Monday, April 30, 2012

Let's say that a big, reputable publisher (as in a branch of one of the big five) wants to publish a first-time author's manuscript. What rights are most important for a first time author to retain?

Over the years I’ve found that many aspiring and first-time authors are concerned about rights—which ones to retain, which ones to offer, etc.

Typically, publishers will want to purchase North American rights, although sometimes they will want world rights. If you plan to sell lots of foreign rights to your books, you might retain world rights and just sell North American rights; but if you don’t plan to pursue foreign rights, then allowing your publisher world rights might get you more money up front and maybe down the line.

If you’re writing a novel, film rights are good to retain.

Other than that, publishers will typically ask for all the rights to everything in the known universe and for all-time and for every conceivable type of technology in existence or that will ever exist. And no, I’m not kidding.

Your agent can help you navigate through all of that, but honestly, you’re a writer so my view is: sell the stinking rights, make some money, then write something else, sell that, and make some more money. However, don’t be stupid: read over your contract (something I’ve not always done carefully enough, much to my later chagrin), and then just know that publishers will try to get the biggest bang for their buck and your agent is your advocate to make sure you don’t get screwed over.

Celebrate the offer, sell the book, then sit down and start writing again.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

When you write a suspense novel, how do you develop your story without moving too quickly, yet also not moving so slowly that readers lose interest?

Building suspense is really a process of making and then keeping promises.

Suspense isn’t so much about “making things happen” as it is about promising that they will. It’s more about creating worry, apprehension, and anticipation than it is about adding more action. When readers are bored with a book or when they complain that “nothing’s happening,” they don’t usually mean that nothing is occurring but rather that things aren’t escalating. We solve this problem not by adding more action but by making more promises.

In a mystery you might have someone beheaded before the book begins and the detective (or team of detectives) must work to solve the crime. In a horror story you might show the beheading in all of its grisly detail. In suspense, readers learn that someone is going to be beheaded and the protagonist must try to stop the crime before it occurs. See the difference? The first (mystery) appeals more to intellect—it’s a puzzle that needs to be solved. The second (horror) deals with a more raw, visceral gut-wrenching reaction. We’re not kept in suspense, we see the horrific detail. It’s almost like we’re afraid to look because of what we are being shown.

Suspense, however, deals more with the emotions. It appeals to the concern of the reader for the wellbeing of the character/s. So instead of being afraid to look, readers are afraid to look away because they’re afraid they might miss what is going on.

When readers care about a character and that character is put in peril, suspense is born.

Now, how do we make sure that we don’t lose the interest of readers? How do we make sure that we don’t move too slowly? I have a maxim that directs all of my writing endeavors—always give readers what they want or something better.

So, as I work on my story, I make promises of things that will go wrong (a killer might threaten or abduct someone; terrorists might develop a weapon, hack into a computer, leave a ticking bomb, etc…) then, as I write, I continually ask what the readers want, and I give it to them—or try to surprise them with something better than they ever imagined.

The keys to pacing include making and keeping promises when readers expect them, relentlessly escalating the tension of the story, raising the stakes, and balancing the amount of exposition so that it occurs after climactic scenes when readers wants a break and need a chance to reorient themselves for the next scene.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Steve, as a writer do you feel as if you're taking part in the real world struggle of light vs. dark, or are you mirroring these struggles?

I like this question because it touches on more than just the craft of fiction and addresses the role of fiction in the world.

As I was thinking about the issues related to this question, I remembered that Jesus had addressed it himself when he told Nicodemus, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God” (John 3:19-21).

So, if it’s true that light and darkness are struggling against each other in our world—which is to say, within our own hearts—then the role of artists, I believe, is to enter that struggle, wake people up to it, and, hopefully, lead them to see glimpses of the light emerging through the dark corners of their own hearts.

I believe that telling the truth about the world is one of the core roles of an artist. So, yes. I do feel like I’m entering the struggle, or at least inviting people to observe it more honestly, when I write my books.

My crime fiction gives me a natural venue for exploring good and evil, but recently I wrote a book that explored them from a nonfiction perspective.

In Flirting with the Forbidden: Finding Grace in a World of Temptation, I tried to climb into the minds of some of the most famous (and obscure) characters in the Bible, and then tell the story through their eyes. The project gave me a new perspective on temptation (being lured into the darkness) and grace (finding the Light).

