R.I.P.

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_twitter

This is an elegy to a dear old friend who’s been with me through more than a decade of writing trials, tribulations, and triumphs.

Assisted by this helpmate, I wrote guest posts that led to becoming a regular at TKZ (the best gig I’ve ever had) along with countless nonfiction articles.

This same friend worked quietly, patiently, and tirelessly with me as I wrote a thriller series that started with Instrument of the Devil. That book fulfilled a 30+-year dream of having a novel traditionally published.

The same friend stayed beside me through the seven novels in the series, but finally, tragically, faltered near the end of the eighth book.

I’m talking about my beloved, dependable, familiar Windows 7 laptop.

Okay, stop laughing about my anachronism. I never claimed to be on the leading edge of technology.

I don’t usually get attached to inanimate objects, but, from the beginning, this computer was different, special.

Back in 2012, the computer I was using quit, and I needed a new one. I was happy with the Windows 7 system.  But, at that time, Microsoft was launching Windows 8 with lots of fanfare.

8 received many jeering reviews and complaints. I decided it wasn’t for me. Turned out 8 wasn’t for anyone else either.

Dang it, I wanted another Windows 7 laptop.

My terrific husband knows how important writing is to me and he was going to make sure I had what I wanted. He went on a quest to buy one.

But…after combing numerous stores in northwest Montana, he learned all current laptop stock had been ordered back to Microsoft to be retrofitted with 8. Despite customer dissatisfaction, they were determined to ram their new system down consumers’ throats…or maybe up where the sun doesn’t shine.

Because my husband believes the impossible only takes a little longer, he refused to concede defeat and continued his search. At one store, he persuaded an employee to climb up a ladder to the rafters (where they stored extra stock) on the off chance that a 7 laptop had been overlooked. Amazingly, he found the last 7 in northwest Montana, probably the entire state, maybe even the continent. 

He brought it home and presented it to me. I couldn’t have been happier or more touched if he’d given me a diamond ring.

Because of his extra effort, right out of the box, that Windows 7 laptop was precious.

For the next decade, it worked its little hard drive out with nary a blip or crash. From time to time, a virus wormed past security software but, after a few sick days in the shop, it was back on the job. Even when Microsoft ended support for Windows 7 in 2020, it continued to function as dependably and trouble-free as ever.

Then, early one morning this past December, disaster struck.

I was about three-quarters of the way through Deep Fake, the eighth book in my series, working hard to finish it for January release.

Without warning, the screen on the 7 went black. Rebooted. It started, worked for a short time, then went black. The hard drive felt unusually warm. After it cooled down, my husband rebooted and managed to run tests before it went black again.

Diagnosis: The hard drive was failing.

As mentioned before, I’m not one who gets attached to inanimate objects. But, that morning, I felt physical grief—a hollow, helpless desperation in the pit of my stomach. As if a beloved friend had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

More than a decade’s worth of my writing life was in that machine. Fortunately, most files were backed up on thumb drives and an external hard drive. You didn’t really expect this dinosaur, stuck in the prehistoric 7 world, to use “the cloud,” did you?

We rushed my 7 to the Staples hospital where a valiant young tech named Will harvested data from the gasping hard drive before it expired for good.

Will performed transplant surgery, trying to save its life with a new drive. We brought it home but, like human terminal illnesses, it went from crisis to crisis, sliding downhill. Back to the hospital for CPR, home again, back for an experimental procedure, home again. For several weeks, Will tried one extraordinary, heroic measure after another.

Finally, I brought 7 home for the last time. My faithful old friend couldn’t be saved.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older but, these days, I cling tighter to loved ones. Losing friends used to mean we’d chosen different life paths or moved away or simply grown apart. Now, more often, losing friends means the final goodbye, never to see them again.

I bid farewell to my beloved 7.

I’ve transitioned to a MacBook Air that had previously been a secondary computer used for Zoom, power points, and social media. Good thing the Mac is not a sentient being. Otherwise, it would feel my seething resentment as I learn to type on its unfamiliar keyboard with unfamiliar commands. File organization is much different on a Mac than the PC operating system I’m used to. My work has slowed to a crawl.

People keep asking when my next book is coming out. Soon, I say.

Yeah, I’ll get used to the Mac…eventually…reluctantly.

Dear old 7, I wish you could have finished one last book with me. But you worked long and hard and deserve to rest in peace.

~~~

TKZers:

How important is familiarity to your workflow?

  1. Very
  2. Moderately
  3. Not at all

How much do changes in systems or software disrupt your routine?

  1. Not much
  2. Somewhat affected
  3. I’m jumping off a bridge.

~~~

 

My new thriller, DEEP FAKE, is coming “soon.” Please sign up at my website to be notified when it’s out.

