Monday, September 30, 2013

Really Bad Opening Lines to Novels

A couple weeks ago I posted an article about Elmore Leonard's great opening lines. I also mentioned that my Steve Dancy Tales opening line uncreatively designated the book's sequence in the series. 

All opening lines, however, are not great. In fact, most are humdrum. So much emphasis has been placed on opening lines that authors agonize over their first sentences. Actually, there's much more to be nervous about. Authors actually have 50-100 words to capture the reader's attention. Instead of tormenting themselves over a mere sentence, writers can fear two or three paragraphs. That's plenty of opportunity to drive an author completely around the bend. 

Thought Catalog has published 33 Of The Most Hilariously Terrible First Sentences In Literature History. Most of these are truly terrible, but a few appear so bad I can't help but wonder if they were meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Maybe not. One lesson to take away from these examples is to never appear writerly. Trying too hard often strings words together that jolt the consciousness. Sometimes that is a good thing, but some words and phrases should remain quarantined for eternity.

Related Posts
Opening Lines to a Novel

Friday, September 27, 2013

Something Fun!

I'm in New York City visiting my son and his family. Okay, my son is really on a business trip and I'm filling in for him at a father/daughter event. The event was last night and we had a great time cruising the Hudson River. My son will be back this evening, so we'll have the weekend to catch-up and watch his son play a double-header. Since I'll be busy with more important matters, here is something fun. I never would have guessed that this was the most popular line in film.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I beg to disagree

writing adviceWriter’s Digest is not my favorite source for writing advice. Actually, the magazine and companion website are not even on my radar. I have found Writer’s Digest articles arcane or commonplace. Sometimes they are downright wrong. Recently they published “5 Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Fiction Series” by Rachel Randall, the managing editor for Writer’s Digest Books. Since I write a fiction series, I looked up this article. It pulled off the difficult task of simultaneously being arcane, commonplace, and wrong.

The “5 Mistakes” were commonplace, but the advice on how to avoid them was often arcane. Like everything in this magazine, it is writing by formula. It’s all about the mechanics. This may work for their readership, but not for me.

Calling the article wrong is probably an overstatement. The content is correct. The problem is omission. The “5 Mistakes” have nothing to do with why readers adopt a fiction series. Readers pick up the next installment of a fiction series because they want to learn what happened to the characters in the story. Readers must be invested in the characters. In fact, I believe characterization is the sole key to a fiction series.

fiction series
Writers need to know their characters. Thoroughly. If a writer truly understands his or her characters, many of the “5 Mistakes” will be avoided automatically. Characters have a personality, a backstory, and a network of friends and acquaintances. They do not behave inconsistent with these characteristics. Like real people, fictional characters don’t change willy-nillythey constantly change and/or grow, but the reader must witness this challenging process. (Breaking Bad is a good example.)

The “5 Mistakes” article misses the greatest mistake in fiction seriespoor character development. A great deal of series fiction puts too much emphasis on technological wizardry, relentless quests, or slow revelation of a mystery. These authors forget to populate their plots with characters that readers care about. And in the end, that is what matters most.

Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Writing Tools of Famous Authors

Flavorwire published a list of writing tools used by famous authors. I was disappointed in the article because they failed to ask me about my favorite writing tools. What could they be thinking?

Bestselling fiction

Anyway, to fill in the record, here are my top three writing tools. 1) coffee, 2) a laptop, and 3), my imagination. Put those three ingredients together and books pop out. Okay, they don’t exactly pop. More like creep. Even after they emerge full-born, they're unruly, demanding of attention, and a bit messy. They’re my babies, so I immediately use the same tools to whip them into shape—figuratively speaking, of course.

I’m not sure how earlier authors wrote in longhand. In fact, the further away I get from those awful pages filled with slashes and O’s, the harder it is for me to even write a check legibly. Four-function calculators ruined my ability to multiply and divide; now I can’t write without a trusty computer. 

I once wrote a book in longhand and paid a typist to produce a readable copy. After reading the supposedly readable copy, I revised the gibberish and paid to have it typed again. No wonder I gave up. I couldn't even grip a golf club properly after a few hours of writing. 

Does that mean the old masters were better writers than a modern day author with moon-launch technology at their fingertips? Yes.

