Category Archives: Zoë Sharp

Just Foolin‘

Zoë Sharp

 

Before I start, for those of you who don’t know, the beloved husband Bruce of fellow Murderati member, Louise Ure, lost his battle with cancer this week and very sadly passed away. Our deepest sympathies go to Louise and all the family. I’m sure she’s been inundated with cards and notes and emails, but if anyone would like to make a small donation to a cancer charity in the name of Bruce Goronsky, that would be a lovely gesture.

 

This is not the post I was intending to write this week – that I’ll save for a later blog. It wasn’t until I looked at the calendar and clocked the date that I realised I was going to have to come up with something more suitable. What does it say about me that I end up with the April Fool’s Day post, I wonder?

 

 

So, I thought I’d report some facts that are definitely foolish, and should be untrue, but they aren’t. Or are they? I could have made up some of these – maybe even all of them. After all, we’re writers of fiction. Making Stuff Up is, after all, what we do.

 

 

I’m inviting you all to point out any which you think are made up, as opposed to genuine, or just to let me know a similar ridiculous fact that’s either made you laugh or want to throw things.

 

 

I should point out at this juncture that the ones I haven’t made up are all quoted from Simon Carr’s two wonderful collections, THE GRIPES OF WRATH, and SOUR GRIPES. If you don’t own copies, buy them now. I have also interspersed these with some great photos from the excellent Perfectly Timed Photos website. If you haven’t come across it before, it’s definitely worth a visit next time you need a pick-me-up.

 

 

Instructions for the Dumb

 on Sainsbury’s Peanuts

Warning: This product contains nuts.

 

 

on Dremel Electric Rotary Tool

This product not intended for use as a dental drill.

 

on Rowenta steam iron

Warning: Never iron clothes on the body.

 

on smoke detector

Do not use Silence Feature in emergency situations. It will not extinguish a fire.

 

on Bowl Fresh

Safe to use around pets and children, although it is not recommended that either be permitted to drink from the toilet.

 

 

on Harry Potter broom

This broom does not actually fly.

 

on Nytol Sleep Aid

Warning: May cause drowsiness.

 

on twelve-inch-high storage rack for CDs

Do not use as a ladder.

 

on vacuum cleaner

1  Do not use to pick up gasoline or flammable liquids.

2  Do not use to pick up anything that is currently burning.

 

on McDonald’s coffee

Warning: Contents may be hot.

 

on baby stroller

Remove child before folding.

 

on bottle of dried bobcat urine, made to keep rodents and other pests away from garden plants

Not for human consumption.

 

 

on hairdryer 

Never use while sleeping.

 

on massage chair

Do not use without clothing … Never force any body part into the backrest area while the rollers are moving.

 

 

on flushable toilet brush

Do not use for personal hygiene.

 

 

Or how about these – true or false?

A four-foot-high boy of twelve tried to rob a grocery store armed with a sawn-off doubled-barrelled shotgun. He had no previous convictions. His lawyer said, “Since the offence his behaviour has been exemplary.”

 

 

The term British Isles is said to be offensive to those in the Republic of Ireland and it is proposed to rename them as the Islands of the North Atlantic (IONA).

In Australia, Pastor Daniel Scot was charged, tried and found guilty of incitement against Muslims for a lecture explaining why he had fled his home in Pakistan.

 

 

A nursery school teacher defended her class against a machete-wielding assailant; she received injuries requiring several hundred stitches and compensation of £80,000 ($112,000).

A woman police officer was held back from promotion on account of her gender and received compensation of £500,000 ($700,000).

A female merchant banker who was told she had “nice waps” by her employer received compensation of £1.2 million ($1.68 million).

 

 

A French couple called Renaud called their daughter Megane. The state prosecutor felt the child would be teased in later life for bearing the name of the Renault Megane car and so took them to court.

 

 

Insurance company Zurich Municipal produce an annual list of some of their more outrageous claims for compensation:

—a motorist who claimed he did not see a traffic roundabout in daylight, despite there being a large tree in the middle.

—a shoplifter who sued because she fell downstairs while running from the scene of a crime

—a man who claimed to have injured his arm after slipping on steps owned by a housing association: he had jumped out of a window to avoid being caught with another woman when his girlfriend returned home unexpectedly

—a man who tried to sue a local council for making the decision to close a public lavatory. He argued he was owed a new pair of trousers, for reasons you really don’t need me to go into, do you?

 

 

So, what do you think, ‘Rati? Have I made all of these up, or none of them, or just a few? Do you have any similar ridiculous examples of political correctness gone mad, or the compensation culture, or risk assessments taken a step too far? Let’s have ’em!

This week’s Word of the Week is dunt, which is a lovely word with several meanings. It’s either (of ceramics) to crack in the oven because of too rapid cooling; (in dialect) the disease of gid or sturdy in sheep; or (in Scots) a thump, or the wound or mark made by a thump.

Deep Breaths

by Zoë Sharp

Rob’s ‘Rati post from yesterday left me with this impression:

So, I thought today we could all use a little calm:

(And no worries about copyright issues here, by the way – both pix are mine!)

Stress, as I’ve said before on these pages, is a very peculiar animal. We need a certain amount of it to keep the juices flowing, but too much can make us ill or even kill us. Stress is not caused by work. Stress is caused by not coping with work. And I should know.

At one point, many years ago, I had an awful job selling newspaper advertising where they gave us impossible targets because they thought it would motivate us to keep trying that little bit harder. Failing to meet them, week after week, was a miserable experience. It actually gave me a heart murmur and I had to wander round with one of those portable ECG machines to monitor it. When my probationary six months was up, the sales manager brought me into his office to ask if I thought I saw my future in the job. I said, “Honestly? I don’t think so.” He said, “I thought you were going to say that. You’re fired.”

And although I hated working there, being given the sack was almost worse.

(And completely as an aside, both those phrases come from English craftsmen. Before the days of toolboxes, workers carried the tools of their trade in a sack. To be given the sack meant being discharged from employment and the worker had to carry his tools home in a sack. But, miners who were caught stealing coal, tin or copper, had their tools burned at the pit head in front of the other workers, as a lesson to the others. This was known as firing the tools, hence being fired. But I digress.)

I used to stress a lot more about my photographic work, and I still do to a certain extent. It’s a game where you are only as good as your last shoot. I cannot afford to go into an assignment with a ‘sod it, it’ll do’ attitude. I’ve seen it happen to other photographers who were once considered at the top of their field, and who are now … no longer photographers. A certain amount of stress in this situation is good. It keeps me sharp, if you’ll forgive the pun.

But basically, getting things wrong bugs the hell out of me.

Getting it wrong in my writing bugs the hell out of me, too. And I’m not just talking about making factual errors, although that REALLY bugs me. I’m talking about plot-holes. I hate writing myself into a corner and having to unpick to get out of it. OK, there’s no harm in turning around if you realise you’re on the wrong road, but I’d much rather be on the right road to begin with.

All this wandering train of thought has come about because, on Monday, I handed in the latest Charlie Fox book to my agent. I had a huge celebration, as you can imagine – I had half a day off and then did the ironing. Damn, I know how to live.

Since Monday, however, it’s been bothering me that this book seemed to cause me less stress than usual. I’m trying to work out why. Possibly it was down to the fact that my agent’s editor got me to look at doing the outline in a different way. I’m not particularly good at outlines, I admit, even though I use them for every book. They initially tend to contain every thought and image I’ve had for the story, which is often far too much detail, even if it’s stuff I feel I need to know in order to write it.

This time, I concentrated on producing the outline solely from Charlie’s POV. After all, with any first-person narrative, the information can only come out through what the main protagonist sees and learns personally. That seemed to work much better. And, amazingly enough, it’s probably enabled me to stick to the outline a lot more closely than usual, even though my original printout now looks like a soggy pencil-scrawled bit of some kid’s dog-chewed homework.

I broke this book down into more chapters than usual. A LOT more. Sixty-three and an epilogue, compared to fifty-six and an epilogue for the last book, even though that turned out about 5000 words longer. Writing in shorter chapters, I found, kept my attention fully focused on the scene. I could make progress more easily, without feeling I was going back over the same piece of work again and again.

I kept my summary up to date as I went, instead of filling it in right at the end. By doing this, I was able to go back and make minor plot modifications as I went, because I could see more easily where they ought to fit. Breaking it down, chapter by chapter, making a brief note of the conversations and key points, also seemed to make it easier to see if things didn’t fit, or needed more emphasis.

I didn’t put myself under pressure too early. Getting the start of a story right is vital for me. I can’t write an opening chapter without an opening line, and  I can’t write the rest of the book without an opening chapter. Or, in this case – chapters. I played with my first 10,000 words until I was happy they dropped me into the right place in the story, then started up a spreadsheet on December 1st.

I worked on 110,000 words as being the finished book, which seems to be about average for me. I gave myself 100 days in which to do the rest. Not backbreaking, but that’s 1000 finished words a day. Now I look back, I see that the final thing came in at 106,500 words, two days early. During that time, I had twenty days when I wrote nothing at all. The worst of these was four in a row in mid-December – can’t remember for the life of me why that was, but I think we may have been in London. My best day was 2580 words. My worst was 26.

And the weird thing is that I don’t recall any of the usual fits of despair that normally accompany writing a novel. It simply … progressed. I think that’s what’s worrying me now, when I can no longer do much about it. I’m wondering if it should have caused me more stress, because otherwise doesn’t that signify I haven’t tried hard enough?

I’ve gone out on a limb with this book. I always try to put Charlie under pressure in some way, but have I gone too far this time? I don’t know, and it’s worrying the hell out of me.

Because now, nothing I do makes a difference. While the book was in progress, there was always a chance to change course and avert disaster. Now I’m well and truly caught on the reef, and it’s in the lap of the gods whether I float off at the next high tide, or plummet to a watery grave.

So, I’ve plunged straight into the next outline, into planning the next opening chapter, just to try and avoid chewing my fingernails down to stumps. Because that, I’ve found, makes it very difficult to type.

I suppose, ‘Rati, I need help at this stage. Tell me how you feel at the end of a book. Tell me a story. Tell me anything to take my mind off worrying about something I can no longer do anything about until I get the rewrites in.

I’ll be out and about today, but will answer any comments in an erratic manner, as and when I can.

This week’s Word of the Week is enthusiasm, which is commonly taken to mean passionate eagerness in any pursuit. But the original Greek word enthousiasmos signified inspiration or possession by a god (from Greek theos, god). Along the way, it came to mean religious zealotry or fanaticism, sometimes simply ecstasy inspired by poetry. An enthusiast was originally one who laid claim to divine revelations, hence a visionary, self-deluded person.

And, after Cornelia’s comment, below, I couldn’t resist adding this – an origami velociraptor, of course!

 

 

 

 

NO STRANGERS – ONLY FRIENDS

by Zoë Sharp

This week, I’m delighted to be able to do an interview with a writer I greatly admire. Please give a warm ‘Rati welcome to…JT Ellison!

Yes, I realise that you all know JT, but that doesn’t mean you’re aware of just what an all-round superhero(ine) she is. So, for those of you who are unaware, I’m going to quote from her author biog:

“JT is a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and received her master’s degree from George Washington University. She was a presidential appointee and worked in The White House and the Department of Commerce before moving into the private sector. As a financial analyst and marketing director, she worked for several defence and aerospace contractors.

“After moving to Nashville, Ellison began research on a passion: forensics and crime. She has worked with the Metro Nashville Police Department, the FBI, and various other law enforcement organizations to research her books.

“Her short stories have been widely published, including her award winning story “Prodigal Me” in the anthology KILLER YEAR: STORIES TO DIE FOR, edited by Lee Child, “Chimera” in the anthology SURREAL SOUTH 09, edited by Pinckney Benedict and Laura Benedict, and “Killing Carol Ann” in FIRST THRILLS, edited by Lee Child.” 

Not only that, but JT was lucky enough to have Lee Child as her mentor for Thriller Year, an organisation that was dedicated to raising awareness for the debut novelists of 2007. How could she possibly fail?

“She is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series, including ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, 14, JUDAS KISS and now THE COLD ROOM. Her novels have been published in 14 countries, and she was named “Best Mystery/Thriller Writer 2008” by the Nashville Scene.”  

“She lives in Nashville with her poorly trained husband (Randy) and a cat.” Oh, hang on, I may have got that last bit the wrong way round … 

This interview all came about because of JT’s latest book, THE COLD ROOM, as you’ll soon see:

Zoë Sharp: Where did the character of Taylor Jackson originally come from? Allison’s blog last Sunday about the characteristics of strong leading women felt quite apt as I was reading about Taylor, a strong, intense and sensual woman, who finds it difficult to resist the physical attraction of another man, even though her emotions are completely wrapped up in her fiancé, FBI profiler Dr John Baldwin.

 

JT Ellison: “I got the idea for Taylor after reading John Sandford’s PREY series, back in 2003 or so. I was driving down Interstate 40, thinking about Lucas Davenport’s icy smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, and that scar, and his depression, and realized I wanted to write about a woman in his shoes. A woman in control, who’s strong without being strident, who commands the respect of her peers and her enemies. One who’s worked hard and paid her dues. Taylor literally leapt fully formed into my mind, talking in that low, smoky drawl, and I was hooked. I knew I had to tell her story. Considering her humble beginnings, it’s so fitting that she represents Athena to me. And aren’t all Goddesses irresistible to the men around them???”

ZS: The character of Taylor’s lover, Baldwin, is a strong figure right from the start of the series. Did you always intend to give Taylor a partner – both in her professional and personal life – or did he creep up on you? How do you feel their complementary skills give the pairing a unique edge?

JTE: “No, I didn’t. Initially, she was on her own, still recovering from the betrayal of her last boyfriend, a dirty cop she was forced to kill after he attacked her. The first book I wrote with Taylor, she hadn’t met Baldwin. He came in halfway through the story, and she wasn’t terribly enamored with him. Truth be told, she felt sorry for him. He was in an emotional tailspin, self-medicating with alcohol, and truly on the edge. She was HIS savior, not the other way around.

“Now, they’ve started to depend on one another, and that’s going to cause its own set of frictions.”

 

 

ZS: How important do you feel the actual police procedure is? Obviously, Taylor is a Nashville Homicide detective, so it has to play a large role in each book, but how tied do you feel to accuracy when it comes to this aspect of your storytelling?

 

JTE: It’s very, very important to me. I want to at least know the procedure so I can make an educated decision whether to alter it to fit the story or keep to the truth. I’d say I keep to the truth about 99% of the time. The procedural aspects are what lend credibility to the books. The thriller formula is inherently preposterous. How many times can one cop be singled out, be touched by evil, be forced to kill? Most cops never draw their weapons, Taylor has killed four people. The procedure keeps the books grounded in a bit of reality, enough so that readers can suspend their disbelief at Taylor’s horrific luck in the serial killer department and enjoy the story. At least, that’s my goal.”

 

 

ZS: In this book, you use the character of DI James ‘Memphis’ Highsmythe to create an internal conflict for Taylor. How do you go about putting your protag under pressure on a constantly changing basis? Obviously, there’s the pressure of catching the bad guys, but this book also worked on a more personal level for Taylor, not just because she’s been busted back from Lt to Det. Was that a deliberate objective you set out to achieve?

 

JTE: “Absolutely. On paper, she seems nearly perfect: Intelligent, beautiful, loved, respected. She’s a hero, she must be larger than life and “better” than the average Joe. But I wanted to let people see that’s she’s human. She’s struggling with her emotions, with her independence, with the idea of commitment. She’s been dragged through the mud and publicly humiliated, and she has to keep her head help high and soldier on. That outward strength is so important, because when the reader gets a glimpse of her true self, her vulnerabilities, they can relate. We’ve all put on a brave face before.”

ZS: Where did the character of Memphis come from? The son of an earl, working for the Metropolitan Police in London? Why a Brit rather than a guy from the LAPD, or Chicago? Or even an Italian, since part of the book is set in Italy, and it feels like you know that setting very well? What made you come up with him, and how tricky was it to get inside the head of someone from another culture?

JTE: “Because I love to challenge myself. Memphis was another one of those characters who practically writes himself. He started as an Interpol agent, until a source of mine from Interpol explained that he wouldn’t have the freedom to chase after a suspect. Since there were crimes being committed in London, he became a New Scotland Yard DI. Which necessitated tons more research, and of course, I had to make him a Viscount, so he would stand out. Speak differently, act differently. He and Taylor are such similar creatures, both products of their environment, both from privileged backgrounds, both eschewing their personal wealth to work in law enforcement.

“Memphis posed so many challenges… (and just a note to our readers, Zoë is the reason Memphis came to life. I can’t count how many emails we exchanged trying to nail him down. Phraseology, background, everything, Zoë influenced in so many ways. So THANK YOU!)

“I could have made him Italian, it certainly would have been easier on me, the language, the history, the setting. But sometimes a character is who he is, and I can’t explain why. That’s the deal with Memphis. And it means I get to do more research in England, which will be cool.”

ZS: I’ll never forget the initial email from JT that read: “I want my Brit character to see my main protag and have a bit of an inconvenient erection. How would he refer to this?” As you can imagine, the conversation went rapidly downhill from there…

 

But, I digress! The structure of the story has altered from the version I read when we were kicking bits of Britishness backwards and forwards. It originally started with a scene of Taylor at the gun range, and then moved to the character of Gavin Adler. Why did you lose that initial opening?

JTE: It had been dropped in the Australian version, and when we pulled the book and went back through it, my US editor really wanted to drop it as well. I fought long and hard, because I felt that was such a quintessential scene. But it was important for Taylor’s character, and not the actual story. It was a very “hard” opening, and they wanted her a bit softer. It might make its way into one of the future books, because I still love it. But revision is all about killing your darlings to make the story work better, right? And opening with Gavin just set the perfect, creepy, scary tone. In retrospect, I’m very glad we did drop it.”

ZS: You mentioned in your last blog that you were asked by your publisher to alter the direction of the book for Taylor. How do you feel you’ve done this? I know, with a series character, you have to make the decision to keep them static, or take them on a journey through each book, from which they emerge changed in some way. What was your original journey for Taylor, and how do you feel it’s altered in the final version?

JTE: “You know, it’s funny. I resist making Taylor be too girly, mostly because I’m not girly and can’t relate well enough to make her work that way. But she’s so tough, and the consensus was she was almost too tough. Too serious, too committed. Too earnest. The wanted me to “soften” her. But Taylor isn’t a soft woman. She’s intense and focused, and I struggled with the whole concept of “softening” her, because to me, that meant girlifying her up (Um, I don’t know if girlifying is a word, so…) I found a perfect solution. When I did the revision, I played up her sense of humor. Instead of being so angry all the time, she’s rolling with the punches a bit more. It worked very well, and helped me find another layer into her psyche that I didn’t know existed.”

