Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Shack, from Self-Published to 15 Million Copies Sold!

While browsing through the list of best-selling books of all time I came across a title that has sold 15 million copies since 2007, a title and author that I was unfamiliar with.  Then I read that 26 publishers had turned it down, mostly for religious concerns I believe, so the author and two friends formed a publishing company, Windblown Media to sell this one book.  That makes it a self-published book, whereby they invested a mere $200-300 to promote it via a website, and then, after a predicable slow start, the book took off by word of mouth, got picked up by a major publisher/distributer, and became the best-selling book of 2008 and one of the biggest best-selling books ever, and it’s just getting started.  (Give it another ten, twenty years and it’s going to double, maybe triple that amount).

The book is The Shack by William Paul Young.  To put this into perspective, the sales in four years are half of those for such behemoths as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, published in 1936; Diary of Anne Frank, published in 1947; and one of my all time favorites Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960, over 50 years ago!  I wonder how The Shack will fair in fifty years?  At the rate that it’s going, and the controversy surrounding it—some are calling it heresay and already there are a couple of lawsuits between the author and its original publisher—it could even pull a Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which has sold an incredible 80 million copies in less than 10 years. Having a big court case that involves a book about some thorny religious issues always helps…

Intrigued, I went to the website, read about the author, who had never really published anything before, though he always saw himself as a writer, and had written stuff on his own, including short stories.  In fact, he wrote The Shack not for publication but for his children (and a few close friends), at the urging of his wife (after the accidental shooting death of the counselor who turned the author’s life around).  He only made 15 copies.

Intrigued, I immediately read the forward from the website  and right away I knew that I was about to read something special.  It also posted the first chapter and I felt blown away by the writing, by its sense of being, sense of place; here I am in the tropics on the island of Borneo and I haven’t felt that bitter coldness since I left Madison, Wisconsin and it all came back in a flash.  It was that palpable, and reminded me once again why I moved here.

Although I found the print hard to read on my computer, the typeface so small and faint, I was too caught up in the story.  I was hooked.  My mind was immediately made up to buy this book this weekend; I was even tempted to order it on line, something I’ve never done before, or hop into my car and track it down today (I haven’t ruled this out).  I’m that eager to read the rest of the story.

For those who write, the publisher, Windblown Media, offers some advice to writers—this is from someone who walked their talk, took a self-published book to number one on the New York Times bestseller list.  So follow their advice; I am.  But do put all publishing agreements, even among friends, in writing.

I admit, while reading the opening to this book that I felt like I should throw in the towel as a writer.  I know I can’t touch this.  But then an hour later I got an email from my French publisher about the ongoing post-translation corrections, and I thought, well yes, I too am a writer.  Plus one of my own novels, The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady, just did pretty good in the Faulkner-Wisdom Novel contest, thus proving, once again, at least to myself, that I can write novels.  My novel also tackles some thorny religious issues, like the resurrection, though maybe not in the edgy, hard hitting fashion of The Shack.  Perhaps in the two follow up books, I should make them edgier and make them controversial, too.  There is still a lot I need to learn, one of the reasons I'm so keen to read The Shack.

I know, as a writer, I may never have a book that will break out on the scale of The Shack or have the impact of To Kill a Mockingbird, but then so few writers have—see the above list for yourself!  In fact, many of the best-selling books and best-selling series of books (see further down the list) are children’s book!  Not great literature by any means (especially books for pre-schoolers like Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, which I love.  Yet there is no denying that these powerful so-called children stories will enchant and excite a child’s heart, generation after generation, and show them what’s possible in the world, and also show them that the real key to life is in their own hands, the gift of reading and the flight of imagination. 

We as mere mortals, whether we are writing for children, writing for adults, writing for our own family and friends, or just blogging, must continue to do so, or how will be ever know if we can impact the world with our very own words?  Who knows what will be in our future?  There’s no harm in trying, either.  For me, The Shack gives me hope as a writer, and hope is always a good thing to have.  

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady Makes 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Novel Contest short list!

While contemplating editing my novel The Lonely Affair of Jonathan Brady for the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Novel Contest, I got a flash of insight to change the title to The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady, and everything seemed to click.  The title change made me think of the novel in a whole new light, especially him dying at the beginning as well as the ending.  Besides giving the novel a new focus, the title doubled as a cool metaphor.

As I wrote about it in an earlier blog about making decisions, I hadn’t worked on this novel in over a year in favor of two other novels that I rewrote for the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.  But when the new title idea struck me in April, I knew it was time to act that very day. Although the novel was an almost-finalist for their 2008 contest, I wasn’t sure if I had enough time for a full rewrite, other than a quick line-edit.  I then got the news that the deadline, which had already been pushed back from 1 April to 1 May, just got pushed back to 15 May!  So I went for it and it turned out to be a good decision!

My Penang novel, The Girl in the Bathtub, was also a short list finalist in the Novel-in-Progress category this year, while another Penang-set novel, The Expatriate’s Choice, was a semi-finalist in the Novel category. Coincidently, I briefly met both judges, Will Murphy (Novel judge, Executive Editor at Random House) and the Jeff Kleinman (Novel-in-progress judge, the founding partner of Folio Literary Management) at the 2006 Maui Writers Conference.   It’s nice being able to put a face to a name; even nicer if one of my novels had made it to the finals for them to read.  (Earlier this year a fourth novel, The Boy Who Shot Santa, had advanced to Round Two of the Amazon contest and was short listed in the 2009 Faulkner-Wisdom contest.)  I know I’m close, though it’s about time I found a publisher.

* Here's an updated link to the revamped first five pages of The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady.
FINALISTS NOVEL William Faulkner - William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition
All in a Name
Bad of Country
Echoes of Love and War
The Water Master
, Laura Brlodie, Lexington, VA
All Jeweled Chokers, Helen Argers, Newark, NJ
Angels in the House, Marylee MacDonald,  Tempe, AZ
Black Pearl, Arthur Nevis, Steamboat Springs, CO
Cooper’s War, Tim Smith, Paris, France
Don’t Cry Little Monster, Helen Krieger, New Orleans, LA
Flambeau, T. J. Fisher, New Orleans, LA
Habit, Adam Hungerford, Fairfax, VA
How to Make Moonshine, Jana Sasser, Edisto Island, SC
In the Evening, In the Morning, A. J. Harman,  Arlington, VA
Jerusalem as a Second Language, Rochelle Distelheim, Highland Park, IL
Life Between Dreams, Tena Russ,  Riverwoods, IL
Lucy, William Coles,  Salt Lake City, UT
Memories of the Dust, Robert Wood,  Chicago, IL
No, Heather Aimee O'Neill, Brooklyn, NY
Oleanna, Julie K. Rose, San Jose, CA
Playground, Edward Rowley, Glen Ridge, NJ
Practice Dying, Rachel Stolzman Gulla,  Brooklyn, NY
Red Dirt, Joe Samuel Starnes, Philadelphia, PA
Rich, Martha L. Burns, La Luz, NM
Sea Level, Nancy Kilgore, Post Mills, VT
Stained Glass, Diane Manning, Houston, TX
The Edgartown Portraits, Richard Weber, Carouge, Switzerland
The Journal of Eva Hathaway, Maryanne D’Agincourt, Westwood, MA
The Patriot Joe Morton, Devault, Michael, Monroe, LA
The Principles of Mining, Sharon Thatcher & Wayland Stallard
The Resurrection of Jonathan Brady, Robert Raymer,  Sarawak, Malaysia
This is Squalorville, Brian Schneider,  St. Helen, MI
Various States of Undress, Roz Unruh,  Hockessin, DE
Victor’s Journals, Philip Erickson, St. Paul, MN
Warming Up, Mary Hutchins Reed,  Chicago, IL
Watershed, Laura Lane McNeal, New Orleans, LA
Westminster, Diane Manning, Houston, TX
                           —Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rainforest World Music Festival 2011—8-10 July

Robert and Jenny
For the past six years, since 2006, Jenny and I have been coming to the Rainforest World Music Festival, in Santubong, 31km from Kuching, Sarawak.  My friend Rob, who I briefly met at the 2006 MELTA conference in Kuching only the month before, invited us to join him, and he showed us the ropes.  First thing you do, you head to where the concert will be held that night and stake out your ground with a mat or canvas, then plan out which of the three workshops you want to visit for each of the three sessions, held in separate venues, and then you’re on your own. True to his word we never saw Rob again until that evening, but oh it was a relief to have a friend in that crowd of over 10,000 people meeting us exactly where he said he would be.  We’ve been staking our ground ever since.

