Writer Clare Mackintosh talks about writing I Let You Go

8 Apr 2015

I ‘met’ Clare on TILetYouGo_Bwitter and then devoured her debut novel, I Let You Go. It is a fantastic thriller, impossible to put down, about what happens when your past catches up on you. Here, Clare shares her tips for anyone who is currently writing a novel, looking for an agent or trying to get a publishing deal…

Tell me about the process of writing I Let You Go, was it smooth?

Looking back it does feel as though it was relatively straightforward, but I think writing is a bit like childbirth, in that respect. It’s hard to remember the days when I wept in front of a blank page or pressed delete on whole chapters of work, because the end result is something I’m very proud of. The first draft – plus a bit of editing – took me a year, and then I spent another year working on the manuscript with my agent and editor. In total I wrote eight drafts of I Let You Go before I was happy with it. It seems an extraordinary number now, but each one took me closer to where I wanted the book to be.

What tips would you give to people who are trying to write a novel? 

Keep going! Easy to say, but far less easy to do, especially with real life getting in the way. But unless you type The End you’ll never have a manuscript to work with, so it’s pointless even thinking about submitting to agents and editors. Most writers, when they start, have day jobs to prioritise, and I do understand how hard it is to juggle a job with writing a book and running a family. But it is possible. You need to carve out time for yourself, even if that means giving something up: a Sunday morning lie-in, a Coronation Street habit, a night out with your mates. Write 500 words a day – less than this blog post – and you’ll have a first draft in six months.

What did you do to find an agent? 

 I’m very lucky, and have never been through the long process of submitting cold and wondering if I’m languishing in a slushpile somewhere. I had been working for a while on a romantic comedy, with the help of an agent a friend had put me in touch with, but I hadn’t been offered representation and I was starting to wonder if my writing simply wasn’t up to it. I had nearly finished I Let You Go when I met with someone who worked in publishing, to discuss the literary festival I had founded. We moved on to talk about my writing, and I explained my predicament. ‘Why don’t I give it to a different literary agent,’ she said, ‘for an objective opinion on whether the book has legs?’ That agent turned out to be Sheila Crowley, at Curtis Brown, who offered me representation shortly afterwards. 

What advice do you have for writers seeking representation? 

 Do all the things the books tell you: finish your book; edit, edit and edit some more; research the right agent; write a great cover letter and so on… But there’s a lot of luck involved in finding representation, and I think you have to do more than that. Think early on about building your platform: do you have an online presence? Where will your audience come from? Could you start a mailing list? People dismiss networking as a dirty word, but replace it with ‘socialising’ and suddenly it’s not so bad! Talk to people; make sure they know you’re a writer. Don’t bore the hind legs off them, but if no one knows you’re writing a book, you’ll never feel the benefit of that beautifully serendipitous moment when the guy who fixes the photocopier at work turns out to be the son-in-law of a top literary agent…

Tell me about what happened when your agent sent your book out? 

 The book still needed work. My agent knew that, and I knew that, and so the decision to put it out on submission was always a gamble. I should prepare myself for disappointment, I was told. And so I did. A few editors turned it down, but a couple wanted to speak to me. I had a chat on the phone with one, and went to London to meet Lucy Malagoni from Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group. Lucy and I hit it off straight away, and there was an offer on the table a few days later.

What role does your editor play? Is she or he ‘hands on’? Do they get involved creatively? 

 Lucy is brilliant, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have such a talented and tactful editor. She’s very good at seeing the bigger picture, and suggesting where a story needs more light; more shade; more tension; more emotional depth. Mostly, that’s where her role stops: my job is to take her advice and implement it. But if I struggle with that – if I can’t see HOW to achieve what she’s so perceptively identified – she’ll take me a step further.

What are you working on now? 

I’m writing my second novel, another psychological thriller, which is currently untitled. I wrote a different book that wasn’t quite right, and it didn’t feel as though it ever would be, so I put it away and have started again. This time the words are flowing and I’m excited about the way the story is shaping up. It’s about female commuters who are followed on the London Underground, so I have a huge Tube map on my wall at the moment, as well

I Let You Go is published by Sphere.

Learn more about Clare: claremackintosh.com

Follow Clare on Twitter @claremackint0sh

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