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Monday, May 21, 2007

Learning from the Masters

Someone once told me that if you want to learn to write thrillers, then learn from the A-list authors and not from the B-listers. I’m sure this applies to all genres, but we’ll stick to thrillers for this discourse. Also for the purpose of this discussion, let’s call the A-list authors “the masters.” Hence the title of this series, Learning from the Masters.

While there are many masters to learn from, I’ll choose from my favorites in future posts as well. Fortunately for us, many of the masters are more than willing to share words of encouragement and tips on writing techniques. If not, then we can always go straight to their book and dissect that. I’ve done it.


If you’re like me, it’s difficult to name only one favorite book. I have several favorites. One of them has withstood the test of time, meaning that I’ve read it again after several years, and it’s almost a whopping one thousand words. That novel is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Fascinating work. In another lifetime, I traveled back and forth between Seattle and Dallas, and someone offered Pillars to me as a good, long read to keep me occupied during the four and a half hour flight. Fifteen years later, I’ve read it again only for vastly different reasons—to study the work of a master.

Ken Follett is considered a master thriller writer by many. He’s kind enough to offer what he calls Masterclass on his website. You can also purchase a DVD from him, The Art of Suspense: a lecture on the history of the thriller, by Ken Follett.

In his Masterclass introduction, Ken refers to his writing as transparent:
My aim in constructing sentences is to make the sentence utterly easy to understand, writing what I call transparent prose. I've failed dreadfully if you have to read a sentence twice to figure out what I meant….There are many writers who write complicated, rather elaborate sentences which are actually a lot of fun. . . .By contrast, my personal aim is to write transparent prose.

In my opinion, he is spot-on in his effort to write transparent prose. When reading Pillars of the Earth, I stopped to examine how many pages I’d gone into the story. I was amazed to see that I had devoured three hundred pages in a short time without realizing it. Three hundred pages is the length of an average book, and I can usually sense that I’m reading for a length of time. Not so with Pillars of the Earth.

Complicated or transparent? I love reading elaborate sentences, but I have to say that probably the best read will be the one with transparent writing. After all, isn’t it one of our goals to take the reader into the story such that he doesn’t even realize he is reading?

I’m being “transparent” here when I tell you that my own writing is far from clear—it doesn’t always go down like honey. I’ve heard that Dean Koontz will rewrite one page forty times to get the correct rhythm. How many of us are willing to go that far?


Next Ken talks about writing an outline. Now I know this is a matter of personal preference and half of all writers do not write an outline but merely write SOTP (seat of the pants).

Ken has this to say on the topic:

It is far easier to correct your mistakes if you write an outline than if you sat down and wrote, 'Chapter One' at the top of a piece of paper and started writing. If you work that way, it will take an awfully long time to correct your mistakes.

I learned this the hard way when first attempting to write a thriller. After writing half of the book, I scratched everything and started over—with an outline. I wholeheartedly concur with him about correcting all of those mistakes. When I began to look at the big picture that was my novel, I became overwhelmed at the thought of fixing all of the plot holes. SOTP may work in other genres, but complicated thrillers require an outline up front.


Another important tidbit I garnered from reading Masterclass is on pacing and what Ken Follett terms story turn:
There is a rule, which says that the story should turn about every four to six pages. A story turn is anything that changes the basic dramatic situation. It can change it in a little way or change it in a big way.. . You can't go longer than about six pages without a story turn, otherwise the reader will get bored. Although that is a rule that people have invented in modern times about best-sellers, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, follows the same rule. In Dickens it's the same; something happens about every four to six pages. Be careful though. If you've got two story turns in four pages, you are going too fast and are not drawing the full drama and emotion out of each scene. Above all, the most important rule when writing the first draft is to pace the action right. Do this, and the story will alway develop at about the right speed.
I strongly recommend that you read Ken Follett’s Masterclass. It always fascinates me to learn how others go through the writing process. As I read through his method, I found it strangely familiar—a close cousin to Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake. In fact, Randy is the “someone” who encouraged me to learn from A-list authors. I hope to focus on Randy’s work at some point in the future in my series, Learning from the Masters.



Blogger Georgiana D said...

I loved Pillars! When a friend recommended it, I'm like, "A book about building a cathedral? I don't think so." But it was so much more than that! Great read. Thanks for the link.

10:16 PM  
Blogger jinx protocol said...

I've never read Ken Follett (though I have plenty in my ever-growing library), but maybe I should give him a shot soon.

I'm not necessarily a thriller writer - I'm a horror author mostly - but should I adhere to these rules? I mean, I like fast-paced stuff, but I write things that unfurl instead of explode.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Jefferson Scott said...


The rules of good fiction apply no matter what genre you write in.

I deal a lot with the "weird" genres at www.WhereTheMapEnds.com, and my fellow editors often say to me, "I couldn't edit science fiction [or whatever genre] because I just don't understand all that stuff." I answer that, aside from a tiny handful of things that are specific to the speculative genres, the principles of good fiction apply to weird fiction, too.

FYI, I've got a number of fiction writing tips over at WhereTheMapEnds. Check out the Tools for Writers link.


1:26 PM  

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