Getting to the heart of it

Zoë Sharp

I used to tell people that I had ideas for maybe forty novels, but a few years ago I was advised to stop doing this. “You don’t want everyone to think that you’re churning them out like some kind of production line,” I was told severely. “Every one should be hand-crafted and ripped from your soul.”

But they are – trust me on this. Yes, I have a word target each day, calculated from how many words I want to achieve each month, but that doesn’t mean I just dash off any old rubbish purely to fill an empty space. I can’t work like that.

I know there are the theories that say you can fix a page but you can’t fix a blank page, but I’d rather have it more or less right the first time. Once I’ve imagined a scene, written the dialogue and the action, it’s like I’ve cut the grooves in a record and trying to go back and make major changes to existing words just scratches the whole thing into an unintelligible mess.

Like I said: clean, simple, and right (ish) the first time.

So, I do agonise over every sentence, every line, every word and chapter break and scene. I plan and re-plan the sequence of events, the major plot points, and even after I have my writing outline sorted, there’s still room for total left-field changes.

I just had one of those with the new book, DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten. My original plan was for a bus hijacking.

What I’ve just written is a helicopter crash.

(And I don’t mind telling you this, because I’m only a third of the way through writing the book. By the time I’ve finished it and it’s been through the production and publishing process, you’ll have most likely forgotten. Hell, I’ll have most likely forgotten.)

And in that synergistic way things have of happening, it just so happens that for many years I’ve known somebody who was a rotary wing pilot before he retired. Not only that, but he survived a very nasty crash-landing in Australia. I called him up and he talked me through it in wonderful, atmospheric detail.

So, when you read the pilot’s name as Capt Andrew Neal in DIE EASY you’ll know he really exists and has the skills to match.

And maybe it was something to do with the fact that the pilot went from being just an invented name, an actor playing a part, to someone I actually knew, but he instantly rounded out into a very real person. One of those cameo parts that steals the scene. Not that the character of Andrew Neal matches the real Andrew in many details, although I did borrow one of his real experiences as a throwaway line.

This seems to be happening a LOT at the moment. Another character has gone from a bimbo to a MENSA-level businesswoman. She’s just made my main character, Charlie Fox, an offer she will find it very hard to refuse.

I never saw that coming. It certainly wasn’t in the outline.

But I’m damn glad it’s happened.

For me, these organic changes are a sign that the book’s coming to life under my fingers, that parts of the story are weaving back in on themselves and getting stronger. I may not analyse to quite the same amazing degree that our David does, but I hope the overall effect is the same.

These are real people to me. I care what happens to them. I’m thoroughly engaged by what’s driving the bad guys. The good guys are never entirely good, all the way through. Light and shade. Bright and dark.

I admit, though, that I get a little nervous when things are going well. It’s like the two cops in the squad car in the middle of the graveyard shift and one says to the other. “Boy, it sure is quiet tonight …”

But at the moment, the new book is humming along and the best I can do is cling on for the ride – at least while the going is good. And yes, I did hit my 35,000 word target by the end of October. Woo-hoo!

Because I know, come the final page, I’ll be absolutely convinced it’s the worst thing ever written. Not just the worst thing I’ve ever written, but the truly worst thing. Ever.

The writer’s life – one day up. One day down.

But I wouldn’t change it for the world.

This week’s Word of the Week is carphology meaning fitful plucking movements as in a delirium, from the Greek karphos straw, and logeia gathering. Also floccillation which has a more specific meaning – the fitful plucking at the bedclothes by a delirious patient.

Next week, by the way, I am appearing at:

  • The Wordpool festival in Blackpool, first at the Palatine Community College at 11:30am, then at Moor Park Library at 2pm, and finally at the Central Library with Meg Gardiner and Jenn Ashworth at 7pm, all on Monday, November 7th.
  • At Meltham Town Hall (1:30pm) and Slaithwaite Library (7:30pm) with Lesley Horton and Penny Grubb for two LadyKillers events on Thursday, November 10th organised by Kirklees Libraries.
  • I am interviewing the remarkable Martina Cole at the 4th Reading Festival of Crime Writing at 5pm on Friday, November 11th.
  • And finally, I will be teaching two workshop on crime writing with Lesley Horton at Huddersfield Town Hall on Saturday November 12th (again for Kirklees Libraries) starting at 9:30am. Oh, and I’ll be trying to get a bit of scribbling in as well …


33 thoughts on “Getting to the heart of it

  1. Reine

    Awe Zoë – I'm in awe. Between you today and David yesterday I feel like I've taken a whole course. And somehow my writing self feels okay to me. xoR

  2. Richard Maguire

    Zoe, it's always fascinating to read about the process each writer has in the struggle to reach "the end". It would seem there are as many ways to get the book done as there are authors. Recently I read in one of Paul Theroux's travel books what he says about writing his novels. I'm paraphrasing: "Don't ask me how I do it. It's always a mess."

