Sunday, March 3, 2013

Put Your Stamp On Everything You Write

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


We had some great comments on my post about Lee Marvin and writing your truth. I just finished watching Cat Ballou again, and I have to say Marvin’s Best Actor Oscar was well deserved. Remember, he wasn’t up against some powder puffs. His competition that year was Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Rod Steiger and Oskar Werner.

But Marvin deserved the gold statuette because, as the old actor Edmund Kean said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Marvin’s portrayal of the drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen required just the right touch, and boy did he have it. Then I watched The Killers, a 1964 crime pic with Marvin playing a hit man (targeting one Ronald Reagan in his last movie role). In what could have been a standard-issue performance, Marvin put unique spin on the role and gave another great performance.

Whatever you write, you must put your particular stamp on it. Do that, and you can write great stories.

I mean it. Your category romance can be great for its genre. Or your police procedural. Or your vampire novel. Anything. But it requires more than giving us what we’ve seen before. 

Stamp is another word for voice. It's that indefinable something that readers (unconsciously) and agents/editors (consciously) look for in a writer. 

How do you find it? Let me suggest the following (with apologies to Sue Grafton):

S is for Self – Look within before you start writing anything. Have an emotional connection to the material. Your own wiring creates the hum in your voice. Don't ever write only to “sell.” Readers can sense that a mile away. 

T is for Training – It takes skill to put yourself on the page in a way that communicates. That's why I call structure "translation software for your imagination." Without it, you frustrate rather than capture readers.  Craft comes from practice and study. Produce the words! But also have a systematic program set up for yourself to keep learning how to make your words more effective.

A is for Audacity – Don’t be afraid of pushing yourself. Take risks in your writing. Go where the fear (or at least, the uncertainty) is. See what happens in the dark corners. Make life unbearably hard on your characters. You can always revise later, but playing it safe up front leaves potential gold in the ground. 

M is for Moments – Great fiction is about great moments. Clarice Starling's first encounter with Hannibal Lecter. Katniss Everdeen singing a lullaby to the dying Rue. That carriage ride in Madame Bovary. Get to the big moments in your story and overwrite them. Don’t hold anything back emotionally. When you revise, that's when you shape the moment by trimming or nuancing.

P is for Passion – Care about what your story is really about. You might not be able to sense it at first, but it’s there (we call this theme or premise). Look deep into your characters' motives and yearnings. Including the bad guys. Justify everyone's position as they fight it out. The emotional cross-currents you create will enchant your readers. 

Which brings me to my new release: FORCE OF HABIT 2: AND THEN THERE WERE NUNS.


This is the second novelette in my series. What is my stamp on this? Why am I writing about a nun who kicks butt?

For me, it started with the concept, which delighted my writing Self. Delight is a good thing to have when you write. Especially when your aim is entertainment. 

Training: A novelette is short form (about 15k words) and I've been studying that form as the e-book revolution has taken off. All writers now should be producing short form work in addition to full length novels. 

It was Audacious. Risk was involved. I did not know enough about nuns when I started. But I found a couple of experts (i.e., nuns who were willing to talk to me) for research. I wanted to be respectful and not devolve into a cartoon. And writing from the POV of a thirty-year-old former child star who went into the devoted life was a cool challenge.

The Moments I wanted to write were, first, the fight scenes. Also, there's a wonderful moment in FORCE 2 that came out of the blue for me, so I just wrote it to see what would happen. Then beta readers told me they loved it. Thus, the wonderful alchemy of "the boys in the basement" worked again. (Hint: a celebrity is involved).  

And Passion. I've always been interested in things philosophical and theological—the big questions of life. And in these stories I stumbled upon an issue: the use of violence to stop evil. Talk about something that is on a lot of minds these days! In the Catholic tradition there is a long-standing debate over the “just war.” Well, I brought that down to the personal: what if a nun could stop someone from doing evil by laying them out cold? And found out she was good at it? Indeed, what if part of her enjoyed it, while the other part wondered if she was entirely normal?

So that's my stamp. When I write anything, from the fun of FORCE OF HABIT to the suspense of DON'T LEAVE ME, I try to make this connection to the material.

So what about you? What does your writing stamp look like? Do you think about it before you write? Or do you find it as you go along? 

And: are you taking enough risks?

***

FORCE OF HABIT and FORCE OF HABIT 2 are both priced at 99¢. Enjoy!

FORCE OF HABIT Kindle

FORCE OF HABIT Nook

FORCE OF HABIT 2: AND THEN THERE WERE NUNS Kindle

FORCE OF HABIT 2: AND THEN THERE WERE NUNS Nook

16 comments:

  1. You make some very good points there JSB. As I am working on my latest book I am beginning to understand more an more my own stamp. I always have shied away from considering my self to be just another Clancy or Forsyth cutout, and hated the idea of being called the same any other writer out there beyond simply being a writer of thrillers.

    As I work on more and more stuff I find that signature of my own style becoming more prevalent, just as I see it readily in my own favourite writers. That, I agree, is what draws faithful reader to our work. They can identify when it is ours and they like it that way.

    And I like that they like it....like....yeah.

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    1. It's a great feeling to find that stamp becoming more "prevalent," Basil. The more we write and risk, the sooner that seems to happen.

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  2. My "stamp," or at leat the direction I've been heading, involves the mixture of my love of the Up North Michigan setting and a more hard boiled type of story. It's as if my closet "Cat Who" personality is colliding with Southland. But it seems to be working, at least my writing partner thinks so. We'll see where my hard-boiled cozy personality takes me.

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  3. "Point Blank" (Marvin's biography) just came in at the library so I'm looking forward to reading it.

    The advice in this post that I appreciate the most is to go ahead and overwrite at first. At times I tend to pull back, and I HAVE found that it makes the story lesser then it could be. Much easier to let it all hang out the first draft and hone after.

    Looking forward to reading this next addition to Force of Habit! 8-)

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  4. My stamp seems to include characters with complicated relationships with those they love--friends, family, love interests. There's also some sort of fantasy element, usually in the form of how can this magic make life harder for the MC?

    I like your advice to be audacious. Being a part of the online writing community is very helpful, but sometimes it's hard to hear about what is selling and what isn't all the time. I find myself either writing something everyone has declared utterly cliche or so far out of the norm the idea of genre feels like a cruel joke.

    But who cares? I'll be audacious and bold, and see what happens after that. I love writing. I am writing to make stories. Selling them would just be a side benefit. :D

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    1. And the selling will be more likely as that audacity shines through, IMO. Go for it.

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    2. Thanks, I am really hoping so. I figure I am spending the time and energy writing books, so why not write something I love? Even if it doesn't sell, I won't have wasted my time playing it safe.

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  5. I'm interested in the pertinence and efficacy of the female voice in works coming out today and love your term, the writer's "stamp." Such a more forward, aggressive, maybe male way to say "voice?" Like scent your territory? thanks for this perspective on what works

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  6. This is now printed and on my bulletin board with the best from XKCD.com reminding me to seize life's moments. Thanks, as always, for the great Sunday column.

    I'm getting there. My MC is the most complicated character I've created to date. Her dad is responsible for the mess he has dragged her into. But she has to save him, because at the end of the day, he's her dad. She can't walk away until she has done all she can.

    Terri

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  7. Speaking of the novelette, how about writing a How-To blog if you haven't already done so? I have no idea how to write short. As for your tips, they are all valid. Readers will know if you are passionate about your material so not jumping on the next trend is good advice.

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  8. Maybe it's because my youngest niece turned 18 today. Maybe it's because I'm high on lemon furniture polish. Maybe it's just because it's Sunday, and my mind is going in a million directions in regards to the upcoming week. Whatever may be to blame, this is what popped into my head as I finished your post:
    If you wrote it then you better put your STAMP on it.
    Please to sing it to the portion of the Beyonce song that goes, "If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it."
    Welcome to my world. You're welcome. (See how this works?) Great post! ;-)

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    1. It's a good, audacious world. Thanks for the glimpse!

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  9. Great suggestions. I've always thought of the importance of voice as just that - the voice of a singer. 'Cause you can give the same lyric to three different singers and one will go through the motions, and another will sing with great clarity and tone, but the one who knocks you out is the one who puts their own stamp on it. Who brings their own passion and experience to it and makes it their own and has the audacity to deliver it in a way you've never heard it before.

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  10. I would love to know more about how to write short and do it well.

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    1. The Art and Craft of the Short Story by DeMarinis is quite good.

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  11. Thank you James. I'll look for it.

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