by Zoë Sharp
As I write this, Bouchercon is here.
And I’m not.
I wish all the best to my fellow ‘Rati who are attending. Have a glass of something non-alcoholic (well, maybe at breakfast?) for me.
You see, I realised quite a while ago that attending conventions like Bouchercon – and the Morley Literature Festival, which is where I was on Monday evening – is all bound up in what I love about being a writer. How good or bad I am at public speaking is another matter but, like someone who sings loud and lusty in the shower, at least I have a good time while I’m doing it.
I was mentioning this to my Other Half, Andy, while moodily clutching a hot water bottle to my busted rib as I contemplated not being in Indianapolis this weekend, and he came out with a question that brought me up short.
“But what is it you enjoy about actually writing?”
Now, Andy has a perfect right to ask that question, because he has to live with me when I’m trying to wrestle a book into submission, and it’s a long drawn-out and often extremely painful exercise. And when we first met I was only just a writer, with a couple of very minor published articles under my belt. In fact, he was the one who encouraged me to throw in the job I was doing and try writing articles full time. Without his support, I couldn’t have done it at all.
And, for a number of years, I wrote non-fiction with enough success for him to give up his job in turn and join me in the business. I diversified into the photography and we ambled along like that, doing very nicely thank you.
But I’d always wanted to write fiction and that urge kept coming back to taunt me. The sensible plan, of course, would have been to introduce short stories, interspersed with the feature articles I was already doing, and would have been less of a commitment in time and effort.
Well, nobody ever said I was sensible. (Can I draw your attention to the broken rib again?)
And then there was the whole death-threat letters business, which I won’t bore you with at this point. Suffice to say, that episode reawakened my interest in storytelling in general, and crime fiction in particular.
So I wrote a novel, had it turned down, rewrote it a couple of times, and that became my first book, KILLER INSTINCT, which will finally be coming back into print next year from Busted Flush Press. (Woo hoo!) I can’t remember much now about the actual writing process of that book, but I know there were long periods when I didn’t work on it at all. Nothing to do with not knowing what happened next, more to do with being convinced that nobody else would care what happened next.
I don’t suffer from writer’s block. I suffer from writer’s ‘oh-my-god-this-is-the-biggest-pile-of-crap-and-nobody’s-ever-going-to-want-to-read-it’ instead.
And, I admit, I’ve probably had a lot more of those moments since I was published than I had before.
So, why do I do it?
It has to have something to do with wanting to be creative in some way. Creativity is a very difficult character trait to define, and is probably worthy of a blog topic all by itself. But being creative in itself isn’t enough. Photography is a creative art in its own way – finding locations, angles, lighting – and I get a huge amount of satisfaction from being reasonably good at my job, to the point where I’d really be very reluctant to give it up completely because it fulfils a need for physical activity that sitting in front of a computer screen simply doesn’t provide.
Writing is a very focused kind of creativity. It’s not just the putting of words on paper, or I would have been more than happy to carry on writing non-fiction articles. The field was of interest to me and I was making a nice living doing it.
So, what do I actually enjoy about writing a novel? Maybe it’s the business of making ideas live and breathe, feeling them step off the page and speak their thoughts to me, take control of their own actions instead of being puppets who collapse, wholly inanimate, as soon as I stop working their strings.
After all, what child hasn’t harboured a secret hope that their toys come to life when you’re not looking and live lives of their own when we’re not looking? (No? Ah, that was just me then …) But I can still remember as a small child, sneaking up to the toy cupboard and yanking open the door in the hopes that I’d catch them at it, or at least not quite where I remembered leaving them. Hardly surprising the Toy Story movies were such a success.
Writing has to be one of the most difficult and often frustrating things to do. Sometimes, working out the intricacies of the plots makes you want to grab a Black & Decker and drill holes in your own head, just to get the ideas out of there. (No? Ah, just me again, then …)
The days I’ve agonised. The nights I’ve sweated. And at the end of it, someone can dismiss months or even years of effort with a contemptuous flick of the red pen, a dashed-off Amazon review. There are no marks for trying in this game. No quarter given.
So, what DO I enjoy? The business of creating my story and my world, and peopling it with characters who become real and bring pleasure to those who read them? Originally, I thought I was in control of my characters, but I’ve come to realise I’m much more of an observer, putting them down and watching them do things I didn’t plan on and can’t seem to influence beyond a nudge here or there. You can’t shove them into a course of action they really don’t want to follow. Believe me, I’ve tried. That’s when things really do grind to a full-scale halt.
And then we’re back to the agonising days and sweating nights again.
So, at the end of all this, I’m not entirely sure why I write. I just know it’s a compulsion. Something I have to do, however much the process often has distinct similarities with banging your head repeatedly and bloodily against a very stout brick wall.
My question, obviously, is why do YOU do it? If you’re not yet published, what dreams do you harbour for when you are finally in print? What is it about creating a work of fiction that appeals to you so much?
And if you have a good answer, can you let me know?
This week’s Word of the Week is periscian, which is a person living inside the polar circle, whose shadow moves round in a complete circle on those days on which the sun does not set. From the Greek peri, around, and skia, a shadow.