    I particularly enjoyed today's post as I've just finished reading THIRD STRIKE. Yes I know – way behind. But lucky now to have all the other titles to read.

    Phillipa's last post touched on the subject of men refusing to read crime novels if they're written by a woman. I commented that I thought that was crazy. Charlie Fox proves my point.

  3. Sarah W

    I'm still editing my first draft, and I'm struggling against those grooves — in minor ways, so far. Mostly I'm just rearranging scenes and smoothing transitions. Or that's the plan. It's like herding cats . . .

    Good to know even seasoned professionals have stories change on them! I have a character who was supposed to die early on, but she made herself indispensible and earned a POV instead. I should have known better than to try to kill off a grifter . . .

  4. Alaina

    As long as other writers don't have it easy, I have a chance. It's difficult for me, too.

    If something's majorly off, I'll stall out. Last time it happened, I went from a thousand words a day to a hundred almost immediately; I just knew something was wrong. It took a couple weeks to give up, copy-paste what I'd written in another document, and go another direction. Suddenly, I could write again. Small details can change, but the big things have to be right.

    And having characters take off on you is the most amazing feeling in the world.

  5. David Corbett


    I think 75% of becoming a writer is learning how you work, how you best get at the material, accepting that, and settling in. The point is always to arrive at a state where the story tells itself to you — the characters speak, their actions arise from within their souls. You're more stenographer than puppeteer. But as you noted, this only happens when you lay the groundwork. The front-end suffering you go through permits the rest to fall into place as you begin to write.

    Though it may seem like I analyze a great deal (or over-analyze), I'm really trying to get myself to the same point. And all of yesterday's blabber was about finding that core connection between you and a character. Sometimes it's a snap. Sometimes it takes a great deal of work.

    Wonderful post, my dear. Give Andy a chuck to the back of the head for me.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Two great posts on deep work in a row! I'm happy that it's going so well for you. I had the flow last week, am struggling a little more this week but you remind me that I DID have it….

    I like David's phrase above: "front end suffering." That pretty much defines a first draft for me.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    Thank you. And if there’s one thing to take away from all this, it’s that we’re all fumbling along in the dark as best we can …:)

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Richard
    I would definitely agree that there is no RIGHT way – just different ways. I happen to like mine (at the moment) but who can say how I’ll feel about it in a week’s time, or a month’s time? Just got to ride that wave while it’s breaking and hope for the best.

    I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed THIRD STRIKE. I hope Charlie is the kind of character who will appeal to anyone who likes their action fast and furious, but with a human heart 🙂

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    I’m told even cats can be herded if you give them the right incentive. Saw a lovely line the other day: “Cats make loyal masters – serve them well.”

    It’s the changes in the stories – the ones where you just KNOW that this is not a cul-de-sac you shouldn’t be taking – that make the writing process so exciting for me, even after doing a detailed outline.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alaina
    Nobody finds it easy. We still sweat blood through our fingernails doing it. Anybody who says it’s too easy isn’t trying 🙂

    I hit a wall if I’m trying to push the story in the wrong direction, too. And some sections are just HARD to write, where others fall out of my head in a single stream of continuous words. The trick is not to let the reader see the join …

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David
    Thank you for that – I think you’re right. As I said, we’re all fumbling towards this mythical Perfect Way and I’m not sure there really is one. Perhaps we should be fumbling towards the Least Flawed Way For Me To Tell This Story At This Moment In My Life instead? Less catchy, though, isn’t it?

    But after all this I’ve come to realise that if a character’s going to work for me, they have to be tortured, and angry in some way. I’ve tried a few calm ones and they just don’t seem to speak to me. I prefer them to rage 🙂

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex
    I like David’s front-end suffering phrase, but maybe it’s more front-loaded suffering for me. There will still be some suffering through the book, but I try to get the bulk of it out of the way before I start page one.

