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!





35 thoughts on “Deep Breaths

  1. JD Rhoades

    First, congratulations! I apologize, but I am laughing hard at your saying that you’re stressed becuase you’re not MORE stressed. It’s not mockery, though, It’s recognition. When things are going easily (which is rare enough), there’s always that still small voice in the back of the mind that worries that maybe it’s TOO easy.

    By the end of a book, I’m usually so sick of the damned thing that all I feel is relief.

  2. Cornelia Read

    Congratulations from me, too! I’m in a state where I don’t think I’ll ever finish the first draft of book four, which is keeping me up at night.

    Usually when I finish a book, it feels as though I’ve written the entire thing in Lithuanian, and if I were to examine it honestly, it would turn out to be instructions for assembling a garbage disposal, or possibly an origami velociraptor. And then I think maybe that’s what I *should* have tried writing, because I am an utter vacuum of talent and insight, and should go into real estate.

    And then I bite off all my fingernails, if I have any.

    But somehow whichever book I wrote two books ago seems all right, at least in patches.

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JD

    I’m reminded of the old movie with the two cops sitting in a car and one says, "It sure is quiet tonight." And the other one says, "Yeah, too quiet…"

    I’m pretty sure, therefore, that everyone’s going to hate this book, and because I didn’t open up a vein and write the entire thing in blood, that is only to be expected ;-]

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Cornelia

    There you go, you see. You’re agonising over a book that we all know will ultimately turn out brilliantly, possibly because you’re agonising over it so much. There’s no hope for me!

    But, I did manage to find a picture of an origami velociraptor, which I added just for you ;-]

  5. Louise Ure

    Zoe, congratulations on this latest book. You know that when you quit doubting your work, you’re lost.

    And I adore your word derivations for getting fired an getting sacked!

  6. Dana King

    It sounds to me as though you’ve refined your process, which leads to having a few fewer balls in the air, which is bound to reduce the stress of wondering what you might have forgotten.

    Not having any novels published, i therefore have no deadlines, so finishing a book for me is somewhat anticlimactic. I type THE END (which i don’t do until the end of the last draft), and look for something else to do. Watch a ball game, maybe. Read. The next idea will already be bumping around inside my head, but i have to let it ferment a little before it’s even ready to outline.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Or course, I have yet to receive my agent’s comments on the latest effort, so I may discover that I’m lost anyway …

    And I just love all those derivations and hidden meanings.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hey Dana

    I didn’t even do something as exciting as watching a ball game when I’d finished this one. I know they do have competitive ironing, but I can’t imagine it ever becoming a big-audience kind of ‘sport’.

    And yeah, the next idea is definitely jostling for elbow room in there!

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Zoe – I feel fantastic after I complete a book. Granted, I’ve only completed two now. But there has been a huge sense of relief. At the same time, I worry if my second book is any good, because I have lost all perspective. I’m too close to it. People ask me if I think it’s a good book and I tell them I have no idea. I just want to get lost in my next book so I don’t have to think about it.
    Thank you for the definitions of "getting sacked" and "being fired." How do you learn these things?

  10. Allison Davis


    Congrats — I look forward to the stress I would feel finishing a book that I knew was going to get published…(book 2 will do it, I think). In the meantime, thanks for the insider’s view.

    Reminds me of the story when the young, eager associate at his first trial asks the old veteran trial lawyer, "So when does this start to be easy, and when do the butterflies in your stomach go away?" And the old lawyer turns to the young associate and says, "II’ll let you know."

    It gets easier. And it doesn’t.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    Ah, Difficult Second Book Syndrome! Sadly, this is usually followed by Difficult Third Book, Difficult Fourth Book… etc, etc

    And I have no idea where I get all this useless information from. I just have a mind for trivia, I s’pose.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    Thanks for that. Finishing a book on spec is different pressure to finishing a book that’s expected, for that exact reason – expectation.

    It doesn’t get easier as such, and I think I’d probably be more worried if it did. I just don’t seem to have been tearing my hair out as much with this one. Makes up for going bald over the last one, I expect. That one – FOURTH DAY – seemed to be a difficult book to write, and I won’t find out for another month what the reaction is to that when it gets into print.

    Best of luck with your work, too!

  13. Jude Hardin

    Congrats, Zoe!

    I recently signed my first book deal (Oceanview Publishing for a spring 2011 release of my thriller Pocket-47), and I’ve been working on revisions for the past few weeks. I’ve lost about 7 pounds! It’s a whole new level of stress when you know your work is actually going to be published.

  14. Judy Wirzberger

    Dear Zoooooeeeeey
    I met a priest who changed the wording at mass adding the word unreasonable – save us from unreasonable anxiety, he’d pray. And that’s what you’re sufffering – when you can’t do anything about something right now or the next few days, you need to go into the Scarlet O’Hara mode and give yourself permission "to think about it tomorrow." Easier said, perhaps, but you can train yourself. Loved your explanation of word usage. I don’t know for sure, but my father was a carpenter and he always had nails in his mouth. So I figure the phrase "spitting nails" came from spitting out the nails so one could curse after the hammer hit the thumb.

    How about sleep tight? Judy

  15. kit

    Hi Z,
    Been there, done that, if I’m not stressed then something must be wrong.

