Monday, December 23, 2013

Thomas Edison—Good Guy or Bad Guy?

Thomas Edison was a much more complex person than generally realized. The Wizard of Menlo Park was a character in the Steve Dancy Tale , The Return. In researching this iconic inventor, I learned that he was single-minded when he got something stuck in his head. This worked exceptionally well for solving a puzzle like finding a proper filament for his light bulb, but didn’t work so well in his personal relationships. His fixated behavior also didn’t enhance the business side of his groundbreaking discoveries. Edison made enemies. Sometimes, as with J. P. Morgan, he made enemies out of longtime friends and supporters.

Portraying real persons in fiction can be risky. The author has an obligation to reflect their character and actions honestly. After all, they are generally defenseless to an assault by the mighty pen. There is another problem with historical characters.  In fiction, if you deviate too much from the common image of an historical character, you can disrupt the flow of the story. As the reporter famously said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Kindly Genius?
Or Intense Competitor?

In The Return, I tread carefully around Edsion’s image as a gentle genius, but I also dropped hints about his peculiar personal behavior and his ability to be just downright mean. I had a story to tell, and I included Edison in a Western to show that at the same time people struggled to settle a raw frontier, other pioneers in New York City were reinventing the world.

Nonfiction, of course, is completely different. In a history book, it is important to tell the unvarnished truth about people and events. When I was approached to assist with Glenn Beck’s new book, Miracles and Massacres, I accepted because Beck insisted that this book would tell it like it really was. It was a fun experience, and the final product is unique. It explains underplayed episodes of American history in an engaging story format.

So, was Thomas Edison a good guy or bad guy? Get the book and decide for yourself. As Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

Note: The Dragnet character Sargent Joe Friday never said, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts,” but as noted earlier, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Examiner.Com reviews The Return

I had a pleasant surprise today when I received notice of a new book review for the Steve Dancy Tales. Diane Scearce at reviewed The Return.

Scearce writes, “The reader can be assured The Return is as fast-paced and entertaining as the books leading up to Dancy’s latest adventure … The Return is a lively, old-fashioned style Western—clever, entertaining, and full of period references to give it authenticity. Best paces his stories so well readers will find it difficult to put down.”

western adventure novel

Friday, December 20, 2013

Panel Speaker at the Tucson Festival of Books

I've been invited to be a panelist at the 2014 Tucson Festival of Books, which will be held March 15 and 16. The Festival will be held on the campus of the University of Arizona.

I'm honored because this is the largest book festival in the Southwest. At the moment, I'll be on four panels, but the agenda won't be finalized until the first of the year. If you are in the vicinity—or not—you should plan on attending. 120,000 people attended last year. It's a fun event and a great opportunity to meet and hear your favorite authors. You can see who has already committed by visiting the Tucson Festival of Books website.

I hope to see you there.

James D. Best panalist

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A great first sentence does not a page-turner make

Every novelist wants a memorable first sentence. There are innumerable lists of great and dreadful first sentences. (#95 at the great link is a hoot.) Writers seem to always struggle for the perfection—searching for uniqueness, and then honing each word until it demands attention.

Perhaps Charles Dickens started this obsession with the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

(One of my favorites is my score-settling first sentence in The Shut Mouth Society, “Amos Cummings cursed his editor.”)

James D. Best

Despite first sentence mythology, the greatest first sentence in history will not make a page-turner. Readers often blow by the first sentence with nary a thought. The most important aspect of a genuine page-turner is chapter endings. The end of a chapter is the natural point to put aside a book, so to deprive readers of sleep, each chapter needs to end with a teaser. A cliff-hanger is not necessary; in fact, a string of these can be tiresome.  All that is necessary is a hint of mystery, discovery of a fact not disclosed to the reader, a character startled by a revelation, an imminent threat by an antagonist, or anything else that prompts the reader to flip the page to see where the story will go next.

Here are a few chapter endings from The Shopkeeper.
I glanced at the shop door, closed to the outside. “Unfortunately, the world has a way of intruding.”
I didn’t make excuses but looked at each man sequentially. Finally, Richard said, “Okay, we’ll tell you everything we know.”
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I could not win this battle by remaining indoors.

If you want to write a page-turner, focus on chapter endings. They should not be over the top. The idea is to entice, encourage, tempt, compel, or even bribe the reader to continue reading. If you need further examples, watch the early seasons of the television program 24. The writers were masters at bringing the viewer back for the next episode.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hollywood at its Worst

Us Old Guys Don't Like Change
I rented Man of Steel last night. When I saw it in the theater, I was disappointed. Actually, more than disappointed. My first words to my wife were, “I hated that movie.” My wife felt differently, so I decided to give it a second chance. I still hate the film.

Man of Steel is a prime example of Hollywood’s penchant for CGI over storytelling. We don’t need characters, just eye-popping explosions with booming sound effects. I’m a fan of Amy Adams, but in this film she came across flat. And Perry White? What was that about? His role contributed nothing to the storyline. This darker Superman moves in the direction of an anti-hero, so perhaps that explains his complete lack of humor. The bad guys and gal were unmemorable, which is crucial to storytelling.

When director Zack Snyder met with his CGI geeks, I’ll bet the conversation went like this:
“We got some really terrific stuff,” the head-honcho geek says. “We put together thirty sequences of Superman and Zod crashing through buildings so you can pick the ones you like.” 
After watching the special effects, Snyder slaps the honcho guy on the back and says, “Nice work. We’ll use ‘em all.” 
“Okay, what about the fanciful creatures on Krypton? We’re over budget.” 
“Just slap something together. Maybe adjust some of that flying dragon stuff you used before. Just get something quick and cheap.”
The CGI was intended to appeal to the younger, hearing-impaired market, but some hacks also tried to wrench the plot around to appeal to women. One of the major themes of the saga is Lois Lane trying to discover the identity of Superman. But some Hollywood genius said women want romance, and they’re unwilling to wait for a sequel. Simple. We’ll discard that useless bit of tinsel and rewrite Lane as the strong champion and savior of Superman, and that way they can flirt from the gitgo.

I could be wrong, of course. Man of Steel may be a classic. A smart retooling of the saga for a modern worldwide audience. The movie did gross nearly $300 million in the United States alone. However, it cost somewhere around a quarter billion dollars. Even with foreign box office and home rentals, that does not qualify as a blockbuster.

I might be a curmudgeon, but I liked the original Superman better. I preferred the humor and light tone and creativity. The domestic gross was three times the budget, so they must have got something right.

Friday, December 13, 2013

How do you express civic pride when your namesake shot himself in his private parts?

I loved to ski, and my favorite mountain is Mammoth, California. When a friend owned a condo, I also skied the perfectly groomed slopes at Deer Valley. Deer Valley is skiing as life style, while Mammoth Mountain is skiing as sport. As I get older, my preference seems to be sliding toward lifestyle.

When I was talking about our winter ski plans with my brother-in-law, we got to talking about Lee Vining, a tiny village of about 200 hardy residents just north of Mammoth. The town is named after a miner who founded the encampment in 1852. By 1857, Vining was the town’s leading citizen, owning the sole sawmill that provided crucial timber for shafts and buildings.

Perhaps Mr. Wayne had not heard this story.
The town wasn’t named after Vining because of his pioneering spirit or philanthropic Last Will and Testament; it was named after him because he shot himself to death in nearby Aurora, Nevada. The story I heard was that he was drunk in a saloon and somehow the pistol tucked in his waistband went off. Everybody jumped because no one knew where the shot had come from or where it went. Vining just stood there a minute and then stumbled outside. There, he fell into the street and bled-out from a fatal wound to his most private parts.

Granted, this is a wretched story with a sad ending, but the silver lining is that in 1953, the town honored their fallen champion by naming the town after him. Actually, Lee Vining Creek and Lee Vining Canyon have served as the eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park for nearly a century.

I’d love to be remembered down through the ages with my name plastered on a town, mountain or post office, but Vining’s price seems steep. Maybe I’ll just try to win the lottery so a grateful UCLA will name a building after me. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Is This Re-gifting?

Amazon has an under-publicized program called Matchbook. By enrolling in this program, a publisher can offer a Kindle book at a steep discount to buyers of the print format. You can see the books in the Matchbook program here.

Think of the possibilities. You can buy books as Christmas presents and then download a Kindle copy for yourself. Kinda like two for one. This might be a great idea, but you may not want to buy your great aunt Sex Love Repeat by Alessandra Torre. Maybe Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin would be more appropriate. Or perhaps she would prefer Tempest at Dawn, since all of my books are enrolled in the program at 99¢ for the second copy in Kindle format.

It's only two weeks until Christmas, so you may want to use my great idea to finish off your shopping list.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Writing Cheat Sheet

Many seem to believe if they just got a proper set of instructions, they could be a good writer. Many famous writers like Mark Twain, George Orwell, and Elmore Leonard have even provided aspiring writers a list of rules.  Here is a Writing Tips PDF that collects rules from George Orwell, Edward Tufte, Strunk and White’s, and Robert Heinlein. I especially enjoyed Evil Metaphors and Phrases. These clichés are definitely cringe worthy, if I can be allowed to use yet another cliché.

(Here is my collection of writing advice.)

There's a problem with all of these lists. If hard rules were all that was necessary to become a great writer, then we’d be awash in breathtaking literature.  We have writing tips, rules, and guidelines aplenty, yet they don’t seem to convey the masters’ magic. What gives? All of the rules are good writing advice, but first there must be compelling content.

I used to golf until I realized I pretended to enjoy the game. Prior to making this discovery, I took a lesson with two friends from a teaching pro. We spent about two hours on the range and putting green. Lots and lots of tips and advice. My head was swimming. I couldn’t get my grip right for fear my backswing was too fast. 

The all-day lesson included a round of golf with the teaching pro. We presumed he would critique our play as we went along. No way. On the first tee, he told us he wouldn’t comment on our play until we were ensconced in the clubhouse for refreshments. He said we should forget everything he had told us. Forget it all. His advice was meant for the driving range and putting green. He reiterated that as we played this round, we were not to worry about grip, swing, or stance. We should concentrate on one thing and one thing only—keep our eye on the ball. Simple. Keep focused on the primary basic of all the basics. It was a fun round of golf with one of my lowest scores.

My point is that when you write a first draft, forget the rules. Focus solely on the story. Telling a great story is the real magic the masters have mastered. Don’t pull out the rules until you start the second draft, then use them ruthlessly on the third and fourth draft. Hone and polish your manuscript until it’s as bright and shiny as a new penny.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist closing with an “Evil Metaphor.”)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Hero or villain?

Several book reviews have criticized Steve Dancy as barely better than the bad guys.


I believe vile villains make a story work, so I've invented some highly reprehensible characters. There has to be some tough-as-nails criminal around for Dancy to dispatch or he couldn't be a hero. Now, I also prefer flawed heroes, so Dancy is certainly not perfect. Besides being a tenderfoot, he can be a dunderhead when it comes to romance. He is especially ill equipped for the lawless frontier until he has survived a few nasty episodes.

So, what gives? I can think of only two reasons why people would think ill of Mr. Dancy. First, he is rich and prefers to buy his way out of trouble. It’s unusual for a western hero to be wealthy. Most fictional frontier gunmen own a saddle and a horse, and part of the mythology is that their lack of possessions makes them free. But surely readers don’t hold Dancy’s wealth against him. After all, television's Paladin lived pretty high on the hog, and he earned his piles of cash by less than reputable means. Dancy, on the other hand, came by his wealth honestlyhe inherited it.

Steve Dancy
Gunsmoke TV series Opening Sequence

So if it's not the money, it must be something else. I suppose it could be that Dancy has never had a one-on-one stand-up duel in the middle of the street. When faced with a gunfight, Dancy always searches for an edge. He wants the other fella off balance, unaware that he is about to be shot. Now, that’s closer to how it actually was in the Old West. I remember reading about a study that concluded that most gunfights during that era occurred inside of three feet and most often in a saloon. The epic one-on-one gunfight did occur, but it was not the norm. (The stand-up duel may have faded from popularity after our United States Vice President killed a former cabinet member on the shores of New Jersey.)

Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson were two famous Westerners that lived long enough to die of old age. Both were cautious when it came to gun trouble. Earp liked to sneak in the back door of a saloon and coldcock a troublemaker from behind. The practice even got him fired once from the Dodge City force for “police brutality.” Masterson counseled that if you got in a gunfight, you should shoot your opponent center chest … and more than once. 

Steve Dancy has numerous gunfights in every book. It’s the nature of the genre. I like him and most of my readers like him as well, so I can’t let him get shot dead. After all, I need him for the next book.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Opening a story—First, grab their attention

It was a cold and windy night.

Laura Borealis has published a blog article on TheTen Worst Story Openings. As I've mentioned previously, I open each of the Steve Dancy Tales with a number that is actually the sequence number of that particular novel in the series. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it's merely the opening word. I normally jump into the middle of a conversation. My intent is to make the reader curious about what the characters are talking about.

As an example, here are the opening lines of Leadville. The idea is to convey that something is about to happen and it is vitally important.
“Days or weeks?” I asked.
“Days.” Jeff Sharp squinted at the telegram as if it hid additional information. Rubbing the back of his neck, he added, “He can’t make it. It’s a six-day ride.”
“If Captain McAllen says he’ll be here in three days, we’d better have a room ready for him.”
Here is an example from my latest work, Jenny’s Revenge. The idea here is to start the book with tension and tell loyal fans that Steve and Virginia are together.
I recoiled. “Six dollars per night?”
“Yes, sir.”
“May I see the suite?”
Virginia squeezed my arm. “It will be perfectly fine.”
I never took my eyes from the clerk. “I’m sure, but I’d like to see it just the same.”
Are these great openings? I don’t know. I only know that I like to get the story moving from the gitgo. How about Borealis’ terrible openings? I agree with them all … except every one of these rules can be violated on occasion. In Tempest at Dawn, I simultaneously violated #1, #2, and #6. The opening lines of my prologue are:
Anxiety woke me before dawn. Rolling to my side, I pulled the heavy quilt around my exposed ear. Was I ready? Had I prepared sufficiently? Would the old man reveal what I had come here to learn? He was stubborn and had frustrated many before me.
The prologue was my agent’s idea and I believe it worked for this novel. A few reviewers disagreed, but they appeared to object because they had heard the oft repeated rule to avoid prologues. Generally, this is sound advice, but prologues can perform a positive function if they don't violate other guidelines of good writing. For example, show instead of tell still applies.

I don’t remember violating any of the other seven“Worst Story Openings,” so there appears to be a lot of work ahead of me.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Late Christmas Shopping … No Worries

If you're behind in your Christmas shopping, I have a suggestion. Actually, it’s the same suggestion I make every year about this time … gives books for Christmas. You can shop from your dining room, match the taste of the recipient, and accommodate their preference for print, e-book, audio, or large print. You can even write a personal note on the flysheet that won’t get thrown out with the Christmas cards.

Everyone has special interests and most people enjoy a book that lets them delve into their hobby, sport, or another world while sitting in the den with their feet up. 

Match your recipient’s special interest with a unique book and your extra thought will show you cared. Here are a few book categories on Amazon.

And this is just a sampling. You can find books on nearly any subject. This doesn't mean you need to buy online. You can shop in the comfort of your home and then support your local independent bookstore by buying or ordering there. That would be a neat flip on people who rifle through a bookstore and surreptitiously buy their books with a smartphone.

A book is better than an electronic gadget that will be obsolete before the next holiday season rolls around. It’s safer than clothing that may not fit your loved one’s taste. A book can be displayed on an open shelf, as opposed to a kitchen appliance that might end up behind a cupboard door to be forgotten. Best of all, a book is simple to have shipped across the country or the border.

Of course I have a bias for books … especially if you choose to give one of my books. You can make the recipient happy and me happy. What could be better than that?