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Almost two years ago, fueled by little more than a faint story idea and my own volatile cocktail of mania, I started writing what would become 600 Hours of Edward. I finished the first draft in 25 days.

I know what you’re doing: You’re looking at the calendar and saying, “That SOB did National Novel Writing Month!”

Indeed, I did. It wasn’t the first time. But it was the first time I completed the challenge of writing at least 50,000 words in 30 days. (I actually wrote 79,175 words in 25 days. Actually, it was 17 days, because I took eight days off. But, really, who’s counting?)

In the hindsight of two years, I can now say with confidence that I couldn’t have written Edward in any other way. And now that I have a second, more conventionally written novel to my credit, the forthcoming The Summer Son, I can also say with confidence that I’ll never do NaNoWriMo again, at least not in the way that it’s intended (i.e., as a spawning ground for a fresh work of fiction).

To find out why, as well as some tips for tackling the NaNoWriMo challenge if you’re so inclined, check out my guest gig at Jim Thomsen’s Reading Kitsap blog.

Here’s the kicker:

Having written one novel under the auspices of NaNoWriMo and one in a more traditional way (three-month first draft, followed by nine months of revisions), I have to tell you that I’ll probably never again do the NaNoWriMo thing. Word count is a pretty flimsy construct in the first place; when someone asks me how long a story should be, my answer is: As many words as it needs, and not one more. To then squeeze those 50,000 words out under intense pressure no doubt leads to some irretrievably poor writing. If it’s the challenge you want, that’s one thing. But if you’re aiming for a writing career, you should ask yourself some hard questions about what you want from a month’s work. It’s entirely possible that NaNoWriMo won’t offer what you’re seeking.

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Endorsements of The Summer Son have begun to roll in from authors and critics whose work I deeply admire.

Among them:

“Lancaster has crafted a novel that offers readers the most valuable gift any work of fiction can offer: an authentic emotional experience. The Summer Son will grip you with its pathos and insight, propel you mercilessly forward with its tension and suspense, and then wow you with an ending you won’t see coming. And when the experience is over, The Summer Son will stick with you.”
Jonathan Evison, author of West of Here and All About Lulu

Jon is having the kind of career I can only dream of. His first novel, All About Lulu, won rave reviews as a funny, deeply felt coming-of-age story. His latest, West of Here, will release on Feb. 11, 2010, and is already being hailed as one of the great books of the coming year. Chuck Adams, Evison’s editor at Algonquin, has called it the best book he’s worked with in four decades of publishing. I’m lucky enough to have an advance reader copy of it, and I can tell you that the multigenerational sweep, the sense of place, the writing all are beautifully rendered.

*****

“Lancaster’s characters drill into the earth in search of natural gas, and so too do they burrow into their pasts, hunting for the pockets of explosive angst that define who they are today. A compelling dose of realism and a vicious reminder that ancient history is always close enough to kiss us.”
Joshua Mohr, author of Termite Parade and Some Things That Meant the World To Me

Josh is the kind of writer who makes me wonder if the rest of us simply don’t have sufficient imagination. Consider the premise of his latest, Termite Parade: Three narrators — a woman, Mired; her boyfriend, Derek; and his twin brother, Frank — carry us through a story that starts with Mired’s being pushed down stairs, intentionally, by Derek (who, by the way, believes he’s being eaten from the inside by termites). And his much-heralded debut, Some Things That Meant the World To Me, centered on a 30-year-old man named Rhonda who is led through his troubled past by his own inner child. Some Things, published by tiny Two Dollar Radio, was selected by O Magazine as one of its “10 Terrific Reads of 2009.”

*****

The Summer Son is a superb and authentic exploration of family ties and the delicate relationships between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and the past and present. Lancaster writes from the heart in clear and powerful prose, exposing his characters flaws and strengths in heartbreaking detail and giving readers exactly what we want from contemporary fiction: characters we believe in from the first page, laugh and cry with throughout, and, finally, deeply understand at the end.”
Kristy Kiernan, author of Catching Genius and Between Friends

In a book world that demands that everything be classified, Kristy’s work often gets labeled as women’s fiction. While that’s certainly not a knock, it also misses half the picture. What she really writes is human fiction — beautiful, complex, redeeming, heartbreaking human fiction. All of her work — Matters of Faith, Catching Genius, Between Friends — probes relationships and choices and consequences with a deft eye and a hopeful heart. Fabulous stuff.

