Call of the Writing

Imagine how rewarding it could be to have a tradition of sharing the day's pages with a few fellow writers around the fire as Jack London did early last century at Wolf's Lair. He'd read aloud what he had written that day and get real-time reactions from friends.  If Buck's howl resonated in the imaginations of his listeners, then the passage succeeded.  Buck's extraordinary connection with his canine ancestors as he dreamt of freer days in the pages of the manuscript that would become Call of the Wild (published 1903) came alive in the flickering darkness and Jack knew that what compelled him had found its voice; his pen had touched truth that morning.  When that happened, imagine his excitement.  He had penetrated the universal heart and borrowed a pulse or two of Life.

First Edition

That arrangement among fellow writers was unusual back then. In today's publishing market where only 'finished' manuscripts are read by agents or editors, much less published, it may be vital to a writer's survival.

 

BEYOND THESE WOODS | Mark Roger Bailey

It is a pleasure to announce the release of my new novel and an exciting new character: Beyond These Woods -- featuring epidemiologist and rogue scientific gadfly, Dr. Lotte Keene.

Beyond These Woods

Lotte has fought and won many virus battles, yet after witnessing the death of her closest friend, Charley, in a horrific Brazilian disease outbreak, she has put the Centers for Disease Control and her high stakes war against pathogens in dangerous hot zones behind her.

Her skeptical relationship with authority and inconvenient habit of being right have stunted her career and undermined her professional reputation. Now, as she struggles to come to terms with life without Charley, she glimpses a telltale repetition of the symptomology of Charley’s sudden death … this time in California’s High Sierra Thunder Peak Wilderness. This clue to the cause of her greatest loss ignites an obsessive need to eradicate the killer. She breaks protocol and goes to Longwood, CA on a mission to confront her darkest fear.

To the CDC, Lotte’s breach of protocol is insubordination. To the environmental activist, Gabriel Fox, she is a complication of his master plan. For America’s elite intelligence apparatus, she is a threat to the nation’s security. For Longwood doctor Ben McCandle, Lotte challenges everything he thinks he knows about medical science.

Lotte Keene must identify the killer in the Sierra old-growth forest, determine if the ‘Ahwahnee Stroke’, as locals call it, is a corruption of Natural Law or a criminal act, and she must stop it before it spreads beyond the Thunder Peak Wilderness. Local suspicions of her motives mount, calculating corporate interests grow more sinister, dark operatives from Washington move against her work… and time is running out.

Dr. Lotte Keene is about to rewrite the rules of biogenetic science and cross the thin red, white and blue line between American principle and power.

BEYOND THESE WOODS is currently available for the Amazon Kindle and desktops, laptops, tablets, iPhone, Android and all handheld devices with the Kindle App available free from your favorite App Store.

Amazon KINDLE

gadfly -- a person who upsets the status quo by posing upsetting or novel questions.

The term 'gadfly' was used by Plato in the Apology[2] to describe Socrates' relationship of uncomfortable goad to the Athenian political scene, which he compared to a slow and dimwitted horse. (source: Wikipedia)

 

 

Mission: The Best Reading Experience

Recently, I learned that the edition of SAINT available on-line at Amazon contained formatting errors that diminished the quality experience I strive to achieve for every reader. In response, I have thoroughly reviewed SAINT's .mobi file, resolved formatting issues and added new features to enhance your reading experience.

New Features

  • Formatting refinements
  • Table of Contents
  • Improved chapter layouts
  • Titles

Thank you for your patience and enthusiasm for this novel. Please check out the newly improved SAINT (v1.1) at:

      Saint - Mark Bailey      

Video: John Berger Conversation with Michael Ondaatje

Two important writers discuss story telling and the creative process in a conversation recorded courtesy of the Lannan Foundation. I have read, been inspired by, and re-read several of these writers' books. John Berger's To The Wedding and Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion and English Patient are particular favorites of mine. This conversation was recorded at John Berger's farm in Quincy, Mieussy, France, October 2002.  Enjoy...

 

Resonance: Dreams give us lift...

Sometimes, a passage in a book stops us in our tracks. It might be that its meaning intersects with a personal moment of significance, or it states a truth so powerfully that we pause to appreciate the moment of connection. Here is one that caught my eye today.

