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Reader Friday: Your First Story

Dean Koontz

“When I was eight years old, I wrote short stories on tablet paper, drew colorful covers, stapled the left margin of each story, put electrician’s tape over the staples for the sake of neatness, and tried to peddle these books to relatives and neighbors. Each of my productions sold for a nickel.” — Dean Koontz

What’s the very first story you remember writing? How old were you? What inspired it?


What Path Should a Writer Take in 2020?

by James Scott Bell

I’ve always used December as a month to re-calibrate and re-think my writing goals for the new year. Since we have writers at all stages of the journey here at TKZ, I thought it might be a good time to consider the various paths a writer might take…and how to choose among them.

  1. The Forbidden City

The traditional publishing industry—represented by the so-called “Big Five”—is still kicking it, though there are clear challenges ahead. This mega-model cannot sustain itself without developing new talent, but the risk capital for doing that is not so plentiful as it once was. What’s keeping the lights on in Manhattan offices is the ever-increasing dependence on A-list writers. Which means fewer resources to nurture midlist talent. As a recent article in Publishers Weekly put it:

[M]idlist sales have faltered enough in recent years that there is a growing concern among publishers and agents about how the business can create new hits when the field they once turned to is, well, disappearing…

A publisher at a major house agreed that, to an extent, publishers have contributed to the gap between the top sellers and those below. With social media offering a variety of ways to promote titles that are selling, publishers usually put more resources behind books that are succeeding in order to maintain momentum. As these books get the lion’s share of the houses’ focus, other titles are left to find audiences on their own.

The dependence on big hits by proven authors has also been exacerbated by two other developments, according to the article: “a shrinking physical retail market and an increase in competing entertainment driven by the proliferation of streaming TV platforms.”

Getting invited inside the walls of the Forbidden City has always been difficult. And it’s always been difficult to stay inside. With fewer slots available for new writers—and even less for a flat-selling mid-lister—the difficulty of this path has only increased.

  1. Small Publishing Companies

I’d define this slice of the publishing pie as any company not owned by the bigs but still operating in a traditional fashion. That is, they take on a manuscript and foot the bill for editing and design work. They may or may not pay an advance, but do offer traditional royalty terms.

I’d put Amazon Publishing (note: not Kindle Direct Publishing, which is for indie writers. See #3, below) at the top of this category, though it is truly unique in that it owns the largest (online) bookstore in the world, yet isn’t usually granted shelf space in brick-and-mortar stores (unless, of course, they own those stores!)

Also near the top is Kensington, which calls itself “America’s Independent Publisher.” (They must have good criteria as they publish this fellow.)

Blue-Footed Booby

As presses get smaller, they usually have a tighter genre focus. For example, Graywolf tends toward the literary, while Brash Books walks the mean streets of crime. Powerhouse bestsellers from the smalls are as rare as the Blue-Footed Booby. But with the right partnership you may be able to put together a solid body of work and a steadily growing readership.

How do you find the right small publisher for your novel? You can still pick up a copy of Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market 2020 (which you ought to do soon, as the future of this publication is uncertain due to the sale of WD assets to Penguin Random House earlier this year).

Finally, there are “really small” companies springing up, seemingly all the time. They focus almost exclusively on ebooks. In many cases they’re run by indie writers who’ve had some success themselves, and seek to make extra scratch helping new writers get out to market.

A great big caveat scriptor is necessary here: it’s easy to call yourself a publisher, and just as easy to go bust. (I got a flaming email once from the founder of a one-person press after I issued a gentle warning to writers about such companies. How dare I! We can give more personal attention to individual writers! I wrote back and wished her good fortune. Eight months later the company was out of business, unable to pay their writers the royalties they were owed.)

While these micro publishers do not offer advances or require an agent, you really need to do your due diligence with any contract. (File this advice under “Duh.”)

How can you tell if a small press is legit? Start by reading this post.

  1. Indie (Self) Publishing

We’re twelve years into the ebook revolution, and enough time has gone by for the dust of the self-publishing “gold rush” (roughly 2008-2013) to settle back down to earth. We have adequate history now to assert a few things.

First, this path to market is still fast and without obstacle. Anyone can do it. That’s a blessing and a curse. A blessing because for the first time since Gutenberg it’s possible for an author to make bank outside the walls of the Forbidden City. A curse because there’s a great temptation to toss a book out there when it’s clearly not ready for prime time, and/or has a shoddy design.

There are innumerable books and blogs and courses that can teach you the technical details on getting your books online. If you are averse to being truly DIY (that is, dealing directly with Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc.), there are aggregator sites that will do the distribution for you, in return for a percentage of your net proceeds. Your net is based on the retail price of your book, less the bookstore’s commission. For example, Amazon retains 30% as its commission when a book is sold off its site. The author gets 70%. The aggregator takes a slice (usually 15%) out of that 70% and sends you the balance. Smashwords and Draft2Digital are the leading aggregators right now. Here’s an article comparing the two. (Note: If a company charges you an upfront fee as opposed to percentage of net, it falls more into the category of a vanity press. See #4, below.)

Just remember that regardless of how you get your books to market, the three keys to making actual dough as an indie are 1) writing commercially viable books (i.e., in a popular genre); 2) being prolific; and 3) understanding that you’re running a small business.

That last item—business sense—gives many writers the willies. It’s hard enough to find the time to write! Now I have to spend time on business?

