This essential qualification is too often left unstated.  It's rare that a single book or story rises to the top of every jury member's list.  Any category may include several eminently worthy candidates for the top slot.  Jurors need to communicate their shortlist selections clearly to fellow jurors and be able to defend those choices with calm, clear language, while respecting other jurors' alternative perspectives.  Only together can jurors develop a short list that reflects the breadth of excellence in that category of writing.

Other qualifications:  your writing credentials and your relevant life experience.  A working children's librarian or elementary school teacher is better placed to evaluate a Children's and Young Adult category than, say, a retired criminology professor who taught adults and has no regular contact with child and adolescent readers.  It's not that the latter couldn't evaluate the writing and the structure, but that they're unfamiliar with what readers in that category are currently consuming and what those readers value in a book or story.

What other qualities does a good juror bring?

Ideally, they're familiar with:

  • the award's writing language (in Canada, so far, that means English or French) including a solid grasp of grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
  • structural issues of storytelling:  plotting, pacing, tension.
  • elements of a strong opening and a powerful ending.

Good jurors understand enough about characters and their arcs to tell whether they're introduced or developed poorly or well, and can explain those thoughts to their fellow jurors during the consultation process (and to the author if their jury is one that offers comments/feedback.)

Non-fiction jurors ideally have a grasp of language and storytelling as well as some subject-area expertise.  

One reason why juries traditionally have three or more members is to balance overall strengths.  A strong writer with two subject experts, or two writers with a lone subject expert, can turn in the strongest possible shortlist if they respect the knowledge and skills each member brings to the reading and discussion process.

Why serve on a jury?

1.  To give back to the community of writers that breaks trail, nurtures your skills, and has built the publishing industry and awards processes you already are or hope soon to be competing in.

2.  As a master class in what makes some stories, articles or books work better (and win awards) than others.

Trust me on the second one: jury work can revolutionize your writing practice.  There are few more concentrated ways to figure out what makes a good first page than by reading twenty or more of them in quick succession to see which ones hold your attention and figure out what makes them stand out.  Read twenty opening chapters and you'll have a clearer idea what kind of character introductions, settings, or situations work best - or utterly fail - to pull you into stories you might not otherwise read.  Look at twenty endings and some will have a resonance you can feel to your bones while others will be just okay.  Take those new or more in-depth understandings and apply them to your own writing, and your odds of seeing your work on an awards shortlist can increase exponentially.

I hope the next time a crime writing award puts out a public or selective call for award jurors, you'll take a moment to consider whether you have some skills, dedication, and desire to learn and to serve.  And then apply.

 

Alberta author J.E. (Jayne) Barnard has two award-winning series – The Maddie Hatter Adventures and The Falls Mysteries – and numerous short stories involving history, mystery, crime, and punishment. Between writing gigs, she volunteers for Sisters in Crime and Crime Writers of Canada, and regularly serves on fiction juries in Canada and the USA. She lives in a vine-covered cottage between two rivers, keeping cats and secrets. Her most recent winter mystery is Where the Ice Falls (Dundurn Press 2019).  Find her on your favourite platform via Linktree https://linktr.ee/je_barnard


 

 

24 December 2022

Not Even a Mouse!
If Santa doesn't bring smiles, this might...


 Merry Night Before Christmas Everyone!

Several readers (thank you!) have asked about my previous life as a writer of comedy.  My humour is goodnatured rather than biting (I was called the Carol Burnett of Crime Writing not so long ago.)  I don't draw from those files often for Sleuthsayers, although maybe - in light of how serious our world has become - I should. 

To that end:  Thinking about The Night Before Christmas reminded me of mice, which reminded me of this monologue I used to do back in the day, which I have re-titled, 

Not Even a Mouse  (Merry Christmas, Everyone!)


I wanted to buy a new front door the other day.  This has become necessary because the old front door is no longer functioning as a door in the usual sense.  "Wind Tunnel" or "Interstate highway for neighbourhood field mice" might be a better description.

But as always, things have changed in the world of destruction and aggravation (aka construction and renovation.)  Apparently, you can't buy a door anymore. They don't make them, according to the sales clerk (excuse me..."Customer Service Associate.")  Apparently, you now buy an "Entry System."

"But I already have an entry system," I explained.  "The mice are entering all the time.  What I want is something to keep them out.  Like a door."

"Let me show you how this works," he offered.  He then demonstrated how to insert a key in the lock and turn the doorknob to activate the Entry System.  Not unlike my old door, in fact.  I pointed this out.

"But this is a great improvement," he argued.  "See?  It's Pre-hung."

'Pre-hung' - for construction illiterates - means you don't have to undo three hinges to slip the old door off and install the new door.  Instead, the new door already comes with a frame (and sometimes side windows) attached.  To install, you simply demolish the old door frame and rebuild the entire entranceway to fit the new pre-hung frame.  It requires three men and a boy, and at least two weeks of labour.  But you don't have to touch those pesky hinges, which makes this a big improvement.

Not surprisingly, Entry Systems cost a lot more than mere doors.  This, I pointed out, was not an improvement.

One more thing bothers me about all this fancy renaming business.  If they insist on calling doors 'Entry Systems,' just what will they end up calling toilets?  Exit Systems?

Melodie Campbell will be sitting by the tree waiting for Santa tonight.  The door will be open.

www.melodiecampbell.com

25 June 2022

What Makes an Author a Hero? Paying it Forward


 I love that term, Pay it Forward.  It speaks of giving selflessly, but also of planning for a future.  

Really, we're talking about Hope.  When you pay it forward, you are believing in Hope.  Hope that the world will continue to be a good place in future - or at least, a good enough place for you to invest some time NOW helping others who will be around later.  In our case, helping them to continue the literary tradition.

Recently, I got an almost tearful email from a former student who has been picked up by a traditional publisher.  Her book comes out this month.  I couldn't be more thrilled.

She has been generous in her thanks to me for serving as a mentor and cheering squad, and that got me thinking about the people who influenced me in my publishing travels.

I've had maybe a dozen students do really well as writers, in my 30 years of teaching the craft.  Each email telling me of one's success does something to my heart. This is why we teach!  What joy I am given by a student's success.  

But it also does a very curious thing for me.  It reminds me of my own first successes, and the people who helped me on my way.

It's lonely out there, on that author journey.  You basically have to travel it yourself (writing for hundreds of hours, alone at a keyboard.)  Writing, as we all know, is a solitary exercise.  Unless you co-write a book, no one else will have the same investment in it.

It's a journey, no question.  But along the way, you may come across some seasoned travelers who give you the benefit of their experience.  Generous people who take the time to encourage you, when there is no tangible benefit to themselves.  

I started writing for money in my 20s. As I look back on a thirty-five year writing career it suddenly struck me that few of my mentors or people who encouraged me are still alive.  And thus the circle has completed.  They mentored me.  I mentor others younger than me, who will go on to support the next generation of writers, when I am long past.  

God Bless all those who mentor and encourage writers.  You are important and appreciated long after the fact.

A few of mine:

Marilyn Laycock:  Marilyn was a columnist for her local paper.  She died last year, after serving as an older sister to me for almost forty years.  It was she who encouraged me to 'go pro' and take college writing courses in 1986 and 7.  Marilyn told me where to send my first essay (it got published) and provided all the 'Attagirls' I needed in those early years. She sponsored me for membership in the Mississauga Writer's Guild, and introduced me to well-published fiction authors there who would be instrumental in encouraging my fiction career.

Michael Crawley:  The head of the Mississauga Writer's Guild was Michael Crawley, a professional veteran fiction author of horror, erotica, and other genres, under several pen names.  Michael saw potential in me, took me under his wing, and made it his job to see that I tried writing and publishing in several genres, some of which I don't admit to these days :)  Michael died several years ago, but is still fresh in my mind - he lives on in a way I don't think he ever would have anticipated.  

And finally, one who is still alive:

Linwood Barclay:  Sometimes a simple act of kindness can make all the difference.  After some early humour column publications, I brazenly wrote to Linwood Barclay, who was then editor of the Life section of the Toronto Star (Canada's biggest newspaper,) asking if he would consider publishing one of my pieces.  This was completely unsolicited.  I marvel that I had the guts.  But here's the thing:  Linwood wrote back.  This was before email.  So he actually *wrote* back.  He told me the piece was definitely funny, I had talent, but the Star didn't take freelance.  Why didn't I try my local paper?  So I did.  They took it.  They took more.  I got syndicated.  And that launched a humour career of columns, standup and comedic fiction that has spanned thirty years.

One simple act of kindness that has lasted a career.  He didn't have to do it. Most wouldn't have.  It took a bit of effort on his part.  And I have never forgotten it.

 How about you?  Are there people who made all the difference to you as a newby writer?

Linwood Barclay in Conversation with Melodie Campbell, Burlington Public Library, May 19, 2022

23 April 2022

Enough with the Murderer's Point of View, Already!


Some people may not like this post.  Some might even call me a 'cranky author.'  And that's just fine, because I'm all about open discussion when it comes to fiction writing.  In fact, I think the main thing wrong with the world these days is too many people want to shut down open discussion on every subject.

So here goes:

Was gabbing by phone with my friend Cindy, another writer, about the usual Covid-Writer fare.  What are you writing… what are you reading… what disasters have befallen your publisher, etc.

(And just to give you an example… Remember last November, when all the ships were crowded around the docks off California for weeks and weeks, unable to unload their goods in time for Christmas.  Well, remember at the same time there was one container ship foundering off the coast of Vancouver, that dumped 117 containers into the ocean?  One of those containers contained the second reprint of my 16th book with Orca Book publishers.  Yes, I couldn't make this up.  Hope the fishes enjoy eating my royalties.)

Back to the main beef of today.

This discussion with Cindy inevitably led to what 'What do we hate' in fiction these days.  Cindy surprised me by saying: "You know what I really hate?  Books written in third person, that all of a sudden dump the murderer's point of view in the middle of everything!  In first person, no less.  Drives me nuts."

"Me too!"  I said, delighted to find another fellow cranky writer.  "Not to mention, it breaks all viewpoint rules."  (Okay, the cranky college prof can't resist the opportunity to lecture.)

What are we talking about?  You're reading a book - police procedural, usually - that starts with the protagonist - a cop - in third person.  The book carries on very nicely in third person for several chapters, and then suddenly, you get a chapter written in first person, by some unnamed character, that is completely self-focused.  Gradually you figure out it must be the murderer talking, because he's going on and on about his awful childhood.  Oh Sweet Jesus.  How the heck did that get in there?

It's like they wrote the whole book and then thought, I'll just go back and plop in some chapters of a completely different book into random spots.  The critics will love it!

I say police procedural because the last book I read - Oranges and Lemons by Christopher Fowler - did exactly this thing.  Now normally, I love the Bryant and May detective series by Fowler.  (The Peculiar Crimes Unit takes place in England.)  It's a hoot.  But I didn't like this added 'device'.

I say police procedural, but I've also seen it done with an amateur detective novel.  In fact, I read a recent book by a very well known Canadian author who used the same 'device' (note how nice I am in calling it 'device' instead of the words I am really thinking.)

'Recent' is the key word here.  The first time I came across this was about five years ago.  Really threw me the first time. Who the hell was speaking?  I thought it was a misprint.  No, truly.  I thought the printer had made a mistake and inserted part of another book into this book.

"Why do they do that?" said Cindy.

Believe it or not, being in the middle of writing my 18th novel, I had a logical explanation for that.

"Word count," I said confidently.  "They finish the novel at 70,000 words, and they've got to get it to 80,000.  I know from wence they came."

