One Bite at a Time




Friday, August 18, 2017

Movies Since Last Time

I am enjoying this Summer of Western Research™ even more than I thought I would.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) A disappointment. I’d seen it before but didn’t remember
anything beyond the early sequence where Billy (a miscast Kris Kristofferson) escapes from jail. There’s a reason for that. The film lacks any definite narrative direction, a pursuit story that meanders through episodes alternating between Garrett (James Coburn) and Billy until they end up at the same place. I’ve read that director Sam Peckinpah was pretty much incoherent drunk through most of the production. It shows. (In case you’re wondering, we saw the 2005 Special Edition Blu-Ray, so the cuts that ruined the film’s original release should not have been a problem. It’s just not very good.)

The Magnificent Seven (1960) Shows its age a little, but once it gets going it’s still as
entertaining a Western as you’ll find. It likely begins the turning away from the idealized horse operas with its frank examination of a gunman’s life, a movement that picks up speed with Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country and the spaghetti Westerns until Peckinpah breaks the mold forever with The Wild Bunch. Good as it is, it has what has to be the single worst cut for time of any movie I’ve ever seen, when The Seven start to work their way into the hills to take out three snipers then magically appear in town with the snipers’ guns. The entire missing scene is explained away with “You got them?” I don’t know if the sequence was never filmed or cut for length. Either way, it should have been handled better. Still, among the Top Ten Westerns ever.

Hombre (1967) A masterpiece, based on what might well be Elmore Leonard’s best book. I don’t just mean his best Western; his best book, period. (If you haven’t read it, get busy. It’s
as fine a piece of taut storytelling as you’ll ever read, with nary a wasted word.) I was struck this time by how close this falls in Paul Newman’s body of work to 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and how there can’t be two characters more different than Butch and John Russell. Newman’s gift as an actor was how he never seemed to be acting. The entire cast provides outstanding work, and this may be Richard Boone’s best performance. Screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. kept much of Leonard’s dialog and captured the tone perfectly. Hombre never tries to be more than it is, and it’s a lot. There have been Westerns as good, but I can’t think of any better.

The Long Riders (1980) Never seen this one before, in part because I thought it was a
Hollywood gimmick to have sets of brothers (Keach, Carradine, Quaid, Guest) play brothers (James, Younger, Miller, Ford). I should have paid better attention. The casting was organic, stemming from the Keach brothers wanting to play the Jameses, talking to David Carradine about it and him thinking his bros could play the Youngers and it grew from there. An outstanding example of minimalist storytelling as Bill Bryden and Steven Smith team with Stacy and James Keach plus director Walter Hill to tell you everything you need to know without wasting time on exposition. The action scenes ring true and the violence appears as painful as it must have been. Well worth the time as an entertainment, and just as much as a way for storytellers to see how to get in and out quickly without leaving anything behind.

Open Range (2003) Hard to believe people were once worried whether Robert Duvall could play a cowboy. Here he’s Boss Spearman, one of the last of the free range cattlemen, who
grazes his herd over unclaimed ground across the West with the help of his small crew led by Charlie Waite (Kevin Costner). Costner was the driving force, producing, directing, and even putting up his own money, though he insisted Duvall get top billing and says the film might not have been made had Duval not agreed to do it. Pitch perfect from stem to stern, including outstanding performances by Annette Bening as Charlie’s awkward love interest and a pre-Dumbledore Michael Gambon as the evil cattle baron who runs the town. I don’t see it often listed as among the great Westerns, but it should be.

Appaloosa (2008) Here’s another one that should be right up there, Ed Harris’s adaptation
of Robert B. Parker’s first Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch Western. Harris directed and co-wrote the screenplay in a faithful adaptation of Parker’s book, about which I’ll have more to say in a couple of weeks. Harris and Viggo Mortensen play a pair of traveling lawmen who will go to any town that wants to clean itself up so long as the town agrees to their conditions. The basic story is a clever variation of a love triangle, with Harris’s Cole becoming enamored of newly-arrived widow Allie French (Renee Zellweger), whose efforts to play Cole and Hitch against each other spur the core friction in the story. Well told, well acted, faithful to the original material as well as the period in history, this is another that deserves more attention than it seems to get.




Monday, August 14, 2017

A Conversation With Austin Camacho

Austin Camacho is one of those Renaissance men you keep hearing about, except likable. Austin is the author of the Hannibal Jones detective stories as well as the Stark and O’Brien thrillers, as well as a standalone thriller, Beyond Blue. He’s also the founder of Intrigue Publishing, and, in his copious free time, founder and organizer of the Creatures, Crime, and Creativity Conference held each year in Columbia MD. Austin gave a memorable talk at this year’s Gaithersburg Book Festival that did what all good talks should do: provided me more of an impetus to think of additional questions than providing pat answers. He was kind enough to sit down with me to follow up on his lecture and talk turned naturally to this year’s C3 conference.

One Bite at a Time: I could try to describe the talk you gave at this year’s Gaithersburg Book Festival about the dearth of African-American private eyes in fiction but that would be dumb, since it’s your topic. Catch the readers up for us and we’ll go from there.
Austin Camacho: Sure. I write hard-boiled detective fiction, which I think has always been a window into American society. In my books I show how race is a part of that social structure. In the Black community, crime is organized differently, violence grows from different motivations and racial tension is the source of much real hostility. I talked about how the characters are different and offered some tips for White writers to create good Black characters. I mixed in a little history too, since there have been very very few black private eyes in fiction. 

OBAAT: That’s something I think too often gets overlooked, that there are so few black PIs. Why do you think that is?
AC: I think there are several factors at play here. First, I fear that most African American fiction writers are writing for a Black audience, and they think their community has no interest in private eye stories. 

Second, a great number of African American writers seem to feel their work needs to be morally superior or needs to teach some great lesson. That fiction should be uplifting and not just be for simple fun. Personally I think both those reasons are specious. But then, we're sailing toward a world where the term "The Black Community" is becoming obsolete.

Also, I think it's a self-fulfilling prophesy. Black writers think this is stuff Black people just don't do. You'd be just as hard-pressed to find Black cozy mysteries (like there are no old, black female busy-bodies) or books about Black scientists or pilots or medical dramas built around a Black surgeon. Writers just don't think of African Americans in certain roles. This part I think is tragic. 

OBAAT: Great point about some writers—of any background—who may feel their work needs to be “morally superior.” I’ve long believe that for any literature to be effective, it first has to be entertaining on some level, or the author is mostly writing for people who already know everything he or she has to tell them. Walter Mosely and Chester Himes come to mind for me. I enjoy reading them both, yet they got me to thinking about things—either in 50s LA or Harlem—a country white boy would never have thought of on his own, or felt as if it were being shoved down my throat if they weren’t such great stories first. You mentioned the “uplifting and not just be for simple fun” arguments are specious. I agree and feel there’s a lot of ground to be covered between “entertaining” and ”frivolous” or “exploitative.” There should be a niche there. Do you agree? (He said with a smile toward an author he sees doing an admirable job of trying to fill it.)
AC: Of course. You and I write to entertain, but for a story to hold readers of above-average intellect, they can't simply be frivolous. Our readers want heroes and villains of some depth. And crime fiction leads us, inexorably, into exploring the very nature of good and evil. Building interesting characters forces you to explore human nature. Mystery is about motive, so we end up talking about why people do the things they do. So, the space you are talking about is like an enjoyable meal. There will always be McDonald's and some will always choose the expensive French restaurant but I choose to be more the Red Lobster: fun but with some substance.

OBAAT: I have to confess that when I think of black PI writers I come up with you and Gary Phillips. (Walter Mosely doesn’t quite qualify, as Easy Rawlins isn’t really a PI.) Am I just woefully ignorant—in which case please feel free to enlighten me—or is there a disproportionate dearth of black PI writers?
AC:  We are few and far between, and those who write PIs don't get nearly as much attention as they deserve. So yes, disproportionate dearth is a good way to put it. but if you've read Gary Phillips' Monk series you know he's as good as anybody out there. Ernest. Tidyman  actually dropped seven Shaft novels in the 70s and they're all better than the movies. I can think of maybe a half dozen more if you don't count Alexander McCall-Smith (which I don't.) If I was gonna recommend one (not counting Gary of course) it would be  P.J. Parrish (actually the pen name of two sisters.) Their character Louis Kincaid is a biracial private detective like my Hannibal Jones, only set in Mississippi. 

OBAAT: There has been an active discussion in recent years among Canadian writers about the subject of cultural appropriation when white Canadians write about First Nation characters. Do you think white American PI writers have a similar situation to consider should they chose to write a black PI?
AC: Naah. White kids getting cornrows and calling each other nigga, that’s cultural appropriation. Fiction writing is a whole different thing. I write rednecks, Italian immigrants and neo-nazis from time to time. We write people who are not like us for two reasons: to help us understand them better, and to help our readers understand them better. Trying to BE something you're not, stealing our music, our slang and our dress style - that might be appropriating someone else's culture. Writing those characters is only wrong if you're inaccurate.

OBAAT: You’re the founder and organizer of the Creatures, Crime, and Creativity
Conference. One of the things that struck me the first time I went to a C3 conference is the level of diversity among the attendees. I’m sure part of that has to do with C3 being a more regional conference in the DC/Baltimore area, but that doesn’t account for all of it. C3 is a cross-genre conference. Did you deliberately set out to appeal to a more diverse audience, or was that a felicitous surprise?
AC: Oh, we definitely worked at it! Did you know there's a whole Black Science Fiction Society? When I find Black sci-fi, fantasy, or mystery writers they're usually at all-Black events. I ask them why they don't want whites to read their stories and they usually say something like, "they don't want to." Those I've convinced to attend the C3 Con have had their eyes opened. I don't think the average reader even cares what the writer looks like. And if they'll accept Lincoln Rhyme and Alex Cross, why wouldn't they accept black character written by black people? In the sci-fi arena they accept blue people, green people, people with six arms. Why would a black face bother them?

I have to bring up Eric Jerome Dickey - a New York Times best-selling author who writes, among other things, a thriller series about a hit man names Gideon. When I told him he belonged at Thrillerfest with the rest of the thriller authors of his stature his response was, "No, those aren't my people. Why do I want to hang out with them?" When I said, "To find a broader audience for your work" he waved me off. I was more angry than disappointed. 

OBAAT: Dickey’s is an attitude that’s refreshingly absent at C3. I read very little but crime and non-fiction generally and found myself having a great time talking to writers and readers of all different backgrounds and tastes. There are a couple of things I find at C3 that lend themselves to this uniquely: the communal meals and the late afternoon signing hours. Everyone sits and talks with everybody else and the whole thing just shows how much in common there is among everyone for whom books are an important element of life.
AC: I feel this is one of the most important features of the C3 Con. I find it puts the "big names" more at ease to sit at the table with the gang rather than being besieged by fans or other writers only at designated times. I remember Reed Farrel Coleman saying "This is my tribe." Ditto everyone at the book signing: first-timers, self-published, old hands, best sellers, and unknowns. All get to be just "writers." We've had a lot of positive feedback on both aspects of the Con

OBAAT: I was jazzed to learn Peter Blauner and Jonathan Maberry are this year’s keynotes, with my buddy David Swinson and Debbie Mack as the prime locals. I also see Jeffery Deaver will give a talk about writing from soup to nuts, and Michaela Hamilton, Executive Editor at Kensington, will give an “inside baseball” presentation. How are you able to so consistently pull together such high-level professionals for a conference so young?
AC: This is entirely due to networking at other Cons. I'm totally freaked out that some people who run these events don't attend anyone else's. Many of our past keynote speakers I met at Thrillerfest or Bouchercon or Love is Murder or the Philadelphia Writers Con or ... you get the idea. I chat with someone I admire and I (or my lovely wife Dee) will say, "Clearly you like attending these things. Have you heard about ours?" That's how I got Deaver, and Dee got Heather Graham.

The other trick is to treat the keynotes right: nice hotel room, pick them up from the airport, ask if they want to participate in different things, invite their spouse or partner to join us... just treat them with the respect they deserve, and make sure the other attendees do, too. While I met Maberry at the Philly Con, we have Peter Blauner because I asked Reed Farrel Coleman who'd be good. He didn't just nominate Blauner, he called his pal and said, "This is one you want to do. These guys are cool!" 

One other point - I've learned they often get bored at other Cons. Every keynote has said, "Can you keep me busy the whole weekend, please? Put me on panels, let me do presentations, I don't want to come all the way there to stare at the wall all day." So we put them to work. :-)


OBAAT: I had planned on a brief plug for this year’s Creatures, Crime, and Creativity Conference in Columbia MD September 8 – 10, but I can’t come up with anything better than Reed Farrel Coleman’s comment to Peter Blauner. Here’s the link for more information. If I don’t see you there it’s your own fault.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Twenty Questions With Beau Johnson

Beau Johnson is from Brantford, Ontario and has been getting raw with readers on both sides of the border in such publications as Out of the Gutter Online, Shotgun Honey, Spelk, HST, and the Molotov Cocktail. His first published collection, A Better Kind of Hate, drops August 14 from Down and Out Books..
                                
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about A Better Kind of Hate.
Beau Johnson: A Better Kind of Hate is a no-holds-barred collection of feel-good
adventures about one very special boy and his magical dog! No, I kid. It's a collection of what bad people do and how other individuals will no longer accept or put up with what none of us should have to. 

OBAAT: Did you write these intending them to be a collection, or is this more of a compilation of stories published elsewhere first?
BJ: These stories were never written with the intent of being collected. Once that was thrown to the wind, then yes, more stories where written precisely for this collection. New content, as it were.

OBAAT: Understanding he’s not the sole protagonist in the collection, but Bishop Rider is the engine for multiple stories here. Where did he come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
BJ: Ha! I'm pretty far removed from Bishop Rider. He's combination of many things, but anger is the thing which drives him most. Call him Frank Castle. Call him Charles Bronson. Call him a man who is trying to save himself by saving others.

OBAAT: Many anthologies have a unifying theme. Do you have one in mind here, or is the unifying point the fact that you wrote all the stories?
BJ: I never thought about theme until Joe Clifford mentioned this: Whether showcasing Rider or another flawed hero, Johnson operates in shades of gray, where sometimes all it takes is for a bad man to kill a worse one. I like that. Pretty much puts the whole book into perspective theme-wise. I can't thank him enough.

OBAAT: How did A Better Kind of Hate end up with Down & Out?
BJ: Tom Pitts. Tom Pitts. Tom Pitts. As I have said more than once, he put the bug in my ear. After a false start with another publisher, Tom again swooped in to save the day. He suggested I approach Eric Campbell at Down and Out. Low and behold, the rest is me still dancing as we speak.

OBAAT: We agree: Tom Pitts is the goods. As good a person as he is a writer, and his writing kicks ass. How do you know Tom?
BJ: I met Tom about five or six years ago through Joe Clifford and Out of the Gutter Online. Joe was the editor of the Flash Fiction section then, and I believe Tom became co-editor about the time I first started sending out submissions. For truth, I believe it was Tom's doing that got one of my earlier pieces for Out of the Gutter, “A Patient Man,” accepted for publication. Joe was on the fence about it if memory serves, and asked if he could have bit more time to let this new guy have a look. Lo and behold, an acceptance was born. That was the start of me having Tom Pitts in my corner. I think Henry Rollins should play him in the movie.

OBAAT: Besides the friendships with Tom Pitts and Joe Clifford, you and I share another connection: Down and Out Books. Tell us what it’s like working with Eric and Lance and the whole extended family.
BJ: It. Has. Been. Awesome! Those guys are so great, so professional. Every question I have had has been answered. Every thought responded to. And don't even get me started on how they cleaned up the inside of A Better Kind of Hate. I don't know what it is, but me and semi colons, we are going to come to blows one day!

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
BJ: I always liked English better than math. Maybe that was it. I can't say for sure though. What I can tell you is I have always liked to write but life got in the way for many of the years where I did not write. Which is fine. I'd have it no other way. But when I got back to it...man, it is a feeling like no other.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
BJ: Crime fiction, of course. Anything King. I am also enjoying his son, Joe Hill. I dig Christopher Farnsworth as well, he of the President's Vampire. Ryan Sayles of the Richard Dean Buckner series. There is Marietta Miles, Paul D. Brazill, Eric Beetner, and still there is more. Too many to name.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? 
BJ: Pants. Nothing but pants.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
BJ: Great question. I'm something of an in-between kind of writer. Put it down, fix it up. If I have to stop, I sometimes go back to the beginning when I start up again, fixing as I go until I'm at the spot I finished at and then go on from there. Once that is done, once I think the story is mostly done, I revise it 10-15 times. Easy. I then let it sit a couple of weeks and stew. Complete, I give it a once over and then send it to my brother or sister and they take a [look] for any kind of typos I more than likely missed. 

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
BJ: Stephen King. No question. I'm not even remotely in his orbit but he is the guy who got me hooked. I liked Joss Whedon a lot. Vince Gilligan. Garth Ennis.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
BJ: I know I sound like a broken record, but King. The Dark Tower specifically. I love how it winds through almost every aspect of his work. I love that he never knew this was happening from the beginning. I love the moment I realized it was.

OBAAT: I sense an affection for the work of Stephen King. What is about his writing that appeals to you so strongly?
BJ: Hmm. How do I put this into words? It's not just his writing, because it is, but it the seeds he left me, there when I began to read him. There I was, nose deep into Eyes of the Dragon, minding no one's business but my own, and I come to realize the wizard of that book, the Big Bad, is none other than Randall Flagg, the man in black himself. Yup, pretty sure my head went and tried to explode when that particular puzzle piece feel into place. Like so many before me, Stephen King has had me ever since.

OBAAT: Have you read half-memoir/half-how-to-manual On Writing?
BJ: Oh yes. Twice. Great stuff. All of it. I don't think I quite have the game to pull off everything he suggests but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't trying.

OBAAT: Is there anything you wish interviewers would ask about more? Some topic you’d like to see writers discuss more in forums such as this?
BJ: Cheese. I would like to see more discussion steered toward cheese and all its inherit goodness.

OBAAT: Okay. I’ll bite. What’s your favorite cheese and why?
BJ: Ha! Nice. All cheese. Every kind. As for why? Well, that'd be telling. But if anyone really wants to know, hey, it might be in the book!

OBAAT: What are you currently working on, and why does it kick ass?
BJ: As of this moment, not a thing. Ah, the life of a pantser!


Friday, August 4, 2017

July's Best Reads

Western research took almost complete control of my July reading and I regret very little of it. In fact, I regret reading none of what’s mentioned here.

Deadwood, Pete Dexter. Bears no great resemblance to the classic TV show but just as entertaining. Snippets of life in the camp seen primarily through the eyes of Charlie Utter, using his actual life as a backdrop. Dexter weaves fact and fiction seamlessly and effortlessly in a true classic.

