In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Donita Bundy and Alison Joy interview Steven James, author of 18 bestselling thrillers and winner of 4 Christy Awards. His non-fiction titles include STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE and TROUBLESHOOTING YOUR NOVEL for Writer’s Digest, and he challenges us to defy the so-called “rules” of writing fiction.
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In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, writing coach, accredited editor with qualifications in theology, writing and publishing blogger at smallbluedog.com, and Gracewriters founder
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of the Armour of Light urban fantasy series
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children
- Steven James, bestselling author of suspense thrillers and non-fiction, and writing teacher
Topics covered in this episode:
- The six elements of a great story.
- The benefits of writing as a ‘pantser’ rather than a planner, and how the best stuff happens when you write yourself into a corner.
- As a Christian writer, starting with a moral dilemma instead of an agenda.
- Showing evil in crime writing with honesty and consequences.
- The growing maturity in the Christian fiction market, and the greater openness of Christian publishers towards general market or crossover fiction.
Find Steven online:
Connect with Steven James at https://stevenjames.net/
Steven’s Amazon page: https://amzn.to/41CRavo
The Story Blender podcast
A selection of Steven’s books
A selection of Steven’s 18 novels, including his latest book and the first-in-series for the chess series of the Bowers Files, the companions to the Bowers Files, and the Blur Trilogy.
Please use the sharing buttons at top and bottom of this post to share on social media or directly with Christian writers you know.
Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters Podcast – Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. Hit subscribe on your favourite podcast player so you never miss an episode and find show notes, useful links and a full transcript at gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, internationally acclaimed author and writing teacher, Steven James.
I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. I blog for writers at smallbluedog.com and you can find links to all my blogs, books and online courses at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Young. I’m a former early childhood educator with four adult children. Aside from writing, my other passion is photography and as part of the media team at my local church I have the privilege of capturing God moments both big and small. I write contemporary romance under the pen name, Alison Joy and you can find out more about my books at alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Hi, I’m Donita Bundy. For the past 20 years, I’ve been using my theology degree to underpin my preaching and more recently, to inspire my urban-fantasy series, Armour of Light. You can find out more about me, my books and all my other projects at donitabundy.com.
Belinda Pollard: Steven James is the author of 18 novels including the psychological thriller series the Bowers Files, and has won four Christy Awards and numerous other honours. His non-fiction titles include Story Trumps Structure and Troubleshooting Your Novel for Writer’s Digest and he recently co-authored the leadership resource The Art of the Tale for Harper Collins.
He hosts the Story Blender podcast interviewing best-selling authors on all their writing secrets. He has taught writing and storytelling at literally thousands of events around the globe over the past 25 years and lives with his wife and three daughters in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.
Welcome to the podcast, Steven.
Steven James: Thank you so much. Yes. It’s great to be here. It’s good to hear your accent again. I was in Australia recently and already miss it. So, it’s nice to feel back on the island.
Belinda Pollard: Fantastic! Can we hit you first with the rapid-fire five?
Steven James: Let’s go for it!
Belinda Pollard: Brace yourself! Who is your target audience?
Steven James: Mostly adults.
Belinda Pollard: What is your main genre because you write a lot of different things?
Steven James: Suspense thrillers.
Belinda Pollard: When is your optimum time for writing?
Steven James: Early morning or late at night which doesn’t work well back to back!
Belinda Pollard: And where is your favourite place to write?
Steven James: You see it – my basement.
Belinda Pollard: And how did you get into writing in the first place?
Steven James: Is this a rapid-fire one?! It’s a long story but, actually, it’s not super long. I wrote for magazines back in the 90s, about 80 different magazines over the years and then eventually started writing books in 2001 and fiction in about 2007.
Belinda Pollard: I like that story. I would like to hear more about that story.
Steven James: I always loved to tell stories. I never thought I would be a writer and so, I started to write for different magazines and bible curriculum and kind of never thought again that I would write a book. And then my friend worked at a publishing agency said, “You should write a book.” So, I eventually took some of my short stories and personal stories and did a couple of books and then I always thought it would be cool to write a novel. I never thought I could do a whole novel.
This might be interesting to you, Belinda, but I went to a writing conference and the teacher said, “The first thing you have to do is write a 20 page single-spaced outline of your book,” and that put me back about four years because I was like, “I can’t do that. That’s ridiculous.”
So, I ended up putting off my work for years and finally, I was like, “I’m just going to write the story.” So, that was The Pawn, that came out in 2007.
Belinda Pollard: Beautiful!
Alison Joy: I understand you have a new novel out and could you tell us what it is about and how is it different to your previous books?
Steven James: So, it’s called Broker of Lies, and it’s about a man who works at our Pentagon for the Defence Department and he basically studies all of the secrets, the top-secret programs that we have and when something called the Freedom of Information Act request comes in. So, people can write in and say I want more information about whatever their special program is. He decides what can and cannot be released to the public.
So, really, he knows more of our secrets than even the President does and, of course, a foreign entity, a foreign power finds out about him, comes after him. He ends up on the run and has to stop a terrorist attack with a Homeland operative who has been disavowed. So, lots going on. It’s more of a spy espionage story.
Many of my others had to do with tracking serial killers or serial arsonists so this one’s a little bit more… not so much police procedural as it is more spy or espionage.
Belinda Pollard: Will there be more espionage thrillers to come?
Steven James: Well, at least one. I finished the second and I’m going through the edits now. It will be out next year.
Belinda Pollard: Will that be a series or are they standalones?
Steven James: It will be a series and so, we’ll see how many books end up being in the series. I’d love for there to be more but we’ll just have to see what the future brings.
Donita Bundy: So, Steven, you’ve had lots of experience, obviously. We’ve been hearing all about that. Do you think there is a good formula for writing a novel? The three-act structure or the five-act structure that we hear about. What’s your opinion on those?
Steven James: I would throw them out the window. Actually, I’m not a formulaic writer. I don’t think that following templates is necessarily the best route.
Now, that being said, I don’t mean that you write just willy-nilly or whatever. I believe a story, a great story, has six elements and it doesn’t matter, to me, how many acts it ends up having. If you focus on these six elements then the story will grow and be stronger.
So, I’ll just go quickly, but character obviously. You need a vulnerable, admirable and unforgettable character. Those three characteristics, and then obviously you need a setting where you can see the story occur and typically the setting either impedes or propels the character’s journey through the story and then, also a struggle. See, this is the key. The story needs not just events but struggle.
And this is where the three-act structure tends to, maybe not help as much because people just look at a story as a progression of events instead of a collision of desires. And I really feel like story is based more on unmet desire than events occurring.
And then, so the fourth is pursuit. That the character makes intention-infused choices. He or she wants something, pursues it and that propels the story.
Those four are present in every single story. You can’t have a story without those four but you can have a great story if you add the two additional ones and that is what I call the pivot and the payoff. And payoff is simply that the story has deeper meaning than it appears to that when you read it, you’re like, “That is true. That actually speaks the truth about human nature.”
And the pivot is really a moment where an event occurs that is unexpected but also inevitable; both. And if you don’t have a pivot, your story will be something like he tried really, really hard to solve the problem and then he did! You’re like, “Okay. Well, that’s kind of unsatisfying.” Or he tried really, really hard to solve the problem and he didn’t, the end!
So, you need moments where everything logically makes sense but it also includes a surprise. I feel like stories without that are very forgettable and very often it’s not taught to people who follow a specific template.
I don’t think that readers really care how many acts a story has and I don’t even know how many mine have. Some have had five, seven, nine or more or fewer. I don’t really know. But what we care about is those elements. We want the story to have a pursuit and struggles. We want the story to have a payoff at the end. I don’t think it matters to most consumers of stories how many acts it might have or not have.
Donita Bundy: That’s very liberating! To someone who’s also not necessarily a pantser or a planner, I think of myself at a patchwork quilter. It’s so liberating to hear that you believe, we don’t have to stick to that structure. Thank you.
