Archive for December 2009

Ehrenreich on the Economy and Lost Middle Class

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Reuters conducted a question-and-answer session with Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed about the difficult economy and the prospects for the middle class. They even got her update on some of the people featured in Nickel and Dimed. It’s an interesting take on a challenging time.

New York Times Year-End Roundup

Late last week, the New York Times presented a batch of year-end roundups. Critics Janet Maslin, Dwight Garner, and Michiko Kakutani all pick their top books of 2009. And while I certainly have my disagreements with the critics, I do find lists like this helpful for reminding me of books I might have forgotten over the year.

For example, I’m ashamed to admit that I never got around to reading Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. It just got lost in the shuffle for me. But now that I finally have some reading time available again, I’m going to pick it up.

What about you? Feel free to voice your own favorite books of 2009.

Reading Round Up

It’s been a hectic summer and fall for me, full of travel for book research and other adventures here and there. But I recently got a bit of a break where I could catch up on my reading. And I’m pleased to say that I’ve been on a run of really good books lately.

filkinsFirst up, I finally read Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War. I’m awfully late to the party on this one since it was released almost a year ago and racked up a ton of awards, including being named a best book of 2008 by the New York Times. And after finishing this amazing book, I’m sorry that it took me so long to get around to it. Filkins way with a phrase and eye for a scene ensures that every page is engrossing. Often, when I’m trying to catch up on my To-Be-Read Pile, I find myself gulping down books, just trying to make a dent in the pile, feverishly striving to finish each text, just so I can check it off. However, with The Forever War, I found myself savoring each page, leisurely reading (and re-reading) to fully soak in each scene. It’s just a great, great book. And if I’m not alone in being behind the times on this one, if you still haven’t read it, be sure to pick it up today.

Second, Matthew B. Crawford’s bestselling Shop Class as Soul Craft raises an interesting argument and one I’ve held for years. Our society needs to do a better job of respecting tradesmen and craftsmen instead of trying to funnel everyone into so-called white collar jobs. Particularly impressive is the way Crawford defends the trades, without resorting to romantic cliches.

Third, David A. Kessler’s The End of Overeating was a thoroughly researched, scientifically argued explanation of why some people are prone to mindless overeating. Although the extensive quotes of scientific experiments might have gone on just a tad too much, I was pleased to see them. That type of examination puts a different spin on a book that otherwise could have been easily (but unfairly) viewed as just another weight loss text.

beckhamFourth, The Beckham Experiment by Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl was an in depth look at a gargantuan move to bring the most famous athlete in the world to America so he could play in, what many international observers consider, a minor league. Wahl’s position with SI afforded tons of great access and interview possibilities and the behind-the-scenes quotes and information in this book are amazing.

And finally, it was like Christmas in the middle of the year when I got the mail one day and found and advance reader copy of Andrew Vachss’s new novel, Haiku. Due out in early November, this engrossing novel tells the story of a misfit family of homeless people in New York City. Readers familiar with Vachss’s work know that he defines family in terms of how people treat each other and what they do, as opposed to their blood lines and last names. In this case, an Asian martial arts master, a damaged war veteran, a streetwise alcholic, a tormented reader, and others band together in a quest that is surprisingly human, warm, and kind. Sure, there are elements of crime and danger here. But at heart, it’s about kindness, respect, and helping out a colleague.

Intensely Focused Practice

talent1When we observe someone who has truly mastered their craft, whether it’s a writer, athlete, musician, or business person, we tend to assume they achieved that level of mastery through a combination of two ways:

1. They worked really, really hard.
2. They were born with some level of natural talent.

However, in Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin, the argument is made that neither of those two routes is the most effective way to achieve mastery of a subject. Instead, Colvin argues, deliberate practice is what separates the champs from the chumps.

Particularly germane to this website, Colvin uses Benjamin Franklin’s writing regimen as an example of deliberate practice. After his father suggested Franklin improve his writing skills, he enacted on the following routine:
–He took published sentences and made notes on the meaning of each one. Later, he would review those notes and try to write a sentence of his one that expressed the same points and meaning as the original. He then reviewed his versions with the published version.
–He rewrote published essays in verse, figuring that experience in poetry would enhance his vocabulary. Then, after he had forgotten the pieces, he would take the “versified” text and convert it back to prose. And he would compare his prose versions to the published version.
–On a separate slip of paper, he wrote notes on each sentence in a published essay. He then would jumble up all those scraps. Later, after he had forgotten the original essay, he would retrieve the pile of notes and try to put them in the correct order, attempt to write his own piece based on those notes, and then compare his version with the published one.

“Significantly, he did not try to become a better essay writer by sitting down and writing essays,” Colvin writes. “Instead, like a top-ranked athlete or musician, he worked over and over on those specific aspects that needed improvement.”

vaiI recently came across another example of such intensely focused practice. Guitar virtuoso Steve Vai recently gave a class and peppered his lecture with memories of “practicing just one single note for hours.” Whereas most people sit down and try to bang out “Smoke on the Water” as they learn to play guitar, Vai focused in on the smallest techniques and studied them exhaustively. Then, as he mastered each technique, he started to bolt them onto each other and string them together.

So as writers, the point that we should take away is to look at the way we go about pursuing our craft. Simple sweat, the argument goes, won’t get you there. Nor will defeatist attidues towards natural skill that allows us to shrug and say, “I don’t have what it takes to be a Faulkner.” Instead, we should break down the tasks of our writing into their smallest components and go about practicing them in a detailed and focused way. And then we should evaluate the results objectively and critically.

Writers on the Scale of Fame

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To us, the bookish sorts, writers of a certain stature can definitely seem famous. But every once in a while, there’s a comment or an article that shows you just how far down the rung of celebrity writers are.

Here’s an interesting article about Jon Ronson, author of the novel, The Men Who Stare at Goats upon which the recent George Clooney film is based. Ronson describes going to the premiere and being overwhelmed by the crowd. And then realizing his place in the whole event.

“There is something oddly sobering about walking up a red carpet surrounded by thousands of people only to realise not one is screaming for you,” Ronson said in the piece.

Why AC/DC Matters, Matters

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In bestselling author Anthony Bozza’s new book, Why AC/DC Matters we get the kind of impassioned art criticism that is normally relegated to websites, fanzines, and independent publishers.

Now, in the sake of full disclosure, Bozza is a friend and business colleague of mine. So take these comments with a grain of salt if you are so inclined. And if you’re the FTC goons, then yeah, I got a free book in the process.

But in Why AC/DC Matters, Bozza makes the argument that the Aussie band has been unfairly ignored and misunderstood by the critics for decades. This isn’t a straight biography of the band, although Bozza provides enough background into the musicians to catch you up if you’re not that familiar with the lives of the Young brothers and gang. And the book isn’t a straight critical interpretation either, full of labyrthine discussions worthy of a college hallway full of grad students. Instead, it’s simply a fun look at what makes this band important, ranging from their place in cultural history to their musical techniques to their steadfast refusal to chase trends.

The wonderful 33 1/3 series has been producing this kind of book for some time now. But it’s nice to see that Bozza managed to get a major publisher to release a similar examination… and of a hard rock band no less! I have more horror stories of publishers claiming, “Metal fans don’t read” than I can stomach.

So kudos to Bozza for managing to get a fun, quirky, entertaining passion project out on the bookstore shelves. Here’s hoping that his success will open the doors for other similar projects from other writers.

Calendar to a Book Deal

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Aspiring authors often get enraged at the lack of true, specific information about publishing. We’re constantly told, “There’s no standard timetable for a publisher to respond.” You can substitute timetable for dollar amount or print runs or book tours or literary groupies or type of wine served at booksignings or anything else you can imagine. All these blogs and interviews and magazines dedicated to publishing and yet it’s damn near impossible to get a clear answer to anything.

Well, I must admit, that unfortunately all those vague are general responses are true. There is no standard answer to many queries.

But in hopes of providing you with at least some small measure of concrete information, here is the calendar to my own experience with book deals.

–Proposal Submitted to Editors: March 9, 2009
–Editor Interviews: March 18, 2009 thru March 30, 2009
–Offer(s) Made and Discussed and Counteroffer(s) Made: April 16, 2009 thru April 29, 2009
–Offer Accepted:April 30, 2009
–Deal Announced in Media: June 8, 2009
–Contract Signed: July 15, 2009
–Advance Check Received: August 11, 2009

In my instance, there were a couple of factors that lengthened the process. The London Book Fair took place in the middle of April so the publishing industry’s focus was there, more so than on books being discussed here at home. My agent did a fine job of staying in touch with all the players and keeping me updated, but editorial attention was obviously focused on London during that time.

Also, a couple of key vacations played a role in my situation. This person needs to review the proposal and pass off, but he’s out of the office this week. That person needs to review the comps but they’re gone for a long weekend. That sort of thing.

And finally, it goes without saying that the general downturn affecting all of publishing (except for bigtime celebrity projects, I suppose) makes the entire process move distractingly slowly. Book submissions are simply much more difficult to get accepted these days. More people have to agree, stronger cases have to be made.

The fact is that while those 1% of overnight deals grab the headlines, the vast majority of other deals take a while. One industry professional told me an average (although he was quick to add the caveat that there is no such thing as “standard”) was 2 to 5 weeks. Most agents have stories of deals that take a year or so to complete.

And once you have a deal, don’t think you’re going to rush right out and buy a Ferrari. As Matt Bondurant, author of The Third Translation and The Wettest County in the World, told me in a past interview, it take “a lot longer than you think, and longer than they say,” to receive the advance check. In my case, I was pretty pleased with the turnaround on the check. My agent did a good job of setting my expectations and the payment was actually received a little bit quicker than I thought. Once again, I’m sure this varies wildly from publisher to publisher, deal to deal.

Just as an example of how dramatically these things can vary, a buddy of mine submitted his book on a Friday and had a deal 10 days later.

The Major Release Today

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This is a website about books and publishing, so you would think all the news regarding a major release would focus on Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. However, I think there are enough publishing outlets covering that news event so I’m going to indulge in another one of my passions today.

My obsession with guitars, along with my love of rock and metal music, is pretty well known. So for me, the major release of the day is not Brown’s latest conspiracy novel, but rather Ace Frehley’s new record, Anomaly. I spoke with Frehley about his love of gadgets and electronic tinkering for CrunchGear so be sure to check out the profile. It was a treat doing the interview as I’ve been a KISS fan for decades.

And if you’re into that type of music, pick up a copy of Anomaly today. The disc harkens back to Frehley’s 1978 solo record when he was still in KISS but also has a number of surprisingly modern touches. The first single, “Outer Space,” features drop-D tuning while other songs boast an intriguing amount of clean tones and acoustic guitars. Even a sitar-effect makes an appearance in the epic “Ghengis Khan.”

Frehley intends to tour in support of the new record, so check his website often as dates are announced.

Photo by Kevin Britton

Jim Carroll, Dies at 60

I was doing some traveling over the weekend so I didn’t previously hear about the passing of Jim Carroll, author of The Basketball Diaries. Here’s a good overview of his life and work.

Best Southern Novels of All Time?

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The Oxford American has released a list of the best Southern novels of all time. I’m sure they did this slightly tongue-in-cheek because these kinds of lists always generate endless hours of debate. Yet, it’s hard to argue with their choices.

Be sure to keep an eye on the magazine’s site, as they will be rolling out additional lists and stirring the pot over the coming days and weeks.