About James Scott Bell

International Thriller Writers Award winner, #1 bestselling author of THRILLERS and BOOKS ON WRITING.. You can be the first to know about his new releases by going HERE.

One of the Joys of Indie Publishing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We are well into the second decade of the self-publishing (now more preferably termed indie-publishing) movement. The flame wars of the early years (“Death to traditional publishing!” “Oh yeah? Self publish and you’ll ruin your career!”) have been replaced by the calm ruminations of business-minded “authorpreneurs.”

And while reports of the death of traditional publishing have been greatly exaggerated, the industry’s dependence on A-list stars has left a void in what used to be called the “midlist.”

It is a vacuum productive writers abhor. So they have filled the void with indie product.

Of course, most of the product is, shall we say, not good (see Sturgeon’s Law). Nor is all of it legit. Perhaps you’ve been following yet another plagiarism scandal that recently broke out, this time in that part of the book kingdom where romance flowers. A USA Today bestselling writer apparently hired a ghostwriter from, of all places, Fiverr. That’s a site that has all sorts of freelancers who’ll work on the cheap—five bucks is the baseline. This author was hiring said labor to put together “books” in the romance genre so she could be slapping them up on Amazon at a heart-pounding (notice my genre-specific adjective!) pace. Problem: the freelancer was snatching passages from published works to fill out the pages.

Kris Rusch wrote about this, and has these wise words:

The smartest thing…is to write your books at your pace, and stop flooding the market with mediocre books, written by people who don’t care about your worlds or your characters as much as you do.

If you got into this business because you love writing, then write for heaven’s sake. And if you’re worried about maintaining your income, then the real key is to cut expenses, not add to them. If you can’t survive without gaming the system, then maybe consider a part-time job until you have enough money put away to augment your writing income in the lean months. Then live on a percentage of what your writing earns, not on the entire amount.

Indie writers (who are true writers) want to feed the system. Indie scammers (who are not true writers) want to game the system. You have to live with yourself. Unfortunately, with the death of shame in our culture, cheaters are often able to look in the mirror with a satisfied smile. But know this for certain: they will never experience the true joy that only comes from honest applied effort.

I’ve been a happy indie since 2011. Coming from the traditional world, however, I am appreciative of the “grinder” my books were put through, meaning the editorial process. I worked with some great editors who helped me get better. As an indie, I seek similar feedback on every book I write.

And when a book is ready, it’s published in ten minutes. Boy, do I love that!

Here’s another joy—getting to publish something written by my late father.

Art Bell, Lawyer

Back in 1972 my big brother, Bob, was having thoughts about becoming a lawyer like our dad. Bob was, at the time, a teacher at an elementary school in northern California. So he wrote Dad a letter—a real letter, on paper, with an envelope and a stamp!—asking for Dad’s counsel.

And Dad, never one to do things (like represent a client) half way, wrote a long letter in response.

Dad thought his modest epistle might be something other lawyers would find of value. So he paid to have it published in installments in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, the city’s legal newspaper.

It was a huge hit. The demand for copies proved so great that Dad had the whole thing printed up and paid for it to be included as an insert in a later edition of the Journal.

It hit me recently that Compendium Press, my indie publishing company, ought to publish the letter once again, this time permanently in digital form. But I couldn’t locate any copies in my dad’s files.

So I asked my brother if he had a copy. He did, and sent it to me as a PDF file. I then sent it to a scanning service, and now it’s up permanently as A Lawyer’s Letter to a Son.

Why publish it again? It’s not because I think it will make a lot of money; it won’t. It’s because I believe its message is relevant today for anyone considering going into law—or maybe who went into the profession for the dough and are starting to wonder if that was the right reason. The letter represents a view of the law that is rare today: as an honorable profession, not just a way to gain money or power. (And no lawyer jokes, please!)

My dad was a great L.A. lawyer, highly respected by his peers, and a colorful character in his own right. He loved a good fight in court, a good cigar in his leisure, and a sporty bow tie with his suits. I love hearing his voice again in this letter.

If you know any law students, or wannabe law students, or even young lawyers, maybe you can recommend this little letter, which I’m making FREE for the next several days.

Now to you, TKZers. What brings you joy in your writing?

