Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, contests and more!
Start Your Free Trial

This is the 1st of your 3 free articles

Become a member for unlimited website access and more.

FREE TRIAL Available!

Learn More

Already a member? Sign in to continue reading

How to Write a (Really Good) Book in Five Weeks

Jesse Q. Sutanto produces amazing novels at an amazingly productive pace. She shares her secrets to fast writing and switching genres.

Photo of Jesse Sutanto
Add to Favorites

Publishing one book a year is considered an ambitious pace in the makes-sloths-look-spritely publishing business. Jesse Q. Sutanto published three books in 2022. She will publish three more this year. No, that’s not a double typo.

Sutanto is prolific. Her taut prose renders delightfully entertaining characters who leap — or, in the case of her latest adult release, scold — right off the page. She writes across genres for varying age levels, with humor forming the throughline for her work. Her novels include murdery YAs that skate between mystery, satire, and indictments of patriarchal capitalism; middle grade fantasy with heavy themes of death and loss (and dragons); a mystery romcom; a mafia romcom.

That latest adult release, Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murders, out in March, showcases Sutanto’s ability to write imperfect characters who feel remarkably real. Tea shop owner Vera holds inflexible beliefs about everything. She is not, to embrace the obvious pun, everyone’s cup of tea. Her hilarious misadventures after discovering a dead body (“nobody sniffs out a wrongdoing quite like a suspicious Chinese mother with time on her hands,” notes the book description) remind readers that it’s never too late in life to change or make new connections. Also: Call your mom.

Sutanto sat down with The Writer four weeks before Vera’s publication to discuss the model for her main character, how hopping across genres makes her a better and more facile writer, and, of course, how she writes so darn fast.

The Writer: Vera is awesome. The main character captures you from the moment she wakes up for her daily walk. Can you tell me about forming that character and what influences went into it?

Jesse Q. Sutanto: Vera [the character] is basically just 100% based on my mom. Whenever I got stuck, I would be like, what inappropriate thing would my mom do or say in this particular moment, and then I would just get unstuck. And I’m very happy to announce that my mom read it and was like, “I approve of Vera.” I was like, “Good, because she’s you,” and she said, “I know. She’s so sensible.”


TW: Were you nervous at all when your mom read the book?

Sutanto: Oh, yeah. I was so nervous because my mom doesn’t hesitate to tell me when she doesn’t like my books. There are books that I wrote, and she really did not like — I won’t tell you what she said [laughs]. She’s like, “Ah, I can’t recommend this to my friends. Can you just write something that is not like this?” So when she told me, “I love Vera, I can’t wait to have more copies to give out to my friends,” then I was like, “Oh, good! Phew.”

Jesse Sutanto novel: Vera Wong's Unsolicited Advice for Murderers

TW: Is it common for you to base characters on real people, or was that something new?

Sutanto: I did that a little bit with Dial A for Aunties [2022’s bestselling mystery romcom]. I based a lot of their personalities on my aunts and uncles. But with them, I mixed it all up a lot so nobody could recognize themselves in the books.


TW: Vera kept me guessing until the end. Can you talk about writing mysteries? And setting up the dynamic of having suspects and what a challenge that is from a craft perspective?

Sutanto: Oh, it’s so challenging. Vera was my first whodunnit. Throughout the entire time that I was outlining and writing it, I kept moaning, “Who had the bright idea to write a whodunnit? This is a terrible idea, it’s never going to come together.” There were so many challenges.

Whenever you have a crime being committed, the biggest challenge is having the police come into play because I feel once the police are present, people tend to sit back and let them handle the investigation — as they should. We shouldn’t get in the way of police investigations. It was really challenging to find a way that would allow Vera to perform her own investigation that’s independent of the police.

Another challenge was that I had four suspects, and each suspect had their own point-of-view chapters. It was difficult for me to have chapters from their perspectives without giving away what they may or may not have done. I didn’t want to annoy my readers by purposefully being misleading or obfuscating.


TW: Plotter or pantser? Do you outline your books?

Sutanto: When I first started writing, I was very much a pantser. I would write from the seat of my pants and had no idea where things would go. And it was an exciting way of doing things. But I also got stuck a lot. And I would have to rewrite a lot of sections. So, over time, I learned to outline, and it has pros and cons. But overall, I think that working with publishing deadlines, it’s very essential for me to have an outline to cut down on discovery time and editing time and stuff like that.

TW: You have written in many different genres. Is that on purpose? Or do you get the idea, and you think, “well, this will make a good fantasy.” Or how do you go about deciding what genre you’re writing in?

Sutanto: I just follow the idea. It’s always the concept that comes to me first. For example, with Vera, the concept was, what if a little old lady finds a dead body in her shop? And that was that. I didn’t know what kind of shop it was going to be. I built from there. It’s always a very short, one-sentence idea. And then if it sparks something, I try to build from that.


It’s pretty clear from the first concept what genre it will be. I knew from that one sentence that Vera was going to be fun and lighthearted and very playful.

TW: What do you enjoy about writing in different genres? How does it challenge you as a writer?

Sutanto: I love how challenging it is. Each time, I’m learning something new and unexpected. And each time I write a new genre, there’s the thrill of not knowing whether I’m going to pull it off. So I guess I’m a thrill seeker in, like, the nerdiest sense.

I find that my moods do get affected depending on what I’m writing. When I was writing my really dark adult suspense, which is coming out this August — it’s called I’m Not Done with You Yet, and it’s very twisted — I did actually find that I was more sullen and in a darker mood. And afterward, I was like, “Ah, that was fun, but I’m ready for something lighthearted now.”


TW: Can you tell me something you learned from writing one genre that you then applied to another?

Sutanto: Right now, actually, I’m writing in a completely new genre. It’s a sad love story that’s kind of in the same vein of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. I’ve never written anything sad before, and I’ve never written anything that spans over so many years. I mean, Dial A for Aunties spans, like, 48 hours, Vera goes over the course of a couple of months, but this one will cover 50 years of this woman’s life. So I’m learning a lot about pacing.

Also, I realized I have been using humor almost as a crutch because I’m like, “Oh, this scene isn’t entertaining. I’ll just write something funny, a funny scene.” But with this one, I can’t really do that. I’m being forced to focus on other things, which is the romantic relationships. I really feel myself learning a lot in that sense.

TW: What advice would you give a writer who wanted to try writing in another genre, one they have not written in before?


Sutanto: My advice would be to aim low. When I first started writing, the only books I had read were books sold in bookstores, so I thought that’s what books are supposed to look like when you write them. I didn’t realize you’re looking at a finished product that’s gone through 10 rounds of editing.

I would be frozen at my computer, and I’d be typing words and then thinking, “Oh, this is so bad.” And then I would delete them. I was only able to write when I told myself, “You know what, it’s OK. You can create trash, and then we can fix the trash.” So take that approach to trying something new.

TW: Do you consider yourself a fast writer? How long does it take you to write a book?


Sutanto: It usually takes me about five weeks to write a book now. I write at a pace of 2,000 words a day. And then when I get to 40,000 words, I go on this wonderful hotel retreat for three nights. Then I write the rest of the 40,000 words. It’s just one of those magical, beautiful moments because I just dive into nothing but the story. I tell my husband, “Don’t you dare call me unless there’s blood — and a lot of it, OK? Not for just a little bit of blood.”

TW: When you get to that point where you go on your retreat, do you have planned exactly what you’re going to write, and it’s easy for you to dive in?

Sutanto: I go with the 40,000 mark because that’s the super saggy middle. The excitement of the beginning has worn off. The finish line is not within sight. And that’s usually when writing is the most sluggish, and I hate it. I do have my outline, so I do know where the story is supposed to go. Then I think, “I’m just going to speed through the saggy middle and then hopefully end up at the finish line by the end of three days.”


TW: Do you see yourself continuing at that three-books-a-year pace?

Sutanto: Yeah. People keep telling me I’m going to burn out, but what they don’t know is that I’m driven by anxiety and Asian guilt. There’s a lot of stress in general. And if I don’t have something to occupy my mind, then I just become a big ball of anxiety that nags at my husband constantly. For myself and for my family’s sake, it’s good that I have no chill when it comes to my writing.