Full Circle

Zoë Sharp

Back when I was fifteen I wrote my very first novel, all by hand. It took me a month, start to finish—a fact I only know because I put the start and finish dates on the manuscript at the time. By the end of it I had the worst writer’s cramp I’ve ever experienced. My right hand was useless and my arm hurt more or less all the way up to the shoulder.

I knew there must be a better way.

The only computers around at the time were inanimate lumps that took hours to load the simplest of database programs on tape cassette, and then threw up error messages in Klingon. It wasn’t until the Amstrad PCW came along in the mid-1980s that I finally found a work tool I could really use.

I loved my PCW—the odd three-inch diskettes and the green-on-black screen, the lack of a mouse so everything was keyboard controlled, the fact you had to manually install new printers and give them a name. I didn’t realise this meant you were supposed to use the code number of the printer itself. Mine was called Lenny.

Looking back now, it’s remarkable how much but at the same time how little that machine actually did. You could word-process on it, using LocoScript—a program I clung to for years after abandoning my Amstrads. You could merge address lists into template letters for sending out the antique equivalent of an e-newsletter. You could create invoices. And …

… that was about it, really.

No graphics, no photos, no video-clips, no web-surfing—no web, for that matter—no email.

It was just a means of putting words efficiently into a document, fiddling around with the order, spell-checking it, printing it out, and having a back-up copy on disk.

What more do we need?

No, we SO do not need these two little constant time-sucks.

For surviving in today’s business world, we do need computers, laptops and smartphones. Writers have to promote, and network, and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter and all those other online sites. It’s no longer practical—or sensible—to shut ourselves away in an attic and simply write.

But at the same time, the writing is getting constantly squeezed out of the schedule.

Since I started the new book last month, I’ve been trying out a new method of working—new to me, anyway. Well, actually that’s not true. It’s a very OLD method.

I’ve gone back to where I started.

I’ve always made notes about the book I’m working on at the time, but now I’m writing whole scenes or chapters in note form before I lay a finger on my keyboard.

For one thing, there are fewer distractions available on a myPad. It has no wireless modem, no graphics card, and NO solitaire. Got that on my phone, though …

I found what I was doing was writing notes only for part of a scene, then moving to the computer before I’d fully worked out where I was going. Now I write the whole section, doing all my scribbling out and backtracking in pencil first. You might think that I’m making more work for myself—in effect doing everything twice—but I’ve found that getting the kinks out in advance makes the writing flow easier and faster on screen. I’ve gone from 1000-1250 words a day to 2000-3000 and I find I’m back to really enjoying what I’m doing. It all feels like less of a slog.

Besides, the weather was glorious here last week and I could sit out in the garden in shorts and a T-shirt to scribble my notes, then come inside to write them up. Can’t do that this week, unfortunately, as the snow’s back, but it means I’m looking forward to the summer.


As Alexandra Sokoloff mentioned in her Wild Card blog on Tuesday, I’ve been participating in the eBookSwag giveaway this week, together with Alex, Scott Nicholson, Brett Battles, Aiden James and Mel Comley. Three of my Charlie Fox books have been up for grabs—KILLER INSTINCT: Charlie Fox book one on Monday and Tuesday, FOX FIVE: a Charlie Fox short story collection yesterday, and FIRST DROP: Charlie Fox book four today and Friday in the US, UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. Please download and Like the books if you can, and enter the eBookSwag raffle for a chance to win one of three Kindle Fires, plus gift vouchers. There’s a new chance to enter every day, plus lots of great free books!

The latest MWA anthology, VENGEANCE is out this week in the US and UK, too. I was absolutely delighted to be asked by editor Lee Child to contribute to this fabulous anthology. Read Lee’s introduction to the collection, and an excerpt from my story, Lost And Found.

And calling all flash fiction writers. The Flashbang Flash Fiction competition still has another ten days to run—closing date April 15th. Write 150-word crime story to be entered to win two tickets for this year’s CrimeFest 2012, plus books and other cool stuff.

I’m looking forward to CrimeFest in Bristol next month (May 24th-27th) even more than usual this time. I have two great panels:

Finally, hugely talented US singer/songwriter, Beth Rudetsky has written this amazing original song ‘The Victim Won’t Be Me’ inspired by FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine. I’m stunned by the song, which I think is beautiful, and by the interpretation brought to it by the students of the Vision West Notts Media (Film and TV) course. They’ve done a brilliant job.