Well, yeah, if you truly want a shot at indie success. I wrote a book about the business principles you’ll need.

  1. Vanity Press

This is a business that makes money off authors, rather than the other way around. They require you to put up a pretty penny (do they make pretty pennies anymore?) to “publish” your book. They usually do a competent design job, but then what? They’ll offer to upsell you various packages (e.g., enhanced marketing) the value of which is negligible.

The article referenced earlier has a section on vanity presses. If you have written one book that you would like to distribute to family and friends in a nice hardcover edition—and have no desire to make writing a career…and you have lots of discretionary income—then perhaps a vanity publisher might be an option.

Whew. Now that we’ve covered these four paths open to writers today, we need to ask one more big question before making the choice, and that is: just what is it you want to accomplish, when all is said and done and published, with your writing? Here I think there are three possible answers.

The first is the amorphous concept of validation. A lot of writers I’ve talked to over the past ten years about self-publishing have given me variations on, “But I want the validation of a traditional contract.”

I call this notion “amorphous” because you can’t measure it. Will this type of validation give you 100% satisfaction? Probably not. How about 80%? Perhaps, but how long will that feeling last? If you become one of those writers who is dropped by a publisher (which will retain the rights to your output), what then? You’re five years into what you thought was a career and all that work you’ve done belongs to the company that let you go? And your dismal sales numbers make it impossible to land another contract with a like-sized company? (This makes it imperative that you and your agent negotiate a fair reversion clause, based on royalty income, and whatever else you can get.)

A more understandable reason for seeking a traditional contract (from a Big Five publisher) is to play the lottery. You’re hoping that one of your books will be among those chosen to get a huge marketing push, landing you a prime spot on the New York Times bestseller list and guaranteeing a long, seven-figures annually career. There are about two dozen authors who fit this profile and ten million who would like to. That’s why this is a lottery.

I find it a perfectly fine reason to knock on the doors of the Forbidden City. I just want you to be aware of the odds.

The third type of writer wants to create a reliable and steady stream of income. That could happen with the right small publisher partnership, but I find it more likely and lucrative in the indie world. My favorite model is the classic pulp fiction era. The writers who made it were, above all, good storytellers. They knew their craft. They were also prolific and understood the market—just like successful indie writers today, of which there are many. I personally know several indies making healthy five- and six-figure annual incomes because they operate on pulp principles.

Your assignment is clear. Figure out which motivation is most important to you. Then you can fashion 2020 plans and priorities accordingly. Next December, and each December after that, think through these considerations anew.

And whatever your choices—whatever type of writer you see yourself as—do this above all: Love the writing itself. Write with joy. Find and nurture your sweet spot. That’s the only thing that will sustain you over the long haul.

Which is why TKZ exists. We love writers and writing. We love sharing our insights, and hearing back from you in the comments. So as we wrap up another year, thank you for making this community one of the best places to hang out and talk about fiction craft and the book business. We now pause to catch our collective breath, and will see you back here on January 6, 2020!

Merry Christmas
Happy Hanukkah
Próspero año y felicidad!


Set Up a Command Post Inside Your Character’s Head

by James Scott Bell

Here is another first page for critique. It brings up a major issue that applies to all writers, but especially those writing fantasy and speculative fiction.

See you on the other side.


The Guide

Sam woke up in the middle of a field with a headache and a fuzzy memory of cold, rushing water. A thin black cat sat on the lowest branch of a large dead tree a few feet away. The cat hopped down from its perch, and disappeared behind the large trunk of the tree with a flick of its tail, as if to say, “Follow me, human.” After several minutes of walking, it turned around and stared. In an instant, the cat was gone and in its place, a man. “Make thy purpose known, mortal.”

Startled, Sam asked “Who are you?”

The man spoke, “I am Andrian, Guider of souls. Who might ye be, and from where do ye hail?”

“My… my name is Sam. I come from Oregon.”

“What bringst thee to my realm, ‘Sam’ of ‘Oregon’?”

“I… saw… a cat. I guess it wanted me to follow?”

“Ah, Cailleach.”

Once again, he was gone. In his place, the black cat from only moments ago. Just as quickly as he disappeared, he returned to his human form.

“Don’t– do that… It makes my headache worse…”

“My apologies. Be ye hungry?” There was something in his voice this time that sounded like….hopefulness? Curiosity? It was hard to tell. Nevertheless, Sam obliged. The man turned around, “Follow me.”

The man turned and began walking away. It was only after they reached an impassable wall of stone and being asked a direct question that he spoke again.

“How are we going to get past this cliff?”

“Do not worry. It is simply a cloaking spell I cast on my land, so that I may be hidden from view and protected in case something happens again.” He walked into the stone, and disappeared.

Sam asked, “What do you mean, ‘Something happening again’?”

He replied, “It is of no importance. Come, I shall give thee a meal.”

They crossed the barrier and Sam’s ears were filled with the sound of rushing water. Once through, the sound immediately stopped. Many different types of rare, colorful birds in all different sizes and colors sat perched on various branches. Andrian reached out, and a large white bird landed on his arm. The bird spoke, “Master has brought home a visitor?”



JSB: Introductory note: I have a feeling the title here is for the chapter, not the book. If it is for the chapter, it’s fine. If for the book, please read my post on titles, for you can do much better.

A few months ago I wrote about the most important question you can ask about a scene. It is, Would they really? Is this how the characters would really act and speak under the specific conditions of that scene?

This is the overarching criticism I have of today’s piece. The result is that the reader, rather than being pulled into a unique story world, is kept at arm’s length. We don’t experience the scene along with the main character; we watch from afar. And Sam’s lack of reaction, resistance, wonder, fear, trembling or anything beyond “startled” runs afoul of the would they really? test. We get the feeling the characters are game pieces on a plot board being moved by the author, not living, breathing people making the moves themselves.

I want real characters here because I like this set-up—waking up in an alternate world. Yes, it’s been done, many times before, in fantasy and even, in a way, in noir (guy wakes up with amnesia). But that doesn’t mean a writer can’t tackle it afresh and put his unique stamp on it. Also a situation isn’t a cliché for a new reader (I’m assuming YA audience here).

So go for it.

But let’s make the “it” better.

Sam woke up in the middle of a field with a headache and a fuzzy memory of cold, rushing water.

Instead of starting us off in Sam’s head, allowing us to vicariously experience this most mind blowing of circumstances, the line merely tells us what’s happening. We need to be feeling, along with Sam, his groping toward consciousness. The only way to do that is to climb inside Sam’s head and lock the exit. Within his cranium is where you must set up your entire command post for the duration of your novel.

Firmly ensconced therein, you can only look through his eyes and think his thoughts. Since he’s just waking up he wouldn’t know that he is “in the middle of a field.” He has to find that out. Start by giving us his first sensations of waking. What does he see? What does he smell? (Smell is especially promising here. Wet dirt? Grass? Dung? Give us something!)

Weave in his pounding head and the memory of cold, rushing water (I like that last bit, as it dangles a mystery).

A thin black cat sat on the lowest branch of a large dead tree a few feet away.

Don’t just toss this in! Give it to us in real time, with vivid description and strategic revelation. What do I mean by the latter? My strategy would be to start with the tree and end with the cat, like a slow pan in a movie.

Describe the tree. Don’t just tell us it’s dead. Give us the gnarls and knots, the sharp witch fingers of the empty branches.

And when he finally gets to the cat, don’t let it just sit there. Make it ready to pounce and, more important, have it staring right at Sam! That’ll send a nice chill up the ol’ spine. We need more description of this kind, grounding us firmly in the reality of this unreal world. Channel your inner Stephen King. (Read, for example, the first page of The Gunslinger and you’ll see what I mean.)

The cat hopped down from its perch, and disappeared behind the large trunk of the tree with a flick of its tail, as if to say, “Follow me, human.” After several minutes of walking, it turned around and stared. In an instant, the cat was gone and in its place, a man. “Make thy purpose known, mortal.”

Okay, I’m lost. If the cat disappeared behind the trunk, where does the “several minutes of walking” come from? It took me a couple of readings to figure out that Sam is following the cat. But you don’t have that in there! So it seems like the cat walks away, or around the tree (?) but is still near Sam. You need a beat of Sam following. This is a perfect place to stretch some tension and give us more description of the world.

And how does the cat get “gone”? Does it just vanish? (Later, you imply that the cat and “the man” are the same, just different forms. A more liquid transformation would be the better choice.)

Next, you have the appearance of the “man.” And that’s all you give us, save for the Monty Pythonesque speech pattern. What the heck does he look like? His clothes, his coloring, his adornments? We desperately need these.

BTW, don’t take the Monty Python reference as a dig. You obviously want this scene (and, I’m assuming, the novel) to have some humor. That’s fine, but the humor needs to come out of the “reality.” If you don’t make us believe what Sam is experiencing, the humor will fall flat.

The late Danny Simon (Neil’s older brother, who taught both Neil and Woody Allen how to write narrative comedy) talked about knowing your “bubble.” He meant your story world. He said, “You must know ‘the world’ — physical and every other way — that you’re going to write about. That will suggest possibilities. You must ‘see’ all the characters in the scene, all the physical stuff, too. Each action of the characters is going to cause a re-action among other characters or the environment.” (And if you’re going to write with humor, you would do well to study the only known copy of notes from Danny Simon’s famous comedy-writing class.)

Startled, Sam asked “Who are you?”

Startled? I should say so! But I don’t tell the reader. Show it! Does Sam scramble backward? Lose his breath? Think he’s going crazy? Can he even speak?

The man spoke, “I am Andrian, Guider of souls.

We don’t need The man spoke. That’s obvious. Give us an action beat or description. He raised his arms or His eyes burned.

“My… my name is Sam. I come from Oregon.”

“What bringst thee to my realm, ‘Sam’ of ‘Oregon’?”

 Okay, the fun begins. I’d lose the internal quote marks, though. That will confuse your intended audience, and isn’t needed. If you want to imply hesitation, he could say something like “Sam of O-Re-Gone?”

“My apologies. Be ye hungry?” There was something in his voice this time that sounded like….hopefulness? Curiosity? It was hard to tell. Nevertheless, Sam obliged.

 Obliged is a wrong word choice. Sam obliged implies action, but there is no action, nor even a call to action. He was simply asked a question. So have Sam answer or nod.

The man turned around, “Follow me.”

The man turned and began walking away.  

That’s one turn too many. It would mean the man is walking away, only backwards. Remember, visualize every single beat through Sam’s eyes. Easy fix: just lose one of the turns.

