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Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Michael Palmer and me, with one of our doctor-students
Over the weekend, fellow thriller writer Michael Palmer and I taught an intensiveÂ writing workshopÂ exclusively for doctors whoÂ want to write fiction.Â Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: Doctors?Â Don’t they make boatloads of money?Â Why would they want to trade in their stethoscopes forÂ a semi-impoverished life as a novelist?
The truth is, doctors don’t make boatloads of money these days.Â Michael and I are both physicians, so we understand their lives.Â They makeÂ comfortable livings, it’s true.Â But their jobs are stressful, the hours are long, and there’s always the threat of a malpractice suit hanging over their heads.Â Many of them want out of medicine.Â And they wantÂ to tell stories.Â They’re hungry to tell stories.Â
They’re just likeÂ other budding novelists — except they’ve gotÂ the M.D. behind their names.Â
Among agents and editors,Â though, doctor-writers have bad reputations.Â Some doctors are indeed arrogant, simplyÂ because they’ve achieved so much in their careers and they’reÂ used to getting straight A’s.Â Â They assume thatÂ novel-writing is like any other intellectual endeavor: you study the guidelines, read a few books about writing, do the work, andÂ of course someÂ NYC editor will wantÂ to publish your 600-page masterpeice.
It’s a rude awakening when they get their first rejection letter.Â They’re stunned.Â Maybe they’re angry.Â Â What’s the trick? they demand.Â Whom do you have to kiss up to?Â That’sÂ the secret,Â isn’t it?Â You have to know someone!
Over the weekend, Michael and I had to give them the sobering truth: getting published is hard.Â Hell, writing is hard.Â Even after years as bestselling novelists, both Michael and I admitted that we still get scared every time we start a new book.Â We wonder how we did it the last time, and whether we can pull it off again.Â We told them that just coming up withÂ ideas for our next booksÂ makes us lose sleep.Â
But surely that’s got to be the easy part, most students think.Â Doesn’t everyone have ideas for a story?
Of course they do, we explain. Â But not everyone has aÂ great idea.Â And so we take them through a what-if exercise.Â We ask them to distill their books down to one or two-sentence questions.Â I give them a few what-ifs that I’ve used: “What if a medical examiner encounters a dead woman who isÂ her exact double?” (Body Double).Â “What if a serial killer working in a medical lab uses patients’ blood testsÂ to choose his victims?”Â (The Surgeon).Â Michael and I ask our students to share their what-ifs and we critique them.Â Many of them fall flat (“What if there’s an evil pharmaceutical company?”). Â A few of themÂ hit home runs.Â We tried to explain why the good ones worked, but we couldn’t always come up withÂ concrete reasons why they did.Â All I could say was, “I know it when I feel it.Â When I get that emotional punch.Â Â That’s a good idea.”Â
In short, knowing when it’s a good idea is subjective, not logical.Â It’s what I feel in my gut.Â It’s also how I write my books — not with any sense of logic, but by feeling my way through it.Â By instinctively knowing what’s dramatic and what’s not.Â
And that is a pretty unsatisfying answer for people who’ve been educated in theÂ hard facts of science.Â They wantedÂ formulas.Â TheyÂ expected algorithms.Â They don’t like this “you’ll know it when you feel it” stuff.Â
Halfway through the first day of teaching, Michael and I could feel their frustration.Â They didn’t get it, and they were starting to despair.Â They wanted to know the secret and we just weren’t telling them!Â Â
But what we told them is the secret to good writing: you feel your way through this.Â IÂ don’t use an algorithm to create a character or write dialogue.Â I don’tÂ even know who my characters are as IÂ breathe life into them; they take shape on their own, and I just coax them along, massaging color into theirÂ faces and their lives.Â
By the second day, I think some of our students were starting to understand that writing books isn’t like earning a degree.Â You canÂ try and try for decades, yet never manage to write a decent book.Â Some of them came with the mistakenÂ belief that they could write three chapters of a novel, and an agent would take them on, just like that.Â “Isn’t three chapters enough to show that I can do it?” they ask.
We told them: no, it isn’t.Â Â Three chaptersÂ doesn’t tell an agent that you can sustainÂ a story.Â It doesn’t prove to her that you understand drama and conflict and pacing.Â Write the whole book.Â That’s the first step to provingÂ you’re a writer.Â Â
At the end of the weekend, they were exhausted.Â And Michael and I were even more exhausted.Â In those two days, we had tried to impart the wisdom we’d collected over a combined forty five years of writing experience.Â You just can’t teach it all in two days.Â Â But we did teach them the mostÂ important thing, andÂ it’s this: writing is hard, and not everyone can do it.Â
Even if everyone thinks they can.