Highly popular thriller author Maggie James is our guest on Author CenterStage for a round of questions on her writing experience. Maggie’s published novels are: His Kidnapper’s Shoes, Guilty Innocence, Sister, Psychopath, and The Second Captive. All are full-length, stand-alone psychological thrillers that work extra hard entertaining readers all through the night! Maggie, thanks for joining us and answering questions!
Maggie James: Thanks, Candi! It’s a pleasure to be here.
Candi Silk: I’ve gathered some frequently asked questions from readers to share with you. So, let’s begin with a couple of key questions: How did you arrive with pen, ink and paper in your hands one day as you began your first novel, His Kidnapper’s Shoes? What are the details that led you to write and publish psychological thrillers? Were there any particular experiences or interests that influenced you?
Maggie James: His Kidnapper’s Shoes came about through the frustration I experienced as a result of approaching my fiftieth birthday and having done nothing to achieve my ambition of writing a novel. A travel-holic, I had an epiphany whilst staying in a small town in northern Chile. I was browsing the website of a fellow writer, someone whose work I very much admire, and her prolific outpourings humbled me. I felt embarrassed and annoyed that so far in my life, all I’d done was procrastinate about becoming a novelist. Oh, I had all the excuses! Not enough time, lack of confidence – you name it. None of them held a drop of water. I resolved to change things, and fast. I travelled to Bolivia, found a hotel in the gorgeous city of Sucre, and wrote every day until I’d finished the first draft of His Kidnapper’s Shoes. The result was a behemoth of 146,000 words, requiring lots of pruning, but I’d produced my firstborn at last. Such an emotional moment, pure magic. I still get tearful when I remember it.
As for pen, paper, and ink, they didn’t come into it. I was travelling with my laptop, so everything happened in cyberland. Once I had the original idea for His Kidnapper’s Shoes, I jotted down a few notes in Microsoft Excel, and typed the novel in Word.
What led me to write in this genre? The workings of the human mind fascinate me. I don’t have a lot of time for conventional psychological theories, as they tend to change every decade, but human behaviour provides fertile material for novelists. Especially when it’s bad behaviour! I can’t say there were any particular experiences that influenced me; my books arise out of my passion for fiction twinned with my interest in psychological issues.
Candi: What a wonderful first-novel experience, and inspiring! How old were you when you first noticed your desire to put words on paper to tell a story? What were early influencers, books, people?
Maggie James: I’ve always had the desire to write, in particular novels. When I was a child, I never doubted that I’d be a novelist one day. Oh, the hubris of youth! Fast forward to my adulthood, and a chronic lack of confidence, along with an absence of self-discipline, ensured I didn’t even try for several decades. Now I kick myself for having wasted so much time. These days, I’m far more confident, and my self-discipline isn’t bad either.
Early influencers? I’m one of those people who can’t remember learning to read, as I could do so long before attending primary school. For that, I have my father to thank, as well as for my love of books. He was always a voracious reader, in particular the classics. As for books, every one I’ve read, whether good or bad, has influenced me in some way. The good ones inspire me to improve my craft with every word I write. The not-so-good ones help me to spot what mistakes to avoid. It’s all a giant learning curve, and I’ll never stop climbing it.
Candi: Well, your top-quality novels reflect your passion and your command of the writing craft. One of the most popular fiction genres today is the thriller category. What are the ingredients or elements that turn a plain vanilla thriller into a psychological thriller?
Maggie James: I think it comes back to human behaviour, and the fascinating way that people conduct themselves. ‘There’s nowt so queer as folk,’ as we say in the UK! A thriller’s plot needs something dark and twisted for it truly to thrill; there has to be a strong element of human weirdness. For example, even though I dealt with the topic in my fourth novel, The Second Captive, the phenomenon of Stockholm syndrome still baffles me. Half of me understands how a victim can empathise with his/her abuser, and the other part of my brain can’t get to grips with it.
Candi: I agree, Maggie. It’s the multi-sided issues or situations in a novel that challenge the characters and entertain readers. So, what is a typical writing day like for you? When does it begin and end? And do you use a lot of expensive equipment or materials in writing your novels?
