Monday, January 23, 2006

On Writing Mysteries

I've received a couple of e-mails in the last few days asking me, in a very general way, what the next Parker book will be about. I'm sure that in a month or so my editors in the UK and the US are going to ask me the same question. My usual solution where the editors are concerned is to write a piece of copy for the publishers' catalogues which is vague enough to hide the fact that, at the time of writing it, even I'm not sure what the next Parker book is about. I'd like to think that this fools them, but I suspect that it doesn't.

Well, it's not entirely true that I don't know what the next book is about. I suppose what I mean to say is that I couldn't explain to anyone in detail what is likely to happen in a book before I begin writing it, and even when I'm in the middle of writing the book I'm not sure that I'd be able to tell someone how it's going to end. I've never submitted a synopsis to a publisher and I'm not even certain that I'd be able to write one. I have writer friends who write incredibly detailed summaries of their books, breaking them down chapter by chapter, which I find very impressive, with one small caveat: if I were to write a chapter by chapter synopsis I don't think I'd want to write the book itself. There would be no point. It would hold no surprises, and therefore no interest, for me.

What fascinates me about writing mysteries is that when I write the first draft the experience is very similar to the one that the reader will eventually have when he or she reads the book. I really don't quite know what 's going to happen next. I'll usually start off with a very general idea (in the case of the next book, it's a man arriving in a town to ask questions about a another man who has been missing, presumed dead, for a number of years) and then introduce the detective, Charlie Parker, into the situation. From that point on, both Parker and I are engaged in the same pursuit: to unravel a mystery, to tease out its details, explore and interrogate its characters and, finally, to offer a solution of some kind, however partial or sometimes unsatisfactory that solution may be. In that sense, at least, I don't cheat. (A taxi driver once remarked to me that he suspected most crime authors started out from a position of knowledge - i.e., they knew who the murderer was before they started - and then worked their way backwards from there, so you never really had any hope of figuring out the solution before it was presented to you. I don't know how true that is and, anyway, the taxi driver then informed me that he didn't read mysteries at all so I guess his opinion needed to be taken with a certain amount of salt to begin with.)

But back to the mystery. Like Parker, there will come a point, usually towards the middle of the book, when I will feel somewhat bogged down in characters, clues, bodies and lies. It will feel like the book will never be finished, the solution never revealed. I will wonder if I've strayed into a situation that I can't resolve (which is probably a writer's worst nightmare: starting a book and then finding out that it can't be finished, that the whole enterprise was founded on sand right from the start.) Progress will slow. I'll be tempted by distractions, or the novelty of an alternative idea. This happens with every book, and you'd think that, by now, I'd have learned to deal with it, but it returns with a vengeance every time.

But, at last, I'll emerge from the doldrums. A direction will become clear, the plot will start to come together, and a climax will be reached. There's a sense of relief. The book may not be ready to show to anyone, but at least it moves, however awkwardly, from A-Z. There is a resolution. This was not a false start. A book exists.

And then I rewrite and redraft. I do it over and over, going back to the beginning every time and working through to the end. This is where Parker and I part ways, to some degree. I return to characters or situations, adding light and shade, dialogue, back stories. Parker's work is largely done, but mine continues.

So whereabouts in the process am I now? Early days, I'm afraid. The book doesn't even have a title as yet. (Ian Rankin once told me that he can't begin a book until he has a title. I suppose I find that the title emerges from the book.) The man has arrived. Parker is involved. Questions have been asked. I know that connections, one major, one minor, will be established with two of the earlier Parker stories, The Reflecting Eye novella and The Black Angel, but apart from that I'm as much in the dark as Parker is.

But that's the fun of it, I suppose, and the challenge.

At least I have begun.

No comments: