As Derek Neale makes clear in his introduction to this handbook, it
is not intended for absolute beginners, making those first tentative steps
as writers; instead, it is aimed at those who are already writing but who
want to develop their writing style, and their general approach to
The key to this for Neale and his fellow contributors, Linda Anderson
and Bill Greenwell (all three experienced teachers of creative writing)
lies in understanding the connections between dramatic writing and other
forms of writing, and this broad approach to writing is reflected in
the way they bring together fiction, poetry and drama, along with life
writing, in order to show how a writer can best integrate the art and
craft of writing. And make no mistake about it, writing is both art
and craft. One can have the best ideas in the world, but without a solid
technique, what Neale calls ‘the scaffolding’, those ideas will never be
fully realised on the page.
Neale refers to a comment by Joyce Carol Oates, that rewriting,
revising and re-imagining one’s work are the lifeblood of the creative
process. Perhaps most telling of all, Neale also notes that ‘all
writing benefits from the writer’s decision to pause at vital moments, to
follow the hunch that something could be improved, however slightly’, and
much of the handbook is concerned less with generating new ideas than with
fostering a dedicated attentiveness to what is needed to improve and
develop one’s writing style.
The handbook comprises four sections, three of which explore ways of
writing, writing drama, and developing style, while the last contains a
set of readings to be used in conjunction with the exercises in the other
three sections. Some readers are perhaps already bridling slightly at that
section on writing drama, as they write fiction, but understanding how to
write drama, be it plays or film scripts, is often surprisingly helpful to
the writer contemplating a novel. Many of the techniques needed are
similar, although they are often applied in slightly different ways,
underlining the point the writers are making, that it is not as easy to
divorce one sort of writing from another as one might suppose.
As I have said, the key to improvement, according to Neale and his
colleagues, is attentiveness, and much of the first section of this
handbook is dedicated to an extensive series of exercises designed to help
the writer understand how elements of a text, through close reading and
analysis, and through experimentation with changing aspects of the text.
For the solitary reader, a notebook will most likely be useful to record
their responses. It is not a method that will work for everyone, but I
think that any writer who is serious about their work will, sooner or
later, have to recognise that creating the first draft is the easy part;
it is what one does next that makes the difference.
The second part of the handbook is a fascinating and exhaustive
exploration of what goes into writing drama and presenting it on the page
in such a way that a director and actors can transform it into pictures
and movement. In writing a script, one is effectively writing a set of
instructions; if they work, the play or film will become a coherent whole,
but if they don’t, then the enterprise falls apart. A novelist’s job is
slightly different, in that they not only write the instructions but, to a
certain extent, create the pictures as well. Thus, many filmic techniques
can, as the authors show, be successfully utilised on the page, to create
atmosphere and drama. Again, minute analysis of the techniques show
clearly how they work, and how they can be made to work in fiction.
The third part of the handbook looks at various techniques for
establishing voice and use of language. Strong dialogue is often essential
in establishing a character and in providing information, but many people
mistakenly assume that it is simply about writing down what people will
say in various situations. Speech can tell us so much about a character,
quite apart from in what they actually say, and here the authors show how
this can be achieved.
This handbook can be used in a number of different ways; the exercises
work as well for the writer at home as in a more formal classroom
environment. It is true the handbook asks for a lot from the reader in
terms of participation and active thought, but for those writers who are
extremely serious about improving their work, it provides a valuable
course in how to think about the art and craft of writing.