by James Scott Bell
“Things were tough at the moment. I hadn’t worked in a studio for a long time. So I sat there, grinding out original stories, two a week. Only I seemed to have lost my touch. Maybe they weren’t original enough. Maybe they were too original. All I know is, they didn’t sell.” – Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard
Ah, poor Joe. We can feel his pain (not really, since he’s narrating this as a corpse floating in a swimming pool. But I digress). Still, I love how screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett captured the writer’s dilemma—what should I write that has a decent chance to sell?
For writers still operating in the world of traditional publishing, that question is more important than ever. Publishing companies are being squeezed and must concentrate on big hits to survive. This makes it harder for a newbie to break in or, if they manage to get ushered through the gates of the Forbidden City, to receive what used to be called a “decent advance” and marketing support.
Indie writers must be market conscious, too, as the crush of content and reading choices grow ever larger. If you want to make decent scratch you have to provide products (plural) that a good number of people will want to buy.
The danger, of course, is the temptation to jump on a trend, or try to replicate what’s already been done. But demanding readers don’t want something that feels same-old. They want to be delighted, surprised, swept up. So do acquisitions editors.
They all want originality.
Just not so much that they can’t figure out what ride they’re on.
Which reminds me of the famous quip by Samuel Johnson who had been asked to review a manuscript. He wrote, “Sir, your book is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.”
(As long as we’re on the subject of literary snubs, I can’t help but quote what is reputed to be the shortest book review ever, attributed to Ambrose Bierce: “The covers of this book are too far apart.”)
So how could we have helped Joe Gillis? Where is the sweet spot for the writer who needs to sell in order to get his car out of hock?
As I assert in Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing, the sweet spot is where you find the most joy. Way back in 1919, a professor of writing at Columbia University, Clayton Meeker Hamilton, said this:
In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. (A Manual of the Art of Fiction.)
I think Professor Hamilton nailed it. When an author is joyous in the writing, it pulses through the words. When you read a Ray Bradbury, for instance, you sense his joy. He was in love with words and his own imagination, and it showed.
“For the first thing a writer should be is––excited,” writes Bradbury in Zen and the Art of Writing. “He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.”
“Let her go!” says Brenda Ueland in If You Want to Write. “Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate!”
You liked to play those things when you were a kid, right?
So play! Here are three ways to do it:
- Go to risky places. Bungee jump off the Bridge of Banal. The cord of a solid concept will keep you from crashing into the gorge.
- Have fun with minor characters. Make them spicy, not mere walk-ons. Never underestimate the power of comedy relief in a thriller. Alfred Hitchcock did it in almost every film (e.g., Thelma Ritter in Rear Window; Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers in Shadow of a Doubt).
- Make things harder on the main character. You thought that setback was bad? Make it worse. (This form of joy is not veiled sadism; it’s plot happiness! Readers will love you for it.)
So what about you? Where do you find your writing sweet spot?
Write what entertains you. Then submit it or publish it. Others will choose whether it entertains them. Meanwhile, write what entertains you, then….
So long as what entertains you is not so singular no one can relate to it. Remember “performance art?” Me neither.
Of course I meant I write to entertain myself first. But I’m also very aware there’s a reader over there on the other side of the page. However, if the story doesn’t surprise me, what right do I have to expect it will surprise the reader?
I race through the story down in the trenches with the characters, only attempting to keep up. I am their recorder. I write down what they say, what they do, what they see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Exactly the opposite of the self-centered affectation in which the performer draws attention from the “art” and to him/herself in “performance art.”
To me, that’s the whole point. It isn’t about the writer. It’s about Story and those who are living it.
So I suppose my “sweet spot” in writing is that point when I’ve rolled off the parapet into the story trench and we race off to leave the tracks that will be seen as a plot.
And a shout out to my characters: I’m very glad they have allowed me to join them through 31 novels and 200 short stories thus far.
There is so much good stuff packed in your three tips. I’ve tried these before in different books, but I like how you describe each one. Good reminders.
In my current WIP, I am bridging the gap between writing a fictional story that has elements of a personal tragedy. It’s been cathartic and enlightening and damned hard. I’ve had to delete more than I usually do to keep it tightly written and not stray into too much “real” detail that slows the pace or misdirects the story. But when I get a “truth” on the page and give an emotional journey to my characters that rings of authenticity, it feels GREAT.
In this case, the sweet spot for me comes from writing a character voice that makes me forget that I wrote the words.
Have a good Sunday and Memorial weekend, Jim.
Jordan I love that. I feel exactly the same – as if (some of) it weren’t by my own hand. And then I run with it, wrap it up and then go again. I find the more I’m in the zone, the more it happens. Unfortunately being in the zone means my characters are the first thought of my waking mind way too early in the morning when I’m on a roll. But what fun!
Ha! When you mentioned getting up early to write because of your characters. I could totally relate. I used to like sleeping in, but no longer. Sometimes you just have to get your first nifty 350 words in before breakfast (Homage to Jim’s morning word count goal).
In this case, the sweet spot for me comes from writing a character voice that makes me forget that I wrote the words.
Isn’t that just the best feeling? Makes me feel like Dr. Frankenstein shouting, “It’s alive! It’s ALIVE!”
Yes, yes, triple yes! After just rousting from the zone, I can relate to this entire thread. No one understands not recognizing the words on the page as yours, except other writers.
Happy Memorial Day weekend to all who celebrate!
Excellent tips, Jim. Thanks.
Can’t wait to read your WIP when it’s ready, Jordan. xo
Thanks, Sue. Definitely. Hugs
HA! I love that Frankenstein imagery, Jim. Perfect.
Jordan, what a brilliant line about forgetting you wrote the words. That totally nails it. Copied and saved in my quote file.
