About James Scott Bell

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Further Reflections on the Mirror Moment

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I enjoy getting emails and tweets from writers regarding the “mirror moment,” which is the subject of my book, Write Your Novel From the Middle. Recently I received two that I thought would make good fodder for a post (we at TKZ are always looking for good fodder).

The first email was a great question from someone who asked about the mirror moment in a long series. She used Sue Grafton’s alphabet series as an example. Should each book have a mirror moment? How can a series character go through so many changes?

I wrote back reminding her that there are two kinds of mirror moments. The first kind is about identity. It asks questions like, “Who am I? Why am I this way? What must I become?” It’s Rick in Casablanca.

The second kind is about death. It is the realization, “I’m probably going to die. The opposition is too great. How can I possibly survive?” That’s Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive.

So I suggested that in any Kinsey Millhone mystery (and in mystery series in general), there could always be a realization in the middle that this case, this puzzle, this villain is the most perplexing or dangerous of their career. It looks like they could “die” (professionally) this time.

But that is not to say the character in any given book in a series cannot have a personal crisis of identity, too. Exhibit A would be the Harry Bosch books by Michael Connelly.

C is for confession: I have not read all of the alphabet books by Sue Grafton. I think I may have stopped around F. But the question intrigued me, so I went to the library and picked one of the later books at random—Q is For Quarry. I sat down and, as is my practice when mirror hunting, turned to the physical center of the book and just started looking around. Was there anything relating to identity? Or anything indicating this was the biggest challenge of her career?

Lo and behold, I found that it was about identity. Kinsey, who lost both her parents in a car accident when she was very young, has had a hole in her identity ever since. In this scene from the middle of the book, she is looking at a photograph of her mother. You don’t even have to know the details of the plot to know that this is the language of an identity-type of mirror moment:

I placed the frame on my desk, sitting back in my swivel chair with my feet propped up. Several things occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of before. I was now twice my mother’s age the day the photograph was taken. Within four months of that date, my parents would be married, and by the time she was my age, she’d have a daughter three years old. By then my parents would have had only another two years to live. It occurred to me that if my mother had survived, she’d be seventy. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a mother in my life—the phone calls, the visits and shopping trips, holiday rituals so alien to me. I’d been resistant to the Kinseys, feeling not only adamant but hostile to the idea of continued contact. Now I wondered why the offer of simple comfort felt like such a threat. Wasn’t it possible that I could establish a connection with my mother through her two surviving sisters? Surely, Maura and Susanna shared many of her traits—gestures and phrases, values and attitudes ingrained in them since birth. While my mother was gone, couldn’t I experience some small fragment of her love through my cousins and aunts? It didn’t seem too much to ask, although I still wasn’t clear what price I might be expected to pay.

I locked the office early, leaving the photo of my mother in the center of my desk. Driving home, I couldn’t resist touching on the issue, much in the same way the tongue seeks the socket from which a tooth has just been pulled. The compulsion resulted in the same shudder-producing blend of satisfaction and repugnance.

Thus, any book in a long-running series can include subplot elements that relate to the hero’s identity and transformation.

Shortly after this I got an email from my friend, writer Rich Bullock. He told me he’d been watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and in the chapter titled “The Mirror Cave” Rey is being tempted by the dark side (what a shock) and challenged by Kylo Ren on her true identity. Rich told me it was smack dab in the middle.

So I checked out the DVD from the library, chucked in the player, and went to the scene. Rey has fallen into this mirror cave, and is hoping it will give her a clue about who she truly is. Kylo Ren is somewhere else, but able to communicate with her:

KYLO REN: Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.

REY: No! No!

REY (VOICE OVER): I should have felt trapped or panicked. But I didn’t. This didn’t go on forever, I knew it was leading somewhere. And that, at the end, it would show me what I came to see.

REY: Let me see them. My parents … please.

She touches the mirror. Two shadowy figures approach from the other side of the glass. But when the frost clears, Rey is looking at … herself!

I took a look at the DVD timeline:

Hmm, we’re 1:16 into a 2:32 movie. I’m no math whiz, but I believe you can’t get any more middle than that!

The mirror moment works every time.

(For more on this, see my post “Revisiting the Mirror Moment”.)

That’s it for today, kids. I’m on the road most of the day, but will try to check in later. Talk amongst yourselves, esp. those of you writing series characters. How do you handle any inner transformation?

10+

Reader Friday: Failing Up

“In both life and football, failure is inevitable. You dont always win. You can, however, learn from that failure, pick yourself up with great enthusiasm, and place yourself in the arena again. And that’s right where you will find me. Because I know I still have more to prove.” — Tom Brady

Applies to writers, too?

8+

On Cheating

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today is a “need to vent” post. Indulge me.

