When your book turns into a brussels sprout

Ever since I turned in my latest manuscript, I’ve been spending a lot of time weeding my vegetable garden.  As I work in the hot sun, a tune keeps playing in my heat-addled brain, a tune I can’t seem to shake.  It’s the song "Plant a Radish" from the off-Broadway musical "The Fantasticks," and it’s sung by two fathers who bemoan the fact that parents never know exactly how their children will turn out.  So they extol the virtues of growing vegetables instead, because when you plant a radish, you know that you’ll get a radish:

Plant a carrot, get a carrot,

Not a Brussels sprout.

That’s why I love vegetables,

You know what they’re about!

Life is merry, if it’s very


A man who plants a garden

Is a very happy man!

(Lyrics by Tome Jones, composer Harvey Schmidt)

This song has special meaning for me, not only because I’m a gardener and a parent, but also because I’m a novelist, and every single story I’ve ever started has morphed, in some way, into that proverbial Brussels sprout, the vegetable I never thought I’d planted.

It’s a result of poor planning — or in my case, no planning whatsoever.  That’s because I don’t plot out my books ahead of time.  And that leads to surprises.

Occasionallly, I teach at writing workshops, and one of the first lessons I tell my students is this: not everyone’s a planner.  Not every writer can map out every plot twist of his novel in advance.  If you are a planner, then good for you.  I envy you.

If you can’t do it that way, if you’re the sort who just dives into the story and sees where it takes you, that’s okay too.  It can be a chaotic, frustrating way to write a book.  You’ll waste precious time backtracking to fix things. You’ll probably have writer’s block somewhere in the middle, because you don’t know where the story goes next.  You’ll suffer through multiple drafts, and you’ll feel like ditching the accursed plot many times.  This probably makes writing a book sound like an ordeal, and it can be.  But it’s also an adventure that will take you to unexpected and startling destinations.

The book I just finished writing, THE KEEPSAKE (in the UK, its title will be KEEPING THE DEAD) got its start several years ago, after I’d listened to a series of lectures by Egyptologist Bob Brier, about the ancient Egyptian technique of mummification.  Brier had actually made a modern mummy (yes, a volunteer donated his remains for that purpose) and the result was startlingly similar to the mummies of ancient Egypt.  How incredibly cool, I thought.

And then the novelist’s mind kicked in, and I wondered how I could turn this information into a thriller.

The idea sat and percolated for a few years.  I just didn’t know what the plot would be.  I wanted to incorporate my love of archaeology and the dusty creepiness of old museums.  Since it would be part of my Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles series, it had to take place in Boston.  And since I’m a doctor, I wanted medicine and science to be a vital part of the story, too.

All I knew about the plot was this: it would kick off in the diagnostic imaging department of a Boston hospital, where an "ancient" mummy is undergoing a CT scan.  A shocking surprise is revealed — the mummy has a bullet in her leg.  She is, in fact, a modern murder victim who’s been preserved using ancient techniques, by a killer with obscure archaeological knowledge. 

Enter Jane Rizzoli.

And that’s all I knew about the plot.  My proposal synopsis contained a bunch of nonspecific plot details to convince my editor I knew where I was going with the book.  But the truth is, I didn’t know.  I never do.  I just started writing and waited to see where the story would take me.

It took me down a number of blind alleys.  I wrote about a hundred pages that later got discarded.  I wasted endless weeks chasing plot threads that petered out.  I introduced half a dozen characters who were later excised and will never be used.  The killer kept changing identities.  The motives repeatedly changed as well.  Characters clamored for me to "go this way," or "no, you numbskull author, go that way!"  Surprises piled up, twists that I never could have planned out ahead of time because they popped up on the spur of the moment, right as I reached that point in the story.

In the midst of the chaos, something began to take shape, something I couldn’t see until I finished the first draft.  Something that surprised me.

If I had charted out the plot ahead of time, would it have resulted in the same book? No.  Would it have been a better — or a worse — book?  I don’t know.

