Sunday, November 18, 2012

Is it better to start a novel with a fast pace and suspense or a slower pace with more background information?

The answer to this question might seem obvious at first—well, you want the story to start in an exciting and gripping way, I mean, otherwise won’t people get bored? You need to hook your readers’ attention, right?

Once I was at a writers conference and a woman gave me her manuscript to look at. The opening was an exciting car chase that really grabbed my attention. It ended with a car crash, and I said, “So this is an action story?” But she shook her head. “It’s a romance. After she gets to the hospital she falls in love with her doctor.”

Now, in a sense when you set out to write a book you’re making a contract with your readers that you are going to entertain them, that you’re going to fulfill or exceed their expectations, and that you’re not going to cheat. I told the woman, “Well if that’s the case, then you just broke your promise because the beginning of the book promises me that it’s going to be action-packed.” She looked exasperated. “My writers critique group told me I needed to have a more exciting hook.”

Many aspiring writers (and even accomplished ones, unfortunately) listen to this advice about a great hook and they start their stories with an exciting opening, but then they have to slow the story down to a snail’s pace to fill readers in on what’s going on and why.

On the other hand, you don’t want to start at a slow pace and dump background information on your reader. So, here are a couple of principles that I keep in mind when I’m shaping the openings to my stories.

(1) The length of the hook is determined by the length of the book. This means that if I’m writing a 500 page novel I don’t need to be clever in the first line or two. Readers will understand that there’s a lot of story to tell and they will give me some space to set up the story. I try not to rush the opening, but set it up to serve the story as a whole.

(2) The opening must not just grab readers’ attention, but must also introduce them to a character they care about, help them picture the story world, and introduce the mood, voice, pace and genre of the story.

(3) Escalation is just as important to a story as the opening scene, or hook, is. If I start a story in an exciting way and then drop way back to fill in the background information, I’ve brought the story’s pace to a grinding halt. I can’t do this if I want to keep readers flipping pages. So, however I start the story, I need to orient the readers to the story at a place where I can quickly escalate the story and propel it forward toward its eventual climax.

So, writing an effective story opening has many facets and if any of them are dropped out, the story will suffer. Grab the attention of the readers, help them see what’s happening, introduce a character we can identify with or aspire to be like, give us a feel for the mood, set the readers expectations in the right place for the story arc you’re working with, and then get on with it. Don’t stall out giving too much background info. Press forward, fulfill your promises, and leave your readers hungry for more.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

When did you decide to become an author? Was it something that just hit you one day during a college lecture, or was it the lifestyle that you’ve always dreamed of? I guess another question might be how you’ve kept the passion for the pen burning from whenever you decided to become an author?

Every writer that I know has ended up in this career by a different route—one was a journalist, another a pastor, another a cop, and the list goes on. Some people aspire to be novelists, and then they end up doing that right out of college (or instead of going to college).

For me, my love of stories began when my uncle told my brother, my sister and I stories when we were kids. I became a fanatical reader of mystery and fantasy stories—mostly short stories, since I’ve never really had a very long attention span.

I never imagined that I could make a career out of writing and telling stories, but when I was in college I told stories to the campers at the YMCA camps I worked at, and then started traveling around to elementary schools and libraries telling stories to the children. I still have a journal entry from my sophomore year of college when I wrote that I would never be fulfilled unless I was a storyteller. Actually, I was moving when I stumbled across that entry so many years later and realized that I had this desire planted in my heart even before it looked like I would ever be able to make a career out of doing it.

When I graduated with an MA in Storytelling in 1997, I started to travel nationally performing stories, teaching storytelling, and speaking at conferences and special events. However, I had young girls at home at the time and I didn’t want to be gone while they were growing up, so I started to write my stories down so that I could still tell stories but publish them instead of verbalize them. In time I began to write longer and longer stories, and today I’ve landed on being a novelist.

As far as keeping the fire burning, truthfully, I feel like I was always meant to be a storyteller, and I never get tired of it. Yes, there are long days and editing can be wearisome and writing is mentally draining work—all of that is true—but writing also energizes me.

Back in the 90s before pursuing my career as a writer and storyteller, I worked for four years at a summer camp. I was in a creative job, working outside with children, active, rock climbing, swimming, etc—all things I love. However, I wasn’t happy. When I was leading the ropes course or leading a climbing trip, I would find myself thinking how cool it would be to be writing about the experience. But when I’m writing, I never wish I were doing something else. I think that when we end up pursuing the passion that God planted in our hearts, we’ll know it. So, ask yourself: What doesn’t seem like a means to an end, but an end in itself? It’s a good clue as to what you were shaped to do with your life.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Unmet Desire: The Core of Every Good Story

This is from my recent post at

Unmet desire.

It’s not just the secret to writing a good romance story; it’s also the key to writing a thrilling suspense novel—which is where I’ve found my home over the last couple years.

