Every writer preparing to write a novel finds inspiration differently. Some simply sit down in front of a blank screen, and suddenly, write. For others, like thriller-writer Jeffery Deaver, inspiration for a novel doesn’t come until a carefully constructed outline has been written and expanded from one or two pages to 150 or 200 pages.
Deaver, who has been writing full time for 10 years, is a four-time Edgar Award nominee known for his Lincoln Rhyme books—namely, The Bone Collector—and 14 other suspense novels.
When writing his novels, Deaver uses the outline as a “skeleton” to which he later adds prose.
“I sit down with a very rough concept of the story, and then over the next eight months, I do a very elaborate outline. … That’s my full-time job doing the outline for six or seven days a week, eight to 10 hours a day.”
At no point in this outlining process does Deaver do any actual writing of the book. This is where he figures out the plot—″when I should have plot reversal, when I think a reversal would be too much”—and where he creates the characters and clues that he will place in the story.
“Story is characters we care about, both good guys and bad guys—you need them to be living, breathing, real characters—in extreme conflict, of which, the conflict is ultimately resolved for good or bad at the end of the book.” It’s the end of the book that Deaver considers the most important part.
“Everything should lead up to it chronologically … so that every loose end is tied up, every clue is explained. There should be one twist and then another twist at the end.” It’s that kind of roller coaster that Deaver likes to take his readers on.
It’s a medium like anything else, and I think if we writers neglect the trend we will, to some extent, be left behind. … I’ve taken a look at some of these electronic books, and technologically, they aren’t the same as flipping through even a cheap paperback on the beach. … But I think anybody who says, ‘Oh, it’s just a wave that’s going to pass or it’s newfangled and it’s too difficult, let’s forget about it’—I think that’s shortsighted. I think it’s another wonderful way to get the words that we, writers, create into the hands and the hearts and the minds of the readers, and you neglect it at your peril.
Once he has built the roller coaster, Deaver lets the outline sit for as long as he can before he returns to it. He likens this ritual to baking a cake. “You let things solidify, and then you go back and look at it.”
Deaver returns to the outline and reviews it several more times before beginning the two-month process of writing the book, and usually he revises the book itself 20 or 30 times before it actually shows up in print. Revision is key to Deaver’s craft.
Such is the case with his new book Speaking in Tongues (Simon & Schuster), which will be published this December. The book was originally published in England about five or six years ago, but when Deaver went back and reread the book, he wasn’t happy with it. “I saw a book that was acceptable, but it really didn’t have my trademarks.”
So, Deaver took the book and rewrote it for the hardcover American edition, “bringing together a lot of the things I learned about writing.”
However, what he learned about writing didn’t only come from his experience as a professional writer. He received a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from Fordham University.
“I went to journalism school because I knew I wanted to write, but you can’t really get a degree in novels. … So, journalism seemed to be a practical thing.” And the law degree? “I never really wanted to practice law. I wanted to get a job with a newspaper reporting on legal issues.”
Having the two degrees taught Deaver an important lesson about writing: “Writing is definitely a craft. It is a combination of skills that have to be learned, and journalism, for me, frankly taught me the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which,’ and when you use a comma and when you don’t.”
He realizes that grammar and syntax originated “for clarity and communication”; however, he does everything he can not to use those rules in what he calls a “punctuation-sparse style.” He never uses commas in multiple sentences or multiple clauses because they “slow down the story like a speed bump in the way.”
For Deaver, it is important that he eliminate as many “speed bumps” as possible, especially when he is developing a narrow time frame, a calculated thriller-subgenre element that he says he “practically carved out.”
However, maintaining that narrow time constraint is not as simple as it may seem. “I have to choreograph everything in the book, and I couldn’t do it without the outlining process because I have to get people across town in x number of hours.
“It just takes a lot of practical thinking and the disadvantage, of course, is that you lose the potential for some freedom to write what you want to write.”
Since Speaking in Tongues is not about Rhyme, readers may be wondering when they can expect the next Rhyme novel. Deaver says that his “strategic approach” is to create a Lincoln Rhyme story every other year and stand-alone books in between. He does this because he doesn’t want anyone, including himself, to get tired of Lincoln, and because “some stories don’t make sense for a quadriplegic forensic detective to be involved in.”
Ultimately, putting his readers first is what most appeals to Deaver. “Giving readers what they want is my goal in this business.”
This article appeared in the November 2000 issue of Writer’s Digest.