Why Plot is Essential to Character

by James Scott Bell

Rhett-Butler-Scarlett-O-Hara-scarlett-ohara-and-rhett-butler-6948455-316-392If you ever find yourself among a group of writers, writing teachers, agents or editors; and said group is waxing verbose on the craft of fiction; and the subject of what fiction is or should be rumbles into the discussion, you are likely to hear things like:

All fiction is character-driven.

It’s characters that make the book.

Readers care about characters, not plot. 

Don’t talk to me about plot. I want to hear about the characters!

Such comments are usually followed by nods, murmured That’s rights or I so agrees, but almost never a healthy and hearty harrumph.

So, here is my contribution to the discussion: Harrumph!

Now that I have your attention, let me be clear about a couple of items before I continue.

First, we all agree that the best books, the most memorable novels, are a combination of terrific characters and intriguing plot developments.

Second, we all know there are different approaches to writing the novel. There are those who begin with a character and just start writing. Ray Bradbury was perhaps the most famous proponent of this method. He said he liked to let a character go running off as he followed the “footprints in the snow.” He would eventually look back and try to find the pattern in the prints.

Other writers like to begin with a strong What if, a plot idea, then people it with memorable characters. I would put Stephen King in this category. His character work is tremendous. Perhaps that is his greatest strength. But no one would say King ignores plot. He does avoid outlining the plot. But that’s more about method.

I’m not talking about method.

What I am proposing is that no successful novel is ever “just” about characters. In fact, no dynamic character can even exist without plot.

Why not? Because true character is only revealed in crisis.

Without crisis, a character can wear a mask. Plot rips off the mask and forces the character to transform––or resist transforming.

Now, what is meant by a so-called character-driven novel is that it’s more concerned with the inner life and emotions and growth of a character. Whereas a plot-driven novel is more about action and twists and turns (though the best of these weave in great character work, too). There is some sort of indefinable demarcation point where one can start to talk about a novel being one or the other. Somewhere between Annie Proulx and James Patterson is that line. Look for it if you dare.

We can also talk about the challenge to a character being rather “quiet.” Take a Jan Karon book. Father Tim is not running from armed assassins. But he does face the task of restoring a nativity scene in time for Christmas. If he didn’t have that challenge (with the pressure of time, pastoral duties, and lack of artistic skills) we would have a picture of a nice Episcopal priest who would overstay his welcome after thirty or forty pages. Instead, we have Shepherds Abiding.

If you still feel that voice within you protesting that it’s “all about character,” let me offer you this thought experiment. Let’s imagine we are reading a novel about an antebellum girl who has mesmerizing green eyes and likes to flirt with the local boys.

Let’s call her, oh, Scarlett.

We meet her on the front porch of her large Southern home chatting with the Tarleton twins. “I just can’t decide which of you is the more handsome,” she says. “And remember, I want to eat barbecue with you!”

Ten pages later we are at an estate called Twelve Oaks. Big barbecue going on. Scarlett goes around flirting with the men. She also asks one of her friends who that man is who is giving her the eye.

“Which one?” her friend says.

“That one,” says Scarlett. “The one who looks like Clark Gable.”

“Oh, that’s Rhett Butler from Charleston. Stay away from him.”

“I certainly will,” says Scarlett. (The character of Rhett Butler never appears again.)

Scarlett then finds Ashley Wilkes and coaxes him into the library.

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too,” Ashley says. “Let’s get married.”

So they do.

One hundred pages later, Scarlett says, “I really do love you, Ashley.”

Ashley says, “I love you, Scarlett. Isn’t it grand how wonderful our life is?”

At which point a reader who has been very patient tosses the book across the room and says, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

What’s missing? Challenge. Threat. Plot! In the first few pages Scarlett should find out Ashley is engaged to another woman! And then she should confront him, and slap him, and then break a vase over the head of that scalawag who looks like Clark Gable! Oh yes, and then a little something called the Civil War needs to break out.

These developments rip off Scarlett’s genteel mask and begin to show us what she’s really made of.

That is what makes a novel.

Yes, yes, you must create a character the readers bond with and care about. But guess what’s the best way to do that? No, it’s not backstory. Or a quirky way of talking. It’s by disturbing their ordinary world.

Which is a function of plot.

So don’t tell me that character is more important than plot. It’s actually the other way around. Thus:

  1. If you like to conceive of a character first, don’t do it in a vacuum. Imagine that character reacting to crisis. Play within the movie theater of your mind, creating various scenes of great tension, even if you never use them in the novel. Why? Because this exercise will begin to reveal who your character really is.
  1. Disturb your character on the opening page. It can be anything that is out of the ordinary, doesn’t quite fit, portends trouble. Even in literary fiction. A woman wakes up and her husband isn’t in their bed (Blue Shoe by Ann Lamott). Readers bond with characters experiencing immediate disquiet, confusion, confrontation, trouble.
  1. Act first, explain later. The temptation for the character-leaning writer is to spend too many early pages giving us backstory and exposition. Pare that down so the story can get moving. I like to advise three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages, used all at once or spread around. Then three paragraphs of backstory in the next ten pages. Try this as an experiment and see how your openings flow.
  1. If you’re writing along and start to get lost, and wonder what the heck your plot actually is, brainstorm what may be the most important plot beat of all, the mirror moment. Once you know that, you can ratchet up everything else in the novel to reflect it.

Do these things and guess what? You’ll be a plotter! Don’t hide your face in shame! Wear that badge proudly!

Super Plotter

The Night I Met Ray Bradbury

by James Scott Bell

Author-Ray-Bradbury-dies-8H1K9JO0-x-largeOur Reader Friday this week paid tribute to the late, great Ray Bradbury. He lived in L.A. so I got to hear him speak on a number of occasions. One time I got to meet him.

This was back when I was an unpublished writer unsure if I had the goods. Two books that had helped me keep my hopes up were Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.

Bradbury was set to speak at the Woodland Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, the very branch I grew up in. I couldn’t wait. I’d gobbled up The Illustrated Man in junior high school, and it was one of those transcendent reading experiences you get only once in a great while. This collection of stories is a glorious imagination on fire. It certainly turned up the heat on my own nascent desire to someday write stories myself.

So I took my well-thumbed and underlined copy of Zen to the library and settled in with a packed room. Bradbury arrived, walking slowly and wearing his white hair long and a bit wild. His hair was a metaphor for his writing approach––let it go, untamed, and put off a neat cut for as long as possible. “Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow,” Bradbury wrote in Zen. “But today––explode––fly apart––disintegrate!”

Bradbury spoke about his love of libraries, and it was great to hear from his own lips the well-known tale of how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a rented typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library. (You can hear the man himself tell that story here.)

Then he talked about writing, and I took notes. Here they are:

  • Do word associations, as a way of letting your subconscious tell you what is inside you.
  • Creating is NOT about fame, NOT about money. It’s about having fun.
  • Just do it.
  • Writing every day for 57 years. That wasn’t work. That was fun!
  • The intellectuals want us to believe it’s no good unless it’s tortured. The hell with that!
  • Do what you love. Let it out into the world. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some money. But if you don’t, do it anyway.
  • “I work for free. I haven’t made any money on any of my plays. But I love theatre. And I put up productions around town. And when I see the actors who’ve been in them on the street, we embrace, because we did what we loved and we had this experience together. For free. All the money went to my actors.”
  • Don’t think while you’re doing it. Think after it’s done.
  • He uses no outlines. He wakes up in the morning and lays in bed until his characters, his voices, compel him to “scramble to the typer” and record them before they get away.

He signed books after his talk, so I stood in line with my treasured copy of Zen. I introduced myself and we shook hands.

“Are you a writer?” he asked.

I quoted from the book: “‘Stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.'”

He laughed and said, “Oh, you must!”

I asked him if he set himself a daily quota, and he said, “I let my love determine how much I write.”

“Ah, so you fall in love daily?”

“That’s right.”

He signed my book. “Do you write every day?” he asked.

“Five days a week,” I said. “Weekends are for my family.”

He laughed again. “That’s the way to do it!”

He offered his hand once more and said, “God bless you.”

And off I went into the night, feeling blessed indeed for having had the chance to chat with one of the legends of our literature –– Ray Bradbury, American original.

Have you had the chance to talk to an author you admire? Who would be at the top of your list of writers you’d love to meet?

Finish Your Doggone Story!

by James Scott Bell

Robert Heinlein had two rules for writing:1172011_100417_0

  1. You must write.
  1. You must finish what you write.

We usually have no problem with #1. But #2 can bite us in the caboose.

What is it that keeps us from finishing a project?

It could be fear … that we haven’t got a handle on the story.

It could be perfectionism … we want the story to be excellent, but sense it isn’t the best it can be.

It could be laziness … it’s easier to tell someone who doesn’t write just how hard it is to write, than it is to actually write.

Whatever it is, it holds us up. And that’s bad for everyone, including your characters.

I find endings to be the hardest part of the craft. They have to do so much–leave the reader satisfied or, better, grateful. Wrap up the story questions. Deliver a certain resonance.

And we all know a lousy ending can ruin an otherwise great reading experience.

My own approach to endings is to have a climactic scene in mind from the start, even though it is subject to change without notice. It usually does change, because as your book grows, unplanned things start to happen. Characters develop in surprising ways; a plot twist takes you around an unforeseen corner. I’ve even had characters refuse to leave a scene when I’ve told them to. I always try to incorporate these things because, as Madeleine L’Engle once said, “If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it. The book is usually right.”

As you make these changes in your plot, the ripples go forward in time to affect how the book will end.

So you adjust. When I get to the point where I’m going to write my ending scenes, I follow a plan I call Stew, Brew, Accrue and Do.

I think hard about the ending for half an hour or so, then take a long walk, letting the story “stew” in my subconscious. My walk inevitably hits a Starbucks, because you can’t walk in any direction on earth for very long before hitting a Starbucks.

Inside I go and order an espresso. Brew.

I sip the espresso and take out a little notebook and pen. That’s when I Accrue. I jot idea after idea, image after image, doodle after doodle. I’m not writing the words of the ending, I’m just capturing all the stuff the Boys in the Basement are throwing out at me because they are hopped up on caffeine.

Then it’s back to my office where I actually Do–write the blasted thing until it’s done!

Now, even with that plan there have been a few occasions in my professional life where I get to Do and got stuck in Didn’t. I just was not finishing, for some reason or other. And I had to break through because a company had been nice enough to pay me some money and was expecting, in return, a complete manuscript. How unfair!

I always made it. And of late I haven’t really gotten stuck in Didn’t.

With one screwy exception: my novelette, Force of Habit 4: The Nun Also Rises.

I mean, I should have finished this six months ago! I was doing other projects during this time, yes, but I always came back to Force 4 trying to figure out what the heck was going on–or, rather, what was not going on–with my vigilante nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I just said to myself, “Listen, Stupid. Finish the doggone story! Or are you just a big fraud?”

“Okay,” I answered back. “How do you propose I do it? And don’t call me Stupid.”

And then I thought of Ray Bradbury.

As an L.A. resident I was privileged to hear Bradbury speak on a number of occasions. He liked to tell the story of when he was writing––or trying to write­––the script for John Huston’s film version of Moby-Dick. He was in Ireland and London for months, trying to



pare down the huge novel and all its symbolism into a filmable screenplay. Finally, Huston demanded the script.

Bradbury rolled out of bed one morning and looked in the mirror and cried, “I am Herman Melville!” Then he sat down at his typewriter and went at the keys for eight straight hours. And finished. He took the pages across town and handed them to Huston. Huston looked at them and said, “What happened?”

And Bradbury said, “Behold Herman Melville!”

Why did I think of this account? Because Force 4 was born as I was reading the biography of Robert E. Howard, one of the great pulp writers. He was, of course, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, as well as other series characters in different genres. His writing was big and wild and full of action.

Which was how I was conceiving this latest story of mine.

So I pulled a Bradbury. In my office I cried, “Behold Robert E. Howard!”

And then I wrote and wrote and finally finished the story. And it is big and wild and full of action.

