Wednesday, December 23, 2015

In Production—Audio Version of The Return

Coming Soon in Audio

Jim Tedder has agreed to narrate The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale and has already completed 6 chapters. This is exciting news because Tedder did a great job on Murder at Thumb Butte. He has a long career in broadcasting and brings a great storytelling voice to the series.

In answer to some queries, I've completed ten chapters of Crossing the Animas, A Steve Dancy Tale. Darn, I sure wish I could write as fast as Jim Tedder can narrate.

Here is the first chapter of The Return.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Best Selling Novelist of All Time?

Agatha Christie as a Young Woman

Agatha Christie is often listed as the bestselling novelist of all time. If the list is for fiction writers instead of just novelists, then Shakespeare takes the top spot. Even with a four hundred year head start, Christie may be catching up with The Bard because royalties from her books are estimated to still exceed £5m a year. In a 2002 relaunch of the 1939 And Then There Were None, the book became a surprise bestseller.

Christie wrote 85 books and sold well over two billion copies. And Then There Were None sold 100 million all by itself. The success of the 1965 Hollywood remake of the story caused subsequent editions of the book to be retitled Ten Little Indians. Her works have been translated into every major language and UNESCO named her the most translated author in the world.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became annoyed with Sherlock Holmes so he killed him. Never fear, he used a novelist's magic powers to bring the famous detective back to life. Similarly, Dame Agatha Christie grew tired of Poirot, once describing him as "insufferable" and "an egocentric creep".

Christie invented the classic murder mystery structure. A murder is committed with multiple suspects and secrets are gradually revealed with a surprise twist at the end. Murder mysteries are active reading, with the reader knowing all the clues uncovered by the investigator. The fun is guessing the guilty party. There have been truckloads of murder mystery written but few compare with "The Queen of Crime."

I studied Agatha Christie and other mystery writers before I started Murder at Thumb Butte. I wanted to use the Steve Dancy characters in a traditional murder mystery, albeit in the Wild West with gun play, horses, rowdy saloons, and celebrity frontiersmen like Doc Holiday and Vergil Earp.

I haven’t sold nearly as many copies as Christie, but I’m happy that the novel has found a large audience. 106 Amazon readers rated the book 4.4 stars, and 294 Goodreads fans gave the book an average score of 4.1. C. K. Crigger in Roundup Magazine wrote, "This is a well-plotted mystery, as well as a terrific Old West story. Best has a great character in Steve Dancy, and has created an excellent cast of secondary characters." If you like murder mysteries, westerns, or historical novels, Murder at Thumb Butte should be your next book.

The novel has been available in print, ebook, and large print. Recently Jim Tedder did an exceptional job narrating the audiobook version. 

As Tedder says, “Go on now, get to it.”

Print, eBook, Large Print & Audio Formats

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Top 10 Tips for Book Gift Giving

A book is always a great gift … especially if you take the time to match the recipient’s taste in fiction or nonfiction. Suddenly, your thoughtfulness becomes part of the gift. Whether your relatives or friends are interested in the Civil War, literature, romance novels, westerns, paranormal fiction, railroads, guns, cooking, collecting old comic books, antique automobiles, or anything else, there's always a book that will bring a smile to their face.

Here are my Top 10 Tips for Book Gift Giving
  1. Write a personal message on the flyleaf that won't get tossed out like last year's Christmas card.
  2. Search out an author signing for your recipient’s favorite author or give a collector’s version of the recipient’s favorite book.
  3. If you need professional help or want something unique, shop at an independent book store, or specialty bookstore.
  4. If you subscribe to Amazon Prime then shipping is free, or mail books early to take advantage of media class at the Post Office.
  5. Give a book as a piece of art, like a fine print book, unique coffee table book, favorite book as a child, or collectible cover art.
  6. Make a highly personal photo book with ShutterFly or Apple Photos.
  7. Give a bookseller gift card for e-book and audio book enthusiasts.
  8. If you’re giving a gift to a college student, tuck a crisp $100 bill into the flyleaf as a bookmark.
  9. If your friend or relative already owns piles of books, give a unique set of book ends to hold them in their proper place.
  10. One final tip that comes close to re-gifting—find an Amazon print book that includes a “Match Book” deal. Gift the printed version and download the e-book for yourself.

Children's books are also great gifts. We search for autographed storybooks for our grandkids. Bookstores always have children book signings around the holidays, and this is one area where we join the crowd. The icing on the cake is that we get to read from one of these books when we visit.

Books are a great entertainment value. They provide hour upon hour of personal pleasure, and then they can be passed on to another person. What could be better?

You might even gift one of these.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Literature vs. Popular Fiction

I bounce around the internet each morning after checking email. I scan a lot of articles, but rarely get by the first few paragraphs. My time is precious and there is just so much stuff out there. If I tried to read it all, I’d never have time to write.

An exception was “Literature vs genre is a battle where both sides lose” by David Mitchell, published at The Guardian blog. I don’t enjoy dissertations on writing as an art form. I’m a storyteller whose medium is the written word, so I prefer articles about how to improve my craft. But Mitchell grabbed my attention with his first sentence.

“Literary fiction is an artificial luxury brand but it doesn’t sell.”

There is an audience for literary fiction, but Mitchell points out that the demand for genre fiction dwarfs the high-tone variety. He claims, “fancy reading habits don’t make you cool any longer. The people who actually buy books, in thumpingly large numbers, are genre readers.”

I think the difference is how a writer approaches a project. If a writer starts off to tell a story, a good craftsman will focus on writing the novel properly to keep the reader engaged. If a writer starts with the goal to write a literary masterpiece, then the focus becomes assembling sentences so clever they stop the reader to admire the prose. A good storyteller never takes the reader out of a story, so fancy writing is counterproductive.

Here’s the dirty little secret of fiction writing: if it doesn’t sell, it’s soon forgotten. Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Owen Wister, Raymond Chandler, Louisa May Alcott and many other “Great Writers” understood this truism. 

“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.”  Raymond Chandler

Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Look and Listen

Whispersync is an Amazon feature that allows you to switch between an ebook version and an audiobook of the same title. It’s a pretty cool way to read at home and listen to books on commutes or jogs. (This link explains Whispersync.) Not all books sold on are set up for this synchronization feature, however. For my own audiobooks, only The Shopkeeper is Whispersync ready. Bummer. But at least Amazon says they’ll eventually get to the other books in the Steve Dancy series.

How do you know which books in your Kindle library are set up for Whispersync? Amazon has made it easy. To reference your Kindle library against existing Audible Whispersync titles, you can just log into which automatically lists every Kindle book you ever bought that has a Whispersync companion. This list will also give you the discounted cost to add the audiobook to your library. This may not be very valuable for books you’ve already read, but when I showed the list to my wife, she immediately added several of these titles to her to-read list.

If you buy a print book, the Kindle version may be discounted—sometimes to 99 cents—and if you buy an eBook, the Whispersync audiobook is discounted. Consuming books visually and/or audibly has become a snap. If you don’t have lots of idle hours to read, try a combo approach. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Is it possible to stage a Inimitable western street duel?

The western fast draw setup is as well known as the title sequence for Gunsmoke. Two men face off in the street, settle their stance, flex their fingers, and bet their lives on who is quicker. Great drama, but how do you make it fresh and different. There was the knife scene the Magnificent Seven and a lifelong secret about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but  Terror In A Texas Town outdid them all.

And for a nostalgic moment, here's Matt Dillon's famous duel, ending with a little film crew fun.

I ran across this movie clip in an interesting article by John Heath titled "Why Superhero Movies Aren't Like Westerns." I believe Heath makes some good observations.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

How to make a cowboy hat

Hollywood western movies
Looking the Part

I'm not a hat person. Although I own dozens of hats, I seldom wear one. I don't even like helmets. I grew up in a generation where you just wheeled your bike out of the garage and went riding without a helmet or spandex regalia. When we pulled our long boards to the beach behind our bikes, we wore flip flops, board shorts, and little else. I ski with soft head gear and when I surf, so far I can still rely on my hair to keep the sun from burning the top of my head.

