Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Cat Fight in Key West

In the category of bizarre stories comes this one in USA Today from Key West, Florida. Turns out the Hemingway Museum there has about 50 cats, many of them descendants of the six toed Snowball, who lived at the residence with Hemingway and his family during the 1930's. One of the museum's neighbors has complained to the US Department of Agriculture that the museum is not keeping these cats out of trouble. So, in an excellent use our our federal tax dollars, the USDA has launched a federal investigation of the museum. Gum shoed investigators have rented rooms in an adjacent motel, and spend their days videotaping the movement of these 50 cats. Turns out that -- horrors of horrors -- one of the cats scaled the museum wall and went out into the street.

Another sign of the decline of Western Civilization. When simple disputes require a federal investigation to resolve we must be losing our collective common sense, wouldn't you say ?

I'm not sure what this says about me or about Hemingway's writing, but I haven't been able to make it through one of his books since high school. At 15 I was a Hemingway fiend, reading at least a dozen of his classics. But as an adult, his prose seems contrived and his heroes seem shallow and one dimensional. Does anyone else feel the same way about Hemingway ?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

William Wilberforce, John Newton, and Amazing Grace

As I finish revising Chapter Two of my latest work-in-progress, Letter to an Atheist, I see signs of 18th Century reformed slave trader John Newton and his younger friend, politician and Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce all around.

Newton, of course, wrote the hymn Amazing Grace, and his younger protege Wilberforce was the Member of Parliament responsible for persuading that body to end the slave trade in 1808 and then abolish slavery throughout the British Empire in 1834. Both men play an important role in my Chapter Two on the Bible, Christianity, and Slavery, in which I refute the contentions of atheist Sam Harris that the Bible unequivically supported slavery and that most Christians prior to the Civil War accepted that view.

Look for the stories of Newton and Wilberforce on the big screen this February when the movie Amazing Grace is relased. Produced by Patricia Heaton (the former co-star of TV's Everybody Loves Raymond), and starring Ioan Gruffund (Horatio Hornblower in the A and E series), it will be interesting to see what kind of box office this film will achieve.

The movie focuses more on Wilberforce's story, as well as that of his friend Equiano, the freed slave from West Africa (see portrait of the historical Equiano and the actor who plays him to the right).

Newton's slave trading, conversion, and hymn writing occur decades earlier, and his story is told in Christine Schaub's new novel, The Longing Season. Newton is an old man who befriends the younger Wilberforce in the movie.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Landmark Booksellers in Franklin, Tennessee

I stopped by Landmark Booksellers, a two year old independent book store just off the square in Franklin, Tennessee, and visited with its owner, Joel Tomlin. A veteran entrepreneur with a knack for real estate, Joel purchased the large historic building at 114 East Main Street at the same time he purchased the entire inventory of 40,000 books owned by Dad's Old Book Store, the Green Hills book store that closed down a couple years ago.

A native Nashvillian, Joel is a lover of books, Southern Literature, and the Civil War. He also brings to mind visions of stylish Confederate Generals of yesteryear. I include here a photo of General Beauregard, whom I think Joel favors (as the term is used in the South).

Joel's strategy is a good one I think. Purchase real estate off the square in a growing but historic Southern town. Fill the book store with rare and old books, but also make new books available. Make the store a friendly place to come and hang out and browse. Give all sorts of groups -- poets, writers, Civil War buffs -- a place to hold regular events. Feature local writers and hold lots of author signings.

You can see the inside of Landmark Books here, as well as a picture of a local author speaking. That's Kathy Hardy Rhodes, author of Pink Butterbeans. And, in an interesting convergence of worlds (see the preceeding post), Pink Butterbeans is published by Cold Tree Press !

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Peter Hornsberger and Cold Tree Press

I had a terrific phone conversation yesterday with Peter Hornsberger of Cold Tree Press, based here in Nashville. Peter, a native of Vermont, is a veteran graphic design and advertising industry executive who founded a POD (Print-on-Demand) publishing company in his garage five years ago. Now, after publishing about 100 books, he's ready to move into a real office in Brentwood, along with his four employees.

Just by looking at the Cold Tree Press website you can tell this is a quality operation. Here's the business model:

Cold Tree charges authors a one time up front fee of between $900 and $1400 to get their books print ready. Services include formatting the text, designing the book cover, and can include editing (though extensive editing is an extra fee). Once the book is ready, Cold Tree subcontracts the actual production to Lightning Source, the local Ingram Books subsidiary that specializes in digital POD printing. Print runs typically are in the range of 1 to 1000.

The author maintains the rights to the book, but Cold Tree owns the books produced this way. Authors can purchase their own books from Cold Tree at a 40% off retail price. They also receive a 30 per cent royalty on books sold through the Cold Tree website and a 15% royalty on books sold through retailers or online retailers.

