Monday, July 28, 2014

Make It Your Own

The following quote from acting legend Robert Duvall appears in a recent AARP magazine, when asked about leaving a mark:

“In America, we’ve got cowboys. As an actor, you don’t reinvent something like the Western. You make it your own: “If I were in this situation, what would I do as a cattleman?” Suddenly your fingerprints are all over the place.”

Writers are often counseled to be the new and shiny thing, to find something different. Not saying to be old and stale, but the opportunities available for the new and different are limited by public taste, your agent or editor’s handle on what’s going to be next, and where your primary skills as an author reside. Basically, it’s luck, using the definition, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” If you’re not ready, you won’t get lucky. J. K. Rowling is the best example of this in recent literary history. To use “luck” in connection with her success is by no means a pejorative statement, but had she come out with Harry Potter a year earlier or a year later, she might have sunk like a stone. That kind of success is a little like winning the lottery: you only win if you picked the correct numbers on the right day.

A better long-term, if less spectacular, strategy is to find what you do best and make it your own. There’s no point in trying to climb onto the Fifty Shades of Gray bandwagon if you are most comfortable writing hard-boiled crime fiction. You’re not likely to be as good at it, and that train has left the station, anyway. Find what you’re good at, and make it your own.

Last week I read Late Rain, by Lynn Kostoff. (Highly recommended, by the way, I’ll have more in my end-of-the-month summary.) Here, Kostoff takes the hoary concepts of the femme fatale and the burned-out cop and plays them against each other in a multi-POV story that allows the reader to know more than any of the characters, which is the best way to foreshadow as I am aware of: trusting the reader’s intelligence.

About halfway through Late Rain, something popped into my head: what might Elmore Leonard have done with this woman, her hapless husband, and controlling father-in-law? The cop beset on all sides, with a relationship he can’t quite get off the ground? The lawyer who serves as the town puppeteer and his dim-witted henchman? It would have been an entirely different book. Not necessarily better—maybe even not as good—but it would have been Leonard’s book as much as Late Rain is Kostoff’s. Leonard would have made the premise and characters his own, just as Kostoff made them his own.

We’ve all read books and seen movies where the original premise draws us in, then the final result is disappointing. We’ve also read and seen things where the original premise doesn’t seem like much, but we give it a chance because we like an author in general or the enjoy an actor’s work, only to find we like it a lot more than anticipated. That’s because what’s a good idea for one person to develop may be a lousy idea for someone else. The reading public may be screaming for a story about a transgendered astronaut caught in a love triangle with a cowboy and a medieval monk; I can’t write that book. Know your strengths and play to them.

Arnold Schoenberg, the father of twelve-tone music, once told an acolyte, “There is still a great deal of beautiful music to be written in C Major.” There are many great lone wolf PI stories yet to be written. Traditional puzzle mysteries. Organized crime. Femme fatale. It’s not unreasonable to assume, whatever your chosen genre and style, there’s more that can be done by tweaking the mold for those who aren’t set up to break it. Find your niche. Make it your own. That’s where success is most likely to lie. 

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