About James Scott Bell

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Character Counts

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) with Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

I’m a sports guy, so use a lot of athletic comparisons and analogies vis-à-vis writing. Learning the craft, for example, is like learning golf. You’ve got to master certain fundamentals if you want to prevent, as Twain put it, “a good walk spoiled.” You study, practice, get coaching, drill. But when you play, you just play. After a round you think about things you need to improve, and practice some more.

When you write, just write. Then get feedback and work on improving your craft.

In this regard, a certain sports story caught my attention recently. Out of civility, I won’t mention names because I don’t want to kick somebody when they’re down. There’s always a chance for redemption. I hope it happens, because I love redemption stories.

Anyway, a certain NFL team drafted a quarterback in the first round. He signed a $35 million fully guaranteed contract, to go with a $23 million signing bonus. Most of us could probably live on that.

But what dominated the news and social media was a rumor that this kid had bedded his mother’s best friend.

Hoo boy.

His performance over two seasons has been less than inspiring, though not without occasional flashes of promise.

Then came a recent game where the kid stunk up the field. The defense put up a mighty effort in the loss. At the post-game press conference the kid was asked if he felt he’d let the defense down. His answer: “No.”

That one word, as they say, “lost the locker room.” His teammates heard him throwing them under the bus. He later apologized to the team, but the damage was done. He was benched for the next game. The backup QB took over and played great. The kid, instead of standing on the sideline rooting for the starter, sulked on the bench. His future with the team is thus in doubt.

This issue here is character. As defined by the greatest dictionary of all time, Webster’s New Collegiate 2d, “character” is moral vigor or firmness, esp. as acquired through self-discipline.

Character doesn’t come naturally. It has to be taught. It has to be personalized by internal effort. And if you’re going to succeed in sports and in life, you gotta have it.

So does your protagonist.

The heroes I respond to most have flaws that are overcome through a vein of moral rightness. Mike Hammer, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade—flawed all, but saved in the end because they have a code they stick with.

When Spade, surrounded by rogues and liars (and not above some roguishness of his own), is tempted to go away with the femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, he instead turns her over to the cops. Why? He tries to explain it to her:

“Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

In Kiss Me, Deadly, Mike Hammer is sapped by some guys, and the women in his car is murdered. He’s told by the Feds to lay off finding out who it was. His friend, the police captain Pat Chambers, tells him the same. Of course, Hammer says he won’t, and explains, “Maybe I have too much pride, but I don’t let anybody get away with that kind of stuff. I’m going to knock he crap out of somebody…”

You will find a similar code embedded in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. It is lifted from the mythos of the Old West, as in the gunslinger hired to clean up a town. This is not surprising; Parker received his Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University, where the title of his dissertation was The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald.

I’d like to read that sometime. (A copy is available for $1,000 at Abe Books. Dear Santa, I’ve been extra good this year…)

When I do my Story Grinder workshop, I have the students answer some questions about their Lead:

  • What is one thing they’d die for?
  • What would they have tattooed on their arm?
  • Who do they care about before the story begins? Why do they care?
  • What duty will they perform, even if they don’t want to?

On the other hand, there are memorable Leads who are brought down by lack of character at crucial moments. Their just desserts are also a moral lesson.

  • King Lear with his daughters.
  • Michael Corleone with his vengeance.
  • Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy.
  • Scarlett’s obsession with Ashley.

Character and flaws, that’s what a memorable Lead is made of. Give them passion and heat, cooled when it counts for a greater good. Or left alone for a tragic end.

Whatever your choice, go big on character in your characters.

Writing to Save Your Life

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We had a good discussion recently about writer obituaries, and what you might want yours to say. Several comments talked about writing for other than professional reasons. I liked what BK Jackson offered:

Above all, writing is my enjoyable escape and I want it to stay that way, regardless of volume. When I’m old, I want to be as excited about writing as I was in first or second grade when I was taught how to write my first sentence and that huge lightbulb went off in my head as I began to think about the power I would have of stringing sentences together to form stories.

Sure, most writers write in the hopes of bringing in some dough. They believe, as I do, that if you love your job you won’t work a day in your life.

