About James Scott Bell

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Timeless Writing Advice

by James Scott Bell

Louisa Parr (1848 – 1903), via Wikipedia

I’m a fan of Gutenberg.org, which comes out with digitized versions of public domain works every day. I get their alerts, and the other day was interested to see On The Art of Writing Fiction, published in 1894.

It’s a series of chapters written by various authors, one of whom was Louisa Parr, an English novelist of some repute. I found her advice rather contemporary. Here is some of it:

To start, then, we will suppose that you are the possessor of a story which for some time has dwelt in your mind, and has taken such a hold of you, that you are engrossed with the plot and the actors in it. These creatures of your brain become so familiar to you, that they stand out in your imagination like real persons. You give them names, you invest them with qualities, you decree that they shall be happy or miserable, and, having sealed their fate, you are seized with the desire to make others acquainted with them.

Here Mrs. Parr advises the writer not sit down to write a novel until “possessed” of the potential story. That means both plot and characters, to the extent that you are “seized” by the desire to bring both alive on the page. I think she’s on to something. Unless and until you are “possessed” or “seized” by the story possibilities, you’re not going to bring anything original or vital to the page.

For some of us, setting out to write without a plan often leads to that state of possession—and should, if we’re to keep on going. For others, myself included, a time of brainstorming and writing a “white hot” document gets us to that place faster. It may also tell us we’re not ready to start that novel (without writing 20k words first).

Too frequently the young writer is not content to set down what is to be said with the straightforward simplicity that would be used if this story had to be told vivâ voce. There is a desire to explain, to digress, to elaborate. It is thought necessary to tell the reader that this person is very clever and witty, that that one is stupid and odious, much in the same way that a child draws some strange creature, under which it writes, “this is a cow—this is a horse.” We smile at its being necessary to inform us of what we ought to see for ourselves. Yet it is the same in fiction—the dramatis personæ of your tale should themselves discover to us their idiosyncrasies, and by their actions and conversation reveal to the reader their dispositions and characters.

This is great and modern advice, such as we dispense on TKZ frequently in our first-page critiques. It’s warning against the dreaded info dump. Better to “act first, explain later.”

Starting with the supposition that you have well thought out your plot, have conceived your characters, and some of the situations in which they are to be placed, my advice is that you endeavour to give a graphic relation of your story in words to a friend, so that you may hear how the arrangement of the incidents and events stand…

Interesting! A bit of market research to see if you’ve got enough for a complete story. When I was in film school the writer-director Paul Schrader came up for a lecture, and told us would-be screenwriters to gather some friends, make them spaghetti, then tell them your story and see if their “butts start to move” (meaning, they’re getting bored). I’ve never tried this because I don’t like talking about my story-in-progress with anyone. That’s why I’ve never been in a critique group. But I’m not dead set against them, either. What do you think?

About the length of a novel it is best that you should not trouble. When you feel that you have told all you have to tell, the book should come to an end. New pens should know nothing of padding, which is distasteful to every good writer and reader.

Hey, sounds like the discussion we recently had here.

If you are a true author your creation will have become very dear to you, and in launching it into the world you will suffer a hundred hopes and fears, and, perhaps, disappointments.

We’ve all been there! She ends with this:

The clouds of distrust are certain to cast their shadows over you, but if you have the assurance that you have spared no pains, that you have given your best, do not fear that they will overwhelm you; there is a moral satisfaction in having done good work which no one can rob us of.

There really is “moral satisfaction” in knowing you’ve done the best you can with what you have (this was the legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s definition of success).

I’ve never quite bought the idea of “Do what you love, the money will follow.” Rather, if you love what you do and work at it, day by day (and when you love it, such work is fun and satisfying) then the dough will rise. Maybe not enough to buy a yacht, but surely enough to fund a latte habit and a buy some writing books.

Comments welcome.


A Villain’s Charm Offensive

by James Scott Bell

Snidely Whiplash

We all know the first rule (wink) about villains is to not make them like Snidely Whiplash. Those of you too young to understand this reference are culturally bereft, so I’m here to help. Snidely was the name of the foil for Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties, a cartoon character who first appeared on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, which was the creation of the great Jay Ward staff of writers. Both Dudley and Snidely were caricatures from the days of silent movie serials, where the mustache-twirling bad guy tied the girl to the railroad tracks and other nasty things.

Pure evil villains are, therefore, stereotypical and boring. We need to give them a backstory, a justification (they think they are in the right), and even a little sympathy.

What I want to consider today is charm. For me, the most memorable villains are those whose personalities attract rather than repel. For as the Bible notes, Satan may appear as “an angel of light.”

My top two villains in this regard are:

  1. Iago

We’ve all heard of Shakespeare’s Iago, and perhaps picture him as a conniving, nasty reprobate. But that’s not how the characters in the play see him. Othello himself calls him “honest, honest Iago.” Cassio trusts him implicitly, would like to be like him. Harold Bloom brings out the obvious comparison to Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the latter undoubtedly inspired by the former.

I always wanted to play Iago. Earle Hyman, a great Othello, told me I’d be perfect because of my open, honest face (ha! I became a lawyer instead). Iago drives the play. He has eight soliloquies (Othello has but three) and they are valid insights into human nature, twisted to suit Iago’s purposes. In one famous speech he tells the love-struck Roderigo to get over it through the power of his will:

Virtue? A fig! ’Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry, why the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most prepost’rous conclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts—whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect, or scion.

He goes on to tell Roderigo that what he calls love “is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.” Iago then appeals to his manhood: “Come, be a man!” and “Put money in thy purse.” When Roderigo toddles off to do as Iago suggests, Iago faces the audience and says he has “made my fool my purse.”

Great villains have the charm to turn people into fools.

  1. Harry Lime

Lime is the villain in Carol Reed’s classic The Third Man (1949). Played by Orson Welles, Lime dominates the film even though, for the first hour, he’s not even seen! When he first appears, one can see immediately why the beautiful Anna (Valli) loves him and why his best friend Holly (Joseph Cotten) wants so badly to find him. His magnetism radiates off the screen. Watch his duly famous intro:

Holly learns that Harry is running a black market business in diluted penicillin. At first he refuses to believe it, but Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) shows him the undeniable evidence at the children’s hospital. One of the dark consequences of Lime’s penicillin are the horrible outcomes to children who got dosed for meningitis. As Calloway says, “The lucky ones died.”

So here you have the most heinous of crimes, done by the most charming of evil doers. What does that do to us? The emotional cross-currents take us more deeply into the story than we can experience any other way.

Thus, I have advised writers to give their villains a closing argument, as if standing in front of a jury. Lime actually has one and delivers it to Holly. They are in a car on a Ferris wheel and, looking down at the ant-like people, Lime asks:

Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend? Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax.

As they are about to part, Lime gives him the conclusion to his closing argument:

Who isn’t charmed by that? The audience certainly was, and the fan letters came pouring in…for Welles! So much so that they created a radio show called The Adventures of Harry Lime. It was a prequel to the movie, with Welles reprising his role and playing it more as a lovable rogue than an evil black marketeer.

Thus, the charming villain is the most dangerous villain of all.

Your Unique Writer Proposition

by James Scott Bell

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” That old chestnut is usually attributed to Emerson, who actually put it this way:

“If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house.”

We would all like to believe that readers will beat a path to Amazon—or a local bookstore—to read “better books.” It’s true that doesn’t always happen; or, at least, as often as it should. But the odds are better with “better.” We can always improve our writing, which is one of the things I love about the craft. And that’s what we talk about most here at TKZ. Today I want to talk about what you as a human author (as opposed to AI!) bring to the table. It springs from the concept of what businesses call a Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

The USP is that factor or consideration presented by a seller as the reason their product or service is different from and better than that of the competition.

With so many products out there in every category, consumers are looking for the best bang for their buck, and the best (e.g., most efficient, most convenient, most entertaining, etc.) product available.

Someone bringing a new product to market has to find a way to make it stand out from other products in its category.

But if I try to sell a mousetrap that’s just like all the others, how can I expect to win over new customers?

