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How to Move From One Scene to the Next

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Terry’s helpful post on transitions got me thinking (always a dangerous thing). So today I’d like to add a few nuggets of my own.

Simply put, transitions are what take you from one scene or POV to another, or ahead in time within the same scene. Here’s an example of a location transition:

     John stormed out of the apartment. If the big man wanted a showdown, he was going to get it.
     Putting pedal to the metal, John tore across town, ignoring stop signs and pedestrians and at least one cop.
     Entering the office, John heard the receptionist say, “Good morning.”
     “Whatever,” John said.

We have moved from John’s apartment to his office—change of location.

Now an example of time transition:

     “You want to know why you’re being let go?” Stevenson said.
     “Yeah,” John said. “Fill me in.”
     “Sit down, and cool off. I’ve got some things to tell you.”
John plopped in a chair.
     “I want to tell you about my dad, and how he started this firm,” Stevenson said. “I need to start when I was a kid.”
     Half an hour later, John was ready to jump out the window. Stevenson hadn’t stopped talking the whole time.

We don’t get the entire Stevenson speech. Unless it’s crucial to the plot, we don’t need it. Time transitions are easy. Just add one line to let us know we’ve moved ahead within the same scene.

Now let’s look a little more closely at location transitions. I’m not talking about chapter breaks here, but moving to another setting within a chapter. When you do change locations, you can stay with the same viewpoint character, or shift to another POV. But you have to let the reader know what’s going on in the most efficient way possible.

There are three techniques:

  1. Narrative Summary

As the term suggests, you can get from one location to the next by summarizing the transitional stuff (rather than showing each beat). Unless plot or character material is necessary, just get us to the new location with as little muss as possible. This is the narrative summary from in the first example in this post, above:

Putting pedal to the metal, John tore across town, ignoring stop signs and pedestrians and at least one cop.

We aren’t shown the drive. That would involve description, action, perhaps John’s internal thoughts as he drove. But if none of that has any value to the story, don’t put it in. Use narrative summary to get us to the new scene toot sweet.

The pulp writers were especially adept at this. Here’s how Talmage Powell (1920-2000) did it in his Black Mask story “Her Dagger Before Me.”

     “All right,” I said. “I’ll do what I can to help you. This is murder. Contrary to what the public thinks, private dicks don’t like to get mixed in murder. If we have to wade through murder the cost is high.”
     “I know,” Phyllis Darnell said. “I’ll pay.”
     “I’m not worrying. After all, I’ll have the letters, won’t I?”
     I ushered her out, showered, and went over to Mac’s garage, where my coupe had been laid up with a ring job.

  1. White Space

Another way to move is by putting in a space break, like this:

     John stormed out of the apartment. If the big man wanted a showdown, he was going to get it.

 

    Entering the office, John heard the the receptionist say, “Good morning.”
    “Whatever,” John said.

White space is also how you switch between POV characters within the same chapter. Just be sure to identify the new viewpoint character in the first line:

     John stormed out of the apartment. If the big man wanted a showdown, he was going to get it.

 

    Gil Stevenson stuck his head out his office door. “Has Stone come in yet?”
    “No, Mr. Stevenson,” Peggy said.
    “Well, get him in here the moment he arrives!” He slammed the door and took a deep breath. This was not going to be one of his better days.

  1. Just Be There

Last week I wrote about the Bill Lennox stories by W. T. Ballard. For fun I re-read the first one, “A Little Different,” published in Black Mask in 1933. In one scene Lennox is in a cab being followed by a dirty PI. He gives the cabbie a fin ($5) to lose him.

     The driver grinned and turned sharply onto Vine, right on Sunset, left at Highland, crashing a signal. Finally, at the corner of Arlington and Pico, he pulled to the curb. “Where to?”
     Lennox said, “Take me to Melrose and Van Ness.” The driver shrugged and turned towards Western.
     Lennox got out at the corner and walked to the apartment house.

What happened between the driver turning towards Western and Lennox getting out? Driving, maybe some talk, arriving, pulling to the curb, etc. We don’t need any of that. Here’s a little secret: the reader fills in that stuff subconsciously and thus the pace doesn’t slow one bit.

And speaking of pace, how you handle transitions is a major way to control it.

The above examples keep the pace crisp. But suppose you want to slow things down a bit, give the reader a breather, and stick in some deepening of character? Just use the transition to add internal thoughts or, if you’re brave enough, a flashback.

Internal thoughts

     Putting pedal to the metal, John tore down the street. He saw a cop ahead and slowed. One thing he didn’t need was a ticket. One thing he did need was a drink. Maybe a quick stop at Barney’s would help. Sure. A little liquid courage never hurt.
     Of course it hurts, you dope. You know how you get. Two shots of Bushmills and you’re ready to give Mike Tyson his comeback bout.

Flashback

     Putting pedal to the metal, John tore down the street. He saw a cop ahead and slowed. One thing he didn’t need was a ticket. He stopped at the red light like an A+ driving student.
     Which he’d once been, in high school. That was before the accident. He and Tom Barker were out one night, John driving his dad’s Porsche. Tom wanted In-N-Out. John wanted Boone’s Farm Apple Wine.
     “We’ll get some guy to buy it for us,” John said. “Then we’ll go stuff your face.”

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) the skillful handling of transitions, and using variety in the technique, is a way to subtly enhance the fictive dream for the reader. And dreamers buy books.

Now let us transition into comments.

***

 

Tomorrow is release day for Romeo’s Stand, the fifth Mike Romeo thriller (the books can be read in any order). If you want to jump on the pre-publication deal price, click here!