 

 

Dreams give us lift ...  The trick is to bear up after the weight of life comes back.

Ivan Doig HEART EARTH (p. 133)

The Day We Lost 3,000 Futures

The attacks of 11 September 2001 changed the landscape of the American experience. We are scarred by the intensity of passions that swept genius into the fires, tested by the assaults on our faith in the dream, and diminished by lost opportunities. Despite these losses, we grow stronger in vision, purpose, and our hunger for a better future... together.

 

 

In Remembrance:

David Angell (Apr 10, 1946 - Sep 11, 2001)

Related Links:

9/11 Attacks

The September 11 Digital Archive

© Mark Roger Bailey 2011

IN THE WAKE | Per Petterson

When the Old Life is Gone

Per Petterson's novel of personal grief, guilt and redemption is palpably authentic as release, if not renewal.

Petterson's set-up is inventive - Arvid Jansen regains consciousness pressed against a bookstore's closed glass door - and his writing is masterful. He hews close to a minimalist style with just enough character bubbling through to reinforce our sense of the narrator as human, in pain, and shouldering on. Arvid is flawed, not very much of the good person most of us hope for ourselves, yet he possesses the strength of the genuine loner. He is not railing against God or others. He is just afloat and fighting the drift.

Disoriented and beside himself, Arvid is buffeted by flashes of sorrow. We discover that his parents and brother are dead, killed in a ferry fire that was nearly his own fate. He is estranged from his wife and daughters, one of whom recognizes her father's free fall and is showing signs of  the girl child mothering the grown man. Arvid navigates turbulent dark emotions, confronts the paralyzing losses, climbs back to his feet and takes the first courageous steps toward resumption of life. Not his former life, for that is utterly gone, but a life to be lived.

IN THE WAKE is the novel that Petterson wrote prior to his breakout bestseller, OUT STEALING HORSES, which is a more restrained and ultimately more timeless work.

 

Storyselling: The Query

It is time to shake off the writing routine of the last year, and turn to marketing. Storytelling to Storyselling

The discipline, focus, and skills that were so essential while writing the novel must now make way for business demands and professional responsibilities. Characters that have been present in every waking thought for so long now have competition for my attention. And so it is with sharpened senses; heightened awareness of current events, business trends, cultural tremors; and unflinching focus on the mission that I turn my attention to the all-important query.

A good query letter is a blend of copywriting, letter writing, business writing, and the finest creative brief writing, all balanced for clarity and purpose. A great query letter rises above to the level of message that ignites the imagination. This hybrid of writing craft and style is an Everest of a challenge. It must inform, establish credibility, entertain, and entice. The craft part can be fun. It is energizing to chisel away at the non-essential content in my drafts, like Michelangelo did with his block of Carrara marble 500 years ago until David stood naked in the piazza, as if he’d only been waiting for release from the stone. The art exists inside the clutter, and each bit of unnecessary verbiage that is cut away sharpens focus.

The first draft usually has a kernel of the desired power in it. There is a sense of the story's marketing potential, yet this aspect requires different intellectual tools and skills that often feel foreign to the author who has for the past year been so immersed in research, experimentation, and passionate story-weaving. My letter may have have excellence within in it, yet seen from this new perspective, more work is needed to separate the wheat from the non-essential chaff.

My approach is to aim for three paragraphs:

Hook - the unique value proposition my book offers expressed in a succinct and engaging statement that captures the big idea in a way that resonates immediately;

Core elements - my book described in three talking points; and

Credits - a relevant professional credential to reinforce the confidence instilled in the preceding two paragraphs.

The goal is to spare the reader any of the process of the book’s creation.  It should be lean and purposeful, a clarion call to the reader to engage in the book.

No one knows the winning formula for the perfect query letter.  Like any relationship, the successful query is a happy mystery. A convergence of desire, hope, stagecraft, sincerity, belief, facts, fiction, charm, shared aspiration, willing suspension of disbelief, drama, humor, strength, vulnerability, intellect, nerve, sensory awareness, risk, hunger, selflessness, selfishness, and luck. It is ethereal and elemental. Ephemera and permanence. The editor dearly wants to be surprised and yet, to open themselves to surprise, first they must trust. If the letter arrived in a quality paper envelope, the address legible, the letter intact, and the single page inside emerges into the rarefied light of their office not too dense with gray type, you have metaphorically caught your correspondent’s eye and made it across the miles to stand before them.

