As an Executive Producer and Director in the TV industry, I understand the difficulty and challenge of transforming a novel into a visual experience on film. As a novelist, I’ve enjoyed the freedom of writing and storytelling without worrying about the limitations of turning those novels into a screenplay. Many of my readers have said, “Your books would make great movies.” I’m humbled each time I hear those words, but I’m also realistic about surviving in an ocean with sharks. Writing a novel and writing a screenplay are two different animals that don’t always play well together in the same body of water. So, if your dream is to write a novel in hopes you’ll get it optioned for film so a studio can spend millions of dollars producing your story, you might find yourself throwing a penny in a pond hoping to retrieve a pot of gold. Let’s just say, the odds are not in your favor. But there are techniques we can use as novelists to transform our stories that share common ground with screenwriters.

In my novels, The Disillusioned and Waking Lazarus, the chapters are written as scenes in a film as a way to keep readers engaged. Since my writing tends to be more visual, much like a screenwriter, I use this technique to keep the story moving forward at a quicker pace. I don’t want to bog readers down with pages of backstory, inner thoughts, or showcasing my writing prowess that leaves them trudging through a swamp. I’m not a literary genius like Tolstoy. I write commercial fiction, and what that means is I must use some of the same techniques as a screenwriter because we live in a visual age. Isn’t that how we want readers to respond? We want them to envision the world we’ve created, to connect with the characters, and to imagine where the story will lead. Our words on a page create a visual experience for our readers.

One huge advantages for novelists is we can take our time delving deeper into our characters’ thoughts and emotions. We can leave breadcrumbs of hidden clues, backstory, and reveal aspects of our characters’ storylines that maybe only the reader will know, most of which would never be played out on screen. And, you do this within a 380+ page book instead of a 120 page screenplay. But there is a downside, one we can avoid when using other screenwriting techniques.

Have you ever noticed how at around the thirty minute mark in a film there is a twist to the story? It’s that moment that leads us into the second act. A character makes a choice, faces a tragedy, or loses what they value most. In that scene the story goes deeper and keeps viewers on the edge of their seat. If we were to call this the thirty-minute rule for screenwriters, then we could define that technique as the crossroads chapter for novelists. While I won’t give away which chapter that might be in my novels, I will say that this chapter marker is a roadmap that leads me to the second act of my story. Why do this? For my writing style, it helps me know that the story is moving forward. I’m not simply writing chapters that bring nothing more to the story. The chapters leading up to the chapter that will remain unnamed, are centered on introducing readers into this world, revealing unique characters, and setting readers up for the plot twist.

In this scenario, the big difference between novels and screenplays is that in a screenplay you should only write what you see or hear on screen. Internal thoughts won’t work. Narration is tricky because it can slow the story down. Novelists can dive deeper into inner thoughts, longer dialogue, and more descriptive settings, but in either scenario, character and setting are still king. By the time you reach the thirty minutes, or the crossroads chapter, your characters and story should be in full affect. If the characters are flat, or the story isn’t progressing quick enough, then you know it’s time to go back and rework your first act.

One note to remember: as novelists we aren’t restricted by production budgets, so if we need to enhance our characters’ setting, or build a bigger more interesting world, then we can simply write that on the page rather than begging a studio to give us a bigger budget. That’s one of the challenges screenwriters have that novelists don’t. Screenwriters have to create a world and characters that fit within the overall production budget of a studio.

In this day and age another technique novelists can learn from screenwriters is to keep our stories concise. Reminders to move the story forward should be planted on our walls, computer screens, notebooks, and tattooed on our arms if necessary. If the story isn’t progressing then we’ll lose our readers. Too much backstory and we’ve lost them. Give too much information away in the beginning and our characters become less interesting. Writing chapters filled with inner thoughts, dream sequences, flashbacks, or sharing pieces of the story that won’t matter in the end forces readers to close the book, unless they are written in a concise way that adds momentum to our story. It’s why screenwriters are constantly cutting, scrutinizing every word of a script, because they only have so many pages to fit the story. Every scene. Every piece of dialogue. Ever word is weighed to make the screenplay as tight as possible. In the end, cutting in a screenplay makes for a better story. For novelists, we can learn a great deal from this technique. While some view editing as the process that is done to finalize the last draft of a novel so we can publish, the truth is that editing is an exercise where we’re constantly fine-tuning each chapter. Much like a screenplay, ruthless cutting/editing makes the novel shine.

While this is by no means all of the screenwriting techniques we can apply as novelists, they are common ground exercises that can enable us to transform our writing to become more effective storytellers.

