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.
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.