Now what?

Who are you?

If this is my initial contact, I go for an arresting statement of fact that captures the essence of the book. If this is my response to their request for an outline or sample chapters, I remind him/her that I am responding to his/her request. Next, a spark of light on my credits. Something about why he/she can trust my work.

Then, that lean, mean, irresistible pitch in an understated, to-the-heart-of-it flow about secrets this book reveals, and where it takes the adventurous reader.

If I feel up to risking my reader’s patience with an extra paragraph, I’ll explain how my proposed book stands apart. I’m on thin ice here, but if I have the right stuff – a reference to one of his/her client’s works to which my work has a meaningful connection, for example – I may attract enough interest to inspire a second reading, and a sense of me that resonates a day or two later.

Finally, a simple and sincere request to send them a few sample chapters. Perhaps the entire manuscript? (This alerts the reader that the manuscript is complete.) Thank you, (editor’s name HERE). I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours, (judge for yourself whether sincerely is on pitch). Have you established an authentic connection for which sincerely is appropriate and reinforcing? If so, then sign off sincerely. If not, leave well enough alone and end with Thank You.

Sincerely,

M.R.

Blogging is not Writing... or is it?

Blogging helps us keep our writing skills in shape.  It helps us raise our stake in the writing process.  We focus our minds, organize our schedule, invest in research, and engage with ideas.  We do so in a post that we may or may not publish, testing ourselves against an idea that may or may not merit a short story, a poem, a novel, or a screenplay. By this description, blogging sounds like writing with a capital W.

OUT STEALING HORSES | Per Petterson

Alone, Not Lonely

Several Decembers ago, while walking up a side street in the Colorado Rockies, I experienced a sense of being transported across time to another life. It should have scared me. Yet I knew exactly where I was - the Silver Boom-era Victorian houses, the approaching winter storm’s metallic taste in the air – and knew to a certainty that I had not been there before in this life. I was in surroundings that felt like home, just not my then current home. This effect happened to me again when I read the first page of PER PETTERSON's novel OUT STEALING HORSES, which begins:

Early November. It’s nine o’clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don’t know what they want that I have. I look out the window at the forest.  There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake. It is starting to blow. I can see the shape of the wind on the water.

That paragraph evokes sense memories that clarify and transport. Per Petterson has said that he worked extensively on the English translation with Anne Born and that he prefers the English text to his original Norwegian.  Reading this, it is possible to understand why.

We imagine other lives in the flickering cinema or while reading a good book.  This is the effect when Per Petterson’s narrator in HORSES, Trond Sander, includes us in his thoughts as he adjusts to life in the rural cottage to which he has retreated after the death of his wife and a career as an Oslo professional. We are drawn into his shrinking world and the occasional tricks of his memory as he shares past events with candid, unassuming, transparent detail. Trond is without artifice.  We like him immediately.  Even when he is not so accepting of himself, perhaps the more so because of his mild surprise at his own decay.

It is this contract of decent, at times self-deprecating truth-telling he establishes with us that enables some significant coincidences to pass into our accepting state of mind.  His meeting the former boyhood friend, Lars, half a century after life altering tragedy seems right in Trond’s contracting universe.  His daughter Ellen’s sudden reappearance after his abrupt escape to anonymity brings still more validation of his life’s choices and in Trond’s chosen time.  We trust that we will learn what we need to know. And we do.

Literary Northern Light

OUT STEALING HORSES is a book for writers.  We read, hope to occasionally glimpse a little of how he does it, perhaps detect a pattern, some clue to technique, yet Petterson’s style is organic, so thoroughly in tune with his mind that it is unlikely any of us can parse it successfully for its underlying machinery.  He may not even be aware of precisely how he accomplishes such precise emotional resonance.  One gets the sense that Per Petterson trusts himself to navigate the cross currents of the average life’s rapids, like when as a boy he discovers one of his father's secrets, he knows he should be troubled yet intuits that he should keep it to himself until he can determine its meaning.  When young Trond drops from a high branch to a horse’s back, he trusts that Zorro’s ghost will guide him to a suitably valiant flight on the mare’s back through the ancient Norwegian forest.  When instead his crotch meets the horse’s fence line of bone at the withers, he suffers the ignominy of busted balls and blinding, legendary pain, we wince and shift in our seat, relive our own first such catastrophe and invest a little more of ourselves in Trond’s story.

There is an intimate quality to Petterson’s writing here that brings Barry Lopez’s writing to mind. It is hard to imagine a more unexpected connection. Lopez, who is best known for his excellent non-fiction accounts that compete for impact with the best fiction, is a master of erudition, intimate detail, ethics and how the individual relates to him/herself. Petterson's writing is simultaneously understated and precise, a daring combination for fiction.

OUT STEALING HORSES won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007. I have added Per Petterson to my list of authors to watch and look forward to reading his other work.

Publisher's Blurb

OUT STEALING HORSES is the story of a man who has settled into a rustic cabin in an isolated part of eastern Norway to live the rest of his life with quiet deliberation. A meeting with his only neighbor, however, forces him to reflect on a fateful childhood summer. Petterson’s subtle prose and profound vision make OUT STEALING HORSES an unforgettable novel.

Graywolf Press

Six Finalists for 2010 ABNA Awards

The finalists in Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) contest are:

These six authors and their work have been selected from 10,000 unpublished works first entered in the contest in early February.

Two grand prize winners will be announced in Seattle on June 14, 2010.  One winner in each category - General Fiction and Young Adult Fiction - will receive a publishing contract with Penguin, including a $15,000 advance.

---------------

2009 ABNA Winner:  Bill Warrington's Last Chance by Jack King

2008 ABNA Winner:  Fresh Kills by Bill Loehfelm

On Writing "The PACIFIC"

Bruce C. McKenna Goes to War

Recently, Bruce C. McKenna, co-executive producer and lead writer on the HBO television mini-series, "The Pacific," stopped by the Wesleyan University campus for an interview about his latest project. He provided valuable insights into the challenges of adapting history to television, the importance of persistence in getting any project to the screen, and the role of the writer in the process from research and design of story architecture to defending the vision during production and presenting the final product to audiences. Look here for a link soon.

On the same day, Bruce presented the fourth episode of "The Pacific" in the Powell Family Cinema in the Center for Film Studies at Wesleyan University. His answers to questions display the historian's deep knowledge of his material, the screenwriter's respect for storycraft, and openness to sharing his seven year experience. Here are his remarks.

Avoid Mind Reading

Except your own. Writing to the market always falls short of the mark. Besides being a soul-numbing experience (because you end up essentially writing someone else’s inspiration), it cannot be researched sufficiently, drafted, rewritten, edited, rewritten again, shopped, edited, and published in time to capitalize on the market trend.  So, you have invested valuable time, energy, and effort in a project to which you are less than 100% committed, and about which you are less than passionate.

Start with what you want to read. Do what you think is right. Draft your concept.  Outline it, write a few chapters and share it with someone whose skill, perspective, judgment, interests, and discernment you respect.  Odds are that those pages will jump to life in the reader’s mind because you care, because you’re invested in something you want to say, in a tale you want to tell.

Trying to forecast the market, or read editors’ or agents' minds wastes your time.  It also paralyzes your writer’s instrument.  The skills that you develop as a writer are important, high performance, precision tools.  Don’t use your scalpel as a screwdriver.  Don’t use your best sagacious voice to make someone else’s hero sound interesting. Respect yourself, your ideas, and your time.  Follow your muse, your heart, and craft the stories you think matter, the ideas, subjects, and characters that wake you at 3:00 am.

