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Friday, June 08, 2012

Tess Gerritsen ~ I Have No Idea How I Do It ~

Tess Gerritsen left a successful practice as an internist to raise her children and concentrate on her writing. She gained nationwide acclaim for her first novel of medical suspense, the New York Times bestseller Harvest. She is also the author of the bestsellers Life Support, Bloodstream, Gravity, and The Surgeon. Tess lives with her family in Maine. (PHOTO CREDIT: Paul D'Innocenzo) --as appeared on Murderati on May 31, 2011

I Have No Idea How I Do It 

Later this year, I'll be a guest author at a literary festival.  The organizers asked me to teach a six-hour writing class for a group of aspiring authors, but the thought of standing alone in front of a class for six straight hours gave me a panic attack.  After a few sleepless nights fretting over this frightening assignment, I finally got up the courage to say no.  I just can't teach this course.

Because what I know about writing novels wouldn't fill six hours. I can talk for maybe an hour about where my ideas come from.  I can talk for another hour about how I conduct my research.  But my memories of getting from Point A in any novel (the first sentence) to Point Z ("The End")  are always pretty hazy.  I can't tell you much about it beyond the fact it meant long hours in one position and involved a great deal of moaning. A bit like the labor and delivery of my two sons.

Now, it's true that Michael Palmer and I teach an annual weekend workshop on fiction writing for doctors, but during that weekend, we're a tag team.  When I run out of things to say, he jumps in and starts talking.  And vice versa.  That workshop covers far more than just writing; we talk about the business, numbers, getting an agent, book promotion, etc.  We make our students stand up and read excerpts of their own stories.  So it's not as if I've ever lectured for hours on the writing process.

In fact, if you ask me to explain how I write a book, I'd have a hard time giving you much concrete advice, because the process of storytelling is not concrete.  It's rather squishy, if that makes any sense.  I call it squishy because just when I think I've captured the plot, it oozes like an amoeba in another direction and I have to chase after it.  A story is not a rock-solid building constructed with math and physics; too often it grows into a deformed, pulsating monster that consumes my life and sends its hapless creator into despair.

Writing a book is hard work. It's frustrating, it's unpredictable, and it will suck you dry.

I may not be able to talk about book-writing for six hours, but I can muster up a few personal storytelling tips that have served me through 23 books.  And these have nothing to do with which pen you should use or which word-processing system or whether you should write in the morning or at night or upside down. 
Those things really don't matter.  But I think these things do:

1. Find a premise that makes you angry or sad or shocked or astonished.  A premise that makes your heart squeeze or your stomach drop.  A premise that is not just intellectual, but emotional.

2. Which means your story must never, ever be about "a slice of life."  Please.  If I want slices, I'll reach for salami.

3. Wait until you hear a character talking in your head, in a voice that's so vivid, you'd recognize it on the street. The voice I hear is often very different from my own.  Maybe it's a character who's far younger or funnier or more biting or just plain creepy.  I'm not writing my story; I'm writing their story.  But I can't start writing until they talk to me.

4. Feel something.  Every paragraph, every page, every scene, you must be feeling some emotion.  Just as your characters are feeling something.

5. Write the scene from the point of view of the character who's most uncomfortable or off-balance, who's feeling the most internal conflict.  The character who least wants to be there.

6. Tension -- or conflict -- is the engine that makes a scene move.  Without tension, your story's dead in the water.

7. Action is not the same thing as tension.  Sometimes, action is just plain boring.

8. Show us Stuff Happening.  Don't tell us about it happening.  Don't tell us about a mother's grief.  Let us hear the squeal of the brakes.  Let us see the mother kneeling, shrieking over her child in the road.

9. Don't abandon a manuscript prematurely.  Finish the first draft.  Even a story that looks like a monster at the halfway point can morph into George Clooney.


  1. This is great advice, Tess. What I love is recently Gina put out an idea to me and it sparked a flame I didn't know was there. It's growing like mad and I'm in the research mode, getting more excited everyday!

    So sometimes, those #4 "feelings" can come from a writing buddy or someone outside yourself. Then, if the #3 begins, you know you've got something.

    Thanks, G. And thanks, Tess, for the advice.

  2. Great stuff Tess. I usually teach one hour workshops but was asked to teach a 4 day continuing ed class. I had a minor panic attack and thought there was no way I could fill 4, 1 hour 15 minute slots. But when I broke it down into 4 segments, thinking of it as 4 workshops instead of one class, it was less overwhelming. Turns out I had waaaaay more material than time.

    Love when you're with us!

  3. ps and Ane, the genre was as much Jess' idea as mine. It was my conversation with her that led me to talk to you. Strand of 3 baby!

    1. You're absolutely right!! THanks, Jess!

  4. i love your novels, Tess. Keep it up.

  5. Great advice. Number one really struck me.

  6. Love your simple teaching style. Pretty sure I could listen to you for six hours.

  7. Please, not George Clooney. ;)

  8. Nicole, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with George Clooney!
    It's been a year since I wrote this blog post. I've just finished another manuscript, and the process is STILL squishy. But I would add one other tip. When I get stuck (plot block is the term for it) I get behind the wheel of a car and drive somewhere. A really boring road is good. I thought it was just something I did, until I read the book IMAGINE by Jonah Lehrer and discovered that driving inspires alpha brain waves which leads to daydreaming which leads to those AHA! moments.

    1. Beg to differ, Tess. ;) Much prefer Johnny Depp. (And neither's politics, but I bet we differ there too. ;) )

      Driving, walking, praying, staring.

    2. I'm going to be exploring a lot of back roads, then. This is great news, Tess. I always knew I loved to drive, but didn't know that tidbit. Thanks!

  9. Long walks do the same for me. I haven't tried driving but it makes sense that it would do the same thing.

  10. Tess, thanks for supporting the 'uncomfortable character' POV. I'm happiest when the Thief on the Cross gets a voice through one of my character craws.

  11. Brilliant tips here! Thank you! You've given me a lot to think about as I embark on a new novel. :)


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