guest post by John D. Nesbitt
When I wrote to the agent to ask if she was interested, she told me she had had to give up agenting because she wasn’t making enough money and had to find another line of work. She wished me well, and I still appreciate her good will and good advice.
Other writers have seconded this advice. I remember more than one person in Wyoming Writers, people who were further along in the journey than I was, who told me that an agent or an editor wanted to know where to put a manuscript—what to call it, how to perceive it, how to present it to the world. On my own, I figured it was not a good idea to call a story something that it wasn’t (for example, my first novel, a contemporary story about a hunting guide, was not men’s adventure, even though the protagonist was a man who had adventures).
My next publisher was a mass-market paperback company, and again I had the good fortune to work with an editor who was willing to try something different while staying within the general lines of the genre. From the beginning, my westerns often had an element of mystery, so I continued to write in that style from time to time. I found myself writing more deliberate crossover stories, which I began to think of as western mysteries, even though they were marketed as westerns with the beloved covers of men and guns and horses. (I also had a love story in almost every novel, but women never appeared on the covers.) I was doing well, with a new western mystery written and under contract, and the next one in progress, when that publisher folded.
Again through good fortune, I found yet another publisher who was willing to try something a little different. Five Star Publishing was bringing out a new line of Frontier fiction, which meant stories that did not fit neatly into the usual patterns. Furthermore, Five Star was (and still is) interested in Frontier mystery. To date, I have published seven hardcover novels with them—three with a series character who is a sleuth, three standalone amateur detective stories, and one novel for young or new adults. These works are marketed as Frontier fiction (no men and horses on the covers of my works), not westerns, but they are reviewed and regarded as westerns.
Perhaps the overarching rule is that genre fiction in general, even when it crosses over, needs to have a strong story line with clearly defined conflict and a definite resolution. During my first half-dozen westerns, I experimented with subdued, non-violent endings, but I found that I wasn’t connecting with the readers as well as I would like, and I wasn’t writing satisfying stories (or at least, once I had done it a few times, I had done it enough). I went to work at writing stories in which the protagonist has to work his way up the chain through a sequence of encounters and, of course, deal with the worst character last. This, for me, has been the biggest lesson and the hardest work.
I am still not at the top of the pyramid, not of western writers, much less fiction writers on a national scale. But I am doing better than I did before I received and followed good advice and figured out a couple of lessons on my own.
John D. Nesbitt lives in the plains country of Wyoming, where he teaches English and Spanish at Eastern Wyoming College. His articles, reviews, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He has had more than thirty books published, including short story collections, contemporary novels, and traditional westerns, as well as textbooks for his courses.
John has won many awards for his work, including two awards from the Wyoming State Historical Society (for fiction), two awards from Wyoming Writers for encouragement of other writers and service to the organization, two Wyoming Arts Council literary fellowships (one for fiction, one for non- fiction), a Will Rogers Medallion Award for Dark Prairie (a frontier mystery) and another for Thorns on the Rose (a poetry collection), a Western Writers of America Spur finalist award for his novel Raven Springs, and the Spur award itself for his short story “At the End of the Orchard” and for his novels Trouble at the Redstone and Stranger in Thunder Basin.
His most recent work consists of Field Work, a retro-noir fiction collection; Thorns on the Rose, western poetry; and Destiny at Dry Camp, a frontier mystery. A contemporary western mystery, Blue Springs, is forthcoming. Visit his website at www.johndnesbitt.com.