About James Scott Bell

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

Creating Tension Between the Lines

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Another first page for us to analyze today. Note: Davina is not the title of the book, but the name of a first-person narrator. The author intends to switch POVs with other characters, and put the name at the start of each chapter.

Davina

      Someone once said nothing good happens after two am

      I try the familiar number at 3:10.

     Where was she? My sister’s an insomniac like me. She promised to call, the big move slated for yesterday. Pick up, damn it. Six rings, seven. I click off and pace, picking up and replacing my hairbrush, the phone, a bottle of baby aspirin, an inch-high silver tree with roots spreading out so it will stand. That one I keep hold of, cradling it in my palm, where the lines resemble roots.

   At 3:30, I try again.

   She answers on the sixth ring. “I didn’t,” she says. “I don’t think I did. I wanted to, but I wouldn’t. Would I?”

   Click, connection broken. What has she done or not done? I call again, get the annoying voice telling me the subscriber is unavailable.

   Off and on for four hours, I call, no answer. The little tree’s still in my palm, I can’t seem to put it down. The last present my father gave me, before he died and left Marissa and me alone with Mother. All these years and no sign of tarnish.

   At 7:30 I call Nate. He lives in the cabin next to ours. “Marissa hung up on me. She sounded weird. You have any idea what’s up?”

  “Trudy’s dead and the sheriff thinks Marissa killed her.”

  I drop the phone, the silver tree, clutch my hair in both hands. Marissa, what have you done? My hands shake, two tries to tap the speaker icon. “How, why?”

   Where’s my tree? Must have fallen on the floor.

    “Trudy went on the deck. The rail gave way where the porcupines gnawed the post. Last night, early morning, I guess.” Nate’s voice swells, an announcer who’s come to the juicy part. “I heard the sheriff talking to the ME. He thinks Marissa made the porcupine’s damage worse, or maybe just pushed her.”

     “Mother was deaf, mostly blind. had trouble walking. An accident waiting to happen.” I hear my voice rising, but can’t stop it. “She probably just fell.”

 “Not what the sheriff thinks,” Nate says. “You should come.”

***

JSB: The author has begun with a disturbance, which automatically puts this page into the “highly promising” category. Over the course of time here at TKZ we’ve seen two common errors popping up on these first pages: openings with characters alone, thinking or feeling; and loads of exposition and/or backstory.

But this page starts with the narrator, Davina, trying to get hold of her sister late at night. When she does, the sister sounds “weird.” Then she finds out the very bad news. Bad news is a good choice for an opening!

Now let’s render it in the most effective manner.

The first line seems superfluous to me. The second line is action, and I’d start there. Tweak it a bit. It’s 3:10 a.m. when I try the number again. 

I like the details of the next paragraph. It helps us feel what the narrator feels. The pacing, the anxiety. Specificity of small details is something many new writer’s overlook. Not so this author.

Next, the sister answers and gives her odd response. To this point, I’m right with the author.

Then:

Click, connection broken. What has she done or not done? I call again, get the annoying voice telling me the subscriber is unavailable.

Here is where a little craft will pay off with large dividends. Cut this line: What has she done or not done? We don’t need it. It’s explanatory. Never explain when what’s actually happening on the page. We know this is what the narrator is thinking; we don’t have to be told.

Off and on for four hours, I call, no answer.

This is a good use of narrative summary. It moves us along quickly to the next point in the scene. There are times when you should “tell” in just this way. Usually it’s to transition between scenes, but sometimes, as here, you do it jump ahead in time to get to the meat of a scene.

I like the one line of backstory: The last present my father gave me, before he died and left Marissa and me alone with Mother. My rule of thumb for new writers is three lines of backstory in the first ten pages, used together or spread out. This is one such line.

Then we come to the phone call to Nate. I have some concerns about the dialogue.

When the narrator asks what’s up, Nate immediately says, “Trudy’s dead and the sheriff thinks Marissa killed her.”

