THE CRAFT OF WRITING – PART 1
THE CRAFT OF WRITING – PART 1
Flying Blind or How I found Plot & Structure by Kay DiBianca
I was learning to fly! In the initial stages of earning my private pilot’s license, I had mastered the basics of flight, all flown with an instructor under visual flight rules (VFR), which means I only flew in good weather where I could see the ground and the horizon. Although I had learned how to read the various gauges on the instrument panel, my flying skills depended on what I could see outside the cockpit. This is known as “flying by the seat of your pants.”
While my instructor and I were out for a training session one afternoon, he suggested I get a little practice in instrument conditions. I knew I would eventually want to master instrument flying, so I happily agreed to his suggestion to ascend into a cloud bank that was a couple of thousand feet above us. He contacted Air Traffic Control and got us cleared into that airspace, and I started the climb.
As we approached the base of the clouds, little gray tendrils of cloud stuff began to glide by the windscreen. That was no big deal – I could still see the ground clearly. But then suddenly, in the time it would take to say, “Houston, we have a problem,” there was no ground, no sky, and no horizon. We were in the clouds, enveloped in a gray mass of a swirling cotton candy-like substance, and all the visual reference points I relied on were gone.
I can still recall the feeling of a knot in my stomach when I realized I didn’t have the skill to fly the plane in those conditions. I wanted to drop down out of those clouds and get back to the comfortable world of VFR. But my instructor wasn’t buying it. “Looking out the window isn’t going to help you, Kay,” he said. “You know how to read the instruments. Use them to fly the plane.” All the information I needed was right in front of me: the altimeter, the attitude indicator, the heading indicator, the airspeed indicator, the turn coordinator, and the vertical speed indicator. Refocusing my attention wasn’t easy, but when I concentrated on flying by the instruments, I learned to control the aircraft in that murky world of water vapor. A half hour later, we ascended out of the clouds into clear blue sky, wings level, and safe.
I learned a lot that day – and not just about flying.
When I sat down to write a novel, I was having a great time. Maybe we could call it a “writing by the seat of your pants” experience. The story flowed out of me. Characters materialized, scenes developed, and every day was a new writing adventure. But after I finished a rough first draft, I realized I had a story, but not a novel, and I doubted I had the “talent” to make that happen. I needed the equivalent of instrument training to instruct me on the tools to craft my first effort and make it interesting to readers. Fortunately for me, an editor suggested Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.
When I read the Introduction in the book, I knew I had come to the right place. James Scott Bell dismisses the “lie” that you have to have a special talent to write well. In the first two pages, he convinced me that writing was a craft that could be learned by hard work and discipline. My journey was just beginning, and I had found the right guide.
Plot & Structure is a field manual for excellent writing. Mr. Bell outlines a list of essential elements to learn how to plot. The book covers fundamentals of structure, character development, dialogue, and scene selection. And that’s just in Chapter One! The rest of the book adds meat to the bones, along with writing exercises, tips and tools, and cures for common plotting problems.
I was able to identify the type of plot I was shooting for (a quest) and move elements of the story around to fit a logical flow. When I finished the next version, I still had a lot of work to do, but there was a structure to hang the story on. I had found the instruments to write with.
If you’re interested in improving your writing in order to craft a dynamite story, take a look at Plot & Structure and see what it can do for you.
I am thrilled to welcome James Scott Bell as my special guest to this first blog post on the craft of writing. Mr. Bell is a winner of the International Thriller Writers Award and the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books). His thrillers include Romeo’s Rules, Romeo’s Way and Romeo’s Hammer (the Mike Romeo thriller series); Try Dying, Try Darkness and Try Fear (the Ty Buchanan legal thriller series); and stand-alones including Your Son Is Alive and Final Witness (which won the first Christy Award for Suspense). He served as the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine and has written several popular writing books, including Just Write, Conflict & Suspense, and The Art of War for Writers (all from Writer’s Digest Books). He’s also published How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, Write Your Novel From the Middle, Super Structure, and How to Make a Living as a Writer.
Welcome James Scott Bell and thank you for joining us!
Thanks for having me!
You were trained as an attorney, right? Why did you decide to switch careers and become an author?
I always wanted to be a writer. I didn’t really think about becoming a lawyer until I was about to get married. By that time I’d been convinced by others that you couldn’t learn to write fiction. So I went to law school and started in the profession. It wasn’t until about ten years later, when the desire to write hit me again, that I decided I would try to prove them all wrong, to see if I could learn this craft. When I discovered I could, I kept at it and eventually got published. I kept practicing law, though, for a long time, until eventually the writing overtook it. It was more a steady transition than a “switch.”
Of all the books you’ve written, which is your favorite?
That’s always a hard one for an author. Among the craft books I’d say Write Your Novel From the Middle, because it’s an angle no one had come up with before, that I found on my own and which proved helpful in my own writing. To see that it has helped so many other writers in the same way is extremely gratifying.
Among my thrillers, Try Dying was particularly satisfying to write, and turned out to be the start of a trilogy that has, in Book 2 (Try Darkness) my favorite opening line: The nun hit me in the mouth and said get out of my house. And in Book 3 (Try Fear) is the most perfect ending I’ve ever written. Many people have asked me if I’d write another in this series, and I’m always saying no because I don’t want to mess with that ending.
Which of your books was the most difficult to write? Why?
Glimpses of Paradise, because it was the longest novel I’ve written and involved a ton of historical research. But the end result was extremely satisfying.
When did you start writing books about the craft of writing?
I started to write articles for Writer’s Digest and teach workshops on the craft. Since I’d learned taught myself to write commercial fiction, I was excited to teach others how to do it. I was approached by Writer’s Digest Books to see if I’d be interested in writing a book on plotting for a new series they were doing called Write Great Fiction. That was right in my wheelhouse. It came out in 2004 and is still in print. That led to other books for WD, and then several books I’ve done on my own tightly focused on important topics, like dialogue and voice.
What one piece of advice would you give to new writers?
It’s the same answer every time: write to a quota. Get in the habit of writing a certain number of words every week, week in and week out. You have to practice what you learn in craft books and classes. You have to exercise your imagination. You have to produce the pages if you want to make it in this game.
Figure out how many words you can comfortably produce in a normal week. Then up that by 10% and shoot for that weekly goal. Break it down into days and write each day if you can. I write six days a week and take Sunday off for recharging. My average has been 6,000 words a week for nearly twenty years. Not every word has been published, of course, but no words have been wasted. It all goes toward learning the craft.
I understand you have a course about fiction writing through the Great Courses curriculum. Can you tell us about it?
The Great Courses is a fantastic company. It started by recording some of the best college professors, serving the market for continuing education. They’ve expanded into all sorts of subjects since. Top quality and production values. I was honored to be invited to be their professor for a course on writing bestselling fiction. It’s a a 24-lecture series, available on DVD or streaming.
Do you have any new books coming out soon?
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Read philosophy and theology and the occasional novel. Watch film noir. Do L.A. things with my wife.
Who was the most influential person in your writing career?
My high school English teacher, Mrs. Bruce, thought I had talent, and expanded my world. I kept in touch with her until her death at age 90. She got to see me become a published writer.
Other than your own books, what one book about the craft of writing would you recommend?
The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
Thank you for sharing your expertise with us on this blog post today!
What fun having James Scott Bell to kick off your series! This is a great book to recommend–which I also plan to do as someone just asked me about writing a novel. It’s a very helpful book to those who work their way through it. And, Kay–I didn’t know you’re a pilot! That in itself was worth reading the article to discover! 🙂
Yes, this book had a huge impact on me. Those of us who are beginners need the kind of professional guidance that “Plot & Structure” provides. I’m so happy I found it before I got too far into my writing.
And yes, I’m a pilot, though I’m not active any more. Frank and I had some very interesting experiences during our “flying days.”
As I read Mr Bells dialogue, it reconfirmed that “everyone has a story “ and many are looking for help in getting it on paper. What practical helpful advice for budding as well as a accomplished writers. It makes me admire you even more, Kay, in that you want to write WELL, not just write. I’m honored to be in your book club here in Cherryhill in Memphis
Good morning, Vicki!
Being in the Cherryhill book club has been a delight for me. Reading novels that other people recommend has definitely broadened my horizons. After having written my own novel, I find myself digging deeper into others.
Thanks for stopping by!
Good morning, Jim. I enjoyed reading your interview and have a question for you—really two questions.
You answered Kay’s question about why you started writing by saying you “always wanted to be a writer.” Can you be a bit more specific? Was the experience more like falling in love, scratching an itch, or what CS Lewis calls “numinous awe?”
Can you give any reasons why others should consider becoming a writer?
I loved movies and comic books as far back as I can remember. I wrote a “novel” when I was in 3d grade. It was probably 500 words. Illustrated by me. Stories awakened an adventurous spirit in me, and I wanted to create that, too.
Consider becoming a writer only if you love telling stories (as opposed to loving money or fame). You need that love to sustain you and drive you to become better at your craft. If you keep getting better, money or some degree of fame may follow. But if you don’t, you’ll get neither.
Kay, you know I love the flying story. And what a wonderful interview with James Scott Bell. I loved Write Your Novel from the Middle, which I first heard about during a lecture given by a creative writing professor who teaches at SMU. Now I have even more books to add to my to-read list! Kay, you whet my appetite for Plot and Structure, a must-read before the next round of revisions on my WIP. I’m intrigued by the legal thrillers too. I just downloaded Try Dying on Kindle Unlimited. Oh, boy!
I want to thank James Scott Bell for being an advocate for other writers, especially indie authors. I’ve seen him weigh in on blogs with words of encouragement. It means so much.
Thank you both, and grace to you in your life and writing.
Thanks for the kind words, Lisa.
