Monday, November 8, 2010

Questions to Ask about Your Novel from Steven James

Well, it’s one thing to meet an author in the halls of ACFW, or in a workshop, but it’s a whole lot nicer to join an author for lunch. No surprise there. One on one attention and good food too.

Well last Wednesday I had the opportunity to join thriller writer, Steven James, for lunch at a nearby café. We don’t live too far away from each other, and though he’s in the middle of a deadline, he set up a lunch meeting at a wonderful little coffee house just down the street from where I live.

If you don’t know…

Steven James is a prolific writer of all sorts of books, both fiction and nonfiction, but he’s most well-known for his Patrick Bowers Files thriller novels. INTENSE. Books like The Pawn, The Rook, The Knight…all leading up to his most recent one, The Bishop. AHHHH! That book kept me up at night. Whew.

Besides that record, he’s also a charismatic presenter at Christian Writers conferences, as well as churches, universities, schools, and storytelling festivals. This guy stays busy. He has a great sense of humor and a heart for teaching. You can find out more about him at

So…back to MY story.

During our conversation, Steven gave me a few pointers. I thought you guys might benefit from them too. Questions to ask yourself while you create and write your novels. Here are a few of the first tips:

- In the beginning of your novel you are making promises – promises to alter the lives of your characters in some way.

- During the middle and end of your novel, you’re fulfilling those promises.

What does that mean? Well, what you set up in the first few chapters are your promises to the reader about ‘what’ is at stake, what do your characters want, what might keep them from getting what they want…those sorts of things.

Through the middle and the end of the book, we make those promises become reality.

Keeping that in mind, each scene should be a minor ‘alteration’…or altercation :-)

Scenes should not be written JUST to take up space in the book. For example, let’s take a REALLY popular movie scene…hmm….

Okay, sorry, but I’m going to use Pride and Prejudice. (STEVEN JAMES DID NOT USE THIS EXAMPLE) LOL.

And let’s take the ‘movie’ version – Kiera Knightley and Matthew McFadyen.

First scene: New neighbors, a rich, male, and (happily) single neighbor- of COURSE in want of a wife.

- Alteration? Sure. Women who had no prospects, suddenly DO.

A later scene – Lizzie and Mr. Darcy’s first meeting –

- Alteration? Oh yea! Lizzie’s somewhat indifference to Mr. Darcy turns into complete annoyance when he ‘slights’ her.

Readers want promises of danger and anticipation. Promises of CHANGE, and that’s what needs ot happen in each scene. A change inwardly or outwardly – but change that moves the story forward.

So what are some questions to ask yourself while you plot or write?

Here are a few Steven tossed out at lunch:

1. What is the reader thinking, hoping for, questioning, or feeling at this point in your story?

2. Have you ended the scene in a way that is unexpected but also inevitable?

3. Does your chapter/scene move the story forward?

4. Are the characters acting in a way that is believable for them?

5. Is there a way you can make your characters situation worse?

Last thing.

Steven made a GREAT point about NOT writing too many similar scenes. For example, since he writes thrillers, his books are filled with action – but too much of the ‘same’ type of scene will cause the reader to mentally yawn. So he doesn't overdo chase-scenes, because he wants the scene to really COUNT.

For us romance writers, we have to be careful not to have the SAME type of kissing scene, or ‘near’ kiss scene.

It’s kind of like this:

The first bite of chocolate is always the best – each consecutive one is more expected and less tantalizing – but the FIRST is the one that tingles the senses.

Same thing applies for scenes.

Have you made promises in the beginning of your novel?

Do things start out well, but then your characters’ lives alter?

Do you have some ‘screensaver’ scenes in your novel? Pretty to look at, but just take up empty space?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Those are excellent questions. I like the point about not having too many similar scenes. That is something to check for. And number five has really helped me ramp up the tension in my novels.

Great post.
~ Wendy

Julia M. Reffner said...

2. Have you ended the scene in a way that is unexpected but also inevitable?

Great questions. I love this one, I have to remember to keep upping the ante :)

Pepper said...

Conflict. The heart of a good story.
I have a hard time being really mean to my characters. How about you? :-)
Btw are you ready for another phone call (hint, hint)

Pepper said...

You know I find it so much easier to write those 'unexpected' endings in more suspenseful novels, but it can be really tough to do that within my romances.
I guess because upping the ante is more of a internal conflict than external. You think?

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Those are great questions. I really have to work on number 2 and number 5. I think a lot about moving the plot forward with my scenes but I have trouble ending those scenes in ways that demand the reader turn the page. Thanks for the tips!

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

I think it's easy to miss similar scenes. Different location, same thing does not a different scene make.
Saturday morning cartoons are like that..different people, same story line.
I can't say that I watch carefully for that. Am I repeating a scenereo which has only been modified?
Good food for thought.
Thank you Steven for joining us.
Thank you Pepper for the great post.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I am finding it harder to up the ante and drive the tension in my contemporary. It was much easier in the historical, for some odd reason.

Great post, Pepper!

Pepper said...

I spy a writer who is too nice to her characters too!
TOTALLY understand.

Pepper said...

Hey Mary,
Ya know, that question made me want to go back and filter through my scenes with a checklist.

Pepper said...

Feel the same way.
No ships are sinking or trench warfare in my contemporary.
What's a girl to do? ;-)

Lisa Lickel said...

After reviewing one of his books, I had to go get all the rest.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Could use some proof-reading.