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Posts tagged “600 Hours of Edward

Plotting vs. pants-ing

broken pencil

With all necessary apologies, I’m going to talk a bit here about process. If that topic bores you as much as it does me (ordinarily), you won’t hurt my feelings by going somewhere more fun on this great wide Web.

You might like this place better.

If you’re sticking around, you’ve been warned, etc., etc.

Some months ago, I started a new manuscript. In short order, about eight double-spaced pages in, I put it down. Extensive work on another project—a partial teardown-and-rebuild, then a developmental edit—interceded, and I figured I could get back to the new manuscript when things were less frantic around here.

That opportunity came a week ago, and I’ve spent several hours with it every single day. In that time, the manuscript has grown: from eight pages to 102 (as I write this—with more writing scheduled for later tonight, who knows where it will be when I succumb to sleep).

This is unusually fast progress for me. In fact, it’s happened only two other times, and both of those were stories involving the same main character who is occupying my time now. I’m not trying to be coy here. It’s another Edward story.

I can’t explain why this character and his situations reveal themselves to me in such an expeditious way, when everything else can be such a struggle (see: my earlier mention of the teardown-and-rebuild). I can’t explain it, but I also don’t question it. To do so would show a lack of gratitude, and I’m endlessly grateful.

Part of the reason stories can be slow in coming lies in how I approach the work. I’ve tried plotting, but it doesn’t work well for me. I end up deviating from the plot, and if I’ve taken the time to write out notes before beginning the story, I feel compelled to revise my notes, which means I’m working on multiple documents simultaneously, and all of this serves to drive me out of the mental place where I can just let the narrative come as it may. If all of this sounds hopelessly artsy-fartsy (technical term), please believe me that I used to think so, too, long before I wrote fiction and I thought that writers who droned on about process were in danger of disappearing into their own nether regions. Now I’m one of them. Whatever.

What does work for me is putting a character on the page, giving him/her a nudge, and then following wherever he/she goes. Yes, sometimes those travels contradict the sense and sensibility of something that has come earlier, but hey, that’s why we revise. Yes, sometimes those journeys hit a dead end and the story dies. And yes, sometimes those characters travel to a place where the story is completed, but in a way that’s so unsatisfying that I wouldn’t dream of letting anyone else read it.

A friend of mine, novelist Taylor Lunsford, made a simple declaration when we were talking about this: “You’re a pants-er.”

“Huh?”

“You fly by the seat of your pants.”

Well, yeah.

So there it is. I’m a pants-er. I’m not going to apologize. I’m not going to dedicate myself to reform. I’m just going to grab every available minute until this story spins itself out.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.


100K

When it comes to the book business and how I comport myself, I’m a man of guiding principles:

1. Write what’s in my heart, not what I calculate to be the quickest route to sales, notoriety, etc.

2. Connect with readers, not other authors.

3. Don’t get in back-and-forths with critics. They have their role, I have mine.

4. Don’t yammer on about sales figures.

For much of my novel-writing career, still in its adolescence, No. 4 has been easy to honor. There wasn’t much to say. Beyond that, trumpeting one’s sales has generally struck me as unseemly, unless it’s for educational purposes (see J.A. Konrath, who has been transparent about how his life and career have been changed by self-publishing) or some truly remarkable threshold has been met.

I hope the latter is the case here, as I deviate from my self-imposed rigor.

Because of the vagaries of sales numbers—this month’s sales could be eroded by next month’s returns—I won’t know exactly when I cross this threshold, but sometime in the next week, I should reach 100,000 books sold since my first, 600 Hours of Edward, was originally released in October 2009.

In some significant ways, it’s no big deal. I haven’t spent a day on any of the big bestseller lists. My books aren’t released with big multimedia marketing campaigns. I haven’t managed to keep an entire publishing division afloat with any single title. And, hey, it took me four releases in almost four years to accumulate those numbers. (And that doesn’t even get into sales numbers being a poor arbiter of book quality. We’ve all known crap books that sold in crazy quantities and wonderful books that never found an audience.)

On the other hand …

Before 600 Hours came out, I never expected to sell one book, let alone 100,000. In the years since that first release, some remarkable things have happened. I’ve been able to write more books and leave my job, dedicating myself full-time to being a professional author. I find now, at 43 years old, that I am what I dreamed of being back in high school: a self-sustaining, satisfied, working-man author. That was the aim when I started. Not awards (although they’re definitely nice). Not being the toast of the tastemakers (not bloody likely, ever). I just wanted to be a guy who put in the work and made a living.

That’s the significance of the sales, that I’m there and can now dream bigger. More, that’s the significance of all the people who’ve been so kind to buy the books, read them and tell their friends. My gratitude is bottomless.

To mark the occasion and to say thank you, I’m doing some giveaways over at my author page on Facebook. Among the goodies:

  • The chance to lend your name to a character in the novel I’m currently writing and receive a signed first draft of it.
  • Signed copies of all four books.
  • A coffee date with me. (Obviously, if you don’t live in Billings, Montana, or Montana at large, I’ll probably just send you a coffee card, which is the better prize anyway).

Follow the link above and comment on the giveaway post on my Facebook page. That’s all it takes.

 


What progress looks like to me

Self-portrait in the Hilton Garden Inn men’s room before my talk to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Montana statewide gathering.

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 …

The picture of Dad I showed at the GFWC gathering in Great Falls. I’m pretty sure he wears the 49ers cap just to irritate me.

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.


Catching up

Some news and notes on various fronts. I’ve been really busy these past few weeks–with the promise of more busy-ness to come–and haven’t had time to get to this stuff until now:

600 HOURS OF EDWARD is out, and doing swimmingly. In just over a month since it’s re-release, it has garnered about 25 new, mostly glowing reviews on Amazon.com (about 50 if you count the enthusiastic response in the UK, and I do). I don’t like to talk about sales figures, but it’s safe to say that the reception has exceeded my hopes. I’m thrilled that the book seems to be finding its audience.

The audiobook version of THE SUMMER SON has been delayed a bit. It’s now scheduled to drop on Oct. 23. The audiobook of 600 HOURS OF EDWARD is already out.

The coming weeks will also bring my work into other languages. The French version of THE SUMMER SON (titled UNE SI LONGUE ABSENCE) will be released by Presses de la Cite on Oct. 12, and the German version of the novel (DER SOMMERSOHN) is scheduled for Nov. 13.

I also have a couple of upcoming events:

  • This Friday (Sept. 28), I’ll be in Great Falls, Montana, for the state’s General Federation of Women’s Clubs meeting. I’m speaking at the group’s dinner.
  • After a short vacation, I’ll be in Lewistown, Montana, on Oct. 17 for a presentation at the library. It’s called “Living With Your Character,” and it should be a lot of fun.
  • I’m reading from QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE during the High Plains BookFest in Billings, Montana, on Oct. 20, and that night I’ll find out if the book, a finalist for the short-stories award, is a winner. (To see all the fine books that are up for High Plains Book Awards, go here.)

Information on appearances is available here.

Thanks to the new 600 HOURS OF EDWARD and its bonus first chapter from the upcoming sequel, EDWARD ADRIFT, I get a lot of questions about when the new book is coming out. I don’t have an official release date yet, but Spring 2013 is a good bet. I can tell you that principal editing begins this week, so the process is moving along.

Finally, I’d urge you to check out this interview I did with Jonathan Evison to mark the release of his latest novel, THE REVISED FUNDAMENTALS OF CAREGIVING. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. It’s my favorite book so far this year.


Outtakes

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.

Billings, Montana, where Edward and I live.

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.

600 Hours of Edward (paperback)

600 Hours of Edward (ebook)

600 Hours of Edward (audiobook)


Edward, again

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.


Worlds of fiction

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.”

 


The worst piece of writing advice I’ve ever received

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:

Stant Litore (author of The Zombie Bible series)

Vincent Zandri

Steffan Piper


Catching up

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.


Another turn for Edward

In its more than three years of existence as a published novel—in one form or another—my debut, 600 Hours of Edward, has had quite the journey. NaNoWriMo experiment to self-published book to small-press-published book. And now, it’s about to have its fourth act.

In August, 600 Hours of Edward will be re-released as a trade paperback by AmazonEncore, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. This is the same outfit that published my second novel, The Summer Son, and did such a wonderful job with it. The new cover went live on the Amazon site this week, and it’s a beaut:

Here’s the part where I impose on your good graces: If you’ve been meaning to read 600 Hours of Edward, or been meaning to tell a friend to read it, please go ahead and pre-order the book in print or Kindle form. Just follow this link. Pre-orders are a huge factor in a book’s performance, and while I’d just as soon write and leave the marketing to others, it’s not the way of the world anymore. If you have friends who are authors, here’s what they’re dying to tell you about how important your early support of their work is.

If buying things online isn’t your deal, you can also go into your local bookstore the week of the release (Aug. 14) and ask the folks there to order a copy.

OK, end of arm-twisting. For now.

One last thing: I hope to have some news soon about the sequel, Edward Adrift.

Thanks for reading!


Read it. Absorb it. Live it.

I’ve been a professional novelist for nearly three years now. (Note that I said professional, in the sense that I get paid for my work. I’m still working on self-sustaining.) And if there’s anything I’ve learned in that time, other than the writing life seems to dole out pleasure and pain in equal measures, it’s this: I may have plans for what I write, but in the end, the story is in control, not me.

Terrible Minds

I’ll offer a good example of this, as I have one sitting handy: In mid-December, I was certain that I’d be taking the first half of the year off, if not longer. I’d written a novel, and then another novel, and then a collection of short stories in quick succession, and I was tired and even a little discouraged.

On December 28th, compelled to my writing desk by an idea I couldn’t and didn’t want to shake, I started a new manuscript. As I type these words, I’m more than 42,000 words into it, and I long ago passed the point of danger. Some manuscripts never make it; they’re either put aside or repurposed into something else. This one is going the distance. More than that, it’s good. That’s harder for me to say than you might imagine.

Concurrent to this abrupt change to my plans, I read this article: 25 Things Writers Should Start Doing (ASFP).

It’s aggressive and raw and in-your-face profane. And I fucking love every word of it.

Two of the 25 things, in particular, stand out for me:

7. Start Discovering What You Know

Ah, that old chestnut. “Write what you know.” Note the lack of the word only in there. We don’t write only what we know because if we did that we’d all be writing about writers, like Stephen King does. (Or, we’d be writing about sitting at our computers, checking Twitter in our underwear and smelling of cheap gin and despair.) The point is that we have experience. We’ve seen things, done things, learned things. Extract those from your life. Bleed them into your work. Don’t run from who you are. Bolt madly toward yourself. Then grab all that comprises who you are and body-slam it down on the page.

Abso-goddamn-lutely. The past two books I’ve written were dark slogs into the human heart. I don’t disavow them. That horrible muck we go through when we love somebody but can’t say it, or hate someone with nuclear intensity, or want to kill somebody and would if not for the grace of well-timed civility — all of that is in me, all of that informs who I am, and when I wrote those stories, I needed to purge it. I make no apologies.

But that’s not the whole of me. There’s a wickedly absurd sense of humor in there, too, and a subversiveness that undercuts with laughter rather than rage. I’ve been neglecting that too long. I’m gonna write some funny books and stories. (I already have, in fact. What I’m saying is, I’m gonna write some more.) There are plenty of people channeling Cormac McCarthy and casting our lives against bleak landscapes. Good on them. I’m gonna do something else.

11. Start Cultivating Your Sanity

You’re crazy. No, no, it’s okay. I’m crazy, too. We’re all a little bit unhinged. Hell, I’m one broken screen door away from drinking a fifth of antifreeze and driving off a highway overpass on a child’s tricycle. Writing is not a particularly stressful job — I mean, you’re not an air traffic controller or an astronaut or some shit. Just the same, it’s a weird job. We hunker down over our fiction like a bird with an egg and we sit there alone, day in and day out, just… making up awful stuff. People die and hearts are broken and children are stolen by van-driving goblins and all that comes pouring out of our diseased gourds. So: cultivate your sanity. Take some time to de-stress your skull-space. Take a walk. Take a vacation. Drink some chamomile tea and watch the sunset. Chillax. That’s the new thing the kids are saying, right? “Chillax?” Yeah. I’m up on my lingo. Chillaxin’ is the hella tits, Daddy-o!

I’ve written before about the crazy. All the bullshit that goes into publishing — the wretched egos and the inscrutable decisions and the rampant pettiness — can get your ass down in a hurry, and if you’re harboring some bit of bad brain chemistry when it does, you’re screwed in ways you never imagined.

It’s time to put that nonsense to rest. It’s a beautiful world, and I get to breathe air in it. You don’t like me? Too bad. You don’t like my book? Fine. Get another. I’m writing to please me, and all I can do is hope that it pleases others. As for the rest, I don’t even care. I got a momma and a daddy and a wife and two dogs who love me. That’s all I need.

Strike that: I also need the Dallas Cowboys to stop sucking. Amid all the pragmatic doing-for-my-own-self shit, a guy’s gotta dream.


Here comes ‘Quantum Physics’

Today–Tuesday, December 6th–is the official release date for my new book, a collection of short stories called Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure.

Truth be told, the book has been available in print and e-book form for a couple of weeks now, but a book needs a release date, and this is mine. It’s my third book, following the novels 600 Hours of Edward and The Summer Son, and I’m incredibly proud of it. Part of that lies in where the stories came from and the time in my life that spawned them (there will be more on this down the line). Part of it lies in the fact that this is a full production for my little publishing house, Missouri Breaks Press, and a fully realized manifestation of my artistic and professional interests, not to mention my tendency toward being an autodidact. And part of it rests in the same sense of pride and apprehension that accompanies the release of any book. Author Scott Nicholson does a nice job of explaining that here. It takes something–gall, perhaps, or bravado or delusion–to write something and decide that people not only want to read it but also will be willing pay for the privilege.

As for the money part, I’ve tried to make that as pocketbook-friendly as possible. The trade paperback version of the book retails for a competitive $14. The e-book version, available in Kindle and Nook and everything else, is set at $1.99, an eminently fair price for ten good stories.

Back in August, I wrote a series of posts highlighting the ten stories and offering some insight into how they came to be. You can see those here if you missed them the first time.

As for the book, I hope you’ll check it out. I think it’s some of the best work I’ve done.


How are you? It’s been a while …

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.

Reading the story "Comfort and Joy" from "Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure" at Wild Purls. (Photo courtesy of Wild Purls)

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.)

Finally …

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.

Happy holidays!


Quasi-NaNoWriMo 2011, Day 2

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.

Happy writing!


NaNoWriMo: I’m in! Kinda. Sorta.

As I write this, National Novel Writing Month — known by adherents as NaNoWriMo — is sixty-four minutes old. Hundreds of thousands of would-be, never-will-be and most-definitely-are novelists are taking to their keyboards and trying to pound out a minimum of 50,000 words over the next thirty days.

I already have the only NaNoWriMo badge of courage I need: I wrote the entirety of 600 Hours of Edward in November 2008 — nearly 80,000 words — and watched as that mania-fueled manuscript changed my life. I have no desire, and probably no ability, to relive that experience. And yet, the idea of setting aside thirty days to write with abandon, to dump the contents of the mind onto the table and see what possibilities are there, has a great deal of appeal. So I’m using NaNoWriMo 2011 in an unofficial way to jump-start a novel project I’ve been contemplating for weeks now. I started it several weeks ago, then set it aside for more brain seasoning. I think — think — it’s ready to go back in the cooker now, and I’ll be using my blog here as a way to keep myself accountable over the next month.

So, for those keeping tabs at home, here’s the scoreboard on a story I’m tentatively calling Rayfield:

  • Date: November 1
  • Number of words at the start of writing today: 2,668
  • Number of words at the conclusion of writing today: 3,738
  • Words written today: 1,070
  • Words written in November: 1,070
  • Chapters completed: 1

 *****

At long last, I have final copies of my new short-story collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, in hand. They’re sporting a couple of nice cover blurbs: one on the front from Craig Johnson, the bestselling author the Walt Longmire series of novels, and one on the back from one of my favorite people, Megan Ault Regnerus, the managing editor of Montana Quarterly, where a couple of these stories have been or will be published.

Here’s what these good folks have to say:

“Have you ever felt in your pocket and found a twenty you didn’t know you had; how ’bout a hundred dollar bill, or a Montecristo cigar or a twenty-four-karat diamond? That’s what reading Craig Lancaster’s Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure is like — close and discovered treasures.” — Craig Johnson, author of The Cold Dish and Hell Is Empty

“Craig Lancaster understands the human condition, all of it. The funny, the absurd and the fault-ridden awesomeness that is each and every one of us — or at least someone we know.” — Megan Ault Regnerus

The book will be in Montana bookstores soon, and if you’re a Kindle or Nook person, it’s available now for just $3.99.

Thanks for reading.


Monday media musings

Vacation’s over. Also, how ’bout them Cowboys? Wait … don’t answer that.

Did I ever mention that the wondrous R.J. Keller and golden-voiced Todd Keisling teamed up to create a book trailer for Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure? Well, they did. Check it out:

Pass it on to your friends. Also worth noting: This is the final week to get an advance print copy of the book (which releases Dec. 6) at the low, low price of $10.50. Details here.

If you’re in Montana, please check out the latest issue of Montana Magazine, which includes a feature story about my books (written by Chèrie Newman of Montana Public Radio) and a wonderful review of Ed Kemmick’s “The Big Sky, By and By,” which I published. The magazine is on newsstands now.

Finally, a travel advisory: Tuesday, I’m headed to Fort Benton, where the next morning I’ll meet with the Friends of the Library to talk about The Summer Son. Just a little more than a year ago, I was there with my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, and it was a great group of people and a great town (my first trip there).

Tuesday, I’ll be playing golf here. And staying here. You’re free to be envious on both points.


Inside ‘Quantum Physics,’ Part 5

We continue today with the story behind the story on the fifth piece of short fiction from my upcoming collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure. To read previous installments, go here.