    Hope you find your groove again soon 🙂

  13. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    It's hard for me to think beyond the one idea I'm writing at the time. If I have ideas for other novels, I tend to use them in the current WIP, if possible. And, usually, there just isn't room in my head for anything other than what's right in front of me. However, I now have a cool idea for my next novel, which I find rather frustrating because it's making me impatient with the one I'm writing now. I'd rather just get a massage.

  14. Pari Noskin

    Wonderful post, Zoë. I love that you're flexible enough to let the needs of the story come before writer's ego.

    I just keep thinking about interviewing Faye Kellerman and her comment that after 20 books it still wasn't easy.

    What I yearn for though is a day of writing flow, no distractions — only the bliss of writing. Of course, since I don't try to get it right the first time, most of that might get thrown away in the end, but that would be all right. It would be the sheer pleasure of writing in that way that would fill my world with joy.

  15. Tammy Cravit

    Love this glimpse into your creative process, Zoë – thank you! For me, the balance point between planning enough of my story so that I understand what's driving my characters, while not plotting so much out that I lose interest in the story, has been a challenge. It's taken me four unfinished, stalled-out-in-the-middle novels to discover that balance point. Now that I have, my most recent (and to be published soon, one way or another) novel came together tidily if not easily, and the current in-progress one is starting to flow as well.

    But the big thing for me was learning to trust the process enough to get out of my own way.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen
    I used to get this feeling a lot, but when I did, I’d just write scenes out of sequence. If I had a good idea for the end of a book, I’d just write it down and stick it in a file somewhere. Then, when I came to that part of the book, it wasn’t quite a case of cut-and-paste, but I had the bones of the scene already done. Gives the daily word total a nice boost, anyway 🙂

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari
    Flexible or is it just indecisive? I don’t think it ever gets easy, but at the same time I don’t think it’s supposed to. Maybe I’d settle for slightly less painful instead?

    I’ve never had the luxury of uninterrupted writing days, so I’ve always written in the cracks of other things – in doctor’s waiting rooms, boring committee meetings (really, people think you’re taking studious notes) and I get a lot of work done in the car. Music gives me a bubble in which to write, and it means I can write anywhere.

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, Tammy
    “But the big thing for me was learning to trust the process enough to get out of my own way.”

    Brilliant. I’m glad you’ve found your balance. I don’t find that outlining means I’m bored with the story – on the contrary, I’m more excited because I know what’s coming. And exactly how I get there is always a surprise.

  19. PD Martin

    As everyone's said…it's true how different each person's "process" is. I'm a write now, fix it layer kind of person but like you, Zoe, I always have different ideas in the wings. And Stephen, I agree – it can make you impatient with the current WIP when you're getting ideas about another book.

    I've also found Scrivener fairly recently – great for working out of sequence. I'm about 2/3 of the way into my new book but yesterday I wrote the climactic scene and the end. Normally I don't know the end until I get there, but this time I did/do and I just wanted to write it. With Scrivener, you can move things around easily (drag and drop scenes) so it gives me freedom to write the scene that's calling to me.

    And Richard – love hearing that you're reading a strong female protagonist written by a woman 🙂 I'll publish my results in my next post, by the way.


  20. Allison Davis

    Love all this process writing at the beginning of Nanowrimo — and one of the parts of writing that I love is when the writing becomes alive and characters round out, and sometimes appear out of nowwhere. It's like they walk in the door, and you go, "Hello, what are you doing here?" Of course they tell you. Thanks for this. All helpful while I'm editing and finishing the dreadful middle part of the manuscript.

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Phillipa
    I looked at Scrivener, but it just seemed unnecessarily complicated to me. Writing is one thing where all you need, at the most basic level, is some scrap paper and a pencil, and that’s how I like to work stuff out most of the time.

    Can’t wait to read the results in your next post, btw 🙂

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison
    It’s always fun when the characters start answering back. I bought Andy a T-shirt that reads: ‘I do what the voices in my wife’s head tell me to’

    And it’s not usually the middle that I find the most difficult, but the third quarter. For the first half of the book you’re still building the story, developing the plot, but then you reach the third quarter, where you have to start tying everything together. Not so quickly that the ending falls flat, but not so slowly the end becomes a gabble of exposition and explanation.

