Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Guns and Horses: Getting it Right

Western writers are like other fiction writers in that they have super powers. They can bend time, compress space, and sweep away boring people, mundane tasks, and toilet needs.  Writers can magically have their characters do and say whatever’s necessary to incessantly move the story forward. Instead of wielding a wand, writers brandish a keyboard. No wonder so many writers are egotistical.

Hollywood films
The exception: John Wayne got guns right
There is one major difference between Western writers and other authorsthey need to get guns and horses right. Western enthusiasts will suspend disbelief in every other aspect of a written story, but not guns and horses. Odd, because Western movies enjoy forbearance that a novel does not. A film can run a horse forever, fire eight shots from a six shooter, or shoot with precision from horseback. Western readers, on the other hand, tend to be sticklers for accuracy about these two areas when they occur in print. That’s why I use gun and horse specialists to proof my Westerns.

What brought all this to mind was a Cracked article about “6 Stupid Gun Myths that Everyone Believes (Thanks to the movies).” The piece deals mostly with modern guns, but a few of the 6 myths relate to nineteenth century guns. For example, a dropped Colt Peacemaker could go off. That was not a myth in the olden days. Reputedly, it happened to Wyatt Earp when he sat in a saloon chair. That is why Westerners often kept the chamber under the hammer empty, making their pistol a five-shooter. 

“Shotguns Are Room-Clearing Murder Factories” applies equally to the Western double barreled shotgun. Marshals who held off a lynching party with a shotgun looked threatening, but could only kill two vigilantes before reaching for a pistol. As Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson attested, the myth that "Deadly on the Gun Range = Deadly in Real Life” is apropos for gunfighters in the Wild West.

The article is a fun read, but unfortunately many of the movie clips have been disabled due to copyright issues. Too bad. The clips that work do a fine job of illustrating Hollywood gun myths.

Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters.

Monday, October 28, 2013

I'm not one of them!

Some people are visual. I'm not one of them. But I appreciate good design, even if I'm incapable of drawing a straight line with a ruler. In school, I took drawing and drafting. I received a dubious C in both. (I did better in English and history.)

Writing and design come together in book covers. Every book, even an e-book needs a cover. And people really do judge a book by its cover. (See Judging a Book by its cover.) I'm always interested in cover design because book covers are so key to book sales. Flavorwire has done a fun piece on 75 Vintage Dust Jackets of Classic Books. Here are a few examples that struck my untutored eye.

James D. Best

James D. Best

Not included in the Flavorwire article, but still one of my favorites.

Related Posts

Sunday, October 27, 2013

How about a free vacation?

Matt Haig posted an article titled “12 Years as a Writer”. It’s a lessons-learned piece. I especially like #11, which reads:
“We like stories because time moves us forward, when what we want to do is move sideways. We want to live every possible life, not just ours. Stories are how we can window shop other possible lives without committing to them. They teach us everything.”

While we’re immersed in a story, time in our world seems to stop. How often have you looked up from a book and asked yourself where the time has gone.  It is possible to time travel. All we need is a great novel. It transports us to another place and time and then quietly dumps us back into our own world without all the pyrotechnics of the movies.  As Haig says, a story allows us to “window shop” other ways of life vicariously ... and safely.

Storytelling is an art, and because everyone can enjoy it with no special knowledge, it is the universal art.

So … find a good book and take a vacation. You can visit anywhere, any time. Happy reading.

Honest stories filled with dishonest characters.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Creative Librarians

Book Riot has published a piece on Finding Libraries in Unexpected Places. There are some great pictures and an interesting narrative for each. There are some nifty ideas here that might help libraries remain as a place to check out booksreal books, printed on that stuff they call paper. I would hate to see libraries turned into book museums, or internet portals for the digitally deprived. I prefer librarians information savvy rather than technology chauffeurs.

Concord Free Public Library
Boston Public Library
As you can tell, I’m a bit old fashion. I love bookstore and libraries. My favorite libraries are the Boston Public Library and the Concord Free Public Library. I like both of these because there are surprises buried in their stackssurprises that knowledgeable librarians help you uncover. 

In the Boston Public Library I found a Roger Sherman doctoral thesis by Christopher Collier, the author of Decision in Philadelphia. In Concord, I found a one hundred and sixty year old biography of Roger Sherman. Both finds were invaluable for my research for Tempest at Dawn. Since I was not a resident of Massachusetts, I was further surprised when the Concord Free Public Library issued me a library card on the spot and let me walk out of the building with this valuable book. Free library cards for everyone is a longstanding tradition of this charming bastion of American literary history.

