Breaking Through

“I knew what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to give readers the kind of excitement thatI had felt when I read James Bond Thrillers. I wanted to give readers that kind of excitement which was so vivid to me.”   Ken Follett

For years now, Ken Follett has done just that, penning one best seller after another, sharing his excitement and enthusiasms, and selling more than 150 million books worldwide. He’s penned stories about everyone from a Russian spy to a medieval cathedral builder — stories that readers love and eagerly await.

But all this success and reader love didn’t come easily. Our boy Ken started out as a journalist. Frustrated with his job, he began writing on the side. He penned 10 — that’s right 10 — novels that tanked. But instead of putting down his pen, Ken came up with a plan. His next book, Eye of the Needle, was a World War II thriller that hit the best seller list and he was off and running.

In a Writer Magazine interview, Ken described his break-through approach for this story:

He knew what he wanted to achieve and that this was the “best story” he’d after had — the tale of a German spy, The Needle, who tries to get back home from England with vital information that could change the course of the war.

He planned the book carefully and wrote a detailed outline of his story — a strategy that he’s used consistently. His outlines can be more than 50 pages and take a year to work out.

He researched the World War II era thoroughly and “put a lot of detail into the story. It gave the book the feel for the grain of everyday life.” This richness of detail was very new for him.

He slowed his story down. Adding details slowed down the way his writing down, “but that was what my work needed,” he recalled. “My early books were too brisk and things happened too quickly. With the Eye of the Needle, I got the pace right for the first time. The reader doesn’t want you to be too brisk, especially in a tense, dramatic situation.”

I love the way Ken learned as he went and kept pushing to improve. For Ken, this proved to be a winning strategy. While not every element of his approach may work for us, having a consistent writing process can make a difference. For more on his approach, check out his “Master Class” advice on his author’s Web site, Write on!

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Absolutely Anything

“I have always felt that the moment when you first wake up in the morning is the most wonderful of the twenty-four hours. No matter how weary or dreary you may feel, you possess the certainty that, during the day that lies before you, absolutely anything can happen.”   Monica Baldwin

What a joyful thought! It’s cloudy outside right now and gray as I write this and looks like rain. It’s a day that could make you feel “weary and dreary,” but instead, it feels cozy and inviting. The day has just begun and it lies all before us, fresh and new:

Absolutely anything:  We could wake up on the wings of a wonderful dream or with poignant words floating around in our head that will enrich what we’re writing.

Absolutely anything:  A fabulous and totally inventive idea might come our way unbidden and be the perfect solution to a thorny plot point we’ve been wrestling with.

Absolutely anything:  Instead of rushing around, we might get quiet and listen with our inner ear. And out of this quiet place, a magical sentence that’s been waiting for us might arise.

Absolutely anything:  We might happen to scan a publishing site and come across the name of an agent we’re familiar with and just have a feeling we should take note of it.

Absolutely anything:  We might come across a glowing review of a book that sounds like it a goldmine of information we can use to enrich a story we’re writing.

Absolutely anything:  We might be feeling tired or sluggish or discouraged as we hunker down to write, but sit down to write anyway and push past it all and write something we absolutely love.

Absolutely anything:  Sitting down to write and suddenly slip silently into the zone as a swimmer slips into the sea, spend hours there and think it was minutes.

Absolutely anything:  We might have one of those golden writing sessions where we feel on fire, aglow with ideas and inspiration and excitement about how our story is advancing.

Absolutely anything:  We might sit down to tackle a tough, resistant part of our story and find that it suddenly cracks open like a nut and we know exactly how to make it come alive.

Absolutely anything: We might sit down to write and feel empty, just as I did when I sat down to write this post and find that our wellspring of creativity is never dry.

Wow! Uplifted by Monica’s adventurous “absolutely anything can happen,” let’s all welcome this new new day with gratitude and joy — and write on!

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Keep Swinging

“Life is not a spelling bee, where no matter how many words you have gotten right, if you make one mistake you are disqualified. Life is more like a baseball season, where even the best team loses one-third of its games and even the worst team has its days of brilliance. Our goal is not to go all year without ever losing a game. Our goal is to win more than we lose , and if we can do that consistently enough, then when the end comes, we will have won it all.”   Harold Kushner, Becoming Aware

Oh, those spelling bees! Standing up in front of a class and racking your brain for the right combination of letters for words you’ll probably never use. How lucky we are that we’re past all that and that, instead, we’re on the field of play where we get lots of at bats. And how comforting to know that we don’t have to “win” all the time to reach our goals.

We may ink slingers, not baseball sluggers, but we still have to get out and play every day, swing our hardest, and run our fastest. And like even the best team, we’re going to lose about one out of three “games”we play: We’re going to strike out, have slumps, fumble some plays.

As writers, this may mean that we’ll have some writing sessions that are just wipe-outs — times when we just can’t seem to get off home plate and we feel stalled and upended.  It may mean that projects we love will fizzle out and we’ll have to put them aside for a time. It may mean that we’ll endure lots of rejection during our submission phase: To beat the odds, we’ll have to adjust our “batting” strategy and change our approach.

But there’s lots of good news here. First, if we are working steadily and consistently, then we are giving ourselves lots of at bats — lots of opportunities to get into the flow, to take that big swing, and hit a home run. Second, it means that every strikeout brings us closer to a big hit: If we just keep on swinging, the law of averages will come to our aid. And third, it means that we don’t have to be great or brilliant all the time. Just like a star baseball player, we’re entitled to and even expected to miss a lot of balls. Our job is to not get discouraged, not get down on ourselves, to take the lows with the highs, and simply keep on swinging.

What a relief! We don’t have to hit a “home run” every day on the page. We don’t even have to get on base every day: We can strike out and come up empty — it’s all part of the game. All we have to do is get up to bat and give it our best shot. If we do that, at some point, we’ll hit the ball out of the park. Write on!




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Something Wonderful


Rainbow Trail

Walk on a rainbow trail;

walk on a trail of song,

and all about you will be beauty.

There is a way out of every dark mist,

over a rainbow trail.

Navajo Song

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“Deeply Satisfying”

I came across a gathering of writerly words that I wanted to share with you:

“Let each day’s work absorb your entire energies, and satisfy your widest ambition.”         William Osler

“As we approach an experience that should be fun, we should remain open to its possibilities. We should not let ourselves be adversely influenced by what others say or by what we say to ourselves about it.”   Stewart W. Holmes

“I have never understood why ‘hard work’ is supposed to be pitiable. True, some work is soul-destroying when it is done against the grain, but when it is part of a ‘making’ how can you begrudge it? You get tired, of course, often om despair, but the struggle, the challenge, the feeling of being extended as you never thought you could be is fulfilling and deeply, deeply satisfying.”   Rumer Godden

“Those who write clearly have readers, those who write obscurely, have commentators.”     Albert Camus

“No one who can write decently is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence, or whose attitude  is patronizing.”   E.B. White

“Writing is a matter of craft and know-how, yes, but also a matter of tenacious faith. And closely related to faith — perhaps rising from it — are all those virtues of courage, hope, steadfastness of intention, caritas, for the process, the journey itself.”   Joanna Higgins

“…It is the business of the writer to hide the fact that writing is his business. Readers are not interested in the mechanics of authorship.”   A. A. Milne

“If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise. Attack it an an hour when it isn’t expecting it.”   H. G. Wells

“Thinking is the activity I love best and writing to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”   Isaac Asimov

May these writerly musings inspsire and inspirit us today as we all write on!



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“Easy Reading”

“Easy reading is damned hard writing.”   Nathaniel Hawthorne

“You know, I’ve read your last story, and I ought to have returned it weeks ago. It isn’t right. It’s almost right. It almost works. But not quite. You are too literary. You must not be literary. Suppress all the literature and it will work.   Colette to Georges Simenon

Luckily, Georges Simenon took Colette’s advice and went on to become a highly successful popular writer known for his stylistic simplicity, which came to be widely admired as a distinctive style in itself.

In his lively, no-nonsense guide, How to Enjoy Writing: A  Book of Aid and Comfort (co-authored by his wife, Janet), the irrepressible Isaac Asimov quotes an essay of his called, “The Mosaic and the Plate Glass.” In it, he describes two kinds of fiction:

“The Mosaic” —  “The effort to be colorful and yet to avoid the cliche is difficult… If you succeed, you have written poetically. You have written with style. Everyone admires you — at least, everyone with pretensions to literary taste. And yet, though the phrases may be memorable, though the swing of the sentences may be grand, though the moods and emotions may be effectively evoked — the story may be just a little bit hard to understand. Such writing is like a glorious mosaic built up out of pieces of colored glass….”

“The Plate Glass” —  “There’s another kind of writing, too. In this other kind, words and phrases are chosen not for their freshness and novelty, or for their unexpected ability to evoke a mood, but simply for their ability to describe what is going on without themselves getting in the way. The result is that you can see what’s happening with absolute clarity (if the writing is handled well enough). Ideally, you’re not even aware of the writing. Such writing might be compared to plate glass in a window. You can see exactly what’s going on in the street and you’re not aware of the glass…. It may well have been more trouble to insert clarity than to insert poetry. There is a great deal of art to creating something that seems artless.”

The mosaic and the plate glass: Somewhere between these two kinds of writing surely there must be a middle ground — an artful artlessness that’s easy reading. Or do we have to choose between them? What do you think? I’d love to know as we all write on.

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Novel Ideas

When we create novels or even short stories, we create fictional worlds with their own unique ways of being and demands. Just recently, I came across a range of views about the imaginary worlds that we create and thought I’d share them:

“A novel is a mirror walking down a road.”   Stendhal

“A novel is an agreement about the nature of what is real.”   Salman Rushdie

“As a writer of fiction, it is my job to work through silence, to enter the minds of my characters, to create voices for them, to give them a life that will matter emotionally and intellectually to others.”   Colm Toibin, The Testament of Mary

“A novel is a mirror walking down a road” — This quote intrigues, doesn’t it? And in many ways, novels are mirrors.aren’t they, held up to reflect our world back to us in a way that enables us to understand and absorb all it offers us more fully.

“A novel is an agreement about the nature of the real” — Such a straightforward, but compelling statement! When we open the pages of a novel as readers, we and the author create a world together. It may be fashioned from the writer’s imagination and even challenge our beliefs, but for us to truly enter into the world that arises from the page, we must fundamentally accept the “rules of engagement” the author offers us.

“As a writer of fiction, it is my job to work through silence” — What a gift we writers give our readers! We go into the silence and we return with words that make the silence speak. I think it can be very useful for those of us who create fiction, to think of our writing as arising out of the vast unknown. I had a drama coach who used to say that every play begins in silence — so does every novel and short story. Even nonfiction is a way of bringing and ordering life out of silence. When we view our work this way, it encourages us to listen more deeply with our inner ear.

Some inspiring ideas to ponder as we all write on!



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