12+

How Long Should A Sentence Be?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Riffing off of Kris’s post on paragraphs and pacing, I want to drill down into the length of sentences. Kris touched on it, quoting Ronald Tobias: “Short sentences are more dramatic; long sentences are calmer by nature and tend to be more explanatory or descriptive.”

We all know thriller writers favor short sentences. And maybe today, as attention spans constrict ever … Squirrel! … more, all genres (save “literary”) may lean toward lean.

But an intriguing article over at Literary Hub makes an impassioned plea for the “long and complicated sentence.” The author, Joe Moran, writes:

The style guides say: keep your sentences short. Write cleanly, cut as many words as you can, and don’t overburden your reader’s short-term memory by delaying the arrival of the full stop. But sometimes a sentence just needs to be long…

A long sentence should exult in its own expansiveness, lovingly extending its line of thought while being always clearly moving to its close. It should create anticipation, not confusion, as it goes along. The hard part is telling the difference between the two…A long sentence can seem thrillingly out of breath, deliciously tantalizing, so long as we feel the writer is still in charge…

Every writer is a poet by default and every sentence a little poem. The longer the sentence, the more closely it resembles poetry, or should do.

That last point reminded me of what the great John D. MacDonald once said he strived for. He wanted “a bit of magic in [the] prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases that really sing.”

MacDonald was clear, however, that he wanted those sentences to serve the story, never yank the reader out of it. That’s the essential principle in my view. The prose is the servant of the story, not the other way around.

Moran goes on:

For the American writing teacher Francis Christensen, learning to write was also about learning to live. He believed that teaching his students how to write a really great long sentence could teach them to “look at life with more alertness.” It should not just be about ensuring that the sentence is grammatically correct, or even clear. The one true aim, he wrote, was “to enhance life—to give the self (the soul) body by wedding it to the world, to give the world life by wedding it to the self.” He wanted his students to become “sentence acrobats” who could “dazzle by their syntactic dexterity.”

I agree that a great long sentence should be a look at life with more “alertness.” But you have to watch it with the “dazzle” part. You don’t want the reader stopping to think, Who does this joker think he is? Just get on with it! As Moran rightly notes:

A long sentence too should be a beautiful, indelible gift. It should give pleasure without provisos, not buttonhole and bedazzle the reader with virtuosity.

The way to do that is to make sure the sentence is consistent with the narrative voice.

But suppose you write in a lean, mean style. Would there ever be occasion for you to consider a long sentence? Yes—to show us the inner life of a character in moments of high emotional intensity. For example:

Horace McCoy

Horace McCoy was one of the great noir pulp writers, part of the Black Mask crew. His most famous novel is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? He had an innate power in his prose, and most of the time it’s as hardboiled as a twenty-minute egg. But every now and then he’ll pull you in with style for the purpose of illustrating heightened emotion.

Here is a passage from his 1938 novel, I Should Have Stayed Home. We’re in the first chapter, and desperation is squeezing the narrator, a struggling actor in Hollywood. He’s been cooped up all day in his little apartment and has to get out. He charges out into the night. Note how the sound of the sentences gives the impression of someone walking fast and agitated.

On Vine Street I went north towards Hollywood Boulevard, crossing Sunset, passing the drive-in stand where the old Paramount lot used to be, seeing young girls and boys in uniform hopping cars, and seeing too, in my mind, the ironic smiles on the faces of Wallace Reid and Valentino and all the other old-time stars who used to work on this very spot, and who now looked down, pitying these girls and boys for working at jobs in Hollywood they might just as well be working at in Waxahachie or Evanston or Albany; thinking if they were going to do this, there was no point in their coming out here in the first place.

The Brown Derby, the sign said, and I crossed the street, not wanting to pass directly in front, hating the place and all the celebrities in it (only because they were celebrities, something I was not), hating the people standing in front, waiting with autograph books, thinking: You’ll be lighting for my autograph one of these days, missing Mona terribly now, more than I had all afternoon, because passing this place that was full of stars made me more than ever want to be a star myself and made me more than ever aware of how impossible this was alone, without her help.

Not only does this provide a window into the narrator’s inner life, it also weaves in the description of place and a bit of exposition, too. Triple duty.

So don’t be afraid to expand the occasional sentence if the moment is right. If it doesn’t work out, you can hit the delete key. But if it does work, you’ve hit the delight key—for you and the reader both.