So, my question this week, getting back to my original subject, is what distracts you most when you’re supposed to be working, and what methods have you found work best to get you back on track?

This week’s Word of the Week is scrivener’s palsy. Basically, writer’s cramp!

19 thoughts on “Full Circle

  1. Sarah W

    I went from spiral notebooks to my Dad's old manual typewriter (my thumbs still ache went it rains) to his old electric Coronet Super-12, and then to an Apple II that took up most of the desk. Back then, the biggest time sucks were the four hours of programming it took to get the Apple to draw a small box on the screen — magic!

    These days, I love my laptop and finally succumbed to the Smart Phone era once I discovered they had Office on them (and Words With Friends, speaking of time sucks). But I completely agree, Zoë — sometimes there's nothing like making marks on paper.

    Yesterday evening — when I was perched on a cold aluminum bench watching my kid's softball practice and wondering what the hell happened to Spring — instead of trying to thumb a scene onto a tiny screen, I pulled out the trusty bound journal (bought at a discount when Borders went belly-up) that lives in my bag and a working pen (minor miracles should be noted) and scribbled it down while being present enough to applaud a line drive and a spectacular almost-catch.

    And then we went home and I sat down carefully on my half-thawed rear-end and typed it all out into my laptop. And it wasn't half bad . . . I do some of my best stuff at ball games, maybe because I'm not concentrating so hard?

    (Scrivener’s Palsy would be a great name for a Folk Karaoke group)

  2. Greg James (G.R. Yeates)

    I think it has having so much available on the devices we work on that makes for so much distraction so, for me, it's the social networks, a DVD still in my disk drive that I haven't watched yet, music on Windows Media Player – take your pick. This is why I'm taking a sabbatical this weekend from the web to finish drafting the novella I've been working on. I've found one the best ways of getting around the distractions is to compartmentalise my evenings: an hour of promo or chat with readers/writers alternating with an hour of writing or research and, as with this weekend, if I have a lot to do in one particular area then I'll set whole evenings aside in a similar fashion to balance things out.

  3. Lisa Alber

    Hi Zoe,

    I'm so glad you followed up on the comment you left on a previous post (can't remember which one). I was so intrigued. And now I'm doubly intrigued. Writing by hand! The thought of doing that makes me nervous for some reason…Why would that be, do you think? Maybe I truly am an addict, and I'm afraid going off the laptop will send me into withdrawals. 🙂

    Still, I like the idea. I've been yearning to return to good-old-fashioned letter writing. Why not fiction?

    I get distracted by this, just what I'm doing now–joining online conversations…sigh…My frustration with online socializing is that I'd gladly do it in the evenings, after my work day, but by then the conversations are done.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I am a marks on paper person, too. Anything intense that I have to write gets written in longhand. I like the FEEL of a pen or pencil on paper. It's sensual and meditative and sometimes it's the only way to get the effect I need onto the page.

  5. Tammy Cravit

    You know what's interesting for me? I can almost always tell the difference, after the fact, between sections of my writing done on paper with a fountain pen and then transcribed into the computer and sections written directly into my Mac. When I write on paper, my writing has a different…texture, I guess, would be a good word. In fact, sometimes when I'm stuck on a scene, I switch to paper and the shift in mediums helps me get unstuck. I think it's because writing on paper forces me to slow my ADD-ish brain down just a bit.

    I also agree that today's computers are far more distraction-prone than they used to be, and this is why I do most of my writing in relatively distraction-free programs (presently, Storyist and WriteRoom on my Mac and iPad) and I turn of Wi-Fi and unplug my network connection when I'm trying to write. I'm reminded of a comment that Scott McNealy, then the CEO of Sun Microsystems, made many years ago about the ever-increasing visual bells and whistles of word processing programs like Microsoft Word. He said something to the effect of "let's face it, plain text is a far richer medium than most of us deserve."

    With a gun to my head, I'd give up my iPad, but never my fountain pen.

  6. Bobby Mangahas

    One thing that helps is this wonderful writing program called Scrivener. One of the features it has is you can write on an all black screen with green type (boy I still remember my Apple IIe). Of course I'm still on a computer. But when all else fails, nothing gets me back on track like the old pen/pencil and paper (and it's still how I mark up my stories).

  7. David Corbett

    What distracts me? Why do you think I'm here instead of working on my manuscript?

