James Scott Bell is a name recognized throughout the writing world, not just for his range of fiction titles, but also for his non-fiction titles on the writing craft. Earlier this week, I was privileged enough to be able to sit down with James and pose him a few questions. This is a man who has gone from writing awards to courtroom domination and now back to the written word. He builds success wherever he plies his trade. In the original drafting of questions, I had, without even realizing it penned almost 70 questions. I was ruthless however, and whittled it down to the following.
Thank you for taking the time to sit and chat with me James,
I always like to start with a nice open question, so please, tell us about yourself?
Well, I’m an LA boy through and through. Grew up here, lived here most of my life, with stints for college in Santa Barbara and acting in New York. Went to USC law school, practiced with a big firm for awhile, then on my own, then started writing and that gradually grew to the point where I didn’t have to practice law, even though I enjoyed it. But you have to choose the things you want to do. I wanted to spend more time with my family.
You studied with the great Raymond Carver, can you tell us what that was like?
It was during his drunken period, so I got to know the smell of bourbon pretty well. It was a workshop type of environment, so we’d read our work and discuss it, then we’d each get to have one on one meetings with Carver.
Are there any lessons that he taught you that you still use today?
I learned a couple of big lessons. First, the use of the “telling detail,” that one little item that illuminates a character or scene. Absolutely use that, always looking for it in my work. Second, I learned I was not cut out to be a literary writer. I love plot, action, high concepts, stakes. But I also want the writing to be clean and expressive, which is a Carver trademark.
You were working as a trial lawyer, had your own firm which by all accounts was doing very well, and then one day, you took your wife to see Moonstruck. What was it about that film that made you make such a big change?
It was the absolute freshness and originality of the characters and the story. It’s a love story, of course, between two people who think they’re losers. The writing, especially the dialogue, is so good. John Patrick Shanley was a playwright first and a screenwriter second. And there is not a throwaway character in the whole movie. Even the small parts are original. You never knew which way the story would go. One of my favorite parts is after Loretta and Ronny have spent a passionate, moonlit night together. Next morning Loretta (who is engaged to Ronny’s brother!) realizes what she’s done. Ronny tells her, “I love you.” She slaps him across the face. “Snap out of it!” The movie works all the way through, to an ending that knocked me out. It’s about family, ultimately. I came home and said to my wife, “I have got to get back into writing.”
Obviously your fans are glad that you made the switch from law back to writing, but do you ever miss the courtroom?
Oh yes, absolutely. There is nothing quite like a trial, and I loved talking to juries. But it’s also very stressful and time-consuming. I’m actually amazed at those trial lawyers who do this for twenty, thirty years and still look healthy.
You also write under a pseudonym; K. Bennett. Where did the name come from? Does it have any significance to you?
My agent and I discussed this, and I chose a pseudonym to distinguish the new books, as they were so different from my “brand.” Here’s the truth about it: I wanted it to be the letter B in the last name, so I was near the front of the bookshelves. And I always thought it would be cool to have only one initial for the first, not two like so many writers use. I chose K because I liked the sound of it, but also have a name behind it, which I have not yet revealed.
The Bennett books are somewhat different to your other titles. Zombie Legal Thrillers is the genre I see used most to describe them. Was there any particular reason you turned your hand to this avenue of fiction?
Indeed, I invented the “zombie legal thriller” genre. When zombie fiction was starting to take off, I told my agent, “You know what I can do? Combine my legal thrillers with zombie fiction. And I’d like the zombie to be the hero. A criminal lawyer practicing in LA, who just happens to be undead.” I still love the idea. I may do more short stories and novellas under the K. Bennett name.
A quick word if we may on Indie Writers? What is your take on the boom of the ‘Indie’ writing scene?
I have long stated that this is the greatest time in history to be a writer. Because now there are choices, real choices, about where to take your work. Work that has merit, but for some reason is not picked up by a traditional publisher, need not languish. And there is a chance to make some bank, too. We no longer live in a “one size fits all” publishing world.
The opinion is often divided on the whole’ Indie’ scene, and with stories such as John Locke and Amanda Hocking fuelling people’s desire, is there a risks that writers are become a danger unto themselves with the levels of freedom being afforded by self-publishing?
It’s absolutely essential for writers to stop and take a businesslike look at what they’re doing. I wrote a book about that very thing, SELF-PUBLISHING ATTACK! – The 5 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws for Creating Steady Income Publishing Your Own Books. If you lay down a foundation first, you have a better chance of making some real money. But it always starts with a quality product. Make sure your writing is the best it can be.
You are also a prominent public speaker and run a Seminar for Writers. Do you also do online coaching?
As a matter of fact, I do, via my Knockout Novel program. Coming soon.
You have written numerous books on the writing craft. If you could impart a single key value into the minds of all writers, what would it be?
The words are everything. Make them happen every day. Write a quota of words every week. Never flag on that. Figure out what you can comfortably do, then up that by 10%. Make that what you strive for. Learn the craft as you go along. Read books, read Writer’s Digest, go to conferences. This is a real job, and it requires skill and ever-increasing quality. But always produce the words. Then you’ll have something to sell.
Thank you very much once again, for agreeing to take the time to answer my questions.
James as a large body of work to his name. All of his work can be found via his Amazon Author Page.