As a newly minted Father, I’m going to share advice, learnings, and observations along the way in my “City of Fatherly Love” video series. Below is the first one, where I talk about how Pampers Club and Pampers Rewards works. Enjoy!
I met Steven James at ThrillerFest VIII. In addition to seeing him moderate several panels, I attended his workshop on organic writing and was very impressed. Following the conference, I read Placebo, his first book in the Jevin Banks series, and I’m currently reading his newest novel, Singularity, the follow-up to the aforementioned title. Below is my interview with Steven James; I hope you enjoy it. And don’t forget to pick up a copy of Singularity – it’s a great read.
Your newest novel, Singularity, is receiving even better reviews than the first book in the Jevin Banks series, Placebo. For those that have yet to read it, what’s the premise of Singularity and what inspired it?
Jevin Banks, one of the world’s greatest illusionists and escape artists, ends up stumbling onto a sweeping conspiracy while looking into the suspicious death of one of his friends. As far as what inspired the story, I’d say a growing interest that I have in emerging technology and the uncharted waters it’s taking us into.
Do you write a specific amount of words every day, and how do you keep stay motivated to stick to your timeline?
That’s a good question. I find that when I go by word count I get easily discouraged since I might fly and write several thousand words one day and then the next day delete everything I worked so hard on. Typically, I go by time. I set a certain number of actual manuscript hours that I would like to work in a given day and then as I write I keep a timer and take scheduled breaks, but keep track of the time down to the second (I know, it’s a bit fanatical, but it keeps me on track).
Some writers have said they barely edit their work while others put their drafts through several revisions. How do you handle the editing process?
There are very few people who can pull off writing great stories with very little editing and revising. I’ve read some of the work of people who say they barely edit their work and, honestly, you can tell. Personally, I go through a lot of drafts (with Placebo, I went through the prologue at least fifty times tweaking it until I was happy with it).
For fans that haven’t read your work, how does the Jevin Banks series differ from your bestselling Bowers Files books, and do you prefer one over the other?
Ah, so you’re going to make me choose between my children, are you? Well, the Bowers books are more police procedurals, darker, more suspense than anything else. The Banks books are a little more light-hearted and conspiracy/science thrillers.
Speaking of Patrick Bowers, what’s next for the FBI Special Agent?
I’m currently working on Checkmate, the eighth and final book in the chess series. After that, we’ll see what happens. I’m nowhere near running out of ideas for Patrick’s storylines.
One of the characters from your Jevin Banks novels is Charlene Antioch. Did you choose her last name, Antioch, because it means the “cradle of Christianity”? Additionally, what inspires other character names in your Bowers and Banks books?
Huh, I had no idea about that meaning. I don’t choose names that have hidden messages in them because because I don’t want anything to get between my readers and my stories. Decoding what different names might mean would be a distraction for readers. Instead, I just choose names that sound cool to me. Now my secret is out. But I shouldn’t admit that, should I? Yes, there is a master plan at work. I just don’t know what it is yet.
Do you use any tools like Scrivener or Scapple while writing? What are your thoughts on software designed for authors?
It’s funny you should ask that. I do use both of them—mainly Scrivener. I don’t think I could write a novel without it. I’ve abandoned Word and Pages, they’re just too slow and the features don’t help me with a big, complex project like a novel.
“First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
Some writers, like Vonnegut, despise semicolons while others think they’re perfectly acceptable. What are your thoughts on this never-ending debate?
I avoid them, but you will find a few in my books if the pace, flow and context call for them. My editor seems to like them and it’s a back and forth thing of me deleting all the ones she adds. I have a friend who says before you write you need to perform a semicolonoscopy on your writing.
Your stories are filled with characters and multiple plots. Since you’re an organic writer that doesn’t plot everything out ahead of time, how do you keep track of what’s going on while writing a story?
I find myself reviewing the story from the beginning—not necessarily reading through it all, but at least trying to keep the context in my mind as I write. I’m a big believer in context determining content and it boggles my mind that people can write a book without that constant scrutiny of what is happening in the story and what that means for the direction of the narrative.
Your Jevin Banks novels feature a considerable amount of scientific information. Do you gather this information prior to writing? When it comes to this information, how do you know when you’ve struck a healthy balance of showing and telling?