 

ZS: When I first read your books, I was rather struck by the similarities between Taylor Jackson and Charlie Fox. Both are strong female protagonists, sure, but they both sport scars around their necks from knife attacks, and even both wear a TAG wristwatch. Now, that’s just spooky!

JTE: I LOVE that they have these bizarre bits in common. I remember reading FIRST DROP and saying Wow, Charlie and Taylor are so similar. Of course, Charlie could probably kick Taylor’s ass… The TAG comes from me, I’ve worn the same TAG HEUER watch since I was 21. And the scar – well, that was her vulnerability when I first started out. She’d nearly lost her life, and it colored the way she acted from there on out.

ZS: You said: “We all know how I feel about strong heroines, and the ways we give them flaws and vulnerabilities. I’m always in favor of a strong heroine who’s independent and not driven by a tortured past, who can handle most anything, but has some weaknesses that can be exploited for story. My favorite thing to do is hand my main character something that falls into the gray areas, situations she’s never faced that challenge her code. That’s the fun stuff!” Discuss!

JTE: “The gray areas are where we have fun, I think. Heroes have flaws, and throwing challenges at them is one of my favorite pastimes. Taylor especially is incredibly strong and sees the world in black and white, so giving her something that’s out of her spectrum, like having sex-tapes go live online, or getting demoted, helps me challenge her in the now, instead of focusing on things that happened in her past. We’re all the sum of our parts and experiences, but it’s more rewarding to me as a writer to find the paths that will move her conscience, alter her reality, and make her rethink her code.”

That’s it from me, but what questions do you all have for JT? And if you haven’t already rushed out and bought a copy of THE COLD ROOM, do so!

This week’s Word of the Week is scooning, or to scoon, a completely made-up one, that we’re trying to bring into common useage. A guy we used to know called Scoon was taking a long flight, when he fell asleep in his seat. Gradually, his head lolled until it was resting on the shoulder of the total stranger in the next seat. This guy was very polite and didn’t want to wake him up, until he realised that our friend had been drooling in his sleep and had actually soaked through the guy’s jacket and shirt and was making his shoulder damp. Now, if anyone drools in their sleep, it’s known in our household as scooning. Enjoy…

 

Laying It Out

 

by Zoë Sharp

I’m fussy when it comes to presentation. For someone with precious little fashion sense, I do take a lot of care about the way my work looks when it goes out, and I always have. Maybe that makes me vain, in a way. I’m not sure.

I could try to say that always preferring to print out an address label rather than hand-write the package is just to save the postal system misdirecting it, but the truth is, I just think it looks neater.

I bought my first word processor – the almighty Amstrad – back in the mid-1980s. It allowed me to present a piece of work that was spell-checked and laid out properly. Even a dot-matrix printer – set on high quality – could produce decent looking type. And although this was not the model I owned, you’ll notice something about this PC – no mouse. Everything was keyboard-driven. I loved it, and hung on to my old version of LocoScript as a word processing package for years after it had gone out of date. The thesaurus program knocks later ones into the proverbial cocked hat. Ah, nostalgia – it isn’t what it used to be. <sigh>

And now, when I send out sets of digital images on DVD-R, they have a fully printed label, the pictures are sorted into order, renamed to relate to the subject matter, and numbered. I even rename the disk itself, so as soon as it goes into the drive, you know what it is.

Sounds a bit daft, doesn’t it?

Not if you keep getting the work.

I’m not saying that laying your work out correctly, numbering the pages right from the start of the typescript, and spell-checking the document, will get you a deal. Let’s be honest about this. It won’t. There’s an old motor-racing saying that goes, “You can tidy up speed, but you can’t speed up tidiness.” And so it is with writing. If the style and the voice is there, it’s going to shine through regardless. But why make things difficult for yourself?

People may think that they make considered decisions, but the truth is that most job interviews are passed or failed within the first three minutes. Sending out a piece of work for consideration is like an interview. And quite beyond the quality of the writing, sending stuff out that needs rearranging before it can be printed or read, is asking for a negative response.

I have recently been reading work from various unpublished writers, who wanted my opinion (for what it’s worth!) and found the following difficulties:

Block paragraphs instead of indented.
OK, not a great problem, until you try and print out the pages to read. Then you find out just how many blank spaces there are, and how many extra pages of print it takes up. I’m not made of ink, and think of the poor trees!

Double line spacing instead of one-and-a-half.
Again, not a big problem, and one that’s a lot easier to block-alter. I have always presented typescripts in 1½ spacing rather than double, purely because it looks better on the page – more like a book and less like a manuscript – but still allows room for comments between the lines, if necessary. And again, it saves on trees. I quickly re-spaced the t/s of FOURTH DAY and discovered it went from 329 A4 pages to 427. That’s a lot of extra paper.

Font size.
This is starting to make me sound really picky, but I’ve had stuff sent to me in everything from eight-point, which makes you go cross-eyed halfway down the first page, to fourteen-point, which feels like the writer is shouting at you. I use a 23in widescreen computer monitor, and this makes me feel like I’m going deaf. Please, twelve-point is fine.

Page numbering.
Either you get no page numbers at all, and have to add them in, or occasionally I’ve had each chapter sent as a separate file, with the numbering returning to 1 for each one. And no identification of the author or title in the file title, or occasionally nothing in the header or footer in the document itself. Mind you, I think that’s better than putting a © copyright symbol in with their name, like they expect I’m going to steal their work. If you’re that worried, don’t send it to me.

Be consistent.
Most of the time, it really doesn’t matter if you spell something as one word, two words, or hyphenated. But not all three. In the same paragraph. UK publishers use single speech quotes, and US publishers use double. Either is fine, but not a mix from one page to the next.

These may seem like basic, basic points, and indeed they are. Most are easily fixed with a few keystrokes, but why make the person you are sending your work out to, have to do this before they can read your actual words? Remember those three minutes? How many of them have you wasted in making your good impression?

And then there’s attitude. I love to try to help and encourage writers to achieve their dream of publication. It gives me a real thrill to pay it forwards, it really does. But you can take the pish.

