Writers Workshop: The Spymaster

English: John le Carré at the "Zeit Forum...

David John Moore Cornwell is better known to us as John Le Carre. He worked for British intelligence (MI5 and MI6) during the height of the Cold War. It was during this period that he turned his attention to writing under his now famous pen name. In 1963, his novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, became a best-seller and his place among famous writers was established. Several of his novels have been taken to the big screen and television with considerable success, although Le Carre has sometimes disagreed with that conclusion.

I’m an unabashed fan of Le Carre for his ability to take a complex story line, with complex characters, and carry the reader right through to the end of the plot. He moves carefully, but always moves forward. At times, the plot carries the characters. At others, the characters dominate and fascinate us. He manages to strike a near-perfect balance between story line and character development in such a way that we keep turning those pages.

So, what better way to help improve our writing than from a master writer working within his special genre. Here are a few of Le Carre’s quotes that give us a tiny peak into his mind and style. Some are from the author himself. Others are spoken through his characters. There is a good deal of wisdom and insight here.

A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” (Le Carre)

The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.” (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)

Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.” (A perfect Spy)

Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.” (The Looking Glass War)

The monsters of our childhood do not fade away, neither are they ever wholly monstrous.” (Le Carre)

The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.” (Le Carre)

The fact that you can only do a little is no excuse for doing nothing.” (A Most Wanted Man)

Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” (Le Carre)

Unfortunately it is the weak who destroy the strong.” (Le Carre)

Ideologies have no heart of their own. They’re the whores and angels of our striving selves.” (Le Carre)

After all, if you make your enemy look like a fool, you lose the justification for engaging him.” (Le Carre)

Our power knows no limits, yet we cannot find food for a starving child, or a home for a refugee. Our knowledge is without measure and we build the weapons that will destroy us. We live on the edge of ourselves, terrified of the darkness within. We have harmed, corrupted and ruined, we have made mistakes and deceived.” (Le Carre)

Let’s die of it before we’re too old.” (The Honourable Schoolboy)

Everyone who is not happy must be shot.” (The Little Drummer Girl)

A committee is an animal with four back legs.” (Le Carre)


Writers Workshop: Editors Rock!

English: An icon consisting of a book, a fount...

As as writer, I’m supposed to have an inherent distrust of editors or copy editors. At least, that’s the mythology that has long surrounded writers. In my view, this belief is pure swamp gas. Here’s why.

I’ve had lots of editors and copy editors over the years. This goes back to the time when nothing was electronic. Editing was done by sending manuscripts back and forth in bulky packages. Editors would not only mark up the pages (editor’s marks) but would put colorful stickies or tape all over the place, plus handwritten notes on every margin. It was a huge hassle and, thankfully, the relic of a bygone era. Today, everything is handled electronically – a true blessing for everyone involved.

However, one thing hasn’t changed, and that’s the importance of a great editor or copy editor. A good editor is, and should always remain, a writer’s best friend. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to ask for a particular editor for several of my books. She was amazing. She not only found all my errors (and they were legend), she also spotted inconsistencies, failures of logic, screwy descriptions and all other manner of silliness on my part.

I’ve also used editors for Ebook material and similar projects. These folks have also been invaluable, although the work they had to perform was not as onerous as found in traditional publishing. The bottom line, though, remains the same. These E-Editors made all the difference in the final product. They did their job and did it well.


Blue Editors' shirt

The E-Editor I most appreciated is a person whom I never met. It was all handled by E-whatever in the course of E-business. At first, this struck me as a bit strange since I had developed a more personal relationship with traditional editors over the years. However, I checked this person out extensively, contacted clients for whom she had worked, and read everything I could find that even remotely mentioned her name or the name of her business. When I finally approached her with the project, I was pretty confident that she would do a good job.

That first contact made the difference. She responded promptly and in a friendly but professional way. She encouraged me to check on her background before I made my decision (which, unknown to her, passed with flying colors). So, the deal was struck and her work began. In a fair amount of time, and at a fair price, she did a fine job. I found no errors in her work. None.

Would I use this editor again? Of course. I wouldn’t even consider another editor. She has a customer for life because she did everything right.

So, do we love our editors? All together now, “Yes! We love our editors!”

The right editor isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity for any serious writer.

Writers Workshop: Writer’s Block

The tai chi master Yang Chengfu

So much has been written about this subject that I’m a bit reluctant to keep piling on. Still, it seems to be a common problem, and a very big one for some writers. Personally, I’ve had little experience with writer’s block. It just hasn’t plagued me often. However, many years ago, when I was working against some strict book deadlines, the dreaded block did hover from time to time.

Here’s what helped me.

Exercise. I live in the country and love to walk. When I lived in a more urban environment, I still loved to walk. I’m not a fan of routine exercise, running, lifting weights, whatever. In other words, I’m not a fan of what I know is good for me. However, walking is fun and doesn’t take that much effort. It also gives my mind a chance to wander. I am endlessly surprised and distracted with what I see along the walk. For me, walking breaks up the routine and gets my head out of that infinite loop that seems to be the best partner of writer’s block. The important point is to let yourself be distracted by the walk. Engage the walk, entirely.

Create a character. Instead of just plowing ahead with your assignment, try creating a new character of your very own. You needn’t plan to use this character in any way. Or, you may want to use the character in some future project. For now, just create a new character. Make it serious, silly, frivolous, whatever. Let your imagination roll away and make your new entity just the way you please. You can throw it away later, if you choose. The act of creating something new and fun may just put you back on the right track for the serious writing that lies ahead.

Breathing exercises. I like Qigong. It doesn’t take much energy, feels really good, and clears your mind. It’s like wiping the slate clean for a few moments, without working too hard (an important point in my life). I’ve also used Tai Chi, which is more complex and requires good training. Tai Chi is much more than simple breathing but it still has that magical cleansing feeling built-in. It also has the nice benefit of being very good for your overall health.

A day off. Yep, it’s as simple as having a play day. Do something you really enjoy, and do it with gusto. Don’t hold back on your play time. Don’t worry about anything else. Just jump in with both feet and truly enjoy your play day.

English: Riverside walk - just north of Diglis...

The overnight stay. Go somewhere else for an overnight stay. A friend’s house, a nice hotel, whatever. Bring none of your writing materials with you. Just change your environment for a while and check out your new surroundings. Coming back to your writing sanctuary will feel just a little different with each overnight stay.

Change your writing schedule. If you write on a schedule, or at fairly regular times of the day (or night), mix it up a little. If you’re a morning writer, try the evenings. Perhaps the reverse works better for you. The point is to vary your schedule.

Talk to other writers. Lots of writers suffer from the dreaded block. Many of them have excellent ways of curing this problem. Ask them. You’ll probably find some very interesting and subtle techniques that never crossed your mind. One of them is likely to work for you.

Do you have a favorite technique for curing writer’s block? Please share it.

Writers Workshop: Style

English: penulis = writer

Here’s a subject that should grab your attention and leave you wondering. Great writers have great style. There’s no denying the impact of style. Still, it’s something that just can’t be defined very well. Style is something that speaks to your heart, not your mind. It’s there. It’s real, and you know it when you read it. But, can you really define it? Can you capture it and make it your own?

I don’t believe that style can be created or re-invented. That’s too obvious to any reader. It lacks truth, subtly and consistency. It’s a hack and it’s out there for the world to experience. You simply cannot work on “style” and have it work well. So, how does this mystical goddess of “style” come about? What gives it birth and life?

It evolves. It doesn’t fall full-form from the Writing Gods, except for those rare, true genius-writers. For the rest of us mortals, style evolves. It takes time to become real and tangible. The good news is that it eventually comes to all of us who cannot help but write.

We all start out with a love of style in the words and works of another. There is something in the construction, in the way of weaving the story line, that just grabs us as readers. Once we’re hooked, we cannot turn away from style. That’s why good writers have fans and a strong following. It’s the magical glue that binds us to our readers.

When we first become aware of a style, the natural tendency is to emulate it. Now, lots of writer-advise-givers will tell you that emulating another writer’s style is heresy. It’s nearly a criminal offense, they cry. I don’t agree. I’m not talking about plagiarism here. If you plagiarize, you are not a writer, you’re a thief. However, if you come across a style that captivates you, and you’re tempted to write in a similar way, go ahead and do it. Your love of that style is speaking to your inner writer, to that part of your writing-soul that needs to create. For now, it’s OK to learn from another, to walk in the footsteps of someone whose work you admire. It’s a way of learning your craft and honing your skills.

If you emulate the style of another writer, several things will happen. First, you will be drawn to other writers whose style you also like. Soon, there may be a few different styles that attract you. Now you begin to switch and mix styles, to create new palettes with your words by combining the colors and landscapes that others have laid out for you to enjoy.

After a time, after a lot of writing, you will find your voice and your style. You may begin by emulating the style of others but you will evolve. All writers evolve. As you grow and become better at your work, your style will begin to arise naturally and make itself known to you and your readers. At this point, you will never again think about style. It will just happen.

And that’s the trick – there is no trick. Just be patient, keep reading, keep writing. You’re style will grow quietly, silently. One day, you’ll read something you’ve just finished writing and staring you back in the face will your own style.

What a happy day!

Writers Workshop: RocketBook Flashback

A reader asked me when I had my first encounter with E-Publishing. It was way back in 1998, and it involved an E-Reader that no longer exists, the Rocketbook.

Back then, I had just signed a contract for a fiction novel with a very new, very forward-looking publisher. At the same time, NuvoMedia announced the Rocketbook, an E-Reader that cost $500 and was supposed to be targeted at the so-called “massive market” of potential E-Book devotees. Take a look at the photograph of the Rocketbook. Do you remember it?

This new Rocketebookgadget was massive, and it was expensive. It weighed in at 1.25 pounds, had a screen that was often difficult to read, didn’t have great battery life by modern standards, and had only 4MB of flash memory. That was enough to hold about 4,000 pages of material. There was a “pro” version available for more money that offered 16MB of memory and could hold as many as 40 books. By today’s view of the world, this wasn’t much to crow about but, hey, it was a very new, forward-looking foray into what would become a ubiquitous tool for readers. At the time, it had only one competitor called the EB Dedicated Reader (by SoftBook). The RocketBook was thought to be the best, the next sure-fire, must-have gizmo.

The publisher converted my book to the right format and got it stuffed into the RocketBook. The novel ran about 100,000 words, so everything seemed to work out nicely. An open house/marketing gig was set up in San Francisco and the public was encouraged to visit and taste this new treat. I was invited to sit on a three-person, open panel discussion of the modern wonder, from the writer’s perspective, of course. The event was fun and pretty well attended.

Well, the story does not have a happy ending. The RocketBook struggled on for the next five years and finally died. It never took off. It was too far ahead of its time and it just wasn’t sufficiently easy to use or light enough to be considered truly portable. But, that darn device was sure a lot of fun. I only had one E-Book stuffed into my RocketBook, and it was my own. There just wasn’t a lot of material out there. By 2003, the RocketBook was a memory. Mine lies sleeping, mostly forgotten, somewhere in my attic.

Thankfully, my novel lived on because it was originally published in the traditional way. The RocketBook took the other path. However, I remember being thrilled with the RocketBook because it opened up all kinds of possibilities and helped me see the future of publishing. I don’t think about the old behemoth too often but, when I do, my memories are happy.

The moral of the story for writers is to keep looking forward. Technology is fantastic and evolving so quickly that it’s sometimes difficult to keep up. But, keep up we must, if we are to maximize our opportunities to get our work in front of others.