by Tess Gerritsen
Category Archives: Tess Gerritsen
When fiction veers too close to reality
by Tess Gerritsen
The group, composed of what is said to be fewer than 100 entertainment industry representatives volunteering for the job, was convened at the Army's request to help the military "think out of the box" about terrorism and how to respond.
The idea of tapping fiction writers to dream up the possible parameters of terrorism, a move that once might have seemed far-fetched, no longer sounds outlandish to many. Before Sept. 11, who would have imagined that hijackers would pilot commercial airliners in coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?"
— Chicago Tribune, Oct. 15, 2001
Tom Clancy certainly imagined it.
And that's a thriller writer's job, isn't it? To describe hair-raising events that are far-fetched but still seem as if they're possible. When we sit at our desks, we allow our imaginations free reign to wander the universe. But when it comes time to actually write the story, most of us feel compelled to maintain at least some semblance of plausibility. We want our readers to believe that our plots, no matter how outlandish, might actually happen.
Sometimes, our stories actually come closer to reality than we ever expect.
I've been thinking of Tom Clancy's prescient novel because of a phone call I recently received from a criminal investigator. This investigator was very interested in me, and seemed to know a great deal about my personal life — something which I found a little unnerving. The reason for the phone call was even more unnerving. The caller was part of a police team investigating a series of murders, and they wanted to know why I was so familiar with the inside details of these attacks. "We've read your novel," the caller said. "You seem to know an awful lot about this killer. How he thinks. The victims he chooses. You even know the details of his technique." The crimes had started before my book was published, so they knew the killer wasn't being inspired by me. But the details in my novel were so precise and specific that the investigator felt I must have been in contact with the killer at some time. The killer might even be someone I know well. Like my own husband.
Oh yes. They'd been looking into my husband, too.
Naturally, I freaked out a little, realizing that — however briefly — I'd been considered a possible suspect in a string of homicides. Then I really freaked out, wondering how I'd managed to describe murders that had actually happened. And describe them so accurately that the investigators themselves got chills reading my book. (Or so the caller told me.) Did I know the killer I described in my story?
The truth is: Yes, I do. I know him because I made him up. He's not someone I've ever met in the flesh; he's not someone I've spoken to (at least, I hope not.) But I know him more completely than I could ever possibly know a real human being, because I've been inside his head. I know how he thinks, what he desires, what he fantasizes about.
I explained to the investigator that when I created this killer, I actually crawled into his mind and lived there for a while. I looked at the world through his eyes, and saw what he saw. I'd walk through a mall and imagine people as prey. I looked at children and thought how easy that one would have been to snatch. I noticed which women already looked like victims, which ones weren't paying attention to their surroundings, and which ones looked like they'd never fight back. I understood this killer so well that I also knew how he'd hunt. And I knew exactly how he'd kill. It was sheer coincidence that I'd created a monster who was so similar to the real thing.
It probably makes me sound scary. But I'm not, really.
I'm just a novelist.
Sometimes it's storytellers who get the closest to truth. Sometimes we see it before anyone else does.
Years ago, I sold the feature film rights to my space thriller Gravity, about a killer microbe that gets aboard the International Space Station. I did a ton of research for the book, and figured out a way to plausibly have that microbe slipped aboard ISS via a security weakness in the Payloads directorate. New Line Cinema hired an astronaut from NASA to pick apart the story and tell them which parts were implausible. The astronaut said it'd be impossible for a hazardous microbe to be intentionally sent up to ISS without NASA knowing about it.
Then she consulted NASA's Payloads directorate. And she was surprised when Payloads told her that my scenario was indeed possible. It was a security weakness that they hadn't considered … until it was proposed in my book.
With my most recent novel, I came up with yet another bizarre premise that's almost as farfetched as microbes in space. In The Keepsake, a murderer has killed a woman and turned her into a mummy that looks just like an ancient Egyptian relic. I knew it could theoretically be done, but I worried that I might have gotten a little too creative with that premise. I worried that I'd get slammed by the critics for crossing over into implausibility.
Then I had a conversation with Egyptologist Bob Brier, who told me of a real case he'd encountered in his own research, of a modern murder victim who'd been mummified to look like an ancient Egyptian relic. Not only was my mummy premise plausible, it had actually been done.
The fictional world of crime is a pretty scary place. But I'm starting to think that it's nowhere near as frightening as reality.
