Don’t Kill Your Thrills With Premise Implausibility



Last week I wrote about the most important rule for thriller writers to follow, namely:
Never allow any of your main characters to act like idiots in order to move or wrap up your plot!
I think I spoke to soon. There is a second rule that is of equal import: the overall premise of the thriller must be justified in a way that is a) surprising, and yet b) makes perfect sense. 
This is not easy. Otherwise, everybody would be writing The Sixth Sense every time out. Not even M. Night Shyamalan is writing The Sixth Sense every time out! 
So what can we do to up our chances of getting our thriller ending right?
1. Think About Your Contractual Obligation 
Thriller readers will accept almost any premise at the start. They are willing to suspend their disbelief unless and until you dash that suspension with preposterousness. In other words, the readers are on your side. They’re pulling for you. You have entered, therefore, into an implied contract with them. They suspend disbelief, and you pay that off with a great ending. 
I often hear writers say things like, “Oh, I’ve got a great premise. I don’t know how it’s going to end, but it will have to end sometime. And if I don’t know how it’s going to end, then surely the readers won’t guess!” 
That is called, in philosophical discourse, a non-sequitur (meaning, “it does not follow”). I can name one big-name author right now whose last book was excoriated by readers because it had a great set-up, and hundreds of pages of suspense, and then was absolutely ridiculous at the end. I won’t name said author because I believe in the fellowship, and I know how hard this thriller stuff is to pull off. 
Nevertheless, I’ve heard said writer say (he/she/it) does not worry about how something’s going to end until (he/she/it) gets there. And said author has paid the price for it. 

2. Build the Opponent’s “Ladder”
A thriller or mystery does not begin with the hook, the body, or the Lead character’s introduction. In your story world, it always begins in the past with the Opponent’s scheme. (NOTE: this is not where you begin your book. It’s what you, the author, should know before your book begins). 
Erle Stanley Gardner plotted his mysteries with what he called “The Murderer’s Ladder.” It starts with the bottom rung and runs up to the top. There are 10 rungs:
10. Eliminating overlooked clues and loose threads
9. The false suspect
8. The cover up
7. The flight
6. The actual killing
5. The first irretrievable step
4. The opportunity
3. The plan
2. The temptation
1. The motivation
So what you, the writer, need to work out is, first, the motive for the scheme. This is in the heart and mind of the opponent. He is then tempted to action, makes a plan, looks for opportunity, etc. When Perry Mason gets on the case, with the help of detective Paul Drake, they look for clues along the rungs of the ladder, the place where the opponent might have made a mistake. 
The point of all this is, when you build your own ladder for the opponent, it will not only help your premise makes sense, it will give you all sorts of ideas for plot twists and red herrings.
3. Write the Opponent’s Closing Argument 
This is an exercise I give in my writing workshops. It’s simple yet powerful. At some point in your plotting, whether you are an outliner or a “pantser,” pause and put your opposition character in a courtroom. He is representing himself before a jury, and must now give a closing argument that attempts to justify why he did what he did. 
This step rounds out your opponent, gives him added dimensions, perhaps even a touch of sympathy. It also keeps you from the dreaded moustache-twirling villain. No stereotypes, please. 
I see a pantser in the back row, raising her hand. “Yes, ma’am?” 
“I just can’t write that way! I have to discover as I go along!” 
“And you know what you’ll discover? That you have to force an ending onto all that material you’ve come up with. So you’ll go back and try to change, mix and match, but will then discover there are too many plot elements you can’t alter without changing everything else around it, so you’ll end up compromising at the end. Sometimes you’ll make it, but even popular writers who do it this way only bat around .400 on their endings. But if you follow the three steps above, your pantsing writer’s mind will still be able to play, but play with a purpose.” 
“But . . .but . . .” 
“But me no buts! This isn’t easy, you know. If it was, celebrities wouldn’t hire ghost writers when they try to cash in on the thriller market!” 
Make sense? Have you ever found yourself backed into premise implausibility? What did you do about it? 

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How to Make Money Self-Publishing Fiction

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


Last week’s post on publishing options drew some spirited responses, especially from one of TKZ’s erstwhile contributors. In his opinion, self-publishing is an exercise in frustration and a path to near-assured failure for first-time authors.”

