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?
I’m always at work, so it’s always “soon.” I’ve got three books in the works—fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. Not sure of the release dates yet, except to say, like Orson Welles in those old wine commercials, we will sell no book before its time. For those who want to keep up with what I’m doing—and get a free novella besides—they can go to:
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!