DEBORAH CROMBIE: You would think I'd know how to do what I do, right? Having written a few
books, I'd have it all down pat.
Oh, so, wrong. I'm always looking for ways to write better, write smarter, and, um, write faster...
It's not that I don't know that the main ingredient to all those things is butt in chair, but--there are ways to do it better. My friend David Hewson, whose novels I adore, has written a non-fiction book on writing that I think is simply the best book on writing out there--and believe me, I've read quite a few. But I don't think I've ever read one cover to cover, until this one. I literally could not put it down, and I refer back to it regularly.
This is not just a book for beginners (although it would be my top recommendation for someone wanting to write a first novel) but a great resource for established writers, as well. But I can't tell you about WRITING: A USER'S MANUAL, nearly as well as David, so here he is--
DAVID HEWSON: I used to teach at writing schools quite a bit. One of my favourites — and where I first met Deborah — is the annual mystery writers’ conference at that wonderful store Book Passage in Corte Madera. It’s an incredible event gathering writers and would-be authors for a long weekend of chat and learning about publishing, the business, the craft.
But I don’t do writing schools any more. For one thing I don’t have the time. But I also have to admit it got wearing to discover how many enthusiastic wannabes turned up at these occasions, sometimes at great expense to themselves, without even a basic grasp of the tools required for the job. They seemed to want instant enlightenment, an attitude which misunderstands the writing process quite fundamentally. No one ever learns to write. We’re always fumbling towards perfection, changing constantly, struggling to make the next book better than the last.
A large part of that process hangs around practical matters: craft, management, work. So instead of trying to cram all that essential knowledge into a few sessions over a single weekend I came up with Writing: A User Manual. What’s it meant to be? Simple: all the things I wish someone had told me before I first started out in this business twenty years ago. As I say out the outset ‘a guide to practical craft not cerebral art’.
It’s all very well understanding character arcs, three-act structures and Joseph Campbell. But if you don’t have the chops to get the damned book written in the first place all that comes to nothing at all.
Let me stress what this book isn’t.
- A how-to guide. I’m not sure you can teach writing but you can certainly teach people how to think about writing which is what I hoped to do here. In other words I wanted to set out some starting points then challenge readers to find their own way to meet them.
- A set of writing rules. Something in my nature means whenever someone tells me there’s a rule for something I want to break it. I hate the idea that anything as individual as writing can be broken down into cogs and components as if a book were a business plan or a spreadsheet.
- A template to follow. There are structures to modern mainstream narrative fiction. But I don’t believe the old adage that there are only three-four-five-or-more stories in existence and every new one is simply a rewrite of something old.
So this entire work is just my opinion — the approaches I’ve developed to writing over more than two decades in this business. What I’m trying to do is prod people into finding what works for them.
I break the manual down into the three stages I use for my own projects — planning, writing and delivery. To help people try to see how things develop I begin with a very rough idea for a story called Charlie and the Mermaid. In the planning area I try to work out what kind of story this is going to be — and that could be anything from horror to fantasy or crime.
Then when I’ve settled on the approach I go through the writing process, research, background and story planning. Finally in the delivery section I cover the business of rewrites and editing. There’s no career advice — how find an agent and that stuff. All I’m focusing on is getting together the best manuscript you possibly can.
People who know me won’t be surprised to find a few rants along the way. I pop off on the subject of cruelty to adverbs (it’s that rule thing again). I’ve a few words to say about overuse of sex and violence too. You may disagree. I rather hope you do. That’s why I’m saying these things.
I also focus quite a bit on writing tools — in particular software and how it should be used. Not for a millisecond do I believe snake oil stories about how a certain fiction app can ‘unlock your creativity’. If you need a computer to do that you’re really in trouble. But computers — and now phones and tablets — are wonderful things for helping you make the most of your time, and time is something we’re always short of.
So I cover apps like Scrivener, Microsoft Word and OneNote and try to suggest ways in which you can focus on their best features to get words down on screen, which is what this game is all about.
The book was written four years ago so a fair bit of that is now out of date. Software’s moved on and so have I. Back then I was a dedicated Scrivener fan. Now all of my writing happens in a different Mac app, Ulysses, which has the power I need with none of the complexity. Ulysses is also cloud-friendly, something that was meaningless four years ago. Now all my work — every last scene, chapter, book and article like this — syncs automatically through the web to my desktop, laptop and, with Ulysses, my iPad too. So I can edit it anywhere, on a plane, train, in a hotel, where I like, and know that the changes are updated automatically everywhere without any effort on my part.
Now that is truly magic. I only use two other tools. Google Keep for storing notes and references, a wonderful free app that works on my Mac and syncs to a great phone app too so I can jot down ideas anywhere. And a diary app, Journey, which again works on a phone as easily as a desktop and is a great way for keeping the essential book diary, something I outline in the book. Then, at the end, Ulysses outputs a properly formatted Microsoft Word file for my publisher and I’m done.
Even with a foreword from Lee Child this book is not exactly easy to find in book stores, largely because it was published as an academic tome, not a mainstream non-fiction work. But people who’ve found it seem to have found it useful.
I hope so because the way the diary stands my teaching days are over. That said if you have a quick question you’d like answered here — one I can deal with in a single sentence — fire away and I’ll do my best.
DEBS: REDS and readers, if you have questions for David, now's your chance!
David, I don't suppose you'll tell me how Charlie and the Mermaid turns out...
For more about David and his novels check out davidhewson.com, and don't miss his terrific blog.
(And can I just say how happy I am to have someone challenge the "no adverb" rule???? Who else thinks adverbs rock??)