Category Archives: Tess Gerritsen

what’s your platform?

I first heard the term “author’s platform” about 4 years ago, when I was one of the presenters on a publishing panel.  An aspiring author in the audience complained to us: “I’ve been told it’s impossible to sell a first novel these days unless the author has a platform.”  Being clueless about the term, I didn’t know how to respond.  The word “platform” conjured up in my mind a wooden box or some sort of rickety stage, and I couldn’t see how that was going to help anyone sell a book.  Luckily, an editor on our panel was able to jump in with the answer that yes, having a platform is a real plus, but it’s not necessary for a first sale.

Since I didn’t want to look stupid, I just nodded as if I knew what the hell they were talking about.

Although I haven’t heard the word officially defined, I’ve since come to my own understanding of what the term means.  Your life experience, your area of expertise, and your public persona are all part of your “platform.”  It qualifies you as just the person to write that particular book, and it makes you more promotable as an author. If you have a platform, you’re not just another novelist who’s dreamed up a story; you’re someone with a unique perspective who has secrets to share, someone with real information that makes journalists come calling.  

And yes, it does sell books.

I had to write nine books before I figured that out for myself.  I started off as a romantic suspense author, and even though I’m a physician, my stories had almost nothing to do with medicine.  Instead they featured cops and spies, with only an occasional nurse or physician appearing in the cast of characters.  As a romance author, I was writing without a platform, and even though I was getting published, I couldn’t make a living on it.

Then I wrote a medical thriller, HARVEST.  Suddenly, people got interested in my books. A major publishing deal and much publicity followed. Yes, the book itself had something to do with it.  But I’m convinced that none of it would have happened, no matter how good the manuscript was, if I hadn’t been a doctor.  My platform was my medical background. An Associated Press interview focused on the fact that I was a doctor writing about what I know.  The press releases emphasized that I was showing the secret world behind operating room doors.  With enough research, it’s certainly possible that a non-medical author could have written HARVEST.  But would the book have gotten as big a push from my publisher and from the press?  I doubt it.

So yes, having a platform really does make a difference.

I can already hear the moans of despair out there from aspiring writers.  “What if I don’t have a platform?” you ask.  “Am I doomed to never sell a book?”

Ah, but the chances are, you do have a platform.  You just don’t realize it yet.  A platform can be any number of things.  It can be your occupation or some off-beat hobby.  It can be the fact you’ve spent every summer as a Civil War re-enactor.  Think about your life.  Think about your passions.  Think about what makes your life experience unique, about the secrets you know that other people don’t know.  These are all interesting details that will make you promotable.

You don’t have to be a celebrity to have a platform. Are you a geologist?  A social worker?  A waitress?  Any one of those occupations could be woven into a compelling book, and you already have the platform to write and promote it.  I, and many others, love reading about restaurants. If you’re a chef, just think of the inside tales you could tell on book tour while promoting your restaurant mystery. 

I recently read the galley of a debut mystery novel featuring a Maine park ranger.  The book is going to get a big push by the publisher, and it’s not just because it’s a good book.  The author, it turns out, has the background to talk with authority about Maine park rangers.  Read his book, and you know you’re getting the inside scoop.  You’ll also start to believe that the author is the protagonist, that they even look alike.  When that cross-identification happens, it’s magic for sales.  It’s what makes fans believe that Lee Child is Jack Reacher and Kathy Reichs is Temperance Brennan.  If you the author share the same occupation as your protagonist, readers can’t help but wonder if you’re secretly writing about yourself — and they love thinking that they know the real you.

“But what if I don’t want to use my platform?” you ask.  “What if I’m a rocket scientist but I want to write a novel about pirates on the high seas?”

If your book is really, really good, then platforms don’t matter.  And if it’s really, really lousy, a sky-high platform isn’t going to help you sell a dud.  But if you do have a platform, it only makes sense to use it.  It took me nine books to finally make use of mine.  And once I did, my career took a decidedly upward turn.

Recently, I met a veteran cop who’s sold a number of short stories to a major publication.  He’s attractive, personable, and well-spoken.  He’s written a novel, but it wasn’t a mystery novel. His literary agent sent it back to him, asking: “Where’s the cop novel? I want a cop novel.”

“I don’t want to write a cop novel,” this cop said.

This is his dilemma.  He can obviously write, but the books he wants to write won’t make use of his platform.  What should he do? Write what he wants to write, or write the story that he’s immensely qualified to write, the story that his agent is clamoring for?  Does he follow his passion or should he bow to the realities of the market?

I think he should write the cop novel. Once he’s a published author, once he’s made a name for himself, perhaps he can expand his horizons. 

But it’s something every author has to decide for himself.

