Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Writer’s Valentine to: James Scott Bell

By Alyssa Cole

Although my real-life Valentine this year is spectacular, and deserves kudos for supporting me in my writing pursuits, I'm going to have to be a bit of a hussy and give a belated Valentine to another man: James Scott Bell.

Bell is the author of several novels, but more importantly (to me), he is the author of clear, concise, and inspiring writing guides for authors. Now, if you haven't read his seminal work, Plot & Structure, or even his The Art of War for Writers or Revision & Self-Editing, you may not see this as a big deal. There are tons of books on writing. Well, I know that. I own a great many of them and they sit on my shelves, gathering dust and enmity.

The problem I've had with other writing guides, and even with writing classes, is that they clung too hard to the mantra of "show, don't tell."

Page upon page of examples of various writing elements upon which to model your own work. Essays by writers explaining their own unique, and often poetic, takes on the writing life. These things were interesting, and necessary, but they weren't giving me something I really needed: instruction. For that, Bell's your man.

That's not to say that he doesn't give examples of well executed plotting or story points; he does. But the book as a whole is a real instructional manual. It takes the art of writing and actually breaks it down into digestible parts, into simple actions that when done over time will provide you with a tangible end result: a well-plotted novel.

Why is this important? Because writing, for many, is intuitive. People "just know" that they want to be a writer. They can't explain how or why the words come to them, or how they thought up that amazing character, or why they decided to throw the monkey wrench into a particular scene. That's all well and good, but intuitively grabbing for the tools in your toolbox doesn't always work, even if you are a savant. Just as a carpenter needs to know whether to reach for a level or for a plane, a writer sometimes needs to know exactly what type of technique to use or what element to tweak to make a good scene great. Bell provides a breakdown of the writing process in a way that allows each reader to apply it to their own work, resulting in more productive and confident writing and a veritable explosion of ideas as you read.

For being the man that makes me, and so many others, a better writer, James Scott Bell is my writing Valentine. If you haven't checked out his work, I can't recommend Plot & Structure highly enough. For additional instruction, you should also check out the amazing memoir/writing guide by my forever Valentine Stephen King, On Writing.

Alyssa Cole is a science editor by day and a romance writer when she takes her anti-procrastination pills. You can find her on twitter at @AlyssaColeLit.


  1. Plot & Structure is one of THE best writing books I've ever owned. Totally agree with your choice of Valentine's!

  2. Alyssa, thank you so much for those kind words! Absolutely made my day. Oh, and thanks for thinking of me in the same post with that guy named King. Talented man. I think he's going to break out soon.

    Have a great writing week, and thanks again.