I’ve had approach email from people that actually start, “I’ve never read any of your work, but…” and end up attaching their opening chapter for my opinion. I have a website I’ve taken a lot of time and trouble over. It has extracts – both audio and print – and opening chapters of all my books, plus openers of short stories. Don’t you think it might be worth five minutes having a click round? OK, I don’t expect you to go out and buy a book on the off-chance, but at least go and check one out of the library.

I’ve also had approaches that ask for an opinion, and then admit that they’ve already sent the work out on submission anyway. In which case, what does my opinion matter? Why are you asking if it’s too late to do anything about it anyway?

I’m happy to help, really I am. Most writers are. But you can really help yourself if you do a little research first. At least pick a writer whose work you know and admire, so you know in advance that their comments on your style are relevant. We all ask dumb questions occasionally. We all make mistakes, we’re all human, but give yourself a chance to give us a chance to help.

This week’s Word of the Week is subsultive, meaning moving by sudden leaps or starts; twitching, and also subsultus, meaning an abnormal convulsive or twitching movement, usually of the muscles, from the Latin subsultare, to jump, hop, from sub up, and salire to leap.

I’m in and out of the office in fits and starts today, but I’ll get back to everyone as soon as I can!

 

Breaking News!

 

Busted Flush have just announced all four covers for the backlist of the early Charlie Fox books, coming out in the States over the next twelve months, and I think they look fabulous! I’ve been grinning ever since I got them ;-]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playing With Words

by Zoë Sharp

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I love playing with words. My dictionary is falling apart and decorated with Post-It notes of words that would make great titles, names, or just ones I love the sound or shape of. Looking up anything always takes me longer than I expected because I get very easily side-tracked. I collect weird meanings and derivations of unusual words and phrases, many of which I’ve included in these posts.

But it’s not just unusual words that fascinate me. I love common words with unusual meanings, or slight misspellings that change everything. (Only recently I was sent an email imploring me to sign a partition.) When I started making a note of some words that caught my eye for this post, I quickly filled pages of notes, and then had to force myself to stop. Here are just a few of my favourites, in no particular order.

And, just to break things up a bit, I’ve interspersed them with some glorious pictures sent to me this week of the coloured patterns in icebergs, caused by them picking up different pigments, or frozen waves. Icebergs in the Antarctic area sometimes have stripes, formed by layers of snow that react to different conditions. Blue stripes are often created when a crevice in the ice sheet fills up with melt-water and freezes so quickly that no bubbles form. When an iceberg falls into the sea, a layer of salty seawater can freeze to the underside. If this is rich in algae, it can form a green stripe. Brown, black and yellow lines are caused by sediment, picked up when the ice sheet grinds downhill towards the sea.

While androgynous means having both male and female characteristics, androgenous means having only male offspring.

Everyone knows what angry means, but angary is a legal term meaning a belligerent’s right to seize and use neutral or other property, subject to compensation.

Pursue means to harass or persecute – or, in Scots law, to prosecute – and Spenser spelt it pursew with the same meaning. But written persue, it is not only another alternative spelling, but also means a track of blood. (Spenser again) from the act of piercing.

Consent might be to agree or comply, but concent is a harmony of sounds or voices.

The meaning of blanket is familiar, but blanquet  is a variety of pear, blanquette is a ragout of chicken or veal made with a white sauce, and bloncket means grey. (That bloke Spenser gets everywhere.)

A lake is not only a body of water, but also a small stream or channel, or a reddish pigment made from combining a dye with metallic hydroxide to give the colour carmine. Spell it laik and it becomes a Northern English term meaning to sport or play or be unemployed, and lakh means the number 100’000 in India and Pakistan, especially when referring to rupees, or an indefinitely vast number.

While a block is a mass of stone or wood, a bloc is a combination of parties, nations or other units to achieve a common purpose.

One that always used to confuse me as a kid was the difference between demure, meaning chaste or modest, and demur meaning to object or hesitate.

And I know for a fact I’ve accidentally mixed up defuse, to take the fuse out of a bomb or, according to Shakespeare (and what did he know?) to disorder, with diffuse, meaning widely spread or wordy, or also to pour out all round; to scatter.

A clue might be anything that points to the solution to a mystery, but it’s derived from clew, being the ball of thread that guides through the labyrinth, as well as being the lower corner of a sail or one of the cords by which a hammock is suspended.

And this is before we get to the words with one spelling but lots of different meanings:

Pernicious means both destructive and highly injurious, but also (according to Milton) swift, ready and prompt.

A tent could be a portable canvas shelter, an embroidery or tapestry frame, a plug or roll of soft material for dilating a wound, a Spanish red wine, or the Scots word for taking heed or notice of.

A rabble could be a disorderly mob, but also a device for stirring molten iron etc in a furnace.

A race is the descendants of a common ancestor, a fixed course or track over which anything runs, the white streak down an animal’s face, a rootstock of ginger (Shakespeare) to raze or erase, or to tear away or snatch. (Both Spenser. He just made them up as he felt like it, didn’t he?)

Anyway, there are LOTS of others, so what are your favourites, ‘Rati? And what’s the best accidental misuse of a word you’ve ever come across?

No Word of the Week this week. I think I’ve used quite enough, don’t you?

 

Feeling A Draft

by Zoë Sharp

I’ve had several experiences recently that were very interesting for me as a writer.

The first one was going to a readers’ group meeting at a small local library in Knott End in Lancashire. The tremendously enthusiastic librarian, Anne Errington, had been unable to get enough copies of one of the Charlie Fox books for everyone in the group to read, so they’d all read different ones in the series, often out of order. This meant that they asked more than the usual kind of questions. They wanted to know a lot more about the character of Charlie herself, and her motivations, and whether I’d ever tell the story of what really happened to her in the army.

Something that came up was that many people assumed I’d already told that tale somewhere, and they simply hadn’t yet read the particular book in which it was contained in full. The experiences of Charlie’s past form an integral part of who she is now, and although the character has progressed, I’ve only ever referred to her army days as back story, dribbled in as a bit here and a bit there, in order not to bore either the readers, or myself.

I’m not even sure I ever want to tell that story over the course of an entire book. It’s a period in Charlie’s life when she is beaten and utterly defeated. I introduced the character and began the series at a later date, when she has clawed her way back up out of that defeat. And when her life is again threatened in a similar way, this time she reacts differently. Possibly in a way she would not have been able to respond, had she not suffered in the past.

