I just put up a short story, SLUMP BUSTER, in the Kindle store.
This piece originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of The Montana Quarterly (a publication you should read if you don’t already). When I wrote it, back in December of last year, I figured it was a one-off. I had this little idea about a broken-down boxer trying to come to grips with a bleak future.
Funny how things work …
The main character in the story, a fighter named Hugo Hunter, is now the title character of the novel I just finished, THE FALLOW SEASON OF HUGO HUNTER. No word yet on when that book is coming out, but in the meantime, you can get to know Hugo a little bit by downloading this story. It’s 99 cents in the U.S. Kindle store, and a proportional price elsewhere. If you have a Prime membership, you can read it for free. Can’t beat that.
Something curious has happened in the past several weeks.
Three or four times now, I’ve searched for my name on Twitter—yeah, I’m that guy—and I’ve come across posts that look like this:
“Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out.”—Craig Lancaster
Because I’m such an accuracy freak—blame journalism; I’m trying to break the habit—I feel compelled to publicly set the record straight, as I did several hours ago. To wit:
I know how this happened. I wrote a collection of short stories, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. I don’t talk a lot about this book, but I’m really proud of it. The first story, Somebody Has to Lose, is about a teenage basketball phenom and her coach, and the tangled mess that results when a town loses its mind over sports. The phenom’s father is, fictitiously, a former player on Wooden’s UCLA teams, and he has drilled this quote into his daughter’s consciousness. It’s a small part of a long story, but it’s obviously struck a chord. Not surprising. The original Wooden quote struck a chord with me.
Here’s what it looks like in print:
Once more, for the record:
It’s a great line.
But I didn’t come up with it.
John Wooden did.
I woke up this morning to this online review of 600 Hours of Edward.
The salient bit:
If not for the swearing it would have received five stars and been one of the best books I’ve read lately hands down. As it is I don’t feel I can recommend it to my children or friends…unfortunate.
I don’t hear this often, but I do hear it. And I feel bad every time. First, it’s a missed opportunity to bring a reader fully into my work. More than that, I hate it when my own reading experiences pull me in two irreconcilable directions, so I have no wish to leave others with that feeling. It might have been more satisfying for this reader to have hated everything about the book. It certainly would have left things less muddled.
I have a policy about not responding directly to critics in an online forum, a stance that—so far—has kept me from gaining notoriety for all the wrong reasons. That policy goes hand in hand with a general sense of gratitude I have toward those who spend time with what I’ve written and take the initiative to share their thoughts. This is walk-the-talk stuff. You can’t bask in the five-star reviews and take them as confirmation of your literary genius and then turn a blind eye to those who find flaws in your work and present their case in a coherent way.
So instead of rebutting this review—because it’s a well-presented, well-spoken opinion and thus needs no rebuttal—I’d like to instead talk about why blue language appears in my novels and why, even if I wanted to, I cannot keep it out.
The stories I write are given birth by my imagination, but the characters inhabiting them are dumped out into a world that’s very real to me. Edward Stanton, the protagonist of 600 Hours of Edward and its followup, Edward Adrift, in particular inhabits a place I know well. He lives in Billings, Montana, where I live, and shops at the Albertsons on 13th and Grand, where I shop. His house is modeled on a dwelling I once lived in, and it’s situated at an address (a made-up number on a very real street) a block away.
And in this world, bad things happen and intemperate things are said. I have an intellectual responsibility, when I write of this place, to reflect it as I find it. This isn’t something I think about overtly—there’s not a message above my computer that says “remember your intellectual responsibility.” Instead, it’s an interior compass that guides me as I go, that assesses each paragraph and each quotation and asks this fundamental question: Is this true to the story? If it is, it stays.
And let me be clear: Even gratuitousness can be true. I once spoke to a library group about my second novel, The Summer Son, and was challenged on both the language and the violence in it. The reader asked why I felt compelled to present it in such a graphic way. That novel took place against the backdrop of another world I once knew well, that of oil rig workers and their itinerant lives. My response was that I presented that world as it presented itself to me. Impasses were addressed not with the high language of a diplomat but with the raw anger of hardened men. Where language wouldn’t do, fists would. I said I couldn’t see any other way to show it. And I can’t. And I won’t. This is where differing sensibilities have to be given respect. And sometimes, as in this case, the author and the reader simply can’t find a way across the street to one another.
One last thing: The balancing factors of ugliness and crudity are grace and elegance. Just as it would be irresponsible of me to present a world where no one curses or kills someone, so, too, would it be irresponsible to show a place where the light never gets in. I’m fundamentally a hopeful guy, and so the work I do bends toward that hope. In the end, I have to think that carries more weight in the work than the battered world in which the characters live.
As I begin writing this, it’s 12:27 in the morning. I’ve just come off my regular night shift at the newspaper, one of six remaining in my long career—it would have been 25 years in November—as a full-time journalist.
You see, aside from a fill-in shift here or there, I’m leaving the only line of work I ever thought I’d do. The reasons are myriad—personal, professional, perhaps even foolhardy. I always hoped I’d know when it was time to go, and it turns out that I did. So there’s that.
What will I do from now on?
Well, first, I’ll write a lot more novels and stories. When you have a full-time job and a family and, you know, all the many elements that constitute a life, writing time is the first thing that gets crunched. That can’t happen anymore. I’ve managed to write and publish four books these past few years, but increasingly, my available time to go deep into my imagination had begun to erode. So, too, had my energy. I had to make a choice. The only way I’m going to do the things I wish to do with the remainder of my life is by making the conscious decision to put them first. I should have done it a long time ago.
Given the distinct challenges faced by newspaper companies, and by the publishing sector in general, I’ve read the parting words of plenty of colleagues who’ve said that they didn’t quit journalism, but rather that journalism quit them. I’d love to hide behind that reasoning, but it would be a lie. Without a doubt, the workaday life of a production editor at a daily newspaper has become increasingly difficult in recent years, with staffing stripped to the bone, a news environment that values quickness rather than curation and the seeming inability of corporate overlords to deal with technology that has simultaneously made their product more widely available and less reliable at delivering the revenue required to support a large newsgathering operation. To work on the inside of most newspapers these days is to be wracked with uncertainty about what the future holds.
And yet, that’s not why I’m quitting.
Some profound things happened between the age of 18, when I first settled into a newsroom chair, and 43, as I prepare to take my fat ass out of one for good. Where once I looked for excuses to be in the newsroom and took every extra assignment (and every bit of extra pay) offered, in more recent years I’ve valued nothing above my time away from the job. Workweeks seem excruciatingly longer with each passing year, and days off, once they finally arrive, seem ever shorter. I’ve found that my tolerance for top-down management, ridiculous canards like “do more with less” and a creeping acceptance of mediocrity were turning me into the sort of bitter soul the younger version of me would have avoided (or mocked). I don’t want to be that guy. I’m not gonna be that guy. And as much as I’ve liked the actual work—and I have, right up to the end—I realize I have to kill the old me to let who I am now run free.
The other big development in my working life has been an entrepreneurial spirit I didn’t know I had and a rekindling of my love affair with work, this time unbound by the whims of newspaper company stockholders and quarterly reports. When I was 39, my first novel was published. Now, at 43, I have three novels in print, a fourth being written and a short-story collection knocking around. I’ve won some awards, built an international readership, found a publisher who loves what I do and is willing to let me do it freely, and at long last I’m making enough money at it that I can step from one career to another and continue on happily.
Let’s be clear: I’m not retiring. In some ways, the hardest work of my life is yet to come, as I try to be more ambitious in my writing and fill in the margins with the occasional bit of freelance work. I’m going to design a quarterly magazine. Lead some writing workshops. Do some manuscript editing and book design. And, yes, write fiction. It’s all hard, honest work. The important part is that what I do from here on out will happen on my terms, by my choices, and in the service of my life and the lives of those I love.
There are things I’ll undoubtedly miss. There’s no place quite like a newsroom on a big news night, and no group of people quite as whip-smart and funny as a bunch of newspaper hacks. The work I do now will be more solitary, less collaborative, quieter, more contemplative. And that won’t necessarily be easy for a big, bombastic guy like me.
But somehow—when I’m able to linger over dinner with my wife (something I never get to do on a night I work), or take an impromptu vacation, or say “the hell with it” and retire to a baseball game for the afternoon—I think I’ll manage to warm up to this new life I’m building.
Thanks for riding along.
And so EDWARD ADRIFT—my fourth book overall, and my third novel—heads off into the world today.
So much about publishing becomes a grind as you go along. Not an unwelcome grind; indeed, I cannot imagine anything I’d rather do than write and hope to put that writing in front of readers. But as one moves from newbie to veteran, and I suppose I’m somewhere in between, there are certain aspects of the process between “the end” and “thank you for your purchase” that begin to look less magical.
But not release day. Release day is full of hope that this new work will find an appreciative audience. Uncertainty about the reaction that will follow—or whether there will be one at all. Fear that readers you’ve pleased in the past will go unsatisfied this time. Relief and thankfulness when good reviews come in. Gratitude that anyone at all would choose to spend a few of their precious hours with something you created.
It’s the best drug there is, and entirely legal, too.
So … If you’ve previously read 600 HOURS OF EDWARD or one of my other books, I invite you to take a look at this one. I’m proud of it. I’m grateful to be able to do this thing that I love so much, and I’m amazed at how many people have let Edward Stanton into their hearts.
Thank you for reading.
April 9, 2013
Here we are, two months from the release of EDWARD ADRIFT. I’m nervous. I’m giddy. I’m loving every minute of the excruciating wait.
Some readers have been inquiring about pre-ordering signed copies of the book, and I’m pleased to report that the option now exists. Gary Robson, the owner of Red Lodge Books in Red Lodge, Montana, will be handling those orders.
Gary operates a great store, and he’s a great advocate for reading and for regional authors like me, so this was the perfect fit. He’ll take good care of you.
With only hours left in 2012, I can safely call it a watershed year in my writing life.
I wrote two novels in this calendar year. EDWARD ADRIFT, which comes out April 9, was started on Dec. 28, 2011, and finished (at least in draft form) in February. This past fall, I wrote a smaller, more intimate, more literary novel I’m calling JULEP STREET. That’s in the hands of my agent now. My work appeared in foreign editions (French and German for THE SUMMER SON). My first novel, reborn almost three years after its release, went to No. 1 in the UK Amazon store. It was a very good year.
For the first time since I made a snap decision four years ago to see if I could write a novel, I feel like I’m moving toward something of permanence. Slowly, my work is finding an audience at the same time that I feel ready to write about the things I really want to examine–the ways in which we live, the follies and glories of our particular time, the fear that holds us back, the eternal struggle with what we’re to do with this one beautiful life we get live. Artists of all stripes have been diving headlong into those topics since the dawn of time. Maybe I don’t have anything to add. But maybe I do. In any case, I’m throwing in.
The first four years of my nascent career have been marked by ups and downs. The work was validated, almost from the start, by readers and critics and those who hand out awards, and while I’ve been grateful for that—how could I not be?—I’ve always known that the latter two groups have fickle tastes and that I would never please myself by trying to please them. The commercial arts are not always a good place for someone wracked by self-doubt; it’s left me to wonder sometimes why a book doesn’t sell better or get more support or get more acclaim, and every moment spent worrying about that is ultimately destructive to the enterprise. In 2013, I shall endeavor to keep my mind on my work, the one variable I can control.
I’m proud of the fact that I’ve never written a book that didn’t come from the heart, from pure intention, from the best part of me. I’ve never played an angle or made a calculation. I’ve written what I wanted, when I wanted. As long as I stick to that, I think I can accept the results of the labor.
Thanks for reading this. If you’ve read my work, thank you for that, too. You chose to spend some of your life on me. I’ll never take it for granted.
Last Friday night, I spoke at the opening dinner of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Montana’s annual gathering, held this year in Great Falls, Montana.
When Nancy Hanford, the president of the Montana GFWC, asked me several months ago to talk to her group, she suggested talking about my recently re-released debut novel, 600 HOURS OF EDWARD. When I began looking into what the GFWC actually does, I was inspired to go in another direction. Name just about any progressive undertaking, and these clubs — which exist nationwide — are likely to be at the forefront. In Montana, specifically, they have built and funded libraries, worked tirelessly on behalf of children’s literacy, supported the Montana Talking Book Library (a particular passion of Hanford’s) — heck, even promoted white lines on the highway. If you live in a town with enough population to be concerned about general welfare and good things are happening there, it’s a good bet a women’s club is behind it.
So this is what I said …
This is my dad, Ron Lancaster. He was born on June 14, 1939, in a house in Conrad. He spent most of his formative years on a Fairfield Bench dairy farm, about 20 minutes from where we are right now.