Success isn’t a solo accomplishment

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much I owe my career to other people.  Yes, it all starts with sitting alone at my desk, spinning a premise into a plot, and a plot into a novel.  That much I have to do all on my own, and it’s a solitary struggle that no one can really help me with.  But once I do my job and the manuscript is completed, I have to stand back and rely on the skills of other people.  If it weren’t for the hard work of editors, publicists, sales reps, cover artists and marketing folks, I would never have hit bestseller lists.  I could fill several weeks’ worth of blogs detailing all the ways publishing professionals have contributed mightily to my success.  But today I want to thank just one group of people, a group to which I belong: authors who blurb.

When I sold my first medical thriller, I was known only as an author of nine paperback romance novels. With HARVEST, my first hardcover, I was breaking into a genre where I was a complete unknown.  The launch of any new hardcover author is a risky proposition, and HARVEST could have bombed like so many other debut novels have.  Out of all the thrillers being published that year, why should booksellers order mine?  Why should readers risk twenty bucks on an unknown?  Why should reviewers even glance at the galley? The publisher loved the book, the marketing people loved it, but how could they convince the rest of the world that HARVEST was worth their time?  In hopes of getting some good advance buzz, they sent out galleys to a number of authors, soliciting blurbs.

And here’s where my first white knight, in the guise of Michael Palmer, came riding to the rescue.  “Nonstop and terrifying,” he wrote.  “Only a riveting storyteller who is also a physician could have written this book.”

A few weeks later, James Patterson chimed in with another slam-bang quote.  In a note to my editor, he said that he didn’t do blurbs anymore, but he was making an exception for mine.

Other terrific quotes soon followed, from Philip Margolin and John Nance.  

I had never met any of these people.  I knew their names of course, but to me they were rock stars, authors I never thought would ever pick up one of my books.  This is what amazed me, that these strangers, people who owed me nothing, would so generously take the time to help out a new author.  And I am absolutely certain that those blurbs were vital to the success of HARVEST.

As my career slowly built, other authors were equally kind: Iris Johansen. Tami Hoag.  Even Stephen King gave me a quote, and his enthusiastic, paragraph-long blurb for GRAVITY was used as the lone back-cover copy on the hardcover.  I didn’t even know they’d been sent the galleys.  I didn’t solicit any of these authors; they received the galleys directly from my editor, so these authors could easily have ignored the requests.  But they didn’t.  And I will always be grateful.

Over the years I, in turn, have been delighted to blurb other debut or emerging authors. I’ve watched those authors, including Lisa Gardner, Kathy Reichs, Harlan Coben, Karin Slaughter, and James Rollins ascend to bestsellers lists around the world.  I get a kick that I “discovered” them before most other readers did.  When I come across a truly compelling book, like C.J. Box’s BLUE HEAVEN or Linwood Barclay’s NO TIME TO SAY GOODBYE, I can’t wait to get to my computer and send off a blurb.

The downside of being generous with blurbs?  You get overwhelmed by galleys.  I have at least a dozen lying around my office or stacked up by my bed, and I wish I could read them all.  I know that I won’t have the time to crack open most of them, and of those I do read, most will fall flat.  Every so often, though, I’ll find one that blows me away, one that I wish I had written.  And I remember how, years ago, Palmer and Patterson stepped in to help launch an unknown writer.

If they did it, so can we all. 





Are you an impostor?

Most of you have probably heard of Impostor Syndrome, a condition described in the linked article as “a feeling of incompetence and a belief that success is achieved by fooling others.”  Many of you probably suffer from it.  I know I do.  What’s interesting is how many apparently successful people (up to 70%) admit to it, particularly women and minorities in professions where they are underrepresented, such as women in the sciences.  Since I’m both a woman and minority, in a profession with very few Asian women novelists, I think I got a double whammy of it. 

Novelists suffer from an additional dimension of impostor syndrome, because we belong in the realm of “public figures.”  Our success depends on consumers buying our brand, and part of that brand is our image.  The public wants to believe that the romance novelist is actually romantic, that the thriller writer is dashing and daring, and the hard-boiled noir writer is — well, a gloomy alcoholic.  In truth, we may be none of those things but we do our best to play the part. Some of us even manage to convince ourselves that, yes, by god, we are dashing, daring gunslingers in black leather.  

But most of us know we’re just striking that pose for the book jacket.  

When you step out of that role and reveal your true, perfectly human personality, it can be disconcerting to the public.  They don’t want to know that you’re a quivering creature of self-doubt.  Destroy the illusion of “successful author”, and the public will smell blood and sprout fangs.  And what, exactly, is the illusion?  That you are utterly confident, fearless, and in control. That you dress stylishly and drink only the best champagne.  That nothing — bad reviews, hate mail, plunging sales  — can rattle you. That you’re invulnerable to brickbats.  You’re perfect.     

In short, that you’re James Bond, a cartoon hero who exists only in the pages of a thriller novel.

Maintaining that illusion is exhausting.  I’ve tried, but I just can’t keep it up.  There comes a time when you just have to let the mask slip, and reveal that the illusion never really existed. That the tough-girl author on the book jacket is just a hoax.  Here, I’m sorry to say, is the truth:

THE ILLUSION: A writer is confident.  THE TRUTH: Are you kidding? I am the original quivering creature of self-doubt. I know I’m here only because of luck, timing, and massive re-writes. 

