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.

What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction?

by James Scott Bell

Check out this first page from a brave author:

The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—

The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window …

The author is Mr. James Patterson (along with his co-writer David Ellis). The novel is Invisible. Mr. Patterson is “brave” for choosing this opening gambit, for later on in the scene we learn the above is only a dream!

And that simply isn’t done.

At least you would think so if you’ve spent any significant amount of time around writers talking writing. Surely at least once a week, in some critique group somewhere, someone is uttering, as if citing stone tablets, that you must never begin a novel with a dream. Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books), is unequivocal:

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service.

Les brings up a practical matter. If you’re submitting to an editor (remember the old days of the SASE?) and you pull the dream-opening thing, it’s almost certain he or she will consider your manuscript amateur hour.

But what do readers think?

The aforementioned Mr. Patterson, it may be safely said, is unequaled in his ability to gauge the pulse of the reading public. He has at least one other novel, Maximum Ride, that opens with a dream. (And last time I checked, Mr. Patterson’s manuscripts are not being returned.)

So what’s the actual deal on opening with a dream?

I don’t like it. There! That settles it.

Okay, just my opinion, folks. But it always feels like a cheat to me to get me caught up in the action, only to have the character wake up.

In all fairness, however, I’m hyper aware of craft. Most readers are not.

Maybe they don’t care in the slightest.

Let me make a subtle yet critical distinction here. One of the most famous openings in literature is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.

Here we have the first-person narrator telling us about a dream. That’s not the same as the “dream fake-out”—beginning with intense action that turns out not to be real.

Practically speaking, then, if you’re a writer seeking a traditional book contract, I would counsel you not begin with a dream, for the reason Edgerton suggests. Most editors won’t go for it.

If you’re self-publishing, you have the choice.

I’d still advise against it.

Here is my further thought on dreams in fiction: Unless dreams are an integral part of the plot (e.g., a character has recurring, prophetic dreams), I would suggest limiting yourself to using a dream only once, if at all.

For what purpose? To show the emotional state of the character at some intense point in the book. Or to reveal backstory that is affecting the character’s psyche. I would also make sure the reader knows up front it’s a dream, as in the beginning of Chapter 15 of The City by Dean Koontz:

Eventually I returned to the sofa, too exhausted to stand an entire night watch. I dropped into a deep well of sleep and floated there until, after a while, the dream began in a pitch-black place with the sound of rushing water all around, as if I must be aboard a boat on a river in the rain …

Another option is to eschew a dream sequence altogether, and simply have the character describe the dream and how it is relevant. Thomas Harris does that in the aptly titled The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is a young FBI trainee tasked with extracting clues from the notorious killer and creative chef, Hannibal Lecter. Lecter trades her clues for intimate details about her life. At one point Clarice tells Lecter about the haunting memory of being at her uncle’s ranch, when she was ten, and hearing the screaming lambs being led to slaughter. And how she still dreams about it.

Lecter tells her that’s why she’s obsessed with catching Buffalo Bill. She thinks it will stop the lambs from screaming. It leads to the moving last line of the book:

But the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling, and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.

To summarize my take:

  1. Don’t open with a dream fake-out.
  2. Use dreams sparingly (like, once) unless it’s an integral plot element.
  3. Let the reader know up front it’s a dream.
  4. Consider characters talking about a dream rather than giving it to us as a scene. Just make sure the dialogue has conflict or tension. (For example, the character doesn’t want to talk about the dream, but the other character drags it out of her, as in The Silence of the Lambs.)

Now it’s your turn, O Writer and (especially) O Reader. What do you think about dreams in fiction?



Reader Friday: That Voice

“The most debilitating thing about writing is that the voice inside us, the voice we trust more than others, says, ‘You’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, what you wrote yesterday really stinks.’ What aspiring writers should keep in mind is that we all hear that voice, and sometimes that voice lies to us. In fact, when it comes to writing, that voice almost always lies to us. Midway through a book you are going to read back and think, ‘This is awful.’ Now it may be awful, but it also may be wonderful and you’ve simply read it so many times your ear has gone deaf. Don’t listen to that voice.” — Randy Wayne White

Ever happen to you? What would you advise a writer who is bothered by that voice?


Review Your Fiction Fundamentals

by James Scott Bell

Things change.

For instance, as of January 1, recreational marijuana use is legal in California. I can’t help but wonder how this is going to affect our traffic problems. I think I know: Now, more than ever, California drivers will seldom leave a turn unstoned.

Ba-dump-bump. Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Tip your waiters on the way out.

