Wednesday, September 18, 2013

NIK MORTON'S "WRITE A WESTERN IN 30 DAYS" BY JEREMY L.C. JONES



I wish Nik Morton had published Write a Western in 30 Days with Plenty of Bullet-Points (Compass Books, 2013) 20 years ago.

In the fall of 1993, I was barely 23, newly married and living with Trina in Evanston, IL. Three months out of college I had a job in special education, for which I hadn’t been trained, and I had an idea for a Western novel.

One evening, while I sat in our dining room in Meemaw’s wingback chair, a liquid image—a half-played scene—danced up out of the yellow glare of the recently polished wood floor:

It’s night time in Kansas, and young Seamus runs downhill, terror streaking his face in tears. He’s backlit by the angry orange bonfire that his family’s barn has become, his bald scalp slick with sweat, his trouser cuffs flap-snap above his muddy brogans, one suspender droops off his shoulder, arms pumping, his loose shirt sooty and damp with fear-sweat…

I knew Seamus' family had been killed. I knew his mother had been a freed slave and his father an Irish immigrant. I could hear his sisters screaming through the final moments of their lives in the family’s house just out of Seamus’ reach. I knew Seamus would seek out Sissy and Lila’s killers and take violent revenge and that his acts of retaliation would be brutal and splashed with gore and that he would suffer deeply as a result of those actions.

But I didn’t know how to write a Western. I’d read hundreds, sure, but that’s not exactly the same. Besides, the part of me that stood at the foot of a hill clutching my degree in American lit and creative writing and staring up at a young man racing away from a burning barn, racing toward his dying sisters, careening toward violent retaliation—that part of me was, frankly, far too proud of, far too pleased with the pretty picture I’d just conjured up to really take the time to figure out how to write a Western.

Proud, and also a bit overwhelmed. For all the things I did know about Seamus, there were so many things I didn’t know.

I knew virtually nothing about Kansas. (I’ve since visited.) Nor did I know the year the story took place or the guns or horses or clothing or... As a result, I froze the moment I sat down at my IBM desktop to type up the story. There were far too many unknowns—far too many obstacles--and not the exciting kind, not the mysteries around the corner or over the horizon, not the character-building sort of challenges, but the details and facts that can be the bones of historical fiction and the bane of my brand of fuzzy headed thinking.

Ah, yes, so I’ll say it once again, “If only Nik Morton had written 30 Days 20 years sooner.”

Alright, enough about me and Seamus. Let’s take a look-see at Write a Western in 30 Days.

The first thing Morton does is clear away the obstacles by presenting just enough to silence the editor and make room for the muse, while the researcher runs out to grab a double-shot Americano and hit the library.

Morton’s introduction pistol-whips topics such as why write a western, the relevance of the western, the importance of avoiding clich├ęs, the origin of the novel form, and whether a novel can be written in 30 days and what exactly constitutes a “day”.

Hint: a “day” is eight hours of work time, whether continuous or broken up. Feel cheated? Well, would you have bought a book entitled Write a Western in 240 Hours?

Actually, I would’ve bought the book with that title.

Moving on.

Where was I?

Oh, so here’s the beauty of Morton’s pistol-whip chapters. He has a brilliant way of condensing a great deal of information into manageable junks without sacrificing clarity or content. The resulting book works both as master course and as a refresher course.

With chapters two through six, Morton slaps a nice sturdy broom in your hand and puts you to work—preparation, research, theme, point of view, and titles. You can sweep fast and kick up a lot of dust or go slowly and run the risk of just moving the dirt around. What I mean by that is that this is not a book rife with navel-gazing. Morton isn’t selling snake oil or tincture of opium for Mr. and Mrs. Maybe I. Will and Maybe I. Won’t. This is work. Fun, but work—a nearly 200 page memo from the boss. Read it and get to work. You can always re-read it later.

And in case you didn’t catch the title, we’ve got a schedule to keep.

