Saturday, February 20, 2016

Novel Writing Intensive, October 2016

Registration is now open for my 7th Novel Writing Intensive Retreat, with New York Times bestselling author, Robert Dugoni. This is an in-depth, intensive time of teaching and study on the craft of novel writing. For more information, visit the NWI website.

Monday, January 4, 2016

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to the next generation of thriller authors?

Quite honestly, I think that each generation of writers has the same job—to tell great stories to their audiences. As readers’ expectations continue to evolve, so should our stories. That said, here are a couple thoughts.

1 - Spend the extra time making your story great. Create a character we want to spend time with, want to cheer for, and want to worry about. Make it clear what the character wants, how far he is willing to go to get it, and what is at stake if he fails. Whether you consider your story character-driven or plot-driven, every story, at it’s core, is struggle-driven. Draw us into that world.

2 - Be concise. I’m finding that people today really do have shorter and shorter attention spans, and with the emergence of ebooks (which seem to sell better when they’re shorter), I’m afraid that we’re going to have to start telling simpler and less complex stories. Or maybe we just need to write leaner, sharper, more gripping stories. In either case, ruminating, meandering prose and long, insignificant descriptions are out; and taut, intense stories are in.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Hey everyone,

Every Crooked Path is a work of fiction, and yet, in a very real sense, it also tells the truth about our world today. While the characters and situations in this story are made up, the nature of the crimes is not.

As a parent, I found this book particularly difficult to write, since it involved research into cybercrimes against children. However, because of the impact of this issue on modern culture, I felt it was an important story for me to tell—perhaps my most important one so far.

Finding out what’s really out there lurking online was a wake-up call to me. Rather than describe any exploitative images in this book, I chose to show the reactions of the characters to seeing them. I’ll trust your imagination to fill in the rest.

During my research, I came across an organization called the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. It’s dedicated to rescuing children and catching those who target them. NCMEC is a nonprofit organization that depends on private donations, so please consider supporting their work. For more information, go to

Together we can make a difference in protecting the next generation from those who would steal their innocence from them.

I think you’ll enjoy Every Crooked Path. It’s a thrilling ride, a redemptive story, and shows the power of good over evil. Let me know what you think.

—Steven James

Thursday, May 28, 2015

What makes a character likable?

Sometimes it’s a quirk, sometimes it’s a wound we all share. Most often it’s an attitude. Too many authors spend tons of time working up a detailed history of the character’s life, but usually that’s a waste. A character with an attitude is always more interesting than a character with a history.

Think about the people you like to hang around with in real life—those same traits are often present in fictional characters we like to spend time with.

Just as in real life, we prefer people who are fun to be around (rather than whiny and self-pitying), adventurous, engaging, vibrant, unpredictable and ready to admit their mistakes rather than pretend they’re better than everyone else. In his book Writing 21st Century Fiction, Donald Maass suggests that we imagine creating characters that we would want to take to prom. That’s good advice.

I also think it’s the inconsistencies rather than the consistencies that make characters interesting. So, for example, if a character is mature in every way, she’s boring, but if she’s intellectually mature but also emotionally needy, she becomes a character who’s intriguing and multi-layered.

New York Times Bestselling author Robert Dugoni suggests that to create empathy in readers we give the character an undeserved misfortune, put him in jeopardy, make them compassionate and nice, funny or witty, make them powerful and altruistic.

Sometimes I’ve started watching a TV series and then just abandoned it after an episode or two because, honestly, there just wasn’t anyone I felt like I could cheer for, no one I wanted to spend time with. When you’re creating characters, you need to create ones that people would rather spend time with than do anything else. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to grab their attention long enough for them to become engaged in your book, and enthralled enough to stick with it.

Even if a character doesn’t always play by the rules or has undesirable traits, if he’s someone intriguing and fun to be around, he’s going to be the likeable character who will attract readers.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Writer's Digest Webinar Event

Authors, you're invited to attend my Writer's Digest webinar, Abandon Your Outline and Elevate Your Novelon Tuesday, December 16th, at 1pm. Those who register for the live event will receive an ebook version of my book Story Trumps Structure. I hope you can join us.


In this eye-opening live webinar, both aspiring and accomplished authors will learn the advantages of ditching their outlines, why they should stop trying to plot out their stories, how to trust the writing process, and how to develop their fiction organically rather than mechanically.

This is far different than “seat-of-the-pants” writing. It's all about delving into a deeper understanding of the essence of story, embracing the expectations of your readers, and asking the right questions to help shape the story.
Formulas and templates can only take you so far and, all too often, they end up straightjacketing stories. But how can you really write a powerful, cohesive, emotionally-gripping story without plotting it out first? Is it even possible? Yes it is. And this webinar will teach you how.


  • 3 questions that will solve every “plot problem” you'll ever have 
  • How vital, underlying narrative forces work together to drive your story forward 
  • Why context determines content and how it shapes every scene you write
  • 5 easy-to-implement steps to organizing scene ideas without using an outline 
  • Practical steps to adding a twist to your story 
  • Specific ways to listen to and respond to your story as it unfolds 
  • The core ingredients that will improve every story


  • Writers tired of following formulas and plot templates 
  • Writers looking for a fresh approach to understanding what makes a story work 
  • Aspiring novelists intimidated by the idea of outlining an entire novel
  • Accomplished novelists who would like to expand their storytelling depth
  • Novelists with great ideas but no direction 
  • “Seat-of-the-pants” writers looking for practical tips 
  • Writers who would rather spend time writing a story than plotting one out
  • Writers who've written themselves into a corner 
  • Writers trying to reconnect with the joy of creativity 
  • Writers who want to add twists to their stories

Monday, November 17, 2014

Troubleshooting Your Novel

Troubleshooting Your Novel  

a full-day writing seminar
with the critically-acclaimed author of the
Patrick Bowers thriller series,
Steven James 

Also featuring New York Times bestselling author, Eric Wilson; award-winning author and freelance editor, Jodie Renner; and literary agent with the Wheelhouse Literary Group, Jonathan Clements 

Saturday, January 17, 2015
8:30 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Radisson Airport Hotel
Nashville, TN

This one-day conference will be filled with practical insights,
dozens of ways to fix plot flaws, time-tested writing secrets,
and easy-to-implement ideas that will help you improve your novel right now, no matter how far along you are in writing it. From the broad aspects of building the framework of your novel to the fine brush-strokes of line-by-line editing, this day will transform your writing forever.

Visit to register.

Friday, October 3, 2014

In keeping with your contract of entertaining the reader: How best do I design scenes? What should every scene consist of in your opinion? Can you have a scene that simply shows more character development, or simply hints/builds towards things to come later in the story? Does every scene have to have conflict? Since this is my first draft, should I simply write the story out and go back and add/drop scenes as needed?

People often ask me what a scene is, what a scene includes, how long a scene should be, and if scenes are included simply to reveal character traits. Since all of these are related topics, I decided to tackle them together. Let’s see how much we can cover in this one blog post.

First of all, a scene is the account of a character, rooted in time and space, working toward an objective that he wishes to accomplish.

The scene begins when a decision on his own, or an obligation thrust on him by another, places him in this situation where he must accomplish a certain task. It might be buying a bag of Cheetos or negotiating to get a good deal on a new car, or seducing a lover, or saving a child who fell into the lake. There is a task that is related to a goal. The scene shows what happens when the character attempts to accomplish this task or reach this goal.

Scenes are made stronger when there is tension, conflict, unmet desire. Look for that; bring it out.
Regardless of which draft you're in, you will want to work your scenes around objectives—on the part of the characters. I’m not a fan of bland scenes in which nothing is sought or altered, but the actions are just there “to show characterization.” This might be a scene of internal reflection or dialogue or exposition in which nothing is sought and the reader is left in the dark about what the characters really want.

The best way to show characterization is when a character is accepting to overcome something or rise to an occasion, so the scenes that best reveal characterization are those that do more than show action, they show action with intention.

Identify the goal. Let the characters seek it, fail to get it, process what just happened, and then make a decision that leads them on to the next scene.

Seek. Fail. Process. Proceed. This is what well-crafted scenes will do for you. This is the pathway your character will move through, scene by escalating scene, toward the climax.

Monday, September 8, 2014

How long does the first draft of a manuscript typically take you to get onto paper? With thinking, research, and writing how long does it usually take for you to finish your manuscript?

This question comes up quite often in one form or another. I can’t tell you how many times at a writers conference someone has asked me how long it takes me to write a book, or finish a first draft, or how many words I write each day.

I know that part of it is natural curiosity, but there’s also that practical side of things—If he can write 2,000 words a day, how many should I be able to write?

I have friends who actually write precisely a thousand words a day. They can tell you that their book will be done in 100 days and will be 100,000 words long, just like that. Boom. It’s crazy.

Honestly, I just don’t understand that. First of all, I’m not sure how you would even know the length of the book until it’s finished. Secondly, that’s not at all how I’m wired.
Ideas don’t start on a certain date and they don’t have an expiration date. Making a career as a novelist means that, in the real world, you’ll be working on a new project while one of your previous works is being edited, proofread, etc.

So, in essence, there are always two or more pots on the stove and your life is often made up of moving them around to keep the most important one at the moment boiling.

I’m always coming up with ideas that don’t quite fit into the current project I’m working on. I set them aside, let them percolate, and then pull them out when I’m ready to move on to another book.

Obviously, novels vary greatly in length, complexity, number of point-of-view characters, and so on, so the amount of time it takes to write one will vary as well. Most of my Patrick Bowers novels are between 105,000 and 140,000 words. My young adult thrillers, Blur and Fury, are both less than 80,000 words.

I’ve managed to write some of my novels in less than six months, others have taken nearly a year and a half—but remember, that’s writing nearly every day of the year. It’s my day job. It’s what I do to pay the bills.

Recently, there have been several self-published books about writing extraordinarily fast (for example: 2,000 to 10,000, in which the author purports to be able to write 10,000 words in a day. No. I’m not kidding. Nor am I endorsing the book by mentioning it. Quite the opposite, frankly.)

It’s simply not possible for the vast majority of authors to write that fast and write well, and it does a serious disservice to people to imply that they can learn to do it.

Yes, there will always be prodigies who can pull off amazing feats, but on my best, most productive days of writing, I average maybe 120 words an hour, and that’s after doing this for more than a decade, utilizing every trick and time-saving secret I can think of.

Can some people pull off amazing quality and breathtaking quantity? Yes. But most of us have to choose between the two. Even though it ends up taking me about a month of work for every hour it takes a reader to go through my books, it’s just who I am. I’ll never be able to pump out books every couple months.

And I guess, now that I think about it, I’m glad I don’t even try.

Monday, August 11, 2014

I have all of these great ideas, and I have been working really hard on all of them but I don't want to have to wait to completely finish one genre before I start another. Do authors bounce back and forth like that, or is it in the best interest for the readers to stick with one genre?

This question bridges into the field of marketing, which, these days is a part of any successful writing career.

Over the years I’ve written in lots of different genres—from prayer journals and spiritual titles to educational books, fantasy, psychological suspense, conspiracy thrillers, young adult mystery and more. As we’ve spoken with marketing experts they always ask, “What makes you unique or different?” And then, they want to use that to create your brand.

So when I was speaking and performing children’s and family shows as well as writing about storytelling, my brand was “The voice of imagination” which encompassed all of my imaginative storytelling and writing. However, over the last decade, I’ve moved toward primarily writing intelligent thrillers with twist endings. So my brand has changed. (Although I don’t have a cool phrase to describe myself anymore. Suggestions are always welcome,)

Now, as far as writing in different genres, I’ve always believed in writing what you have the ideas for and moving on from there, but I can certainly see the wisdom in sticking to one genre and becoming known for that. Honestly, it is a little confusing when people see what I’ve written and they say, “So you’ve written books on how to tell Bible stories to preschool children and you write serial killer novels?”
Yup. That’s me. But it’s a little hard to brand.

Many fiction authors do span genres (Heather Graham, F. Paul Wilson, Stephen King, Ted Dekker, etc.), so there’s no easy answer to your question. I personally believe in pursuing ideas where they lead and trusting that readers will connect with brilliantly told stories, whatever genre labels might be ascribed to it.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Since this is my first draft, should I simply write the story out and go back and add/drop scenes as needed?

People often ask me questions regarding my writing style, process, etc. Whenever we talk about writing, there is process and there are principles. While the principles for storytelling are relatively universal, the process will vary from person to person and also, at least in my experience, from book to book.

Some people outline and “plot out” their stories and others listen to the story as they write each day, feeling out the direction of the story organically. Since I’ve described the organic writing process in other posts, let’s not go there for now. You can go back and read those posts later. But no matter your process, I think it is important to write the ideas you have when they are fresh in your mind—even if they are not specifically chronological.

When I’m working on a story, I might know that in a certain place in my book my detective will visit a crime scene and notice what no one else notices, but it might take me weeks or months to figure out exactly what that is. So in the meantime, while I wait for just the right inspiration, I write obligatory scenes that the story and the genre dictate.

For example, in the book I’m currently writing, I’m about 80 or 90% done, but I have no clear idea about how the climax will play out. As I’ve written, I’ve worked on scenes that I knew I was going to include, and some transitions or interludes between the scenes themselves. In some cases I know that something must be altered—or tilt as I sometimes think of it—but I’m not sure exactly what that is. But it will come if I continue to look at context and press the right questions against the fabric of the story. So, as I now add those scenes and transitions, I can look at the story as a whole and that will lead me to just the right climax and ending.

To summarize, I believe it’s best to pursue your ideas where they take you. Write yourself into a corner as much as you can and then find a way out your readers would never expect. Keep moving through the story, sometimes that will mean moving ahead without figuring exactly what will happen in a scene and then dropping the scenes in later, sometimes it’ll mean you figure them out as you move along. Be flexible. Be open. And keep an ear out for what the story is trying to tell you.