But most important of all, it is done!

And now it is available for Kindle. Here’s a preview:

So tell me, writing friends. Have you ever had a real hands-on struggle with an ending? How did you handle it?

Drilling Down Into Your Deep Writing Soil

by James Scott Bell

The outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona. I was with my high school church group, taking a week in the summer s-l225to do volunteer work for the Hopi. Our bus had stopped for the night and we brought our sleeping bags and duffels into the fellowship hall of a local church. We were told by our adult leaders to relax, read, play games, listen to the radio––but by all means stay inside the hall! Which of course my friend Randy and I interpreted as meaning: “Feel free to wander into town and find some trouble to get into.”

Ever ready to follow instructions as we understood them, Randy and I slipped out the side doors and started a nocturnal tour of the bustling Flagstaff metropolis, which seemed to have, as they used to say, rolled up the sidewalks.

So we walked and talked and came to a railroad crossing, moving therefrom into the soft red-and-yellow neon of a LIQUOR STORE sign. To a couple of seventeen-year-olds on a nighttime prowl, such illumination is catnip. Randy suggested we baptize our adventure with a bottle.

I agreed, as Randy Winter was my brother from another mother, my closest friend, with whom I laughed much and talked deeply. We would discuss with equal fervor the mystery of girls and the character of God (whose reputation, by the way, we were failing to uphold as we schemed how to lay our hands on some demon intoxicant).

Our first order of business was what manner of spirits to acquire. As an athlete who was not a member of the party circuit, I was not an imbiber of any sort. I did not like the taste of beer. I’d snuck a nip of gin once in my parents’ liquor cabinet and wondered why on earth anyone would want to drink gasoline.

So Randy suggested we try some wine. He’d heard that Boone’s Farm Apple Wine went down nicely, and the decision was made.

Then the next step: to lurk in the shadows of the parking lot until a car drove up, then casually approach the driver with a request that he be our procurer. This was nervous time, for who knew what kind of personality we would engage? What if it was an off-duty cop? Or some old Veteran of Foreign Wars who’d want to lecture us on the evils of drink?

A chance we would have to take. Which we did presently when a car drove in, and out stepped a man of about thirty, with long hair. Long hair! A good sign. A hippie perhaps, or at least a musician. In either case, cool. We emerged from our hiding spot and said, “Excuse me …”

The man stopped and read our faces in the soft, primrose light. “You want me to get you a bottle, don’t you?” he said.

We nodded. My face felt flush, as if the entire world were witnessing my iniquity.

The man laughed. “I used to do the same thing. What do you want?”

We gave the man a couple of fins, our pooled resources, and Randy said, “Boone’s Farm Apple Wine.”

It seemed to me the man hesitated, as if to give us one last chance to reconsider our fate. And then he went through the door.

Randy and I high-fived our success. And soon thereafter we had in our hands a brown paper bag and some change, passed to us with a “Good luck” sentiment from our partner in crime.

We left the scene of our misdemeanor, went back near the railroad tracks, and sat cross-legged on the ground.

Randy unscrewed the top. We were too unsophisticated to smell the cap.

Then he drank and passed the bottle to me. I took a tentative sip. Ah, I thought. Sprightly, with a conversational fruitiness and subdued notes of summer. (Actually, what I really thought was, This isn’t so bad.)

And so ‘neath the Arizona stars Randy Winter and I shared a bottle of what was generously classified as wine, and discovered something interesting about the human body, namely, that there is a lag time between the ingestion of alcoholic content and its effect on one’s physiology.

Which meant, at one point, it suddenly felt as if a switch was flipped in my brain. The disco ball lit up and went round and round, and I heard myself say something like, “Rammy, my headth pinning” before I teetered backward and ended up on the gravel, looking up at the stars as they raced around the heavens like sparkling emergency room nurses shouting, “Stat! Stat!”

Which is the last thing I remember about that night. In the morning I was in my sleeping bag on the church floor. At least I think it was my sleeping bag. My stomach felt like a balloon of toxic gasses. Two miniature railroad workers were on either side of my head, driving spikes into my temples with their sledgehammers.