If you’re interested in a different way of addressing the themes of light and darkness, check out Flirting with the Forbidden. It’s very different from my novels, but I think the narratives will open your eyes in a new way to the depth of the struggle in each of our hearts.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of writing in first-person and in third-person? (Part 2)

In the last post I examined first-person stories. To review, in a first-person narrative we write from that character’s point of view: I flew the plane into the mountain. When we do this, readers closely identify with the character and her struggles. When writing from third-person, we let readers observe what happened: He flew the plane into the mountain.

So, what are the pros and cons of writing in third-person? Well, the big con is giving up some of the intimacy of the reader's engagement with the story that the first-person point of view (or POV) provides. Third-person writing creates just a little more distance between the reader and the story itself. Also, for me, it seems like it’s harder to really grab hold of and render that character’s voice.

The advantages include (1) being able to explore the feelings and thoughts of many characters rather than just one, (2) threading in multiple plot-lines throughout the novel that all combine at the end, (3) writing scenes in which the protagonist doesn’t appear, and (4) adding variety to your word choice and writing style.

Let me elaborate on that last point. I probably wouldn’t write, I meandered across the field and then sighed languidly as I studied the lonely clouds. People just don’t talk like that, so it sounds inauthentic. However, you could render that in third-person and it might work fine: She meandered across the field and then sighed languidly as she studied the lonely clouds.

Often thrillers today include multiple POV characters. To create suspense you can flip through different characters’ points of view. For example, you might show the killer breaking into the woman’s car, then flip to her exiting the elevator of the parking garage and pulling out her keys. Then shift to the killer’s POV again as he sees her, pulls out his knife, and ducks down in the back seat. Then return to the woman who taps her key fob to unlock the door and then reaches for the door handle…

You couldn’t create this suspense by writing in first-person because you would be limited to what that person can think, see, or do, and he wouldn’t know there’s a killer in the car—after all, if he did, he wouldn’t open the door.

So, I typically write about 70% of my book from my protagonist’s first-person POV and then include other third-person POVs to create suspense, have multiple story-lines, and render scenes in which my protagonist doesn’t appear.

Monday, April 16, 2012

In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of writing in first-person and in third-person? (Part 1)

Just so everyone knows what we’re talking about here, when I’m writing in third-person I would write “He opened the door;” when I’m writing in first-person I would write “I opened the door.”

So, when writing in first-person, we’re really inviting the reader to intimately identify with the character to, in a sense, see things through that character’s eyes. Contrarily, when we’re writing from the third-person point of view, we’re allowing readers to watch what happens to the main character rather than through the character.

Think of a movie. You might see a person running through the woods (third-person) being chased by a vampire. That’s one way to shoot the scene. Another way is to have a camera mounted on the actor’s (or possibly the vampire’s) head as she runs through the woods so that it seems like you, the viewer, are running through the woods yourself. This is first-person.

So, what are the pros and cons of writing in these styles? Well, today let’s look at first-person in particular; later this week I’ll add some thoughts about third-person writing.

As I mentioned earlier, first-person really draws the readers in and, I believe, helps to make them more empathetic to the character’s plight or problem. For this reason, first-person is often used in coming-of-age stories.

However, when writing in this way, you as a writer are limited because you can only reveal what that character would know at that time, in that scene. First disadvantage: in every scene that you render—in the entire novel—that character must be present. This presents a problem for highly complex stories with multiple-plot lines, especially those that have scenes occurring in different places on the globe (such as in a thriller).

Secondly, since the main character in a first-person story doesn’t know what other characters are thinking or feeling, when writing in first-person you couldn’t write, “I watched her put the dishes away. She was disappointed and really wished I would’ve remembered our anniversary.”

However, you could write, “I watched her put the dishes away. The look on her face and the way she clattered them told me she was disappointed…” Or, “It seemed like she was disappointed…” Or “evidently she was disappointed…” You get the idea.

In all of my novels I’ve used first-person for the main character’s (that is, the protagonist’s) storyline. I almost always also include other point of view characters, all of which are rendered in third-person.  In the next post I’ll explain why I do this and why this method of using multiple point of view characters is one of the hallmarks of the modern thriller.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Do you find there are better and worse places for writing?

Yes. I think choosing the right place to write is a huge deal.

The environment in which we find ourselves affects the way we think. Just imagine how you feel and where your thoughts take you if you’re on a remote mountaintop or at a lonely seashore or in a creepy house or stuck in a traffic jam. You might feel awe-inspired or at peace or yearning for companionship or uneasy or angry, or any number of other feelings.