Early Writing, Early Dreams

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The first novel I ever wrote was about a boy who sneaks aboard a pirate ship. I was in third grade, in Mr. McMahon’s class at Serrania Avenue Elementary School, deep in the heart of the post-World War II paradise known as the San Fernando Valley.

It was in this fertile land that babies boomed, along with the blast of rocket engines being tested at Rocketdyne. Nestled between the Santa Susana and Santa Monica mountain ranges, this piece of Earth extends 25 miles east to west, 13 miles north to south. It was “discovered” by the Spanish expedition under Gaspar de Portolá in August of 1769.

The Spaniards, of course, encountered the native inhabitants, who called themselves, simply, the people. The Spaniards called them Fernandeños, for they had decided to name this valley after King Ferdinand III.

In the latter part of the 1940s, returning servicemen came back from fighting Hitler and Tojo and staked claims in the housing developments of the Valley.

One of them was Arthur S. Bell, Jr. During his service in the Navy he met and married a beauty named Rosemary, and after the war built a house for them in Woodland Hills—yes, built, as he had learned the carpentry trade—and had a couple of boys. He went to law school at USC. After graduating he began his practice. All was going according to plan when his wife announced a little “surprise.”

They named the surprise James Scott. Scott is a family name, all the way back to James Winfield Scott who fought with Sherman in the Civil War.

The neighborhood in which young JSB grew up was teeming with kids. The neighbors all knew each other. They came out on summer evenings to sit on a stoop outside the Koteki household to drink beer and smoke and talk, as the kids played all around them.

Even as night fell, we kids rode bikes without helmets or helicopter parents watching our every move. We played hide and seek, kick the can, hit the bat. But not spin the bottle, which was forbidden to children of our age, but was whispered about as a pastime of the teenagers. It involved kissing girls, so I was not at all interested in becoming a teenager. Girls had cooties.

But I was talking about my first novel. It was written on my big brother’s notebook paper, three holes on the side. Four pages in all, including illustrations.

When I showed it to Mr. McMahon, he said, “This is a good idea.” Later that day he announced to the class that “Jimmy Bell wrote a book. It’s this big. You can look at it after school. I’d like each of you to take a week and write a book, too.”

I was already influencing a generation of young writers.

It is a tragedy of minimal proportions that this early work of literary genius is lost and will not be among the papers I leave to the University of Southern California (which may mean just leaving them on the table at the Trojan food court). But it’s in my head, and I can see it even now. The first illustration was a boy, barely more than a stick figure, climbing the anchor chain to get aboard a ship.

The boy’s name was James Green.

James, because that’s such a wonderful name, and evidence of my incipient desire to live vicariously through the adventures I was making up. Green, because that was my favorite color, for it was the color of the togs of both Peter Pan and Robin Hood, two of my heroes.

Peter Pan, because he could fly and fight pirates.

Robin Hood, because he could laugh and shoot arrows and sword fight with Basil Rathbone. Also because he could win the heart of Maid Marion, who was played by Olivia de Havilland in the movie, and who I was in love with. Or, I guess, had a crush on, considering my tender years. After watching The Adventures of Robin Hood, I concluded girls did not have cooties after all.

My friend Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, a standard text for screen and fiction writers, would say that all this was my “call to adventure.”

I think he’s right, because Peter Pan and Robin Hood never left me. They are with me still.

So there I was, writing an adventure story about a boy on a ship, sensing even then that this was what I wanted my life to be about—going on adventures, and what better way to do that than write story after story where I could live my dreams?

Do you remember your first attempt at writing a story? Tell us about it. At that time in your life, what did you dream of doing someday?

Reaching for the Brass Ring

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In the good old days of carousels, there was a little item called the brass ring. According to one source:

Brass ring devices were introduced during the heyday of the carousel in the United States – about 1880 to 1920 – as a way of creating interest in the ride. Some rings were made of steel, some made of brass; if you grabbed the brass ring, you got a free ride.

Then the lawyers stepped in.

Today, reaching out and grabbing for the brass ring has been deemed an insurance risk, so very few carousels allow them anymore.

Ah, lawyers. But I digress.

The term has come into our language to mean gaining a prestigious outcome. “His book became a runaway bestseller. He got the brass ring!” It was also something hard to come by; most people missed the brass ring…and some fell off their wooden horse trying to grab it.

I almost got one during my acting days.

My agent sent me to audition for a new TV series. So off I went to MGM Studios in Culver City. I was directed to a sound stage and given “sides”—a portion of a script to go over. I sat down with several other actors of the “young leading man” type. We all gave each other the side-eye, knowing we were competitors.

The part was for the son of a steel mill foreman. The originator of this series, Skag, was none other than Abby Mann, Academy Award winner for his screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). He went to a career in TV creating, among other shows, Kojak.

One by one the actors were called into another room, where a camera was set up. Behind a table sat three people to assess the talent.

My turn came and I read my part with one of the casting folks reading the part of the father.

You never know how you do in those things. But at least I’d made it onto the MGM lot!

Gable!

Tracy!

Bell?

As I was walking toward my car, I heard one of the casting people calling my name. She told me to come back inside. They wanted me to read again.

Only this time I was going to read with the star of the series.

A few minutes later I was standing in front of another camera getting ready to read with Mr. Karl Malden.

Karl Malden as Skag.

Karl Malden! Academy Award Winner (Best Supporting Actor for A Streetcar Named Desire) and a man with so many incredible credits.

Here was my brass ring!

I gave it my best shot and floated on air back to my grungy Ford Maverick, dreaming of being able to replace it with a sporty Corvette.

About a week later I got a call from my agent. He brought me down to earth with the news that I didn’t get the part. It had come down to me and another actor. Only this actor had been in a couple of movies, and thus had “a name.” He had copped my brass ring!

That’s an actor’s life for you.

Skag had a cast member I knew personally—Powers Boothe. I’d been in a New York production of Othello with Powers, who snagged his own brass ring when he was cast as Jim Jones in a miniseries about that madman. Powers went on to a great career, including a memorable turn in Tombstone (1993).

The part I was to play went to Craig Wasson, who’s had a nice career of his own.

And what of the actor James Scott Bell? A few months after his miss he snagged a brass ring of another kind when he met a beautiful actress at a friend’s birthday party and wed her six months later.

Figuring a young family needed one steady income, I changed course and went to law school.

Some years later, I walked from my law office in Woodland Hills to grab lunch at Chipotle. Inside, sitting alone and munching, was Craig Wasson.

“Craig?”

He looked up.

I said, “We were up for the same part in Skag. I came in second.”

“Wow,” he said. “You still acting?”

“Nah, I’m a lawyer now.”

“Good choice,” he said with a rueful smile. We exchanged a few pleasantries—nice fellow—and that was the bookend to my brass ring miss.

But here’s the thing. I had at least at least touched the brass ring. My fingertip skimmed across it. That is something. And it may even be a healthy thing. A recent study found that “prioritizing goals emphasizing … personal growth, and striving for meaning in life may have positive biological correlates.”

What’s the brass ring for you? Is it to make the NYT bestseller list? To get a #1 category rank on Amazon? Or maybe just to get more than a handful of readers for the books you self publish?

Whatever it is for you, reaching for the brass ring is a positive aspiration…as long as you don’t miss the ride! The ride is the main thing, after all—the carousel, the up-and-down of your horse, the music playing, the lights flashing, people laughing.

Writing is a carousel. Enjoy it while you can.

So what if you miss the brass ring? If you haven’t fallen off your horse, you’re still on the ride. And as the old ad man Leo Burnett once put it, “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud, either.”

What’s your brass ring?

More important: are you enjoying the ride?

It’s Crucial to Know Who You Are as a Writer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Brandon Sanderson

Have you heard about what Brandon Freaking Sanderson is doing? As they used to say in the 60s, “It’ll blow your mind, man.”

Last Tuesday Sanderson made a “surprise announcement” via YouTube, telling his fans that over the course of the last two years he has produced four—count ’em, four—“secret” novels. Instead of releasing these books through a traditional publisher, Sanderson is running a Kickstarter campaign to sell directly to his readers. The books will be delivered each quarter in 2023. And not just books. At certain levels supporters receive a box of Sanderson swag in each of the other eight months.

When you run a Kickstarter, you choose a minimum goal for your campaign. If you don’t hit it, the pledges aren’t collected. Sanderson set his goal at $1 million.

In one day his pledges hit $15 million

In three days he raised over $20 million (from 84,600 backers) and officially became the most successful Kickstarter in history. And the campaign is open until the end of the month!

It doesn’t stop there. After the books are delivered, Sanderson will turn around and license those rights to a traditional publishing company and reap those royalties, too. 

This is, in short, an awesome display of how to exploit intellectual property. 

However, some things to keep in mind at this stage of my post.

  1. You are not going to make millions via Kickstarter. 
  2. Kickstarter campaigns are notoriously difficult to run successfully. The time and effort do not, in my opinion, offer enough Return on Investment (ROI). Sanderson is an exception because of his enormous popularity and the fact that he has a “team” to help him. Just thinking about the fulfillment aspect of this project makes my head explode. But if anyone can pull it off, he can.
  3. Forget about Kickstarter.

If that is so, why am I bothering to write about this? First of all, it’s publishing news. It’s viral. And it’s amazing. Just thought you’d like to hear about it if you haven’t already.

Second, to get to the basic reasons why Brandon Sanderson is able to do this, note that he is: a) a very good writer; b) prolific; and c) nurturing of his fans.

Thus, while very few writers ever get to the Sanderson level, we can do the same three things within our own sphere. To wit:

Be Good

You know me. I believe in a never-ending self-improvement program for writers. We expect that from doctors and plumbers; why should we not expect it from artists who ask us to spend money on them? 

Write, study, write, get feedback, improve. Write. That’s how you get to be good.

Be Prolific

Brandon Sanderson is a writing monster. I mean, not only has he written his own epics, he hired on to complete another massive series after the original author died! (The Wheel of Time books). 

Not many of us have the time to produce on that scale. But we can all produce with the time we have. I’ve said it often here and in my workshops, and I still consider it the best piece of advice I got as a new writer—write to a quota. I put it this way: figure out how many words a week you can comfortably produce. That means what you can write without turning the rest of your world—family, friends, day job—into a maelstrom of stress, anxiety, recrimination, illness or the desire to overeat. 

Be easy on yourself. Find your comfort zone, then up that total by 10% as a stretch goal. Make this a weekly quota divided into six days. That way, if you miss a day, you can make it up by writing a little more on the other days. Take one day off to recharge.

If you miss your weekly number, forget about it. Start your new writing week fresh. 

Be Nurturing

As your readership grows, find ways to connect with your audience. You can do this by:

  1. Growing an email list. Give away free content in exchange for signing up (I offer a free novella). Put a link to this in the back matter of all your books. 
  2. Communicate with your list regularly. Once a month is good. Every other month minimum.
  3. Make your communications fun to read. You don’t want readers to think you’re just more spam. If they like the content of your communication they’re much more likely to buy what you pitch to them.
  4. When readers contact you, answer them, and soon.
  5. Have a minimum social media presence. I say minimum because the key, in my opinion, is to pick the few that you enjoy and don’t try to spread out everywhere. My social media is:
    1. TKZ, because I love it here.
    2. A Twitter profile that I guard carefully from controversy (there is no benefit in that. Twitter is not the place for nuanced discussion). 
    3. A mini-social media site of my own, via Patreon, which I enjoy immensely because I can write short fiction for fans and interact with them there.

Could I do more? Yes, but I’ve calculated the cost/benefit for me is ultimately negative. I want to spend most of my creative capital writing more books.

As a final thought, I’m sure many writers look at the Sanderson numbers—and the numbers of many others in a higher income level—and feel some variation of envy over the money being made. Don’t let that happen. Every writer wants to make good dough and therefore has to utilize business thinking to one degree or another. But that degree depends on your personality and what kind of life you want to live.

For example, the quest for success can wreak havoc on personal relationships (you could have asked any one of Norman Mailer’s six wives about that). Money is a powerful motivator but can also be a menacing siren. As a wise Nazarene carpenter once observed, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed—life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

On the other hand, a writer who creates without even a sideward glance at the market should not later howl at the moon because his stuff doesn’t sell.

Balance is the key. It’s different for each of us. I feel, after over 25 years in this game, that I’ve found my sweet spot. That doesn’t mean I don’t continue to learn and explore ways to increase my revenue. But I don’t run after every money-making morsel like a hungry ferret. Thus, don’t look for me on Kickstarter or doing dance videos on TikTok (my daughter is greatly relieved). 

And whenever doubts or disappointments start to creep in—Am I doing enough? Am I fooling myself? Will I ever be as successful as ____? Or even ____?—determine to write just one more sentence…and write it!  Then write the one after that. Get lost again in the joy of making stuff up. That is your safe haven, your home sweet home.

In short: Carpe Typem. Seize the Keyboard!

The questions for the day are as follows: Do you have an idea of what kind of balance you want from your writing life? Do you feel stress about any aspect of it? How would you describe your ideal writing profile?

Spider Writers

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I usually spend a bit of the early morning outside. Mrs. B has created a lovely garden spot in our back yard. There’s a Celtic cross under an arched trellis, with creeping vines all over, and I’ll sip some coffee and have a little quiet time. Good for the brain and the soul.

The other morning, quite by chance, I saw something wondrous—a beam of sunlight illuminated a silvery, gossamer thread about eight feet in length. It was a single strand of spider web extending from our overhang to about twelve inches above our outdoor table. From there a more intricate web spread outward, like a pyramid, with three strands mooring it to the surface. A miracle of art and architecture!

I had Cindy come outside to see it. We gave it a full minute of admiration before I reluctantly took it down. As I did I said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Spider. I really am.”

I gave the anonymous arachnid no further thought.

The next morning I came out as usual. And once again the sunlight revealed that overnight the same spider had constructed the exact same web!

This time I had not the heart to take it down, for I know that spider must be a writer.

Spider webs are made of silk, a natural protein fiber. The material comes from an underside structure on the spider’s abdomen called a spinneret. In this way, a spider can seriously maintain it is creating art from the gut.

And isn’t that what writers do?