Or readers, who have an overwhelming amount of content to choose from. You as an author need to give them a reason to choose you.

Every author needs a Unique Writer Proposition––UWP.

Think of it this way. Say you’re a reader who loves detective novels and your favorite writer is Michael Connelly. You don’t really analyze why you dig Connelly, you just know that at the end of one of his books you’ve had an experience you want to repeat.

Now here comes Benny Wannabe, a new author, who is putting up his own detective novels for sale. When you read one, nothing about it really stands out. You finish it, and it’s okay, but you are not left with the feeling you have when you read Connelly.

How likely are you to go seeking out Wannabe’s other books?

Thus, I propose that you become more purposeful about developing a UWP.

  1. Look Within

When I started out in traditional publishing, the buzzword brand was just coming into fashion. Every author was supposed to have one, because that’s how publishers sold them to bookstores, and bookstores to readers.

My brand at the beginning was as a lawyer writing legal thrillers. There were only about nine million other authors with the same profile. At a brainstorming session with some other writers, where we came up with taglines for our brand, I took the title of F. Lee Bailey’s autobiography, The Defense Never Rests, and changed it to, The Suspense Never Rests. That would be my goal: total, page-turning suspense.

Next, I asked what I burned with. What is that fuels my inner fire? The answer came: injustice. I hate it, I loathe those who traffic in it, and ache for the victims of it. So the quest for justice was an obvious add-on to my UWP.

Try this: Ask yourself what type of fiction you most like to read. What is it about those books that attracts you? Is it fast-moving plots? Colorful characters? Lean prose, or beautiful style? Then ask what gets your blood pumping. How will you integrate that into your fiction?

  1. Added Value

Now look at your work and ask yourself three questions:

  1. What do I do well?
  2. What can I do better?
  3. What are my unique “add ons”?

I did this twenty years ago. I decided what I did pretty well was plot and dialogue. What I needed to do better was character and scenes. So I instituted a self-study program in both areas.

What were some of the things I brought to my fiction that were particular to me? I found:

  • A bit of humor mixed in with the suspense (a la my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock).
  • Entertaining minor characters.

Ask this: What do you bring to your writing that is a distinctive? What is your “personality on the page”?

  1. Deliver the Goods

Once you have determined your own UWP (and it’s good to write it down in 100 words or less, and tweak it from time to time), you have a model to shoot for. You write your book and revise the draft, keeping these things in mind.

Look at the seven critical success factors of fiction—plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, and meaning (or theme). Make it your goal to improve in each of these areas in a year’s time. It’s not a daunting task to spend a few weeks of self study in each area.

Picture this: As you write, keep a picture in your mind of a tired mother or father, a busy professional, an overextended student. They have a small window of time for reading pleasure and they’ve picked up your book.

Be unique. For them.

What is something about your writing that is unique or personal to you?

[This post is adapted from The Mental Game of Writing.]

We’ll All Be Grunting Soon Enough

by James Scott Bell

Unfortunate autocorrect at a Canadian pizza joint. (Click to enlarge)

It’s no secret that grammar is as endangered as the Chinese box turtle. It used to be thought, and taught, that knowing how to put sentences together into a coherent form was the foundation of education, communication, indeed civilization itself. Without it, we can’t pass on ideas or cooperate in an enterprise (as the builders of the Tower of Babel found out. “Hey Gomer, hand me a trowel!” “Eh???” “A trowel, curse you, a trowel!” “Unh???”)

Now, I’m not a “get off my lawn” kind of fellow (unless, of course, you are on my lawn), but I have to ask what in the hey-diddle we’re doing to ourselves. Seems like every day I run across sloppy language online. I’m not talking about X or that ilk, which is a lost cause due to haste, sloth, and/or indifference. I mean in (formerly) legit newspapers and serious blogs.

In the good old days when journalists were actually reporters who wanted to get a story right, they studied grammar and style. They all had Strunk & White and the AP or Chicago Manual of style on their desks. They had editors who knew their stuff and could hammer that stuff into you.

All that’s gone now. Everybody it seems is a grammar rogue, and just don’t care.

Here are 12 examples of grammar/style transgressions I’ve collected. See if you can spot the errors. Answers to follow:

  1. Brock Purdy, Iowa State alumni and current San Francisco 49ers quarterback is engaged to girlfriend Jenna Brandt.
  2. Headline: Kirby Smart Shares Heartwarming Story About Stetson Bennett And His Son.
  3. It’s been a wondrous collaboration for Bill and I. He and I have complimentary careers.
  4. Apple optioned Haberman’s book – which was an immediate bestseller – earlier this year but the project is now off the cards.
  5. Of course, non-Catholics, and even many Catholics, will find these claims incredulous.
  6. It was very, very illegal. Mirco was definitively out of play and the penalty flag was thrown as players from both sides got up in each other’s faces and exchanged pleasantries….Mirco was defenseless and it could have ended very poorly.
  7. Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, a longtime Democratic donor and former employer of Crist, sounded glum in an interview with CNN: “I think Charlie has a very, very tough road to hoe. And I’ve pissed money away before.”
  8. Prince Philip died in 2021 aged 99, just two months before his century.
  9. The Colts were knocking on the doorstep.
  10. Trying to figure out when this will happen essentially amounts to a speculative guessing game.
  11. Which doesn’t quite jive with Sunday’s piece.
  12. I don’t know if the victory that’s already been had will get the attention commiserate with its significance.


  1. Alumni is plural. The proper word is alumnus. If you really want to get into the weeds (and be sure to bring your weed whacker for protection) these are male nouns. Alumna and alumnae are female nouns. But pointing all this out is liable to result in a plethora of exploding crania, so you know what I’d use? The colloquial alum. Problem solved! (There should also be a comma after quarterback.)
  2. Stetson Bennett doesn’t have a son. Kirby Smart does. Should have been: Story About His Son And Stetson Bennett.
  3. While the word wondrous is technically okay, the better word is wonderful. Wondrous usually connotes fantasy. In the second sentence the word should be complementary (meaning harmonious). Not complimentary (which means flattering). And in the first sentence is the ubiquitous mistake of using I where me is the right choice. Just stop doing that! It’s such a simple thing to correct if you’re confused. Just say the sentence with only you in it. It’s been a wonderful collaboration for I. Does that sound right to you? (If you said Yes, stop right here and give me twenty pushups…on my lawn.)
  4. It’s either off the table or not in the cards.
  5. Incredulous always refers to a person or persons. Incredible is the right word.
  6. While I would have chosen definitely, the word definitively is okay in this context. But not very, very illegal (as opposed to just illegal?). The word very is flabby. Using it twice does not add anything, nor even once at the end. If you thought other’s might be an error and others’ correct, the simple rule is that after the word each the word other is always singular.
  7. When speaking (or writing dialogue) a person may use very, very colloquially. But it’s very, very hard to hoe a road. Farmers prefer hoeing rows.
  8. Centenary.
  9. You have to take a knee to knock on a doorstep. Knocking on the door is much easier.
  10. Redundant. All guessing games are speculative.
  11. Unless you’re dancing, jibe is the word.
  12. Unless you’re in mourning, the word is commensurate.

And while things go wrong all the time in tweets (or Xs), and it is too easy to hop on mistakes, sometimes typos are howlers, like this self-defeating line: Your ignirance is not a good look.

So please, people, don’t be ignirant about your grammar.

What say you? Is good grammar a lost cause? As Jimmy Stewart puts it in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, “Sometimes lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for.” Is this one worth it?

Visual Branding

by James Scott Bell

Forty years ago this month, three significant events took place.

First, George Orwell’s novel, 1984, hit its mark. It’s the story of a totalitarian government keeping an eye on everyone, eradicating free speech, forcing group think, and cancelling those who resist. (Luckily, nothing like that could ever happen here.)

**Clears throat**

Second, Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire during the shooting of a Pepsi commercial. A pyrotechnic explosion sent embers into the singer’s mane, setting it ablaze. At first he didn’t notice and kept right on dancing. But then he collapsed and, as one witness described it, “All his hair was gone and there was smoke coming out of his head.” He was rushed to the hospital and eventually recovered, but later said the accident got him addicted to pain killers.

