"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Man Who Rode Midnight

I first discovered western writer Elmer Kelton around 1989 when I bought his book, The Man Who Rode Midnight. I became an instant fan and went on to read The Time It Never Rained, The Good Old Boys, The Day the Cowboys Quit, and Cloudy in the West, just to name a few. I'd always enjoyed Louis L'Amour westerns, but Elmer brought something new to the genre. His stories were real, his characters were real. They were everyday people with flaws, even his heroes. Having been around ranching, ranchers, cowboys, and country people all my life, I could fully relate to his people. They reminded me of my dad, my uncles, my neighbors, my grandparents. I even saw a little of myself in his characters from time to time. He wrote what he knew, and he wrote it so damn well.

Elmer was every bit as real and down to earth as the fictional people he wrote about (I wouldn't be surprised if many of them were fictional only in name to protect the innocent, and not-so-innocent). I met Elmer at a Western Writers conference right after I'd read The Man Who Rode Midnight. Even though I, too, was a published author, I had to muster the courage to introduce myself and tell him how much I enjoyed his book. To my relief, he was humble and polite. We didn't talk long about writing. He and my husband soon launched into a conversation about ranching that went on for a considerable length of time.

Ten years later, it was with trepidation again that I summoned courage to ask him if he would read my historical saga, Raveled Ends of Sky for a possible endorsement. I thought for sure he'd tell me he was too busy–after all, every western author out there was probably asking him for the same favor, and I knew he had book deadlines. But he kindly consented. I can tell you, I was nearly as proud of his endorsement on the front cover of my book as I was my book.

Voted Best Western Author of All Time, Elmer passed away on August 22nd at the age of 83. He wrote over forty books. He was the recipient of seven Spur awards and the Saddleman Award for Lifetime Achievement from Western Writers of America. He also received four Wrangler awards from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. His death will be deeply felt by his family, friends, and his many, many fans. I feel fortunate to have crossed his path, if even for a moment, and to have had his stories touch my life.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Full Circle

After months of research, plotting, writing, and revising, you decide that your book is finished. It's hard to let that baby go because it's your instinct to keep working on it, perfecting it even more. It's near and dear to you. You love your characters. It's the book of your heart.

Through doubt, discouragement, euphoria, excitement, lack of sleep, and maybe even moments of depression, you have persevered. You have accomplished what many have talked about doing, or attempted to do, but haven't actually done. You look at the stack of paper on your desk that represents all your hard work and you're in awe. "I wrote all that," you might say. "I actually wrote a book. And it ain't half bad." At least you hope.

You bask in your accomplishment because you don't want to take the next frightening step: putting it out there for agents to scrutinize and maybe reject. So you delay the inevitable. You clean and dust and polish your office space. You organize the mess of folders holding research and put away the books teetering in precarious stacks all over the floor and around your desk. You weed through all the notebooks containing notes and the piles of loose papers containing more notes, random thoughts, and brainstorming moments. You don't need them now. The book is done.

You sit in your chair. You feel lost. What are you going to do now? Oh, yeah, the query letters. But, no, what are you really going to do? There was that idea, that one you had a couple of months ago. Dang, you wrote some notes. Where are they? You dig through the stacks of neatly organized papers and folders and scatter them all over the place again in your excitement. Aha! At last you find them. You sit down and your brain begins to thrum with plot possibilities. New characters leap to mind. Dialogue writes itself in your head.

"I'm crazy," you mumble. "A real glutton for punishment. Shouldn't I give myself a break? Do I really want to do this again?

You sit down at your computer and start to type, rapidly. Of course you want to do it again. You're a writer.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Sky Overhead, aka Redundancies

Another thing to watch for in your final draft is redundancies, the "unnecessary repetition of meaning*." Some examples are: stood up, sit down, murmured softly. (*From The Handbook of Good English by Edward D. Johnson.)

Redundancy also means repeating information throughout the book. As a reader, I don't want to be told the same information on page 10, 25, 75, and 150. As a writer, I know that in a 400-page book, it can be difficult to remember what you wrote a month ago, or last year, depending on how long you've been working on your book. By the time you've gone through your manuscript several times, it's even harder. You won't know for sure if you wrote the same thing several times, or if you just read it too many times. You might have to ask a fellow writer to offer a fresh set of eyes.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

More Polish, Please

In following up on a previous blog about passive voice, I'd like to mention a few other passive voice words and useless words to watch for besides "was" and "were". Keep an eye out for excessive use of the following words: is, are, felt, look, appear, and seem. Change these to active voice when possible.

Many words are expendable. These include qualifiers such as very, rather, quite, really, finally, even, and just. Do a search in your document for these. Eliminate them when possible.

Another word that is often expendable is "that," but check out the rules on this one because its usage can be confusing.

"And" and "but" are not necessary when used at the beginning of sentences, unless you need them for emphasis. Again, use this structure in moderation.

"Well," is another one that you will want to watch for at the beginning of dialogue. "Well, I guess I'll go." Unless you want to show that a person uses this word as part of their speech pattern, or you need it there for a specific emphasis, it can be removed.

Many adverbs (the "ly" words) can be removed, especially those used in dialog, such as "You poor child," he said pityingly. These will clutter your writing if used in excess.

As for adjectives, Mark Twain is quoted as saying, "If you can ever can an adjective, kill it."

As with all fiction writing, you need to know the rules to break them.

And, finally, do as I say, not as I do!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Spit Shine

Revisions, edits--call them what you will--they are nothing more than putting the spit shine on your final manuscript. There are a lot of things to watch for during your final spit shine. You might as well start with the easy stuff, and one of the first things to check for is passive voice. I'll admit that I just hate it when members of critique groups get completely anal about the word "was." This is probably my biggest pet peeve. Okay, so it's passive. But it is also part of the English language and sometimes you have to use it. However, in all honesty, sometimes you don't.

In our first draft(s) we often are focused on just getting the story down and so we throw in a lot of passive voice as we rush to the finish. Let's look at a couple of examples of how you can turn the passive voice into an active one. And, in case you're wondering why we do this, it's because active voice puts the reader more firmly in the story and keeps him there.

Here are some examples that aren't the best in the world, but you get the idea.

Bill and Mike were lounging in their chairs by the river's edge.
Bill and Mike lounged in their chairs by the river's edge.

The horse was skittish, not wanting to follow the trail.
The skittish horse did not want to follow the trail. or The skittish horse refused to follow the trail.

Harris Milton was waiting next to his plane, anxious to leave for his next job.
Harris Milton waited next to his plane, anxious to leave for his next job.

Okay, so go search out "was" in your document and get creative using active voice. I'll post a few more revision/editing suggestions on upcoming blogs.