Of course, by work I don’t mean the effort and toil that is required for success at anything. I mean in that colloquial sense of hating what you do. (Drew Carey: “Hate your job? There’s a group for that. It’s called everybody, and we meet at the bar.”)

I have a good friend who worked 20 years for a company where every day was a slog, and the culture chaotic. Being classically educated, he had his license plate changed to SISYPHS, a contraction of the mythological figure doomed for eternity to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll to the bottom again.

Not so with writers who work for love and loot.

But that’s not the only reason to write, as BK noted. Indeed, there may be a reason even more important: to save us from a nasty, brutish, and dismal existence.

We all know our culture right now is a roiling sea of hate, anger, vitriol, scorn, and mendacity—and that’s just on Twitter.

So it is a noble task, in my view, for writers to provide a few hours of entertaining escapism. Indeed, the best thrillers and mysteries offer readers a form of “fear management.” They extend the hope that things like justice and love are still possible in a dark world. Time spent in a book like that is infinitely superior to hours ranting on social media, kicking the dog, or opening a new bottle of Beam.

But the act of writing itself, for yourself, is also balm for the spirit. We all know what it’s like to write in “flow,” to get lost in a world we create and the lives of characters who begin to live and breathe on the page. We know the feeling—rare though it may be—of sitting back and thinking, “Wow, that’s a great line” or “This scene really cooks.”

When a writer experiences the joy of creation, it’s good for the spleen.

Ishmael, when he felt a “drizzly November in my soul” and the desire to go around “knocking people’s hats off,” went to sea.

Writers go to the keyboard.

Maybe you don’t have a contract with a publisher, or a huge footprint in the digital space. Write anyway. Write because it’s good for you. Write novels, short stories, flash fiction. Write essays and poetry. Write whatever strikes your fancy. Then show this work to the people you love. Share it with friends. Write for your kids and grandkids (see Hooley, Steve). Write because for a few hours every day you can escape a drizzly November of the soul.

Commenter Barry Knister put it this way recently:

I am grateful for the unignorable impulse to write. Most people never have this impulse. If they write at all, it’s forced on them by the demands of work. When I stop to think of how much writing has meant to me, what life would be like without having long ago tested positive for the writing virus, I am hugely thankful for the disease.

A lawyer named George Bernau, in the hospital after a near-fatal car accident, had a revelation. “I decided that I would continue to write as long as I lived, even if I never sold one thing, because that was what I wanted out of my life.”

So he wrote a novel, Promises to Keep, an alternative history of the JFK assassination. It got a $750,000 advance from Warner Books, a record at the time for a debut novel.

That’s not going to happen for the overwhelming majority writers, of course, especially in these risk-averse economic times.

But you can still write if that’s what you want out of your life.

Is it?

Down in the Writing Weeds

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I love talking to fellow writers who are craft nuts. I love getting into the weeds to discuss things like adverbs, POV violations, and whether you should use a comma in the phrase “Oh God.” (On that last one, strict rules of style say yes. I say it depends on how the character is reacting—somberly or fearfully?)

Today I want to discuss four weed words (and I’m not talking about euphemisms for a certain plant). This is about as granular as you can get, but where else but on a famous writing blog can all this be hashed out? Try discussing dialogue attributions with your insurance agent, or exclamation points with your CPA!

So, TKZ community, let’s hack some weeds.

Then

I sipped my flat Coke and gave her the head start she’d asked for. Then I picked up my change and left a buck on the bar. I went out the door, up the stairs to the street. (Lawrence Block, A Ticket to the Boneyard)

The word Then is used here for rhythm. The action isn’t “hot.” The author is controlling pace. I do this myself. When the action is hot, I don’t use Then. I cut sentences to the bone. But if things are a bit slower it comes in handy.

There’s another use of the word then I like. It’s when you want to emphasize an emotional moment.

She came to me then and put her arms around me.

Strictly speaking, you don’t need then. But then again…ahem…it has a subtle and enhancing effect.

Suddenly

This word gets a lot of chatter down here in the weeds. Some say you never need it, as the action itself should prove the suddenness. One of Elmore Leonard’s “rules” (discussed here this past week) is: Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

First off, this “rule” can confuse newbies, who might think you should never use suddenly at all, not even in dialogue. Obviously false.

