Monday, November 28, 2016

High Stakes? Death. Always Death - An Interview with James Scott Bell

Today the Insecure Writer’s Support Group would like to welcome James Scott Bell, the author of several books on the craft of writing, including Just Write, a Writer’s Digest Book. We’re discussing high stakes in a novel and how to manage writing time. Welcome, James!

1. What is one thing all writers can do today to help manage their time?

Learn to prioritize. Not all tasks are of equal importance. Everything you do should be according to the ABCs.

Tasks that MUST be done label with an A. These are tasks fundamental to contributing to your long-term success. Further, those A tasks should also be prioritized by 1, 2, 3, etc.

Set about to do A1 first....then A2...etc.

B tasks are important, but should not be handled until the A tasks are done. Prioritize these as well. B1, B2 ....

C tasks can wait. Do these only if you get some spare time.

Also, put a time estimate by each task.

I prioritize my tasks by the week. Sunday is a good day to plan out your week.

2. We often hear that the stakes in a novel should be high. How high do you think those stakes should be?

Death. Always death. Physical, professional, or psychological.

Physical death is what you have in a thriller. Someone, or a whole lot of someones, are going to die if the bad guys get their way. The Hunger Games.

Professional death means that the character’s job or vocation (e.g., cop, lawyer, mother) is one the line. If they fail in the novel, that aspect of their life is effectively over, or damaged greatly. The Verdict.

If the novel is mainly about a character on the inside, on their becoming a whole human being, that’s psychological death. If the character cannot overcome the challenge, they will “die inside.” The Catcher in the Rye.

3. What is one of the biggest writing blunders you’ve seen writers make and how can they avoid it?

I have a book called 27 Fiction Writing Blunders – And How Not To Make Them. If I had to pick just one, right now I’d say it’s writing the “expected.” Our minds tend to jump to what’s been done before, not just in characterization and plotting, but in every scene we write. We have to consciously set out to find the unexpected. Which can be in something as subtle as a dialogue exchange. This is what makes writing seem fresh.

4. How can a writer work on several projects at once? Is it possible?

My method is to think of myself as a movie studio. I always have a green-lighted project (my work-in-progress, or WIP). I have several projects “in development.” That means I’ve started making notes on character and plot, and perhaps a preliminary story board (I use Scrivener’s index card view for this). Projects in development go into a file I call “Front Burner.”

Then I have a file of hundreds of ideas I’ve come up with over the years. These are usually summarized in one or two lines. Sometimes just a title. I scan these ideas from time to time, looking for the ones that catch my fancy and, if they do, I make a few more notes. If I start to like something, I move it to the Front Burner.

In this way, my “boys in the basement” are always at work, even when I’m concentrating on my WIP.

5. Why should writers study classic novels?

Depends on what you mean by “study” and “classic.” For me, a classic is The Maltese Falcon or Farewell, My Lovely.  I study these for various purposes related to my own writing.

So it depends on your goals.

If I want to study characterization, I might turn to a Dickens. Or a Stephen King.

If I want to study dialogue, it could be John O’Hara ... or Elmore Leonard.

For emotional impact: Hemingway short stories or To Kill a Mockingbird.

It’s good for writers to design self-study programs on each of the seven critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, meaning (theme). Get some good craft books on the subject and select some novels you’ve read where the writer has done that thing well. Or get recommendations of same. Then read, study, and practice what you learn.

This is called growing as a writer. And it should never stop.

Author Bio:

JAMES SCOTT BELL is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including, Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don't Leave Me. In addition to his traditional novels, Jim has self-published in a variety of genres. His novella One More Lie was the first self-published work to be nominated for an International Thriller Writers Award. He served as the fiction columnist for Writer's Digest magazine and has written highly popular craft books including: Just Write, Write Your Novel From the Middle, Super Structure, The Art of War for Writers and Conflict & Suspense. Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and at numerous writers conferences in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. He and London.attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver, and graduated with honors from the University of Southern California Law Center.

Visit his website 

Question to Readers: How do you manage writing time and multiple projects?


Pat Hatt said...

Death sure ups the stakes indeed. Neat way of looking at writing multiple ones at once too.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I often have several things I'm working on and they are always at different stages of the process.

Lux G. said...

Oh, learning a lot here. I should be reading classic novels. That's actually part of my goals for 2016 and the year is almost over.

Christine Rains said...

Excellent article. I agree Stephen King is one of the best at characterization. I try not to be working on any more than two at a time. One in the first draft and the other in revision.

Chrys Fey said...

Thanks for being our guest today, James! Your tips are great.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I still struggle with working on multiple projects at once. I use Sunday to plan my week too. Thanks for all the mini lessons, James.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Play the 'What if' game and find the unexpected.
Death does up the ante all right.

cleemckenzie said...

Some excellent observations here. I think avoiding the expected is a huge challenge and requires your imagination to build some muscles. As to many projects at the same time. . .I love that. I find that my brain fires differently when I'm trying to jump between stories. That "difference" often leads me to unexpected twists in all of stories.

N. R. Williams said...

Great info. Thanks James.

Katharine said...

I love writing on several projects at once. I have three different writing rooms, two with doors that shut. Ha. Each is different in its appearance, from dark and masculine to soft and delicately lit, to open and plain. You can guess my "death" novel is stored in the dark room, my mommy stuff is in the pale peachy room, and my blog work is in the plain place.
I appreciate all these suggestions so much. Thanks!

Sandee said...

Writing is an art indeed. I've read some books that were very predictable. I've read other books that were unpredictable. I love the not being able to figure out who or what will happen next.

Writing is hard work.

Have a fabulous day. ☺

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Chrys and James - an excellent post ... which I've kept for reference anon. Made sense - getting our unique and interesting voice out there, so people want to carry on reading ... cheers Hilary

Tyrean Martinson said...

I love the idea of creating a self-study course. I've done that a little, but I haven't categorized the books into certain types of study like charactization, dialouge, and more.

Thanks for the sensible tips on organization and high stakes!

Juneta key said...

Great interview. I like the idea of categorizing ABC and breaking down further 123 for getting things done.
Juneta @ Writer's Gambit

Unknown said...

Phenomenal suggestions! Thanks for coordinating the interview and post, Chrys.

Fundy Blue said...

Thanks for this excellent and inspiring post, Chrys and James!

Yanting Gueh said...

Always good to hear from James (bought one of his e-books on writing earlier this year). I often learn pacing, dialogue, and characters from films. Working on different projects keeps my mind churning and I find that more effective than working on one project only.

Rick Watson said...

Great interview Alex. I appreciate all you do.

Sandee said...

I hope your having a wonderful weekend Alex. ☺

diedre Knight said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this interview! And it couldn't have come at a better time for me as I ponder horizons as yet unseen. Outstanding!

Pat Garcia said...

He is absolutely fantastic. I have several of his books and consider them as helpful aids in my writing.
Shalom aleichem,
Pat G

Jen said...

Thank you for this post, James. It's one of the best I've read on the fundamentals of writing in a LONG time. And I love how you say "Death. Always Death." I've gotten into so many conversations with non-writers about "why do you writers always have to kill people off?" I always tell them that we have no choice. When the story demands death, we have to comply.


Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Fabulous advice. Finding the unexpected isn't always easy, but so worth it in the end.

Michelle Wallace said...

Thanks for the excellent advice!
Going forward, I intend reading more classics. I just need to make a list of the ones I haven't read yet.
Writing is HARD work...but very rewarding.