Any way that works for you

 Here’s an article I just wrote for a writers’ newsletter.  If you’re an aspiring author, maybe you’ll find it useful advice:

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Once a year, Michael Palmer and I teach a course together, aimed at doctors who want to become novelists.  Both Michael and I are physicians as well as thriller writers, we’re both amateur musicians, and we both share a lot of common interests, so you might assume that we approach the writing of our novels in the same way.  We take turns telling the class how we write.  Michael explains that he very meticulously plots out his stories ahead of time.  He maps out what will happen, chapter by chapter, before he even begins to write.  This outlining process may take him as long as half a year, but when he finally sits down to write the actual book, he can fly through the story.  He won’t get trapped in blind alleys, he won’t suffer from writer’s block, and he won’t have to face endless re-writes to make the story hang together.  He’s already done the foundation work, and he finds the writing itself a joy.

 
After Michael finishes, it’s my turn to get up and talk about how I write my books.  By now, the class is probably expecting me to echo everything Michael has just said.  We’re all doctors, after all. We think of ourselves as logical and methodical, and when you’re about to embark on the yearlong journey of writing a book, it only makes sense to know ahead of time where you’re going. 

 
So they’re probably surprised when I stand up at the lectern and tell them that I write my books an entirely different way.  I have no idea where my story will take me when I sit down to write the first page.  I don’t do character sketches and I don’t do outlines.  I’m forced to come up with a three-page synopsis for my editor (just so my publisher can start planning the cover design) but more often than not, my final story will end up completely different from the one I promised.  If this sounds like a chaotic way to write a book, it is.  It means I write myself into corners.  It means characters will suddenly transform into other people halfway through the first draft.  It means I spend many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to fix a story that’s gone off the rails.  It means I may suffer from weeks and weeks of writer’s block.  It means I spend months on the re-writes.  But it’s the only way I’ve ever been able to write my books, and even though I wish I could do it Michael’s way, I find that I just can’t write an outline.  Or, if I do, the book turns out different anyway.

 
What Michael and I are trying to teach our students is this: There is no correct way to write a book.  His way works for him; my way works for me.  And if a writing instructor ever tells you that your method is wrong, my advice is this: ignore him and just write your book. 

 
It’s taken me years to learn this lesson.  When I was starting out, I’d go to writers’ classes and hear that the only way to write a book is to use an outline, and I’d get panicked because I couldn’t write a decent outline.  Or I’d learn that I have to write elaborate character sketches ahead of time, and I’d dutifully write the sketches, only to end up with characters meticulously described right down to their charming dimples and freckles, but utterly lifeless on the page.  I discovered that I never really know my characters until I’ve written the whole book anyway, because characters are like people; it takes many conversations and many weeks of spending time with them to know who they really are.  Relying only on a character sketch is like getting to know someone through her college application.  You know all her vital statistics, but you don’t really know who she is until she actually arrives on campus.

 
After twenty years of writing, I think the best advice I can give a new novelist is this: find the method that’s comfortable for you, and use it.  And don’t apologize. 

 
I, for instance, have never been able to compose fiction at a keyboard.  I have to use a pen (never pencil) and paper (always unlined) to write my first drafts.  I can write nonfiction at the computer, as I’m doing right now, but every time I try to write a novel on the computer, I end up blocked and frustrated.  I envy people who can pound out a first draft on the keyboard, who don’t have to go through the additional step of typing in their handwritten words.  Other writers think I’m a dinosaur.  My editor, who’s accustomed to getting a peek at her authors’ first drafts, knows that she’ll never get a peek at mine because it’s in pen and paper, and no one except maybe a pharmacist can read my handwriting. 

 
I’ve learned to accept that my first draft will be horrible, and that I’ll have to set aside enough time to fix the problems.  I’ve learned that there’s no point in being a perfectionist the first time through, because much of the story will change in later drafts. 

 
I’ve learned that the most important thing is to keep the story moving forward.  Even if I realize that the story’s taken a sudden turn and I’ll have to go back and re-write three chapters to make the plot work, I just keep moving ahead.  Only when I’ve written THE END do I allow myself to go back and fix things.  The consequence is that anyone who sees my first draft may think they’re reading a half dozen different books spliced together.  Characters’ names will suddenly change midway through (because I decide that I really didn’t like that name Olaf anyway.)   Once, after writing about a third of a manuscript, I changed a character’s sex from male to female.  Did I bother to go back and revise the early chapters?  No.  I just kept writing, using the character’s new gender. 

 
Nothing in a first draft is set in stone.  It can all be changed before anyone else sees it.  And that’s a very comforting thought.

 
Experienced writers will find my advice a no-brainer because they’ve already figured out what works best for them, and they’ve learned to accept what may seem to others to be a uniquely quirky process.  But for beginning writers, the writing itself may fill them with anxiety because they’ve heard there’s a “right” way to do it, and they think that success is all about the process.  It isn’t.  Success is all about creating a great story with unforgettable characters, and whatever way you do it is the right way. 

 
 

Virginia Festival of the Book

I’m leaving tomorrow for Charlottesville, to join some fabulous writers at the Virginia Book festival.  I’m looking forward to seeing some familiar faces there, including Lee Child, Laura Lippman, Twist Phelan, M.J. Rose, David Montgomery,Elaine Viets, and Lisa Unger.  Plus I’ll get to finally meet George Pelecanos!  Check out the entire guest line-up at their website.

Funny, I don’t remember writing that book

Before I blog on this title, I just wanted to say it’s been a long, hard week.  I attended the memorial service for my dad in San Diego, and finally cried my heart out.  I want to thank everyone who wrote me, and I want to offer my sympathy to everyone who’s had to watch a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.  If any of you are so inclined, I strongly urge you to donate to Alzheimer’s research.  I’m telling my friends and family to donate to the Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, University of California, San Diego, 8950 Villa La Jolla Drive, Suite C129, La Jolla, CA  92037-1707  (Attention: Pamela Bell.)

I want to stamp out this disease.  I look forward to the day when no one — no one — will have to live through what my dad did.

And now — it’s time to address the title of this blog entry.

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I’m a writer with a past.

I’m reminded of this every time I get a note like this one from a reader:

“I love your thrillers, but I just read your latest book _____ and it was nothing but a love story!  What happened to you, Tess?”

or:

“I see from Amazon that you have a new book coming out called MURDER AND MAYHEM.  How come you haven’t mentioned it in your blog?”

The answer is: I never wrote any book with that title.  In fact, there are a lot of books out there with my name on them, carrying titles that are completely unfamiliar to me.  How is this possible?  How can I not know about a book with my name on it?

The answer is simple: I have no control over their release.

Before I became a thriller writer, I wrote eight romantic suspense novels for the huge romance publisher, Harlequin Intrigue. Those books came out in paperback, and sold about average numbers for the genre.  I wasn’t getting rich off them, and neither was Harlequin.

Fast-forward to 1996, when my first big thriller, HARVEST, was published.  Suddenly, my books were hitting U.S. bestseller lists.  And then, in 2001, THE SURGEON was the first of my UK bestsellers. 

In the meantime, Harlequin continued to hold the rights to my eight old romance novels.  I did try to get back those rights, but as any romance writer will tell you, Harlequin never EVER relinquishes those rights.  They hold onto them forever, because they’re not stupid.  And because they know that a certain percentage of their writers will go on to become big bestselling authors.  Nora Roberts, for instance, has not been able to control the rights to her Harlequin books, and I have a feeling it must annoy her that those old romances keep popping back into print just as one of her new releases hits the stands.

You may ask: So what’s the problem with that?  Authors still get royalties on those books, right? 

Yes, we do.  And I very much appreciate that.  I understand why Harlequin would want to re-release my books, under different covers, in omnibus collections with different titles.  (They come out under the “Mira” imprint.)  After all, Harlequin’s a business, and they own an asset (my old titles) and naturally they want to keep mining those assets. 

The problem is, my readers get upset with me when they buy a Tess Gerritsen book, expecting a gritty thriller, and find they’ve bought an old romance novel.  My first reaction is to say to them: “Hey, try it, maybe you’ll like it.”  But a lot of them think they’ll get cooties or something from reading a romance, and then they write me angry letters.  Or even worse, they stop buying my books altogether.

And that’s the big problem.

Nora Roberts has dealt with the issue by adding a special symbol on her new releases, signalling to her readers that these are not old romances, but brand-new stories.  I can see why she had to do that.  Harlequin’s been very clever about re-packaging my old romances to look just like my new releases.  Their covers look almost exactly like my UK thrillers, complete with the “London Times bestseller” label.  And very often, they release these books to coincide with my first-run books, so they can piggy-back their sales onto my current publicity efforts.

Harlequin/Mira’s only doing what any business would do.  But I wish there was some way to let my readers know that I can’t be blamed, since I have absolutely no control over this.  I don’t know ahead of time when the romances will come out, or what their new titles may be, or what the covers will look like. 

So if you see a title for sale, and I don’t feature it here on my website, you can pretty much bet it’s one of my old romance novels.

 

 

  

Thanks so much!

I know people are wondering what’s going on here at our house.  What happened is this: my father passed away on Tuesday.  He suffered for nearly twenty years with Alzheimer’s Disease, and in many ways I feel that I lost him a long time ago.  Still it’s a shock when it actually happens.  I hate this disease.  I hate how it robs us of the people we love but keeps them lingering on for years. 

I’m the kind of person who usually sheds tears easily in the movie theater, but for almost 24 hours after I got the news, I didn’t cry.  I tend to be a “doer”, so I got to work getting my travel arranged, informing various people, clearing off my calendar, etc.  I kept wondering what was wrong with me — why didn’t I CRY, for god’s sake?  Am I heartless? 

But over the past few days, I’ve felt things starting to sink in.  I’m not sleeping.  I’m scarcely writing.  I’ve spent a lot of time in front of my computer, doing mindless surfing through the net.  Therapy of a kind, I suppose — better than Valium.  

So now I’m packing to fly to San Diego, for a private service.  

I went through my dad’s photo album today — pictures he took while he was a G.I. in Germany during WWII.  It’s almost too much to bear, seeing him as a grinning young man with his jaunty U.S. Army cap.  I think I’ll just close it and wait until I’m ready to look at it again. 

A mental health break

Sorry I haven’t been blogging lately, but a family tragedy has kept my mind on other things.  Sometimes, life has a way of reminding you that there’s nothing more important than being with the ones you love.  More later.