The best-selling author of over 30 books discusses her career and advice at the Killer Women Festival
Killer Women is a group of female crime-writers, who this weekend held their first day-long festival with a host of best-selling authors, including Val McDermid. I live tweeted the session, and here are my notes…
Val says her first few books didn’t sell well. These days, that could have been a problem for her career, but back then publishers had patience.
She had been a journalist with good salary, pension and so on — but she took a leap and figured that, if she could write two books a year, she could survive on the advances. She later found out that this decision gave her agent sleepless nights wondering how to make it work for her.
Val has an intense work ethic. Once, she wrote four books in 18 months. She says to maintain this pace, books need to be exciting and different to her so that she rushes to get to work on the next one.
She gets to her desk about 09:30 and does emails and admin. Then she reviews yesterday’s work. By 11ish or so she’s had enough coffee to write new material. Then she writes in 20 minute or so stints, with gaps in between for food, computer games, and TV box sets. On good days she’ll write this way until 1am.
Val started out by studying other authors, such as Agatha Christie, to see how their books were plotted and making copious notes. She now does detailed plans, storyboards for her own books to implement these lessons.
For example, for her Kate Brannigan series of private investigator books, Val interviewed real private investigators. She soon realised they dealt with many cases at once, rather than the TV portrayal of them kicking their heels until that one big case arrives out of the blue. She decided to include that complexity in the books.
To achieve that, Val had colour coded index cards laid out for the planning to track all the subplot cases to keep the flow going overall.
But, she says, all writers are different. PD James didn’t write sequentially, but just wrote whatever scenes she felt like that day.
Although some writers like morning, some evening, what matters is having time carved out. Then your brain is working in advance of that, so that you are ready to write when you sit down.
You need time to think, delve down into difficult stuff in your own life to bare it on page. Emotional experiences. How did you feel, react?
She likes that emotional reality to be in her books. Characters bear their psychological scars and behave accordingly.
Val prefers not to write about real cases though. She doesn’t want to feel she’s exploiting people’s misfortune or inadvertently cause distress.
There was apparently a bit of a storm about her, as a lesbian, writing some lesbian characters that were less than saintly. She says she doesn’t want to be the poster girl for lesbians, but to write real characters — she has met lesbians who are less than saintly, so it’s real and that’s how the book must be.
Val says that, as a writer, you have to just write what is your story to tell and what is real to you, without trying to please others.