Why I Teach Writing

by James Scott Bell

Something new from Writer’s Digest Books.

Just Write cover

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


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

I teach because I know what it feels like to be an unpublished writer wondering if he has the stuff.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s why I teach writing.

The Two Things Every Novel Needs

“Trouble is my business.” – Raymond Chandler
So you want to be a writer. You want to sell your novel to a publisher, via an agent, or maybe you’re thinking of going indie like 90% of sentient beings these days. Maybe you think if you do the latter, and do it fast, you’ll rake in a boatload of easy lettuce.
Well, you won’t. Unless your book has the two things every novel needs.
Without these two things, you will have no story. At least, no story most readers will care about. You might have an “experimental novel,” and that’s okay if you understand what experimental novel means. It means a novel that five people buy. (Please note: This may not matter to you, and that’s perfectly fine with me. Experimental artists have given us some good stuff over the years. A lot of bad stuff, too. But if that’s your corner of the artistic world, go for it. This is America, after all).
But if you want to sell your work and have a shot at generating income, you need to master these two elements.
They are Conflict and Suspense.
What is the goal of the novel? Is it to entertain? Teach? Preach? Stir up anger? Change the world? Make the author a lot of money?
It can be any of these things, but in the end, none of these objectives will work to their full potential unless they forge, in some way, a satisfying emotional experience for the reader.
And what gets the reader hooked emotionally? Trouble. Readers are gripped by the terrible trials a character goes through. (There are psychological reasons for this that are beyond the scope of this post).
That’s where conflict comes in. While there are writers who say plot comes from character, let me say that’s too simplistic. Character actually comes from plot. Why? Because true character is only revealed in crisis. Put your character into big trouble (plot) and then we’ll see what he or she is made of (character). If you don’t believe me, imagine a 400 page novel about Scarlett O’Hara where she just sits on the porch all day, sipping mint juleps and flirting. Gone With the Wind only takes off when she finds out Ashley is going to marry Melanie (trouble) and then the Civil War breaks out (big trouble!)
Another way to think about it is this: we all wear masks in our lives. A major crisis forces us to take off the mask and reveal who we really are. That’s the role of conflict in fiction: to rip the mask off the character.
Now, this conflict must be of sufficient magnitude to matter to readers. That’s why I teach that “death stakes” must be involved. Your Lead character must be facing death—which can be physical, professional or psychological.
Genre doesn’t matter. In a literary novel like The Catcher in the Rye, it’s psychological death. Holden Caulfield must find meaning in the world or he will “die inside.” Psychological death is also the key to a category romance. If the two lovers do not get together, they will lose their soul mate. They will die inside and forever have diminished lives (that’s the feeling you need to create. Think about it. Why was Titanic such a hit with teen girls? It wasn’t because of the special effects!)
In The Silence of the Lambs,it’s professional death on the line. Clarice Starling must help bring down Buffalo Bill in part by playing mind games with Hannibal Lecter. If she doesn’t prevail, another innocent will die (physical death in the subplot) and Clarice’s career will be over.
And in most thrillers, of course, you have the threat of physical death hanging over the whole thing.
That’s why, novelist friend, trouble is indeed your business. Without sufficient conflict readers aren’t going to care enough to finish the book.
The second element is suspense,and I don’t just mean in the suspense novel per se. Suspense means to “delay resolution so as to excite anticipation.” Another way to say this is that it’s the opposite of having a predictable story. If the reader keeps guessing what’s going to happen, and is right, there is no great pleasure in reading the novel.
We’ve all had the wonderful experience of being so caught up in a story that we have to keep turning the pages. This is where writing technique can be studied and learned and applied. For example, there are various ways you can end a chapter so readers are compelled to read on. I call these “Read on Prompts,” and it was one of the first things I personally studied when I started learning to write. I went to a used bookstore and bought a bunch of King, Koontz and Grisham. When I’d get to the end of a chapter I’d write in pencil on the page what they did to get me to read on.
Invaluable. Of all the reader mail I’ve received over the years, the ones that please me most are those that say, “I couldn’t put it down.” Music to a writer’s ears. Suspense will make music for you.
And again, genre doesn’t matter. You have to be able to excite anticipation and avoid predictability in any novel. 
I am so passionate about this that I wrote a whole book on the subject, and Writer’s Digest Books has just released it.

[Insert short commercial here!]
For the PRINT version:
[End commercial here with woman looking pleased with product]

I could go on and on about this subject, but we don’t want to overstuff one blog post. Suffice to say that if you were to concentrate almost exclusively on these two key elements for the next few months, your books will take a huge step toward that exalted “next level” everyone always talks about. Try it and see.
May your own new year be filled with plenty of conflict and suspense (on the page, I mean!)
NOTE: I will be teaching a workshop on conflict and suspense at the annual Writer’s Digest conference in New York, January 20-22. It’s the perfect time to travel to the Big Apple (just bring a coat). And it’s an awesome conference. Use this code: WDCSPEAKER12 when you sign up and you’ll get a $115 discount off the regular price (the home office says this is for new registrations only). Go to the WD Conference page to find out more.

How to Eat the Publishing Elephant

James Scott Bell

The elephant is our most versatile bestial metaphor. 
We sometimes refer to the big issue everyone knows is there (but no one is talking about) as “the elephant in the room.” Back in November of 2008, in conference rooms at publishing houses throughout New York, the elephant in the room was the Amazon Kindle. Was this device going to change publishing as we know it? Maybe no one wanted to talk about it back then, until the elephant broke out of the room and started stampeding all over midtown Manhattan.
Then there’s the story of the three blind men coming up to an elephant. One touches the tail, another the leg, the other the trunk. Each man assumes the elephant is something other than it is, because he has only one bit of data. This we can liken to those who think they know everything there is about publishing (or anything else, for that matter) when they only have experience with one part of it.
But the metaphor I want to work with today is the question, How do you eat an elephant? The answer, of course, is “one bite at a time.”
This applies to the world of successful self-publishing. Note the key word successful.It’s easy to self-publish (too easy, some would say). But to be successful at it is an entirely different matter.
A lot of people are expecting to eat the whole elephant in one bite. That’s because some of the early adopters did that. Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Blake Crouch – these are some of the names that jumped in early and did some heavy munching. Barry Eisler famously walked away from a traditional print deal and went E to feast on elephant. Bob Mayer, king of the backlist, consumed several elephants earlier this year when releasing all those titles close to one another. 
But these are the notable exceptions to what is now the undeniable rule: the vast majority of writers will not get anywhere near rapid success. And if they expect to, they will be sorely disappointed and may even chuck the whole publishing thing.
Which is fine. We need less content, not more, because most of the two million self-published offerings out there are, well. . . let’s just say the bulk of it pretty much affirms Sturgeon’s Law.
But if you want to be successful as an indie author, you can be – if you eat the elephant one bite at a time and chew thoroughly.
By “success” I mean making a profit. You can make a profit from your self-publishing if you do certain things and do them right (like knowing how to write. That really helps). How large a profit it is impossible to say up front. It may just be Starbuck’s money. Everyone’s mileage is going to vary. But here’s the rub: If you keep taking more and more bites, and do so carefully and with purpose, you have a chance to make more profit. That’s called “business.” If you want to be a professional writer, you are essentially running a small enterprise. Your job: provide value.
My business includes a traditional arm where I partner with publishers like Kensington and Writer’s Digest Books. It also now includes an indie division. I have taken a few bites at the indie elephant, wanting to learn as I go and see what works. I’ve studied the field, too. And while there are many things one needs to do well, the unalterable foundation is quality + volume. Thus, the elephant wisdom that has become evident over this last crazy year of indie publishing is: if you want to be successful at ityou need to be in it for the long haul, and by that I mean the rest of your life.
Let me repeat: the rest of your life.
If you are truly a writer, that won’t be difficult for you. But if you are just in this to try to make some easy lettuce, it will be. And should be.
A real writer writes, wants to write, would do it even if the prospect of making killer money was nil. Storytellers tell stories, which is why I plan to be found dead at my computer, my stone cold fingers over the keyboard. I only hope I have just typed “The End.” Or better yet, clicked “Upload.”

I will keep on biting the elephant. And when I’m old and toothless, I’ll gum the elephant. Because a real writer never stops.
Happy eating, friends. 

The Nighttime Novelist

When do you write? Do you have a schedule, or are you a “snatcher of time”? Mornings? Evenings? When the kids are in bed, or before they’re off to school?

We talk here often, in posts and in the comments, about day jobs and family life and finding time to write. Let’s face it, most writers do not have the luxury of lounging on a balcony overlooking the ocean, waiting for inspiration to hit them as the butler delivers another Piña Colada. (During this economic downturn, I had to let my butler go).
So, yeah, it can be a struggle not only to find time to write, but to know exactly what to do with the time you find.
That’s why it’s a pleasure to recommend a new book from Writer’s Digest Books, The Nighttime Novelist. (I need to mention that WD publishes my own writing books as well, but I would have recommended this tome regardless. You’ll just have to trust me on this).

The Nighttime Novelist is by Joseph Bates, who teaches creative writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. It’s laid out in a logical order, from developing ideas all the way to the revision process. So it’s possible to go from beginning to end and write an entire novel using the tips in this book.
But the greatest benefit is that you can go to it for help at any point in your story. 

There are three main sections: Beginnings, Middles and Endings. Each section is further broken down into areas like “Developing Initial Ideas” and “Crafting & Maintaining Suspense.” There are subsections, too, color coded as Technique, Hurdles and Going Deeper. So you may be having a problem, say, with one of your characters being flat. In the section called “Character Concepting” you’ll find a Hurdle called “Rounding Flat Characters.” Here you’ll find two pages of tips to solve that particular problem.

Or maybe your plans for Act Two seem a little forced. You can turn to Going Deeper in the “Middles” section and find advice on “Leaving Room for Organic Story Growth.”
Each section is relatively brief, so you don’t have to wade through a lot of generalized theory. I like to teach nuts and bolts, actual techniques that work. This is the approach Bates takes as well. It’s like having a reliable writing coach available for you any time of the day or night.
And that’s really the point here. No matter when you write, or how long you have to do it, you can use this guide to give you a little jolt of creativity or direction when you need it. The subtitle of the book is: Finish Your Novel in Your Spare Time.
The book also includes 27 worksheets, which are helpful for systematically filling out your own material. Giving focused thought to your story through these worksheets will help you fill in gaps you might have missed.
Here’s a sampling of some of the sections:
·      Finding an idea that’s “never been done before.”
·      Developing your supporting cast.
·      Finding your subplots.
·      Finding your voice.
·      The elements of effective description.
·      The shape and function of the second act.
·      Raising tension through dialogue.
·      Keeping your scenes kinetic.
And my favorite:
·      If you and your story could arm wrestle, who would win?
I’m all for writers getting any help they can, and having The Nighttime Novelist on your desk as a quick reference will definitely do that for you. And as I said at the outset, if you want to use it as a guide to writing a novel for which you only have an idea, you can follow it step-by-step to get to the finish line.
So when is your time to write? 

And what do you do when you reach a hurdle in your manuscript? You come to a “problem” you’re not sure how to solve. What’s your strategy for getting over that obstacle?