ASK THE ROGUES: What Haunts You When Writing?

by | Oct 8, 2021 | Gayle Lynds, On writing | 4 comments

By Gayle Lynds

It’s October, and a chill is in the air. Chipmunks and bears are going to ground, and pumpkins, ghosts, and goblins are showing up on porches and in windows.

Ohhh, good! Halloween will soon be here!

But as you and I are smiling about the fun of the holiday, there’s another contingent out there that I also belong to — authors. You may not know this, but we’re haunted. We live by our talent and wits, and if we run out of either, we’re in big trouble. So how do so many keep turning out one great book after another? We face our ghosts….

Tell us, O Amazing Rogues, what haunts you when you’re writing?

K.J. Howe: Trick or treat, you ask? Writing suspense provides both! Let’s talk “trick” first. What haunts me when I’m writing is the ghost of past novelists and how seamlessly they weave their tales, allowing readers to lose themselves in the story and forget the real world. There is a transparency to excellent writing that is difficult to replicate. And because I’m so close to my writing, it’s challenging to know if there is authorial intrusion that might jar readers.

But the upside to persevering is the “treat” portion, and that’s when readers write to share how much they enjoyed the book. It makes facing those ghosts well worthwhile.

Gayle: I so agree, K.J. Thank goodness for readers!

Lisa Black: What haunts me? Phrases like ‘compelling,’ ‘race against the clock factor,’ and ‘characters that leap off the page’ and those other aspects of a thriller that are absolutely required but no one tells you exactly how to create them. My secondary characters are usually not deeply described, because they’re secondary and only there to serve one purpose; beyond that, I don’t really need to know what kind of ice cream they prefer. And why does every single situation have to have a ticking clock? Can’t we just want to figure out who the killer is because we’re curious? <she whined>

Gayle: I hear you, Lisa. I can get really exhausted and then not finish reading a book because there are too many “ticking clocks,” chapter after chapter. But at the same time, a “ticking clock” that appears early and carries through with twists along the way can be totally entertaining for me. Who said the butler did it????

Tracy Clark: I’m with Lisa. Too many ticking clocks cheapen the ticking. If everything’s on-the-edge and time-sensitive, your story’s all peaks no valleys. Good stuff happens in valleys. You have to go low to earn the highs, in my opinion. 

As to what haunts me while writing? Good question. Let me think, hmmm, EVERYTHING! The questioning, the self-doubt is endless. Did I get the most out of that character? Do I need that scene? Does that paragraph stop the flow? Do I really need to know what that minor character had for breakfast? Who died and made you Hemingway? What would Stephen King do? Do I go with the serial comma, or break that sentence up?

I worry about everything and absolutely dread writing myself into a corner, which I do at least fifty times a book.

Writing a novel is all about making choices and you never know whether you’ve made the right ones until it’s far too late to change anything. Writing’s like wandering a dark path through a winding forest without a single directional marker to guide your way. That’s the writing gods having a good, long laugh at your expense.

Why do we do it to ourselves? Because birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and writers gotta write.

Chris Goff: I remember with my first book thinking I had to keep things really moving with lots of twist and turns. A good thought, except all I accomplished was making the book so difficult and complex that the main storyline got lost. Not to mention, a few of the turns felt contrived.

Thank heavens for a great agent and a great editor who were able to rein me in and help me focus.

What haunts me most is that the storylines in my books – in most of our books – while fiction – strike too close to the truth. A lot are based on real events, and what aren’t could be. It makes the world a bit scary.

Not to mention worrying that I may be giving the bad guys some ideas. Not that they can’t just Google “How-to….”

Tosca Lee: Oh gosh, that makes so much sense to me, Chris—the idea of storylines striking close to the truth. I was halfway through writing The Progeny (about the descendants of “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory) when I learned I was distantly related to her.

And just months after the second book in my pandemic duology released, Covid struck and none of us was living in a story anymore. I’m thinking my next venture ought to be about an author who wins the lottery.

What haunts me when I write is so much of that self doubt. I worry about whether I’m writing anything that will live up to the expectations of readers who enjoyed my earlier books (will they like these? Have I improved—or has my writing mojo leached out of my body with the estrogen I used to have??)

It’s also gotten a lot more physically demanding to sit for hours at a time. Every time I’m on deadline, I remember all over again how physically painful it can be to do those long hours.

Karna Small Bodman: When I am writing a novel, I do a ton of research, collecting info from personal interviews with experts, online descriptions of events, people, and locations, and books I read to prepare. I make lists describing the lead characters and their motivations, dialogue ideas, and jot down a brief outline. Then I try to put it all together, edit the manuscript, and send it off.

At that point I worry and ask myself, Will my agent consider the story good enough for publication this time? If and when the book is finally published, will anyone buy it? And if they do, will anyone give it a good review on Amazon or pan it with just one star? 

Gayle: Wow, Karna, what you describe is such a universal feeling — how will our book be received!?

Jenny Milchman: At Halloween and other times, I am haunted by writing. By the act of being a writer. Haunted by the characters who speak to me and live through me. Their pressing needs for justice, like strangleholds around my neck, letting up, enabling me to breathe again only when I have given birth to their triumphs.

I am haunted by the feverish process of getting the story down, a crazed pursuit as I follow the twists and turns, fingers flying faster than I can type, barely keeping up with what I see on the screen. Listening to voices that whisper, hiss, pant in my ears. It sounds like a nightmare, doesn’t it? But it’s a welcome sort of possession.

I am grateful for those who enter, who share their tales with me, allowing me to tell them. And if sometimes I finish up my day, sweat-wrung and ready to collapse, feeling as if I’ve burned more calories than if I’d gone for a run, what more can I ask for than to get to do something as passionate and immersive as this? The only thing that truly haunts me about writing is the words I don’t get down on the page.

Gayle:  Thank you, Rogues, for so many revelations, and new ways to think about writing and life!

Dear Rogue Readers: Do you have a question or three you’d like to ask the Rogues? Please leave a comment and tell us!

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Karna Small Bodman

    Reviewing this list of “haunts” and concerns we Rogue have when trying to draft a story made me realize how much we all have in common! Thanks, Gayle, for putting this all together!

  2. Lisa Black

    It’s nice to know I’m not alone!!

  3. john sheldon

    Wonderful blog! The ticking clock metaphor captures my experience writing fiction!

  4. Gayle Lynds

    Thanks, dear Rogues, for your wonderful insights and revelations!