The adult leaders were none too pleased with Randy and me. We knew we’d messed up, crossed the line, failed to represent our church. We were threatened with expulsion, which would mean a long and humiliating drive for our parents to come pick us up. We threw ourselves upon the mercy of the court and were granted a temporary stay. I began then to truly appreciate the power of forgiveness. Plus, I was ready to swear off booze for good.

Honest, hard work kept Randy and me on the straight and narrow for at least a week. There’s a victory in there somewhere.

I don’t know why I’m writing about this now, except that I was thinking about Randy the other day, as I do often. He died at the age of nineteen. Leukemia. When I think about him, and all the good times we had, this particular memory is the one that surfaces first.

Why is that? Maybe because it typified our friendship. We took risks together, got in trouble on occasion, but mostly laughed. A couple of times there were tears. There’s something deeply meaningful to me in all this, and if I explore it I sense it will tell me something about what I write and why. It may also be a story idea trying to get out.

Memories are the deep soil of strong fiction. We do well to work that land from time to time. Journal about it. Record it. Listen to it.

Early in his career Ray Bradbury started making lists of nouns, many of them based on childhood memories. Things like The Lake, The Night, The Crickets, The Ravine.

“These lists were the provocations,” he writes in Zen in the Art of Writing, “that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.”

Open up your own trapdoor. You’ll get to really good stuff that way. You can use it outright as the basis for a piece of fiction, or tap it for characters, emotions, scenes. Nothing is wasted. All of life is material.

And it will teach you, too, if you’re open. For I don’t believe I’ve had a taste of Boone’s Farm wine since that night. Nothing against it, you understand, but I prefer a nice California cab. In fact, I think I’ll have a glass tonight––just one––and raise a toast to my best friend, Randy Winter.

Randy Winter

What about you? What friend from your youth do you remember, and why?

A Horrible Thing I Saw The Other Day


“I wasn’t trying to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.” – Ray Bradbury on Fahrenheit 451

The other day I saw a horrible thing.
It wasn’t a traffic accident on the 101 Freeway, of which there are many on any given L.A. day.
It was not a wounded soldier or a bar fight or a new reality television show.
Nevertheless, what I saw twisted my stomach and made me groan for the future of our kind.
It was an otherwise lovely afternoon and I was walking along the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard. As usual it was awash in activity––people of all shapes, sizes, colors, tempers, faiths and costumes sauntering along the street of dreams.
As I am wont to do I was watching faces.
I love watching faces. Each one is a potential character or storyline.
I was content.
I was engaged.
And then I stopped, recoiling in horror.
Okay, it was only an inward recoil. But there it was, as real as the hardened gum on Dick Powell’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
A woman was pushing a stroller. In the stroller was a young child, a boy of perhaps two years.
The boy was holding a digital device. His head was down and his fingers tapped the screen like a mad reporter on deadline.
I thought: I have met dystopia and it is us.
In 1953 Ray Bradbury penned an essay for The Nation about science fiction. He began by describing a scene in his novella Fahrenheit 451 where the fireman comes home to find his wife in a virtual stupor, an earpiece attached to her head. She was not reading, for that was forbidden. Aural stimuli were being pumped into her docile brain.
For Ray Bradbury, that kind of passivity was one of the most awful scenarios imaginable.
Bradbury then recounted how he had been out for a stroll recently and saw a couple walking their dog. The woman held a transistor radio with an earpiece (back then, a rather ponderous and rare piece of equipment) plugged into her auditory canal.
The husband, Bradbury noted, might as well not have been there.
Bradbury expressed his astonishment that his prediction of a rather gloomy future was happening much faster than he supposed.
And this was the early 50s! What would the late, great RB think of any given restaurant today? Couples, trios, whole families sitting at the same table, heads bent over phones or tablets, hardly exchanging a word?
And now this, here on Hollywood Boulevard. Is this our future? Will it be made up of little boys and girls who had iPads in their strollers, now all grown up into humorless, unimaginative technocrats unable to engage the real world?
I remember feeling some of this same revulsion when I first saw a DVD player in a motorized vehicle. It was a desert night and I was driving back to L.A. after some event. I pulled up alongside a dark SUV and saw a small monitor playing a cartoon for the denizens of the back seat.
This was a night when the stars could be gazed upon in wonder and the mysteries of desert shadows might stir the imagination.
But not for the children in the car! For them the desert was a bright and colorful Looney Tune with a funny roadrunner and a rather frustrated coyote. 
I’m fearful. I fear that digitized babies are not engaging their world or training their imaginations. I fear they will grow up unable to engage a long-form piece of writing, let alone real people in actual, meaningful conversation.
Am I overreacting?
Let me throw it out there to you, Zoners. Am I engaged in the sort of fogey-ism that is a part of every generation?
Or, like Ray Bradbury, should we be truly alarmed?

