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Posts Tagged ‘Craig Lancaster’

Some odds and ends:

— We do have a winner from last week’s drawing for a free, inscribed copy of my friend Craig Lancaster‘s debut novel, 600 Hours Of Edward. From 11 scraps of paper in a baseball cap, I drew the name of Kristin Hanes, my favorite Seattle radio news reporter. Congratulations, Kristin … and thank you to everyone else who participated in last week’s Q&A with Craig. And even though you didn’t win, I hope you’ll buy a copy of the book. Not only is it a great, fun, breezy, poignant read, but it’s a great way to support small-press authors who get no advances and have to cover most of their own marketing and promotion expenses.

— I’ve packed it in on NaNoWriMo after seeing early on that while I think I’ve got a great idea for a genre mystery novel and enjoy working on it, I just don’t have the time to write on it enough to maintain the necessary pace of nearly 2,000 words a day to get to the finish line at the end of November. Right now, on Nov. 13, I’m at 8,633 words, when I should be at a minimum of about 24,000. But, like I said, I do think I’m onto something good, and I’ll git ‘er done eventually.

— I submit monthly reviews and interviews with Pacific Northwest authors of mystery and true-crime books to Reading Local Seattle, and last week saw the posting of my review of Bainbridge Island author Anthony Flacco‘s The Road Out Of Hell. (The short version: It’s a good book, and Flacco masterfully carries off the difficult and ethically tricky task of recreating vast swaths of dialogue between long-deceased people while staying true to both the spirit and the letter of what actually happened.)

— My latest monthly piece for 1st Turning Point, a Seattle-based Web site of shared marketing and promotion strategies for authors, is titled “Pissing Matches As Platform Builders?” It’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the only semi-ludicrous idea that staging a literary feud with an acid-tongued reviewer could be a good way to boost an author’s visibility — and sales. I hearken back to the late Jack Olsen‘s long-running, high-profile feud with The Seattle Times to make my half-serious point.

— In the If You Write It, They Will Come Dept., the fine Self Publishing Review has asked me for permission to reprint my Q&A with Craig Lancaster, whose book was originally self-published. I said yes; it should go up sometime this weekend, I’m told. And apropos of nothing, the Twitter site of Field’s End, a celebrated authors’ collective on my hometown of Bainbridge Island, posted a link to my blog about my visit to the state prison at McNeil Island. Nice little boosts for everybody. I love how that works.

— Speaking of prison visits, look next week for my report on my planned Monday visit to the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor. I’ll be meeting for the first time with Jeannette Murphy, a woman who has been behind bars for more than 26 years for shooting both of her parents in the head and setting their Lacey home on fire to cover it up in early 1983, when she was 19. She’s done well in prison, becoming one of the facility’s most prominent inmate leaders. And while she narrowly fell short of her bid for clemency from the governor at an April hearing, I think she’s got a good shot at making it in her next bid in two to three years. All that’s missing for her is a clear and unhesitant vocal ownership of her crime. She has to be able to say what she did and why she did it to the governor’s Clemency and Pardons Board in such a way that they’ll feel confident in telling the governor that she’ll never do it again. It’s my hope that I can nudge her in that direction — it’s not only in her best interests, but in the interests of a future crime book I’d like to write.

— And I remain hard at work on a planned news article about Robert Holmes, a convicted rapist and murderer who sought a governor’s pardon, won a recommendation from the Clemency and Pardons Board — but was turned down this summer by the governor’s office. I’ve done several interviews, including ones with Holmes and the parents of the teenage victim — and have a partial first draft written. It’s my hope to have this all wrapped up within two weeks, and ready to pitch to local news outlets.

Check in with y’all next week.

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Lancaster6LM

Edward Stanton is a man hurtling headlong toward middle age. His mental illness has led him to be sequestered in his small house in a small city, where he keeps his distance from the outside world and the parents from whom he is largely estranged. For the most part, Edward sticks to things he can count on…and things he can count. But over the course of 25 days (or 600 hours, as Edward prefers to look at it) several events puncture the walls Edward has built around himself. In the end, he faces a choice: Open his life to experience and deal with the joys and heartaches that come with it, or remain behind his closed door, a solitary soul.

— The back-cover copy for 600 Hours Of Edward, by Craig Lancaster

Last year at about this time, my good friend Craig Lancaster and I started the National Novel Writing Month event together. We checked in on each other every day, held each other accountable, talked one another through our struggles, kept each other excited about writing.

Only I blew it, getting bogged down by a bad start in mid-month, deciding to start over, and coming up short of the 50,000-word finish line by Nov. 30.

DSCF9547Craig, on the other hand, succeeded at NaNoWriMo in a way almost nobody has. He not only finished his novel, but finished early at nearly 80,000 words. And after a short tweaking period, he self-published the novel — then titled 600 Hours Of A Life — and set about it promoting and marketing it from his home base in Billings, Montana. Despite some missteps borne of inexperience, he made enough connections among the local literati and generated enough positive word-of-mouth that he wound up being offered a traditional publishing deal through Riverbend Publishing. The revamped novel — now titled 600 Hours Of Edward — rolled out Nov. 1 and is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

That’s right, folks … from nothing at NaNoWriMo time to mainstream publishing success in a year. I couldn’t be more proud of my pal.

