Tuesday, July 23, 2013
AM I GOAT ENOUGH? BY JEREMY L.C. JONES
For many years, before the Internet made communicating with other writers so much easier, I depended on books about writing for companionship, camaraderie, and conversations on lonely road that is writing.
I really got hooked between college and graduate school, when I was starved for craft talk. Fortunately, I was savvy enough not to believe everything I read and greedy enough to buy three and four books at a time, so that I became immediately aware that no single book or individual author had the final word on any one subject.
During the summer of 2001 while helping my father recover from a traumatic brain injury, I gorged myself on just about every title published by Writer's Digest Books. I crammed book after book onto my shelves, under-lined furiously, and day-dreamed for hours, weighing Bradbury against Maas, Kress against Bell.
At first, I bought books by writers I admired. Then I bought books by topic--character, plot, dialogue--and then by genre--fiction, poetry, and drama, as well as mystery, romance, fantasy and sci fi. Soon, I acquired indiscriminately any book about any aspect of writing. And they kept me company, inspired and informed me.
But something was missing.
I wanted to read about writing Westerns.
There are, are, very few books on how to write a Western novel, especially compared to the number of books on writing mysteries, thrillers, or romances. Sure, back then, there was Matt Braun’s How to Write Western Novels (Writer’s Digest Books, 1988) but that had already fallen out of print. (Braun has since repackaged it as How to Write Novels that $ell, stripping away the Western focus.)
These days, there just aren’t that many books on writing Westerns. There are books by writers known for their Westerns who also sling ink in other genres, such Terry Burns’ A Writer's Survival Guide To Publication (Port Yonder Press, 2010), Loren D. Estleman's now out-of-print Writing the Popular Novel: A Comprehensive Guide to Crafting Fiction That Sells (F+W Media, 2004), L. J. Martin’s Write Compelling Fiction: Tricks to the Writing Trade (Wolfpack Publishing, 2011), and Jory Sherman’s Master Course in Writing (High Hill Press, 2011).
You also can bulk up the numbers a little by including manuals for writing historical fiction. James Alexander Thom’s exceptional The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction (F+W Media, 2010) comes readily to mind.
But, right now, in the heat of an e-book boom that has been very kind to the Western, there are three guides explicitly about (as Dusty Richards puts it) “writing the West”:
• Write a Western in 30 Days, by Nik Morton (Compass Books, 2013)
• Writing Westerns: How to Craft a Novel that Evokes the Spirit of the West, by Michael Newton (F+W Media, 2012)
• Writing the West with Dusty Richards, by Dusty Richards (High Hill Press, 2010)
Morton, Newton, and Richards take different approaches. Richards’ book is a collection of essays written by him and six other writers. He reveals the “little details that make the difference and bring your book to life.” Newton “examines what a Western is, while teaching you how to “research and write on.” Accordingly, he adds that research, talent, and imagination are the keys to writing a successful novel.” Morton emphasizes a “plot-plan” and adds a time limit of 30 days. By days, he means eight not necessarily continuous hours of work time.
Individually or added up, these three how to guides could serve not so much as a road map to writing a novel but as a conversation that might lead to your writing a Western.
Each of these authors agrees, explicitly or implicitly, that his way of writing a western isn’t the only way.
Or as Morton puts it, “There’s no right way to write a novel. There are plenty of wrong ways, of course.”
There’s no right way to write a novel. There are many.
How to books offer advice which, ultimately, is about timing, about re-considering your own perspective and being open to another writer's point of view.
As I read about writing, each bit of advice or statement about craft forces me to respond—to carry on a conversation in my head, to engage in a dialogue with the author of the book. I must choose to accept, to ignore, and to evaluate in some way or another.
Just as no two of my friends see the world in the same way, no two writers see the craft of writing in the same way. Agreement can be dull. Talking to yourself in the echo chamber of your mind can be doubly dull. Discussion, ambivalence, disagreement are far more interesting than everyone nodding and saying, "Yes, yes, that is the way, the only way."
I've learned to weigh each bit of advice or method, to experiment with and tweak various approaches. And, in my humble opinion, the best books on writing explicitly encourage you to take everything with a grain of salt.
If Mike Newton contradicts Nik Morton or Dusty Richards contradicts Jory Sherman, I'm not confused, I'm excited. Hot dang!
If Jory Sherman tells me to close my eyes, imagine a scene, and then just write it without worrying where I am headed, then I'm going to do it.
If Nik Morton warns me to sketch out a plot-plan before I start actually writing that first chapter, then I'm going to do that, too.
If Dusty Richards tells me to think of the Western in quarters--“your main POV character is lost,” “your hero is an orphan,” “he becomes an emerging hero,” and “he becomes a hero/martyr”--guess what? I'm going to try that, too.
Why wouldn't I? I respect these writers. I love their fiction. Why wouldn't I try to learn as much as I can from them?
At times in my life it has been easier to sit alone in a room and not write—to stare at a blank screen or blank page and not get started. It’s been easier to put off the novel, to toss out the half-written short story, to give up. My antidote for that has been to read books about writing.
“Strive for the best,” says Richards, “and you will find publication—if you persist like a brush-eating Billy goat.”
The first time I read those lines from Richards, I moved forward. I wrote. I persisted. I researched and outlined a novel. Richards pointed me in the direction of the brush and encouraged me to eat.
In Master Course in Writing, the great Jory Sherman calls writing “a disease,” a “magical journey,” and an addiction. These metaphors force me--and, perhaps, you--to reevaluate my chosen path, to reconsider the act of writing.
“I know that my words will open doors into your own imagination and that you will never again fear the sight of a blank sheet of paper,” writes Sherman. “You will want to fill it with words, words that come from your own heart and mind.”
Sherman promises doors swinging wide as I follow his writing exercises, and behind many of those doors I know that I will find more questions than answers. I want to open those doors. I want to find more questions, not answers.
I know a lot of writers who despise books about writing. I’ve heard people say that it’s better to write than talk or read about writing.
Me? I love the companionship, the camaraderie, the inspiration, and perhaps most of all I love the questions I am forced to ask of myself. Small questions. Big questions. Huge questions.
Questions like: Am I goat enough? Do I have the self-discipline to be a fearless, disease-ridden Billy goat on a magical, brush-eating journey? Do you? Do any of us?
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and lecturer living in his wife's hometown in South Carolina. He teaches part-time at Wofford College, volunteers at the Carolina Poodle Rescue's dog sanctuary, and sends Troy D. Smith regular (and often impatient) e-mails asking when the next Ford Fargo book will be available for Nook. The son of a son of a son of teachers, Jones is the founder of Living Words, a creative writing programs for seniors with dementia, and of Shared Worlds, a writing and world-building camp for teenagers. If he can ever get Ford Fargo on the phone, he's going to pitch a Western writing program. When he met Robert Randisi for the first time he "drooled on his sleeve," as Marthayn put it, and he still tells people he ate a steak with the Gunsmith. He is currently working on a series of stories for High Noon Press about a character created by one of his literary heroes, Frank Roderus. Over the coming months Jones will review books on writing written by members of the Western Fictioneers, starting with Nik Morton's Write a Western in 30 Days.