Back story is a funny one to include, and if you have a series character who never changes, is there any need to include it at all? The late great Robert B Parker rarely alluded to past cases of his iconic PI, Spenser. In fact, the guy didn’t even age. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is very much the same. You’re told how Reacher acquired the scar on his stomach, from a Marine’s exploding jawbone back in his army days, but you’re not told what happened in the last book, and there really is no need for you to know this in order to enjoy the ride.

The second thing that happened was that I received an email from a student in Copenhagen, asking a specific question about a short story I wrote a little while ago called ‘Tell Me’. The story was written for a Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) anthology called I.D.: CRIMES OF IDENTITY and the whole thrust of the story was a conversation between a crime scene investigator and a victim, with the CSI trying to discover the background and history of the girl that has brought her to this point. The story was turned into a short film, and also included in a Danish school text book, which asked readers to interpret it in ways that, frankly, even I would have struggled to provide answers for.

Who or what does the girl symbolise?

Comment on the dialogue. How and where does the real dialogue take place? Where in the story is the truth behind the dialogue revealed to the reader?

Analyse the use of ‘tell’ throughout the story.

Comment on the theme of gender roles in the text.

OK, this is me sidling away quietly at this point, muttering, ‘But it was just a story …’

The third thing that happened was last night. I found a well-established writing group in Kendal, which is not quite as far as I’ve been travelling, and somewhat larger than the very small group I’ve been to over the last few months. The Kendal group asked for three or four people to email pieces round beforehand, and the purpose of the meeting was for everyone to be able to comment in detail on those pieces.

I sent in the first chapter of the new Charlie Fox book. I didn’t explain particularly who I was, or my writing experience, and I didn’t include any kind of introduction for the book or the character. It’s another flash-forward opening, which I’ve used previously, so it drops the reader straight into the thick of the action. I wanted gut reactions to the writing, without any preconceived ideas.

And when I attended last night’s meeting and we all introduced ourselves, it was a little like a group of addicts. ‘Hi, my name is Zoë and I write crime fiction.’ The only difference was that I didn’t get a round of applause for this shameful admission.

And the questions here were different again.

I’d mentioned the word ‘principal’ meaning someone my bodyguard main protagonist was previously tasked to protect. One person thought this might refer to the principal actor in a theatre company.

The action starts on a beach in Long Island, with Charlie and her boss, Parker, excavating a grave. I don’t pinpoint this, but because of the mentions of digging in hot sand and the vague military tone brought about by Charlie’s army background, someone else assumed the story was a thriller set in Iraq.

Several people thought Charlie was male.

The use of metric measurements threw someone else. They queried whether an American character would think in terms of 40mm plumbing pipe, sticking a metre out of the ground.

I realised that when I sent the initial chapter out, I should also have included the flap-copy synopsis, which I always have at the back of my mind when I write an opening for the book, because I’ve always written that bit first. I take my jumping off point for the story itself after that, because it has already explained who and what the character is, and where the book’s set. To me, it would seem very stilted in a first-person narrative to jump into an action scene and have to explain about her being a ‘her’ for a start, and a bodyguard, and being on Long Island. And I also realised that if this had been a short story, without that brief synopsis, I would have tackled it in a completely different way.

And, obviously, during the discussion I ‘fessed up to being already a published author. But right at the end, one of the organisers asked me why, in that case, I wanted to come to a writing group? It’s a good question, and I think a lot of it has to do with the way I write.

I don’t dash off a very rough first draft, then rewrite the whole thing again and again in order to polish and hone it. I edit furiously during the writing process. Therefore, by the time I finish what is, in effect, my first draft, it’s not too far off finished. In order to get it to that stage, I fiddle a lot as I go, often feeling that I can’t go forwards until I’ve got the bit I’m working on right. Having ongoing criticism – the harsher the better – is extremely useful to me in order to make minor course corrections as I go.

And this, having someone approach my characters cold, as it were, was an illuminating experience.

So, ‘Rati, when it comes to questions this week, take your pick. If you’re a writer, do you self-edit or just get the words down and worry about fixing them later? Have you ever had a question about your work that really made you stop and think, or that confused you completely?

And, regardless of writing or not, what’s the best piece of constructive or destructive criticism you’ve ever received?

This week’s Word of the Week is rident, meaning laughing or smiling radiantly, beaming.

 

Off Roading

by Zoë Sharp

 

New Year turned into something of a mini adventure for us, as I mentioned in my blog over on my own website last week. And Rob’s almost Zen-like post of yesterday made me realise there was something about the whole experience of being out on the roads in bad conditions that struck me as really, really annoying.

Most people should not drive.

 

 

Most people, if truth be known, do not drive because it brings them any kind of enjoyment or satisfaction. They simply need to get from A to B, and the car has become the easiest way to do this. Particularly if you live in a rural or semi-rural area in the UK, when the buses run if they feel like it and regular local trains are something your granny talked about in the days before the Beeching Axe, while modern out-of-town shopping centres have killed the diversity of the high street.

 If you want anything, you’ve got to get in your car and drive to get it.

 

 

And nobody will admit to being a bad driver. They might say they play a little golf, but aren’t very good at it, but they will not say, “I drive a little – of course, I’m crap, but I drive a little.” And it’s worse over here where automatic cars are not the norm, so for some people clutches are a service item.

 

 

The other problem is the car has changed beyond all recognition in recent times. Years ago, when I was heavily involved in the classic scene, I used to drive all kinds of vehicles, including on one occasion a 1920s Bentley. Driving an open sports car from that era was a full-engagement exercise, with no power assistance of any kind on the steering or cable-operated brakes, plus it had a right-hand crash gearbox and reverse pedal layout. The skinny cross-ply tyres gripped every other Thursday, and the suspension was best described as agricultural.

But you had to concentrate on what you were doing, all the time.

 

 

Now, however, we sit in our squashy climate-controlled, heated-seat little boxes, listening to high-quality stereos, with our back-seat passengers watching DVDs, waiting for instructions from the sat-nav on what to do next. There’s no manual choke to keep an eye on until the engine warms through, while other niceties of car control are taken care of by cruise control, anti-lock brakes, four-wheel drive, auto-tiptronic gearboxes, and traction control. Much of the time, you don’t even have to remember to turn on your headlights or windscreen wipers, because the car will do it for you, and it will squeak at you if you forget to turn them off.

