A little more than three years ago I sat at a coffee shop table with 2 friends and we talked about life, blogging, parenting, loss and writing. We all swore to write a book and now Clare, alongside the other friend I met that day, has done it. Not only has Clare Mackintosh written a truly incredible book but after sweeping up a raft of fabulous reviews and sales when the hardback and digital copies hit the shelves, she has swooped upwards on ever more delicious wafts of success – I let You Go has just been announced as a Richard & Judy Book Club read and has been a Sunday Times bestseller this weekend too.
I read I let You Go almost as soon as it came out. From the word go my breath was simply taken away; I instantly forgot I was reading words by a friend, never mind a first time novelist. As Clare describes below, she writes and rewrites until she has moulded the perfect text and it really shows. Her style has a precision that would be clinical if it didn’t encapsulate emotion and moment so utterly and her plotting and characters are both subtle and utterly realistic. Not for nothing does it have 320 (at this moment) 5* reviews on Amazon.
“A tragic accident. It all happened so quickly. She couldn’t have prevented it. Could she?”
There is very little I can tell you about this book, a psychological thriller that is part crime novel but actually just so very much more than that too, without accidentally giving something away. It follows both a police team and a number of characters through the unraveling of the ‘tragic accident’ and throws you back and forward through view points and characters. The settings are perfectly described and the sense of drama and uncertainty grabs your stomach and keeps you reading until far too late at night. Even the ending is so unsettling that it is just not possible to ever be quite the same. Clare’s previous career as a detective makes her the perfect person to write about the shades of grey that exist in a crime and an investigation into death and the people involved. And the twists and turns the plot and the reader’s allegiance takes are sublime; it’s skillful and shocking, flawless, fabulous.
If I can’t describe the book without spoiling it, I can tell you about one moment that has stayed with me. It’s something no other author has ever managed to do to me and I will never forget the sensation it provoked. Unexpectedly the book throws you into the mind of someone it is impossible to do anything other than despise. It comes out of the blue and I will always remember the moment of utter RAGE I felt to find myself there, supposed to somehow empathise or understand a monster. I literally wanted to tweet Clare and tell her how cross I was with her for doing that to me. Quite brilliant.
Below is a blog post from Clare on how she writes, but first of all, here is a clip from the book. Once you’ve whetted your appetite, I suggest you buy the book and read it. You won’t regret it.
When I wake, for a second I’m not sure what this feeling is. Everything is the same, and yet everything has changed. Then, before I have even opened my eyes, there is a rush of noise in my head, like an underground train. And there it is: playing out in Technicolor scenes I can’t pause or mute. I press the heels of my palms into my temples as though I can make the images subside through brute force alone, but still they come, thick and fast, as if without them I might forget. On my bedside cabinet is the brass alarm clock Eve gave me when I went to university – ‘Because you’ll never get to lectures, otherwise’ – and I’m shocked to see it’s ten-thirty already. The pain in my hand has been overshadowed by a headache that blinds me if I move my head too fast, and as I peel myself from the bed every muscle aches. I pull on yesterday’s clothes and go into the garden without stopping to make a coffee, even though my mouth is so dry it’s an effort to swallow. I can’t find my shoes, and the frost stings my feet as I make my way across the grass. The garden isn’t large, but winter is on its way, and by the time I reach the other side I can’t feel my toes. The garden studio has been my sanctuary for the last five years. Little more than a shed to the casual observer, it is where I come to think, to work, and to escape. The wooden floor is stained from the lumps of clay that drop from my wheel, firmly placed in the centre of the room, where I can move around it and stand back to view my work with a critical eye. Three sides of the shed are lined with shelves on which I place my sculptures, in an ordered chaos only I could understand. Works in progress, here; fired but not painted, here; waiting to go to customers, here. Hundreds of separate pieces, yet if I shut my eyes, I can still feel the shape of each one beneath my fingers, the wetness of the clay on my palms. I take the key from its hiding place under the window ledge and open the door. It’s worse than I thought. The floor lies unseen beneath a carpet of broken clay; rounded halves of pots ending abruptly in angry jagged peaks. The wooden shelves are all empty, my desk swept clear of work, and the tiny figurines on the window ledge are unrecognisable, crushed into shards that glisten in the sunlight. By the door lies a small statuette of a woman. I made her last year, as part of a series of figures I produced for a shop in Clifton. I had wanted to produce something real, something as far from perfection as it was possible to get, and yet for it still to be beautiful. I made ten women, each with their own distinctive curves, their own bumps and scars and imperfections. I based them on my mother; my sister; girls I taught at pottery class; women I saw walking in the park. This one is me. Loosely, and not so anyone would recognise, but nevertheless me. Chest a little too flat; hips a little too narrow; feet a little too big. A tangle of hair twisted into a knot at the base of the neck. I bend down and pick her up. I had thought her intact, but as I touch her the clay moves beneath my hands, and I’m left with two broken pieces. I look at them, then I hurl them with all my strength towards the wall, where they shatter into tiny pieces that shower down on to my desk. I take a deep breath and let it slowly out.
How I write by Clare Mackintosh.
The way I approach a novel changes all the time, but as I start work on my third book I feel I am now beginning to develop some kind of system. I wrote I Let You Go piecemeal, changing and editing as I went along; stopping halfway and rewriting the first section; always looking over what I did the previous day, before continuing. Now I simply press on, getting the first draft down in whatever way I can, until I write The End.
I plan in a notebook first of all, with vague attempts to separate the pages into ‘characters’, ‘settings’, ‘story’, ‘themes’, ‘research’ and so on. Generally these become muddled very quickly, and I’m left with a notebook filled with scribbled pencil marks. I then start making a proper plan in a Word document. I have previously experimented with spreadsheets, and although they make it easy to move scenes around, there is something about a spreadsheet that saps me of creativity! I don’t write a synopsis, but I do write two documents that fall either side of one. The first is a sort of blurb for the book.
Longer than an elevator pitch, but more ‘salesy’ than a synopsis, this is what I send to my editor and agent, and it’s what encapsulates the ‘feel’ of the book, as well as the story concept. The second document is a list of what happens in the story. I could call it timeline, except that would be a slight exaggeration – it’s more of a brain-dump onto a Word document, and it changes all the time. It’s just there to help me capture all the little flashes of story I’ve been thinking about, and hope will find their way into the book.
If there’s research to do, I’ll type up my notes into a separate document, and save everything in neat folders in Dropbox (‘previous drafts’, ‘current draft’, ‘research,’ and so on). I am meticulous about saving previous versions, and so each time I start a rewrite I create a new document and file the old one away. That way nothing is ever lost, and I can see the progress the book makes from draft to draft.
When I’m finally ready to start I open a new Word document and begin. At the start of the writing day – normally before I do the school run, so I can ponder on my dog walk – I look at my rough scene breakdown and start thinking about what that scene will look like. I let it play out in my head, and use ‘dead’ time like swimming, or waiting at the bus stop for the school bus, to plan my writing approach. That way the moment I sit down at my desk I’m ready to start writing the scene. I don’t like to finish work in the middle of a scene, but equally I hate being faced with a blank page the following day, so I tend to leave my manuscript with notes in capitals. FOLLOW THIS WITH THE CAR SCENE, for example, or SHE FINDS THE LETTER, is enough to give me a jump-start when I next look at the page.
My first drafts are short – around 75,000 words – but that no longer worries me. I know now that’s just how I write, and that the rewrite is where I flesh out some of the story, or bring out more of the characters’ back-stories. It takes me about three months to write a first draft, and I like to get a head start on the word count by going on retreat. I go to an amazing place in France called Chez Castillon, where I can write 5,000 words a dayinstead of my usual 2,000, and come home with virtually a third of my story written. As soon as I get home I start looking forward to the next trip…
When I reach the end I print this ‘dirty draft’ out and go through it with a thick red pen. I ignore minor issues and focus first of all purely on plot. Then I read it again, with a different coloured pen, focusing on character. I take my mutilated manuscript back to my desk and start correcting some of the glaring errors I’ve identified. I still consider this my ‘first draft’, and although I make some significant amends at this stage, it’s not as substantial a rewrite as it will need – I just want to tidy it up so that it’s in pretty good shape for when my editor sees it.
After a long chat with my editor, the hard work really begins! I start a new worddocument, and literally write the book again. There’s a fair amount of copying and pasting, but generally I’ve found that I produce much better work if I write from scratch, using the previous draft as inspiration. So I often have both versions on my computer screen, side by side, clearly labelled as I have a horror of saving the wrong one! I work my way through chronologically, swearing liberally when I reach the middle, and it feels like a pack of cards about to come tumbling down.
I repeat this process as many times as it takes to get it right, and although I could cry with frustration at times, I can see each draft getting stronger and stronger, and it makes it all worthwhile. Just about!