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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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I’ve been involved with Toastmasters for a couple of months now. I joined the group to iron out my public-speaking skills, now that I actually do a fair amount of it. I’ve never had a lot of trouble with structuring a speech or being entertaining (please refrain from offering a rebuttal of this second point), but I have a painfully well-developed penchant for littering my speech with “um” and “you know” and “whatever and stuff” and all manner of other fillers. For all-too-cringeworthy examples of this, check out the AV page at CraigLancaster.net. Or don’t. You’ll probably be happier with the latter choice.

In any event, today I presented a speech to my Toastmasters club called “The Accidental Novelist.” There was sufficient demand for it among my peeps at Facebook that I thought I’d go ahead and post it here:

Today I wish to tell you how the worst day of my life led me to the fulfillment of my biggest dream. But first, a little background on that dream …

I wrote my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, in 24 days of November in 2008, was finished revising it by February 2009 and sold it to the first publisher who looked at it. It came out in October 2009 and has since been named a Montana Honor Book and a finalist for a High Plains Book Award. Zero to published in less than a year. Man, I thought, this novel-writing stuff is going to be a cinch.

Then I wrote my second novel.

The differences were stark. I drafted The Summer Son over three arduous months in the summer of 2009, turned it over to my beta readers – a group of people I trust to give me honest feedback on my work (which is to say, none of them is my mother) – and watched them drive Buicks through the holes in the plot. So I wrote it a second time, rearranging pieces of the story, backfilling details, cutting out the useless bits and generally turning my work area into a bloodbath of narrative body parts.

I’d have given my second effort to my beta readers, but for one niggling fact: I hated it.

So back I went, through a third, a fourth and a fifth draft. The original manuscript, which checked in at around 79,000 words, lost weight and gained focus. Late in the fourth draft, I finally discovered what the story was really about – the beating heart beneath the prose – and my pace quickened as I saw the solutions to all the problems I’d put in my own path. By June 2010, I had a finished manuscript, at just a shade under 72,000 words. It promptly sold, and now I await a January 25th release date.

A 12-month, five-draft slog to Book No. 2. Man, I thought, this novel-writing stuff is going to kill me.

The truth of the matter is this: It was only after almost literally killing myself that I embraced my long-held dream of being a novelist. In July 2008, just a few months before I wrote 600 Hours of Edward in a literary frenzy, I cajoled my wife into letting me have a motorcycle, bought it in Sidney – because, you know, why not purchase a death machine 260 miles from home? – and began piloting it back to Billings. Thirty-seven miles from home, at 60 miles per hour on Interstate 94, I went down when a buck jumped in my path. I bounced through the passing lane and came to rest in the median strip. The damage, while not fatal (obviously), was plenty bad: I broke all the ribs on my left side, collapsed a lung, lacerated my spleen, wrenched my left knee and tore up my elbows with road rash. The impact blew off my shoes and wrenched my wedding ring from my finger. Recuperation came with a weeklong hospital stay, another month at home in a recliner (because of my ribs, I couldn’t lie flat on my back) and enough pain medication to turn me into a drug dealer, had I so chosen.

In the month that I was out of commission and unable to do much but sit and think, my mind wandered. I knew how fortunate I was; at that speed, on that terrain, one shift in the geometry might have done me in. I was lucky that Ang was following me in our Ford Explorer – not so wonderful for her to witness the wreck, but she was able to call in help immediately. In the days and weeks that followed, I endured nightmares about the wreck, nighttime visions that still occasionally visit me. But I also found my thoughts drifting toward goals I’d once had for my life, and notable among those was a desire to write books. Here’s the deal: I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, “I have a novel inside me, I just know it.” For years, I was one of those people. Do you know why most of those novels never get written? BECAUSE IT’S HARD. More than that, it’s because we all harbor dreams about what we want to do, but for many of us, the day-to-day demands of life crowd in, and those dreams wither on the vine.

Sometimes, it takes a powerful jolt to shake those aspirations loose, to remind us that we really do have only one life and one chance to pursue happiness. A motorcycle wreck, for example. On July 22, the day after my wreck, I might have spit in the eye of anyone suggesting that I’d received a gift, but that’s exactly what it was. It was a gift of perspective.

600 Hours of Edward changed my life; there’s simply no way to adequately capture what it’s meant to hear from people who’ve been moved by it. The Summer Son, a darker, more psychological, more personal story, promises to give even more lift to my literary dreams. The great Western novelist Richard Wheeler, in endorsing my new book, wrote: “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.”

Grace and love. That’s pretty heady stuff for a guy who was just trying to get home one very bad day in July and ended up crashing into a new way of looking at his life.

Exciting news today: My second novel, The Summer Son, has been acquired by AmazonEncore, the new publishing arm of the online giant.

