Monthly Archives: January 2014

Avoiding Cliches + Using Specific Details: Natalie Baszile and QUEEN SUGAR

Posted by January 16th, 2014

QUEEN SUGAR coverI’m such a nut for Women’s Fiction featuring characters who overcome emotional struggles and find quiet but satisfying resolution. That, to me, is epic fiction. When I found out about Natalie Baszile’s forthcoming novel, QUEEN SUGAR–which would fit beautifully unto a bookshelf next to THE HELP or THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES–I knew I wanted to know more about this author, who’s already winning fans with her ambitious, assured debut. QUEEN SUGAR is a smart and inspiring read, not to mention a perfect tutorial in avoiding cliches when writing about family and the American South.

LS: QUEEN SUGAR’s main character, Charley, is a single mom recovering from two devastating losses, trying for a fresh start. As a writer, that’s a lot of heavy stuff to take on. Yet your take was fresh, and nuanced. How did you make Charley’s heartbreak seem so realistic?

NB: First, thank you very much for the kind words. I always love when I read a book that makes me feel something bigger is possible, so I’m glad you found the story inspiring.

I was terribly concerned about clichés in the early drafts. I wanted Charley to face a lot of real-life challenges and I wanted her experience to reflect what so many people, particularly women, face as they raise children, loose spouses, take care of sick and aging parents, even battle depression. The best way to avoid clichés is to be particular, so I tried to imagine how Charley’s struggles felt to her specifically. So, for example, when I wrote about her father’s cancer, I tried to include details that would reveal that disease as Charley experienced it. When I wrote about her depression, I tried to show how that dark period felt to her.  But I also wanted to show Charley coming through those challenges to create a new life for herself, so it was enough that some of those problems were behind her; in her rearview mirror. A few brushstrokes were sufficient.

Thinking a little more about clichés, I was also very conscious of creating an African American character who couldn’t be pigeonholed. I wanted Charley’s life story to reflect what I knew to be true:  that the range of African-American experience is vast and broad and nuanced. Yes, some people have had more urban experiences growing up, but others, like Charley, were raised in the suburbs, and had childhoods that were more integrated. I think we are seeing more examples in so many aspects of our culture now, more than ever before, and I wanted Queen Sugar to reflect that reality.

Natalie Baszile author photoLS: Homecoming is a big theme in the book—several characters are coming back home to Southern Louisiana so that they can have a new beginning. Do you have a personal connection to this part of the US?

NB: My dad was born in Southern Louisiana and lived there until he moved to Port Arthur, Texas, for high school.  Most of his siblings and their families– my aunts, uncles and cousins–still live in Lake Charles, Opelousas, or Baton Rouge, and my great aunt, who must be in her late eighties, still lives in the little town where my dad was born. So even though I’m a California native, I feel that I can claim Southern Louisiana as part of my personal history. Continue reading

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Meet Literary Agent Lucy Childs Baker

Posted by January 15th, 2014

Lucy Childs BakerFull disclosure: Literary agent Lucy Childs Baker and I don’t just share the same first name. We also share . . . a family! Lucy, an agent at the Aaron M. Priest Agency, is my cousin. She’s actually the person for whom I was named! Since I started working in publishing, I’ve relied on her analysis, her advice, and her good taste in books. Lucy is looking for new writers to represent in several literary categories workshopped here on Book Country. Read on to find out more about Lucy’s literary tastes and how to query her with your manuscript.

LS: Tell us how you got into the business of agenting.

LC: I was an actress in a previous life (for 25 years).  I wanted to change careers for a variety of reasons and my cousin suggested agenting since I’ve always been a voracious reader with eclectic taste.  I had to start somewhere, so I began managing the office at the Aaron Priest Agency.  After learning everything I could about publishing – a completely different world from the theater! – I became an agent after four years.

LS: What kind of books do you really connect with as a reader?

LC: Mostly literary fiction, and although it’s a cliché, really anything that’s well written with a juicy story.  Just finished THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt which I loved. Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING is also a recent favorite.

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An Epic Morning at Starbucks: Author Phillip Margulies’s Agent Story

Posted by January 14th, 2014

phillip Margulies 1Every traditionally published author has a story about how they found their literary agent. My favorites of these are always the more serendipitous ones, the ones that show not just a writer’s tenacity in their search, but also have a cinematic quality to them–a bit of a “meet-cute.” Below, Historical Fiction author Phillip Margulies, whose debut novel BELLE CORA came out from Doubleday last week, tells us how he met his agent, Dorian Karchmar of William Morris, at his local Starbucks. It wasn’t just good timing, however–read on to see how Phillip impressed Dorian even before she read his work, and how that fateful meeting helped him to realize one of his longest-held dreams.

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For unpublished writers the true tale I’m about to relate qualifies as a story of survival.  Whether it is an inspiration or a warning, I’m not sure.

I have been writing fiction since the age of 11;  that is, since 1963, half a century ago. Empires fell, presidential administrations went by in a blur, the quill in my hand became a typewriter and then a laptop, while I sat there in my Time Machine writing.  I had no other ambition, no other serious employment.  By 2005, when I began BELLE CORA, I had written eight previous novels and numerous short stories and poems, all unpublished; also some unproduced plays.  Editors praised my work.  They wished me luck “finding the right publisher.”

