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David Morrell & Ken Follett Talk About Writing

Categories: How to Improve Writing Skills.

Every year, the International Thriller Writers association names a ThrillerMaster: a writer in the genre chosen to be honored for a lifetime of achievement. But when it comes to the 2009 recipient, David Morrell, and the latest honoree, Ken Follett, it’s clear that the career achievements of these remarkable writers stretch far beyond the confines of any genre. True, both are still widely known for their thrill-fueled breakout hits: Follett’s 1978 Eye of the Needle—which at last count has sold about 10 million copies, according to Follett’s website—and Morrell’s 1972 First Blood, which gave birth to the iconic character Rambo. But neither writer can be easily defined by a single title any more than he can be relegated to one section of the bookstore.

Decades later, Follett has indeed amassed a body of critically acclaimed thrillers, many of which are also bestsellers well beyond the borders of his native United Kingdom—but he is equally well known for his 1989 runaway smash Pillars of the Earth, an epic historical novel about the building of a cathedral. Having enjoyed recent resurgences in its popularity with the 2008 publication of the sequel, World Without End, and this year’s debut of the Starz television miniseries based on Pillars, Follett estimates the book that started it all still sells about 100,000 copies a year in the United States alone. And his current focus lies in similar territory: September marked the release of Fall of Giants, the highly anticipated first title in his historical Century trilogy.

Having started in action and adventure, Morrell enjoyed his first big international thriller with 1984’s The Brotherhood of the Rose—but the Canadian-born author is equally difficult to define by any category. His diverse body of work spans espionage, short stories, horror, westerns and memoir, among other genres—though his distinguished literary career began in academia, when he earned a Ph.D. in American literature and went on to serve as an English professor at the University of Iowa. Author of the craft book The Successful Novelist (an earlier version of which was published as Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing), he continues to be passionate about the writing workshops he leads and generously active in the writing and publishing communities, notably as co-founder of ITW as well as co-editor of the recent anthology Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, a sort of collective love letter to the best of the genre.

Just hours before Morrell presented Follett with the ThrillerMaster award at this summer’s ThrillerFest conference in New York City, both authors sat down with WD for an open and honest discussion of their craft. Read on to glimpse their lessons learned over not one, but two lifetimes devoted to mastering the craft of writing.

What does it mean to you to have the distinction of being named ThrillerMaster?

DM: It’s a tribute to have our colleagues feel that we are worthy of such a term. The ITW bylaws state that a ThrillerMaster must have a substantial career of at least 20 years and that a ThrillerMaster must have contributed to the thriller format in such a way that it was a game-changer. And so to be selected on that basis is quite an honor.

KF: I’m 61. You look back over your life and you think, What have I done with it? What did I do with my life? And the answer is, I wrote those books. And it’s very pleasing to have somebody else say it was terrific, you know, it’s a lifetime. This is a lifetime.

DM: It’s not quite the one-foot-in-the-grave award—

KF: I’m hoping it’s not!

DM: We’re both young enough not to worry about that.

Today’s genre writers are challenged to play within the conventions of a genre, while also offering readers something unique. You both do this so well. How can aspiring writers find a way to strike that balance?

KF: Well, I think of myself as a very derivative writer. I write the same kind of stories as were written by John Buchan and Ian Fleming, and, you know, there’s a whole century of thrillers. One thing that I did that was original was I put a woman in a role that would normally be played by a man in those days. Eye of the Needle was published in 1978. I don’t think up to that point there had been a woman as a hero of a story like this. And that was a very simple switch but it made a big difference, it made the book much better.

I think the wish to be original can lead writers in the wrong direction. If the two of us [David and I] wrote a story, let’s say, in which the whole thing took place on a bus—now, that’s not an original idea, that’s been done before. But if we did it, we would produce two completely different novels, because although the basic idea would be the same, the way we’d handled it and the things we’d thought of and the things we thought were the big scenes and so on would all be completely different.

So, I think if you’re a real writer, then you don’t have to worry too much about originality. What you do will be different and will have your own stamp on it anyway.

DM: With emphasis on real writer. When I started with First Blood in 1972, I was fortunate to meet Donald E. Westlake, the great crime writer, and he encouraged me to go to bookstores and read the first pages of books that had just been published.