Maggie James: I’m a night owl by inclination, but sadly that doesn’t work for me when it comes to writing. For some perverse reason, I’m at my most creative in the morning. At present I’m trying a new regime, whereby I get up at 6 AM each day and either start work by 7 AM, or 8 AM if I go to the gym first. I’m finding I get much more done that way although it’s a Herculean effort for me to prise myself from under the duvet at such an ungodly hour. I work until midday, then break for lunch and a walk. I begin again at 2 o’clock and work through until 5 PM. Mornings are spent on writing work, whether that’s plotting, editing, or actual writing, with the afternoons involved in marketing and social media activities. My website contains a fiction blog, which I update every Wednesday. I’ve really taken to blogging, and love crafting my weekly post.
I’m easily distracted by Twitter, Google Plus and the like, so I need to focus when I write. I unplug the phone and don’t switch on my mobile. Tweaking my website can be another huge time sink for me.
I often take the weekends off to recharge my creative batteries. As for materials, I use the marvellous (and inexpensive) software called Scrivener for all stages of the process, whether it’s plotting, editing or writing. Scrivener also formats my final documents seamlessly into Kindle and e-book format for me. I’ve often said that, were Scrivener human and male, I’d marry him in a flash! It’s that great.
What else do I use? Well, I’m dictating the answers to these questions via voice recognition software. I’m an appalling typist, and whatever gives my wrists a rest is good for me. Sadly, I find it impossible to use such software for creative purposes; my brain won’t work that way. If it did, I’d probably dictate my novels rather than type them.
Candi: I’m glad you mentioned your blog; I enjoy each time I visit there. Another popular question is: Have you experienced writer’s block, and how do you deal with it or prevent it?
Maggie James: In the past, I’ve sided with those who believe writer’s block doesn’t exist. After all, you never hear of lawyer’s block, or truck driver’s block. It helps that I plan my novels beforehand, so I always have an outline for what comes next. It’s not restrictive; if I want to write out of order I do. With the outline in place, though, it’s hard to get blocked.
Having said that, I’m now more of a believer in writer’s block, as a form of it afflicted me during my recent trip to Asia. Following computer failure, I had to resort to pen and paper, which doesn’t work for a technophile like me. I was getting some great ideas for the plot of my fifth novel, but couldn’t bring any of them to a satisfactory conclusion. I’m still working on unblocking myself!
Candi: I have every confidence you’ll crash through any blocks or barriers. To what extent do your story characters shape your novels? What do they add? Isn’t it enough to just tell the story sort of like a newspaper article? You know, just the facts? What distinctions do characters bring to a story?
Maggie James: Characters bring a novel to life! As you’ve said, without them, the storyline would just be a recital of facts. Many humans are insatiably nosy and fascinated by others’ behaviour. It’s not enough for a novelist just to list the bare bones of a situation. Facts are the clothes, and characters are the body on which the writer drapes them. Given compelling characters, the reader will engage with them whatever the storyline. Charles Dickens is renowned for his characterisation; what would his novel ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ be without the wonderfully named Wackford Squeers? Or take Hannibal Lecter. He’s a cannibalistic murderer, rendered unforgettable by Thomas Harris making him a connoisseur of culture. A seeming contradiction, yet it works. Pass me some fava beans and Chianti…
I’ve loved creating my characters. Mark Slater in ‘Guilty Innocence’ posed a particular challenge. He’s flawed in so many ways, yet I hope I’ve made the man worthy of empathy. Yes, he was involved in a horrific murder, but the circumstances are extenuating. Besides, he does his best to redeem himself and the situation. (Redemption was a key theme in the novel). In the end, he emerges from his trials a better, stronger person.
Candi: Maggie, I have found your characters well-developed and they were like familiar neighbors as I read from chapter to chapter! I noticed the setting for each of your novels is your hometown area. In what way was that a help or a hindrance? Were there any particular responses or repercussions from local citizens?
