by Zoë Sharp
On Tuesday afternoon, at 5:37pm, I finally finished the book I’ve been working on for what seems like an age. Not so long, I suppose, when you look at it in terms of continental drift, say, or the evolution of a species, but I’ve broken off to write other books in the meantime, so the time scale seems unduly stretched.
And it’s been an utter pig to write.
There have been times when I’ve hated this book, I don’t mind admitting it. I mean proper ‘take it down a dark alley on an equally dark night and beat its brains out with a baseball bat’ kind of hated it. Times when I would have watched it die bleeding in the gutter with a song in my heart.
Let me tell you, that’s been pretty scary.
I’ve always wanted to write. Andy and I have spent the last twenty years earning a living by the written word in one form or another. In the past there have always been times when I’ve disliked what I’ve been working on. If not during the actual writing, or copy editing, then certainly by the proof stage, when I’ve been back and forth over the wretched thing so many times that every word and phrase seems stale as the end crusts of a week-old loaf. But this one’s made me doubt my ability to do the job at all, and it’s only now that I think I understand why.
My agent’s former editor almost put her finger on it just before Christmas, when I was probably at my lowest point ebb. "It’s just because you’re writing outside your comfort zone," she said. Which was probably true.
But the truth was worse than that. The truth was, in my heart of hearts, I knew it was dreadful.
Not necessarily the actual writing, which I hope is a craft I’m managing to hone as I go on. Not necessarily the characters, either, which became more real, more textured, more independent with every word that came out of their mouths. Not even the basic idea of the plot, which I knew was strong, grabby at a basic level, but also layered with themes I wanted very much to explore.
But still I couldn’t escape this horrible feeling that there was something terminally wrong with the book. And I had no idea what it was.
I’ve now written seven Charlie Fox novels in fairly quick succession. And, while there are no doubt people who would disagree, I thought I’d got a reasonable handle on how to construct and write a novel in the crime thriller genre. I’ve taken a fairly unconventional main character and taken her forwards through seven different stories, pushing the corner of her envelope a little more each time.
So, what was proving so difficult about stepping away from my series character to write a standalone? And don’t anyone dare come out with the phrase "one-trick pony" – I brought that one up more than enough by myself, thank you very much.
All the Charlie Fox books are written in first person throughout, looking out at the world through Charlie’s eyes, with her suspicions, hopes, and fears. Every little clue and piece of information has to arrive at the outer edge of her circle of knowledge in one form or another and progress towards the centre, where its importance can finally be revealed or realised. Limiting in some ways, but I prefer to think of it as a challenge. It’s a way of thinking I’ve got into.
So, when I approached the new book I realised it was time to spread my wings into third person, multiple viewpoints.
And, oh boy do I mean MULTIPLE viewpoints.
Filled with this new sense of liberation, I just went crazy. Every scene was from the POV of somebody different. My main characters never had to discover anything new, because the reader had already watched it happen in real time, to somebody else. With gritted teeth, I kept pushing the whole thing forwards, the way a particularly stupid marathon runner might try to limp on even though they know full well they’ve just blown out both their Achilles’ tendons and they’re still fifteen uphill miles from the finish.
The deeper into the book I got, the more of a muddled morass it became, and the more thoroughly depressed I became with it. But still I pigheadedly kept on running, although nearing the end of December I was down to more of a stumbling jog, feeling ever worse, not least because I’d promised my agent she’d have the first draft by the New Year. "Don’t worry about it," she said. "Take all the time you need to get it right."
Get it right …
Oh Gawd …
It was making me so miserable that in an effort not to ruin Christmas totally for my poor long-suffering Better Half, I decided despite this looming self-imposed deadline to put the whole thing aside for a while. The relief was enormous. Not having this ominous black cloud hanging over me every morning. Apart from looking at the occasional e-mail, I didn’t switch my computer on for two whole weeks.
Then, as soon as the last of the turkey was finally seen off, I rolled up my sleeves, picked up that metaphorical baseball bat, and took the whole damn thing apart.
I must have scrapped more than half of what I’d written so far. I pulled it apart, stripped it of the good stuff with the ruthlessness of a Cornish wrecker, and let the rest go under, waving maniacally to it as it sank into the depths. Perhaps I should point out at this stage that this is not the normal way I write. Sorry, not the normal way I have written in the past. I usually plan, I mess with the opening chapters, then I just get on with it, self-editing as I go, so by the time the first draft’s done, it’s … well, done. No drastic rewrites. No whole-scale culling.
My agent was understandably somewhat alarmed by this unexpected turn of events. "Are you quite sure you haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water?" she asked. No, I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure at all. But by that time it was too late to turn back.
I replotted into the pared-down viewpoints of my four main characters. Two on the side of the angels and two who … well, let’s just say they have their own agenda, but all the while they firmly believe they are the heroes of their own story. And suddenly – finally – things began to fall into place, to line up, to actually work. I realised that elements I’d added for almost subliminal reasons actually carried weight and meaning. If I listened carefully, I could hear it humming. The damn thing had actually come alive.
And, at 5:37pm on Tuesday, I typed the final word.
Now, I know this one will need work. It’s gone to a massive 140,000 words, for a start. The front half still feels too heavy, the back half probably too light. Next week I spend a day with Ian Pepper, who is Senior Lecturer in Crime Scene and Forensic Science at the University of Teesside, filling in a few important blanks on the technical side.
But, all bar the shouting, it’s done.
Although now, of course, I have to hand it over to my agent, and her new editor, and wait in a state of nail-biting anxiety for their verdict. I’ll admit to being cautiously optimistic that it could well turn out to be the best thing I’ve ever written.
Or not, as the case may be.
There’s no time for loafing, though. I have to start work almost immediately on the next Charlie Fox book, which really ought to be in by September. But maybe I can have a quiet moment or two, to reflect …
The book is dead! Long live the book!
This week’s Word of the Week, incidentally, is exsanguination, which means to bleed out. From the Latin ex "out of" and sanguis "blood", so literally, "out of blood". Exsanguination, as every vegetarian will tell you, is the means most commonly used to slaughter animals for the meat industry. The captive bolt to the head first merely renders them incapacitated and unable to struggle while their throats are cut, except in countries where the mercy of the captive bolt is forbidden. In humans, exsanguination is a mode rather than a cause of death, and can be dramatically external, or entirely internal, depending on what brought about the bleeding in the first place. So, educational and icky!