Other things don’t change. Grant is still buried in Grant’s Tomb (isn’t that a marvelous coincidence?)

And the foundations of great fiction remain solid and true.

You still need a character and you still need a plot. A plot is the stuff that happens to a character that forces him into a battle requiring strength of will. If you don’t have those elements, you don’t have a story. You might have a slice of life, or a character study. You might even have an “experimental” novel, which is also defined as a novel no one reads.

So know your fundamentals.

But also realize that conditions around you change, which may require applying the fundamentals in a slightly different way.

Case in point: The Golden State Warriors.

Basketball fundamentals include dribbling, shooting, passing, setting screens, playing defense. A coach figures out ways his team can do these things to create high-percentage shots and stop the other team from doing the same.

In the “old days,” the ideal offense was designed around a dominant big man, like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, or Shaquille O’Neal.

But things have changed because of a couple of kids named Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. These are the two guards on the Golden State Warriors, and they are the best three-point shooters I’ve ever seen. They have made the Warriors the pre-eminent team in the NBA by virtue of their ability to score from twenty-five feet or more.

Now, common sense would tell you that a fifteen-foot jumper has a better chance of going in than a twenty-five footer. And you’d be right. But sports has been taken over by analytics, and the numbers say that a three-point shot, even at a lower percentage, has a higher overall value than a two-pointer. You can look it up.

What’s happened as a result is that the NBA has become three-happy. A big man doing battle below is no longer seen as essential to a championship. Indeed, it may be a liability. If you’re a seven-footer these days, you’ve got to be able to fling the rock. Broad and bulky has been replaced by lean and lithe (e.g., another Warrior, Kevin Durant).

The antiquated notion of trying to get close jumpers, layups and dunks has given way to schemes designed to spring shooters outside the arc. The same fundamentals (passing, screens, shooting) are in play, but applied in a different way.

Which brings us back to fiction writing.

A hundred years ago, the standard point-of-view for a novel was omniscient, often with the authorial voice intruding into matters, as in the opening pages of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900):

When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms.

You almost never see this style today. Hemingway—the Steph Curry of his day—exerted tremendous influence in the 1920s by way of character-centric minimalism (the very opposite of what Dreiser did, above).

By the 1990s, the trend was toward immersive (or deep) POV, which keeps author voice out entirely (unless that voice is itself the point of the novel, e.g., Tom Robbins, Douglas Adams).

It also used to be common—even expected—to have adverbs attached to dialogue attributions. For example, here are some clips from a single page in a1929 novel, The Stray Lamb by Thorne Smith:

“Off again, major,” Sandra said resignedly . . .

“Not a scrap of evidence left behind,” Mr. Long optimistically informed the party . . .

“That depends,” answered Thomas consideringly . . .

Ack! Do that now and your book is likely to be set aside contemptuously.

So … what are the current conditions for the writer of fiction? We all know attention spans are shorter and demands for our time and money louder and more pervasive. Which means getting and holding the attention of the reader from the jump is a major challenge.

The fundamentals are still there to help you, by focusing on the crucial questions:

  • Is your POV consistent and immersive?
  • Is your dialogue crisp and compressed? Can it stand alone without being propped up by adverbs?
  • Is your structure solid? When your book starts to “drag,” do you know why and how to fix it?
  • Are your scenes organic? Do they all have a connection to the overall plot?
  • Do you know how create “jump off the page” characters?
  • Are you aware of the “speed bumps” that interrupt the fictive dream?

We’ve talked about goals and resolutions this week on TKZ. A good thing for the new year. This is my gentle reminder to include craft study on your list. That way, even if you live in California, your books won’t go to pot.

What’s something you’ve recently learned about the craft of writing that is serving you well? What’s an area you need to revisit and shore up?


Writers Need to be Amphibious

by James Scott Bell

So here we are at the end of another Kill Zone year. (We’ll be taking our traditional two-week break starting tomorrow.) It’s been an amazing run for this blog, which began way back in August of 2008. I’m in awe of my colleagues, both present and emeriti, for the depth of their wisdom and generosity of spirit toward the writing community.

Emeriti, by the way, is the Latin plural of emeritus.

Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

Reminds me of my favorite Latin joke. Or I should say, only Latin joke.

Julius Caesar walks into a bar and orders a martinus.

The bartender says, “You mean a martini?”

And Caesar says, “If I wanted a double I would have asked for it!”

Speaking of which, 2017 was a year a lot of people ordered doubles. I seriously think we need to take a collective breath and, for a couple of weeks at least, imbibe the true spirit of this season: family, friends, generosity and gratitude.

And just plain old relaxation! So kick back and watch a couple holiday movies (Miracle on 34th Street and the 1951 Christmas Carol are always at the top of my list, though I would remind everyone that Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are Christmas movies, too!)

Don’t stress about things you can’t control (this is the wisdom of the Stoics, and what says holiday fun more than the Stoics?) As Epictetus (b. 50, d. 135) so succinctly put it, “There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Changes in technology, Amazon algorithms, the size of advances … these are beyond the power of our will. Ditto the shrinking of slots in traditional publishing catalogues, the number of bookstores that are still open, and bestseller lists (unless, of course, one takes the nefarious road of buying one’s way onto the NYT list, in which case the power of will has been corrupted by the siren song of list-lust. Don’t go there).

Nor can we stuff a stopper in the flood of system gamers, sock puppets, nasty reviewers, and inveterate haters—except to the extent that we adamantly refuse to become one of them.

What is within our power?

Our writing, of course. Our dedication to it. Our determination. Our discipline.

The page we’re working on.

The goals we set and the plans we make.

Concentrate on those things. Chill about the rest.

This is still the greatest time on earth to be a writer. Remember, just ten short years ago there was only one way to get published and into bookstores. The walls of the Forbidden City were formidable indeed.

Then came the Kindle, just in time for Christmas 2007, and suddenly there was another way to get published and into the largest bookstore in the world (with your cover facing out, no less!)

During those heady first years of digital disruption, a few pioneering scribes jumped in and showed massive ebook sales at the 99¢ price point. This got the attention of writers inside (and formerly inside) the Forbidden City, and ushered in a “gold-rush” phase when good and productive writers began to make really serious money going directly to Amazon.

At the same time, traditional publishing began to stagger around like a boxer who gets clocked just before the bell rings to end the round. Many predicted that by 2013 or ’14, the whole traditional industry would be kissing canvas.

Instead, we have entered a new equilibrium where the wild highs in the indie world are leveling off, and the disruptive lows in the traditional world are bottoming out (as one trad insider put it to me, “Flat is the new up.”)

But change, albeit more slowly, continues. Thus, what both of these worlds demand are a new set of business practices. I’ve tried to provide these for the indie writer. I’m not sure who the Bigs are listening to, but I suspect they need more Sun Tzu than Peter Drucker these days.

However, here is one bottom-line truth that applies across the board and will always be apt: What wins out in the end, and perhaps the only thing that does, is quality plus time, which I define as steady fiction production providing a swath of readers with satisfying emotional experiences. This holds true for any genre. You can figure out and strive to do the things that create reader satisfaction.

And what are those things? They are matters of craft. The more you are conversant with the tools and techniques of fiction, the better your quality control. It’s like that inspirational quote from a college basketball player some years ago. During an interview he said, “I can go to my left or to my right. I’m completely amphibious.”

Writer, you have to be amphibious to make it in the swirling ocean and on the rocky shores of the book world today. So my end-of-the-year suggestion is this: Invest in your writing self. Spend a certain amount of money on writing-related improvement, like books and workshops. Go to a good conference and network with other writers. If you’re starting to realize a little income from your writing, set aside a portion of it for this type of ongoing investment.

And do take advantage of one of the best free writing resources around—Kill Zone! Traipse through our library and archives. Subscribe to our feed so you don’t miss a day. Leave comments! We love the writing conversation.

We’re on this journey together, so keep in mind something the great Stoic philosopher Yogi Berra once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Let’s take it in 2018!

Blessings on you this holiday season, from all of us at TKZ to all of you.


Channeling Your Childhood Heroes

by James Scott Bell

When I was a kid the hero I most wanted to be was Zorro.

I never missed an episode of the Walt Disney series starring Guy Williams. What I loved about Zorro was … everything. Cool black mask, black outfit, cape, hat, horse. But most of all his sword. Man, Zorro could blade it with anybody. And whenever he carved a Z in a shirt or on a wall, I thought it the neatest calling card ever.

In second grade I went to Halloween dress-up day as Zorro. I even sang the theme song for the class. Zorro! The fox so cunning and free! Zorro! Who makes the sign of the Z …

I remember finishing the song and waving, just like Zorro does. Check it out:

Some years later I was enraptured by the classic Rouben Mamoulian version of the story, The Mark of Zorro (1940) starring Tyrone Power. (I was thrilled, as a film major at UCSB, that I got to chat with Mamoulian, who was our guest one fine day.)

Talk about a perfect adventure movie. First, you have Power at his most handsome (most people don’t know that he was a superb, stage-trained actor as well) poised against the quintessential villain, Basil Rathbone. Lovely Linda Darnell was the romantic interest, and frog-voiced Eugene Pallette played the padre (carrying over from Warner Bros. his Friar Tuck act in The Adventures of Robin Hood).  

Plus, it takes place in Los Angeles! What more could I ask for?

You know the basic story. A corrupt Alcalde has deposed Don Alejandro Vega. He levies heavy taxes on the peons, enforced by his militia. Vega’s son, Don Diego, arrives from Spain to find all this out. Posing as a dandy who dislikes violence, he secretly becomes Zorro to steal the tax money for return to the people, and eventually forces the corrupt Alcalde to leave Los Angeles and re-appoint his father.

It’s all great swashbuckling fun, and leads to what I consider the best swordfight ever filmed. And why was it so?

Because both Power and Rathbone were expert fencers. That was part of their theater training. So there are no doubles and no trick photography. These two really go at it in a choreographed masterpiece.

In fact, take four minutes to enjoy it:

Now, I have a theory that the heroes we loved as kids greatly influence what we write as adults. In my own novels I know I’m always looking for justice. I love characters with a moral code and who know how to fight—physically or mentally. Some wit helps, too.

Just like Zorro.

So … when you get stuck wondering what to write next—either in a WIP or in developing a new idea—go back to your childhood. Brainstorm with:

  • Who were your heroes?
  • What was it about them that you loved?
  • If they could talk to your protagonist and give advice, what would they say?

In fact, why not answer these questions in the comments about one of your childhood heroes?



A Scene Template For New Writers

by James Scott Bell


Today’s first-page critique provides an opportunity to discuss the nuts and bolts of the basic unit of novel writing—the scene. Let’s have a look the opening and take up this crucial craft matter on the other side.


He wrote on the back of a postcard.

“I’m in Oaxaca (Pronounced “Wah-Hah-Kah”) Mexico, 
on the first Tuesday in February. I’m enjoying very 
warm days, very hot food and good cold beer. 
Wish you were here.

23 year old Frank Sandrell thought;

This new El Cacique Premiero of the Aztecs received his Investiture on New Years Day. He’s been going around the Country, performing sacrifices in all the major Cities. He arrived in Oaxaca today, just like I did. While I’m here, he’ll actually be immolating a devout Aztec maiden under the midday sun; presenting her as an offering to Los Teochacos, keeping them satisfied, so they will continue “to sustain the World and all that is therein”.

Local people from all over the region had been crowding into the city to witness the event; so had a very large number of turistas. Not one hotel room in town was now available. Frank was glad he’d made all his reservations back in October.

The time was around 8 in the evening. The postcard he’d just signed lay on the table beside a painted glass lamp containing a burning candle. He sat in an outdoor restaurante, beneath the ceiling of a brightly lit arcade, across the street from the Main Plaza of Oaxaca Mexico. The local people called the Plaza “El Zocalo”.

Frank was seated alone, having a dinner of chicken burritos, rice, and refried beans, along with a mug of Tres Equis beer. The sound of performing mariachis came from tables at the far end of the arcade. They sang the traditional “Los Tres Caballeros”. Across the street in the Zocalo, a different band performed “Guadalajara”. The different tunes performed at the same time filled the warm evening air with melodious confusion.

At the table next to his, three stylishly dressed Oaxacan girls in their late teens sat chatting amiably while drinking beer of the Bohemia brand. They had straight black hair, tan complexions and full, firm figures.

One of the girls called out and pointed. “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

Everyone in the seats around them looked where she was pointing. Frank saw an unsmiling, casually dressed middle aged Mexican hombre, with thinning hair and glasses, moving around the tables in the arcade. If he hadn’t been pointed out, Frank would not have noticed him.

As the man walked past the stylish girls’ table, the three spoke respectfully. “Buenas noches Cacique.”

He replied, still not smiling. “Buenas noches senoritas.”

He continued moving past the other tables, where all the local people respectfully greeted the Supreme High Priest of all the Aztecs.

# # #

JSB: Okay, we’ve got some work to do. I see two promising things in the material: a) the setting (Oaxaca); and b) the potential strangeness of an Aztec priest in the modern world, performing sacrifices yet!

The problem with this page is that the material is front loaded with exposition (i.e., story information the author wants the reader to know), and what minimal action there is comes too late, with too little to keep us interested.

Write this down and stick it near your computer: It is not information that captures readers. Nor is it characters. It is characters in motion toward an objective.