Belinda Pollard: Well, it’s working for you, Steven and has been over 18 novels and all the rest of it! So, I think it’s a reasonable thing to say.
I’m interested, too, in what you said earlier about that twenty-page outline or was it a forty-page outline? What was it that you were told to do? It was huge! It was huge and traumatic!
Steven James: I think it said twenty-page single spaced, maybe, or something. Whenever outlines for stories were assigned to me in school, I would always write the story first and then go back and come up with an outline. I don’t know, I never really understood why it’s taught that you’re supposed to do this and people say, “Oh, you’re breaking the rule.” I’m like, “Who said it’s a rule?!” No. Let’s just tell amazing stories and maybe it ends up that they have three acts, I don’t know, or maybe it doesn’t.
What readers, and viewers if you’re writing for television or the movies, we just want super engaging stories. We’re much less worried about templates than some authors tend to be.
Belinda Pollard: If I had to do a big plan beforehand, I just wouldn’t write at all because it sucks all the joy out of it, for me. I don’t know, I’d rather be an accountant, do you know what I mean, than write with a big outline!
I know people, I know writers who do find outlines helpful and it helps them speed up and things like that.
How much do you have in mind before you actually begin a manuscript? Do you have characters, setting, premise? Which ingredients do you already have as you begin and then how does it unfold on the way through?
Steven James: Sometimes a premise or a conflict that I think of. Sometimes it’s a moral dilemma. If I’m writing a series, there are usually promises made in a previous book that I want to fulfil in this book so maybe I’ve introduced characters with specific struggles or specific tension and I want to carry that through. So, in that case, there’s that.
There have been a few cases where the story just began with an interesting opening line and then I just try to ask myself where would this lead, who’s saying this or experiencing this and then move on.
I remember one short story that I wrote, I had this idea for an opening line, “Murder never goes as planned.” I thought, that’s an interesting opening. Who’s murdered and who’s not murdered and what happened? So that ended up becoming just a short story for me a number of years ago so, it does vary a little bit but I’ve never started a book where I know how it will end. So, I always being with a premise and then follow the characters to see where it might lead.
Belinda Pollard: Our audience is Gracewriters. So, Christians who write to change popular culture and we try to incorporate some gracenotes. Our people are writing everything from copywriting to non-fiction, to fiction to blogging; all kinds of things and we’re trying to incorporate some gracenotes along the way. Little hints of the Kingdom whether we’re writing for a Christian audience or a non-Christian audience.
I’m interested to know how you incorporate your Christian ethics or goals into what you write?
Steven James: I mean, it’s a good question. I don’t try to beat people over the head with a specific message. I usually work from a dilemma instead of solution.
So, instead of telling people you should forgive others or you should trust in Jesus which is fine but there’s no surprises. So, the more didactic you become, the more you pull the rug out from under the pivot and the payoff often because if we see where it’s going, we’re just like, “Oh, come on, I know I’m supposed to forgive people,” or whatever and there’s no surprises.
So, you actually undermine the story, I feel like, when you start with an agenda. Instead of starting with that, I always start, I think almost all the time, with a moral dilemma and then I try to have the characters face it and work through it.
So, in one of the books the question was, what’s more important, telling the truth or protecting the innocent. That was interesting. I thought I knew, I guess, what I believed when I started but then I ended up changing that as I wrote the book.
Recently, in Broker of Lies, one of the main questions ends up being, what is the difference between justice and vengeance and when should we take justice into our own hands, if ever, and what about God’s vengeance or justice?
So, I work from a question or dilemma instead of an answer or agenda. Then I always try to be honest with the characters so I never try to force them to be something that they’re not. I don’t try to force them to preach a sermon unless maybe they’re a pastor or something like that.
In Synapse, my last book before Broker of Lies, it’s a science-fiction thriller and the main character is a women pastor and so it’s 30 years in the future. She loses her baby in the first scene. She has a still-born child. This devastates her and really causes her to ask a lot of questions about God and His sovereignty and His plan and just His goodness and so, I let her ask the questions and then I try to follow where that would naturally lead.
I think we need to be honest about the world in our stories as Christians. Very often in Hollywood, evil is glamorised or made to look attractive. So, let’s say a slasher movie where the most interesting character is the one killing everyone. Okay. So, that’s one end of the extreme. The other is where we mute evil so that we tell a story, it’s like the bad guy, the villain or something isn’t really that bad, they’re just kind of a caricature of evil. So, we’re not really honest about the fallen nature of humans.
Then, you don’t have to be really that good to get over the hump, you just have to be a little bit better than you are. In the Christian world view, I feel like we state that evil is definitely real and not just in our world but in our hearts and that we don’t need a little bit of help to get over it, we’re desperate and we actually need an amazing Saviour to seek us out and help us.
I try to be honest. If someone is evil, I let them be evil. If someone is killed, I let people grieve. I don’t try to jump over that. I try to just be honest about the world, human nature, how fallen we really are instead of trying to mute it and make it not so bad.
I feel like I want to honour the things that God honours. I want to tell the truth about the world, about evil. Show that hope and redemption are available and be honest about human nature. Let the characters make choices that have consequences within my worldview.
Belinda Pollard: I heard a speaker at a conference recently, a Christian author, saying in a fairly prescriptive way that her main characters are always either Christians or they’re Christians by the end of the book. I don’t write that way and it sounds like you don’t really write that way either. I think there’s room for more subtlety than that.
Steven James: A pastor once pointed out to me, he said, “No one ever gets saved in any of the parables of Jesus,” which I thought was kind of an interesting observation. The closest you could say is Lazarus, but it doesn’t have a conversion moment but that was interesting and fascinating to me.
If you make that the distinction that this is Christian fiction that someone must get saved or something by the end or that one character must be a Christian then a lot of Jesus’ parables would not be considered Christian. That’s a little ridiculous, I think! So, I’m not of that viewpoint.
Belinda Pollard: And I think there’s a whole lot of people writing and we can all be performing different functions. It’s a team effort. Maybe some are writing the ones that get people over the line and some of us are tilling the soil.
Steven James: I don’t want stories to be too predictable and I feel like if we start with a prescription that this is the message we have to get across, as soon as people catch hold of that they’ll be like, “Okay. I know where this is going.”
Research shows that when we think we know where a story is going, we end up losing interest in it and it has actually less impact. So, I’m very interested in dilemmas, very interested in the things that we think we know but maybe don’t and then we have to reflect on them in a new way.
I feel like if we write predictable, formulaic fiction, we’re probably not going to reach people with a deeper message. So, ask big questions and allow yourself to walk the journey of the questions, too. If you start with an answer… basically drama relies on tension. If you have no tension, you have no drama. So, if we start and we all know the answer to the story or where it’s going, then you undermine all of the tension and drama of the story. It’s a lesson, which, lessons are great. I speak at a lot of events and I’ve written non-fiction so I love lessons, Christian lessons, but they’re much different, I feel like, than novels are.
Alison Joy: So, just getting back to the practicalities of writing, how long does it normally take you to write a book and is it something like, do you write every single day?
Steven James: I think, if I had my way, I would probably write most every day. I try to write most days. Some days, something else comes up or I’m travelling or speaking and it just doesn’t work out.
I try not to be too draconian about, “Oh, I missed today,” or something like that. But I typically write in the mornings. I try to get up early and try to get a couple of hours in, sort of, before the workday then if other things come up, at least I’m satisfied that I got some time in.
I don’t try to get a specific word count in because since I write organically, some days I might write many words and some days I might delete many words. I remember one day I was like, “I want to see how much I can write in one day.” So, I did like 6,000 words. I was like, “This is amazing! I’ll be done in two weeks with my novel. This is crazy!”
So, then the next day I was like, “I’m going to do the same thing.” So, it was ten hours of writing. And so, I did ten hours and at the end of ten hours I had one more word written! And so, I was like, “This is ridiculous! I can’t do this.” So, I just gave up on the whole word count kind of thing and instead, I usually go by time.
