Looking Forwards and Backwards

Zoë Sharp

This is a very special year for me. This is the year that marks the tipping point in my life. I have now been making a living as a writer for longer than I have not.

More than half my life.

It hasn’t always been a smooth ride, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy and there are no medals for effort in this game.

But sustained effort is what we put into it, with the aim of appearing effortless on the page, no matter if the words have been sweated and slaved over, or dashed off in a single stream of consciousness before lunch.

(Sadly, I have yet to experience the latter state.)

All I ever wanted to be was a writer, even before I reached double figures. And even after I completed my first novel at the age of fifteen and it received ‘rave rejections’ from all and sundry, I never lost sight of that ambition.

It was another three years before I wrote my first paying article. A paltry sum, but real payment in exchange for words. It was a revelation that here might – just might – be something I could do. All the while, there was a character forming in the back of my mind. Not someone else’s experiences and shaping them with logic into a piece worth reading – or, more to the point, a piece worth being paid for – but my own story.

Still, the lure of commercial non-fiction was difficult to resist. One piece became ten, then a hundred, then a thousand. A living made, brick by brick, a skill acquired, a craft honed. From those first shaky steps on uncertain ground until, by the time I was twenty-two, I’d given up my ‘proper’ job and taken the next oh-my-God-what-have-I-done? step of being able to say, at last, “I am a writer” with no other visible means of support.

So today I’m looking both forwards and back, remembering the dreams I had when I was first starting out. It was a big exciting world and I felt as if it was at my feet. I had confidence and imagination. I was bursting with stories and characters until fragments fell out of my head and lay scattered around me so that I had trouble collecting them all up again. I still keep finding little scribbled notes for a hundred different ideas, a hundred different directions.

All I wanted was to tell those stories, speak for those characters. Or – better yet – to let those characters tell their own stories and speak for themselves. Words were both my workplace and playground. They were my refuge and my delight.

But those early rejections, however encouraging, were still rejections. My first novel was turned down, where my first serious attempt at the non-fiction market found four takers out of six. I was wary of taking another spin down that road. But it just wouldn’t leave me alone.

It took a long time to write my first crime novel. Years of stop-start work with a great many faith-slips and slides along the way. One step forwards and a great long slither back again. But eventually it was done.

And now, in the blink of an eye, it’s ten years later and I now I can say “I am an author” (subtly different from being a writer, I think) with nine published novels and a bevy of short stories under my belt. Sure, there are those who write faster. There are those who write slower. I can only judge myself against me.

But, looking back, I realise how lucky I am to have become what I wanted to be all those years ago. It would have been very easy to have been sidetracked into other things. Things I probably would have been happy doing in a lot of ways, but not deep down what I really WANTED to do. It is up to me, now, to make the most of it.

I have never been able to decide which is sadder in life. Having an ambition and never quite achieving it, or never having an ambition at all.

So, my questions to you today, dear ‘Rati, are several-fold: where are you now, in your career, in your life? Is it where you hoped to be when you started out? If it isn’t, what was the chain of circumstance that led to this point?

Where do you want to be?

And how to you plan to get there from here?

This week’s Word of the Week is lexis, a noun meaning the way in which a piece of writing is expressed in words, diction; the total stock of words in a language.

29 thoughts on “Looking Forwards and Backwards

  1. Sarah W

    Tough question.

    I love my job (most of the time). I've been a librarian for 13 years, and I think I'm good at it. I get paid to write biographies and historical essays and poke my nose into other people's families. And with two young kids, health and dental insurance (and food and clothing and shelter) aren't to be regarded lightly.

    But I write stuff — always have. Weird little stories and snippets, shared around but rarely sent out beyond friends and family. And a couple years ago, something clicked and I started writing *long* stuff. Cohesive stuff. Complete stuff, with The End and everything. Maybe even decent stuff. And maybe I'm finally ready to see if people outside my circles think so.

    I had a writing instructor at an Iowa City summer session who told me that I had to work five years ahead, and if I was just now thinking of where I wanted to be in five years, I was five behind.

    But I think I'm where I'm supposed to be, right here, right now.

  2. Charlotte

    Thanks for the inspiring post, Zoe. I've earned my living as a writer for many years and hope to soon start earning money as an author. I'm presently working on revisions to my first novel for my agent. I had no idea that the slippages that you mention would be so hard and so challenging, but I feel that I am slowly heading in the right direction.

  3. Barbie

    You know, Zoë, this question is all it takes for me to choke up, start to literally hyperventilate, have tears in my eyes and be struck by sheer and pure panic, because I AM NOWHERE! And I have NO FLIPPING IDEA where I am going, none! I'm 23. I graduated High School at 17. I went to Law School for 2.5 years. I hated it! It wasn't for me! I went away to the US on exchange for 6 months, then decided to quit. I, then, started to study Languages. I thought I'd like it, that it'd be more like me, but it's not. I want to quit again. 2.5 more years. That's 5 years of nothing! All my friends are graduating, they're becoming lawyers and doctors and lots of other cool things. They're on their way and know what's for them and how to get there. I'm thinkin of studying Psychology next, maybe that can be my Plan B. Because my Plan A is to be an Author. I've qantes to write since I was 11. But I live in a countey where people just don't make a living off that. And I write in English. My writing is new and raw, and I can't afford to go abroad and study! How am I even gonna find an agent??? I can't finish anything I start, because I'm really messed up. And.. Ugh!!!

    See??? Choked up. Eyes full of tears! Happens every time. I feel so anguished when I think about it. I honestly have no idea where I am, definitely nowhere near where I want to/should be. And I really have no idea what's going to be of me. And that scares me more than you can ever imagine.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah

    I think you have discovered one of the secrets of writing – there is no ‘right’ time to start. Sometimes the writing comes to you rather than you coming to the writing, and I’m delighted that you feel ready to send your stuff out for others to read, but happiness with yourself and your work – be it as a librarian, or a writer, or whatever – is far more important than any outside perceptions of success.

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with your writing instructor in Iowa. Yes, if you are writing a commercial project, then knowing what your options and aims are at the end of it – for a sequel, or a next standalone – is a good idea. But to imply that you’ve somehow missed the boat if you hadn’t done this five years ago is just downright discouraging.

    Hi Charlotte

    Many congratulations on earning your living by the word! It will stand you in good stead as an author, although I’ve always found that the highs and lows are magnified writing fiction. A magazine editor would say yay or nay to an idea for a feature. I’d go and do it and send it in. If I heard nothing, I knew it was all OK. The next time I’d see it would be in print, and then I’d send an invoice. Occasionally the subject of the article would get in touch afterwards to say thank you, but more often than not the only praise was in the signature on the cheque from the publisher. Being an author involves a LOT more negative feedback, balanced by wonderful emails from complete strangers who’ve read my books and been moved to tears, or sat up all night to finish the story and can’t wait for the next one. This is a world of small victories. Take them where you find them and savour them.

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Dear Barbie

    First of all, stop and take a deep breath! Don’t worry. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there to some extent. I left school at the age of twelve. I left a brief college course a month before the end because I was offered a navigator’s slot on a yacht delivery back to the UK from the Canaries. I, too, went through a period when I believed I was destined never to finish anything I started. It made me stay in a job selling advertising that I hated, because I felt if I gave it up it would be one more thing I could add to my DNF pile. The job made me ill through stress, and eventually they fired me, so I would have been better to have quit after all.

    There is no harm in turning back if you are on the wrong road.

    When I started writing fiction, there were no on-line support groups or critique groups, there was no opportunity for contact with the outside world beyond phone, fax or letter. (OK, or telex, but that REALLY dates me.) The opportunities for writing are not limited to your home country, but you are in a unique position, with unique knowledge of it – use it. Write about it.

    If you hated studying to be a lawyer, then how can your friend’s forthcoming jobs in law be cool? You are a round peg that cannot be forced into a square hole. What about entering the CWA Debut Dagger competition, which would put your work in front of top UK agents and publishers? What about entering any number of other competitions to find and develop new authors?

