by James Scott Bell
If everything seems under your control, you’re not going fast enough. – Mario Andretti, legendary race car driver
Recently we had a bit of a discussion on taking risks, as part of Terry’s post on rules for writers. Today I’d like to give risk more focused attention.
Remember back in 2021 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl by destroying the favored Kansas City Chiefs, 31-9? With a 43-year-old quarterback named Brady. And the oldest coach ever to win the big game, 67-year-old Bruce Arians.
Arians had followed a long and rocky career path as a quarterbacks coach in the NFL. He got hired and fired several times. His first year as head coach for the Bucs the team went 7–9. Then along came Brady and the Super Bowl.
Through it all, Arians had a saying that kept him and his teams motivated. He actually got it from a guy at a bar at a time when Arians thought his dream of being a head coach would never be realized. That saying is: No risk it, no biscuit.
Now doesn’t that sound like a quintessential football coach axiom?
As Arians’ cornerback coach, Kevin Ross, explained it, “If you don’t take a chance, you ain’t winnin’. You can’t be scared.”
What might this mean for the writer?
Risk the Idea
I think each novel you write should present a new challenge. It might be a concept or “what if?” that will require you to do some fresh research. My new Mike Romeo thriller (currently in final revisions) revolves around a current issue that is horrific and heartbreaking. I could have avoided the subject altogether. But I needed to go there.
My next Romeo, in development, came from a news item about a current, but not widely reported, controversy. It’s fresh, but I’ve got a lot of learning to do. I’m reading right now, I’ll be talking to an expert or two, and soon will be making a location stop for further research.
I do this because I don’t want to write a book in the series where someone will say, “Same old, same old.”
Admittedly, writing about “hot-button” issues these days carries a degree of risk. Especially within the walls of the Forbidden City where increasingly the question “Will it sell?” is overridden by “Will it offend?”
But as the old saying goes, there is no sure formula for success, but there is one for failure—try to please everybody.
Are you taking any risks with your craft? Are you following the Captain Kirk admonition to boldly go where you have never gone before?
There are 7 critical areas in fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, and meaning.
You can take one or all of these and determine to kick them up a notch. For example:
Plot—Have you pushed the stakes far enough? If things are bad for the Lead, how can you make them worse? I had a student in a workshop once who pitched his plot. It involved a man who was carrying guilt around because his brother died and he didn’t do enough to save him. I then asked the class to do an exercise: what is something your Lead character isn’t telling you? What does he or she want to hide?
I asked for some examples, and this fellow raised his hand. He said, “I didn’t expect this. But my character told me he was the one who killed his brother.”
A collective “Wow” went up from the group. But the man said, “But if I do that, I’m afraid my character won’t have any sympathy.”
I asked the group, “How many of you would now read this book?”
Every hand went up.
Take risks with your plot. Go where you haven’t gone before.
Characters—Press your characters to reveal more of themselves. I use a Voice Journal for this, a free-form document where the character talks to me, answers my questions, gets mad at me. I want to peel back the onion layers.
How about taking a risk with your bad guy? How? By sympathizing with him!
Hoo-boy, is that a risk. But you know what? The tangle of emotions you create in the reader will increase the intensity of the fictive dream. And that’s your goal! In the words of Mr. Dean Koontz:
The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror. Think of the pathetic aspect of the Frankenstein monster. Think of the poor werewolf, hating what he becomes in the light of the full moon, but incapable of resisting the lycanthropic tides in his own cells.
Dialogue—Are you willing to make your dialogue work harder by not always being explicit? In other words, how can you make it reveal what’s going on underneath the surface of the scene without the characters spelling it out?
Voice—Are you taking any risks with your style? This is a tricky one. On the one hand, you want your story told in the cleanest way possible. You don’t want style larded on too heavily.
On the other hand, voice is an X factor that separates the cream from the milk. I’ve quoted John D. MacDonald on this many times—he wanted “unobtrusive poetry” in his prose.
I’m currently reading the Mike Hammer books in order. It’s fascinating to see Mickey Spillane growing as a writer. His blockbuster first novel, I, The Jury, is pure action, violence, and sex. It reads today almost like a parody. But with his next, My Gun is Quick, he begins to infuse Hammer with an inner life that makes him more interesting. By the time we get to his fourth book, One Lonely Night, Hammer is a welter of passions and inner conflict threatening to tear him apart. His First-Person voice is still hard-boiled, but it achieves what one critic called “a primitive power akin to Beat poetry.” And Ayn Rand, no less, put One Lonely Night ahead of anything by Thomas Wolfe!
In short, Spillane didn’t rest on his first-novel laurels. He pushed himself to be better.
He risked it for the biscuit. And he ate quite well as a result.
Over to you now. Are you taking any risks in your writing? Are you hesitant, all-in or somewhere in between? How much do you consider the market vis-à-vis trying taking a flyer?
Taking every risk I could imagine or invent – and this for a mainstream novel with a deeply embedded love triangle at its core.
Readers of Book 1 have commented how they like my villain.
The end of Book 2 (almost launched) is close to unbelievable – unless you’ve been paying attention to the little things.
Everyone’s principles are up for grabs and pushed to their limits.
And even that way, the story has to hold together and make the highly improbably seem quite real.
And both John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee were heavy training grounds. JDM has been the best of teachers. Glad you mentioned him.
Kudos for taking those risks, Alicia. Love it that reader liked your villain. That was true for Hitchcock in many of his films. The charming villain who is more fascinating than the Lead (e.g., Strangers on a Train).
Glad to hear you’re a JDM fan, too.
You can offend, as long as you’re offending the group the media has chosen to offend. The risk is that group shifts every few years so this year’s hero may be next year’s pariah.
The biggest risk I’m taking right now is finishing (almost) everything I’ve got (thank you Robert Heinlein) and sending it all out- my dystopian trilogy, my Christmas switcheroo (Freaky Friday at Christmas), my future lawyer who disappoints his family by running a charter boat instead, my time traveler who got way more than she bargained for.
There are more, but I’m starting with those.
I went to my first audition since the theatres opened back up. It was great fun. The characters directors see me as always make a lot more money than I do. I need to get my real life side to match up.
Happy Sunday, y’all!
Way to go, Cynthia. Finish and send and repeat. That’s how it’s done!
And may life imitate art for you.
I take a severe risk every time I sit down to write: Dare to be bad. Translation: Trust and believe in yourself and your creative subconscious.
I understand the short stories and novels I write aren’t important, that they’re only a few minutes’ or hours’ entertainment for the reader, so I “dare to be bad.” That’s advice I first picked up from Dean Wesley Smith and Nina Kiriki Hoffman.
Instead of hovering in place trying to correct and improve on the story that my characters, not I, are living, I write it, spell check it, submit or publish it, and start the next story.
Spillane said he didn’t just “sit down and write.” He worked the story out in his head. Once it was there, he wrote his ending, then wrote the novel up to it. He also clearly worked on his style, as is evident from his books.
In my last release (“Insurrection”) domestic terrorists infiltrate and take over a major hospital’s emergency room and barricade themselves and multiple hostages therein. They have hidden explosive devices capable of mass destruction throughout Minneapolis/St.Paul and hold the cities and nation hostage.
The terrorist leader and his family had suffered brutal loss at the hands of corrupt corporate-government agencies that were technically legal but fundamentally unjust.
His pain, the harm done to his family, and history of personal integrity provide a basis for sympathy and some possible admiration.
I was uncomfortable with revealing laudable and compelling human aspects of the terrorist leader/antagonist’s character.
The story makes clear the sick, heartless, and twisted reality of the terrorist’s actions but sharing his self-justification and “victimhood” put me in an uncomfortable place.
The book was a MN Book award finalist with Wm Kent Krueger and Allen Eskens (obviously tooting my own horn) and is receiving gratifying reader feedback.
Jim – I’m all-in on more and bigger risks. Thank you for your ongoing excellent instruction
Tom, nicely done! Just what I was talking about. I’m not surprised it was a finalist for an award.
Thanks for the post. I remember watching that game.
One of the best written and portrayed villains, in my opinion, was Thanos, from the last two Avengers movies. The writers made me understand his need to bring balance to the universe. He believed he was doing the right thing, even though he’d planned a horrible way to complete it. My son and I are using Thanos as a model for writing our own villain.
