Recently, a reader asked me some brilliant questions about my writing and the eight books I’ve written. While I answered the reader directly, I thought some of you would find the questions and answers interesting.
Regarding the book titles, do you decide on one at the beginning that sticks through publication, or does the publisher provide input at some point?
Usually, a title comes to me and will stick through publication. I have not had an occasion where my publisher did not like it or didn’t agree with the title. From my experience so far, they leave the title up to the author.
Trying to think back on each book, I believe the title came to me before I wrote a word. My latest, Blaze In, Blaze Out, came from a friend who I used for technical aspects in the book. The meaning of the title is in the book, and if the reader is insightful and thoughtful enough, he/she will catch the subtle meaning of the title as well. I try to make each title depict the action and storyline in each book, but I play with it because often, there are other meanings behind the title captured in the story.
When you begin a book, do you have an idea of the length it will be (that is, do you have a picture of most of the conversations and action that will take place within the book)? And does the book usually grow in size as you write, or do you usually have to pare down before the final draft?
Each genre has a page count, and a word count associated with it. Publishers (and agents) do not want you to stray too far out of that range. A hugely famous author can get away with it, I suppose, but for someone like me who is a relatively unknown, I would get asked by either the agent or publisher to cut words and pages. My genre, thriller-crime, has a minimum of 75,000 words up to 90,000 words. I seldom, if ever, stray under or over. And always, always, the first draft is just to lay it all down. Editing is always involved and typically, words and pages are cut from the first draft. I have a vague idea of the conversations and action that will take place, but it is vague and I understand it will, and does, change as I write.
Throughout many of your books, you use short chapters-even one or two pages. I like this for eye comfort. I’m curious if shorter chapters packed with action or story movement was highlighted in your Screenwriting courses (or do you even have a particular reason for that at all)?
James Patterson is one of my favorite authors. I’ve patterned my chapter length and style from his. In fact, when asked, I call them Patterson Chapters. They don’t end cleanly, and are meant to pull the reader into the next chapter, and the next, and the next. I don’t want the reader to relax. I had one reader playfully yell at me, stating, “Lewis! I have to sleep!” From that point on, he wouldn’t read at night because he didn’t want to “quit” the action in the story. When I read a review or if someone tells me they, “Couldn’t put it down!” I take that as a tremendous compliment. That’s what an author strives for.
You’re often specific in describing the daily living activities of the boys, even to the morning toilet of the characters. It reminds me of playing or camping with the guys I grew up with. Was that your aim there?
Good catch! Yes, absolutely! I want the characters to be real to the readers. I want the characters to have flesh and bones, to have specific needs and desires, and goals they aim for. Part of that realism is to place them in situations and settings that are familiar to any reader. They eat. They sleep. They dress. They brush their teeth (hopefully). They love and hate and are bold and are fearful. I try to make them as true to life as I can. As a reader, I’m not interested in “cardboard cutouts” as characters. One last point on that: each character has to have a goal, and each character has to have a goal in each chapter they appear in. If they don’t, I cut them from that chapter if I can. If I can’t, I create a goal for them.
Do ideas for either action or character development pop into your thinking throughout the day or week? If they do, do you reach for pad and paper, or keyboard?
Ideas and action occur to me constantly. Whether I am by myself, with other people, in sleep. I call it “Prewriting in my head.” I think most, if not all, writers do this. I’m constantly playing with the question, “What if?” with each of my characters. There are times my wife or kids will say, “What are you thinking right now? You look so far away.” It is because I’m lost in the story and I’m prewriting. I will also say this. When I sit down to write, I have an idea of what will happen, what will be said, and where it will take place. However, in many cases, “the characters take over” and I mean that sincerely. When that happens, what ends up on paper is new to me and I sit back and wonder, “How in the hell . . .” It has happened many, many times. I am writing a story currently, Fan Mail, about a fan’s letters turning deadly. For the first time, I’ve written three chapters towards the end of the book before the action is there. I “know” how the book will end. I know who will say what. I know the action and setting. In all actuality, I will probably write the ending to Fan Mail before I’m ready for it, because I know exactly what I want. Then it will be up to me to write the story logically and consistently with the ending.
You consistently mention brand names for products throughout the pages (Motrin, for example.) I’d never thought about it before, but do writers “check with somebody” before including these?
I’ve never thought about it and have never been asked to remove it. I guess one could call it “free advertising” but I look at it as one more way of my characters being real and doing true to life activities. There are laws regarding copyright infringement that must be obeyed. I can’t use lyrics of a song or poem without receiving permission to do so. That is on the writer, not the publisher. I can’t use other’s words from their books, magazines or stories. Once written, it is technically “copyrighted” even though there wasn’t the full legal process of doing that. Writers and authors have to respect copyrights or there are consequences.
After reading your note about motivation for writing the stories, I agree wholeheartedly that this particular kind of cruelty toward children is especially evil. You mention the stories are fiction but based on research, experience, conversations you’ve run across. As a counselor, did you come up against situations like the ones faced by the boys and parents in the books? If so, is it difficult to “think through” the experiences again?
As a teacher, coach, counselor and administrator for over 46 years, one would think I’ve heard it all, seen it all, and experienced all there is to experience. Then something happens, or something is said, or I find myself in a situation where nothing like that has happened to me before. Every conversation, action, and idea a writer experiences in life is fodder for the next story. That being said, I purposely changed names, locations and, sometimes, details. I seek technical advice from law enforcement, from forensic experts, and from medical personnel. I research the hell out of a topic before I write it, because I want the reader to know it’s accurately written. Yes, kids and parents spoke to me about such horrors. Sometimes, I cried along with them. I’ve had readers tell me they wept along with the characters, got angry along with the characters, experienced joy and happiness and laughter along with the characters. Again, I think it is because I want the characters and the situations they experience to be real to the reader. In some of the more difficult passages, I had to suspend my own thinking, my own beliefs, and my own opinions. We have to do that in life, so why would that be any different as a writer writes the story?
The details of the cruelty perpetrated in some chapters are, of course, horrific. Did you have conversations with some of your law enforcement folks to put these together? Is it (or was it at first) TOUGH to commit these words to paper?
I believe I answered much of this in the previous answer. But yes, what I write is sometimes dark and ugly. But so is life. In all of my writing, there is hope, there is survival, and there is light. But to balance the hope and the light, there is the ugly. That is life. I hope the reader walks away from each book, each story with a sense of hope, with the belief that in the end, all is and will be well. Maybe not perfect, but neither is life.
I’ve heard the phrase “Write about what you know” or something like that. Clearly, the settings and situations of your books are very familiar to you and, to me, the stories boil with authenticity and honesty because of that.
Thank you! That means more to me than you can imagine. The city of Waukesha is “home” to me for many reasons. I taught and coached at North, the high school in my books. I walked and drove those streets. I shopped in those stores. The Northwoods in Blaze In, Blaze Out is a real place that I’ve visited and camped in. I’ve traveled there. When the setting is on the Navajo Nation Reservation in Arizona, you need to know that I’ve been there, and further, I’ve researched life, customs, and beliefs of their culture. I’ve coached basketball, ran track, played football and baseball, so those activities the characters in my books take part in are familiar to me. As a counselor, I’ve worked with abuse and worked with kids and their parents. Those topics are familiar to me. I blend all of that into my writing because I want the reader to be so wrapped up in the pages, the character, the setting and atmosphere, the reader forgets he or she is reading. I want them “in” the book and “in” the story as much as possible, and not sitting on a couch holding a book.
Thanks for the brilliant questions! I had fun answering them. If any of you have questions, comment on the post(s) and I will answer them for you.
I mentioned Blaze In, Blaze Out in this post. For your convenience, I’ve included the book description and the link to the book.
Blaze In, Blaze Out – New Release!
https://www.blackrosewriting.com/mystery/blazeinblazeout. Purchase your copy prior to January 6, 2022, and receive a 15% discount. Use the promo code: PREORDER2021
Detectives Eiselmann and O’Connor thought the conviction of a Ukrainian gang lord meant the end. They forgot that revenge knows no boundaries, vindictiveness knows no restraints, and ruthlessness never worries about collateral damage. A target is a target, and in the end, the target will die.
Diane Donovan – Midwest Literary Review, California Book Watch, Donovan Literary Services
“Joseph Lewis specializes in a fast-paced action story that takes the time to build compelling atmosphere around its events. Blaze In, Blaze Out is highly recommended for detective story readers and libraries catering to them. Mystery readers seeking a compelling saga will find this story of detectives and four teen adopted brothers who face a clever killer to be fast-paced, involving, and filled with satisfyingly unpredictable moments, tempered by a fine tension that builds up to a thought-provoking conclusion leaving the door ajar for more.”
Sublime Book Review
Sublime Line: “Joseph Lewis uses carefully constructed settings and intriguing characters to create this unique and captivating action-packed thriller.”
The Bottom Line: A superb crime drama simmering with suspense and deep character studies en route to an explosive finale. Lewis employs chapters told from the killers’ points of view to great effect, building suspense as both groups stalk their prey. Featuring a taut, deliberate plot that builds to a crescendo, Blaze In, Blaze Out is a welcome break from end-to-end breathless action thrillers. Rather than relying on gimmicks, Lewis has created a village of sturdy characters that he moves in and out of his novels, and he centers their development around engrossing police procedurals. Since much of the boys’ individual coming-of-age stories begins in Betrayed, readers are strongly encouraged to read both books in tandem.”