100 Best Novels – Clues for the Novelist

Comparing The Modern Library Board's List of the Top 100 Novels 1900 - 1999 to the Readers' List gives me some reasons for hope.  Looking at the top 10, for example:

Board's List

1.  Ulysses, James Joyce

2.  The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

3.  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

4.  Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

5.  Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

6.  The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

7.  Catch-22, Joseph Heller

8.  Darkness At Noon, Arthur Koestler

9.  Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence

10. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Reader's List

1.  Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

2.  The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

3.  Battlefield Earth, L. Ron Hubbard

4.  The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

5.  To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

6.  1984, George Orwell

7.  Anthem, Ayn Rand

8. We The Living, Ayn Rand

9.  Mission Earth, L. Ron Hubbard

10.  Fear, L. Ron Hubbard

This 1990's poll continues to generate discussion about the most popular books vs. best literature of the 20th century.  The Modern Library's talking points are just the beginning.  For example:

Is it possible to compare books as different as Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, and Brave New World? Are there any features that unite these three books? More widely, are there any literary features that unite the best books as a whole?

My interest here is less intellectual or academic.  What I see is the state of literary art in 1999, not just from writer's and publishers' perspectives, but from the reader's perspective. What moved readers sufficiently that they were willing to take time to vote, and write, and talk about it?  Aside from the fact that we are wired to be social creatures, inclined to exchange ideas, count and make lists, what is it that makes these novels in particular list-worthy?

These measures of popular appeal and perceived importance can be a source of information. Of course, they also can be a time sink amounting to nothing more than another set of questionably useful information.  Still, writers appreciate the hunt, the mystery, pulling back the layers of the story, even when it's their own.

So what can we learn from the Lists? If the Modern Library's Top 100 Novel List provides any lessons that are useful to the novelist, these might include the following:

Screenwriters tend to write novels that appeal to everyday readers more than to cultural leaders.

It's true. Ayn Rand (a.k.a. Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum), Russian-American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter, holds four places in the Readers' Top Ten List for her novels, Atlas Shrugged (1), The Fountainhead (2), Anthem (7) and We The Living (8). Ayn Rand was a screenwriter?!  Yes.  Her first literary success was the sale of her screenplay, Red Pawn, to Universal in 1932. Rand's aforementioned publications are novels, not screenplays; yet her initial success as a screenwriter suggests her creative instincts began in the language of showing rather than telling her stories.

By the way, the fact that L. Ron Hubbard comes second after Rand with three novels in the top ten almost made me toss this post-in-progress. But that's another entry.

Everyday readers buy more novels than the cultural elite buy novels.

There are more readers than cultural leaders and scholar-readers, hence more demand and larger market. Unless you are writing scholarly theses, which is good too, focusing your energies on the significantly larger market of novel readers increases the odds that your agent will succeed in closing a deal with a publisher who, after all, is very much in a numbers game.  If he/she can't sell it to at least 5,000 readers, it's D.O.A.

The top-twenty most popular novels in both lists, Board's and Readers', are dense with screen adaptations.

What, if anything, does this tell us?  Consider all channels as you develop your concept.  Popular sentiment has the printed book on the mat and down for the count.  That may or may not be true; only time will tell.  What is clear is that the story, the tale, the CONTENT is king. Demand for story/content is greater than ever before.  So it makes sense to adapt your material to your reader's/viewer's/listener's preferences.

On another front, a glance at Publishers Marketplace offers even more to confuse the muse...

> Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Books Editor Geeta Sharman-Jensen Takes Buyout

Is the book review market so deflated that early retirement, unemployment or part-time teaching at the community college look like reasonable career choices?

> Teen Sues Amazon for Deleted Kindle Homework Notes

What can the U.S. justice system possibly make of this 'dog ate my homework' story? Intellectual property and privacy issues notwithstanding, I'm following this case for what it reveals about the game changing ramifications of epublishing, wireless downloading, and even cloud-based computing for writers, publishers, and service providers.

> Supermarkets Responsible for One in Five UK Book Sales

That's bad news, right? No, that's good news; supermarkets are one of the sectors least damaged by the economic downturn. Rising paperback sales there suggest a market opportunity for novels - procedurals, romances, mysteries, conspiracies, religion - novellas, and self-help.

What's your view on the physics of successful publication?  What is the role of technology ... of publicity and exposure ... of representation ... of literary merit ... of perception as a genre master ... what differentiates the published from the unpublished ... is it any different in its end result than the old model?