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I love getting to know other writers, particularly those who work in a literary area other than mine. (That sounds really bad, doesn’t it? This is my area. That over there is yours. Stay out of here.) I love hearing about their work habits, the way they cultivate ideas, how they sharpen their stories. In general, I find more similarities than differences, although the differences can be stark.
Take today’s guest, Jamie DeBree. Like me, she’s an author who lives in Billings, Montana. Like me, she’s holding down a day job and pursuing her novel-writing dreams in her off-hours. Like me, she doesn’t sleep (very much). Unlike me, she writes sexually charged romances. In, uh, doing research for this interview, I read her novel Tempest and was impressed with how well she developed her characters (and, yes, she certainly brought the heat, too). Romance is not my preferred area of reading, but I enjoyed Jamie’s book very much. More than that, I had to find out what led her down this particular path, as a romance writer and the proprietor of her own publishing house, Brazen Snake Books.
Here’s her story:
What lit your fuse for writing? Do you recall an a-ha moment where you thought, “OK, this is what I want to do”?
I think I’ve always “felt” like a writer — it was back in high school that I first voiced my desire to write books. To which my parents very logically responded, “You’re gonna need a real job first.” Turns out, they were right. It was only a few years ago that I really decided to get serious and try to make some money with my writing, but I don’t remember any specific moment, because writing has always just been there, a constant in my life, even during the years I wasn’t writing anything.
You came into the business as a committed independent, even though your genre is certainly well-covered by traditional publishing houses. What was behind that decision?
When I was young and dreaming of being a writer, I always thought I’d self-publish my writing. I’ve always tended toward the control-freak side of things, and I’m kind of an outsider anyways, so doing it myself fits my personality. When I finally decided to actively work at publishing my books and joined the online writing community, I was hit on all sides by the “self-publishing is bad and self-publishers suck” stigma, and bought into it for a while. But the whole process of trying to write for a specific line, the hoops (that had nothing to do with writing) required to even get a manuscript on an editor’s desk and the fact that as a new author I wouldn’t be making much money anyways was just so overwhelmingly against the idea of building a successful career that I nearly quit writing altogether. It wasn’t what I wanted from my writing experience. That’s when I hit that question I think all writers eventually have to come to terms with: “Why am I doing this?”
I decided that the reason I wanted to write was simply to entertain people. And to do that, I didn’t need a publishing contract with a house, I just needed a venue. I started posting a draft on my blog, I got some nice comments, and at the same time, self-publishing was starting to be a more acceptable option (the stigma is still there, but it’s far easier to deal with these days). Excited that finally I could do it myself, I jumped into the self-pub pool and haven’t looked back since I made my first sale.
You and I have talked a fair amount about characterization. Why is it so important to your sexually charged stories?
Characters are the heart of any story, in my opinion. My characters drive the plot, and what they’re thinking and feeling at any given time is what keeps that all-important sexual tension high, and determines what happens next both in the story and in their growing relationship. To that end, I do my best to get deep into my character’s heads and pay attention to what they would logically be thinking and feeling from moment to moment and write from that, even if it doesn’t fit the plot I originally envisioned. I think this makes the entire relationship more realistic than if I try to make it fit a certain “box,” though it does get pretty messy sometimes as far as fears, insecurities and stubbornness go. Unlike real life though, the relationships in my books always work out in the end — usually without any extra help from me.
What’s your personal aesthetic for a sex scene?
Hot, but not crass, if that makes any sense. A sex scene without emotion is porn, and that’s not what I write. I like frank language and I want to feel what each character is feeling throughout. I think a lot can be learned about characters in the heat of a very sexually charged moment. I try to invoke a physical response in the reader, to bring them right into the story with the characters so they’re just as invested in the relationship. Emotions are often invoked or magnified by the senses — touch, taste, sight, smell, sound. I try to use all of those to make the scene very real, and show the reader the emotions that my characters are going through at that point in time. If it makes things more complicated when it’s over, all the better.
You and Carol Buchanan — two writers who are working entirely different parts of the literary universe — have teamed up to write a series of blog posts on sex scenes. How in the world did that partnership come about?
Actually, it was Carol’s idea. She e-mailed me last fall, having read one of the draft sex scenes on my blog, and asked if I’d like to collaborate with her on a comparison in styles for writing sex scenes. Naturally I couldn’t turn down an offer like that. It’s been a lot of fun to study the angle from our very different genres and perspectives. I think we’re both learning a lot from each other, and clarifying our own processes as we explore the subject in blog articles.
You’re a transparent writer, in that you post weekly your progress on a story. Why do that, as opposed to rolling it out when you’re done?
Motivation, mostly. I’m a writer who needs an audience — while many writers claim to write for themselves first, I write predominantly to entertain others. While I do occasionally work on drafts that aren’t serialized, I’m happiest when I know someone’s waiting for the next installment.
There are a lot of other benefits I get from it — my drafts, while still rough, have improved immensely because I’m very conscious that people read them as I go. I tend to plot on the fly (i.e., I don’t really outline), and serializing forces me to maintain a linear plot and pay very close attention to continuity while I’m drafting — which means less work for me on the revision side. I also have to re-orient readers quickly at the beginning of each scene, and entice them to come back for the next one at the end, so it’s helped me learn how to keep readers turning the page (or so I’ve been told, anyways). It’s basically my practice arena, and I invite readers to watch just exactly how a story is “born” in my world. I see no reason for it to be some mystical, secret thing we writers hide away. Nearly all creative endeavors are messy in the beginning, and I don’t think we should be afraid or ashamed of that.
Like many (most?) other writers, you have a day job. How do you balance your time among that, the writing, your husband and home life, etc.?
I like quiet when I’m writing, which means my normal writing hours are between around 11 pm and 1 am (2 am if the scene of the day is particularly frustrating), after the dogs and my husband are settled for the night. I can’t edit that late (the analytical portion of my brain tends to fade out earlier), so a lot of revisions/editing take place while I’m watching TV in the evenings and on the weekends. I’ve been known to load my draft on my Kindle and head to the break room at 10 am and 3 pm for 15-minute editing sessions at the day job too. Writing is basically a second job for me — in the evenings after dinner I’m writing blog posts, updating my web sites, socializing on various online platforms (ie, marketing), and watching TV with my husband. Luckily, I’m a very good multitasker and also very disciplined (I love routines and keep fairly strict schedules), so somehow it all gets done. Although I’ve been trying to remember to order more business cards for three weeks now … and please don’t stop by without calling, so I have time to vacuum and pick up the dog toys.
What do you read for pleasure?
Whatever I can get my hands on, really — I generally have 2-3 books going at any given time. My parents always encouraged reading widely across genres for a well-rounded experience when I was young and I’ve kept that habit. So while romance (all sub-genres), erotica and thrillers are the genres I read in most, I also read mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, urban fantasy, westerns and literary novels as they come my way. The only genre I really don’t read much of is young adult — I have nothing against the genre, it just doesn’t hold my interest (and didn’t really even when I was young).
What’s next from you?
I’m nearly finished with the serial draft of The Biker’s Wench, the first book in my Fantasy Ranch series scheduled for release this coming July. Monica Burns is running from a forced marriage and ends up at a ranch outside Reno, Nevada, that specializes in making adult fantasies come true. Her father finds her there, but before she can run again she gets an unexpected offer of help from Harley Majors, the owner of the ranch. She reluctantly accepts, but her father turns the tables on them and dangerous chaos ensues as they work to outwit her father and win her freedom once and for all.
I’m also working on revisions to Her Private Chef, a novel I wrote a couple years ago about a split-personality food critic and a popular TV chef with the power to ruin her career. I plan to finish that up and release it sometime next fall. It’s a fun story, and I’m excited to finally be working on it again.
Jamie DeBree’s website: http://jamiedebree.com
Purchase links for Jamie’s books: http://brazensnakebooks.com
Jamie’s blog: http://varietypages.jamiedebree.com
Jamie’s page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NovelistJamieDeBree
Jamie’s Twitter feed: http://www.twitter.com/JamieDeBree
Jenny Shank’s winning debut novel, The Ringer, comes out this month, and readers will be treated to a fine book that uses baseball to delve into issues of family and class.
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about it:
Shank debuts promisingly with the dramatic story of two families upended by an accidental police shooting. Denver police officer Ed O’Fallon is wracked with guilt after he guns down a man during a drug raid; Patricia Maestas, meanwhile, is instantly made a widow and single mother. Their narratives are equally engaging: as Ed’s marriage buckles under the weight of his feelings of guilt, Patricia struggles to keep her 12-year-old son, Ray, out of trouble. What keeps Ray off the streets is baseball—the same sport Ed’s sons are devoted to. When an investigation reveals the warrant for the fateful raid had the wrong address, Patricia and her family become a symbol of the wrongs suffered by the Latino community. The novel comes to a full boil after Patricia and Ed discover one another’s identities through their sons’ baseball teams.
Shank, the book blogger for New West and an active reviewer, was kind enough to take a few questions on how her book came to be, America’s pastime and how her day job keeps her focused on her own writing dreams.
Where did the idea for The Ringer come from?
I enjoy novels that give the reader an inside look at a particular subculture—for example, you learn a lot about the atmosphere of an advertising agency in Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End or you learn about John Henry memorabilia enthusiasts in Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days. The intense world of competitive youth baseball is a subculture I knew well.
In 1999, when I was just beginning to contemplate writing a baseball novel, the Denver Police raided a house in north Denver on a no-knock drug warrant, and shot and killed Ismael Mena, the Mexican immigrant that they encountered inside. Later it came out that their informant had given them the wrong address of the house, and they’d killed someone whose house they had no business entering. I was shocked and moved by this incident, and I watched it all unfold. In the aftermath, there was a lot of racial tension in the city between whites and Latinos. The part of this story that interested me most as a novelist was the fact that the cop who killed the wrong man was not responsible for the mistake on the warrant—he was doing his job, carrying out orders. I imagined the guilt he felt must be incredible.
I was also interested in writing about Denver, because there aren’t many novels set in my hometown. So I combined these ideas of writing about baseball and Denver with this growing feeling that I had to in some way address the shooting of Ismael Mena by the Denver police, because it seemed to me to be an important, elemental story, one that could tell us a lot about Denver if we’d listen to it.
Once you had the basic idea, how much cultivating did you do before you started writing? In other words, what is your work process like?
I started to keep a folder with press clippings on the Ismael Mena shooting. I did a lot of research on police, studying what it’s like to be involved a shooting. I spoke to cops and families of cops that I happened to know or meet. My cousin is married to a police officer in Omaha, and he told me in smaller cities, patrol officers often train for SWAT work, and then are on call when SWAT situations arise. (Smaller cities can’t afford to have SWAT officers sitting around, because there isn’t a need for them every day.) So I decided to have this be the case for Ed.
Somewhere in the middle of this research, I started writing a draft, working forward from the scenes I could envision easily. When I realized I was beyond my depth, I’d do more research. I made an informal outline of scenes I thought should be in it, and I gradually refined it. It took years of rewriting drafts and getting stuck and getting unstuck to produce the final version. I rewrote the first fifty pages more than anything—it took me years to figure out the right tone and perspective.
The workshop of this novel happened in public, with it being an Amazon Breakthrough Novel and James Jones First Novel Fellowship semifinalist. How much did the feedback you got along the way affect the version that was submitted to The Permanent Press?
Actually, those contests didn’t involve much public workshopping, but they inspired me to continue working on this bear of a project. I entered the beginning of the book in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship contest in 2005. I hit a low moment of frustration and difficulty in drafting the novel about then, but when I heard it was a semifinalist, I thought, “Well, they saw something in it,” and that gave me the courage to continue. I entered it in the first Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest in 2008. There were something like 10,000 entrants and my book made it to the final 100. They posted two chapters online, and I received all kinds of positive feedback, and some of it wasn’t even written by my relatives. Reaching the semi-final round in that contest gave me the final push I needed to revise it one more time, and after that revision I was able to find an agent.
The real workshopping of this book happened with my writing buddies. I traded novel chapters with my friend, the writer Paula Younger, and we helped each other through the process. Poor Paula has read so many drafts of this novel, she deserves combat pay. I also have a writing group I meet with once a month.
It seems to me that some of the characterizations in the book — a cop sidelined from coaching baseball because of an anger problem, immigrants — could have ended up being caricatures in the hands of a lesser writer. How did you manage to pull off making everyone, be they main characters or supporting ones, three-dimensional and real?
Thank you. And believe me, I am about as “lesser” as writers come. Early drafts were full of melodrama and caricature, but after you work on a book for eight years, it’s possible to beat those problems out of it. The plot of The Ringer is dramatic, and dramatic plots all sound like movie-of-the-week specials when you read a description of them. There were scenes I knew I had to write because they belonged in the arc of the story, but that I was afraid to approach for just this reason.
For example, in one chapter Patricia has to give a speech to a rally of supporters at the state capitol. There was so much potential for caricature in that—I mean, it just seems like a set-up for an eventual Jennifer Lopez Oscar clip. After worrying for a long time, I finally just wrote the scene, and it was bad, and I rewrote it, and it was still bad, and I took another angle on it, and it was still bad. I kept rewriting that chapter right up until the time I had to turn in the manuscript to The Permanent Press, and finally I think it at least seems plausible. I mean, real people do end up in situations like this. I told myself not to try to be cute, coy, or clever and just try to get the big drama of this story onto the page as clearly and honestly as possible.
Let’s talk a little baseball. What’s your background in the game? Your love and knowledge of it certainly came through in the book.
I was raised in a house of sports fanatics. My older brother was a great baseball pitcher and home run hitter. He was offered scholarships by many colleges and even was invited to tryouts for pro teams when he was in high school, and he was named to the all-state team for Colorado. But he hurt both of his knees, and three or four ACL surgeries later…he’s a fantastically successful sales executive for a software corporation. My cousin Tommy Hottovy is a left-handed pitcher. He played ball for Wichita State and he’s been in the Red Sox minor league organization for many years. He currently pitches for the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox. So growing up I had an inside view of the feeder system for big league teams—the intense competition starts early, and there are many, many road trips. I also played a lot of softball. I was a catcher, not quite as good as my brother, though I wasn’t terrible—I made Denver’s all-city team several years.
I loved writing about baseball because I knew I didn’t have to worry about getting those parts right. A few parts of my childhood worked their way into The Ringer, such as how my brother would make me help him sort his annual complete baseball card set, the rules of our backyard baseball games, and the July trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the regional baseball tournament every season.
Books that have the sort of arc found in The Ringer generally need a means of bringing disconnected people together, and baseball certainly does that in your book. What were the challenges of using a game to illuminate racial divides and divergent viewpoints?
So far most of the fiction that I’ve written has been about race in some way. When I was growing up, Denver’s public schools had court-ordered busing for racial integration. Beginning when I was six years old, I rode the bus to schools that were thirty minutes or more away from my house, schools in which whites were in the minority. I spent part of my childhood attending schools that were mostly Mexican-American, and part of it at schools that were mostly black. I think because of this, it has always seemed natural to me to tell stories from two perspectives at once. It seems to me that all stories have at least two sides to them, if not ten!
I often write about situations in which people of different races are forced to be together, and sports are one area where that happens consistently. I played sports in school and because of that I made friends with people of all different ethnicities—people who didn’t play sports didn’t tend to mingle as much. I’ve also written stories about football, track, and basketball, stories that are really about race. Though the challenges in writing my book were gargantuan, I never worried about using baseball to write about race. That felt natural, maybe in part because the history of Major League Baseball is inextricable from the history of the Civil Rights movement.
The designated hitter: useful innovation or blight on the game?
Oh dear. I’ve got to say something either impassioned or witty! I guess I like the wackiness of how the American League has a DH and the National League doesn’t, and when NL andAL teams play each other they have to follow the rules of the home team. Because you think of Major League Baseball as being one entity, but it’s not really—it’s two halves that could not agree on something as seemingly simple as this rule. And anything wacky, I’m for. Also I like how having a DH allows some older, out-of-shape players to hang around for some more seasons. I’m fond of out-of-shape baseball players.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why?
Probably Ray. Although all of the characters are fictional, and I can’t say that any of them are based on real people, I went to school with a lot of kids who remind me of Ray, and I’ve always wondered what happened to them. Ray’s attractive, talented, and cocky and at this point his life could go either way, which is an interesting state to write about a character in.
In what ways has your job as the book reviewer/blogger for New West made you a better writer?
I’ve learned almost everything I know about writing from a combination of massive amounts of reading, analyzing what I’ve read by writing book reviews, and the chance to interview other writers. I wrote book reviews for the Rocky Mountain News for eight years, I’ve been covering books for New West for about four years now, and last year I started writing book reviews for the Dallas Morning News. So I’m a book-review-aholic.
Knowing that I’m going to have to write a review every week makes me an attentive reader. And I think I’m a positive reader—I read to find out what works, not to point out why something stinks. I had the chance to interview Francine Prose about her book Reading Like A Writer a few years ago. That’s one of my favorite how-to-write books of all, because she just tells you to read, read a lot and read widely, and if you’re stuck on a scene or the use of perspective or structure or anything, there’s sure to be a writer who has handled this problem before. Read his or her book, and it will help you figure out how to solve your own writing problem.
I kept two books on my desk as I worked on The Ringer—Richard Price’s Samaritan and Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. Whenever I was stuck I’d flip through these novels to see how these guys did it. Or I’d read another book for New West until an idea came to me.
I’m not one of those writers who abstain from certain kinds of reading to preserve the sanctity of my muse while I’m writing a book. I like my muse good and polluted.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to finish a short story collection, and I’m daydreaming and jotting notes for another novel, which I hope will have something to do with a graffiti artist.
As I type these words, the release of my second novel, The Summer Son, lies just a week away. During the first couple of weeks of release, some friends and fellow book bloggers are going to be helping me get out the word about the new book. In exchange for their generosity in letting me hang around their sites, I’ll be giving away signed copies of the book at each stop.
Here’s the lineup. Please do these folks the courtesy of visiting their sites, now and during the upcoming appearances. My guess is you’ll find plenty to interest you at each one:
Monday, January 24: I’ll kick things off at A Word Please, hosted by author Darcia Helle, with an essay on the meeting of fact and fiction in The Summer Son.
Tuesday, January 25 (release day): Billings Gazette arts reporter Jaci Webb will host a Q&A with me at the 5:01 blog.
Wednesday, January 26: At The Book Inn, hosted by Natalie Wadel, I’ll write about fathers and sons, the major theme of the book.
Thursday, January 27: At Straight from Hel, hosted by Helen Ginger, I’ll write about the 20-month stretch in which I wrote and sold my first two novels, a burst of creativity that I’m not likely to mimic anytime soon.
Friday, January 28: The first week will wrap up with a visit to The Visual Side of Journalism, hosted by Charles Apple, where he’ll pitch some questions at a guy (me) who works in the production trenches of a daily newspaper but writes fiction on the side.
Monday, January 31: Cherie Newman, host of the excellent “The Write Question” on Montana Public Radio, gives me the keys to her blog of the same name and lets me hold forth on what it means to write in and of Montana.
Tuesday, February 1: This will be a little different. My friend Jim Thomsen will host a Q&A with me in the form of a Facebook note. But don’t worry: if you’ve so far resisted the siren song of the social network, the interview will be simulcast on two authors’ blogs: R.J. Keller’s Ingenious Title to Appear Here Later and Kristen Tsetsi’s From a Little Office in a Little House.
Wednesday, February 2: One Book at a Time blogger Page Eberhardt gives me the floor for an essay on where stories come from, as if I have any idea.
Friday, February 4: I wrap up at Coffee, Books and Laundry, hosted by Melissa Vasquez, where I’ll write about balancing readers’ expectations with following the muse wherever she leads.
So please (please!) make plans to follow along each day, and be sure to throw in for a chance at a signed book at each stop.
Where in the hell did a year go?
Tonight, for the first time since Nov. 17, 2009, I made fresh progress on a new novel. Eight hundred and fifty-nine words’ worth, if you must know, and that’s a pretty good single-session output for me. I’d be lying if I said I had planned to let it sit so long, and I’d also be lying if I said I feel like I wasted the time in between. Twenty-ten was spent pushing hard on 600 Hours of Edward, rounding The Summer Son into shape (and finding a publisher for it), essays, short stories and the like. I did not want for work, though I probably could have gotten by on a little less rest.
Just the same, after writing and selling two novels in twenty months, to have let twelve more slip by me with no measurable progress on a third seems … unlikely. And yet, that’s just what happened. Now that the thing is moving again, I’ll hope to stay atop it until I see it through. As to its working title or storyline, I’d like to hold that close for a little while longer yet. Ideas are like newborn puppies; the fewer hands that touch them, the better.
A few days ago, a nice woman named Lynne wrote to me and said how much she enjoyed 600 Hours of Edward (always wonderful to hear) and that her book club was reading it (ditto). I wrote back and asked where her book club is, expecting to hear Billings or someplace else here in Montana.
While I won’t be able to make an in-person visit to Lynne’s club, we’re working on piping me in via conference call. In the meantime, I invited her to send me a list of questions to answer via e-mail. Here’s a look at those, and the answers I sent back:
1. Since this is your first book, has the idea been in your head for a long time?
The funny thing about this story is that it wasn’t until my head until a couple of days before I started writing it. A friend of mine, Jim Thomsen, asked me in late October of 2008 if I’d try National Novel Writing Month with him (NaNoWriMo, as it’s called, happens every November, with the challenge being to put down 50,000 or more words in the month). At first, I declined; I’d tried NaNoWriMo before and never gotten very far with it. Then, a couple of days later, an idea sprouted in my head: What if I took someone who lived his life in a very rigid way, almost as if he were ruled by the clock, and then I started kicking the legs out from under him? This idea had two big advantages: First, it had built-in drama. Second, by using someone who lived his life in patterns, I could write quickly, thereby giving myself the best possible chance at succeeding at NaNoWriMo. I took a couple of days to sketch out a story outline, and at midnight on Nov. 1, I started writing.
2. Was it based on personal knowledge of someone like Edward?
Edward doesn’t have a real-life model. A lot of the surface things — the bands he likes, the Dallas Cowboys fixation — he has in common with me, but that was really only because I could write those things quickly. I could have made him a Washington Redskins fans, I suppose, but that would have made me physically ill and I would have had to research the particulars, which would have cost me time.
I did only a cursory amount of research on Asperger’s — just enough to feel confident that I had the traits down. Again, this was more a function of time than anything else, but in hindsight, it was a fortuitous thing. Had I known then what I know now about Asperger’s, I might well have gotten bogged down in the sort of clinical details that are blessedly absent from this book. One of the things that readers seem to find charming about it is that Edward’s condition is just part of the tapestry; it’s not THE story. The larger themes of fitting in, of not traveling the road alone, of fellowship with others — those things end up carrying the day, not the fact that Edward is an Aspie.
3. How long did you work on the book?
So, I mentioned earlier the NaNoWriMo aspect … Well, I succeeded at the goal: I wrote 50,000 words in November 2008. Actually, I wrote nearly 80,000 by Nov. 24, finishing the first draft. I spent December and January polishing it, but it was a book that needed little revision. Mostly, I went through and struck the phrases that sounded like me rather than like Edward. But on the whole, it was the easiest second draft I’ve ever dealt with. Contrast it with my second novel, The Summer Son, which took three months to draft — and nine months of subsequent drafts to get it right.
4. How long did it take you to get it published?
I self-published it almost immediately, in February 2009. I was blissfully ignorant; after it had been praised but rejected by two literary agents, I figured, hey, I just want it out there. I knew my mom would buy it. I was pretty sure my brother would, especially if I gave him the money. I literally had no concept of whether it was good, bad, commercial, not commercial. To me, the achievement was having completed a novel. So I started thumping it around my home region — talking to civic groups, going to arts festivals, that sort of thing. A funny thing happened: People started reading it and liking it and telling other people. In August 2009, Chris Cauble, the owner of Riverbend Publishing in Helena, Mont., sent me a note and said he liked the book and wanted to acquire it. I was thrilled to let him have it.
He gave it a new name (the original title was Six-Hundred Hours of a Life), a new cover, a new life. With Riverbend behind it, the book was picked as a Montana Honor Book and is currently a finalist for a High Plains Book Award. It’s getting wider notice. I’m pretty sure a book club in North Texas wouldn’t have taken it on when I was selling it out of the back of my car.
5. What is the best writing advice you ever received?
I’m going to cheat and give two pieces of advice, one old, one recent.
The first is simply that you have to do it. I can’t tell you the number of people I meet who say “I have a book inside me, I just know it.” Then they spend the next 10 minutes giving me all the reasons they can’t find time to write. Well, if you can’t find time to write, guess where the book is going to stay? I don’t mention that to be flip or self-important. I’m sympathetic to the idea of busy lives; I have a full-time job, a wife, a needy, elderly father. I have things on my plate. But I make time for writing. The only way to do it is to do it. Sounds simple. But it’s difficult.
The recent piece of advice is something Walter Kirn (the author of Up in the Air) said in an interview with Montana Quarterly:
“I believe there’s a ratio between reading and writing; you have to read 200 pages to write one paragraph. Minimum. Reading is mulch for writing; you have to lay down layer upon layer of organic material to get one tiny tender shoot of plant life.”
That struck me as incredibly prescient and profound. The reason I became a writer is that I loved to read, loved words, loved sentence structure. A lifetime of reading prepared me for this novel-writing business. Believe it or not, I do meet writers who say they aren’t big readers. I always wonder how that works.
6. What is the worst writing advice you ever received?
I find most mechanical advice — outlining vs. not outlining, time of day to write, how to do revisions, etc. — to be basically useless if it’s couched in “you must do this” terms. When people ask me about these things, I tell them what works for me, and then I caution them that their mileage may vary. Part of the journey of being a writer is finding what works for you, then playing to that.
7. Can you give 2 or 3 tips for aspiring writers?
Always make time to write. The only way you get better is by doing it, again and again and again.
Some writers have made it big by chasing trends, but there’s also great danger in it. Trends, by definition, change. Writing that comes from the heart, though, is timeless.
Develop a thick skin. If you’re writing for publication, you’re going to be rejected. A lot. Better get used to it now.
8. What were your inspirations for writing 600 Hours of Edward?
I think I’m far enough away from the writing of the book to be able to analyze why it was successful when so many other attempts at writing a novel previously failed. In July 2008, I had a terrible motorcycle accident on Interstate 94 — a deer jumped out in my path, and I laid the bike down at 65 mph. I broke half my ribs, collapsed a lung, lacerated my spleen, road rash on my arms … just bad, bad, bad. In the aftermath of that, as I recuperated, I started thinking about things I’d always wanted to do but hadn’t, for whatever reason. So I was motivated in a way that I’d never been motivated before.
9. Can you tell us a little about your next book, The Summer Son?
It’s coming out in January 2011 from AmazonEncore (shameless plug: Amazon has an AMAZING price on it right now, and it’ll be delivered the day it releases). It’s quite a different story from 600 Hours, one whose emotional themes hit much closer to home for me. I’m really proud of it.
The story is told from the point of view of Mitch Quillen, a guy on the edge of 40 whose whole life seems to be unraveling: bad marriage, on the skids at work, etc. He’s suffered a lot of losses in his life, and he blames most of them on his father, a man he’s seen only two times in 30 years.
One day, his father calls, then bails out of the conversation. Then he calls again and does the same. This goes on for about a week, until finally, Mitch’s fed-up wife, in part for her own reasons, pushes him out of the house and says “go settle this thing.”
“This thing” is the crux of the story. Something happened to Mitch and his dad in the summer of ’79, and it’s been a wedge between them since. The story moves in two directions: forward, in present day, as Mitch and his dad start hacking away at the considerable enmity between them, and backward, to the summer in question, as Mitch deals with his feelings and begins to become aware of things that weren’t obvious to him when he was a boy. And then the two narratives collide …
I was fascinated with the idea of point of view. First person, while intimate, is also incredibly limiting, but that served my purposes in this story. Mitch views his father in certain terms, and those terms are based on what he’s seen and experienced. I would imagine that any of us, given the same information, would develop a similar view. But Mitch’s viewpoint doesn’t take in the whole story, and it’s the things he can’t see that rock his world when he finally becomes aware of them.
More shameless plugging. Here’s what novelist Richard S. Wheeler said about The Summer Son:
“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.”
If you want to get an idea of where my head was when I started writing The Summer Son, check out my blog: https://craiglancaster.wordpress.com. There’s an item up now about my own father-son story, one that certainly informed the writing of this book.
10. Are you working on the next one?
I’m about 16,000 words into Novel No. 3, but I’ve taken an extended hiatus from it while I ramp up promotional efforts for The Summer Son. In mid-October, I’m going to clear out a few months and dive deeply into the book in the hopes that I can finish a first draft before The Summer Son releases. Once I’m in full-on promotional activities, I won’t have a lot of time for anything but revising.
11. Being a good Texas son, how did you end up in Billings? What is your favorite part of Montana?
I grew up in Texas, but I wasn’t born there. Montana has always been a place where we’ve had family. My mom and dad met at a party on the Rims above Billings back in 1963, and I always had aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandma here, so Billings was a regular destination on family vacations. When I met and fell in love with a Montana girl in 2006, I took the opportunity to move from California and come to this place that had always held such wonder for me.
My wife is from far eastern Montana, so we spend a lot more time on the prairie and in the badlands than we do in the mountains. The Montana I’ve come to love is actually the one that isn’t in most folks’ imagination of the place. And that’s fine — it keeps the interlopers and the real-estate speculators on the other side of the state.
I’ll say this, though: You’ve never seen a sunset until you’ve been on a windswept plain, with the fading rays sparkling off the buttes in the distance. It’s magical.
I met with another book club last night — have I mentioned how much I love this? — and my host asked a terrific question:
“If the last page of your book were the first page of a different book, what would happen?”
Anyone who’s read 600 Hours of Edward would understand why I politely declined to answer. The open-ended conclusion allows readers to make their own choices about where the story goes, and I don’t want to intrude on that. This is the biggest reason — not the only one, but the biggest — there will be no sequel. Moving Edward into another story means moving him from that spot, and I don’t want to do that.
The whole notion of ceding control to readers fascinates me. Leaving wide-open areas for interpretation is tough to do — one need only look at all the horribly expository stories out there to realize this — but enormously satisfying for readers who don’t want to be spoon-fed.
Every time I talk to folks who’ve taken on my novel, I get a new insight into the story — some of them more surprising than others.
Last night, one of the book club members zeroed in on a scene midway through the book, as a flummoxed Edward fields increasingly angry e-mails from his online paramour, Joy-Annette, and can respond only by typing up his responses, printing them out and filing them away with his letters of complaint.
Here’s the passage:
Annette, or Joy, or whoever she is, writes three more times, and my green office folder begins to fill up.
I was going to write and see if we could work something out but I think that it is better to let it go. I think at this point, any making up would just lead to more of the same kind of misunderstanding and “drama.” I think your substantial, kind-hearted, sweet, beautiful in your own way, and so much more you will never know. But I cant go into something this emotional. My last boyfriend, whom I dearly loved and completely supported through so much stuff, took it and them he slammed another girl just a few short months ago. Therefore, I am looking for a less dramatic deal right now.
My head is swimming. You’re looking for a less dramatic deal? Somehow, I find that hard to believe.
I wish you would write back. I need to know what your thinking about all of this. Maybe there’s a way we could start over. I don’t know. Write me back and lets talk about it.
I think it’s funny — not funny “ha, ha” but just funny — that I’m the one with mental illness.
Your an asshole. I pour out my heart to you and you say nothing. Goodbye, looser.
Goodbye. And it’s “loser.”
I put the green office folder called “Joy — aka, Annette” away for the last time. It’s nearly noon, and I’m headed back to bed.