At its core, every story is about a character who wants something but can’t get it. As soon as she gets it, the story is over. My specialty is penning crime and psychological suspense novels (although each of them has a strong romantic element as well!). Both romance and suspense stories deal with this unmet desire, and when they meet in the same novel, it can be very satisfying.

Since I believe so strongly in this idea of struggles and unmet desire propelling the story forward, when I craft my stories I’m always asking myself what the character wants rather than what the character should do. The action of the story grows out of the desires of the characters, not the other way around.
Very often when writing instructors talk about stories, they refer to stories as being “character-driven” or “plot-driven.” I know what they’re trying to say, but I don’t believe any story is driven forward by character or by plot—and no, I don’t think that stories are both plot- and character-driven.

They’re neither.

For example, if I spend five pages describing what a character is like without ever telling you (or showing you) what that person wants, you’ll eventually start to think, “Who cares? Get on with the story!” In the same way, if I write one chase scene, then another chase scene, then another chase scene, but don’t make it clear what’s at stake, the story won’t be propelled forward; it’ll get boring.

But if stories aren’t driven by character or plot, what drives them forward?


Always tension.

And tension comes from a character pursuing the object of her desire, not getting it at first, and then finding new ways to pursue it even as the clock ticks and the stakes continue to rise.

In a romance story, when that long-awaited romance begins, when the characters get the loving relationship they so badly want, the story is essentially over. So in a very real way, romance stories are not about romance, they are about romantic tension. (But I suppose that would be a rather awkward way of referring to them. I’ll give you that.)

And this place of tension is such a good place for romance and suspense to meet, where the two genres that can so easily and inextricably intertwine. When a character that we care about is in peril, we feel apprehension. That peril can be a threat to her life (as often happens in a suspense story) or to her personal, emotional well-being (as in a romance story).

All of this came into play and presented me with an unusual dilemma when I wrote my latest suspense novel Opening Moves. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the novel, it’s a prequel to the series that already features the thrillers The Pawn, The Rook, The Knight, The Bishop and The Queen. All of the books focus on FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers and his unique 21st century way of analyzing crimes and tracking down serial offenders (killers, arsonists, rapists, and so on).

Remember how I mentioned a moment ago that when the romance begins, the story is over? Well, at the end of The Queen, Patrick proposes to his love interest, an FBI profiler named Lien-hua Jiang. I hate to give anything away, so I’ll just say that her response, after five books of Patrick being interested in her, sets up the entire storyline for The King, which comes out next year.

So what could I do with Opening Moves that wouldn’t be anticlimactic? If readers already know the resolution of the main romantic subplot of the series, what romantic element could I include in Opening Moves that would still satisfy them—when the events of the story happen ten years before he ever met Lien-hua?

As I wrestled with that, I went back to the question I referred to earlier—asking myself what the character wants. I needed a new love interest, but also one that would create enough tension to carry the story as well as set up the relationships he would have later in the series.

I ended up with a story that bristles with suspense, but that also leads Patrick into his first serious relationship in the series. It’s all about desire, and when characters pursue what they desire most, great stories of all genres, are born.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Patrick Bowers series has a beautiful combination of action, thrill, and compelling story. How do you find this balance? What advice can you give to writers who struggle keeping their story moving without getting to the end result too quickly?

First of all, thanks for the kind words about the series. I really appreciate them. Glad you enjoy the series.

So, you ask a good question: how do we maintain a balance between action and suspense while keeping the story moving and not ending it prematurely?

Stories are built on promises. These can come in many forms: comedic, dramatic, horrific, etc. For example, if we start a story showing a woman in an ideal marriage with a husband who loves her and she’s satisfied and at peace, we’ve made a promise to readers: something is going to go wrong and disrupt her idyllic life. Perhaps her husband will die, or succumb to his old addiction to alcohol, or leave her, or have an affair. Something will throw things out of balance. If you drag it on too long before keeping the promise you’ve made, readers will get bored and annoyed.  

You can make a promise by showing how blissful things are, or how unbalanced they are to begin with. So, we could have the daughter of a congressman get abducted—it’s a promise that the authorities will be in a race against time to save her.

One of the keys to storytelling is making promises that matter and then keeping them when the readers expect them to be kept. Suspense is really the drawing out of a promise of peril to a character whom we care about. It’s that apprehension we feel about impending danger. Action is what happens during the fulfillment of that promise. The action escalates to a climactic moment that drives the story forward into the next scene. Remember that in the interludes between scenes you will either need to keep a promise or make one.

A story ends when there’s no logical place for it to go based on the promises that have preceded that moment in the tale. If we make promises and don’t keep them, it’s likely that readers will feel frustrated at the end of the story. If we drag out a story after all the promises have been kept, readers will get bored.

So, as you analyze your story, ask yourself about those promises—have you made big enough ones on which to build a story? Have you kept the promises in ways that surprise readers and still please them? Have you done so at a time and in a way that will make readers clamor for your next book? You’ll need to stop and ask these questions throughout your writing process, but if you do, in the end you’ll have a well balanced story.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Do you have any advantages or disadvantages about self-publishing that you can share?

