Putting the Big Lie to Sleep

By James Scott Bell

I wasted ten years of prime writing life because of The Big Lie.

In my twenties I gave up the dream of becoming a writer because I had been told that writing could not be taught. Writers are born, people said. You either have what it takes or you don't, and if you don't you'll never get it.

My first writing efforts didn't have it. I thought I was doomed. Outside of my high school English teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, I didn't get any encouragement at all.

In college, I took a writing course taught by Raymond Carver. I looked at the stuff he wrote; I looked at my stuff.

It wasn't the same.

Because writing can't be taught.

I started to believe it. I figured I didn't have it and never would. So I did other stuff. Like go to law school. Like join a law firm. Like give up my dream. But the itch to write would not go away.

At age 34, I read an interview with a lawyer who'd had a novel published. And what he said hit me in my lengthy briefs. He said he'd had an accident and was almost killed. In the hospital, given a second chance at life, he decided the one thing he wanted was to be a writer. And he would write and write, even if he never got published, because that was what he wanted.

Well, I wanted it too.

But The Big Lie was still there, hovering around my brain, mocking me.

Especially when I began to study the craft.

I went out and bought my first book on fiction writing. It was Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel. I also bought Syd Field's book on screenwriting because anyone living in Los Angeles who has opposable thumbs is required to write a screenplay.

And I discovered the most incredible thing. The Big Lie was a lie. A person could learn how to write, because I was learning.

How I Became a Happy Plotter

While in the throes of the Big Lie, the most frustrating thing to me was Plot. Because what I wrote didn't have it.

I would read short stories and novels, and wonder how the writers did it. How did they get all this great story material? The Big Lie said they had it in their heads, naturally, and it just flowed out on the page as they went along.

I tried it. I tried to let plot flow. But what came out on the page was dreadful. No plot! No story! Zip!

But when I began to learn about the craft, I saw that plotting had elements I could learn. And I found out about structure; that when plot elements were put in a certain order, a stronger story resulted.

I can still remember the day it came together for me. It was an epiphany. All of a sudden, something clicked in my head. The pieces started to fit. The Jell-O hardened.

About a year later I had a screenplay optioned. Then another.

Then I wrote a novel. It was published. Then I got a five book fiction contract. I wrote those books, and they were published, too.

Suddenly, I took a deep breath and looked behind me. Somehow, some way, I had learned how to write after all.

The Big Lie was exposed.

I was so ticked off about The Big Lie that I started teaching others what I'd learned about the craft of writing. I wanted new writers to know that they weren't doomed to stay where they were. They could learn craft, just like I did. I never taught fancy theory, just nuts and bolts. Things that worked for me, that new writers could understand and use right now.

And then a funny thing happened. Some of my students started selling their books.

I still find this the most satisfying part of the whole deal.

And this is what I hope you will learn. Let's replace The Big Lie with The Truth. The Truth is that craft can be taught and that you, with diligence and practice and patience, can improve your writing.

This is one book that's going to be as practical on that score as I can make it.

James Scott Bell studied philosophy, creative writing, and film in college, acted in off-Broadway theater in New York, and received his law degree, with honors, from the University of Southern California. A former trial lawyer, Bell is the author of the Christy Award-winning Deadlock, Breech of Promise and coauthor of the best-selling The Trials of Kit Shannon series which includes A Greater Glory, A Higher Justice and A Certain Truth. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Cindy, and their two children. You can learn more at his website: www.jamesscottbell.com.

© 2004 James Scott Bell. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

This article is an excerpt used with permission from Bell's book to help writers with their fiction: Plot & Structure, Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish.
(Writer's Digest Books, 2004)