I’m getting mentally psyched up for my upcoming UK book tour for VANISH, and trying to anticipate the questions I’ll be asked by interviewers. There’s always the inevitable one, of course: “Where did you get the idea for this book?”
But very few interviewers follow it up with the next logical question: “How did you get from THAT idea to THIS book?”
Because that’s where the hard part of being a writer comes in.
As I’ve said before, the story for VANISH was launched because of a news article I’d read about a woman “corpse” waking up in the morgue. That was all I had to start with. No other plot elements, no sense of what comes next. Just a reawakened corpse. Other writers might have taken it in completely different directions. Maybe the “corpse” gets up and flees into the night. Or she has amnesia and must recover her lost past. Or she’s a covert ops agent who’s been discovered and now must complete her mission on the run.
I had no idea who this “dead” person was. The only idea I had, as I wrote the book, was that this character would keep us off balance. That she’d confuse us, and make us switch our loyalties. Repeatedly.
That’s all I had. I wanted to be surprised. So I set out to surprise myself.
First, she wakes up in a body bag. (She starts off as a victim. Or is she?)
She goes bonkers, kills a security guard, and takes hostages in a hospital. (Okay, now she’s a villain!)
In the course of the hostage crisis, she starts raving about wild conspiracies. (Oh. She’s just nuts.)
In a final shoot-out, she’s killed in the melee — and an autopsy reveals that she was clearly executed by federal agents. (So WHAT is she? A villain? A victim? Or just a crazy woman?)
I didn’t know the answer until I finished writing the book. This seems to astound a lot of people, who assume that a complex thriller must be plotted out ahead of time, in intricate detail, or the pieces won’t fit together. That I am somehow coldly systematic about my writing, producing slick copy ready for Hollywood.
Lord, I wish I DID work that way.
To watch me create is to see someone lost in the wilderness, wandering this way and that, getting mired in quicksand, falling off an occasional cliff. I didn’t know where I was going. The only plan I had was to follow this strange and enchanting and dangerous woman Olena and discover who — and what — she really was. This is not a slick way to write. This is plotting by gut instinct. It’s a method designed to turn your hair gray.
But it’s the only way I know how to do it.