About James Scott Bell

International Thriller Writers Award winner, #1 bestselling author of PLOT & STRUCTURE and thrillers including ROMEO'S RULES, ROMEO'S WAY, ROMEO'S HAMMER , TRY DYING, DON'T LEAVE ME, and FINAL WITNESS. You can be the first to know about his new releases by going HERE.

Of Fathers and Dragons

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Only twice in my life did I see my dad cry.

The first time was fifty years ago as we watched the funeral train of Robert Kennedy on TV. I was just becoming politically aware then, and Bobby Kennedy was the first politician I ever responded to. I was too young to vote, but was caught up in the aura and optimism of this man running for president.

When he was cut down at the Ambassador Hotel it was such a seismic shock, especially in view of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination just weeks before.

My dad, who grew up in the Depression and fought in WWII, was a Roosevelt Democrat. We were thus a Kennedy family when JFK was elected. I was just a kid, but (like most people alive then) I remember where I was when I heard that JFK had been shot. I was on the playground at Serrania Avenue Elementary school, sitting on bench awaiting my turn at kickball,. A boy ran up and started spouting the news. I didn’t believe him.

So I ran back to our classroom and looked in the window and saw my teacher, Mrs. Raymond, at her desk, her head in her hands, shoulders shaking. And I thought, “Wow. It’s true.”

Cut to June, 1968. I was sitting on the floor in our living room, my dad was in his favorite chair, and Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train was on TV. All of a sudden Dad burst into tears. Not little ones. Heaving sobs. My mom heard him from the kitchen and ran in and threw her arms around him and held him. I sat there in stunned silence, looking at my big, strong rock of a father as I’d never seen him before.

Life started to get a little more complex for me then. And life, as we all know, does not let up. The next year, 1969, was the year of the Manson murders. The evil of that was hard to comprehend, especially living in L.A. where it all went down. Manson and his “family” holed up in a canyon just ten miles from where I lived and where I rode my bike and stayed outside all day during the summers.

Now Manson’s face was in the papers and on the local news. This crazy-eyed monster had manipulated several people into committing such heinous acts. When the trial began we saw the defendants, stuporous and smiling about the whole thing. Female “family members” who kept vigil outside the courtroom carved Xs into their foreheads and warned whoever walked by, “You better watch your children because Judgment Day is coming.”

How the hell (literally) could this happen? If you want to know, read Helter Skelter, Vince Bugliosi’s riveting account of the Manson murders and trial (Bugliosi was the prosecutor). But beware—you may have a nightmare or two, as I did.

The second time I saw my dad with a tear in his eye was when he was giving a speech to a ballroom full of criminal lawyers. Dad was by this time the leading expert on California search and seizure law, and he was describing an infamous event where the LAPD used a battering ram to crush a house in a black neighborhood. He saw the pictures, which included a scared little boy on the street watching all this as he held his ice cream cone. The words caught in Dad’s throat. He was silent for a moment, took a breath, and moved on.

I was a law student at the time and had inherited my dad’s view of the majesty of the law. But that moment, short as it was, showed me how deeply he felt about his calling.

And about the incalculable value he placed on our 4th Amendment. I can still hear Dad’s voice when someone would question him about this basic right. Dad would go into oratorical mode and recite, word for word, William Pitt’s famous utterance to the House of Commons in 1763: “The poorest man may, in his cottage, bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown! It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; the rain may enter. But the King of England cannot enter. All his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!”

Dad also helped set up a federal indigent defense panel in Los Angeles, giving the poor legal representation before Gideon v. Wainwright made it mandatory. I was proud to be his son. Still am.

That’s why justice is the theme I’m always writing about, consciously or not. Because in our books we have the chance to bring about what is often absent in “real life.” That’s one reason people read thrillers, isn’t it? We long for justice, hope for it, and within the pages of a good book we can find it.

I’m not into nihilism. I’m not into the ending of Chinatown. I’m into good prevailing over evil. I’m into fighting the good fight even—no, especially—in a world that can produce a Manson and assassins of good people.

The other day my son told me the story most requested by his own son, not yet four years old, is “St. George and the Dragon.” It put me in mind of that great quote from G. K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

Put me down as a fan of the dragon slayers.

I dedicate this post to the memory of them—my father, Arthur Scott Bell, Jr.

7+

Authors I Have Learned From: John D. MacDonald

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

On July 14 I’ll be leading a panel at ThrillerFest on literary influences. The guests are David Morrell, Lisa Gardner, Ted Bell, Peter Blauner, Robert Gleason and W. Michael Gear. Still time to register for TFest. Hope to see some of you there.

That subject got me thinking about the authors who have influenced me, so I thought from time to time I’d write about them, and some of the lessons learned.

I begin with John D. MacDonald. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, here’s a clip from The Red Hot Typewriter by Hugh Merrill:

From the 1950s through the 1980s, John Dann McDonald was one of the most popular and prolific writers in America. He was a crime writer who managed to break free of the genre and finally get serious consideration from critics. Seventy of his novels and more than 500 of his short stories were published in his lifetime. When he died in 1986, more than seventy million of his books had been sold.

