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:


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.


39 thoughts on “Eating the Elephant

  1. Barbie

    Your definition of squirrels is seriously one of the cutest things I've ever read. I'd love to see squirrels out of my window 🙂

  2. Robert Gregory Browne

    My lounging pants say Haines on the waistband.

    You consider that office untidy? You must NEVER come to my house.

    And, honestly, I don't know how you can work with another person in the office. I need complete isolation to function.

    Speaking of which, now that I have it, why aren't I working? Deadline tomorrow. See ya.

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rob

    Hey, this IS untidy. Normally when we're invited to people's houses, we end up doing construction!

    I like working with Andy in the office. (He's my muse!) And if I didn't have another person in the mobile office, erm, I'd crash…

  4. Zoë Sharp

    "My lounging pants say Haines on the waistband."

    Ah, in that case Rob, they aren't lounging pants you have on, they're UNDERpants.

    Big difference.

    Trust me on this.

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hey folks, I have to nip out this afternoon to speak with my fellow LadyKiller, Lesley Horton, at the Saltaire Festival. I'll be back later to answer comments then.

  6. pari noskin taichert

    I want to come to your house — or any house you build — 'kay?

    Off topic sort of: Squirrels
    1. I can bark like a squirrel — am really good at it. I learned from watching them tease a dog of mine while I lived in Michigan.
    2. A squirrel once followed me for three blocks on the U of Michigan campus. I'd given her a few green seedless grapes and she fell in love with me. It was the weirdest thing. People were stopping all around me because she looked like she could've been my pet.

  7. Karen in Ohio

    Zoe, I thought we had a lot of bookshelves, but yours are wonderful. You can't have too many.

    Never thought of that benefit of having a corner desk configuration. Brilliant!

    Does any other American do a doubletake when you see the steering wheel on the right?

  8. JT Ellison

    I love that you and Andy can work int he same office – Randy and I would never get anything done, we'd be too inclined to chat. "See this?" "Read this for me."

    It's a beautiful space, and I'm jealous of the red squirrels. I have cardinals and they aren't nearly as adorable.

    And Blessings on you – David's death leaves a huge hole in your world, as he does for all of us.

  9. Judy Wirzberger


    I'm sorry there is a gap in your world where David used to stand. How wonderful the memories I am reading and they are, in a way, different yet the same. A life of energy and fun and caring and thoughtfulness and helpfulness. I wonder why he was needed elsewhere when we need to many of him here.

    I love your neck book and IBrain. Marvelous the way you view Andy and squirrels – sorry for putting them in the same sentence which makes Andy seem like a squirrel (but better a squirrel then, say, a skunk. I am awed by your energy and production – my father built houses — rather, like you and Andy, he built homes.

    I'm 25,000 words away from my first draft finish – you've spurred me on! Thanks. I realized that I take a long time to write the first 10,000 words, now I know why! I work them over and reread and think and ponder and mull then I sit down and really work.

    My thoughts will be with all who knew David on Sunday. Wish I had.

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Z, I love your description of your process. And that corner desk. And the bookshelves. But I mostly wish I had your collection of CDs. Wow.

    I can see how Andy would be a great muse–and since he writes, too, that makes sense, though I think if Carl were *in* the room with me, I'd never get anything done. I'm too easily distracted just if something moves in the house, much less the same room.

    Beautiful tribute to David–I know he was extremely excited about publishing your books. His enthusiasm was bountiful.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    A wonderful tribute to David, Zoe.
    Them squirrels is darned cute. They kinda look like they've been electrocuted, though.

  12. Debbie

    Zoё, I was reading Rati archives last night and came across a beautiful interview where you spoke of David. My thoughts are with you. You created a really fitting segue into todays post. and that must have taken a great deal of fortitude.
    I have to admit that my fav pic was inside the car. We too drive on the opposite side of the road (Canada). For a split second I could feel the mind shift thinking, 'Huh? Oh yeah!' Thanks for the elevated monitor tip. I've now got mine positioned properly and duct tape eh? Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more.

  13. Dudley Forster

    Hi Zoë
    I know that David’s loss has left a hole in a lot of Ratis’ hearts. I just want you to know you and others sharing who David was has made those of us who never got to meet him wish we had. I think the love and respect you all have portrayed is a wonderful tribute to him.

    The description of your writing process is fascinating, like the others that have been shared. I have had to stop myself for going back and editing the first part of my WIP. If I didn’t do that I’d probably spend all my time fiddling with it and not writing.

