Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Great Writer Must Read

One of my lessons from the Pikes Peak Writers Conference was Joe Lansdale's advice to me to become a voracious reader. To put Lansdale's point in simplest terms: A writer can become great by reading other great writers. The writer-as-reader learns the art of it all that way. He knows that from his own experience. I had a cardinal rule when I was writing a novel: I did not read any other works. That meant for seven to 12 months I didn't pick up a work of fiction of non-fiction. I am mending my ways.

I am juggling reading three works right now, one fiction, one non-fiction and one educational. The fiction is Harlan Coben's "Live Wire" so I can see how a great mystery writer handles his work. My non-fiction is Antonio Salinas' "Siren's Song: The Allure of War" so I can drink in the atmosphere of a soldier on the battlefield. My educational work is Donald Maass' "The Breakout Novelist". I will give a short breakdown on each work.

Coben has an interesting style. He definitely creates characters who are bigger than life, and he puts them in larger-than-life situations. He also lets dialogue carry the freight more than most authors. He is an enjoyable read, and it is no surprise that his work shows up high on the NYT best sellers list.

Salinas is a young writer but a veteran soldier who is still on active duty. His memoirs of his time in Afghanistan are interesting and challenging. He is especially good at giving the reader the feeling of being on the battlefield, and in showing the mindset of a soldier at war. I am a veteran copy editor, and I would have worked on his copy more. There are several places I would have tightened the wording considerably. None of that takes away from the power of the narrative.

Maass' book is worth its weight in gold. He is one of the most powerful agents in the business, and he is a master teacher. He goes through the writing process from beginning to end, and he instructs and challenges the author along the way. This book will be at my fingertips as I continue down my road and become a career novelist. Is that lofty thinking? As the line in "Apollo 13" says, "Failure is not an option."

I have one work I will purchase and put on my must-read list. It is "The Bottoms" by Lansdale. After one of his classes at PPWC, Lansdale told me that one of his overall themes after decades of writing is the impact of racism. The story line of this novel hits that head on. It might not be a comfortable read in some parts, but a great writer learns by reading great writing. This novel won the Edgar Award as best mystery novel of the year. Winning an Edgar is no small feat, and I look forward to the experience. If there is a downside, it is that it took me that long to get around to it. Shame on me.

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