Sunday, June 30, 2013

Yep, It’s hot!

There is a saying in Arizona that the state has only two seasons: winter and hell. I guess it’s no longer winter. I made a mistake on Friday. I went barefoot to the curb to bring in the empty trash barrel. It’s not that far, but I was soon skipping on my toes in a vain attempt to remain airborne. Here are a few one-liners to make you grateful you live in New Jersey.

It's so hot in Arizona that...

·         you burn your hand opening the car door.
·         seat belt makes a pretty good branding iron.
·         it takes only 2 fingers to drive your car.
·         the best parking place is determined by shade, not distance.
·         farmers feed chickens crushed ice to keep them from laying hard-boiled eggs.
·         trees whistle for the dogs.
·         hot water comes out of both taps.
·         it's noon, kids are on summer vacation, and not one person is out on the streets.
·         you realize that asphalt has a liquid state.

Everybody have a great summer.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Jane Austen's Unpublished Work

bestselling famous authors
I’m a Jane Austen fan. That probably seems odd since I’m male and write Westerns. The Wild West and English countryside have little in common. But I’m talking about writing, not venue. I admire great dialogue and consider Jane Austen the champion. (My books tend to be dialogue driven, but I don’t consider myself in the same league with Ms. Austen.) 

Although good description is essential, I seldom find myself stopping to admire a piece of prose describing the landscape. But perfect dialogue stops me every time. My fascination with dialogue probably comes from my own inept retorts. I always think of the right thing to say hours later. Writing novels, I can return to a scene and insert a whiz-bang snippet of dialogue any time I want. Fiction is great.

The mantra of writing is show, don’t tell. Dialogue is an effective way to show character. Here is an example from Pride and Prejudice. This is the reader’s first introduction to Mr. Bennet.

Mrs. Bennet says,
"Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion for my nerves' "

"You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least."

In fifty-eight words, Austen has gone a long way in showing us the character of two major figures in her story. 

I bring Austen up because I found a website with her unpublished work in both manuscript and transcribed formats--side by side. Most of this is not her best work, but writers and Austen enthusiasts may find it interesting. You can find it here.

Related Posts:

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Inferno by Dan Brown—A Crummy Book

Book Review
At the time of this writing, Inferno by Dan Brown has nearly 5,000 Amazon reviews for 3.9 stars. Since I thought this was a poor novel, I’m going against the grain. I would give it 3 stars if it was written by a developing author, but it only gets 2 stars in my book because it’s obviously been thrown together by an apparently waning writer.

There is an adage in writing that the author should never let his or her research show. When the action is stopped to pontificate about some factoid, it jerks the reader out of the story. This is forgivable once in a while when the story is good. Inferno does not have a strong story and Brown commits this offense countless times. The reader can imagine him getting a VIP tour around a historic site and Brown peppering his escort with questions about passageways and trivia. He let the locations define the story instead of making the locations a backdrop. This makes for a mediocre travel guide and a lousy novel. All plot, no story.

If Robert Ludlum didn’t invent the chase novel, he perfected it. The basic formula is that a man and a woman meet, there are murders, the bewildered couple become suspects and run, they are chased by good guys and bad guys from one exotic place to another, and a puzzle must be solved or bad stuff will happen to the world and our protagonists. Ludlum made you feel for the characters’ plight, but Brown uses characters like historic sites to merely carry the plot. The reader doesn’t know Brown’s characters. They are as enigmatic as the puzzle. I don’t criticize Brown for adopting this formula. (I used it in The Shut Mouth Society.) I criticize him for mimicking Ludlum’s voice with single declarative sentences meant to hammer a point, and even copying Ludlum’s amnesia device from the Bourne series.

In short, The Inferno was lazy writing.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Janine Turner Reads My Essay on Constituting America


Janine Turner
Last March I had the privilege of writing an essay for Constituting America. The essay was abour “An Election Sermon by Gad Hitchcock.” When I checked my site for broken links, I discovered that Janine Turner had read my essay aloud and added it to the post. She does a great job. You can read or listen to the essay here.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Slice of Life vs. Bigger Than Life

Superheroes are the polar opposite of a slice of life. Killing lifeless zombies, evil vampires, extraterrestrial aliens, or bad witches is not a slice of most people’s lives. At least, not people I know. Popular culture has a hard time seeing that Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird makes Gerry Lane in World War Z look like a wimp. Our heroes live in a fantasy world because heroics in real life are make-believe.

Hollywood is especially prone to fantasy. Sherlock Holmes was a cerebral detective until reincarnated by Robert Downey Jr. as a martial arts action hero. Hansel & Gretel kill witches with weapons a gamester would love. The Lone Ranger wields guns and fists like a superhero and can even leap tall buildings in a single bound. The trend is to go extreme, the more extreme, the better.

Comedy has become unworldly, as well. Real people are not that outrageous, uncouth, or ill mannered. The problem with being edgy is that you have to continuously venture ever closer to the precipice. Would On Golden Pond, As Good as it Gets, or When Harry Met Sally get green lighted today. Probably only if they added some never-before-seen shocks. (Okay, shoving Simon’s dog Verdel down the garbage chute probably qualifies.)

Am I arguing for a return to slice of life stories? Not really. I like action/adventure, clever dialogue comedies, and especially mystery/suspense stories. And I write Westerns. None of which fit in the slice of life genre. I would prefer, however, more variety in contemporary fiction and film. Fiction is not as big of a problem because good books stay around and there are thousands still waiting for me. Movies are different. When I look at a theater listing and six out of eight films are about men and women that can deflect a bullet with a sword, slice a monster’s head off while leaping six feet off the floor, or throw a paralyzing blow from a piece of stick, I usually end up staying home to watch yet another permutation of CSI. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Would You Care for a Slice?

I don’t believe there are only seven basic stories types, or that all stories are about “a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” Stories span a long continuum, with hard reality at one end and pure fantasy at the other.

One of the categories used to describe stories is slice of life. This moniker means the story describes mundane events that could happen to anyone. This is where literary authors shine. Great writing is supposed to make slice of life fiction engaging and enlightening.

Illustrators have always worked with storytellers

This kind of thinking has sent many aspiring authors down a path to oblivion. In truth, there are no pure slice of life books. At least, not any successful ones. Look at Little Women, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Help, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, or anything by Jane Austen. These books may seem mundane or low key on the surface, but the authors are expert storytellers. Take The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency as an example. Most of Ramotswe’s cases are mundane to the point of being inconsequential, but the investigations are as suspenseful as any Agatha Christi murder. To Kill a Mockingbird and The Help artfully reveal courage in commonplace social situations. Little Women often seems autobiographical, but Louisa May Alcott knew when to deviate from her real life to keep the story interesting. Austen kept her readers engaged with suspense, characterization, and dialogue, all vital tools for storytellers.

People don’t live in the rhythm of a story. Everything that happens does not move an individual’s life toward a conclusion. People do not consistently spout clever lines. Writers put those words in their mouth. Writers scrape off all the boring stuff from everyday life. And writers move the story unfailingly forward.

To keep readers captivated, study the art of storytelling. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fiction: art or craft?

You can buy innumerable books about how to write fiction. I have bookshelves full of them. Some help, but most are regurgitations of the same old stuff. The majority of these how-to books present a formulistic approach: If you get each of these elements right, you’ll have a bestseller. I beg to differ.

Neither too hard or too soft
I once bought three writing books simultaneously. The first was the bestselling text for college creative writing courses, the second was How to Write a Novel for Dummies, and the third was a middle-of-the -road advice book by a relatively successful novelist. The worst of the bunch was the college textbook which was all about mechanics and literary devices. Plot was reduced to paint-by-numbers. The Dummies book was a poor second. The actionable advice could have been adequately summarized on two typewritten pages. The middle-of-the-road book was by far the best of the breed and it has guided my book buying on writing from that point forward.

I’m biased. I believe storytelling is the most important aspect of fiction. Characterization is a close second, with plot a distant third. Literary devices are inconsequential until you have a compelling story.

There are great storytellers, great writers, and great storytelling writers. The first can be commercially successful, but eventually fade away. The second never gain a large audience. The third become immortal.

(Twain, Shakespeare, and Homer are but three examples.)

Raymond Chandler wrote, “all art at some time and in some manner becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten.” The secret to mass appeal is engaging stories. 

