Friday, November 06, 2020


Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear were keynote speakers at the recent Women Writing the West conference. The Gears have over 17 millions copies of their books in print worldwide and translations into 29 languages.

 If that weren't enough to turn you green with envy, Kathleen has a super academic record. She has published over 200 articles in the fields of archaeology, history, and bison conservation. The United States Department of the Interior has twice awarded her a "Special Achievement Award" and she received a "Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition" from the United States Congress in 2015. 

I met the Gears when they first attended a Western Writers Conference in Fort Worth. At that time they were living in a cabin in Colorado. I recall Michael saying they just had a mattress thrown on the floor. It was all they could afford. 

In the late Richard Wheeler's autobiography, An Accidental Novelist,  he reported on meeting the Gears (yet unpublished) at that same convention. He was interviewing wannabes for Walker Publishing and agree to read their stories. After the convention, a UPS truck delivered an enormous box. "I discovered a cache of manuscripts, five hundred pagers, one thousand pagers, one after the other." Wheeler was looking for books of about 60,000 words and could not publish these monsters. 

When they did finally begin selling, Michael told Richard they were down to their last 75 bucks and about to return to contract archeology. Richard points out that they were both willing to integrate editorial suggestions and made swift progress toward becoming best-selling novelists. 

In Michael's talk at WWW he stressed the important of improving one's writing. He emphasized that writing has changed over the years and we must read today's best-selling authors to understand how styles have evolved. 

I read a lot and some of my favorite novels were written during the 60s. It was the era of great social novels which were mini history lessons that captured the spirit of America. I learned more about the Civil Rights movement in a novel, Five Smooth Stones, that I have in any of my African American textbooks. And I own a bunch!

Yet, in re-reading these books, I find that language is stilted, and exposition and explanations are too drawn out. A lot of books that were best sellers during the years they were published would be rejected today. 

People are in a hurry. They don't put up with much. They like short chapters with whiffs of a backstory. I heard someone say that Americans like a lot of white space. Michael encouraged the listeners to read broadly. Read all the genres on the best-sellers list. Think about techniques that might improve our own writing. 

This is not a license for degrading our writing. Think of how much is conveyed in poetic images. It can be a new art form. 

Now don't yell! Once I asked writing students to notice how James Patterson changed a whole plot with a chapter ending with a one word paragraph. I know how disheartening it is to walk into a library and see seventeen copies of Patterson's latest book on the shelf. But there's a reason why he sells. 

It's a challenge to cultivate our own style and voice while keeping all the new rules in mind. When you feel frustrated, remember the Gears and their astonishing determination. They wrote a lot before they discovered the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  

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