About James Scott Bell

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Inspired Every Morning

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” – Peter De Vries

Anyone who’s written for any length of time knows there are times when the writing flows like the Colorado rapids. You whoop it up and enjoy the ride.

Sisyphus, Franz Stuck (1920)

Then there are times when it feels like you’re Sisyphus halfway up the mountain. You grunt and groan. But you keep pushing that boulder, because you know that writing as a vocation or career requires the consistent production of words.

What’s helped me in the Sisyphus times are writing quotes I’ve gathered over the years. I go to my file and read a few until I’m ready, as it were, to roll.

I’ve even contributed a couple of quotes that have found some purchase in cyberspace. The one that seems most widespread is this:

“Write like you’re in love. Edit like you’re in charge.”

There are, however, some writing quotes that are oft shared but were never said…or are misattributed. Two of them have been hung on Ernest Hemingway.

“Write drunk. Edit sober.” Nope, he never said that. Indeed, it would have horrified him. Hemingway was one of the most careful stylists who ever lived. He did his drinking after hours (and too much of it, as it turned out).

The other one is, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

It’s a great quote, but should be attributed to the legendary sports writer, Red Smith. Smith probably got the idea from the novelist Paul Gallico (author most famously of The Poseidon Adventure). This is from Gallico’s 1946 book Confessions of a Story Writer:

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.

(If you want to deep dive on the various attributions of the quote, go here.)

So how did this blood quote get attributed to Hemingway? I know the answer, for I am a skilled detective!

Actually, I am a Hemingway fan, so one day I decided to watch a TV movie about Hemingway and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. The film, imaginatively titled Hemingway & Gellhorn, starred Clive Owen as Hemingway and Nicole Kidman as Gellhorn. As I recall, the movie is okay. But I do remember Owen delivering this line: “There’s nothing to writing, Gellhorn. All you do is sit at your typewriter and bleed.”

And there you have it. The script writers thought this quote, which they got from Red Smith, would be a perfect line for their rendition of Papa. And really, it might have been a line for him to utter, but for the fact that Hemingway did virtually all of his drafts in longhand.

Speaking of renditions of Hemingway on film, my favorite is Corey Stoll’s performance in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Allen and Stoll managed to capture Hemingway’s bluster without turning him into a cartoon. I especially love this exchange with Owen Wilson, who is a laid-back writer from our time transported back to the Paris of the 1920s, where Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and others were all tossed together.

Now, back to business. Here are five of my favorite writing quotes:

Remember, almost no writer had it easy when starting out. If they did, everyone would be a bestselling author. The ones who make it are the stubborn, persistent people who develop a thick skin, defy the rejection, and keep the material out there. – Barnaby Conrad

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. – Ray Bradbury

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. – Dean Koontz

Keep working. Keep trying. Keep believing. You still might not make it, but at least you gave it your best shot. If you don’t have calluses on your soul, this isn’t for you. Take up knitting instead. – David Eddings

The first page of a book sells that book. The last page sells your next book. – Mickey Spillane

Your turn! Let’s get inspired. Share a favorite writing quote and why it speaks to you.

You Finished Your First Draft. Now What?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Done!

Finito!

Sis boom bah!

The first draft of my next Mike Romeo thriller is finished!

Completing a novel is such a great feeling, don’t you agree?

Be ye plotter or pantser, plodder or pounder—whether you write like the Santa Ana winds or like the groundskeeper at the La Brea Tar Pits—typing that last page is always a lovely moment.

How could it not be? You’ve done something only a few people on earth ever do: You’ve transposed a fictive dream in your head to the pages of a completed manuscript so it can be shared with others.

Sure, your novel may be dreck, but by gum it’s your dreck! You labored over it and brought it forth into the world. The good news is dreck can be improved. As Nora Roberts once said, “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.”

So the first thing you should do when you finish a draft is this:

Luxuriate in the moment. Enjoy it. You earned it. Take the rest of the day off.

On the other hand, you could be like Anthony Trollope, the legendary quota man. If he wrote “The End” and saw that he needed another five hundred words for his quota, he’d sigh, take out a fresh sheet of paper, and write “Chapter One.”

Me, I like to take a full, one-day break and do something fun. Like drive to the ocean with Mrs. B after picking up a couple of world-famous fish tacos at Spencer Mackenzie’s. We have a favorite spot on PCH (Pacific Coast Highway for you out-of-towners) where we can park and listen to the waves as we munch.

Or pop some champagne at home and watch a classic movie.

Or anything else that springs to mind. The main thing is to do something to celebrate. Writers need rituals, too.