I can tell this is a topic that is on people’s minds. This question is representative of a number of ones I’ve received relating to the quickly changing publishing world—specifically the advantages/disadvantages of self-publishing.

Ebook sales have risen astronomically in the last two years so that now they’re surpassing the sales of print books in many (if not most) categories. Self-publishing is becoming easier than ever before and doesn’t carry the stigma that it used to.

Since I’ve worked with traditional publishers (ones that pay you money up front to write your book) on all of my books, I’m not an expert on all the ins and outs of self-publishing. But I can give you a few observations.

Self-published books are usually more poorly written. In traditional publishing there are gatekeepers who weed out poor writing—agents, editors, publication boards and so on. Then, once the book is accepted, it is copyedited and proofread, typically by two or three people, before it is bound and published. That’s not to say that all traditionally published books (or ebooks) are better written than self-published books, but honestly, most are. Which brings us to #2:

If you self-publish your book, nearly all bookstores will refuse to carry it. They know about the gatekeepers, and they are going to go with them. It’s just the way it is, and it’s probably not going to change any time soon.

You will write fewer books if you self-publish. Books sell when they are marketed. That means that if you self-publish a book and you want it to be successful, you’ll have to spend a lot of time, money, and resources marketing it rather than working on your next book. If that’s something you want to do, you might find success self-publishing.

The odds are still stacked against you. You’ll hear stories about someone who self-published a book and it sold 500,000 copies, but for every book that does that there are hundreds of thousands that sell only a few hundred or a few thousand copies. Over 95% of all books published sell fewer than 10,000 copies and that is even more true of self-published books.

Last winter, to test the waters, I self-published an exclusive e-short story on Amazon called “Second Thoughts.” In nine months I’ve made about $400 on the story. Not much. And that’s from someone who already has nearly three dozen books published.

Frankly, I could care less if someone read my book off a sheet of paper or a computer screen or a chalkboard or a sidewalk, as long as I can make a living doing what I do.

Ebooks are here to stay, but so are print books.

I don’t think that the tipping point has come yet where self-publishing makes more sense than going with a traditional publisher.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

When writing a thriller/mystery, where the killer’s identity is kept from the reader until the end, do you feel the killer should be included in “X” amount of scenes, so your readers don’t feel cheated? For example: building clues toward several different people throughout a story, and then pulling the killer from “left-field,” who up until this point hasn’t really been involved in too many scenes. In your experience, do readers feel cheated, or do they like the twist of the unknown?

First of all, as far as including an unidentified or unknown killer throughout the book, keeping him (or her) on the fringes and then revealing at the end that he was responsible for the crimes—but doing so in a way that is both surprising and satisfying to readers—is very difficult, but if you can pull it off, it’s also very satisfying.

There’s no rule-of-thumb specifically for how many scenes you will want to include him, but it tends to make it more satisfying to readers if he is present throughout the book. I try to introduce him in the story as early as possible, and then have him reappear several times so that when the reveal comes it isn’t out of left-field.

You must always satisfy the reader by giving him more than he expects. Never let them feel cheated. In one of the paradoxes of fiction (and this is especially true with mysteries and thrillers), readers want to predict how the story will end, but they want to be wrong—yet still satisfied.

To make the twist work, it must be inevitable (the only possible conclusion when it appears at the end of the story), unexpected (so that no one sees it coming), and a revelation that adds meaning to what precedes it in the story.

I reread my stories as I’m working on them, usually printing out the novel once a week or so and glancing it through from the first page, so that I can grab hold of the context and try to experience it as the reader does—asking myself what the reader is hoping for, expecting, and wondering about. Then, I put my motto into play and try to always give readers what they want or something better.

There are several types of twists, and one of them is as you describe—giving clues that point toward the guilt of several people. This creates uncertainty in the mind of the reader. Another type of twist is to make all the clues point toward one person so that readers will be sure it is him. In this case, you are striving for certainty in the mind of the reader. Both types of twists can be satisfying, as long as the logic of the story supports that ending.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How much rope do you give yourself when diving into the minds of killers, cops, and bystanders who have no set religious affiliation?

I think it’s vital to be honest in the way we portray our characters, whatever their religious views might be. I’m a Christian and inevitably approach writing from that point-of-view. I believe that there is one good and gracious God who’s both loving and just, that good and evil exist in our world, that our lives are beautiful but marred by pain, that hope and redemption are ultimately available only through faith in Jesus Christ.

These beliefs about the world—that our lives and choices matter to God, that evil is real, that justice and love will prevail, that redemption is available—affect the stories that I tell and the way that I tell them. If I were to tell a story that glamorized evil or celebrated the things that God abhors, I wouldn’t be writing in a way that is congruent with my convictions. My stories are by no means sermons, but you’ll see themes related to these issues of justice and evil, of hope and love and accountability woven through almost all of the stories I write.

