About James Scott Bell

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You Finished Your First Draft. Now What?

by James Scott Bell



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

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


Getting Specific With Details

by James Scott Bell

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

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.



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

Father’s Day Reading and Viewing Pleasure

by James Scott Bell

Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Happy Father’s Day. Allow me  to recommend some of my favorite books and movies about dear old Dad.

At the top of the list, of course, is To Kill A Mockingbird. Little needs to be said here. Both book and movie are timeless classics. If ever there was a role that was meant for a specific actor, it was Atticus Finch for Gregory Peck. The movie score by Elmer Bernstein is also perfection. I’ll admit it, as soon as that score begins in the opening credits, I’m already reaching for a Kleenex.

Speaking of which, I remember reading Avery Corman’s novel Kramer vs. Kramer when it came out in the late 70s. I was a few years away from marriage and fatherhood, but I was still blubbering at the end (please keep this to yourselves). The 1979 movie, starring Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and cute kid Justin Henry, is every bit as effective.

My favorite comedy on the subject is Father of the Bride (1950). Spencer Tracy plays the father of Elizabeth Taylor, who has become engaged. What follows are the stages of a bride’s father that seem as inevitable as the stages of grief: testing the young man about his financial future; meeting the in-laws; trying to keep down wedding expenses; surviving the emotional shakeups. It’s amazing that this comedy is as fresh today as it was back then. And yes, the ending has me at the Kleenex box again. (What is this going to do my rep as a thriller writer?)

Laurence Fishburne in Boyz n the Hood (1991)

On the other side of the spectrum is John Singleton’s 1991 urban drama Boyz n the Hood (very strong language, so be advised). Ten-year-old Trey is getting in trouble at school, so his mother Reva (Angela Bassett) decides he needs to go live with his father, Jason “Furious” Styles (Laurence Fishburne). When she drops Trey off, she says to Furious: “I can’t teach him how to be a man. That’s your job.” Furious becomes the solid rock in Trey’s life—teaching, admonishing, correcting. When he asks his boy what he knows about sex, Trey gives a boy answer. Furious replies, “Any fool … can make a baby, but only a man can raise his children.” The film cuts to seven years later and follows Trey and his friends through a series of encounters until the final, crushing climax. Trey almost makes a life-altering, criminal mistake, but once again his father is there when he needs him most. Outstanding performances by all, especially Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Ice Cube.

Speaking of solid-oak fathers, in the late 30s and into the 40s the quintessential dad was Judge James Hardy, played by Lewis Stone. He was the father of the irrepressible Andy (Mickey Rooney) who was in constant need of correction and advice. This series was wildly popular, sixteen in all, with Stone in fourteen of them. If I had to pick one to start with, it would be Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), as it is the film that adds Judy Garland to the series (not to mention a young Lana Turner!)

And then there are father-son reconciliation films. These are the flip side of mother-love-and-sacrifice movies (e.g., 1937’s Stella Dallas.) The two that get me every time are October Sky (1999) and Field of Dreams (1989).

The Crowd (1928)

I want to mention one more movie that most people, sadly, are unfamiliar with. That’s because it comes from the rich history of silent films. King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) is an unflinching look at the pre-Depression working stiff and what happens when optimistic ambition runs up against cold, hard reality. The climax is unforgettable, only this time it’s the young son who saves the father from destruction: “I believe in you, Pop!”

Honorable Mentions:

Tarzan Finds a Son (1939)
Life With Father (1947)
The Godfather (1972)
Parenthood (1989)
Finding Nemo (2003)

Any movies or books about fathers you’d like to add? And please feel free to share any memories of your own father if you are so moved.

As a special treat, here is a priceless moment from the old Dick Cavett show, where Groucho Marx sings the Harry Ruby song “Father’s Day.”

Writing Lovely Moments

by James Scott Bell

Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field (1963)

I believe writers are here to “bring the light.” It’s a dark world out there and most readers, I venture to say, don’t want more of the same in their leisure hours.

By that I don’t mean we avoid the harsher edges in our fiction. Indeed, that’s what the best thrillers take us through in order to deliver us at the end.

I do mean, though, that light (e.g., hope, justice) is a powerful—even necessary—element for today’s market.

Which brings me to the subject of lovely moments.

The other night Mrs. B and I re-watched one of our favorite movies, Lilies of the Field. This 1963 gem was a low-budget production that ended up nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay. Sidney Poitier took home the Best Actor prize for his performance. Lilia Skala, the Austrian actress, was nominated for her supporting role (and should have won, in my humble opinion).