 

 

And, if the worst should happen, we’re held in place by our auto-tensioning seatbelts while a dozen airbags explode in our faces to cushion the impact. And once the dust has settled we whip out our mobile phones to call breakdown recovery. In fact, all aspects of the motor car have grown more sophisticated.

 

 

Except one.

 

 

The driver.

 

 

Drivers, if anything, have grown a whole lot less sophisticated, because now they expect to put less into the experience and still walk away. They’re distracted by their mobile phones (yes, Rob) and their texts, and their email, or surfing the web on their iPhone, or their drive-thru coffee, or burger, or fishing in the passenger footwell for their cigarettes (as the driver admitted to doing when he knocked two friends of mine through a dry stone wall) or even trying to stop their dogs getting to the meat in the cooler on the rear seat (as the guy who knocked down Stephen King admitted to doing).

 

 

We recently saw a typical White Van Man on the motorway not only yacking on his phone, but taking an order on a clipboard resting on the steering wheel while working out a quote on a calculator at the same time. Gawd alone knows what he was using to steer … (And WVM, by the way, is not a racist statement. There are just a lot of guys who drive round in white vans – usually Mercedes Sprinters – doing 100+mph in the outside lane of the motorway. It’s a recognised phenomenon.)

 

 

But I digress slightly.

One thing that New Year showed us was the people in the UK cannot drive in snow. The first thing they do is turn on their fog lights. Why? WHY? In the hundreds of thousands of miles we’ve driven over the last twenty-plus years, we’ve encountered severe conditions where rear fog lights were actually necessary, maybe half a dozen times. If you can see my headlights behind you, you can turn off the fog lights because I can sure as hell see you, and having that damn bright light shining in my eyes is not only asking for road rage, it also distracts me from seeing your brake lights come on.

 

 

So stop it. Stop it now. Do not make me open a can of whup-ass on you.

 

 

So, there we were last weekend, sliding around in the increasing levels of snow on one of the highest roads in Britain, watching people slithering off the tarmac and wheelspinning, and I wondered how many times bad driving has featured as a plot device in a crime novel. Or a character’s been rammed at an intersection just when they’ve had an epiphany about the case, which prevents them from telling anyone or catching the bad guy.

Any examples spring to mind?

 

 

And what about you, ‘Rati – any driving woes you want to share?

 

 

I hope you like the pix I found for this blog, by the way, and I make no comments WHATSOEVER about male versus female drivers. Uh-uh.

 

 

This week’s Word of the Week is catastrophe, which not only has the usual accepted meaning of a sudden disaster or misfortune, or a sudden violent upheaval in some part of the earth’s surface (geol) but also a final event or the climax of action of the plot in a play or novel.

 

 

Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas!

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

 

We’re going to be on a minimal posting schedule through the New Year. Not a complete hiatus, but semi-regular postings, since many of us are traveling and trying to get a real break from the Interwebs. We’ll be back at full force January 2.

We truly appreciate that you take the time to stop by, to participate, to be a part of this fabulous community all year long. We value your input so much that we thought we’d throw the field open to you.

If you comment over the next week, you’ll be entered into our Festivus Contest!

And what, pray tell, may the glorious prize be for commenting? Why, a package of signed Murderati books, of course!

14 books from 14 authors.

Now that’s a deal.

Here’s what we want to know:

(answer as many as you wish, but only one answer is necessary to be included in the contest.)

 What are you doing for the holidays?

What are you reading?

What topics would you like us to cover in the New Year?

What questions do you have for any or all of us?


 We wish you and your families the very best of holiday joy!

Go With The Snow

by Zoë Sharp

 

I admit it – I’m a sucker for snow. I know it’s causing horrendous problems elsewhere in the world, and I’m not trying to make light of that in any way, but we don’t often see such extremes of weather (until lately) over here in the UK. And despite living a thousand feet up in the Cumbrian fells, we haven’t had that much of it over the past few winters. We’ve only been actually snowed in a couple of times since we moved here, but it’s not often we get a proper White Christmas.

 

Oh, boy, do we have one of those this year.

 

And it’s brought out the big kid in me, I can tell you – time for snowman building. So, with my copyedits dutifully delivered, on time, I thought I’d sneak an afternoon off to make up for a weekend of working until 3am, and we built a snowman.

 

But not the conventional kind.

 

For some reason, a head from Easter Island popped into mine, and this was our first creation. Of course, it would have been better if I’d actually gone and looked at some pictures of a real Easter Island head before we started, but it has a certain rough charm, even so.

 

 

And then, what else but a polar bear? And again – I should have looked at some pictures instead of doing it from memory. His ears are wrong. (Probably a lot else, too, but it’s the ears that bug me.)

 

 

We’ve had more snow overnight, the proper sticky stuff that makes for great snowball fights and even better snowman building. So, when I’ve done my blog and worked on my latest chapter, we may just be venturing out with a shovel to do another.

 

Of course, some people don’t quite get into the Christmas spirit when it comes to building snowmen.

 

 

Others go for grandeur.

 

 

And yet others for quantity.

 

 

Whereas other people just have a fine sense of the ridiculous.

 

 

Or are just plain inventive with their designs …

 

 

…or their locations.

 

 

Or just plain inventive, full stop.

 

 

And if you want to see something absolutely beautiful when it comes to things sculpted from snow and ice, you need to check out the Ice and Snow Festival held every winter in the city of Harbin, in north-eastern China. I just love the coloured lights set into the ice, so at night the whole thing shifts to another level. Definitely on my Must See list.

 

Words fail me at the skill and dedication that’s gone into these massive and detailed works of ice art, but have a look for yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the really amazing thing is that this is all so transient. When the ice melts, all that’s left are photographs and memories. Is creating something and then taking a photograph of it before it disappears, enough to satisfy the creative desire?

 

We may mutter sometimes that our work goes out of print and becomes difficult to obtain, but compared to sculpting in ice or snow, it’s infinitely long-lasting.

 

So, I suppose what I’m trying to say is, if you have that creative urge, do it for the joy of it, not the effect. Do it in the full knowledge that it may be gone tomorrow, and do it anyway.

 

Do it while you still can.

 

This week’s Word of the Week is omophagia, meaning the eating of raw flesh, especially as a religious observance, from the Greek omos raw, and phagein to eat. But I wouldn’t be tempted to try this with your Christmas turkey if I were you …

 

Happy Holidays, ‘Rati, and I wish you health, luck, and happiness in 2010!

Questions, Not Answers

by Zoë Sharp

The topic of eBooks and ePublishing has come onto my radar recently, and I confess it’s something I haven’t yet ventured into. I know I should – like a lot of things – but there’s always the pros and cons to consider. And, for me, the jury’s still out. Hence the title of this post. I’m asking for a consensus of opinion. I have questions, not answers.

 

 

It’s a fact of life that eBooks are here to stay. Whether they eventually overwhelm conventional paper publishing is another thing. I hope not. There’s something tactile about reading a book that cannot, for me, be replaced by the onscreen experience. Things just read differently on paper. Maybe I’m just a Luddite at heart.

 

 

To begin with, eBooks tended to be used for technical manuals that were for a limited audience and expensive to produce in other formats. I can still remember the joys of my first Amstrad word processor, when it – or I – did something stupid that the manual did not seem to have an answer for, you could throw the heavy tomes against the wall. Many’s the time they landed with a satisfying thump in a corner of the office.

 

Time’s moved on since then. It’s only two years since the introduction of Apple’s iPhone and Amazon’s Kindle, and then the Sony Reader hit the market earlier this year. The explosion of the iPhone and the iPod has meant that every man and his dog seems to spend half their life with those little white earphones in place. It’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t so.

 

 

But I digress. In theory, the numerous eBook formats that have sprung up to support this growing trend of the digital reader are all protected against illegal copying.

 

In theory.

 

Stealing books is not a new idea. When I used to live in a big university town, the most frequently shoplifted books from our local bookstore were textbooks. The trend towards eBooks has meant that students can obtain required textbooks much cheaper than their print versions.

 

I can see all the advantages of an eBook. For voracious readers, it allows them to have a huge collection in a very small space. They can search the text for keywords. They can carry a large number of books around at any one time – invaluable for travellers. Video clips can be embedded. Font size can be enlarged to order for the visually impaired. You don’t even need a bookmark to remember where you left off, nor a flashlight to read them under the covers.

 

BUT

 

You need an electronic reader of some description to read an eBook. You can’t drop them with impunity. You can’t dry them out on a radiator if you fall asleep reading in the bath. The readers are more attractive to thieves than an ordinary paperback, in which case a large book collection could be lost. Some devices are difficult to read in strong sunlight, and they require a power source that can malfunction or run out at an inopportune moment. Digital formats change, are updated, and they degrade, where paper books have lasted hundreds of years and can become valuable heirlooms.

 

But the main argument against eBooks seems to be the one of piracy.

 

 

In researching this piece, I’ve come across a lot of comments on other blogs and in response to articles on ePiracy. Some people have a theory that making a copy of something is not technically stealing it, and how many of us can say, hand on heart, that we don’t own a film that someone videoed or digitally copied from the TV, a book we didn’t buy ourselves, or a piece of music that wasn’t downloaded. I’m not suggesting any of us are likely to walk out of WHSmiths with a couple of hardbacks stuffed down the front of our trousers, but there is a generally casual attitude to ‘acquiring’ pieces of software, for example. If it’s out there somewhere for free on the web, people are very reluctant to pay for it.

 

As an author, I would, of course, far rather every reader I have went out and bought themselves a spanking new copy of my book – preferably in both hardcover and paperback – and if they feel a friend really ought to read it, too, that they go out and buy them their own copy. But I know this is just never going to happen. Thanks to the Public Lending Right (PLR) system for UK-based authors, I am more than happy to recommend that people simply borrow my books from their local library, but in other countries where authors don’t receive a tiny payment each time a book is borrowed, this is not such an attractive option.

 

As far as I understand it, unlike a paper book, eBooks cannot be transferred from one person’s device to another’s. You can’t simply lend a book to a friend. Some devices apparently monitor or track readers and their habits, restrict printing, and also the number of times the eBook can be transferred – from one device to an upgraded version, for instance – and eventually it’s entirely possible for the service provider can block access by the customer to ‘their’ copy of the book. It seems to be more like a long-term rental, with strings attached, than an outright sale.

 

But, you’re not supposed to be able to copy DVDs or CDs, either, and yet they are, often within hours of being released. The first hooky copy of the new Star Trek movie, according to The Times Online in November, was made at 11:31am on the day of its cinema release.

 

 

According to another article in The Times Online, best-sellers like the new Dan Brown were available even before official publication, and within a couple of days of release there had been more than 100’000 downloads by filesharers. The small size of a book compared to a movie – 3Mb as opposed to 1.5Gb – make it much easier to download.

 

And some books, like the Harry Potter series, which JK Rowling decided would not be released in e-format at all, have been hugely pirated, partly due to sheer demand. In the United States, the article reckoned, an estimated 1.7 million people own e-readers of some description, not to mention iPhones or similar devices.

 

British publishers are trying to stop piracy through the Publishers Association, which allows them to log the details of websites infringing their copyright and get the links removed. They’re fighting a losing battle.

 

And although research published by Oxford University in March 2008 put forward the theory that digital piracy may actually benefit those being affected in terms of driving up the buzz about a product without the need for spending money on marketing, things have changed a lot. The question is, have things accelerated too far, too fast since then? And do the benefits outweigh the lost revenue?

 

So, what’s your opinion on ePublishing and eBooks? Good thing or bad? Is piracy robbing authors and killing the industry, or is it getting otherwise little-known names out there to a wider audience? Do you like reading digitally or prefer paper?

 

What are the pros and cons I haven’t considered?

 

Like I said at the start, I have more questions than answers, and I’m very interested to know what you all think on the subject, and what your personal experience has been.

 

This week’s Word of the Week is an odd one. If you were asked whether the word ‘plagiarism’ meant ‘piracy’, ‘kidnapping’ or ‘robbery’, which would you choose? To contestants on a recent UK television quiz show, the answer seemed easy and obvious – they opted for ‘piracy’. Probably most people connected with the world of literature would make the same choice. Surprisingly, the correct answer is ‘kidnapping’. Plagiarism is defined as ‘the taking and using as one’s own of the thoughts, writing or inventions of another.’ At its root is the word ‘plagium’ – a Latin legal term for kidnapping or man-stealing. Hands up if, like me, you got it wrong!

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