Monday, February 1, 2010

James Scott Bell

Author Interview: James Scott Bell

We’re privileged to kick off our first author interview here with well-known novelist James Scott Bell. He is a man of many talents—novelist, screenwriter, actor, attorney, teacher and … basketball star. Well, that last talent may be a bit overstated, but Jim is truly gifted. He continues to encourage many aspiring authors—including this writer—over the years through his teaching, mentoring, lecturing and books on writing. All this while maintaining a vigorous writing schedule in both the CBA and ABA publishing markets with over nineteen novels to his credit. (You can find more about Jim at his web site It is a great honor to have James Scott Bell visit us here today.

Q: Time to advertise, Jim. What’s happening in James Scott Bell’s publishing world in terms of your WIP or works just released?

Bell: I had three books come out in 2009. Deceived, a stand alone thriller, and Try Fear, the third of my Buchanan novels. Also, The Art of War for Writers.

I've been working on a couple of new projects (I don't like to talk about my books until they're finished, so call it a quirk or just plain cussedness) and something else, something I haven't done in a long time: short stories. I'm having a blast doing them, and may look to put out a collection.

Q: I read your recently released The Art of War for Writers book published by Writer’s Digest Books. This book is a survival manual for writers caught in the trenches of the publishing world, a book I’d recommend for all writers. What prompted you to write this?

Bell: The publishing business has gotten very challenging over the last few years, for all concerned. It was never a piece of cake to begin with. New writers, and even veterans, are out there fighting a battle to get, or stay, published. I wanted to give them something that was sort of like a "field manual" for writers, and took my cue from Sun Tzu. He brought order to the chaos of war in his day, through clear axioms. I thought I'd try the same for writers.

Q: The writing path has taken you down an interesting road. When did you realize you wanted to become a writer? How did you get from there to here?

Bell: I wanted to be a writer as a kid. I loved old movies, The Hardy Boys books, and adventure stories, like Treasure Island and Tarzan of the Apes. But when I was eight I went to my first baseball game at Dodger Stadium. Don Drysdale was pitching. And I fell in love with baseball. Sports took over my life from then until college, though I always did some writing here and there. And I had a great high school English teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, who thought she saw a writer in me.

In college, I took a workshop with Raymond Carver, and couldn't do what he did. I didn't know at the time that you didn't have to pass through that particular literary tunnel to be a writer. I was convinced I didn’t have "it", so I gave up that dream.

But about ten years later I realized I needed to write. And I determined I'd learn how or go down in flames trying. I found out a wonderful thing: the craft can be learned. That's why I teach. Because I want to give new writers the things I was looking for.

Q: You seem to trudge between the publishing world and the movie world. Tells us a little about both these worlds—James Scott Bell the novel writer, the screen writer, the actor.

Bell: I started my writing as a screenwriter, and did pretty well, though I never saw a script make it to the screen. That's par for the course, so in frustration I wrote a novel that ended up getting published. And I kept doing that. My screenwriting training really helped here, I think. People tell me my books are cinematic, they can “see” them. That's all from the screenplays.

I've had the opportunity to do another script recently, and am thinking of doing one on pure spec. I love the form.

Q: Do you have an ‘average’ writing day? What does this look like?

Bell: I'm typing this at my favorite Starbucks, which is where I've written a lot of my books. I have a home office, too. I'm an early morning guy, that's when my imagination works best and I have the most writing energy. So I'll usually write and edit from about 6 a.m. to noon, with a break in there somewhere for a workout. I may pick up some time later in the afternoon or evening, but its usually a short stint.

I am, however, always on the lookout for ideas, and will be jotting things down throughout the day as they occur to me.

Q: You are a part of group of authors writing for the well-visited KillZone blog. How did that blog come about and how did you get involved?

Bell: Kathryn Lilley, the mystery writer, got this group blog together a couple of years ago. She and five others. I discovered it and started to visit and leave comments. After a few months they decided they wanted a seventh writer and invited me. I was honored. I find blogging once a week to be perfect for me.

Q: Let’s get into the nitty gritty of creating a page-turning novel. How do you come up with ideas for a novel?

Bell: Ideas are everywhere. I try to get as many as I can and then choose the best ones. I write down one line concepts all the time, and go over this file periodically. It's almost always a plot idea, a situation, a twist, a mystery, a secret. That sort of thing. I start to think about characters next. Who would be involved in such a thing? How can I make him or her compelling?

