Interview with Bestselling Author Steven James

Get to know Steven…

Steven James has penned 25+ books spanning the genres of psychological thrillers, prayer collections, dramas, monologues, a nine book series on creative storytelling, YA fantasy, and inspirational nonfiction. James has received wide critical acclaim for his work including four Storytelling World Honor awards, two Publishers Weekly starred reviews, and a 2009 Christy Award for best suspense. His latest thriller, The Bishop, was named both Suspense Magazine’s and The Christian Manifesto’s 2010 Book of the Year. He earned a Master’s Degree in Storytelling from ETSU in 1997 and is an active member of International Thriller Writers, the Authors Guild, and International Association of Crime Writers. He has taught writing and storytelling principles on three continents. For more info, visit his website.

Let the conversation begin!

What initially drew you to writing?

Ever since I was a child I have always liked making things up—especially stories. I think it might come from my uncle always telling us stories when I was young, whenever we would get together over the holidays. I never thought I could make a living writing, but back in 1996 I started sending stories to magazines figuring “What do I have to lose?” So that’s where I started, magazines. The novels came later as I decided I wanted to tell bigger and bigger stories.

How many words do you write each day?

I don’t go by words—it’s too discouraging. Some days I might write four thousand, then the next day delete ten thousand. I’ve found that if I time myself, or look at the clock, and set a goal of, say, six hours of actual manuscript time (not research, etc…) I end the day feeling like I’ve at least accomplished something, brought my book that much closer to completion, even if the word count for the book is less than the day before.

Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer?

Given those two choices I would say seat-of-the-pants, but I look at it as organic writing—and it’s not just a matter of semantics to me. I already know what makes a good story, the transformation a character must go through, the escalation, etc… and that guides my work.

For example, I write thrillers so I know there will be a grisly crime to initiate the story, my protagonist will investigate, notice clues, follow up on them, find suspects and eliminate them, have a close encounter (chase scene) with the villain in the middle of the book, the tension and danger will escalate, and there will be a final confrontation between good and evil. I will also have a love story subplot and intertwining story-lines.

Personally, I think outlining a book is one of the biggest mistakes a writer can make. My books always have twists and I figure if I’m not surprised at the point in the story when the twist comes, then my reader won’t be either. So I try to stay open to the movement of the story as I write, even though I know the major plot points that must occur, and the final culmination of the story. Because of this responsiveness to the story, I’ve changed killers up to three days before my deadline. I want every scene, as well as the story itself, to end in a way that is both unexpected and inevitable, and in each case it wasn’t until that point in the writing process that I realized only a different killer would meet those prerequisites.

When are you the most productive? 

Ha! I’m a bit of a mutant. I work well from about 5 AM till 11 AM, then from about 10 PM till midnight. Usually, I try to write for about 4-5 hours in the morning, another hour in the late afternoon, and one more at night.

What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?

I exercise daily, trying to get outside in the afternoons. I’ve found that most of the plot questions get resolved once I’ve cleared my head and gotten some physical exercise.

What book was the easiest to write? Hardest?

Hmm…Well, I think The Rook was the easiest, simply because I knew the ending early in the process of writing (although I didn’t know who the criminal mastermind was until two weeks before I sent in the book—giving the book a triple twist ending and reinforcing to me how counterproductive it would have been to outline the story). As far as the hardest, probably The Bishop since it explores so many deep philosophical issues of human nature and I had to do a lot of research on primate cognition and aggression, transhumanism, and the evolution (or non-evolution, depending on your point of view) of morality.

Was it easier to write before or after you were published?

I have found that some aspects of writing are easier—putting ideas down, making my characters multi-dimensional, but I’ve also discovered that the more I learn about writing, the more self-editing I do. It makes the books better in the end, but it ends up being just as much, if not more, work in the process.

Are your characters completely fictional? Or do you base them off real people?

I once asked my wife who she thought I was more like—the serial killer in The Pawn, or Patrick Bowers the FBI agent tracking him down. She said the serial killer.
I think she was joking. In truth, I don’t base the story characters on real people. They seem to develop as I write. I know this sounds weird to people who aren’t writers, but the characters actually seem to reveal themselves to me, almost tell me what they are like and what they want to accomplish. It’s almost like they have a life of their own, and I can’t really think of any people who are close to them.

Where do you get your ideas?

Life. Every day I’m overwhelmed by how many ideas come my way just by being observant about life. Bits of dialogue, descriptions, plot ideas, characterizations, the list goes on and on. So I don’t have any problem coming up with ideas. (I think I currently have at least twelve books started.) For me the problem comes when I’m trying to eliminate ideas from the equation. I struggle with that for weeks with every book.

What advice would you give young writers?

Story trumps structure. You’ll hear lots of well-meaning writing instructors tell you about three-act structure or four-act structure, or at what page in your manuscript to introduce the subplot, etc… But all too often these artificial “rules” end up handcuffing a story. Think of a developing story like a flower growing. If you start out by saying the flower needs to have a certain number of petals or grow at a certain rate, or to a predetermined height, you’ll end up pruning things away that would have allowed the flower to be unique in all the world. In the end it’ll resemble all other flowers that’ve been pruned with the same philosophy of flower-pruning. My goal is to let each story develop naturally and end up in a way I never could have guessed when I started working on it.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t fall in love with your first draft. Honestly, there are scenes that I might edit or tweak dozens or even a hundred times. I find it difficult to do that, and often disheartening, but in the end I believe it makes my stories better.

Tell us about the book you’re working on.

I’m actually launching a new series that features an entirely new cast of characters. I’m still developing the ideas, but the story will have to do with the ability of the mind to be used not just for healing (such as when a person is given a placebo and they are actually cured of cancer simply because of what they think about the medicine) but as a weapon. Not knowing exactly where the book is going is a thrilling place to be.

Describe your dream vacation.

I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that. I have always wanted to go to New Zealand, so I guess my dream vacation would be to go there, hike, rock climb, and cave for a couple weeks. Yes. That sounds brilliant.

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Interview with Award-Winning Author Vonda Skelton

Vonda SkeltonGet to know Vonda… 

Vonda Skelton is an author, speaker, and entertainer who is thankful God can use her messes for His glory…and YOUR entertainment! From black eyes to pink pigs and spider veins to webs of deceit, life is a stage—and every day offers a bounty of new material. You just can’t make this stuff up!

Vonda is the author of four books, including Seeing Through the Lies: Unmasking the Myths Women Believe, “A hilarious journey through all thing female as we search for truth in a counterfeit world.” She also has a three-book children’s mystery series for boys and girls 8-13. Her latest book, Bitsy and the Mystery at Hilton Head Island, was nominated as a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Award.

Vonda also writes for magazines, including Focus on the Family publications, HomeLife, ParentLife, Christian Single, and many others. Yes, she’s been married 42 years and is a 60-year-old grandmother of four…and she writes for Christian Single Magazine!

She is the founder of the Christian Communicators Conference, training Christian women how to develop a speaking ministry and co-founder of the NCompass Writing Retreats.

As a speaker, Vonda addresses business and social groups, churches, women’s groups, writer’s groups, and schools. Her philosophy is that everyone needs to laugh—and it’s her job to see that they do! For more info, visit her website.

Let the conversation begin!

What initially drew you to writing?

I hate to admit it, but I think a propensity to lying initially drew me to writing! From the time I was a little girl, I’d been able to manipulate the truth to meet the LETTER of the law without being honest with the SPIRIT of it. I realized I could make most anything a little bigger, badder, meaner, or sadder—and get more attention for it.

It’s sad to say now, but I was an adult before I realized I couldn’t manipulate God. To others, I could sound good, look good, and appear to do all the right things, but God knew my motivation, knew my heart. So now I take real life and simply WRITE it bigger, badder, meaner, and sadder…and everbody’s happy—including God!

Do you write with music?

Not usually. I wish I could, but I’m one of those people who can be easily distracted by music if I know the words or even if it doesn’t have words, I’m distracted if I know the tune and where the music is going.

