Friday, May 30, 2014

Need a gift for Father’s Day—June 15th.

My father is furthest out on the wing.
Father’s Day is special. I use the day to remember a father I never knew. He died in WWII in the cockpit of his P-51. Since I was born after he shipped out to Iwo Jima, we never met, but I grew to know him through his brothers and sisters. If he was anything like them, he was a fine person.

I also like connecting with my kids, even though they’re now adults. The best gift they ever gave me was six grandkids. Now, that’s a great present! I don’t need anything more from them, but who am I to go against tradition. I look forward to my gifts because they always show thought, and that means more than the gift itself.

If you’re looking for a gift idea for your father, I have a great idea—books.  

In a previous year, I wrote:
Books are great gifts. For a few dollars, they provide hours of entertainment that can be enjoyed anywhere. A good book sheds life’s tensions as it transports the reader to another place and time. Of course, I’m biased. I write books and hope you’ll pick one of mine as a Father’s Day gift. But even if you don’t, all books bring unique pleasure.
The best gift is a vacation … and the least expensive vacation is a book. A novel effortlessly transports the reader to another world. With a good book, dad can take a fifteen minute vacation or while away an entire afternoon. Either way, he returns feeling refreshed and more content with life.
Gift books don’t have to be fiction. A respite with a nonfiction book about a special interest can also be relaxing. The great thing about books is that there are numerous ones for every interest, hobby, sport, or enthusiasm. If for some reason, your dad can’t get away to fish, golf, or whatever, he can frequently find a few minutes to read about his favorite activity. A good book allows him to indulge himself and possibly pick up a few pointers.
There is another reason I like to give books as gifts: I can write something personal on the flyleaf that won’t get thrown out like an old greeting card.
The most important thing is to remind your father that you love him. The perfect book is far more personal than most gifts because it’s aimed directly at what you father enjoys. Put some serious thought into the right book to show you really tried to please him.

By the way, there's still time to order one of the Steve Dancy Tales for Father's Day.

Honest Westerns ... filled with dishonest characters.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Storytellers fix an unruly world

Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers
Saving Mr. Banks

Last night I watched Saving Mr. Banks for the first time. Screenwriters like to write scripts about writers. Unfortunately, the writing process does not make for exciting movies. Good stories require tension and conflict. Conflict between a writer and a keyboard doesn't quite cut it. Saving Mr. Banks had plenty of conflict, and the conflict occurred between two fascinating characters. I would rate the movie high for a film about writers and a decent drama across all genres.

There was a line in the movie that caught my attention. A one point, Tom Hanks, as Walt Disney says, “Because that's what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination.”

Disney, like many successful entrepreneurs, was a control freak. (Think Steve Jobs.) The line reminded me that Disney supposedly once said he preferred cartoons because he didn't need to deal with messy actorsor something close to that. Disney controlled every aspect of his empire, and at the end of his life used Epcot Center to show the world how to build a proper city. If he had lived long enough, he probably would have reordered the universe.

So the line from the script captured Disney’s personality and life ambition. He wanted to restore order with imagination. But the character revealing aspect of the line isn't what caught my attention. I listened to it several times because it reminded me that a writer’s world is ordered. If not on the first draft, it becomes increasingly ordered with each revision. Every aspect of a story is exactly as the author intended. Storytelling is an imaginary tale where everything is ordered as perfectly as possible given the skill of the author.

I started writing fiction when I consulted on the other side of the nation and found myself spending a significant amount of time alone in hotel rooms. I've always thought I wrote in the evenings because stress faded away when I transported myself to another place and time. Writing also relieved loneliness because my characters had become friends. What I hadn't considered was where the stress came from. I consulted in the travel tour industry which was chaotic on slow days. The rest of the time it was so frenzied, it made Congress the epitome of order, calm, and reason.

As I look back, I realize that writing restored order in my imagination. I couldn't change the real world, but in my stories, I had complete control. 

So if you feel stress or frustration with life, pick up a good story and escape to our world. We storytellers will take care of the rest. “Because that's what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination.”

Friday, May 16, 2014

Book Titles that Grab Attention

Coming up with a good book title is difficult, at least for me. Ideally, you want the title that will grab a buyer’s attention in three or so words. The title is actually only half of a selling partnership. The cover and title work together to entice a purchase. People do judge a book by its cover and the cover entails an image with a few words. If either appears incongruent, buyers move on to the next offering.

