James Scott Bell
WG: Welcome and thanks for stepping into my spotlight this month. To start off, please tell us about yourself.
JSB: I’m third-generation Los Angeles and I love my city (even with all the, er, extras that come along with it). I write about LA because it's the best noir city ever, and has so many possibilities. Also a rich history that is largely untapped. I set a whole series of historical thrillers, featuring Kit Shannon , in turn-of-the-century (the 1900 one) Los Angeles. I did my college at U.C. Santa Barbara, where I took a workshop with Raymond Carver. I went into acting for awhile, got married, went to law school at University of Southern California, practiced law, started pursuing the writing dream, and here I am now . . .still living in Los Angeles, still writing. Not practicing law, though.
WG: Let's talk about your own personal road to publication:
Is there some individual, group or event that you can point to as the catalyst/impetus that set you on the road to becoming a writer? Explain.
JSB: No, what got me on the road to publication was something that happened about a decade past in which I thought I didn't have what it takes to be a writer. I'd been told that you can't learn how to write fiction, that you really have to have "it" or not. Since I didn't have "it" apparently, I gave up. The event that got me back to wanting to at least try was when I went with my wife to a double feature, Wall Street and another movie I barely knew about, Moonstruck. Well, it was Moonstruck that absolutely knocked me out. I wanted to be able to write something that was that fresh and funny and, ultimately, about family.
WG: Tell us about your journey.
JSB: So I set out to learn how to write screenplays. And I did what people told me was pointless: I read books on the writing craft. Went to seminars. And wrote, wrote, wrote. It was about two years later, and maybe half a dozen scripts, that the craft started to jell in my mind. My scripts started to get attention, got me a good agent, meetings and so on. But there's an old saying, "Hollywood is the only town where you can die of encouragement." Frustrated with waiting for something to get the "green light," I started to think about fiction.
WG: How many books did you complete before you sold your first? Have all/any of them sold since?
JSB: If you count the screenplays, maybe 8 – 10 full length works. If you're talking pure fiction, I finally wrote a full length novel and a small publisher picked it up. After that I got a five book contract for a series of legal thrillers, from Broadman & Holman (now B & H). And I was on my way.
WG: Can you tell us something about your experience in getting 'the call'?
JSB: Do you mean the "call" to be a writer? Or the "call" from a publisher?
WG: You choose!
JSB: Both. The call to be a writer has been in me since I was a kid reading Hardy Boys and Edgar Rice Burroughs. It's just that it got sidetracked for awhile. As far as the call from the editor, offering me a five-book deal for an extremely handsome advance for a newbie, I went "Habba habba habba" into the phone.
WG: How has being a published author impacted your life?
JSB: Well, there's published and then there's hanging around. Getting published is obviously a grand thing, and writers who make it there can feel good about it. But then begins the whole professional track, and it's not easy. You have to keep producing books, marketing yourself, building an audience, pleasing your publisher and so on. If you're a real writer, your standards get higher, too, so writing seems to become more difficult. And if things don't work out as planned, you can find yourself back to drawing board, which can feel horrible.
So plan on hanging around. Always be thinking four, five years ahead, planning projects, staying productive. In this new era of self-publishing, a writer never needs to fear being down and out for good.
WG: What aspect of life as a published author surprised you the most - either in a good or bad way?
JSB: I didn't know writing would get harder. When you become multi-published, you are intent on continuing to please your publisher and readers. But you raise the bar a little bit more each time (and should). And you're a lot more aware of your weaknesses.
WG: What about your writing process. Do you maintain a set schedule? Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
JSB: Typical day is doing a good morning stint. I try to do what I call my "Nifty 350," which is 350 words right off the bat. If I can do that, the writing day goes much more smoothly, it seems. I take care of business late morning. I may ride my bike to Starbucks, with my AlphaSmart in a backpack, and do some writing there. Afternoon from about 2 to 4 is zombie time. I'm useless. I try to get in a power nap of 20 minutes or so. And then do some editing.
WG: Do you set writing goals for yourself?
JSB: I've always written to a quota. At first it was 1,000 words a day. Then I started going for 6000 words a week, knowing I'd miss some days and therefore could make it up on others. And I try to take one day off day a week, usually Sunday.
WG: Do you have a 'mood setter', something (music, ritual, environment, etc) you use to get you going when you sit down to write?
JSB: Yes, I like music if I'm at home. I like ambient noise if I'm out. Lately I've used Coffitivity.com which emulates the sounds of a coffee place. There's research to suggest this is all good for productivity.
WG: Do you do a lot of up front plotting before you start or do you just dive in?
JSB: I plan. I have to know a couple of key plot points, things like the Doorway of No Return (which I explain in my plot books). I want to know about certain "signpost scenes," too. And I do character work. I usually have Act 1 pretty settled, and know the basic ending I'm aiming for. Then I can plot from signpost scene to signpost scene, and let things grow organically, too.
WG: Do you normally start with storyline or with character or with some combination of the two?
JSB: Usually it's a situation, a plot twist, a "what if?" Then I start to plug in characters.
WG: Do you find certain themes or character archetypes making recurring appearances in your stories?
