f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 06/01/2006 - 07/01/2006

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, June 30, 2006

Tony on TV

T. L. Hines found himself in front of some cameras recently when a local news program interviewed him about Waking Lazarus.

Two things:

1. He's a natural. Good poise. Eloquent answers that highlight the local setting. I think I see a mayoral run in the future.

2. I've never seen an interviewer admit, from the start, she really has no idea what the book is about. I thought an unspoken part of the game was that the interviewer pretended they'd read it.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Lead-In Line

Rarely do those tag lines on the front of covers work for me. I often find them uninspiring...and thus antithetical to their purpose. That said I've across two recently that work...in that they got me to pick up the book and read a bit more.

The Wrong Hands by Nigel Richardson

How to Kill a Rock Star by Tiffanie DeBartolo

Any come to mind for you?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Things I Wonder

In this supposition, I am a (hypothetical) acquisitions editor.

One day, in my email, I get a proposal for Ulysses or The Gold Bug Variations or Wise Blood or Infinite Jest or Godric.

I (think) I’m a savvy enough reader, a sophisticated enough reader, to see the merit in these books. (I’m using Ulysses as a type here. I’ve not read it and don’t know that it could get published today, regardless of it being Modern Library’s top book of the century. Any book that requires a longer dictionary of commentary to understand it is going to find the path narrow. For better or worse.)

What I don’t know is how one edits this kind of book. Fractured, complicated, dense, challenging works seem problematic to me. Because they’re supposed to be this way. But how does one know what is too fractured? Too complicated? Too dense? Is Harold Bloom vetting manuscripts for major NY publishers?

We work so often here in the realm of the point-blank (and please note that I’m not adding any negative connotations to comprehensible) that moving into areas of obfuscation and intentional complexity gives me pause. And this isn’t going to remain theoretical very long. I’ve seen manuscripts recently that take their own risks in various areas of writing. And they’re exciting. And, to be frank, I’m mildly terrified I’m going to end up signing one of these things and then starting at it for a week going, “Now what?”

I guess I’d like to try that terror, though. At least once.

Warner Faith No More

Because they got bought by Hachette Livre in France, they had to lose the Warner eventually.

So they're now ... (drumroll) ... FaithWords.

Which seems perhaps a bit too blunt and on the nose for my taste, but we've never been about subtlety in the CBA.

In other name-changing news, Broadman and Holman Publishers is now B&H Publishers. Which really isn't news, unless you're the former Mr. Broadman and/or Holman. And then it's just depressing.

(And I just realized my subliminal need to use this post title. Faith No More! Anybody remember that band? This is the only song of theirs I can remember.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

I Find This Fascinating

Walden Media, who (I think) is quickly establishing themselves alongside Pixar as one of the top small film companies in Hollywood is tapping into the power and scope of the Internet to place themselves where they can't be.

They're drafting volunteers to help promote two upcoming movies at State Fairs and Christian music festivals across the country this summer. You promise to work a six-hour shift and they'll pay for your entrance into the event.

These kind of grassroots efforts have, in the past, paid off for political and social compaigns...but there's always been an ideologic link that connects cause to volunteer. Here, you're basically a shill for a movie, though perhaps that's too cynical. The Wilberforce movie, assumably, is going to have some social justice connections and in choosing to help Walden I guess you're making a stand for ethical values in filmmaking.

I'll have to check out the booth at the Minnesota State Fair when the family and I make our annual deposit to the coffers of fat, sugar, and foods on sticks.

(This link comes from Infuze and Robin Parrish, whose book Relentless should now be on shelves near you.)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Congrats to Jamie Turner

A starred review in Publishers Weekly for her novel Winter Birds, due in September. If you've never read her, Some Wildflower in My Heart remains one of my favorite things we've published here.

From her review:
As she did in Some Wildflower in My Heart, Turner shows how even the most awkward and imperfect love, care and attention can yield meaningful results.... Genuine humor and well-crafted characters make this a memorable and inspiring novel.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Series vs. Stand-Alone: Part V

This series, more than some, seems to have gotten people a little concerned. There's lot of advice flying around in the market and often it gets contradictory. Who do you listen to? This editor with Publishing House A or that writer with Novel B or me with Blog C?

All I can offer is some rationale for my particular view of things related to series and explain (as always) that this is not a hard-and-fast rule. There is no singular way a series fails or succeeds. If there were, everyone would be doing it.