13+

Why I’m Writing 40s Style Pulp

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Bill Armbrewster, Hollywood Troubleshooter (Illustration by Josh Kenfield)

In the comments to last Tuesday’s post, Kris asked me about the series of pulp-style stories I’m doing for my Patreon community. It doesn’t take much prompting to get a writer to talk about his work, now does it? So here I go.

My parents were friends with one of the most prolific pulp writers of his day, W. T. Ballard (who also had several pseudonyms). I was too young to realize how cool that was. I wish I’d been aware enough to ask him some intelligent questions about writing! (I’ve blogged about Ballard before.) Fortunately, I was the recipient of many of his paperback books and a collection of his stories for Black Mask about a Hollywood troubleshooter named Bill Lennox. Lennox was like a PI, but did his work for a studio. I thought that was a nice departure from pure detective.

So I decided to create a troubleshooter of my own. The first thing I did was write up a backstory for him:

WILLIAM “WILD BILL” ARMBREWSTER was born in 1899 in Cleveland, Ohio. He grew up on a farm and had a troubled relationship with his father, which led to Armbrewster dropping out of high school and riding the rails as a hobo. He was nabbed by yard bulls in Chicago in 1917 and given a choice: go to jail or join the Marines. He chose the Marines and saw action in France during World War I, most notably at the Battle of Belleau Wood, for which he won the Silver Star. After the war he took up residence in Los Angeles and drove a delivery van for the Broadway Department Store. At night he worked on stories for the pulp magazines, gathering a trunk full of rejection letters.

In 1923 a chance meeting with Dashiell Hammett in a Hollywood haberdashery led to a lifelong friendship between the two. Hammett asked to see one of Armbrewster’s stories, liked it, and personally recommended it to George W. Sutton, editor of Black Mask. The story, for which Armbrewster received $15, was “Murder in the Yard.” After that Armbrewster became a staple of the pulps and was never out print again. Between 1923 and 1940 he averaged a million words a year.

In 1941, after the outbreak of World War II, Armbrewster tried to re-enlist but was turned down due to his age. Instead he went to work for National-Consolidated Pictures, writing short films to inspire the troops. When one of the studio’s young stars was the victim of blackmail, Armbrewster tracked down the perpetrator and dragged him to the Hollywood Police Station. Morton Milder, head of the studio, immediately put Armbrewster on retainer as a troubleshooter.

Known as the man with the red-hot typewriter, Armbrewster wrote many of his stories at a corner table at Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood. He was granted this favor by the owners, for reasons that remain mysterious to this day (some Armbrewster scholars believe he rescued the daughter of one of the owners from a sexual assault under the 3d Street bridge).

He Lives at the Alto-Nido apartment building, 1851 N. Ivar Avenue, Hollywood.

What is it that I love about pulp writing? Part of it is what Kris called “the streamlined locomotive style.” These stories move. There’s no time for fluff or meandering. Pulp stories were entertainments for people who needed some good old-fashioned escapism from time to time. (That hasn’t change, has it?)

There was also a nobility to the best pulp characters. They had a professional code. Even the most cynical of the lot, Sam Spade, throws over the woman he loves because, “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.”

I have set my Armbrewster stories in post-war Los Angeles. What a noir town it was then, full of sunlight and shadow, dreamers and drifters, cops and conmen. And, of course, Hollywood.

I’ve now done four Armbrewster stories (which run between 7k-10k words). The fifth is due to be published soon. They aren’t published anywhere but on Patreon, so if you’d like read them you can jump aboard my fiction train for just a couple of berries ($2 in pulp lingo). Go here to find out more.

And thank you, Kris, for asking.

Is there a particular style of writing you warm to? What books or authors do you turn to for pure escapism?

11+

How to Characterize

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

 

“Nice to meet you. I’m beautiful and talented and caring. But enough about me.”

 

 

Some years ago I decided to see what all the hubbub was about a bestselling romance writer. It’s not my usual genre, but I like to read outside the thriller realm to pick things up other authors do well in their own bailiwick.

So I went to the library and picked one of this author’s titles off the shelf, at random. I sat down and opened to the first chapter.

I don’t have the specifics now (I’ve since forgotten the title!) but it opens with the main character in her car. The second paragraph went something like this: She was beautiful, talented, and caring. She was a hard worker, and earned every bit of her success… 

It went on in the same vein for a few more lines. And I found myself thinking, “Really? You expect me to believe this?”

You know why. It’s pure telling. How would we feel if we met someone for the first time at a party, and the person said, “Nice to meet you. I’m beautiful and talented and caring. But enough about me.” It’s only a short jump from that to an author telling us the same thing about a characters.

So let’s go over the two ways to characterize that won’t put up a subconscious barrier in the reader.

  1. Show us through action

Instead of telling us that Mary cares about people, show her bringing a meal to a grieving friend. Or stopping her car to comfort a crying child. Or letting a little old lady go ahead of her at the pharmacist’s.

Or, start with a character who doesn’t care about people. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca sticks his neck out for nobody. The first time we see him he’s playing chess—by himself. A bit later in Act 1, the police come to take away Ugarte (Peter Lorre) who begs Rick to help him. Rick refuses, even knowing Ugarte will now face a firing squad.

And by the way, a character’s own dialogue is a form of action. So earlier when Ugarte is sitting with Rick and asks, “You despise me, don’t you?” Rick responds, “If I gave you any thought I probably would.”

And as dialogue is a form of action, inner thoughts are a form of dialogue (just not so that anyone can hear it).  In a novel Rick could think If I gave you any thought I probably would, and not say anything out loud.

So determine what you want readers to know and feel about your character. Brainstorm possible actions and dialogue that will show us these things, and salt them in early in your novel—because first impressions count.