We acknowledge this even if we’re not consciously aware of it. We might refer to a restaurant as having a good atmosphere. It might be one that allows us to relax, or enjoy the company of friends, or provide an intimate and romantic setting, and so on.

Even colors affect our moods. Being in a room that’s painted with bright reds and yellows affects us in a different way than being a room painted aquamarine or dark blue.

In addition to our surroundings and the states-of-mind that they induce, keep in mind that dealing with distractions can be one of the most lethal blows to concentration and focused creative effort.

So, when you’re writing, you’ll want to find a place without distraction, one that provides a mood and environment that allows you to focus on your work. Depending on what you’re doing—brainstorming ideas, shaping the story, free writing, editing, proofreading—you might want to work in complete silence or with music in the background.

Besides finding a place where I can work uninterrupted (my basement, an obscure coffee house, the library), I edit in silence (usually wearing noise-canceling headphones), but then type in my changes on my computer while listening to music—usually either electronica or trance music (since words distract me) or songs I’ve listened to so many times that I’m not tempted to focus on the words.

One more thing. Usually, when I’m trying to see my work in a new light, I will go to a totally different location, sometimes in another town, and reread what I’ve written. The unique setting helps me to be more objective when I read over my work. Try it. You might be surprised by how it really does give you fresh eyes to edit or proofread what you’re working on.

Monday, April 9, 2012

What do you do when you feel like you have "writer's block"? Or do you ever feel that way?

Some people think writer’s block means that you can’t come up with any ideas at all; other people tend to think of it in terms of being at a loss for what direction to take your ideas. I guess whichever way you look at it, writer’s block means that your creativity, or at least the forward movement of your book, has come to a screeching halt.

Thankfully, even though I don’t always know which direction my story will go or the exact idea I should pursue at the moment, I’ve never really had a problem with coming up with ideas or developing them for the stories I write. Truthfully, I think it’s because I’ve developed a series of questions that help me unlock the direction of the story. Here’s what I’ve come up with to keep the ideas flowing:

1 - Ask yourself what the character would naturally do in that situation, then have him do it, or, if he does something else, show us that there’s a better reason for that unexpected course of action. For example, let’s say your TaeKwonDo expert is walking down a dark alley and is attacked. Naturally, readers will think that he’s going to skillfully fight back. Let him do it. Then afterwards, what would he naturally do? Call the cops? Go home and forget about it? Take the injured guy to the hospital? Whatever you choose has to be natural and believable for that character.

2 - Ask, “How can I make things worse?” Since stories depend on escalating tension, by simply looking for a way to make the struggle deeper, more intimate, or personal, or by finding ways to raise the stakes, you can keep the story going in the right direction. If I were working on that TaeKwonDo story, I would brainstorm ways that I could use the encounter in the alley to escalate the internal and external struggles of the story. That would of course depend on the story’s context, but it might mean our hero ends up winning but angering his assailants fellow gang members who then come after him, or getting in trouble with the law, or anything else that would propel more difficulties into the story that will end up making it harder for our hero to live a normal life or accomplish the goal he has for the story.

3 - Look more carefully at the context. Every week I’ll print out my story from the beginning and read it through asking myself, “What are my readers thinking, hoping for, wondering about, or worrying about at this moment of the story?” Then I try to keep the promises I’ve made earlier in the story by giving readers what they want or something better.

I also write in different locations, write in different states of mind (perhaps getting up at three in the morning and writing for four hours), go for a walk or a run, take naps, see matinees, or play a game with my family. All of these things jar my mind loose from the story and help me to take a step away, then later I can dive back in the story with a fresh perspective.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Do you plan your story all out in segments or create a bare outline and then fill it in?

This is related to the previous question on plotting. I won’t plow the same ground, but I will mention something else that helps me when I write.

Because of the movement of a story and the expectations of the readers, there are certain scenes that are, in a sense, obligatory. For example, in a crime novel, you will need to have a crime occur in the beginning of your story that is either ruthless, grisly, seemingly impossible to solve, or all three. The detective will then have to visit the scene or at least review the evidence. He’ll look for clues, find something that no one else notices and then follow up on it. He’ll evaluate clues, suspect someone, often have a close encounter or chase scene with the villain, etc…

In a love story, readers need to meet each of the lovers at the beginning of the story and see their lives without each other. Then, there’s the scene where the two meet. They develop an interest in each other, romantic tension deepens and they have to face and overcome obstacles (societal, geographic, socioeconomic, etc…) as they strive to be together or begin a relationship.

Since I know that some of these obligatory scenes will be in my novel, I will sometimes write them out, or write first drafts of them, early on, even though I don’t necessarily know how the characters will get into or out of that situation.

So, by understanding the essential characteristics of every story (tension, believability, escalation, reader empathy, character motivation, causality, etc…) and the the genre expectations of readers, the story develops as you write it. But this is quite different from developing an outline and then fleshing it out.

I can’t imagine anything more boring than writing an outline and then spending six months of my life just filling in the blanks. Eek.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Should an SOP writer worry about plotting?

No. But he should worry about telling a great story. 

Authors have different approaches to shaping their stories. Some people, often referred to as “seat-of-the-pants” or “SOP” writers (a term that, to put it mildly, I am not a fan of), don’t outline or try to plot out the book beforehand. Other authors meticulously outline each scene and then, in a certain sense, fill-in-the blanks as they flesh out their outline and form it into a story.

I do not outline my stories. I do not “plot them out.” My stories are so complex that even now, after they are written, I can’t imagine trying to outline them.

But neither do I write by the “seat of my pants.” (I find this phrase derogatory. If the writing community is going to refer to those who write their stories organically as “seat-of-the-pants” writers, I think they should refer to outliners as “plot-handcuffed” writers.)

The ingredients of a story shape the direction of the narrative. For example, every story worth telling is about a character, whom readers empathize with or want to succeed, who faces a struggle and either overcomes it or is overcome by it. As an organic writer, I’m constantly asking myself what should naturally happen next and how can I escalate the tension and then resolve it in a way that’s unexpected and inevitable, and satisfies the reader.

Additionally, genre constraints help define the direction of a story. In crime dramas, I know that I will need a villain that is bigger-than-life, the case must become personal to the detective, there will be a final confrontation between good and evil, and so on. As I write I remind myself of these and let them keep my writing on track.

Over the years I’ve noticed that those who write organically often have stories that are strongest in believability, since these writers (myself included) are constantly asking, “What would naturally come next?” However, sometimes they write themselves into a corner and the climaxes sometimes aren’t as satisfying.

Outliners often have great climaxes, but characters will act in inexplicable ways on their journey toward the climax. You’ll find gaps in logic, people will do things that don’t really make sense, but are necessary to reach that climax that the writer has decided to build toward.

In my view, outliners need to listen to the story more and be more willing to discard their outlines; organic writers need to remain focused on escalating their story to reach that unforgettable, exciting, satisfying climax.

I believe that outlining a story is one of the biggest mistakes aspiring writers make, but writing by the “seat-of-your-pants” comes in a close second. Write organically instead. Pay attention to the story, meet genre conventions, ask the questions I mentioned above as you work on your novel, and then exceed reader expectations by going the extra mile and giving them an ending they could never guess, but ends up being the inevitable and most believable ending of all.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Welcome to Ask the Author


I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to finally launch this site. Over the years I’ve met hundreds of writers who have specific, legitimate questions about writing and storytelling and can’t seem to find the answers in the typical forums. For a long time I would try to answer the questions one at a time, but then I realized that some of the same issues kept coming up. So, here we are—my way of sharing the answers with everyone.

As a full-time writer and storyteller for over fifteen years, I’ve picked up a lot of hints that can save authors time and effort. This site is here for you, and where we go will depend on the questions you ask.

So, here’s how this will work: Kindly ask your questions by posting a comment. I won’t be able to answer every question I receive, but will do my best to address the ones I think will be the most helpful to other novelists and aspiring writers. I welcome comments on the posts that I share, but won’t be able to address them all. However, I do hope for some good communication among you followers.

I’ll plan to answer several questions a week, so if you want to stay up-to-speed, sign up for an RSS feed and you won’t miss out on any of the information.

Please, only ask questions pertaining to writing in general rather than personal questions. All answers are copyrighted so if you wish to share them with others, send a link to this site rather than cutting and pasting the info. Thanks.

And finally, pass the site on to friends who would be interested in developing excellence in storytelling (whether that’s in fiction or nonfiction). The bigger the community we develop, the more diverse and intriguing questions we’ll get.

Looking forward to doing all I can to help you become a better storyteller and author.

—Steven James

P.S.— I will post the first question/answer tomorrow (April 3rd).