That is what a scene must have—one or more characters who want something, even if (as Kurt Vonnegut suggested) it’s just a glass of water.

Since you seem new to fiction writing, I’d like to provide you with a scene template. As you grow in the craft, you will learn how to riff within this basic structure. But you can’t play jazz piano without first learning the scales, right?

A scene has three component parts: Objective, obstacles, and outcome.


A novel is about a character using strength of will to attain a crucial objective. For example, in the movie The Fugitive the wrongly convicted Dr. Richard Kimble must avoid being captured, or he’ll be sent to Death Row for a murder he did not commit. To exonerate himself—and get justice for his murdered wife—he needs to stay free long enough to find the one-armed man who killed her.

Now, each scene in the film has a sub-objective that connects somehow to the big one. Thus, early on, the wounded Kimble has to sneak into a rural hospital and treat himself, without arousing suspicion. Later he poses as a janitor in a hospital in Chicago with the objective of gaining access to the records of the prosthetics wing. Why? So he can get a list of one-armed men to track down.


Conflict and tension are the lifeblood of a scene. When the viewpoint character is confronted with obstacles to gaining his scene objective—in the form of opposing characters, physical barriers, time pressure, or all three—things get tense.

In the rural hospital scene from The Fugitive, Kimble must sneak past the loading dock and find a treatment room. After stitching himself up, he needs to shave off his beard and steal some clothes. He does this in the room of a patient who is out like a light. But a nurse walks into the room! And a state trooper has arrived because Kimble might be in the area! The tension mounts as we worry about his cover being blown at any moment.


A scene has to end at some point, and needs to answer the question: did the viewpoint character realize his objective?

The answer can be: No, Yes, or Oh my gosh!

A NO answer is always a good default, because it makes the character’s situation worse. When a character is set back in his quest, the reader’s worry mounts. And that is what readers want to do: worry about characters in crisis all the way to the end.

A YES needs to happen on occasion, but when it does, brainstorm how it can lead to more trouble. For example, in the scene in The Fugitive where Kimble poses as a janitor, he is temporarily stuck on a crowded trauma floor. He spots a little boy in distress. When a doctor tells him to take the boy to an observation room, Kimble has a scene objective: Help this boy! As he pushes the gurney Kimble sneaks a look at the X-rays and the chart, and starts asking the boy diagnostic questions. He determines the boy needs surgery right away. In the elevator he changes the orders and takes the boy to an operating room. He alerts a doctor and shows her the orders. The boy will be saved! That’s a YES answer. However, his earlier look at the X-rays was seen by the doctor who asked him to help. She confronts him and calls security. Now Kimble is outed and has to get out of there! He’s in worse shape because of his good deed.

An OH MY GOSH! scene ending means you leave the situation temporarily unresolved (a “cliffhanger”) and cut to another scene (perhaps with another viewpoint character). If you write in First Person POV or Limited Third Person (meaning one viewpoint character throughout the book) you can end a chapter on a cliffhanger and take up matters in the following chapter.

That’s basic scene structure.

Now we have to discuss how you get into a scene. This is, of course, crucial for opening pages, but no less so for any scene you write. So I’ll give you a template for this as well. Learn it, know why it works, then, as I mentioned, you can begin to play around with it.

First thing I want you to do is put the name of the viewpoint character in the first paragraph of every scene you write. Also, give us an indication of the setting and some kind of action.

Here is the first line of Harlan Coben’s Missing You: 

Kat Donavan spun off her father’s old stool, readying to leave O’Malley’s Pub, when Stacy said, “You’re not going to like what I did.”

See that? Named character, setting, and action. (Here’s another tip that will help you enormously—in general, get to dialogue as soon as possible. That forces you to write in scene style.)

In a happy coincidence, here’s the opening line from yesterday’s first-page critique:

The instant her helicopter touched down, Francine threw the door open, leaned out, and shouted, “Any survivors?”

So how about this for your opening line:

Frank Sandrell was about to take another pull on his Tres Equis when a girl at the next table shouted, “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

See how much better that is? The first thing readers look for in a scene is the who. Give them that up front. This line also has an indication of setting (drinking beer and next table imply a café; the Spanish language alerts us to a foreign place).

Next, drop in some details on the setting and situation in the thought-voice-attitude of the character. Here is the next paragraph from Coben’s novel:

O’Malley’s used to be an old-school cop bar. Kat’s grandfather had hung out here. So had her father and their fellow NYPD colleagues. Now it had been turned into a yuppie, preppy, master-of-the-universe, poser asshat bar, loaded up with guys who sported crisp white shirts under black suits, two-day stubble, mansacped to the max to look un-manscaped. They smirked a lot, these soft men, their hair moussed to the point of overcoif, and ordered Ketel One instead of Grey Goose because they watched some TV ad telling them that was what real men drink.

What you have to note here is that the above description is filtered through the voice of the POV character. This is how Kat thinks of the place and the men in it. Thus, your assignment is to take some of the essential info in your page (e.g., Oaxaca, mariachis, brightly-lit arcade) and weave it into a paragraph with Frank’s voice and attitude.

The next part of the template: Somewhere within the first page of your scene make it clear what the character’s objective is. I’m not sure what Frank’s is except that it has something to do with this Aztec priest guy. What about him? Does Frank want to kill him? Learn from him? Take his power for himself?

Next: brainstorm various obstacles to that objective. Go to town with this before you write any scene. Often (most of the time?) our mind first comes up with familiar tropes, because that’s what we’ve seen in countless books and movies. Take time to come up with something fresh. Make a list of possibilities then choose the best ones.

Lastly, you decide what the outcome is going to be. Brainstorm this part, too. You may decide to change it in the course of writing the scene, and that’s perfectly fine. But you need to write your scene with a destination in mind.

Whew! That’s a lot to work on, I know. But it’s absolutely necessary for your development. Because a successful novel is a series of scenes, none of which are dull. It’s a high bar, but we’re not peddling peanuts on the street corner here. We’re attempting to transport impatient and distracted readers into a fictional world and hold them there for the duration!

Let me end today’s lesson with a few style notes:

He wrote on the back of a postcard.

“I’m in Oaxaca (Pronounced “Wah-Hah-Kah”) Mexico …

The disembodied “He” writing on a postcard did not create a picture of a character for me. The message, too, was a bit odd. Would a guy writing a postcard really use up valuable space giving the pronunciation?

Further, don’t put quotation marks around written text. That should be called out via italics, a different font or a block indentation.

23 year old Frank Sandrell thought;

Never begin a sentence with numerals. It should be: Twenty-three-year-old Frank Sandrell thought …

And you meant to use a colon, not a semi-colon. That’s a typo, obviously, but a big one, because I don’t want to see you use a semi-colon in fiction ever!

This new El Cacique Premiero of the Aztecs received his Investiture on New Years Day. He’s been going around the Country, performing sacrifices in all the major Cities. He arrived in Oaxaca today, just like I did. While I’m here, he’ll actually be immolating a devout Aztec maiden under the midday sun; [AHHH!!!] presenting her as an offering to Los Teochacos, keeping them satisfied, so they will continue “to sustain the World and all that is therein”.

This doesn’t sound like a real thought. It’s exposition from the author. Note: interior thoughts are generally short, a line or two. Otherwise it tends to sound fake. Rework these sections so the thoughts sound like the character’s voice in that particular moment.

Also, that last quote looks odd. It’s supposed to be the Aztec priest, I guess, but it throws us. Try not to do that. And, of course, the punctuation always goes inside the quote mark.

The time was around 8 in the evening.

As a general rule, spell out numbers from zero to one hundred. Thus: The time was around eight in the evening.

This can be a confusing style issue, but here’s one helpful article you can refer to.

One of the girls called out and pointed. “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

When a foreign language is spoken by a character, render it in italics. Thus:

One of the girls called out and pointed. “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

That’s enough for today, writer! I hope it helps. Write, learn, edit, rewrite, get feedback.

Repeat …

Your turn, Zoners. Any other advice for today’s writer?


I Was Ready For My Big Moment

by James Scott Bell

Embed from Getty Images

Earle Hyman

Last week we lost a very dear man. Earle Hyman was known to most people as Bill Cosby’s father on The Cosby Show. But he was so much more. An accomplished stage actor, he was one of the great Othellos.

I know because I got to watch him play the role night after night.

I was a young and hungry actor, freshly arrived in New York City and living at The Leo House on West 23d. Across the street at that time was the Roundabout Theater. I walked over there one day and asked for a job. I got one, pushing around scenery for the current production, Shaw’s You Never Can Tell.

As part of the deal, I got to audition for their upcoming production of Othello.

JSB in his triumphant role as Attendant in Othello.

And I got the part! My first paid acting role! As … Attendant. No lines, but I didn’t care. I was doing Shakespeare Off-Broadway, in tights and everything!

Earle Hyman was Othello. Also in the cast was a young Powers Boothe as Roderigo.

