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.

Ending Lessons From a Couple of Movies

by James Scott Bell

So the other day I watched Pretty in Pink, the 1986 Molly Ringwald film, written by John Hughes.

Why was I, a thriller author, watching Pretty in Pink? Because of James Spader. I’m a Spader fan, and I had been listening to Rainn Wilson’s memoir, The Bassoon King. Wilson (who played Dwight Schrute on TV’s The Office) was talking about his odd upbringing and high school days, and made a passing reference to being around rich kids who were like James Spader in Pretty in Pink. I didn’t recall that Spader was in the film.

So I went to the library and got the DVD and watched it.

I can see why Molly Ringwald captured hearts back then. She’s adorable and spunky and irresistible. The movie …

… okay, here netiquette demands that I insert a ***SPOILER ALERT***. I will be talking about the ending in detail, so if you want to see the movie fresh, now’s the time to go pour yourself another cup of joe.

As I was saying, the movie is about a high school girl, Andie (Ringwald), who comes from the wrong side of the tracks. She’s in school with a lot of rich kids, who look down their imperious beaks at her. Chief among these privileged snoots is Steff (Spader) who can’t stand that Andie won’t give him a tumble. When Steff finds out his best friend Blane (Andrew McCarthy) likes Andie, he tries to shame him out of it.

Andie is attracted to Blane, which is a cause of serious heartache for Andie’s friend, “Duckie” (Jon Cryer). Duckie loves Andie with a passion, but Andie loves him only as a pal.

Perfect John Hughes formula, eh?

Prom is coming, and no one’s asked Andie. She doesn’t expect it. But of course Blane does, and Andie is in heaven. Duckie is in hell.

But then Steff steps up his campaign to break up Blane and Andie. He tells Blane he’s got to choose. If he insists on seeing Andie, they will no longer be friends.

Blane is conflicted, but decides to break it off with Andie. He doesn’t return her calls. When she corners him at school, he makes up a lame excuse about having invited someone else to the prom and that it slipped his mind. Andie doesn’t buy it, calls him a liar, and runs out in tears.

Prom night comes. Andie decides to take a pink dress and do some of her quirky design work on it. She gets all ready to go to the prom, alone. When her dad asks her why, she says “I just want to let them know they didn’t break me.”

She gets to the hotel but is scared to take the final step inside the ballroom. She looks up. And sees Duckie. He has also shown up alone.

They run into each others’ arms and enter the ballroom together.

Blane, who is also sans date, sees them. He gets up to go to her. Steff tries to stop him. Blane tells him off (finally).

Blane goes up to Andie and Duckie. He apologizes. He says he always believed in her, he just didn’t believe in himself. Then he says, “I love you,” kisses her on the cheek, and walks out.

Duckie, the noble friend, says, “If you don’t go to him now, I’m never gonna take you to another prom again. This is an incredibly romantic moment, and you’re ruining it for me.”

Andie thanks him, runs out to the parking lot. She and Blane kiss in the rain.

The End.

Okay, here’s where it gets interesting. I felt the ending was not right. I thought:

a) Andie shouldn’t go running after Blane. He acted like a jerk. He gave her up over a measly threat from James Spader! Come on! He deserved to suffer for being so spineless.

b) Andie running after him so quickly brought her down in my estimation. She owed her loyal friend at least a dance.

c) Duckie deserved that dance, seeing as how he saved Andie’s dignity by walking into the prom with her.

d) The dialogue line “I love you” is almost always manipulative and lazy (see The Art of War for Writers, Chapter 39).

So as I’m thinking all that, I look at the Special Features menu on the DVD and see that there is a segment on “the original ending.”

And guess what? My instincts, and indeed those of John Hughes himself, were correct. In the ending that was in the script and which they shot, Andie and Duckie do dance together and then it fades out.

Which was, as they say, justice. But apparently test audiences weren’t so happy. A majority said they wanted the cute girl to end up with the cute guy!

An internal battle broke out over the ending. Most of the creative team wanted it to stay as shot, but the suits with the purse strings feared a negative audience reaction. Guess who won that fight?

So six months after the movie had wrapped, they got the cast back together to film the ending that’s in the movie.

And got negative reaction anyway! Even now, people are split on the ending. The stars (Ringwald, McCarthy, and Cryer) who were being interviewed on the DVD (these interview were filmed in 2006, twenty years after the release) talked about the controversy. Cryer remembered feeling robbed when they changed things. And he says people still come up to him, sometimes quite livid, insisting Andie and Duckie should be together at the end!

Why would they think that? Simply this: Justice was not served!

But, the other side insists, there was no sexual chemistry between Duckie and Andie. Molly Ringwald herself is of that opinion.

Ah, but there was another way it could have gone!  Andie and Duckie enjoy the prom together, then Duckie tells Andie to go to Blane. And when she goes to Blane it shouldn’t be to fall into his arms. Let it be left that they may end up together, so long as Blane proves he’s not shallow. The ending can therefore be hopeful, but not wrapped up in a pretty pink bow.

What’s the lesson here?

a) Don’t listen to the suits.

b) The best endings are about justice, not necessarily about the cuties getting together. Exhibit A: the most famous ending of all time, Does Rick end up with Ilsa? No! But justice is done, and Rick does gain “a beautiful friendship.”

Next, I watched Big Jake, a later John Wayne western. I watched Big Jake to balance out Pretty in Pink and restore order to the universe.

Big Jake is a straightforward rescue plot. Jake McCandles (Wayne) learns his grandson has been kidnapped for ransom. With his two sons, an Indian friend, and a loyal dog named Dog, McCandles sets out to get the boy back.

Dog is trained to attack bad guys when prompted by the command, “Dog!” (John Wayne films are not complex). There’s a big showdown between Wayne’s group and the bad guys, one of whom wields a machete. Dog, wounded by a gunshot, nevertheless puts the bite on the machete guy. There’s a struggle. Machete guy breaks free, and hacks the heroic Dog to death!

Here’s my lesson from Big Jake: Don’t kill the dog!

And those are my random thoughts about two ending in two films.

So now it’s your turn: Do you have any lessons you draw from disappointing endings?


Reader Friday: Writing Space

”I am happiest writing in small rooms. They make me feel comfortable and secure. And it took me years to figure out that I need to write in a corner. Like a small animal burrowing into its hole, I shift furniture around, and back myself into a cozy corner, with my back to the wall … and then I can write.”
—Danielle Steel

What is your ideal writing space?


Giving Characters the Courage to Change

by James Scott Bell

Zachary Scott and Eve Arden

The other day I turned on TCM and caught the last half hour of a film I’d seen before, The Unfaithful (1947). I was pleased because it has one of my favorite actors of that period, Zachary Scott. (This fine actor really needs to be remembered for his body of work, especially in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner). The other lead was the “Oomph Girl,” Ann Sheridan.

The plot: Bob Hunter (Scott) and Chris Hunter (Sheridan) are a happily married couple. One night, when Bob is away on business, Chris kills an intruder in their home. Self-defense, right?

What no one knows (at first) is that the intruder was a man with whom Chris had a one-night tryst during the war. She and Bob had been married only a short while before Bob went off to fight. Lonely and anxious, without letters from Bob, Chris found solace in this man’s arms. She felt guilty about it ever since.

Well, the truth comes out, and Bob is stunned, hurt, outraged. He demands a divorce. Chris pours out her heart to him, admitting the wrong, needing him to understand, wanting to stay married. But Bob remains resolute. Chris accepts the inevitable.

With the secret out that Chris knew the victim, she is tried for murder. But through the fine job done by family friend and lawyer Larry Hannaford (Lew Ayers), she is acquitted. (Let’s hear it for lawyers!)

Bob is still firm about the divorce. He goes to see another family friend, Paula (Eve Arden, who made a career out of playing the good-hearted pal). Paula delivers some plain talk to Bob. Almost like a slap in the face. She tells him about women during the war, how frightening and lonely it all was, especially when no letters came. And aren’t we all human? Don’t we all make mistakes? And are you going to hold on to this bitterness forever?

Bob goes back to his house as Chris is coming down the stairs, her bag packed. Bob asks her what her rush is. Maybe they could talk awhile. Discuss how to split up the property (he’s clearly wanting her to stay so they can reconcile.)

Chris, however, has accepted the divorce and closed off her emotions.

Now it’s time for family friend and lawyer Hannaford to be the voice of reason. (Let’s hear it for lawyers!) He makes a plea for the two of them not to throw away what they have. He leaves telling them this is one case he won’t mind not getting.

Bob sits next to Chris on the sofa and, in a typical 1940s gesture of impending reconciliation, offers his wife a cigarette. She takes it.

Fade out.

And I thought, Nicely done. Because the film utilizes a very helpful tool of the craft—the courage to change motivator.

When a character has to go into pitched battle—physically or professionally or psychologically—he is taking a step that requires courage. We need to see what it is that helps the character overcome the natural fear that occurs when facing such a challenge.

In Bob Hunter’s case, his step is psychological. He has to be willing to put aside the blow to his male ego, admit he’s been wrong in his vindictiveness, forgive his wife, and work at saving the marriage. If he suddenly changed at the end, without any preparation for it, we’d feel a bit cheated. We need to know why he’s taking this step.

So the screenwriters (one of whom was the famous noir novelist David Goodis) gave Bob a “voice of conscience.” That was Eve Arden’s character. By giving Bob a good, old-fashioned talking-to, we are set up to accept his change of heart.

This voice of conscience needs to be someone who is credible, wise, trustworthy. In many movies—mostly from the 30s and 40s—this is a voice from the past (which is set up in Act 1). At a crucial point in Act 3, the Lead hears that voice in his head as he’s walking down the street in torment, e.g., his mothers’ voice saying, Johnny, don’t do it! Once you do it, you’ll do it again, and then you’ll be bad. Don’t break my heart, Johnny!

Then Johnny hears the voice of his parish priest (Irish accent, of course): Don’t do it, Johnny! You’ll break your poor mother’s heart!

Finally, the voice of Johnny’s brother who was gunned down by mobsters in Act 2: You’re nothing but a crumb, Johnny. That’s all you’ll ever be, you hear me? A stinkin’ lousy crumb!

Shortly after this sequence, Johnny will take the courageous step to do the right thing. And we accept it, because we know what motivated the change.

The motivation must be strong: coming from a source the Lead trusts and loves.

The motivation must be clear: there is no doubt about the source (to the Lead and to the audience).

The motivation can be a voice of conscience, or it can be invested in a physical item.

An example of the latter comes from the great Bette Davis film, Now, Voyager (1942). Davis plays Charlotte Vale, the withdrawn, unattractive daughter of a steely, upper-crust matriarch. This mother has dominated Charlotte all her life, convincing her she has nothing to offer the world.

After a nervous breakdown, Charlotte is sent to a sanitarium run by the good Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains). Charlotte reaches a point where she is ready to take a major step—going on an ocean cruise. This will require her mixing with people socially for the first time.

On the cruise she meets a man named Jerry (Paul Henreid), who is traveling alone (he is unhappily married). Jerry sees the “real” Charlotte, and the two fall in love. Ah, but they know they must part. Jerry gives Charlotte a bunch of camellias before they do.

Charlotte finally comes home to face her domineering mother. And boy, does the mother (the great character actress, Gladys Cooper) try to smash Charlotte right back to where she was before.

This is the key moment (the “mirror moment”) for Charlotte. She is thinking, can I possibly stand up to my mother? She’s too powerful! Will I go back to being the old Charlotte again?

If only there was something to give her the courage to … well, have a look:

Camellias! This emotional association is enough to give Charlotte the courage to stand up to her mother.

So …

… when you get to a point in your manuscript where your protagonist must take a major step, one that requires courage, provide a boost via a voice of conscience, or an item of emotional significance. This boost is most helpful sometime after—or simultaneously with—the mirror moment. Or during the final battle at the end of the book.

Characters exercising strength of will, to confront challenges and transform as a result. That’s what a novel is really all about.

Give them the courage to change.


Reader Friday: Advice

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” ― Dorothy Parker

What advice would you give an aspiring writer today?


Create Mystery, Not Confusion, in the Opening

by James Scott Bell

Today’s first-page critique raises an important craft issue: how much should you withhold from the reader when trying to inject mystery into the opening scene?

Mystery, one could argue, is the sine qua non of page-turning fiction. Why? Because you want the reader on the hook, desperate to know what happens next. You can’t have that without an element of mystery. And mystery involves holding back information.

Yet this requires a deft touch, especially in the opening pages. You are introducing the readers to the characters and story world. You want them to know enough to get into the scene, you want to dangle a bit of mystery, but you don’t want to overload the exposition. At the same time, you need to make sure the readers are not scratching their heads as they read along.

We’ll chat about all this on the other side of today’s anonymous first page:


January 1974
Egypt-Libya border

The blades of the search-and-rescue helicopter cut through salty air one thousand feet above the Mediterranean. The steep escarpment came into Temple’s view, sparse vegetation between ridges. His headset sputtered over the roar of the engines.

“Senator,” said the pilot, “I think that’s Lilah.”

Fingers clenched around the doorframe, Temple leaned into the wind and surveyed the scene below. Vehicles bound for Alexandria were stalled on the hilly pass by Gaddafi’s border patrol. The soldiers had separated the men from the women, holding them at gunpoint away from the caravan. Temple strained to spot the girl. “Where?” he shouted into the mouthpiece, blinking away gritty sand.

“Not with the crowd, sir. Check the port side,” the pilot said. “Look for yellow clothes.”

There. A figure running between boulders, her robes fluttering behind. Lilah was a couple of hundred feet from the group under inspection, concealing herself behind the limestone formations. She looked up at the chopper before plastering herself to the side of a rock. After weeks of reconnaissance, they’d located one of the abducted teenagers, the daughter of the late ambassador.

“She’s hiding from the border patrol,” Temple muttered. “What about the boy? There were two kids.”

“Probably with the caravan. Let me—” The pilot stopped to curse. “We have a problem, Senator.”

One of the soldiers had detached himself from his team to follow Lilah. If she got caught, there was little a single search-and-rescue chopper could do to help. Temple grabbed the AK-47. He did not have the skill to hit the target from this distance, but he could buy her some time.

“Hold position and inform the ground team,” Temple hollered.

Temple’s fingers trembled when he took aim. His stint in the army between world wars had not involved active combat. The helicopter shuddered. With a gasp, Temple tumbled back into the seat. Sweat trickled down his neck.

When he checked the terrain again, Lilah was not where she had been, but her yellow robes made her easy to spot even behind the rocks at the far border of an open space. The soldier in pursuit sprinted across the clearing, toward Lilah. Temple swore and took aim, once more.

Before he could press the trigger, there was a sudden blast on the ground. The soldier’s body disintegrated, ripped into pieces and scattered across the territory. Temple’s mouth fell open, and sounds struggled to escape.


JSB: There is much to commend here, not the least of which, of course, is that it opens with action and disturbance. In keeping with the thriller genre, we’ve got a girl in immediate danger as a rescue chopper tries to save her.

The writing is crisp and sure. I like Plastering herself to the side of a rock. I also like how details are marbled in with the action, never slowing things down.

My notes, then, are fine tuning, but with one major issue to resolve.

Let’s do the fine tuning first.

Character Name

I’d give Temple’s first name up front. I thought Temple was the first name of a woman. The next line clears that up, but unless there’s a strong reason we only know this character as Temple throughout (and I can’t think of one), give us the full name.

Dialogue Attributions 

Always place an attribution after the first complete sentence or clause. Thus:

“Not with the crowd, sir. Check the port side,” the pilot said. “Look for yellow clothes.”

Should be:

“Not with the crowd, sir,” the pilot said. “Check the port side. Look for yellow clothes.”

1 + 1 = 1/2

This is a Sol Stein rule I have found quite helpful. Stein, a legendary fiction editor and a novelist himself, held that when you use two different words or terms to describe something, the overall effect is diluted rather than strengthened. The writer should choose the most evocative descriptor and ditch the other one. This sentence threw me:

The soldier’s body disintegrated, ripped into pieces and scattered across the territory.

Something that disintegrates does not rip. The two images work against each other.

I suggest sticking with disintegrated here, and render what that would look like. I see red … but that’s as far as I am going to go before breakfast.

Also, territory implies a huge expanse of land. An exploding body would cover an area.


I appreciate the author using The pilot stopped to curse and Temple swore. We’ve had several discussions here at TKZ on this issue. See, for example, here. My view is that the scene loses nothing, and no potential readers will be turned off when they sample the book.

And now for my main issue …

I’m not a writer of military thrillers, so perhaps others can chime in (Brother Gilstrap?). But here we have a United States Senator, probably in his mid-60s, in a military chopper, firing an AK-47 (would this be the correct weapon in this context?) We’re told the senator doesn’t have great skill and that he was never in combat. So how on earth is he in this position, as opposed to trained military? Perhaps the author is withholding this information to extend a mystery. Maybe the next page gives us the whole story. Ha!

But let’s deal with what we’ve got.

My standard advice in the opening is to act first, explain later. But as with all axioms, it requires some expansion. There are times when we need a bit of exposition to clue us in, or a line of backstory to explain a situation (Note: In workshops I tell my students they can have three lines of backstory in their first ten pages, used all at once or together.)

It would not be hard to come up with an interior thought or a couple lines of dialogue to at least give us a hint of why this situation has occurred. We don’t need all of it … yet. But as is, I fear readers are likely to think the situation isn’t plausible.

Also, why aren’t the soldiers firing back at the low-flying chopper?

To sum up, this is fine thriller style and potentially a gripping opening scene. If the major issue I’ve mentioned can be cleared up—and if the weaponry and other military details are sound—we’re off to a great start.

I’m at a writers conference today and may not be able to comment as much as I’d like. So have at it, TKZers. Anything else you’d like to offer our anonymous author?


Don’t Kill Your Darlings—Give Them a Fair Trial!

by James Scott Bell

I’ve never been a big fan of the writing admonition to Kill your darlings. It’s been a virtual axiom among writers for decades. Yet it seems to me about as useful as Destroy your delight and as cold-hearted as Drown your puppies.

I mean, if something is your darling, should your first instinct be to end its life? Sounds positively psychopathic.

Isn’t a darling at least owed a fair trial?

The phrase itself has its origin in a lecture on style delivered by the English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch back in 1914. He said:

To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament … [I]f you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

At least Sir Arthur was honest enough to call it murder! But murder requires malice aforethought, and that is a terrible way to think about a darling.

Darlingicide should be outlawed, not encouraged!

Stephen King strikes the right balance. In his book On Writing King says the whole idea behind “kill your darlings” is to make sure your style is “reasonably reader-friendly.”

Which means sometimes a darling stays, sometimes it goes, and sometimes you give it a skillful edit.

It’s mostly a matter of ear, what it sounds like. It’s that thing called voice, which is (as I’ve defined it) a synergy of author, character, and craft. You can develop an instinct for the right sound. The more you practice, the better you get.

Begin by being aware of three areas where darlings tend to present themselves:

  1. Metaphors, Similes and Turns of Phrase

I love writing that creates striking word pictures. That’s why I dig Raymond Chandler over most of his contemporaries. I mean, come on, you have to love things like this:

I lit a cigarette. It tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief. (Farewell, My Lovely)

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. (Farewell, My Lovely) 

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away. (The High Window) 

Obviously, finding just the right touch for this is crucial. I use metaphors and similes in my Mike Romeo series, because it’s true to his character. But my wife (and first editor) is usually right when she says, “This is too much” or “I have no idea what this is supposed to mean.”

Then I don’t kill the darling. But I do show her the door. Much more civilized.

  1. Dialogue

There’s a fine line between memorable dialogue and dialogue that seems to be straining too hard to be memorable.

In Revision and Self-Editing I suggest “one gem per act” as a rule of thumb. A line that really shines. One that you work and re-work.

In my workshops I’ll use an example from the movie The Godfather. It’s in the scene where Michael comes to Las Vegas to tell Moe Green that the Corleone family is taking over. Moe Green is furious. He shouts, “Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Green! I made my bones when you were in high school!”

Actually, no, he doesn’t say that. That wouldn’t be all that memorable. Here’s the actual line: “Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Green! I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders!”


Perhaps this line went through a few iterations. Anything more added to it would have killed the effect. It would have been too darling.

Make sure your dialogue is true to the character who speaks it and true to the moment.

  1. Emotional Beats

Some time ago I read a scene from a manuscript by a young writer. It involved two women who are natural adversaries. The dialogue was pretty good between these two, but unfortunately it was slowed down considerably by line after line of emotional beats. Here’s an example of what I mean (I’m making this up):

“I don’t know what you mean,” Audrey said.

Sally felt the pull on her heart. Did Audrey really not know? How could she not?

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Sally said. Her hands trembled as she waited for Audrey to answer.

“Maybe you’re talking about Frank,” Audrey said.

Frank’s name on Audrey’s lips made Sally stiffen. If only Frank were really there! But she mustn’t let Audrey see any longing in her eyes.

“I think we should leave Frank out of this,” Sally said.

Audrey smirked. Oh, how Sally hated that smirk. Since they were kids, that smirk had always driven Sally crazy.

You get the idea. While writing with emotion is part of the art of the storyteller, choosing how and when is the essence of that art. Instead of allowing us to flow with the inherent conflict in the dialogue, we’re given way too much interior life here. That dilutes the overall effect. This scene ought to look more like this:

“I don’t know what you mean,” Audrey said.

“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Sally said.

“Maybe you’re talking about Frank.”

“I think we should leave Frank out of this.”

Audrey smirked. Oh, how Sally hated that smirk.

There are times when you do want to emphasize what’s going on inside a character. Times when you want to “go big” for dramatic effect. And you should. I have a suggestion for you: overwrite those emotional moments the first time around. Go for it. Come back the next day and edit it a bit. When you go over your first draft, edit some more. Get feedback from a crit partner or trusted friend on those pages.

Keep what works and trim the rest. You’ll eventually feel the right balance.

It pleases me greatly to write darlings. So I don’t immediately plot their demise. I let them sit, I look at them again, I have my wife render an opinion, and then I decide if they must go. They get a fair trial. And sometimes they are set free!

Case dismissed.

So how do you treat your darlings?


How to Fill the Gaps in Your Plot

by James Scott Bell
Got the following email the other day:

Dear Mr. Bell,

I recently finished reading your books Super Structure and Write Your Novel From the Middle. They’re awesome, and have taught me a lot about how to better structure a novel. I’ve now sketched out my current novel with the Super Structure beats and feel like I have a solid framework. But the problem I’m running into is filling the spaces between these beats with enough scenes to create a full novel. I’m using Scrivener’s index card feature to write out my scenes, but my poor corkboard looks awfully sparse. 🙂

Do you have any tips or suggestions on how to come up with enough plot to make a whole book? (This is actually a recurring problem for me. I struggle with plotting terribly.)

It’s a great question. Today’s post is my answer.

In Super Structure I describe what I call “signpost scenes.” These are the major structural beats that guarantee a strong foundation for any novel you write.

The idea is that you “drive” from one signpost to another. When you get to a signpost, you can see the next one ahead. How you get to it is up to you. You can plan how, or you can be spontaneous about it.

Or some combination in between!

Now, those who like to map their plots before they begin writing (like my correspondent) can map out all the signposts at the start. But let me give a word to the “pantsers” out there: Don’t be afraid to try some signposting yourself! Because you’ll be doing what pantsers love most–– “spontaneous creativity.” Indeed, signposting before you write will open up even more story fodder for you to play around with. That’s how structure begets story. That’s why story and structure are not at all in conflict. In fact, they are in love.

So let’s discuss those gaps between the signposts. How do you generate material to fill them?

  1. The “white hot” document

I discussed this recently in my post about chasing down ideas (under the heading “Development.”) This is a focused, free-association document. You start with one hour of fast writing, not thinking about structure at all. Think only about story and characters, and be wild and creative about it. Let the document sit, then come back to it for highlighting, new notes, and more white-hot material.

A few days of this exercise will give you a ton of story material and fresh ideas (hear that, pantsers?). Then you can decide on what’s best and where to fit it.

  1. The killer scenes exercise

One of my favorite things to do at the beginning of a project is to take a stack of 3 x 5 cards to my local coffee palace and jot down scene ideas as they come to mind. I don’t censor these ideas. I don’t think about where they might go in the overall structure.

When I have 20 or 30 cards, I shuffle them and pull out two at random, and see what this plot development this suggest. Eventually, I take the best scenes and place them between the signposts of Super Structure.

It’s also a breeze to do this in Scrivener, because that program works off an index-card style system. I create a file folder called “Potential Scenes” and put my cards in that file. The added benefit is that I can actually write part of the scene if I want to and it’s all associated with the index card.

  1. The dictionary game

I have a little pocket dictionary I carry around. When I hit a creative wall, I may open the dictionary at random and pick the first noun I see. I let my mind use that word to create whatever it wants to create, with a little nudging from me toward the actual plot.

  1. The novel journal

I got this idea from Sue Grafton, who is someday going to break out, I’m sure. She keeps a journal for each novel.

Before she starts writing in the morning, she jots a few personal thoughts in the journal––how she’s feeling that day, what’s going on around her. Then she begins talking to herself about the plot of her book. She works things out on paper (or screen).

This is a great way to talk to your writer’s mind and figure things out. Ask yourself questions about plot gaps that need to be filled or strengthened. Make lists of possibilities.

When I wrote my drafts in Word I used to create a separate document for my novel journal. Now that I draft in Scrivener, I make use of one of its nifty features: project notes.

You can float a notes panel over your Scrivener window that is dedicated to your project. Here is what that looks like (click to enlarge):

Try these techniques (you too, pantser) and you’ll be pleased at how the material piles up. Then it won’t be a matter of wondering what to write, but what to leave out!


Marketing For Writers Who Hate Marketing

by James Scott Bell

A psychology professor was lecturing his class one day, and asked the following question: “How would you diagnose a man who is standing and screaming at the top of his lungs one moment, then drops into a chair and weeps the next?”

A young man raised his hand and said, “A basketball coach.”

Welcome to March Madness everyone. One of my favorite times of the sporting year. Always a great underdog story or two. And some player stepping up his game to become a national star.

But that’s not the point of my introduction. It’s more about stress and a little something we could call Marketing Madness.

I have a number of friends who came up the “traditional” way. After working to hone their craft and going through the typical rejection cycle, they landed contracts with a publisher. They stayed productive, built up a career.

And then, as they say, stuff happened.

Like the Kindle.

Amazon introduced its industry-changing device in November of 2007. Publishers, at first, rubbed their hands in glee, for they could sell books that didn’t require printing or warehousing, but could be priced the same as a hardcover! (O, what a wake-up was awaiting them!)

No one could have foreseen what this was going to mean for writers. It’s a quaint stroll down memory lane to look at blog posts from those early years of the digital revolution. One of the first indie cheerleaders, Joe Konrath, had this to say:

At this date, May 31 2009, agents and publishers are necessary. Any author who wants to make writing their fulltime job can only support themselves by selling print books, and the agents and publishers are a crucial part of this industry.

But how about in 2012? 2015? 2025?

At this same time, however, the economy was in the tank, the long-term results of which would be fewer contracts offered to writers seeking a place inside the Forbidden City. For so-called “midlist” writers, many felt the big squeeze. Some were not offered another contract. Others saw their advances slashed.

Which meant more writers taking a serious look at self-publishing.

By 2013, your humble scrivener was mostly indie, and began to hear from traditional colleagues wondering if they ought to stick their toe in the self-pub waters. I responded, “Come on in! The water’s fine. And there’s room for everybody!”

So some took a tentative step, some dove, a few did cannonballs. And at first it was a giddy delight. But about a year-and-a-half ago I started to hear rumblings from a few of the newly selfed. Things like:

Marketing is taking up too much of my time!

I wish I could just write!

I don’t know what works to get the word out!

I keep trying things, and I’m frustrated!

I can’t possibly do what [the latest indie superstar marketer] does!

Writing isn’t fun anymore …

That’s when I decided write about book marketing––what works, what doesn’t, what needs to be done, what can be largely ignored. The result is Marketing For Writers Who Hate Marketing: The No-Stress Way to Sell Books Without Losing Your Mind.

I wasn’t interested in writing yet another tome listing every marketing idea available to mankind. Rather, this book has two primary concerns:

  1. To relieve writers of the worry that they’re not doing enough.
  1. To show writers how to prioritize the few tasks that do the most good, so they can spend the bulk of their time doing what they love most––writing!

Yes, we all have to do some marketing––be ye indie, traditional, or a mix. Publishers want you out there on social media, but how much is enough? Even more to the point, how much is too much? When does a flurry of marketing activity begin to negatively affect the most important thing of all––your writing?

This book is my answer. The chapters are:

  • What, You Worry?
  • The Single Most Important Marketing Tool
  • The First Impression
  • Cover Copy That Sizzles and Sells
  • The Crucial Opening Pages
  • What Price Is Right?
  • Productivity and Links
  • The Care and Feeding of an Email List
  • Your Website and Amazon Author Page
  • Your Book Launch
  • Short Writing as a Marketing Tool
  • Live Networking
  • Things That Suck Time
  • Things That Cost Money
  • Platform Paranoia
  • Social Media Madness
  • If You Want to Go Further

Here is where you can find the ebook:






If you prefer print::


 With the time crunch we all feel, it’s more important than ever to assess our available activities via ROI (Return on Investment). Another was to put it is the venerable Pareto Principle (often called the 80/20 Rule), which counsels focusing on the 20% of actions that make a real difference, and avoid expending too much energy (“the law of diminishing returns”) on the 80% that don’t add enough value.

That observation alone should help you sleep better if marketing your books is causing you too much stress. March Madness, good. Marketing Madness, not.

What are your feelings toward marketing? Does it worry you? Frustrate you? Is it something you bear with quiet patience … or with a primal scream?