I would like to spend a year with Thomas Harris. Maybe even two. I want to get up when he gets up, eat breakfast at the same table, go with him to shop for produce, and simply follow him around to see what he does on a day to day basis. Perhaps, standing in his shadow, I can see why it takes him so long to write the books he does.

I realize that the detail he incorporates into his novels–the history, the art, the languages–require a great deal of research and thought. I understand that the stories are complex and portray characters with psychological issues far beyond the range of the average person’s comprehension. Still, since Black Sunday appeared in 1975, Harris has written only four novels, including his breakout work, The Silence of the Lambs. In the past four, the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, arguably one of the greatest characters in modern culture, has increased until Hannibal the Cannibal has become front and center in Harris’s writing. In Hannibal Rising, Harris expands what we learned of Lecter’s past in Hannibal by describing the events that led to the rise the monster we know from his earlier books. We see the gruesome murder and consumption of his sister during the second World War. We see Lecter’s development through adolescence, his education, and his early adult life, along with the beginning of his homicidal yearnings.

As a fan of Harris’s early works, I was eager to read Hannibal Rising, but not with the same interest that I read Hannibal and I place the blame for this mostly on Harris himself. Lecter is a wonderful character in Silence, all the more threatening because of his intelligence, his unknowable mind. It is this enigma, this sense that what happens behind those piercing blue eyes is beyond our understanding, that makes Hannibal Lecter one of the greatest villains I’ve ever read about. So, when Harris sets about in Hannibal and Hannibal Rising to explain how that evil mind works and, worse, gets you to identify with him, to assume his point of view, it completely dispels the magic draw the character has for me. I don’t want to relate to Hannibal Lecter. I don’t want to feel sorry for him, to support him in his quest for vengeance against those who killed and ate his sister. I want to relate to those trying to stop him, trying to understand him. I want to be the common man–Will Graham or Clarice Starling–who must fight my awe of his genius, swallow my fear, and beat him at his own intellectual game.

For me, Hannibal Rising is a case of infatuation gone wrong. Harris seems too enamored by his ability to add depth to his creation to realize that, in doing so, he shows us the zipper running down the monster’s back. His tale is still rich in detail, but seen from Lecter’s end, this serves only to give the novel a snobby, elitist feel, further alienating me from the writing. In making Lecter shine, Harris casts a shadow over the other characters in the book, leaving them small and one-dimensional. There are still several scenes that display the author’s mastery of the gruesome and unexpected, but even these feel like a overblown curriculum vitae for the young Lecter.

I remain a fan of Thomas Harris and, even though I found this book disappointing, I will pick up his next one when it comes out. What Harris does well–pulling the psychological strings of our terror and setting it all to classical music–he does better than almost everyone. Hannibal Lecter is a cultural icon, his place in society enhanced by the brilliant acting of Sir Anthony Hopkins, but I’ve seen things through his eyes long enough. It’s time to look through someone else’s, someone who will be assigned the task of chasing down the monster without becoming his next victim. Let us return to Graham or Starling or some other figure who must rise up to face the threat of Lecter. Let us, Mr. Harris, be the common man again, facing the terror of Hannibal the Cannibal.

 Have you taken my advice from Part One and done as you were told? Gone off to write the next great novel or short story or personal narrative or radio jingle? Have you left my post with great intentions but no idea where to start? I thought you might be back. Well, dear reader, I have a suggestion.

Fan fiction.

To someone with Pulitzer ambitions, who has already been practicing their interview for when their novel becomes an Oprah Book Club selection, fan fic seems like becoming a literary whore, but I say there are benefits, particularly for someone new to the writing process, from whoring yourself out.

First, the essence of fan fiction is that the authors write about something they like–a favorite book, a great movie, or even a cheesy television series. The stories can be true to what they know or can vary widely from existing canon, coupling characters that would never, under any circumstances, get together; or exploring beyond what we know about the inspiring work. One of the benefits, aside from the sheer act of creation, of writing fan fic is that you are often writing about something you have a passion for. Right now, for example, in between work on the final couple of chapters of my novel, I am working on a Harry Potter fan fiction that picks up where J. K. Rowling left off after the Battle of Hogwarts in the last book. (For anyone who would complain about the vague spoiler here, I would say that if you haven’t read the book yet, you’re not a true fan anyway.) I am an avid fan of Rowling’s work and can’t stand to see Harry, Ron, and Hermione age nineteen years in the time it takes me to flip a page. Damn it, I want to know what happened in those nineteen years and if she won’t tell me, then I’ll figure it out on my own. That passion, the overriding need to know what happened or what could happen under the right circumstances, is what creates good writing. No author ever became successful by being indifferent to his or her subject. Every novel you see is an act of passion and if you learn to harness the passion you already have for something else, it will be easier to do when you have an original idea. When you physically, mentally, and emotionally need to know what happens in your own story, you can drive yourself through all self-doubt and cast aside all excuses until the work is complete.