I do know that it’s the only way I’ve been able to write a book.  Using this crazy, anxiety-ridden technique, I’ve produced twenty-one novels (counting my romantic thriller novels) and now I’m too old a dog to learn any new tricks.  I’ve just learned to live with the unpredictability of every new book.

Thank heavens I have a garden.  At least there’s something in my life that is utterly, unalterably predictable.


16 thoughts on “When your book turns into a brussels sprout

  1. Rob Gregory Browne

    I suffer from the same problem, Tess. Cannot for the life of me plot out anything in advance.

    Oh, I’ve tried, but it just never works. I start a book with a vague premise and hope that my brain will kick into gear once I start writing.

    And it usually does. The act of writing itself, putting one word after another, seems to open some kind of creative door for me, and everything else follows.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Good lord, I don’t understand you people!

    Actually I did end up writing my third book like that just from sheer deadline pressure and my editor likes it best of all my books, but I found the process hellish and I would never do it again. I need my outlines, even if I abandon them.

    I can see how it works for you, Tess, because Jane and Maura are such live and real characters that no matter what you do they will anchor the book and bring it home for you. You’re not it in alone, so to speak. But without that level of series character – ay yi yi.

    Can’t wait for this one!

    (I choreographed THE FANTASTICKS for summer theater, back in the day. Love that music.)

  3. Wilfred Bereswill

    I guess, maybe it’s my engineering background, but plotting has been my strength. It’s some of the other things I struggle with.

    I generally only jot outlines to remind of plots that I want to work on in the future. However, the novel I’m working on now wasn’t going to have enough meat to last through the meal. When I finally figured it out, I agonized. Then I got nervous. Then I worried.

    A few weeks went by and I didn’t make any progress. But somewhere in the middle of a decent round of golf (I was 4 over after 13 holes) it came to me. The plot twist motherlode and plenty of meat to add to the bone. (I finished 12 over. I didn’t care.)

    Ya never know when…

  4. R.J. Mangahas

    I’m not a meticulous outliner, but I can’t go in completely either. Well, sometimes I can, but the words usually flow better if I have a vague idea of where to go. Although, it is fun to discover along the way, isn’t it?

    Funny, I’m listening to THE FANTASTICKS right now.

  5. JDRhoades

    For my second book, GOOD DAY IN HELL, my agent told me that the publisher wanted to see an outline. God help me, newbie that I was, I asked “what’s an outline?” He explained it to me. I got a little panicky.”You mean they want to know how it ends?””Yeah.””I don’t KNOW how it ends! I NEVER know!””Still, that’s what they want if you want to get paid.”So I did it. I sweated and strained and cursed, but I got the damned outline done. They liked it. So I sat down to write the book….and discovered that I’d lost all interest in it. I knew how it ended. What fun was that? Finally, a friend told me, “Dusty, by the time you turn the book in, no one will remember what was in the outline. It’ll be stuck in a filing cabinet somewhere if they haven’t lost it completely.” So that freed me up and I finished the book whistling a happy tune. Okay, maybe that last bit is stretching it a little.

    Still, I hate outlines. I have been known to sit down and plan out the next few chapters as I work, but as far as sitting down,planning the book ahead of time, and then following that plan to the letter? I’d rather have six months of root canal.

  6. Jake Nantz

    Wow, I can’t imagine working without an outline. I’d be terrified. Now does that mean the book won’t change when I realize something I scrolled out ahead of time just isn’t going to work? Not a chance. My outlines are maleable, but I have to have them there. Otherwise I’m lost. I usually start with the ending in mind, then work backwards to figure out how it could have happened. Hey, it works for me.

  7. Louise Ure

    Tess, I am immensely heartened by reading your post today. Like you (and Dusty, based on his comment) I cannot plot the book in advance. And since I have no ongoing characters (each book is a stand alone),I have no existing anchor to hold it together, which makes it doubly difficult.

