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.
Heh. This is what happens whenever I try to do a pre-writing outline. The finished product is nothing like what I imagined it.
THIS. It's what every writing book/teacher I've read/heard says I can't do, no matter how much I want to, and you just made it okay. Thank you.
I went into my current story knowing some worldbuilding, the initial event, and the protagonist's goal. Unfortunately, the story's about a journey on-foot across six countries… with three people. Once the other two showed up, and I didn't have plans for them, they made their own plans. It's actually awesome, to realize how neatly (and accidentally) things can fit together.
If it makes you feel better, Tess, I do outline to a degree and still the story can end up being rather different from where the original outline dictated. I outlined the book I'm writing now; I'm done with the first act and the story is much different from how I first saw it, simply because a character arrived on the stage who has really redefined the story, and the villain is much nastier than I thought he/she would be. So, I'm revisiting the outline, but even so I use it as a map, not a blueprint that I have to stick to slavishly. Even those of us who are more "organized" aren't as organized as we seem.
My process is identical. Frustrating, time-consuming & wasteful. But then, as I beat myself up, I wonder. Really? Those (probably mythical) writers who get everything outlined? How long does that outlining process take? And do they *really* follow the blueprint? Is it really set in stone? Does the novel come out lifeless and inert?
Maybe I'm fooling myself, but over the years I've come to think that a novel is dynamic, a living, breathing organism. I'm also convinced that almost all of the work comes from the unconscious and, no matter how much prep work you do (& I do plenty), if you trust that, the problems/plot/characters will reveal themselves as you slog through the 5 or so drafts. It's all a question of experience & trust–easy to say but can be hard to do.
And maybe this is all just a bunch of bullbleep due to the fact that I happened to have a good day at work. 😉
My WIP is nothing like what my friend and I discussed one night over tea. She asked me to write a specific type of story with specific goals in mind and we loosely fleshed it out.
One unexpected character arrived in the first chapter, and when I got stuck and began to analyse what was there symbolically and thematically, one character looked up at me and said, "I might as well be waiting for Godot.' What the hell? And there was the answer. The subconcious is frightening, especially when it writes the book. Aren't we supposed to know what we're doing? <grin> I've been procrastinating for a week now, afraid to jump back in, afraid it'll ramble and I'll never arrive at a point, but I'm ready…you've inspired me to trust my subconscious again. Thanks.
What's scary is that we can't explain the process It just happens. And when it "just happens," it also means it might NOT happen someday.
Thank you for the detailed and fascinating look into your process.
Color me happy because you have just put the highlights in my hair for the day! THANK YOU. This post is true inspiration and a source of encouragement. You are beautiful!
No matter how much I outline, I get those little epiphanies throughout the process that makes writing like a drug. I want to get that feeling of discovery when a great plot point or twist leaps into my brain. And when I read the final manuscript, it seems as if the story had been created by magic because I don't remember each of those little epiphanies. They all just seem to have built the story by themselves.
That was especially evident when I was editing my latest manuscript with the help of my sister. She had noted all her comments by hand, and she lives in LA, so we went through all of her comments by phone. To help me find each place where she'd made a comment, I asked her to read me a three-word phrase I could search for in the e-copy of the manuscript. Over and over, I would be surprised when she would read me a phrase, and I would think, "There's no way I wrote that." Sure enough, there it was. Not a typo, but an actual phrase I meant to type and had relevance to the story. I simply didn't remember writing it.
No wonder it's so difficult for us to respond when readers ask, "Where do you get your ideas?" Many times, even I don't know. It really comes down to, "Because I had my butt in the chair for 2,000 hours," but that would seem like a flippant remark when it's actually the best answer.
butt in chair for 2,000 hours is the way this really works, isn't it?
Tess, thanks for the validation. Easier to get my butt in the chair when I know that what I'm doing will eventually work. My best character arrived in the book one night — have no idea where from, but I love him to death. So to speak. You actually can articulate your process very well — even if it appears to be chaos.
Fascinating insight. I outline, but not down to a nitty-gritty level. I agree with Jeff – it's a map rather than a blueprint. I like to know the backbone of the story, but not necessarily the reactions of my characters to the events that are about to happen.
I tend to think of it as like driving a car at night with the headlights on. I know roughly where I'm going, and the parts of the road immediately in front of me are brightly illuminated, but after that things get a bit more shadowy, stretching off into the distance, and there's always the opportunity for something to leap out of the dark into my path and cause a complete change of plan!
I'm always curious as to how prolific authors churn out books, Tess (more than say 1 a year). Your post rang true for me. My process is likewise messy and frustrating and just takes those 2000 hours. It just does.
Anyone who hangs around these parts write faster? Maybe more efficiently? I for one would love to know how you do it!
There are different levels of outlining. Elizabeth George and Arthur Golden write super-detailed outlines that are dozens of pages long. Others just make a bare skeleton of scenes. Others don't outline at all. I don't think it affects the impact of the final book, it's whatever process is right for the writer.
I would encourage you to also save those notes and scraps of paper that you threw into the bin because they, too, hold interesting keys for future researchers and scholars. They are a piece of that puzzle that could be the meat of some major study of your work.
