What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Next year will be my 24th as a professional writer.

When my first book hit the shelves nobody used a cell phone (Seinfeld had that big brick handset with the antenna, remember?) O.J. Simpson had been found not guilty and Bill Cosby was still America’s most beloved dad. Microsoft released Windows 95. And a guy named Bezos launched a website that was purportedly going to sell books to consumers right over the internet! Everybody thought he was nuts.

For the seven years previous I’d been studying the craft of screenwriting and fiction, and writing every day. I devoured books on writing and gobbled up each monthly issue of Writer’s Digest. I have several shelves of my beloved writing books (and binders full of WDs), all highlighted and sticky-noted in some form or fashion. Every so often I like to pull one off the shelf to see what I highlighted, and relive some of the excitement of discovering something that worked for me.

The other day took down The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction by Barnaby Conrad, published by Writer’s Digest Books. It’s a collection of articles and interviews from the famous Santa Barbara Writers Conference, which Conrad directed for many years.

There was something tucked inside the book. It was a pamphlet titled 12 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started Writing by Ben Bova, the science-fiction writer and editor. I think this came as a freebie with a book ordered from the Writer’s Digest Book Club, of which I was an enthusiastic member. So I had another look at Bova’s lessons and thought I’d reflect on them with you today. The first two are unsurprising:

  1. Write every day.
  2. Read widely.

All serious writing students know this, though I would edit the first one thus: write to a weekly quota. Figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a week, then up that by 10% for your goal.

  1. Write about WHO you know.

Bova stresses the importance of well-rounded characters. Basic, of course, but coming from the sci-fi genre Bova knows it’s a temptation to overemphasize world-building.

  1. Character + Problem = Story.

I would change Problem to Plot, where plot is defined as a life-or-death battle which the character meets by strength of will.

  1. No villains.

This is Bova’s most important tip. The “villain” does not see himself that way. “Every tyrant in history was convinced that he had to do the things he did, for is own good or for the good of the people around him,” Bova writes.

I always counsel writers to know the bad guy’s “closing argument.” If he were on trial, what would he say to defend himself? And mean it?

  1. Start in the middle.

My heart sang. Had Bova anticipated Write Your Novel From the Middle? Ahem. No. He was talking about the opening pages, and he echoes one of my constant refrains: act first, explain later. Bova explains:

[Start] your story in the midst of brisk, exciting action. Start in the middle! Don’t waste time telling us how your protagonist got into the pickle he’s in. Show him struggling to get free. You can always fill in the background details later.

Particularly in a novel, it’s tempting to set the scene, explain the protagonist’s background, describe how she got to where she is. Cut all that out. Or, at least, save it for later. Start in the midst of action. Hook that reader right away or you won’t hook him at all.

  1. The chain of promises.

Don’t present a problem on page one and then solve it. Pile them up. “Each problem you present to the protagonist is a promise to the reader that there will be suspense, excitement, adventure in solving that problem.”

  1. Use all five senses.

Bova rightly notes that writers tend to favor sight and sound. Add touch, taste, and smell.

  1. Point of view.

Bova makes a case for close 3d Person, so you can be intimate with a character in one scene, then cut away to another character, and so on. He does not favor First Person because he finds it too limiting. Hmm. Tell that to Raymond Chandler.

The last three tips come from another world, when hard-copy manuscripts were submitted to agents and editors. Imagine that!

  1. Make your manuscript readable.

“Typed, whether on a typewriter or a computer printer.”

Remember when that was an actual choice?

  1. Study the markets.

“Publishers think in categories. You must too.”

  1. Cover letters.

“And always remember to include the SASE.”

(For you kids out there, SASE stands for “Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope.” Ask your parents what that means.)

All this got me thinking: what is something I wish I’d known when I started out? I’ll give you a twofer:

  1. Scene Structure.

I wrote four or five screenplays that didn’t generate any interest. What finally broke me through was an epiphany while reading Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. Specifically, his chapter on scene and sequel. More specifically, understanding the scene beats of Goal, Conflict, Disaster. No more weak or meandering scenes after that. The next script I wrote got me an agent.

  1. The Mind is as Important as the Keyboard

The initial thrill of being published eventually ran into a new set of challenges familiar to all writers who make it inside the gates of the Forbidden City. Stuff like comparison, envy, self-doubt, bad reviews. All of which interfere with the joy of writing. Faith and family were in place for me, but I also studied specific topics like gratitude, contentment, focus, and discipline. So important are these that I wrote a book to help writers prepare for and deal with the mental game of writing.

So, TKZers, if you’ve been around the block, what is something you wish you had known when you were starting out?

And if you are just starting out, what is something you want to know? Ask away, and one of our crack team of bloggers will take a flyer at an answer—for I am in travel mode today and my check-in may be sketchy.

 

12+

Why We Write

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Those of us who teach as well as write are always glad to hear that something we suggested helped a fellow scribe. I got an email the other day that I have to share. With the kind permission of the sender, here it is:

Dear Mr. Bell

I want to thank you. You helped me find something that I had no idea I had in me.

A few minutes ago, while reading your book “Plot & Structure”, I completed Exercise 1. As per your instruction, I wrote from the gut. [JSB: This is a free-form, just let-er-rip exercise, no judging or stopping, asking yourself what kind of writer you wan to be.]

The result surprised me deeply. I never knew that I could write something like that 15 minutes ago, and I never realized the kind of author I want to be.

As a thank you, I am including in this email the text I wrote. It is exactly the way I first wrote it, and I haven’t even read it myself yet:

“When readers read my novels, I want them to feel that they have just been on a journey to a new world, a different universe. I want them to feel amazed, I want them to feel like they have never read anything like that before in their lives, I want them to feel that if they want to experience this kind of suspense again, they have to read my stories. I want them to think about what they read the next day, the next year, I want the story they read to mean so much to them that they will be planning to show it to their unborn children one day. And most important of all, I want them to keep wanting more at the end.

That’s because, to me, novels are a way for me to share my soul. Novels are the sum of all that is important in life, the sum of all of the things that make us smile, laugh, cry, scream, terrified, look over our shoulders on a dark alley, everything that we hope one day happens to us. They are our hopes, our fears, our dreams and nightmares, what elevates us to heaven one day and crushes us back to the earth with the might of a thousand heavens the next. A good story is a communion, it is something that a billion people who have never met each other share, it is a way for everyone to look up to the sky, or deep inside themselves, and recognize the same truth as any person might one day realize, no matter how far apart in space or time those people might live. It is a timeless truth, it is the very fabric of our souls, it is how we recognize each other and how we recognize ourselves in others. It is what makes us, us.”

It might be terrible in the end, but it meant a lot to me.

***

JSB: That is anything but terrible. It can’t be, for there is no wrong answer so long as it has come from your deepest self. Indeed, this young man got precisely the best result because it surprised him. Self-discovery is a crucial step toward writing unforgettable fiction.

This writer has taken that step.

And so I ask you, TKZers: Why do you write?

11+

Your Writing Sweet Spot

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“Things were tough at the moment. I hadn’t worked in a studio for a long time. So I sat there, grinding out original stories, two a week. Only I seemed to have lost my touch. Maybe they weren’t original enough. Maybe they were too original. All I know is, they didn’t sell.” – Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard

Ah, poor Joe. We can feel his pain (not really, since he’s narrating this as a corpse floating in a swimming pool. But I digress). Still, I love how screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett captured the writer’s dilemma—what should I write that has a decent chance to sell?

For writers still operating in the world of traditional publishing, that question is more important than ever. Publishing companies are being squeezed and must concentrate on big hits to survive. This makes it harder for a newbie to break in or, if they manage to get ushered through the gates of the Forbidden City, to receive what used to be called a “decent advance” and marketing support.

Indie writers must be market conscious, too, as the crush of content and reading choices grow ever larger. If you want to make decent scratch you have to provide products (plural) that a good number of people will want to buy.

The danger, of course, is the temptation to jump on a trend, or try to replicate what’s already been done. But demanding readers don’t want something that feels same-old. They want to be delighted, surprised, swept up. So do acquisitions editors.

They all want originality.

Just not so much that they can’t figure out what ride they’re on.

Which reminds me of the famous quip by Samuel Johnson who had been asked to review a manuscript. He wrote, “Sir, your book is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.”

Um, ouch.

(As long as we’re on the subject of literary snubs, I can’t help but quote what is reputed to be the shortest book review ever, attributed to Ambrose Bierce: “The covers of this book are too far apart.”)

So how could we have helped Joe Gillis? Where is the sweet spot for the writer who needs to sell in order to get his car out of hock?

As I assert in Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing, the sweet spot is where you find the most joy. Way back in 1919, a professor of writing at Columbia University, Clayton Meeker Hamilton, said this:

In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. (A Manual of the Art of Fiction.)

I think Professor Hamilton nailed it. When an author is joyous in the writing, it pulses through the words. When you read a Ray Bradbury, for instance, you sense his joy. He was in love with words and his own imagination, and it showed.

“For the first thing a writer should be is––excited,” writes Bradbury in Zen and the Art of Writing. “He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.”

“Let her go!” says Brenda Ueland in If You Want to Write. “Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate!”

You liked to play those things when you were a kid, right?

So play! Here are three ways to do it:

  1. Go to risky places. Bungee jump off the Bridge of Banal. The cord of a solid concept will keep you from crashing into the gorge.
  2. Have fun with minor characters. Make them spicy, not mere walk-ons. Never underestimate the power of comedy relief in a thriller. Alfred Hitchcock did it in almost every film (e.g., Thelma Ritter in Rear Window; Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers in Shadow of a Doubt).
  3. Make things harder on the main character. You thought that setback was bad? Make it worse. (This form of joy is not veiled sadism; it’s plot happiness! Readers will love you for it.)