    Your best course of study for learning to write, is – as Stephen King advised – read, read, read, write, write, write. Read and analyse, write and analyse. Download just about every blog our Alex has written about the craft. They’re all superb. Writing has to be one of the very few things that you can do regardless of training facilities or location. I said above that there are no medals for effort in this game, and there aren’t. But the more effort you put in, the more determined you are to make your writing as polished as possible, the more chance you have of catching the right eye, at the right time.

    Meanwhile, those five years have given you experiences with which to furnish your writer’s imagination. Nothing is ever wasted, however painful.

    Now, take another deep breath, let it out, and pick up your pen …

  6. Rae

    Excellent questions, Zoe – and I don’t have particularly exciting answers….

    I got where I am purely by chance. I chose my course of study in college for the love of the subject (foreign languages) rather than because I thought I was going to make a career out of it. Weird dichotomy, because why wouldn’t you want to make a living at something you love? But anyway….

    I bounced around quite a few jobs and careers before ending up in my current field. I don’t love it, but I’m well paid, which allows me to have a better life than I ever dreamed of.

    Where do I want to be? Don’t know, I’m pretty happy where I am. It’s sure to be an interesting journey, though 😉

  7. Louise Ure

    "Where would you like to go?" Damn good question, Zoe. And one I've been trying to answer for the better part of a year.

    Congratulations on your "half life" as a writer!

  8. JT Ellison

    It strikes me this might be an interesting series for all of the Murderati to talk about. Stephen did it last week… hmm…

    I've had a lucky start with my publishing career. I'm edging into a decade now. Started researching in 2002, writing full bore in 2003, had an agent by 2005. The 7th book is out in Spetember, with the 8th coming next March. Three books pubbed and five written before I was 40. I have made the best friends of my life. I've learned resilience and patience and determination I didn't know I possessed. I have never been happier, more settled, and more focused. I wouldn't trade it for the world.

    Did I know at 23 this would be my path? Hell no. Sometimes you need to let the universe in to help you.

  9. Barbie

    Zoe, you finished school at TWELVE??????? WHOA there!!! Thank you so much for your thoughtful note. I know you're right, you know? Still, it's suffocating, the fear that I'll never be anything, that I'll never be happy, that I'll always be stuck doing something I hate. And by my friends are graduating into cool stuff, I mean cool for them. I'm extremely jealous, that they know what they want, they have a path, they're not as confused, terrified, lost as I am. What if I can't ever find anything I truly love?

    I looked up CWA, it sounds really cool, but I wouldn't stand a chance writing with my American English, though, to this day, I write flavour (I started off learning British English) and analyse (because of the song by The Cranberries). But, yes, I look into these things. Like I said, when I actually finish writing something longer than a short story, I'll do it 🙂

    Thank you, again. Really. It means a lot to me. I'm so lost right now 🙂

    And, JT, thanks, too. I know that wasn't directed at me, but it really helps knowing you guys didn't know at 23 😛

  10. Reine

    Barbie, I hope you continue. Your amazing work for discovery is obvious. I think that is the absolute best way to approach life – through passionate inquiry. I love reading your posts, because you expose us – invite us- to experience the formatting of your direction.

    My start was excruciatingly slow. I was so unhappy and discouraged in college. I felt much the way I understand Barbie's expression above. I'd wanted to be a psychologist and had written my senior thesis on aggression. I was not accepted to any of the graduate programs I wanted to attend. I groped and moped for a few years. Then a few more. I tried this and that. Police officer. Optometry assistant. Medical assistant. Algebra tutor. You wouldn't believe the shit I tried, but one day I woke up and thought that was the day to restart. At the time I didn't realize that my struggle with direction was the method for inquisitive growth and, more important, was that it would be lifelong.

    I went for more years going from one field of study to the next. Psychology. Neuroscience. Theology. Practical ministry. Native studies. Medical education. I actually did a lot while feeling guilty about not finding my way. What I didn't realize during those depressed moments was that I was following and pursuing a theme that was very real and productive. What had seemed to be a life of, "That's not it. No, not that. Nope, not there yet. Uh-uh," was really a, " That's it. And that. And that. And that," experience is really very focussed. It's cohesive. It's purposeful. You just must keep going.

    Zoë, congratulations on this special anniversary!