Some famous crime writer - it may have been Spillane - said that most crime books are perfectly written at 50,000 words.  In other words, a lot of mystery or crime stories end themselves naturally at that word count.  And that pushing them to 70 or 80 thousand means adding stuff that doesn't have to be there (which is a nice way to put it, I think.)

I ascribe to the Spillane school of thought.  My own work settles nicely between fifty and sixty thousand words.  I have to work hard to get it to 70,000.  And my agent and publisher usually push it to 75,000 in the editing process.

So I figure these writers who slot in the murderer's point of view are doing so to add word count.  What a nice way to avoid thinking of another plot twist.  Problem is, these chapters are usually static.  They are internal monologue.  All narration.  They interrupt the story.  And worse, they don't exactly move the story forward.

Not to mention, they break viewpoint and drive me and other cranky veteran authors crazy.

Not that we have far to go.

How about you, Sleuthsayers?  What do you think about this newfangled device in fiction?

Melodie Campbell sticks to the viewpoint rules in her otherwise loopy crime fiction that almost always involves the mob.  You can find her books at all the usual suspects.

26 March 2022

In which our Heroine asks the Question: Why Bother?


I read in the paper today that divorces and job resignations were way up in 2021, the conclusion being that Covid is causing us to revisit all the important things in our life.  So it was almost serendipitous that this week I was put to the challenge to defend (or at least, assess) my continued feverish predilection for writing fiction.

Someone (a real person, not my wayward alter ego) asked me the other day, why do I write.  Or more specifically, why do I continue to write.

Now, this was not meant to be a slight in any way.  The person who asked was another writer facing the same sort of future I see for myself.  That is, he is also:

  • A mid-list author with a respected traditional house, putting out a book every 12 to 18 months.
  • An author with 15-plus books and dozens of short stories published in respected magazines.
  • A thirty-year history of writing.
  • Some awards on the mantel.

And - wait for it -

  • Slim to no chance of getting rich or achieving best-seller status on the New York Times or Globe and Mail bestseller lists at this point in the career.

So… writer friend asked, "Why do we still do it?  What can we possibly achieve now that we haven't already?  Because that Top 20 list is probably never going to be within our reach."

(Wait a minute.  Was I supposed to be on some list?  Another thing I failed to do?  I felt like I was one of the wise men - the 4th one you never hear about, Irving the Unwise - going to see Baby Jesus in the manger.  "I didn't know we were supposed to bring gifts.  Nobody told me we were supposed to bring gifts!")

But I digress.  My friend wasn't through.  "How many books do I need to have published to feel like I'm kind of a success?  When will I have enough?"

Poo.  I had no answer.

This fall, I signed a contract for my seventeenth book.  It comes out next fall (if Covid doesn't kill the presses for lack of paper worldwide, sigh.)  And then the question will be, is that enough?  Will an eighteenth book make any difference at all to me or to the world?

So I asked myself, "Self - why are you doing this?  At a time when so many people are retiring to the golf course, why are you still torturing yourself with plot lines and deadlines and tedious social media promotion?  Why are you putting up with endless Amazon reviews and online trolls who couldn't find a plot hole if they were pushed into it?  (Note to alter ego:  always carry a shovel.)

Then a strange thing happened this morning.  A reader in the States sent me a notice she received from the West Virginia Library System, that the audiobook version of my title Worst Date Ever, was available for lending.

Well, that's cool, I thought.  Maybe it won't seem like a lot to you, but I live in suburban Toronto - that's in Canada, the other big country on the top end of North America.  The one that invented hockey fights and slurps maple syrup.

I can't begin to tell you what this email did for me.  We've all had a hard year.  But the thought that my renegade book (a loopy romantic comedy - I usually write crime) could perhaps put a smile on the face of a reader an entire country and several states away did something to my heart.

Like the Grinch, I think my heart grew several sizes.

God Bless that reader.  Because the answer to my friend's question became clear to me.  I write so that I might put a smile on someone's face - someone who might need it.  Someone who has seen hard times, is longing for escape, and needs a little lift that doesn't cost anything more than a library card.

That's why I write. That's why I continue to write. How about you?

May 2022 bring you smiles.

Here's that little book in the West Virginia Library.  Who says I can't write romance?  (Okay, so they asked me to write a romance, and I wrote about a series of bad dates.  Give me a break.  It has a happy ending, doesn't it?)

Available at all the usual suspects…



26 February 2022

What do we DO about Covid in our Fiction Manuscripts? Three Ideas for Authors


So here's a predicament.  You are writing a book that takes place in contemporary times.  You know it will probably hit the shelves two years from the time you start writing.  (Because that is the reality of this biz.  A year to write an 80,000 word novel, and at least a year for your publisher to get it out there.)

What, I ask you, WHAT do you do about Covid?


My authors friends and I have been perplexed by this for 18 months.  In the beginning (nearly two years ago) we thought it would be a passing thing, like SARS 1.  (Which by the way, I contracted in 2003 while supervising hospital staff.  It was pure hell.  Think cut glass in your lungs, for weeks and weeks.)

By the summer of 2020, I remember having Zoom discussions with writer friends about what the Thunderin' Jesus we were supposed to do with a worldwide pandemic in our novels.  Could we ignore it - blithely pretend it didn't happen?

But then the darn thing didn't end.

So here we are, two years after the start of Covid 19, still wondering when the bloody thing is going to be over, stuck in between a rock and a hard place when it comes to treating it in fiction.

Thing is, you can't ignore it now.  Covid 19 has been the most significant thing to affect all mankind, or even just our little niche in the world, since WW11.  Imagine being in Britain during WW11.  Six years of war hell.  And then a book comes out in 1947 that is supposed to be contemporary, but doesn't even mention the war years?  It's unthinkable!

So what to do?

1.  Pretend it's Over

Include it in your novel, with characters very grateful to be over the Covid years. 