So what about you? Where do you find your writing sweet spot?

11+

The Midstream Temptation

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m currently writing a series featuring a character named Mike Romeo. I have three books out in that series. I also have a little over half of the next Romeo completed.

But during my creativity time a couple of months ago, I was playing the first line game. That’s where I just make up first lines, not knowing anything else about what is to follow. I have a file full of firsts that I would love to develop someday. All I need is a 28-hour day and and a perpetual espresso machine.

Anyway, I wrote an opening line and it blasted me. I just had to know what it meant. So I found myself writing an opening chapter. And when I was finished I knew I had the makings of a stand-alone thriller that I wanted to write.

Only I wanted to write it now.

I call this the midstream temptation.

I was faced with a choice. Continue to write this new project, leaving Romeo sitting there waiting for me to get on with his story? Or finish Romeo and come back to the new one? (A third option, writing both at the same time, seems to have worked for Isaac Asimov, but it gets me too confused.)

When I was writing for a publishing company, they had a triple-barreled vaccine for the midstream temptation—a contract, an advance, and a deadline.

But as an indie, I am free to decide what to write, and when.

Now, I know enough about the mental game of writing to realize there’s a danger here all writers face. Sometimes you reach a point in a novel where you hit “the wall.” For me that’s usually around the 30k word mark. It’s a place where you’ve got a whole lot of book to go, but start thinking maybe your concept isn’t as hot as you thought. Or you wonder if you are really the writer you thought—or hoped—you were. Maybe the day of reckoning has come, and they’ll all find out you’re a total fraud!

For me, I just write through the wall. The doubts go away.

But that wasn’t the case with Romeo. I didn’t hit a wall. The book is solid. I know my signpost scenes.

So I had another thought (two thoughts in close proximity!). When I finish a first draft I always set it aside and let it cool for a time before my first read-through and edit. So! Why not let the Romeo cool off now? Use the cooling period to write this new one while it’s hot, and then approach my Romeo manuscript as if it is a first draft (a short one, to be sure)!

Which is what I decided to do.

This is the first time I’ve done something like this. The conditions had to be just right. So let me run through some thoughts on the matter:

  1. When you are tempted to leave a book in midstream for another idea, resist the temptation and keep writing on your WIP.
  2. If the new idea keeps demanding your attention, take one day off and…
  3. Put on your “thinking cap,” as Mrs. Barshay used to tell us Kindergartners. Ask yourself if you’ve merely hit a wall of doubt. I suspect a lot of the time the answer will be yes.
  4. Write some analysis. Talk to yourself about your WIP. Identify issues, and make a list of possible solutions.
  5. Keep at your WIP unless you are at a point where it’s pretty much complete in your mind. That means you have a good bulk of it done and are pretty sure where it’s heading, and how it’s likely to end. (Admittedly, this is more difficult for a panster. And it should be. Because you’re a pantser.)
  6. Take a day to do some freewriting on the new idea. Then take another day to map out where the story might go. Do a preliminary outline, at least of signpost scenes.
  7. Write the opening chapter. Then ask yourself if you, as a reader, would have to read on. Do you have compelling characters? Are the stakes death (physical, professional, or psychological)?
  8. If the answers to #6 are affirmative, take one more day to make sure you’re not going to the new project just to avoid facing the task of the WIP.
  9. Make your decision.
  10. Continue to meet your quota. (Don’t have a quota? Get one!)

I don’t know that I’ll ever do this again. My routine for twenty years is to finish a full draft while at the same time developing the next project with notes, index cards, character work and so on. I just got caught up in the excitement this time. The new idea kept tapping on the window, inviting me to come outside and play. And isn’t spontaneous play what we used to love as children?

Okay, so writers are big children. That’s how we roll.

But if we want to be paid for our play, we need more than a little discipline. So when a midstream temptation comes calling, subject it to hard and objective scrutiny. If it passes … go play!

And be sure to look both ways before crossing the street.

Have you ever had a major midstream temptation? What did you do? Do you ever hit a wall in your first draft? How do you handle it? 

6+

The Five Modes of A Writer’s Life

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So I was sitting around the other day with a bout of procrastination when I had a thought (I writertry to have at least one thought per day). I find, as a writer, I am usually in one of five modes: Flow, Go, Slow, No and Pro. I thought of adding another one for residents of New York and New Jersey – Yo! – but decided five was enough

Flow

Flow is a state of hyper focus, of total immersion in one’s creative work. In this mode you experience a mix of forgetfulness, play, joy, and “time quickening.” An hour feels like five minutes. Difficult tasks seem to melt before you. You are “in the zone.”

Jack London wrote a lot about flow, in all parts of life, but especially in the life of the writer. In The Call of the Wild he compares it to the elemental ecstasy of the animal in full beast mode:

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.

