Why Do You Want to be a Writer?

by James Scott Bell

Shakespear in Love

Why do you want to be a writer?

It’s a question worth pondering deeply, because your answer may be the key to your chances for success.

Back in the old days, before 2007(!), if someone would have told me that they wanted to write fiction to make a lot of money, I would have advised them to become an electrician instead. Because when I started in this business in the early 1990s, I knew the chance to make a living wage from fiction was really low. You know, sort of like the Jim Carrey line in Dumb and Dumber. “So you’re telling me there is a chance!”

I think the statistic was that the median income from fiction writing was about $5,000 a year. Sure, there were the blockbusters––John Grisham, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Danielle Steel. But they were as rare as a sober wedding crasher.

Which is why I smiled at the advice Lawrence Block used to give. He’d say if you want to write a novel, take two aspirin and lie down and wait for the feeling to pass. Only if it persisted should you think about writing a novel.

In those days would-be writers huddled in the Dark Forest looking out with awe and fear at the impregnable walls of the Forbidden City. It was inside those walls that the New York publishing industry went about its business. There was also a massive, secured gate and a slew of gatekeepers guarding the place. These gatekeepers were called agents. To get invited inside the walls you first had to get one of those gatekeepers to take an interest in you. Writers would slink out of the Dark Forest and hand a gatekeeper some pages, then run back in and wait for a message of hope to arrive via carrier pigeon.

Which it rarely did.

But even if you got inside and became one of the favored few to be hired to push the grindstone of published fiction, there were no guarantees of long term monetary success. Many a writer whose product failed in the market was cast back over the walls, like that cow in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Then, in November of 2007, over in a distant part of the Dark Forest, a fire started. Fittingly, it was called the Kindle –– an e-reader for looking at books in digital form!

Monty Python cow

Behind the walls of the Forbidden City, with its printing presses churning, there was skepticism. Digital reading had been tried before, most notably by Sony, and had failed to catch on. People obviously preferred physical books, and always would!

What they didn’t realize was that this fire was spreading, and scores of writers in the Dark Forest were being warmed and fed. The digital self-publishing revolution had begun.

And proceeds apace, leaving open the question: Why do you want to be a writer?

Let me say this up front: there is nothing wrong with writing to try to make dough. That’s what many of the old-time writers did, especially during the pulp era. They saw a market and they wrote for that market, and if they were good they could eke out a living. See my recent post here.

But the ones who made it big, or lasted a long time in the game, were those who provided something more in their stories than just plot and character.

That more, I’ve been thinking of late, is love.

Now, before you put me down as a soft-soap, touchy-feely, pop-psych, flowered-shirt-wearing, encounter-session guru, let me explain.

I knew I had to try to become a writer one day back in 1988. I’d spent my first five years out of college trying to make it big as an actor. And I was good! You know how I know? I’ll tell you. I was in a small theater production of Hamlet in Hollywood. I played Rosencrantz (a little footnote: Laertes was played by an intense young actor named Ed Harris). So when the reviews came out in Drama-Logue, only one supporting player was singled out. The reviewer wrote, “James Scott Bell is nicely oily as Rosencrantz.”

Nicely oily! How did the major studios not pick up on that?

My acting did get me some commercials. I got paid. And then I got married. To a beautiful actress. And I decided we needed one steady income in the family. Since I was already nicely oily, I decided to become a lawyer.

Cut to that day in 1988 when my wife and I slipped out for an afternoon double feature. The movie I wanted to see was Wall Street. The other movie on the bill I knew very little about. Only that it starred Cher and was supposed to be pretty good.

That movie was Moonstruck. And it knocked me out. I wrote a bit about that in this post. The movie snuck up on me, pulled me in, made me laugh, but most important of all, it made me love the characters.

And I knew walking out of that theater that I wanted to make other people feel the way I was feeling. I wanted to be able to do that through writing.

So I went after it with everything I had. Because I knew now that I was in love with writing. As my training went on I also discovered that the best things I wrote had me feeling something akin to love, or longing, or deep connection.

In fact, I can’t consider anything I write to be truly finished unless, as I type (or edit) the very last lines, I feel a resonant satisfaction that whispers, This is it. This is just so right.

The way I felt the night I met the future Mrs. Bell at a friend’s party. This is it. This is just so right. 