  1. Let other characters do the talking

In the first of my Mike Romeo books, Romeo’s Rules, I wanted the readers to know that Romeo is a big guy who can handle himself in a fight. Since these books are in First Person POV, I couldn’t very well have Mike say, “I’m a big, strong guy. I can handle myself in a fight.” That’s braggadocio, and we don’t like braggarts in real life, do we?

So on the opening page I have him jogging, stopping to talk to an older woman about her flowers (Mike is into flora). At one point the woman says, “You don’t look like a flower man.”

“What do I look like?”

“Football player, maybe?”

I shook my head.

“Then what exactly do you do with all those muscles?”

“Are you flirting with me, Nell?”

She pushed her hat back slightly. “If I was thirty years younger, I’d rip your T-shirt right off.”

You do the same thing in Open Third Person POV (where you switch between POV characters). Dean Koontz does this in The Door to December. The first three chapters are from Laura McCaffrey’s POV. She is a doctor—a psychiatrist—whose ex-husband absconded with their daughter six years ago. Now the police are taking her to a home with multiple murder victims and lots of blood. The detective there, Dan Haldane, has summoned her because one of the bodies might be her ex. He also needs her to see something (Koontz, the rascal, keeps us in suspense as to what that is).

Then we get Chapter Four, which is from Haldane’s POV. Koontz uses this opportunity to further characterize Laura:

Dan Haldane was surprised at how well the woman was coping with the situation. Okay, she was a doctor, but most physicians weren’t accustomed to wading through blood; at the scene of multiple, violent homicides, doctors could clutch up and lose control as easily as any ordinary citizen. It wasn’t just Laura McCaffrey’s medical training that was carrying her through this; she also had an unusual inner strength, a toughness and resilience that Dan admired—that he found intriguing and appealing. Her daughter was missing and might be hurt, might even be dead, but until she to the answers to important questions about Melanie, she wasn’t, by God, going to break down or be weak in any way. He liked her.

So don’t let me catch you, dear author, trying to slip in some instant characterization by telling me something. Let’s see it demonstrated on the page, or hear about it from other characters.

Make sense?

11+

Public Speaking for Writers

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Mark Twain

On occasion here at TKZ we’ve posted on the topic of public speaking for writers. Examples are here (Gilstrap) and here (Burke). Today I’ll add a few of my own tips for the scribe who gets a yakking gig. The first comes by way of Mr. Mark Twain.

Before his books and stories began to appear, Twain gained celebrity as a lecturer. Working as a correspondent for the Sacramento Union newspaper, he’d sent in dispatches on what were then called The Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). These proved wildly popular. When he returned stateside in 1866, he pondered how he might use this bit of renown to expand his wallet.

One possibility was delivering a lecture based on his columns. Encouraged by a friend, Twain rented a San Francisco opera house and charged $1 a ticket. He wrote up an advertisement for the newspapers:

MAGUIRE’S ACADEMY OF MUSIC
PINE STREET, NEAR MONTGOMERY

MARK TWAIN

(HONOLULU CORRESPONDENT OF THE SACRAMENTO UNION)
WILL DELIVER A LECTURE ON THE SANDWICH ISLANDS

AT THE ACADEMY OF MUSIC
ON TUESDAY EVENING, OCT. 2d

In which passing mention will be made of Harris, Bishop Staley, the
American missionaries, etc., and the customs and characteristics
of the natives duly discussed and described. The great volcano of
Kilauea will also receive proper attention.

A SPLENDID ORCHESTRA
is in town, but has not been engaged

MAGNIFICENT FIREWORKS
were in contemplation for this occasion, but the idea has been abandoned

A GRAND TORCHLIGHT PROCESSION
may be expected; in fact, the public are privileged to expect whatever they please

Dress Circle, $1.00 Family Circle, 50c
Doors open at 7 o’clock The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock

Twain was nervous that evening, sure he’d be facing a mostly empty house. In fact, the place was packed. But when he first stepped out into the lights he was sandbagged by stage fright. He was, as one biographer put it, “wobbly-kneed and dry of tongue.” As the introductory applause died down, he told himself, “These are my friends.” His nerves began to calm. He spoke to the audience as if he were seated with pals around a cracker barrel in some old mining town.

The lecture was a hit.

Afterward, and older man found his way to Twain and asked, “Be them your natural tones of eloquence?”

Which is my first bit of advice for a speaker: Be yourself. Use your natural tones of eloquence. Don’t sound like a speechifier. Speak as you would to a group of friends.

Second bit of advice: Your address should have one main point. I wrote some time ago about my ride with Justice Thurgood Marshall, who told me the best oral arguments in the Supreme Court were designed around winning one, primary point.

Knowing the single point you want to make will take care of 50% of your nervousness. Write down that point in a sentence. For example: Anyone can improve as a public speaker if they will follow a few fundamentals.

Then design your speech to “prove” that point and inspire your audience to take action.

How do you prove a point? With evidence. In a speech, anecdotal evidence is best, because it’s a story, and stories make lectures come alive. In a speech about the above point, I might bring Mark Twain in again as “evidence” for the fundamental “Always leave them wanting more.”

In a 1901 lecture Twain reported:

“Some years ago in Hartford we all went to the church on a hot, sweltering night, to hear the annual report of Mr. Hawley, a city missionary, who went around finding the people who needed help and didn’t want to ask for it. He told of the life in the cellars where poverty resided, he gave instances of the heroism and devotion of the poor … Well, Hawley worked me up to a great state. I couldn’t wait for him to get through. I had four hundred dollars in my pocket. I wanted to give that and borrow more to give. You could see greenbacks in every eye. But he didn’t pass the plate, and it grew hotter and we grew sleepier. My enthusiasm went down, down, down – $100 at a time, till finally when the plate came round I stole ten cents out of it.”

