About James Scott Bell

#1 bestselling author of PLOT & STRUCTURE, and thrillers including ROMEO'S RULES, TRY DYING, DON'T LEAVE ME, and FINAL WITNESS. You can be the first to know about his new releases by going HERE.

The Most Productive Approach for the Aspiring Novelist

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Got an email the other day from TKZ reader Gary Neal Hansen. With his permission, here’s a bit of it:

We’ve not met but I wanted to thank you for your help, so generously offered in the blogosphere. I stumbled across a post you made in 2015 on The Kill Zone about being a prolific writer. You drew the distinction you made between project ideas being on an “optioned” list, with a few moving forward to an “in development” category, and a single project being “greenlighted” as the WIP.

I wanted you to know that this has helped me see how to move toward clarity and self-organization in my newly independent writing life.

For 17 years I was a professor, where the demands of teaching and pursuit of tenure gave structure to my work. I recently left that position when my wife got her first faculty appointment to a really fine university.

Now I’m continuing to write non-fiction, but am (with the help of NaNoWriMo) adding fiction to the mix. Whether I become skilled enough as a storyteller to publish fiction is an open question, but I’m having fun. And your little book on short stories has also been very helpful — so thanks, very much, and I look forward to reading more of your craft books.

Grand! I love hearing about someone turning to fiction for the first time and having fun doing it. It’s also a nice nod toward NaNoWriMo, which has helped countless newbies over the years get into the habit of writing full-length fiction.

Gary then asked a question which he thought might make good fodder for a TKZ post:

Which of the following do you think would be a better strategy to jump start my skills in the craft?

  1. Pretend it is NaNoWriMo for five successive months and produce five 50,000 word drafts. Then set out to learn the process of editing the best one. Or,
  1. Edit my first NaNoWriMo for a month or two, then do another pretend NaNoWriMo, and keep repeating the cycle. Or,
  1. Draft new material in the mornings, and edit the previous manuscript in the afternoons (while, I suspect, quietly losing my mind). Or,
  1. Something else?

Here is my answer.

I like a combination of #2 and #3. I still recall finishing my first full-length novel. It was around 1990 or so. What I remember most is how much I learned by making myself complete a draft.

My education continued as I did my first self-edit, studying craft issues that came up. The novel was not ready for prime time, but I knew I’d made strides as a writer.

Which is why I’ve counseled new writers to finish that first novel, because it will reveal to you strengths and weaknesses in your craft. I’ve also advised they write first drafts “as fast as you comfortably can,” because it builds the discipline of completing a project.

Now, once finished, let the manuscript sit for three weeks or more. During that time, be at work on you next novel. This project should already have been “in development” as you worked on the previous book. That means you’ve done some thinking about the idea, some planning, some casting, even some writing.

When it comes time to self-edit the first MS, print out a hard copy and read it through, taking minimal notes. You want to experience it as a reader, or better yet as a harried editor or agent reading it on a commuter train, looking for a reason to set it aside!

After that, do a second draft, fixing what you can. Take note of problem areas in your craft so you can study those in more detail.

Show this new draft to beta readers, your critique group, perhaps a freelance editor. (All the while, you are keeping up a word quota on your next novel.) Take all that feedback and re-write once more.

Does that sound like a lot of work? Good. Because it is. And should be.

Now, one does not have to strive to write every novel in NaNo fashion. NaNo is a special speed-writing month, and once a year is quite enough. My guideline for “normal” times: figure out how many words per week you can comfortably write, then up that by 10%. Make that your quota and stick to it for the year. After a year assess and tweak the quota, then hop to it again.

That means that #3 is a good practice. Use your peak creativity time (morning, afternoon or evening, depending on your bio-preference) for the new stuff, and other times for editing. You won’t, as Gary wonders, lose your mind. Going from drafting to editing uses different parts of the brain, and many writers have done it just this way.

My caution: don’t do heavy editing of your WIP at the same time you’re writing it. Do a light edit on the previous day’s work, just to clean things up, then move on.

I’ll mention my “20k Step Back,” however. I found that if I pause to assess my characters and plot at the 20k point, I can save myself a lot of grief by making sure the stakes are truly high, the characters are rightly motivated, and the Lead is pushed through the Doorway of No Return.

Then I push on until I’m finished.

So that’s my advice to Gary an all others starting their the novel-writing journey. Let me offer a few notes on the other two suggestions:

  1. Pretend it is NaNoWriMo for five successive months and produce five 50,000 word drafts. Then set out to learn the process of editing the best one.

While I love the idea of this pulp-style prolificacy, those writers knew the craft of story first. If you write in this fashion I fear you’ll develop some bad habits that may be hard to break. It’s sort of like telling a new golfer just to go out and play eighteen holes every time without once taking a lesson.

There are better ways to choose what idea to develop (I’ll cover that in a future post). The steady quota, alongside directed craft study, is best.

  1. Something else?

Kerouac liked Benzedrine and a roll of butcher paper flowing through his typewriter. I don’t recommend this method.

Dean Koontz works on a single page, over and over, before moving on to the next page. That’s why he hasn’t found success yet. But if all you do is write 70 hours a week, I suppose you can do it this way. I’d go mad.

