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I was very young when I started to think I’d like to be a writer.  I won second prize in a poetry competition while still at high school (I had just turned 18), and at university my first few stories also saw publication and success in competitions.  I was stubborn and persistent and confident, but I had yet to find my real voice or theme.  I was copying other writers’ styles and concerns, and being young I was also naïve.  I took a lot of wrong turns along the way, and my early books now look clunky, overwrought and overwritten to me.  There are sentences in them I don’t now understand – I think I was just trying to show off by using big words.

There’s a perfect example of this in my first crime novel, Knots and Crosses, written when I was 24 and still a university student.  There’s a phrase I use – “the manumission of dreams” – and I look at it now and scratch my head.  I had probably just come across the word “manumission” and decided to crowbar it into the story somewhere.

The same was true at high school.  My English teacher asked me why I’d titled one of my short stories “Paradox”.  “I just like the word,” I answered.  He advised me to check its dictionary meaning, since the word had no relation to anything in the story I’d written.

Here’s the thing though – very few of us emerge as fully-realised writers from the get-go.  We make mistakes, we ape our writing heroes, we don’t know the business or the market.  We feel our way towards improvement.  We fail, try again, and fail better (to paraphrase Samuel Beckett).  My first novel was published over 30 years ago, yet I am still making mistakes, still learning as I go.  If I ever wrote the perfect novel, maybe I could hang up my quill.  (I don’t use a quill.)  But that probably won’t happen.  Very few novelists have even got near to the perfect distillation – saying what they want to say in the absolute best way possible. Those blank pages (whether of paper or the computer screen) can seem terrifying, as can the idea that you need to fill several hundred more of them before you’re done.

This fear is compounded by the realisation that one day you will have to show your work to friends and strangers – and they won’t always like it, won’t always comprehend what you’ve tried your best to say.  This fear can be a blessing, because it makes you strive to be a better writer.  But I no longer believe in the perfect paragraph or chapter.  I just grit my teeth and keep going.

Like a marathon runner I want to keep moving, because if I stop to revise (or do research), I may never start again.  Once the first draft is complete, I can go back and make it better, and do the research that will make the reader feel confident I know what I’m talking about.

Does this make writing sound like a chore?  I hope not, because there is magic there, too.


Born in the Kingdom of Fife in 1960, Ian Rankin graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1982, and then spent three years writing novels when he was supposed to be working towards a PhD in Scottish Literature.

After university and before his success with his Rebus novels, Ian had a number of jobs including working as a grape-picker, a swineherd, a journalist for a hi-fi magazine, and a taxman. Following his marriage in 1986, he lived briefly in London where he worked at the National Folktale Centre, followed by a short time living in France, before returning to Edinburgh.

Ian’s first novel Summer Rites remains in his bottom drawer, but his second novel, The Flood, was published in 1986, while his first Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses, was published in 1987. The Rebus series is now translated into twenty-two languages and the books are bestsellers on several continents. In addition to his Rebus and Malcolm Fox novels, he has also written standalone novels including Doors Open,which was televised in 2012, short stories, a graphic novel – Dark Entries, and a play (with Mark Thomson, the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s Artistic Director) Dark Road, which premiered at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, in September 2013. There are also a number of novels under the pseudonym ‘Jack Harvey’ and in 2005 he collaborated with singer Jackie Leven on a CD. His non-fiction book Rebus’s Scotland was published in 2005.

Ian has received an OBE for services to literature, opting to receive the prize in his home city of Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife and two sons.

This article is part of a series of experienced writers and authors sharing what they wish they had known when they first started writing.

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