My Aha! Moment

The other day I got a lovely email that began:
I want to send you a big, sincere ‘thank you’ for writing your book on plot and structure.
After trawling through many books on plotting and feeling more and more confused and anxious it was a relief to come across your book. Finally I began having ‘aha!’ moments – and I’ve only read three chapters!
You are so encouraging and the exercises are really useful – although now I find myself watching television and asking ‘what if?’ a great deal of the time…
If an ex-lawyer can still have working cockles in his heart, mine were warmed. I love hearing when a writer starts to get it. An “aha moment” is exactly what I strive to provide in my teaching. Because it was just such a moment that put me on the path to selling my work.
I know exactly when it was, too, because I was keeping a journal of my writing quest. On September 15, 1990, I wrote these words:
Light! A bulb! A flash! A revelation! My muse on fire!
I feel like I’ve suddenly “clicked into” how to write . . .  I mean, everything I’ve been reading and brooding about has finally locked. There is this tremendous rush of exhilaration. It just happened, and now I feel like everything I write will be at least GOOD, but can also be EXCELLENT.
I was writing screenplays at the time, and I’d written five or six over two years without success. But the next one I wrote was optioned and got me into a top agency. I optioned other properties, too, and did some assignment work (including a treatment for the late, great Whitney Houston). But when the projects didn’t get pushed up the ladder (an old Hollywood story) I got frustrated and wrote a novel using the same revealed wisdom. The novel sold. Then I wrote a legal thriller and got a five book contract. My career as a novelist was launched.
And all of it I trace back to that epiphany. Here’s the story.
I was a member of the Writer’s Digest Book Club at the time. One of their offerings was Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell. I’d been reading screenwriting books, like Syd Field’s Screenplay and Linda Seger’s Making a Good Script Great. I thought, well, there may be some cross-over here from the novel world, and I bought the book.
Bickham advised this was a book for people wanting to get serious about becoming professional writers. Not fluff, only what had worked for him and his writing students at the University of Oklahoma. He said it should be studied sequentially, as each chapter built upon the last.
So that’s what I did, starting at page one and working my way through. And when I got to Chapter 8, covering “scene and sequel,” that’s when the bulbs started popping in my brain.
Up to that time I did not have a strategic approach to writing the next scene. I just sort of let it bubble up in my imagination (or had committed to it on an index card) and went for it. But my scripts weren’t working. People told me so, but couldn’t tell me why, which was frustrating beyond measure.
Now, suddenly, I knew why they weren’t working. A superb writing instructor had nailed it and explained it to me.
In brief, a scene is a unit of action made up of a goal, conflict and disaster. There are of course nuances and variations, but all of them emanate from this basic understanding. The disaster doesn’t always mean something huge, though it sometimes is. It is a setback of some sort, making the hero’s situation worse.
I have the key paragraph highlighted in yellow, and underlined in red, in Bickham’s book:
We make our story go forward by pushing our hero backward, farther and farther from his ultimate goal, through scene disasters. The reader reads excitedly, roots for the hero––then is crushed with him. The novel flies along, lifelike, dramatic, suspenseful, hard to put down, filled with twists, surprises and setbacks––and more and more tension as well as admiration for the battered hero who simply won’t quit.
Bam. Boom. Bingo. This was my breakthrough, my foundation. And it’s never let me down since.
So I wonder, have you ever had an “aha moment” in your writing? Maybe it came when you first realized something was (or wasn’t) working for you on the page. Maybe it was while you were reading a novel and thought, “Oh, now I see!”
Or maybe you’ve had a series of these moments, perhaps not as dramatic as my own, but meaningful just the same.
Let’s hear about them.
NOTE: I will be on the road teaching my two-day intensive “Next Level” seminar this year. The cities and dates have just been announced:
Austin, TX, June 16 & 17

Nashville, TN, August 11 & 12

Cincinnati, OH, September 15 & 16
For further information, testimonials and sign-up forms, go here

Training Our Competition

James Scott Bell

I’m teaching at a conference in Florida this weekend. Most of us Kill Zoners show up at the occasional conference, hobnob, teach. I’ve been teaching for nearly a decade and a half, and it’s extremely pleasing to me to see people I’ve taught go on to publication. That’s why I’m putting on my own seminar in June in Los Angeles. Info on that is at the end of this post.
Of course, we’re in the midst of doing first page critiques for brave souls who have submitted to us. All of which raises (not begs!) a question I’ve fielded over the years. People have asked me, “Dude, why would you want to train your competition?”
A few responses.
First, I’m not averse to competition. It’s the engine of achievement. If my teaching means I have to keep working hard on my own books and craft, so much the better for me.
You just can’t become obsessed with competition, to the point where you’re always comparing and stressing about what others do. This isn’t a zero sum game.
The best competition is with yourself.  Keep stretching and working hard. Set goals and go after them. Teaching helps keep me on my game.
Second, I’m all for give back. I have been the beneficiary of some wonderful guidance and advice from writers and teachers who were there for me at the beginning. If I was to hoard whatever I’ve learned from them, it would not be kosher, karmic, Christian or any other spiritual principle you’d care to name.
One of these mentors was Lawrence Block, the crime novelist who was, for many years, the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest. I would devour his column each month as if it were a holy page. I still have binders of old WDs, all marked up, containing his columns. He had the ability to communicate not only what worked, but how a writer thinks. When I eventually got to write that very same column, I felt like Joshua taking over for Moses.
Another was the novelist Jack Cavanaugh, who became a friend and gave me priceless career advice before I had a career. And so on. In other words, I owe a debt and teaching helps me pay that off.
Third, I enjoy teaching.
Fourth, I’m good at it. As are my fellow Zoners, who are generous with their own comments and professional advice. This place is gold.
Fifth, teaching in person allows me to augment and explain many of the concepts in my writing books. It’s a further way to get this information into the heads of the writers and help them get to that storied next level.
There is nothing more fun for me than being with writers and talking about the craft we love. But even better is seeing people become stronger writers, watching light bulbs going on above heads, and hearing of eventual book contracts.
Learn all you can, write all you can. That’s the only formula for writing success I know.
Who have been some of the teaching influences in your writing journey, via book or live and in-person?  What did you gain from mentors or editors? Or did you get the book writing thing right the very first time? (If your answer is Yes, we’ll talk after class).
My “Sell Your Novel and Screenplay Intensive” is June 4 and 5, in Los Angeles. Info can be found here. (Apparently there’s an occasional IE browser incompatibility with this page, so if you need an alternative link, here it is.) 

A little inspiration is in order

If you’re like me and could use a little inspiration, you should read this wonderful essay about becoming a writer by Alexander Chee. He writes eloquently about the experience of studying writing with novelist Annie Dillard.

After you read it, come back and tell us about your own most important writing teacher. In my case, a creative writing course I took from Robert Pinsky (who later became Poet Laureate) at Wellesley College changed my thinking about writing. I remember how one day he opened a classroom window (on an upper floor) and leaned way, w-a-a-y out of it, to a point that made me nervous; he was showing us that we had to risk discomfort and break out of our Wellesley-refined shells, to dig deep enough to get the stories out. Even though I was focused back then on becoming a journalist (I didn’t think of writing fiction as a “real” career), I still remember the impact that course had on me.

What about you? Which teacher had the most direct influence on you as a writer?