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Masterclass

Putting pen to paper

Let’s assume that you have got your basic idea. In my case, it might be in the idea of a German spy in wartime England, or a family of bankers who lose all their money. A basic idea is something that can be said in one sentence.

Putting Pen to Paper

One of these ideas was the starting point for The Man from St Petersburg

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.