|Minette Walters never loses the plot. As one of the country’s leading crime writers, she happily admits not having one. What’s more she can be two-thirds of the way through a book and still not know who’s the murderer. As far as Walters is concerned, it’s the only way to write and she’s on a personal crusade to urge others to do the same.
“I’m always trying to encourage people to have the courage, forget the plot schemes. Say, I’m going to go out there and write a book. Just fly by wire. Go with it. It’s exciting. It’s a wonderful way to write.” That it’s a successful formula for Walters is unquestionable.
She has the manor, the Jaguar and the clout to prove it. The early blurbs invariably described her as having taken the crime fiction world by storm. Her debut, The Ice House, won the John Creasey award in 1992. The following year saw an Edgar from America for The Sculptress , and a CWA Gold Dagger for The Scold's Bridle in 1994 rounded off a unique hat trick. More success followed. In fact the storm’s never really abated. By the time you read this, her latest book Acid Row will probably be topping the bestseller lists.
If it all seems effortless, just a little too easy - it isn’t. Walters is a professional. She did the time before doing the crime. She still puts in the hours and turns out the goods: eight hours a day; hopefully a thousand words at the end of each. And if the goods aren’t good enough, she scraps them and starts again. It’s an integral part of the wire flying technique and ensures she never has mornings when the blank screen stays that way.
“The minute you release yourself in that way, it’s very liberating to be unafraid to chuck two chapters out if you decide you don’t like them. If you have no problem with that, if you’re not looking at every word as something that’s been dragged out of you, and if you actually see them as something that works or something that doesn’t work, it’s brilliant. If it doesn’t work, you don’t want it; it’s crap, throw it out. If you have that approach to it, then it doesn’t matter if you feel you’re going nowhere because you’re still putting words on the paper.”
“The process of putting those words on the paper and deciding they aren’t going to work means that actually you’ve probably seen what will work. I think an awful lot of people do get terribly hung up on the fact that what’s there, and what was there yesterday, has to stay because it’s building a story.”
As for writers who don’t know which way to take the story: “Most people wake up feeling they don’t know where to go because actually the bit they’ve done in the last week has taken them in the wrong direction. It’s better to recognise that you’ve taken a fork, go back to the point where it was working, take out the fork and start again on the main line. Then you’re in a much stronger position because you start to feel happy again.” Walters exudes the happiness.
Crime writing gives her an enviable lifestyle. The manor, paid for from her earnings, is in Dorchester, about a mile from Thomas Hardy’s house. She and her husband both work from home. Her two sons are at university. Her study, in what used to be an old dairy, has three French windows where she can look out onto a lily pond. Not that she seems to need the inspiration.
“We’re very, very disciplined. About 8.30 in the morning we take ourselves off to our offices and we probably won’t see each other again till half-one/two. It depends who’s cooking lunch… I then take off probably about three hours after lunch because that’s not a good time for me for working. I can do it but it tends not to be very productive. I start again about five/half past five and I work through till eight/eight-thirty. It’s a long day … but that’s the joy of being able to work from home. You can actually take the breaks.”
It’s a long way from the magazine world where she started. At one point she was subbing a women’s magazine’s crochet patterns page.
“If you got one stitch wrong, the whole thing fell to pieces. It was a nightmare.” Wisely, she decided it wasn’t her metier. She progressed to her first feature: a 250-word evaluation on the merits of rival cold creams. Promotion beckoned and she became editor of the magazine’s hospital romances. Every month she read four hundred, 30,000-word manuscripts and usually found only four that were publishable. The experience helped focus Walters’s own fiction-writing ambitions. After moaning to her boss about the quality of submissions, she was told to do one herself. She ended up writing thirty-five. This was in the days of genteel virgins who weren’t allowed to kiss until the final page. Sex was taboo and double entendres outlawed. (One writer came up with a 30,000- word story about love on a tennis court without once mentioning the word, balls). Think Cartland not carnal. It was a great learning experience and brilliant practice for the future but as Walters puts it, crime writing’s a great deal more fun.
So, with no plot scheme, no synopsis, no plan, where does the fun begin? “I start with relatively simple ideas and I explore those ideas through characters, so I spend a lot of time building characters, and a lot of that never gets into the final book. The reason I don’t do a plot scheme is that if I knew what was going to happen, I’d become very, very bored writing it. It would just be filling in gaps. I’m as excited, I hope as the readers are, every time I wake up in the morning thinking, I wonder what’s going to happen next?”
One of the details she muses about is: who did it? “I can get half-way or two-thirds of the way through and I begin to get slightly concerned because I can’t tell which one of them has committed the murder. It’s not as illogical as it sounds. It’s actually a very good way to approach crime novels, I think, because then you write everybody up to the same extent. You’re not kind of glossing over people who you think, oh well they didn’t do it so they aren’t important.”
She approaches it like a police officer at a crime scene, asking a series of questions about the victim, the suspects, their relationships and so on.
“I’m asking all those questions and I’m working it out along with the real policeman who might exist in real life. But there does come a point - thank goodness so far in all of them – when I think: Yes! Actually I do know who did it. And it’s all to do with motivation. You suddenly realise that one of them has more motivation than the others.”
“I often get seduced by other characters and I think, oh, maybe I’ll go for that one. But all the while – it’s very, very strange - when you go back and re-read…you find you’ve written in all the clues to the one who has done it. So clearly, while you’re writing, your subconscious is very well aware of the guilty party but you need your conscious to be aware of it as well. It’s a very interesting process…”
She’s thrilled if she can write more than a thousand words a day. “I’m not so happy when, say, I’ve managed, like in one twelve-hour period, to write only two sentences. When you’re getting towards the end of the book and if you’ve got a deadline, that kind of thing can be a bit worrying.”
It rarely happens. In fact, for every thousand words that appear, she’s probably written twice as many. “Because I’m an exploratory writer, a lot of it gets thrown away. I write a great deal more than anyone will ever read. It sounds terribly easy if you say, oh she writes a thousand words a day. It actually takes much longer than that.” It comes back, again, to getting the words down, a process she feels some wannabe writers are reluctant to do.
“I get very concerned about people approaching retirement age coming up to me and saying, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. And I say, Fine. So how much have you got in your bottom drawer? And they say, Oh, nothing but I was very good at essays when I was at school.”
“Just as actors are stage struck, I call it being page struck. If you want to be a writer, you will have vast quantities of things you’ve written. Yehudi Menuhin did not pick up a violin and play a concerto at the age of six without practising. You have to practise the craft and the only way to do it, is to write, to know what works and what doesn’t.”
She’s also a great believer in agents. “I think if you can get an agent before you get a publisher, that’s definitely good news. But it’s much harder to get agents nowadays than it is to get publishers because they’re so picky.”
Walters is with Gregory and Radice. The agency specialises in crime fiction and regarded as one of the best in the business. It was smart enough to hang onto The Ice House until an offer came in from a good publisher, despite the book being turned down by “almost everybody.” Macmillan paid just twelve hundred pounds for it but as Walters laughs, “at that time, I’d have paid them twelve hundred quid.”
Nearly ten years on, a signed first edition is probably worth more than the advance. No wonder Minette Walters is laughing. Who wouldn’t?
"At the beginning, I have no plot scheme. I don’t do synopses. I start with relatively simple ideas and I explore those ideas through character. I spend a lot of time building characters and a lot of that gets thrown away. It never gets into the final book. The reason is that if I knew what was going to happen I’d become very very bored writing it. It would just be filling in gaps. I want to know what happens. I’m as excited, I hope as the readers are. Every time I wake up in the morning, I’m thinking, I wonder what’s going to happen next.”