About James Scott Bell

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A Lot Has Changed, But Reading Remains

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The other day I woke up and felt like I was in Groundhog Day. Truly. When I tweeted about it, someone replied I should add I Am Legend and Swiss Family Robinson to the mix. That was brilliant. The streets of my city—Los Angeles—do look like the zombie apocalypse. And our homes are like tree houses in this urban archipelago.

And it’s like that every dang day.

Maybe you’re feeling something similar, wondering what to do next within the confines of your domicile.

Or what to read next. If that’s the case, I’ve got your back.

First off, ebooks are suddenly the coin of the realm for readers. With bookstores shuttered, print purchases have slowed considerably. I’ve also heard that audiobooks, once the growth slice of the publishing pie, have stalled. Why? Because no one is commuting to work!

So for homebound readers hungry for entertainment and escape, the ebook is fast and reasonably priced. As a recent BookBub post put it:

This is a turbulent time for the publishing industry. Many bookstores, publishers, and authors are facing significant challenges due to the impact on their print sales from store closures. However, one thing that seems clear is that people are still seeking out your books to help them learn, escape, find solace, and cope at this time. 

In that regard, I give you some new pulp fiction of my own — LAST CALL:

 

For call girl Keely Delmonico, having a client die was a new one. Now she has to avoid the cops and all their nasty questions. She manages to get out of the fancy hotel free and clear. But lurking in the shadows is another danger, a deadly one—a killer who is determined to make Keely’s next step her last call.

 

What possessed me to write a book from (mostly) the point of view of a call girl?

The challenge! Writers need to stretch if they’re going to stay on top of their game. As Kris so eloquently explained in her post on Tuesday, sometimes you just have to take a risk, knowing that at the very least the resulting book will:

  • Help you grow as a writer.
  • Make you stronger.
  • Help you find your way to your next story.

This book actually started some time ago when I sat down before a blank screen and asked myself what sort of book would I probably never write? A book about a call girl came immediately to mind. So what did I do? I wrote a first chapter. And liked it. I liked the character that was forming in my mind. Naturally I had to add a killer. From there I plotted and planned, and eventually wrote the thing.

Now, some of my loyal readers may be wondering if a) I’m off my rocker; and b) if the book has, um, well, racy parts.

As to a), I’m a writer. Of course I’m off my rocker.

And b), heck no. The content of the book is what would have been acceptable in a 1960s episode of Mannix or Mod Squad or Hawaii Five-O. The action takes place in L.A. and Las Vegas. Pre-pandemic. But I felt I had to handle that issue in the book. How did I do it? With a couple of Easter eggs I will not reveal here.

What a rat!

I know, but I want you to have the book as pure, lockdown reading pleasure. That’s why I’ve priced it at the lowest end of the Amazon scale—99¢—and will keep it there for the next few weeks. You can order in here.

So here we are, friends, deep into the shutdown. Lots of things have changed, but reading remains. I wonder, though, have you noticed any changes in your reading habits and/or preferences over the last six weeks? Do you think they will carry over when we get, finally, to the “new normal”?

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The Decency Factor

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

It’s not all bad news out there. The hate-stream does not slosh over every social interaction, though sometimes it seems that way. In the midst of our current crisis there are abundant stories of bravery and heroism on the front lines, and decency and kindness all around.

One such story went viral. A FedEx delivery man brings a package to a doorstep. He sees a note that someone in the house has an auto-immune disorder, so please leave packages outside.

The fellow then goes to his vehicle for some wipes, sanitizes the package, and leaves a little note of his own, ending with “Stay safe” and a smiley face.

My wife and I couldn’t help getting misty as we watched the video. That is the power of a kind act, especially when times are troubled.

In fiction, decency is often shown by way of the “pet the dog” scene. This is where the hero, in the midst of his own vexations, pauses to help someone weaker than himself. It’s an act of basic kindness and thus bonds us even more strongly with the Lead.

I’ll give you two examples. The first is from The Fugitive (1993). You know the story. Dr. Richard Kimble is on the run after escaping a prison bus on the way to Death Row. Kimble was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. It was a one-armed man who did it, and Kimble is now in a race against time to find him.