But Leonard was talking about narrative. We have to remember that he wrote his books in 3d Person. In 3d, the word Suddenly is coming from the author. It’s a “tell.” There are better ways to convey such moments (see commenter Marilynn Byerly’s examples in Brother Gilstrap’s post).

But in First Person, Suddenly is perfectly acceptable. In my latest thriller, Romeo’s Rage, I have a scene with Mike and Sophie at an eatery where a minor protest is happening. Mike is confronted by the gadflies and their upraised camera phones. He starts confounding one of them with verbal jiu-jitsu.

“Shut up!” shouts the gadfly, and it looks like things might get heated.

Suddenly, Sophie was by my side and looking at the cameras.

That’s how Mike experiences the moment. It’s like an internal thought. And since this is First Person, we can go there. Without the Suddenly, readers might think Sophie was standing next to Mike all the while, instead of showing this new side of her—a willingness to jump into a fray.

Here’s another example of an internal thought, from another Mike. Hammer, to be exact, in Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly. In chapter one Hammer has picked up a mysterious woman wandering on the road. He is going to take her into New York to drop her off, but another car speeds in front of them and stops, causing a crash. Mike jumps out of his car, and so do men from the other. Gun shots. Mike takes a sap to the head. Down he goes. As he fights to come to [italics in original, and notice our friend Then making an appearance]—

It was like a sleep that you awaken from because you had been sleeping cramped up. It was a forced awakening that hurts and you hear yourself groan as you try to straighten out. Then suddenly there’s an immediate sharpness to the awakening as you realize that it hadn’t been a bad dream after all, but something alive and terrifying instead.

Now, just for the heck of it, let me say something about all hell broke loose. I think most of us would agree it’s a cliché and that it’s better to show what the breaking hell looks like.

But in First Person you can use a cliché if you freshen it up, as in All hell broke loose and kicked every dog in the neighborhood.

That’s fun to do.

Very

This one I usually avoid. It’s flabby and indistinct. An exception is when it’s used sardonically in First Person POV, as in: Needless to say, when he saw the toilets, Sarge got very upset.

And, of course, a character might use it in dialogue.

But in narrative portions, don’t write: He was very big. Instead, write something like: He was the size of a beer truck.

Had

This one is constantly overused by writers when the narrative goes into the past. Consider:

She had grown up in Boston. When it came time to apply to college, she’d chosen Wellesley and Bryn Mawr. and Yale. That didn’t please her father, who had made his sentiments known to her in no uncertain terms. They’d had a lot of arguments over that.

Here’s a rule for you (that’s right, I said rule): Use one had to get you into the past, but after that you don’t need it.

She had grown up in Boston. When it came time to apply to college, she chose Wellesley and Bryn Mawr. That didn’t please her father, who made his sentiments known to her in no uncertain terms. They argued a lot over that.

Nothing lost, and the narrative is crisper.

I now put down my Weed Wacker and invite comments. What other weed words or phrases do you see popping up in our wonderful craft garden?

Your Writer Obituary

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Phyllis A. Whitney

Back when I was starting out on this journey, reading book after book on the craft, one of my favorites was Guide to Fiction Writing by Phyllis A. Whitney. It was just what I needed. No fluff and flowers, just practical techniques that work. I review that book every year or so, reading the portions I highlighted.

The other day I did a search for Phyllis Whitney and came across her 2008 obituary:

Novelist Phyllis A. Whitney, whose romantic suspense tales sold millions of copies and earned her top accolades from the Mystery Writers of America, has died. She was 104.

Whitney wrote more than 75 books, including three textbooks, and had about a hundred short stories published since the 1940s.

“I’ve slowed down in that I only write one book a year,” she said in a 1989 interview with The Associated Press, when she was 85. “A writer is what I am.”

Can you relate to that? Can you see yourself at 85, 90, even 100 (Herman Wouk) still writing books? Of course, we are all subject to this mortal coil and the various infirmities, slings and arrows to which it is subject. But if relative health is yours, would you continue to write because “a writer is what I am?”

Whitney’s last novel, “Amethyst Dreams,” was published in 1997. She began working on her autobiography at 102.