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rae

    I’m fascinated by the fact that you are not where you were expecting to be, having arrived almost by chance, but seem to have landed very firmly on your feet! I’ve had jobs in the past that were well paid, but after a while the money didn’t seem to quite counter-balance job satisfaction as much as I hoped it would when I took the job in the first place. So, in a way, you must find your work thoroughly engaging on one level or another?

    Thanks, Louise

    I hope you find your answers, and a selfish part of me hopes they lead you in the direction of more writing, because you’re far too talented to drift away from this path.

    Hi JT

    Congratulations on all your achievements, and most of all for being happy with them and happy inside your own skin ;-]

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Barbie

    I didn’t so much FINISH school as I simply stopped going … there’s a subtle difference ;-] Yes, your friends are lucky to have discovered a path to follow, but who can say if it really is the right path for them or not? You need to relax, though – it sounds as though you’re so worried about not finding your way that you’re not open to ethereal suggestions when they arrive.

    And why would your American English be a problem? This year’s Debut Dagger shortlist includes would-be writers from South Africa, Norway, Australia and Canada, as well as the UK. A distinctive voice is a definite plus in this business!

    Thanks, Alex

    It would be an interesting one for us all to do, but can I be excused? My brain is now empty … ;-]

    Thank you, Reine

    It sounds like you’ve had some truly amazing experiences, and if you can’t find one thing that becomes your goal, then sampling as much of what life has to offer as possible seems like an excellent alternative!

  13. Allison Brennan

    Wonderful and uplifting post, Zoe!

    My dream was to write stories for a living, and I'm doing that. I don't like goal-setting per se, because if I aim too low what could I have achieved if I tried for more? If I am too high, will I be disappointed if I don't reach it? I'm where I need to be now.

    I've written my entire life, but didn't get serious until after I turned 30. (I commend you for your focus when you were a teenager! I started endless stories but never finished anything until I topped 30.)

    In my career now … I don't complain. I've had great success and serious setbacks and I am where I am. I am always striving to write better books, both technically and creatively. My only true goal is to make my next book better than my last. I write more short fiction. To not sweat the small stuff and the stuff out of my control (that's the hardest one.)

    Where do I want to be? I'd like to say … sell a million Kindle books (Michael Connelly because the seventh author to achieve that goal) or hit #1 on the NYT list or have a movie made from one of my books (SPEAK NO EVIL, Timothy Olyphant to star as Sheriff Nick Thomas, a Montana sheriff in San Diego to prove his brother innocent of murder–at least that's my dream!!!) …. but really, NONE of these things are in my control.

    So where I WANT to be in one year, five years, twenty years …. writing books, being published (well) and continuing to add readers to my audience. I want to continue making a living as a writer, supporting my family, get my kids through college or trade school, and just be happy and satisfied.

  14. Reine

    Thanks, Zoë. The sampling is great, but it was really not a tasting of many things, rather a disguised direction that all fit my central purpose of a flexible and adaptive multi-layered functional psychology in diverse multiple settings and methods.

  15. Allison Davis

    Nice Zoe, reflection right now as well as looking ahead is hard when I had to cancel my three month sabbatical because my day job won't allow it this year (Arg). I took a very circuituous route and did not go full steam ahead into writing for a lot of reasons but happy enough with the experience gained, and I've been writing — not fiction — for a living for a while. Just because it's a motion for summary judgment (ok I know we have a lot of lawyers in the crowd) or a treatise… In five years, I'll have three novels done and one published and five more on the way. I'll be winding down my legal career and ramping up the writing. I have an exit plan, and it's pretty solid. I'm impatient for it but all good things…

    And congrats on sticking to it and getting this far — fantastic. I kind of wished I had not taken the detours, but I like my life a lot how it turned out and where I am, so who knows why we take those left turns and where they bring us? I have good experiences, insights and lots of books in my head now. Barbie, 23 is not the time to panic. If you were my age maybe…but I'm not panicing because life turns with you, and my turn is coming up.

  16. David Corbett

    Interesting post, my dear, as much for what it said as for what it left unsaid.

