Readers Rule

...if the writer has the energy, determination and persistence to develop more stories, and is open to learning and perfecting his or her craft, then s/he can offer another story, and maybe get a second date, and a third, and perhaps become a couple. How great is that?

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Novelist Ann Patchett Opens Bookstore in Nashville

Novelists are an adventurous breed. So are their readers.

For readers, all that is left after the decline, fall, and selling-off of Borders bookstores down to the fixtures, is grief. And memories of what a bookstore can mean to our quality of life. So many of my favorite weekend moments were spent in the stacks at my local Borders. Knowledgeable sales staff, friendly fellow explorers on the path to enlightenment picking through towering shelves of books, looking for one book, discovering dozens of others that informed new directions in their journey.

Sales of e-books surpassed sales of physical books earlier this year. This isn't a trend. We all know that our relationship to the written word is evolving. Schoolchildren totally get it; why carry a heavy backpack of textbooks when they can carry all the texts they will ever need in a featherlight tablet?  So what is the value of ink on paper? Sentimentalism?  For some, perhaps. For many, it is something deeper, much like the preference for live theater over cinema, or cinema over television, or television over netcast. For some, it is a physical connection, a tactile interaction with the process of reading. Like peeling back the layers of clues in a good mystery.

So what is to become of the book loyalist? Where is s/he to go? There is Amazon, of course. And Abe's, Powell's, Tattered Cover, Book Barn, B&N and others. Those are distant purveyors. The wandering weekend explorer has fewer options.

Karen Hayes and Ann Patchett

Now, in an interesting new reaction to digital media and the vanishing bookstore experience, we have the novelist opening a book store, a bricks and mortar emporium of the printed word. Whether Ann Patchett's new Parnassus Books in Nashville is the start of a new stage of publishing and distribution, or a quaint exhibit on the timeline of literature's evolution is to be seen. I hope it is the opening sentence in a powerful and engaging new story.

Related link

Julie Bosman | NYT:  Novelist Fights the Tide by Opening a Bookstore

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.

The Woman-Haters: A Yarn of Eastboro Twin-lights | Joseph C. Lincoln (1870-1944)

A short story evolves to become a short novel, and is published. The author achieves success with his modest yarns about life on Cape Cod. He publishes his tales in the Saturday Evening Post, enjoys a respectable living from his writing, summers on the northern Jersey shore, and dies in Winter Park, Florida. Through his stories, readers discover a Cape Cod populated by dreamers and doers, practical idealists who define success in terms of personal codes more than popular myths of the America's 20th century success machine. Readers travel from afar to experience his Cape Cod, and residents help them realize the dream. Soon, the Cape becomes a destination, an ideal of a better time in America, and a vacationer's mecca. In 1911, Joseph Crosby Lincoln (1870-1944), 41, publishedThe Woman-Haters: A Yarn of Eastboro Twin-Lights his story The Woman-Haters: A Yarn of Eastboro Twin-lights (A.L. Burt Company, NYC).  He was a third of the way through his career as a spinner of popular yarns set on Cape Cod, in a part of the country that was invisible to all but a few thousand residents and their occasional visitors from nearby Boston.  It was a place apart from the nation's rambunctious urban centers, a throwback to an earlier, self-reliant America.  Its people were taciturn, pragmatic, and passionate about life's possibilities. Lincoln distrusted modern progress and so he kept returning in his stories to the childhood home from which he had been taken after his father died and his mother moved him to the mainland. Lincoln's anti-modernist tendencies found expression in stories about this Yankee outpost on a narrow finger of sand so far out to sea that on especially clear days residents might fancy seeing their ancestors' old country to the east. Here adversity was vanquished, justice prevailed, and romance was eventually, ultimately requited.

In The Woman-Haters, once-married Seth Atkins and Emeline Bascom accidentally reunite on a beach at the extreme easternmost tip of the nation.  In this fantasy realm between sand and sea, they see their past actions in new light, comprehend their lives afresh, and rediscover their former attraction.

In 2010, enter Daniel Adams, a veteran writer-producer-actor-director who likes the cut of Lincoln's literary jib. Adams is one of movie-making's working class heroes who keep the dream of movie magic alive by gathering friends, locals, and would-be filmmakers together to put on a show. He attracts popular stars to his troupe, works long hours, stretches a dollar to the breaking point, and captures moments on film that become movie memories for the rest of us.  Previously, he had directed an adaptation of Lincoln's 1911 story, Cap'n Eri: A Story of the Coast into The Golden Boys (2009).  Recently, he adapted Joe Lincoln's The Woman-Haters: A Yarn of Eastboro Twin-lights a full one hundred years after it was published into the small feature film, The Lightkeepers.

Whether The Lightkeepers is a commercial or artistic success is not at issue here. As of this writing, it has grossed an estimated 4.5 million dollars, which does not qualify it as a commercial success in 2010. The 1911 equivalent, by the way, would have been $193,500. Reviews are mixed. Some critics have faulted the language, the staging, and Richard Dreyfuss' interpretation of former sea captain Seth Atkins. Positive reviews have cited The Lightkeepers' grown-up love story, the palpable sense of place, and the distinctively Yankee knack for understatement.

What counts is that Joseph Lincoln lived life and wrote stories his way. He spun yarns that made readers feel good about themselves. And Daniel Adams is living his life and making movies his way. Hats off to both artists. Thanks for keeping the dream alive.

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Related Links

Joseph Crosby Lincoln (1870-1944), Author

The Woman-Haters: A Yarn of Eastboro Twin-Lights (1911)

Daniel Adams, Writer-Director

"The Lightkeepers"

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