Friday, August 31, 2007

K+2Y: I got by with a little help from my friends

As you know, Wednesday (August 29) marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Here in the greater New Orleans area, it was commemorated by dozens of events--prayer services, memorial ceremonies, solemn convocations, art shows, musical performances, brunch/lunch/dinner gatherings, and assemblies of survivors. I observed the day by meeting a group of friends for lunch at VooDoo Barbecue (in New Orleans, nearly every event starts with food, ends with food, or centers on food). We adjourned for dessert to the home of one among us, Laura Joh Rowland. Laura's home, in the Gentilly neighborhood, sustained major damage, but has been restored. Originally we planned to head out from Laura's for a tour of some of the worst-affected areas--Chalmette, the Ninth Ward, Lakeview--but the sky was pouring rain and some of us were feeling our arthritis too much to go farther afield.

It was a good day. Being with my friends comforted me and lifted my spirits. There's an underlying sadness now to gatherings in this city; we always are aware--sometimes subliminally--of those who didn't survive the disaster and those who haven't returned from afar. Yet with each gathering we celebrate that we're still here, we still have friends here, we still have life. Love and human connections and our bond with This City are what keep us going.

In a followup to my August 28 post on Chris Rose, here's a link to "As Not Read by Oprah," his column published on Wednesday--the day he was to appear on the Oprah show. He was bummed out because they would not allow him to mention his book in any way. (They only wanted him because he went public with his bout of depression.) With his usual sardonic wit, he points out why they were wrong.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

1 Dead in Attic

I write to extol 1 DEAD IN ATTIC: AFTER KATRINA, by Chris Rose, just released by Simon & Schuster. Chris Rose is a columnist for the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans. Before Katrina, his column covered celebrities, entertainment and popular culture, with a humorous focus. After Katrina, he left his family in Maryland, where they had evacuated before the storm, and returned alone to New Orleans. He sweated, he struggled, he sorrowed, and he suffered like the rest of us in the days and weeks after the apocalypse. Writing about New Orleans’ struggle to recover from devastation, he recounted his own experiences, feelings, and despair in lucid and colorful words that brought tears to our eyes. He underwent a breakdown, falling into a pit of desperation out of which he struggled to climb. He was honest with us: after disappearing from the newspaper’s pages for weeks, he explained what had happened to him, and how he was recovering. He started back with his column, gradually reinserting the humor for which he had been known pre-Katrina. He kept on keepin’ on. We enjoyed his columns before Katrina, but we grew to idolize him for his post-Katrina essays. He wasn’t born here, he didn’t grow up here, but he knows and understands this city and its people as well as we know ourselves. He is one of us.

Five months after the storm, he self-published a book that collected his columns from September through December 2005, the first four months post-Katrina. He began selling it out of the trunk of his car, sharing the proceeds with a couple of charitable foundations. In a little more than a year, he sold 60,000 copies—extraordinary numbers for a self-published book. As he began planning to self-publish a sequel, Simon & Schuster contacted him. S&S repackaged 1 DEAD IN ATTIC in a new edition, adding what had been planned as the sequel as part of the book. The new version now includes a selection of his columns from right after Katrina through sixteen months post-Katrina—that is, from September 2005 through December 2006.

This is how Simon & Schuster blurbs the new edition:

1 Dead in Attic is a collection of stories by Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose, recounting the first harrowing year and a half of life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Celebrated as a local treasure and heaped with national praise, Rose provides a rollercoaster ride of observation, commentary, emotion, tragedy, and even humor -- in a way that only he could find in a devastated wasteland.

They are stories of the dead and the living, stories of survivors and believers, stories of hope and despair. And stories about refrigerators.

1 Dead in Attic freeze-frames New Orleans, caught between an old era and a new, during its most desperate time, as it struggles out of the floodwaters and wills itself back to life.