KF: [Laughs.] Is that right?

DM: Well, it’s a great idea—and he tipped me off to, of course, what I was going to discover: that most of the books felt as if they’d been written by the same person.

On the first page, you mean?
DM: On the first page. Every once in a while, however, I’d pick up a book and I’d say, you know, I haven’t seen anything like this, and it had a tone and a drive to it that was unique and compelling. And he said if you had 100 books, that chances are only five of those books would be what we’re looking for, and all five of those would be different from each other.

KF: Right.

DM: And that he said was the goal for someone to have, and it’s what made a career: not sounding like other people. When I teach writing, I have a mantra: Be a first-rate version of yourself, and not a second-rate version of another writer.

I think every writer has a dominant emotion—I’d be interested in what Ken’s is. When I teach writing and in my writing book, The Successful Novelist, I talk about, every writer has a dominant emotion and if you can identify it and try to understand it, it becomes your subject matter, and it makes you different from everybody else. Now, my dominant emotion is fear because of a terrible upbringing I had in an orphanage and an angry home and things like that. [To Follett:] What would you say your dominant emotion is?

KF: It’s a tough question. It’s a tough question, because thrillers are about fear … and so it’s always driven by some form of anxiety.

DM: I had a student of mine say, “I realize that I’m insecure, and that in the novels I write, the whole process is to test the character until they learn to be confident in themselves.” Writing becomes almost a form of self-psychoanalysis in that regard, and each book becomes a personal statement. And half the time you probably don’t know until afterward. It’s amazing how many orphans I’ve written about, for example, having been in an orphanage.

KF: Isn’t that interesting.

DM: Now you were a newspaperman.

KF: Yeah. I have a drive to entertain people.

DM: As do I, yes.

KF: You know, I’m in a blues band. We never get paid—it doesn’t matter what the audience thinks of us. Nobody in the band wants a career in the music business, we don’t get any money for it, we just do it for the hell of it. And yet I’m the one in the band who says, “Oh, I don’t know if we should play that number. It’s not bouncy enough—they won’t dance to that.” I’m the one who worries about how much the audience is enjoying the show, even though it’s an amateur band. We’re playing somebody’s birthday party or something—completely unimportant! And so when I realized that about myself, I kind of realized that that must be quite deep in me.

DM: And the fun is trying to figure it out. All this terrible stuff that happened when I was a kid, I escaped into my imagination—no big surprise, right? But I also escaped into thrillers. The books I read were thrillers, I listened to a lot of radio dramas, and they were thrillers that I listened to. Alfred Hitchcock movies—I used to sneak into the theater to see that sort of thing. And I realize now that I was programmed from when I was a kid that the kind of writing I would do was the kind of writing that saved my psyche when I was a kid. And so I wonder—I’m almost being a psychiatrist here, but—where your drive to entertain comes from.

KF: I spent a lot of my childhood bored. I was bored in school, I was brought up in a very religious family and we had to go to church three times on Sunday, and I was bored all day Sunday. And until about the age of 13 or 14 when school became interesting, schoolwork, something became interesting, and that was all over. And I was sent to bed early, and I always wanted to read in bed and they wouldn’t let me. They said, you need your sleep, you gotta go to school tomorrow. And sometimes I would break the rule and read as many children did when I was supposed to be going to go to sleep and get caught and all that kind of thing. So my dominant recollection of childhood is boredom.

DM: See, you’re doing the same thing in a different way—where mine was violent and all that, yours was boredom. You were entertaining yourself. And basically you are doing it again: you’re entertaining yourself and by definition other people.

KF: Yeah. That’s so interesting …

DM: I should hang out a shingle.

KF: You should! [Bursts out laughing.]

You both have done some really hands-on research for your novels—flying lessons, hostage negotiation, things like that. How do you decide when something really requires that kind of firsthand experience for you to tell a story?

KF: Well sometimes the drama requires the details. When I wrote Hornet Flight, I knew, the whole story is about a young man who, in German-occupied Denmark in the war, finds a plane and fixes it up because he wants to fly to freedom. There’s only one possible ending for that story, which is a flight. And since it’s the ending of the story, it’s got to be long. So I knew I was going to have to write about 40 pages of this kid flying a plane. And I couldn’t possibly do that unless I had actually flown a plane myself. Absolutely, I felt it really wasn’t going to be possible just to keep doing page after page about things that are happening to him while he’s flying this plane. So really I took flying lessons to learn all those details so that I would be able to write those 40 pages. And when you absolutely need the nitty gritty is when those details are gonna be what gives you the drama.