I first became seriously interested MacDonald when I read that he was one of Dean Koontz’s favorite writers. I’d read a couple of the Travis McGee books, for which MacDonald is most famous. But it was when I picked up some of his 1950s paperback originals that I really got into him. I went on a collecting binge for several years and now have a full collection of said paperbacks, including the one hardest to get, Weep For Me (1951). MacDonald refused to let it be reprinted. He was embarrassed by it, calling it a lousy imitation of James M. Cain. (I went to her in that shadowy place under the concrete arch. The early traffic slammed across the bridge, tearing the air. I took what I had won, the way any animal does.) It’s better than that (the folks at Random House have decided to give it life again) but was still hewing to the minimalist style popularized by Cain, Hammett, and Spillane—who were all beholden to Hemingway.

In those early years MacDonald wrote science fiction, hard-boiled detective, crime, contemporary adult, and even a multi-protagonist novel (The Damned) centered around a single event, influenced no doubt by Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

One theme he returned to was the existential angst of the 50s man. His 1953 novel, Cancel All Our Vows, is superior to Sloan Wilson’s more famous The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). It’s the story of one Fletcher Wyant, age 36, a middle manager at a big company. The following passage is quintessential MacDonald:

And, as he was looking, it happened to him again. It was something that had started with the first warm days of spring. All colors seemed suddenly brighter, and with his heightened perception, there came also a deep, almost frightening sadness. It was a sadness that made him conscious of the slow beat of his heart, of the roar of blood in his ears. And it was a sadness that made him search for identity, made him try to re-establish himself in his frame of reference in time and space. Fletcher Wyant. He of the blonde wife and the kids and the house and the good job. It was like an incantation, or the saying of beads. But the sadness seemed to come from a feeling of being lost. Of having lost out, somehow. He could not translate it into the triteness of saying that his existence was without satisfaction. He was engrossed in his work and loved it. He could not visualize any existence without Jane and the kids. Yet, during these moments that seemed to be coming more frequently these last few weeks, he had the dull feeling that somehow time was eluding him, that there was not enough of life packed into the time he had.

When MacDonald finally settled on writing mostly crime fiction, he produced some true classics, like The End of the Night, which pre-dated Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and The Executioners, the basis of the movie Cape Fear. (Note: The 1962 Gregory Peck-Robert Mitchum version is better than the 1991 Robert De Niro-Nick Nolte remake directed by Martin Scorsese, though it was a nice gesture to give both Peck and Mitchum minor roles in that one.)

There’s a great story around the writing of The Executioners. MacDonald regularly met with a group of writers in Florida, one of whom was MacKinlay Kantor. Kantor, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, used to needle MacDonald about all the “paperback trash” he wrote. One day he asked John, “When are you going to write a real book?”

MacDonald was ticked. He said he could write a book in thirty days that would be serialized in a magazine, become a book club selection, and be turned into a movie. Kantor laughed. MacDonald bet him fifty bucks. And, of course, won.

The first lesson I picked up from a wide reading of MacDonald is what he termed “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish. You don’t want a style that calls so much attention to itself that’s all the reader is thinking about. On the other hand, it’s not stripped-down minimalism of the Hemingway-Cain school.

MacDonald found the right place. His books are filled with passages that capture a character or setting with just a few incandescent lines. Here’s an example from one of the Travis McGee books, Darker Than Amber:

She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of picked bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been.

I’ve never forgotten that image. Indeed, I believe MacDonald could have been one of our best mainstream writers, a Book-of-the-Month Club darling like Norman Mailer or John O’Hara. He could have written “big” books that weren’t disasters. But his paperbacks paid the bills, and that’s what he kept producing.

Which brings me to another aspect of his career that inspired me—his work ethic. MacDonald came out of corporate America and approached his writing like a job. He wrote each day from morning till noon, had lunch, went back to work and knocked off at five for a martini and dinner. He took Sundays off.

MacDonald also left behind a legacy of short stories. Two collections of his crime and mystery stories are The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff. But I think I prefer his more literary collection, End of the Tiger. One of the stories, “The Bear Trap,” inspired me to try my own hand at this type of tale. So in honor of JDM, I’m making my story “Golden” free this week. Enjoy.

John D. MacDonald was once asked how he’d like his epitaph to read. His answer: “He hung around quite a while, entertained the folk, and was stopped quick and clean when the right time came.”

MacDonald’s time came much too soon. He died at age 70 from complications arising out of heart surgery. He left his wife an estate worth $5 million (in 1986 dollars) and left the rest of us some really good stuff. Not a bad way for a writer to go after all.

8+

Be Clear About WHO and WHERE in the Opening

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Greetings, first-page-critique fans. We have another one for you today, with my comments following. Pick up your favorite blue pencil, but don’t do anything with it, as it might damage your screen. Here we go:

The two camouflaged motorcycles approached the intersection from the east in a bowl of dust, and the soldier in front raised his hand to signal a stop before skidding to a halt. The second biker pulled up next to him, and they carefully observed their surroundings before they cut the engines. They sat motionless for a few moments, and listened for any sounds from the dense vegetation and trees around them. The first rider pointed to the intersection and identified the four spots where the disturbances in the road indicated the presence of landmines. He took his binoculars from the bag strapped to his chest, and scanned the area before he zoomed in on the identified spots. The mines were strategically planted in the middle of the intersection, and he noticed a wire connecting the four mines, lightly covered with gravel. He knew they were booby-trapped and if one were triggered, all four would explode in a split second.

They felt the vibration before they heard the sound of the vehicle approaching at a very high speed. Charlie looked up from the map he was balancing on the handlebars of his bike. Keith lowered the binoculars and turned to Charlie with a frown.

“What are they doing on the road? We have not cleared it yet?” Keith said as he got off his bike and reached for his rifle strapped to his back. He turned his head sideways to identify the direction of the sound and approaching vehicle. They both looked up and saw the dust rising above the trees to the south of the intersection as the sound became louder. They realized the danger at the same time and as Charlie grabbed his rifle from his back, he shouted to Keith.

“Hit the deck! They are not going to stop!”

They scrambled in opposite directions to the side of the road, slid underneath foliage to take cover, and rolled over to face the intersection. The black Mercedes Benz entered the intersection at high speed and detonated the first landmine with the left front wheel. The explosion of the first mine hit the rear end of the car, and the chain of explosions propelled the car forward in pieces of junk and parts that flew in all directions. The second mine struck directly under the engine which became airborne and landed a few hundred yards away from the rest of the car. It all happened in super slow motion.

***

JSB: We’ve got the raw material for a good opening page here. I like a thriller that begins with a Mercedes blowing up. But like all raw material it has to be refined. The first problem is, not surprisingly, Point of View. (I say this, author, so you’ll know it’s quite common. Once you get a real handle on POV your fiction will be 80% better.)

You start us out in Omniscient POV. There’s nothing technically wrong with this if you later drop us into Third Person. This move used to be done all the time, where the opening chapter would take a wide-angle view of a setting before focusing on a character. The famous opening of Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place is like that:

Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases …

The town lay still in the Indian summer sun. On Elm Street, the main thoroughfare, nothing moved. The shopkeepers, who had rolled protective canvas awnings down over their front windows, took the lack of trade philosophically and retired to the back rooms of their stores where they alternately dozed, glanced at the Peyton Place Times and listened to the broadcast of a baseball game.

This goes on for several pages before Metalious gives us the protagonist, Allison McKenzie.

Today’s page, however, doesn’t use omniscience for a wide-angle view of the setting or the circumstances. Instead, the focus is on two riders, who are given names in the second paragraph. Thus, there is no reason for the omniscient beginning. It merely operates to keep us at a distance from the people involved.

Further muddying the waters is something that should never be done—simultaneous POV. Whenever you have a collective “they” feeling or thinking or hearing the same thing, we’re in more than one head and our attention is split. It also violates common sense about life. No two people ever feel or think or perceive in exactly the same way.

they carefully observed their surroundings

They felt the vibration

They both looked up and saw

They realized the danger at the same time

This dilutes the scene and robs it of emotional impact. So my main piece of advice is to re-write the whole thing from either Charlie’s or Keith’s POV. Have all the observations filtered through one of them. This is how readers relate to story. The first thing they want to know about a scene is WHO it belongs to.

Now, regarding the setting. I have no idea WHERE we are. There’s dense vegetation, but also an intersection. There’s camouflaged motorcycles and a black Mercedes. You use the terms soldier, rider, and biker interchangeably.

Where are we? What are the circumstances? War zone? Drug zone? South America? Africa? Soldiers? Mercs?

You can easily use dialogue and interior thoughts to give us essential information. When I advise act first, explain later I’m referring primarily to backstory. That can wait. What we need up front are a few drops of context, which can be woven in with the action.

Here is how David Morrell begins his international thriller, Extreme Denial:

Decker told the Italian immigration official that he had come on business.

“What type?”

“Corporate real estate.”

“The length of your visit?”

“Two weeks.”

The official stamped Decker’s passport.

Grazie,” Decker said.

He carried his suitcase from Leonardo da Vinci Airport, and although it would have been simple to make arrangements for someone to meet him, he preferred to travel the twenty-six kilometers into Rome by bus.

Go thou and do likewise.

Now a technical question: Can you see landmines? I thought the point of landmines is that they’re hidden and finding them requires some kind of metal detector or radar or robot. If I’m wrong I’m still raising a question many readers will have, so you should clarify it, once again with a bit of dialogue or interior thought. Because this book seems intended for military-thriller fans, every detail of an operation has to be accurate and precise or you will surely hear about it from readers and reviewers.

Style note: When using a dialogue attribution, it goes after the first complete sentence or clause.

NO: “What are they doing on the road? We have not cleared it yet,” Keith said.

YES: “What are they doing on the road?” Keith said. “We have not cleared it yet.”

Or the attribution can be placed before the dialogue:

Keith said, “What are they doing on the road? We have not cleared it yet.”

You can also use an action beat before the dialogue:

Keith lowered the binoculars. “What are they doing on the road? We have not cleared it yet.”

One last note on dialogue (because it’s the fastest way to improve any manuscript). Make sure it’s true to the characters. Would Keith really speak without contractions? Probably not. Thus:

“What’re they doing on the road? We haven’t cleared it yet.”

Finally, as we’ve noted many times here at TKZ, white space is a reader’s friend. Your paragraphs are too “blocky.” Don’t be afraid to break them up into two or three.

So, author, I do want to know who was in that Mercedes, who Charlie and Keith are, and where they are operating. I also want to know whose scene this is. Clarify those things, and I will likely turn the page!

The floor is now open for further critique.

7+

Your Writing Sweet Spot

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“Things were tough at the moment. I hadn’t worked in a studio for a long time. So I sat there, grinding out original stories, two a week. Only I seemed to have lost my touch. Maybe they weren’t original enough. Maybe they were too original. All I know is, they didn’t sell.” – Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard

Ah, poor Joe. We can feel his pain (not really, since he’s narrating this as a corpse floating in a swimming pool. But I digress). Still, I love how screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett captured the writer’s dilemma—what should I write that has a decent chance to sell?

For writers still operating in the world of traditional publishing, that question is more important than ever. Publishing companies are being squeezed and must concentrate on big hits to survive. This makes it harder for a newbie to break in or, if they manage to get ushered through the gates of the Forbidden City, to receive what used to be called a “decent advance” and marketing support.

Indie writers must be market conscious, too, as the crush of content and reading choices grow ever larger. If you want to make decent scratch you have to provide products (plural) that a good number of people will want to buy.

The danger, of course, is the temptation to jump on a trend, or try to replicate what’s already been done. But demanding readers don’t want something that feels same-old. They want to be delighted, surprised, swept up. So do acquisitions editors.

They all want originality.

Just not so much that they can’t figure out what ride they’re on.

Which reminds me of the famous quip by Samuel Johnson who had been asked to review a manuscript. He wrote, “Sir, your book is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.”

Um, ouch.

(As long as we’re on the subject of literary snubs, I can’t help but quote what is reputed to be the shortest book review ever, attributed to Ambrose Bierce: “The covers of this book are too far apart.”)

So how could we have helped Joe Gillis? Where is the sweet spot for the writer who needs to sell in order to get his car out of hock?

As I assert in Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing, the sweet spot is where you find the most joy. Way back in 1919, a professor of writing at Columbia University, Clayton Meeker Hamilton, said this:

In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. (A Manual of the Art of Fiction.)

I think Professor Hamilton nailed it. When an author is joyous in the writing, it pulses through the words. When you read a Ray Bradbury, for instance, you sense his joy. He was in love with words and his own imagination, and it showed.

“For the first thing a writer should be is––excited,” writes Bradbury in Zen and the Art of Writing. “He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.”

“Let her go!” says Brenda Ueland in If You Want to Write. “Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate!”

You liked to play those things when you were a kid, right?

So play! Here are three ways to do it:

  1. Go to risky places. Bungee jump off the Bridge of Banal. The cord of a solid concept will keep you from crashing into the gorge.
  2. Have fun with minor characters. Make them spicy, not mere walk-ons. Never underestimate the power of comedy relief in a thriller. Alfred Hitchcock did it in almost every film (e.g., Thelma Ritter in Rear Window; Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers in Shadow of a Doubt).
  3. Make things harder on the main character. You thought that setback was bad? Make it worse. (This form of joy is not veiled sadism; it’s plot happiness! Readers will love you for it.)

So what about you? Where do you find your writing sweet spot?

10+

Advanced Scene Technique: The Jump Cut

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A while ago I wrote about the perils of the eating scene, how to rescue them from dullness by injecting a few forms of conflict.

Most of us include restaurant or sitting-down-for-coffee scenes in our books. They are a natural part of life and provide an opportunity to delve a little deeper into relationships. Those relationships can be between friends, family, or potential lovers.

An eating scene can also be a “breather” in an otherwise relentlessly-paced thriller. It helps sometimes to slow down the pace. The trick, of course, is not to make things too slow.

One technique to keep these scenes from bogging down is called the jump cut. This is a screenwriting term referring to a scene that jumps slightly ahead in time while staying in the same location. It’s used to excise irrelevant or otherwise dull material, so only the “good stuff” remains.

John Sandford uses this technique in his thriller Winter Prey. The hero, Lucas Davenport, is an ex-cop now living in Wisconsin. The local cops ask him to to take a look at a murder scene. There he encounters a small-town doctor named Weather Karkinnen. She is smart and straight-talking. Naturally, there’s a bit of a spark between them.

Several chapters later they see each other again. Davenport asks Weather to have dinner with him. She suggests a local joint that offers a wine choice—red or white, with breadsticks on the table. As they walk to the restaurant from the parking lot there is a small interchange of backstory material.

Then we jump cut, via white space, to their getting seated in a booth and exchanging a little more information, but deeper this time, as they are beginning to trust each other. It’s a long conversation that follows, punctuated by jump cuts. After the white space, a new paragraph begins with ALL CAPS. It looks like this:

AND LATER, OVER walleye in beer batter:
“You can’t hold together a heavy duty relationship when you’re in medical school and working to pay for it,” Weather said. He enjoyed watching her work with her knife, taking the walleye apart. Like a surgeon…

 

AFTER A CARAFE of wine: “Do you worry about the people you’ve killed?” She wasn’t joking. No smile this time.
“They were hair balls, every one of them.” …

 

“CARR SEEMS LIKE a decent sort,” Lucas said.
“He is, very decent,” Weather agreed….

 

“YOU DON’T ACT like a doctor,” Lucas said.
“You mean because I gossip and flirt?” …

And so we get through a long restaurant conversation without needless filler. It flows nicely, the conversation getting more intimate as it goes along, so by the end of the chapter we’re pretty sure these two will soon be lovers.

It’s also a nice break in what is essentially a police procedural.

White space on the page is your friend. It helps harried readers hang in there. So when you write a scene that is a long conversation, consider:

  1. Injecting tension by giving the characters different agendas.
  2. Adding conflict by giving at least one of the characters a fear or worry about something (something they don’t want to reveal to the other).
  3. Cutting filler by using the jump cut.

For a hilarious movie example of the jump cut, here is a scene from the Preston Sturges classic, The Lady Eve. Barbara Stanwyck plays a con woman who schemes to marry the straight-laced heir to a fortune, played by Henry Fonda. She doesn’t expect to fall for him, but she does.

But when Fonda discovers her duplicity, he pretends he never loved her, that he was playing her for a sucker. To get revenge, Stanwyck comes back into his life as a woman named “Eve” and wins his heart. They get married. On their honeymoon night, on a train, Stanwyck completes her plan by telling Fonda about a previous marriage when she was sixteen, to a stable boy named Angus. Fonda is shaken, but forgiving … until she starts dropping the names of several other former husbands! (Press play then move your cursor off the clip. Enjoy!)

 

8+

Riding the Writer Roller-Coaster

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

First off, thank you for all your wonderful support for the launch of my new thriller, Your Son Is Alive. The print version is now available.

Launch week is usually a high for an author, though nerves can be set a-jangling as we wonder what the reception will be.

Which brings up the subject of the roller-coaster ride that is the writing life. For as we all know there are ups and downs and curves and twists. Sometimes it’s exciting. Other times you get queasy. Which is why you should never launch a book after a big Italian dinner.

Ahem.

We all know this gig is rife with opportunities for that devil disappointment. Our human condition can’t avoid it. We construct hopes for ourselves and our work knowing there are plenty of rocks and boulders ahead in the rushing waters of the marketplace.

This is not just in our professional lives, of course. It’s there in every other aspect of our existence on this good Earth. We are hopeful beings, we strive and and work and desire. Sometimes those things turn out exactly as we envisioned. Most of the time not so much.

I remember when my son began playing baseball. He developed into a pretty good pitcher at a young age, and there was one game where he gave up a home run that lost the game. It crushed him. As the other team was running onto the field cheering, he was standing on the mound trying not to cry.

I went out to the mound and put my arm around him and bucked him up as best I could. Then later, over ice cream, I tried to impart a little bit of stoic wisdom. “Most of life is about losing,” I said. “It’s how we handle the losses that make us or break us.”

I told him that in moments like this, when a home run is given up or such like, I would allow him one great big DANG IT! He could pound his glove as hard as he could. He could feel it for a moment, he could shout, “Dang it!” But after that he was to begin the task of forgetting it and getting ready for the next batter or the next game.

It’s a lesson he learned well. He went on to become one of the best pitchers in the league. During the season he had a bad inning against the strongest team. It was brutal. And they let him know it, the way little boys do. They jeered and threw shade. He pounded his glove as the coach relieved him.

Then came the championship game, and he faced that same team. As he stood on the mound they began to jeer again and try to rattle him. He proceeded to mow them down. And his team won the championship.

I consider that one of the best moments of both our lives.

This is how we should handle disappointment in our writing life. Our book goes out there and doesn’t perform as well as we would like. Or we get a scathing review. Or a rejection from an editor. Or Aunt Hildegard says, “When are you going to grow up and go to dental school?”

Give yourself a great big DANG IT! Pound your glove (but do not kick the dog). Then get back to your keyboard. One of the great truths about writing is that when we are in “the zone,” disappointments melt away. When we come out of the zone, the harshness may try to revisit, but it won’t be as strong. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Let me offer three more bits of stoic wisdom:

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others

Comedian Tom Shillue has a great five-minute video on the perils of comparison. Here is part of what he says:

If my happiness were based on being the biggest comedian in the business, I’d be mad at whoever was getting more Netflix specials than me. (I have zero.)

If it were based on having the best TV ratings, I’d be mad at Jimmy Fallon. He beats me every night.

And if it were based on being rich, I’d be mad at a lot of people.

And even if I were rich – really rich, like #10 on the Forbes 400 rich – I’d be mad that there were nine other people richer than me. It never ends.

Comparing yourself to others creates a totally unrealistic measure for what constitutes success. And I know, because the entertainment business is all about unrealistic expectations.

He concludes: “Professional success is about making a living, pursuing excellence, and finding meaning in what you do.” (You might also be interested in this video by the redoubtable Joanna Penn on the dangers of comparing yourself to other writers … and how to get over it.)

  1. Keep expectations in check

While it’s good to set goals, make plans, and take action, watch out for letting expectations build up too much in your mind. We have this wisdom not only from ancient philosophy; there’s also recent data that suggests lowering expectations leads to greater happiness.

For example, if you get nominated for an award, don’t keep picturing your acceptance speech. Don’t dust the mantel twice a day. When you get to the banquet, sit at the table and be a good conversationalist. Try to enjoy the rubber chicken. Then, if your name is called, it’s a bonus. If it’s not, you won’t want to crawl under the table with a bottle of wine (or whine, as the case may be).

As the great John Wooden used to tell his players, “All of life is peaks and valleys. Don’t let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low.”

  1. Worry only about the page in front of you

Epictetus said, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

You can’t control the will of agents, editors, critics, readers, awards committees or the IRS. So don’t worry about them. Instead, focus on your daily work. Get into your scene. Think about ways to make it better. That’s what you can control.

The mental aspect of writing is every bit as important as the physical act of typing. Which is why I wrote a whole book on the subject.

Friends, when you’re hit with disappointment, or on the other end with a great reward, remember the Latin phrase (which I had the audacity to make up):

Carpe Typem!

Seize the Keyboard!

What is your go-to method for handling the highs and lows of the writing life?

11+

My Kind of Thriller

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m currently working on a new thriller titled The Girl in the Window Who Saw the Woman on the Train Before She Was Gone. I don’t believe in chasing trends, unless it’s this one.

Actually, I wanted to talk about a sub-genre known as the “domestic thriller.” I’m not sure when this was coined, but it’s quite popular now, especially after Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, Gone Girl. More recently, A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window has kept readers flipping the pages.

My research didn’t uncover a hard-and-fast definition of the domestic thriller. It seems to be a cousin of the psychological thriller, but with a home setting and (usually) a woman as protagonist and (usually) a male as the villain. A title like It’s Always The Husband (Michele Campbell) will clue you into the vibe.

I don’t, however, consider this a new genre. It’s at least as old as Gaslight, the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. You’ve probably seen the 1944 movie version for which Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award as Best Actress. (I actually like the British version better. Released in 1940, it stars Anton Walbrook and the absolutely amazing Diana Wynyard. Catch it if you can!)

Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) may rightly be deemed a domestic thriller.

I would classify many of Harlan Coben’s books as domestic thrillers. Suburban setting, ordinary person, crazily extraordinary circumstances.

Which is my favorite kind of thriller. I’ve always loved Hitchcock, and he was the master at the ordinary man or woman theme. My favorite example is the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much starring James Stewart and Doris Day. The idea, Hitchcock once explained, came from a scene he pictured in his mind. A foreign, dark-skinned man, with a knife in his back, is being chased, and falls dead in front of some strangers. When someone tries to help him, heavy makeup comes off the man’s face leaving finger streaks on his cheeks.

So Hitchcock did that very thing. He had Stewart and Day as tourists in Morocco, and in the marketplace one morning a man with a knife in his back falls at Stewart’s feet. Stewart gets the face makeup on his hands.

Of course, right before he kicks the bucket the dying man whispers a secret of international importance into Jimmy’s ear, and we’re off and running. The bad guys want to know what Jimmy knows and they’re willing to kidnap his son to find out.

Another example: Cary Grant as the ad executive in North by Northwest (1959). Because of a terrible coincidence, he’s taken to be a master spy by two thugs who kidnap him outside of the Plaza Hotel. Cary is going to spend the next two hours on the run. His only consolation is that he gets to meet Eva Marie Saint.

One more, and this one is chilling because it was based on a true story. In Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), Henry Fonda, a happily married musician, resembles a gun-toting holdup man. He’s arrested and put through the wringer. Will the real culprit be nabbed before they lock the prison doors on Hank?

So why does the “ordinary man/woman” or the “domestic” thriller resonate so well? Perhaps because 1) it’s easy to empathize with the main character; and 2) it helps us deal with one of our darkest fears—having evil show up at our doorstep.

We read these kinds of thrillers, in part, to reaffirm our hope that there’s a moral force in the universe, that justice will prevail, and that we can get through anything if we hang on with courage.

Plus, we all like getting lost in the fictive dream of a page-turner. Escapist entertainment, Dean Koontz once said, is a noble enterprise, considering what we have to put up with on this spinning orb.

So in that spirit, I offer you my latest thriller, Your Son Is Alive.

The idea for the book came from playing the first-line game. That’s where you just make up first lines that grab, not knowing anything else. One day I wrote this: “Your son is alive.”

Who says it? And why? And to whom?

I had to write the novel to find out.

So I did. The ebook is available from Amazon this week at the special launch price of $2.99:

AMAZON

AMAZON INTERNATIONAL STORES

(The print version will be available soon.)

As always, I have tried to write according to Hitchock’s Axiom: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” 

Do you have a favorite kind of thriller?

7+

Don’t Lose Your Head Over Point-of-View

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here is another first-page critique, with an opportunity to discuss some point-of-view issues. See you in a few:

The woods were dark. The thick leaves rustling overhead blazed with color during the day, but now, at dusk, they faded to shades of gray. The October breeze was crisp. The man moved quietly from tree to tree. He trampled a few mushrooms that looked like elongated little brains. He stopped behind a gnarled oak – just steps from the path that wound its way between the park and the tree line.  The park was where the neighborhood kids played after school.  

As the sun dropped, the man watched the children disburse, heading home for dinner and homework. From his left, voices were lifted in laughter, and three boys topped the rise from the direction of the monkey bars. 11-year-old Josiah and his 8-year-old brother Jacob said goodbye to 10-year-old Brandon, and turned away from the path and the woods toward their house. Brandon shouted a parting insult at one of them, and continued down the same path he travelled every afternoon.

The man tensed with anticipation as he watched and waited for Brandon to cross the small opening in the undergrowth, directly in front of the big oak. Sweat beaded on the man’s forehead as he thought about the delights the next few days would bring. A grim smile stretched his lips. It had been too long.

A stick snapped in the woods behind the man, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Somebody was behind him. Think!

The man bent down and pulled up a few mushrooms. “Nothing like a fresh Morel,” he said aloud. He pivoted slowly as he stood, and feigned surprise as he came face to face with another man standing uncomfortably close.  

Several impressions flashed through his mind in a split second: Tall. Muscular. Piercing blue eyes. Long black hair.

“Brandon is under my protection,” the big man said.  

The big man reached out and placed his hand against the man’s chest.  The man’s eyes widened in surprise and he let out a gasp. His body dropped to the ground.

Removing a sword from the scabbard on his back, the big man severed the man’s head with one swing, and left it on the ground among the mushrooms.

Seconds later, Brandon passed by on the trail, whistling contentedly as he made his way home.

***

JSB: Well, writer, you’ve obviously got a shocking opening moment here, and it certainly has page-turning potential. Who the heck is the tall guy wielding a sword in this day and age? I want to know.

Now it’s just a matter of getting from your opening line to this ending point in the most efficient way possible.

I’m not enamored of the first paragraph. The woods were dark is generic, and ultimately confusing. For in the next line we learn it’s dusk. So my image of nighttime has to be modified. Which means you’re making the reader do some cleanup work. You don’t want that. You want them on the roller coaster car, gripping the safety bar.

Which is why I like to see a POV established at the top, rather than weather or setting descriptions or a distant narrative voice. Not a hard and fast rule, but unless you have a very good reason not to, give us a character in motion as soon as you can.

Thus, one way to start is:

The man moved quietly from tree to tree.

Now, this is omniscient POV. You’re “outside” describing what’s happening “onscreen.” This has the feel of a prologue, and omni-POV is sometimes used in this fashion.

But things begin to get muddy in the second paragraph. By giving us the ages and names of the three children, we assume that this creep knows them. Was that your intent? If so, we need to have at least one line to indicate why this is so. And why Brandon is the target. I have a feeling you didn’t intend this, that this is a stranger, but we need to know one way or the other.

The third paragraph begins to take us inside the guy’s head. But once in there, I wouldn’t back out with A grim smile stretched his lips. The man is not looking at his own smile and describing it as “grim.”

This is why POV is crucial. I don’t want to get overly technical here, but will tell you that you have four basic modes to choose from, with two choices within each. Ack!

Let’s see if I can make it simple.

1. First Person (I was feeling lousy that morning…)
a. Limited (one character narrates throughout, e.g., The Big Sleep)
b. Open (switching between two or more first-person narrators, e.g., Framed)

2. Third Person (She was feeling lousy that morning…)
a. Limited (one character’s head)
b. Open (switching to another character’s head in another scene)

3. Omniscient, wherein the author can choose the level of intrusion, from participating as a commenter (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times) to keeping the author voice muted while allowing “big picture” descriptions (e.g., Lonesome Dove)
a. Limited (to keep focus on one character, e.g., Gone With the Wind)
b. Open (floats between various characters)

(Note: Some teachers peg omniscient a form of third-person. I don’t think that’s helpful, as the issue with omniscience is intrusion and scope. Third person, on the other hand, should not, in my humble opinion, stray from a character’s head.)

4. Cinematic (a form of omniscience), with a narration from “without,” describing only what can be seen, never going  into a character’s thoughts or emotions (e.g., The Maltese Falcon)
a. Limited
b. Open

I did not include the “Hey, look at me!” mode known as Second Person (You walk into the party and see your ex-wife) which is almost never used. I also didn’t mention the option of doing First Person in either past tense (the traditional method) or present tense (which is popular in Young Adult fiction these days). But I should also point out that many thriller authors mix First and Third POV, something James Patterson popularized.

Whew!

Is this stuff really important to know? Um, yeah. Mishandling POV jars readers at the subconscious level, makes them do unnecessary work, disrupts the “fictive dream,” lessens the impact of a scene.

So my advice to new writers is this: get a handle on Third Person, Limited as a default. Move on to Third Person, Open. You can then try First Person, Limited. For many successful authors, that’s all they ever use.

But once you make a POV choice, keep it consistent throughout. (For purposes of this prologue, it seems to me Third Person, Limited is the best bet.)

A stick snapped in the woods behind the man, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Somebody was behind him. Think!

I’d cut everything after the first comma. the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end is a cliché. And it’s quite obvious someone is behind him. We can infer that he’s thinking when he takes the next action, which is to bend down and pluck a mushroom called a Morel. I gotta tell you, I had no idea what that was. Had to Google it. Is this particular type of mushroom essential to the story? Maybe you can come up with some other excuse for the guy. Lost dog, maybe? (I don’t mind him stepping on the mushrooms, though, because I like where his head ends up. See below.)

Now, the sword guy. I’m confused about what happens. The sword guy touches the man’s chest and the guy drops. Is he dead? Is he stunned? If the former, then why chop off his head? If the latter, what caused it? Some sort of magical jolt?

Either one takes away from the impact of the sword. So I’d just have the big guy dispatch the stalker with one swipe, a la Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian.

The last line is jarring to me. I know what you’re going for, but it pulls me out of the moment. It’s just not needed. Leave us with the head in the ’shrooms.

Speaking of which, you know what would be fun? Re-write this piece staying in the stalker’s POV. When he loses his head, stay in his POV, as he ponders for a few seconds his cranium’s fate among the mushrooms.

Another benefit of doing this in close third person is that you could lengthen the scene a bit, which, if this is a prologue, you ought to do. The “prologue issue” has been discussed before, but for our purposes it would make sense to stretch out the tension, keep us wondering what’s going to happen, up until that shocking conclusion.

Style notes:

Never begin a sentence with a numeral. Thus: Eleven-year-old Josiah, etc.

In fiction, the best practice is to spell out ages: He was only elevenHe lived to be eighty-eight. (Unless the age is 100 or more: He died at the ripe old age of 101).

Any further comments for our anonymous writer?

6+

Editing is Dying, Grunting Soon to Follow

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In some places in our fair land, if all is still in the night, you might hear the plaintive cry of the whippoorwill. In other locales, if the moon is full, the howl of a lonely coyote may break the silence. In the city you are sure to pick up the distant toot of an automobile horn, or the exasperated utterance of the infuriated cab driver, or perhaps the variegated cursings of the long-distance trucker in search of a greasy spoon.

At my house, I have come to anticipate the sardonic tones of a wifely expostulation that sounds like this: “Oh, come on!”

You see, Mrs. B knows the language. She knows grammar. She has to. She’s a realtor here in Los Angeles, and one of her tasks is crafting engaging copy about the properties she’s representing. Often, when she’s in her home office, I’ll hear the “Oh, come on!” and it usually means she’s just read, with a mixture of amusement and horror, another agent’s prose on the Multiple Listing Service.

Once, she saw this description of a view property up on a hill: You’ll be high in the heaves!

I don’t know about you, but living in a house where I’m constantly calling Ralph on the big white telephone is not my idea of heaven.

Another time she saw: This is a lovely home, completely remolded.

I’d rather just keep the old mold, wouldn’t you?

Cindy began collecting these items. A few more from her list:

Master suit with walking closet.

Hardwood floors, and a wet bat.

Many widows make this home light and airy.

Okay, typos. We all make them. But what about obvious errors of grammar from outfits that ought to know better? Like, say, newspapers and television channels? At one time all newspapers employed steely-eyed copy editors who were fully grounded in the rules of grammar and the elements of style. Not so much anymore in this epoch of shrinking revenues and staff cutbacks.

That’s why you see more errors popping up in newspapers, print and digital, than ever before. Things like:

The glamorous 17-year-old wants to be a policewoman some day, like her dad.

Golfing Immortal Dies at Age 69.

His face was familiar to movie fans, with or without his ever-present cigar.  

Include Your Children When Baking Cookies.

Prostitutes Appeal to Pope.

The other evening I heard “Oh, come on!” and went to investigate. Cindy was scrolling through the blurbs on a certain movie channel. These are no doubt written by unpaid millennial interns or staffers who’d rather be playing Realm Grinder in their cubicles. Cindy showed me the blurb for a movie called Johnny Belinda starring Jane Wyman (who won the Oscar as Best Actress for her performance). Here’s the blurb:

Sensitive portrayal of a deaf woman who is raped, then tried for his subsequent murder in a Nova Scotia fishing Village.

Oh, come on!

Okay, I know I’m sounding more and more get-off-my-lawnish these days, but really. Let the basic rules of grammar fray and in a few generations we’ll all be milling around, grunting and gesticulating, trying to get someone to tell us where the bathroom is. Frustration will mount, with anger soon to follow, and soon enough we’ll be tearing into each other with our teeth. Which is sort of what Twitter is like right now.

Wuts 2b dun?

Remember when education used to begin at what we called grammar school? Please, teachers and parents, don’t let the children down. Make them memorize the following poem:

Every name is called a NOUN, as field and fountain, street and town.
In place of a noun the PRONOUN stands, as he and she clap their hands.
The adjective describes a thing, as magic wand or bridal ring.
The VERB means action, something done, to read and write and jump and run.
How things are done the ADVERBS tell, as quickly, slowly, badly or well.
A PREPOSITION shows relation, as in the room or at the station.
CONJUNCTIONS join—in many ways—sentences, words or phrase and phrase.
The INTERJECTION cries out “Hark! I need an exclamation mark!”

Maybe we can nudge the language pendulum back the other way. We’d better try.

Dont u agree?

17+