Balzac stimulated his imagination by drinking up to fifty cups of thick, black coffee every day. He was definitely prolific, but since he died at 51 of caffeine poisoning, I cannot give my imprimatur to this practice.

Countless unpublished writers wait for “inspiration” before they write. There’s a term for this: unprofessional.

Some writers steal. Don’t.

So I open it up to you, TKZ community. What’s your preferred practice? What other advice would you give the new novelist?

(I’m in travel mode today, so I’ll try to respond as best I can!) 

12+

Let it Bite, Then Start to Write

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Matt Ryan

By now you all know that Super Bowl LI (that’s 51 for you scoring at home) was one of the most thrilling football games of all time. Down by 25 points in the third quarter to the Atlanta Falcons, the New England Patriots somehow managed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, pushed the game into overtime, then won by scoring a sudden-death touchdown.

There were many spectacular highlights, most notably an impossible catch made by Patriot receiver Julian Edelman. With under three minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Patriots QB Tom Brady threw a ball that was tipped into the air. There were three Falcons in position to pick it off. The ball almost hit the ground, but the diving Edelman reached for it with his right hand. The ball then bounced off the foot of a grounded Falcon and was, for

The Julian Edelman catch

But the key sequence of the entire game revolved around two huge mistakes by the Falcons.

It was the fourth quarter. Atlanta was ahead 28-20 with 3:56 left. They had the ball at New England’s 23-yard-line, which was well within field goal range. All they had to do was get the 3 points and the game would be out of reach for the Pats.

But then … disaster. Falcon QB Matt Ryan, the league’s Most Valuable Player, dropped back to pass. Patriot’s defensive end Trey Flowers broke through the blocking and pulled Ryan down for a 12-yard sack!

Uh-oh. Well, the Falcons were still barely within field goal range. But on the very next play, Falcons lineman Jake Matthews was called for holding. That lost the Falcons another five yards, and no chance at a field goal. After an incomplete pass by Ryan, the ball ended up back in Tom Brady’s hands, and the rest is Super Bowl history.

Oh my.

Monday morning QBs across the nation were saying things like, “Matt Ryan just cannot take that sack!” They posited that he should have thrown the ball away. To be fair, after watching the replay several times, I don’t think Ryan had that chance. Trey Flowers simply made a huge, game-changing play.

And yet, that’s the way it is in the NFL. The quarterback gets most of the praise when a team wins … and most of the blame when it loses.

But to lose in such a spectacular fashion, on the world’s biggest stage, has got to be a gut punch like no other. In the locker room after the game a subdued Ryan could only mouth the expected words.

“That’s a tough loss,” Ryan said. “Obviously, very disappointed, very close to getting done what we wanted to get done. It’s hard to find words tonight.”

So much changed because of that one sack and one penalty. Tom Brady went from being “in the conversation” about the best QB of all time, to the undisputed holder of that title.

And Ryan, who had been brilliant in the regular season, could have put himself on a track to the Hall of Fame. Instead, has to hear from all the naysayers that his mistake cost the Falcons a championship and that he “chokes” in the big games.

All elite athletes know the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the sting of abusive criticism.

It’s what they do about it that makes champions.

I know Matt Ryan doesn’t have any quit in him, nor does the Falcons talented young coach, Dan Quinn. They will be back. All the way to the Super Bowl? I would not bet against it.

But let’s talk about you, writer. There are so many ways you can feel defeated.

  • You’ve just started. You love to write. You’ve poured your heart into your first novel. Every day you wrote was a high. The story flowed out effortlessly! Now you show it to a trusted friend, someone who knows good writing. And you get back the words, “This just doesn’t work.” (Been there.)
  • You’ve studied and practiced and written three or four more novels. It’s taken you a couple of years to feel like you’ve got a handle on things. Your beta readers, and a freelance editor, tell you this one’s ready. You query agents … for a year and a half … with no takers.
  • Your book gets accepted by a small publisher. Not one of the Bigs, but hey! It’s a traditional publisher, after all. They’ll do the cover, the layout, the marketing! Then the book comes out and lays a soft-boiled egg.
  • You’re a midlist writer, one who had a three-book contract with one of the Bigs. You even got invited to BookExpo to sign your first book, which got a great review from Publishers Weekly. But when it didn’t sell enough copies to satisfy the bean counters, your next two books were brought out with virtually no support. The publisher did not offer you another contract.
  • The book of your heart, the one you’ve labored over for a year or more, off-brand, gets the green light from your publisher but the red light from critics, and dies on the vine.
  • Your agent stops returning your phone calls.
  • You self-publish your first novel, and you know darn well it’s good. You do everything the indie gurus tell you to do to get the word out. You try every promo trick in the book. After a year you have three reviews on Amazon and a rank in seven figures.

All of the above has happened countless times. Something like it has happened, or will happen, to you. So how do you handle the agony of defeat?

Let it bite, then start to write.

