by Tess Gerritsen
A few days ago, I finally finished the fifth draft of THE SILENT GIRL, typed “The End” and emailed the manuscript to my agent and editor. Then, as is my custom, I attacked the detritus that’s accumulated on my desk over the past 12 months during the writing of that book. Into the rubbish basket went notes and stray scraps of papers, photocopied articles, etc. Underneath it all, I came across my long-lost yellow legal pad on which I had jotted the original plot outline for THE SILENT GIRL. These were my personal notes to myself, notes that no one else has seen, with a sequence of proposed events in the story. They might as well have been written by a Martian, because I didn’t recognize any of it. That’s how different the finished story turned out from anything on that yellow pad.
Before I turned in the manuscript, my husband read it and he asked, “How did you come up with all the complications of this story? At what point did you know about the final two twists? When did you know who the bad guy was?” I couldn’t answer the questions because I couldn’t remember. Writing is such a disorganized process for me that sometimes the most surprising twists occur on the fly, right as I get to that point in the story. And the bad guy doesn’t become obvious to me until he suddenly unmasks himself. I can’t tell you how these things reveal themselves. I can’t tell you how character A morphed into character B, only that it happened somewhere between draft 1 and draft 2. Which is why holding onto all those drafts becomes important to future scholars who might want to dissect an author’s writing process. Because I’ve promised my papers to the University of New England, I’ve saved and stored all the drafts of my manuscripts since THE SINNER. Whether anyone will be able to decipher my process is a big question; even I don’t know how I did it.
But here’s an example of how I first approached writing my novel THE KEEPSAKE, about an “Egyptian” mummy found in a Boston museum. When they discover she has a bullet in her leg, they realize she’s not Egyptian at all, but a modern murder victim. That’s all I knew about the story. I didn’t know who did it. I didn’t know why the killer did it. I didn’t know who the suspects might be.
So I jotted down notes, which I happened to save. I don’t remember writing them, so all I can do is tell you what was on the page.
At the top, I’d written five possible motives for the killer: JEALOUSY. GREED. DESIRE. FEAR OF DISCOVERY. REVENGE. Nothing too original.
Then come notes that seem to be off the top of my head:
— A crazy grad student who got ignored by all the girls — now getting back at the famed archaeologist for stealing his girlfriends?
— Archaeologist’s third young wife is gorgeous and now being stalked?
— Archaeologist believes he accidentally killed someone years ago in Egypt — turns out his victim is still alive and out for vengeance?
— Archaeologist’s son killed someone and father is covering for him? He’s an evil boy who hasn’t spoken to his dad in years?
— Group of young archaeologists in desert witnessed the death of a local child and archaeologist paid them to be silent. Years later, these witnesses are being killed one by one, each victim killed by his or her own area of expertise? (Mummies, shrunken heads, bog bodies)
The list of possible victims/killers/suspects goes on and on for three pages. After I wrote these possible premises, I gave up on trying to settle on one, and just started writing. I opened the book with Maura observing the CT scan of a mummy, and the discovery of the bullet. I had no idea where the book was going.
Those of you who’ve read THE KEEPSAKE (KEEPING THE DEAD in the UK) will know that the final book ended up completely different from anything on the list I’d jotted down. Because as I wrote the book, better ideas kept popping into my head as I wrote the book. Ideas that didn’t occur to me despite days of brainstorming at my desk. Ideas that only showed up after I’d laid the groundwork of the first few chapters.
I’ve tried and tried to be more organized about my writing. I’ve spoken to authors who plot every chapter on notecards and don’t start writing the book until those notecards are in order. I’ve spoken to authors who work off 50-page outlines, with every plot point logically thought out. I envy them.
Instead, I have five drafts of a book that kept changing on me, and an initial set of notes that appear to have been written by someone else. And the end result is a plot that I don’t remember devising.