QUANTUM PHYSICS AND THE ART OF DEPARTURE

Backstory: The title story of the collection (obviously). A reader could be excused if, upon digesting this story, he/she assumed that it, too, sprang from the turmoil of late last year that I’ve talked about previously. Actually, that’s not the case. I’m pretty sure this is the oldest story in the collection, written nearly two years ago as a palate cleanser between my first and second novels. It does reflect my fascination with the politics of our most intimate relationships — the ways in which we use coercion and leverage, whether it’s subconsciously or with reckless abandon. The main character in this story, a man named Ross Newbry, shows up later in the collection as an adolescent.

Here’s an excerpt:

Her drunken lovemaking was, by turns, fierce and haphazard. She licked his face and slithered her tongue in his ear. When she moved to the other side, he reached up and swabbed her spit away. She lay back and invited his mouth to find her, and he did so by rote. The most preposterous memory stepped to the front of his mind. Sam Kinison, the manic comic, had a routine about oral. “Lick the alphabet,” Sam the Man said. So he did. She writhed and grasped at his head, and then, as the moment neared, she turned him on his back and rode him until it was done.

As she draped across him, he looked for patterns in the ceiling.

“It was good?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“It’s been a while.”

“Yes.”

“I think we should do it again.”

He said nothing.

She reached for him and found him flaccid. “Oh.”

“Tomorrow,” he said.

She turned away and ground her backside into him. He patted her shoulder and waited for her snores.

(Copyright © 2012 Craig Lancaster)

Trivia: When I was writing this story, the house that Ross and his wife, Laura, share was modeled on a place my wife and I lived in before we got married. Interestingly enough, that same house served as the model for Edward Stanton’s home in my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward. In the novel, I simply moved the house one street away from where Ang and I lived.

____________________

Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure will be officially released on Dec. 6, 2011.


Publishing: pleasure and pain

Welcome to Day 4 of Honesty Week.

Look, I don’t know how I feel about self-publishing. Back when I first did it, in those yonder days of early 2009, it was in the most rudimentary way possible. I uploaded my book to CreateSpace. I used one of that service’s horrible pre-fab templates for my cover. And then I tried to get people to notice I’d released a book, all the while slowly refining the book’s appearance.

When a Montana publishing house, Riverbend Publishing, came calling for the book in August 2009, I happily signed it over, and I’ve never regretted that decision.

With my second novel, The Summer Son, I cast my lot with Amazon Publishing, and I’ve been happy with those results, too. Despite the scraps of carping you’ve seen during Honesty Week, publishing has been very, very good to me. But it still sucks. More on that in a second.

In between those two books, I started writing a bunch of short stories. A couple of months ago, I pulled them into a collection. I wrote earlier this week that story collections are the red-headed stepchild of the publishing world. So rather than facing a protracted and frustrating period of pitching these stories to the handful of publishers who actually appreciate short fiction, I’ve opted to release them myself under the auspices of Missouri Breaks Press, a publishing house I founded a couple of years ago to release under-the-radar literary fiction and nonfiction that interests me. I’ve been pretty damned successful with it, too, if you don’t mind my saying so: My first release, Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice, was a Spur Award finalist. My most recent release, Ed Kemmick’s The Big Sky, By and By, is getting some grand notices. So, yeah, I’m self-publishing, but what I’m doing today bears almost no resemblance to what I did two and a half years ago.

With Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, I did it the right way. I engaged the services of a top-notch editor, one who is thorough and honest and hard-nosed. (Let me know if you want the name; I can’t recommend him highly enough.) I engaged the services of a good book designer (that’d be me, someone who has spent the bulk of his professional career as a designer of publications). The marketing piece, the toughest for any writer and one nearly every writer has to bear to one extent or another, will be mine, too.

So, am I now a dedicated self-publisher? Probably not. I always figured my career would be a patchwork of things: some traditionally published novels, some magazine pieces, some small-press stuff, some self-publishing. At the end of each project, I try to figure out the best route. Betting on my own publishing house seemed like the right choice for this one.

Now, about publishing: It sucks, except when it doesn’t. The economic model is a mess. Giving millions of dollars to vapid entertainers for their memoirs and novelty novels (Kardashian sisters, anyone?) while shunting workhorse midlist novelists to the sidelines is a dumb thing and bad for the culture. Returnability is a financial killer. Royalties really suck. A lot of people have figured out how to make a good living at self-publishing e-books, and now that distribution is no longer the sole province of the big publishers, more people will have that opportunity. The digitization of books has been a great equalizer. Some think this marks the end of the world. Others think the possibilities are just beginning. Count me in the latter group.