Maggie James: Setting my four novels in my home town of Bristol has helped me enormously. Location has not been a huge factor so far; my books could be set in Manchester, Glasgow, or Birmingham. The story would be the same. Thus it made sense for me to base them in Bristol, the city I know so well, as it cut the amount of research required. I’d far rather spend my time delving into the psychological issues that underpin my themes, than checking out locations via Google Earth or whatever. There have been no particular repercussions either way – so far!
I’m a huge travel fan, so it’s likely that future novels may be set in other places, either in the UK or abroad. It’s fair to say, though, that plotline and characterisation will always be more important to me than location when it comes to writing.
Candi: How do you conceptualize or layout the plan of your approach to the plot for a novel you’re about to write? What’s the time sequence like? Is it finished over a cup of coffee or over a period of days or weeks? And what are the particular challenges of the process of solidifying and nailing down the plot?
Maggie James: I always start with an idea I’m keen to examine, summarising it into a sentence. Next, I use Randy Ingersoll’s Snowflake Method to flesh out that sentence into a full-blown outline. It’s a great system for a natural planner like me. You expand your idea, making it ever more complex, similar to a snowflake, until it’s fully formed.
Once my snowflake is complete, I draft a rough sequence of events via a timeline, aimed to fit in thirty or so chapters. That’s flexible, of course, but it gives me a starting point.
As I mentioned before, I do all this in Scrivener, which allows me to chop and change things as I choose. What I love about the software is that I can store my research notes in there, instead of having to reference separate files on my computer. The other benefit is that as I write, I’m able to split my screen so that my notes are at the bottom, always within view. It keeps me on track with what I intend to produce that day.
As for the time sequence, it’s never finished over a cup of coffee! It takes me a week before I arrive at a good working outline with which to start. Then I use Scrivener to check that the storyline flows well and that I’ve tied up all loose ends. However, nothing is set in stone, and I often find that once I start writing, things don’t turn out the way I’d planned. Perhaps I’ve allocated a chapter to something that merits no more than a scene, or vice versa, or else a character takes the story down a different route. That’s fine – I’m never rigid about my outline, and if things have to change then so be it. All part of the fun of being a novelist!
Candi: How long does it take you to write and publish a book, from start to finish? It must be easy and simple with all the advanced technology available today. Are there any major ups and downs during that process?
Maggie James: It takes me at least six months. Of that, a month is spent planning, two writing, and three polishing, editing and formatting. In the middle of the process, after writing the novel, I set it aside for a month, to go ‘cold’ on it. That way, when I edit, I can approach what I’ve written with a fresh eye.
The writing time is intense. That was particularly the case for my second and third novels (Sister, Psychopath and Guilty Innocence), which I wrote for the annual NaNoWriMo competition. What’s that, you say? Well, it’s a madcap event which involves writing at least 50,000 words of a novel during November each year. It’s great fun; I’ve entered twice now, and will do so again. Why? Because it concentrates the mind on writing, whilst providing the fun of entering a global contest. The camaraderie and support amongst fellow NaNo-ers is incredible! And if you can manage 50,000 words in one month, it’s not so big a stretch afterwards to zoom towards the finish line.
You’re right; new technology and developments have facilitated publishing enormously. Amazon’s platform is a breeze to use, and has delivered many writers from the grind of query letters and being tied to the pitiful rates paid by the old-style publishing houses. No agents’ cuts, either. E-books have revolutionised an industry that needed a thorough overhaul.
The ups and downs? There aren’t many. Life intrudes at times, but writing is a joy. I’m privileged to be able to indulge myself this way, thanks to my wonderful readers, who have been so supportive.
Candi: So you’re saying writing and publishing is not 100% easy. So, what advice do you have for a person, my neighbor down the street, who says she wants to write a book;? she’s got this great idea for a bestseller book. Should she enroll in the nearest college writing class, buy 10 books on writing, or what?
Maggie James: Both are good ideas; I’m not in any writers’ groups or classes myself, but I know other authors praise them as a means of getting support and feedback. Rather than groups/classes, books are my preferred way of learning, and there are many stellar ones available for wordsmiths. Take Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, or anything by K M Weiland or Roz Morris, for example. Newbies need to study plotting, characterisation, and arcs, along with punctuation, spelling, etc., if those are weak areas for them.