Lisa, With your experience in Air Traffic Control, I knew you would like the flying story. Actually, learning to land an airplane reminds me a lot of learning to write a novel. Lots and lots of practice and attention to detail. But writing a novel is more fun and a whole lot safer! And it’s not good to be too creative when landing a plane.
Like you, my writing library is growing. I also read “Write Your Novel from the Middle,” and I used what I learned in my WIP, tentatively titled “Dead Man’s Watch.”
I enjoyed “Try Dying” very much, but my favorite is “Romeo’s Rules.” Mike Romeo is such a great character! What’s not to love about a cage-fighting, chess-playing genius?
Another great character to read?!? I’m going to have to quit my day job!
One of the first books on writing I bought was Plot & Structure. I remember sitting in my car in the kindergarten pick-up line at school waiting on my kids (twins in case you’re wondering why that’s plural) and reading this book…and wondering if there was something wrong with me because I loved the book but didn’t believe I could ever be a writer. Now fifteen years later, I’ve actually completed a manuscript. Overlaying it with the teachings of this and other books on writing as I edit opens up a whole new level of understanding. It gave me the foundation to start and has become the tool for polishing. Love it now just as much as the first time I read it! Thank you Kay for bringing Mr. Bell to your blog. And thank you, Mr. Bell, for sharing.
A couple of questions for you: 1.) Do you ever enlist the help of others in brainstorming ideas for plot? 2.) What advice can you give in regards to the importance of novice writers working with mentors and how to go about finding one?
I’ve never formally brainstormed plot ideas with a partner or group, but I certainly don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s just that I’ve got all sorts of brainstorming “games” I play myself, and more ideas than I’ll ever be able to get to!
I’m not sure how many qualified people are out there to be a “mentor” to a writer. You can find good freelance editors, and pay them. Or you can start to nurture “beta readers,” people who are good readers and will give you specific feedback. In return, gift them something (e.g., an Amazon gift card) or take them to dinner, etc. Check out this post:
Lori, Congratulations on completing your manuscript! I look forward to reading the book.
I I had the good fortune of taking one of Mr. Bell’s all day workshops at the Colorado Gold conference last year. He’s an entertainer who teaches. Or a teacher who entertains. One of the things I liked about his approach is that he doesn’t deny that “Pantsers” (although I prefer “Planster” or “Organic Writer”) can get the job done, something he addresses in Write Your Novel From the Middle.
Thanks for the memory, Terry. And the lip balm.
Let me know if you need more. We can work out a deal.
I like that JSB sees value in both the “plotter” and “pantser” approaches. I have the audio version of his Great Courses “How to Write Best-Selling Fiction,” and I listen to it while I’m out running. It’s very entertaining as well as instructive. (And it keeps my mind off the struggle of getting through that next mile.)
Great analogy between plotting and instrument flying, Kay.
JSB’s craft books are among my favorites b/c he breaks complicated concepts down into understandable bits, then offers practical advice on how to handle those concepts. Many craft books are too esoteric for me so I much prefer his method of teaching. VOICE is probably my favorite.
Thanks, Debbie.VOICE is a favorite of mine, too, because for so long no one could define what they meant by it…yet everybody wanted whatever it was!
Debbie, Thanks for the information on VOICE. I also hear that word used a lot, but didn’t really understand it. Now I will because I just bought the kindle version!
Hi Kay, great interview. Lot of great information for writers and the interview was enlightening.
Susan, thanks for stopping by!
I enjoy JSB’s books on writing; very well done. I notice he mentioned Glimpses of Paradise. There were a great many things about that novel that I enjoyed, but there were a couple of things… I loved the characters–especially that Billy Graham forerunner whose name has slipped my mind. I really enjoyed that character, and finding out he was real was great. But for the many things I loved about “Glimpses,” the ending always bothered me. I know I came into this late, but I’ve often wondered if Mr. Bell ever thinks, “If I had written this book now rather than x years ago, would I do it differently.” Is there anything, for example, about Glimpses of Paradise that would be changed?
Interesting observation about Glimpses of Paradise. I haven’t read that book myself, but it would be interesting to see if JSB would change the ending. As a matter of fact, it would be very interesting to do a series on how authors view books they wrote years ago. Would they change anything?
Re: the ending of Glimpses. I wouldn’t change it. For me it not only has gospel resonance, it avoids a predictable close. Those were my goals.
BTW, the “forerunner” is R. A. Torrey. A great man. I got to go through his papers at his archive at Wheaton.
Kay, I found this article so interesting. Plot and Structure was also one of the first books I read when i began the writing journey. I also had the privilege of hearing Mr. Bell speak at a couple of ACFW conferences. I could so relate to the comparison of instrument flying to learning to write. My husband has his private pilot’s license, and I cautiously took a few lessons myself though I wasn’t brave enough to go as far as you and my hubby. Thanks for the compelling blog post.
June, thank you for stopping by. And glad you liked the article. It was an experience I will never forget!
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