You were part of a ‘chain thriller’, called Airborne, organised by Random House, Borders and bestselling author James Patterson, and James Patterson chose your chapter as his favourite. What did you learn or find most rewarding about your involvement in this chain thriller?
This was a fantastic experience, for a lot of reasons. This was the first time I wrote to a deadline, and that in itself gave me an insight into the industry that I’d never seen before. Writing at home can sometimes feel like a bit like indulging a hobby, but with a deadline hanging above your head, it gives it a definite purpose.
I remember by the time we got to my chapter, there was a little bit of a delay in the previous chapters, and so while Jess Pearson, the Brand Manager from Random House who was coordinating the project, gave me the same deadline as everyone else had, she hinted that if possible, sooner was better than later.
I was pumped, and I knocked my chapter out, and had it revised and edited in a few hours. It’s strange to say, but it was an adrenaline pumping experience. I know a lot of writers don’t like working to a deadline, but I have to say, it certainly makes you feel alive!
I met some great people at Random House (a quick shout-out to Jess and Bev), and had a lot of fun with what was quite a daring project by Random House, Borders, and Patterson. The feedback I got from professionals in the industry also helped validate my secret dreams of becoming a writer.
Part of the first place prize was a phone call with James Patterson. I was unbelievably nervous as I sat around at the appointed time, waiting for him to call, but I have to say he’s one of the nicest and most generous guys you’d ever meet. Patterson was the sort of guy that you could sit around with at a BBQ and chat with for hours on end, over beer and snags.
The original prize was a 15 to 20 minute phone call. We ended up talking for about 40 minutes. Possibly the fastest 40 minutes of my life.
Considering his ultra success in the industry, he’s an absolute wealth of knowledge. An interesting tip was that the majority of thriller readers in the world are female, and we spoke about how his Alex Cross character appeals to women, as well as men.
We spoke about plotting out stories, and how deeply he plots his own novels. He was kind enough to send me a number of the story outlines for a few of his books.
James Patterson spoke about writing styles, and how what matters most in a book, is the story. It’s not about showing what a brilliant wordsmith you are, it’s all about the story.
The last tip he gave me was to write a book, then write another one, and then write another one. He said the most important thing for any writer, and advice he tells all new writers, is to just keep on writing.
What do you think is the key to a great chapter, or what is a chapter you have especially enjoyed reading and what makes it work so well for you?
For me, a great chapter is one that quickly answers the cliff hanger from the last chapter, and then plunges the reader into the next conflict.
Breaking it down even further, each paragraph needs to guide the reader in a certain direction, nudging them along, all the while whispering in their ear, “quick, read the next paragraph!”
Story pacing is what keeps your reader interested. Too much fast pacing and your reader will become mentally exhausted. Too slowly paced, and they’ll fall asleep.
I’d compare a good chapter to a good piece of music – it needs light and shade. This goes for any genre, but one close to my heart is action/thriller. It’s easy to just pile in a tonne of action sequences, thinking you’ll keep the reader on the edge of their seat, but that isn’t true. You’ll exhaust them, and they’ll grow immune to your impact. Instead, you need to hit them with excitement, pull back and have them beg for more before you hit them with another conflict.
A good story is about conflict. This is something I’ve spoken about at length with Donna Sozio (of Never Trust A Man In Alligator Loaders fame). Conflict comes in three basic flavours: internal, external, environmental. A mixture of all three will give your story the most impact.
I remember reading that James Grippando, one of my many favourite authors, tries to reveal a new piece to the puzzle on every page. While that’s not always possible, it shows his thoughts on story pacing, and I believe his novels speak for themselves.
With the Airborne chapter, mine was chapter 17 out of 30. At just after the halfway point, we needed to pick up the pace. My chapter was designed to show us a little more of the main character (a detective), and just how far he’d go to real his goal. I wanted to show the darker side of his character, but without turning him into a villain.
With each chapter you write, I believe you need to set yourself a goal – what will this chapter reveal, and where will my character be at the end of it?
With Airborne, I wanted to reveal just how tough and how resolved the detective was, and by the end of the chapter I knew he needed to know the location of some of the bad guys. It was time to push the story forward.
Remember, the main goal of a chapter is to make the reader want to read the next one.
You recently won first place in The Australian Literature Review’s short fiction contest with your short story Daddy. Novelist, short story writer and Oxford University creative writing teacher Sophie King wrote about Daddy: “I felt it tapped into raw human emotion which most parents would identify with. […] This is a man whose background is not sanitised. He has a drunken wife and he has possibly killed a man by the end. But his love for his family is so strong that somehow this doesn’t seem as shocking as it should.” For those not familiar with your fiction, how would you describe it?
Tough question! Some of my writing is easy to classify: I enjoy writing action/thrillers, I’ve started work on a high-tech/thriller, and I’ve dabbled in some horror. Daddy was very different, and I realised just how hard it was to classify when I considered submitting it to various places. I still don’t know what kind of genre it fits into, and I’m glad AusLit didn’t ask me to specify one (thanks guys!).
The best way I can describe it is a purging of my soul.
Daddy was quite a dark story, and I wrote it when I was in quite a dark place, which is where I believe the raw emotion came from: I was experiencing it. I didn’t have to imagine it.
We were having some “toddler troubles” that reminded me of when he was a baby. Our little boy had cholic and reflux when he was a little fella, just like the baby in the story, and I vividly remember so many nights with so little sleep. And I’m a man who appreciates his pillow time.
So one night my wife took over babysitting duty, and I drove down to the beach. Darkness was falling, and rain had started to drizzle. I sat in the car, popped open the laptop, and decided to start writing. I wrote about a nameless man, in a nameless city. If you read “Daddy”, you’ll notice I never specified a place, and I never gave the main character a name. I wanted him to be me, I want him to be someone else, and I wanted him to be everybody.
