Clare Mackintosh: Dancing on the keyboard

Electricity performed by Giuseppe Bausilio as Billy Elliot (c) Michael Brosilow

Electricity performed by Giuseppe Bausilio as Billy Elliot (c) Michael Brosilow - Credit: Michael Brosilow

‘I have published two books, with a third ready to hit the shelves. My attention must turn now to number four’

The question I’m asked most frequently at literary festivals is what my writing routine is. ‘Do you wait for the muse?’ people ask. ‘Or treat it like a job?’ It’s an interesting distinction; one which suggests creative professions retain a hobby-like identity, even when they’re paying the mortgage. I treat writing like a job, because it is my job. Were I a window cleaner, deciding on a cold Monday morning that I didn’t really feel like cleaning windows – that I didn’t have the muse – I would not remain a window cleaner for very long. And so it is for writing.

I have deadlines for my first drafts, for my second and third, for my copy-edits and my page proofs. I have interviews and articles and blog posts to write, and social media messages to answer. So, once the children are at school, and the dishwasher full; the dogs walked, and the library books returned, I sit at my desk. I work from 10am until around 5pm, stopping briefly for lunch, and again at 3.15pm, when the children burst into my office to tell me that they’ve scored goals/joined a band/fallen out with a friend. They show me their injuries (rarely a day goes by without a grazed knee or two, and the subsequent fascination of a developing scab or bruise) and I have a cup of tea, and then I shoo them away and get back to work.

I’d be lying if I said I loved every minute of it. There are days when every word I write is a word I know I will later delete; when every sentence is clumsy, every paragraph laboured. On those days, I am writing because it is my job, because there are deadlines to meet and contracts to fulfill. I am not writing because I love it.

On other days, the ink flows, my fingers fly, and words pour onto the page as though they are bypassing my hands and downloading directly from my head. It is satisfying, like a well-risen cake or a sweater knitted without a single dropped stitch.

I have published two books, with a third ready to hit the shelves. My attention must turn now to number four. It is barely conceived, and so my working days take a rather different shape. Instead of sitting at my desk, I walk the dogs twice as far. I spend twice as long in the shower, and lie-in longer in the mornings. To the outside world – to my husband, the children, the friends I blank in the street – I am day-dreaming. Only it’s work.

When people ask what it’s like to be a writer, I think this is what they’re imagining. And it’s the best bit, for sure. Not just because of the long walks, showers and lie-ins, but because of the promises it holds. It’s the run-up to your birthday, before that beribboned box you thought was diamonds turns out to be a Lakeland avocado saver. It’s the months looking forward to your holiday, before arriving to find your hotel’s only half built, and there’s something suspiciously brown stuck in the pool filter. And for me, it’s the conviction that this book is going to be the best thing I’ve ever written, before I sit at my desk and become instantly illiterate.

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This week I wrote an outline for my new book. Like many authors, I loathe writing synopses, which so often manage to turn the most brilliant ideas into something worthy of the bin. Like recounting an anecdote and realising too late that it simply isn’t funny out of context (I guess you had to be there…), I send them to my editor with the plea that it’ll be much better than it sounds… But this time, it was different.

There’s a moment in Billy Elliot, the West End musical about the boy who becomes a professional ballet dancer, where he is asked to explain how he feels when he dances. It’s like electricity, he says. It’s like that there’s some music/playing in your ear/And I’m listening, and I’m listening/And then I disappear. It’s a brilliant song, and it describes so completely how I felt this week, that I keep listening to the track. As I wrote, my nerve-endings were tingling; I could hear the beat of my pulse in my ears. It was like falling in love, or stepping off a rollercoaster, or standing at Arrivals waiting for that first glimpse of far-flung family. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t stop. And although I have now been writing professionally for several years, and although I have very much enjoyed creating the worlds in which my books are set, I have never once felt like this before.

The world of publishing is a strange one, and there’s many a slip ’twixt good idea and bookshelf. But the last few working days have reminded me how incredible it is to do something that makes you feel so alive. Listen to Billy Elliot’s Electricity, then find something that makes you feel the way he feels when he’s dancing. You’ll thank me for it.

Clare’s bestseller I See You, published by Sphere is out now in paperback. Clare’s third book, Let Me Lie, will be out in March.

For more information or more from Clare Mackintosh, visit her website or follow her on Twitter! @claremackint0sh