David Hewson is a bestselling British author and has published more than 20 mystery novels and several guidebooks for aspiring authors. His work includes three adaptations of the award-winning Danish TV series The Killing that have been acclaimed across international markets. Hewson’s books have been translated into more than 25 languages and his latest series, set in Amsterdam and launched with The House of Dolls, is in development for Dutch TV.
How did you become a writer of all things? Did you dream about it when you were a child, or did it rather happen by chance?
One way or another I’ve always written for a living. I left school at 17 and became a reporter on a little newspaper in England and later worked for The Times, Sunday Times and Independent as a journalist. But I always loved books and dreamed of being an author. Finally twenty years ago I managed it when my first book was bought and turned into a movie. I later gave up journalism to be a full-time author. Journalism offers some great lessons for being a novelist. You learn to edit, not be precious about your words and to get on with the job. But you also have to accept that fiction is fiction and depends on making things up. The elements that make a novel work should get you sacked in journalism because essentially you’re trying to be a convincing liar.
You’re actually a very productive author, with more than 20 published novels. Could you give us some insight into the way you’re writing?
I’m Trying to Uncover the Story as I Write
Since I write for a living I regard this as a job and treat it that way. I’ll have any one of a number of different projects in development at any one time. Some, such as my current crime series set in Amsterdam, will be pre-sold. Others are more adventurous. I will always have one main project on the go at any one time — usually the next commissioned book in line. But I work up other ideas too. Ulysses is great for that since everything lives in a single library and I can keep a group called Work In Progress for the secondary projects. Most of the time I will work on the main one then break off for something different from time to time — like the book on Ulysses.
Where do your ideas come from?
Often from accidents. The Amsterdam series came about because I wandered off the beaten track in the city and found myself in a very local area called the Jordaan. I had a beer in a café, observed some locals and just thought: it would be really interesting to write about a man living in a houseboat here, with a little dog, convinced his life no longer had any purpose when people who knew him understood otherwise. That went unwritten for perhaps ten years before it turned into The House of Dolls. You have to note these things down though otherwise you’ll lose them. At any one time I have perhaps five projects on the go, some of which will never reach completion but that’s irrelevant.
Do you plot before you start writing? To what extent?
The Only Truth That Matters in Fiction: Does It Sound Real Within the Boundaries of the Story
I always have an idea of a direction and try to map out some pivotal events to write towards. But these will change because I want the characters in the story to develop sufficiently for them to stand up at some stage and say, ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ It’s important for me that story comes out of character. If you do it the other way round — fit your characters to the narrative you have in mind — they are liable to be nothing more than puppets pulled by narrative strings. So I’m trying to uncover the story as I write — just as a reader will one day. Not everyone works this way. I know authors who map out everything and others who just launch into nothing. But most of us I think try to set that direction. It’s like trying to climb Everest. You know you are aiming for the summit but to get there you have to work out the base camps along the way.
Which role does research play?
Research is the bit of the book that’s like the hidden part of an iceberg. It’s important but it’s mainly below the surface. It’s vital not to let research overwhelm the story I think. Imagination and invention are much more important than literal truth. And the only truth that matters in fiction is internal truth — does it sound real within the boundaries of the story? Whether it’s real or not in the outside world is largely irrelevant.
Do you follow a daily routine to be most productive?
I Am Very Productive, Because I Focus on the Work and Don’t Waste Time on Twitter or Facebook
If I’m not travelling for promotion — and that’s always an important part of a working author’s life — I work five days a week, Monday to Friday, about 8.30 am to 5pm in the afternoon. I don’t work weekends or nights. A lot of people seem to think I do because I am very productive. But that’s because I focus on the work and don’t waste time on Twitter or Facebook.
Honestly: Do you write what you want or what you think what sells?
In the beginning you’re desperate to sell a book, of course, so you try to guess what the publishers want. That may work but for me it’s not a long-term solution. You can’t chase the market with me-too books if you want a long career. Publishers don’t want the next Dan Brown or whatever. They crave something new and fresh. For quite some time now I’ve been lucky enough to be able to call the shots on the kind of book I want to write. I’ve co-authored a couple of Shakespeare audio adaptations, for example, which are very different to my normal work. If I’d just been trying to follow the herd I doubt I’d still be getting published.
In your book you’re describing in detail how to use Ulysses for novel writing. Why do you consider Ulysses an appropriate tool for this?
I used to review technology for the Sunday Times so I’ve always taken an interest in apps. I think I must have bought just about every writing tool for the Mac ever invented. To be honest Ulysses took a bit of getting used to in the beginning because it is quite unlike anything else around. But when it clicked I realised it offered a wonderful marriage between simplicity — the very typewriter-like experience of writing full screen with nothing on the page but the words — while allowing me to deal with the structural issues of long narratives, juggling parts, scenes, chapters and ideas.
The iCloud syncing is really important to me too since I work a lot on the move. Having my entire library of ideas and works in progress follow me automatically on the road with my laptop is an absolute godsend. I was also impressed by how easy it was to export to Word too — which I have to do because as a published author Word is always the last step in the process since that’s the software publishers use.
How did you come up with the idea to write a book about the app?
Books Are Made Up of Words, Nothing More, Nothing Less, and Ulysses Really Makes You Face Up to That Challenge
Some years ago I wrote a book Writing A Novel with Scrivener which did what it said — gave you an insight into using the app specifically for fiction. Scrivener’s a great piece of software and the book is still very popular. One thing I learned from that is that people who want to write novels need to be told more than just how to use an app. They really want to be mentored on how to adopt software to the writing process itself, something which as newcomers they probably don’t understand terribly well. So I’m trying to show people a little bit of how books work when it comes to the narrative structure, and the ways in which Ulysses can be used to control and develop that process. I don’t believe for one minute that technology can ‘unlock creativity’. Apps can’t make writing easier, but they can make it less hard provided you understand what you’re trying to achieve in the first place.
I also think that small, independent software houses are very like small, independent publishers — home to some of the brightest and bravest innovations around. So in my own small way I’m hoping to help people find their way to Ulysses and give it a much-deserved try.
What do you like best about Ulysses? Do you have a favorite feature?
It’s the simplicity. I can’t explain it really but when I hit full screen, see the scene I want to write with a brief synopsis at the top, I find it very, very easy to get down some words. I’m not distracted by elements such as formatting. Ulysses vanishes completely when I want it to so all I’m left with is a blank page asking me to fill it. Books are made up of words, nothing more, nothing less, and Ulysses really makes you face up to that challenge.
What will aspiring authors learn from your book?
That’s What I Want of a Writing App — Control, Productivity and Results
I hope they’ll get a shortcut into understanding how Ulysses can very easily be turned into a uniquely powerful tool for developing a novel project, especially one that you want to work with on the move. Once you grasp the basics and understand how to set up a manuscript and a management process to deal with it, Ulysses is an incredibly efficient way to write. My current main project, for example, is the third book in the Amsterdam series which I won’t need to deliver for another nine months. I started it in Amsterdam six weeks ago and haven’t been working on it full-time. But in Ulysses it just hit 28K words, all of them revised along the way — and my editor’s seen the opening and already told me she loves it. Now that’s what I want of a writing app — control, productivity and results.
In his book “Writing a Novel With Ulysses III”, which will be published later this year, David Hewson describes in detail how to approach novel writing using Ulysses III, covering narrative structure, planning, revision and finally exporting to Word, PDF and ePub output. NaNoWriMo participants have the opportunity to get an exclusive preview of around 30 pages, containing the chapters “Planning your novel” and “Let’s get writing”. Visit Ulysses dedicated NaNoWriMo site to learn more.