Eating the elephant

Zoë Sharp

Ever get the feeling that a job always expands to fill the time available for the task? In fact, in most cases it expands to overflow the time available, and ends with some desperate floundering to make up for lost time, or giving up because the whole task seems simply too large to tackle.

Sometimes you have to accept that eating the elephant has to be done one bite at a time.

The subject of goals—setting them and achieving them—is very much on my mind today. For one thing, this month is NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. For those of you unaware of this program, it promotes the writing of a 50,000-word novel (or a 50k part of a novel) during November. And it certainly works, with millions of collective words written by the participants every year.

But why does it work?

  1. Safety in numbers. Knowing that there are others facing the same challenge acts to spur you on both to compete and to complete your work. The herd instinct, where being left behind means being picked off by the predators, and also the companionship of knowing that you may have chosen to travel a difficult road, but at least you are not alone on your journey. Some people can really benefit from that online community of support and encouragement, like joining an exercise class as opposed to working out at home.
  2. Making it real. As soon as you write down a dream, it becomes more solid and more of a reality. Successful people tend to write down their aim and then plan ways to achieve it. Without that planning, it may remain an unfulfilled dream forever. The hazy dream of one day “writing a novel” suddenly starts to take shape.
  3. Timing. At first glance, the prospect of writing 50,000 words in a month may seem very daunting, and it IS a big commitment in time and effort. But being held in early winter, with the days still shortening on their way down towards the winter solstice, makes the prospect of sitting inside in the warm creating stories seem all the more attractive. Not too close to Christmas, but not pushed into the New Year either, when other resolutions may get in the way.
  4. Bite-size chunks. Perhaps there’s a reason why NaNo takes place in a 30-day month like November instead of February. Those two extra days (and I’m not counting leap years) make a huge difference to the task at hand. If you break down those 50k words into a daily target, it’s the difference between facing a little over 1650 words a day, or nearly 1800. Even if you have a full-time job, breaking that target down further into, say 500 words first thing in the morning, another 400 in the lunch hour, then 750 in the evening, is not out of reach. You just have to want it enough.
  5. Finite time scale. Yes, this might involve getting up an hour earlier, and maybe staying up that little bit later. It may involve giving up your lunch break from a relaxing hour with friends to a snatched sandwich with your eyes glued to the page or screen, but it’s not forever. It’s one month out of twelve to achieve something you may have wanted to do for years.

In case you were wondering, no, I won’t be taking part in NaNo this year, although I think it’s a great idea. That’s not a cop-out, I promise. As I go into November, I have my own elephant to eat, although I may well have my own NoWriMo (note the lack of ‘National’). Instead of being able to work on my new project, I’m working on edits and re-writes, which is not so much about getting words on the page as swapping the existing words for the RIGHT words. And that is a slower process altogether.

But I still need to set out my goals between now and the end of the year, with realistic deadlines attached to each stage. Writing them down in order of priority helps me organise what I should be working on first. Urgent jobs tend not to be the most important, and important jobs are often not the most urgent—until the deadline looms, that is.

I need to work out WHY do I want to achieve these goals? Keeping in mind the benefits and advantages will act as a motivational factor. I work much better for the carrot rather than the stick, so looking at the plus-side of getting it done is far less de-motivating than worrying about the consequences of NOT getting it done.

What are the actual steps I need to take to achieve my goal? In particular, what’s the first step? Do I need to make changes to my lifestyle in order to achieve them? At the moment I’m doing edits, so I’ve gone through my editor’s notes and listed the main problem areas, then printed out my summary of the book to see where I can make the necessary changes. Facing the whole book as a lump seemed like an overwhelming task. Breaking it down into containable steps makes it far easier.

Setting intermediate deadlines is my next step. OK, I have a chunk of stuff that needs to be done before the end of the year, but getting the edits on the first book out of the way this month is not unrealistic. (I hope.) That’s my contingency deadline. If I can get it done inside three weeks, so much the better, because that gives me extra time to work on the next set of edits. But already I’m trying to squeeze myself into a more pressurised situation. I have no idea why I do that, when I know it may lead to disappointment.

The final thing will be to look back honestly at how it’s gone. If I achieved all I set out to do, great. Rinse and repeat. But if I didn’t get it done, why not? Unexpected interference? Well, life is full of unexpected problems and surprises. I should be used to that by now and allow for it when I’m setting my original deadline for the job.

Meanwhile, just to prove that I do occasionally get things done, I’m very pleased to announce that the latest series novel, DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten, is now out for Kindle everywhere except the US and Canada, with a print edition coming soon. Included is a bonus excerpt from Joel Goldman’s new thriller series, STONE COLD.

DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten

‘Sean didn’t remember finding out that I wasn’t to blame for ruining both our careers – that I’d nearly died for him. He certainly didn’t know that I’d killed for him.’

