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Write a Western in 30 Days
With Plenty of Bullet Points!
By Nik Morton
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Nik Morton
All rights reserved.
Why write a western?
Received wisdom would have us believe that the western genre is dead. It died in the 1970s, buried by detective and spy fiction that swamped the market. Though seriously wounded after a few skirmishes, in fact it didn't die, because there was a renaissance in the late 1980s. But then after that western books fell into disfavour yet again ... The western had a foot in Boot Hill, it seemed. That might have been the rumour a few years ago, but it would appear that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the western's death were exaggerated. Over the last couple of years, there's been a definite resurgence in the western.
Go online and check out the number of western novels available, particularly new authors and books, and you'll be surprised at the sheer volume. Western authors have embraced the digital age. Before the release of Stagecoach in 1939, there'd been a slump in western movies; that film's Oscar-winning success spurred on more films in the genre. So popularity of the western rises and falls. Now, more western films are being made than for many a year. The critical sniping at Spielberg's Cowboys & Aliens didn't do it any harm at the box office: the film is seventh in the list of top grossing western movies; Dances with Wolves is still top.
Before Avatar and Star Wars ('cowboys in space') there was John Carter, the ex-Confederate Captain created by Edgar Rice Burroughs; Carter begins his adventure prospecting for gold in the Old West and ultimately finds untold wealth, love and a new planet, Barsoom (Mars). The unjustly maligned film actually did the book A Princess of Mars (1912) justice. Burroughs joined the 7th US Cavalry in 1896, at Fort Grant. Several westerns followed his successful Tarzan books.
At the time of writing, independent filmmakers are embracing the genre, too. Meek's Cutoff has achieved critical and audience acclaim. Other film projects upcoming include Johnny Depp, Quentin Tarantino, Val Kilmer, and Luke Perry being involved in different movies. Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank are on-board for a new movie, The Homesman. And there's a string of 2012 TV westerns – Hell on Wheels, Goodnight for Justice, Gateway, Hatfields & McCoys, Hangtown and Longmire.
In the UK, Robert Hale Ltd has been publishing westerns since 1937, and the Black Horse Western imprint since the mid-1980s, and has a strong showing even today – up to eight new hardback titles per month. Many of these titles go on to Large Print editions, earning their authors additional royalties, and of course then there's the Public Lending Right annual payment, too. The PLR tends to lend credence to the assertion that westerns are still popular. My first western novel for Hale is five years old, and over that time it has been borrowed at least 5,800 times and counting – that's almost 6,000 readers of a single western. So, there is a readership out there.
Welshman Gary Dobbs, a taxi driver and bit-part actor, has penned to date five westerns under the penname Jack Martin. His first, The Tarnished Star (2009), was the fastest-selling Hale western ever, and a bestseller.
Alfred Wallon is a German writer; he recently signed with a publisher to write four more westerns in two on-going series. American James Reasoner is a prolific writer of crime and western novels and produces half a dozen western novels every year. Indeed, a great many crime novelists write westerns as well, among them Bill Pronzini, Bill Crider and Elmore Leonard. Many of Leonard's books have been filmed, including Hombre, 3:10 to Yuma and Valdez is Coming.
Now, with the ubiquitous e-books, westerns are read – and written – worldwide. Westerns are produced by writers living in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Spain, UK, Germany, Canada and the US.
So you don't have to be an American to write a western. And that's been the case for a long time, too. Prolific author J.T. Edson published over a hundred westerns, covering nine series characters between the 1960s and 1980s. In the 1970s and 1980s, a group of British writers met at a Piccadilly pub and developed a number of western series. The group became known as the Piccadilly Cowboys; between them, they produced over three hundred of the most violent westerns ever published. Terry Harknett, Mike Linaker, Angus Wells, Ken Bulmer, Laurence James, John Harvey and Fred Nolan came up with the names of Adam Steele, Josiah Hedges, Jubal Cade, Cuchillo Oro and many more while huddled together in the pub.
The website Tainted Archive regularly runs Wild West events, encouraging bookstores around the UK and worldwide to participate.
The fourth Saturday in July is the National Day of the Cowboy in the US.
Relevance of the western
Many westerns' elemental and compelling narrative appeal may be due to that sense of the endless possibilities of adventure for the hero and heroine. There's always some new excitement along the trail, over the next ridge.
Westerns these days come in many guises. Long ago, the western escaped its straitjacket of men in white and black hats shooting it out. Of course, there's gunplay and death, but that was an aspect of the Old West, though not as commonplace as we're led to believe. Yet modern western novels can contain so much more.
Revenge is the staple plot for much Renaissance drama and of the Victorian melodrama. Revenge is a sure-fire motive for a western and there have been scores of books and films that have dealt with the subject. Yet there are still plenty of inventive variations on this age-old theme. The revenge is often driven by the hero's sense of personal honour, an inner compulsion rather than an external threat. We'll discuss the Code of the West later.
