Saturday, August 31, 2013


Or...What the Price of Chinese Tea Has To Do With Good Writing,

Or...Illustrate, Don’t Pontificate!

Duke Drummond stepped back with a gasp as the big bounty hunter set the disembodied head atop the bar beside a jar of picked pigs’ feet. 
            The head was not a fresh trophy.  It smelled like an over-filled privy with the added musk of a bobcat’s den.  The heavy eyelids drooped halfway over the eyes, and the lips—dry and cracked—formed a lopsided grin through which the tip of the dearly departed’s purple tongue protruded.
            A puckered hole, its edges crusted with dried blood above a scabby rivulet angling down along the right side of the dead man’s nose, had been blasted through the poor devil’s head by a .44 or .45 round.  At least, the hole resembled the size of one of those two bullets to the barman, Duke Drummond, who leaned as far back as he could from the grisly object, his eyes watering against the lung-burning stench.
            Drummond glared over the head at the grinning bounty hunter, Herschel “Shoot-to-Kill” McDade, and bellowed, “Herschel, what in the hell you think you’re doin’, bringin’ Willie McGinty’s head into my bar without the rest of him?”

The instruction to show and not tell in fiction writing is such an old saw that I feel chagrined to use it.  But however you want to spin the admonishment—illustrate don’t pontificate?—it’s as essential as the bullets in a gun or the wheels on a wagon.  And it’s the single hardest trick for an aspiring scribe to master. 

It’s also one that even wily old veterans need to relearn now and then.

Mean Pete’s been there himself.  And even after pubbing around eighty western novels over the past twenty years, I often still find myself there from time to time.  It’s usually when I get lazy without realizing or I’m unconsciously rushing and it just seems easier to narrate over a scene—to slap some words down on the page as fast as I can so I can feel good about getting my word quota in for the day and oh Merciful Heaven I can finally pop a beer!  Easier to do that than to dive into the quicksand of the scene, to get down and dirty and show that dead man’s droopy eyelids, the black tongue poking out of his smiling lips, and that puckered hole in his forehead, and not just tell about how the bounty hunter walked into the bar toting a dead man’s head.

That might be a start to a joke, but it’s not effective fiction writing.

I’ve flipped through several books lately--mostly ebook original western novels, unfortunately, but I’ve found the transgression in all genres—in which there is far, far more pontificating than illustrating.  Summarizing events as opposed to painting scenes with pictures made of words. 

Stories written in that fashion are about as compelling as watching mold grow.  I’ve flipped through whole books that are written that way from page one to the so-called grand finale.  They more resemble poorly written non-fiction than novels; they're summarized accounts of made up events written in dry-as-dust prose when what they should be is riveting movies on the page complete with virtual Surround Sound.

So if you’re having trouble learning how to show and not tell, to illustrate rather than pontificate, here’s a rule for you, because Mean Pete loves rules almost as much as beer:

The One-And-A-Half-Inch Rule

To show you what I'm talking about, lift one of your hands in front of your face.  Oh, go ahead and do it—it ain’t gonna kill ya!  Now spread your thumb and index finger about one and a half inches apart.  You see that gap there?  That’s how much space Mean Pete allows for any such nonsense other than illustration at any one place in his novel or short-story.  By any such nonsense, I mean writing that does not resemble those three paragraphs I started this essay with—you know, the one in which Willie McGinty bellies up to the bar without his belly? 

Showing versus telling.  Illustration as opposed to pontification.

Or, to be blunt, it’s where you’re not assaulting your dear reader’s senses, as you should be doing, without mercy, most of the time.  It’s where you’re not making the reader cower or gasp and yell, “Oh, what an awful man to make me read about such grisly events!  Really, Mean Pete needs to be shot forthwith!” 

(Okay, maybe "assault" isn't always the best term.  Appeal to, perhaps...?)

It’s passages in your tale where the reader can’t smell the coffee boiling on the campfire or catch a whiff of the cow shit and sage on the hot summer breeze.  Where he can’t hear the rumble of an approaching summer thunderstorm or feel the chill of fresh snow on his blankets. 

It’s chunks of dense black, print in which you can’t see that buxom, golden-haired, long-legged doxie in three-inch heels and black corset and bustier lean over in front of you and give you a good, long look at the deep, dark cleft between her lightly freckled breasts, which smell like rose blossoms.  In which you can’t see this pretty girl smile, her hazel eyes twinkling with reflected lamplight, and hear her in a breathy voice invite you upstairs for a discussion on the price of Chinese tea. 

Ha!  You didn’t see that blonde prance in behind Willie McGinty, did you? 

You’ve just been assaulted. 

And whether you liked it or not, whether my lascivious prose offended your sensibilities and compelled you to expound on how that dirty-minded rascal needs to be hanged from the nearest ceiling beam without further ado, or whether I made you chuckle and squirm in your chair a little with your ears warming, I was showing you that pretty blonde’s, um, attributes, and not just telling you about them.

That’s my job.  That’s what keeps my beer fridge stocked and why I can occasionally throw a ribeye on the Weber. 

You can summarize action now and then or get into a character’s head to tell us what he’s thinking.  But, aside from one and a half inch chunks (or smaller!) here and there, mostly what you’re getting paid to do is create a tactile world in the reader’s mind as real and with as much dimension as the one you’re sitting in now.  With more dimension, in fact, because it has Surround Sound!

Go ahead, don’t be shy.  Take me upstairs to that doxie’s crib.  Mean Pete’s just dyin’ to pontificate on the cost of Chinese tea!

(Stay tuned, Assaulted Reader, for a companion article to this one on how illustrating as opposed to pontificating can be enhanced by the deft handling of point of view...and really doesn’t work without it!)

Monday, August 19, 2013


Dave Whitehead of Piccadilly Publishing over there across the pond just sent me the cover for the e-book reprint of my fourth Lou Prophet novel, which hasn't seen the light of day in well over ten years.  It will be out in September, so stash away some cash for it, will you, and help keep Mean Pete in cheap booze, even cheaper women, and Swisher Sweets?

I think the Lou Prophet covers--by the great Cody Wells--are getting better and better!


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Excerpt from LONNIE GENTRY

Lonnie Gentry is the novel Mean Pete is currently working on.  It's MP's first venture into the Young Adult Western genre, though MP thinks adults will love it, as well...

Excerpt, Chapter 41

THE GENERAL TOSSED his head wildly and loosed another piercing whinny.
            Casey’s mare joined the stallion a half-second later with its own ripping whinny.  Lonnie whipped his head around to see what appeared a cabin-sized creature moving down the opposite, wooded slope, ahead and on his right and obscured by pines and aspens and occasional tamaracks and spruces. 
            Sunlight shone on the beast’s cinnamon fur that rippled as it ran down the slope, mewling and snarling.
            Holding his reins tight in both hands up close to his chest, Lonnie shouted, “Bear!” 
            He meant to add, though of course he hadn’t really needed to, that they’d best make a hard run for it.  But as though Casey’s mare was violently offended by the word “Bear,” the horse pitched suddenly off her front hooves, lifting her head and fear-sharp eyes and buffeting mane high in the air to Lonnie’s right.
            Casey screamed, “Lonnie!”
            The boy reached for the girl, to try to keep her from falling out of her saddle, but just as he did, Casey went flying backward off the mare’s rump.  The General gave a similar, sky-clawing pitch onto its rear hooves, causing Lonnie, who’d loosened his grip on his reins and was leaning too far out from his saddle, to lose the reins all together.  Knowing that he was going to fall now no matter what, he kicked his boots free of his stirrups and gave a shrill curse that his mother would not have approved of but would no doubt have forgiven him for, under the circumstances.
            That was a vague, short-lived thought, gone without a trace just before the ground rose sharply at an angle to smack Lonnie on the shoulders and the back of his head.  He cursed again as he rolled down the slope they were halfway to the bottom of, wincing as a sharp stick poked his right thigh. 
            When he rolled up against a thick, half-rotten log, bells tolling in his head and his brains feeling as though they were about to slither out his ears, he looked up.  Casey was rolling toward him on his left, her hair and the slack of her coat flying wildly.
            The girl’s tumble was stopped by a slight, flat shelf in the slope that was heavily padded with forest duff.  She lay for a moment, head on the downslope, feet on the upslope, arms and legs akimbo.
            The forest was spinning crazily around Lonnie.  There was an old leaf in his right eye, causing that eye to burn.  There was another one in his ear, and bits of leaves and pine needles in his hair.  Some had fallen down the back of his coat and his shirt, raking his skin. 
            Despite his disorientation, he managed to gain one knee.
            Casey was also climbing to her feet, leaves and pine needles falling from her tangled hair and her shoulders.
            The mewling and growling continued to grow louder, as did the thuds of the running beast’s four feet.  Lonnie turned to see that the bear was only a few yards from the bottom of the ravine that was only about a twenty-foot gap between the steep slopes.  He turned to Casey at the same time that Casey turned to him, her mouth and eyes wide, and they screamed each other’s names at the same time.
            Lonnie turned toward where he’d been thrown off the General’s back.  Both horses had fled into the ravine and were now galloping swiftly out of sight, the General leading the mare, both horses trailing their reins, until they were gone from view altogether.
            Not only were both horses gone, but Lonnie’s Winchester was gone, as well.
            “General, you gall-blasted skunk of a worthless...!”
            Lonnie let his voice trail off as he automatically grabbed his hat off the ground and scrambled up the slope and over to Casey.  As he did, he cast another look down the slope at the bear. 
            The bruin wasn’t cabin-sized, he could see now that it was closer.  But it was at least as large as a good-sized freight wagon.  It would probably have dressed out close to a thousand pounds.  Its long, shaggy, cinnamon fur was silver-tipped across the hump behind its head, forming a silver swath down its back to its broad rump.
            It was now lumbering up the slope in the direction of Lonnie and Casey, shaking its heart-shaped head with one straight and one ragged, flopping ear, and opening and closing its mouth as though showing off its long, yellow, razor-edged teeth, one strategic swipe of which could very likely tear Lonnie in two...
            The sun flashed off its large, glassy brown-black eyes, which owned the mind-numbing, cold-blooded savagery of the wild primeval.  The grizzly was like the cold soul of the universe that would kill you without thinking only because, if it thought about it all, it would have regarded life as nothing more than silly ornament. 
            Lonnie locked gazes with the beast for a single moment, and the universe yawned at the boy.  His belly tumbled into his boots.  The beast’s mindlessly brutal eyes silently vowed to impersonally, without malice, rip Lonnie limb from limb and to devour every inch of him and to chew his bones clean afterwards, simply because he was hungry or because his territory had been invaded, or merely because he could. 
            That gaze almost caused the boy’s knees to turn to warm mud and to buckle.
            Leaving both him and Casey a sure, easy meal for the charging bruin...
            Lonnie shook himself out of the trance.  Feeling a cold sweat bathing every inch of him beneath his clothes, he charged up the slope, grabbed Casey’s hand, jerked her brusquely to her feet, and then turned and started running toward some rocks he’d only half taken note of.
            Many of the rocks appeared to be boulders.  They’d probably tumbled long ago from the ridge crest and now rested haphazardly and like giant, fossilized dinosaur eggs amongst the trees.  Lonnie thought that he and Casey might be able to find sanctuary somewhere amongst those rocks though he had no idea where, exactly.  Maybe they could climb one of the boulders, some of which appeared nearly as large as a two-story house. 
            Lonnie knew that grizzlies--and the big boy after him and Casey was surely a silvertip griz, if it was anything and not a rabbit!--could climb trees large enough to hold their weight, or could tear down the tree that couldn’t hold them but which housed their prey.
            Could they climb rocks, as well?
            As Lonnie ran, breathing hard, he felt Casey pulling back on his hand.  He turned toward her.  She was limping badly.
            “Casey, come on, we gotta--!”
            “It’s my ankle again!” she screamed as she dropped to a knee.  “I’m sorry, Lonnie!” 
            She glanced back at the bear charging up the slope behind them.  The big, shaggy, snarling beast was within seventy yards and closing fast.  The bruin might have been large and ungainly, but it seemed to be running as fast as General Sherman could gallop when given his head. 
            The ground rumbled beneath Lonnie’s boots.  As the morning breeze swirled, it filled Lonnie’s nose with the beast’s heavy, sickly sweet fetor.  It was the stink of some large, dead, vermin-infested, shaggy thing wrapped in the rotten cucumber stench of a rattlesnake den.
            Casey peeled Lonnie’s hand from around her wrist.  “Run, Lonnie--for godsakes, let me go, and run!” 
            “Not a chance!” Lonnie hollered, crouching to drag Casey’s squirming body over his shoulder.
            He turned toward the upslope and amazed himself by how fast the ground seemed to be passing beneath his hammering boots.  By how quickly the jumble of scattered, gray boulders was growing larger ahead and above him...
            “Lonnie, you damn fool!” Casey screamed, punching his back with the ends of her fists.
            Lonnie figured that Casey weighed maybe only ten or fifteen pounds less than he did, but with his heart’s fierce pumping and the weird, powerful energy surging through his veins, the girl seemed to weigh nothing at all. 
            Lonnie gained the stone escarpment jutting out of the side of the slope, and without even pausing to plan his course, he headed for a narrow, dark cleft in the bulging stone wall ahead of him.  If the cleft went nowhere, and was shallow enough for the bear to reach in for them, Lonnie and Casey would quickly be bear bait. 
            Fortunately, while the cleft was indeed only about six feet deep, it didn’t dead end.  It’s ceiling opened onto more, higher rocks, and Lonnie thrust Casey up through the open ceiling and onto what appeared to be a granite ledge above them. 
            Lonnie could smell the bear’s ghastly stench so strongly now that his eyes were watering and his lungs were contracting against it.  He didn’t bother to look back, because he didn’t want to see what he knew he would.  But in the periphery of his vision he saw the raging bull griz run up to the cleft, shutting out the light and filling the natural closet in the rocks with dark, stinky shadows and the ear-piercing echoes of its enraged roars.
            The beast was so close to Lonnie that the boy could feel the heat of its dead fish breath.  He winced as one or two of the beast’s razor-edged claws--as long as pitchfork tines--tore into his back with one clean swipe through his coat and his shirt.
            “Ow, goddangit!” Lonnie yelped.
            “Lonnie!” Casey screamed, looking down at him from the ledge above him.  Her blond hair hung toward him, nearly grazing his forehead.  She thrust her right hand down toward him, as well.
            Lonnie ignored it and leaped up for a handhold on the opposite side of the cleft from Casey.  He found one, found small cracks and ledges in which to stick his boot toes, and began climbing the eight-foot wall.  He climbed in a mad, horror-stricken frenzy, feeling the bruin’s paws swiping at his boot heels.  Lonnie hoisted himself over the edge and rolled clear of the dark cleft in which the bear’s roars continued to echo so loudly that they seemed to be originating from inside Lonnie’s own head.
            The bear stench wafted up through the hole in the escarpment, between Lonnie and Casey on the other side of it, and for a quick second Lonnie thought of the ground giving way to vent the enraged screams of demons trapped in Hell...
            Lonnie closed his eyes, relieved to be out of the beast’s reach.  Gradually, his heart slowed.
            But then Casey groaned.  “Oh, no, Lonnie--he’s climbing up here!”

(I'm hoping that Five-Star will publish this in hard-cover and trade paperback and in large-print, as well.
Mean Pete intends to publish the digital version his nasty ole self...within a year or so....)

Here's an alternate cover.  Let me know which one you prefer, will you?  Or, maybe neither...


Friday, August 9, 2013

THE OLD WOLVES Now Available!

This is the second volume in my new series featuring the old, mossy-horned deputy U.S. marshal, Spurr Morgan.  Spurr might have a failing ticker, but he's still one fast ranny with his Starr .44. (The ladies like him to...)

The book is available now in print and e-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere.



Mean Pete is now back from his sojourn to Nevada/California, and he's hard at work finishing up his first YA-adult crossover western, LONNIE GENTRY, excerpts of which will be posted here forthwith.

Let me leave you with a pic of Mean Pete paying tribute to John Henry "Doc" Holliday's memorial at the old pistolero's final resting place on a hill overlooking Glenwood Springs, Colorado...

Gidyup, pards.