Sunday, February 12, 2012

Interview #3 With James Scott Bell

[Note: This is the third in a series of interviews with award winning suspense author and #1 best selling writng coach, James Scott Bell.]

James Scott Bell on the Craft of Writing and Writing Craft Books
by Donna Brennan

In addition to writing great suspense novels, James Scott Bell is a popular conference speaker and author of several Writer's Digest books designed to help writers sharpen their skill and improve their works in progress.

Donna Brennan: So many writers I know have at least one of your acclaimed books on the craft of writing: Plot and Structure, Revision & Self-Editing, and The Art of War for Writers. And you've just come out with a fourth, Conflict and Suspense. Did Writer's Digest Books come up to you and ask you to write them, or did you suggest these books to Writer's Digest after being a columnist with their magazine for a number of years?

James Scot Bell: WD was getting ready to launch the Write Great Fiction line again and talked to me about possibly doing a title. I told them Plot & Structure was right in my wheelehouse, so they said go for it. When the book took off, they wondered if I might do one on Revision, and I was ready for that. The Art of War for Writers was an idea I had. I'd long wanted to do something in that format, a sort of field manual for writers on a number of topics, modeled after Sun Tzu's classic. Short aphorisms, followed by my commentary.

When WD Books started planning the new Elements of Fiction line, they approached me about doing something on Conflict and Suspense. Again, wheelehouse.

The books have all been a joy to write, and the reception of the works by appreciative writers is the most gratifying thing of all.

D: Which of these books on writing was the most fun to write? Were any of them fun to write? Which one generated the most reader mail?

J: All of them were fun, but also hard work. I strive to make my books on writing as stuffed as possible with helpful techniques that work.

I suppose Plot & Structure is the book I hear about most. I guess it's become something of a standard work over the years. Sometimes people send me pictures of their copy, with sticky notes and highlights all over it. I like that. It shows me it's doing its job.

D: Could you provide one or two of your favorite tips from each of these books?

J: From Plot & Structure: Make sure the first "doorway of no return" is an event that virtually forces your Lead character into Act II. This may be the single most important structural element of all.

From Revision & Self-Editing: Cool off at least three weeks before your first read through. Do it off a hard copy (or e-reader) and take minimal notes. Try to replicate the feeling of being a reader with a new book.

From The Art of War for Writers: A great novel will have at least three truly memorable scenes, and no weak ones.

From Conflict & Suspense: Remember the stakes of a novel must involve death: physical, professional or psychological.

D: In Plot and Structure, you assert that anyone can learn to craft a good plot. This flies against those who claim that "either you got it, or you don't" when it comes to writing. Why do you believe that anyone can learn these skills?

J: I call the "have it or don't" canard the Big Lie, because that's what it is. I bought it for years. Then I went out and learned how to write novels, many of which became bestsellers. And I've taught innumerable writers over the years who have gone on to be published. So I believe the craft can be taught because it's demonstrably and experimentally true.

What you can't teach is talent and heart. So the writer brings those things to the table. But I think talent is overrated. There are countless people with raw artistic talent who aren't disciplined enough to learn craft, and languish in a sea of self-pity because no one recognizes their genius.

And there are countless artists who, with a smaller reservoir of talent, have nevertheless succeeded because they worked hard and checked their ego at the door in order to learn from others.

D: In Revision and Self-Editing, you break everything down into easy-to-read-and-digest sections. For a long time now, I've been planning to read the section on overcoming obstacles like procrastination, but I keep putting it off. I do the same thing sometimes with my writing or editing. What advice can you offer someone like me?

J: Ha ha. Listen, there are three ways to overcome procrastination:


D: Your latest book, Conflict and Suspense, was just released in January. Besides the fact that you are a master at conflict and suspense, why should I buy this one if I have the other three already mentioned? How does this book differ in its treatment in some of the topics (like the Big Lie and the LOCK method) covered in your other books?

J: There is a slight overlap in a few chapters because you can't talk about conflict and suspense without going over plot and structure.

But I've made sure to filter all the topics through the conflict/suspense lens. Those chapters will be useful for readers of Plot & Structure because a) it's always good to review; and b) it's always good to get a new perspective on previous knowledge.

And there is much that is new in terms of techniques and exercises to apply.

D: You recently self-published two ebooks, both containing a novella and a few other stories. Why would a well-known, multi-published author, like you, go that route?

J: First, because I love to write. Second, there is now a market for short stories and novellas like never before. And third, it's money in the bank. There's no reason NOT to self-publish.

D: The fact that you are already an established author with a large following probably makes it a lot easier for you to sell your self-published books than if you were just starting out. What advice do you have for authors who have tried to pitch their books to ten or more agents or editors with no success?

J: The submission and rejection process is what all writers go through, and if handled right makes them stronger. It's not wasted effort if you're fighting to get better as you go.

At some point, self-publishing may become an attractive option. These days self-publishing does not close the door on getting a traditional deal.

But one needs to realize indie publishing is not an easy way to massive profit. To be successful at it you have to produce volume, and quality, consistently. But that's what a true writer will do anyway.

I would advise the writer who wants to self-publish to systematize the process. Set up quality controls, especially with the writing itself (e.g., freelance editors and/or beta readers and critique partners). Think like a business, because that's what you're going to be.

D: What/who are some of your favorite books/authors?

Raymond Chandler, especially The Long Goodbye.
Michael Connelly, especially Last Light.
Robert Crais, especially Hostage.
Lawrence Block, especially Eight Million Ways to Die.
Stephen King, just about all his work.
Dean Koontz, ditto.
Harlan Coben, likewise.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, especially The Brothers Karamazov.
Mark Twain, especially The Innocents Abroad.
Charles Dickens, anything he wrote.


  1. One of my fave people! Great interview!

    1. Thanks, Martha. I'm looking forward to his workshop.

  2. Nice interview. I'll have to check out Conflict and Suspense. Having grown up in California, I enjoyed the Ty Buchanan series. :)

    I like what Bell said about writing being something that can be taught rather than just some talent that you either have or don't have. It's interesting how we've moved away from the romantic tradition of writing, not that I mind. :)

    1. I've never been to LA or anyplace in California. But I love when a writer can immerse you in the sights, culture, and vibe of a locale and make you feel like you really know the place.

  3. This was a great series of interviews, thanks, Kathy and Donna and Jim! I'd like to put forth a different interpretation from HGlick, and perhaps even Jim. He said he has proof craft can be taught because his students have gone on to publication. Note that he didn't say "all." Only passion and determination can fuel a writer through the cold dark passages to success, and not everyone who learns the craft have these in equal measure. I'm pretty sure it's a package deal.

    1. I agree, Kathryn. I believe that a lot of passion and a little talent will take you much further than a lot of talent and a little passion.

      And if you are passionate enough to keep at it, your talent wll grow.