Successful Fiction Begins With a Great Concept


Joe’s excellent post on the magic words “What if?” got me thinking about the crucial importance of concept.
I was going through some old files the other day and came across this little scrap of paper from several years ago. I remember it well. I was on a trip to talk with my publisher at the time, Zondervan, and to pitch some projects.
I had an idea that had been chugging around my brain for awhile. It was based on two things. First, an uncomfortable encounter with someone from my past who was insistent on edging back into my life.
The other was the plot of one of my favorite novels, The Executioners by John D. MacDonald (basis of the Cape Fearfilms).
I put those two items together. This is a great method of coming up with plot ideas, by the way. Dean Koontz has been a master at this. For instance, Midnight,one of his best thrillers, is a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Koontz even references those titles in the book itself, to “wink” at the readers who recognize the plot lines. But the characters and setting are original creations. 
Anyway, I was in the hotel room in Grand Rapids and jotted this:

How far will a man go to protect his family? For lawyer Sam Trask, it’s farther than he ever thought possible. Because when an unwelcome presence from his past comes calling, bent on the destruction of his family, Sam must leave the civilized corners of the law and journey into the heart of darkness.


Not bad for an on-the-spot jot on Holiday Inn note paper. The concept was the basis of my novel No Legal Grounds (2007), which became a bestseller and is still one of my favorite thrillers.
The reason: concept. If you don’t get your concept solid and simple from the start, you’re likely to wander around in soggy bogs and down random rabbit trails.
A writing teacher once told me that the most successful movies and books are simple plots about complex characters. I think he has something there. You should be able to articulate your concept in a few lines.
A self-centered Southern belle is forced to fight for her home during and after the Civil War, even as she fights off the charms of a handsome rogue who looks exactly like Clark Gable.
To get back home, a Kansas farm girl has to kill a wicked witch in a land full of Munchkins and flying monkeys. Aided by a scarecrow, a tin man and a lion with issues, she faces dangers aplenty along a yellow brick road.

A vigilante nun cleans up the streets of L.A. Sinners beware. (Okay, I know, shameless. But it truly defines Force of Habit for me, and will for the entire series).
A simple, strong concept is your anchor, your floodlight in the darkness. It will keep you focused and writing scenes with organic unity.
In real estate, it’s location, location, location.
In fiction, it’s concept, concept, concept.
Make sure you know yours before you start writing.
***
I will be taking students from their concept through “sign post scenes” up to indestructible structure at my upcoming 2-day writing seminars. Would love to have you. Details can be found here.
0

Jump, and Figure Out What to Do When You’re Up There

Got an email some time ago from a guy I played high school basketball with. Nice to hear from him. Those were glory days. We had one of the best teams in the city. I wrote back and finished off my email with this: “We had a great team, didn’t we? A bunch of hard working, normal guys . . . and Jim Caruso.”

Caruso. He was a year ahead of me and clearly not wired the same as I was. I was dedicated to being an athlete. I didn’t smoke, drink, party or stay up late. Caruso was the exact opposite. 

To give you a picture, we were once playing in a winter league at another high school. We drove over to Pacific Palisades on Wednesday nights, played, drove home. To get there and back we had to take twisty Sunset Boulevard. 


So I was driving back once after a game. It was a cold night in the canyon, and I carefully guided my Ford Maverick along Sunset. Suddenly, a convertible comes tearing by me. I don’t remember who was driving, but I do remember who was in the passenger seat: Caruso, a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, his sweaty blond hair blowing in the wind. I remember he was laughing. 

The thing was, Caruso had all this natural athletic talent. He was about six feet tall and built like a bull. And that’s how he played basketball. He had one speed, full, and I don’t think he ever took a shot that looked the same as any other. He was at his best when driving the lane and jumping in the air…then figuring out what to do once he was up there. Which was usually something very cool that either ended up with the ball going through the hoop or off the wall.

This drove our coach, John Furlong, absolutely crazy. Furlong was a strict disciplinarian and team-oriented coach. He yelled a lot. He got red faced mad at you if you messed up too badly. None of us wanted to be on the wrong side of Coach Furlong.

Except Caruso. He just didn’t seem to care. No matter how mad Furlong got at him, Caruso would take it silently, then go out on the floor and pretty soon do the same thing again. Which was why Furlong wouldn’t start him. But he couldn’t keep him on the bench for long because, despite everything, Caruso was too good not to be in the game, scoring points and grabbing rebounds. 

It was impossible not to like him. He had this infectious smile and he seemed to go through life with a certain damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead kind of joy. In pickup games he’d always be laughing, joking, talking smack and slapping you on the butt when you did something good.  
Jim Caruso graduated in my junior year. The next year we had another great team at Taft High, this one disciplined and predictable, much to the relief of Coach Furlong. Still, I couldn’t help feeling our team lacked a certain, what’s the word, exuberance? I missed seeing Caruso cutting through the key, doing his thing, a thing uniquely his own.

Then one Saturday I was in the gym shooting around and a fellow teammate came in.

“Hey,” he said, “did you hear about Caruso?”

I stopped shooting. “No, what?” I figured maybe he’d been picked up on a DUI or something.

“He’s dead,” my friend said.

I just stared at him, stunned. 

“Killed in a car accident,” he said. 

And I immediately remembered that night I saw Caruso in the convertible, and thought maybe this wasn’t such a shock after all. In fact, looking back, it was both sad and oddly predictable. That year, in our high school yearbook, there was one of those “In Memory Of” pages for students who’d died. It was the last any of us would ever see of Caruso, and that was hard to believe.

I don’t know what was going on in Jim Caruso’s life. The only thing we had in common was basketball. It was enough. I didn’t want to emulate his off the court antics. What I did want to do, when the situation was right, was go for the wild shot, the totally improvised move, just to see what happened. I knew you couldn’t play a whole game that way, but you at least needed to have that kind of fearlessness in your arsenal. 

I draw an analogy to writing here. Discipline, fundamentals and hard work are still the keys, but you have to be willing to “go for it” sometimes. You have to jump in the air and figure out what to do when you’re up there. Fearless.

I still have this indelible picture of Jim Caruso. It was in a pickup game, the first time I’d ever played with him, just before I started at Taft. His name had been whispered to me. Everybody knew about Caruso. I was a little bit intimidated at the prospect of playing with him. But then we started the game and I remember just watching him, marveling at his raw ability. Crunch time came and the game was tied. Caruso did his thing, driving toward the hoop and jumping up with a taller guy all over him. He seemed to hang in the air for a full minute. His legs were splayed and his left elbow (he was a lefty) stuck out like divining rod. And then somehow, some way, he got off a hook shot (it was the only shot available to him) and it banked off the backboard and through the net.

And he came down laughing and turned around and looked at me as if to say, “See? That’s how it’s done, son.”
And sometimes, it is.


0

Creativity: Invoking the Gods or Madness


Looks like the source of Creativity has been an ongoing discussion for ages. Poets in ancient Greek and Roman times invoked gods to assist in their writing. (Can’t say much has changed there.) What I found fascinating is that many believe psychotic-ism causes creativity. Even Aristotle claimed that there was never a genius without a tincture of madness. And, that’s a direct quote.


Makes me feel rather distinguished as a creative being–though I am not crazy enough to consider myself genius.

There has been active debate on whether creative genius is dependent on mental illness or insanity. This debate continues further by stating that madness alone cannot suffice as Source for creativity. Nay, nay. An openness to experience, intelligence and wisdom complete the mysterious formula. They are actually writing papers on the subject. The bottom line: Creative people make creativity a way of life.

We can all name artists, musicians, writers, scientists, etc. who inspire us with their fascinating and divergent thinking. (Look at our own Basil Sands, for goodness sake.) The argument for creative personalities presented by Hal Lancaster during the late 90’s in The Wall Street Journal stated six basic qualities exist:

1. Keen powers of observation.
2. Restless curiosity.
3. An ability to recognize issues that others miss.
4. An ability to generate numerous ideas.
5. Persistently questioning the norm.
6. A talent for seeing established structures in new ways.

Do you see yourself in any or all of the above? I do, which is fun. But, what really appeals to me is the recurring theme of madness in creative beings. After all, if you’re considered a little crazy you need no excuses for your behavior. I like that.

So, I am trying out my creative juices in a new location for awhile. I am writing to you from Santiago, Chile today. My Muse is having a field day. We’re eating foreign foods, seeing exotic places and conversing in my pitiful Spanish as much as possible. I’m getting funny looks and lots of laughs. So, I’m pretty sure I am doing something right!

Once again, which of the 6 traits above is your strongest? You’re favorite? Inquiring minds want to know!

Cao for now!



0

Creativity: Invoking the Gods or Madness


Looks like the source of Creativity has been an ongoing discussion for ages. Poets in ancient Greek and Roman times invoked gods to assist in their writing. (Can’t say much has changed there.) What I found fascinating is that many believe psychotic-ism causes creativity. Even Aristotle claimed that there was never a genius without a tincture of madness. And, that’s a direct quote.


Makes me feel rather distinguished as a creative being–though I am not crazy enough to consider myself genius.

There has been active debate on whether creative genius is dependent on mental illness or insanity. This debate continues further by stating that madness alone cannot suffice as Source for creativity. Nay, nay. An openness to experience, intelligence and wisdom complete the mysterious formula. They are actually writing papers on the subject. The bottom line: Creative people make creativity a way of life.

We can all name artists, musicians, writers, scientists, etc. who inspire us with their fascinating and divergent thinking. (Look at our own Basil Sands, for goodness sake.) The argument for creative personalities presented by Hal Lancaster during the late 90’s in The Wall Street Journal stated six basic qualities exist:

1. Keen powers of observation.
2. Restless curiosity.
3. An ability to recognize issues that others miss.
4. An ability to generate numerous ideas.
5. Persistently questioning the norm.
6. A talent for seeing established structures in new ways.

Do you see yourself in any or all of the above? I do, which is fun. But, what really appeals to me is the recurring theme of madness in creative beings. After all, if you’re considered a little crazy you need no excuses for your behavior. I like that.

So, I am trying out my creative juices in a new location for awhile. I am writing to you from Santiago, Chile today. My Muse is having a field day. We’re eating foreign foods, seeing exotic places and conversing in my pitiful Spanish as much as possible. I’m getting funny looks and lots of laughs. So, I’m pretty sure I am doing something right!

Once again, which of the 6 traits above is your strongest? You’re favorite? Inquiring minds want to know!

Cao for now!



0

What Gives Me the Writing Heebie Jeebies



heebie-jeebies |ˈhēbē ˈjēbēz|, pl. n., a state of nervous fear or anxiety


I love almost everything about writing fiction.
Getting the idea is the most fun. I can come up with concepts all day long. Ideas constantly pop into my head, or I’ll see something on the street that gets me asking, “What if . . . ?” I write these down put them in an electronic file. Every so often I go over the ideas and cut-and-paste the best ones into a document called “Front Burner Concepts.”
Eventually one of these grabs hold and says, “I’m the one, Dude.” And then I’m totally jazzed. Because starting a book with a killer idea is like falling in love. The writing of a first draft is the first year of marriage. You’re committed. You’ve still got glow. It’s young love and that keeps you going, keeps you bringing flowers to the project all the way through.
Then comes the editing process. This is like marriage counseling. Now you’ve got to work to keep you and your story together. There are problems to address. And if you’ve received an advance, divorce is out of the question. But with time and patience and some give-and-take, you’ve got your final draft done.
And then . . .
I just received the page proofs from my publisher for the next book in my Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law series. The title is The Year of Eating Dangerously and it takes Mallory through a full year of dealing with her brain-consuming ways while defending the downtrodden in the courtrooms of Los Angeles.
This is where I get the heebie jeebies. This is the last time I’ll get a crack at the book before it goes to the bookstores and readers.
Which is why I never read any of my books once they’re in print. I’m too afraid I’ll find a mistake, or something I wish I’d phrased differently. At least with digital self-publishing one can make changes fairly easily. But in the traditional world, usually it’s one-and-out.
So, dear reader, send up a good thought for your humble correspondent as he takes pencil to page . . . and trembles.
What part of the writing process do you dearly love . . . or dread? 


0

How I Went From Idea to Story

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell

I used to say this: It’s not a lie if somebody isn’t owed the truth. I don’t say that anymore. One More Lie
I am pleased to announce the publication of my new suspense collection, ONE MORE LIE. It’s available on Kindle, Nookand Smashwords.  You can view the trailer here.
This collection includes the title novella and three new stories. I thought it might be instructive to tell you how I went from idea to story for the novella.
There are various creative exercises I use to come up with story possibilities. One of my favorites is the first line game. You make up a bunch of intriguing first lines all at once and see where they lead. I learned this from Dean Koontz in his classic HOW TO WRITE BESTSELLING FICTION. Koontz himself once wrote the line: “You ever killed anything?” Roy asked. He didn’t know anything else, but the line grabbed him and eventually he turned it into the hit novel The Voice of the Night.
For ONE MORE LIE, I actually got a first chapteridea. So I wrote it. I liked it so much I put it in my “active file” to noodle on later.
It stayed there for about a year as I worked on other projects, primarily those for which I had been paid, the publishers having the perfectly quaint notion that I therefore owed them a book.
But every now and again I’d return to that opening and think about it.
The day came when I had a window of time and decided to give it a whirl. So what I did was this:
1. Fleshed out the main characters. In this case there were four, and I spent time coming up with relationships and backstory. That in turn suggested further plot developments. I call this “orchestration” and it’s one of the most important things a writer can do with a new idea.
2. I experimented with POV. I had originally written the opening in 3d person. Sometimes I’ll switch POV to see how it feels. In this case, I decided that First Person was a better fit. My previous novella, WATCH YOUR BACK, was written in that sort of James M. Cain style I like, so I went with the same for ONE MORE LIE.
3. I let the plot unfold as I wrote, but took notes and outlined as I went. This is a “rolling outline” that enables you to think ahead during the writing process itself. It allows a certain freedom in plot while at the same time you’re building a solid structure. One benefit is that a particular twist happened out of the blue that completely changed the direction of the story and gave it the deeper dimension I was looking for.
4. I completed a first draft, let it sit, then printed it out in hard copy for my first read through. I take minimal notes at this stage, wanting to have a “reading experience” first. Then I assessed the big picture and revised it.
5. I gave it to my beta readers, starting with my lovely wife, who has a great editorial eye. I got terrific notes back. One of the readers did the copy edit for me.
6. I prepared it for e-publication, sent it out to be formatted. My son wanted to take a stab at designing the cover, and who was I to argue? The price was right. As in zip.

7. My son, a film grad, also did the trailer. For that I bought him dinner.
The result is a novella that got this advance copy blurb from Ane Mulligan of Novel Rocket: “James Scott Bell is at his best in One More Lie. Fast paced, this novella will leave you breathless to the unforeseen end. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. Novel Rocket and I give it our highest recommendation. It’s a must read!”
And I still love that first chapter. So I’ve put it up online and invite you to read it. If you feel compelled to read on (and I think you will be) then for $2.99 you can get the whole thing, plus three other stories to boot. No contests. No gimmicks. Just bang for your reading buck. That’s what I’m going for every time out.
Now I want to know about YOU. How do you like to generate and nourish ideas? When do you know you’re ready to take one to the max and write? 
0

A Clean Desk Policy?

I seem doomed to have my writing environment in constant upheaval. Today we had workmen jackhammering up tile in the downstairs part of the house that got flooded and so I had no wifi, no room to get to my desk (because all the furniture is still stacked up in my study) and a whole lot of dust to clean up. Now, I am hardly the type to have a clean desk policy but this is getting ridiculous!

I remember the law firm I worked for in Melbourne many years ago tried to impose a strict clean desk policy. You were not supposed to have a scrap of work on your desk at the end of the day. Needless to say I failed miserably. I am a woman who works in ‘piles’ and if I don’t have these prominent situated around my office I can’t for the life of me remember what I am supposed to be doing. I was lucky that the partner who I worked for at the time, a very anally retentive lawyer with a spotless desk, took pity on me and let me continue in my dirty, piled up paper, working fashion. Apparently, he said, he couldn’t really fault me as I managed to work just as efficiently despite the mess. Although I would much rather work in a clean office environment, just as I think everyone else would too as it would allow us to get more work done. I might have to ask my manager if we can buy from Green Facilities or somewhere similar to ensure that our office remains as clean as possible.

I was pleased to read that this phenomenon is borne out in a book called The Perfect Mess by Dave Freedman and Eric Abrahamson which contends that those with cluttered, messy desks are often more efficient and creative than their neatnik brethren. Since my desk always looks like a disaster zone I think I am going to stick with the Freedman/Abrahamson interpretation…but nonetheless I have to wonder whether most writers are like me – or whether I am just deluding myself that disorder is merely a sign of a great author in the making.

As it is, I am always surrounded by piles of research and printed out copies of the latest manuscript. Currently I have marked up copies of part one of my young adult WIP, a pile of articles on Orphic mythology, notebooks with scrawls for two new projects I am contemplating, an atlas of WWI with post it notes spilling forth, files relating to my sons’ school stuff I need to attend to, and a messy pile of handwritten notes with a revised plot outline in progress.

So what about my fellow writers? Do you, like me, have a messy desk full of piles of paper or are you a neat freak with everything organized and de-cluttered for the sake of productivity and sanity? What do you think, is a messy desk a sign of creativity or just plain slovenliness?


– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
0

Hanging Upside Down and Other Creative Moves

by James Scott Bell

Well, it is indeed Dan Brown week in the world of publishing, as our own Joe Moore and John Ramsey Miller have attested. And that’s a good thing. The business needs a shot in the arm. We need to see hardcovers flying off the shelves again. We need people sitting around Starbucks talking fiction, getting caught up in a story world.

There’s been a lot of chatter about the phenomenon of The Lost Symbol, as there was for The Da Vinci Code. But today I’d like to focus on another aspect of this event: the author himself.