Remember, remember, also, that this advice is (primarily) for first-time or more recent novelists.

So:

1. Think very, very hard about pitching a long (more than three book) serialized series in CBA. If you've got the next fantasy epic and it's going to take seven volumes to complete, you are going to face difficulties getting a publisher to sign on. Realize that and don't act surprised.

That said, you then need to focus, focus, focus on Book 1. If you make Book 1 terrific, it's much easier for a publisher to A) buy into your idea B) believe you've the talent to pull it off and C) begin to think expansively about the potential.

Every book you add to the series beyond a trilogy increases my knee-jerk skepticism.

2. As a first-time novelist approaching a publisher you want to be as flexible as possible (within reason) for what's ahead. It makes you more attractive. A serialized series is a trade-off between flexibility for guaranteed plot lines. I'm more comfortable with "the potential for a series" rather than the "need for a series."

3. Success breeds success. In certain genres, linked/formulaic series make sense. BHP's catalog is filled with historical romances in these formats that have proven quite successful. We know them, we recognize them, you're not springing something crazy and new on us. Retailers, likewise, feel the same way.

4. ABA doesn't equal CBA. What is Harry Potter's meaning to the CBA market, for instance? What does the success of characters like Harry Bosch or Repairman Jack mean to us? These are both crucial things for booksellers and publishers alike. Especially for our future, I think. But we're a different market. There's no 1-to-1 correlation.

5. What's your next best idea? You should be writing your best idea now. Is a sequel really your best follow-up or is there a different idea that is more compelling? In a lot of cases, your second book is more important than your first.

6. Personally, I'll have to really be convinced on serialized series. Of any genre.

In the end all this advice is really just hot air. The key is your book, your story. If it's excellent, so many of these things slip immediately into place. And you go from there. But you need to "there" first before going anywhere. So write your book. If it's the first in a group of 12, that's fine. Or if can stand by itself, that's fine. Write your book.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Series vs. Stand-Alone: Part IV

Why wouldn't you write a series?

I'm assuming you're bright enough not to mire yourself in plots and characters you loathe, so I don't really see any hard-and-fast reasons not to write a series from an artistic stand-point. There are some warnings however.

1. You may like your characters and settings more than your readers.

2. Sequels are, in some ways, built to disappoint readers. We LOVED book 1 so we demand book 2, but book 2 is, necessarily, different than book 1 and it's impossible to replicate a feeling and, well, it just wasn't quite the same. That's the fickleness of humans.

3. There is the possibility of getting stuck in a rut--simply repeating tropes and stories and characters under new names/covers.

4. The mechanics of telling a monstrous, multi-volume epic are, well, complicated. Harry Potter did not emerge from a disorganized mind. (And as a very unlikely side-note, the pressure of writing a vastly successful multi-volume epic seem immense to me. Can you imagine 8 million people waiting for your next work?)


Those are the writing reasons you may reconsider writing a series. The market reasons are, perhaps, even more crucial.

1. Series often face a problem of diminishing returns. Yes, there are certainly examples of series that explode to heights of popularity in the middle, but many go out strong and then fight a battle of attrition over the remaining titles. If you sustain 90% of your audience that's fantastic. But if you keep 75% of your audience for Book 2 and another 75% of that audience for book 3 you've gone from 15,000 sales to 11,500 sales to 8437 sales.

And because many stores operate by a "what have you done for me lately" mentality what's fresh in their mind isn't that you sold 15,000 but that you couldn't break 10,000. You may seem half-the-seller you've proven capable of.

This is a problem most linked to serialized series. Think of it in marketing terms... if you have book three of a series, who are you targeting as readers? Most of your efforts need to go to alerting previous readers that the newest release is available. Because a series is supposed to be self-sustaining, the uncomfortable fact is that it's hard to convince new readers to join in at book 3.

2. Tied directly to this problem are questions of retail concerns. You have twenty feet of space devoted to fiction. Inventory management becomes crucial. What do you do with series? It seems absurd to only stock book 3 (you're almost guaranteeing only previous readers will buy) but book 1 may be up to two years old. And that's a long shelf-life for fiction in these days of huge competition for shelf space.

