You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2009.
I spent Thursday and Friday (and a sliver of Saturday) in Helena, Montana, for the Helena Bookfest. Among the highlights:
* Hearing Alan Weltzien’s lecture on Thomas Savage, author of The Pass (1944). Despite having written 13 novels, Savage (who died in 2003) has largely been forgotten among readers of literature of the West. He gets scant mention in anthologies and never garnered the attention that his talent deserved. That said, some prominent folks are banging the drum for him, Weltzien said. Among them are Annie Proulx, Thomas McGuane (who considers Savage a top-tier talent, right below Willa Cather) and the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley. Add to that group Weltzien himself, an English professor at Montana Western and the foremost Savage scholar. The next day, Weltzien, Montana State University Billings professor Sue Hart and Karl Olson of the Missoula Public Library held forth in a panel discussion on Savage and his wife, Elizabeth (with nine under-celebrated novels to her credit). It was a privilege to learn so much about this fine author, and I rushed out of that session and purchased The Pass (recently re-released by Riverbend Publishing and the Drumlummon Institute).
* Attending a panel discussion on Montana women in history. Mary Murphy, a professor at Montana State University, and Sarah Carter, editor of the recently released Montana Women Homesteaders, discussed the prominent role women played in shaping the settlement of this land. Of particular interest was Carter’s account of her research into single women (widowed or otherwise) who successfully homesteaded in this state in the early decades of the last century. She unearthed some amazing stories of persistence and strength. After that session, my mother — my companion for the weekend — rushed right out and bought her book.
* Finally meeting, face to face, the fabulous Carol Buchanan, author of God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana. She has become a good friend and trusted sounding board through the wonders of the Web, and I was pleased to finally put a voice to the face and the words. She’s as fine a person as I knew she would be.
* Last (in fact, it was first) but not least, meeting some of the folks at Riverbend Publishing, the publisher of my novel, 600 Hours of Edward. We’re just weeks away from launching it. It’s going to be fun.
More on that soon …
A late shout-out to Billings author T.L. Hines (Waking Lazarus, Faces in the Fire) for completing a half-marathon over the weekend.
The impetus: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which he was diagnosed with a couple of years ago and has beaten into remission.
From the story:
“I was diagnosed one month before my 41st birthday,” Hines said. “When you turn 40 you think: in all likelihood I’ve lived over half of my life. Then you have cancer and you think: I may have lived most of my life.”
And then, Hines said, you think: I might not see my daughter become a teenager.
A fine effort, sir. I’m privileged to know you.
All suggestions welcome on the following project:
In late November, I’m going to my hometown for a series of book events (still putting together the itinerary). One of the stops will be at Harwood Junior High School in Bedford, Texas, to speak with a few seventh-grade classes about books and reading. It’s a cool closing-of-the-circle exercise: The classes are taught by Donna Baumgartner, my third-grade teacher and one of the first I remember who was really passionate about reading and encouraging her own students to dive in.
I won’t spend a lot of time on my own book; seventh-graders aren’t really the target audience. What I’d like to do, instead, is talk about the universal aspects of good stories and the benefits of lifelong reading. If anybody out there has any examples that have worked in such settings, I’d love to hear about it. Hit me in the comments section.
Speaking of book events …
Later this week, I’ll be in Helena, Montana, for the Helena Bookfest. When I originally booked this event, it was to sell copies of my self-published novel. Well, that novel has now been picked up by a traditional publisher and won’t come out for a few more weeks, so I’m heading to Helena empty-handed (I’m not complaining, by the way). So I’ll meet and greet and offer up information on the impending release. I’ve worked up a brochure for the occasion. Want to see it?
This is all a long-winded way of saying that things will be slow around here for the balance of the week. My hope is to return from Helena with plenty of chain-moving material.
Until then …
I won’t wreck the fun of reading all the snark, but here were a couple of my favorites:
18. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: He could taste the familiar tang of museum air – an arid, deionized essence that carried a faint hint of carbon – the product of industrial, coal-filter dehumidifiers that ran around the clock to counteract the corrosive carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors.
Ah, that familiar tang of deionised essence.
9. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 32: The vehicle was easily the smallest car Langdon had ever seen. “SmartCar,” she said. “A hundred kilometers to the liter.”
Pro tip: when fleeing from the police, take a moment to boast about your getaway vehicle’s fuel efficiency. And get it wrong by a factor of five. SmartCars do about 20km (12 miles) to the litre.
None of this mitigates the fact that Brown will sell approximately 400 million kajillion copies of his new book.
Wyoming native Ron Franscell is a literary adventurer. The longtime newspaperman has three published books to his credit and three more working their way through the convoluted pipelines that lead to publication. Along the way, he has told stories of brothers forged by war and common experience, a journalist’s attempt to clear a man’s name no matter the cost and a shocking crime that affected Franscell in the most personal of ways.
He’s also a contributor to In Cold Blog and a man generous with advice and fellowship with up-and-coming writers. Many thanks to him for taking part in this Q&A:
Q: Your debut novel, Angel Fire, was picked by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century West. How many times was it rejected on the road to publication?
ANGEL FIRE was rejected 38 times before it was finally published by a small publisher in Alabama. Editors tended to say they loved the plot, the characters, the writing, the voice … but the book simply wasn’t commercial enough. By that, I now know they meant “we can’t justify the risk of publishing a first literary novel by an unknown writer.”
One of the rejecting houses was Berkley. So it was pleasantly surprising after ANGEL FIRE’s first printing of 3,000 sold out within a month and Berkley swooped in to buy the paperback rights to a book it had rejected in manuscript.
At writers’ conferences, you’ll hear editors say they yearn to sign the next Hemingway. Nice line. But in fact, they would likely reject the next Hemingway, since the first Hemingway changed everything. Publishing is a risk-averse business, despite its carefully tended risk-loving façade. If those editors were more honest, they’d say they want somebody else to take a risk on the next Hemingway so they can go out and find somebody who writes just like him if he becomes a bestseller.
Q: Your books — Angel Fire, The Deadline, The Darkest Night — fall into many genres, among them literary fiction, suspense and true crime. How difficult is it to move from genre to genre?
I accept that each genre has its unique conventions, but a story is a story. In fact, I believe deeply that every great story contains the same literary DNA, bits of every other story we’ve ever told.
In my books, I didn’t start out by choosing a genre; I chose a story. I didn’t set out to write a literary novel, a mystery and a true crime. To me, in the beginning, ANGEL FIRE was merely a story about two brothers in a close, necessary relationship; THE DEADLINE was inspired by a dream that caused me to ponder my own cynicism as a newspaperman; THE DARKEST NIGHT rose from a post-9/11 flight back from a reporting assignment in the Middle East, as I suddenly remembered another day, another time when my world changed in a single moment.
My upcoming projects continue this odd anti-trend. I just finished a nonfiction about an extraordinary road trip with my son to the Arctic, where we sipped a cocktail containing a mummified human toe and spent the longest day of the year under a sun that never set; an exploration into the lives of 10 survivors of mass killers; and a fun guidebook to more than 400 outlaw-related sites all over Texas. There’s also a screenplay haunting me.
But a word to the wise: genre-jumping is not the path to riches. Agents and editors will publicly advise writers to write what’s in their hearts, but publishing is a risk-averse business and they’re most interested in what has already succeeded for somebody else. Those same experts will sternly warn that there’s very little chance of publishing anything anyway … so it seems to me a writer should do what he wants to do and hope his agent is versatile and devoted. If I fail at publishing, at least I fail telling stories I want to tell.
Q: Your book-writing career sprang from a newspaper career. How did journalism help prepare you for the literary world, and in what ways did you have to make adjustments?
The transition has been made by so many writers, such as Hemingway and Twain, it might seem natural, but it isn’t. I believed it would be like shifting gears in a car, where the transmission is set differently for shorter and longer trips. I saw book-writing as just a longer trip. No problem, just shift into gear and settle back.
I was wrong. Much of what we learn in journalistic storytelling is anathema to longer writing, especially fiction. In a newspaper, we’re taught to distance ourselves from the material, to put our emotions in a box, to write short, fabricate nothing, write fast, and put the most important thing first. A novel would be very short if we put the most important thing first! But everything is fabricated, the revision is endless, and the story would be empty if it wasn’t filled with an author’s emotion.
Think about it: a poet, a songwriter, a news anchorwoman and a technical writer are all wordsmiths and each tells a kind of story — but none of a news anchorwoman’s skills make her a natural poet . . . none of a songwriter’s talents suggest he could write a good technical manual. We have many storytelling modes, and each requires special proficiencies.