That said, I like cowboy hats. I own one but seldom wear it because after all these years, it still looks new. I bought it at Wall Drug, and it immediately blew off my head and rolled down the center of the street for a quarter mile and still looked brand spankin' new*. I envy tattered, sweat-stained cowboy hats that scream authenticity. Mine says tenderfoot in neon. I know, I know, if I wore it more, it would eventually look like the genuine article. I'm just not a hat person.

For western head gear, I prefer Resistol, but here's a video from Stetson about making cowboy hats. Betcha thought it was a lot simpler.

* I'm a bit obsessed with phrases. This is an interesting article about the origins of brand spanking new.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Jenny’s Revenge Available in Print

At long last, Jenny’s Revenge, A Steve Dancy Tale is available in trade paperback format. This has been a long process that had mostly to do with abnormal issues around the cover design. The book can be ordered from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Books a Million, or independent book stores. Thank you for reading The Steve Dancy Tales.

literary fiction book series
Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters

Jenny Bolton has plans, and they don't bode well for Steve Dancy.
Married at fifteen to a Nevada politician, Jenny suffered repeated assaults, witnessed her husband's ghastly murder, buried her vile mother-in-law, and killed a man. Dancy, who had once served as her paladin, rejected her without as much as a goodbye. Abandoned on a raw frontier, she's single-handedly building an empire that spans the state. Despite her triumphs, she feels she never should have been left alone.
Soon to marry, Steve is eager to begin a new life unaware that Jenny is mad for revenge.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Murder at Thumb Butte Available in Audio

The audio version of Murder at Thumb Butte read by Jim Tedder is now available. Tedder is a consummate professional with over 35 years in broadcasting. He's such a natural storyteller, you can almost hear the campfire crackling in the background.

Books in Motion published the audio versions of The Shopkeeper and Leadville, and now Tedder has added Murder at Thumb Butte to the audio series. We anticipate that sales will be good enough for Tedder to narrate the remaining books in the series. I sure hope so. He does a fine job as you can hear from this audio book trailer.

You can purchase the audio version of Murder at Thumb Butte through one of the following links.

James D Best bestselling books

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Another Remake?—The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

My last posting was about Hollywood remaking The Magnificent Seven, one of my favorite western movies. No sooner did it go to press than I hear Paramount is remaking another one of my favorites, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This remake is still in the initial stages, so actual projection onto a silver screen remains iffy. (Boy, the digital world is making lots of stock phrases obsolete.)

The original 1962 film starred Jimmie Stewart and John Wayne, with Lee Marvin playing the heavy. Vera Miles, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Woody Strode, Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef also had significant roles in this John Ford film. Hard to believe Paramount can afford to put together that level of cast today.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance had a huge influence on the Steve Dancy Tales. Ransom Stoddard and Steve Dancy are eastern educated city dwellers trying to survive a raw frontier, both stories make use of political subplots, and the movie and books present day to day life as a backdrop to the action. At bottom, the film and the Steve Dancy Tales are fish-out-of-water/buddy stories.

I hope this particular remake never gets a green light. The original is a true classic and a new production is sure to fall short. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a sophisticated, complex story, directed by a master, with a once-in-a-lifetime cast. Hollywood should quit trying to live off past glories and make new films that will be eagerly watched a half century from now.

Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Coming soon to a theater near you!

original 1960 film

Hollywood is remaking The Magnificent Seven, one of my favorite westerns. (Darn, I wished they had asked. I could have sold them material for a great, new western script.) The original film was made in 1960 and broke new ground for Westerns. The loner, with or without a sidekick, was nowhere to be found. Instead, an ensemble cast kicked up so much dust with twenty eight hoofs that filming became difficult at times. The Magnificent Seven introduced antihero gangs to theatrical westerns. Previously there were western antiheros, notably Shane and Hondo, but these were deeply flawed characters rather than outright bad guys called upon to do good. Nine years later, The Wild Bunch seems to have taken most of the credit for elevating antiheroes who flock together.

