Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Craft of Building Worlds

Just west of Panama City, in what is sometimes called the Redneck Riviera of Florida, there is a town that is anything but.  Rosemary Beach, with its adjoining Barrett Square, looks stolen from a European costal village. 

And that was just the point when the idea for the town was put to dirt, or in this case, sand, in 1995.

The town was built in a way that brings to mind exclusive jet setter destinations.  The south of France.  Greek Isles.  The West Indies.  All of their influence can be seen in the architechture and shops.  Real estate here is expensive; the clientele affluent.  When imagined, what threatened to turn into a mere knock-off had to be as authentic as possible because anything less would easily be sniffed out as a fraud by the well-traveled.

So in this way, Rosemary Beach began as something very contrived, even fake.  Normally, this sort of destination I see for what it is: a theme park.  Artificially flavored.  Something so shallow, one need only scratch the surface to reveal the forgery.

The thing is, I’ve scratched the surface at Rosemary Beach.  Sure, it doesn’t have that organic genesis found in the exotic destinations that inspired it, but the town, for better or worse, works.  It has become real. It has become the idea.

What the designers of Rosemary Beach did is what many authors seek to do every day they pick up a pen and put it to paper – make a world come alive.  When done poorly, the world is exposed for what it is – a cheap imitation.  But when done right, it can pull the you in; make you believe in the magic. 

When I look at Rosemary Beach I am reminded of why it works.  For me, it’s both the details and the lack of details, along with notes of familiarity.  Good world building defines enough and gives enough of a recognizable foundation that the one put into the world is capable of framing the narrative around the new aspects of the author's creation. 

The expereince should be somehow relateable.  It all must work together, too.  Things have to make sense, layer after layer.  People will believe the impossible, but they, however, won't believe the ridiculous. 

Lastly, the world builder leaves room for the imagination to work, grow, and evolve with the story.  After all, it’s nice to be included.  Good architects, like smart authors, know when to let go of the defining, the details, and allow you to make their creation your own, whether it be in your mind for a book or a streetside art and book shop in Barrett Square (see next post: Bookstore Spotlight: The Hidden Lantern). 

So authors, what’s your secret to solid world building?  And readers, what works for you?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Survivors A2792, A2793


The word inspires images from a time when the darkest corners of human nature were exposed, raw and sinister and real.  What today is merely a chapter of history that most would rather turn away from is for others a part of their memory, their life story, as real today as it was seventy years ago.

On Sunday, I had the honor of meeting two such women who are both “blessed and cursed” to be burdened with such memories, having survived Auschwitz II in Berkinau, Poland.  Ruth Scheuer Siegler and her sister Ilse Scheuer Nathan, both born in Germany during the twenties, seemed bright and full of life at Ms. Siegler’s book signing for her memoir My Father’s Blessings: A Story of Survival and Triumph.

There was an amazing turnout in support of the book.  While Ms. Siegler signed copies, my wife engaged Ms. Nathan in a conversation about the Holocaust.  What I came away from listening to her recall this horrible time was her appreciation of the now. 

Hung around the room were pictures of the two sisters along with other survivors in an exhibit called Darkness into Life.  I remember one picture of a man in an apron.  In it he is holding a glass of red wine, with a fine meal spread out in a very nice kitchen.  Beside the picture is his story of life in a Nazi Concentration Camp and how he would get through a day eating only the peel from a potato.  Today he appreciates every morsel on his plate, unable to forget what life had once been like.

And this, too, was what Ilse kept insisting: Be thankful for what you have.  Because you never know. 

I am thankful for having met both women.  Their stories are inspiring and as triumphant as they are heartbreaking. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

How to Succeed at Query Rejection

(The obligatory query post.  Don’t act surprised.  It’s a writing blog.  You knew this was coming.)

There is a place in every writer’s career, a time both mixed with elation from having just finished (and hopefully edited) a manuscript and confusion, where a single question pops into the mind:  What now?

If you’re the type who walks into a bookstore and picks out where on the shelf your book might fit in, the next step is Querying an Agent.  Let’s do ourselves a favor here and side step the whole self publication / ebook / indie road to publication discussion, or for that matter, the argument over the need for an agent.  Firstly, I know jack about self publication and in my experience, an agent is a must.

My blog.  My rules.

I’ve had two agents.  My current one, John Rudolph, is with Dystel & Goderich.  Both relationships began with a simple, one page letter known as a query.  This might get a little elementary, but that’s okay.  If I'm going too fast, please raise your hand.  Remember, there are no stupid questions, only stupid people. 

Right.  Where was I?  Yes, the query letter.  There are many places to learn how to write one, but the website that helped me the most is  Instead of regurgitating (apologies) everything I learned there, I suggest you click the link and get to studying.

