About James Scott Bell

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Writing to Escape

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Some weeks ago we talked about reading for escapism.

What about writing to escape?

In 2020 we had a slew of blog posts about how hard it was to write in 2020. With political, cultural, and pandemic bedlam hitting us all like an unending Oklahoma dust storm, that was no surprise. I added to that conversation here.

Welp, the dust storm is still blowing, and writers need escape just like everyone else. That’s where the magic of story comes to our aid.

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury famously said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

Yet for those of us who write for a living, and those who hope to make some decent dough from writing (which is 99.76% of all writers) there is the sober part of us that keeps one eye on the market. That’s a necessity. We have to try to figure out what readers out there might spend their discretionary income on. In the traditional world of publishing, that calculus is filtered through agents and editors and the sales department.

Indies fly solo, but still must figure all these things out, too. Writing for money is a business. And business can often be frustrating, heartbreaking, even downright depressing.

But through it all, the writer who is a real writer keeps tapping that keyboard. Sometimes just to escape.

That’s why I love writing short stories and flash fiction. Flash fiction is 1k words or less; short stories are usually tagged at 1k – 7.5k. After that you get into the realm of the novelette (up to 20k words) and the novella (up to 49k words).

The beauty of short stories and flash fiction is that you can write them in a beautiful state called “The Zone.” When they’re finished, maybe they work, maybe they don’t. But that is beside the point. First, you have escaped in those hours. And second, nothing is wasted, for you have flexed your writing muscles, always a good thing.

You are not bound by conventions when you flash (er, maybe I should rephrase that). And you can try out different genres with your shorts (maybe I should rephrase that, too).

I’ll even throw in a bonus escape: poetry. Yes, poetry, which Bradbury also read each day and sometimes wrote himself. My personal preference is the whimsical, as in the poetry of Ogden Nash. He didn’t restrict himself to strict meter or schemes, and even made up words to suit his purposes. Thus I give you my Nash-inspired poem “Love in the Age of the Virus.”

This virus, we are told, is unlike anything that came before it—

Not the flu or a cold or pneumonia or a bad headache, so different it is that you darn well better not ignore it.

The answer, they say, is a mask and social distancing,

And should you shirk those things be sure of this: you’ll get plenty of angry insistancing.

Adjust, they say, for this is the normal that is new,

No matter how badly you wish it to be the abnormal that is through.

The way you socialize and eat and even worship in church, or mosque, or synagogue,

Is overseen and shadowed by a huge, regulatory fog.

Thus, they tell us, the best answer to the gloom

Is Zoom.

Ah, methinks, however, that the greatest challenge of all is in the dance of the sexes,

Be it with dates, or schoolmates, or husbands, wives or exes.

And speaking as I must, as a man, I can only say it adds immeasurably to our romantic task

To have to lean over and whisper, deep-voiced and confident, “Hey baby, how about taking off your mask?”

Now, that took me about half an hour to write, and for that half hour I was fully into the joy of creation.

So I work on my full-length fiction—which butters my bread—writing to a quota each day. But when I need pure escape, which is often these days, I’ll give myself fully to a short story or a flash. And when I write something that works the way I want it to, I’ll publish it for my Patreon community, so they can enjoy some escapism, too.

I always come out of these sessions feeling like a better writer. I’ve gained strength. I do believe it shows up in my full-length fiction.

So try this, writing friend, the next time you’re feeling the burdens of the day crushing your creative spirit. Write something short. Take a prompt from Gabriela Pereira’s Writer Igniter and start a flash story. Maybe it will expand into a short story. It might even sow the seeds of a novel. But write it just for yourself. Tell your inner editor to go sit in the corner with your market analyst, and tell them both “No talking.”

I went to Writer Igniter a couple of days ago, and this came up:

I immediately started a story called “Lucky Penny” and wrote the first 800 words. It was pure joy. For half an hour I had escaped. I now have the ending in mind, and a complete story to finish.

I can’t wait.

Do you ever write just to escape?

+6

Who is on Your Writing Rushmore?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A few reflections on the recent Super Bowl.

