Thursday, February 27, 2014

Praise for a Prize

Sometime in 2010, while I was living in Ghana, a friend insisted on introducing me to a young woman who was doing something remarkable in the world of literacy.

"You have to meet her and hear her story," my friend insisted, and what a story it was.

While studying at Bryn Mawr College, Deborah Ahenkorah started an organization whose mission it was to send books to Africa. The organization was collecting and sending thousands of books to over thirty countries and Deborah was pleased. She had been an avid reader as a child growing up in Ghana and she wanted to open that opportunity to as many African children as possible. As the books came in and went out, Deborah noticed something. One in one thousand featured African children. This disturbed her so much that she was determined to find a solution and the Golden Baobab prize was born.

Illustration by Tina Kugler based on a study by the CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center)
When I met Deborah, the prize was in its second year. The prize money being offered was not particularly significant and she was struggling with issues of how to position the prize, how to have the prize grow as an entity, and offer publishing options to the winners, all along focusing on her primary goal of facilitating the production and "distribution of enthralling, high quality, culturally relevant literary content by African writers and illustrators for African children." We became friends in part because I share her goal of providing children with access to books which positively reflect their culture and background and in part because she is an incredible young woman. I am proud to say that I was a judge for the 2011 prize, an act of desperation on Deborah's part, I am sure!

Fast forward four years and Deborah and her team (I know she would want me to indicate that she does not do it alone) have taken the Golden Baobab prize to the point where they are able to have a small staff, an office, AND offer prizes totaling US$20,000. The organization now offers four prizes for literature and two prizes to illustrators.

I am so proud of Deborah for the contribution Golden Baobab has made and will continue to make in the area of African literature. It is so important that writers support one another towards a common goal of producing quality reading material for our readers and this prize is all about achieving that goal.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Guest author James R. Callan: The Dialog Signature

James R. Callan
After a successful career in mathematics and computer science, receiving grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA, and being listed in Who’s Who in Computer Science and Two Thousand Notable Americans, James R. Callan turned to his first love—writing. He wrote a monthly column for a national magazine for two years, and published several nonfiction books.  He now concentrates on his favorite genre, mystery/suspense, with his sixth book scheduled for a Spring 2014 release.

The Dialog Signature

Most of us recognize the significance of our signature. It is, or should be, a unique representation or identification of who we are. In Mexico, where we spend time, signatures are an art form. They may not clearly show the various letters in a person’s name, but they are unique and they identify the person who has put down his mark.

Signatures count. Look at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence and one name stands out. It isn’t Th. Jefferson, although he was very important in the process. John Hancock’s signature draws the eye to it, and even today, we say, “Put your John Hancock on the dotted line.”

So, what does this have to do with writing? Am I talking about the way you autograph a book?

Ideally, each of your major characters will have a signature, a dialog signature. Your written signature identifies you. The dialog signature of your character should identify him or her. It should be as unique to the character as your signature is to you. And just as your signature tells us something about you, the dialog signature of each character should tell the reader a lot about the character.

When you make up a bio for one of the people in your book, you should include his or her dialog signature.  How do you do this? Ask yourself these questions.
What vocabulary does she use?
What is her diction?
Does she have a regional dialect?
Is English a first or second language for her?
What cadence is normal for her?
What are her marker words?
What is her normal sentence structure, or does she have one?
How verbose is she?
What mannerisms does she exhibit while speaking?
What body language does she show?
Does speaking come easily for her?
What circumstances make her nervous when speaking?

Answer these and other questions and you will have a dialog signature for the character. Keep this handy when writing dialog for this character and you will make this person consistent. The reader will recognize the speech patterns. In many instances, you may not even need an attribution when she speaks.

In my book How to Write Great Dialog (Oak Tree Press, 2014) I devote a chapter to the dialog signature, giving examples of how to use marker words, the use of sentence structure or the lack of it, and many other aspects of a dialog signature. And I give many examples to show how different characters would say, or convey, the same information.