Fiction may be art or craft, but it is certainly not engineering.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Waist-High Bliss

James D. Best
San Diego

San Diego has a lot going for it. It’s a great city with a world-famous zoo, great museums, fun harbor areas, a vibrant downtown, and the neat and tidy U.S. Navy strutting its stuff.  Like every large city, San Diego has districts with distinct personalities. My preference is Pacific Beach … and not just because I surf. I like the atmosphere. It’s a bit rowdy with college kids, surfers, and beach bums, but it’s a fun crowd. In fact, fun might be their sole objective.

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76)

Pacific Beach
The surf is pretty good, as well. I’m at Pacific Beach now and had a good morning surfing. The day was gorgeous. Sunny, warm, with a slight wind that just rippled the surface of the ocean. The waves were small ... knee to waist high, and you had to wait for the waist-high waves. Nice shape, though. I thought I did well, with two really good rides and no embarrassments on my other waves. 

The whole day reminded me of my youth. What my mother thought was my wasted youth. I never believed that. I was having the time of my life, and how could that be a waste. When I see teenagers in the water, I wonder if they know how lucky they are to live the Southern California beach lifestyle. We knew way back then, and I bet they know today. (My favorite tee shirt read, “There’s no Life East of Pacific Coast Highway.)

What does all this have to do with writing? Not a damn thing. I just had a good day in the waves and wanted to blog about it. This is what happens when Steve Dancy is in proofreading. When the character’s away, the writer plays.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy Father’s Day!

Both of my fathers are deceased, but I think of them more than occasionally. My biological father died in the cockpit of his P-51 and my step-father died behind the wheel of his Porsche. Since my mother remarried when I was only three and my step-dad treated me like his own, he was the father I knew. At least the one I knew directly. I remain in touch with my father’s family and have grown to know my dad through his brothers and sisters. He was a great guy.

My father is furthest out on the wing.

Fathers are important to kids. There’s a special lifetime bound between fathers and daughters, and fathers seem to have an edge in overriding peer group pressure to give sons purpose and direction.

Fathers deserve more than a day. They deserve our everlasting gratitude. 

Sorry, gotta share this ...

Friday, June 14, 2013

Should a Writer Use Friends as Characters?


Well, that's the simple answer. I have a rationale behind my answer:

  1. If the friend doesn't like the characterbye, bye friend
  2. Once started, there's no end
  3. I write the story for readers, not to amuse people I know
  4. My characters have a mind of their own ... and it's never the same as someone I know

I have used friend names for characters, but those characters were very different people. So different that there would be no confusion. I do this occasionally as a tiny nod of acknowledgment. Besides, some of my friends have cool names.

mystery fiction
Be nice to this woman
That said, I have been tempted to follow Mary Higgins Clark's example.

“When someone is mean to me," she said, "I just make them a victim in my next book.”

Now that's a great idea. 

I've encountered a few people I’d like Steve Dancy to castigate. (That’s castigate, not castrate.) I’ve restrained myself so far because of rule #2. I think that if I ever succumbed to temptation, I'd definitely be stepping onto the proverbial slippery slope.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Center Point Will Publish The Latest Steve Dancy Tale


I returned from my trip to Nebraska to find a publishing contract from Center Point for The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale. They’re a great group of people, so I signed and posted the contract immediately. My understanding is that Center Point has the large print version of The Return slotted for the first quarter of 2014. (Trade paperback and ebook formats will be available this summer.)

I’m thrilled that Center Point will have published all four of the Steve Dancy novels. It also pleases me that the first three books have earned past their advances. That probably explains why Center Point bought the large print rights to The Return sight unseen. That’s a compliment I feel really good about.

Related Post:

Western fiction

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Is a Gift Card an Appropriate Gift?

My kids called to find out what I wanted for Father’s Day. When I asked for a gift card from Amazon, they said that would be impersonal. I didn’t argue, but it made me wonder why they asked me what I wanted. Their response made me think about the appropriateness of gift cards. I think they’re great. If emailed, shipping costs are nil, they arrive at the speed of light, and I get to pick my own gift at the time of my choosing. What could be better?

gifts and gift suggestions

What would be better is a present the giver enjoys giving. A gift is not one-way social exchange. Fathers used to be effusive when they received ugly ties. There was a reason. The giver was a loved one … perhaps one with lousy taste, but a loved one nonetheless. You don’t make someone feel crummy because you didn’t like their gift.

