Some writers just seem to have it all figured out.
Lisa Gardner will tell you she’s not one of them. No, not her. Even 25 years in, she still researches dead-end subjects, leans on editors, writes at the same book-a-year rate and struggles with social media.
Her self-deprecating nature is as genuine as it is charming—but unlike her characters, she’s not fooling anyone. Because she’s good. And she’s proof that raising the stakes isn’t just for plots, either. It’s for writing careers.
Take, for example, her oft-told story of first committing herself to writing a novel when, as a waitress, she repeatedly caught her hair on fire serving a flaming appetizer. The footnote is that the resulting novel, begun when she was just 17, became its own spark that took hold quickly, launching her into a prolific career writing romantic suspense under the name Alicia Scott—13 books in eight years. “Granted, I worked on the [debut] for three years and rewrote it four times, so it’s not quite an overnight success story,” she ex-plains on her website. “In publishing, however, it’s darn close.”
Her first novel attempt outside of the Silhouette Intimate Moments line was a domestic suspense one might say was before its time, given today’s fandom enjoyed by Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins: The Perfect Husband sold at auction (“a small publishing auction,” she clarifies) and went on to win the 1998 Reviewers’ Choice Award. Reviewers chose wisely—it launched her popular six-book FBI Profiler Series. Meanwhile, her second thriller, the stand-alone The Other Daughter, nabbed the 1999 Reviewers’ Choice as well as the 2000 Daphne du Maurier Award, further solidifying her new status as both bestseller and award-winner, book after book.
Even as FBI profilers became a hot topic, peppering prime-time TV and bookstore shelves with gusto, she decided not to stay safe on base. New series character Detective D.D. Warren, investigating urban crime in Boston, became in instant hit when she debuted in 2005’s Alone, and an international smash with her second, Hide. (The 10th D.D. Warren novel, Find Her, just hit bookstores in February.) And when Gardner herself moved to remote New Hampshire, she in-vented new characters to roam the back roads with her: Tessa Leoni and Sergeant Wyatt Foster, in blockbuster page-turners Love You More (2011), Touch & Go (2013) and Crash & Burn (2015). The head count now is 16 novels (not counting the romance), a handful of anthology stories and two shorts.
And the body count? Well, you’d have to read them all to find out. If you’re lucky, you might even see your name among them. Readers get in on the fun with her recurring “Kill a Friend, Maim a Buddy” sweepstakes, where “one lucky stiff is selected for literary immortality.”
With more than 22 million books in print across 30 countries, even as Find Her dominates 2016’s hardcover bestseller lists Gardner looks ahead—or, rather, behind her. “I did a contest on Facebook to see what characters readers want to hear from next, and for 2017 they chose the FBI Profilers—which are books I have not written in eight years,” she says. “Now, for Detective D.D. and the others, I’ll add details to a master character sheet [as the series progress]—but for those books, I didn’t. So I’m embarrassed to say I spent my fall rereading my own novels, because you can’t get those details wrong. Readers are going to call you on it, and that’s just embarrassing.” She pauses for a moment, then laughs. “Having said that, I still live in terror that I’ve gotten something wrong!”
In the July/August 2016 Writer’s Digest, Gardner discusses cornerstones of successful suspense writing, the importance of rewriting, and much more. These bonus WD Interview outtakes we didn’t have space to print delve deeper into research, crafting a story without an outline, and giving readers what they want.
What was that like, rereading your own FBI Profiler books after so long?
It’s hard. I actually couldn’t remember the endings of some of the books, so every now and then I had moments of, Hey, that’s pretty clever! [Laughs.] But by the same token, I am a rewriter, and there were things about all of them that I immediately itched to do differently. And I think it’s best not to go back in your work, frankly. You don’t get to rewrite them, it’s not an option—it just frustrates the author.
I never can guess what’s going to happen in your novels. Can you deconstruct or quantify how you manage to maintain that element of surprise?