The book will emerge sometime in the early part of 2011. It is available for pre-sale in print and Kindle versions.

To say that I am thrilled to be joining up with AmazonEncore is, perhaps, to understate the matter. Beyond good writing and a compelling story and a bit of luck, a book needs powerful marketing to make inroads with readers, and AmazonEncore boasts an unparalleled worldwide reach and a proven ability to match books and the people who love them. AmazonEncore has been making a splash of late by giving second chances to independently released books, publishing a handful of original manuscripts (as it will with mine) and, more recently, striking a deal with author J.A. Konrath that left industry tongues wagging (also choice reading is Konrath’s rebuttal to that Publishers Weekly article). Publishing is an area with few sure-fire bets, but here’s one of them: Whatever the future holds, Amazon is going to be a major player. I’m gratified to be able to jump aboard.

(Just as an aside: At some future date, I may have to write a memoir of publishing with the working title Dude, WTF? Consider: Wrote my first novel in 24 days. Self-published it. Got picked up by a regional publisher and re-released in less than a year. Won some nice notices. Some really nice notices. Prepared to launch my second novel with my own literary press. Hooked up instead with an ascendant publisher with unmatched insight into consumer behavior. All in a little more than 18 months. I’m blessed, and very, very, very fortunate.)

As noted above, this move does scuttle my earlier plan to make The Summer Son the initial release of my small literary press, Missouri Breaks. That publishing venture is still a go, however, and I anticipate being able to soon make an exciting annoucement about a couple of forthcoming books.

In the meantime, with my schedule suddenly cleared of all the production duties I had anticipated, I now find myself in the happy position of being able to spend the next few months of waiting out The Summer Son by getting down the road with Novel No. 3.

Thanks for riding along.

Yesterday in Bozeman, I completed the circle on what has been a surreal experience. “Surreal” was how Jamie Ford, the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, described winning the 2009 Montana Book Award, so I’m going to co-opt his word. My book, 600 Hours of Edward, was one of four Honor Books for 2009, and, yes, “surreal” is the word.

I had no idea what to expect from the evening. I’d been told where to show up (Bozeman Public Library, a beautiful place) and when, and that’s about it. (Brief detour: I very nearly messed up the “when.” Angie and I were having dinner with my publisher, Chris Cauble, and his wife, Linda, and at 5:45, I noted that we still had plenty of time, given that the event started at 6:30 and was right across the street. Chris said, “I think it’s 6.” He checked the invitation, and sure enough: 6 o’clock. Angie changed into a dress in the front seat of the Explorer while I drove 100 feet at approximately 85 mph. Good times!)

When Wally McRae (Stick Horses), the first honoree, seemed completely at ease and launched into perfectly tailored remarks, my heart raced. I was wholly unprepared to actually say anything, so I stood there with Ang, trying not to sweat (or retch) and tried to come up with something appropriate for the occasion.

I won’t bore you with the actual remarks. I thanked Ang first and my publisher second, and expressed deep appreciation for the honor (which works, as I’m deeply appreciative). I thanked Jim Thomsen, who’s largely to blame for getting me into this crazy thing. I gave a brief, disjointed synopsis of how the book came to be. It occurs to me now that maybe telling people that I drafted it in 24 days isn’t the wisest thing in the world; it sounds as if I think art is something that can just be tossed off on a whim, which doesn’t reflect my point of view at all. Art comes on its own terms; in the case of 600 Hours of Edward, it came in a one-month torrent. I know how fortunate I am. Believe me.

In what can only be described as one of the themes of my life, it was hours later and miles away that I realized what I should have said. So if you’ll indulge me …

The motorcycle accident I had in July 2008 has become part of the Edward backstory, in large part because I’ve encouraged that. (For proof, see my bio and the latest bit of news to cross the transom.) But in July 2008, I hadn’t given any thought to Edward Stanton, and any dreams I had of being a novelist had been tucked away in the recesses of my brain.

What I was in July 2008 was a broken person, and this was long before the buck jumped into my path at mile marker 37 of Interstate 94. For months, I had been shuffling through my life without much enthusiasm and with a hurt and an anger I could could barely, and not always successfully, keep under the surface. I thanked Angie last night not just because she tolerates my incessant need to write but because she lived with the shell of the person I’d become, and she never lost faith that I would find my way back to a worthwhile path.

The motorcycle crash made me focus on getting better — first, in healing the physical scars, and then in confronting what was going on inside.

In November 2008, Edward came along, and for 24 days, I lived inside his head — an interesting place to be sure, and at that time, far preferable to being inside my own cranium. Writing Edward made me feel useful and gave me a peek at something I wanted to do with the life I had left.

I’m always gratified when people write to me and thank me for breathing life into Edward. That my fictional man, so flawed and so beautiful, has a profound impact on folks just blows my mind. It’s the best validation for writing I can imagine.

