Welcome Guest . . . Peter Brandvold

WHAT OUR PROSE AND CAVALRY CHARGES SHOULD HAVE IN COMMON

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’s 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 prosemoves.

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.

 

Since his first novel, Once A Marshal, was published in 1998, Peter Brandvold has written over seventy fast-action western novels under his own name and his penname, Frank Leslie.  Check out his website:  www.peterbrandvold.com.  Become a follower of his blog at: peterbrandvold.blogspot.com.

 

Guest Blogger

22 Comments

  1. Hey Pete,
    Great to have you back here at Wildflower Junction. I LOVE THESE TIPS of yours! You know, the book that got me started reading and loving romance novels, and eventually let to me wanting to write fiction, was Rosemary Rogers’ SWEET SAVAGE LOVE. I read this when I was about 20 or so, and I could not put that book down.I’ve read it many times since. Of course, by today’s standards, there are some things the writing world would consider “wrong”, but I love that book. There was always something happening, and in fact, the heroine, Ginny DOES stab Steve (the hero) after he’s kidnapped her. That remains one of the sexiest scenes I’ve ever read to this day, because of the dialogue and following action between them, and what led up to her being desperate enough to stab him in the first place. I think the problem is, for a lot of new writers especially, that they’re told all the rules–what not to do, what TO do, etc. and so much of the writer’s personality is lost in trying to tell the story because they don’t want to do something wrong. The fact is, you just can’t please everyone so you’ve got to please yourself, as Ricky Nelson said. This is a great post–great advice.
    Cheryl

  2. I enjoy reading westerns and I love reading stories that move. They keep my interest best of all! I haven’t ever left a book unfinished but I have taken months to finish it because it did not keep my intrest. In the meantime I have read many books inbetween. Thanks for a very intesting post.

  3. Pete is a fine writer, and his tips taught me something – even after writing 50 novels of my own. Dang, that bird on the water jug really got to me.
    Keep up the good work, Pete, and may your beer always be cold.
    Regards,
    Joe West

  4. Hello, Peter–wow, I’m certainly pleased I read your post. Almost passed it by, because I have a long list of to-dos on the left side of my desk. I cannot begin checking them off, though, because now I’m writing to you, I suppose hoping some of your talent and enthusiasm will rub off on me. Why? Because I’m that person wandering around the house, “piddling,” as my mother used to call it. In other, words, wasting time in order to avoid the real work.
    Now, though, I believe a feel a spark.
    Thanks so much for your advice. It read so much nicer than, 1. Do not…blah, blah, blah.

  5. All great writing tips – thanks for sharing. And your own wrter’s voice certainly shines through in your post.

  6. Pete,
    Those writing tips are first class. Makes me want to redo what I have in the works right now.
    Enjoyed them.
    Thanks,
    Jerry Guin

  7. Fantastic advice from a fantastic writer. Peter Brandvold knows of what he speak because the man’s novels move and sweat and sing and gallop in all the right places–and unexpected ones, too. He remains one of my favorite writers and I try to learn from him at every turn. Thanks for the tips!

  8. Wonderful words of advice. I wish I’d heard this many years ago. Sure would’ve saved me a lot of wasted effort. But then, maybe it wasn’t wasted. At least I learned from my mistakes and that’s always a good thing. Glad to have you back.

  9. Wow, if this doesn’t inspire me, I don’t know what will. What a fantastic post. You gave wonderful advice and made it fun and quite vivid! Loved it!!

    I’m glad I stopped in for a visit. Now,
    I’m heading back to work. I hear my muse calling. 🙂

  10. Amen.

    Sometimes, just one word can do it.

  11. You are so right about the story “looking pretty on the pages.” Not only is it the big clumps that are off-putting, but for me it is many pages with one or two sentence paragraphs, usually dialogue. It makes the reading rather choppy.

    Your point on being descriptive is well taken. That extra bit of color makes all the difference in making a scene or setting come to life. It is like the difference between seeing a black and white photo and standing right there, a part of what is going on.

    And yes, as you said, the flow is important. This goes back a little to what I said earlier about short sentences, but it is more than that. I’ve read some books that have well written sentences and paragraphs, but they don’t blend well into each other.

    As to your third point, my feeling is never underestimate the value of the unexpected or the humorous. Those two elements often make a book for me. I hadn’t thought of it before, but if you don’t feel enthused about writing your story, who is going to be interested in reading it.

    Thanks for an interesting evaluation of writing techniques. Makes me want to go out and write a book.

  12. Hi Peter,

    Thank you for such great tips, and presented in a way that lit a fire under my feet to get my fingers moving over the keys! I’m ready to head over to my wip and really shake things up!

  13. When I started reading Pete’s work, one of the first things I noticed was his ability to focus on just the right detail to make a scene come alive. He’s one of the absolute best at that. I agree with everything else he has to say in this post, too.

  14. Great hints and helps, Peter. Thanks for spending the day with us!

  15. Thanks for all the kind comments. I think I wrote that essay as much as a reminder to myself as to anyone else.

    Thanks again to all of you. This was great fun!

  16. The best from the best! And a real kick to see Peter’s blood-churin’ yarns bustin’ full bore onto the digital plains. Good pickens at Amazon, gang!

  17. Loved your post. Thanks for the reminder about details. Loved what you described with the saloon and the missing door, etc. Makes me want to rewrite everything I’ve written and make it better. This is the kind of post that makes me excited to write. 🙂

  18. Hi Pete what sterling advice. I see what you mean about the saloon, you painted a far better picture in the end. And its kind of like that isnt it? Like a painter. It’s all in the detail? Like you say you want your saloon to stand out in the readers mind;for them to get a clearer picture of what your describing.

    As for reading out loud. I laughed at that because, I’ve done just that and you’re so right it works. Like you say if it flows it works and its so much easier to hear it flow when you say it out loud. Thanks Peter for the advice once again. It’s much appreciated and its something I will endeavor to apply when I am practising my writing.

    I love to write and really get a buz when something I write flows. One day I would like to publish. I dont know if it will ever happen and right now I dont care, I’m just having fun with other forums but who knows. If it happens advice like this is very valuable and like I said appreciated….thanks Pete, Heather

  19. Totally agree about vivid imagery — it’s a fine edge of using those details without overloading a paragraph. Great post, Pete! Thanks, P&P ladies!

  20. Your words are brilliant, but I am sure you already know that. Thanks for the reminder. I love it when you can take something offtrack and catch the reader off guard. I used to love doing it to my children and it is fun.

  21. Bravo. What better advice than to show us rather than tell us. On editing my latest novel, I’m going to hear hour words drumming in my ears like the heartbeat of my character who just won’t move out of that saddle and “do something relevant and unexpected.”
    Thanks for passing on the sort of advice that keeps all of us going.

  22. Dang! If them words won’t knock you right outta your saddle well before you reach that low-hangin’ limb, well, hell, you just ain’t payin’ attention. Thanks for the forty-five caliber advice from one of the best writers around.

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