“Stories don’t always end where their authors intended. But there is joy in following them, wherever they may lead.”
Another documentary tonight, from the BBC’s “Imagine” series. It follows bestselling crime novelist Ian Rankin over the six months it took for him to write his new novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave. (Don’t expect a review any time soon.)
I’ve never actually read any of Rankin’s novels, but this documentary looked interesting for the potential insights into a writer’s working practice. I mean, who wouldn’t be interested by that? (Don’t answer that.)
And it was interesting. One of the questions that all writers get asked – and all writers complain about – is “Where do you get your ideas from?” And the consensus seems to be that there is no real answer. It just happens. Rankin keeps a folder of newspaper clippings and random stuff jotted down, saying “There is a story here. I’m just waiting for it to reveal itself to me.” That sounds silly, doesn’t it. Sounds hippy-ish and New Age and, well, just like claptrap. Thing is, (and here I’m talking from very limited experience) it’s actually true. With most ideas, you’ve no idea where they come from; they just…reveal themselves.
Anyway, idea in place, Rankin moves on to the writing. And here’s another lesson learned: writers are masters in the art of procrastination. On the 2nd January, Rankin says something like “I’m hoping to start writing in the next few days.” Six days later, he’s not started. That is what I call procrastination.
Then there’s a lot of angsty stuff about how Rankin “doesn’t know where the book’s going”. At first, it sounds fair enough. I never know where a story’s going (from limited experience again) until, well, it gets there. But then you think: well, he’s a crime novelist. The murders in a good murder mystery are so intricately plotted that in the end, like a good riddle, you see that there could never have been any other solution. So, I suggest, it’s a bit worrying that even the author has no idea of the answer…
Well, anyway, Rankin does eventually manage to work out what’s going on and, after about 45 minutes, is finished. But then, of course, come the dreaded critics. Some context: Rankin announces at the Hay-on-Wye book festival that his new book brings back Rebus, his most famous creation who was retired a few books ago. After this announcement, a critic (who has never even read the new book, it not being published yet) accuses Rankin in a newspaper article of “milking it”. Which is a perfectly reasonable speculation – everyone’s thought it, often in response to the Harry Potter franchise (I mean, come on, The Tales of Beedle the Bard was clearly just a money-spinner. Or not, as the case may be.) or similar stupidly best-selling series. But here, the hurt in Rankin’s eyes as he reads it is clear: “I’ve no idea why she thinks – “. And because we’ve seen it happen, seen the author’s barely-conscious decision to bring Rebus back, we sympathise with him in a way that, possibly, we wouldn’t otherwise.
And that is the lesson for today. There are always two sides to every story.
(Also, Ian Rankin and the Case of the Disappearing Detective is very interesting for readers and writers both.)