Writing Gremlins…It seems even the masters have to suffer them

My mum called me up the other day, and rather than inform me of the death of someone I’ve never even heard of (you DO know her, his niece was in your class at primary school….), she said: “I’m just ringing to check if you’d seen that programme about Ian Rankin? I thought you’d think it was interesting.”

The programme she was talking about was called IMAGINE – you can watch it on BBC i-player.

It was basically an hour long fly-on-the-wall-documentary, in which crime writer Ian Rankin invites us to follow him as he writes his next novel.

I had watched it (riveting) and it was music to my ears my mum had seen it too. I could kiss Ian Rankin for making that programme, in fact (I could kind of kiss him anyway. He’s all scruffy and beer-loving and a bit grumpy and Scottish..) for the simple reason that he explained more about what it really feels like to be a writer, in that hour-long programme, than I could ever explain myself. When I say ‘explain’ I suppose I really mean ‘excuse’, because whether you are a national treasure like Ian Rankin, or you write chick-lit, or you write thrillers, or crime or you simply write in the hope of being published one day, I’ve come to the conclusion that writers are all pretty much the same, in that at times during the ‘creative process’ (I mean, we sometimes use phrases like that – see what I mean?) the best you can hope for is to ‘tolerate’ us until the self-doubt and the self-absorption is over. For a while at least. That said, I met possibly the most laidback writer I have ever met last week. She was 5000 words into a novel that had to be finished by the end of the year and was completely CHILLED OUT ABOUT THIS. She felt aggrieved if she had to work for more than four hours a day, she never wrote at the weekend and – this was the biggest revelation – put aside no time for ‘thinking’, she just ‘free wrote’ and let the ‘movie in her mind play itself out on paper”. (My God, the time I’d save if I didn’t have thinking time. It’s what I spend most of my life doing!) I was completely in awe of her coolness and promised myself I would become more like her in future. Like, I would actually write rather than draw spider diagrams of characters and themes (see pic insert) and spend whole days staring out of the window..

Anyway, (apart from anomalies like her) I am sure there were many writers who, like me, watched that documentary last week and shouted ‘Yes!” at everything Ian Rankin said, especially at his face, the what I call ‘all my family have been killed in a car crash’ expression that he was wearing during his pieces to camera, when the book wasn’t going so well. I shivered, I did, I ran my hands through my greasy unwashed hair (as it is today, a bad writing day) in sympathy and recognition.

So, I thought I’d share with you the ‘writer gremlins’ if you like, that Rankin revealed he suffers from, that had me shouting ‘yes!” at the TV screen too. AND I am only four books in…..are you telling me Mr Rankin, that things do not improve? HELP!

The p 65 meltdown:

Oh yes, I know this well. You start off all guns blazing. You’ve got loads of ideas for the opening few chapters, this is going to be THE BEST BOOK YOU HAVE EVER WRITTEN. You’ve got down the best Prologue ever (which if you’re anything like me, took you about a month because you kept re-reading and re-writing and re-writing, until you’d re-written everything good out of it and then became so bored with it, you had to write another). You have set up the premise – so this is going to be a book about a dog who goes mad / this is a book about a woman who runs off with her best friend’s husband or whatever – You have introduced your characters; your brilliant, layered and complex characters, and everything’s going well until…..yep, about p65, about four chapters in if you’re me; a sixth of the book. Then MELTDOWN hits. What, actually, is this book about? What are you trying to SAY? (That’s probably the question I sweat most about….) What is going to actually happen to these characters you have created? You may have your first three chapters and your last one (with the book I am writing now, I wrote the last scene around the same time as I wrote Chapter One) but what about the aching gap in between? What about the three hundred and fifty pages you yet have to fill?!! YOU HAVE NO SCENE IDEAS! YOU’VE USED ALL YOUR IDEAS! YOU HAVE NO MATERIAL! NIGHTMARE….

Every Book is the Wreck of a Perfect Idea –

This is a quote that Rankin revealed he has stuck on his study wall (I can think of more encouraging things….! I have a quote stolen from Anne Tyler’s office wall that says ‘As a queen sits down, knowing a chair will be there, or a general raises his hand and is given field glasses, step off assuredly into the blank of your mind. Something will come to you..’ I live in constant hope…) and oh my God, just that phrase alone made my blood run cold, because it was so TRUE. When I thought about it, the best bit of writing a novel for me, is the bit before you touch it, before you start it, the THINKING period, where you are amassing your notes and deciding on your characters (that are going to live in the minds and the hearts of the readers for a very long time of course..) and your book exists as this wonderful thing of beauty and truth, which poses big questions about humanity and in which all the scenes exist in your head as a sort of sun-dappled, sepia-toned set of rushes from an art-house film. And then, THEN you start to try to translate that intangible idea, how your book ‘feels’ in your head onto paper, yep, into actual words, and it shrivels up like newspaper in a fire, like spinach in a steamer…(And you start to come up with imagery like that…) Suddenly your perfect idea is a wreck before your very eyes, slipping through your fingers like sand. So what do you do? You avoid writing it, you just THINK about it, that way it stays perfect, it never becomes a wreck (or sees the light of day). Eeek.
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The Fear That Comes From Nowhere

During the documentary, Ian Rankin explains to camera how he has had a few days of really good work, only to suddenly hit THE FEAR – that basically he has no idea where this book is going. At this point I really was jigging up and down in front of the telly – thank GOD it’s not just me, if Ian bloody Rankin gets THE FEAR then I am normal! Thank God, I am normal. For me, THE FEAR is a dangerous one because once it takes a hold, it can really slow me down. This summer, it stopped me writing for a month because I was so scared of putting anything that might be crap down on paper, that I didn’t put anything down at all ( not advisable!) I am sure that Ian Rankin is much more sensible and less bonkers than that and pressed on, even if he wasn’t sure that what he was writing was any good or where it was leading (this IS advisable). I have come to accept THE FEAR as part of the ‘creadive process….’ and although it’s still horrible, one thing I can say, is that THE FEAR is becoming less scary as time goes on, and probably makes you ask yourself questions that need to be asked / are beneficial, in the long run. In the short run, you can make life a bit of a bind for those sorry souls who have to spend any time with you. “I just stay out of his way” said Rankin’s wife, Miranda. Very sensible advice.

The not-so Casual Vacancy

There’s a bit in the film where Rankin goes to a posh publishing party and is seen sipping champagne, chatting to people only to say to camera: “Half of me is here but the other half is writing the book, at home’ or words to that effect. “I thought my God, that’s you!” my mum said “You always get that vacant look on your face when you’re thinking about your book’ (last time I was home, she said I was “only ever half there” that I ‘”I didn’t live in the same world as everyone else” – mainly because I never watched A Place in The Sun. Oh dear. She’s right though. Friends have driven past me and caught me talking to myself whilst walking down the road (trying out a bit of character dialogue, you know…..) and I can stand in the middle of shops having forgotten what I’m there for, because I’m too busy working out some problem in my book. It’s an occupational hazard sometimes. When I crashed the car in France this summer, Egg said “You were thinking about your book, weren’t you?” At first I barefaced denied it. DON’T BE RIDICULOUS, AS IF I DIDN’T HAVE MY MIND ONE HUNDRED PER CENT ON DRIVING IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY. But in reality, it was one hundred per cent true……I’d had a particularly unproductive morning’s writing and I just wanted to sort out such and such a problem out in my head = vacant = driving on wrong side of the road = writing a car off = £1700 bill. Bloody expensive job. I should claim the tax back

So, these are the same gremlins I grapple with, the same as Rankin, the same as every other writer, I’m sure. I’m just glad Ian Rankin exposed them for the evil little f***ers they are. At least I’m in good company!

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