This latest book was not easy for Mr. Brown. I mean, how do you follow a once-in-a-lifetime hit like TDVC? That book’s particular mix of vast religious conspiracy, symbology and fast paced action went spinning around on the wheel of fortune and hit the jackpot.

Brown cops to the pressure of following up. Regarding the long lag time between TDVC and The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown was quoted in the L.A. Times as follows:

“The thing that happened to me and must happen to any writer who’s had success is that I temporarily became very self-aware. Instead of writing and saying, ‘This is what the character does,’ you say, ‘Wait, millions of people are going to read this.’ … You’re temporarily crippled….[later] The furor died down, and I realized that none of it had any relevance to what I was doing. I’m just a guy who tells a story.”

Writers, attend to this. What happened to Dan Brown on a mega level happens to most writers who publish more than one book. A lot of unpublished writers think things will be just swell once they’re published, and they can produce book after book with nary a worry.

The truth is, writing fiction gets harder because we continue to raise the bar on ourselves. We do, that is, if we truly care about the craft. We know more about what we do with each book, and where we fall short. We hope we have a growing readership, and want to keep pleasing them, surprising them, delighting them with plot twists, great characters and a bit of stylistic flair.

But we can’t stroll down the aisle of “Plots R Us” and choose something fresh, right out of the box. (Although Erle Stanley Gardner was known to use a complex “plot wheel.” I guess he did okay. And, FWIW, Slate came up with its own plot generator for those truly desperate to cash in on the Dan Brown phenomenon). We are on a never ending quest for concepts, characters and plot. No matter how many books we’ve done, we keep aspiring to the next level.

Dan Brown reportedly deals with all this by using gravity shoes. He hangs upside down, letting the blood rush to his head. Bats use the same method. But there are other options.

Whenever you are wondering if you’ve got the stuff to be published (or, if published, to stay that way), let me offer a few helps.

1. Write. This is the most important thing of all. Get “black on white,” as Maupassant used to say. Even if you feel like pond scum as an artist, just start writing. If you can’t possibly face a page of your project, write a free form journal about something in your past. Begin with “I remember . . .” Pretty soon, you’ll feel like getting back to your novel.

2. Re-read. Pull out a favorite novel, one that really moved you. Read parts of it at random, or even the whole thing. Don’t worry about feeling even worse because you think you can’t write like that author. You’re not supposed to. You never can. But guess what? He can’t write like you, either.

3. Incubate. For half an hour think hard about your project, writing notes to yourself, asking questions. Back yourself into tight corners. Then put all that away for a day and do something else. Walk. Swim. Work your day job. Stuff will be bubbling in your “writer’s brain.” The next day, write.

4. Turn off your Internet browser for a whole day. By which I mean, of course, first read The Kill Zone, then turn off the Net and write. Forget emails, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, or anybody else’s space. A bit of downtime from all the noise is good for focus.

Mental landmines abound for writers. The key is not to let any of them stop you from writing, even if you have to hang upside down to do it.

So how do you get yourself going when the going gets tough?

0

Dreams and your writing

Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have come up with the plot for Dr. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde during a dream.

I may never hatch the Great American Novel in a dream, but I recently discovered the importance of dreaming to my creative process.

I’ve always been an on-the-nose dreamer. There are few hidden messages in my dreams. If, in my day job, I’m trying to solve a gnarly problem related to the worldwide web, I will dream of battling a giant spider web (get it?). If in real life I’m trying to stop eating sugar, I’ll dream about diving into a pint of Chunky Monkey. And so on.

My dreams, while challenging, invariably end on an upbeat note. I may spend the night outwitting shotgun-toting bad guys, but somehow, the dream always ends with my escape. I’m quite the REM-state John McClane, with the requisite nine lives.

But then came the day when I temporarily stopped dreaming, thanks to the Happy Blue Pills. And all of a sudden, it became much harder to get the creative juices flowing. The words came more slowly. I had no energy for writing.
At the time, I had no idea what was causing my writer’s block. I was getting plenty of sleep, right?

Then one night, I forgot to take the sleeping pill. That night, I dreamed for the first time in weeks. And for the first time in weeks, I woke up thinking about my story. And I began to write.

Phew! It seemed miraculous. That was the morning I poured all the little blue pills down the garbage disposal.

I did a little research, and found little hard data to back me up on this, but my theory now is that nocturnal dreaming is essential to the creative process.

So I’d like to know from other writers and creative types: do you dream at night? A lot? Do dreams help you solve story problems directly, ever? Do you dream in color (which used to be considered the hallmark of creative people)?

0