Here is an example from my suspense book A Ton of Gold (Oak Tree Press, 2013).

“I think Eula is right. Bessie didn’t start the fire. Could you get a forensic pathologist to look at the body? Do a complete autopsy?”
Glothe cracked the knuckles of his left hand. “Do that sometimes. Pretty good guy in Tyler. Doc Haas. Course, usually Willa suggests it, calls him.”
Mark didn’t say anything.
“Maybe get Doc Simms to call Willa. Make her think it’s his idea.”
“Good. How about not letting it out that Eula is alive?”
“That’s a bigger stump.”

The sheriff Glothe doesn’t worry about complete sentences, or subjects or verbs, for that matter.  Mark, on the other hand, has a more structured speech.

There’s definitely more to dialog that copying what you hear in the post office.  Make your novel sing – and sell – with great dialog.

Amazon Author page:
Twitter: @jamesrcallan

A Ton of Gold (Oak Tree Press, 2013)
On Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions

How to Write Great Dialog (Oak Tree Press, 2014)
On Amazon in paperback

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Beware Vanity in Independent's clothing

In July of 2011 I launched Kvaad Press. Kvaad started off offering editing and e-publishing with the promise of print on demand in the near future. I knew going in I'd want to pay things forward, having benefited from the generosity of more established writers throughout my career, so I let it be known Kvaad Press was eager to work with new and aspiring writers. After a half-dozen queries from aspiring authors who expected to have their 400-page masterpieces edited for $100 or less, I pulled down my "editing" shingle. I still edit, but only through professional or academic networking. I've occasionally done piecework for a book packager, frequently edit players' resources for various role-playing games, and am taking time away from editing my second doctoral dissertation to write this column.

Though I'd backed out of freelance editing pending development of a better marketing strategy, I continued to look into becoming a publisher. I read up on the rapidly evolving industry, attended webinars, even acquired a SCORE mentor who helped me develop a business plan worthy of wooing hypothetical investors. At the end of six months of intense exploration and education I determined that I didn't want to be a publisher. Or, to be more accurate, that I possessed none of the character traits and few of the work habits that enable successful publishers to be, well, successful. I could fake them, of course, but I'd be miserable doing so. And when I got tired enough to abandon the act, my business would spiral into the ground. Maybe take my house with it.

So I started looking into existing independent publishers—men and women who were doing it right. To be honest, in addition to looking for a potential partner in publishing my original fiction I was kinda hoping I'd unearth a few editing gigs in the process. It was while looking for editorial work that I discovered the cockroach in the soufflé.

Four and a half years ago I crossed columns with a fellow Novelnaut who was singing the praises of indy publishing. At that time I was a traditionalist who tended to conflate indy press with vanity press and saw nothing good about either. She set me straight—or rather got me interested enough to investigate on my own and discover how different the two forms of publishing are. Now, years later, as I started my investigation I was impressed with how indy had expanded—gone mainstream, as it were. It looked as though even the major houses, the big traditional publishers, were embracing the movement with special imprints devoted to helping the indy writer/publisher get on her feet. I shared my observations with a long-time writing and editing buddy of mine in Indiana who, having lost his position as an English instructor a few years ago, was now editing for a book packager. My cheery naiveté compelled him to let me in on the Awful Truth: He does not work for a book packager. He's an editor with Author Solutions. (For those who are wondering: This revelation did not end our friendship; didn't even come close. I understand doing what you must to feed your family.)

