Saturday, January 19, 2013

Lesson Seven: Think Big

Like any author who had the chance to sit in on one of his study sessions, I am a great fan of Donald Maass. He is the New York City agent who wrote "Writing the Breakout Novel" and "The Breakout Novelist," and his lessons are priceless. If you are a note taker, prepare to fill page after page with bits of wisdom.

Which suggestion is best? There are several, but for me it is Maass' directive to think big. Think big in characters, big in scope, big in execution of the story line. If I want to boil it down to a cliche for being successful, it would go like this: Go big or go home.

Just look at characters who seize our imaginations. Think of Hannibal Lecter. Think of James Bond. Think of Jack Reacher. Think of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan and Jeffery Deaver's twin protagonists, Lincoln Rhyme and Kathryn Dance. Each is bigger than life in heroism, intellect or vicious intent. They are memorable. That's the key.

I tweak Maass' advice somewhat when it comes to setting. I am a small-town guy, and I know the value of small-town people. That is part of the reason I gravitate toward John Hart's novels. He is a North Carolina native, and he set his first three novels within a smaller-town context. But he injected big ideas, big conflicts and big plot twists into those places. The main character of the novels I am writing now has some similarities. He grew up in a small Oregon town. He is a pastor's son. He goes to Seattle and builds a business from the ground up. But there are elements of his character that are bigger than life. He has a history as a Marine Scout Sniper. His job is to provide protection for other people, and he accepts that duty with serious intent. He has made himself into a millionaire. That job also opens him up to other opportunities. It's within those other opportunities that the real conflict in his life occurs.

Part of this love of big stories in a small-town context came long before I started reading Hart's novels. My mentor in that regard is Steven Spielberg. I loved his early movies, and I savored one aspect of those movies. In the made-for-TV movie "Duel" and in "E.T.," Spielberg took run-of-the-mill settings and dropped huge events into them. In "Duel," Dennis Weaver played a guy driving on a highway who suddenly is confronted by a driver of a semi rig who wants to kill him. Why? Don't know. Maybe it's just sport, but Weaver's character is locked into a life-or-death struggle. What was he doing before that struggle? Just being an ordinary Joe. In "E.T.," Spielberg took a normal single-parent family in a nondescript new-construction California neighborhood and put them into an interstellar adventure. The kids are just kids. The mom is just a mom. They just happen to get caught up in events that are so much larger than themselves.

I love that aspect. I try to weave that into my novels. Think big, but put it into a lesser setting. You don't need a top CIA operative, or the buddy protector of the President of the United States to provide the backdrop to great novels.

But I am in the process of still learning parts of this craft. I will be learning until my dying day. My last three entries in this 10 Greatest Lessons series are items with which I still struggle because I am still learning. But I am getting closer. Always closer.

Next: Lesson Eight: Revisions.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Lesson Six: A.I.C.

There is no greater basic lesson in writing than A.I.C. I believe the axiom is credited to Nora Roberts, the prolific romance writer, who said the most basic lesson for any writer is Ass In the Chair. You have to sit down, crank up the computer and do what you love to do, i.e. create. It must be a daily habit. All the other lessons revolve around this one.

There are different answers to what qualifies as proper A.I.C. Some novelists sit and create for hours. I know Joe Lansdale spends just a couple of hours a day, and maybe three, and turns out maybe three pages. But those three pages are created, tuned and revised during that session. String together enough of those sessions and you have a novel, or a great short story, or a novella, and your revisions are already done. What works? To each his own.

My own A.I.C. has been challenged at times. Two jobs takes a lot of time and energy, but I am getting better at forcing A.I.C. moments into my day. There are moments just like this one. I will get better at putting me ass in the chair on a daily basis. This dream of being a published author means that much to me.

Next: Lesson Seven: Think Big

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Lesson Five: Be True to Yourself

First, an apology. I was away for a few days to follow my beloved Oregon Ducks as they played in the Fiesta Bowl. They won big, so I am a happy man. But with that break in my background, it's back to the literary part of my life:

It seems rather incongruous to say that a great way to write good fiction is to be true to yourself. Fiction and reality in close proximity? As far as making believable stories, I think it is one of the lessons I learned early in this venture. Let me illustrate with another author's story.

John Hart, my favorite author, wrote two novels before he finally wrote a work that was published. I never got details, but I believe those first novels had heavy doses of military action. The common thread for those works? They didn't see the light of day either through self-publishing or a publishing house. Why didn't they work? John's background includes, among many things, his work as a lawyer. It doesn't include military service. His first works weren't true to who John is.

His third work unlocked the magic kingdom and he became a published author. Part of the reason is that John worked in a world comfortable to him. His work was "King of Lies," and his protagonist was a lawyer. But more than just taking a look at the occupation, John was able to take us inside the lawyer's world, and I believe into his own history as well. The novel is uncomfortable in spots, but it is a great read.

How can I say John was so true to himself? Just read his words. (I take liberty here to use a paragraph and parts of two others.) Here is the opening to "King of Lies" as John gives a glimpse into the real world of a criminal lawyer:

"I've heard it said that jail stinks of despair. What a load. If jail stinks of any emotion it's fear; fear of the guards, fear of being beaten or gang-raped, fear of being forgotten by those who once loved you and may or may not anymore. But mostly, I think, it's fear of time and of the dark things that dwell in the unexplored corners of the mind. Doing time they call it -- what a crock. I've been around long enough to know the reality: It's the time that does you.

"For some time, I'd been bathed in that jailhouse perfume, sitting knee-to-knee with a client who'd just gotten life without parole. The trial had damned him, as I told him it would. The state's evidence was overwhelming, and the jury had zero sympathy for a three-time loser who had shot his brother during an argument about who would get control of the remote. ... On most days I was ambivalent, at best, about my chosen profession, but on days like this I hated being a lawyer; that hatred ran so deep that I feared something must be wrong with me. I hid it as others would a perversion."

Bingo. Can you feel (yes, actually feel) the lessons John learned while sitting in jail cells? The magic is that John followed that with two novels, "Down River" and "The Last Child," that won the Edgar Award, making him the first author to win that coveted honor in back-to-back years. His fourth novel, "Iron House," has done very well, and he is working on his fifth novel. I eagerly await that work.

I try to follow that course, but I travel a much different literary route. Our experiences don't dovetail, and I want to be somewhat true to my experiences as I write. Above all, I want my characters to be as deep and rich as John's. That's a tough standard to follow, but I am making the effort. (More on that in a later blog entry.)

My next entry: Lesson Six: A.I.C.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Lesson Four: Read, read, read

Joe Lansdale is an interesting read, and a more interesting person with whom to share a conversation. He is east Texas personified: blunt talking, a bit of bluster, good insights, wise in several areas. We don't see eye to eye on certain things, but I always respect Joe when he says something.

I never respected him more than we chatted after one of his teaching sessions at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference last year.

I asked Joe whether he read while he was writing novels, or did he put other authors aside so his own style wouldn't be tainted by someone else's voice? That was my mindset. I didn't want someone else's muse getting in the way of my creations.

Joe was east Texas blunt in his reply: You are cheating yourself. The best way to become a great writer is to read great writing. Surround yourself with the works of those who deserve to be read.

And I listened. I became a reading fool, polishing off a novel in one to two weeks (which is understandable with my two-jobs daily routine). Joe was correct. I am not siphoning someone else's style but learning the lessons they are teaching. Part of it is learning the language of publishing I referred to in my previous post.

MY FAVORITE NOVELS: The top of the list didn't change since I went on my reading binge. The first three novels by John Hart (King of Lies, Down River, The Last Child) display what I love in novels. John creates great characters. He creates a rich fabric on which those characters play out their roles. And first and foremost, he places those characters in settings that are as familiar as the town in which you live. His setting is North Carolina, but it could be small-town Colorado, or North Dakota, or Vermont. (Lansdale's Edgar Award-winning The Bottoms fits under this heading, too.)

I get tired of action heroes who only work in the highest levels of the CIA, or in special OPS behind enemy lines, or sit next to the president and have his ear at all times. Hart's protagonists are, in order of the three novels I mentioned above, a small-town lawyer living in a world of disintegrating relationships, a young man coming back to his old hometown and not being warmly greeted, and a child who deals with his personal mental wounds as his world is breaking part. To a degree, Hart's focus in those novels dovetails with Stephen Spielberg's early movies such as "Duel" or "E.T.": Drop something big into familiar surroundings. "Duel" dealt with a common guy driving around and being chased by a semi driver with deadly intentions; "E.T." dealt with an alien dropped into a common southern California neighborhood. My first two novels follow that same idea. My third deviates somewhat, but it stays true to the basic ideal.

My other favorite read since I started my binge? Michael Connelly's The Reversal. It deals with courtroom drama and features some of his series protagonists, and it flows so effortlessly as the plot plays out. It was the work of an author in complete control of his work.

WHAT I AM READING NOW: One Shot by Lee Child, which is the book on which the movie "Jack Reacher" is based. Child has an uncanny knack for building tension in a plot. He also follows my small-town focus in this novel. It is set in a smaller Indiana city where a lone shooter murders several innocent people. Of course, it's obvious that Tom Cruise doesn't fit Child's Reacher exactly. Child's character is 6-foot-5 and about 250 pounds; Cruise is a comparative shrimp. I will see how it works in the movie once I finish the book.

A quick aside: Happy New Year!!! I am taking heed of some literary wisdom I saw on Twitter yesterday. (Yes, there can be wisdom in 140-character messages.) It said not to look at this as the year I will get an agent but as the year in which I will write a great novel. I think I have the vehicle to make that happen. These days I am busy revising that vehicle.

Thanks to all of you who have given me support. I believe in one of Patricia Cornwell's principles as I sit down to write: Failure is not an option. We write to be published because our work deems it necessary. I am still learning the lessons to reach that point.