At every new book launch, certain questions pop up again and again:
“Where do you get your ideas?”
“What’s the process of writing a book?”
It’s different for every writer, and while my process has evolved some over the
years, fundamentally it’s stayed the same through ten published novels:
The Big Idea: For me, every book begins with a big idea,
something that gets me excited. Usually, it comes in the form of “What if…” In
STALKED, my latest
psychological suspense, it was “What if a teenager
disappeared, leaving behind a note that said if anyone was reading it, she was
already dead?” That first idea bloomed into more questions: “Was she really
dead? Why would she leave a note like that instead of trying to get help before
she disappeared? Was it really the teenager who left the note, or someone else?”
The big idea stage can take a while: I may discard a lot of ideas before I find
one that both excites me enough as a hook (something compelling enough to
intrigue a reader to want more) and has enough depth and possibility to it to
sustain an entire novel (100,000 words!). Once I’ve settled on that hook, I move
to the next three stages, which overlap.
The Characters: I firmly believe that every plot has a “right”
character and vice versa. The more the plot impacts the character, the more
interesting it is – both to me and (I hope!) to a reader. When a character isn’t
risking a lot in order to experience the plot – to engage with the mystery –
then the stakes aren’t as high, for her or for the reader (who is vicariously
experiencing everything through the main character). With a series book like
STALKED, finding the right plot is even more complicated – it’s why FBI profiler
Evelyn Baine has to constantly grow and change, so her character doesn’t become
stale. Of course, there’s a lot more to creating characters, but this is where I
start: how will this character be fundamentally changed by the plot?
The Outline: Since plot and character are so intricately
intertwined, my outline and character development happen simultaneously. For me,
an outline is a bulleted list that tells me (at a high level) what will happen
through the entire book. What are the big twists? What are the red herrings
(things that are meant to distract the reader or lead them in the wrong
direction)? Where are my turning points (places where the character makes a
decision that they can’t turn back from, and where the plot takes a major turn)?
I also put character details in the outline, telling me how the main characters
will change throughout the story.
The Research: Because I write suspense (and romantic suspense),
accuracy matters. Writing an FBI profiler means poring through books on
psychology and criminal personality profiling. It means practicing by creating
my own profiles on real cases and comparing them to actual perpetrators. It
means visiting FBI field offices, going to the FBI Academy, and firing weapons
on the FBI’s shooting range. This happens in conjunction with the character and
outline creation, but I try not to go too far in my story without knowing the
research, because I don’t want to write a major plot point that turns out to be
inaccurate! Luckily, for me, the research is a big part of the fun of writing a
The Writing: All the prep work I do means that when I finally
sit down to do the actual writing, the words come quickly and I rarely end up on
a dead end or have to backtrack significantly. I sit down (at home with a parrot
on my shoulder or at a café with a mocha latte), put a little music on in the
background (or headphones) and start writing! Usually, with every scene of the
book, I really get going as soon as I’ve decided on my opening sentence, which
sets the tone and the hook. I’ve been told that once I start writing, I look
possessed and I type faster than seems humanly possible. Perhaps that’s just
evidence that even with all the work that goes into it, there’s still a little
magic in writing.
The Editing: Once a book is written, it’s still not finished.
There are two types of writers: pantsers (those who don’t know what’s going to
happen when they start and just sit down and write their way into a story) and
plotters (those who figure out everything up front before they get moving). In
reality, most writers are somewhere between the two. Although I’m a plotter, I
still surprise myself along the way. But knowing the high points of a book ahead
of time means less rewriting. Still, after “The End,” each book is read at least
four more times before it goes to my editor, including once out loud (you hear
things differently than you read them in your head). I get critiques from
trusted writers and readers and incorporate their feedback. And then, once it
does go to my publisher, it will get another three rounds of edits before it
reaches the final version!
The other question that always comes up at book launches is “When did you
know you wanted to be a writer?” And the answer is “Always.” I’ve
been writing stories for as long as I can remember, and before I could write, I
was telling them. Ten published novels later, I still have the same thrill when
a new big idea hits, the same love of sitting down at the computer, and the same
excitement of actually seeing my book in the bookstores.
If you’re a reader and want a chance to win a copy of STALKED, leave a comment
letting me know what interests you about the process of writing books.
If you’re a writer and want someone else do to the research for you, I’m
teaching a class next month about Writing Credible FBI Characters – you can
learn more and sign up here.
Critically acclaimed and award-winning author ELIZABETH HEITER likes her
suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists,
and a little bit (or a lot!) of romance. Her research has taken her into the
minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI
Academy’s shooting range. Her novels have been published in more than a dozen
countries and translated into eight languages; they've also been shortlisted for
the Daphne Du Maurier award, the National Readers' Choice award and the
Booksellers' Best award and won the RT Reviewers' Choice award.
The heroine of Elizabeth's Profiler novels was called "one of the most amazing
characters created in print" by Fresh Fiction. Her novels have received praise
from Lee Child, J.T. Ellison, Jeffery Deaver, Tess Gerritsen, R.L. Stine,
Allison Brennan, Laura Griffin, Suzanne Brockmann, Hank Phillippi Ryan and Zoë
9 comments posted.
The part of the writing process that interests me most is coming up with the initial idea. It seems like everything has been done before. Must be hard to come up with something fresh.
(Nancy Marcho 9:28pm April 10)
I think its more of a curiosity of the process as a whole. I think I would be totally confused and probably repeat myself about a million times.
(Maria Smith 8:53am April 12)
If I had the talent, I think I would consider the big idea and the characters first. They are important to books I read and enjoy and I know I would not enjoy editing a book. That is a time consuming necessary task.
(Anna Speed 11:53am April 13)