Last night I attended a library program at which Chris Rose spoke and read from the new book. In a large meeting room—actually two rooms combined—he had a standing-room-only audience, which gave him an ovation as he walked into the room. He spoke a little, showed a wonderful and deeply saddening DVD of post-Katrina photos by his friend Charlie Varley, read two essays from his book, spoke a bit more, then spent almost two hours signing books for the huge crowd. He was to leave New Orleans today to appear on the Oprah show tomorrow—Wednesday, August 29, the two-year anniversary of Katrina—along with other locals, to speak about New Orleans after Katrina. (He says the Oprah people won’t allow him to mention his book, however.)

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you: He was runner-up for an individual Pulitzer Prize in 2006, and also shared in the group Pulitzer awarded to the Times-Picayune for its coverage of Katrina-related events.

If he comes to speak near you, go to hear him. He’s a terrific speaker, and has a profound story to tell. He’s funny, too. You can learn more about the book at the publisher’s website and at the Chris Rose website. Apparently he does not have a publisher-sponsored book tour, but his own website lists the following appearances:

  • Murder by the Book (Houston, TX), Thursday August 30, 2007 7pm; for more information call (713)524-8597
  • Barnes & Noble (Westheimer Rd. Houston, TX), Friday August 31, 2007 7pm; for more information call (713)783-6016
  • AJC Book Fest (Atlanta, GA), Sunday September 1 & 2, 2007; more information to come
  • Ole Miss (Oxford, MS), Tuesday September 4, 2007 1pm; for more information call (662)915-5896
  • Square Books (Oxford, MS), Tuesday September 4, 2007 5pm; for more informaton call (662)236-2262
  • Reed's Gum Tree Books (Tupelo, MS), Wednesday September 5, 2007 12pm; for more information call (662)620-0838
  • Turn Row Books (Greenwood, MS), Wednesday September 5, 2007 5:30pm; for more information call (662)453-5995
  • Lemuria Books (Jackson, MS), Thursday September 6, 2007 5pm; for more information call (601)366-7619
  • Page & Palette (Fairhope, AL), Friday September 7, 2007 6pm; for more information call (251)928-5295
  • Baton Rouge Gallery (Baton Rouge, LA), Sunday September 9, 2007 4pm; for more informaton call (225)383-1470
  • Books-A-Million (Hattiesburg, MS), Tuesday September 11, 2007 7pm; for more information call (601)583-8612
  • Louisiana Book Fest (Baton Rouge, LA), Saturday November 3, 2007

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Difference Between "Mediocre" and "Very Good"

Writer Alex Keegan has a good article in the Internet Writing Journal on what transformed the Oscar-winning film Gladiator (2000, starring Russell Crowe) from a B-movie action flick to an excellent film. In "Shoot the Rhino," Keegan discusses the choices made by the screenplay's three writers. He points out that with only slight differences in the color and sensibility--the tone--the whole movie would have become less appealing. Instead, the writers focused on developing the hero, Maximus, as a man rather than just as a warrior, and made the dialog scenes weightier, "almost Shakespearean." Keegan discusses other tacks the writers took that gave the movie more impact--including convincing the director to leave out a particular special-effects scene. (Keegan doesn't say where he got the information. I assume it must be from interviews in Extras scene of the movie DVD.)

Caveat: If you haven't seen the movie yet, but want to, don't read Keegan's post because it gives away the ending.

Quote of the Day (and good to remember when I'm composing a blog post):
Most blogs suck. I'm being blunt, but no one wants to read about what you
ate for breakfast unless you're a dingo and you ate a baby.
-- Bob Mayer in He Wrote, She Wrote: the Crusie-Mayer Writing Workshop.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Internet Book Marketing Advice

The Crusie-Mayer Writing Workshop blog (also known as He Wrote, She Wrote) has a good post today by Jenny on "Marketing Internet," with advice on ways to promote your book(s) online. Good tips.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Farewell, My Harry...

