A session with Craig Lancaster
Because a writer can’t write all the time—or, at least, this writer can’t—I’ve long had a parallel career on the production side of publishing, mostly as an editor and a publication designer. These two strands of my professional life have always lain together agreeably. When I do sit down to write, I’m aided considerably by the time I’ve spent away from it, filling my cup with experiences and considerations and by being on the other side of the equation, seeing what goes into good writing and providing some guidance in getting there.
It was in this second iteration of my life in letters—the editing and publishing side—that an intriguing question recently came across the transom, dispatched by one of my editing clients:
What do you do as an author when you read one of your books, feel you are a much better writer now, and see things you would never do today? Is it just a kind of existential angst? Give me some words of wisdom...
Standing in an aisle at a supermarket, I thumbed back my reply on my phone:
Take the lesson and apply it to the next book. No book ever comes out if you can’t let it go.
There’s more to say about this, of course, which is why I’m pounding the keyboard today, but I know this client and know where his delicacies and insecurities lie, and I knew that answer—the shorter, the better—would resonate with him. That he feels he is getting better is a good thing. It is, in fact, the best thing. That’s the fuel for every book that is yet unwritten. It is the most reliable gauge by which to measure one’s own progress, for it’s the one metric accessible only by the person to whom it belongs. Sales, royalties, advances, press, awards—these are all important measures, but they’re also transient and heavily influenced by subjectivism. To have the inner sense of your own growth as an artist or a craftsman is to have the gumption to sit down and do it, again and again.
It’s helpful, I think, for writers to have a good internal sense of what this means for their own work. I’m ten books in—nine published, one on the runway—and the bar I’ve tried to clear, every time, looks something like this: This is the best book I was capable of writing at the time I undertook it, reflecting my best vision for the story I was attempting to tell. I won’t let go of a story until I’ve satisfied that standard within myself.
But I do let go. That’s the second part of how I advised my client.
Here, it helps to take a bifurcated view of what a piece of writing is, or what it aspires to become: It’s a piece of art and a piece of commerce.
The artistic sense is you in your lonely garrison, trying to please an audience of one: yourself. You hone the ideas and the words. You agonize over the choices. You try to bring form to concepts. You wrestle with your doubts and your insecurities. You try to find your way through. What you’re working on is for you and you alone. What a glorious experience that can be.
Somewhere in that journey, however, if you’re writing with the hope of a tangible artifact and an audience, your thinking must expand. Who wants to read this? What other books have they read that might make them a likely audience for your book? How will a publisher, if that’s what you’re after, position this book? The turn here is both subtle and jarring, because the thing that led you to sit down and write in the first place—I have something special to say, and I have to get it out—is of less consequence to the commerce end of things. Comps are important. Track records are important, and if there’s no track record, let’s say it again: Comps are important. Yes, yes, your art is important, too, but perhaps not in the same prism by which you view it.
This is where the letting go happens. I’m not a parent, so maybe it’s heresy for me to use parenthood as a metaphor, but it rather strikes me like this: You raise the little one up. You nurture and you develop and you try to make sound choices and you imbue it with hope and aspiration. And then the time comes to push your baby--your grown, mature, full-size baby—out into the waiting world, to be what it’s going to be.
You let it go.
It’s hard, so very hard.
It’s also where you were headed from the very beginning.
About the Author…
CRAIG LANCASTER is the author of nine novels, including the bestselling Edward series (600 Hours of Edward, Edward Adrift, and Edward Unspooled), as well as a collection of short stories.
600 Hours of Edward, his debut, was a Montana Honor Book and the 2010 High Plains Book Award winner for best first book. His work has also been honored by the Utah Book Awards (The Summer Son) and with an Independent Publisher Book Awards gold medal (the short story collection The Art of Departure), among other citations.
Lancaster lives in Billings, Montana, with his wife, author Elisa Lorello, a dog named Fretless, and a cat named Spatz.