About James Scott Bell

International Thriller Writers Award winner, #1 bestselling author of THRILLERS and BOOKS ON WRITING. Become a Patron!

On Being Your Own Genius

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Magnus Carlsen

Recently I watched a profile of the World Chess Champion, 29-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. He has a brain that can only be described as…singular. His is a Summit; most of us are operating with Kaypros. His noggin can run complex calculations in seconds at the same time we’re trying to remember to carry the 1 on a scratch pad. 

For example: it’s common for chess Grandmasters to play several amateurs simultaneously, going from board to board and making moves. This Carlsen kid—get this—played ten opponents this way, only he did it with his back to the boards! That means he couldn’t look at them. Someone called out the move so-and-so made on Board #1, and Carlsen then called out what his next move was. And so on down the line. 

He had to “see” ten different boards in his mind and calculate all the moves for each game. We have trouble remembering what color shirt we put on this morning. 

I was really into chess my first year of college. That was the summer of Bobby Fischer, who became the first—and still only—”rock star” American chess player. He was about to take on the Soviet world champ, Boris Spassky. The Soviets dominated chess. Between 1949 and 1972, every single world champion was a product of the Soviet chess system. In the USSR, gifted kids were nurtured by the state, coached and trained by chess masters for optimum performance. The best of these would go on to world tournaments, with a team of coaches who prepared them by poring over the games of opponents and working out strategies.

Bobby Fischer had none of this. He just got into chess as a kid and set aside everything (including an education) to give himself completely to the game. A full-on prodigy, Fischer attained Grandmaster status at age 15, the youngest in history (to that point). He also played, at age 13, what most experts dubbed “The Game of the Century” (with a brilliant Queen sacrifice, Fischer beat one of the strongest American players of the time, Robert Byrne.)

Bobby Fischer, 1960

Now he was poised to take on the Soviets single handed. And America jumped on board. Fischer was on the cover of Time and Life. He was profiled on 60 Minutes and interviewed on a plethora of talk shows. Fischer had one of those singular brains, too, which he used to win the World Championship. Unfortunately, that same brain became increasingly paranoid, and Fischer never again played big-time chess. 

But Fischer-mania got me into chess my Freshman year. My dad taught me the game when I was a kid and I knew the rudiments. Now I started studying books and chess magazines. I took lessons and played as many games as I could. I even won my dorm chess tournament. But once I got to playing in the upper levels, I realized, as Dirty Harry once put it, my limitations. 

What I knew was that I could study and study and play and play and give up all social relations for ten years…and I would never get close to having the gray matter of a Fischer, a Karpov, a Kasparov … let alone a Magnus Carlsen!

Did that mean I gave up chess? By no means! I continued to enjoy the game. When I was starting my acting career I was in a production of Hamlet and struck up a friendship with another cast member who also liked chess. We were at the same level, too, which makes the game much more enjoyable than playing a guy who can crush you in ten moves. I recall great pleasure that summer playing chess with Abraham at his place, with cool jazz in the background and a cold beer at the elbow. Games would take a leisurely two hours or more, which seems unheard of today in our manic-paced world.

To bring this around to writing, I know there are authors out there with more natural talent for language and storytelling than I. But should that stop me from playing the game? From studying the craft and enjoying what I do? 

When I play chess, I don’t have to be like Carlsen, because I can’t be. But I can certainly try out some opening moves I’ve studied and see where they lead. I know that doing this will make me a better player on my own terms.

With writing, I can also try things out, strive to be better. I may not attract the attention of the Nobel Prize committee, but I can grow my readership book by book. (Which reminds me that you can still pre-order my thriller, LONG LOST, at the special ebook deal price of 99¢!)

So be your own genius. Compare yourself not to others but to you. Look at where you were and where you are. Make a plan to be better tomorrow. Then you can truly enjoy what you write, because getting better is its own reward. 

So what person of mental prowess or natural talent do you admire? 

Do you ever find that you’re comparing yourself to others? What do you do about that? 