Third tip: If you can get a laugh, it always helps. The easiest way to get a laugh is with a good anecdote, like the above. That way it doesn’t seem like you are trying to tell a joke, which can sometimes fail. Pepper your speech with a few choice quotes, too.

Fourth tip: Take off your name badge when you speak. It’s distracting.

Fifth tip: Don’t mangle the opening. The audience sizes you up within the first seven seconds. So don’t waste time with impromptu thanks (“Thanks, Fiona, for that lovely introduction”) or currying favor (“It’s so nice to be here tonight”) or, egad, confession (“I’m a little nervous, so I hope you’ll forgive me.”)

Instead, when you get to the podium, pause for three seconds. Then launch with one of the following:

Quote

“It was Mark Twain who said, ‘It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.’ ”

Statistic

“Eighty-three percent of Americans fear public speaking more than they do death. According to Jerry Seinfeld, that means if they go to a funeral they’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

Story

Arriving at a small town to give a lecture, Mark Twain went to a local barber for a shave. When Twain mentioned it was his first visit to the town, the barber said it was a good time to be there, because Mark Twain was going to give a lecture that night.

“You’ll want to go, I suppose,” the barber said.

“I guess so,” said Twain.

“Well, it’s sold out,” the barber said. “You’ll have to stand.”

“Just my luck,” Twain said. “I always have to stand when that fellow lectures.”

Where do you find such material? Research, of course, which is rather easy these days via the internet. But I’ll mention one favorite resource I’ve used for years—The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes.

And now, lest you be tempted to remove a dime from the collection plate, I’ll stop.

You’ve all heard some great speeches. What have you noticed about them, and the speaker?

12+

My Last Pre-Pandemic Novel

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Ventura, CA, May 24, 2020

It was oh so nice to be out on the beach last weekend with my wife and daughter, strolling the shoreline, listening to the waves, taking in lots of fresh ocean air. We were in our favorite beach community, Ventura, and everybody was in a good mood—including law enforcement. Our first encounter as we walked toward the water was with a deputy sheriff on a dune buggy. She said, “How you all doing?” I raised my hands in a victory gesture. “I feel the same way!” she replied.

There were kids and babies and hipsters and oldsters. Everyone was respectful of distance, and smiles and nods were plentiful (face coverings outdoors are not mandated in Ventura County). Still, there were restrictions. No sitting on blankets, no lollygagging on dry sand.

Which leads one to wonder what form the post-pandemic society will take. That thought is ever on my mind as I hereby announce my last pre-pandemic novel.*

My fifth Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Stand, is now up for pre-publication purchase at the deal price of $2.99. If this is your first foray into Romeo territory, know that you can read the books in any order, so now’s as good a time as any to jump in.

Yes, this is the last time I write a contemporary setting without reflecting the beliefs and practices that will emerge after lockdowns cease. Some weeks ago I wrote about how fiction will change in the coming years. This is especially true in my town, Los Angeles. Our heads are spinning out here over new rules and regs regarding churches and beaches and dining inside once again. (I’ve really missed Musso & Frank Grill, a Los Angeles institution since 1919, and a favorite spot of famous movie stars and L.A. writers ever since. Ditto Langer’s Deli and their #19, the best hot pastrami sandwich in the world—which includes New York—since 1947).

I can’t imagine a contemporary American novel published in 1946 or ’47 that didn’t even mention things like returning GIs and the post-war economy. We don’t have to make post-pandemia the centerpiece of our novels, but our scenes, to be authentic, will have to include little details like the waitstaff at a restaurant wearing masks and gloves…and perhaps mannequins made up to look like customers! Distancing rules will be enforced at large gatherings, at least for the foreseeable future (speaking of which, I miss a packed Hollywood Bowl and Dodger Stadium).

So what about this latest Romeo, published in the midst of our herky-jerky re-emergence? Your clever author has taken care of that with this opening:

We were an hour from Las Vegas when the plane began to shake.

It was a few weeks before the word pandemic became ubiquitous on our collective lips and America closed up shop with a massive case of the heebie-jeebies. The people on the plane were blithely breathing each other’s air and coughing into their fists. The tourists and players in Vegas were bumping shoulders and sharing dice at the craps tables, unaware that their favorite playground would soon be as empty as a politician’s promise.

We move on to an emergency landing in the desert, a small town with secrets and a nasty sheriff. Then things turn ugly. Which is the wrong way to turn things on Mike Romeo.

You can pre-order the Kindle ebook here. (I sometimes get emails from sad Nook and Kobo readers, and remind them that they can download a free Kindle app for their phone or tablet.) A print version will soon follow.

*However, I reserve the right to write historical fiction—perhaps adding to my Kit Shannon series. I may even try something speculative. One thing I’ve found during this lockdown is that, for short and flash fiction at least, my inner Ray Bradbury/Rod Serling keeps wanting to come out and play. One of the formative books on my writerly journey was The Illustrated Man, which I read in junior high school. And one of my favorite TV shows growing up was The Twilight Zone.

[Rod Serling voice] “Picture if you will a writer, confined to his hovel and wondering what to write next. In a moment he will decide to try something unlike anything he’s written before. But when he submits the book he won’t be hearing from an editor. He’ll be getting a long and detailed message directly from … The Twilight Zone.”

So let’s make this the question for today: Have you thought about writing in a different genre? If so, which one?

12+

The Dangers of Detail Derailment

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Okay, kids, we have a first page to discuss. Let’s read it and chat on the other side.

