HANK: There is some sort of metric, you probably know it, about how many words you have to write before you can write a truly good novel. It’s 10 thousand, or a million, or 10 million, something like that. I’ve often wondered whether my 40-some years as a journalist has accounted for some of those words. After all. I wrote a story every day, with a beginning middle and an end, with a character you care about and the problem that needs to be solved. And each one has a big important finish.
I predict that’s why Tessa Wegert’s first novel, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, was so impressively professional and powerful. I remember when it arrived at my door. You know how it feels, when you get a book by a new author, you open it with your expectations both high and low, and allow it to take you away.
Tessa Wegert nailed it. Absolutely nailed it. I am a huge fan of golden age mysteries, and of locked room puzzles, and you know, all of you, how difficult those are to write! But again. Tessa got it exactly right.
Then, it turned out, she’s a journalist too! And however many words it took to be as good as she is, maybe that’s how she got there so fabulously quickly. Writing with confident hands, it’s called, and Tessa definitely has them.
Her brand new book THE DEAD SEASON is out now, and as you will see, my words of praise are on the cover--an incredible honor for me! And what a joy to interview her now.
HANK: Do you remember the very first time you thought: I’m going to write a book, and I can do it. What was that moment?
TESSA: That moment came for me when my youngest child was nine months old. I was raising two little kids and working as a freelance writer, and I suddenly felt I needed a creative outlet and a project that was mine alone. I’d been writing fiction on and off since I was a child, but had never attempted a full-length novel, so I decided to give it a try. As challenging as it was to find time to write, I remember wondering why I hadn’t done it sooner. Right off the bat, I loved it.
HANK: Did that first book sell?
TESSA: The first book I wrote didn’t sell, but it was the book that got me my agent, so it definitely served its purpose. In retrospect, I’m glad I was able to write a few “practice books” before being published, as that allowed me to develop my writing style and home in on the right genre.
HANK: How has your life changed now? What do you think about that?
TESSA: Where my daily routine is concerned, not a lot has changed since I already had a very intimate relationship with my laptop due to my freelance work. I get to spend a lot more time writing fiction now, though, which — somewhere along the way — became my ultimate goal. One of the biggest perks of the job, and one I really hadn’t anticipated, is connecting with authors I’ve long admired and adored as a reader. Getting to know those writers and celebrating their successes with them is a highlight of my life.
HANK: Yes, it’s great, I so agree. It’s so reassuring to share the same joys and terrors and uncertainties. Speaking of uncertainties: do you outline? Has your method changed as you write?
TESSA: I didn’t outline my early books, but now that I have hard and fast deadlines, I outline every book. I write a brief overview of each chapter, but I also give myself permission to deviate from the plan if needed.
HANK: What's the hardest part of the book for you?
TESSA: Outlining is by far the hardest part of the process for me. I’m so eager to start writing that I’m always tempted to dive in, but outlining helps me stay on track. I don’t always get a good sense of the characters until I’ve got some dialogue down on the page, which makes understanding their motivations a challenge. To get around this, I’ll often write a chapter or two during the outlining process to make sure my instincts are sound.
HANK: Is your first draft always terrible?
TESSA: My first drafts aren’t usually all that bad because, right or wrong, I edit as I go. The journalist in me makes me do it; I’m so used to producing stories on a tight timeline that I can’t help but clean things up while writing. That isn’t to say my drafts are anywhere near perfect, but instead of writing half a dozen iterations of the story I can usually get away with three. Writing that first draft can take a long time, though.
HANK: How often in your process do you have doubts about what you’re doing?
TESSA: Oh gosh, all the time. I try to ignore them. There are always going to be pointless scenes and seemingly brilliant ideas that don’t pan out, and the only way to get through them is to keep on writing.
HANK: What do you tell yourself during those scenes, those moments of writing fear?
TESSA: Those scenes are tricky to write. Tapping into my own fears helps me convey those of the characters, but the process sometimes feels so personal and emotional that I have to remind myself what I’m writing is fiction.
HANK: Do you have a writing quirk or habit you have to watch out for?
TESSA: I’m always appalled by how many times I use words like “just” and “so” in my early drafts, so I keep an eye on that, but I think the biggest issue for me is raising the stakes. I constantly have to remind myself to push my characters harder and make their lives more miserable. I’m a pretty optimistic person, so I find myself looking for ways to solve their problems, when what I need to be doing is piling on more of them.