JSB: I think my big theme is the search for justice in a dark world. That seems to be in just about all my books.
WG: What do you see as your own personal strengths as a writer?
JSB: Dialogue, plotting, use of humor for variety.
WG: Are there any obstacles/conflicts, specific to your particular lifestyle, that get in the way of your writing? If so, how do you try and overcome them?
JSB: Well, writing is my job so my "lifestyle" is pretty much woven around writing and editing and doing the business of writing. When my kids were young I flexed my hours around parenting duties and the like. But I haven't seen a whole lot of obstacles, except maybe when my wife has to bring me back into a conversation where my mind has wandered to a "what if?" or people watching or to a scene I've been working on.
WG: Do you have a favorite sub-genre as a writer? as a reader?
JSB: My favorite genre is the crime/noir fiction of the 30s, 40s and 50s. I like that era because the plotting was strong and offensive language or content was absent. There's something about that genre that is extremely moral—it's usually about the consequences of moral compromise and bad choices. It's about the "common man" trying to make it through the sometimes harsh urban jungle and come out whole.
WG: Is there a genre you haven't been published in yet that you'd like to try your hand at someday?
WG: Do you have any advice to offer writers still striving toward publication?
JSB: Write to a quota. Figure out what you can comfortably do in a week's time, taking into account your own schedule. Then up that by 10% and make that your weekly goal. Also, turn learning the craft into a system. Create a regular routine of craft study to go right along with your weekly writing.
WG: Is there a specific 'ah-ha' moment you've had as a writer that you would like to share with us?
JSB: The biggest one, early on, was that your scenes need to connect to the overall story question, and each scene has a structure that ends, usually, with the Lead being in a worse position. Then he has to react, analyze, come up with a new plan and move forward. These organically related scenes eventually form a novel.
WG: Rejections, notes from unhappy readers and less than stellar reviews are all part of this business. What is your own method for dealing with these and moving on?
JSB: I like what the novelist Jacqueline Briskin said: "Let rejection hurt for a half hour, no more. Then get back to your word processor." Writing itself is the best anodyne. Also, having the loving support of a spouse or close friend.
WG: Is there some piece of advice you received or bit of 'conventional wisdom' that you wish you had ignored?
JSB: When I was told "Writers are born, not made. You can't learn to write from reading books on writing." I believed that Big Lie for ten years. Those years were wasted because I didn't write.
WG: What do you find to be the most rewarding thing about being a writer? What aspect do you struggle with the most?
JSB: I like the freedom to create new stories all the time, and not having to commute in heavy traffic to an office. But a writer who wants a career has to be able to live with uncertainty a lot of the time.
WG: When you're not writing, what do you do for fun or what is your favorite self-indulgence?
JSB: Watching movies with my wife. Getting in a little golf now and then.
WG: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
JSB: Center fielder for the Dodgers.
WG: What are your favorite movies and/or TV shows? Why?
JSB: I'm not much of a TV watcher. As for movies, the classics. Shane, The Best Years of Our Lives, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Father of the Bride (really, anything with Spencer Tracy) and so on.
WG: I love to collect quotes, all kinds of quotes - inspirational, quirky, motivational, profound, etc. Do you have a personal favorite you'd like to share.
JSB: "If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass. If it persists, you probably ought to write a novel." –– Lawrence Block.
"The reader has certain rights. He bought your story. Think of this as an implicit contract. He's entitled to be entertained, instructed, amused; maybe all three. If he quits in the middle, or puts the book down, feeling his time has been wasted, you're in violation." — Larry Niven
"The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon." — Robert Cormier
WG: Please tell us about your Kit Shannon series.
JSB: Around 2000 or so I got an idea for a legal thriller series. It seemed like every ex-lawyer was writing legal thrillers at the time, including me. I wanted to try something different. So I thought about setting a legal thriller in a historical context. Then it became a matter of choosing which one.Being an LA boy, third-generation, loving the history of my city, I thought back to the turn-of-the-century. Los Angeles was just coming of age back then and women were barely beginning to practice law. So I came up with a young woman of faith named Kit Shannon, who comes to LA in 1903 with the dream of practicing law.
Bethany House bought the idea and teamed me up for the first three books with Tracie Peterson. We developed the voice and style together, and then I went on to do three more Kit Shannon books on my own. They are all now available as e-books.
WG: What sort of research, if any, did you have to do? Did you stumble across any unexpected interesting/fun tidbits along the way?
JSB: I loved researching this series. I spent hours at the downtown LA library, poring over microfiches of the Los Angeles Times and the Hearst paper, The Examiner. I read books and created full notebooks of notes and clippings.
WG: Tell us about your upcoming plans.
JSB: I will never run out of stories to write, and now that it's possible to self-publish in a meaningful way (i.e., make an actual income from it) there is no reason for me to slow down. I have novel and novella ideas flowing. I am not averse to doing more in the traditional realm, if the right terms can be worked out.
WG: And before we close, tell us how your readers can get in touch with you.
JSB: My website, www.jamesscottbell.com, has my contact info.
WG: Thanks so much for spending time with me and my readers this month. It was fun 'chatting' with you, as always!
JSB: My pleasure.