Youngblood Blog

Writing weblog, local, topical, personal, spiritual

18 Steps to Becoming a Writer

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already a writer. So the appended list is intended as a little tongue-in-cheek, because those in the field who haven’t yet plunged have miles to go before they sleep….

Author David Cornwell in Cornwall speaking to Jon Snow, courtesy Channel 4 News

There is one great role model still out there, however, and he gave a rare interview on British television (to Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow, thank you) on September 13th. In his eightieth year, David Cornwell — no you don’t know him by that name, but read on — will publish his 22nd book this week on September 16th.

Before I get to the steps to mastery of this mysterious gift — writing — I want to say that Jon Snow did a magnificent job: not only did he subsume his role as producer/director and questioning acolyte into the greater picture which his interviewee painted, but he seemed to enjoy every moment of it. His follow-up Snowblog had a telltale air of enthusiasm and excitement about it, as if his trip to Cornwall to see Cornwell had actually inspired him.

His opening line: ‘The night sleeper drew exhaustedly into Penzance station’ was a creative scene-setter. Well done Jon.

The octogenarian-to-be certainly inspired me. David Cornwell is, of course, in case you hadn’t guessed, the all-Brit deeply researched (by personal experience) spy thriller writer John Le Carré. He has lived in his clifftop home overlooking the wild Atlantic Ocean for nearly forty years. That kind of rootedness — plus his earlier career in the British Foreign Office — leads to writerly focus and concentration. And those, as we know, are the main ingredients in pulling off a masterpiece, the following 18 steps notwithstanding!

Scrivener storyboard: the 'greatest advance for writers since the word processor' Michael Marshall Smith

Step One: Decide you’re going to write a story.

Step Two: Decide it’s going to be brilliant. Imagine the response of your [teacher, classmates, reading group, agent] and how it will completely change the way they look at you.

Step Three: Open up Scrivener for Macs or Microsoft Word or, if you are really doing this for the VERY FIRST time, unpack the old portable typewriter and put a fresh sheet of paper in the roller and snap to. (I’m not the only one who remembers what that feels like).

Step Four: Stare at the blank white screen stretching on into infinity until your eyes begin to water and your brain hurts from the sheer emptiness of it all.

Step Five: Check your e-mail. If writing a novel, research agents for a couple of hours.

Step Six: Stare at the blank Scrivener/Word document again.

Step Seven: Realize you need music. Spend the next hour finding the perfect “mood” music for what you want to write.

Step Eight: Inspired by [insert perfect music here], click back over to Scrivener/Word document.

Step Nine: Change Facebook status to: [Your name here] is WRITING!!! Realize you aren’t on Twitter, and that anyone who is anyone is networking/wasting time on Twitter. Sign up for an account and spend the next two hours figuring out how it works and what the hell # means.

Step Ten: Stare at blank Scrivener/ Word document. Decide you need a title. Brainstorm for the next hour.

His 22nd spy thriller is launched this week

Step Eleven: Come up with a GENIUS title. Proudly type “The Scent of Green Papayas” at the top of the document, followed by your name. Happily consider how easily a story will come now that you have such an amazing, literary title.

Step Twelve: Take a four-hour break for snacks and naptime.

Step Thirteen: Refreshed, sit down and toy around with pen names for a while.

Step Fourteen: Realize to your horror that your genius title is actually the name of a Vietnamese foreign film you saw seven years ago.

Step Fifteen: Erase the title, pressing Backspace much harder than necessary.

Step Sixteen: Stare at the blank Scrivener/Word document until your eyes bleed.

Step Seventeen: Check Facebook. See that fourteen people have commented on your status, asking what you are writing. Feel both guilty and annoyed.

Step Eighteen: Slam your laptop shut and go to the movies. Tomorrow’s a better day for writing, anyhow.

See? You never knew writing was so easy!

This little provocative bullet was provided by Chuck Sambuchino in the Literary Agents Editor’s Blog.

it is far more relevant to hear from Le Carré directly: while the Channel 4 Snowblog does go into detail on the points of the Snow interview, as a ‘news’ interview, it concentrates on the spy stuff, its relevance in our 21st Century world. What stay with me, on the other hand, are Cornwell’s clear and lucid words on solitude and being touched by the Muse. His years of experience in handling spies and other British Foreign Office delicacies (when Britain was still called Britain) are merely a hook for the content of his books on espionage. What he said in this rare and insightful interview (probably his last; he said so himself) is far more important for budding — and successful — storytellers.

‘Popular writers have usually got one flag they can always wave. And it haunts them. It haunts me. Can I ever write another Spy Who Came in from the Cold? The answer is no, I can’t. But I can do other stuff.’ His latest title Our Kind of Traitor, will more than satisfy readers hungry for an exposé on current (London-centered) compromised politicians and a banking system’s feigned ignorance of money-laundered Russian cash acquired via offensive (and illegal) means.

For Le Carré the writing life, he says, is the only life he has. His imaginary characters are his friends. He admits that his walks around his home take the form of a reconnection with childhood. ‘I populate these hills with the characters of my imagination.’ His supportive and ever-present wife Jane does the donkey work — the typescripts — after David has used the dining room table as a storyboard: chopped pieces of edited MS scotchtaped, paperclipped and scribbled on, folded together or pried apart when a paragraph doesn’t work. [So he’s no advertising guru for Scrivener]. His mind, like his dining table, is a cohesion of scattered bits.
‘It’s all I know now. It’s that and my family. We have very little social life’, he admits gleefully.

Le Carré, pen-name for David Cornwell, forever guided by the Muse, his 22nd novel is published this week

He is the epitome of the non-planner. His works don’t have an outline, format or detailed chapter-by-chapter mission plan. He likes to go with the flow.

‘I don’t make plots in advance. I don’t make great march routes. I actually try to throw people into a messy life and see how they’ll sort it out — while I’m writing. So the whole adventure is one I share with the reader.’

To me, however, one of his most precious gems, dropped when the blogger-presenter and cameraman weren’t paying attention, was on the role of focus, solitude and attention given by the writer to his Muse. He used the ‘flag-flying’ of authors as a springboard, but his personal insight seemed to come as an afterthought, as if its relevance might not be understood by the current generation of writers influenced by ‘spin’, the ‘pitch’, that whole marketing morasse which a writer can drown in. It was a key thought behind his declaration that this might be the last interview he would give.

Talking about what one has achieved is very addictive, he says. ‘I’ve seen the best minds be wooed by the camera. It is exciting. I’ve been there myself. But it deprives one of one’s essence’. He describes his final interview as ‘most candid and honest’; says only through solitude, in allowing the fusion between the word and the mind to coalasce, to filter through from that place of inspiration to typeface on the printed page, does true connection — and joy — emerge.

That’s the gift. And talking about it disperses and fragments it.

So, in maintaining forty years of silence (on camera) but by allowing his words to flow in print, Cornwell has not only been true to his Muse, but to his reader.

That, in my humble opinion, is true dedication to the art.

©2010 Marian Youngblood
It seems right that soon-to-be-octogenarian David Cornwell (b. October 19, 1931) should feature before a series of talented author/writer friends are showcased here over the next weeks on this blog. Each one is dedicated to the artform. Each has a tale to tell. I hope you enjoy. And if you are perched on that branch, uncertain if you should dive in, go ahead. The medium’s lovely. And the water’s warm.

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September 15, 2010 - Posted by | authors, culture, Muse, novel, publishing, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 Comments »

  1. […] If you're reading this, you're probably already a writer. So the appended list is intended as a little tongue-in-cheek, because those in the field who haven't yet plunged have miles to go before they sleep…. There is one great role model still out there, however, and he gave a rare interv … Read More […]

    Pingback by 18 Steps to Becoming a Writer (via Youngblood Blog) « Chazz Writes | September 15, 2010 | Reply

  2. I have always been intrigued at how writers come up with their story lines & their characters. I am in awe. Very nicely written with good humor. Maybe if I stare long enough at that empty piece of paper, the muse will eventually come, before I go blind! Kudos & much love to you ~ Annie.

    Comment by Annie | September 15, 2010 | Reply

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Amber, Elle. Elle said: 18 Steps to Becoming a Writer « Youngblood Blog http://ow.ly/2EPDN Quite funny ! […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention 18 Steps to Becoming a Writer « Youngblood Blog -- Topsy.com | September 16, 2010 | Reply

  4. I did not understand its meaning. 😦 At the end of the day (steps), nothing was written. I know, this means something else in indirect speech but I can’t just catch that.

    Comment by Sajib | September 16, 2010 | Reply

  5. […] know, here I’m promoting my writerly friends in this current series of GuestBlogs — see 18 Steps to Becoming a Writer — and Fitzy’s commentary is so great, so gentle with the vibration of the turning […]

    Pingback by Equinox Signals Powerful Changes « Youngblood Blog | September 26, 2010 | Reply

  6. […] you probably read in my blog on John LeCarré, this little corner is my attempt to feature my favorite real-life struggling authors. By that I […]

    Pingback by ‘Writing’s the one thing I can call my own’ « Youngblood Blog | September 29, 2010 | Reply


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