First of all, what more can be said of Tom Brady? I mean, it’s astounding. It’s not just that he has won seven Super Bowls—more than any other franchise in league history—it’s that he won the latest at the age of 43! And with a full head of hair! And a new team! And he’s going to come back and play at least another year! Exclamation points are required for all this!

More on Mr. Brady in a moment.

I want to say a word about young Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs quarterback. He is an incredible talent, fun to watch, and no doubt will be back in the big game more than once. I’m just as impressed with him off the field. After the game he said, “Obviously, I didn’t play like I wanted to play. What else can you say? All you can do is leave everything you have on the field, and I felt like the guys did that. They were the better team today. They beat us pretty good, the worst I think I’ve been beaten in a long time, but I’m proud of the guys and how they fought to the very end of the game.”

That’s called leadership. Mahomes (whose father was a major league baseball pitcher) also said something that applies to all of us as we face the challenges of the writing life:

“My dad lost in the World Series in his career. He continued to battle and continued to be who he was. Obviously it hurts right now. It hurts a lot. But we’re going to continue to get better. We have a young group of guys that have had a lot of success and have learned from that. We’ve had a few failures, and we have to learn from that. We can’t let this define us. We have to continue to get better, going into next year and being even better and preparing ourselves to hopefully be in this game again.”

That’s how you handle a setback.

Now, back to Brady. He has long been considered to be the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) at the quarterback position. You really can’t argue with that. The question after this Super Bowl has changed to: Is Tom Brady the greatest team athlete of all time? The only other contenders, in my opinion, are Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. (I’m not counting individual athletics, where you have numerous contenders to argue about, e.g., Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods, etc.)

Brady, in my view, is now at the top of the list. There was always a contention by Brady doubters that he benefitted from being coached in New England all those years by Bill Belichick, a supposed football genius. Well, guess what? Brady leaves the Patriots to go to a team that had finished 7-9 the year before. He takes them to the Super Bowl and wins. Maybe it was Brady who made his former coach a “genius.” (The Patriots went 7-9 and failed to make the playoffs.)

Now, to turn this to writing, I got to thinking about the GOAT of literature. It’s probably an impossible discussion because there are so many variables, including personal taste. So to make it easier, let’s go to another metaphor that’s often used in sports. Who would you put on your Rushmore of writers? That means you get four names. To narrow it down, let’s make it from the nineteenth century on, so we’re not arguing Shakespeare, Homer, Cervantes, Chaucer, etc. My criteria would be an author who wrote at least two novels we still talk about and study today; and who exerted a palpable influence on other writers. With that in mind, here is my Rushmore:

Fyodor Dostoevsky
My choice for the GOAT if I had to pick one. Best novel ever written? The Brothers Karamazov.

Mark Twain
Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”

Ernest Hemingway
His style was envied and copied, but never duplicated.

Raymond Chandler
I select him over Dickens because of the influence he had on an entire genre.

Now it’s your turn. Who is on your Rushmore of writers? Do you have a GOAT?

+10

The Em Dash and I—A Love Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Happy Valentine’s Day! Since love is in the air, I thought I’d write about my own passionate affair. Don’t worry. My wife knows all about it, and doesn’t mind, though she wonders at my ardent attachment. “It’s just a punctuation mark,” she says.

“Not just any!” say I. “It’s the most versatile of the lot. It’s clean and strong. It clarifies and emphasizes without being boorish. Do not belittle my love of the em dash!”

Or something to that effect.

So yes, I confess. My heart is enraptured by the em.

Now, there are actually three types of dashes you need to know about. While technically not a “dash,” the hyphen is a line like the other two. It’s the shortest of the bunch because it is used only to connect words that have a combined meaning. Like: He’s a two-time champion.

A bit longer is the en dash. The main thing to know about the en is that it’s primarily used to join numbers, as in “The Dodgers beat the Reds, 3–2.” Or, “Robert Benchley (1889–1945) was an American humorist.” Many writers use a hyphen or an em dash for this, and shouldn’t.

By the way, the names en and em come from the days of movable type. An en dash was determined to be the approximate length of the typeface n. An em dash was the length of the m. (Frankly, I think it would have saved a lot of confusion if these dashes had been named Marge and Sylvia.)