As such, I think there’s a lot that all of us who have struggled to finish a novel — let alone get one published — could learn from Craig’s story. So, below is a Q&A I’ve done with him that may answer a lot of questions you may have about how he did it — and how you can do it.

And, as a guest blogger, Craig will be checking in throughout the day to answer your questions and respond to your comments. And to sweeten the deal, I’ll be giving away a copy of Craig’s novel through a random drawing; everyone who posts a comment or a question for Craig is entered into the drawing.

Thanks, my readers. And thanks, Craig. (By the way, if you haven’t already, follow him on Facebook here and on his fan page here.)

Q: I know you well enough to know that YOU are not Edward Stanton, the protagonist of 600 Hours Of Edward — even though you’re both fans of Dragnet, the Dallas Cowboys and rocker Matthew Sweet. So where did he come from? Was it from anything in your own experience?

A: That’s funny, because one of my family members, upon reading the book, said, “That’s you!” You’re right, of course. He’s not me. But I think, were Edward real, he and I could connect on a very narrow range of subjects we’re both interested in.

Edward’s creation stems from the chestnut about writing what you know. The things he likes are things I like, but those are only background pieces to flavor the story. His personality, his mannerisms, his heart — the things that ultimately make the story what it is — are his alone. He’s more afflicted, less bombastic, more regimented and far sweeter than I could ever be. I once described my method of creating characters like this: I steal attributes from people I know, and then I give them a good, hard twist into something else entirely. That’s what happened with Edward.

Q: 600 Hours Of Edward was written largely during NaNoWriMo in 2008. How much did the unique discipline of the event — the challenge to pound out at least 50,000 words in 30 days — fit with your personal work ethic?

A: I like to get to it, and NaNoWriMo certainly demands that. But I’d tried the event before and never made it very far, so I had more going for me than discipline. Actually, in a big sense, I credit you for what happened in those 24 days (that’s right — I finished the nearly 80,000 words of 600 Hours a week before the event ended). I was going to sit out NaNoWriMo 2008. I’d had a rough year, and I was just starting to emerge whole from a motorcycle accident I’d had in July of that year. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want any more disappointment, and up to that point NaNoWriMo had been nothing but disappointing. But when you asked if I’d take part, I thought about it and figured I’d give it a whirl. I spent a day thinking up the broad outlines of Edward’s story, and on Nov. 1 I got to work.

Once I hit about 20,000 words, I knew I had something, but I was writing so quickly that I wasn’t sure how good it would ultimately be. I’m a pretty fast writer under any circumstance, but this was a marathon at sprint speed. These days, I still write every day, but I’ve learned to walk away when the wheels go a little wobbly. Whether it’s 400, 750 or 2,000 words that I’ve managed to get down, I know I’ve pushed down the road. Eventually, they all add up to a novel, if you keep going.

Q: Given your knock-it-out-of-the-park success with NaNoWriMo on your first go, what advice would you offer others who seem to struggle with the challenge?

A: NaNoWriMo 2008 wasn’t my first go; I’d attempted it at least twice previously. But it was the first time I’d put my ass in the chair and made myself write. The primary reason I was able to do so was I had a plan (read: outline) and a pretty clear idea of where I wanted to go. Those things help. Beyond that, I would tell anyone taking part in the event to really take the spirit of it to heart. The goal is to write 50,000 words, not 50,000 pristine, ready-to-be-published words. Allow yourself to write with abandon and with a minimum of cogitation. Accept the high probability that you’ll squeeze out some dreck. Form a symbiotic relationship with your story and write the living daylights out of it. If, at the end of 30 days, you have a good pile of clay to work with, you can worry about the finer points in December and beyond, as you hone it into something more approximating art.

In other words, don’t even worry about publication. Not yet.

Q: One of the more remarkable things about 600 Hours Of Edward, to me, is that you steer well clear of what I think of as “Debut Novelist Disease.” You don’t drown your characters and themes in dense poetic prose — in fact, you seem to have an excellent feel for what to leave out so that the story zips along and develops its characters and themes along the way. How did you manage to steer clear of the need almost every other first-timer has to describe the leaves on the trees and the dew on the grass and give every character a zillion pages of backstory?

A: My answers to these questions notwithstanding, I’ve always been a fairly spare writer. Part of that comes from my grounding in journalism and its demand that you draw the shortest line from A to B. Part of it stems from emulating writers I’ve admired, particularly Hemingway. When I was in high school, I mainlined Hemingway’s stories. At his very best, he wrote the most muscular, uncluttered prose imaginable. I think it’s a real shame that his style has fallen out of favor in popular literature, because to me, it’s timeless.

Here’s the other thing: Every time you flash back, or describe a room in punishing detail or whatever, the forward motion of a story stops, and so does that pleasant feeling of being swept along for the reader. You have to be able to judge when it’s OK — nay, when it’s vital — to stop the story like that. In all other instances, resist the urge.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing, to me, is letting the reader have some control over what a scene/person/object looks like. In 600 Hours, Edward spends a bit of time in his basement, building a toy for Kyle, the neighbor boy who is the first person to start breaking through Edward’s wall. I didn’t describe the basement at all. I figured that single word — “basement” — was evocative enough for anybody reading the story. He or she can decide whether it smells dank, or it’s finished, or where the work bench is, or how steep the stairs are. It’s out of my hands.

Q: Speaking of publication, how would you describe that feeling when you first held a bound, finished book, written by you, in your hands?

A: Everybody says it’s surreal, and everybody is right. You can’t help but think of what it took to get there and the high hopes you have for it.

That said, the biggest emotional payoff for having written a book is not rooted in the physical book living on someone’s shelf but in the story living in the mind of someone who’s read it and enjoyed it.

Q: You originally self-published 600 Words Of Edward. How well did that work out?

A: I would call it a mixed bag of success. I did so many things wrong, but I also did the biggest thing right: I wrote a good novel that captured the attention of a publisher who could do more for it than I could in terms of getting it out there. (The hard pushing of marketing and meeting readers and stumping for the book still fall largely to me, and that’s fine. Great, even.) In my haste to get the book into people’s hands, I emerged with a story that still needed editing and a cover that absolutely screamed “poor self-publish job.” Because the book was print on demand, I was slowly able to make good on those things, but it was a less-than-professional way to go about it, and one that still embarrasses me.

Q: What do you know now about self-publishing that you would have liked to have applied to that experience?

A: I would have been much more deliberate — securing a good editor and a good cover designer before the book ever saw the light of day. I would test-driven parts of it with public readings. I would have realized the value in a slower build, in getting blurbs and sending out review copies well in advance of the release. Slapped-together projects (very) occasionally work in publishing, but the smart money is on steady and professional. Self-publishers, more than anybody else, need to go with the smart money.

Q: Based on your experience, for whom can self-publishing work?

A: Despite some notable success stories — like my friend Carol Buchanan, who won a Spur Award for her self-published debut, God’s Thunderbolt — it’s undeniably a tough road for fiction writers. The audiences are harder to find and identify — this is also true for traditional publishers — and the legwork, beyond the marketing expected of almost any writer, tends to get in the way of the next book.

Peter Bowerman, the author of The Well-Fed Self-Publisher, contends that someone with a surefire nonfiction book and an established platform can realize some impressive pure profit by self-publishing. He seems to be proof of that contention. So I think, in a general sense, that nonfiction will fare better in that realm. Of course, nonfiction also fares better in the traditional realm.

I’m interested to see what the massive tectonic shifts in the industry hold for self-publishers. It seems obvious to me that the playing field is leveling a bit.

Q: Does having your book picked up by a publisher make you feel more “legit”? Or does your literary self-esteem come from other places?

A: I’m going to say yes, but in a very narrow sense. My publisher, Riverbend Publishing, has a reach into my market that I couldn’t replicate on my own, and if that reach means that more people will now read my book, that’s a good thing for my so-called legitimacy as an author. But the story was just as good when the book was a print-on-demand item that I moved one at a time.

As far as literary self-esteem goes, that comes strictly from readers. They’re the completion of the circle. The publishing apparatus is the necessary middleman between me and them.

Q: How has your newspaper background helped you as a novelist? Has it detracted in any way?

A: There is no writer’s block in journalism. You write, no matter what. So the biggest help has come from that. I have the discipline to sit down and do it, and if you sit down and write enough times, you’re going to reach the finish line (unless you’re Michael Douglas’ character in Wonder Boys). Journalism also helped me develop a sense for recognizing a good story — not just “news,” but also subtle human stories that really form the backbone of what I try to do as a novelist. I’m grateful for the ability to pluck those moments of inspiration out of the air.

Beyond the physical act of pounding the keyboard, newspaper writing and fiction writing are entirely different things. When I edit a news story, I want the salient details up top, because I’m banking on the fact that a good number of readers will never make it to the end. (Hmmm. Maybe I’ve identified what makes so many newspaper stories so relentlessly pedestrian.) With fiction, you assume that readers will reach the denouement and structure the story accordingly.

Q: You’re a very fast worker. Are you a writer who generally trusts his first instincts and find that they hold up through the revision process? How do you keep from paralyzing yourself over word choices, prose cadence, segues, plot points and the like?

A: My first instincts get plenty of challenges, but that happens in subsequent drafts. On the first go, I just try to get it down, baby. If you’re in perpetual first-draft mode, agonizing over every little thing, the finish line will never come into view.

I’m enormously hard on my work in the second draft. Things get bloody. The third draft may bring a smaller amount of corrective surgery. After that, I apply spit and polish.

I’ll say this: I’m thankful that it isn’t more of an ordeal. I know writers who put down 150,000 words in a first draft and spend subsequent drafts cutting that in half. That would drive me crazy. Or crazier.

Q: Writing for a small publishing outfit, you’re largely responsible for promoting your work and getting it into the hands of paying readers. What, in your view, are some of the best high-upside, low-cost ways of making that happen?

A: This is one of them. You have a lot of readers, and you’ve given me an opportunity to talk up my book. I’m involved in social networking about to my tolerance point — because I love it on its merits, and because it allows me to connect with readers and potential readers.

But here where I live, nothing beats shoe leather. I’m planning to support the bookstores that stock my novel, and I’ll go to any public library or civic group that will have me. And then I’ll hope that the math of word of mouth favors my book. We shall see.

Q: How confident do you feel in your public persona as an author? Do you feel comfortable giving readings, speaking to classes, gladhanding, talking with strangers, making friends among other authors?

