Wednesday, 28 September 2011


The idea was that I would respond to Prof. Tom McLeish’s blog What makes a good scientist? with a companion post, What makes a good writer? I thought it would be interesting to compare the similarities and differences, but to my astonishment, I find Tom has already written my post for me. Substitute the word “novelist” for “scientist” and his blog could stand for what makes a good writer.

LG's 3rd novel (paperback and Kindle e-book)
Tom sets out his stall with “the cornerstone of all good science [is] observation. Real, deep, questing, searching looking at and into things.” Substitute writing for science and the sentence can stand. Looking at and into things and thinking about them is the basis of all good writing, whether it’s drama or journalism. The business of looking and seeing is so central to writing (and central to my writing) that I decided to write a novel about seeing/not seeing and for STAR GAZING, I created a congenitally blind, first-person narrator who would be well placed to challenge the other characters’ assumptions, not to mention the reader’s. The scientist hero says of her, “It’s not you with the limited perception, Marianne. Folk who can see just don’t seem to look.” (And Tom’s Nobel-prizewinning lecturer complained, “People are losing the ability to see – they don't look down their microscopes any more ...”)

Tom talks about a scientist needing to have an open mind, curiosity, many interests, an ability to reject assumptions. All these form part of the job description for a good writer. He also mentions the need to make connections. This too is essential for a writer of fiction and drama. You can’t plot without it, nor can you motivate characters convincingly. In a good story, actions have causes and consequences.

It’s perhaps not all that surprising that Tom’s list of basic characteristics of good scientists are also required by writers. Arguably other arts practitioners (eg actors, painters, designers) also need these qualities, not to mention historians, geographers & philosophers. But I found myself reading with a dropped jaw when Tom began to get into the detail of being a good scientist, because it seems even when you get down to that level, a good scientist still has much in common with a good writer.

Tom wrote, “A good scientist needs to take the blinkers off, not to be afraid of initially crazy-sounding ideas, and certainly should not be too hasty in judging an idea until it is developed.” This in essence is what I say to student writers when I teach. It’s also what I say to myself when contemplating the creative abyss that stands between me and beginning work on a new novel. If I knew how I was going to solve the problems thrown up by my plot, if I knew how my story would end, I doubt I’d bother to write it. If I already knew the outcome of the experiment, why bother to investigate? No, I write to find out what happens. (Perhaps a low boredom threshold is also a characteristic of a good writer? If you bore easily, there’s less chance you’ll bore your reader.)

So I like to know just enough about my story to be able to begin to write and for me, any story begins with questions. Why? When? What? Who? How? The answers can come much later in the creative process, which is both exciting and nerve-wracking but I've learned to trust the process. Over the years I’ve found that even the craziest-sounding plot has resolved itself in my subconscious and conscious minds because I’ve been “thinking about it constantly” (as Newton said of his theory of gravity.) 

Tom refers to that “strange interplay of the conscious and unconscious mind in the creative scientific imagination”. I refer to this process as “disappearing into the world of the book”. When writing a novel, we enter this world for short periods to begin with, but as the book progresses, a novelist spends longer and more intense periods in this alternative world until, towards the end of the book, s/he scarcely emerges from it and almost finds it difficult to distinguish between the real and fictional worlds. 

The author may be gone for some time.
Ask the family of any novelist about the final stages of completing a book and chances are, they’ll describe someone with a listless and distracted air who doesn’t really listen to conversation or participate in it; someone who’ll consume meals without noticing what s/he eats; who stares into the middle distance, apparently grappling with a three-pipe problem. That writer has descended into the underworld of the book and might be gone for some time…

Tom described another of my writing processes, also common to other writers: “The momentum of thought built up by conscious wrestling with a problem can be gloriously released days or weeks later by a mysterious process of background thinking.” Or, as I call it, “the psyche-up”. Over the years, some serious things have happened to my characters. They’ve been variously buried in an avalanche, blown up by a bomb, burned alive, raped, maimed in a car accident and trapped down a well. They’ve attempted suicide, slept with a sibling and accidentally killed a child. I like drama. It’s challenging to write and it keeps readers turning the pages. But to write a challenging scene, I find I have to prepare, mentally and emotionally, almost like an athlete in training for a big event. Then when I finally feel ready, I dive in to my alternative world and I don’t come up for air until the dreadful deed is done.

It is indeed, as Tom says, “a mysterious process” and apparently not dissimilar to the “exercise in vertigo” that a good scientist performs: “One can only make progress by diving right down into the fine details of a problem or phenomenon, but it is just as important to pull up and climb to an intellectual height where the context of your problem comes into view.” From that intellectual height an author edits and re-writes. That meticulous and repetitive slog is just as important as the creative inspiration that brings a story to life.

The author at play. (Or planning a novel?...)
Writing is hard work and can be draining, but it isn’t all doom and gloom. (Writing fiction is so badly paid, if writing weren’t its own reward, few would do it. We write because it is hugely enjoyable.) Tom says, “a good scientist has not lost the delight of play”. Nor has a good writer. My son once referred to my fiction writing as playing with my imaginary friends and I don’t think I’ve come across a better definition of what I do for a living. My characters are my friends. They are imaginary. And I am playing.

But do not disturb. This is also a writer working.

 Linda Gillard’s latest novel, UNTYING THE KNOT is not your average love story. The heroine's divorced. From the hero. There’s a rom-com subplot, some explosions, several war zones, flashbacks (in all senses), two weddings, and the restoration of a ruinous Scottish castle. 

Or to put it another way, TWO WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL meets THE HURT LOCKER.
Available as a Kindle e-book on Amazon.

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