    In the tv programming of LIFE, you need a commercial, (or to make ya grin) so I decided to add a friend’s FB status:

    "More Vasectomies in US are performed during this week….yeah, this made national news last night. Something to do with March Madness and men needing a "legitimate" excuse to not get off the couch. Kinda makes me want to say, "Grow a pair." "

    I never knew where the words, "fired" and "sacked" came from, interesting to learn.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jude

    Thank you – and many congrats to you, also!

    Yeah, working on a book can be a good form of weigh loss, although sadly with me it just seems to rearrange itself to different parts of my anatomy, rather than going away altogether.

    And you never stop polishing, do you? I’ve already found a couple of words I’d really like to alter on the m/s, but I’m saving them for the next edit…

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Judy!

    Wow, I’ve never seen my name used to demonstrate Doppler effect before!

    Funny how the mind works. As soon as I saw the mention of ‘Scarlett O’Hara mode’ my first thought was, ‘What? make a frock out of the curtains?’ Doh!

    My sleep patterns have always been weird. At the moment I’m getting around 5hours a night and that seems to be enough. I’ve learned to make the most of it – I’ll be back in semi-dormant mode again before long.

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Kit

    Know what you mean about if I’m not stressed, there’s something wrong. Although, in reflection, I think I’m generally a lot more chilled out than I used to be. I haven’t felt the need to hit anyone for *weeks"…;-]

    Vasectomies are seasonal? No way! And surely ‘growing a pair’ was the cause of the problem in the first place, wasn’t it?

  19. Allison Brennan

    Hmm. I’m writing book #15 and it’s damn hard. Some books seem to be a bit easier than others, but NONE are easy. When I write I alternate between, "Oh! This is really good!" to "OMG, this is total crap my career is over I can’t fix this." I think a scene is working fabulously, then I re-read it the next day and wonder if someone had put happy pills in my morning coffee the day before because the brilliant scene is obviously the worst drivel I’ve ever written. That anyone has every written.

    When I’m done, I’m relieved. Then I panic as I edit because I didn’t see all the problems the first time in. Then I’m happy when my editor is happy. Then I panic again when I get the copyedits and realize I Know Nothing. Then I stress until I get the page proofs. I’m usually excited about the proofs–nearly done!–but then I start nit-picking and fear that no one is going to like the book.

    It’s a roller coaster.

  20. Judy Wirzberger

    Sorry, I meant do you know where "sleep tight" originated? But glad to hear your zonkin’.
    In case you don’t know-it’s from the time when ropes held mattresses in place and eventually they would loosen. So for a good night’s sleep you had to tighten them again. I just love learning about words.

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    As always you have described the process far better than I ever could.

    Ah, Difficult Fifteenth Book Syndrome, huh?

    I think I’ve written this one a lot more from notes, so I hope that I’m making my worst mistakes in pencil on paper, which feels like it doesn’t count. As soon as it gets onto screen, that’s more serious, somehow…

    Why do we do this to ourselves?

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Judy

    I did know that one – although not the spitting nails one you mentioned before.

    You probably don’t want to know the original of the phrase ‘getting hold of the wrong end of the stick’ but it’s to do with Roman latrines…

  23. PK the Bookeemonster

    RE: word of the day: enthusiasm.
    My life motto (for better or worse) and what I’ve always followed is a quote from Jim Henson of the muppets: "Follow your enthusiasm."

  24. anonymous

    Zoë. Hah!!!
    I love you writer gals.

    Number NAIYaaaan, oh yeah…….. F&%$ you, TOO!!!!


    I am just waiting for someone to seriously ask Stephen if his work is autobiographical…………..hahahahahahaha.

    I am full of shit but I crack myself up.

    Keep writing, bitches! What do you think I’m out here for? Tap tap tap goes the bunioned foot.

  25. anonymous

    I’m sick of all of this whining. I read three to four books a week. I am a slow reader. Xs 52 weeks a year. Xs over 48 years. Fuck. *I* should get an award. I should be on the New York Times best reader list. !!! You count 15, 9 , 4, 2 books as some sort of accomplishment. Shit. I have READ thousands. I want recognition!

    Do you guys realize how many hours it takes and how much work it is to read your books!!!!!!


    ; – }

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Anon

    O…K, can I just say that you’re starting to freak me out a little? I’m always being asked if my work is autobiographical, to the point where I’ve stopped denying it – nobody believes me anyway.

    And I think you’ll find the correct phrase is "I’m so full of shit my teeth are floating" ;-]

    I applaud your tenacity, but if our books are hard work to read, surely we’re doing something wrong ?!?

  27. anonymous

    Oh Zoë. I was totally kidding. Just amazed at the time and work you all put in at your jobs. It’s cute that any of you can be stressed over a 9th or 15th book writing.

    Stephen’s book is about a sex addict. I was joking about it being autobiographical. (Sorry Stephen!!)

  28. pari noskin taichert

    Wonderful post. Thank you — as usual — for a great read.

    And congrats on the new book!

    As to stress levels and output . . . I interviewed Faye Kellerman. She’s got more than 20 out and says the anxiety never goes away — that none of it ever gets easier. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

    One quibble: if you’re going to celebrate in such an extravagant way, why not clean a couple of windows as well. I mean, live it up! <g>

  29. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Sorry to be so slow responding to this – been away rushing all over the country the last few days.

    As for celebrating, I nearly cleaned the bathroom as well, but then I thought, hey, don’t go overboard…;-]


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