Saturday, May 14, 2016

A Conversation With James Scott Bell

Bestselling suspense author James Scott Bell has served as a trial lawyer and fiction columnist for Writers Digest Books as well as an adjunct professor of writing at Pepperdine University. His books on the craft of writing are among the most popular today.

James, your varied and successful career has included actor, lecturer, television and radio commentator. What brought you the most satisfaction and why?

Wow, that's quite a list. I hadn't thought about all that in a while. I can tell you I've been very blessed to be able to do a number of things I really enjoyed.

I loved going to court. All the workup before trial, and the 24/7 aspect of thinking about it, is stressful. But standing in front of a jury and arguing a case, cross-examining witnesses, all that was supremely enjoyable.

I loved acting. If it were a more secure profession, I'd probably still be living in New York doing Shakespeare and O'Neill and David Mamet.

But I love writing, too, and being able to make my living at it is tremendously satisfying. My office is wherever I can lug my computer or my AlphaSmart, and my subjects are whatever my imagination can conjure up.

Your Writers Digest craft books have been bestsellers. What’s the best advice you can offer aspiring writers in today’s market?

The best advice for today's market is the same advice I gave yesterday and would have given 100 years ago: produce the words. Set a weekly quota, one that is comfortable, and up it by 10%. Then go for it. You still have to show that you can write solid fiction book after book, no matter how it gets to market. And the way you show that is to actually produce.

Yes, study the market, but don't become a slave to it. Trends come and go. Write material that moves you and it will have a chance to move the reader.

 How did you manage to be mentored by Lawrence Block?

When I called him my first mentor, I meant by way of his columns in Writer's Digest. What made those so great is that he knows how a writer thinks. He got into my head and showed me what to do. And he did that for countless other writers.

When I started doing that column myself, I felt like Joshua taking over for Moses. I did finally get to meet and chat with Larry at a convention, and via email, and it felt good to talk as a colleague. But I still reverence those years he was teaching me so much.

Briefly tell us about atch Your Back and Writing Fiction For
All Your Worth? Are they still available in print or only on Kindle and Nook?

I released these two as e-books only. I wanted to supplement both my thriller print fiction and my writing books for Writer's Digest. I discussed this with my agent and the publisher beforehand. I see these as volumes to make new readers. And that's what publishers and agents keep telling writers to do. Build a platform. This is one way to build it.

Watch Your Back is suspense fiction, the title novella and three stories. I love the old pulp days when writers like Chandler and Cornell Woolrich were producing great short fiction. But the pulp market died. Now, with e-books, it's back, and I want to be part of that.

Writing Fiction for All You're Worth is a collection of my best blog posts, articles, interviews and reflections on writing. It covers the writing world today, the writing life, and the writing craft. I've also included a section of my "secret" writing notebook. No one but me has ever seen that material, until now.

How do you feel about the ebook revolution?

Of course it's here and it is a revolution. But will it turn out to be the United States in 1776 or France in 1789? Will it be order or chaos? Will it shake out into anarchy or some form of cooperation between traditional publishing and e-publishing? No one knows!

But it is definitely a heady time and even the professionals—authors, agents, publishers—are wondering how to act and react.

I'm a writer. I write. I write for readers. The readers are out there with e-devices. Why should I not give them material when I've got so much of it?

Suspense/thriller novels and Christian books seem almost polar opposites. How and when did you decide to write in the Christian market?

I began in the Inspirational Fiction market because I liked writing about people struggling with faith issues in a dark world. In a way, that's what great thrillers are about. It may not be religious faith, but it's faith in something—in the quest for justice, say—that makes a thriller worth reading on the character level.

So there is no inherent opposition in the thriller/Christian fiction genres. It's true the latter market is dominated by "softer" titles, such as Amish fiction. I have chosen to jump into the mainstream with my Try series and Watch Your Back. But no matter where you are, you still have produce page turning fiction.

Why do you set your novels in the Los Angeles area exclusively?

I just can't get away from it. It's my home, I love it, I know it and it's the greatest noir city in the world. There is a plot around every corner, a great character on every street. You can drive a mile and be in a completely different neighborhood. And I think there's something cool about being one of the bards of L.A. I love Cain and Chandler and Connelly and Crais and those guys. I like being part of that tradition.

What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you while researching a novel?

Oh, nothing major. I never got thrown in the clink or anything. I did have some uncomfortable moments when I was researching Skid Row for Try Darkness. There's nothing like walking around in a location, but this one is rather sketchy, to say the least. Having learned how to walk fast and with attitude when I lived in New York, I did fine.

Does an aspiring writer really need an agent, and are agents becoming the dinosaurs of the publishing industry?

A great agent is such an asset. And indispensable for getting published the traditional way. I have the best agent in the world, Donald Maass, and I am also friends with some terrific agents. I know it's a tough deal right now. If an aspiring writer gets with a good agent, that's fantastic. I know the search can be long and difficult. But the discipline of trying to write material good enough for an agent to take on is not wasted should the author eventually try another route.His blog site:

Twitter: Twitter/jamesscottbell and Facebook fan page:

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Using TV Techniques to Write a Killer Mystery

by Hank Phillipi Ryan, bestselling novelist and  award-winning journalist 

Here's what you need to produce a successful television story. Develop memorable characters. Build suspense. Show conflict. Tell a compelling story. Find justice. Change lives.

Here's what you need to become a successful television journalist. Never miss your deadline. Be fair. Get people to tell you things they wouldn't tell anyone else. Understand how the world works.Work with an editor. Create a brilliant and flawless product every time. Be completely devoted to your job.

As I began to write my first novel, I realized the number of parallels between writing for television and writing a mystery novel. Your primary focus is telling a great story, right? With compelling characters. And centering around an important problem. You dig for leads, track down documents, conduct intensive research, and see where the clues take you. You want the good guys to win, and bad guys to get what's coming to them. You want a satisfying and fair ending, and you want some justice. And if you're lucky, you get to change the world. 

Here's a new way of looking at your work as a journalist. And it doesn't matter if you've never written a news story in your life. 

You won't use every news story every day. Some you won't realize you need, until you do. On those days, there are journalism-based questions you can ask yourself to prod your brain into story telling--kind of a who-what-when-where-why and why-not that just might get you out of that pre-deadline panic.

Why do I Care?

If you're in a scene that seems to be flabby, or boring, or simply not compelling, there may be there's no reason to write it. Se your intention before you write the scene. What's the point of these next 200 words? Why do we care about these next 200 words? Why do we care about what's going to happen next? Figure that out. It may be that you're writing a scene that you don't need. You may be writing a scene that needs to move faster, or go a different direction, or wind up in a different place. 

Am I in the Right Place?

Not only the right place geographically, but the right place in time or space. If you've got two guys sitting around talking, or someone looking up a name on a computer, or talking on the phone, or if it's the fourth scene in a row that's taking place in an office--hmmm. Television is all about good video. Can you place your characters somewhere more cinematic? What would happen to your characters when you do?

Who said that?

Maybe you've got the wrong person talking, or using the wrong point of view. Placing the same scene in the point of view of a different person changes the perspective and as a result, shows you motivation in a different way. What's at stake in your scene? Who has the most to lose? Sometimes even thinking about a scene through a different character's eyes can open your own to different ideas.

What's the goal?

Are you at the beginning of the book where you need a big compelling hook? In the middle of the book where you need to twist and turn and keep the readers turning the pages? Or near the end, when you need to ratchet up the suspense and come up with the big finish or happy ever-after ending? Make sure you're clear on your goal. Think about what you should write to accomplish that.

(You can read more of Hank Phillipi Ryan's article as well as her  interview in The Mystery Writers.)

You can also learn more at her website:

Tony Allyn's Alter Ego

Tory, what inspired you to write your debut novel?

My father died unexpectedly and it totally prioritized what I wanted to say about my life. Some not so important things were relegated to the lower end of my list allowing my writing to take precedence. Once I made the commitment, a set time was put aside every day to write. I found a quiet location and let the words pour from my brain. Before I realized, the flooding of words gave me a total of four books which are a series entitled, The Davenport Decrees. My first novel is Alter Ego.

Tell us about the plot.

Informed by his Captain to retrieve the remnants of a disfigured body, Special Agent Jack Stanwick exited FBI headquarters and raced toward Rockfort, Virginia. As sirens echoed in the distance, he approached the old gravel road that led to Granite’s Mill. Jack knew what he was about to see, and with most of ‘the brotherhood’ dispatched away, outside help was needed. So the experts at the Davenport Detective Agency had to be hired. Bren Williams, Derek O’Rourke and Russ Munroe are detectives under the guiding eye of former police chief, Raymond Davenport. All four were ex-cops who turned over state’s evidence on corruption in their respective precincts, only to be ostracized by the remaining brass. If anyone can immerse themselves fully into Alter Ego, they can!

How did your characters evolve?

I’ve had the storyline jangling around in my brain since the mid-1990’s. It wasn’t until I committed my ideas to paper that they took on a life of their own. With each stroke, my characters developed personalities, qualities, temperaments, dispositions and so forth. As you will see in my first novel, writing for a variety of men and women is quite the challenge, but I loved every minute of it. What helped me most was writing out a ‘grid’ as I call it. The grid allowed me to write out each character’s name, age, physical features, education, employment, backgrounds, personalities and how they related to the story. I used it so much that it had coffee stains on it (I probably shouldn’t have admitted that)!

Advice to other fledgling writers?

Your story has to be hungry to get out. When you sit to write, let it consume all thought; just allow it to bleed from your mind. Do not worry about perfection. That will come to fruition during the editing process. Once you have finished the initial draft, go back and read it out loud. Awkward sentences will reveal themselves. Always hire a competent editor (check Predators & Editors to see if they are in good standing) and get a beat-reader (one who is not a family member) to make sure you manuscript is ready to be published.


Tory Allyn currently resides in Upstate New York. Although born in Syracuse, he was raised in the quaint town of Baldwinsville with his brother and two sisters, who drove him into becoming the zany person he is today. As a child, he made up many a tale. Some funny; others dark and brooding, but all started him on the path to writing. Today, his nephew, lovingly referred to as ‘The Monster Child’, is his partner in crime. Most days, you will see them playing ball at a nearby park, going for a dip in the backyard pool or snowboarding down a popular mountainside.