There you go, writer. Hunt that book!

So how do you get into the zone when you write? I’ve found it more or less sneaks up on you, that you can’t force it. But there is a way to make it more recurrent: Know your craft!

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (I’ll help you out. It’s pronounced MEE-high Chick-SENT-mee-high), in his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, stressed that flow most often occurs when the challenge of a task is met with an equal or greater skill level. When you know what you’re doing, and how to pull something off, you are more likely to experience flow. I love the speech in The Hustler with Paul Newman, where he describes to his girl what it’s like to play great pool:

EDDIE: Like, you know, anything can be great. Brick laying can be great, if a guy knows. If he knows what he’s doing and why and if he can make it come off.

When I’m goin’, I mean when I’m really goin’, I feel like a jockey must feel. He’s sitting on his horse, he’s got all that speed and that power underneath him, he’s coming into the stretch, the pressure’s on him, and he knows. He just feels when to let it go and how much. ‘Cause he’s got everything working for him – timing, touch. It’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a really great feeling when you’re right and you know you’re right.

It’s like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue’s part of me … You feel the roll of those balls and you don’t have to look, you just know. You make shots nobody’s ever made before. I can play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.

SARAH: You’re not a loser, Eddie, you’re a winner. Some men never get to feel that way about anything.

Study your craft and write with abandon and you will experience those times when you just know. It’s the greatest mode of the writing life.

Go

The next best thing to being lost in flow is being able to write at a good pace anyway. Get the words down. Turn off the inner editor and just go.

One way to do that is the writing sprint. You set yourself a goal of, say, 250 words. You make a little plan for what you’re going to write. It might be some action, some description, some dialogue, whatever. You think about it, then write without stopping.

You can set a timer for this, or use something like Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die.

When you get to the end of your sprint you might very well find that you’re in flow. So keep going.

Otherwise, take a short break and then do another sprint.

Slow

We all know there are times when writing is a slog. There are many reasons this may be. It could be physical—you’re just tired. Or it could be a part of your manuscript you’re unclear or unexcited about.

If it’s physical, take a power nap. I recommend them! Every day, sometime between one and three o’clock, I try to nod off for fifteen or twenty minutes. You can train your body to do that. I can put my feet up on my desk and lean back in my chair, or hit the sofa, and I’m off to dreamland in a minute or two.

Another idea when it’s slow going is to take a brisk walk in the sunshine. If you live in Buffalo and it’s December, do some jumping jacks in the living room … and then don’t live in Buffalo in December anymore.

If slowness is caused by being unclear or unexcited about your WIP, try this:

Skip ahead from wherever you are and write a fresh new scene. Before you start, let the scene play in your mind and tell your imagination to come up with one surprising thing. Out of the blue. Wild. Your character could do something you never thought he would. Or another character might pop in (Chandler’s famous “guy with a gun” perhaps?). Or create some crazy lines of dialogue.

At the very least, this exercise will produce new plot possibilities and more layers of character life. And it’s fun.

No

And then there are some days when you simply do not want to write, when it almost feels like you can’t type. Your fingers rest on the keys but refuse to move.

There may be several reasons for this.

It could be that familiarity has bred contempt. You just can’t stand looking at your project anymore. Perhaps you’ve hit a wall in your story and don’t know whether to jump over, tunnel under, blow it up, or go back the way you came.

Or it could be completely unrelated to your writing, such as a life crisis that saps your mental energy.

So the first thing to do is figure out why your brain is saying No. Journaling about it helps. Write to yourself in a free-form way, asking questions, letting your thoughts pour out on the page.

But don’t beat yourself up if you have to take a break. I am all for busting through barriers, but there have been times when I’ve given myself permission to just say No. I even build a day into my week for a “writing Sabbath.” I try not to write anything on Sunday. This lets my mind rest and usually results in new ideas and fresh energy on Monday.

Pro

The pro writer writes to a quota.

Now, I know some writers think a quota stifles creativity by putting “pressure” on delicate artist sensibilities. I say hooey. It’s the exact opposite. Having a quota actually pulls you forward so flow and ideas and productivity can happen.

My standard advice: find the number of words you can comfortably produce in a normal week. Then up that by10%. Make that your weekly goal and divide it up among your days and according to your schedule. Keep track of how you do each day.

A pro also keeps up on what’s happening in the publishing world – both traditional and indie – in order to make wise career choices. Keep abreast of what’s being offered in publishing contracts (Kris Rusch is currently running a great series on this subject. Start here.) Subscribe to industry blogs like Jane Friedman and follow observers like @Porter_Anderson. Put together your own list of go-to resources … and then go to them.

And then there’s marketing, which these days falls mainly on the author’s shoulders, even in traditional publishing. So we all have to give it attention, but here’s my thing: follow the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of your writing life should be devoted to the writing itself, the craft, the production. Twenty percent to the business and marketing side. Why? Because I’ve seen some fabulous marketers zigging and zagging all over the place, but with stinky books. That doesn’t build repeat business.

