Sex Change Operations. Sometimes they’re absolutely necessary.

Ho-kay. Truth is, I could dish forever about the business of writing and the mechanics of bestseller lists. Maybe it’s my science background, but I love hard numbers. I love to hear them, share them, exchange them, talk about them. But after I saw how one little number (#17) got me into so much trouble, I think I’ll switch to a far safer topic. Which is…Sex change operations. Sometimes they’re absolutely necessary.

A reader wrote me recently about the plot description that a bookstore chain had printed about my upcoming book, VANISH, in its “new titles” brochure:

“A man about to be autopsied comes back to life, but he’s not very grateful. Rushed to the hospital, he shoots a security guard and takes hostages – one of them a very pregnant Detective Jane Rizzoli.” The reader said she later read the actual plot description on Amazon.com.

“According to Amazon,” she wrote me, “the reawakened corpse in VANISH is a WOMAN, not a man! You should complain to that bookstore chain for getting the plot completely wrong. What a a dumb mistake!”

Um, actually, it’s not the bookstore’s fault at all for getting the hostage taker’s sex wrong. It’s mine. And it’s all because of the completely disorganized way I go about plotting my books. (If my editor is reading this, I want her to now close her eyes!)

Months and months before I turned in the finished manuscript of VANISH to my publisher, I wrote the book proposal, which was a five-page summary of the story I planned to write. In that summary, the corpse-turned-hostage-taker IS a man. A former black-ops guy, cornered and driven by desperation because he knows a secret that will get him killed. I turned in that proposal, then plunged into writing the story, not knowing yet what that secret was, just knowing what the initial set-up was: that Jane Rizzoli is in the hospital to have her baby. That she ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. That the fact she is a cop could get her killed, if the crazy guy was to find out her identity. Writing a book is as much an act of discovery for me as it is for my readers reading it, and that’s what VANISH was for me — a twisting path with an end I couldn’t have foreseen.

Then, about two thirds of the way through the book, the writing came to a screeching halt. I knew SOMETHING was wrong, but I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Plus, I STILL didn’t know what the hostage taker’s dangerous secret was. And by then, the book should have been nearly done! Feeling pretty panicky at that point, I then had to head out to Abilene to address a writers conference. During those long drives past cattle and scrub brush, I mulled over why I couldn’t make headway on VANISH, why the story wasn’t working for me. The answer came to me in a flash of revelation.

I had the sex of my hostage taker all wrong! It wasn’t a man. It was a WOMAN.

Suddenly, the plot opened up in ways I’d never foreseen. The twists turned weirder, the secrets darker, the situation even more desperate than I realized. By the time the story was written, it was markedly different from the original book proposal. Only the premise remained intact: “A corpse wakes up in the morgue and takes Jane Rizzoli hostage.”

In the meantime, the catalogue copy for VANISH had already been published, using my original storyline. And that’s the copy that bookstores and libraries used to describe VANISH. In the meantime, the original plot I had given them had since — well, vanished!

I use this as an illustration that there are no firm rules to writing a book. Some of us are seat-of-the-pants writers who don’t know what’s going to happen on the next page. I also know writers who don’t set down a word of text until they’ve planned every single plot twist from beginning till end. They line up their ducks in a row and only then do they start to write, using their synopsis as a blueprint. They don’t waste time backtracking out of blind alleys, or struggling with writers block, or performing last-minute sex change operations.

I wish I could write that way. It would save me a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of wasted pages. But after nineteen books, I know how I operate as a writer, and I’ve become comfortable with my own process. When I speak at writers conferences, I tell people: There’s no right way or wrong way to write a novel. Don’t let anyone tell you that you HAVE to outline your story ahead of time. (Don’t even let them tell you that you have to be organized. They should take a look at my desk!) Just do it the way that works for you. All that matters is that you FINISH the book.

And that you’re happy with it.

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