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I never could color inside the lines.

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.

Edward:
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.
Annette

Annette:
My head is swimming. You’re looking for a less dramatic deal? Somehow, I find that hard to believe.
Regards,
Edward Stanton

Edward:
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.
Annette

Annette:
I think it’s funny — not funny “ha, ha” but just funny — that I’m the one with mental illness.
Regards,
Edward Stanton

Edward:
Your an asshole. I pour out my heart to you and you say nothing. Goodbye, looser.
Annette

Annette:
Goodbye. And it’s “loser.”
Regards,
Edward Stanton

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 …

Literary agent Nathan Bransford, as he’s wont to do, has posted a fascinating take on his blog about one of the prevalent myths of publishing: that novelists can write books, turn them over to the publisher and start writing again. No promotion or marketing responsibilities. Just coax out the literary brilliance, baby.

Bransford’s conclusion: Some can do it, among them Thomas Pynchon, the inspiration for the blog post. But not many, and certainly very few among those who are trying to find a footing in the business.

The key bit from Bransford:

Every author is a product of their time and had to deal with the realities and constraints of their publishing industry. Hemingway found his way to publication in part because he knew the right people (namely F. Scott Fitzgerald), and his success owed a great deal to his larger than life stature, a literary self-promotional archetype dating back to Byron and beyond. Herman Melville became famous because he wrote travelogues about far flung locales during a time when technology and trade was opening up the world, then crashed and burned when he tried to write novels about silly things like white whales, which didn’t even sell through its 3,000 print run.

Bransford’s well-reasoned musings set me to thinking about the unique challenges and opportunities for authors now. Social media and gadgetry have fundamentally changed the methods in which we communicate with each other and, in many cases, the way we form our language. (ROTFLMAO!) These aren’t exactly revelations; if you’re reading this now, you’re no doubt aware of these transformations. For me, as a new novelist, the Web comes with all kinds of opportunities and all kinds of hesitations. With such seemingly limitless ways in which to promote one’s self and one’s work, which do you choose? How hard do you push? Where is the line between effectively aggressive and annoyingly nettlesome?

I don’t know, exactly. But I have some ideas.

Yesterday, I set up a fan page for myself on Facebook. (You should totally visit it, by the way.) It was every bit as self-centered as it sounds, and I cringed as I sent out invitations to all 600-some of my Facebook friends, inviting them to become my fan. (The embarrassment was even worse when someone told me that the message came across as “Craig Lancaster wants you to be a fan of Craig Lancaster.” Oy!)

Still, I did so knowing that the advantage of such a page was not in allowing me to talk to people who might be interested in my book, but in clearing the way for us to talk with each other. That’s the power of social media; it’s not the amplification of the message (though that’s a nice side benefit) but the establishment of a connection.

To understand this value, you need only look at the appeal of other areas where the barriers between fans and artists or athletes have come down. NASCAR figured out a long time ago that it could engender a loyal following by making its stars accessible to the legions who pack speedways to see them. Joe Pernice earned a fan for life in me when my note to his business office in praise of a song was answered by Joe himself. Bransford himself has a huge following. Yes, many hope that he’ll someday add them to his roster of authors. But the bigger factor is that he discusses things of import to them and opens up a conversation.

Here, then, are some guiding principles I try to stick to as I go around beating my chest on social networks:

  • DO promote news, reviews and interviews. These are professional achievements and things that readers and potential readers alike will be interested in.
  • DO NOT bang the same old drum, day after day after day. I’m not selling T-shirts on the corner. Not yet, anyway.
  • DO try to engage the people who have been nice enough to express an interest in the work.
  • DO NOT come on too strong with any of them. (Naturally, this concept can be lost on someone who lacks the self-awareness to know what “too strong” means.)
  • DO look for legitimate opportunities to plug the work.
  • DO NOT hijack friends’ Facebook/MySpace pages for the aforementioned plugging.
  • DO try to come up with innovative ways to let readers interact with the work. Check out my friend T.L. Hines’ site for some excellent examples of this. He offers a free book download to people who have sent in a picture for his montage, and he has turned readers into characters in books. All very, very cool.
  • DO NOT let screwball promotional ideas usurp the excellence of the work being offered.

What say you?

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