10+

Bonding Character and Reader

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Lee Patrick as Effie Perine in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

What is the most important thing your novel must accomplish with the opening pages?

A gripping first line? An action-driven plot? World building? A compelling lead character? Style? Voice?

All of the above?

Well, sure! If you can do all that, do it. But let me suggest that there’s something else, without which these elements won’t be as effective.

What the author must do, as soon as possible, is bond the character to the reader. It’s an emotional alchemy that render fictive gold. When the reader is not just interested in, but emotionally connected to the main character, the urge to turn pages ramps up to its fullest potential.

This is why the concept of the opening disturbance is so crucial. When a character is confronted with threat or challenge, we have a naturally sympathetic reaction. We can identify. We’ve all been there. That’s why this a good first step to the bonding I’m talking about.

An even more powerful effect can be achieved by adding a second technique, one I call the Care Package. It’s one of my fourteen signpost scenes as laid out in Super Structure.

In the most basic sense, it refers to a caring relationship is in place before the story begins between the main character and someone else. This is to distinguish it from Pet the Dog, which is when the Lead, somewhere in the middle of the story, takes time to help another character who is weaker and in need.

A perfect example of both is in The Hunger Games. When we first meet Katniss, she is out hunting to feed her family—her mother and her little sister, Prim. Katniss’ actions are illegal, but she does this out of love. Those relationships are in place before the novel begins. Author Suzanne Collins also includes in this Care Package a scruffy cat that Katniss does not like. This is a skillful addition, for the Care Package works even if a character is resentful about the relationship and the caring is done out of obligation. That works because we admire those who do their duty, regardless of feelings.

In the middle of the book, Katniss becomes the protector of the weakest of the tributes in the Games—Rue. That’s an example of Pet the Dog. It is a relationship formed after the story is well under way.

I got an email recently from a writer who asked if the Care Package could be something the character is passionate about, like basketball or playing the piano.

The short answer is No. It has to be a human or an animal (as in Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz, or Terry Malloy and his pigeons in On the Waterfront). Being in love with an activity falls under the umbrella of self-interest. Caring about another person is the essence of selflessness.

Note, too, that the Care Package applies to any genre. Even the hardest of hardboiled fiction, as demonstrated in this passage from Dashiell Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon:

When Spade reached his office at ten o’clock the following morning Effie Perine was at her desk opening the morning’s mail. Her boyish face was pale under its sunburn. She put down the handful of envelopes and the brass paper-knife she held and said: “She’s in there.” Her voice was low and warning.

“I asked you to keep her away,” Spade complained. He too kept his voice low.

Effie Perine’s brown eyes opened wide and her voice was irritable as his: “Yes, but you didn’t tell me how.” Her eyelids went together a little and her shoulders drooped. “Don’t be cranky, Sam,” she said wearily. “I had her all night.”

Spade stood beside the girl, put a hand on her head, and smoothed her hair away from its parting. “Sorry, angel, I haven’t—” He broke off as the inner door opened. “Hello, Iva,” he said to the woman who had opened it.

One action: smoothing her hair. One line, and not even one Spade gets to finish! This moment is the only bit of tenderness Sam Spade shows to anybody in the book. But Hammett knew it would stand out for that very reason. We get one peek that Spade is not made of pure ice…because he has someone in his life he cares about.

Simple exercise: Before writing your novel, take ten minutes to brainstorm a list of possible Care Packages for your main character. Make some based in love and others out of duty. Eventually you will find the one that feels just right.

It will feel just right to the readers, too.

The floor is open. What Care Packages can you think of from favorite novels or films? NOTE: I’m in travel mode today so my comments will be scarce. Talk amongst yourselves!

9+

The Last Fifty Pages Make or Break Your Novel

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We’ve all been through it. We get caught up in a book or movie, we’re cruising along, liking everything about the story and then … the ending stinks.

It’s too farfetched, too out-of-the-blue, illogical, unjustified, or enabled by some crazy coincidence.

Sometimes a book just, well, ends, with plot threads left dangling (producing the Whu? effect). Or, if the plot threads are woven together, it’s in a totally predictable manner (producing the Ho-hum effect).

I’ve described certain writing errors as speed bumps. That means the reader is momentarily jolted out of the fictive dream. It might be a teeny, tiny bump, but the reader does feel it. And if there are too many of them along the way, the pleasure of the trip is ruined.

But if the ending lets you down, it feels more like a sinkhole. The whole car comes to an inglorious, crashing halt. The poor reader has to climb out, dazed, wondering why he took this trip at all.

And said reader will now think twice about picking up another book by the same author.

Remember those immortal words of Mickey Spillane: “The first page of a book sells that book. The last page sells your next book.”

And these days, with so much content out there, a competent ending is not enough.

Endings need to be unforgettable.

Yet, as important as ending are, I’ve not found enough practical, nuts-and-bolts advice for creating truly powerful endings.

So I decided to write a book about it.

THE LAST FIFTY PAGES: THE ART AND CRAFT OF UNFORGETTABLE ENDINGS releases tomorrow.

Here’s some of what I cover:

  • The five types of endings.
  • What needs to happen in Act 3.
  • How to use the Ah and Uh-oh emotional wallops.
  • A simple technique for crafting twist endings.
  • The most important secret of all—resonance.
  • The Stew, Brew, Accrue, and Do brainstorming method.
  • The best way to tie up loose ends.
  • The most common ending mistakes, and how to avoid them.

And with my usual hope for peace in our time, it is written for both plotters and pantsers!

There are many examples from top writers, including Michael Connelly, Dashiell Hammett, Louis L’Amour, Mark Twain, Suzanne Collins, Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James M. Cain, and even Don Pendleton (author of The Executioner series). Each is called upon to illustrate the techniques involved so you can immediately put them to use.

A promising writer named Gilstrap is also quoted. This kid is going to break out soon!

I also use some film examples, including unpacking what is probably the most famous ending of all, with the most famous last line. Can you guess what that is? Hint: the last line includes the words “Louis” and “beautiful” and “friendship.”

You can order the ebook here:

KINDLE

NOOK

KOBO

AMAZON INTERNATIONAL STORES 

And here is the PRINT VERSION for those who like to use highlighters and sticky notes!

Here’s a little preview. One type of ending I call the Uh-oh! This is when the author leaves you with the feeling that something bad or really tense is going to happen, and soon! It’s a staple of horror fiction, but is sometimes found in great thrillers.

In Louis L’Amour’s bestseller Last of the Breed, Joe Mack is an American Air Force pilot, half Sioux, who is captured by Soviets during the Cold War and imprisoned in Siberia. It’s the task of Soviet Col. Arkady Zamatev to squeeze information out of Mack.

But he escapes the prison, which is deemed a stupid thing to do, for the winter is coming in Siberia. How can Mack expect to survive?

Because he is the last of the warrior breed, and his Indian skills come into play for survival.

Zamatev dispatches the Russian analogue of Mack—a Yakut named Alekhin—to do the tracking. The heart of the book is their back and forth, the narrow escapes, the body count.

Finally, at the end of the book, Alekhin and Mack are face to face. It’s time for the fight to the finish.

At this point L’Amour cuts to the last scene, in Col. Zamatev’s point of view. He has received a package—something wrapped up in cloth.

It is a scalp.

There is a note inside also, written on birchbark.

This was once a custom of my people. In my lifetime I shall take two. This is the first.

Uh-oh!

So what is one of your favorite endings? How did it affect you? Why do you think it worked so well? [NOTE: Be aware that *spoilers* may be included in the comments. So look first at the title and decide if you want to know the ending!]

9+

What Bryan Cranston Can Teach Writers

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’ve always liked the actor Bryan Cranston. He was my favorite secondary character on Seinfeld, playing WASP dentist Tim Whatley, who converts to Judaism so he can claim the rich history of Jewish jokes. (When Jerry objects, he is accused of being an anti-dentite.)

Cranston made regular TV appearances throughout the 90s, and spent seven seasons as the goofy father Hal in Malcolm in the Middle. Then came his signature role as Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin in Breaking Bad. Quite a jump for an actor known mostly for light comedy! But he was perfect casting in this binge-worthy descent into the heart of darkness.