Whenever I’m writing from the perspective of someone who doesn’t believe the same things as I do, I strive to be as honest as I can in portraying that character’s views and beliefs.

But how much rope do I give myself when the character I’m writing about (say for example, a serial killer) has different views of justice, of sin, or accountability to our Creator? Well, I do my best to step into that character’s head and write what he or she would naturally think. And, yes, sometimes it’s frightening. In a few cases, it’s been terrifying.

When I was writing Opening Moves, the villain named Joshua (don’t worry, that’s not a plot spoiler), really startled me in how he viewed people and how alluring it was to him to cause pain in their lives. I had nightmares writing a few of the scenes in this book. I suppose that’s one of the drawbacks of entering into your writing on such an emotional level—it can’t help but affect your emotions. But honestly, I don’t know any other way to write.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

When creating your characters, do you have a system to organize them, keep their characteristics consistent, make back-stories, etc?

Many authors and writing instructors exhort writers to create long back-stories about their characters. Books and websites offer complex worksheets for this that the aspiring author is supposed to fill out for each character. The templates often include nicknames, favorite sayings, pet peeves, school history, parents names, first pet or job or kiss or . . . well, you get the idea. It goes on and on.

As you can probably tell, I’m not a fan of this system. Here’s why:

(1) If you spend all the time coming up with this material, you’ll be tempted to use it, and more often than not, this is a mistake. Only include information that’s essential for the reader to know about each character. When you unload background information on readers, you’re making a promise that the information is important somehow. If it’s not, you’ve broken your promise to the them.

(2) I don’t know where my best friend went to high school, or the name of his first girlfriend, or where he lived when he was a kid, or any of those things. But I know what he’s passionate about, what makes him angry, what he is willing to sacrifice his time for. A character with an attitude is much more interesting than a character with a history.

After seven novels and hundreds of characters in my stories, I’ve finally jotted down a few essential facts, quirks, and interests of the central characters, but this has grown out of the stories and is intended to keep dates, ages, etc. consistent.

The system I use is simply reviewing the story from the beginning and keeping in mind the information about the characters as I move the story forward. With most stories this isn’t too difficult, but toward the end if you have several dozen characters, you might want to jot down a few things about each one. I don’t think you need much of a system, just a simple way to keep them straight.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How much time does the process take between the first ideas for a story and writing the first word of the actual novel on paper? How much time do you spend working on the idea before you start writing the book?

Artist Robert Motherwell once said, “When I'm thinking I'm working.”

Honestly, that’s the way it is for me. I have a hard time mentally shutting off my projects. I carry a notepad of some type (paper or computerized) with me nearly everywhere I go, and I jot ideas down as they come to me. It’s both a curse and a blessing. I couldn’t do what I do without the ideas, but sometimes I wish I wouldn’t have any more until I can use up the ones that are already overwhelming me.

Every idea is the genesis for another story or another scene. It’s really not possible to say when those seeds of stories actually become stories themselves. Every idea that I write down is, in essence, a work in progress.

I should note that not every idea is a good one. It’s important that writers acknowledge that and realize that most of the ideas they come up with will never be used. One of my biggest problems is differentiating between the ideas that are workable and the ones that really aren’t worth pursuing.

Every idea is a doorway and they all lead to something—usually more doorways. But sometimes you’ll find a doorway that opens to a room that becomes part of your eventual story. Every idea is, at the very least, a doorway to the next.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Giving Birth

I have three daughters, and although I was there when they were born, I obviously didn’t experience what it was like to actually give birth. This much I do know from being there and sharing the moment with my wife: there’s a mixture of pain and joy, of both letting go and receiving in giving birth.

Those are some of the same feelings I have today as Opening Moves, the latest of my Patrick Bowers thrillers, is officially released.

There was certainly some degree of pain in the process of bringing this book to life—long hours, frustration over scenes that weren’t working right, the difficult process of trying to wrench just the right word out of the air to make the story the best I had to offer.

And there is joy, too. Joy in seeing the book, fully formed, arrive on bookshelves.

I can feel a sense of release, of letting go, of bringing something I care deeply about into the world and setting it free from my mind, and a sense of receiving back satisfaction and feedback from my readers.

So for me, this is a memorable day, a unique and special day.

If you like gritty crime novels and haven’t ordered a copy of Opening Moves yet, I hope you will. And I hope you’ll enjoy it, the latest child of my imagination.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

I am educated in writing screenplays, however I am told that a novel is the first step in getting attention for an adaptation. Do you write this novel with the adaptation in mind or stick with the true novel writing and hope that someone can see it?

There are different views out there about the best road to getting a novel or a screenplay noticed. Personally, I wouldn’t write a novel in order to get a movie made, or write a screenplay in the hopes of having it novelized.

Every art form needs to stand on its own. Novels don’t always translate well into movies since movies are more visual (external) and novels often include lots of internalization in the minds of the characters. Unless you rely on a voiceover, you would need to physicalize all internal struggles when translating a novel to film.

There is always a reductive quality to translating one art form to another. In other words, you’ll always lose something that the first art form offers when you translate it into another form. It’ll have to be changed, and in that change it must conform to the limitations of the second art form.

I tend to naturally write very cinematically. I flip point-of-view sections in my novels the same as a director might change camera angles or switch scenes to render the story from different characters’ points-of-view. Because of this, I think my novels will translate well into film. (And it is a possibility.)

A novel that’s printed by an established publisher has to go through many gatekeepers—an agent, an acquisitions editor, a publishing board, a project and copy editor, and proofreaders. Because of this, if you have a published novel, I think producers will take a more careful look at it than they might from an unknown screenplay writer.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

How do you suggest an unpublished author spend their time at a writers’ conference? Especially, one-on-one appointments?

This will, of course, depend on your writing goals, how far along you are in your project, and your experience as a writer. If you’re just getting started writing, I’d suggest you speak with editors, agents, or other writers about the biggest mistakes they see aspiring writers make. In time, it’ll save you a lot of work and, hopefully, keep you from reinventing the wheel and repeating the mistakes others have made.

Make the best use of your time by meeting with the people who are the most likely to help you reach your writing goals. This might take a little research, but it’ll save everyone time.

One-on-one appointments are usually short—sometimes as short as three minutes. However, many times they’re about fifteen minutes. Still, that’s really not enough time to hand someone an article or story to read and then give you input. Instead, pick the brain of the person you’re speaking with. Let them see that you are serious about the craft of writing. If they ask to see a synopsis, proposal or manuscript, tell them a realistic date that you will have it ready. Give them your card. Thank them for their time.

If you’re pitching to an agent or editor, hone your pitch. I’ve heard it’s best to keep them to twenty-five words. Then, be ready with a more complete synopsis if the agent or editor asks you to tell them more. Also, come prepared with a one-sheet pithy synopsis of the story and a short bio in case they ask for it.

Throughout the conference hang out with different people at meals, breaks, meet-and-greets, and so on. Network. Collect people’s cards. Follow up.

Friday, August 10, 2012

What do you do when you're writing a book that you want to be a full-sized novel when you're done, but while you're writing it you realize that you're not going to make it to that many words?

This is a common question that comes up at writers’ conferences—it seems that it’s not that unusual of a problem. The main thing to remember is to not add words for the sake of adding words.

Readers are much more interested in an engaging and well-told story than they are with word count. And now with the emergence of e-readers, length is becoming less and less of a concern for publishers. 

Genre affects reader expectations about length. Generally, literary novels, romance and young adult fiction can get away with being shorter. Complex historicals, thrillers, fantasy, and science fiction are typically longer.

As a rule of thumb, I’d suggest that if your story is fewer than 30,000 words you call it a short story. If it’s between 30,000 and 60,000 call it a novella. From there on up, most people will consider it a novel. Most novels don’t exceed 130,000 (although several of mine have); beyond that the story might realistically be broken into two 375 pages books.

I’ve never had to work through having to add words myself (usually I’m trying to reduce my word count), but here are my thoughts about it if you feel the need to add to your story.

(1) Be concise. Make every word count. If you can make your story shorter, do it. If you can make it longer but you don’t need to, don’t do it.

(2) If someone asks you to “flesh out” your story, take a careful look at it to make sure you’ve rendered every scene in a way that readers can see what’s happening, that you have created a protagonist who is sufficiently three-dimensional, and that the story is emotionally engaging enough to keep up reader interest. If it seems to you that “fleshing out the story” just means “increasing the word count to a predetermined number,” then push back against making the changes.

(3) Don’t add a subplot just to create a longer story. Only add a subplot if it provides necessary dimensionality to the protagonist. Every “subplot” is really another facet of the main plot and if you can drop or add a subplot without altering that, then drop it.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Is it possible to over-edit? Or, is there a point where the story is unsalvageable?

Editing is like sharpening a knife. You hone the story like you would a blade, but if you overdo it you’re no longer sharpening the blade but actually weakening it.
When you’re editing, there’s eventually a matter of diminishing returns regarding the time you put into a draft and the quality of the final story. At a certain point, the time that it would take you to read the entire book isn’t worth the handful of changes that you might be making.
For me, as an artist (read—annoying, neurotic, perfectionist), that’s a hard line to draw, and admittedly, I tend to keep going over my work again and again until I’m convinced that it’s the very best I have to offer.
In my view most people don’t need to worry at all about over-editing. They don’t spend nearly enough time on the editing in the first place.

There’s no point at which a story is unsalvageable, but most people aren’t willing to take the time to make the major, or in some cases seismic, changes that would be necessary to tell that story well. It might take less time to start over or write a different story entirely.

