A fortnight ago, my third novel HOW WE MET was published. It’s an emotional drama about a group of friends, all approaching thirty, going through that ‘second coming of age’ as I call it; that time in your life, when you realize you may not become an astronaut or a rock star after all, when LIFE seems to get that bit more serious; when you feel occasionally, like it might be all over. Add to this the fact that the group – Mia, Fraser, Anna, Melody and Norm – are coming to terms with the death of one of their clan, and it throws their lives, into even sharper focus.
It was a special book for me to write and one that actually came quite easy compared to the previous two, One Thing Led to Another (published in 2009) and The One Before the One (2011). It may be my third book (almost my fourth, since between one and two, I wrote another book that didn’t work and that I had to shelve at 40,000 words! Awful!) but seeing it on the shelves was just as exciting – if not more – since I’d wanted to write a book about friendship for years.
It’s hard to imagine that, when I started out writing, I was at the same stage in life as the characters in HOW WE MET. Although, thank God I hadn’t lost a close friend, I had also just been through a major life change myself (having a baby in a not-so-conventional set up) and was mourning, in a way, how I thought my life would turn out (marriage, two kids, a ‘trampoline in the back garden’ type existence!) I was still a features writer at Marie Claire. I’d started writing a (very bad) novel and was dabbling in short stories, but I hadn’t found my voice. Then, I fell accidentally pregnant by my best friend (our son Fergus is now eight) and everything changed for me – in fact it turned out to be a fine career move. I was commissioned to write a column, And then there were three….sort of about the experience which proved to be so successful it ran for two years. Writing this – the fact it was real and very honest – helped me to develop my voice, which is probably the most important thing you can do for your writing. HOWEVER, any ideas I may have had that I would find it easy to write a novel because I could write journalism and was already a columnist, proved to be very wrong indeed! Although writing the column gave me a structure for my first novel – One Thing Led to Another was a fictionalized account, really, of my experience of having a baby with my friend – I very quickly learned that the skills needed to write good fiction, were totally different to those needed to write features (like er….you have to have a plot, a narrative, characters.)
There then followed two years of me basically teaching myself to write fiction: I read loads, I read text books about writing (PLOT AND STRUCTURE in the Write Fiction series was – and still is – my plotting Bible) I played around with so many voices, until I found one that fit. I think and hope now, that my writing has improved dramatically and I look back at those first drafts of that first manuscript and cringe (thank God. The worry is, it won’t be much different to your writing seven years down the line!) However, although I have definitely had more practice and am therefore more skilled now, I still have the same ‘writer’s gremlins’. I still falter after the first 30,000 words, I still get the FEAR on an almost weekly basis. I still have days when I can’t write anything and think, I am just not cut out for this. However, the difference now, is that I recognize this is part of the whole process. This is the ‘nature of the beast’ as it were. This is also why I was so greatly cheered when I saw a programme about the crime writer Ian Rankin – and saw that even the masters seem to suffer writing gremlins.
It was my mum, actually who called me up 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 and 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 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 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.
I am sure there were many writers who, like me, watched that documentary too 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 shuddered in empathy 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 sure will have some of you doing the same. AND I am only four books in…..are you telling me Mr Rankin, that things do not improve?!
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 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 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….! 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 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.
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 than chances are every writer does! 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 for a month (also 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 term, 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 denied it, but 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 for that.
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!
And my advice to the characters in HOW WE MET who wonder, sometimes, if it’s all over? If they’ll no longer achieve their dreams now they’re knocking on thirty? Rubbish! I’m ahem….approaching another big birthday – and yet I feel like I am still achieving my dreams bit by bit: to become a better writer; to write a better book. The great thing with writing is, despite (and maybe because of ) those writer gremlins, every day feels like you’re achieving a little dream: you crack a character, you solve a plot problem, you write something that makes your heart sing….
HOW WE MET published by Harper Collins is out now in paperback and available on Kindle: http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-We-Met-Katy-Regan
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