THE ILLUSION: A writer is in control.  THE TRUTH: Right.  That explains why I inhaled that platter of french fries last night.  

THE ILLUSION: A writer dresses stylishly…  THE TRUTH: Well, I think L.L. Bean is stylish.

THE ILLUSION: … and drinks only the best champagne.  THE TRUTH: Are you buying?

THE ILLUSION: A writer is fearless.  THE TRUTH: Guns terrify me.  Heights terrify me.  And you know what terrifies me most of all?  Book reviewers.  

THE ILLUSION: A writer is invulnerable to brickbats.  THE TRUTH: I don’t know anyone, writer or otherwise, who likes hearing that they’re a failure.  Writers must endure it on a very public level, the equivalent of having your employer broadcast your lousy performance review to the whole world.  Over time, you learn to deal with it, but it’s never pleasant.  And sometimes, it really, really hurts. 

THE ILLUSION: A writer is an expert on the obscure subject he’s writing about.  THE TRUTH: No, we make a lot of it up. That’s why we call it fiction.   

And finally:

THE ILLUSION: A writer is perfect.  

THE TRUTH: Yes, I am.  Perfectly human.  Beset by all the doubts and angst and worries that every other person on this planet endures during a lifetime.  I’m not going to apologize for it. A writer is not an “image” or a brand or a slick mannequin in black leather.  A writer is just someone who has the rather bizarre profession of entertaining people with the written word. Other workers produce toothpaste or rocking chairs or lawsuits.  We produce stories. That’s our widget.  And all the rest of it — the glamorous photos, the black leather, the breathlessly hyped press releases?

Too often, just an illusion.

Ban my book. Please.

The Easily Offended People are at it again.  This time, it’s happening out in Milwaukee, where they have raised a ruckus about a young adult book in their local library.  Not only do they want it removed from the collection, they also want it publicly burned and destroyed (!).  (I find this case so absurd that I’ve already mentioned it on my own blog. ) The book in question is Francesca Lia Block’s Baby Be-Bop, which the complainants deemed “sexually explicit.”  They’re suing for emotional damages caused by being exposed to the library’s book display.

Milwaukee Group Seeks Fiery Alternative to Materials Challenge

Life grows more interesting by the day for officials of the West Bend (Wis.) Community Memorial Library. After four months of grappling with an evolving challenge to young-adult materials deemed sexually explicit by area residents Ginny and Jim Maziarka, library trustees voted 9–0 June 2 to maintain the young-adult collection as is “without removing, relocating, labeling, or otherwise restricting access” to any titles. However, board members were made cognizant that same evening that another material challenge waited in the wings: Milwaukee-area citizen Robert C. Braun of the Christian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU) distributed at the meeting copies of a claim for damages he and three other plaintiffs filed April 28 with the city; the complainants seek the right to publicly burn or destroy by another means the library’s copy of Baby Be-Bop. The claim also demands $120,000 in compensatory damages ($30,000 per plaintiff) for being exposed to the book in a library display, and the resignation of West Bend Mayor Kristine Deiss for “allow[ing] this book to be viewed by the public.”…

… Accusing the board of submitting to the will of the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginny Maziarka declared, “We vehemently reject their standards and their principles,” and characterized the debate as “a propaganda battle to maintain access to inappropriate material.” She cautioned that her group would let people know that the library was not a safe place unless it segregated and labeled YA titles with explicit content. However, after the meeting board President Barbara Deter emphasized that it was the couple’s “freedom of speech” to challenge any individual library holding, according to the June 3 Greater Milwaukee Today.

Attempts to ban books almost certainly go back to the age of papyrus and parchment, and the reasons may be political, religious, or moral.  But sometimes, I just have to scratch my head at what offends people.  During a recent visit to a Maine library, I asked the staff if they’d had any recent challenges to their collection.  The children’s books librarian (book banning efforts usually happen in the children’s section) laughed and said, “Oh, yeah.  One parent was outraged by a history book about famous women scientists.”

Famous women scientists?  What could possibly be offensive about that?

“It had a picture of 1940’s actress Hedy Lamarr, dressed up in typical movie star garb,” the librarian said.  (Hedy Lamarr, for those who don’t know it, was also a brilliant inventor.)  “The parent thought the photo was too racy, and she wanted us to remove the book from the collection.”  Of course, the librarian refused.

Librarians are like that. 

If a picture of a 1940’s actress can offend people, then so could just about any book, on any subject.  Recently, one of the most-challenged titles has been an illustrated children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson.  It’s based on the true story of two male penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo who bonded and together raised a penguin chick.  Immoral penguins! Horrors!

Another much-challenged book, to my astonishment, is Maurice Sendak’s delightful In The Night Kitchen, which was my sons’ favorite childhood picture book.  The reason it’s offensive? The little boy in the story falls out of his clothes and actually ends up — gasp — naked.  (Hey, if God wanted kids to be naked, he would have made them that way.)

