‘light and set.

‘Somebody wanted to kill him’
‘It is given to few people in this world to disappear twice’
‘[Name] was a stranger to the town of Seven Pines and fortunately he was a stranger with a fast horse.’
‘Crispin Mayo had a wish to walk the high land with the company of eagles and the shadow of clouds’

Some of the sharper pencils in the box may have recognized those first lines. And some of you may have had your memory stirred by them and gone to haul out the books from your shelves already. This, BTW, is all Sanford Begley’s fault, as he did a similar prod on facebook a few days ago, and distracted me into re-reading Flint.

And then I see it had the same effect on Amanda, by yesterday’s post.

They’re Louis L’Amour first lines, for those who didn’t recognize them. And while this is principally a sf/fantasy writing site, it takes a fool not to learn from other genres, and a damned fool to sneer at books which have been read by hundreds of millions, and people right across the range of education and intellect. Our traditional publishing industry and our literary arts establishment may turn up their noses at this, and continue to try to ‘educate’ us, but they will never approach the penetration of the market, nor, I like to think , the effect on society that L’Amour had.

The wise author puts aside his preconceptions and learns. Even idiots like moi can. I’ve learned from Atwood, and from Nabokov and Kafka… but it wasn’t a patch on what I learned about writing from L’Amour, Dick Francis, Georgette Heyer or Maeve Binchy.

These were authors doing something right. These were authors appealing across a broad spectrum of readers, and selling by reader PULL not by publisher PUSH. And in the future, that is what has to come into play with the e-book market. It’s not a push market anymore.

Of course there is space for other books, books as different from these as possible and still with a niche audience. But these authors were selling to tens if not hundreds of millions. So back when I was still in my ‘study every book, see what made it sell’ (a mistake, in a push universe, but I didn’t know that then) phase, these were what I used as role models. And… um, I didn’t really get PC, it was so stupid I didn’t anyone who read would, and as I assumed readers decided what sold, I discounted it.
I picked up a few things from these authors, and I thought I’d list a few for you to think about.
Firstly – and gee – I have been saying this for years – the first thing that you can learn from L’Amour is that if you tell stories well enough the ‘rules’ don’t apply to you (but first learn them! Then break them judiciously) – For instance he is very capable of showing, not telling, but often tells you about things, in a chatty, easy-to-read style.

And there is two. DO NOT BE TURGID. Accessible reading – good Flesch indexes are actually more common in pull bestsellers than anything else.

Three: Know what you’re talking about. I know. We all say that, over and over. If you’re a young teen writing don’t make your POV middle aged and worldly wise. Maybe you’ll pull it off, but maybe you won’t. The real exception here is of course fantasy – particularly high fantasy, where you and the reader are both likely to be modern urban folk. Yes a lot of High fantasy makes TBAR (throw the book across room), but I’m weird. I know too much about pigs. And curing meat and… But you get the feeling that L’Amour really knew his country (and indeed, several Western friends have said you can virtually navigate by his descriptions). There are almost always fistfights – gee. Read his background.

Four: there is a fine balance between over-describing and under. L’Amour is a master. There is actually less description than you realize but what there is, is precise small ‘framing’ details

Five: Oddly metrosexuals just don’t cut it. The men are men. Very un-PC… appeal to men, and no surprise (to me) appear to appeal to a lot of heterosexual women readers too. There’s no PC count-the-tokens – yes there are good (and bad) ‘Indians’ – usually mentioned as Apache. Paiute etc, and occasional Black (Hanging Woman Creek) and other ethnicities. But they’re human, and, um, real working men. L’Amour pushes the concept that ordinary men, living in wild and lonely places valued reading, and prized books, and that a literate man would get ahead – which is what I call SENSIBLE social engineering 🙂 But I am biased (and it is true).

Six: there is a fairly clear moral line. L’Amour’s men (and women) heroic characters are cut of similar cloth in one sense: they’re individuals standing – often against the odds for their convictions They waste little time on angst. Sometimes they’re wrong, and sometimes – a la Fallon, set out to be dishonest, or take advantage of the circumstance (The Iron Marshal), but always it comes down to choices they choose, easily, the side of honor.