He’s not smiling in this picture, although I can report to you that he was plenty happy. We were at the Alpine Casino in Billings, about to have fish and chips on a Friday. It’s one of Dad’s small pleasures in life.
Life has been long for Dad—much longer than he ever expected it would be—and it’s been hard, and on that count, he and I don’t have much in common. Mine has been a happy life in which I’ve been encouraged to run hard at my dreams, and he deserves some of the credit for that, along with my mother and my stepfather. And while I appreciate that about him, I often fret about the ways in which we find it nearly impossible to connect. I can’t talk to him about the books I read as a child that filled my heart. I have difficulty explaining to him what I do or how I do it. We never got close over throwing a football around or talking about sports teams or father-and-son campouts. Most of my relationship with him has been forged in the past 20 years, when I’ve been an adult.
But every now and again, I find my way to him. More often than not, it’s through the power of story. I want to tell you about that.
The matter of Dad’s schooling is a bit of a mystery. My mother, who married him in 1964 and divorced him nine tough years later, thinks that he received no more than a fourth-grade education. A cousin who knew him as a child thinks it’s closer to eighth grade, but in any case, school was an infrequent factor in his life. He is, in all likelihood, dyslexic, and I can guarantee you nobody in his young life recognized that. Reading has always been an unpleasant, unsatisfying chore for him, one made all the more difficult now because his eyes are nearly gone thanks to the macular degeneration that started working on him 20 years ago.
And still, Dad loves a story.
Like most of us, he’s interested in his own tale, but in many ways it’s one of such infinite sadness—a father he barely knew, a mother who withheld love, a stepfather who beat him viciously—that he’ll speak of it only in certain circumstances. Liquor is sometimes good at loosening his tongue. So, too, was a trip we made to the Fairfield Bench a few years ago so he could lay eyes on that dairy farm for the first time in 50 years.
It’s one of life’s poetic twists that he ended up with a son who has boundless curiosity and a penchant for language. For much of my life, I’ve been accumulating the dribs and drabs of narrative that he’s provided, seeking out people who knew him and mining their memories, and, now, in an Internet age, seeing what public documents have to say. Some years ago, I was able to find out what happened to Dad’s father, Fred Lancaster. I tracked him to a little hilltop cemetery in Madras, Oregon. I found a house he once lived in, occupied by the son-in-law of the woman Fred married late in life. That led to pictures of the grandfather I’d never seen and the man his own son barely remembered. The Social Security Administration gave us a copy of Fred’s application, filled out in pencil by the semi-literate hands of a working man. I took these things to my father and said “This is your story.” It brought me closer to him, something for which I yearned then and still yearn today.
After Dad left the Navy in the early sixties and settled down with my mom, he became an exploratory well digger, a line of endeavor that proved to be both the fulfillment of his greatest promise and the collapse of his fortunes. The child who’d known poverty and abuse became a self-made man in the most glorious manifestation of the phrase, a man who succeeded beyond any dream he’d ever had through the power of his own work ethic. Drilling gave him a community of peers and a means of identifying himself to the world, and few people needed that as badly as my father did. He also lived as the nouveau riche so often do, never saving, always accumulating, with the unspoken certainty that he would be dead before his spendthrift ways mattered. Life tends to be cruel to those who hold such delusions; at 73 years old, he’s lived far longer than his brother, sister, mother or father ever did, and most of his friends are long gone, too. Dad goes on, with his little pension in a little condominium in Billings, with his dog, Sausage, his memories, and his bewilderment at what life has become. And I’m there with him, nearly every day, maintaining our connection and cultivating another story, the one that belongs to us.
When my folks split in 1973, I was 3 years old, and I was an unruly child, one whose desires were pretty much indulged by a father who was rarely there and a mother who wanted out of her marriage and out of a crappy, cramped little existence in Mills, Wyo. A new man in her life, my stepfather, Charles Clines, whisked us away to his home in Texas, and at long last, stability set in. For nine months a year, I lived with Mom and Charles in a leafy, tree-themed subdivision, a bucolic world of school, friends, family dinners and intellectual curiosity. Every summer, I would fly to some outpost in the West where my Dad was working, so he could see this boy who was rapidly being formed in the image of another man. I would live on the periphery of Dad’s life—rough and tumble, nomadic, alcohol-soaked—but never really in it. Whatever I saw, whatever I experienced, would be packaged up and packed away into my memories at the end of the summer, when another plane would take me home to Texas and its crushing suburban normalcy.
I didn’t know it then, but all the while, I was gathering string—bits and pieces of memory and perspective that would come screaming to the forefront of my brain in my 30s, when I began writing fiction and honoring Hemingway’s timeless wisdom of writing what you know. I used to judge my father harshly for all the things he wasn’t, for all the ways he left me wanting his time, attention and wisdom. I know now that he was giving me an unconventional gift. He was helping me to understand how different people can be, how our backgrounds and our tragedies can shape us but not ultimately define us. One of the great aspects of our human sovereignty is this: The power to be what we want rests largely in our hands. My father has far exceeded the quality of the men who gave example to his young life. He’s kinder than they were. He’s wiser than they were. And he’s tougher, much, much tougher, than they were. He’s still here, still taking his swings at life every day.
Dad has given me stories, and in return, I’ve tried to give stories back to him. The work your clubs do on behalf of the Montana Talking Book Library specifically, and on behalf of literacy and children’s welfare in general, is vital and life-giving, and it hits home in a particular way for Dad and for me. As I said before, reading is a chore for Dad, but thanks to the Montana Talking Book Library, it doesn’t have to be. When he tires of my stories, or his own, he can listen to an almost limitless number of other tales. The ability I have to download a book and carry it to my father for his own listening enjoyment fills my heart. It’s given us another pathway to each other, another thing we can share as the two of us—he in his dotage, I in my middle age—try to bridge the gaps that time and circumstance put between us.
So thank you, so much, for all that you do for people like my father, and for letting me tell you my story, and his story, tonight.
After that, I read the first chapter of 600 HOURS OF EDWARD, which hints broadly at the father-son story to come, a major theme of that book and the forthcoming sequel, EDWARD ADRIFT. The audience laughed at all the right places, a nice counterbalance to the more somber notes that preceded it. And that’s life, you know. It’ll break your heart and build it back up again, sometimes in the course of a single evening.
Yesterday, the Kindle Post hosted an interview with me about the re-emergence of 600 Hours of Edward. It used three questions of a wider-ranging interview that my good friend Jim Thomsen, a freelance book editor and author, had conducted with me. Here, then, is the rest of the story …
Unlike Edward, you don’t have Asperger’s Syndrome. But, like Edward, you’re a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, of the TV show Dragnet and of the band R.E.M., and you live where the book is set, in Billings, Montana. Talk about how you blended the factual and the fictional.
I get asked this a lot, and my sheepish answer is that I chose to incorporate all of those things into the narrative simply because I knew them well and could thus write about them with authority and great speed, a distinct requirement of the arena (National Novel Writing Month) in which I was working. Without that constraint, who knows what I would have chosen. And in subsequent works, I’ve begun to see the merits in putting fictional twists on real places. It opens up the imagination and allows me to more fully immerse myself in the little worlds I try to create. That said, I think a lot of people in Billings who’ve read the book have gotten a kick out of seeing, say, their Albertsons store represented in print. At one event I did in Texas, a boy with Asperger’s, the son of a high school friend, came up to me and said, “Is there really an Albertsons at the corner of 13th and Grand in Billings, Montana?” I was proud to tell him that, yes, there is. I shop there every week.
How fine a line do you find there is between Asperger’s characteristics and just plain old human eccentricity? Edward is a slave to his routines — his constant logging of everything from wake-up times to weather to travel distances — but, to varying degrees, so are many of us who don’t have Asperger’s. How relatable do you think readers will find Edward to be?
What makes Edward work—for me as the author and for folks who read the book—is that he’s reflective of things that don’t know boundaries that are generational, ethnic, medical or educational—things like isolation, familial estrangement, the struggle to fit in and find one’s path, to make friends, to live life instead of letting the days pass by. That he has Asperger’s simply puts a different set of filters on how he experiences those everyday things.
600 Hours of Edward is such a lean, breezy read. Many literary authors tend to issue debuts full of dense prose and writerly devices — lots of metaphors and similes, exposition, backstory. Was it difficult to steer clear of that, or do you find your natural writer’s voice is an economical one?
I think the peculiarities of the story imposed some of that. 600 Hours is structured in a deceptively simple way. It starts with Edward’s waking up on a mid-October day and ends 25 days later. Everything proceeds in a straight line, and because the story is told in his voice, it’s naturally spare and devoid of rambling exposition. The few times he stops and speaks of past events, they always have a direct correlation—at least in his mind—with what’s happening in the moment. I do prefer spare to verbose, simple and clear to dense and poetic, and I think some of that can be attributed to my journalism background and some to my story sensibility. I put great faith in Hemingway’s idea of the iceberg’s dignity of movement, that you can write confidently and without adornments, and readers will fill in the details with their own minds. I like the idea that readers’ imaginations are active participants in the stories I write.
Another literary convention from which you steered clear was giving Edward an obvious love interest (though his disastrous evening with a woman he met on an online dating site is one of the funniest parts of 600 Hours of Edward). Did you wrestle with that as you wrote it, and did you have any misgivings about that based on the reactions of early readers who might have wanted to see Edward in love?
I never considered a love interest essential to this part of Edward’s story. What I knew about him is that he was straining against some of his self-imposed barriers, and his attempt at online dating is part of the way he challenges himself to connect with others. What I tell people who read the book and ask me what happens to this storyline or that storyline is to use their imaginations. This is a 25-day snapshot of a life in transition. After the window closes on Day 25, the story I told is over. But that doesn’t stop Edward, as a character living in readers’ minds, from going on.
I’ve been waiting for today for a long time.
My debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, is making its own debut, as a newly published paperback, Kindle edition and audiobook under the auspices of Amazon Publishing. For a long time now, I’ve been living with Edward Stanton, the middle-aged man from Billings, Montana, whom I created four years ago in twenty-four fevered days of writing, and he continually surprises me. Today is no different.
If you count the original self-published version of this novel, and I do, this marks the third iteration of his story, and this one leads to new horizons: at the end of the new book sits the first chapter from Edward Adrift, the sequel coming next year. I can’t wait to share where Edward’s story goes, but first, the challenge is to introduce him to a whole new audience. Amazon Publishing, which also put out my sophomore novel, The Summer Son, is primed to do this.
So today, I feel nothing but gratitude for this novel and this character, both of which have allowed me to chase my dreams as a novelist. It all seems amazing to me still that the story could begin as a lark and turn into the work I want to do for the rest of my life. I’m grateful for the people who’ve believed in Edward along the way–starting at home, with my wife, Angie, and extending out to Chris Cauble and the team at Riverbend Publishing, who gave my book a chance back in October 2009, to my editor, Alex Carr, and the team at Amazon who’ve been such cheerleaders for this book, to all the readers who’ve had so many nice things to say about the work (including one from Belfast, Northern Ireland, just this past week!) and the many writers I deeply admire who’ve shown me kindnesses along the way. I’m so thankful.
But this isn’t a valedictory, not by a long shot. With time and luck and hard work, there will be many, many books to come.
Thanks for reading.
Now that 600 HOURS OF EDWARD is about to be unleashed in a new edition, I have a confession to make.
But first, some backstory:
Almost four years ago, when I sat down to write what became 600 HOURS OF EDWARD, things were a lot different than they are now.
For one thing, the words 600 HOURS OF EDWARD hadn’t even entered my consciousness. The working title of the novel I wanted to write was “Six-Hundred Hours in a Life That Will Get Only 630,270, Assuming It’s a Life of Average Length, And I Don’t Like Assumptions,” as seen below on the original manuscript.
Second, as you may have gathered from the working title, I had no expectations that I would (a) finish the novel or (b) get it published.
So as I wrote about Edward Stanton and his world, I picked something I knew well–Billings, Montana, where I live–and dropped him into it precisely as I see it. His Albertsons exists. So does his Home Depot. And his golf course. And his downtown. His street address isn’t real, but the street he lives on is.
One of the places in the original version of the book, published in 2009 by Riverbend Publishing, is the Billings Gazette. It’s a crucial, feel-good part of the story.
When I was writing Edward, I gave absolutely no consideration to the fact that, a few years later, I might write a sequel. I certainly didn’t consider that there would be other books, other writing about Billings, a whole world that would take shape from my keyboard. And so I made the Billings Gazette, well, the Billings Gazette. Easy-peasy.
But here’s the problem: In the second book, which is coming out next year, the newspaper in Billings also figures into the storyline. But it’s not so feel-good. And here’s an even bigger problem: I work at the Billings Gazette. The one here in the real world, not the fictional world where Edward exists. I get paid and everything. It’s a significant factor in my daily life, to say the absolute least, and one I’d just as soon not compromise.