My fiction has benefited from the authenticity of my newspaper writing, and my newspaper writing has benefited from my development of a more distinct voice and confidence in long fiction. They are blended most inextricably in narrative nonfiction like THE DARKEST NIGHT, where I Tell a true story with some of the tools in a novelist’s toolbox, such as foreshadowing, dramatic pacing, dialogue, and a more literary flourish.
My heart will probably always be in newspapers. I got into this business in the salad days of newspapering, the Seventies, when reporters conducted themselves like knights and readers trusted us to speak truth. Newspapers can do what books have seldom done: Change communities for the better. The pendulum has swung to a different height now, and the craft sometimes is its own worst enemy, but I still believe people want honest, good people to tell them what’s happening just beyond their view. In the Cyber Age, we might see the death of newspapers-on-paper, but there will always be a need for honest, good people to observe and report what is happening. The Internet, as it exists now, can be a seedy and untrustworthy place, and I believe readers will eventually seek out the farthest corners of that vast “library” for information they can trust.
Q: The West is a common bond among all your works. What is the West to you, and how does it shape your art?
The West is heart-earth to me. Out here, the landscape shapes us as much as we shape it. Landscape — and by extension, weather, seasons, space and climate — makes Western literature unique, and often plays a role in any story. These things are all part of the algorithms of our simplest decisions, from going to the market to planting a tree. And how come we never hear something in Manhattan described as “weathered”?
I grew up and have worked in small western towns, and I love the texture of a place. The simple image of a small-town water tower on the cover of ANGEL FIRE piques the memory banks of anyone who grew up in a place where the water tower loomed over everything.
West Canaan and Winchester (the setting in THE DEADLINE) are composite places, cobbled together from memory, imagination and reality. Everywhere and nowhere. They bring together many of the things that characterize small, high plains towns, from the courthouse lawns, to the balky back doors of rural movie houses, to the intimacy of this tiny settlement surrounded by nothingness. I seek familiarity when writing about a small town, and in small towns I find the most resonant memories and emotions.
Q: It’s safe to say that publishing is a bit chaotic these days. How can writers, particularly aspiring writers, best prepare themselves for what they’re facing?
It’s impossible to predict what the book industry will be doing next week, much less next year when a newbie will finish his first book. All a writer can do is improve his odds by making all the right moves. Too many variables go into the process of writing, pitching, contracting, marketing and selling a book. You cannot time the market, you can only get lucky.
But you can improve your odds, first and foremost, by writing a good book. Without a good manuscript, you lessen your odds of publication significantly. And every move you make after -30- [the newspaperman’s traditional symbol for “The End”] will improve or lessen your odds. The right agent, the right proposal, the right editor, the right time … on and on. If you did every single thing right, then your odds of publishing your novel are slightly better than 1-in-1,000. Woo-hoo!
Persistence is probably the most valuable quality a writer can have. One must persist in the writing, even when the Muse is off masturbating. One must persist in the process of finding a home for the book, in spreading the word, in showing up time after time (even when the bookstore didn’t prepare), and keeping the tiny spark alive so you can start the whole process again tomorrow. If you’re a would-be writer who isn’t up to the literary equivalent of an iron-man triathlon, stay on the porch.
Q: What is your ideal environment for writing?
At home. In my office. At my desk. In my chair. Usually morning.
Q: Any writer who has done an event or a signing has a story of abject of loneliness at the table. What’s yours?
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. In dozens of book events, I’ve only had one skunking. This small-town bookseller put the wrong date in the calendar, posted no signs or calendar listings, and left a teenager in charge of the store for the entire weekend. Nobody came in the store for two hours … and when I say nobody, I mean not a single soul crossed that store’s threshold that day. I left feeling that it wasn’t a lack of popularity on my part, but an impending bankruptcy on theirs. (Writers are exceptionally talented at such rationalizations.)
Q: How do you define validation as a writer? Is it the process itself? Holding the book in your hands? Reviews?
It’s when a reader comes up to me or writes letter and tells me how one of my books touched her in a memorable way. For me, this has always been an intimate contract between me and readers. Agents, editors, booksellers, publicists, reviewers, media are all necessary in delivering the book to a reader’s hands, but when the reader completes the circle and tells me something marvelous about one of my stories, that’s when I know I told a good story.