Shadow of Xiom-Thogg

Barbarians clashed on the road to Heliopolis. Three were stout, blue-bearded Sherdens, one of the tribes of sea-folk that sailed forth to harry faltering Egypt. They wielded long, leaf-bladed swords and were protected by horned helmets and bronze-banded corselets, augmented by round shields emblazoned with bulls heads.  One of their number already lay dying, a spear tangled in his guts. She who cast that spear was as alien to the land of the Pharaohs as the Sherden, though she came by a longer and more circuitous route. A green-eyed giantess, pale of flesh and tawny-haired, standing a good head taller than her sea-faring opponents. She was incongruously clad in the manner of a Persian soldier, with a bronze-scaled cuirass over a linen tunic and trousers thrust into soft leather boots. Like a lioness cornered by jackals she battled her tormentors, lashing out from behind a tall wicker shield with a sagaris, the deadly battle-axe of the Persians.

A Sherden made a bold thrust, seeking her vitals, but his blade transfixed the wicker shield instead, narrowly missing the woman’s sinewy forearm. She twisted to one side, tangling the sword in the wreckage of the shield. Unwilling to release his weapon, he was upended and tumbled to the ground. She let the ruined shield fall with the hapless swordsman, and his comrade, seeing an opening, lunged recklessly in an attempt to decapitate the tawny-haired she-devil. Moving with preternatural speed she sidestepped his powerful blow. As the momentum from the spent attack sent him stumbling past her, she brought down the axe, shearing through his horned helmet and splitting his skull in a welter of blood and brains. He fell, sprawling in the dust that thirstily sucked up his flowing blood.  

***

JSB: Ah, nothing like blood and brains to get us going this fine Sunday. Let me say some good things up front. I like this writer’s imagination. There is a vivid “other world” here, and the potential is bubbling in the pot.

In some ways it reminds of the great Robert E. Howard, and the many stories he did for Weird Tales back in the 30s. He could build a world and clash the swords unlike anyone before or since. This author has similar raw material; we just have to chisel it so it makes for gripping fiction.

First off, a tip about readability these days. No one likes big, blocky text. This entry is made up of two Brobdingnagian paragraphs. A browser opening up this book might take a look at the page and think, “Why bother?”

True, readers of epic fantasy are perhaps more tolerant of blocky graphs. But not all, so why turn off a significant percentage of readers when it’s so unnecessary? No one is going to complain that your first page isn’t hard enough to read. So break up the blocks! This page could easily be four to eight paragraphs. (Which reminds me of when Yogi Berra was asked if he’d like his pizza cut into four or eight slices: “Better make it four,” he said. “I don’t think I can eat eight.”)

Now to the heart of it. World building in any kind of speculative genre is a crucial part of the program. But the trick is to do it without overlarding us with details. Our brains (those that aren’t split by an axe, that is) cannot adequately process or appreciate too many unique details coming at us in a rat-a-tat fashion. We will either have to slow down and re-read, which ruins the flow; or we’ll set the book aside, which ruins the chances of selling the next book in the series.

In the first paragraph alone, I count at least sixteen unique details, all demanding to be a picture in my head, and two stopping me cold and sending me to the dictionary (cuirass, sagaris):

  • stout, blue-bearded
  • long, leaf-bladed swords
  • horned helmets
  • bronze-banded corselets
  • round shields
  • bulls heads
  • green-eyed
  • pale of flesh
  • tawny-haired
  • bronze-scaled
  • cuirass
  • linen tunic
  • trousers
  • soft leather boots
  • tall wicker shield
  • sagaris

The point is there’s an exciting fight going on, but my head is swimming with all these details. There are just too many.

So how many should there be? Ah, there’s the skill part of the equation. The answer is: just enough.

Thanks for stopping by.

Okay, let’s put it another way. Don’t let details derail the action. You, author, will have to develop a sense about this. It may be that you’ll require outside eyes to look at your pages: beta readers who are familiar with the genre, crit partners, perhaps a freelance editor.

What you want is an action scene with essential details. Pick a few that best set the stage and flow them in naturally with the action. In fact, that may be a good rule of thumb (though many writers bristle at rules, and use their thumbs primarily on the space bar): allow yourself only 2 – 5 unique details per page in the opening chapter. Everything else should be action.

One more crucial craft point will help you in this quest: pick a point of view! This passage is in Omniscient, which tempts the author to put in all the things they see in their imaginary world.

If, on the other hand, you filtered this action through the POV of a character, you would naturally become more selective in the detail work; plus, readers will be more fully engaged because it is through character that readers bond with the material. A twofer!

Right now you’ve got three Sherdens and one “she-devil.” We have no way of knowing who, if any of these, will be a main character. Maybe this is a prologue and no one here will end up being the MC.

No matter. You still should choose one of these characters to be the viewpoint. When you do that, the action of the scene will automatically take precedence over the details. And that’s what we’re after. [Note: Third Person POV is usually the better choice, but even in Omniscient POV you can select a viewpoint character. See the excerpt below.]

For laughs I looked up a Robert E. Howard story from the January 1934 edition of Weird Tales. Here’s the opening paragraph from “Rogues in the House,” a tale featuring our favorite barbarian, Conan:

At a court festival, Nabonidus, the Red Priest, who was the real ruler of the city, touched Murilo, the young aristocrat, courteously on the arm. Murilo turned to met the priest’s enigmatic gaze, and to wonder at the hidden meaning therein. No words passed between them, but Nabonidus bowed and handed Murilo a small gold cask. The young nobleman, knowing the Nabonidus did nothing without reason, excused himself at the first opportunity and returned hastily to his chamber. There he opened the cask and found within a human ear, which he recognized by a peculiar scar upon it. He broke into a profuse sweat, and was no longer in doubt about the meaning in the Red Priest’s glance.