This is my counsel, for any of you seeking to make a go of writing as a career or at least a part-time vocation: Don’t commit to any project unless you can identify why you love it. Don’t go through the motions. Feel something intensely. Because the readers will pick that up. They’ll know. And that makes all the difference.

So now I ask you––why do you want to be a writer?


NOTE: I’ve got a couple of exciting, writing-related announcements coming up. If you’d like to know when they happen, be sure to sign up for my email updates by going here. I’ll also put your name in a drawing for a free book. Carpe Typem!


Why I Teach Writing

by James Scott Bell

Something new from Writer’s Digest Books.

Just Write cover

I got together with the great team at WD and collected some of my previous articles and posts on writing, added new material and organized everything under two parts. The first part is about kicking up your fiction writing not just one notch, but several; the second is about enjoying your writing life, making it all it can be. The book is available at your local bookstore and online:


Sometimes I’m asked why I teach writing. Here’s my answer.

I teach because I know what it feels like to be an unpublished writer wondering if he has the stuff. For about ten years after college I was of the belief that writing fiction could not be taught. I’d been told that writers are born, not made. I was warned not to waste money on craft books.

But when I went to see Moonstruck one afternoon with my wife, the urge to MV5BMjIwMDY0NzYyMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTE5NDk0NA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_write hit me again with full force. That film bowled me over with its originality, characters, dialogue, and heart. I wanted so much to be able to write something that would make people feel the way I was feeling. I was a practicing lawyer then, so mostly I was making people feel irritated. But I said to myself, “Self, you learned the law by studying. Let’s just see if you can learn to write the same way, despite what those naysayers told you. At least give it a shot!”

I began with screenwriting. The seminal book was Syd Field’s Screenplay. He broke down the three-act structure, and I spent a year watching movies, timing them, figuring out what happens at various points, and why. Field, however, had a notion about the first “plot point” that was not entirely clear to me. He said it “spins the action” into a different direction. I felt there had to be something more to it than that.

So I intensified my study on that structural point. And one day it hit me. What has to happen here is some event that forces the Lead into the confrontation of Act II, and is vitally connected to the main conflict of the story. It is also a place from which the Lead cannot retreat. It was like going through a doorway of no return. I tested this against classic movies, and lo and behold, there it was.

I got so excited about this I began to share the Doorway of No Return theory with other writers. They’d stroke their chins and think about it and then say, “Yeah. I see that.” And when they saw, it made me all the more jazzed.

So I kept studying, trying things, creating techniques for myself. When something worked, I journaled about it. I was like Dr. Jekyll keeping track of all the experiments on himself. Only instead of turning into Mr. Hyde I was becoming a writer of saleable prose.

After landing a five-book contract I began to teach at conferences, and started writing articles for Writer’s Digest. Later, I was the WD fiction columnist. And all the time I had this in mind: I wanted people to know it CAN be done. You CAN learn the craft. You CAN get better. The naysayers are touting a Big Lie! Don’t believe it!

And I’d hear from folks that they were learning and growing and getting agents and contracts and hitting bestseller lists. The Big Lie was dead!

In fact, the day I wrote the above paragraph (Friday), I got this tweet:

So keep writing, friends. Keep learning. Those are parallel tracks. I keep on both of them myself and have ever since that day I walked into the sunlight after seeing Moonstruck. I still get pumped about trying things and figuring out what works, what makes my own fiction better. And I still love to share what I learn with fellow writers, as do all my blogmates here at TKZ.

That’s why I teach writing.


The Magical Midpoint Moment


Being a structure guy, I’ve always been fascinated by how story works. When I was first learning the craft, I spent a year studying the 3 Act structure, taking my cues primarily from Syd Field’s classic, Screenplay. In that book, Field talks about plot points, the hinges that lead the plot into Act 2 and Act 3. But I found frustrating a lack of definition of how these plot points worked. What was supposed to be in them? Field knew something happened, he sensed it, but wasn’t quite able to define it.
After watching movie after movie and charting their structures, it came to me. Especially that first plot point, which I began calling “the doorway of no return.” That’s because something has to happen to thrust the lead character into the dangers of Act 2. When you know this in your plot, and put it in the right place, it keeps your novel from dragging and gives it the momentum it needs to carry it to the end. It’s crucially important. 
Then, a couple of years ago, I decided to do more in-depth study on what many writing teachers call the “midpoint.” If you do a search about midpoint on the Internet, you’ll find all sorts of ideas about what is supposed to happen here. Some people talk about “raising the stakes.” Others talk about this being the point of commitment. Still others say it’s a change in the direction of the story, or the gathering of new information, or the start of time pressure.
So once again I started watching movies with the midpoint in mind. And what I found blew me away. Even though the writers may not have been conscious of it, they were creating something in the middle of their stories that pulled together the entire narrative.  The name I gave it is the “look in the mirror” moment. My workshop slide looks like this:
At this point in the story, the character figuratively looks at himself. He takes stock of where he is in the conflict and, depending on the type of story, has either of two basic thoughts. In a character-driven story, he looks at himself and wonders what kind of person he is. What is he becoming? If he continues the fight of Act 2, how will he be different? What will he have to do to overcome himself? Or how will he have to change in order to battle successfully?
The second type of look is more for plot-driven fiction. It’s where the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him. At this point the forces seem so vast that there is virtually no way to go on and not face certain death. That death can be professional, physical, or psychological.