For those who may not have heard, Author Solutions Incorporated, ASI, is a highly predatory vanity press—that is to say a publisher whose income is dependent on fees charged writers, not sales of books. ASI's business is convincing new and inexperienced writers it can provide services beyond their reach; services that are in fact readily available if one knows where to look. The only benefit ASI offers is their own substantial markup. Anyone who's been in the business knows to avoid ASI—and a lot of initially unsuspecting writers who've been burned turn from ASI to one of the many new publishing avenues that had so pleasantly surprised me.
Way too many of those new roads to publication are the same treacherous street.
Author Solutions also does business as Author Hive, Author House, Author Learning Center, BookTango, FuseFrame, iUniverse, Palibrio (in Spanish), PitchFest, Trafford Publishing, and Xlibris. The link between those DBAs masquerading as stand-alone companies and ASI is pretty easy to see if you look. They all live at the same street address in Bloomington, Indiana, for one thing.
But ASI's other operations are more difficult to detect.
Take Writer's Digest, for example. Whatever you think of the quality of their advice, WD has always been about helping writers, right? Unless you decide to take advantage of their indy-support publishing service: anything submitted to their Abbott Press goes straight to Bloomington. Americana bedrock Reader's Digest offers LifeRich Publishing to hopeful new writers—another pipeline to ASI. Feel-good inspirational publisher Hay House feeds ASI through their Balboa Press. Guideposts does the same through Inspiring Voices. And Thomas Nelson, the nation's largest Christian publisher, calls their ASI chute WestBow Press.
The major houses play, too.
It may not be surprising that Penguin's Book Country press for new writers is actually ASI—Penguin owns ASI, after all. But Simon & Schuster's new-writer-friendly Archer Publishing and Harlequin's Harlequin Horizons imprint are both ASI as well.
Perhaps most disturbing to me was the discovery that companies that do support—or have in the past supported--indy writers have partnered with ASI. Bowker Identifier Services's editing and layout packages and a whole slew of editorial and promotional services offered by Lulu are really ASI.

So what's wrong with a vanity press? Sure, ASI charges authors for services they can get elsewhere, but they offer the convenience of packaging them together, they're entitled to make a little money doing that, right?
The Kirkus Review carries a lot of weight with libraries and bookstores. Anyone can buy a review in Kirkus for $425. The review will be honest—there's no way to buy praise the ms doesn't deserve—so Kirkus doesn't publish the review until you release it. The review will then appear on their website and be included in their e-mail newsletter at no charge. Some reviews are selected by the editors of their print magazine; there's no charge for that, either. However, if you want the review in the print magazine you can pay for its inclusion. You can also buy Kirkus ads and have your title and review distributed to the booksellers in their database. Want your book reviewed by Kirkus Reviews, maybe featured on their website and mentioned in their newsletter? Kirkus offers promotional packages for $1,500. So figure $425 + $1,500 = $1,925; pretty solid exposure from a respected source for less than $2,000. Of course you can get exactly the same service through any of ASI's services for (and this is from the Lulu site) $3,199. In other words, the convenience of not having to deal directly with Kirkus will set you back $1,200.

Am I saying don't trust any of the small publishers who say they want to work with new independent writers? Of course not. Even though—contrary to the victory cries of hundreds of indy publishers—the big traditional houses aren't going anywhere, these little, independent presses have a lot to offer both readers and writers. If you're not going to publish yourself, seek them out.
But don't sign a thing until you've done your homework and know who you're really dealing with.

Monday, February 17, 2014

My Favorite Cliches

I found myself talking to my student the other day, warning him against having a scene at the end of his novel where all the potential bad guys listen as his detective sums up the scene. Why? It’s cheesy. People don’t like it, I said. It’s a cliche.

But that’s not exactly true, is it?

If people didn’t like that particular cliche, they’d stop buying Agatha Christie novels. And sure, it is a cliche, but we have all sorts of modern cliches that we love and keep watching and reading. I have a list of of them, point them out to my wife (whether she wants me to or not) any time I see them.

The thing is, maybe I should rethink that dictum that I used to harrang that poor student.

Here are my six favorite cliches.

1. No one slows down on the freeway. This one is purely for television and movies.

Imagine this scene: the good guy is chasing the bad guy down a freeway in Los Angeles. Both parties have guns and are swerving, smashing into cars, and blasting away.

