Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Growing Up in a Movie

I grew up in the South Bay. This post was prompted when I watched the above video of my old stomping grounds. The South Bay was the nickname for the beach cities south of Malibu and Santa Monica, which included Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Torrance, and the three cities on the Palos Verdes peninsula. My homes were in Redondo Beach, and then Torrance for most of high school. The South Bay in the Sixties: a wonderful place and time to be a teenager.

At fourteen, my mother allowed me to tuck a canvas surf raft under my arm and walk to the beach with friends. This was early in the morning because the waves were best before the cooling onshore breezes picked up. After hours of riding waves on our rubbed-raw bellies, we lunched at Taco Bell, and wandered home by way of a variety store on Pacific Coast Highway. No one bothered us and we were only mildly bothersome to others. Everything was cool at home as long as I wasn’t late for supper.

My high school years were great. I exchanged my raft for a surfboard and joined the surfer clique. High school was different back then. They had rules against leaving campus during class hours and most of us brought lunch from home. Getting caught playing hooky got an immediate three-day suspension, which made no sense because our misbehavior rewarded us with three more days of surfing. The dress code was strict, but self-imposed. Surfers wore 401 Levis, a white tee from Penny’s, and a blue nylon windbreaker. Tennis shoes were the only variable and they had to be the latest trend. I groaned whenever I spotted our style leader sporting a different brand or style of shoe because it meant another argument with my cash-strapped mom.

Early high school was my period of delinquency. We requisitioned little red wagons without permission from our siblings. After hammering together some two-by-fours and nailing on a few carpet remnants, we attached the wagon wheels to make a surfboard hauler to tow behind our bicycles. One wagon provided wheels for two surfboard carriers. Somehow, we thought this justified our vandalism. Actually, finding the wagon under a pile of garage junk convinced us that nobody would notice the Radio Flyer somehow sat closer to the ground. (Washers and dryers were in the garage in those days and mothers notice everything.) At this late date, I’d like to apologize to our younger brothers and sisters.

Now, instead of walking to the beach, we rode bikes in packs, which irritated more than a few drivers hurrying to work. Couldn’t be helped. We had to get to the beach before seven in the morning so we could surf three or so hours before the wind came up and tourists defiled our paradise. We didn’t like tourists, or any non-surfer, for that matter. We did like their bikini-clad daughters, however, so we hung around until late afternoon.

Our life was perfect. They even made movies about us. You might think I mean the Beach Party films, but we thought they were dreadful. Evidently the multitudes that lived east of Pacific Coast Highway didn’t share our opinion. Unbelievable to us, Hollywood took this horrible film and made six sequels, each progressively worse. The popularity of Annette in a bikini incited an invasion of our beaches by Inlanders.

Anette in her thong bekini
Bruce Brown before Endless Summer

They did make movies about us we liked. In fact, we went to see them in droves, filling school auditoriums to watch live narrated surf films by Bruce Brown, John Severson, and Bud Brown. It was raucous. Wild yelling, screaming, and pounding on seat backs. These were real, and we all dreamed of being highlighted in one of these films or in Surfer Magazine. Actually, Hollywood came around to make some pretty good depictions of our life. Big Wednesday, starring Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey came close, while Lifeguard with Sam Elliott got it pitch perfect.

Sam Elliott in first leading man role

Our teenage years had a custom soundtrack, as well. The Beach Boys and Dick Dale made music about our lives, although we normally only listened to the Beach Boys because our girlfriends liked them. Then we called them gremmies, today they’d be posers. Songs were pretty good though … and again, they were about our lives.

Dick Dale, the real deal
The Beach Boys, not so much

So we had movies, music, and magazines dedicated to our lifestyle. And surfing was the rage across the fruited plains. Everyone wanted to be like us. You probably think that made us feel special. You betcha! We knew we had it good. It was a magic moment. The roots of the surfing culture came before, and you can find remnants to this day, but for a few years, everything came together to create a perfect coming-of-age experience. 