Telling a great story always requires five things: the inevitable movement of the story from the origination to the resolution (that is, every event is caused by the one that precedes it), believability, escalation, motivation, and surprise. Apart from grammatical errors and copyediting, these areas are the biggest problems most stories face. So, it’s vital that as you work on your story, you continue to ask:

(1) Inevitability: Are there gaps in narrative logic? Do things happen for no reason—other than that I think they need to in order to make my outline work?
(2) Believability: Is everything that happens believable even if it’s impossible? Does the character act in a way that’s consistent with his or her core attitudes, desires, inner turmoil, and outer circumstances?
(3) Escalation: Are the stakes being raised? Is the danger becoming more imminent or more unstoppable?
(4) Motivation: What drives this character to act? In other words, what does the character want more than anything else?  How far is he or she willing to go to get it? Is every action that the character takes sufficiently motivated by the story events?
(5) Surprise: Do the scenes, the acts, and the story as a whole end in a way that people won’t see coming, but that also follow inevitably from what precedes it?

If you continually ask yourself these questions as you’re working on your story, you’ll find less need to have to start over or to get to the point at which it’s not worth your time to rework the story to salvage it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Do you use any writing software, and does that make it easier/harder to edit and move things around?

I recommend a program called Scrivener to collect all my ideas and then combine and develop my first draft of the book. After trying a number of other software programs, I’ve found Scrivener to be far superior to them and at a fraction of the price. Check out their site to see the capabilities and uniqueness of the program.
However, as I near the end of the draft, I will often transfer the document to Pages to do the final formatting.
Incidentally, as I work through the various drafts of the book, I print it out in different formats (with different fonts and font sizes) to edit it. I find that this helps me notice things that I tend to overlook when I keep printing out the book with the same format, font, etc.
For me, I find it most helpful to print out the book in single space to edit it early in the process when I’m focusing more on the story’s flow, then 1.5 or double space to do more word-by-word copyediting, and then in single space again at the end of the process to look at the book more through the eyes of how a reader would see it.
Get the tools, nail down the process that works for you, and then go for it. Remember, software is simply one tool at your disposal. Story matters more than anything else, so whatever helps you improve your story is the program you need to use, even if other people think it’s clunky.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Is it possible for an author's writing to stagnate (meaning there's little style difference, thematic difference, maturation, or development of real or perceived flaws in the writing) over time, and what might one do to prevent such a thing from happening?

This is a good question. I think it’s really easy and, in some cases, quite common for writers to, as you put it, stagnate for a number of reasons.

First, most writers will gravitate toward a certain voice, a certain tone and mood that feels natural to them. I know that with my style of writing and editing, I will end up with punchy, fast-paced text that doesn’t include elaborate descriptions. It’s just the way that I’ve developed my voice as a writer. I like to explore different ways of writing—first, second or third person, present and past tense, different genres—but I do have a distinctive voice that will probably come through in all of my stories.

Similarly, the themes of a story will typically reflect what big ideas or questions the author is exploring in his or her life at the moment. I think that will almost always come through in some way in the story. Personally, I read a lot of philosophy which makes me ask different questions about the meaning of life as I work on each book so that there isn’t too much repetition of moral dilemmas and thematic material.

When I write my books I try to have a different flavor and plot for each one. While all of my novels are thrillers, each has a different feel:
The Pawn: psychological suspense
The Rook: techno-thriller
The Knight: gritty crime
The Bishop: political intrigue
The Queen: terrorist activity
Opening Moves: intense suspense
Placebo: science-based conspiracy

By purposely setting out to create a slightly different mood and plot focus, it keeps the stories fresh and helps me avoid writing cookie cutter novels that are basically the same in plot structure.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Two of the first three books in the Bowers series have prologues. What determines whether or not to use a prologue?

Typically, there are two times when I include a prologue: when introducing a subplot and when giving background information on the main character that cannot naturally be woven into the narrative that follows.

So for example, in The Pawn I used the prologue to introduce the plot thread dealing with the Jonestown massacre in 1978. In The Rook, the prologue is used to introduce a plot thread that might be considered the main plot, but because of the time span between that opening scene and the introduction of Patrick Bowers and Tessa, it seemed more natural to call it the prologue (especially since the rest of the story happens without a long span of time between scenes).

In The Knight I wanted to jump right into the narrative, so readers meet Patrick at a crime scene as the book begins.

My forthcoming book Placebo includes a prologue that provides background information about Jevin Banks, the protagonist, that could not be naturally woven into the main story without having a long flashback, which I try to avoid if at all possible because it can kill the narrative momentum.

Some writing instructors will tell aspiring authors never to use a prologue. I think this is just plain silly. If the story demands it, include it. If not, delete it or move the information further into the story.

Finally, if you have a prologue that introduces the main plot and leads directly into the next scene, you can fix that quite easily: just rename it “Chapter 1.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What is the strongest aspect for fiction (fantasy) writing: descriptions or dialogue?

All fiction includes narration (which might include descriptions of what is happening, a summary of what has happened, or an orientation to what is about to happen) and dialogue (thoughts—which we call inner dialogue
and conversations).