When is a series over?
by Tess Gerritsen
you can’t be just a writer anymore
by Tess Gerritsen
You stole my idea
by Tess Gerritsen
Don’t be arrogant
by Tess Gerritsen
Writer’s block at the signing table
by Tess Gerritsen
Changing genres to stay alive
by Tess Gerritsen
On the heels of Joe Konrath's excellent blogpost about authors who are no longer being published, I've been thinking about the issue of survival. Like Joe, I can think of quite a few novelists who first appeared in print about the same time I made my debut, but who have since vanished from the publishing landscape. Not that we need to hear any more doom and gloom in these worrisome times, but Joe is right in pointing out that novel-writing is a precarious way to make a living. Even if you are one of the lucky writers who manages to land a publishing contract with a fat advance, there's no guarantee that your editor will offer you a second contract. Maybe your first book is a dud in the marketplace. Maybe your editor gets fired or your publisher goes belly-up. Maybe no one, anywhere, wants to see any more mysteries featuring crime-solving gerbils.
A few unpublished years later, you'll be yet another unfortunate author about whom people ask, "Whatever happened to…?"
There's not a lot we writers can do about ailing publishers or the changing tastes of the public. Even wonderful books can and do flop. Poor timing, an ugly cover, or plain old bad luck can doom a book's release. When all the stars line up against you, you might simply admit defeat and give up the dream of a writing career.
Or you might roll up your sleeves and look for ways to survive. If your last book sold poorly, you could change your pen name to escape that bad sales history. You might look for a new literary agent. You might adopt a different storytelling voice.
Or you might change genres entirely.
I have some experience in this last strategy. My first books were romantic suspense novels, most of them published by Harlequin Intrigue. The editorial guidelines suggested a balance of fifty percent romance and fifty percent suspense, with at least one love scene somewhere around the middle of the book. Foul language was to be avoided, as was overly graphic violence and disturbing topics. My audience was probably 99% female, and as romance readers, they expected happy endings. It's a fun genre to read, but writing those love scenes was an ordeal for me, generating piles of crumpled pages. Writers who denigrate the romance genre should try writing a four-page sex scene, without any purple prose, that manages to be both erotic and deeply emotional. It's the most challenging writing you'll ever do. It makes writing murder scenes seem like a piece of cake.
After writing nine romances, I decided it was time to switch genres. I wanted to be published in hardcover, and I wanted a chance at the bestseller list. I also wanted to pay for my kids' college tuitions. By then it was clear to me that I was a thriller writer at heart, and the thriller market was booming. But changing genres involved more than just tinkering with a familiar recipe, more than just ladling on a bit more gore and cutting out the sex scenes. I wanted to completely remake my career.
To do that, I had to toss out every rule I'd come to accept as a romance author. I had to approach plotting in an entirely different way. In a romance, the primary relationship is between the hero and heroine. In a thriller, it's between the hero and the villain.
As I wrote HARVEST, I was tempted again and again to revert back to my comfortable romance writer mode. It felt strange and even scary not to include a love story. Would my readers feel cheated? Would they be bored with the medical and forensic details? Would they be disturbed by the violence? And what about my bittersweet ending — was that going to get me into trouble? I questioned my choices every step of the way and felt like a newbie struggling to write her very first book. But I had to make HARVEST demonstrate a new phase in my career — which is how the story ended up bloodier and more disturbingly graphic than even I had planned.
Abruptly switching genres worked for my career, but that doesn't mean this is the way every writer should do it. I've attracted a new audience of thriller readers, but I probably lost some of my romance audience along the way, readers who like thrillers but feel a book without a love story is missing something. That romance audience is a huge one, and no writer wants to lose them.
Which is why so many romance authors breaking into the thriller market do it with romantic thrillers. They never quite abandon their romance roots — or their romance audience. Some of them, like Nora Roberts and Sandra Brown, are wildly successful. But straddling both romance and suspense can annoy thriller purists, and if they discover you once wrote romance, they'll let you know it. If you change genres, you might also want to change your pen name, just to avoid confusing readers. I often wish I'd done that; it might have spared me a lot of angry reader emails.
The most important thing you must do, if you hope to survive in this business, is to never stop writing. Change your pen name, change your genre. Keep searching for that special character, that special voice, that will make your next story stand out above the otheres. You might have to write ten or twenty books before you finally discover your niche in the market.
But you'll never find it if you stop writing.
Do you dare risk a sabbatical?
by Tess Gerritsen
For the past six months, I've been doing something that conventional publishing wisdom says could cause my career to crash. I've avoided any and all work on my next book. Which is not to say that I've stopped writing entirely. I've contributed a chapter for a serial novel. I've also written a piece for International Thriller Writers' upcoming anthology. I've been blogging, both here and on my own site. I also went on a very long book tour. But as for working on my next novel, the work that actually pays the bills?
I haven't produced a single word.
What this means is that next year, I won't have a new hardcover on the stands. There'll be the paperback release of THE KEEPSAKE, but without a new hardcover, there'll be no book tour and none of the promotional hullaballoo that comes with having a new title on the stands. If you ask most publishing professionals, this gap in my annual release schedule is a Very Bad Thing for an author's career. They'll tell you: "If you go away for more than a year, readers will forget you exist. They'll move on to another author, and you'll never get them back. You must not let a year go by without a new book. Better yet, write two books — no, four books — a year! And while you're at it, make them all masterpieces!"
I've tried to follow that advice. Over the past twenty-one years, I've produced twenty-one books (counting my romances.) I'm not fast enough to turn out more than a book a year, but with the exception of the year 2000, I've managed to stick to an annual release schedule. And yes, I've watched my readership build and my "real estate" grow in bookstores, as my titles took up more and more shelf space.
But as the years went by, my promotional travel took more and more weeks away from my writing. I wasn't just touring in the U.S.; I was promoting my titles abroad as well. I love touring, but meeting my deadlines became a stomach-churning ordeal. I began turning in my manuscripts closer and closer to their on-sale dates, which meant that the books had to be "crashed" into publication, leaving little time for reviews or advance word of mouth. My biggest pleasure is travel, but even when I managed to carve out a few weeks for a vacation trip, I'd spend it fretting over my next deadline. My whole existence, from the moment I woke up till the moment I dropped to sleep, was dominated by the publishing cycle.
Then my dad died. And my mom, living alone in California, started going blind. As I scrambled to finish writing THE KEEPSAKE, I was fielding ever-more-urgent calls from her to take care of things!
That's when I called a halt to the madness. I needed to step off the publishing treadmill — not just for my family, but also for my own well-being. I turned in my manuscript, cleared off my desk, and let my agent know that I wanted to take a sabbatical. I didn't want to even talk about a new contract. I could take the time off, couldn't I? I could write a book at my leisure, and sell it only after it was completed, couldn't I? It would mean no more contracted deadlines, just the old pleasure of storytelling at my own pace. Maybe the next book would take eighteen months. Maybe it'd take a leisurely two or even three years. With all that extra time, I could write a bigger, fatter novel. University professors are allowed sabbaticals every seven years, and here I'd gone for twenty-one years without one. Why not insist on time off? How bad could it be for my career?
That, it turns out, is an unanswerable question. No doubt there are writers who dropped out of the publishing cycle for a few years who never came back. But there's also Sue Grafton, who took a year off from her mystery series, and came roaring back onto the bestseller lists when she resumed writing. There's Diana Gabaldon, whose sprawling stories take more than a year to write, and whose readership only seems to grow with each new installment. Ken Follett turns out books every few years. So did Michael Crichton. I have my own example to point to. After my book GRAVITY came out in 1999, it took another two years before my next book, THE SURGEON, was released. And my sales for THE SURGEON far exceeded my sales for GRAVITY. Clearly, taking a year off does not always mean your sales will suffer.
It may also be the best thing an exhausted writer can do for her career. It gives her the chance to rest and get back her writing mojo. It gives her the time to pursue the interests and passions she's put off for far too long. It allows her to refill the creative well with all the quirky facts and anecdotes that will end up enriching future stories.
After six months of not writing, I'm already feeling the benefits of that time away. I didn't spend it lolling around the house. I used it to do what needed to be done. I packed up my mom's belongings and moved her out of her California home, to Maine. I've found a place for her in a retirement home three miles away from me. I've gotten her financial affairs in order, connected her with numerous medical specialists, and driven her to countless medical appointments. In short, I've "taken care of things," and both she and I are now sleeping easier at night.
I've also indulged in the interests that I put off for far too long. I started learning how to read hieroglyphs, and took the trip to Egypt that I'd been dreaming about. I caught up on my back issues of Biblical Archaeology and National Geographic. I walked three miles in the state park every day.
I bought four new pairs of shoes.
Now the old creative juices are flowing again, and the next Rizzoli and Isles story is already materializing in my head. In preparation, I've placed a box of new pens and a stack of blank paper on my desk. I'm actually looking forward to writing this book, and I'm ready to jump back into the publishing cycle.
