Before you write anything, you must be sure that your subject matter interests you. If you think you are going to write a Black Horse Western to make a quick buck (or quick pounds), you will be disappointed because you will never finish it. Your interest will wane and you will end up throwing away your work. Black Horse Westerns may be short,and the Western genre may be full of stereotypes which make it look easy to write, but once you set pen to paper or start typing you will discover something: writing is hard work. Unless you really are interested in your story, there is no way you will keep going to the end.
Be sure, then, that the following are true:...you have a story to tell...you enjoy watching or reading Westerns...you are willing to put in the work!
Remember those stereotypes we mentioned? The Western genre is full of them...grizzled gunslingers with no name and no personality...heroes who can outdraw five men...wily gamblers who live by the cards and the derringer in their boot...saloon girls who fall in love with the grizzled gunslinger the moment they set eyes on him...etc. In some ways,these are the things that attract readers to the genre in the first place...they want to see these things and that is why they read Westerns. But
beware of thinking that these stereotypes are all a Western is. Filling your book with every cliche you can think of will not make it a good Western. Be aware that readers have certain expectations and use this to surprise them. Break the mould. Not everyone who walked around in the Old West was a gun-toting death machine spouting one-liners to the pretty lady hanging on his every word. Give your characters a sense of realism, a personality that sets them apart from anything else the reader has encountered before. That way, readers will keep coming back to your books because they are like a breath of fresh air among the stale stories found elsewhere.
So who will be the hero of your story? A lawman suddenly up against the odds? A settler bent on revenge after the death of his family? A gambler trying to make that one big score and retire? Whoever your hero is, there are certain things you must keep in mind:
The reader must identify with the character. This means that whatever the hero (or heroine) has to do, the reader will be rooting for them. Your hero's goal must be a noble one. Or, if ignoble, the reader must at least understand why the character is acting that way. Readers want to follow the exploits of someone they understand and empathise with.
The hero must be human. No one wants to read about an indestructible killing machine who has no compassion. Give your hero a human side. There is a world of difference between a character who kills for money and one who kills to avenge the death of a friend (think Unforgiven) or sister (For A Few Dollars More). Make sure you know why your characters act the way they do and how it affects them as people. And make sure you pass this information on to the reader.
The Plot Thickens
You may want to plan out your book before you start writing, or you might want to just go for it and see what happens. Some writers advocate one method or the other and some work both ways. Louis L'amour worked by the "just write" method. When his daughter once asked him why he spent so long at his desk one particular day, he replied, "Because I want to see what happens next." This may work for you too,or you could plan out everything before you start the story proper. Both ways work but there are some things you must always bear in mind regarding plot, whichever way you write:
The hero has a problem. Whoever your hero is, you must give them a problem. This can be described as a "but" in the hero's goal. For example: the Sheriff wants to keep the peace but a gang of outlaws are headed into town. Or, a man returns home from a trip away, eager to see his family but they have been killed by Indians. The reader is anxious to know how the character will face this problem.
More problems. The problems must get steadily worse for the main character. As he faces one, another appears, usually caused by his actions in facing the preceding problem. Everything snowballs. In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood's character at first has the problem of needing money. He attempts to solve this by going after a bounty on the head of a man who difigured a prostitute. This causes more problems...the Sheriff in town doesn't want bounty hunters around. The kid Eastwood is teamed up with kills someone and leaves, disgusted with himself. Then Eastwood's friend, played by Morgan Freeman, is killed. The problems get bigger as the story goes on. Make sure your hero doesn't get an easy ride...you want your readers to be asking "Now what will he do?"
When you write a story set in the past, you must get your facts straight. Specifically for Westerns, you are going to have to research guns, horses, clothing, locations, events and dates, customs, etc. At first, do some general research into the time period and decide what year your bookis set in. Then write the story and make notes of things you need to research as you go on. If your characters get onto a stage, make a note to look up what kind of stage it could be. Does a train feature in your book? Make a note to research it later. Get on with the story for now, then look up the details later. That way, you save yourself a lot of time by only researching what you need for your story.
Make A Habit Of It
Writing is like anything...the more you do it, the better you become. Make a habit of writing regularly. Not only will you gain the discipline required to become a writer, but you will also see the word count of your work tally up steadily towards the end. A haphazard approach will not work here; writing a book is a huge undertaking and one that can only be achieved with good work practice. Take a look at a Black Horse Western; the writer had to put down every word, one at a time. They didn't do it by writing a couple of pages one night then a couple more three weeks later. You need to write regularly and steadily if you have any hope of writing a book. And when you do work regularly, you'll soon see the pages of your manuscript mounting up into something recognisable as a book. I would guess that writing your first book will be the hardest work you have ever undertaken in your life; it is a time of frustration, uncertainty and doubt. Respect the fact that you are undertaking something that will require patience and discipline. And always remember that what you are doing is worth doing. There are many people out there who think they can write a book. There are fewer who know they can.
Sending It Off
Once you've finished your manuscript (and you will finish if you work methodically), it is time to send your work off. Congratulations in getting this far! Before you toss your Western in the post, make sure:
The word count is right. 45,000 to 55,000 including blank spaces. (get a copy of Hale's guidelines - they explain how to calculate this)
The manuscript is double-spaced and neatly typed with good margins. Use white paper. Include a title page, your name and address.
Send a query letter first, with chapters 1,2 and 3 and a synopsis.
If you're asked to send the rest, do so promptly.
WHERE TO SEND YOUR MANUSCRIPT
Send first three chapters and synopsis in first instance to:
Robert Hale Ltd
Good luck! Hale publish one out of every fifty manuscripts they receive. As long as you have followed the basic rules above and have a good story to tell, you have a chance.
If you have any comments, or have something you would like to add to this page, let me know.