Saturday, March 4, 2017

Writing Books to Guide Authors from Steven James

by Tim Suddeth @TimSuddeth

My family likes to take Sunday afternoon drives through the countryside. We’ve been doing this for many years, that we know most of the roads around us. When we turn out of our development, we may take one of many routes we have already traveled, or we may find a new one. We only know we have to be home by dark.

 But there are some trips we take where we have a destination in mind. We’ll get a map off Mapquest and then carefully follow the route trying to ignore the roadside signs luring us off the road by hawking the antique store or the historic site just off the next exit.

You may recognize these as examples of two classes of writers, pantsers and outliners.

A pantser is a writer who jumps on the blank page or screen and sees where their words take them. An outliner will have some sort of outline or plan before they start their work. Some outlines will just be the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Others will be pages long.

You can find all sorts of different programs instructing you on how to write a story or book.  Diane Mills and Susan May Warren have excellent books helping you along the path to tell your story. And there are reasons why it is helpful to have a structure for your story. Many writers wouldn’t think of writing a Thank You card without an outline.

Steven James is known by many as the consummate pantster. This is the method he has used to write his thirty plus best-selling thrillers. James is also a popular speaker and has taught writing and story-telling for the past twenty years.

In his StoryTrumps Structure, he shares how to trust the narrative process to make your story believable, exciting, and compelling. This is not just for novels, but for any writing that you want engaging for the reader. Which should be anything you write.

He doesn’t tell you to just follow the path. In fact, he wants you to deliberately ditch the path everyone has taken, the path most traveled, and find your own way through the woods. He does this by offering a series of questions that writers should ask to guide them through each scene of their story.

A problem we pantsers often have is the same little Billy in the Family Circus cartoon has when he’s given a directive to take something to the house. The cartoonist draws the weaving path that  he took wandering all over the neighborhood. That path may help the writer get the first draft, but we can tell the story needs help.

Steven James addresses this and other problems in Troubleshooting Your Novel, where he identifies troubles in our manuscripts and gives us tips to fix them. It’s written in an easy style as if he is sitting with you as you write your story.

The book in broken into five sections: Story Progression, Characterizations, Narrative Techniques, Reader Engagement, and Style and Finesse. You can read the book through, which I would advise you do at least once, or turn to the section that’s causing you fits. For each problem, he gives us examples and then questions to help untangle the mess.

Steven James serves as a contributing editor for Writer’s Digest and has a Master’s Degree in Storytelling. After seeing his movie examples at the 2016 Novelist Retreat, do not let him select your family’s or children’s movies. Being a writer of thrillers, they will never get to sleep.

Whichever writing method you use for your books, Steven’s books will help you better engage your reader to help ensure they get to the final page.

So which method do you prefer, pantster or outlines? Have you tried both and found that one just works better for you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

And thanks for reading.

#Writing Books to Guide Authors from Steven James @ReadStevenJames - via @TimSuddeth (Click to Tweet)

Tim Suddeth has been published in Guideposts’ The Joy of Christmas and on He’s working on his third manuscript and looks forward to seeing his name on a cover. He is a member of ACFW and Cross n Pens. Tim’s lives in Greenville, SC with his wife, Vickie, and his happy 19-year-old autistic son, Madison.  Visit Tim at and on Facebook and Twitter. He can be also reached at


  1. Thanks for the post. As a pantster, I'll have to check out those books.

  2. Great post, Tim. You've reminded me I need to dig out those two books and reread them. I relate to Steven because I'm an intuitive writer. I enjoy the winding journey of not having an outline. However, I realize this can lead to a long first draft, but can also make for a better story. Whether pantster or outliner, we each must write the way that works best for us. I'm thankful the intuitive method is best for me because it creates intimacy between me and my characters as we have long conversations. Thanks for your dedication to keeping us informed. God bless you.

  3. Thank you, Tim. Outlines all the way for me but a little creativity and experimentation cannot hurt once in a while.

  4. Intuitive, pantster, whatever that's my style. Just nicely started. Need to get your books. Thanks

  5. I'm both a pantser and an outliner, so I recently bought his book to see if I'd find his techniques beneficial. I love his advice so far. I still don't see myself being 100% panster, though. The idea of it terrifies me just as much as the idea of writing an outline probably terrifies him. ;)

    Thanks for sharing this!