Novel advice by James O. Born

Scent of Murder cover final


The SW FL Reading Festival is an annual event I try not to miss. This year, I attended a 2 hour long presentation on novel writing by James O. Born. He writes police thrillers which are so not my thing, but I figured good writing is good writing, regardless of genre. I’m glad I went to hear what he had to say. He is personable, self-effacing, and humorous and very easy to listen to.

Born distributed a one page handout with space to take notes. By the end of his talk, I had filled nearly all the white space with his good advice.

Born said to structure your novel and indeed each paragraph and each sentence with a beginning, middle, and end. The entire novel is like a three act play. Within each of those acts are a beginning, a middle, and an end. And within each of the sections are also a beginning, a middle, and an end. In other words, each “act” should comprise 9 (or more) scenes for a total of 27 in the novel as a whole. This is a problem area for me. So far, all I can come up with are enough scenes to fill a novella.

He will sometimes write a “treatment” instead of an outline, as if for a movie. In Hollywood, a treatment should be as short as possible, one page maximum. Even better is a “tagline” that describes the novel in one sentence.

Born said he defines a character by the choices that person makes. Hard choices make an interesting character. A happy protagonist is a boring protagonist.

Dialogue must match the character. Born thinks of dialogue as what you wish you had said in a situation but didn’t think of until it was too late to say it. To learn how to write good dialogue, he suggests eavesdropping. He always reads his dialogue out loud. If it is spoken by a woman, he reads it in a high pitched voice. He confessed he only does this when nobody, not even his wife, is around.

Born gave the following as a bibliography: How to Write the Break Out Novel by Donald Maass, On Writing by Stephen King, Story by Robert McKee, and The Lie That Tells the Truth by John Dufresne.

Born’s latest novel is Scent of Murder.


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