If you’re not a fan of James Rollins … we’ll find a prayer group for you. Mr. Rollins sets the standard for thrillers with a wide range of novels. Best known for his Sigma Series (see my review of Bloodline), he’s also written an Indiana Jones adventure, books for kids, many stand-alone novels, and now he’s working with Rebecca Cantrell and Grant Blackwood on special projects.
He was gracious enough to give me a few minutes before his recent appearance at the Poisoned Pen bookstore (packed in like sardines) to talk about how he writes.
Seeley James: In recent years you’ve begun writing with Grant Blackwood and Rebecca Cantrell. How do you organize those writing relationships?
James Rollins: I wanted to write a gothic, epic vampire story with rich atmosphere and it wasn’t in my wheelhouse. I’d known Rebecca from when I used to teach at a writer’s retreat on Maui, and she had written best sellers and wrote with powerful language, almost poetic. So I asked her to collaborate, I could bring the action and weird animals and tangential science, and she could bring the gothic quality and more dimensional characters. Every Monday we talk on Skype for four to six hours, exchange chapters, critique each other’s work, talk about the problems we’re running into, things that aren’t working.
Grant was different. I’d already created the characters of Tucker Wayne and Kane in my novel Bloodline and wanted to spin them off, but I was writing two books and didn’t know how to work in a third. Grant I’d also know from early in my career and he had a military background to bring out that voice. And his style matched my style very well.
I worry about doing it the way other authors are writing with co-authors. I want to make it a different experience. I tour with my co-authors and there is a limited run on both these series, then I’m going back to my individual novels. These were just projects I wanted to do.
SJ: Have readers’ expectations of writers evolved since you started out?
JR: Yes, with digital publishing people are expecting more than one novel a year. One of the reasons I’m doing co-author books is to bring out new material. I’ve been writing two books a year for most of my career. Now even that’s not enough, you have to have new material for people to chat about so you’re not lost in that shuffle.
SJ: How do you structure your books before starting?
JR: These [co-authored books] require that we hash every detail, every twist and turn, we tried to nail everything down. With my Sigma novels I’m not quite that tight. I know the beginning, I know the end, I know a few stopping points in between but I don’t know how A connects to B connects to C. To me, the joy of writing is that discovery along the way. In the debate about outline versus organic writing, I do a little bit of both.
SJ: When you write a new scene in a fresh location, how do you set the stage for the reader?
JR: This is a tip I got from Karen Joy Fowler, the way she likes to illuminate a scene is: tell me where the light comes from. She then describes things the way the light bathes that scene. I do that a lot, I use the light to open up that scene.
SJ: How do you like to convey a character’s interior thoughts/feelings about a situation? How do you know when you have too much or not enough?
JR: An easy way to do info-dumping is to have a character think about it. It’s a matter of not getting bogged down, but trusting your reader. You give them enough to get the ball rolling then get out of there.
SJ: How do you write dialogue? Does it flow onto the page or do you script goals first?
JR: Dialogue is always hard for me. When I go to conferences, if there’s a class on dialogue I go there. Dialogue is not like normal conversation, dialogue is artificial. It must serve multiple purposes, double duty at all times. It should not be just communicating, it should have a subtext. Are you angry, are you seducing, are you trying to wheedle information out.
SJ: You’ve mentioned the three M’s of storytelling: murder, magic, and mayhem. How do you gauge that you have enough of each?
JR: It is a balancing act. You can’t have just non-stop action, there has to be rises and falls like a sine wave, but not flat. It should be building higher and higher. I build those tent poles when I’m doing my outline with each one higher so the obstacle is higher. The cost of getting over that hurdle is higher. The first one, someone gets injured; the second one, maybe a partner gets seriously wounded; the third one, someone dies.
SJ: Does your publisher/agent provide story editing? How has that changed since you started in the business?
JR: No, all the story content comes from me these days. In the beginning, they wanted a detailed eleven page, single spaced description of the story. But then when I’d turn it in, they’d say, “this is nothing like the outline.” And I’d say, “Yeah but did you like it?” And they’d say, “Yes!” And I’d say, “Then shut up.”
These days, I turn in a couple pages about the story. That’s when my editor comes in. I’ve had her since the very beginning of my career, which is rare to have that kind of continuity. We have a very good dialogue when we polish that final draft. We have a shorthand to our conversations, she knows she doesn’t have to tip-toe around me, and I don’t tip-toe around her. She’s the one who pulled me out of the slush pile.
SJ: You’ve stated that you write in three stages every day. Two 2-hour writing blocks followed by an editing session. How close to finished is that passage?
JR: It’s pretty polished. I do what I call a rolling edit: I’ll write forward, go back and edit, write forward, go back and edit, so when I’m done, it’s fairly close to where I want it to be. I belong to a critique group, the same critique group I belonged to before I was ever published. There’s twelve of us in Sacramento. They’re the first ones to read my work. After I get done with that process of rolling edits, I’ll give them thirty to forty pages. They’ll give me their comments back, I’ll do another tweak. Then I’ll do one final polish, and it’s off to my editor.
SJ: You thank a significant number of beta readers in your books. Are those the people in the critique group? Do they give you really hard edits?
JR: Yes, they’ve been with me from the beginning, before I was published. As much as I’d like them to bow down before me when I enter the room, they don’t. They just don’t tear me apart as much as before. And I know each person’s strength and weakness, some are good at military aspects and others are strong on characters.
SJ: What are your pet peeves or clichés in adventure books?
JR: The ending. There’s nothing worse than a bad ending.
SJ: What book have you read recently that blew you away?
JR: Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin. I threw the book across the room at one point because of what he did with one person. I could never write that well, no way I could have thought of that, he’s just amazing.
One last thing I’d like to leave you with is: write every day, read every night. If you’re struggling with something in your writing day and you read a passage from someone like Martin and you see how they handle it, it really helps.
Thank you, Mr. Rollins!