Sunday, September 25, 2016

My Favorite Book, Part 2


Long, long ago in a year that had a nine and a seven in it, I was working at a small television station in Idaho. I was a master control switcher, directed newscasts and interview shows, put together local commercials, dubbed videotapes, and performed various other production tasks. One day a coworker, who worked downstairs and wrote local commercials, left for a job in radio.
“You have a degree in journalism,” the boss said. “You must know how to write. Do you want to write commercials?”
I said yes. But I knew nothing about advertising—how and why it worked, who did it, where, how, or any of that stuff. Learning that stuff seemed like a good idea, so I visited the library and started home-schooling myself.
One of the books I read was From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, by an irreverent and accomplished New York City advertising agency copywriter (and later agency owner) named Jerry Della Femina.
He made the advertising agency business sound fun—and frustrating, challenging, annoying, and exasperating.
But mostly fun.
The book led me to pursue work as an advertising agency copywriter. I’ve been at it nearly forty years since; now part-time. While not as glamorous as Madison Avenue, working at agencies in Idaho, Nevada, and Utah has been much as Della Femina described it in that influential book I count among my favorites.
Besides all the fun, the job hasn’t involved much heavy lifting and seldom requires breaking a sweat. And, somehow, it led me to wonder—after writing advertising for some twenty years—if maybe I could write a poem.
Now look.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 32: details, details, details.

Many writing instructors encourage, and many writers practice, descriptive writing rife with details. They’ll tell you descriptive details of people and places and things that involve all the senses make stories more interesting and help readers create mental pictures. I’ve heard “critics” in critique groups complain about lack of description of characters in the writing of others, and say that details about characters’ appearance and manner and such will help us “get to know them.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
There’s another approach—one I prefer—that gives lie to that norm. It is summed up admirably by these two simple rules:
“Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”
“Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” That rule goes on to advise avoiding such descriptions “unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”
I put those rules in quotation marks because they’re not mine. They belong to the late, great Elmore Leonard—author of many best-selling novels and winner of numerous literary awards, including the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement from Western Writers of America and induction into the Western Writers Hall of Fame. Leonard’s Western works include Last Stand at Saber River, Hombre, Valdez is Coming, and “Three Ten to Yuma.” He was also a giant in crime fiction, with several prize-winning novels (many that became movies) to his credit.
His sparse, bare-bones style appeals to me. And, beyond avoiding bringing a story to a standstill with detailed descriptions, Leonard’s approach is more involving for readers—it allows us to participate in the story, to create our own mental pictures of people and places and things, rather than have them handed to us.
In his award-winning and best-selling novel All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy—despite his ability to write florid descriptions—provides not a single clue as to the appearance of the book’s main characters, John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins.
We could go on.
The point is, there’s more than one way to write about people, places, and things. So don’t believe everything they tell you—at least not in every detail.
There will be further discussion of this topic—in greater detail—to come.

Monday, September 5, 2016

My Favorite Book, Part 1.

Readers—and writers—are often asked to name their favorite book. The question leaves most of us, it seems, struggling for an answer. Here’s why.
A friend sent me an article a while back in which a writer was asked to write about her favorite book. She concluded that there have been several books that were her favorites at various times of life.
That sounds right to me. And I would add that most of those favorites remain favorites. There are books I read decades ago that I go back to and enjoy all over again. There are others that stick in my memory that I haven’t re-read, but plan to someday. And there are books I enjoyed at the time, but not enough to be my “favorite.”
Back in my high school years, perhaps as early as junior high, I engaged in what we would now call “binge reading” the short novels of John Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men. Cannery Row. Tortilla Flat. The Red Pony. The Pearl. I read those, and others, back then and I have read them over and over since.
Later, I likewise enjoyed his longer books—East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, The Winter of Our Discontent, Travels with Charley…. I have read those and others more than once, and will likely read them again.
Steinbeck is, perhaps, the first writer I read whose way of writing I noticed. Beyond the stories, beyond the characters, I enjoyed the words he chose and the way he assembled those words into phrases and sentences that, despite what they said, were engaging all on their own and a joy to read.
They were then, and they still are.
Given all that, I guess my favorite book is Tortilla Flat. Or The Red Pony. Or something else by John Steinbeck.
Or maybe something else altogether. It all depends.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Sitting in judgment.

Literature is art. And art is, to some degree, subjective. What’s good and what isn’t is very much a matter of taste.
That’s why I am always surprised when asked to judge a writing contest. To think someone, somewhere, thinks my literary palate is refined enough to pass judgment on a passel of poems or collection of fiction always astonishes me.
But they ask. I’ve been asked over the years by organizations as various as a cowboy cultural society from Canada, the outfit that runs the National Finals Rodeo, statewide writers’ groups from at least three states and a double handful of smaller groups from various localities, an international society of professional writers, and more than a few poetry performance competitions. What’s more surprising is that many of them ask me back.
It isn’t always easy trying to be objective about something so subjective. But there are certain standards that ought to apply—basic things like spelling, syntax, structure, grammar, form, composition, communication, and such. Poorly proofed and edited works are easily discarded.
After that, it can get tough. A story that grabs and won’t let go. Clever use of language. Word choice. Originality. Rhythm. Pace. Use of literary technique. And on and on, into demonstrations of skill that are hard to define—but you know them when you read them. It’s a pleasure to reward creativity, skill, effort, and accomplishment.
And while it is never pleasant to quickly cast aside an entry that doesn’t measure up—sometimes mere pages past the cover—you do what you have to do. As my friend Dusty Richards says, which he says the late, great Elmer Kelton said: “You don’t have to drink a whole bottle of whiskey to know it’s bad.”

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Two-gaited horses.

While growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, we watched a lot of Westerns on television at my house. Dad, who was an inspired horseman and worked as a cowboy as often as not, got a kick out of them. He more or less saw them as comedies.
The stereotypical characters and guns that never needed reloading and repetitive stories were part of that. But, mostly, it was the horses. While he never said so, he probably believed the casting directors who hired equines must have specified that only two-gaited horses need apply. 
A brief explanation: where we come from out West, horses travel with four basic gaits—walk, trot, lope, and run. (Elsewhere, lope and run are often referred to as canter and gallop.)
But if you believed what you saw on the screen, horses have only two gaits: walk and run. Sometimes, a “cowboy” (which, on television, included all kinds of characters who wouldn’t know which end of the cow gets up first) would mount up in town and walk his horse down the street (about the only time TV horses were seen to walk). But more often, he would swing into the saddle and lay the spurs to his horse and race off down the street at a dead run raising a cloud of dust. And he would run his horse nonstop along wagon roads, up mountain trails, across wide deserts, through streams, and everywhere else he went until reining up in a sliding stop at his destination.
It’s likely that horses with stars in their eyes back then rehearsed the walk only briefly and ignored the trot and lope altogether, concentrating on the endless run in order to secure a part in a television horse opera. Real horses, if they watched their on-screen counterparts, probably grinned at their high-speed antics like Dad did.
The lengthy horseback sequences in the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit are among many reasons I admire that movie. Endless plodding (at a walk) across the landscape might seem tedious for some to watch. But it doesn’t hurt to give viewers a taste of the monotony that traveling horseback can be.
Of course, folks who know horses know you can (and do) trot or lope at times to change things up a bit—you just won’t see it happen on TV.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 31: Don’t sweat the small stuff.

I lied in the title. 
No one knowledgeable, to my knowledge, tells writers to ignore the essentials—small stuff—like spelling and grammar and basic facts in manuscripts and books.
But as often as those things are ignored nowadays, you’d think it was part of the curriculum somewhere. Time was, it was so difficult to find a spelling error in a published book that it was noteworthy.
No longer.
With the advent of do-it-yourself self-publishing, the proliferation of small presses who can’t afford copy editors and proofreaders, and even the staff cutbacks at major publishers, errors of the simplest kind now slip through regularly.
As I write this I am in the middle of a novel I was asked to review, and on several occasions the author has called those leather straps you use to control a horse “reigns.” It’s a homonym, sure, but it’s such a ridiculous error there’s no excuse for it. Likewise his saying a just-planted wheat field had been “sewn.” That one had me in stitches.
Then there are incorrect facts, if such an oxymoron exists. Some time back I read a novel by an author who has written many, many paperback Westerns for major publishers. And yet he continually referred to the “traces” on a harnessed team as if they were the lines (or reins, if you’d rather, but lines is the more common term). “Traces” are something else altogether on a harness, and he ought to know the difference—or not use the word if he doesn’t.
We all make mistakes. But there are mistakes, and there are mistakes.
Sometimes writing instructors will tell you to blow by that simple stuff in the initial draft in order to get the story down. But that is with the expectation that you’ll go back and fix it. Unfortunately, too many authors—and publishers—don’t fix it.
And that shows a lack of respect for readers. Of all things, a writer ought to be literate.

Friday, July 22, 2016

I’m trending, I’ve gone viral, and I broke the Internet.

Well, not really.
But since those phrases are tossed around like rice at a wedding, I figure they may as well apply to me as the next guy.
Besides that, they have no objective meaning that I’ve been able to discern or ever seen quantified. Which means, in the end, they are nothing more than what’s long been known in the advertising business as “puffery.” Or, to abbreviate the term I am more likely to voice, BS.
Such vague and nebulous (and meaningless) superlatives are easily assigned to anyone or anything at any time by anyone. Some people will be fooled by them. Most will ignore them. And rightly so.
Even extreme claims with some factual basis can be meaningless. For instance, in the book world, “best seller” and other such rankings are often accurate but still worthless. Years ago, in the days when Amazon ran a short-lived program of selling short stories online, I had a couple of stories that, for several weeks, were listed as either the top or number-two selling Western stories. But they never sold enough copies to accumulate enough royalties to result in a paycheck—and the threshold was pretty low, as I recall.
Still and all, I guess it gives me the right to claim being a “Best-Selling Author!” After all, I am the guy who broke the Internet. Not to mention “trending” and having gone “viral.”