    Thanks to you, though, I’m not considering it a character flaw, just another way of writing.

  8. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Tess,I’m in the second write of one of my manuscripts — one that I sort of thought was done — and am now slashing and burning on every single page. This book is going to be very different than the one I envisioned . . . but it’ll be better.

    I so wish I could outline, but I must’ve been born without that gene.

  9. JT Ellison

    Didn’t Alex coin the phrase “Panster”, as in “Flying by the seat of your pants,” to describe us non-plotters?

    I swore about a month ago that I would never, ever not have a detailed outline for a book again. But writing is a non-linear process for me. I can go straight, but I always detour, go back, fill in, make changes and alterations so the rest of the book that follows makes sense. I get bored when I know what’s coming. I love the excitement of discovery, and think that translates to readers, in a way.

    Great post, Tess. Thanks for reminding me why I hate outlines. I’d rather end up with a brussels sprout.

  10. billie

    Great post. I too write without outlines. I know in my case it’s because the outline, as opposed to being a comfort, feels like a trap.

    I used to weed beds whenever I got stuck writing. One classic example of how therapeutic that can be was when I got completely overwhelmed with some notes from my agent and he, being a gardener too, suggested I go weed some beds instead of forcing the edit.

    I ended up in the big back flower bed, completely entangled in blackberry brambles. I could not even move my arms. I had to cut my way out, one little snip at a time.

    I took that tidbit back to the ms, and voila. He and I both got a big kick out of that.

    Happy gardening – I envy the veggie garden!

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, I certainly didn’t invent the word “pantser”. I’d never heard it until I was published and out at conventions, but people seem to use it all the time to describe the non-plotters.

  12. toni mcgee causey

    I always think I have a decent sort of outline for a book before I write it. It always changes, and I backtrack and it gets better than what I had planned. And then it is living hell, because it gets worse, and I swear I am never doing it like that again, that I am going to have a detailed plot, damnit, and it’s going to have all of those lovely double-crosses figured out. At some point I finish and it works, but I feel like I’ve been ground to glass, and there is no way I am EVER going to do that again, but I’m happier with what I ended up with over what I’d planned.

    Then I start the next book, have a general outline, know that I “ought” to plot but am so fired up over the characters and what’s about to happen, I start writing, hoping that the outline I have will work.

    I think this is the same reason people still have children after childbirth.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    I feel like I’m at one of those meetings where I have to stand up and say, “Hi, my name is Zoë and I’m an outliner,” only to have my admission met with a kind of embarrassed silence … ;-]

    Yes, I outline – a rolling outline that’s constantly updated. As Toni comments, new things simply arrive, ideas ferment in the back of your mind, and the layers of the story build up as you go, one on top of another, all meshing together into the final book. Some of those things you plan, others just happen on the fly.

    But before I start writing I know the main highlights of the plot, the themes and motivations, and a lot of what’s happening off camera to the people most affected. What I don’t plan in advance is the reactions of the characters to the events that unfold. I want them to be as taken by surprise as I am, and I want to be surprised by them.

    When I was writing THIRD STRIKE, I originally planned to write three alternative endings (just the epilogue, really) and see which one my agent and editor thought was best. But as I neared the finish, it became more and more obvious to me that there was only one ending that felt right. And that’s what I went for.

    Knowing how something ends – a favourite book or film – does not spoil it for me. Sometimes it allows me to better enjoy the journey, knowing the destination is a place I want to go.

  14. Jake Nantz

    Zoe, I kind of feel the same way (about the topic for one, Ms. Gerritsen!), but also about books and movies where I know the ending already. Many times it just allows me to enjoy the nuances along the way. It’s been the same with writing this one, where something will hit me and I have to go back and rework, but that’s part of the fun for me, even if I already know (sorta) how it’s going to end. I’m also one of those nuts who will watch a movie on television even if I’ve seen it 50 times already.


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