So why did you start?
I broke my back. I ended up in the spinal injury section of the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow for months on end. I had to lie on my side on various degrees of Morphine for a very long time, and the woman across the room had the remote control. She would sit and watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire? She’d watch the same episode twice in the same day and still get the answers wrong. I had to suffer that day in and day out, along with the psychopath who puts on those elastic stockings and the psychopath who wakes you up to give you your sleeping medication. Then somebody brought me a pen and a clip board, and I started writing. By the time I was better I had a quarter of a million words. That was book one and two. So when people ask me about plot or character development, I say: “Just write it.”
Don’t you teach writing now?
I do, because in some ways it’s made me good at teaching writing. I consider myself a novice, so I can see where other novices come from and I can tell them how I do it. I have a medical background, so I’m very good at killing people and putting them on the pathologist’s table, but I have no literary background, so the actual writing is something I’ve had to learn. The first thing Jane Gregory, the lady who looks after me and writers like Mo Hayder and Val McDermid, said to me is that my voice is raw and that it’s good to see that these days.
How important was her willingness to work with you when you submitted a manuscript that most agents and editors would reject as a work in progress?
Jane does a lot of in-house editing. Alex Gray and I were signed at the same time, and yet my book was published two and a half years after hers. That’s how much Jane and her editing team worked with me to teach me how to write a book. When Jane was done, she put it on Penguin’s desk and they bought it within three hours. Jane was also waiting for another author to get off an editor’s list, because she knew that this editor and I would get on very well for exactly that reason: You can’t slap me about and tell me to do it better, because I don’t know what better is. You’ve got to tell me to make it shorter, clarify this, take out that, and so on. If you do, I’m very obedient and I don’t argue back, because I know I don’t know what I’m doing.
In what ways was your first draft different from your final draft?
100 per cent. I remember the conversation: “Darling, we think you’re marvellous. We love you, darling. We love your book, we love the story, we love the writing – we love absolutely everything about it. Can we just change it all?” – “Okay.”
So how often did you rewrite those two books?
I wrote seven or eight drafts, honing and honing it, and I still work that way.
Which mistakes did you make in the early drafts?
I was self-indulgent and repeated things so the reader would get them. I notice that in other people’s work now, and I think their editor should have clocked that. I’m writing a puzzle, and my editor has to focus on whether or not the puzzle is correct and whether or not the balance is right. The editor should be able to get it if he or she reads carefully. If it’s too misty, shadowy, or otherwise hidden, nobody will get it, so the editor has to watch out for that. The writer can’t do that, so the editor has to do it. I write quite complicated books, so someone else has to view it and say whether I had them fooled for 95 per cent of the way, because you’ve got to be fair. There’s a contract between the reader and the writer, and the editor negotiates that contract.