Why I Teach Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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:

AMAZON I BARNES & NOBLE I KOBO I iBOOKS I GOOGLE BOOKS

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I teach because I know what it feels like to be an unpublished writer wondering if he has the stuff.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.

19+

A Retreat for Renewal

I’m on the road today, wending my way home from the Retreat by the Sea, a writer’s retreat organized by Writer’s Digest. It was a fabulous weekend. This particular retreat is special because you are given the opportunity to have your own work reviewed during intensive sessions that focus on preparing your manuscript for submission to industry professionals. Other sessions are jam-packed with information about craft and shaping a story.

Our instructors were the talented author and reviewer Hallie Ephron; Paula Munier, a Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary Services; and Phil Sexton, Publisher of Writer’s Digest.

Discussion with agent Paula Munier

I had always been curious about what a writer’s retreat would be like, and this experience exceeded my expectations. In addition to the workshops and learning sessions, there was a wonderful bonhomie as the attendees got to know each other. I came away from the retreat feeling refreshed, renewed, and optimistic about the future of publishing. If you ever have a chance to go to a retreat (expecially this one!), I highly recommend that you seize the opportunity.

Have you been to a writer’s retreat before? How was the experience for you?

0

A Retreat for Renewal

I’m on the road today, wending my way home from the Retreat by the Sea, a writer’s retreat organized by Writer’s Digest. It was a fabulous weekend. This particular retreat is special because you are given the opportunity to have your own work reviewed during intensive sessions that focus on preparing your manuscript for submission to industry professionals. Other sessions are jam-packed with information about craft and shaping a story.

Our instructors were the talented author and reviewer Hallie Ephron; Paula Munier, a Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary Services; and Phil Sexton, Publisher of Writer’s Digest.

Discussion with agent Paula Munier

I had always been curious about what a writer’s retreat would be like, and this experience exceeded my expectations. In addition to the workshops and learning sessions, there was a wonderful bonhomie as the attendees got to know each other. I came away from the retreat feeling refreshed, renewed, and optimistic about the future of publishing. If you ever have a chance to go to a retreat (expecially this one!), I highly recommend that you seize the opportunity.

Have you been to a writer’s retreat before? How was the experience for you?

0

How Much Money Is In the Self-Publishing Game?

@jamesscottbell



I have a good friend who is a big-time business guy. One of his pet sayings is, “Data drives decisions.” In a bottom-line world, you can’t depend on sentiment, heart, hope, dreams or desire. Those all may factor into starting a business. But if the business is not making a profit, and you have hard data showing you why, you either change course or go under.

