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 troubleshootingyournovel.com 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.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Q & A's about Organic Writing (Post 2)

Here is the second Q & A excerpt from my recently released book STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE.

Q- “What do you do if you get writer’s block?”
A - I reread the story in context, keep the promises I’ve made—or make more, and ask the narrative questions (which we examine in Story Trumps Structure). Since you’re always analyzing the direction and content of your story when you write organically, you’ll find that you don’t run out of ideas very often. It makes it a lot easier for those of us who make a living doing this.

Q - “But without an outline how do you know when to end your story?”
A - Stories are over when the change in the life of the character has occurred, the questions readers want answered are answered, and the promises you’ve made have been kept. At that point, readers expect no more from the story, and the next logical step would only be the introduction of a new internal, external or interpersonal struggle for the protagonist—in other words, the beginning of a new story.
It might take one act or it might take a dozen, depending on the length of the story, the number of characters and the complexity of the conflict, but when the discovery is made, when the resolution is reached and you’ve fulfilled your promises, the story is over.

Q - “What if you’re writing a complex story? How do you keep everything straight if you don’t outline?”
A - Read the context. Some stories are too complex to outline. My novels often involve dozens of characters, multiple plots and subplots, half a dozen point-of-view characters and single-, double- or triple-twist endings. Even now that the books are written, if someone asked me to outline one of them I can’t imagine how hard that would be.
Make it easier on yourself and write organically. Read the context, jot down notes on the characters if you need to, and keep in mind what readers have in mind. Remember, they’re not going to have character biographies, outlines, and so on in front of them to help keep everything straight as they read your story, so, if you’re trying to write one for them that doesn’t include those things, why would you begin writing the story in such a way that you need them?

Q - “But how can you add a twist if you don’t outline?”
A - When you understand the dynamics of good storytelling, you can’t help but add a twist when you write organically.
The twist will reveal itself to you if you look for it long enough and in the right place by opening your eyes and asking the right questions.

Readers today are narratively astute. Respect them. Assume they’re at least as smart as you are. If you’re not surprised by the direction the story takes as you work on it, many of them won’t be surprised either.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Q & A's about Organic Writing (Post 1)

With the release of my book STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE, I thought I would devote the next two posts to excerpts from the Q & A section on organic writing. Here you go!

Q - “Why do you need to write the whole story organically instead of plotting it out? Why can’t you just use this process as you’re outlining it?”

A - It takes time to get to know characters and allow them the freedom to respond to the situations you present to them in the story.

Also, you’ll only know the narrative weight of scenes after you’ve written them and studied them in context. There’s no practical way to do this when outlining.

Finally, if you’re not surprised by the twists in the story and the direction that it takes as you’re writing it, it’s likely many of your readers won’t be either as they’re reading it. It might take me six months of thinking about how to resolve a certain plot question as I’m working on the novel before I come up with a workable solution. I’m nowhere near smart enough to solve all of those plot problems before I get started. And unless you’re a prodigy or a creative genius, you probably aren’t either.

Q - “But if you don’t outline, how do you know how long your book will be?”

A - I don’t. I can’t know how many words my book will have until I’ve uncovered the story.

I might know some general ideas based on the genre, number of point-of-view characters, the complexity of the plot and so on, but novels are not sitcoms. The art form allows us freedom that those who are constricted to a twenty-two minute time limit don’t have. Don’t let a predetermined word-count handcuff you and interfere with telling the story that needs to be told.

Q - “But won’t I have to go through more edits if I write organically? Won’t it take me fewer drafts if I outline?”

A - There seems to be an impression out there that writing a novel organically takes longer than writing one using an outline. Some people outline their books and go through dozens of drafts; some people write organically and hardly have to edit the manuscript at all. Some of it is skill, artistry, intuition.

Writing great fiction takes a lot of time no matter how you approach it. I’ve had a number of professional novelists confess to me that the more they write the less they outline, simply because they don’t have time to write detailed outlines and still meet their deadlines.

Writing organically doesn’t mean approaching a story with a blank slate in your brain—you know about story, about genre conventions and reader expectations. If you’re writing a series, you’ve made promises in previous books that readers will look forward to finding payoff for in the book you’re working on.

If you ask the right questions and let the story continually unfold before you by letting the narrative forces press in upon it, you’ll be able to write the story much quicker than if you were to outline it and then have to make edits because there are continuity or causality problems.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Do You Use Beta Readers (extra pairs of eyes on your manuscript)?

My question for you is regarding 'beta readers.' I have found that as your story evolves as you write organically, minor things may change, and there may be inconsistencies that can be overlooked. Example, John Smith is a vegan. Later in the story, after several rewrites, he takes his wife out for BBQ dinner because it is pivotal to the newly written scene. While minor within the crux of the story, to the reader it would seem like a billboard (with them asking, how did the author miss this?).