17+

Deep Backstory

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Back in 1988, on the day I decided I had to become a writer, I laid out a plan. I would read books on the craft, even though I’d been told several times that you can’t learn to write by reading writing books (which I soon discovered was a crock). I also went to my favorite used bookstore, the marvelous A & M Booksellers in Canoga Park (sadly, they had to close up shop when the 2008 recession hit; happily they still do business online). This wonderland had a large, revolving inventory of popular paperbacks. On this day I bought an armload of books by Grisham, King, and Koontz. I wanted to read them systematically to try and figure out what they did that was so good.

It was a superb education.

One thing I noticed with Mr. King was something I didn’t have a name for. It just seemed to me that his characters were so … real. He gave them lives that were vivid and detailed. And that, more than anything else (in my estimation) is what has made King so immensely popular. He weds an imaginative plot with characters you can almost touch. I believe he, like Dickens, will be remembered as much for his characterizations as his twisty-turny storylines. 

As was my wont in those days, I wrote a note about that in my ever-expanding document about technique. Eventually I called it “deep backstory.”

I was reminded about this the other day when I read one of his short stories, “The Things They Left Behind,” which is included in his collection Just After Sunset. It’s a moving story about a man with survivor guilt because he “played hooky” from his job at an insurance company in the Twin Towers on 9/11. Of course, several of his friends and co-workers died.

One day the narrator, Scott Staley, returns to his locked apartment and finds a pair of distinctive sunglasses with red frames on a table (they had not been there when he left). But wait…sunglasses like these had belonged to Sonja D’Amico, a colleague of his who died on 9/11. Also, leaning on a wall, is a baseball bat. But not just any bat. It’s a bat that another dead co-worker, insurance adjuster Cleve Farrell, had at his desk. Farrell had used a hot iron to burn CLAIMS ADJUSTOR into the wood. 

How could these items possibly be here? That, of course, is a King-ish story question. And in another writer’s hands it might have become a mere puzzle. But King weaves in backstory magic that brings the characters marvelously to life.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

I felt that way, too. Yes indeed. Because those sunglasses had to be gone—long-time gone, as the Dixie Chicks say. Ditto Cleve Farrell’s Claims Adjustor. (“Besbol been bery-bery good to mee,” Cleave would sometimes say, waving the bat over his head as he sat at his desk. “In-SHOO-rance been bery-bery bad.”)

King likes to reference popular culture in his stories (e.g., Dixie Chicks), which some writing teachers warn against. Bosh, I say. Even if someone reading the story years hence has never heard of the Dixie Chicks, it sounds real and truthful. 

But look especially at the parenthetical bit. Those of us old enough to remember the early years of Saturday Night Live will recognize the words of Chico Esquela, a Dominican baseball player created by cast member Garrett Morris. We’re talking late 70s now. But even if a reader of King’s story in 2020 has no idea who Morris-as-Chico was, the material still works. It sounds unique and lifelike, something a middle-class insurance adjustor might have said when horsing around. 

Later, Scott hears ghostly voices in conversation:

Sometimes they talked about the picnic at Jones Beach—the coconut odor of suntan lotion and Lou Bega singing “Mambo No. 5” over and over from Misha Bryzinski’s boom box. Or they talked about Frisbees sailing under the sky while dogs chased them. Sometimes they discussed children puddling along the wet sand with the seats of their shorts and their bathing suits sagging. Mothers in swimsuits ordered from the Lands’ End catalogue walking beside them with white gloop on their noses. How many of the kids that day had lost a guardian Mom or a Frisbee-throwing Dad? Man, that was a math problem I didn’t want to do. But the voices I heard in my apartment did want to do it. They did it over and over.

I find that paragraph brilliant. The sense of smell and sound and sight. And the specificity of detail. Not just music, but Lou Bega singing “Mambo No. 5”; not just swimsuits, but swimsuits ordered from the Lands’ End catalogue. 