I had to do a ton of research for this novel on transhumanism, the hypothetical singularity, robotics and cybernetics, consciousness and nanotechnology. As you mention, it’s always a balance. As I edited the book if I found myself getting bored, I knew that readers would as well. When I was working on Placebo I needed to research quantum mechanics. Talk about confusing. I finally realized I knew as much as I needed to about physics to write my book. I think I included maybe one page of explanation in the final draft. So, you can over-research stuff. Most of the time the best bet is just sitting your butt down and writing.
Too many writers straightjacket their novels by trying to follow a certain structure—three acts or plot outlines and so on. That stuff can so easily get in the way of telling a great story. I couldn’t find any books that talked through how to break the rules to tell unforgettable fiction, so I decided to write one.
What made you decide to pursue an M.A. in storytelling and would you recommend other aspiring writers do the same?
At the time, I was doing a lot of speaking and working as a family entertainer. It was helpful to learn stage presence, how to come up with stories and tell them orally. Looking back would I do it again? I’m not sure. I think getting an M.A. in any creative writing field can be a big waste of time and money. We learn best by writing. I’d tell aspiring writers to read the books on writing craft that are out there, check out Writer’s Digest magazine, and write. That’s where the education happens. That’s how you become a writer.
At ThrillerFest VIII you moderated numerous panels and gave a presentation on organic writing. What did you enjoy most about the conference?
I’d say the organic storytelling workshop. It’s just so different from so many of the other seminars on plotting out your novels and following a certain structure and template that it was fun to get the word out there on how to write organically. It rocked the boat a little bit and that’s always a good thing.
When you’re not writing, what genres and authors do you enjoy reading?
I tend to go against the common advice that’s out there in which published authors tell aspiring writers to write in the genre they read. I read some thrillers, but for the most part I avoid them so that my writing doesn’t subconsciously mirror the writing or plot lines of other authors. I read books on the craft of writing as well as poetry and philosophy. When I have time I might pick up a literary novel. I wish I had more time to read recreationally, but I’m pretty consumed in my own projects and don’t get out of my writing corner in my basement much—either mentally or physically.
Did you have any mentors that helped you cut your teeth in the writing industry? If so, what were the most important lessons they taught you?
I had an editor fifteen years ago who called me a writer. I’d had a few things published, but no books. When he said that to me I told him, “No I’m not.” But he looked me in the eye and said, “Yes. You are.” That encouraged me and kept me going. Advice? Well, he once told me not to fall in love with my first draft and I’ve found that to be some of the most advice for my fiction.
Keys to Organic Writing
Let narrative forces rather than formulas drive your story forward. Imagine a giant ball of clay being held by a group of people. As one person presses against the clay it changes shape.
The clay is your story; the people surrounding it represent the narrative forces pressing in on it. For example:
- Believability: The characters in your story need to act in contextually believable ways. All the time.
- Causality: Everything that happens in a story will be caused by the thing that precedes it.
- Inevitability & Surprise: The end of every scene must not just be logical, but, in retrospect, the only possible conclusion to that scene. Scenes will end in a way that’s unexpected and yet satisfying to readers.
- Escalation: The tension must continue to escalate, scene by scene, until it reaches a climax after which nothing is ever the same again.
- Scenes & Setbacks: If nothing is altered, you do not have a scene. If your characters solve something without a setback, you do not have a story – you have a setup for a story, an event, but that’s all.
- Continuity: Think of pace as the speed at which things are happening, think of narrative energy as the momentum that’s carrying them along.
- Story & Genre Conventions: Readers enter a story with expectations based on their understanding of story and of the genre they’re reading. You need to know the principles of storytelling and be familiar enough with genre conventions to meet or exceed your readers’ expectations without resorting to using cliches.
When you know the right questions to ask, your story will unfold in unique, unpredictable and fulfilling ways.
- Does this scene ratchet up the tension of the one before it?
- How can I make things worse?
- What would this character naturally do in this situation?
- Is he properly motivated to take this action?
- Is this event caused by what precedes it?
- How can what I want to happen bow to what needs to happen based on the context?
Inevitability & Surprise:
- Does this scene end in a way that’s both unexpected and yet inevitable?
- How can I assure that readers don’t see the twist coming?
Scenes & Setbacks:
- Have I inadvertently included scenes just for character development?
- Is there an interlude or moment of reorientation between each scene?
- Do my revelations happen at the right moments within the story?
- Have I used foreshadowing to eliminate coincidences, especially at the climax?
Story & Genre Expectations:
- What requisite scenes are inherent to this genre and to this story?
- How can I render them in a way that’s not cliched?
Here are some words of wisdom from James Patterson: