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.