Aw, thanks, Debbie. The first time I experienced that feeling came when my sister hosted a launch party for me and posted some of the book quotes she liked the most on walls & rooms in her beautiful home for partygoers to read & enjoy. Somehow, seeing these lines featured like that, helped me with my ‘out of body’ experience with the words. It meant I had truly channeled the characters voices as I wrote them & didn’t “force” the words. A stream of consciousness thing. Only other writers understand this sensation.
Great writing advice, as always.
My sweet spot lies in writing what gives me joy. And my WIP is a middle grade fantasy with characters inspired by grandchildren, set in my “neck of the woods,” with a handicapped hero that I haven’s seen done before, and a whole series planned that will take the characters on journeys to places never visited before.
Thanks for the great teaching you serve up every Sunday. Have a great Memorial Day weekend.
Steve, your secret is right there in inspired by grandchildren. Your gift to them will never be forgotten!
Ah, those minor characters. They can be too much fun, sometimes. I have to promise mine they can have the next book to keep them from overpowering the main character. Of course, when they do get that leading role, they learn how much more restrictive it can be.
My father once said, “There are two kinds of jobs. The one you do because they money is so good you can deal with being miserable, and the other where you enjoy the work so much you’d pay to do it.”
I know where I stand.
Wise man, your father. While I don’t subscribe to the unadorned sentiment, “Do what you love, the money will follow,” I believe that doing what you love coupled with a solid work ethic is a driver of true success.
Professor Hamilton was right. I think I had too much fun with my minor character. He was a joy to write because I could channel him more strongly than any other. When I went to my novel bootcamp at Tahoe, my critique group said, “I like the minor character the best. When he left the stage, I lost interest.” So the group’s main advice was to write him in early and let him stay to the end. Uh-hum. Draft 6, here I come.
Dickens probably got the same feedback. “Chuck, we love that Micawber fellow. Let’s see more of him!”
My current WIP is a slog-fest with my typing fingers touching keystrokes that are mired in mud. For three months now (while I was recovering from a hiking accident) I’ve lost my productivity and I’m having a hard time doing more than 700 words a day. My health is back in top form but it’s book 11 and I vacillate between telling myself that I have these self-doubts when writing every story, and thinking this story must be bad as there’s little joy or compulsion to write.
I feel like I may be Hulk undergoing a transformation each day stretching from my svelte pantser self into this steroid fat fingered outliner. This WIP has been disorganized in my head and so I took to paper to write 25 ‘scenes’ to steer where the story is going. Still, this daily metamorphosis is playing havoc with my imagination. Has anyone else gone through this painful change of writing style ten books later? Why is it happening? Nobody whines like a writer…..
Alec, any writer who’s been in this game long enough can totally relate to what you’re saying. Even Dean Koontz cops to occasional doubts.
As to your Hulk transformation, it’s happening because you’re getting better. Yes, your pantser pants are getting shredded, but your new wardrobe will be mahvelous!
One thing that helps me get the creative juices flowing when I seem to be at a brick wall, I sometimes jump ahead to write a scene I know is coming. Generally these scenes are only a short leap from where I am stuck. If you go too far ahead, you may have to discard it because it no longer works, but sometimes the brain needs a little kick start to jog words loose.
When you plot or outline the big ticket items and turning points, there are always those pesky transition scenes that get you between those major segments. Those can get you bogged down and make you feel like things are clogged but allow yourself to let those go until you’re ready to tackle them. Put a marker on the page. I usually highlight “scene holders” in lime green or bright yellow. Any progress is PROGRESS, Alec.
I agree with Jim advice, big time.
“Then I talked to a couple of Yes men at Metro. To me, they said No.” I love Sunset Blvd. Writers can learn so much from film. Thank you for the reminder to use humor too. I have a minor character in by WIP that I’ve given that role to. Hitchcock was a genius.
Indeed, Barbara. A binge of Hitchcock and Billy Wilder will do wonders for a writer’s education. Add to that the Chandler touch in Double Indemnity. Wow.
“Have fun with minor characters. Make them spicy, not mere walk-ons. Never underestimate the power of comedy relief…”
Does anybody ever become inexplicably fixated on a particular minor character? In one of my WIPs, I have a minor character that is not even yet well developed. Literally still an embryo in my mind. But he said something funny and now I want to make him a break out star in my ensemble cast, kind of like Michael J Fox was for Family Ties.
It’s one of the most amusing things about writing–being unexpectedly absorbed by a character you hadn’t planned to dwell on.
Happens to me all the time, BK. I have gotten the occasional email about a minor character in a previous book, requesting that I bring him/her back.
Double Indemnity trivia. A minor interior scene shows the Edgar G. Robinson character’s office door. A man sits in a chair reading a book next to the door. That man was played by Raymond Chandler. It’s one of the few pictures of Chandler ever taken.
My sweet spot is my main character. I’m writing a series and finding out what happens to her and how she changes from her experience is so much fun. A piece of advice I give myself is: When you think you’re about to go over a cliff, go.
I love that shot in Double Indemnity, as Fred MacMurray walks by. Chandler has a perfect look on his face. I wonder how much direction Wilder gave him.
As as far as cliffs, Brian, you reminded me of Bradbury’s advice: “First you jump off the cliff and you build your wings on the way down.”
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My goodness did I need to read this. I’ve been languishing over a story that has felt like work. And not the good kind. This captures the problem in one simple phrase–I lack the joy of telling the tale. It has become too contrived and planned and cerebral. I’ve plotted it to death. And, well, it died.
Time to resuscitate the exciting spark of the story I began with, let go, and just have fun with it!
That’s the ticket, Emby. Good writing to you!