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Old 03-30-2012, 08:08 PM   #1
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Writing Westerns / Writing Short Stories / Critting Westerns

This is a discussion thread. With the interest in the western contest and posts and crits of some of the stories after the contest, I thought it might be an idea if we kick around our ideas about writing westerns, writing short stories, and critting westerns - what works and what doesn't work so well.

Traditionally, by definition, a classic Western is set in the period from 1860 to 1890 in the American west (west of the Mississippi River). The time definition can be stretched to go back to the Alamo (1836) or up to the Mexican Revolution in 1920. Westerns are usually simple morality tales written about the period of exploration and development.

By definition a story has five main parts. A) Character - protagonist and maybe antagonist. B) Setting - time and place, local color, mood and atmosphere, even the weather. C) Plot - the events and character actions relating to the central conflict. Plot has a beginning, middle, and end - an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and final outcome. D) Conflict - without conflict there is no plot. Conflict can be external or internal. E) Theme - the central idea or belief.

Critiques come in several forms - line by line with all seen problems in the writing noted, shorter comments about specific sections / issues in a story (verb tenses, POV, information accuracy, etc.), overview comments of what worked and didn't work, general comments of like and dislike, suggestions for improvement - but not major rewrites. Critiques should be of the writing and not of the story - the author / poster knows what his or her story is about; readers may have different interpretations.

So, with those parameters as a basis, what are your thoughts about writing westerns, writing short stories, and critting western stories posted in SYW? Are your interests and expectations different from the classic definitions, did you stick to one or another of the basic parameters in picking your three top stories for the contest, what type of crit is most helpful for you as a writer, etc.

All thoughts welcome with the caveat "Respect your fellow writers". Puma




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Old 03-31-2012, 01:13 AM   #2
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Well, this thread is a surprise.

I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter, Puma. Or are your thoughts expressed in the framing of the OP?

Look forward to hearing what you have to say.
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Old 03-31-2012, 02:18 AM   #3
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Well, I neither give nor receive critiques, so I'm out in the cold here.
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Old 03-31-2012, 02:35 AM   #4
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Well, I neither give nor receive critiques, so I'm out in the cold here.
Not so! The OP was also about the writing of westerns. I bet you have something to say about that.
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Old 03-31-2012, 02:36 AM   #5
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Well, I hesitated to crit Westerns before the contest because I didn't feel like I knew the history well enough. A short story was another unexplored avenue for me. Putting an entry into the contest was a lot like being thrown into the middle of a lake and told to swim for shore.

Perhaps a brief discussion on some of the cliches and sterotypes that should be avoided in writing a western would be helpful for beginners. I think a road map of tips might encourage more people to participate.
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Old 03-31-2012, 02:41 AM   #6
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Perhaps a brief discussion on some of the cliches and sterotypes that should be avoided in writing a western would be helpful for beginners. I think a road map of tips might encourage more people to participate.
Ohhhhh! I love this idea. Cliches and stereotypes. It's something you would think would be obvious, but it isn't alway (least ways not to me!)
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Old 03-31-2012, 03:54 AM   #7
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Perhaps a brief discussion on some of the cliches and sterotypes that should be avoided in writing a western would be helpful for beginners. I think a road map of tips might encourage more people to participate.
Ohhhhh! I love this idea. Cliches and stereotypes. It's something you would think would be obvious, but it isn't alway (least ways not to me!)
Agree with LP, especially as a new fan of westerns.

I haven't tried my hand at writing a western yet (though some ideas are brewing), and I found the info in the second paragraph of the OP really helpful. Very focus-ing, if you will, since at the moment I have so little frame of reference to help corral (no pun intended, I swear!) all those brewing ideas. YA, SF, MG, those are what I usually read, so I still feel a little out of my element. Far from uncomfortable though! I'm enjoying the discovery process.

I haven't critted any westerns yet either, and that's entirely a function of time constraints. It's been nuts here. I've been reading crits though, and working on my feedback post for all the contest entries (who knows when it'll be ready for actual posting though...).

When I do get the chance to come in and crit properly, my usual approach is LBL (line by line) mixed with and/or followed by my general impressions unless the writer specifically asks for general impressions only. Obviously my big post of all 40 stories is just a few lines for each entry, but I find that, as I compose that post, I'm tending to point out one or two 'you-nailed-it' and one 'this-might-need-attention' for each. All subjective of course. Also I tend toward the gentle rather than the blunt in my phrasing.

Which isn't to say I coddle. Far from it. I'm firm in my opinions but they're not a smack upside the head. Maybe lightly on the cheek but not upside the head.

Quote:
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So, with those parameters as a basis <snip>, did you stick to one or another of the basic parameters in picking your three top stories for the contest, . Puma
I didn't. As a newcomer who decided long ago that there was no way I would ever like westerns (I laugh now ), I voted for the three that surprised and challenged me most. However, I confess I was also looking for stories with good mechanics (correct spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.). I'm no professional editor but I know my stuff, and that stuff matters.

I hope all of that is of use to writers of westerns. I may not write or post a western of my own soon, but I'll be around.
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Old 03-31-2012, 07:05 AM   #8
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Traditionally, by definition, a classic Western is set in the period from 1860 to 1890 in the American west (west of the Mississippi River). The time definition can be stretched to go back to the Alamo (1836) or up to the Mexican Revolution in 1920. Westerns are usually simple morality tales written about the period of exploration and development.
I'm rather cool on claims to define a genre. Whose definition? A literary critic? A dictionary? Common usage?

I'm also iffy on Western's being simple morality tales. Plenty were complex and there is infinite range in the subject matter.

I have plenty of thoughts about the Western, which I can expand upon. But, I think that saying it is this and not that, setting goals and boundaries, is the matter of personal taste, the work of literary manifestos and movements.


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By definition a story has five main parts. A) Character - protagonist and maybe antagonist. B) Setting - time and place, local color, mood and atmosphere, even the weather. C) Plot - the events and character actions relating to the central conflict. Plot has a beginning, middle, and end - an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and final outcome. D) Conflict - without conflict there is no plot. Conflict can be external or internal. E) Theme - the central idea or belief.
Here's my thought. I like a story with a traditional arc. But, a lot of the prompts call for 1K to 2.5K. Particularly at the lower end there is not a lot of room for story & character & setting. But that is a good length for a character sketch, a vignette, or a prose poem which are all art forms in themselves with their own structure and goals. They are not easy to do though great writers like Dunsany or RB Cunninghame-Grahame made them look easy.

[/QUOTE]Critiques come in several forms - line by line with all seen problems in the writing noted, shorter comments about specific sections / issues in a story (verb tenses, POV, information accuracy, etc.), overview comments of what worked and didn't work, general comments of like and dislike, suggestions for improvement - but not major rewrites. Critiques should be of the writing and not of the story - the author / poster knows what his or her story is about; readers may have different interpretations.
[/QUOTE]

I have a mixed view of the SYW prompts. I like these little stories that let me try out an idea. They are not hard to write and can scratch an itch so to speak.

But mostly I'm there to show the flag. The critique I want is from an editor in the form of an acceptance (though rejection is part of the game).

When I offer a critique I try to look at the whole picture. What works and what doesn't, rather than line by line. Fixing punctuation or pointing out some passage is confusing is one thing. But unless you're buying the story, I can't see second-guessing every line.

I take an expansive view of the Western. It is a tale of American frontiersmen and the American frontier. But those allow a lot of range, from Columbus to the Moon landings in a particularly broad interpretation. America has always been much a highway to some promised land as it a destination in itself.

The Western can throw light on the exploration and conquest of many frontiers, not only our own. I would not scorn any writer or writing that seeks to draw inspiration from the Western, even if the frontier is in Siberia, or the Highvelt, or the Outback, or space.

I'm also friendly to genre-blending. Billy the Kid vs. the Wolfman can be plenty of fun.

But the weird/SF/Gothic/Fantasy Western is sort of a spice. The main course should be the frontier itself. But it seems like the spice has replaced the main course. Weird Westerns abound. The traditional, real-world based ones are getting scarce.

Here's the problem, how can you write Billy the Kid vs. the Wolfman if you know nothing of Billy? It's like doing kata, but not being interested in the front kick. The type of stories that took their inspiration in the historical West are foundational. They are the common language that allows us to make sense of the genre-blenders. Someone needs to keep writing them.

So what do we do?

Good question. I'm thinking about that manifesto and the movement I want to be part of. But I'll develop those in a future post and bring this one to a close.
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Old 03-31-2012, 03:23 PM   #9
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Well, there are also those subverting the genre, women writing the West from an outsider's perspective -- like Willa Cather.

Or using Western iconography while exploring homosexuality in a fraught context, as in Brokeback Mountain.
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Old 03-31-2012, 04:15 PM   #10
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Well, there are also those subverting the genre, women writing the West from an outsider's perspective -- like Willa Cather.

Or using Western iconography while exploring homosexuality in a fraught context, as in Brokeback Mountain.
IMO subverting is not quite the right word. Because it is negative. If the Western genre is going to survive, it is going to have to grow and evolve.

I haven't read or seen Brokeback Mountain but I have read some of Annie Proux's short stories. She is amazing! I can only hope to write half as well some day.
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Old 03-31-2012, 05:10 PM   #11
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But if it grows and evolves, is it still western genre? Or is western genre actually the very small niche described in the OP and anything beyond the small niche actually another genre? Puma
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Old 03-31-2012, 07:00 PM   #12
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But if it grows and evolves, is it still western genre? Or is western genre actually the very small niche described in the OP and anything beyond the small niche actually another genre? Puma
I see it as the reverse, the Western is very broad, and has many sub-genres and spin-offs.
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Old 03-31-2012, 07:58 PM   #13
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Well, I hesitated to crit Westerns before the contest because I didn't feel like I knew the history well enough. A short story was another unexplored avenue for me. Putting an entry into the contest was a lot like being thrown into the middle of a lake and told to swim for shore.

Perhaps a brief discussion on some of the cliches and sterotypes that should be avoided in writing a western would be helpful for beginners. I think a road map of tips might encourage more people to participate.
That's an interesting idea. I tend to look for cliches partly to avoid them, partly to subvert them, partly to freshen them up and find out what made them popular. The Western comes out of dime novels, pulp magazines, and lots of cheap paperbacks, they were adventure stories for popular entertainment.

Frank Gruber was an old pulp writer who wrote tons of Westerns. In his book The Pulp Jungle, he listed the nine types of stories editors bought. It's a fun look at Westerns circa 1942, and has some insights into Western pulps.

There was the rustler story: rustlers are cleaning out the heroine's herds. No one will help her. The hero wanders in and puts things right.

There was the range war story: the cattle baron is running roughshod over the sod-busters. The hero wanders in and puts things right. Shane, which is a classic, is this story, very well told.

Good-Unworthy: some violent threat hangs over the community. The hero deals with it violently, but even though his cause is good, his violence makes him unworthy of the woman he loves.

Lawman: the lawman must face a threat to the community. If he blows away the baddies, he is shunned. If he gets killed the townsfolk rise up in wrath to avenge him.

The Revenge Story: Damn near every spaghetti western ever. And Hamlet.

The Outlaw story: Robin Hood with a six-gun.

Cavalry & Indians: "Gee-whiz general. Didja ever see so many injuns?" Fort Apache. James Warner Bellah specialized in these.

The Ranch story: the ranch is in peril, an ordinary cow-poke does what must be done to save the ranch and win the girl's love.

The Union-Pacific story: the tale of building a railroad, telegraph, stage line, Stuckey's franchise, etc. and the two-fisted men and red-blooded women and the fur-bearing mammals who...

There's nothing wrong with any of these themes, it's all in the telling. They touch on some pretty basic stuff in frontier history, which maybe why editors bought so many back in the days of the pulps.
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Old 03-31-2012, 11:40 PM   #14
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That's a good list, Dave. But what's kind of odd to me in your list is the lawman stories - in light of all the radio and TV series that developed from the westerns - Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Gunsmoke, Paladin, etc. with the lawmen who survived and thrived much loved. Puma
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Old 04-01-2012, 12:46 AM   #15
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That's a good list, Dave. But what's kind of odd to me in your list is the lawman stories - in light of all the radio and TV series that developed from the westerns - Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Gunsmoke, Paladin, etc. with the lawmen who survived and thrived much loved. Puma
Dunno, I'm not sure Gruber was totally serious about that list. He was partly poking fun at the markets.

I guess the ironic reversal theme was big, if the lawman faces some outlaws with full support of the town and higher authorities, and then puts 'em in jail, there's not a whole lot of suspense. I get the feeling lawman stories are tricky, balancing suspense with the advantage someone in authority has.
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Old 04-01-2012, 03:15 AM   #16
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That's a good list, Dave. But what's kind of odd to me in your list is the lawman stories - in light of all the radio and TV series that developed from the westerns - Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Gunsmoke, Paladin, etc. with the lawmen who survived and thrived much loved. Puma
I don't know if the lawman stories from radio and TV could be looked at from the same perspective as books or even movies of the day, because the radio and TV series were serialized and heavily impacted by the sponsors. For example, I don't think you could look at The Six Shooter starring Jimmy Stewart as Britt Ponsett meandering through the west having adventures the same way you'd look at Gary Cooper's Will Kane in High Noon.

They had to keep the stories light (and the townspeople forgiving - in reference to the original point) to keep bringing the audience back every week. They also would have occasional episodes where other characters held center stage, and that gave them the chance to go closer to the kinds of western themes Dave was referring to in post #13. IMO.

I especially remember that with Gunsmoke.
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Old 04-01-2012, 03:21 AM   #17
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Now that I think about it, what may have seemed very hackneyed to Frank Gruber in the 1940s might be startling and fresh if done today.

EDIT: There I was aiming for a list of cliches, and ended up with something original.
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Old 04-01-2012, 06:38 PM   #18
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[QUOTE=Dave Hardy;7148979]I'm rather cool on claims to define a genre. Whose definition? A literary critic? A dictionary? Common usage?

I'm also iffy on Western's being simple morality tales. Plenty were complex and there is infinite range in the subject matter.

I have plenty of thoughts about the Western, which I can expand upon. But, I think that saying it is this and not that, setting goals and boundaries, is the matter of personal taste, the work of literary manifestos and movements.




Here's my thought. I like a story with a traditional arc. But, a lot of the prompts call for 1K to 2.5K. Particularly at the lower end there is not a lot of room for story & character & setting. But that is a good length for a character sketch, a vignette, or a prose poem which are all art forms in themselves with their own structure and goals. They are not easy to do though great writers like Dunsany or RB Cunninghame-Grahame made them look easy.

*******************************************




When I read Puma's outline to start this thread I was unsure where to begin--a great number of responses tumbled out of my head. Quoting Dave's passage helps me sort through my thoughts, and organize them--mostly, I suppose, because I agree with his comments. So I'll use them as a guide, a starting point.

Regarding definitions (in this case of a "western"), my immediate reaction is to pushback. I react in the same way when I read about the "rules" of writing a story. What comes to my mind is that if all writers follow the same definitions and the same rules, all we'll end up with is...the same. I have no interest, in the least, of writing the "same".

For example, the idea that the western is a "simple morality tale". Ok, so we toss McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" out the window then? Because it sure is anything but "simple" (well, maybe "blood simple" but now were crossing genres and mediums). The rules quoted, to me, are the rules that define the pulp western, the so-called "dime novels". I have no interest in digging those up to read (maybe for research, I suppose). I want a story with some complexity--which would reflect the reality of the expanding west of the Mississippi. Does anyone (Sarah Palin aside) not think "Manifest Destiny" brings with it complexity? Is it really "simple" for one man to shoot another with a six gun? To shoot two men? Over the course of his life time to shoot five or ten or twenty men? Regardless of what side of the "law" he is on. If you're story is going to be about the morality of that I sure hope it isn't simple. Not to mention the interaction of "white people" with the folks who were already inhabiting the land--and then mix in a little left over slavery to see how that stew boils. And none of this touches the idea of what life must have been like for woman. Story ideas abound that, to me, have little to do with tales of simple morality. (Huck Finn, anyone?)

Regarding the rules of short stories, in general, I think that the shorter the piece (much as Dave has already said), the more one should focus on a couple of elements of the story: the place, or the character, or the plot. Trying to sew together a story with everything gets you, I think, a thin coat with no lining. When I read Alice Munro I see complex stories, that appear incredibly easy, because in part, I think, the stories do not try to do too much. Their beauty and their complexity come from a certain organic quality they seem to have, like a rose--stem, thorn, leaf, flower but what beauty! (Sorry for my poor writing here--mixing metaphors with sewing and flowers.)

This is getting awfully long, so I'll conclude with another agreement with Dave: the interest in critique. I agree that the line by line seems more second-guessing. I appreciate when people point out the obvious (verb confusion) or passages that don't seem to flow or work for the reader, but overall I am looking for reaction from people who I assume are serious readers. Likewise, I try to respond to the stories of others as a reader--if it works for me or not and why, along with a couple of points of language use, or plot issue if they stand out.

I saw someone else post to this thread about the use of cliches, but I'll respond to that in a separate post.
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Old 04-01-2012, 07:02 PM   #19
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Perhaps a brief discussion on some of the cliches and sterotypes that should be avoided in writing a western would be helpful for beginners. I think a road map of tips might encourage more people to participate.

The key to cliches and sterotypes for a writer, regardless of the genre, is, I think, to know what the cliches and sterotypes are. Then you can use them, avoid them, or play with them. I would suggest that much of the bad writing that haunts our world stems from writers using cliches and sterotypes while proudly assuming they are being original.

I actually used the western trope, as I understood it from Hollywood films (I was born & bred on western movies but have read very few western novels), as a starting point when I decided to submit a story to the Western Contest. I had no idea what to write about, so I began with all the cliches I could think about: the black locomotive steaming around the bend (cue the Elmer Bernstein score, someone), a man wearing a Stetson, a horse of course, a Colt Navy pistol, an Apache wielding a Bowie knife, sage brush in the desert, and broken mesa in the distance. When I had all of that it my mind, I could then play with it. In the case of my story, I undercut it by placing the story in the present century, and making the hero just a little off-centre, shall we say, just a little ironic (I was going to sub-title the story "Travis Bickle Travels West" but I was afraid I'd never get my tongue out of my cheek if I did that, and besides he'd have to come from NYC and not Canada).

So, anyway, in any writing I don't think it is about avoiding cliche and sterotypes, but rather about understanding them. You can use them, and not necessarily by undercutting or subverting them--it maybe you can place them as points of comfort for the reader, familiar ground that in your particular story makes the cliche seem fresh. Just don't fool yourself that your writing is original if all you are doing is re-hashing cliches and sterotypes--though, I suppose, the writers who do that don't know they are doing that. Bad writers are probably very honest people, and honestly very bad writers.
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Old 04-01-2012, 07:38 PM   #20
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The way I interpret the definition of a story is that at the end the reader should not be left with questions having to do with what was set out as the premise (conflict) at the beginning of the story. It is acceptable to hint that there would be more adventures down the road, but the action / conflict set up at the beginning of the story needs to be brought to completion.

And that's the way I interpret advertised short story competitions or requests for short stories for magazines - they want a story with a plot and resolution of conflict, not a vignette or character sketch or description of a particularly lonely ghost town. But, that said, I'd be interested in hearing about any exceptions to complete story anyone's aware of that have made it through as winners of magazine and other contests. Puma
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Old 04-01-2012, 08:47 PM   #21
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The way I interpret the definition of a story is that at the end the reader should not be left with questions having to do with what was set out as the premise (conflict) at the beginning of the story. It is acceptable to hint that there would be more adventures down the road, but the action / conflict set up at the beginning of the story needs to be brought to completion.
I think, though, if you tie everything up with a big red ribbon, it's too pat. I'd like to leave readers with a little bit of mystery, something to talk about. "I wonder why they were on that trail, I wonder what happened to the prospectors" or whatever it might be it an example. As a reader, I don't what everything answered for me at the end of a story - because life isn't like that.
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Old 04-01-2012, 10:01 PM   #22
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But if it grows and evolves, is it still western genre? Or is western genre actually the very small niche described in the OP and anything beyond the small niche actually another genre? Puma
Puma, I suppose it is subjective. The most important opinions (unfortunately) are those of agents and editors. My opinion is that it must grow or die. I am a person that resists change and I love classics. But change does have some advantages as well.
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Old 04-01-2012, 10:20 PM   #23
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And that's the bottom line, lp - it doesn't matter at all what we think and how we define it, all that matters is what editors, agents, and the market want.

That's really the underlying reason for this thread. I assume some of the participants / posters here in Western have hopes of publishing someday. And if that's the case, we all need to be working collectively towards creating stories that will have market appeal. So, turning my three points from the original post into questions: What satisifies the market as a western?; What satisfies the market as a story?; What crits help us as writers to get us there? Puma
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Old 04-01-2012, 10:57 PM   #24
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And that's the bottom line, lp - it doesn't matter at all what we think and how we define it, all that matters is what editors, agents, and the market want.

That's really the underlying reason for this thread. I assume some of the participants / posters here in Western have hopes of publishing someday. And if that's the case, we all need to be working collectively towards creating stories that will have market appeal. So, turning my three points from the original post into questions: What satisifies the market as a western?; What satisfies the market as a story?; What crits help us as writers to get us there? Puma
Puma, I can't debate with you around the questions you ask above. I too would like to be published, but, for me, I am looking to be published on my own terms (to an extent). I make money in satisfying different markets in other ways, but with writing, for me, it has to start with self--nothing to me is as deeply personal as writing. I hope to find a way to publish, and to find an audience, but...

To take this away from me, let me point you to a different story. Go into the Literary SYW and see the story "Disbelief" just posted today by lacygnette. I have no idea whether she'll ever get this published. I sure as hell hope so, though. Because for my money this story is as good as it gets. I'm not sure where it fits with all the rules of agents and publishers--whether you classify this as a vignette or study or whatever. All I know, for me, is this is damn fine writing and deserves to be read by a wide audience who appreciates damn fine writing.

By the bye, Puma: thanks for starting this thread. I'm having a helluva time today posting. Lots of fun. Thanks for adding to the enjoyment of my Sunday on a day when I've finished my latest project and wasn't sure what I would write about. Damn good fun, this!
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Old 04-02-2012, 03:38 AM   #25
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And that's the bottom line, lp - it doesn't matter at all what we think and how we define it, all that matters is what editors, agents, and the market want.
That's the bottom line. BTW, I actually got one of my SYW/Monthly prompt stories accepted at Frontier Tales.

To raise another topic, which might really belong in another thread, I notice some people shy away from Westerns b/vc they perceive it as too much work to learn about the frontier era.

I really don't think there's that much REQUIRED, you just need to know more than your readers. Of course readers include editors, and despite what you've heard some of them are literate and knowledgeable.

I think to write Westerns you need a basic understanding of the geography and history of America.

You can write a story where a disillusioned Civil War vet takes the train from the front lines at Seattle across the Appalachians to join Davy Crockett at the Alamo. If you're doing it b/c you want anachronistic surrealism, cool. If it's 'cuz you don't know better, it's just kind of sad.

You should have some idea of 19th century dress and technology. The sorts of details that set the stage,

The geography and history are things you can learn in high school, the others can be acquired. The thing is going beyond that.

That's where it gets tricky. I love reading about the old West, so research is fun for me. I think you need enough to write your story, which is so general as to be nearly useless.

I'm curious to hear what others perceive as the necessary knowledge to write Westerns.
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