Meaning:

Let the defeat hurt for a time … an hour … if you must, a day where you eat nothing but ice cream … but no more! Get back to your keyboard! When you are concentrating on the page in front of you, you are not thinking of the bad thing. When you finish writing, and the bad thing tries to come back to bite you again, the feeling won’t be as strong as it was. If the bad thing persists, rush right back to your typer––pen and paper works, too––and start writing immediately! See first if you can use your emotion to intensify a scene in your WIP. But anything else will do, too … a journal entry, a first line out of the blue, a jingle for toothpaste, a poem, a rant, flash fiction. Just get the words down without too much thought. You can think later.  “Write like there’s no tomorrow. Edit tomorrow.” Repeat as needed. 

“You must stay drunk on writing,” sayeth the Great Bradbury, “so reality cannot destroy you.”

So what did Matt Ryan have to say the day after the game? He took to Instagram:

“We came up short last night and my heart hurts for you Atlanta. Hats off to New England they played a heck of a game. We will adapt, we will over come, we will #RiseUp again.”

The same for you, writer. You will adapt. You will overcome.

You will rise up again.

14+

Users who have LIKED this post:

  • avatar

Let Me Entertain You

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The year was 1919. The “Great War” was over and the “Roaring Twenties” about to begin. Out in Hollywood Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith got together to form a new film company they called United Artists.

In Georgia, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was born. In New York, Theodore Roosevelt died.

On September 21, at the Ansonia Hotel in New York City, a cabal of Chicago White Sox ballplayers met to plan how to throw the World Series in exchange for gambling kickbacks.

On April 10, in Mexico, the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata was assassinated, never knowing that one day he would be portrayed on the big screen by one Marlon Brando.

And out of Camden, New Jersey, the Victor Talking Machine Company was shipping its latest model Victrolas, an item that had become all the rage for an emerging middle class. For through this wonderful machine music of all types could be piped right into the living room. Everything from Caruso to Al Jolson, from Beethoven to Eddie Cantor was available for purchase on vinyl discs with a hole in the middle.

All Victrolas sold in 1919 came with a booklet, a little manual instructing the customer how to get the most from their purchase.

Today, when for the first time you have brought a Victrola into your home, we wish it were possible to show you how much this, the most versatile and so the most satisfying musical instrument in all the world, can be made to entertain, to console and to inspire.

To say that the Victrola offers you, your family and your friends “all the music of all the world”—is to dismiss the subject with an entirely inadequate phrase and so this booklet has been prepared to offer certain suggestions for your greater enjoyment of this, your newest and we verily believe your happiest possession.

This was a huge development in our cultural lives in the age before radio became pervasive. Victrola extolled the benefits of music for the weary traveler on life’s highway:

Intimately associated as we are with the development of the Victrola, yet we are fully conscious of the wonder of it and we, no less than our customers, have learned that amid “the daily round of irritating concerns and duties” we have only to turn to the Victrola in order to be once more in love with life and its beautiful, blessed burdens.

And while championing the virtues of classical music, the booklet also recognized the great benefit of simple entertainments:

Art is art, no matter what form it may take, and those who are sincere in their musical opinions will no more despise the lighter and more popular music than they will despise good music which is the product of other kinds of feeling and other rhythms. In certain moods and at certain times there is as much “inspiration” to be derived from ragtime as there is from a Beethoven symphony or the thunderous emotions of a great opera. Each produces its effect in its own way and each supplies a very real human need…

Well said, Victor Talking Machine Company! Let me be so cheeky as to translate this into slightly different terms:

Art is art, no matter what form it may take, and those who are sincere in their literary opinions will no more despise the lighter and more popular books than they will despise literature which is the product of other kinds of feeling and other rhythms. In certain moods and at certain times there is as much “inspiration” to be derived from a thriller as there is from a National Book Award winner. Each produces its effect in its own way and each supplies a very real human need…

And yet … there has always been a tension between the “serious” writer and the “commercial” kind. At times the former may think of the latter as a hack. The latter may consider the former a snob.

Mickey Spillane was the mass-market paperback king of the 1950s. He engendered a lot of envy. (What? Envy among writers? Surely not!) Many “serious” writers were supremely ticked off that their wonderful, years-long-to-write novel of domestic angst only sold 300 copies, while Spillane’s fast-paced Mike Hammer PI novels sold in the millions. Even Ernest Hemingway took a poke at Spillane, in print, which prompted a TV interviewer to ask Spillane if he’d read Hemingway’s criticism. Spillane said, “Hemingway who?” The audience roared (Hemingway never forgave Spillane for that!) As The Mick later put it, “Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”

Well, friends, there is room for both caviar and peanuts, pheasant-under-glass and bacon burgers. And culinary delights in between. But I happen to believe that the novels that move us most and heighten our perception of life also entertain on a basic, storytelling level. If I’m not fully invested in the characters, or if the plot is a drag, I’m not prone to sticking around for any message.

And pure entertainment deserves an honored place, as Dean Koontz pointed out in How to Write Best-Selling Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 1981): “In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness.”