The wonderful part is this: my publisher understands. After I finished THE KEEPSAKE, I didn't even want to talk about renewing my contract. I wasn't trying to be coy; I was just too exhausted to think about future deadlines. Once it became clear to them that what I really wanted was nothing more than a six-month break, we could start talking about a deal.
I've just signed a new three-book contract. The first manuscript isn't due until December '09.
A six-month sabbatical was exactly what I needed at this point in my life. Will a year without a new release hurt my sales? I don't know. But speaking as a reader, I don't see why it should. When I find an author I love, I'm patient enough to wait two or three years for her next book. A wait of more than five years, though, may well cool my ardor. That's enough of a delay to make me forget what made her last book, and her characters, so compelling. I believe that a five-year gap is indeed a career killer.
But two years? I don't think so, especially if the next book is well worth the wait. You'll lose far more readers if you keep turning out book after book, right on schedule, in a series that grows ever more stale and mediocre.
I'm curious to hear what other readers think. How many years are you willing to wait for an author's next book? At what point do you lose interest in a continuing character?
And for the writers: how close are you to exhaustion? How would your publisher — and your agent — react if you wanted to take a sabbatical?
Curiosity and the writer
by Tess Gerritsen
I’m often asked, "What kind of person becomes a novelist?" People want to know what we writers have in common, and whether there are special characteristics that make a writer successful. I give the same answers everyone else probably does: A fertile imagination. A love of reading. Sheer persistence. But I also throw in one more characteristic that others may forget to mention, yet it’s one that I consider vital to the craft of storytelling: Insatiable curiosity.
If writers were cats, we’d all be dead.
When story ideas come to me, it’s seldom because I actively went looking for them. More often, they arise out of some interest that’s completely separate from my job as a writer. Or I come across an odd little fact or news item that inspires my curiosity and compels me to find out more, simply because I can’t help myself.
Years ago, I read an article about a newly discovered class of organisms called "Archaeons," single-celled creatures so ancient that they probably split off from the larger tree of life at the same time that bacteria did. They’re sometimes called "extremophiles" because of the hostile conditions in which they thrive, such as in the superheated waters of underwater volcanic vents. Although I couldn’t see how I would ever use the information in a book, I was so fascinated by these bizarre organisms that I collected a number of clippings about them from various science journals. They went into my file of "creepy facts", which I’ve maintained for decades. 99 percent of the information in that file will probably never find its way into a novel; I keep it around just because I’m a weird gal and happen to love creepy facts.
Some years later, news broke of an accident aboard Mir space station. The circumstances were so scary and dramatic that I knew I had to write about it. I imagined an accident in space, with dying astronauts trapped aboard a space station. But what would be the circumstances? Why wouldn’t they just evacuate and come home? What could keep them quarantined aboard a doomed spacecraft?
That’s when I remembered my old clippings about the Archaeons, which are capable of surviving in almost any environment. And it occurred to me: what if scientists discovered a sample of such organisms at the bottom of the ocean, trapped there by crushing pressures for thousands of years? What if such organisms weren’t from earth at all, but had landed here aboard an asteroid?
What if they were actually an advance army of invaders, here to colonize the earth? Sent up to orbit by scientists and exposed to the microgravity of a space station, they would begin to assume their real form –a form that’s deadly to the human race.
That became the premise of my book GRAVITY.
I never could have written that book if I hadn’t delved into the oddities of Archaeons a few years earlier. And it was curiosity that made me do it.
Curiosity can take you places you never expected to go. It makes you turn over rocks and poke sticks in holes and peek behind closed doors. It may never lead to a story idea, but so what? Life is about more than writing books. It’s also about the thrill of discovering some delicious fact that has absolutely no relevance in your life.
But sometimes, sometimes, an obscure fact will come in useful. It may not be until years have passed, but that’s the thing about curiosity. It’s a long-term investment.
By the time you read this blog post, I will be winging my my way home from Egypt. At the moment, my suitcase is lying half-packed on my bedroom floor, awaiting the sunscreen and bug spray. I’m going to Egypt to learn to read hieroglyphs. It’s an utterly irrelevant skill, and I don’t think I’ll ever use it in a book. But I’m curious about ancient dead languages, in the same way I was curious about those humble little Archaeons.
Knowledge is never wasted. Sometimes it just takes a lifetime to figure out how to use it.