Today crime writer Clare Mackintosh seats herself in the First Draft hot seat.
Clare Mackintosh spent twelve years in the police force, including time on CID, and as a public order commander. She left the police in 2011 to work as a freelance journalist and social media consultant, and now writes full time. She is the founder and director of Chipping Norton Literary Festival, and lives in the Cotswolds with her husband and their three children.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
Buy a new notebook! Like most writers I know, I love stationery, and don’t need much of an excuse to go shopping. I start to make notes about the story, jot down thoughts about characters, settings, the time of year…
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
Not a routine, exactly, but I do like to have character names before I start writing, and I also pull together a plan for the story. When I wrote my first book I planned it incredibly thoroughly, only to unpick everything when I realised the characters just wouldn’t behave in the way I had anticipated. So now my writing is far more character-led and my plan is a lot more relaxed.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
Pen and paper for making notes, but always a keyboard for actual writing. If I write by hand I can’t keep up with my thoughts. I touch type very quickly, and often write particularly visual scenes with my eyes shut, watching it play out in my head.
How important is research to you?
Really important. I used to be a police officer, and although I don’t believe every last detail in a crime novel has to be accurate, if there isn’t at least a ring of authenticity I think you lose the reader’s faith in you.
How do you go about researching?
Well, thank heavens for Google, that’s all I say… I didn’t have to do a lot of research for I Let You Go, just some basic fact-checking on the internet. I find social media absolutely fantastic for research: my Facebook followers have helped me out with all sorts of things, from how to destroy a car, to what would happen if you drank bleach!
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
If I were the sort of writer I would like to be, I would use some fancy note-taking app, or I’d have an amazing Pinterest account packed full of boards for each theme in my novel… Needless to say I’m not that sort of writer. I scribble things down in a notebook, or on a post-it note, or on my hand, and then invariably I lose it (or wash it off). I did start a Pinterest board for I Let You Go, but I didn’t have any real enthusiasm for it. My ideas are either in my head or in my draft!
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
My first draft is short – normally around 70,000 words – and it speeds up towards the end as the finish is in sight. Some sections are pretty good: others are little more than an enhanced outline of what is supposed to be happening, ready for me to go back and write them properly. The finished draft has loose ends and plot-holes, and is really just the beginning of the next draft.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
I’m not superstitious, and have never been the sort of person to have ‘lucky’ pens or the like. I never finish for the day without making notes on what I’m going to write the next day, so I’m not faced with a blank screen.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
I have a husband and three children: nice though it would be to lose myself in a manuscript for weeks at a time, it just isn’t possible. The reality is that the ‘magic’ only ever seems to happen about five minutes before the school run…
What does your work space look like?
I have a small office, about 7 foot square, with a bookcase, a desk, and a cabinet with my in-tray on it. I have the cabinet behind me because I don’t like to see any clutter when I’m working, and knowing there are things in my in-tray stresses me out! To my left is a big white board, and to my right a yearly wall planner. I have a big Mac screen, a phone and a lamp on my desk, plus a notebook and a pencil. That’s it. Oh, and a glass of water or a cup of tea.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
I’ve done both, and I’ve now settled in to my preferred method, which is just to keep going. I have to really fight my internal editor, though, who wants to change commas for semi-colons all day, instead of GETTING IT WRITTEN. She’ll learn.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
It really depends on what stage I’m at. For the first draft I don’t think word count really matters, so for me it’s just about moving forward. I might write a whole chapter, I might only write 200 words; but if I’ve moved the story on in the right direction, that’s good enough.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
Three months. Ish. It’s in no fit state to show anyone – in fact I don’t even call it my first draft. I label it ‘preliminary draft’ on my computer, and nobody sees it but me! Because I try not to stop to look things up, I use capitals to signpost to myself when something needs looking at. So a typical sentence might read: ‘She saw Mark WHAT WAS HIS SURNAME? getting in to his WHAT SORT OF CAR WOULD HE DRIVE?, and wondered if he had noticed her.’ If I spend time on these sorts of things as they crop up, I get lost in the internet.
I use all three methods. My first read-through will be on paper, printed in double-spacing and on one side of the paper only, so I can write copious notes on the blank pages. Further down the line I prefer to use an e-reader, because it forces me to read it without fiddling with punctuation.
What happens now that first draft is done?
I give my ‘preliminary draft’ a rough edit to address the most obvious issues, then I send it to my agent and we have a discussion about it. I take another pass at it, and then it goes to my editor. By then it is technically a third draft, but it’s really just a tidied-up first draft. That’s when the real work starts!
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
I Let You Go
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 . .