*****

“Craig Lancaster’s magnificent novel, The Summer Son, travels straight into the realm of broken hearts and hurt souls only to discover miraculous things at the core of each of us: grace and love. This is one of those rare novels that will live from generation to generation, offering sunlight to those who think the human race lives only in a stormcloud.”
Richard S. Wheeler, author of Snowbound and a six-time Spur Award winner

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Dick Wheeler, for my money, is our greatest living writer of Westerns, and along the way, he became simply a fine novelist, no qualifications necessary. He’s also a man after my own heart: a former newspaperman who stumbled into a literary career. (That he is married to one of the finest people on the planet, Sue Hart, essentially makes Dick the most enviable man I know.) Check out his latest, Snowbound, for a terrific example of Wheeler’s exhaustive research — the tale centers on explorer John Fremont — and his elegant prose.

*****

The Summer Son made me laugh, made me feel and even made me love a scoundrel.”
Kristen Tsetsi, author of Pretty Much True …

I love when great things happen to deserving people. Kris’ self-released debut novel, Homefront, was loved by nearly everyone who read it, and after years of shopping it to publishers, she’s found one who sees the possibilities for the book that all of us who’ve read it so clearly grasped. It will be re-emerging soon as Pretty Much True … and you pretty much should read it when it does. Check out her blog here.

*****

“Part family saga, part mystery, The Summer Son will grab hold of you and not let go.”
R.J. Keller, author of Waiting for Spring

I love when great things happen to deserving people, Part 2. R.J. originally released her debut novel through CreateSpace, priced it to move on Amazon’s Kindle platform — and reaped the rewards of her own good work and readers’ word of mouth. Waiting for Spring — women’s fiction for women who don’t live Carrie Bradshaw’s existence — has consistently been one of the best-selling novels on the Kindle, and sure enough, AmazonEncore took notice: It will re-release the book to a much wider audience next spring. A success story well-earned.

*****

“In this novel of power, psychological insight, suspense, and healing, Lancaster takes the reader on Mitch Quillen’s search with courage and emotional honesty. Moving and unforgettable!”
Carol Buchanan, Spur Award-winning author of God’s Thunderbolt and Gold Under Ice

What can I say about Carol? She’s one of my best friends among the Montana writers I’ve met, she’s a whip-smart writer and possibly even better editor (The Summer Son benefited greatly from her advice), and she wrote a self-published debut novel (God’s Thunderbolt) that won a Spur Award. She’s such a gifted writer that it was a no-brainer for me to team up with her and launch her follow-up, Gold Under Ice, as the first release of my small literary imprint, Missouri Breaks Press.

*****

“Craig Lancaster really knows how to tell a story. And in this deeply felt, keenly observed, beautifully structured novel he tells one older than Sophocles, about the tensions between fathers and sons and the secrets that shape — and threaten to destroy — their lives.”
Charles Matthews, former books editor, San Jose Mercury News

Charles and I go way back, although it would be a stretch to say that we really knew each other before the advent of Facebook. We worked together at the San Jose Mercury News several years ago, but that was back in the days when that newspaper had 400-some editorial employees (as opposed to the 120 or so it has now), and so I’m not sure we ever even had a conversation. But no matter. Charles knows his stuff, and I’m greatly pleased that he liked what he read from me. Check out Bookishness, his brilliant blog.

So there they are — eight testimonials that I hope will persuade you to give The Summer Son a try. But even better: I just gave you at least a dozen good reading recommendations. Check these authors out. You won’t be sorry.

Some reading that’s well worth your time: A New York Times profile of author Thomas McGuane, who at age 70 is a literary lion and a damned fine rider of cutting horses.

I enjoyed this bit:

Mr. McGuane himself sometimes appears torn about which West he belongs to. “There’s a view of Montana writing that seems stage-managed by the Chamber of Commerce — it’s all about writers like A. B. Guthrie and Ivan Doig,” he said, referring to two authors of historical novels about a rugged, frontier Montana. “It used to bother me that nobody had a scene where somebody was delivering a pizza.”

I don’t want to toot my own horn (yeah, okay, just go with me on this one), but allow me to direct your attention to the bottom of Page 257 of 600 Hours of Edward:

I’m watching Dragnet almost three hours early and might even watch another episode, if I feel like it. I’m also munching on thin-crust pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut. I didn’t go to the grocery store today. I decided I didn’t have to. Maybe I’ll go tomorrow. Or maybe not.

