Monday, March 8, 2021

Reinventing a Writing Career: Takeaways from Sandra Wong’s Interview with Tess Gerritsen

 By Shari Randall


If you are a writer or a reader, you must treat yourself to a webinar by Sisters in Crime. In these days when in-person conferences are impossible, SINC has made available several webinars that fill the often empty creative tank with interviews, craft discussions, publishing information, and chances to connect with other writers.


Sisters in Crime sets the bar high with online author offerings and they did it again this past Saturday with “Reinventing a Writing Career,” featuring award winning authors Tess Gerritsen, Robin Burcell, Naomi Hirahara, Sujata Massey, Lori Rader-Day, and Sandra Wong. How many writers organizations are brave enough to focus on the bad stuff – canceled series, orphaned books, bad agents – and offer advice for dealing with it?


I'll focus on Part One of the webinar in which Tess Gerritsen spoke with current SINC President Sandra Wong about these bumps in the road in her career and how she pivoted to make her writing career stronger than ever with lessons learned.


“The trick isn’t becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer.” Tess shared advice from a writing career that spans almost three decades. Trained as a medical doctor, she started her writing career with Harlequin and pivoted to medical thrillers when she felt driven to write about the disturbing issue of children kidnapped for the black market organ trade. That book was Harvest and kicked off a string of medical thrillers including her popular Rizzoli and Isles series. She confessed that she didn’t tell her early editors she was a doctor because she “thought it was boring.”


Tess had some takeaways for writers who want to build a long career:


Maintain your passion but…Tess confessed that the “books of her heart” always sold poorly. The downside of books you’re passionate about? They may hurt your sales history. Readers are fickle and want books from their favorite authors to meet their expectations. Publishers want the same thing “only a little different.” She suggested that authors self-publish their passion projects, use a pen name, or change publishers to avoid the “publishing death spiral” of a weak sales history.


Maintain your curiosity. Research can be seductive but it’s necessary. You need to do enough research so that when you approach an expert, you can ask the right questions. Tess was a cultural anthropology major in college and approaches characters as an anthropologist. What’s their culture? What do they care about? What’s their passion?


Want to write a strong female lead? A strong female lead is expected to know what she wants and go after those goals. Readers must identify with those goals. Create a whole character whose vulnerabilities and insecurities make them relatable.


Her advice for academics and doctors rings true for all writers. Don’t overexplain: no info dumps or bio dumps.


Tess’ first agent stole from her royalties. She reminded us that writing is a business and a bad agent is worse than no agent. Your success has to do with the enthusiasm of your team – your agent and the people publishing you. If your books aren’t doing well, perhaps new eyes on the project will bring new enthusiasm.


Luck plays a part. The only thing a writer can control is writing the next book.


Be productive. Tess said newbie authors think their job is to do promotion. She says your job is to write another book. 


Tess finished with this: “Be open to switching things up. Be fearless and don’t shy away from challenges that come. Stay curious, stay open, surround yourself with your cheerleaders.”


Wish you’d been there? This interview is now part of the SINC webinar library, which has dozens of great presentations on everything from forensics to craft. All members of Sisters in Crime have access to the webinar library. 

Have you watched any webinars? What do you think of the online experience?


Shari Randall is the author of the Agatha Award winning Lobster Shack mystery series. Her latest short story starring the Lobster Shack characters, “Footprints in the Sand,” will appear in the Murder on the Beach anthology coming May 28, 2021.





  1. As soon as I'm released from self-imposed exile in Book Jail, I intend to do a lot of catching up on missed webinars. Those archives are a treasure trove for sure!

  2. I missed this as well -- but for a good reason, I was following Tess's advice and writing (and I'm sticking to that story)

  3. Great summary of a great interviews. Thanks, Shari!

  4. Thanks for a great summary! What a terrific interview. Gerritsen has made interesting choices in her career.

  5. It was a great interview (and your summary is on the mark). Made me feel good to know others have been orphaned, changed agents, changed whatever ... and survived.

  6. An encouraging overview to help us all through some of those difficult patches and to make intelligent choices.

  7. Annette and Jim, nice to see you're following Tess' advice!

  8. Molly, you're welcome. It was so good to see how she navigated the bumps in the road. She's such a warm, engaging speaker, too.

  9. Margaret, Debra, and KM, what she said about writing resonated so much: “The trick isn’t becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer.”

  10. I haven't, but I keep meaning to go over to SinC and look at some. The whole problem for me with this Zoom/webinar thing--I'm a reader. I don't want to watch, I want to read! It's like watching the news. I can skim read faster than waiting for a plodding video. Do they have transcripts?

    Sounds like the information was great, though. Yep--have to get over there.


  11. I’m so glad this is available in the webinar library! I had signed up, but life got in the way. What a great seminar. Thank you for wonderful recap, and the information.

  12. Hi E.B., I don't think they have transcripts, but that's a good idea!

    Hi Kait, It was so good, and I didn't even report on Part Two because there was so much in Part One!

  13. Thank you, Shari, for the great tips from this webinar. It's one I'm going to have to check online for.

  14. Thanks for summarizing this so well, Shari! It was a great interview. All of SinC's webinars are so helpful.