Thursday, January 14, 2016

David Hewson on Writing


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??) 

47 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

I've never understood the "no adverbs" thing . . . I enjoy descriptive writing that draws pictures in my mind as I read . . . does writing really need sets of rules?

David Hewson said...

As I said I hate rules. But I think some people like them because they're something to follow and they feel that following something makes the whole thing easier. There are editors out there who have check lists too -- the books they buy must tick every bod.

One way to do things - but not mine. As to adverbs it's like everything else -- fine when not over-used.

David Hewson said...

Sorry Debs... you wanted to know how Charlie and the Mermaid turned out???

Good question. Me too. I still think about writing that book 😉

Reine said...

David, I've read two of your books, Writing a Novel with Scrivener and Writing: A User Manual. Debs and friend Diane recommended both. I've found them helpful in organizing my brain and butt as well as my day-to-day, which is what I needed most. Got my apps syncing. Getting ready to move over to Ulysses.

No question. Just thank you, David, Debs, Diane and Jeannette. Sorry can't leave Jeannette out.



David Hewson said...

Thanks Reine and everyone here. Glad to be of help and on this very busy blog. I do have a writing a novel with Ulysses guide on Amazon and iBooks too.

FChurch said...

David, I will be looking for your book and checking out Ulysses. I've tried Scrivener, but found it unwieldy for my purposes. I have a manuscript that needs a lot of work--I need to pull it apart for rewriting, then put it back together. Do you think Ulysses could help me with this?

Reine said...

Great! I love iBooks! Thanks!

David Hewson said...

Ulysses is Mac only and you can download a trial. In the end I found Scrivener just too complex for me. Ulysses is much more like an intelligent digital typewriter. You work with a simple screen with power but without complexity. If you hit the Ulysses tag on my blog you'll see some examples.
I absolutely love it and find I write and edit more efficiently than ever. Oh and it works on an iPad too, brilliantly. If you have a Mac give e it a try.
This is my book. You may find the comments useful

http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B00OHGAZTY?ie=UTF8&redirectFromSS=1&pc_redir=T1&noEncodingTag=1&fp=1

David Hewson said...

Ps. Sorry if the link isn't quite right but I'm doing this on my phone from a cafe in Venice! The book is called Writing a novel with Ulysses

Reine said...

Fantastic! Thank you! Sound like what I'm looking for. And iPad... yay! And thanks for the link. Perfect.

Deborah Crombie said...

This makes me frustrated that I don't use a Mac. Although, mostly thanks to David's book on Writing a Novel with Scrivener, I've found Scrivener very useful.

I've found, however, that I can only outline in Scrivener up to a certain point. Then I have to switch over to a running outline in Word. I will put bits of this outline in the Scrivener scene synopsis panes, so that it's easy to keep up with what I've written. But I also see that I'm doing a lot of back-and-forthing...

Switching to a Mac is probably not an option for me, as we are all PC/Android, and I really love my Lenovo Thinkpad.

Deborah Crombie said...

Suggestions?

Deborah Crombie said...

I am writing from the dining room of my hotel in London, which is quite nice--but NOT a cafe in Venice!!!

David Hewson said...

When you link your Mac and iPad through iCloud everything you write on both syncs automatically. I like to revise at the end of the day on the iPad. The changes go straight back to my Mac. Magic. Trying to sync Scrivener I found much more difficult.

David Hewson said...

Ulysses is the reason I have a Mac. I just find it makes writing so much easier because you really focus on what matters - the words readers will actually see. I still have a think pad too somewhere.

Reine said...

I'm writing seated on the edge of my bed in Tucson, Arizona with my syncing iPhone.

Margaret Turkevich said...

I'm sitting at the kitchen table looking at a snowbank in frozen Cincinnati. I'll keep all this in mind.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

I'm sitting in my bed in rainy Key West:). David, I bought Ulysses last time you visited and haven't even looked at it. I'm always afraid to stop writing and learn a new tool. suggestions on that? (that's what did me in with Scrivener!)

David Hewson said...

Lucy. I used to be scared of stopping writing too. But honestly if the writing is going well the idea won't vanish if you take a day off. Maybe it will get better. I think you could master Ulysses in a few hours frankly. Scrivener on the other hand... That was so complex I had to go back to my own book sometimes to remember how to do things.

Deborah Crombie said...

David, you had to go back to your own book on Scrivener? That makes me feel so much better...

David Hewson said...

Every time I wanted to output the book to finish it in word. EVERY TIME. My book on Scrivener is as much about telling people what to ignore in the app as what to use. Boy is it hard.

Sherry Harris said...

Thanks for the Ulysses tip! I found Scrivner daunting too and like Lucy didn't want to take the time required to learn it. So far I have used my PC for writing and my Mac for everything else. I may have to switch to my Mac for everything!

David Hewson said...

Hi Sherry. Here are my thoughts on why I find Ulysses works for me.

http://davidhewson.com/2014/11/why-is-it-so-easy-to-write-in-ulysses/

If you hit the Ulysses keyword thing in the sidebar you can get other posts on Ulysses too.

Julia said...

Well, I'm writing from a desk in a drafty farmhouse in Maine and I'm freezing and shaking my fist at both David AND Debs.

I love that WRITING: A USER MANUAL isn't a template, rule book or how-to guide. New writers tend to cling to all of those, to the detriment of their work. To find your own voice, you need to approach writing with an open mind, willing to at least try to follow where your creativity leads you.

Hallie Ephron said...

So happy to see David here on Jungle Red - we met when we were both teaching at Book Passage's summer mystery writing workshop (I met Deb AND Rhys there, too, now that I think of it. Can't wait to get my hands on your book.

Ulysses! I have to check it out. Thanks for the tip... and I'm buying your book right now. Not that hard to find.

Adverbs... if you're writing fiction it pays to be aware that there are people who are adverb averse. A lot of them get into my draft, and I check them out trying to ensure that each one is working for me instead of sounding trite or redundant. Personally, a sentence like "She smiled broadly and winked slyly" sets my teeth on edge. I can't tell you exactly why it bothers me so but it does. Anyone out there agree and can explain why?

David Hewson said...

Hi Hallie. Those Book Passage events were great, weren't they? I do agree the usage you suggest is too much. As I think I say in the book (it's a while since I wrote it) the truth is it's like everything... moderation rules. Adverbs overused are... well, overused. But a blanket rule that says they should never be used seems plainly ridiculous. They perform a function, a very effective one if used properly.

Also they exist in just about every language there is, from English to Chinese, Japanese to Arabic. And of course Latin and Ancient Greek. If they truly were superfluous I think they'd have died out by now.

Marni Graff said...

Thank you for your adverb comments, spot on!

I am very interested in learning more sbout Ulysses, will be seeking your works out. And buying your book to bring to the Writers Read group I mentor.

Greg Daniel said...

Getting tips like Ulysses, Google Keep, and Journey for free, makes me wonders what amazing treasures will abound within WRITING: A USER MANUAL. Well, I won't wonder for long as it will be next purchase.

Adverbs -- thank you for defending them. In the right (write) hands, they can be glorious things. And, let's be honest, nothing really works well in the wrong hands.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey, David! Welcome, and cannot wait to read. I must say. I really cannot imagine using Scrivener.. I think I am too set in my ways. The way I do it--notebooks and little pieces of paper) although sometimes chaotic, works for me.

And sitting in a cafe in Venice, huh? Oh, okay. Clammy cold Boston, just as good.

Adverbs. I think it's a POV thing. If the POV person says I winked, slyly, at him..that's a short cut to impart motive, and is telling. Why not describe why you're doing it?

Broadly is a description, and not so bad. Maybe that's the difference? .

I love the idea of a process book. I keep a book diary--spotty, but reassuring. Because I see I had the same fears and roadblocks with every book. Which means--I managed to get past them before, so I can do it again.

Mary Sutton said...

Your book sounds great, David. The kind of thing I like: less of a "do this or else" and more of a "here's some things you can try." I'll have to look it up.

I have a Mac and have used Scrivener for years. I'm one who it works for (as you say, everyone's process is different). And now I use the Scapple app as well in the planning stage, for capturing ideas and then seeing how they can connect. Then I can drag those ideas into Scrivener to make scenes. Love the "index card" synopses, and how I can store everything in one place (character and setting notes, links to web pages for references, etc.). And now I've figured out how to configure the options to make my output look the way I want it to, compiling is much easier. I'd need a really compelling reason to switch at this point (like Scrivener becomes unsupported or the company goes out of business).

Scrivener is coming out with an iPad app (or so I hear) that probably resolves the syncing. But I only use one computer for writing, so I've never had a problem with that. I'll still probably check out the iPad app. Then again, I am something of a tech geek.

And I've never understood the total blacklist on adverbs, either. Glad to see I'm not the only one!

Mary Sutton said...

Oh, I forgot - I'm writing this in my den with a space heater blasting looking at my neighbor's snow-covered roof with dirty gray clouds in the distance. Totally jealous of your cafe in Venice!

Deborah Crombie said...

I've bought both versions of David's book, print and Kindle. I bought the print edition first, because I like to carry books around (dinosaur, me). Then I discovered it was difficult to read the examples in the print edition so bought the Kindle, too. Nice to have both.

I'm now using Journey, although not as regularly as I'd like.

We've talked a lot about software, which all writers seem to like to do, but the really great thing about David's book is that he gives you the tools to think out a story. It all starts with the story!!

Rhys said...

David, I hope you've forgiven me for making you carsick as I dove you up Mount Tam!
I'm teaching a writing workshop in Tuscany this summer and will add your book to recommended reading for my students. (Halle's book, and David Corbetts will also be on my list)

I arrived at my condo in Arizona last night and am getting my desk set up yo look at Palm trees and sunshine. I don't work well on dull days.
And I'll check out your app suggestions. I save everything yo Dropbox so I can pick up on any device.

David Hewson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Hewson said...

forgiven Rhys. Enjoy Tuscany

FChurch said...

Hallie: that example you gave--it would bother me less if it read: "She smiled broadly and winked." The 'broadly' shows what kind of smile it was and infers the slyness of the accompanying wink. Like you said, is every adverb (word) working? I would never go through a piece of writing and toss out all the adverbs--and hate it when people lay down those kinds of 'rules.' Bah, I say!

David Hewson said...

Actually I think someone, maybe Graham Greene, did just that. Went through his entire first draft, removed all the adverbs, then asked himself which ones he wanted to put back in.

Pat D said...

I'm not a writer so all this is over my head. When is Nic coming back?

David Hewson said...

I'd love to say soon. But those books were basically killed by my then publisher in the US. They had their own problems and didn't even publish a paperback of the last book even though it got great reviews from the Washington Post down.
The way this business is it's hard to get back from that. Wish it were otherwise but publishers don't seem much interested in anything Italian right now. Though I know from my mailbox readers feel differently.

Brenda Buchanan said...

This sounds like a wonderful tool. I will look for it, David. Thanks for writing it and posting here.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Writing from my desk in NW Montana, watching the snow fall.

I must stay, I felt kinda guilty and dinosaur-acious not wanting to try Scrivener b/c so many friends use and recommend it, but I just *knew* a techno approach wasn't for me. I *like* my notebooks and sketches, and pictures torn from magazines. So to hear The Guy Who Wrote the Book say he doesn't use it is a relief!

My take on "the rules" is that they're guidelines, and sometimes tools. For ex., what's often said about adverbs is that they can mean you didn't choose the right verb -- so looking at it that way pushes me to focus on the verb. It's also a question of rhythm -- what sounds right. The same goes for nearly any writing "rule," I think -- ask yourself the underlying intent, and use that.

David Hewson said...

Hi Leslie. I don't want to diss Scrivener. It's a great app and when I was working on the mammoth task of adapting a 20 hour TV series The Killing into a novel it was a lifesaver. If you write that kind oh heavily structured multitheme book I can imagine it's invaluable.

But mostly I don't and what worries me about complex writing apps is they can divert you into spending time on things the reader never sees. With Ulysses I know what I have in front of me is the book in waiting. But others will feel differently and so they should.

Kathy Reel said...

I'm always fascinated by writing books, David, and I will be ordering yours. I'm pleased that you are adverb tolerant, as I feel the no adverb rule is pretentious in its insistence. However, in working with students from elementary school through high school in writing, I would emphasize the use of a descriptive verb to more aptly express the action. Many were used to being lazy in their word choice, using adverbs such as "slowly" and "quickly" far too many times. Going to look your book up now.

David Hewson said...

Agree Kathy - making verbs work harder is one solution to the problem. That does, of course, bring you into conflict with one other 'rule' you hear from time to time - that the only verb to use with speech is 'say'. Again I don't much want to hear 'she extrapolated' or something. And personally I won't use 'smiled', 'laughed' or 'sighed' as if they indicated speech because for me they don't. But 'yell', 'whisper', 'murmur' 'cry'... for me they're fine and do what words are supposed to: help paint a picture in the reader's mind.

Katherine Hyde said...

I love my adverbs! I do try to keep them out of dialogue tags, and I try not to use them lazily, i.e. as a substitute for a stronger verb. But there are so many things one simply can't say without adverbs—like "use them lazily."

Diana R. Chambers said...

What a wonderful thread, witty and useful. I too purged adverbs for awhile until I got the confidence to use them "sparingly." Thanks to David (whom I also met at Book Passage) and Debs for organizing it. Add me to the list of those who will buy David's book!

Diana R. Chambers said...

PS I'm writing from my desk in Northern Cal, where we're delirious with joy over the continued rain.