Related Post: Idle Away! showing I still surf on occassion.

P.S. Someone once asked why I didn't write about a surfing protagonist. Disappointing question because the hero in The Shut Mouth Society is a surfer. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Writing Advice from George Orwell

Orwell's Rules
35 cents for a Masterpiece
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Orwell's Questions
  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
  5. Could I put it more shortly?
  6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Friday, May 8, 2015

Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Hercule Poirot, and Harry Potter

The above names are fictional. Make-believe people known the world over. How does a branded character come about? They must be difficult to create because there are few of them. Strong characters, however, are not rare. Think of Elizabeth Bennet, Tom Sawyer, Captain Ahab, Rhett Butler, or Hannibal Lecter to name a few. But for the most part, these were one-offs, while a branded character returns time and again, frequently leaping from the printed page to the screen and stage.

A branded character can be literary, but more often he or she would be
more properly defined as well-crafted. After all, the prime attribute of a branded character is renown … and nothing common can be literary. (Just ask Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Austen, or Twain.)

There’s another characteristic of branded characters: they are enormously lucrative. The inventors of Holmes, Bond, Poirot, and Potter didn’t want for material things. I’m hoping that one day Mr. Dancy will be my meal ticket, but right now there’s another character hogging the limelight. Care to guess who’s today’s strongest branded character? Forbes chewed on the numbers and the winner is … Jack Reacher. It appears Lee Child has the strongest reader loyalty of any bestselling author.

I like Lee Child books, but personally prefer Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger. You can’t argue with Child’s 70 million in sales. David Vinjamuri in Forbes writes, “But what’s most interesting about Lee Child’s creation is not the size of the brand but its strength. Child doesn’t have the largest following among bestselling authors: just over a third of book shoppers are aware of him versus the more than 95% who know John Grisham and the 99% aware of Stephen King, both of whom have sold more books. But while just under a quarter of Grisham and King’s readers count either man as their favorite author nearly a third of Reacher readers mark Child as their favorite.”

If you want to invent a branded character, I suggest reading the article. Vinjamuri provides some insight. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Review of Jenny's Revenge

Jenny's Revenge, A Steve Dancy Tale by James D. Best

What Would the Founders Think? has reviewed Jenny's Revenge. In the  past, I have been a contributor to this site. Despite our chummy relationship, I'm sure this review is, if you'll excuse the expression, nonpartisan. Actually, Martin is a great book reviewer and is sent advance copies from many major publishers.

He says, "The story races along at break-neck speed and concludes with some surprising alliances and betrayals. Along the way, there are slimy politicians, crooked lawyers and lethal gunfighters."

Jenny's Revenge, A Steve Dancy Tale

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Jenny's Revenge, A Steve Dancy Tale

western historical fiction
Honest Westerns ... filled with dishonest characters.

At long last, Jenny's Revenge is available ... at least in e-book formats. The fifth in the Steve Dancy series is available on Kindle and Nook and soon in the iBook store for Apple. Unfortunately, the print version is still about six weeks away. This is my first publication where the e-book and print version weren't published simultaneous, but in case you haven't heard, computers move faster than printing presses.

Here's a synopsis:
Jenny Bolton has plans, and they don’t bode well for Steve Dancy. 
Married at fifteen to a Nevada politician, Jenny suffered repeated assaults, witnessed her husband's ghastly murder, buried her vile mother-in-law, and killed a man. Dancy, who had once served as her paladin, rejected her without as much as a goodbye. Abandoned on a raw frontier, she's single-handedly building an empire that spans the state. Despite her triumphs, she feels she never should have been left alone. 
Soon to marry, Steve is eager to begin a new life unaware that Jenny is mad for revenge.
I hope you enjoy the book, and thank you for reading the Steve Dancy Tales.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Actor James Best Died Yesterday

James Best (1926-2015)
This makes me sad. Although I never met the man, I always felt connected with him, especially during the time I lived in Los Angeles. When I called for a reservation at a good restaurant, they often asked if I was the actor. Although tempted to borrow his fame, I always answered no. Fans have written assuming I was the actor, and my books were temporarily listed under his name on IMDB. He's the reason I use my middle initial when I write.