In 1988 Whitney was named a Grand Master, the Mystery Writers of America’s highest honor. In 1990, she received the Agatha award, for traditional mystery works typical of Agatha Christie, from Malice Domestic.

Time magazine in 1971 called Whitney one of “the best genre writers” and the only American woman in the romantic suspense field with a major reputation.

In 20th century lit circles the term “genre writer” was a putdown, a close cousin of “hack.” Even if a writer sold millions of books—a la Erle Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane—they were not counted as “real authors.” That distinction has largely been erased now, except among those handing out literary awards. Readers don’t think about it at all. What they want is what Whitney gave them:

She said her books were successful because “I tell a good story.”

We all agree that this is our goal. What things did Whitney do to accomplish it in book after book? That’s what Guide to Fiction Writing is about, but she does have a chapter called “The Plus Factor: That Certain Something.” There’s a lot in there, but if I can attempt to sum up it is, in Whitney’s words, a novel that says something worth saying. You find that something in a subject or theme that grabs you, then work it until you are fully, emotionally invested. “If you don’t have this emotional involvement, throw the subject away. You can’t fake conviction.”

One item more from Whitney’s obit:

“I offer optimism,” she said. “All my books have happy endings. I don’t see any point in letting my readers down at the end. I’m an optimist – people feel that in my books.”

Not every author offers an HEA (happily ever after) ending. There is great moral value in tragedy, too. The Greeks knew that. But the point of classic tragedy was to serve as a warning, and an incentive to live a life avoiding the “tragic flaw.” There’s a certain optimism in that, too. You can always offer, as the novelist John Gardner put it, “A vision of life that is worth living.”

With that, I ask you:

What would you want your writer obituary to say?

As you ponder, here are some gems from Whitney’s book:

These days in my writing I try to offer, as a “plus factor,” something unusual in the way of background or profession, and something significant in what my characters must learn in the course of the story—always remembering that reading fiction should be entertaining, and that I must first tell a story.

***

Probably the best way to start any story, long or short, is to show a character with a problem doing something interesting….Long expositions, descriptions, philosophizing, may entertain you, but are unlikely to grip a busy reader today. In the past we could be more leisurely.

***

While you’re writing, you should be satisfied to reread only whatever you wrote the day before. You do this in order to recapture your mood, reacquaint yourself with what happened last, and thus regain impetus to move ahead with the next scene.

***

Climax and Ending are two different things. The Climax is the big dramatic scene in which almost everything is resolved. The Ending is the wrap-up where lovers used to embrace and walk happily into the sunset. If possible, it’s a good idea to leave a thread of question in the reader’s mind right up to the last paragraph. Then let the sun go down fast, give your blessings to the characters and let them go. Let the whole book go. After all, another novel is waiting to be written, and you are eager to get to it!

Adding to Your Knowledge Base

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I play three brain games each day. I start with my new addiction, Phrazle. It’s like Wordle, only with common phases. You fill in the blank boxes with words, then follow the color clues to get closer to the actual phrase. You have six chances to solve the puzzle. So far, I’ve not been knocked out. The pressure is on!

Then there’s the classic, Jumble. Solve the scrambled words, then use the letters in the circles to figure out a phrase that applies to the little cartoon accompanying the puzzle. My favorites are when the answer is a play on words, indicated by quote marks. For instance, the other day, the cartoon had a man coming downstairs to the basement where his wife is working on a laptop. He’s carrying a box, and says, “Look who’s got a box of her new hit book!”

The wife says, “Wow! Working down here really paid off!”

The caption: The author converted her basement into a place to write, and the result was a—

Answer: Best “cellar.”

Chuckle.

Then there’s a crossword. Currently I’m working through a big book of ’em. Crosswords, of course, test your knowledge base. Sometimes you know the answer to a clue right off, and happily fill that in.

Other times you have—you’ll pardon the expression—no clue.

Like the other day. The clue was “1974 Peace Prize winner Eisaku.” No idea.

I did the usual, trying to fill in other rows intersecting with the answer, but was still coming up empty.

Which raises the issue of “cheating.” Is it ever okay to jump on the internet and look up the answer?

