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How To Write an Award-Winning Novel starring… Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

September 12, 2021

Whenever I finish reading an award-winning novel, I ask myself, “Why do other people think this so great?” Sometimes the answer is obvious. Sometimes it isn’t.

I originally read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry in the early 1990s because somebody whom I respected recommended it. I’ve started reading Lonesome Dove again recently just because I saw a copy lying around at work and I thought, oh yeah, I remember that.

This time while I’m reading, I’ve pictured actors Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as the main characters because of the television mini-series. I don’t like visualizing Hollywood actors when I read books. As far as that goes, I’d rather imagine Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove (good casting) than Kevin Spacey in The Shipping News (bad casting) or Robert Redford in The Natural (really bad casting, but nobody cares because it’s Robert Redford).

I don’t know if authors decide ahead of time to write award-winning novels. Maybe winning the Pulitzer Prize for Literature was Larry McMurtry’s goal when he began writing Lonesome Dove. Maybe just finishing the damn thing on time was good enough for him back then.

Regardless of all that, if you’re an author and you’re determined to write an award-winning novel, here are four aspects that the author of Lonesome Dove nailed:

1. Setting- The American West is a great setting for a Pulitzer Prize Winning book. Maybe it wouldn’t work as well for a British author trying to win a British literary award, but it’s great for an American literary award. Even though the title Lonesome Dove is the name of the small town/settlement in Texas where the book starts, the characters don’t stay there for long, and things get very interesting when the characters venture out West (or north… or wherever).

2. Lots of Memorable Characters- Lonesome Dove has a lot of characters, not enough to post a list of them at the beginning of the novel as some epics do, but a lot. And the author switches point-of-view frequently, often during mid-scene. Despite this, it was easy for me to keep track of everybody while I was reading. I’m not bragging about my reading ability; I’m giving credit to the author for managing a bunch of characters without confusing readers.

3. Great dialogue- A strength/weakness of Lonesome Dove is the details about frontier life, especially about how dull it could be. The dialogue, even though it’s overly clever at times, breaks up what could have been very boring slog. You don’t necessarily need great dialogue in an award-winning book, but you do if your book has a bunch of details that can bore your readers.

The novel Moby Dick might be more popular today if Hermann Melville had written lots of clever/humorous dialogue for Ahab and his crew.

4. Genre- Lonesome Dove is sometimes referred to as a western for readers who don’t like westerns. I have nothing against westerns, but it’s never been my first genre choice. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of fans of westerns didn’t like Lonesome Dove. Its pace is slower than that of most westerns. It doesn’t follow the typical western formula. And it’s a little condescending to its characters.

There really isn’t another book like Lonesome Dove. Once you’re done, there isn’t anything that I know of that is quite the same. Even the attempted sequel isn’t close to the same thing (but to be fair, I don’t think the author was trying to write another Lonesome Dove). If there had already been a lot of books like Lonesome Dove, then there wouldn’t have been any reason to award it with a Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

Unfortunately, the sequel to Lonesome Dove is really bad. I don’t remember the title, but I remember what happened to some of the characters, and I felt like the author was just throwing them away. I know people die in seemingly pointless ways in life (seemingly pointless unless you have a strong faith in God), but it still felt unnecessary in fiction, so now I pretend the sequel doesn’t exist.

Lonesome Dove isn’t perfect. It drags at the beginning. The writing gets a little self-indulgent at times, winking with condescension to the readers about a few characters who aren’t too bright. Some of the dialogue was unnecessary, but that’s okay. Lonesome Dove is still a pretty good book, and I can see why it was an award-winning novel.

*****

Enough about me! What do you think? Am I overpraising Lonesome Dove, and am I too hard on its sequel? What other novels did or did not deserve the awards they won or the accolades they received?

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