And so we began rehearsals. I loved every minute of it, even though my part was just walking on, standing, and walking off. But when I was off, I’d listen. I’d listen to how Earle and Nick Kepros (Iago) did Shakespeare. Iago has some of the best lines in the entire canon, and I determined to play that role someday.

In fact, one night before the show I was sitting backstage with Earle. He was so generous to the young actors, down-to-earth and always willing to give advice. I mentioned I wanted to play Iago someday, and he said, “You’re perfect for it!”

“I am?” I said, wondering if some nefarious part of my personality had leaked out.

“Oh, yes,” Earle said. “You have an open, honest face.” (This, mind you, was well before I went to law school.) He explained, “Othello calls him ‘honest, honest Iago.’ It’s wrong to play the part as an obvious villain.”

I then breezily but sincerely told him I was going to mount a production of Othello someday and play Iago, and that I wanted him to play the lead.

“I’ll do it!” he said.

A lovely man.

So the show opened and was well received by the Times. I continued to listen. I was something of a voice impersonator in those days. I’d crack up the cast by doing imitations of the various actors.

Then one night it happened. My big moment.

Now, to fully appreciate what I’m about to relate it is necessary that you know the classic film All About Eve. If you have not seen it and wish to be spared knowing the plot twist, you might want to skip to the last paragraphs of this post.

In brief, All About Eve is the story of a theater diva named Margo Channing (Bette Davis). A devoted young fan named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) comes to her and pours out her heart about loving the theater and idolizing Margo. This gets her a job as Margo’s assistant.

What we come to learn is that Eve Harrington has only one thought in mind—to displace Margo as the star of a new hit play. She underhandedly snags the understudy role. And then she sets in motion an elaborate scheme so Margo will be unable to make curtain one night.

Eve is a sensation, and from there turns her back on everyone who’s helped her as she ascends the stairway to stardom.

Back to Othello. One night, about an hour and half before curtain, a call comes in from the actor playing Montano—a minor role, but with significant lines. He was stuck in Brooklyn and wouldn’t be able to make the show. I can’t remember why, but I assure you I had nothing to do with it.

The stage manager was in a panic. There were no understudies. Then someone told him, “Jim knows the part. He knows all the parts.”

The stage manager rushed over to me and put his hands on my shoulders. “Do you? Do you really know the part?”

“What from the cape can you discern at sea?” I said, quoting Montano’s first line.

“You’re going on!”

On! Me! I was giddy as he spent twenty minutes with me on the stage, walking me through the blocking. I only half listened, for my other half was loop-quoting the Bard: “Yet heavens have glory for this victory!”

Then I was dismissed to go get ready for the performance.

As I entered the dressing room, everyone was already putting on makeup or getting into costume. The moment I appeared our Iago, Nick Kepros, in a voice dripping with droll amusement and loud enough for all to hear, said, “Well, well, if it isn’t Eve Harrington!”

The room exploded in laughter. It was the perfect line, brilliantly delivered.

So on I went.

Nailed it!

Though it was one night only and did not catapult me to stardom, it was supremely satisfying. I had spoken Shakespeare on a stage in New York! And received warm congratulations from the cast, including Mr. Earle Hyman.

All that to say, writer, be ready. The old saw about luck being the intersection of preparation and opportunity applies.

Be ready when you read. When you come across a passage that moves you or compels you to turn the page, ask yourself why that is so. Mark up the book with notes.

Be ready when you write. Listen to your book and the characters as they take on life. What are they telling you that you didn’t know before?

Be ready when you edit. By studying the craft and having tools that actually work, you become more adept at creatively fixing your manuscript.

Be ready with your elevator pitch. If anyone asks you what your book is about, you should be able to tell them in thirty seconds, and in a way that makes their eyes light up. (An elevator pitch formula may be found here.)

Do all that and you know what you’ll be ready for next? To “put money in thy purse!” (Iago, Act I, Scene 3.)

So what serendipitous event has happened in your own life? Were you ready for it?


Digital Self-Publishing Saves a World War II Memoir

by James Scott Bell

Gather ’round, children, and let me tell you a story about self-publishing back in the olden days.

Now, I know you kids think it’s always been easy. You just hit “upload” and … Johnny, put down that iPad! I’m telling you about real self-publishing, back when a writer had to have guts and grit! The days when self-publishing meant you paid for an honest-to-goodness print run and … Yes, Jenny? … no, print run was not a 5k. It meant shelling out money for printed, bound books made with pages made of actual paper! And let me tell you, that was not cheap! And at the end of it all, you know what you’d get? A bunch of boxes of unsold books in your garage!

