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)


Writer’s Workshop: Finding Your Voice

Finding Your Voice (Workshop Outline)

The secret to writing is not just in the words you put on a page but also in the white spaces between and surrounding those words, and in the unspoken, powerful ideas that lie behind those words, and in the voice that gives them life.

Before you set pen to paper, ask yourself . . .

  • Why do you write?
  • Who is your audience?
  • Who is your writer?
  • Can you listen?
  • Can you be patient?
  • Can you be tireless?

Exercise: In a paragraph of five sentences or less, state why you write, who is your audience, and who is doing the writing.

Discovering your inner writer . . .

  • Learn to listen!
  • Who is your inner writer?
  • What is his/her name?
  • Describe his/her personality in detail
  • Describe his/her perspective in detail
  • Learn to communicate with him/her
  • Continue to make him/her real

Exercise: In 500 words or less, describe your inner writer in as much detail as possible. Make the character compelling and with as much dimension as possible. Let your inner writer describe himself or herself to you.

Working in partnership with your inner writer . . .

  • Learn to listen!
  • Ignore the urge to control your writing
  • Allow your inner writer to speak freely
  • Acknowledge that he/she is the writer inside, your true and individualistic creative voice
  • Write with abandon and without filtering
  • Worry about construction later

Exercise: In 500 words or less, let your inner writer communicate. Allow your character to speak freely and take control of the flow of writing. Do not be concerned about construction or mistakes. Do not filter what your inner writer wishes to say. Sit back and enjoy!

Learning to write spontaneously . . .

  • Learn to listen!
  • The Sleeping Writer
  • The Daydreamer
  • Timing is everything
  • Location, location, location

Exercise: In 500 words or less, describe the methods you will use to communicate with your inner writer. Include times, places, and circumstances when you will be free to work with your inner writer to create your next work. Listen, listen, listen!

Developing other inner writers . . .

  • Share your ideas for developing other inner writers for future writing projects.