Now, Mr. King is a well-known pantser. His approach, as explicated in his book On Writing, is: The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—comes next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate.

So all of that good, deep backstory comes out of King as he writes. That explains things like that parenthetical, above. He thought of a character with a bat, then his imagination went into overdrive to personalize it … it was a baseball bat … a voice from the memory chamber echoed in King’s mind: “Besbol been bery-bery good to mee.” Wait. That was Chico Esquela, right? Yeah, and that’s something unique this character might have said. 

The character was coming to life before his eyes during the writing. But there’s no reason you can’t do this discovery before you write. In my book, Writing Unforgettable Characters, I recommend creating a “voice journal” for each character:

This is a free-form document where I just let the character talk to me. I might prompt him with questions, as if I’m doing an interview. “Tell me about your home growing up.” Or “What’s your philosophy of life?”

What I want is for the character to begin talking to me in a voice that is not mine. I’ll keep up this free-form writing until that voice emerges. And though I’m doing this mainly for the sound of the voice, I also end up with background material the character shares with me.

So either way, be ye plotter or pantser, allow your writer’s mind some wild time to dream up deep backstory. Write down a lot of it, then choose the best parts to weave into the narrative. Like the marbling in a rib-eye steak, this will add marvelous flavor to your story.

20+

The Terrible Task of Weeding Out Books

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks.” — Dr. Seuss

And when the books come falling down, I hope they find you ere you drown.” — Dr. JSB

It had to happen sooner or later. And now it’s later. I can’t put it off any longer. It’s time to disgorge a significant number of the books that stuff all the spaces in every room in my house—except, of course, the bathrooms, wherein the reading material is imported singulatim.

Like you all, I’m a book lover. How can anyone not be and become a writer? I don’t think that’s possible. With books I purchase, my practice has always been to read them and keep them. I’ve always loved being surrounded by books. Right now in my office all four walls have shelves stuffed with reading matter—literary kudzu.

But I know that someday I will be moving from my abode. So as much as it hurts, I need to make a significant dent in my stacks. I’m trying to be systematic. 

First off, I know I’m keeping some series and not others. I’ll keep Connelly, Chandler, Parker, MacDonald, Spillane. But I’m finally ditching Ross Macdonald. I’ve read all his books because Anthony Boucher tagged him as the best of the PI writers. He has a great following among critics. But I never connected with him or his PI, Lew Archer. And I simply don’t have time to try again.

I have a shelf of hardcovers autographed by the authors. I’ll keep those. Ditto my collectibles. I have some oldies that are probably worth something. I’ll let my kids figure that out someday via ebay. 

Another stratagem: I’m reading first chapters at random. If it grabs me, I’ll keep that book (if I think I might read it again). If not, it goes in the giveaway box. Here are some books that have survived:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
At All Costs by John Gilstrap
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
The Human Comedy by William Saroyan
Final Seconds by John Lutz and David August
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
361 by Donald Westlake
White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Sometimes the writing might be fine, but something else will come up that causes me to pitch the book. An overabundance of F and S words, for example. Or something that doesn’t seem plausible. Ed McBain’s legal thriller Mary, Mary didn’t make the cut for just that reason. I was hooked by the first page. The narrator, lawyer Matthew Hope, is interviewing a potential client accused of murder. But then he states, [I]t was my policy never to defend anyone I thought was guilty.

Ack! No criminal defense lawyer ever says that, because he’d never have any clients. The defense lawyer’s job is to make sure the cops haven’t overstepped their constitutional bounds, and hold the prosecution to its burden of proof. So nix to this book and the others in the Matthew Hope series. 

What am I looking for in that first chapter? We talk about that a lot here at TKZ. I want a grabber hook or a grabber voice—having both is a bonus. An example of a grabber hook is the opening of Harlan Coben’s Promise Me:

The missing girl—there had been unceasing news reports, always flashing to that achingly ordinary school portrait of the vanished teen, you know the one, with the rainbow-swirl background, the girl’s hair too straight, her smile too self-conscious, then a quick cut to the worried parents on the front lawn, microphones surrounding them, Mom silently tearful, Dad reading a statement with quivering lip—that girl, that missing girl had just walked past Edna Skylar.

For grabber voice, here’s the opening of High Five by Janet Evanovich:

When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. On the outside, she’d look like the perfect lady. Tasteful plastic heels, tailored suit. But underneath, she was naked. I’m a bail enforcement agent now—also known as a fugitive apprehension agent, also known as a bounty hunter. I bring ’em back dead or alive. At least I try. And being a bail enforcement agent is a little like being bare-bottom Barbie. It’s about having a secret. And it’s about wearing a lot of bravado on the outside when you’re really operating without underpants. 

Nonfiction is much harder for me to cull. I read nonfiction for specific information that interests me, and I make heavy use of the highlighter. When I’m finished I keep the book because I think maybe I’ll need that information again sometime. And hasn’t this happened to you: The moment I give a book away, or let someone borrow it, not a week goes by before I need something from that very book!

So I don’t know what to do about my NF. I know I’ll never give away my writing craft books. I have several shelves of these, and they are an archaeological record of my writing journey. I often refer to them for refreshers. 

I’m heavily stocked with biography, history, philosophy, theology, reference. Alas, I can’t see myself parting with many of these. I have a full set of the 1947 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (handed down from my grandfather, who sold them door-to-door during the Depression). I keep this because the articles in it are often so much better and more authoritative than what you find online these days. Also, in a special bookcase, is my Great Books of the Western World set, complete with the incredible achievement that is the Syntopicon. That’s obviously staying put. 

Which makes all this slow going! I have a feeling it’s going to take years to gain any significant space. I’m sure I’ll have to revisit my criteria down the line and get tougher on myself. 

“A room without books,” wrote Cicero, “is like a body without a soul.” I’m right with you there, Cic. But now what?

Do you have any advice for this melancholy bibliophile?

10+

Giving an Old Book New Life

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Gather round the ol’ cracker barrel, children. Let me tell you a story of long ago, when the only place you could get books was a bookstore. Yes! It’s really true! 

Now, a bookstore was a wondrous place. It was a building made of bricks and mortar, and it had shelves filled with books you could touch, take down and look at—right there in the store!

In this land the only way a writer could get a book into those stores was by entering into a contract with a publishing company and ceding the rights to his work. 

Those were perilous times, children. A time of heady highs and dismal lows. There was the excitement of that first novel showing up on a shelf in a Barnes & Noble. Sure, it was only a copy or two, and only the spine showed. But you were there! Along with John Grisham, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz!

Well, sort of. Those guys took up a lot of shelf real estate with their backlist titles. You, the new kid on the block, were going to have to prove your commercial worth over a period of years before you got that attention. After all, the bookstores were in business to make a profit. Every month thousands of books swept into the stores for their debut. Most of these were swept right out again on the tide of the next month’s releases. If yours was one of them, you kept your hopes of making a buck or two alive by working on your next project.

Until your publisher decided, well, it doesn’t look like you’re making enough money for us to keep you around. Sorry, it was a nice try, and good luck to you.

Your books became, in the jargon, OOP—out of print. If you had low sales numbers it was unlikely another publisher, unless it was dinky, would offer you another contract.

You would be out in the cold, and your books, your precious babies, were still under the control of the company that dropped you.

Hopefully, you and your agent negotiated a fair Out-of-Print clause which would enable you to request your rights back. 

But then what? Again, it was highly unlikely that another company would reprint books that didn’t do so well the first time. Your backlist was essentially a ghost town.

Then into this land came a wizard named Bezos. With one wave of his magic wand he changed the game forever. Now there was a way for a writer to make some dough without a big publishing company, physical bookstores, or sales reps! How could such a wonderful thing be?

But it was.

Many a midlist writer began seeking rights reversions so they could make their “dead” titles available again. Even more, they could control pricing and promotions. They could give their titles the attention they had long been denied. And do so in the world’s largest bookstore! Once again, right alongside Grisham, King, and Koontz.

Huzzah!

And “Huzzah” is exactly what I am saying as I bring back to life one of my books from the “old days.” In doing so, I have given it a light edit, a new cover and title, but in all other respects left it true to its time and place. I am happy to announce the pre-publication of Long Lost (formerly published as The Whole Truth). 

At the age of five, Steve Conroy saw his seven-year-old brother kidnapped from the bedroom they shared. His brother was never found. And the guilt of his silence that night has all but destroyed Steve’s life.

Now thirty years old with a failing law practice, Steve agrees to represent a convicted criminal, Johnny LaSalle, who has ties to a notorious family—and some information that threatens to blow Steve’s world apart. 

Desperate for his final shot at professional success, Steve will do anything to find the truth. But Johnny knows far more than he’s telling, and the secrets he keeps have deadly consequences. Now Steve must depend on an inexperienced law student whose faith seems to be his last chance at redemption from a corrupt world where one wrong move may be his last. 

I’m doing something Crazy Eddie-ish with this book. When I was living in New York in the 70s there was an electronics store called Crazy Eddie. It hired a fast-talking disc jockey named Jerry Carroll, who did something like 7500 commercials for them, with a rat-a-tat riff that ended with the tagline: “His prices are IN-SANE!” Have a look:

All that to say, my pre-pub deal price is IN-SANE! Only 99¢. For an 87,000 word novel. Why? Simply because I want my supportive readers to have it for a song (I can’t sing, so this is the nearest I’ll get). After launch I’ll price it at a sane $4.99. But you can  reserve your copy at the deal price by going to:

Amazon

Amazon Canada

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

(A print version will follow shortly.)

And just so you know, it got some excellent trade reviews upon release. If I may:

“James Scott Bell takes this intriguing what-if concept and weaves it into yet another page-turning, redemptive thriller.” — 
TitleTrakk.com

“
This gritty tale will have readers cheering for Steve as he desperately tries to put the pieces of his life back together. The scenes and characters jump off the page to create a startling, emotionally stirring story. Deliciously suspenseful.
” — Romantic Times

The novel begins, They put Robert in Stevie’s room when Stevie started having night terrors.

It ends with said.

Thanks for listening. And help yourself to the crackers.

11+

Write Awesomely

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

JSB, Grand Canyon

In last week’s post I mentioned I would be driving all day, and that was quite true. Mrs. B and I needed to get out, get away, do something different. Cindy suggested we motor to the Grand Canyon, just to spend a day looking at something big, majestic, unsullied and quiet.

Turns out my wife’s instinct was right on the money. Scientific research suggests that several benefits flow from the experience of awe—“from happiness and health to perhaps more unexpected benefits such as generosity, humility, and critical thinking.”

In The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Florence Williams emphasizes the need to get away from anthrophone. This refers to the soundscapes created by things like cities, cars, planes, machines, lawn mowers, sirens, neighbors with a teenager who is taking up the drums, and such like. The thing is, that noise goes into our brains and triggers our “fight or flight” receptors. Over time this can create chronic stress, a very real danger to our collective health and well-being.

On the other hand, natural sounds like a gentle breeze, flowing water, and singing birds are interpreted by our brains as relaxing and rejuvenating. In this state we are more creative and less hostile toward other human beings (hmmm…maybe people should only be allowed to tweet when in a forest).

Photo by JSB

The Grand Canyon is something to behold. If you’ve never been there, put it on your bucket list. Plan to spend at least four hours just looking at it. You can drive to various viewpoints, or take a shuttle bus tour, a helicopter flight, or even ride a mule for an overnight stay at the bottom. We opted for the viewpoints.

Grand Canyon = Awesome. Good for the soul.

Writing awesomely = Good for the reader.

What does it mean to write awesomely? At the very least, it means giving your readers more than a by-the-numbers story. Help them feel something beyond numbers. Tap into the inspirational. After all, that’s what the great myths were for. A hero overcomes tremendous odds so that we, the audience, might exhibit the same courage on our own journey through life.

Heracles kills the Hydra. He does so with a mixture of courage, strength and thought. Since cutting off one of the Hydra’s heads means two more heads replace it, Heracles has his nephew, Iolas, put a torch to each cut to cauterize it. And thus he dispatches the monster. Hey, maybe you can do the same when it seems your bills are like Hydra’s heads.

Or maybe you face a seemingly insoluble problem. If you approach it wisely, like Theseus in the Labyrinth, you can kill your personal Minotaur and find a way back to the world.

In our modern storytelling, we have mythic heroes of various stripes teaching us valuable lessons. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) in Now, Voyager, shows us that inner strength and beauty can be developed even under the worst of circumstances. Atticus Finch teaches us that sometimes a losing battle is morally imperative. Heck, even Dirty Harry Callahan shows us that sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to save the innocent—especially a busload of children in the grip of a mad killer. Do you believe that? “Well do ya, punk?”

Driving home with Elixir in the trunk.

So one of the ways to be awesome is to be intentional about the meaning of your story. In my book, The Last Fifty Pages, I talk about the idea of a “life lesson learned.” My friend Chris Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey, calls this the “Return With the Elixir.” It’s what takes a story from tale to myth, from entertainment to exaltation. Why not go for it, every time out?

To prepare, take a little time each day to get away from the anthrophone. There are abundant apps and sites with nature sights and sounds. A fifteen-minute break every now and then seems almost a health mandate these days. So get quiet, forget about Twitter, and maybe the boys in the basement will mix you some elixir.

What is awesome to you? What natural sites have lifted your soul? 

What works of fiction have elevated you, given you a takeaway that is more than entertainment?

13+

Reader Friday: Best Part of Your Writing Day

Jack Dann (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“Give the best part of every day to yourself. Get up early and write if you can. Once you’ve put words to paper, you’ve conquered the day. Then you can put bread on the table and beer in the icebox.” — Jack Dann

Do you have a best time to write? Are you able to get there consistently?

7+

Your Reading Habits

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I was an early adopter of the Kindle. Like everyone else, I was amazed that I could have, say, the complete works of Charles Dickens—for 99¢ yet!—sitting inside this little device. And I could keep adding books to it, many of which came via deals in the Amazon store. Why else would I have downloaded Cybill Shepherd’s autobiography if it hadn’t been free?

The Kindle was my constant companion when I traveled by plane. In those early years it was a great conversation starter. People in adjoining seats would say things like, “Is that one of them Kandles?” I would happily expound on the volume and cost of my electronic library.

The Kindle has evolved, of course, and now comes in several styles and sizes, including a tablet. The coolest, and therefore most expensive, model is the Oasis. I’ve been toying with buying this for over a year…but then noticed something. I’ve been spending more and more of my reading time with the following:

1. The Kindle app on my phone. I rarely use my old Kindle now because the phone is always with me and I can easily access my library that way. The downside is I’m not reading e-ink, and therefore can’t read in sunlight. But I don’t do that much reading outside anyway. When I read on my phone I make sure I have my blue-light filter on and the screen a bit dimmer than normal, so my peepers don’t get overtaxed.

2. Audio books. Great for the treadmill or a long drive. The way I get most of these titles is via the Libby app on my phone.

3. Actual, honest-to-goodness physical books, with paper pages and everything! This has been the most surprising development for me. When I first got the Kindle I thought that’s how I—and everybody else—would be reading books from now on. But I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of holding a physical book in a comfortable chair. And so have younger readers. Millennials, for example, overwhelmingly prefer print books, and make healthy use of the local library. Imagine that.

So…how do you do most of your reading on these days? Do you use a dedicated e-reader (e.g., Kindle, Nook, Kobo)? A reading app on your phone? Or do you still like to crack open a physical book?

How much of your reading time is with audio books?

Are you mostly a book buyer or book borrower?

I am going to be on the road—literally, driving a car on a long strip of asphalt—most of the day. So please, talk amongst yourselves! I will try to check in later.

12+

Should a Fiction Writer Use a Thesaurus?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Dr. Peter Mark Roget

In college my roommates and I used to play a game with a dictionary. We cleverly called it “The Dictionary Game.” It was played with a big dictionary and scraps of paper. When it was your turn you’d look through the dictionary until you came across a word no one was familiar with. You wrote down the correct definition. The other players made up fake definitions that sounded right. The object was to fool as many people in the game as you could. You got a point if you guessed the correct definition. You got a point if somebody guessed your fake definition. The person who chose the word would get a point for every wrong guess.

I learned some cool words this way. The one that has stayed with me for over forty years is borborygmus. It means a “rumbling in the bowels caused by gas.”

This still cracks me up. It’s an onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like the thing it describes (although onomatopoeia itself is definitely not an onomatopoeia). And it makes for a great insult: You borborygmic swine! That’ll stop a bad guy in his tracks!

Which brings me to the subject of word choices. We have them. We have a whole passel of them (passel: a large number or amount). We even have a resource dedicated to word choices—the thesaurus (brainchild of Dr. Peter Mark Roget [1779 – 1869], a British physician and lexicographer).

Which invites (not begs) the question: should a fiction writer use a thesaurus? Mr. Stephen King has an oft-quoted opinion on this matter, as expressed in “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully—in Ten Minutes.” This article appears in the 1989 edition of The Writer’s Handbook, which I just happen to have on my shelf (you can also find King’s essay here).

You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Well now! What are we to think … I mean, what are we to surmise, suppose, conjecture, conclude, and determine about Mr. King’s rule?

Some might call it bunk (balderdash, bosh, codswallop, twaddle). But the context of this quote comes under the heading: Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft. King wants you to get that story down, in flow. So much so that he has advice on another form of flow:

When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else but go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.

Ahem.

Anyway, I mostly agree with King. When you’re first setting down your tale, you should do so as expeditiously (swiftly, rapidly, efficiently) as possible. Don’t stop and go looking for a ten-dollar word when a buck or a fiver will do the job.

But I will offer a wee (used in the sense of little) exception. When King wrote his piece we were only in the beginnings of the personal computer age. At the time, King was using a dedicated word processor—a big (huge, bulky, Brobdingnagian) machine that did only one thing: saved your typing on floppy disks. Thesauruses (Thesauri?) were bound, paper books. It would take you precious flow-minutes to look up a word.

Now, of course, we all have personal computers with a Dictionary/Thesaurus app. I use mine most often to find a synonym for something mundane, like walk. Sure, a character can walk into a room. That doesn’t do much for the reader. So I open my computer thesaurus and in five seconds find: stroll, saunter, amble, trudge, plod, dawdle, hike, tramp, tromp, slog, stomp, trek, march, stride, sashay, glide, troop, limp, stumble, and lurch.

Recently, I was working on my NIP (novella in progress). I was writing a scene with a drug kingpin and his pet monkey. The monkey keeps shrieking. But I didn’t want to use that same word over and over. So I popped open the thesaurus and immediately found: scream, screech, squeal, squawk, roar, howl, shout, yelp. Just what I needed. I used five of them.

The alternative to using the thesaurus in this manner is that you sit at the keyboard for several minutes trying to come up with alternatives. But in this case “the hunt”— to use Mr. King’s term (expression, phrase, idiom, locution) — is faster and more efficient with a thesaurus app.

Is there another exception to Mr. King’s rule? I think so. I like to lightly edit my previous day’s work before jumping back into the first draft. When I do this I’ll sometimes find a spot where I wish to apply Mark Twain’s dictum: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” A minute or two here pays off in stylistic coin that will please your readers.

So I’m not ready to discard (jettison, scrap, chuck, dump, dish) my thesaurus.

What about you?

13+