Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Just released: Bestselling author's latest book tells how to make a living as a writer

By Mark Young
James Scott Bell
An interview with novelist James Scott Bell regarding his latest how-to book on writing might—at first blush—seem a little off topic for this blog about cops, crime and novels. You are right, but let me plead my case. I feel strongly enough about this just-released book that I've chosen to break the rules this one time. There comes a time in any writer’s career where they find themselves fighting off feelings of discouragement and disillusionment. I believe that How to Make a Living as a Writer (HLW) can be one of those tools that helps writers regain solid ground in their publishing career.

This book goes well beyond what the title suggests—selling books and making money—by giving a writer a holistic approach to writing. Writing quotas, time management, and creating a workable business plan are just a few of the topics discussed in HLW. Jim writes from experience as both a traditionally published author and as an indie author. His twenty-year career includes many novels, anthologies, books on writing, and a weekly contribution to the popular blog The Kill Zone.

It is a privilege to have James Scott Bell with us today to discuss his latest book on writing.

MARK: Jim, thanks for joining us here on Hook’em &
Book’em once again. What prompted you to write this book? Who do you consider to be your target audience?

JIM: I have always been about helping writers not only write better, but write with an eye toward making actual money. I believe in professionalism. I believe it’s quite all right to make a living doing what one loves to do. 

In my case, it was writing. When I started out to pursue this dream, I didn’t think the odds were so great. But it’s what I wanted to do and I never stopped, and I managed to make it my career.

With this book I wanted to pass along the principles I used that I think will help all writers who want to be pros.

MARK: What is the most important message you want writers to glean from this book?

JIM: That you have to think of this as a business. You have to put some rational thought into this if you want it to give you a return. When I began to pursue writing as a career it was after several years of being a lawyer and also running a successful small business. I had learned both study and entrepreneurial skills. These were invaluable to me.

The good news is that these principles are not difficult to understand or put into practice. The trick is in the doing of them. That’s discipline. I explain how to be disciplined in the book.

MARK: In HLW, you debunk the idea that only a few chosen writers ever succeed in this business. Why are you so positive that new writers can actually make a living at this game?

JIM: Because the playing field has changed drastically in the last 7 years. The Kindle was introduced in 2007. The next couple of years saw writers starting to self-publish on Amazon with great monetary success. At the same time, there is still a traditional publishing industry, which I continue to be part of. The key is there are options now, and the writer who approaches things systematically, with a commitment to quality, improves his or her odds of making significant bank.

MARK: In a chapter titled The 7 Things You Absolutely Must Have to Succeed—you cast doubt on the concept that writers must have talent to make it in the writing game. Please share your take on this issue with our readers.

JIM: What I actually say is that talent has to be there, but it’s the least important quality. There are many, many naturally talented writers out there who never make it. There are a number of reasons for that. One is that they rely on the talent but never master the craft. Or they’re the sort that “just wants to write” and never think about being businesslike.

On the other hand, there are always those who may not be as gifted who work hard and work smart, and they surpass the “unrecognized geniuses.” That’s true in anything—sports, schooling, the arts.

MARK: In another chapter—titled Running A Successful Business—you discuss creating a business plan. How can this help to focus a writer to look at the bigger picture?

JIM: Every successful business has a plan. That plan may change, it may morph, it may be thrown out for another. But you have to have a direction and steps to take that are reasonably related to your goals. I give a sample plan in the book that anyone can adapt.

MARK: Later in HLW, you discuss the importance of time management and how to squeeze more time in a writer’s busy schedule. There are those writers just starting out who may be ‘contemplating’ writing their first novel. They may have a fulltime job, a family to take care of, or other commitments that make their hope to write seem like an impossible dream. They may take a look at HLW and say, “Wow! I can never accomplish all this.” What would you say to them?

JIM: I deal with that. The key is finding out how much you can reasonably write in a week, taking into account all the other responsibilities you have. That becomes your weekly quota of words. I suggest upping that number by 10%, to stretch yourself.  But keep it. Be zealous about it. I know there are some writers out there who think a quota is a crimp on their style. I beg to differ. I’ve had a quota ever since I started and it’s the biggest key to any success I’ve happened to achieve. As Robert B. Parker put it, the most important thing a writer does is produce the words.

MARK: Based upon all the topics you’ve discussed in HLW, is there one area in your own writing career that you found hardest to master? Why?

JIM: It’s hard for me to single out one thing. A writing journey is a series of challenges, and you do what you can to overcome them. I’ve always felt I could learn anything I needed to know in order to succeed, and the rest would be up to hard work. I don’t believe in pure luck. 

I will say I’ve always been interested in the mental game of writing, too. Learning how to handle rejection and keep going, things like that. Most of it boils down to slaying expectations and concentrating on being productive every day. Every moment you’re writing in flow is a moment you’re not worried about things you can’t control.

MARK: Where can writers purchase How to make a Living as a Writer?

JIM: The book is available as an ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. The print version is available here.

MARK:  You have taught at a number of writing seminars nationally and internationally, and hosted your own writing seminars. What are a few of the most common questions you encountered from writers attending these sessions?

JIM: Many people want to know about structure, if it really matters that much. I tell them to try making an omelet without eggs and a frying pan. It’s not that structure is a rigid slave master; it’s that it works for connecting readers to stories. So once you understand it you can feel free to mess with it all you want, just know that the more you mess the less you’ll sell.

I also emphasize that you don’t have to try to copiously outline an entire novel before you write it. You need freedom to be creative. But creativity alone is not enough. Throwing eggs on the road is not art. Breaking them one-handed into a bowl, scrambling them up, putting them in the pan and throwing in selected cheeses and spices, that is art!

MARK: Speaking of writing sessions, you teamed up with two other men— agent/author Donald Maas; and Chris Vogler, movie/novel consultant and author of The Writer’s Journey—to help others improve their writing skills. What do the three of you try to teach at these retreats? Where can a writer go to find out more information on this?

JIM: If it was only Vogler and Maass, I’d call this the best storytelling conference going. I am pleased to be part of it. Vogler leads off with his mythic take on storytelling, providing the wide universe of what connects us deeply to a work of fiction. I follow with my specifics on the critical areas of fiction—plot, structure, character, scenes, dialogue, voice, theme. Maass comes along after and gets the writers into the nitty gritty of their works-in-progress, prompting them to deeper and better stories.

On the fourth day, the three of us lead a chapter by chapter analysis of a great novel that everyone reads beforehand. At this upcoming session it will be To Kill a Mockingbird.

People can find out more at the Story Masters site.

MARK: Any last words of wisdom to share with writers struggling to gain traction in this writing game?

JIM: Recognize that it IS a game. A good game, a fun one, and one that can pay off if you know how to get the odds in your favor. That’s what my teaching is all about, getting people to a place where their chances for success improve. It takes time and it takes practice, but so does anything worthwhile. So I counsel writers to write until they die. That about covers it. 

MARK: Jim, thanks again for taking the time here to share your thoughts about the writing business. I am sure your latest book on writing will be a success. 

Writing friends, be sure to check out How to Make a Living as a Writer.

James Scott Bell is the #1 bestselling author of Plot & Structure, and thrillers like Don’t Leave Me, Blind Justice,Deceived, Try Dying, Watch Your Back, and One More Lie. Jim is currently at work on two series: pulp style boxing stories featuring Irish Jimmy Gallagher and the vigilante nun series Force of Habit. 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.

Jim served as fiction columnist for Writer's Digest magazine, to which he frequently contributes, and has written four craft books for Writer’s Digest Books: Plot & Structure, Revision & Self-Editing, The Art of War for Writers and Conflict & Suspense. His Write Your Novel From The Middle was an instant #1 Amazon bestselling writing book. A former trial lawyer, Jim now writes and speaks full time. He lives in Los Angles and blogs every Sunday at The Kill Zone.