Who or what has taught you most about writing?
Agatha Christie, in a roundabout manner, because when your editor says to you, “X, Y, and Z,” you have to go back to other writers’ work, work you’re familiar with, to see how it’s constructed and what your editor meant. I’ve got a musician friend who says the same thing about playing music. They know where a tune is going once they’ve come to know the expected form. So it’s nice to analyse that. It also totally spoils reading.
Which piece of writing advice has benefited you the most?
Never write anything you can’t film. It sounds like a very blasé thing to say, but when writers get into trouble, it’s because you couldn’t film what they’ve written. You shouldn’t get away with writing something just because you’re in control of the reader’s vision. You wouldn’t make people believe that two people are the same person if one of them is five foot one and the other one is six foot four, not if you filmed that. They would know the difference, so don’t write it if you can’t film it. It’s a very good piece of advice for keeping your writing tight and not fooling the reader.
Speaking of perspectives, has it been a technical challenge to write in the first person?
Yes! I view it the same as running a marathon. It’s a difficult job, but you know you’ve got to do it, and all you’ve really got to do is put one foot in front of the other. The big construct is more difficult, but you’ve got no other option, so you just have to make it work, and in a way that makes it easier. You don’t get the option to write this scene over here. You have to engineer it so that scene comes to her.
Do you think or feel your way into your protagonists and their perspectives?
I always feel my way, I think. It’s quite an emotional thing, so I get angry when characters have to punch each other in the face, and I laugh when something funny happens.
How much of the plot do you know before you start writing?
I know the beginning, I know the end, and I know the two will join up in some way. I tend to get to about 80,000 words of a 120,000-word book before I think: “Oh, I know what I’m going to do.” Then I go back and put in the triple back flips just to unsettle things.
Do you write scenes out of chronological order?
I write the good bits first.
Which bits are the good bits?
The emotional bits – the gut-wrenching bits. They definitely come first, because I have to get the emotion of those scenes right. Then I can work towards it. When people ask me why I write about nasty things like serial killers, I say: “Well, you’re not going to invest 400 pages worth of time and interest in tracking down someone who hasn’t paid a parking ticket. They have to do something awful for you to invest that degree of emotion, and the person who the reader is with has to have that degree of emotion.” If you miss that, the whole book isn’t going to work.
What do you do once you’ve written the good bits?
I join them up.
And what do you do when those bits are emotionally out of sync?
They’re never emotionally out of sync, because I know what I’m writing towards. What happens very often is that I get bored of somebody, so I kill them before I get to a scene where that dead person is having a cup of tea. Sometimes, Costello noses her way into a place she hasn’t been to before, so I have to write her in, but the emotion stays strong, so it doesn’t matter if I have to add another character.
How long does it take you to write the good bits?
I write each of them in one session, because I can’t walk away. I don’t get interrupted, the dog doesn’t get out, I don’t eat… I just write. Because I have a job, I write when I get the time. That cuts down on all the messing about, the: “Will I, won’t I? Will I lie down and wait for the creative muse to hit me?” I just get on with it.