Bell: Write Your Novel From the Middle

James Scott Bell has been my favorite writer-on-writing for some time now, and I have his full-length books from Writers Digest (Plot & Structure, Conflict & Suspense, and Revision & Self-Editing) on my shelf. I recommend them all (and should re-read them myself). Bell has also Write Your Novel From the Middleself-published several shorter works, including collections of online articles and blog posts.

The latest of these is Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers, and Everyone in Between (available for Kindle and Nook). Bell begins with a quick look at Plotters, Pantsers, and Tweeners, at the “Death Stakes” for characters (which may be physical, professional or psychological), and at the three-act structure we’ve all tried to wrap our brains around (Bell adds two helpful “pillars” to the structure, which he also calls “doorways of no return”).

Bell doesn’t really recommend starting your novel at the mid-point (although I suppose you could if you are a far better plotter/outliner than I am). But he has come to the conclusion, based on a wide assortment of well-constructed books and movies, that each contains what he calls the “look in the mirror” moment, the point at which the protagonist takes stock of herself, and considers who she is becoming and/or what she must do. Call it the pivot point in the character arc. This moment at or near the middle of the story can pull the entire novel together and tell you what it’s really about. And once you have it, you can write/plot/outline in either direction. The Mirror Moment is the halfway point between pre-story psychology and transformation.

There’s more to it, of course: details, explanations, and lots of examples. And Bell has added some extra essays, including his views on Showing versus Telling, and an analysis of what makes a page turner, based on a 1953 paperback original suspense novel.

Writing Your Novel from the Middle is short, but it’s packed with information and ideas. It is available for Kindle or Nook, and Amazon also offers a paperback version.  James Scott Bell blogs regularly at The Kill Zone.

Recent Reading

I sat down this evening to write this post and found myself wandering off into an entirely different article.  That one’s not finished yet, but I’m back here for my occasional report of what I’ve been reading.  This morning I made the mistake of opening the Kindle App on my computer, and found myself staring at the vast array of books that I have downloaded, most of which I have not yet had time to read.  I’m not sure of the experience is discouraging, embarrassing, or just overwhelming.  (It doesn’t stop me from downloading more books, of course.  A few days ago I went on a minor binge and downloaded Blind Fury by Gwen Hernandez, Withholding Evidence by Rachel Grant, and Writing Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell.)

For the last few months I’ve only been working three or occasionally four days a week, and friends have asked if I’ve been catching up on my reading.  Alas, so far the answer appears to be No.  I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like, either.  I have, however, been getting a lot more sleep.

But I’ve managed a few books so far this year, and I’m reading three more as I write this (possibly having three books going at once isn’t the best habit, but I seem to be stuck with it.

Grave DangerGrave Danger is an excellent romantic suspense novel by Rachel Grant.  I particularly enjoy Rachel’s books because, like me, she has a background in contract archeology.  (We even went to the same school, Florida State University, although I was there mumble mumble decades earlier.)  In Grave Danger, archeologist  Libby Maitland has landed a great contract in a small town in the Pacific Northwest.  She can deal with the usual problems of the business, keeping the crew at work and the clients happy, but she’s got serious trouble this time: a burial where there shouldn’t be a burial, and a stalker no one else, especially not Police Chief Mark Colby, believes in.  Libby’s been stalked before, but is this the same man, or has she become entangled in something far bigger than a simple excavation project?  Grave Danger kept me turning the pages (or rather pressing the button on my Kindle) in search of the answers.

Bride of the Rat God, by Barbara Hambly, was as enjoyable this time around on my Kindle as it was when I first read it in Bride of the Rat Godpaperback twenty years ago (something I didn’t remember when I snagged it from the Kindle Daily Deal offerings recently).  It does eventually live up to its rather lurid title, with a cursed necklace, a Chinese wizard, and a powerful demon, but it is also a fascinating picture of Hollywood in the 1920s, when movies were silent, parties were noisy, and Chinatown was a mystery.  Not to mention the three gallant Pekingese dogs who help fight the demon.  Bride of the Rat God is full of eccentric but believable movie folk, silent movie production, and thoroughly spooky suspense.  There’s even a romance.

I even got around to updating the software on my Kindle this morning.  Good thing those files don’t weigh anything.  The  App on my computer says I have 214 items on my Kindle.  That’s kind of scary.

Recent Reading

I managed to finish reading a couple of books last weekend, not that I’m in any danger of catching up with the To Be Read shelves, and I can’t even remember what’s on my Kindle.  But I do my best.  This afternoon at work I had a job to do that involved recoding information on an online bookkeeping site (the client and her business are located several states away).  The software is slow to begin with.  My work computer is several years old and still runs Windows XP and IE8.  After each transaction, the screen refreshed so slowly that to keep from banging my head on the desk I pulled out my Kindle and found I could read a page or so while the screen was blank.  I’m not kidding.  I spent an hour and a half making those corrections as fast as the computer could handle them–and reading while I waited for each one to process.  Heck of a way to read, but better than staring at that blank screen in frustration.

