Saturday, January 1, 2011

First lines

It's the first day of the year and it seems an appropriate day to talk about great "firsts," those opening lines in novels that grab you and don't let go. The most famous one, of course, is "Call me Ishmael," and we all know that's from Moby Dick. And I'm pretty sure most people would recognize "It's a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." I'm quoting the great Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice. But here's one you may not immediately recognize: "It was a pleasure to burn." (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451) Or how about this: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." (L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

My favorite opening line from 2010: "I was lying dead in the churchyard." This is from the second installment of Alan Bradley's beguiling and often hilarious series about Flavia de Luce, girl detective in post-war England and one of the most intrepid heroines in recent memory. Last year I also rediscovered a treasure from the past, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, that begins this way: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."

Opening lines are critical, whether writers like to admit it or not. They can be agonizing to construct and sometimes present an obstacle that is almost impossible to overcome.
Herewith for your response are two opening lines that you've never seen before:

"She left me in the autumn, after giving me her darkest secret just as she would any thoughtful gift, with kind generosity, and then, having at last let go of this burden of the past, she put down her brushes, her palette knife and the other accoutrements of an artist's life and, smiling, died."

Or this:

"Betty Jones spent the last day of her life in the same way she did every other day, in the relentless pursuit of attention."

My question to my faithful blog followers is: Would either of these lines compel you to read on?

This is not a scientific study, but I'd love your opinion anyway, unvarnished, please.

In the meantime, Happy New Year, happy reading and let's hope 2011 is a hell of a lot better than 2010!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

There Are No Publishing Oracles

To all struggling writers everywhere (and I know you're out there), here is a little story that should give you hope. On December 16, 1901, Beatrix Potter published The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She had been turned down by half-a-dozen publishers, so she paid for the first edition of this classic herself. Her illustrations were in black and white and she had 250 copies printed, which she either gave away or sold at a half-penny each. She set the price so low because, as she said, "little rabbits cannot afford to spend six shillings." It only took a couple of weeks for Peter to find a following and by the end of the year, Beatrix Potter had a major deal with a publisher for an initial printing of 8,000 copies. Today, 40 million copies have been sold in dozens of languages. That first little half-penny edition sells for about $70,000.

The moral of this short tale: Publishers are not omniscient and they make mistakes - lots of mistakes. If you believe in your work, don't give up. Just think if Beatrix Potter had allowed the skepticism (and chauvinism) of publishers discourage her! I can't imagine a world without Peter Rabbit or Jemima Puddleduck. And remember, J.K. Rowling got rejected many times, too.

These are the little stories I use to remind myself every time I get a rejection for my own work. Publishers - and agents - are not oracles. Believe in yourself, keep writing, keep submitting and keep working to get better and better. Collect those rejections; they are the purple hearts of the publishing wars.

And when you do get published, send me a copy and I'll review it and hype it and do everything I can to drive sales. Yes, I am still a bookseller at heart.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Famous for Being Famous

Here in the United States of America, we don't have kings or queens, or princes and princesses, so we have created our own kind of royalty, and sometimes it gets downright embarrassing, especially when it involves those people who are famous for nothing more than being famous. We anoint them and praise them--and make them rich. I'm ranting about this because Christine O'Donnell of Tea Party fame in Delaware just got a nice book deal. Like Sarah Palin, she will be in the spotlight for her wacky opinions and because she's famous--and this book deal will just make her more famous. And so it goes (if you get that literary reference, comment on this blog and share--the author who used that phrase would probably have a hard time getting published today).

In the meantime, there are legions of talented, even gifted, writers out there who can't get an agent, much less a book deal. And you know who the real losers are? You and me, because we'll never have the joy of reading many of those writers. Publishers spend millions to sign up a single so-called writer, not because they recognize talent when they see it but because that person has a high profile and will sell books, no matter how good or bad they are. It has nothing to do with writing ability or talent and everything to do with the bottom line. I wouldn't get so worked up if publishers took the millions they make off these books and used it to cultivate emerging writers, but they don't. They just start looking for the next celebrity figure they can enlist to churn out a couple of hundred pages of drivel that the unsuspecting will rush out to buy.

Oh, listen to me! All worked up today!

The thing is that the millions these famous non-writers (and most of them require a ghostwriter or book doctor) get could be spent instead on nurturing and supporting the people with genuine gifts. But because the cult of celebrity has taken over, we'll never see those writers in print. Maybe someday the pendulum will swing back, and we'll once again have publishers and editors who want to be known for their commitment to literature, to exquisite prose and to originality--or maybe not.

I fear the latter. Maybe what we can do to stop this is stop buying the books in this particular genre - if it even deserves to be called a 'genre.'

So on this cold, bright day I am venting for just a minute. Is anybody listening? Does anybody care?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Christmas in Middleburg - Second Chapter is Opening!

Saturday, December 4, is Christmas in Middeburg - always an exciting time! Last year it snowed on us - a very heavy, wet and miserable snow - and drove everyone out of town by 2 p.m. This year the forecast is for sun, temps in the 40s, and it is sure to feel very much like Christmas.

Come to Middleburg and enjoy a day that is a truly old-fashioned small town celebration. It starts with breakfast with Santa at Middleburg Elementary, followed by a parade led by one of the local hunts, complete with mounted riders and dozens - perhaps even hundreds - of fox hounds. Something funny always happens when you get that many excited hounds together and ask them to march down Main Street!

On what we call the "Back Street," a new shop is opening its doors for the first time. Second Chapter Books, at 8 Federal Street, will have lots of wonderful books just in time for Christmas. The store will open at 10 a.m. on Saturday, and it's going to be quite a day. I hope many of you will come by and say hello - and pick up a book or two. I'll be stopping by to start my Christmas shopping and maybe I'll see you there.