3. There's no guarantee, from a publisher's standpoint, that book 2 or 3 will be of equitable quality to your first title. Particularly if it took you 36 months to write your first novel and you've gone 9 months to complete the sequel. Stepping outside of books for a moment, think of The Matrix trilogy. I don't think that ended the way anybody wanted it--fans, producers, perhaps even the directors.

And yet with all these concerns...the things still work. And often work well. Tomorrow we'll try to define the best circumstances for series ideas...and times when you may be shooting yourself in the foot by attempting one.
:::
Continue to Part V of our discussion on series.

Books of the Moment

This is the book I'm most anxious to read at the moment. It's been thirteen years since A Simple Plan... which seems an awfully long time for an author not named Marilynne Robinson to need for a novel, but I'm not going to argue--so long as it's good.

And here's my current favorite picture book. And Russell's newest adventure. This is top-notch stuff that stands up to heavy re-reading.

And what's next on my bookstand.

::

I never visited this (apparently) famous bookstore in San Francisco but I think it has the best name for a bookstore ever. (Google Hemingway if you need to know why.)


Friday, June 16, 2006

Series vs. Stand-Alone: Part III

Why would you write a series?

From a writing standpoint, I see two main reasons. The first is that you have a story that simply outlasts the practical bounds that be contained by one book.

The second reason is that you've found a character or locale or hook that you'd like to see put through a variety of situations or opportunities. The key is a willingness to till ground that you've already worked. In some cases, this leads to deeper, richer exploration. In other cases, it can simply seem tired and recycled.

That's from a writing stand-point. How about from a market stand-point?

As with most commodities, one of the important factors in buying a book for consumers is their "reliability." With books it's not functional reliability (the cover will stay on and the pages won't be ink-smeared) but practical reliability. In other words, if we're spending money (and time) we want to know that we're going to like a book.

Whenever publishers or authors talk about a "brand" this is what they're talking about. A brand makes a promise to a reader of what will be delivered in a book. The best brands in fiction are author names. King. Koontz. Kingsolver. Get the chance to write enough books and you'll likely to have built a brand.

There are other ways to address practical reliability of a book, however, besides an author name. Certain imprints--if you're paying attention--seem to mean something. (McSweeney's, anyone? Black Lizard? SoHo Press.) A character name (like Harry Bosch) offers it's own reliability, at least to fans.

And of course series do, too. The assumption was that, Soul Harvest, four books into Left Behind wasn't suddenly going to become... Finnegan's Wake. (I've actually read neither, so if the two are similar, I apologize.) The Great Brain wasn't going to turn into Goosebumps...and Goosebumps wasn't going to turn into Sweet Valley High. You want a certain experience and a publisher/author are going to honor that by giving it to you.

It goes further than that with serialized series. In serialized series you not only want a certain experience but you want answers to a story you're following. This is the most powerful sales aspect of a series. Because now, not only are you offering an assumed reading experience...but you've got a hook that will drive readers to the store.

TO BE CONTINUED. We've all seen these words on television shows. And if the hook was set right, they tweaked a fair amount of anticipation and excitement. This is a visceral response to a creative work that is the peak of artist/viewer interaction. And it's why it seems that series can grow to unrivaled peaks in terms of sales and reader interest. (DaVinci Code aside, it's no surprise that other phenomenons in publishing are series. Harry Potter and Left Behind drove reader expectations by creating a demand...and then delivering new chapters to eager fans. Readers talk and ponder in the interstitial times, drawing more readers to the early works and stuff builds.

When it works, in other words, it is self-sustaining. And explosive. And because it involves multiple books it is HUGELY lucrative. To quote a non-series book, it's the stuff that dreams are made of.

Which is why I see so many proposals from people starting off by saying, "This is the first book in a proposed 9 book series."

Next week, we'll look into why those proposals shiver my timbers, and address the downsides of series as well.
:::
Continue to Part IV of our discussion on series.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Series vs. Stand-Alone: Part II

To begin this conversation I think we need to define some terms.

Stand-alone - This one is self-explanatory, hopefully. Sure, in theory, every book could have a sequel. Nearly all never receive them. (Or prequels.)

Serialized series - You need to read the books in order for them to really make sense at all. Harry Potter is the current king. Left Behind. Series of Unfortunate Events. Patti Hill has written a serialized three book series with us. The other important thing to note here is that, to me, this is truly "one" story. Multiple books but one story. Lord of the Rings is the archetype. Tolkien never viewed it as a series. He viewed it as one story. But you can't just dump 1700 pages on people. So his publisher (as far as I know) helped him split it. And then named the parts (including The Return of the King which in Tolkien's opinion seemed to give away the ending.)

