Doing it

I just turned in my latest manuscript (my 22nd!), so I’m feeling a bit adrift today. Thought I’d address an emailed query that I received recently, because it addresses exactly what my brain has been so thoroughly occupied with over the past few months — writing, and finishing, a book.

A reader/writer asks:

I was wondering if you would discuss on your blog what your process is, from starting a book through your final edits. Do you write a certain number of words per day? Do you write your books straight through, or do you skip around? Do you put it away for a while after you finish your first draft?

The writing process is something every writer evolves on her own. After having completed this 22 times, I’ve grown to learn what works for me.

First, above all, comes the idea. It’s amazing how often aspiring authors tell me they’ve got a great idea for a novel, and my reaction to it is “ho-hum.” Great ideas aren’t easy to come up with. Just saying “my book is about sex trafficking of Russian girls” isn’t really what launched VANISH. What really launched it was the idea that Jane Rizzoli is in labor and gets taken hostage. The sex trafficking angle occurred to me later. Notice where I found the excitement — in the predicament of the character, not in the machinations of the plot.

For my most recent book, ICE COLD (THE KILLING PLACE in the UK), the idea I had was this: Maura gets trapped during a snowstorm in a remote Wyoming village where everyone has vanished, leaving behind dead pets and uneaten meals. The explanation for why it happened is where the plot takes her, but the thing that really grabbed me was the idea of being trapped. In a blizzard. And every attempt at escape ends up in worsening horror.

So my number one piece of advice for a writer is, find an idea that focuses on a character’s predicament. Not on generalized concepts like sex trafficking or serial killers or global catastrophe. Start your story in a very personal place, with a character who is facing a crisis.

Once you’ve got that, your story will follow what happens to that person. My next job is to find out why is it happening? Maura’s in a weird little town, trying to get out, and she doesn’t understand what happened there. That’s where the plot and detective work comes in. What clues will she find? What worse things will happen? And meanwhile, how will Jane Rizzoli try to find her missing friend?

During my first draft phase, I try to write about four pages a day. I know that I’ll get through a first draft in about eight months, on that schedule. I don’t stop to revise — I just forge ahead, through thick and thin, and through some really rough work. Some of it is horrible. That’s okay — I’ll come back and fix those scenes. Since I don’t outline ahead of time, I don’t always know the solution to the mystery. So I’ll wander in the wilderness along with my characters, until I get about 2/3 of the way through and I’ll be forced to find answers. And then I can finally write to the end.

May I repeat: I don’t stop to revise during the first draft. Because it’s all going to be changed anyway, when I finally figure out what the book is about.

The second draft is pure hell. It involves going back, seeing how horrible the first draft is, and re-writing the entire thing. But by then, I know where the story is going. I know where the solution lies, and I know who my secondary characters are.

The third draft starts to look a little better. Here’s where I try to hone the logic and the motivations, where I try to make the dialogue more subtle. My first draft dialogue tends to fall like a sledgehammer. Characters say exaggerated things, or have exaggerated responses. That’s because I’m painting with broad strokes, just to help define the emotions. The later drafts are about keeping those emotions intact, but allowing the characters to express them in less overt ways.

When I finally get to around draft four or five, I don’t let it sit around and season, because I’m usually bumping up against a deadline. Besides, by then I’m sick of the whole thing and don’t want to look at it again. So, for better or worse, it usually goes off to the editor. And then comes the wait as she comes up with the editorial letter suggesting changes.

Every book is different. Every book has given me high anxiety. Every book has been agony to write, and has made me question why I’m in this profession.

11 replies
  1. techiebabe
    techiebabe says:

    Wow. NOW I know how long it takes. NOW I know how you earn your money. NOW I know why many aspiring or unpublished authors are borrasick, hoping for that deal.

    I hate deadlines and constraints but I appreciate the necessity to operate within them. However I hadn’t realised quite how much they affected writers.

    Thanks for posting – and I hope you have a great Christmas break and a fab new year!

    Flash X

  2. Jeanne
    Jeanne says:

    Thank you for the peek behind the curtain, Tess! It’s so helpful to see how you write – and I think your tip about the main character having a predicament just gave my novel the focus I was looking for! You rock!

  3. therese
    therese says:

    Yes, grueling process. Many readers are thrilled you are in this profession.

    You said, “Start your story in a very personal place, with a character who is facing a crisis.” I assume this is where the passion begins for you, a desire to explore the personal place, with a character in crisis who transforms into something greater than when she began. Then your book evolves into a story where readers can connect and personally own the journey.

    But, just for kicks and giggles, what would you prefer to do?

  4. connie
    connie says:

    Hi, Tess,

    Thanks for sharing your process. I’m an unpublished author who is trying to find the writing style that works best for me.
    I just finished my fourth book. I’m on my third draft and I’m sick of it.

    I thought it was very interesting that you start with a problem for your character and not a plot point. I’ll have to try that for my next book.
    I enjoy your books, btw. Keep writing, I look forward to each new release.

  5. Iona
    Iona says:

    Thanks for the insights! Wow, what a process… what a struggle…

    I can understand you’re sick of it in the end. I write as a hobby and I already get sick of my stories sometimes. Luckily I have no deadlines and I can just put it all away for a while! 😀 And by reading your post… I think I’ll keep my day job and keep writing just for fun!

    Looking forward to your 22nd! Good luck with whatever changes your editor might suggest! 🙂

  6. Jen B
    Jen B says:

    I appreciate you sharing your process, Tess, and I’m always relieved when an author I respect reveals that they don’t outline every moment of their novels beforehand. When I first started writing I was told this was the way to do it, and it worried me because my own method was so different.

  7. Tess
    Tess says:

    what would I rather be doing (if not writing)? I would love to go back to school and study the classics! Or learn a new language. Or work in a museum. Or be a professional musician!

  8. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:


    I remember hearing Gillian Roberts speak at a writers conference a few years agoonce. She also advised against editing during the first draft stage. She said that we should “Write it down, not write it right.”

    Her imagery for first drafts was that of building a bridge from one side of a cliff to another. The idea is to build something as a leap of faith saying “this is where I want to get to,” then later comes the task of reinforcing the bridge in subsequent drafts to make it travel worthy.

    I hope you have a wonderful holiday season surrounded by loving friends and family! You can relax a little since your manuscript is temporarily out of your hands for a little while.


  9. Cumulus
    Cumulus says:

    You mentioned before that your first draft is on yellow pads in longhand. When do you commit the story to a typed version?

    I must say that I am impressed with the ability of fiction authors to create a believable, gripping story. My writing has been in the non-fiction sector, primarily in human resource management, and I find it much easier than writing a fictional story.

  10. kms4
    kms4 says:

    I’m pumped this book is putting the focus on Maura instead of Jane, have been missing Dr. Isles! Cannot wait!!

  11. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    Until I read this, I thought I was the only one who found writing the second draft pure hell. This time I’m dragging my feet because it is such torture. Somebody please kick me!

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