Now, on to the star of my article, the em. It is a crisp, efficient dash used to set off a word or clause for emphasis or additional information. I use it instead of a parenthesis or a colon. (Those of you have who been longtime followers of TKZ know of my disdain for the semicolon in fiction. I am with Vonnegut on that score. “Here is a lesson in creative writing,” he wrote. “First rule: Do not use semicolons…All they do is show you’ve been to college.”)

(Astute readers will note that in the above paragraph, and this one, I use a parenthesis. That’s because, when it comes to punctuation, I draw a distinction between fiction and nonfiction. The parenthesis and semicolon are useful in nonfiction. I use them myself, just not in fiction.)

Actually, I may have used a parenthesis on occasion in my short fiction. Stephen King loves parentheses. He uses them as a device to get into the head of the viewpoint character or to drop in a little backstory. Here, for example, is a clip from one of his early short stories, “Children of the Corn.”

He stopped, looking directly into the corn. He found himself thinking (anything to untrack from those rags that were not rags) that it must have been a fantastically good growing season for corn.

And this:

His mind was elsewhere, listening to the dull buzz of a cicada burrowing into one of the nearby elms. He could smell corn, dusty roses, and fertilizer. For the first time they were off the turnpike and in a town. A town in a state he had never been in before (although he had flown over it from time to time in United Airlines 747s) and somehow it felt all wrong but all right.

Here’s one where King uses parenthesis and em dash both!

While she picked at the knots (her face was set in a peculiar way—expressionless but tight-mouthed—that Burt remembered his mother wearing when she pulled the innards out of the Sunday chicken), Burt turned on the radio again.

(Down in the comments, tell me what you think of King’s use of parentheses. It may help him sell more books.)

Sometimes I use the em dash instead of a comma. Here’s an example from Romeo’s Hammer:

So what about the lack of clothing? A love scene gone bad? Someone who had been with her while she was drinking—or drugging—herself? Her condition when I found her was such that she had to have come from one of the beach houses. Access to the sand is cut off all along PCH. She didn’t wander down from the street.

I used the em dash here because I wanted more emphasis on the word drugging than a comma setoff would create.

The other major use for the em dash is interruptions in dialogue. Please do not use ellipses for this! Those three dots are used for a voice trailing off by speaker’s choice.

“I don’t know, Stan, let me …”

Stan turned around. “Let you what?”

The em dash shows an interruption, which should immediately be followed by the other speaker’s words (or an action which cuts off the sentence, like a bullet through the heart). Again from Romeo’s Hammer:

“That’s a fine achievement,” I said. “You do know that kara is an ancient word that means to cleanse oneself of evil thoughts, and to be humbly receptive to peace and gentleness. Yes? You are therefore abusing your own discipline. That’s not a good way to—”

“Shut it!”

The em dash is also used for self-interruption:

“Slow down,” Jack said. “You’re driving too—stop! Look over there.”

In doing a little research, I was delighted to find that em dash love is so pervasive that it was even covered in the NY Times:

Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s “Comma Queen” and the author of “Between You and Me,” wrote in an email that the em dash “can be substituted for almost any other mark of punctuation — the comma, the semicolon, the colon, the period, a pair of parentheses, the quotation mark, even a bullet point in the making of a list.” Just don’t use more than two in a sentence, according to some experts.

***

[W]riter Laura van den Berg confessed in her own tweet that, “after years of resistance,” she had fallen “into headlong love with the em dash. I love the way it can create the feeling of a fractured/incomplete/interrupted line or thought.”

Technical notes:

Don’t put a space before or after the em dash. Only newspapers using the AP Stylebook do that, and only because columns of newsprint (remember newsprint?) are easier to justify with the spaces.

In Word for Mac, you make a hyphen by typing the hyphen key. (You’re welcome.)

En dash is option+hyphen.

Em dash is shift+option+hyphen. (Also, Word will convert two hyphens into an em automatically).

For PC users, things are a bit more involved. You may consult this article.