There are plenty of places you can go that will outline the whole self-publishing revolution for you. This guy, for instance, really knows his stuff. I won’t even attempt to explain all of that.

My assumption is that readers want good books. That’s what I’m trying to deliver, regardless of imprint. Which brings us to the interactive portion of today’s post:

How often, if at all, does the publisher of a book influence your decision to buy? Tell me in the comments.


Heartbreakers

Welcome to Day 3 of Honesty Week.

My friend Ron Franscell said something a couple of years ago, when I was just getting my legs under me, and it has stuck with me since: “You think when you’ve landed that publishing contract that the rejection is behind you. Unfortunately, a whole new group of people has lined up to reject you.”

I didn’t necessarily get what he was saying at the time. I’ve had a graduate course in his wisdom since.

Consider:

Bookstores: For every wonderfully helpful manager I’ve met at chain stores — and Billings, where I live, has been beyond lucky with Lorrie Niles at Barnes & Noble, Gustavo Bellotta at Hastings and Jacob Tuka at Borders (RIP) — I’ve dealt with three who didn’t return calls, who seemed uninterested (at best) about setting up a signing or a reading, who didn’t seem the least interested in, you know, selling books. That surprised me. I always figured my compact with bookstores worked like this: If the store was kind enough to stock my book, I would do my level best to come help move it into readers’ hands. And I put my money, literally, behind that view. I drove hundreds and hundreds of miles around this state with 600 Hours of Edward in an effort to sell that book. If I were to plot it on a straight P&L ledger, the numbers wouldn’t look very good for me. So it’s a little disheartening to say, essentially, “Hey, how about I spend $70 on gas and a day of my life to help you sell my book?” and to hear “Eh.”

The independent bookstores, by and large, have been much better experiences, because indies realize that they stand out in the book trade by being curators and experts, and part of that stems from their close relationships with authors. For as long as they’ll have me, I’ll always venture down the street to Thomas Books (Susan Thomas), to Bozeman’s The Country Bookshelf (Ariana Paliobagis), to Fact & Fiction in Missoula (Barbara Theroux), to Red Lodge Books (Gary Robson), to The Bookstore in Dillon (Debbie Sporich), to Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, Wash. (the tireless Suzanne Droppert). These booksellers and the stores they run with care and love are essential to their communities.

Libraries: I hear this all the time: “Libraries are always in need of good programming for their patrons.” That’s fantastic. Here’s my response: “Call me. I will come.”

Fortunately for me, several have called. Big, big love to Parmly Billings Library, the Ronan City Library, the Stillwater County Library, the North Richland Hills (Texas) Public Library, the Chouteau County Library, and others.

But this post is about rejection, so here’s a little story: Back in the fall of 2009, right after Edward came out, I pitched a program to a Friends of the Library group here in Montana. A couple of weeks later, I received this curt reply:

“The Friends board met and decided not to sponsor a reading from your latest book.  I hope you can find a venue for your reading in the near future.”

Two months later, I’m at a ceremony where Edward is named a Montana Honor Book, and someone from that particular Friends of the Library board approaches me and says, “If we’d only known …” Indeed.

Look, I get it. Nobody can say yes to everybody. But a writer who’s just starting out needs breaks, needs someone to say yes. I badly needed that, and by the time we got to “If we’d only known …” I didn’t need it quite so much anymore. Further, this was a Montana library group, considering a book by a Montana author, released by a well-regarded Montana publisher. I’ve never asked a library for anything more than some time, a place and the opportunity to sell some books. This was not a difficult “yes,” and yet, it was still ”no.” Until, of course, it was “if we’d only known …”

So what I’m saying is, try “yes.” It won’t kill you.

This is my point.

Reviewers: Ha! The auspices of Honesty Week reach only so far. My personal ethic is that I’ll never get in a pissing war with a reviewer. So, I’ll say simply that in my dream world, reviewers would do three things:

1. Regard a book for what it attempts to be, not against some mythical measuring stick that has, say, Ulysses at the top and Breaking Dawn at the bottom.

2. Remove personal prejudices from the equation to whatever degree possible.

3. Present the good and the bad. I distrust any review that leaves out one of those.

Readers: Readers are kind and wonderful and have incredible taste.

You see, it’s also Smarm Week.


Grab Bag: G.D. Spradlin, R.I.P.

You might not recognize the name, but surely you remember the face and the voice:

“You can take it and shove it up your ass with a poker, a red-hot poker!”

“I intend to squeeze you, Mr. Corleone.”

Turns out, Gervase Duan Spradlin, who died Sunday at age 90, was far more than an imminently employable character actor. He didn’t even break into Hollywood until his mid-40s, having been an oil company lawyer and a millionaire as an independent oil producer before that. But his sharp, hawklike features and rich Oklahoma accent made him a natural for the stage and screen once he stumbled into acting.

From the Los Angeles Times obituary:

“Being rich changes surprisingly little,” Spradlin told The Times in 1967. “You’ll still have to have an absorbing interest in life, something to do to make you feel alive.”

For Spradlin, that was acting.

In late 1963 his daughter Wendy, a member of the children’s classes at the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City, wanted to audition for a role in a production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

To give her moral support, Spradlin accompanied her to the theater and wound up auditioning for — and landing — a role in the play, the first of three local productions he appeared in.

He also appeared in three episodes of the late-sixties revival of Dragnet, mostly playing morally suspect characters, the kind he excelled at.

My favorite of these is the rule of Arthur Leo Tyson in the episode “Baseball,” from the 1970 season. This is where Spradlin’s artistic life intersects with mine.

Here’s a passage from my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, where Dragnet-loving main character Edward Stanton gives his assessment of that particular episode:

Tonight’s episode of Dragnet, the 25th and penultimate (I love the word “penultimate”) of the fourth and final season, is called “Burglary: Baseball,” and it is one of my favorites.

G.D. Spradlin, an actor who appeared in three episodes of “Dragnet,” plays a man named Arthur Leo Tyson, and he cracks safes for sport. He’s an ex-convict who is on parole, and it turns out that he misses being in prison. This is a condition called “institutionalization,” and it sounds awful to me. And yet Arthur Leo Tyson has much to look forward to when he gets back in “the pen.” The inmate baseball team at San Quentin expects to have a good season, and he wants to be a part of it. This amuses Sergeant Joe Friday and Officer Bill Gannon, who take a liking to Arthur Leo Tyson even though he is an unrepentant criminal. It’s nice to think that police officers can be a little human.

G.D. Spradlin is one of the more recognizable actors on Dragnet, and he went on to be a character actor in many shows and movies over the years. He has a very distinctive face: It’s kind of round, and he has crinkled eyes and a perpetually pursed mouth — the kind of mouth that “looks like a chicken’s asshole,” as my Grandpa Sid used to say. He has a raspy Southern accent, the kind that Grandpa Sid had, too. If you ever saw the movie One on One, starring Robby Benson as a basketball star, then you know who G.D. Spradlin is. He played the coach, and his mouth looked like a chicken’s asshole for most of that film.

I would have liked to have written to G.D. Spradlin about his experiences on Dragnet, but he was well-known enough that I never found out his address. I looked him up on the Internet a couple of years ago, and he seemed to still be alive, although he hasn’t worked in a long time. He would be old now — 88, according to the Internet.

That’s how old Grandpa Sid would be, too, if he were still alive.

Time flummoxes me.

R.I.P., Mr. Spradlin, and thank you for the memories.


Progress Report: 7/19/11

Welcome, again, to the land of incremental progress:

The official release date of Ed Kemmick’s book, The Big Sky, By and By, is a week from today, and I now have books in hand to ensure that select bookstores around the state receive copies. I’m happy to say that pre-sales have been very brisk indeed, as I knew they would be. If you’re in Billings and/or receive The Billings Gazette, be sure to check out Sunday’s books page, which will feature a review of Ed’s book by Montana Public Radio’s Chérie Newman. (Also, it’s worth pointing out again: If you have a Kindle or a Nook, Ed’s book is also available in those formats.)

I’m continuing to plug away on a new project. It’s still far too early to say anything of substance about it, but I’m very happy that the day-in, day-out writing experiences have been brisk. For whatever it’s worth, I’m seeing the road pretty clearly as I move through the first draft.

I’ll be in Joliet, Montana, on Saturday for the Joliet Jamboree, a fundraiser for the public library. I’m looking forward to that, and to sharing a panel with fellow Billings authors Russell Rowland and Nancy Brook, among others. Details here.

Just saw the sad news about the demise of Borders. Here in my town, that means the loss of what has been a very good bookstore, and that diminishes the entire community in a cultural way. Jacob Tuka, the books manager in Billings, has been terrifically supportive of local authors and was always cheerful about lining up signings for me. We had a bit of bad timing with The Summer Son, which was released in late January, just as a book-buying moratorium kicked in at Borders. The Billings store has been a reliable seller of 600 Hours of Edward, however, and so I’ll be sorry to see it shuttered.


Progress Report: 6/14/2011

It’s been a light week. And, dammit, I deserved it.