A: I’m still a newbie at this, and I still have a vivid memory of my first public reading — the shakiness of my hands, the waver in my voice. But I got through it, and I’ve gotten progressively better at standing in front of a group of people and talking. Maybe I should join Toastmasters and really ramp up my game.

The thing that I struggle with, on a personal level, is that I’m fairly goofy, and I have to guard against that becoming too closely associated with my work, which is intended to be taken seriously. So in a public situation, I try to straddle that line between warm and amiable — which I am — and irrepressibly stupid. Which I also am.

Q: Who are some established authors you’ve gotten close to, and what have they been willing to do for you? What do you feel you can do for them … or do to honor in some way what they’ve done for you?

A: I’m lucky to live in a such a richly literary place as Montana. In my town alone, there are several established writers who have been very generous with their time and counsel, among them Sue Hart, Russell Rowland and T.L. Hines. Sue, who has forgotten more about the literature of the West than I’ll ever be able to learn, has invited me to her classroom and introduced me to other folks (and wrote a hell of a nice blurb for my book). I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to repay Russell for all he’s done. It was his encouragement, after he read 600 Hours, that convinced me I had something worthwhile. He’s given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. And Tony has been a good friend to talk to about publishing and pop culture. We’re both kids of the ’70s and ’80s and we like a lot of the same stuff, and that makes our chatter free and easy.

Ron Franscell is another one, although not a Montanan. He’s been a vast resource for tips on staying sane and for some good, rollicking conversation.

I think the best thing I can do to honor them is to follow their example and be generous with my time and advice if I’m ever sought out in a similar way.

Q: 600 Hours Of Edward is set in Montana, and while its settings are largely urban and suburban, your reverence for the flavor and mythology of the West is obvious. What is it about Montana — and Billings, specifically — that speaks to you as an author as much as a person? Could 600 Hours Of Edward work just as well if it was set in, say, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania?

A: Billings is where I live and the place I know best, so it was an easy decision to drop Edward into this world. I’ve never been to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but I suspect that Edward’s story could have been told there. You’d just have to change up some of the details; maybe Edward’s father would have a background in state government rather than in Big Oil.

In the stories I love best, setting is almost another character. Think of Of Mice and Men and that farm near the central California coast. Could Steinbeck have set it on a dude ranch in New Mexico? Maybe. But that changes the fabric of the story. Had he done that, we wouldn’t know what we were missing, of course, but imagining it retroactively takes something away from us.

Ultimately, I strive for a setting that provides a distinct flavor but a story that has universal themes.

Q: When you’re working, what’s a tolerable level of distraction? Music or no? Facebook or none? Dogs on your lap or no?

A: Absolute quiet and no external distractions. I’m lucky in that my most productive hours are after I get off work, between midnight and 3 a.m. My wife is in bed, the dogs are tucked away, and Facebook is more or less quiet. I sit in the dark and I try to find my way through the next scene, the next chapter, the next plot point.

Q: Do you ever have days where the words just won’t come? How do you deal with that?

A: If I’ve committed myself to writing on a given day, I really try not to leave without having pushed the plow down the field. I may know that I’ll never let the resulting pablum see the light of day, that I’ll double back and fix it at the first opportunity, but at least I will have done *something.*

As I write this, I’m in the middle of a lengthy break from fiction writing. In late July, I finished my second novel (now in the query stage), and I promised my wife that after writing two novels in less than a year, I’d let her see my face for a while. (And, to be honest, I needed the emotional recharge.) I’m about to start up again, and I’m eager to see how that goes.

Q: What expectations do you have for yourself in terms of eventually becoming a self-supporting, full-time writer?

A: It’s certainly my aim, though I’m heeding the advice of my friend Ron Franscell, who warns me that it’s a long road. Whether I ever get there, I’m going to keep writing and keep hoping that someone will find my stories worthy of publication. And, most important, that readers will find them worthy of their time and money. I don’t take either of those things for granted.

Q: What’s next for you? What can you say about Novel #2?

A: It’s finished. I’ve tentatively titled it Gone to Milford. Like 600 Hours, it delves into human relationships, but it comes with much darker undercurrents. 600 Hours is a very straight-ahead, sequential tale. Milford, I think, is the more difficult achievement. It spans a few decades and puts more things into play.

Here’s how I described it in query letters:

Mitch Quillen is in a rut. He’s on the cusp of his forties, his marriage is peeling apart, and his career has gone sideways. When his estranged father, Jim, calls unexpectedly — and then keeps calling — Mitch views the intrusion as one more problem he’s ill-equipped to handle.

Compelled by his wife to leave their home and go to his father, Mitch embarks on a journey not only forward in the here and now but also backward through a father-son relationship gone horribly wrong. Mitch goes to his father hoping to square accounts and find peace with what happened in the summer of 1979 in a small Western town, the place to which he traces a lifetime of losses. He finds reconciliation at home and with his father, and it comes with a harrowing yet affirming lesson in the power and the poison of the things we keep inside, and what happens when our secrets are dragged into the light.

Q: Any interest in doing genre fiction, or book-length nonfiction?

A: Genre fiction doesn’t hold a lot of appeal for me, at least not as a writer. I sometimes wish it did; if I could write two or three thrillers a year, my future in this business would probably be much more clear.

