The Book is Dead …

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.

Almost …

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.


Ahh …

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.

Very therapeutic.

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!

Spring_in_eden_2And, just in case you thought I’d forgotten, Happy Equinox everyone! It comes late here in the wilds of Cumbria, as you can see:

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!

24 thoughts on “The Book is Dead …

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    Congratulations, Zoe! I know that feeling of radically “taking the whole thing apart” partway through. At one point during the writing of SAFE AND SOUND, I scrapped 10,000 words it had taken me two weeks to write. I nearly gave up right there. But I’m betting this new one of yours is going to be great.

  2. Will Bereswill

    And I was feeling blue about having to cut three chapters and then weave the important information back in because “it feels like two different books.”

    I write 3rd person and often wonder how I’d do with 1st. After your experience, Zoe, I’m not as eager to try.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Congratulations, Zoe, and bless you. When you’re in the dark forest it’s easy to forget that all of that struggle is OFTEN part of the process, and you can write yourself out.

    I needed to hear that, today.

  4. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    The question is, did you hit the Delete key for those 10k words, or did you carefully save them to another folder, just in case they come in useful at some other point?

    After all, there are no *wrong* words. They’re just the right words not quite in the right order … yet.

  5. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Will

    I think that “comfort zone” remark really hit it.

    I mean, I photograph race cars for the day job, but the thought of having to photograph someone’s wedding, say, brings me out in a cold sweat. Just because I understand the mechanics of taking pictures doesn’t mean I’d be comfortable taking them of of something outside my field of expertise.

    Unless I put some time into learning.

    And I think that’s what it boils down to. Andy, bless him, pointed out that it’s actually taken me a lot less time to learn how to put a book together in third person – possibly even with less swearing and tantrums – than it did my first published novel, which was in first person.

    Erm, of course, this one isn’t published … yet 😉

  6. Zoe Sharp

    You’re very welcome, Alex. Sitting in splendid isolation, as we do, it’s very easy to forget that just about every writer functions on a mix of fear and rage, as I think Ken so beautifully put it.

    I remember reading one best-selling author’s latest book and sending her a fan e-mail saying how much I’d enjoyed it. She wrote back to say my e-mail had arrived at a opportune moment – she’d been just on the verge of throwing her laptop out of a window in despair at her current book.

    Amazing how many of us suffer from swan syndrome …

  7. Zoe Sharp

    Just another thought, Will – a friend of mine, fellow LadyKiller Lesley Horton, gave me one of the best tips, which was to keep a chapter-by-chapter summary as you go along with each book.

    That way, if you’ve laid in any important threads early on, you not only know where they are should you need to unpick them, but you can also see at a glance if you failed to pick them up and reintegrate them later on.

    Doing it as you finish each chapter makes it a minor bit of housekeeping, rather than a major slog when you’re in that post-book period of ennui 😉

  8. Will Bereswill

    Zoe, good advice.

    When the movie rights are sold (I know I’m jumping ahead) those dropped chapters would look great on the big screen. My main character in Beijing discovering that the Chinese government is covering up the extent of the SARS epidemic.

    They are securely filed away. No delete key for me, just Ctl X and Ctl V.

  9. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Oh, Zoe,First — Congratulations. What a relief. You can breathe again without that heaviness . . .

    Second — Thanks for the chapter by chapter summary. You’d think I’d’ve figured that one out by now.

    Third — Thank you for this post. I was driving this morning thinking that maybe I should just get out of writing completely (we all have these days, I know) because I struggle with it so much sometimes. The underlying implication of that line of thought was that I’M the ONLY one who struggles.

    Your post reminded me, yet again, that that’s simply NOT so.

  10. Louise Ure

    What a post, Zoë! That book must have been ten miles of hard road.

    A different tone, different characters, different POV. Congratulations!

    Never, never hit the delete key. Every word, every plot twist, every piece of phrasing will come in handy again in some other book or story.

    And I’m doubly impressed that you’ll also be able to turn in the next Charlie book by September. You’re a whirlwind!

  11. Zoe Sharp

    Will – glad to hear it! The first scene I ever wrote with Charlie in eventually found its way, almost wholesale, into book three.

    I have a large and ever-increasing folder called ‘Rubbish’ into which all these excised bits are dropped. You never know when a good rummage might reveal a little hidden treasure …

    And can I have an invite to the premiere?

