How They Write: Gillian Polack

Last week I turned to BiblioBuffet’s columnists to find out what they think about e-galleys. This week is the beginning of a series with the columnists wherein I asked them to talk about their writing process. I was specifically interested in what they do when they review a book because reading in preparation is very different, at least it is for me, than reading for simple pleasure regardless of how entertaining I find the book. But I only know about me. This series, beginning with Gillian Polack, explores how others do it.

I’d like to claim that I all I do is hang around for days and wait for ideas then write an article in an hour and move on. That has just enough of truth in it so that I can almost claim it. I drink coffee and cook strange foods and work very hard on other things while I’m waiting for ideas. I read and read some more. Then I read some more again. If I’ve read too many of one kind of book, then I switch genres for a bit. I read some more.

All this means is that I continue with life as usual, but there’s a tiny bit in my brain waiting. I’m not waiting for ideas, though. Ideas are a dime a dozen (with modern money, that makes them very cheap indeed). I’m waiting for the right kind of emotion or insight when reading or thinking about a book. Not to mention the right type of emotion or insight: the type that can be translated into something that’s more than 100 words long.

Little ideas go on Facebook or my blog or get attached to bigger things in a novel or something else. What I’m after for BiblioBuffet are books that make me passionate, for good or ill and that translate into a moment where I can see the first few hundred words of an article, ready to write. This is where all the reading pays off.

At that moment, when the beginning and the first section is clear in my mind, I’ll sit down and I’ll write furiously. I might go back to the book or books that gave me the idea, but mostly, I finish one draft in one session.

When I had read Sharratt’s Witches of Pendle, I knew I wanted to write about it, but was torn between different approaches. I visited the Art Gallery with a friend.  Poor Marg. She noticed me take out paper and pen and start scribbling madly. She said to me gently “I’ll meet you at the other end, Gillian.” That wasn’t a complete article, but it was very quick to write the final, once I had the relationship between painting and Pendle sorted. That was my piece with the most typos and inconsistencies, however, because my writing is 100% unreadable and my eyesight is rather problematic. I think I spent more time weeding out errors than I spent writing the thing. I still suspect there are errors in there. This is why I mostly draft on the computer.

The pieces that are written in one sitting are internally more consistent. That’s about half the articles I write for BiblioBuffet. The others are written in two sittings, because the phone has rung or because it suddenly all seems too much. When I’m off the phone or have made myself a coffee, I go back and check the core idea. That feeling of fatigue is my signal that there’s something wrong, that I’m going in the wrong direction. Each and every time I’ve wimped out, I was about to go (very passionately) down a stupid path. The phone, or my eyes, or my lack of moral fibre have all worked with me to make me stop and think. Two pieces I’ve put on hold until I stop trying to malign the innocent, but all the others were slightly reshaped and are now online for your viewing pleasure.

When I’m working on something I’ve left partway, I always go back to the beginning. I don’t reshape it from where I left off, but from the very first words. I don’t often rewrite a great deal, but it’s important to me that I don’t begin by arguing that white is black and end with an argument that white is really a rather faded purple. I also want to keep the tone consistent, and if I don’t start from the very beginning (I keep telling people that it’s a very fine place to start) I’ll turn a sober mood into a series of execrable puns.

All this sounds as if I don’t do much research. I laugh in the face of research. No, that’s a lie. I laugh in the face of key research being done in the middle of writing rather than before the idea for the article sorts itself out. I check detail at the end (mostly), and will stop and rethink and reread the books I’m writing about if I need to at any stage, but for me most of the thinking happens before I write. I keep the books I write about nearby when I write, just in case, but it’s very important to me to have done all the thinking (and that means all the background research essential to the thinking) before I begin. My life is continually about thinking about writing, about books and about ideas. It looks very much as if I’m watching DVDs and hanging around drinking spiced tea, but in reality I’m slotting narrative ideas into place for use later.

Next week is Lev Raphael.



Filed under BiblioBuffet

3 responses to “How They Write: Gillian Polack

  1. I completely relate to Gillian’s last remarks.

    Today at the gym someone said to me, “It’s going to be rainy–a good day for writing, no?” And I said, “Every day’s a good day. I’m always writing, no matter what the weather or where I am, or whether I have a computer, my iPad, a notebook or whatever. Something is always working in my head, and often it’s a column for BB, or the possibility of one.” 🙂

  2. Wow, I’ve missed so much! How they write–what a great idea for a series. I adore process and was riveted by Gillian’s every word.

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