Monday, April 23, 2012

My Favorite Words: Maass, Lansdale, Deaver, Crais

I could go on and on about things I gleaned from my weekend immersion in the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs. I met great agents such as Evan Gregory and Paige Wheeler, a genial and talented editor for Titan Books named Steve Saffel, gracious romance writer Susan Wiggs and a bevy of published and aspiring authors who are as committed to their love of writing as I am. But four mentors stand out, and I talk about them in no particular order of importance.

Donald Maass, head of his own literary agency and the man who literally wrote the books on how to become a great writer. (I purchased "The Breakout Novelist" and will drink in his lessons like I am on a feeding tube.) Don's greatest attribute is his burning passion for great writing. He brought challenges to every writer in the room during a lunchtime keynote speech about his view of publishing and its impact on the future. I also sat in on his teaching session of Agenting in the 21st Century, which ended with an educational give-and-take between Don and Mark Coker, the creator of Smashwords, about traditional publishing vs. e-books.

Joe Lansdale, a raw-talking east Texan and prolific writer of novels and short stories. Joe is an absolute hoot to listen to as he rolls out his lessons. He does work I almost never read, about things like spirit-draining demons, but the core of his craft resonates with me. His best lessons: Be your own writer and shove away influences that say you shouldn't do things that way; and embrace the love of great writers by reading constantly. One of my credos while I am writing is to put away all novels because I don't want to be influenced by another author's style, pacing, use of dialogue, etc. Joe told me that is absolute b.s. because great writers teach you how to become a great writer. He says you have to learn those lessons daily. I will change my ways.

Jeffery Deaver, veteran writer of thrillers and the choice to write the latest James Bond novel, "Carte Blanche." He held a session on writing thrillers and gave his pupils pointers on plotting, character development, rewriting and more. Like everything else I took away from the conference, those are treasured lessons. I went up after the session and asked him a question. One of Deaver's points is that he spends considerable time developing an outline for his novel before he types even the first word. (Many other authors don't do that but develop plot as they go, and I fall into that category.) I asked Jeffery if despite his outline he ever took out entire chapters or big chunks of his story while doing his rewrites. He said he has lopped off big chunks, but never an entire chapter. Then he did something that impressed me: Although I am one of probably 10,000 potentially published authors he meets at similar conferences, he reached out his hand and wished me luck. It wasn't window dressing. It was a genuine gesture. The man understands I am where he used to be.

Robert Crais, veteran author of police mysteries. A lot of the women in the audience made reference to Crais' movie-star good looks, but he left me with his greatest impression during a panel with fellow authors. He said he loves to spend time each day with his characters because they are characters he loves. I understand that, especially in creating the protagonist for my second novel. I enjoy Daniel Pace and the reasons for which he does certain unsavory things. I respect Pace's reasoning and his commitment to his work. I share Pace's love of the home he owns, which is on a bluff in Mukilteo, Washington, and looks down on Possession Sound. I can't wait to spend time with him. I feel sadness as I prepare all the side projects for selling and publishing this first book in the series rather than writing the second. I will find time to blend both projects in the next few days.

I must give a tip of the cap to another gracious person I met this weekend. He is Antonio Salinas, who is still active in the military and has published a book, "Siren's Song: The Allure of War," about his days as a platoon leader in Afghanistan. He offered to help me with authentic bits when I reached matters of military operations in my novels (making him the second man with extensive experience in combat zones to offer such help in the past week). His commitment to his job and his writing strike a chord with me. I will add one funny story on Antonio: He did the first and probably last bathroom signing of his book for me. I think I need to explain. There are about 450 attendees at the conference, plus faculty members and others. You might see a person in a class or just passing in the hall, and you might not see them again for the rest of the day. So, when I went into the men's room and saw Antonio on the last day of the conference, I didn't want to let an opportunity slip by. I asked him if he would sign the copy of his book I purchased. We both laughed about the setting, but he signed the book and wrote a nice note.

I don't necessarily have a desire to go to a bunch of writers conferences, but I crave interaction with the men and women familiar with the craft of writing like those I spent time with this weekend. I learned many great lessons, but I was left with one overriding impression: I have to get better. I will keep that standard in front of me until my dying day.

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