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.

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