Take a look at the list of most-challenged books in the U.S. and you’ll find some of literature’s best-known and most beloved works, from Catcher in the Rye to the Harry Potter series. In fact, that list of banned books could also be a list of the bestselling books in this country.  Merely a coincidence?  Do bestselling books end up on banned-book lists because that’s how Offended People find out about them?  Or are they bestsellers because they got challenged, thereby boosting their sales?

Most authors will agree: banning books just doesn’t work.  All it does is draw attention to the book, enticing people into reading it.    

Author Sherman Alexie (who has himself been a banned author) says: “The amazing thing is these banners never understand they are turning this book into a sacred treasure.  We don’t write to try and be banned, but it is widely known in the (young adult) world, and we love this shit.”

Yeah, we do love it.  

So please, ban my books.  I want to join that lofty pantheon of authors that includes Alexie and Sendak and Twain and Vonnegut.  My books have plenty to offend everyone.  There’s adulterous sex and graphic violence, foul language and disturbing perversions.  So go ahead, ban me!

I could use the extra sales. 



Research almost got me arrested

Among the reasons I love being a novelist, I’d have to put the fun of research at the top of the list.  Thanks to my drive for accuracy, I’ve hung around autopsy rooms, been present at the CT scanning of an ancient Egyptian mummy, and toured behind the scenes at Johnson Space Center.  Seldom do these jaunts get me into trouble.  But every so often, I’m reminded of the old adage that curiosity kills the cat.

It can put a writer in jail, too.

My near-arrest happened while I was doing research for my biological-disaster-in-space novel, Gravity.  The book takes place partly in orbit aboard the International Space Station, and partly at Johnson Space Center in Houston.  My hero, Jack McCallum, is a physician who was once in the astronaut corps, but because of a medical condition (kidney stones) will never get the chance to fly in space.  So he’s left NASA and returned to working as an E.R. doctor in a local hospital.  Now, it doesn’t really matter whether that hospital is real or fictional, but since I was already spending the week at NASA, I thought I might as well choose a real hospital for one of Gravity’s scenes, which takes place in an emergency room close to NASA.

My husband and I drove to Miles Memorial Hospital.

Since he and I are both physicians, we felt pretty comfortable walking in the front doors and taking a look around.  The lobby was busy with visitors and employees and volunteers going about their business.  I had a little notebook, in which I sketched the layout of the lobby, and my impressions of the of the place.  I checked out the gift shop, noted the location of the elevators, and just sort of wandered around trying to imprint the atmosphere in my head so that I could later write about it accurately.  We walked into the waiting area of the emergency room, took a look at where the ambulances would pull in, and again I jotted down notes.  Finally, I wanted to see which floor the ICU was on, so we rode the elevator up to that floor, just so I could see in which direction one would have to turn to walk there.  

At no time did I enter a patient area; I stayed only where a visitor who was there to see a patient might go. Finally satisfied that I’d seen enough to describe the hospital accurately, my husband and I rode the elevator back down to the lobby and headed toward the exit.

That’s when two burly security guards closed in and took us into custody.

They brought us into a back room and told us the police had been called and were on their way to arrest us. What were we guilty of?  “Trespassing,” they answered.  They’d been watching us on their security cameras, and were certain we were up to no good.  

“But we’re physicians!” we protested.  

Yeah, right.  They wanted to know what we were doing wandering around the hospital, and what exactly was I writing in that little notebook of mine?

It didn’t help that my husband had his medical license in his wallet.  It didn’t matter that I told them I was a novelist, merely there for research.  We were trespassers, and we were going to jail.

As time ticked by, and I imagined those scary Houston cops arriving to clap on the handcuffs, I kept trying to convince the two security guards that I really was a novelist. But how do you prove it?  Anyone could claim to be a writer.  Anyone could say they were doing research.  At the time, I had no website to send them to, and I had no I.D. in my wallet that said “Tess Gerritsen, novelist.”  Even worse, my pen name and my legal name are not the same.  So even if I claimed to be “Tess Gerritsen,” where was that documentation?

Suddenly, I remembered that I had a few copies of my novel Harvest in our rental car. I’d brought them along to give as gifts to my contacts at Johnson Space Center.  “Let me show you one of my books,” I told the guards.  “That will prove I really am Tess Gerritsen.”

But they wouldn’t let me walk to the car.  They wouldn’t let me out of their sight.

Finally, one of them agreed to escort my husband to the car to retrieve the book.  A few minutes later, my husband and the guard returned with the copy of Harvest.  Thank god, it had an author photo.  Also, thank god, the author photo actually looked like me.  The guards studied the book, studied my face, and suddenly broke out in smiles.

“Can we have your autograph?” they asked.

They got their autographs, and I didn’t get arrested.  We found out they were suspicious of our behavior because, several weeks earlier, a newborn had been abducted from another Houston hospital.  They thought we might be baby-nappers, there to steal an infant. Lucky for us, we never went near the obstetrics ward.

Ever since that experience, whenever I travel anywhere on research, I bring copies of my books.  It’s not just to give away as gifts (although they’re usually very much appreciated.)  It’s also to prove I am who I say I am. 

I’m not the only author who’s been forced to resort to an author photo to get out of a fix.  One author told me about the time she had the sickening realization, while standing at an airline counter, that her wallet had been stolen.  She had a plane to catch and no I.D.  But she did have her airline ticket and a copy of her book — with her author photo.  They let her on the plane.

Another author told me that he showed up for a flight one day and was immediately pulled aside and interrogated by TSA because his name (quite an ordinary one) was on the no-fly list. Despite hours of protestations that they had the wrong guy, he finally pleaded with them to check out his author website.  One look at his author photo, and they excitedly realized he really was the famous author he claimed to be.  Their next question was entirely predictable:

“Can we have your autograph?” 

Ever since then, this author always travels with a copy of one of his books.  And makes sure it has a good author photo. 

That’s an excellent idea for any author.  Your author photo may be the only thing between you and a jail cell.




Authors can die with their boots on

by Tess Gerritsen

I am no spring chicken.  It doesn’t matter that I faithfully run 45 minutes on my treadmill and pop fish oil capsules every day.  No matter how much I fight the inevitable, I won’t be seeing 30 again.  Or 40.  Or … well, stop me before I get depressed. Time marches on, and the body turns decrepit.  But it’s nice to know that, as long as my brain keeps functioning, I can stay at my job until I keel over. When it comes to the writing profession, there’s no such thing as forced retirement. 

I was reminded of this when I skimmed through my mom’s May issue of the AARP Bulletin.  In a feature called “Power of 50,” the magazine featured eleven authors whose bestselling works were written while the authors were in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.  You can take a look at them at the AARP online site.  The list includes Katherine Ann Porter (who wrote Ship of Fools at age 72) and James Michener (who wrote The Covenant at age 73).  Consider, too, all the authors who have written right up until their deaths. John Updike died in January, but a collection of his short stories will be published posthumously this month.  

Most novelists get into the business because they love telling stories, and most of them don’t want to stop. As long as there’s a publisher willing to sign them up, writers will keep on writing until death or senility overtakes them.  I can think of only one writer who retired while still healthy and at the top of her game: LaVyrle Spencer.  The occasion was so unprecedented that it was announced at a press conference, where she told the audience that she had made enough money, and now she wanted to enjoy life and spend time with her grandchildren.  I recall hearing one agent marveling that he’d never heard of any other writer quitting while at the peak of a career.

Granted, some writers won’t quit because they need the income right into their twilight years. But even those writers who don’t need the money seem to keep pecking away at those keyboards because they just. Can’t. Stop.  They’re addicted to the act of storytelling.  They’re addicted to the thrill of seeing their books on the stands.  They’re addicted to hearing readers tell them how much they loved the last book.  Their identity is so tied into being a writer that the thought of suddenly waking up one day as something else leaves them feeling empty and lost.  So they keep on writing.

And publishers are happy to keep putting out their books.  In fact, if a writer has a big enough audience, publishers will put out his books even after he’s dead.  VC Andrews and Robert Ludlum are both long gone, but the franchises refuse to die.

The wonderful thing about the writing business is that your value is based on your talent and your stories, not on your youth or even your appearance.  It doesn’t hurt to be young and photogenic, but you can still hit bestseller lists even if no one knows what you look like.  

What’s truly amazing, though, is that you can break into this profession at any age.  When I look at the list of debut authors on the International Thriller Writers site, I see a number of gray-haired first-time authors.  I can also think of two women who managed to break into the writing business at astonishingly advanced ages, and with spectacular success.   

Consider Lorna Page,:

A 93-year-old debut novelist has used the proceeds from her book to move her friends out of nursing homes and into her new country house.

When Lorna Page hit the jackpot with A Dangerous Weakness, a raunchy thriller set in the Alps, she traded in her flat for a five-bedroom house in picturesque Devon, south-west England, and invited her contemporaries to move in with her.

“Care homes can be such miserable places. You sit there all day staring out the window with no one to talk to,” she told The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph.

“I thought it would be lovely to give a home and family life to one or two people who would otherwise be sitting around there.”

Consider, also, Helen Hooven Santmeyer.  She first hit the bestseller list at age 88 (!) with her novel, And Ladies of the Club, which she wrote while in a retirement home.

It really is never too late to be a writer.

Name that character… or not

By Tess Gerritsen

Over on my own blog last week, I shared an email I received from a reader who pointed out a few details she disagreed with.  This was one of her comments:

“If you are talking about a nurse, instead of saying “nurse- do this or that” give him or her a name and refer to them by that and tag the nurse title after the name.”