Both dialogue and description have weaknesses. Dialogue often becomes too explanatory. Descriptions often become repetitive and stall out the forward movement of the story.

That said, much of the strength of fantasy stories is world creation, that is, the ability to take the readers to an entirely different place and give them an immersive experience in a unique world. So, while dialogue is important, when writing in this genre you’ll use more description than boiled down dialogue. When writing about a familiar, everyday world—one that readers will immediately recognize and visualize—description is less important.

I found this out for myself when I was writing my fantasy novel Quest for Celestia. The world I was creating was full of danger and dragons and fantastic castles, and I had to work on the scenes for a long time before I could finally see them and really believe them.

Here’s an excerpt so you can see what I mean. (Kadin and his traveling companion Leira have just entered the infamous city of Wyckell):

The roads and buildings of Wyckell had been designed by someone with an eye for beauty as well as commerce. Most of the structures were made of stone gathered from the high plains and boulder-strewn fields surrounding the city. Many buildings were elaborate and ornate, but even the most modest homes were more beautiful than any I’d seen in Abaddon. The wide, spacious streets could be navigated easily by two or even three carriages at once. On the horizon, faraway mountains created a panoramic backdrop for the resplendent town.
Temples built in honor of a legion of gods and goddesses adorned the main streets of Wyckell. Numerous priests and priestesses in their distinctive gowns, capes, and tunics moved noiselessly between the buildings. Apparently they were here to help the townspeople worship whatever god they chose in whatever way they wished. A series of brothels and taverns were conveniently located beside the temples to make it even easier to indulge in any type of worship you desired. I noticed one temple had a life-sized statue of Apollyon on its steps. Great cries and shouts came spewing from the entrance of the temple as we slowly rode past.

So, when writing your story, if it’s in an unusual environment, you’ll lean more on description to allow readers to see the unique setting; if you’re writing about a place that your readers are familiar with, you’ll need less description.

Monday, May 28, 2012

How do you feel about critique groups?

Frankly put, most critique groups are a waste of time.

Here are three reasons why you shouldn’t join a critique group.

1 - Members aren’t experts. Most professional writers don’t have the time or inclination to join critique groups; they’re too busy making a living writing. As a result, critique groups are typically made up of aspiring authors, many of whom are unpublished (or self-published), or have maybe written material for someone’s website or the church newsletter. They’re not in the group because they have something to offer, but because they have something they need. It’s nothing against them personally; they simply don’t know enough about writing to offer you good advice. Which leads to #2:

2 - You get bad advice. There are a myriad of forces that shape the way your story should be told—believability, escalation, voice, characterization, inevitability, causality, mood, and so on. Without taking all of these into account a person will end up offering you advice that, in the end, is detrimental rather than helpful. To ask someone who doesn’t understand the intricacies of story to help you with your novel is like going to someone who’s never been to medical school to try and get advice on how to perform heart surgery. It’s going to be bad news for everyone involved.

Think about it this way: novice carpenters don’t get together to critique each other’s carpentry, they have a master carpenter teach them. Novice swimmers don’t get together to critique each others’ strokes, they have an expert swimmer teach them. Writing is the only field I know of where we encourage people to let the blind lead the blind. If your group has a master carpenter in it or an expert swimmer (I’m trusting you to know what I mean), then go for it! But if not, I’d stay away.

3 - The material being critiqued is out of context. Here’s a typical scenario: One person says, “You need a better hook for your story,” but she doesn’t know the rest of the story so she doesn’t know if it really sets up the novel well or not. So then you go home and rewrite the hook and then bring it back next week. But really, you should have probably moved on to develop the broader context of your novel instead. Who knows, you might need to discard that opening anyway.

If you have writers in your group who are professionals, who make a living writing, then have at it. Otherwise steer clear. You’re going to unqualified people giving you bad advice that wastes your time.

There’s nothing wrong with getting together with other aspiring novelists to have lunch, to encourage each other, to develop your friendships, or to keep each other accountable, but find someone who’s qualified before asking others to critique your work.

Instead, hone your work, study the articles on this site and on Writer’s Digest’s site, and put the stuff into practice. Keep critically analyzing your writing and try reading a book like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers or The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them).

You can improve. You can do this. And you can do it without the pitfalls of being part of a critique group.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Do you have test readers give you suggestions, or is your work 100% Steven James original with you as the only reader that needs satisfying?

Before I send in my manuscripts I will typically have four or five readers look it over and give me some feedback. With my crime novels I try to get (1) an FBI agent or a police officer, (2) a medical doctor, (3) a person familiar with the series, (4) a freelance editor, and (5) someone from my target audience who isn’t familiar with the series.

I will give them specific directions on what I’d like them to look for, then I take those into account as I work on the story. I usually send out the manuscripts to them before the end is fully pulled together, that way there’s still time for me to make changes.