The scope is important here. Fantasy novels have that scope. Historical novels can have that scope. To me it's hard to imagine a character-driven family drama as a seven part series.

Formula series - I've spoken about these before. Character-led mysteries, to me, are a great example of forumula series. (And I'm trying to use formula in a non-perjorative way.) Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels are formulaic in a sense that each presents a new mystery that follows a structure we grow to recognize and expect. Same with CJ Box's Joe Pickett books. There is often a small amount of serialization to the novels. Continuity is watched but isn't crucial. You can read The Closers or Black Ice and enjoy either as much. If you read them all in order (as I've done with Box) you'll probably get a little more. But it isn't crucial.

Here, readers are drawn by something other a long running story. They're not out to find out what happens next...but rather because they want another great mystery. It's a genre dominated form. And they main key is that the stories and plots need to be unique and compelling and non-formulaic from book to book. (Except for children's fiction--Hardy Boys, etc--where the stories are all so similar. The sophistication isn't there to discern that plots are the same. Though perhaps that's a poor excuse.)

I think the Shopoholic books fall into this category. Mitford, perhaps? I'm unsure if people need to completely read these in order.

Linked series - An odd-duck arrangement, these are mostly stand-alone novels that have (usually) a fairly tenuous connection or link. And yet they're grouped together. Often more by design and format than by content. The notion here is that there is something about the notion of a series where readers want to know that what they're going to read is similar to what they've read before. But if the characters are mostly different and the story is different...what do you do?

Well, you can repeat setting. You can have minor characters become major characters. You can find a theme that repeats. There are a number of historical fiction series by authors like Tracie Peterson and Janette Oke we publish that use this.

I need to stop. We'll revisit this again. You can let me know if I've missed any kind of series.

::

Got to Part III in our discussion of series.

Michael Chabon on "Entertainment" in Literature

...and why it's given a bad (and very limited) name. The essay is his introduction to Best American Short Stories of 2005.
I have no idea if these are the twenty best short stories published in the United States during 2004, or not. And neither do you. Or rather, you may feel very strongly that they are not, or that some of the stories here deserve the honor and some don’t. But as you make your assessment — as you judge the product of my judgment — you will be relying, whether consciously, unconsciously, or in full-blown denial, on the same fundamental criterion as that on which I relied: the degree to which each of these stories catches hold of you, banishes everything but the interplay of your imagination and the author’s, your ear and the author’s, your solitude and the author’s. That’s entertainment.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Book Cover and Design Site

Called, simply enough, "Covers." You can search by designer, which is interesting.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Soccer...the Sport of Communists

Did you watch any World Cup this weekend? I caught about half of the England/Paraguay tilt...and missed the goal, of course. Did hear the announcer say the words "bend" and "Beckham" together about eighteen times after one free kick, so it's good to know he saw the film. Yeesh.

In other soccer news (And really, it's going to be soccer all the time here because my oldest daughter is about to join her first team this week. Go Jets!) Dave Eggers shares some thoughts on the sport at Slate.com.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Series vs. Stand-Alone: Part I

Here's a random stab at something. (Based on my own experiences and what I see from others.)

First-time novelists approaching the debut novel often take a kitchen-sink mentality. They're so psyched that they're going to throw everything they have at it. The energy, the enthusiasm is at its peak and the world they create seems limitless. So limitless, in fact, that as they get a little more level-headed about what one novel can actually contain it seems obvious that the logical next step is to plan a sequel and even a longer series.

I did this with Ezekiel's Shadow. I had pretty grand intentions to write (linked) novels based around each of the characters from the writer's group. And I see many, many, many proposals in which there's a paragraph explaining books 2 and 3 that will follow. (Or sometimes, to my dismay, books 2 through 15.)

The landscape of CBA and book publishing is changing, I think, and so I'd like to spend a couple of days talking about the pros and cons of series vs. stand-alone as you are writing.

:::

My first thought isn't a demand, but it's a pretty strenuous suggestion: Your first novel needs to be able to stand on its own.

I'm sure there are circumstances where you could get away with a serialized story as a first-time novelist...but you're only creating roadblocks for yourself. Publishing, in some ways, is very much about managing risk. I think I've said before that publishers want most of the risk to be on the author's part and author's want the risk to be on the publisher's part. Making a publisher sign a five book series is certainly pushing the risk to the publisher's side--but so much so that many might balk.

