The Mass of Expectation

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!

20 thoughts on “The Mass of Expectation

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    Another good (and timely) post Zoe. I’ve tried to make that commitment to run,(mind you not a marathon) but it’s that early morning rising that is so darn hard to commit to. However, when it comes to writing,it is kind of an obsession. I may not work on my WIP every single day (which I really should) but I at least write something, even if it’s just a bunch of nonsense that I can use later. It’s this thing I have about wanting to put pen to paper. Sure, a laptop makes it so much easier, but there’s something I like about the flow of a pen.

    One area that I’ve been lucky in though is that my friends and family have been very supportive of my writing, which is a huge help. In particular, there were two individuals who played a big part in my support system. My fiance Anne (who passed on almost five years ago) and Jessi, the woman I’m with now. In fact, it was my obsession with writing that helped me through (ie keep my sanity) Anne’s death.

    Like you, I sometimes get writing done at the expense of other stuff I want or need to to do. I’m working on that, but it sure isn’t an easy habit to break.

    Reply
  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ

    First of all, I’m so sorry to hear about your fiancée. That must have been so awful and I’m sure that even after five years it must seem like yesterday.

    Writing has often been likened to a form of therapy and I think that can be very true. By allowing your characters to voice their frustrations, fears and angers in the context of your story, it allows you to work something through in your own head, too.

    But I’m still not sure why I can find the focus necessary to write a novel – or eight, I think it is now – but I not seem able to commit myself to an exercise regime that’s regular enough to achieve comparable results. It makes Pari’s hard-fought – in all senses of the word – black belt achievement (mentioned in her wonderful post earlier this week) even more impressive to me ;-]

    Reply
  3. R.J. Mangahas

    Thanks Zoe. Yeah, Anne’s death does sometimes feel like yesterday, but other times it feels like it was a lifetime ago.

    I definitely agree that writing can be likened to a form of therapy. And sometimes I think some of my best characters were developed from raw emotion. It’s one thing to say my character is a certain height, has blue eyes, etc, but another thing all together to “feel” that character. I was discussing this with a friend of mine once and it was kind of hard to explain what it meant exactly to feel a character.

    Reply
  4. toni mcgee causey

    A brilliant post (again), Zoë — and the mass of expectation is the perfect phrase.

    Obsession drives me. I have to write, and I can’t walk away from it. I tried, for a few years, long ago, and was more miserable not writing than I was writing and not selling.

    Reply
  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Zoe,What a wonderful post. It seems to me that I struggle with writing like your marathon runner almost everyday.

    I thought it would get easier the longer I did it, but that’s not the case for me. Now I know all the downsides that I didn’t when I first penned that horrid manuscript #1 more than 12 years ago.

    But like Toni, I don’t think I could stop without serious mental/emotional/spiritual repercussions.

    It’s funny you mention the black belt because on Monday I looked myself in the mirror and said, “Okay, now it’s time to earn your black belt in writing.”

    Hah! Part of the battle IS mental; it’s the and commitment to the idea that you can do something even when you didn’t think you could. The other part, which is sometimes a lot easier, is actually doing it.

    Reply
  6. Louise Ure

    What a great post, Zoë. (And thanks for the derivation of “cold feet.” That one never made sense to me.)

    The line from your post that I’m most identifying with this morning is: “But the truth of it is, that the more words you put on the page, the more the potential of your book diminishes.”

    How does this happen? It was such a brilliant, stark and important thought at the beginning. Now it’s weighed down with commas and description and irrelevant characters. Ack!

    Reply
  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ – I think when you ‘feel’ a character is when they reach the point of not letting you put words into their mouths. They speak their own mind and what arrives on the page becomes more like you listening to their conversation and writing it down, rather than inventing dialogue. That’s when you know it’s really working.

    Reply
  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    I honestly don’t believe it gets any easier to write a book. In fact, I don’t believe it should. If it does, then somehow I feel I’m not stretching the boundaries, not pushing myself hard enough.

    But you’re so right – so much of writing is a mental battle. A test of faith in your own ability to keep this story going for long enough to bring it to a conclusion.

    Reply
  9. Zoë Sharp

    Louise

    It’s a devil, that one, isn’t it? I know it sounds very defeatist to talk about diminishing possibilities, but it’s true.

    And I suppose it *should* be true. If we started out with lower expectations, where would the final book end up?

    But “weighed down with commas and description and irrelevant characters”?

    Your work?

    Hm, I don’t think so ;-]

    Reply
  10. Jake Nantz

    Zoe, sent you an email. I’m really excited that you liked my ideas. So far that’s the closest to getting validation for my writing…that at least there are professionals that like my ideas. Pretty cool!

    As for the running analogy, I have a distinct insight here, because I once lost 45 lbs. when I was single. Of course, I did nothing but work out and eat george foreman-ed chicken. And I mean all the time. I was the only person in a 24-hour gym when the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve that year. It did the trick, but of course I have since gained it all back because being married has taken up the time I used to spend lifting weights and kickboxing all day of every week.

    I think if I could devote that kind of time to my writing, I probably would be closer to success than I currently am. But I’m not going to, because I think even my understanding wife would have enough at that point. So I toil when I can, and hope to one day see the literary equivalent of six-pack abs.

    Reply
  11. JT Ellison

    Bravo, Z. Great post!

    I think all new writers should participate in NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month. It not only gives you permission to just write for 30 days, it teaches discipline — you can’t write 50,000 words in a month if you don’t sit down every day and write. And that’s how you become a professional writer, learning the discipline of sitting down every day and writing.

    Reply
  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake

    Thanks for the email. I completely take your point about it being unfair to decide a winner in such a manner, so if K. Prescott would email me their address, too, I’ll send out another book.

    And 45lbs. Wow, I’m impressed!

    I love the “literary equivalent of six-pack abs” that’s a great way of describing giving your writing muscles a workout.

    Reply
  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    50k words in a month? Hm, I think that’s the kind of target I need to hit before B’con if I’m not going to get myself into very hot water.

    Trouble is, like Jake mentioned with his head-down, full-tilt approach to fitness, it’s very difficult to keep that kind of thing up for any more than short concentrated bursts.

    I talked to Martyn Waites at Harrogate, and he’d just finished writing a full-length novel in six weeks, but admitted that it had half killed him.

    Reply
  14. Jake Nantz

    Congratulations, Mr. Battles. Read THE CLEANER a week or so ago and really enjoyed it. I like that Quinn doesn’t lust for the wetwork, but doesn’t shy away from it either. Really well written.

    Reply
  15. Jo Parker

    In the context of your marathon running analogy, I don’t think I’m at the dragging myself out of bed stage yet, let alone be looking out the door at the street outside.

    I’m longing for the day that I don’t do things at the expense of my writing. At the moment it’s my writing that I don’t do because of everything else.

    congrats to Brett for the nominations too…

    Reply

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