Okay, TKZers, over to you. Do you love the em dash? Is there another punctuation mark you’d like to send a Valentine to?

+17

Movie Gems from the Early 1930s

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In one of Steve’s recent posts I left a comment with a little ditty based on the famous song “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.” The song is from the 1933 film 42nd Street. Steve commented that he’d have to see it sometime. To which I say YES! Every writer, actor, dancer—indeed, any artist who bleeds for their art—needs to see this classic.

With dance numbers choreographed by the great Busby Berkeley, 42nd Street is the backstage tale of a Broadway musical, from initial financing to opening night. The central plot revolves around a naive young actress newly arrived in the big city (Ruby Keeler) who gets cast in the show’s chorus. Will she somehow emerge a star? (Go ahead, guess.) The marvelous cast includes Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, and Una Merkle, supported by veteran character actors Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, and Allen Jenkins.

Ruby Keeler and Warner Baxter in 42nd Street

But the movie belongs to Warner Baxter as Julian Marsh, the show’s director. Baxter—who a few years earlier won the second Academy Award for Best Actor (In Old Arizona, 1928)—fully inhabits the role of a man whose life is the theater, who is incapable of compromise, who would rather die (and just might!) than put on a mediocre show. Baxter gives us a masterful range of emotion, gaining intensity the closer they get to opening night. And then comes a crisis! The show is in danger! Can Baxter pull out a miracle? (Go ahead, guess.) We get the show itself for the last part of the movie. And then, for my money, one of most memorable last shots in movie history. When you see that shot—being the artist that you are—you’ll relate to it fully.

All this got me thinking about a few other gems from the early 1930s—the “pre-code era”—that shouldn’t be missed.

You’ll not see a finer ensemble cast than the one in Dinner at Eight (1933, dir. George Cukor). It’s led by Marie Dressler, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and Jean Harlow. From this film you can learn about handling parallel plotlines, and also the great value of orchestration. That is, creating characters who have the greatest possibilities for conflict with one another. Indeed, this is responsible for one of the best last lines ever. It’s between the highly-cultured actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) and the gorgeous but unrefined Kitty (Jean Harlow). Since it doesn’t spoil the film plot wise, here it is:

No pre-code retrospective would be complete without at least one film starring Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck, of course, went on to become one of the big stars of the golden age of movies, and then on TV in The Big Valley. Equally adept at comedy and drama, Stanwyck shot to fame in 1930 in the Frank Capra-directed Ladies of Leisure. She plays a “party girl” who falls genuinely in love. Stanwyck—not a classic beauty a la Garbo or Harlow—demonstrates that sexiness is as much about attitude as it is about surface features.

Stanwyck would show that over and over in her career, but never with more verve than in Baby Face (1933). As Lily Powers (great name) she uses her sexuality to seduce men on her way up the ladder in New York City. (The film is also notable for a small part played by a miscast young actor named John Wayne.)

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night

And then, of course, there’s a film everyone who loves movies should see: It Happened One Night (1934, dir. Frank Capra). From this you can learn the tropes of a great romance. Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is a spoiled heiress who goes on the run, against her father’s wishes, to get to the man she wants to marry. The story becomes a national sensation. Taking a night bus for New York, Ellie is recognized by a street-smart reporter, Peter Warne (Clark Gable). He offers to help get her to her lover in return for her story, exclusive.

These two peas are not from the same pod. They take an immediate dislike to each other (trope). Through a series of obstacles they begin to fall in love (trope). But a big misunderstanding sunders their romance (trope) until…well, you need to see it.

The movie was not supposed to be a big hit. It was made by a small studio (Columbia) and Gable was in it only because he had been “loaned out” by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. Mayer was mad at Gable for demanding a raise, and wanted to teach him a lesson.

Some lesson. Gable won the Oscar as the film swept the major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay.

One famous bit of trivia. There’s a scene where Gable starts to undress in front of Colbert. When he takes off his shirt, he’s bare chested. Thereafter in America, sales of men’s undershirts plummeted.

