Saturday 9 January 2016

Crawl Space welcomes Ian Rankin

Not many crime writers will tell you, "I've never regretted not plotting," but when Ian Rankin says it, you pay attention. His Rebus series has been translated into 22 languages and is bestselling across continents. He consistently serves up the top plots in the business, makes twists and turns look like child's play, keeps readers guessing to the last page. And he does it without plotting. Sits down with no more than a page and half of notes and ... writes.

So of course I had to ask him how the dickens he does it. And to tell him how chuffed I am that he does, because I too prefer not to plot but it'd been making me feel a bit of a fraud. We got chatting on Twitter and, since we're both busy writing new books, of course we wanted to extend our chat a bit further. Here's what happened.

SH: Have you always winged it, or did you ever try plotting? I did, once. It involved an A3 pad and a lot of coloured post-it-notes. The result looked like a science project, and made me hate the story. I think writing it down, for me, does two things. First, it reveals too many weaknesses in the story which I then obsess over. Second, it bores me rigid.

IR: I have the feeling that if I knew what was going to happen in a story I wouldn't need to write the story. I know as little as my characters when I start. Their journey is mine. I did once plot a book (Sabbath Child) so completely that I never felt the need to write it…

SH: Yes! That's exactly it - knowing the story inside out, why write it? Okay, but have you ever regretted not plotting? What's the worse corner you've written yourself into, and how did you get out? I'm guessing it's not a problem you've had recently, if ever, but maybe I'm wrong?

IR: If something works for you as a writer, you tend to stick with it, so I've never regretted not plotting. I trust to the muse. I have a theme I want to explore or a question I want to try and answer, and I wait for the narrative (muse) to show me the way. Have I ever written myself into a corner? Not radically so. If I get a bit stuck, I talk it through with my wife. She reads a lot of fiction, including crime novels, so she knows the terrain. I also find that if I lie in bed late at night and think the problem through, especially just before sleep, that my mind starts to provide answers. Or I might be walking to the cafe of a morning and the answer arrives. We are all different in our approaches, I'd say. What works for me might not work for you. Writing is more art than science.

SH: My favourite thing about not-plotting is having a character pull the rug out from under me. What's the most surprising thing one of your characters has ever done?

IR: I've had characters die on me who weren't supposed to. The politician in Set In Darkness was supposed to be in three books. Halfway into the first book, he was already dead. The story demanded it. Oh well, I thought. On the other hand, Cafferty, Rebus's nemesis, was only supposed to be in one book, but he got beneath my skin and stuck around. 

SH: Cafferty got under readers' skins too, so that was a good call. Did you ever change who the killer was, by writing free-style?

IR: I'm not sure I've ever changed who the killer was, but I've had plenty of books where the identity of the killer only came to me twenty or thirty pages before the end. In fact, in The Hanging Garden, it was the second draft before I worked out who the killer was. The first draft had these blank spaces, to be filled in once I'd made up my mind. Reading that first draft helped me realise who had done it and why.

SH: And The Hanging Garden is almost impossible to guess before the reveal - obviously that's partly down to your evil-genius, but I bet it helped that you hadn't decided in advance who the killer was. I kept changing my mind about the killer in the final third of Tastes Like Fear because the story kept flipping as it hit that final stride. I always think that if we don't know the Big Reveal then we can't give it away. And writing to find out the answers is as close to our readers' experience of reading to find out answers as we can get. Do you ever envy plotters? I know I do, usually at the editing stage …

IR: Not having a clear idea of the plot makes for a nervy process. It's a high-wire act. Certainly would be nice, maybe, but it's not the way I've worked, and not doing it has always worked for me, if you see what I mean. So I just have to trust that all shall be well. I need to hand in a new novel by the end of June and right now I've got about a page and a half of notes. That's not so unusual. I know what I want the book to be *about* (in thematic terms), but the plot is as vague as ever. Re plotters, I remember James Ellroy saying he does 300-400-page synopses of his books. He needs to know everything before he starts. Seems to work for him! 
SH: know several who get it all down to within an inch of its life and then start writing. They spend about three times as long plotting vs writing. That would make me miserable. The writing is the best bit, for me. Are your readers surprised when they hear you don't plot? I imagine quite a lot would be, because most people think great twists can only be managed with great plotting.

IR: Yes, readers and interviewers often don't believe me. But then they never see my first drafts, which are chaotic affairs full of bracketed instructions to myself about what needs to be done in second draft now I've worked out what's going on! Second and third drafts tidy everything up, and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.

Another thing, though not especially pertinent, is that I do the bulk of the research after the first draft, by which time I know what I need to know rather than what I might need to know. Speeds the process up!

SH: Excellent point about the research. I always retro-fit mine, to avoid time suckage. Do your bracketed instructions and/or notes include lots of questions for yourself and your characters? Mine do. I find having questions is better than having a list of scenes/beats etc. The real art is knowing when to answer the questions, of course, in terms of the story arc. I'm still fathoming that one.

IR: My first draft notes are more a kind of dawning: 'oh, *you* were in the hotel bar that night, so maybe it was you that found the room-key' - that sort of thing. I can then go back to early scenes (in the second draft) and place that character in the setting.

I keep saying we are all different, but your way of working seems quite similar to mine - maybe we are legion…

SH: I think there are more of us than readers realise, perhaps because the plotters tend to talk more widely about their methods? When I get asked how I wrote Someone Else's Skin I always feel I'm disappointing people with the honest answer ("I just sat down every day, and wrote"). I can remember really wanting to learn the science of writing a crime novel when I started out, but as you say there isn't one. It's an art. Plus a lot of hard graft.

I'm assuming you never had a 'series arc' for Rebus? That the answers to questions thrown up in early books weren't hidden in your notebooks for revealing in book 4 or 9? I deliberately don't answer certain questions because I want to be surprised by the writing. But I do get a bit edgy about dead-ending certain backstories, for instance, by saying so-and-so was in such-and-such a place at a certain time only to realise that a really good twist in book 4 depends on them having been somewhere else entirely. 

IR: Ah, that was something I wanted to bring up - thanks for nudging me. There was never a plan for Rebus. Still isn't. I know some authors who know what their next 3 or 4 books are going to be. I never know until about a month prior to starting what the next book might be about. For Even Dogs In The Wild I had the image of someone trying to shoot Cafferty, and I had the notion of a treasure hunt. That was about it.

Anyway, to return to your question, because Rebus book one was meant to be Rebus book only, I put in tons of elaborate back story, etc, all of which I then had to retain once I knew I was actually writing a series. Stuff like: father a stage hypnotist, brother a drug dealer, is scared of flying, etc. Oh, and I'd made him too old, which would come back to bite me.

SH: Spinoff series ‘Rebus Sr. Stage Hypnotist’. Final question's a bit of an odd one. Do you need to be physically slightly uncomfortable in order to write? I find I need to be a bit cold, or a bit too upright, or hungry. Then I promise myself the sofa and a gin when I hit 2,000 words for the day. I can't write if I'm too comfortable, either physically or mentally. (This one might just be me!)

IR: I need to be either in my office (spare bedroom in my house) or my retreat (house in Cromarty). I sit on a bog-standard chair, and my desk in Edinburgh was bought dirt-cheap in London in 1986. I've been suffering some back pain and have been told I should buy an ergonomic chair and an adjustable desk. Hmm. Maybe. But discomfort is nothing new to me. In France (1990-96) I wrote in a draughty attic with a calor heater for company. When we moved back to Edinburgh my 'office' was an alcove between kitchen and living room which also housed the washing machine and drying pulley. So, you know... Maybe if you're too comfy/cosy you write 'nicer' books! 

I never do a word count by the way. I know some writers do, and will stop when they hit a certain 'magic' number. Some days I'll do 10 pages (that's probably 3,000-3,500 words). Other days I might do 600 words or so. I do try and write every day once a book is underway, but the spirit can flag sometimes and soar others. I also don't revise as I go. I don't look back at anything I've written until I'm maybe 100 pages in. This means characters sometimes change names in the course of the first draft, but the second draft corrects all those things...

Many thanks, Ian, that was fascinating. And good luck with the new book; we can't wait!

Ian Rankin is the Featured Guest Author at CrimeFest in Bristol, 19-22 May 2016.

His latest book, Even Dogs in the Wild, is out now, published by Orion.

His website is ace, and he's brilliant on Twitter.


Jane Risdon Author said...

So pleased to know I am not alone in just writing and letting the story lead. I am sure I'd be bored out of my skull if I had to write pages of notes and synopsis before I started to write. I like surprises and I'd hate to have everything clear cut before starting. I think that would be like writing to a brief and with little room for someone new to pop in or pop off as everything would be outlined with no space for a little wiggle room. Love Ian Rankin's books. So glad he is a 'pantser' like me.
Fab interview, thanks both.

Sarah Hilary said...

Good to know, Jane, and thanks for dropping by. Good luck with your writing.

SS academic said...

This was a fascinating read. My writing is social sciences academic so it's formulaic in structure, but I've always written to unearth what I'm trying to argue. Makes it very difficult to work with co-authors though... I keep my sanity by reading murder fiction so thanks for keeping me sane :-)

Anonymous said...

This is the most open I've read Ian Rankin being - maybe because it's just a "writing chat" with a fellow writer and he knows there's going to be no nosey personal questions? Not that you ever feel he's being obstructive in interviews; on the contrary, he's always polite and "gives good copy." But it sounds like both of you hugely enjoyed this really interesting conversation, as I did reading it. When I saw Sophie Hannah at Bloody Scotland (I saw Ian there, too, with Philip Kerr - wonderful - then had to run for my train home or be stuck overnight - I digress) she said she had to plot every single detail of her books - but given the amount of twists and turns she pulls off, I think it's inevitable she has to do that. It's different strokes for different folks, I guess. I've just started writing fiction again, so I'll probably give both approaches a bash. Thanks, Sarah - great stuff!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, crime worm, and good luck with your writing!

jill mansell said...

Absolutely no idea how you write crime without planning, but rom-coms are easier. I'm a driving through the night writer - I can only see as far ahead as my headlights reach. I love the last 100 pages when I actually know how all the ends are going to tie up. And how interesting about you both preferring to be slightly uncomfortable - I like ALL the comfort, warmth and snacks I can get.
Fascinating piece, amyway. Thank you, both!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks for dropping by, Jill. Endlessly fascinating to hear how other writers work!

Unknown said...

I write in the same way as you. I don't make very many plans and the characters tell me where they want to go when I'm sitting writing. I go where they go. I released my first crime book in September and I've just started another one. It's a great job to have.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks for reading, Stacy, and congratulations on your first book being out!

Anonymous said...

A great dialogue from you both - thanks. Perfect for new year encouragement!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Derek.

Unknown said...

I will now have to read one of your books - hope the library has one.

Unknown said...

I will now have to read your books - hope the library has them!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Dean, I hope so too!