HANK: Oh, me, too! “Actually” and “of course.” Way too many. I do edit-find, and zap them all. And stakes—yes, so key. I always ask myself: “Why do I care? why does the character care?” So what’s one writing thing you always do—write every day? Never stop at the end of a chapter? Write first thing in the morning?
TESSA: I always read the previous chapter before putting new words on the page. Even with an outline in hand, this helps to get my head back in the story.
HANK: I do, too! It’s a bit of momentum to get into the next day. I proofread the prior day’s words, too. But how do you know when your book is finished?
TESSA: Ah, the age-old question. I struggle with this because there’s always a point toward the end where I wonder if I should have taken things in a different direction (there’s that doubt again!). I have to force myself to save those alternative ideas for a future book and trust that I’ve made the right choices for the current one.
HANK: Do you think anyone can be taught to be a better writer?
TESSA: I do believe this is the case. It might take years of writing (and even more years of reading), and writers don’t progress at the same pace, but for a motivated person, writing is a skill that can be learned.
HANK: Has there been one person who has helped you in your career? (I know, it must be difficult to choose just one, but...)
TESSA: I would say this person is my literary agent, Marlene Stringer. There wasn’t a huge market for the subgenre I was writing when I signed with Marlene, but she believed in my abilities, stuck with me, and encouraged me to carry on. I’m only two books into my writing career, both of which released during the pandemic, and her industry expertise and guidance are invaluable.
HANK: Pandemic books. TWO pandemic books! You are so tough. Crossing fingers the next book is in happier healthier days. SO you haven’t had to deal with too much…stuff. Writing swag, handouts, giveaways that kind of thing. (Since there’s no one to hand them to.) Do you think it matters?
TESSA: I haven’t done a lot with unusual swag to date, but bookmarks and insert cards can be very useful — particularly for reminding readers to leave reviews.
HANK: All-important reviews! And that’s another whole interview, right? Tell me one fabulous thing that's happened to you in your writing career.
TESSA: Last year, I was invited to be a panelist at Bouchercon to discuss murder weapons. The first Bouchercon I attended was seven years ago in Albany, NY, days after the first book I ever wrote went out on submission. I was totally starstruck by the scene and the authors I met, but also terrified that I’d never break into the business. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself to keep the faith, as that would have saved me a lot of sleepless nights! It was such an honor to be involved with the conference as a panelist after all those years of uncertainty and hard work.
HANK: Another rite of passage, I so agree! (Although I am always still nervous.) Easy one: What are you working on right now? What book of yours is out right now?
TESSA: My most recent book, THE DEAD SEASON, published in December, and I have a couple more finished manuscripts that I hope to share details about soon. I also just started writing something new, and since it’s set in the summer my goal is to finish it by Labor Day. Fingers crossed!
HANK: Ours are, too. What book are you are reading right now?
TESSA: I always read two or three books at a time, and just picked up Audrey Keown’s MURDER AT HOTEL 1911 and Peter Swanson’s EIGHT PERFECT MURDERS, both of which are wonderful!
HANK: Love Peter Swanson—what a mind! And I don’t know Keown—thank you. (My TBR is in trouble now.) Give us one piece of writing advice!
TESSA: The best advice I can offer is to trust your gut. When I wrote my debut DEATH IN THE FAMILY, which is a locked-room mystery, that subgenre hadn’t come back into fashion yet. It was the book I wanted to write, though, and I went for it. Even if all you stand to gain is experience — which is crucial anyway — I don’t think you can go wrong writing the book you’re most inspired and motivated to tackle.
HANK: Yes, so funny that one truly solid piece of advice is to be at the right place at the right time--which is unknowable! So we just need to write the book we want to write.
Thank you, Tessa!
How about you, sisters and misters? What’s the hardest part of the book for you?
Tessa Wegert is the author of the Shana Merchant series of mysteries, which includes DEATH IN THE FAMILY and THE DEAD SEASON. A former freelance journalist, Tessa’s work has appeared in Forbes, The Huffington Post, Adweek, and The Economist. She grew up in Quebec and now lives with her husband and children in Coastal Connecticut.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the USA Today bestselling author of 12 thrillers, winning five Agathas and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and 37 EMMYs for TV investigative reporting. THE MURDER LIST (2019) won the Anthony Award for Best Novel, and is an Agatha, Macavity and Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee. Her newest psychological standalone is THE FIRST TO LIE. The Publishers Weekly starred review says "Stellar. Ryan could win her sixth Agatha with this one."