Happy Trails

July 20th, 2010


One of the things I like to do with this blog is pass along the kind of inspiration that writers can get only from other writers.  Often, this material has the added benefit of offering insight into the creative process.

I’ve been reading a wonderful book edited by S. Jean Mead, Maverick Writers: Candid Comments by 52 of the Best Western Authors. If you write or engage in any other creative enterprise, you need this book. Whether you read Western novels or not (I haven’t read many), the men and women women who talk about their work in this book are the kind of artists I like best, people who write hard enough to get calluses on their hands.  This is inspiration and general guidance on steroids.

One interview after another made me re-examine my own work ethic and my commitment to my writing.  Janet Dailey, for example, who began in romances and went to Westerns and mainstream novels, writes “fifteen pages a day . . . no matter how long it takes.  ‘. . . it’s usually a six-day process,’ Dailey says, ‘fifteen pages a day. . . . if I have a good day, maybe I’m only working eight hours,  Then, if it’s a bad day, I might work sixteen.'”  Sixteen? Sixteen hours a day?  “Only” eight is a good day?  Janet Dailey is one of my new heroes.

While I rarely confuse the authors of private-eye novels with actual private eyes, an awful lot of these people sound like they could rope a calf and write a paragraph at the same time, and without popping a sweat.  And, in fact, many of them have horses looming in the background.  To Elmer Kelton’s father, ” . . . work was something to be done on horseback or with a pick and shovel, not behind a desk.”  When Kelton finally worked up the courage to tell his father he was considering a career in journalism, “. . . he gave me a cotton-killing stare and declared, ‘That’s the way it is with you kids nowadays: you want to make a living without having to work for it.'”

When Elmore Leonard started writing, while still working as a copywriter at a Detroit ad agency, he got “out of bed each morning at five o’clock, [writing] two pages of fiction before going to work, ‘with the rule that I wouldn’t put the water on for coffee until I’d started writing.'”  Kelton tells would-be writers, “You have to make time.  You have to want it so badly that nothing will deter you from writing . . . in the long run, the only person who can teach you how to write is yourself, and the only way you learn is by doing it over and over and over and over again until it becomes second nature.”

Whew. And you want to hear a great title?  It’s the first book sold (in 1976) by Jeanne Williams, A Lady Bought with Rifles.  Got a better one?  Show it to me, I dare you.

And underlying all these marvelous pieces is the sense that the writers were working in a dying form, literary versions of the cowboys they wrote about, riding the vanishing range.  The magazines died first, and then the flood of paperback originals dried up.  These men and women, however, are not people you can feel sorry for.  What an amazing bunch.

Just a couple of representative quotes:

A.B. Guthrie, Jr.” “I think these are our moralities: entertainment and illumination enforced by our determination to write to the best of our abilities.”

Will Henry: “Why I really write, you see, is to get better. One day to become even better.”

Tremendous book, and all credit to Ms. Mead, who also writes, and very well, as Jean Henry Mead.  The book, as is the case with many an excellent title in this Age of Injustice, was remaindered by its publishers, and she bought up the unsold copies, demonstrating the kind of courage of convictions that so many of these writers represent.  If you’d like a copy of Maverick Writers, e-mail her at Seniorsleuth@aol.com and tell her so.  She’ll ask you for $7.50 and a mailing address and send you the book by return mail.  It would be a deal at three times that.  By the way, she’s also written Mysterious Writers, a similar book about mystery and thriller writers, and you can get it as an e-book from the book’s website.

You might also win Maverick Writers from me.  Janet Dailey says she wanted to write like a combination of Edna Ferber and James Michener.  Give me the combination of writers you’d like to write like, and I’ll pick two completely subjectively with no argument allowed and mail out a book to each of the inspired combiners.

8 Responses to “Happy Trails”

  1. Jean Henry Mead Says:

    Thanks, Tim, for a terrific review!!!

  2. Sylvia Says:

    My combination:
    Would it be possible to combine Margaret Atwood with Kurt Vonnegut? I suspect the result would be unintelligeable. Sylvia Plath with Gene Roddenberry then. Emotion, Pathos, Sex and Tribbles. What could possibly be better?

  3. Suzanna Says:

    Can we pick you? You and Robert B. Parker?

    Alright I guess that will definitely be perceived as trying to curry the judge’s favor so I’ll propose another two who don’t write mysteries. If I could magically acquire their talent I’d, number one, be amazed and confused, and number two, have a seriously messy house, an overgrown garden, and be blissfully hard at work on a fantastic novel. They are: Jhumpa Lahiri and Jeffrey Eugenides.

    Thanks for indulging my writer fantasy for the afternoon. I had fun.

  4. fairyhedgehog Says:

    Sylvia got there first! I was going to say Arthur C. Clarke and Margaret Atwood – so that Atwood could finally come out of the closet about writing science fiction!

    I like Sylvia’s suggestion of Plath and Roddenberry too.

  5. Rachel Brady Says:

    Alice Sebold and Dennis Lehane. Both can manipulate my mood with their unique, well-placed images and phrases.

  6. Usman Says:

    Thanks for this piece Tim.

    How about Garcia Marquez and Steinbeck for literary novels.
    John Le Carre coupled with Elmore Leonard/Raymond Chandler. This combo could be fireworks for me. The grit of Leonard and the subtlety of Le Carre…hmmm.

    Interesting captcha: sierra reasoning

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, everyone — Sorry, sorry — CRAZY getting ready for QUEEN publication — the PowerPoint presentation for bookstores alone has already taken about 60 hours, and it still stinks.

    Will name winners within 49 hours.

  8. galen tarman Says:

    My all time western writer by the way is Max Brand…combine him with Raymond Chandler and you might have a no nonsense Bogart character who chases cowboys instead of dames..

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