You see, there has always been self-publishing in America. Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman dabbled in it. Heck, Whitman may have been the first sock puppet, writing a glowing anonymous “review” of Leaves of Grass and buying space for it in a literary journal.

But it was in the 1970s and a man named Bill Henderson that modern self-publishing went wide. Henderson’s The Publish-It-Yourself Handbook started a small but growing movement of ex-hippies and frustrated wannabes designing and printing their own work. (This is not to be confused with “vanity publishing,” wherein a company took a whole lot of money from you to produce a print run of books that would, well, remain in boxes in your garage.)

In 1979 Dan Poynter published the first of several editions of his Self-Publishing Manual, bringing a much-needed business sense to the movement.

Which was around the time my dad, L.A. attorney Art Bell, decided to write a memoir of his service in World War II and publish it himself.

Raised in Hollywood, Dad was a star football and baseball player at Hollywood High School. He went on to play catcher for the UCLA baseball team, where his teammate was one Jackie Robinson.

Ensign Art Bell

In college he joined the Navy ROTC program and saw action throughout World War II. He was captain of three ships: the destroyers USS Dallas and USS Kinzer, and his first command and first love, the PC 477.

PCs were 173-foot, steel-hulled submarine fighters. Uncle Sam had thousands of seamen on hundreds of PCs convoying and patrolling in WWII. They were introduced in the desperate days of early 1942, when the waters off America’s Atlantic coast were a graveyard of torpedoed ships. They performed essential, hazardous, and sometimes spectacular missions, yet the PCs were scarcely known at all outside the service.

The Navy didn’t even dignify PCs with names. But the crew of the PC 477 did. They called her “Peter Charlie.”

Which became the title of Dad’s book. It was a true labor of love, and brought him back in contact with many of his shipmates. He collected letters and stories and photos, and organized a couple of reunions.

Dad was already self-publishing a digest on California search and seizure law, which had become the go-to resource in the state, so he had one of his graphics people do the layout of Peter Charlie, which he had typed himself on an IBM Selectric. He then paid a local printing outfit a princely sum for a beautiful hardback edition, with dust jacket and all. I can’t recall how many he had printed up. Maybe 2,000. He sold them himself out of his law office and it found popularity among many ex-Navy men all over the country.

Dad died in 1988 and I took over his practice. And I am proud to report that by 1999 or so, the entire print run had sold out. The book even returned a bit of a profit!

And that might have been the end of things were it not for the most recent iteration of the self-publishing movement: digital. I wanted Dad’s book to live on, and a few weeks ago I set out to make that happen.

First, I had to get the print text scanned. A writer friend recommended BlueLeaf Book Scanning. Per their instructions, I sent them one copy of the hardcover and chose their “destructive” option. That means they take the pages out of the binding for scanning, and you don’t get them back. The entire job cost $37.17. What I got were two Word docs (formatted and unformatted text), two PDFs (one large size, one small), and a JPEG of the dust jacket cover formatted for ebook use.

The scanning job was amazingly good. There was only one minor issue I found and took care of that with a quick find/replace.

Next, I opened up a Vellum project. Vellum is a Mac program for formatting ebooks (and, now, print as well). It is easy to use and creates gorgeous interiors. It will import a docx Word file and create most of the book that way. I went through the formatted Word doc and used cut-and-paste to put it into Vellum. Since there were a lot of block quotes and lists my dad used, this was the best way for me to check the transitions. Once again, Vellum makes the process easy.

I was also able to include photographs from the PDF scan. I copied the photos and saved them as JPEGs, then inserted them into the Vellum file.

Once that was all done, I generated the .mobi file and sent that to my own Kindle so I could go over it on the device and pick up any last formatting issues. I fixed those in Vellum and generated the final .mobi that I used for publication under my imprint, Compendium Press.

The entire project—from the time I shipped BlueLeaf the book to the official pub date—took six weeks.

And so Peter Charlie lives on. My hope is that those who had parents or grandparents who served in World War II and … yes, Billy? … Yes, we won … and anyone interested in a first-hand report of what life was like aboard a naval vessel at that time, will be both edified and educated by this account (I must add a slight language warning here, for the first captain of Peter Charlie was not averse to using God’s name to get the attention of his junior officers, Dad included). It is full of funny stories, historical data, some rare photos, and lots of interesting details.

It’s a Kindle Unlimited title, available here.

So … does anyone else remember the grand old days of self-publishing—before digital and print-on-demand? Anybody got a garage with boxes of unsolds?