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.

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