There are passionate voices on both sides. Maybe the answer depends on your purpose:

Whether or not it is considered cheating to seek out crossword puzzle help, there sure are a lot of resources to help you do just that. But perhaps there’s a difference between researching the whole answer versus receiving a prompt through a dictionary or a crossword solver. In other words, are you seeking out the answer because you want to gain more knowledge, or just because you want to solve the puzzle?

My view is that anything I can do to add to my knowledge base is fair game. [The name is Eisaku Sato, BTW. If I hadn’t looked it up, I wouldn’t know that he was Japanese prime minister from 1963 to 1972, and signed Japan onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In my defense, those were my elementary through high school years, which were followed by my college days at the University of California, Santa Barbara. At UCSB, the quest for knowledge was counterpoised in equal measure by keggers, so that was kind of a wash.]

So no qualms here about looking up an answer to gain more knowledge.

Which brings me to writing, because a great part of writing pleasure for me is adding knowledge by way of research.

Here’s how I go about it.

I’m writing a scene and come to a part where I need to find something out. In my Romeo series, it is often the details of a philosophical issue. Though I’ve always loved philosophy and have read widely in it, the subject is too vast for any one mind to “know it all” (except, perhaps, for my good internet acquaintance, the public philosopher Tom V. Morris).

So I know I’ll need to study some details.

If I’m going good, I put in a placeholder: [FIL]. That means “fill in later.” I keep writing and do my study later.

This also applies to things like police procedure or forensics. Often, I’ll I write the scene with my best guess as to how it would be handled. Some time after my writing stint, I’ll research it out or contact an expert. I did that with a scene in Romeo’s Rage where a SWAT team is called in. I wrote the scene as best I could. A day or so later I called an LAPD Captain I’d met at a community meet-and-greet. He proceeded to give me several details of SWAT procedure that I worked into the scene….and added to my knowledge base.

And just so you know, the capital of Moravia is Brno. I looked it up.

  1. Do you like research? When you’re writing and come to a spot that needs special knowledge, how do you proceed? Do you tend to leave your page and start down rabbit trails? Or do you keep writing, making your best guess, and save the research for later?
  1. What are your favorite brain games? 
  1. Is it cheating to look something up for a crossword puzzle?

The Significant Other Conundrum

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s post is about a quandary faced by the writer of a series character. I’m anxious to have a robust discussion with our community of sharp readers and writers about it. Simply put, the problem is love.

Readers enjoy a romantic subplot in thrillers and mysteries. The dilemma is what to do with that love interest long term.

I’ll approach this from the standpoint of the male, hardboiled hero.

Once a woman is in the picture, the lone wolf is no longer alone. He must deal with the fact that his walk down “mean streets” may have to be tempered in order to protect his love from bad guys.

If the two become one, either through marriage or cohabitation, the wolf must be domesticated to a degree, which automatically means less hardness in the boil. But if that hardness is what made the hero popular, what now?

One method, of course, is to have the love interest killed off. James Bond’s wife, Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, didn’t even make it out of the book.

But what if a love interest develops over several books? I suspect most readers will bond with her to such an extent that her death would be met with howls of protest.

Let’s consider John Sandford’s Prey series (32 books and counting). In Winter Prey (#5) Lucas Davenport meets and falls for plastic surgeon Weather Karkinnen. She remains in the books. They get married. They have kids.

Many fans of the series feel this resulted in “Decaf Davenport,” or “The Weather Problem.”

Weather Karkinnen…has been a thorn in the author’s side for years, but only for reasons relating to how thrillers are constructed. It almost resulted in Weather getting killed off.

[The problem] can be summed up with three simple points:

  • Readers want a romance of some sort,
  • New romance is much more exciting than old romance,
  • Therefore, long-term relationships should not happen to main characters.

***

Weather is important, if only as a target for the bad guys. Lucas and Weather’s relationship will therefore play a more important role, but it’s still going to be stable. But since it’s stable, it’s boring.

Worse (the thinking goes), Lucas is no longer the lovable bad-boy rogue he used to be. He can’t go out and “have fun” because then he’d be unfaithful, and that’s not acceptable. The presence of Weather mellowed him out, smoothed him out, and turned him into Decaf Davenport Lite.

Or at least, that’s what some readers feel has happened.

***

One half [of readers] think that Weather is the best thing to happen to Lucas, and while they loved the bad boy Lucas of old, he’s grown up, and it would be unrealistic for him to not grow up, and he’s a better person now, and more believable, and there should be more sections dedicated to the wonderful loving family relationships between Lucas, Weather and Letty, Sam, and Gabrielle.

The other half of the fanbase basically want Weather to get hit by a train. Like, yesterday.

Then there’s Robert B. Parker’s Spenser (50 books, and counting, even with Mr. Parker dead. Now that’s a writer!) and his love, psychologist Susan Silverman. In sum:

Not every Spenser fan likes his romance with Susan…TV executives weren’t sure what to do with her either, dropping her character from the “Spenser: For Hire” TV show after the first two seasons. Readers who like Spenser’s wry quips, quick right hook, and noir-esque philosophical musing are sometimes put off by the perennial declarations of love and fidelity between the two, which can seem out of place. But love, and the ability to love, is a cornerstone of Spenser’s moral code. He consciously differentiates his own violent behavior and moral compass from that of his peers with his ability to love Susan. (He also thinks much more highly of anyone who he perceives to be capable of a genuinely loving relationship.)

One solution to the Significant Other Conundrum is to make the love interest an “equal partner” in the plots, a la Joelle “Joe” Frye in the Louis Kincaid novels by our own P. J. Parrish. She’s equal in that she is the only female homicide detective in the Miami-Dade Police Department and thus can carry her own plotline.

But if that’s not the solution the author has in mind, how shall this conundrum be handled?

Thus, the questions for the day:

  1. Do you want to see a love interest in a thriller series?
  2. If that love interest develops into a significant other for several books, what would be your solution to the “decaf” problem for the hardboiled hero?

Writing Lessons From Sidney Sheldon

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Before there was James Patterson there was Sidney Sheldon.

His second novel, The Other Side of Midnight (1973) was a monster bestseller. A string of #1 NYT bestsellers followed. Sheldon sold an estimated 400 million books before he died.

And he didn’t start writing fiction until he was in his early 50s!

Before that Sidney Sheldon led, if you’ll pardon the expression, a storied life.

He was born in Chicago in 1917, to Russian-Jewish parents. He almost committed suicide at age 17 (it wasn’t until decades later that he was diagnosed as bipolar). What pulled him back from the brink was writing. He pursued it with passion, and the results were astounding.

He had two hit shows on Broadway at the age of twenty-seven.

After World War II, he became a studio writer in Hollywood. His screenplay for the Cary Grant comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer won the Academy Award for best screenplay of 1947. Sheldon was 30 years old.

Not that all this was a smooth trajectory toward the top. Far from it. Sheldon suffered as many setbacks as he had triumphs. He described the writer’s life (especially in Hollywood) as being on an elevator. Sometimes it’s up. Sometimes it’d down. And if it stays down, you need to get off.

Sheldon continued to ride that elevator in the 1950s. Up and down. He even had a great idea for a Broadway show ripped off from him.

In the early 60s he decided to take a crack at television. He created the hit series The Patty Duke Show, and get this: Sidney Sheldon himself wrote virtually every episode himself. Over 100 in all!

Do you know how absolutely amazing that is? To be that sharp and funny week after week? And all this while suffering from what at the time was called manic-depression.

But even more amazing was the personal strength and courage he and his wife showed through two highly emotional tragedies.

They had a baby girl born with spina bifida and, despite all the best medical care, she died in infancy. After a long period of mourning they decided to adopt a child. An unwed mother whose boyfriend had left her gave the baby up. They brought her home and for six months loved her and bonded with her.

But under California law at that time, the biological mother could change her mind within six months. This mother did, and one day the authorities came and took the Sheldon’s baby daughter away.

Sheldon and his wife turned to religion for solace. Sidney (now being treated with Lithium) continued to work. He started developing a new television show from an idea he’d had for a long time. It was about an astronaut who finds a bottle on the beach and frees a genie. But this genie would not be the big, lumbering, male giant of tradition. Oh no. This one would be a babe. That’s how I Dream of Jeannie was born.

During this time, the 1960s, Sheldon kept noodling on a thriller idea about a psychiatrist who is marked for murder though he has no enemies. He must use his professional skill to figure out who is stalking him. That became Sheldon’s first novel, The Naked Face. It was published in 1970 and won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

Sheldon caught the novel-writing bug, big time. Here he could create whatever world he wanted, without regard to budgets, sets, actors, or restrictions of any kind—especially the story-by-committee nonsense of Hollywood.

He had an unsold screenplay in his drawer and turned it into The Other Side of Midnight. Sheldon was 56 when this novel rocketed him into the literary stratosphere.

His last thriller, Are You Afraid of the Dark, was published in 2004, when Sheldon was 87.

Sidney Sheldon is the only writer ever to have won a Tony, an Oscar, and an Edgar Award. Let’s see if anybody ever does that again!

In The Writer’s Handbook 1989, Sheldon talked about his method. Here’s some of what he said.

The Secret

Sheldon was asked, What are some of the devices you have found most successful in getting your readers to ask breathlessly, “What’s next?”

The secret is simple: Take a group of interesting characters and put them in harrowing situations. I try to end each chapter with a cliffhanger, so that the reader must turn just one more page to find out what happens next. Another thing I do is to cut out everything that is extraneous to the story I am telling.

Simple to understand, yes. To put into practice book after book, well, that’s something else again. But you can learn how to write more interesting characters, how to make a form of death (physical, professional, psychological) hang over every scene (“harrowing situations”), and ways to end a scene or chapter with what I call a “Read On Prompt.” This is all to be filed under Craft Study.

Process

Sheldon was a “discovery writer” or “pantser.” But let’s hear what that actually meant.

When he began a book, all he had in mind was a character. He then dictated to his secretary, developing the character, bringing others in, letting them interact. “I have no idea where the story is going to lead me.”

But that is only for the first draft. Then came the work.

The first rewrite will be very extensive. I will discard a hundred or two hundred pages at a time, tightening the book and clarifying the characters.

A hundred to two hundred pages? Yikes! There’s more: “I usually do up to a dozen rewrites of a manuscript.” Yikes and gulp!

He would spend a year or year-and-a-half rewriting and polishing a book. This paid off, of course. Big time.

He did have a caveat:

I want to emphasize that I do not recommend this way of working for any but the most experienced writers, since writing without an outline can lead to a lot of blind alleys. For a beginning writer, I think an outline is very important…It is a good idea to have a road map to tell you where you are going.

The Leave-Off Trick

Like Hemingway, Sheldon would end his day’s work after beginning a new scene. Sometimes he’d quit mid-sentence. “In the morning, when you are ready to go to work, you have already begun the new scene.”

Also, he would begin his writing sessions by lightly going over the previous day’s work.

The Mid-Plot Blues

Sheldon said he usually wanted to give up in the middle of his novels. I experienced this early in my career and came to call it the 30k Brick Wall. I found that several successful writers reported the same thing.

Why should this be? Maybe because by 30k you’ve got the engine revved up and are now staring at that long middle, wondering if you’ve got the right foundation and enough plot to make it to the end. The writing willies, if you will.

Formerly, my solution was simply to take a day to brood and imagine and jot notes, maybe adding a new character or two. Then, once I started up again, one scene at a time, I would get back into the flow. That works.

Now I find that if I have my signpost scenes in place, especially the mirror moment, I don’t hit the wall anymore.

The Emotion Quotient

You get your readers emotionally involved in your characters by being emotionally involved yourself. Your characters must come alive for you. When you are writing about them, you have to feel all the emotions they are going through—hunger, pain, joy, despair. If you suffer along with them and care what happens to them, so will the reader.

Wise words with which we all should agree.

Minor Characters

I refer to minor characters as “spice.” They are an opportunity to delight readers, so don’t waste them by making them clichés.

Sheldon:

Every character should be as distinctive and colorful as possible. Make that character physically unusual, or give him an exotic background or philosophy. The reader should remember the minor characters as well as the protagonists.

I’ll close by recommending Sheldon’s memoir The Other Side of Me. I love reading bios of authors. This one is entertaining, instructive, and inspirational.

What do you think of Mr. Sheldon’s advice?

Reader Friday: Contact Sport

Irwin Shaw

 

I once told a class I was teaching that writing is an intellectual contact sport, similar in some respects to football. The effort required can be exhausting…and you are hurt on almost every play; but that doesn’t deprive you from getting peculiar pleasures from the game. — Irwin Shaw

Discuss!

Is It Still a Thrill?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

If I may begin today with a toot (no, not that kind). A toot of my own horn. For today is release day for my seventh Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Rage. (If you’re new to the series, please note these may be read in any order.) It’s there for you this week at the deal price of $2.99 (reg. $4.99). (Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B0BFRP7SQV)

Thank you. Now let’s talk thrills.

We of course specialize in thrillers and suspense here at TKZ. Our archives are filled with tips and techniques on such matters as the grabber opening, scenes that compel readers to turn the page, characters we care to follow, and so on.

We also frequently talk about the challenges writers face when striving to produce (see, e.g., Terry’s recent post). When we do overcome and the writing is flowing again, there’s a thrill in that. And so, too, when we put the final polish on a manuscript and send it to our publishing house, or up to the Kindle store.

And then there’s thrill of the book’s release. It’s like the start of the running of the bulls at Pamplona (as long as you can run fast, that is). It’s the raising of the curtain on opening night on Broadway, with you in the middle of the stage about to intone, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” It’s just before you drop out of the plane with a parachute on your back, or dive off the bridge with a bungee cord around your ankles.

The thrill generally takes three forms.

  1. Working for the Forbidden City, it’s when you open the box of copies the publisher has sent you, and take out your baby and hold it in your hands. The idea may have been conceived a couple of years ago. You finished the book, and it’s been another year to eighteen months for the actual delivery. Here it is at last! You hold it and smell it, like a proud papa or mama.
  2. It’s when you go to the bookstore and see it on the shelf. Even better, on the shelf with the cover facing out. Better than that, on the New Release table. Best of all, if your publisher has laid out the bucks, it’s in a dedicated book display on the floor or in the window.
  3. For the indie writer, it’s when the book is live online.

I’ve experienced all three, and for me it never gets old.

Now comes the waiting, the watching. Your book is out there on its own. The initial thrill begins to fade, replaced by that onerous irritant, expectations. You’re hoping—for sales, great reviews, a bestseller list, a call from Spielberg.

You know what the odds are. The average number of novels sold by traditional publishers is in the mid- to low-four figures, unless, of course, you’re on the A or B+ list. It’s anyone’s guess about ebook sales. We do know the number of ebooks published annually is somewhere north of 4 million. Ack!

But you can’t help hoping. You’re a writer, and every writer desires a growing audience of readers who will become dedicated fans. Yet if your book doesn’t get the foothold you hoped for, the emotional crash is like a rancid tamale in the tummy. (I must be metaphor crazy today.)

As hard as it is to do, Stoic wisdom stresses the management of expectations. You simply cannot stress about the things that are out of your hands! Your hands are for typing (or handwriting). I wrote more about Stoic wisdom here.

You must manage expectations about social media, too. It’s well established now that social media is not the super-duper sales machine people originally thought it would be. Remember the early years of Twitter? Some writers were posting the same “Buy my book!” tweet a dozen times a day. “Hey! I’m reaching millions of people this way! That’s gotta sell some books!”

Not.

Of course, if you have 97 million followers on Instagram and 6 million on Twitter, like Billie Eilish, you might be able to move some books (though apparently not enough to cover a large advance).

For the rest of us, social media has its place, but not as the main driver of book sales.

So what happens when that tamale hits your gut? My advice is to cover it with ice cream. Let it hurt for a few hours, but no longer. Get back to your keyboard. For as you type, you’ll begin to feel it once more—the thrill of the new story, new characters, new plot twists and turns. And finally, the thrill of a new baby. The book is done. You’re back in the delivery room. It’s launch day again.

What about you? Do you still feel—or anticipate—a thrill on launch day? Does the prospect inspire you? Sustain you? Does it ever get old?  

Or like B. B. King, are you lately singing, “The Thrill is Gone”? Are you doing anything to get it back?