That said; I’m getting an Amazon gift card for Father’s Day. How did I convince my kids? I told them I would email a thank you each time I bought a book for my Kindle. That promise overcame the biggest negative of gift cards; the giver never knows what the recipient does with it.

Gift cards are becoming ever more popular and they are changing the ebb and flow of book sales. Print sales are best before the holiday and ebooks are better after the holiday. You can almost feel people using gift cards to load up their electronic devices.

By the way, if you expect a gift card for Father’s Day, download samples of my books now so you can decide where to spend your largess.

historical novels

Monday, June 10, 2013

Can a manuscript ever be perfect?

James D. Best
Orgainc? Now that's embarrassing. 

A couple weeks ago, I went through the galley proof for The Return and found over twenty changes. Bummer. When I received the corrected galley proof, I found two more errors. Double bummer. The book is now in proofreading and if experience is any guide, a dozen or more errors and typos will be discovered. Makes you wonder if it's possible to write 75,000 flawless words. 

It's embarrassing when reviewers point out grammar or spelling mistakes. Yet, it invariably happens. My first book, published by Wiley, had three line-editors. That was standard practice fifteen years ago. Now, even the big houses have cut back to a single line editor. That's why you're seeing more mistakes in big-name author books. It's not the cost of editing as much as the time. Time is money, and when you have a potential bestseller waiting in the wings, publishers are in a rush to get it to market. 

Anyway, I'm rambling because I'm at a bit of a loss about what to do. The cartoon below explains my mood exactly, except I've finished writing my latest book. It's always been hard for me to start the writing process on a new book while my last novel is in the final stages. I know I'll get engrossed in new story and resent the inevitable interruptions that come form finalizing and promoting my prior book. I only allow myself to read books I've collected as reference material for my next novel. Besides, I need to let the plot percolate for a while before laying down the first word.

I think I'll head off to Pacific Beach and get in a little summer surfing. Reading and surfing ... that should fill my days nicely.

james d. best

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Why was Arizona so tardy to the party?

4th of July
Bisbee, Arizona celebrates the 4th of July in 1909
Arizona was the last contiguous state to join the Union. That probably should be rephrased as the last state allowed to join the Union. Arizona became a full-fledged state on February 14th, 1912. At the time, the population was around 200,000, but it was not the wide open spaces that held Arizona back. After all, Nevada became a state in 1864 with a population of less than 20,000. What was the deference between these two desert states?

Nevada had two things Washington mucky-mucks desperately wanted: the Comstock Lode and electoral votes to help reelect Lincoln to a second term. Money and votes—what could be more enticing to a politician? Between 1859 and 1865 an estimated $50 million in ore was removed from the earth. Quite a haul. But wait a minute; Tombstone produced 32 million troy ounces of silver valued at between $40-85 million, which in today’s dollars would be worth about $2 billion. Wasn’t that enough to warrant an invitation to the club?

Actually, statehood looked close around 1880. In the great West, Tombstone was only behind San Francisco in commerce and culture. As early as 1877, Arizona Territorial Governor A. P. K. Safford predicted that the Territory "will soon become a State." What happened?

Wyatt Earp
October 26, 1881
The gunfight at the O.K. Corral is what happened. This fight and the aftermath were reported by all of the Eastern tabloids of the day and the reputation of Arizona was reset in a few deadly seconds. How could Congress welcome a lawless wasteland into the Union? (No snickers.) By the time Arizona was finally admitted, the silver had played out and Tombstone was nearly a ghost town. So, shunning Arizona can be blamed on the Earps or the cow-boys, depending on which side of the feud you prefer.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Vacation Packing Made Simple

steve dancy tales
Bass Lake, California
When we were younger, we took a family vacation each year to Bass Lake, California. Since we camped, packing was easy; swimming suits and tee shirts for the most part. Our days revolved around fishing, jet skiing, swimming, preparing meals, eating, and reading.  A lot of reading. We would haul sand chairs to the water's edge and read between dips in the lake. Both my wife and I were voracious readers, so we needed at least eight books for the ten day trip. In fact, buying books was the only difficult element of preparing for our outings.