In the sweating heat of Louisiana, former Special Forces soldier turned bodyguard, Charlie Fox, faces her toughest challenge yet.

Professionally, she’s at the top of her game, but her personal life is in ruins. Her lover, bodyguard Sean Meyer, has woken from a gunshot-induced coma with his memory in tatters. It seems that piecing back together the relationship they shared is proving harder for him than relearning the intricacies of the close-protection business.

Working with Sean again was never going to be easy for Charlie, either, but a celebrity fundraising event in aid of still-ravaged areas of New Orleans should have been the ideal opportunity for them both to take things nice and slow.

Until, that is, they find themselves thrust into the middle of a war zone.        

When an ambitious robbery explodes into a deadly hostage situation, the motive may be far more complex than simple greed. Somebody has a major score to settle and Sean is part of the reason. Only trouble is, he doesn’t remember why.

And when Charlie finds herself facing a nightmare from her own past, she realises she can’t rely on Sean to watch her back. This time, she’s got to fight it out on her own.

One thing’s for sure—no matter how overwhelming the odds stacked against her, Charlie Fox is never going to die easy …

‘Zoë Sharp is one of the sharpest, coolest, and most intriguing writers I know. She delivers dramatic, action-packed novels with characters we really care about. And once again, in DIE EASY, Zoë Sharp is at the top of her game.’ New York Times bestselling author, Harlan Coben

‘To sum up DIE EASY, I would have to say that I have waited a year for a great book, only for a brilliant one to be delivered with all the style and panache you would expect from Sharp and Fox. An exceptional novel.’ Graham Smith, five-star review

You can read the opening chapter here.

And also, I’ve brought out as an individual standalone short story The Night Butterflies, which first appeared in ACTION: Pulse Pounding Tales Vol1. This is the story of a retired ‘insurance’ man, Tommy Renshaw who is enjoying his dream retirement on the north side of Bali, until a figure from his past arrives to remind him you can never outrun the past. You can only hope to outlive it.

This week’s Word of the Week is hamartia, meaning the flaw or defect in the character of the hero which leads to his downfall, originally (and especially) in Greek tragedy, from the Greek hamartia, failure, error of judgement, sin, and also hamartiology, the section of theology dealing with sin.

9 thoughts on “Eating the elephant

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I'm not doing a traditionally NaNo, either. It drives me crazy, but I never seem to be at the beginning of a book when November rolls around. I'm just finishing edits on a first draft today, and then I'm taking a research trip. But it's all writing, and my goal is a book that's finished enough to get out to beta readers at the end of the month.

    I love your analysis of why November is the best month for this! Very true.

  2. Tammy Cravit

    I had a friend who used to espouse a variation of your metaphor, Zoë – "Eat your elephant one bite at a time," she'd say, "and don't start with the butt." That's sort of been my philosophy, as well.

    Perhaps I shouldn't have read the first chapter of DIE EASY, though, because now my Charlie Fox addiction has rekindled full force. I'd slaked it, or so I thought, by re-reading the series from start to end earlier in the week, but now I feel like a junkie awaiting her fix again. When, pray tell, will DIE EASY be available to those of us on this side of the ocean?

  3. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    Anxiously awaiting the availability of DIE EASY!

    I am NaNo-ing again this year determined that I will "win" this year due to my new built-in iMac dictation program. Getting ready to upload my work for day one! Special thanks to Alex for her helps!

  4. lil Gluckstern

    Can't wait for "Die Easy" although I am worried about Sean. Eating the elephant one bite at a time is a good lesson for all of life, it seems to me. Zoe, can you do all the things that Charlie does? (Except kill, of course) I admire her fearlessness.

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tammy

    LOL on the “don’t start with the butt” of the elephant. That’s a new one on me, although it sounds like very good advice. And save the ears for the dog?

    Sorry your Charlie Fox addiction is rearing its ugly head again. The US edition of DIE EASY will be out in Jan, so not too long to wait now 🙂

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine

    Best of luck with your NaNo entry this year. Dictation sounds great, although did I tell you about one writer who used it who had a query about a piece of dialogue from his editor. In the middle of a tense conversation, one of the characters had suddenly said, “Do you want to go out?” It turned out the author had been speaking to his dog.

    You’ll have to let us know how you get on. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you!

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lil

    Sorry you’re having to wait for your next installment of DIE EASY in the States, but I love it that you’re so invested in the characters. Thank you! I’m always going to put Charlie and Sean through the wringer, because if life was a bowl of roses for the pair of them, it would be kind of dull, wouldn’t it?

    As for what I can do compared to Charlie, it’s all entirely autobiographical, of course :))

  8. Reine

    Hah! Good one, Zoë! Today's total: 2033 words.
    With the help of my service dog Kendall
    And iMac Dictation

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