When I moved to Montana in 2006, it was partly with the idea that I would write a nonfiction book about my dad, who grew up here and whose young life was like something out of a Dickens novel. But then life and work took over, and I never made much progress on the intensive research such a project would require. As it is, I’ve managed to exorcise some of those compulsions through my fiction. It’s no accident that father-son relationships drive the narrative of both of my completed novels.

Q: What’s the nicest thing someone’s said to you about your writing?

A: A dear friend wrote to me some weeks back and told me that she works with someone who’s a lot like Edward — irrevocably fixated on details, difficult to know, obstinate and probably suffering from some of what ails my character (who’s OCD and has Asperger syndrome). She said that since reading my book, she has found herself caring more about him and being more patient with him. That brought tears to my eyes. I mean, imagine that: a fictional character inspiring more empathy in real people. And, brother, I can’t think of anything we need more than a greater understanding of each other.

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From Lowell Cauffiel, author of Masquerade and House of Secrets:

It’s a simple fact that the quality of your true-crime book will be directly proportional to the quality of your research. I try to schedule tasks when I’m researching a book, but once you open up a thread it can take days to run it down.”


Heh. Or weeks.

I haven’t had a very productive October so far when it comes to developing my true-crime book.

Perhaps it all depends on how you define it, however. On the one hand, I’ve had some deep frustrations in terms of getting access to documents and people I need in order to substantively proceed:

— For nearly two months, I’ve been trying to arrange a short interview with Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, in regards to her policy and practice in acting upon the recommendations of her Clemency and Pardons Board. Things went well at first, with her communications director promising to see if he could arrange something for me. Then he abruptly quit his job and moved back home to North Carolina. And while an interim successor has been named, I’ve had a hard time getting him to return my e-mails and phone calls. The deputy directors haven’t returned them, either. I even turned to some statehouse reporters — fellow members of the newspaper brotherhood — and they haven’t been returning my e-mails, either.
Finally, today, one of the deputy directors got back to me, apologizing for the delay in responding, and — you guessed — promised to see if she could arrange something. My confidence in actually getting face time with the governor isn’t high at the moment, as you might imagine … but at least one of the many doors on which I’ve been knocking has cracked open a bit.

— As readers of past posts on this blog might recall, I’ve shifted my focus from writing one book compiling short stories on several Clemency and Pardons Board cases to writing several books on individual cases. First up, as things stand now, is the story of a man who helped hold up and try to murder a fellow Seattle-area drug dealer before taking off to California with his girlfriend — another attempted murderer on the run — before being featured on “America’s Most Wanted” and being caught on a tip from an AMW viewer. And now, 12 years later, the man has been recommended for clemency and early release to the governor, largely on the strength of supportive testimony from his victim. The delay there has been in getting hold of the petition paperwork — including the court documents — that make up the factual backbone of the story. My paralegal contact in the state Attorney General’s office is finally coming through on my request, however, and I should have a CD bearing the entire file in the mail in a day or two. Reading what’s contained in that file will pave the way to several other avenues of research, I imagine. It’ll also enable me to start interviews in earnest with Les LeMieux, the victim in the case, who has agreed to work with me.

— Aaron Borrero, the man who tried to kill LeMieux, hasn’t yet fully pledged his cooperation with me, but he has agreed to meet with me so I can answer his questions about my project. Problem is, he’s at McNeil Island Corrections Facility. And while he’s agreed to put me on his visitors list, the state Department of Corrections hasn’t yet approved me as a visitor. If this sounds like a familiar complaint from an earlier blog … well, that’s because it is. I sent in the paperwork nearly a month ago and haven’t heard a word. (I’m also trying to get access to an inmate at the state women’s prison about whom I’m also writing; she murdered her parents as a teenager 26 years ago.) In the meantime, however, his sister found me on this blog, and hopefully she and I will be able to sit down for a conversation soon.

That’s on the one hand.

On the other hand, that’s left me plenty of time for the necessary drudgery of true-crime writing — transcribing interviews (which I really hate, because I hate the sound of my own voice) and drawing up timelines for the other cases I’m working on, for which I have most of the documents already.

That’s been going slow, because I have a low threshold for boredom. And that’s a real problem in writing a credible book, obviously. My attention tends to wander after half an hour or so, and usually sitting for an hour straight stretches me to my limit. So I get up, read or write for an hour or two, and guilt myself back to the kitchen table where I do my work. The upshot is that I get some stuff done, but not as much as, you know, an actual adult would. (Did I mention that I’m 44 years old?)

That’s going to make November interesting. Because, by Nov. 1:

a) I may well have everything I need to proceed with my main story, which I fervently wish to have finished in six to eight months. Which means I could easily spend every waking, non-working moment doing something productive toward that end.

b) I still need to do the drudgery work.

c) I still need to chase new cases, and there’s a new Clemency and Pardons Board hearing coming up at the end of November.

d) NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo?

Do you know about National Novel Writing Month? Basically, it’s a big challenge: Write a novel of at least 50,000 words between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30. I did it last year, and completely faceplanted. I failed to draw up an outline, thinking it would be better to start cold from the first word, and wound up seeing my frontstory get sidetracked by my backstory. So I started over in mid-month, and while I did better, my efforts at frenetic catching-up fell short, and I finished at 42,000 words.

So, this year, I’m torn. At this time last year, I hadn’t even developed a zygote of an idea for the nonfiction project that’s all but consumed me this year. And I know that trying to shoehorn NaNoWriMo into all the other things I have going on is probably asking for more from myself than I can possibly deliver.

