Tess Gerritsen left a
successful practice as an internist to raise her children and
concentrate on her writing. She gained nationwide acclaim for her first
novel of medical suspense, the New York Times bestseller Harvest. She is
also the author of the bestsellers Life Support, Bloodstream, Gravity, and The Surgeon. Tess lives with her family in Maine. (PHOTO CREDIT: Paul D’Innocenzo) –as appeared on Murderati on May 31, 2011
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
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
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.