Tuesday, May 16, 2023

How to Reboot a Writing Practice

 by Paula Gail Benson

Mary Higgins Clark

Balancing a full-time job with writing is difficult. As a widow raising five young children, Mary Higgins Clark would get up at five o’clock in the morning to write for an hour and a half before feeding her children, seeing them off to school, and commuting to her own work. William Kent Krueger rose at 5:30 am to drink coffee and write longhand at the St. Clair Broiler before heading to his job at the University of Minnesota. The St. Clair Broiler hosted book launches for him until it closed in 2017.

William Kent Krueger

Does a set time and/or set place encourage writing? Do particular instruments (pen and notebook, iPad or laptop) inspire the word flow?

How about travel or motion? Scott Turow began writing his novel Presumed Innocent in a spiral notebook as he rode a commuter train into Chicago. Twist Phelan writes her mystery novels and short stories while traveling the globe and sending out blog posts about her journeys.

James Scott Bell is a prolific author of fiction and nonfiction. I attended his presentation based on his book Write Your Novel from the Middle (given by Sisters in Crime at the Raleigh, North Carolina Bouchercon). I found his ideas, based on movie structure, to be thought provoking and compelling. Recently, he released a book called Power Up Your Fiction: 125 Tips and Techniques for Next Level Writing (Compendium Press April 23, 2023).

Scott Turow
I ordered a copy and found it interesting that Bell began with tips for plotting rather than character. His first two chapters were called “Plotting for Pantsers” and “Pantsing for Plotters.” He suggested that all novels/stories begin with a “disturbance.” It didn’t have to be a big incident. It might be as simple as a phone call. He gave the examples of Dorothy Gale hurrying back to the farm, feeling as if she was being chased, and Scarlett O’Hara talking on the porch to the Tarleton twins and learning that Ashley Wilkes was going to marry Melanie Hamilton.

As soon as you discovered “the disturbance,” Bell said to determine a “rip-roaring ending.” By knowing the end, you would have something to work toward. You might revise that last scene as you developed your plot, but with a beginning and an end in mind, you had the bookends of a plot.

Twist Phelan
The next step was to consider the “mirror moment.” This scene occurred near the middle of the story where the protagonist must make a crucial decision. Either, “is this who I am or do I want to change” or “I’m likely to perish and how will I face it”?

James Scott Bell

Once you determine those three “signposts,” Bell recommended that you brainstorm 20 to 25 “killer scenes,” noting them on index cards. You arrange the cards to learn how the scenes work best, selecting around 10 to provide you with organization for a three-act structure.

I have to admit that Bell’s tips along with his breezy, encouraging style provide some great methods for energizing a writing practice. I’ve mentioned four of his tips. His book contains one hundred twenty-one more.

What do you use when you’ve hit a bump in the writing road?


  1. I've found most of James Scott Bell's craft books to be useful with my writing. I haven't picked up his latest though, so on my wish list it goes.

  2. Great craft book suggestion, Paula. I, too, have some of his earlier books.

  3. Looking forward to adding this book to my collection! I use a similar system.

  4. Thanks for the suggested resource.

    I have to admit I usually let my characters take over & proceed, since they will do that anyway. Often I do know the ending, however. Sometimes it's the first thing I write.

  5. I love discovering new writing craft books. I'll check this one out. I'm a fan of Angela Ackerman's Thesaurus series.

  6. After plotting and planning and roughing in and rewriting if I still hit a bump I find that screaming Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa while continuing to type like mad towards a deadline doesn't really help but I do it anyway. Off to scream-type.

  7. Mary Higgins Clark is one of my writing patron saints. As soon as I feel myself slacking, I remember Mary and those 5 a.m. writing sessions!

  8. Jim, Susan, and Kait, I've become a big fan of James Scott Bell's books on writing. I think they have a lot of valuable advice.

    Sarah, I'm not familiar with Angela Ackerman. Thank you for mentioning her!

    Molly, I sympathize. I've been a screamer, too!

    Shari, you are absolutely correct. Mary Higgins Clark is the perfect patron saint.