Writers Need to be Amphibious

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So here we are at the end of another Kill Zone year. (We’ll be taking our traditional two-week break starting tomorrow.) It’s been an amazing run for this blog, which began way back in August of 2008. I’m in awe of my colleagues, both present and emeriti, for the depth of their wisdom and generosity of spirit toward the writing community.

Emeriti, by the way, is the Latin plural of emeritus.

Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

Reminds me of my favorite Latin joke. Or I should say, only Latin joke.

Julius Caesar walks into a bar and orders a martinus.

The bartender says, “You mean a martini?”

And Caesar says, “If I wanted a double I would have asked for it!”

Speaking of which, 2017 was a year a lot of people ordered doubles. I seriously think we need to take a collective breath and, for a couple of weeks at least, imbibe the true spirit of this season: family, friends, generosity and gratitude.

And just plain old relaxation! So kick back and watch a couple holiday movies (Miracle on 34th Street and the 1951 Christmas Carol are always at the top of my list, though I would remind everyone that Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are Christmas movies, too!)

Don’t stress about things you can’t control (this is the wisdom of the Stoics, and what says holiday fun more than the Stoics?) As Epictetus (b. 50, d. 135) so succinctly put it, “There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Changes in technology, Amazon algorithms, the size of advances … these are beyond the power of our will. Ditto the shrinking of slots in traditional publishing catalogues, the number of bookstores that are still open, and bestseller lists (unless, of course, one takes the nefarious road of buying one’s way onto the NYT list, in which case the power of will has been corrupted by the siren song of list-lust. Don’t go there).

Nor can we stuff a stopper in the flood of system gamers, sock puppets, nasty reviewers, and inveterate haters—except to the extent that we adamantly refuse to become one of them.

What is within our power?

Our writing, of course. Our dedication to it. Our determination. Our discipline.

The page we’re working on.

The goals we set and the plans we make.

Concentrate on those things. Chill about the rest.

This is still the greatest time on earth to be a writer. Remember, just ten short years ago there was only one way to get published and into bookstores. The walls of the Forbidden City were formidable indeed.

Then came the Kindle, just in time for Christmas 2007, and suddenly there was another way to get published and into the largest bookstore in the world (with your cover facing out, no less!)

During those heady first years of digital disruption, a few pioneering scribes jumped in and showed massive ebook sales at the 99¢ price point. This got the attention of writers inside (and formerly inside) the Forbidden City, and ushered in a “gold-rush” phase when good and productive writers began to make really serious money going directly to Amazon.

At the same time, traditional publishing began to stagger around like a boxer who gets clocked just before the bell rings to end the round. Many predicted that by 2013 or ’14, the whole traditional industry would be kissing canvas.

Instead, we have entered a new equilibrium where the wild highs in the indie world are leveling off, and the disruptive lows in the traditional world are bottoming out (as one trad insider put it to me, “Flat is the new up.”)

But change, albeit more slowly, continues. Thus, what both of these worlds demand are a new set of business practices. I’ve tried to provide these for the indie writer. I’m not sure who the Bigs are listening to, but I suspect they need more Sun Tzu than Peter Drucker these days.

However, here is one bottom-line truth that applies across the board and will always be apt: What wins out in the end, and perhaps the only thing that does, is quality plus time, which I define as steady fiction production providing a swath of readers with satisfying emotional experiences. This holds true for any genre. You can figure out and strive to do the things that create reader satisfaction.

And what are those things? They are matters of craft. The more you are conversant with the tools and techniques of fiction, the better your quality control. It’s like that inspirational quote from a college basketball player some years ago. During an interview he said, “I can go to my left or to my right. I’m completely amphibious.”

Writer, you have to be amphibious to make it in the swirling ocean and on the rocky shores of the book world today. So my end-of-the-year suggestion is this: Invest in your writing self. Spend a certain amount of money on writing-related improvement, like books and workshops. Go to a good conference and network with other writers. If you’re starting to realize a little income from your writing, set aside a portion of it for this type of ongoing investment.

And do take advantage of one of the best free writing resources around—Kill Zone! Traipse through our library and archives. Subscribe to our feed so you don’t miss a day. Leave comments! We love the writing conversation.

We’re on this journey together, so keep in mind something the great Stoic philosopher Yogi Berra once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Let’s take it in 2018!

Blessings on you this holiday season, from all of us at TKZ to all of you.

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How I Developed My Series Hero

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m happy to announce the release of my new Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Hammer. It begins on a posh beach at Malibu, and ends just up the coast at Paradise Cove. In between a lot of stuff happens. (This is called a plot summary).

Today, I thought I’d say a little bit about how I came up with Romeo as my series hero.

I’d long wanted to write about a lone-wolf, hard-boiled seeker of justice. I’ve always loved this famous Raymond Chandler quote about the classic PI:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.

But I did not want to do another PI character. I love ’em, but we have enough of them. So I conceived a backstory that would cause a man to be on the run and off the grid. With a changed name. And who spent a number of years as a cage fighter.

What else could I add to make him more interesting for me? I decided to include my love of philosophy. I was nearly a philosophy major in college. But freshman year I was in a big philosophy class, with the smaller classroom discussions taught by a TA. This guy wore sandals and smoked Camels (you could smoke in the classrooms back then). He would take out a fresh cig as he spoke, hold it between two fingers, then strike a match, all while talking. He’d get a faraway look in his eyes as he went off on a metaphysical tangent. We students would watch the match burn down, waiting until it hit his fingers, which it inevitably did, and he’d shake the match vigorously to put it out—still talking! He’d drop the dead match on the floor and begin the process all over again. It always took him 2 – 4 matches to light up.

And I thought, if that’s what I might become as a philosophy major, maybe I ought to try something else.

But I digress. I’ve always loved philosophy and theology and thinking about deep things, especially in times of crisis. Give me Epictetus when things aren’t going my way, or Pascal when reflecting on ultimate truth. I wanted my series hero to be like that. So I made him a genius, a kid who was accepted to Yale at age fourteen. But then bad things happened … and we begin with Mike Romeo in Romeo’s Rules, in the present, with a tattoo on his forearm: Vincit Omnia Veritas. Truth Conquers All Things.

Plus, he likes flowers.

Most of all, though, he has that code Chandler wrote about. And at some point it struck me that I had a model for him in the back of my mind all along.

I was a mere pup when the TV series Have Gun, Will Travel was popular. But the character, Paladin (played by Richard Boone) was cool. (A paladin was a knight known for heroic deeds and the code of chivalry).

Paladin lived in the luxurious Carleton Hotel in San Francisco. There he ate the finest foods, sipped the finest brandy, and escorted the finest women to the opera. He could speak on virtually any subject.

But he was also a gun for hire. He’d go out on jobs, donning his all-black duds and six guns. His holster had a chess knight on it. Ditto his card.

The great thing about this western, unlike, say, Gunsmoke, was that Paladin very rarely shot anyone! Instead, he used his wits to outfox bad guys, or get good guys to do the right thing.

Most of all he lived by his code. One part of that code, which Mike Romeo shares, is that if someone is being bullied, justice demands the paladin step in and stop it. Here’s a clip from an episode of Have Gun, Will Travel. Paladin has just arrived in a town to meet his employer for the first time.

That’s Paladin. And that’s the sort of hero I had in mind when I conceived Mike Romeo.

Which makes writing the series fun for me. Maybe that’s the biggest key of all. You can put your hero through all sorts of tests. You can have him suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But if he’s not someone you’d like to hang out with, the series can turn into a slog.

Fortunately, Mike Romeo is bringing me joy.

The Romeo’s Hammer ebook is available here:

AMAZON

AMAZON INTERNATIONAL STORES

Print version:

PRINT

So….let’s talk series characters. Do you have one? How did you come up with him or her?

OR

Who is your favorite series hero, and why?

 

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