Constitutional convention historical novelMy favorite is Tempest at Dawn. Since the book is a dramatization of the Constitutional Convention, I wanted the title to sound like a novel, not a nonfiction history book. The cover design put the title in context: a stormy sky over the Pennsylvania State House flying a thirteen star flag. For me, the title evokes a troubled nation at its founding, but some, who otherwise raved about the book, criticized the title as unrelated to the story. I still like it.

In my Western series, I wanted the sub-title prominent to remind readers there were more Steve Dancy Tales, so I chose simple titles that include: The Shopkeeper, Leadville, Murder at Thumb Butte, The Return, and Jenny's RevengeI’m currently working on Crossing the Animas

The covers are black and white because I wanted a design that indicated that these were a different type of Western: different from books with loud and colorful cover illustrations showing action or looming violence. The series has been very successful, so hopefully this is partly due to the covers and titles because I intend to continue the pattern for the remaining books in the series.

My approach will not work for everyone, but viewing the cover design and title together as a selling unit will garner sales. For a confirming case study, read about my blunder with The Shut Mouth Society.

By the way, The Meta Picture has a fun article titled “These Books Actually Exist,” which lists 20 outrageous titles and covers. Wonder how some of these sold.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Happy Mother's Day

True story

We asked our grandson what he was giving his mom for Mother's Day, and he said he made something in school. Then he asked if his mom would give my wife a gift. When told yes, he asked if she would give her mom a gift. My wife explained that her mom was called Gi, and she had died last year. He hardly paused before saying, "Then you can give her a prayer."

Friday, May 9, 2014

Gifts for Graduation Season

Dr. Seuss
Ron Charles, entertainment and book columnist for the Washington Post has written an interesting article about gift books for graduation. Good timing since we are grappling with an appropriate gift for a niece. Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss looks to be a fun way to conceal a cash gift—much more clever than a stodgy old money gift card.

Charles quotes Paul Bogaards, director of media relations at Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, as saying, “parents want to provide their kids with a map to a job and the prospect of a happy, fulfilled life. A book is obviously the perfect vessel for delivering both. A bottle of bourbon also works.” Since our niece is graduating high school, I think we'll opt for a book.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Historical Novel: Lust for Life by Irving Stone

Go Book Yourself published a list of 9 books inspired by art. I would add a tenth: Lust for Life by Irving Stone. I am not a visual person, but my wife was an Art History major and docent, so I spend a lot of time in museums. When I look at a painting on my own, I usually stifle a yawn, but with her by my side, the art and artist become intriguing. It reminds me of NASCAR racing. If you know nothing about the sport, it's boring. Just a bunch of left turns at high speed in heavy traffic. But once you learn about the teams, drivers, cars, and rules, the sport becomes fascinating, as well as thrilling. Like my wife, Irving Stone had a knack for making something interesting that might otherwise be dull. Ever since reading Lust for Life, Vincent van Gogh has been my favorite artist.

Tempest at Dawn
Irving Stone
James D. Best

Irving Stone is also one of my favorite authors. He popularized the biographical novel by turning the lives of great people into great stories. You can read his New York Times obituary here. The obituary quotes Stone as saying, ''My books are based 98 percent on documentary evidence. I spend several years trying to get inside the brain and heart of my subjects, listening to the interior monologues in their letters, and when I have to bridge the chasms between the factual evidence, I try to make an intuitive leap through the eyes and motivation of the person I'm writing about.''

The reason I feel an emotional connection to Irving Stone and Lust for Life is that this novel was the inspiration for Tempest at Dawn. I believed the Constitutional Convention was a spellbinding story. Dozens of history books had already been written, and I had read many of them, but there was a nail-biting story filled with enigmatic characters that somehow eluded these academic examinations. Like Stone, I felt the novel form would bring the story and people to life. I may not have reached the literary heights of Stone, but I enjoyed the writing immensely and most readers have been highly positive in their reviews and ratings. (462 Goodreads ratings for 3.9 stars and 155 Amazon reviews for 4.4 stars..) 

Try either book. If you enjoy history, you may find the novel a great form for gaining additional insight.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Apropos of nothing—Harry Potter vs. Star Wars

This short video was posted on YouTube and has nearly 24 million hits. Well deserved, I might add. I posted it on my blog because I enjoyed it, plus it is good short story telling with terrific production values.