(click on the image to learn more about L.J.Martin):
A novel is a fictional story with a beginning, middle, and end. It has characters, plot, time, and place. The trick is to bring those elements together in a compelling read.
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, is the story of a cattle drive. It begins in Texas and ends in Montana and takes months. Simple. Straight forward. A Pulitzer Prize winner. No complicated flashbacks to deal with. Your western can be a journey. Or it can be another kind of quest—the sheriff goes after the killer or vice versa. High Noon takes place in one town, in one afternoon. By the way, the movie was based on a great short story, The Tin Star, by John M. Cunningham.
Both plots are filled with drama. Drama in every scene. Conflict in every scene. Conflict in every scene, for drama is conflict, and a scene is not a scene without conflict of some sort. I'm going to repeat that, because it’s a critical part of writing compelling novels—there is no scene without conflict. More about that:
PLOTTING: There are thousands of variations on plot. Plot, by the way, is defined by my trusty Random House in the second definition as:
....Also called storyline, the plan,
scheme, or main story of a literary or
dramatic work [such] as a play, novel, or
There's that word drama again. And remember the definition of drama included the words character and conflict.
So your plot, whether it be journey or quest, has character and conflict. Your job is to fill two hundred pages of two hundred and fifty words each, with compelling characters and hard-hitting conflict if you're writing a western, and five hundred twenty pages if you're writing a historical.
Drama! That's what you're after.
How? By telling a story.
A story of conflict.
Some writers sit down with pencil and paper, or at the typewriter, or in front of a word processor, and begin writing. Others plan carefully. Either way, in order to begin, it helps to have your basic story in mind. Think it though first, at least the main plot points.
I'm a character-driven writer. I like to create interesting characters and let them run with the story.
Kat, my wife, is plot-driven (see www.katbooks.com). She knows exactly where her story is going when she sits down and types "Chapter One." Neither is right nor wrong. What works for you is right.
Thankfully, most westerns have simple plots. One hero or protagonist; one or more villains or antagonists. A journey or quest. Seldom does a western have an intricate plot or subplot. Seldom are flashbacks used. The drama moves forward in a straight time line.
A historical, on the other hand, can be much more complicated.
Because plotting and point of view are so entwined, I'll continue the plotting discussion as we talk about P.O.V.
SUSPENSE: Nothing drives your reader’s interest like suspense. I’m going to take the liberty of quoting from a Writer’s Digest article by Brian Garfield because it’s one of the best on the subject. He lists the following rules: Start with action; explain it later. Make it tough on your protagonist. Plant it early, pay it off later. Give the protagonist the initiative. Give the protagonist a personal stake. Give the protagonist a tight time limit, then shorten it. Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his. Know your destination before you set out. Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read. The full article is in the 1994 Writer’s Yearbook, and should be read by all readers. One of those writers who gives credit to Garfield’s advice for a good portion of his success is John Grisham.
DESCRIPTION: I can't think of a faster way to get me to lay a novel down than to layer in too much laborious description. Many writers, and many editors, love a novel dripping...no, gushing...description. Many writers are great at purple prose, but give me a lean one every time.
I’m a fan of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, but of all their novels I’ve enjoyed, I like King’s Misery and Koontz’s Intensity better than their other works. Why? Brevity. They’re among the shortest of their novels. Packed with impact, if I may, with the conflict coming at you fast and furious. Read both for a lesson in suspense, then read them again because the first time you’ll be so taken up with the story you’ll forget to analyze the writing.
DESCRIPTION THOUGH POINT OF VIEW: Do you remember earlier I mentioned I keep a sign over my desk that says "filter all description though point of view." Why? Because by not doing so, you're engaging in author intrusion, which I'll tell you more about later, and by doing so, it gives your reader a great insight into the character of your characters. We'll also talk more about characterization later. Let me show you what I mean.
Miss Mary Jane Petersen crossed the board walk and paused in front of the batwing doors. Taking a tentative breath, then a deep one, she smoothed her linen skirt. Finally, boldly, back stiff and chin held high, she entered.
The room, filled with bawdy men, reeking of tobacco smoke and sweat, stopped her short. The clamor silenced as all eyes turned to her—but she was careful not to meet them. She strode on, moving to the plank bar and finding the gaze of the curious barkeep.
"Your proprietor. Mr. Oscar Tidwell, please," she said, carefully keeping her voice from cracking.
Miss Mary Jane Petersen crossed the board walk and paused in front of the batwing doors. Tucking her loose fitting blouse in tightly—purposefully straining it against her ample bosom, which she had long known was her best feature—she pushed boldly into the saloon. The smell of working men always made her pocket book itch, and now was no different.
Bawdy men paused and surveyed her as she strode across the room to the plank bar, then went back to their faro and poker and whiskey.
The barkeep shined a mug as she approached. He, too, let his eyes drift to the straining fabric. It was all she could do not to openly smile. Men were so simply manipulated.
"The boss, please...Mr. Tidwell."
Do you get two different opinions about Miss Mary Jane? ...Even though the bar scene is basically the same? By describing the room and its occupants through her point of view, we understand the character.
Some see the glass as half empty, some as half full. Some see the roses, some only the thorns.
PACING: A quick look at pacing before we begin to write. If readers want conflict, give them conflict! A story with high emotion. But, caution, no one wants a single emotion read. By that I mean your plot has to have pacing. If your hero wakes up facing a band of hostile warriors, escapes them to run into a grizzly, escapes it to be chased by wolves—it's a single-emotion read and will be no more compelling than the cattle drive where nothing happened.
You want to build emotion throughout the novel to the climax. A series of conflicts is fine, in fact necessary, but interspersed with a few relaxed reflective moments at the campfire. He's (or she's) in trouble, he's out, he's in deeper, he's out, he's in deeper yet, until the conclusion when he's home free. A great method to create compelling reading is to constantly throw your hero into deeper and deeper trouble, but paced with reflective scenes in between action.
Kat and I both subscribe to the Syd Field method of pacing. Field has a great book on how to write a screenplay and Kat and I have attended his screenplay seminar—and I suggest any writer of screenplays or novels do the same. Much of what he teaches is applicable to the novel. He structures screenplays into segments, with the segment break being a "plot point." A plot point is a major change in the direction the action is moving, generally as it directly effects your hero.
In An Officer and a Gentleman the first plot point (almost always about 27 minutes into the movie) is when the hero is accepted into the service, and the second major plot point (27 minutes from the end of the movie) is when he decides to quit. Just about the time the viewer can become bored with the chain of events, which are somewhat constant, the writer throws a zinger at him, and his interest is renewed. You can take almost any successful movie and with stop watch in hand see that it follows Field's paradigm—a theory I'm sure he developed from doing just that, watching successful movies. There are many other rules to follow, including the midpoints, the beginning ten minutes, etc., etc., but I'll let his book teach you those. Here's how it applies to your novel.
Just about the time your reader is in the grove—the hero and heroine have fallen madly in love and are to be married tomorrow, then it's time to have her kidnapped and dragged away. A major change in events, a shock to renew reader interest.
Pacing is all important to compelling writing.
CHARACTER NAMES: Just a quick note about character names. I don't know about you, but most people have a pre-conceived notion of names and the characters they're attached to. I wouldn't name my hero Percy. Not that Percy's not a nice name. But it connotes an English butler to me—unless my hero's an English butler, then Percy is fine.
Another hint about names that's important. It's tough enough to follow a novel, particularly one you pick up and put down, without having an author name a couple of primary characters Eloise and Elliott. Use the alphabet and don't set out to confuse readers. Make it as easy on them as you can by naming characters with easily identifiable handles. Name them Able, Bart, Charles, Darwin, Elliott, Ferdinand....get the picture.
If you're writing historicals, use names from the time. Jed and Isaac, for instance, were common names in the mid-1800's and connote a feeling of time and place to the reader.