She was referring specifically to a scene at the beginning of my novel, THE SURGEON, in which my heroine, a trauma surgeon named Dr. Catherine Cordell, must save the life of a man who’s bleeding to death.  Cordell comes racing into the room to find a crowd of medical personnel frantically trying to save the patient’s life.  In this scene, I don’t refer to any of the nurses by name, only by role (e.g., scrub nurse). Multiple voices are speaking in rapid-fire medical lingo, including a disembodied voice from the lab, reporting results over the intercom.  Except for Cordell, the only two characters who are given names are the senior surgical resident (Dr. Littman) and a terrified medical student who’s pulled in to assist. 

Except for Cordell and Dr. Littman, none of these characters shows up again in the book.

The reader felt that the scene demonstrated my lack of respect for the nursing profession.  If I truly respected nurses, her reasoning went, I would have given the nurses names and professional titles.  I wouldn’t just write “A nurse said: ‘I’m not getting a systolic!'”   I’d write: “JT Ellison, RN, said: ‘I’m not getting a systolic!'”

What she failed to understand is that my primary responsibility, as an author, isn’t to demonstrate my respect for every profession that shows up in the pages of my stories.  My job is to keep the pace moving, and to not confuse my readers.

Suppose I did what that reader wanted me to do, and named the nurses in the room.  Imagine how the scene might play out:


            Half a dozen faces flashed looks of relief as Catherine stepped into the room. 

  Ron Littman, the senior surgical resident, gave her a rapid-fire report.  “John Doe Pedestrian, hit and run.  No bowel sounds, BP’s down to sixty over a zip.  I did a paracentesis.  He’s got blood in his belly.”

            Catherine turned to the circulating nurse, whose name was Cornelia Read, R.N.  “Open the laparatomy tray.”

            Louise Ure, another R.N., called out: “I’m barely getting the systolic!”

            Standing across from Catherine was a scrub nurse, whose nametag said “Allison Brennan, R.N.”  Beside Allison was another nurse, Alexandra Sokoloff, who was starting the I.V.   “Where’s our O neg blood?” asked Catherine.

            Zoe Sharp, R.N., hung up the phone.  “It’s on its way.”

            The intercom buzzed.  “This is Brett Battles in the lab,” said a voice.  “I have the hematocrit results.”

            Nurse Toni McGee poked her head into the room.  “Dr. Cordell! Another patient’s just rolled in the door!”

            Catherine picked up a scalpel.  Glancing around the table, she scanned the personnel watching her.  Ron Littman.  Cornelia Read.  Louise Ure.  Allison Brennan.  Alexandra Sokoloff.  Zoe Sharp.  Toni McGee.  She registered each of the names one by one.  Then she looked down at the patient. 

            Too late.  He was dead.  (But at least she remembered everyone’s names.)

Okay, so this is an exaggeration.  But it does illustrate a point: that whenever you introduce a new character by name, you slow down the action.  You’re providing a detail so specific that it forces your readers to pause and make note of it, because they assume that you’ve provided the name for a reason.  This character must be significant.  Why else would you call attention to his name?

I recall reading a scene by a bestselling thriller author (who shall remain unnamed) that takes place on an airplane.  Within three paragraphs, the main character is introduced to about ten fellow passengers, each of whom is given a first and last name and occupation.  I remember thinking that these people must be significant to the plot, and would surely turn up later.

They didn’t.  They were never again seen in the book.  They appeared only that one time, stated their names, and vanished from the story.  To this day, I’m puzzled why the author felt he needed to throw in ten irrelevant names.  I can only guess that he wanted some friends to see their names in a book, so he obliged them — resulting in a clumsy and amateurish few paragraphs.

Obviously, characters who are significant to the plot or who appear in several scenes should be named.  Likewise, characters who contribute significant amounts of dialogue.  But with single-scene characters, it’s up to the author to decide which ones need to be named. 

Just choosing a name is a challenge, and if I can avoid having to come up with one, I will.  Sometimes, though, I’m forced to reach for my tattered copy of  “What Shall We Name the Baby?” so I can dub a character.

If there are several people with the same occupation in the scene, and I want to call attention to a particular one, I’ll give him a name.  For example, if four crime-scene techs are in the room, and one of them makes a startling discovery that results in dialogue, he’ll be the one, and only one, who gets a name.

If the character’s occupational title is too long and unwieldy, such as a “public affairs representative”, I’ll be tempted to call him “Hancock” rather than repeatedly refer to him as the “public affairs representative.”

If there’s more than one cop in the room, and they both have speaking roles, then I may give them names so I don’t have to refer to them as “cop #1” and “cop #2.”  Alternatively, I can make them physically different from each other, and use those physical differences (e.g., “the tall cop” or “the female cop”) to distinguish them.

Choosing the right name isn’t as easy as throwing a dart at the phone book.  Sometimes I’ll spend as much time settling on a name as I do writing the scene itself.  I find myself juggling a number of different issues. Does the name match my vision of the character?  (Which name sounds more like an action hero, Percy or Jack?)  Do I have a believable ethnic mix, or are there too many Smiths and Joneses in the story?  Is “John Green” too forgettable, and should I change it to “Leon Krum”?  Does the book have too many characters whose names begin with S?  Is the name hard to pronounce?  Is it weird or distracting or inadvertently hilarious?

