Killing It: Lessons In After-Hours Creativity From Pop Culture Writer Turned “Gone Girl” Author Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn used to write for Entertainment Weekly. This year, a movie based on her novel graced the cover. Here are some lessons she learned in between.

Killing It: Lessons In After-Hours Creativity From Pop Culture Writer Turned “Gone Girl” Author Gillian Flynn
Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) have a memorable date. [Photos: Merrick Morton, Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises]

A lot of creative people tend to lead double-lives. The work they do during the day is a job, and the work they do at night is a searing passion. Gillian Flynn worked as a culture reporter for Entertainment Weekly for 15 years, moonlighting during many of them as first an aspiring author and later an acclaimed one. She never had the chance to quit her day job, though; she was laid off the year her second novel was published. By that time, however, she’d sharpened her authorial instincts to the point where her third novel became successful enough to ensure she’d never need another work-job ever again.

Gillian FlynnPhoto: courtesy of Gillian Flynn

The book Flynn began in the aftermath of her departure from the magazine is Gone Girl, which took the literary world by storm and has just begun wreaking havoc at the box office. (The film adaptation, for which Flynn also wrote the screenplay, has amassed $48 million in its first six days.) The author is now the envy of all office workers who spend their days toiling away on something other than what they hope to be their true craft. She’ll be spending her coming year working with Gone Girl director David Fincher on Utopia, a dark conspiracy thriller series for HBO. In the meantime, Flynn spoke with Co.Create about all the steps she took in order to switch sides from writing about movies and TV shows to writing them herself.

Not Cut Out To Be a Crime Reporter, 1993

Although Flynn would eventually demonstrate her crime-writing prowess for millions of readers, her original plan to cover the darker side of society did not pan out the way she intended.

“I was always someone who wanted to write. I was a real shy, bookworm-ish kid, and I think my earliest stuff was fairly dark,” Flynn says. “It was always someone against the odds, or a bad thing happening to a kid. I still have old scribblings about kids finding mysterious doors in the grass that led to other lands and that kind of thing. It was always kind of a slightly heightened or otherworldly reality.

Flynn went to journalism school with the intention of becoming a crime reporter. “I was picturing myself as someone very different than who I actually was,” she says. “I do not have the makings of a hard-boiled, tough crime reporter. But for some reason I thought I could pull it off. And I very quickly realized, while I was still in journalism school, that it was not anything I was ever going to be able to do. But then I realized what I could do is write about movies and TV and books and so I got the job at Entertainment Weekly right out of college.”

Emotionally Invested In Your Own Story, 2005

While working for Entertainment Weekly, Flynn made a second shift of writing for herself at night. She stopped and started several novels over the years, but it wasn’t until she truly cared for the people she was writing about that she could complete the experiment of writing a book.


“I’d have an idea for a book and get 20 or 30 pages into it and stall out,” Flynn says. “Part of it was just not understanding that everyone hits a writer’s block, and your job as a writer is to burst through it. But it would get difficult and I would lose interest and put it away. I think that was the first sign that Sharp Objects was actually going to be a book. No matter how busy I was at work–and I wrote Sharp Objects all over the world, on different movie sets–I just dragged my laptop with me and wrote. I’d hang out with the Jackass guys during the day and go home at night and continue this story. I finally realized I was going to finish it when I had all these characters in the middle of this awful, scary situation and I kept worrying about them. I thought, ‘I can’t leave them there stranded. I’ve got to go back and give them an ending.’”

Write What You Need To Write, Not What You Think You Should Write

Sharp Objects had come out and achieved a moderate amount of success–enough to get Flynn a deal for a second book. Her writing process for her next effort, Dark Places was different, however, because whatever book she wrote this time would have something to be measured against.

“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to be someone who only writes bad women. It worked out for me before, but I don’t want to be known for this type of thing,’” Flynn says. “So I had written a story about a child who survives the ax murder of her family. Years later, she’s grown up and wondering whether the person she accused of the murder actually did it. I was writing largely from her point of view, and I was really determined not to have her feel remotely like the protagonist in my previous book. So instead of writing the character I knew I needed to write, I was writing the character that I thought I should write, from more of a careerist perspective than from a writer-ly perspective.”

In the first draft of the book, the character, Libby Day was an optimistic presence, and she was going to solve the story’s mystery. “And it was really awful,” says Flynn. “I first realized how awful it was because my husband read the draft and I remember seeing him move over to the wine cabinet, uncork some wine, and pour me a big glass, saying, ‘How do you feel about Libby?’ I said, ‘God, I can’t stand her. She’s so optimistic and so perky, and she just drives me crazy.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you can tell you don’t like her, and you don’t like writing her. You can tell you don’t believe in her. She’s not working.’ So I just deleted everything that was told from her point of view and I started over again. That’s when I came up with the opening line of the book, which is, “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” It was a very good lesson, which is: don’t let the outside voices tell you what you should be writing. You’ve got to write the book that you’re supposed to be writing, not write the book that you think people will want to read or the book that will sell better or the book that the critics will like more.”

Letting Your Life Inform Your Characters, 2010

When it came time to write Gone Girl, Flynn decided to put more of herself into a lead character than she had in either book she’d written before.


“I had been laid off from Entertainment Weekly right before I started writing Gone Girl,” Flynn says. “It was right in the middle of the recession. So that was kind of my way into Nick as I was figuring him out. I was very much dealing with the same ideas that Nick was, which is what do you do when the only thing that you’re good at and the thing that you assumed you’d be doing as a job forever is taken away with you? No one was hiring writers, they were just firing writers. It felt like it was kind of the end. In Nick’s case, he moved back home and mightily regressed, but I gave him my same sort of pop culture obsessions, and he’s from the area of the country that I’m from, so his basic biography hews pretty close to mine.”

Know When It’s Worth Breaking Your Own Rules

After Flynn figured out her male lead, she was still kind of stalled with the titular character of Gone Girl, Amy Dunne. Initially, the book was written entirely from Nick’s point of view. As she toyed with the narrative structure, though, a writing exercise Flynn used to crack the code of Amy left her questioning her position on writing exercises.

“I tried writing scenes from other character’s points of view–her parents’ point of view when she was a child, or her high school roommates’ point of view,” she says. “At the time, Amy didn’t write quizzes, she wrote think pieces for a women’s magazine. So I thought I’d write an essay from her point of view, what one of her columns would look like. I started writing [what become known as the Cool Girl monologue] and entered almost a fugue state. Those ideas had been rolling around my mind, but they really all came together this one afternoon. Usually, my whole rule with writing exercises is that I’m not allowed to ever put them in a book. Otherwise, you start trying to justify the effort of having put that time and energy into it, so you want to put it somewhere, when it doesn’t actually belong in the story–it’s supposed to just help you figure things out. So I put it in the book and took it back out, put it back in, took it back out. Finally, I just decided I liked it too much so it’s staying in there. It’s just going to be just a rant. And I’m really glad I did because it seems to have definitely resonated.”

If You Want It Done Right, Do It Yourself, 2013

Growing up in a house with a film professor father, Flynn always wanted to write a screenplay. Even before Gone Girl became a publishing phenomenon, though, there were reasons why she lobbied to be the one to write this particular adaptation.

“I spent a lot of–too much of–my childhood watching movies and thinking about movies,” Flynn says. “Books and movies are kind of my two great loves. I don’t have too many other actual hobbies. That’s pretty much it. I was interested in at least trying to make sure the tone of the book came across and was saved. I was worried that someone might snap it up and turn it into just a pure procedural, just your basic kind of thriller and not keep all the elements–the weird, jagged, less obvious elements that were really important to me and which I think people actually like the most about Gone Girl. There are plenty of really good, fun thrillers out there in the world, but I think people respond to Gone Girl because of what it was saying about relationships and gender differences and about how well you know each other or know yourself. I wanted to try to see what I could do to keep that. But that said, had they told me ‘You can’t write the screenplay, but David Fincher’s going to direct it,’ I would have said, ‘That’s great!’”