Third, Steve Jobs gave the Macintosh to the world. It was famously introduced during the Super Bowl, in what is arguably the most famous commercial ever made. Directed by Ridley Scott (of Blade Runner fame) it riffed off the Orwellian Big Brother theme. The idea, of course, was that the staid, colorless world of personal computing was about to be disrupted by a bold new way of doing things. In the off chance you’ve never seen it, here it is:

For me, it was love at first sight (which meant sorrowfully leaving my first love, the KayPro. But such are the machinations—pun intended—of the heart). The day it came to a local store I went to see it. So small, yet…you could paint hello and any other word on it. The screen wasn’t black with green characters. It had a mouse for point-and-click (cool!). And I knew I wanted to be on the hammer-thrower’s team, not a gray conformist. (No disrespect to you PC users out there. Some of my best friends are gray conformists.)

It’s been me and Mac ever since, through all the ups and downs, the firing of Steve Jobs, the bringing him back. There was a time many of us thought the Mac might fall into a niche category, overwhelmed by the power of Microsoft. Although when Windows came out, looking suspiciously like the Mac interface, I recall a cartoon that had Bill Gates sitting under a tree, a la Isaac Newton, with the Apple logo falling on his head.

What saved Mac was what I consider the best ad campaign ever (Apple ads always seemed winners). That was the “I’m a Mac. I’m a PC” series. The branding was so perfect—a cool kid (Justin Long) as Mac, and a stodgy schlub (John Hodgman) as PC. You can watch ’em all here. But I have to share my favorite. It was when the ill-fated Vista operating system came out for the PC and had all sorts of issues:

So the foundation of the Mac brand is visual. The hammer thrower…the screen with hello…the cool kid. A print ad in a magazine captured the exact vibe I wanted for my writing life. I cut it out and taped it up in my office so I could see it every day  (click  to  enlarge):Happy to say I made it (albeit without the penthouse view of New York and the cat).

So when we talk about an author brand, we usually start with books and genre. Those are, of course, essential parts of the branding package. But I suggest starting with Mac logic—the visual.

A few years ago our own Terry Odell wrote about being at SleuthFest with her Triple-D Ranch series. When on a panel, she wore a cowboy hat. But when strolling through the hotel lobby, hatless, she was summoned by a “top gun” at Penguin Putnam, Neil Nyran. “Terry. Where’s your hat?” She was floored that he even knew her name. Terry said she wasn’t on any panels that day, so the hat was in her room. He responded, “It’s your brand. Wear it.”


Even when walking around in a conference. (See, e.g., Reavis Wortham. You’re not going to catch him in a homburg.)

Start with your author photo. What does it “say” to the world about you as writer? James Patterson is all business. His photos say, “I write books that you won’t be able to put down, so there.” Harlan Coben, on the other hand, laces his thrillers with a bit of humor. Thus, in his author photos he always has the start of a wry smile.

You can go too far with this. Years ago a popular writing couple came out with a big historical mystery. On the back of the hardcover this couple was dressed as the characters. That struck me as a gimmick. It was trying too hard, plus it applied only to that one book.

So take some time to sit alone with a cup of joe and visualize yourself as a successful author, someone a reader wants to get to know, who writes the kind of books they want to read. What should you look like? What do your covers look like? How would you dress at a conference?

And speaking of conferences, where much of the important interactions take place at the bar or in the lobby, how is your personality? This is also visual in the sense that it gives off an impression. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Work with yourself. You can be soft-spoken and be classy. Or if you’re outgoing and love a crowd (a la Brother Gilstrap sipping his signature Beefeater martini) lean into it. Just remember the most important piece of advice of all, something that can sink your brand faster than the Lusitania. John gave it in his post in response to Terry’s: “Don’t be an a-hole.” (Applies to all your social media, too. I’ve chucked several authors off my to-be-read list because of ill-advised tweets…I mean Xs.)

So, to paraphrase Olivia Newton-John, “Let’s get visual, visual, let’s get into visual.”