Of course, the hook, synopsis, bio format isn’t the only way to write a query, but it worked well enough for me.  Feel free to experiment with what is most effective for you, but remember – the query should be about the book.  It should not be about your inflated dreams of celebrity or all the useless market research you’ve done, offered as evidence for why your book sales will make J.K. Rowling’s figures look like a Girl Scout’s cookie rush invoice.  Do yourself a favor and skip that crap.

The only universally accepted rule to querying is this: your query will be rejected.  The other only universally accepted rule is: follow the submission guidelines of the agent.  Okay, pardon the math there.

Rejection at the query stage is okay.  It should be expected, in fact.  If your manuscript is in great shape (read: polished after several drafts) and your query is an honest reflection of your voice and book, a rejection simply means that there is a conflict of taste. 

And there’s no accounting for taste.

To imagine an agent’s perspective, I like to think of my own regards to foie gras, often found on fine dining menus.  I mean, that’s freaking duck liver.  A dish made from an organ that filters all the impurities and toxins from the blood of an animal that walks around all day in its own feces?  Not my thing.  But that doesn’t mean that the quality and presentation isn’t spectacular.  It just means that for the next several months I don’t want to spend my days helping you perfect the recipe before we sell it in a restaurant.  I’m just not the guy for that.

So don’t be afraid of rejection.  Embrace it as part of the process. 

Since I brought it up, I’ll include my query letter here.  If you have any questions about the querying process, feel free to ask in the comments!

Dear Mr. Agent,

I am querying you today as a former client of William Morris Endeavor, following a heartfelt decision by my agent to cull his fiction catalogue in favor of celebrity memoir and nonfiction.  This manuscript has not been submitted.
When an assassin burns his cathedral home and leaves one innocent murdered in a style not witnessed in centuries, seventeen-year-old Gabriel Adam’s father reveals that Gabriel is one of four Archangels, born human and sent to stop Armageddon.  Now, he must leave behind dreams of attending NYU to fulfill a prophecy kept secret by a phantom religious sect charged with the pre-biblical traditions of the End of Days.  Thus begins THE SECRET OF GABRIEL ADAM, a 73,000 word young adult novel.
Sixteen hundred years ago, the Roman Empire declared a prophetic book, The Apocalypse of Solomon, heretical and banned it from Biblical canon.  With every copy soon destroyed, all the information it contained to secure mankind’s right to the Earth realm disappeared forever.  However, its secrets survived in the knowledge of a professor, whom today resides in England.  With the assassin still in pursuit, Gabriel and his father travel to the English university town of Durham, hoping that the book will guide them.  Joined there by Micah - the Archangel Michael born as a girl - Gabriel must learn to have faith in himself and accept the role he must play in the coming war without being distracted by his new life as a college student or his religious skepticism.  But with two of the four Archangels hunted down and presumed dead, the only chance at stopping the assassin’s plan to ignite the apocalypse remains hidden inside the Ark of the Covenant, somewhere in Ethiopia.

I'm a practicing attorney and have studied international legal systems in England. My time abroad encouraged an academic interest in religious histories throughout the British and Roman Empires. THE SECRET OF GABRIEL ADAM represents the culmination of my research from an agnostic perspective. 

Thank you for your consideration.  Should you like to see more of THE SECRET OF GABRIEL ADAM, please feel free to call or write. 


Friday, July 15, 2011

The Zen of Being Disappointed

So my advice is, have reasonable expectations, and you will not evade happiness.

Oh.  That’s right.  You didn’t ask for my advice.

But still.  It’s free.  So take it.  Go ahead. 

After all, you want to be published, yes?

I am not an expert in publishing.  I am not an expert in writing.  But I have built a considerable wealth of knowledge on the subject of disappointment by participating in both of the former. 

Of course you know one of the songs.  Rejection.  You’ve heard it before, a thousand times sorting yourself through the treatises and opinions caught in the internet on How to Get Published.

You’re savvy like that.  Prepared.  Learned, one might even call you.

Disappointment, however, is like a different tune.  Another animal entirely, to mix metaphores.  Sometimes it happens when you aren’t being Rejected.  You might find Disappointment hidden in the tiny recesses of Accepted.  Save for the select fortunate, whom we both despise with all our jealous hearts, Disappointment can be a lifelong passenger on the road to Author Career. 

Why, just look at all the wonderful places Disappointment can be found!

Your query performance.
Your writing, and other people’s opinions of.
Your editing, and other people’s opinions of.
Your book deal.
Your sales.
Your relationship with editors, agents, readers.
How long it takes getting published.
Book covers.
And many more!

