The current issue of WORLD includes edited excerpts of an interview with award-winning novelist Steven James before students at Patrick Henry College. Here are a few additional comments he made about the process of writing.
Do you outline your novels? I don’t outline. I don’t plan out my books. The worst advice you can give to people is “outline,” and it’s usually the first advice given. I suggest that people write organically, feeling out the story as you go along, understanding that we already know a lot of the obligatory scenes that will happen in certain books.
What’s supposed to happen in crime books? I know I will have a villain who’s bigger than life, because the strength of your protagonist is measured against the struggles he has to overcome. If you just have a normal, everyday villain, the protagonist doesn’t have to be very heroic. There will be some kind of grisly crime at the beginning to show how evil the villain is. My detective will visit the crime scene and notice what no one else notices. He’ll pursue clues, run into dead ends, be suspicious of people and discount them later. There will be maybe a chase scene, a love story that’s woven in, a final confrontation between good and evil at the end in which justice will either be served or postponed. All these forces of inevitability and escalation, of twist and believability and causality, all these press in almost like clay.
Do you encounter surprises as you write? Yes. With The Knight, three days before the deadline, I was having a hard time figuring out where it was going to go, and I knew I had to change who the killer is. It took about two or three more months to change who I thought the killer was going to be when I started the book. With The Rook, I didn’t know who the bad guy was until two weeks before the book was due. For me, being surprised by the twists and turns of a story is essential, because if I can guess where it’s going to go, they’ll probably be able to guess as well.
Characters take on a life of their own? They do. When I was writing the first book in the series, The Pawn, Tessa [stepdaughter of the main character] was just this uninteresting, one-dimensional character. She kept becoming more and more intriguing to me, and vying for a bigger part, so in The Rook she got a bigger part. It’s always a surprise when I sit down at the computer and see where it’s going to go.