Boohoo. I just learned yesterday that the SciFi Channel has canceled The Dresden Files series after only one season (12 episodes). Although the TV show did not match the excellence of Jim Butcher's novels, it was enjoyable and I found it worth watching. It was one of those programs that started out a bit weak, but grew better with each episode. Paul Blackthorne was great as Harry Dresden--not only did he look like my idea of the wizard-detective, but also he's a good actor. According to an August 3 item at,
Perhaps not coincidentally, this news comes on the same day that it's been announced that Dresden Files star Paul Blackthorne has joined the cast of new ABC drama Big Shots. Blackthorne will play a high-powered CEO that draws the envy of characters played by Joshua Malina, Dylan McDermott, Christopher Titus, and Michael Vartan. Big Shots will begin airing this Fall on Thursday nights, following Gray's Anatomy on ABC.

I wonder whether the series cancellation was because Blackthorne wanted to move on to bigger and higher-paying things, or whether he moved on because he'd been told the series wouldn't be renewed? We'll probably never know. Well, it was a good run, albeit brief. Fortunately, the single season of The Dresden Files has just been released on DVD, which I plan to purchase. As pointed out by E.A. Solinas in his review on Amazon,

"The Dresden Files" are only loosely based on the Jim Butcher novels -- it's not as dark or as complex, and a lot of characters are changes. But take it as its own animal, and it ends up being a very solid detective series... albeit one where the suspects and victims just happen to be vampires, devils, lycanthropes, incubi and necromancers.

Regardless of the television industry's fickle finger, Jim Butcher is still writing Dresden books--the best source of entertainment and enjoyment for me. Yo, Butcher--Dresden Forever!

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Continuing Battle: Literary vs. Genre Fiction

The tension within the publishing world over literary fiction versus genre fiction has long interested me. It's a recurring topic of discussion in my weekly writers' group. (All the fiction authors in my group write books classified as genre fiction.) We've noted that some books touted by the lit-crit crowd could easily fit within genre fiction categories, too--but if they were first called genre fiction, many of those lit-crit types would never touch them.

As you can tell from the preceding sentence, I am not among the lit-crit crowd. I love genre fiction, which has been my preferred reading matter for my entire life. As an English major, I put in the required four years of reading literary masterpieces. Some of them I loved--I've read and re-read Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and War and Peace several times each--but many of them I hated. (Get thee behind me, House of the Seven Gables, Moby Dick, and Portrait of a Lady!)

David Lubar's hilarious A Guide to Literary Fiction expresses my point of view on most literary fiction I've read. As he concludes,

One final hint. If you're ever in doubt about whether a story is literary, there's a simple test. Look in the mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes.

(This is off-topic, but funny: According to Lubar's Little-Known Literary Facts, "Research into the archives reveals that Herman Melville was far ahead of his times. His working title for Moby Dick was actually Whaling for Dummies. His publisher changed it without informing him.")

I like books that have a happy ending, or at least an optimistic ending. I've experienced enough tragedy in my own life--I don't want to wallow in the miseries of others. Obviously, negative dramatic events are essential to a book's plot--how else do you put your main character in jeopardy? If I read about someone else's tragedy, however, I want the story to end on a positive note. I don't want to toss and turn through a sleepless night after reading a book whose ending can be paraphrased as, "Abandon hope: life is futile." That seemed to be the message in a lot of the literary fiction I've read.

Booksquare has had a couple of interesting posts recently on genre. Check out "A Rose By Any Other Name: Has Genre Become Irrelevant?", by Pam Jenoff, who "has experienced the ping pong nature of genre designation firsthand (and survived to tell the tale!)," and Why Did the Reader Cross the Aisle?, in which Booksquare (a.k.a. Kassia Krozser) wonders, "The question roiling in the scary place that is my mind is whether or not strict genre categorization serves a book well."

