James Scott Bell is, among other things, a professional speaker, a writing instructor, and an award winning and bestselling author. He writes in numerous fiction genres and has authored several highly acclaimed nonfiction works on the craft of writing. I first heard about him on The Creative Pennpodcast, brilliantly hosted by Joanna (aka J.F.) Penn, the subject of my July interview titled Alter Ego. I’ve been a big James Scott Bell fan ever since, reading his books and telling everyone else to do the same. As proof, here are my reviews of Try Darkness and Try Fear. I know for a fact that copies of those books have been sold based solely on my recommendations. Although I haven’t received any commission checks yet, I was thrilled and honored when Mr. Bell agreed to give me a few minutes of his time.
Q: Your most recent release is How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. What would you say is the most common mistake new writers, or even experienced writers make when writing dialogue?
A: Not taking enough time to “hear” it in the characters’ voices. I often say that great dialogue begins before you write it, by how you “orchestrate” the cast of characters so they are sufficiently different from each other to create conflict. I also use a Voice Journal for the main characters, a free-form document that is all the character talking to me. I work it until the voice is unique.
Q: Do you think it’s possible to overuse dialogue, even if it’s written well?
A: It’s a matter of taste. There have been books that seem almost all dialogue, like the Fletch books of Gregory Mcdonald. That’s a stylistic choice. If the dialogue is good, it can work.
Q: I have one question that’s somewhat personal. I think writing dialogue is one of my strengths but detail and description are often a struggle because I have very poor eyesight. I usually can’t distinguish things like facial features, expressions, etc. What advice would you give someone in my situation?
A: Yours is a somewhat unique situation. Perhaps use your imagination to conjure up pictures and then describe those pictures in detail. Over-describe. Then edit those descriptions down to what works best for you.
Q: In a recent interview with Joanna Penn, you mentioned that you took an improv class once upon a time. Was that specifically related to your writing? If so, what were you hoping to gain from that experience?
A: I used to be an actor, and improv was the most fun. It trains you to become a unique character instantly, with mannerisms and voice. Flexing that “muscle” is good for a writer.
Q: I haven’t read all your novels yet but I’m working on it. In the Ty Buchanan series, which is fantastic by the way, one of the characters is a nun and Ty spends time living in a monastery. In Final Witness, Rachel is rather outspoken about her faith. Were the religious tie-ins deliberate, or did the stories just take you in that direction?
A: Issues of faith, philosophy, meaning…the big questions, have always been part of me. It’s just who I am. When I write, those things are going to naturally emerge. Every author ultimately writes out of some view of the world, whether conscious or not. I try to come up with stories that are based on real conflict and high stakes, and stay true to what emerges.
Q: Are you most proud of your work as a teacher and writing coach, nonfiction writer, or novelist?
A: I feel I’ve worked hard at every aspect, and I’m proud of that. I’m not the most naturally talented writer, but I determined long ago no one would out-work me. I love what I do, but I am especially gratified when I hear from writers who I’ve been able to help through my teaching. That’s giving back to the craft I love.
Q: Do your stories typically begin with a specific character, a general plot idea, or some combination of the two?
A: I usually start with a concept, a “What if?” premise. I then come up with a main character to go through the wringer.
Q: When you’re in the early stages of developing a new story, what method or methods do you use to get to know your characters?
A: I get a visual. A head shot. I search Google images or stock photo sites until I find a face and expression that tells me this is the character. Then I do the Voice Journal. I want to see and hear the character as someone other than just an aspect of me. I do a little work on back story, but generally I let the character grow along with the story.
Most recently I’ve begun to depend on what I call “writing from the middle.” It’s a concept I came up with (and wrote a book about:Write Your Novel from the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between). It concerns a “look in the mirror” moment in the middle of the book, and it’s really the key to finding out what your story is really about. So now I spend time working on that as well.
Q: Is there a particular character, novel or series you are especially proud of?
A: I think the Ty Buchanan books are the pinnacle of what I’ve been able to write.
Q: I’ve heard that it’s usually unwise for an author to do a lot of genre jumping. You, however, write suspense novels, legal thrillers, “zombie legal thrillers,” which I must admit is a genre I hadn’t known existed, historical romance, short stories and screen plays. I apologize if I’m leaving anything out. First, I can’t help wondering why you haven’t written any children’s books yet. And second, would you say crossing so many literary boundaries has been more of a help or a hindrance?
A: In the “old days” of publishing (pre-2007) they did not like you to spread yourself over multiple genres. That’s because publishing was slow and bookstores wanted to stock what sold before. So an author built a “brand.”
Times have changed. With self-publishing, things are faster and readers are much more likely to cross over with you in terms of different genres. It is good to have a main focus, I think (for me, it would be contemporary suspense) but then I’m also free to try other things if I so choose.
It’s a great time to be a writer.
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