Best practice writing tips 4

These best practice writing tips are from John le Carré. Well, not exactly from the horse’s mouth but from a massive biography by Adam Sisman called (unsurprisingly) John le Carré – The Biography.

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John le Carre: examples of his writing practice

I’ve been immersed in it for the last couple of days as the man’s life is interesting and his writing life even more so.

Here are some gems:

1 Collecting characters

 “[He] likes to begin a book with at least one strong character in conflict with something or somebody. […] His characters are often torn between loyalty to individuals and loyalty to institutions. He writes far more than he can use, particularly about the minor characters, with the result that he has to cut much of what he has written to keep them in scale. But this effort is not wasted because he sweeps up the discards – which he calls ‘industrial waste’ – to use again in future books. ‘I promise them [the minor characters] a treat in the next book,’ he told one interviewer, ‘if they’ll just keep quiet now.’

“[He] collects characters, whom he stores for future use. ‘They mature in the bottle, sometimes for decades,’ he would tell an interviewer in 2008.”

2 The daily workload

“When a novel is going well, he writes fast; it is not unusual for him to write a chapter a day. The first hundred pages, and the first chapter in particular, always take much longer than the remainder. If a novel curdles in the middle, it’s the first chapter that he returns to.”

3 Rewriting

“The evolution of the book through successive drafts demonstrates two of [his] qualities as a writer: his ability to develop and manage an exceptionally complex plot without a pre-planned scheme, and his commitment to rework what he has written over and over again until he achieves the result he wants. ‘Tinker, Tailor was the most difficult book I ever wrote,’ he would recall five years after it was published. He claims to have destroyed two versions of it in despair before he came up with one that he thought worked.”

4 Abandoning a project

After the publication of The Honourable Schoolboy, John le Carré travelled through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel to research his next book. In the winter of 1977/78 he wrote three chapters of the book which he planned to call ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ – a title he’d thought of using for The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. This was to be another Smiley novel but he “found himself unable to write convincingly about Smiley in such a setting. ‘I couldn’t find the right plot for him there,’ [he] would say later; and indeed it is hard to imagine Smiley operating in such an environment. Eventually [he] scribbled [the words] ‘poor stuff’ on the manuscript and abandoned the attempt.”

(An aside: The Pigeon Tunnel would become the title of his 2016 autobiography. It alludes to a grotesque practice at the casino at Monaco where guests ‘reclining on day-beds’ with shotguns fired at pigeons as they emerged from tunnels in front of them. It was a scene which left a lasting impression.)

5 The freedom when starting afresh

Le Carré did find the right book immediately after putting aside the ‘poor stuff’. That book was Smiley’s People and the first draft was written in ten months. He wrote to a friend to say, ‘I’ve just finished my new book, which is not the one we discussed […] but a totally different story which ran away with me.’

Which suggests that abandoning a project often opens the floodgates to a successful new story.

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