I'll never quit admiring authors who composed entire works with pen or pencil and a few reams of paper. James Madison wrote over 200,000 words when taking notes at the Constitutional Convention. That was in addition to his contributions to the Federalist Papers and countless letters to friends, neighbors, and enemiesShakespeare wrote 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 epic poems. Both men's hands were perpetually ink-stained from writing with quill pens. Mozart walked around in public with a blackened hand as well. Early writers and composers had to do it all in their head, without the capability to save multiple versions, print endless copies, or cut and paste words or whole sections of a work.

I enjoy writing, but I do not have that kind of talent. So, I'm happy to live in an era with magical word processors that make it easy to rewrite. Come to think of it, I'm also happy to live in an era with flush toilets.

Friday, September 20, 2013

10 Writing "Rules" Western Authors Should Break

JR Sanders posted on Facebook for Western Writers of America an io9 article titled “10 Writing ‘Rules’ We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break,” with a challenge to list Western rules that should be broken. At the risk of offending everyone, here is my unordered list.

1. Women portrayed only as prostitutes, schoolmarms, or long-suffering wives.
How about making a woman the villain? Or put a gun, reins, or a pen in her hand.
2. Homogeneous portrayal of American Indians
The culture of Indian tribes varied as much as Yankees and Southerners
3. Tombstone portrayed as a cattle town
Tombstone was a mining town. Everybody didn’t migrate west to chase errant cows or string barbed wire
4. Saloons portrayed as the sole entertainment in the West
Tombstone had ice crème parlors and a bowling alley. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance made good plot use of a restaurant.
5. Gunfights portrayed as righteous, standup duels with the bad guy drawing first
Some researchers have concluded that most gunfights occurred within three feet.
6. Railroad tycoons portrayed as handy villains
This is such a cliché we’re ready to boo as soon as any railroad owner steps onto the page or screen.
7. Regular townsfolk and sodbusters portrayed as sniveling weaklings
These were pioneers, for goodness sakes. They wouldn’t have ventured west if they had no backbone.
8. Everyone in the West portrayed as dressing like cowboys
For example, miners wore squared toed boots and professionals and business owners wore suits.
9. The West portrayed as near childless
Kids are usually just props, but look how well breaking this rule worked for True Grit
10. The hero portrayed as riding off into the sunset.
I had fun with the end of The Shopkeeper by writing, “We rode out of Mason Valley with the sun at our backs."

Thursday, September 19, 2013

And now starring ...

Good books can make good movies. This is especially true if the script is true to the book. This doesn't mean a movie should doggedly follow a book. Film and novels are different mediums. They present stories through different senses, so there must be an adaptation from one media to another. Gifted scriptwriters know how to do this, as can be seen in Lonesome Dove. The reverse is seldom true. When novels are written to take advantage of a hit movie, they are invariably cinematic, not literary.

novels with available film rights
Click for hot properties!

On the other hand, can good movies be made about books? BookRiot has published a list of 17 movies starring books. There are some good films on this list, but they make me wonder. Do writers get tired of making heroes out of cops and detectives, Cowboys on horseback or in pickups, teenage vampire killers, or even people working in exceptionally boring crime labs? Do they decide, hey, what about us? We can be heroic … and besides, we control the keyboard.

Don’t know, but movies about books are much more interesting than movies about writing. I mean, how exciting is writer’s block? Does the actor type faster to pick up the pace of the story? The pen is mightier than the sword, but a typewriter makes an awkward weapon. Writers can be interesting characters, but outside the author’s mind, writing looks as dull as running a DNA test. Humm? Anyway, the better movies on this list focus on the writers and their books, not the act of creation.

By the way, where is Little Women on this list?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Wild West—an Escape from Despair

Jacob Riis was a late nineteenth century social reformer who used his camera to expose parts of New York City avoided by the smart set. He ventured into the poor districts ruled by gangs. Daily life for the unfortunate inhabitants was dismal and violent … far more violent than the infamous Wild West. The film, Gangs of New York, focused on a small time frame covered by the 1928 book by Herbert Asbury.

The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale
Jabob Riis

In The Return, I wanted to show New York’s explosive progress in technology and wealth creation, while a few blocks away gangs and lawlessness dominated neighborhoods. A common misconception is that the Wild West was ignorant, lawless and lacking in basic comforts, while eastern cities were cultured and ordered, with the basic amenities close at hand. Eastern city slums couldn’t hold a candle to safety and opportunity on the frontier. For many, the West was a chance for a new start in life, one with more promise than a bleak future in the East. Hope drove the mass migrations to the frontier. People endured hardship on the chance of securing a better future for themselves and their families. In truth, that is the great story of the Wild West.

The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale
Jacob Riis

Thomas Edison
Jacob Riis
Jacob Riis
Western fiction, historical novel
The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale

Monday, September 16, 2013

We can all learn from Shakespeare

Writer’s Digest did a piece titled, “10 Things Shakespeare Can Teach us About Writing Thrillers.” The ten tips actually help with any genre. Shakespeare was a great writer and a suburb storyteller. It’s the combination that makes him world renown nearly 400 years after his death. In his day, he was not a literary figure; he was the equivalent of a prime time screenwriter. Shakespeare wrote to fill theaters with paying audiences. (Somewhere around forty people depended on his plays for their livelihood.) 

Populist or Elitist?
One of my favorite writer quotes comes from Raymond Chandler; “It might reasonably be said that all art at some time and in some manner becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten.” 

Shakespeare is remembered because he aimed for mass entertainment. Shakespeare’s appeal to the general public is what makes these 10 writing tips powerful. All of them have to do with the storytelling side of his great talent. From an artistic standpoint, he was an unbelievably gifted wordsmith, but craft alone will not make a writer immortal. 

Nor, quite frankly, will storytelling divorced of good writing. Just ask Harold Robbins.

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Opening Lines to a Novel

Elmore Leonard wrote great opening lines ... first sentences that immediately drew the reader into the story.

literary fiction
Elmore Leonard

The Stacks compiled a chronological list of all of Leonard's opening lines. The list should be inspirational to every writer other than me. Not many have noticed, but I've already committed to all of the opening lines of my Steve Dancy series. Each tale begins with a single word. The Shopkeeper opened with "Two," and each succeeding novel opened with the next higher digit. The first sentence in my latest book in the series, Crossing the Animas, reads "Seven."

What happened to One? I've reserved it in case I decide to write a prequel about why Dancy left New York City for adventure on the American frontier.

This may not be a creative approach to opening lines, but it has one huge advantage. I can write the first sentence of each new novel without thought and tell myself that I've actually begun the book. Once writing starts, the story keeps drawing me back to the keyboard.

Western fiction
Second or First in the Series?

Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Mash-ups—Second Thoughts

Previously I wrote a blog posting which questioned whether Western mash-ups worked. I personally dislike mash-ups because they rely too much on a clever big concept rather than on good storytelling. I suspect Hollywood likes mash-ups because they don't think a Western story can stand on its own, especially with the younger crowd. So I openly displayed my prejudice against projects that draped a popular genre disguise over a Western in order to make it more marketable. Besides, I hated Cowboys and Aliens. I prefer unalloyed Westerns.

film, movies, tv, television

Except I forgot one of my favorite Westerns. Part of the attraction of Westerns is vicarious adventure, and no film caught this concept better than the Yul Brynner classic Westworld, which happened to be a science fiction/Western mash-up before someone coined the term. What would happen if an imaginary adventure became life-threatening? How would a naïve observer react if make-believe suddenly became real? Now that’s a theme for a great story.

All of this was brought to mind when I read that HBO has committed to a Westworld series pilot by Bad Robot and Warner Bros. Here is the story in Variety. So I was wrong. All mash-ups are not bad … only the ones I don’t like.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book Reviews—The good, the bad, and ...

western fiction

There are no ugly book reviews only good and bad reviews.  At least that would be true under the axiom that any publicity is good publicity. The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale recently received one of each. Let’s start with the good.

Bookviews by Alan Caruba is one of my favorite book blogs. Caruba is a writer by profession and a longtime book reviewer. In his review of The Return, he puts me in the same paragraph with Elmore Leonard. That alone puts Bookviews into my favorite column, even if Caruba hadn’t already reviewed most of my other books. He writes: “James D. Best … is arguably one of the best writers of westerns.” Those are kind words, and I appreciate them. You’ll find Caruba’s review of The Return in his September Picks of the Month.

On the other hand, at Brandywine Books, Lars Walker writes, “The Return, another Dancy story, is another well-written tale,” but adds, “it turned me off the series, not because of the writing, but because of one of the themes.” It seems Mr. Walker was offended by Dancy's interaction with his snobbish mother. He writes, “Steve’s ability to defy her through premarital cohabitation is presented as a sort of moral triumph.” A good observation, but I feel obligated to support my characters despite their failings. You can read Walker’s review of The Return by clicking on this link.

The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale has also received some nice reviews by Amazon Readers.

Western fiction
Steve Dancy Tales

Monday, September 9, 2013

Turning a house into a home

Yesterday we walked our new house with a contractor. Whew, do we have a lot of work to do. Just about everything we own is in storage awaiting re-engineered heating, new flooring, scrapped ceilings, updated plumbing, and lots of paint. Guess our stuff will be hidden away in a dark warehouse awhile. In the meantime, we’ll stay in an apartment and make frequent visits to our renovation project. I already warned the contractor to expect to see us daily, so he should bid accordingly.

Our house may not be ready, but family and Omaha friends have already made us feel welcome. We were even welcomed by the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Douglas County Treasurer. The people in Omaha sure are friendly.

I’m hoping the temporary quarters will give me plenty of time to write. I already started researching the next Steve Dancy Tale. That means I’m reading books about the places Steve and his friends might visit. Reading about the Old West is fun, but I’m getting anxious to start writing. Especially, since I’ve come up with a tentative title. I hesitate to share it because it may change, but for now it will be called, Jenny’s Revenge.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Surfer in Nebraska?


We arrived Friday evening in Omaha. It was late and we were very tired. Eight hundred and sixty miles of driving in a single day tends to do that to a worn out old body. I can’t imagine the hardships the pioneers endured. Brave souls.

Omaha, Nebraska is the geographic center of the nation. In the early days of the Cold War, the Pentagon put the Strategic Air Command headquarters outside Omaha to make it harder to hit. This means you can’t live in the United States and be further from a breaking wave.  So why would a lifelong surfer head for Nebraska? To be close to my grandkids who live in Omaha and closer to the ones who live in NYC. Besides, we still have a small condo in Pacific Beach to escape harsh winters on the Great Plains. Ironically, we bought our San Diego place to escape the scorching Arizona summers. (Arizona has two seasons: winter and hell.) I just need to convert from a summer surfer to a winter surfer. Thank goodness for wetsuits.

Steve Dancy Tales

I’m going to enjoy writing Westerns from Nebraska. Omaha and the surrounding territory have a great Western heritage. In some respects, pockets of Arizona remain the Wild West, but Omaha nurtured the move west for many of the pioneers. Besides, it will be a great take-off point for trips to South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. These are all states I’ve visited several times, but want to spend more time exploring. It all ought to be great fun.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Rolling, rolling, rolling

It is time to move on. We've sold our Arizona house and start our trek to Nebraska today. Actually, the house closed a week ago and we have been catching our breath in our condo in San Diego. I got in a couple of days of fun surfing on both ends of the Labor Day holiday weekend. (I avoid the water on holidays … it’s just tooo crowded.)

We lived in Arizona for 22 years, so this is a big change, but we have five reasons to move to Nebraska all of them live at my daughter’s house.  Here are three of them.

By the way, I’m bringing Steve Dancy with me. I've started the research on the fifth book in the series and it will be out sometime next year. Happy reading.

Good vittels, lovin', kissin' 
Are waiting at the end of my ride 
Move 'em on, head' em up 
Head 'em up, move' em on
Move 'em on, head' em up 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Fun Night in Virginia City

Last post I wrote that Mark Twain, Owen Wister and Wells Drury portrayed Westerners as particularly fond of pranks and practical jokes. Here is a tale Drury related in his Virginia City memoir titled An Editor on the Comstock Lode.

Rich mining towns attracted all sorts of people, including entertainers. Supposedly, a ham actor named O’Neil arrived at Pat Holland’s Music Hall begging for a job. Holland was known as a gentle practical joker, but would “never think of doing anything more serious than breaking a man’s leg.” He asked O’Neil if he could dance. After a brief audition, Holland decided to “work him for a game.”

“Have you ever tried Professor Morse slippers?” Holland asked.

“Never heard of them,” O’Neil responded.

“They’re a pair of electric slippers and we offer a prize if you can wear them without dancing. There are few who can wear them without cavortin’ all around the stage. If we could find a man who could stand it, we could win a barrel of money ‘cuz the men’d all bet against the game. Ye’ve a mind to try it.”

O’Neil agreed. After the slippers were strapped to his feet, Holland kept telling his stage manager to increase the current, but O’Neil never felt a thing. Finally, Holland ordered his man to “Jam it all on.” Still, O’Neil never flinched.

“Can ye do it?” Holland asked.

“Don’t ya call this doin’ it?”

“Ye’re right! Now for ropin’ in the huskies. Tomorrow we’ll win the majority of the money on the eastern slope of Mount Davidson, and ye shall have half of all we win.”

The next day posters were spread all over town announcing the challenge.  The Music Hall was standing room only that evening. After several preliminary acts, O’Neil was introduced to a roaring crowd.

“Gents, ye see before ye a stranger who proposes to show ye that he can wear Professor Morse slippers for five minutes without jumpin’ around,” Holland announced. “If anybody wants to gamble on the proposition, he’s my Injun.”

The hall was in pandemonium, with everybody holding up $20 gold coins. Holland consulted with his partners and announced that bets would be limited to $1,000, so the crowd needed to consolidate their wagers. A stakeholder and clerks were brought on stage and soon stacks upon stacks of gold coins weighted down the tables. Finally, over $10,000 had been wagered and O’Neil was getting visibly excited at the possibility of winning half of the stake.

A committee was appointed from the crowd of onlookers to remove O’Neil’s boots and put the slippers on his feet.  O’Neil began to brag, “I could walk across the great American desert with them slippers and never make a skip.”

“Turn on yer steam!” an engineer shouted.

O’Neil walked around the stage with nary a skip. At the four minute mark, O’Neil shouted, “I’ve only a minute longer, and I’d like to bet $1,000 I can make it. I’ll call it two thousand!”

About that time, O’Neil yelped and danced and shrieked and jumped. “Take ‘em off!” he screamed.
The crowd of miners yelled and whooped.

Holland had the electricity turned off, and O’Neil gradually recovered from his ordeal. He was pulling on his boots when Holland emerged from backstage with a navy six-shooter.

Cocking the pistol, Holland yelled, “Villain! Ye’ve ruined me. I’ve a notion to murder ye!

“No! Please don’t shoot!”

“Out of my sight. Git!” Holland yelled as he fired into the ceiling.

O’Neil ran for his life, knocking several people down who were hanging around the stage.

Holland made $500 off admission fees and all of the wager money was returned the rightful owners ... who had all been in on the prank.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Best Western Writer of All Time?

Mark Twain as a young man
Mark Twain is one of my favorite Western authors. Whenever I tell someone that, their immediate reaction is that Twain was not a Western writer. When I point out that his nineteenth-century stories take place on the frontier, skeptics usually make some comment about the lack of six-guns, cowboy hats, and black-hearted desperados.  I suggest they revisit the books. Injun Joe wasn’t sitting in the pew next to Tom on Sunday mornings, and poor Tom got shot in the leg in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Mark Twain knew the real West as few other authors. His memoir, Roughing It, tells about his experiences as a newspaper reporter in Virginia City when it was as rough as any cow town and six-guns were always at the ready. Twain actually lived the Wild West and wrote about the American frontier. That makes him a Western writer in my book.

Owen Wister was another great author who experienced the real western frontier. In fact, many scenes in The Virginian come directly from his notes taken during his summer sojourns to Wyoming in the late 1880s. Currently, I’m reading An Editor on the Comstock Lode by Wells Drury. Drury was a newspaper editor in Virginia City after Mark Twain had departed, but the hillside town was still wildly fun and dangerous as hell.

What struck me is the common cultural trait that permeates the writing of Twain, Wister, and Drury. It appears the most common characteristic of the real Old West was not gun fights, but practical jokes. All three authors relate yarns about hijinks and pranks, some of which required the participation of a large number of people—sometimes almost the entire town against one or two people not in on the joke. Westerners evidently loved practical jokes; the more elaborate the better.

Thinking on this brought to mind the Earps. They are often criticized by their detractors as small-time swindlers. Besides some more serious accusations, the Earps supposedly rigged bets to determine who would pay for drinks. Some biographers use these accusations to illustrate an unsavory aspect of their character. Perhaps. On the other hand, maybe these authors didn't understand the culture of the real Old West.