My first few books, I outlined. I researched with experts, and being a new writer and a scared writer, I didn’t want the terror of the blank screen. So I mapped out the whole book. That’s how I wrote The Perfect Husband, my first thriller. And I was lucky in some ways—that book did go to a small publishing auction, and it was sold, but the very first comment I got from my editor was that it was the most linear plot she had ever read, and she could predict exactly what was going to happen next, and for that matter I needed to rip the whole thing apart and redo it. So that’s where I got with outlining.
But to a certain extent it makes sense to me. If you outline a book, by definition, you’re encapsulating all the really good ideas you have [at once], which probably will be the most logical things, right? So you end up with a book that’s pretty logical, but not very surprising.
Now, I research with experts, get a foundation of some basic forensic things that need to happen, that will be a cool turning point when I get there, but then I do write “seat of the pants.” When I was writing Find Her, was Flora Dane a victim or a vigilante? I didn’t know. And I like that process better. I particularly like to write characters who are bits of shades of gray, so we don’t know exactly where they’re going to go. They’re at a turning point in their lives and they’re under extreme stress, because it’s a thriller. So, will this break them? And not even just your main characters, but all the characters. And suddenly there’s something interesting, for me, to show up for in the mornings.
But then it’s things like, today, I went for an hour-long walk through the mountains, because I don’t know what to write tomorrow: I am stuck. And I started a scene today that already feels flat. It’s informational but it’s not interesting. So to a certain extent—and I guess this is one advantage to 25 years [of career experience]—I can back away and think less of the tangibility of what I write, and more from a plotting perspective [of] what kind of thing needs to happen next. And it occurred to me that next, I need to shoot someone—that was the conclusion of my walk! [Laughs.] Stakes need to go up, and there needs to be action, urgency and a setback, a loss, that will ratchet up the tension. So it’s almost like coming at it backwards—what emotionally from a reading point of view are you due for? OK, now what is the scene that’s going to give me that?
So tomorrow I’m going to get up at 5 a.m. and I’m going to shoot someone, and I’m actually kind of excited about it. [Laughs.]
You’re big on hands-on research, but also caution against getting too wrapped up in it to the point that the research strangles your story. What’s your best advice in deciding when some field experience or first-person interviews would be beneficial, and when some digging online will suffice?
I think it comes down to what you’re trying to look for. I find the most inspiration from in-person interviews. You end up walking away with stories you didn’t even know you needed to know.
I remember when I was going to write Say Goodbye, the scary spider book, and I got permission to interview FBI agents in Atlanta. I’d come up with a serial killer case, and what would be the procedure? And I remember halfway through the interview thinking, I’m bored out of my mind, and if I’m bored, something’s wrong. So I actually stopped everything. And the guy was real sweet—it was this male FBI agent, young guy, and he’d already said in preparation for me he’d actually read [my earlier] books. He was a good FBI agent—he’d done his homework for this weirdo assignment. And I’m like: “Can you tell me something? You’ve read the books, you’ve seen what I’ve done so far. Is there something I am missing?” And he was like, “Yeah, you’ve actually missed something really obvious. All FBI agents have extracurriculars—something that you’re not paid to do but the government pays for you to get training for, such as SWAT team, tactical units or evidence recovery, and it makes you more valuable on the private market when you retire.” He said, “No FBI agent would not have a secondary extracurricular.” That was the first I’d ever even heard of it, and that fundamentally changed everything I was going to write, everything about the book. So the right interview can blow wide open what you’re trying to do.
I think the question becomes when I hear writers say, “I can’t continue with the story because I don’t know something,” or, “I have to do this research first,” or, “I’m waiting to hear back from this guy.” Now it’s standing in the way of you making progress, and I think we all have to be careful. Let’s face it: A huge part of the writing process is procrastination. But at a certain point, is your research a tool that’s going to move your book forward, or have you used your research to become your procrastination, so you’re never going to get there? At that point, read some quick thing online and keep yourself going. If the interview comes through later, you can go back and add more detail or fix things. But get yourself going.
For the complete WD Interview with Lisa Gardner, don’t miss the full July/August 2016 Writer’s Digest, available now.