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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How encouraging to hear Steven’s advice on constructing a story. It’s important to know what you hope to accomplish so you fashion a complete story that makes sense, but so often, strong characters can drive the original story idea to an even better finish by following that pursuit rather than a set format.
Good morning, Judy! I’ve been reading “Story Trumps Structure,” and I find Steven’s fresh approach very eye-opening. It has changed the way I’m working on my new novel.
Thanks for your notes. Yes, over the years I’ve really come to believe that organic writing is really a freeing and natural way to write—as we follow the pursuit of the main characters. There are so many formulas out there, but I’d rather allow the story to form as I work on it and discover its true shape as it emerges.
“Story is pursuit.” I love this statement and how accurately it resonates with that place where I experience the most joy while writing–when I think I’m headed off in one direction but God steers me a different way and I end up discovering some truth or insight I didn’t even know I was searching for. I love Story Trumps Structure. It has been the one book on craft where I found myself saying “Yes!” out loud as I read. I’m still on the rookie end of the writing journey, but I’ve read a lot of books on craft and this is one of my all time favorites. I will be adding The Story Blender podcast to my list as well. Thank you, Steven, for sharing some wisdom and encouragement here today. And thank you, Kay, for making it happen. I had the pleasure of hearing Steven give a keynote address the first year I attended Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. At that time, I was a fan of his fiction (although I still have a panic attack when I can’t find my hairbrush), but his keynote made me a fan of his personality and passion for great story-telling as well. One day I will get to his writing intensive(if your still doing them going forward???).
Good morning, Lori!
I’m a relative new-comer to Steven’s writing, but I am getting so much out of his advice. My favorite answer in the interview is
“Strive for excellence. Rage against mediocrity. Don’t allow your work to be published if it’s anything less than your best.”
I often hear people suggest that an author should produce as many books as possible because there’s so much competition in the writing community, but I completely agree with Steven. When it’s all over, I’d like to think that I did my best.
Rage against mediocrity! I think you do that well, Kay. And I may post that quote on my office wall.
Thanks for your thoughts. To Lori’s question, yes, we still do the novel writing intensive seminar. The next will be this coming March in the Seattle area—two sessions (limited to 14 people each). For more info, drop us a note at email@example.com and we’ll send along the details. I sometimes think, “What about the story is desperate to be told?” rather than, “Why am I desperate to tell this story?” There is often a truth in it, a resonant moment, that will be powerful to readers if we step out of the way far enough for it to be heard. (And if you’re curious about the hairbrush reference… read THE PAWN 🙂
I agree with the observations that, “Rage against mediocrity!” is worthy of keeping front and center. It reminds me of James Patterson’s advice to never condescend to the genre. I think those two ideas are very similar and the genesis of new levels of art in fiction.
Oh boy! What a great discovery Mr. Steven James is for me. Thank you, Kay, really! Steven, thank you for the shout out to organic writing. And thank you most of all for compiling your thoughts on the subject in your craft book. I bought a copy of Story Trumps Structure and can’t wait to dig in. I’m also excited about Synapse because I love sci-fi, especially sci-fi with robots. Right up my alley. both are queued on my Kindle, next in line. Thank you, Kay & Steven, for sharing this wonderful, encouraging, insightful interview.
Hi Lisa! Thank you for stopping by. I know you’re going to love “Story Trumps Structure.”
You and I are on the same wave length. Every now and then I happen onto a piece of advice so crucial that I write it on my whiteboard so I won’t lose sight of it. “Rage against mediocrity” is there now, just beneath “Festina Lente.”
I love that “Make haste slowly” you told me about just as much!
Here is a saying that I included in THE KING and that I try to live by: “Dum vivimus vivamus.” It means “While we live, let us live!” It’s like that old saying, “Seize the day,” taken to a new level. Another good one for a sign!
I was blessed to sit under two of Steven James’ sessions at the ACFW Conference – I think it was the 2018 one – I have his book – STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE – it’s been such a freeing experience to write as he states – I need to go back and re-read some of it, because I’ve slept way too many times since my first read-through. I highly respect Steven James – I appreciated his spiritual views as well as those related to writing.
Great article, Kay!
Good afternoon, Joy, and thanks for stopping by. I’m a newcomer to Steven’s work, and I’m so happy to have learned of it. Reading “Story Trumps Structure” has been a great pleasure, and it’s changed my approach to writing. I look forward to reading more of his work.