The film also shows the value of what I call the “spice” of minor characters. Don’t ever waste yours. They are opportunities to delight your readers. The two standout spices in It Happened One Night are a pair of great character actors: Roscoe Karns as an obnoxious, would-be Lothario; and Alan Hale as a roadster-driving con man.

Undergirding it all is the flawless script by Robert Riskin, a frequent Capra collaborator. More trivia: During the production of his script for Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), Riskin reportedly got increasingly annoyed by critics talking about “the Capra touch.” One day, when he felt Capra himself was taking too much credit, he stormed into Capra’s office and threw down 120 pages of blank paper. “Put the Capra touch on that!” he said, thus becaming a hero to Hollywood screenwriters ever after.

I only have time for some honorable mentions, but these are all worth seeing and contain lessons for every writer. You should be able to find most of these via streaming services and/or YouTube:

Little Caesar (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931)

Cimarron (1931)

The Champ (1931)

American Madness (1932)

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

Rain (1932)

Scarface (1932)

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

The Power and the Glory (1933)

The Thin Man (1934)

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

Happy viewing!

Any other early movie favorites you’d like to add? Of the films mentioned, which have you seen? Any other writer lessons you draw from them?

+14

More Escapism, Please

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Erle Stanley Gardner

Say, just wondering, but have any of you awakened lately and felt like you’re not in your own bed, but rather inside the trash compacter from Star Wars?

That’s what I thought. Thus the word escape comes to mind. And isn’t that what good, solid, entertaining fiction is about? I believe in escapism. It’s as necessary for human flourishing as good food, good sleep, and good company.

Erle Stanley Gardner, said:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

Dean Koontz said:

“In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness.”

And this from our own Brother Gilstrap:

“I want to make their hearts beat a little faster and I want to make them laugh and sometimes cry. I want to earn those occasional emails I get from readers who share that my stories have been welcome diversions from the problems stacked up by real life.”

That can be said of all of us here at TKZ. Nothing pleases us more than transporting readers into a fictive dream.

And yet, it isn’t always easy to escape into fiction these days. When was the last time you “got lost” in a book? So much so that all considerations of time and other pursuits went completely away?

It was a lot easier in the days before computers, smart phones, social media, cable and satellite TV with a gazillion channels, endless content streams, 24/7 news cycles and on and on.

In spite of all that—nay, because of it—we all have a craving for regular escape.

So here’s what I’ve done. I have a special chair in my family room, set by a window, which is my reading chair. Having the same physical location for my reading sets off a Pavlovian response in my mind, i.e., that here is where I don’t have to check my phone, scan the internet, or worry about anything. The only concession to technology is putting on smooth jazz via the Pandora app on my phone.

Also, in this chair I prefer to read a physical book. I like that old-school feeling of having pages in my hands and a to-be-read stack on the table. (When I’m not in my chair, but in bed or waiting in an office, I do utilize my Kindle, with its 99¢ collection of the complete works of Dickens, and so on. I’m no Luddite.)

Next comes the “getting lost” part. There’s a certain mental practice required here, I believe. For example, when I start a novel I give the author the benefit of all doubt. I am pulling for them to pull me in. When they do, it’s magic. If the opening chapters aren’t stellar, I still give the author some space, hoping things will change for the better. This space is limited, however; I am more prone to setting aside a book that doesn’t hold me than I used to be.

What if you don’t have a lot of time to escape? Or you’re in the midst of a pressing day and you need to snatch some relief?

The answer is the short story. In the bookshelf near my reading chair are several collections of short stories. Everything from Hemingway (who I consider the undisputed master of the form) and Irwin Shaw, to collections of classic pulp, such as The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (ed. Otto Penzler).

I can always grab one of these and go for a satisfying ride. When I return to “real life,” I feel refreshed.

In that regard, please indulge me in a short commercial. I’ve got a project for escapism over at Patreon. My product is short stories. I write stand-alone suspense, stories that tug the heart, and on occasion something speculative, a la Ray Bradbury. I also have a series character who is a troubleshooter for a movie studio in post WWII Los Angeles (written in classic pulp style). These stories are exclusively for patrons, and cost less than a Starbucks drip. (I also do flash fiction—under 1k words—for ten-minute escapes.)