Good on you, Michelle. The 3D villain is always more interesting and, in a way, scarier. To be doing evil because he thinks it’s his right or even his duty…that’s chilling. And true to life.
Thanks for encouraging us to keep taking risks, Jim.
I think of each book as a new experiment. There’s danger in that, but also a spark of excitement to nudge the old gray cells into new territory.
In my last book, I added young girls to the cast of characters, hoping they would bring humor and a freshness to the story. I had never written children into my stories before, but it turned out to be a joyful experience. (Warning: children have a way of taking over.) I also experimented with first-person for one character and third-person for all the others.
After my three cozy mysteries, I’m currently working on two projects in different genres. One is a romantic suspense, and the other is middle-grade. (Those children will not leave me alone.)
Have a great holiday weekend.
Love it, Kay. Different risks, different challenges, but big rewards at the end. Carpe Typem!
Thanks for wrapping it up with that reference to Mickey Spillane and his growth as a writer–that says it all right there. He gave himself room to get better, deepen his protag, and his READERS gave him room to keep improving his writing too, book by book.
Also appreciated the comment from Harvey above–about a book being a few hours’ of entertainment for a reader and to keep that in mind as you write and take risks.
Spillane was good at branding himself. The “tough guy” writer, the rough-hewn scribe (as opposed to those “big shot writers” lauded by the NY critics). He had the look and the voice of Mike Hammer, which is why he played Hammer in perhaps the most faithful adaptation of one of his books, The Girl Hunters. (He also used that image in a famous Miller Lite commercial). But I sense, underneath that exterior, a writer who really did care enough about his craft to try to improve every time out.
Spillane remains one of the greats. The inner conflict in the opening scene of One Lonely Night is hypnotic and gut-wrenching.
Absolutely agree, MC. Fantastic.
Great post, Jim. Just what the doctor ordered.
I tend to be cautious, careful, a risk avoider – a “somewhere in between.” But, when it comes to plot, I am not afraid to offend, not afraid to “show” the current lunacy that has infiltrated the collective consciousness. Unfortunately (or fortunately) sometimes the collective consciousness sees the error of their ways before a book is finished. I’m halfway through the rough draft of an allegory on the religion of Covid – “Vid.” And, wouldn’t you know it, the science has finally convinced “the believers” of the error of their ways, and there is little left to put on display for ridicule.
So now I’m trying to decide whether to abandon the project or repurpose the plot by using the old dark magician (1313), who is playing with genetics in his hunger for immortality, to show the folly of our desire to retain our youth forever.
Any suggestions would be welcome.
Steve, it’s a time-honored pursuit to work those things out in fiction. One of the delights of a Travis McGee is when Trav takes off an riff about some current idiocy or other, before getting back to the story. The trick is balance, of course. You don’t want a screed. And when basing a whole book on something controversial, you really have to be “fair” to both sides. No stacking the deck, IOW.
I do like the title “Vid.” Might still be enough of a remnant out there to make it work. Remember, there are also flat earthers out there.
Thanks for the advice, Jim!
Insightful post, Jim. I’d say I’m in the middle when it comes to taking risks. I took a risk with the Empowered series, an alternate history superhero-urban fantasy blend with a thriller pacing. The thriller pacing swept me and readers along, but the risk was it prevented a deeper narrative. Still, I pressed on and finished the series in May 2020.
When it comes to doing something risky, I don’t consider the market that much. I have idea for a fantasy-mystery that, like the Empowered, wouldn’t fit neatly into a sub-genre (unlike my library cozy 🙂 The idea won’t leave me alone, so I’m probably going to need to write it. This post will be a handy set of resources to push that idea even further.
Have a wonderful Sunday!
A middle-ground risk position is not bad. Just so there’s enough push to go beyond whats nice and comfy.
And yes, when an idea won’t leave you alone, that’s what you write. It’s been the basis of many of my own books.
If you want every book to be better than the previous one, you have to take risks. Taking those risks can prevent boredom, both on the reader and author sides.
And sometimes, real life brings changes. I published my first Triple-D Ranch book, In Hot Water, in 2016. There was a thread about people creating a new virus, which I included after a talk at a conference from a microbiologist talking about how ‘easy’ it would be to smuggle samples out of a lab.
I recently published book 4 in the series, and that triggered sales of the earlier books. Now, I’m getting some blowback that In Hot Water is nothing but vaccine propaganda.
Avoiding or pursuing “hot topics” might make no difference a few years down the line.
Write the best book you can.
Terry, there was a big social media “explosion” when Covid first hit, when someone found a passage in a Koontz thriller from the 80s that has a “Wuhan-400” virus in it, as if Koontz had predicted the pandemic.
We can only write books. We can’t control circumstances.
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asks. Scott Adams takes a swipe at the recent panicdemic nomenclature:
Terry’s goal to make each book better than the last is also my quest. The risks keep increasing and the bar keeps getting higher.
In my series, I didn’t go into the male lead’s POV until the fourth book b/c he had me so intimidated. Crazy, right? But Clare Langley-Hawthorne recommended I try it (thanks, Clare!). Turns out exploring inside his head opened a whole ‘nother world for that story and the following books.
Experts often advise “Write what scares you.” In today’s world, there’s a never-ending supply of fear and story fodder. Sigh.
Debbie, the most successful writers I know say that writing gets harder as they go along. For exactly the reason you posit, their standards go up. The bar is raised. And that’s a great thing. Jump higher. Reach for the stars; ou might not get one, but you won’t get a handful of mud, either.
A writer who constantly risks it is Jodi Picoult who writes mainstream issue novels. And, dang, that woman can write compelling characters. The issues are fairly written with both sides given equal value. She even went there with abortion, and one of her novels did a SIXTH SENSE twist at the end where BOTH the main characters are dead. She’s a writer other writers should read and study.
My whole career was risks, and I lost most of the time. I was always years before trends. I was told by a romance editor that vampires aren’t sexy. Ghosts and time travel don’t belong in romance. I invented paranormal suspense and several other genres years before they became sub-genres. Sigh. This is not a career path I would recommend.
I invented the zombie legal thriller, Marilynn. My three book series was published by Kensington (I used a pseudonym because of the branding issue in trad publishing). The books are dang good, but didn’t take off as I’d hoped. Of course, there are no guarantees–and no sure things–in the market. Still, I’m proud of these books and got the rights back, and they’re out there again…and that’s rewarding.
I don’t know if this falls under risk-taking, but in every book I create at least one eccentric character who is borderline believable. It’s takes much work to keep coming up with eccentrics who differ from characters in earlier books.
Another thing I like to do, is devise situations where characters who have no relationship to each other and nothing in common are thrust together to create bonds and conflicts.
On eccentric characters, see the works of Janet Evanovich. It is a challenge, because you don’t want quirkiness to become tiresome. But some of the best emails I received have been compliments on secondary characters. Just like in the movies, we love comic relief.
I’m not a golf fan but I always loved the phrase “never up never in.” If you don’t swing that club hard enough, you’re gonna come up short.
Good advice in all facets of life, I say. I’ve been really pushing myself to up my pickleball game of late. I’m a good intermediate player, ranking about a 3.5 on the PB scale (it goes up to 5.5+). I took a clinic and the coach told me I’m too timid at the net and I don’t vary my shots enough. So I’m trying to go for the biscuit more.
As for writing, if you don’t go for that biscuit, you’re never going to be more than the same-old same-old or worse, imho, a writer that holds his readers at arms’ length. You have to be willing to open a vein.
Great post. One of my favorite subjects.
I should clarify on my golf analogy. I said, “if you don’t swing hard your club enough…” I mean to imply that your putt (writing) is always landing short, well, it means you’re not truly committed to your swing. (fill in gap on what “swing” means in this tortured sports analogy.) 🙂
Love a good sports analogy, Kris. (We golfers would call what we do with a putter a “stroke.” But that’s a minor point.)
To carry this a bit further, scientific research has shown that the optimal speed for a putt is one that would go six inches past the hole if it didn’t go in.
I fully expect to hear the legend of Killer Kris the Pickleball Queen someday.
Great post and great comments! I am always glad when someone tells me my latest book is my best book. That means I’ve grown as a writer.
Great words to hear. Extra great if my wife says it!