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Put Some Saga in Your Stories

by James Scott Bell

Around 850 A.D. a crew of Scandinavians was sailing around and got off course. They saw some land, and decided to check it out.

They didn’t know how cold this land could get, for if they had they might have turned right around and headed home. The place was packed with ice. “Let’s call it Iceland,” one of them said. And so it was claimed for good King Fairhair.

When word got to the king, he said, “The future is all about real estate. So let’s put in some family homes, a fish market or two, and a boat yard.”

The settlements began. It was hard at first to find a hospitable spot to set down roots. Whoever designed Iceland had put in lots of lava streams and glaciers, rocks and crags, and one strip mall with a tattoo parlor and the offices of the physician Dag “Dr. Leech” Gunnarsson.

Nevertheless, after several exploratory ventures, they found a place where at least the modicum of a village might be established.

But there was a modicum already there—with some strange fellows in cowls. These were Irish monks, who’d been there for over 100 years. These early inhabitants of Iceland were “Culdees.” Culdee comes from the Celtic Céile Dé, which means “God worshipper.” These monks lived lives of asceticism apart from human society, seeking entire sanctification. They had learned early, at least as far back as the 700s, that there’s not much sanctifying taking place in the world of human passions. Thus, they eschewed all video games, smart phones, talk shows, and Twitter.

The new settlers had to come up with their own form of entertainment. Life was taken up with catching foxes and ducks, reindeer and mice, whales and seals. These were often eaten at great feasts, where the conversation revolved mostly around the development of table manners. A century of this kind of palaver grew boring. So one night someone suggested, “Can somebody please tell a story?”

Thus was born the saga:

The original sagas were Icelandic prose narratives that were roughly analogous to modern historical novels. They were penned in the 12th and 13th centuries, and blended fact and fiction to tell the tales of famous rulers, legendary heroes, and average folks of Iceland and Norway. And they were aptly named: saga traces back to an Old Norse root that means “tale.” The English word first referred only to those original Icelandic stories, but saga later broadened to cover other narratives reminiscent of those, and the word was eventually further generalized to cover any long, complicated scenario.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1947 ed., the saga “in its purest form, extolled the life of a hero, governed by fixed rules, and intended for oral recitation.” The fixed rules were “simplicity of plot, chronological order of events, set phrases used even in describing the restless play of emotion or the changeful fortunes of a fight or a storm. The absence of digression, comment or intrusion of the narrator’s person is invariably maintained.”

Here you have plot, structure, restless emotions, and no author intrusion.

Further, these sagas display “the keen grasp of character, the biting phrase [style], the love of action and the delight in blood which almost assumes the garb of religious passion.”

The most popular of these oral tales were eventually written on scrolls. We have none of the originals, but copies that passed through various iterations: Editing and compounding (1220-1260), padding and amplifying (1260-1300), and the collection in large manuscripts (14th century).

Among the most famous Icelandic sagas are Vatzdaelasaga (890), relating to the settlement and chief family of Waterdale [historical fiction!]; Hord’s Saga, originally composed around 980 and telling the story of an outlaw named Hord [Anti-hero!].

We also have Havard (c. 1000), which recounts the titular character’s revenge for his son, murdered by a neighboring chief [revenge plot]; Heidarvigasaga (1015), the tale of a great blood feud [The Godfather, anyone?]; Eyrbyggia (1031), political intrigue; and Laxdaela (1026), a love triangle. Laxdaela features a female lead, Gudrun, who is the most famous of all Icelandic heroines. (Laxdaela spent forty weeks on the Icelandic Times bestseller list.)

All this goes to show how the fundamentals of storytelling seem innate throughout various cultures, and are still valid:

  1. A hero with whom we identify.
  2. A plot complication.
  3. Restless emotions.
  4. Action.
  5. Death stakes.
  6. Style (absent author intrusion). 

Saga has come to mean novel or series of novels that take place over a long period of time, usually in a historical context. The Trials of Kit Shannon is my saga series. I also wrote a long historical that covers World War I and takes us into 1920s Hollywood.

But the essence of saga, like that of myth, can apply to all genres of fiction. Think hero. Think big. Think action. Think emotions. Think death stakes (physical, professional, or psychological).

Most of all, think about telling a story to an audience that has worked hard hunting or fishing all day, and will fall asleep if you bore them!

Reader Friday: The Difference

Rumer Godden, author of Black Narcissus

When my last novel was published, I received from the publicity department one of those biographical questionnaires sent to authors these days. Some of the questions were impertinent, especially, I thought, the last: “What makes you feel your books are different from other peoples’?” I did not have to ponder over this because there is really only one answer: “What makes my books different? They are written by me.” Every author ought to be able to say that. – Rumer Godden

What do you try to bring to your books that is different?

