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Friday, March 15, 2013

Listen Up ~ Classic Advice from Tess Gerritsen

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 her blog.

Won't Take Advice?  Good Luck!

by Tess Gerritsen (reprinted)

          I'm a big fan of persistence.  Anyone who's listened to me talk about what makes a writer successful will almost always hear me say that persistence is one of the characteristics of the successful author.  The business is designed to weed out those of us who don't have the determination to keep writing, through rejection after rejection.  But the flip side of persistence is sheer, blind stubbornness, and that is just as likely to doom your chances of making it as a writer.
            I ran into just such an example of blind stubbornness a few weeks ago.  I was attending a writing conference and had the chance to meet many aspiring novelists. Over lunch, I got into a conversation with two of those unpublished novelists, and asked them  about their work.  Both had completed their manuscripts.  Both were eager to tell me about their plots.  The gentleman on my right, an attorney, quickly launched into his premise.  Within three sentences, he had me hanging on his words.  I got that wonderful punch in the gut that told me: Yes!  This guy has a story I want to read!  I don't want to give it away because it's his plot, not mine.  All I can tell you is that he was able to tell me in short order who his main character was, what motivated that character, and what the over-arching crisis was.  And it was a doozy.
            I then turned to the writer on my left.  She too had completed her manuscript -- in fact, she was almost finished with her second.  It took her about ten minutes to tell me what the story was about, and basically it was this: a man and a woman are in love, but the man decides to go to sea, and spends the whole novel coming to the realization that he loves the woman enough to give up his seafaring life and marry her.  In the meantime, the woman has to convince her family that she belongs with this man.  Finally, in the very last chapter, the man and woman meet up again and get married.  The end.
            I asked the writer, "What's the major challenge these characters face?  Other than finally making up their minds?"
            She said, "That is the challenge."
            Is there something keeping them apart?  A villain, perhaps?  Someone or something that keeps them from their goal?"
            "No.  The real story is about how the woman finally grows up and decides that she shouldn't listen to anyone else, only her own heart."
            "But what's the conflict?" I asked her.  "Something external, not just two people fighting with their doubts?"
            "Oh," she said.  "I hate conflict! I don't understand why stories always have to have conflict.  It's so formulaic."
            I told her, quite honestly: "Without a central conflict, the story sounds like it might have a hard time selling."
            She gave a dismissive wave. "That's what the agents keep telling me.  All they ask for is conflict, conflict, conflict!  "
            She had submitted the manuscript to dozens of agents and editors. Needless to say, no one wanted it.   So she'd gone the self-publishing route, and all her friends told her the book was a work of genius.  "I've decided that this book deserves to be hand-sold," she said.  "Not handled like all that popular junk out there."
            (Which is probably what she thinks my books are.)
            The conversation, I'm afraid, didn't much improve over the course of that lunch.  I kept trying to offer her bits of advice.  Based on the plot description, I thought the book sounded like it belonged in the romance genre.  "And if it's a romance," I told her, "There's a problem with keeping the hero and heroine apart for the entire story."
            "I hate romance novels," she said.
            "But it's a love story, isn't it?"
            "Yes, but it's not a romance.  It's not one of those books."
            "Have you read many romance novels?" I asked her.
            "I've tried.  But they're all so horrible."
            "So what is your book?  How would you categorize it?"
            "It's not any genre at all," she said.  (By that point, I think she was pretty well fed up with my asking her idiotic questions.  After all, who the hell was I but a popular fiction author?)  "It's something bigger!  It's  --  why, it's a coming of age novel!" she said.
            At that point, I think she expected me to genuflect.  But secretly, I was thinking: Oh no! Another one of those dreaded coming-of-age manuscripts.  Not that there's anything wrong with a coming-of-age novel -- it's just that so many of them are written by people who can't sell theirs, and they proclaim loudly that it's because publishers only buy crap.  They can't come up with any other explanation for why no one wants their work of genius. 
            Even though this particular writer had heard the same advice from multiple agents, she refused to believe that there was anything wrong with her manuscript.  No, the problem was with everyone else -- the agents, the editors, the monolithic monster known as New York publishing.  Everyone, including yours truly, was telling her that her story needed a central conflict, but she refused to re-write her novel.  She was right, and everyone else was wrong.
            Now, it's true that you can't  always trust the advice that others give you.  During my career, I've been told not to write a series, only stand-alones, because "stand-alones always sell better".  I've been told that I should stick with medical thrillers and not write crime novels.  I considered that advice carefully, and eventually chose to go with my own instincts. But the point is, I did listen.
            Even established writers don't have total control over their creations.  We listen when editors tell us our stories still need work.  We listen when the marketing department tells us our "perfect" book titles are clunkers.  We've learned to accept advice and work as part of the team, because even though writing may be a solitary profession, the business of publishing is not. 


  1. Tess,

    Oh my goodness. Such great timing! I'm heading to a one-day conference in San Diego next week and I'm trying to prepare my pitch. I love what you said up there - totally challenged me about how to make my pitch effective: "The gentleman on my right... QUICKLY launched into his premise. Within THREE sentences, he had me HANGING on his words.... He was able to tell me IN SHORT ORDER who his MAIN CHARACTER was, what MOTIVATED that character, and what the over-arching CRISIS was. And it was a DOOZY."

    That's my goal this week. I have a doozy of a story, and I aim to LAUNCH a pitch that will have my audience HANGING on my words within THREE sentences, that will unveil the MAIN CHARACTER, the MOTIVATION, and the CRISIS, in a way that will make them sit up and say, "Wow. That's a DOOZY of a story! Bring it!"

    Thank you!

  2. Great advice, Tess. What's funny is how people will take the advice of their friends, who are not published, over that of a multi-published author, someone who's where they want to be.

  3. Bravo, Tess. There are many of us who hang on the words of published authors, soaking it all in, and then applying it. We may wait years for that plum traditional publishing contract, but it's worth it. Because the work will prove itself.

    Thank you for all you do to help all of us!

  4. There is definitely lots of not so great advice out there and even from those of us who are published, but we got here because we knew at least something. I always tell folks if one person says it, think about it, if two say it, think hard about it, if 3 or more say it, you're probably wrong and they're probably right. I've learned with that personality, you can talk until you're blue in the face and get nowhere. The #1 trait of those who are successful, in my humble opinion, is teachability. Good stuff, Tess.

  5. That's funny, though in a sad way. I remember the first time an agent told me all the was wrong with my manuscript. I was angry for most of the day, then took a breath and actually thought about what she'd said. As it turns out, the advice that angers me the most is usually the most helpful. Writing is an art, certainly, but every artform has its standards and basic structure. We get to bend the rules as we perfect our craft, but we cannot get ahead of ourselves. First learn the rules, then tinker with them. And be prepared to reign yourself in when that doesn't work. Great post, Tess. Thanks.


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