These two basic thoughts are not mutually exclusive. For example, an action story may be given added heft by incorporating the first kind of reflection into the narrative. This happens in Lethal Weapon when Riggs bares his soul to Murtaugh, admitting that killing people is “the only thing I was ever good at.”
A few more examples may help.
In Casablanca, at the exact midpoint of the film, Ilsa comes to Rick’s saloon after closing. Rick has been getting drunk, remembering with bitterness what happened with him and Ilsa in Paris. Ilsa comes to him to try to explain why she left him in Paris, that she found out her husband Viktor Lazlo was still alive. She pleads with him to understand. But Rick is so bitter he basically calls her a whore. She weeps and leaves. And Rick, full of self disgust, puts his head in his hands. He is thinking, “What have I become?” 
The rest of the film will determine whether he stays a selfish drunk, or regains his humanity. That, in fact, is what Casablancais truly about, in both narrative and theme.
In The Fugitive, an action film, at the very center point of the movie Dr. Kimble is awakened in the basement room he’s renting, by cops swarming all over the place. He thinks they are after him, but it turns out they are actually after the son of the landlord. But the damage is done. Kimble breaks down. He is looking at the odds, thinking there’s no way he can win this fight. There are too many resources arrayed against him.
Then I went looking for the midpoint of Gone With The Wind, the novel. I opened to the middle of the book and started hunting. And there it was. At the end of Chapter 15, Scarlett looks inside herself, realizing that no one else but she can save Tara.
The trampled acres of Tara were all that was left to her, now that Mother and Ashley were gone, now that Gerald was senile from shock . . . security and position had vanished overnight. As from another world she remembered a conversation with her father about the land and wondered how she could have been so young, so ignorant, as not to understand what he meant when he said that the land was the one thing in the world worth fighting for.
Scarlett wonders what kind of person she has to become in order to save Tara. And the decision is made in the last paragraph:
Yes, Tara was worth fighting for, and she accepted simply and without question the fight. No one was going to get Tara away from her. No one was going to send her and her people adrift on the charity of relatives. She would hold Tara, if she had to break the back of every person on it.
And that is the essence of GWTW. It’s the story of a young Southern belle who is forced (via a doorway of no return called The Civil War) to save her family home. 

Also, notice how this is different from other definitions of the midpoint you’ll see. Virtually all books on the craft approach it as another “plot” point. Something external happens that changes the course of the story. But what I detect is a character point, something internal, which has the added benefit of bonding audience and character on a deeper level.

In preparing for this post, I grabbed three of my favorite movies and went to their midpoints. Here’s what I found:
In Moontstruck,right smack dab in the middle, is the scene where Loretta goes into the confessional, because she has “slept with the brother of my fiancé.” The priest says, “That’s a pretty big sin.” Loretta says, “I know . . .” And the priest tells her, “Reflect on your life!” He is actually instructing her to look in the mirror! 
There’s a perfect mirror moment in It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s the moment where Mr. Potter offers George Bailey a well-paid position with his firm, a job that will mean security for George’s growing family. In return, though, George will have to give up the Building & Loan his father started. Potter offers George a cigar and George asks for time to think it over. He is actually requesting look-in-the-mirror time, and is seriously considering this move. Then he shakes Potter’s hand, and the oily exchange suddenly clarifies what’s at stake for him as a person.  “No,” he says, “now wait a minute here. I don’t need twenty-four hours. I don’t have to talk to anybody. I know right now, and the answer’s No!” George had to make a decision as to what kind of man he was going to be. And he chose not to become another Potter.

