435. Looking for Louis L’Amour

To revise or not to revise, that is the question. Actually, the question is how much to revise.

There are legendary writers who write rapidly, never revise, and turn out books like Hershey’s turns out chocolate bars. I recently read a third hand account of a writer who churned out a (very bad) science fiction novel over a long weekend. It was published, although probably it should not have been.

And then there’s Walt Whitman who was still changing parts of Leaves of Grass long after it was published. I guess I must be in the latter camp, since I’ve written three paragraphs of this post so far, and I have already changed three dozen words.

All this makes me remember the words of Luther Perkins, guitarist for Johnny Cash. He was famous for playing essentially the same riff on every song, and it always sounded great. Other guitarist were flying all over the fretboard at blinding speed, and being as quickly forgotten. Perkins said, “They’re looking for it. I’ve found it.”

I guess once you’ve found it, it gets easier. After four decades, I’m still searching. And rewriting. And revising, And polishing. It’s actually very soothing, but it is slow.

Louis L’Amour found it relatively early in his career. I became something of an expert on him during the seventies and eighties by reading and rereading his novels while taking breaks from my own writing. As a young writer, I could write a few paragraphs or even a half page, then I had to look at the ceiling for a while, waiting for the next thought to come.

Take heart, new writers; after four decades, things come a lot faster.

There were times, lots of times, when I had to do something to get my conscious mind off what I was writing so my subconscious could do its work. And not science fiction or fantasy; that is what I was trying to get away from. I needed something soothing and predictable, but written with a professional touch.

That’s a definition of the works of Louis L’Amour.

If my taste for L’Amour seems out of character for a science fiction and fantasy writer, remember I grew up on an Oklahoma farm in the fifties when every hero on TV rode a horse. I worked cattle every day, myself — but they were dairy cows and I was on foot. Everybody wore Stetsons and cowboy boots, and every farmer out on his John Deere tractor was a cowboy on a horse in his secret heart.

Go listen to some country western music; you’ll get the idea.

A single word description of L’Amour’s westerns would be consistent. A few were weak, a few were superb, most were strong examples of a type. His excellence was within a limited canvas. His historicals were weak and his one fantasy was a total dog.

Over a couple of decades, I read all his novels multiple times while waiting to find out what I was going to say next. (Except for The Haunted Mesa (1987); I could never get through that one a second time.) The same characteristic phrases appear at frequent intervals.

If you have written a long chunk of text, novel or not, finished or not, try this test. Choose a phrase that seems characteristic of you. Use the find function. If that phrase shows up fifty-seven times, you might want to think about that.

L’Amour’s moral and political positions are simple, firm, and unvarying — much like Heinlein, actually. An unsympathetic critic would say he wrote the same book fifty times. I think that pushes criticism of consistency too far. It would be better to say that he had a consistent moral position that channeled him into a certain type of story.

Personally, I tend to see both sides of every argument, whether in life or in my writing. Given a certain fictional situation, L’Amour would solve it in a certain characteristic way. I would see a hundred ways to solve it, and then go searching for solution number one hundred and one. It makes for slow writing.

L’Amour did not revise. I discovered that the first time I read Reilly’s Luck (1970). Early in the book the hero meets Wild Bill Hickok; when they part, L’Amour says that he never saw Hickok again. Forty pages later, Hickok and the hero meet up a second time, and Hickok loans him a gun.

You couldn’t make that kind of an error if you did even the most cursory revising. But that isn’t really surprising, considering how many books L’Amour’ wrote. He knocked them out like a chicken laying eggs. He couldn’t have done that if he had agonized over every book.

The two different styles of writing lead to two different approaches to revising. As writers, I don’t think we get to choose which camp we fall into. It’s a blessing or curse you are just born with.

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