Writers Going Boldly

The late Ray Bradbury was a living, breathing testament to the joy of writing. He loved what he did and he did it every day. He wrote where his imagination led him. He explored his own inner universe, never quite sure where the path would lead but absolutely delighting in the journey.
His practice was to wake up and start writing and see what happened. He’d explode. “Every morning I step on a landmine,” he wrote in Zen in the Art of Writing. “The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.”
That was his practice from his earliest days as a writer. Even after he was married and had mouths to feed he found a way to make income as a writer while writing what he loved.
That’s the ideal, isn’t it? Yet in the past, only a few writers ever truly realized this dream.
I remember how happy I was when I first started writing. It was love. There was something rapturous about it, even though I had a lot to learn about the craft. Maybe it was because I was in touch most directly with my imagination and passion. I was just letting it rip. I was a landmine.
I worked hard at the craft, too. I enjoyed that as well, the way a race car driver enjoys working on his engines. And then came the day I got published. And after that, contracts. And now, looking back, a career. I’ve been one of the lucky ones.
But it struck me the other day as I woke up and started the coffee going that I was more eager than ever to get to my writing chair. Because when I sit in it, I can take myself wherever I want to go. Boldly. Like Capt. James Tiberius Kirk, I am on the bridge of my own Enterprise. If a galaxy looks interesting, I can tell my inner Mr. Sulu to take me there.

So I’m writing boxing stories and zombie legal thrillers and stand alone suspense and stories about vigilante nuns. I’m writing essays on writing and soon will be releasing non-fiction booklets on a variety of topics that interest me. Plus, I know that anything I write will get to readers and make me a profit.
You know, in all the recent debating about self v. traditional publishing (both of which I continue to maintain are of value) one thing perhaps isn’t emphasized enough. Writers who write what they love, care about it, figure out how to do it better, then repeat the process all over again—those writers may be having the most fun of all.
Of course, as my blog brother Gilstrap reminded us on Friday, a certain amount of sweat equity (which he maintains is gained only by going traditional, and I maintain can be had privately) is necessary for someone to develop into a real writer.
But you can sweat and still find joy, and most of that is in the freedom to write what you want to write and letting the market itself decide what to do with it.
“The first thing a writer should be,” Bradbury wrote, “is excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms . . . . [A writer must] look to his zest, see to his gusto.”
When you do that, it will show up on the page. And when it shows up on the page, readers will take notice.
Do you want to write? Really? Enough to work at it lovingly every day? To study the craft because you desire more than anything else to communicate with the reader in the most effective way? Enough to boldly go where no writer has gone before? Or, at least, to put your own footprints on some previously explored planet?
Then do it. And pay no attention to the naysayers. Brenda Ueland, in her classic little book If You Want to Write, says this:
“Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say. Everybody is talented because everybody who is human has something to express. Everybody is original if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. So work with all your intelligence and love. Work freely and rollickingly, as though talking to a friend. Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters. Work from now on, until you die, with real love and imagination and intelligence. If you are going to write you must become aware of the richness in you and come to believe in it and know it is there.”

