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.”

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers Part 30: Write the way people talk.

Sometimes, some writing teachers teach people to mimic the way people talk when writing dialogue.
The truth is, it doesn’t work.
Our last installment of “Lies” addressed trite words we use in conversation (“incredible,” “awesome,” “amazing”) that are mostly useless on the page.
Then there are those other little clichés that creep into and out of our mouths. Just for fun, get yourself a notebook and make a mark every time you hear someone start a sentence with “So.” It’s an affectation of epidemic proportions these days. Imagine what your page would look like if every other or third or fourth line of dialogue started like so:
While you’ve got that notebook in hand, keep track of the abuse of “like.” You know what I mean: “He’s, like,” “I’m, like,” “it was, like,” and the like. Likewise, “I mean.” 
Sometimes writers try to mimic the speech of young people (where most of these language trends start) in an effort to sound “cool” (another word rendered useless to the point you dare not use it, even correctly). It doesn’t work. It’s usually overdone. It sounds phony. It sounds like the author is trying too hard. And it doesn’t fool anyone.
The same holds true when unknowing writers try to mimic the way cowboys talk. Or doctors. Or sailors. Or the lingo of most any other assemblage of folks with a language partly their own, including dialects. As the late, great Elmer Kelton used to say about writing dialect and slang: a little goes a long way.
Fear not. You can write good dialogue. You can create conversations that are realistic, informative, reveal your characters, advance the story, and entertain. It’s not a matter of simply recording the words people use. It requires hearing—listening beyond the affectations and clichés and hearing the characteristics of conversation that define the speakers and capture their lingo.
Then, rather than filling pages with the phony-baloney twaddle a recording device hears, you can write dialogue that sounds like people talking rather than writing the way we really talk. Your readers will thank you.
So, uh, I mean, give it a try. It’ll be, like, um, awesome, y’know.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 29: To learn to write dialogue, listen to people talk.

Writing dialogue is one of the most difficult things writers do. That must be the case, because so much of it is so awful. Think of all the times you’ve looked wide-eyed at a page or the silver screen and thought, no one talks like that!
To cure this ill, many writing instructors encourage students to eavesdrop on conversations and mimic that kind of speech.
Don’t do it.
Writing the way people really talk just might be worse than the stiff, stilted stuff that sometimes masquerades as dialogue.
Think about it. If you write the way people talk, your page will be peppered with “um” and “uh” and “I mean” and “y’know” and other fillers that are as natural as breathing to most people.
Then there are the useless, overused words we use. Decades ago, when I started paying attention to such things, some—many—people used “incredible” to describe anything and everything that struck their fancy. While the word is still overused, “awesome” eventually replaced it in the mouths of many. Nowadays, “amazing” has clawed its way to the top of the hackneyed heap. (Never mind the fact that the way we use those words has little to do with their actual meanings.)
Imagine your characters repeatedly using “amazing” to describe things—almost everything, really. Readers would never know if the object of their amazement was, say, delicious (or tasty) beautiful (or easy on the eyes) or smooth-gaited or soft or hard or warm or fast or thought-provoking or melodious or whatever. The generic descriptions people use in actual conversation—like “amazing” and “awesome”—make for dull, meaningless dialogue.
The trick isn’t to write like people talk. It’s to write dialogue that sounds like people talking—it’s more vivid, more descriptive, more “real” than the real thing. But it sounds like the real thing.
Stay tuned for a future installment on writing dialogue.
It will be amazing.

Monday, June 27, 2016

“Goodbye, Old Paint…

…I’m leavin’ Cheyenne.”
Truth be told, unlike that classic cowboy song lyric, I’ve already left Cheyenne. We were there last week for the annual Western Writers of America convention.
As usual, the WWA convention was a good time. I saw lots of fellow writers who’ve become friends over the years, and I met some who likely will become friends. I sat in some interesting panel discussions and presentations and visited some interesting historic sites in the area. And, to repeat myself, my novel Rawhide Robinson Rides the Tabby Trail: TheTrue Tale of a Wild West CATastrophe received a handsome certificate as a Finalist for the Spur Award for Best Western Juvenile Fiction, a book suitable for readers from junior high age to geriatric.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the convention was the acceptance of a Spur Award for Best Western Storyteller by young author JoJo Thoreau, author of the illustrated children’s book Buckaroo Bobbie Sue. Calling her young is not an exaggeration—JoJo is nine years old.
Which is certainly a novelty.
But her book and her Spur Award are no novelty. She’s an honest-to-goodness writer and Buckaroo Bobbie Sue is an honest–to-goodness book. It‘s the colorfully illustrated rhyming story of a young girl’s wish to, as we say in the cowboy trade, “make a hand,” and her rise to heroics at the right minute.
I played a small role in the making of the book and am pleased as punch that JoJo (who’s too young to know better) trusted me help out.
Leaving Cheyenne wasn’t easy, but at least as we rode out of town “leading Old Dan” we left with saddlebags full of fine memories—including meeting in person the budding—but already accomplished—author JoJo Thoreau.