Q: Is your WIP novel completely outlined before you start, or do you start the writing journey and see where your characters lead?

Bell: I'll tell you what happens most of the time. I get an idea and nurture it a little. If I get excited about it, I write chapter one. I love openings. I can open all day. But then I stop and start outlining. I'm so anxious to get started, I have to remind myself that good spade work up front helps the plants come to life down the line.

I always have outlined my Act 1 fairly extensively, then had "signpost scenes" that I placed for the rest. In my screenwriting days I used the index card method, and it's a good one.

I find I'm doing much more extensive outlines now. I think it helps with the complexity and unity of the novel. Most writers don’t like outlines because it feels more like work than pure creativity. But I thinkI prefer that up front work to the alternative: getting to the end and finding out my story isn't working, or there's no way to end it well without massive rewriting.

Q: Rewriting. Most authors struggle through multiple drafts before finishing their project. How do you handle editing? For example, do you stop and edit as you work your way through the first draft, or do you wait until the draft is completed before tearing it apart? How many drafts do you write before you’re finally satisfied?

Bell: My rule is to write the first draft as fast as comfortably possible. I will edit a previous day's work, but that's it.

I may stop at about the 20,000 word mark and step back, make sure all my structural elements are in place and strong. My LOCK elements: Lead, Objective, Confrontation, Knock-out ending in view. If they are, I press on to the end. If not, I'll do some fixing, then get back to the draft.

I usually do two drafts on my own, getting help on the second from my wife, who is always my first reader. Then I'll submit it and work with the house editor. There will be a third draft, then a line edit which will usually need some fine tuning.

Q: Characterization. All your novels are set in the City of Angels, LA noir. Private investigators, lawyers, errant husbands and a host of other individuals. Are your characters drawn from people you meet in that fascinating city or do they just come to you in dreams?

Bell: I make most of my characters up and set them in LA, because no matter how strange they are, they'll seem right at home.

Q: In one of the last chapters of The Art of War for Writers, your heading reads: “To survive over any length of time, you must turn any criticism into a strength.” How have you strengthened yourself through criticism?

Bell: I learned to tune out unjust criticism, knowing that it happens even to the best writers. So that never bothers me. I know, too, that critics are individuals who have unique tastes, and may even be having a bad day when they write a review. I'll look for anything that seems constructive and give that some thought, and forget about the rest. That's how you gain strength from criticism.

Q: Which authors have most influenced you in your writing career? Who are some of the individuals who helped you along this writing path?

Bell: Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, William Saroyan, John D. MacDonald, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais.

Lawrence Block helped me early on, through his fiction column in Writer's Digest. Jack Cavanaugh, a friend, gave me good counsel at the start of my career, as did agent Steve Laube. And I have a bunch of writer friends who have been supportive over the years.

Q: What books to be read are perched on your reading shelf right now?

Bell: My To-Be-Read stack grows like kudzu. Right now, at the top, is King's newest, Under the Dome, Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, the new Michelle Gagnon, a collection of ghost stories by M. R. James and my friend Randy Ingermanson's new guide to writing from the Dummies series.

Q: What one piece of advice would you give aspiring authors?

Bell: Get Mark Young to interview you for his blog.

That, and make sure you have a weekly quota of words. That's the first, and still best advice I ever got about writing.

Human Trafficking: Next Monday, February 8th, we return to the subject of human trafficking. Chief Nicholas Sensley of the Truckee (Ca.) Police Department, once again tells us more about another side of his carerre--combating human slavery. as an expert in the area of human trafficking investigations. We will learn more details about these investigations and efforts to stop modern-day slavery here in the U.S. and abroad. Nick developed into one of our nations's top recognized experts on facilitating responses to human slavery. Join us as we continue Part II--Human Trafficking.

Author Interview: On Monday, February 15th, we will visit with New YorkTimes best selling author Angela Hunt as she tells us about her latest novel, Let Darkness Come and the art of writing. Angela has authored more than one hundred books in her writing career, and she is a sought-after keynote speaker, lecturer, teacher and mentor. In 2006, Angela completed her Masters of Biblical Studies in Theology degree, completed her doctorate in 2008, and was accepted into a ThD. Program in 2009 while continue a very vigorous and prolific writing career. Join us as she talk about her novel, writing, and the publishing industry.

1 comment:

  1. This is great! It is nice to hear, for those of us frozen by the thought that we don't have "it", that with enough hard work you can craft your skill and succeed.