Is that the way a neighbor would give such horrible news? And he uses the name Trudy instead of Your mother. Maybe there’s something odd about him (no social skills?) but that doesn’t come through here. I think it would be more impactful if he prepared her a bit, and didn’t use Trudy to break it to her.

Let’s look at this passage:

I drop the phone, the silver tree, clutch my hair in both hands. Marissa, what have you done? My hands shake, two tries to tap the speaker icon. “How, why?”

Where’s my tree? Must have fallen on the floor.

Again, there are two lines in here that are explanatory. Can you spot them?

Look how much crisper it reads when those lines are removed:

I drop the phone, the silver tree, clutch my hair in both hands. My hands shake, two tries to tap the speaker icon. “How, why?”

Where’s my tree?

Then we get some exposition “slipped in” for the reader:

“Mother was deaf, mostly blind. had trouble walking. An accident waiting to happen.”

Always be aware of dialogue where one character tells another something they both already know. Chances are you’ve done that primarily to give the reader expository info you think they need to understand the scene.

Resist that urge. You can wait until a more natural time for this info, such as the narrator being questioned by the police or some such.

Try ending the page this way:

I hear my voice rising, but can’t stop it. “She probably just fell.”

“Not what the sheriff thinks,” Nate says. “You better come.”

(I changed should to better.)

In sum: this is a scene that has the natural tension of an opening disturbance. Cutting the lines of needless explanation will allow the tension to be felt more directly by the reader. And some simple cuts in the dialogue will render a more natural sound.

Well done, writer.

Okay, I’m in travel mode today, so I leave our author in the hands of the TKZ community for further comment!

4+

The Importance of Creativity Time

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I read a fascinating article the other day on how athletes’ bodies age. Using baseball players as an example, the author explains:

[A]n athlete’s physical decline begins before most of us notice it, and even the 23-year-old body can do things today that it might not be able to do tomorrow. Fastball speed starts going down in a player’s early 20s, and spin rate drops with it. Exit velocity begins to decline at 23 or 24. An average runner slows a little more than 1 inch per second every year, beginning pretty much immediately upon his debut. It takes a little over four seconds for most runners to reach first base, which means with each birthday, it’s as if the bases were pulled 4 inches farther apart. Triples peak in a player’s early 20s, as does batting average on balls put into play. A 23-year-old in the majors is twice as likely to play center field as left field; by 33, the opposite is true.

Feeling tired yet?

Thirty-three feels so far away, but it’s already happening. The 23-year-old’s lean body mass peaked sometime in the preceding five years. His bone-mineral density too. He’s at the age when the body begins producing less testosterone and growth hormone. His body, knowing it won’t need to build any more bone, will produce less energy. Male fertility peaks in the early 20s, the same time as pitch speed and exit velocity. Athleticism is, crudely speaking, about showcasing what a body looks like when it’s ready to propagate a species.

Had kids yet?

And then there’s the brain:

Researchers in British Columbia studied decision-making speeds of thousands of StarCraft 2 players and found that cognitive abilities peak at 24. Other research has found that perceptual speed drops continuously after 25. The brain is changing: the ratios of N-acetylaspartate to choline, the integrity of myelin sheathing, the connectivity of hippocampal neurons — you know, baseball stuff.

So basically, after age 23 or so, we’re all on the treadmill to decline.

Thanks for stopping by TKZ, everyone!

Well, stats be hanged, I’m a Do not go gentle into that good night kind of guy. Might as well put up the good fight as long as you can with all the weapons available to you.

Especially if you’re a writer who wants to write until they find you with your cold, dead fingers poised over the keyboard.

Which means our brains—which house our imagination, tools of language, and craft knowledge—must be worked out just like a body.

I have long taught the discipline of a weekly creativity time, an hour (or more) dedicated to pure creation, mental play, wild imaginings. I like to get away from my office for this. I usually go to a local coffee house or a branch of the Los Angeles Library System. I also like to do this work in longhand. I mute my phone and play various games, like:

The First Line Game. Just come up with the most gripping first line you can, without knowing anything else about what might come after it.

The Dictionary Game. I have a pocket dictionary. I open it to a random page and pick a random noun. Then I write down what thoughts that noun triggers. (This is a good cure for scene block, too.)