We were chatting about the comedy of Edward’s frantically responding to Joy-Annette’s shrill messages but filing them away (a key aspect of the book is that Edward does not send his letters of complaint). Then my questioner says, “Yes, but he sent one of those messages.”
No, I say, he doesn’t.
She insists that he did, that Joy-Annette wouldn’t have kept writing if he hadn’t. She pulls out the book. She deconstructs the scene. “He sent a message,” she says. I’m smiling. She’s convinced. And you know what? Maybe he did. I certainly didn’t conceive it that way, but really, my intentions don’t matter. Her sense of it does.
So Edward sent one of those messages, okay? Unless, of course, you think he didn’t.
Yesterday, I wrote a little ditty about literary fiction.
Turns out that mega-ultra-super-duper agent Nathan Bransford was doing the same thing. A robust discussion is taking place in the comments section, if you’re interested …
Last night during a meeting with a book club — fast becoming my favorite book-related activity — a woman asked me the following question: “What did you think of first in the book?”
I’d never thought of it before. The answer, of course, was clear and easy: the character. Always, always the character. We chatted some about Edward Stanton, the protagonist of 600 Hours of Edward, and the process of giving him a personality and a point of view. That was fun. Long after the meeting, though, the question stayed with me, and I wondered how other writers come to a new story. Though I’d never contemplated it before, it seemed plausible that some might first imagine a conflict or a setting, then begin populating that vision with the people who will carry it forth. I don’t read a lot of whodunits or suspense novels, but it seems to me that the crime or the menace is, in essence, a character unto itself. Viewed through that lens, it certainly makes sense that a writer might first flesh out those aspects of a story, at least in his/her own mind, before moving on to the human elements.
My pleasure reading is mostly fiction with a literary bent, and thus character tends to drive most of the narrative. The question of what constitutes literary fiction can be difficult to answer (though my friend Richard Wheeler does an excellent job of it here). For purposes of casual conversation, let’s just say that it emphasizes character more than plot. That being the case, it’s rather difficult to imagine a literary writer — an Ivan Doig or a Mark Spragg — not spending the bulk of his effort on giving those characters a richness and depth not necessarily demanded by genre fiction. (A quick aside: In plenty of literary fiction, the landscape is the star of the story, and the deep characterization occurs there.)
And, of course, the stories that speak to both constituencies — those who want a literary experience and a crackling good read — are often the most satisfying. I find myself nodding vigorously in agreement with Michael Chabon, an undeniably literary writer who has been direct in his desire to see more genre elements in serious fiction.
From the interview:
Q: Where did this bias against work created for a popular audience come from?
A: In all fairness, it came from the fact that the vast preponderance of art created for a mass audience is crap. It’s impossible to ignore that. But the vast preponderance of work written as literary art is high-toned crap. The proportion may settle down in the neighborhood of 90/10 — Sturgeon’s Law said that 90% of everything is crud.
Carol was kind enough to field some questions about Gold Under Ice and the continuing adventures of Dan Stark:
Q: Your first novel, God’s Thunderbolt, was an unqualified success, winning a Spur Award and a raft of devoted readers. What did you learn from the experience of writing, publishing and marketing that book, and how did you apply those lessons to Gold Under Ice?
A: In the course of writing God’s Thunderbolt, I found my voice, that nebulous thing new writers are counseled to search for. It can’t be put on like a pair of socks because it comes from inside someplace, and I certainly can’t define it. It’s just how you write that’s different from how another author writes, like Faulkner and Hemingway. In publishing and marketing it, I learned about finding the niche market, which means to define your audience. I was taught that in 8th-grade English class. I write for Montanans, those who live here and those who don’t, and for those who are Montanan in spirit. Those who think “cowboy” is good. Former Governor Blagojevich said, “I’m not some cowboy….” And he’s right. He couldn’t qualify.
Having defined my niche market and found my voice, I just kept on. Regarding publishing, one thing changed. You asked if Gold Under Ice could be the inaugural book for Missouri Breaks Press, and I was honored. I don’t feel as if I’m writing in an empty room now.
Q: What awaits readers who dive into Gold Under Ice? What is Dan Stark up to in the second book?
Gold Under Ice is far more wide-ranging than was God’s Thunderbolt. Half the novel is set in Virginia City, and half in New York City. The tying thread is gold, Montana gold that Dan Stark brings to New York to pay the debt his father left. He doesn’t have enough gold, so he decides to repay the debt in greenbacks, the currency that the Lincoln administration printed to pay the Union Armies and buy supplies. That leads to trouble because speculation was considered disloyal, if not downright treasonous. Dan’s autocratic grandfather is beside himself about it, because he thinks paying debts with paper is dishonorable.
Q: The book, in part, explores an aspect of the Civil War years that isn’t necessarily covered in depth in history textbooks (disclaimer: I was educated in Texas public schools, which seem to be dismissing Thomas Jefferson, so what do I know?). What was the role of money in the conflict, and how does that entangle Dan Stark?
The role of money, either gold or greenbacks, isn’t well studied and it certainly doesn’t find its way into history textbooks much. When I began to research Gold I discovered a lot I didn’t know about money during the Civil War. It’s a fascinating subject, and I had to fight to keep from writing nonfiction. For the first time, the federal government printed money, the greenback, because there was not enough gold to pay for everything. Gold reserves began to run out, so at the end of December 1861, the banks closed. They refused to honor demands because they hadn’t enough gold to meet them. The first Legal Tender Act was the nation’s first declaration that paper money would be accepted in payment of debts already incurred. Congress passed two more acts, each time allowing for the printing of more paper.
