Category Archives: Zoë Sharp

Travelling Light

Zoë Sharp

I wasn’t going to do a post about New Year, resolutions or plans or anything else this week. Once it’s over, for me it’s over, and there’s no use clinging to it. I hate that people leave Christmas lights up on buildings all through January. (Probably even more than I hate Christmas lights going up in October, but that’s another story.)

We took down our tree, our lights, our cards and decorations on Monday, the last Bank Holiday day. I enjoyed the holidays, but it’s time to focus forwards for me. I have a couple of deadlines coming up, and a tour to plan for the US launch of FOURTH DAY in March. Not to mention the new UK Charlie Fox, FIFTH VICTIM, at the same time.

Plus I have a load of email to catch up on. I managed to drop a particularly sharp carving knife through the side of my index finger between Christmas and New Year, which bled profusely and stopped me being able to operate a keyboard or mouse with any kind of ease. Thank goodness for SteriStrips!

We used some of the time on the run-up to the holidays getting some finishing-off jobs done on the house. You know, the kind of things you think you’ll get around to when you’re building, but actually get left and left and left. It feels good to finally have some order.

We’ve even used up some scrap lengths of 4x1in timber to make some outside planters for the garden, thus not having to either get rid of the wood, or buy expensive planters. That’s my kind of recycling.

This early spring cleaning has inspired us to have a thorough de-clutter, going through piles of paperwork that have been gathering dust bunnies to rival a German Giant in corners of the office. And for those of you who’ve never seen a German Giant Rabbit, here is one: 

I suppose I’m just at the stage where travelling light is starting to look very attractive. I don’t want any more STUFF. In fact, getting rid of a lot of stuff seems like a good idea. Actually, I’ll qualify that. I only want useful stuff – and by that I mean stuff that I have a regular need for. Thus the cast iron sizzling plates somebody bought us as a gift about seven or eight years ago, and which we’ve never actually used, can go. Over the next few weeks and months, we aim to shed clutter, mental and physical, a little bit at a time.

Wait a minute, this is sounding dangerously like a resolution, isn’t it?

I hope not, because I read a news report that said the average New Year’s Resolution lasts about a week. Today’s the 6th. That means by this weekend the vast majority of good intentions will have tottered their last few steps and collapsed in a pool of apathy. Which is rather sad. I suppose the best time to talk about NYRs is the end of January, to see which ones have survived a month at least. But in fact we just tend to look back at the end of the year and mourn the ones that didn’t make it through.

And all that does is create dissatisfaction and discontentment.

I’m not a religious person, but ever since I discovered Max Ehrmann’s remarkable poem, Desiderata, many years ago, it has struck me as a good guide to life. If I can try and follow it some some extent this year, I’ll be a happy bunny.

Desiderata

Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble, it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. Let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

 

This week’s Word of the Week (for no other reason than I like the sound of it) is stumer, which is a Scots slang term for a counterfeit coin or note; a forged or worthless cheque; a sham; a dud; a failure; bankruptcy; a horse sure to lose; a stupid mistake; a clanger; a stupid person.

 

Playing Around With Words

Zoë Sharp

This is my last post of 2010, and as such the more serious themes I was intending to touch on just don’t seem appropriate, somehow. There’s an end-of-term feel about the place at the moment, and emails from a couple of friends – plus a visit to Motorcycle Live at the NEC in Birmingham earlier this month – turned my mind to paraprosdokians.

Confession time. Until recently, I’d never come across a paraprosdokian. No, that’s not entirely true. I’d come across lots of them – I didn’t know that’s what it was, or that there was a word to describe it.

A paraprosdokian come from the Greek and means ‘beyond expectation’. Basically, it’s a figure of speech, in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is unexpected and causes you to reinterpret the first part.

So, what does a trip to the bike show have to do with any of this?

Simple – booths selling silly T-shirts. I like silly T-shirts – they suit the level of my sense of humour.

 

 

OK, that’s just a nice example of a silly T-shirt from a company called Bad Idea T-shirts and not, strictly speaking, an example of a paraprosdokian. But Groucho Marx was very good at them:

“I’ve had a wonderful evening – but this wasn’t it.”

So was Winston Churchill:

“A modest man, who has much to be modest about.”

Not to mention Dorothy Parker:

“If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be in the least surprised.”

I remember a stand-up routine by Emo Phillips years ago which was full of nice examples:

“I like going to the park and watching the children run and scream, because they don’t know I’m using blanks.”

“My family held a wonderful leaving party for me … according to the letter.”

“My father said, ‘I’ll miss you, son,’ because I’d broken the sights off his rifle.”

There are plenty out there, in quote or T-shirt form:

 

Various friends have sent me some great examples, and here’s a whole load of them (some conforming to the correct parameters more than others):

“I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.”
 
“I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.”
 
“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.”
 
“The last thing I want to do is hurt you … but it’s still on the list.”
 

“Light travels faster than sound – this is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.” 

“We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.”
 
“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”
 

“Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
 
“The early bird might get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” 

“To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.”
 
“A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station…”
 
“How is it one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?”
 

“I thought I wanted a career, turns out I just wanted pay checks.”
 
“I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.”

 
“Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but check when you say the paint is wet?
 
“Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.”
 

“You do not need a parachute to skydive – you only need a parachute to skydive twice …”
 
“The voices in my head may not be real, but they have some good ideas!”
 
“Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.”
 

 

“A diplomat is someone who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you will look forward to the trip.”
 
“Hospitality:  making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.”
 
“Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.”
 
“I discovered I scream the same way whether I’m about to be devoured by a great white shark or if a piece of seaweed touches my foot.”
 
“Some cause happiness wherever they go. Others, whenever they go.”

“Always take life with a grain of salt, plus a slice of lemon, and a shot of tequila.”
 
“The saying is to fight fire with fire, but remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.”