With all these issues to think of, it’s no wonder I’m selective about which characters I choose to name.  It’s hard work!


Won’t take advice? Good luck.

 by Tess Gerritsen

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. 


We all love underdogs

Note: Great minds think alike!  Just by coincidence, both Toni and I blogged about the very same subject — the Susan Boyle phenomenon.  And we both posted our entries into the Murderati queue on Saturday.  So no, you’re not reading a repeat entry, just a different spin on a woman who’s captured everyone’s attention. 


by Tess Gerritsen

The whole world is agog about a new musical star, an unknown singer who stunned the audience at an audition for the UK equivalent of “American Idol”.  In case you’ve been sans TV and computer for the past week, the singer’s name is Susan Boyle and she’s a 47-year-old Scotswoman who’s “never been married, never even been kissed.”  Up till recently, she devoted her life to caring for her aged mum, who has since died.  Now Susan shares her home with a cat, goes to church every Sunday, and lives the quiet life of a spinster in her Scottish village.  By now, you’re getting a mental image of this woman, right?  A bit dowdy, perhaps overweight, and certainly no glamor puss.

 And you’d be right, because that’s exactly what Susan looks like.  

Yet Susan had dreams of singing before a large audience, so she plucked up the courage to perform for a packed auditorium and a panel of judges, one of them the oftentimes smirkingly cruel Simon Cowell.  As Susan walked onstage in her matronly dress, you could hear the audience giggling, could see the the male judges roll their eyes in disdain.  (The female judge, I have to say, looked genuinely respectful the whole time.  Good for her.)  But everyone else was expecting this chubby woman with the double chin and a head of frizzy gray hair to completely embarrass herself.  In fact, the audience seemed to lean forward in anticipation of the spectacle, some of them wincing at the cruelty of it all, others poised to start jeering. 

Then Susan opened her mouth and began to sing.  And suddenly, everything changed.  If you haven’t seen the video yet, here it is:

I have watched this video about five times, and every single time I get a lump in my throat.  My reaction isn’t unique; if you check the comments for the video, you’ll find many other people saying the same thing.  The video has already been viewed 25 million times and counting — and Susan’s been invited onto Larry King and Oprah, and everyone is clamoring for a CD.  

What makes this performance so powerful, to the point of inspiring tears in viewers?  Yes, Susan’s voice is impressive.  And her choice of music “I Dreamed a Dream” was especially poignant, given her own lonely circumstances of having grown up as a bullied and homely girl.  But I think the real reason this performance has touched so many of us was the simple fact that we did not expect that voice to come out of such an ordinary looking woman.  We’ve been conditioned to expect singers to be young and slim and sexy.  If they’re gray-haired and dowdy, well, how good can they possibly be?  We expect our idols to look like idols, to be flawless in every way. Which is why, when an idol’s photos turn up in National Enquirer revealing protruding guts and cellulite, they become such juicy targets for ridicule.  

But Susan  — ah, Susan!  When she walked onstage, it didn’t cross anyone’s mind that she could ever be a winner.  She was considered a hopeless underdog from the word go — and that’s why the world now adores her. Most of us know what it’s like to feel like the underdog, so Susan’s triumph became our triumph as well.

Our almost universal identification with underdogs can be turned to powerful use in a novelist’s hands.  As a reader, I find it hard to care much about characters who start off having everything going for them.  A hero who’s gorgeous, a crack shot, a martial arts expert, and a snazzy dresser may look good onscreen, but in the end, James Bond is just James Bond.  Iconic, yes, and someone we’d like to emulate.  But he’s not really human. He’s not us.  He has no journey to make to become a hero, because he’s already arrived.  

I think back to the stories I loved best, and most of them are about seemingly ordinary schmoes who are forced to discover their hidden strengths and talents.  Consider poor little Harry Potter, orphaned and despised by his relatives.  Or Luke Skywalker, a simple farm boy on Tatooine.  Or that hobbit homebody Frodo Baggins, who never wanted to go on any adventures to begin with.  These are three of the most compelling characters ever created, and they all started off seemingly ordinary.  But like Susan Boyle, they walked (or were forced) onstage, plucked up their courage to perform … and revealed that they were in truth extraordinary beings.  

I think back, as well, to a film that most of you probably don’t remember.  It was “Target,” starring Gene Hackman as just a regular guy with a wife and a rebellious teenage son.  The son thinks his dad’s a total loser, content to be stuck in a nowhere town.  Hackman looks the part, too –a little bald, a little chubby, a boringly law-abiding hardware salesman who always drives under the speed limit, much to his son’s disdain.  This guy is not any son’s idea of a hero.

