THE CRAFT OF WRITING — JANUARY 2021
THE CRAFT OF WRITING — JANUARY 2021
I’m excited to begin a new year of the CRAFT OF WRITING blog. This year we will alternate monthly posts between craft experts and award-winning authors, and I am thrilled to welcome our first guest in the series since he is the perfect combination of craft expertise and award-winning fiction.
James Scott Bell is not only a best-selling author of books on the craft of writing. (I counted about twenty books, including the #1 Best-selling Plot and Structure). He is also an award-winning fiction author. Among other awards, his legal thriller Final Witness won the first Christy Award for suspense.
Mr. Bell has been interviewed on this blog twice before: in 2019 he discussed Plot and Structure, and in 2020 he talked about How to Make a Living as a Writer. In today’s interview, I’d like to explore his craft book Write Your Novel From the Middle because that book had substantial influence on me when I was writing my second novel.
So thanks to all of you for stopping by the Craft of Writing blog today. You have a great opportunity to learn from and interact with one of the masters of the craft.
James Scott 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!
Great to be here!
Your craft book Write Your Novel From the Middle had a profound impact on me when I was writing my second novel. Please tell us about the book.
I’m a structure guy, and always love digging into it. One area where I’ve found a lot of confusion is what some teachers call the “midpoint.” It’s usually described a scene in the middle of Act 2 that somehow changes the course of events. I found conflicting ideas here, and a kind of fuzziness, and that bothered me.
So several years ago I went on a quest to find out what’s going on in this midpoint. And when I did, I discovered something that had never been written about before. Like any explorer who discovers a new river or cave, I got to name it. I called it the “Mirror Moment.”
Write Your Novel From the Middle is the only craft book I’ve read that talks about the importance of life-and-death stakes at the midpoint of the book. How did you come up with that idea?
What I did was take out some well-known novels and movies and started looking around. I would turn to the exact physical middle of a book, and use my DVD slider to go to the middle of a movie. What I discovered knocked my socks off. Indeed, my house was littered with socks.
What I saw was that a true middle was not merely a scene; it was a MOMENT within the scene. I started calling this the “Mirror Moment,” because it is when a character is forced to look at himself—as if in a mirror—and take stock of his situation. It’s funny how often now I see and actual mirror in such a scene; my favorite example is when my wife and I were watching No Way Out, the Kevin Costner thriller, and I stopped the DVD and told my wife the mirror moment was about to happen (I hadn’t seen the film in years, but I sensed the set-up). She laughed and may even have rolled her eyes, but then I started the film up again and…boom…a minute later Kevin Costner is looking at himself in the mirror.
And what does this “look inside” mean? It’s one of two things. Either the character has seen himself and his major flaw in bold relief. Like Bogart in the middle of Casablanca after drunkenly insulting Ilsa. The question then become one of psychological life and death. Will Bogart recover his humanity or not?
The other kind of look is the character realizing, “I’m probably going to die!” Meaning physical death…because the odds are too great. You find this mostly in thrillers, like The Fugitive and The Hunger Games.
Does the book work for both plotters and pantsers?
Absolutely. The beauty of the Mirror Moment is that you can brainstorm it at any stage. I’m mostly an outliner, so I get to it quickly. A pantser who gets stuck might consider brainstorming it then. Or you can even go find it after a first draft. What’s so great about it is, once you find it, it illuminates the whole book for you, from beginning to end. It makes scene writing and revision more organic and connected.
You’ve won awards for both non-fiction and fiction. Do you have any favorites among your award-winners?
I’m most proud of winning the International Thriller Writers Award, for Romeo’s Way. This is a book in my Mike Romeo series, which I love writing.
How concerned should new authors be about winning an award for their books?
Do NOT get concerned at all. First, realize that an award has little to no effect on sales. It’s an ego stroke to have on your website or book covers, but potential buyers always judge by the pages your write, especially the opening pages.
And do NOT let lust grab you if you are a finalist for an award. I’ve been there, and when you “lose” it eats you up. When I was chosen a finalist for Romeo’s Way, and went to New York for the big ceremony, I made myself not think about it at all, not to have ANY expectations. When my name was called it was frosting on the cake. Had I not been called, I would have been all right.
Are awards a way for a new author to be recognized?
A well-regarded award, like the Carol Award in Christian fiction, could get the interest of an agent or a publisher. Not so much Bob’s Best Dang Book I’ve Read This Year Award.
There are an enormous number of writing contests available. Do you have any guidance on how an author should go about deciding which contests to enter?
I don’t, because I’ve never entered one.
What one piece of advice would you give to new writers?
Keep Calm and Type On.
Do you have plans to speak at any writing conferences in 2021?
No plans. Everything is Zoom now and up in the air.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
Thank you, Jim, for being with us today.
You’re Welcome. Carpe Typem. Seize the Keyboard!
Write Your Novel from the Middle interview with James Scott Bell. Click To Tweet
Although I am not an author, in my career in education, I had to do a lot of writing (both serious and frivolous ) and your interview gave an ah ha moment. So true. I will never read a book again without thinking about the mirror moment. Thank you
Vicki Fioranelli, fan and friend of Kay DiBianca
Vicki, Thanks for dropping by and for your comment. I also had never thought about the mirror moment until I read Jim’s book. Aha!
Good morning, Kay & James! I’ve read Write Your Novel from the Middle and found it very helpful. What I had not done is go back and look at my own work to see if there was a mirror moment. In my first novel, at 51%, the character literally has a moment – looking in a mirror no less – in which she “sees” herself and makes a decision to take a different course than she has before. That is CRAZY!
