The basic challenge for the writer can be very simply explained – it is to create an imaginary world and then draw the reader into that imaginary world.
All novelists are trying to do that. Once we get there, different writers may have different concerns. Personally, I want to entertain you. I want you to be thrilled or moved to tears or scared and I definitely want you to be on the edge of your seat all the time, wondering what is going to happen next.
A man with a wooden leg walked along a hospital corridor.
He was a short, vigorous type with an athletic build, thirty years old, dressed in a plain charcoal gray suit and black toe-capped shoes. He walked briskly, but you could tell he was lame by the slight irregularity in his step: tap-tap, tap-tap. His face was fixed in a grim expression, as if he were suppressing some profound emotion.
He reached the end of the corridor and stopped at the nurse’s desk.
“Flight Lieutenant Hoare?” he said.
The nurse looked up from a register. She was a pretty girl with black hair, and she spoke with the soft accent of County Cork. “You’ll be a relation, I’m thinking,” she said with a friendly smile.
Her charm had no effect. “Brother,” said the visitor. “Which bed?”
“Last on the left.”
– The opening paragraphs from Hornet Flight
My aim in constructing sentences is to make the sentence utterly easy to understand, writing what I call transparent prose. I’ve failed dreadfully if you have to read a sentence twice to figure out what I meant.
I don’t feel that all writers should have my approach. There are many writers who write complicated, rather elaborate sentences which are actually a lot of fun. They might be comedy writers – P. G. Wodehouse, for example, does this all the time. With Wodehouse, what you are enjoying is the daft but entertaining way in which he phrases things. For instance, he says that Lord Emsworth wasn’t exactly disgruntled but he was very far from being gruntled. At another end of the spectrum, with Dickens, what you are enjoying is the richness of his writing and the way his sentences can go on and on.
By contrast, my personal aim is to write transparent prose.
As an aspiring writer, you should certainly start by writing an outline. I explain how to do this in this Masterclass. You solve a lot of problems with an outline. It is far easier to correct your mistakes if you write an outline than if you sat down and wrote, ‘Chapter One’ at the top of a piece of paper and started writing. If you work that way, it will take an awfully long time to correct your mistakes.
You will spend six months or a year writing the book, and only then will you find out things that you wish you had known right at the start. Writing an outline also concentrates your mind. It is good to carry on reading a lot at this stage. Suppose you are writing a love story and you have decided that the hero of the story is in love with a woman who is already married. When you are reading other books, you will see how other writers have handled this and you’ll see the problem from different angles. That will give you a rich sense of how many possibilities there are.
You should also show your outline to other people. It’s a bit bruising, or at least it will be bruising, if it’s going to be any use to you. If your mum says, “it’s lovely dear,” then you haven’t learned anything. However, if your friends say, “it seems a bit boring to me”, then you must ask them, “why does it seem boring? What sort of story do you like? What would make it interesting to you?”
Then you’’ll get them criticising your work and although they are amateurs, their thoughts are worth having. I learned to do this eventually and I wish I had earlier because I would have grown and matured faster as a writer if I had done.
Putting pen to paper
Let’s assume that you have got your basic idea. In my case, it might be in the idea of a German spy in wartime England, or a family of bankers who lose all their money. A basic idea is something that can be said in one sentence.
One of these ideas was the starting point for The Man from St Petersburg.
You then have to elaborate your basic idea. I write down my one sentence on a piece of paper and I try and make it two. I begin to imagine the people in the story, where they came from and what their motivations are. I think about how they will approach this problem, whether it be losing all their money or trying to catch a German spy.
I am trying to create interesting characters and show how their lives are devastated by a series of events, how they fight against adversity and how they triumph. I elaborate more and more. Two sentences become three, and before too long I’ve got three paragraphs, a page, two pages and so on as I constantly rewrite and tease out the story, trying to create extra dramatic situations out of this basic idea. Eventually, I get to the stage where it takes me all day to write a summary of the novel. As I go through, I look at what I wrote the day before, sentence by sentence, trying to improve it by, for example, making it more dramatic or a character more interesting.
You have to ask yourself questions all the time about these people who you have created and the problems they are confronted with. You ask about how clever they are, how courageous and you must always ask, in every situation they confront, what are they afraid of? I then see that any little changes have consequences later in the story and I have to change the story to adjust it.
Every change suggests new opportunities and new notions. If a character triumphs or has some kind of success, I plant earlier in the story the notion that this is the kind of triumph or success that they have always longed for. Any time they are confronted with something scary, I plant earlier in the story the notion that this is what they have been terrified of all their lives. This technique heightens the emotion and raises the stakes.
In creating these stories the writer must always be aware of raising the stakes. Think of a German spy in wartime England. He’s not just trying to get home with some information, he is trying to get home with information that will change the course of the war. The people who are trying to catch him must know that he’s got that information and then for them the stakes are higher. Preferably there should also be some personal thing that makes this the most important thing that has ever happened in their lives. Perhaps one of the people who is trying to catch him failed to catch a spy a year earlier and is terribly ashamed of having failed. So not only does he want to catch this spy but he wants to in order to vindicate his whole life.
During the elaboration process, I get a lot of my ideas from research. In the case of Victorian bankers, I read books about how Victorian bankers failed, how they succeeded, what their houses were like, the domestic problems that they might have had, whether they got divorced, how they did their courting when they fell in love, and so on. And all those research topics give you ideas for dramatic scenes.
In the case of Eye of the Needle, I was writing about a German spy crossing England during the war. It was important then to read about catching trains, trying to get petrol for a car, security checks and so on. Every bit of research that I did would suggest a scene in which the main character is confronted by a problem and has to be resourceful and courageous to over come it. The whole thing is teased out in this way.
I gain inspiration from the research, but I am always working my imagination to elaborate the story. I often use the services of professional researchers, mainly Dan Starer of Research for Writers in New York. Dan produces reading lists on, say, earthquakes, clones or eighteenth-century criminal courts. He finds learned articles, out-of-print books and old maps, people for me to interview, experts and historians, detectives and FBI agents. Most of my books are checked for factual errors before publication by at least one technical consultant.
I finish up at the end of the elaboration process with between 25-40 typed pages. That is the outline. The outline says chapter by chapter what happens in the book and it contains potted biographies of each of the characters. Most importantly though, it tells me and my editors what the dramas are. I then show this outline to various people including my editor in New York, my editor in London, my agent and actually anybody else who is interested. Some of my children are very interested in this process, some are not, so I send the outline to the ones who are interested and they call me or send me a note.
Some of these people are amateurs and some are very smart experts on story telling. I listen to what they all have to say and their views change my perception of what I’ve done. I can then look at my work from the point of view of a reader. Someone may say, for instance, “I don’t really want to read a story about a man who beats his wife.” This may not be because it doesn’t fit in with the plot, but because people just don’t want to read a book about that sort of thing. I may say, “I hadn’t thought of that, but of course nobody wants to read a story about a man who beats his wife.”
When I have all these comments, I rewrite the outline – and this may happen several times. Typically there will be a first draft outline, a second draft outline and a final outline, so it would twice go through the process of being shown to a number of people. The whole process of coming up with idea, fleshing it out, doing the research, drafting the outline and rewriting the outline comes to about a year all told. There are quite often a couple of false starts within this. I may spend a month working on an idea before I realise that it isn’t going to work and abandon it. But after this whole process, I’m ready to write the first draft.
JOAN DAVES AGENCY
February 18, 1997
Mr. Ken Follett
San Francisco, CA
For a second draft outline, I think this one is In very good shape. I like the villain a lot more than I did In THE THIRD TWIN and I think that this Is going to be an even stronger book. Also, I love the idea of the title, but I think you could perhaps shorten it by calling the book FROM THE DRAGON’S MOUTH. What do you think?
– My agent’s response to the outline for The Hammer of Eden – then with a different working title
The first draft
The toughest part of the whole process is going from the outline to the first draft.
When you are writing the outline you can do anything from changing the gender of a character to resetting the whole thing in Egypt. You are all-powerful. After you have made those decisions, you come to the stage where each sentence in our outline has to be turned into four or five pages of prose. This is where the real imaginative work comes in. You have to take your ideas and you have to walk people in and out of the room, you have to describe the room and the clothes they are wearing and you have to make the reader share their anxieties, hopes, triumphs and their romantic feelings.
A man called Priest pulled his cowboy hat down at the front and peered across the flat, dusty desert of South Texas.
The low dull green bushes of thorny mesquite and sagebrush stretched in every direction as far as he could see. In front of him, a ridged and rutted track ten feet wide had been driven through the vegetation. These tracks were called senderos by the Hispanic bulldozer drivers who cut them in brutally straight lines. On one side, at precise fifty-yard intervals, bright pink plastic marker flags fluttered on short wire poles. A truck moved slowly along the sendero.
Priest had to steal the truck.
– From The Hammer of Eden.
There is a rule which says that the story should turn about every four to six pages. A story turn is anything that changes the basic dramatic situation. It can change it in a little way or change it in a big way. Let’s say somebody is escaping. A small story turn would be that the escapee was hoping that the snow would have melted on this side of the mountain and they find it hasn’t. It’s not going to stop them. They are going to go on but they have to stop and think, “oh my God, how are we going to do it?” They may think, “we’ll have to get snowshoes,” or, “it will take us twice as long, but we can do it.” Either way, they’ll have some solution immediately.
A big story turn would be if there are three people in the party and one dies and he’s the guide and the only one who knows the way. Now, that is a big change and they are really in trouble. A big story change forces a total change in direction. A little story turn has notched up the tension and in a suspense novel, you generally want the story turns to increase the tension all the time. However, they may not all be challenges. Some will be triumphs. For example, the detective may discover the villain’s first name and think, “damn. I haven’t got a second name – but its Jim, Jim somebody, that doesn’t help much but it’s better than nothing.”
You can’t go longer than about six pages without a story turn, otherwise the reader will get bored. Although that is a rule that people have invented in modern times about best-sellers, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice follows the same rule. In Dickens it’s the same; something happens about every four to six pages. Be careful though. If you’ve got two story turns in four pages, you are going too fast and are not drawing the full drama and emotion out of each scene. Above all, the most important rule when writing the first draft is to pace the action right. Do this, and the story will always develop at about the right speed.
Completing the novel
At this point, they are not quarrelling with me about the general nature of the story. They are telling me, “when she made that decision I didn’t believe it. She wouldn’t make that decision.” Or they are saying, “I want to like this character more and I don’t like him as much as I should.” Or, ‘I want to know more about this topic you have skipped over.” For instance, in The Man from St Petersburg, the anarchist is making a bomb from various assets. But how much did he have to pay for these assets? That is something that a good reader will be intrigued by and they will make a note and mention it.
I type up all these notes by page numbers and collate them using large ring binders. For example, I might have four comments for page 80 of my typescript, one from an editor, one from my agent, one from a family member and perhaps one from an expert I’m consulting, (like an FBI agent or a scientist or an historian). I put the two pages opposite one another in the ring binder so that when I come to rewrite I’ve got my first draft on one side and people’s comments on the other side.
For the final six months, I go through the file page by page, rewriting.
I don’t edit my first draft. I don’t put the first draft on the screen at all because I find that makes me lazy. I key every word in again because that forces me to reconsider every sentence. You can almost always find a way to improve just about every sentence that you’ve written. I can, anyway.
Generally speaking there are only two major drafts. After first draft, the book is almost there. There may be a few little changes to the second draft but in many cases there are almost none. On The Hammer of Eden, for example, I made a few written alterations on the typescript and that was all. Other times, I may have to rewrite a couple of scenes.
After this, there are still a few things to do. Firstly, the copy editor goes through the typescript. A good copy editor is gold dust because they find mistakes that you’ve not noticed. These mistakes are not just grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes; they find little plot mistakes or contradictions. In fact, you can sometimes make a big error which neither you nor your editors notice because they are trained to read with a very careful eye.
Secondly, you read the proofs. After that, your job is done except for the publicity. I generally spend about two months of every year doing publicity. I spend a couple of weeks in the States with the American edition and again with the paperback the following year. I always do some British and German publicity and generally also go to France and Italy. When you add it all up, it’s about two months out of every year.
Finding a publisher
What you have to remember about the publishing business is that a young editor or small publisher makes a fortune by finding an unknown writer and making the book into a best seller. That is how you get on in the publishing business. And so if you do write something good, they will be crazy about it and they’ll publish it with great enthusiasm. They will also spend money advertising it.
So although people say, “it’s terribly difficult for a first novelist to get published,” in fact, if you are good it is not that difficult.
My first novel was not very good but it still got published. It wasn’t good enough to be a bestseller, but it had something and a publisher read it and thought, “this guy could be going somewhere”. He published it because he thought I might write something better one day.
Your job is to show them what you can do. To start with, you will need an outline because the publisher will want to know what the story is about and how it develops. They will also want to know whether you can write and if you have got the power of words.
For that, you will have to write at least some of it.
Some first-time writers do an outline and a couple of chapters, send it to a publisher who thinks instantly, “this is terrific, I must have this book”. If this happens to you with your first novel, you are very lucky. It does happen to some writers, but it is very, very rare. More likely is that you will have to write the whole typescript before you can sell your first novel.
The best way to get your book published is via an agent. How do you find an agent? Look on the Web, where there are numerous resources. Look at:
Call or write to the agents asking if they are willing to read a typescript by a first-time author. Some will say no and some will ask what sort of book you have written.
Agents are often specialists and there’s no point sending your sword-and-sorcery fantasy to an agent who specialises in academic textbooks. If your letter is well written, the chances are that some agent somewhere will agree to look at your book. After that, nothing matters but the quality of your work.
There are also, today, several options for self-publishing, which has helped many authors find success. I did it the traditional way, so I can’t offer much advice about how to proceed…