I know the joy of sweeping the desk clean after a project, but I would love for those notes to be part of your collection some day. (And I hope to meet you at some point in the near future, since I've taken over as curator at UNE's Maine Women Writers Collection.)
Congratulations on finishing up this project!
I used to write the way you do, Tess. In fact, I rarely even wrote any notes. Just thought of a vague idea, wrote a paragraph or two to convince my editor, then jumped in and started writing.
But now that I seem to be writing three to four books a year, I've found that I HAVE to be more organized or I'll never finish any of them. So now I write a pretty extensive synopsis of the story before I began and stick pretty close to it, unless inspiration hits and I have to stray.
I didn't think I'd ever be able to write this way. I pretty much scoffed at the idea. But I found that, with most of the plot work done — those nagging logic points that always slow us down — I could write much faster, and my work doesn't seem to have suffered because of it.
I resisted doing this for over twenty years, through many screenplays, and now novels. Now I wish I'd done it along time ago.
Tess, could you imagine if you had written your Keepsake notes in hieroglyphs. Now THAT would have taken some time for the University of New England team to decipher!
Your piece today sums up my predicament exactly. Get into the story then see where it takes you leaving a trail of paper piles behind you. I've outlined a couple of film scripts fairly rigorously down the years, but my novel writing seems to benefit from the more tangential approach.
Writing about how music has helped my latest film project in my Ogmosis blog tomorrow, if anyone fancies dropping by http://ogmosis.tumblr.com/ for a read and chat.
Thanks for a pertinent piece Tess, Matt
Oh, it's so helpful to see that a successful author "processes" the same way I do. I think there's a mystery to how a mind comes up with characters and story, that there's a level of unconscious mind where things cook and brew. I'm reluctant to put a lot of thought/planning into one of my books for fear of capping the well. Besides, it's fun being a pantser and discovering all that stuff that happens!
Rob, very interesting comment. How long does it take you to write your working synopsis? Do you go chapter by chapter? Or just write a fairly detailed overview?
I love that you tell us about the big mess that goes into the sausage!
I'm with Ruth! I want to know more! I too outline to some degree, but I always end up with a better idea about 1/2 through my first draft or sometimes after it's done. Then I'll typically do either a full rewrite or about 1/2 of the scenes or so. It ends up doubling the time it takes to complete a readable draft.
Ruth, Spencer, my synopsis is pretty detailed, but only in terms of plot logic. Point A to point B to point C, etc. I don't do a chapter by chapter, because sometimes a paragraph can turn into two or maybe even three chapters, and I find it easier to judge chapter breaks (ALL important, IMO) as I'm doing the actual writing.
I'm in the midst of writing a book right now that is based on a 15-page synopsis. I'm about 68,000 words in and in synopsis pages, I'm at about, I think page 11 or 12. I find that if I need to leave myself room to explore a little — character motivations, etc.
In my shorter thrillers, I sometimes worry if I'll have enough synopsis to cover the required number of words, but it somehow works out in the end.
I rarely find myself ending up with a "better idea." At least not in the sense that I'll be changing the plot structure. I may come up with a better idea for a scene or a character beat, but once I have a structure I tend to stick to it. Come from my screenwriting background.
Tess, I was fascinated by your comment, it just happens. I bet you mull things over in your mind, think about ideas before you go to bed, so it doesn't just happen. It's that marvelous brain and that wonderful subconscious mixing that dough and rolling it out to make a perfect whatever that batch makes, scene, dialog, narration, plot twist. All so mentally tasty and emotionally fulfilling.
Yes! Vindicated. 🙂 Thank you.
My premise is always the same as my original thought, but the story always turns out completely different than I imagined. I don't pre-write, though someone might consider the five drafts of the first act "pre-writing" of sorts . . . I just mentioned to my agent today that it takes me twice as long to write the first 150 pages of my manuscript than the last 300, and I rarely know who the killer is, even if I have some ideas. Twice I thought I knew, then the suspect ended up dead.
Rob — Thanks for sharing that. Just curious… Have you ever scrapped an idea while writing a first draft and abandoned your plot outline?
Great post Tess! I work the same way. And I so hear you in your comment that when it just happens, you worry about it one day *not* just happening. It's scary.
Can't wait to read The Silent Girl!
As an aspiring novelist, I am offten fascinate in what makes MY favorite authors so good. Maybe I am looking for that magic bullet. You're no help at all, but the revelation that it never goes exactly as planned gives me hope!
Tess, I love that you write this way! Excellent stuff here with the blog and all the comments. The 2,000 hours is the guts of it, but the flow of thought from the recesses takes trust in the unseen mind.
Loved hearing the possible killers/motives for THE KEEPSAKE! This is the kind of DVD extras I think they should put in e books.
Tess, I loved reading about your process. It feels so right to me. I have tried outlining, and manage for a chapter or two, and then I just can't think of what comes next, until the next thing comes of it's own accord. Curiously it tends to hold together at the end.
it must be helpful for other ’s reader. thanks for good blog posts.