Thank you, Kay, for this series from which I’ve gleaned so much. Thank you, James, for all your hard work toward helping us become better writers, and most of all, thank you for being accessible, despite your great success.
Good morning, Lisa, and thanks for stopping by.
It’s so interesting that you had a mirror moment in your first novel just at the halfway point. An indication that your story-telling intuition is sharp!
I had the pleasure of also reading your second novel, “Stork Bite,” and there are a lot of interesting characters in that one. Any mirror moments?
Thanks for asking about Stork Bite, Kay. I went back and looked at that one. No mirror moments, but at about 52%, one of the characters – Mae Compton – has a moment in which she’s really deciding her future will take a very different course than had always been planned. Her thoughts in that moment aren’t revealed until a few chapters later, but they are happening then, at 52%. Her decision ends up affecting several other characters.
I’m just starting a third novel and I do believe I’m going to find my copy of Write Your Novel from the Middle and re-read it. Then I’m going to try an experiment with doing just that and see how it goes. It’s a first draft – why not have some fun applying this concept! I expect it’ll give the story focus I don’t have right now. I’m excited…thank you!
Thank you, Lisa, for the good word.
In addition to writing really good fiction, JSB writes some of the best craft books on fiction I’ve ever studied. Great interview!
Good morning, Patricia, and thank you for stopping by.
I agree with your opinion about JSB’s craft books. They have been my main guides as I navigate the literary labyrinth. There’s a lot of wisdom in those pages!
I believe you have a new book coming out soon in your “Natchez Trace Park Rangers” series.
Any mirror moments in those books?
Thank you, Patricia!
Excellent interview, guys. The Mirror Moment is such a powerful observation, it forever changed the way I plan (and write) the Midpoint. Thank you, Jim!
Folks, if you haven’t read The Last Fifty Pages by JSB, grab a copy today. It’s another game-changer.
Hi Sue! Thanks for stopping by. And congratulations on a great post today on the Kill Zone Blog!
I agree about the impact of the mirror moment. It completely changed the way I was thinking about my novel.
Thanks for the reminder about “The Last Fifty Pages.” I pulled my copy off the shelf (I have an entire section for JSB books) and started reading it again. I have a spiffy ending planned for my next book.
Aw, Sue, thank you. And you, too, Kay
Great interview, Kay! (Oh, and JSB…)
I have to confess that he completely spoiled me on books and movies. Now, one of the first things I notice is that magic Mirror Moment. And if it isn’t clear in the story, or *gasp* isn’t there, it’s a real downer. I’ve looked at my two current WIPs (debut novels) and was giddy when I found the MM in the right place. And he’s right, it’s like the entire story now revolves around that moment, like the stars and planets around the sun. Once you see that and understand, it opens up new vistas of scenes and character development. Woot!
Good morning, Deb, and thank you for being here!
I agree with you. The mirror moment adds so much depth to a story and understanding how to use it is a great tool to have in the writer’s toolbox.
Congratulations on your *two* debut novels. Care to tell us the titles and release dates?
Well…the first is called The Master’s Inn. Set in NE Washington State, in a massive freak snowstorm, three families-strangers to each other-are stranded at the B&B (the title) that one of the couples owns. The three families are rife with past secrets and lies and tragedies, which are revealed as the story progresses, and make for fireworks and strained relationships. Two of the men are Marine veterans, one of Vietnam, the other Iraq, and they both have PTSD issues. Complicates everything, especially when the teenage daughter of of the Iraq vet goes missing…after a secret regarding her father is flung into conversation with no warning.
The second is called No Tomorrows. Imagine, if you will, that you are a suburban mother of four, living your busy life caring for your husband and children…and through a series of unnerving and disturbing circumstances which take place on a typical Thursday evening and continuing into Friday, you become convinced you will not wake up on Saturday morning. This is your last day on earth. Follow Annie Lee from that Thursday evening into Friday to find out what she does on her last day…it might surprise you.
Hoping to release The Master’s Inn this year and No Tomorrows in 2022.
Ha, Deb. Glad to “spoil” things for you…but that just makes you a master of craft!
Wow, Deb. Those sound amazing. I’m looking forward to them.
I have another question for Mr. Bell: If you could award the “James Scott Bell All-time Best Fiction Novel Award,” what book / author would you give it to? (I realize a novel is by definition fiction, but it just sounds better that way. 🙂
Hey, Kay and James, great interview! I have some questions about the mirror moment. Also got a kick about your never having entered a writing contest!
Regarding the mirror moment, structuring is definitely very important. But as a new fiction author, I’m curious if over-structuring can be an impediment too. What if you have more to say before the mirror moment or maybe after it? What if the lead character has two such moments? Or maybe the second lead needs one a third of the way through and the lead at the two-thirds point? Isn’t artistic license still alive? Or flexibility?
Since I haven’t won any contests yet, maybe I shouldn’t be asking, but I do wonder…
Btw, I’ve started Plot and Structure. I like it a lot so far.
You’re quite right to think about “over structuring,” but that’s not what the mirror moment is about (except that it falls so naturally in the middle). It’s used to illuminate the deep tissue of your story, which is ONE THING only. If you look at the great novels and films, the lead characters do not undergo several massive changes…they have crises that lead them to the big change (what I call the Transformation) at the end. I think that’s what you may mean by “two such moments.” For example, there is usually a crisis point in Act 3 where a character MUST choose. But that is only in service to what has been revealed “in the mirror.” Good question. Keep writing. You’ll start to feel mirror power soon enough!
Thank you so much for this very informative interview! There’s much to think about here. 🙂
Hi Barbara! So happy you stopped by and commented, and glad you liked the interview.