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, my Dodgers, who have not won a World Series since 1988, were cheated out of the 2017 series by the Houston Astros. It was a seven-game series, mind you, so any small advantage engendered large-scale results.

That’s what happened when the Astros mechanized a sign-stealing system. The whole art of pitching is about mixing it up to fool batters. But if a batter knows when a pitcher is going to bring the heat, he can prepare to swing early. If a change or breaking ball is coming, he can sit on the pitch. This is an incredible advantage for the hitter.

Now, there’s always been a “gentleman’s agreement” about stealing signs with your eyes. If a runner on second is able to figure out the pitch, and pats his knee so the batter knows what’s coming, that’s acceptable. Catchers know this, and adjust accordingly.

What the Astros did was different. They used a combination of high-tech and low-tech. They had a camera in centerfield trained on the Dodgers catchers, connected to a monitor just off the Astros dugout. A player in the dugout would read the catcher’s signs, then relay the information to Astros batters by—get this—banging on a trash can lid. A sort of garbage Morse code!

It worked. As the Astros celebrated their victory, Dodgers fans sulked, for that 2017 team was the best we’ve had in a generation.

But after an investigation by Major League Baseball, the Astros scheme was brought to light. As a result, the team has been fined the maximum, $5 million, and will forfeit its next two first- and second-round draft picks. The manager and general manager were both suspended, then immediately fired by the team.

The only remaining question is whether the Astros should be stripped of their title. You can guess what the vote would be in Los Angeles.

(And as if we didn’t need more salt in the wound, the same thing may have happened to the 2018 Dodgers in the World Series against the Red Sox! That is currently under investigation.)

Cheating, of course, has always been with us, from test answers jotted on the sweaty palm of a nervous student, to stuffing ballot boxes with the votes of dead people. (A 2012 report by the Pew Center found that more than 1.8 million dead people were registered to vote, and not one of them was named Casper.)

Which brings me to writers. There are temptations out there to “cheat” or “game the system” in various ways, and for various purposes. Here’s one example, reported by the gimlet-eyed David Gaughran:

One particular guy — who I won’t name — … presents himself as a million-selling author, and an expert, when he’s neither. I dug into his background and found a cute little cheat had propelled him to what looked like chart success, when really there was a skeevy little formula behind this appearance of a fanbase.

Back when this was possible, he would drop the price of his books to $0.01 on Google Play, and then self-report the lower price to Amazon, whose bots would dutifully match that price, despite this being against the TOS. It was like having a free book in the paid charts, and at that price it attracted a lot of downloads, of course. The book would then rise up the popularity list also and start getting recommended to Amazon customers, at which point he’d raise the price to $2.99 and drop the price of his next book.

This heavily touted “success” of his — where he’s waving around sales numbers rather than quoting income — was then parlayed into a thousand-dollar mastermind course a couple of years ago, which he proceeded to sell to hundreds of fiction writers, without disclosing this wheeze, or that all his books were non-fiction: public domain prayers he had simply repackaged.

He’s not even a writer! Now he’s an expert talking about “The Amazon Algorithm.” What a world.

Among real writers, those who truly care about their craft, I’m convinced the overwhelming majority are on the up-and-up. And there are many who are particularly skilled at understanding algorithms, meta-data, CPC versus CPM, and so on. It is right and proper to optimize these things.

What isn’t right are obvious sins like plagiarism, paid-for reviews, and sock-puppetry to leave bad reviews of another writer’s books.

I don’t have any grand lesson here, except to say—echoing the doctor responding to the patient who complained that it “hurts when I do this”—don’t do that! We have enough “integrity deficit disorder” going on in our culture. Leave us not add to it.

Oh, and one other thing: Belated congratulations to the 2017 World Champion Dodgers!

8+

Getting Serious About Your Writing Career

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Kris had some great advice this week on becoming a smarter writer. I thought I’d weigh in (oops, wrong post-holiday idiom, but so it goes) with a few thoughts on how to get serious about making writing a career, be it full or part time.

Because everybody wants to be a writer. Your ficus tree wants to be a writer. I’ve lost count of the times someone has uttered to me a variation on “I think I have a book inside me” and I choke back the urge to say, “That’s a great place to keep it.”

Then there are those who take a real step. They actually write a novel. Huzzah! I’m all for it, though most first novels are like first waffles. A good beginning, a great learning experience, but not yet ready to be served. Many writers drop out at this point, disappointed that their initial effort was not met with universal acclaim.

The serious writer makes a second attempt, and a third, and determines to keep on going. This writer wants to make a legit run at a) getting signed by an agent and gaining entry into the Forbidden City of traditional publishing; or b) going indie and creating a real income stream (for more on such choices, see this post).

If you have made the decision to be this kind of writer, let me give you ten pieces of advice forged over a quarter century of getting paid for my work.

