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!
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