Thursday, March 26, 2015

Idle Away!

Okay, this is what I do while waiting for other people to put the finishing touches on Jenny's Revenge. The new Steve Dancy is coming soon, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy my amateur filmmaking.

Western fiction action adventure historic novels
Honest Westerns ... filled with dishonest characters.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Surfing, editing, and sipping umbrella drinks

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Kailua Beach and The Mokolua Islands

The Jenny's Revenge manuscript arrived back from my editor. I happen to be in Hawaii visiting family, surfing gentle Waikiki waves, and sipping umbrella drinks. My brother and his wife have graciously hosted us in their home in Kailua. Our visit to paradise was been slightly marred by a quick trip to a discount store to buy blankets because the weather is unusually cold. I've never shivered on any of my previous trips to Hawaii.

Since we mostly laze about, I've had time to make some progress on the edits to my manuscript. This is my eighth book working with the same editor, and I always delude myself that this time the manuscript is near perfect. Nothing doing. Red scars every page. Rather than just accept all the edits, I go through them one at a time. I find that I reject only about one in twenty, but every once in a while my editor makes a mistake and I revel in it. Speaking of mistakes, my first editor is my wife. She's supposed to catch all of my mistakes, which allows me to blame her for the red ink. She claims she is no more successful correcting my writing errors than fixing my personality flaws. They're both just too numerous. Oh well, c'est le vie.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Cover Up!

We finally decided on a cover for Jenny’s Revenge, A Steve Dancy Tale. I won’t show it to you because it would dilute the book launch. (In truth, the designer has to do a few nips and tucks before we have a final product.)

During the course of our selection, I found an interesting article titled: What Makes for a Brilliant Book Cover? A Master Explains. The master is Peter Mendelsund, who designed the book cover for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo among many other titles. (You can see some of the rejected Girl covers by following the link.)

Here are quotes I like from the article:
historical fiction action adventure
“On one level, dust jackets are billboards. They’re meant to lure in potential readers.”
“A truly great jacket is one that captures the book inside it in some fundamental and perhaps unforeseen way.”
“If this author got a big advance, then you’re going to have to jump through some flaming hoops.”
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: It had to have what designers refer to as ‘the Big Book Look.’ In other words: really, really big text … Mendelsund did what he describes as the ‘dumbass thing’ of echoing the title visually on the cover itself, putting the text on top of an image of… a dragon tattoo. It was the rare case in which a novel had so much momentum that the best thing a designer could do was stay out of the way … The design featured at least one small victory against the obvious: the bright yellow backdrop … ‘Up until that point, I would defy you to find a dark gothic thriller with a day-glow cover,’ he says.”
I’ve written a number of articles about book cover because they are important. People really do judge a book by its cover. Something to keep in mind, however, is that until an author breaks into the NYT Bestseller List, the spine is the most important because that is all that will show on the shelf of a brick and mortar bookstore.

Western historical fiction series
Honest Westerns ...
filled with dishonest characters

When we selected the cover for the first Steve Dancy Tale, we used an L. A. Huffman Montana Territory portrait from around 1880. Most genre Westerns displayed an illustrated action cover in eye-catching colors. We went with black and white photography to signal that The Shopkeeper was a different kind of Western. We've stuck with black and white period photography ever since.

The designer is my son by the way. I’m getting back his tuition from that pricey art school one book cover at a time.  When we did the cover for The Return, the fourth book in the series, I asked if my name could be larger. He informed me that when my name became bigger than the title, I’d be toast.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Birthdays Used to be Fun

Arthur: “Do you want anything?”
Hobson: “I want to be younger.”

Today is my birthday. My present is a trip to Hawaii to surf in calm waves in warm water and visit my brother and his wife. It will be fun. The trip, that is, not necessarily my birthday. When I was a kid, I wanted birthdays to come sooner because with enough of them I could become a freewheeling adult. I discovered adulthood didn't include as many privileges as I expected, but birthdays remained great fun. At least for a few decades. Now ... not so much. Instead of blowing a party horn, I catalogue my aches and pains. In truth, I’m grateful to be relatively fit, with a great family and loving wife. 