I might say I’m going to work, write for four hours or perhaps six hours today or when a book is very much towards the end, it might be much longer days. But typically, a few hours in the morning and then take care of emails and this sort of thing and then late afternoon or evening, I try to write a little bit once again.
Alison Joy: So, how long?
Steven James: Yes. How long does it take me? A year, probably, to write a novel, about a year.
I’ve done a few less than that but with all the research that I have to do, all the writing, editing, honing, proofreading and all of that. Perhaps, it would be shorter if all I did was write but I also speak and teach and so, between the two it usually takes a year to write. Yes.
Alison Joy: So, do you always meet your deadlines?
Steven James: What?! What kind of question is that! That’s so silly to ask a question like that!
Belinda Pollard: Well, because everybody says, “You’ve got to meet your deadlines!” Do you? Come on, tell the truth. Do you?
Steven James: I have been trying to in the last five years but there have been a few deadlines I’ve missed.
I still remember one book called The Knight that was due in July. So, I got an extension until August 1st, September 1st, October 1st, November 10th and so, finally my editor said, “We really need this book November 10th.” I was like, “Okay. No problem.”
So, it was November 7th, and I was like, “I cannot figure out how to end the book,” because I don’t know the ending when I start writing and typically, for about a year, I don’t know how it will end and then I come to the end.
So, I was flying out somewhere and I was like, “I know what I have to do. I need to change who the killer is.” But it was a 500 page book and that would mean rewriting, adding a whole new character, changing clue progressions and so, I got to another airport and I called my editor. I said, “I have good news, this book is going to be even better then we thought,” and she said, “That’s great.” I said, “I have to change who the killer is,” and there’s a long pause on the other end of the line and finally she says, “Well, as long as it will be a better book. I trust you.”
So, there was more work and it was another month or so but no one has contacted me and said, “Oh, I guessed who the killer is in The Knight.” So, I knew I needed to make the change. If I had who I was thinking, it would have been easy to guess and if I took clues away, people would have said, “Come on, that wasn’t even fair! There’s no way I could have guessed that.” So, I knew I needed to change it.
The last book that I wrote, I worked on for about a year and it was due Wednesday and on Saturday I still didn’t know how it ended then and I thought, “Come on!” And I finally figured out the ending on Saturday so, I spent Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, five days. I spend like 62 hours, five days, to finish the book and so that was pretty crazy. That’s not as usual but it’s always a journey and it’s always a discovery because I want to write myself into a corner.
A lot of people will say, “You shouldn’t write organically or pants or something, because you might write yourself into a corner.” I’m like, “Absolutely! That’s the thing you have to do.” All of the best ideas, all of the best twists I’ve ever had have come when I’m in a corner. Why would I warn people against going to the place where the best ideas await them? It doesn’t make any sense to me.
Yes, of course, you write yourself into a corner and then you find a way out that’s unexpected and inevitable to pivot the story forward and toward an unforgettable payoff.
Donita Bundy: Steven, do you consider your books for general or crossover audience?
Steven James: Most of my novels have been published from Penguin Random House or Amazon which is not like a Christian publisher or anything – their Skyscape imprint.
I would say most of my books are for a general audience. I’ve had some published from a Christian publisher but I would say they’re crossover or they’re not specifically only for Christians. So, it’s exciting when I find people who are not Christians who have really engaged with and loved the stories. For me, that is a sign I feel like that I’m telling the story the way maybe it should be told.
If it’s too preachy and I’ve had that once or twice, I feel like I was probably a little too preachy, then I’m not as satisfied with that. I really want the stories to have an appeal to anyone no matter what their background might be.
Donita Bundy: And how did you find a publisher for your first book?
Steven James: Well, I was writing non-fiction for a publisher and I said, “I want to write a novel. That would be cool,” and I said, “Do I have to write the whole thing first?” because that’s what everybody says and she’s like, “Well, I’ll tell you what, write 50 pages, send it in and we’ll take a look.” I wrote 50 pages and then they gave me a three-book deal and so that was The Pawn, The Rook and The Knight and then that was how the Bower series got started.