    I decided to take a left turn in subject matter and write a comic crime novel about a nun named Sister Rita Donovan who gets dragooned into being the ghost writer for a killer who wants to sell his story to Hollywood before vanishing into witness protection. The responses have varied from "Didn't fall in love," "Wonderful writing, not for us," to "bad taste" (there's sex involved — Rita's going through a bit of a midlife crisis), with the unspoken subtext always being my poor numbers on the previous novels.

    But today was a real whipsaw head-banger.

    At 9:36 AM I got an email from my agent with this response from a solicited editor:

    "Alas, the portion I read – while perfectly well written – just didn’t appeal hugely. I found myself reading along with a good deal of respect for the prose but not much enthusiasm. Not sure why. Just something about the voice or the characters that didn’t spark for me."

    Eight minutes later — count 'em, eight — my agent forwarded this from another house:

    "Thanks for your note about David, whose new novel I just finished and thoroughly enjoyed. He's a true talent, and what's more, he clearly gets it—gets that he needs to reach a broader audience than he did with his previous books—and I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see an acclaimed veteran author make that effort. Indeed, I'm confident the exciting and charming tale of Sister Rita will succeed to that end. It's a fun one that I would recommend to a number of readers in my life."

    Great, right? Oops, there's a glitch (which you no doubt caught in the use of the subjunctive "would"). They also want my backlist, but what's available is too thin (a mere two books — Random House retains the rights to the other two.)

    So — what now? There's hope, maybe, sorta. Have to keep it under my hat. Patience. Faith. Self-control (no postal rampages, bad for PR — unless I die, great for backlist).

    We sold my non-fiction writing book, CHARACTER to Penguin, which should provide a new "platform" (gag — hate that word) in the pedagogical and lecture realm.

    Meanwhile, due to my work as a novelist of note, a major Hollywood player wants me to feed him script ideas, and he seems keen on a couple of items I'm now scratching up. I've written two spec scripts for TV my agent is passing around (you need two scripts, one based on an existing show, one a spec pilot for your own show — I adapted DONE FOR A DIME, my second novel). And I'm working on a comic screenplay with my girlfriend about the curious world of nature documentaries.

    Which, if you know anything about Hollywood, is akin to saying I'm dog-paddling with the other lemmings, staring up at the cliff I just jumped off.

    But my career as a novelist seems dead in the water, or on aqueous life support, to mangle the metaphor beyond the reach of logic.

    Where am I in my career? Am I hanging in there, hammering away, hoping the next project clicks? Am I the aging ballplayer who never really reached star status, and who now turns to coaching? Am I the musician who's years away from his last hit, trying to find a way not to go silent? Am I in the market for a new day job? Am I throwing up anything onto the wall to see what sticks?

    You tell me.

    And now I've pretty much shot my wad if we end up doing the series Alex and JT talked about. Oh well.

  17. JD Rhoades

    Where are you now, in your career, in your life?

    Writing career temporarily sidelined.

    Is it where you hoped to be when you started out?


    If it isn’t, what was the chain of circumstance that led to this point?

    Got published, got great reviews, didn't get great sales, got dropped. Discovered that getting dropped apparently gives one publishing cooties such that my very name is the Kiss of Death.

    Where do you want to be?

    Writing full time.

    And how to you plan to get there from here?

    Trying new stuff like e-publishing and writing outside my accustomed genre. Still submitting

  18. Barbie

    Zoe, thank you again! You're kind of really cool! 🙂

    You're right, I need to relax, and start looking at the opportunities as they present to me instead of freaking out about everything I *can't* do.


  19. Zoë Sharp

    Thank you, Allison B
    I also dislike shortish-term goals, because I have a tendency to set the bar impossibly high for myself, then beat myself up if I fail to achieve what I set out to do. This was more a general look back at the road travelled, and the road up ahead, and wondering if I was on the right road to start with.

    It sounds like you definitely are!

    Hi Reine
    I understand all the words, just not necessarily in that order ;-]

    Thanks, Allison D
    The detours are sometimes what makes life interesting. Maybe they were the only way for you to get from there to here? Love the “life turns with you, and my turn is coming up.” That’s just wonderful!