Bookstores are great, used bookstores are fun and great, but libraries are indispensable because they come equipped with tour guides called librarians. I sure hope the digitization of books doesn't cost us this valuable resource.

Related Posts
Will libraries end up as museums
Musings about Concord, Massachusetts
Libraries that are architectural wonders
I just gave away over 300 books

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Buddies in the Saddle reviews The Return

Ron Scheer writes reasoned and comprehensive book reviews, so I was a little nervous when he accepted a review copy of The Return. I needn’t have worried. 

“You know you’re in good hands with James Best. This new 'Steve Dancy Tale' is told with the usual economy, clarity, and attention to detail. Best’s characters are fully three-dimensional and spring to life in a few words of dialogue. Best of all, you enjoy their company.” That last sentence is a great compliment to a writer.

I also suggest you wander around Buddies in the Saddle. You’ll find descriptions and reviews of Western fiction, nonfiction, and film.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The complex lives of common people

Shane is one of my favorite Western films. The Jack Schaefer book is also one of my favorite Western novels. There are great films and there are great books, but Shane is a rare instance where both the book and film are distinguished in their own right. The movie is an honest rendition of Schaefer’s story, while artfully making adjustments for a visual presentation of a novel.

In honor of its 60th anniversary, Andre Soares wrote a Alt Film Guide piece about the movie. I didn’t like the article. Among other things, Soares seems apologetic that he admires the film. After all, this is an art film site, and how could a Western be art? The following paragraph reveals his prejudice.
“Now, what makes Shane special is that while Stevens and Gurthrie Jr.’s movie feels like a paean to the Old West and to Western movies in general, it actually demythologizes both American history and the film genre that turned into stars the likes of Tom Mix, John Wayne, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and, later on, Clint Eastwood. Read between the lines and you’ll see how subversive Shane is — how unheroic its heroes are, how complex the lives and minds of its "common people," how civilization can be just another manifestation of barbarism; and, no matter their righteousness, how hollow human victories can be.”
What claptrap. This is basically a glass-half-empty view of humankind. The film I saw was far more uplifting and hopeful. Shane is a story of redemption, not the barbarism of civilization. To justify his admiration for Shane, Soares basically claims there is a depth to the story that is uncharacteristic of the genre. He needs to read and watch more Westerns. Sure, there are lots of junky Westerns, but despite Raymond Chandler writing great fiction, a lot of crime drama is also unmemorable. The depth and nuance of Schaefer’s story is not uncommon, nor are instances of quality in Westerns any more rare than for other popular genres.

Shane is a great story, presented admirably in the print and film versions. Just ask Clint Eastwood and Robert Day, the directors of Pale Rider and The Quick and the Dead, both basically remakes of Shane.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"Mike Reads" reviews Tempest at Dawn

historical fiction
The "Mike Reads" blog has reviewed Tempest at Dawn. This is not exactly a New York Times book review, but I liked it because Mike took away from the book what I intended. I love writing Westerns and like the freedom to plot my own stories, but Tempest at Dawn was a five year labor of love. It was a huge responsibility to write about the founding fathers and such an important event in American history. I read or seriously scanned over 100 history books on the Constitutional Convention, and used at least 3 biographies for each of the major characters in the story. And yes, it was a story—a great story with great characters, intense conflict, and hopeful resolution.

Tempest at Dawn continues to be well received by readers and historians. At the time of this writing, and five years after publication, the Kindle version is still ranked #28 for books about the U.S. Constitution. 78 Amazon customers have reviewed the book for 4.5 stars, and 185 readers on Goodreads have given the book an average rating of 3.84.

I'll probably never again tackle a book as challenging as Tempest at Dawn, so it's gratifying that it still sells well and continues to receive attention from readers and reviewers. Thanks.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Mark Twain Tells Us How to Write

Mark Twain didn't like James Fenimore Cooper’s writing. Wait, that was far too mild of a sentence. In his article “Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses,” Twain ridicules, lacerates, and skewers Cooper.

Here’s a small sample: 
Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record. There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them.

This 1895 article made me laugh out loud, but besides humor, I saw something else in the article. If all of the criticisms of Cooper were rewritten as positive statements, they would make a great guide to great writing. I believe this list can stand prominently next to Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing.

So … with clemency from Twain, I present the "18 Commandments of Writing," by Mark Twain.

  1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
  2. Episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.
  3. Personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
  4. Personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
  5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
  6. When the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
  7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel in the end of it.
  8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.
  9. Personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
  10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
  11. Characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
  12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
  14. Eschew surplusage.
  15. Do not omit necessary details.
  16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
  17. Use good grammar.
  18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Great list, huh? Anyway, I’ll let Twain conclude this post with his conclusions about Cooper: 
I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that "Deerslayer" is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that "Deerslayer" is just simply a literary delirium tremens. A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! Indescribable;  its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

Remind me never to get on the bad side of Twain. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: Truman by David McCullough

Harry Truman is an interesting character, and David McCullough presents an engaging picture of our 33rd president. McCullough is thorough and readable as he presents a chronological narrative of Truman’s life. Although a credentialed historian, McCullough avoids academic gobbledygook and knows when to end a sentence. He writes in a clean, straightforward fashion that invites the reader to turn the page.

When McCullough writes a biography, he investigates every nook and cranny of the subject’s life until he knows everything knowable about the individual. Attention to detail reveals the real person behind the public facade, but this fixation on the subject produces two flaws in McCullough books: they’re too long and the supporting cast are often cardboard cutouts.

At 1,120 pages, Truman is a long book. A very long book. After gathering all this information, McCullough doesn't know what to leave out. The 1948 presidential race was historic, but after dozens of pages, I came to believe we would witness every whistle-stop. This is just one example of overwhelming detail. Truman would have remained a tome if cut by 200 pages, but the book would have been a more powerful biography.

McCullough’s focus on the subject of his biographies gives slight notice to other prominent people. The collection of great or notorious leaders during the World War II period probably rivaled the Revolution. At these rare times in history, collective greatness molds and/or reinforces the accomplishments of each individual player. (Doris Kearns Goodwin is a master at capturing the dynamics and undercurrents of formidable characters at formidable moments.) We learn everything about the character and actions of Truman, but Franklin D. Roosevelt, George C. Marshall, Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, and the members of his cabinet and staff rotate around Truman with all the animation of carousel ponies. We have faint idea what Roosevelt thought about Truman or why he picked him to be vice president and then chose to ignore him after the election. FDR knew his health was failing, and handpicked a relatively obscure junior senator as his successor. Why? McCullough does not give us much insight because we see events only from Truman’s perspective. 

Truman was an enjoyable read and a highly professional biography of one of our best presidents. Despite my grumblings, I read every word of this fine book and returned to reading it at every opportunity. I would highly recommend it … supplemented with other history books about this pivotal period in our history.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Storytelling made dead simple

Aspiring writers frequently agonize over words, sentences, and paragraphs. They want to get every piece of it right. Because they admire great writers’ style and distinctive presentation, they believe the technical aspects of writing are foremost. They are not.  Storytelling is foremost. If you don’t believe me, listen to Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories. Here is one of the best writers of the 20th century telling us how to compose a story.

Pablo Picasso

Great writers first understand the art of storytelling, and then concentrate on telling it in a fresh and pitch-perfect manner. The painting to the left is a portrait of Pablo Picasso’s mother, painted by her son in 1896. All of her features appear to be on the proper side of her face. This was not an isolated Picasso painting. Before shaking up the art world with George Brague, Picasso mastered the craft of figurative painting. For Picasso—and most great authors—a thorough understanding of how to use their medium came before experimentation.

The basics of storytelling are simple. I was taught that in the first fifth of the book, you get the protagonist up a tree. In the middle section, you throw rocks at the protagonist. In the final section, you get the protagonist out of the tree. This sounds simple and close to what Vonnegut advises. It’s surprising how such a simple formula creates an interesting story. After all, no matter how pretty your sentences, you must keep the reader interested or he or she will wander off to parts unknown.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What am I writing?

The New York Times recently ran an opinion piece titled, “Don’t ask what I’m writing.” The article deals with writers’ uncertainty during the initial stage of a novel, and suggests friends shouldn’t ask too many early questions because it can be unnerving. True. 

I had a good friend ask about The Return when I first started and she was aghast when I said Dancy and his friends were going to New Jersey. She begged me not to take my Western series east. She loved the West and liked the fact that each book moved around the American frontier. Taking my characters to New Jersey and New York City seemed to her like some kind of betrayal. Her angst gave me pause, but after some additional thought, I went ahead anyway. I went ahead, but I never spoke to her again about the book, nor did I tell her about another major change in the lead character’s life.