In an excellent post on Teleread, Isabelle Fetherston discusses "Why libraries should offer popular fiction--in both print and e-book formats." She points out that in the 19th century, most libraries didn't carry fiction at all, because librarians believed that reading novels weakened the mind. After libraries began admitting fiction to their collections, many librarians still limited their fiction purchases to classic or educational literature, disdaining books that had popular appeal. In the last 50 years, however, "reader choice has gained more acceptance among librarians—as an important aspect of intellectual freedom." Fetherston says,

The American Library Association even promotes a “Freedom to Read” statement, which includes the following quotes: “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy” and “There is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression” (emphasis mine).

She notes, however, there is still a cadre of librarians who believe they should choose what their users read:

In an opinion piece in the December issue of American Libraries, David Isaacson does not object to all novels. But he does “question the argument that libraries should go out of their way to acquire romance novels, thrillers, and other kinds of literature whose primary purpose is escape and titillation.”

Now that makes me angry. If escape and titillation are what I want, it's not Isaacson's place to say I can't have it. I want libraries to include all kinds of fiction in their collections, whether classic, "improving," or "escape" novels.

Let's face it, popular fiction IS genre fiction. Although literary fiction does hit the bestseller lists, those lists are overwhelmingly populated by genre novels. These are the books that satisfy reader fantasies. Including mine.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Riffing on High Concept

Sidney Williams had a recent blog post on high concept. My writers' group has discussed high concept repeatedly, because that seems to be the best way to pitch books as well as scripts nowadays. It's a term that started in the movie industry and has spread to publishing.

In brief, as Wikipedia defines it,
The plot of a high concept movie is easily understood by audiences, and can often be described in a sentence or two, and succinctly summarized by the movie's title. ... Often high concept movies are pitched as combinations of existing high concept movies, or unique twists on existing titles. ... High concept movies often have themes which tie into an area of popular fascination and have a ready-built foundation of subsidiary issues and ever-ramifying facts that can feed the marketing machine, from magazine articles to weblog chatter, on levels ranging from the superficial to the intellectually or factually exhaustive.
Some of the high concept movies Wikipedia lists are Beverly Hills Cop, Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Speed, Star Wars, and Jaws.

On the other hand, screenwriter Steve Kaire defines high concept differently. To him, it's not just a story that can be pitched in one sentence; nor is it one film crossed with another film. In "High Concept Defined Once and For All," an article at the Writers Store website, Kaire says,
Story ideas, treatments and screenplays can all have High Concept premises. But only High Concept projects can be sold from a pitch because they are pitch driven. Non-High Concept projects can't be sold from a pitch because they are execution driven. They have to be read to be appreciated and their appeal isn't obvious by merely running a logline past someone.
According to Kaire, there are five requirements for a high-concept story: (1) The premise should be original and unique; (2) The premise has to have mass audience appeal; (3) The pitch has to be story-specific; (4) The potential must be obvious; and (5) The pitch should be one to three sentences long.

Sidney Williams made several funny high-concept story suggestions in his blog. For example,
North by Northwest meets The Seventh Seal. (Think about it: Death in a crop duster chasing Cary Grant.)

Play along at home if you like and stop chuckling. This is how Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man came about. Curt Siodmak was joking around about movie titles at the Universal commissary one day and wound up with an assignment.
In the comments on Sidney's blog, the ever-inventive Charles Gramlich made some hilarious suggestions, including "Wayne Allen Sallee Versus Stewart Sternberg"--which is the topic of Sidney's followup blog post, "Manly Concepts"--including Sidney's verrrry funnny version of a poster for movie of same. (FMI, see Wayne's blog, Frankenstein 1959 and Stewart's blog, House of Sternberg.)

A real-life example of high concept, and how it can sell your manuscript, is exhibited by a new book coming out this week. According to USA Today, first-time author Patricia Wood pitched her book Lottery as "Forrest Gump wins Powerball," and bingo! she hit the jackpot with a six-figure deal.

Now that's high-concept.