So do you use beta readers? If so, how many are in your pool? And do you take their advice? Seems that everyone has an opinion of how they would have written the story. But I feel if I completely entertain their ideas, it is no longer my story.

This question brings several issues to mind for me—internal consistency, self-editing, and working with the advice of beta readers and editors.

First, you’re absolutely right that snags such as the one you listed regarding the vegan who ends up taking his wife out for BBQ would jar readers and knock them out of the story. As I edit scenes and shape new ones, I often find myself going back to make sure that I’ve tackled those kinds of glitches.

Still, mistakes can creep in. I remember one character who appeared in several of my Patrick Bowers novels being in his mid-seventies in one book and then about a decade younger in the next book. Oops. Since it was a mistake that spanned two books it was easier to miss. But still, astute readers might have noticed it if they read the books within a close time frame.

Second, self-editing. The first and most important eyes you will have on your manuscript are your own. Catching those minor glitches and mistakes is ultimately your job, no matter how many editors and readers you may have. To make sure I’ve caught those, I need to read through the whole book, usually in one day to make sure all of it is fresh in my mind.

With my latest suspense novel BLUR, I noticed that one character was listed as a wide receiver, and then later as a tight end. No readers or editors caught this and it was only on my final pass through the book that I noticed it. Don’t rely on anyone else to fact check. Readers will always blame you, and rightly so, if they find mistakes.

Finally, readers and editors. I do my best to take their comments and queries to heart, but I don’t make all the changes they suggest. Often they don’t realize that you’ve thought about the same idea months ago and discarded it because of the context or the movement of the story.

I usually give them a list of specific things I’d like them to look for in the book. For example, I give one copy to someone in law enforcement and have him look at the cop lingo, things like that. I usually choose someone to look at story flow, another at grammar, and so on.

This is your baby and, just like having a baby of your own, you’ll get lots of advice about how to raise it. In the end, you have to take all of it with a grain of salt and raise your child your way.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Story Trumps Structure Is Now Available

I am pleased to announce that my book 
on the craft of novel writing
Story Trumps Structure 
is now available. 
For more information, please visit 

Don't Limit Your Fiction—Liberate It

All too often, following the “rules” of writing can constrict rather than inspire you. With Story Trumps Structure, you can shed those rules—about three-act structure, rising action, outlining, and more—to craft your most powerful, emotional, and gripping stories.

Award-winning novelist Steven James explains how to trust the narrative process to make your story believable, compelling, and engaging, and debunks the common myths that hold writers back from creating their best work.

• Ditch your outline and learn to write organically.
• Set up promises for readers—and deliver on them.
• Discover how to craft a satisfying climax.
• Master the subtleties of characterization.
• Add mind-blowing twists to your fiction.

When you focus on what lies at the heart of story—tension, desire, crisis, escalation, struggle, discovery—rather than plot templates and formulas, you’ll begin to break out of the box and write fiction that resonates with your readers. Story Trumps Structure will transform the way you think about stories and the way you write them, forever.


“Steven James is the best teacher I’ve ever worked with. I’ve been keenly awaiting Story Trumps Structure since I first heard it was coming out. Like Steven’s lectures, the book is an invaluable resource for aspiring authors and published novelists alike.”
—Robert Dugoni, New York Times best-selling author of The Jury Master

Monday, April 21, 2014

Do you prefer writing a series? Would stand-alone stories be easier to write?

First of all, the secret to creativity is not so much brainstorming, but limiting yourself. In other words, if you asked me to join you for supper and said, “Where do you want to go?” and I replied, “I don’t care. Where do you want to go?” And then you said, “It doesn’t matter to me.” Well, suddenly we’re in a bind. While it seems that we’re free to to anything, we’re actually stuck.
On the other hand, if you said, “Well, we have forty dollars in the budget,” or “We need to be back by eight so I can catch my show,” or “I’m thinking Italian,” then you have a place to start from. A limit that, in a very real sense, sets you free.
A series provides you with those limits.
I’ve found it the most difficult to write the first book in a series since I’m trying to get to know the characters, how they will naturally act in different circumstances, and so on. Once I’ve gotten to know the characters, it’s much easier to render scenes because I know how they’ll react to their struggles and circumstances.
Every story consists of promises and payoff. In a series, you have more promises that will help shape the direction of the book—carryover promises from the previous books in the series. These also help to limit you.
However, in a series you need to be careful that you don’t end up repeating scenes, situations, dialogue and so on. And, when you have eight books in a series, that becomes more and more difficult.

Still, I prefer working on a series because I can delve more deeply into each character and explore more complex issues that carry through from one book to the next.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

I have heard from multiple publishers the same line: They enjoyed my submission, but it isn't marketable. I recently had a smaller publisher say that I wrote an entertaining story but it isn't worthy of critical acclaim and that more or less makes me a “B List Author” and they are unable to publish my work. My question is, when is it time to hang up the hat? Do I stop trying to submit my work (it's a sci-fi and there are not many sci-fi publishers)? Do I try to self publish? Is self publishing ever a good idea? Do I give up on writing altogether? (I am not a fan of being labeled a "B List Author," but I digress.)

First of all, I wouldn’t be a fan of being called a “B List Author” either. It seems like an outrageous thing for a publisher to tell anyone. But keep in mind, it’s just one obviously jaded editor on one day.

Remember that publishers only make money when they purchase manuscripts that they think they can sell. Period. They aren’t going to take on a project they personally like but they don’t think can make money. So, their feedback is helpful for you.

That said, I would follow up with a letter to the editor thanking them for the time and input and asking what would have made the book more marketable? Tell them you are looking to rework the manuscript and would appreciate any feedback they can offer. Some won’t reply, but some likely will. Take their comments to heart and as a gift to you to help improve your story.

Years ago, I had a book proposal that was rejected by about 20 publishers. I reworked it, taking their comments and reasons for rejection into account to make the book better, and then finally sold it.

As far as “hanging up your hat,” I really can’t say. However, remember that if the book isn’t marketable to a traditional publisher who has a marketing team that knows your market, it won’t likely be any more marketable if it’s self-published.

And, it’ll only be more difficult to sell to consumers since (1) you don’t have the marketing experience that a publisher has, (2) you don’t have the contacts they have in bookstores, (3) you may not know the market as well as they do.

For all authors—traditionally published or self-published—the key is producing stories that entertain readers, and then connecting with those readers so that they discover you. If you’re convinced you have done the first and that you can do the second all on your own, then perhaps self-publishing will work. Otherwise, rework your story so that it’s marketable, or move on to another project or career.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What is the key to emotionally captivating characters?

Emotion is evoked through empathy (feeling the emotions along with the character) and sympathy (feeling emotions for a character). We vicariously feel emotions when we identify with the deep questions that the character is asking of themselves or the world. You need to find a connection point between your character and readers’ lives.

My friend author Robert Dugoni says characters should be empathetic or sympathetic, but not pathetic. So, strive to give your character a deep struggle but not one that’s melodramatic or overplayed.

We might find it hard to identify with losing a limb, but all of us know what it’s like to feel helpless, to understand what it means to have to overcome hardship.

I suggest giving your character an emotional wound we all share, a question we all ask, or a struggle we all find ourselves engaged in. For example, the loss of a loved one, or the question about whether their choices (and lives) ultimately matter, and the struggle to find meaning or forgiveness.

Well-rounded characters also have:
  • A variety of status relationships (high and low) with other characters.
  • A quirk, foible, special skill or emblem that makes them unique.
  • Deep desires that give them intention in each scene—an intention that readers will care about.

We want readers to worry about the character, so ask what the stakes are. For example, what’s at stake for the guy to overcome the loss of his arm? Or what’s at stake for the mom to deal with the loss of a child.

Trust your gut. If it’s telling you that your character is too cliché, then work at making him more distinctive and give him a universal quest—to love and be loved, to find freedom or happiness or acceptance or adventure. Readers can relate to those goals and make them more emotionally involved.

Monday, March 3, 2014

International Thriller Writers On-line Craft School

I am honored that I was asked to be one of the teachers for the International Thriller Writers On-line Craft School. This is a great opportunity for any writer, especially a thriller writer, to take advantage of...without having to go all the way to New York City for Thrillerfest.

Check it out: International Thriller Writers On-line Craft School

Friday, February 14, 2014

As an organic writer, how do you approach research? I find I learn things off research that become major story elements, and yet, I have no idea what to research until I start writing the story.

I find that research and writing feed off each other. Early on in my work on a book, I’ll visit the location and keep my eyes open for things that grab my attention. I do this with the premise of the story in mind.

Never lose sight of the story’s preeminence in the balance of research and narrative. It’s easy to wow people with facts. Emotionally moving them with the story is the much more vital--and more difficult--task.

For example, while I was working on my current manuscript for Checkmate, I knew that I wanted to plant the story in Charlotte, North Carolina. So, last year I visited the city and took a history tour. While I was there, I learned that there are abandoned gold mines that thread underneath Uptown Charlotte. No one seemed to know where they were, but apparently they’d been built in the early 1800s and were never filled in.

Fascinating. That led me into researching to see if I could locate any historical documents that told the location of the mines—and I found one. Then, as I worked on the book, I kept in touch with experts on the history of Charlotte, asking questions as I moved forward with the story.

It’s a give and take of uncovering the story as you discover more about its elements. You’ll be tempted to over-research—and that has happened with me. I believe it’s best to work from your premise, grab hold of intriguing facts that relate to it, then move forward and keep researching as you write.