The Constant Journey

by Zoë Sharp

I was beating seven bells out of a large rock with a pickaxe when the courier arrived. He was Polish – the courier, not the rock – although that fact has no bearing and I mention it purely for colour. The rock was pure Cumbrian. Solid, taciturn, and not for shifting without the judicious application of a little brute force in tandem with a lot of dead ignorance. Gardening would be so much easier round here if we were allowed to use just a small amount of explosives.

The Polish courier had tracked down our almost impossible address to deliver a box bearing the label of the distributor for my UK publisher. Even with the seals intact, I knew what it contained. And, for the first time, I found myself strangely reluctant to open it.

The new book.

It’s often the case that, by the time a novel finally comes out, you’re a bit fed up with it, but this latest one just won’t stay down. As I think I might have mentioned, the copyedits were a nightmare, and just when I thought it was done and dusted, I’m currently wading my way through yet another set of page proofs that contain strange additional bits of text, the origins of some of which are a mystery to me.

Then I opened the box.

And, what can I tell you? I think it looks gorgeous. They look gorgeous. The box contained not only the hardcover of the new Charlie Fox book, Third Strike, but also the mass market paperback edition of Second Shot, with its completely redesigned cover. And here they are. See what you think:

2s3s_uk_05 All this is somewhat apt at the moment because I’m supposed to be leaping headlong into the next book in the series. In fact, I’m supposed already to have leapt. Instead, I’m suffering from what I seem to remember a fellow ’Rati member describing as the yips.

How the hell do you write a book? I’ve written quite a few of the damn things now, and yet, every time I’m faced with that file called ‘Chapter One’ I get this terrible attack of nerves.

The stupid thing is, I know this one is a pretty strong idea. I went through the same processes I’ve been through before. I always start out by writing the flap copy – the bit that would go on the inside flap of the hardcover jacket. The bit you read just to see if the basic premise works, after the cover design or the title or the author’s name has grabbed you enough to actually pick the book off the shelf and open it. This half or two-thirds of a page is what I initially write and send to my agent, my editor. If the idea at its most simple doesn’t fly for them, there’s no point in spending any more time on it. Alex talked about loglines for movies, or the elevator pitch for the book. This, for me, is the next stage.

And once I’ve had some tentative feedback, I work up the outline into something more detailed. At this stage I throw in everything I’ve got. Not just the dramatic high points and the scenes and situations that hit me hardest, but even the odd line of dialogue. And I keep going over it, layering stuff in, building up the connections, trying to cut down my cast but bind them more firmly to each other with each interwoven strand.

With a first-person narrative, so much happens off camera. I put that in, too. I work out what happened to all the other players before my main character so much as sets foot on the first page. But, while I need to know who my cast is, I don’t spend huge amounts of time giving them complete biographies. This is the first time Charlie is being introduced to most of these people. She comes to them largely without preconceptions, so I do, too. And when she meets them for the first time, their quirks and foibles and strengths and weaknesses will make themselves apparent by what they say and do in any given situation, not by what I’ve decided in advance will be their given path. Mostly, I know what’s going to happen, but after that I’m as interested as anyone else – I hope – in how these people react to the events in which they find themselves.

In the case of Third Strike, I knew it was going to be about Charlie’s search for respect. Partly from her peers as she’s coming back into a new working environment after serious injury. (What did you say about not the perils of making your main protag sick, JT? Damn! Charlie spent half of Second Shot on crutches.) And partly from her parents. Her father, an eminent consultant orthopaedic surgeon, has never approved of what she does and worries that sooner or later Charlie’s ability to kill will be the end of her. Her mother, a highly strung former magistrate, just worries.

All through the books they’ve been lurking in background – peripheral characters, a hint to Charlie’s origins. Not just what shaped her early views, but what she was trying to escape from, to rebel against, when she first joined the army. Her father, in particular, has always been coldly disapproving of her choice of career and lover, but he’s played little more than a cameo role before – even if he did steal every scene he was ever in.

So this time I wanted to bring them both to the forefront and what better way than to have them suddenly require the services of a bodyguard. I thrust the pair of them into a pretty ugly situation and sat back to watch how they coped with experiencing the kind of danger, the kind of life-and-death choices that their daughter has to make on a daily basis in her professional life. The one they’ve never seen. The one they’ve never wanted to see. And as for Charlie, when she’s already on the back foot, feeling unsure of her capabilities in a strange job, in a strange town, what could be worse than having her own parents watching her every move?

Nobody remains unchanged by the events of Third Strike. In fact, for Charlie things may never be quite the same again. And her parents both go on their own emotional journey from which they emerge different people. Perhaps even people they would rather not have become.

So, with the new book, I want to move on. To move Charlie on. Yes, she gained the respect she was after in Third Strike, but in the next instalment she realises she’s looking for more than that. She’s looking for redemption. And I have the idea that how she goes about finding it will run the risk of alienating her from the people who mean most to her. The people she means most to.

So I have several questions from all this. Would your worst nightmare be a Bring Your Parents To Work day at the office, or would you love it? Do you feel series characters have to remain constant, or do you want them to change and grow as the series goes on? And how do you get stuck in to a new piece of work? What tricks do you employ to get past that terrifying first blank page.

This week’s Word of the Week – an accidental find caused by a surfeit of vowels during a game of Scrabble – is anomie, meaning a condition of hopelessness caused or characterised by breakdown of rules of conduct and loss of belief and sense of purpose. Also, anomic – lawlessness.

32 thoughts on “The Constant Journey

  1. Katherine Howell

    Hi Zoe, excellent post. I too am suffering the yips and have no advice to offer but the storyline for Third Strike and the hints about book 4 sound great and I want to read them both.Cheers,Katherine.

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Katherine

    Thanks for that. Long car journeys normally give me good thinking time, and we have a thousand-mile round trip coming up next week, so if I haven’t dived in by then, I’m hoping that will do the trick!

  3. Catherine

    I still feel a bit awkward around my parents when I’m in work mode. They are this weird blend of encouraging and supportive which I sometimes feel exceeds any action on my part.They see me as much smarter than I am. I don’t see this as a major problem, except it’s mildly embarrassing if work mates witness it at full burl.

    Zoe I love seeing characters develop. With a lot of the situations that occur in fiction it would feel odd to me if characters remained unaffected. So yes I like seeing them change and grow throughout a series.

  4. R.J. Mangahas

    Don’t quite know how I’d handle the take the parent to work thing.

    In a series, I definitely think that it’s good for a character to evolve, otherwise he or she can run the risk of getting stale.

    I think Robert Parker’s Spenser comes to mind. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a huge Parker fan for a long time, and I do like Spenser and Hawk. However (and I’ve found a lot of people with the same opinion) Parker’s later books are lacking something that his earlier books had. I guess it has to be taken into consideration too that the Spenser series has been running now for a good thirty years or so.

    The other thing is that, overall, the characters of Spenser and Hawk have remained the same except their ages. Spenser, who if you’re aging him along with the books would now be in his mid to late sixties, does things and thinks of things the same way he did earlier in the series when he was in his late thirties. The same is true of Hawk. And the cutsie banter between Susan Silverman and Spenser is growing a bit tiresome.

    Despite that though, Parker’s books are still a quick fun read. I own most of them.


    Whenever I get stuck in my work, I often find that fresh air really helps me clear my head and refocus on the piece.

  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Zoe,Great post. Congrats on the gorgeous books. I can’t wait to read THIRD STRIKE.

    I wish I could be such an efficient novelist with that excellent planning. I might try it next week when I start the next Sasha book.

    Right now, I’m just trying to complete enough of the second draft of the first book in my new series–to have it hang together enough–to send to my agent by Monday for his comments.

    R.J. gives a good example with Spenser. I enjoy the books very much for what they are, but prefer series where characters grow and change.

    It’s risky to do that however. Readers want a certain amount of consistency, of familiarity, and your character may grow in ways that your core audience might not want or like.

    Still, I’d rather take that risk than continue with a person — my main protag in either series — who never learns or is affected by what happens in her life.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Catherine – what do you do that your workmates are likely to witness your parents in full-on encouraging/supportive mode?

    Mine are also very supportive, although I tend to get my praise from them second-hand. Other people tell me what nice things they’ve been saying about my writing, more often than they’d actually say anything to me directly. Stops me getting big-headed, though!

    And yes, I agree with you. I like a character to develop, but sometimes they almost develop too far. Having change happen – particularly drastic change – can be a problem to anyone who comes to the books out of sequence. I try very hard not to put in huge plot spoilers for the previous books, but at the same time you have to explain a little of how these people got to where they are. Always a difficult balance.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ – I, too, have always been a huge fan of the Spenser books, but it always seemed to me that it wasn’t just a case of Spenser and Hawk still speaking and thinking and acting like they did when they were in their thirties. I got the impression that, for the purposes of fiction, they *were* still in their thirties. Or somewhere pretty close.

    Like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, fictional characters seem to age at a slowed-down rate. You might have one book a year published in a series, but the events in one could take place only a few months after the last one ended, so your characters get further and further away from real time, the longer the series goes on. So, I suppose you could work it out that, although Robert Parker has been writing Spenser for thirty years, the character has perhaps only aged fifteen years over the course of them. Does that work?

    I keep a calendar of events in my main character’s life, so I can refer to something that happened ‘the winter before’, or ‘last August’ and know that some eagle-eyed reader won’t trip me up on it.

    And Parker’s books are still a fun read, aren’t they? I like just about anything he writes, from the Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall series, to the standalones. Although, occasionally, reading a first-person female main character, when you’ve met the guy who writes the books, can cause a bit of brain melt-down during sex scenes!

    Yup, fresh air is always a good one. Why do you think I was out there taking a pickaxe to that rock in the first place? ;-]

  8. Catherine

    I used to work in a Zoo, helping set up feeding for the Elephants and provide a sort of mix of entertainment/educational crowd control. Meaning I was nice about making sure they stayed safe and they got a few animal facts too. Oh I also used to do what we called Tiger escort duty…which was where you made sure the public didn’t try to pat the nice kitty when their handlers took them for a walk.

    This was all a few years back…and I can’t remember exactly how my parents did it, but when they visited the Zoo they sort of exuded support. They said stuff and smiled a lot, and looked proud.

    Oh they always know people, so often someone I work with they turns out to have known them for years and then they ‘casually’ reinforce something positive about piece of work they’re aware of…and link it back to some study achievement. It’s sweet but I often feel about 12 when they do it.

    re:character development I like subtle change. I imagine creating that balance would give anyone the yips.

  9. Catherine

    Zoe I’m sorry there are typos all over the place. It’s 1 am here and sleep and correct spelling are eluding me tonight.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari – thank you for the kind comments. I’m delighted with the look of THIRD STRIKE, too. I know how much work the team at my UK publisher have put in on it, even down to changing the colour of the speeding car on the cover from one of the early designs!

    I had to laugh at your use of the word ‘efficient’ in connection with me, though. Would be good if I could actually Get On With It, wouldn’t it?

    Ah, well, at least I know that ideas are fermenting in the back of my mind, and more connections are forming, which is how I know I can make this work … eventually.

    I still feel I have a lot of metaphorical places to take Charlie, and until she has nothing left to say to me that’s fresh, I’ll keep writing her.

    Best of luck with the second draft of your new book! Anything you’d care to share with us…?

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Catherine

    “Tiger escort duty” Wow! What a thing to have on your CV. Am I jealous or what about that.

    And don’t worry about the typos. I usually start typing gibbering in the wee small hours. Pressing the spacebar with my nodding forehead is nature’s way of telling me to finally stop working and Go To Bed.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Ooh, just remembered what I entirely forgot to add on the end of my original post. Next weekend is CrimeFest in Bristol. I’ll be there from Thursday until Sunday and look forward to meeting any ‘Rati folk who’ll be attending. If you’re going, please, please, come and say hi!

    I’m on two panels – ‘The Female of the Species: Women in Crime Fiction’ at 1:30-2:30 on Friday, June 6th, with Meg Gardiner moderating, Helen Black, Maureen Carter and Priscilla Masters. And I’m moderating a panel at 4:30-5:30 on Saturday, June 7th, entitled ‘A Slice of PI: The Modern Day Private Eye’ with Declan Hughes, Jim Kelly, Ken McCoy and Martyn Waites. Should be a lot of fun!

  13. Louise Ure

    Gorgeous new covers, Zoë. And I’m so envious of your notes/planning/outline system. I’m less organized than that, usually just plunging into page one without a clue about what happens on page two.

    But I adore your flap copy idea. I’m going to do that today, as I’m in the same “get the pick ax out” place that you are right now with the new book.

  14. R.J. Mangahas

    Zoe — that’s a valid point. I guess maybe it did get further away from real time as the series went on. But I don’t think that Spenser and Hawk are still in their thirties. For example, in ‘God Save the Child,’ Spenser saves a young boy named Paul. In one of Parker’s later Spenser Novels, ‘Back Story,’ We see Paul again, except now he is an adult. So maybe fifteen to twenty years could be accurate. This is certainly a contrast to Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct Novels.

    By the way, I haven’t yet read Third Strike, but it’s already in my TBR pile.

    Pari — I agree with you. A core audience may not like or want the changes, but then again, there are people who may think the character is getting stale. So I guess either one would be a risk.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Louise – what can I say except don’t change a thing! Your system clearly works wonderfully for you ;-]

    I had to deliver a lecture a few weeks ago to a creative writing course at Lancaster University and one of the first things I said was, there are as many different ways of writing a book as there are writers. You really can’t compare anyone else’s methods with your own – favourably or unfavourably. Just do what works for you. Even so, I’ve ground my teeth a little when I’ve met authors who say airily, “Oh, I wrote my last book in three weeks.”

    But, I do find the flap copy idea helps. Not only in gauging initial interest in the basic idea, but I also keep going back and having a read through that half a page every now and again while I’m writing, just to remind myself of the overall direction the book was supposed to take. Easy to get bogged down with which turn to take in the sidestreets and lose sight of the final destination.

    And the pickaxe always helps. At our old house I used to have a punchbag set up in the garage and I’d go out and beat the cr*p out of that instead.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    RJ – you already have THIRD STRIKE in your TBR pile? Wow, I only got my copies yesterday and it’s not supposed to be out in the UK for another couple of weeks. I’m impressed ;-]

    And going back to Pari’s comment, I think a chracter can go stale even if the author *does* introduce changes. If the writer’s heart isn’t in a series any longer, for whatever reason, it really shows. I once heard it described as the ‘contractual obligation book’.

  17. JDRhoades

    Those covers are gorgeous, Zoe. Here’s hoping they sell a million. Can’t wait to read them.

    I actually represented my parents in court a few years ago, in a property damage claim arising out of an auto accident. I’d been in that court a thousand times, but I felt as awkward and nervous as if I was in my third grade play.

    The flap copy idea is one I’ve used before too. It’s how I started BREAKING COVER.

    I definitely believe characters should change and grow during the series, unless of course one is Rex Stout, who can pull off writing book after book about an irascible character who steadfastly resists change. But there’s only one Nero Wolfe.One of the challenges I faced with the Keller books is that the books are, in part, about the damage that’s done to people who live violent lives, even where the violence is “justified.” And so, Keller takes more and more psychological damage as the three books go on. One of the reasons I took a break from the series is that it was hard to imagine how much more he could take without descending into total madness.

  18. R.J. Mangahas

    Zoe — Perhaps I misspoke. (Sorry, I tend to do that some times. You think being a writer I would be a little more concise with my words.) My TBR is not only a stack of books, but a list of books that I know are coming out but haven’t been released yet and of course those that have been. I guess I really shouldn’t call it a pile anymore.(According to Amazon, Third Strike doesn’t look like it will be in The U.S. until October) I’ve always had this problem, as a reader, that if I actually had the physical stack of books (usually 15 or 20), I sometimes try to read too many at once. So I took to only having four or five books in my TBR. The rest are on “The List.”

    By the way, I think that book flap idea is great. Maybe it can help me move my WIP along.

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty. Thank you for the praise on the covers. As someone who, in the past, has occasionally had very little say on the cover designs for my books, I’m just over the moon at the effort that’s gone into these. It really shows, I think. So please excuse me being all girlie and excited about them ;-]

    The idea of representing your own parents in court is just *so* packed with all kinds of possibilities. I wish I’d been in the public gallery that day! Did they try and prompt you when you were merely leaving a dramatic pause, and had NOT forgotten the next line? And what happened? You can’t just leave it there – did you win?

    Keller is a bit of a walking train wreck on the psychological front, but that’s all part of his appeal. I can see why you might want to take a break from writing him, although I wouldn’t mention that to him, if I were you. I doubt you’d like him when he’s angry …

    And if you want an ever-popular series character who changes very little from first book to latest, what about Lee Child’s Jack Reacher?

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ – Ah-ha, I see what you mean. Having a virtual TBR pile is such a good idea. We started out with a TBR shelf, which has rapidly expanded into an entire TBR bookcase. Bad plan. I’ve stuff on there from ThrillerFest last July that hasn’t been touched. Keeping a list on line – or behind the register at my local bookstore – would be a MUCH better idea.

    And yes, I find the flap copy mini-outline works wonders for me. If it reads a bit flat and uninviting, then probably my synopsis does, too, and needs something to give it a bit more drama and appeal. How far through the WIP are you?

  21. JT Ellison

    Zoe, I’d like to live in your head for a week. I think I’d learn one helluva lot.