Chapter seven is, I suspect, the heart of the book for most readers. Morton, by this point, has referred to the “plot plan” enough that when you finally hit page 72 you feel as though you’ve finally arrived at, if not your destination, at least one heck of a fun way station.

“Writing a novel is much easier if you have a plot to follow,” writes Morton. “It doesn’t mean you’re in a rut. The plot is a rough-and-ready road. As the story progresses, you’ll find that characters will want to take the occasional more interesting byway. Some writers let the characters wander off at a tangent and never rejoin the original plotted road; others are hard taskmasters and bring the character back in line after a fascinating diversion.”

Uh-huh.

“A story is often about a character’s growth or change through adversity, which is brought about by facing obstacles and overcoming them,” he adds on the next page. “Though sometimes unwelcome, change is inevitable in life; in fiction, change is vitally necessary. The plot provides the means for the character to evolve.”

The plot plan, like life itself, is a “working document” and change is inevitable.

The whole chapter is like that—one beautifully rich paragraph after another.

I do think Morton is crazy not to package this chapter and appendix A: “30-day Countdown” as an e-book single. He’d make a fortune.

After the plot plan, Morton becomes more craft focused—character, dialogue, and description. He looks at form—beginning and endings—and revision—self-editing and layering—and finally offers up some very practical advice on publishers, synopsis, blurbs, and marketing. Theses final chapters on the business were certainly good and definitely up to the high standards set by the first, but I found them—personally—less interesting. Professionally, they are spot on and invaluable.

With the exception of Appendix A, which I mentioned above, the Appendices leaned toward the very practical and, frankly, I’d rather re-read his section on the Code of the West or browse his list of western fiction or western series fiction than read about manuscript formatting or agents.

Part of the reason why I think my 23 year old version of myself would’ve loved this book even more than the 43 year old version does is that by about the third chapter, Morton makes it clear that he has thought of everything. I mean, he hammer-slaps the sub-headings and makes every shot count—from animals to weaponry—and illustrates his points with examples from his own novels.

If Nik Morton taught a course based on this book I’d be the first to enroll and I’d sit up close. But he lives across the Atlantic and that’s a long way away from South Carolina. Fortunately, I have Write a Western in 30 Days, and there’s always Facebook.

One more thing, drawn from Morton’s “Code of the West.”

“If a person was in trouble, it was a man’s duty to help him—friend, stranger or enemy… And because of the great distance between neighbors and townships hospitality was generous…”

I, for one, can’t see any reason why this Code needs to be limited just to the West. I wonder what would happen if more and more writers read 30 Days and more and more readers read Westerns?


16 comments:

  1. Whenever I think about characters going off on their own tangents, I remember a story Robert Vaughan once told... about one of his supporting characters who took on a life of his own and started dominating the story.

    "what did you do?" someone asked.

    "I killed him."

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  2. Jeremy, this is a wonderful post about Nik's book. You and Kathleen are singlehandedly keeping Amazon in business, you know, with these reviews of so many fantastic books! Of course, this is a must-have, by the way you've described it and talked about how much it helped you. Thanks for your insights!
    Cheryl

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  3. Many thanks, Jeremy for this review. I loved your Robert Vaughan quote, Troy (I'd probably be tempted to do the same!) Thanks for the promotion, Cheryl.

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  4. Nik Morton has been a very helpful mentor to me and my Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles Series. They are doing quite well on Amazon and I only say that because I highly recommend Write a Western in 30 Days with Plenty of Bullet-Points.

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  5. I picked up this book and learned a whole lot of things that will help me write my next novel. Best part about this book: it takes away the sheen of writing and boils it down the nuts and bolts. It also makes the writing of a novel--any novel--seem a whole lot less daunting.

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  6. I have the book but have yet to finish reading it. For myself, moving from scripts, which are basically all dialogue to short story and novels is somewhat of a challenge. I have to stop myself when I realize everything is spoken. Sigh. Thanks for the review, now to finish the book and see what happens. Doris

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  7. Sounds like a must have kind of book. I've added it to my "to buy" list.

    Troy---I had to chuckle...Kill the character that's going off on his own tangent. Too funny!

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  8. I enjoyed the post and it made me wish I was a "plotter." For those who of who follow voices in our heads, we'd be killing off people left and right because my characters tell me their story, and their tangents are part of my everyday life...at least every day they are talking to me. Seems lately they've all gone mute. Hate when that happens.

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  9. I was so engaged in your revuew of this book, I became disappointed when it was over. If everyone obeyed the code of the west, we might have a better planet.
    I have some other western writer's books, but this book sounds fantastic.
    Thank you so much for the information on this book. It's on my buy list.

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  10. I agree, Sarah, about the Code of the West and a better planet. That's a big part of the appeal of the western for me and a lot of people, I think. Thanks for you kind words on my review. You won't be disappointed with Nik's book. I feel like I should post a picture of my copy to show how beaten up, er, well-love and well-used it is.

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  11. Troy -- we need to get a sample stitched up of that Vaughan story. Hang it over our computers.

    David -- nothing in your comment surprises me. I imagine Nik is a terrific mentor. And those stories deserve to be doing (better than) well.

    Scott -- Agreed! what I like is that Nik strips away the sheen and boils novel writing down to the nuts and bolts WITHOUT taking away any of the joy. He gives us an efficient, practical approach without killing the magic or mystery. I'm reminded of how we used to love a well-worn baseball mitt a heck of a lot more than a shiny new one.

    Cheryl -- Thanks for the kind words! I think we all know who the Boss of Review Town is and she's not me :-) I bow to Kathleen.

    Renaissance Woman -- Three words: Robert J. Randisi. Okay, the "J" isn't a word, but you get what I mean! He's the perfect balance between two worlds--dramatic dialogue and "just enough narrative".

    Ginger -- I'm tellin' ya, the plot plan gives you an alarm clock to wake up the voices. If you write a 5K plot plan for a 50K novel you still have 45K to listen to the voices with and 5K to wake up the sleepers with aaaaand who says you have to stick with 50k?



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  12. Thank you for a great and helpful post, Jeremy. Just bought Nic's book and can't wait to implement the 30-day method. :)

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  13. Sounds like a great book, one I need to get, but I could never write anything in 30 days (except maybe this post), lol. Writing isn't something which comes naturally for me, although I enjoy doing it. I always have to start with the idea for the ending conflict resolution, then write my way toward it.
    By the way, if you ever need to know anything more about Kansas, I've lived here for all of my 58 years. It's not much to look at, and its present societal attitudes are a bit backwards, but it is richer in Old West history than probably any other state.

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  14. JD -- Check out what Chuck Tyrell (some know him around here as Charlie) is doing with the Nik's book:

    http://chucktyrell-outlawjournal.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-blog-of-western-in-30-days.html

    As you'll quickly see, 30 days isn't 30 consecutive days.

    I was in Kansas to give a talk at a teachers' conference and spent the whole time looking for and at Old West stuff. Couldn't really focus on what I was supposed to be there for. Great place!

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  15. Jeremy, I believe I'll be buying this book in paperback. I can't seem to use an ebook for research as easily as I can a paper. Wonderful review and I loved you introductory paragraph where the boy is riding away from the fire. I could feel his panic!

    Troy, if I could, I'd let that character get wounded and left behind. He could be the hero in the next book.

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  16. Thanks again, Jeremy, for extolling 30 Days, and your helpful answers. Anyone who wants to write a review on Amazon, be my guest! Ginger - re your 'silent characters' - I've found that characters talk to me when I plot some obstacle for them - honest! - even if it's only "Get me out of here!" Best of luck, all, with your writing. Persevere and you will succeed.

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