The Butterfly Effect

One of the leading stories this week concerned the passing of Ray Bradbury. This is noteworthy considering that in the 1940s Bradbury was to a great extent consigned to the pulp magazines. I’d wear a legacy such as that like a badge of honor now, but back then it was anything but. So-called “serious” or “literary” authors did not frequent those types of publications. Bradbury kept plugging away and by the mid-1960s his novels and short stories were being studied in university courses. If you wanted to break a friend into the science-fiction genre, you did so by steering him over to the paperback section of a drug store and thrusting FAHRENHEIT 451 (“Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that. Did he write that?”) or THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES or THE ILLUSTRATED MAN into their hands. Bradbury has seen his work go from pulps to hardcover to paperbacks to yes, e-books. News comes that there is going to be a huge roll-out of his work in digital form, sooner rather than later. A few things were available at the time of this death; a sticking point that had kept more from being available had nothing to do with adversity to the technology; Bradbury simply did not want the libraries to be bypassed. Indeed, word comes down that in accordance with The Man’s wishes e-book versions will be available for lending from your local library as well.
Most folks talk about FAHRENHEIT 451 when they mention Bradbury. I’m going to talk about four short stories that have stuck in my mind for over fifty years. Every time we get a gullywasher around here, when the rain pours and pours for more than a day or so, I think of “The Long Rain” a gem of Bradbury’s from 1950. First published in a wonderful little periodical titled Planet Stories, the tale deals with three earthmen who are stranded on Venus in the midst of the torrential rains which at that time everyone thought enveloped the planet. A classic. “The Small Assassin” is one of the darkest stories that Bradbury, or anyone, ever wrote. I missed its original publication in 1946 in the pages of Dime Mystery(love that title) by a few years but I am sure it caused a stir. Read this story about a baby who may or may not be homicidal and see what you think about toys left on the stairs and pretty things. “Way in the Middle of the Air” was published in  Other Worlds in 1950 and became a part of the canon of  The Martian Chronicles. It was social commentary disguised as science fiction, telling the tale of the day that all of the black folks left the country and emigrated to Mars, and the surprising reaction from some quarters. While I have never forgotten this story since  the day that I read it, it, I had particular cause to recall it several years ago, during one of a series of visits to New Orleans.  I was staying on the east side of the city at that time and, purely by happenstance, went for two days without seeing a Caucasian face. It briefly crossed my mind that perhaps all of the white folks had left the country and I had somehow missed the memo. The story was still so vivid in my mind, some forty-odd years on, that I expected to see the rocket departing when I looked up in the sky. The most haunting of Bradbury’s stories for me personally, however, remains 1952’s “The Sound of Thunder.” It has been heavily anthologized, but first appeared in Collier’sin 1952. I as a rule don’t care for time travel stories, but this one is quite different,  a cautionary tale about the importance of following directions and staying on the path. The term “butterfly effect” was indirectly coined as a result of this story. If you haven’t read it, do so and see why.
Now it is your turn. What is your favorite Ray Bradbury novel, collection, or short story? Do you recall when you first read a Bradbury work? How did it affect you? And if you have never read any of Bradbury’s works, we’d like to know that, too.

Type Hard, Type Fast

First, I want to thank everyone for the launch of my new book last week. I spent most of Sunday chatting up the book in social media. A “virtual book tour” so to speak. Then I sort of watched to see what would happen. It’s only been one week and one book, but the results have exceeded my expectations. 
And I have more of this material in my pipeline. A lot more. Because as I mentioned last week, I love the old pulp days when writers really wrote, fast, because they had to.
Fast does not mean hack work (it can, of course, but not necessarily). I’m not discussing the editing process, either. Concentrated effort is what I’m talking about. I contend that many young writers would actually improve their craft –– and chances of getting published –– if they would write faster, especially at the beginning of their learning curve.
First, a few facts. Some of the best novels of the past century were produced at a rapid clip by authors who found writing time each day, and went at their task with singular resolution:
— William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word.
— Ernest Hemingway wrote what some consider his best novel, The Sun Also Rises, also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris, in 1925.
— John D. MacDonald is now hailed as one of the best writers of the 50s and 60s. Within one stunning stretch (1953-1954) he brought out seven novels, at least two of them – The Neon Jungle and Cancel All Our Vows – brilliant (the others were merely splendid). Over the course of the decade he wrote many more excellent and bestselling novels, including the classic The End of the Night, which some mention in the same breath as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Also Cry Hard, Cry Fast, which is the basis for the title of this blog entry.
So prolific was MacDonald that he was needled by a fellow writer who, over martinis, sniffed that John should slow down, ignore “paperback drivel” and get to “a real novel.” John sniffed back that in 30 days he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in the magazines, selected by a book club and turned into a movie. The other writer laughed and bet him $50 that he couldn’t.
John went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear. Twice.
–Ray Bradbury famously wrote his classic Fahrenheit 451 in nine days, on a rented typewriter. “I had a newborn child at home,” he recalls, “and the house was loud with her cries of exaltation at being alive. I had no money for an office, and while wandering around UCLA I heard typing from the basement of Powell Library. I went to investigate and found a room with 12 typewriters that could be rented for 10 cents a half hour. So, exhilarated, I got a bag of dimes and settled into the room, and in nine days I spent $9.80 and wrote my story; in other words, it was a dime novel.”
I’ve counseled many writers at conferences who have come with a single manuscript yet haven’t got another project going. I tell them, “That’s wonderful. You’ve written a novel. That’s a great accomplishment. Now, get to work on the next one. And as you’re writing that next one, be developing an idea for the project after that.”
You see, publishers and agents are not looking for a book. They are looking for solid, dependable writers. They invest in careers. They want to know you can do this over and over again.
The best advice I ever got as a young writer was to write a quota of words on a regular basis. I break my commitment into week-long segments (anticipating those days when I ride a bike into a tree or some such). I believe this discipline has made all the difference in my career. The testimony of so many other professional writers attests to its value.
One such testimonial comes from Isaac Asimov, author/editor of 500+ books. He was once asked what he would do if were told he had only six months to live.
“Type faster,” he said.

One Plus One Equals Three

James Scott Bell

Joe’s recent post about theme put in mind this quote from The Boss:

“I’ve always believed the greatest rock and roll musicians are desperate men. You’ve got to have something bothering you all the time. My songs are good because … it’s like in art and love, hey, one and one makes three. In music, if it makes two, you’ve failed, my friends. You know, if you’re painting, if all you’ve got is your paint and your canvas, you’ve failed. If all you got is your notes, you’ve failed. You’ve got to find that third thing that you don’t completely understand, but that is truly coming up from inside of you. And you can set it any place, you can choose any type of character, but if you don’t reach down and touch that thing, then you’re just not gonna have anything to say, and it’s not gonna feel like it has life and breath in it, you’re not gonna create something real, and it’s not gonna feel authentic. So I worked hard on those things.” – Bruce Springsteen
We need to get that. Your book, if it’s going to go anywhere, has to be about more than what it is about. It has to dig deep somewhere, so the readers think there’s a “there” there, something the author really cares about.
An “inner ferret,” as grandmaster thriller author David Morrell puts it. Others might call it heart. Still others, like the late great Red Smith, say, “Just open a vein.”
But your novel should be something that moves your insides around.
How do you find it?
Start making a list. Make a list of things that bother you, that get your juices flowing. I often ask writing students what is something that would make them throw a chair out the window? Write about that thing. Put that feeling inside your Lead character.
Or make a list of memories that are vivid to you. Why are they vivid? Because your subconscious is trying to tell you something. Find that thing.
Ray Bradbury started making a list of nouns of remembrance when he was young. He came up with nouns like THE LAKE, THE CRICKETS, THE SKELETON, THE NIGHT, and so on. Each one of these referred to something from his childhood. He went into those memories and mined them for stories.
Childhood fears seem to play a big role not only for Bradbury, but also King and Koontz. Figuring out why justice is worth going for in a world that seems dead set against it animates Michael Connelly . . . and me. That seems to be a consistent thread throughout my novels.
Maybe that’s because I was brought up by a dad who was an L.A. lawyer who often represented the poor accused of crimes. He had a passion for the Constitution and criminal justice. I guess I absorbed that.
So what about you? Is there some “inner ferret” that drives your writing? What equals three for you?