This is a big deal for Middleburg. It does my heart good to see a bookstore in town. I hardly had time to grieve the loss of Books & Crannies before these two wonderful ladies, Kathy jo Shea and Jilann Brunett, decided to take the plunge. They will do an excellent job of serving Middleburg and environs, and they deserve all the support we can give them.

Happy Holidays to everyone, and I'll see you at Christmas in Middleburg!

Monday, November 15, 2010

A New Bookstore for Middleburg

Last night I was overjoyed to receive an email announcing the opening of a new bookstore in Middleburg. This means our lovely little town will be without a bookstore for only a month - and that is great news! This new store, Second Chapter Books, will be a full-service bookstore in every sense of the word - new books, e-books, online ordering and all of the same services that Books & Crannies provided. What's really wonderful is that the store is being opened by two of the most remarkable people I have ever met in my life, Kathy jo Shea and Jilann Brunett. And some of the best news of all is that the store will be managed by Laura Vermillion. Laura was always the heart of Books & Crannies and I am thrilled that she will continue her stellar career in the book business at Second Chapter. Kathy jo and Jilann are well established and important residents of Middleburg. Through Solstice Healing Center they provide acupuncture and massage therapy services to a lot of us. They are women of the highest integrity and that is important to know because of the way in which Second Chapter is being structured. Here is how they put it in the news release sent out last night:


Located at 8 East Federal, the bookstore will be managed by Laura Vermillion (formerly of Books and Crannies). The small, two-story house features a garden and is conveniently accessed from the Liberty Street parking lot. We want this to be a community bookstore so we are offering the Discount Club, volunteer opportunities, and are accepting suggestions about how the bookstore could better serve the community. Some of our ideas include author events, walk-in book discussions, online ordering, storytelling, used-book exchanges, gift certificates, featured books, comfortable chairs and garden seats during the warmer months.

We are very excited about this venture and want you to all be a part of it. So, we are offering Founding Memberships in the Discount Club. Your membership will give you discounts on your book purchases. From now until Dec. 31, 2010, a membership fee of:

$100 to $500 will give you a 10% discount on your book purchases for 1 year
$501 to $1000 will give you a 10% discount on your book purchases for 2 years
$1001 to $1500 will give you a 10% discount on your book purchases for 3 years
>$1500 will give you a lifelong 10% discount on your book purchases

After January 1, 2011 the membership in the Discount Club will cost $50 and will give the member a 5% discount for one year. We will also offer Discount Club memberships to our volunteers. Moreabout that will be available later. If you would like to join, please make checks payable to Second Chapter Books, LLC and mail them to:

Second Chapter Books
PO Box 1807
Middleburg, VA 20118

You can contact us for more information and with your suggestions at Our temporary phone number is 703-597-2749 (this is Kathy jo’s cell phone).


I wanted to share the entire email with you so that you can fully understand how this new store is going to be structured. By doing it this way, I believe Kathy jo and Jilann are doing something that will make the store truly Middleburg's own bookstore. And, because I know Kathy jo and Jilann very well, I can safely say that if you become a founding member of Second Chapter Books, you will be doing the right thing.

I wholeheartedly support this effort. I am honored to be able to share it with you, and I'm looking forward to doing my Christmas shopping at Second Chapter Books.

Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or thoughts and I'll try to assist in any way I can.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wishin' and Hopin'

On - and Off - The Road, Again

Hello everyone,

I've been on the road now for many days. It's been - literally - planes, trains and automobiles. I've been from Boston to Atlanta to Charlottesville to Ft. Lauderdale, home for a few days, then back to Boston. What a life!

The best way to cope with these bouts of excessive transportation is with a good book. I found one in my travels. It's Wishin' and Hopin' by the great Wally Lamb (author of She's Come Undone and The Hour I First Believed), and it's something of a departure for him. He's known for writing hefty books that grapple with serious issues and questions. This book is shorter and might at first glance be considered "Wally lite," but it's far from that. In fact, it's a charming, hilarious and deeply compassionate story about six-year-old Felix Funicello (cousin of Mickey Mouse Club's Annette), and his struggles growing up in Connecticut. Felix is innocently and riotously funny and while this is a book about children, it is not children's book, at least not for any child under about age 13. There are some dirty jokes that parents might not appreciate their kids repeating, although I suspect our children know many more risque jokes and stories than any of us care to imagine. The ones in this book fit the story, and one joke, in particular plays a significant role in the fate of a certain television show. If it were any more tame it just wouldn't ring true. This is childhood as it really is, but written with love and understanding.

I don't think any of you will be offended by anything in Wishin' and Hopin', and a lot of you will be touched. Parts of it will make you laugh out loud and the ending itself is something to behold. If you need an antidote to the harsh reality of today, then this book will take you away from it all for a few hours. It's being billed as "a Christmas story," but it oh-so-much more than that.

I'm just wishin' and hopin' Wally Lamb writes some more just like this.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Feeling like Tinkerbell

I feel like Tinkerbell and the other fairies when someone says they don't believe. My light is a little dimmer today. Yesterday we cleaned out Books & Crannies and now it is just a sad empty space. But if you all clap your hands, maybe something new can emerge from the ashes. I hear you clapping...

In the meantime, keep reading, don't get too hooked on your e-reader and help me keep the dream alive. While it was an unfortunate series of events that led to the demise of the bookstore, I know very well that there are plenty of book lovers out there--those old-fashioned kind that like to hold an actual, bound book in their hands--that would love to see another store in Middleburg. For now, why not read something great, like Little Bee by Chris Cleave. This is a haunting and moving novel about an unlikely friendship between a Nigerian refugee and a window in London.

And let me know what you think.