I’ve driven the Los Angeles freeways for years, and any time that anyone is acting erratically, I get out of that person’s way.

In television and the movies, these nearby cars are full of drivers with appointments that they really really need to get to. Gunfire and accidents be damned. They’ve got that meeting at 4pm, and they will not pull over or vary their speed for any reason whatsoever.

2. The dying really want to reveal the killer.

If I’m ever lying on the street after having been shot and someone comes up to me and asks, “Who did this to you?” I think the conversation is going to go something like this.

“Um, could you just call me an ambulance?”

“You’re dying. No time for that now. Tell me who did this to you so I can find justice.”

“Really, at this moment I’m less worried about justice and more about stopping the bleeding.”

“No, you’re going to be dead in a few moments. Nothing can be done. Who did this?”

“You’re not really a doctor, right? I’d really like to get the opinion of someone who went to medical school, so if you’re not going to call, I think I’m going to try to myself.”

And on and on. Instead we always get the bit where the victim says something that can be understood in two ways. The victim is always more concerned about catching the bad guy than his or her own health.

3. No one takes a break in their work when talking to the police. They just don’t have the time.

I’ve talked to the police as a bystander and witness a couple of times, and there has never been a moment when I was so busy that I couldn’t take a break from what I was doing.

If you’ve ever seen Law and Order, there’s always a scene with a witness doing a nondescript job, and he just can’t stop.

“Who killed your mother?”

“Well, I’ll give you my theories as long as I don’t have to pause in stacking these boxes. These boxes have to be stacked in a certain order at a certain time. Otherwise, bad things happen.”

“No problem, we don’t want you to get fired. You keep on stacking those boxes at a ridiculously fast pace while we talk.”

4. People are really annoyed to see the police.

Witnesses, victims, everyone hates to see the police coming to their doors. If there has been a crime in my neighborhood, I want the police to show up. I thank them. They’re the people who are keeping me from being a future crime victim. If they have time, I’m going to give them thanks and a cold beverage of their choice.

For some reason though, so many people in fiction are just annoyed that the police have shown up after a crime. In fact, you can often tell who the bad guy is because he’s the only one who’s not a jerk to the police in first chapter.

I’m sure that people are rude to police officers all the time, but come on, not everyone is hostile to the uniform. I’m certainly not.

5. No one wants police protection.

I’m always flabbergasted by the character who has a hitman after him but doesn’t want police protection. “Well, I can’t live in a bubble. I can’t run scared my whole life.”

Really? How stupid are you?

Why not live your life in a bubble until the murderers stop coming after you? Probably, this one dude who wants you dead is going to be stabby for only a short span of time. During that time, having a couple of cops hanging out isn’t the worst thing.

This is an open invitation for all police officers: I am currently not being hunted by anyone, but if you want to have an officer sit outside my house just in case, I’m perfectly all right with that. In fact, I feel extra safe because I happen to live next door to a police officer right now. I hope every criminal in the greater Los Angeles area knows that the cops are next door to my house.

6. The detective walking the street showing pictures to everyone.

This was the hallmark of the 1980s detective television show. Simon and Simon run into a roadblock. All they have is a photo, so they wander the streets during a musical montage showing the picture to people of all ages doing various sporting activities. The people shake their heads sadly until finally the song that the network paid a lot of money for is coming to the end and someone nods enthusiastically and points in a direction.

Bingo! We have our kidnap victim.

* * *

Here’s the thing however -- these are all cliches, and I enjoy a lively round of point out the implausible to my wife, but I also know that these cliches make the stories more exciting and more fun.

Real investigation isn’t as much fun to me. The biggest cliche? The private detective. This profession exists, of course, but there are much easier and more practical ways to engage in investigation than fictional detectives use.

But who wants practical? I bought that Dick Francis book to lose myself for a few hours.

