Today’s returning guest is James Scott Bell. James is not only a bestselling thriller novelist, he’s written three truly helpful craft books, including the #1 bestselling book Plot & Structure. He also authors the Mallory Caine zombie legal thriller series under the pen name K. Bennett. The first book in the series, Pay Me in Flesh, is about a stylish lawyer-zombie who suddenly finds herself on someone else’s food chain, and who hopes to stay un-dead until she can win back her soul.
The Day I Decided To Become a Writer
Raymond Carver sat at the end of the table, his eyes a bit red and his breath redolent of bourbon, surrounded by ten college students who wanted desperately to become writers. One by one, they would read their work and get feedback from the other students and Carver himself.
Your humble correspondent was one of those students, and soon became discouraged. I could not write like Carver, or even some of the “star” students. What did they have that I did not? At the end of the class I was starting to believe what certain people said: Writers are born, not made. You can’t learn to be a great writer. You certainly can’t by reading books on writing!
For the next decade or so, I thought I was one of those not born to write. I did other things. I acted. I waited tables. I fell in love with an actress, got married, and decided to bring in an actual income and went to law school.
I started practicing law. My lovely wife and I welcomed a son and a daughter into the world. Life was good.
Then one afternoon, with Cindy’s mom watching the kids, we slipped out for a double feature. The movie I wanted to see was Wall Street. It was paired with a film I didn’t know that much about, except that Cher was supposed to be quite good in it. That movie was Moonstruck.
Well, Wall Street is a superb movie. Charlie Sheen (the early years Charlie Sheen) was excellent, and Michael Douglas scored an Oscar as the odious Gordon Gekko.
A short break, some more popcorn and then . . . Moonstruck began. From the opening credits—to the song That’s Amore sung by Dean Martin—the movie began to weave a magical spell. We are immediately drawn to Loretta Castorini (Cher) a widow in her late thirties, a romantic with a strong realistic streak. Meaning she will settle for marriage to a likable but not very exciting man, Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello).
Loretta is funny and strong (she has to coach Johnny on how to propose to her). She gets that from her mother, Rose (Olympia Dukakis), also funny and full of old world wisdom.
- Do you love him, Loretta?
- Good. Cause when you love ’em they drive you crazy, ’cause they know they can. But you like him?
- Oh yeah. He’s a sweet man.
But of course what Loretta longs for, and believes she’ll never find, is real, full-blooded love.
All well and good. But then a scene took place that just blew me away and made me realize I was watching something truly special. It’s when Loretta goes to see Johnny’s brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage) for the first time, down where he bakes bread. She tries to invite him to the wedding, knowing there is “bad blood” between the brothers. As she attempts to talk calmly to Ronny, he goes from one operatic riff to another on the tragedy that is his life.
- You’re gonna marry my brother Johnny?
- Yes. Do you wanna go somewhere and . . .
- I have no life.
- Excuse me?
- I have no life. My brother Johnny took my life from me.
He goes on like this as Loretta attempts to talk like an adult. Then he suddenly yells to the counter girl:
- Over by the wall. Bring me the big knife.
- No, Ronny!
- Bring me the big knife! I’m gonna cut my throat!
- Maybe I should come back another time.
The scene gets even better, as Ronny reveals the wound of his life, the reason he is in a symbolic hell (the ovens). Cage has never been better than in this moment and in this movie. When he finally wanders off to accept his living death, Loretta follows him. Her strength manifests itself once again. She goes up to Ronny’s apartment to cook for him, have some whisky and to try to talk sense.
And then all sense leaves them both as, indeed, it will all the main characters, for la luna is full tonight, and moonstruck is what they all become.
Moonstruck, penned by the award-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley, is an exemplar of superior writing. Each character, no matter how minor, is unique. The dialogue zings, fresh and surprising. At the end, it all comes around to the theme of enduring familial love.
A la famiglia! Salute!
When we walked out I said to myself (and maybe to Cindy), “I want to write something like that. I have to go for it. Even if I never get a screenplay made or a book published, I have to try, because I want to make people feel the way I feel right now.”
So on that day I decided I would try to learn how to write. And if I failed, at least it would not be for lack of effort.
My law school habits kicked in. I studied the craft of writing as if I were preparing to master Constitutional Law. I made notes of what I learned. I value the notes I made for myself back in the early 90s, some on napkins and scraps of paper (I still have those in a big envelope). I kept a journal of what I was learning and how it worked for me.
I started writing screenplays (in LA, it’s practically a city ordinance that you must be working on a screenplay) and kept reading craft books, until one day I had a literal epiphany. Light bulbs popped. Story craft made sense. And from that moment on I started to sell. I landed an excellent Hollywood agent, optioned scripts, took meetings. But Hollywood, as Pauline Kael once observed, “is the only town where you can die of encouragement.” Or where a great idea you pitched gets turned into a movie a few years later . . . without your name attached.
In frustration I turned to fiction. The visual style of screenplays and the understanding of structure helped me enormously. Soon I had a novel published, then got a five-book contract. And I haven’t looked back.
I’ve worked hard at this writing game. I still do. But I wonder where I’d be if Cindy and I hadn’t gone out on a much needed date lo those many years ago, and been knocked out by Moonstruck.
So what about you? Can you locate the moment you decided to become a writer? Or can you think of a book or movie that moved you so much you said, “I have to try to do something like this…”?