At one point Kimble poses as a hospital janitor so he can access the prosthetics records. As he’s slipping out of the hospital he finds himself waylaid by traffic on the trauma floor.

As he waits for a chance to move he notices a little boy on a gurney, groaning. From the look on Kimble’s face we know he wants to help that boy. He’s a doctor! That’s what he does! But he can’t without giving himself away. A nurse gives a cursory look at the chest x-ray, calling out that the kid is okay.

The supervising doctor comes over, sees Kimble just standing there, and asks him to wheel the kid down to an observation room. So off Kimble goes with the gurney.

As he does, he asks the boy where it hurts. He slips the x-ray from its envelope and holds it up to the light.

He determines that the boy needs immediate surgery. So on the elevator he changes the boy’s orders and takes him to the operating room, turning him over to a surgeon who gets the boy in for the help he needs.

Kimble saved a boy’s life at the risk of being found out. The filmmakers use it for just that purpose. The doctor on the trauma floor saw Kimble looking at the film. She catches up to him and confronts him. Not satisfied with his evasions, she grabs his ID badge and calls for Security.

Thus, Kimble’s “pet the dog” moment has gotten him into worse trouble. That’s using it to the max.

My second example is from Casablanca (where so many great moments come from!) As you know, the movie is about a bitter American named Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) who is allowed to run a café/saloon in this Morocco burg because he’s seen as neutral and uninterested in the war that rages around the world. Rick keeps telling people, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Rick’s Café is packed nightly with refugees making surreptitious deals to get out of Casablanca. Louis, the French police captain who has local control (with Nazi permission), uses the Café to get gambling kickbacks and women. He identifies desperate young couples who need exit visas but don’t have the money to pay for them. Louis then approaches the wife and offers her the papers gratis…in return for sleeping with him.

So in the middle of the swirling plot a young wife asks for Rick’s advice. Her husband is at the roulette table, trying to win the money they need for the visas. But he’s losing. Louis has made his pitch to the wife and she now wants to know if he’ll keep his word. Rick, with a disgusted look, says, “He always has.” She presses Rick, asking him, as a man, if someone loved him very much and did a “bad thing” to ensure his happiness, could he forgive her for that bad thing? Rick, remembering how Ilsa left him in Paris, says, “Nobody ever loved me that much.” He gets up and leaves, telling the wife that things “may work out.”

But then he goes to the gambling room and spots the husband, who is down to his last chips. Rick tells him to place them on 22. The croupier sees what’s going on and sets the wheel so the ball lands on 22. Rick tells the husband to let it ride, and the ball comes up on 22 again. Rick tells the husband to “Cash it in and don’t come back.”

This pet-the-dog moment is observed by Rick’s headwaiter, but also by Louis, who objects to Rick interfering with his “little romances.” This is potential trouble for Rick, because he has just “stuck his neck” out for some refugees, making Louis suspicious of his true intentions.

We don’t need to do any psychological deep dive to understand why the pet-the-dog beat is so powerful. We are naturally moved by acts of decency. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s what Lincoln described as “the better angels of our nature.” It is part, I would argue, of the true American character in times of crisis.

We can show that in our fiction by way of a pet-the-dog beat. Even more important, we can show it in our lives by acting decently, the way a FedEx delivery man did a few days ago.

What act of kindness have you observed or heard about lately? In the past, what gesture of decency made an impact on you?

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Storytelling Lessons in 60 Seconds or Less

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The mind wanders, especially when forced to look at the same walls all day. Enter YouTube. It’s the great playground for the bored and stultified. It beckons us with its search engine, and cheerily sucks us into rabbit holes of delight. Instead of being force-fed what some news group wants us to see (and believe), or as an alternative to getting hooked on a ten-episode series that may, after all is said and done, end with a thud, we get to choose according to our own particular interests and attention spans.

Which makes watching old commercials on YouTube the perfect pastime. For some odd reason which I am not privy to, my brain brought up an old memory the other day of a commercial I’d seen as a kid. It was for Alka-Seltzer, which back in the 1960s put out a string of hilarious ads that went “viral” (in those days, that meant talking about things at the office water cooler).