And yet, I’m driven by two things:

1. My friend Craig Lancaster, my wingman and daily confidante from last year’s NaNoWriMo effort, not only finished his novel in 30 days (with some 80,000 words, yet), but self-published it. And, based, on the positive word-of-mouth he was able to generate from that effort, he landed a mainstream publishing deal. And just after this year’s NaNoWriMo kicks off, Craig’s novel, 600 Hours Of Edward, will be re-released by Riverbend Publishing. I couldn’t be more proud of my friend … or more inspired by what he’s accomplished.

2. I really like my idea. I won’t bore you with a comprehensive plot summary, but suffice to say that it’s a dark thriller about an estranged father and son who team up in the course of a single night to kill a lot of people what need killing — and work out their longstanding differences with each fresh addition to the body count.

3. I really need to just fucking write. A year of researching and interviewing has been like a year of foreplay — fun as far as it goes, but eventually it’s got to get you where you really want to go. I think I can work out some of my long-shelved ya-yas in November by just diving in and happily humping away at my novel. It’s just a month, honey … you’ll understand, won’t you? (I hear myself in my mind asking my nonfiction project for permission.)

I think I’m going to go for it. As hard as it’s going to be. And hard it will be, because I won’t neglect this blog, either.

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I’m a terribly disorganized writer.

Worse, I’m a whim-driven one. I have a work ethic, in that I’m driven and determined and willing to put in the hours, but my work ethic has no work ethic. On any given day, I might work on six or seven different true-crime stories and fiction projects. At the end of the day (or more commonly, by the time I have to go to my actual paying job), I might have “moved the chains,” to use my friend Craig Lancaster’s apt football metaphor for forward progress, but I’m not much closer to the goal line.

I might begin the day by with some correspondence on a couple of true-crime pieces I’m developing. Then I might dick around with a short story for half an hour or so. Then I’ll turn back to piecing together a timeline for another true-crime story (the work is utter drudgery, but also utterly necessary — solid chronologies are the backbone of narrative-nonfiction storytelling). Then I’ll poke at the outline of a suspense novel I’m trying to write. Then I might make some phone calls and set up some interviews. I’ll do some Web research on yet another true-crime piece (and, more often than not, get sidelined on Facebook).

Lather, rinse, repeat: More correspondence, more phone calls, more Web research, more fiction dickery.

Oh, and in the meantime, I’m trying to build up my “brand” by doing articles, reviews and author profiles for a few Seattle-area literary Web sites. That means reading books, setting up interviews, crafting Q&As, etc.

Doing this is partly the ADD me, but it’s partly the nature of my true-crime project as I originally envisioned it: A collection of a dozen or so stories in the neighborhood of 10,000 words. It’s still a great idea in theory, and I may still someday anthologize my work, but there are two big problems with it:

1) It’s going to take too damn long. Time is of the essence, as I’ve stated before. It’s entirely possible I could be out of a job in six months, and I need to create a stream of revenue before then. I have the dozen stories in play, but it’s taken much more time than I anticipated to get hold of certain court and state-agency records, to pursue and nail down interviews, to transcribe and organize my work, to craft first drafts and go through self-imposed torture tests of editorial vetting, revisions, fact-checking, etc.

2) It requires me to maintain this twelve-ball juggling act for a year or more, at this rate. And that’s slowly making me crazy. “Gathering string” on projects was a legitimate and necessary strategy during my days as an overworked and underpaid newspaper reporter — I was never going to move up in my career if I didn’t craft flashy, in-depth story packages amid daily, dull news-beat maintenance. But doing this every day, and hoping I get to the finish line with each of my stories at the same time, makes me feel like a football player who rushes 35 times a game, gains three yards per rush, and grinds for every inch of positive yardage on increasingly aching bones and muscles and connective tissue.

In the meantime, I studied the publishing industry — and in particular, the true-crime book market — in a little more depth, and came away with a couple of realizations:

1) Electronic books, increasingly, are the future of publishing. Paper books will never die, but it’ll eventually become merely the biggest of several ways to get book-length information. Kindles, Sony Readers and other e-book devices will keep on crowding their way into the sales figures of print books.

2) True-crime books are decidedly downmarket — they sell for cheap, they proliferate in high volume (or at least they did back in their heyday of the 1980s and 1990s) and they have a loyal niche audience (mostly women of middle and old age, I’m finding, with higher concentrations in the regions where the crimes occurred).

So, with all this rattling around my skull, I decided to try something different that rids me of both of my frustrations.

I’m going to self-publish each story as its own book. Each will be 50,000 to 60,000 words, I think — probably no more than 200 pages in a standard 6-inch-by-9-inch format.

They’ll be priced to move — probably no more than $7.95 for high-quality print-on-demand paper editions, and $1.99 or so for any of several e-book versions.

The advantages, as I see it, are numerous:

1) I’m not putting all my eggs and hopes in one basket. Rather than gambling on one book that may or not may do well, at some nebulous point down the road (during which I may wind up living under a bridge if I lose my job), I’ll have several volumes that I can pump out two or three times a year. I don’t have to live or die on one book.

2) It’ll be volume, not price point, that will allow me to sustain a self-sustaining career as a book author. By pricing my books to move, rather than trying to gouge an extra buck or two up front, I put my books into a higher number of readers’ hands. That increases my chances of building positive word-of-mouth alongside my own voluminous marketing efforts — and to build a core audience that can grow with each subsequent book.

3) The potential for creating a passive and decent-sized stream of revenue suddenly materializes. Think of it this way: Say, through nonstop sweat equity, I manage to sell 5,000 copies of my first book. Let’s say 3,000 of those buyers liked what they read enough to buy my second book when it’s ready, say, five to six months later. That gives me a core readership on which I can only build (assuming I continue delivering high-quality stories at a high-quality level). So, let’s say my adjusted marketing efforts for the second book land me 3,000 new readers. If so, it’s reasonable to suppose that maybe half or more will go back and buy the first book. Now take that exponentially — let’s say that by, oh, my fifth book, I have 5,000 people who will buy anything I put out as soon as it comes out. As that number grows with each subsequent volume, a good number of those new readers will likely buy at least some titles from my growing backlist. That’s pure passive revenue, because I’m not actively trying to sell those older books by this point. If I do what I do well, and keep doing so, those older titles will literally sell themselves.  Isn’t that the American Dream? Money for nothing and checks for free?

4) If I keep producing, keep selling and keep growing as a readily identifiable regional name (which is all I want to be, really), then the chances also grow that a mainstream publisher will want to partner with me on some level — a level that makes us both money, because it allows me to negotiate any deal from a position of some strength. And then … who knows? Maybe I make more money, get more freedom to pursue bigger projects … ?

5) Best of all, for all of you who have heard me talking up my book plans for the better part of a year: You won’t have to wait another 12 to 18 months for me to put an actual published product in your hands. I figure I can have my first book — a tasty tale spanning three decades of murder, punishment and a quest for redemption — within six months. The reporting and research are 80% done; I just need to string together my narrative timeline, transcribe my interviews and knuckle down hard.

Of course, it’s possible that I’ve misjudged the shifts in the ice floes of the publishing industry, that I’ll founder and sink, and that I’ll wind up as nothing more than a frozen hand gripping the side of Kate Winslet’s life raft.

That’s OK. At least I’m trying. And doing something I love, the way I want to do it.

That’s half of the American Dream accomplished right there, right?

Not bad for a disorganized guy.

I hope.

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Author and friend Craig Lancaster conducts a Q&A with me on his excellent blog. Check it out here.

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Self-publishing has gone from being the last resort of the desperate and talentless to something more like out-of-town tryouts for theater or the farm system in baseball.

— Lev Grossman, Time magazine, Jan. 21, 2009

I put the question to nearly two dozen agents and editors at the recent Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference, and virtually all said the same thing: If a book is good, they will not reject it merely because you’ve published it already on your own.

As Kate Kennedy, an editor at a Random House imprint publisher, put it at the PNWA conference: “Anybody heard of a book called ‘The Shack'”?

Young initially printed just fifteen copies of his book. Two of his close friend encouraged him to have it published and assisted with some editing and rewriting in order to prepare the manuscript for publication. Rejected by 26 publishers, Young and his friends published the book under the name of their newly created publishing company, Windblown Media in 2007. The company spent only $300 in advertising ; word-of-mouth referrals eventually drove the book to number one on the New York Times paperback fiction best-seller list in June 2008.”The Shack” was the top-selling fiction and audio book of 2008 in America.

— From the Wikipedia page for William P. Young, author of The Shack


Agents and editors, I was assured, just treat a self-published book as an unconventional but hardly unwelcome way to receive a submission they’ve requested, based on a conventional query or pitch.

It may need extensive editing and restructuring, as well as a new title and new cover — but it may not need too much work if you’ve done what you should have done in the first place and subjected your manuscript to extensive peer reviewing and professional editing. (My good friend Craig Lancaster, who self-published his excellent first novel, “Six-Hundred Hours of a Life,” is going through this process now that his book has been picked up and is set to be republished this fall by Riverbend Publishing.)

Granted, most self-published authors don’t do this, but they don’t pollute the waters by association for a smart and savvy self-publisher in the eyes of industry gatekeepers. And there are more of those kinds of authors than ever, and more mainstream industry gatekeepers are sitting up and taking notice of them — as are major mainstream newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like Time. Your work as a self-publisher will be regarded on its own merits, they assure you.

“I don’t look down on it at all,” said Maria Gagliano, an editor with two Penguin Books imprints. “Among editors, I know, there isn’t a stigma.”

Added Brooke Warner, a Seal Press editor who conducted a PNWA conference workshop with Gagliano: “If you had asked that question four years ago, the answer probably would have been ‘yes,’ but the industry is changing. Self-publishing has come a long way, and we have taken notice. We’ve had to.”

Louise Burke, publisher of Pocket Books, said publishers now trawl for new material by looking at reader comments about self-published books sold online. Self-publishing, she said, is “no longer a dirty word.”

— Motoko Rich, The New York Times, Jan. 27, 2009

In fact, Gagliano and Warner said, a good self-published work may give you an edge with an agent and a publisher because it shows that you, the author, have already done the hard work of platform-building — you’ve walked the talk, put something of your own out there and put your time and money and energy into promoting and selling it.

Your passion, in other words, is the unspoken part of your pitch.

And it’s a damned attractive one in the publishing industry, because it often inspires the passions of those who can help the product of that passion find the widest possible audience.