So here’s how I handled the delicate position I wrote myself into:
Because Amazon Publishing acquired the rights to publish a new edition of 600 HOURS, the original publisher, Riverbend, was contractually obligated to pulp the remaining copies and stop selling it. In a commercial sense, that means the original no longer exists (obviously, several thousand copies exist on people’s shelves and in readers’ heads). This represented the best chance I was ever going to have to make a material change to the book.
So, in the manuscript I submitted to my editor at Amazon, the Billings Gazette vacated the stage and a new newspaper, the Billings Herald-Gleaner, stepped in. Subsequently, I made the same change to the manuscript of EDWARD ADRIFT, which I was preparing for submission. With a few keystrokes, I changed Edward’s world — and made mine a lot more comfortable.
This also had the nice side benefit of tying together my work a little better. In my short-story collection, QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE, the story called “Paperweight” concerns an aging reporter at a newspaper called the Herald-Gleaner. That character, Kevin Gilchrist, and Edward Stanton are now connected, as are Edward and the father character from my novel THE SUMMER SON (Edward’s dad was Jim Quillen’s boss). The sum is a fictional world that has threads connecting my Montana-set stories, which blend real and imaginary places and, I hope, give depth to what I’m trying to do.
This idea was clarified for me in an elegant way several months ago when I interviewed Emily M. Danforth, the author of the wonderful debut THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. Here’s what she had to say about using the real setting of Miles City, her hometown, in her book:
“In terms of setting, specifically, anyone who has any familiarity with Miles City will recognize some of the local attractions — the swimming hole, the Bucking Horse Sale, the Montana Theater, etc. — but each of those locations has also been fictionalized. I understand that this might be disappointing for some readers who want every street name or video rental place, whatever, to match exactly to reality — though businesses close and re-open all the time, right, so there isn’t a ‘fixed’ reality that a novel can capture and hold ever, because ‘the real world’ will always keep changing.”
I had another idea for a blog post today, but a few of my colleagues were taking a rip at this topic, so I thought I’d join the fun. There’s always tomorrow for my own idea.
Here’s the thing: No single piece of bad advice sticks out. But if I were to gather up and stack the advisories with the least merit, I think I could fit them all under the general heading of “the mechanics of writing.”
You see, I don’t want to hear orthodoxy about outlining or not outlining. Of buffing and polishing each sentence to a high sheen before moving on to the next one. Of vomitous first drafts. Of writing at nighttime. Of writing during the day. Of listening to music. Of writing immediately after a shower. If it works for you, great. But that’s as far as it goes. My patience runs thin with writers who, however well-meaning, think only their experience has merit.
In a box buried in my office sit 18 sheets of yellowing paper, the beginning and aborted end of a novel I tried to write when I was 19 years old. I purported to write about lives I didn’t know and couldn’t imagine, of experiences I hadn’t had or heard about, and I did so without a net–no notes, no outlines, just me and a word processor. In retrospect, I’m fortunate to have made it as far as I did.
There were other attempts, too, ones that I didn’t save, for whatever reason. They died of other causes: neglect, lack of hope, a wandering eye, inconsistent discipline. I wasn’t ready to finish them. A novel is a test of your ideas, your willingness to submit, your longevity, your tenacity. I wasn’t prepared to pass that test.
I can’t tell you why, at age 38, I was finally able to finish a novel–and finish it well enough to get it published. I finally tried outlining, and it served me well, but four years clear of it, I think the idea would have forced itself onto the page no matter what. I was a little older. I’d been through some shit, as they say. I was ready. I wrote my second novel with an outline, and as I look back, I think I was impeded a little by it. I’m proud of the book, yes. But I can do better. My third novel–coming next year–was stream of consciousness, baby, and I think it’s my best one yet. So am I now off outlines where once I swore by them? No. I’m off hard-and-fast rules. That’s what I’m trying to say. It ain’t the method. It’s the result.
Now, when someone asks me how to write, there are exercises I can offer and experiences I can share that might help dislodge some ideas. But I cannot take my method, whatever it happens to be, and apply it to you. I won’t insult you by saying that I can.
My advice is, simply, this: write. Keep writing. Find that reservoir within yourself that makes your ideas come alive on the page, drill deep down inside and draw on it for the rest of your life.
Here are some other posts on this topic:
My second novel, THE SUMMER SON, is the subject of a cool promotion today: It’s the Kindle Daily Deal, priced to move at just 99 cents.
It’s a one-day-only thing, so if you’ve wanted to read the book but haven’t, you’ll probably never see a better price. And please, let your friends (Facebook or otherwise) and Twitter followers know. I’d really appreciate it.
Here’s what Booklist had to say about THE SUMMER SON when it was released in January 2011: “A classic western tale of rough lives and gruff, dangerous men, of innocence betrayed and long, stumbling journeys to love.”
This is an odd bit of news to tag onto a post about a Kindle book, as it’s a casualty of the sea change marked by the emergence of e-readers like the Kindle: Thomas Books in Billings, Montana, where I live, is closing its doors in August.
It’s fair to say that I have mixed feelings about this. In the abstract, the closure saddens me greatly. I like Susan Thomas and her store, she’s always been a strong supporter of my books, and I hate like hell to see my town lose an independent bookstore. I’ve supported Susan’s store with my time and my money, and I would happily go on doing so. The same holds true for the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Fact & Fiction in Missoula, The Bookstore in Dillon, and on and on.
And yet, e-reading has changed everything for people who love books, and not necessarily in a way that’s a net loss. I’ve said before that buying a Kindle made me a better book consumer. I’ve gone on buying as many print books as I ever did (many of them at Thomas Books), and I’ve added dozens of electronic titles as well.
Obviously, that’s not true for everyone. As Susan notes in the story linked above, after building her revenue back up after the big-box bookstores came to town, she was swamped first by the recession and then by the incredible migration to electronic books.
(It’s also worth noting, as Susan does, that Borders (RIP) and Barnes & Noble were indie killers before Amazon came along, so it’s a little odd to see B&N now hailed in some quarters as the potential savior of bookstores.)
What’s really happening here is disruptive technology. And if you remove emotion from the equation–which, I’ll concede, is tough to do–you realize that this is a very old story. Disruptive technology is why you don’t see many horses and buggies clogging your downtown streets. Why your television set is an inch thick and weighs a tenth of what it did in 1975. Why nobody (except me) carries CDs anymore. Why there there are no record stores in shopping malls. Why newspapers, which once seemingly printed money, are being pared back to nothingness. The printing press that makes these wonderful books we all love — that, too, was disruptive technology. Rock carvers everywhere had to find a new line of work.
Disruptive technology sucks, especially in the moment when it’s being, well, disruptive.
It’s also the way we move from today to tomorrow.
In the past week or so, no big news has come down the pike — YET — but the small developments are starting to add up.
THE SUMMER SON, released in January 2011, is going to have an audiobook version released on Sept. 18. You can pre-order it here. When AmazonEncore acquired the book in 2010, one of the most exciting prospects of the deal was the chance of seeing the audio rights exercised. I’m glad to see that’s happening now.
Speaking of audio editions …
As part of the Aug. 14 re-release of 600 HOURS OF EDWARD, Brilliance Audio will also be putting out the audio version of that title on the same day. Edward has been in my head for several years now, but at last I’ll be able to actually hear him. I can’t wait. If you’re interested in getting that, it can be pre-ordered here.
There’s more news on the horizon, something I’m dying to share. Soon. Very, very soon. I promise.
I posted about this last week on Facebook (follow me here!) but wanted to wait for the official announcement before posting anything here. The press release went out Tuesday, so I guess it’s safe.
QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE, the short-story collection I released back in December, has won a gold medal from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. It was picked as the top fiction book in the West-Mountain region for 2012.
You can see the full list of winners here.
I’m obviously thrilled that this book, so personal to me, has been recognized in this way. I’m doubly proud because the book was put out under the auspices of my little publishing house, Missouri Breaks Press. By now, the instances of smart self-publishers releasing polished, accomplished books are legion, so it’s not as if I felt compelled to prove something by going it alone. For me, Missouri Breaks Press has always been much more about finding high-quality manuscripts that for whatever reason aren’t viewed as commercial enough for the major presses to take on. It’s about finding work and writers I admire. And, occasionally, it will be about exercising the unprecedented choices we have as writers these days to release and market our work. Going it alone with this book made sense to me, and this award offers some validation of that choice.
I hope you’ll check it out.