The commercial I recalled was a mini-story about a professional pie-eating team (already that’s funny). It had the trope of the wise old veteran taking the rookie under his wing, complete with an iconic last shot—the vet turning around as he leaves, giving the kid a last wave.

I searched for it on YouTube, and there it was. Other commercials came to mind, and I found each one of them. And it struck me that in addition to their entertainment value, they also offer lessons for writers.

Let’s take that pie-eating team. What it teaches us is the power of EMOTIONAL CONNECTION. Even as we smile at the obvious satire, we are pulled in because we have experienced the real thing before—that story, that warmth. Once enthralled, they sell the product (which is, of course, the whole point of advertising!) Here it is, from 1967:

From there I went to another classic Alka-Seltzer ad. This one shows us the power of CONFLICT. In this ad a man argues with his own stomach over eating habits and heartburn. The animation is terrific, and the dialogue hysterical. (NOTE: the voice of the stomach is a young actor named Gene Wilder):

One last Alka-Seltzer ad, which is probably the most famous of all. I remember being on the schoolyard mouthing, “Mama Mia, that’s a spicy meatball!” all the time. Here we see the storytelling principle of OBSTACLES. They’re shooting a commercial for spicy meatballs that come in a gigantic jar. The doting wife serves her husband a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs. The husband eats a bit of meatball and utters the phrase above. But things keep going wrong, and they have to retake and retake. Which means, of course, the man has has to keep eating spicy meat. For 59 takes! Then they sell the solution: Alka-Seltzer. The kicker at the end of this ad is perfect. Also kudos to the actress, who is hilarious putting on her loving expression each time. First aired in 1969:

“Spicy Meatball” was the brainchild of the legendary agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), which was also responsible for another popular ad, one that the famous advertising man David Ogilvy called the funniest commercial he ever saw. It was for Volkswagen, which issued a spate of hilarious ads in the 60s and 70s. In this one, we get the concept of the JUST ENDING where everyone gets what they deserve:

An ad whiz at DDB, Robert Gage, came up with another “viral” commercial, one of the longest running of all time. It features two boys unwilling to try the new “healthy” cereal their mom has put in front of them. So they decide to test it on their little brother, Mikey. I’d put this lesson under the power of CHARACTERIZATION. Little Mikey says not a word, but his face is so doggone cute it charmed the socks off the nation:

Happily, John Gilchrist, who played Mikey, did not go the way of so many child actors. He’s had a good life, and currently works at MSG Networks, where he is director of media sales doing guess what? Negotiating with advertisers on TV ads.

By the 1980s, the world had changed. It was the era of the fast-paced, make-money-now go-getter. Federal Express caught that vibe better than anyone, and put out a string of commercials that worked at breakneck speed. Let’s call this a lesson on PACE. Here’s the first and most famous ad in that campaign (featuring the actual Guinness World Record holder as World’s Fastest Talker, John Moschitta Jr.):

The year 1984 gave us two unforgettable commercials. The first may be the most famous ever made. Directed by Ridley Scott and shown only once, during the ’84 Super Bowl, it announced the arrival of the Apple Macintosh. The THEME is unmistakable—a lone hero against the large, impersonal “system.” I remember seeing it, and got my first Mac shortly thereafter. And that’s all I’ve ever used since. In those early years using a Mac made you feel like a rebel, and oh so cool. Just like the commercial promised!

The other notable ad from ’84 gave the nation a catch phrase that lasted for years. It was for Wendy’s, and it was a huge success revenue-wise (as the ad men used to say), boosting annual revenue by 31%. Here we have the staying power of one, perfectly placed line of DIALOGUE (as in, “Go ahead, make my day” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.”) The phrase “Where’s the beef?” became so ubiquitous it even made its way into the 1984 presidential race. Democrat Walter Mondale used it in a primary debate to question the substance of his opponent, Gary Hart. Ouch.