Then it’s time to get back to work, which means two things: revising your draft and working on your next project.

I’ve always counseled getting some distance (4-6 weeks) from a first draft, then sitting down and reading it through in hard copy, taking minimal notes. You’re trying to come at it like a reader, not the author. You want to analyze the big picture: plot, characters, scenes. Are they working? Are there holes that need patching? Are you sufficiently bonded to the characters? Is it page-turning?

I then fix—or strengthen—those elements.

Then I give the manuscript to a trusted editor for the first pass—Mrs. B. She has been the first reader on every one of my manuscripts and always improves them. She’s especially adept at picking up plot inconsistencies or confusions.

And she puts up with me. When she’s reading quietly in her nook I’ll sometimes walk by, casting her a glance, wondering what she thinks.

“Reading!” she’ll say.

“Oh, sorry. I was just on my way to get a glass of water.”

Cindy’s cop voice: “Move along now. Nothing to see.”

After I incorporate her notes and fixes, I submit to my beta readers.

Then final fixes.

Then a polish. I primarily look at dialogue and scene endings. I find that cutting is an almost foolproof technique. Cutting flab words in dialogue gives it extra verisimilitude. Cutting the last line or two of a scene almost instantly creates more forward momentum.

Then I get a proofread.

Then I’m ready to publish.

Launch day for me is more sedate, but still a time to enjoy the moment.

So let me ask you: Do you have a “ritual” for when you’ve typed that last page? Do you celebrate?

Do you have system (a series of steps) that you follow after your first draft?

More on the Current State of Publishing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Clare’s recent, thought-provoking post brought up several musings about the current state of the traditional publishing industry vis-a-vis the indie world, especially in light of the pandemic. In one of her comments Clare asked: “I do wonder though whether there will be flow on effects even for indie writers – are people seeing sales increase or decrease? Are they finding visibility any harder or easier? I wonder about the state of the industry as a whole and how it’s impacting writers.”

This post is an attempt at an answer.

Let’s first take a nostalgic stroll back to the early days of the indie explosion. I’m talking roughly 2009 – 2013. The discussions back then were full of sound and fury, signifying something. What that something was remained to be seen. It was not uncommon for early firebrands of self-publishing to predict, and often cheer for, the death of traditional publishing. Indeed, a few declared the proper term should be “legacy publishing,” which has baked into it the assumption of obsolescence and demise.

But as Twain once observed about his own obituary, reports of trad pub’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Back in 2013, here at TKZ, I likened traditional publishing to the boxer Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta who, though often bloodied, refused to be knocked out. I wrote: “So will this Raging Bull of industry still be around in twenty years? I think so. I’d like it to be. I’m a hybrid, and traditional publishing’s been good to me. But it will have to fight smarter, not just harder.”

Here in 2021, traditional publishing is still around and still punching, though it keeps having to huddle with its corner men between rounds to adjust strategy.

It’s hard to get a handle on how that bout is going. A recent story in the NY Times about sales in 2020 quoted one publisher as saying, “It was harder to get people’s attention around books that didn’t…have a big name attached to them.” There was also concern about the shuttering of bookstores which led to many new books “languishing” as “panicked retailers focused on brand-name authors and readers gravitated toward the most popular titles.”

Then came this little tidbit: [A]bout 98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.

Yikes! Now, that has to refer to print copies, because any major publisher that can’t sell more than 5k digital copies either isn’t trying or is so incompetent it deserves to go under.

On the other hand, I see in the industry newsletter The Hot Sheet (subscription required): “Through the week ending June 19, NPD BookScan shows year-to-date print sales up 19.6 percent over 2020. Adult fiction has enjoyed a 31 percent gain over 2020; YA fiction has grown by 68 percent, driven by backlist titles shared and promoted on TikTok.”

Thus, it appears the only thing I can say with certainty about tradpub is that there is no certainty. From the Times story: “One of the most significant things that’s going to change is the re-evaluation of all that we do and how we do it,” said Don Weisberg, the chief executive of Macmillan.

Of course, the same can be said of the indie world, because it’s always been that way! Indie writers who do this as a career have, from the jump, been ready and able to immediately shift and transition with every new circumstance (and at a pace the behemoth trad industry simply cannot duplicate).

Indie publishing has moved from the Wild West to the Gilded Age. According to Prof. Edward T. O’Donnell, “The Gilded Age, as the name suggests, was in many ways a golden time. This exciting period saw spectacular advances in industrial output and technological innovation that transformed the United States from a predominantly agricultural nation—ranking well behind England, Germany, and France in 1865— to the world’s most formidable industrial power by 1900.”

The indie authors making bank are those who have embraced change and innovation, and combined them with optimistic energy and consistent output. Many have indeed seen “spectacular advances” (in the career sense).

So what about advances in the publishing biz sense? How are they currently ranging inside the Forbidden City? I’ve not been able to track down any definitive answer. What I pick up is anecdotal and suggests that while there are still large-advance deals being made, it is not nearly so many as back in the pre-Kindle salad days. With the Big 5, first-time authors who don’t score a jackpot deal seem to be looking at a range of $5000 – $20,000 per book.

With small and mid-size publishers, the no-advance contract seems to be quite common.

To answer Clare’s question (“…even for indie writers – are people seeing sales increase or decrease?”) mileage always varies widely. Personally, my indie sales went up 8% in 2020 as compared to 2019. So far this year, it’s up over the same period in 2020. I attribute this to several things:

1. Production.

2. Taking advantage of KU promotions.

3. BookBub (3 features in 2020; 2 so far in 2021).

4. The ongoing growth and nurture of my email list.

a. A reader magnet that adds 70-100 subscribers a month;

b. Regular (about once a month) communication with my list.

5. The massive shift to online buying during the pandemic.

6. Business-like approach. In truth, every writer, traditional or indie, needs to approach their career as a business (my business plan is laid out in my book How to Make a Living as a Writer).

So, Should an Author Go Traditional or Indie?

In Clare’s post, commenter Ben Lucas asked, “I was also wondering if it would be risky to go with a publisher as a fist time author vs. risk and go indie? Maybe traditional publishing will be shunned some day?”

Ah, risk! That’s the writing life, my friend. Any choice you make involves risk. Your consideration must be, therefore, what risks you are willing to take balanced against your long-term career goals.

If your goal is to be as popular as a Child, Koontz, King, or Steel, then a Big 5 contract is the avenue (with at least a glance toward Amazon Publishing. See, e.g., Robert Dugoni). Naturally there is huge competition for relatively few slots. I liken this to a Wheel of Fortune. You try to get a book on the Wheel, but there’s no guarantee you’ll hit the jackpot.

Similarly, you can spend years trying to get on the Wheel and never make it. Or, you finally get your chance and the Wheel comes up goose egg, and you lose your place at the table. Hopefully, someone told you up front that fifty percent of tradpub books  fail to break even.

There used to be a vibrant midlist in traditional publishing, where a writer who was not top-tier could still find a home for the long haul. But according to virtually every expert, the midlist is pretty much gone. According to Publishers Weekly:

As one Big Five editor who specializes in commercial and literary fiction said of his category, “There used to be a lot more books that could sell 40,000–50,000 copies. Now more sell fewer than 10,000 copies.” It seems, he said, that “it’s either feast or famine.”

Those suffering from the famine are, to an extent, a group once known as the midlist. Ironically, if you ask most editors or literary agents to define the term, you’re unlikely to get a specific answer. Few can say, for example, how many books one needs to sell to be considered midlist. The only thing sources agreed on is the fact that the term is negative.

And yet there are still careers out there that are building steadily from the mid to the upper tiers. See, e.g., Sarah Pekkanen.

If traditional is your goal, let me offer this advice: be sure you or your agent negotiate a reversion of rights clause tied to a royalty minimum, not some definition of “in print.” For example, if your royalty is below $500 in any given royalty period, you are entitled to reversion of rights. You need this or your publisher will be able, quite easily, to retain the publishing rights to all your hard work. With digital sales and Print-on-Demand, a book never truly goes “out of print.”

Going indie is a risk, too, because you have to be good and you have to be productive. Even so, you may not gain the market foothold you hoped. Still, if you find joy in creative control, can think like a business, and can control your expectations, you have a shot at making readers and dough. (For more on the paths to publication, see my post here.)

And always remember this: people want stories. That never changes. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of getting pulled into a fictive dream. If you can provide that, time after time, you have a shot to make it in this game, whatever path you choose.

Comments are welcome.

Reader Friday: Good Writers

“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” – Stephen King, On Writing

Discuss!

Getting Specific With Details

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Happy Independence Day to you all! Today I shall be grilling a couple of bone-in ribeyes while sipping a cool 805, a California blonde ale (I mean, what Los Angeles noir writer can resist a blonde ale?)

Notice: In the above paragraph I did not merely write steak and beer.

Specificity of detail is the subject of today’s post. It is a bit of a riff off Brother Gilstrap’s recent disquisition on research, and Garry’s post wherein Ian Fleming extolled specific details that “comfort and reassure the reader on his journey into fantastic adventure.” I want to focus on the little details that crop up all the time as we write. How much time should we take tracking them down? Are they really all that necessary?