Maybe I’ll rethink my advice to that student.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Inspired By Your Surroundings.

One of the downsides of being a full-time work-at-home employee for my day job is that by the time the weekend rolls around, I’m really rather tired of being stuck inside my house. My home office, which used to be my writing refuge, has by and large become an oversized cubicle, and by Saturday I’m tired of looking at it.

So, when I’m ready to sit down and write for a short while, and particularly after I’ve been working on the current novel project for a bit, I’m increasingly turning to alternative venues. The local branch of the public library is almost always my first choice. It’s close and quiet, and there’s just something about sitting among all those rows of bookshelves that almost always succeeds in kick-starting my writing motor.

And then, there are those places you visit which end up inspiring your writing. Parks, museums, art galleries, historical sites, ball parks and famous or unusual buildings have all fed the muse at one time or another. For me, such a place is Union Station here in Kansas City. Celebrating its 100th birthday later this year, the station had largely been closed for many years due to deterioration and dwindling train passenger traffic. After a massive restoration and renovation effort, it reopened in 1999 as both a train station and an entertainment destination, with restaurants, shops, a movie theater, a youth-focused science museum, and spaces for traveling museum exhibits.

I fell in the love with the station the first time I set foot inside it. Along with our Liberty Memorial and World War I Museum which sits just across the street, it’s long been my favorite city location to visit, and I always encourage friends visiting for the first time to check out both landmarks. You’re welcome for the plug, Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association. As for the station itself, it has many areas where visitors can sit and watch the world go by, including a great open café right in the middle of its vast “Grand Hall.” I’ve availed myself of that cozy little eatery on numerous occasions, enjoying my lunch while writing or editing a manuscript.

Once, just to see if I could do it because I had decided to write a story for submission to a local magazine, I sat myself at a table with the “task” of writing from scratch a story set there at the station. A few hours, one lunch and several glasses of tea later, I had a near-complete first draft of what ended up becoming "Absent Friends," which I eventually sold to that magazine. Since then, the station has continued to serve as a place where I can go and immerse myself in my writing.

So, when you’re looking to escape from home so that you can write for a bit in relative peace, or because you're hunting for inspiration, where do you go?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Have Them Eating Out of Your Handouts

One of the complaints I often hear from authors is that they can't seem to get their signings and book info into the pubic eye through the local newspapers. I don't have that problem and I have taught several organizations in my area a few ideas on how this is accomplished.

I once was a lowly paid newspaper reporter. I remember days of looking for feature pieces to fill up the pages and make my editor happy. I also remember getting excruciating “press releases” from the public. Sometimes it was more work to rewrite them than to use them.

Now I work with newspapers in 4 counties in my area, as well as TV and radio. I also learned a lot of techniques while doing PR for the local Sisters in Crime group and the library local authors' program. Here's my step-by-step method:

First, make a list of all media outlets in a 40 mile radius of the area where you will be speaking or signing. Call local libraries to find the local papers and use the Internet.

Call each outlet, ask for the name of the Features Editor. Hopefully, they will put you on the line with that person. If not, they usually have an outlet called "Community News." Get a FAX number or email where they would like to receive announcements. If you send a FAX, have letterhead stationary (order it from Vista Print).

When you send a FAX, never let it fall into the hands of whoever goes by the FAX machine. It can wind up in the general file or the trash. ALWAYS put the name of someone on staff so they will receive the paperwork. It may get lost on their desk, but at least it will make it there. Make the effort to change the name on each FAX you send. No generic “Features Editor” in the routing.

Even a small paper will feel good that you even think they HAVE a designated person as a feature editor. Small papers struggle and deserve respect. NEVER make demands or be pushy or overbearing. But, remember, they need to fill their paper and you can make their job easier by knowing how to write an effective Community News release. Here's a sample:

TO: (insert editor's name)
Local author Sunny Frazier will speak on January 15 at the Kings County Library, 401 N. Douty, Hanford. The event begins at 6:30 pm until 8 pm.

Frazier is the author of the astrological mystery, Where Angels Fear. This is a free event. Refreshments will be provided by Friends of the Library. Books will be available for purchase and a book signing with the author will follow.

Offer (but don't insist) that you are available for an interview if they have room for a longer piece. Or, create your own piece (write in 3rd person and try not to be too self-serving). ASK if they have room and would care to run it. Don't push a press packet on them or make them feel like they are there to do PR for you.
Ask about deadlines. I have papers that want info 3 weeks in advance, some only a week. Cozy up to the librarians. Make flyers and FAX or mail them to the library. Ask if they would like you to make an appearance.

Always act as if the media people are doing you a huge favor--because they are. Give the feature editor a copy of your book as a thank-you. I also make sure the local library has a copy. Libraries are often forced to cut back on book buying.

My info always makes it into the newspapers, TV and radio. The news people know my name and my credentials. I keep my contacts current by checking every six months to see if there have been staff changes. I write a nice thank-you note and praise for any article written about me (even if they spell my name wrong). By doing my end of things, and doing it well, they are more than willing to give me publicity for my next project.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Writing in a different format: the Epistolary novel

Ever since I read A. P. Herbert’s Poem, “At the Theater (to the lady behind me)” I’ve been toying with the idea of writing an epistolary novel--a story written just in the form of letters.  In Herbert's poem he starts out, “Dear Madam you have seen this play, I never saw it till today…” and he goes on to paint a picture of a very frustrated theater patron being disturbed by a woman who is narrating the play (you know how that feels).  You can feel the anger, the frustration and the disdain for the woman and her friend.

This is not a new format for poetry.  There are epistolary poems dating back to the 8th century, maybe even earlier.  But I read A. P. Herbert’s poem when I was a child and it made such an impact on me that I have written several poems in exactly that format.  You’d think writing the poems would quench my desire, but it hasn’t.  It is still my dream to write a full length romance just using letters.

A few years ago I read James Patterson’s novel, “Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas” and that ignited the fire even more.  This wasn’t written as letters, but a series of journal entries as a young mother explains to her infant son how she met and fell in love with his father.  I loved that book … a masterfully crafted romance without one descriptive sexual encounter, yet so full of emotion.

Like I said I toyed with the idea many times, but never quite got around to penning it.  Why?  Maybe it’s the restriction of the format.  The POV is of only the writer and is further restricted by the relationship with the one to whom the letter is written.  Events that could impact those two people could only be written about from the perspective of the letter writer’s direct experience.  If not crafted properly it could leave lots of holes in the narrative.  Or maybe it’s my lack of confidence in my ability to write in a format that deviates from the writer as the omniscient narrator.

To improve and expand my writing skills in that area, I tried to do a little research on epistolary novels.  I found a short list of epistolary novels on Wikipedia, but not much on the craft of writing them.  If there is any of you who know of a resource that would help a person hone this specific skill, I’d like you to tell me about it.

Until I get the courage to leave the safety net of the omniscient narrator and write my love story as an epistolary novel, I will leave you with my epistolary poem written when I was a teenager.

To the Preacher

Dear Sir,
   I watch you very close,
   But you don’t know me, I suppose?
   I listen to the words you say to me
   And try to be what I ought to be.
   You speak the words of truth, I know,
   Because I search the bible to see if it’s so.
   But there is only one little flaw:
   What I heard, is not what I saw.

   So often you speak of humility,
   But I don’t know the meaning, you see,
   For when I look upon your side
   All I see is pomp and pride.
   Jesus was a lowly man
   Ate with sinners and publicans
   But because my father is a drunken man
   He is not welcomed to shake your hand.
   All this and more I see,
   Plus the church is filled with hypocrisy.
   We need a broom to sweep the floor,
   Starting from the pulpit, right to the door.
   But all this shouldn’t surprise me when
   The church is led by businessmen
   Oh my humble spirit longs to see
   Your destiny in eternity.
                 Signed: yours truly
                       Grieved within.
   P.S. I hope the broom sweeps out the sin!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Headhunting and Short-Story Writing: Two Nearly-Lost Arts

As an anthropologist who spends a great deal of time thinking about culture, I’m always on the lookout for professions that appear to be vanishing from our world.  Alchemists are few and far between.  Shamans are having a hard time making a living.  Conjurers, shape-shifters, taxidermists, and jesters have all been hit hard by recent economic downturns. 

But nobody is currently experiencing more economic and social woe than the headhunter and the short-story writer.  Vilified, feared, and loved by none, the short-story writer lurks at the edge of polite society, practicing dark unsavory arts, choosing words carefully, willfully ignoring the lack of audience.  The tribal headhunter, though somewhat more respected and appreciated, must also become something of an outcast in order to thrive.  The market for shrunken heads, about as robust as the market for short stories, gives constant reminder that these labors are no longer appreciated.

So I decided to write a short story about headhunters.  I began with Robert James Waller’s masterful tome “The Bridges of Madison County.”  Weighing in at a whopping 38,000 words, this book was a massive hit, inspiring a movie and scores of action figures.  I enjoyed the book, but found it lacking.  Waller had the perfect set-up for headhunting, and every time I turned the page, I thought it was coming.  But it never did.   I had to do something about that.

My short-story “The Cannibals of Madison County” is a cannibal-laden homage to Waller’s vision.  And being a short story, it has no home in the modern world unless one can be crafted. 

I put the story up as a Kindle short story, because let’s face it, there’s nowhere else to publish these days except Highlights for Children, and they’re cagey when it comes to headhunting.  I intend this as an experiment.  The story is only 18 pages long, and you can download it free today.  If you get a moment, you could help out by reading the story and then, if you like it, give a short review.  If I can get 15 good reviews, I can blast the story on all the sharing pages and get thousands of readers.

In any case, this has been a fun project, and I plan to keep you posted as to the results.  Thanks for reading.

Get your free copy today by clicking HERE

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Special guest author Melodie Campbell: I AM NOT A "a sexy porn gerl" and other Twitter mishaps

Melodie got her start writing comedy. In 1999, she opened the Canadian Humour Conference. She has over 200 publications including 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories, and has won 9 awards for short fiction. Her fifth novel, a mob caper, is entitled The Goddaughter's Revenge (Orca Books). Melodie was a finalist for the 2012 Derringer, and both the 2012 and 2013 Arthur Ellis Awards. She is the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. Catch Melodie's humour column for The Sage, Canada's magazine of satire and opinion.

It started with the Berlin Brothel.  Lord knows why a brothel in Berlin decided to follow me on Twitter.  I don’t live in Berlin.  I’ve never worked in a brothel.  Don’t think I’ve even typed the word ‘brothel’ before now.  I certainly haven’t said it out loud.

Then some wag from Crime Writers of Canada said: “Maybe they’ve read your first book Rowena Through the Wall.  That’s it!  You have a following in Germany. The girls who work there have to do something in their downtime.”

Let me do a cyberspace blush here.  Okay, my first book is a little hot.  “Hot and hilarious” as one reviewer put it.  But it’s not x-rated.  It’s not even R, according to my daughter.  (Husband has yet to read it.  We’ve hidden it well.)

Then friend Alison said: “It’s a brothel!  Maybe your latest crime comedy, The Goddaughter’s Revenge, is required reading by the owners.”

But back to Berlin.  I didn’t follow them back.
Somehow, that didn’t matter.  The word was out.

‘Amateurvids’ announced they were following me.  Good, I thought.  I like nature films.  Take it from me, this outfit doesn’t film bunnies in the wild.  Well, maybe a certain type of wild bunny.

I didn’t follow them back.