One of the most important things is to devour fiction like it’s chocolate cake. I believe it’s been shown that most great writers are voracious readers. Provided the books are well written, there’s something about reading that makes you absorb the basics of the craft.
Having said that, I guess it’s common for many people to declare ‘Oh, I’d love to write a book!’ and for it to be a pipe dream. Let’s be clear – writing a novel is a wonderful experience, but it’s a long hard slog. You need to be prepared for a marathon rather than a sprint. Take the annual NaNoWriMo competition – only 15 to 17% of entrants stay the course and complete their 50,000 words.
Candi: Great advice, Maggie! Okay, time for a challenge question: You’ve just been notified that you’ll be teaching a university course entitled: Writing Your First Psychological Thriller. What 3-4 points or pillars would you consider essential to the course?
1. I’d advise my students to read as much fiction as possible in the psychological thriller category. They need to know what other novelists have written, how they advance their plot, keep the reader’s interest, etc. Reading widely in the genre is essential.
2. I’d teach the basics of the craft – plotting, characterisation, etc.
3. Where to get inspiration. How to identify viable ideas.
4. The mechanics that underpin creating a novel. Identifying when and where the students will write, how much time per day they will spend on the craft, the practicalities of writing (via computer, longhand, dictation, whatever), setting a timescale for completion, and daily word count goals. Good routines and the right mind-set are crucial elements.
Candi: What are the biggest challenges facing new writers today?
Maggie James: One of the biggest problems is visibility. With the advent of e-readers, and the popularity of Amazon’s Kindle programme, the market has flooded by new writers. How do you stand out in such a crowd? There aren’t any shortcuts, and overnight success happens only to a select few. If you want to be successful, you have to stop thinking of novel writing as a hobby and treat it as a business. Act like a professional. That means getting to grips with marketing, as well as social media, budgeting, etc. None of that comes easily to many authors, who simply yearn to get on with their writing. They’re reluctant to worry about search engine optimisation, creating a website, or blogging. That’s understandable, and I can relate to such feelings. It’s not enough to write a book, though, no matter how good. If nobody knows it exists, it’ll sink like the proverbial stone. Marketing is key.
It’s the best time ever to be a novelist, but the profession isn’t an easy route to riches.
Candi: It’s been reported that Amazon has over ten million titles (books) listed on their website. What are the challenges for readers in selecting “goodreads” from that many choices? What’s your best advice for readers on how to choose an interesting book?
Maggie James: Word-of-mouth recommendation always works well. If I know that a friend who has similar interests in reading has enjoyed a particular book, I’m more likely to try it. Online reviews are also important, once you weed out ones left by Internet trolls. They’re usually easy to spot, given their brevity and vitriol. Goodreads is a haven for book lovers; joining one of the thousands of groups on the site can bring a wealth of new material to a ‘to be read’ list. So many books, so little time…
Candi: Let’s take a look back for a moment. If you could start your writing career over, what two or three things would you do differently and why?
Maggie James: Oh, that’s an easy one! I’d be more of a planner right from the start. I shudder now to think of the way I wrote His Kidnapper’s Shoes, with little forethought or organisation involved. If only I’d known back then that sitting at a computer and waiting for one’s muse to visit isn’t a great idea. Not for me, anyway. I guess it’s understandable that a beginner hasn’t a clue where to start, though. I’m still tweaking my technique and the way I streamline my working life. There’s always room for improvement! I wish I’d had Scrivener from the word go, but it wasn’t available (apart from in beta form) when I started writing novels.
I also made the classic rookie mistake by writing a novel without a marketing plan or website in place. If I was starting over, I’d get a blog going, learn the basics of marketing, and explore the various distribution channels first. That way, once I’d finished the book, I’d be able to move seamlessly into promoting it, and expand the blog into a full-blown website for my fiction. Ah, the joys of hindsight…
Candi: I hope all wanna-be-a-writer visitors are listening and taking notes. Maggie, some have said writing is not an end result, but a journey that never ends. Do you agree or disagree with that and why?