I know that it’s unusual to do that. That’s fine but I feel like we kind of discourage people sometimes. Editors and agents are just looking for something they cannot put down. They’re looking for something that just blows them away.
So, I wrote Broker of Lies without a contract.
I just don’t think that there’s one specific route that everyone has to take and so, write amazing stories. If you can tell the whole story, that’s fantastic. If you get part of the way through or halfway through and you meet an editor and she’s like, “What are you working on?” and you’re like, “I’m working on this story and I would love to send you some chapters to take a look at,” and then follow up.
I feel like it is really important to meet editors and agents maybe at a writer’s conference and just make a connection with them. That’s been very helpful to me over the years and then when you do write, you can say, “Thanks for inviting me to send you this material when I was at the conference.” And they’ll go, “Oh, yes! That’s right. I’ll look at this.”
Belinda Pollard: Do you think there’s greater openness among Christian publishers to publish novels that appeal to a secular readership these days? Have you noticed that? Do you think that’s a thing that’s happening, a movement?
Steven James: I feel like it is changing in that way. I feel like Christian novelists, we’ve sort of matured over the last 15 years. It used to be very formulaic and very preachy. Like I said, I just feel like it undermines the pivot and the payoffs so that instead of being super predictable, now they have more depth.
So, yes. I feel like there is more openness to that these days.
I don’t know exactly how it is overseas, but I know in the United States, in Hollywood and also from a lot of the publishers in New York city, Christians are often maligned. They are often portrayed as hypocrites. If you introduce a character and he or she quotes a bible passage, you can almost be certain they’re going to end up being the villain at the end of the story!
Again, that’s too predictable. That definitely is agenda driven and I don’t think that helps storytelling. I feel like we have matured but in a sense a lot of the storytelling in the general market has de-matured and become very agenda driven. There’s a specific social-political agenda being forced down everyone’s throat. We read it and we’re like, “Okay. I get what you want me to believe.”
It’s been fascinating to see the shift of one realm of publishing really maturing and growing and the other one really dissipating into just forcing people to try and agree with what your agenda is.
Belinda Pollard: Steven, thank you for that. There is just so much great content there. How can our listeners find out more about you and perhaps some of the places you might be teaching either this year or next year?
Steven James: The best place to look is stevenjames.net. Steven with a ‘v’ and we’ll post on there when I am speaking at different events and conferences and then you can find out more about my books and when they might come out and their availability all through there. I would say that’s the best spot.
If you’re interested in the podcast, it’s called The Story Blender and I’ve interviewed over 200 of the top writers and storytellers in the world over the last five years. I basically ask them what are the secrets to telling a great story and it’s been super fascinating to chat with them. Information about that really wherever you listen to podcasts or you can go to thestoryblender.com and find out more information.
Belinda Pollard: Excellent. Thank you. How about I pray for you before we finish.
Steven James: Yes.
Belinda Pollard: Heavenly Father, we thank you for Steven. We thank you for the gifts that you have given him in writing, in creativity, in challenging some of the norms, in encouraging and strengthening other writers around the world and we pray that you will bless him abundantly.
That you will continue to lead and guide him and that you will also help all the Gracewriters out there who are wrestling with similar issues. That you will give them that wisdom and that courage to step forward into things that may be unexpected, that may be not what other people say they should be writing but that may be in the centre of your purposes because of what you are doing more broadly in the world.
And we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen
Donita Bundy: Amen.
Alison Joy: Amen.
Steven James: Yes. Amen. Thank you so much.
When I was going to Australia to teach last year, my brother said, “Okay. When you’re there, everything either wants to poison you or eat you!” And I didn’t find that to be exactly the case but I did ask someone while I was there, “What’s the secret?” And she said, “Avoid things that are small in the bush like snakes and big in the water like sharks and crocodiles.”
So, that was my philosophy to survive. Avoid something small in the bush and big in the water and I ended up making it through!
Belinda Pollard: You made it through alive! Fantastic.
Steven James: I know, right!
Belinda Pollard: Steven James, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast this month. Donita Bundy, thank you, Alison Joy. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
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