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:


Richard Mabry said...

Thanks for giving us this closer look at James Scott Bell. I thought I knew him pretty well, but the part about TV and radio commentator slipped by me. Glad he moved on to writing and teaching instead of continuing as an actor or an attorney.
He's a great writer and a wonderful teacher. His book on writing, Plot and Structure, was one of the first I read when I started my own road to writing, and I continue to recommend it.

M'Ceek said...