by Zoë Sharp
I was beating seven bells out of a large rock with a pickaxe when the courier arrived. He was Polish – the courier, not the rock – although that fact has no bearing and I mention it purely for colour. The rock was pure Cumbrian. Solid, taciturn, and not for shifting without the judicious application of a little brute force in tandem with a lot of dead ignorance. Gardening would be so much easier round here if we were allowed to use just a small amount of explosives.
The Polish courier had tracked down our almost impossible address to deliver a box bearing the label of the distributor for my UK publisher. Even with the seals intact, I knew what it contained. And, for the first time, I found myself strangely reluctant to open it.
The new book.
It’s often the case that, by the time a novel finally comes out, you’re a bit fed up with it, but this latest one just won’t stay down. As I think I might have mentioned, the copyedits were a nightmare, and just when I thought it was done and dusted, I’m currently wading my way through yet another set of page proofs that contain strange additional bits of text, the origins of some of which are a mystery to me.
Then I opened the box.
And, what can I tell you? I think it looks gorgeous. They look gorgeous. The box contained not only the hardcover of the new Charlie Fox book, Third Strike, but also the mass market paperback edition of Second Shot, with its completely redesigned cover. And here they are. See what you think:
All this is somewhat apt at the moment because I’m supposed to be leaping headlong into the next book in the series. In fact, I’m supposed already to have leapt. Instead, I’m suffering from what I seem to remember a fellow ’Rati member describing as the yips.
How the hell do you write a book? I’ve written quite a few of the damn things now, and yet, every time I’m faced with that file called ‘Chapter One’ I get this terrible attack of nerves.
The stupid thing is, I know this one is a pretty strong idea. I went through the same processes I’ve been through before. I always start out by writing the flap copy – the bit that would go on the inside flap of the hardcover jacket. The bit you read just to see if the basic premise works, after the cover design or the title or the author’s name has grabbed you enough to actually pick the book off the shelf and open it. This half or two-thirds of a page is what I initially write and send to my agent, my editor. If the idea at its most simple doesn’t fly for them, there’s no point in spending any more time on it. Alex talked about loglines for movies, or the elevator pitch for the book. This, for me, is the next stage.
And once I’ve had some tentative feedback, I work up the outline into something more detailed. At this stage I throw in everything I’ve got. Not just the dramatic high points and the scenes and situations that hit me hardest, but even the odd line of dialogue. And I keep going over it, layering stuff in, building up the connections, trying to cut down my cast but bind them more firmly to each other with each interwoven strand.
With a first-person narrative, so much happens off camera. I put that in, too. I work out what happened to all the other players before my main character so much as sets foot on the first page. But, while I need to know who my cast is, I don’t spend huge amounts of time giving them complete biographies. This is the first time Charlie is being introduced to most of these people. She comes to them largely without preconceptions, so I do, too. And when she meets them for the first time, their quirks and foibles and strengths and weaknesses will make themselves apparent by what they say and do in any given situation, not by what I’ve decided in advance will be their given path. Mostly, I know what’s going to happen, but after that I’m as interested as anyone else – I hope – in how these people react to the events in which they find themselves.
In the case of Third Strike, I knew it was going to be about Charlie’s search for respect. Partly from her peers as she’s coming back into a new working environment after serious injury. (What did you say about not the perils of making your main protag sick, JT? Damn! Charlie spent half of Second Shot on crutches.) And partly from her parents. Her father, an eminent consultant orthopaedic surgeon, has never approved of what she does and worries that sooner or later Charlie’s ability to kill will be the end of her. Her mother, a highly strung former magistrate, just worries.
All through the books they’ve been lurking in background – peripheral characters, a hint to Charlie’s origins. Not just what shaped her early views, but what she was trying to escape from, to rebel against, when she first joined the army. Her father, in particular, has always been coldly disapproving of her choice of career and lover, but he’s played little more than a cameo role before – even if he did steal every scene he was ever in.
So this time I wanted to bring them both to the forefront and what better way than to have them suddenly require the services of a bodyguard. I thrust the pair of them into a pretty ugly situation and sat back to watch how they coped with experiencing the kind of danger, the kind of life-and-death choices that their daughter has to make on a daily basis in her professional life. The one they’ve never seen. The one they’ve never wanted to see. And as for Charlie, when she’s already on the back foot, feeling unsure of her capabilities in a strange job, in a strange town, what could be worse than having her own parents watching her every move?
Nobody remains unchanged by the events of Third Strike. In fact, for Charlie things may never be quite the same again. And her parents both go on their own emotional journey from which they emerge different people. Perhaps even people they would rather not have become.
So, with the new book, I want to move on. To move Charlie on. Yes, she gained the respect she was after in Third Strike, but in the next instalment she realises she’s looking for more than that. She’s looking for redemption. And I have the idea that how she goes about finding it will run the risk of alienating her from the people who mean most to her. The people she means most to.
So I have several questions from all this. Would your worst nightmare be a Bring Your Parents To Work day at the office, or would you love it? Do you feel series characters have to remain constant, or do you want them to change and grow as the series goes on? And how do you get stuck in to a new piece of work? What tricks do you employ to get past that terrifying first blank page.
This week’s Word of the Week – an accidental find caused by a surfeit of vowels during a game of Scrabble – is anomie, meaning a condition of hopelessness caused or characterised by breakdown of rules of conduct and loss of belief and sense of purpose. Also, anomic – lawlessness.