    Now for driving on the wrong side of the road .<g> I lived in England for three years and rode in a lot of cars with right hand drive and it still freaks me out me. On the topic of squirrels, those red squirrels are way too cute to be tree rats. As for the keyboard, have you looked at the Microsoft Natural Ergo Keyboard 4000? It looks a lot like yours. I’m going to have to try the neck level monitor thing. I like your definition of untidy, now I don’t feel so OCD. <g> Oh and geek speak for falling asleep at the keyboard is called “QWERTY face”.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    You're always welcome – bring tools ;-]

    LOL about the stalker squirrel thing, and I can just see, if we're ever on a panel together, me bringing up the little-known fact that you can bark like a squirrel…

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Karen

    I find it harder to type on a straight desk now. It's just so nice to be able to surround yourself with notes while you work, too!

    The need for more bookshelf space was one of the reasons we decided to build. We had to have the structural engineer recalculate the loadings for the upper floor to take the weight of all the books into account.

    Andy and I have the same problem when we come to the States – the steering wheel is on the opposite side of the car. As we leave the car rental compound, we go through a few chants of "Drive on the right! Drive on the right!"

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Thank you, JT

    Glad you like the space. We already have a lot of ideas for the next build…

    And who says Andy and I don't spend a lot of time just talking? I just know we'd get less done if we were in separate rooms.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Thank you, Cornelia

    If we build in a different area next time, the red squirrels are what I'm going to miss most. Grey are bigger and more galumphy – just not the same…

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Thank you, Judy

    Best of luck with your last 25,000 words. The end is in sight – go for it!

    Andy can be much more cute than a squirrel ;-]

    A friend of our mentioned she'd had a pet skunk when she was a child. I think it had been somehow de-scented, or that would have been a mean kind of a pet for any parent to give their daughter. The skunk was called Jeremy, and later when she got married and had her son, she wanted to name him after the skunk. Her husband refused, but she managed to sneak it in as a second name.

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    Thank you. And you have wonderful bookcases in your guest room. We were totally spoilt for choice!

    Andy and I are used to working together – we had a joint office in our last house – that I miss him when he's not there, even if we're both just tapping away quietly on our keyboards (like now, for instance).

    I really must get round to downloading the rest of our CDs onto the iPod – as many as will fit, anyway.

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Thank you, Stephen

    I'd like to state for the record, I absolutely and categorically have NEVER electrocuted a squirrel. They're NATURALLY that tufty, OK?

    Of course, we do poke badgers with spoons… ;-]

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Thank you, Debbie

    David was so hugely enthusiastic as a publisher – he was a breath of fresh air. It was a delight and an honour to have had the opportunity to work with him.

    You mentioned being in Canada. Reminded me of a driving story. A few years ago, some friends of ours were doing a driving tour round the States. Eventually, they crossed over into Canada, and were amazed by the liberal attitude to speed up there.

    But, having tried to drive at 125MPH instead of KPH, they blew the transmission out of the rental car…

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Thank you, Dudley

    I know it's a temptation to fiddle indefinitely, but once I've decided I've found what I think is the right entry point, I may read through it a lot, and do the final run-throughs on paper rather than on screen (hence my inexhaustable supply of scrap paper) but you just have to get the story properly under way. I normally allow myself a month to do the first 10k, then 2.5 months to do the final 90k. That works for me.

    More or less…

    …most of the time.

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Oh, and I just went and had a quick look at the Microsoft Natural Ergo Keyboard 4000. The pix were all too small to get a really good look at it, but did I see in the specs that it has an AZERTY keyboard layout? Surely that doesn't mean they've changed the QWERTY layout? I mean, I know use of language has shifted since the QWERTY layout was designed, so now we tend to use one hand more than the others, but the thought of having to undo a LOT of years of touch-typing, and try to learn a new layout, fills me with dread ;-]

  24. Karen in Ohio

    Don't you think it's harder to be a passenger in a car with the steering wheel on the opposite side? It freaks me out, because I feel as though I ought to be in control, but there's nothing to control with on that side. It's like a bad nightmare.

    It never occurred to me that you'd have more room for papers at your fingertips, either. What a good idea.

  25. Dudley Forster

    Zoë – Look on the Amazon US site – more info and bigger pictures. It’s a QWERTY keyboard. Might want to look at the Microsoft Natural Keyboard Elite as well.

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Karen

    Ah, but just because you're in the passenger seat doesn't mean you don't have anything to control with on that side of the car. A few years ago I was doing some work in Ireland, in the car with a guy who was driving like a lunatic. I grab hold of the side of his neck fairly hard and found that worked perfectly ;-]

  27. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dudley

    Ah-hah! Much better. When this keyboard finally gives up the ghost, I know where to get a new one. It's funny when people come to visit and ask to go on the internet, because unless they touch-type, they can't use the keyboard…

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