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

Saturday, May 25, 2013

What Do Readers & Authors Want From Each Other?

Things have changed a lot in the publishing industry since my first book was published many years ago. In those days, the author wrote a book and sent it off to a publisher (via an old-fashioned mail box). Many publishers, even the big ones, didn’t require an agent. I sold my first three books to Avon without an agent. There were a lot more publishers back then, too, so the odds of getting published were better. Once you got accepted, the publisher bought your book and they handled everything, including the promotion and publicity. They made sure your book was distributed to bookstores around the country. Authors were really only expected to do booksignings and appear (or speak) at conferences. If they were a big name, the publisher financed a book tour. Authors might appear on radio and TV shows if they felt comfortable with it.  Believe it or not, but many publishers wanted authors to coordinate with them on all promotional plans. They didn’t want us “going rogue.”  I guess they didn’t want authors to do something stupid or tacky that would hinder their sales or make them and the publisher look unprofessional. The author did a few weeks of this “face time” with the readers and then he/she went home, wrote another book, and answered fan mail.

Fast forward to 2013. Authors are expected to do ALL their publicity. They are not only expected to have a website but they’re expected to have thousands and thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook, and they are expected to have an entertaining blog with hundreds of followers. Some agents and editors won’t even consider an author’s work if they don’t see these “built in” readers before they offer a contract. They want to know that the author is going to do a LOT of legwork to sell their book and bring in the bucks. Many serious authors are asking themselves, “When will I ever have time to write another book if I have to keep up all this social networking and do all this promotion?”

So I ask:

What do readers want? Would they just like us to spend our precious time writing another book they can enjoy? Would they be happy meeting us at a conference or a booksigning? Or do readers want to be “friends” with authors on all these social networking sites and know the intimate details of our lives? What does a reader gain or lose from getting to know a great deal about an author?

What do authors want? We all appreciate our readers for we know we’d be nowhere without them. We love hearing from readers who like our books. But how many authors genuinely enjoy spending a good portion of their day social networking? How many would rather spend their time writing another book and leaving the promotion end up to a publisher, interacting with readers only at booksignings, trade shows, and conferences? What does an author gain, or lose, from getting more personal with their readers?

All aspects of the book industry have changed and continue to change. What do you as readers and authors believe are the pros and cons of this new social networking world? Where do you think it will go in the future? What do you want, and expect, from each other now?

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Weird West

I just finished writing a book that, frankly, I'm not sure how to categorize. It’s set in the early 20th century New Mexico and Mexico (1902-1921) and has supernatural elements (Native American mysticism and fantasy). I started looking for similar books and couldn’t find any – exactly – but I did find a sub-genre of the western called the “Weird West.” Apparently this sub-genre has been around for decades, going back to 1935 with the serial, The Phantom Empire. (There might be some even before that so don’t hold me to that date.) This sub-genre is basically any book with a western setting that contains elements of another genre like horror, fantasy, steampunk, Native American mysticism, paranormal, and science fiction.

I hadn’t heard the term before (okay, you might wonder where I’ve been) but I realized I had published books similar to this sub-genre under another sub-genre called “paranormal western romances.” I wrote about ghosts and cursed treasure in Desire’s Treasure (Arizona, 1884); time travel in The Turquoise Sun (Colorado, 1896); and reincarnation and Native American mysticism in Firelight (Colorado and Arizona, 1896). The beauty of the romance book world is that they welcome sub-genres as long as the romance remains center stage.

If you stop to think about it, the American West is the ideal place for supernatural elements. There have always been ghost tales, hauntings, Native American mysticism, and all manner of strange goings-on. Recently we’ve seen in movie form, Cowboys & Aliens (science fiction), Jonah Hex (fantasy/superhero), Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (horror/fantasy), the Wild Wild West (steampunk), and, some years ago, the fantastic surreal High Plains Drifter (supernatural/superhero). In books, a few that come to mind are Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (fantasy), Louis L’Amour’s Haunted Mesa (Native American mysticism), and Peter Brandvold’s Dust of the Damned (horror). The supernatural even appears in country/western music. Remember “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by the Sons of the Pioneers?

Sub-genres aside, the main key to success in any book is great characterization and a plot that makes the reader transcend belief, whether that’s in the real world, the supernatural world, or a combination thereof.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Heroes and Anti-Heroes

One of the authors I grew up reading was Louis L’Amour. In his book, Sackett’s Land, he said, “A man needs heroes. He needs to believe in strength, nobility, and courage.” The heroes in L’Amour’s books all very much met this criteria. You could say that Louis’s heroes were the “white hat” guys, even (if they didn’t wear white hats). They didn’t have vices or demons or even insecurities and doubts. They walked a straight path and they always knew exactly where that path was going. The only time they got side-tracked was if they had to fight the bad guys or help out another good guy. Even the old westerns we used to see on TV in the 50s and 60s (okay, I’m giving away my age here), were all about the quintessential hero.

Then something happened. The anti-hero emerged. He was the hero who had goodness deep in his soul but he wasn’t perfect. He battled right and wrong and stepped over the line frequently because the line wasn’t always clear.  He had vices and demons, and he’d made his share of mistakes in his life. As a matter of fact, he was still making mistakes and trying to overcome those vices and demons. He didn’t wear a white hat. He probably didn’t even own one. He was the imperfect guy all of us imperfect people could relate to. He was the bad boy the ladies fell in love with because they thought they could reform him. Some didn’t even care if they accomplished that; they just wanted him because he stirred their blood in a way the “straight and narrow” guy couldn’t.