If I'm going to be confused with someone, I'm glad it was Mr. Best. From all accounts, he was a fine human being.

Monday, March 30, 2015

How to become an overnight success!

cute cat humor
Fame is but 70,000 words away

Recently I talked with an aspiring writer who felt unsure about her first novel. She asked how I started. Specifically, she wanted to know if I tried nonfiction, short pieces, or just jumped directly into a novel. She wanted to know if I had help. Did I take classes, use a writing coach, or read books about the craft of writing. The questions came in a torrent. My response, a single syllable.


I always wanted to be a novelist. In fact, I started college as an English major. I could tell a good story, but my grammar and spelling embarrassed me so often, I switched to economics. I never again thought about writing until I had a brilliant idea for a novel. That idea started me on an extended foray into abject disillusionment and rejection. After shoe boxes full of rejections, an agent took the time to tell me that my book was crap, although he did give me credit for an intriguing storyline. The bottom of his short note read, “Writing is a profession, leave it to people who know what they’re doing.”

No more writing for years.

Then an interesting event took place. A professional journal approached me for an article about a technology success I had managed as CIO for a major corporation. That’s when I discovered editors. My piece laid out our technical project as a story about overcoming challenges, but my spelling and grammarafter all these yearsstill needed help. The editor not only fixed my flaws, but showed me every change she had made. I went through each and every one trying to learn how to do a better job next time. There were seven more “next times,” and each journal article improved until I felt I was getting the hang of writing.

Next, I started writing magazine articles. These were still nonfiction, technical pieces, but I branched away from computers to write about other subjects. But not for long. In a fit of optimism, I put together a proposal for a nonfiction book about managing computer professionals.

There’s an old saying in publishing that nonfiction depends on credentials and fiction depends on platform. Like a lot of clichés, this one has some truth to it. Because of my title as CTO of a Fortune 50 company, my book acquired an agent and publisher lickety-split. This endeavor became The Digital Organization, published by Wiley &Sons. The entire experience was a nightmare. Now, I discovered a new kind of editornot one who fixed my transgressions, but one with the power to dictate content. The process was glacial. Not a good attribute for a book about the speed-of-light computer industry. I vowed never again to invest so much time on a book with a shelf-life measured in nano-seconds.

After a few failed nonfiction proposals, I wanted to try my hand at fiction again. I started by reading books that promised to teach the craft of novel writing. Definitely a mixed bag. After I got five chapters of my novel as close to perfect as possible, I hired a writing coach from Gotham Writers' Workshop. I discovered I had underestimated perfect. Despite a manuscript spattered with red ink, the coach was highly encouraging. She believed my book had serious potential and gave me numerous tips on how to get it to a professional level. Upon finishing Tempest at Dawn, I easily acquired an agent with McIntosh & Otis. I was going to be famous.

Not so much. The agent shopped the book around and received enough positive feedback to keep the effort up for a couple of years, but in the end, everyone decided to “pass” on my novel about the Constitutional Convention. In the meantime, I wrote a western titled The Shopkeeper, and a series was born.

I have now written seven novels, two nonfiction books, and ghostwritten books for celebrities. All of them have done respectable, but it was the Steve Dancy character who caught readers’ attention. The enthusiasm for the series surprised me, especially among women readers. I thought Westerns were dead. Instead, I discovered an eager audience for traditional heroes who dispatch bad men. 

And the best part: Westerns have a looong shelf life. Just ask Louis L’Amour. 

action adventure bestselling fiction
Coming soon: Jenny's Revenge, A Steve Dancy Tale

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.