So let me entertain you! And you me! Here’s what I like to see in a novel:

  1. A hero or anti-hero we root for

A hero represents the values of the community. An anti-hero has his or her own moral code but is drawn into a conflict within the community. The big question is will the anti-hero transform? Katniss Everdeen is an anti-hero who becomes a hero. Rick in Casablanca starts out unwilling to help anyone (“I stick my neck out for nobody”) but by the end is ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good (“But I’ve got a job to do too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do you can’t be any part of. I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”)

This doesn’t mean the lead character has to be what we normally call “good.” I root for Richard Stark’s hard-core criminal Parker, because among the other thieves and lowlifes, he has the better argument! 

  1. Conflict within and without

My favorite novels have both levels going on. That’s why I love the Harry Bosch series. We are as invested in Harry’s inner journey as in the case he happens to be working on. Even straightforward action thrillers like The Executioner series are elevated when Mac Bolan pauses to reflect on what all this killing is doing to his soul.

  1. An Ah or Uh-oh ending

My favorite endings leave me with a definite feeling. One feeling is “Ah…”, a sense of such satisfaction that I feel all the circles have been completed, the outer plot and the inner journey. Usually the ending scene is a personal one. Examples are Lost Light by Michael Connelly, Nathan’s Run by John Gilstrap, and Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block. These books have final scenes that move me at the heart level.

Stephen King is a master of the “Uh-oh.” As in, something bad is going to happen again! For example Pet Sematary and The Stand.

Kris (P.J.) wrote recently about the ambiguous ending. In the right hands, that can have the same effect as combining the “Ah” and the “Uh-oh.” An example is The Catcher in the Rye. 

  1. Some unobtrusive poetry in the style

That’s a phrase I lift from one of my favorite writers, John D. MacDonald. He’s describing a style that is more than plain-vanilla minimalism, yet not so over-the-top that it screams Look at me! I’m a real writer! The latter is where we get the axiom “Kill your darlings.” You can fall in love too much with a felicitous phrase, though I will say that the axiom is a bit too barbaric for my taste. Sometimes I’ll show mercy to a darling, but always defer to the judgment of my true-life darling and first editor, Mrs. Bell.

Give me those things, and you’re liable to turn me from a reader to a fan. And it’s what I hope to give you with each book. 

So let me put it to you, TKZers. What entertains you? Do you prefer to feast on one kind of fiction? Do you think one type is “better” than any other? Or do you like a big buffet with lots of choices?  

What do you try to put in your own fiction?

***

Historical notes:

The Victor Talking Machine Company’s logo featured a Jack Russell Terrier listening to an “external horn” player, cocking his head because he heard “his master’s voice” coming out of the horn. The name of the dog is “Nipper.”

The external horn machine was not a Victrola. Victrola was exclusively used for a model that had the horn inside a nicely designed cabinet, with small doors in the front that opened and closed. There were many fine Victrola designs, like this one:

3+

The Joy of Writing Whatever the Heck You Want

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of the biggest influences on my desire to write was the late, great Ray Bradbury. I’ve written before about meeting him, and how The Illustrated Man blew me away in junior high. In high school I read Fahrenheit 451, which is of course a classic of the dystopian genre.

I love what Bradbury said in an interview about his reason for writing the book. “I wasn’t trying to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.”

That, it seems to me, is the highest and best use of dystopian fiction. It’s a warning. It’s a prophet crying in the wilderness. And the nice thing is that the prophet can employ the steely voice of a John the Baptist, or the sly wink of a Jonathan Swift.

I don’t specialize in speculative fiction (though I suppose you could call my zombie legal thrillers, written as K. Bennett, speculative. At least I think most lawyers in Los Angeles are not zombies, but I need to check on that). But I recently found myself pounding out a short story and having a lot of fun doing it.

The story idea had its genesis in Rogue One, the new film in the Stars Wars milieu. The most striking part of the film is the meaty supporting performance by Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. Striking, of course, because Peter Cushing has been dead since 1994. In view of his deceased status, he really brings it Rogue One!

Of course, Mr. Cushing is actually realized courtesy of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI). The effect is stunningly effective. Which got me thinking about the possibilities here. What if, sometime in the future, someone wanted to make a film with Cary Grant, or Clark Gable, or Bette Davis? Future technologies will not only make this possible, but easy.

Then I thought about the discussions we’ve had here at TKZ recently about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the prospect of machines getting into the writing game.

So the idea came to me: in the not too distant future, a movie studio is working on a Western starring John Wayne and Lee Marvin, featuring Jane Russell, Andy Devine, Chill Wills, and Victor McLaglen. The technology provides holographic imagery along with AI functionality. What if …

Well, I’ll leave the What if for you readers, because that’s what my new Kindle short story, JOHN WAYNE’S REVENGE, is about. It’s FREE through Thursday. (For those who don’t have a Kindle device, remember you can download a free Kindle app to your phone or tablet or computer, and enjoy Kindle books that way.)

One of the nice things about short fiction is that you can get an idea and just start hitting the keys to see what happens. It’s fun. You can write whatever the heck you want to, without a huge expenditure of time.

That was Bradbury’s practice. He’d hop out of bed in the morning and just start capturing what was in that fertile imagination of his, whatever his writer’s mind had cooked up in the nightly dream world. Only later would he look at the pieces and figure out what was going on. He wrote with more pure joy than any other writer I know of.