On a recent long drive I listened to Cranston’s autobiography, A Life in Parts. Read by the author, it’s an enjoyable account of Cranston’s rise as an actor. What’s clear from the book is that he takes his craft seriously. That’s why he went from bit-part support to respected lead—evidenced by four Emmys, a Golden Globe, a Tony (for playing Lyndon Johnson on Broadway), and an Oscar nod for his portrayal of the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.

What made the book all the more interesting for me is that he and I are about the same age and grew up in the same place—the west San Fernando Valley. He went to Canoga Park High School; I went to nearby Taft. I was a young, struggling actor at the same time he was. We may even have crossed paths in Los Angeles at an audition for a commercial or TV show.

I really connected to that part of the book where Cranston describes the cold chill of auditions. How well I remember walking into waiting rooms with twenty other guys my age and look. Everybody sizing each other up. Then going into a room with a camera and a panel of unsmiling casting folk and reading the lines I’d been given. When I was finished, someone would say, “We’ll let you know.” I’d walk out, past the other actors, all trying to read my face as I attempted to hide what I was thinking: I blew it! Why did I say the line that way? I bet that meathead with the perfect chin gets it! What teeth whitener does he use?

Cranston covered this process with good humor and insight. But at one time the attendant anxieties were starting to debilitate him. So his wife, as a gift, purchased sessions with a life coach, who …

… suggested that I focus on process rather than on outcome. I wasn’t going to the audition to get anything: a job or money or validation. I wasn’t going to compete with the other guys. I was going to give something.

I wasn’t there to get a job. I was there to do a job. Simple as that. I was there to give a performance. If I attached to the outcome, I was setting myself up to expect, and thus to fail. My job was to focus on character. My job was to be interesting. My job was to be compelling. Take some chances. Serve the text. Enjoy the process.

And this wasn’t some semantic sleight-of-hand, it wasn’t some subtle form of barter or gamesmanship. There was to be no predicting or manipulating, no thinking of the outcome. Outcome was irrelevant. I couldn’t afford any longer to approach my work as a means to an end.

Once I made the switch, I was no longer a supplicant. I had power in any room I walked into. Which meant I could relax. I was free.

That, it seems to me, is perfect advice for a writer, too. Get rid of expectations! You can’t control outcome, only process. Keep your focus on the page in front of you. Connect with your characters. Tackle the challenges.

You’re not here to get something, you’re here to give something—entertainment value to a reader.

When your book comes out, as far as you are able (you’re human, after all) nix any expected outcome. Keep working on your next book and developing more projects. Sure, you go through the marketing routine and learn what you can. But don’t obsess about rankings and reviews. Forget the awards and the honors, which you can’t buy.

Just love your craft, the way Bryan Cranston loves his.

Then you will no longer be a supplicant. You will have power on the page. You’ll be free.

Where are you in the expectations game?

11+

No More Platform Anxiety, Please

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A recent post by agent Janet Kobobel Grant offers some welcome relief on the dicey subject of “platform.” I’ve been slapping that particular bongo for years. How are new fiction writers supposed to create a following before they have any books out? I even pulled up a comment I made on TZK ten years ago (before I was a contributor!), to wit:

By far and away the best “platform” for us is OTHER people yakking it up about our books. Word of mouth has always been the most powerful marketing tool. You don’t get that by blogging, tweeting or shouting. You get it ONLY by writing books people talk about. That has to be job one.

The flip side is the best promoter in the world cannot overcome a book that fizzles with the reading public. It can get you a strong introduction, but from there the book takes over. If it does fizzle, the answer is not more promotion; the answer is a stronger book.

Yet many a publisher has pushed platform building, even for unpublished writers, leading to increased levels of scribal stress and sales of Pepto-Bismol.

A platform, as the book industry sees it, is whatever you do to engage and interact with a significant portion of the public. That includes social media, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and even good old public speaking.

All of those things take effort and cut into a writer’s creativity and productivity time. So does it make sense to spend that capital trying to create a platform at the expense of writing good books?

There is no shortcut to platform success, either. Sure, you can farm 50,000 Twitter followers, but how many of them are truly interested in you? Or you in them (shown by actual engagement)? That’s the key to social media. Thus, I was glad to read Janet’s comments:

The second group of editors I met with started off our conversation by saying they have come to realize it’s unrealistic to expect a newer novelist to have a large platform. Upon what foundation can a fiction writer build that platform? Especially as a debut novelist, you can only engage potential book-buyers so much in your writing and research endeavors before your attempted connections take on a bland sameness.