Killer Scenes. I do this on index cards, and it’s usually connected to a story I’m developing. I just start writing random scene ideas, not knowing where they’ll go. Later I’ll shuffle the stack and take out two cards at a time, and see what ideas develop from their connection.

The What If Game. The old reliable. I’ll look at a newspaper (if I can find one) and riff off the various stories. What if that politician who was just indicted was really an alien from a distant planet? (Actually, this could explain a lot.)

Mind Mapping. I like to think about my story connections this way. I use a fresh blank page and start jotting.

After my creativity time I find that my brain feels more flexible. Less like a grouchy guy waiting on a bench for a bus and more like an Olympic gymnast doing his floor routine.

Now, I’m going to float you a theory. I haven’t investigated this. It’s just something I’ve noticed. It seems to me that the incidence of Alzheimer’s among certain groups is a lot lower than the general population. The two groups I’m thinking of are comedians and lawyers.

What got me noticing this was watching Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks being interviewed together, riffing off each other. Reiner was 92 at the time, and Brooks a sprightly 88. They were both sharp, fast, funny. Which made me think of George Burns, who was cracking people up right up until he died at 100. (When he was 90, Burns was asked by an interviewer what his doctor thought of his cigar and martini habit. Burns replied, “My doctor died.”)

So why should this be? Obviously because comedians are constantly “on.” They’re calling upon their synapses to look for funny connections, word play, and so on. Bob Hope, Groucho Marx (who was only slowed down by a stroke), and many others fit this profile.

And I’ve known of several lawyers who were going to court in their 80s, still kicking the stuffing out of younger opponents. One of them was the legendary Louis Nizer, whom I got to watch try a case when he was 82. I knew about him because I’d read my dad’s copy of My Life in Court (which is better reading than many a legal thriller). Plus, Mr. Nizer had sent me a personal letter in response to one I sent him, asking him for advice on becoming a trial lawyer.

And there he was, coming to court each day with an assistant and boxes filled with exhibits and documents and other evidence. A trial lawyer has to keep a thousand things in mind—witness testimony, jury response, the Rules of Evidence (which have to be cited in a heartbeat when an objection is made), and so on. Might this explain the mental vitality of octogenarian barristers?

There also seems to be an oral component to my theory. Both comedians and trial lawyers have to be verbal and cogent on the spot. Maybe in addition to creativity time, you ought to get yourself into a good, substantive, face-to-face conversation on occasion. At the very least this will be the opposite of Twitter, which may be reason enough to do it.

So what about you? Do you employ any mental calisthenics?

11+

Building Characters Layer by Layer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

About a month ago Mrs. B noticed a nest starting to form under the eaves outside our front door. We began to keep an eye on things and saw a couple of doves flitting about. We started calling them Mr. and Mrs. Dove, and were happy they’d decided to build a home attached to ours. We thought it a perfect spot, too, out of the reach of our neighbor’s cats.

Then a couple of weeks ago we noticed Mrs. Dove sitting in the nest each time we went out our door. Just sitting there, day after day. Obviously, a happy event (or two or three) is about to hatch.

There was also a stretch of days when we didn’t see Mr. Dove at all. I told Cindy, “I hope he’s not out having a worm with the boys.” I imagined a Far Side-style cartoon of a couple of male doves, with fedoras pushed back on their heads, holding martini glasses with worms in them. I imagined them in a bar called The Wiggle Room.

But I digress (I wish I could draw!)

Then one day I was sitting in my courtyard which offers a view of the pitched roof above the place where the nest is. And I saw Mr. Dove walk across it, one end to the other. He continued to higher ground, the jut of our garage roof, where he could survey all of the territory around the house.

He was protecting his wife and kids. So I took this picture:

Mr. Dove on the lookout

My admiration for Mr. Dove went up a mile. Good man! Good bird!

My view of Mr. Dove changed not by what he felt, but by what he did.