Finally, in Sunset Boulevard, in the middle of the movie to the minute, Joe Gillis also has to decide what kind of man he is. Norma Desmond, his benefactor and lover, has tried to kill herself because Joe found a girl his own age that he wants to start seeing. When Joe hears about it he rushes back to her mansion with the thought that he’ll finally tell her it’s over, that he’s leaving. But she threatens to do it again. And Joe sits down, literally, next to a mirror. In that moment he makes his fateful decision, the one that drives the rest of the movie.

Could the reason these movies are classics, and others not, be that the writers understood the power of the look in the mirror? Whether instinctive or purposeful, they knew exactly what to do.


In the middle of The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is alone in her room, having just heard of Chilton’s betrayal of Lecter, meaning she won’t get any more information from him, meaning the certain death of the kidnapped girl she’s been trying to save. The odds are now firmly against her and the FBI. In the shower, Clarice reflects back on a childhood memory which symbolizes loss for her.

At the midpoint of The Hunger Games, Katniss accepts the fact that she’s going to die. The odds are too great: I know the end is coming. My legs are shaking and my heart is too quick . . . . My fingers stroke the smooth ground, sliding easily across the top. This is an okay place to die, I think.

And, if I may, in the exact middle of my thriller, Try Dying, Ty Buchanan’s home has just been firebombed. His fiancée has been murdered. And he reflects on two kinds of people, those who keep driving toward something, and those who have “given up the fight.”
The question I had, and couldn’t answer, was which kind was I?

Of course, not every film or book will have a “mirror moment” like I’ve described. But the ones that do have a depth about them, a better cohesion and focus, and a satisfying arc. That’s the sort of thing that makes a reader search out more of an author’s work.

Since I incorporated “look in the mirror moment” into my workshops, students have reported it has been incredibly helpful in discovering what their novels are really all about. The nice thing is you can explore this moment at any time in your writing process. You can play with it, tweak it. Whether you are a plotter or pantser, just thinking about what the “look in the mirror” might reveal will help you find the real heart of your novel.
That’s why it’s a magic moment (cue The Drifters)
UPDATE: Since this post first appeared, I’ve written a book on the subject called Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between


When Did You Decide to Become a Writer?

James Scott Bell

Can you identify the moment in your life when you made the decision I am going to be a writer?
What did it feel like? 

Perhaps the best novel about a writer, Jack London’s semi-autobiographical Martin Eden, captures this singular passion. Early in the novel young Martin is at sea, returning to San Francisco, when the idea takes hold:
And then, in splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write. He would be one of the eyes through which the world saw, one of the ears through which it heard, one of the hearts through which it felt. He would write–everything–poetry and prose, fiction and description, and plays like Shakespeare. There was career and the way to win to Ruth. The men of literature were the world’s giants . . . Once the idea had germinated, it mastered him, and the return voyage to San Francisco was like a dream. He was drunken with unguessed power and felt that he could do anything . . . To write! The thought was fire in him. He would begin as soon as he got back . . . There were twenty-four hours in each day. He was invincible. He knew how to work, and the citadels would go down before him.
Back on land, Martin sets out with zeal, up to 18 hours a day of it, to realize his writing dream:
He was profoundly happy. Life was pitched high. He was in a fever that never broke. The joy of creation that is supposed to belong to the gods was his. All the life about him–the odors of stale vegetables and soapsuds, the slatternly form of his sister, and the jeering face of Mr. Higginbotham–was a dream. The real world was in his mind, and the stories he wrote were so many pieces of reality out of his mind.
I can pinpoint the day I took the big dive into writing. It was in 1988 and I went with my wife to see a double feature. The movie I really wanted to see was Wall Street. The movie it was playing with I didn’t know that much about, except that it starred Cher.
That movie was Moonstruck, and it knocked me out. 
I was a practicing lawyer at the time and had been told writers were born, not made. I had believed that for ten years.
But Moonstruck was so good I knew I had to try to learn to write, even if I failed. I was determined to use the study disciplines I’d picked up in law school to find out how to write fiction. In my journal I wrote: Today I have decided to become a writer.
And I was soon lost in the joy of creating, like Martin Eden. I still remember those early years of writing and discovering as primarily joyous.
So when did you decide to become a writer? Was it a specific moment? A particular influence? And what did it feel like when you started on your quest?