Maggie James: I both agree and disagree. For me, for individual books, writing is a journey that does have an end, on the final page. For example, The Second Captive dealt with the theme of Stockholm syndrome. It’s a fascinating topic I badly wanted to examine via my fiction, but now I have, I can put that issue to bed. On the other hand, writing as part of life’s journey never ends. I learn more with everything I create, but have so much farther to climb up the learning curve!
Candi: From what I gather, many years ago (think post early printing presses) authors and readers rarely connected or communicated. A reader was lucky to just read the written book. But today the internet is one huge gathering place where authors and readers communicate freely. How do you feel about those dynamics and how do both authors and readers benefit from that kind of environment?
Maggie James: I think it’s great! I’m active on social media, particularly Google Plus and Twitter, and I love connecting with my readers. Otherwise, I’d be writing in a vacuum; meaningful communication between my audience and me is essential. I’ve found blogging a joy, and it’s a wonderful way to connect. I take pride in my posts and in making them look good. Unlike many authors, my blog is geared towards readers, not writers, as they’re who I aim to reach.
For readers, it’s made writers much more accessible. Gone are the old days when authors were shielded behind publishing houses and agents, seen only at book signings and other public appearances. I still get an odd reaction sometimes when I tell people I’m a novelist; it’s as if they know such creatures exist, but never expected to meet a live, breathing one!
Candi: What are the advantages of the Kindle, Nook, and other e-reader devices? Isn’t there something to be said about a real paper and ink book in hand as one sits by the fireside of home and reads?
Maggie James: I think there are pros and cons either way. I read physical books, but I also own a Nook. Because I’m an avid traveller, books always accompany me on my journeys, but I prefer to travel light. It makes sense for me to load my Nook with lots of novels before I hoist my rucksack onto my shoulder and head for the airport. That being so, curling up with a Nook isn’t the same as with an actual book. There’s something about printed pages that’s both timeless and wonderful. A well-stocked bookcase brings a room to life in a way that no e-reader ever can.
Candi: What can readers look forward to from the pen of Maggie James in the next year?
Maggie James: Good question – it’s something I’m pondering at the moment! I’m considering a series of psychological thriller short stories, to give myself a break from the long haul of writing a novel. The Second Captive burned me out, especially getting it published before my two-month trip to Thailand and Cambodia. Besides, it’ll be fun to write in a shorter format again; prior to my novels, I cut my teeth on various fanfiction offerings, of lengths between 1,800 and 27,000 words.
Also in the pipeline is my fifth novel, perhaps as part of the annual NaNoWriMo competition in November. NaNo is always such fun!
I’m also considering non-fiction offerings. What I’d love to do is encourage newbie writers by penning a guide to getting started. So many people have told me they yearn to write a novel, but find the idea daunting. I did too, for decades. If I could help anyone overcome that, I’d be delighted.
Candi: Maggie, I believe anything you would write for newbie writers would be useful in every respect. Another challenge question: Which of your psychological thrillers would you recommend to a first-time reader of your genre?
Maggie James: Hmm, difficult one! I think I’d say The Second Captive, because I think out of the four novels I’ve written, it’s most representative of the genre. Also, because it’s my most recent offering, I’m very excited about it, and keen to introduce the novel to new readers.
Candi: For me, The Second Captive was an excellent read, and your unique voice added depth to the theme of Stockholm syndrome. Maggie, thank you for taking time to share your thoughts and give readers an inside look at your fascinating writing world.
Maggie James: You’re welcome! Thank you for hosting me on your blog.
Candi: And now for a challenge assignment for Candi Silk’s Rebel Readers: Go to Maggie James’s Amazon link below and sample the first 10% of her psychological thrillers. That’s how I discovered Maggie’s talent. I was hooked after the first few pages, and I think you will be also!
Candi: Here’s how you can experience the entertaining writing world of Maggie James, author of psychological thrillers:
Maggie James’s Online Links: