Putting Pen to Paper with Ken Follett

Ken Follett

Ken Follett

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 that 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.

From Wikipedia:

Ken Follett (born 5 June 1949) is a Welsh author of thrillers and historical novels. He has sold more than 100 million copies of his works. Four of his books have reached the number 1 ranking on the New York Times best-seller list: The Key to Rebecca, Lie Down with Lions, Triple, and World Without End.



Successful Schizophrenia: Why Jodi Picoult Writes and Other Advice

Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult

I write because I can’t not write. Just ask my husband. If I have an idea circling in my brain and I can’t get it out, it begins to poison my waking existence, until I’m unable to function in polite company or even hold a simple conversation.

When I’m actively writing, in the thick of a book, I’ll find myself hiding up in my attic office to get just one more scene down on the page before I go downstairs to dinner. A lot of times, that one scene will turn into two or three.

But beyond the itchiness I’d feel if I weren’t able to write, I write because it’s a way of puzzling out answers to situations in the world that I don’t understand. The act of writing a book gives me the same experience that I hope reading it gives readers. It forces me to sort through the various points of view on a given issue or situation and ultimately come to a conclusion. Doing that might not change my mind, but it almost always gives me a stronger sense of why my opinion is what it is—a question we rarely ask ourselves.

Riding a bike down a hill

The way I feel about writing changes on a daily—or an hourly—basis. Sometimes it’s like riding a bicycle down a hill, with the wind whipping through my hair and my hands in the air. And then there are the times when writing feels like slogging through the mud that was left behind after Hurricane Irene.

I’ve always seen writing as a job. Granted, it’s one I love to do, but it requires me to park my butt in a chair even when I don’t feel particularly motivated.

Sometimes, it’s magical. The characters seem to breathe and take over. I hear their voices very clearly in my head. That’s why I’ve always called writing “successful schizophrenia”: I get paid to hear those voices. But at a certain point in every book, something happens that I never saw coming—at least, not consciously—and it’s exactly the puzzle piece the story is missing, the element that ties the threads of the book together. Characters seem to pick their own paths. They have an agenda that I don’t even know about until the conversation or the plot begins inching its way across the typed page. Even though I know the end of my books before writing a single word, I often find that the middle section—how I get from point A to point Z—is a delightful surprise.

I’m often asked if I cry when I write. Of course I do! There are some scenes I’ve written, often between moms and kids, where I find myself sobbing at the keyboard. I know the characters better than I know anyone else, so it stands to reason that I’m emotionally invested in them.

Physically, when I write, I feel the years. I’ve been a writer for two decades and like every other writer I know, I have tendinitis. A good day writing can mean a very bad day for my arm or shoulder. I remind myself it’s a pretty sweet problem to have.

Home Depot time

My hardest time as a writer was when I realized that I’d grabbed the brass ring. I’d published a bunch of books, and I still wasn’t a success.

A lot of writers think of the publishing contract as the Holy Grail, but it’s not. It’s a huge mistake to think that just because your book is being printed, your publisher will publicize it. If you’re a new author, it’s much more likely that they won’t. You have to stump yourself and find book clubs to talk to and go to book fairs and set up signings at bookstores and libraries—anything to get word of mouth going. Your publisher’s more likely to pay attention to your book if it starts magically selling. Then they might put some money into promoting it. It’s a vicious cycle.

That’s why I was really disheartened when I was a young mom of three kids, and I’d had multiple books published, but I was still toying with the idea of getting a job application from Home Depot so I could help support my family.

Can’t beat number one

The best time I’ve had as a writer is every time I’ve found out that a book of mine is debuting at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s happened a few times, and it never gets old. I have to pinch myself to say, Wow, look how far I’ve come. When I’m number one, I know it’s not just my mom and her friends buying the book. I can remember the precise moment when my editor called with the good news. I’d write even if no one ever read my stuff, but it’s so gratifying to know that people do.

Another amazing moment was when I did an event at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. Gone with the Wind is the book that made me want to be a writer. To sit at the desk where it was written had me trembling.

Jodi Picoult’s Wisdom for Writers:

  • Take a writing course. It’s how you’ll learn to get and give feedback, and it’ll teach you to write on demand.
  • There’s no magic bullet that’ll make you a success. If you write because you want to be rich, you’re in the wrong business. Write because you can’t not write, or don’t write at all.
  • Write even when you don’t feel like writing. There is no muse. It’s hard work. You can always edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.
  • Read. It’ll inspire you to write as well as the authors who came before you.

From Wikipedia:

Jodi Lynn Picoult (pron.: /ˈdʒoʊdi piːˈkoʊ/;[1] born May 19, 1966) is an American author. She was awarded the New England Bookseller Award for fiction in 2003. Picoult currently has some 14 million copies of her books in print worldwide.

Picoult became the writer of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman (vol. 3) series following the departure of fellow writer Allan Heinberg. Her first issue (#6) was released on March 28, 2007, and her last was issue #10 (released on June 27, 2007).

Nineteen Minutes, Picoult’s novel about the aftermath of a school shooting in a small town, has become her first book to debut at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list. Her book Change Of Heart was published on March 4, 2008, and became Picoult’s second novel to debut at #1 on the NYT Best Seller list.


On the Subject of Dry Spells with Erskine Caldwell

Erskine Caldwell

Erskine Caldwell


Do you ever have to overcome inertia to get yourself writing in the morning?


No, I wouldn’t say so at all. Now, I might have the feeling coming in here that I don’t know what I’m going to do. I might be worried about that. But I’ll come in anyway and sit here until something happens. You see, it’s something I wanted to do to begin with and so I’ll still have that urge to see it through. I guess that talent is just a part of being a writer. You’ve got to have desire in order to make it all work.


Have you ever had any long dry spells?


No. You can always write something. You write limericks. You write a love letter. You do something to get you in the habit of writing again, to bring back the desire.

From Wikipedia:

Erskine Preston Caldwell (December 17, 1903 – April 11, 1987) was an American author. His writings about poverty, racism and social problems in his native South in novels such as Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre won him critical acclaim, but also made him controversial among fellow Southerners of the time who felt he was deprecating the people of the region.


Sidney Sheldon Interview

From Wikipedia:

Sidney Sheldon (February 11, 1917 – January 30, 2007) was an Academy Award-winning American writer. His TV works spanned a 20-year period during which he created The Patty Duke Show (1963–66), I Dream of Jeannie (1965–70) and Hart to Hart (1979–84), but he became most famous after he turned 50 and began writing best-selling novels, such as Master of the Game (1982), The Other Side of Midnight (1973) and Rage of Angels (1980). He is the seventh best selling writer of all time.


Throw it Down with Shani Boianjiu

Shani Boianjiu

Shani Boianjiu

INTERVIEWER: What’s your writing process? Do you throw it down, or do lots of edits and rewrites?

SHANI BOIANJIU: The short and politically incorrect version is that I kinda throw it down. This is a terrible way to write, but the truth is I only write when I am truly inspired. I let a situation or a scene or a character sit in my head for weeks or months or years, and I only write them down when I feel like if I didn’t write them down my head will (metaphorically) explode. I write everything I have in my head from start to finish, no matter how much I want to quit in the middle or if I have a place to be or something to do. That’s the excruciating part. Then I put that piece of writing away. Later I come back to it and do all the necessary edits. Some pieces take a lot of editing and need dramatic changes, and some don’t need much at all. It takes time and experience and patience for me to figure out how to best edit, but I enjoy putting in that time. I also have loyal readers who I send my writing to when it is in raw stages, just to get the perspective of another pair of eyes. But either way for me editing is the calm, non-painful part.

From Wikipedia:

Shani Boianjiu (born 1987) is an Israeli author and former soldier in the IDF. Her first novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid was released in 2012 and is based on her experiences as a soldier in the IDF. Boianjiu was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Kfar Vradim, a village in the Western Galilee. After her military service, which she spent training combat soldiers in the use of weapons, she attended Harvard. She has been recognized by the National Book Foundation as one of their “5 Under 35” authors, based on a recommendation from the writer Nicole Krauss.


Unique or Idiosyncratic?: A Quick Q&A with Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain

INTERVIEWER: How important is it for a writer to be unique or idiosyncratic?

BEN FOUNTAIN: I think idiosyncrasy is a writer having a particular style. But what we’re really talking about is the way the writer sees the world and is able to embody an approximation of that vision in language. So it’s going to happen on its own. It’s not like you sit down and say, “I really like this style, so I want to be this kind of writer, like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Lyrical realism.” If you’re working at it genuinely over the years, it’s almost like a radio signal. You start tuning it in, and you fine-tune it, and you get closer and closer to the sound that’s in your ear and the vision that’s in your eye. Norman Mailer said that every book he wrote had a different style, and part of the challenge was finding the language and the idiom appropriate to the subject. As far as my own work, I don’t think this a lot in theoretical terms while I’m actually writing. I’m just trying to get it right, line by line. Whatever comes out, comes out.

From Wikipedia:

Ben Fountain (b. Chapel Hill, North Carolina) is an American fiction writer currently living in Dallas, Texas.

He is the author of Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, a collection of short stories. He has won numerous awards and inclusion of his work in New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best (2006).

Fountain’s latest novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was released in early May 2012. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of Slumdog Millionaire, Simon Beaufoy, is adapting the novel into a screenplay a new Film4 project in collaboration with The Ink Factory, a U.S. production company. As yet, no director is attached.


Uniqueness of Vision: An Interview with Carol Rifka Brunt

Carol Rifka Brunt

Carol Rifka Brunt

What is the best advice you have been given to prepare for the road to publication?
Because I’ve been a bit of an outsider–not part of the MFA culture–I don’t think I received much advice at all. Maybe ‘be patient.’ That includes not sending out prematurely, make sure you’ve edited and re-edited and then let the work sit for as long as you need to. The patience thing extends to the waiting period once you’ve submitted. And even once the book has sold there’s that 18-month wait.
What are you working on now?

I’m working on a lot of e-interviews and articles! When I’m not doing that I’m working on several short stories, an essay and the first draft of a novel. The new novel is very much in the playful, exploratory phase.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Write the story only you can write. The only commodity an artist or writer has to offer is their uniqueness of vision. It’s also the thing readers seem to respond to most strongly. And give yourself time. There’s no rush. Some of the best things in Tell the Wolves came to me three years into the process. The subconscious is mysterious. It’s always working, but will only give up its secrets if you give it enough time.

Is there something you didn’t expect during this entire process?

Success! Every day I’m astounded at the amount of love I’ve had for this novel. I remember saying early on, “I doubt it will sell. I think editors might like it but say that it’s not sellable.” To see people buying the book and connecting with the characters that I came to love so much is so unexpected and touching.

Carol Rifka Brunt:

Her writing has been published in literary journals like The North American Review and The Sun. I’ve also published articles in places like Family Fun and Valley Kids. In 2006, I was one of three fiction writers selected for the New Writing Partnership’s New Writing Ventures award. In 2007, I was awarded a generous Arts Council grant to write my first novel. That novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, was published by Dial Press (US) and Macmillan (UK) in June 2012. I’m currently working on short stories, essays and the beginnings of a new novel.