And yet, I’m always tempted to correct them. Because from where I sit, the truth of the matter is that Edward breathed life into me.

Quick takeaways from Bozeman …

  • It was so nice to see people who are becoming such good friends: Mark Miller (who introduced me), Barbara Theroux, Mary Jane DiSanti, Ariana Paliobagis, Michelanne Shields, Jill Munson. It was, in every sense of the word, a wonderful evening.
  • Jamie Ford and his lovely wife, Leesha, are such nice folks. Jamie wrote a beautiful book, and he’s every bit as graceful as his words. I joked with him afterward that we should start a literary blood feud, but if you were to meet him, you’d know how truly preposterous such a notion is.
  • Librarians can party.
  • Finally, a meteorological note (Edward would approve). Here’s Montana in spring: We arrived in Bozeman just after 3 p.m., and the sun was shining, people were walking around with sunglasses, Angie shed her top layer because it was getting warm. Not a half-hour later, a snowstorm plowed into town, with huge flakes flying sideways and swirling. By the time we got to the car, I had to sweep it clear. We arrived at the restaurant positively drenched. Hours later, as we left town, it looked like a winter wonderland.

Here’s an interesting story from the Washington Post. It seems that more and more simple errors are sneaking into print, and readers are noticing. It’s not hard to figure out why. The story notes that the newspaper’s stable of copy editors has been whittled from 75 to 43 in the past few years, even as the duties beyond pure copy-editing have increased.

In my day (er, night) job — you know, the one that pays the preponderance of my bills — I work as a newspaper copy editor. I’ve long considered it a sound policy not to discuss one’s employer on a personal blog, and I’m not about to abandon that wise course now. Instead, I’d like to discuss editing in the big picture, across all forms of publishing. I guarantee you, what’s happening at the Washington Post is not an isolated case.

When I originally self-published my first novel nearly a year ago, I was — outside of my wife — the only person who had laid eyes on the words, and I’m afraid that deficiency was easy to spot. When the first book landed in my hands, I immediately spotted dozens of errors — dropped words, backward quote marks, dangling modifiers, etc. Because the book was print-on-demand, I was able to upload a new interior file and fix those. Then came the new book and a new round of errors. I must have done this five or six times.

By the time I turned the manuscript over to Riverbend Publishing for the book’s re-emergence as 600 Hours of Edward, I had read it innumerable times and rooted out every possible error, or so I thought. But the publisher found a few, and then I found a few more in the proofing stage, and finally we had a completed book.

The first time I opened it, I found another error.

Do you see what I’m getting at? It’s damned hard to come up with a pristine manuscript. Harder still when editors are removed from the equation.

Unfortunately, that’s what is happening across a broad swath of the publishing world. Houses, even the biggest ones, have cut deeply into their editing ranks, for reasons of expedience and expense. Maxwell Perkins, were he alive today, would probably be an acquisition editor, focused chiefly on getting the books into the publishing house and not so much on honing them into word-perfect shape. Many of the traditional editing chores now fall to literary agents, and while they’re often fully capable of doing that work, they already have other vital and time-consuming chores, such as persuading the acquisition editors to bring the work aboard. So, then, the onus falls to the writer to get it right in the first place, and while there are many ways in which we can improve our craft and our self-editing, we can’t possibly give ourselves the same benefit we would get from an intensive edit by a professional.

So how do we bridge the gap? A few ideas:

1. Be damned good in the first place.

2. Failing No. 1, become a better self-editor. Read well-edited material and take note of what it does well (precise word choice, economy, structure, etc.). Take advantage of the myriad (and free) editing tips that can be mined on the Web. Our friends at The Blood-Red Pencil regularly offer excellent editing advice.

3. Join a writing group. Even if your colleagues can’t offer detailed copy editing, they can give you big-picture reactions to your stories and essays.

4. Trade sweat equity with a buddy. He reads and edits your stuff. You read and edit his.

5. If you can afford it and think you’ll benefit from it, engage the services of a professional editor. I’m happy to recommend one: My friend Leon Unruh at Birchbark Press does unfailingly excellent work at a competitive price.

We owe it to readers to give them the best experience we can with our books. That’s our bond: In exchange for their money and their time, we offer the best story we could write, with as few flaws as possible.

I spent Thursday and Friday (and a sliver of Saturday) in Helena, Montana, for the Helena Bookfest. Among the highlights:

* Hearing Alan Weltzien’s lecture on Thomas Savage, author of The Pass (1944). Despite having written 13 novels, Savage (who died in 2003) has largely been forgotten among readers of literature of the West. He gets scant mention in anthologies and never garnered the attention that his talent deserved. That said, some prominent folks are banging the drum for him, Weltzien said. Among them are Annie Proulx, Thomas McGuane (who considers Savage a top-tier talent, right below Willa Cather) and the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley. Add to that group Weltzien himself, an English professor at Montana Western and the foremost Savage scholar. The next day, Weltzien, Montana State University Billings professor Sue Hart and Karl Olson of the Missoula Public Library held forth in a panel discussion on Savage and his wife, Elizabeth (with nine under-celebrated novels to her credit). It was a privilege to learn so much about this fine author, and I rushed out of that session and purchased The Pass (recently re-released by Riverbend Publishing and the Drumlummon Institute).