Notice that we start with action and two named characters. How many unique details does Howard give us? One: small gold cask. No derailment here. We are caught up in the mysterious exchange (an ear? Really?) and what it could possibly mean. Nothing distracts us from the action, which is a hallmark any Howard story.

Thus, my advice:

  1. pick a viewpoint character
  2. give him a name (or her, if it turns out to be the she-devil)
  3. rewrite these 288 words using only 2-5 unique details
  4. with the action established, use 2-5 details per page until the scene ends
  5. from that point forward be strategic in your use of details. Utilize what you need for world building, but never let the details get so thick they interrupt the flow of the story

Others may have some advice, too, so let’s hear it. Help our anonymous writer out.

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Thrillers Bring the Light

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

 As if things weren’t bad enough.

We’re struggling through this national shutdown and all the dire consequences thereof, and along comes exactly what we don’t need: The murder hornet!

Yes, this unsightly wasp with its ugly orange head and relatively large body mass, has arrived on our shores intent on killing innocent little honey bees and, indeed, the occasional human.

But just when we think we are in the midst of a Stephen King nightmare, along comes a hero, a savior, a defender of all that is good and decent and pure: the praying mantis!

How appropriate that the vanquisher of a grotesque insect villain should turn out to be an insect of another sort—one that humbly supplicates to the Creator before chomping the brains of its adversary.

That’s entomological justice!

Which is what mystery, suspense, and thrillers are all about. They take us through the valley of the shadow of death, toward the light on the other side.

At least, the best ones do.

That’s been the secret of the popularity of this kind of fiction since it took off in the nineteenth century. Most scholars agree that the modern mystery story can be traced to Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). Here is the invention of the sleuth who, through the powers of observation and deduction, solves a seemingly inexplicable crime.

Which offers hope to a population that must believe, “Crime doesn’t pay.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took it to the next level with the invention of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes endures, even today, not simply because of his brainpower, but because of his eccentricities. He’s entertaining as well as brilliant. He’s flawed, too, just like us. But again we see the hope that deduction brings—justice will be done.

Back here in America we took the simple mystery and transformed it through the hardboiled school of the pulps. The quintessential detective hero of this type issued from the typewriter of Dashiell Hammett: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1930). This hero is not refined or dainty or a tea drinker. He is tough, cynical, sometimes brutal. But in the end he still gets justice. The mystery of the black bird is solved, but more importantly each of the nefarious characters Spade has dealt with get their comeuppance, including the femme fatale Spade has fallen in love with, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Spade “sends her over” because, after all, she killed his partner. Spade tries to explain it to her: “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.”

Underneath his contradictions, Sam Spade is still guided by a moral code.

In the detective pantheon, Spade was followed by Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Marlowe, like Spade, is tough and cynical (but a lot more fun to listen to) and has a code based on honor. Indeed, in Chandler’s world, Marlowe is something of knight errant in a fedora. Chandler made this plain in his 1944 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” Here is the famous passage:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and; a good enough man for any world.

As Professor David Schmid puts it in his course on mystery and suspense fiction:

Chandler’s essay helps us understand that hard-boiled mysteries appeal to the reader both because of their unvarnished, realistic cynicism and also because their private-eye protagonists embody an alternative to that cynicism, an oasis of personal responsibility and integrity in a world that is sorely in need of both.

The world is always in need of the heroic vision. The best thriller, mystery, and suspense novels offer that to us. No matter how mean the streets, or dark the night, justice, even if rough, somehow prevails through the strength and courage of the hero.

Yes, there is a type of novel that begins and ends in the darkness—noir. For example, the world of Jim Thompson (e.g., The Killer Inside Me; Savage Night) is not your grandmother’s cozy little village. Yet even as his grifters and psychopaths meet their ends, there is a rough noir-justice being doled out. While it isn’t a hero who “solves” things, there is a price to pay for the criminal choices made.This type of novel provides what Aristotle called catharsis. We see the consequences of an immoral life and thus are instructed not to go there. Thus, even dark noir can have a candlelight’s flame of moral illumination.

All this to say that the lasting popularity of mystery, suspense, and thrillers is based primarily on a hero bringing us justice, re-enforcing our belief that good will prevail and that light will shine again. As Dr. Schmid says at the end of his course:

Although experimental examples of mystery and suspense fiction may be well respected as aesthetic objects, they aren’t popular with wide audiences. In the final analysis, it seems that we can tolerate only so much experimentation and frustration. Perhaps the ultimate secret to great mystery and suspense fiction is that, in one way or another, it satisfies a deep-seated desire we all have for the world around us to make sense.

Isn’t that why you continue to read this kind of fiction? In a world that increasingly isn’t making sense, don’t we need these books more than ever?

 

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How Much Research is Enough?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

My research tells me it’s Mother’s Day. So: Happy Mother’s Day! As Casey Stengel used to say, “You could look it up.”

But before the internet, it was rather easy for a writer to “fake it” when it came to research. That’s because a) there wasn’t an easy way for a reader to find, instantly, whether a detail was correct or not; and b) there wasn’t any social media or customer reviews for blowback. Thus, an author could get away with a bit of sloppiness—if that’s the kind of writer he wanted to be.

I have a friend who is an accomplished historical fiction writer. He worked his tail off on a series that came out in the early 90s. His research was impeccable. While his series sold okay, another historical fiction writer was enjoying much greater success with his series which (to put it mildly) was rather deficient in the research arena. Indeed, I read one of the books in preparation for my own historical series. This author’s book took place in 1904, but after a couple of chapters I had to put it down, because he had a thriving silent movie industry happening in Hollywood.

One problem: Hollywood did not become a popular movie location until around 1910, and certainly wasn’t hopping until the teens.

These days, you couldn’t get away with such a mistake. But would you want to?

Some significant fakery occurs in the classic film, Casablanca. One of the screenwriters, Julius Epstein, once admitted:

There never were Letters of Transit. Germans never wore uniforms in Casablanca, that was part of the Vichy agreement. But we didn’t know what was going on in Casablanca. We didn’t even know where Casablanca was!

But Letters of Transit sounds real. Which is, of course, the key to fakery!

In the 1960s Lawrence Block wrote a paperback series about a world-roaming secret agent named Tanner. When he got the galleys for one of the books he saw an odd term in the text: tobbo shop. What? He checked his own manuscript and saw that he had written tobacco shop. The typesetter had made a mistake. But Block sat back and mused that tobbo shop had a realistic ring to it and besides, how many readers would have been to Bangkok? (I believe he even got some letters from readers who had been there, and did remember those “quaint tobbo shops.”)

Harlan Coben issues a warning about research:

“I think it’s actually a negative for writers sometimes when they’re writing contemporary novels to know too much. First of all, doing research is more fun than writing, so you start getting into the research and you forget to tell your story. And, second, which is on a very parallel track … sometimes you learn all kinds of cute factoids you think are so interesting that you include them in the book, but you weigh the story down. I try not to do that.”

One method I’ve used when writing hot (and not wanting to stop) and I get to a spot where I know I’ll need research, I’ll put in a placeholder (***) and keep writing. I’ll make my best guess about how the scene should go, then do any additions or corrections later.

On the other hand, when writing historical fiction, which demands detail precision, I have to do a lot of research up front. For my series about a young woman lawyer in turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, I spent many, many hours in the downtown L.A. library, poring over microfilm of the newspapers of the day. I have two huge binders full of this research, and I’m really proud of the results. But man, it’s hard work (am I right, Clare?)

But it’s worth it. When the first book came out almost twenty years ago it sold great and got uniformly positive reviews, several mentioning the historical accuracy. I did, however, get a physical letter (remember those?) from the curator of a telephone museum! He said he enjoyed the book, but there was one little detail about my lead, Kit Shannon, using a wall telephone, that I got wrong. The one guy in the United States who would have noticed this happened to read my book!

Naturally, it was not plausible to dump all the books in the warehouse to change that teeny, tiny thing. And who else was going to notice? But it rankled me, nonetheless.

When I got the rights back to the series, that was the only thing I wanted to change. All those years later I was still mad about it! Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the letter from the museum guy. I decided to try to find him online. Instead I found another museum and emailed somebody there, explaining the detail. In return, I got a nice email back telling me there was a model of telephone that operated exactly like I had it. It would have been used only by very wealthy people.

Which is how it was in my book. Kit lives with her wealthy great aunt in the posh section of town known as Angeleno Heights.

I’d been right all along! How about them apples? (Yes, I’ve been wrong before. It was in October of 1993. I thought the Phillies would win the World Series.)

Today, there are areas in your fiction that you’d better get right or you’ll hear about it, boy howdy. Perhaps the biggest of these is weapons. If you have your hero cocking the hammer of his Glock, expect a flood of abuse letting you know that a Glock has no hammer. (And if Gilstrap reads your book, duck, because he’ll be throwing it at you.) If you have your hero shoving another clip into his Beretta, you’ll have an irate horde telling you to shove … never mind, just note that a clip is not a magazine.

If you’re not accurate about a place, you’ll hear from people who live there. This is partly why I base most of my books in my hometown of Los Angeles. I grew up here. I know it. That it also happens to be the greatest crime-noir city is a bonus.

But sometimes I want to venture forth. In some instances, to save me from a cumbersome research trip, I simply make up a town and slap it down somewhere. If people want to take the time to look it up and find out it doesn’t exist, they’ll know I made it up and accept it. Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton set their series in Santa Teresa, a stand-in for Santa Barbara that allowed them plenty of leeway to make up locations within. No one’s complaining.

So I’ll throw it open. What’s your philosophy on research? Do you follow rabbit trails that can be an excuse to not write? Do you like to do as much….or as little… as possible? Do you, when the spirit moves, “fake it”? 

***

 

Reminder: My latest stand-alone thriller, LAST CALL, is still available at the launch price of 99¢. Because I want you to have it. Enjoy!

11+

Your Imagination Needs Regular Play Time

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Children are not meant to be cooped up. They need sunlight and play and jungle gyms and interaction with other kids. They need dirt and sticks (that are really swords, you see), so their bodies can begin to develop the immunities they need for a healthy life.

In the same way, a writer’s imagination needs to get out and play and mess around. It needs to occasionally skin a knee or fall out of a tree. Risk is part of life. It’s also integral to growing as a writer.

I was thinking about this the other day in yet another lockdown moment that usually begins with the thought When in the Sam Hill is this going to end? I pondered the many writers who have expressed, via blog or social media, that they are struggling with their WIPs, or with getting started on a new project, or even with the desire to type another sentence.

This creative ennui, if it goes on too long, can atrophy the imagination. Your imagination will, if allowed, kick back on an old sofa in your brain, eating Funyuns and watching episodes of Gilligan’s Island on an endless loop.

Then, when you finally do call on it to get to work, it may belch and tell you just what you can do with your WIP.

Don’t let that happen.

Especially when, due to circumstances beyond your control, you’ve lost the cheer and the joy of writing. You can overcome this by giving your imagination some daily play time. Just ten minutes a day will make all the difference.

So let me give you three exercises for your creativity muscles. In the comments, feel free to add suggestions of your own.