Then, of course, many saw a speculative opportunity and began to trade in gold against the greenback. Fortunes were made and lost on the Gold Exchange, which was barred from the Stock Exchange because the directors thought it was treason to trade in gold. As gold rose, the greenback lost value, and the greenback was the Union’s money. Therefore, to cause the greenback to lose value was to be disloyal. That’s a conflict within Dan, who is a radical abolitionist and supporter of President Lincoln.
Q: Where can readers get a copy?
Q: Your intricately, lovingly written historical fiction requires a good deal of research. What were some of the challenges in writing Gold Under Ice?
The math! Luckily Dick, my husband, is a math whiz who built a spreadsheet that let me enter the amount of raw gold, the purity, the premium (the current price of gold in the Gold Room), and come up with the current value of gold and the greenback. At one point (in the 1970s) I held a NASD securities license, so I’d had some (very rusty) background. Besides, a good friend who is a financial analyst read the whole book, especially the trading scenes, and corrected some things. And Google Books, with its marvelous scanning, enabled me to located books on economics and banking written in the late 1860s and the 1870s and a couple of contemporary accounts of gold trading and what it was like in the Gold Room.
Q: I was struck by some of the universal themes in Gold Under Ice — the tension between responsibilities to family and the desire to make one’s own way in life, yearning, conflict. From your perspective as the author, what’s the overarching theme of the book?
I don’t know. Theme, I believe, comes out of story, and I truly never gave a thought to theme as I wrote either book.
Q: Start to finish, how long did it take you to write Gold Under Ice?
I wrote a truly awful first draft for NaNoWriMo in November 2007, threw 95% of it away, and let it sit while I marketed and then self-published God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana. In 2008 I went back to Gold, so I guess the really intense work took 18 months – two years.
Q: Can you describe your work process? Are you an aggressive plotter and outliner, or do you let the story carry you along as you write it?
I use sticky notes on a long piece of butcher paper to plug in scene ideas and move them around. When I know what order the scenes fall in, I begin a scene outline in a Word table. I always know how the book starts, what happens, and how it’ll end before I write. Then come the intervening scenes, the ones that get us there, in a detailed scene outline. But as I write, things change. My understanding of each scene deepens, and I understand larger implications, see new aspects of characterization, let the characters direct more. I write in scenes, not chapters, and people said about God’s Thunderbolt that reading it was like watching a movie. I see the scenes and events as if I were watching a movie, and I write them down. In draft after draft after draft after….
Q: What sort of pleasure reading do you engage in?
I can’t relate to some genres (sci/fi, horror, fantasy, paranormal, zombie stuff), so my reading is mostly limited to very well written thrillers (James Lee Burke), mysteries (John Dunning, Craig Johnson), and literary novels (E. L. Doctorow, Kim Edwards), and some western fiction whose writing is outstanding (Howard Cobb). And poetry. I love Jane Kenyon, Shakespeare (of course), Billy Collins, John Donne, T. S. Eliot, and Mona Van Duyne. (I might also mention a great new Montana author named Craig Lancaster, whose 600 Hours of Edward is one of my favorites.)
Q: For an author, it’s a dance between the current book and the next book. We’ve heard about the current book. What’s next?
Gold III (working title) set in Virginia City, again with Dan Stark as the protagonist, amid the beginnings of a judicial system at odds with the Vigilantes.
Just a quick hit here, and then a link to send you along to the site that deserves the traffic …
Jonathan Evison, the author of All About Lulu and the forthcoming West of Here, posted a terrific back-and-forth with Joshua Mohr, whose latest release, Termite Parade, comes on the heels of Some Things That Meant the World to Me, an audacious debut that generated a ton of praise.
There’s all kinds of great stuff . A sampling, where Mohr talks about the genesis of Termite Parade:
Termite started from an exercise I heard that the poet Robert Haas uses: he’ll spend months working on one poem, rewriting and rewritng, trying to earn that last line (the pay-off line in any poem). But this is actually just the beginning: because then Haas uses that pay-off line as the first line of a new poem (the one he’s been interested in all along). The logic is that his imagination will go to skyscraping places if he uses the “pay-off” as the beginning, to build up from it as a foundation and traverse into daring terrain.
So I wrote a short story using the image of a man dropping his girlfriend down the stairs as its climax. I worked on it for about eight months, got it to where it was ready to publish. Then I yanked the climax and used it as the point of entry to what eventually grew into Termite Parade.
Want to read the rest? Please, go here now.
(By the way, Mohr was nice enough to participate in a Q&A here back in August 2009, just after Some Things That Meant the World to Me came out.)
My blog book tour wraps up today at novelist Carol Buchanan’s site. There, I tell about how I built the protagonist of my novel, Edward Stanton.
Finishing up with Carol, who wrote the beautiful God’s Thunderbolt, is fitting. She’s become one of the best friends I’ve met in this publishing journey, a fellow Montanan and a monumental talent. I give her my thanks for hosting me.
If you cruise over and drop in a comment, you’ll be in the mix for a signed copy of 600 Hours of Edward. Don’t miss out!
If you’d like to check out my previous blog stops, just click the links below:
Day 3: Landing a publishing deal.
Day 5: Q&A with Jim Thomsen.
It was all great fun, and I met some wonderful people. I’m looking forward to a fresh round of experiences with Book No. 2. Thanks for riding along.