DM: Well, [Ken and I] talked earlier [in the day, before the interview] about experiences with flying, and I was telling him I had written a book called The Shimmer which had a lot of aircraft sequences in it—light planes, single-prop Cessna airplanes. And like what Ken said, I knew that you could write about it, you could fake it, or else you could take the lessons. And I went—did you get your license?

KF: No. [To WD:] He was obviously much better at it than I was!

DM: Well, I don’t know about better—

KF: [Jokingly:] I was a failure!

DM: That’s why you said [earlier] you had trouble with it! But I stuck it out, I just stuck it out, and it took me two years. The book was done, but I got my pilot’s license. I just kept going at it. And I’ve lived above timberline in Wyoming for 30 days an organization called the National Outdoor Leadership School to write about wilderness survival, and I’ve had extensive firearms training, and I once went to the Bill Scott Raceway in West Virginia for a week, where I learned how to do all the driving you see in the movies—the running of the barricades and the spins and that sort of thing—because I knew I was going to have a car chase, and I wanted to know what the real thing was and learn how to, in real life, car fight. I guess what I am is a method actor when it comes to researching books.

Have you ever done anything really action-packed like that?

KF: No, I don’t go for action packed much. [Laughs.]

DM: Well, you were flying!

KF: That’s true. That’s true.

Well, David, earlier you talked about having that driving emotion, and it seems like you’ve done this sort of thing more to tap into that.

DM: I have a feeling that—and again, I’m interested in what Ken will say about this—that all we have is our time, you know, our lives, time marching on. And when I write a book—and I bet you must have thought something along this when you did Pillars of the Earth, for example—when I write a book, I write a letter to myself. And I say, “It’s going to take you this amount of time, probably, to write the book—why is this project worth a year of your life?” And there has to be something about the material, the research, the excitement of the research, maybe the way the story is written, that would make me, when I was all done, hopefully fuller and better. And in your case, you said it took you over three years to write Pillars of the Earth—you must in your mind have done a comparable letter to yourself, even if it was mental.

KF: Yeah, but also, with Pillars of the Earth, I’d been interested in cathedral architecture for about 10 years before that. So when I started the project, I thought, I know all about this—I’m not going to have to do much research. That was wrong, by the way. I realized as I was writing how much I didn’t know about the Middle Ages, naturally. I do usually have a timetable. I look at how many chapters I’ve got, how many scenes I’ve got, how long I want the book to be, and so how many pages have I got to write, and so how many pages will I write per week, and then I make a timetable that says that I should have finished this draft on the 13th of December.

DM: Wow.

KF: And I keep to that, basically, because if I fall behind I work longer hours.

This highlights a difference in your process that I was going to ask about next because I had read that, Ken, you are big on developing extensive outlines—

KF: Yes, very much, yes.

And David, you said in your book that you find outlines constrictive.

DM: Yes. I like to know where I’m going and things of that nature—the characters, and, it helps to know what you’re going to write about, but after that I like to think of the book as being an adventure. I have this mantra which says, Serve the story, listen to the story. And often the story knows better than I do what it wants to be. And I have found by trial and error that if I try to do an outline, I’m trying to control the story, and it’s not talking to me. It’s not a skill I have, to outline. But the way I do it is I know the beginning and I’m really excited by it, and I know the big scenes, and I know the ending, and then I go in each day and I say, “All right, surprise me. Story, tell me what you want.”

KF: And I think most writers work that way. I have found, when I tell people the way I work, very few people say to me, “Oh yeah, I do that.” Most people say, as David has said, that it’s an adventure. Most people know the beginning and the end, and they say the middle is a voyage of discovery. And that doesn’t work for me. What works for me is to know it all, what happens in every chapter, in some detail, right from the start.

So how long do you typically spend on an outline before you begin writing?

KF: Between six months and a year.

Wow.

DM: Wow.