The second benefit to writing fan fiction is that, on most online sites, readers are allowed to review your work, allowing you continuous, and sometimes immediate, feedback on the quality of your writing. However, you should brace yourself for this fact–not all feedback will tell you how great you are. Some people who review your work will offer constructive criticism meant to improve your writing while some will, for reasons still unknown to me, trash you simply for the sake of tearing you down. Once you weed out the trash talkers, use the constructive comments to improve your writing. If one person sees a flaw in your story, your style, or even your grammar, more will probably see the same thing, particularly editors and agents who do such things for a living. As you write and read what people think of your work, you become more aware of the blind spots you have and are quicker to seek and destroy them. The editorial process, something which many authors have trouble with, becomes easier as you learn to look for your mistakes rather than to look over them. Another benefit of reader reviews is that when they are good, they boost your confidence. Anyone who has ever poured their heart and soul into a piece of writing, only to ship it off to some publishing entity, wait for six months, and receive a form rejection letter can tell you of the importance of keeping your confidence up during and after the writing process.

One more positive that I’ll touch on regarding fan fiction is the sense of community you find on many fan fiction sites. When a group of people get together and apply their imagination toward a single thing, regardless of the form their creativity takes, it allows people of similar interests to share ideas and, in many cases, help each other build confidence in their work. Fan fiction communities, in this sense, offer the same benefit as conventional writing groups, that sense of camaraderie that comes from common interests, common labors, and common dreams.

I was skeptical at first about writing fan fiction. I thought that adding my own two-bits to Rowling’s series would be a waste of time, a distraction from the works that I thought might be commercially viable. Then, I realized that, by thinking along those lines, I was missing the point of writing entirely. We don’t write to make money, to make friends, or to make it sound like we’re trying to get out of our miserable jobs. We write because we are driven to write. We write because we have passion and that passion needs to be expressed when and where we can find an outlet. For your writing to be worth reading, it has to fill a need, not a want. I want to make money. I want that Pulitzer. I want to be on Oprah. I NEED to write.

And that makes all the difference.

P.S. If you would like to read my contribution to the Potter universe, go to Mugglenet.com’s fan fiction site and find “Harry Potter and the Golden Sepulcher” by leesmiley (my less-than-imaginative pen name). Feel free to leave me a review and read some of the other works on there. Very creative, we Potterphiles.

 At some point in my career, hopefully when I’m an internationally-known author, I would like to look back on the early blog posts, laugh, and think with nostalgia how much of a struggle life was. Hardship, when viewed from the far side, is like a near-miss car crash. You look in your mirror and think of how close things were and, with a few more inches of misfortune, how much worse they could have been.

In the meantime, all I can do is hold onto the wheel and hope I don’t get hit.

After taking some time off to think about what I want to write about here, I have decided that I will focus on writing more than the other aspects of my life. I may still discuss the odd facet of retail management or make a general observation about something in our culture that I feel passionate about, but from here on, I hope to use this blog as a place to compile my thoughts on writing–my approach to it, my feelings about it, and, hopefully, my successes with it.

Right now, I am an unpublished author, newly 31 years of age. I have completed one novel–a fantasy of 120,000 words–and am nearing completion on my second. My current project is a horror novel that will probably top out at 70-75k. Obviously, it is much shorter than my first, but it is also, in my opinion, much better.

The writing process is best learned on the job. You can read all the books about writing, take all the courses you like, attend all the workshops you can find, but the only way to improve is to do it. My first novel, while a pretty good story, has some serious problems that I could recognize even during the course of composition. That is why, good story that it is, it will likely never see the light of day. You, dear reader, might ask why I would spend three months writing a novel that I don’t plan to publish. The answer, the short answer, anyway, is that I have received more from my unpublished first novel than I could from my second novel, even if it achieves publication. By starting a long piece of fiction and, more importantly, finishing it, I have convinced myself that it is possible for me to become a writer. It is the foundation on which all my later writing will stand, the cornerstone for my life as a successful author or as a life-long struggling writer.

As I said in an earlier entry, I was inspired to pick up the pen again by Stephen King’s On Writing, using it to brainwash myself into believing I was a writer. From there, it was only a matter of finding the discipline to say what I wanted and to say it damn near every night until I finished. If you are a new writer, a fan of King’s fiction, or someone just looking for a bit of general inspiration, you could do worse than to buy the audio version of On Writing and listen to it about a hundred times.

Another book I would recommend to new writers is Your First Novel by Laura Whitcomb and Ann Rittenberg. The former is a published author who, in the first half of the book, offers sound and practical advice for writers looking for direction in their craft. The latter is a literary agent who picks up the publishing process with the manuscript submission and takes it all the way through to publication day and beyond. Their explanations of publishing protocol and the plain-spoken descriptions of the printing process demystify the daunting and sometimes-bewildering world.

So, quit reading this and go write something. Anything. Even the works that will never come close to publication teach us something about the writing process, and about ourselves.