  1. Make production your priority

I’ve long advised the following: Figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a week, considering your “real life” situation. Then up that number by 10% and divide that number into the writing days available to you. I write six days a week, and take one day off to recharge. If I have to miss a day, I don’t beat myself up. I simply try to make up the word count by doing a little extra on the other days.

And if I botch a week, or have something interrupt it—sickness, crisis, the running of the bulls in Pamplona—I forget it and start the next week afresh.

Now, I know there are some writers who find a quota onerous and claim it’s a hindrance to creativity. I don’t buy it. Creativity is a muscle that gets stronger when it works out. Try my method for six months and see for yourself.

If, after that time, you feel stifled by your quota, don’t give it up. Just reduce the number to something easy. Like 250 words. Your ficus tree can write 250 words in a day. Don’t be shown up by your ficus tree.

  1. Be intentional about learning your craft

A guy who wants to play golf doesn’t get better by going out with a bad grip, terrible stance, and an ugly swing, and chopping holes in perfectly fine grass. At some point he’s got to learn fundamentals and practice to embed them in his muscle memory.

Same for writers. You can keep writing and writing and chopping holes in your stories. You can repeat things that put readers off or don’t allow them to fully engage with what’s in your imagination.

Or you can determine to learn techniques that make your writing better. 

Dedicate some time each week to studying the craft, and putting into practice what you learn. At least once, go to a good writers conference. Invest in a great course.

  1. Set up a system of quality feedback

When I was under contract with a publishing house, I was answerable to an editor. I was lucky to work with some good ones. One in particular would send his authors multi-page, single-spaced letters. When I got one of these in the mail I’d set it on my desk and pace around it for a couple of days before opening it, because I knew there was going to be a lot of work involved.

Which was good, because it made me a better writer.

Hiring a freelance developmental editor can be expensive, though if you connect with the right one it becomes a good investment rather than an expense.

An alternative is a trusted set of beta readers. Here are some tips from TKZ emeritus Joe Moore in that regard.

You might also benefit from a good critique group, with good as the operative word. Here are some tips from Jordan.

Every serious writer needs other sets of eyes on their work. Which reminds me: you do need to pay a good proofreader if you’re publishing on your own. Nothing screams amateur to a reader like a stream of typos.

  1. Set aside time for pure creativity

As I mentioned above, creativity is a muscle that gets stronger with use. I try to take an hour a week just to do wild, creative exercises.

Two of my favorites:

The What If? Game — Write down as many one line premises as you can. Base it on what you observe around you. What if that woman sipping a latte by the window is a serial killer? What if my phone is actually an alien taking notes on everything I do and say?

The First-Line Game — Just make up first lines, not knowing how any of them will turn out! I once wrote: It’s not every day you bleed to death. I came back to it and the plot for Framed started to come to me. I have a ton of these in a file. Do the same and you’ll never run out of story sparkers.

  1. Detox from social media

Everybody knows that social media addiction is real. Hopping onto Twitter or Facebook or Instagram gives your brain an instant dopamine hit. It’s like digital crack. And it’s really doing damage our ability to concentrate and focus.

I find this “drug” calling to me whenever I’m struggling with a scene. Rather than stick it out, I’m tempted to do a little traipsing through Twitter. It’s a cop out, and I have to tell myself—sometimes out loud—to keep writing. Deciding how much time to spend on social media and creating an actual schedule for it (as opposed to haphazard hopping) is a very wise thing to do.

And when you do engage socially, follow Clare’s sage advice by sticking to positive and kind give-and-take.

  1. Be thinking two projects ahead

One of the worst things you can do is work, re-work, and keep re-working a book without getting ready to write the next … and the next. I’ve been to writers conferences several years in a row where I’ve seen conferees returning with the exact same manuscript.

Think like a movie studio. You have a project that is in production, one that is “green lit” as your next, and at least one “in development.” Spend part of your creativity time jotting ideas and scenes for these works to come.

  1. Write when you’re not writing

Keep training your mind to be observant and curious when you’re away from the keyboard. Carry a notebook, or use your phone, to record things that occur to you. If you overhear some intriguing dialogue in a coffee house or other venue, write it down.

The benefit of this practice is that the “boys in the basement” will work for you, even as you sleep. I’m slogging through a first draft right now, and over the last few weeks I’ve awakened several times with an insight that’s helped me, or a reminder about something I’d written a month ago that needs revisiting. Love those boys. I send them extra donuts.

  1. Read widely

Of course you should read authors you admire and can learn from. Copy passages that move you (the best way is by using a pen and paper, to really capture the rhythm). You’re not doing this to use the words in your own work—that’s called plagiarism. You’re doing this to stretch your writing muscles and expand your style.

When I read a page or paragraph I love, I sticky note it, or highlight it on my Kindle. I go back to these and read them out loud from time to time.

