THE CRAFT OF WRITING — JUNE 2021
THE CRAFT OF WRITING — JUNE 2021
I am thrilled to welcome award-winning author and craft expert Steven James to The Craft of Writing blog today.
Steven is a member of that prestigious group known as the Christy Award Hall-of-Famers. Not only has he won numerous writing awards for his novels, he is well-known for his expertise on the craft of writing. And he hosts a weekly podcast, “The Story Blender.” (Where does he get the time?) I was doubly thrilled to see that he’s a runner.
Not knowing which of his many works to discuss here, I’ve chosen two: Synapse, his latest novel, is a near-future thriller. It received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal and was a finalist for an International Book Award. I picked Story Trumps Structure to represent his work on the art of fiction writing. I expect we can have a lively discussion today.
Steven James is the critically-acclaimed author of seventeen novels whose award-winning, pulse-pounding thrillers continue to gain wide critical acclaim and a growing fan base. Publishers Weekly calls him a “master storyteller at the peak of his game,” and RT Book Reviews promises that “the nail-biting suspense will rivet you.”
Equipped with a unique Master’s Degree in Storytelling, he has taught writing and storytelling on four continents over the past two decades and has spoken more than two thousand times at events spanning the globe. Widely-recognized for his story-crafting expertise, he teaches regularly as a Master Class instructor at ThrillerFest, North America’s premier training event for suspense writers. His short fiction has appeared in many publications including the New York Times.
Steven also hosts the weekly podcast, The Story Blender, on which he interviews some of the world’s leading writers and storytellers. His groundbreaking books on the art of fiction writing, STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE and TROUBLESHOOTING YOUR NOVEL, both won Storytelling World Awards.
When Steven isn’t writing or speaking you’ll find him trail running, playing basketball, or drinking dark roast coffee near his home in the Appalachian Highlands of eastern Tennessee.
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Welcome to the Craft of Writing blog, Steven James, and thank you for joining us!
Thank you for having me.
First, can you tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started writing fiction? Was that always your goal?
I have always loved stories that transport me to another place. When I was young, my uncle would always tell us stories whenever we got together for holidays. When I started working at a councilor at summer camps after my senior year of high school, I was looking for a way to calm the campers down for bed and started telling my uncle’s stories. One Saturday, in between camp sessions while I was sitting in a laundromat, it struck me: I want to be a storyteller. That’s what I want to do with my life. I began telling stories everywhere I could and writing short stories and personal stories from my life.
But I always had this dream of writing a bigger story. A novel. I approached my publisher who was doing my nonfiction books, asked them about the possibility of writing a novel, and I said in my slightly whiney voice, “Do I have to write the whole thing first?” They said, “Well, we’re familiar with your other work. Just send us the first fifty pages.” From that, they offered me a three-book deal, and I was off and running as a novelist.
Can you tell us about your latest novel, Synapse? How did you come about writing that book?
I guess I would have to say that my love of science fiction led me to ask this question: Once machines have free will, what will they choose to believe? So my story revolved around a robot who has self-awareness, consciousness, and free will, but is forming his own belief system. Throw those questions into a thriller with a terrorist plot that takes place thirty years from now, and you have the genesis of Synapse.
I read that you have a Master’s Degree in Storytelling. I had never heard of that before. Can you tell us how you decided to pursue that degree and what’s entailed in it?
Yes, when I started the program in 1996, it was the only Master’s Degree in Storytelling program in the world. East Tennessee State University offered the degree. Although it mostly focused on oral storytelling, I was able to study story in a broader context. What makes a story work, whether it’s written or told, and how I can help others shape and tell stories of their own. You should see the looks on some people’s faces when I tell them that I have a Master’s Degree in storytelling.
How and why did you decide to write books about the art and craft of writing?
As I was learning to write, I kept coming across the same advice over and over about outlining, following a three-act structure, plotting out your story, and so on, none of which I did and none of which worked for me. I started looking for books that would equip me to write my stories more organically, and honestly couldn’t find anything, so I decided to write Story Trumps Structure to help other organic writers – and really novelists of all stripes – by telling them to break the “rules.”
I’ve been reading your book Story Trumps Structure, and you take a different approach to constructing a novel than many other craft experts. Can you give a brief synopsis of your theory of novel-writing?
Story is pursuit. Asking questions that relate to the characters’ unmet desires and the actions they take in pursuit of their goals. This is what shapes a story. On a very elemental level, stories consist of four things: characters, settings, struggles, and pursuits. Without a character, there’s no one for readers to cheer for in the story. Without a setting, there’s no way for readers to picture a story. Without a struggle, there’s no reason for the story, and without a pursuit, there’s no movement to the story. Plot is simply the pathway that a character takes through the setting as he faces struggles during his pursuit. So this is why I encourage authors not to focus on plot, but rather on pursuit.
Congratulations on the many awards you’ve won for your work. How concerned should new authors be about winning an award for their books?
Awards don’t pay for groceries! They’re encouraging, but not necessary.
There are an enormous number of writing contests available. Do you have any guidance on how an author should go about deciding which contests to enter?
Regarding contests, I would do my research to find out specifically what types of books or stories that contest is looking for. I’d advise against spending a lot of time re-writing a story for a specific contest, but if it’s a good fit already, fantastic! Also, don’t spend a lot of money submitting to different contests. It’s just not worth it in the long run.
What one piece of advice would you give to new writers?
Strive for excellence. Rage against mediocrity. Don’t allow your work to be published if it’s anything less than your best.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
For all things Steven James, click to stevenjames.net or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @readstevenjames.
Okay, I figured out how to get the subject of running into this interview: It’s been shown that aerobic exercise increases creativity. Tell us about your running experiences. Do you compete?
If competing means losing: yes, I do compete.
I live at the base of the Appalachian mountains, and there are tons of amazing trails close by. I did run a couple of 50k trail races a number of years ago. I loved the experience, but they were stinkin’ hard. We’ll see if I ever join one again. Perhaps someday.
Thank you, Steven, for being with us today.
Thank you for inviting me! Best wishes to you and all your readers in your creative endeavors.
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