It was only after they reached an impassable wall of stone

Whoa! That was fast. They get to a “wall of stone” in a nanosecond of fiction time. I mean, there is pace, and then there’s warp speed (which, you’ll recall from Star Trek, blurs everything).

Don’t skip what we need to see and experience. It won’t hurt your pace if, again, you’re stretching the tension. Stretch it! What is Sam feeling as he follows? In fact, why is he following in the first place? There’s no hesitation or doubt. Would he really (not have any)?

And man, we need to see this “wall of stone.” How would Sam describe it? What would he notice? How would it make him feel?

and being asked a direct question that he spoke again.

You make it clear in the next line that it is Sam speaking. It’s his voice. But that means you don’t need to tell us he’s about to speak again in the previous line. Let the action do the work. The words he spoke again are superfluous.

“How are we going to get past this cliff?”

I don’t know what I’m supposed to see. A wall is not a cliff. A cliff has no wall. Ack!

They crossed the barrier

What barrier? It’s gone. And you don’t cross a barrier anyway. You cross a chasm. You scale or go around a barrier.

Many different types of rare, colorful birds in all different sizes and colors sat perched on various branches.

Another great opportunity for description! Let us see these birds as Sam does! Reds and yellows and oranges and purples! And unless Sam is an ornithologist he’s not seeing “rare.” He’s seeing other-worldly. How would Sam react to that?

Whew. Okay, I’ve been tough on you, writer, because you have a situation that would make me want to turn the page…IF I was fully invested in Sam and IF I could SEE this world. So please do this for me: climb inside Sam’s head and don’t come out until you’ve done a complete re-write of this opening scene. And I mean complete. Forget what you’ve written and start with a blank page. Go step-by-vivid-step. Take your time.

Weave us a dream!

Comments are welcome.


On Curling Up With a Good Book

by James Scott Bell

One of my favorite comedies from the 1940s Is The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. This little gem (with an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Sidney Sheldon) stars Cary Grant as the bachelor, Shirley Temple as the bobby-soxer, and Myrna Loy as a judge who happens to be Shirley’s big sister.

The plot is simple. Grant gives a speech at Shirley’s high school, and Shirley becomes infatuated with him. Grant has to fight her off even as her suspicious sister brings the arm of the law down upon him. I’ll bet you can guess who Grant ends up romancing. It’s all great fun, especially a scene where Grant takes on the persona of a teenager for a little bit of payback.

There’s one scene I’ve always found of quaint historical interest. Grant is alone in his apartment. It’s evening, he has on a comfortable robe. He mixes himself a highball and turns the radio to soft music. Then he happily settles into a chair and takes up… a book! He has looked forward to this all day—an uninterrupted hour or two of reading pleasure. Of course, that’s when Shirley interrupts things, having sneaked into his apartment to be near him!

There used to be a time when an evening’s entertainment was sitting in a chair with a drink or a cup of tea and reading a book. The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer came out in 1947, just before the explosion of television. How many people even think of a book as an option for prime time anymore?

These thoughts came to me recently when I was knocked flat by a 24-hour bug. It was a nasty sucker. I spent an entire day in bed doing absolutely nothing but moaning and drifting in and out of sleep. There was a junkyard tire fire in my stomach. My head felt like a mastiff’s chew toy.

The next day I was marginally better, but certainly not ready for Irish folk dancing. I managed to get a little writing done, but then just wanted to go back to bed. Only I didn’t want another day of pitiful do-nothingness. What about reading a book?

I’d recently purchased the massive biography of Cornell Woolrich, First You Dream, Then You Die. I considered it a sign of recuperation that I could lift it. And actually open it and begin to read. Ah! I’d forgotten what a pleasure it is to read a physical book in bed when it isn’t nighttime. (When I try this at night I can manage only three or four pages before the sandman does his thing.)

This time I was into a book for a couple of hours, occasionally closing my eyes and dozing, but waking to read again.

These days I (and, I suspect, most of you) have to snatch time to read a book. Too many other things demand our attention. Speed and the false god Multitask have killed contemplation. We have sacrificed the aesthetic on the altar of the frenetic.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate (and still with awe) the magnificence of the ebook. Having innumerable electronic volumes available on my phone (via Kindle app and Overdrive) means I can read anything I want at a moment’s notice. No more flipping through last May’s issue of Working Woman in the waiting room! No, let’s see how big a bite I can take out of Martin Chuzzlewit…just open the complete works of Dickens!

Yet I still like holding a physical book, and my recent indisposition reminded me how much I miss a good, long stretch of pure reading time. It’s my fault, of course. Almost always my first choice in the evening is something on the flat screen.

But do I really need an hour of what used to be called “news” but is now little more than an oral version of Friday Night SmackDown? How much of must is really there in “must-see TV” (not much!). How many hours of my life are unredeemed by tuning into the latest “can’t miss” series which, once I’ve taken in an episode or two, I wish I’d actually missed?

Okay, there’s football three or four nights a week, but that’s what the DVR and pause button are for (I can skip time outs, commercials, and halftimes—with apologies to Phil, Curt, Michael, Terry, Howie, Coach, Boomer, Jimmy, Tony, Spanky, Fozzie, Gonzo and whoever else expands time with erudite comments like, “The defense really needs to step up.”)

So, dear friends, why don’t I just get into the habit of reading a book after dinner?

If it was good enough for Cary Grant, it should be good enough for me!