So enjoy the story, on me. It’s an under ten-minute read, perfect for the waiting room at the doctor’s office, when you’re lunching by yourself, or after choosing the wrong line at the grocery store.

What if … 

So what have you written lately purely for the joy of it?   

12+

Reader Friday: Experience

“A writer need not devour a whole sheep in order to know what mutton tastes like, but he must at least eat a chop. Unless he gets his facts right, his imagination will lead him into all kinds of nonsense, and the facts he is most likely to get right are the facts of his own experience.”
— W. Somerset Maugham

How much of your writing comes from your experience? Do you tend to write what you know? Or do you write what you need to know?

4+

Strengthening Your Fiction The Ben Franklin Way

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

For those who advocate the free-form, no-study school of fiction writing, let me call from the grave an expert witness for the other side, one Benjamin Franklin. No slouch as a writer himself, Franklin was also a lifelong student of the art of living well.

In a letter to Lord Kames, dated May 3, 1760, Franklin wrote:

Most people have naturally some virtues, but none have naturally all the virtues. To acquire those that are wanting, and secure what we acquire, as well as those we have naturally, is the subject of an art. It is as properly an art as painting, navigation, or architecture. If a man would become a painter, navigator, or architect, it is not enough that he is advised to be one, that he is convinced by the arguments of his adviser, that it would be for his advantage to be one, and that he resolves to be one, but he must also be taught the principles of the art, be shewn all the methods of working, and how to acquire the habits of using properly all the instruments; and thus regularly and gradually he arrives, by practice, at some perfection in the art.

In Franklin’s autobiography, he sets out his method of moral improvement. He settled on thirteen virtues he wanted in his life: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility.

Next, Franklin printed up grids with the virtues in the left column, and rows of seven boxes, representing a week. He determined to concentrate on one virtue per week, and leave the other virtues to their “ordinary chance.” In the evening, he would look at the day’s page and assess how he did in the main virtue, while making a mark in those areas where he sensed he needed improvement. Here is what a page on Temperance looked like:

In this fashion, Franklin could go through all thirteen virtues four times a year. Business and sales folk have been using Franklin’s system for decades to improve their own performance. Not via Franklin’s virtues, but by determining their own areas of competence. These are called critical success factors (CSFs).

For fiction writers, I identify seven CSFs: Plot, Structure, Characters, Scenes, Dialogue, Voice and Meaning (Theme).

If you were to set up a self-study program, concentrating on one CSF for seven weeks, in one year you will have covered them all––with three weeks to spare!

Improving just one of the CSFs is going to kick your fiction up a notch. But what if you improved on all seven?

What if your goal was to get 10% better in each? (I know there’s no way to measure that, but you will be able to feel it. So will your readers). If you did that, your writing would improve not just a notch, but exponentially.

If this concept is new to you, let me suggest that you start by regularly investing in craft books.

For plot and structure, modesty prevents me from recommending certain books, like Plot & Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. Collegiality, however, would have me alert you to Story Engineering by TKZ’s own Larry Brooks.

My favorite book on characters is Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress.

The best book on dialogue is How to Write Dazzling Dialogue. Modesty prevents me from naming the author.

Scenes? Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld.

Voice? Voice (I’m over the modesty thing).

Meaning or Theme: Writing a Book That Makes a Difference by Philip Gerard.

There are, of course, many other texts you can add to the list. I love books on writing. I still read them. And Writer’s Digest. My philosophy is if I learn just one new thing (or a slightly different take on something I already know) that makes my writing better, it’s worth it.

We also have a stunningly good archive on the craft here at TKZ, too.

And if you feel like making in-depth investment in instruction on all of the above, I can sheepishly recommend the video course Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.  

Now, add to all that some of your favorite novels and authors who do these CSFs well. For example, when I want a refresher on dialogue, I might turn to Elmore Leonard or Robert B. Parker. For an action scene, I can whip out any of the Jonathan Grave thrillers by a fellow named Gilstrap. For voice, give me some Raymond Chandler or Ray Bradbury. Theme? To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye. Scenes that end so you have to turn the page? Early Stephen King.

Make your own list. Read those books again, or for the first time, taking notes on what the author does well. In my bookshelf in the garage (moved there so I could have more room for books in my house) is a big collection of paperbacks I devoured in the early 90s as I was learning the craft. They are filled with my pencil underlines and marginal notes:

Character sympathy!

Read-on prompt.

Mystery dropped in.

You still have pencils, don’t you? Use them!

And don’t forget movies. I use film a lot when I teach because some of the most important CSFs are complementary twixt film and literature.

Want to see a perfectly structured movie? You can’t go wrong with The Fugitive. how about a big theme wrapped up in compelling characters? Casablanca. Dialogue? Double Indemnity. All About Eve. Sunset Boulevard. A lesson in tension? Eye in the Sky (a recent favorite). The whole history of movies awaits you.

Finally, do some writing exercises that incorporate what you’re learning. Write practice scenes, experiment with voice, do several pages of nothing but dialogue.

And yes, right alongside your study, be writing your novels. When you write, write. Be loose. Don’t think too much. Be very careful about the demon perfectionism. Write your first drafts as fast as you comfortably can, leaving the CSFs, as Franklin did with the virtues, to their “ordinary chance.”

Then, when you edit, think about and apply what you’ve learned.

Repeat over and over the rest of your life.

Do that, and Ben Franklin, flying his kite somewhere near Alpha Centauri, will look down and smile.

9+

Epic Intimacy and Point of View

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We have a first-page critique today, from which I want to draw a lesson about intimacy in Point of View, especially in epic fantasy novels. Here’s the clip:

REBORN

Chapter 1

Back arched, pointed ears swept backwards, Archenon knelt before the High Queen in the Great Hall of Êvina.

“Please—I beg you. Let me go.” An intricate braid of ebony hair lay heavy along his spine. The piece of parchment crunched between his hands, folded and read so many times that it had begun to crumble.

The High Queen of Aradria, his mentor Rhonja, looked down on him. “You know I can not.” She smoothed out a fold on her silky dress, which was fitted to perfection. It hugged her slender form, mirroring the blinding hall in its purity. Her hair, shining like starlight, wafted about her shoulders.

His imploring emerald eyes met hers from the bottom of the crescent staircase leading up to the white throne. A vast mosaic of Her Majesty’s Royal Crest lay fixed in the wall behind her—four petals aligned to the cardinal points held each other under the protection of a circle representing Spirit, the High Queen’s element.

Archenon swallowed hard. “I have given you my life, and now the last tie to my heritage is to be torn away. Is there nothing I can say to make you change your mind? I want to see my mother one final time.”

Rhonja had never reciprocated Archenon’s feelings, but he thought she cared for him enough to allow this one request. She was the epitome of hope for her subjects, yet she would crush his.

“You do care for me, don’t you?” he asked.

“Of course. I treasure you,” she replied, her brilliant gaze a calm ocean at twilight. But her words were scant comfort.

Shafts of light pierced between the half-drawn purple drapes hanging over the arched windows. Elegant pillars of creatures, cunningly carved, held up the vaulted ceiling. Gryphons, mermians, dragons, elves and other beings stared at him with marble eyes. It was as if they fought to keep the very building from crashing down on him. More than ever, the immensity of the white hall felt intrusive and distinctly foreign.

Archenon was afraid he would never belong anywhere. Not here, in this land where the trees were few and the ocean lapped around every edge of the border. Not even in his first home, deep in the woods of Elfen Harrows, in the realm of fire. Not an easy thing for an elf to admit, and he shivered with a sudden fear.

***

The genre here appears to be epic fantasy, so I’ll be making my remarks based on that assumption. The excerpt has a rich style (which we’ll discuss in a moment) and what I like about it is that everything is woven into an immediate scene, with great tension–a disturbance, which is the best way to hook a reader from the start. I’ve seen too many manuscripts of this type that begin with some meandering journey down a mountain, through a valley, or on a horse. Nothing much happens as the world is built. I like this author’s approach much better.

So let’s talk about how to render this approach as effective as possible.

POV

The first four paragraphs are Omniscient POV. You can tell because the author describes things that the main character, Archenon, cannot see. He cannot see his own ears, his ebony hair, or his imploring emerald eyes. It’s only when he swallows hard, and we get a glimpse of his thoughts, that we move into the more intimate Third Person.

My main suggestion is that the author render the entire section in Third Person POV. That will create more empathy, more connection, between reader and character. No matter the genre, we want to do everything in our writerly power to deepen the reader-character bond. I don’t see a reason to keep distant via Omniscience.

Let me quickly add that in epics I do think Omniscient POV can be well utilized, but it’s usually when the author describes setting (world building) or recounts a history. I also recognize that epic fantasy fans are tolerant of long passages of Omniscient-style narrative. But for those of you contemplating that style, my suggestion remains: set us first inside a character, and then do the building. This is what James Clavell does in the opening pages of Shogun. He gives us some history and description and context but only does so after this gripping opening line: The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead.

Now we’re set. We’re inside a character. And when Clavell recounts historical detail, we get the impression it is coming from the protagonist’s own knowledge.

So, author, can you get us into Archenon with more immediate, sensory, deeply-felt detail? I think you can!

Let’s take a look at this paragraph:

Shafts of light pierced between the half-drawn purple drapes hanging over the arched windows. Elegant pillars of creatures, cunningly carved, held up the vaulted ceiling. Gryphons, mermians, dragons, elves and other beings stared at him with marble eyes. It was as if they fought to keep the very building from crashing down on him.

Notice that we don’t get the POV clue until the middle, with stared at him. See how that keeps us at a bit of a distance? These little things add up. Instead, do something like this:

Archenon winced at the shafts of light piercing the half-drawn purple drapes having over the arched windows. He averted his gaze to the elegant pillars …

Let me suggest you go through your entire manuscript looking to make the POV more intimate. Watch for paragraphs the open without a POV clue in it.

STYLE

I do think the author has an innate handle on fantasy style. It’s rich and evocative. I liked a lot of it.

One suggestion I do have is to look over every description and make the tone consistent with the feeling you want in the scene. For example, these lines: Gryphons, mermians, dragons, elves and other beings stared at him with marble eyes. It was as if they fought to keep the very building from crashing down on him. More than ever, the immensity of the white hall felt intrusive and distinctly foreign.

Look how the sentence in the middle works against the other two. Rather than fighting to keep the building up, try: It was as if they were waiting for the right moment to bring the building crashing down upon him.

That way the sentence adds to the menace of the scene, rather than relieving it.

Also––and I only mention this because it’s the very first sentence––I was thrown off by the pointed ears swept backwards. It’s a jarring image. If they are sweeping backwards, that’s one big set of ears! I know it turns out Archenon is an elf, but we can wait for that information. (You could insert a bit about Archenon feeling the heat in the points of his ears…)

These are the sorts of things you pick up when you revise. I’ll say again, this is a good foundation––an actual scene and a rich style. Make it more intimate and I’ll want to keep reading.

Your turn, TKZers. What did you think? 

9+

State of the Publishing World 2017

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There is a publishing industry. And there is a publishing world.

The Big 5 publishers, along with the Medium However Many, form the industry.

All of them, plus every self-publishing author, form the world.

Here in 2017, what does that world look like? Your humble correspondent now takes his shot.

Self-Publishing is Not Rodney Dangerfield

Back around 2010-2011, the internet was aflame with screeds arguing all sides of the self-publishing boom. Such jeremiads have mostly disappeared. But every now and then, like a California aftershock, we get a fulmination that rattles the furniture.

One such appeared recently in HuffPo, wherein author Laurie Gough referred to the self-publishing enterprise as “an insult to the written word.” As of this morning, the piece has well over 600 comments, and at least one solid “fisking.” What a stroll down Memory Lane! It was like the good old Joe Konrath-Barry Eisler blogosphere of yore.

Ms. Gough believes that “gatekeeping” is essential for the consumer. “Readers expect books to have passed through all the gates, to be vetted by professionals. This system doesn’t always work out perfectly, but it’s the best system we have.”

Is it? Sarah Nelson, Executive Editor at Harper Collins, seems to think so:

There will always be a market for good writing and storytelling, whatever the format, and there are always going to be “gatekeepers,” no matter how much people complain about them. In fact, the more self-published stuff that’s out there, the more imprints, the more books, the more regular people (i.e. people who buy books) are going to need a filter, a curator, a gatekeeper. Nobody can read everything, after all: people still want to hear what’s the best of the bunch.

Methinks this does not reflect how readers actually decide to plunk down their discretionary income. Almost always it’s by some form of word-of-mouth that a book is purchased. These days, word-of-mouth is not only by way of a friend, but also reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

In other words, readers are the gatekeepers.

Besides, attempts to form some sort of new, official gatekeeping locale have been going on for years, without success. Remember Bookish? It started off as a joint venture between the (then) Big 6 publishers to create an Amazon-style footprint on the internet. This was back during the industry fight over Amazon’s increasing dominance, and before the Department of Justice stepped in to stop the brouhaha. In any event, Bookish did not catch on. There was simply not enough incentive or reason to latch onto a new form of “approval.”

Self-publishing continues to get a few slings and arrows from the establishment, but the force of the blows is largely spent. “With my dog,” Rodney Dangerfield once said, “I don’t get no respect. He keeps barking at the front door. He doesn’t want to go out. He wants me to leave.”

Well, self-publishing authors aren’t leaving. And those who keep producing and growing as writers, and who take a business-like approach, will fare nicely.

The Future of Print

Back in 2013 you could find fields of blooming blogsters predicting the imminent demise of traditional print publishing. (I was not one of them, likening trad-pub to the fighter who would not go down, Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta.)

Last year Publishers Weekly wrote a story about the Codex Group’s April, 2016 survey of booksellers. The main finding was that “e-book units purchased as a share of total books purchased fell from 35.9% in April 2015 to 32.4% in April 2016. The Codex survey includes e-books published by traditional publishers and self-publishers and sold across all channels and in all categories.”

What was the cause of the decline (or stagnation, if you’re a half-full kind of person)? It might be “digital fatigue,” especially among the young—the future book buyers.

[T]hough book buyers stated they spent almost five hours of daily personal time on screens, 25% of book buyers, including 37% of those 18–24 years old, want to spend less time on their digital devices. Since consumers almost always have the option to read books in physical formats, they are indicating a preference to return to print … Overall, 14% of book buyers said they are now reading fewer e-books than when they started reading books in the format, and 59% percent of those who said they are reading fewer e-books cited a preference for print as the main reason for switching back to physical books. The share of print books purchased was also the highest among the heaviest screen users, the so-called digital natives, ages 18–24 (83%), and lowest (61%) among 55-to-64-year-olds.

That’s a bit of amazing, isn’t it? A few years ago all the old codgers were thinking this younger generation was going to be all digital, all the time. Apparently, the trend is the other way! Don’t those Millennials know how to listen to us?