Don’t neglect non-fiction. Learn more about the world, dig into areas you might use someday in your fiction. Become the kind of autodidact who is welcome at social gatherings.

  1. Nurture your motivation

All writers face moments when they think, Sheesh, should I still be doing this? Why keep beating my head against the door of the Forbidden City? Why self-publish books that languish in the Amazon basement?

The answer, of course, is that you’re a writer. There’s something in you that wants—needs—to put words on paper (or screen) and transfer a story you feel deeply to readers, so they will feel it, too.

That’s your motivation, and you should nurture it regularly, not just when you want to drown your sorrows.

Make a shelf of your ultra-favorite novels and novelists. I’ve found that reading some pages from a book that has moved me gets my writing juices flowing again.

Collect some quotations for reflection. Here are two of my favorites:

“If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid.” – Leonard Bishop, Dare to be a Great Writer

“For me, that is the secret to a successful, prolific career as a writer: Have fun, entertain yourself with your work, make yourself laugh and cry with your own stories, make yourself shiver in suspense along with your characters. If you can do that, then you’ll most likely find a large audience; but even if a large audience is never found, you’ll have a happy life.” — Dean Koontz, Strange Highways

  1. Be businesslike

This could also be #1 for the serious writer. In a way, everything else in this post can be viewed as “best practices for writers” advice. If you do such things regularly, you are systematizing, which is what good businesses do.

A good businessperson also looks at the world through clear (not rose-colored) lenses.

Clear lenses recognize that a publisher is not your friend or your mama; it is a money-making enterprise. Make them money and they will keep you around. Cost them money and they won’t. So you’d better understand publishing contracts, the concept of leverage, and what you are prepared to give up in order to have a shot at traditional success.

For indies, clear lenses see that this is not a get-rich-quick pathway. It’s going to take years of production and quality control to build a readership. You’ll need to make informed judgments about things like “going wide” or being exclusive with Amazon; about producing audio versions; about where to concentrate your marketing; and much more.

This is a lot to take in, I know, but then again getting serious about anything takes time and effort. Your brain surgeon doesn’t say, “I think I have a brain surgery inside me!”

So don’t ask if you have a book inside you. Ask if you have a writer inside you. Then get to work.

So where are you on your writing journey?

12+

Reader Friday: Your First Story

Dean Koontz

“When I was eight years old, I wrote short stories on tablet paper, drew colorful covers, stapled the left margin of each story, put electrician’s tape over the staples for the sake of neatness, and tried to peddle these books to relatives and neighbors. Each of my productions sold for a nickel.” — Dean Koontz

What’s the very first story you remember writing? How old were you? What inspired it?

2+

What Path Should a Writer Take in 2020?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’ve always used December as a month to re-calibrate and re-think my writing goals for the new year. Since we have writers at all stages of the journey here at TKZ, I thought it might be a good time to consider the various paths a writer might take…and how to choose among them.

  1. The Forbidden City

The traditional publishing industry—represented by the so-called “Big Five”—is still kicking it, though there are clear challenges ahead. This mega-model cannot sustain itself without developing new talent, but the risk capital for doing that is not so plentiful as it once was. What’s keeping the lights on in Manhattan offices is the ever-increasing dependence on A-list writers. Which means fewer resources to nurture midlist talent. As a recent article in Publishers Weekly put it:

[M]idlist sales have faltered enough in recent years that there is a growing concern among publishers and agents about how the business can create new hits when the field they once turned to is, well, disappearing…

A publisher at a major house agreed that, to an extent, publishers have contributed to the gap between the top sellers and those below. With social media offering a variety of ways to promote titles that are selling, publishers usually put more resources behind books that are succeeding in order to maintain momentum. As these books get the lion’s share of the houses’ focus, other titles are left to find audiences on their own.

The dependence on big hits by proven authors has also been exacerbated by two other developments, according to the article: “a shrinking physical retail market and an increase in competing entertainment driven by the proliferation of streaming TV platforms.”

Getting invited inside the walls of the Forbidden City has always been difficult. And it’s always been difficult to stay inside. With fewer slots available for new writers—and even less for a flat-selling mid-lister—the difficulty of this path has only increased.

  1. Small Publishing Companies

I’d define this slice of the publishing pie as any company not owned by the bigs but still operating in a traditional fashion. That is, they take on a manuscript and foot the bill for editing and design work. They may or may not pay an advance, but do offer traditional royalty terms.

I’d put Amazon Publishing (note: not Kindle Direct Publishing, which is for indie writers. See #3, below) at the top of this category, though it is truly unique in that it owns the largest (online) bookstore in the world, yet isn’t usually granted shelf space in brick-and-mortar stores (unless, of course, they own those stores!)

Also near the top is Kensington, which calls itself “America’s Independent Publisher.” (They must have good criteria as they publish this fellow.)

Blue-Footed Booby

As presses get smaller, they usually have a tighter genre focus. For example, Graywolf tends toward the literary, while Brash Books walks the mean streets of crime. Powerhouse bestsellers from the smalls are as rare as the Blue-Footed Booby. But with the right partnership you may be able to put together a solid body of work and a steadily growing readership.

How do you find the right small publisher for your novel? You can still pick up a copy of Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market 2020 (which you ought to do soon, as the future of this publication is uncertain due to the sale of WD assets to Penguin Random House earlier this year).

Finally, there are “really small” companies springing up, seemingly all the time. They focus almost exclusively on ebooks. In many cases they’re run by indie writers who’ve had some success themselves, and seek to make extra scratch helping new writers get out to market.

A great big caveat scriptor is necessary here: it’s easy to call yourself a publisher, and just as easy to go bust. (I got a flaming email once from the founder of a one-person press after I issued a gentle warning to writers about such companies. How dare I! We can give more personal attention to individual writers! I wrote back and wished her good fortune. Eight months later the company was out of business, unable to pay their writers the royalties they were owed.)

While these micro publishers do not offer advances or require an agent, you really need to do your due diligence with any contract. (File this advice under “Duh.”)

How can you tell if a small press is legit? Start by reading this post.

  1. Indie (Self) Publishing

We’re twelve years into the ebook revolution, and enough time has gone by for the dust of the self-publishing “gold rush” (roughly 2008-2013) to settle back down to earth. We have adequate history now to assert a few things.

First, this path to market is still fast and without obstacle. Anyone can do it. That’s a blessing and a curse. A blessing because for the first time since Gutenberg it’s possible for an author to make bank outside the walls of the Forbidden City. A curse because there’s a great temptation to toss a book out there when it’s clearly not ready for prime time, and/or has a shoddy design.

There are innumerable books and blogs and courses that can teach you the technical details on getting your books online. If you are averse to being truly DIY (that is, dealing directly with Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc.), there are aggregator sites that will do the distribution for you, in return for a percentage of your net proceeds. Your net is based on the retail price of your book, less the bookstore’s commission. For example, Amazon retains 30% as its commission when a book is sold off its site. The author gets 70%. The aggregator takes a slice (usually 15%) out of that 70% and sends you the balance. Smashwords and Draft2Digital are the leading aggregators right now. Here’s an article comparing the two. (Note: If a company charges you an upfront fee as opposed to percentage of net, it falls more into the category of a vanity press. See #4, below.)

Just remember that regardless of how you get your books to market, the three keys to making actual dough as an indie are 1) writing commercially viable books (i.e., in a popular genre); 2) being prolific; and 3) understanding that you’re running a small business.

That last item—business sense—gives many writers the willies. It’s hard enough to find the time to write! Now I have to spend time on business?

Well, yeah, if you truly want a shot at indie success. I wrote a book about the business principles you’ll need.

  1. Vanity Press

This is a business that makes money off authors, rather than the other way around. They require you to put up a pretty penny (do they make pretty pennies anymore?) to “publish” your book. They usually do a competent design job, but then what? They’ll offer to upsell you various packages (e.g., enhanced marketing) the value of which is negligible.

The article referenced earlier has a section on vanity presses. If you have written one book that you would like to distribute to family and friends in a nice hardcover edition—and have no desire to make writing a career…and you have lots of discretionary income—then perhaps a vanity publisher might be an option.

Whew. Now that we’ve covered these four paths open to writers today, we need to ask one more big question before making the choice, and that is: just what is it you want to accomplish, when all is said and done and published, with your writing? Here I think there are three possible answers.

The first is the amorphous concept of validation. A lot of writers I’ve talked to over the past ten years about self-publishing have given me variations on, “But I want the validation of a traditional contract.”

I call this notion “amorphous” because you can’t measure it. Will this type of validation give you 100% satisfaction? Probably not. How about 80%? Perhaps, but how long will that feeling last? If you become one of those writers who is dropped by a publisher (which will retain the rights to your output), what then? You’re five years into what you thought was a career and all that work you’ve done belongs to the company that let you go? And your dismal sales numbers make it impossible to land another contract with a like-sized company? (This makes it imperative that you and your agent negotiate a fair reversion clause, based on royalty income, and whatever else you can get.)

A more understandable reason for seeking a traditional contract (from a Big Five publisher) is to play the lottery. You’re hoping that one of your books will be among those chosen to get a huge marketing push, landing you a prime spot on the New York Times bestseller list and guaranteeing a long, seven-figures annually career. There are about two dozen authors who fit this profile and ten million who would like to. That’s why this is a lottery.

I find it a perfectly fine reason to knock on the doors of the Forbidden City. I just want you to be aware of the odds.

The third type of writer wants to create a reliable and steady stream of income. That could happen with the right small publisher partnership, but I find it more likely and lucrative in the indie world. My favorite model is the classic pulp fiction era. The writers who made it were, above all, good storytellers. They knew their craft. They were also prolific and understood the market—just like successful indie writers today, of which there are many. I personally know several indies making healthy five- and six-figure annual incomes because they operate on pulp principles.

Your assignment is clear. Figure out which motivation is most important to you. Then you can fashion 2020 plans and priorities accordingly. Next December, and each December after that, think through these considerations anew.

And whatever your choices—whatever type of writer you see yourself as—do this above all: Love the writing itself. Write with joy. Find and nurture your sweet spot. That’s the only thing that will sustain you over the long haul.

Which is why TKZ exists. We love writers and writing. We love sharing our insights, and hearing back from you in the comments. So as we wrap up another year, thank you for making this community one of the best places to hang out and talk about fiction craft and the book business. We now pause to catch our collective breath, and will see you back here on January 6, 2020!

Merry Christmas
Happy Hanukkah
Próspero año y felicidad!

11+

Set Up a Command Post Inside Your Character’s Head

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here is another first page for critique. It brings up a major issue that applies to all writers, but especially those writing fantasy and speculative fiction.

See you on the other side.

 

The Guide

Sam woke up in the middle of a field with a headache and a fuzzy memory of cold, rushing water. A thin black cat sat on the lowest branch of a large dead tree a few feet away. The cat hopped down from its perch, and disappeared behind the large trunk of the tree with a flick of its tail, as if to say, “Follow me, human.” After several minutes of walking, it turned around and stared. In an instant, the cat was gone and in its place, a man. “Make thy purpose known, mortal.”

Startled, Sam asked “Who are you?”

The man spoke, “I am Andrian, Guider of souls. Who might ye be, and from where do ye hail?”

“My… my name is Sam. I come from Oregon.”

“What bringst thee to my realm, ‘Sam’ of ‘Oregon’?”

“I… saw… a cat. I guess it wanted me to follow?”

“Ah, Cailleach.”

Once again, he was gone. In his place, the black cat from only moments ago. Just as quickly as he disappeared, he returned to his human form.

“Don’t– do that… It makes my headache worse…”

“My apologies. Be ye hungry?” There was something in his voice this time that sounded like….hopefulness? Curiosity? It was hard to tell. Nevertheless, Sam obliged. The man turned around, “Follow me.”

The man turned and began walking away. It was only after they reached an impassable wall of stone and being asked a direct question that he spoke again.

“How are we going to get past this cliff?”

“Do not worry. It is simply a cloaking spell I cast on my land, so that I may be hidden from view and protected in case something happens again.” He walked into the stone, and disappeared.

Sam asked, “What do you mean, ‘Something happening again’?”

He replied, “It is of no importance. Come, I shall give thee a meal.”

They crossed the barrier and Sam’s ears were filled with the sound of rushing water. Once through, the sound immediately stopped. Many different types of rare, colorful birds in all different sizes and colors sat perched on various branches. Andrian reached out, and a large white bird landed on his arm. The bird spoke, “Master has brought home a visitor?”

“Aye.”

***

JSB: Introductory note: I have a feeling the title here is for the chapter, not the book. If it is for the chapter, it’s fine. If for the book, please read my post on titles, for you can do much better.

A few months ago I wrote about the most important question you can ask about a scene. It is, Would they really? Is this how the characters would really act and speak under the specific conditions of that scene?

This is the overarching criticism I have of today’s piece. The result is that the reader, rather than being pulled into a unique story world, is kept at arm’s length. We don’t experience the scene along with the main character; we watch from afar. And Sam’s lack of reaction, resistance, wonder, fear, trembling or anything beyond “startled” runs afoul of the would they really? test. We get the feeling the characters are game pieces on a plot board being moved by the author, not living, breathing people making the moves themselves.

I want real characters here because I like this set-up—waking up in an alternate world. Yes, it’s been done, many times before, in fantasy and even, in a way, in noir (guy wakes up with amnesia). But that doesn’t mean a writer can’t tackle it afresh and put his unique stamp on it. Also a situation isn’t a cliché for a new reader (I’m assuming YA audience here).

So go for it.

But let’s make the “it” better.

Sam woke up in the middle of a field with a headache and a fuzzy memory of cold, rushing water.

Instead of starting us off in Sam’s head, allowing us to vicariously experience this most mind blowing of circumstances, the line merely tells us what’s happening. We need to be feeling, along with Sam, his groping toward consciousness. The only way to do that is to climb inside Sam’s head and lock the exit. Within his cranium is where you must set up your entire command post for the duration of your novel.

Firmly ensconced therein, you can only look through his eyes and think his thoughts. Since he’s just waking up he wouldn’t know that he is “in the middle of a field.” He has to find that out. Start by giving us his first sensations of waking. What does he see? What does he smell? (Smell is especially promising here. Wet dirt? Grass? Dung? Give us something!)

Weave in his pounding head and the memory of cold, rushing water (I like that last bit, as it dangles a mystery).

A thin black cat sat on the lowest branch of a large dead tree a few feet away.

Don’t just toss this in! Give it to us in real time, with vivid description and strategic revelation. What do I mean by the latter? My strategy would be to start with the tree and end with the cat, like a slow pan in a movie.

Describe the tree. Don’t just tell us it’s dead. Give us the gnarls and knots, the sharp witch fingers of the empty branches.

And when he finally gets to the cat, don’t let it just sit there. Make it ready to pounce and, more important, have it staring right at Sam! That’ll send a nice chill up the ol’ spine. We need more description of this kind, grounding us firmly in the reality of this unreal world. Channel your inner Stephen King. (Read, for example, the first page of The Gunslinger and you’ll see what I mean.)

The cat hopped down from its perch, and disappeared behind the large trunk of the tree with a flick of its tail, as if to say, “Follow me, human.” After several minutes of walking, it turned around and stared. In an instant, the cat was gone and in its place, a man. “Make thy purpose known, mortal.”

Okay, I’m lost. If the cat disappeared behind the trunk, where does the “several minutes of walking” come from? It took me a couple of readings to figure out that Sam is following the cat. But you don’t have that in there! So it seems like the cat walks away, or around the tree (?) but is still near Sam. You need a beat of Sam following. This is a perfect place to stretch some tension and give us more description of the world.

And how does the cat get “gone”? Does it just vanish? (Later, you imply that the cat and “the man” are the same, just different forms. A more liquid transformation would be the better choice.)

Next, you have the appearance of the “man.” And that’s all you give us, save for the Monty Pythonesque speech pattern. What the heck does he look like? His clothes, his coloring, his adornments? We desperately need these.

BTW, don’t take the Monty Python reference as a dig. You obviously want this scene (and, I’m assuming, the novel) to have some humor. That’s fine, but the humor needs to come out of the “reality.” If you don’t make us believe what Sam is experiencing, the humor will fall flat.

The late Danny Simon (Neil’s older brother, who taught both Neil and Woody Allen how to write narrative comedy) talked about knowing your “bubble.” He meant your story world. He said, “You must know ‘the world’ — physical and every other way — that you’re going to write about. That will suggest possibilities. You must ‘see’ all the characters in the scene, all the physical stuff, too. Each action of the characters is going to cause a re-action among other characters or the environment.” (And if you’re going to write with humor, you would do well to study the only known copy of notes from Danny Simon’s famous comedy-writing class.)

Startled, Sam asked “Who are you?”

Startled? I should say so! But I don’t tell the reader. Show it! Does Sam scramble backward? Lose his breath? Think he’s going crazy? Can he even speak?

The man spoke, “I am Andrian, Guider of souls.

We don’t need The man spoke. That’s obvious. Give us an action beat or description. He raised his arms or His eyes burned.

“My… my name is Sam. I come from Oregon.”

“What bringst thee to my realm, ‘Sam’ of ‘Oregon’?”

 Okay, the fun begins. I’d lose the internal quote marks, though. That will confuse your intended audience, and isn’t needed. If you want to imply hesitation, he could say something like “Sam of O-Re-Gone?”

“My apologies. Be ye hungry?” There was something in his voice this time that sounded like….hopefulness? Curiosity? It was hard to tell. Nevertheless, Sam obliged.

 Obliged is a wrong word choice. Sam obliged implies action, but there is no action, nor even a call to action. He was simply asked a question. So have Sam answer or nod.

The man turned around, “Follow me.”

The man turned and began walking away.  

That’s one turn too many. It would mean the man is walking away, only backwards. Remember, visualize every single beat through Sam’s eyes. Easy fix: just lose one of the turns.

It was only after they reached an impassable wall of stone

Whoa! That was fast. They get to a “wall of stone” in a nanosecond of fiction time. I mean, there is pace, and then there’s warp speed (which, you’ll recall from Star Trek, blurs everything).

Don’t skip what we need to see and experience. It won’t hurt your pace if, again, you’re stretching the tension. Stretch it! What is Sam feeling as he follows? In fact, why is he following in the first place? There’s no hesitation or doubt. Would he really (not have any)?

And man, we need to see this “wall of stone.” How would Sam describe it? What would he notice? How would it make him feel?

and being asked a direct question that he spoke again.

You make it clear in the next line that it is Sam speaking. It’s his voice. But that means you don’t need to tell us he’s about to speak again in the previous line. Let the action do the work. The words he spoke again are superfluous.

“How are we going to get past this cliff?”

I don’t know what I’m supposed to see. A wall is not a cliff. A cliff has no wall. Ack!

They crossed the barrier

What barrier? It’s gone. And you don’t cross a barrier anyway. You cross a chasm. You scale or go around a barrier.

Many different types of rare, colorful birds in all different sizes and colors sat perched on various branches.

Another great opportunity for description! Let us see these birds as Sam does! Reds and yellows and oranges and purples! And unless Sam is an ornithologist he’s not seeing “rare.” He’s seeing other-worldly. How would Sam react to that?

Whew. Okay, I’ve been tough on you, writer, because you have a situation that would make me want to turn the page…IF I was fully invested in Sam and IF I could SEE this world. So please do this for me: climb inside Sam’s head and don’t come out until you’ve done a complete re-write of this opening scene. And I mean complete. Forget what you’ve written and start with a blank page. Go step-by-vivid-step. Take your time.

Weave us a dream!

Comments are welcome.

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On Curling Up With a Good Book

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of my favorite comedies from the 1940s Is The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. This little gem (with an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Sidney Sheldon) stars Cary Grant as the bachelor, Shirley Temple as the bobby-soxer, and Myrna Loy as a judge who happens to be Shirley’s big sister.

The plot is simple. Grant gives a speech at Shirley’s high school, and Shirley becomes infatuated with him. Grant has to fight her off even as her suspicious sister brings the arm of the law down upon him. I’ll bet you can guess who Grant ends up romancing. It’s all great fun, especially a scene where Grant takes on the persona of a teenager for a little bit of payback.

There’s one scene I’ve always found of quaint historical interest. Grant is alone in his apartment. It’s evening, he has on a comfortable robe. He mixes himself a highball and turns the radio to soft music. Then he happily settles into a chair and takes up… a book! He has looked forward to this all day—an uninterrupted hour or two of reading pleasure. Of course, that’s when Shirley interrupts things, having sneaked into his apartment to be near him!

There used to be a time when an evening’s entertainment was sitting in a chair with a drink or a cup of tea and reading a book. The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer came out in 1947, just before the explosion of television. How many people even think of a book as an option for prime time anymore?

These thoughts came to me recently when I was knocked flat by a 24-hour bug. It was a nasty sucker. I spent an entire day in bed doing absolutely nothing but moaning and drifting in and out of sleep. There was a junkyard tire fire in my stomach. My head felt like a mastiff’s chew toy.

The next day I was marginally better, but certainly not ready for Irish folk dancing. I managed to get a little writing done, but then just wanted to go back to bed. Only I didn’t want another day of pitiful do-nothingness. What about reading a book?

I’d recently purchased the massive biography of Cornell Woolrich, First You Dream, Then You Die. I considered it a sign of recuperation that I could lift it. And actually open it and begin to read. Ah! I’d forgotten what a pleasure it is to read a physical book in bed when it isn’t nighttime. (When I try this at night I can manage only three or four pages before the sandman does his thing.)

This time I was into a book for a couple of hours, occasionally closing my eyes and dozing, but waking to read again.

These days I (and, I suspect, most of you) have to snatch time to read a book. Too many other things demand our attention. Speed and the false god Multitask have killed contemplation. We have sacrificed the aesthetic on the altar of the frenetic.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate (and still with awe) the magnificence of the ebook. Having innumerable electronic volumes available on my phone (via Kindle app and Overdrive) means I can read anything I want at a moment’s notice. No more flipping through last May’s issue of Working Woman in the waiting room! No, let’s see how big a bite I can take out of Martin Chuzzlewit…just open the complete works of Dickens!

Yet I still like holding a physical book, and my recent indisposition reminded me how much I miss a good, long stretch of pure reading time. It’s my fault, of course. Almost always my first choice in the evening is something on the flat screen.

But do I really need an hour of what used to be called “news” but is now little more than an oral version of Friday Night SmackDown? How much of must is really there in “must-see TV” (not much!). How many hours of my life are unredeemed by tuning into the latest “can’t miss” series which, once I’ve taken in an episode or two, I wish I’d actually missed?

Okay, there’s football three or four nights a week, but that’s what the DVR and pause button are for (I can skip time outs, commercials, and halftimes—with apologies to Phil, Curt, Michael, Terry, Howie, Coach, Boomer, Jimmy, Tony, Spanky, Fozzie, Gonzo and whoever else expands time with erudite comments like, “The defense really needs to step up.”)

So, dear friends, why don’t I just get into the habit of reading a book after dinner?

If it was good enough for Cary Grant, it should be good enough for me!

When was the last time you curled up with a good (physical) book for at least an hour? How have your reading habits changed over the last couple of decades? Do you have a favorite “curl-up-with” book?

***

BTW, if your preferred method of curling up these days is audio, and you’re a writer, you might be interested to know that I have another of my writing books available through Audible. Narrated, natch, by me. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings.

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