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20 Authors Share Their Biggest Surprises in the Writing Process

Experienced writers know to expect the unexpected. Here are surprises in the writing process from 20 authors, including Amanda Jayatissa, Paul Neilan, Kristin Hannah, and Robert Jones, Jr.

In any worthy endeavor, there are things you can anticipate. But often, there are also things you can't predict. For instance, I might cut out some time to sit down and write a scene for my story with my phone muted, plenty of water to drink, and clear mind. But I can't anticipate the power going out on a sunny day.

(Author Spotlights series.)

We're not going to dive into these sort of writing surprises in this post. But we have collected surprises from 20 published authors, who found the unanticipated during the writing process of their books. Enjoy these observations and click the linked names to read the full interviews.

20 Authors Share Their Biggest Surprise in the Writing Process

20 Authors Share Their Biggest Surprises in the Writing Process

"I think what ended up surprising me was how 'real' Paloma, the main character, became to me, and how much I ended up drawing from my own experiences of being a brown woman navigating typically white spaces. My Sweet Girl started out as a fun, ranty thriller. I didn't give much thought to any of the deeper issues about identity which underlies the story. It was only when I got to the third draft that I thought to myself 'Hold on, that sounds familiar,' and I realized that my own emotions had managed to sneak their way in. Rather than try to tone down Paloma's abrasiveness, both my agent and my editor encouraged me to explore these themes further, and suddenly, what was supposed to be just a twisty thriller had a whole other level to it" —Amanda Jayatissa

"There were definitely some unexpected outcomes in the writing process. This was the manuscript that required the most extensive edits yet; I ended up cutting an entire plot line out of the draft after the first round of edits, but it became clear quite quickly into the rewrites that it was working better without it." —Lucy Parker

"Does being surprised that I finished it count? In all seriousness, I think the discovery that I actually like the revision applies here too. I didn't initially see editing as part of my writing process, and now it's one of my most critical steps." —Addison Armstrong

(5 Steps to Surviving Your Copy Edit.)

"I'd made many choices about the form of the book intuitively in the initial pages of the first draft—the short sections the novel is narrated in, the shifting perspectives, the decision of the baby to address his grandmother directly, the inclusion of lines from the Quran and John Keats's poetry and Obama's speeches, etc., not questioning any of them. This freedom allowed me to finish the first draft, but later I had to make sense of them, to decide if they really worked together. There were many aha moments when I finally understood what a particular choice had enabled and how it fit in, but some choices didn't feel resolved until the final draft." —Nawaaz Ahmed

"The interest and care that my publisher put into everything shouldn't have surprised me, but I guess it did. It felt like a collaboration in many ways too—from the story arc to the editing, to the cover and marketing plan. I've been doing this a long time, and I've found that this era of faster-paced publishing suits me. Back in the day, it could take a couple of years to get a book to market (sometimes longer!) and today that's been cut significantly. Writers are idea factories…and the faster pace means we get to tell more stories and see the results of what we are doing in half the time. It's exciting. And, honestly, motivating." —Gregg Olsen

"I was surprised by how quickly the story came to me. Once I had the idea of writing a book set in a library, I found the characters and plot were there in my head, pretty much fully formed. That's not to say it was an easy book to write though; as any author will know, having the ideas and getting them down on paper are two very different things!" —Freya Sampson

"I am perpetually amazed at what can be done during stolen moments. I wrote a lot of this book on tour, backstage, on the tour bus, or just in the very early morning before the kids woke up. It was a little bit at a time, spread over many drafts, but it eventually all came together. This is not a surprise, but more of an observation: No novel can be written alone. Someone is always helping in some fashion, whether it's putting up with the writer on a bad writing day, doing the dishes on the night before revisions are due, reading draft after draft after draft… Writing doesn't have to be a lonely process. If you're lucky, you make the journey with people that you love around you, helping you. And hopefully you take the time to appreciate all of their help" —Josh Ritter

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"Maybe this will be useful to anyone else jumping across genres or entire styles of writing. I got to know myself as a writer exquisitely well the last few months of writing my Ph.D. thesis, and the knowledge carried over. I struggle to write in the mornings; I work really well when sitting on the floor; I have an upper limit on how much I can write each day without paying for it the next. In terms of the other kind of surprise, though—I discovered that the sample, theoretical magical spell in a 14th century academic treatise from Spain was actually used by a couple of housewives in 16th century Germany to hunt for buried treasure. Truly, the Middle Ages love you and want you to be happy." —Cait Stevenson

"The process of writing this book made me more vulnerable because so much of it is true. Because of the distillation of the form, again, I feel more exposed than I ever feel in writing fiction." —Crystal Wilkinson

"It didn't happen often, but sometimes I'd write something for one character and another would butt in and say, 'Nope. That's mine.' And they were always right." —Paul Neilan

"The character of Lettie was a surprise to me. Initially she wasn't in the book at all, at least not in my head. She popped up early in a scene—an older neighbor watching the street, as some neighbors do. She was someone to be managed, someone for Rae to be wary of. But then she kept popping up. I found her in more and more scenes, then Rae went into her house… and before I knew what was happening they were going on a road trip. It was at that point I had to admit that she had become a main character. I'm still not sure how that happened. It was a very Lettie thing to do, to enter in a way that made her seem unimportant and then proceed to dominate. God, I love that woman." —Emily Spurr

"I didn't expect certain parts of my own residency training to inform the book. Learning individual and family therapy, understanding intergenerational trauma, and listening to people's stories were all skills I focused on in residency and all ended up helping me understand the characters better." —Saumya Dave

(3 Rules for Writing a Better Dystopian Novel.)

"The thing that surprised me the most was how much the novel filled up with other, bigger ideas the more I put the world of it together. I set out to write a story about a woman learning a great secret, that the world was ending, and that led me to wonder what kind of world could that be, what kind of woman could learn such a secret before so many others. I decided to write a character that existed on the bottom rung of society since it's often servants that end up knowing the biggest societal secrets. Then indentured servitude came into play, and a designed world, a ship rather than our own planet, one with limited resources. Then I wanted to give her a backstory, her own psychological wounds. A longing for family. Before I knew it, my book about an apocalypse turned into a book all about class divides and learning to forgive your mother. Who knew?" —Marissa Levien

"I was surprised that my editor kept pushing for more details about the actual duties of a flight attendant. For me, those parts dragged because I had experienced them all daily for years. She was right, though! I've gotten so many reviews saying readers enjoyed the glimpse behind the curtain. I suppose this is why she gets paid the big bucks." —Lacie Waldon

"I write organically, which means that while I have a decent understanding of where the book is going, large parts of it are still a surprise to me. For instance, I was pretty near the end of the first draft before I worked out the antagonist's motivation. Hopefully, since it was a surprise for me, it will be a surprise to the reader!" —Don Bentley

"I surprised myself by being able to write a mystery. Before this, I wrote a romance novel that will never see the light of day. I wrote a mystery simply to challenge myself. The research and work that it took to build a world that is realistic and alive were surprising as well. I found myself researching very odd subjects." —Nekesa Afia

"The very first time a character spoke to me was extremely surprising. You hear writers say that all the time, but you think that they’re making it up as part of some kind of writerly flight of fancy. But once, in the middle of the night, I woke to scribble down something that I heard a voice say in a dream. The next morning, I read what I wrote and it was a direct address to the reader, a narrative perspective that I had not considered and which solved a particular problem I was having with the structure. After that, I learned to listen more closely to the voices and stopped dismissing them as entirely the result of an active imagination." —Robert Jones, Jr.

"I think the main surprise was how hard it was for me, especially in the beginning. I was the kind of student who always scored high marks in chemistry, but if a teacher asked me to write an essay, panic set in. What kept me going was that I come from a culture that is rooted in storytelling. From the time I was a little girl, I listened to ancestral stories and folktales around the fire in the evenings after a long day of animal herding, and I leaned on this experience when writing my story. I also had to tame the English language enough to make myself understood. It's worse than a disobedient camel! I have my own way of speaking that comes from the poetic Somali tradition and I had to keep that voice true. I am grateful to have friends like Gayla who understand my way of speaking and can help make the English correct without changing my voice." —Shugri Said Salh

"There are always big surprises along the way. I think that's part of the magic of writing. In this book, I had planned—and in fact, did in several versions—continue the story on for another decade and another 300 pages. But once I created Elsa and essentially let it be her book, I pared it down and focused on the story as it appears." —Kristin Hannah

"I always try to leave room for surprises, even with a book I had outlined extensively like this one. Otherwise, it feels like work to sit down in the chair to write. But if I can surprise myself on any given day, it’s more exciting to do the work because I can’t wait to see what revelations and shockers might come." —Steven Rowley

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