We toil and spin. We reach deep inside. We weave a dream onto the page. (This metaphor is also pursued in Larry Block’s excellent Spider, Spin Me a Web.)

And when we release our work it is sometimes summarily taken down—rejected by publisher or agent, ripped by critic or reader reviews. All that work!

So what do we do?

We go back to the keyboard and spin again.

We’ve talked recently about persistence and why we write. But maybe there’s one thing we ought to learn from the spider: We write simply because that is what we do.

To me that’s the difference between a writer and a hobbyist. Nothing wrong with the latter, mind you. A hobbyist can make some nice lettuce through productivity and business sense.

But a writer is someone who can’t contemplate not writing. William Goyen expressed it this way:

“I can’t imagine not writing. Writing simply is a way of life for me. The older I get, the more a way of life it is. At the beginning, it was totally a way of life excluding everything else. Now it’s gathered to it marriage and children and other responsibilities. But still, it is simply a way of life before all other ways, a way to observe the world and to move through life, among human beings, and to record it all above all and to shape it, to give it sense, and to express something of myself in it. Writing is something I cannot imagine living without, nor scarcely would want to. Not to live daily as a writing person is inconceivable to me.” (The Writer’s Chapbook, George Plimpton, ed.)

Now, I don’t mean that there aren’t times when we need a break. Rest is as much a part of the writing life as typing. That’s why I normally write six days a week and take Sundays off to rest. I always find I’m raring to go on Monday. I’ve taken two or three weeks off near the end of a year to think through my goals for the next twelve months.

I also understand completely when even highly successful writers may want a longer break from the hamster wheel. I do suspect, however, that at some point there will be a tug in the gut, that yearning to spin another web.

Because that’s what we do.

George Bernau was a San Diego lawyer who nearly died in a car accident. In the hospital he took stock of his life and “decided that I would continue to write as long as I lived, even if I never sold one thing, because that was what I wanted out of my life.” He had discovered he was a spider writer and went on to write some popular thrillers.

So…

Do you ever contemplate giving up writing for good? Think you actually could do it without your Spidey sense luring you back? 

Do you take breaks from writing? How do you feel when you’re away from the keyboard for any length of time?

 

Advice to a Budding Author, Old-School Version

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The other day I was rooting around in some old files and found a document from 2003 titled “Budding Author Questionnaire.” I wrote it to answer some questions a high school student sent me. His assignment was to find someone who was doing what he wanted to do someday and conduct an interview.

It was a stroll down memory lane to see what I advised the lad. Remember, this was four years before the Kindle arrived and changed everything. Self-publishing was not an option. The only way forward was by way of the Forbidden City.

Which was probably why Dorothy Parker once quipped, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

But one should never toss cold water on the hopes of high school students. They’ll get to real life soon enough.

So I wrote the following answers. I thought it might be fun see if you think any of it still applies…or what you would add. (Do so in the comments.)

Here we go:

What training does a career in writing require?

Mostly it is self training. You must teach yourself to write. You can read good books on writing, take courses, go to writing conferences, etc. But the most important thing you do is write, each day if possible, and apply what you are learning. You learn by writing, trying, seeing where you need to improve, finding out how to improve, and writing some more. There is no shortcut.

In college I wrote to an author I admired asking some of these same questions. He wrote back and said, “Be prepared for an apprenticeship of years.” He was right.

Are you in a particular genre of writing?

I write thrillers, mostly legal thrillers.

What additional special training did it require?

Since I’m a lawyer, I have that background. But I have also written in other fields, such as bio-technology. You can stretch your mind and experience through research, interviewing experts, and actually participating in some activities you wouldn’t normally touch. Writing, in this way, becomes an exercise in personal growth.

What natural abilities or interests are needed for a career in writing?

You should love to read, and be moved by books. You should have some love of words and the rhythms of language. You should be something of a dreamer.

What is the approximate starting salary range for authors?

Using “salary” with fiction writer is like using “sure thing” at the racetrack. There is no regular or predictable income.

Fiction writers get an “advance against royalties” and then the royalties themselves—if any. The advance is a portion of what the publisher thinks the book, when published, will earn in sales. First-time novelists, being unknown commodities, do not demand large advances (though there have been exceptions for first novels that publishers thought would be blockbusters. However, many of these bombed, which hurt the authors’ careers.)

The average annual income for fiction writers in the U.S. is something like $3,000. But that is skewed. A handful of authors make millions; a large number make virtually nothing. My goal, and the goal I advise for new writers, is to try to build your audience progressively by writing better and better books. Gain the publisher’s confidence that you can turn in a solid performance every time. Then you will make some money, too. And there’s always that racetrack chance you’ll win the trifecta, and join the John Grishams or Danielle Steels—just don’t bet the farm on it.

I don’t advise “quitting your day job” too soon. Having a dependable source of income is a wise idea unless and until you have enough of a sales record to be able to count on book income alone. Even then, you might consider keeping a low-stress side job, like price checker at the 99¢ Store.

Is there good job availability for those who choose writing?

There is always room for another superb writer. It’s hard to break in, but if you are consistent and persistent, and show that you can produce over and over again, you might make it.

Would you rate the opportunities for advancement as poor, fair, good, or excellent?

As with anything in our capitalist system, the opportunities for advancement are tied to the value that you offer an employer. If a publisher begins to make money from your books, and you stay productive, your chances to build a career are good to excellent.

But writing, as with all the arts, does not offer as predictable a path as other work, where you can pretty much know that Effort X will result in Reward Y.

That’s why you need to write for more than just financial gain. You’ve got to write because writing itself is a reward.

Could you list a particular advantage to being a writer?

You can’t beat the hours. Or the dress code. During the summer I work in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. If I go to Starbucks, I wear flip flops.

A particular disadvantage?

Not knowing how much your next royalty check is going to be. Also, writing concerns can easily take over your life, which is a real threat to more important things, like your spiritual life, family life, etc. You have to keep watch. If writing becomes the most important thing in your day-to-day existence, you could end up like Fitzgerald or many another writer who turned to the bottle for solace.

Do you have any special advice for someone interested in writing (such as college courses to take, things to study)?

Read some good books on the craft. Take classes, sure. But remember to put into practice what you’re learning. Try stuff. Show it to others. Get feedback. Develop “Rhino skin,” which means you can take criticism without dying the death of a thousand cuts.

Remember, no criticism of your writing is personal unless it’s accompanied by a punch in the nose.

Are there any current problems faced by most authors?

More and more books are being published, an estimated 114,487 in 2001, compared to 39,000 in 1975. This is good news and bad news. Your chances of being published are increased a bit, but your chances of getting noticed in the avalanche are smaller.

The only way to get (and keep) that notice is to become known as someone who writes quality books—emphasis on the plural.

Why did you choose writing as your profession?

Writing chose me. It was something I couldn’t not do. Even if I never made any money, I was going to write. At the very least I was going to publish at Kinko’s and distribute copies to my family until they shouted “Mercy!” And then I was going to find another family to torment.

Looking back across your career and where you are now, was it worth everything you did, everything you sacrificed to get where you are?

The “sacrifice” is really countless hours spent trying, studying, trying again, surviving disappointment and on and on. But since that was the only way I was going to get anywhere in the writing game, it was certainly worth it. I loved the learning. Flashbulbs would go off when I discovered something, and then saw I could do it. I still love that aspect of the craft. I will never stop trying to learn to do things better.

Not to discount the frustrations and obstacles. They are real. But if writing is what you must do, and you love it, you can keep going. I like this quote from a long-ago professor at the Yale Divinity School named Grenville Kleiser:

Be done with the past, save where it serves to inspire you to greater and nobler effort. Be done with regrets over vanished opportunities, seeming failures, and bitter disappointments….Be done with the “might have been” and think of the “shall be.”

I wish you abundant success in your future endeavors.

Sincerely,
James Scott Bell

Keep on Clacking Till Your Soul Goes Packing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We writers have a great gig, don’t we?

We get to play in our imagination every day. We bring characters to life or—even better—watch as characters come to life while we write. We dream. We create plots and scenes and twists and turns.

Some of us have day jobs (or, as Brother Gilstrap used to put it, “my big-boy job”) and write when we can. Others do this for a living. Still others occupy a middle position where they have some days they can dedicate to clacking away at the keyboard. (As a Southern California boy, I have to admit I love being able to “go to work” in shorts, flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt. I enjoyed practicing law but didn’t like having to wear a suit and tie every day!)

But maybe the thing I love most about the writing life is this: I can write as long as I’m a sentient being. I never have to quit. And I can effortlessly slide into the role of crusty but benign eccentric who mumbles aphorisms—even to other people—and still hits the keyboard each day.

In fact, I know how I want to look when that time comes. Like this:

Donald Hall, photo by Gary Knight, www.garyknight.org. Used by permission

That’s writer Donald Hall as posted by The Paris Review. In the accompanying essay, Hall (now deceased) reflects on the approach of his 90th birthday. There he is in comfy pants and T-shirt, a favorite chair, hair a bit mussed, surrounded by books, some of which are on the floor as his active reads. Perfect! (I’ll have to check with Mrs. B about the beard, and I’ll probably be barefoot much of the time.)

On Hall’s wall is a print of the famous Andy Warhol painting of Elizabeth Taylor, which got me wondering what one picture or painting I would like to have hanging over me as I approach 90. Something noir-ish, I suspect. Heck, I already have it—a movie poster from the 1953 re-issue of Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum.

Trivia note: The original poster for Out of the Past from 1947 has Mitchum with a cigarette. So why not in the re-issue poster? Because 1953 was after Mitchum’s infamous bust for smoking reefer. He did two months in the jug for that, and most people thought his career was over. But Howard Hughes, who owned Mitchum’s contract, figured out Mitchum’s “bad boy” image was catnip for the bobby-soxers. Mitchum became more popular than ever. But when Out of the Past was re-issued, there was no need to remind people of the arrest by sticking what could have been a joint in his mouth!

Back to Donald Hall. He ruefully compares his earlier writing life with his present:

Back then, I wrote all day getting up at five. By this time, I rise scratchy at six or twitch in bed until seven. I drink coffee before I pick up a pen. I look through the newspaper. I try to write all morning, but exhaustion shuts me down by ten o’clock. I dictate a letter. I nap. I rise to a lunch of crackers and peanut butter, followed by further exhaustion. At night I watch baseball on television, and between innings run through the New York Times Book Review. I roll over all night. Breakfast. Coffee.

Of course an octogenarian scribbler is going to be a tad slower than his thirty-year-old former self. But Hall did something each day, and that’s the point—not stopping.

Printed newspapers will probably be gone by the time I’m 90, but coffee will remain. Coffee is forever. And so is storytelling.

So, TKZ friends, imagine your ninety-year-old self. How do you look? What are you doing? What picture is hanging on your wall?

Riding the Writer Roller-Coaster

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

First off, thank you for all your wonderful support for the launch of my new thriller, Your Son Is Alive. The print version is now available.

Launch week is usually a high for an author, though nerves can be set a-jangling as we wonder what the reception will be.

Which brings up the subject of the roller-coaster ride that is the writing life. For as we all know there are ups and downs and curves and twists. Sometimes it’s exciting. Other times you get queasy. Which is why you should never launch a book after a big Italian dinner.

Ahem.

We all know this gig is rife with opportunities for that devil disappointment. Our human condition can’t avoid it. We construct hopes for ourselves and our work knowing there are plenty of rocks and boulders ahead in the rushing waters of the marketplace.

This is not just in our professional lives, of course. It’s there in every other aspect of our existence on this good Earth. We are hopeful beings, we strive and and work and desire. Sometimes those things turn out exactly as we envisioned. Most of the time not so much.

I remember when my son began playing baseball. He developed into a pretty good pitcher at a young age, and there was one game where he gave up a home run that lost the game. It crushed him. As the other team was running onto the field cheering, he was standing on the mound trying not to cry.

I went out to the mound and put my arm around him and bucked him up as best I could. Then later, over ice cream, I tried to impart a little bit of stoic wisdom. “Most of life is about losing,” I said. “It’s how we handle the losses that make us or break us.”

I told him that in moments like this, when a home run is given up or such like, I would allow him one great big DANG IT! He could pound his glove as hard as he could. He could feel it for a moment, he could shout, “Dang it!” But after that he was to begin the task of forgetting it and getting ready for the next batter or the next game.

It’s a lesson he learned well. He went on to become one of the best pitchers in the league. During the season he had a bad inning against the strongest team. It was brutal. And they let him know it, the way little boys do. They jeered and threw shade. He pounded his glove as the coach relieved him.

Then came the championship game, and he faced that same team. As he stood on the mound they began to jeer again and try to rattle him. He proceeded to mow them down. And his team won the championship.

I consider that one of the best moments of both our lives.

This is how we should handle disappointment in our writing life. Our book goes out there and doesn’t perform as well as we would like. Or we get a scathing review. Or a rejection from an editor. Or Aunt Hildegard says, “When are you going to grow up and go to dental school?”

Give yourself a great big DANG IT! Pound your glove (but do not kick the dog). Then get back to your keyboard. One of the great truths about writing is that when we are in “the zone,” disappointments melt away. When we come out of the zone, the harshness may try to revisit, but it won’t be as strong. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Let me offer three more bits of stoic wisdom:

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others

Comedian Tom Shillue has a great five-minute video on the perils of comparison. Here is part of what he says:

If my happiness were based on being the biggest comedian in the business, I’d be mad at whoever was getting more Netflix specials than me. (I have zero.)

If it were based on having the best TV ratings, I’d be mad at Jimmy Fallon. He beats me every night.

And if it were based on being rich, I’d be mad at a lot of people.

And even if I were rich – really rich, like #10 on the Forbes 400 rich – I’d be mad that there were nine other people richer than me. It never ends.

Comparing yourself to others creates a totally unrealistic measure for what constitutes success. And I know, because the entertainment business is all about unrealistic expectations.

He concludes: “Professional success is about making a living, pursuing excellence, and finding meaning in what you do.” (You might also be interested in this video by the redoubtable Joanna Penn on the dangers of comparing yourself to other writers … and how to get over it.)

  1. Keep expectations in check

While it’s good to set goals, make plans, and take action, watch out for letting expectations build up too much in your mind. We have this wisdom not only from ancient philosophy; there’s also recent data that suggests lowering expectations leads to greater happiness.

For example, if you get nominated for an award, don’t keep picturing your acceptance speech. Don’t dust the mantel twice a day. When you get to the banquet, sit at the table and be a good conversationalist. Try to enjoy the rubber chicken. Then, if your name is called, it’s a bonus. If it’s not, you won’t want to crawl under the table with a bottle of wine (or whine, as the case may be).

As the great John Wooden used to tell his players, “All of life is peaks and valleys. Don’t let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low.”

  1. Worry only about the page in front of you

Epictetus said, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

You can’t control the will of agents, editors, critics, readers, awards committees or the IRS. So don’t worry about them. Instead, focus on your daily work. Get into your scene. Think about ways to make it better. That’s what you can control.

The mental aspect of writing is every bit as important as the physical act of typing. Which is why I wrote a whole book on the subject.

Friends, when you’re hit with disappointment, or on the other end with a great reward, remember the Latin phrase (which I had the audacity to make up):

Carpe Typem!

Seize the Keyboard!

What is your go-to method for handling the highs and lows of the writing life?

Don’t Be Satisfied With Competence

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In reviewing Uncommon Type, a short story collection by Tom Hanks, the critic concluded that, with one exception, Hanks’s stories “are forgettable, middle-of-the-road and touched by the special banality of mere competence.”

Ouch, man.

I like Tom Hanks. I’ve liked him ever since Bosom Buddies. I haven’t read his stories, so this is not a pile-on. And critics have been known to be wrong (ya think?)

But I was struck by that phrase, the special banality of mere competence. That’s because when I teach workshops, I usually lead off with this quote from a former acquisitions editor for a major house:

As my first boss used to warn us green editorial assistants two decades ago, the type of submission that’s the toughest to spot—and the most essential to avoid—is the one that is skillful, competent, literate, and ultimately forgettable.

Over my two decades of teaching the craft and reading manuscripts submitted at conferences, I’ve seen a rise in the tide of competent fiction. A big reason is, I think, the internet, with great teaching blogs like **blush** this one, and so many others. There are **blush** online courses and podcasts. And we still have the tried-and-true teaching avenues, like critique groups (in person and via email), books and Writer’s Digest, panels of writers at conferences, freelance editors, and so on.

All of which I love. I still get excited about diving into a good article on writing, or revisiting one of the many craft books in my collection.

So yeah, there is a lot of competent fiction out there.

But that’s not good enough.

Let me amend that. What’s “good enough” is highly subjective. But the ministers of content within the walls of the Forbidden City (that is, traditional publishing) are always looking for that “extra” thing. Much of the time they call it voice, and treat it the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously approached obscenity. He couldn’t define it, he said, “But I know it when I see it.”

Of course, now it’s possible for writers outside the walls to publish whatever they like. And competent fiction may bring some return.

But for a long-lasting career, I say make it your goal to go higher.

How?

Create a self-study plan.

There are seven critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice (or style) and meaning (or theme). You can, in conjunction with others (trusted beta readers, a good editor, a critique group) assess your strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas. Try giving yourself scores on a 1-10 scale.

Then start with your weakest factor and design a six-week self-study program. Get a couple of books on the subject. Write some practice scenes. Get feedback.

Then move on to the next factor.

Just think about it. If you were to improve each of these areas just by 10%, the overall effect on your writing will be enormous. And you can get there in less than a year.

Of course, as you’re studying the craft, keep writing your current project and developing your next, and the one after that.

Is this work? Um, yeah. Like any pursuit of excellence.

Is it also fun? Oh, yes. When you see and feel your improvement, there’s nothing quite like it.

It took me a good two years to get to competent. And no buyers. Then one day I had a literal epiphany reading a certain chapter in a certain book (it was Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham). Sirens went off in my head. The next thing I wrote got me a Hollywood agent.

A few years later, I got a book contract (this was seven years after I began to seriously study the craft). When I got another contract with another house, I had the privilege of working with one of the best editors in the business. His feedback took me to another level. When I started working with my agent, Donald Maass, there was another hike.

Each of these stages was a beautiful thing.

I wish you that same beauty, writer friend. It’s worth all the effort.

I’ll leave you with a quote I’ve always liked, from an old-time ad man named Leo Burnett: “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”

Are you reaching?

If You Hadn’t Become a Writer, What Else Would Have Filled That Void?

Many writers develop the passion to write because they were avid readers as children. The rabid craze wouldn’t be denied and years later, they have come face to face with an amazing addiction for self-expression.

If you didn’t write, what else would you have done to fill the void? What other forms of self-expression would have taken hold of you? Do you have a secret talent?