The story was about loneliness and isolation, and how that same loneliness and isolation is what actually connects you to other people in the same situation. Like thousands of tiny bubbles, floating around on their own, but all connected with a tiny, fragile thread. Blood brothers.
In this dark place, where perceptions change, sudden and brutal violence seems almost refreshing. The scene in the story wasn’t about brutally beating a man with a coke bottle. It was about the release of pent up emotions. A cleansing of the soul.
In my short stories I enjoy exploring different aspects of life we often don’t consider, or prefer not to consider. I like to dig under the skin of the human psyche. Do we all have a dark place inside us, even if it’s hidden away in a locked box labelled Uncivilized Behaviour? At our core, we’re animals, but for society to function we resist a lot of our animal instincts. But what if we got to a point where we stopped resisting those animal instincts? The same instincts that would make a mother bear tear apart any threat to her cubs.
Who are some of your favourite Australian fiction writers and what makes their fiction stand out for you?
Grieg Beck has an awesome mix of action, thriller, horror, and adventure. And he somehow rolls them all into one. He pushes the boundaries of believability (without stepping over), and what I find really fascinating, is that his books are based on real scientific theories, events, or discussions.
The settings are very different to what we’re used to (under Antarctica, in the middle of the Iranian desert, and the next one is set in the jungles of Cambodia, I believe), and that gives such a great feeling of adventure, of exploration.
After reading both of his first two books, I actually spent a few hours exploring the internet, looking at the real science behind his work. But don’t get me wrong – even if you’re not interested in the science behind the story, his books are page turning powerhouses of entertainment.
JJ Cooper fulfils the other part of my interest: action/thriller, with a military flavour. What really fascinated me is that JJ Cooper is actually an ex-military intelligence officer who specialized in interrogation. He spent time in the Middle East (and East Timor, from memory) interrogating prisoners.
In the days of TV series like 24, it almost makes the thought of interrogation simply a product of someone’s imagination. But no, interrogation is real, and JJ Cooper was “the man”. That never ceases to trip me out.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and why?
The Punisher (from the first movie, not the second). I’m not a comic book connoisseur, so I’m not sure where the movie fits into the whole series. But I know I loved it.
It fascinates me for the same reasoning behind my short story, Daddy. A man has his whole family taken away from him: gunned down in front of his eyes. After the massacre, he finds a t-shirt washed up on the shore. It’s the present his son gave him: a white skull on a black t-shirt. Now his son is dead. He puts the t-shirt on, and it becomes The Punisher icon.
It’s about one man who takes on a criminal organisation on his own, and for the purest of reasons: for his family.
His world has gone from shades of civilised grey, to only black and white. He fights for his family. He fights to make things right. As the tag line goes, “It’s not revenge. It’s punishment.”
I love the exploration of the theme, in similar lines to the movies Taken, and Law Abiding Citizen.
Deep down, I’d like to believe if anyone harmed my family I’d tear apart anything in my way to bring justice. In reality I’d get my arse handed to me within the first thirty seconds, but this is fiction, and that makes anything possible.
If you could go on your ideal 2-day fiction writing workshop next weekend, what would that involve?
It would have to involve a beach, a massage chair, and maybe one of those beer can hats with the tubes, but instead of beer it’d drip coffee down my throat. And someone would fan me with a giant palm frond.
Actually, for me a workshop would be more about a social event; chatting with other people who share similar literary interests.
I learn a lot about writing simply by reading. I go through fiction by the bucket load (which I believe is the standardised measurement for reading material). By reading other people’s work, you can learn what works and what doesn’t.
I do my best writing just sitting down, alone, with no distractions, and living my story.
Do you typically do detailed planning in advance of writing or write more spontaneously, and how smoothly does your writing process flow using your approach?
I generally come up with a story idea, just a small snippet. I let it roll around in the back of my head for awhile. If it’s a good idea, I’ll remember it. If it’s not, I soon forget about it, or at least send it to the back of the mental pile.
By the time I’ve let it bounce off the inside of my skull for awhile, I’ve a birds-eye view of the story: a few specific scenes and a general idea of what I want it to be.
Next I write the first few chapters. I’ll knock out maybe ten thousand words as I discover my characters.
Then I sit down and plot out the rest of the story. It’s not a detailed plan, but enough to keep me on course.
I’m still experimenting with what works best for me, but for now it seems to be a mixture of planning and spontaneity.
What, in terms of fiction writing, are you currently working on?
I’m currently editing a short story for the next AusLit short story competition, but my main work is a novel that again is exploring my passion: what would you do if someone kidnapped your little boy?
I wrote an earlier version of this story before I became a father. That version is now in a drawer, and I’ve started again. I’m writing with a new perspective and with some more experience under my belt.
You could draw parallels with The Punisher and the Jason Bourne series, but what it really is, is my exploration of the darkness that lies just below the facade of civilisation.
What do you hope to achieve for your fiction writing in the next few years?
In a perfect world, I’d like to have my first full length novel on the shelf, with the second one ready to publish. I’d like a five book deal with a large Aussie, UK, and US publisher, and sell some movie rights on the side.
But of course that’s every writer’s dream!
Realistically, I do want to see a novel on the shelf, with another one on the way. I love writing, and to do this full time would be the ultimate career.
So the next step is to finish off my current novel, hook up with a literary agent, and get the manuscript in front of some publishers. One step at a time, as the saying goes!
More on Sam Stephens and his fiction can be found at www.samstephens.com.
The Australian Literature Review