Seven: Stereotypes work. I know Crispin Mayo’s Irish brogue is real as Chinese tartan, but it’s compelling, easy to follow, distinctive done. I suspect the western speech is much the same, part real, part more than anyone would use, but it is easy to read. It’s not so heavily done as to make you have to ‘larn’ it just to read it. It’s often real a pattern of speech –the brogue or his rare French characters, or really a handful of words. That’s an art.

Eight: Transitions can be abrupt so long as the reader knows where the hell you are. That was so valuable to me.

Nine: There is romance. And it sells to men. It’s not angst and endless courtship. But it is romance. Love. And it goes hand-in-hand with honor in those books.

Ten – the country can be part of the story too – I could go on, but it is your turn.

61 thoughts on “‘light and set.

  1. Flashbacks, he does them seamlessly. When you read his work you are proud to be a man, or a woman, and have no problem knowing which one you are. Pacing, every thing in it’s time, the endings are never rushed an you don’t feel like he left you hanging. Likeability, you genuinely like his protagonists and want them to succeed on every level. Arguably the best writer of the last hundred years. Unless of course you are literary, then he was a lowbrow hack with some story telling ability but no class

    1. Let me be a lowbrow hack with some story telling ability any day of the week, Sanford. I’d much rather be that and have folks read and enjoy my work than be literary and never be read for enjoyment.

    2. And now the million dollar question Sanford – how does he achieve that likeability? (I have some ideas, but I would like to hear yours.)

      1. That isn’t a simple thing to corner, if I knew that I might apply some of it in real life. That being said I’ll give it a whirl with a few obvious basics.
        First his men are men, his women are women, and they know it and are happy about it. I don’t mean heterosexual, I mean sure of their roles in life and content that life is like that. A boy of 12 in his books is trying to do mans job and keeps trying til he succeeds. He feels that if he acts as a man he is one. Not the drinking and stupidity of wild boys but the assumption of responsibility. No crying and whining, just dig in and do it.
        Second his characters are secure in what they believe. Not strongly and publicly religious but bound by personal codes of honor and faith. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be thieves,look at the Clinch mountain Sacketts. It does mean they can’t be petty. A L’Amour character (LC after this) might steal or kill, he won’t steal your horse in the desert though, nor your water. If you aren’t currently engaged in shooting at each other he will help patch up your injuries and feed the hungry and water the dying of thirst.. You help innocents and take people for how they behave, not how they look or what they believe.
        Third is the fact that neither fear nor inconvenience will stop them from doing what needs doing. His characters are often afraid, lonely and unhappy,they still do what needs doing. “There ain’t no stoppin’ a man who knows he’s right and keeps a’commin'” is at the heart of every one of them. The way to keep a’commin’ may be holding the farm together til pa gets home instead of gun fighting, if so an LC keeps the farm together.
        Fourth none of his characters are at all conceited about their abilities, the gunfighters mostly think of themselves as cowboys or sheriffs, nor the fastest gun around. They may know they have unusual skill but they don’t attach a lot of importance to it. In fact it is obvious that most of them would rather be better educated or a better cattleman than a gunfighter..
        Fifth every one of them wants to better themselves. They don’t want to be rich or famous, they want to be respected by other men. Real respect for real abilities, not money or reputation as a bad man.
        Sixth, they all want what every man wants at heart. A home, a partner, kids and love.
        This is where I will leave it for now., There are other reasons and the order of importance is not the order I put them in necessarily, simply the order they occurred to me..

  2. At worst, L’Amour was formulaic, but his formula worked. I’ve long thought that Flint was the best of his books.
    But if there’s a gripe, it’s that I can read through one of his books in two hours or less. Only a very few take longer.
    Good points about pacing and not being tedious. I’m having a real struggle with that. Maybe in the editing I’ll get it fixed…
    The Jack Reacher novels (main character) share some of L’Amour’s strengths and formulaic faults, I think. And they’re popular too in the way that L’Amour’s books were. And are.

    1. You are correct about the time it takes to read one. That’s a feature not a bug. Despite the goat gaggers of recent years most books were written to be read in an afternoon. (average speed readers would probably take longer than most of those here). I actually prefer a book I can read in one sitting rather than one that takes a week .