Does “data drives decisions” have any quantifiable purchase in the world of book publishing? When I became a published writer, having come out of a background in both law and business, I looked at the industry from a writer’s perspective and said to myself, “This shouldn’t be called a business at all. There are too many variables and quirks outside of anyone’s control. There is no way to reach an assurance level on ROI (return on investment). This is more like craps.”
Publishers are more in line with business practices, but even they cannot escape the gaming analogy. I mean, look at the wild 1990’s in publishing and the crazy money being thrown around, and what was happening? Publishers rolling the dice and occasionally coming up with seven. But more often than not it was snake-eyes, and books they thought would be sure hits were flops. Occasionally a book that had minimal support shot up to huge popularity. When other publishers tried to replicate that, it usually didn’t work.
I think the phrase, “What’s up with that?” started in a Manhattan conference room during those years.
Now we have entered a new world where the rules of the game are even murkier. Everyone’s trying to figure out what works. And what data to analyze.
Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest conducted a 2013 survey of authors to try to get at some answers. The survey asked the writers to identify as Aspiring, Self-Published, Traditionally Published, or Hybrid. One part of the survey took a look at how much money writers in each category are making. Predictably, the hybrids are doing the best vis-a-vis annual income. The income stream is analyzed by Dana Beth Weinberg over at the DBW site. I commend the article andthe comments to you. A couple of pull-outs:
The survey results show that hybrid [authors are] achieving greater success with their self-publishing efforts than…authors who only self-publish, but they don’t tell us why.
This is probably immune to precision. There are so many factors that are not replicable, and the landscape changes almost weekly. But there are clues:
Perhaps the greater focus on earning income among hybrid authors or their experience in traditional publishing leads them to make more strategic decisions about what to self-publish, how to bring it to market, and how to promote it.
This is undoubtedly so. The more you approach this game with a strategy, the better your odds of making some bank. Perhaps a more suitable analogy is blackjack. If you know the fundamentals you can almost draw even with the house. If you know how to count cards, you can improve your chances significantly. Which is why if they catch you counting cards in a casino, Sal escorts you out.
Or perhaps [hybrid authors’] greater success is the result of little more than the name-recognition boost that comes with having a brand developed in the traditional publishing world.
I would say there is more to it: the ability to write, proven over time.
Or maybe their success is a matter of selection: The hybrid authors surveyed were good enough to break into traditional publishing due on average to some greater talent or marketability that also translates well into the world of self-publishing.
I wouldn’t make any claims about talent, but I have worked hard on my craft from day one. When self-publishing became a viable option, I do think I’d reached a certain professional level I could depend on.
For authors deciding how to publish their work, the key question is this: Is there some set of practices that any author might adopt to improve chances of gaining readers and income from self-publishing, or are there advantages related to being a traditionally published author that might remain out of reach for the vast majority of self-published authors?
After a year-and-a-half into my own self-publishing journey, seeing not only what worked for me but also a number of colleagues, I set down what I saw as the key

principles, and came up with 5 absolutely unbreakable laws. I stand by them. They are the foundation for creating your own “set of practices” for self-publishing success. 

For example, the primary law is, “Write the Best Book You Can.” The set of practices you design to make it so might involve craft study, writing, feedback, writing, finishing, revision, craft study, coffee, more writing. Plans are unique, but the writer who pursues a strategic and thought-out approach to getting better is more likely to win in the end. 

The data from the DBW/WD survey also gives a realistic snapshot of what kind of winnings writers might expect. Big returns are rare but they do exist. This is, not surprisingly, what the entire world of free enterprise is like. Boffo successes are always fewer than tanks, near-misses and modest returns.
  
I would also remind writers of two axioms from the world of business:
Quality is Job #1.
Your mileage may vary.

Remember those two things. The first will keep your priorities straight and the second will keep you sane. And keep writing, because you won’t win if you don’t play.
0

7 Things Writers Need to Do Right Now

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


Heraclitus, that old pre-Socratic philosopher who shuffled along the streets of Athens in 450 B.C. thinking deep thoughts, called reality a river, and famously noted, “You can’t step in the same river twice.”


He would not, therefore, have been surprised in the slightest by the changes in the publishing industry. For the only thing certain about the future of books is that none of it is certain. The flow of innovation continues apace and the river is filled with rocks, waterfalls and more than a few overturned kayaks.


But look at all the writers with life vests on. And some even shooting the rapids with a whoop and holler. If you want to survive and even thrive in the rush and spray of publishing today, you need to do the following:

1. Elevate your game

Here’s the deal for the rest of your life: you’re going to have to keep getting better as a writer. You have more competition. There’s a growing number of writers out there who know what they’re doing, and are hungry, and are after the same readers you are.
True, there’s an even larger number of writers who don’t have the stuff yet, and won’t put in the hard work to get it. They’ll eventually get frustrated and drop off the map. But, like a Hydra’s head, they’ll be replaced by nine more writers who areworking at this thing.


Be one of the workers. Write to a quota and set aside at least one hour per week to study the craft. Doing those two things consistently will get you further downstream than anything else. Every now and then go to a writer’s conference, or sign up for a specialized workshop like, ahem, this one. Subscribe to Writer’s Digest and at least scan every article. I always pick up a few things with each issue.

2. Understand publishing contracts

The traditional publishing world is still there. It’s big and it’s venerable. Sure it’s tight, but there are still deals being made. If you decide to go that route, learn what key contract terms mean. Especially understand non-compete clauses, option clauses, termination and reversion of rights. A good place to start is in the “Contracts” archive of The Passive Voice.
Have the attitude that many things are negotiable, but also understand your “leverage” depends on your track record (if any), the size of the publishing house and how much you desire to be traditionally published.
Strategize with your agent and determine: a) what you would LOVE to have in the contract; b) what would be NICE to have; and c) what you absolutely MUST have. Make sure your c) list is short and reasonable. Ask yourself if you are prepared to walk away from a deal if you don’t get your c) terms. If you’re not, make them b) terms.
Writers and publishers need to understand it’s more possible than ever to forge a win-win deal if the parties are flexible and creative.
3. Take more risks
Editors and agents all say they are looking for a “fresh voice.” What they mean is a fresh voice they can actually sell. Everyone wants to land in that sweet spot where originality and commerce meet to make that ka-ching sound.
You will grow as a writer, and get closer to that sweet spot, if you take more risks with your writing. Push yourself past comfortable limits. Deepen your style and character work. Especially if you’re doing genre books where we’ve seen just about everything many times over.
As I said when I made my own “risky” move (which has ultimately been worth it to me), don’t be afraid to “fail aggressively.”
4. Begin a self-publishing stream
There is absolutely no reason anymore for a writer not to have a stream of income from self-publishing. When approached the right way this will not only result in steady revenue, but also build that ever-loving “platform” everyone talks about. You will be making readers. Traditional publishers are starting to get that. There is no longer a stigma to self-publishing.
But, and I emphasize this, only if you approach it systematically and in a businesslike fashion.
Fortunately, the business fundamentals are not difficult to understand. I call these fundamentals The 5 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws for creating steady income as a self-publisher.
5. Set goals
Not everyone is a goal setter. Which is a little hard for me to understand, because I’ve been setting goals most of my life. Writers want to achieve. They want to publish, sell, make readers. To give yourself the best shot, you need to set goals that you can actually control, and work toward them every day.
Did you know that if you set down written goals and regularly work toward them, you immediately jump into the top 3% of achievers in any field? So why aren’t you?
There’s a Kindle article that fully and completely sets out the fundamentals of goal setting. It’s called How to Achieve Your Goals and Dreams. I had a goal to write it, so I did.
6. Work smarter
In addition to goals, there is the matter of using your time wisely. Do this: Look at the calendar of your upcoming week (I do this on Sunday). Fill in the places where you have obligations (job, soccer practice, appointments). Now look at the empty slots and start filling them with writing and studying time.
Anthony Trollope wrote almost 50 novels while working full time as a civil servant (of course, this was in the era before Twitter and Angry Birds. But I digress). He did it by finding the time to complete his quota of words. Day by week by month by year.
7. Stay cool
You can get yourself all tied up in knots about this crazy business. You can look at sales numbers and Amazon rankings and bad reviews and friends’ successes and your own perceived disappointments (though I maintain nothing is wasted in a writer’s life if he refuses to be defeated). There are going to be striking developments requiring fresh decisions, and those same decisions may look different to you a month later. 
But stay frosty. The way a writer does that, the best way, is to write, to have pages to work on every day. To be developing other projects even as you are working on your WIP. Here’s a favorite quote from Dennis Palumbo: “Every hour you spend writing is an hour not spent fretting about your writing.” (Writing from the Inside Out)
So don’t fret, type. Shoot the rapids. Live large.
I’ll see you downriver.

Anything else you would add to the list?  

0

My Meeting With America’s Greatest Living Writer

James Scott Bell


I was in New York last month for the annual Writer’s Digest conference. Mrs. B and I got there a couple of days early to do some New Yorky things—like going to see Alan Rickman in a new Broadway play about writers, strolling through a snowy Central Park, sampling the hot pastrami at Katz’s Deli.
But the highlight by far was getting to sit down for an hour with America’s greatest living writer.
That designation, of course, is highly subjective. I would think that it would have to be someone who’s been at it a long time. Half a century at least. And someone who has put out a prodigious amount of work that is of the highest quality.
In fiction, Ray Bradbury snaps immediately to mind. Living in So Cal, I’ve had the chance to meet and chat with Mr. Bradbury on a few occasions. He is one of my writing heroes and would get a lot of “greatest living writer” votes.
But if we also include non-fiction writing in there (and why shouldn’t we?) the man we met with definitely deserves a place at the table.
William Zinsser is, of course, the author of the classic On Writing Well. I picked up a first edition in hardcover when it came out, and it’s been something of a “bible” for me ever since. Whenever I write my non-fiction books, an article (or blog post!) I am always thinking Zinsser—cut the clutter! Believe in your own identity! Care about the words, because they’re the only tools you’ve got!
Zinsser the writer is a master of the personal essay. He’s like Mark Twain without the overt jokiness. His humor pads up softly and tickles you, emerging naturally out of the subject. That’s how Zinsser was trained, starting with his time at the New York Herald-Tribune. The story was the star, not the ego of the reporter. Getting the facts right was job number one. Mendacious embellishment was the gravest of sins.


Mr. Zinsser has written eighteen books on a variety of subjects. My absolute favorite is a little gem of cultural history, Writing With a Word Processor. 

Published in 1983, it is the account of his transition from typewriter to computer. It still makes me laugh. Even though the technology aspect is dated, the writing remains fresh, clear and hilarious. I’ll sometimes take it off the shelf and read a random chapter to my wife, and we’ll laugh again at how he captured that historical and hysterical slice of life.

So when Mr. Zinsser consented to have Cindy and me up to his apartment on our recent trip, I was ecstatic. It was also an honor, for he told us that we were the first “guinea pigs” in this latest phase of his life.
You see, glaucoma has forced William Zinsser, at age 89, to finally cease his prodigious output of the written word. He has decided now to concentrate on his role as a mentor and encourager of writers, to help them in any way he can. “I’m still working out how that will look,” he said.
So we sat and talked. About writing and his career. He is a fourth generation New Yorker. He’s always lived in the city, not counting a stint in North Africa and Italy during WWII, and in New Haven when he taught at Yale.
After the war, he “cadged” a job at the newspaper he grew up with, the Herald-Tribune.It was here he learned the lessons on writing he would live by and pass on. As to the facts: Get it right. As to style: Second best is no good.
He did his work on a classic Underwood typewriter. “I’m a child of paper,” he told us. “And that Underwood is still in my closet.”
Zinsser loved working on the newspaper, but saw it sadly decline in the late fifties due to mismanagement. When he couldn’t take it anymore he quit and became a freelance writer. This was quite a switch, from regular paycheck to the uncertainty and fickleness of the freelance life.
It didn’t phase him. “You have to make your own luck,” he said. “No one’s going to do it for you.”

So he wrote for the top magazines––Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post––until they died. He made more of his own luck by turning to teaching––at Yale and later at the Columbia School of Journalism and the New School.
He finally put his words of writing wisdom into On Writing Well, which doesn’t sound like the title of a blockbuster. But, 1.5 million copies later, it certainly qualifies.

I don’t care if you write fiction or non-fiction, books or blogs. If you write anything that has to connect with a wide readership, and you don’t own a copy of On Writing Well, order it now. It needs to be in every writer’s library.

I would also highly recommend Mr. Zinsser’s book about his own writing journey, Writing Places. It is one of the most enjoyable memoirs I’ve ever read.
You can also read his most recent essays online. For two years, until his retirement, he wrote a weekly essay for The American Scholar. Check them out. It’s a master class in writing.
When our chat was over and we were about to leave, Mr. Zinsser reflected on the new technologies available for the writer these days. They are about convenience, but not essence. They don’t fundamentally change what writing has always been about.
“We are all in the storytelling business,” he said, “whatever the technology you’re set up with. Most of what I’ve done, frankly, is tell a story.”

0

My Meeting With America’s Greatest Living Writer

James Scott Bell


I was in New York last month for the annual Writer’s Digest conference. Mrs. B and I got there a couple of days early to do some New Yorky things—like going to see Alan Rickman in a new Broadway play about writers, strolling through a snowy Central Park, sampling the hot pastrami at Katz’s Deli.
But the highlight by far was getting to sit down for an hour with America’s greatest living writer.
That designation, of course, is highly subjective. I would think that it would have to be someone who’s been at it a long time. Half a century at least. And someone who has put out a prodigious amount of work that is of the highest quality.
In fiction, Ray Bradbury snaps immediately to mind. Living in So Cal, I’ve had the chance to meet and chat with Mr. Bradbury on a few occasions. He is one of my writing heroes and would get a lot of “greatest living writer” votes.
But if we also include non-fiction writing in there (and why shouldn’t we?) the man we met with definitely deserves a place at the table.
William Zinsser is, of course, the author of the classic On Writing Well. I picked up a first edition in hardcover when it came out, and it’s been something of a “bible” for me ever since. Whenever I write my non-fiction books, an article (or blog post!) I am always thinking Zinsser—cut the clutter! Believe in your own identity! Care about the words, because they’re the only tools you’ve got!
Zinsser the writer is a master of the personal essay. He’s like Mark Twain without the overt jokiness. His humor pads up softly and tickles you, emerging naturally out of the subject. That’s how Zinsser was trained, starting with his time at the New York Herald-Tribune. The story was the star, not the ego of the reporter. Getting the facts right was job number one. Mendacious embellishment was the gravest of sins.


Mr. Zinsser has written eighteen books on a variety of subjects. My absolute favorite is a little gem of cultural history, Writing With a Word Processor. 

Published in 1983, it is the account of his transition from typewriter to computer. It still makes me laugh. Even though the technology aspect is dated, the writing remains fresh, clear and hilarious. I’ll sometimes take it off the shelf and read a random chapter to my wife, and we’ll laugh again at how he captured that historical and hysterical slice of life.

So when Mr. Zinsser consented to have Cindy and me up to his apartment on our recent trip, I was ecstatic. It was also an honor, for he told us that we were the first “guinea pigs” in this latest phase of his life.
You see, glaucoma has forced William Zinsser, at age 89, to finally cease his prodigious output of the written word. He has decided now to concentrate on his role as a mentor and encourager of writers, to help them in any way he can. “I’m still working out how that will look,” he said.
So we sat and talked. About writing and his career. He is a fourth generation New Yorker. He’s always lived in the city, not counting a stint in North Africa and Italy during WWII, and in New Haven when he taught at Yale.
After the war, he “cadged” a job at the newspaper he grew up with, the Herald-Tribune.It was here he learned the lessons on writing he would live by and pass on. As to the facts: Get it right. As to style: Second best is no good.
He did his work on a classic Underwood typewriter. “I’m a child of paper,” he told us. “And that Underwood is still in my closet.”
Zinsser loved working on the newspaper, but saw it sadly decline in the late fifties due to mismanagement. When he couldn’t take it anymore he quit and became a freelance writer. This was quite a switch, from regular paycheck to the uncertainty and fickleness of the freelance life.
It didn’t phase him. “You have to make your own luck,” he said. “No one’s going to do it for you.”

So he wrote for the top magazines––Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post––until they died. He made more of his own luck by turning to teaching––at Yale and later at the Columbia School of Journalism and the New School.
He finally put his words of writing wisdom into On Writing Well, which doesn’t sound like the title of a blockbuster. But, 1.5 million copies later, it certainly qualifies.

I don’t care if you write fiction or non-fiction, books or blogs. If you write anything that has to connect with a wide readership, and you don’t own a copy of On Writing Well, order it now. It needs to be in every writer’s library.

I would also highly recommend Mr. Zinsser’s book about his own writing journey, Writing Places. It is one of the most enjoyable memoirs I’ve ever read.
You can also read his most recent essays online. For two years, until his retirement, he wrote a weekly essay for The American Scholar. Check them out. It’s a master class in writing.
When our chat was over and we were about to leave, Mr. Zinsser reflected on the new technologies available for the writer these days. They are about convenience, but not essence. They don’t fundamentally change what writing has always been about.
“We are all in the storytelling business,” he said, “whatever the technology you’re set up with. Most of what I’ve done, frankly, is tell a story.”

0

My Lunch With Larry


Every writer needs a mentor. Or at least someone to offer encouraging words during those dark, dismal days of doubt (like when you use too much alliteration and wonder if you’ll ever get this writing thing right).
Many writers had an English teacher or creative writing instructor in school who gave them encouragement. I had the good fortune of taking creative writing from Mrs. Marjorie Bruce at good old Taft High. She saw something in me when all I saw was a jock who wanted to play college hoops. She really got me going and believing in myself as a writer, and I kept in touch with her for the rest of her life, until she passed into that great classroom in the sky at the age of 90.
I went to college where they undid some of Mrs. Bruce’s good work. There I was told: Writers are born, not made. You can’t really learn this stuff. You either have it or you don’t. And I certainly didn’t have it. I thought writers just sat down and plots and great characters burst out of their fingertips without any effort whatsoever. And I couldn’t do that.
So life went on, I did other things, got married, went to law school. But one day I woke up and realized I still wanted to write, that the desire had never gone away. So I set out to try to learn what they said couldn’t be learned.
And one of the first people I found who helped me along was Lawrence Block. I read his book, Writing the Novel, and knew at last I had found the encouraging mentor I was looking for. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest and read Larry’s fiction column every month. I still have big binders on my shelf full of old copies of the magazine, with his columns copiously underlined.
He seemed so able to communicate what it feels like to be a writer, and how a writer thinks. I never read any column of his where I didn’t nod my head at least a couple of times, thinking here is a guy who really gets it. And he’s generous enough to give it to others.
But it wasn’t just his instruction, it was his fiction. The first novel of his I read was Eight Million Ways to Die. It blew me away. I consider it one of the classics of the crime genre. It motivated me. I wanted to be able to write a book someday that packed that kind of punch.  
Years later, when I was offered the fiction column at Writer’s Digest, I felt like some junior prophet who was taking over the sacred page from Moses. It was a privilege, and I tried my best every month to give readers what Larry had given me.
So it was great to catch up with Moses a week ago at the annual Men of Mystery gathering. Authors and fans of mystery and suspense fiction were there to have table talks and lunch, with Larry as the keynote speaker. His riffs on how he writes, how he stumbled into series, how he picked up one series after a quarter-of-a-century gap––these once again took us into the mind of a consummate pro.
Lawrence Block has won all the mystery awards, some several times, and has a publishing record that is among the top in the field. And he still takes time to go out and encourage writers and talk to fans.
Nice.
So who has been your mentor, or encourager? What did that person give to you that you needed to hear?

1+

A Helluva Town

James Scott Bell
The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down. The people ride in a hole in the ground. – Betty Comden and Adolph Green, On the Town

I love New York. Last week I was there, teaching at the first-class 2011 Writer’s Digest Conference. Great turnout despite the cold. How cold was it in the city? It was so cold I saw a lawyer standing on the corner with his hands in his own pockets.
Ba-dump-bump.
But yeah, it was not walking around weather. At least not a lot. But my wife and I didn’t let that stop us. We had a couple of meals with Mort, my former NY apartment mate (from my acting days) and with my agent, Don Maass. Stayed at a great boutique hotel on the East side, the Elysee on 54th, which I highly recommend if you’re looking for convenient location (we took the Air Train from JFK, then the E train to within a block of the hotel) and complimentary evening wine and hors d’oeuvres.

We ended up doing a lot, though we didn’t take in a show. We’re not crazy about the gigantic musicals. We prefer Off Broadway. So we were tempted to go see Alan Rickman in John Gabriel Borkman at BAM, but decided traveling to Brooklyn in sub-zero weather to take in an Ibsen play might lead to intractable despair and pretty much cloud the rest of the trip.
We did get up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where we were blown away by the wall sized piece called “Earth and Heaven” by African artist El Anatsui.  Also by the exhibition of photographs by Stieglitz, Steichen and Strand. I love photography from the early 20th century, when the art of it was just getting underway. Amazing the emotion Stieglitz captured with such primitive equipment.
They also had a Rodin exhibit that knocked me out. He’s like Van Gogh with sculpture. Intense and riveting. You know, if you could write first drafts with the feeling of a Rodin, you’d be 90% of the way toward successful fiction.
Ah, the food. Here are places we ate that I would recommend:
Indigo Indian Bistro, 357 E. 50th Street. Family owned, pleasantly run and just the right spices.
I Trulli, 121 E. 27th. Wonderful Italian fare.
Rocking Horse Café, 8th Ave. and 19th. Excellent Mexican in Chelsea.
Also, the street hot dog guy on 7th and 52d.
Don’t miss the High Line next time you get to NY. No, wait a second. Do miss the High Line when it’s below zero wind chill. Cindy and I walked about a quarter mile of it before we cried for mercy and ducked for cover in the new Chelsea Market. Now that’s a great place to hang out, in any weather. They’ve got upscale stores and markets and live music, all in the old National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) building.
I guess, at heart, I’m a city boy. I grew up in L.A., lived in New York and Chicago. I love London and San Francisco in doses. Nashville’s a nice town. I’m down with Denver, too.
What about you? What’s your favorite city to visit?  Or if the city is not your thing, where would you go with a free pass from an airline and a hotel?

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Opening No Nos

Writer’s Digest has come out with a special issue called “Write Your Novel in 30 Days.” It’s not their monthly magazine, but a stand alone. And it’s terrific. I say this not because I have a few articles in it (he notes with sly self-promo) but because it’s really got great substance cover to cover.
One section has a collection of things not to do in your opening chapter, based on statements by literary agents. Here are some clips (I highly recommend you read the whole issue).
Excessive Description
“Slow writing with a lot of description will put me off very quickly,” says Andrea Hurst. And this is something you’ll hear all the time.
So how do you set an opening scene? Do it with an interplay of action and description. Get the action started first, then fill in just enough information to tell us where we are.
But you’re a literary writer, you say? You love style? Well, if you’re really good, like Ken Kesey’s opening pages in Sometimes a Great Notion, go for it. But you can still start with action and drop in wonderful, styling description later.
Voice and Point of View Fuzziness
“A pet peeve of mine is ragged, fuzzy point-of-view,” writes Cricket Freeman.
This is especially important when writing in First Person POV. We need voice, we need attitude. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or Philip Marlowe in any of Chandler’s books. Don’t be bland.
Clichés
My friend, agent Chip MacGregor, lists several, including:
1. Squinting into the sunlight with a hangover in a crime novel. Done to death.
2. A trite statement (“Get with the program” or “Houston, we have a problem.”)

3. Years later, Monica would look back and laugh . . .
4. The [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] land.
Other Pet Peeves
1. Descriptions making the characters seem too perfect.

2. Too much backstory.

3. Information dumps.

4. A grisly murder scene from the murder scene from the killer’s POV.

5. Dreams.

6. Too much exposition in dialogue.

7. Whiny characters.

8. Characters who address the reader directly.
So there you have it, a handy list of no nos in your opening. Does that mean these are “rules”? I know how you rebellious and creative writers hate rules, so no, they aren’t. But they will increase your odds of turning off an agent or editor.
So resist the temptation. When you get a deal, then you can fight to begin your novel another way if you see fit.
But first you have to sell, and these bumps will keep you from that goal.

Okay, let’s talk. What do you think of these no nos? Do you have others?

What do you like to see in an opening? What hooks you?
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