So it’s very detailed, chapter by chapter?

KF: It’s pretty detailed—it’s typically 50 typed pages. What takes me the time is that I change it a lot. I start out with a concept, and then I see what’s wrong with it. And I see how to make it better. One thing I quite often do is I go through it backwards and I write a one-line summary of each chapter, but starting with the last chapter. And what that does is it shows me where the final scenes are not fulfilling the promises raised by the early scenes—which, for me, is terribly important. Whatever happens in the last few chapters must be something either feared or longed for by the characters in the early chapters. And a little trick for me for focusing on that question, is to go through it backwards.

I think a lot of writers wish they could do that—if we could work all that out in an outline, it might save us a lot of writing and rewriting.

KF: Yeah, yeah.

DM: We should add, everybody’s different. There’s no one way.

Yes, this is the perfect illustration of that.

KF: It is, isn’t it?

DM: But listening to you, it occurs to me that my letter to myself, which can go on as long as 24 single-spaced pages—this is a long document—and as I go in, why is this project so important that you would write about it for a year or more, why do you want to write it, where’d the idea come from, and what I begin doing is asking myself questions … and [in one instance in particular] it took me pages to work that out, and so in a way I was outlining, but I was just doing it a different way.

What do both of you think are the really essential elements to a thriller? When you’re developing that outline, what has to be in there?

KF: Well, I always say thrillers are about people in danger. And while it’s easy enough to think up a dangerous situation to put the people in, the challenge then is to draw that out for 100,000 words in such a way that the danger is constantly present, that the story is still developing internally. There’s a rule of thumb that says every four to six pages the story should turn. If you leave it longer than that, people start to get bored. If it’s shorter than that, it’s too frenetic. And a story turn is anything that changes the situation for the characters, so it could be quite minor—somebody telling a little lie—but it’s a story turn. And so the challenge for me is not thinking of dangerous situations to put the people in—that’s easy. The challenge is then drawing out that suspense, their responses to it, their interactions with one another, their interactions with the bad guys, and making that into a consistent drama that lasts 100,000 words.

DM: Reversal and recognition, Aristotle said. You know, that a twist causes the character to understand something about him- or herself that wasn’t there before. Aristotle in some ways had it all—I discovered if you change the words that are in the translations, it sounds like a modern writing book. And reversal and recognition is a pretty cool thing.

In Ken’s work, particularly Eye of the Needle—what makes that a place in thriller literature, and I like to think First Blood is the same way—neither book feels like a genre book. It has umpteen action scenes and all of that, but we believe that this story is happening to actual people. The element of believability.

Anybody who sits down to write and they think thriller maybe shouldn’t be thinking that way. Maybe we should be thinking novel, maybe thriller way in the background, but that these are real people to whom things are happening. It just happens to be a hell of an exciting story.

Ken, your introduction to your agent Al Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel is really a testament to what it can mean for a writer to have an editor mentor them, and in your case that was your agent. What do you feel writers should look for in a mentor of that sort?

KF: It’s the ability to make you think again about what you’ve already written that is so useful. Somebody who can say, this scene lacks something, or this character. Al will say things like, “I don’t know what this character’s thrust is.” Well, good question. Every character must have a thrust, something that he or she is yearning for, trying to achieve. Otherwise no matter how interesting the character is, there’s no story, there’s no forward momentum.

And he does this for you still?

KF: Absolutely. Needless to say, I’ve learned a lot as the years have gone by, but so has he, and he’s still ahead of me! [Laughs.]

I think a lot of us assume that when you’re starting out maybe you need a lot of editing, but then you get to a point in your career when you just write it, and it’s perfect, and you just turn it in.

KF: I’m looking forward to that point! [Laughs.]

DM: I’m reminded—mantras, I have so many of them, and one comes from Neil Simon, who basically says, It’s never good enough. And this is an occupational hazard for us. We work as hard as we can, we think the book is done, we send it in, and we want our prize. And then we get the letter or the phone call saying, “Well what if we—” and, “How about this?” and “You know, we were just wondering about that one scene that goes on a long time.” And then of course if you’re not strong, you feel the discouragement and the deflating tire.

