Friday, September 7, 2018

STEVEN JAMES GOES ROGUE – Keeping Series Readers Satisfied

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.

Thanks, Steven! And for our readers who haven't yet had the delight of reading him, start with the intelligent, fast-paced Every Wicked Man.

10 comments:

  1. Thanks for the writing insights, Steven. It's fascinating the way you satisfy both long-time readers and brand-new ones. Can't wait to read EVERY WICKED MAN!

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  2. Thanks for dropping by, Steven. Once I got over the shock of learning that anyone can actually like French roast coffee (as I sip my nice Italian roast), I found myself trying to wrap my head around the HP reference. I've seen each movie a gazillion times. (My kids were little when they came out, so off we went.) And that made me wonder if you saw the movies out of order, would you be able to figure things out? (Without reading the 800 page books.) I've seen them so many times, it wouldn't matter, but it is an interesting and valid point. I'm on my third series now, and like you, I've always strived for balance. It's not easy, but you're right. You want to reward the faithful readers, yet not bore them with the info dump the new readers need to jump into the series. Very nice to read your take on it. And, French roast aside (really?) I am looking forward to EVERY WICKED MAN.

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    1. Italian roast is up there in the top ten. So, I really like your thought about approaching a series and asking if a reader would be disoriented reading them out of order. Congratulations on your publishing success!

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  3. Great post, Steven - can't wait to read EVERY WICKED MAN. Speaking of series (which I write as well) - I recall asking the late great writer, Vince Flynn, how you keep the "tension" going if you have a man and woman working together to stop a plot, but "resolve" their relationship in the first book? He said he had that very problem with his initial thrillers in the Mitch Rapp series. He said, "I had my hero marry the woman, but then didn't know what to do next, so eventually I had to kill her off." I didn't want to do that, so had to come up with a different solution. Have you, Steven (or any other writers here) had to handle that type of challenge as well?

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    1. Actually, a few things come into play with this. Stories are only driven forward through tension and so, if you start with everyone living happily ever after, then you aren't going to have a very interesting story. So, you will need to inject tension into their relationship. When I write, I think in terms of physical and emotional distance—so that at the beginning of one story, my main character and his love interest might be close physically, but separated physically—and then that will be altered as the story progresses. So, look for ways to tilt and alter the dynamics of this relationship.

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  4. Thanks for the introduction to a new author. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading his books. I will start with Every Wicked Man. I am looking forward to it.

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  5. My favorite statement in this blog is "respect your readers enough to give them what they want or something better. ." Great advice that all writers should follow. Can't wait to read Every Wicked Man. Thanks for stopping by to blog, Steven.

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  6. Good point about not needing to start from the first to read the others. I also like the idea of balancing the backstory for those new to the series with the twists in the current book. Great post, and congratulations on EVERY WICKED MAN!

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