This is one the easiest, and hopefully the most obvious, ideas I’ve shared on this blog. If you want to be a great writer, heck, if you want to be any kind of writer — READ.
Read Westerns for sure. Read some of the great Western authors, new authors, old pulp magazines — just read. As cliché as it is, Louis L’Amour is my favorite Western writer, and I’ve read each of his books at least three times. Some of my favorite non-Louis Westerns include: “True Grit” by Charles Portis, “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry and Clair Huffaker’s “The Cowboy and the Cossack.” Zane Grey, Elmer Kelton, Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, Luke Short, James Reasoner and Loren Estleman — just to name a few — are all authors I have also read extensively.
There are great new writers entering the genre, and it’s worth your time to find them, test them and see who you like.
By doing all of this, you’ll learn things about the Old West that you didn’t know. You’ll find voices you like, protagonists you love and antagonists you hate. You’ll discover which story lines appeal to you and which seem tired and overdone. You’ll learn which writers have a rhythm you like. Are your books going to be family friendly (I like to say my books can be read out loud with your mother, wife and daughter in the room), or do you prefer something a little more adult, a little racier?
When you do find a writer you like, whose voice and style are something you’d like to emulate, read everything he or she has written. Books, short stories, essays, articles, shopping lists — it doesn’t matter, just read it. I am very flattered every time someone is kind enough to send a note that mentions I remind them of Louis L’Amour. I did not set out to copy his style, but I must have absorbed at least some of it along the way. I realize there are others who don’t share my affection for Mr. L’Amour — and that’s terrific. We should all have different voices and different styles, but there’s nothing wrong with using the greats to help you find and shape yours.
Two more things. First, don’t limit your reading to Westerns, or even fiction. There is no downside to reading, and the more you do, the better writer you’ll become. For me, I could read, reread and then reread again just about anything John Steinbeck and Mark Twain have written. They are my literary heroes. Find yours, or rediscover them, and read as much of their work as your life allows.
Last note. Since 1974, I have made it a goal (one I’ve never missed) to read at least 52 books — one a week — every year. To help me along with this goal, every year on New Year’s Eve, I open a box of Bicycle playing cards, which, in one of life’s beautiful symmetries, has 52 cards, and I use them for bookmarks. In truth, I now keep a detailed Excel spreadsheet of every book I read, but I do still use the cards. I know if at the end of the year the cards are gone, I’ve read at least 52 books and met my goal. And for you Kindle fans, when I do use one, I set one of the cards on my nightstand and trash it when I finish the e-book.
Now, get reading!
I wish you good writing, and if you have a question or something you’d like to share, send me an email at [email protected].