The Magnificent Seven is a buddy story which heavily relies on the chemistry of the characters. This played out exceptionally well in the original and hopefully will work for the remake as well. Of course, everything was not always copacetic on the sets of the original film. Throughout the entire movie, Yule Brynner never removed his hat to expose his bald head. Steve McQueen was such a notorious scene stealer that he exasperated Brynner, who took him aside and threatened to remove his hat if McQueen upstaged him again. Legend has it that McQueen behaved himself for the remainder of the shoot.

The new Magnificent Seven is due in 2016,  directed by Antoine Fuqua, and staring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Luke Grimes, Wagner Moura, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer, and Peter Sarsgaard. Let’s hope it’s as good as the first one.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

What makes a hero —Character or Activity?

Hollywood westerns film
Hondo by Louis L'Amour

In 1949, Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell studied myths and stories down through the ages and came up with twelves steps in a hero’s journey, starting with normalcy or status quo and ending right back at status quo. The Matthew Winkler animated video illustrates Campbell’s definition of the journey. Campbell made a brilliant set of observations about the striking similarities of heroic sagas told throughout time and in every culture. (Steve Dancy complies with Campbell's theoretical journey.)

Campbell also breaks some new ground in describing the universal need for heroes, albeit in a language foreign to mortals.
The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what Jung called “the archetypal images.”
Say what?

The Hero With a Thousand Faces gives the impression that the journey itself makes the hero. It might be more accurate to say that anyone who prevails through all of the steps elevates himself or herself to heroic status. Most people retreat at Step One: Call to Adventure.

I believe heroism is more a question of character than events. Mark Twain agrees with me. He wrote:
“Unconsciously we all have a standard by which we measure other men, and if we examine closely we find that this standard is a very simple one, and is this: we admire them, we envy them, for great qualities we ourselves lack. Hero worship consists in just that. Our heroes are men who do things which we recognize, with regret, and sometimes with a secret shame, that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else. If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes.”
Raymond Chandler also had a character-driven definition of a hero:
…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.
The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.
Joseph Campbell is popular in academia, but perhaps it's possible to get a better description of a hero by asking one of those storytellers who have passed these tales down from one generation to the next.

Monday, September 14, 2015

John Steinbeck Writing Tips

Six tips on writing from Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck.
  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A New Steve Dancy Tale—Crossing the Animas

Western Fiction in Colorado
Denver & Rio Grande Railway

I started the next book in the Steve Dancy Tales. When I say started, I mean barely begun. I have a title, Crossing the Animas, and an initial draft of the first two chapters. I also have an outline of sorts. So it will be many months before the book is available.

The print edition of Jenny’s Revenge has been a long haul, but it has finally made it through all of the format and approval hoops and is available through online and brick and mortar booksellers. 

More gratifying, the audio version of Murder at Thumb Butte is available and The Return will follow shortly. Jim Tedder is the narrator for both and he is a great storyteller.

Below is another sample chapter. I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a whole new way to experience the Steve Dancy Tales.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The More Things Change ...

Western fiction

I moved to Omaha last year, so I found this 1877 article from the Omaha Herald interesting. For those who loath TSA, tiny seats, and surly airlines, take heart, travel was far worse in the good-ol’-days.

Here are a few of the Herald’s tips for stage travelers.
  • Don't growl at food stations; stage companies generally provide the best they can get.
  • Don't keep the stage waiting; many a virtuous man has lost his character by so doing.
  • Don't smoke a strong pipe inside especially early in the morning.
  • Spit on the leeward side of the coach.
  • If you have anything to take in a bottle, pass it around; a man who drinks by himself in such a case is lost to all human feeling.
  • Don't swear, nor lop over on your neighbor when sleeping.
  • Don't ask how far it is to the next station until you get there.
  • Never attempt to fire a gun or pistol while on the road, it may frighten the team; and the careless handling and cocking of the weapon makes nervous people nervous.
  • Don't discuss politics or religion, nor point out places on the road where horrible murders have been committed.
  • Don't linger too long at the pewter wash basin at the station.
  • Don't grease you hair before starting or dust will stick there in sufficient quantities to make a respectable 'tater' patch.
  • Tie a silk handkerchief around your neck to keep out dust and prevent sunburns. A little glycerin is good in case of chapped hands.
The article ended with a good piece of advice for modern travelers.
Don't imagine for a moment you are going on a picnic; expect annoyance, discomfort and some hardships. If you are disappointed, thank heaven.
I thank heaven every time I'm not seated next to Del Griffith!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Swinging Doors and Brass Spittoons

Huff Post Travel listed 5 Old West saloons everyone should visit before they die. This is a fine list of old establishments, but they missed my favorite, The Palace on Whiskey Row in Prescott, Arizona.

Vintage Palace Saloon

Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp and Doc Holliday patronized The Palace, and the film Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen) used the saloon for location shots. I’m also partial to The Palace because I used the saloon in Murder at Thumb Butte, and I seem to have a fuzzy recollection of having a few drinks there on occasion.

In 1900, the original mid-19th century building burnt down, but the bar is authentic because loyal customers carried the heavy wooden structure across the street. I guess they figured that fire could take the rest, but they needed a place to rest their boot and elbow. The Palace reopened in 1901 and has continued to be a town fixture. It certainly feels more Old West than the Crystal Palace mentioned in the Huff Post article.

Palace Saloon today showing rescued bar

The Palace is almost authentic, unlike The Old Style Saloon #10 in Deadwood, South Dakota. Unfortunately, the displayed death-chair for Wild Bill Hickok is not authentic either. Nevertheless, #10 is still a fun visit. 

The Old Style Saloon #10 in Deadwood

I also have fond memories of the saloon in Mitchell, South Dakota, across from the Corn Palace. It might not have been a genuine article, but the beer was cold and the d├ęcor creative. 

Mitchell, South Dakota

A few beers even made the Corn Palace seem interesting.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Steve Dancy Goes Audio! Sample Chapter.

The first two novels in the Steve Dancy Tales were narrated by Rusty Nelson. I hope you’ve had the opportunity to listen to Rusty’s engaging rendition of The Shopkeeper and Leadville. These two books were produced by Books in Motion, which no longer records new material. Jim Tedder is picking up where Rusty left off.

I couldn't be more pleased. Tedder is a consummate professional with over 35 years in the business. Most authors don't have broadcast experience and underestimate the talent required to verbally pull listeners through to the end of a story. Anyone who has been reading my blog knows that I believe storytelling is paramount in fiction writing. (Storytelling is really the world’s oldest profession. Illustrators followed close behind with cave paintings.) Tedder has a natural storyteller’s voice and inflection. You can almost hear the campfire crackling as he talks. You don’t have to take my word for it. Take a listen to this sample chapter. Audio is a whole new way to experience the Steve Dancy Tales.

The Jim Tedder narrated Murder at Thumb Butte is now available and may be gifted for Christmas.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Gunslingers Forever

Mark Bonner edits great tributes to western films. Previously, I posted his video, Westerns Forever. As an amateur film maker, I know these short videos are an enormous amount of work. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Gunslingers Forever by MarkmBonner

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Will Rogers—An American Icon

Will Rogers died at fifty-five in an airplane crash 80 years ago (August 15, 1935). A real Oklahoma cowboy who parlayed dead pan humor into a fortune. We should have had a few more years of his wisdom.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Hateful Eight—I Can't Wait

I like Quentin Tarantino films, especially the Kill Bill duple. I wasn't over-enthusiastic for Django Unchained (I prefer my spaghetti Westerns al naturel), but from all appearances, Tarantino has caught it just right with The Hateful Eight. The movie looks like a solid western with an exceptional cast and all the Tarantino goodies.

Here's the plug for the film:
In post-Civil War Wyoming, bounty hunters try to find shelter during a blizzard but get involved in a plot of betrayal and deception. Will they survive?
Ten Little Indians mystery fiction
Sounds like Hitchcock's Lifeboat in a frozen cabin.  Or perhaps, Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None with six guns (Originally Ten Little Indians in novel form). Knowing Tarantino, it's all the above and more. Much more.

Whatever the story line, the movie seems to be a true western set on the frontier after the Civil War. Nasty weather, bad guys, mysterious shenanigans, and unbridled violence. Sounds like a Tarantino buffet!

Boy, will I be disappointed if the movie doesn't live up to the trailer. 

You can read an interview with Quentin Tarantino here.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Steve Dancy Tales Goes Audio

My son reads magazines and listens to books. He doesn’t have a lot of time for recreational reading, so he listens while he runs, works out, or drives. He keeps telling me that I’m missing a big audience by not having audio versions of the entire Dancy series. Well, we rectified the situation and you can find the audio books here.

I love audio books, but they’re only as good as the narrator. For more than 35 years, Jim Tedder has read Voice of America (VOA) news and features. He has hosted a number of VOA morning programs and is responsible for the VOA Pronunciation Guide. Before joining VOA, Jim worked in broadcasting in several major markets in the United States. I sure Steve and the crew are in good hands.

The Steve Dancy Tales has sold well in print, e-book and large print, and I’m sure it will do well in the audio format.

A guy from the East ventures west. Where have I heard that story?

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Henry Miller's Commandments

Henry Miller, circa 1930
As someone who admires storytelling skills, I’m not a fan of Henry Miller. He wrote stop-and-read-again sentences, but stringing sentences together with coherency seemed beyond his capabilities. I suspect he injected sex into his writing because deep in his heart, he knew he was boring. Miller reminds me of the comment by Steve Martin’s character in Planes,Trains, and Automobiles, "And by the way, you know, when you're telling these little stories? Here's a good idea - have a POINT. It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener!"

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Die-hard Miller fans will say he had a point, but it's something along the lines of "all the world is crazy except me." Only the first part of that phrase may be true, and I expressed the point in five words.

My opinion of Miller might be biased because I think he was a jerk. Miller constantly harangued friends and acquaintances to supply his needs, and then heaped scorn on them if they complied. (This was especially true for women.) In his view, a worthy human would never kowtow to his entreaties. Much like Grocho, he didn’t want, “to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”

Despite my reservations, I’ll include his writing advice because many believe that Henry Miller was a literary giant. In typical Miller fashion, he called these commandments.
  • Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  • Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  • Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  • When you can’t create you can work.
  • Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  • Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  • Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  • Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  • Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  • Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Yale University and Omaha Disagree

westward ho
Pioneer Courage Park, Omaha Nebraska

Amy Athey McDonald has published an article in Yale News titled: On gunfights, U.S. colonialism, and studying the American West on the East Coast. The article includes an interview with John Mack Faragher, the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies, and director of the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders.

The Lamar Center site has a nifty feature which displays a different student’s dissertation blurb every time you refresh the screen. (You can actually catch gems like this: “I seek to foreground these events as a historical pivot point during which North American and global geopolitics, British-American relations, and both “American” and “Canadian” native peoples’ status and territorial control hinged on seemingly peripheral people, movements, and landscapes.”)

It’s nice to see the American frontier get some attention, but I’m not an enthusiast for the tone of the article or the Howard R. Lamar Center. If you don’t want to take the time to read the article or visit the site, I can summarize the content of both in a few words—pioneers wore black hats.

Professor Faragher said in the interview, “As I insist with my students, for every community founded in the American West, imagine that one was destroyed, and people killed, removed, or pushed aside.”

Pioneer Courage Park, Omaha Nebraska
He lost me right there. When I read that sentence I heard Professor Faragher say he wanted no uplifting messages about the frontier spirit. If his students persisted, then he insisted that they balance their dissertation by showing how pioneers despoiled all that was good and decent in the Americas. I object to using deplorable acts of others to claim higher moral ground for oneself, especially when that person is removed from the transgressor by time and distance.

He says, “The best side of our history is the attempt to form a just society out of our less than promising beginnings.” In other words, we started poorly, but if we learn from our disreputable past we can fix our society so it is just. 

We started better than any other nation in history. How many civilizations had a chance to start fresh and declared with their first free breath that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Granted, the words were aspirational—still are—but what other collection of people defined such a precise and idealistic goal for themselves. Just because we struggle to act in accordance with this lofty goal is no reason to vilify ourselves.

Pioneer Courage Park, Omaha Nebraska

I believe all people are the same. The same virtues, the same flaws. I came to this conclusion early in life from reading the Bible. It occurred to me that human frailties have not changed in thousands of years. Races and countries and clans are not noble. Collections of people cannot be consistently honorable. Individuals, however, can be noble, but more likely they perform noble acts in what might otherwise be an ignoble life.

There is no excuse for appalling acts by politicians, soldiers, and settlers. But to emphasize the negative over the courageous and honorable actions of most pioneers is not the path to a just society. We must look honestly at our past, but also see the brave and stalwart souls who struggled to make this a better world.

Man cannot be made perfect, but he can be inspired to lean toward his better nature. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Writing Tips from Ernest Hemingway

fiction writing celebrity author

Hemingway never published advice for aspiring writers, but he spoke or wrote enough about writing that Larry W. Phillips was able to edit a collection of his reflections on the craft. (Ernest Hemingway on Writing)

In the preface, Phillips writes, “Throughout Hemingway’s career as a writer, he maintained that it was bad luck to talk about writing—that it takes off ‘whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk’s feathers if you show it or talk about it.’ Despite this belief, by the end of his life he had done just what he intended not to do. In his novels and stories, in letters to editors, friends, fellow artists, and critics, in interviews and in commissioned articles on the subject, Hemingway wrote often about writing.”

Here’s one piece of advice I like:

Hemingway said to F. Scott Fitzgerald that, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

This nugget reminds me of a photography course I took many years ago with my wife. (She got an A while I received only a B. Darn. And we took pictures of the same subjects.) Anyway, the teacher told us if we wanted to build a reputation as good photographer, we should take lots and lots of pictures and throw all of the bad ones away. Simple … but expensive in the age of film photography. In the digital age, this advice has become cost free. If adhered to religiously, this technique allows a visual dufus like me to catch up with my wife.

Here are some more tips gleaned from Hemingway lifelong musings about writing.
  • Use short sentences.
  • Use short first paragraphs.
  • Use vigorous English.
  • Be positive, not negative.
  • To get started, write one true sentence.
  • Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.
  • Never think about the story when you’re not working.
  • Don’t describe an emotion–make it.
  • Be Brief.
  • The first draft of everything is shit.
  • Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.
  • Write drunk, edit sober.

If you’re inclined, there’s even an app that will measure your writing clarity against Hemingway. I’m not one for machine assisted writing tools, but at $9.99, this one seems inexpensive. I bought it and tried it out on this post. It received a “good” score. Ironically, the quote from Larry W. Phillips was highlighted as the least comprehensible.  

Friday, July 10, 2015

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

Scripts guidelines help storytelling. First Loony Tunes, now Pixar. The animated world has rules. Perhaps it's related to Walt Disney's comment that he liked animated features because he could control everything. He didn't need to deal with unruly actors.

Here  are Pixar's 22 Rules. Way more than Roadrunner's 9 or Bonanza's 7
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Click to see Pixar's 23 Years 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy Independence Day

I hope everybody has a great day. One of my favorite July 4th celebrations was in 1976, the bicentennial. On a lark (or perhaps it was a inebriated neighborhood party), our street decided to enter a float in the bicentennial parade. We'd be competing against businesses and established organizations like the VFW and Shriners. The photo above shows my wife and son standing in front of our 1st Place float. (Hey, come on, it wasn't the Rose Parade.) Great memories. It drew the neighborhood together and we had a rowdy celebration with all the BBQ grills gathered in one back yard with kids running around everywhere.

If you want to read about an even older celebration, here is a description of the Independence Day gala in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention.  Before the snarky comments arrive, I wasn't actually at that celebration. At least, not physically. I did kinda visit when I wrote the piece.

Happy 4th of July.