Creative Torment



Those who don’t write for a living probably imagine that a novelist’s life is one of gleefully typing stories that flow easily out of our brains. Lemme tell ya, there’s nothing easy about it. At least, it isn’t easy for me. The past four months have actually been pretty darn miserable, as I struggled to finish my newest Rizzoli & Isles book, LAST TO DIE. I’ve mentioned before that my writing process is pretty much along the lines of “take a leap and see where you land.” My deadline was June 1.

The book started off well enough. Three orphans, survivors of family massacres in different cities around the world, are living with foster families. And now, two years after the first massacres, the foster families are murdered. Once again, these three children are the only survivors. What ties these orphans together? Who wants them all dead? To keep them safe, the police move the orphans to the mysterious Evensong boarding school in Maine, set in a remote castle surrounded by forest. (Evensong is the school where Julian “Rat” Perkins, the sixteen-year-old boy who saved Maura’s life in ICE COLD, now lives.) But at Evensong, things are not what they seem. And when dead bodies start turning up there, Jane and Maura wonder if the killer is already inside the castle gates.

I loved the premise, loved writing about the three plucky orphans, loved seeing Rat together with Maura again.

But by mid=March, I was 3/4 finished and still had no idea where the story was going. I didn’t know whodunit or whydunit.

I woke up every night with a pounding heart, sweating and panicked that the book was a disaster. (Yeah, you’ve all heard that before.) I sat at my desk 12 hours a day, fighting with the pages. I kept glancing at the calendar, seeing that June 1 deadline roaring at me.

And then, in the midst of all that stress, I packed for my two-week Germany/Netherlands book tour.

This is the point where (as usual) I decided my career was over. I’d finally been defeated by The Book That Refused To Be Written. I would fly home from Germany, confess to my editor that there was no manuscript, and then I’d disappear into a cave.

During that German book tour, I ended up on a train ride through the countryside. The trip was a few hours, and I spent it staring out the window at the passing landscape, feeling utterly defeated and depressed. And that was when it hit me: the solution to my plot problems. How to make all the puzzle pieces fit together. How to tie it up in a thrilling way that made sense. I remember looking at my husband during that train ride and saying: “I’ve got it! I’ve figured it out!”

Yes, I had that blessed Eureka! moment. And it was the train ride that did it.

I came home from Germany and eight weeks later, LAST TO DIE was written and turned in right on deadline.

It’s my 24th book, and like every book I’ve written before, it caused me no end of misery. Because, as Jonah Lehrer says in his book IMAGINE, the creative process is hard work. A good writer makes it look easy; sometimes the clearest writing takes the most skill to pull off.

But once a book is finished, how quickly we forget the misery of the process, the sleepless nights, the anxiety attacks. Instead, all we want to do is pick up the pen and write: Chapter One

5 replies
  1. PackingPadre
    PackingPadre says:

    I’m looking forward to this one, Tess. But your comments reminded me of why I stick to journalism and don’t try to compete with you in the novelist gig.


  2. jenndouglas
    jenndouglas says:

    I am SO excited for this one.. I have been reading the rizzoli and isles series since about 23 yrs old I am 29 now and I love them!
    I don’t mean to offend you in any way but I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ice Cold. It’s OK though, I’m looking forward to the new one!

  3. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    Your excellent insights into getting past the rough spot with a deadline hovering reads very much like your thrillers. I am surprised though that you let the angst build up so much from your position in the hierarchy of bestselling novelists. I guess it’s the same inner drive that got you there though. That kind of stress even for a short period can knock you down health wise. I can imagine what the euphoria figuring it out must have been like. 🙂

  4. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    Yeah, train rides through Germany work like a charm for getting un-stuck. Happened to me as well. 🙂

    What I found interesting is that one can start writing a thriller witout knowing who did it and why. I thought even with no outline that would be the central point to know, like historical facts are for me (and I’m pretty much a panster, too).

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