How Writers Revise: Steven James and the Organic Approach

Steven James How Writers Revise

How Writers Revise: Steven James and the Organic Approach

This post is part of the monthly How Writers Revise series, where I talk with successful authors about their editing and revisions processes, as well as the challenges and setbacks they’ve faced in their careers and how they overcame them. If you’d like to receive these and my weekly writing craft posts in your in-box you can sign up here.

At first glance the path to author Steven James’s extraordinary success in his prolific writing career may seem uncannily smooth. His first novel was published after Steven sent 50 pages of a draft to a publisher, who offered a three-book deal on the strength of it.

But that glory story doesn’t take into account the many years he spent learning his craft by attaining a master’s degree in storytelling, honing it writing more than 400 articles for around 80 magazines, and the 24 nonfiction titles he’d already had published at the time in the inspirational and educational markets—bricks he laid one by one in a writing career that began in the 1990s.

And yet even with all of his experience writing in other genres, and making a living as a writer for years, Steven doubted his ability to tell the kinds of “big stories” he always wanted to write.

Then, at a work event for one of the magazines he wrote for, the editor leading it asked him what he did when he wasn’t writing. Steven listed the “day jobs” he worked, including teaching storytelling, and the man corrected him: “No, you’re a writer.”

That was when something finally clicked. “In my mind there was this giant shift in perspective because he believed in me and I could then look at myself as a writer,” Steven says. “I think there is a moment where you have to make that shift, the decision, for yourself. Where you say, ‘This is my identity, this is a core part of who I am. I might not sell everything I write, I might fail in some ways, but I’m a storyteller. I’m a writer.’ People are always like, ‘Don’t quit your day job,’ but in your mind you have to quit your day job.”

“I think there is a moment where you have to make that shift, the decision, for yourself. Where you say, ‘This is my identity, this is a core part of who I am…. I’m a storyteller. I’m a writer.’”

Steven James

It took him four more years to try his hand at those first fifty pages, but that proposal became The Pawn, the first in his popular Patrick Bowers series, and since then he’s written nearly twenty novels in a variety of genres including suspense, YA, spy thriller, and science fiction, along with several acclaimed books on storytelling craft.

That’s not to say his career has been without its challenges. He’s had editors buy books and then leave the publisher, dealt with book launches that fell apart when key members of his marketing team left, changed agents a couple of times, and some books haven’t done as well as he’d hoped. “It’s been a bit of a circuitous journey,” he says. “But you have to believe that what you’re writing is worth writing.

That confidence in his own creative ability has become a hallmark of his success, along with an agile approach to his career. “If one thing isn’t working super well right now,” he suggests, “try something different. Look at it like a farmer: He plants a wide variety of crops, and he doesn’t know which ones will grow.”

A longtime teacher of writing and storytelling (including his upcoming Fiction Intensive virtual conference, right and below), Steven advises writers, “You have to decide in your mind what success means for you. Every one of us has different gifts, and we can keep them to ourselves and they’ll shrivel up, or we can say, ‘I was given this gift; I’m just going to do it and what people take from it, they take from it.’

“Success can be measured outwardly by book sales and things like that, or it can be measured more internally, where I feel successful because I’m pursuing this dream. Life is short. Our dreams are important–and they always take sacrifice. You might not make as much money, you might not have the newest car, but are you being true to your calling of who you were shaped to be?”

I asked Steven to share some of his writing and revision process, and I love that he’s developed an approach that best suits his way of working.

How Steven James Revises

Steven describes himself as an organic writer–what many call a pantser. He doesn’t outline or extensively plot the story before writing it, but rather develops each scene as he goes by asking four questions:

  • “What would this character naturally do?”
  • “How can I make things worse (escalate tension)?”
  • “How can I add a twist or pivot the story in some way?”
  • “What promises have I made that I have not yet kept?” (E.g. underdeveloped characters or unresolved threads.)

“I move forward, continually asking those questions, as I uncover the story,” he explains. “I trust that I’ll know what to write next because I understand what makes a story work and I’m asking the questions to uncover the story.”

“I trust that I’ll know what to write next because I understand what makes a story work and I’m asking the questions to uncover the story.”

Steven James

Each day he prints out what he worked on in the last day or week, reads through it, makes changes if necessary, gets context in mind for the next scenes he’ll write, and then moves forward with the next day’s work.

“I continually am going back over what I wrote, making necessary changes and edits if I need to, and then moving forward. By the time I get to the end I’ve looked over the beginning so many times it’s not like a first draft. It’s like almost a final draft. I basically edit as I go.”

To keep his objectivity and stay fresh to the story, Steven doesn’t do any editing on the screen/keyboard; instead he prints pages out for revision, which he does by hand and then types in. “I notice more on printed pages than on a screen,” he explains. If he really needs a fresh perspective he’ll change his setting for editing, moving to his porch or a coffee shop, for instance.

Rather than writing to a specific daily word count, he plans a period of time he plans to work, sets a clock or timer, and works in focused blocks with regular breaks, writing and revising and polishing—sometimes making as many as fifty passes over a scene or chapter. “I might have more words at the end of the day, or I might not, but they’re more the right words.”

Because his final drafts come out so developed and “clean” at the end of this process, some of his students overlook the work that has gone into revising them. “A lot of times I’ll read someone’s work [in class] and say, ‘This is pretty good. Maybe another ten or twelve passes and it’ll be there. That’s what it’ll take, and then it’ll be great.’”

His editing process aligns with his organic way of writing—Steven follows his instincts for what the story needs. “If I’m writing a story and I know something isn’t working or I need to change something, why on earth would I plow forward with that niggling in the back of my mind? That seems so counterintuitive to me for telling a great story. If I notice something isn’t working, I’m going to fix it.”

Steven will be sharing more of his storytelling insights with authors in his upcoming Fiction Intensive virtual conference, online November 5-6. The event features panels and presentations from a lineup of some of the industry’s top experts: literary agents Donald Maass, Marisa Corvisiero, and Cyle Young; ThrillerFest executive director and bestseller K. J. Howe; NYTimes bestselling authors Tosca Lee, Don Bentley; and more (including me, with a presentation on developing the essential supporting elements of story). You can save $25 off the registration fee with code TIFFANY2021.

4 Comments. Leave new

  • Great post. Particularly liked these quotes: “in your mind you have to quit your day job.”

    “I feel successful because I’m pursuing this dream.”

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      November 4, 2021 7:40 pm

      Steven is SO quotable, it was hard to trim out any of his advice, in the interest of length of the piece. I recorded our interview, though–one of these days I’m thinking of posting those videos too (with the authors’ consent, of course). Thanks for the comment, Syl–glad the post is encouraging!

  • I’ve taken a novel intensive three times from Steven because he’s that good. I always come away awed by the things he’s taught me in a gentle, intuitive way that I should have seen, but didn’t until he articulated them in a way that seeped into my unconscious brain.


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