Iban Longhouse, Cultural Village
For me the best part of the RWMF, other than the beautiful Cultural Village setting, a must see in itself, are the workshops, where the musicians from various acts introduce their instruments and their playing style and then jam together, especially in the intimate setting of the Iban Longhouse.  They’re up close and personal, especially if you arrive early. Here is a different angle (and a much better photo) from last year, if you follow this link about the RWMF and scroll down to the third photo (you’ll see Jenny and I sitting between the first two pillars—I’m wearing white)

Leweton Woman’s Water Music
Although spread over three days, this year we only came on Saturday, and left our two boys at home partly due to their recent operation (circumcision) For the first workshop we chose to see “flying fingers” at Dewan Lagenda (some hilarious miscommunication with the local Sape Masters), which was enjoyable.  Then “Blown Away” at Iban Longhouse (although it had its moments, the musicians failed to jell and we bailed out early) to get a good spot for an special extra session, a unique treat, the Leweton Woman’s Water Music, where six women from Vanuatu created some amazing sounds with their hands splashing waist high in the lake.  You would’ve sworn that they had drums in that water!  Then back to Dewan Lagenda for “the rhythm method”.  You can rarely go wrong with percussionists—they know how to get down and get all of us dancing with Max Singh of Kissmet and Raul Villa of Joaquin Diaz leading the way.

Haircuts at Rainforest World Music Festival
Earlier, prior to the workshops, to beat the crowd later, (instead of getting fancy haircuts)Jenny and I visited the Rainforest World Craft Bazaar, where Jenny bought a few necklaces, and I bought one as a house decoration.  We also met several friends including Lesley and Aidan, and Lynn.  This is one of the cool things about coming here, the friends you meet.  In fact, on the way home after our first visit, we met Martin from Editions Didier Millet who was also there.  We exchanged business cards, then hooked up again a couple of years later on Facebook, and then he contacted me in 2010 and asked me to write the text for Spirit of Malaysia which came out in February 2011.

Every year since then we have run into friends and former USM students from Penang (and from UNIMAS, too).  One year, my friend Earl was making an educational tour through the region on behalf of Brigham Young University-Hawaii.  I had met him at a conference in Penang in 2004, visited him in 2006 at his university in Hawaii prior to the Maui Writers Conference.  Now he was returning the favor with a visit to Kuching.  I told him about the RWMF, which he would just be missing by a few days and asked if he could rearrange his schedule, a major ordeal since he had all these meetings arranged in several countries, but he managed to pull it off.  The very next year, the first person we ran into at the RWMF was Earl.  He had enjoyed it so much; he came back on his own.  We’ve been sharing our mat with others nearly every year since then, following up on Rob’s hospitality our first visit.

Returning to our mat, we settled back to an enjoyable evening of music that rotated between two stages (hence our choice where to sit with some covering in case of rain).  First up was The Shin from the country Georgia—we were mesmerized not only by their music but by the dancing of one of its members.  Next up was the Pacific Curls from New Zealand, three ladies who played 13 instruments.  Ilgi from Latvia was next, followed by Paddy Keenan from Ireland, who interestingly did a beautiful rendition of “Midnight Train to Georgia”.  Next was Warsaw Village Band from Poland, Joaquin Diaz from Dominican Republic and Lisa Haley & Zydekats from USA. Quite a varied international line up, as you can see.  Unfortunately, we had to leave early since we had a long drive ahead of us.  But we’ll be back next year.  After that first taste in 2006, we vowed never to miss it again.