I’ll do whatever I feel like doing. You live only once.

The smiling, friendly-looking young man to the right is Brian Shults. If his hair and glasses seem a little out of date, it’s only because Brian is, too. He’s been gone since March 21, 1993. I received this image in an e-mail from his mother just a few days ago.

I wasn’t prepared for how jarring it would be to see him again. Brian’s never been too far from my mind in the nearly 18 years since I answered an early-morning phone call in my new apartment in Owensboro, Ky., and heard my mother say, “Your friend Brian, he’s dead.”

“Dead, dead how?”

“He shot himself.”

“What?”

It fell to me to call another friend, Jon Ehret, in Buffalo, N.Y., and listen to the same crushing incredulity my mom heard.

“What?”

“I said, he shot himself.”

Long pause.

“Why would he do that?”

I don’t know. I didn’t know then. I don’t know now.

*****

I didn’t want to like Brian when I met him at the University of Texas at Arlington. He came on like a freight train, blustery and bad-assed, and it was all a put-on, his way of masking deep insecurities. But if you hung in there with him for just a little bit, the trip was worth it.

The guy was brilliant in a way that gets lost nowadays, when “genius” is a word my friends and I wantonly use on Facebook. He could write like nobody I knew to that point in my life. He asked great questions, was utterly unafraid of the answers, and possessed an insight into the dispossessed, the lonely, the broken that seemed far beyond his years. It was only after I got to know him, after we threw in together in an off-campus apartment while scrapping it out for freelance jobs, that I discovered the source of that hard-won experience.

Brian was dyed-in-the-wool Fort Worth, a boy from the Arlington Heights neighborhood near downtown. I was a suburban kid, a transplant to Texas. Brian came from a broken family that had scattered — a mother there in Fort Worth, a father in Portland, a brother in Seattle. I lived a life the Cleavers might have claimed: stay-at-home mom, 3.7 kids, family dinners every night, family pictures every Easter. By the time Brian got to UTA, he’d already rehabbed for drug and alcohol abuse, and he was living the straight-and-narrow life of the 12-stepper. I’d done nothing more daring than stealing draws off a wine cooler in the back of a friend’s pickup during lunch.

On paper, we shouldn’t have been friends. But we were.

*****

When we settled on an apartment off Cooper Street in Arlington, Brian said, “You’re gonna be sorry you roomed with me. Everybody is. I’ll drive you crazy.”

I smiled and said, “You won’t drive me crazy. If you piss me off, I’ll kick your ass.”

Brian balled up his fists, jumped at me and said, “You do that, and I’ll press charges!”

Jesus, he was tightly wound sometimes.

He was right, though. He occasionally did drive me crazy. I grew tired of chasing him down for his half of the electric bill, or getting him to clean the dishes in the sink. But those frustrations never lasted. There were too many good times — the kind of times you get to enjoy only when you’re young and stupid and people give you a wide berth because, well, you’re young and stupid.

*****

At the age we were during the months we lived together, 21, Brian and I were not beyond unwinding after a shift at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram sports department by hitting one of the myriad high-end strip clubs in Arlington. Brian never drank, at least not in my presence, but he seemed to enjoy being in the presence of action. One night, we were at a place called Lace, and Brian said, “You know who should be here? (Name redacted).” (Name redacted) was one of our supervisors at the Star-Telegram who had a famously uptight bearing on the job. Brian and I were convinced that it was environment, not nature, that informed (Name redacted)’s personality. We knew that if we could just manage to get that guy in a place where he could credibly wear a feather boa in public, he’d loosen up.

True story: A few minutes later, I looked up and spotted (Name redacted) sitting alone in a booth, chatting up one of the dancers. I poked Brian and pointed out what I saw. Brian stood up and walked toward (Name redacted) with double-gun fingers pointing. Seeing the blood drain out of that guy’s face at being found out was an all-time top-five moment, man. It was beautiful.

*****

Brian remains the funniest person I’ve ever known. He took being funny seriously. He’d done some standup and was quite good at it. He had an affinity for performers, whether they stripped bare their bodies or their souls. He collected them. One of his best friends was Doyle Bramhall Jr., the great bluesman.

