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!