Four years ago I was writing every day. Court files, staff appraisals, witness statements… My job as a police inspector was rewarding and enjoyable, but the lack of creativity freedom was stifling. At home were three children under the age of three who saw the nanny more than they saw me, and my default method of communication with my husband was email. Something had to give.
I decided to take a career break to give myself some breathing space, but with a mortgage to pay and a family to feed we couldn’t afford to give up my salary altogether. I was already blogging regularly and earning a small but regular income from it, and I decided to try my hand at feature-writing. I got lucky with my first pitch – an article for Writing Magazine – and kept pitching until I was getting regular commissions. For six months I freelanced alongside my 50-hour week in the police, then in the summer of 2011 I was granted a two-year career break. It was the safety net I needed: if freelancing didn’t pan out, I could walk straight back in to a secure job.
I didn’t need to. Within a year I was comfortably earning what I needed to, and had begun to focus my attention on writing fiction. I had written a fairly mediocre chick-lit novel, which had been sufficiently funny to attract the attention of a literary agent, but not strong enough to send out on submission. The agent’s feedback over the following year gave me enormous confidence, and I eventually realised I had been writing the wrong sort of book. I wanted to write something darker; something that drew on some of the intense emotions I had experienced in recent years.
The year I joined the police there had been a horrific incident that shook the city where I worked. A nine-year-old boy was killed by a joy rider, sending shock-waves through the community. The resulting police investigation was extensive, with enquiries still going on when I became a detective a few years later, but the offender was never charged. I couldn’t imagine how someone could live with the knowledge they had killed a child, and I couldn’t imagine how any mother could survive the loss of their son.
Several years later my second question was answered, when my newborn son contracted meningitis and died. I realised that however devastating grief is, however debilitating, somehow you find the strength to carry on. I wanted to explore that in my writing, and almost as soon as I had decided that, I had my central character. I knew Jenna was grieving, and I knew she was trying to escape her past, but I didn’t know why. I happened to see something online about the hit-and-run that had been part of the backdrop of my early years in the police, and I suddenly knew that was what Jenna was trying to block out. Tortured by what has happened, Jenna moves from Bristol to the Welsh coast to try to move on with her life, but as we all know, the past has a habit of catching up with you…
I started writing I Let You Go in January 2012 and finished it that autumn. A chance encounter resulted in my manuscript being passed to Sheila Crowley at Curtis Brown, and in February 2013 she took me on and put the book out on submission. A few weeks later I was offered a two-book deal with Little, Brown.
It took a full 12 months before I Let You Go went to the printers, by which time I had completed a further three drafts, with the help of my brilliant editor, Lucy Malagoni. I literally took the manuscript to pieces, bit by bit, and rebuilt it, each time making it stronger and stronger.
The process of editing is extremely rewarding, but it can also be exceptionally painful. I’ve never had a problem ‘killing my darlings’ – I’m not precious about particular sections of prose, only about the work as a whole – but nevertheless it is hard to delete great swathes of words you know you have sweated blood over. I realised that, in obsessively planning my story, I had painted myself into a literary corner. I had painstakingly sketched out an overview of each chapter, and the scenes therein, but failed to leave myself enough flexibility for the characters to make their own decisions. Their personalities had evolved as the story progressed, yet I was forcing them to do things that were wildly out of character, simply to fit with my plan. I had to go back to basics and work through the story again in their eyes, letting them make the choices that were most natural for them. It’s not a mistake I plan to make again!
The hardest elements to get right during the editing phase were the plot twists. I’m a huge fan of ‘gasp’ moments in books, and especially admire those twists that take the floor away from under you. Brilliant to read, but could I pull it off? When you’ve worked on a book for almost two years it’s very hard to be objective about it. I became convinced that what I had intended to be subtle signposts to the truth were now great big flashing neon arrows, and that the whole book would fall flat on its face. The moment of truth was when I Let You Go went out to authors for their comments, and to my great relief the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Peter James described the twist as ‘astonishing’, and Mark Billingham said it made him ‘green with envy’. I don’t think I’ve ever grinned so much in my life.
I’ve just finished the first draft of my second book, and I’ve taken a completely different approach than with I Let You Go. Although I sketched the shape of the story in advance, I focused on creating my characters. I made a photo board so I could see them as I worked, and I made sure I understood their back-stories, so I knew what made them tick. I let the story evolve around them and didn’t let myself stop and go back over what was already written – I just kept pushing forward. It took around three months and although it’s full of plot-holes and loose ends, I think it’s in a better place for editing than my first book. Now I’ll take this skeleton apart and get the structure right, before putting the meat on the bones. I love the freedom of writing the first draft of a book, but for me the editing phase is more exciting. It’s where the magic happens.
(c) Clare Mackintosh
Clare Mackintosh is a freelance journalist and author, living in the Cotswolds, England. Formerly a police inspector and public order commander, she is the founder and director of Chipping Norton Literary Festival, and a columnist for Cotswold Life magazine.
I Let You Go is published by Sphere and available in ebook and trade paperback (pick up your copy online by clicking the link). You can follow other readers’ reactions using the hashtag #ILetYouGo, and chat to Clare on Twitter @ClareMackint0sh or via her website www.claremackintosh.com.
About I Let You Go
A tragic accident. It all happened so quickly. She couldn’t have prevented it. Could she?
In a split second, Jenna Gray’s world descends into a nightmare. Her only hope of moving on is to walk away from everything she knows to start afresh. Desperate to escape, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of a cruel November night that changed her life forever.
Slowly, Jenna begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her, and the consequences will be devastating . . .