A few things:

  • Finally, the Ed Kemmick book, The Big Sky, By and By, is for sale in advance of its official July 26 release date. If you’d like a signed copy, please jet over to Ed’s site and make a totally safe PayPal transaction. If you love Montana and Montanans, this book will not disappoint you. I’m damned proud to have it as the second release from my little literary house, after Carol Buchanan’s Gold Under Ice.
  • I’m hitting the road this week, heading up to Ronan, Montana, to talk to the Friends of the Library group there. Ronan was a great host last year when I was thumping 600 Hours of Edward, and I’m really, really looking forward to talking to my friends about my new novel, The Summer Son. This, I suppose, is the unofficial kickoff to my summer book season. Check out my calendar for the other stuff I have on tap.
  • My collection of short stories, tentatively titled Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, is in the hands of a trusted editor before I move it along to my publisher. Really, really excited about these. Really, really hoping the publisher will be, too.

And now, a personal note:

Today is the 72nd birthday of my dad, Ron Lancaster (shown above with my dogs Bodie and Zula). (By the way, them’s my legs behind him.) I’ve written some about his difficult life, and my occasionally difficult dealings with him. I’ve never shied away from the fact that The Summer Son is, on some level, both a vehicle for working out my frustrations with him and a love letter to him.

But I’ll be telling him today — as he will never see it here — that I love him very much and am blessed to have him in my life.

Happy birthday, Pops.


Grab Bag: When a Novel Dies

"Cap'n, I don't believe she's seaworthy."

I remember reading this New York Times article back in March and finding myself amused at the various ways authors spoke of novels-in-progress that never see the finish line:

  • Michael Chabon eventually published his in McSweeney’s 36, complete with the page annotations in which the great novelist assailed his own work.
  • Stephen King acknowledged the failure rate directly: “Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub. Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.”
  • Joshua Ferris refused to acknowledge whether he’d ever left one naked and quivering on the floor: “I won’t even cop to whether or not I have abandoned novels.”

Of those three approaches, I find myself most comfortable with King’s. Yes, I’ve abandoned novels. A half-dozen or more in my twenties, one just a few months after I finished 600 Hours of Edward, one late last year … and one last week. One I’ve written about in this space. You see now why I was loath to reveal many details. Until the moment a novel is finished — and I mean finished and ready to be delivered to the publisher — its efficacy is never certain.

What went wrong with the story I was writing? Fundamentally, nothing. It’s just that I realized, nearly 14,000 words in, that I had quite accidentally set myself on a course to write a story that would be forever compared — unfavorably, I imagine — with a much-beloved work that mines much of the same territory, albeit in a different way. I’m not going to say more than that about the similarities. I was horribly, horribly aghast at the realization, and after thinking about it over the course of 18 hours or so, I saw no viable way to continue. I had to pull the plug on its prospects as a novel-length work.

But there is a bright side to all this.

The Times story tells how John Updike successfully extracted several short stories out of an unrealized novel called Willow. As I considered what I could do with several thousand words I was proud of, I realized that I could do something similar. So I went to work, trimming and shaping and amplifying, and I was able to turn that work into a short story that will fit nicely into the collection I’ve been working on for the past year. In fact, it ends up completing the collection. Not a bad turn for a story that, in its envisioned novel-length form, had a fatal flaw.

I was also able to rework sections of the project that stalled last year and turn them into three other stories in the collection. In other words, as a novelist, I’m turning into a pretty decent recycler.

I still haven’t found a good way to repurpose the project I abandoned back in March 2009, just after I finished 600 Hours of Edward. And there’s a good reason:

It S-U-C-K-S.


Progress Report: 5/31/11

I want to go back.

Still coming out of my post-New York coma, so I’ll be (relatively) brief …

  • Copies of the Ed Kemmick book, The Big Sky, By and By, have been bundled up for reviewers and will go out this week. Release date is July 26.
  • I’m plug, plug, plugging away at the new novel project. This is all a little inside baseball, so if that’s not your cup of tea, go here for something more interesting. … OK, still here? I’m trying something new with this book. I have a basic idea of where it’s going to go, but I’m outlining only a few scenes at a time — four or five. Once those are written, I assess where the story is and consider new threads that have emerged — those always happen — and then sketch out a few more scenes. With 600 Hours of Edward and The Summer Son, I plotted a bit more aggressively at the outset, and while I’m happy with both books, they perhaps missed a little bit of the spontaneity that I’m experiencing with this project. It’s kept the slogging — that awful point in a first draft where you’re several thousand words in and have many thousands yet to go — from being a total drag.
  • I hope you’re keeping up with my weekly project, The Word. I’m having a ton of fun with that. You can also see the stories at my page on Fictionaut.