Writers need to be tough. This is not for the weak of will. And we have to realize that yeah, it’s never good enough. It’s not like fixing a car where it’s precise and we know what the end result will be definitively. And I have found that the people I work with have the gift to be able to suggest in a creative fashion that makes you excited to say, “Oh yes! This story will be even better!”

KF: Exactly, exactly.

DM: I think beginning authors selecting agents, seeing if they can work with an editor, [should consider] you have to be in sync with the people you’re working with—it’s very rare. Over my 38 years I’ve had people I just loved to work with, and others that you know it was perhaps, maybe the encouragement or something wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be.

But with you it hasn’t been a constant person, like Al has been for Ken.

DM: No. Mine has been an adventure with editors because so many editors leave from one house to another house to another house. In some cases, I have followed the editors and they have left yet again. Or I have gone to a new house, and then in one case, [had] two or three editors in the same house. So, there’s been no constancy.

I suppose that’s the advantage of having your agent play that role instead, because publishing is so transient.

KF: Absolutely.

You both are so amazingly prolific, but you’re also both primarily identified by one work in the popular conscience—for David, First Blood, and Ken, most people think of either Eye of the Needle or Pillars of the Earth. Do you ever get tired of that?

DM: Never.

KF: No.

DM: It is so hard. … In our profession, it is so difficult to go places, and they say, “What do you do for a living?”

“Well, I’m a novelist.”

And they say, “I don’t suppose you’ve written anything I’ve read.” They always ask it in the negative. You could be Melville, and you’d say Moby-Dick, and they’d say, “Gosh, I think I missed that one.” And so the hardest thing is to find a book that you’re identified with, a character that you’re identified with, so it becomes that touchstone that you can hang onto.

So you view that as a positive.

DM: Oh yeah. I was in a restaurant last night with Gayle Lynds and we were having dinner. And the waitress came over and she said, “We know who you are.”

And I said, “What?”

And she said, “Yes, several people recognize you.”

And I said, “Who am I?”

And: “Oh, we know who you are.”

And I said, “I’m not an actor.”

And then the wait staff came over and began saying, “Don’t do it, Rambo!” And began quoting all these lines from the movie, and the whole restaurant turned into reenacting First Blood. It was wonderful.

KF: I agree. It’s great to be known for something. I certainly wouldn’t quibble about it. Pillars of the Earth is probably my best book, and if people say that to me, I say, “Thank you very much.”

Ken, David has mentioned many mantras for his work. Do you have any rules of thumb?

KF: If there’s a way to make it better, you have to do it. That may sound so obvious that it’s stupid, but actually, when you’ve written something and you think it’s quite good, and you realize or somebody helps you realize that it could be better, it does take quite an effort of will to tear it up and go back and do it again. And forcing myself to do that, I think, has been really important in my career. If I had published my first drafts, I don’t think I’d be getting this wonderful [ThrillerMaster] award.

And I think to myself, now, about the millions of people who enjoyed the last book and are looking forward to the next one. And I think, what if I disappoint them? That would be terrible.

And so then if I can see that this scene is OK, but look, here’s a way to do it better, I’ve got to do it.

DM: I really like that. I’m going to use that as another one of my mantras when I teach. 

I have to ask, with all that both of you have accomplished, what motivates you to keep writing? You could retire any day—you could stop any time.

DM: I’m still that little kid who used to sleep under the bed. I’m telling stories to myself. The stories come to me and I’m so interested in them that I want to make them real. John Barth, a quite different writer from me, once said that reality is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Now this might contradict what I said earlier, that we should write stories that are believable and feel true, but that’s only because we’re hypnotizing people. The truth is, I’m not so crazy about the world I live in. My son died from cancer, my granddaughter died from cancer, I have a lot of reasons to think that reality is not a friendly neighborhood. And the stories that I tell distract me, and if I do the job right they distract people from things that are happening to them that they wish had never happened.

KF: I feel something quite similar: When I get up in the morning, what I want to do is write the next scene, is work on the book. It’s what I love to do. It’s great to do something that you’re good at. I enjoy it—enjoy is just too weak a word. It engages me in everything. It engages my entire intellect, and my emotions, and everything such it is that I know about the world and how human beings work. It’s all engaged in this challenge of casting a spell over readers. The work compels me completely.

DM: It’s the meaning of our lives. 

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