One of the transcendent evenings of my life was the time that my mom and I went with Brian to an AA meeting where he told his story of addiction and sobriety. The raw honesty was searing, mesmerizing. He delivered the story like a monologue, but the laughs were incidental. Hard truth was his aim that night. It was one of those moments where I knew that no matter how much time I spent with him, I had no way of really knowing his road.

*****

Standing there in my apartment in Kentucky, I hung up the phone, and I realized that my last thought about Brian had been one of anger.

Just before the move to Owensboro, I’d gone back to Fort Worth to see my friends at the Star-Telegram, and we all headed for the Ol’ South Pancake House on University, one of our favorite haunts. Brian rode over with me, and on the way, he’d asked me to spot him some cash, fifteen bucks, no big deal.

“I’ll write you a check to cover it,” he’d said.

Fine, no problem.

When I got back to Texarkana, where I was living at the time, I deposited the check and it bounced. That pissed me off — not because of the amount, but because it was so inconsequential that Brian should have just asked for the fifteen clams straight out. The charade was senseless.

I never called him about it. Several weeks later, I was on my way to Kentucky. It’s a hard thing to live with, the being so angry about something so small, and then never having the chance to make it good. I wonder how many of us carry such regret about him.

*****

Brian came barreling back into my life a few weeks ago when I saw the name “Steven Shults” on a comment thread at the New York Times Facebook page, saw the semi-familiar face, and ventured an e-mail:

I about fell over when I saw your comment on the Paul Krugman column at Facebook. I knew the name, clicked on the profile and saw the Seattle location, and I knew you were Brian’s brother.

Brian and I were roommates in 1990-91 while we were both at UT-Arlington. He was one of the best friends I had at an important time in my life, and I think about him often. I was living in Owensboro, Ky., when the sad news reached me, and I wasn’t able to make it down for the funeral. So, really, I’m so happy for this chance to tell someone in his family how much I liked him and how much he’s missed.

Steven wrote back, confirming my suspicion and putting me in touch with Linda Lee, Brian’s mom. We swapped several e-mail messages and that’s how, just a few days ago, I ended up seeing a face that has existed only in my head for almost twenty years.

*****

About that face …

I thought I knew it, but actually seeing the photograph reveals just how unreliable memory can be. I’d forgotten about the little scar on his chin and the way his whiskers crept down his long neck, a secondary male characteristic that I can’t match even today, at age 40. I’d forgotten how curly his hair was, or that he had such a winning smile. How I wish he’d shown it to us more often.

Mostly, I’m struck by just how young he was. As I aged and brought memories of Brian along with me, perhaps I incrementally aged him as well. Perhaps I gave him wisdom he didn’t have, or perspective he never lived long enough to develop, or a sense of proportion that clearly eluded him on the day that he decided he didn’t want to live anymore. Maybe that’s my way of keeping him in a place where I can relate to him as my memories of that time in my life fade.

I don’t know what he felt on that day, any more than I really know what he felt on any other day. I wish he’d held on for another hour, then another day, then another month, then another year. I’d have loved to have seen him turn 40. Meet a girl. Raise a family. Bitch about the onset of arthritis. Whatever.

Brian was never cut out for being young. He should have grown old.

A man in black with a plaque.

Friday night, 600 Hours of Edward was honored with the High Plains Book Award for best first book. I won’t bore you with the story behind the story; it’s been covered many times. I’ve taken to calling Edward the little book that could, and Friday night, it did.

That the honor happened right here in my adopted hometown of Billings, on a night when so many other works were similarly recognized, was nothing short of wonderful. My “dates” for the evening were my father, Ron, and my mother, Leslie. They’ve been divorced for 37 of my 40 years, but we all enjoyed a night out, something I have no memory of from our brief time as a nuclear family. That was beyond cool.

It’s a wonderful thing to look out across a room and see a couple hundred people who absolutely love books, and every one of us — William Notter (poetry), Linda Hasselstrom (Zonta Best Woman Writer), Steven Grafe (nonfiction), Kent Meyers (fiction) and Margaret Coel (emeritus) — paid particular tribute to them. (I did so perhaps a bit too colorfully, expressing the wish that I could multiply them — and realizing only after I sat down that my entreaty could have been interpreted as a come-on.)

All in all, it was a lovely evening. Big thanks to the Parmly Billings Library and the many, many volunteers who make the awards happen; Riverbend Publishing for sending Edward out into the world; and especially to the readers who have spent a few of their hours with Edward.

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