The only other time I give something to readers is early on in the process when I need encouragement to keep going. At that point I know pretty much what the scene needs to accomplish, but I’m not fully committed to that specific wording and so on. Since I know I’ll still be going through that scene another dozen times or so, I just want to see if the scene is vivid, if the reader can see what’s happening.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Do you prefer to edit your work one chapter/section at a time, or do you prefer to write a completed rough draft before beginning to edit?

Story events are always causally related—this means that everything that happens is caused by the thing that precedes it. Therefore, each scene is inextricably tied to what precedes it and what follows it.

So here’s the paradox: you don’t know where a story needs to be (currently) until you know where it goes, and you don’t know where it needs to go unless you know where it’s been. How does that work out in the actual writing process? I’m not even sure exactly, except that I need to continually weave the story backward and forward, rewriting what I’ve done and figuring out where to go word by word as I develop the story and figure out where it is leading.

Back to the question. I tend to work on a scene until I can see it, then I reread the story before that scene to get the context and pace as I move forward. (However, there are some transitional scenes that I don’t shape too much until I know what happens next—so that I’ll know what needs to have happened to cause that to happen. Make sense?) As details emerge and the story grows I will constantly go back to rewrite the scenes that lead up to the one I’m working on.

My books are typically so complex that as I work on each progressive scene I need to go back and recast what happens—this is especially true in crime novels in which every clue drives the story forward and if you change clue progression you will change the story’s direction.

Finally, when you write, you’re inevitably making promises to the reader about what will need to happen (the would-be lovers need to get together or be torn apart, the detective must face the killer, the hero must find the dragon, etc.). So as I’m writing, I will often think of those scenes in which I keep those promises and sketch them out even though they might not happen for several hundred pages.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How much should an aspiring writer write a day? Should he or she focus more on short stories or should they dedicate more time to a novel?

I have a sign up in my office: Perseverance + Perspective = Success. Basically, I believe that if you’re not  willing to work hard, you probably won’t (and don’t deserve to) find true success; and if you have your priorities out-of-whack, you won’t find it either. So for me, time-management boils down to evaluating what matters most and then working hard and sacrificing what I need to in order to accomplish that.

That said, it’s impossible for me to tell you how much time you should spend writing each day since I don’t know the other obligations and responsibilities you have. I will say, however, that if you have an already full life, and you’re planning on adding writing to the mix, something will need to give.

Personally, I don’t write every day. I write most days and, honestly, I’d say I don’t take enough days off from it, but I’m not the kind of person who would tell you that you need to write for an hour a day, or write a thousand words a day, or something arbitrary like that—especially if I don’t know what your life situation is right now. Look at your professional duties and your spiritual, relational, and physical health goals, then evaluate what you can eliminate or re-prioritize to pursue your writing.

As far as how to spend your writing time (the type of project you should work on) there are a number of factors to evaluate. A novel might take you 1000 to 1500 hours to write. Think about that—if you put in an hour a day you’re looking at three years or more of writing.

Also, with the publishing industry in flux, it seems that novellas and short stories are having a bit of a comeback (at least in e-book publishing). So I would say, only attempt a novel if you have a story that requires that many words to tell. If you can get by with writing it as a short story, go that route. Save yourself and your readers time.

If there’s any way you can do anything else other than writing, do it. If the stories are burning in your soul and you start to go crazy because you have to get them out, then do what you have to in order to give them birth. It’ll be a gift to yourself and to the world.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How much and for how long do you self-edit? When do you share it with editors? How do you know it's done?

Somehow you slipped three questions in under the guise of asking one. Very sneaky of you. Let’s give it a shot.

First of all, I self-edit a lot.

Sometimes people ask me how many drafts or revisions I go through and for a while I told them, “Maybe a hundred or so.” They would scoff and I would feel a little weird—like I was probably using too much hyperbole just to get my point across.

At last I decided I wanted to be able to answer the question honestly, so while I was working on my forthcoming novel Placebo, I kept track of how many times I read through the prologue and changed something in it—even if it was only one word. I stopped counting when I hit fifty revisions. So, with no exaggeration, I can tell you that by the time I’m finished with a novel I’ve gone through and edited the entire thing dozens of times.

As far as feedback, I’ll ask for it only at certain times during the development of a story. Early on, I might have someone read it and I’ll say, “Be gentle. I know it’s not done, just tell me the stuff you like.” Then after the story begins to take shape, I may have plot questions or specific areas that I know are weak and I’ll ask readers or an editor for suggestions to work through that part of the narrative.

If you ask for critique too early on you can smother the idea before it’s had a chance to really breathe, and if you ask too late it won’t do any good because the story will be full-grown by then and it’s not going to change much anyway.

Finally, I know a story is done when I can’t improve it anymore. It’s as simple as that. If I find things in it that I can fix, tweak, hone, etc, then I know it’s not done yet. When I read through the entire book and I can’t find a single word or punctuation mark that I think could or should be changed, then the book is finished.