Then Hackman’s wife gets kidnapped while in Paris, and father and son go searching for her.  Within moments of their arrival in France, the son is shocked when Hackman starts transforming into someone he doesn’t know.  Suddenly dad can speak fluent French!  Dad pistol whips an attacker!  Dad gets behind the wheel and turns into a race-car driver!  The great fun of this movie is watching the shocked son reevaluate what he knew — or thought he knew — about his own father.  Gene Hackman is, in fact, a former CIA agent who must now call on his past skills to save his family.  Before the son’s amazed eyes, this ordinary dad proves to be an extraordinary man.  

By the end of the film, I had a giant crush on Gene Hackman.  Because heroes are always sexy — no matter what they look like.

And if you doubt that, go check out the comments on the Youtube video.  Men around the world are now clamoring to meet Susan Boyle, and give her what she’s missed all her life:

Her very first kiss.



We are not our books

by Tess Gerritsen 

An entry over on Sarah Weinman's blog alerted me to a fascinating study claiming that signs of early Alzheimer's Disease are detectable in an author's work long before other signs of dementia become apparent. University of Toronto researchers compared Agatha Christie's early novels with novels she wrote late in life, and based on a drop in her vocabulary and repetitive use of phrases, as well as other indicators, they felt it was clear that she was already suffering from dementia when her last books were written.  

That study got me to thinking about how much we writers reveal about ourselves through our stories.  I'm not just talking about dementia, a nightmarish diagnosis that strikes terror in any writer's heart.  Nor am I referring to the quality of the writing itself.  I'm talking about what clues our books may reveal about our personalities, our attitudes, and our beliefs. Can you judge a writer's character by his books?  If Jane Trueheart writes tender romances, can we assume she's the sort of woman who adores animals and children, weeps at sad movies, and doesn't possess a mean bone in her body?  If Jack Slaughter writes bloody serial killer books, do we shudder at the thought of being his next-door neighbor?

It's natural to assume that an author's books reflect his personality.  As a physician, I've noticed that each specialty tends to attract certain personality types.  Ophthalmologists are painstakingly neat people, orthopedic surgeons are jocks, dermatologists are natty dressers, and pathologists are least likely to be chatty.  These are generalizations, true, but I'll bet that most doctors who read this are nodding their heads in agreement.  Can we say the same about writers?  Does the genre we choose say something about our personalities?

I'm part of several different genre communities, and have mingled with a number of writers from every field.  As a former romance author, I've attended RWA conferences and Romantic Times conventions.  As a thriller writer, I know quite a few suspense, mystery, and thriller authors.  I also count, as good friends or acquaintances, authors who write science fiction, fantasy, or horror.  If there's some common personality type that defines all the people who write thrillers and all the people who write romance, I haven't noticed it.  I know many warm and generous women who write romance.  But that genre also harbors some of the scariest, most aggressive people I know — not at all what you'd expect from people who write about love.  

You would think that those who write bloody crime or horror novels would be the truly scary people.  I myself have fallen into the trap of assuming that a sicko book must have been created by a sicko author, and then I'm startled when I finally meet the "sicko author," and discover she's a sweet, shy vegetarian who can't stand the thought of animals being hurt.  Weirdly enough, If I were to pick which genre has the gentlest people, I would say it's horror writers.  So far I haven't met any nasty ones. Maybe they're just really good actors. Maybe at night they shed their human masks and assume their true reptilian forms.

While it's always a temptation to assume a fictional character is really the author in disguise, I know so many authors whose characters are their polar opposites.  Actors will often tell you that their favorite roles are villains, because it's their chance to play someone completely unlike themselves.  I too have the most fun when my character is completely unlike me.  I live my whole life in my own skin; when I dive into my fictional world, I really love the chance to think and behave like someone else. Which is why Jane Rizzoli is bold, aggressive, and courageous.  Just like me… not.  With the exception of Maura Isles (who comes the closest to my own personality), my characters have had no resemblance to me at all.  Yet readers make any number of assumptions about me, because of things that my characters do or think.  Over the years, various readers have written to tell me that I'm a bitter feminist who has a real problem with men, that I'm an ageist pig (because one of my characters said "old fart"), that I'm a nutso liberal or a whacked-out right-winger, and that I should clean up my foul mouth.

 And there's one thing they all agree on: I am a very creepy person. Because my characters are creepy, and of course we are our characters.

Every writer has had to deal with reader preconceptions of who we really are.  Every horror writer has probably  heard: "You're not as scary as I thought you'd be."  Every adventure writer is supposed to be tall and manly.  And thriller novelists are expected to show up in black leather.  (Which explains why so many of them do.)

But you can't judge a book by its cover, and you can't judge a writer by his book.  

With two exceptions.  

All science fiction writers are seriously intelligent people.  I can't think of any exceptions.  Of all novelists, the highest I.Q.'s will be found among the SF crowd.

And people who write funny books are funny people in real life.  You can fake readers into thinking you're tough, adventurous, ruthless, passionate, outrageous, or bloodthirsty.  But you can't fake funny.