Malcolm Mackay on writing The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter
02 June 2015
By Pan Macmillan
A young man, on his own, hiding his life from the world. That’s what did it for me. The idea of revelling in isolation, using it to your advantage. That's the starting point. The single idea from which the rest flows. Your characters, your setting, your scenario. You work it all out from that start. All you have to do now is write the book.
Write fast or not at all. Not a rule for everyone, but for me a necessity. As soon as the wheels get bogged down, my journey’s over. I won’t get going again. Ditch it, start again. Learn the lesson from the previous failure. Work out the wrong turnings, re-plot your journey. Let’s face it, no matter how bad the first attempt was, there will be something you can use second time around. Nothing’s a complete waste. Thirty thousand words seems to be where my bog often waits. Get that far and struggle. Get past forty without slowing, and you’re set for a full draft.
I was reading The Painted Veil when I started writing The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. More than a year and a half ago now, but I remember because I mentioned it in the book. Kind of a cheap way to add a little colour to the character, I know. Have him read the same books, play the same games, watch the same TV I do. Still, what you’re reading is always going to influence what you write. So read well. Maugham, Graham Greene, with a bit of Jim Thompson and Dashiell Hammett. That’s a good mix. Teaches a few good lessons.
How to make a complete bastard seem endearing. That’s a good lesson if your protagonists aren’t the nicest of people. Mine kills people for a living. That’s a hard sell to begin with. A profession chosen from that starting point. A man hiding himself and his life from the world. A man with things worth hiding. I tried to make my killer reasonably likeable by making him normal. Give no reason beyond the job to dislike him. A guy you would walk past in the street without looking at him twice. Just quiet, isolated, and very good at what he does.
Ordinary person, remarkable job. But a remarkable job that he walked into with his eyes open. A job he doesn’t see as particularly remarkable. Every job is a procedure, meticulously planned and carefully executed, pardon the pun. He’s not nerveless, but he’s getting there. Experience in any field brings a sense of normality. Even in something very few people do. Even in something nobody should do.
With Lewis Winter being my first novel, I had no idea if it worked. I wanted to write a crime novel, and I had that starting point. It wrote fast; good sign. I enjoyed writing it; good sign. It felt enjoyable, but I felt like I’d put real effort into it. It wasn’t a hard slog, but I didn’t just skip blithely through it either. Somewhere between a job and a hobby. But you know as you’re writing if the story works. Get excited about it for a little while. But then, by the time the book is finished, I’m back to doubting it. And will forever reside in the land of doubt, no matter the opinions of others.
I think that’s how it has to be. The early excitement, the lingering doubt. Without those things, why would you ever try again? The excitement of that first idea, of building a book around it. The doubt about it, pushing you toward that even more exciting next idea. That constant belief that the next idea is the best you’ve ever had is the greatest inspiration. So the second will be better than the first, the third better than the second and all of them better than this post.