Q: Someone tells you he/she wants to write novels. Your advice is?
Write. Just write. Until you have written, nothing else is important.
Ron Franscell’s Web site: www.ronfranscell.com
The Darkest Night on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Darkest-Night-Sisters-Brutal-Innocence/dp/0312948468/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1253297486&sr=8-1
As I use YouTube mostly for looking at 1980s music videos (I love Duran Duran; do not judge me), I’ve been slow to pick up on the growing field of book trailers — a couple of minutes’ worth of visual art that, much like a movie preview, is intended to hook your interest and, it is hoped, prompt you to buy the book.
Here are a couple of book trailers from authors I admire, R.J. Keller and Kristen Tsetsi. Take a look:
Here’s what a trailer can look like if you have the power of a huge publisher and assured sales of a million-plus books behind you:
I’d be curious to hear what people think of these videos. Are you any more or less intrigued by the titles after viewing them? Do you think that the author should be featured as much as the book? Why or why not?
One of the things I’m going to do in the next week or so is start plotting out a trailer for my own book, 600 Hours of Edward. I really have no feel for how effective or ineffective it will be, but I’m doing it under the auspices of “Let’s run that sucker up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.” What I’m learning more and more about building buzz for a book is that it works in multitudes (seriously, I think a copy of The Lost Symbol is handed out to every airline traveler in the world) and at the grass-roots level, one reader at a time. If a book trailer helps to hook a few, it’s worth the effort.
* — I realize that “tape,” in the sense of videos, is an antiquity. I’m taking some creative license here.
Oh, the stories I’ll someday tell about my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward. Here’s the cover that it will sport when it’s released by Riverbend Publishing in November. In its short life, the book has had four covers — the initial crude one I did, the slightly better second effort by me, a professional version worked up by my friend Tim Ball, and now this one, for its debut with a traditional publisher.
I’m very happy with it; the color and the subtlety are a good fit with the book’s themes, I think. (Want to see a bigger version? Click here.)
Now that the cover is set, I’ve begun to build some pages dedicated to the book over at my Web site.
You can see one here.
And there will be more to come. Stay tuned.
Heidi M. Thomas, author of Cowgirl Dreams, checks in with a post on how to get through the swampy part of your story to the wonderful rolling meadow of a scene that is sitting on your head, just waiting to be written.
One idea she suggests: Take the story out of order.
But wait. Who says you have to write in a linear fashion? What if you write out of sequence? Aha! Now, you’ve given yourself permission to write the scene from your head and it flows wonderfully. Another Aha! Questions and solutions actually appear about how the character might have arrived here from there. You’re not stuck any more.
This is a wonderful counterbalance to my advice, which is much more brutish: Just write. Even if you know it’s utter crap. Even if you know that never in a thousand years will it hold up under the rewriting/revision stage. Even if you know that you’d rather dive naked into a swimming pool filled with razor blades than publish such pablum. Just write.
Both approaches have merit — the just-write ethos is mostly a product of my journalism training, where not writing is not an option — but I think Heidi’s suggestion is more elegant, and it probably has the potential for more pleasant surprises as your story bends inevitably from its original conception. Either way, be prepared for the retrofitting you’ll have to do. Heidi’s approach may require some extensive rewiring of scenes that you’ve already written. Mine will wear out your delete key.
For authors making electronic versions of their books available, it’s hard to imagine a better cause than this, Operation Ebook Drop, an easy way of providing military personnel overseas with reading material.
From the item:
What began as “Operation Kindle Ebook Drop” has now morphed into something much bigger — “Operation Ebook Drop,” in recognition of the multiple ebook-reading devices — cell phones, Kindles, Sony Readers, laptops, etc. – people use to read ebooks.
With Ed’s (Patterson) encouragement, over the next week or so, we’ll begin notifying our 1,300+ Smashwords authors and publishers about the opportunity to participate in Operation Ebook Drop.
One of the beauties of electronic books, aside from their portability, is that there’s only one production process: the original setup of the electronic file. No paper costs, no binding and glue, just a single book file that can be sold — or, in this case, given away — over and over and over again.
This is a great program, and I’d encourage anyone who’s able to participate.