But if I’m doing non-creative stuff like answering email, bookkeeping, cleaning, etc, I love to have Soaking.net streaming from my computer. You can choose between just music or music and songs. (I have it on right now!) I have a direct link to the music only track at my website, if you’d like to try it.
Simply go to my website (www.VondaSkelton.com) and scroll down to the yellow Soaking.net link/banner on the right.

What book was the easiest to write? Hardest?

So far, the easiest to write have definitely been the Bitsy books. Bitsy is basically me as a kid, with all the loud-mouthiness, talents, failures, fears, insecurities, impulses, and idiosyncrasies I had as a child. I LOVE writing Bitsy! I know her, I hear her voice. My family is her family. The first book, Bitsy and the Mystery at Tybee Island, was based on my childhood family, and since writing the first book, my sweet daddy and one of my sisters have passed away. I’m so thankful I didn’t put off writing any longer. What a joy to know they continue on the pages of the book!

The last two, Bitsy and the Mystery at Amelia Island and Bitsy and the Mystery at Hilton Head Island, include my adult children and grandchildren. It’s been so much fun to make it a family series.

The most difficult so far has been the women’s book, Seeing Through the Lies: Unmasking the Myths Women Believe. It’s a book of my heart, and even though it uses lots of humor, it required some gut-wrenching honesty and transparency. The truth is, we women have been sold a bunch of lies through the media, the culture, and even some well-intended (and perhaps some NOT so well-intended) Christians. We look at the topics of beauty, busyness, marriage, motherhood, pride, materialism, servanthood, among other things. In each chapter, I admit my own struggle and then we look at God’s Word for His answer. Each chapter includes five practical things we can do to overcome the lie, as well as five daily Bible readings related to the subject. There are Group Discussion Questions at the back of the book for group study.

Tell us about the book you’re working on.

I’m currently working on a novel, Pigtail, loosely based on my experience caring for my sister during her terminal illness. So far this has been even more difficult to write than Seeing Through the Lies. I’m having difficulty separating fact from fiction, knowing when to stick to the truth and when to fictionalize. The topic is a sticky one, with lots of situations that I’m not sure I need to include, but they’re the most compelling of all the scenes. I’m still searching for the answer of how to make it fiction, and yet bring all that emotion to it.

And even though I’m currently working on it as a novel, I’m feeling more and more compelled to write it as a screenplay. I originally saw the story in scenes. I can act them out. They have me—and others—laughing our heads off one minute…and sobbing the next. It’ll be interesting to see how it finally comes out!

Do you begin with character or plot?

In the Bitsy books, I obviously began with the character. In Pigtail, it’s all about the plot…and well developed characters. Did I just contradict myself?

What advice would you give new writers?

Never give up! I received 63 rejections before I ever had anything published! Most new writers will get 5 to 10 rejections and quit. That just shows they’re not really writers. Writers learn and write and submit and learn and write and learn and write and submit. And in all that time, they have to receive rejections and difficult-to-swallow critiques, and keep going. If you just want people to tell you how wonderful your stuff is, you need to be something other than a writer.

Also, be prepared to invest in your writing journey. I’ve often compared writing to my nursing career. Even though God gifted me to be a nurse by creating me as a compassionate person who wants to help and as one who can take charge and think quickly, would you believe they made me go to school to LEARN how to be a nurse? Not only that, but they made me PAY them to teach me how to be a nurse! And even more ridiculous, they made me work at the hospital FOR FREE while I was paying THEM to teach me how to be a nurse!

Yes, God may have created us with certain gifts to be writers, but that doesn’t mean that’s all we need. He expects us to learn, to try and fail, and perhaps even to sacrifice for the calling. That can be a hard lesson to learn, but if you go into it with that attitude, you’ll be miles ahead of those who think they can do it on their own.

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Interview with Bestselling Author Bill Myers

Get to know Bill…

As a writer/director Bill’s work won over 60 national and international awards including the C.S. Lewis Honor Award and has sold over 8 million books and videos including, “McGee and Me” “My Life as…” “Forbidden Doors,” “The God Hater” and his latest, “The Judas Gospel.” For more info, visit his website.

Let the conversation begin!

What initially drew you to writing?

At 18 I made a promise to always say yes to God — regardless of how uninformed He may be of His request. I’d seen three movies and read three books in my life — Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, and Pinocchio. Walked out of the fourth, The Godfather, shaken to the core by the power of the media for evil and told God He had to raise people up in that area to inspire folks for good. He said, “Yup.” After 6 weeks of arguing, I changed my college major. I started off writing TV shows and movies but when word of my faith got out into the community and no one was hiring me, I turned to books. (Now we’re turning my books into movies).

How many words to write each day?

I write a 1000 words a day.

Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer?

Because I write suspense and can’t afford to go off on rabbit trails and bore people, I write from a detailed outline. My most common e-mails are from folks who say they can’t put my stuff down. That’s one of the advantages of having ADD. When outlining I’ll always get bored before the reader.

When are you the most productive? 

I work 8AM-5PM (spending the first hour hanging out with the Lord). That first hour is often when my ideas come.

What advice would you give young writers?

Write every day. We never get it 100% right and never stop getting better, so the sooner you make your mistakes the sooner you’ll be over them and move on to a brand new set!

Tell us what you’re currently working on.

I’m still working on promoting The God Hater hard and heavy. I think it’s about my most important work and I want as many folks to be touched by it as possible. Here’s the website.

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Author Interview with Mike Dellosso

Get to know Mike…

Mike Dellosso is the author of four thrillers, his latest being the just-released Darkness Follows. Mike also teaches and speaks about writing and the writing life at conferences, schools, and to homeschool groups. Originally from Baltimore, MD, he now lives in Hanover, PA with his wife and four daughters. For more info, visit his website.

Let the conversation begin!

How many words do you write each day?

I write first thing in the morning, seven days a week. I’m usually up before sunrise and before anyone else in the house is awake so I have the time all to myself. I usually have about an hour to an hour and a half before I have to get ready for my full-time job and in that time I shoot for 1,000 quality words, but if I’m on a role I can do 1,500.

Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer?

Seat-of-the-pants all the way. I don’t have the patience to outline. When I get a story idea in my head I ponder it for a while, mull it over, testing different plot lines and characters. Then when I think I’m ready, I dive in. I basically know where the story is going to start and have the climax in my head but everything in-between develops as the story unwinds itself.

When are you the most productive? 

My ideal time for writing is between 8 am and 2 pm but since that’s right in the middle of my work day I have to squeeze it in early mornings. I love mornings, though.

What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?

Mostly, listen to music. And what kind depends on where I am in the story and what kind of story it is. For The Hunted it was all about hard rock, for Scream it was country, Darlington Woods, inspirational and classical. Darkness Follows was country and inspirational. I know, it’s weird but each story carries a certain mood to it and that mood corresponds to a certain kind of music. At least in my head it does.

Was it easier to write before or after you were published?

Much harder after being published. Before being published there was no real pressure. I was just writing a story I loved, could take my time, tweak here, sharpen there. Since being published it’s all about deadlines and pressure. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure (applied by myself) to make each book better than the previous ones. And sometimes writing under deadline really robs the creative freedom

Are your characters completely fictional? Or do you base them off real people?

My full-time job is in home care physical therapy so I meet all kinds of interesting people with interesting backgrounds and stories. A lot of my characters are collages of people I’ve met, mostly through my job. And each character has a little bit of me in it too.

What advice would you give young writers?

Never give up. Do the two things that make writers better: read and write. Those two things can never be overestimated.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Never give up. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to decide right up front that you’re in it for the long haul. When you start out to write a book and know it’s going to mean early mornings, seven days a week, for three months or more . . . that takes persistence, drive, and dedication. And when you finish and those rejections start rolling in, press on, don’t falter, keep submitting, keep knocking on doors. Sooner or later you’ll find someone to champion your work.

Tell us about the book you’re working on.

Well, right now I’m working on promoting my newest thriller, Darkness Follows. It’s about Sam Travis, a man on the brink of despair and destruction, driven there by a series of cryptic journal entries from a Civil War soldier. The only thing that can save Sam is the unconditional love of his daughter.

Describe your dream vacation.

I’d love to go to either New Zealand or Scotland. Southern Italy would be great too.

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