If you care about creating the deepest reader experience you can, then I say yes.

I saw the guy run across the street and get in his car.

is not as good as

I saw the guy run across the street and get in his Corvette.

The latter pulls us deeper into the fictive dream. The former merely moves us along.

And yet, one can get too fancy:

I saw the guy run across the street and get in his 2021 Sebring Orange Corvette Stingray, with its 6.2L V8 DI engine and 8-speed dual clutch transmission.

I started thinking about this recently when I read a review of the thriller Coyote Fork by James Wilson, especially this paragraph:

The novel’s dynamics and the broad outlines of the plot are not especially unusual for the thriller genre. Where Wilson does go off-piste is with the resolution. Refreshingly there are no fisticuffs or explosions, no implausible escapes from submerged cars or cellars slowly filling with nerve toxins, and none of those slightly over-detailed descriptions of firearms – you know the sort of thing, “he recognized the gun immediately, it was a WarCorp Deathsprayer PB600, one of only fifteen ever made, with a fine silver finish and a customized barrel mounted by a laser sight….”

Interesting thought, that, especially for those of us writing thrillers with weaponry involved. But it applies to all detail work in this way: We want to be authentic without over-larding the prose. We don’t want Papa Bear or Mama Bear writing—we want it to be just right.

How do we achieve that level?

  1. Determine the amount of detail you need

A simple guideline: If you’re only going to mention something once, and it has no other significance to the story, choose one specific detail, and that’s it. Thus:

The doorman opened the door becomes The green-uniformed doorman opened the door.

The guy in the kiosk was stuffing his face with a snack. >>> The guy in the kiosk was stuffing his face with Funyuns.

Already the writing is more vivid.

If the item mentioned is going to reappear or have some importance, you can consider adding to the description. Let’s take our Corvette example:

The guy ran to his Corvette. I’d have to be on my toes—by way of the gas pedal—to keep up with him. Those babies have a V8 engine and eight speeds. At least the hot orange color would make it easy to follow.

Notice I did not use “Sebring Orange” here. That’s because it’s a specialty paint unique to Corvettes, and most people wouldn’t know that. Which brings up the second consideration:

  1. Make sure the specific detail is something the viewpoint character would know

Terry recently wrote about this very thing. You’ve got to consider the knowledge, education and background of the viewpoint character.

For example, a dance instructor who has a gun pulled on her probably wouldn’t think this way:

I backed up against the wall. The guy reached under his coat and came out with a Glock-17 9 mm Luger pistol.

On the other hand, a character like Brother G’s Jonathan Grave has specialized knowledge. The trick is to slip it in naturally, as in this clip from Hostage Zero:

Venice clicked the remote control in her hand, and the image on the screen changed to a much younger version of the plain vanilla face, but this time accompanied by a complete set of fingerprints. “This is his Army induction photo from twenty years ago,” she explained. “His service record is unremarkable. In and out in six years with an honorable discharge as an E–5.”

Jonathan recognized E–5 as the Army’s rate of sergeant. To achieve a third chevron in six years was admirable, but nothing special.

Of course, never allow author intrusion into the narrative.

Sam didn’t know a thing about knives, but was glad to have this one on hand. It was a Buck 110, made in the good old U.S.A. Released in 1963, it set the standard for lock-back folding knives. And with its Paul Bos heat treatment it had an edge retention second to none.

  1. When in doubt, use the character’s impression of the thing

If you need specificity in a detail, but it’s something the character wouldn’t know a lot about, use a subjective impression instead.

Sam pressed the silver button. The blade unlocked. Easy now. Pull the thing open all the way. Yeah, he could work with this. Like that ape in 2001 who found out a bone can be a weapon.

  1. Fast research

If I’m “in the zone” as I write a scene, I’ll put in a placeholder (e.g. ***) for a detail to be put in later, and keep on writing.

Otherwise, I find out what I need as fast as I can, then get back to work.

One way to do this is with Google images. I once needed the word for the glass outcropping over the entrance of a hotel. I assumed it was just a glass awning, but wanted to be sure. So I Googled hotel glass awning and clicked on Images and there they were, whole bunches of them. Only they are called canopies.

Boom, done, back to work.

  1. How much research on small details is necessary?

There’s a fabulously successful author who has said, “Research for me is a very strange process, because I don’t do any…I depend on what I’ve already read, what I’ve already found out, maybe years before.”

This means that sometimes his lead character is going the wrong direction on road in Georgia. But then, how many readers are going to know that? And of those who do know, how many of them will be so bothered they won’t buy another book by said author?

It’s an ROI calculation.

My own bottom line is this: I’m willing to spend a little extra time to get every detail right. I’m sure I sometimes miss, but it’s not for lack of trying.

How about you? Are you a “detail person”? Do you need to get the little things right?

The Pulp Writer’s Mindset

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

JSB, Pulp Writer, and his Maltese friend

Back in 2012, when self-publishing was proving to be a legit way to make actual, long-term money, I had a choice to make. I was in a good spot. I’d completed a contract and was ready to go out to find another.

A year before, I’d dipped my toe in the indie waters by self-publishing a novella and a book of writing tips. At the end of that year I looked up and saw that I had an extra ten grand in my bank account. And I quietly, calmly contemplated this with the serene thought: ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?

Then came an event I wrote about in this space. I called it The Eisler Sanction. Barry Eisler, who along with his buddy Joe Konrath was a leading light in the burgeoning self-publishing movement, had just turned down half a mil (!) from his publisher to go indie.

So, with a completed thriller ready to go out, I had a sit-down with my agent and friend, Donald Maass. To his enormous credit, Don left the decision to me. (This was back in the days when agents were freaking out about self publishing, warning writers that their careers could be tarnished forever if they tried it and “failed.”)

I also spoke to some traditional writers who’d found success going indie.

One in particular represented the wild ride of that time. A year earlier he’d told me he was wary of self-pub. He was a moderately successful thriller writer, an award winner in fact, with nice mass market editions put out by his publisher, great covers and all that. Now he was saying he’d changed his mind and was going for it.

He’s been a very successful indie ever since.

Thus, I decided to take my novel, Don’t Leave Me, directly to market.

At the same time, I was a) writing new work, fast and furious; and b) getting the rights back to my traditional novels (almost all of which I have now).

Along the way I discovered that the kind of writer I truly was: a pulp writer!

My models were the great pulp-magazine writers of old. The guys who had to churn out marketable work during the Great Depression or they wouldn’t eat. Writers like Robert E. Howard, Erle Stanley Gardner, W. T. Ballard (who was a friend of my parents), Cornell Woolrich (the greatest suspense writer of all time), not to mention latter-day pulpsters like John D. MacDonald, Mickey Spillane, and Gil Brewer. This latter group moved into the exploding paperback originals market of the 1950s. All of them knew how to write fiction that made readers want more.

Isn’t that what every one of us wants out of this gig?

And while “pulp writer” was a pejorative back then (Mickey Spillane famously quipped, “Those big shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar”) it didn’t matter a whit to those writers, who kept turning out books that sold in the hundreds of thousands, even millions.

If you are writing books to entertain readers in the hopes of getting a fair financial return, you are a pulp writer in your soul.

You know who else is? A fellow named Lee Child. His story is well known. He was working in the TV biz in England when, as he says, “My boss said something to me one day that made it impossible for me to work for him any longer: ‘You’re fired.’”

He then sat down to write a book about a character that would sell to the American audience. Jack Reacher was born. Knowing that production is key, Child kept writing about this character, and his books sold in increasing numbers. When he submitted Persuader, his publisher decided this is our guy, and put their massive marketing muscle into the release. That’s how James Grant became the Lee Child we know today. True to the pulp mindset, he adopted his nom de plume after noting that successful thriller authors had short, snappy names…and that the letter C would shelve his books at the front of the thriller section in bookstores. Right next to B. Ha!

He also stuck to his series character.

Now, I love my stand alones, but I came across something Erle Stanley Gardner once said. He called a hit series character “the pulp writer’s insurance policy.” He tried out several in his early pulp days (like Sidney Zoom, master of disguise, and Speed Dash, a crime-solving “human fly”) until he hit it big with a fellow named Perry Mason.

I’d written a trilogy for Hachette featuring a lawyer named Ty Buchanan. These were good, my best work to date, so I was thrilled to get the rights back. Book #3 has, in my humble opinion, the most perfect ending I’ve ever written. So even though I get emails asking me to write another in the series, I am loathe to mess with that ending.

Thus, I needed another series character, which is how Mike Romeo was born.

Now I’m happily finishing Romeo #6, and intend to keep right on going.

With the pulp mindset, I also produce short stories. This brings in a little scratch via my Patreon community.

And I will never stop. Because I love being a pulp writer.

Which is, deep down, what you are, too.

Right?

***

Coincidentally, this post is brought to you by How to Write Pulp Fiction.