Saturday, April 28, 2012

Can You Do It? - L.J. Martin

(This is an excerpt from L.J. Martin's book WRITE COMPELLING FICTION, reprinted with his permission. Thanks, Larry!)

Anyone who has a basic understanding of the structure of written English or is willing to learn—and has a story to tell, or the imagination to make one up—can write and sell a novel.
First you must want to.
I sold my first paperback western, Tenkiller, to Zebra Books (Kensington), many years ago. My second, Mojave Showdown, was picked up by the same company. Together, my wife and I wrote and sold Tin Angel, a western romance, to Avon. To Bantam Books, I've sold the westerns El Lazo, Against the 7th Flag, The Devils Bounty, and The Benicia Belle. In addition, Bantam published my historical, Rush to Destiny. My next was a Double D hardback, a novel of the West, Shadow of the Grizzly. Bantam also brought it out as a paperback. Kensington Books, under their Pinnacle imprint, published my Blood Mountain, Condor Canyon, Stranahan, McKeag’s Mountain, Wolf Mountain, McCreed’s Law, Sounding Drum (hardback), it’s paperback version Last Stand, and Crimson Hit and Bullet Blues both of which were co-written with my good friend Bob Burton, who is actually America’s No. 1 bounty hunter with over 3,000 arrests to his credit. Since that time I’ve published many, both fiction and non-fiction, see my webpage. And now, with the advent of eBooks, anyone can publish.
Kat, as I’ve mentioned, is published in several foreign countries in romantic suspense and historical romance, and our joint western-romance effort Tin Angel is published in Norway. I'm published in large print with most of my books and am privileged to work with Books in Motion who published my works in audio.
My wife is a very successful romance writer. Kat's sold an equal number of historical romances to several publishers—many of her novels have appeared on the best seller lists.
We did it. You can do it.
I am not a college graduate. Family took me away from college in my junior year. In English I would probably test in the middle (my loving wife would say lower) of a group of college freshmen and be stuck in the bone-head class. But I'm willing to look up what I don't know, and I'm willing to take the time necessary to make sure my work is neatly presented to the reader—the first of whom will be an editor who will say yes or no to buying the work.
And all of the above is much easier now, with spell and grammar checker on the computer.
And every day I enjoy writing more than the day before. It continues to come easier—and it's more financially rewarding.
It'll never be perfect.
Writing is not a science, it’s a craft, an art. Two and two in writing doesn’t always add up to four.
I keep learning every day. Who knows? If I do it long enough, maybe I can enter college and not have to take bone-head English! Writers learn by doing, every time they sit down and face the blank page.
You've got a great story. We all do. You have to be willing to take the time to get it on paper in a clear and legible manner and with reasonably good English so the editors read past the first two pages. Even the best of stories—most compelling or exciting or touching—may go unread, and unsold, due to misspellings and typographical errors in the first couple of pages. Many editors, most in fact, justifiably feel that if you are sloppy in your technical skills and presentation, odds are you're sloppy in all other aspects of your writing.
But more about that later.
When I first picked up a pencil and yellow pad, I had little knowledge of spelling or sentence structure. I found a little time, a dictionary, and some harsh critics, and all (mostly Kat) contributed to the eventual sale of my first western novel. My first novel, a historical, lingered on the shelf for many years before I made a buck from it.
The chief excuse for non-achievers in all areas of endeavor is, "I just don't have the time." Horse hocky! We all waste time. We watch T.V. We ride in the car and dream non-productive thoughts. You can write in your mind (and most writers do) long before putting it on paper. You can record on a hand-held tape recorder and transcribe later. Time is no excuse.
Write in the car, at the beach, standing on the stream bank casting for trout.
There's only one way to be a writer, and that's to write. Write two pages—two lousy pages —per day, and in six months you have a 360 page novel.
Like most things we set out to do in this life, luck played a part in my selling. But don't be discouraged if you think of yourself as unlucky. Luck, I've found, is nothing more than the inevitable result of hard work.
The harder you work, the luckier you get.
Now I want to help you get lucky.
It took eight years for lady luck to seek me out. By then, I'd had almost forty years to harden my head. I'd read hundreds of westerns and many more novels of other genres, and I thought I knew how it was done. But I didn't even know the questions yet much less the answers. And for the first six years of the eight years I wrote before I sold, I didn't bother to ask. Form rejection slips told me I wasn't doing it right. I decided it must be a craft, kind of like painting a picture or building a fine saddle, and I decided to learn it. So I went to classes and conferences. Two years after we began that effort, we sold our first novels. Six wasted years!
Kat, who’d begun writing much later than I actually sold six weeks before I did.
I wish I'd had this manual years ago.
The self-satisfaction of seeing your name on the cover of your paperback at the local market or drug store, on the jacket of a hardback in the book store, or on the box of an audio, is well worth the effort—not to speak of the multi-thousand dollar advances and, if you are diligent and keep after your new trade, the continuing royalties. Many times a novel will pay off for many, many years. In some instances, if your reputation grows, you’ll sell reprint rights for much more than your original deal on that same novel.
For twenty years western novels written by a Manhattan dentist sold more copies than any other book save the Holy Bible and McGuffey's readers. Even today, fifty years after his death in 1939, Zane Grey's work sells many, many copies a year. Today, Louis L'Amour dominates a good share of the western novel market—look at the western section of any bookstore or the book rack in any truck stop! L'Amour has sold well over two hundred fifty million books.
Long live the Kings. But Mr. Grey and Mr. L'Amour are gone, and the throne—the western one—is vacant. And there's always room for a good writer in any genre.
Write the great one!
Genres, and consumer taste, can be fickle. They can come and go.
So many poorly represented westerns have appeared on television and movies, it has almost destroyed the genre. Today's contemporary producers and directors continue to try to place 20th Century values, mores, and lifestyles in the 19th Century. They portray children as assertive and mouthy when in that era "a child should be seen and not heard." They try to put women in business at a time when it was commonly believed "a woman's place is in the home." They continue to write men who swear and wear their hats inside in the presence of women, when a man would have been horsewhipped for swearing in front of a woman and the nearest man would have at least reminded him to remove his hat. They write away from all of the things that attract viewers to westerns and historicals. But that's not to say you can't write a great and historically accurate novel featuring a woman who rose to the top of most any profession in the 19th Century—you can, and you can be historically correct. As long as you respect the little things, and as long as you write her as an anomaly, outside of the norm.
Western and historical readers and viewers know the West and know history. They not only read western and historical fiction, but many read and study history—including journals and autobiographies. They know how it was in the West, or wherever and whenever they care to study.
Writers of both novel and film would do well to emulate them—study time and place and write to it, not away from it.
But the western and historical genres are also changing for the better. Women are being written about accurately...strong, proud, women who deserve being admired and copied for the values they portray. The Native American is coming into his own by being accurately chronicled as proud people with values and mores that deserve being written as they were and from a Native America point of view.
And other minorities are finally being represented in westerns and historicals. Accurate writers are discovering that around most any 1870's southwest cattle drive campfire would seldom be ten whites, but rather two blacks, six Hispanics, a Chinese cook and a white—or European, as whites were known in most of the Americas and as they are still known to a good part of the world.
In a Publisher's Weekly article by Dennis E. Showalter entitled Blazing A New Trail, he maintains that "American West themes are making a major comeback. The box-office success of Clint Eastwood's Unforgivenhas made the western a hot Hollywood item."
Even though I will tell you what I feel is the easiest way to get published, and how to "write to" what New York views as the West, there are still great inroads to be made by writing away from these guidelines—it's just that the risk of not getting your work sold is greater. But never write away from good time and place—it's not good writing to do so and it's not good for the profession—unless you’re writing a parody, such as Blazing Saddles.
So much for westerns and historicals.
Romance represents 48% (or more) of the mass market paperback industry. A huge number. Women read 80% of all the fiction written in America and buy romance in huge quantities. If you can write what makes them laugh, makes them cry, and turns them on, you can have a piece of this huge market, and see your romance alongside Kat's and many other fine writers on the nation's bookracks.
L'Amour didn't get his first novel published until he was forty-six. Mine came at forty-seven. Yours may come at seventeen or eighty-seven.
The first criteria for a novelist, as far as I'm concerned, is loving to read. If you enjoy reading mystery, romance, horror, fantasy, science fiction, or westerns, or any other genre, then I suggest you turn your writing talents to the particular genre you love to read. You already know a lot about it—length, structure, basic rules such as a happy ending for a romance. You may not realize you know those things, but you do. And that's one of the reasons you should write what you love to read.
If you love to read novels, chances are you'll love writing them even more.
How else could you sit back, God-like, and become a cavalry general attacking the Cheyenne or a gunslinger walking down the main street of 1880 Dodge City or Tombstone to draw down on the fastest gun in the West? How else can you become a swash-buckling pirate or his petulant captured flame-haired heroine?
And if you don't like the way the action comes down, you can do it again. Writing is a wonderful way to make all those fantastic dreams you had as a youth, or have today, come true—at least on paper.
Dream, and get paid for it.
I've never been one for long, intricate, manuals which tell you every detail necessary to accomplish a goal—although this one continues to grow. I'm impatient. This manual is designed to give you the hard-hitting facts about what and how. The when, why, and where is up to you.
I will also give you a list of reference materials and books that are invaluable—and there are thousands more equally so. After a number of years of collecting, I have most of these mentioned in my own personal library, but all of them and many more may be found in local lending libraries, or may be inter-branched or inter-city borrowed.
Of course, the web is now the ultimate research tool, and no one could have a reference library to match it. But you have to be careful, as not all the information you might find on the web is accurate. Anyone can post.
I've also included a list of weekly, monthly, and bi-monthly magazines that will help you with craft and keep you up on the marketplace. These, too, are available at the library.
You'll also share with me the agony of defeat. In writing, it's called a rejection slip. But sometimes you can use them to your benefit! So if your writing glass is half empty a rejection slip is defeat; if half full, it’s a learning process.
With the exception of a couple of optioned screenplays, every dime I've made writing has been made from westerns, historical romances, historicals, suspense or thrillers, so the meat of this manual is going to center on writing well, not writing any particular genre. Many of the examples are from the western genre, but description from point of view, as an example, is applicable to any genre.
I'll show you how and why the question "How do you get your ideas?" is such a foolish one. History, current events, your everyday life…is replete with novel ideas, for every genre, including science fiction.
Now, sit back, read, then do what you've always wanted to do—write a novel.


  1. Reading was certainly key for me in learning anything about telling a story.

  2. I am not a writer, but I do love to read. I just got started reading this great western called “Legends Lost” by Charlie Mac, it’s all about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It's a great book and I often find myself thinking about how much reading and research the author must have done to create a piece so riveting. But more than that, the love he must have for Westerns and historical fiction himself. You can tell that the western genre is one that he must particularly like and has been reading for a very long time. I think that what and how much a writer actually reads, does wonders for their writing. From learning new writing styles, to dabbling in writing about a topic they have grown to enjoy. I think that's what makes boooks successful, writers putting a piece together that they themselves would want to read and in turn that others like them may want to read. And I agree, reading is definitely the key in learning about telling a story!

  3. Larry,
    This is a great post. SO TRUE. Lots of great points, and I'm so glad you and Kat found your success in writing--that is awesome. One thing I have discovered through teaching different classes and workshops though--there is always one person who will ask, "HOW DO YOU GET AN IDEA?" It always stumps me the minute the question is asked, because I can't imagine NOT having an idea! You're right--it's a foolish question to those of us who have tons of them, and it never occurs to me that there are people who DON'T have an idea. People that want to write a book but don't know what to write about. It really shocks me every time someone asks that. I am going to get this book of yours. It sounds like it's full of good advice, and how to find luck--something we can all use!

  4. Sometimes you just write because its fun. I have read most western books and do love reading a good Western Novel. I recently wrote a Western Fiction Novel, "Legends of the Coyote", because I wanted to write about how the Civil War and the Westward Expansion gave birth to the western gunslinger and how mainly these outlaws became lawmen.