I came into the conference thinking that I would probably self-publish my true-crime book — that an agent wouldn’t take it on because he or she couldn’t possibly make enough money from it, thanks to its largely regional appeal.

But, I reasoned, if I knocked myself out selling, say, 5,000 copies on my own, I could then approach a mainstream publisher and say, “Hey, what do you say we make some money together?” and have a hell of a good case for thinking it could be done.

As Elizabeth Wales, a Seattle-based agent who represents Northwest-based literary nonfiction, put it: “Breaking the rules in the right way is important.”

And nothing I heard during the conference told me I was wrong for thinking that. It was nice to have validated my carefully considered conjecture about the publishing business. I left thinking, “I just may make it yet on my own terms.”

That said, I am assured that some readers are still prejudiced against a self-published book because it’s considered by definition to be less professional — because it’s not been vetted by the gatekeepers of the industry for literary quality and market viability.

As my friend, author Ron Franscell, put it in a post on my Facebook wall: “The whole vanity/self-pub oeuvre hasn’t shaken its stigma with booksellers, readers and others. It remains largely the territory of unskilled, self-celebrated writers.”

He was concurring with my friend and former colleague Chad Lewis, a non-author, who said: “I — and many other book buyers — still look at self-published books and think ‘vanity project,’ because, many of them are. And there is still something to be said about knowing that someone in the publishing world thinking it has some merit or value before I lose $17. I’m not trying to be a jerk, just honest.”

They’re right.

And that’s OK.

It’s on me to change their minds.

Lucky for me, it’s a challenge I’ll enthusiastically embrace — now, more than ever.

Stay tuned.

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Two weeks ago, I attended the annual Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in Seatac, just south of Seattle. The PNWA is clear about the conference’s focus — to help unpublished authors gain the industry savvy they need in order to pitch their book projects and possibly even land publishing deals. It is a polite indoor version of a Persian bazaar.

It had been years since I’d attended a writer’s conference, but as an aspiring author with a book in the works, it made sense for me to make some contacts and get an up-close look at how the publishing industry works from the people who populate it.
In my case, I was pretty sure going in that I would be better off self-publishing my book — but I knew that I’d be foolish not to test that belief against the wisdoms of those of represented a potential alternative.

So, here’s one thing I took away:

“Platform” was by far the biggest buzzword of the entire three-day event.

Put simply, “platform” is what an author brings to the table when it comes time to sell and market a book — your credentials, your name recognition within your chosen field, your established abilities and willingness to work your ass off on the book’s behalf.

Why the need for platform? Because another heavily recurrent theme at the conference was this: The days of the publisher bankrolling and handling all of a book’s promotion and sales are over. It’s not just the recession; it’s a fundamental; shift in the economy of book publishing to meet new realities. While the publishers still put your books in all the mainstream distribution pipelines and give you some money or resources for publicity, it’s mostly on you (unless your name is Grisham or King or Cornwell or Evanovich) to make your book move.

If you think being an author means turning in your book and turning to your next one, book publishing isn’t for you and you’re likely to be deeply disappointed at how weak your book sales are. There are simply too many things competing for our attention these days; something that doesn’t even bother to try is unlikely to grab hold of our cerebral lapels.

You simply have to work like mad on a number of fronts to connect your work with the people you want to buy it. You must have a Web site. You must keep a blog. You must have an active presence on social networking sites. You must join associations, give readings, speak before any civic group that will have you. You must write articles in your field and sell them (or give them away). You must throw parties, host signings, appear at festivals, learn how to put yourself in the newspapers and on the radio and on Internet community sites. You often must arrange your own reviews (outside of the big boys like Publishers Weekly and the Library Journal) and put together your own tours. Sometimes you’ll have the help of a publicist, if your publisher pays for it … and sometimes you won’t. That all depends on factors within your publishing house that you can’t control.

In short, you must be out there. (And, really, aren’t most of us writers more than a little out there already?)

To a certain extent, I’m pointing out the obvious. I’m told that the “platform push” is pretty much standard-issue at most writer’s conferences nowadays, and authors like Lissa Warren and Portland’s Christina Katz are carving out a credible niche by helping would-be authors define and develop their platforms. And virtually everybody else in the business, like literary agent and popular blogger Nathan Bransford, hammers the point home every opportunity they get.

Then again, you might be surprised by how many people haven’t yet received the memo. On the first day of the PNWA conference, when the platform push was driven home at an agents’ panel discussion, I observed several dozen deeply disappointed faces all around me — mostly on the large number of middle-aged and elderly folks at the conference looking to make deals for their memoirs. Those folks, at least, harbored dreams of making the big time in old-school style.

It’s a beautiful dream. But that’s all it is, folks.

The good news for me: I knew all this going in, because I’d been doing my homework for months. And I actually look forward to it. I frankly think that being a reclusive Thomas Pynchon type would be boring, and the appeal of his “mystique” is utterly lost on me. I look forward to promoting my book because I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than use something I believe in to connect with people who might want to hear about it (that, is, that doesn’t involve the words, “I’d like to talk to you about Jesus”). I not only want to collect readers, I want to collect friends. And, as a longtime member of the news media, I have a few ideas about how that might smartly be done.

In fact, if you’re here, it’s just possible that maybe I’ve already figured it out. Maybe.

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