Episode # 146 – What Makes a Good Book with Seeley James

In Uncategorized by Angela McConnell13 Comments

jamescovernewThriller author Seeley James has read and deconstructed dozens of books in his quest to become a better storyteller, and he has concluded there are four things you need to make a great book….


Links:

Seeley’s Author Website

Seeley’s Amazon Author Page

Mentions:

Lee Child

Roger Hobbs

How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! by John Locke

Russell Blake

Melissa Foster

The Creative Penn (Joanna Penn)

J.F. Penn

Mark Dawson

Andy Weir

A.G. Riddle

Diane Capri

Stephen King

Patricia Cornwell

Show notes:

Background:

Seeley James has wanted to be a writer since he was a kid. After a successful career in sales in marketing, he decided to make a drastic career change. Inspired by John Locke’s now-infamous How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months!, Seeley decided to go all in. He quit his job, wrote his first book in his Sabel Security series, invested in content editing, cover design, spent thousands of dollars getting everything right, and pressed “Publish” in November of 2012.

Nothing happened.

It used to be that traditional publishers, through their editors, developed authors back in the day of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Seeley notes. Eventually, that role got pushed back to the desks of literary agents in the ’80s and ’90s. However, as competition and the sheer number of submissions grew, agents focused their time and attention on authors who were already developed, experienced storytellers.

Seeley realized he needed someone to teach him, to help him develop as a storyteller. He knew he had to get better if he wanted to make it as an indie writer, so he set out to discover what makes a successful indie author. He read lots of books by popular indie authors, deconstructing them to figure out what made them good books. He also read as many books on writing as he could get his hands on. And he listened to a lot of The Creative Penn podcast.

After such intense study, Seeley has come to the conclusion that there are four elements that make a good book:

1. Concept

The concept of a book is what hooks a reader in. Seeley offers some great examples of high-concept books:

  • What would it be like to be stuck on Mars? (The Martian by Andy Weir)
  • Time travel, aliens, a great leap forward in mankind…with a love story. (The Atlantis Gene by A.G. Riddle)
  • Jesus Christ had a daughter, and for 2,000 years the Catholic Church has been trying to kill her. (The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown)
  • An 18-year-old girl offers her virginity to a vampire, and he turns her down. (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer)
  • A bunch of people are trying to get out of a silo, but when they walk out the door, they die. (Wool by Hugh Howey)

2. Story

The story, or the plot, of a book is the journey of the character. Story-centric books tend to be character-driven, Seeley says, and requires a strong storyteller to really bring the story to life. Mystery and romances tend to be more story-centric tales. He cites Sue Grafton, author of the bestselling Kinsey Millhone mystery series, as an excellent example of an author strong on story.

3. Composition

Composition is the way prose is constructed on the page, the nuts and bolts of sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter structure. Seeley cites Lee Child as a great example of a storyteller with great composition and a compelling voice.

In one of the many books on writing he’s studied, Seeley mentions a quick tip that seems simple on its face, but makes a subtle and powerful difference on the reader:

Quick Tip: Start with a Subject and Verb.

Consider these examples given by Seeley:

Good: “Warriors massed outside her window before the prayer.”

vs.

Bad: “Before the prayer, warriors massed outside her window.”

Putting the subject and verb at the beginning of the sentence compels a reader to discover the why and the how. Starting with a descriptive phrase mutes the hook of the sentence.

4. The Beautiful Words

Literary novels tend to favor the beautiful words, the kind with language so scrumptious you can drink it all up in enjoyment even in the absence of a high-concept compelling plot. Books that favor the beautiful words tend to be more literary, more inward, and focus more on interpersonal conflicts.

Great examples of writers who write the beautiful words are Margaret Atwood (The Handmaiden’s Tale), Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), Dean Koontz (Odd Thomas series), and Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling (Cormoran Strike series).

The Next Big Thing

Now a seasoned, full-time author, Seeley is currently at work on the fifth book of his Sabel Security political thriller series tentatively titled Death and the Candidate, and continues to work hard on becoming a better storyteller.

“That’s why you have to keep learning. There’s something new every day that will get you past the sticking point. There’s something that you can improve your storytelling. To me, it’s all about the reader. Everything is about the reader. If I can make more people happy and entertain more people tomorrow than I did yesterday, then I’m going somewhere. And that’s what I’m trying to get to.”

Quotes:

“My characters are galley slaves.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita

“Writing is a solitary vision. Take no advice.” ~ Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series

“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five

Action Steps to Improve Your Storytelling:

  • Read great/successful indie and traditional authors. A good place to start is with the authors cited by Seeley.
  • Watch great television shows. Seeley recommends House of Cards, Game of Thrones, and the very binge-worthy Orphan Black.
  • Read great books on writing:  Story by Robert McKee; The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell; The Writer’s Journey (Mythic Structure for Writers) by Christopher Vogler; Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain; Description (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Monica Wood; and Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder, to name a few of Seeley’s favorites.
  • Identify your strengths and weaknesses in Concept, Story, Composition, and The Beautiful Words. This will help you be aware of areas you should focus on, both in getting better and in accentuating. Seeley realized that most of the successful authors in his genre wrote singularly-focused books, whereas his own style was more meandering and less-streamlined. He decided he could get a lot better at the kind of books he writes instead of trying to emulate other authors’ styles.

Simon Asks:

What are your favorite examples of great novels, films, television shows, and books on writing that you recommend to fellow writers?

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Leave a comment below or get in touch with Simon by email at simon@rockingselfpublishing.com

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Angela McConnellEpisode # 146 – What Makes a Good Book with Seeley James
  • Awesome. Thanks for the great interview on both your parts. I’m always looking for exemplars, both for the story and for the craft. I love it when I can just do whatever (in this case) Seeley James did/read. And thanks, Angela, for the show notes, which I just plundered.

    • SimonRSP

      Thanks DC, glad you enjoyed the show 🙂

    • Seeley James

      Reading is a big part of success. I liken it to professional athletes who watch their competitors games repeatedly until they’ve learned to exploit the weaknesses and copy the successes. Luckily, we never have to go head to head in the writing business. (Although that would be something to see, right? Competitive storytelling — without helmets!)

  • mtr amg

    I saw a debate recently that Jessica Fletcher, of Murder she Wrote, is beloved by Death. Death follows her around, or kills people so she will come closer. Death must adore Jack Reacher.
    I know what you mean about big authors and editing. James Patterson, Laurel K Hamilton – I can barely read them. LKH repeats herself on the other side of the same page opening.
    I read Dean Koontz’s writing book recently and it was great but he said a few things that go against current advice: get the first draft right and don’t put it away to think on it – fix it now.
    Seeley, for some reason your blog is the 4th source for traffic to my blog. No idea why… I feel like I ought to thank you. Thanks ♥

    • Seeley James

      Dean Koontz and Lee Child publish their first drafts. But they take their time and they know what they’re doing. That would never work for me–I don’t take my time and I don’t know what I’m doing. My first draft is like a guide to the eventual story. That said, it’s getting easier with each book to do a single take. If I live to 145, I think I might catch up to them.

      What is your site? Sorry, your disqus profile isn’t ringing any bells.

      • mtr amg

        Koontz also told a story about how he needed cash so he wrote a 300 page Gothic romance in a week and sold it under a pseudonym… I sigh heavily.
        If I write from start to finish my first draft can be pretty clean, but sometimes I write out of order and then it can get messy. My current one I’ve changed a character’s name three times. *smacks self in face*
        my blog is here. http://amgray.blogspot.com.au/
        I must have commented on something (my policy if I’ve read) honestly, I don’t remember.

        • Seeley James

          ” I’ve changed a character’s name three times.” I keep a spreadsheet to track the names of characters I’ve consolidated and/or changed.
          Koontz was typing at 125 wpm to do that. I can’t even type that fast much less think.

  • Damon Carpenter

    Great interview, Simon. And many thanks to Seeley for his thoughts.

    One quick question… During the interview, Seeley mentioned a list of the craft books he thought were most valuable or worthwhile to him. I think he said he’d made the list to send to a friend just before the interview, and he offered to send it along to Simon for the show notes. Not seeing it above (except the few mentioned in the bullets), could one of you post it here in the comments?

    Thanks!

    • Seeley James

      It’s in the notes, but paragraph style. Here is my list in bullets (if the comments section will allow…)

      • The entire ELEMENTS OF FICTION series
      • WRITER’S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler
      • WRITING TOOLS by Roy Peter Clark
      • SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder
      • DESCRIPTION by Monica Wood
      • SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King
      • TECHNIQUES OF THE $ELLING WRITER by Dwight Swain
      • THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell
      • STORY by Robert McKee
      For some bizarre reason, they’ve come out here in exactly the reverse order of how I recommend reading them, so go from the bottom up. (And re-read STORY once a year until you can sing it by heart 🙂

  • I loved this interview, particularly the part in the second half about Stephen King and not worrying about plot, aka not outlining. You affirmed what I’ve thought for a long time about long-term writers who say outlining is unnecessary and, in fact, stifles your creative voice. Yes, they can say that because they’ve absorbed story structure into their unconscious. Those of us who have been writing novels for a much shorter time haven’t gotten to that stage yet. If we ever will. The only way to learn story structure in your bones is to practice it by using an outline. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s true of me.

    • Seeley James

      Indeed. Simon posted one of my favorite quotes here from Lee Child, “Writing is a solitary vision. Take no advice.” But my response to that is, “Until I’m Lee Child, I’ll take all the advice I can get” 🙂

  • This was a great interview. So much good advice in one hour. Thanks, Seeley.

    • Seeley James

      Glad you liked it!