LET'S WRITE: The scene below is an example of a piece (intended to be a genre western) in the early stages of writing. As this manual proceeds, we'll look at some improvements. And the end of the manual, I'll offer a polished version. But every novel has to have a beginning:
The town, and the saloon, looked friendly enough. But looks deceive.
Ethan dismounted and loosened the cinch so the lathered roan could catch its breath. Mopping the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, Ethan glanced at the afternoon sky. Indian summer, still no sign of storm. But it would come. Digging a handful of grain out of a saddlebag, he offered it in his palm. The big roan mouthed it as Ethan scratched the horse's ears with his free hand. All the while, he listened for sounds from inside the Laramie Queen.
A cool beer would suit him, before he re-supplied at the mercantile with his last three dollars then rode on out of town to camp alone on the banks of the Laramie River. With luck and easy country, tomorrow he would make the banks of the Medicine Bow.
Luck hadn't been exactly doggin' his trail for the last thousand miles. He'd been gnawing the last of his venison jerky and drinking trail coffee made from scorched, stoneground mesquite beans for two weeks.
Getting some real grub would suit him fine. But trouble wouldn't suit him, and trouble had a way of following him.
No sound came from inside, so Ethan tied the roan to the hitching post near a wooden water trough and watched as the big horse muzzled aside some floating green moss and began to drink deeply. From habit, Ethan hoisted the heavy old Walker Colt .44 an inch, making sure it rode free and easy in its holster. He knocked the dust, billowing into the still air, from his breeches with his broad brimmed Palo Alto hat. Only then did Ethan clank across the board porch and enter the bat wing doors.
The jingling of his big roweled Spanish spurs and the echoing of his footfalls on the mud, smashed-egg-shell, and broken-crock-covered floor announced his entry. The room reeked of dust, sweat-soaked men, and cigar smoke.
From across the rough plank bar, the bartender gave the dusty stranger a tight smile. "Beer?"
The trail-tough cowhand rubbed the black whisker stubble on his chin with a knotted callused hand. "That'll do," Ethan said, and laid a nickel on the rough plank.
A horse-fly buzzed around inspecting the coin as Ethan waited.
The bartender set the mug in front of him without comment then snatched up the nickel. As Ethan took a deep draw, he heard shrill drunken laughter from a table in the back of the tall narrow room. Backhanding the foam from his handlebar mustache, Ethan cut his eyes.
Four men sat playing poker under a wafting cloud of cigar smoke. One of them, the cackler, was the Bantam rooster who had—with five riders to back him up—forced Ethan to backtrack twenty miles and ride around the Lazy A.
That's a beginning, of sorts. Not the best beginning, not the worst. Your hero walks into a Laramie saloon alone and moving West, and is goaded into a gunfight by the town tough. He kills the young tough in a shootout. The youth turns out to be the son of the most powerful man in the county. The hero was in trouble when the tough began goading him now he's in deeper trouble. The friendly saloon girl informs him that the sheriff is due back anytime, and the sheriff is the cattle baron's nephew and the cousin of the man he killed. He's in deeper and deeper. Even though he was in the right, he'd better run. He gets away but, sitting high on a ridge, spots a large group of riders coming his way. A posse. Deeper and deeper. He didn't have a chance to gather provisions in town, and he's low on beans and bullets. Deeper and deeper. The first storm of the year is rolling in, and he can't light a fire. Deeper and deeper and deeper.
You get the idea.
And this method works for sci-fi—watch any Star Trek episode—for romance, for horror, for historicals, and on and on.
Characterization is equally important. For the reader to get involved in and care about your plot, he has to care about your characters. Caring is emotion. Love or hate or something in between. Generally, you want your reader to love or certainly admire and respect your hero, or most aspects of your hero; and hate, or dislike most aspects of your villain. But more about characterization later.
As I said earlier, a novel has a beginning, middle, and end.
The above beginning is not perfect. I'll never be a good enough writer to make it perfect. Before it's ready for submission, it needs to be rewritten several more times, and I'll point out a few of the mistakes as we go along.
Don't let rewriting frighten you. Seldom is a rewrite a complete toss and start over. It's polishing. Was my transition smooth? Is there a better verb? Can one word replace two? Is the syntax correct? These are some of the questions you'll know to ask when you finish this manual, and you have to know the questions before you can search for the answers.
BACK TO PLOTTING: The best texts on plotting are other well-written westerns or historicals or novels from the genre you wish to write. Study them. This is harder than it sounds. When I set out to study a good, well-written novel, I find that the story takes me into the trance all writers try to create, and I forget to look for the things I set out to study. It's easy to examine the bad books: you're not taken by the characters or the story. But concentrate on the good ones: they're the ones you want to learn from.
It's easier to study the way the author did something after you've read the book once. The second time you're not so entranced by the prose or teased into turning the pages to see what's going to happen. Read it a second time, and third, and look at it objectively.
What is the length of the novel? What are the lengths of the chapters? How many main characters did the novelist use? How many heroes? How many villains? Does the story have a theme? Is the pacing good? If he wrote in third person, did he switch P.O.V.? That is, did he see some scenes through the eyes of the hero and some through the eyes of the villain, or some through the eyes of minor characters?
This is plotting and construction—the hide, hair, and bones of a novel.
What's going to happen, when, and between whom; and through whose eyes is it seen.
If you are going to use multiple points of view, it's not important that you know before starting the novel whose point of view the scene is observed by. It will come to you as you begin writing that scene, and it's fairly easy to change and rewrite a scene if you decide it would be better through the eyes of another, but try to keep each scene in only one point of view. One of the most common mistakes writers make is switching point of view in midstream, or mid-scene, or worse mid-paragraph. It's jarring to the reader, even if they don't know why.
Could we have written Ethan through the eyes of the bartender, a first person novel from his P.O.V.? Not unless we're going to have Ethan kidnap the bartender. Or unless the bartender is going to be part of the posse. Then, unless you are very careful, it will become the bartender's story, not Ethan's. Stay in the P.O.V. of your main character or characters, and you'll sell your first novel.
SCENES: Scenes? What’s a scene? Now that you’re off and away writing, and you know what’s an acceptable chapter length and an acceptable novel, and who your primary characters are, write in scenes.
HOOK: Your first job is the beginning. Good beginnings have hooks. A hook is something that makes the reader want to keep reading.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times[.]”
is the beginning of Charles Dickens's, A Tale of Two Cities. One of the great hooks. You want to know why it was the best of times and the worst of times, so you keep reading.
Sidney Sheldon, one of the great masters, wrote (as my memory serves me), as his opening: She wore a red nightgown so the blood wouldn't show. Try to lay that little baby down without reading on. It would take a nuclear explosion to move most of us away from his novel.
The little vignette earlier began:
The town and the saloon looked friendly enough. But looks deceive.
That infers that maybe they are friendly, and maybe again they're not. But looks deceive is foreboding. Look out reader, trouble is coming.
Enough to keep you reading?
Tenkiller, my first western, begins:
Johnny Tenkiller got his name in the usual way, from his father. What was unusual was how seriously he took it. Talk was he'd killed ten men by the time he was twenty-one. But he must have lost count. He was still killing them.
That's a hook. Not the greatest. Not the worst. If it keeps the reader reading, it's a good one.
My second, Mojave Showdown, begins:
He watched with cold, dark, unflinching eyes.
Patience was the first thing the desert taught him and he'd learned well. He'd knelt unmoving, in the same spot, while the sun crossed a quarter of the morning sky and the roses and gold's of the dawn turned to watery grays and washed out, wavering tans.
Who watched? What and why was he watching? Why did he stay stark still? Who was this man, taught by the desert? Do you want to keep reading? If you do, I succeeded. If not, it's a dismal failure; as dismal as watery grays and washed out, wavering tans.
One of my novels, a suspense, begins:
“Good God, Reno,” he says, shaking his head as he reads. “In Manila you killed a ninety pound woman with a baby strapped to her chest. . . .”
“Good thing I wasn’t paid by the pound,” I mumble.
BUT BACK TO THE BEGINNING: One of the things you must do in the beginning of your novel, usually completed by the first fourth of the book and many times by the end of the first chapter, is pose the problem and define the players—the main characters. That is, if you want to write compelling fiction.
Ethan's problem is to get out of the mess he's in. The Union soldier who returns to find his sister kidnapped by the Crow has an obvious problem—find the girl. You also need to describe the setting and the best way is by dialogue and stage management. What people say and what they do can tell you a great deal about setting, time and place.
With contemptuous eyes the flat blue of the desert sky on a scorching day, the cackler slowly scanned Ethan. His mouth curled into a half smile, then with a whisper of metal on oiled leather the Navy Colt appeared in his hand as if it had been there when he walked up. Ethan's mouth tasted copper fear. He could almost feel the lead slug tearing through his chest as his own gun cleared the holster.
The cackler's first shot, fired too quickly, cut the air near Ethan's ear like an angry hornet, and its muzzle blast slapped at him, stinging his cheek. As Ethan thumbed back the hammer, the boy's eyes flared in terror.
Ethan's carefully aimed shot took the boy square in the middle of his chest, blowing him off his feet and slamming him to the floor. The boy's flailing left arm knocked over a half-full spittoon. Tobacco juice and cigar butts mingled with the foamy blood pumping from the massive smoldering hole in his Linsey-woolsey shirt.
Ethan unnecessarily thumbed back the Walker's hammer as the boy's second shot, more a death spasm, smashed one of the chimneys on the unlit coal oil fixture hanging high above him. Glass tinkled and fell; some floated on the growing pool of blood and spittle. The boy kicked twice, the Navy Colt slipping from his grasp, his eyes open, staring.
The room had reverberated with the echoing roar of the shots, but now was deathly still. Dust filtered down from the sculptured metal ceiling adding to the haze in the smoky room.
Ethan slowly panned the muzzle of the Walker. Did anyone else want to test his patient aim? No sound, save the boy's wheezing chest wound—then, with a last death rattle, it was still. The echo of Ethan's hammer ratcheting down was followed by the audible sighs of the poker players and the bartender.
Ethan sensed that more than just the gunfight was over. Something else, like a thorn finally removed from a festering sore, had ended in that saloon.
Taking his first breath since the cackler had grabbed for his gun, Ethan turned back and bellied up to the bar, then noticed that the boy's shot had scored a hit. His .44 slug centered a neat hole in the naked left breast of the reclining nude whose portrait hung, now slightly crooked, behind bar.
The bartender jumped up, resting his ample belly on the bar, eyed the dead boy, and uttered a low whistle as if he was seeing something he didn't believe. Then he dismounted, turned, and carefully straightened the picture. Out of the corner of his eye, Ethan saw that the men at the poker table hadn't flinched leaving their hands in plain sight on the green felt table top.
The bartender drew Ethan another beer, and the tension flowed out of the room as the beer flowed into the mug. The big-bellied man blew the foam off the top and set the mug on the bar.
"This one's on the house, but it better be your last." He gave Ethan a weary smile.
Without the cackling, it was pleasantly quiet.
Ethan holstered the Walker and upended the mug. The players divvied up the cackler's money, and returned to their game.
Don't fall into the trap of doing it the lazy way, via narrative. The sky was streaked with orange, the wind whipped. That's the lazy writer's way, not that many successful writers don’t use that method.
CREATIVITY: As it applies to writing—it's something we all do a lot of the time. It's wondering what if? As related to the vignette we started earlier with Ethan on the run, what would happen if Ethan's horse went lame? Would he trade his lame horse and his old Walker .44 for another horse?
Would you want a hero who'd steal a horse from an innocent rancher or farmer? And even if you did, would the market (the editors) want a hero who would steal a horse? More importantly, would the readers?
Ethan notices from a rim rock on a high ridge that the posse has split up. One rider took a ridge on the left flank, one a ridge on the right flank.
How about Ethan taking one of the posse horses? Somehow, it's more acceptable to have Ethan trade his horse—even while he's discussing the matter with an unwilling man who's looking down the barrel of the old Walker. So we'll have him force a trade on a posse member who's part of Ethan's problem.
Or, what if Ethan slaps his horse on the rump and sends him on down the trail, thus throwing the posse off. Ethan circles back to the town on foot, goes to the livery, and asks the old man running it where the cackler's horse is, and steals it. Even more acceptable?
That's creativity, but creativity with the market in mind.
I will tell you that I read a wonderful western with a twisted dwarf as the protagonist. It’s outside the norm, and I admire the author. He chose a tough path, and made it work.
What if? That's creativity, as it applies to writing.
Creativity is a product of the muse. So turn your muse loose.
MUSE: If you study the craft of writing, and you must if you want to be a successful writer, you'll hear the term muse. The word is taken from Greek mythology. Muse was one of the nine daughters of Zeus who was said to reign or preside over the arts. She must have been a quiet, reflective girl.
My Random House defines muse as:
To think or meditate in silence.
A writing teacher will tell you to turn your muse loose. At times it's almost as hard for me to do it as it is to say it: Muse loose.
But you can do this anytime and anywhere. You don't have to have pencil and paper in hand and be sitting at your desk to be creating your story.
Where does a story come from in the first place? I'm asked that question dozens of times by people who don't write, but they're generally people who don't read.
The history of your own area? There are a thousand plots in the history of any town. Read the newspapers from the time known as the Wild West. Libraries have them on microfilm and reading old newspapers is not only fascinating and entertaining, but educational. And you get a wonderful sense of time and place. But more about that in the reference section of this manual.
After you read about a historical event say what if? What if, before the last railroad spike, a gold one, was to be driven at Promontory Point, they reached into its walnut box and found it missing (by the way, there were at least four spikes)? Your hero, the railroad detective, would be a little miffed, and his boss would be flat pissed. The beginning of a plot? A conflict? There is a historical piece of news and a creative change in the story that's the basis of a plot. A plot going to waste right under your nose right now.
But plots certainly don't have to be centered on historical fact, at least not a factual incident. Your plot is only limited by your ability to muse. Think creatively.
Say, what if?
But creativity alone will not sell a novel. Your creative juices must be tempered with good sense. Your writing must have credibility in the sense that your characters must do what they do in a believable manner. And what they do must be in character, or you'll lose your reader.
TIME AND PLACE: Stropping a razor gives a sense of time and place. A bustle beneath a dress. A bone white water pitcher sitting in a bowl on a sideboard. A Seth Thomas clock ticking on the wall or being wound. The hiss of steam off a train engine. A sun bonnet. A cap and ball revolver. Buffalo. A space ship. A sail driven ship. An outhouse or privy. Kennedy's assassination. Pancho Villa. Images flash in front of your mind's eye with each of the above written words, and those images give you a sense of time and place.
A good western, historical, thriller, romance, or any other genre—check out Harry Potter if you disagree—has a continuous sense of time and place. The flavor of the feast you're going to lay before your readers is time and place. Reading other westerns and historicals will give you a sense of it and how to inject it painlessly into writing, but historical reading of nonfiction will give you the most accurate feeling for what it really is.
Every era, place, and profession has its own vernacular. Words and expressions that are exclusive to time and place or endeavor. My Random House says, about vernacular, among other definitions:
...the native speech or language of a place. The language or vocabulary particular to a class or profession.
Using the proper vernacular for a time and place or profession is critical to giving the reader a sense of time and place. Immerse the reader.
Kat, years ago, wrote a medieval novel. A prodigious task, stepping back seven or eight hundred years in time. Talk about vernacular! It's not only the words used, but the sentence structure that's different from today's. See www.katbooks.com.
Newspapers, again, are a wonderful source of the flavor of the time. Not only do they tease you with plot material, but they tell you what the people in your story were talking about, how they were talking (pacing, vocabulary), what they were buying, what they were smoking and drinking, what those things cost, and on and on and on.
Another source is personal journals and diaries. Hundreds of journals were kept by people crossing the plains. They give you the flavor of everyday life. But you must remember that in newspapers, as well as most journals and diaries, there were common things people of that time did not discuss. Rape, pregnancy, sex were seldom, if ever, mentioned. But, clever us, we know they had sex then or most of us wouldn't be here.
Temper what you read with common sense.
I have a wonderful set of journals kept by Alfred Doten from 1849 through 1903. The publisher of these journals (University of Nevada Press) has taken good deal of time to reconstruct the erasers— Doten married and took great pains to erase all references to his visits to the bawdy houses in Virginia City, among other incidents—which make for much more interesting, and factual, reading.
Great dictionaries are available giving you the jargon of a particular endeavor—the mining Industry, the cattle industry, the logging industry, gambling. A great dictionaries are available regarding other specialties, for instance my friend Bob Burton has written a dictionary on spy terms: Top Secret: A Clandestine Operator's Glossary of Terms. Invaluable if you’re writing a spy novel or thriller set around the many sub-rosa organizations.
And I collect reference books of many kinds, and get a great deal of pleasure from reading them, even when not looking for a particular phrase or word.
Other genres have their own. I have mystery and romance dictionaries on the shelves. I fear I'm addicted to vernacular works of all kinds.
And, of course, any period book will have words utilized in that particular period.
I also rent old movies. When writing about a particular period or profession, some of the old movies offer great vernacular.
The trick is to get those things into your western or historical or romance in a way that educates the reader and entertains him. Time and place without his knowing.
Give him the medicine with a dose of syrup.
The jingling of big roweled Spanish spurs and the echoing of footfalls on the mud, smashed egg shell, and broken crock covered floor announced his entry.
That's time and place and a better way of letting the reader know Ethan wore big Spanish roweled spurs than saying: Ethan dismounted. He wore a broad brimmed Palo Alto hat, homespun britches, heeled boots, and big Spanish-roweled spurs. He walked across the board walk and entered the saloon, pushing aside the bat wing doors. His spurs jingled as he walked. The floor was covered with mud, broken egg shells, and broken crocks.
His flailing left arm knocked over a half-full spittoon, and tobacco juice and cigar butts mingled with the foamy blood pumping from the massive hole in the boy's Linsey-woolsey shirt.
Let me tell you, pardner, they ain't many half-full spittoons or Linsey-woolsey shirts around the bars I frequent today. There sure as hell ain't any nickel beers. That's time and place.
Writing details—time and place—into your western or historical, or even your contemporary is a necessary labor. Both writing and reading details can be a labor or it can serve a purpose, as it does in the vignette. And it can be a joy.
By introducing time and place the way it was done in the vignette, you not only accomplish the introduction and inform the reader, but you've moved him into the saloon (called stage management in novels). You've gotten another sense into your writing (the reader can hear the jingling of those spurs). And you've given the reader the feel of the saloon. It's obviously not the Ritz. Somewhere else in the scene you can introduce more time and place. Feed it to the reader sparingly.
SENSES: Taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight?
As you write you need to pull your reader into the trance of the story if you want your novel to be compelling. All of us are sensual, some more than others, some stimulated more by one sense than another. All writers appeal to sight in their writing—unless writing in the first person from a blind person's P.O.V. Some to taste, touch, smell, and sound. Great novels appeal to all the senses.
Mopping the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, Ethan glanced at the afternoon sky. Indian summer; still no sign of storm.
A sense of touch and sight:
The trail-tough cowhand rubbed the black whisker stubble on his chin with a knotted callused hand. "That'll do," Ethan said, and laid a nickel on the rough plank.
A horse fly buzzed around inspecting the coin as Ethan waited.
Rubbed the stubble. A knotted callused hand. The rough plank. A horse fly buzzed. Touch, texture, and sound. Senses. Also, a nickel for a beer is a sense of time and place. The fifth dimension. Not only do my favorite bars not have spittoons, I'm again sorry to say, they don't have nickel beers.
The room reeked of dust, sweat-soaked men, and cigar smoke.
Sense of taste:
Ethan's mouth tasted copper fear. He could almost feel the lead slug ripping through his chest as his own gun cleared the holster.
Taste and touch again. It is also internalizing, and we'll talk more about that later. As I reread this, I see an edit, which I'll leave in and point out to you even though it's embarrassing. The word mouth should be eliminated. Of course he tasted it in his mouth. How the hell else do you "taste." Ethan tasted copper fear is correct.
Get the senses all in, and your writing will be better for it. Read Kathryn Lynn Davis's work, particularly Child of Awe, for great writing using all the senses.
REWRITING: This brings me to a good spot to discuss rewriting. I mention it now because one of the things I do when I rewrite is make sure I've gotten all the senses in. I also work on my verbs. Notice I change tearing to ripping.
Ethan tasted copper fear. He could almost feel the lead slug tearing through his chest, as his own gun cleared the holster.
That was the first way I wrote it.
Ethan tasted copper fear. He could almost feel the lead slug ripping through his chest as his own gun cleared the holster.
Ripping seemed a stronger image to me. The Thesaurus is a wonderful tool. Use it. You want the verb that gives you the clearest and most concise image of what you want to portray.
I also dropped the comma after chest. Commas slow your writing, and in rewriting I seldom find myself adding a comma. I delete twenty-five to every one I add.
It has been said by writers far more knowledgeable than I, that writing is rewriting.
Writing is rewriting.
So important, so basic to the writer, so necessary to good writing, that I set it alone and bold in the text. A writer who claims he writes his work only once is writing only for himself. Don't be concerned when you read what you've written and it stinks. Write it again. And again. And again. Sometimes you'll get a sentence right the first time, most often not. Even if it's right the first time, maybe it's not the best way to do it.
I've found if I leave a "perfectly polished" piece for two weeks, then go back to it, I find ways to improve it—sometimes I can't believe how badly that "perfectly polished" piece was first written.
But there comes a time when you must submit it. Do your best, then mail it away. It won't sell sitting around waiting for another rewrite.
Every time I pick up one of my published novels, I gag, knowing I could have written it better. But I submitted it, thinking it was the best I could do at the time, and keeping within a time constraint, usually a manuscript delivery date—but you always think you can do better, and in my case, I usually can.
There comes a time when you had better say enough is enough and submit it.
INTERNALIZATION: For a character to internalize, the reader needs to know what he's thinking and how he feels. This doesn't mean you have to write:
Ethan looked across the room. A man who'd been scalped and had his nose cut off, sat drinking a beer. His head was a mass of scars. Ethan caught his eye. I'd hate to look like that ol' boy, Ethan thought, staring. Ethan immediately regretted his reaction as the man caught his gaze and dropped his eyes to his beer.
It would be as effective, maybe more so, to write:
Ethan looked across the room and caught the eye of a man who'd been scalped and had his nose cut off. His head was a mass of scars. Ethan winced, then regretted the action as the man lowered his eyes and stared into his beer.
In the first instance, we wrote, Ethan thought. In the second, we wrote Ethan winced.
We know Ethan winced because he hated looking at the man with the terrible scars. We know what he thought, because of how he reacted. This is internalization via characterization and through it we get to know Ethan.
If we had said:
Ethan looked across the room and caught the eye of a man who'd been scalped and had his nose cut off. "Why, look at that." Ethan pointed. "If that's not the by-God ugliest man I ever seen, I'll dance an Irish jig right here on this bar." The man cut his eyes down at his beer.
Another impression of Ethan?
Ethan tasted copper fear. He could almost feel the lead slug ripping through his chest as his own gun cleared the holster.
We didn't say: Ethan was afraid. We said he tasted fear; he could feel the slug tearing through his chest. That's internalization, even though we don't specifically say what Ethan thinks.
If you want your reader to get involved with your characters and your story, you must let them get to know your characters. Internalization is one major way to accomplish that. Again, small doses given with the sugar of action. Compelling characters in conflict, make a compelling read. If we don't know the characters well, or don't want to, then we don't care about what happens to them, or about reading on.
A great internalization trick and one that can only be accomplished through internalization is the following.
"Are you coming to the box social?" she asked.
"I don't know," Ethan said, allowing his glance to drift down across the ruffled bodice of the dress. It would take the whole damn Sioux tribe to keep me away, he thought.
"Well, I'll have a basket if you're going to bid." She flashed a coy smile, turned, and walked away.
"Probably won't make it," Ethan called after her, his hand in his pocket fumbling with the three dollars he had left to his name. She flashed the smile over her shoulder, then disappeared around the corner of the mercantile.
I wonder if I can sell my saddle, Ethan thought, and headed for the livery.
He says one thing, but means another. Some things can only be done via internalization.
P.O.V. TO P.O.V. There are all kinds of transitions in the novel. Transitions of time, transitions of place. One of the most important and difficult, at least for me, is knowing when and how to change
P.O.V. And it can confuse the reader if you do it incorrectly. Worse, it can make your writing difficult to read, without the reader knowing why. In the example, most of the time we stayed in Ethan's P.O.V. But we also went into the bartender's
P.O.V. for a moment.
...the bartender gave the dusty stranger a tight smile. "Beer?"
Ethan could see the bartender give him a tight smile. But would Ethan think of himself as "the dusty stranger?" That's a slight change in P.O.V. and would probably have been better if written: ...the bartender gave Ethan a tight smile. No question about P.O.V. because we know Ethan is a stranger in that saloon and no one but Ethan knows who Ethan is.
The trail-tough cowhand rubbed the black whisker stubble on his chin with a knotted callused hand.
That's also a change in P.O.V. The bartender would be thinking: This ol' boy is a trail-tough cowhand, and look at that black stubble on his chin. Ethan probably would not think of himself as a trail tough cowhand. And it's hard to see your own chin. Granted, he would know his beard was black and by rubbing it he would know there's a stubble. The point I'm trying to make is that P.O.V. is difficult, but mastering it will make your writing flow and editors buy.
Let's do the whole thing over, first definitely staying in Ethan's P.O.V., then making a transition into the bartender's.
From across the rough plank bar, the bartender gave Ethan a tight smile. "Beer?"
Ethan rubbed his chin with a knotted callused hand. "That'll do," he said, and sat a nickel on the bar.
Max, the bartender, turned and drew the beer. I wish these saddle tramps would stay out of here, he thought, clamping his jaw. The bum should have used his money to buy himself a shave. Max set the beer in front of the man and snatched up the nickel. Then he went back to shining his bar glasses.
As Ethan took a deep draw, he heard shrill drunken laughter...
That's a P.O.V. transition. We went from Ethan's P.O.V. to Max's P.O.V. then back to Ethan's.
When and how often to switch P.O.V.? Some great writers switch many times, some seldom. A switch like the above one is not particularly good because it makes the reader work. The less you make the reader work, the better chance you have to keep him in the spell and not lose him—compelling, remember. It also accomplishes little. Unless it's important to the reader to know the bartender thinks Ethan is a saddle tramp and a bum, you've gained nothing.
A good rule is to stay in one P.O.V. for a whole scene at least. In first person, of course, you stay in for the whole book.
TRANSITIONS: The other basic transitions are from time to time and from place to place, or both from one place and time to a later or earlier time (an earlier time would be a flashback) and another place.
Ethan backed out of the bar through the bat wing doors then spun and in two long strides pulled the lead rope from the rail and mounted the roan. The street lay deep in shadow, and a few merchants were shuttering their windows and doors to close up.
By the time Ethan crossed the Laramie, it was full dark and the roan was heavily lathered. Hours later, when he reached the Medicine Bow, the roan was winded and the sky at his back was beginning to gray. Still, he couldn't take a break. After crossing, he dismounted for the fourth time during the lone night's ride and walked to give the horse a blow.
A transition of both time and place.
Sometimes a double drop is necessary to give emphasis to a transition:
The street lay deep in shadow. A few merchants were shuttering their windows and doors to close up. Ethan restrained the gelding, who wanted to run, but no more than he had to restrain himself from galloping out of the town.
(a blank line here is a double drop)
Big John Albertson stood staring down at his dead son. "The bastard what did this will pay," he muttered, then looked up. "The man that shoots the murdering scum down like the cur he is and hangs him up for crow bait will receive a month's wages."
That's a double drop—just an extra line. It's a visual break in the text. Some writers use:
These stars can be implemented with a double double drop to show a definite transition. I use both the double drop and the above. Whatever you use, the copyeditor is likely to change it, so the real question is, "Is it clear?" If it's clear, then use it.
Ethan spurred the roan into the shallow Laramie. He was bone tired and the horse's plodding pace caused him to doze. The shallow river reminded him of Cross Creek, back home. His father used to take him fishing on Cross Creek.
"You dig the worms, boy, and I'll break us a willow pole," Henry Estler would say, winking at his son. Ethan would run for the shovel.
"Papa, I bet I catch the biggest," Ethan challenged.
"I'll bet you do, son," his father said.
We changed time and place inside the paragraph, and we effected a flashback. The trick is to use a word or two in the past tense, then go right on as if you're there.
"You dig the worms, boy and I'll break us a willow pole," Henry Estler would say, winking at his son. Ethan would run for the shovel.
That phrase managed to transport us back fifteen or twenty years with a simple "would say" and "would run," and transport us to a place near Cross Creek.
"I'll bet I catch the biggest," Ethan challenged.
Notice we didn't say "had challenged." We went to present tense and suddenly but smoothly we're there.
It also managed to tell us Ethan's last name. A piece of information fed with a little action.
Also it gave us a little more insight into Ethan's character and his father's.
It was a transition and a flashback inside a paragraph. That flashback story could go on and on if you needed to establish Ethan's character, or his father's, or their motivation. It would be called a back story and it's not commonly used in westerns, but occasionally in historicals. My advice is to stay away from it, at least in your westerns or short romances. Charge forward with your story, and let what Ethan, or your characters, say and do establish character.
A common complaint from editors is that writers don't use enough transitions and don't make them clear enough. If it breaks the readers concentration and he has to go back in the text to see how he got to the Medicine Bow from the saloon, you've broken the trance. Don't give him the excuse to set your novel down!
ACTION: Writing action is a special talent and one you must master if you're going to write western adventure novels.
Remember we talked about pacing before? That was in regard to pacing throughout the whole book. In an action scene, pacing is everything. And I don't mean pacing as it relates to the book as a whole, but rather as it relates to a single scene.
Not only is pacing important, but verbs are critical. Some words evoke an image of immediacy.
Ethan's carefully aimed shot took the boy square in the middle of the chest, blowing him off his feet, slamming him to the floor.
Would you have gotten the same image if I'd written “knocking him to the floor" or “hurling him to the floor?" I doubt it. I'm sure there are better verbs than "carefully aimed." Carefully aimed slows the action down too much for my taste. How about "Ethan's steady shot?" Or "Ethan's studied shot?" They don't seem to slow the action quite as much as "carefully aimed."
Action is usually written in short paragraphs. Choppy, quick, with verbs that connote speed.
Upon musing, the above might have been better written:
Ethan's shot slammed the boy to the floor. In the middle of his chest, the Linsey-woolsey shirt turned red.
Why? We know if he's slammed to the floor, he's blown off his feet. Yeah! We've ferreted out a redundancy. We've avoided slogging through the sludge of a badly thought out sentence.
That's cutting and editing.
One of the mistakes beginning writers make in action is leaving it! What I mean is:
Ethan quieted the roan with the tail of the reins and glanced over his shoulder to see the twenty-man posse at full gallop a quarter mile behind. The roan stumbled, tried to regain his balance, but went down, Flying over the horse's head, Ethan lit on his back, winded. But he held onto the reins.
He'd been thrown a hundred times before, when he had a piebald horse who was always stumbling, so he knew how to land. That piebald was a great animal, but a clumsy sonofabitch.
The posse crossed the ravine, a hundred yards away and bearing down.
As Ethan remounted, he noticed puffs of smoke from the muzzles of the pursuer's guns.
Being shot at wasn't new either. One time down on the Brazos a band of Comanches had run him and the piebald for most of twenty miles.
Lead buzzed over his head like wasps on the warpath. Ethan again used the tail of the reins on the roan.
What's wrong with that? Plenty of action and we got a little background information and characterization in.
Wrong! Get background and characterization in when you're not trying to involve the reader in the immediacy of the action.
Ethan quirked the roan with the tail of the reins and glanced over his shoulder to see the twenty-man posse at full gallop a quarter mile behind. The roan stumbled, tried to regain his balance, but went down. Flying over the horse's head, Ethan lit on his back, winded. But he held onto the reins.
The posse crossed the ravine a hundred yards away and bearing down.
As Ethan remounted, he noticed puffs of smoke from the muzzles of the pursuer's revolvers. Lead buzzed over his head like wasps on the warpath and again he used the tail of the reins on the roan.
Stay with the action. Don't distract the reader. Move forward. Don't flash back even for a second when writing action. Breaking into the action only irritates the reader, who's relishing the action sequence. With many readers, it's the reason he's put up with your campfire, information, and characterization scenes.
And be sure to use strong action verbs. Read James Reno, a master of western action verbs. I don't think anyone ever walked anywhere in a Reno novel. He charged, lumbered, stomped, sauntered, strolled, marched, ambled, shuffled, pranced, etc.
Action is drama at its finest. And drama is compelling. And compelling reading is what sells editors and eventually readers on your writing.
BREVITY: Now is a good time to talk about brevity. To be brief, writing is better (99.99% of the time) with the fewest words possible. Make every word count. Which also, by the way, is the title of a great book on writing by Gary Provost.
The classic example given in writing classes:
For sale, baby crib, never used.
Think about it.
A diamond of lean writing that evokes images.
Another example—would it be better to say:
Ethan climbed up on the horse.
Ethan mounted the horse.
Using the proper, most efficient, verb is the son of brevity.
Ethan looked at the scarred man and wondered about what had happened to him.
Ethan studied the scarred man.
Look for the right word, and your reader will get more information with the action, and will stick with you. Your writing will be compelling.
The interior of the saloon seemed plebeian.
Is that the right word? Not unless you want Ethan to come across as a Boston snob.
If the proper verb is the son of brevity, Jacqueline the Ripper is the daughter.
The room shook and reverberated with the echoing loud roar of the three shots, then lay deathly still. Dust hazed the lighting and filtered down from the sculptured metal ceiling adding to the haze in the smelly, smoky room.
Isn't shook and reverberated the same thing? Rip it out of there. Cut. Use the best verb.
Isn't loud and roar the same thing? Cut.
The dust hazed the lighting and filtered. Isn't it close enough to the same that it's redundant? Rip it out.
Smelly! Smoky! Didn't we say it before? Slice it to the bone in your best Jack the Ripper imitation.
The room reverberated with the roar of the three shots, then lay deathly still. Dust filtered down from the sculptured metal ceiling, adding to the haze in the room.
Not Hemmingway, but better than the first instance.
Stay away from the disease redundancy as if it were the black plague. Redundancy makes work for the reader, and for the editor.
Like all of us, editors don't like to work anymore than they have to.
The classic comment about brevity in writing came from the great western and mystery writer, Elmore Leonard, who said, "I try to leave out the parts people don't read."
SENTENCE VARIETY: Sentence structure can become boring. Reading, even if done for pleasure, can become tiring—and quickly—with bad writing.
The town and the saloon looked friendly enough but looks deceive.
Ethan dismounted and loosened the cinch. The horse stood quietly and caught his breath. Ethan mopped the seat from his brow with the back of his hand. He glanced at the afternoon sky. Still no sign of a storm. It was Indian summer. There was nary a drizzle of rain but it would come.
Ethan offered the roan a handful of grain he'd dug out of the saddlebag. The big roan mouthed it as Ethan scratched the horses ears with his free hand. He listened for sounds from inside the Laramie Queen. A cool beer would suit him fine. He needed to resupply at the mercantile. He only had three dollars left. Then he had to ride out of town to camp on the banks of the Laramie. Tomorrow he would make the banks of the Medicine bow.
Boring, boring, boring. Subject, verb, subject, verb. Same length sentences. Puke! Editor rejection before he finishes the first page.
Kat is a master of sentence variety, and a great editor. She was editing my last contribution to our joint effort, Tin Angel, and found every other sentence in an action sequence I'd written beginning with "As." Watch for repetition in your writing in any form, and unless it's there for a specific reason, rewrite to give variety. I probably would have found it on rewrite, but with a good editor at hand, I got lazy.
Needless to say, Jacqueline the Ripper went to work and I was returned a hen-scratched section for rewrite.
Your writing should be like music. It has rhythm, but it also has the tinkling variety of melody.
The town and the saloon looked friendly enough. But looks deceive.
Ethan dismounted and loosened the cinch so the lathered horse could catch its breath. Mopping sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, Ethan glanced at the afternoon sky. Indian summer, still no sign of storm. But it would come. Digging a handful of grain out of a saddlebag, he offered it in his palm. The big roan mouthed it as Ethan scratched the horse's ears with his free hand. All the while, he listened for sounds from inside the Laramie Queen.
A cool beer would suit him, before he re-supplied at the mercantile with his last three dollars then rode out of the town to camp alone on the banks of the Laramie River. With luck and easy country, tomorrow he would make the banks of the Medicine Bow.
It's not Beethoven or Montovani or Willie Nelson, but it's better than the first example, and the editor won't throw it aside without reading the next page.
Sentences should vary in length and in construction.
Ethan dismounted and loosened the cinch so the big horse could catch its breath.
Dismounting, Ethan loosened the cinch so the big horse could catch its breath.
The big horse caught its breath after Ethan dismounted and loosened the cinch.
Ethan dismounted and loosened the cinch. The big horse caught its breath.
There are lots of ways to say the same thing. Make sure your sentences vary in length and construction.
EMPHASIS: The placement of the subject of your sentence will clue the reader as to what you, as the writer, feel is most important.
Ethan checked the .44 in his holster, strode noisily across the board walk, and entered the dingy saloon.
Is Ethan entering the saloon the most important segment of the sentence?
Ethan entered the dingy saloon, striding noisily across the boardwalk and checking his .44.
Is Ethan's action in checking the .44 the most important segment of the sentence?
Ethan entered the dingy saloon after checking his .44, striding noisily across the board walk.
Is Ethan's noisy striding the most important segment of the sentence? In the last instance, the reader will believe so.
John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
On November 22, 1963, in Dallas, John F. Kennedy was shot and killed.
John F. Kennedy was shot and killed on November 22, 1963 in Dallas.
If I were writing about November 22, the first sentence would work best, if about Dallas, the last. If I were writing about Kennedy's assassination, the middle sentence is the correct one.
The segment you want to place the emphasis upon, the segment you think is the most important, should end the sentence.
ACTIVE OR PASSIVE?: Another time "was" is an indicator that your writing is weak is when it tells you you've fallen into the passive voice.
The article was written by Frank.
Frank was given a huge advance by Wonderful Publishing.
The novel was written about his life.
Or: Frank wrote the article.
Wonderful Publishing gave Frank a huge advance.
He wrote about his life.
The first set of sentences is passive and the second is active. Active, as you can see, is usually livelier and shorter (remember brevity). It's also more direct.
If you want your writing to be hard-hitting, write in the active voice. Writing quickly becomes boring and tedious in the passive voice.
AUTHOR INTRUSION: Any time you let the reader know he's reading, you break the spell of the good writing. The object of good writing is to put the reader in the scene. You want him to finish the scene covered with sweat, or with a knot of fear in his stomach, or with an audible sigh of relief. When you, as author, intrude—when you yell at him, "I'm a writer, and you're reading my stuff," you break that spell.
The town and the saloon looked friendly enough. But looks deceive.
"But looks deceive," touches on author intrusion. Why? Because we are not in P.O.V. yet. If we had introduced the scene:
Ethan drew rein on the roan and gazed up at the false front of the Laramie Queen. The town and the saloon looked friendly enough, but looks deceive.
It's always better to be in P.O.V., so the reader doesn't think the author is injecting his opinion into the story.
Clichés are a form of author intrusion. My trusty Random House (if I keep writing "trusty Random House," it will become a cliché) says:
A trite stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder by wiser or stronger than an ox.
Don't use clichés. They take away from your writing and distract the reader…unless, of course, you want to characterize a character by having HIM use clichés.
The cackler's first shot, fired too quickly, cut the air near Ethan's ear like an angry hornet. The muzzle blast slapped at him, stinging his cheek.
Like an angry hornet? That gives the reader an image but is it the right one and has it been used so many times that it's lost its impact?
The cackler's shot cut the air near Ethan's ear and its muzzle blast slapped at him, stinging his cheek.
Jack the Ripper did a little more than take out the cliché, and it's a better sentence and image for the cut—and more compelling.
Foreboding, if it's done incorrectly, can also be author intrusion.
Ethan sat on the rise overlooking Coppertown. When he'd entered the Laramie saloon, he had no way of knowing the kill-crazy youth awaited him—or that in Coppertown, it would be worse.
That's classic author intrusion—Clancy has been guilty of it, Grisham has been guilty of it. You're not in Ethan's P.O.V., for Ethan has no way of knowing that in the next town it will be worse. There's a much better way to do it, staying in P.O.V.
Ethan sat on the rise overlooking Coppertown. He hesitated, unsure if he should spur the roan—a niggling sensation gnawing at him, a sensation he knew he should listen to. But his scorched mesquite bean coffee and the last of his jerky mocked him.
And growling stomach overcame whispering caution.
Hoisting his .44 an inch, he reined the roan down the slope.
That's foreboding, but in P.O.V. Something inside of Ethan telling him that he shouldn't ride into this town. Not the author telling the reader that Ethan shouldn't ride into Coppertown.
Another comment on author intrusion. I just finished reading a great book by a New York Times bestselling author. Early on in the novel he wrote a good scene then closed with, "but he wouldn't discover that until later." That is author intrusion at its worst. It's a jarring change of POV from a character—where it should be to the author—who's not, or shouldn't be, a part of the story. Don't tell the reader that you're a writer telling them a story. It sandwiches a level between them and the characters you want them to become involved with, an unneeded level that continues to interfere with the reader's trance.
MOTIVATION: It's critical you give your characters proper motivation. The fact that Ethan and the cackler had a run in on the Lazy Z ranch gave credibility to the gunfight in the saloon.
Most people aren't devil-mean or angel-good but rather something in between. Editors like the worst villains to have redeeming qualities and the best heroes to have flaws.
But whatever good qualities or flaws they have, make sure they have motivation to act as they do.
If Ethan had merely slapped the cackler and disarmed him, would he ride out of town at a gallop and would the posse come after him? Have proper motivation for what happens in the plot.
DRIVING LINE: The single most important thing you have in plot is the driving line through the novel. The driving line is very close to theme, but not quite the same. The driving line is usually the protagonist's goal, and that is not necessarily the same as the theme. His desperate attempt to cross Death Valley in order to reach the California gold fields can be the driving line to the theme, persevere and you will succeed.
Ethan escapes town and runs for his life--his survival is his driving line.
The Union soldier on a quest to find his kidnapped sister--driving line.
Shane has made a vow never to pick up his guns again--driving line.
Edward Fitzgerald Beale wants to open up the West, and a wagon road will do it--driving line.
Find the driving line, stay with it, and your novel will be compelling.
STYLE: Style is simply the way you write. As a beginning writer, don't worry about style. You develop style. Style is what identifies our writing, even without our name attached to it. Great writers like Hemmingway have a distinctive style.
Don't worry about style, it will come. Don't try to copy some great writer's style—then you'll never develop your own.
And I didn't say don't study it, just don't copy it.
MAKE 'EM LAUGH?: Sure. As long as it’s part of the plot and not an overwhelming part—unless you’re writing a comedy. Like humor, sorrow should work into the plot. A genre western reader picks a western off the rack because he likes adventure and the old West. If he wanted a good cry, he'd reach for Love Story. In a historical, you can do what you want. And again, the above rules were made to be broken.
In a romance it's make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait, and turn 'em on. Those same ingredients, with 'turn 'em on meaning with action as opposed to sex, make a good western, but like romance readers, western readers expect you to be faithful to the genre. Don't make humor or sorrow your primary plot device.
MAKE 'EM CRY?: You bet. Ask James Waller and his, at one time, all-time best selling Bridges of Madison County. Like making them laugh, making them cry takes a special talent. Much of it, I believe, is pacing. Kat has a special talent for writing emotion into her novels, and romance lends itself to emotional reads (see www.katbooks.com). Study other writers pacing to determine how they made you cry, then try it in your own writing. Making the reader cry is the ultimate in reader involvement and a physical manifestation of their being in the reader's trance—even more so than laughing. And believe me, they remember it, and you, if you involve them to that degree.
And there are writers tricks to doing it—I’ve never had a reader tell me they cried when reading one of my passages about a character of mine dying, except when it was a horse. Kill the innocent, if you want them to cry.
THE MIDDLE: As I mentioned before, all novels have a beginning, middle, and end.
The most important thing to remember about the middle of your western or historical or any other novel you write, is not to let it get middle-aged. As with many middle-aged folks, the middle gets saggy.
Don't allow your novel to get a saggy middle. Things must continue to happen to your hero; he must get deeper and deeper into trouble, only to escape, then fall deeper again. With proper pacing, your plot will not suffer from a saggy middle.
THE ENDING: The most important thing to remember about the ending is to wrap it up—all of it. Remember the posse member Ethan traded horses with? Somewhere in the novel we should see him limping back into town, leading Ethan's lame roan. Otherwise, we'll wonder about him and the ending won't truly be an ending.
Your ending can be happy or sad, or somewhere in between, but it must answer all the questions posed in the novel and resolve all the issues.
The Union soldier finds his sister and brings her back with him, or to his surprise, decides to honor her wishes. She'll be better off with the Indians since she and her half breed son will be ostracized if taken back to town.
The ending can be a lot of things, but it must resolve the issues.
But none of it's worth a damn if you don't write it accurately.
The town and saloon looked friendly enough, but looks deceive.
Ethan dismounted and loosened the cinch so the lathered roan could catch its breath. Mopping the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, he glanced at the afternoon sky. Indian summer, still no sign of storm.
But it would come.
Digging a handful of grain out of a saddlebag he offered it in his palm. The big roan mouthed it as Ethan scratched the horse's ears with his free hand. All the while, he listened for sounds from inside the Laramie Queen. A cool beer would suit him. One beer, then he'd resupply at the mercantile with his last three dollars, ride out alone, and camp on the banks of the Laramie River.
With luck and easy country, tomorrow he would make the banks of the Medicine Bow.
But luck hadn't been exactly doggin' his trail for the last thousand miles. Ethan had been gnawing on venison jerky and drinking trail coffee, the drover's curse, made from scorched stone-smashed mesquite beans for two weeks. Some real grub would suit him fine.
But trouble wouldn't suit him, and trouble had a way of dogging his trail.
No sound came from inside so Ethan tied the roan to the hitching post near a wooden water trough and watched as the big horse muzzled aside some floating green moss and drank deeply. Ethan hoisted his heavy old Walker Colts .44 an inch, making sure it rode free and easy in its holster. With his broad-brimmed Palo Alto hat he knocked the dust from his breeches and chaps and it billowed into the air.
The jingle of his big roweled Spanish spurs and the echo of his footfalls announced his entry as he shouldered through the bat wing doors. Across a floor littered with smashed egg shells, broken crocks, and mud from the rutted street outside, he made his way to the rough plank bar. The room reeked of dust, sweating men, and cigar smoke.
From a few feet away, the bartender gave him a tight smile. "Beer?"
Ethan rubbed the black whisker stubble on his chin with a knotted callused hand. "That'll do." He slapped a nickel on the rough wood. A horse-fly buzzed around inspecting the coin as Ethan waited.
The bartender dipped the beer from a keg then set the mug in front of him. Without comment, he snatched up the nickel and strode away.
Backhanding the foam from his handlebar mustache, Ethan cut his eyes. In the rear of the saloon, four men sat playing poker under a wafting cloud of cigar smoke. One of them cackled a grating laugh. The cackler was the bantam rooster who—with five riders to back him up—forced Ethan to backtrack twenty miles and ride around the Lazy Z.
Ethan sighed. Suddenly the beer didn't taste so good, He'd seen the like of the boy in a hundred towns. All mouth and spit, no grit. He wondered if the men the boy played cards with were Lazy Z riders. No, he decided. One looked like a drummer, the other two were probably merchants.
"You're not from around here?" the bartender asked.
"Nope." Ethan turned his attention to the big man whose belly kept him some distance from the bar he mopped with a rag.
"Where you from?"
"Yonder." Ethan motioned with his head as he answered.
"Never heard of no town named 'Yonder.’" One side of the bartender's mouth curled up in a half-grin.
"You must work on the local newspaper," Ethan said, returning the half-smile, which tilted his mustache to a slant.
The man's look hardened. "Just makin' conversation."
"Well, look at that." The cackler's voice rang from the rear of the saloon. Ethan heard the footfalls of the approaching cowhand, but chose to ignore him.
But he wouldn't be ignored.
He bellied up to the bar next to Ethan.
"Gimme a shot of Mr. Noble's finest, Barney." The cowhand slapped the bar with the flat of his hand. As the bartender poured him a shot from a bottle he kept under the bar, the cackler turned to face Ethan.
"Ain't you the saddle tramp who tried to cross the lazy Z?"
Ethan stared straight across the bar. He sipped his beer and backhanded the foam away.
The boy's voice dropped to a harsh whisper. "I'm talking to you, saddle tramp."
Ethan didn't respond.
The cowhand cackled. "This ol' boy must be deaf as a stone, Barney."
Ethan could feel the hair rise on the back of his neck. Slowly, he turned to face the mouthy youngster. "If you’re talkin' to me, boy, the name is Estler...Mr. Estler. And yes, I'm the rider who was crossing the Lazy Z. I appreciated your fine hospitality."
"I don't much like your tone, saddle tramp."
Caution gave way to studied anger. "Careful, pup, you don't have a half dozen drovers backin' you up this time."
The men playing poker stilled and the bartender backed away as the boy stepped back, his hands held out from his sides, his stance inviting trouble.
"I don't need help from any man, and you call me pup again, you'll have to prove it."
Ethan turned back to the bar. "Another beer, Barney."
"You yella' too, saddle tramp?"
"Walk away," Ethan said quietly, staring straight ahead.
"Good idea," the bartender quietly added.
"Shut up, Barney. You wanna prove I'm a pup, saddle tramp?"
Ethan slowly turned to face the youth. "You're proven' it by courtin' trouble, son. And you're about to get a portion too big for a guppy to swallow."
With contemptuous eyes, the flat blue of the desert sky on a scorching day, the cackler slowly scanned Ethan. His mouth curled into an arrogant smile, then with a whisper of metal on oiled leather the Navy Colt appeared in his hand as if it had been there when he walked up.
The bartender ducked below the bar.
Ethan tasted copper fear—a taste that cut his wolf loose.
He could almost feel the whelp's lead slug ripping through his chest as his own Walker cleared the holster.
The cackler's first shot—fired too quickly—cut the air near Ethan's ear and its muzzle blast slapped at him, stinging his cheek. As Ethan thumbed back the hammer, the boy's eyes flared in terror.
Ethan's studied shot took the boy square in the middle of the chest, slamming him to the floor. His flailing left arm knocked over a half-full spittoon. Tobacco juice and cigar butts mingled with the foamy blood pumping from the massive hole in the boy's Linsey-woolsey shirt.
Ethan unnecessarily thumbed back the hammer as the boy's second shot smashed one of the chimneys on the unlit coal oil fixture hanging above him. Fine shards of glass rained over the boy, some floating on the growing pool of thick blood and spittle.
The boy kicked twice, the Navy Colt slipping from his grasp, his eyes open, staring.
The room had reverberated with the roar of the shots, but now seemed deathly still. Dust motes filtered down from the sculptured metal ceiling, adding to the smoky haze. The bartender rose tentatively, wide eyed.
Ethan slowly panned the muzzle of the Walker. Did anyone else want to test his patient aim? No sound, save the boy's wheezing chest wound—then, with a last death rattle, it stilled.
Ethan's hammer ratcheting down echoed across the saloon—and was followed by the audible relief sighs of the poker players and the bartender.
Ethan sensed that more than the gunfight was over. Something else, like a thorn finally removed from a festering sore, had ended in that saloon.
Taking his first breath since the cackler had hoisted his Colt, Ethan turned back and bellied up to the bar. With a grim look, he noticed the boy's shot had scored a hit. His .44 slug centered a neat hole in the naked left breast of the reclining nude whose portrait hung, now slightly crooked, behind the bar. The bartender jumped up, resting his ample belly on the bar so he could see over it, eyed the boy on the floor, and uttered a low whistle as if he was seeing something he didn't quite believe—then he bellied back off the bar, turned, and carefully straightened the picture.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ethan saw that the men at the poker table hadn't flinched, their hands still in plain sight on the green felt table top.
The bartender drew Ethan another beer, and the tension flowed out of the room as the beer gurgled into the mug. Ethan blew the foam off and set the mug on the bar.
"This one's on house," the bartender said, "but it better be your last in this town if you know what's good for you." He flashed Ethan a weary smile. "That boy's daddy will be comin' to find you...and he'll be on the prod."
"For his sake, he'd better shoot straighter than his whelp."
"That 'whelp' was the fastest gun in this town. His daddy's not so fast, but he won't come alone. And most of his boys ride for the brand."
"I guess I was lucky not knowing this pup was 'the fastest gun in town....' It mighta throwed my aim off."
The bartender managed a nervous smile.
Without the cackling, it was pleasantly quiet.
Ethan upended his mug. The players divvied up the cackler's money and returned to their game.
Ethan eyed the boy. He'd been wrong about the kid, he had too much grit for his own good. He looked from the boy to the poker players, then to the door.
"Guess I best be moseyin' on."
"That'd be best for you. I'll tell the sheriff he drew down on you first, if that's a comfort to you. O’course the sheriff is the boy’s cousin.”
"You do that, Barney," Ethan said. Tipping his hat to the bartender, he made for the bat wings, keeping an eye on the bartender and the players. It wouldn't do to be back-shot, even by a smiling man.
"Won't matter a hoot nor a holler to his pa," Ethan heard the bartender say as the bat wing doors closed behind him.
Trouble is a hunter, Ethan thought, as he mounted the roan and urged him into a brisk walk. Passing several men who were running for the saloon, he spurred the roan into a distance-eating lope.
Now that you see how easy it is, start writing!
I hope you've enjoyed this excerpt from Write Compelling Fiction, hope you've gleaned at least one gem from it that will help your writing, and hope to see your novels on the nation's book stands alongside mine. If you want to see how these tips and techniques are applied, pick up one of my novels.
Also writing as L. Jay Martin, Larry Jay Martin, Kathy Lawrence, and with Kat Martin, Bob Burton and Mike Bray.