Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ya Gotta Have Heart

James Scott Bell

Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder. – Raymond Chandler

John D. MacDonald wanted to bury the corpse. In this case, the corpse was one of his books. In 1963 he accepted an offer to write a novelization of a movie. The movie was Judy Garland's I Could Go on Singing. MacDonald took the gig because the money was good.

The book wasn't. Even he knew it. After it went out of print, MacDonald never gave permission for it to be printed again.

Since I collect MacDonald, I snagged a copy from a bookstore owner I know, who charged me a fair price. I did read it. And no, it isn't up to MacDonald's usual standards.

It's pretty obvious why: his heart wasn't in it. It wasn't his material.

Lesson: If you're going to get your writing noticed, read, published and re-read, you have to put your heart into it.

You've no doubt heard that before. At least once at every writer's conference, you'll hear someone on a panel say, "Forget chasing the market. Just write the book of your heart."

I understand what's being said, though I would tweak it a bit. You have to find the intersection of the market and your heart, then get that heart beating.

I'm a professional writer. I cannot afford to frolic in the fields of eccentric experimentation. But that doesn't mean I only write what I think will make money.

There are those who have done that. Nicholas Sparks is right up front about how he chose his genre. He saw the tear-jerker-romance-by-a-male-author slot as a great business opportunity. David Morrell talks about this in his fine book, Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing. Morrell himself says he couldn't do it that way. He has to have something "gnawing" at him to write. He has to find the heart of the matter.

It's like when I was a criminal defense lawyer. (Spare me the jokes. When your son or daughter is arrested, you'll call someone like me.) Anyway, defense lawyers have an essential part to play in our system of justice. It's called upholding the Constitution. That's what you have to believe when you're defending someone who is pretty much cooked as far as the evidence goes. You have to believe that, or you'll do a lousy job.

I write for readers. I write so that readers will enjoy what I write and buy my next book. But to do that, I have to find the heart of the story and ramp up the passion level.

See, the unexpurgated "book of my heart" would be a post-realistic satirical look at the philosophy department of a major university, written somewhat in the style of Kurt Vonnegut channeling Jack Kerouac.

Could I sell such a book? I don't know. I know I'd enjoy writing it, but I also know it would be tough to sell a marketing department on it.

I could write it for fun, and might someday, but right now I need to keep earning a living.

So what I do is take my favorite genre, thrillers, think up concepts and then make them the book of my heart. I find ways to fall in love with my story.

The way it happens for me is through characters, getting to know them deeply, creating a colorful supporting cast –– and then scaring the living daylights out of them in the plot.

How about you? What gets you amped about your writing?


  1. I get most excited about writing when I can find humor in my story. An opportunity for painfully awkward conversation, puns, cultural misunderstandings, and parody are what keep my story kicking in my mind. I hope my future readers get as many laughs out of my characters as I do.

  2. It's the characters for me, too. It's *wanting* to know what happens to them, finding out how they'll deal with this obstacle and that setback, and what they'll do at the end. And if there's adventure and gunfights and explosions on the way... I'm happy. :)

  3. Shannon, I love the role of humor in the midst of dark circumstances. Hitchcock was a master at this trope.

  4. Right on, BJ. When you can get to the place where you are anxious to see what's going to happen to your story people, that's the right place to be.

  5. When I can feel the emotions along with my characteres.This past week I had to make a decison to write for category romance or take my work and expand it into a full-length one. I chose the full because I couldn't turn my character into a vanilla one when I love a little bit of the chocolate thrown in. I want to get published and will follow the rules but I also need to follow some of my heart.

  6. Hi Jim,
    Interesting subject. I'm a mental health junkie. I guess that comes from 30+ years of counseling. But weaving mental health threads through a contemporary novel is not where my heart is just now. Probably because it's my day job. :) That's why I like exploring stories in Regency England for the moment. Maybe Victorian in the future and then maybe contemporary.

    I love experimenting with what I know and then going back in history and playing with that, because they didn't know what we know today about the workings of the mind.

    Hopefully that makes sense. But that is where my passion is today. And I agree with you and Shannon about humor. I like to use my secondary characters to rev up the humor in my historicals.

    Oh, and Hitchcock. Wasn't he awesome! I always loved looking for him in his movies. I think he might have been a real ham.:)

  7. Terri, that's the right combination to get published. You made the correct decision. Keep writing.

  8. Jillian, Hitchcock was the supreme example of these principles in the world of film. He loved to entertain, but he also rendered great characters, especially the villains (like Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train.)

  9. "Forget chasing the market" Hah! I write YA - for boys. Not a great market - but it's lotsa fun (which is all I care about). Thankfully, I've got a great day job.

    This is a great blog.

  10. Jax, if you're having fun, that's going to be evident in the writing as well. So keep smiling. Thanks for dropping by.

  11. Delight yourself also in the LORD, And He shall give you the desires of your heart. - Psalm 37:4 (NKJV)

    It doesn't necessarily mean you get what you want. It can also mean that God puts a new desire inside you. I think the latter is more accurate.