My goodness.  Who would ever want to be published?  It seems you lose even when you win.  On the other hand (Hand usage count so far:  One), for those with reasonable expectations, the effects of Disappointment can be somewhat alleviated.  How, you ask?  Start by adjusting those dreams of yours. 

You may get an agent.  You may get a book deal.  You may build a fan base.  But you probably won’t be snatching Stephen King’s throne from under him.  Twihards and Potterheads likely won’t be deeming you the next Thing.  MTV will doubtfully be approaching you for an episode of Cribs at anytime in the near future. The cover of your book will not leave the masses weeping uncontrollably. 

As some great philosopher once mused, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.  Though, since you’re curious, what I would have said had I said it myself was, “Jesus, man. Chill the f*** out.” 

And I would also need a mirror.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Life and Times of Brick and Mortar

What if bookstores went away?

What would that world be like? 

Brick and mortar booksellers are up against an ever-rising tide of technological advancements that are making their very existence unnecessary.  In all the excitement about the admittedly wonderful new ways of buying and e-reading books, I’ve lost sight of what it might cost.

I wonder if such a world was ever imaginable to my grandfather, who opened Lemox Bookstore in Pensacola, Florida years and years ago and ran it quite successfully up until his death in the early nineties.  I imagine he would have been saddened, if not simultaneously in awe.  The man, after all, could appreciate thinking outside the box. If selling ebooks is anything, it is selling outside the box.  Quite literally, in fact.  Recently, though, his son closed the doors to Lemox Bookstore, unable to compete with the internet giants and e-readers.

Are libraries next?

What about physical books?

Is the culture of books - the face to face time you share with another book lover when you physically buy a book - in jeopardy? 

Will coffee still taste the same without the smell of ink and paper?

I know.  This is all sort of useless.  These questions are asked every thirty minutes in the business of publishing and bookselling; most answered with more questions.  Which is fine, I guess.  The future is funny about not being very specific.

I ran across this video about a man’s extraordinary efforts to keep alive his dream of brick, mortar, and second-hand books.  He is forced to run his store illegally and in secret in NYC, restricted by costs and a new business paradigm that favors giants. 

This isn’t the future of publishing.  It’s the now of publishing. 

I’m not advocating a rebellion or anything with regard to e-books, e-readers, or internet and big-box booksellers.  Enjoy your convenience.  Enjoy your savings.  I know I do.  Just remember to occasionally throw a bone to the local main street booksellers, especially the mom and pop joints.  Those places have a soul.  And take it from me, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Day Hemingway

The shower after dawn lasts until just after six until the clouds give way to the rising sun.  Left behind from the rain is a coolness to the morning air, welcome before the heat of the day sets in.

Most mornings, even in the early hours, foot traffic is heavy by the water.  People setting up umbrellas and chairs, picking the finest spots.  Today, though, because of the rain, the beach is nearly empty. 

Glassed water stretches into the blue-gray horizon.  No waves lap the shore.  The water merely breathes, inhaling and exhaling against the wet sand. 

I’ve been reading A MOVEABLE FEAST by Earnest Hemingway.  It’s a great insight into the artistic culture of Paris in the mid-twenties.  Everyone interested in the connection between prose and place should read this book, if not only for Hemingway’s anecdote about a trip to the statues of the Louvre to ensure F. Scott Fitzgerald that his member was of sufficient size. 

Who knew the museum was good for sexual psychology?

            Somehow, reading Hemingway draws me into his world.  I think of THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA and wonder about his life in Key West.  Memories of my visit to his house strain for clarity.

            In effect, I become this sort of Hemingway fanboy.

            What can I say?  I love the classics.

            This unhealthy infatuation of the famous author’s real adventures inspires one of my own.  Granted, I’m no Santiago.  And I don’t have a boat, so really a poor man’s adventure at most.  I do, however, have one of those twenty dollar rafts that sort of look like a boat and come with paddles.  It will do.

With an old beat-up rod and several diced raw shrimp for bait, I set out into the tranquil gulf.  After about thirty minutes of paddling, I’m a good fifty or so yards past the second sandbar.  Far enough that people look like ants on the shore.  Far enough to be in trouble if my dingy of a raft springs a leak.

Within minutes I’ve got a hook over the side.  Bait fish are thick, feeding off animals hiding in the sargassum.  The water, a crystal clear emerald, is perfectly visible twenty feet down.  My first visitors are two tarpon, each as long as my makeshift fishing vessel.  I cast my line at them, not contemplating the disaster of actually hooking one.  Luckily, they are more interested in the skip jack swarming.  The tarpon take after the smaller fish, jumping and leaping from the water in their hunt.

Half an hour later, I’m approached by a green turtle.  It’s cautious at first, perhaps even worried, moving slow and deliberately.  Curious eyes study me and quickly decide I’m no threat.  I toss a few bits of shrimp in the water and as soon as I turn my head, there is a splash and the bait has disappeared.  I’m not sure if the turtle ate it or if it was one of the remora that was tagging along on its shell. 

Soon my line spins out of the spool and the rod bends toward the water.  The reel is old and half-broken, and takes me longer than it should to pull in my catch – a small jack flapping wildly at the top of the water.  I unhook the poor animal and set him free. As soon as I do, I see my third visitor. 

The dark, almost slithering body is worrisome enough, but what gives me alarm is the square shape of the block snout and the long tail.  It’s deep, but large.  Probably a ten foot shark.  The earlier presence and behavior of the turtle now suggests that it might be a tiger.

As it swims into the darker water, I decide my little raft, with its collection of bait shrimp juice spilling into the water, could also be described as a chum bucket.  I paddle my way back to shore.

After a stern scolding on the intelligence of ocean exploration in a child’s raft, my wife and I spend the evening walking the streets of Ruskin Place Art Colony at Seaside.  It is a small square that looks stolen from Paris, France. 

Little boutiques art galleries and clothing stores line up, one after another, like Red Bird Gallery or the aptly named An Apartment in Paris art gallery. 

I think of Hemingway’s time in Paris where he rubbed elbows with artists and talked about writing with authors at street side cafes, and wonder what that experience did for his writing.

            He would have liked it here, too.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Update to YA Gender Divide

Just a quick update on last week’s YA Gender Divide post before I return from Vacation Hiatus.

Over at Absolute Write, I polled the members with a question on what can be done to increase teenage boys’ participation in YA reading.

The premise for the question was that 1) teenage boys aren’t drawn to YA as much as teenage girls, and 2) is there anything that can be done (marketing or otherwise) that would make YA seem more appealing to teenage boys?

Well, as often happens on internet discussions, the conversation quickly devolved into a passionate argument about the sexes – not something I wanted, but perhaps should have anticipated.

What struck me as strange were the couple of YA authors that chimed in with the basic notion, to hell with the boys.  It was a sort of defensive posture that someone might take over property that was about to be removed from their possession.  I mean, these were authors basically taking the position that if boys were too stupid or emotionally shallow to appreciate their work, then that’s their problem!

So is YA destined to become owned by the fairer sex, leaving boys with sci-fi and fantasy?  Maybe YA means something different these days than simply young adult.  I don’t know.  All I want is for boys to read and be interested in literature as much as girls.

And I am open for suggestions on how to make that happen.

New posts next week!  In the meantime, check out those awesome blogs to the left of the post.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Bookstore Spotlight: SUNDOG BOOKS

I'm on Vacation Hiatus, so while I'm away, enjoy this Holiday Themed REPOST!  (Lazy, I know.)  Happy 4th of July Everyone!

Although you’ve probably never seen it in person, Seaside might still look familiar to you.   The crown jewel of historic Highway 30-A, its white cottages and crescent marketplace were cast as the make-believe perfect town in Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show. 

And with good reason.  A spinach and feta croissant from Modica Market in the morning, a cocktail and an amberjack sandwich for dinner at Bud & Alley’s, with a day on the whitest beach you’ve ever seen for in between.  The setting embodies perfection.

Behind the amphitheater, just beyond the scents of freshly-grilled seafood from the street vendors, and tucked neatly in the crescent of the market, is a white, two-story cottage.  Above, there is a record store on the second floor – the old fashioned kind that gives the middle finger to all things digital - and below, perfect for finding that beach read, is Sundog Books.   

Like many independent bookstores, this one has its own personality. Something you might expect from a place with a name like Sundog.  Rustic wooden floors, antique hutches and beat up tables topheavy with books fill the room. Do-it-your-way indie spirit is everywhere.  The expected fare of the latest commercial offerings are scattered about, though just as proudly displayed are published novels, fishing guides, and cookbooks from local authors.  Somehow, with the music upstairs, the always-open front door, and the sea breeze that flows through the building, the ambiance is almost like that a surf shop, but with books instead of boards.

Outside is a porch, not unlike one you might find on any nearby cottage, except that this one is reserved for author signings – the world’s first Author Signing Porch!  (Don't quote me on that little stat.)  The chalkboard beside the front door lists all the upcoming events in pastel colors. 

Easily, Sundog Books is one of the unique and distinctive things about Seaside, and the quaint little store really adds to the experience of visiting the area.  Especially for readers.  So, know any awesome bookstores you like to hit when you’re on vacation?