Lisa Gardner’s Top Five Writing Tips
When I started my career as a suspense novelist, I was seventeen years old. I wrote my first novel on a shared computer in the college computer lab during my free time after my classes, homework and work-study job were all completed. Basically, I drafted three unpublished novels in the odd hours of the morning while actively fantasizing about one day becoming a “serious author.” In the fantasy, I would have my own computer, in a real office, where I’d be over-caffeinated and artistically euphoric all of the time. Then, I figured, Stephen King would have nothing on me.
Good news: I managed to sell my first novel, then a few more. Better yet, I came up with an idea for a breakout thriller involving a serial killer escaping from prison and his reign of terror against everyone who put him there, including his ex-wife. The Perfect Husband [Bantam, 1997] was published to huge success and, yes, my publisher sent me real money and everything. First thing I did was fly out and buy my first computer. Then I set it up on my first desk, hung out my shingle, and called myself a writer.
And discovered that M*A*S*H airs on cable TV pretty much 24/7.
I had the equipment, the space, the nagging contractual deadline for my next major crime novel. So why was I suddenly getting nothing done?
Rule #1: Write!
Before, because I had limited time, I was highly efficient about using it. But the moment I had all day, that’s what it took for me to craft a sentence. I puttered around the house, surfed the internet, and mastered solitaire. Technically speaking, I used my new laptop a lot—I just wasn’t writing on it. In fact, I did a very good job of teaching myself to play on it. In the end, I had to create a division of labor. Checking email, exploring the internet, and playing games; these I now do on my iPad (which let’s face it, has better apps). My computer became my designated writing machine—as in, the only thing I was allowed to do while sitting at it was write. And interestingly enough, I did.
Rule #2: Stress is your friend.
Writers can’t take all day to write. Or all year. It’s not good for us. We need to be anxious, terrified, and neurotic. It’s our natural state. After losing six months to cable TV, I dramatically changed my daily schedule. I gave myself two hours, first thing in the morning, to write five pages. No phone could be answered, no email checked, no computer game started, until I’d drafted five pages in two hours. Suddenly, I was frantic about time. I had to get to the computer; I had to get to work. If I didn’t get my five pages done . . . well, I didn’t know what would happen, but it was best not to find out.
Rule #3: Pavlov is not just for dogs.
One of the best speeches I’ve ever heard featured a New York Times best-selling author stating that the key to her writing success was scented candles. I’m not joking. As she explained, scent can be a powerful psychological trigger. By burning the same fragrance each day while she wrote, she conditioned herself to write every time she smelled that fragrance. Basically, rather than sitting around waiting for inspiration, she trained herself to be efficiently and reliably creative every time she lit her candle. I’ll admit, I immediately adopted the habit, and ten years later, I swear by it. I still think of my novels in terms of the fragrance that was burning while I wrote them.
Rule #4: Be inspired.
For me, every project starts with research, something in real life that is stranger than fiction. In the case of my most recent novel, Look For Me [Dutton, February 2018], I read about a horrible mass homicide. Every member of the family had been shot except for the teenaged daughter, who was now missing. What hooked my interest was something the sheriff said about the ambiguity of it: the police didn’t know whether the missing teen was in fact a victim or perhaps the one who’d murdered her own family. How would the police approach such a case? Were they searching for a victim or a killer? What was the missing girl going through? Was she, at that moment, in the hands of a vicious kidnapper? Or was she a master manipulator who had just gotten away with murder?
After designing my fictional crime, I called up my favorite detective (Over the years, I’ve developed many contacts in law enforcement.) and asked, in the real world, how he would handle this scenario. As always, I learned so much. That a missing kid must be treated as a missing kid regardless of suspicions. That cameras are everywhere, even places we don’t expect. That any contact with a computer leaves behind some kind of digital fingerprint. Hiding from the law is harder than you think. If anything, detectives have too many tools to work with; managing all the manpower pursuing different sources of information is now the challenge. This line of thought generated a lot of ideas. Throw in my neighbor, who’d started volunteering for Court Appointed Special Advocates, her real-life stories from family court, and my imagination—and then my novel—was off and running. Any time I got stuck, I referred back to my research notes.
What initially inspired you to start your novel? Return to that question, idea, theme, etc. time and time again, and you’ll find fresh motivation to get back to work.
Bottom line: Writing is never easy.
When you’re first starting out, you’ll struggle to make time for your hobby in between the daily demands of life. Once published, you’ll then struggle to make time for your core job in between the daily demands of “serious author” business, which may or may not include social media updates, book tour obligations, and guest blog installments. As many authors will tell you, we can write all day and still never get to our novels. But with a little strategy about your computer arrangement, daily schedule, research ideas, and maybe even a scented candle or two, you can get yourself going. Then hone and perfect. A productive writer is a happy writer, which makes finding your optimal work habits the true key to writing success.
Now, go forth and write!