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Iain Banks

Today, Iain Banks announced that he is terminally ill. Several articles about what an imaginative and talented writer (and by all accounts, a smashing guy) he is have already appeared online, and countless more will doubtless follow, but shouting into the void or not, I felt it would be wrong not to say something about how much his writing has given me.

My first encounter with his work was eleven years ago when The Bridge popped up on my university reading list. I knew who he was, and I recognised those black and white book covers, but for whatever reason, I had never picked any of his books up before. The Bridge, for want of a better term, was a revelation. I hadn’t read anything like it before. It was an absolute labyrinth of ideas, different voices weaving in and out of each other’s stories and a conceit that, once understood, blows the whole thing open. The irregular beeping on the phone, the endless bridge that may circle the globe, Dissy Pitton’s, the bar where the furniture hangs on chains from the ceiling: it’s dizzyingly rich in memorable images. It’s not so much writing as it is architecture: the result is this incredible structure that you just want to keep taking in. I inhaled it first time round, and can’t count the number of times I have re-read it since.

I gorged on his back catalogue, and have eagerly awaited every subsequent book (his astoundingly prolific output means that he has pretty much written a book a year since the year after I was born), falling in love with the playfulness and seriousness of his craft. It’s a unique voice, but one that is extremely versatile. That the same writer conjured the wide-eyed naivety of Isis in Whit and the grizzly, gory nastiness of Complicity is difficult to believe, and yet makes perfect sense. And then you have The Crow Road: often cited as having one of the best opening lines in literature (“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”), it wraps three generations up in one web of jealousy and inadequacy which is both tremendously sad and somehow humorous.  The TV adaptation with Joe McFadden, Peter Capaldi, Bill Paterson and a questionable denim shirt dress is also well worth investigation. 

It’s the way he plays with time that I’ve always enjoyed. Many of his books don’t have a linear structure, a constant concealing and revealing which is difficult to resist. Hell, for most of The Bridge, you don’t even know who the protagonist is. There is an unmistakable Scottishness too, but it’s never tokenistic: it’s a genuine part of the characters, and they happen to be Scottish rather than it being their defining trait. After years of reading fiercely Scottish writing at school and university, it was hugely refreshing, and as an aspiring fiction writer, I found it genuinely inspiring. There is an incredible sense of possibility throughout his work. Plus he swears a lot. Like I said, a genuine voice. 

The release of his next book, The Quarry, has been moved forward so that he has ‘a better chance of being around to when it hits the shelves‘, so we have one last new work to enjoy, but it’s little comfort. We are losing an incredible talent, and if there is any solace to be found it’s that his brilliant, bafflingly diverse works will remain.

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Across the finish line – NaNoWriMo 2011

50,085 words, and I am done!

It was a tough one this year, and I’m far from in love with what I’ve created, but nice to know I can still do it. Mr Shaky is, as I type, finishing up lyrics for his lot of songs for this year, and he still has a day to go, so it’s looking doable.

This year’s experience has been odd. I really don’t feel like I’ve been as involved with my characters as I was last year, and that possibly shows, but it was an attempt at a different kind of book. That’s what I have enjoyed using NaNoWriMo for, exploring different ideas. Trying a writing style I’m not used to is fine for a few weeks of madness as if I hate it, I’m not too attached. This one went a wee bit haywire, and I think the end is possibly too satisfying, but at least it has an end, and that’s kind of the point.

To the following albums, I say thanks for getting me through this one: Mew – …And the Glass-Handed Kites, Wild Beasts – Smother, Antlers – Burst Apart and Hospice (sweet Lord, my post last week about songs that make me cry was pre-emptive given that I heard Epilogue for the first time at the weekend and just about combusted), The Birthday Suit – The Eleventh Hour, Roddy Woomble – The Impossible Song and Other Songs, The National – Boxer.

Now is most certainly the time for a beer.

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Nano 2011: Nine days to go

30,195 words, and surprise, surprise, I’m behind. About 5,000 words behind, to be precise, but after spending most of last week flailing, the good ol’  bonkers plot twist announced itself at the weekend (I believe while brushing my teeth, fact fans), and I reckon I can pad this questionable thing out for another 19,000-odd words. Not my finest hour, this one, but it’s all about the process, isn’t it? Then I can get on with December, making best of the year playlists and generally having a life again. How nice.

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Day 11 – NaNoWriMo fatigue

My God, fatigue hasn’t half hit. As of last night, I’m still on target (16700-odd words), but I’m also grinding to an almighty halt. Yesterday’s word count was reached mostly by idly tapping words I might use at some point down at the bottom of that damn Word document, after lots of ellipses so I don’t accidentally forget I haven’t written in whole sentences. I don’t think I like my main character anymore, which isn’t helping, and I think it’s all becoming a bit depressing. And I have a deeply held hatred for grim for the sake of grim books. Maybe I need to introduce a happy pixie (I shan’t).
Temptation to give up is strong, but I’ve got this far, and I should be hitting the halfway stage on Tuesday, so onwards and upwards and all that. Think I might take tonight off, though, and attack it refreshed on Saturday. Wish me luck.

On another, brighter note, oh, Antlers, where have you been all my life? This is glorious.

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Nanowrimo – day 4

I still have the will to live! Hurrah! And am on target! Well, I was yesterday. Haven’t sat down to do any yet today, but I will. I’m still at the stage where I don’t really know what it’s about or where it’s going. Looking at Twitter, I see a lot of people make thorough plans, outlines, chapter breakdowns, but the past two times I’ve done it, I’ve quite enjoyed just letting rip and seeing what happens. The plot of last year’s effort was bonkers, and yet when I re-read it a few weeks ago, I was actually quite proud of it (which is rare), and that book never would have happened if I had tried to plan something out first. The madness that kicks in as the deadline approaches provokes some pretty spurious reasoning, and I think that’s my favourite thing about it.

Anyway, so far, this year’s plot feels a bit grim, so something needs to be done to lift it. I’m not sure I’m brave enough a fiction writer to attempt to be making a Big Point About Mortality, so it needs toned down, reined in. Or maybe the opposite. Time will tell.

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Two days til take off

Preparatory notes, and excitable thumb.

November is now only 30 hours away, and I’m ridiculously eager to get cracking on Nanowrimo this year. I’ve spent today making some notes and trying to jolt my mind into action. I’ve been flicking through both volumes of Monica Wood’s The Pocket Muse (shame the website is terrible, but there you go), two fantastic little books full of ideas to get your started, techniques for getting over writer’s block and language exercises. The first was a present from pretty much the finest writer I know (and indeed the person I owe my entire published career to), the second a present from Mr Shaky, and both have been very well used. If you’re Nanoing this year, I’d recommend investing in either or both of them.

As with last year, I’ll update periodically and will try not to moan too much. Mr Shaky is trying his musical challenge again this year, writing three four-song EPs in November. Tonight, it’s time for one last non-fiction assignment – reviewing Lykke Li at the ABC beckons – then it’s head down, see you in December.

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Nanowrimo 2011 – the countdown begins

19 and a bit days of sanity remain: it’s almost Nanowrimo time again. Last year, I managed 50,075 words in 29 days, and I’m not daft enough to try to get it done more quickly this year, but I’m still daft enough to try.

I’ve had a few people ask me why on earth I do it, particularly as no one apart from Mr Shaky has been subjected to (or volunteered to) read the finished result, and I don’t really have an amazing answer, I’m afraid. I do it because I love to write, and because it’s a risk-free way of trying something different and potentially ridiculous. If you sit down to write a novel properly, that can be years of your life spent on something you might never be happy with: battering out the minimum 50,000 words in a moment means you’re less attached to what you write, less invested in the characters, and no matter what nonsense you end up writing, you can still sit back and admire the fact that you wrote any words of it at all, let alone 50,000. Plus I love a good deadline.

Last year’s was written almost entirely to a soundtrack of The National’s High Violet and Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest, which did end up informing the tone of the piece in places, and which I can’t listen to now without being taken back to writing the thing. Time to invest in a couple of new albums and batten down the hatches. Things are about to get antisocial.

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