by Zoë Sharp
It’s five A.M., winter, and a bitter rain is beating against the glass. Outside the covers, the room is as cold as the inside of a meat locker. Your husband/wife/lover is a soft embrace with a comforting heartbeat only a thought away across the pillow, and you want nothing more than to tuck in, hold on, go under.
But your alarm has just gone off, an hour and a half before you know you HAVE to get up for work. There seems to be no reason good enough, right now, to deny yourself another ninety minutes lying here. It’s safe, it’s easy. And nobody expects you to want or do anything different.
But you get up anyway.
You struggle into unwelcome clothes and stumble down a darkened staircase, trying not to put on the lights, trying not to wake the house. You totter out into the wet and the cold, and you force yourself onward against a fierce wind that seems determined to tangle itself around your legs and weight your feet like clay, against great flung coins of rain that pelt into your face at every stride, denting your skin and stinging your eyes until you have no idea who you are or where you’re going.
And you run.
At times like these you not only wonder why you got started on this madness, but how. Maybe it started out as little more than a half-formed whim expressed out loud. “One day,” you said, “I want to enter a marathon.” And maybe someone else, someone close to you, said, “Well, what’s stopping you?”
If you were lucky.
So often, though, when that kind of ambition is announced, it’s met with blank looks. “What on earth do you want to do something like that for?” Or, worse, with ridicule. “Yeah, right!” they snort. “You? You’re too old/stupid/lazy! You’ll never keep it up!”
But still you set your alarm that very first morning, and you crawled out from beneath the covers. For a long time, you stood on your front porch staring out into a misted curtain of rain, trying to find the courage to take that first uncertain step.
Most probably, you didn’t take it.
Instead, you turned back, let the door latch quietly behind you, and crept back into bed. The sheets hadn’t even had time to fully cool. Your husband/wife/lover rolled over as you slid under the covers, and muttered in their sleep. They hardly even knew you’d been gone. “It was a stupid idea,” you told yourself. “Of course someone like me can’t do something like that.”
But the next morning, you set the alarm again. And this time you got to the end of the driveway before you turned back, still dissatisfied with how little you seem to have achieved, but without that same hollow ring of cowardice that haunted you before.
And so it goes on.
Progress isn’t linear. Some days you’ll breeze through the entire route you’ve set yourself. Others you’ll sweat and stagger to the end of the driveway again, returning utterly exhausted out of all proportion to such a paltry effort. And some days, when that alarm goes off, you’ll pull the bedclothes up over your head and totally ignore it.
You might be wondering by now just where this story is going, and it’s all about determination. The kind of determination you’ve got to have in order to write a novel. It doesn’t matter if it’s a novel that’s snapped up by a publisher to become an instant bestseller, or something that never makes it past faded typescript form in a box under your bed. You’ve still got to sit down and get on with it, word by word, from the empty first page to the final full stop.
And I use the description of ‘novel’ carefully. I started out writing non-fiction and, from my experience, that’s easier. Instead of the sweepings-up out of your own head, you’re tasked purely with telling someone else’s story. If nobody else thinks it’s worthy of reading, then the blame is jointly shared between the writer (for not telling the story in an interesting enough way) and the subject (for not having an interesting enough story in the first place). Each, of course, will privately push more of the blame onto the other.
But fiction is different. Fiction is make-believe, and there’s always the fear in the back of your mind that your imagination simply isn’t up to the job. Because, unlike training for a marathon – my clumsy analogy at the start of this post – you don’t necessarily see any improvement as you go along. You don’t get ‘fitter’, more capable of achieving that perfect bit of description, that snappy piece of dialogue. In fact, in some ways it gets much harder to keep going, the closer you get to the end. After all, the thing takes on a mass all of its own.
The mass of expectation.
Imagine the feeling, when you stood on the front porch that very first morning, that you have it within your grasp to be the next Olympic gold medallist in your chosen sport. All you have to do is take that first step, and you’ll be on your way to the podium, with the national anthem blasting across the stadium and the president hanging that coveted ribbon around your neck.
Equally, before you’ve put a single word on the page, your novel has the potential to be the next Pulitzer/Nobel/Booker/Duncan Lawrie-winning entry. After all, first novels are fought over by major houses, and they do go on to win rakes of major awards. We are constantly handed news clippings by well-meaning relatives telling how some teenage first-timer submitted the first three chapters and an outline, only for their agent to be bombarded with six-figure offers and phone calls from Hollywood over the film rights.
But the truth of it is, that the more words you put on the page, the more the potential of your book diminishes. By the time you’ve written the final word, it no longer has all that potential. Rewrites aside, the bulk of the story, the voice and the shape and the tone, is there.
Good or bad, it is what it is.
You may have spent several years ‘training’ by this point. It could even be decades. Forcing yourself to carve out little niches of time to write, perhaps enduring the scepticism of friends and family, all with dogged determination. But until you submit your first typescript – until you enter your first marathon – the truth is that you have no real idea whether you can do this or not.
And regardless of whether your book is ever destined for the shelves in the bookstores or not, just getting it done is an enormous achievement, a huge continuous leap of faith.
For me, it’s a compulsion. Someone called me a self-starter recently, but I look at all the To Dos left undone at the end of the day and feel that I write at the expense of other things, rather than as well as them. And while part of me would love to have the kind of determination to actually get out of bed early every day and train for that marathon for real, I know in my heart of hearts that I don’t have it. For me writing is my one overriding obsession.
So, what drives you to write? Do you carry that determination to other aspects of your life, or is it your obsession, too?
This week’s Word of the Week is more of a phrase – cold feet. A common expression for loss of nerve, the expression comes from the German author, Fritz Reuter. In 1862 he wrote a scene in a novel involving a game of poker. One of the players realises he’s going to lose but doesn’t want to throw in his hand and thus lose face, so he complains that his feet are so cold that he cannot concentrate on the game. This gives him the opportunity to leave the table with his honour intact.
You may also recall in my last ‘Rati post that I offered a copy of TELL AN OUTRAGEOUS LIE to the most inventive improvised weapon suggestion. I have to say that although there were some brilliant – and scary – suggestions, it came to a toss-up between Jake Nantz and K. Prescott. So I literally tossed a coin, and Jake won. Email me your snail-mail address, Jake, and I’ll either put a copy in the mail to you or, if you’re going to be at Bouchercon in October, I’ll bring it with me. You may receive it quicker that way!