My wife, Maxine Rosaler, has a writer friend who is regularly published—they’re from the same town and have stayed friends despite their highly divergent destinies. The friend’s husband had recently asked my wife: “Why does Phil bother?” Like, Phil’s in his fifties, can’t he take a hint?  Earlier, when I was merely in my forties, another friend had told her: “At this stage of his life he’ll never get published.” My wife decided not to pass on either of these remarks, which is unusual for her, but sometimes in a fight when I accused her of saying everything she could say to hurt me, she’d say, “No, I don’t.  There are things I could say that I don’t say.”  Which was, wow, really infuriating. Continue reading

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Member Spotlight: Meet Thriller Writer Jesse Smith

Posted by January 13th, 2014

Jesse SmithSouth African Suspense Thriller writer Jesse Smith spends most of his days as a ship’s captain, sailing all over the world. Jesse has been to over 100 countries! But in his free time, Jesse’s also a writer–his book THE MEGIDDO REVENGE was published here on Book Country in September. We chatted with him about his writing while he was on his holidays before going back out to sea.

LS: You must be so excited to see your book, THE MEGIDDO REVENGE, for sale online. Tell us all about it: writing it, revising it, and publishing it. What was your process for all three?

JS: Seeing the book in eBook and paperback format was awesome. Since I was a child I had this hankering to ‘write a book’ and this was a dream come true. The writing of MEGIDDO took roughly five years from the Prologue to the Epilogue. That being said, over the last fifteen years or so before the manuscript was formally started, I had written several random pages and unnumbered chapters as I had ideas about characters and events for what I hoped would be a complete novel. These random notes eventually gelled into the final book.

In a book such as MEGIDDO which is based very much on ‘real time’ international events, revision of some aspects of the plot was almost continuous but eventually I had to freeze time and type The End. For instance, I regularly sail in the Gulf of Aden pirate area and have had several close encounters with pirates.  The modus operandi of the pirate groups evolved and changed since the book was started in 2008 so the early chapters had to be suitably revised and adjusted before I decided to finally finish. Regarding revision, during the writing process I always knew where I was coming from and where I was going to. The plot I thought was okay but I had a lot of work to do one characterization and here my #1 editor and advisor, my wife Fran, was able to help a great deal. I went to sea when I was 17 so consequently missed out on a formal literary education. Fran, on the other hand, was educated in England at several rather grand well-known girls schools where English Literature was the most important subject and without her input, the manuscript would have been gibberish. Continue reading

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Writing an Epic Family Saga by Novelist Linda Spalding

Posted by January 10th, 2014

The Purchase 2

The following is a guest post by Linda Spalding about her historical novel THE PURCHASE, winner of the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Prize for Fiction. The book tells the story of Quaker Daniel Dickinson and his family, and their new life at the Virginia frontier – where slaves are the only available workers and where the family’s values and beliefs are sorely tested. 

Here Linda talks about intertwining the story of antebellum America with family history to create an epic family saga. 

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Every family is an epic. Even a single generation has so many stories tucked away that ten thousand pages would be required to tell them all. A family is the perfect proof of chaos theory – the one where a butterfly causes a blizzard in Florida or an airplane crash in the arctic. Your mother tickles you on your left foot while you snooze in your cradle and you develop an allergy to walking barefoot on grass in your middle age.

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David Anthony Durham on His Landmark Epic Fantasy Trilogy

Posted by January 9th, 2014

acaica trilogy

I am so thrilled to have author David Anthony Durham on the blog today. His ACACIA series made me fall in love with the epic fantasy genre: The trilogy’s breathtaking, multi-layered story, innovative take on magic, and daring vision of human frailty meant we had to add it as an epic fantasy Landmark Title on our genre map — next to titles by George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss. 

Here David answers questions about craft and genre in the ACACIA series.

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NG: In the first ACACIA book we encounter a dynasty that ruled the known world for 22 generations. We’re talking about a large canvas: a complex geography, a slew of different cultures, and quite a bit of history to invent and deploy. It’s a truly “epic” fantasy. How did you manage to keep track of all this information as you were writing? Where do you start when you have such a huge task on your hands?

DAD: I start in several places at once. At the core of it all is the Akaran family, the father and his four children and the reality of the dynasty he’s leaving to them – and the guilt and unease he has about the horrible legacy that their wealth is built on. I knew from the start he was sitting on some major secrets, and what could be worse for a father that loves his children than knowing that his empire sells children – other people’s – into slavery? Once I had that idea I had to figure out who they traded with, and why those people would want an unending supply a child slaves. So, one thing – family dynamics – quickly expanded into larger and larger issues.

Map from the first Acacia book.

The map featured in the first Acacia book.

Also, there was the map. Wouldn’t be an “epic” fantasy without one, right? Doodling it out was another way the world took shape. Filling in the continents and the climates and features all gave me clues to the types of societies and races that would live there. The more I doodled the larger the map got. I tried to circle the continent with oceans, but then I got to wondering what was beyond those oceans. And so I got the ships out – big ones – and went sailing.