  20. Rae


    You're exactly right. I really like what I do, and I like my team, but the company I work for – not so much. I comfort myself with the fact that I am so much better off than so many people – and shopping 😉

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David
    Hmm, you have me worrying now about what it was that you think I left unsaid that I should have said…?

    “Bad taste”? These days I didn’t think there was any such thing! I do sympathise with your rollercoaster ride regarding reactions to your Sister Rita book. “Liked it but didn’t love it” seems to be a catch-all phrase in publishing these days. I think I’d rather have written something that they loathed. Any kind of strong reaction is better than no reaction at all.

    LOL on the “I’m dog-paddling with the other lemmings, staring up at the cliff I just jumped off.” Although, shouldn’t that be lemming-paddling? After all, if you were dog-paddling, wouldn’t you be a dog? And what would a dog be doing paddling with lemmings? I’ll keep my fingers crossed for your scripts, though ;-]

    Being a collector of interesting words, I’m very taken with ‘pedagogical’. I had to look up the derivation (please excuse me for stating the obvious if you already know this) and was fascinated to find out that it comes from the Greek ‘paidagogos’ meaning a slave who led a boy to school.

    Hi Dusty
    You’re too good a writer to be sidelined for long. There’s always the dreaded re-branding … ;-]

    Barbie – you’re welcome ;-]

  22. Reine

    Oh Zoë, I should crawl back to bed Never should try to comment in an after-seizure fog. Sorry for gibberish. xxx

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rae
    It’s amazing how many people love their work, but don’t really like their job.

    Shopping always helps ;-]

    Hi Reine
    Sorry about the seizure. Hope you’re OK. And remember the bit about me leaving school at age twelve. I struggle with the big words ;-]

  24. Reine

    Thanks, Zoë. I am OK. One of the interesting facets involved with my particular syndrome is it involves a high level compulsion to write, not well necessarily but write, often in a fugue-like state. I often had papers 30-40 pages long returned to me graded with meaningless notes. They had no meaning to me, because I had no memory of writing them. I read them as if I were a third party to try and benefit from the professors' and fellows' notes.

    I admire you for leaving school when you were 12. Education is everywhere and in every thing. Sometimes the classroom, or the lecture hall, even the seminars or tutorials are destructive to some. Some people need to be free of that, so they can do what they are ready to do. I guess that would be you.

  25. Reine

    And all I meant really – about my career, that is, was that the various studies and jobs I had along the way was based in psychology and care of others. This breadth has allowed me to practice the same psychology in many settings.

  26. Laura

    Wow Zoe. This post really spoke to me today. Thank you so much. I can totally relate to having tried about a bazillion things… We have what are called ENTER scores in Australia. When I was in VCE, (last 2 years of high school) I excelled at drama, english and legal studies. I wanted to study law. My careers counsellor said "Laura, with your subjects they are all scaled down in their marking and it is extremely unlikely you'll get the score you need to get accepted into any law course."
    So I gave up my dream of going to law school. I lived in New York after high school as a nanny. I've been a secretary, worked in child care, taught drama, worked in a bakery, worked in an ice cream shop, managed a girls clothing store, had a brief stint as a party fairy (wicked fun) and I've been working in a book store for the last 3 years. I woke up one day last year and said "Who says I can't be a lawyer???" I'm 25 and I'm currently applying via direct application to several schools (I took an entrance exam last year, scored pretty well however, I'd only applied to study distance education – I wasn't ready to give up the bookstore) I'm now prepared to leave full time work and go back to study. I've never been more excited or motivated in my life. I feel like I'm finally moving in the right direction, the direction I'd always wanted to go. And every thing, including this fantastic blog entry is like confirmation that I made the right choice. I can do this.
    Thank you for such an encouraging and uplifting blog.

  27. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    Glad you’re OK. You’re right, I think – some people thrive in the classroom atmosphere, and others shrivel.

    And there’s plenty of psychology to practise with the average writer …

    Thanks, Laura
    I’m so pleased you are realising your dream and ignoring your careers counsellor. I went to see a careers advisor when I was fifteen. I said, “I want to write.” His response? “We’ll put you down for clerical work, then …”

    Go for it, girl!

Comments are closed.