My biggest problem is remembering to get up from my writing chair to get some exercise. I become so engrossed with my characters, I sometimes have to cause a distasteful dispute so I can leave them to their own devices. When I return from a long walk or an hour of surfing, my characters’ tempers have abated enough that I can get on with the story. I know you think I’m kidding, but …

I'll leave you with my life’s goal. I want to be the first person over one hundred years old to break the four-minute mile. This may sound tough, but I intend to train for an entire decade to achieve this goal. It will be hard and consuming work. Thank goodness my ninetieth birthday is still far off in the future. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Ski Slopes and Ghosts Galore

I just returned from a week of skiing at Heavenly overlooking Lake Tahoe. Judging by the price of lift tickets, there’s gold on them thar hills. Warren Miller used to say your knees had only so many bends, so you might as well spend them skiing. I agree, but we needed a day to rest up after racing down slope after slope to get our money’s worth, so we took a day trip to the ghost town of Bodie, California.

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Bodie, California

If you really want to feel a ghost town, I suggest you visit one in the dead of winter. We had the fortune of exploring Bodie on a clear day, with no snow on the ground, and temperatures in the mid-sixties. We had the unearthly emptiness all to ourselves. Eerie.

wild west, old west, mining history
Bodie General Store
Western ghost town
Bodie General Store

Waterman S. Body discovered gold at this remote location in 1859, but the real heyday for the  Bodie mining camp occurred in the late 1870s and early 1880s. According to the guidebook, “By 1879 Bodie boasted a population of about 10,000 and was second to none for wickedness, badmen, and ‘the worst climate out of doors.’ One little girl, whose family was taking her to the remote and infamous town, wrote in her diary: ‘Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie.’”

Restrooms closed for the winter,
so we had to go native

I like ghost towns, especially when allowed to explore on my own. You can learn a lot about how people lived in bygone days. Bodie has fairly intact homes, churches, a general store, school, barber’s shop, fire house, a hotel with restaurant, and saloons aplenty. The gymnasium equipment includes a punching bag, pull-up bar, weights, and other paraphernalia. One of the biggest and most impressive buildings is a miner’s union hall. All this with nary a ranger in sight ... at least not one away from the comfort of his vehicle in the parking lot.

The next day we returned to Heavenly. Unfortunately, we didn’t have this particular mountain to ourselves. Lots of people, loads of people, all zipping around unaware of the poor ghosts eager for callers just a couple of hours down the road.

My favorite ghost town is Candelaria, Nevada, the opening location for The Shopkeeper. In the book, I called the town Pickhandle Gulch, which was actually a suburb of Caldelaria.

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Candelaria, Nevada
(aka Pickhandle Gulch)
bestselling western fiction
Author photo of Candelaria

Monday, February 16, 2015

To Each His Own

Some author’s dread poor reviews from readers. I like to hear what readers think and find I learn more from critical reviews. Besides, what some readers find objectionable, other readers enjoy. I never had a better example than today when I received two Amazon reviews that had exactly opposite takes on a major plot element of The Return.

Click to enlarge

Marilyn says, "Not as good the previous books in the series. Get Steve Dancy back to the West where he seems at home."

While another Amazon Customer wrote, "Enjoyed the Western theme, along with the Edison involvement. New York gangs added flavor that made this a great read."

No author can please every reader and it's career suicide to try. Don't ignore poor reviews because they can help  you become  a better writer, but keep your focus on the total weight of  all of  your reviews.  Every writer will get a few bad reviews, so take them with a grain of salt. 

BTW, Jenny’s Revenge went to editor last Friday. Yea! Now I have time to play, so … I’m off for a week ski vacation at Lake Tahoe. How’s that for timing: I finished Jenny’s Revenge at the same time California finally gets a decent dump of snow. Heavenly, here I come.

western fiction action adventure suspense
Honest Westerns ... filled with dishonest characters.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Too much information

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Speed bumps take readers out of the story.

The final throes of revising Jenny’s Revenge reminded me that too much information doesn't help a story. Nothing bores a reader more than needless explanations about trivial matters the reader can fill in for themselves. Pointless factoids, excessive description, and extraneous words make an otherwise good novel clunky and laborious. 

This old lesson has special application to my writing because I have a need to neatly tie up every little thing. My brain somehow requires an explanation for every action by every character. This is important for the main plot, but can be distracting when it comes to tributaries. In fact, some tributaries can turn the plotline into a muddy mess. I also have a habit of siring orphans. In an initial draft, I'll launch a subplot, never to return to it. Most readers may not remember the distraction, but the dead end will irritate those that do. More often than not, I find a simple solution: send the orphan to the bit bucket. 

My goal during revision is to cut everything that doesn’t move the story forward. Goals aren’t always achieved, so it helps to have trusted critics that will give you honest feedback. Revision is not an event, but a process that encompasses several iterations.

This is why I believe good novels are not written, they’re rewritten. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Wells Fargo Rules for Stage Travelers—Updated

In the Old West, stage travel took patience and stamina. Wells Fargo published a set of rules for passengers meant to make an unpleasant experience at least tolerable. Deadwood Magazine suggests these same rules might make modern travel more civil. We'd have to throw out Wells Fargo's Rule #6, but the other 8 rules would make air travel more agreeable.

So, in the interest of travelers everywhere, here are a few rules of my own:
  • Play nice with the flight attendantsthe rest of us want them in a good mood
  • Use drugs and liquor lightly … or so heavily you pass out and leave others alone
  • Turn off game sounds
  • If you’re going to hog overhead storage, at least don’t wear a put-upon expression
  • Armrests are community propertyremember what you learned in kindergarten
  • If you can’t remember the last time you bathed, it was too long ago
  • Drop the F-word and add please and thank you to your vocabulary
  • Air travel is not a nesting opportunityresist the urge to haul along heaps of stuff
  • Forget Mr. Rogersyou really aren’t special

Now that I’m on the subject, I’ll tell you about my most memorable airplane incident. I was stuck in a middle seat, which always makes me cranky. The man in the aisle seat came aboard and stowed his briefcase in the overhead. Suddenly, the woman in the window seat shoved me and ordered me to let her out. Before I could move, the woman yelled at the man that he had laid his briefcase on top of her fur coat. He appeared startled at her assault but politely said she couldn’t take up the whole bin by laying her coat length ways.  She immediately shoved me again and demanded to get out. I struggled to get into the aisle, but now the man blocked my exit. Yelling went back and forth and all I could think about was that I had to spend five hours crushed between two warring parties.

Just before the flight attendant worked her way to our row, the man yelled, “Lady, I can tell you what you can do with that fur. You can

“Don’t you say it,” she yelled back.

It looked like nothing could defuse the situation, and then a passenger about three rows back yelled, “Hey lady, the last time that fur was on an animal, it was laying in the dirt.”

The whole plane burst out in laughter. The chagrined woman retook her seat and never uttered another peep for the entire flight. I read in blissful silence.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Escape from Death Valley

My wife and I just returned from Death Valley after a week of motor-homing in the hottest place on earth. The valley has amiable place names like Dead Man’s Pass, Funeral Mountain, Coffin Canyon, Hell’s Gate, Devil’s Hole, Suicide Pass, and my favoriteDripping Blood Cliffs. This is rugged terrain. Or, as a local newspaper reported in 1907, "it has all the advantages of Hell without the inconveniences."

It’s even true that you can fry an egg on the sidewalk, but the rangers are tired of cleaning up the mess and suggest tourists instead fry their eggs on the hood of their car.

Good thing for us that it’s January. The daytime temperature only reached the mid-seventies and nighttime required a sweatshirt, a large fire, and a beverage suitable for sipping. We had a great time and I learned quite a bit about the region.

Everyone loves the story of Walter Scott, known far and wide as Death Valley Scotty. Scotty was a flimflam man who despite being discover as a fraud, successfully ingratiated himself to his rich mark, a man named Albert Mussey Johnson. Johnson was so enthralled with the con man that he supported Scotty for the remainder of his long life. Scotty told great stories and entertained the Johnsons and their innumerable guests. Most people conclude that if you’re glib enough the world is your oyster. I took away a different lesson. As a cast member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Scotty knew the lure of Western mythos. Johnson, on the other hand, was a longtime wannabe cowboy. Scotty didn’t just tell stories, he delivered the Old West right into Johnson’s Death Valley parlor.

The whole episode reminded me of the western frontier's power of renewal. The chance to start a new life is the real reason tens of thousands abandoned their home for the Old West.  Here’s a quote from an Article I wrote a few years ago: Is the Mythology of the Old West Dead?
“The West, outer space, the future, or a make-believe land represents a new beginning in a fresh place away from home-the shrugging off of disappointments and a chance to start all over again. The romance and adventure of frontiers draws people desperate to escape the travails of their current existence. We've seen this in real life with the migrations to the New World and the Old West, but today many people satisfy this longing vicariously with fiction. If you're poor, your family makes you miserable, you've committed an act that offends society, or wanderlust has gripped you, then the adventure and limitless opportunity of a frontier beckons like a siren's call. Emigrating to a frontier means you get a do-over in a land with no rules, no fences, no referees.”
To me, this is the real lesson from Walter Scott and Albert Johnson. Johnson had been diagnosed to die young and had lived his life indoors accumulating wealth as a Chicago businessman. He loved the idea of a Wild West and Scotty delivered it for him. In addition, the dryness of Death Valley gave him a longer life and relief from his incessant pain. Of course, Johnson built his homeScotty’s Castlewith all the citified luxuries of the early twentieth century. Scotty's Castle was both a mirage and oasis safely tucked away in a barren wilderness.

As John Wayne said, “The fascination that the Old West has will never die."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

What? I've already burned a week of 2015?

We celebrated the New Year with our kids and six grandchildren. It was a blast … and tiring.  Great start of a new year, but this morning, when I had an opportunity to catch my breath, I realized I had already burned a week of 2015. Wasn’t it a little over a month ago that computers threatened Armageddon at the turn of the century? Time flies, especially when you’re having fun. If slowing down time requires staying bored, I guess I’ll opt for a mad dash to the finish line.

Frontier America
Death Valley 20 Mule Teams

pacific ocean and beach
Our home for the next week ... minus the ocean

Speaking of staying busy, we head out Friday for a week of camping in Death Valley, although it seems a stretch to call it camping when we'll be living in a friend’s 40+ foot diesel pusher motorhome. Our transit and sojourn will be considerably more comfortable than the twenty-mule teams that used to haul borax across the valley to a rail spur. Those hardy teamsters thought a fringed whorehouse pillow positioned between their buttocks and the wood bench was the lap of luxury. I have to admit that I enjoy investigating frontier lifestyles with modern conveniences close at hand … especially flush toilets.

It’s been years since I visited Death Valley National Park and I’m looking forward to it. But planning the trip brought a thought to mind. Cattle drives, 20 mule teams, and the Pony Express are iconic imageries of the Wild West, but none actually lasted long. Although ranching and cowboys exist today, the great cattle drives had a relatively short lifespan of about twenty years. 20 Mule teams lasted only six years. The Pony Express operated for only eighteen months. All three of these frontier enterprises related to transportation, and all were obsoleted by the American penchant for speed. Our hell-bent for leather culture demands that we get stuff faster and faster. Nothing lasts unless it figures out how to deliver goods or services quicker tomorrow than it did yesterday.

For the most part, speed serves us well … except for passing through life. In that particular case, I think scrubbing off a bit of speed would be beneficial. Come to think of it, I’ll make one more New Year’s resolution: stop on occasion to smell the roses. 

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e-books, delivered at the speed of light ... well, sort of

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas and have a Great 2015

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We're off to San Diego to escape winter in Nebraska. If the body is willing, I also hope to get in a little surfing. Actually, we don't have much planned. Just kick back and relax and finish revising Jenny's Revenge. Well, on second thought, we are going to Newport Beach with the families, camping in Death Valley for a week, having lots of company, flying to New York for a visit, and plan at least one ski trip to the Lake Tahoe resorts. Perhaps it won't be as kicked-back as I imagine. Oh well, it'll be fun.

Oh, and one more thing ... remember where to spend those Amazon Gift cards.

action adventure, suspense, mystery