Happy New Year, folks. Apologies for the long delay in blog updates: in standard fashion I’ve got maybe half a dozen half-written posts that never quite measured up and quickly found themselves abandoned, chronic overthinker that I am, so I figured it was time to return to a more familiar format in order to see if that could get me out of the rut I was in.

Turns out, it could.

HOW IAN RANKIN WRITES HIS NOVELS

I recently discovered the 10 Minute Writer’s Workshop podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio, which is a series you should absolutely listen to if you enjoy hearing how professional writers go about their business. One of the first ones I fired up was the interview with Ian Rankin (call it patriotic favouritism), one of Scotland’s most well-known and well-regarded crime authors. In the midst of explaining his general process for writing (turns out he can just start a novel and see where it goes, the lucky bastard), he had one particularly interesting idea to share:

“I don’t do a lot [of planning]. I’ve got a folder at home which is called ‘Ian’s Big Box of Ideas’, and anything that comes along during the course of a year… maybe something in a newspaper, I’ll just cut it out with a pair of scissors and put it in there. Or maybe I’ll get the vague idea for a storyline, I’ll write it on the back of a beer mat or on a piece of paper and stick it in there. And then come November, when I’m thinking ‘oh the deadline’s looming’… I’ll open up the Big Box of Ideas to see what’s in there, and there’s always something that just grabs me.”

This immediately struck me as a brilliantly simple but effective strategy for garnering inspiration when it’s needed. Part of being a good writer is reading widely, and by storing away the articles and thoughts that resonate with you for a rainy day, you’re effectively building up a catalogue of interesting plots and ideas that you can break out should they be required.

Simpsons Mystery Box

WHAT I’M GOING TO BE DOING

As of a few days ago (when I first listened to the podcast) I’ve started my own Big Box of Ideas based on what Ian Rankin outlined above, a folder that I keep next to my desk that I’ve begun adding little notes, scribbles and article clippings to. One of the advantages of being someone who still uses print media is that I still read a few magazines and newspapers, all of which are potential sources of material for the Box.

Of course, we live in a digital age these days and a lot of the written media we consume is, for better or worse, online. It would be a shame to miss out on so much potential material for the Box, but at the same time it’s not exactly practical to sit and print out every little nugget of inspiration I find whilst surfing the web (I mean Jesus Christ, ink isn’t cheap). To get around this I’m going to be making use of Google Keep, the free note-taking service offered by our Alphabet Overlords that allows users to save notes and links to websites for future use. It’s something I already use frequently, thanks to it’s cross-platform service, so all it really requires is a new label entitled ‘Big Box of Ideas’ to save things under.

POTENTIAL POSITIVES

As with the previous entry in this series that I did, I want to take a minute to consider the benefits this strategy might offer.

  • A Catalogue of Ideas: Anyone who’s ever sat down to write a story will be able to testify that inspiration is a fickle bastard that rarely lingers long once the going gets a bit tough. This strategy offers a resource to fall back on when ideas are scarce or when you’re needing some fresh thoughts to spice up a story.
  • A Prompt for Wider Reading: I’m a firm believer in the notion that there’s no such thing as reading too widely. The wider your range of sources, the larger the pool of information you’re working with; this naturally means you’ll have more sources for the Big Box of Ideas. It’s my hope that following this strategy will encourage me to seek out more magazines, papers and articles than I normally do.

POTENTIAL NEGATIVES

As with all things there’s always going to be some negatives to the positives, and it’s important to at least be aware of them.

  • No Immediate Pay-off: This isn’t a short term strategy. A few clippings and a couple links does not an archive of ideas make. Creating a Big Box of Ideas, to continue using Ian Rankin’s term, is something that will take a good few months at least.
  • The Potential for Bloat: Almost conversely, there’s the distinct possibility that too much can be added to the Box, to the point that it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some curation and cleaning might be necessary after a while in order to ensure that things aren’t getting too bloated and that the clippings/ideas that are being kept are up to snuff.

I’m a big fan of simple, easy techniques that can help writers crack on with their work and get stuff written, and Ian Rankin’s strategy outlined here definitely fits the bill. Hopefully I’ll be able to build up my own archive of cool articles, interesting plot notes and general inspiration in the coming months (January seems like a good time to start such a thing). As I’ve said this isn’t exactly a short-term strategy, but it’s one that I really think will pay off in the long run.

I’ll be sure to let you know in the future.