There was a time in my early reading life when Westerns dominated, and Louis L’Amour was a giant of the genre. Westerns don’t seem as popular as they once were, and Louis L’Amour is no longer a household name, but you can learn something from this best-selling author.
First, let’s understand what he accomplished.
Louis L’Amour was prolific. When he died in 1988, his works in print included at least 89 novels (he wrote 100), 14 short-story collections (he wrote over 250 short stories), and two full-length works of nonfiction. His body of work also included articles, screenplays, and poems. Many of his books were adapted for film and TV—there are over 40 adaptations of his work.
He was awarded an honorary PhD by Jamestown College in 1972. In 1979, he won the US National Book Award in the one-year category Western for Bendigo Shafter. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1982 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984. He also received North Dakota’s Roughrider Award.
L’Amour was faulted for writing formulaic Western fiction, but the same critic, Jon Tuska, also noted, “At his best, L’Amour was a master of spectacular action and stories with a vivid, propulsive forward motion.”
Despite whatever the critics said, Louis L’Amour became one of the 25 best-selling authors of all time, selling over 320 million copies of his work as of 2010.
So how did he accomplish all this?
1. He Developed a Daily Routine
L’Amour wrote before breakfast, took a break to read to his family during breakfast, then continued to work until lunch. After lunch and a break to exercise, he would write until dinner. After dinner, he’d write for hours into the night.
L’Amour was exceptionally committed to his daily routine. One time when the family moved, his son, Beau, said that his dad set up a desk and typewriter at the new house and wrote while his wife and son moved everything over in a borrowed station wagon, including L’Amour’s extensive library and stacks of notes.
I can’t advocate being quite that focused, but I admire the level of commitment. You’ll find L’Amour’s commitment to his writing a persistent theme.
“One day I was speeding along at the typewriter, and my daughter—who was a child at the time—asked me, “Daddy, why are you writing so fast?” And I replied, “Because I want to see how the story turns out!” —Louis L’Amour
2. He Wrote Constantly
L’Amour didn’t take his writing career seriously until his later in life. As the story goes, he had traveled far and wide, but at the age of 30, he was living with his parents in Choctaw, Oklahoma, having published very little of note: some poetry and a few articles.
He realized that if writing was what he wanted to do, he needed to make it a priority by writing every day. He also realized that he needed to write stories that appealed to a larger audience (apparently his poetry and short stories were considered “dark”). After developing his daily routine of writing every day (and almost all the time), he sold enough pulp fiction to support his family and buy his own home.
“If you’re going to be a writer, the first essential is just to write. Do not wait for an idea. Start writing something and the ideas will come. You have to turn the faucet on before the water starts to flow.” —Louis L’Amour
3. He Committed to His Goals
L’Amour developed SMART goals before Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Bound goals were a thing.
In addition to committing to writing every day, he committed to publishing one short story every week. Not writing: publishing. Not every story was accepted, so he wrote far more than 52 stories a year for some years, on top of his novels and everything else.
Well, perhaps his goal wasn’t Realistic for mere mortals, but he certainly committed to it.
“I start with a character and a situation, but I don’t know what’s going to happen until I write it. Sometimes things happen that surprise me.” —Louis L’Amour
4. He Developed a Process
L’Amour’s process was legendary. He was known to never outline a project, and he refused to edit anything. He just sat down at the typewriter and wrote. He did this by working on stories in his head for months and taking extensive notes. (Remember all those notes the family had to move to the new house for him?—those notes.) When he sat down to write, he was effectively working on a finished draft.
L’Amour had what he called the three strikes rule. If he couldn’t get a project right by the third time, he would toss it and move on. A similar sentiment lies behind Stephen King’s phrase “kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart.”
Another key to L’Amour’s process was his ability to ignore distractions when writing. His boast that he would be able to write on notoriously busy sunset Sunset Boulevard came home to roost when one of his publishers requested a photoshoot of him in fact writing on Sunset Boulevard. L’Amour accepted, and they set up a desk and typewriter for him on the sidewalk. L’Amour worked for half the day amid the passing cars, undisturbed even by the driver who shouted to him from his car window, “You must be Louis L’Amour!” It’s said L’Amour didn’t even look up.
“If you wait for inspiration, you’re not a writer, but a waiter.” —Louis L’Amour
5. He Remained Curious and Did His Research
L’Amour read regularly—for pleasure, certainly, but also to research ideas and to learn from other writers. He read 100 to 120 books a year, at least 30 in the Western genre, and his private library held over 10,000 books. (Ditto my previous comment on moving the notes, but now it’s 10,000 books. They moved those books.) L’Amour was known for showing the lives of his characters with sometimes unforgiving honesty, which led to a rougher (and arguably more accurate) view of the West than other Western writers. Perhaps that’s why his books have remained popular—the truth is filled with human faults and hard edges, and readers understand that.
“A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own. The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.” —Louis L’Amour
A Balancing Act
L’Amour was driven to write, and he wrote all the time. That’s a great work ethic, but it veers close to obsession. It’s OK to have a life outside of your writing.
I think his later start in writing and the fact that pulp fiction wasn’t a high-paying gig per piece made him narrow his focus considerably, as revealed by this statement:
“Do not let yourself be bothered by the inconsequential. One has only so much time in this world, so devote it to the work and the people most important to you, to those you love and things that matter. One can waste half a lifetime with people one doesn’t really like, or doing things when one would be better off somewhere else.” —Louis L’Amour
Fun Facts about L’Amour
The first novels L’Amour ever published were commissioned in 1950 by Doubleday’s Double D Western imprint and written under a pseudonym, Tex Burns. Four Hopalong Cassidy novels were written by L’Amour—The Rustlers of West Fork, The Trail to Seven Pines, The Riders of High Rock, and Trouble Shooter. But L’Amour denied writing them to the day he died. Fans who brought the books to autograph sessions were also denied. L’Amour told his son, Beau, “I wrote some books. I just did it for the money, and my name didn’t go on them. So now, when people ask me if they were mine, I say ‘no.'” When asked by his son if this was lying, he responded, “I just wrote them for hire. They weren’t my books.”
During his heyday in the 1960s, L’Amour had the idea to build a working Western frontier town. You’ve seen them in the movies—false fronts in rows along a dirt main street with boardwalks, watering troughs, and hitching posts. Naming it Shalako after the protagonist in his 1962 novel, L’Amour intended the town to be a filming location for Hollywood. Funding fell through, and Shalako was never built.
L’Amour was born Louis Dearborn LaMoore. He changed his name in the 1930s when he decided to pursue writing.
Bantam Books and Gold Medal
L’Amour wrote three to four novels a year throughout the 1950s and ’60s, but at the time publishers restricted authors to publishing only one or two books per year. To overcome the restriction, L’Amour published with both Bantam Books and Gold Medal. L’Amour’s editor at Gold Medal tried to persuade the company to publish three or four of his books a year but was refused. It took over a dozen novels and millions of copies sold before the Bantam Books editor in chief Saul David was able to convince his company to offer L’Amour a short-term, exclusive contract for three books a year. Eventually, L’Amour’s sales at Bantam surpassed his sales at Gold Medal.
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