by Zoë Sharp
I’ve had several experiences recently that were very interesting for me as a writer.
The first one was going to a readers’ group meeting at a small local library in Knott End in Lancashire. The tremendously enthusiastic librarian, Anne Errington, had been unable to get enough copies of one of the Charlie Fox books for everyone in the group to read, so they’d all read different ones in the series, often out of order. This meant that they asked more than the usual kind of questions. They wanted to know a lot more about the character of Charlie herself, and her motivations, and whether I’d ever tell the story of what really happened to her in the army.
Something that came up was that many people assumed I’d already told that tale somewhere, and they simply hadn’t yet read the particular book in which it was contained in full. The experiences of Charlie’s past form an integral part of who she is now, and although the character has progressed, I’ve only ever referred to her army days as back story, dribbled in as a bit here and a bit there, in order not to bore either the readers, or myself.
I’m not even sure I ever want to tell that story over the course of an entire book. It’s a period in Charlie’s life when she is beaten and utterly defeated. I introduced the character and began the series at a later date, when she has clawed her way back up out of that defeat. And when her life is again threatened in a similar way, this time she reacts differently. Possibly in a way she would not have been able to respond, had she not suffered in the past.
Back story is a funny one to include, and if you have a series character who never changes, is there any need to include it at all? The late great Robert B Parker rarely alluded to past cases of his iconic PI, Spenser. In fact, the guy didn’t even age. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is very much the same. You’re told how Reacher acquired the scar on his stomach, from a Marine’s exploding jawbone back in his army days, but you’re not told what happened in the last book, and there really is no need for you to know this in order to enjoy the ride.
The second thing that happened was that I received an email from a student in Copenhagen, asking a specific question about a short story I wrote a little while ago called ‘Tell Me’. The story was written for a Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) anthology called I.D.: CRIMES OF IDENTITY and the whole thrust of the story was a conversation between a crime scene investigator and a victim, with the CSI trying to discover the background and history of the girl that has brought her to this point. The story was turned into a short film, and also included in a Danish school text book, which asked readers to interpret it in ways that, frankly, even I would have struggled to provide answers for.
Who or what does the girl symbolise?
Comment on the dialogue. How and where does the real dialogue take place? Where in the story is the truth behind the dialogue revealed to the reader?
Analyse the use of ‘tell’ throughout the story.
Comment on the theme of gender roles in the text.
OK, this is me sidling away quietly at this point, muttering, ‘But it was just a story …’
The third thing that happened was last night. I found a well-established writing group in Kendal, which is not quite as far as I’ve been travelling, and somewhat larger than the very small group I’ve been to over the last few months. The Kendal group asked for three or four people to email pieces round beforehand, and the purpose of the meeting was for everyone to be able to comment in detail on those pieces.
I sent in the first chapter of the new Charlie Fox book. I didn’t explain particularly who I was, or my writing experience, and I didn’t include any kind of introduction for the book or the character. It’s another flash-forward opening, which I’ve used previously, so it drops the reader straight into the thick of the action. I wanted gut reactions to the writing, without any preconceived ideas.
And when I attended last night’s meeting and we all introduced ourselves, it was a little like a group of addicts. ‘Hi, my name is Zoë and I write crime fiction.’ The only difference was that I didn’t get a round of applause for this shameful admission.
And the questions here were different again.
I’d mentioned the word ‘principal’ meaning someone my bodyguard main protagonist was previously tasked to protect. One person thought this might refer to the principal actor in a theatre company.
The action starts on a beach in Long Island, with Charlie and her boss, Parker, excavating a grave. I don’t pinpoint this, but because of the mentions of digging in hot sand and the vague military tone brought about by Charlie’s army background, someone else assumed the story was a thriller set in Iraq.
Several people thought Charlie was male.
The use of metric measurements threw someone else. They queried whether an American character would think in terms of 40mm plumbing pipe, sticking a metre out of the ground.
I realised that when I sent the initial chapter out, I should also have included the flap-copy synopsis, which I always have at the back of my mind when I write an opening for the book, because I’ve always written that bit first. I take my jumping off point for the story itself after that, because it has already explained who and what the character is, and where the book’s set. To me, it would seem very stilted in a first-person narrative to jump into an action scene and have to explain about her being a ‘her’ for a start, and a bodyguard, and being on Long Island. And I also realised that if this had been a short story, without that brief synopsis, I would have tackled it in a completely different way.
And, obviously, during the discussion I ‘fessed up to being already a published author. But right at the end, one of the organisers asked me why, in that case, I wanted to come to a writing group? It’s a good question, and I think a lot of it has to do with the way I write.
I don’t dash off a very rough first draft, then rewrite the whole thing again and again in order to polish and hone it. I edit furiously during the writing process. Therefore, by the time I finish what is, in effect, my first draft, it’s not too far off finished. In order to get it to that stage, I fiddle a lot as I go, often feeling that I can’t go forwards until I’ve got the bit I’m working on right. Having ongoing criticism – the harsher the better – is extremely useful to me in order to make minor course corrections as I go.
And this, having someone approach my characters cold, as it were, was an illuminating experience.
So, ‘Rati, when it comes to questions this week, take your pick. If you’re a writer, do you self-edit or just get the words down and worry about fixing them later? Have you ever had a question about your work that really made you stop and think, or that confused you completely?
And, regardless of writing or not, what’s the best piece of constructive or destructive criticism you’ve ever received?
This week’s Word of the Week is rident, meaning laughing or smiling radiantly, beaming.