And repeat business is the name of this game for a pro. You get that when you write great books. So make that your primary focus.

For if you can deftly handle Flow, Go, Slow, No and Pro, you will greatly increase your chances of making something else – Dough.

Y’know?

So …

…what mode have you been in lately?

 

6+

Farewell

Nancy J. Cohen

Dear Friends,

I regret to announce that I am leaving the Kill Zone. I’ve been blogging on this site for five years, and it’s gotten harder to think of things to say and to cover new ground. I have learned much from my illustrious comrades, and I’m grateful for the time spent in this writing community. To readers and my fellow authors, your feedback and responses have been highly gratifying and much appreciated. I wish you all the best and a Happy New Year. It’s been a blast.

Please note that you can still follow my posts at Nancy’s Notes from Florida. I’ll hope to see some of you there when I’m not popping in at the KZ to leave a comment. Blessings to you all.

Nancy

11+

Mystery Movies

As the holidays approach, we may be looking for gifts that appeal to writers. In my house, movies are always welcome. Besides the classics like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, here are some of my favorites in the mystery genre or movies involving writers. A happy ending is a must for my taste. This list does not include TV series or the Hallmark Channel mystery movie collection.

movies

AMERICAN DREAMER with JoBeth Williams and Tom Conti.
One of my all-time favorites. A romance novelist wins a contest and a trip to Paris. En route to the awards luncheon, she’s in an accident and suffers a head injury. She wakes up believing herself to be the heroine in her favorite books. A spy caper follows that’s all too real, as she teams up with the author’s handsome son who thinks she’s a nutcase. That is, until someone tries to kill them.

DROWNING MONA with Danny DeVito and Bette Midler.
A funny whodunit in a small town with a wacky cast of characters.

GOSFORD PARK with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Northam.
An English drawing room mystery in the grand fashion that takes place at a country estate. Aristocrats and servants alike have secrets that slowly unravel during a hunting party weekend. Albeit a bit slow-paced, this film requires repeat viewings to catch the nuances.

HER ALIBI with Tom Selleck and Paulina Portzkova.
A hilarious escapade wherein mystery novelist Phillip Blackwood falls for a suspected murderess while searching for inspiration to unlock his writer’s block. Did the mysterious and beautiful foreigner have a hand in the victim’s death? If so, is he foolish to vouch for her alibi and bring her home? And are the accidents that ensue truly accidents, or is he next in line for her lethal highjinks?

MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.
A Manhattan housewife thinks her next door neighbor is a murderer. She enlists her friends to search for clues. Probably my favorite Woody Allen film out of all of them.

MURDER 101 with Pierce Brosnan.
English professor Charles Lattimore assigns his class to plan the perfect murder as a literary exercise, but when he’s framed for a woman’s death, he has to find the killer before the detective on the case finds him. Will his students help him solve a real murder, or is one of them guilty?

MURDER BY THE BOOK with Robert Hays.
A mystery novelist thinks he’s hallucinating when his hero appears in front of him and talks back. He’s been thinking of changing to a new series and scrapping the sleuth, but now he needs the fellow’s help to solve a real murder.

THE BOY NEXT DOOR with Dina Meyer and Christopher Russell.
A romance writer goes on a retreat to a small town to seek inspiration for her next story. When her next door neighbor is found dead, the chief of police suspects her. Even when her place is ransacked and someone tries to run her off the road, he discounts her theories and refuses to look into the incidents. It’s up to our heroine to prove her innocence and uncover the killer before his next attack turns fatal.

FLOWER GIRL (Hallmark Channel Movie)
This is a classic romance with an element of mystery. The heroine has to choose between two suitors: a staid lawyer approved by her mother, and a writer who answers evasively whenever she asks about his work. Guess who she’ll pick? The revelation at the end is reminiscent of American Dreamer.

What are some of your favorite films involving murder mysteries or writers? Note: I am on a cruise and will not be able to respond, but you can make suggestions and I’ll check back later.

5+

Even Writers Get the Blues

James Scott Bell

@jamesscottbell


Recently, TKZ’s own Jordan Dane wrote about getting through the “slumps.” I wanted to add to that, because all writers are subject to the writing blues from time to time.

