Thursday, April 11, 2013

Interview: Bestselling novelist James Scott Bell

By Mark Young
Whether his character is a butt-kicking nun or zombie attorney, novelist James Scott Bell’s active imagination always manages to create vivid characters that come alive on the page. And when it comes to humor, Jim can make the grim reaper crack a smile.

You want examples? Try this—opening lines to Jim’s bestselling novel, Try Darkness:

The nun hit me in the mouth and said, “Get out of my house.”

Jaw throbbing, I said, “I can’t believe you just did that.”

“This is my house,” she said. “You want more? Come on back in.”

Sister Mary Veritas is a shade over five and half feet. She was playing in gray sweats, of course. Most of the time she wears the full habit. Her pixie face is usually a picture of innocence. She has short chestnut hair and blue eyes. I had just discovered those eyes hid an animal ruthlessness.

See what I mean? Can you picture Sister Veritas? If you have not experienced this author’s writing style, you’re in for a treat. Sometimes Jim writes funny stuff. Sometimes, he can explore the darkness, looking for the redeeming light.

James Scott Bell is a busy man—writer, lawyer, teacher, mentor, a man of many talents—and willing to take a risk. Legal thrillers. Historical suspense. Even writing zombie attorney legal thrillers under the pen name K. Bennett. Jim practices what he preaches, publishing with some of the top publishing houses in the business while also venturing out into the self-publishing venue himself. Most recently, he earned an Thriller Writers Award finalist spot for his self-published novella, One  More Lie. He is a regular contributor to Writer’s Digest Magazine, where he served as a fiction columnist. WD  has published a number of Jim’s books on writing. Walking with a foot planted in both publishing worlds, Jim is able to provide a unique perspective on this ever-changing game of publishing.

MARK: Welcome back to Hook’em & Book’em, Jim. First, give us a synopsis of your current writing life. What is happening in the fast-paced world of James Scott Bell?

JIM: He's yelling out the window of the runaway train, "Slow down!" The reason is that I've got more

projects on my writing board than I'll ever get to. But, honestly, I like it that way. With the current self-publishing boom, you just never run out of things to write. I'm having more fun than ever, which I think the writing life should be.

MARK: How are your teaching seminars going? Who do you co-teach with and what topic do your students seem most interested in?

JIM: I love teaching workshops around the country. When I have the chance to teach over two or three days, I like to include interactive exercises along with the tools and techniques. I want to get writers deeper into their own work, and come up with gold. In November of each year I get together with Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) and Christopher Vogler (The Writer's Journey) for a big, 3-day conference. We each take a whole day, and find that our approaches complement each other nicely.

MARK: What do you try to focus on in these seminars?

JIM: My focus is on techniques that work. I've never stopped studying the writing craft, even after I was making a living at it. It fascinates me, why things work, how writers can get better at what they do. When I teach I'm trying to give extremely practical advice any writer can use to improve their work.

MARK: I am an avid follower of THE KILL ZONE, a blog where you and your co-writers share information and advise about all aspects of writing and the publishing world. One particular article you wrote a few weeks ago, titled Field Report From the eBook Revolution #3: The New Equilibrium, brought attention to such controversial topics as digital only contracts from traditional publishers, the continuing decline of physical shelf space in books stores, and the disappearance of the midlist authors. Where do you see the publishing industry headed in the next few years?

JIM: We all know things are changing, but no one knows the rate or content of the changes to come. No one. It's all up in the air. Which makes it exciting for the fast movers—which include authors who like to write—and challenging for big publishers who are like huge zeppelins propelling through storm clouds. I find the landscape fascinating.

Surely more and more people will read on tablets and e-readers. Print will still be around, but limited. One interesting development is the survival and even the rise of independent bookstores. They are like flowers that have grown up through the asphalt. They are small but pretty, and people appreciate them. Tight communities of print book lovers will congregate here.

It's all good for writers, who have options and opportunities.

MARK: What are some of the obstacles that traditional publishers face?

JIM: The same obstacles typewriter manufacturers faced when the PC caught on. There are still typewriter specialty shops that repair old machines. But these are boutiques for lovers of the old things. Some typewriter companies and shops saw what was coming, and moved into the computer age, and have managed to survive and, sometimes, thrive. But they did have to change.

Major publishing today faces a tsunami that few people saw coming back in late 2007. That was when the Kindle was introduced.  Can you believe it cost $399? Virtually no one anticipated the speed of change that happened next.

The rapidity of it all put pressure on every part of the industry. It's what led to Borders going into bankruptcy in 2011. The big publishers took that like a blow to the sola plexus, and they've been staggering around since. But in a
blog post I likened the industry to Jake LaMotta, the "Raging Bull." It refuses to go down.

But with physical shelf space disappearing, their main mode of operation and distribution is fading away. That was their main advantage. Now they've got to find ways to make themselves advantageous again.

MARK: What are some of the obstacles indie authors/publishers face?

JIM: There are two main obstacles: quality and discoverability. The former is about having the discipline and drive and work ethic to make yourself better and better, all the time, not giving up, producing the words. This is always job one for a writer. All the digital savvy in the world isn't going to help you if your writing is subpar.

The second aspect, discoverability, is an ongoing process. In one sense, taking care of the quality also takes care of the discovery. Word of mouth works. Great writing catches on. The depth and degree of discovery is always going to vary. But it will happen for the writer who is doing excellent work. Then come various tools one can use to try to get leg up. Like the Kindle Select program which you, Mark, have used very successfully. There are others. The self-publishing writer should set aside a certain amount of time each week, even if it's just an hour, to study what's possible in terms of marketing.

There's also social media, but writers can misuse it. I've seen it over and over. Variations on "buy my book" don't work. You have to engage and be real. But also, don't put so much time into it that you're taking away from your most important job—writing.

MARK: Your latest novel, Don’t Leave Me, released last January, seems to be doing quite well in the rankings. Tell us about this suspense novel.

JIM: It's the story of two brothers. The older, Chuck Samson, is a chaplain who served with a Marine unit in Afghanistan. He was captured, rescued, and came home with a rare form of PTSD. And he needs to take care of his autistic brother, Stan. In Chapter One, an unseen enemy, for some reason, takes aim at Chuck. And things just get worse from there. Chuck has to run for his life, and from the cops, who think he's a murderer. There's a secret buried deep in Chuck’s psyche that is the one thing that could save him and his brother. But can he ever get to it?

I wanted to write a thriller with a lot of twists and turns, but the crux of it is the love and loyalty of two brothers.

MARK: I know you’re hesitant to discuss future writing projects until they’re hatched. However, I noticed on your web site you shared that you are  “currently at work on two series: pulp style stories featuring Irish Jimmy Gallagher and the vigilante nun series Force of Habit. What can you tell us about these writing projects? Trying to bring back pulp fiction?

JIM: I think pulp fiction is already back. It's a great time to be a productive
writer! Just like in those days, a writer who knows how to tell stories can carve out a decent wage. I love the fact that short form (stories, novelettes, novellas) have a place now.

I wanted to write boxing stories set in Los Angeles in the 1950s. So I did, and that series is up and running. So is Force of Habit, which started as a joke my son told me. He thought a nun who can do martial arts, and fights for justice, could have that title. Ha ha, right? But I liked it! I told him I was going to write it. I wrote it as a novelette and it caught on with a lot of readers. So I wrote a sequel,  Force of Habit 2: And Then There were Nuns. I keep getting emails wanting to know when the next one's coming. I'm working on it! It's called Force of Habit 3: Nun the Wiser.  

MARK: Where can writers go to learn about your teaching seminars? Where are these going to be held? What other events are you going to be involved with this year?

JIM: Simply go to my News and Appearances page.

MARK: Thank you for your time, Jim. Look forward to reading your next work.

JIM: Thanks, Mark. It was great to be Hooked and Booked today.


JAMES SCOTT BELL is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Don't LeaveMe, Try Dying and Watch Your Back. His novella One More Lie was the first self-published work to be nominated for an International Thriller Writers Award. Under the pen name K. Bennett, he is also the author of the Mallory Caine zombie legal thriller series, which begins with Pay Me in Flesh. He served as the fiction columnist for Writer's Digest magazine and has written highly popular craft books for Writer’s Digest Books, including: Revision & Self-Editing for Publication, The Art of War for Writers and Conflict & Suspense


  1. Mark, I appreciate your featuring Jim Bell here today. I look forward to his posts on The Kill Zone blog, and these guest appearances are a nice bonus.
    I absolutely love Jim's writing, especially the fighting nun stories, just as I really enjoyed his Ty Buchanan books. But it amazes me that he can go from stories about a zombie lawyer to a tender/tough novel like Don't Leave Me. He's truly a renaissance man.
    Jim, if you're reading this, don't let it go to your head...but thanks for the way you've taught, mentored, encouraged, and befriended so many of us. Blessings.

  2. Jim: You will always find space here. Love your writing and your take on life.

    Richard: I agree with you. Jim is a renaissance man. I wonder what he will take up next. Create his own genre? Thanks for visiting, Richard.