Then ‘Dick Amateur’ showed up, wanting to connect. Friend Gloria read a few of his posts and said: “You at least deserve a Pro.”

So I didn’t follow him back.

Next, I got “Swingersconnect” following me.  Swingers?  I get sick on a tire hanging from a tree.

I didn’t follow them back.

‘Thepornfiles’ were next in line.  I didn’t peek.

Then two days ago, an outfit specializing in ‘male penis enhancement’ turned up.  Now, I ask you.  Do I look like a male in my profile photo?  Is Melodie a male name?  And not to be pedantic, but isn’t ‘male’ in front of the p-word a bit redundant?  Is there any other kind?

Which brings me to the tweet in my twitter-box today:  “Hey sexy porn gerl!” (yes, that’s girl with an e).  Let me state categorically that I am not now and have never been a “sexy porn gerl” (with an ‘e’ or any other vowel).

You wouldn’t want me to be.  No one would.  For one thing, I can’t see two feet in front of me without glasses.  Things that used to be perky now swing south. And my back hurts if I bend over to pick up a

So I’m not following them back.

Melodie Campbell is the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. You can follow her comedy at 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

My Own Exclusion Zone

I heard a radio program the other day about someone who traveled into the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Chernobyl, the place in Russia where a nuclear reactor exploded twenty-five years ago, and has been sitting quietly free of most people since then. A man went into the zone for research and described what has become of the city. The forests have taken over, of course. Birch trees grow up through apartment buildings and reclaim streets. Wolves and ponies wander about freely. What was once a city has been eaten by the woods.

I find this so fascinating. It’s beautiful in its way although please take my advice and don’t google images of Chernobyl. Most of them are unforgettably horrible.

But the way nature has taken back the streets is kind of wonderful, and I have always had a fascination with places that people have abandoned. I’ve sought them out. Those places are powerful. The rise of what we think of Ancient Greek culture was a reaction to what they called Cyclopean architecture. Some previous Greek civilization had created enormous buildings and then abandoned them. Greece fell into a period of dark ages, but the sight of these giant buildings made them yearn for a past they had no record of. The abandoned buildings brought out a romantic side that created the culture of Homer, Plato, and Euclid.

There is something about places that people have abandoned. Campgrounds in the off season are always a surprise. The individual spots lose their individuality, and it’s hard to distinguish one from the next. I wandered around a campsite this autumn, just the dog and my wife and me. I came across a homemade bow, curved bit of wood with a string hanging loosely, and I smiled to think of some kid making and playing with it. But no, that wasn’t it. The string was too loose. This was a bow to help make a fire. This something a father had made to teach his children the ancient art of making fire from friction. He was teaching them something that fathers and mothers had taught their children for ages and ages.

And I think about my trip years ago through Fort Ord, the military base near Monterey, California that had been abandoned. I was there to visit the college that had been built on the site, but I took a wrong turn and ended up in the town that had once housed the military personnel. The neat rows of houses still stood. The driveways were not cracked. The place just stood empty with parks and playgrounds in near complete silence.

And I think about my trips with my father-in-law through the deserts of California exploring abandoned mines. Each mine had been miles and miles from civilization, so each mine had become its own town. The people who lived their left their trash behind in heaps, mostly food cans hacked open at the top with their hatchets. The piles of trash that normally would have angered me gained a kind of lonely significance in the desert, the only monuments to people who had been so desperate they’d gone out to one of the hottest places on Earth to dig through rock. Most of them had failed, and now bats had taken over the caves they’d dug. We’d go into the mines and stare at the bats and look at their trash heaps and think about those men.

And I think I’ve figured out my retirement job now. I love places that people have been and left. I think that when I retire, I will be a travel writer for places in the off-season and places people didn’t want anymore. What could be more beautiful than a factory sitting empty and alone taken over by cats? How could the Grand Canyon be more spectacular than on a Tuesday afternoon in February?