|Steven James reveals series secrets
How do writers of a great series keep us hooked book after book? Steven James is going to tell us. He’s the award-winning author of 11 nail-biting thrillers in the FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers series plus other best-selling novels and nonfiction books. He’s also a great teacher and friend.
When Steven isn’t writing or teaching the craft of fiction, you can find him trail running or drinking French Roast coffee. His latest thriller, Every Wicked Man, released this week. I’ve long admired the man and his work, so it’s a particular pleasure that he let us coax him to Go Rogue. – Gayle Lynds
Take it away, Steven! …
When people find out I’ve written a series of eleven thrillers, I tend to get two questions—especially when they learn that the latest one, Every Wicked Man, is the final installment.
First off: “What’s the first book in the series? I always like to start at the beginning.”
|Steven James’s brand-new thriller
It’s a fair enough question. If the storylines build on each other there’ll inevitably be more surprises and plot twists by starting at the start. That being said, I typically encourage people to begin with the most recent book since, hopefully, I’ve learned to write better over the last eleven years as a novelist.
Besides, starting at the beginning is a big time commitment! After all, if you read at a normal rate it would take you nearly 70 hours of reading just to get to the most recent book. And, while I’m all for binge-reading, that’s a pretty long haul on the couch.
And the second question: “Do I have to read any other books to understand this one?”
The answer to that is easy—no. Personally I can’t imagine writing a book that someone would need to read another book to understand. Once I watched one of the Harry Potter movies and it made very little sense to me. My daughter, a huge fan of the book series told me, “But Dad, you have to read the book to understand it.” Sorry, but I’m not going to read an 800-page book in order to understand a 2-hour movie.
So, when I set out to write a book in my series, I’m faced with the challenge of writing stories that are intricately intertwined with each other, but that also stand on their own.
How to do that? Well, for me, the following two principles come into play.
1) Promise-keeping. Narrative promises can be explicitly stated or implied. If one character says to another, “I’ll see you at the gun range tomorrow,” that’s a narrative promise that there will be a scene at the gun range (or, of course, that perhaps something dramatic will detour the story from that scene). An implied promise would be having one character admire another’s gun. In that case, you’re not saying that the gun will be fired, but you’re implying that it will.
In a book series, these promises often overlap between books. I strive to make sure that readers of previous books will be satisfied by the promises made, even if the current readers aren’t aware of those promises’ existence.
2) Orientation. While promise-fulfillment applies mostly to fans of the series from previous books, orientation deals more with first-time readers. Here, I’m trying to introduce the world of the story, the characters themselves, and the struggles that those characters are facing.
So, when it comes to plot twists and revelations, I keep previous readers in mind, and when it comes to orientation, I focus more on first-time readers. I’m not sure I would use the word “balance” to describe this approach, but at least penduluming back and forth does keep both sets of readers satisfied.
That’s what I tried to do when I was writing Every Wicked Man, the final suspense novel featuring FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers: keeping the promises that the earlier books in the series made while orienting readers to the tense, conflict-filled plot-line of this novel.
So, to all you writers out there—respect your readers enough to give them what they want or something better.
To all you readers, whether you’ve picked up a Bowers book before or this is the first time you’ve heard about him, if you like wire-tight suspense without gratuitous sex and profanity, I think you’ll dig this series.
And, if the movie ever comes out, I promise you won’t need to read a book to understand it.