Discover Your Scene

by James Scott Bell

We’ve often discussed here the different approaches to writing a novel. In dualistic terms, we sometimes use the terms “plotters” and “pantsers.” Or, “outliners” and “intuitive (or discovery) writers.” There are some ’tweeners (“plantsers”), too. Doesn’t matter, as long as the author creates a finished work that’s the best he or she can do.

But that’s on the macro level. Today I want to focus on the micro level—the scene—and make a pitch for the mini-outline.

A scene is a unit of action, usually defined by a single setting and linear time. To work as dramatic action, there needs to be a viewpoint character with a scene goal—the Objective—who is met with conflict—the Obstacle(s). The scene ends with the Outcome, which can be failure, setback, or portent.

The occasional success is allowed, but should lead to more trouble. Like in that great pet-the-dog scene in The Fugitive where Kimble, posing as a hospital custodian, checks a kid’s x-ray and determines he needs the operating room, stat. He changes the orders in the elevator. And saves the kid’s life. Success! Ah, but a doctor saw him looking at the film, confronts him, and calls security. Trouble!

All right, you’re about to write a scene. You know who the viewpoint character is.

You can pants it. Or you can plan it. This is our micro issue.

Some simply start writing, letting the scene unfold in their head as they take it down. Like transcribing a movie playing in the mind.

The other way is to take a few minutes to think about the three Os listed above.

Objective—Who is the viewpoint character? What does this character want to achieve in the scene? (As Vonnegut once said, a character has to want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.)

Obstacles—Brainstorm possible areas of conflict, e.g., another character with an opposing agenda. Or physical barriers (the bridge is out; the building is locked). Make a list, push past the familiar, then choose the best ones.

Outcome—I see five possible scene endings: 1) success; 2) success, but with a cost; 3) failure; 4) failure with a setback (the situation gets worse); and 5) open-ended (we have to wait for the outcome. This is a staple of multiple POV thrillers, cutting away from one scene to another scene with a different POV).

Writing with this mini-outline enables me to pick the best course among many possibilities. It also helps me to avoid clichés and stereotypes, which are often the first things that come to mind when you simply start writing a scene.

In short, I dig up the best nuggets with a few minutes of brainstorming instead of writing a scene, seeing what I came up with, and doing a lot of fixing. I’ll still have things to fix, but I do that with light editing of my previous day’s work. (Whatever approach, it’s the fixing that is the key to writing books that actually sell and not just take up space. That’s why I wrote a new writing book up for a pre-sale deal now.)

I’ll give you an example from my WIP, my next Mike Romeo thriller. I have a scene where Romeo goes to a house that used to be owned by a key witness. His Objective is simple: find out where the guy moved to.

In my head I had Mike knocking on the door and hearing a voice ask what he wants. Mike lays it out, but the voice refuses to answer the question, tells Mike to go away. There’s an Obstacle. Despite his best attempts at persuasion, the Outcome is failure.

That was my first thought, and it wasn’t enough. Had I written it out and moved on, I know I would have been disappointed upon revision.

So I brainstormed. First, more Obstacles. I thought about the setting. What else was there? How about a smell? Maybe dust…or smoke…ah! Popping into my mind: the odor of marijuana. The “sweet, skunky” smell of burning hippie lettuce. Where would that come from?

Why, the house next door. I brainstormed who it might be. Not one, not two, but three young guys, in folding chairs by a car they are presumably working on, passing around a pipe.

Mike asks them if they knew the guy who lived next door. Their answers are less than helpful, but sure does make them laugh. Mike tries the house across the street and this time it’s a thin old guy on a lawn tractor holding a hoe like a lance. Reminds Mike of Don Quixote. They guy is a misanthrope, not helpful at all.

So after three Obstacles, the ultimate Outcome was failure. Mike doesn’t get the answer he’s looking for.

What follows is a reaction beat. A full reaction beat is made up of Emotion, Analysis, and Decision. (Many of you will recognize all this as the Swain/Bickham “scene and sequel.”

Which we can go into another time.)

Point is I came up with a scene that works for my WIP, with ideas formed with a few minutes of brainstorming.

So I ask: What is your approach to scene writing? Fly into it? Plan it out? Something in between?

What Preys on Your Fiction?

by James Scott Bell

Mrs. B and I like to start our mornings together, early, with a cup of joe and some talk. We take it in the front room where we can hear the early morning birds come out to sing. We have a nice aviary in our back yard—mockingbirds, blue jays, doves, even the occasional oriole. The mockingbirds always take the lead. After all, they can have up to 200 songs in their feathery breast.

One morning a few years ago, eerily concurrent with lockdown frenzy, the music stopped.

Cindy was the first to notice. “I don’t hear the birds,” she said.

We waited. No sound.

The next morning was the same.

We were flummoxed.

Then one morning I went out back with my AlphaSmart and a fresh cup of java. I was typing away when I heard a rustling in the trees. A squirrel jumped out and ran across our wall. Fast. Heading toward another tree.

Because a big old hawk was swooping down on the frightened ball of fur. I rooted for the squirrel. Who found safe haven.

The hawk then perched itself on the corner of my roof, where it had an unobscured view of my entire yard.

It just sat there. Watching.

Could that be the reason the birds were silent?

I went out again the next morning. No singing birds. But presently I heard the loud squawk of a mockingbird. Not in song, but in distress. I looked up.

There, on top of a telephone pole, sat the hawk. A few yards away, on a wire, was the mockingbird, screaming at the hawk in no uncertain terms to go away.

Which the hawk imperiously ignored.

The mockingbird intensified its screech. The hawk stayed put. My theory was that the bird had a nest nearby and was protecting its young.

Finally, the mockingbird kicked things up a notch. It flew at the hawk, flapping its wings as it went by, giving the predator a feathery slap.

The hawk looked puzzled.

The mockingbird flew at him again. And again. The fourth time, the hawk decided he’d had enough, and flew off.

Score one for the little guy!

It took some weeks, but eventually the hawk moved on. And the birds started singing again.

Which has me thinking: what hawks are there in our writing life that keep us from singing our best songs? Here are three:

Self doubt

Every writer goes through periods of self doubt—about whether they have the goods, whether the book they’re working on is good enough. Or maybe they’ve had some success and wonder if they can keep it going. A little self doubt can be a motivator to check your craft and see if you might improve something. But you can’t let it sit there like a hawk.

You will not be shocked to learn that the remedy is to write. Type words. As Dennis Palumbo says in his book Writing From the Inside Out, “Every hour you spend writing is an hour not spent fretting about your writing.” When you’re writing, you’re not doubting. That is, unless this hawk is swooping:

Inner critic

“Danger, Will Robinson!” – Robot from Lost in Space

We all know this voice. “Hold it.” You’ve written a sentence. Or a paragraph. And suddenly you clutch. You want to go back and fix the thing. Danger, Will Robinson! (Boy, does that ever date me.) Listening to that voice leads to Writus Interruptus—the cessation of creative flow.

We all want to write in the flow state. Letting the words come out by following the James Thurber advice, “Don’t get it write. Get it written.” Go back and fix it later.

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

If you find yourself prey to the inner critic, you need to get used to turning it off. Do that with the practice of morning pages. See my post on that here.

Risk aversion

Sometimes a writer chasing commercial success will choose a genre and then write safely within the conventions. The problem is, there is enough same-old fiction being produced that such a book will not stand out in any significant way. Heck, artificial intelligence can now spew out competent genre fiction. Are we going to let the machines make monkeys out of us? We need to bring our unique voice, heart, perspective, passion to the page!

Don’t be afraid to take a risk, especially in the first draft. You can always pull things back later, or polish the rough gems…but first they need to be there.

In that regard, I’d like to mention my new writing craft book, because it is all about the “extras” that we love to find in great fiction. It’s called Power Up Your Fiction: 125 Tips and Techniques for Next-Level Writing. It’s up for pre-sale on Amazon now at the deal price of $2.99 (reg. will be $5.99). If you’re out of the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B0BZ5WQVXD.

So flap your wings and chase away those birds of prey. Then sing your song.

What preys on your fiction?

What Writers Can Learn From Sunset Boulevard

by James Scott Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frame Story

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

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

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

Death Stakes

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

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

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

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

Doorway of No Return

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

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

Pet the Dog

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

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

Mirror Moment

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

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

Lesson: The Mirror Moment sees all, knows all.

Sharp Dialogue

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

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

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

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


Ways to Do Morning Pages

by James Scott Bell

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

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

Bradbury’s Landmine

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

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

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

Natalie Goldberg’s Non-Stop Writing

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

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

Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages

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

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

Writing the Natural Way

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

From Writing the Natural Way. Click to enlarge.

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

Micro and Flash Fiction

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

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

Sue Grafton’s Novel Journal

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

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

What are your thoughts on morning pages?

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

For Love of the Pencil

by James Scott Bell

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

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

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

Another source:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked puzzled.

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

“You can always go online,” he said.

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

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

All hail the #1 pencil!

Does a pencil figure in your everyday reading or writing?

Early Writing, Early Dreams

by James Scott Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was already influencing a generation of young writers.

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

The boy’s name was James Green.

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

Peter Pan, because he could fly and fight pirates.

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret Brew of Page-Turning Fiction

by James Scott Bell

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

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

It’s a portent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a crazy bastard,” Pat said.

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

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

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

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

Like I said, the whole thing stunk.

To high heaven.

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

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

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

Reflections on Literary Fiction

by James Scott Bell

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

Other than that, it was a pretty good book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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