Since this is TKZ, I’d be remiss if I did not include a THRILLER. And what is a thriller about? Impending death…something terrible could happen at any time! And certainly that is true of those great unsung heroes, the driving instructors:

No look back at classic commercials would be complete without a nod to one of the true geniuses of the ad game, Stan Freberg. He, more than anyone else, perfected the use of humor in commercials. So let’s call this a lesson on VOICE. Freberg’s was unique—wry, dry, biting—so you could almost always tell a Freberg when it aired. Here’s one of his best, a takeoff on the stodgy old domestic commercial where, for instance, a man comes home after work and sits down for dinner. He takes a bite and his expression says the meal just doesn’t make it. The next day the anxious wife tells her neighbor about it, and the neighbor says something like, “Maybe it’s your cooking oil. Here, try my Crisco.” You get the idea. There were innumerable ads of this type in the 50s and 60s. Freberg turned that whole trope on its head with this Great American Soup commercial starring Ann Miller:

So what commercial made an impression on you when you were a kid, and why do you suppose it did? What storytelling lesson or technique can you find in it?

And a Happy Easter to all, no matter where you’re holed up!

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How Will Our Fiction Change Post Pandemic?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So I’m writing away on my WIP a couple of weeks ago when I suddenly stopped short (no, not the Seinfeld kind; the Hey, wait a second kind). What did it was a scene where my Lead gets introduced to someone and they shake hands.

Will anybody be doing that when this stinking, rotten, unprecedented pandemic and societal shutdown is over? I’ve heard several folks (including President Trump and Dr. Fauci) suggest that we should scrap handshakes altogether.

Wrap your mind around that. We’ve been shaking hands since Socrates was a baby. It is a way to say hello, make a deal, show good faith, express gratitude or admiration. The Civil War ended when Grant offered his hand to Lee and the two warriors shook. (On the other hand, some handshakes haven’t worked out so well. See Chamberlain, Neville, who declared “Peace in our time” after shaking hands with that Austrian paperhanger with the Charlie Chaplin mustache.)

Even if the handshake is not officially dispensed with, a large swath of people won’t do it anymore. This will have to be reflected in our fiction.

And what the heck will replace it? Please, please, I beg on my knees…not the elbow bump—the ugliest, ungainliest contortion outside a game of beer-bong Twister. Some are touting the Hindu namaste, a slight bow with both hands pressed over the heart. Others advocate the slight nod. Former hippies have resurrected the peace sign.

What will your characters do?

Hugs are also certain to go the way of the Blue-Footed Booby. Which makes me sad. I’m a hugger. If I know the person and haven’t seen them in awhile, I do the grizzly. I always give and get lots of hugs at church. But post-pan will people be too nervous to give or receive a hug?

How will social gatherings change? What if you have a scene in a baseball stadium, movie theater, or shopping mall? Our scenes will have to reflect the “new normal.” But what will that look like? What details will we need to emphasize?

What about the courtroom scene? Will they still pack a jury box? Will a criminal defendant who has been in the viral hothouse of the country jail be required to wear a mask?

How about restaurant scenes? Will servers wear gloves to go with their masks? And beauty salons and coffee houses—how will people space themselves in these venues? What will be happening on airplanes and buses and subways? What will folks be nervous about? Will a sneeze start a bar fight? Almost surely if a Raiders game is on.

If there is a Raiders game!

And what are we to do about little action beats like stroking the chin or rubbing the eyes? Careful, or you might get angry emails saying, “Your characters touch their faces! What are you teaching our children? Do you want to kill us all?”

Here’s another kettle of trout: the rules of romance. Will dates be dictated by distance? What’s a man supposed to do at the end of the evening? Will a kiss ever be just a kiss? Or will it be a negotiated transaction with terms, conditions, representations, and warranties?

Will a man who wants to get serious give his prospective lover flowers or a twelve pack of toilet paper?

Maybe love scenes will have to go like this:

Chase looked into Dakota’s eyes, eyes that said Yes and I don’t care about germs. He leaned forward then, reaching out tenderly, wantingly, and with a hand trembling with desire, he unhooked her mask.

I ask you: What changes do you foresee in our social habits post-pandemic? How will all this change our fiction? 

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Reader Friday: Description

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. (Darker Than Amber by John D. MacDonald)

Share one of your favorite examples of description from a novel.

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Let’s Have Some Fun

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Goodness knows, we need all the fun we can get right now. So in lieu of my usual craft column, I’m declaring today an official TKZ Fun Zone (TKZFZ). Let’s play a game.

The name of the game is Less Interesting Books. You take a well known title and change a word or two to come up with a not-so-compelling alternative. For example:

Moby Bob
The Mediocre Gatsby
Nathan’s Walk

That’s all there is to it. One rule: One title per comment (that way if someone wants to give you a high five, they can). If you come up with another title, just leave another comment. Clear?

Okay, boys and girls, let’s play!

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Write Tight

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Embed from Getty Images

Unless you’re writing literary fiction, where an expansive style is part of the experience (e.g., Thomas Wolfe), you should strive to write tight. You’re telling a story. Your goal is to draw readers into that story, fast, and keep them there. Every sentence should serve that purpose. Writing tight means no excessive prose, no over-padded paragraphs, nothing to get in the way of the fictive dream.

Now, this does not mean you can’t have what John D. MacDonald called “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. The key word is unobtrusive. It does its work pleasantly, then steps out of the way. Not this:

With sharp whetted hunger he thought of breakfast. He threw the sheet back cleanly, swung in an orbit to a sitting position and put his white somewhat phthisic feet on the floor. (Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe)

Eh? What? Is that a typo? Phthisic? What the heck is that? (It’s actually a word. You can look it up. Which is not a good way to write, sending readers to the dang dictionary!)

Instead, this:

The sun that brief December day shone weakly through the west-facing window of Garrett Kingsley’s office. It made a thin yellow oblong splash on his Persian carpet and gave up. (Pale Kings and Princes by Robert B. Parker)

So let’s look at some ways you can write tighter.

Cut Flab

In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein defined flab as “superfluous words and phrases.” Most flab comes in the form of adjectives and adverbs. Stein’s advice is to cut all the adjectives and adverbs in a manuscript, then readmit only “the necessary few after careful testing.”

As an example, I want to show you a sentence I read in a non-fiction article posted on a popular sports website. It had to do with NBA Mavericks owner Mark Cuban getting into hot water with the league (a habit with him):

Cuban felt the refs did his team dirty and ultimately blamed the officials for the Mavericks ultimately losing the game.

We’ll get to the repetition of the adverb ultimately in a moment. But first, does that word help this sentence in any way? No. It adds nothing but flab. How much stronger it is this way:

Cuban felt the refs did his team dirty and blamed the officials for the Mavericks losing the game.

And, of course, using that adverb twice in the same sentence is truly felonious. You need to watch for the same thing in your paragraphs, too. I call these…

Echoes

Take a look at this:

Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table, alone. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he just wanted to be left alone.

The repetition of alone is an echo. While it doesn’t violate any rule of grammar, it is what I would call a little “speed bump” that momentarily takes the reader out of the scene. The repeated sound is jarring.

The solution is simple: cut one of them. You could do it this way:

Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he just wanted to be left alone.

Or this way:

Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table, alone. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he didn’t want to talk to anybody.

The exception to this guideline is when you purposely want to emphasize a word, as in the following:

His shirt was black. His pants were black. His boots were even blacker, if that was possible. He looked like Johnny Cash at a funeral.

Dialogue

As I contend in my book on the subject, dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. An agent or editor, or reader for that matter, knows good dialogue because they’ve seen so much of the bad variety.

One of the marks of effective dialogue is compression. Unless there is a reason a character long winded, keep the dialogue tight and to the point.

The easiest way to do this is to cut words. You can almost always cut a word or two out of dialogue and make it sound better. Example:

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Max said.

“Well then, what do you suggest we do?” Henderson said.

“I don’t know, drive around to the back maybe.”

“That would be a stupid thing to do.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because that’s where all the cops will be.”

Can we tighten this up? I think we can:

“This isn’t a good idea,” Max said.

“What do you suggest?” Henderson said.

“Drive around the back maybe.”

“Stupid.”

“Why?”

“That’s where all the cops’ll be.”

Obviously you adjust according to the way your characters talk. But you will be amazed how much better your dialogue sounds when you trim the fat this way.

How would you describe your default writing style? When first drafting, do you tend to write long and cut? Or do you write lean and add? 

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