In that bygone day, books were hardbound or paperback. Since we often read while floating on rafts, we took paperbacks. (Actually, in the early days of our marriage, we could only afford paperbacks.) We were frugal, so we wanted books we could share. That made book shopping difficult because we each had an absolute veto. Weeks before loading up the car, we would shop for paperbacks. Eventually, we had a large enough supply we would never have to pay the outrageous prices at one of the two stores on the south side of the lake. (They also had a crummy selection.)

After we finished a book, we would tell each other one of three things:

  1. It was good.
  2. Bad book.
  3. I didn't care for it, but you might like it.
Occasionally we read the same book at the same time. This required one of us to rip pages out and hand them over as soon as we finished with them. I can tell you from experience that it's hard to get lost in a story when your wife is making little circling motions with her index finger. This is why we never wanted to be caught short of books.

What brings this all to mind is that we just returned from a month-long trip to Nebraska. We are moving there and needed to get a few things prepared at that end. We made the trip a little longer than needed to see our grandkids ... and their parents, of course. We arrived back in Arizona last night and brought along a medium-sized library. We both still read, trade books, and even discuss which to buy. The difference is that my wife brought her dozens of books in her purse and I carried mine in my palm. We even bought books in the cab on the way to the airport. I still like to read a physical book, but our Kindles have sure made packing easy. 

Now, if I could just figure out a way to digitally pack meds.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Father's Day

My Dad
When I was just a tiny kid,
Do you remember when,
The time you kissed my bruises,
Or cleaned by soiled chin?

You scrambled for the balls I hit,
(Short-winded more than not,)
Yet, every time we'd play a game,
You praised the "outs" I caught.

It seems like only yesterday,
You wiped away my tears,
And late at night I called your name,
To chase away my fears.

Though time has changed your handsome grip,
Your hair is snowy white,
You gait's a little slower now,
Thick glasses help your sight.

Oh, do I thirst for years gone by,
To be that growing lad,
Re-living all of the memories,
Of growing with my dad.
Author Unknown

Still time to order one of the Steve Dancy Tales for Father's Day

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Monday, June 3, 2013

Murder Made Simple

In 1944, Raymond Chandler wrote an essay for The Atlantic Monthly titled, "The Simple Art of Murder." It was reprinted in 1950 in book form by Houghton Mifflin along with eight of Chandler's early stories.

Chandler was highly opinionated about art, fiction, and detective stories. There are some nifty tips in here for aspiring and accomplished mystery writers.

Here are a few snippets. 
Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic ... Jane Austen’s chronicles of highly inhibited people against a background of rural gentility seem real enough psychologically. There is plenty of that kind of social and emotional hypocrisy around today.
The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions.
Nor is it any part of my thesis to maintain that it is a vital and significant form of art. There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.
Yet the detective story, even in its most conventional form, is difficult to write well. Good specimens of the art are much rarer than good serious novels. Rather second-rate items outlast most of the high velocity fiction, and a great many that should never have been born simply refuse to die at all. They are as durable as the statues in public parks and just about that dull.
"really important books" get dusty on the reprint counter, while Death Wears Yellow Garters is put out in editions of fifty or one hundred thousand copies.
At the end of "The Simple Art of Murder," Chandler gives a great definition of a hero that I abridged in an earlier post titled: What makes an appealing hero?

Link to the full article

Link to my Pinterest page on Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Feeling Rejected?

Rejections come with traditional publishing. Since you can't get a publisher without an agent, you have two opportunities to be rejected. Actually, you should consider yourself lucky if you vault the agent hurdle, but I can tell you from experience that securing a big time agent does not provide a ticket to Wonderland. Publisher rejections still come, but they are no longer form letters.

A personal touch sometimes makes rejection worse, especially when there’s nothing you can do about it. For example, one publisher said there was not enough physical action in Tempest at Dawn, my novelization of the Constitutional Convention. I had already added a horse race, steamship demonstration, rowdy tavern arguments, and even a house traveling down a Philadelphia street. The conflict came from the debates, not fist fights. Since publication, Tempest at Dawn has remained one of the top selling books on the Constitutional Convention. So … keep plugging away. Publishers don’t know everything. To prove it, here are some rejections sent to aspirating writers who went on to become bestselling authors.