However, Janet continues, these fiction editors do want to see that a writer is “willing” to engage in platform building. Which means at least one social media footprint. The big takeaway is something I’ve advised for years:

These editors believe that choosing to focus on one aspect of social media is the best route to go. Rather than dabbling in several mediums but not really figuring out what works for you, dig into one medium and gather all your friends or followers in that one spot.

So which social media outpost is best for you? Read and reflect on Sue Coletta’s excellent post on the topic. Be sure to follow the links and also read the comments. You’ll make wiser social media choices if you do.

Janet Grant concludes:

I hope you’re taking a deep breath as you consider that some of the pressure to collect names and online connections has let up just a bit. None of these editors would say platform isn’t important. But each of them would say she—and the whole publishing team—is taking a more nuanced look at the planks of each writer’s platform.

By the way, if you want to plow right through the nuance, write a book that blows them all away. Then you can talk about platform all you want.

As I was prepping this post, an article entitled “How to Reduce Marketing Anxiety and Confusion by industry expert Jane Friedman appeared on the PW site. Jane writes, in part:

In a great scene from Lost in Translation, Bill Murray’s character says, “The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.” If I could customize that for today’s authors, I’d say, “The more you know who you are as an author and what readership you seek, the less confused you’ll be about marketing.” And the less you’ll be influenced by the crowd.

It’s easy to feel anxious about your progress when you see your peers engaging in new forms of publishing or marketing and you feel pressured to join. But the more you’re focused on your own long-term outcomes and how to wisely use your time and resources, the better prepared you’ll be to consider or experiment with new tactics, adopting or discarding them as you see fit.

So how is your platform anxiety these days? Does it ever detract from your writing? What are you doing about it?

8+

Jack Kerouac On Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Fasten your seatbelts.

We’ve written about Robert A. Heinlein’s rules and Elmore Leonard’s rules. Are you ready for Jack Kerouac’s?

Like most college liberal arts guys in the 70s, I went through a big Kerouac phase. It started, of course, with On the Road, the slightly fictionalized account of Kerouac’s roamings in post-World War II America.

There’s a myth that Kerouac completed his most famous novel in three weeks, on a rolling scroll of butcher paper, so he wouldn’t have to stop to remove pages from the typewriter. Indeed, much of On the Road was written in first draft that way, but Kerouac re-worked the manuscript several times before it was published.

Kerouac’s reputation (and, some might argue, the beginning of his ruin) was made when the New York Times called On the Road “a major achievement.” Not all critics were so moved. Time magazine characterized it as a “barbaric yawp of a book.” And later, Truman Capote would snarkily remark (did he ever remark un-snarkily?) that On the Road is “not writing. It’s typing.”

In any event, at one point Kerouac was asked to memorialize his writing advice. Let’s ride:

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Jack Kerouac. Photo by Tom Palumbo

    Blow as deep as you want to blow

  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

This is not exactly the stuff of structure. Indeed, while On the Road is linear in form, Kerouac’s subsequent work became more and more experimental—with the attendant decline in sales. (I will not pause here to once again emphasize the correlation between structure and sales, even though I just did). He died of alcoholism in 1969 at the age of 47, twelve years after publication of On the Road.

What Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers were after was a new kind of prose, a sort of be-bop rhapsody that most truly captured an experience. In that regard, these wild ideas are good for getting out of the way of yourself, to become a “crazy dumbsaint of the mind.” The writing then becomes a kind of “tranced fixation dreaming” and makes writing “for yr own joy” possible.

This is all fine as far as it goes. Kerouac thought that was far enough. But it proved otherwise. For at some point “yr own joy” needs to translate to the readers. On the Road did that. So, too, did his next-most successful novel, The Dharma Bums. After that, things started to get sketchy.

I retain a warm place in my heart for Kerouac. He meant a lot to me in my early formation as a writer. At its best his prose is vibrant, emotional, ecstatic, as in this famous passage from 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!”

I am literally going to be on the road today, driving back to L.A. from Las Vegas (no, I didn’t put it all on red. Came for a meeting and research for my next novel). I’ll check in, but please talk amongst yourselves. Have you read Kerouac? What do you find of value in his advice?

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Unsnagging Your Plot

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

What is a plot snag?

It’s like when you’re walking along admiring some rose bushes and your coat gets impaled by a thorn. Forward motion halted. You have to stop, go back, and unloose your coat.

Only thing is, when you’re writing a book, you may not so easily identify what has snagged you. All you know is that you’re stuck.

A plot snag is not to be confused with writer’s block or a loss of enthusiasm for a project. Those are separate issues, which can be addressed in their own way.

What we’re talking about here is a point where you don’t know what to write next. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pantser or a plotter or a ’tweener. The best laid plans o’ mice and writers often go awry.

Let’s say you’re writing a thriller and you’ve got your hero backed into a corner. A literal corner, in an abandoned warehouse where killers are searching for him.

You don’t know how your character is going to get out of it.

Snag.

Now, maybe you’ve got an outline, and know your plot’s direction, but this little conundrum has come up and you don’t know what to do about it. What you do know is that he’s going to somehow get in the back of a truck heading for Phoenix.

The question now is how to get him there. Try the following:

  1. Make a list

Brainstorm possible ways to get out. Go crazy. List six, seven, eight or more. Make your imagination work. You’ll get the answer. And if you need to plant something in the plot to justify this option (remember how Q always gave Bond the gadgets early in Act 1?) go back and plant.

  1. Do some shadow story

The shadow story is what’s going on “off screen.” It’s what the other characters are doing when they are not in the scene you’re writing. What did you think? That they were all in their dressing rooms sipping Coke, waiting to be called ?

Brainstorm some of the possible actions going on, and one of them might offer something a character in the scene can do to unsnag things.

Going back to our warehouse, maybe one of the assassins is really a secret ally, and engineers our hero’s escape. Why? Because we did some shadow story where the villain discovers there’s a traitor in his camp! Now we can adjust our outline and plans accordingly.

  1. Skip ahead

If you’re stuck but anxious to get on with the writing, skip ahead and write a future scene. Let your subconscious work on the snag. Keep up your writing momentum. Tomorrow or the next day you can come back to fill in the gap.

  1. Write a blazing first draft

It’s possible to whip through a first draft and avoid snags. You must write like a house afire, skipping plot “non-essentials” as you do.

And what is the purpose of this blazing method? Four things:

  • To discover what your book is about
  • To know if you have the major parts of the plot working.
  • To save you time by avoiding endless rabbit trails (are you listening, pantsers?)
  • To identify places where you can fill in material for which you now know the purpose.

Here are some suggestions for a blazing first draft:

Skip transitions

Instead of filling in the information that gets a character from one scene to another, leave a marker in that spot (like *** or &&&) and move on to the next scene. Concentrate on the action and dialogue.

Some writers put in a text reminder in ALL CAPS. For example:

“You’ll never make it in time,” Wally said.

“Just watch me,” Sam said.

SAM GETS TO THE OTHER SIDE OF MANHATTAN, BUT IT ISN’T EASY.

“I’m here,” Sam said, fighting for breath.

“Sorry,” the deli manager said. “I had to give your sandwich to somebody else.”

Skip descriptions

Don’t pause for descriptions. Fill those in upon revision. One benefit of this method is that you’ll know the overall tone of your novel and how each scene contributes. You can then tailor your descriptions with more efficiency. You can, for example, plant a symbol to foreshadow what’s coming later.

Skip deep emotional beats

Emotional beats heat up a plot and get us bonded to a character. It’s an important part of the craft, and the deeper the emotion the more attention must be paid to it on the page.

For blazing draft purposes, when you get to such a moment in your story, jot a note, e.g.,

SAM SHOWS HIS ANGER

            or

SHOW SAM’S EMOTION HERE

When you revise, you fill those in as needed.

Pro tip: When you go back to revisit emotional moments, look around for a more original emotion than you first envision. Sure, maybe anger is what you need, but what if you brainstormed other possibilities? Like elation or remorse? Perhaps one of these other emotions can conflict with the anger, so that you have that great beat called inner conflict. (Another tip: For brainstorming different emotions and techniques for showing them on the page, consult The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.)

So how have you handled your own plot snags? Have you ever blazed through a first draft to discover and solidify your plot?

(For more on fast writing, see this detailed blog post by Janice Hardy.)

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