  12. JT Ellison

    Zoë, fabulous news on the last word. Good on ya!

    I find it fascinating that people actually do delete the work they’ve done. I never, ever delete more than a line or two. If there’s a section, or a premise that isn’t working, I’ll cut it from the WIP, but I always save it in a cut file. You never know… what doesn’t work for one book might be perfect for another.

    What a lovely picture! I think I’d like to live there.

  13. Zoe Sharp

    Pari – glad news of my pain is bringing such happiness to so many people … 😉

    You only stress so much about it because it clearly matters so much to you to get it right. And that’s a good sign, isn’t it?

  14. Zoe Sharp

    Louise – to misquote Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch – “Eeh, I dream of it *only* being ten miles of hard road …”

    Erm, and before you offer too much admiration, could I point out that I actually said that the next Charlie Fox book *really ought* to be in by September, not that it actually *would* be in by then … ?

  15. Zoe Sharp

    Thanks JT – and for coming to my rescue – again – with Typepad. You’re a star!

    I completely agree. I save all those little bits. I also have a file called, ‘Nice Lines’ which is just little snippets of conversation and phrases that catch my ear and appeal.

    When we went to ThrillerFest in Scottsdale, and Andy organised the trip to the gun range for a bunch of us, Fred ‘The Gun Guy’ Rea went with us as expert guide. While he was at the counter, deep in discussion with the staff, I went over to the waiting group and said, “Hey, Fred’s over there choosing ammo like he’s choosing dishes off a dim sum menu.” And I swear half a dozen people started furtively writing that one down …

    Glad you like the view from the bathroom window. It can be very pretty round this neck of the woods, if a little bleak at times.

  16. Zoe Sharp

    Dusty – what do you mean ‘if and when’? You can’t be seriously thinking of getting rid of Keller?

    I imagine that would make him angry … and from what I know of the man, you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry … 😉

  17. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Bill. Cheers!

    Loved the image of you, complete with Jedi-like cowled hood, doing your pitch on Rob’s video clip. I can just hear you (in suitable Alec Guinness voice) saying, “This *is* the book you are looking for …”

  18. toni

    Wow, what a fantastic post today, Zoë. It is such a relief to hear someone else go through this–very helpful. I write in third person, and I don’t know that I ever could write in first–I think it’s just incredibly difficult to do well, which you clearly do. So I can imagine the change of moving from first to third is a bit like learning another language, even one you’re familiar with.

    I also think there’s a very good point underlying all of this, too, that when we have that sort of gut instinct that it isn’t working, we secretly know. I think it’s easy to get caught up in deadlines or in someone else’s enthusiasm or hope for a project (once we’ve gotten feedback), or just be plain old tired of it, and so we’d rather shove that little instinct over the cliff and call it worry or doubt and banish it. But as we go, we learn, and part of that learning will show up as gut feeling rather than pure logic or analysis, and it’s the hard part of the creative process to listen to it. Thank you for a terrific reminder that it’s a great thing to do so.

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Thank you, Toni, and I think you raise an excellent point, there.

    I’ve always thought that the sections of my writing I like best are the ones where the whole of a scene arrived almost too fast for me to get it down on the page – vivid, strong, fluent. The bits I struggle over just don’t have the same flow to them, but maybe that’s just because I overlay them with my own memories of the fight.

    And although I keep coming back to this business of having to write outside your comfort zone if you want to progress your craft, I think you do *know* at some gut-instinct level if it really isn’t working, as you point out. But you have to keep battling with it, just to make sure …

    As somebody said, you should try all things three times:

    Once to see if you like it.Twice to see if you tire of it quickly.And the third time to see if you were wrong.

    But if that means I have to go through two more experiences like this last one, I think I may just follow that little instinct over the cliff, after all …

    It must be the lemming in me 😉

  20. Neil Plakcy

    I know just what you’ve been going through, Zoe. I had originally written MAHU FIRE in first person from my hero, and third person on the bad guys, and my editor politely informed me that it just wasn’t working. I had to go through and rip the whole thing apart and rewrite it all in first person (that’s my comfort zone, too).

    But I did find that having written all that out in third person, I knew exactly what was happening, and when I turned around to write the first person stuff it was all laid out — and therefore somewhat easier to do.

    Did I learn a lesson, though? Nope. I tried to do the same thing again, with a different book and different characters– with the same result. At least this time I did all the ripping apart sooner.


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