“Stop bossing me!” my little brother used to say when we were kids.

I was sure I was smarter, not just older and taller, so I was the one who planned and directed all our after-school and weekend adventures. When we pretended we were musketeers on our ponies, or made parachutes from sheets and jumped from the roof (onto a pile of mulch), or started a neighborhood newspaper—all those were my great ideas.

When I was twelve and he was ten I stopped “bossing” him. It took some effort, and I can’t remember what motivated me to give up my autocratic ways, but I began to let him make suggestions and even choices for both of us. Some of his turned out quite badly (fruitlessly digging for buried treasure), but some were great (sneaking into an A’s World Series game).

After I graduated from law school, my natural bossiness returned. I brought cases into my firm, directed the lawyers on how to handle them, and made all the trial appearances. I planned the goings-on in my personal life with equal rigor. Everything on my calendar—social events/sports/travels—was determined by me. I was, as they say, a control freak.

When I stopped practicing law and had no responsibilities and no one to boss, I enjoyed it for a while. I had business cards printed that listed my profession as a “creature of leisure.”

Then I was bitten by the writing bug. Nearly overnight, I had a whole new crew to dominate and control—my characters. I outlined my first book in great detail. I knew exactly what each character would do, how they all would feel, and exactly how the plot would unfold from the first word to the last.

That worked fairly well for that first Pinnacle Peak mystery, but writing book number two was more like life with my brother. My new protagonist wasn’t as easygoing as the first one. I tried to get her to do what I wanted her to do, but she and I butted heads on everything. If I planned to have her ride her bike to town, she somehow ended up riding a horse into the desert. When I created Mr. Right for her, she dumped him. She also did remarkable things: she resolved a subplot I hadn’t even realized was there, and she showed a depth of compassion I had never imagined she was capable of.
When I stopped fretting over how different—and difficult—it was to write that second book, I remembered that old lesson it seems I must always relearn—trying to control everything isn’t the only way to work, and maybe it isn’t even the best way. Instead of trying to change my heroine’s character, I changed my attitude toward her. I let the character and the story develop more freely. Maybe my becoming a writer was a seductive regression for me because I thought I could at least control people I had invented, but it just wasn’t true. They didn’t want me to boss them. They wanted their freedom, too. 
Now I come up with the basic story and assemble a cast of characters, but I allow them, even encourage them, to go their own ways, sometimes quite far from the path I started out thinking they should take. I want my characters to come alive and take over their destinies. The stories are richer that way, and the characters become who they really are only when I’ve stopped bossing them around.

Writing News

Working on my story “The Fourteenth Juror” for the 2012 MWA anthology, Dark Justice (Lee Child, editor).