Writing a novel is a massive undertaking. Creating a new world, complete with its cast of characters and setting can be a challenge. There are so many plates to spin in air in order to create an immersive universe. There’s much advice on how to write a novel–from those who plot every scene, and those who launch into a narrative, throwing caution to the winds. Personally I do a bit of both, but I’ve only just begun, with two published novels and the third on its way. I’m often asked tips on writing a novel, and while I have suggestions to offer, I have much to learn.
If writing a novel is one of your dreams, why not get advice from a critically acclaimed author with an incredible track record who also teaches classes on writing novels?
Much gratitude to award-winning author Steven James , for appearing on Daily (w)rite to tell us about his tips and tricks on writing a bestselling novel, and his insights into crime fiction. He’s a critically acclaimed author of eighteen novels and numerous nonfiction books that have sold more than 1 million copies.
On to the interview!
1. What are your preoccupations as a writer?
I have always loved thrillers and stories with a twist. So all of my novels tend to be threaded with lots of suspense and plot twists along the way. Any time I’ve tried to write something that’s not a thriller, it always ends up leaning in that direction eventually.
I also enjoy writing stories that ask big questions about morality, justice, free will, good and evil. I’ve always felt like the best stories ask the biggest questions.
2. What are five (or more) novels that any aspiring crime writer could learn from?
This is a difficult question. Let me answer this way; there is a crime writer named Thomas H Cook whose work I have really enjoyed. Some of my favorite authors over the years include Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, and Michael Koryta.
3. According to you, what are the elements that keep readers of a crime novel turning the pages?
Several things pop into my mind, I feel like some scenes build concern and others build curiosity, or expectations.
Concern is built through suspense when we readers are concerned about what happens to the character. Curiosity, when we wonder what has happened in the past or what caused the motivation for the crime. And expectation, when we anticipate where things are going to go and look forward to resolution in that realm.
A great crime novel will often fluctuate between these three dynamics. All of them can be helpful depending on what the writer is trying to appeal to the minds of their readers. Of course, you also want surprises along the way that are not too predictable.
4. What writing advice would you give to a new crime writer beginning a novel?
Don’t outline your story. You’ll be told from many well-meaning people that the first step is to plot out or plan your whole novel. But over the years, I’ve seen that approach often leading to predictable, cookie-cutter stories. Instead, trust the story above formulas and templates. Follow where it goes, allow yourself to be surprised, and always write your characters in an honest, instead of contrived, way.
5. What makes a good character that readers would like to read more about?
Right away, three things come to mind; readers want characters who have certain characteristics, we want them to be vulnerable in some way, admirable, and unforgettable. The have some way to learn or grow, they exhibit traits we as readers look up to or value (they can be clever, resourceful, morally grounded, etc.). And finally, we want them to be characters that we are so intrigued by that we want to spend time with them. They’re unique and memorable and stick in our minds long after the novel is done.
6. There are those who swear by plotting, and others who swear they don’t need an outline. What are your comments on the subject?
You can probably guess by my earlier answer that I am an organic writer and I do not plot out my stories. I would never suggest to someone that I feel is detrimental so I would say that no matter whether you plot out a story or not, you should remain responsive to what is happening in the story and be willing to jettison your preconceptions rather than remaining handcuffed to an outline that is not serving the story.
7. You teach intensive workshops with bestselling author Robert Dugoni. Please tell us more about it, and what you look for in potential participants.
Thanks for asking, we do a yearly conference for novelists who are looking to move their writing to the next level. It’s limited to 12-14 participants and all of the information about that can be found at www.novelwritingintensive.com. We have worked with authors of all skill levels in a wide variety of genres. The four-day event includes about 20 hours of instruction and feedback on the participant’s novel or writing.
8. When you start writing a series, do you already know the number of books it would contain?
No. I usually have no idea how many books it will contain or the specific storylines that will weave through them. Once again, for me, the process of writing is a process of discovery and I’m always interested where the stories and characters take me.
9. What sort of research goes into your work? Would you like to share an anecdote where your research led to fascinating experiences?
I spend a lot of time in research and I have been able to tour military bases, the Pentagon, the Evidence Room in police departments. I have visited jails and research facilities, even the Y-12 complex in TN. I have also met many fascinating people including 80 year-old gold miners, a voodoo high priestess, a survivor from the Jonestown Massacre in the 1970’s, and I’ve been able to do ride-alongs in police cars in Detroit and San Diego. I’m so thankful to all of the specialists and military and law-enforcement personnel who have been generous with their time and helped with fact-checking and research. It’s hard to choose the most fascinating research anecdote but I think that meeting with voodoo high-priestess in Philadelphia toward the top of the list.
10. For a reader new to your work, which of your books should they start with?
Depending on your interests, I would point someone in a couple different directions. If you like gritty crime dramas, start with either Every Wicked Man or the Pawn to enter the 11-book Patrick Bowers series. If you’re more into spy and espionage stories, check out my latest book, Broker of Lies. Finally, if you’re more into science fiction, try Synapse.
Steven James ‘s books have won or been shortlisted for dozens of national and international awards. In addition, his stories and articles have appeared in more than eighty different publications, including the New York Times. He is also a popular keynote speaker and professional storyteller with a master’s degree in storytelling.
James’ latest thriller, BROKER OF LIES, was released on April 11, 2023. The sequel, FATAL DOMAIN, will be released in 2024 but is available for pre-order now! The new series follows Travis Brock, a redactor for the Department of Defense who must attempt to unearth the truth of a personal tragedy while trying to stop a terrorist group from stealing one of the military’s most highly guarded technological breakthroughs.
When he’s not writing or speaking, you may find him playing basketball or disc golf, or hiking near his home in the Appalachian Highlands of East Tennessee. He may or may not watch too many science fiction movies while eating bottomless bowls of chips and salsa.
Do you read or write mysteries? Are you an aspiring author? In your eyes, what are the elements which make up a great novel? What are your favorite books? Do you have any questions for Steven?
My literary crime novel, The Blue Bar is on Kindle Unlimited now. Add it to Goodreads or snag a copy to make my day. The sequel, The Blue Monsoon is up for pre-orders! And if you’d like to read a book outside the series, you can check out You Beneath Your Skin. Find all info about my books on my Amazon page or Linktree.
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