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Shop Talk: Lisa Unger on Waking Up Early, Carving Out Time, and Writing Longhand in the Target Parking Lot

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Lisa Unger is the Queen of psychological suspense. 

She’s hit every bestseller list, been published in thirty-one languages, and sold millions of copies worldwide, all while maintaining her own, distinctive style, a concoction of literary writing and page-turning action that simply screams “Unger.” 

If it comes as a surprise to hear words like “literary” and “style” used to describe a bestselling author, then you don’t know Lisa. 

I didn’t know her until just a few weeks ago when I got the chance to peek behind the curtain and see how this master works. My grandma used to say, “The proof’s in the pudding, Eli.” And that adage holds especially true for Lisa. 

Her process—the thought and energy she’s put in to cultivating a method which yields the absolute best product imaginable (all while juggling her roles as mother and wife)—that’s why I wanted to start this column. 

In short, I wanted to have talks just like this one.

Eli Cranor: You’re on book twenty now, right? 

Lisa Unger: The book that will publish in November is my twentieth novel. I’ve been writing a book a year for twenty years. And the most important thing I’ve learned is you control almost nothing but what you do at the keyboard. You can do your due diligence by connecting with readers, booksellers, and librarians. The movie deals, awards, bestseller lists—all that stuff is outside your control. The only thing you can control is what you bring to the work. That has sustained me through my pretty long career. 

EC: As a guy who spent so much of my life with five days to get ready for a football game on Friday night, that workman-like mentality really resonates with me. So, on a very broad spectrum, what advice do you have for authors who want to write a book a year?

LU: You know, I’ve been a writer all my life. I don’t— Oh, look. There’s my dog, Jak-Jak.

EC: Poodle?

LU: Labradoodle. Anyway, I never really set out to write a book a year. I’ve just been writing. This is just the way my brain works. Writing is an escape hatch. It’s where I go to metabolize the world. It’s harder for me not to write than it is to write. The amount of time I spend writing is my most joyful time. I live for the blank page. I’m so grateful I get to do this for a living. I’ve never lost sight of that gratitude. Writing is my natural state of being. That’s not to say it hasn’t been challenging. There have been times in my life where it’s been hard to carve out that time. When my daughter was first born, I felt this deep fracture. Nothing in my life had ever rivaled my desire to write until our daughter came along. When I was with her, I was thinking about writing. When I was writing, I just wanted to be with her. I had to find a balance between my identity as writer and my identity as a mother. That made me become super focused about my time. When you have a kid, the time that you have to write becomes use-it-or-lose-it. If you don’t write during nap time, it’s gone.

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EC: As a father of two with a day job, I totally understand. How did you go about structuring your time during those early days of motherhood?

LU: I’m an early-morning writer. I like to write as soon as I get up, as close as I can get to that dream brain. Those early hours are my golden creative hours. It did change when my daughter was really small and my husband was still working full time. I’d work before they got up. I’d wake up at four. That way I had the time to do what I needed before my husband went to work. When he left, I was on mom duty. I’d write when she napped. If I couldn’t get her to nap, I’d put her in the car seat and drive until she fell asleep. Then I’d park the car, usually in the Target parking lot, and I’d write longhand in a Moleskin notebook. That’s how I did it when she was little. She was born in 2005. I was on the road with her for Beautiful Lies by April, 2006. 

EC: How has your process changed as she’s grown more independent?

LU: I still wake up between five and six in the morning, depending on factors from the previous night. I like to have breakfast with my daughter before she leaves for school. She drives her own car now, which is completely crazy. At the moment, my peak creative hours are from seven till noon. It would be better for me to roll out of bed and go straight to work, but she’s always my first priority, even as a teenager. 

EC: Tell me about what a writing day looks like? Your office is beautiful, by the way.

LU: Thanks. This is my first dedicated writing space. My bookshelves. My desk space. I write all over. Everywhere. I might work at the desk, or on the couch. Some days I type straight into a computer. Other days I work longhand. Some books just want to be written longhand. 

EC: What is it that your brain is doing differently when you’re working longhand compared to typing straight into the computer? 

LU: My process in general is organic and subconscious. I don’t outline. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know who’s going to show up. I maybe don’t even totally know what my book is about, and I definitely don’t know how it’s going to end. That’s my process. It’s always been my process. So, if I feel this urge to write in my notebook—if I have to lie on my stomach and write on the floor—then that’s what I do. If the work gets big, if it’s high energy, then I might move to the computer. I can type so much faster than I can write longhand. 

EC: If you don’t know where it’s going, you work longhand. If you do know, and there’s a lot of action, it’s better just to get it out and straight into the computer as fast as possible. Is that it?

LU: That’s close. But it’s also a battle against the screen. Sometimes I feel so exhausted by all the stuff I’m forced to do on a screen that I need to slow down and really get back into that writing space, which is just pen and paper. That’s a sacred, very quiet space. Sometimes, I just need that.

EC: Is there coffee involved? 

LU: Oh, God yes.

EC: Anything else? I’m a big Elmore Leonard fan. I know he smoked clove cigarettes at the end. Are there any clove cigarettes tucked away in your office drawers?

LU: No, nothing cool like that. I do brew my own coffee, but I can’t even say I live on coffee like Lee Child. I wish I could say something like that. I will say too that exercise is a really big part of my process. I have my golden hours, those early hours, but sometimes there’s just this ebb and flow. When you’re in the ebb space, it doesn’t mean you get to go on Twitter. You can go for a walk, go to the gym, you can bake a cake. You can write something other than your novel, or meditate. But you can’t go on social media. So when you have those moments when you don’t know what to write, you can always get up and move around. There is no way out but through.

EC: What do you do to guard against social media?

LU: It’s insidious. If you don’t guard your time, you’re in trouble. It’s just discipline. You can block your internet, turn off your phone, use different apps. You can set all that stuff, but it really just comes down to what do you want to do? If you had hours to work on your book and you spent that time stalking your ex or watching funny cat videos—you just didn’t care enough to write. Social media masquerades as work. You get a dopamine hit, which as a writer, you don’t get many dopamine hits because you’re essentially scraping out the inside of your brain. But if you switch off and check your email or your Instagram, you do get little hits. It’s really just the active discipline of batching time.

EC: That’s a new term for me. How do you “batch” your time?

LU: I’ll tell my husband I’m going to get a creative cycle. It could be two hours, an hour, or just forty-five minutes. But I’m going to the office and I’m shutting it out. I’m going to focus on the creative work only. That might be editing, the actual work of writing, or something else. It’s a focused time.

EC: That’s so good, yet so hard. 

LU: So hard.

EC: When I first started writing, I didn’t have any social media. I was a football coach. I didn’t want to see what some kid’s mom had to say about us losing last Friday. I still remember how much I could get done in a single writing day before I had any online distractions. I know you remember that too. 

LU: Oh, yes. I remember when it didn’t exist. It was better.

EC: Right? In the words of Rick James, social media is “a hell of drug.” 

LU: Social media is just the chorus of everybody else. As a writer, you don’t need that. You need to be in your zone. This is why it’s so important to batch that time. Don’t toggle back and forth. The book Deep Work by Cal Newport was a real game changer for me. When I stumbled across it, I was in a space of extreme burnout. I just felt wrecked. I think it had a lot to do with social media and my inability to batch time. But once I started doing that, once I started honoring my golden creative hours, everything changed. You have to compartmentalize, and that’s why I started doing my creative cycles.

EC: Are you aiming for a certain word count during these cycles, or throughout the whole day?

LU: I don’t think in terms of hours or word count. It’s just a feeling. When I know that that’s it—I’m done. I think I can and do put out a lot of words, but I don’t have a certain goal. I understand why people do that, but I don’t respond well to that kind of structure. I get mad. Like, “How dare you tell me what I have to do!”

EC: The true soul of a writer shining through.

LU: Exactly. If you tell me I have to do something—or if I tell myself I have to do something—then I immediately want to do anything else. It’s just in a writer’s blood. But back to self-imposed word counts. If you were to try and push past that moment when you don’t have anything else in order to hit a word count, what good are you really doing? It literally feels like my frontal lobe gets fuzzy. I’m done. If I tried to work past that, what would the result be? 

EC: Do you work every day? 

LU: Most days. 

EC: Do you take time off after completing a first draft? 

LU: There’s usually already another idea percolating. I may have even started writing some of the beginning. For me, writing and researching is kind of a continuum. Through all my years writing, I’ve never taken any significant time off. Even times where I thought I might take off, it just didn’t work.

EC: Preach.

LU: I mean, I turn to the page to answer my questions about people, to metabolize darkness and fear. It’s a place where I’ve gone since I was a kid. I’ve always had this really dark imagination. I’ve always wanted to know things people didn’t want to tell me. I turned to the page early, trying to connect with some deeper wisdom that maybe already resided in me. 

EC: You mentioned not outlining earlier. Do you do any planning before you dive in?

LU: There’s some research. For me there’s usually a thing. A germ. Something I get obsessed about. I might already know about it, or I’ll do a lot of reading on this particular idea. Then, the best I can describe it, is that if it connects with something going on inside of me, I hear a voice, or voices. I just follow those voices through the narrative. I discover my story much in the way the readers will later. Everything for me unfolds in the writing. If I were to outline, I’d get bored. I mean, where’s the fun in that? I already know the ending.

EC: Have you ever been asked to write a pitch or a plot synopsis?

LU: I mean, yeah . . . I can come up with something that’s like what it could be. I’ve always been lucky enough to work with editors who get me, though. After a certain number of books, they trust you to do the thing you said you’d do. In some ways, it’s easier for me to write a novel than it is a synopsis. 

EC: Take me through your revision process.

LU: I read at least part of what I wrote the previous day in the mornings before I start. It can be kind of long. That’s why I always try to stop writing right in the middle of something. Laura Lippman talks about this, leaving it off somewhere in the middle of a scene. That way you can just jump back into it.

EC: Are you doing this reading on the computer?

LU: Usually. If I wrote the day before in the notebook, I’ve generally already transcribed it into the computer. Which I actually kind of love. It serves as a first editorial layer. 

EC: What do you do when you finish a first draft? You said early you don’t really take a break, even at that point, right? 

LU: By the time I get to the end of a first draft, I’m ninety-five percent of the way there structurally. Because I’ve been a reader all my life, I’ve in some ways internalized the form of a novel. But I do try to get some space away from it. This is that place where I start writing something else. 

EC: That’s right. I’m putting that one down as an insider secret for the book-a-year train. 

LU: I mean, I just try to get some ideas down. It won’t be long. I might only take a week off, but then I’ve cleansed my palette so to speak, and I’m ready to start revising the original manuscript. There’s nothing unique to that process. It’s just revising, scaling back, all the same stuff. I might make two or three passes before I turn it in to my editor. 

EC: Then the fun’s just starting, right?

LU: Yes! When I turn the book in to my editor, that’s the pinnacle of my ability. What I mean is I literally can’t do anymore. That’s the best I’ve got. But then the editor looks at it and all of the sudden, I’m like, “Oh, wow, we could do this and this . . .” That’s where it goes from being the best I can do to the best it can be. 

EC: Do you have any beta readers?

LU: My mom is my first cold reader. She was a librarian. She’s where I get my love of reading. She reads everything. I also have a reader I send the book off to right after copy edits. I also have a reader who gets it after copy edits. She’s a copyeditor in her own right. I would be rewriting every single day, all the time, if I didn’t have a deadline. Writing is one of those things where I feel like you can keep getting better. You can get more precise. You can dig deeper into character. This is the thing that continues to motivate me twenty years in. There’s a lot of great things that have happened—disappointing things have also happened—but the thing that never changes is the hope that I can be a better writer than I was yesterday. 

EC: That’s so good and so true. 

LU: Yeah, I get this weird question sometimes. People ask me, “When did you know that you arrived?” And I just kind of stare back at them. I always like to think of myself as “arriving.” I mean, what happens after you’ve arrived? Don’t you have to leave at some point? I always say writing is like kayaking in big water. You will get hit with waves, and you’ll also have these effortless days where you’re with the wind and the current, either way you just keep paddling. 

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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