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:

——————–

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. 

 
 

23 replies
  1. MattScudder
    MattScudder says:

    Thank you for this. It came just at the right time, as I’m struggling to get the last 5-10k words of my first draft done and I know it is far from perfect. And I DO have an outline!!!

  2. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:

    Tess,

    One of the best pearls of wisdom that I ever heard from the numerous writing conferences I’ve attended was from Gillian Roberts, (although she may not have coined it.)

    She said when it comes to first drafts, “write it down, don’t write it right.”

    She used the analogy of writing a first draft as taking a leap of faith that you are constructing a bridge that will get you from Point A to Point B. Later on, you can work on the aesthetics of the bridge.

    The other memorable saying about first drafts comes from Anne Lamott who claims that she has never written anything but “shitty first drafts.”

    It is encouraging to hear how other creative minds work, and that we should never aspire to an unrealistic goal of one day having perfect prose fly from our fingertips. Because creativity doesn’t work that way.

    I totally agree with your underlying argument that writers should employ whatever methods work for them.

    I outline quite a bit of plot points before I start composing, and I use a calendar. I figure out how long any of the plot points will take and then I know exactly if it is Tuesday afternoon or Saturday evening when something occurs. It’s part of my obsession for detail and continuity.

    As for composing, sometimes I can write while at a computer, but other times I will scrawl on any paper that is handy and transcribe my notes later. I know that when I type I’m more likely to go backwards and retype a word when it is misspelled, and that can kill the creative forward momentum. If I’m scribbling on paper, I can leave off the endings of words if I’m so inspired to get the next word down and can always figure things out later.

    I hope you’re having a beautiful spring day where you are at, for it is gorgeous and sunny here!

    Linda

  3. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    I’ve been using a “rough” outline for the biomedical thriller I am currently writing, but I find that things have truly gone off the rail because I really, really wanted to adhere to the timeline of the disease featured in the novel as much as possible. I’m struggling with how much suspension of disbelief I am willing to require of a reader, assuming that reader has any grasp of how the “real” disease process actually works. Because the disease is currently under intense study and not well understood, I doubt many people will know much about it. But I still like the “facts” in my fiction to be as accurate as possible. I keep picturing the brilliant scientist with whom I met to discuss the disease, hrumphing and tisking at my idiocy.

    I have no choice but to bend the truth at least a little or the child in the story will be a grandmother before the story reaches its climax – and it’s important to the plot that she remain a young child. I just hope the PhD-types that actually know how this thing works either don’t read fiction (assuming it gets published) or are good sports and understand that fiction is just that.

    I guess it’s a little like hoping your mother doesn’t read your novels if you write erotica. Or is it worse?

  4. John S
    John S says:

    This is so encouraging! I thought I must be the only one…to write in pen and on paper (although I favor a spiral notebook…actually several). I too can write for my work every day at a keyboard but not my fiction. AND I introduced a character who was a 4th grade girl but then changed her to a 47 year old man, and didn’t change the first scene until I got through the first draft.

    Tess–any advice on how to make the second draft go as fast as the first? Now that I’ve discovered the story, making it work is…much harder work!

  5. struggler
    struggler says:

    I think I’m a Michael Palmer (obsessive about plot and structure outline in advance) who might just morph into a Tess Gerritsen – so even the writer can change gender while putting their masterpiece together, it seems! I had to chuckle when I noticed that you suddenly changed the gender of a character part-way through; but that’s the wonderful power and benefit of being (for once in our lives) absolutely in control of what we are doing. The more I read these blogs of yours, the more I realise that maybe scrupulous advance planning is not be the best way for me to go – for example, I’ve been oohing and ahhing for MONTHS about the name of my lead character! One thing’s for sure though, he won’t be called ‘Jack’.

  6. Darwyn Jones
    Darwyn Jones says:

    Tess –
    Great post. I am on the 3rd draft of my first ms. There are two big things that I have learned from writing my first novel. 1) That I can do it. 2) That I won’t do it the same way next time.
    There was a large learning curve here for me. I did outline. However, there is no way in h-e-double-l that I’ll be comparing the final product with the outline (or the 36 versions of the outline).
    It is all great and wonderful to hear about how various authors get the story to the page, but I agree with you – one must find their own way. And further, don’t expect to have found it when you finish the first novel. Much like the story, your process will be tweaked several times before it glides.
    Thanks for the post,
    Darwyn

  7. SassyDevil
    SassyDevil says:

    Thank you for such a wonderful article. I have already learned there’s no right way to create a novel, despite having a teacher in high school who insisted that all professional writers write an outline first. I was dismayed at that, too, because I’m not good at them. Then, I found successful authors who don’t do outlines, and felt much better.

    I took online classes, such as Fast Draft, by Candace Haven’s (Charmed & Deadly is her next title, coming out in June), and it taught me to “just write.” Don’t worry if it sucks, just write. Keep going. Don’t worry about fixing stuff along the way. Just finish that first draft.

    What I’ve further learned from you is, no matter what changes in your draft, keep going. I never really thought about what to do if the character changes gender, or you realize the first several chapters are going to have to be rewritten drastically (even dumped), in order to logically get it to where you are now. Again, thank you so much!

  8. TerriBrisbin
    TerriBrisbin says:

    You made a great point and have probably helped countless writers in the process.

    I remember going to my first writers’ association meeting and being told by one very experienced member there that, to be a real writer, I must write every day and I must write my book in order – beginning, middle, end. If I didn’t do those things, I must not be serious about writing and getting published.

    As you can guess, I usually write the end first, then the opening, then some of the later middle pages and then I connect it all together. . .! Oh, and I don’t write everyday…I am a deadline binge writer who spends months agonizing over the first 50-100 pages(after writing the end of the book first) and then finishes writing the rest of it in 2-3 weeks…and sending it off the day it’s due.

    I was horrified by all of this until I learned what Tess said – find your own way and let it work for you and your writing…Gosh that sounds very Zen….as though it should say “Grasshopper” in there somewhere..?!

    My editor, bless her wonderful heart, now knows not to ask me how the writing is going until the book is due…and then it’s done..LOL!

    Terri

  9. Amy MacKinnon
    Amy MacKinnon says:

    Amen, Tess. The best way to write is the way that works best for you and your story. We’re all aiming for the same destination, but each of us has to map our own journey.

  10. Pam Halter
    Pam Halter says:

    I’m usually a lurker but had to chime on this one.

    It took me years to understand there was no right way to write a book. I used to come home from conferences depressed because I didn’t do it the way the pros did. I finally just did what worked for me and I enjoy writing the way I was made to write.

    Thanks for taking the time to encourage us, Tess. I enjoy your blogs and books.

  11. dustinhood
    dustinhood says:

    I am a mixture of both. On my new story, which is half nonfiction and fiction, I wouldn’t call it a plot, but more like notes I hand wrote and then typed I found it much more helpful. I was able to rearrange the plot of the story where it would shock the reader more or have a nice twist. A lot of the time I do my story’s first draft with the keyboard, but a disadvantage for this is that I have to re-read the story about three times before I am finally satisfied with it. Then I normally have to re-write it again because I disagree with the way I wrote it.
    Off Subject: This week is Spring Break for me and during the week, which is now over, I read or started three Tess Gerritsen books; I finished HARVEST, read THE MEPHISTO CLUB in two days, and have started LIFE SUPPORT. Tess Gerritsen is honestly my favorite author, her writing style and everything about her writing is brilliant. I have even got some of my teachers and friends hooked on her. As a writer myself, she is a role model to me, I learn from her writing in so many ways. Well, now that I’m starting to sound like a addicted worshiper fan, I’m going to leave it here. Thanks for the advise Tess!

    Dustin Hood, 15

  12. JD Rhoades
    JD Rhoades says:

    I’m thinking of writing my next book in longhand, to try and get to the point where I can get through the first draft, get it done, and fix problems in rewrite rather than obsessing over every word and revising every paragraph a dozen times. I mean, I can get a book done that way, but it’s just torture.

  13. Sax
    Sax says:

    Hemingway always wrote by hand and reccomended the system to everyone. Like all writers, he was great at giving advice on how to write like himself. Still, he has a point: the words look different, more intimate, more private, in your own handwriting. Seeing them typed out gives you a new, distanced perspective — and a vital second chance to fix things. But it’s more time consuming.
    My Dad, a prominent writer in his day, hated the computer and preferred to laboriously retype his drafts. He believed that you looked at the words differently when you typed them … and caught things you’d miss just scanning a computer screen. Writing is lazier now, he felt. Most prose is about 20% worse than it would have been with a little hunt-and-peck hard labor. I used to argue with him, but I think he was probably right. Life is short, though … and I guess I’m willing to settle for that 80% (I always was a B student).

  14. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Im still struggling, too many idea’s for too many books to be honest. This helps as when I attended a writing class years ago was told that the way I wanted to do it was completely wrong.

    Nice to know that the tutor was wrong, gives me some hope for future projects now.

    Thanks for the advice and I hope to see you on the shelves shortly, Well a guy can dream. lol

  15. Therese Fowler
    Therese Fowler says:

    Tess, what good advice. I too used to get frustrated and worried because I wasn’t an outliner. But as you’ve proven, success is a good remedy for that fear!

    I had to laugh, thinking of Linda just waiting patiently for your typed manuscript–because she’s just now reviewing a chunk of my current w-i-p. I’ve never before shared anything with an agent OR editor that was not only completed but polished, too.

    Quite stressful; if she hates it, I’m back to square one.

    But at least I’m in the game, so no complaints here. 🙂

  16. Sylvia Rochester
    Sylvia Rochester says:

    However unorthodox your method, the result is pure magic. Love everything you write. I can’t turn a page without find an expression that leaves me wishing I had thought to say it that way. Looking forward to more of your books.

  17. Judy
    Judy says:

    I loved this topic. I just Xeroxed my handwritten first draft of my second book, which I did in pencil. A friend said I was wasting time doing it that way, but when inspiration comes to me in the middle of the night that’s the way I write the best. I find, like you, I’m able to write much freer by longhand.

    So, thanks for making me feel normal.

    Judy

  18. Tess
    Tess says:

    I’m thrilled to see so many writers here commenting! Dusty, it was a pleasure and a privilege to hang out with you at the VA festival. And cool, Terri Brisbin and Therese Fowler here!

    John S., you’ve given me the topic for my next blog…

  19. patry
    patry says:

    I definitely favor the Gerritsen method. Like you, I let the characters lead me into the story–not sure of the destination till I get there. And though absolutely everyone I know thinks I’m crazy, I write my first drafts longhand.

  20. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    I write scenes. Out of order, and for 2-3 novels at the same time. And I edit the wee buggers until they are no longer first draft-ish though I know I’ll have to change details once I connect the scenes in larger entities. Weird, I know, but I think that comes with the job description. 🙂

    I do have something in the way of outlines (it’s better to get a grip on the historical background of the novel first, after all) and cast lists. Those don’t prevent characters from suddenly walking in, though.

    – What are you doing here, and what’s your name to begin with?
    – Rekahari. That guy killed my dad and I want revenge.
    – I don’t need another subplot. Take that dagger and go away.
    – But you need someone who knows Irminric is only adopted. I could be useful and tell him.
    – Not now. That scene comes later, and you deserve to be killed for that assassination attempt.
    – Nay, keep my alive. I’m fun, really.

    See what I mean? That way I get epic messes with a cast of thousand and more subplots and side-plots than a street dog has fleas. But I have to agree with Rekahri, on some days it is fun. On other days I want the Romans to have known powder so I could blow the whole mess up. 😉

  21. firelight
    firelight says:

    “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.)”

    Thank GOD I’m not the only one! Reading this made me feel so much better and less like a total wannabe-klutz.

  22. firelight
    firelight says:

    Just re-read the article and noticed this line: “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.”

    LOL Almost forgot you used to be a doctor…I’m training to be a pharmacist.

  23. chris martin
    chris martin says:

    This is a great blog. I start with a rough outline of the story in my head, I usually sketch it out on paper freehand with timeline, rough sketch of characters, etc. Once that’s in place I begin writing. I think in terms of scenes and progress chapter by chapter (scene by scene, much like cinema) and the story evolves organically. Like you Tess characters, places, plot may change as new situations are introduced. I found your description INCREDIBLY helpful because I have written myself into corners so many times, spent nights awake trying to figure out how to make it work, and I’m not even PUBLISHED fer pete’s sake!! My wife must think I’m nuts. One of these days I will be paid for all of this angst.

    Best,

    Chris

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply