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:
On the occasion of my 42nd birthday, this one’s from me, for delivery at a time to be announced later.
Here’s what’s been going on:
Even my slimmed-down version of NaNoWriMo crashed and burned. I still love the story idea, still think about it a lot, still like what little progress I’ve made on it, but I won’t be finishing any time soon. It just needs some more cooking time in my head. The longer I do this — and I’m three books into it now — the more I realize that the words and stories come in their own time. I can’t be a crank-o-matic. Wouldn’t even want to be one.
I’ve kept busy with some freelance gigs, mostly of the editing variety. This brings up a good opportunity to do something I don’t do very often, and that’s to pitch my editorial services. I have good, competitive rates, I turn the work around quickly, and I’m handing off good work to appreciative customers. Whether you’re prepping a manuscript for submission to agents and publishers or preparing to go it alone as a self-publisher, I can help you create a professional product.
Three years after 600 Hours of Edward was written, we continue to find appreciative audiences. One of my more interesting gigs was two hours with about twenty-five knitters at a local shop, Wild Purls. Check out this account of the evening on the store’s blog. I had so much fun. (And here’s a blatant tease for you: I expect to have some exciting news about 600 Hours in the near future.)
E-readers and e-books should be all the rage this holiday season. If you’re lucky enough to get a fancy new toy, you might consider loading it up with my latest, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. The e-book price has been dropped to $1.99 through the New Year, which is a heck of a deal. Go here for the Kindle version. Go here if you have a Nook.
Here are the grim numbers:
- Date: November 3
- Number of words at the start of writing today: 4,828
- Number of words at the conclusion of writing today: 5,291
- Words written today: 463
- Words written in November: 2,623
Blame modern convenience for the paltry total. I came home from work at midnight, wrote most of a short scene, then checked the DVR for new shows. Turned out I’d recorded Seven Days in May, a terrific political thriller from 1964. Burt Lancaster (no relation). Kirk Douglas. Ava Gardner. Fredric March. Martin Balsam. Choice!
So I lay down on the couch to watch it, and promptly fell asleep.
My new rule: Sleep trumps all.
I’ll try to play catch-up tomorrow.
Here are the latest tabulations as I keep myself accountable on a novel project I’m tentatively calling Rayfield:
- Date: November 2
- Number of words at the start of writing today: 3,738
- Number of words at the conclusion of writing today: 4,828
- Words written today: 1,090*
- Words written in November: 2,160
* — This is why I’m calling this Quasi-NaNoWriMo, because 1,000 words represents a very productive writing session for me but is far short of the mark if one wants to put down the 50,000 words necessary to be a “winner” at National Novel Writing Month. To turn that many words in a single month, you have to write an average of 1,667 daily words.
So I’ll say this once and be done with it: I’m not interested in 50,000 words in November. I’m not interested in a daily minimum. I’m interested in a solid month of progress, and that’s it. To those of you striving for the NaNoWriMo benchmarks, I give you a hearty salute, because I’ve been there.
In 2008, when I wrote the entire first draft of the novel that became 600 Hours of Edward — all 79,175 words of it — my daily counts looked like this (the daily totals are in parentheses):
Nov. 1, 2008: 5,763 (5,763)
Nov. 2, 2008: Off
Nov. 3, 2008: Off
Nov. 4, 2008: 11,183 (5,420)
Nov. 5, 2008: Off
Nov. 6, 2008: 13,721 (2,538)
Nov. 7, 2008: 16,963 (3,242)
Nov. 8, 2008: 20,439 (3,476)
Nov. 9, 2008: Off
Nov. 10, 2008: 23,085 (2,646)
Nov. 11, 2008: 27,293 (4,208)
Nov. 12, 2008: 30,744 (3,451)
Nov. 13, 2008: 34,558 (3,814)
Nov. 14, 2008: 39,886 (5,328)
Nov. 15, 2008: Off
Nov. 16, 2008: Off
Nov. 17, 2008: Off
Nov. 18, 2008: 43,846 (3,960)
Nov. 19, 2008: 51,811 (7,965)
Nov. 20, 2008: 54,816 (3,005)
Nov. 21, 2008: 60,837 (6,021)
Nov. 22, 2008: 63,957 (3,120)
Nov. 23, 2008: Off
Nov. 24, 2008: 73,208 (9,251)
Nov. 25, 2008: 79,175 (5,967)
I don’t know what that looks like to you, but to me, it can only be defined as insanity. I’m glad I did it, glad what came of it, but I don’t ever want to do it again.
On May 2, 2011, with this post, I began everyday blogging around here (well, Monday through Friday, anyway). For nearly five months, with the exception of a legitimate week’s vacation, I made sure something new was up every morning at 8. On Fridays, I even posted off-the-cuff short stories, inspired by words suggested by my friends.
I did this … why? To be sure, no one was clamoring for it. I did it because new authors — and I’m certainly one — endure this barrage of advice about building a platform, self-promoting, cutting through the muck and the mud of the publishing world and making a name. Daily blogging is one of the pillars of the author platform, or so we’re told. So I blogged. Even when I had little to say. Even when I needed the ample muscles of a friend.
And then, last week, I stopped. I did one last short story, big turd that it is, and that was that.
I’m done. Which isn’t to say I’ll never be around, never have something to say. In particular, the opportunity to bang the drum for other books and other writers is appealing to me — because of how interesting those folks are and because my daily wankery is not on display. Expect to see much more of those things and much less of the other, lesser stuff. This note aside, I’m tired of listening to myself, tired of reading my own facile words in this forum. It’s time to step back, shut up, and get busy doing what I’m here to do, which is to write stories. Social media, for all its wonder, has its hooks in the wrong parts of me, and the tweets and Facebook posts and blog posts and other nonsense have come to take up far too much of my time. I have a full-time job and a going-blind father and a sideline publishing business and a wife who’d like to see me once in a while, and I have books to write, too. There’s not room for everything, every day, and mine is not the sort of personality that can easily impose moderation, so we’re going to give this austerity thing a whirl.
Interestingly enough, I’m going be on a panel discussion about the role of literature blogs during the Montana Festival of the Book later this week. I promise, this screed aside, I’ll have something cogent to say.
The drill: Each week, I’ve asked my Facebook friends to suggest a word. I then put the suggestions into list form, run a random-number generator and choose the corresponding word from the list. That word serves as the inspiration for a story that includes at least one usage of the word in question. This week’s contribution is courtesy of Lisa Roberts, and it’s the 21st and final installment of this series. For previous installments of The Word, click here.
I don’t much care for people who don’t come out and say what they mean. You want to come at me, come in a straight line. Roll your thoughts out there, in simple terms with precise meanings, and I’ll meet you in the middle and hash it out some way—even if I hate you for what you’ve said, even if I disagree with you to the ends of the earth. I’ll respect you. At least I’ll do that.
Uncle Forrest, I don’t much care for him. Here we are, at my grandma’s house—his mother’s house—for her ninetieth birthday, and here he is, thinking it’s the time and place to try to figure me out. He’s lived no more than a mile away my whole damned life, all eighteen years of it, and has never shown much interest. Why here? Why now?
“You’re a mercurial fellow, aren’t you, Everett?” He shoves a slice of German chocolate cake into his hole as he says this. How I detest him.
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t know what ‘mercurial’ means, Everett?”
The son of a bitch (no offense, Grandma).
“I want you to define your terms. Is your context elemental? Are you saying I’m a poor conductor of heat? That I’m a heavy metal? That I don’t react with most acids? That I’m good at forming amalgams? I just want to understand you.”
Forrest licks chocolate from his fingers.
“Or maybe you’re speaking in mythological terms. I’m a messenger with wings on my feet. I stole Vulcan’s net to catch a nymph. Is that it, Forrest? It’s your dance. I’m just trying to understand the rules.”
The party has stopped now, and everyone is looking at us. Grandma has full eyes that look like, God help me, mercury. Mom is standing on the other side of the table, fists on her hips, crimson-faced. Aunts and cousins and neighbors are staring at us, agape. And I keep going.
“Or perhaps, Forrest, you’re just relying on the common, Webster’s definition. You think I’m subject to sudden or unpredictable changes.”
He’s edging away from me, smiling stupidly, unwilling to say what he means.
“What is it, Uncle Forrest?”
“Let’s just drop it.”
Mom comes into it now. “Yes. Drop it or leave, young man.”
So I do the thing that requires integrity. I kiss grandma on the cheek—she’s full-on crying now—and I leave.
I stand on the porch, and I tremble. I am not Mercury. I don’t have the speed. I don’t have the cunning. I am a boy who doesn’t fit in. But I am strong. Stronger than Forrest, for sure. Stronger than all of them. I am Mars.
I am going back inside.
Earlier this week, my buddy and author/blogger David Abrams was kind enough to feature an essay by me on his blog, The Quivering Pen. It was a part of his ongoing series My First Time, in which authors share breakthrough moments in their writing lives.
It’s a testament to the popularity of this series that several months passed between my submission of the essay and its publication. Reading it again this week, I was struck by just how much has changed — and how much hasn’t — between my first front-page newspaper story at age 18 and my current career as a newspaper copy editor now, twenty-three years later.