Now, I have great affection and respect for said commenter, who argues well for his point of view. But I was nonetheless discomfited by that “near-assured failure.” Been thinking about it all week. What does “failure” even mean? Who sets the standard? If a new author finds a way to make steady but not huge income, is that “failure”? If a new author keeps working and growing as a writer, is that “failure”? On the other hand, might it possibly be said that self-publishing, done consistently and skillfully, can actually lead to near-assured success? What is “success”? Is it a loyal readership, even if it pales in comparison to Dean Koontz’s (well, every readership pales in comparison to Dean Koontz’s)? Is it the happinessthat comes from writing and publishing more, faster, being in control of one’s destiny and, yes, making some money at it?

This led me to reflect, yet again, on the writers I admire most: the professionals of the old pulp days. I’ve been on record for a long time stating that this new digital age is like the pulp era, only with more opportunity and potentially better pay. But it requires a certain kind of writer. One like Erle Stanley Gardner (1889 – 1970).


Gardner is best know as the creator of Perry Mason. When he hit on that character and that formula, he was set for life. But what most people don’t know is how hard he worked to get there. He was a practicing lawyer in the 1920s, and was looking for a way to make money on the side. Writing for the exploding market in detective and crime fiction seemed promising. 

He set out to do it the only way he knew how––full speed ahead. His output was, as he described it later, “man killing.” One hundred thousand words a month. A month. Over a million words a year, for at least ten years. (And much of it while he was still practicing law).

He did manage to sell some stories, but not enough to please him. Then one day he realized he did not know how to plot. His stories were merely “event combinations.” Lawyer that he was, he set out to find out how to write plots that sold (I resonate with this, because I was a practicing lawyer when I set out to learn the same thing!)

Boy, did he ever get it. And he kept up his prodigious output until he was a mainstay of famous pulps like Black Mask. Then, in 1933, came The Case of the Velvet Claws and the

introduction of Perry Mason. There was no looking back. At one time Gardner was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the bestselling author who ever lived.


While the success that Gardner achieved is rare for writers of any stripe, his example and work ethic can be replicated today. More and more authors are doing a nice business self-pubbing. I’m not just talking about the “stars” like Hugh Howey, Bella Andre and the newest sensation, Colleen Hoover. I’m talking about people you’ve never heard of, and who don’t really mind that because they have plenty of readers who have.

So how do you self-publish fiction successfully? Learn the following lessons from Erle Stanley Gardner. (Note: The info in this post comes from the biography of Gardner by Dorothy B. Hughes.)

1. Treat it like a job

For Gardner and other successful pulpsters, writing was a job, especially during the Depression. They had to eat. They didn’t have time to sit around the coffee bar ruminating about theories of literature. They actually had to produce stories, lots of them. They studied the markets (and wrote in popular genres, like detective and Western) and pounded the keys of their manual typewriters. Gardner was a two-finger typist and had to put adhesive tape on his tips because they would start to bleed. (This is one reason he later turned to dictating his stories, having them transcribed by a team of secretaries).

Seeing writing as a professional pursuit, Gardner reflected on his previous work in the sales field. “I had always told our salesmen that if a man had drive enough, if he kept on punching doorbells, sooner or later he would make his quota of sales. I guess the same thing applies to story writing. I know it did in my case.”

It can in your case, too. Volume is a key to success in self-publishing fiction. That, and learning a few business basics and strategies.

2. Treat it like a craft

When Gardner kept getting rejection slips that said “plot too thin,” he knew he had to learn how to do it. After much study he said he “began to realize that a story plot was composed of component parts, just as an automobile is.” He began to build stories, not just make them up on the fly. He made a list of parts and turned those into “plot wheels” which was a way of coming up with innumerable combinations. He was able, with this system, to come up with a complete story idea in thirty seconds.

Learning to plot stories that sell can be done, because Gardner did it, and I did it. And I wrote a book about it. It’s called Plot & Structure.

Gardner also wrote in various lengths. Successful self-publishing writers write short stories and novellasas well as full novels. Keep learning and growing as a writer. 

3. Treat it like a sacrifice

There’s an old saying about the law, that it is a “jealous mistress.” To be any good as a lawyer demands time and sacrifice. Gardner knew he had to be productive to make real money, so he set a quota for himself of 5,000 words a day. If he missed a day due to a trial or other legal matter, he would make up the difference on another day.

I am often asked what the single best piece of writing advice I ever got was, and I always say, Write to a quota. I write six days a week, and take Sundays off. It’s worked for me for over twenty years. Virtually no one can write 5,000 words a day like Gardner. And of course most writers have day jobs and family responsibilities. So the key is to figure out what you can produce and commit to doing that week in and week out.

This is my standard suggestion: Figure out what you can comfortably write per week, given your particular circumstances. It doesn’t matter the number, just find it. Then up that by 10% and divide into six days. Make that your goal. Keep a record on a spreadsheet that tracks your daily writing and turns it into weekly totals. It will give you confidence to see those numbers adding up throughout the year.

Be prepared to give some things up (TV is a jealous mistress, too) in order to find time to write.

4. Treat it like a mad passion

You’ve got to be a little nuts if you want to be a professional writer. In those early years, Gardner said, “I would work until one, one-thirty or two o’clock in the morning when I would be so dog-tired that I would stop to rest and would fall asleep in the chair and have nightmares, dreaming for the most part about the characters in the story, waking up a few seconds later all confused as to what was in the story and what had been in my dream. At that time I would go to bed. I would sleep for about three hours a night, waking up around five or five-thirty in the morning. Then I would take a shower, shave, pull up my typewriter and write until it came time to go to the office.”

Now, I don’t suggest a madness of that magnitude! I find it inspiring, but also know I could never keep a schedule like that (well, maybe if I was twenty-five and unmarried . . .) But dip your quill into Gardner’s passion and scribble some of it on your writing soul. And embrace the fact that you are part of a grand fellowship of the mad, the storytellers, the weavers of dreams.

5. Treat it like an adventure right up to the end

A favorite anecdote about Gardner, when he was selling some but not enough, occurred after he felt he finally “got it” about plotting. He sent a story to Black Mask with this note: “If you have any comments on it, put them on the back of a check.” Gardner knew he had reached a place of consistent sales, was in this for the long haul, and would never stop writing.

Do you know that about yourself? Are you in this thing to the finish? Make that decision now, and you have a chance to become successful self-publishing fiction.

Gardner completed his last Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Fabulous Fake, six months before his death. Cancer caught up with him. He was hospitalized a few times. But he kept working on a non-fiction book about crime. His editor at Morrow sent him a note suggesting he might want to slow down. Gardner sent one back: “You should know Gardner by now . . . when I get enthusiastic about something, I put the whole machinery into operation.”

Erle Stanley Gardner died on March 11, 1970. He had made some autobiographical notes before his death. The last words were these: “My life is filled with color and always has been. I want adventure. I want variety. I want something to look forward to . . . The one dividend we are sure of is the opportunity to have beautiful daydreams . . . . This is as it should be. This is the color of life. I love it.”

If you want to self-publish fiction, and make some money at it, do it the Gardner way. Love life, love writing, put your “whole machinery” into action, and never shut down the operation.

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What Would You Want in Your Writer Bio?

 

 
JAMES SCOTT BELL was born August 10, 1912, in Arlington, Kansas. His father worked for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway, but quit in 1918 and moved his family of ten to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to work the oil fields. When Jim wasn’t in school or working odd jobs, he was reading Zane Gray, Edgar Rice Burroughs and pulp magazines like Black Mask.
When the Depression hit, Jim rode the rails to Los Angeles and got a job as a cub reporter for the Hearst newspaper, The Examiner. By day he tracked down stories of murder, fraud and corruption. By night, in his one room apartment on Bunker Hill, he pounded out short stories for the detective magazines. He was published almost immediately alongside such luminaries as Horace McCoy, Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett. When his crime novella, One More Lie, hit the racks, Jim garnered instant national fame. The story sold to MGM and became the classic 1941 film starring Joan Crawford and Robert Taylor.
Jim became one of the most sought after screenwriters in Hollywood and contributed as much as anyone to the post World War II film noir genre. He continued to put out suspense stories for the paperback original market and pulp magazines.
In 1952 Jim and Robert Mitchum got into a fight with two henchman of mobster Mickey Cohen, who had been bothering a cigarette girl at the Brown Derby. One of the thugs pulled out a .38 and shot wildly, hitting Jim just above the heart. At the hospital Jim refused sedation and insisted that a studio secretary be summoned so he could dictate the final pages of a screenplay due the next day. That script went on to win an Academy Award.
Jim kept up his prodigious output of short stories, novellas, full length books and screenplays right up to his death at the age of 99. He had just typed The End on a novel when his heart gave out. His last words were, “Don’t forget the mayonnaise.” 
Here is a picture of James Scott Bell in his office at Warner Bros. in 1947.
 
# # #
 
This flight of fancy is based on how I feelas a writer. I always admired the pros, the ones who could deliver the goods time after time. The writers who wrote to make a living and yet found a way to make their writing come alive.
What about you? If you could write your own writer biography, and it could be from any era, what would it look like? What sorts of books would you have written? Who would be in the movies based on your books?
This is not a  mere game. Use this exercise to focus on your long term goals as a writer. Ask yourself how your imaginative bio might inform your writing today.
Go ahead. What are some of the entries in YOUR writer’s biography?
NOTE: I wrote a little bit more of my philosophy of pulp fiction writing over on Rachelle Gardner’s blog
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I Feel Like a New Man

James Scott Bell
twitter.com/jamesscottbell


My next print book will be issued under a pseudonym.

In the past, there were various reasons writers chose to publish with pen names. Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle; Strangers When We Meet) always considered himself a “literary writer.” To earn some extra dough he wrote police procedurals under an alias so the critics would not look at his “serious” work with a jaundiced eye. But as Ed McBain he produced a remarkable run of noir that made him a multi-millionaire. The truth came out eventually, though Evan was probably always a little jealous of Ed.
Some writers wanted to have more books published per year than a single contract would allow. Dean Koontz at one time was writing under nine or ten pseudonyms, including a female guise. He wisely got the rights back to those early works and re-released many of them under his own name after he became a mega-bestseller.
Stephen King wrote some novels under the name Richard Bachman. He says his reason was to see if he could “do it again,” by which he meant find success from the ground floor. He wanted to show that his status as a bestselling author was not the product of pure luck. His experiment was starting to show some results until a suspicious bookstore clerk outed him. So King “killed” Bachman, which was a pretty funny way to end the line.
Then there is protection of a “brand.” Agatha Christie was hugely popular as a mystery writer. Her name on a book meant clues and suspects and sleuths. So when she wanted to do romances she adopted the name Mary Westmacott to keep readers from confusion or frustration.
My own reason for taking on a pseudonym is quite simple: I don’t want the heads of my established readership to explode.
You see, my new book is different from my brand. Boy Howdy, is it different. Imagine Hemingway deciding to write for Madmagazine––that sort of different.
But this is a book, and series, I wanted to write. Plus, I now have this added authorial benefit: I get to write as two people, which I find very cool. I will be issuing books under two names, not one.
See, I loved those old pulp days when writers like Erle Stanley Gardner (aka A. A. Faire) were turning out the work, pounding their typewriters long into the night. I always thought I’d have fit in perfectly in the 1930s writing for Black Mask and Dime Detective and then putting out novels and getting called to Hollywood and hanging out at Musso’s with Chandler and Faulkner and Ben Hecht, writing legendary dialogue for Billy Wilder and Jacques Tourneur, and talking back to Harry Cohn and getting fired, then getting re-discovered in the 60s and going legend, writing into my nineties while college kids tracked me down for interviews.
Or something along those lines. One dreams.
But this is now and I am here, and I’m just thankful I get to play in a new genre.
So what is my new name, and what is the book that will have it on the cover? Well, I write suspense so . . .
 . . .I will reveal all next week.
Meantime, would you ever consider using a pseudonym? For what purpose?
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