And for the price of a fancy-dancy frothy drink, you get the stories plus advance review copies (ARCs) of my full-length fiction.

All the details can be found here. I would be most grateful for your support.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program, with some questions from our host:

When was the last time you got lost in a book? Is finding time to read more difficult for you these days? Do you have a preferred place to read? Are you a “physical” or “ebook” or “doesn’t matter” reader?

 

+16

Reader Friday: Sympathy for the Devil

“The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror. Think of the pathetic aspect of the Frankenstein monster. Think of the poor werewolf, hating what he becomes in the light of the full moon, but incapable of resisting the lycanthropic tides in his own cells.” – Dean Koontz (see also Mick Jagger/Keith Richards)

Do you agree with Koontz? Is there an example in book or film that comes to mind? Do you think about the sympathy factor for the bad guys in your fiction?

+10

Stretch That Tension

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here’s a first page up for critique. Put on your muskrat-fur ushanka and join us in the bowels of Moscow’s busy transit system. And watch your back.

***

Death was close, following him like a ghost’s lingering presence.

District court judge Konstantin Reznikov felt it deep in his bones as he rushed along the platform of Komsomolskaya metro station. He clutched his briefcase like his life depended on it. And in a way it did. If he could pass the evidence to the man he was meeting, he might live to see another day.

People were swarming into the station from all sides that early Monday morning and there was barely enough room to put one foot in front of the other. A stranger’s warm breath grazed his neck and frozen fingers brushed his hand—the one holding the briefcase. He shuddered as a chill coursed through his body. Ignoring the angry protests as he pushed through the crowd, Konstantin searched for his contact. All he’d been able to find were some old newspaper photos, but he couldn’t have changed much.

“Damn it,” he muttered when a train entered the station and more people flooded in. Right then and there, he hated the Russian subway system and its 1 minute time-lapse between trains during rush hours. As the sound momentarily deafened him, he hated himself even more for choosing this place as the rendezvous point.

Komsomolskaya metro station was one of the busiest stations in Moscow. Even tourists came to visit due to its breathtaking architecture. Once upon a time, when he’d been a student from the province coming to attend law school, he’d been one of these awed people. But that was long before cynicism and corruption rotted away his innocence. For so long he’d been unable to live with himself, but this last case was too much. He couldn’t turn a blind eye to this one too.

Ironically, the theme of the station’s eight large ceiling mosaics was the historical Russian fight for freedom and independence. Maybe that’s why his subconscious had chosen this particular place. Maybe this was his attempt to fight and rebel against the system that had trapped him for years in a golden cage adorned with money and accolades.

There it was again: malevolent eyes boring into his back. His time was running out and the man was nowhere to be found.

Inhaling deeply, steeling himself, Konstantin stopped next to the escalator, clutching the banister until his knuckles turned white and looked around once more. Finally, he saw him.

***

JSB: This is good fodder for a grabber of an opening page. I love the uniqueness of the setting and the description of it. And what’s not to like about a Russian judge in the grip of an opening disturbance of the most basic sort—life and death? The writing is cinematic. I can see this on the big screen. Brian Cox as Konstantin.

So let’s do some editing.

Death was close, following him like a ghost’s lingering presence.

There’s nothing really wrong about this opening line. It acts like a teaser for the scene to follow. That’s a technique many a writer has used before. For example, Ken Follett in The Pillars of the Earth:

 The small boys came early to the hanging.

So it’s fine as is, but I’ll suggest an alternative for future reference. Instead of telling us in narrative what’s about to unfold, just start off with the unfolding:

District court judge Konstantin Reznikov rushed along the platform of Komsomolskaya metro station. He clutched his briefcase like his life depended on it. And in a way it did. If he could pass the evidence to the man he was meeting, he might live to see another day.

In this way, you drop the reader into the story in medias res—into the action itself.

He shuddered as a chill coursed through his body.

Two descriptions, side by side, of the same thing dilute the overall effect. Sol Stein called this the “1 + 1 = 1/2” mistake. I would go with shuddered. Chills coursing through bodies or up spines is a cliché.

All he’d been able to find were some old newspaper photos, but he couldn’t have changed much.

This needs more clarity. The pronoun he is used twice in the sentence, but applied to different people, so it slows us down (we recently discussed the importance of grammar, and this is a good example of the need). Put in another sentence or two about when and where this research was done, and a line explaining why this person “couldn’t have changed much.” People change their appearance all the time, often instantly, if they don’t want to be recognized, etc.

“Damn it,” he muttered when a train entered the station and more people flooded in. Right then and there, he hated the Russian subway system and its 1 minute time-lapse between trains during rush hours. As the sound momentarily deafened him, he hated himself even more for choosing this place as the rendezvous point.

I’m not getting why he would choose this place if he hated it so much. Later you say it might be his “subconscious.” That’s a little hard to buy considering this man is a judge who seems careful about planning things out, and knows that what he’s doing could get him whacked.

Also, as a general rule, spell out numbers under ten. And don’t hyphenate time lapse, as I believe that always refers to time-lapse photography. Thus: … Russian subway system and its one-minute time lapse between trains…

For so long he’d been unable to live with himself, but this last case was too much. He couldn’t turn a blind eye to this one too.

Another confusing sentence. If he’d been unable to live with himself, then this last case really didn’t push him anywhere. I’d suggest this fix: For so long he’d been fighting to live with himself, but…

Ironically, the theme of the station’s eight large ceiling mosaics was the historical Russian fight for freedom and independence.

This sounds a bit too author-ish. Almost like a line out of an essay. I do like the detail here, so filter it through the character. Something like:

For a moment he looked at the eight large ceiling mosaics depicting Russia’s historical fight for freedom and independence. He choked on the bitter irony, trapped as he was in a golden cage adorned with money and accolades.

There it was again: malevolent eyes boring into his back. His time was running out and the man was nowhere to be found.

Here, I think, is a good place to do some stretching of the tension. That is, whenever you have a suspense situation, do not resolve it too soon. In fact, in a first draft, overwrite these scenes. You can always trim them later. But the more skilled you become at tension stretching, the more you’ll be writing what all us scribes are after—a page turner (or page swiper or page clicker, as the case may be nowadays).

So instead of telling us Konstantin’s time is running out, show us. Instead of a feeling of “malevolent eyes,” give us more to see on the page, like Konstantin spinning around, desperately looking for his stalker. Maybe spotting one who might be him! Approaching! But then the guy jumps on a train, or just walks by. Etc.

Inhaling deeply, steeling himself, Konstantin stopped next to the escalator, clutching the banister until his knuckles turned white and looked around once more.

The POV police will let you off with a warning this time, but watch it from now on. We are in Konstantin’s POV, so he is not looking at his white knuckles (in any event, the cliché squad will come after you, too). But he can feel his knuckles. (Note, escalators have handrails; stairways have banisters). Thus: …clutching the handrail until his knuckles ached… 

Finally, he saw him.

I would definitely turn the page. But I get the feeling the scene (a prologue?) is soon to end, with Konstantin getting iced. Maybe not. Maybe this is our lead character. Assuming for the moment he is not, let me leave you with a suggestion about using strategic backstory.

This scene could go on for two, three, maybe more pages. You could stretch the tension with added beats, but also drop in Konstantin’s internal thoughts and more details about his backstory. Does he have family? How did he get put in the gilded cage? Does he have hope for the future?

What this does is build up empathy and even a little sympathy. We as readers get more invested in this character. So if he does indeed get sent to the marble orchard we’ll feel some emotion. And that is the key to popular fiction, after all—it is primarily an emotional ride.

To see how a master stretches tension with strategic backstory in what is essentially a prologue, and creates sympathy for a character who is being stalked, have a look at the opening of Dean Koontz’s Midnight (below).

Again, writer, good setting and situation. I hope these notes and the comments to follow help you on your scribal journey. Keep writing!

***

Click “Preview” to read the Koontz opening.

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Will We All Be Grunting Soon?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Remember when we used to call them “grammar schools”? The idea was to train the young in the foundational rules for communicating in our language, especially in written form. Such teaching has fallen on hard times. Fewer and fewer teachers are adequately trained or interested in the rules of grammar. The fallout can be seen everywhere, from schoolrooms to boardrooms, from books to blogs.

If this slide continues, what will we be left with? Grunting, I suppose. We could end up communicating like the monster in Young Frankenstein:

In years past, all journals and newspapers had crusty editors who were deeply grounded in rules of style and grammar, and could train their cubs to be more precise and understandable. But this species of grammarian has largely died out. And with the onset of digital and instant media, the flubs are flowing more freely than cheap beer at a bowling alley wedding.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m no grammar expert. Unless I’m reminded, I don’t know a gerund from Geritol. To me, conjugation sounds like what prison inmates get when their wives visit. Nevertheless, I try to do service to the King’s English by regularly checking reference books like Write Right!

So allow me to cite a few examples of grammatical drift I’ve come across recently, mostly from “reputable” sites. They may seem innocuous now, but they’re like pebbles that precede a landslide. Let us watch our wording lest we get buried under rocks of perpetual bafflement!

Apple have been focused on your point of sale dollars for hardware.

A verb has to agree with its subject. Apple is singular, so has is required.

He has been more prolific in his career than either Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach.

It’s either/or, not either/and.

Yet why does more than 1 billion devices worldwide, in all socioeconomic strata and often most dominant in emerging markets, only account for 6% of publishers’ sales typically?

Can you spot the error in this mangle of a sentence?

The best hope for conference chaos this Fall after the Big Ten canceled football season lied with Ohio State.

Hoo boy. The lie, lay, lied, laid distinction is one of the trickiest in our language. I confess it confuses me still. But it doesn’t take an English degree to sense that lied is wrong. What to do? Consult a stylebook, or find an online explanation like this one that explains the differences.

Another editorial judgment is whether to just rewrite the sentence for greater clarity. In this case, I would. First off, is the writer saying people “hope” for “conference chaos”? Or is the gist of the thought that a hopeful end to the chaos would come via Ohio State?

I suspect it’s the latter, and if so the main thought of the sentence is deflated somewhat by its structure. We need a rearrangement and a comma. And we don’t need that big capital F jumping out at us in the middle. (Almost always, a season should be lowercase. How do I know? I looked it up!)

I would recast the sentence thus:

After the Big Ten canceled football season, the best hope for ending conference chaos this fall was Ohio State.

Instead, Costas had to take a pop shot at one of the sports he helped cover for a large part of his 38-year career at NBC Sports.

Did Costas throw a can of soda? Or was this a potshot (one word), an off-hand critical remark?

How Zoom’s new features will fair in the video conferencing landscape.

One wonders how Zoom can put up a Ferris wheel and sell cotton candy in a conferencing landscape.

They’ve heard the writing on the wall.

A neat trick!

We have to tip your hat to them.

I’ll do what I please with my own hat, thank you very much.

Now the FBI goes to work pouring over surveillance videos.

Pouring what? Coffee? Won’t that hinder the investigation? I’ll need to pore over more articles to figure out what they’re doing.

We were all waiting with baited breath.

I wonder what they baited their breath with? I’ve tried anchovies, but my wife objects.

In the absence of editors, what’s a writer in a hurry to do? (Here I’m distinguishing articles and the like from novel-length books, where we do have more time for beta readers and editors. See also Terry’s excellent self-editing tips.)

I know there are digital grammar apps, like Grammarly, that might help. Most of them require a subscription and I’ve heard they’re not 100% accurate. At least you should take the time to check your doc with Word’s spelling-and-grammar tool, and listen to your document via text-to-speech.

Words and how they sound are our bread and butter. So don’t jam up the works with clunky grammar. That’s just not fare to our readers, who tip our hats to us.

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Reader Friday: Jump Inside a Book

As a kid I loved the Gumby (and his pal, Pokey) animated shorts, especially for the times when they would “jump into” a famous novel and appear in the world of that story. They’d interact with the characters and influence outcomes.

If you could jump into a novel and be part of the story, what novel would you choose, and what would you do inside that world?

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