The best total sales from a title in the Cold Tree catalog has been 3,000 units.

Cold Tree will be offering an offset print option next year, which means initial runs will be 1,500 minimum.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Yet another Red River !

Thanks to blog poster Captain Boone for letting me know about yet another book titled Red River. I knew about Lalitha Tademy's upcoming book of that title, but was unfamiliar with P.J. Nagle's 2003 Red River, published by Forge Books.

A brief review of the outline provided me with great relief.

The book is set in the Red River Campaign, but the story is significantly different than mine.

Nagle appears to have blazed the trail to write fiction of lesser known battles of the Civil War west of the Mississippi (hey, that's MY path !) a decade earlier. Fortunately, her trail seems to be much further west than mine, focusing on New Mexico and Galveston, with Red River being her eastern most foray.

This leaves me, of course, with the problem of coming up with a title for the second book of the trilogy. Red River being unavailable, Captain Boone points out that Bailey's Dam may not work well, since Joseph Bailey may not have been a particularly admirable character. In any event, his engineering feat was the single most important event of the campaign.

So, I leave it to you, dear blog reader. Ideas for the title of the second book ?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Robert Hicks, author of The Widow of the South

I heard Robert Hicks, author of The Widow of the South, speak today at the Williamson County Public Library. He told a great story about his first and only meeting with the legendary Shelby Foote.

Also did a great job describing the context of the Battle of Franklin, and how the battle's outcome sealed the fate of the South.

There were 60 people in attendance. Surprisingly, not a one under 30. A good one third of the audience was over 70. I wish we could get more young people interested in writing in general, and the Civil War in particular.

The great news was the topic for his next book.

The last three days in the life of John Bell Hood.

Now there's a great start !

Friday, December 08, 2006

An Alphabetical Life

Wendy Werris has written a terrific memoir about her life as an independent rep for book publishers. With an engaging title (An Alphabetical Life) the book includes great tales about accompanying authors to their book signings and the writing life.

Love the book cover !

Would love to have Wendy speak to our writers group, but the trek from her home in Los Angeles to Nashville might be a bit of a stretch.

A walking oxymoron

The Williamson County Public Library Writers Group met last night. Every time I go to the library I am impressed and thankful to the architect for the beauty of the building. Thanks to Janice Keck, Executive Director, we are now meeting in the Board Room, which is ever so comfortable. Nice room, nice big leather chairs, very pleasant.

This time, we had six writers in attendance. Four old hands and two newbies. One of the newbies responded to the notice in the local paper the library puts out. Seems like every meeting we get one or two newbies from that source.

This newbie was most interesting. His name is Terry, and I think he may well be a walking oxymoron.

He is an Information Technology professional. He's spent his entire career writing code, and now installing high level software.

Guess what genre he wants to write in ?

Romance novels !

I cannot wait to read his first chapter. Any advice for Terry from romance novelists out there ?

Now, I am really looking forward to hearing his first chapter. Talk about worlds colliding !

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Some kind of something from the fabulous Ms. Vater

This was posted on the blog of Rachel Vater about six hours ago. She's the fabulous young literary agent who received an e-query from me back on November 10.

I’ve caught up on my e-mail queries from October 28 to November 28. If you sent me one during that time and haven’t gotten a response yet, then you either didn’t use the website form (and it’s possible it got buried in my other inbox) or the e-mail you listed didn’t work and bounced back to me, or your SPAM filter stopped it… or I’m holding on to it. I’ve saved 20 out of over 200 e-mail queries to look at more closely, give a personal reply to, forward to another agent here, or request myself.

Having not received a form e-mail back from Ms. Vater yet, I assume that my query is among those 20 to be looked at more closely, or about to receive a personal reply.

Ms. Vater is from Kentucky, and therefore possibly immune to the "Who cares about the Civil War ?" point of view I have ascribed to east coast literary agents. Or, she just might find my writing fabulous.

We'll see if we hear anything further from her.

I am tempted to just send her another email, along with the link to my wiki, where the entire manuscript of Fort Desperate is posted (password protected, of course). But I think I'll just wait and see what she has to say.

I do take a degree of satisfaction in knowing that I finally appear to have made a bit of progress in the agent search process. Hey, and it's taken far less than five and a half months this time !

Monday, December 04, 2006

Five and a Half Month E-Query Response

On July 14 I sent an e-query to Manus Literary Agency. Half an hour ago (that would be five and a half months for those of you who are counting), I received the following response in my email:

Dear Author,

Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to read your submission. We appreciate your considering us for representation of your project.

Unfortunately, after careful review, we have decided that we might not be the right agents for your work. However, we hope that you are not disheartened. This industry is incredibly subjective, and there are many agencies out there with many different tastes. We strongly encourage you to keep submitting elsewhere, as you might already have a bestseller in your hands.

We apologize for the form letter reply, but the volume of submissions we receive has finally made it impossible for us to hand-write responses as we have for so many years. We hope you will understand and forgive us this necessary efficiency. In addition, we do not feel it is proper for us to provide editorial feedback on projects we have decided not to represent.

We wish you the very best of luck and success with your work, and urge you to keep on writing!


Manus & Associates Literary Agency

This is just too rich not to post !

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Better Together ? Not without individual responsibility within a covenantal community

Lew Feldstein, co-author along with Harvard professor Robert Putnam of Better Together, the follow up book to Putnam's Bowling Alone, will be speaking in Franklin, Tennesse this week on the topic of building social capital within communities.

Now, I'm all in favor of this. And, if there is a community in America where social capital has been developed, and has potential for developing even further, it's Franklin, Tennessee.

But there's a certain hollowness to the exclusively secular approach to building social capital that Feldstein and Putnam champion. Discouraged by what he saw as the disintegration of American civic activisim that he cataloged in Bowling Alone, Putnam joined with Feldstein in a tour of the United States to find and write about examples of community based activism that built positive social capital. And they found about a dozen, which they describe in their book. Eight of these examples are listed on their website:

(1) A mentoring and reading program in Philadelphia that brings together retirees and elementary school children to the benefit of both – the children get help reading and the retirees have a richer, more purposeful life
(2) A group of sixth-grade activists in a small Wisconsin town who managed to persuade local authorities to improve safety at a railroad crossing and in doing so learned a valuable lesson in civic activism
(3) A neighborhood in Boston that has been revitalized by a civic association that overcame ethnic differences and now plays an ongoing role in the neighborhood
(4) A community effort in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest regions in the U.S., that brought such basic services as electricity, roads, and health care to the mostly Spanish-speaking residents

(5) A successful small business initiative in Tupelo, Mississippi, that began sixty years ago with the purchase of a prize bull
(6) Chicago public libraries that have broadened their mission and have become true community centers
(7) Two huge and rapidly growing churches in Los Angeles that are making people feel connected to other church members and their community
(8) The city of Portland, Oregon, where the anti-war movement of the sixties actually changed the institutions so that now there is a remarkably high level of civic engagement in government and politics (more so than in other cities, even other cities on the west coast).

It's interesting to note that the only faith based example Feldstein and Putnam cite is credited for how it connects church members, but not why these church members are connected.

They also suggest 150 ways to build social capital within a community. Only one of those suggestions is faith related, and it's even couched to a degree.

Suggestion 59. Go to church...or temple...or walk outside with your children–talk to them about why its important

I'm left wondering if their point here is to simply engage in some activity with your children.

There's a problem with the secular approach to building social capital. Sooner or later, the charismatic leaders of the particular community program will die or leave, and the remaining infrastructure may not be strong enough to sustain the effort.

I think a better, more long lasting model of buidling social capital within communities is what I call individual responsibility within a covenantal community.

What do I mean by a covenantal community ?

I mean a community which is anchored by a group of believing Christians who belong to one or more of the following institutions:

A church
A classical Christian school

There are many mutually re-enforcing covenants within a covenental community. All of these covenants are an extension of the single most important covenant--

The covenant between God and Man.

The subordinate coventants of which I speak are those between:

Husband and wife
Fellow believers
Parents and children
Pastor and church members
Teachers and students

Dear Author . . .

Miriam Altshuler, literary agent, followed Janet Reid's example with a negative response to my snail mail query. Unlike Miss Reid ( Miss Snark ?), Ms. Altshuler sent a form letter (well really a form snippet of paper 8 inches by 3 inches) that began

Dear Author:

Nope !

It's been a month, and still no response from my e-query to Rachel Vater. I am beginning to think that east coast thirty something women may not care about the Civil War. Or, to be specific, my novel about the Civil War. At least Miss Reid took the time to hand write her rejection.

So, I am wondering if this querying of New York based agents is just a waste of time. Of course, it could be that they like the Civil War, just don't like my writing about it !

Jeff Shaara is his own agent. I am not sure who represents Howard Bahr, but I am going to check out who does. I know that Robert Hicks, author of The Widow of the South, was represented by Jeff Kleinfelder. He's out of Washington D.C., and definitely not a thirty something woman, though he is an east coaster.

This is a theory mind you, so if there are any east coast thirty something women out there who are reading this, try answering this question for me -- Do you care about the Civil War ? Or are you totally disinterested ?