It’s the story of an itinerant worker, Homer Smith (Poitier), who is driving his old station wagon across the Arizona desert. His car needs water, so he pulls into the only homestead within miles. It turns out this is the humble dwelling of five nuns who are scraping out their subsistence by growing vegetables, raising chickens, and milking one cow. The nuns do not speak much English. We learn later they escaped over the Berlin Wall and came 8,000 miles to this desolate place.

The iron-willed Mother Superior (Skala) is convinced that God has sent “Schmidt” to them for a very special purpose—to build a chapel for the poor, mostly Mexican locals to attend mass.

Mass for this community is administered outside a local hash house by a priest who works out of a motor home. In a conversation with Homer, the priest admits that when he was ordained he prayed to be called to a majestic cathedral in some wealthy diocese. Now, he notes ruefully, he has to pray that his tires don’t blow out.

Near the end, with the chapel finished, the priest is brought in to see where he will now be saying the mass. He is so moved he can hardly speak. Finally, he says to the Mother Superior, “Many years ago, I made a very vain and selfish prayer. Now He has answered my prayer through you, through many people. I pray now I become worthy of His trust. And yours.”

A lovely moment. It’s with a minor character, but it deepens the emotional impact of the entire film.

So I’ve been thinking about how to add such moments to our fiction. Here are two prompts:

  1. Where can your Lead show mercy?

One of the best examples of this type of moment is from, not surprisingly, Casablanca. A desperate young wife asks Rick to answer the most important question in her life. She and her husband, refugees from Bulgaria, are desperate to get out of Casablanca, but need exit visas signed by the French police captain, Louis Renault. These visas cost serious money. The husband is trying to raise it in the gambling room, but is losing. The wife, however, has been approached by Louis (offscreen) with his standard offer—if she will sleep with him, he will grant the couple their visas.

Casablanca (1942, Warner Bros.)

The young wife wants to know if Renault is a man of his word. Rick knows immediately why she’s asking. He tells her, with cynical disdain, that yes, he’s a man of his word.

Then the wife wants to know something else:

“Monsieur, you are a man. If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world, and she did a bad thing to make certain of it…could you forgive her?”

Bitterly, Rick says, “Nobody ever loved me that much.”

She goes on: “And he never knew, and the girl kept this bad thing locked in her heart, that would be all right, wouldn’t it?”

“You want my advice?”

“Yes, please.”

“Go back to Bulgaria.”

But a few minutes later Rick goes to the roulette table and suggests the husband bet everything on 22. The croupier picks up the cue, and 22 wins. Rick says, “Leave it there.” And 22 wins again.

Rick tells the husband, “Now cash it in and don’t come back.”

A lovely moment. So lovely that when the Russian bartender hears what Rick has done, he rushes over to give Rick a kiss on the cheek!

This is also what I call a “Pet the Dog” beat, which is where the Lead forgets for a moment his own troubles in order to help someone who is weak or vulnerable. He doesn’t have to do so. Indeed, his action puts him in jeopardy (Louis begins to suspect Rick is not as neutral as he claims to be). But the action bonds us deeply to the Lead, compelling us to read on.

  1. Where can your Lead be shown mercy?

Les Misérables (1935, 20th Century Pictures)

Who can forget the mercy shown to Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables? When the ex-convict is fed by a kind priest, Valjean repays him by stealing a basket of silverware. He doesn’t get very far before the gendarmes nab him and drag him back to the priest’s abode. They have caught him red-handed with stolen silver! Now all the priest has to do is make a complaint and Valjean will be back in prison forever. They are not prepared for what the priest does next:

“Ah! here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”

Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.

“Monseigneur,” said the brigadier of gendarmes, “so what this man said is true, then? We came across him. He was walking like a man who is running away. We stopped him to look into the matter. He had this silver—”

“And he told you,” interposed the Bishop with a smile, “that it had been given to him by a kind old fellow of a priest with whom he had passed the night? I see how the matter stands. And you have brought him back here? It is a mistake.”

“In that case,” replied the brigadier, “we can let him go?”

“Certainly,” replied the Bishop.

The priest then gets the silver candlesticks and hands them to a bewildered Jean Valjean.

“Now,” said the Bishop, “go in peace. By the way, when you return, my friend, it is not necessary to pass through the garden. You can always enter and depart through the street door. It is never fastened with anything but a latch, either by day or by night.”

Then, turning to the gendarmes—

“You may retire, gentlemen.”

This is, of course, the great turning point in Valjean’s life. And an unforgettable moment in a classic novel.

What lovely moments in books or films are memorable to you?