  23. Lisa Alber

    Ditto what Allison commented: your post and David's yesterday are perfect for a NaNoWriMo start. I thought about my protagonist a helluva lot last night and started in today feeling clearer about her core ache. And now, after reading your post, I find myself thinking about a minor character that surprised me while I was writing today. My gut tells me I should let him play himself out — be surprised!

  24. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    I am so relieved to hear you say that you found Scrivener unnecessarily complicated, because I can't figure it out. I've already spent more time on the first small section of the tutorial than I ever did on an entire course in graduate school. Not only that it has deposited files all over my computer. Third day of NanoWriMo and I'm still scraping screaming Scrivener scum. I wrote my thesis on email. What made me think Scrivener would uncomplicate my writing! Ack! I'll never catch up now. Ack! Ack! Ack!

  25. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lisa
    I’m incredibly impressed with anyone who takes up the NaNoWriMo challenge, so I hope you – and everyone else who’s taking part – will let us know how you got on. In fact, if anyone would like to email me about this, I’d love to do a Wildcard Tuesday blog about some of your experiences?

    How great that your minor characters are filling out. In my own writing I’ve encountered a lot of minor players who became bigger than the sum of their parts, as it were, and I feel it keeps three dimensions to the writing. There was a Rhodesian Ridgeback called Friday in RIOT ACT who completely rewrote his scenes when I wasn’t looking and became a major player. Walt the retired FBI guy in FIRST DROP was another. People liked the way he turned out so much that they’ve even suggested I write him into a story of his own.

    And of course Charlie’s parents SO stole the show whenever they turned up in the early books that I decided I needed a story where they took centre stage and stepped outside their normal characters, which became THIRD STRIKE.

    And another things that really interests me is the people who’ve bid to be characters in my books, those characters really grow to incorporate real quirks and interests. In SECOND SHOT the Boston private investigator, played by Frances L Neagley, loves baseball and drinks Tab cola. Texas lawyer Terry O’Loughlin from THIRD STRIKE had three cats and a red Porsche (Terry’s choice – both the car and the colour), while LAPD Homicide detective ‘Ritz’ Gardner, had a side interest in stamp collecting and the same taste in food and drink as the person playing her. I could go on. And probably will in a post all of its own …:)

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    I’m so sorry that Scrivener is over-complicating things for you and causing you such angst. I’m a great fan of the Keep It Simple Stupid method. Pencil and paper is my own personal preferred method. It works anywhere – even on a plane during taxi and takeoff, and in a powercut.

    But calm down, relax. It’s still early in the month and you’ve still time to catch up with yourself. Even if you’d written absolutely nothing up ‘til this point, it makes less than 350 words a day difference to your daily target. Go for it – and let us know how you get on!

  27. Reine

    Thanks Zoë,

    I guess I'm not very good at arithmetic, either. I might be able to make up the difference a little bit every day like that. God I must sound hugely stupid. I'm also distracted. Writing usually helps me focus. I'll just keep plunking. I love the new turn this project is taking, and it's a good place for me to be right now. My nonfiction is interesting and has purpose for me – even a bit fun – but it isn't the same kind of fun as writing a mystery.

  28. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    Good luck with it. I’m really pleased for you that the project is going well. And I’m the one who’s usually totally numerically dyslexic! I keep a monthly target and an overall target, and I make sure they’re achievable. Like a greyhound, if I didn’t catch that bloody rabbit every now and again, I’d lose heart!

  29. Tammy Cravit

    A tip for the folks struggling with Scrivener: David Hewson's got a book out on Kindle etc. called "Writing a Novel with Scrivener" that might possibly be the best $6 you'll spend. I know it was the best six bucks I spent in a long time.

  30. Reine

    Thanks for the tip, Tammy. But I never read text books. Never. Cannot tolerate them. I don't take to instruction by book very well. Not against it. I just don't engage that sort of material very well.

    Leftover pieces from Scrivener froze my computer most of the evening. The Scrivener help file was no help. I finally scraped it out, bit by bitter bit, and I think it has recovered. Not sure I have any desire to try Scrivener again. I'm glad it works for you though. xoR

  31. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tammy and Reine
    Sorry to come so late to your comments. I've been away from my computer for most of the weekend and yesterday, so only just returned. Glad you've found Scrivener helpful, Tammy, but I think I'll stick to pencil and scrap paper 🙂

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