What’s It All About?

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.

30 thoughts on “What’s It All About?

  1. Wilfred Bereswill

    Zoe, sorry I won’t be seeing you at B’Con this year. I almost cancelled at the last minute, because being a small press guy with no new book makes it financially unjustifiable. But then I thought, "what the hell" I had such a blast meeting people like you and the other Rati Writers I’m going to go just to have fun. And who knows who I’ll happen to meet there this year?

    I’m sure we’ll get a full report from various writers next week. I’ll certainly raise a glass (of something) to you, while I’m there, Zoe.

  2. Alli

    Funnily enough, my answer is the opposite to JD – I write to KEEP my sanity. I have a toddler and pre-schooler and without my writing to escape to everyday, I would, undoubtedly, go insane. I have my cyber-office of fellow writers to "chat" with and bounce ideas off, and I can plot and rewrite in my head when pushing the swing at the park. To me, writing keeps the creative part of myself alive (pre-kids I worked in marketing and graphic arts) and I feel like I’m doing something for me. Plus, I love writing (well, most of the time) and my long term goal is to become published and be able to make a living at this and be able to work the hours around the kid’s school hours, etc. One can dream…

    Zoe, I hope you feel better soon. I am sure the other ‘Rati’s will be able to paint a vivid picture of the events as they unfoled. šŸ™‚

  3. Alafair Burke

    I’m also a mental illness/ compulsion/ have to do it kind of person. I don’t necessarily have to write fiction, but I’ve always been writing something and imagine I always will be. I don’t always enjoy it, to be honest. I enjoy it when it’s over. I enjoy it when the books are being read. And I enjoy it in theory. But the reality is that it’s bloody hard most days but I have to do it anyway or I’d lose my mind.

  4. Zoƫ Sharp

    Louise – as always, you hit the nail on the head very succinctly. I, too, like looking back at the finished product (although usually with some vague lingering sense of dissatisfaction) probably more than I enjoy the slog of actually getting the damn thing to work out right.

  5. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Toni

    So, can I ask you the same question as Dusty – what do you enjoy about it, other than being able to document the conversations with the people in your head, of course …?

  6. Zoƫ Sharp

    Alafair – another one with brilliant reasoning behind the compulsion that pushes us to write.

    There are times, though, when I look at the words I’ve just put on the page and I think, ‘Yesss! That works. It actually works. Where there was blank space before, now there is an image. Other people will read these same words, and see this same image.’

    Not often, but it happens.

  7. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Alli

    I hadn’t thought of it as another place to go, but I spend a lot of time inside my head, too. You have to mentally walk through each scene in order to describe it, and I find that while I’m doing something else – often something completely mundane – my mind is running over and over the next bit of plot.

    I get the impression you view writing as an escape route – making a living to suit your own hours – but also as a creative outlet, which can be a wonderful combination.

    Can I ask, though, apart from the money, what do you feel will make the biggest difference to your writing between being published and not?

  8. toni mcgee causey

    ZoĆ«, I kinda love a lot of it. I love the freshness of a first draft–anything’s possible. I love hurling the crap-infested first-draft-what-could-I-possibly-have-been-thinking across the room — it makes such a nice thunking sound when it hits the wall and rains down into a pile of heaping dung. (Wait, I think that might’ve been an insult to dung everywhere.) I like having the clear (non-alcohol) induced epiphany of WHAT WENT WRONG and HOW TO FIX IT and then diving back in and telling myself that I am a much better editor than I am a writer, so that will be fine. I like the alcohol-induced epiphany that I really should’ve taken up accounting, when something somewhere in the second act completely eludes me and I know it’s just out there, mocking me, and I’ll never figure it out. [This is usually when I think up other businesses I could start and be perfectly happy running.] [Note: I am lazy enough to let this wear off before acting on it.] I really love the moment in the billionth pass where it finally starts to gel and I think, "yeah, that’s what I meant to say there," and I kinda love it when I go back to fix something and hover over a paragraph and realize that it can stand as is. I love writing THE END and meaning it. I even love missing the characters and feeling bereft, as if they were real people who lived next door and had great parties and fascinating lives but now they’ve decided to move to Canada for a while to try out the climate there.

    Mostly, I love holding the book and seeing my name on the front and realizing that, in spite of myself, I did it.

  9. Stacy McKitrick

    I wasn’t a writer until April of this year, when I finally decided to try.

    What I didn’t expect was the door I opened and now can’t close; not that I want it to.

    People talking, acting. It was all there before; just behind the door.

    Even if I never get published – and I’m hoping to someday – I’m glad I opened that door and became a writer!

  10. Alli

    Can I ask, though, apart from the money, what do you feel will make the biggest difference to your writing between being published and not?

    That’s a really good question, Zoe! At the moment I am writing what I want, with the thought of the market at the back of my mind. But really, my stories are ones that won’t let go until I write them – and no one is saying I can’t write them (at this stage). I know this could change dramatically with an agent and/or editor in the picture.

    Since starting writing fiction, I’ve always worked hard, been a willing student and had a burning desire to learn, learn, learn, improve and set my own deadlines. Making money is secondary to serving my creativity – if I don’t write, I feel lost and as if something is missing in my life (although my life is chock-a-block busy but I always make sure I have time to write, even if it’s an hour a day).

    All my published friends have mentioned things will change with the step from unpublished to published re: contract deadlines, marketing, etc – and so I do find myself in an interesting place right now. I am currently working on my third MS and know it is a vast improvement on the first two, I’m truly hoping this will be "the one" and if it is, I know my writing life will change dramatically. And if this MS isn’t "the one" then I already have an idea for number four and hope everything I learnt in MS three can be put into play in number four, along with more knowledge and discoveries about my writing.

    Thanks for asking the question – it really made me sit and take stock of things!

  11. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Toni

    LOL! As ever, you put it so much better than I can, dammit! Yeah, I go through all those stages, perhaps with the exception of the alcohol-fuelled epiphany bit …

  12. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Stacy

    I love the mental image of trying to hold a door closed against all these bloodied hands trying to claw their way through the gap, but maybe I’ve just been watching too many zombie movies.

    Once that door’s open, my friend, there’s no way you’re ever going to get it shut again. And even if you do, you’ll still catch yourself straining to hear the murmuring on the other side ;-]

  13. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Alli

    I know what you mean about the desire to write regardless, and you’re so right when you recognise that this period of your career holds a certain amount of freedom. Being published does not solve problems, it just creates new ones.

    As a friend of mine once said, "When you get your first book accepted, it’s like winning the lottery. Then you realise that what you’ve won is a ticket to another lottery …"

    Good luck and keep writing!

  14. Rob Gregory Browne

    I’m not sure why I do it.

    Well, maybe that’s not quite true. I do it because I enjoy creating worlds and characters that I can get lost in, but there are certainly times while I’m doing it that I simply want to get lost, period, and say to hell with it all.

    The truth is, I do it because I secretly harbor the notion that one day I’ll be filthy rich from it and won’t have to lift a finger to get anything I want in this world.

    Go on, keep laughing. šŸ™‚

  15. BCB

    I love it because I’m a manipulative bitch. (Can I say that over here?) Seriously, there is nothing better than the rush I get when someone reads what I’ve written and says it made them cry. Or laugh. Or think. Or that it articulated exactly what they were feeling and they’re so grateful I said it for them.

    I’m not yet published in novel length fiction, but I’ve had my work out there in the form of newspaper columns and blog posts. Once you get a taste of that kind of feedback, it’s addictive. Yes, I hear voices that won’t be silenced. Yes, I have stories to tell. Yes, I am a writer and that will never change. But beyond all that is the need to touch other people (no, not like that, geez). It’s a need to connect. Perhaps even the need for validation of my own thoughts and feelings. But it’s late, I might be wrong about that.

    The process of writing is not in and of itself satisfying. It’s hard work and is often torturous and demoralizing. The reward is knowing that what you’ve written has reached out and struck a chord that vibrates in someone else, even if that chord is vibrating with anger. [Want to compare death threat letters, Zoe?]

    And if we’re honest, that satisfaction is the complete opposite of the ā€˜oh-my-god-this-is-the-biggest-pile-of-crap-and-nobodyā€™s-ever-going-to-want-to-read-itā€™ fear. Because when it’s not, and when they do, there is nothing better.

    Though now that Rob mentioned it, filthy rich wouldn’t be a bad thing…

    BTW, I’m a little freaked out by the vision of your toys coming to life. I guess I liked to think I was in complete control of mine (see 1st sent. above).

    And YAY! Congrats to Brett for his Barry award (via JD and RGB on twitter while I was writing this): http://twitpic.com/lnzsy [I’d try to do that "a href" thing, but I usually screw it up and I’d hate to be the one to break the blog over here]

  16. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Rob

    Interesting ambition you have – maybe you should get a white cat you can stroke while you’re talking about your plans for world domination?

    And although it’s a nice dream to think we’ll all turn into JK Rowlings, as you correctly point out, producing the stuff that keeps you up there is bloody hard work, and gets harder all the time ;-]

  17. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi BCB

    That’s brilliant. I’m sorry you’ve had the death-threat letters thing as well. Mine were pretty nasty at the time, but it was a long time ago, and looking back I suppose I should be pretty grateful to that unknown letter-writer for a) never following through on the threats and b) kick-starting my fiction-writing urge.

    And you’re right, there have to be those moments of connection to counterbalance the overwhelming lows while you’re actually writing the thing.

    Rob’s right, too, though – I could handle the filthy rich bit.

    Yeah, the toys coming to life thing has stayed with me. Why do you think I could never watch any of the ‘Chucky’ horror films …?

    Many congrats to Brett for his Barry win!!

  18. Barbara_NY

    Thank you so much for sharing the definition of "Periscian!" I’d just heard it used in a Q TV interview with author, Margaret Atwood (here, if you wish to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQkuMe2-X3Y), and was genuinely curious as to its meaning. So, the search began…

    Having alluded recognition from the likes of Mirriam-Webster and Cambridge, I used grassroots methods to track down a few sites that all quoted the same, suppressed definition, "Having the shadow moving all around." An aperitif to the malnourished. Then, I found your post. Just the entree I was looking for. So, I thank you, again, for your generosity of spirit in expanding our cranial diet.

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