      1. I’d agree (and say actually his longer books are ones I enjoy less). But not everyone or every story is suited to the crisp treatment. Some books are well suited to being read gradually (says Dave who last read LotR in 11 hours).

    2. On pacing – beware the endless headlong rush too. Unless you can read a book in 2 hours or less… a breakneck paced book can be exhausting to read.

  3. Flesch index? To the google.

    That was interesting. Accessibility is hard. Opacity is easy.

    At the day job, the plain language police come down on everyone periodically, and act like everyone wants to write poorly on purpose. This is just not true. Lots of people come out of our education system using the passive voice. Engineers have told me that scientific writing requires the passive voice. Whether or not that is true–and I have my doubts–passive voice leaves you wondering who has to do what, what caused what, and who put us all in a Faulkner novel. People who write complicated instructions in an order where the third step is stated first, and the first step is buried in the middle of the second paragraph? They aren’t evil. They just need assistance. Apparently, however, placing step one first and step two second isn’t intuitively obvious. That being said, when “obvious” stuff like that is hard for people who don’t do a lot of writing, I’ve never understood the desire to tell stories out of order just for artsiness or how miring one’s sentences in obscurity is good writing.

    Sentence length is also interesting. American fiction seems to tend toward shorter sentences. On average. (I say this purely on impressionistic grounds, not anything substantiated by studies or computer models or even getting out of my chair and looking at one.) Georgette Heyer and even some random contemporary English novelists I’ve sampled seem to run to longer, more nuanced statements. That’s hard to do well, yet they pull it off and are very accessible.

    I’ve only read one L’Amour. I really liked it, and clearly need to read more. It was Last of the Breed, which was about an escape from the USSR. Any recommendations for what to read first on the Western front?

        1. Flint and Reilly’s Luck, Dark Canyon, The Haunted Mesa, and… well actually I highly recommend all of his works except the Hopalong Cassidy novels. (there was a reason he refused to have those published under his name while he was alive) But those mentioned along with Last of the Breed and Sackett Brand are probably my favorites, and Sackett Brand is in the middle of a series, while all his series books are stand-alone novels (something other authors could learn from) and it can be read very well by itself there are nuances in it you will only get after reading some of the other Sackett books. (more so than any other book he wrote, I believe)

    1. When I first started writing I had no idea how it would come out, style-wise. I’ve discovered that my deep background in oral formulaic and early literature (ballads, epic poetry, sagas) has been the important factor. Plain, hard, Anglo-Saxon words, most of the time, even for the educated characters, just seem to fit my uses.

      The more-educated characters will use a more literate vocabulary when just the right word is needed, but that doesn’t often seem really necessary in dialogue, and the non-dialogue description stays pretty close to that, too.

      I think Jack London is much the same way, and even Kipling (aside from his ethnic exoticisms). Come to think of it, is this part of the appeal of the classic old YA stories we all love as adults, that their diction is simplified along the same lines? Books like: Freckles, The Jungle Books, Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood, A Little Princess.

      1. Um. If you have the patience to do it, you will discover that I tailor sentence length and vocabulary to the character’s education. Where it becomes really interesting is where the character’s thoughts are more complex than heir ability to express them. Dialogue will be one level, thoughts another. I honestly don’t think that the language or even diction is dumbed down in Kipling, or Gene Stratton Porter. The sentence length is perhaps.

        1. My current WIP has two point of view characters, an engineer and a lawyer. They are both told in the third person, but I’ve worked with engineers for years, and I know when I’m making her dialogue or thought processes sound wrong. The lawyer comes naturally, but I’m constantly in real-time revisions with the engineer.

    2. Short words and short active sentences are better, especially for fiction.

      There are times when the passive voice and long words/sentences are required, the trick, it seems to me, is to only use them then. A lot of science writing – especially for scientific journals – seems to be deliberately bad and boring. Certainly the style is diametricaly opposite to that of successful fiction. I recall Isaac Asimov wrote a spoof chemical paper (about a chemical with negative time to dissolve) specifically to get himself into the write writing frame. Its quite funny and not IMHO as boring as more moder scientific papers

      1. Oh, it is “bad” and boring. I’ve been fussed at for being too readable. You see, accessibility means you are not writing for your peers, and a readable book or article is obviously not be up to the rigorous standards of proper technical and historic work. (What that says about one’s “peers” I leave to the readers’ imagination.) More American writers seem guilty of it than British, although the gap has narrowed considerably over the past 20 years.

        1. Oh me too. Peed on for using simple modern English (with no Okay or anachronisms) instead of typical high fantasy language. The characters language was bastardised Frankish, as spoken by ordinary people. Did they expect thee and thou? And the ability to conflate ‘turgid’ with ‘well-researched’ (grinds teeth)… any fool can write a long turgid book. It takes genius and/or a lot of hard work to handle a complex subject so it is short and NOT turgid.

          1. Recently I filled out a web form, giving feed back on some work. My first draft was far bigger than it really needed, and I noticed when it wouldn’t take it.

            It helped me learn, again, that I don’t think enough about the why and the who of my writing. I have much to learn.

      2. Actually, I believe it is a little more complicated. I try for a good flesch, BUT mixing in a fairly high vocabulary content, and making sure my sentence length variance is reasonably high. Yes, actually I am some kind of nutter about this 😉

        1. That makes sense to me, too high a Flesch and it reads like a children’s book. That and it would get boring, I like popcorn books but, I want to be lured into thinking as well. It is hard to bring forth a mature and polished philosophy with Dick and Jane vocabulary

          1. My first word-processing program used to give me a unique word count, which because I was curious I compared to a fair number of other authors. It’s on the high edge. In order to improve the readability of my books I break them into 5 page sections and check sentence length – thus I know the average remains fairly consistant (between 8-10), gets shorter in action scenes, and always runs to a few mid twenties. (any sentence over 25 words gets looked over, any over 35 gets broken up unless it is that length for a reason. Yes, I am obsessive. and yes i have been accused of writing popcorn :-)). What I lack in talent I try to make up for with hard work.

    3. Fallon – Okay I am biased, Macon Fallon is a trickster, and something an anti-hero hero. I would naturally like that.

      One of the issues is that writing for the point of telling a story is just never taught at school level, and methinks, not much at any educational level. I was subjected to classes in Scientific writing – which encapsulated what is wrong with Science, IMO. Still, at least they got up and said what the point was. The point in story-telling (AKA fiction) is to keep your audience reading/listening. That has a whole set of different skills to essay writing, or science writing. Some people do it instinctively, others have to learn. The best, I venture, are those who learn to build on their natural skills. I had almost no natural skill, but at least i study and learn.

      There is a date component to sentence length analysis, BTW. Sentence average has been getting shorter, IMO. Heyer is on par with her time contemporaries. Some of this is made-up for by story telling skill – Lackey for example, runs longer than average sf/fantasy, but still manages to hold a readership.

      1. Yes, at the day job, first I tell you what I’m going to tell you. Then I show you. Then I say it again and hope you agree.
        If I did that in a story, it would be a very short story. And dull.

    4. Scientific writing requires the passive voice? Not exactly.

      Here’s the problem as I understand it. In many circles, the researcher is not allowed to use first person references — “I did a study” is verbotten. Depending on where you are writing, you may even get dinged for saying something such as “We performed a study” or “The researcher performed a study.” So… to construct a reasonable English sentence without anyone driving, use passive voice! A study was performed. By who? Well, implicitly, by the researcher, but this format is widely accepted, while “I performed a study” is given a black mark.

      Similarly, avoiding the anthropomorphism of “The study examined…” often results in passive voice. After all, “… were examined” avoids the question of who did the examination.

      It isn’t scientific writing that requires the passive voice. Passive voice provides a format where we can avoid direct reference to the researcher. That’s all.

      Even if it does mean that we warp most of the writing into pretzels trying to avoid admitting that we are doing our research, it is not simply being done.

    5. The Sacket Brand. The only book I have read five times over the last fourty years.

    6. I really liked Last of the Breed when I first read it… way back when the Iron Curtain still *was*. It was fabulous!

      I re-read it not too long ago and OMG he skipped the final show down!!!! I didn’t even notice that before. The hero went off stage and then… came back alive. The End. It’s still one of my favorites though.

      I’d recommend… Ride the River (I think it is). The hero is a heroine in that one. I think it’s the only book of his with a female primary. Also, it’s pre-revolutionary war Appalachia, so not strictly “Western”. There was another, too, that involved the hero going to Cuba (?) to rescue girls stolen from Eastern settlements by pirates. I just don’t remember the name of it, just that I really love swashbuckling stories.

      And of course, all the Westerns are great. 🙂

      1. There is the Cherokee Trail and a couple of others where the female is either Lead or Co lead. The Warriors Path is the the book where the hero goes to Port Royal to rescue a girl taken by slavers from the New England area

  4. “You may _break_ the rules whenever you need to, but you may never _ignore_ them.”

    Of course, for those of us in SF, this applies as much to the laws of physics as the rules of literature. 🙂

  5. L’Amour was a formative author for me, but that’s for several reasons… one, he was accessible, as my parents owned most of his novels, and Zane Grey. Two, I spent my childhood on the fringes of civilization, as rural as my folks could manage while Dad was in the military, and in the “Last Frontier” after, so I related to the characters, especially the women, who had to handle far more than any modern woman can imagine, and often alone, while the menfolk were out yondering. Third… well, I’m named not for a tree, as most people think, but for a character in a Western novel. I grew up riding mustangs and learning how to survive in the wilderness. So naturally, his stories resonate with me on a very deep level.

  6. Oddly enough L’Amour is just about the only Western Author ( guy who writes westerns) that I’ve read. I might have everything that he’s written…or if not then most.

    Good “comfort” reads. Human Wave for sure.

  7. You bring your civilization with you. “Bendigo Shafter” is the clearest statement of this, but in all of L’Amour’s books, people bring their background and culture with them when they go new places, and it makes a difference in their behavior. But characters also change their culture if it no longer fits or they find a better one. A small, telling scene in “The Lonesome Gods” happens because one character finally lets go of her old culture, to the surprise of someone who has come to drag her back into it.

  8. The Sackett books were my first introduction but I have read most of his works at least once. I enjoy the friendships he weaves and the sense of honor and family,

    1. Honorable contuct is a big deal in all his books. I think he correctly identifies that as something a lot of readers like.

  9. Pardon my ignorance, but what does ‘push novel’ or ‘pull novel’ mean? Google only gave me a novel Push.

    I’ve seen the terms before once or twice – but not used as you have.


    1. “Push” and “Pull” are marketing terms for all kinds of products. “Pull” means that the potential customers demand it. “Push” means that a vendor is doing whatever they can to push it onto the marketplace and make it a hit.

      The success of Hugh Howey’s Wool is the result of “pull”.
      The success (or lack thereof) of J K Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy” is the result of “push”.

      1. Thanks you very much – marketing is my weak point. I’m saving learning about marketing for closer to when I can publish (Sep. 2014), and figure I’ll tackle it then because things change so quickly in self-publishing.

        It makes sense.

  10. One of the best audiobooks I’ve ever read was a bunch of country-western singers reading Louis L’Amour short stories. It convinced me!

    Re: bestsellers, Audible has the Great Courses series now, and one of the English classes (marvel of marvels!) is on bestselling novels throughout the years. I don’t know how far back it goes or what, but it’s probably worth finding out more.

    1. I think – in the fullness of time – that the pendulum will swing away from the impractical in writing classes, and actually start to focus on what works. But I can be a little optimistic.

  11. People, I’m very annoyed at you. All this talk about Louis L’Amour meant that I *HAD* to purchase three of his books. Grumble Grumble. [Wink]

      1. Flint
        Haunted Mesa
        Lonesome Gods

        Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to read them tonight. I have yard work tomorrow that I need to do before it gets too hot so I’ll should be shutting down early.

    1. I would consider The Lonesome Gods western, but I always did wonder what genre L’amour considered Haunted Mesa, since he wrote in his memoirs that he enjoyed science fiction and wanted to try writing in it, but hadn’t.

    1. This depends on who it is from. The Baen boilerplate one – no surprise here – is fairly readable, and not particularly complex. I have seen a couple of others clearly designed to obfusticate.

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