Monday, 22 May 2017

How I became an Overnight Success in 26 years (with nods to Anne R. Allen)

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.


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


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


(It’s terrific.  Click on the link, to see why.)


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.  There.  You learned something from this blog post.)  Even I got sick of writing about her.  Why would anyone else want to make her acquaintance?


In my first two novels, I learned about plot bunnies.  Plot bunnies are those baffling 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, many people saw me as an overnight success.  I was getting international recognition and bestseller status.  One of my books hit the Amazon Top 100 chart at number 47, between Tom Clancy and Nora Roberts.*


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


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. Right, Anne?


(*Rowena Through the Wall.  She’s a much more likeable protagonist.)

Saturday, 13 May 2017

YOU KNOW YOU'RE A WRITER WHEN...



By Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Recently, I read something  that got me thinking.  (Okay, have your little laugh.  I can wait.)

The quote was:
“A writer who isn’t writing is a monster.”

At first, I wasn’t sure if that meant a writer who wasn’t writing right now and every minute was a monster.  Or whether it meant a writer who was prevented from writing was a monster.

For the sake of all concerned (at least in this house,) I’m goin’ for the latter.

Which brings me to this little list.  If you are a writer, tick off the ones that apply to you and leave a comment before.  Or better still, add your own.  If you are not a writer, stand back.

You know you’re an author when:
1.  You’d rather spend time with your characters than your friends.

2.  You’ve been at the computer all day and Nachos seem like a major food group.

3.  Your spouse yells “Are you all right in there,” and you’re pretty sure you’ve heard that voice before.  Somewhere.

4.  Your idea of a vacation means hours and hours of time to write.  And nobody bugging you to “do something.”

5.  You reach for Glenlivit when the internet goes down.

6.  You could be arrested if the Feds look at your search history.

7. You actually know the difference between less and fewer.  And consider it a hanging offense when people misuse them.

8.  You have been known to ignore phone calls from your mom, kids, husband, boss, and possibly God.

9.  Your idea of supreme hell is being trapped at a cocktail party for three hours with people who aren’t writers.

10.  You have seriously considered murdering people who say, “I have this great idea for a book, and if you’ll write it, I’ll share the profits with you.”   And the ones who say, “I think I’ll write a book someday when I get more time.”  And the ones who say, “Of course, it’s just a mystery/fantasy/romance genre book you’ve written.  When are you going to write something important?”

Excuse me now.  I have a lot of people to murder, and I’m behind.


Saturday, 6 May 2017

Comedy ain't so Light (in which Bad Girl explores the other, more serious purpose of humour)



Everyone likes comedy, right?

Wrong.


I’ve written comedy professionally since 1992.  I got my start writing stand-up. In the 1990s, I had a regular humour column in the Toronto region, and I now write humour for The Sage (a Canadian satire magazine.) 

Any seasoned humour writer will tell you that consistently writing comedy is difficult.  What looks easy doesn’t write easy.  The old actor saying, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard,” stands for writers too.  In books, not only do you have to pay attention to plot, characterization, dialogue, viewpoint, motivation, etc. like every other author, but you also have to add an additional element, comedy.  It’s like there is an addition test for you that others don’t have to pass.  And you don’t get paid any more for doing it.

And it gets worse: Comedy writers take risks that other writers don’t.

For here’s the thing:  comedy is by nature dangerous.  It (often) makes fun of things that other people take seriously.  In fact, it’s almost impossible to write comedy and not offend someone, somewhere.

Even the most seemingly inoffensive broad comedy (the sort of thing I write) will attract criticism.  The Goddaughter is the first in a series of five comic capers from Orca books.  These are meant to be humorous entertainment. Nothing blatantly didactic.  No preaching.  I am hoping for smirks and laughter to lift your mood.

It’s satire.  A loony mob family is chronically inept.  A reluctant mob goddaughter wants to escape the business, but is always pulled back in to bail them out.  What results is a series of whacky capers and heists-gone-bad.

What could be offensive about that?

But ah.  The heroine of the story is a mob goddaughter, even if she doesn’t want to be one.  “You don’t get to choose your relatives,” she says.  I’m writing stories about the mob, in which we are actually compelled to want certain members to succeed in their crazy plans. 

I’ve found that even writing about the mob can invite outrage.  Operating outside the law is bad, even evil, a reader wrote recently. How dare I make light of serious crime? 

Which brings me to the point of this post (get to the point, Mel).  Comedy, done well, has a secondary purpose to making us laugh.  (Some would say primary purpose.)  It has the ability to threaten power.  Throughout history, writers have used comedy to satire and gently (or not so gently) ridicule the people who have power over us.

If we were to limit the ability of authors to write about certain subjects or groups of people in light and humorous ways, we would lose the ability to ‘bring them down to size.’  To show their weaknesses. 

My satire is gentle.  But it is there, all the same.  In my humour columns and books, I poke fun at people and organizations that seek to have power over us.  To maintain that power, they must be taken seriously.

And boy, do they hate comedy writers like me.

The Goddaughter books are sold at Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo, Amazon, independent bookstores, and all the usual suspects. Please buy them, so our Bad Girl can continue to go straight.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Never Marry a Writer! Here's why...



by Bad Girl (Melodie Campbell)


Everybody knows they shouldn’t marry a writer.  Mothers the world over have made that obvious: “For Gawd Sake, never marry a marauding barbarian, a sex pervert, or a writer.” (Or a politician, but that is my own personal bias.  Ignore me.)



But for some reason, lots of innocent, unsuspecting people marry writers every year.  Obviously, they don’t know about the (gasp!) “Zone.”  (More obviously, they didn’t have the right mothers.)



Never mind: I’m here to help.



I think it pays to understand that writers aren’t normal humans: they write about people who don’t exist and things that never happened.  Their brains work differently.  They have different needs.  And in some cases, they live on different planets (at least, my characters do, which is kind of the same thing.)



Thing is, writers are sensitive creatures.  This can be attractive to some humans who think that they can ‘help’ poor writer-beings (in the way that one might rescue a stray dog.)  True, we are easy to feed and grateful for attention.  We respond well to praise.  And we can be adorable.  So there are many reasons you might wish to marry a writer, but here are 10 reasons why you shouldn’t:



The basics: 



1.  Writers are hoarders.  Your house will be filled with books.  And more books.  It will be a shrine to books.  The lost library of Alexandria will pale in comparison.



2.  Writers are addicts.  We mainline coffee.  We’ve also been known to drink other beverages in copious quantities, especially when together with other writers in places called ‘bars.’ 



3.  Writers are weird.  Crime Writers are particularly weird (as weird as horror writers.) You will hear all sorts of gruesome research details at the dinner table.  When your parents are there.  Maybe even with your parents in mind.



4.  Writers are deaf.  We can’t hear you when we are in our offices, pounding away at keyboards. Even if you come in the room.  Even if you yell in our ears.



5.  Writers are single-minded.  We think that spending perfectly good vacation money to go to crime writing conferences like Bouchercon is a really good idea.  Especially if there are other writers there with whom to drink beverages.



The bad ones:



6.  It may occasionally seem that we’d rather spend time with our characters than our family or friends.  (See 9 below.)



7.  We rarely sleep through the night.  (It’s hard to sleep when you’re typing.  Also, all that coffee...)



8.  Our Google Search history is a thing of nightmares.  (Don’t look.  No really – don’t.  And I’m not just talking about ways to avoid taxes… although if anyone knows a really fool-proof scheme, please email me.)



And the really bad ones:



9.  If we could have affairs with our beloved protagonists, we probably would. (No!  Did I say that out loud?)



10.  We know at least twenty ways to kill you and not get caught.



RE that last one:  If you are married to a writer, don’t worry over-much.  Usually writers do not kill the hand that feeds them.  Most likely, we are way too focused on figuring out ways to kill our agents, editors, and particularly, reviewers.


Monday, 24 April 2017

How to Give a Reading: The Bashful Writer’s Guide



By Melodie Campbell


It’s a fact: when I read from my work in public, I sell books.  When I don’t read, I don’t sell.  This may seem obvious.  If you are not on the New York Times bestseller’s list, then many of the people in the library, bookstore or conference audience might be hearing about you for the first time.  If you give them a taste of the story and your style, they will be more apt to buy your book, rather than if you just drone on and on about your author life and why you wrote the darn thing in the first place.

 “But I hate reading in public.  I’m a writer, dammit!  Not a performing seal.”

WELCOME TO THE BRAVE NEW WORLD, WHERE YOU HAVE TO BE TWO THINGS:  The WRITER, and The AUTHOR

Yes, it’s a cruel world.  Writing is a solitary process.  To write a book, you need to sit alone at a computer for several hundred hours.  This is not the natural environment for an extrovert.

So we cheerfully accept that many writers would label themselves introverts.  And now I am telling you to get out there and flaunt your stuff on stage! 

Fact is, I am not as young as my author photo would suggest.  (I love that photo.  I looked like that for approximately 10 minutes back in 2015.)  Point being, I’ve been writing since the 1990s.  In those days, I could hide behind a computer screen.  I was writing comedy at the time.  All I had to do was ship my work off to my agent, who would sell it and forward me lovely cheques.  The odd time (very rare) I had to show up in person at an event to pick up an award.  That was the entire extent of my public appearances.

THE PUBLISHING WORLD HAS CHANGED.

In the past 12 months, I have made 26 in-person appearances at libraries, bookstores and conferences.  I have been on national live radio, and at least a dozen international blogs.  My publishers expect this.
In 2017, we are two people:  the Writer and the Author.  The Writer creates the product.  The Author is the personality who helps to promote it.  Yes, even if you are with a traditional publisher, you will be expected to put your Author side forward.

HOW TO DO A READING:

Recently, I appeared with other Crime Writers of Canada authors at the Ontario Library Conference.  We were given two minutes to pitch our latest book to an audience of library purchasing managers.  (First point: Two Minutes.  That’s not a lot of time to introduce your book and give a flavour of it.   

We were timed.  ALWAYS time yourself before you go to events, and aim to be shorter than the time allowed.  I use the timer on my stove and read out loud, just like I would at the event.  Don’t risk being cut off before the end of your reading.)

Here’s what I read, for The Bootlegger’s Goddaughter.  What I read is in italics.  I’ve put my comments in brackets.  Remember to print out your two minute presentation.  Don’t read from the book itself. Turning pages is awkward. Shuffling between your book and paper intro is awkward. Put the whole thing together as one document, and use a large, easy to read font size.  I use Times Roman 16.

SET YOUR BOOK QUICKLY

“Even old mobsters retire eventually…don’t they?”

(My opening line is a hook that says something about the book and hopefully intrigues the audience.)
The Bootlegger’s Goddaughter is book 5 in the award-winning Goddaughter series that Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine calls ‘Hilarious!’

(I’ve quickly placed the book in the series and slipped in that endorsement from Ellery Queen.)

Gina Gallo is a mob goddaughter who doesn’t want to be one.  Her bumbling mob family never gets it right.  This time, she’s getting ready for her Christmas wedding.  But then she’s robbed, cousin Jimmy has a heart attack, and someone in The Hammer has hijacked a truck full of booze.  What’s going on?  Gina knows bootlegging used to be a family business, but they stopped that in the 30s.  Didn’t they? …Here’s an excerpt:

(The first sentence of the blurb introduces the protagonist.  The second sentence gives backstory, as this is a series book.  The rest of the paragraph sounds like the back cover blurb, only shorter.  We want to give enough so the audience can get a fix on what the book will be about.  But we don’t have much time, so every sentence is chosen carefully.  Note as well that the way the blurb is written reflects the way the book is written.  It’s quick and fun…almost campy.  If my book was one with gravitas, I wouldn’t have written the blurb this way.)

NEXT UP: YOUR EXCERPT.  CHOOSE CAREFULLY. 

In my writing classes, we say: don’t waste your opening on something that doesn’t draw the reader into your story. It’s the same when doing a reading in public.  I find it best to read a short section with dialogue and action.  Include your protagonist.  You want to give the audience a clear picture of the sort of thing they will get to read when they buy your book.  If it’s a comedy, read something fun.  If it’s a thriller…you get the picture.  Here’s the excerpt I chose for this event:

Man, I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was get home, have a quick supper and take a long bath. That wasn’t asking too much, was it?
The gods hate me.
“Well, well. Look who’s here,” said a familiar voice.
Crap. It was Spence. The creepy guy who once had a crush on me in high school. Now a cop in The Hammer and my personal nemesis. Could this week get any worse?
“Gina Gallo, the girl with the longest confession. Who just happened to be involved in a gunfight in Hagersville. What a coincidence.”
Gulp. “What are you doing here, Spence?”
“Following up on that gunfight. You were seen. I figured you’d turn up here eventually,” he said.
“What gunfight? Don’t be ridiculous. This isn’t the wild west.” I forced a smile. “Besides, I don’t even own a gun.”
“Then what about these bullet holes here in your fender?”
“What?” I hoofed it around to where he was standing. Holy crap. There were three holes in the back passenger-side fender
 “Freakin’ hell!” I said, throwing my arms in the air. “They shot up my car!” Now I was mad.

(This excerpt is less than 200 words, but it gives you a taste of the protagonist’s personality.  This is a crime book, so the excerpt also refers to a crime.  The way it is written is typical of the book.  And it hopefully ends on a note that will have readers wanting to know what happens next.)

I always find it best to include two characters in my chosen excerpt.  That way, you can show conflict.  Novels are about conflict, remember.  In a short reading, it’s tough to include more than two characters and not confuse people.

WRAP IT UP QUICKLY. 

Don’t just let your voice trail off after you read the excerpt!  You want to wrap up your talk professionally. Here’s what I said:

The Bootlegger’s Goddaughter is out this month and is available at Barnes & Noble, independent bookstores, and online at all the usual suspects.  Thank you!

WHAT IF THEY GIVE YOU MORE THAN TWO MINUTES

Two minutes is tough.  I prefer three.  But if given a choice, don’t go over five minutes, unless you are an exceptional reader.  Especially don’t go over 5 minutes, if you are one of several people reading at the event.  Research tells us that the very best speakers can keep our attention for at most 45 minutes.  You’ve been to those events where the speaker goes on and on.  Keep your reading short, bright, and smile at the end.

READ IT BETTER. 

This year, I had the honour of interviewing Peter James, bestselling thriller author from England, in front of a large audience.  Peter was given the choice of reading an excerpt before the interview, or after.  He chose to read before.  I made a note of that.  He also read his excerpt louder and more dramatically than I had heard anyone read anything before.  I swear the very walls of the room vibrated.  The audience loved it.

Now, I have taught public speaking at the college level.  I am pretty comfortable at the podium.  But apparently you can teach an old dog a few things.  I learned from Peter James that you need to approach this as an actor does, before you set out to read from your work.  You need to practice.  You need to get excited about your own story.  Your voice is your ticket to book sales.

INVEST SOME TIME IN BECOMING A GOOD STORYTELLER.

If you hate reading in public, it’s probably because you don’t do it very well.  Invest some time in doing it better.  Join Toastmasters.  Become a good public speaker.  Take an acting class.  Learn to modulate and project.  ENUNCIATE.  Practice reading in front of a mirror.  I read to Frankenpoodle.  He loves it. 

Okay, I can hear you whining from here. Yet another thing to put in your author basket, along with bleeping social media marketing.  But here’s the thing: you’re in it for the long haul, right?  It’s worth it.

NIGHTMARE TOWN: What to do if no one shows up for your reading.

It happens to everyone, even the bestsellers.  Linwood Barclay told me this story.  He had a reading and signing at a Canadian big box bookstore.  About 60 chairs were set up for it.  He wandered the store until ten minutes before his reading, and noticed only one person was seated in the audience.  So he sat down behind the fellow to wait for others to come.  They didn’t. A few minutes after the start time, Linwood tapped the fellow on the back and said, “I guess the author isn’t coming.”

My own story involves a Grade 12 English class and a teacher strike.  Two days before I was to present at the local library, the field trip coming to see me was canceled.  “Don’t worry,” said the librarian.  “I’ll still get people there.”  When I arrived to give my talk, instead of fifty keen teenagers, there were five people in the audience, and they were all pushing walkers.  Right in the middle of my reading, just when I was reaching the exciting part, a shaky voice blurted out: “When does the movie start?”

Here’s the thing:  You WILL get a small audience at times.  So small, they can fit in one chair.  I know one author who suggested that he and the lone reader at his event leave the joint and catch a coffee together.  The reader was delighted for the one on one attention.  That’s the way to develop a life-long fan.

Whether there is one person or fifty in your audience, you need to give them your very best.  Only three people?  Smile, and say, “Oh good!  There’s only a few of us.  I can make this more intimate.”  Your audience will be delighted.

You never know where a reading will lead…

I was reading from one of my crime comedies (The Goddaughter’s Revenge) at a retired teachers’ association a few years ago.  One of the teachers in the audience had links to a Toronto daily newspaper.  She bought the book, liked it, and from that connection, I was interviewed in the paper.  A producer from Sirius XM radio read the newspaper article, checked my website, and emailed to invite me on his show.

Even if you don’t sell many books at a specific event, you never know how the connections made there might lead to something else.

Leave a Takeaway

Put your bookmark on each chair in the audience before the event begins.  Ensure your website is on the bookmark, and if it isn’t, leave a business card there as well.  Make it easy for people to find you and your book.

Final advice:  Get out there!  Take every opportunity you can to read from your books. Enjoy being the centre of attention and a minor celebrity for a short time.  It’s one of the few perks of being an author. (We’re sure not in it for the money.)

About Melodie Campbell
The Toronto Sun called her Canada’s “Queen of Comedy.”  Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich.  Melodie has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis Award, and eight more awards for crime fiction. She is the former executive director of Crime Writers of Canada. www.melodiecampbell.com

(The Bootlegger’s Goddaughter cover)
The Bootlegger’s Goddaughter is a miniature gem, the work of an author at the absolute top of her game.”  Don Graves, Canadian Mystery Reviews