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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.

Carol’s follow-up to the Spur Award-winning God’s Thunderbolt was just released by Missouri Breaks Press, my small (very small) literary press.

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?

On Amazon.com, from Montana Borders stores, Hastings stores, and from independent booksellers. Also from your website and mine: CraigLancaster.net and SwanRange.com.

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.

It’s not much of an update, as I’ve been chasing a hundred little tasks that collectively add up to … well, a hundred little tasks.

  • Books sent to Texas? Check.
  • PowerPoint presentations finished? Check.
  • Remarks written? Check.
  • Bags packed? Check.
  • Computer, memory stick and other materials packed? Check.
  • All files e-mailed to myself because I don’t trust the memory stick? Check.
  • Dogs pissed off because I’ve been doing all this other stuff and not playing tug with them? Check.
  • Wife forced to listen to my worrying and obsessing to the point that she’s thinking of staying home? Check.

It seems, then, that we’re all set.

When I get back to the Big Sky, I anticipate having some additions to the list of places the book and I will be in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out the current events and if you happen to be around for one of them, please stop by and say hello.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t say, again, how happy I am that I ducked out of NaNoWriMo this year. Progress on the new project has been impeded by a hundred little things (a partial list above), so I’ve been able to move only a few hundred words at a time. By my count, those of you still hanging in there should be at least 28,339 words down the road by the end of today. If you’re there, or beyond, I salute you.

More in a few days …

National Novel Writing Month and I are in Splitsville, the outs, we’ve sold the house and gone our separate ways, we’re footloose and fancy free, we’re at D-I-V-O-R-C-E.

Now, don’t get me wrong. In the first week of the annual event of literary frenzy, I’ve plowed under nearly 11,000 words on my new project, a terrific jump-start that will serve me well in the coming months as I lurch toward the first-draft finish line. And I’ll always be thankful for NaNoWriMo for launching my debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, in 2008. Further, I plan to write on every available day for the remainder of November, just like the thousands of people who are having a monthlong love affair with their keyboards. (After November and all the hoopla pass, I’ll still be writing daily. It’s what I do.)

So it’s not that I’ve taken up with another lover. It’s that it’s no longer useful for me to meet the demands of this particular lover (specifically, her insatiable need for words — at least 50,000 of them by the end of the month). This project of mine will require more contemplation than that, and the chains will be moved in more peripatetic (I love the word “peripatetic”) bunches — 500 words here, 247 there, 3,000 or so on the occasional all-day dash. I’ll reach 50,000 words in due time, and beyond that, I think, will lie the end of the first draft.

See, something happened between NaNoWriMo 2008 and NaNoWriMo 2009: I wrote a second novel. Principal writing took me about three months. Rewriting and revising took me a couple of months after that. I enjoyed that pace. It worked for me. And now I realize that given the choice between the mad dash and the purposeful march, I’ll take the latter. Every time.

Make no mistake: I’ll finish the project I started for this year’s NaNoWriMo. But it will be on my terms, not hers. NaNoWriMo, this year and probably in years to come, is a project starter for me now, not a means of filling a quota.

Craig’s note: My debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, was born last year at this time, during National Novel Writing Month. My wife, Angie, asked if she could write a guest post to look back on the past year from her perspective. It’s my pleasure to present it here.

angie princess

My favorite picture of Angie. Who can resist a pouty cowgirl princess?

By Angie Buckley Lancaster

It been a long journey for Edward in the past year, from living solely in my husband’s imagination to his story being flung onto the page as fast as the keyboard allowed. Last year, when Craig decided to do NaNoWriMo, I believed he could do it. But I had no clue he’d do it so well.

November 2008 is the month my husband refers to as when we test-drove divorce, but I was really just thrilled that he was showing interest in life again, even if it was Edward’s life he was most excited about. In July 2008, Craig was in a motorcycle accident that tested our patience, our marriage and my gag reflexes. Craig went into November a guy recuperating from a dance with the pavement. He came out of November an author.

It’s still hard for me to imagine people being all that excited about his talent. I mean, really, he cheers for his own farts. But I think the part that I don’t get is how everyone didn’t already know how great he was. I knew he could write. I knew he could write 80,000 words. I knew he could tell a story. And I knew he could do it better than anyone else.

I got to know Edward pretty quickly, too, coming home from work to read Craig’s latest progress. It was just like reading a “real” novel, eagerly awaiting the next installment and wondering what would happen next in his life. Edward has been through some “life changes” (read: revisions) but he will always be as he was initially in my mind – part of an adventure that ended with more influence in my life than I’d previously imagined.

See, I didn’t marry an author. I married a man hopelessly devoted to and doting on me. So when last November I could barely get him to turn around long enough from the computer to have a conversation (let alone to let me check my OWN e-mail!) he assured me that this new lifestyle would be temporary. It would all be over Nov. 30.

Well, Craig lied. A passion was ignited that drove Craig to not only edit, revise, publish, send queries and so on and so forth, but he decided to do it AGAIN. And again. His life – and as a result, mine – is dominated by blogging about his book, talking about his book, trying to get his book published, searching for an agent. He’s learned so much about not just publishing and writing but also about himself.

People are always surprised by how much they like 600 Hours of Edward. It seems that perhaps they didn’t know Craig is such a gifted writer. I always knew it, and so their praise and surprise is met with my own pride and the satisfaction of being assured that, indeed, my husband is that good.

We – and by we, I mean Craig – are 2,000-plus words into this year’s NaNoWriMo. I know the basics of the story that is developing, and even get to help mold the main character’s interactions with social service agencies (not to the level of being Dr. Buckley, of course, but I suppose not every book can have a character named after me). But regardless of which characters come next from Craig, Edward will always be the first and in some ways will always have the most special place in my heart. Because more than anyone, it’s his creator – my husband – who is the greatest character of them all.

family

Something a bit more contemporary: our Christmas photo from last year. That's Zula in Angie's arms and Bodie in mine.

 

For you stat-heads, here’s a look at my day-by-day chain-moving in NaNoWriMo 2008, when I wrote the entire first draft of 600 Hours of Edward. The first number is cumulative word count. The number in parentheses is the change from the previous day:

  • 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)

About the highlighted dates:

Nov. 2-3: When I tell people now that I wrote nearly 80,000 words in less than a month, there’s an assumption that I did nothing but write. Not true. I took ample time off — eight full days, in fact. But when I was at the computer, I was punching the story down the field. To write 50,000 words in 30 days, you need to average 1,667 a day. That first day’s work bought me some time off immediately.

Nov. 15-17: I remember these days well. Angie and I went to her folks’ house in Fairview, and I remember feeling great relief about two things. First, I would make the 50,000-word mark. I had half the competition left and was nearly 80 percent of the way there. Second, and more important, I knew I would finish the story. By then, I was living inside it.

Nov. 19-22: I didn’t get the idea that I would finish the entire first draft inside the month until this stretch of days. That nearly 8,000-word effort on the 19th allowed me to clear the 50,000-word mark and succeed at the competition. But it was the next three days — bringing a collective 12,000-plus words — that moved the finish line into view.

Nov. 24-25: I don’t care who you are, writing 15,000 words in two days borders on insanity. I’m amazed that what I put down was semi-cogent. In any event, I hit the two best words of all during that stretch: “THE END.”

Here are a few more stats:

Over the 25 days, I averaged 3,167 words per day, whether I wrote or not.

The 17 days of actual writing up the average to 4,657/day.

In the first 10 writing days, I averaged 3,989 words.

In the final seven writing days, I averaged 5,613 words.

Now, about word counts: They’re only one way of assessing a story, and a pretty superficial one at that. Of far, far, far greater import is what the words are and what kinds of sentences, paragraphs and chapters they build. But if you’re giving NaNoWriMo a whirl, your word count should be your focus. The whole point is to get on down the road. Rewriting is for the second draft.

nanowrimoWe’re just a couple of weeks from NaNoWriMo 2009, and I’ve blocked out some time today to start drafting the outline of the project that I plan to launch in November.

I’ve already done something that I didn’t do for 600 Hours of Edward (soon to be published) or Gone to Milford (hopefully to be published): I wrote character sketches of the major players — their motivations, fears, physical attributes, personalities, backgrounds, etc. With the first two novels, I felt that I knew the characters fairly well before I ever dropped ass into chair, and though they surprised me along the way, their DNA was much as I imagined it to be.

With the new project, there’s much more of a sense that they will reveal themselves as we go. My sketches were intended to give us a starting point.

In previous posts, I’ve written about my minimalist approach to outlining. That, too, is likely to change, at least for this project. The plot that is gestating in my head has enough ins and outs that I’m going to need a more involved guiding document. The great likelihood is that whatever I come up with now will change later on. That’s fine, even preferable. The goal for today is to build a crude map. I can wander the story’s countryside later.

On November 1st, I start writing. That’s also the day that 600 Hours drops.

It’s going to be a hell of a month.

In the previous post, I wrote about that beautiful moment when an idea takes off — a phenomenon that my friend Ty Walls calls a “creative orgasm” (a description I’m stealing).

In the days since, the idea has sat on my head and grown tentacles, and in my experience, that’s the true measure of a notion that will be fleshed into something larger. I’m not ready to say that it’s absolutely the next novel I write; the process of getting from here to there is fraught with all kinds of peril, and it’s not until I’m about halfway through a draft that I have any confidence at all that I’ll finish. I have a 27,000-word effort from earlier this year that’s still sitting in a file. I looked at it a couple of weeks back, and I’m just not feeling the magic — and yet, I’ve taken it so far that I can’t bear to let it go. So I’ll let it continue to sit, and maybe somewhere down the road, it will speak to me again.

So, then, what I have now is an idea and a certainty that I’m going to try to turn it into something more.

And, as of this morning, I have some character sketches — 500-or-so-word descriptions of the major characters, their motivations, their fears, their physical and psychological attributes. It was great fun to sit down and do those, to breathe a little bit of life into the people now populating my head. I now have some places to start and to revisit when I begin dropping them into a narrative in November.

In a few weeks, I’ll start outlining a story, using the minimalist method that has served me well so far. If NaNoWriMo works for me the way I’m expecting, I’ll be well down the road to a first draft by December. Fingers crossed.

I’ve made no secret about the role Jim Thomsen plays in my writing life — and, I hope, the role I play in his. He’s my confidante, my consigliere, the guy who helps me filter ideas and is simultaneously encouraging and brutally honest. Last night, as he and I chatted online, something happened that illustrated just how beautifully this partnership often works.

I feel compelled to share it here.

For the sake of preserving my proprietary idea — I’m dead certain this will be the next story I undertake — I’ll be vague on some of the details. But I hope the moment of inspiration, one that would not have occurred had Jim and I not talked, will be preserved.

Amid a wide-ranging discussion, I told Jim about a local character here in Billings, one who isn’t widely known but is distinctive among certain downtown denizens. He has a compelling backstory — to the extent that I know it — and some interesting habits and mannerisms. As I went through all of this, Jim suddenly says, “Now that is a guy begging to be fictionalized.”

I was thunderstruck. I had never even considered it. But once the seed was planted, associated ideas started flying into my head, like a magnet drawing in scraps of metal. I instantly envisioned a friendship between a character based on this guy and a character in a short story I just completed. Supporting characters sprouted up like crabgrass in my mind.

I started tossing these ideas into the chat window, and Jim says, “Wow. Now you really have my wheels spinning.”

And then I got a little territorial (in a joking way): “Hey! Fuck your wheels. This is my story, hoss.”

The intervening hours between last night and now have only solidified and expanded the original idea. I now have the story I want to launch during this year’s NaNoWriMo competition. I’ll start on character profiles and outlining later this week. Principal writing commences in November.

And so it goes.

Who, if anyone, helps you focus your ideas?

short storiesI don’t plan to begin any large-scale writing projects until November (NaNoWriMo, baby!), but in the meantime, I have to keep the writing muscles limber. So I’ve been batting around some short-story ideas, one of which I saw through to completion this week (more on this in a bit).

Here’s my problem, though: I’ve never been a particularly active writer of short fiction. If I may borrow from my tired tennis parallel, I’m more like Pete Sampras (who rarely played doubles) than John McEnroe (who was great at singles and doubles). And when I say I’m like Pete Sampras, I mean I’m what Pete Sampras would be if (a) he didn’t play tennis and (b) he put on about 150 pounds.

What was I talking about again? Oh, yes, short fiction.

Anyway, my struggle is that my ideas tend to be sprawling, and short stories — because, you know, they’re relatively short — tend to be tight. In other words, I find the form challenging, which is fun in its own special way.

I submitted my completed short story to Stone’s Throw, an online literary magazine edited by Russell Rowland. Stone’s Throw is actively seeking submissions of short fiction, poetry, art and reviews, so if you have something to offer, please consider tossing it in.

Now, it’s back to trying to tame the next idea that bubbles up. In the meantime, I would love to hear tips from folks who are more confident in the form. If you have any, drop ’em in the comments section (or consider writing a guest blog post).

On my bookshelf, right in my line of sight, is a compendium, The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties (cover image above). I think I’ve found tonight’s reading material.

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