Let’s start with the physical newspaper itself. Here’s a look at the front page of the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram from December 18th, 1988, the day my story appeared (the reason I have a copy: I’m fortunate enough to have a mother who thinks everything I’ve ever written is golden, and who catalogs it accordingly):
The design looks a bit rudimentary, doesn’t it? At that point, while desktop publishing certainly existed, papers the size of the Star-Telegram generally had not made the capital investment to put design terminals and full-page outputters into their buildings. In those days, a layout editor would draw his/her design on a piece of paper called a dummy sheet, and the type would come out in long strips called galleys that would then be cut up by compositors and arranged somewhat like a puzzle. To get those color boxes in place, sheets of amberlith or rubylith would be cut and shot in the four-color process. Color photographs would be put in place through a similar process. Everything would be shot into negatives, and then the negatives would be used to create the aluminum plates that went onto the press.
The thing that really hits me now, looking at the page, is how wide it is. I measured it at 14 inches. By contrast, the paper I work for now, The Billings Gazette, has a page 11 inches wide (and less than 10 for the “image area,” the space for the news and photos).
At right is an image of the Gazette Page A1 that I designed for Monday’s edition. In addition to having a more modern look, it was leagues easier to put together. Everything happened at a single desk, on a single computer. Desktop publishing software is sophisticated enough to allow for applying stylized effects to photos (as I did with the promotional strip at the top, blending the photo with a background screen), to change the widths and numbers of columns of type with a single keystroke, to send the page, once finished, directly from my desk to the four plates — cyan, magenta, yellow, black — that impressed this image onto thousands and thousands of pages. None of this, of course, comes as any great surprise to anyone these days, but I think it’s an interesting contrast with how I learned the trade two-plus decades ago. Back then, if a layout editor wanted to change, say, the width of the type from the the cover to the jump page, he/she would have to apply laborious typesetting code to the story on the editing end, then go to the typesetter and hope that the break came where he/she needed it to. If it didn’t? Back to the editing terminal to adjust the coding. Now, type flows from one box shape to another with the greatest of ease.
On December 17th, 1988, however, I wasn’t in the office building a page. I was in a football stadium in Waco, Texas, trying to conjure a color story about the fans of the Southlake Carroll High School team. To write my story, I had a Radio Shack TRS-80 (affectionately called a Trash-80), which you can see at left. See that screen? When you were writing a story, you could see only a few lines at a time, and if you had to backtrack to check something you already wrote, well, let’s just say that it wasn’t so easy as CTRL-F. It was, instead, a lot of backtracking and squinting at dot-matrix characters on a gray screen in search of a certain passage or fact.
What the Trash-80 lacked in utility, however, it made up for in durability — I can’t tell you how many times I dropped it on hard surfaces like sidewalks and colleagues’ craniums, and it survived all of them — and tactile pleasantness. The keyboard, while a bit small, was incredibly easy to use for a touch typist like me. I came to love the Trash-80 and wish now that I had salvaged a few of them when they left newsrooms 15 years ago or so.
When it was time to transmit, I needed a direct connection to a landline, which wasn’t always easy to find in high school gymnasiums. I whiled away many hours in school offices — a fax machine line was perfect for transmission — and teachers’ lounges, listening to that pleasing whirr and ping of the TRS-80 as it sent my stories to where they needed to go. Now, of course, reporters in the field file in all kinds of ways — modem to modem, wireless, tweets, mobile phones and, in a pinch, by dictating a story to a fast-typing colleague back in the office.
In my essay, I wrote about a despondent few hours when the paper came out on December 18th, when I figured the story I’d written wasn’t good enough because I couldn’t find it anywhere.
As I said in the piece:
It was below the fold of the paper, a little three-inch sliver of type in the bottom left-hand corner of the page, but there it was. I’d missed it on the first pass because it was a companion piece to [Gil] LeBreton’s, with a tiny elliptical headline. In my frantic search through the paper, I’d simply mistaken it for part of LeBreton’s story.
LeBreton — or, as we know him, “Leb” — was (and is) one of the paper’s star columnists, and accordingly, his story had been given top billing. You can see it here:
The headline, if you can’t see it, reads “State champs | By third quarter, Carroll knew …”
And several inches below, you can see my moment of glory:
The continuation of the headline: “… what Dragon fans had known all along.” (There’s also, sadly, the precious byline of “Craig E. Lancaster.” What can I say? I was 18 and thought that a middle initial would make me more writerly.)
It was a huge thrill to see this story in my hometown newspaper, and it remains one of the biggest moments of my career. At that young age, I thought I was on my way, that if I could make the front page as a teenager, I’d no doubt be winning Pulitzers by the handful in the years to come. Things didn’t quite work out that way; within a few years, I’d made the hard left turn from aspiring reporter to full-time editor, someone toiling behind the scenes and someone whose name rarely shows up in the newspaper. It was the right choice for me, a job that better suits my sensibilities. And now, of course, my writing ambitions play out in a different way.
It’s not what I would have imagined for myself twenty-three years ago, but I wouldn’t change a thing.