Monday, May 28, 2012
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
STALKING THE WILD SENTENCE
By Mean Pete, His Own Mean An' Nasty Self
Finding that first sentence of the day can be as bracing to the writer as that first up of coffee, but it’s sometimes as hard to find as the strike zone for the aging fast-ball pitcher or as elusive as wild asparagus for the natural foods forager.
Sitting down to the soft, menacing whine of his machine, the career-scribe stares at the blank screen and sees nothing but his own bewildered eyes staring back at him. Two lone eyes in a vast sea of white.
Gradually, the eyes get wider.
They are suddenly no longer the wordsmith’s own eyes but the eyes of the moron he suddenly fears he’s become. “Eee-gads!” he cries, fists clamped to his temples. “My career is over and I have only a few chapters left on this oater I’m writing! No delivery check for me, and they’re probably going to force me to return the advance money I’ve already frittered away, as well!”
The scribbler’s heart pounds like musket fire in a Civil War reenactment battle as he wonders if they’re hiring down at Target.
Where are those slippery devils, those glistening little hand-cut and polished jewels, those sentences, hiding?
Sometimes, at this point, the writer must become the Euell Gibbons of his trade, don his metaphorical hiking boots and walking stick, and light out for parts known. Yes, into the wild he’s explored before. Into the woods where he’s found those toothy little word-lions roaming free in the past and managed to throw a loop around them and haul them home to the cheers of his relieved family and the yips of his happy curs.
My version of this primeval forest is usually as close as my own office bookshelves or sometimes even my bedside night table.
At either place I can usually find all the books I’m in the half-conscious habit of returning to on those frustrating mornings I find that I need my pump primed. Sometimes, all I have to do is flip through one or two of these tomes, reading a few of the sentences in each--usually by writers who have struck major chords with something deep inside my writer’s ear before, firing the spark of creativity inside my desperate soul--and suddenly I become a cat pouncing on a mouse.
I’m Hemingway in Africa.
Paris Hilton on Rodeo Drive.
It’s weird, the books I find myself returning to. These are the books I’ve read and reread so many times I know them almost by heart, but they’re not at all what anyone who knows I’m a fast-action, blood-‘n’-guts western writer would expect. Most days, there’s not a single oater among them.
Today I found three books at the top of the stash I return to most often and thumb through repeatedly, searching for the sounds that are going to ring my own bell. And one or all of these almost always rings it.
Here are the titles:
Red Smith on Baseball.
Lights on a Ground of Darkness by Ted Kooser.
One Man’s Garden by Henry Mitchell.
Yeah, that last one’s a freakin’ gardening book. And aside from throwing a few shrubs in the dirt now and then, I don’t even garden! The thing is, I’m not reading for content but for the sound of the writer’s wild words arranged with such seeming effortlessness into graceful sentences.
I’m needing to hear the writer’s voice and see the images that that voice paints in my head. For some reason and almost all the time, hearing and seeing those sentences written by folks I consider masters of the trade helps me use my own voice and my own images to write this essay, for instance, as well as the scenes in my own western novels.
Here are two sentences by sportswriter Red Smith from his essay, “A Man Who Knew the Crowds,” that got me going yesterday:
“When the iceman cometh, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference which route he takes, for the ultimate result is the same in any case. Nevertheless, there was something especially tragic in the way death came to Tony Lazzeri, finding him and leaving him all alone in a dark and silent house--a house which must, in that last moment, have seemed frighteningly silent to a man whose ears remembered the roar of the crowd, as Tony’s did.”
Thanks, Red. And Henry and Ted. You’ve helped me more times that you could ever know turn that moon-like desert of the white page into a flowing field green with wild asparagus!
[This was originally published at the great site: www.booklifenow.com]
Monday, May 21, 2012
If you missed it, here it is:
WHAT OUR PROSE AND CAVALRY CHARGES SHOULD HAVE
By Mean Pete, His Own Mean An' Nasty Self
One of the most important things in writing words that sell, and one of the hardest things for most writers to understand until they’ve been hammering away at the craft for years, is how to make those words move.
I mean MOVE like a cavalry charge at the end of a John Ford oater.
Like a bullet fired through the maw of Colt Lightning .44.
Like an Apache arrow slung from a gut-an’-ash bow to plunge into a cavalry soldier’s blue-clad chest with a hard-snapping crunch!, sending blood geysering out the poor lad’s back to paint the rock wall of the escarpment behind him.
All right, enough pulpy examples. You get the idea.
Let me amend that first paragraph. Some writers, no matter how long they’ve been writing, never understand how to make their prose gallop. To make it sell.
Almost always as I wander the bays at my favorite bookstores or peruse the “Sneak Peek” pages on Amazon, looking for a yarn that’s sure to grab me by the throat and not let go till I’ve read the last page--oh, god, how rare is that!--I find prose that slumps on the page like roadkill, like a wet sheet blown off a clothesline.
Twisted and slack and pale as death...
There are several causes for this amateur’s misstep, but let’s skip the causes and go to a few tricks for solving the problem--methods I’ve learned throughout my life and from writing around seventy western novels and continuing to sell and acquire new contracts and new readers.
I’ll touch on three.
First, make your prose look pretty on the page. This sounds sophomoric, and it is. Something as seemingly insignificant as a how those little black marks are clumped on the page makes a big difference to a reader’s eye whether they’re aware of it or not. Those marks make a rhythm in the eye just as the sounds they create in your head form a rhythm in your ear.
Frankly, big, heavy clumps of text are just plain ugly. Sort of like having a big, brick wall you have to climb at the end of your morning run.
As a rule of thumb, I try to make my paragraphs between one and seven sentences long. That keeps the final printed page from looking too black. And I vary the lengths so that I seldom get two portly paragraphs together. Same for one or two-sentence paragraphs, though this is less important than staggering the thick ones.
Look at this essay for instance. This is how the pages of your pubbed novel should appear when printed.
Another of the myriad ways you can make your prose sing and dance is to make it specific and colorful. It should be as vivid in the reader’s mind as a scene from their favorite movie.
This is a tough one. This is the trick that separates the weanling pups from the alpha wolves. It’s a very hard one to teach, and it really can’t be taught to someone who isn’t armed with a vivid imagination.
Think DETAIL. And not just any ole detail, but the detail that propels that old saloon in your western novel off the page and seers it into the reader’s retina. Okay, it’s low-slung and it’s made of adobe brick and there are two hitchracks out front. That’s still every other saloon I’ve ever seen in books and T.V., even with a drunk cowboy passed out on the porch.
Let’s add a black-and-white collie dog with a burr-matted tail lapping up the spilled beer on the worn pine puncheons beside the cowboy. The saloon’s missing one of its batwings and the remaining one, wearing a chipped and faded coat of red paint, has two bullet holes in it.
A clay water pot, an ojo, hangs from the porch rafters, left of the batwings, jostling under the weight of the magpie perched on its rim, drinking.
You see? With details--with nouns and verbs as well as adjectives--we’ve pumped that old saloon back to life. The scene’s vivid, the prose moves.
Yet another way to make your sentences wriggle around like snakes in your readers’ hands is to write in a conversational tone. The best way to do this is to read it out loud to yourself. If it reads clear and easy, if it flows like a good ale over the tongue, you’ve got it.
If it’s stilted and halting, and you have too many four-dollar words and you’re not using contractions, get back to work.
This is much harder than you’d think. It takes time and practice and patience and, most of all, confidence in your ability to do it. Eventually, after enough words have flowed over the dam of your mind, they’ll wear the dam away and you’ll be writing so fast and furiously--having so damn much fun!--that you’ll be blowing out one keyboard after another!
Oblige me the mixed metaphor...
Here’s my last tip. And it’s the most important one. When you sit down to write, you should be breathing fire. Your fingers and toes should be tingling and you should be chuckling to yourself like a moron.
If you’re dragging around the house, avoiding your work room and lamenting that today you’ve got to get Carmody and Crystal in the bunkhouse together alone in spite of the horrible things they said to each other the night before, and they have to interact in a way that tells the reader they’re hot for each other though they themselves don’t realize it yet--forget it.
If you write with that attitude, whose going to enjoy reading it?
Take that seemingly static scene by the horns and imagine doing something so unexpected and creative with it that it puts lead in your pencil and makes your ears burn with anticipation. Maybe you could have the two characters yack for a while and then, out of the blue, something inexplicable overcomes Crystal and, to her surprise as much as to Carmody’s, she throws herself into his arms!
And before the reader has time to get bored with the dull conversation, Crystal and Carmody are making love while a rainstorm hammers the ole bunkhouse roof.
Or if that’s too much of a cliché...I don’t know...send Crystal into a rage. She picks up a skinning knife and tries to stab Carmody. Or maybe she does stab Carmody!
The idea is to mix your ideas up, paw them around like a cat with a mouse until you come up with something that has you breathing fire and making your prose chew up the sod like a thousand galloping horses at the end of a John Ford oater.
Saturday, May 19, 2012
Check out Mean Pete's guest post, an essay on how to make your writing mooove, at Petticoats and Pistols.
The essay's title is WHAT OUR PROSE AND CAVALRY CHARGES SHOULD HAVE IN COMMON.
The cover above is for my next book due out in July, the first of a brand new series with the all-new characters, Confederates James Dunn and his sidekick Crosseye Reeves!
Mean Pete (his own mean an' nasty se'f)
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Dang good book, though, if you don't mind Mean Pete sayin' so himself. Check it out!
Sunday, May 6, 2012
Check it out at Amazon as well as at Barnes & Noble, exclusively for ebook.
Mean Pete His Own Mean An' Nasty Se'f
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
This should be up soon at Amazon and Nook for $2.99, which ain't bad for a Mean Pete Press original publication.... (See what I mean about the ellipses?)
So, welcome to Mean Pete's spinner rack in cyber space! (Don't forget to hide the rag from your ma!)
BULLET FOR A VIRGIN
1. Rainy Night in Sonora
THE RIO CONCHO KID sagged back in his rickety chair and listened to the soft, desert rain drum on the cantina’s tin roof while a lone coyote howled mournfully in the Forgotten Mountains to the south.
The Kid was pleasantly drunk on baconora, a favorite drink of the border country. He smiled sweetly as he reflected on happier times, hopeful times when he and his reputation were still young and, if not innocent, at least naive.
Mercifully, just when his thoughts began to sour, touching as they did on the smiling visage of a fresh young girl named Lenore, who was so long dead that he could just barely remember the color of her eyes but no longer the timbre of her voice, hooves hammered the muddy street outside the cantina’s batwing doors.
Over the doors, out in the dark, rainy night, a large shadow moved. She smell of wet horse and wet leather, as well as the faint fragrance of cherry blossoms, wafted in on the chill damp air.
Leather squawked and a horse chomped its bridle bit.
Boots thumped on the narrow wooden stoop, and then a shadow appeared and became a young, red-haired woman as she pushed through the batwings and instantly stopped, letting the louver doors clatter back into place behind her. Hunted brown eyes quickly scanned the long, dark, earthen-floored cantina, finding its only customer, the Kid, lounging against the wall opposite the bar consisting of cottonwood planks laid across beer kegs.
The barman, Paco Alejandro Dominguez, was passed out in his chair behind the clay baconora bowl, snoring softly, his head of thick gray hair tumbling down over his wizened, sun-blackened face. His leathery, hawk nose poked through it, nostrils expanding and contracting as he snored.
The girl glanced behind her, nervous as a doe that had just dropped a fawn, and then strode forward to the Kid’s table. She was a well-set-up girl, twenty at the oldest, her thick, wavy, rust-red hair falling down over her shoulders and onto her plaid wool shirt that she wore open to the top of her cleavage. Between her breasts, a small, silver crucifix winked in the salmon light of the mesquite fire crackling near the bar’s far end.
She wore a black leather skirt held snug to her comely hips by a leather belt trimmed in hammered silver, five-pointed stars. Black boots with silver tips rose to her calves. There were no spurs. This was a girl who could ride--she had the hips and the legs for it--but who had a soft spot for horses.
Her hair was damp, as was her shirt, which clung to her full bosom, and her eyes were just wild enough to make the Kid’s trigger finger ache.
“Buy a girl a drink?” she said quickly in a thick Spanish accent.
The Kid looked her over one more time, from the tips of her boots up past her breasts pushing out from behind the damp wool shirt, to her eyes that flicked back and forth across him with a faint desperation. The Kid smiled, shook his head. His dark eyes looked away from the young girl, no more than a child.
She slammed her fist on the table. “Bastardo!”
“I ain’t gonna contest it,” the Kid said mildly, and casually lifted his gourd cup to sip his baconora.
She lifted her mouth corners, leaned forward against the table, giving him a better look down her shirt, and said in a smoky, sexy rasp: “I could make you a very happy hombre tonight, amigo.”
The Kid looked at her well-filled shirt. A few years ago, when he was as green as a willow branch, such a sight would have grabbed him by the throat and not let go for several hours. “And a dead one. Oh, true, there’s worse things than dyin’, but I’m enjoyin’ this evenin’ here with the rain and my drink and the prospect of a long sleep in deep mound of straw out in the stable with my mare, ole Antonia. Run along, Chiquita. Spread your happiness elsewhere, will ya?”
The Kid reached into the breast pocket of his hickory shirt for his tobacco makings, but stopped suddenly and pricked his ears. Hooves drummed in the distance, beneath the patter of the rain on the tin roof and the cracking and popping of the pinyon fire in the mud brick hearth. The girl wheeled toward the batwings with a gasp.
The hoof thuds grew quickly louder. The girl’s horse whinnied. One of the newcomer’s horses’ whinnied a response. Over the batwings, large shadows moved, and then boots thudded on the porch and a big man in a wagon wheel sombrero pushed through the batwings. Two men flanked him, turning their heads this way and that to see around him, into the cantina.
“No, Chacin,” the girl said in a brittle voice, backing away from the door, brushing the tips of her right hand fingers across the top of the Kid’s table. “I won’t...I won’t go with you. I can’t!”
All this had been in Spanish, but the Kid, who’d been born Johnny Black in the Chisos Mountains of southern Texas, near the Rio Grande, though he’d acquired his nickname while riding the long coulees along the Rio Concho, knew the rough and twisted border tongue as well as he knew English.
The big man, dressed in the flashy gear of the Mexican vaquero, complete with a billowy green silk neckerchief, moved heavily into the room, bunching his thick, mustache-mantled lips in fury. His chocolate eyes fired golden javelins of sheer rage as water dripped from the brim of his black felt, wagon wheel sombrero.
“Chiquita, my orders are to bring you back to the General or shoot you!”
Suddenly, moving with more agility than the Kid would have thought possible in a man so ungainly, he swiped one of his big paws at the girl and caught her shirt just as she’d turned to run. The shirt tore with a shrill ripping sound, buttons popping, exposing a good portion of her pale left breast behind her partially torn chamise.
She screamed, “No!”
The big man reached for the silver-plated Colt Navy conversion pistol holstered high on his right hip.
“Oh, now, dangit,” the Kid said with an air of great despondency, rising heavily from his table and brushing his right hand across the Smith & Wesson Model 3 Schofield revolver holstered high and for the cross-draw on his left, denim-clad hip. “That ain’t no way to treat a lady, an’ you know it!”