Western fiction
Cowboy City in Farmingdale New Jersey

This friend is one of my rough draft readers who I trust to tell me the truth. She’s a reliable compass, so I was apprehensive about her take on my new novel. I shouldn’t have worried. She loved it. Her first words were, “I was wrong. I enjoyed seeing Western attitudes play out in an Eastern setting.”

I like fish-out-of-water stories. I took Steve Dancy, the New York shopkeeper, to the frontier for that very reason. He didn’t fit, but he had to adapt to survive. Now I let him return home to discover that he no longer easily fits in the east either. I also thought it was high time for him to have a grownup romantic interest. The entire series has been about Dancy ‘s growth and these two development have set up some interesting scenarios for the future. When I didn’t discuss it with others, I was confident about where I was taking the story. But there were moments when I feared I might be harming a great character and storyline. In the end, The Return has received faster and better reviews than the other books in the series. What a relief.

This is why I like the final advice of the New York Times piece:

1. Trust a few, necessary voices. 

2. Try, as much as possible, to avoid torturing these brave souls with your own insecurities. 

3. Shut up and write.

western fiction series

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review of The Return by Western Fiction Review

western fiction
The U.K. based Western Fiction Review has reviewed The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale. It’s a good review that everyone in the world should read. Maybe that’s going too far, but you could read it.  This Steve Dancy title has also been well received by readers. Take a gander and buy a copy. You’ll make a restless writer happy.

Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The art of the short story has always eluded me

Western author JR Sanders posted to Facebook a link to “The Top 20 Literary Quotes About Short Stories,” at Writers Write, a South African website. (It was posted yesterday. Ain’t modern technology grand?) My favorite quote was from David Sedaris, “A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.”

The article reminded me that I have never done well with the short form of storytelling.  A short story must convey a story, a mood, and a theme in few words. A difficult task. It may not be an exaggeration to claim that while novels are a craft, short stories are art. In bygone years, I did win honorable mention in a 100-word novel contest, but that was more about cleverness than storytelling.

I love to read short stories and own many collections, but I don’t have the time to write one. My last comment, of course is not a new thought. Pascal wrote, “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

In 1690 the philosopher John Locke wrote about a famous work, “But to confess the Truth, I am now too lazy, or too busy to make it shorter.”

In 1750 Benjamin Franklin composed a letter describing his groundbreaking experiments involving electricity, writing, “I have already made this paper too long, for which I must crave pardon, not having now time to make it shorter.”

In 1857 Henry David Thoreau wrote in a letter to a friend that “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”

Woodrow Wilson was asked by a member of his cabinet about the amount of time he spent preparing speeches. He said, “It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

(Credit for the above quotations goes to Quote Investigator, a good site for writers.)

Abraham Lincoln spent untold hours crafting the Gettysburg Address, which at 271 words is one of the shortest and most famed political speeches of all time.

Brevity done with forethought is powerful. A comedian’s quip can destroy a longwinded speech. Just ask any target of Will Roger’s wit.

Steve Dancy Tales
Ever since the demise of the family weekly magazine, short fiction has had few outlets. This is a shame. Western Writers of America occasionally publishes an anthology of short Western works, but there are few other places to even submit short stories. 

Perhaps Amazon will once again redefine the market. The online bookseller has started Kindle Singles, which are short works in both fiction and nonfiction. The idea seems to be catching on because many national bestselling authors are publishing short works in this manner. Although I don't write short stories, I hope Kindle Singles revives the form. After all, throughout history, art has needed powerful sponsors.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

10 Films that Revolutionized Computer Graphics

I object when computer generated imagery overwhelm the story. Actually, I've objected when CGI is substituted for storytelling. has listed what they believe are the 10 Films That Revolutionized Computer Graphics. I think it is a good list, but I would have added one of the superhero film.

Blade Runner

CGI is a great development in film when it is used to advance the story instead of as an end in itself. I think Jurassic Park is an excellent example of the blending of live action, CGI, and storytelling.

Related Posts

Friday, October 4, 2013

Do readers judge a book by its title?

Everyone knows the old axiom that people shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but do they also misjudge books by their title? I don’t know. I suspect a great title can get readers to look further, a horrible title stops further inspection, and a mediocre title doesn't influence sales one way or the other.