Why should this be?
First of all writers, like most artists, are prone to highs and lows of the mind. One of the best things I ever wrote is a short story, “I See Things Deeply,” about a crazy uncle who was a poet, and suffered for it. But—But!—in return he saw things most men never see. He experienced life in a way that was richer and more colorful than the poor conformists who trudge through existence in the tight shoes of the ordinary.
This is also the theme of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus. I was lucky enough to see a production starring Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hulce. It’s about a psychiatrist trying to help a disturbed stable boy with a horse fixation. In probing the boy’s demons the doctor is forced to look at his own rather dull life. What has he sacrificed by being so (to put it bluntly) normal?
At one point, he says, “But that boy has known a passion more ferocious than any I have felt in my life. And let me tell you something, I envy it. That’s what his stare has been saying to me all this time: At least I galloped, when did you?”
Yes, but there is a cost to such vision. A multi-published friend of mine recently wrote this in an e-mail [used by permission]–
I do get blue and I do have doubts about being a fake or writing a good book. I get moody. I want to be alone at times. Other times I want to be a social butterfly. It’s a constant battle and sometimes I win. Other times, I just let the blues take over and wait for the fog to lift. Then I go back to my own little world where they at least understand me. 🙂  I’m no Zelda, but … I sure understand her fears.    
There is some science to back up the bluish tendencies of “creatives.” And of course we were all shocked by the suicide of one of the great creative artists of our time, Robin Williams. Shocked but perhaps not surprised. 
Further, we writers have many opportunities to sabotage ourselves. There are myriad things we can get anxious about: Am I any good after all? Why did that reader give me 1 star? How can I get anybody to notice my book? Why can’t I get an agent? Why is so-and-so doing so much better than I am? What’s my Amazon rank today? THAT’S my Amazon rank?
So it seems that the “writing blues” are a necessary adjunct to the artistic enterprise. But there are some things we can do to keep them from running roughshod over us.  
1. Learn to be grateful for what you’ve got
So you’ve self-published a novel and have only five downloads this year. First of all, realize you have been given a gift, the gift of getting your book out there for potential readers, of which you now have five (and yes, we WILL count your brother-in-law). Start by being grateful that you can type, that you can tell stories, that your imagination is on the move. And that you can learn to be a better writer. Which leads to:
2. Set up and follow a rigorous self-study program
The nice thing about writing is that there are abundant resources available for you to get stronger in the craft. Books published by Writer’s Digestand online by some really good people like K. M. Weiland, C. S. Lakin and Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. There are websites like Storyfix and The Plot Whisperer and the one you are reading now.
There is a page dedicated to my own offerings, which books I’ve labored to make easily readable and practical for writers of every stripe.
When you work at something, you’re being proactive. Activity is one sure way to drive the blues away. Do this: Take an objective look at your writing (you may need an outside source, like a freelance editor, for this). Determine the three weakest areas in your writing (Plotting? Style? Characterization? Dialogue?) and then find resources on them and study them out. Practice the techniques you learn.
I guarantee it will make you feel better. I love the craft and still diligently study it, but also remember this:
3. Write wild on your first drafts
Despite persistent internet claims to the contrary, Hemingway never said that writing means you sit down at the typewriter and bleed (it was actually sports writer Red Smith who talked about “opening a vein”). But it’s a proper sentiment for the writer. Give each scene you write the most creative and wild investment that you can. Get into “flow” by “being here now.” When you are in the zone, the blues disappear.
You all know about that “inner editor” that needs to be silenced when you write. Don’t think too much when you’re actually composing. That was Ray Bradbury’s great advice. He would start writing in the morning and “explode.” Then he spent the latter part of the day picking up the pieces.
Write hot. Then edit cool.
4. Know you are not alone
If you haven’t already, sometime soon you’ll get a case of the “review blues.” You are in good company. Even some of the best books of all time have their critics.
All writers (with the possible exception of Lee Child and Stephen King) face the-lack-of-sales blues, the envy-blues, the who-am-I-fooling blues and variations thereon. Which is why many a writer of the past turned to the demon rum for solace. Bad bargain. Instead:
5. Try exercise
It works. Get those endorphins pumping.
Another thing I do between writing stints: lie on the floor with my feet up on a chair. Then deep breathe and relax for about ten minutes. The blood flows to the gray cells and gives them a bath. The boys in the basement get to work. And I feel energized when I get up.
You’re a storyteller and the world needs stories––even if you have to slog through the swamp of melancholy to tell them. In fact, it may be that this very dolefulness is the mark of the true artist.
So stay true. Stay focused. And keep writing.
Do you ever get the “writing blues”? What do you do about them?

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Is Writing Success Like a Lottery System?

