The unplanned career

(I’m traveling abroad at the moment, so will be unable to respond to comments.  But I’ll read them when I return!)

When you’re a writer, you get used to hearing criticism from countless quarters.  People don’t like your characters or your stories.  They don’t like your language or your genre or your politics.  But one of the weirdest objections I’ve ever heard came from a TV blogger, who said that “Rizzoli & Isles” was the dumbest name ever for a TV show, and that I, the novelist, should have had the foresight to choose better names when I created the characters ten years ago.  I should have planned ahead for the day when they would become a TV show.  Because authors have ESP, and of course it’s inevitable our books will be picked up by Hollywood.

D’oh! What kind of idiot was I, not planning ahead for Hollywood?  

It boggles the mind how many misconceptions people have about the writing profession.  The public probably imagines us as a tweedy set, ensconced in our wainscotted offices, thinking deep thoughts.  Or they think we’re hip Manhattanites, scribbling pages at an outdoor cafe while we sip endless cups of espresso. They’d be shocked to learn that some of us us write while hiding in the closet so our kids can’t find us. And that no, most of us don’t plan out every move in our career because baby, in this career, there ain’t a lot of planning you can do.

I certainly never did any planning.  Every move I’ve ever made as a writer has been because I had the compulsion to write that book, at that particular time.  And sometimes it was against the advice of people I trusted, people with experience in the industry.  From romance to medical thrillers, from stand-alones to a crime series, my career path has not been a determined march forward but more of a meander, searching here and there for the idea or the character that would set the next tale in motion.  

Even my books aren’t planned out.  I meander my way through those as well. It makes the first drafts utterly chaotic, but I don’t know any other way to do it.  

And that’s how that crime-fighting team of Rizzoli and Isles came to be.  I didn’t know there was going to be any team at all, until suddenly … there they were.

Jane Rizzoli first appeared in THE SURGEON as a secondary character who was supposed to die.  Oh yes, that much I had figured out, the location and circumstances of her death.  A dark cellar, a slash to the throat.  We all know how well that plan turned out.  Instead of dying, Jane dusted herself off and came back to star in the next book, THE APPRENTICE. 

That’s the book where Maura Isles makes her first appearance.  (And to answer the charge of the TV blogger who said that Maura Isles is a poorly thought-out name, it’s actually, um, a real name.  Of someone who won the auction to name one of my characters.)  Maura was another one of those minor characters who took on a life of her own and grew into a major character.  Again, unplanned.

Every book in the series has resulted from spur-of-the moment plotting decisions.  I didn’t know who Maura’s mother was until she suddenly showed up in BODY DOUBLE.  I didn’t know whether Jane would abort her baby until the actual chapter when she made the choice to keep it.  I didn’t know if the baby was a boy or girl until that scene in VANISH when little Regina popped into the world. 

It’s a good thing I’m accustomed to this uncontrolled approach to plotting, because it makes me better able to deal with my career, over which I have no control at all.  Believing that you have control over your success as a writer will drive you insane.  You could write the best book ever written.  It could land on a top editor’s desk, be adorned with a wonderful cover, get starred reviews… and end up in the remainders bin a year later. Or you could write a book about a girl with a dragon tattoo, be published by an obscure Scandinavian publishing house, and end up as the best selling author in the world.  And, tragically, be dead of a heart attack.

It’s the unpredictability of a writing career that keeps so many plugging away at it, year after year, defeat after defeat.  Okay, so your last two books were a disaster in the marketplace.  Change your name, change your genre, and try again! Dan Brown’s first few books went nowhere, and then, kaboom!  DA VINCI CODE.  Your next book could be the next DA VINCI CODE, couldn’t it?  Or Hollywood could turn it into a TV series. Unlike actors, whose careers dry up as their wrinkles start to show, even a poor grizzled writer working on his thirtieth book could suddenly find fame and fortune.  

That’s the seduction of the business. It could always happen.  Without any planning whatsoever.





17 thoughts on “The unplanned career

  1. Cornelia Read

    The unpredictability of this career is both what makes it joyous and what makes it totally terrifying. I hope it goes well for ALL of us, published and not-yet. And that your travels are safe and wonderful, Tess.

  2. JD Rhoades

    I hear you. Marie Jones, the love interest in the Keller novels, started as a walk-on, walk-off character, the "good cop" in a bad confrontation. Before long, the relationship between her and Jack was driving the story.

    And thanks for that last paragraph…I needed that.

  3. Karen in Ohio

    However it happened, we are grateful for it on your behalf, Tess.

    Really? Complaining about Maura's name? Ye gods. Some people have WAY too much time on their hands, methinks.

    And that comment about planning ahead reminds me of the idiots who think Obama planned to have his birth certificate the way it is, because he and his mother both knew, 49 years ago, that he'd be trying to fool everyone so he could take over the world. <eye rolls>

  4. Stephen D. Rogers

    Hey Tess,

    Just wanted to let you know that I was at a carnival the other day and the woman in the ticket booth was reading one of your books. (Great, now I can't remember the name.) I chatted her up, and she said it was the first book she'd read of yours (she'd found it in a store up the street). She said she was really enjoying the story and would look for your others.


  5. Debbie

    Quick publish that blog address so we can all sprint over there and run our character name lists for unpublished works past our helpful friend.
    Sarcasm aside, I once read a series where in the final book, in the epilog, a character (no, his name) was introduced and I said…what? The name wasn't the creative ones I'd become accustomed to nor was it common. And, if I were ever fortunate enough to meet this author, I'd probably forget all the questions I'd ever wanted to ask her and I'd hear myself saying something dumb like. "What made you choose that name?"
    My characters, for the most part, assigned themselves names. One of the few I chose was changed a chapter later by the character herself. "Why are you calling me Jennifer? My name is Stephanie!" (Don't you just love the find and replace feature?)

  6. Allison Davis

    Tess, that's the best, most encouraging blog I've read in a long time for those of us toiling away at our first few books. Very reinforcing. Thanks so much.

  7. Judy Wirzberger

    So maybe your parents or grand parents should have planned better so that you would be a tall willowy Mensa blond who exuded sex and became the cameras darling when photographed for your dust jacket with your two sets of octets.

    Course, we like you the way you are. … especially as long as you keep writing about those two women wih the funny names.

  8. Gar Haywood


    If naming your characters "Rizzoli" and "Isles" is a crime, Clive Cussler should be hung by his thumbs at the center of the town square for naming his protag "Dirk Pitt."

    DIRK PITT????

    I wouldn't read a HAIKU about a guy named "Dirk Pitt"!

  9. Dudley Forster

    Tess – always a fan and as reader I don't care how you write just don't stop. As for unpredictability I have found that is the only way I can write, says the infant from his crib.. Sorry Alex, I read the book and I tried I did but every time I tried to lay it all out the story said, "fuck you" and waked out the door. I can't even begin to tell you how stupid one looks chasing a story down the street at 11 pm dressed in a long coat, boxers and loafers, one black, one brown. Oh and Tess you should have killed the priest. Yeah I know, it needed to be Maura's decision to let it go, but still ouch!

    What Cornelia said.

    Gar I think we need a plan, you wear the black hat and I’ll wear the white. I always liked Dirk’s name, a lot better than a number of other main characters. Besides, creating Dirk , you have to like a writer that has the chutzpa to put himself in his books as minor supporting character. IMHO it’s all moot now since the best series Cussler is writing these days is the Isaac Bell one, Yeah I know, a co-author so shades of Patterson, Inc (to revisit yesterday –my belief, Patterson is not a writer but a corporation that produces books). So if this keeps up were going to have to meet, High noon in the saloon, you buy the beer and I’ll bring the cribbage board, just you and me mano a mano. If you’re going to LCC I am sure we can find a saloon with the perfect ambiance <g>

  10. Robert Gregory Browne

    We're supposed to plan stuff?

    I'm in serious trouble.

    Names are always a tough one. I agree with Gar about Dirk Pitt. Hell, I'm surprised Brad Pitt has a career with that name—although I suspect his looks and talent transcend anything lacking in the name department.

    I, personally, love the name Maura Isles. And Rizzoli just has the ring, you know?

    A character name I don't like: Matthew Scudder. I love Block's books, but that name reminds me of a potato chip or peanut butter or something.

    A character name I love: Harry Bosch. Although if you changed a couple letters you'd have a problem on your hands.

    Still, great name. My own character names tend to be a little generic. See, I have the problem when I read that if the name isn't easy to pronounce, I always stumble over it. And the more generic names like Jack Donovan or Daniel Pope don't cause anyone to stumble.

  11. Nancy Laughlin

    That TV blogger is an idiot, Tess. Rizzoli and Isles is a great title, and, BTW, I love the show.
    And thanks for the encouragement. As an unpublished writer, I can use all I can get.

    Oh and Dudley, I stopped reading Cussler about the time he began putting himself in his books as a character. The ego drove me nuts.

  12. Walt M

    A friend of mine directed me to this post as I've had some unplanned good writing news this week. It's not a publishing contract yet, but it did push me forward and provide a shot of adrenaline that I'm still trying to believe.

    Thanks for the inspirational post. I've yet to read any of your books. However, after reading the above, I know that I need to check it out.

  13. lil Gluckstern

    Love your books, love your characters, love the TV show, and I agree that some people have too much time on their hands; I really like the name "Maura"-very evocative. (Goes with the music).


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