Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Spreading the News

Our cyberworld is connecting people better than ever believed possible. It has allowed me to interact with readers of my books like never before. Each day, I hear from people around the world who have read my books. Some have questions. Some have a bone to pick. Some simply loved the books and wanted to let me know. Well, just as the Web allows people to connect, it can also cause them to drown. With millions of other websites out there, millions of other authors, it’s easy to get lost. If you’re looking for a practical way to help spread the word about my books, consider one of these easy things to do:

1. Word of mouth—always the best.
2. “Like” Steven James on Facebook at sjamesauthor.
3. Post an online book review. (A single review can go a long way. Copy and paste it to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, CBD and Goodreads.)
4. Make sure your book stores and libraries carry my books. If not, request them to do so.

Thanks for your support!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Fifteen Suspense Movies You Haven’t Seen But Need To

Well, everyone, there are lots of great thriller films I could recommend (and I will someday), but I thought for now I’d pass along some of the little-known gems that are all on my all-time favorite movies list. Enjoy! (Use your discretion, of course. Some of these are rated R for a reason.)

15. A Murder of Crows
14. Night Train
13. Following
12. Black Book
11. The Cry of the Owl
10. Fear
9. Blink
8. Best Laid Plans
7. Dahmer
6. Joshua
5. The Dead Girl
4. Enduring Love
3. 11:14
2. Blood Simple
1. Hard Candy

What other recommendations do you have? 

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Rhythms of Life

I recently sent in the first draft of my latest thriller, Placebo, and as I was mentally regrouping, I was reminded again of the rhythms of life—the seasons of stress and recreation, of the long nights sitting at the keyboard contrasting with the warm afternoons strolling through the forest. It struck me that without the two extremes, something seems to be missing in my life.
If I don’t work hard I lose direction.
If I don’t play I lose perspective.
Right before Thanksgiving when I was flying home from a meeting at my publisher’s, I sat beside a man who’d recently retired. He told me that for the first year he liked it, but then he got bored. “You can only play so many rounds of golf,” he told me.
True enough.
We have deadlines, workloads, quotas, and we have Sunday afternoon naps, milkshake dates and family Uno nights. People who never take a break are just as annoying to be with as those who never take anything seriously. We have to live in this paradox or responsibility and relaxation, because when we slip into one extreme or the other—too much work or too much free time—we seem to become less human in the ways that matter most. 
So, here’s to the coffee breaks. 
And here’s to the reason we take them. 

Monday, August 08, 2011

RX: Writing

This week my intern, Tom Vick, will be heading back to college. It’s been a great summer working with him. I asked him to write one more blog before taking off. Here are some of his thoughts on how writing impacts his life.

From my first journal entry to my current book project, writing has been the best drug for me.
A very addicting drug that causes me to see fictional characters and to speak in a slur of poetic metaphors that leave my friends saying “Whatever, Tom.”

Without a doubt, writing impacts my life. Once you start thinking like a writer one of many things will happen to you:

1. Others will think you are weird for “people watching” and then trying to make up a story about that person.
2. Fictional people become your co-workers.
3. If you have what it takes, people will listen to you, and your writing days in those indie coffee shops will pull readers out of their mundane lives.

When you’re a writer, ideas never leave you alone. There will always be that new character that shows up, the new twist ending you didn’t see coming, and histories of entire worlds so complex you would become a cranky grouch if you didn’t write them down. But writing doesn’t just help me create it helps me process life.

Whenever I have a moral dilemma in life—you know the kind that keeps you up long hours boring a hole into the ceiling above your bed at night—I write that problem down. Then I write every single thought on the page after that problem. Somewhere, if I keep at it, I will find a solution. Or maybe not. But I always make new discoveries about life.

Without this narcotic ink I cannot really think.

One of my worst nightmares is where I get carpal tunnel, all the trees are dead, and the word processors have evolved into humans-harvesting AI with a vendetta for all the times I’ve hit their keyboards. But for now I get to pursue the dream of writing.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Your invitation to be ridiculous

This summer I have an intern from Taylor University named Tom Vick. I asked him to be a guest blogger for the next two weeks. His writing comes deep from the heart. Enjoy. 

“What is this?”
“It’s my portfolio.”
She handed the manilla folder back to me. “You can do better than this.”
“Tom, you’re a good writer, don’t settle for mediocre.”

That sort of talk was what I needed to propel me into my career. People believing in me helped me survive high school English critique groups. I could graduate knowing two or three English teachers thought I was going somewhere. Even now my old high school buddies respond with “Oh yeah, you were always good at writing stuff,” when I update them with my latest stories. But now looking back I realize it wasn’t everything I needed.

When you grow as a writer or as a person for that matter, you need more than the confirmation of your peers. My teachers believed in me. My parents cherished every written word. Even my friends thought I was going to make it big, but I always doubted.

In my junior year of high school, I published my first devotional. That’s when people started putting the pressure on me. They threw expectations at me. I didn’t want those because I had already aimed my arrows north of the bulls-eye. All that did was put my publishing career on hold for three years after those devotions.

The Word was a place of constant refuge for me and it proved my self-deprecations wrong. Jesus called his first followers with these words. “Follow me and I will teach to you to fish for people.” What a ridiculous invitation, to “fish for people” and what a radical following those words kindled.

Jesus Christ died on a tree for us. That makes me think we’re worth something to him.

Maybe he would like to see me use talents he wrote out for me before the beginning of time. Believing in yourself, a creature of selfish ambition is ridiculous, but with blood paid for my life I found out that setting expectations for yourself is a way to glorify God even though logically it’s unreasonable. That’s it. Be ridiculous. That’s the writing advice he can give you. Be as ridiculous as possible. You are a supernatural entity in God’s eyes capable of one day judging angels. It’s your free invitation to be ridiculous.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Creativity

Landscape of Butterflies by Dali

Undefine normal - The more I think about it, the more I’m starting to believe that typical exists but, normal does not.  To use the word ‘normal’ to describe something seems to imply that other ideas that don’t fit the criteria you’ve established are abnormal. That is, not good. So, instead, try thinking of what’s atypical, what hasn’t been done to death before. It’ll lead you to find new solutions and give you new perspectives. Whether that’s with a novel you’re writing, a painting you’re creating, or a new recipe you’re inventing. 
Reverse expectations - Rather than thinking about what’s expected of you, think of what is not. But what you would accomplish if you didn’t have those expectations? What would you do if no one was looking over your shoulder? What would you write in your novel or sketch if there were no expectations, if there was only a dream to pursue?
Explore relationships - Look for unexpected connections, natural consequences of your idea, and apparent contradictions. Take this train of thought to its logical conclusion. Force yourself to stick together two ideas that aren’t typically connected. Be specific, not too broad. For example—I am going to write a 3000 word short story about a scuba diver with the opening line, “I woke up underwater and I knew I was going to die.”

Friday, April 22, 2011

Flailing at Success

Today I was reflecting on success and it brought to mind some of the thoughts I shared a few years ago in my book Becoming Real.

After interviewing people about their definitions of success, author and speaker Denis Haack wrote, "Most people I've asked seem to have little trouble identifying the predominant version [of success] in society: Success means attaining some measure of money, fame, power and self-fulfillment—and then looking the part."
When I first read that, I had to ask myself how much of my life is spent in the pursuit of money? Or fame? Or power? Or self-fulfillment (however you define that)? And then looking the part?
Photo courtesy of nuttakit

For instance, why do we wear the clothes we do? Or drive the car we do, or live in the house and neighborhood we live in? 

"But," I can hear a voice inside of me argue, "I can't afford a nicer car or a better house!"
True. But if I had the money, if I had the opportunity to get a better car, or nicer clothes, or a bigger home, well, admittedly, just like most people, I’d probably get them. After all, in our society, how successful are you—really—if no one notices?
Money. Fame. Power. Self-fulfillment.

It struck me that when I die, God is not going to ask to see my bank account or my 401K plan or my abs. He's not going to ask me how many friends I had on Facebook or if any of my books were New York Times bestsellers or how much I can bench press. But I think he is going to ask me if I was faithful with the gifts, with the ideas, with the time he gave me.

I came across an instance when Jesus said, “A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God,” (Luke 12:21) and I realized that, for me, whenever my work becomes more focused on accomplishment than on faithfulness, I'm no longer on the road to true success, but am actually on a detour around it.

So, I'm curious. What are the criteria you typically use to measure success? How do you identify or define a successful person? And maybe, most pertinently of all, are you a successful person?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Looking out the Window

Last week on my flight to Atlanta (this was before the Southwest plane’s roof blew off!) I sat next to a college-aged woman who’d never been on an airplane before. She didn’t hide how nervous she was and, though I tried to reassure her we’d be okay, as we took off she was seriously nervous. 

However, when we got above the clouds she just stared out the window and gasped, “Oh! Do you see this? It’s like an ocean with waves!”

I looked out the window. Just a bunch of clouds beneath us. “Sure,” I said. “It’s nice.”

But she could barely contain herself as she saw them softly wisp across each other. “It’s the breath of God,” she said softly.

The breath of God.

Seeing the sense of wonder in her eyes, hearing the awe in her voice, struck me deeply. Here was a woman seeing something I’ve seen  hundreds of times and she was astonished by the beauty of it, while I’d been staring at my in-flight magazine and hadn’t even bothered to look out the window.
Walt Whitman wrote, “A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” This universe is full of whispers of God’s mystery, his presence, his character. But most of the time we’re too blind or busy or distracted to notice.

As a writer I’m supposed to notice what other people miss, see things from a unique perspective, help people open their eyes to the real world shimmering beneath the mundane, but it took a young woman seeing something for the first time to do that for me.

I remember thinking, Wonder is living around you, Steve, clouds are whispering by, carried on the breath of God.

So today, I’m trying to see life again.

Really see it.

As if I’m looking out the window for the very first time. 

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Madness to Win

(Photo courtesy of Salvatore Vuono)

March Madness made me think a little about my own history with B-ball.
And how it ended up shaping my view of competition.
When I was in high school I was addicted to the game. I practiced three-four hours every day of the summer, sometimes shooting 2000 or more shots in a day. If I missed a day I’d practice six hours-eight hours the next. Nearly every night during those four years I slept with my basketball so that I’d be holding it eight hours a day more than my competitors.  (I should mention that I was never a great player, but our team did manage to win two state championships.)
When I got to college I asked a girl I really liked out on a date. After our meal, I wanted to impress her (hey, I’m a guy!) so I told her all about high school basketball, how hard I’d worked, how much I’d improved, and finally she said, “Steve, can I ask you a question?”
“What was your god in high school?”
The question floored me and was one of the biggest kicks-in-the-butt that led me to eventually become a Christian.
And that’s where the trouble began, because I liked to win and I was willing to work harder than anyone else to do it. But I also realized how easily  basketball could become my god. 
Then, when I really began to study the teachings of Jesus and the authors of the New Testament, I realized that humility mattered more to God than victory. One day it  struck me that all competition has, at its core, self-promotion. After all, the only way for me to win is for you to lose. That means I am honored and you are not.
I was forced to ask myself, “How can I love, serve and honor someone (above myself), while I’m wholeheartedly trying to defeat him?”
Chrysostom, one of the early Church Fathers, said that the cause of all evils was ambition. The New Testament reiterates this idea: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,” (Philippians 2:3).
Think about it this way. A person from the other team misses the shot that could win the game for him, and my team and my fans cheer. That other player already feels bad, how is cheering over his  failure a way of serving him or valuing him above myself?
Yes, I still play hoops, still love the game, but that question always sticks in my mind. And sorting out where the quest for excellence ends and selfish ambition begins is still just as hard for me as ever.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

To Tweet or Not to Tweet?

Recently I was at a seminar on social media by a man who has 40,000 Twitter followers. He told us the story of how he was having trouble with his cable connection and sent out a tweet complaining about it. The next day Comcast’s truck was at his doorstep and they laid brand new cable for his entire block!
Now, that's certainly impressive, but it got me thinking—is there any other form of mass communication that you could send out a complaint like that to 40,000 people and it not be narcissistic?
In other words, imagine walking up to 40,000 people at a time and complaining to them about the speed of your cable connection, or sending out 40,000 letters or emails, or an announcement on the radio or television to 40,000 people that your cable connection was slow. How does it benefit 40,000 people to hear that you’re annoyed at the speed of your computer’s cable connection?
Pascal, a 17th century philosopher and mathematician, wrote, “We do not content ourselves with the life we have in ourselves; we desire to live an imaginary life in the minds of others, and for this purpose we endeavor to shine."
Facebook and Twitter give us the chance to do that: to constantly insert ourselves into other people’s minds with the trivialities or our own lives. So, here are a few questions I’ve been asking myself lately about my facebook posts:
  • Am I using this post to get what I want, to maintain a certain image or identity, or to bring other people a better life? Who benefits from this?
  • If I were to give up this aspect of social media, would I feel that something important is missing from my life? I heard about a study of college students in which they had to give up social media and networking for a week and after three days one girl needed to see a therapist. “I feel like people might have forgotten about me,” she said. She needed to know that she was living in other people’s minds.
  • If no on “likes” or comments on one of my status updates, photos, blog entries, etc.… do I feel overlooked, hurt or slighted? Honestly, sometimes I do. And when I do, I can’t help but think of Pascal’s words once again.
What do you think? Is it (or isn't it) self-centered to inform 40,000 people that your cable connection is annoyingly slow?
(Computer keyboard image compliments of www.FreePhotos.com)

Sunday, February 06, 2011

A Plan Beneath the Obvious

Last week when I was at the National Prayer Breakfast in DC, I was reminded of the Bible verse that says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
It’s a pretty astonishing promise for those who are pursuing God, for those who love him.
Well, here was my thought: there’s a plan beneath the obvious; there’s a future that our circumstances cannot overcome.
No matter how many setbacks we face, how much bad news we get; however severe the illnesses we struggle with or how deep the rifts in our relationships, the default setting for the life of those who love God is eventual blessing.
So, if you’re facing a setback today, be assured that God is bigger than your circumstances and is able to weave a blessing through time to bring you closer to him in the end.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Creating the Right Setting for Your Novel

Don’t let your story be transplantable. Is the setting integrally woven to the plot? If not, work at making it indispensable so that you cannot just pick up the story and plop it into another location. Ground your story in a specific time and place.

Think of setting as a character. Remember, the actual characters in your book will have a specific goal, attitude and (perhaps) history with regard to their environment just as they would for any other character. Let them express this in the way they respond to situations and other actual characters within that setting.

For example, if your protagonist visits the beach and this brings back memories of the time when he was ten and his brother drowned at the lake, or his experience playing beach volleyball in college, or a sense of peace, all of this will affect his actions, mood and demeanor.

So, ask yourself, “How does the setting make the characters feel? How does the setting affect the psychology of the characters? How do they interact with it? What annoys the characters about this environment? What gets in the way of them reaching his goals? What disadvantages does it cause them? What assets does it provide?” Show each person’s response to it. Give all of them an active relationship and attitude about each location.

I keep these questions in mind when I write:
  • Is the relationship between the characters and the story environment clear?
  • Are the attitudes of the characters clear (or at least strongly implied)?
  • Are there ways I can reshape the story to make the setting more significant to the plot or resolution?
So, here it is in a nutshell: Treat the setting as another character and give the people in your novel an attitude toward it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why do stories matter?

Last week I was a guest blogger for The Big Thrill and the topic for the week was “Why do stories matter?” I thought I’d share some of my thoughts here as well. Enjoy.

The topic this week really got me thinking. Obviously, stories matter to us all, they help us make sense of the world, we enjoy them, we find deep meaning in them, empathy, etc… but is there more?

When I was considering all of this, I remembered watching Braveheart and how, amidst one of the battles, I’d realized that one day I will die.

Yes, obvious, I know.

But here’s the thing, the paradox of it all—I while already know I’m going to die, I don’t seem to really believe it. After all, if I did, I would live differently, worry about different things, prioritize in other ways.

In a way, the story opened my eyes to a truth I already knew. Novels use a pretend world to help us to better see the real one. And it seems to me we need constant reminding. Because we know all sorts of things that we don’t seem to believe: love conquers all, eternity is but a heartbeat away, relationships are more valuable than possessions, etc…

I know this sounds a little odd to say, but stories help us to start believing the things we already know. After a story that has deeply engaged us, we drink in life more deeply, notice the sunsets more, the laughter of children more, value relationships more. Maybe that’s why we cry at the movies even though we know the stories aren’t real. Because the truths of life and death and love and hope and romance are real and we start to resonate with that.

If a story is well-told, when we “suspend our disbelief” during it, we actually open ourselves up to finally stop suspending our disbelief in reality and—if only for a moment—-to begin to truly believe in our hearts the truths we already know in our heads.