You can certainly have a series in mind, but I really think your first novel needs to be able to read and enjoyed on its own merits without needing to read anything else. Relentless by Robin Parrish, which is going to start hitting shelves in a week or two, is a strong example of this. It works on its own and yet it opens doors that Robin will explore later in what will be a trilogy.

If you only read Relentless, you're going to enjoy a bullet-paced, whirlwind suspense story. If you stay with the trilogy, it'll be a much richer, fuller experience. But the key is that both work.

That said, do you even need a series or follow-up? Next week we'll spend some time looking at all sides of the issue, trying to suss out when series work, when they fail, when to do one-offs and what the market seems to be telling us.

Have a great weekend. Go global and watch soccer. I'm pulling for the U.S. and...Les Elephants of Côte d'Ivoire.

::

Go to Part II in our discussion of series.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Random Links

A few weeks ago I posted a site that was conducting their own survey of the best fiction of the last 25 years. Their results are in. And this list certainly reflects my taste much more than the NYTimes. So much, in fact, that I think I need to assure you I only voted once...and for one book.

Simple things to energize your writing. via Jordon Cooper.

Neil Gaiman answers the question of how we approach the writing of people with whom we disagree ideologically. And I like what he has to say. (Third question down.)

Steve Ross offers a remix of the book of Mark...as a graphic novel
. I finally had a chance to read it andI thought it was good. Not overwhelming...because I thought it played it a little too close to the text in places rather than use the distance from the story he'd given himself, but interesting.

Now you don't just have to read him...you can let the dulcet tones of T. L. Hines own voice wash over you as Tony is podcasting.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Lit. Journal Round up

John Desjarlais has placed a nice little essay called "Deconstructing the Cathedral" with The New Pantagruel.

The New Pantagruel also has some new fiction up worth checking out.

And I was alerted that there's another journal getting up and going. This one is called Ruminate Magazine. And they are taking submissions.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Horror, the Horror

Horror is a word I am unable to pronounce in mid-westernese and thus my eastern (particularly Jersey) roots betray me. (I say something akin to "har-ar.") This would all be well and good but my first novel was about a har-ar novelist and I end up saying the word an inordinate amount.

That's all apropros of very little. The NYTimes had a quick round-up of recent horror titles and included a little pitch for my otherwise normal people might want to read the genre.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Day 2 of Abide With Me - What We Expect

I know nothing about Elizabeth Strout and how she personally views religion. I think, as Christians, we've been conditioned to feel that the media and the arts don't totally get us. I can't think of too many "secular" outlets that have given entirely objective presentations of the church and so when a work seems overly negative, I think there's a knee jerk chafing to that.

I fought it with Abide With Me and tried not to buy into the conspiracy, but in the end it seemed inescapable. The church in this novel is entirely full of vicious gossips and hypocrites. The pastor, though he is going through a somewhat stereotypical crisis of faith, is fleshed out enough that his pain and concerns feel real. Everyone else simply goes to church...because that's what people did in the 1950s.

And she's got a point. That's what people did in the 1950s. People went to church. Even if they didn't believe a lick of it, they often went to church. But to insinuate that nobody believed a word of it, or believed it only in as much to wound others who weren't quite so holy seems... off. It certainly makes for a cast of barely redeemable cast of characters.

And yet here I am. The guy who's called for "reality" in Christian fiction...for fiction where everything isn't rosy and sunny... grumping about when somebody dares to see the underbelly of the church. I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth, so what's the answer?

To give her credit, Strout does not see her cast of characters as irredeemable. But I wish she'd taken time to level the balance a little more. And find balance within characters as well. Can't one be both hypocrite and selfless saint, often in the same afternoon?

Christian Book Award Finalists

These used to be the Gold Medallion Awards.

Chosen
, Ginger Garrett (NavPress)

Fourth Dawn
, Bodie & Brock Thoene (Tyndale House Publishers)

Holding Heaven
, Jerry Jenkins and paintings by Ron DiCianni (Integrity Publishers)

The Ezekiel Option
, Joel C. Rosenberg (Tyndale House Publishers)

The Rising
, Jerry B. Jenkins/Tim LaHaye (Tyndale House Publishers)