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How to Write an Effective Battle Scene by Epic Fantasy Author Anthony Ryan

Posted by January 8th, 2014

blood_song_anthony_ryanBattle scenes in fiction are a serious affair. They require a lot of research but also careful craftsmanship. The author needs to relay vivid sensory detail and paint a picture of the battle’s development, then filter all that through the perspective of the book’s key character(s) in an engrossing way. A good battle scene is like a beautifully choreographed dance–equally pleasing to military history acolytes and laymen. 

Today we’re excited to welcome author Anthony Ryan, who’s written the much touted epic fantasy BLOOD SONG–he knows a thing or two about writing gripping battle sequences.

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A battle scene is a depiction of armed conflict between multiple participants. Or, more simply, a bunch of people fighting, usually in a field if we’re talking about epic fantasy. But, of course, there is no one type of battle scene, as there is no one type of book. There are land battles, sea battles and space battles. There are sieges, ambushes and skirmishes. Then we have shoot-outs, sword-fights, dog-fights and an endless inter-mingling of just about every form of combat real or imagined. My point is that the battle scene is not limited to one genre or period of history. However, for a battle scene to work, a savvy writer would be wise to include, or at least address, certain key elements.

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Is My Book Historical, Traditional or Epic Fantasy?

Posted by January 7th, 2014

fantasy_what_is_epic_fantasyThe fantasy genre has a complex and diverse landscape–and incorporates the kind of assortment of tropes, conventions, and magical creatures that can make you head spin. The challenge of writing fantasy comes from having a good overview of the genre, knowing to nod to what’s come before, and build upon it. In fact, one of the SF/F editors I talked to recently said that the two most common mistakes writers make in submissions are that they either try to reinvent the wheel and, unbeknownst to them, write a story that has a plot similar to one of the all-time SF/F classics or they rely on genre paradigms that were the rage decades ago and are no longer popular. If you want to be published today, you have to be familiar with what’s published today as well as know your ABCs when it comes to fantasy: J. R. R. Tolkien, Mercedes Lackey, George R.R. Martin, Philip Pullman and so on. You have to be fluent in fantasy.

That’s why we wanted to spend some time on the epic fantasy genre–a pretty “hot” genre of late, and demystify the small but significant ways in which is differs from other fantasy subgenres such as historical and traditional fantasy.

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Member Spotlight: Meet Writer Larry Winfield

Posted by January 6th, 2014

Larry Winfield author photoIt’s such a pleasure to have member Larry Winfield as our first Member Spotlight of 2014. A longtime Book Country member, Larry recently published his novel BANJO STRINGS on Book Country. He stopped by to talk to us about his writing and his wide range of other creative endeavors.

LS: Tell us about your path as a writer: how did you get started, and what’s brought you to where you are now?

LW: Uh, it’s a very twisted path. I wrote a few poems in high school that got published in the campus literary magazine, and in senior year (1974) I was an Associate Editor. And then I didn’t write another thing for 8 years. I moved to Chicago, got into theater, tried to start a band, worked as an illustrator, then in the early 80’s I let the acting, the band and the artwork go and started keeping a journal, and by ’88 I had a small chapbook of poems in a few stores in Hyde Park, Chicago.

In 1990 I discovered the Chicago poetry scene and spent a dozen years as a venue host and sometimes a featured reader, listening to great poets and writing almost every day. In 2002 I moved to the west coast, in part because of 9/11 (a long story), and tried to get into the Los Angeles poetry scene, but it was just too scattered. I hung out in the Santa Monica/Venice scene for a while, but it wasn’t happening with me living downtown. Anyway, by 2005 I’d discovered podcasting and created Sundown Lounge an updated version of my pirate radio show The Rent Party (part of that long story). Around the same time I was thinking of a couple story ideas, and Scott Sigler had recently broken huge with his first podcast novel. So I started putting up audio chapters at Mevio as I went, my own performance piece of a live novel, even though it was a few months between episodes in the middle. By the end, though, I had over 60,000 individual hits and some chapters in the hundreds of downloads. Nice. I ended up revising the novel into a “2013 edition” that I’m working to release as a podiobook, eBook and a printed (or POD) paperback.

LS: Along that route you found Book Country. How did that happen?

While writing and recording the first podcast version, I looked for writers groups to submit chapters and some of my poems to for feedback and review. I stuck with Author Nation and Authonomy mostly, then the Nation went down last year, and I found you guys on a Google search. The first manuscript was done by then so I uploaded the eBook to the Horror section, and it made the spotlight list, so thank you for that.

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What are Landmark Titles on Book Country?

Posted by January 3rd, 2014

As you explore the Book Country Genre Map, you’ll find a carousel of “Landmark Titles” on each genre page. Landmark Titles are books from each literary category and are often well-known and popular titles. We believe they’re the must-read books for each category.

High Epic Fantasy Genre Page on Book Country

As you are making your plans to improve your book this year, we suggest reading Landmark Titles in the same literary category as your own. This is a great way to learn about genre conventions, plot structure, characterization, voice, and all the other elements of a book that your audience is keenly aware of and that you want to appeal to. Continue reading

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