Getting the engine warmed up

As you may have noticed, it’s been a while since I’ve written a proper blog post. It’s just the time of year that’s got me preoccupied, with Christmas shopping and family issues and trying to get the next book moving forward.

At the moment, I’m having my usual “where do I start this story?” dilemma. It’s the next Jane and Maura novel, and I know where it’s going, and how my characters are drawn into the crisis, but I have to choose exactly where to open the tale. Should the first scene be a prologue? What does it add to the story? Is it simply an artificial way to inject action early into a novel, or does it offer some important clue that enlightens what happens later?

And then there are the characters, several of them never before introduced. Should they immediately be in conflict with each other? If done badly, that instant conflict can seem over-the-top and melodramatic. Or should these conflicts build slowly and more subtly, like a steadily worsening itch? Would that make the pace start off a little slower than readers may like?

Writing a book is a series of choices. Which word do I choose for a particular sentence — climbed, scrambled, or ascended? Is this new character Arlo fat and balding, or just balding? Does he wear glasses, and does it matter? Whose point of view should this scene be told from? Confronted by too many choices, I sometimes feel paralyzed and end up staring at a blank page for hours. And that paralysis is so unnecessary, because I’ll probably change it all anyway when I do my rewrites.

This time around, I’ve written a very detailed working synopsis for myself, so I know the structure in advance. But it doesn’t seem to be speeding up the writing process one whit.

12 replies
  1. PackingPadre
    PackingPadre says:


    As a rule, I don’t like prologues, the exception being if the book deals with a murder that’s 20-years cold and you want to give some details of it to give the rest of the book context. (Man was that a run-on sentence.)

    But there’s one thing I’m sure of, synopsis or not, in your hands, the keyboard will make Maura and Jane come alive.

    That’s a real talent, because for many mystery, romance, thriller writers _ I don’t know where to pigeon-hole you _ the plot’s the thing. And some are damned entertaining.

    But you, Nevada Barr, P.D. James and Faye Kellerman can bring characters to life so we care about what happens to them.

    So long as you do that, I’ll buy every book you write.

    Father Daniel

  2. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    Some of my work I use a synopsis as well.
    Seems to save me hours of staring at white space on the monitor. And if you have to rewrite, well, you have to rewrite.

    Afterall, it’s just a first draft.

  3. joey_j
    joey_j says:

    I love it when a book takes me through a plot and emphasizes bits of information which appear to help unravel the mystery but were rabbit holes. And stories don’t need to wrap things up in a pretty bow.

    Also, your description of writers block is familiar to us Software Engineers. We, too, stare blankly at a computer screen for hours trying to stabilize the somewhat chaotic and conflicting thoughts and ideas.

    Your characters have always had a surreal quality. And because of that, I’m certain they will come alive in this new story…

  4. MattScudder
    MattScudder says:

    Wow. I know you usually wing your books. What made you decide to work with a synopsis this time?

    I find writing a synopsis almost harder than writing the actual book. There are so many small details that go into a story. I tend to either put so much detail into a synopsis it starts looking like actual narrative, or so little I have a hard time properly envisioning the story.

    I guess that’s why I prefer sketchy outlines, sort of just bullet points to get me from one part of the story to the next.

  5. Tess
    Tess says:

    Matt, this time around, I thought I would try to be as organized as other authors I know. So I wrote a really elaborate 14-page, single-spaced outline for the story. Only 30 pages into the draft, I’m already diverging from it! (But at least I know who the bad guy is!)

  6. Dan
    Dan says:

    After listening to you at the SEAK conference I decided to go without an outline on my second novel. I would on occasion write down thoughts about the general direction of the plot, but for the most part I let my creative juices direct me while I did the writing. I just finished the first draft and it’s sitting for the holidays. Interesting that you are using more outline for your book. Maybe the most important thing is to remember “there are no rules” and try different approaches. Merry Christmas.

  7. Abe
    Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    Merry Christmas. One question. When you write a book, what goes through your mind? “What do I want to write?” or “What do I want my readers to read?” It seems from your books that you do a combination of the two. You have such a brilliant mind that the stories just leap onto the pages, even if you have to do a dozen re-writes, and what Father Daniel wrote above seemes appropriate,”…..But you, Nevada Barr, P.D. James and Faye Kellerman can bring characters to life so we care about what happens to them.”
    Keep doing what you’ve been doing, Tess. I know it’s a long drawn out process, but in the end, your readers benefit from your hard work and deep devotion to us. We may not say this to often, usually from a parent to a child, but from us readers to you, “We are so proud of you.” We thank you for your had work and diligence to make our lives comfortable in the books that we read. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

  8. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    If Tess will allow…..

    I thought I’d remind everyone here of something important to book lovers and writers alike

    You claim you have no time to read correct?
    So busy with the kids and the Holidays and out of town guests and returning gifts you didn’t like and cooking and shopping and
    being stuck in Holiday traffic and the crowds and the phone calls and blah blah blah….
    and so now the Holidays are over (well, aside from New Years eve but the BIG one is over and done) and many of you have a whole week to relax

    So go visit your favorite bookstore and buy something new (or an old one you haven’t found the time to catch up with) from your favorite author.
    Heck, go buy something from Tess that you just hadn’t found time to read yet.

    Because sometime next week, many of you will grow tired of your Holiday guests and want some alone time right? So let them take over the television and the DVD player.

    Make yourself some hot chocolate, go to your bedroom or study, lock the door, take the phone of the hook and sit down and spend a quiet hour or two with a nice book

    Support literacy
    Support bookstores
    Support your favorite writer
    Give literacy a boost before the year ends and go and buy a book!

  9. PackingPadre
    PackingPadre says:

    I’m backlogged with books, rather grateful that my favorite author, Tess Gerritsen, isn’t coming out with a new one this year, especially since Nevada Barr is.

    But I agree. Turn off the television, unhook from the internet and settle in with a book by a favourite author. Tess I discovered as soon as she left romance, sorry not my genre, but I’ve got plenty of Nevada Barr to catch up with. And of course PD James has a new Dalgliesh that’s waiting at the post office.

    But Tess is my favourite, maybe a bit of Maine chauvinism, maybe because of the kind of person she is. So next year, Jane and Maura, together again.

    Father Dan

  10. CD1
    CD1 says:

    I like your idea of new characters already in conflict. It sounds edgy and fun, particularly as the remainder of th book will revolve around your triedan true serial characters. Why not turn convention upside down and make the reader have to close the book and stare at the cover for a second to make sure they have the right novel. Intriguing!

  11. therese
    therese says:

    Ah, the after holiday pause! Time to read, time to brainstorm a new book. Time to write.

    I enjoy story-boarding ideas on post it notes, on a poster board. The benefit of this is being able to move the post-its around and those days when I’m stumped with a blank screen, I can have a productive pause. Instead of cruising the internet, I can stare are the story board and let my mind rest on the known – and maybe – have inspiration tap my shoulder.

    If not, I skip the beginning and just sketch in a few words, blurbs, and jump into a section that makes my fingers itch to type. What becomes the final version, after edits, rewrites and resting times, never resembles what was written in first draft. I like trying different creative processes (outline, storyboarding, seat of the pants) at different stages of the process to fuel the muse.

    Thanks for this post, it’s stirring ideas for more.
    Happy Holidays! A new year is around the corner.

  12. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    I’m happy to hear you don’t normally do a complete synopsis to work from. I imagine it can be a dual edge sword: both acting as a catalyst when you’re bogged down, and an unconscious roadblock when your mind weaves other threads not already outlined.

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