The Disillusioned was the genesis of my cause-driven series, The Guardian Novels, and remains the catalyst that has fueled my passion as a storyteller through the release of the second book, Waking Lazarus. Mystery. Suspense. Adventure. In the series, all are aspects of the story, but with a greater message, whether that be fighting against modern day slavery, helping the forgotten lost in poverty, or shining a light on the realities so many face in worlds far more dangerous than our own. My hope is to blur the lines between fiction and reality, and inspire others to make a difference in the world.

You can join me in the cause!

Since January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, proceeds from each book sold will be donated to the International Justice Mission. Give the gift of the series to someone you love, and in return you’ll be helping to rescue those in need.

Thank you for your continued support!

What inspired you to write? And what was the inspiration for this book?

From an early age, I’ve been captured by stories that left me turning the page. The first book I remember reading cover to cover was Treasure Island. At eight years old, those few days I spent in my room lost in a world of adventure, suspense, and mystery left me with the dream of one day becoming a storyteller. At the time I wasn’t sure how that would become a reality.

After a decade in the music business, and the rise of iTunes, I found myself transitioning in a new career as I stood on the set of a new TV series as an Executive Producer and Director. Another decade passed as I produced hundreds of TV episodes, still searching and dreaming of the perfect story to write.

After a year of writing late at night I sent a draft of my first novel to a friend in the TV industry with the disclaimer, “If it’s not any good, the only two people who’ll know about it is you and me.” Within a few days she called with a thumbs up and that began the search for an agent and a publisher. When The Disillusioned was released it captured what I’ve defined as a “cause-driven” novel. Throughout the pages of the story the adventure takes the main characters into the heart of Africa and the trafficking trade. I was fortunate enough to do a 15-city book tour with Barnes and Noble, and realized I was hooked. I needed to write the next story.

In my second novel, Waking Lazarus, I raised the stakes. I couldn’t simply follow the template I’d created in The Disillusioned. So, I returned to my roots, to a story I heard from an early age about a controversial evangelist from the 1920’s. I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with a family friend who was in his nineties as he shared with me how her life shaped the history of Los Angeles. I didn’t want to write a biography, so I created a character based off of this real life celebrity figure.

As the story unfolds, readers will find themselves following two mysteries, one from the 1920’s and one present day that are on a collision course. What was exciting about the writing process was that I could live in two worlds, and create a storyline that spanned nearly a century. And, for those who read The Disillusioned, they’ll find themselves in a parallel timeline between both books but with all different characters and a standalone storyline. My plan in the third book of the Guardian Novels is for those characters and storylines from the first to books to crossover. I guess you could stay it’s part of my master plan!

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

Due to my TV production schedule, my writing schedule is a bit more fluid than regimented. I find that my most productive time is writing late at night, or on the weekends. If I find myself on a roll I might carve out a few more hours during the day. Sometimes the writing goes smoothly, and other times I end up rewriting what I’d done the night before. It’s all part of the chase, the adventure of discovering the world for yourself.

I know that many authors outline each chapter, and spend weeks or months on character development and storylines. For me, what has worked is to know where my story begins and where it ends. What happens in between is part of the discovery. So, I don’t outline. Honestly, I found that when I tried this for myself I spent more time working on my outline than I did writing. It took the excitement and fun out of the writing process.

I want to be on the edge of my seat, wondering how I’m going to squeeze out of an impossible situation, so that it translates to readers. I think the most important point is that you find the right routine that enables you to maximize your writing. It might be a few hours a night, or spending a few days away. I’ve done both and have found that depending on where I am in the story it looks different.

How long does it take to write a book?

I’d say anywhere from 8-12 months. I’m not a fast writer, mainly because I spend a lot of time envisioning the scene in a chapter before I sit down to write. I guess some might say that’s daydreaming not writing, but I’ve found that if I can picture the scene in a chapter playing itself out then I’m able to capture it more powerfully in words.

My plan going into a novel is to get a first draft writing within 4-6 months. Then I take a month off from reading, writing, or even thinking about the book. You need that perspective before you dive back in for a second draft. Typically, the second draft will take another 1-2 months. I follow the same routine and take a break for another month. Then I do my final revisions before sending it out to my editor. That process takes about a month or so. When I get the edits back from my editor, I take a deep breathe from all the red marks, and dive back into the final draft.

One note on my writing schedule: When a book is sitting for a month or is with my editor, I’m already working on the idea for the next book. I think it’s important to have a stable of ideas brewing so that you’re constantly growing as a storyteller.

What do you like to do when you are not writing?

When I’m not in production on a TV series, or if I’m taking a break from writing, I enjoy binge watching movies, catching the next NBA game, and driving along the coast in Malibu to unwind. One of my favorite things to do is hike Point Dume with my wife and watch the whales and dolphins as they swim near the beach.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Writing is a journey that leads us into the valleys as we strive to climb the mountain. I would say for any writer the challenge is to live out the 3 P’s: Passion. Purpose. Productivity. Passion is what gives you the endurance to keep going. If you love to write, then you write whether you become a bestselling author or not. It’s part of your DNA. It’s something you’ll do no matter who might end up reading your creation. But passion without purpose leaves you without clear goals or direction. Know where you want to end up in six months, a year, or five years from now. Know what drives your passion for writing. Know the genre where you want to build an audience. Passion and defining your purpose allows your writing to become more productive. Set a writing schedule to start and finish your novel, and then do it! Finishing a novel is the hardest part of the journey. But with each story you finish, you’ll discover what makes your writing and storytelling unique.

Do you have an interesting writing quirk? If so what is it?

With each novel, I create a music playlist that consists of soundtracks from various movies that I feel capture the tone of the story. Depending on what chapter I’m writing, I’ll put certain tracks on repeat so that the mood of the music helps me translate the scene I’m putting on paper.

With my latest novel, Waking Lazarus, I went a step further by bringing in a composer friend who composed a full soundtrack to go along with the book. I’d never seen this done before with a novel, other than those books that were made into feature films. So, with Waking Lazarus you can listen to the soundtrack that fits each of the chapters you’re reading. And we did it in such a way that it doesn’t matter if your a fast reader or a slow reader. You simply put the tracks on repeat depending on which chapter your reading and it fits the scenes in those chapters.

What is the last book you read?

The Whistler by John Grisham.

Who is/are your favorite author(s)?

Michael Connelly. John Grisham. James Patterson. David Baldacci. Brad Meltzer. Daniel Silva. J.K. Rowling. And the list goes on!

What is/are your favorite book(s)?

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling. Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly. The Testament by John Grisham.

After all of your hard work, what does it feel like to be a published author?

For me, it’s more about the chase than being a published author. I feel that if you have a strong enough story there are avenues for you to get that story out. Traditional publishers are no longer the gatekeepers. The Martian is one example. So, I keep my focus on chasing characters, twists and turns, mystery, suspense, and an adventure that unleashes an unexpected plot.

The big unknown is always whether readers will go on the chase with you. That’s the challenge when you’re writing by yourself for months at a time not knowing if the story is going to jump off the page for readers. But I think with each novel that sense of fear fuels an excitement to chase the next story. And I would add, that publishing is constantly changing. If you’re a writer who has written a story you want the world to read, but you haven’t been able to crack the code with a traditional publisher, then I’d say look at ways to indie publish. As we’ve seen in recent years, indie publishing is a valid alternative to traditional publishing and can be the first step toward building an audience who will follow you for years to come.

I prefer writing over speaking!

I’m excited to have been invited as a keynote speaker, as well as teaching a continuing session for the upcoming Colorado Christian Writer’s Conference in Estes Park.

Here’s what I’ll be sharing:

Second Act: Storytelling that Inspires Change (Keynote)
Is the story you desire to write moving you toward inspiring change? The second act in any story is where the main character gets in over his head, is pushed to innovate, to move forward in faith, and to act decisively so the story has a greater purpose. When an elephant charged his safari convoy in Africa, Executive Producer and Author D.J. Williams experienced split seconds of pure clarity about God’s calling on his life: to pursue God’s plan to share stories of the forgotten through social issues that inspire true change. D.J.’s story of faith in the jungles of the Amazon, the bush of Africa, and the slums of the Far East will inspire you to seek out God’s plan and purpose for your life, and move you toward becoming a storyteller who inspires others to embrace the pursuit of social causes in a world desperately in need of the Gospel.

The Chase (Continuing Session)
A 5-part interactive workshop that dives into the structure that moves novelists and screenwriters to write stories that make a difference in the world. By the end of the workshop writer’s will have created a roadmap to chase their cause-driven novel.

Session 1: Defining Passion, Shaping Habits, Harnessing Raw Ideas
Session 2: Developing Plot, Timelines for Research, Flexible Outlines
Session 3: Creating a World with Characters that are Believable
Session 4: Building Visual Chapters and Dialogue filled with Mystery & Suspense
Session 5: Going Beyond the Last Page

writersjourney1

Who are your influences?
My biggest influences are John Grisham, Michael Connelly, and James Patterson. Each one for different reasons. With Grisham, I enjoy the variety of stories he weaves into his books. With Connelly, it’s the way he develops his characters in such a way that they can grow throughout a series of novels. And Patterson, for his style of writing each chapter as if it were a scene in a move. With my background as an Executive Producer and Director, I find that my writing style is a mix of all three.

When did you begin writing?
I remember when I was eight years old picking up a copy of Treasure Island, and then spending the next two or three days lost in the story. I didn’t know then that my passion was writing, but I did know that story telling was in my veins. It wasn’t until about five years ago that I sat down and decided to write my first novel, The Disillusioned. I finished the manuscript without telling a soul what I had done. Then I shared it with a few friends to get their honest opinion, and went through the painstaking process of finding an agent and publisher. In fact, my wife didn’t read the book until I received my author copies from the publisher. After finishing a 15-city book signing tour with Barnes & Noble, I’ve been humbled by the response of the story. My hope is that Waking Lazarus will build on the characters and story while growing an audience who enjoys the series.

How do you come up with your stories, characters, character names, POV, etc.?
I’ve tried several different methods. Sitting down and outlining every chapter, character development, and a long list of story ideas. What I discovered about myself was that I could spend all of my time doing this and never write a single word. So my style is to begin with a main character, decide on the POV, and the beginning of a story. Then I write, and write, and write until the story begins to take shape. I push through a first draft, and then rewrite. During the rewrite I look for the characters that stand out, the story lines that are the most interesting, and then add another layer to the overall book that keeps readers guessing.

If you could actually meet one of your characters, who would it be?  Why?
I think the one character would be Stella Adams. In The Disillusioned, she was the mystery, and the payoff of finding her has fueled what I have planned in the rest of the Guardian novels. She’s someone who is willing to put it all on the line for justice. I only hope that I could be half as brave as she is in the story.

Can you tell us a little about your writing philosophy? 
My philosophy on writing is that I want my stories to make a difference, to cause readers to think about the world around them in a different way. While some authors write for pure entertainment, I believe there is an underlying message in my books that goes deeper than an action adventure or suspense novel. At least that’s my hope. I figure if I’m going to spend 6-8 months writing then I want there to be purpose behind it. In The Disillusioned, it was to raise awareness about human trafficking. And now in Waking Lazarus, it is a deeper look into good versus evil, and how those lines are often times hard to define in the world we live in.

Have you ever tried writing in any other genres?
Honestly, I don’t think about what genre I’m writing. I think more about the characters and how the story unfolds. In the future, I’m sure I’ll write stories that are outside of the mystery/action adventure genre, but for now that’s what keeps me writing. I’ve got big plans for the Guardian novels that will keep me busy for the next few years.

Do you listen to music as you write?
Yes. I always write with a soundtrack blasting in my ears. It helps me to focus, to grab the emotion in a scene, and the imagine what it is I’m trying to reveal. In fact, with Waking Lazarus we’re taking it a step further. We’ve actually recorded a soundtrack that will accompany the book. I haven’t seen this done before and am so excited for readers to have this as an enhancement to their reading experience.

writersjourney2I sat across from Michael Connelly’s agent and wondered how I ended up there. To say that Connelly was an influence in my pursuit to be a storyteller would be an understatement. Along with Grisham and Patterson, he is in the top three of my favorite authors. Connelly’s agent had read my first novel, The Disillusioned, or at least enough of it to request a meeting. I listened as he shared how they had built Connelly’s career culminating with finalizing the Amazon deal for Bosch. I shared with him a story idea that had been resonating for a few years and knew from his response that I had something unique.

When I left his office I knew that The Disillusioned was only the first novel in the Guardian series. But what was next? As I thought about my story idea and my conversation with Connelly’s agent, I had a moment of inspiration. To move the series ahead, a story from the 1920’s would become an underlying mystery revealed throughout the series. It wasn’t enough on it’s own. The challenge was to bridge the gap between these two eras. Eight months later I had a first draft of Waking Lazarus, an epic global adventure filled with riveting characters and page turning twists and turns. While I had written a first draft of Waking Lazarus in less than a year, it took months of rewriting and editing to cross the finish line.
I write in this genre because I love mysteries filled with suspense. I love the rush of diving into a scene and seeing what happens next. And I love writing stories that go beyond entertainment. As you’ll find in the first two novels of the Guardian series there are key themes of light versus darkness, religion versus faith, and power versus innocence that drives the characters forward. You’ll also find that there are strong female characters and colorful settings throughout to keep readers on edge.
One month ago, Waking Lazarus was released worldwide. Once again I’ve been humbled to capture the attention of industry veterans including Peter Anderson, Oscar Winner/Cinematographer, who has endorsed this latest adventure, “Waking Lazarus is a captivating visual story with a colorful narrative. Once I started reading, it was hard to put down.”
I will always remember those few hours being taught a master class in how to build a series that could potentially go the distance. Thank you Michael Connelly’s agent for imparting your words of wisdom!