  1. Morning Bites

In the introduction to his collection of short stories, Ray Bradbury writes, “But, you see, my stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg — I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.”

In the first groggy moments of wakefulness, pay attention to what’s going on in your mind. It will most likely have no discernable pattern. That’s okay. Get your first cup of coffee and before you do anything else (e.g., email, Facebook) take a couple of minutes to write down whatever it is you see happening in your mind. Just the act of writing and following those bites gets the imagination chugging away.

It’s very close to what Julia Cameron describes as “morning pages” in her book, The Artist’s Way.

Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages–they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.

As a fiction writer, keep watching your morning words for story ideas or suggestions for your WIP. Ask your imagination to be intentional about it.

  1. Flash Fiction

One step up from Morning Bites is Flash Fiction. That’s a story under 1,000 words. It is the ultimate pantser’s paradise, for you get an idea and start writing and go wherever you please. Will you end up with a story that works? Probably not. You’ll most likely be painted into a corner or lost in a dark forest.

But that’s okay! The benefit of flash fiction is that it’s a workout for your story muscles, and they’ll grow stronger even if the story itself doesn’t pan out.

Every now and then, of course, you will come up with something solid, and that will bring you tremendous joy.

Heck, there are even places you can submit your flash fiction. You could publish it yourself on your blog. Or you could make it part of an alternative market for your work, as I’ve done with my Patreon page.

Where do you get flash fiction ideas? If your sodden imagination doesn’t have one (it’s been on the sofa, remember?) hop over to the Writer Igniter and get one.

  1. Creative Lifting

You lift weights to strengthen your body. To do it right, you alternate the exercises—curls for the biceps, bench press for the chest and shoulders, squats for the glutes and hamstrings, and so on.

So how about strengthening your style by lifting fiction from great writers? And by lifting I mean copying. The idea is not to try to imitate these masters, but to “feel” what they do, ingest their palette of literary colors so you can expand your own.

One of the great stylists of all time was Ray Bradbury. You simply can’t go wrong copying a page from his work. Here’s a clip from Dandelion Wine that I typed out:

Douglas Spaulding, twelve, freshly wakened, let summer idle him on its early-morning stream. Lying in his third-story cupola bedroom, he felt the tall power it gave him, riding high in the June wind, the grandest tower in town. At night, when the trees washed together, he flashed his gaze like a beacon from this lighthouse in all directions over swarming seas of elm and oak and maple. Now . . .

“Boy,” whispered Douglas.

A whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day. Like the goddess Siva in the travel books, he saw his hands jump everywhere, pluck sour apples, peaches, and midnight plums. He would be clothed in trees and bushes and rivers. He would freeze, gladly, in the hoarfrosted icehouse door. He would bake, happily, with ten thousand chickens, in Grandma’s kitchen.

Love it.

Don’t limit yourself to one author or genre, or even to fiction. Indeed, the finest opening of any book I’ve ever read is in William Manchester’s The Last Lion. Here it is as I copied it:

The French had collapsed. The Dutch had been overwhelmed. The Belgians had surrendered. The British army, trapped, fought and fell back toward the Channel ports, converging on a little fishing village whose name was then spelled Dunkerque.

Behind them lay the sea.

It was England’s greatest crisis since the Norman conquest, vaster than those precipitated by Philip II’s Spanish Armada, Louis the XIV’s triumphant armies, or Napoleon’s invasion barges. This time Britain stood alone. If the Germans crossed the Channel and established uncontested beachheads, all would be lost, for it is a peculiarity of England’s island that its southern region is indefensible against disciplined troops. . . .

Now the 220,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain’s only hope, seemed doomed. On the Flanders beaches they stood around like souls in purgatory, awaiting disposition. There appeared to be no way to bring more than a handful of them home. The Royal Navy’s vessels were inadequate. King George VI had been told they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for “hard and heavy tidings.”

Then, from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure craft, smacks and coasters, the island ferry Gracie Fields; Tom Sopwith’s America’s cup challenger Endeavor; even the London fire brigade’s fire-float Massey Shaw–all of them manned by civilian volunteers: English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s exhausted and bleeding sons.

Even today what followed seems miraculous. Not only were Britain’s soldiers delivered; so were French support troops: a total of 338,000 men.

But wars are not won by fleeing from the enemy. And British morale was still unequal to the imminent challenge. These were the same people who, less than a year earlier, had rejoiced in the fake peace brought by the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich. Most of their leaders and most of the press remained afraid. It had been over a thousand years since Alfred the Great had made himself and his countrymen one and sent them into battle transformed. Now in this new crisis, confronted by the mightiest conqueror Europe had ever known, England looked for another Alfred, a figure cast in a mold which, by the time of the Dunkirk deliverance, seemed to have been forever lost.

England’s new leader, were he to prevail, would have to stand for everything England’s civilized Establishment had rejected. They viewed Adolf Hitler as the product of complex social and political forces. Their successor would have to be a passionate Manichean who saw the world as a medieval struggle to the death between the powers of good and the powers of evil, who held that individuals are responsible for their actions and that the German dictator was, therefore, wicked.

An embodiment of fading Victorian standards was wanted: a tribune for honor, loyalty, duty and the supreme virtue of action. One who would never compromise with iniquity, who could create a sublime mood and thus give men heroic visions of what they were and what they might become….He would have to be a leader of intuitive genius, a believer in the supremacy of his people and his national destiny, an artist who knew how to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and refract it to his ends, a man of inflexible resolution who could impose his will and his imagination on his people—a believer in military glory was required, one who could rally a nation to brave the coming German fury.

Such a man, if he existed, would be England’s last chance.

In London there was such a man.

Now…go play.

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