In today’s literature and films, the anti-hero is predominant. And not just westerns, of course. But, as westerns go, he has appeared in such western movies as Unforgiven and Lonesome Dove. The TV series Justified and Longmire have wonderful anti-heroes. I’ve found first-hand this to be true with my own books. The stories with the flawed heroes are the ones the readers have liked the most: Seth Sackett in Came A Stranger; Nathaniel Brannigan in Desire’s Treasure; Jim Rider in Mountain Ecstasy. Tyler Chanson in Tyler’s Woman; Keane Trevalyan in The Turquoise Sun; and Dev Summers in The Last Rodeo. They’re all men who have vices, demons, pasts that haunt them, or they have a little (or a lot) of that bad boy in their personality.

I’ll admit, I have an easier time making my men imperfect than I do my women, but it’s just as important for our women who have a few of their own inner struggles, dark pasts, secrets, and vices. Things they need to face or overcome in the course of our stories--or at least be dealing with successfully. So, make a conscious effort to bring imperfection into your characters. Anti-heroes and heroines are more fun to write about. And they are definitely what readers nowadays want in their characters.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Horse Gaits and Riding/Writing Blunders

I’ve read books by authors who attempt to write about horses but have clearly never been on one. For example, one book that made a real faux pas was a romance novel I read years ago where the hero and heroine had intercourse (and I’m not talking about conversation) on a galloping horse. Yikes! Maybe there should have been a warning footnote in the book that said: Stunts performed by professionals. Don't try this at home. If you’ve ever been on a galloping horse you know it’s hard enough just to stay on. It’s not like sitting in a rocking chair. I seriously doubt there's even a "professional" who could pull this one off.

Another thing I see a lot are authors who have a character gallop a horse for miles and miles, maybe even all day, oftentimes over rough terrain like sagebrush hills. Rider/Writer Beware: there are rocks and badger holes hidden in that sagebrush. Unless you want to break your horse's leg and maybe your own neck when the horse flips over on you, I wouldn't advise a flat-out gallop in this terrain--unless Indians are after you, of course. Plus, this is not an easy gait for either horse or rider to sustain for that length of time. Even the pony express boys (who were young and very tough) had to change horses every 10-15 miles at relay stations and rode 75 miles on their “workday” before resting at a home station where another rider took the next relay. And we've all heard of cowboys racing after stampeding cattle in the middle of night. They actually did this, but many of them were trampled to death when their horses went down. So be sensible. If you do have your character do some great feat, acknowledge the dangers and the problems that go with it.

Now for a quick run-down of the standard four gaits, plus a few less common ones.

Gait – A distinctive movement of the feet and legs that determines a horse’s speed. A horse has four common gaits–walk, trot, canter, gallop.

Walk – A natural, slow gait of four beats. Each foot leaves and strikes the ground at separate intervals. An average speed is 4 miles per hour but will vary depending on the individual horse, breed, terrain, and even the rider.

Trot – A two-beat diagonal gait. The front foot and opposite hind foot take off together and strike the ground simultaneously. All four feet are off the ground at the same time for a brief moment. This gait can be rough on the rider if the horse doesn’t have a light, springy step. Rising in the stirrups in time to the beats makes it less jarring for the rider. On the first beat, riders raise their body slightly by pushing their feet down on the stirrups. They come down in the saddle on the second beat and then go right up again. This is called posting.

Gallop – An all-out run. The fastest speed for a horse. A leaping and bounding motion. A fast, three-beat gait during which two diagonal legs are paired and strike the ground together between the successive beats of the other two unpaired legs. All four feet are off the ground for a brief interval. Propulsion is chiefly in the hindquarters, but the forequarters sustain tremendous jar as the horse lands. A rider will usually lean out over the horse’s neck for balance with this top speed.

Canter – Sometimes called a lope. A slow, three-beat rhythmic gait. On the first beat, one forefoot strikes the ground. Then the other forefoot and opposite hind leg hit the ground together. On the third beat, the other hind foot strikes the ground. It is comfortable for the rider and can be sustained for long distances. A rider will usually lean back in the saddle for this  “rolling” gait. The speed, if sustained, would be 10-12 mph, again depending on the factors mentioned above.

Other Gaits:

Pace – A fast two-beat gait in which the front and hind feet on the same side start and stop simultaneously. The feet rise just above the ground level. All four feet are off the ground for a split second and the horse appears to float. Faster than a trot but slower than a gallop. It has a rolling type of motion. Not suitable for travel in mud or snow. A smooth, hard footing is better for this gait to be decently executed.

Fox Trot – A low, short, broken type of trot in which the head usually nods. The horse brings each hind foot to the ground an instant before the diagonal forefoot. A slow gait.

Running Walk – A slow, four-beat gait, between a walk and rack. The hind foot oversteps the front foot from 2 or 3 to as many as 18 inches, giving the motion a smooth, gliding effect. The horse’s head will bob or nod. This is easy on both horse and rider. An all-day working gait at a speed of 6 to 8 mph.

Rack – A fast, showy, unnatural, four-beat gait. Each foot strikes the ground separately at equal intervals. It is also known as the “single foot.” It is easy on the rider, hard on the horse. Popular in the show ring.

Traverse – Also known as the “side step.” It is a lateral movement of the animal without forward or backward movement. Often helps a rider in opening or closing gates, lining up horses in the show ring, and taking position in a mounted drill or posse.

In conclusion: If you are an author who wants realism in any story involving a horse, don't make the mistake of assuming riding is like sitting in a rocking chair just because some people make it appear that effortless. At the very least, find someone who has a gentle horse who will let you ride it around inside a corral. You will immediately understand the amount of skill it takes to ride well, and you'll walk away with a greater appreciation for those who have mastered it. You'll also readily understand what would require a stunt rider to perform.

Image courtesy of Naypong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net - "White and Black Horses Running"