The Barnes and Noble Book Blog posted an article “12 Books With The Most Irresistible Titles.” Good Titles, but I always liked Lonesome Dove because it sounded intriguing.

constitutional convention
The Great Rehearsal might be the worst title I've encountered for a great book. Carl Van Doren wrote one of the top three history books on the Constitutional Convention. The book was published in 1948, when the United Nations was just starting and Van Doren thought the 1787 Constitutional Convention was a rehearsal for writing the UN charter. This poor title probably dampened sales of a fine history book.  Ironic, since the book never mentions current events except in a slapped together preface.

I've never agonized over my own titles, except for Tempest at Dawn, my own book on the Constitutional Convention. Since this was a novelization of the convention, I needed a title that didn't sound like a history book. I still like the title. Perhaps I should have agonized more over my other titles. The Steve Dancy Tales: The Shopkeeper, Leadville, Murder at Thumb Butte, The Return, Jenny's Revenge, and Crossing the Animas are pedestrian. I like The Shout Mouth Society because it connotes secret society intrigue, which is the plot of this contemporary novel. Principled Action is a lousy title and may have affected sales of this nonfiction book about the founding period.

Authors may not be the best at selecting titles, but I’m not sure focus-group driven editors are better. My title for my computer technology book was Dinosaurs and Whippersnappers, but Wiley insisted on The Digital Organization. I still prefer my title.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Indie Publishing Rewrites Promotion

Kim McDougall of Castelane, Inc. recently wrote to  ask for permission to re-publish on the new Castlelane website an article I wrote for Turning Point .  I agreed, but in rereading the article, I decided it could use an update. Here is the revised article.
There’s not much you can believe about indie-publishing.  Information from indie-publishing houses is suspect, and most of the other data comes from people who make their living off striving writers.  As someone who has published with a traditional house and indie-published, I’ll try to give you the straight scoop.

First, I Indie-publish by choice.  It didn't start out that way, but now I’m convinced that indie-publishing is the best route for me.

My first book was published by Wiley.  It was an agented, non-fiction book.  After I completed my first novel, Tempest at Dawn, I secured a different New York agent that specialized in fiction.  While the agent shopped my lengthy, historical novel, I wrote a genre Western titled The Shopkeeper.  Since the typical advance for a Western wouldn't make a decent down-payment on a Nissan Versa, my agent declined to represent it.  No problem, I’d indie-publish.

Currently, my novels are in print, large print, audio, and e-book formats.  My large print and audio contracts are traditional contracts with advances, so I still have a foot in each world. I’m making money, but what is more important, my platform continues to grow.  (My agent didn’t sell Tempest at Dawn, so I ended up indie-publishing it as well.)

Why I Stay with Indie-Publishing

That’s how I started indie-publishing, but why do I stay with it after building a respectable platform? Three reasons:  speed, income, and control.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Return from New York City

James D. Best
We had a great visit to the Big Apple. Father/daughter cruise around Manhattan, grandson playing a double header on Randall's Island, a bowling outing on Chelsea Pier, plus monopoly, XBox Madden Football, and myriad other games. I don't know how many times we made the trip between the West and East side. Whew! I'm tired and happy to be sitting quietly in Omaha. Except, not so quietly. My daughter reminded me we have a formal event this evening and her kids are anxious to see us after school today. If it wasn't so much fun, I'd run for cover.

One of the things I need to figure out is a new writing schedule. Since moving for Arizona to Omaha, my schedule has been erratic. The grandchildren have been the easiest. After all, they go to school during the week. The big problem is that I had forgotten how much work it was to change a legal residence. A new mortgage, cars, licenses, insurance, address changes, utilities, voter registration, etc, etc all demand personal attention. Then we have this new house we intend to wreck, then refurbish and re-skin. This is a big change for someone used to spending five or six hours a day sitting in a chair writing about his friends' adventures.

That's what my characters are: friends. I miss them. Besides, it takes nearly a year to get a book written and published. I've begun the research, which means I’m reading about the historical location and plot points. It’s all good prep work, but it’s also an easy way to procrastinate. I need to get seriously committed to writing. That’s when I get excited and can’t wait to get back to the keyboard.

Until now, I wrote an entirely different book between each of the Steve Dancy Tales. I wanted my approach to Steve and his friends to remain fresh, and I thought regular breaks from the series would do the trick. I believe the tactic has helped, but also has hurt building a stronger following. Two years between books causes some readers to wander off to another place and time. Besides, the Dancy books sell very well and the series has built an ardent fan base. So … my next book will be the fifth in the series.

Where I go from there, I’ll decide next year.

James D. Best
Steve Dancy Tales