Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Finding Spendor Part 3--Writing and Horse Racing

So what else makes a best-seller? What makes one book sell millions of copies while others languish? 

I think most would say that best-sellers are written well, are interesting, and have a hook—the languishers, not so much. Makes sense, right?

Standard advice: Want to sell a lot of copies? Write a great book. Well, thank you very much. Who knew? Certainly, every author wants to write a great book. Most of us, when we put the final period on the final page of the final edit, feel we have written at least a good, if not great, book. Of course, we’re often wrong, but sometimes, both logic and odds say, we will be right.

Do best-sellers really break away from the pack because they’re great? Are books that rack up low sales poorly written or boring? Not necessarily.  History is replete with instances of well-written, fascinating books that few people read. How can that be proven? Many achieved their deserved fame years after publication when 1) their authors died, 2) the right person with the right connections decided to say something good about the books (Oprah, for example), 3) when certain national or world events or trends ignited interest in the books.

The previously ignored books were either excellent from the start or they were not. Logic tells us that at least some of them were good all along. They just didn’t get the attention they deserved.

Most critics also tell us many best-sellers are not very good. Some are really terrible. How can that be?  Why would hundreds of thousands of people buy and read a terrible book? I don’t know, but there could be several reasons.

A very famous person might have endorsed the book in a much-watched TV show or written about it in a much-read column or blog. The author could be married to a very famous person. The book could have such an outrageous plot and premise or characters that it arouses people’s prurient curiosity. 

A publisher once seriously suggested to me that I follow the marketing example set by a former president who had written a book. After I stopped laughing, I agreed to do that if the publisher would come up with an advance and book tour like the former president had. To my astonishment, this publisher did not seem to realize that the man’s books sold well because he had been president—not because of a marketing strategy—or even the quality of the book. 

I knew some of this when I sat down to write my first book. It’s all very unfair, of course, but life is unfair. Nobody is making us unknowns keep writing books that don’t sell well. Most of us are truly not in it for the money. My financial books outsold anything I’ve written since. If I was in it for the money, I would have continued to write in that genre. But I write what I am guided to write.

If we were in it for the money, we would do something that has a much better chance of making money, wouldn’t we?  We could play roulette or the slots at a casino or go to the track and bet on the horses. John Steinbeck said, “Writing and publishing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.” 

Still, I don’t know any writers who do not want their work to be read—and we want it to be read by a lot of people. Many of us would give away our books or sell them below cost if only they would be read. I do give away many books, but only for good reasons and when I believe they will be read. Otherwise, what would I say to the folks who paid for theirs?

So who will read what you write? In my book,  A River of Stories, I quote from Charles Handy’s book, Myself and Other Important Matters. “Few took notice when John Jerome died, though he was the author of eleven books. Jerome’s brother-in-law wrote for the New Yorker magazine. He said that Jerome had once been bothered by his lack of financial and critical success, until he realized that the purpose of his writing was the pleasure he derived from the act itself.”

Alexander McCall Smith said, “The whole world is a process that is slipping away from us. Writing is often an attempt to respond to that, to capture the moment, to help to heal that sense of separation and loss.”

So what form should our writing take to garner more readers? Next time.

The Ragamuffin Gospel

This book was recommended to me many months ago and I wish it had been years ago. The author served God through ministry for forty-five years before his death in 2013. He is a former Franciscan priest, author of twenty books, and an alcoholic. 

He has been denounced publicly and privately as a heretic, schismatic, universalist, and cockeyed optimist. He has been labeled “unbalanced”, “spiritually immature”, and “intellectually unhinged”. A newspaper article in California challenged his doctrinal purity and moral rectitude.

I suppose this book scandalized many. I found his “cockeyed optimism” refreshing. I found his message encouraging, frank, and backed by a solid interpretation of Scripture. I probably marked more passages and put more sticky notes in this book than any I have read in many years, possibly ever. I can see where purists can find fault with some of his conclusions, but I found his interpretations and beliefs life-changing for myself and thoroughly well-founded.

Manning addresses fundamental questions most of us ask such as, “Is life absurd or does it have a purpose?  Does God intervene in human affairs to make it abundantly clear what that purpose is?” 

He quotes many religious scholars and authors as diverse as Flannery O’Connor, Erma Bombeck, and Sue Monk Kidd. I did not necessarily agree with all his conclusions, but I found the narrative easy to read and convincing.  One of many quotes that I liked: Philosopher Jacques Maritain—“The culmination of knowledge is not conceptual but experiential—I feel God.”  

Manning punctuates his quotes with stories, even jokes. Everyone should read this book to at least learn if they are ragamuffins.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Some Luck

I read Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Thousand Acres many years ago. I also read Horse Heaven. As a horse owner and lover of horses and horse racing, I liked the second book better. But I also grew up on a farm and could identify with the agricultural aspects of both books.

This book is also about an Iowa farm family and covers the years 1920-1953. I usually mutter uh-oh when I see a family tree at the first of the book. That means you will need the tree to keep up with the characters. And you do. The time span is also a little daunting, considering it covers the Great Depression, WWII, and part of the Cold War.  Smiley skillfully weaves her characters into historical events. Considering they come from an Iowa farm, this was no small feat. 

As a writer not approaching Smiley’s stature, I admire her knowledge of farming and rural life and how she weaves historical events into a smooth narrative. Her knowledge and research are impeccable. Although I did not particularly enjoy reading it, her ability to write from the viewpoint of an infant in the beginning chapters is remarkable. I also felt as if the various narrators were talking to me. She peppers dialogue and narrative with witticisms and random thoughts that the character feels. Not many writers can do that without losing a reader. 

This is not a page-turner. That usually suits me fine if the characters are fully developed.  Unfortunately I don’t think they were. It could be my problem, but I still had to refer back to that family tree several times to remember who was who.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Finding Spendor in the Ordinary--Part 2

I recently met Jeannette Walls at the Highland Park Literary Festival. Some people found her memoir, The Glass Castle unbelievable, but it sold millions of copies. She followed the memoir with two novels, one she called a true life novel. My presentation at the festival was “The Blurry Line Between Fiction and Truth”. She said she was interested in my presentation because she had obviously walked that line.

Our short conversation and the keynote speech she gave at the festival caused me to reflect on the similarities and differences between us and our books. Here are just a few:

               Her name and picture filled an entire page on the first page of the program.
                              My name and picture was just across from hers on a fourth of a page. I was first on the                                       page because it was alphabetized.            
               She was the keynote speaker and spoke to a packed auditorium.
                              I spoke to two small classes.
               She was on the NYT best-seller list for years.
                              I read the Times best seller list almost every Sunday.
               Her memoir sold more than four million copies.
                              I have sold a similar number—minus a few zeroes.
               Her memoir was translated into twenty-seven languages.
                              My books are in English.
               She has more than four thousand reviews for one book on Amazon.
                              I have about a hundred reviews for 10 books.
               She was a celebrity gossip columnist and a regular guest on television when she wrote her best-      seller.
                              I was a small town CPA and financial planner        
               She stayed with memoir to the tune of four million in sales.
                              My first book started as a memoir but changed to a novel when I realized my memory                                              was more fallible than I thought.  
               Her family had a hardscrabble existence and often did without basic necessities.
                              My family had a hardscrabble existence and actually suffered more and worse                                                     hardships than hers. 
               Her parents were vagabonds.
                              We moved across the state and back to escape poverty and start anew.
               Her parents had inherited property and had lease income from land holdings in Texas.
                              My family inherited nothing and sold everything to get out of medical debt.
               She portrays her parents as educated and highly intelligent, but devoid of common sense and                               basic human values.
                              Neither of my parents graduated high school, but they had an abundance of common                                              sense and a strong system of values.
               Her parents let their children go hungry while they smoked, drank and hoarded food for                                    themselves.
                              My parents never ate until we were fed.
               Her parents abandoned their children more than once.
                              Mine never abandoned us. We stayed under the same roof, even when it leaked.
               Her parents flagrantly violated laws and ran out on their debts.
                              Mine never knowingly violated the law, always paid their debts (though                                                                  sometimes late).
               Most of her family’s sufferings were self-imposed by her parents.
                              Our family sufferings were primarily drought, death, and health problems. 

Do I believe her story? After meeting her and hearing her speak, I believe she wrote as close to the truth as her memory allowed. She saw her parents, especially her father, as brilliant. I saw their self-described brilliance as delusions of grandeur, as a thinly-veiled cover for mental derangement, abhorrent acts and mental instability.

But I have also portrayed my parents (in fiction and non-fiction) in a favorable light. With so many people blaming their parents for their own foibles and failures, I think cutting them a little slack is good. Concentrating on their good qualities and forgiving their bad ones has to be a good thing. Of course, we should not cross the line and lie.

If she had written her book as a novel, would it have sold as many copies? I don’t know, but probably not. Remember James Frey, whose appearance on Oprah sent his “memoir” to the best-seller list? His manuscript began as a novel, but an agent told him she could sell it if it were true. Presto—it became a memoir. You know the rest.
Would things have worked out differently had I published my first book as a memoir? Not likely.

Is the creepiness of her parents and strange story the reason for the millions in sales? Or is her writing that superior to other writers? Her writing, by the way, is very good and easy to read.

Of course, her minor fame and television appearances before the book was published didn’t exactly hurt. And then there was the call from Oprah, but I think that came after the book’s initial success.
Also, her book has a great hook.

Here’s her hook: Dressed in her gala finest and heading to a social event in New York, Jeannette looks out a cab window and sees her mother rummaging through a refuse bin for scraps of food.  8 ½ million people in New York and she sees her mother. She tells the driver to take her to her home on Park Avenue instead of to the event. Who doesn’t want to know the rest of that story?

So what else makes a best-seller? What makes one book sell millions of copies while others languish? Next time.