When was the last time you curled up with a good (physical) book for at least an hour? How have your reading habits changed over the last couple of decades? Do you have a favorite “curl-up-with” book?


BTW, if your preferred method of curling up these days is audio, and you’re a writer, you might be interested to know that I have another of my writing books available through Audible. Narrated, natch, by me. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings.


Learning From the Movies: The King’s Speech

by James Scott Bell

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech

Imagine a hungry young screenwriter getting invited to a pitch session on a studio lot.

“What’ve you got for me, kid?” the producer says.

“Okay,” the screenwriter says, “we have this guy, see, he’s a king, see, and he’s got to make a speech. Only the guy stutters.”

“What’s the rest of it?”

“The rest of what?”

“The movie!”

“That’s it. That’s the movie! And at the end, see, he makes the speech.”


And yet The King’s Speech (2010) won Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Director, and Screenwriter. How did they pull that off?

Through the power of character bonding and the magic of story structure. You can do just about anything with your novel so long as you have a reader intensely and emotionally invested in your Lead and put him through the beats of a well-crafted tale.

Let’s talk about emotional investment first. In Plot & Structure I discuss various ways a writer can join reader and character in the bonds of holy storytelling. One of the strongest bonding agents is hardship—at the beginning we are introduced to a character who faces a physical or emotional challenge.

In The King’s Speech, the hardship is both physical and psychological. Prince Albert, the Duke of York (Colin Firth) has a severe stammer which not only prevents him from delivering a simple speech; it also keeps him locked in a prison of self-doubt.

As the movie opens we see Albert nervously stepping up to a microphone to speak to a crowd. His stuttering talk bombs. People look embarrassed and disappointed. Prince Albert’s hardship has caused him massive public humiliation.

We’ve all been embarrassed, though not on so grand a scale. So we have immediate sympathy.

But that’s not all. There’s another powerful bonding agent I call the Care Package. This is a relationship in place before the story begins, showing that the Lead is not merely self interested. If we see someone who cares about someone else, it gives us hope for his ultimate redemption.

Early in Act 1 there is a lovely scene that gets me every time. Prince Albert, all done up in a tux, comes to say good-night to his two daughters. They want a story! “Can’t I be a penguin instead?” he asks. Clearly, he doubts even his ability to tell his children a simple bedtime tale. But they insist!

And so, out of love and fatherly duty, he makes the attempt. He tells a story about two princesses whose papa was changed by a witch into a penguin. This made him sad, for a penguin does not have arms to embrace his children. Not only that, the witch banished him to the South Pole. It’s obvious he is talking, metaphorically, about himself. The story ends with a restored father hugging his daughters. We can’t help but wonder if Albert will be healed, too. By now we hope so, because we are firmly invested in him.

The Duchess (Helena Bonham Carter) arranges a meeting for Albert with an eccentric speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Here we get another structural beat: The Argument Against Transformation. Unconvinced Lionel can help him, Albert is about to leave when Lionel asks him to try something. He puts headphones on the prince and plays classical music while having the prince read the famous soliloquy from Hamlet. After a minute or so Albert rips off the headphones and shouts, “Hopeless!” Then: “Thank you, Doctor. I don’t…feel this is for me.”

This sets up the arc of transformation that pays off at the end. (In Casablanca, Rick argues against his ultimate transformation by saying, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” At the end, of course, he does that very thing.)

The First Doorway of No Return

In a movie we need to get into the death stakes of Act 2 by the 25% mark (for novels, I advise 20% at the latest). That happens when the Lead is forced—either physically or emotionally—through a doorway that slams shut behind him (meaning he can never go back to his ordinary world). In The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, it’s physical (a tornado and the start of the Civil War, respectively). In Casablanca, it’s emotional (the arrival of Rick’s lost love, Ilsa).

In The King’s Speech, Albert is emotionally thrust through the doorway by his domineering father, King George V. Sitting his son down in front of microphones he says, “With your older brother shirking his duties, you’re going to have to do a lot more of this.”

Albert tries, but can’t get started. “Do it!” the king demands.

Later, in emotional torment over what he must be—and firmly believes he can never be—Albert puts on the recording Lionel made. And to his astonishment he’s read the soliloquy perfectly. Now he must place his trust in Lionel or “die” inside by letting down his entire country.

Mirror Moment

In the dead center of great stories the Lead is forced to look at himself, as if in a mirror (usually metaphorical, but it’s amazing how often there’s a physical mirror involved). Sometimes this is caused by another character forcing the issue.

That’s what happens in the middle of The King’s Speech. Albert is terrified at the prospect of being king (which will happen soon, for his brother is going to marry a divorcee). Lionel knows this fear is what’s holding Albert back as a speaker, a royal, and a person.

Lionel: I’m trying to get you to realize you needn’t be governed by fear.

Albert: I’ve had enough of this.

Lionel: What are you so afraid of?

Albert: Your poisonous words!

Lionel: Why did you come to me? You’re not some middle-class banker who wants elocution lessons so you can chitchat.

Albert: Don’t attempt to instruct me on my duties! I am the son of a … king.

And the brother of a king.

Albert: You’re the disappointing son of a brewer. A jumped-up jackeroo from the outback. You’re a nobody!

That last line is a knife through Lionel’s heart. In Casablanca, the same thing happens when Rick basically calls Ilsa a whore. Both Rick and Albert must now “look at themselves” and wonder, “Is this who I have become? Is this who I will always be?” (In film, these thoughts are rendered visually; in a novel, you can also use interior monologue.)

The Second Doorway

To get into Act 3, where the final battle takes place, we need another doorway. It’s going to be a clue or discovery, or a major crisis or setback—something that makes the ending possible and/or inevitable.

In The King’s Speech it’s a major crisis: Hitler invades Poland. A state of war exists. And Albert has just been crowned King George VI! Now it is his duty to address his kingdom, and in such a way as to inspire iron resolve for what is coming.

No pressure.

The Q Factor

Just before the climax, the Lead takes inspiration from an emotional jolt, giving him the courage to fight. I call this The Q Factor (named after the Bond character who sets up in Act 1 the gadgets Bond will need to escape in Act 3). In story structure, it’s an emotional connection that pays off by providing the last bit of courage the Lead needs. In Star Wars, for example, Luke hears the voice of his beloved mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobe, reminding him to “use The Force.”

In The King’s Speech, just as Albert steps to the microphone, Lionel tells him, “Say it to me, as a friend.” Not simply a teacher, a friend! That trust which began in Act 1 now enables the victory as Albert delivers an inspirational speech. The movie ends by proving the transformation: Albert—King George VI—steps out on the balcony with his wife and daughters and confidently waves to the adoring crowd.

Character bonding, the right structural beats (and great acting!)—that’s how a movie about a man who stutters became a huge, award-winning hit. (I discuss the fourteen super structure beats in my book of the same name. End of commercial!)

You can think about these beats before you write; you will develop a solid outline that way. Or you can think about them during revision as you try to figure out why your editor or beta readers aren’t as enthusiastic about your story as you are.

Either way, they are here to help. Because, after all, story and structure absolutely love each other!


What One Thing is Your Novel About?

by James Scott Bell

In my second year of law school I was part of the Hale Moot Court Honors board. Moot court is a rite of passage for most law students. It’s a mock appellate case with rounds of oral argument before panels of law professors, local attorneys, and perhaps a judge or two. At USC, at least when I was there, the final round was in front of two federal appellate judges and one Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

This particular year our Supreme Court Justice was Thurgood Marshall.

Justice Thurgood Marshall

Marshall was, of course, the first African American appointed to the high court. He was also famous for arguing, and winning, the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which overturned racial segregation in public schools. Being an enthusiastic student of trial lawyers and oral advocacy, I knew that the other side of Brown was argued by one of the most successful Supreme Court lawyers of all time, John W. Davis.

So when I asked Justice Marshall what it was like to go up against Davis, he seemed pleased that I knew about him, and said he was a formidable foe.

Oh, wait. I forgot to mention that I made sure I was selected to pick up Justice Marshall and his wife, Cecilia, at LAX and drive them across town to the campus.

That’s because I wanted to ask Thurgood Marshall a specific question.

So there I was in my green Ford Maverick, sitting as close to a Supreme Court Justice as I will ever get, answering his queries about my law studies, the moot court competition, and life in Los Angeles.

At an opportune moment I said, “Justice Marshall, you’ve delivered and heard so many arguments over the years. What would you say are the characteristics of a great oral argument?”

Without hesitation he said, “The best oral arguments have one main point, and only one.”

Which surprised me. I thought he’d say something about voice and style and performance. Instead, he explained that winning arguments have a precise legal point around which everything else revolves. The advocate’s job is to find that point and apply all his powers of persuasion toward supporting it.

Years later, I heard a similar bit of wisdom from the philosopher Curly. Remember City Slickers? There’s a scene where Curly (Jack Palance) is riding next to Mitch (Billy Crystal) and says, “You know what the secret of life is?”

“No,” Mitch says. “What?

“This.” Curly raises his index finger.

“Your finger?”

“One thing. Just one thing.”

“That’s great. But what’s the one thing?”

“That’s what you gotta figure out.”

Okay, let’s bring all this to bear on writing. In my Story Grinder workshops I ask the students to give me one word that describes what their story is about. In my most recent workshop I got answers such as redemption, forgiveness, justice, revenge.

One student said, “Amnesia.” Which was true on a surface level. I asked him to dig deeper. “What one word describes the heart of your novel?” (He should have said, “I can’t remember,” but we won’t go there.) He thought about it and said, “Identity.”

That was it! He had pinpointed the blood pumping through the veins of his plot. Which is the point of the exercise. When find the right word, you’ll know it. You’ll feel it. And you can use that feeling every time you sit down to work on your story.

Think about your current WIP:

  • What is your main character longing for? Why?
  • What is your main character fighting for? Why? (I mean really…why?)
  • What will your main character know at the end that he doesn’t know at the beginning?
  • How will what he learns change him?
  • Imagine your character a year after the story ends, and another character asks, “Why on earth did you have to go through all that?” How would your character answer?

NOW…give us the one word that describes the heart of your WIP. Where did that come from? Is this a one-off, or do you see this word as a common thread in your other work?


NOTE: I have a FREE short story available today for your Kindle — My Father’s Birthday. It’s a story on the literary side and I hope you enjoy it.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!


Delete Naiveté From Your Writing Life

by James Scott Bell

So you want to be a published writer, eh? There’s a group for that. It’s called Everybody.

The group is wildly diverse. It includes traditional types and indie speculators. It is a spectrum that stretches from the pie-in-the-sky hopefuls all the way to the business hardnoses. Today I wish to address the left end of the spectrum, which I call the Naïve Zone. My hope is that you will make the decision to move your caboose to the right.

