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.

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