@jamesscottbell



There’s been a lot of blogosphere chatter about writing success being like a lottery. Something about that metaphor has always bothered me. For in a true lottery you can’t really affect your odds (except by buying more tickets, of course). But is that true for writers?
I don’t think it is. Just putting more books out there (“buying more tickets”) won’t help your chances if the books don’t generate reader interest and loyalty. Productivity and prolificacy are certainly virtues, but to them must be added value.
Hugh Howey had some interesting thoughts recently on timing and luck. Citing Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, Howey highlighted a fascinating factoid:
A list of the 75 wealthiest people in history, which goes all the way back to Cleopatra, shows that 20% were Americans born within 9 years of each other. Between 1831 to 1840, a group that includes Rockefeller, Carnegie, Armour, J.P. Morgan, George Pullman, Marshall Field, and Jay Gould were born. They all became fabulously wealthy in the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, just as the railroad and Wall Street and other industries were exploding.
From this Howey explains how he benefitted greatly from being in the right place at the right time, Kindle-wise. He had started writing in earnest in 2009, just as the neo-self-publishing movement was taking off. He did some things right, like early adoption of KDP Select and serialization. Look at him now.
But there is one thing he says I disagree with: “I know I’m not that good.”
Wrong. He is good. Very good. Woolwould not be what it is without the quality. Which Howey has worked hard to achieve.
Reminds me of the old adage, “Luck is where hard work meets opportunity.” I believe that wholeheartedly.
I went to school with a kid named Robin Yount. He was a natural athlete and an incredible Little League baseball player. In fact, my greatest athletic moment was the day Robin Yount intentionally walked me. Because Yount is now a member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
But it wasn’t just his natural giftedness that made him what he was. He happened to have an older brother named Larry, who made it to the big show as a pitcher. I remember riding my bike down to the Little League field one day and seeing Larry pitching ball after ball to his little brother. Robin Yount was lucky in the body and brother he was given. But he still had to work hard. Because he did,he was ready when, at age 18, he got the call from the Milwaukee Brewers.
Hard work meeting opportunity.
So I wouldn’t call the publishing biz a lottery system. What metaphor would I use? It hit me the other day: writing success is more like my favorite game, backgammon.
Backgammon, which has been around for 5,000 years, is brilliantly conceived. Dice are involved, so there’s always an

element of chance. Someone who is way behind still might win if the dice give him a roll he needs at a crucial moment.

On the other hand, someone who knows how to think strategically, can calculate odds, and takes risks at the right time, will win more often than the average player who depends mostly on the rolling bones.
Early on I studied the game by reading books. I memorized the best opening moves for each roll. I learned how to think about what’s called the “back game,” what the best “points” are to cover, and when it might pay off to leave a “blot.”
And I played a lot of games with friends and, later, on a computer. I discovered a couple of killer, though risky, opening moves. I use them because they can pay off big time, though when they don’t I find myself behind. But I’m willing to take these early chances because they are not foolhardy and I’m confident enough in my skills that I can still come back.
This, it seems to me, is more analogous to the writing life than a lottery. Yes, there is chance involved. I sold my first novel because I happened to be at a convention with an author I had met on the plane. This new acquaintance showed me around the floor, introduced me to people. One of them was a publisher he knew. That publisher just happened to be starting a new publishing house and was looking for material. I pitched him my book and he bought it a few weeks later.
Chance.
But I was also ready for that moment. I had been studying the craft diligently for several years and was committed to a weekly quota of words. I’d written several screenplays and at least one messy novel before completing the project I had with me at the convention.
Work.
Thus, as in backgammon, the greater your skill, the better your chances. The harder you work, the more skill you acquire. Sure, there are different talent levels, and that’s not something we have any control over.
But biology is not destiny, as they say. Unrewarded genius is almost a cliché. Someone with less talent who works hard often outperforms the gifted.
Now, that doesn’t mean you’ll always win big in any one game. If the dice are not your friends, things might not turn out as planned. That book you thought was a sure winner might sink. Or even stink.
But that doesn’t mean you have to stop playing.
Don’t ever worry about the dice. You cannot control them, not even if you shake them hard and shout, “Baby needs a new pair of shoes!” The vagaries of the book market are out of your hands. You can, however, control your work ethic and awareness of opportunity.
Writing success is therefore not a lottery. It’s a game.
Play intelligently, play a lot and try to have some fun, too.

So what about you? Do you believe in pure luck? Or do you believe there is something you can do to goose it?
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Now You Can Call Yourself A Writer

@jamesscottbell

There was a bit of a dustup recently over the issue of who should be “allowed” to be called an “author.” The incendiary post can be found here. A response, here.

Personally, I’ve always preferred the term writer. But I think it does come with a qualification. That is the subject of this post.
One comment I’ve often seen is, “Writers write.” Or, “If you write, you’re a writer.” That always reminds me of Jack Torrance in The Shining, and his page after page of All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. That ain’t writing, it’s typing.
If someone takes a nine iron, with no clue how to grip it or swing it in any reliable manner, and goes out hacking up perfectly good grass day after day after week after year, I would not call that person a golfer. To play golf so it doesn’t harm flora, fauna or people on the next fairway requires at least minimal practice and instruction.
This kerfuffle over labels reminded me of a journal handed down to me by a family friend, written sometime in the 1940s. It is the unpublished memoir of a pulp writer named William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster, who was born in 1893 and made his bones with the legendary Black Mask. Note: This paragraph is fiction. I made up Armbrewster the other day and typed out the following entry. I like the guy. I may bring him back in a future post. In any event, here’s a clip from his journal.