* Attending a panel discussion on Montana women in history. Mary Murphy, a professor at Montana State University, and Sarah Carter, editor of the recently released Montana Women Homesteaders, discussed the prominent role women played in shaping the settlement of this land. Of particular interest was Carter’s account of her research into single women (widowed or otherwise) who successfully homesteaded in this state in the early decades of the last century. She unearthed some amazing stories of persistence and strength. After that session, my mother — my companion for the weekend — rushed right out and bought her book.

* Finally meeting, face to face, the fabulous Carol Buchanan, author of God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana. She has become a good friend and trusted sounding board through the wonders of the Web, and I was pleased to finally put a voice to the face and the words. She’s as fine a person as I knew she would be.

* Last (in fact, it was first) but not least, meeting some of the folks at Riverbend Publishing, the publisher of my novel, 600 Hours of Edward. We’re just weeks away from launching it. It’s going to be fun.

More on that soon …

600_coverOh, the stories I’ll someday tell about my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward. Here’s the cover that it will sport when it’s released by Riverbend Publishing in November. In its short life, the book has had four covers — the initial crude one I did, the slightly better second effort by me, a professional version worked up by my friend Tim Ball, and now this one, for its debut with a traditional publisher.

I’m very happy with it; the color and the subtlety are a good fit with the book’s themes, I think. (Want to see a bigger version? Click here.)

Now that the cover is set, I’ve begun to build some pages dedicated to the book over at my Web site.

You can see one here.

And here.

And here.

And there will be more to come. Stay tuned.

In all the excitement about the Riverbend news, I didn’t spend much time with my new manuscript last week. And when I say that I didn’t spend much time, I mean, of course, that I didn’t spend any time. I’m one man. Cut me a break.

Yesterday, on the golf course, Gone to Milford drifted back into my mind, and it came with a solution to a nettlesome problem I’ve been struggling with for two drafts now: how to imbue the story from the start with the appropriate level of foreboding. The story, in total, unwinds some very difficult relationships, but not in a traditional separation-and-reconciliation sort of way. That’s the extent of what I’ll say. If you want to know the rest, read the book when it emerges.

The story starts at the end. What I struggled with was where at the end I should begin. What follows are the original beginning and the one I amended it to earlier today:

The early version

UPDATE: Based on initial feedback and my own evolving thoughts, I went back and did some tweaking and came up with a new, expanded beginning.

Here it is.

Which one, if either, makes Does this make you want to read more? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments section.

I’ll be interested to hear the responses.

The novel I self-released in February is being picked up by Riverbend Publishing and will re-emerge this fall in a new size, with a new edit, a new cover and a new title. (What the new title will be remains a bit of a question mark. If you have a good idea for one, send it along. If it’s used, I’ll make you a character in my next book. I’m totally serious.)
 
Getting the book into the hands of a traditional publisher has been my goal since I audaciously decided to release it myself, a few months after blasting through it during National Novel Writing Month in November 2008. I really had no idea what I was doing, but with some hard work, the book found an audience. I’m confident that Riverbend, a respected regional publisher, can help it reach corners I just wasn’t going to get to doing fulfillment out of my car and home.

I’m proud to be working with Riverbend, an outfit that does well by Montana and Montana authors. It published The Watershed Years, a novel by a writer I deeply admire, Russell Rowland. William Pack’s debut novel, The Bottom of the Sky, just came out through Riverbend and is drawing raves. And Riverbend also publishes some older works, such as On Sarpy Creek and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. For a full list of Riverbend’s offerings, go here.
 
As for my reconstituted novel, it will be available in bookstores regionally and by order through any bookstore in the country, as well as being orderable (if that’s even a word) on the usual online channels (Amazon.com, BN.com, etc.).
 
So here’s what I want from you (you didn’t really think you were going to escape without a pitch, did you?):
 
When the book comes out — more details on that to come — please, please, please on your next visit to your favorite bookstore, tell the good people there that they really ought to stock a few copies of my novel. If you’ve read it and enjoyed it, tell a friend. If you haven’t read it, please do. If you’re somewhere I’m likely to be in the coming months — HELLO, DALLAS/FORT WORTH! — be on the lookout for a signing/reading/other appearance. I would love to see you there.

Closer to home, I’ll be out and about in the Last Best Place, visiting with readers and potential readers. I’m looking forward to it.

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