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.