   The afternoon crowd at Musso’s was loud and obnoxious, like a haberdasher with a hangnail. I sat in the corner with my typewriter, pounding away at the new story for Black Mask. It was fighting me. It was pummeling me into the canvas. I was a bleeding mess. So I gave the business to my Martini and cursed the page mocking me from the roller. That’s when I noticed the kid. 
He was just standing there, holding his hat. He was maybe twenty-two, twenty-three, which made him a kid to me.
“Are you Mr. Armbrewster, the writer?” he said.
“Right now I’m Mr. Armbrewster, the stinker. Who are you?”
“My name’s Benny. Benny Wannabe.”
“So?”
“May I sit down?”
“If you buy me a drink. See that man over there behind the bar? In the red coat? His name is Joe. Go tell him to make another for Mr. Armbrewster and then you can sit.”
The kid romped off like a happy puppy. I looked at my typewriter and tried to make my detective say something witty. But he just sat there, the piker.
The kid came back and set a fresh one before me.
“Now, what can I do for you?” I said.
“Well, I…I’m a writer. I’ve read every story you’ve ever written. I think you’re the best. Even better than Hammett and Chandler.”
I was starting to like this kid.
“And I just wanted to meet you,” he said. “Somebody at the hotel said you like to work here, and so I took a chance and here you are.”
“You say you’re a writer, eh?”
“That’s right.”
“What have you written?”
“A short story.”
“One short story?”
He smiled, nodded. I took a snort of Martini. Then I popped the olive in my mouth, chewed, and scowled.
“Don’t call yourself a writer just yet, kid,” I said.
“But a writer writes,” he said. “So I’ve been told.”
I ripped the sheet I’d been working on out of the typewriter, crumpled it, and tossed it on the pile on the floor. “No,” I said. “A writer works.”
Benny Wannabe cocked his head, like that dog listening to the gramophone.

“Look, kid, it’s fine to want to write. It’s a hell of a business, though, and if you want to make any money at this thing, you have to work, and hard. You have to look at it as a craft, not some ethereal vapor dancing through your noggin, and sweat and fight until you figure out how to do it. Then you have to put your stuff out there, get rejected, fight some more and keep on writing and fighting and typing, until you die.”
“Gee,” Benny said.
I closed my eyes.
“I have my story with me!” The kid fished out some folded pages and handed them to me. I scowled again, then read the first paragraph.
The wind was a torrent that day, the day of my birth, the day of my beginning life’s sad yet remarkable sojourn, and the trees were golden with leaves that looked like little pots of gold with rainbows coming out of them, full of the promise of life and song and the iridescence of possibility. Suddenly, a shot rang out.
“I’m going to need another drink,” I said.
“Right away!”
When the kid came back I said, “Listen, Benny, do you really want to be a writer?”
He nodded.
“Not just so you can call yourself one. I mean, so you actually have a chance to make some lettuce at it. You do want to make lettuce, don’t you?”
“Oh, yes sir. I believe in lettuce.”
“Do you have a job, Benny?”
“I’m a writer!”
“Not yet you’re not. I mean, do you have any source of income?”
He shook his head.
“What are you using for dough?”
“My savings. I bought a train ticket, then got a hotel room down the street. The last of it I used on, um, your drinks.”
“You want my advice, Benny?”
“Oh, yes!”
I took a fin out of my pocket and slapped it on the table. “Buy yourself a train ticket home. Go back and get a job and marry the girl next door. Run for mayor or dog catcher. Join the Elks. Do anything but write.”
Benny’s face fell harder than Max Schmeling in the second Louis fight. He said nothing, trembled a little, and tears starting pooling in his eyes.
I looked at him for a long time. Fresh-faced kid, right off a turnip truck, but with a dream. Sort of like a kid I once knew a long time ago. Born in Cleveland, dropped out of college to ride the rails and see life, hoping to gather enough material to make himself a real writer, going off to war and coming home and writing for years without a sale, but never stopping because of the hunger for it, the love of it. I could see just a spark of that in the kid’s misty lamps.
“Okay,” I said. “You’ll need a job to keep a roof over your head. Go on over to Al’s Market on Sunset, tell him Bill Armbrewster sent you. Only don’t embarrass me.”
“I won’t, sir!”
“Then you agree to meet with me once a week, and write what I tell you to write, for a year. You willing to do that, Benny?”
“Yes, sir!”
“All right then. Now you can call yourself a writer. Take the fin. Go tell Joe we want a couple of egg-salad sandwiches and some soup. And between here and the bar make sure you grow a thick skin.”
“Yes, sir!”
I liked it that the kid’s enthusiasm was back, but enthusiasm only gets you so far in life. The ones who make it are the ones who can get kicked in the teeth, have all the stuffing knocked out of them, and still get up and come back typing.

If this Benny Wannabe could do that, he’d maybe make a real writer yet.

So what about you? When do you think someone should be called a writer?
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