What Writers Can Learn From L.A. Confidential

by James Scott Bell

I love my home town (although the relationship is strained these days). I love classic film noir shot on location in the City of Angels. A lot of detectives went in and out of City Hall, where the department was headquartered until 1955. Edmund O’Brien stormed into the homicide division in the famous opening tracking shot of D.O.A. (1949). “I want to report a murder,” he said. “Who was murdered?” they ask. “I was,” he says…and off we go.

The only movie in recent memory to capture the look and feel of 50s L.A. is L.A. Confidential (1997), directed by Curtis Hanson from the novel by James Ellroy. The sunny climes and palm trees during the day are juxtaposed against the corruption and vice of night. Good cops and bad cops. And some who are a little of both.

The film garnered critical praise and was Oscar nominated for Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Cinematography. Kim Basinger took home the statuette for Best Supporting Actress.

The plot centers around a mass slaying at a diner called The Nite Owl. The movie is a lesson in how to handle shifting POV as we follow the case through the eyes of three Lead characters.

Bud White (Russell Crowe) is known for violent, sometimes out-of-control behavior. But his rage is in the service of his sense of justice. He’s driven by a compulsion to save vulnerable women from abuse. (There’s a backstory reason for this that is revealed in Act 2).

The movie opens with an off-duty Bud White watching a home where a man is beating his wife. Bud pulls down the Christmas lights on the house, the man comes out and tries to clock Bud. Bud beats him up and handcuffs him to the stair railing. He gives the wife some cash and makes sure she has a place to go.

Thus we are drawn to Bud’s motive, but a little unsure about his methods.

This cross-current of emotion is a key to our wanting to watch Bud’s story. He’s not all good. He has a flaw which could be his undoing. This emotion intensifies in Act 2, when he is given a secret duty by his captain—beating up out-of-town mobsters trying to move in on L.A. territory. Here Bud is no longer a cop; he’s a thug, albeit on the “right” side.

Lesson: Memorable heroes should have strength, but also a flaw that could become fatal. That makes us interested to know which side will prevail.

Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is the opposite of Bud. Slender, thoughtful, smart, political. He goes “by the book,” which does not endear him to his fellow cops, because it means he does not look away when some of them bend the rules.

So why should we watch him? First, because he’s an underdog in his community. We like underdog stories (e.g., Rudy, Rocky). Second, because he’s good at his job. We like to see characters being competent in their work. This comes out as Exley questions three suspects in the Nite Owl shooting, getting admissions with skill, not violence (IOW, the opposite of Bud).

Lesson: A good Lead should have a skill or power that can be his deliverance at a critical point.

Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is slick, a charmer. He knows how to skirt the system and rake in a little illicit dough on the side. He takes money from the slimy Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito) to bust the victims of Sid’s amorous setups to feed his scandal magazine Hush Hush. But Jack’s favorite side hustle is as the technical advisor on the TV show “Badge of Honor” (i.e., “Dragnet”).

Lesson: A Lead who skates along the dark side should have some charm. We like lovable rogues.

Mirror Moments

Each one of these Leads goes through a personal and positive transformation. As I watched the movie again, I naturally wondered if there would be any mirror moments.

Turns out there’s three of them.

Not only that, two of them involve actual mirrors! (I love it when that happens).

For Bud White, it’s when he’s at the abandoned motel with his captain and some other strong-arm cops. They’re beating up another out-of-town gangster. Bud goes into the bathroom to splash some water on his face. And looks at himself in the mirror. He’s thinking: “Is this who I am? Is this what it means to be a cop?”

Jack Vincennes has just taken another fifty-dollar-bill to show up at a motel where Sid has engineered his biggest scoop yet—the District Attorney of Los Angeles in bed with a handsome young actor (Simon Baker). Sid has paid the kid to seduce the D.A., but also enlisted Jack to promise him a nice part on an episode of “Badge of Honor.” A promise Jack never intends to keep.

While waiting for the appointed hour, Jack sits in a bar and looks at himself in the bar mirror. He’s disgusted. “Is this who I am? Is this what it means to be a cop? Do I really care nothing about lying to an innocent kid who just wants to make it in this town?”

He lays the fifty down on his unfinished drink and leaves to go warn the kid to get out of the room….but instead finds him slain. The consequences of this will lead to one of the great shock twists in cinema (you’ll have to watch the movie to find out, and please, if you know what I’m talking about, do NOT spoil it in the comments).

The mirror moment for Edmund Exley comes when he is awarded the Medal of Valor for his part in slaying the suspects in the Nite Owl murders. In the script he tells his Captain, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) something feels wrong about the case. Smith tells the new hero, “Keep it inside. Between you and you.”

The very definition of a mirror moment! Exley considers his medal. The script says, “It’s an appealing thing.” He can stay a hero by keeping quiet. But at the cost of justice. Which way will he go?

That’s the question a mirror moment asks.

Lesson: Done skillfully, the mirror moment subconsciously deepens the viewing—and reading—experience.


Period slang and cop jargon are sprinkled throughout, though not so much that it’s distracting. A good lesson there when your write a period piece. A little slang goes a long way. You’re not going for total authenticity (you never are when you write dialogue). You’re trying to create an effect for the reader. Don’t let jargon get in the way of the story.

Speaking of which, my views on the ol’ F bomb are well known, and while this is a James Ellroy, I think the film would’ve been helped with more restraint in this area.

And with that, I turn it over to you.

Have you written a novel with more than one POV? How’d it work for you?

Have you written about your home town—or a fictional place just like it—in a book?

Thumbs up or thumbs down on L.A. Confidential?

The Trapdoor on Top of Your Skull

by James Scott Bell

In his early years as a writer, Ray Bradbury made lists of nouns based on childhood memories. Things like: The Lake, The Night, The Crickets, The Ravine.

“These lists were the provocations,” he wrote in Zen in the Art of Writing, “that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.”

I love that metaphor of the trapdoor. We need to flip that door open and shine a light down where all the “better stuff” is.

What did Bradbury mean by that? I think he meant what comes from deep, emotional resonance. It’s what you can’t put into words to define it; but what you must put into words to create it—first for you, then for your reader.

I’ve written some scenes that I’ve gotten emails about. When I look at those I find inevitably they came to me after I opened the trapdoor.

How do you do that?

You make a list like Bradbury’s. Find some time to get alone, take a some deep breaths, and just start remembering….write down all the images and smells and sounds that come to mind. Don’t judge any of it. You’re recording, not fictionalizing. When you get tired, take a break, then come back and add to this list. Put it aside for awhile. Then read it over and highlight the words that generate the most emotion inside you.

I guarantee you’ll find story gold. You can transmute those feelings into your Lead character. You can create moments in your book that will connect with readers in a powerful way. You can also mine the list for short story subject matter. That’s what I like to do most with my own list. (Hat tip to Dale for yesterday’s post which prompted this one.)

I was looking at my list a few years ago when I stopped on The Cigar. That word was there because of my father. To this day when I get a whiff of cigar smoke, I think of Dad. This time when I read the word I flashed back to a scene from my own life, involving me, a liquor store, and a box of Dutch Masters. The emotion of what happened—embarrassment—gave me an idea for a short story called “My Father’s Birthday.”

I published it. And apparently that emotional resonance I mentioned above was there for many readers. If you’ll allow me two clips from the reviews:

Then, in only 12 pages, he ties all his plot threads together to impart an emotional impact that a lot of authors wouldn’t be able to do in a book-length memoir. Indeed, other writers could have turned the bares storyline of “My Father’s Birthday” into an entertaining short story. Few could produce one with the same lasting impact.


I’m telling you, this author has the power to take a person on an emotionally resonant trip down memory lane.

I show you those simply to demonstrate what opening the trapdoor on top of your skull can do for a story. If you’d like to read the story itself, I’ve made it free today for your Kindle or Kindle app. Click here. Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon site and search for: B081THHSYL

Try this: Right now, write down three nouns from your childhood, pictures under your trapdoor. Go ahead. I’ll wait. 

Now pick one of them and share it with us. Why that word? What’s the emotional resonance for you? Have you used it in one of your stories?