This year my first and last book on the craft of writing was published. It’s called Writing: A User Manual and is now out in print and ebook in the UK from Bloomsbury.
Lee Child wrote the foreword. In it he opines…
There are blind alleys, and ways to avoid them.There are elephant traps, and ways to sidestep them. There’s praise, and ways to parse it. There’s criticism, and ways to respond to it. And ways not to. Once the words are on the page, you step out of the office and into the jungle. You need a guide. You need David Hewson.
Very (and typically) kind of him, since Lee, like me, has a distinct antipathy towards ‘how-to’ books about writing.
So why did I write a full-length book on the subject anyway? It’s because of That Damned Question. The one professional writers get all the time at book conventions and writing classes. You know the one. It goes…
So what’s your secret?
Secret! These things are books. You can pick them up in libraries and book stores everywhere. Download them in a few seconds to your Kindle. They are as public as public can be. And you want to know their secret?
It’s an infuriating question in itself. But the sentiments behind it are pretty damned worrying too. There’s a myth at large that writing fiction is a kind of game of chance. You juggle the words and ideas, hope they work on the page, then pray some agent and publisher will pick them up and put their professional skills behind making the thing work.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Writing is a craft, like painting or music, one we can never truly master. Some of us may have natural talents for any of these. But talent alone isn’t enough. You need to work. You need to learn from others. You need to read (or see other paintings and listen to other music) and develop the ability to analyse the output of others and see what makes it tick.
Inspiration’s a wonderful thing but perspiration’s essential too. So often books about writing concentrate on the former and ignore the latter. That’s why you get keen and utterly lost students at writing classes who know the ins and outs of characters arcs better than many a professional writer, but still lack a firm grip on more basic, perhaps more boring, facets of writing such as tense, point and view and fundamental narrative structure and successful revision.
Stories aren’t just written. They’re built, step by step out of nothing. Unless you possess the right tools and an understanding of the medium you’re like an architect who’s clueless about physics. You may have the greatest vision in your head, but the chances are it will come tumbling down somewhere along the way.
So I wanted to write a book that told would-be writers everything I expected them to know before embarking on a novel, or even a class. I’m not sure you can teach writing. But I know you can teach people to think about it. That, I hope, is what Writing: A User Manual will do.
It’s a very simple idea. It takes you through planning, writing and delivering a novel. I talk about how I handle research and story structure, the tools I use, the kind of work strategies I employ. Some of these ideas may work for you. Some you could find horrifying. No matter. Every writer’s on an individual journey. You have to find your own way. So the advice I offer in this book is there to be accepted, questioned and rejected if you wish. So long as it makes you think about the way writing could work for you.
There’s a sample story in there, developed from that first rudimentary flash of an idea to a finished synopsis. Quite a few examples of work in various stages of progress, and the odd rant too. My aim was to produce a practical guide to the fundamentals of writing popular fiction. All the things I wish someone had told me — but didn’t — before I set out on this journey almost two decades and twenty books ago.
It will be, as I said, my first and last book on this subject. I hope it’s some use.
In the next few blog posts, I'll be talking in some detail about the revision process, which is covered in some detail in the book too.
David Hewson is the bestselling author of twenty two books published in more than twenty languages. His popular Costa contemporary crime series is now in development for a series of TV movies in Rome.