It's always refreshing to read humorous western tales, whether that's dark irony or off-the-wall slapstick; there's never enough humour, apparently. Blazing Saddles still sells well as a DVD, almost forty years after its release.
Unscrupulous builders, politicians and bankers are not new, even if they're in the news these days; their type figured in the Old West too.
The Old West was not tamed solely by men, of course. Women played their significant part and are often major characters in modern versions of the Old West. Women in the western represent the alternative to violence. There's a paradox here, as civilization depends on there being men who will not choose the seductive comforts the woman offers: it's as though a society without violence, a society indeed fit for women, can only come into being through violence.
Western writing is not the domain of male writers alone, and never has been; a number of female writers have produced memorable work in the field, among them Annie Proulx, Janet Dailey, Dorothy M. Johnson, Amy Sadler, and Gillian F. Taylor (the latter is a Mastermind finalist). Some use male pennames, such as Amos Carr, used by writer Jill McDonald-Constable, Terry James used by Joanne Walpole, Tex Larrigan, used by Irene Ord, and Terry Murphy used by Theresa Murphy. Others have opted for unisex pennames, such as M.M. Rowan and D.M. Harrison.
Every genre needs new blood, since the readership has a voracious appetite for more of the same. As it says on the cover, this guide seeks to encourage new writers to tackle the western and do so within a limited time period.
The western can cover all manner of storylines relevant to today's readership. Dysfunctional families, domestic strife, racism, greed, crooked business, and even supernatural elements are all grist to the mill for modern writers of westerns.
Essentially, the western has a broad canvas, rich in history and imagery, a period from the 1860s to the 1890s, where myth and history intermingled. The Old West was a melting pot of nationalities, of religions, and of morality. The human condition can be examined using the mores of the western archetype. New stories of the Old West can move readers just as effectively, if not even more so, than competing genres. The only limitation is the skill of the writer.
Remember, too, that the western genre is full of stereotypes – grizzled gunslingers, heroes who can outshoot a dozen men in the blink of an eye, shady gamblers who live by the cards and the Derringer up their sleeve, hard-faced saloon girls who have soft hearts, etc.
Some of these things may be the reason why readers are attracted to the genre. They're comfortable with the familiar. Common sense tells you that these stereotypes are not all that a western comprises. Filling your book with every cliché you can think of will not make it a good western.
These days, readers have certain expectations and so you should use this knowledge to surprise them. Break the mould, think laterally. Give your characters more than one dimension, a hint of realism and a personality that distinguishes them from the run-of-the-mill characters of yore. That way, readers will hopefully come back to your books because they're that little bit different, and not simply formulaic stories found elsewhere. (Every genre has its formulaic series of books, not just the western).
The novel's origin
What's the impetus to write a novel? It can be an idea, a phrase from a book, an incident read in a periodical, or an inspiration from some person or incident.
For The $300 Man, I stumbled on an interesting fact while doing research into another western. The Union draft allowed for draft dodgers – if they paid a substitute to take their place – and the going rate was $300. The title of The $300 Man was born.
In 1861, Andrew Carnegie, 25, invested in Columbia Oil Co. He never enlisted in the Civil War but purchased a substitute. His firm pumped 2,000 barrels a day; he also invested in the new steel industry. Two years later, at the war's height, John D. Rockefeller, 23, built with four partners an oil refinery in Cleveland near Cuyahoga River. He avoided military service by buying a substitute.
Once I had my title and the initial idea about a substitute, I then had to decide on why anyone would accept the money to go and possibly get maimed or killed. The thought of being maimed brought to mind a few heroes (and villains!) who wore a hook. I decided my hero would lose a hand in the Civil War and a hook would replace it. A special hook, however, that is adaptable for use with other tools or utensils.
You might be able to start straight in on your novel – or you may need to plot it first. That's entirely up to you. Working from a rough plot makes the going easier – and there are still usually surprises on the way to make the story interesting to you, the writer. There's a separate chapter on plot-plans.
For this novel, which would take place some years after the war, I wanted to mention $300 early on – and decided that the hero would always carry that amount – a significant reminder for him. And to create action to hook the reader, I'd have him getting robbed. These are the first words of the book, in the Prologue: The Hook:
'$300 – that'll do nicely!' said Bert Granger as he finished thumbing through the billfold Corbin Molina had been encouraged to hand over. As added persuasion, Bert held a revolver in his other hand.
'That'll do nicely' is a modern American phrase which I used for a bit of fun.
I wanted the novel to be more than a traditional western, though it would contain many of the genre's traits. As I built up the storyline, I found that it contained romance, action, betrayal, family disputes, historical events, and courage. A good mix.
The writing doesn't always go from beginning to end. That's why I use a plot-plan document. Certain scenes might pop into my head concerning particular characters – but those scenes may be further along in the story. It doesn't matter – put them into the plot-plan till you need them. Think of how films are made – scenes and characters are rarely filmed in linear fashion (usually it's for convenience and cost reduction) – the film's all slotted together in the correct order at the editing stage.
How can a book be written in 30 days?
In the days of pulp fiction, when authors were paid cents or pence per word, many genre writers produced novels in a matter of days. Among them was Jim Thompson, a crime novelist who was read by millions. Since he died, several of his books have been filmed, to considerable acclaim. Dickens was wordy because he was paid by the word. Michael Moorcock was known to write a fantasy novel in his Elric series over a weekend. Georges Simenon used to shut himself away for a couple of days and produce a Maigret novel.
Lauran Paine wrote over 900 books, among them romance, science fiction, mystery novels and hundreds of westerns, one of which was filmed as Open Range, starring Kevin Costner. Paine also wrote non-fiction books on the Old West, military history, witchcraft, and other subjects. Because his publishers only accepted a limited number of books under a single author's name, he adopted dozens of pseudonyms.
Since 1965, the phenomenal Jory Sherman has published over 400 novels and 500 short stories and is currently writing books in several western series for Signet and Berkley.
Writing from nine to five, five days a week, Terry Harknett, author of the Edge western series and many others, could produce a western novel in eleven days. The Edge books are being reprinted; there's a market out there, all right.
Back in 1995 I entered the One Day Novel Writing competition in London and finished joint-fourth – producing 18,000 words in two 12-hour shifts. That amounted to a novella, really, but it was still a book. In the Get Writing section I will show how you can produce about 2,000 words a day.
My first western took me a total of 19 days from conception to completion. Subsequent westerns have taken me a little longer, but not much. If I combine all five, they actually average out at well under 30 days per book.
In the old days, say the 1950s and 1960s, most genre novels ran to about 156 to 180 pages – 50,000 words or thereabouts. They were designed for a quick visceral read and had no pretensions to being great literature. Books to entertain. That's still true today, though perhaps the readership is more knowledgeable and exacting in its expectation now. Many film scripts have been based on genre fiction – the pulp length lends itself to the constraints of movie scripting. A film script doesn't contain many words, has lots of white space and usually runs to about 120 pages. My film script for my vampire crime thriller Death is Another Life (2011) came to 22,500 words, while the book word count was 80,000.
Most genre westerns will be about 40–45,000 words in length, though they might possibly stretch up to 60,000. If they're longer, then they probably fall into a category other than western genre, for example Historical or Saga fiction. This book is intended to encourage you to write a western genre novel of about 40–45,000 words.
Speed of production should not compromise quality of the work. If you follow my guidelines, you will still be able to produce a good quality piece of fiction – without investing a year or more in it.
The main thing to remember is that a novel requires:
Still, it should be possible to sustain all that over a 30-day period. While the 30 days don't have to be consecutive, it will help if you can write every day for that period, as you will find yourself being carried along by the characters and the flow of the narrative. However, the choice is yours. It can be one day a week, for thirty weeks, if that's all you can manage.
The first priority is to prepare yourself.
Write that story straight away!
Don't – don't dive in and start writing that novel.
There are storytellers and there are writers. Storytellers can tell a good yarn, but very few can write a cohesive, dramatic, page-turning fiction book without strong editorial help. Professional writers learn through experience and time and know what's required to keep the readers' attention. A writer who has been published might be called an author.
But which one are you?
It doesn't matter, really. All types may blend and merge. It's all semantics.
But what each one of them has to do is plan before beginning that novel. Even those writers who say they don't plan a book, and don't know where it will lead when they start out, they too have a plan for that beginning at the very least. Whether they like it or not, their subconscious is planning and plotting, though hopefully not towards the same end as can be found in Stephen King's The Dark Half (1989).
Some writers are quite happy to start with an idea, let characters enter the tale at random and stir the pot to see what happens. That works for them – but there's no guarantee that the method will lead to a finished book. Others write a first draft, then a second, and a third, until it feels right, and then stop. That works for them – but it's wasteful of time.
Excerpted from Write a Western in 30 Days by Nik Morton. Copyright © 2013 Nik Morton. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Introduction 1
2 Preparation 10
3 Research 21
4 Theme and ideas 43
5 Point of view decision 56
6 Book and chapter titles 68
7 Plot-plan 72
8 Character creation 87
9 Get writing 107
10 Dialogue 114
11 Description and Visualization 128
12 Symbolism and Layering 138
13 Beginnings and Endings 142
14 Self-edit 145
15 Synopsis and Blurb 155
16 Marketing 161
A 30-day countdown 164
B Word count 165
C Publishers and Literary Agents 167
D Formatting the manuscript 174
E Western Fiction book list 176
F Selection of western series characters 183