I have no idea how I do it

by Tess Gerritsen

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. 





21 thoughts on “I have no idea how I do it

  1. Stacy

    Great post, Tess. It's good to hear from a bestselling author that the story isn't all about physics and planning. Of course there's planning involved and there are some rules, but I think feeling the story is just as important as the rules. Too many new writers, myself included, get caught up in the technical things, and the story falls flat.

    Well done!

  2. Amy Pabalan

    But what if you don't think George Clooney is attractive? 😉
    All kidding aside, this is great. I'm sharing with my writer friends.
    Thank you.

  3. JT Ellison

    BRILLIANT ADVICE. Yes, I'm shouting. : )

    I agreed to teach a 2 day course early on in my career. It was possibly the most nerve wracking thing I have ever done. I've come to realize that some writers are just that, writers, and teaching isn't their thing. I'm one of those. I can fill a couple of hours no problem, but it's all that kind of top line theory. I can teach people to cook, but I can't explain how to make it taste good.

  4. kc stone

    You've just said everything I would hope to hear in a six hour lecture.
    The best part is that while I read your list I was nodding and smiling. I just have to share this with my friends who often ask me about the writing process.
    Thank you!
    Kc Stone

  5. Alafair Burke

    I'm not sure what would be worse – teaching a six-hour writing class or taking one! If you've got "it," these kinds of posts are just what you need to be a self-study if you're writing for the first time, and a great refresher for more experienced writers. Thanks!

  6. David Corbett

    Dear Tess:

    For someone terrified of teaching you certainly have some sound advice. I think all of your points are stellar, and ones any student would benefit from hearing. Perhaps you could overcome your fear with understanding what a gift you have, however humble you may feel it to be.

    In particular, I think your advice concerning choosing the most uncomfortable character for your POV character is brilliant and wise — and, sadly, too often overlooked.

    However, I can't say I agree wholeheartedly with this:

    "the process of storytelling is not concrete. It's rather squishy, if that makes any sense. … 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."

    I don't believe the first part and the second part of the statement conflict. They just describe different parts of the process.

    The initial writing is always a journey that involves heading off into the unknown — just like one's hero. If you know exactly where you're going, why bother? You can't get to anywhere interesting following a formula. And yes, this often leads the writer into despair, ruinous dead ends, lost days and weeks, etc.

    But storytelling is also a craft. Once the beautiful wreckage of discovery is compiled the shaping begins and that indeed involves a bit of physics, as it were.

    Film scripts demand such structure far more than novels do — it's partially due to the business end of it — and the teaching of Robert McKee and Christopher Vogler in particular, despite their faults, provide excellent guidance on story structure.

    But novels which are nothing but, in the immortal words of Phillip Larkin, "a beginning, a muddle and an end" simply don't provide the narrative reward that more astutely crafted stories do, no matter how fine the writing — or even how wining the characters, though strong characters can rescue, if not quite redeem, a sloppily crafted story.

    I'm teaching a 2 1/2 hour course on the melding of character arc to three-act structure this summer at the Book Passage Mystery Conference, and I've been dissecting films such as SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, CHINATOWN, VERTIGO, THE GODFATHER and MICHAEL CLAYTON. All adhere to recognizable structure, but do so in unique, creative, ingenious ways. It's clear there was a great deal of soul-searching that went into each script. It's also true that the structure hums within each story like trusses in a windblown bridge.

    It's only a poor mechanic who, upon taking an engine apart, seeing what's what, and putting it back together, makes it run less well than before.

    Perhaps for you structure is intuitive. The spine of your beast appears unbidden, because, like a great many writers who read and read and read as kids, you feel the bonework of a story instinctively. That's a gift. But that doesn't mean it's unworthy of analysis — or instruction.

    I think it's essential you teach this course, for precisely the same reason you choose the heroes you do: It will make you uncomfortable.

    Or at least provide the students with the link to today's posting. They could do a lot worse.


  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tess

    Great advice. I'm going to look again at my current WIP with fresh eyes …

    The only other really good piece of advice I know for aspiring writers can be summed up in four words.


  8. Allison Davis

    Man I'm going to keep writing this frog until it turns into George Clooney. Best motivational line ever.

    I discovered with this third manuscript that I had a character that made me feel guilty if I didn't write, keep telling her story, like not having time for a good friend kind of guilt. Made me realize I had a protoganist with a strong voice and person and she really needed this story told. Now that is really the best motivation.

    Who can talk for six hours about anything? Alafair/Dusty — even a law professor would bore the students in six hours, right? I couldn't think of something to do for six hours that wouldn't paralyze me. So Tess, I think they need to revamp their program and your succint list is better than any six hour lecture. But you could do wonders in 3 hours especially if it was interactive, so don't sell yourself short. Thanks for the great post.

  9. Eika

    I'm going to be rereading this one, aren't I.

    I have some trouble with number 8. I fixed at least one spot in my current manuscript already, but I'm not sure if another spot is… or if I'm just too chicken about having to do more rewriting to say it is. *sigh*

  10. Tess Gerritsen

    David, you're quite right, what I do is mostly instinctive, which means I'm not really capable of seeing the structure to it or the explanation for it. The way we instinctively know which way is up and which way is down, even though we can't explain gravity.

  11. Deborah Lewis-Smith

    Thanks Tess. I know that I am one of many dabblers vs. authors. In her book Ape House one of Sara Gruen's characters is an author who locks herself in a closet to write. Martha Grime's Foul Matter is a hilarious and thinly veiled work of fiction that is a must read for all who write with the hope of being published.

  12. David Corbett


    It is indeed difficult — and problematic — to teach what one does instinctively. It's why some players never make good coaches.

    But I think putting yourself in a classroom alone would be a valuable experiment not just for you. It's a great lesson, hearingr from a great practitioner of the craft: "There's only so much I can teach you. I will share what I can, but I can't teach you everything I do because some of it is simply intuitive." That alone is sage advice: Trust your intuition. But intuition is born from practice and study. The unconscious mind continues to work while the exhausted conscious mind sleeps. (Or as William James put it: We learn to ski in the summer and learn to swim in the winter.)

    Writing is something of a guild system, with elders sharing wisdom with journeymen. Your posting reveals you have a great deal of practical insight to share. It would be a shame to have students deprived of that opportunity.

  13. David Corbett

    I agree with Allison about six hours. It's a bit of an ordeal. But I've done weekend classes that went that long, with lunch breaking up the stretch. I've learned some lessons — use exercises, don't just lecture. And ask the students questions about their work and invite the class to join in the discussion. Use the students to your advantage — they're usually smart and motivated or they wouldn't be there.

  14. Connie Gillam

    Great post, Tess.

    I agree with David. I think you should teach this course. In my humble opinion, you have the experience of 23 novels behind you and more than enough info to cover this course and some.

    I loved point #5. Great advice when choosing a POV character. I just wished I'd figured that out when I wrote my first five novels.

  15. Reine

    Tess, this is a great blog. I find it and all the comments, especially the conflicting parts, all strangely comforting — and motivating.

  16. PD Martin

    Hi Tess,
    Funny you should talk about a six-hour training session. I've actually been doing a series of five six-hour sessions over 5 months on writing at Melbourne's Victorian Writers Centre. And it's a lot easier than it sounds! 10am-4pm, with a 5-10 minute coffee break around 11.30, then a 45-minute lunch break around 1pm. Mind you, there is heaps of preparation.

    What I found most interesting, was that to teach this I went back to some of the books I read as an unpublished writer and took on some new ones too. I wanted to flesh out my own knowledge with some of the great books written on writing. I'd never read Donald Maass's "Writing the Breakout Novel". Brilliant stuff. And he talks about breakout premises, breakout characters, breakout plots, etc. Fascinating. And while I was trying to put what I do largely instinctively into theory and into PowerPoints and exercises for the first few sessions (Feb and March), it actually helped me to identify problems with my WIP and also made me realise I absolutely had to write another project (now my current WIP) even though it's so different for me and uncomfortable.

    If you are considering changing your mind about running this course, here are some topics I'm sure you'd have something more to say about:
    Premise (your 1 & 2 above expanded, with examples from books and TV)
    Character (expansion on your 3, 4 & 5 and maybe also looking at ways you reveal character when writing and how to balance descriptions with dialogue, etc)
    Plot (again, drawing on 6 & 7)
    Research (even if it's a general writing course, lots of genres need some kind of research – even if it's just genre research and reading!)
    Active voice versus passive voice
    Self-editing (the best book I've ever read on this is "Self-editing for Fiction Writers" by Rennie Brown and xx (can't remember first name) King. Brilliant book, a must-read for all unpublished and published authors
    Show don't tell – examples like using dialogue, not using "emotion" words like "He looked sad or he was sad" but using physical descriptions that show the reader he's sad (expansion on your number 8). Plus lots of first time authors use dialogue tags like: 'he shouted in exasperation' instead of showing the exasperation and deleting the dialogue tag all together.

    And you could always get the attendees, if it's a small group, to bring a page or two of their own writing for workshopping.

    You'd run out of time in six hours! 🙂


  17. KDJames

    It takes a lot of courage to say no. Whether it's teaching a class or making six dozen cupcakes to send to school with your child when you barely have time to make dinner.

    I think writing ability has very little to do with teaching ability/aptitude. Teaching is incredibly difficult and doing it well requires more than just knowledge of the subject matter. I've attended classes given by talented writers that were just horrible, as well as classes that were exceptionally informative and entertaining given by writers I consider to be marginally capable. And then there's Alex, who does both incredibly well.

    Frankly, I think anyone who has been around the writing world as long as Tess has, and who has no doubt given a countless number of talks and speeches and interviews and even classes, knows what she's capable of doing, and more importantly, willing to do.

    I think it's too bad that the power of "no" — especially when a woman says it — is so often diminished by guilt. Even if we're just talking cupcakes.

  18. David Corbett


    Just so we're clear — I wasn't guilt-tripping Tess into teaching. I was trying to let her know that, on the basis of what she herself presented in her post, she needn't be so doubtful about having something to impart as a teacher.

    Also, she herself expressed the importance of leaning into one's discomfort.

    I was simply reinforcing what she was already saying.

    If that's guilt-tripping, well, pass the cupcakes.

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