These thoughts were inspired by an article (which, coincidentally, Kris slash P.J. mentioned in her post of Nov. 5) titled “How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying.” In it, author Heather Demetrios recounts what went wrong for her on her way to publishing riches. She admits up front that she didn’t understand the basics of the biz:

If just one person had sat me down when I signed my first book contract and explained how publishing works, how nothing is guaranteed, and how it often feels like playing Russian Roulette with words, I would have made much sounder financial and creative decisions. I would have set a foundation for a healthy life as an artist, laying the groundwork to thrive in uncertainty, to avoid desperation, panic, and bad decisions that would affect me for years to come.

The big mistake this author made (and which many an author over the years has also made) was to assume that a contract with a big advance translated automatically into a secure financial future.

How would my life be different if a fellow writer or someone in the industry had told me that the money I’d be receiving for my advances was absolutely no indication of what I could make on future book deals? What pain could I have avoided if they had advised me not to spend that money as though there would be more where that came from? I suspect I may have avoided a near nervous breakdown and not come so perilously close to financial ruin and creative burnout. But no one came forward.

That But no one came forward gives me pause. Authors bear the responsibility to figure out what the heck goes on—and changes—in this industry. An agent or colleague can help, but ultimately it’s on you to get educated.

So let’s talk about a few lessons to be drawn from this article.

The first is to understand this: A big advance is no guarantee of future results.

I really thought I had made it — forever, not just for a moment. Not for this one book deal. Forever. Otherwise, I reasoned, they would never have paid me such enormous sums. These publishers must be investing in me for the long run. I was one of their own.

Another lesson: Within the walls of the Forbidden City (traditional publishing) you are only “one of their own” so long as you make them money. The Forbidden City is not the family farm. It’s a big business with an unforgiving bottom line.

Next: the rules of personal financial management are not suspended when you get a contract.

After that second advance came through, I stepped into my dream life: I quit my day job to write full-time, moved to New York City, bought $15 cocktails, and learned (with astonishing speed) not worry about prices when ordering at a restaurant. I said yes to travel (often book research I wasn’t reimbursed for), concert tickets, new shoes, and finally being able to buy people the kind of presents I felt they deserved.

Here’s a tip: Do not quit your day job and do not move to New York City. Okay, that’s two tips.

Did I pay off my student loans? No, though I made a few large payments. Did I set money aside for retirement? No. My reasoning was that after the next book I sold, I’d take care of all that.

Bonus tip: Don’t go into student debt pursuing a degree in creative writing, folklore and mythology, theater, or anything with “lit” or “studies” appended to it.

Then there is the marketing part of the biz. Don’t expect your publisher to do the heavy lifting.

My publishers have never made so much as a bookmark for me (though twice they agreed to design them if I paid for the printing). If I wanted to go to a book festival or important industry conference out of town, I had to pay, unless the festival organizer covered the costs, which they rarely do. I couldn’t afford to do that, which meant I was unable to connect with librarians, booksellers, and industry professionals to amplify my books and, thus, my sales.

These days, the author has to do the lion’s share of the work on building a brand and marketing the work. You’ll need a website, an email list, some social media presence, and a whole lot of patience.

Kudos to Ms. Demetrios for opening up about her mistakes. To avoid them:

Learn the basics of a book contract. You can start here.

Learn the basics of book marketing. You can start here.

Learn the basics of managing money. You can start here.

Learn the basics of mental toughness. You can start here.

Well, we didn’t have time to go into the other option, self-publishing. Suffice to say naïveté is no excuse here, either. So before you take the plunge I suggest you read the articles posted on this page over at Joanna Penn’s site.

Speaking of plunges, and knowing that building a writing career of any sort takes years, which option is best for a writer long term? I’ll have some thoughts on that in a couple of weeks.

So what lessons have you learned, TKZers, that you can pass along to writers who enjoy wearing rose-colored glasses?


Give Your Character a Dream

by James Scott Bell

This past week on Monday Night Football between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants, play was interrupted for a short time when a black cat somehow wandered onto the field.

No one knows where it came from or (as of this writing) where it is now. It’s probably hiding somewhere in the bowels of MetLife Stadium, coming out only under cover of darkness to forage for hotdog stubs, popcorn bits, and field mice.

TV cameras captured the drama as Stadium security and state troopers closed in. The cat, juking like a four-footed Ezekiel Elliott, eluded capture before dashing into a tunnel.

The moment inspired the clever sports writer and podcaster Charlotte Wilder to create a winsome account of the incident. It amounts to the cat’s backstory, which I found to be instructive for writers.

Wilder names the cat Shelly Whiskers (for you youngsters out there, Shelly Winters was an Oscar winning actress of yesteryear). Wilder imagines that the dash across the field was the moment Whiskers had been hoping for all her life.

That life did not begin in promising circumstances:

The bleachers weren’t a place from where a cat wanted to be. The most privileged cats—the ones that were combed daily and fed expensive organic food marketed to their owners on Instagram—grew up in houses full of soft surfaces to sleep on and cat trees to scratch. But the bleachers were home for Whiskers. Those cement stairs littered with empty cans, peanut shells and hardened nacho cheese shaped her.

Life at home was tough for Whiskers:

Her father, Mister, worked nights at a local bodega, meowing at customers who came in to buy a lighter or a bag of chips. Sometimes they’d drop him a piece of pepperoni from a slice of pizza, but most nights he came home empty-pawed. Whiskers’s mother Fluffy disappeared when she was very young.

But Whiskers had a dream. After seeing a squirrel on TV run across the field during a Green Bay Packers game, she thought, Why can’t I? She fell in love with the Giants star receiver, Odell Beckham, Jr., but when he was traded away, she went to pieces. Whiskers started hanging out in cat dives, like The Meow Inn, “knocking back shots of cream.”

Then came her moment. And Whiskers was all over it. As she eluded capture, stadium fans cheered and millions of television watchers did the same. Whiskers’s proud father summed it up:

“Shelly taught us that no matter who you are—a pampered house cat or a stray from MetLife—you should always chase your tail. I mean, your dreams. Definitely chase your dreams, not your tail.”

Which is a good place to talk about your own main character’s backstory. Have you given her a dream? A longing? A desire deep within her soul?

No character enters your story without a history. Note, you don’t have to know that history before you start writing. While many writers create extensive histories for their characters, others like to let characters develop (“come to life”) as they write. But even if the latter is your method, how the character behaves on the page implies a background, even if you’re not specific about it

Why not be specific and give your character a dream which animates her behavior?

Luke Skywalker dreams of being a Jedi knight.

Dorothy Gale dreams of living in a land where trouble doesn’t exist.

George Bailey dreams of leaving his small town and exploring the world.

What we dream about is a big part of what shapes us and moves us to action. The same is true for your protagonist and, I might add, your antagonist:

Darth Vader dreams of conquering the galaxy.

The Wicked Witch of the West dreams of dominating Oz.

Hannibal Lecter dreams of indulging special dietary needs.

Dreams lead to drive, which helps a story take off from the jump.

So what is your character’s dream? If she doesn’t have one, why not give it to her as a force in operation as your story begins?


Give a listen to sportscaster Kevin Harlan having fun with our wandering cat as he called the Monday Night Football game on national radio.


Stretch Your Style

by James Scott Bell

Not every writer is interested in style. If they can write lean, mean plots that move, with interesting characters and a satisfying ending, that’s enough. They’d rather write fast and turn out more work than spend extra time trying to find the “right” words.

Isaac Asimov was such a writer. He purposely developed a stripped-down style so he could churn out the books. He was once asked what he would do if he found out he had just six months to live. “Type faster,” he said.

Other writers do seek to enhance their prose. One such was John D. MacDonald, considered one of the great crime writers of the 20th century. He wrote a string of paperback classics in the 1950s, and then invented an enduring series character for the 60s and beyond—Travis McGee.

He was a great plotter, but a careful stylist as well. As he himself once put it: “I want a bit of magic in the prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.”

While “unobtrusive poetry” is not necessary for a well-plotted novel, it is an elevation. It’s a fine thing to consider stretching your prose. The main proviso is that you never let the style overplay its hand. Serve the story first.

One place where prose style is most fitting is when there is a high emotional moment. Nothing is higher than a young writer dying, in the aptly titled and justifiably famous short story that made William Saroyan’s reputation, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

Then swiftly, neatly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze, he was gone from his body. For an eternal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile, and man. An ocean of print undulated endlessly and darkly before him. The city burned. The herded crowd rioted. The earth circled away, and knowing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect.

Go ahead and stretch your prose in the safety of your own writing room. Three ideas:

  1. Read poetry

Ray Bradbury, one of our greatest unobtrusive poet-writers, read some poetry every day. “Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough,” Bradbury says in Zen in the Art of Writing. “Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.”

  1. Write page-long sentences

As an exercise from time to time, write a run-on sentence of 250 words or so. Don’t edit yourself. Let the words take you wherever they roam!

This is a good way to add emotional depth to a scene. When you get to a point where you describe emotion, start a fresh document and write a page-long sentence of inner description. Don’t judge it; just write it.

When you’re done, look it over. Maybe you’ll use most of it in your novel. Maybe only one line. But what you’ll have is fresh and stylistically pleasing. I’m certain this is how Jack Kerouac came up with that famous passage in his novel On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

  1. Play with metaphors

Dow Mossman, author of The Stones of Summer (the subject of a documentary, The Stone Reader) says he considered each page of his massive novel to be its own poem. Naturally it is filled with metaphors and similes.

He stood, leaning against the wooden jamb of the double glass doorway, looking back, and his eyes seemed almost dull, flatter than last year, muted somehow like reptiles not swimming in open water anymore.

Dull eyes like reptiles not swimming surprises in a pleasing way, but also fits the overall tone of the novel. The best similes and metaphors do both.

So how do you find these images?

Make a list. At the top, write the subject. In the above example, it would be dull eyes. Dull like what?

List as many images as you can, absurd and farfetched as they may be. Push past your comfort zone. Force yourself to come up with twenty possibilities. One of them will surely work.

Robert Newton Peck uses nouns in place of adjectives to plant the unexpected in his novel A Day No Pigs Would Die:

She was getting bigger than August.

The whole sky was pink and peaches.

Like Peck, you should occasionally step outside the normal, grammatical box. You’ll find some pleasant surprises when you do!

How important is style to you, when you write and when you read? We all agree that story comes first, but are you also an “unobtrusive poetry” fan? Do you think about it as you write or revise?