Friday, May 29, 2015

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 15: Establish a Niche.

Like a low-rent lout, I say it “nitch.” Highfalutin folks pronounce it “neesh.”
However you say it, if you’re a writer you’re supposed to find one, crawl inside, and close the lid. That’s how successful writers do it, they’ll tell you.
Writers who sell lots of books establish a loyal following by giving readers what they expect. When they see your name on the cover of a new book, having read other books by you, they have a pretty good idea of what’s inside—it’s a shoot-’em-up Western novel, because that’s what you write. Or a romance novel. A mystery. Science fiction. A thriller. History. Scholarly biography. Or whatever your “niche” is.
Establishing a niche leads to success for a writer, they say. 
And they’re probably right.
No lie, this time, to my way of thinking. Because if there’s one subject I am well versed in, it’s how not to be a successful writer.
There are, no doubt, myriad reasons for that. One of which is my lack of a niche. Everything I write is related to the West, but after that it’s all over the place. Novels that bear little resemblance to one another. Nonfiction on a variety of historic subjects. Poetry of the Western and cowboy type. Short stories in several styles.
Because of all that, my name on the cover of a book doesn’t say much about what’s inside.
So in the future, from now on, henceforth and forever, I am going to establish a niche and stop writing things that don’t fit.
At least that’s the lie I keep telling myself.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A night that will go down in history.

If you’re anywhere near Salt Lake City on May 28, mark your calendar for a historic evening at The King’s English Bookshop. They’ve invited me to show up at 7:00 to read from, talk about, and sign my new book, The Lost Frontier: Momentous Moments in the Old West You May Have Missed.
The King’s English is located at the corner of 1500 East and 1500 South.
There may well be a no-pressure, no-grade quiz on Western history, so bone up and be prepared. Be warned, however—the history we’ll talk about from The Lost Frontier won’t be the same stuff they taught you in school or that you read about in your average history book.
See you at The King’s English, May 28 at 7:00 p.m. Bring your friends and neighbors along.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Find The Lost Frontier.

My new history book, The Lost Frontier: Momentous Moments in the Old West You May Have Missed, is now available. The Lost Frontier will be found at the usual online booksellers, and any bookstore can get you a copy if it’s not on the shelf.
Some fine writers and historians enjoyed the book. Matt Mayo says, “No dry history here…the subjects are fully fleshed, clothed, and howling for attention.” Chris Enss says it’s “the way history should be written: riveting, involving, and filled with verified facts that make the era of the Old West come alive.” Will Bagley says, “I need to add biographer and historian to the long list of Rod’s astonishing talents.”
I wouldn’t go so far as all that, but I do believe that in the pages of The Lost Frontier you’ll find plenty of interesting history—most of it strange and surprising stuff you didn’t learn about in school.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 14: Writing is Easy.

There’s an old saw that says “writing must be fun—if it was work, you’d get paid for it.”
As true as that may be—and writing is fun for most of the folks I know who do it—writing well is, at the same time, work. But there are people I know who “write” but are not willing to work at it, or even acknowledge that work is required.
For example(s):
Once, while judging a poetry competition, another of the judges and I were discussing the relative merits of some of the submissions. This judge did not much take into account the use of literary technique, seem to appreciate its value, or want to reward the obvious effort of some of the poets to make their poems poetic. Subject matter and story were the only measures—“poetry” didn’t matter. To paraphrase, “I’m a big believer that this stuff comes from God, and all we do is write it down.”
While inspiration is important to writers, it is the Alpha, not the Omega. Once inspired, it is up to the writer to turn that inspiration into poetry (or prose, for that matter). Otherwise, we lay the blame for mediocre or downright bad writing where it does not belong—in the lap of the Almighty—and relieve the writer of the responsibility. It is our job as writers to take whatever inspiration we receive and mold and shape and polish it into something worthy of the muse.
One more illustration:
From time to time I am approached by writers and poets for advice. (Why they would stoop to my level is beyond my ken.) One poet wanted suggestions on that nasty little thing called meter. In my experience, there are a lot more poets who lay claim to using meter than there are poets who understand and use it properly.
After a few go-rounds of discussion, that poet threw in the towel.
"I really don’t want to get too technical if I can help it,” came the explanation, “because I think it might take the magic out of the process. Some of what I feel is my best poetry just seems to flow out almost complete.”
Like it or not, using meter properly in poetry is largely a technical process. It takes work and frustration and rewriting and revising and struggle and exertion to get it right. And, when well done, it will add to, not subtract from, the “magic.”
Whether it is poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction, writing well is work. As English novelist Anthony Powell said, “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.”
Part of the work is understanding the gritty little details of why you’re writing what you’re writing the way you’re writing it. “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you’re doing the whole time,” historian Shelby Foote said. I agree.
William Styron said, “Let’s face it, writing is hell.” He’s right, too—even though writing sometimes seems heavenly.
Finally, Thomas Mann made a good point when he said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” That may be the difference, right there. Anyone can put words on paper, and many have a knack for putting them down well. But writers—real writers—are the ones who invite, and endure, and even enjoy, the difficulty involved in writing right.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Cache Valley, here we come.

Logan, Utah, has held a special place in my heart ever since my years living and working there way back when I attended Utah State University. It is always a pleasure to revisit all the memories of Rounder Houses, rodeo teams, radio stations, and other memories that have lasted a lifetime—including some best forgotten.
I’ll be back in Logan May 9. The Book Table, at 29 South Main Street, is hosting a book signing from 2:00 to 6:00 that afternoon and I’ve been invited. The Sassafras Folk String Band will bend the wires on banjos, guitars, and other instruments to keep things lively. I’ve been asked to share a few poems. And I’ll be signing books along with Cache Valley authors Janet Jensen, JoLynne Lyon, and Carole Thayne Warburton.
I’ll have copies of several of my books, along with the brand-new, hot-off-the-press The Lost Frontier: Momentous Moments in the Old West You May Have Missed.
If you’re anywhere near northern Utah on May 9, come to the party.