Today kick-ass thriller writer Zoe Sharp is joining me for Crime Writers In Cafes Procrastinating. As the title suggests, this feature is all about the lengths writers go to procrastinate when they should be writing, and how they (eventually) manage to win against the temptation of the path of procrastination to finish their books.
I’m a huge fan of Zoe’s books, and super excited to grill her about procrastination, her writing habits and her latest book DANCING ON THE GRAVE.
Welcome Zoe! So tell me all about your latest book – Dancing On The Grave?
Zoë Sharp: Basically, it’s my take on the Washington Sniper incident from a few years ago, but set in the English Lake District. If you want the slightly longer explanation, it’s an exploration of what it means in today’s culture to desperately want to be famous, regardless of what you want to be famous for. It’s about the way we treat our ex-military personnel when we’re finished with them. It’s about loyalty, betrayal, love and revenge. Just the everyday story of country folk.
How long did Dancing On The Grave take to write?
ZS: Far too long. I actually finished the first version of this book eight years ago. It was just about to go out on submission when Derrick Bird went on the rampage in the west of Cumbria, shooting twelve people dead and injuring a further eleven before taking his own life. It wasn’t close to the storyline of my book, but at the same time it was too near the mark. The book was withdrawn from submission and I put it away for a long time. It was only recently I felt able to get it out and work on it again.
What’s your favourite writing/procrastination spot – home, café, bar, other?
ZS: Home, probably, although ‘home’ is something of a moveable feast at the moment. As I write this, I’m actually sitting in the kitchen of a house in the Aveyron valley in southern France, where I’m house and cat-sitting for the whole of the month. That’s always been the beauty of this job—the fact you can do it anywhere.
Of course, the flip-side of that is that you can also fail to do it anywhere. I like to make pencil notes when I’m out and about, in cafés, usually, or waiting rooms, or wherever, and then type up my notes and expand on them when I get back to my desk. It doesn’t feel right to make notes at my desk. Here, I go and sit at the bottom of the garden, then it’s back to the kitchen table, or the one under an awning outside, to attempt to transcribe my scrawl onto my laptop.
If I’m in the UK, there are always other jobs that call to me. I’m in the midst of a house renovation project, so there are a million other things to do that are particularly difficult to ignore when the weather’s good and you don’t know how long that state of affairs might continue. This is why there are fewer distractions in the winter. Except for the cats, of course. They love to sit on paper (particularly with muddy feet) or my lap. Or my keyboard. Or my hands. Maybe they’re the feline equivalent of literary critics?
What’s your writing process – do you jump straight in, or plan and plot first?
ZS: First thing I do is write the tagline, which has to grab you in a dozen words or less. Then I write the jacket copy, which has to grab you in half a page or less. And then I outline, in broad brushstrokes only, so I have the basic story arc in place, with the main dramatic events timelined. I keep going back to this outline and embellishing it as I go, adding threads that can be tied up later. What I don’t plan are the reactions of the characters to those dramatic events—I want those to develop in a more organic way as I get to them. And I don’t do complicated character biographies before I start. The characters only introduce themselves to me as the step onto the page for the first time. I do jot down a summary of each chapter as I write, just to keep the timeline straight in my head. I note down the gist of the action and dialogue, so I can plan structural edits, if I need to later, without having to plough through the complete typescript.
When you’re writing, do you find you procrastinate more at the beginning, middle or end of the draft, or equally across all three?
ZS: Getting started in the right place can be really tricky, no doubt about it. Sometimes you instinctively know what the opening line for a book is going to be, and you run with it. Other times, you just can’t quite find the right point. And I know all the advice says ‘you can fix a page but you can’t fix a blank page’ but without the right start point, I can’t shake the feeling that everything else I do from there on out is based on dodgy foundations. I like to hit the ground running, and if I don’t feel I’ve done that, I can’t move forwards with the rest of the story. The start of the book, after all, is never the start of the story. It might have started days or months or even years before the point at which you introduce it to the reader.
As for the actual writing part, the third quarter is the pits, definitely. I know that doesn’t fit into the standard three-act structure, but trust me on this. You’ve got the start of your story nailed, you’ve hit the top of the arc, and when you reach three-quarters distance you have to start to tie all those loose threads together into a cohesive whole for the climax. Do it too fast at the ending falls flat. Do it too slowly and you may finish up with thirty pages of stodgy “But how did you know it was the man with the wooden leg?” kind of exposition in the final chapters. Yeah, that third quarter is the bit I sweat over, every time.
Q6: Do you prefer first drafts or edits (and why)?
ZS: Until recently, I would have said that I enjoyed having written more than I enjoyed the actual process of writing, but now I’m not so sure. I’ve had a great boost to my feeling of creativity this year, and the reception I’ve had to the new standalone, Dancing On The Grave, has been wonderful. I really feel I’ve regained my enthusiasm for actually creating story—the putting together of words and scenes into something that didn’t exist until the second you laid them across the page. I remember when I was writing my first novel, and working full-time, that I would get up ever-earlier in the mornings, such was my urge to write. It’s a compulsion rather than an occupation.
I confess, with a certain amount of masochism, that I quite likebeing edited, providing I feel the editor is on the same wavelength with both my style of writing and the story. Anyone who’s prepared to put time and effort into helping me produce the best piece of work possible is fine by me. But it can be a nightmare. Worst editing experience I ever had was with a US copy editor who came from an academic non-fiction background, and wrote me a report saying I displayed a ‘good deal of comma fault’, and she had issues with my ‘verbs of utterance’. I half expected it to have ‘see me’ or ‘could do better’ at the end of it. I wrote ‘stet’ 1251 times on that typescript. I know, I counted every single one of them…
When you’re procrastinating, what’s the activity you turn to most?
ZS: Well, if I’m into a renovation project, I can find it hard to concentrate on writing because I’d rather be plastering or constructing something. It can have a good symbiotic relationship, though. If the practical half of your brain is occupied, it allows the creative half to freewheel and work through plot problems on a subconscious level. So, something practical is always good as both a means of procrastination and for inspiration. As is Scruzzleword, and Sudoku. And bringing my accounts up to date, and bringing logs inside in the winter, and social media, and…and…and…
Q8: When you’re writing what’s your drink and snack of choice?
ZS: Ooh, lots of coffee, usually, although I’ve never found it does much to keep me awake. I always have a large glass of tap water with a shot of tonic water in the top of it on the go, too, which I put on a side table so it’s away from my computer, just in case! The cats have a habit of parachuting onto my desk with little regard for the state of the drop zone.
For snacks, I tend to eat cereal like Cheerios or Special K, straight from the bowl with no spoon, and no milk. Weird, I know. I’m trying to retrain my sweet tooth, but I have a weakness for Jelly Belly jelly beans and Cadbury’s milk chocolate.
And how do you celebrate the completion of the book (you winning against procrastination)?
ZS: By having a day or two off without feeling guilty for not writing anything. A neck, back, and shoulder massage is usually a must by then, too, as everything will have started to knot itself tight as I reach the closing stages of the book. But it’s only ever a temporary reprieve, because then I’ll be into planning the next book, or edits, or some other writing task I’ve been putting off while I was finishing the current work-in-progress. It never ends, really. Good job I love what I do, isn’t it?
Huge thanks to Zoe Sharp for popping by the CTG blog and letting me grill her about procrastination and her writing habits.
Zoe’s latest book DANCING ON THE GRAVE is out now. You can find out more about it over on Amazon by clicking the book cover below:
And find out more about Zoe and all her books (including the fabulous Charlie Fox series) by checking out her website and social media…
Zoë Sharp was born in Nottinghamshire but spent her formative years living aboard a catamaran on the northwest coast of England. She opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve and wrote her first novel at fifteen. She wrote the first of her highly acclaimed crime thriller series featuring ex-Special Forces trainee turned bodyguard, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox, after receiving death-threats in the course of her work as a photojournalist. When not involved with renovating houses, crewing other people’s yachts, or improvising weapons out of everyday objects, she can often be found international pet-sitting.