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What Writers Can Learn From Sunset Boulevard

by James Scott Bell

I had a tough decision to make for this installment of JSB at the Movies. It came down to a choice between How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and Sunset Boulevard. After a night of tossing and turning, I chose the latter. I had to give the nod to Gloria Swanson over Annette Funicello.

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1951) is an undisputed classic of the film noir era. It stars William Holden as a struggling screenwriter, and Gloria Swanson as what she actually was—an aging star from silent films. Her performance is one of the most iconic in movie history. Indeed, she was the favorite to take home the Oscar, and she should have.

But in a quirk of fate, she was up against another all-time performance—Bette Davis as Margot Channing in All About Eve. In a further quirk, those two probably split the vote, giving the prize to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Holliday is quite good, and in any other year would have deserved the gold statuette. But not over Davis, and especially not Swanson’s Norma Desmond!

Wilder originally wanted Mae West for Norma and Montgomery Clift for the screenwriter Joe Gillis. But Miss West, a true diva, wanted to change a lot of the dialogue. Billy Wilder would not stand for that, and a good thing, too.

Wilder also considered Greta Garbo (who was not interested in returning to the screen), Pola Negri, a great silent film actress (but whose Polish accent was troublesome), and the “It Girl” Clara Bow. But Bow turned it down, having considered her unsuccessful transition to sound and ill-treatment by the industry reasons to stay retired.

The director George Cukor suggested Swanson to Wilder, and how perfect she was. She had been one of the great “faces” of silents, and was the right age—50—for Norma. That’s when Wilder got the brilliant idea of using Cecil B. DeMille as himself, for he had famously worked with Swanson in the silent era and was still directing movies. Swanson would essentially be playing a version of herself.

Clift withdrew for one reason or another (there are a few theories) and William Holden was offered the role, which he gladly accepted. Another brilliant move. It’s hard now to think of the cynical, hardboiled voiceover narration in any voice but Holden’s.

Two other bits of casting brilliance. One is Erich von Stroheim as Max, Norma’s butler. He had been one of the most famous—or infamous, from the studio heads’ perspective—silent film directors and, like Swanson, had fallen into obscurity. The film Norma privately screens is Queen Kelly, which Stroheim directed in 1928.

Then there are Norma’s bridge partners, each a faded star from the silent era. Joe calls them her “waxworks”—Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner (who played Jesus in DeMille’s silent version of King of Kings, and Mr. Gower, the druggist, in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life).

Frame Story

This is a frame story. We begin in the present, then the movie unfolds in the past; the last scene returns us to the present. It’s a fine technique, used numerous times in various genres. Stephen King’s The Green Mile is an example.

Only this opening frame was unique: it is narrated by a dead man! Joe Gillis is floating face down in a pool. The cops are on the scene. What happened? Joe will tell us from beyond…

Lesson: Using a frame is a solid choice, but only if you make it compelling in and of itself. Don’t just toss one in! Take the time to make it fresh and even bold.

Death Stakes

Joe is an out of work screenwriter desperately in need of a job. He’s behind in his rent and his car is about to be repossessed. He makes the rounds of his studio contacts, but can’t find anything—not even a quick rewrite assignment. When he confronts his agent on a golf course, he gets a kiss off. The stakes here are professional. If he doesn’t get work he’ll have to head back to Dayton, Ohio with his tail between his legs.

Driving back to his dismal apartment, he spots the repo men. The chase is on. Joe pulls into a driveway on Sunset Boulevard to escape.

Turns out the house is a decrepit mansion from the crazy 1920s. Inside he meets the faded silent screen star, Norma Desmond. Seems she’s been holed up inside for twenty years, living off past dreams with the help of her somewhat creepy servant, Max. Norma has been working on a screenplay for her comeback, a turgid scenario about Salome, a part she is clearly too old for. Joe hatches a plan. He’ll work on her screenplay to make some quick dough.

Lesson: If the death stakes are professional, make sure the reader understands how important it is to the character. Most of Act 1 is showing Joe Gillis in various stages of desperation for dough.

Doorway of No Return

But Norma has a plan of her own—while Joe spends the night in a little room over the garage, Max moves Joe’s things out of his apartment and into the room. Joe is furious. Then the repo men show up and take away Joe’s car, making him a virtual prisoner.

Lesson: Act 2 doesn’t start until the Lead is forced into the confrontation…and can’t go back to the way things were in Act 1.

Pet the Dog

When the Lead takes time from his death stakes struggle to help someone else, we become more invested in him. Joe helps a young studio reader, Betty (Nancy Olson) with a script idea. This relationship becomes more complicated as Joe and Betty fall in love, though she is engaged to Joe’s friend Artie (Jack Webb. Yes, that Jack Webb, whose personality in this film is the exact opposite of cop Joe Friday from Dragnet).

Tip: A love interest subplot should intersect with the main plot in a way that causes more trouble for the Lead. Boy, is that ever true here, as it leads, ultimately, to Joe’s death.

Mirror Moment

In the dead center of the film we get Joe Gillis’s life-altering look at himself. Norma has attempted suicide because Joe has rejected her. Now, in her bedroom, we see on his face the choice: should he finally make a break, or stay on as her lover? The former choice would lead to his redemption, the latter to the loss of his individuality.

He stays. The rest of the movie will be about the price of that decision.

Lesson: The Mirror Moment sees all, knows all.

Sharp Dialogue

The dialogue in this movie is priceless. William Holden has the perfect voice and delivery for some of the best lines in all of noir. My favorite is when Norma is describing a scene from her mammoth and atrocious screenplay about Salome.

Lesson: Dialogue is the fastest way to improve any manuscript. Show an agent, editor or browser, on your first pages, that yours has zing and you are halfway home to getting the whole book read. May I modestly suggest a book to help you in that regard?

If you’ve never seen Sunset Boulevard, I urge you to settle in with a bowl of popcorn and watch it. The adage “They don’t make ’em like they used to” certainly applies to this classic. (And don’t look at the clip below. Watch it in the movie!)

What better way to end this post than with one of the most famous closing images in cinema history:


Ways to Do Morning Pages

by James Scott Bell

A pole vaulter doesn’t come out of the locker room, pick up a pole, and get to vaulting. Like all athletes, they warm up. They do some stretching, some sprinting, test the poles, do a few practice vaults.

That’s how writers should view morning pages. They warm you up so you can reach new heights when you write. The subject has come up in comments several times here at TKZ, so I thought I’d offer some of the different ways I’ve personally done morning pages.

Bradbury’s Landmine

The great Ray Bradbury, in his book Zen in the Art of Writing, said of his morning pages: “Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.”

He explained that by writing down what was in his brain the first thing upon waking, was capturing whatever dreams had percolated, or whatever his subconscious decided to tell him. He didn’t try to make sense of it as he wrote. The idea was to pour it all out, see what was there, and only then look for a story possibility.

Robert Louis Stevenson often got plot ideas in his dreams. In the wee small hours one morning, his wife was awakened by cries of horror from her husband. Thinking he was having a nightmare, she wakened him. He angrily said, “Why did you awaken me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale!” He got up and began writing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Natalie Goldberg’s Non-Stop Writing

In her book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg advocates “writing practice” before getting to your WIP. You simply pick a starter (like “I remember…” or “describe the light coming through your window,” or “write about an early memory”) and just go without stopping, without editing, without judgment. Follow wherever your writing leads you. The idea is to learn to free yourself up as you write anything.

Additionally, Goldberg advises doing this exercise for distinct moments in your fiction—especially description. You come to a point where you’re going to describe a character, or place, or clothing…whatever. You pause and open a new document and write for five minutes on that one thing, letting your mind feed you images and metaphors. (Now there’s AI to do that work for you. Personally, I don’t like that. Using our own neural networks exercises our brains…which we need if for nothing else than to fight the machines!)

Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron describes morning pages as “three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.” Even though my handwriting is awful, I think there is something to using pen or pencil on paper that exercises parts of your brain not normally brought out to play.

My variation on this is to do page-long sentences. No worries about grammar or punctuation, just letting one word lead to another and following any rabbit trail that comes up. It’s all about loosening up the creative muscles before the pole vault of your WIP.

Writing the Natural Way

In Writing the Natural Way, Gabriele Lusser Rico champions “clustering” as a way to unleash the right brain. Clustering is also known as mind mapping. You use a pen or pencil on blank paper, and start with a word or phrase in the middle of the page. Put a circle around it. Then start putting down words that connect to the main word, and connections from the new words, until you have a whole page of circled words or phrases with lines between them.

From Writing the Natural Way. Click to enlarge.

Let the map sit for awhile, then bring some form to it. I put numbers by certain words in priority order. I find this especially helpful when I’m mapping out a nonfiction article or book. It results in a usable outline. But I’ve also used this for big scenes in my novels.

Micro and Flash Fiction

Use a writing prompt to write a short-short story. Flash fiction is under 1k words; micro fiction is under 250 (though some purists make it under 100). I’ve written before about Storymatic. There’s also Writer Igniter that shuffles various elements for you.

Think about the prompt for a minute or two. You may stay with it, or you can tweak it. There’s no wrong way to approach this. I try to envision an opening scene and an ending to work toward. Then I write it. I share the best of these on my Patreon page. But even the ones I don’t use are of benefit, as the value of this exercise is in the effort.

Sue Grafton’s Novel Journal

The author of the famous alphabet series featuring PI Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton, began each writing day by jotting in what she called her novel journal. She’d first put something down about how she felt that day, and then record any ideas that occurred to her “in the dead of night, when Shadow and Right Brain are most active.” Finally, she’d reflect on where she was in the book, ask What if? She’d write down many possible directions, and assess them later. (No surprise she was a pantser…but this also works for plotters, who can fill out details in scenes, deepen emotions, find happy surprises, including metaphors.)

So, ready to jump into your writing day? Warm up with morning pages, then set your bar high.

What are your thoughts on morning pages?

A note for you audio book fans. Romeo’s Rules, the first book in my Mike Romeo thriller series, has just come out in audio.

For Love of the Pencil

by James Scott Bell

We’ve talked in the past about doing some of our writing by hand, with an actual pen on actual paper. Since my handwriting resembles Foghorn Leghorn’s footprints, I have generally kept to the keyboard. I do, however, like to do mind maps with pen and paper. Sometimes I’ll block out a scene that way.

Today I’d like to say something about the pencil. I do love a good pencil. It’s a writing instrument, sure, but also an underlining buddy, perfect for marking up a book. And subject to change, for a good pencil carries with it the original delete key—the eraser. Many a time I’ve rubbed out a word or line, and whisked away the little red leavings with the back of my hand. A fresh start! Unlike the unforgiving pen, the pencil is happy to do it all over again.

It has been asserted that that a manuscript of Theophilus, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire from 829–842, shows signs of having been written with a black-lead pencil. But the first allusion we have of the pencil comes from a treatise on fossils written in the mid-1500s by Conrad Gesner of Zurich. He was a Swiss naturalist, and describes a writing implement formed of wood and “lead,” which was really a composition called stimmi anglicanum. I have no idea what that means, but that’s what it says in the pencil article in my grandfather’s Encyclopedia Britannica set.

Another source:

Black lead was first used in chunks, called marking stones. Later, the material was cut into small rods or strips and wrapped in twine to provide a comfort- able grip and additional strength. Users unwound the twine from the point, as necessary. These instruments made a fine black line, reminiscent of the writing from the fine Roman brush called a pencilium; thus the instrument became known as a lead pencil.

Today, the #1 is the softest, and darkest, of the pencil family. It is therefore perfect for marking up any page, and especially useful for thin pages, as in a Bible. The harder pencils almost tear through pages like that because you have to press harder to make the line good and dark.

The #1 skates easily across any page. And it’s great for doodles and mind maps, too.

But it’s gotten bullied almost out of existence by the cocky #2.

That’s because #2 became the de facto pencil in education. To fill in those Os on tests it is always, “Use a #2 pencil.” There is no earthly reason for this exclusivity, but then again, there is no earthly reason for a lot of things these days.

The other day I went to Staples to buy some #1s, but found nothing but #2s on the rack. I went to the cash register and asked, “Do you carry #1 pencils?”

The nice young fellow shook his head. “We just don’t.”

“That is a sad state of affairs,” I said.

He looked puzzled.

“#1s have been shunted aside,” I said.

“You can always go online,” he said.

Which I did, right out there in the parking lot. I went to Amazon (natch) on my phone and ordered these.

And I ponder. Since when should #2 be given more glory than #1? How many books are there about Stephen A. Douglas? Or Walter Mondale? Or the 1990s Buffalo Bills?

All hail the #1 pencil!

Does a pencil figure in your everyday reading or writing?

Early Writing, Early Dreams

by James Scott Bell

The first novel I ever wrote was about a boy who sneaks aboard a pirate ship. I was in third grade, in Mr. McMahon’s class at Serrania Avenue Elementary School, deep in the heart of the post-World War II paradise known as the San Fernando Valley.

It was in this fertile land that babies boomed, along with the blast of rocket engines being tested at Rocketdyne. Nestled between the Santa Susana and Santa Monica mountain ranges, this piece of Earth extends 25 miles east to west, 13 miles north to south. It was “discovered” by the Spanish expedition under Gaspar de Portolá in August of 1769.

The Spaniards, of course, encountered the native inhabitants, who called themselves, simply, the people. The Spaniards called them Fernandeños, for they had decided to name this valley after King Ferdinand III.

In the latter part of the 1940s, returning servicemen came back from fighting Hitler and Tojo and staked claims in the housing developments of the Valley.

One of them was Arthur S. Bell, Jr. During his service in the Navy he met and married a beauty named Rosemary, and after the war built a house for them in Woodland Hills—yes, built, as he had learned the carpentry trade—and had a couple of boys. He went to law school at USC. After graduating he began his practice. All was going according to plan when his wife announced a little “surprise.”

They named the surprise James Scott. Scott is a family name, all the way back to James Winfield Scott who fought with Sherman in the Civil War.

The neighborhood in which young JSB grew up was teeming with kids. The neighbors all knew each other. They came out on summer evenings to sit on a stoop outside the Koteki household to drink beer and smoke and talk, as the kids played all around them.

Even as night fell, we kids rode bikes without helmets or helicopter parents watching our every move. We played hide and seek, kick the can, hit the bat. But not spin the bottle, which was forbidden to children of our age, but was whispered about as a pastime of the teenagers. It involved kissing girls, so I was not at all interested in becoming a teenager. Girls had cooties.

But I was talking about my first novel. It was written on my big brother’s notebook paper, three holes on the side. Four pages in all, including illustrations.

When I showed it to Mr. McMahon, he said, “This is a good idea.” Later that day he announced to the class that “Jimmy Bell wrote a book. It’s this big. You can look at it after school. I’d like each of you to take a week and write a book, too.”

I was already influencing a generation of young writers.

It is a tragedy of minimal proportions that this early work of literary genius is lost and will not be among the papers I leave to the University of Southern California (which may mean just leaving them on the table at the Trojan food court). But it’s in my head, and I can see it even now. The first illustration was a boy, barely more than a stick figure, climbing the anchor chain to get aboard a ship.

The boy’s name was James Green.

James, because that’s such a wonderful name, and evidence of my incipient desire to live vicariously through the adventures I was making up. Green, because that was my favorite color, for it was the color of the togs of both Peter Pan and Robin Hood, two of my heroes.

Peter Pan, because he could fly and fight pirates.

Robin Hood, because he could laugh and shoot arrows and sword fight with Basil Rathbone. Also because he could win the heart of Maid Marion, who was played by Olivia de Havilland in the movie, and who I was in love with. Or, I guess, had a crush on, considering my tender years. After watching The Adventures of Robin Hood, I concluded girls did not have cooties after all.

My friend Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, a standard text for screen and fiction writers, would say that all this was my “call to adventure.”

I think he’s right, because Peter Pan and Robin Hood never left me. They are with me still.

So there I was, writing an adventure story about a boy on a ship, sensing even then that this was what I wanted my life to be about—going on adventures, and what better way to do that than write story after story where I could live my dreams?

Do you remember your first attempt at writing a story? Tell us about it. At that time in your life, what did you dream of doing someday?

The Secret Brew of Page-Turning Fiction

by James Scott Bell

In my Super Structure system, I have a signpost scene called “Trouble Brewing.” As I explain in the book:

Somewhere around the middle of Act I is a scene where we get a whiff of big trouble to come. It’s not the major confrontation, because we’re not yet in Act II. But we can sense that it’s out there, brewing.

It’s a portent.

But it’s not only here that trouble should brew. It really needs to be bubbling throughout the book.

We all know that conflict is the lifeblood of plot. Without conflict, there is no testing of character, and it’s the test that reveals true the essence behind the mask. We wouldn’t give two rips about that whiny Scarlett if she didn’t get hit with the Civil War. Dorothy would still be down on the farm if it weren’t for the twister dumping her in a land of witches, Munchkins, a talking scarecrow, and trees that throw apples.

The testing should be ongoing, and each major scene should be a boat over troubled waters.

Back at the beginning of my serious pursuit of writing, I went to my favorite used bookstore and stocked up on paperbacks by King, Koontz, and Grisham. I started reading with a pencil in my hand, marking up places where I observed the craft at work.

One thing I noticed is how they would end chapters or scenes in a way that made me want to turn the page. I marked these places with the notation ROP (for Read-On Prompt).

Thus, you can end a scene with trouble happening (a guy with a gun comes through the door) or about to happen (the doorknob is turning). But it can also be reflected in the character’s thoughts.

In Kiss Me, Deadly, when Mike Hammer returns to his apartment after being sapped, questioned by the Feds, and told to lay off trying to figure out who killed the girl that was in his car, he sees his place has been searched. He figures it’s by the Feds, but also somebody else. The scene ends with a trouble-brewing ROP:

The smoke that was trouble started to boil up around me again. You couldn’t see it and you couldn’t smell it, but it was there. I started whistling again and picked up the .45.

Trouble as metaphorical smoke shows up at the end of a scene from Lawrence Block’s A Ticket to the Boneyard. Scudder is protecting Elaine, a prostitute who is the target of a serial killer. Turns out Scudder is also a target. The killer has left a message on Elaine’s machine:

“I was thinking of you earlier. But it’s not your turn yet. You have to wait your turn, you know. I’m saving you for last.” A pause, but a brief one. “I mean second-last. He’ll be the last.”

That was all he had to say, but the tape ran another twenty or thirty seconds before he broke the connection. Then the answering machine clicked and whirred and readied itself to handle incoming calls again, and we sat there in a silence that hung in the air like smoke.

In The Big Kill, Hammer sees a man in a bar with a bundle (that turns out to be a baby), crying. He hates to see a guy cry like that. Suddenly, the guy kisses the baby and races outside, leaving the baby behind. Mike follows and sees the guy down the street, just as gunshots from a car mow him down.

Why? Hammer, as always, has to find the answer (especially as he’s now the de facto guardian of the baby).

Later, he’s going over the facts of the case with his friend, police captain Pat Chambers. Chambers reels off his theory, and it makes sense on the surface. But Mike has doubts. The scene ends:

“You’re a crazy bastard,” Pat said.

“So I’ve been told. Does the D.A. want to see me?”

“No, you were lucky it broke so fast.”

“See you around then, Pat. I’ll keep in touch with you.”

“Do that,” he said. I think he was laughing at me inside. I wasn’t laughing though. There wasn’t a damn thing to laugh about when you saw a guy cry, kiss his kid, then go out and make him an orphan.

Like I said, the whole thing stunk.

To high heaven.

We want to know why it stinks, too. So we read on.

Try this: look at all your scene endings. See if you can add some form of trouble—brewing or happening. I’ve also found a ROP can be produced when you cut the last line or two of the ending. It leaves a sense that something is not quite resolved.

Which is what you want, right up to the page-turning end.

Reflections on Literary Fiction

by James Scott Bell

I read a literary novel a few weeks ago, and it frustrated the heck out of me. There was a powerful story wanting to bust out, but I felt it was hemmed in by the author trying too hard to be, well, “literary.” There was an emphasis on style, some of it quite good. But the scenes didn’t grab me. The author wanted things implied rather than rendered dramatically on the page. That’s often a nice touch, but not for a whole book. There was too much description and narrative summary, and not enough on-the-page action and dialogue. Any momentum was stopped a few times with flashbacks (Chapter 2 being one of them; not a great place for a flashback ). The ending was ambiguous, and left me feeling nothing.

Other than that, it was a pretty good book.

So what is literary fiction anyway? I once asked a respected editor for a definition. With a wry smile, he said, “Fiction that doesn’t sell.” Fact check: Mostly true. For example, most novels nominated for the National Book Award top out at four or five thousand units. Which is not a knock on literary fiction. Books are written for a variety of reasons, and authors do best when they write what they’re moved to write. It’s just that the other side of the fence is called “commercial fiction” for a reason.

One source states: “Literary fiction explores the human condition. While genre fiction (as a whole) seeks to distract the reader through light entertainment, literary fiction is much more introspective in its objective. Literary fiction as a whole wants to make sense of the world around us by exploring the human condition.”

That seems to me inadequate. The best genre fiction also explores the human condition, as in, say, Michael Connelly. Indeed, I have long held that high school reading lists would be better off ditching The Great Gatsby in favor of The Maltese Falcon. The latter is all about the human condition—lust, avarice, greed, obsession, and lies. Best the kids learn about politicians in tenth grade.

Perhaps someone will say literary fiction is more about character, and genre fiction is more about plot. I say that some literary fiction could do with more plot, and some commercial fiction with more character.

In short, I have no idea how to define literary fiction. Maybe it’s best to echo what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in another context: “I know it when I see it.” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964).

There is good and bad literary fiction, and a bunch in between. Judgment here is a matter of taste, of course. But I will venture the thought that “bad” literary fiction stresses style so much that it sacrifices story. It tells us more about the author than it does about the characters. It can feel too much like an attempt to impress. (If you want to do a deep dive on this topic, then pack a lunch and read the controversial article “A Reader’s Manifesto.”)

“Good” literary fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t set up stylistic roadblocks on the way to bonding us with a Lead character.

Someone might say that literary fiction doesn’t tie things up in a “neat little package.” The ending is thus more like “real life.”

You can botch this, too, as did the novel I referenced at the top. There’s a difference between an ambiguous ending that leaves you confused, and one that invites you to contemplation. In my book The Last Fifty Pages I discuss what I call “open-ended” endings. That’s where the author leaves us with a trajectory that we fill out for ourselves. For example, at the end of The Catcher in the Rye we wonder if Holden Caulfield has found a reason to go on living. Salinger doesn’t tell us. Instead, we are made participants in the dénouement.

An ambiguous ending, on the other hand, just leaves us flat.

So why did I write this reflection? I guess to make the point that fiction writing should always be in service of story. Don’t write to impress your readers; write to distress your characters.

I don’t know what else to say on the matter, so I leave it to you to pick up the discussion. Do you have a definition of “literary fiction”? Do you have a favorite writer of same? What draws you to him or her?

I apologize in advance if I’m not able to respond much today, as real life needs some tending.

Put a Funhouse Mirror in the Middle of Your Mystery

by James Scott Bell

Once you wrap your head around the concept of the mirror moment, you’ll find them popping up all over the place.

Quick review. At the midpoint of a novel or movie, you’ll usually find a moment within a scene when the Lead is forced to look himself. There are two kinds of looks: The “who am I?” look and the “I’m probably going to die” look.

The first is when there’s a character arc to the story, the Lead transforming over the course of the narrative. He is a different person at the end. Like Rick in Casablanca, who goes from sticking his neck out for nobody to a man willing to sacrifice his life for a greater good. The mirror moment is when he drunkenly insults the woman he loves, Ilsa, who has tried to explain to him why she left him in Paris. When she leaves, he has a moment (shown visually) of him thinking what a lousy bastard he is.

The second kind of mirror moment is when the Lead is fundamentally the same person at the end, but has been forced to grow stronger. Katniss Everdeen and Richard Kimble are examples of this type. They both have a moment in the middle where they are thinking I cannot possibly survive.

Now, in a series mystery you may have the type of Lead, the Sleuth, who doesn’t change fundamentally at the end of each book. Holmes, Poirot, Marple. Also, physical death may not be on the line.

In that case, you can make the mirror a “funhouse” kind, where everything looks confusing and distorted. Thus, you can always have your Lead considering the frustrating mix of clues that are just not adding up. Could this be the mystery that finally goes unsolved for our hero? (This is professional death for the sleuth).

I recently saw a funhouse mirror in Kiss Me, Deadly by Mickey Spillane. Mike Hammer is not your sensitive, New Age guy. So in the middle of the book Hammer is going over the case with his gal Friday (and love), Velda. She’s been gathering information, and lays it all out. It’s a funhouse mirror:

If ever there was a mess, this was it. Everything out of place and out of focus. The ends didn’t even try to meet. Meet? Hell, they were snarled up so completely nothing made any sense.

A funny side note. Once you’re aware of the mirror moment, you’ll find actual mirrors showing up. I was amused to find this on the very next page of Kiss Me, Deadly:

I went into a bar and had a beer while the facts settled down in my mind. While I sat there I tried to keep from looking at myself in the mirror behind the back bar but it didn’t work. My face wasn’t pretty at all. Not at all. So I moved to a booth in the back that had no mirrors.

So when you write a mystery, or a thriller with a mystery in it, you can always have your Lead, in the middle of things, thinking how nothing makes sense. More, how this is the biggest challenge of his life to date. Your readers will be right there with you, wanting to know how it will work out. Which it will, at the end, in satisfying fashion. Which is your best marketing tool, for as the Mick himself said, “The first chapter sells your book. The last chapter sells your next book.”

Comments and questions welcome.

Have Fun in the Writing Game

by James Scott Bell

On this day in history, in 1936, the Baseball Hall of Fame selected its first group of inductees. They were inarguably the five best players of their time: Ty Cobb, the greatest hitter. Babe Ruth, the greatest slugger. Honus Wagner, the best all-around player; Christy Mathewson, the most skilled pitcher; and Walter Johnson, the man with the greatest (and most feared) fastball. No one seriously questioned this inaugural class.

But during the first two decades of the 20th century, the question of who was the best player of all boiled down to a choice between Cobb and Wagner.

Thy Cobb, the ultimate (and many considered dirtiest) competitor.

Honus Wagner, quietly dominant as both hitter and fielder.

Cobb, an outfielder, trim and fast as an antelope.

Wagner, a shortstop, bow-legged and built like a beer truck.

Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner in the 1909 World Series

The one time they faced each other was in the 1909 World Series. Wagner’s Pittsburgh Pirates beat Cobb’s Detroit Tigers in seven games.

In one game, Cobb got to first base and yelled at Wagner. “I’m gonna steal second, krauthead!” The mild-mannered Wagner said nothing.

On the next pitch Cobb took off. The catcher threw the ball to Wagner, who knew Cobb’s penchant for sliding into bases spikes high, often ripping flesh from an opponent’s leg. Wagner gracefully avoided Cobb’s dreadful skewers and slapped his glove across Cobb’s face. Cobb was out and with a bloody lip for his troubles. (This account comes to us through oral history. If it isn’t true, well, it should have been.)

In the series, Wagner outhit Cobb, .333 to .241.

I bring this up because I am a baseball history buff, and recently ran across a YouTube video of Honus Wagner, age 59, talking about how he still loves being around the game of baseball. It was during spring training for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1933, and Wagner, now a coach, was out there taking batting practice and fielding with the young players.

It’s wonderful to see! Here he is, smacking fastballs and scooping up grounders. And not like some old man. His swing still had power, and his fielding was beautiful.

Then we see him coaching a runner at third, clapping his hands, chattering, “Come on now, here we go now, let’s go now, come on, baby!”

He is having so much fun. He played the game because he loved it, not because of the peanuts players were paid in those early days. He did eventually get paid the princely sum of $10,000 a year. (In 1930, Babe Ruth managed to squeeze $80,000 a year from the Yankees. When a reporter asked how Ruth could accept a larger salary than President Herbert Hoover, and during the Depression yet, Ruth said, “I had a better year than he did.”)

So…have fun when you write! When I’m typing, I try to stay loose and let the words flow. I tell myself, “Come on now, here we go now, let’s go now, come on, baby!”

You know who was the Honus Wagner of writing? Ray Bradbury. You can sense the joy he had when writing his stories. He talked about the need for this mindset, especially in Zen in the Art of Writing. His prime output was the 1950s, but he never stopped, all the way until his death in 2012. “Every morning,” he wrote in Zen, “I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.”

That’s the sense of play we need to nurture.

Yes, there’s work involved with this craft. Of course. But treat it like practice. You can still have fun knowing the effort it making you better.

Another thing about Wagner (which was the opposite of Cobb) is that both fans and fellow players loved him. On the field, he played fair. Off the field, he was humble and thoughtful of others. He famously demanded that the American Tobacco Company stop distributing his baseball card with their product because he didn’t want his likeness to entice kids to smoke. As a result, the few of those 1909 cards that remain are the holy grail for collectors. Last year one of them sold for $7.25 million.

Remember that, writer, when you put yourself out there on social media, which pretends to “reward” rudeness, confrontation, and ranting with “likes.” That becomes a drug from which you will inevitably crash.

Keep it fun, keep it clean, keep writing.

So what about you? Do you do have a sense of fun when you write? Is there anything you purposely do to keep it that way?

And here is that two-minute clip of the great Honus Wagner, talking about the game he loved:

Three Things That Can Sink Your Novel

by James Scott Bell

We had quite a deluge recently in L.A. The good news is we’re out of drought conditions. The bad news is that mudslides and traffic accidents had their predictable increases. Also, a 40-foot sinkhole on a major street opened like the jaws of a subterranean monster, swallowing two vehicles. As reported on local news Channel 5:

A mother and her teen daughter had to be rescued and taken to the hospital Monday night after their Nissan, along with a pickup truck, fell inside the sinkhole.

The passengers in the pickup were able to escape their vehicle uninjured, but the truck landed on top of the Nissan, trapping the woman and the teen.

It took first responders with the Los Angeles Fire Department, Los Angeles County Fire and Ventura Fire about an hour to pull the mother and daughter from the sinkhole in a dangerous rescue operation.

“It was a dynamic rescue,” LAFD Cpt. Erik Scott said. “The cars were shifting, moving. Firefighters did an outstanding job with the calculated rescue. We lowered ladders and ultimately did what we call a high angle rope rescue where we had our big aerial ladder truck, lower a firefighter on a rope, secure a harness, lift those people to safety.”

Here’s what that looked like (click to enlarge):

Thank God no one was seriously injured. And since I can’t turn off my metaphor machine, I found myself thinking about another kind of sinkhole—fiction blunders that can bring the reading experience to a dead stop. Such as:

The Tiresome Lead

A quirky, even interesting, Lead character can quickly wear out his welcome if he goes unchallenged by a little thing I like to call plot. Unless that character faces some trouble, and soon, I’m not likely to wait around. (Sorry fans of A Confederacy of Dunces, but I tried three times to get into this book, and the over-quirked and obnoxious Lead who just roams around whining and jabbering sank me every time.)

Think about another annoying Lead—Scarlett O’Hara. When we first meet her, she’s sitting on her porch flirting with the Tarleton twins. A couple pages of this and we’re almost ready to move on, until…a disturbance. The first sign of trouble for Scarlett—Ashley is going to marry Melanie! That leads to her plan to corner Ashley at the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, which becomes an argument, which leads Ashley storming out, thence to Scarlett throwing a china bowl at the fireplace…at which the voice of Rhett Butler comes from the sofa, “This is too much.”

Three pages later, Charles Hamilton tells her the war has started, and in his clumsy way asks her to marry him. To spite Ashley, she says yes. Hoo boy, is she ever going to have trouble now.

JSB Sinkhole Avoidance Technique #1: Give a disturbance on the opening page, even a subtle one, to shake the Lead out of her placid existence. Then start to pile on the troubles.

The Distant Doorway

It is not until the Lead is forced into the confrontation of Act 2 that full engagement is realized and the main plot begins. Dorothy has immediate trouble with Miss Gulch, who takes Toto away. But it’s not until the twister dumps her in Oz that the story proper begins.

JSB Sinkhole Avoidance Technique #2: Push your Lead through the Doorway of No Return (what some call Plot Point 1) no later than 1/5 into the book (the 1/4 mark is more applicable to screenplays). In GWTW the war breaks out at the 20% mark. (I’m amused at how Margaret Mitchell keeps things moving. The first chapter after passing through the Doorway of No Return begins: Within two weeks Scarlett had become a wife, and within two months more she was a widow. So much for Charles! Let’s move on to Rhett.)

Stakes Less Than Death

I’ve written here before about death stakes. Unless the conflict is a life-and-death struggle, the plot will not engage as it should.

Now, there are three kinds of death. Physical (an obvious one for thrillers), professional, and psychological. Your novel needs one of these as primary. The others can be added below the surface.

For example, Harry Bosch faces all three at one time or another in the Michael Connelly series. I would argue that the primary in most of the books is psychological. For Bosch, his employment as a cop is often on the line (professional) but he is obsessed with cold cases and seemingly “unimportant” victims. “Everybody counts or nobody counts,” he tells a police psychologist in The Last Coyote. “That’s it. It means I bust my ass to make a case whether it’s a prostitute or the mayor’s wife. That’s my rule.” Why? Because his mother, a prostitute, was murdered when he was eleven, and the case went unsolved. To keep from dying inside (psychological death) Bosch gives his all to the forgotten victims.

JSB Sinkhole Avoidance Technique #3: Brainstorm all three types of death for your Lead. Not all may apply, but it’s a good exercise. For example, in a cozy mystery professional (or vocational) death for the sleuth is usually the primary. Miss Marple is faced with a seemingly intractable mystery. Usually there’s not someone out trying to kill her (though maybe that was in a book or two, I don’t know). You, perhaps, might find it a nice way to up the stakes in your cozy.

Avoiding speed bumps, potholes, and sinkholes is part of our craft. And if I may offer a commercial to help in this regard, consider 27 Fiction Writing Blunders – And How Not To Make Them and Plotman to the Rescue: A Troubleshooting Guide to Fixing Your Toughest Plot Problems. I’m here to help.

Any other sinkholes you spot in fiction?

And please drive safe, especially in the rain.