Bestseller Metrics, Elaine Ash. I wrote about this at length a few weeks ago. Authors not sure why their book isn’t selling could do a lot worse than take the advice contained herein.

Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry. Had my way with this one, too. Doesn’t hold up as well as I’d hoped, but it’s still a masterpiece, which says a lot.

Famous Gunfighters of the Western Frontier, W. B. “Bat” Masterson. Bat doesn’t have too much bad to say about anyone except Doc Holliday, but a delightful book nonetheless. Written as a series of essays for Human Life magazine in 1907, it’s full of anachronistic language that sets the time perfectly. Bat was a product of his time and some of his attitudes about violence might strike some as cavalier today, but his understanding of, and affection for, his subjects shows through. A quick read great fun.
                                                                                                     

Age of the Gunfighter: Men and Weapons of the Frontier 1840 – 1900, Joseph Rosa. Almost a coffee table book with many two-page spreads of authentic period weapons. Rosa’s a Brit with an affection for the American West and has a full trunk of stories from both sides of the law. Time is taken to explore the situations that grew from all the major reasons for violence in the west: feuds, vigilante justice, range wars, cow towns, and law and order. Filled with period photos of people and places. Something a true Western aficionado will not want to be without.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Western Conundra

When I first floated the idea of writing a Western a few years ago I thought of it as a lark. Something fun to shift my imagination from the steady diet of crime fiction. After a while it occurred to me that it should also be, you know, good. I’ve always been a fan of Westerns, mostly of a certain type, but I’d never immersed myself in the culture as I have with crime. I have very little good to say about writers who decide to dash off a book because they kind of like a certain type of story but have no knowledge nor understanding of their canon. The results are so superficial a decent high school teacher would toss them out.

This led me to 2017 and my Summer of Western Research™. I set aside all other writing projects and read Western fiction and non-fiction and watch Westerns. Not just any Westerns. What some would call “revisionist” Westerns, though what was revisionist fifty years ago is pretty much the mainstream now. Basically I stayed pretty much away from what I half-jokingly refer as Westerns where no one needs a haircut. I like setting and tone to be as important to what I write as the story, so I’m as interested in how the story is told as I am in what it is.

This has led me to a far more interesting place than I had imagined when I set out on what I thought would be a relaxing summer. It’s not that the research has been a burden. Far from it; I’m having a ball. It’s just that what I’ve read and seen has provoked long conversations with myself and placed me in a situation exactly opposite where I expected to be. Where I at first wondered what I could put into the story, now my primary need is to decide what to leave out, as the elements that interest me have become so broad one book can’t contain them, and I have no intention of writing an epic, anyway.

I have already discarded my original germ of a story idea and tentatively replaced it with a story drawn from the memoirs of a Texas Ranger. The story idea suits all of the questions I have still open, though I have much yet to decide. Among the decisions on the table:
  • When will the story take place? My idea of a Western falls into a window of approximately 1870 – 1900, but when exactly? It matters. Technology and living conditions changed rapidly. The physical location of the story will be bound to the date much more than a more contemporary tale.
  • Speaking of physical location, where exactly? Or does exactly matter? I’m thinking eastern Wyoming or Colorado, maybe even Nebraska, but how far west? Depends on the date setting and what kind of story I choose to tell. Use a real town, make one up of whole cloth, or base a fictional town on a real place, as I have with Penns River?
  • Language and style of writing. This may be the hardest decision of all, and one that will most directly affect the actual work. The examples to choose from range from David Milch to John Ford to Elmore Leonard to Zane Grey to contemporary accounts. All have pros and cons, whether considering dialog or narrative.
  • Point of view. Should the story be told by
    • A real historical figure passing through it
    • Real people in supporting roles
    • Real person as the main character
    • Narrator serving as a Dr. Watson for a real person
    • All fictional
  • Should the story itself be
    • Creative non-fiction, or, as the disclaimer at the beginning of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reads, “Much of what follows is true.”
    • Pure fiction
    • Fiction loosely based on a true story.
    • Facts woven into fiction, as if the Western were written by James Ellroy
  • The relative importance of female characters. The closer to the frontier one got, the more likely women were to be prostitutes. That’s a fact. Still, not all of them would be, even on the frontier itself. How to handle this without becoming stereotypical, but also not becoming unrealistic, requires considerable thought
  • What prominence to accord minorities, whether referring to Blacks (likely freed slaves or their children), Mexicans, or Indians. Again, time and place are key. I don’t need to worry about treating Indians too much as bloodthirsty savages if the story is set in a town off the frontier ion 1895. That’s a more delicate line to draw if it’s in the Dakota Territory in 1877.
  • Criminals and law enforcement, including
    • Weapons available
    • Techniques of each

As I said, I’m not looking to write an epic. Seventy-five to 90,000 words is my fifteen schnitzengruben. Trying to be too inclusive in a single work is worse than making too many trimming decisions, as the book will wander and eventually be about nothing. That’s okay. This is a book I’ll likely write in fits and starts over time as I can work it in without falling behind on the schedule Down & Out might like for me. It may evolve more be written. It may also be the only Western I ever write, so I’m going to want it to be something I’m proud of, even if others may disagree with some of my decisions.


Comments not just welcome. They’re encouraged. Have at it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Lonesome Dove

We watched Lonesome Dove as part of this summer’s Western research and loved it just as much as ever. I know everything that’s going to happen and most of the lines and it still moves me just as much. Lonesome Dove also serves as a valuable tool for keeping awards in perspective. The Emmy for mini-series that year went to War and Remembrance. Which do people remember now?

The re-viewing resonated so well with me I re-read the book. William Wittliff did as fine a job adapting Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer-winning novel as any screen- or teleplay I’ve ever seen,
creating a program that surpasses the source material. (More on that later.) The casting was spot on and the performances are true to the characters. Reading the book, I hear words attributed to Gus or Woodrow or Clara in the voices of Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and Anjelica Houston more often than not. Dish’s mustache is exactly as described.

Virtually all of the dialog comes verbatim from the book and most of Wittliff’s additions come from internal monologs McMurtry wrote. Wittliff also knew not to do too slavish an adaptation. The character of Wilbarger does not appear, though he plays a small yet key role in the novel. Some of Jake’s experiences with the Suggs brothers and Frog Lip are condensed. (Editor’s Note: It occurs to me those who have not read the book or seen the TV show will not know who those people are. Sucks to be you. It’s your own fault. They’ve only been available 30 years now. Get busy.)

Simon Wincer was also an inspired choice for director. An Australian who’d never done a Western (he went on to do Quigley Down Under and three episodes of Comanche Moon), Wincer took an outsider’s look at America’s most unique and beloved genre. Some of the stereotypical camera shots are missing (some had to be thanks to shooting locations that required angles calculated to make things look appropriate, such as having New Mexico fill in for Nebraska), Wincer also appreciated how to show scopes of size, most notably when Gus trails through the Llano Estacado in search or Lori and Blue Duck, and when pursued by the Kiowas Blue Duck sends back to kill him.

Few, if any, television shows or films have attempted to show such a breadth and depth of any period, from human relationships that transcend time to the hardships unique to the American frontier and the types of people it attracted and spawned. In that it also emulates the book, which shows how an epic story need deal with only a year and a relative handful of people to be successful. The catch is, though the book won its big award and the series did not, the series is better.

To some this will seem like apostasy, but the book has significant flaws. Not in the most important elements of story and characters but in the writing itself. Lonesome Dove, for all its brilliance, badly needed an editor.

First, it’s too long; judicious cuts would take nothing away. About a quarter of the book is backstory. McMurtry works it in as he goes, but at times becomes so enthralled with the past lives of characters he seems to forget shit is happening right now in the reader’s experience and it would be nice to get back to it. He invests four pages examining Pea Eye’s thoughts on women, which would be okay except that Pea Eye doesn’t really have any. Worse, Pea Eye is a spear-carrier for much of the book. He’s needed, and Gus and Call depend on him as a reliable hand, but he’s there to perform functions, not to enhance the experience. This is not an isolated example. At some point just about every character has at least one extended reminiscence—in the case of Dish’s feelings for Lorena more than one—that does little or nothing other than slow things down.

I hear you. “But it’s such beautiful writing.” Much of the time it is. There are also too frequent examples of amateurish mistakes that would get a lesser-known writer tossed before an agent finished the first page. Repeated words in sentences. (“’A ladies man like me can hardly be expected to resist such a passel of ladies.” In the teleplay the line is, “A ladies man like me can hardly be expected to resist such a passel of beauties.” Much better.) Unclear speech attributions. Word order in sentences. (“’Newt Dobbs,’ Augustus said, after a pause.” Why not, “After a pause Augustus said, “Newt Dobbs?” Or an action to describe the pause. Something before he speaks though, so we don’t have to go back and add the pause retroactively.)

Point of view flits from character to character like a bee through a field of clover. McMurtry’s good enough to pull this off the overwhelming majority of the time, but there are still occasions when one wonders whose head we’re in, and why? I’m not here to question his talent nor the magnitude of the accomplishment, but that’s sloppy work. The book and his readers deserved better.

 

So, on balance, this is the rare situation where I prefer the visual medium to the book. Wittliff and Wincer knew what to keep, what to get rid of, and what to change to create a masterpiece from a brilliant book with significant flaws. If you’re among the handful referred to above who have experienced neither, get the DVDs. You’ll never be sorry.


Friday, July 21, 2017

A Conversation With Elaine Ash, Author of Bestseller Metrics

Elaine Ash is a highly-regarded editor and author, though you won’t know her as an author because she writes under a pseudonym. (I know what it is and could tell you, but then Elaine would kill us both, hopefully before her alter ego really fucked us up. I’ve read some of her stuff and she don’t play.)

Her newest work was written with her editor’s hat on, an exploration of not how to write a bestseller, but of what bestsellers have in common, regardless of genre. I could explain it to you, as the book is a quick and easy to understand read; it’s the exercises that will take time. That said, why should I? She’s here and can do it better than I could hope to.

One Bite at a Time: There are few things I hate more than someone asking me to come up with elevator pitches, but let’s start with your hundred-word description of Bestseller Metrics.

Elaine Ash: Bestseller Metrics shows how to structure a novel like a bestseller. Wobbly structure holds back the majority of unpublished manuscripts that I see as an editor. For those writing a first novel of 100,000 words or less, this book shows step-by-step how to structure all genres--mystery, chicklit, horror, fantasy, thrillers, science fiction and more. There are diagrams and drawings to make it clear and visual. A series of simple-to-do tests reveal what your writers' group can't or won't tell you. If you can count to ten you know all the math necessary to understand it.

OBAAT: Ninety-six words. Well done.

There are a million books on how to write, the vast majority of them written by people one has never heard of, which leads me to wonder why they aren’t famous, they know so much about writing. You took a different approach, breaking down successful books to look for the common elements. What gave you the idea to do this kind of analysis?

EA: I have my writer clients to thank. Doctors show patients x-rays. Mechanics present diagnostic tests. I do it with metrics. If you want to write a bestseller, why not look at other bestsellers to figure out how it was done? There's an order to telling a story in a novel, and it's rarely discussed, let alone taught. In order to convince my clients of the changes needed to sell their stories, I looked into the metrics of books by million-selling authors past and present. Agents and publishers responded enthusiastically to the results.

OBAAT: You hooked me in Chapter One with your concept of Imaginary Memory (IM). It’s the kind of idea I sometimes say relates to genius, as it’s something that’s lying right out there in the open for anyone to see, yet as soon as someone points it out it’s so obvious your eyes hurt. (At least mine did.) Where did you get this insight?

EA: Ha! I like the way you said that. When I kept seeing manuscripts with the same problems from hardworking writers who were taking classes, attending writers groups and revising over and over without seeing a different result from the buying market, I knew there had to be a blind spot. I finally figured it was like this: A writer uses all of his/her imagination while crafting a novel, and when it comes time to read over the draft, imagination doesn’t quit. It fills in pictures and details, weaving memories into a seamless and satisfying read for the writer. By the end, the writer feels like he’s just watched a good movie—unaware that IM has edited the movie all the way through—smoothing over missing descriptions, fleshing out skimpy plot points and more. The complete story he thought he read isn’t necessarily the one on the page. Then I asked the question, “What would turn IM off? What kind of test could point to what’s missing?


OBAAT: What I might like best about the book is how you never tell the reader what to do as a writer. I’ve read several books that propose to tell how to write the breakout novel, and all I ever thought of while reading them was this guy wanted to teach me how to write a book I wouldn’t read myself. There was a subtle formula there. What I see in your work is not “Here’s what to do?” but “Here’s what to look for in what you’ve done.” You need the author to have written at least a draft first before you get to work. To me, this helps the author in keeping her own vision of the book and looks for weaknesses and rough edges instead of trying to shoehorn it into someone else’s idea of what will sell. And let’s face it, no one really knows what will sell.

Have I inferred something you didn’t intend, or do I have that about right?

EA: I think you’re spot on. My system details the best way to present your story so another person’s brain can grasp it. I don’t care what your story is—there’s an order and a structure that will get it across more clearly and dramatically than any other way. You’re correct—I don’t interfere with a writer’s vision, I ask them to look within the story and see if certain elements are there. If they are, there’s a good chance that story is ready to market. At least you know what doesn’t need to be revised. There is power in knowing what shouldn’t be changed or touched. One thing that’s always driven me crazy is when a writers’ group clearly tells a writer that a ms needs work—which is a good thing— but nobody can pinpoint exactly what it is. This is the point where an editor should be called in. But often that's not feasible. So the writer tinkers around the edges, rewriting and revising aspects may be great already. A lot of that goes on: fixing what doesn't need to be fixed, when the basic problem is structure. I’d also like to say that you don’t need to have a finished manuscript to learn from Bestseller Metrics. Just reading the book will impart a lot.

OBAAT: The first thing I thought as I got into the book was, “Hot damn. Bill James* for writers.” I’m a seamhead, so I’m wired that way. Have you received any pushback from others who might dismiss—or even resent—trying to quantify an artistic endeavor?

EA: Not so far, knock on wood. And that "Bill James for writers" analogy really gave me hope when I was wandering the wilderness, not really sure if I was on a crazy train. Keep in mind that although the book has less than 50,000 words of text, I wrote at least 120,000 words and drew dozens of sketches and compiled tables that got thrown out. At one point, the second half of the book got thrown out (reserved, actually) because it was deemed too advanced by readers I trust.

Literary critics are used to looking at books in a certain way. Everybody thinks in terms of beginning, middle, end. But start slicing a novel into percentages and new patterns emerge. As you said earlier, everything has been sitting out in plain sight for ages. I’m just the one who decided to look at the parts mathematically. As an editor, I also knew what the numbers were revealing, and how to interpret them. (Hopefully, I'm not making myself sound like an oracle picking through chicken entrails...)

In 2016, The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Bestseller was published. Jody Archer and Matthew L. Jockers looked at algorithms and did a “big picture” analysis of 20,000 novels. I had a number of people contact me immediately, worried there might be a conflict or overlap. After my heart stopped thumping in time to Flight of the Bumblebee, I realized that the authors didn’t go into how numbers could benefit “small picture” applications. Here's a wacky and imperfect analogy: They looked at the whole elephant. I look at the bones giving the elephant its shape.

Finally, in my circle of several hundred people in the writing and publishing world, I’m already known as the person who invented the serial-killing-monkey genre—and it’s been successful. So once you’ve done something off the wall that’s worked, people are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. They’re willing to wait and see before they dismiss you out of hand. Getting thoughtful and favorable reviews from people such as yourself also adds a layer of Teflon.

OBAAT: The two books you broke down the most are The Big Sleep and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which shows how your evidence transcends mere genre. You also looked at books as diverse as Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Hunger Games, The Shining, Confederacy of Dunces and probably a dozen more. Aside from the fact all sold like banana splits at the beach, what made you select the books you did?

EA: I wanted to deconstruct worthy books that had huge and different readerships. Because my information transcends genre, I wanted to reach writers in every corner of the fiction universe with titles they knew and loved hard. Nothing connects the list titles except zillions of sales and most being made into movies. I felt these books were worth poring over to find out what makes them tick.


OBAAT: That’s an excellent point. The IM section alone reminded me that I have to keep that in mind, especially since I write a series, which make it important for me not only not to assume the reader knows what I’m talking about, but not to assume she’s read any of the previous books.

It occurs to me this may seem to readers all well and good in a New Agey yet analytical sort of way, sort of a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance meets Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but there’s no hook for them. Can you show us a digested example of what you’re talking about? Maybe a piece of one of the charts with a brief explanation?

EA: Sure! Let’s look at Table 2, which is the first comprehensive table in the book.




What you’re looking at here, from left to right, is the title of the book, then the author, and that middle column shows the total number of characters appearing in the first quarter of the book. As you can see, the numbers range from 25 for Kill Shot by Vice Flynn to 53 for Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. That’s a pretty narrow range when you consider that those numbers seem to have nothing to do with the age, genre, or total word count of the book! Interview with the Vampire (1976) by Anne Rice is about 130,000 words long but has only 30 characters in the first quarter. Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding is 64,000 words long with 41 characters in the first quarter. How can these first-quarter character counts squeeze into such a narrow range? Answer: Our brains process stories, particularly the beginnings of stories, the same way they did in Aristotle’s time. When you start to look at these types of similarities among mega-successful books, a shiny new lightbulb goes on in terms of novel writing.

There is a caveat, however. Epics and sagas such as George R.R. Martin’s 280,000-word-plus A Game of Thrones novels, have their own rules of structure. Massive word count changes structure. Therefore, one has to be careful about applying the metrics shown here to the “literary leviathans.” My promise to the aspiring author is that if you are writing an average-sized novel of 100,000 words or less, my guidelines will help you craft a story with sound structure. Since structure is the number one challenge to most unsold manuscripts, this is good news.

OBAAT: How has Bestseller Metrics been received so far?

EA:  Enthusiastically and respectfully. I did have a few old-timers laugh out loud when I first mentioned finding mathematical patterns in novels, but they weren’t being mean. They laughed because it was so foreign to anything they’d heard before. Once people get a look at the system, it seems like they’re not only ready, but eager to dig in, they’ve been looking for something like this a long time. I have so many offers to speak and teach that it's a struggle to keep up. I’m concentrating on following users—the writers actually testing their manuscripts and taking note of what they have to say as they go along. It has to be user-friendly and it has to work. I’m sure there are improvements and adjustments I can make for the next release.

OBAAT: With this episode of heavy lifting behind you, what’s next? More fiction, or looking into what you’ve done here in more detail?


EA: Workshops, an online course, developing materials for teachers to use in classrooms, and software development. I’m in the process of sourcing textbook distributors, and nonfiction distributors. It’s a long list and I’m just one person, so it’s a long workday, everyday. I need help, so if anybody has any bright ideas and wants in on the ground floor, I’d love to hear from you.