    The jacket copy is a super idea — I usually write a three-page synopsis and then shoot from the hip. Sometimes that works fine, and sometimes, like now, it doesn’t work as well. I think I may spend the weekend thinking about jacket copy to try and focus my efforts. (of course, copeyedits came today for book 3, so everything goes on screeching halt…)

    It’s funny, I can start a book with no problem, it’s the 100 page mark when I start doubting what I’m doing. And the 25 page mark. And the 25K mark. Hmm… to be honest, there’s a lot of doubt that goes into the beginnings of all of my books. If I can just push past the halfway mark, things start to coalesce.

    Re: parents — mine have always been overly supportive, so I decided to make Taylor’s parents the exact opposite so I’d have something fun to play with. They hate her choice of profession — her mom because she’s a snob, her dad because he’s a crook. The inject some delicious tension. I don’t want Taylor growing too quickly, but I’m finding that it’s fun to inch her along — she’s resistant to a lot of ideas, so bending her will is like bending steel. You have to PROVE it to her to get her to consider it.

    The covers are just spectacular, too. You’re perfectly branded. : ) GREAT post!

  22. R.J. Mangahas

    My WIP is only a couple of chapters right now. It’s moving a little slow because I’m also trying to dash off a couple of short stories to try and sell as well.

  23. Kaye Barley

    Zoe, what beautiful covers!I’m a nut for good covers.And I’m totally enamored with your Charlie, and intrigued by her parents. You’ve done a great job of keeping my curiosity aroused regarding the whole family dynamic. It’ll be great fun to learn a little more about what makes them tick.

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT – LOL! I’m incredibly flattered but, hell’s teeth, you really wouldn’t want to live in my head for any length of time. Even *I* don’t like being in here sometimes …

    I know what you mean about the difficult stage of a book, though. It’s usually the bit that comes somewhere between ‘Chapter One’ and ‘The End’.

    For me, the hardest part is the third quarter. You’ve spent the first half of the book setting up your scenario, your characters, and interweaving your plot strands to suitably muddy the waters.

    But by the start of the third quarter your plot has crested and now comes the first downward turn of the story arc towards the finish. You’re starting to tie together all your disparate threads into a cohesive finale. Tie them together too fast, and your ending is telegraphed to the point it falls flat. Don’t do it fast enough, however, and you’re left with that dreadful scramble of explanations in the last chapter. “But what I still don’t understand is how you knew it was the man with the wooden leg?” etc.

    That dratted third quarter, every time.

    I love your description of Taylor’s parents and her attitude towards them. And I know what you mean about inching her forwards into change – what a great description.

  25. Zoë Sharp

    RJ – first rule of Fight Club … oh, wait a minute. No, that’s not right. Ah, first rule of writing – never apologise for slow progress. You write at your own pace. A dear friend of mine – one of the first magazine editors I started working for back in ’88 – has been writing a novel for as long as I’ve known him.

    For every person who writes faster, there will be plenty who write slower.

    I find I have to be consistant, though. I try and write *something* on the book I’m working on every day while I’m doing the first draft. Even if it’s only a bit of fiddling with something I’ve already written.

    The more time I spend away from it, the harder it is to pick up the thread again. Even a couple of hundred words a day just keeps it percolating in the back of my brain.

    Good luck with the short stories!

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Kaye – thank you, and I’m very glad I’ve caught your interest ;-]

    Exploring the theme of Charlie’s relationship with her family was something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, and it all came together with THIRD STRIKE.

    It felt like I’d set a lot of things in motion – sometimes several books ago – and all the arcs kind of crossed at this point.

    THIRD STRIKE also contains what I feel is the most chilling scene I’ve written to date. There’s very little actual described violence, but I’m hoping that your imagination will fill in the gaps between the words nicely …

  27. JDRhoades

    🙂 Yeah, Zoe, we won. Fortunately, the folks kept their mouths shut and let me work. They did say afterwards that “it was really different than we expected.”

    I think Reacher actually has changed some. The more recent books have shown him more prone to acknowledge mistakes, a little more prone to question his choices…which is all to the good, IMHO.

  28. Zoë Sharp

    Hey Dusty – glad the folks got to see you at your triumphant best ;-]

    Good point about Reacher – now I’ll just have to re-read them all to check. More for the TBR bookcase!

  29. Jake Nantz

    I want to see characters grow and change. If my WIP ever gets published and I serialize the protag, he’s going to have to change. After all, his young wife whom he loves is murdered toward the end of the first book.

    Poor guy.

    And since I’m a teacher, I’d be fine with my parents being there. My students’ parents? Well, that depends on the day and the parent…

  30. Pat Mullan

    Great covers, Zoe! I’ll add them to my reading list – and the hardcover will be a nice addition to our bookshelves here at Athry 🙂

    Warmest regards, Pat.


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