And in another bit of print-preservation news, one of the original indie firebrands, Joe Konrath, announced a print-only deal with Kensington:

I’ve always known that I’m leaving money on the table because my books aren’t in brick and mortar stores. There are a whole lot of readers who shop at bookstores, airports, department stores, and convenience stores, and I’m not available in those outlets. My POD titles are $13-$17, which is pricey compared to my $4.99 ebooks. Wal-Mart won’t ever carry me. Neither will B&N.

This Kensington deal will let me reach an audience I haven’t reached since 2009.

So is this a portend of things to come for self-pubbed authors?

Kensington has shown themselves to be nimble and forward-thinking. I have yet to see any evidence that the Big 5 are smart enough to try something like this, save for that big Hugh Howey deal years ago. Writers waited for more opportunities like that (me included), and none happened.

It will indeed be interesting to see how this plays out. Kensington specializes in mass market editions, a segment of the industry that has been in steady decline. If Kensington can figure out a way to make it work for Konrath, maybe others will follow…but only those with significant ebook success, a la Joe.

Add one more datum, from the aptly named “Data Guy” (the mastermind, with Hugh Howey, behind the Author Earnings Reports). As quoted by Mr. Porter Anderson in the new Digital Book World white paper, Mr. Guy states, “Adult fiction sales in the US are nearly 71 percent digital now, and that is also the category where indie sales have made the deepest inroads: today, 30 percent of all US adult fiction book purchases are of titles self-published by indie authors.”

When it comes to fiction, then, E is eating away at P. And it is voracious.

And don’t let us forget about the fastest-growing medium for “reading” books: audio. According to one source, audio book downloads increased by a whopping 38.1 percent in 2015. An executive of Audible, Inc. is quoted in the story thus: “Audible members globally listened to 1.6 billion hours of audio content in 2015 (up from 1.2 billion in 2014).”

So A now encroaches on both E and P. That’s the alphabet soup of current publishing.

However, print will hang in there. As one editor told me, “Flat is the new up.” And there’s some good cheer for print in the mini-boom of independent bookstores. As Borders closed down and Barnes & Noble cut back, mom-and-pop bookstores started springing up. According to one report, 550 indie bookstores have opened since 2010. That makes me happy.

The Rise of Amazon Publishing, and How it Affects Indies

Amazon continues to expand its own imprint publishing program. They now have thirteen (13) imprints, ranging from mystery & suspense (Thomas & Mercer) to StoryFront, a venue for short fiction. Wow.

This expansion has been the subject of interest to many pure indie writers, who have reported a downward trend in their sales. John Ellsworth, for example, a bestselling legal thriller authors, wonders if APub is the major reason behind this decline.

Well, APub is an arm of the world’s largest bookstore, and therefore it makes sense that it would use the power of its algorithms to feature titles it publishes. It’s like front-of-store placement.

Amazon Publishing is turning out a high-quality product, and so will continue to expand. Heck, Amazon is even opening up physical bookstores to shelve them!

Writers, as the corks atop  the roiling sea of change, will continue to adjust. Indies are always experimenting with things like Kindle exclusivity versus “going wide.” There are also scads of startups who want to partner with authors for publication and distribution. All I can say to that is, caveat scriptor! Do your homework before signing over your life’s work. For while there are top-notch companies like Brach Books, there is also a cautionary tale in the shuttering (and withholding of royalties) by AllRomance.

Are We All Part of The Gas Lamp Industry Anyway?

The larger question is whether book publishing itself is in its last phase as a human enterprise. There was a need for gas lamplighters 120 years ago. Electricity killed that need. Human beings were out of jobs. Fast food franchises are moving to ordering kiosks, with more jobs lost.

Will the same thing happen to authors when AI starts churning out books? What Patterson does with co-writers now, AI will do by itself, a million times faster and perfectly tailored to the various market niches.

Hugh Howey predicts that AI will become “the holy grail for readers, the end of writing as a profession, and I give it anywhere from 50 – 200 years.”

Entire novels will be written from scratch by machines, a million novels spurting out in the blink of an eye, and they will be tailored to individual readers, win major awards, and be as sublime and moving as anything we’ve ever read before. We balk at the idea now, but just as manually driving a car will seem insane one day (unless on a closed track by daredevils with death wishes), a handwritten novel will also seem bizarre. Why do with long division what a calculator on our phone can do for us? Sure, people will still write, but very few will read these works. And the process will happen so gradually that hardly anyone will understand what has happened.

Sure, machines will try to take over. We’ll Sarah Connor them! And we’ll keep writing. Because what we do. Never despair over trends. We are the storytellers!

With apologies to Dylan Thomas, let me adapt his most famous poem for our purposes:

Do not go gentle onto that good page,
True writers burn and rave at gloomy news;
They type, and never think to disengage.

They know it’s hard to make a living wage.
But harder still it is to mute the Muse
Or keep their heart’s desire in a cage.

So writers, though they are of drinking age,
Will not allow surrender to the blues!
They’ll up the heat, and burst the pressure gauge!
They won’t go gentle onto that good page!

So what are your thoughts about the state of publishing-writing-print-reading these days? Any predictions for the year ahead? 

13+