I recently finished reading James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense on my Kindle–excellent book.  I really enjoy Bell’s writing on writing–one of these days I’ll have to try one of his novels.  Here’s the review I wrote for the Houston Bay Area RWA newsletter.  (I also posted a review of Bell’s Plot & Structure here.)

A couple of weeks ago I read Darynda Jones’ First Grave on the Right, a book that won a Golden Heart® in 2009.  Three years later it’s on the shelves with two sequels, and another due out this fall.  I’ve only read the first one (but there are two more on my TBR stack), and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  It’s a humorous blend of mystery and romance, with a heroine who is a “part-time private investigator and full-time grim reaper.”  Charlie sees dead people, which isn’t always as much of an advantage in her p.i. work as you might imagine.  As for the hero, if that’s what he is, well, Charlie spends the span of the book trying to figure out what he is. 

Next I read Joan Hess’ latest Claire Malloy mystery, Deader Homes and Gardens.  I’ve been reading this series (and Hess’ Maggody mysteries, too) since it began, and wouldn’t miss one.  Deader Homes moved a little more slowly than most–or possibly I was just reading more slowly.  The large cast was occasionally confusing, but Claire’s daughter Caron and her BFF Inez (approaching their senior year in high school) got themselves into as much trouble as usual while helping Claire in her unofficial sleuthing.  And Claire, as usual, gets to the bottom of things in her own unconventional way.  She continues to be one of my favorite cozy detectives.

Looking for a change of pace, I opened Zoe Archer’s Collision Course on my Kindle.  This is a very short novel, published by Carina Press, and falls into the subgenre of science fiction romance.   It tilts more toward the (quite explicit) romance end of the scale, and I would have liked to see more of the universe Archer created.  But trap an independent scavenger heroine and a military pilot hero alone together in her small space ship–well, once or twice I wanted to tell them to get out of that bunk and get on with the mission.  By the time the story ended, though, I was ready to download the sequel.  If you like steamy action romance, Collision Course is for you.

I’m still reading the new biography of Queen Elizabeth II.  No hurry–that’s my coffee table book.  On my Kindle I’m enjoying Edgar Rice Burrough’s delightfully old-fashioned The Land That Time Forgot

When I finished Deader Homes and Gardens a few days ago, I had my usual what-shall-I-read-next quandary, until I opened the newspaper the next morning to see multiple stories about the movie version of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  I read the book last year, but I hadn’t revisited the harsh world of Panem.  So I picked up the second book, Catching Fire.  So far, just as harsh and compelling as the first book.   Definitely not an old-fashioned tale.

A Kindle in My Computer – And Then Some

I’ve had my Kindle for nearly a year now, and I’ve been happy with it.  It’s easy to read, light-weight no matter how many books I add to it, and it’s only run out of battery power once, when I absentmindedly left the wireless connection on for a week.  I’ve downloaded a wide variety of books, some brand new, some old favorites, many of them free.

The Kindle is great for reading novels, but I’ve had some frustrations (and heard the same from other Kindle users) with non-fiction books, particularly books on writing.  Sometimes I just want to flip back to that earlier chapter on a related topic, and while it can be done on the Kindle, I don’t find it easy.  I miss page numbers, too.  (I have recently discovered that page numbers are available, at least for some books, but only when I hit the menu button, and they vanish after a moment, returning me to the percentage meter.)

So when I finished reading James Scott bell’s excellent new book on Conflict and Suspense and wanted to browse back through the high points, I decided to try something new.  I downloaded the Kindle reading app to my home computer to see if it offered any advantages.  It does.

The download process is very simple.  Go to Amazon, find the reading apps page, pick out the one you want, and click on download.  After the software installs, it will offer you the chance to register it.  If you already own a Kindle, registration will cause the reader to download the covers (not the books, not yet) of everything on your Kindle.  To download a particular book to your computer, just click on it.

It was just a bit disconcerting to see that array of books covers (87 of them) appear before my eyes, reminding me just how many books I’ve bought (or at least downloaded–quite a few of them were free) for my Kindle, my invisible To Be Read shelf.  And beautiful–all of them in full color.

I found Conflict and Suspense in the collection of covers and clicked it onto the computer.  It opened to the page I’d been reading when I last connected my Kindle to Amazon.  And it looks even more like the printed page than the Kindle does.  Navigation is quicker and easier–you can click on either side of the page to go backward or forward, or you can scroll through the pages with your mouse wheel.  You can look at two pages at a time, like an open book.  And you can highlight and COPY text!  Oh, joy!

I downloaded another of my non-fiction collection, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage, a book with a fair number of illustrations, and found the picture quality vastly better on the computer.  It doesn’t hurt that I’m looking at a very large high resolution computer monitor.  (When I bought this computer a couple of years ago, I told the young Fry’s salesman, who clearly came off the assembly line after my first computer did, to go in the back and find me the largest Hewlett-Packard monitor in stock.  He did a good job.) 

Even on a small computer, a lap top or notebook, the Kindle app offers definite advantages for non-fiction or research books.  And if you don’t own a Kindle, this free app (which came with three free books) will let you collect all the ebooks you want, and add them to your Kindle if you buy one in the future.


Reading About The Craft Of Writing

was something I avoided for quite a while after I started trying to write fiction (mumble-mumble) years ago.  I suppose I was afraid the authors of such books would tell me I was doing it all wrong.  And I probably was, but at least I was trying.

In the mid 90s I joined a local multi-genre writers group, the Bay Area Writers League, but I knew I wanted to write novels.  I didn’t know I wanted to write romance novels until I discovered what was then called “futuristic romance,” the infant subgenre that eventually led writers to science fiction romance, urban fantasy, and various other branches of paranormal romance.  So I joined Romance Writers of America® and the local Houston Bay Area chapter.  Through those groups I attended workshops and conferences, and met the wonderful BK Reeves.  Her encouragement (and classes) gave me confidence, and showed me that books on writing could be both entertaining and helpful.

Since then I’ve read a lot of craft books.  Some I agreed with, some I did not, but I learned something from every one of them.  I certainly learned that you can read the same idea over and over again and barely notice it until one day that idea is exactly what you need.  I’ve given some away over the years, but I still have several bookshelf feet of craft books that I want to reread, or at least refer to from time to time.

My current favorite craft of writing author is James Scott Bell.  I have not read his fiction (he’s known for legal thrillers), but I have his books on Plot & Structure and Revision & Self-Editing on that bookshelf, and The Art of War for Writers, a collection of essays and blog posts, on my Kindle.  When Amazon informed me (they know me all too well) that Bell had a new book out on Conflict & Suspense, I downloaded that, too.

I don’t really like reading craft books on my Kindle.  I don’t know what page I’m on, or where to go when an author says “more about that on page 165.”  I can’t flip back and forth to find some neat idea I want to reread.  On the other hand, I can pull the Kindle out of my bag and read through lunch, as I did this afternoon, or while waiting for the oil in my car to be changed.

So I can’t tell you what page to look at, but somewhere around the 65% mark, in Chapter 14, “Tools for Conflict,” I found a Really Neat Idea, one of those why-didn’t-I-think-of-that ideas (for which Bell credits Sue Grafton, one of my favorite mystery authors–I’ve been a fan since A Is for Alibi was published).  Bell calls this the Novel Journal–a notebook (or computer file) used as a preface to the day’s writing, for recording bits of the writer’s life, stray thoughts from the middle of the night, ideas for the next scene or anything else that comes up, a place to gather all those loose ends that don’t fit into an outline or synopsis.  Grafton calls this an “interchange between Left Brain and Right.”  Bell recommends it for both OPs (Outline People, or Plotters) and NOPs (No Outline People, or Pantsers). 

The Novel Journal certainly ought to work for someone like me, who falls somewhere in the middle.  I’m going to pull out a fresh  spiral-bound notebook and try it.


My Kindle knows me too well.

When I fire up the 3G connection to visit the Kindle Store or drop by on my computer, I am greeted with a list of recommendations, and many of them are right on.  A few days ago Amazon suggested Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth by James Scott Bell, one of my favorite writers on writing.  I’m not sure how Amazon knew that; I’m pretty sure I bought his Plot & Structure and Revision & Self-Editing at my local Half-Price Books.  But I’ve bought and/or looked at a fair number of craft of writing books on the Amazon site.

Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth is a collection of essays and blog posts in e-book form only, which in itself illustrates one of the points Bell makes.  I grabbed it because I know and love his earlier books.  Bell has an established audience for this type of publishing.  Most of us don’t.  And much of what is currently being self-published, Bell warns, is not quite ready for prime time (“Just Because You Wrote It Doesn’t Mean You Should Publish It”).

Beyond his interesting and realistic view of the e-pubbing phenomenon, Bell’s essays contain a wealth of information, advice, and encouragement, divided into sections on The Writing World, The Writing Life, and The Writing Craft, and concluding with interviews with well-known writers.

I’ve been reading Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth at odd moments over the last couple of days and enjoying it thoroughly; I recommend it highly.  (Bell has a few comments about semi-colons.  He doesn’t favor them in fiction, but they have their uses.)

It’s a shortish book, but I can’t tell you exactly how short.  It’s on my Kindle, and it has no page numbers.  I have to admit that, although I am thoroughly enjoying my Kindle, I miss page numbers.  I’ve heard rumors that they’re working on that, but given the ability to change font size, pagination can’t be easy.  I also miss being able to flip back and forth between pages, especially in non-fiction.  I’ve gone back to the beginning to look at the table of contents while writing this, and I’ll use that to get back to where I left off reading (“How Many Subplots is Too Many?”).  The other day when I went back and forth in another book I had to open the User’s Guide to figure out how to get back to the location number I had left.

The Kindle isn’t a book, after all.  The formatting tends to shift a little here and there, and the proof-reading isn’t always perfect.  I’ve been reading another book in which, for reasons I can’t even guess at, the word often is consistently written as oft en.  I still don’t think that electronic readers will replace traditional books, but the possibilities for supplementing print are fascinating.

I can’t tell what page I’m on, but I’ve read 73% of Writing for All You’re Worth.  Maybe in time that will seem more natural than a page number.