 

 
“To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.”
  
“Some people hear voices. Some see invisible people. Others have no imagination whatsoever.”
  
“If you are supposed to learn from your mistakes, why do some people have more than one child?”
 
“Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.”
 
“Do not argue with an idiot.  He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.”

 

 

Of course, if a paraprosdokian isn’t clever enough for you, there is always a syllepsis instead, also known as a semantic zeugma, which is a zeugma where the clauses disagree in either meaning or grammar, but where the rules of grammar are bent for stylistic effect.

My favourite example of this comes from the wonderful Flanders & Swann song, ‘Have Some Madeira M’Dear’, which goes:

‘And he said as he hastened to put out the cat,

The wine, his cigar and the lamps:

“Have some Madeira, m’dear…”’

 

‘She lowered her standards by raising her glass,

Her courage, her eyes and his hopes.

 

  

Alanis Morissette also uses a syllepsis in ‘Head over Feet’

 

‘You held your breath and the door for me.’

 

 

Charles Dickens used them, like this one from THE PICKWICK PAPERS:

“She went home in a flood of tears, and a sedan chair.”

So did Mark Twain in THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER:

“… and covered themselves in dust and glory.”

And it’s not just the literary giants who use them. They seem to be a particular favourite device of entrants to the Lyttle Lytton Contest, in which people are invited to ‘compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels’ such as this belter from 2001:

“Monica had exploded, and I had a mystery, and pieces of her pancreas, on my hands.”

So, ‘Rati, do you have any favourite examples of a paraprosdokian, a syllepsis, a zeugma, or just a silly T-shirt slogan, that you’d like to share?

Happy Holidays to everyone, by the way, and wishing you health, luck and happiness for 2011!

 

Weaving the Tangled Web

Zoë Sharp

These days, every writer needs a website.

True or false? 

 

True – but why?

And, more importantly, what?

It’s been mentioned quite a bit by my fellow ‘Rati that writing is no longer simply about writing the books, and hasn’t been for some years. In fact, there’s been a lot of talk lately about whether writers should also be their own publishers and cover designers, but I won’t go into that one again. It’s been covered far better than I could in Allison’s recent post.

But even if you don’t go down the eBook route, there’s a whole load of other stuff that goes along with being a writer and occasionally swamps the creative process altogether. Websites, although creative in their own right – and certainly a creative outlet – can be one of them. Websites are a vital but time-consuming (and possibly hideously expensive) part of the job, but if all you’re providing is information on yourself and your work, how do you know it’s the right info, presented in the best possible way?

The reason for this post is because my website is due for revamp. In fact, it’s probably overdue for revamp, but there never seems to be the time to devote to pulling the whole thing down and rebuilding it from scratch. I’ve been trawling the web quite a bit recently looking for good and bad examples of web design, purely from a visitor’s point of view. I won’t name the guilty parties, because this website has already done it for me.

Just as you can learn a lot about writing from reading bad books as well as brilliant ones, you can learn a fair bit about web design from looking at appalling websites. Good design looks effortless but is incredibly difficult to do well.

 But design is one thing.

Content is another.

A writer’s website, after all, should be more about the content than anything else.

Shouldn’t it?

What makes you seek out a writer’s site?

Personally, I don’t put ‘crime fiction authors’ into Google and see what comes up. I usually search on a title or a specific author’s name. Why? Because I’ve heard them mentioned somewhere like here, or recommended, or there’s been a lot of hoo-hah for some reason. I always click on what looks like their official site – I’d rather go straight to the horse’s mouth than a publisher’s author page or similar. Don’t know why – just personal preference, I guess.

But, what do I look for when I get there?

If they’ve written a number of books, I want the right order for the series. I want publication dates for the next book. An opening chapter and/or an excerpt is always good. The publisher and ISBN can be useful for ordering. Tour dates are a plus.

But that’s just me.

What I’d like your help with, is what do YOU want from an author’s website? What are examples of good sites you’ve visited, and why? What DON’T you like about either writer’s sites, or other websites you’ve been on, for whatever reason?

I remember visiting a Thai restaurant site in a town where I was going to do an evening speaking engagement. I went to the site both to get the address, so I could be sure we could find the right place, and make sure we had time to be in and out before I had to be at the gig.

The only thing not on the website was the restaurant’s opening hours. Doh!

Anyway, let me know your thoughts, ‘Rati!

This week’s Word of the Week is toxicophobia, a morbid fear of poisoning. And, along with this – but perhaps more worrying – we get toxicomania, which means a morbid craving for poisons. Doesn’t say why, though…

Thanksgiving

Zoë Sharp

Today is Thanksgiving, which leaves the solitary Brit among the ‘Rati members at a bit of a loose end. We don’t celebrate the fourth Thursday in November as anything special in the UK, although we’ve had another lot of snow here this morning, if that’s cause for celebration?

But, the turkeys here are safe for another month, and today is just another working day. As it is in Canada, where I understand Thanksgiving was last month. Or Japan, where Labor Thanksgiving Day, the holiday of Niiname sai – which apparently came from the Emperor dedicating the year’s rice harvest to the Shinto Gods – was on November 23rd.

Today I understand my US friends will be sitting down to turkey, stuffing, cranberries, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, candied yams, popcorn, pecan pie, apple pie, ham and gravy. Not, I hope, all on the same plate.

Probably followed by some of this:

I, on the other hand, will probably be having something spicy from one of Nigel Slater’s cookbooks with my Other Half, watch an episode of Supernatural on DVD, and then carry on scribbling into the night.

So, a very brief post on this Thanksgiving Day.

What did you do today?

Who did you spend the day with?

Who would you LIKE to have spent the day with?

What did you eat?

What would you LIKE to have eaten?

What’s the worst/best Thanksgiving or other holiday you’ve ever had?

Any good Thanksgiving jokes?

Here’s one to start you off:

Fred in Dallas calls his son Bill in New York just before Thanksgiving and tells him, “I’m sorry to spoil your day, but I’ve called to tell you that your mother and I are going to divorce.  I just cannot take any more of her moaning. We can’t stand the sight of each other any more. I’m telling you first, Bill, because you’re the eldest, please tell your sister.”

When Bill calls his sister Susan in San Francisco, she says: “No way are they getting divorced, I’ll go over and see them for Thanksgiving.”

Susan phones her parents and tells them both “You must NOT get divorced. Promise you won’t do anything until I get over there. I’m calling Bill, and we’ll both be there with you tomorrow. Until then, don’t do ANYTHING. Please, wait until we’ve talked to you face to face!” and hangs up.

Fred puts down the phone and turns to his wife. “Good news,” he says. “Bill and Susan are both coming here for Thanksgiving and they’re both paying their own way.”

Lame, huh?

Come on, ‘Rati, you must be able to do better than that…

This week’s Word of the Week is autopsy. It’s common knowledge that an autopsy is an examination of a corpse to determine the cause and manner of death and to assess any disease or injury. The word is from Greek autopsia, a combination of autos, oneself and opsis, eye – thus to see for oneself or with one’s own eyes.  On this side of the Atlantic, we tend to use post-mortem, which is Latin for after death. Since this is a compound adjective, it should strictly be followed by a noun – post-mortem examination. 

 

Sympathy With The Devil

Zoë Sharp

Last night I went to the prize-giving event for the Lancashire Libraries short story competition at County Hall in Preston. A very enjoyable event, with a worthy winner in Jo Powell, and commended writers, Kathryn Halton and Neil Martin. Congratulations to all those who took part – there were some wonderful pieces of writing.

To kick off the evening, myself and fellow judges Neil White and Nick Oldham talked for a little while about writing in general. The audience was made up largely of entrants to the contest, who patiently listened to the three of us ramble on before the winner was announced, and they also had the opportunity to ask questions about writing in general.

The subject of those questions was very interesting, because the thing that people most wanted to know seemed to be about developing good characters. And I must admit, that when I first started trying to write, it was the characters that I found most difficult. Creating rounded people comes only with time and practice, I think.

I remember getting hold of a book about the different characteristics of the various signs of the zodiac, which was very useful for working out some traits that dovetailed together. I’ve read books on body language and mental illness, looking for those genuine tics and features that make characters come to life on the page.

But do I write out detailed character biographies before I start, as one audience member asked?

Erm, no, I don’t.

I’ve tried it, but I find myself inventing stuff just for the sake of it, and then the danger is that you try too hard to shoehorn that information into the story when it just doesn’t fit.

The truth is, before I meet a character, in setting, I don’t know them all that well. I have an idea of why they’re there and what drives them, but until they metaphorically shake my hand and look me in the eye, I don’t really know them.

I’ve never liked stories that dump all of a character’s backstory in your lap within a page. Equally, I don’t like people who tell me their life history the first time I meet them. Some people have that kind of abounding self-confidence, though, that makes them want to boast about their achievements to comparative strangers. The kind who tell you within ten minutes of meeting what their house is worth, or how much they paid for their car. Usually, I have to say, they’re self-made.

It’s nice of them to take the blame.

Think of people you’ve met, who might have seemed quite charming when they were first introduced, but gradually you realise that you can’t stand them. They don’t have to come out with an outrageous personal statement, like they think your litter of dalmation puppies would make a wonderful fur coat, but after a while it dawns on you that they’re not quite as charming as you thought they were.

And nowhere near as charming as they think they are, either.

Is it the way they rattle on about themselves for just that bit too long, without asking anything about you in return? Do their eyes stray past you while you talk, and linger on the dangerously young girl who’s just walked by? Do they manoeuvre you out of a conversation with your boss or colleague, or steer things round to how great they are or what they’re working on instead?

Or do you suddenly notice that their smile doesn’t quite reach all the way up to their eyes?

 Things like this used to really annoy me. Now I take notes.

Of course, certain traits simply crop up in the writing. Often, I don’t know exactly where they come from. They just suddenly arrive.

I’m writing a short story at the moment. I have a character who’s an old-school East End gangster, married but with a younger mistress towards whom he is slightly cold. And unexpectedly, halfway through the story, I found out that the reason for this is because his wife suffered early-onset dementia and is in a nursing home, that obviously he is enormously fond of her but she doesn’t know him any more. That changes things about him. It changes them a lot. But I didn’t know that before I started writing, and to be honest I don’t think I would have thought of it up front.

So, my solution now is that I think I’ll do character biographies after I’ve finished the first draft of a book, so I can see if any characters seem a bit thin or a bit clichéd, in which case I can make another pass and see if I can get them to talk to me a little more about who they are and why they behave the way they do.

Another character question that came up was about making characters sympathetic, and what are the traits you should remove in order to make them more so.

This is a very difficult question, because some of the finest characters in fiction have traits you wouldn’t expect to appeal to the reader. Who would have thought that Dexter Morgan, the psychopathic serial-killing hero of Jeff Lindsay’s series, would be such a hit?

Or Thomas Harris’s ‘gentleman, genius, cannibal’ Dr Hannibal Lecter?

And what about the mysterious Jackal of Frederick Forsyth’s classic thriller, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL? The man is a ruthless assassin, who picks up first a lonely woman, sleeps with her and murders her, and then preys on a gay man in order to have a place of safety to stay before the attempted hit on De Gaulle. He had few redeeming features, but by the end of the book you find yourself almost willing him to succeed. Is it his very ruthlessness that makes him so fascinating?

It comes back to the fact that you don’t have to like a character to be thoroughly engaged by them. Ken Bruen’s corrupt coppers, Roberts and Brant, should be the kind of policemen playing the villains, not the heroes, but you root for them all the way through.

The James Bond of Ian Fleming’s books was a racist, misogynist womaniser. Doesn’t seem to have done him any harm.

So, what turns an on-the-face-of-it unsympathetic character into a human train wreck that we just can’t tear our eyes away from? Has to be down to the skill of the writer, for sure.

I’d love to hear your examples, and what it is about them that should be unappealing, but somehow just works. Is it down to humour? Do we find ourselves instinctively warming to a character who possesses a biting wit, even if they are the twisted personification of evil? Or is it the evil itself that we secretly find so compelling?

How do you go about constructing a character? 

This week’s Word of the Week is cacoëthes which apparently means mania or passion or even disease. It’s from Greek kakoethes, which combines kakos, bad with ethos, habit.  And from this comes cacoëthes scribendi, a compulsion to write, the writer’s itch, an uncontrollable desire to write, a mania for authorship. Roman satirical poet Juvenal wrote: “Tenet insanabile multos scribendi cacoethes”  or “The incurable itch for scribbling affects many.”

And finally, let us not forget that today is Remembrance Day, Armistice Day and Veterans’ Day.

The Short Of It …

Zoë Sharp

Short stories are a whole different ball game to writing a novel. Most people start with shorts and work their way up. Maybe because I like to do things backwards, I wrote novels long before I tried my hand at anything shorter.

And when I did, it was entirely by chance, rather than choice. I happened to be at a Northern Chapter lunch for the Crime Writers’ Association. (‘Northern Chapter’ sounds a bit Hell’s Angel-like, I know, and the idea of all those distinguished authors turning up patched, on Harleys, plays havoc with my imagination.)

 

As we funnelled through the doors to take our seats for lunch, Martin Edwards, editor of the CWA short story anthologies, glanced across at me and said, “You ought to write me a short story for the next anthology.”

I was somewhat taken by surprise, enough to reply, “Erm – yes, OK.”

So, having verbally written the cheque, I then had to cash it by actually coming up with a story good enough for inclusion. This caused me a few sleepless nights, until I remembered something about a local Dangerous Sports’ Club, which had been prevented from indulging in their Sunday morning bridge swinging activities from a disused viaduct.

The reason for this was because the local farmer whose land they had to cross was a strict Methodist, and he strongly objected to all the cries of “Jeeesus CHRIST!” that were heard when people jumped off the bridge on the end of a bit of rope.

And from that came ‘A Bridge Too Far’, a Charlie Fox tale which subsequently appeared not only in GREEN FOR DANGER, but later also in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as well.

 

 

Since then, I haven’t exactly been churning them out on the short story front. In fact, I’ve only written another eight. To my constant amazement, they’ve all been either published or accepted. One – ‘Tell Me’– was even longlisted for an award and turned into a short film, and another, ‘Served Cold’ was shortlisted for the CWA Short Story Dagger.

Despite my lack of prolificness (is that a word?) in this area, I do find short stories a liberating experience. They enable you to try out viewpoints or characters or styles that you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to do. I’ve occasionally used them to try out an idea for a character, to see if it appeals enough to be the central protagonist of a longer work. I don’t know why I don’t do more of them.

Well, OK, yes I do know. Without a deadline, it takes me a long time to write a short story. Without a theme, or some kind of restriction, it takes me longer still. (Just ask poor JT, who’s been waiting for me to scribble the second part of a joint short story for months! Sorry, JT, I’m just crap, aren’t I?)

But, I’ve just had the pleasure of judging a short story competition, which gives you a whole different perspective on the enterprise. I was asked by Lancashire Libraries to come up with the opening line, which could then be written up as either a short story of up to 5000 words or as flash fiction for up to 500 words. The opening line was: 

‘I always swore, if ever I came back to Lancashire again, I’d kill him.’

The event was split into three areas, with me being given the entries for the North of the county, and fellow local crime writers Nick Oldham and Neil White taking South and East.

I’ve just finished going through my selection of entries, and have a clear standout to take to the judging meeting next month, where Nick, Neil and I will decide which of the three we’ve each chosen will be the winner.

Reading these stories made me analyse what it was about the short story or flash fiction format that appealed to me. And what didn’t.

I’ve always liked spare prose, which is why I find Robert B Parker’s work so compulsively readable. In a short story, by its nature, every word has to count, and the more you can say with as few words as possible, the better.

Because there’s little space for character development, a few well-rounded characters always seems a better choice than a big cast, particularly in flash fiction.

Short stories are a prime example, for me, of that TV maxim – get into a scene late, get out early. I’ve been constantly trying to do that in my novel writing. (I even threw out the first three chapters of one book because it took that long to reach the point in the story mentioned on the jacket. In which case, why waste three chapters getting there?)

And what about a twist in the tale?

 

 

OK, maybe not that kind of twisted tail, but you know what I mean. Does a short story need a twist ending – particularly one that you really don’t see coming? Jeffery Deaver is a master of this type of short story. I read through his anthology TWISTED a few years ago and pretty much decided that he’d got it nailed.

So, in judging the Lancashire Libraries competition, I was looking for good snappy writing, well-formed characters, convincing dialogue – which seemed to be the one area where a lot of entries were weakest – adherence to the theme/opening line in some form, and a beginning-middle-end structure with something surprising at the end of it.

I think I found one that fitted the bill. It remains to be seen if my fellow judges agree, or if their favourites can top my choice. That I find out at an evening event at County Hall in Preston on November 10th …

Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on short stories. Do you read them or not? Do you write them or not? Do you feel they need a twist, or a structure, or can they be more of a freeform thing? Do you have any thoughts on flash fiction?

This week’s Word of the Week is boustrophedon, which is an adjective or adverb to describe (of ancient writing) bi-directional text, mostly seen in ancient manuscripts and other inscriptions, where the writing runs alternately from right to left and from left to right. It comes from the Greek boustrophedon turning like ploughing oxen, from bous ox, and strophe a turning.

Bouchercon Blues

Zoë Sharp

Bouchercon By The Bay starts today in San Francisco, and I’m not there, dammit.

Sometimes, you have to weigh up want against need, and right now I need to be concentrating on the book I’m in the midst of, and the copyedits for the next book have just landed, and the outline for the next one is still only a vague murky idea. In short, there are a hundred and one jobs that made a transatlantic trip just not feasible at the moment.

Dammit again.

I made the mistake of looking at the list of attendees, and see the names of so many people I would love to have hung out with, not least of which are my ‘Rati colleagues. Another thing I noticed is there are very few people I’d leave the bar to avoid. And it reminds me, if I needed reminding, what a great community this is to be a part of.

So, because I’m a masochist at heart, I started thinking about all the aspects of a convention that I enjoy so much, and what I was really going to miss.

There’s a lot I’m going to miss.

Obviously, meeting with people we know. The crime writing crowd are overwhelmingly smart and funny, and I genuinely enjoy their company.

Meeting with people we don’t know – yet. Finding a new mind in tune with your own is always a joy.

Meeting ‘the man behind the curtain’ (as per Louise’s blog from Tuesday) and NOT being disappointed. I first met some of the biggest names in the business at conventions or festivals, both here and in the States and found that in the majority they’re delightful.

I love to meet readers. First and foremost, I’m a reader. I got into this because I loved books, loved to read books, and went that step further and then wanted to write stories that other people might want to read. But the reading came first, and without satisfied readers, we’re talking to ourselves.

What else? Fascinating panels, the undiscovered gems that often come out of the book bag, the charity auction.

That last one might sound odd, but I have been lucky enough to be able to auction off four character names either at Bouchercon or at Mayhem in the Midlands in Omaha Nebraska. One of the four turned into five, as I included both the winning bidder and her late mother. I just happened to have a slot in the next Charlie Fox book for mother and daughter characters. And, again, looking at the list of attendees for San Francisco, I see that three of those generous bidders – Frances L Neagley, Terry O’Loughlin, and BG Ritts, are all going to be there.

And I’m not, dammit.

Of course, although the whole point of going to a convention is to BE at the convention, not off sight-seeing, there is usually the opportunity for a side trip to a gun range while we’re there. Watching people who’ve never handled a gun before having their first shot at it (pardon the pun) is always entertaining. And then there’s the occasion when I put a trip to the gun range up as an auction prize, and the lady who made the winning bid had been blind since birth.

But that, as they say, is another story…

Here’s a group of us taken after our foray in search of firearms in Baltimore. I don’t know quite what just happened to Stuart MacBride, but I’m open to suggestions.

OK, so now I’m completely grumpy and naffed off that I’m not at Bouchercon, and in order to prevent bottom-lip-out overload, I have to think about the things I DON’T like about conventions.

Watching badly moderated panels. I’ve seen a few in my time. Like the one where the moderator asked questions of the panelists in the same order ever time, so the poor woman at the far end was left with nothing to add to every question. Or the one where the moderator did not-very-funny stand-up for the entire duration, and one panelist didn’t actually get to speak at all.

Rude panelists. I’m fortunate to have moderated only one of these, but her name will stick in my mind forever. For entirely the wrong reasons.

Being landed with the bill for everyone else’s cocktails at a group meal. OK, OK, as a teetotaller, I’m aware that I’m always going to end up paying extra at a group meal – it’s the price you pay for going out in company, and if you don’t like it, you should eat alone. But do these people never stop to wonder at how little it seems to cost them to eat and drink at a convention? The indomitable Sally Fellows had this nailed at Mayhem. Every time we sat down in a restaurant, her first words to the wait staff were, “Separate checks, please.” If nothing else, it makes my accountant’s life easier.

Air con red-eye. Maybe I should be blaming all the late nights in the bar, but I always seem to end up with dreadful  bloodshot eyes at conventions, which I put down to the fact that Brits are not used to being in air-conditioned buildings. If it wasn’t for eye drops, I’d permanently be walking round with eyes like this:

Bad manners. And this is another one where I appear to contradict myself. I DO love talking with people, but that’s different to being talked AT by people. And I’ve lost count of the number of times you can be in mid-sentence and someone else just comes up and jumps into the middle of the conversation. They don’t want to join in – they don’t even want to let you finish what you were saying before they take the plunge. It’s like being ambushed.

OK, so your turn. What do you love or hate about conventions? What’s the best question you’ve heard on a panel? Or the worst?

This week’s Word of the Week is epitome. The most common modern use of epitome is to mean excellence, the best example, as in ‘she is the epitome of elegance’- a person or thing that is typical of or possesses to a high degree the features of a whole class. But its fundamental meaning is a condensed account, a summary, especially of a written work. Its root is the Greek epitome, to cut short, abridge. In theory, a précis encapsulates the best of the original work, although (as most authors are aware) this is not necessarily the case…

 

Does It Matter?

Zoë Sharp

fiction fik’shen, n an invented or false story; a falsehood; romance; the novel or story-telling as a branch of literature; a supposition, for the sake of argument, that a possibility, however unlikely, is a fact (law).

We lie for a living. We make up stuff out of our heads and write it down in such a way that we hope whoever reads our words comes halfway to believing it’s true. Or at least that it could be true.

Maybe.

OK, on Weird World perhaps.

Playing fast and loose with the truth is all part of what we do. I’m as guilty as the rest. I take fake things and dump them in real places, and take real things and dump them in fake places. Sometimes I take real things and dump them somewhere else that’s real, but just not where they belong. Sometimes, I don’t even realise I’m doing it until a long time afterwards.

When I wrote my first novel, KILLER INSTINCT, I invented a tumble-down hotel, The Adelphi, which was revamped to become a nightclub where much of the action takes place. I describe it on the opening page:

‘The New Adelphi  was a nightclub that had risen phoenix-like from the ashes of the old Adelphi, a crumbling Victorian seaside hotel on the promenade in Morecambe. It had a slightly faded air of decayed gentility about it, like an ageing bit-part film actress, hiding her propensity for the gin bottle under paste jewellery and heavy make-up.’

Entirely fictitious. And yet, I was doing a photoshoot in an entirely different northern town some years later – and I’m talking probably a decade here – when I came across this boarded-up old building. And it was just so right for the book, that it was a spooky experience. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for the Adelphi on Morecambe’s seafront, but it was so close it might as well have been.

 

And then, in HARD KNOCKS, I wanted a big spooky manor house in the middle of a forest in Germany. I invented the place – the little village of Einsbaden, where my equally invented Einsbaden Manor would be located – but I wanted to anchor the place in some kind of reality. I still have a cutting in the HK file of Wannsee, the house where senior Nazi officials gathered to discuss Hitler’s Final Solution. It was the right imposing shape, with a dark past, and it had a flat roof, which lent itself to all kinds of plot points. I had no qualms about removing it from its real location and transplanting it to mine.

I know writers who have no difficulties with using real things in real places, even for the most grisly scenes, but I’m always reluctant to do that. I remember the story about a TV writer who used the registration number of his own car for the murderer’s vehicle in one of his own screenplays. Obviously, he had no objections to this. But then he sold the car…

I remember another author who needed to have her main protag’s vehicle registration in the story, and she deliberately invented a combination of numbers and letters that could not exist, so could never have been given to anybody and cause problems further down the line.

The reason this has been on my mind lately is because I’ve just been off scouting locations for something I’m writing. How far do I go towards keeping it real? And does it matter if it’s not?

I wanted a particular type of mid-terrace house. They don’t exist in the location I wanted to use, but they are more common a few streets away. Moving my protag’s house by a couple of streets is no problem, especially as I only suggest the area, not an exact street name.

I wanted to be able to walk along the river between points A and B. Google Earth shows you can do it. Reality shows it’s gated and securitied up the wazoo, to the point where bending the rules would be counterproductive. Fortunately, an alternative route happens to fit in with the plot much better, as it allows my protag to see something there that will help them later. And there’s the odd burst of humour that I’m sure I’ll manage to slip in somewhere, if it’s appropriate:

Of course, to find this funny you have to look closely at the sign on the wall of the building:

I know these are small details, but ones I feel it’s important to get right. I know most people understand the definition of fiction, but nevertheless I like to blend fact and fantasy and hope that they can’t really see the join.

However, later in the story requires a big public location where lapses in security allow Bad Things to happen. I could use a genuine location, but I’d rather not, and I’m not quite sure why that is. Am I hoping that, by the time the reader reaches this point in the story, they’ll be invested enough in the characters to make the jump from reality to fantasy without a hitch? Or am I just squeamish?

After all, my characters are invented, but the tools they use are not. I’ve occasionally extrapolated something that’s available now and taken it to the next step, as I did with a computer program in FIRST DROP, but I don’t invent new types of aircraft or weaponry – I use what’s already available. Trust me, there’s more than enough out there!

I try not to make unnecessary mistakes with geography, too. I’m still grateful to an eagle-eyed copyeditor who spotted the fact I’d got Charlie Fox riding the wrong way up a one-way street in Manhattan. Not that she wouldn’t be prepared to do that, if the occasion demanded, but it didn’t. When I needed to have Charlie driving from Boston to Houston, I worked out the entire route – carefully avoiding taking her through the middle of NYC.

But still, I’m happy to make up an entire village, or housing estate, if I feel it fits in better with the story I want to tell.

So, my question this week is, how far are you prepared to go in inventing places and objects for your work, and does it matter to you as a reader if you’re mentally following a character through familiar territory, and they suddenly take a turning into a street that isn’t there? Do you notice? Do you care?

This week’s Word of the Week is tartan, which everybody associates with a checked material as worn by Highland clans of Scotland, where each distinctive pattern is the mark of an individual clan; something self-consciously Scottish – hence Tartan Noir for dark Scottish crime fiction. But Tartan® is also a type of all-weather track for athletic events, and a tartan is a small Mediterranean vessel with a lateen sail, while a tartana is a little Spanish covered wagon.

Eating the Elephant

Zoë Sharp

It was a tough decision to go back to our current workspace/process theme today, after the death of the extraordinary David Thompson of Murder By The Book in Houston TX, and Busted Flush Press. This has been posted on the MBTB website:

David Thompson: A Celebration of Life

Please join McKenna Jordan and the Murder by the Book family for a celebration of the life of David Thompson, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on Monday, September 13, 2010. David loved a good party, and we will honor him by celebrating the life of an extraordinary young man who touched the lives of many in his 21 years at the bookstore. 

Place: The Briar Club, 2603 Timmons Lane, Houston, TX 77027 (for map & directions, click on this link to The Briar Club)

Date & Time: Sunday, September 26, 2010, 2 to 5 p.m.

There will be margaritas and Mexican hors d’œuvres– great favorites of David’s – along with other drinks. No RSVPs are necessary.

Many have asked about tributes to David’s memory. Alafair Burke has set up a fund for those who would like to make a donation in David’s name. The charity will be determined later. For those wishing to contribute, here are the details:

Checks to the order of “In Memory of David Thompson” (NOT simply David Thompson)

Mail for deposit to:
7 E. 14th St. #1206
New York, NY 10003

Or you can make a donation by Paypal:

inmemoryofdavidthompson@hotmail.com

 

I hope as many as possible will manage to get to the memorial party, and will contribute to the fund.

For me, David was my publisher as well as friend, and an incredibly enthusiastic advocate for crime fiction of all kinds. As a publisher he was wonderful, and I’m not just saying that out of sentimentality. He cared passionately about getting the books out there, publicising them, helping out. When we came out to Houston in June, shortly after the publication of KILLER INSTINCT, he met us at the airport with bottles of chilled water after our flight, fed us, looked after us.

I’ll treasure the memory of attending David and McKenna’s wedding amid the ruins of Dryburgh Abbey in Scotland only two short years ago. Andy and I went expecting to be surrounded by a huge group of strangers. Instead, we were welcomed into a tiny wedding party. The reception afterwards was small enough to sit around a single table. After expecting to slip away unnoticed once the inevitable dancing was in full swing, instead we all sat and talked late into the night.

They reckon you judge people by the shape of the hole they leave in the world.

All I can say is, David left a huge hole.

Needless to say, after all this, I haven’t been getting much writing done this week. But we have a couple of long car journeys coming up, one of which is to attend the Reading Festival of Crime Writing this weekend, and that is normally one of my best opportunities to write. Because, a lot of the time, this is my office:

My old laptop (well, it’s more than six months old, so that makes it almost antique, doesn’t it?) has a cigarette-lighter adaptor, so I never have to worry about running out of battery. If it starts getting too warm, I rest it on an old clipboard. If we’re on the motorway, as in the pic, I can get more written in a couple of hours than during a day at my desk. No internet, no landline, just the ultimate bum-in-chair environment. I even have an LED light that plugs into a USB port, and is just bright enough to illuminate any bits of the keyboard I do need to look at (allthe Home/Delete/PgDn etc keys are in different places from my desktop keyboard.

Speaking of keyboards, I’m eternally grateful that I learned to touch-type a long time a go. And these days, it’s doubly useful because I’ve worn half the letters off my favourite ergonomic keyboard. I can’t seem to find this exact shape of keyboard any more. Curved ones, yes, but they don’t have the triangular gap in the middle, they just have stretched centre keys, and they’re dished rather than domed.

I’ve been using an ergo keyboard since I first had operations on my left wrist, after the fluid kept leaking out of the joint. (I blame the long reach for the clutch on my Suzuki RGV250 motorcycle.) Recently, I started having a lot of neck and back problems, and was advised by my physio to raise my monitor up further into my eyeline, and to buy a wedge-shaped cushion for my chair. I’ve done both, and my neck and back problems – touch wood – have stayed away ever since.

So, this is my untidy office space.

And yes, the arms of my typing chair are held together with duct tape, but it’s a comfy chair, and it still works, so why would I change it? I love the corner desk arrangement because it means I can rest my elbows on the desktop while I type, which reduces strain on my neck and shoulders. The ergo keyboard is one of the best thing I ever bought, and the widescreen monitor means I can look at two pages at once for doing edits, without having to resort to a microscope or binoculars to read the type.

Of course, Andy’s side of the office looks much more industrious than mine. He’s hard at work on an article. And those are lounging pants, thank you very much, not pyjamas. (He doesn’t wear pyjamas…) Andy hasn’t quite mastered the correct use of a typist’s chair, as you can see. The Tannoy iPod dock means we’re usually listening to music while we work, 5500 tracks on full shuffle makes for some interesting segues, from Stone Sour to Zydeco, Frank Sinatra to Slipknot.

The polar bear arrived recently with a World Wildlife Fund credit card. I think it’s cold enough for him. The box of sheets on the window ledge is a build-a-paper-plane-a-day calendar, but Andy’s falling behind with production. I think we’re going to have a mad plane-folding exercise at the end of the year.

Of course, there are distractions to being at home. The first of which is the spruce tree you can just see on the right outside my office window, in which the red squirrels have built a drey. Last year we had a bunch of babies, who are even cuter than the fully grown squirrels. (Yeah, I know they’re just a rat with a bushy tail and a good PR agency, but even so…)

In case you’re wondering where the books are, they’re in the upstairs lounge, next door to the office. I’m in the midst of rearranging them at the moment, which is why there are piles of them on tables, most of which have come off the shelves behind where I’m standing with the camera, and have yet to be put back. The gaps are mostly from the CDs. I’ve been downloading our music collection onto the iPod and have been putting the CDs to one side as I’ve done them. They fill several archive boxes, also out of shot. (Come on, I’m not going to show you ALL my untidiness!)

So, the process. Hmm, when I work that one out, I’ll let you know.

I think the first thing is persistence. It’s the old racing adage – to finish first, first you must finish. If you never finish a piece of work, you will never be a published author. It’s my opinion that there are far more persistent authors published than there are talented authors published. So, the first rule of my process is to GET ON WITH IT. A little at a time, and the elephant will get eaten.

Of course there are days when I really don’t feel like writing anything at all. I had one yesterday. I know I can’t afford to let myself have too many of those days. I HAVE to keep pushing forwards, or the book will stall.

To keep myself on track, I have a spreadsheet of my daily word target. It’s on a sliding scale. I work out when I’d like to have a certain amount done – say, 50,000 words. Then I break down the number of days until that date, and divide 50k by that number. If I have a good day, and do more than my target, the number for the remaining days drops. If I have a bad day (like yesterday, when my total was a big fat 0) then I regroup, recalculate, and move on.

I find around 1250 a day is a do-able target for me. I know from reading about some of my ‘Rati brethren, that would be a pathetic amount, but it’s a personal thing. It means I advance by 10,000 words every eight days. A book puts on weight at a surprising speed when you’re making that kind of progress.

Usually, the only time I don’t achieve my daily work target, is when I fall asleep at the computer. I haven’t quite mastered the art of writing in my sleep, although I’ve come pretty close to it a few times. My brother-in-law’s mum actually knits in her sleep. She knows when she’s nodded off working on something, because she always sleep-knits the same stitch pattern.

But anyway, I digress.

Getting started is always the hardest part. Finding the story is one thing. Finding the exact point at which I should invite the reader to step into that story is quite another. I try and get the first 10,000 words complete to my satisfaction before I start on the whole spreadsheet thing, otherwise it’s too tempting to run with an idea I’m not totally convinced about rather than unpick it all and start again.

I’m a planner, but not to the extent of wipeboards, I’m afraid. I like pencil and paper. When I’m creating an outline, I go for the basic idea and the broad outlines first, then keep going over it, again and again, adding in more layers of detail as I go, until I can practically do a scene-by-scene breakdown. This is still very flexible. If, when I get to a certain point in the story, it’s clear that my next scene doesn’t fit, I replot rather than write myself into a corner. I edit as I go, and summarise behind me so I can keep a track of the story so far. This is also invaluable for copyedits afterwards.

I don’t do lots of drafts, don’t just write in any given direction and see what happens. It doesn’t spoil a movie for me if I know the ending. In fact, I love watching films I’ve seen a dozen times all the more because I can enjoy the ride and the journey instead of worrying what comes next. I can savour the details. It’s the same with writing a book – just because I know the ending, doesn’t mean I’m not still excited by the method of getting there.

At the end of the day, my most important writing tools are these:

A weird and wonderful collection of books, some of which were bought second-hand because you never know when they’ll come in useful.

Sheets of scrap paper.

An old clipboard held together with duct tape (doubles as laptop tray)

A pencil, eraser and an enclosed pencil sharpener, so I don’t have to worry about the shavings.

Apart from that, I just use my neck-top computer, and the complusive, obsessive desire to tell a story.

What more do you need?

This week’s Phrase of the Week is caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt, which translated from the Latin means ‘they change their sky, not their mind, who scour across the sea’. I prefer to think of it another way: ‘The greatest journeys a man can make are inside his own head.’

Happy travels.

 

Right or Privilege?

Zoë Sharp

When I was a kid, one of my favourite places was the library. I lived on a boat from an early age, which was not exactly conducive to having a large collection of books. Condensation was a big problem, and the pages tended to mildew badly in the winter.

So, I got my reading kicks amid the old oak shelves and the parquet flooring of the nearest public library in Lancaster.

It was there I worked my way contentedly through the crime section, happy to take a chance on an author I hadn’t previously come across because it wasn’t costing me anything to give them a try. And, if I didn’t like the book I’d chosen, I had plenty more book to go at.

My first event as a published author was held at that same library. While I was writing my first book, the recently republished KILLER INSTINCT, I was part of a small local writing group who met every few weeks in another tiny local library in a nearby village, barely larger than an average living room. It’s gone now, more’s the pity, boarded up and abandoned – a victim of local authority cutbacks. The community is poorer for it.

And now the government is turning its attention to another aspect of the UK library system – PLR.

Public Lending Right came into being in 1979, when the Public Lending Right Act gave British authors a legal right to receive payment for the free lending of their books by public libraries, after a campaign that lasted thirty years and was vigorously opposed by a minority of determined MPs. The scheme itself was established three years later. Payment is just a few pence per lend, taken across a sample of UK libraries over the course of a year. And as it’s capped at £6600 (a little over $10,000) it’s the mid-list authors who tend to benefit most.

For authors whose books are produced in small numbers intended largely for the library market, often only in hardcover, PLR is a lifeline. It doesn’t matter if a book is out of print, so long as it’s still being circulated in the library system, and still being read. For the years when KILLER INSTINCT languished out of print, it was the only way I knew people were still reading and enjoying the book.

I feel very grateful to the libraries in general – and Lancaster Library in particular. In fact, the first ‘real’ character I included in one of my books was the librarian there, Andrew Till, who became an FBI agent in FIRST DROP. I was delighted to be able to include him as a thank you for all the hard work librarians do.

(a recent library event as part of Yorkshire FEVA – Festival of Entertainment and Visual Arts – with the staff of Knaresborough Library [from l to r] Karen Thornton, Wendy Kent, Deborah Thornton, with ZS, and fellow crime authors Richard Jay Parker and Matt Lynn.)

Whenever I’ve toured a new book in the States, I’ve always been more than happy to do library events, but got the impression – rightly or wrongly – that some authors are reluctant to promote the library system. Taken at face value, I can understand this. After all, if a library buys a book and then lends it to a hundred people, that (in theory) is a potential 99 sales lost.

I know whenever I’ve done library events that there’s often a very good take-up of sales alongside them. Many people who use libraries are also voracious book buyers, who borrow books as an extended version of browsing. Many others simply cannot afford to buy new books, particularly hardcovers. I’d rather they used the library, and kept that alive, than scoured second-hand stores and market stalls. Particularly as in the UK struggling authors have PLR as a small safety net.

But now, of course, the cash-strapped government is looking to cut public expenditure dramatically, and PLR is one of the things that’s coming under the microscope by the Department for  Culture Media and Sport. The results of the Spending Review are due to be announced on October 20th.

Meanwhile, there’s a petition you can put your name to, if you feel strongly enough about it. I know, if you’re not a UK author, you may think, why should I? But if you enjoy reading UK authors, please bear in mind that PLR is often the difference between an author being able to continue writing, and having to give it up in favour of more gainful employment.

So, ‘Rati, will you visit and sign the petition, or don’t you feel that authors should receive payment for library lends? What’s your view?

This week’s Word of the Week is quintessential, meaning something it its purest, most concentrated form, the most essential part, form or embodiment of anything. In medieval times, it was thought the world was made up of four corruptible elements: earth, air, fire and water. The heavens came to be regarded as a perfect incorruptible element. In Latin, the quinta essentia, literally, the fifth element.

I’m off on the road from this morning, so I’ll get to comments when I can, but please bear with me.