Which is how readers respond to characters. Not by what they feel, but by what they do. When we see a character acting with strength of will in pursuit of a worthy goal, we begin to care, and only then does emotional response deepen the experience.

As the great writing teacher Dwight V. Swain put it in his book Creating Characters, all “traits are abstract and general. Behavior is concrete and specific. ‘What does he or she do?’ that demonstrates any given point is what’s important.”

Over the years, as the teaching of the writing craft became mainstream, two approaches emerged that occupy the same relationship as plotters and pantsers. For our purposes I’ll refer to them as the Dossier Doers and the Discovery Kids.

With a dossier, the writer constructs a thorough background of the character before the actual writing begins. Marcel Proust was this kind of writer. He developed an extensive questionnaire for his characters, with such queries as:

  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • Who is the greatest love of your life?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What is your greatest regret?
  • What is your motto?

You can find Proust’s questions, and other character-building questionnaires online. I have nothing against this method if it works for you. The caution I have is that when you do it this way, you pretty much lock in that character to the profile you create. As your story unfolds, the slings and arrows of the plot might operate to an extent that you wish your character had a different background altogether.

With the discovery method, you begin with a certain degree of knowledge, but then let the character react in the various scenes and watch them grow along with the story. Some authors prefer to do a first draft and then, upon rewrite, add layers to the character. “You simply can’t foresee all the facets of a story’s development,” says Swain, “and trying to out-guess every turn and twist may hang you up for longer than you think.”

Personally, I get bored quickly if I have to fill out a long questionnaire, or write a comprehensive biography. I’d rather add things as I go along, in keeping with the needs of the plot.

Which is not to say I start with a blank slate. I do need a few things in place before I get going. At a minimum they are:

A Visual. When I see the face of my character, it automatically starts the cauldron bubbling with possible characteristics. So I immediately figure out my character’s age and then go looking on the internet for a headshot that reaches out and says, “I’m your character.” I want the image to surprise me a bit, too.

A Voice. I begin a voice journal, which is a free-form document of the character talking to me. I may prod them with questions, but I mainly want to keep typing until a distinctive sound begins to appear. As a bonus, what the character tells me about their background may prove useful in the book.

A Want. What is the thing this character, at this point in time (as the story begins), want more than anything in the world? To become a great lawyer? Nun? Piano player?

A Mirror. As TKZ regulars know, I am big into the “mirror moment.” So I begin to brainstorm this early. It’s subject to change, but I’m finding more and more that it operates as my North Star, shining its light on the whole book. Knowing it up front is a tremendous help.

A Secret. I’ve found this to be a useful item to have in your back pocket. What is one thing character knows that he doesn’t want any of the other characters to know?

After my Lead is given this treatment, I move to my other major characters and go through this process again, paying special attention to casting for contrast. I want there to be the possibility of conflict among all the cast members.

Along the way I’ve constructed my signpost scenes, so pretty much have the plot trajectory down.

Now I write, and as I do I allow the characters to help me flesh out the scenes which, in turn, adds layers to characters.

For instance, let’s say I know I’ll have a scene early where my lawyer, a woman, is told by one of her senior partners to quickly settle a case. She doesn’t want to. She thinks it’s a winner. At the end of the scene, the partner has issued her a mild threat—play ball, or your future here is limited.

In my mind, this scene would leave my lawyer angry and maybe a bit afraid. This is supposed to be her dream job. So she goes back to her office and writes an angry email to the partner. Then deletes it.

Then I’ll ask, what if she does something else? What if she quits? Maybe this is just what she needs to do at this point in her life! I could then construct a bit of backstory about how she was afraid to do something as a little girl, how a boy taunted her for that, how she’s never taken a risk. And now she finally does.

Or what if she leaves work and goes to a bar and gets hammered? Hey, maybe she has a drinking problem.

You get the idea. The layers get added. And upon rewrite, they can be deepened and secured.

My wife and I are anxiously awaiting the birth of the little doves. I wonder of Mr. Dove will be puffing out his chest a little bit more when it happens. Hmm, maybe when he was a young dove he had an encounter with a cat, and…

So what is your preferred method for building characters?

10+

Write What You Want To Know

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

It used to be the standard advice for new writers: Write what you know!

The driving idea behind that sentiment, of course, was that to write authentically, accurately, and with convincing detail you needed to stick with your own experience, for that is obviously what you know best.

Thus, for many decades, writers kept it close to home. Fitzgerald wrote about the Jazz Age as he was living it with Zelda. Hemingway wrote about World War I and its aftermath, then about other things he experienced—fishing, hunting, the Spanish Civil War. James Jones and Norman Mailer burst on the scene with novels about World War II. Harper Lee wrote about her own childhood.

I recall when the movie The Last Detail came out, based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan. There was a story about Ponicsan in the L.A. Times in which he talked about his decision to join the Navy at the age of 24. He did so because he wanted to expand his experience so he had something to write about.

I was a college student at the time and got a copy of the novel, read it and loved it. So I wrote a “wannabe a writer” letter to Ponicsan, care of his Hollywood agent. Mr. Ponicsan wrote me a nice letter in return, with advice and encouragement and one important caveat. The last line of his letter was, “Be prepared for an apprenticeship of years.” That was 21 years before my first novel came out.

But is Write what you know still sound advice? If you incorporate your special area of expertise in a natural fashion (say, as a lawyer writing legal thrillers), it’s fine. What’s not fine is if it’s taken as Write only what you know. That, it seems to me, destroys one of the great joys of being a writer—the ability to go anywhere, create any character, so long as you do enough research to make it all ring true.

Thus, the better advice, it seems to me, is Write what you WANT to know.

Toni Morrison

I recently came across a 2014 interview with Toni Morrison in which she said:

I may be wrong about this, but it seems as though so much fiction, particularly that by younger people, is very much about themselves. Love and death and stuff, but my love, my death, my this, my that. Everybody else is a light character in that play.

She continues:

When I taught creative writing at Princeton, [my students] had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to that.” First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends. Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris? Things way outside their camp. Imagine it, create it. Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through. I was always amazed at how effective that was. They were always out of the box when they were given license to imagine something wholly outside their existence.

What a refreshing counterpoint to sticking to “what you know.” Go outside the camp. Be reckless, be an explorer. Imagine it, then create it. Part of the imagining, of course, involved research.

As I look back on my own writing, I notice that at least half the time I’m writing about a woman protagonist.

How on earth did that happen?

Well, first of all, I find women more fascinating than men. I’m a simple creature. My wife is complex. I count our 37 years of marriage as not only an adventure in love, but also an engagement in a ton of research. Which is why Mrs. B is always the first to read my work. I need to get this stuff right.

When I came up with the concept for the Kit Shannon series, the publisher I pitched it to had the idea of teaming me up with one of its top-selling authors, Tracie Peterson. We got along famously. We brainstormed the plots and I wrote the first drafts. Tracie went over the drafts and tweaked and added more of what a woman would have thought, spoken, noticed. By the time we finished the third book, I felt I had inside me the voice we’d developed together. I was then able to go on and do three more of these novels on my own.

Which may have been the most enjoyable part of my career. I loved living through Kit Shannon, even though I have never been a woman living in 1903 Los Angeles. (Not many of us have, I venture to say.)

So follow Toni Morrison’s advice. Don’t be afraid to go outside your camp. It’s one of the great pleasures of writing fiction.

So what do you think of that old chestnut, Write what you know?

12+

Of Fathers and Dragons

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put me down as a fan of the dragon slayers.

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

11+

Authors I Have Learned From: John D. MacDonald

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10+

Be Clear About WHO and WHERE in the Opening

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

they carefully observed their surroundings

They felt the vibration

They both looked up and saw

They realized the danger at the same time

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What type?”

“Corporate real estate.”

“The length of your visit?”

“Two weeks.”

The official stamped Decker’s passport.

Grazie,” Decker said.

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

Go thou and do likewise.

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

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

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

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

Or the attribution can be placed before the dialogue:

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

You can also use an action beat before the dialogue:

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

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

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

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

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

The floor is now open for further critique.

7+