But there's a problem with that.  What if Covid isn't over by the time your novel comes out?

That's what has happened to one writer I know.  His latest release talks about the bad Covid times of 2020 and 2021, and the bad times are over by the time his protagonist is telling this latest story in early 2022.

Except they aren't.  And I am sure said author (whom I adore) wished he could pull back that release until our Covid days are over.  (Yes, I know this will turn from pandemic to endemic, and likely to be with us for some time.  I'm a career health care executive, after all.  But you know what I mean.  Until a time we feel safe returning to normal, because God knows, I don't now.)

2.  Go Historical

That's what I've done.  Okay, I planned this book back in 2019 long before the word Covid was in our lexicon.  But after 16 published novels that take place in contemporary times, this was quite a departure for me.  You might also say it was prescient.  (Perhaps I should be dropping big money on lottery tickets...)

Writing a novel that takes place in the past is a perfect solution for a writer today.  You know how the world turns out. And there is a certain comfort for the reader in that.

Which will be the subject of a future blog on here, by the way.

3.  Do as another author friend of mine did:  Switch to Fantasy!

The ultimate cop-out!  Go different planet, Alt World, different time, different physical rules (magic etc.)  The desire for fantasy novels and fantasy shows on TV has never been greater.  We need a break from reality.  You'll be safe in a world you invent yourself.

How about you, seasoned Sleuthsayer authors?  What have you done to address Covid in your fiction?  We are all stumbling through this.  Comments welcome!

Melodie Campbell stumbles around the Toronto area, writing largely loopy fiction involving heists and capers that don't go according to plan.  You can get her books at all the usual suspects.  www.melodiecampbell.com




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

22 January 2022

Wanna be a Paperback Writer? Ten things you didn't know


Alternate title… Perils of Publishing…
How to keep sane while traversing a career in the wilds of publishing.

Hello there!  Melodie here, with more shop talk about the perils of publishing.  Oh, how I miss those writer gabfests in the bar at the Drake Hotel where we did what authors like to do best when they get together. Which is, bitch about the industry.

There are many steps to becoming a published author with a traditional house, and each one is a milestone.  First, you finish that book (pass the scotch.)  Then, you bag an agent if you're lucky (more than a wee dram for that.)  Then, you get a contract for your first book (break out the champagne.)

You make it through that fiendish obstacle course, and people think you've got it made.  Hell, YOU think you've got it made.  All you need to do now is write!  Other people will take care of all the rest of it.  But believe me, everything is not clear sailing from there.

Strange things happen in publishing.  Things that not even a clairvoyant with a crystal ball could predict. 

You may say, "Oh, she's being so far-fetched.  That'll never happen."  But let me tell you, every one of these things have happened to me.

And guess what?  I'm still standing.  (okay, sitting in a comfy chair while typing this)  Still writing.  And still getting published.

Welcome to the insane, inane world of publishing.

1.  Your agent - the one from New York who finally agreed to represent you after months of negotiation...the one who was negotiating a deal with Ace Fantasy in England and Berkley Paranormal at home, will kick the bucket before cementing a deal (no disrespect meant.  He was a class guy.)  Worse, no one in his office will let you know for two months.  Worse, you didn't think to question the length of time between emails, because he was so lousy at getting back to you in the first place.

2.  The ad campaign that was carefully planned and paid for by your publisher will feature an ad where the title of your book is misspelled in such a way that not even Saturday Night Live could have come up with it.  Or saved it.

Rowena and the Dark Lard may be a great name for a cookbook. But it is unfortunately not the sort of thing to entice readers of epic fantasy to part with their money.  (real name of book:  Rowena and the Dark Lord)

3.  The book that was an outlier (Sci-fi) that your publisher loved, that your pals thought was your best, that got so many good reviews on Amazon...will go nowhere.

4.   The publisher that took a chance on you, believed in you, applauded when your book was featured on USA today and helped to bring your book series to bestseller status, will go out of business.

5.   You can't get the rights back for the covers of those books because the artist who worked for the house has disappeared off the face of the earth.

6.   Your next publisher - the one with the world-wide reputation and selling legs - will decide to close the line your series is in, even though your books are bestsellers for them.

7.  And the unfunny one - Someone closest to you will die the week your 15th book comes out, such that the book receives no attention at all for the year-plus you are in heavy grief.

8.  Back to funny - Your 16th book will come out the first month of a world-wide Pandemic, and all promotion events will be canceled for at least two years.

9.  More pandemic humour - You will be asked to emcee a prestigious book award event, which will be cancelled due to the pandemic.

10.  And More - Your 17th book will be held up in production at least 6 months due to a paper shortage worldwide.

I used to tell my writing classes that you need three things to become a writer:  You need talent.  You need to learn the craft.  And you need passion.

I've now decided that the most important thing you need to continue to be a writer is a healthy sense of humour! (and a big supply of scotch)

So raise a toast to all the authors out there who continue to write and publish, while continually having to face loopy hurdles like the above.

How about you?  Would love to hear more Perils of Publishing stories in the comments below.

Melodie Campbell continues to write books and short stories south of Toronto, in spite of the perils. You can find her books in all the usual suspects.

27 November 2021

How Much Violence Against Women can YOU Read in your Fiction?


This is a difficult post.

The Globe and Mail newspaper this morning mentioned that Stig Larson died on this day in 2004. I mentioned this to a man I know who is a reader - a man I like and respect - and he said, "I really liked his books."  This brought about a discussion that has gotten me thinking.

Now, as you may recall, the writing community was quite split on Larson's book 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' when it first came out.  Most authors I know, at the time, thought it needed severe editing.  But others were more concerned with aspects of the content.

I remember being at the bar of the Drake Hotel in Toronto, a notorious hangout for crime writers like ourselves, and hearing the following from a well-known male crime writer sitting beside me.  "Stig Larson was one sick puppy."

I asked him to elaborate.  After all, he was a male thriller writer of some note.  Here's what he said:

"That graphic torture scene of a young woman?  We all know how long it takes to write a book.  He would have been weeks writing that chapter.  What kind of sicko could spend that much time devising ways to describe that kind of horrific torture?"

His words really hit home with a lot of us, all of whom were published crime authors.  

Another male author at the table said, "He glorifies violence against women."

I write mainly heists and capers.  My Goddaughter series is about a mob crime family, so I'm not exactly a cozy writer.  In my short stories, I can go quite dark, but never to the point of torture.  I can't write grim novels - I simply can't spend day after day in a dark world.  It affects me mentally.

Violence is absolutely at the core of a lot of crime fiction.  It's not the topic of violence that was at issue here.  What my male author friends at The Drake were commenting on was the stunning increase in graphic description of heinous acts in fiction. It's not offstage in any way, in these books.  But I think what bothered me today is the following:  my fellow reader friend didn't even remember the torture scene that has haunted me for years.  ( I won't go into details here.)  His memory of the series was that of a woman getting her own back.  Fair enough.

So I asked him:  "Would you be able to read a scene in which a child is tortured in that way?"

He said:  "No, definitely not.  I'd have to put it down."

Telling, isn't it?  And that of course is the issue that haunts me today.  Those books of Stig Larson - and some like it that are extremely graphic in their abuse and murder of women - have done well.  Readers seem to accept it as a means to advance a plot in which - hopefully - justice will be done in the end.  (One could argue that if you are a woman killed in a horrible way, there is no justice, but that's a topic for another post.)

The end justifies the means now, so to speak.  Or is it deeper than that?  Does this reflect a deeper societal desensitization, nonchalance, or fatigue when it comes to the topic of violence against women?

My friend is not the only one.  At some point, and I think it took off with the publishing of the Stig Larson books, the fiction reading society moved to embrace a more graphic description of violence against women as entertainment.  And I have to admit, this bothers me.

Comments welcome.  I'm struggling with this one and could use others' insights.

Melodie Campbell writes about the mob in Hamilton Ontario, with tongue firmly in cheek.  You can get her books at all the usual suspects.

23 October 2021

Wanna Be A Paperback Writer? The Truth about Author Incomes


 My last post on leaving my day job behind to become a full-time author with a traditional publishing house garnered a lot of comments to my social media feeds.  The question most frequently asked (besides ways in which to kill your agent, editor, reviewers, and not get caught) is - can the average author really make a living writing fiction?


We're talking average author with a traditional house here.  Not someone like Linwood Barclay or
Stephen King, or Janet Evanvich (who Library Journal once compare me to. They didn't look at our bank accounts, obviously.)  These people make the big advances we all dream of.

I'm still dreaming.  By average author, I'm talking about someone like me, with sixteen books published, and ten awards you might recognize.  Someone who occasionally hits the Amazon top 100 list of all books with a new release, and then drops out of sight after a couple of weeks.  We used to be called 'mid-list' authors. I kind of like that term, so you'll hear it again today.

I'm here to tell you the truth.  Some of it hurts, and some of it may be encouraging - you can judge.

Really, I'd be more comfortable giving you my bra size than spilling the financial numbers (38 Long is a hard size to find, by the way) but here goes.

In my last post, I quoted the UK, where recent reports say the average income of a paperback writer (note how I use the Beatles here and in the title) has dropped from 8000 pounds a year (maybe 15000 Canadian dollars) to 4000 pounds a year (more like 7000 Canadian dollars.)  Point is, the average fiction novelist is earning way less than 15 years ago.

Our Canadian stats measure pretty closely.  I do better than that - or have until now - probably because I have a backlist of fifteen books, several from series.  If someone picks up the latest book in The Goddaughter series, they may go back and pick up all five books that came before (bless their little hearts.)  That's how I've managed to sort of make a living - on royalties from backlist books.

But back to the stats.  Hold on as I try to be honest:

In my best year, I made 33,000 from my books.  If you add in teaching writing courses at college, and workshops at libraries and conferences, plus author appearances, I made about 50,000 in total.

But that was my best year.  I won The Derringer that year, and the Crime Writers of Canada Award of Excellence.  I also won the Hamilton Reads award (the city I border on.)  USA Today featured one of my books, and that shot me to the Amazon Top 100 list between Nora Roberts and Tom Clancy for a few weeks.

Thing is, that isn't a typical year.

My advances usually run about 5000 a book.  If I'm lucky, I get two contracts a year and write two books a year.  That's $10,000.

I have to 'sell through' those advances before I see any royalties.  Since my books sell for 10 bucks, and I get a dollar a book, that means I have to sell 5000 books of each before I get any royalties.  That's considered a best-seller in Canada.

So advances of 10,000 a year, in a good year.  And maybe royalties of a little less than that.  In a good year.  Add in teaching - another 6000. A few short story sales - (I can hear you laughing from here.)

Last year I made 21,000 from my books.  A lot less than my best year.

Covid has definitely played a part.  My last book came out the week of first lockdown. Every event and book tour was cancelled.  It'll be a while before I earn back that advance!  How do you promote a book if you can't get out there?  And when every other writer on the planet is anxiously spamming social media?

My point through this exercise today has been to lay bare the financial realities of a mid-list author as I have experienced them.  It sobers me sometimes to think that the assistant to the assistant at a publishing house makes more than the writer does.

This month, I signed for a new series with my third publishing house.  This one is bigger and more prestigious than the previous two, so I'm on a high.  I'm also scared to death.  The stakes are higher now, the expectations greater.  I'll let you know next fall if the financial rewards match my dreams <wink>

Melodie Campbell is a paperback writer of  multiple genres, south of Toronto.  You'll find her books at all the usual suspects.

Last Goddaughter book...(crime)


 

Her last book...(Rom-Com)




 




25 September 2021

Ditching the Day Job: When Your Hobby Becomes Your Work, What Then?


Like many young writers, I had a dream…

Ditch the day-job and become a pro!  Write fiction novels that make enough money to support my simple lifestyle without needing a second income from another job.

As a dream, it was a big one.  The stats on writers' incomes are scary across the globe: I read that in England, the average fiction novelist with a traditional publisher makes less than 4000 pounds a year, down dramatically from the 1990s.  That translates to approximately $8000 a year Canadian, which might cover the costs of your nosh for a year, if it isn't too posh.  But forget living in your car for shelter, because you won't be able to afford the parking.

It took me twenty years of writing to be able to ditch my day job and live the dream.  That was several years ago now, and as I look forward to the release of my seventeenth novel, I want to talk about a curious issue that never occurred to me when I was yearning for the life of a professional author.

When your hobby becomes your work, what do you do for fun?

It's great to do something you love for your work. But in doing so, you lose that hobby that consumed you for so many years.   

In past decades, I wrote for pleasure.  I wrote when I wanted to, and when I was inspired to.  It was the ultimate escape.

Now, life is very different.  The deadlines loom.  You end up having to write when you don't feel like it, and when you aren't writing particularly well.  Which is what work is all about.   

And I've discovered, no matter what you do for a living, no matter how much you like it, we all need a break from work.  More so, we need something to take our minds off the novel in progress. 

So a colleague suggests to me:  why not relive the excitement of those early writing days?

You could write something else for a hobby.

I loved writing short stories.  And I still write at least one a year.  But that can't be my hobby. 

Like so many people in late middle age (stop laughing,) if I am on the computer eight hours a day writing mystery novels, and responding to all the promotional requirements of being an author, the last thing I want to do is spend more time on computers.  My fingers hurt.  My eyes are dry and achy.

Also important:  this hobby is needed to take my mind off my work.  Doing more of the same (creating fiction) doesn't cut it.  

That's the problem I am facing.  For most of my working life, I had stressful jobs in health care.  For relief from that, I turned to writing.  And writing was a fabulous hobby.  

But now that writing books is my work, I am without a hobby.  And I find it hard to find a new interest to obsess me so late in life.  Yes, I read, knit a bit, bake.  But none of those are obsessions the way writing was.

 The search for a hobby.

My LIL (live in lover) also known as the Emergency Contact, is a fanatic golfer.  He tells me that all the pro golfers work on their game every day like the full time job it is.  But that's their work, and they do other things for fun.  Some fish, for example.

Fellow Canadian Linwood Barclay makes the bestseller lists everywhere.  In his downtime, he has a world-class model railway system in his home that gives him pleasure and satisfaction outside of our frantic author world.

Friend and colleague Vicki Delany does jigsaw puzzles. And I mean billion-piece, gorgeous puzzles that should be framed and displayed as art.  She says: 

"It clears my mind completely. I find that I never think about my books or my writing when I'm working on one."

That's what I'm missing now.  A hobby that will take me out of my work, so that I can return refreshed and invigorated.  Something besides eating (at which, granted, I am simply world-class.)

Trickier than I thought.  It's sort of like when you try to find a new best friend later in life.  Most people have had their best friend for decades, just as they've had their beloved hobbies.

So all you out there who think you'd like to make the move from part-time to full time, think about it carefully before you make the jump.  At the very least, go into it with clearer eyes than I did.

Do I regret it?  Not a whistle!  This is what I was meant to do, and finally, I'm doing it.  

But damn, I'd love to add something fun to my life to take the place of the glorious hobby I once had.

Anybody else facing the same dilemma?  I'd love to hear from other plotters on this!

Melodie's latest book, The Merry Widow Murders, will be out in May 2022.  If you've read the mob caper series starting with The Goddaughter, you'll get a kick out of meeting Gina Gallo's great-grandmother in this new series!

23 July 2021

The Incredible Brain of a Mystery Writer


 Mike (Emergency Contact sitting in the Swedish recliner opposite me, reading my latest manuscript) said something today that really got me thinking:

"I am absolutely amazed by your mind.  How you create all these characters, make them all different, and keep them straight is beyond me."

So - being Author person first in the list of my personas, I said the obvious thing all writers would say given the circumstance: "But the thing is, YOU can keep them straight when reading that manuscript, right?"

"Oh sure," he said, to my relief.  "I'm just wowed by your imagination."



I think what he really meant was memory.  And I have to admit, I've been thinking about that a lot lately.

Writing a mystery is hard work.  I don't want to say it is harder work than most of the genres - I've written in most of the genres and each has its challenges.  But writing a mystery has specific requirements that make me wonder how long I will be able to measure up.

In fact, it requires an incredible memory.

In mystery writing, you need a large cast of characters.  

First off, you need a victim.  Check.  Probably two.  And if you're writing a Brit Mystery a la Midsommer, you probably need three.  (Emergency Contact and I joke about who will be the third person murdered in each episode of Midsommer, Brokenwood, Death in Paradise, etc etc).  This victim (or three) must be a fully drawn character.  He must have a past.  There must be a *reason* he is a victim in the first place, and that means drilling down to a life before the murder.

But we said there could be three victims.  Three characters.  Check.

We talk often about the need for five good suspects - three at the very least.  I personally try for three darn good suspects with lots of supporting material, and a couple more perhaps less drawn out.  

So five good suspects, all with believable motivation.  All with *different* motivation on why they would be the killer and take a whack at the victim for gain.  

That's eight characters so far, check.

You need a protagonist, almost always the sleuth.  And a sidekick for the sleuth.  Maybe even a love interest for the sleuth, who could be a local cop.  Three more characters.

That's eleven.

Probably there will be more than one named cop. A constable to search the grounds. Probably there will be a secondary character or two, to run the Inn, serve at the table. You know the drill.

So that's at least twelve unique characters, all with individual motivation, and personalities.  All looking different, with different histories.  All in selected places at the important times for the sleuth to keep track.

Not only the sleuth.  You - the author - has to keep it all straight.

Writing a mystery is an incredible feat of memory.  We intertwine the lives of more than a dozen people, and work them around the novel like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  I don't know any other kind of writing that requires such complex thinking and as I start my second book in the latest series (The Merry Widow Murders) I am truly shaking in my go-go boots.  Will I be up to it once more?  Will the task of keeping everything straight, creating a dynamic, exciting plot that MAKES SENSE but isn't easily solved, be once more in my grasp?

It's daunting.  And I haven't even talked about the fact that I've already used up eighty plots.  But just keeping the whole thing in motion in my mind is something I know won't be possible forever.

This year, I think I can do it.  The plot I have outlined excites me, and my agent is keen.  Next year?  Meet you back on these pages next summer for a recap.

Melodie Campbell always has a mob angle in her novels, and usually they can't shoot straight.  "Impossible not to laugh" says Library Journal about THE GODDAUGHTER.  "The Canadian Literary Heir to Donald Westlake" says Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  The Goddaughter series and The B-Team sold in all the usual suspects.

26 June 2021

How to Create a Great Villain


Ah, those students of mine.  Here I was, doing the lecture thing about motivation, how ALL your characters need to have believable motivation for what they are doing.  Especially, doncha know, your antagonist (villain, if you prefer.)  "No Cardboard Villains!" I profoundly announced.


And then the question...

"So, how DO you create a great villain?" he asked.

Bless his little heart.

"Em...." I said with scholarly conviction.  "Just what I'm going to cover next week!"

Next day, prof frantically writes a brand new handout, here presented.  With thanks to my beloved students for keeping me on my toes....

 HOW TO CREATE A GREAT VILLAIN

Let's go back to basics.  How many characters do you need for a novel?

Melodie says:  a minimum of three  (and yes, there are always exceptions.)

Your Protagonist.  This is your main character, your main viewpoint character.  We will be experiencing the story through her eyes throughout.

Sidekick.  Your protagonist (and your story) will likely benefit from having a sidekick, some friendly soul to share the journey with.  If you don't give your main character a sidekick, then she will be spending pages and pages talking to herself, which is boring for the read.  

Examples:  Sherlock Holmes and Watson.  In my Rowena Through the Wall series, Rowena and Kendra.  In The Goddaughter series, Gina and her loopy cousin Nico.

Antagonist.  Yes, usually you need someone to provide the conflict.  We might call them a villain.  Your protagonist wants something that isn't easy to get and often there will be a villain standing in his way.

 KILL OFF CARDBOARD VILLAINS

So many times, villains seem cardboard.  This is because the author hasn't spent time building them into believable characters.  Sure, your villain can be a psychopath who is simply insane, but that gets pretty boring for readers.  

The most interesting villains are those who have desires that we can relate to.

Have you ever wished someone harm?  Villains do so as well.  Why do they act on those desires when we would hold back?  THAT's what makes them interesting.

Checklist for creating a Great Villain:

1.  KNOW HOW A VILLAIN THINKS - The number one thing to keep in mind when creating your antagonist?  Villains never think they are villains.  To them, their actions are justified and rational.  They are acting in their own self-interest.  Others simply stand in the way of what they want and deserve.

Get that last word:  deserve. Often, villain feel they have been cheated of what they rightly deserve.

2.  BELIEVABLE MOTIVATION - Make sure your antagonist has adequate motivation.  Don't neglect this!  Why is he doing what he's doing?  What does he want?  Why is he taking the risk?  In many countries and past ages, murder comes with the death penalty.  What is so important to him that he would take that risk?

Motivations for villains:  Revenge for past wrongs, safety, monetary gain, business or professional gain, power of overs, sexual desire (particularly for the protagonist.)  All the traditional motivations for murders:  Revenge, sex and money.

3.  GIVE HIM BACKGROUND - Your villain didn't get the way he is out of nowhere.  He didn't start out a villain.  Make him three-dimensional, and for goodness sake, avoid using trite over-used dialogue ("Now I have you in my clutches...")  I advise doing a character sketch for your villain as well as your protagonist.

4.  A LIKEABLE VILLAIN?  Can you make your antagonist likeable?  Of course you can!  Soren, in Rowena and the Viking Warlord, is a demon summoned from Hell.  Old religions knew him as Baal.  He is scary as all get-out, when first introduced to the reader.  But as you get to know him more and learn his motivations, you might even start to like him.  He's not ALL bad.  Let me repeat that. Not all bad.  Think about that, when creating your villain.

5.  MAKE IT PERSONAL - Finally, when possible, give your villain a history with the protagonist.  Yes, you can write about a psychopath who picks victims at random.  But isn't if far more interesting if the antagonist has a history with the protagonist?  The bad-boy past boyfriend who returns suddenly to your heroine's life and puts it in turmoil?  The girl you hated in high school who is now the defense attorney standing in the way of your solving the crime... Past unresolved emotions can add more power to your manuscript.

Remember:  Your villain is there to provide CONFLICT in your novel.  Will your protagonist get what they want?  Readers keep turning pages to find out, so make sure you maintain that conflict until the very end.

Melodie Campbell has written several series in many genres, but you can always count on them being funny.  Books available at all the usual suspects.  www.melodiecampbell.com


 

 


 

4.      


22 May 2021

Money Laundering and other Taxing Services (Bad Girl Returns...)


 Apparently, I have been too serious on here lately.  There have been complaints.  In an effort to address this, I present the following:  Money Laundering and Other Taxing Services.


So this really isn't a blog about money laundering in the classical sense (meaning Uncle Vince and those three restaurants in the east side of The Hammer...but I digress.)  However, I do somewhat come round to money and bathing, or perhaps authors being taken to the cleaners (sic) in the penultimate paragraph.

In fact, this post is more about the plight of poor authors doing their fiendish taxes, and how the banking industry has become a playground for disciples of Satan.  (Not Santa.  He remains a relatively good guy, although I've learned not to sit on his lap.)

I was doing my taxes the other day, and it made me think about how great things were in the good ole days.  Remember how simple life used to be?  Someone would mail you a little carbon slip to let you know how much money you made.  All you had to do - as a law-abiding citizen - was run your finger along a little line in the tax guide, and you'd know how much tax you had to pay.  You'd write a cheque for that amount, then go drink yourself blind or shoot yourself in the head, whichever was most expedient.  Things were simple back then.

 Now, figuring out your taxes is a profession in itself.  Actually, it's several professions; taxes now have their own accountants and lawyers, the lucky little things.  Soon they may have their own psychiatrists.

Which brings me to banking (and other taxing services.)  I remember when you'd take your paycheck and give it to the bank for a little while.  Then you'd go back a few weeks later to take out cash for certain life essentials like beer and pharmaceuticals.  All the money would still be there plus some extra cash you made on your money, called interest.  Things have changed radically since then.  Interest is passe.  Sort of like digital watches...

Now when you put your money in the bank (which of course you don't...you put it in a cute little automatic teller machine where it mixes with everyone else's little packets of money in terribly immoral ways) - (or even worse, you simply transfer it to whatever account you like with absolutely no regard whatsoever for its feelings and preferences or - Gawd help me - gender.  Which reminds me: did you see the New York University survey where they now give you a selection of 35 different gender choices?  I personally wanted to identify as a SA {smart ass} but was told PETA might get involved.)

Back to the point.  The point is, that when you go back to draw it out again, you find less than the amount you deposited.  Most of your money is there, but so is something else called a Service Charge.

I must admit I'm baffled by this need for a service charge.  I mean, exactly what services did these people feel it necessary to perform for my money?  Did they give it a bath and take it on field trips?  (ahem...note the reference to money 'laundering')

 Frankly, I'm getting fed up.  If they are going to take my money out on the town and show it a good time, the least they can do is teach it how to reproduce...

Melodie Campbell writes seriously silly stuff and even gets paid for it.  She writes about the mob in Hamilton, Ontario, just in case you thought Canadians were all nice guys.  (However, we are extremely polite before we kill you.)  Check out her books at all the usual suspects:


 


24 April 2021

Arrest that Cow! Warning: Canadian Humour


 It's a crime about Covid.  (Ha! I knew I could make this a crime column.)  But truly, The News is so completely obsessed with Covid, that other world events are hardly getting a glance.


For instance, I bet you didn't know that during the Trump reign, a near rebellion took place mere hours north of Toronto.  Sure, this didn't have the scope of the January 6 attack on the White House.  But we do things a little smaller in Canada.  And perhaps with a certain style.  And then, there's our high-school-good-looks Prime Minister, who may or may not have a stream of PR bungles behind him.

So in the interests of fair play (because we always feel a little second fiddle to you Yanks) here's my take on how this might have gone down in the True North.  (Yes, this event actually happened.  Mine is simply a creative nonfiction play by play.  Apologies in advance for any in-jokes.  Heck, for the whole thing.)

 The Independent State of Penetang

09:36, Parliament Building East Wing, Ottawa

"This is weird," says Mark, flipping through screens.

"Hmmmm?"

"It says here that Penetang has declared independence."

The other civil servant head looks up.  "Where is that?  In Africa?"

"Northern Ontario.  Somewhere north of Orillia, I think.  Or maybe Parry Sound.  I'm looking it up."

The older man frowns.  "You mean the county of Penetang?"

"Seems like it.  They've blocked the roads, it says here.  Just a sec."  He scrolls further.  "They're using tractors and farm equipment.  And cows."

A gasp.  "They're sacrificing cows?"

"Nope.  Herding live ones.  The cars can't get by."

"Merde.  We need to inform the Prime Minister."


11:00, Live from Penetang

"This is Mandy Flambeau, reporting from rebellion headquarters, at the Puckyew community hockey rink in downtown Penetang.  It's sort of quiet here, Len.  Maybe they're all out on the protest lines?  Oh wait -- I see somebody!  Sir, sir...over here.  Can you tell us what this rebellion is really about?"

"Taxes. Sick an' tired of those federal freeloaders takin' our taxes and spending them in the city.  Want our tax money spent here.  Not on subways and free daycare for city folk."

Gasp.  "Daycare? You're against daycare?"

"You see any kids around here?  No young people in Penetang anymore.  No jobs for them.  Only seniors now."

"So you want free daycare for seniors?"


13:43,  The Prime Minister's office

"Mr. Prime Minister, we have a situation."

(groan)  "Not another Tweet from the Twit."

"This is local, sir.  I need to brief you on the rebellion in Penetang.  PETA have moved in.  Because of the cows."

"Say what?"

"The rebels in Penetang have blocked the roads with cows.  And now PETA has established protest lines to protect the animals."

"Hmmm... Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Sir, I think we have an opportunity here."

"A photo op?  Oh goodie!  What do they wear in Penetang?"

"Uh...overalls and flannel shirts?"

"Awesome.  Get Holt Renfrew and Nordstrom on the line.  We want these Canadian made."

"Yes sir.  Will you be leaving immediately?"

"I'm texting Sophie and the kids.  Maybe we can make a vacation out of it.  Does the Aga Khan have a place up there?"


14:00, Back at the East Wing

Mark puts down the phone.  "Is it even possible to charge cows with sedition?"

The other civil servant head looks up.  "Mark, are you from farm country?"

"Nope.  Born and bred in Ottawa."

"There may be a fault in their plan.  The cows."

"What about them?"

"They're Jerseys.  They'll simply go home at five to be milked."


Melodie Campbell knows a thing or two about sedition-er-cows.  She also gets paid to write very silly comedy for unsuspecting publishers.  You can find The Goddaughter series at all the usual suspects.