    The mind is a monkey. When an impulse only needs a key stroke for fulfillment, disaster (or at least distraction) looms.

    I have Freedom as a tool. It turns off the Internet for specified periods of time. But that means I have to keep the smart phone someplace outside my office. Oh, just a quick peek…

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    Yup, I was using spiral bound notebooks, but now I just use scrap paper in a fold-over clipboard, numbering the sheets as I go and having the added satisfaction of sticking them in the ‘done’ pile when I’m finished with them. That pile is already satisfyingly thick!

    Being somewhere else―like the softball practice you mention―often unlocks the creative part of your mind, I think. Being just a little distracted allows your imagination to take hold. I wrote a chapter on a car journey today, during what would otherwise be down-time as far as the writing is concerned. (I was the passenger, folks, not the driver!)

    Would be a cool name for a folk group, wouldn’t it?

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Greg
    The only thing you mention I don’t find a distraction is music―I love to listen to music while I write, although the volume level has to be just right. Too loud and I’m listening to the lyrics more than the words in my head. I need it just soft enough to go in on a subliminal level.

    I tried the hourly thing, but found sometimes creativity doesn’t use the same means of calculating time that I do. I try and get something written before I launch into internet stuff, though.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lisa
    Glad you liked the blog. Why does writing by hand make you nervous? Erm, possibly because you’re younger than me! LOL, it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that computers really came on the scene. I originally learned to type on a manual typewriter, graduating to an electric one (much less tough on the little fingers) and then―gasp―an electronic one that allowed you to type a whole line and view it on a tiny LCD screen before you hit carriage return and committed it to paper. Wowee.

    Now it’s so easy to edit on screen, cut, paste, delete and undo. I seem to remember that my Amstrad didn’t even have the undo function!

    But, give it a try. Take a notebook and a pencil and see where it takes you. Who knows, you might even get to like it 🙂

    As for online socializing, try being in another time zone altogether!

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex
    Pen―or pencil―on paper is a much more personal way of writing, somehow, isn’t it? And while I was writing today’s chapter in the car I knew it wouldn’t have gone in the same direction, with the same emphasis, if I’d been typing it straight into the laptop.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tammy
    You can tell the difference in texture? How cool is that? And yes, I always find I can unstuck a problem scene on paper when I know I’d be banging my head against a brick wall for ages on screen.

    LOL on the Scott McNealy quote. He’s quite right, of course 🙂

    I still have a fountain pen―it’s beautiful and I love the change it makes to my handwriting, but I tend to scrawl too fast for the ink flow.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Bobby
    I did look at a friend’s copy of Scrivener, but although it seemed very impressive, I knew it wasn’t for me. However, I confess I didn’t know about the green-on-black screen option. But I’ve got used to black-on-white now, so I guess I’ll stick with it. Still occasionally open up LocoScript, though, just for nostalgia’s sake 🙂

    And yes, absolutely, printing stuff out―preferably in a different size and font to your normal preference―does make the story look and read differently when you’re editing. Good practice!

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David
    I have Freedom on a myPad, too. I just sit further away from the computer 🙂

    Now, get back to work―bad writer, no biscuit!

  15. Tammy Cravit

    I listened to/watched the song. Ooohh….I'm wishing YouTube didn't make it so tough to download their movies – I'd love to have the audio track on my iPhone. 🙂

    Scrivener is a great piece of software, but I've temporarily switched to Storyist because Scrivener doesn't (yet) support iPad sync in a really convenient way. They're working on an iPad version, though, and when it's available I'll probably switch back.

    I love listening to music when I'm writing – but when I'm writing on the computer, it has to be either instrumental, or else with lyrics in a language I don't speak. Otherwise, I find myself reflexively transcribing the song lyrics – odd, perhaps, but that's the way my mind works. When I'm not concentrating, I can listen to most anything. But when I'm trying to focus, vocals are a no-no. Joshua Bell's "The Voice of the Violin" is my go-to writing music at the moment.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tammy
    It is an amazing original song, isn't it? Beth has a great voice and enormous talent. I'm really blown away by it.

    I know what you mean about listening to music while you write, though. I think that's why I have to have the volume level just right. Too loud and I start listening to the lyrics, too, but just that bit lower and it goes in subconsciously. I love classical guitar, and cajun, zydeco and cape verde, and I recently got the soundtrack album from Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's The Long Way Down series, which is mainly African music. Just wonderful.

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