John le Carre’s Rules for Writing

David Cornwell may be one of the most well-known best-selling authors around the globe. Many people know John le Carre, his pen name. His books are filled with tales about espionage, betrayal and intrigue. Last December, he died at the age of 89.

This week, six decades since his first novel was published, “Silverview,” his last novel is out.

Cornwell rarely gave television interviews, but in 2017, on the heels of his book, “A Legacy of Spies,” he agreed to speak with 60 Minutes.

“We jumped at the opportunity,” said 60 Minutes producer Michael Gavshon, who had been angling to interview Cornwell for more than 15 years. He is the most engaging and insightful writer I’ve ever seen. “

When the 60 Minutes team first met Cornwell, he was in the final editing stages of “A Legacy of Spies.” It was planned to visit Cornwell’s home in South West England for a couple of hours. Instead, the 60 Minutes team spent an entire day there, listening to his stories and gleaning a few writing tips along the way.

Tip 1: Make the verb do the work


Anonymous room for spy novelists

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“In the end, it’s ironing the stuff, getting out anything that’s extraneous,” Cornwell told Steve Kroft in the clip above, pointing to a draft of his novel that was covered in notes. Cornwell stated that he doesn’t like adjectives and will not use them if it is possible. Cornwell said, “I make sure the verb does the job. “

Tip 2: Keep a travel notebook


Tip 2: Travel notebook

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Like many authors, Cornwell wrote what he knew. Cornwell’s tales of spying were inspired by his experiences in British intelligence agencies. The details of his adventures came from long research trips to foreign countries. When he traveled, he kept detailed notebooks and noted down all the sounds, sights, and smells.

In the video clip, he shows Kroft his travel notebooks from Kenya and Sudan. “

“I bring this stuff back to the room. It includes the memories and observations as well as the smells. He noted that his most valuable observations were his initial impressions. These were when his senses had not been dulled over time but were still feeling new.

” “Get them down on paper, and then bring them back here,” said he. “

Tip 3: Start your story as “late” as possible


Tip #3: Opening lines

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When Cornwell began a novel, he knew he must get his reader’s attention with the opening lines. Cornwell used flashbacks and jump into action to show how his characters arrived at their destination.

He took inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock and put the bomb under his bed.

Tip 4: Avoid “fuzzy endings”


Tip #4: Avoid fuzzy ends

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While Cornwell felt his plots were “terribly elementary,” he acknowledged his novels centered around elaborate themes. After determining the theme of a John le Carrre novel, the ending was what was most crucial.

” What can we do to get out? How will this make the reader feel? How will the moviegoer feel when they leave the theatre? Cornwell himself asked the question. “[I]t does not have to end in a happy place, but it must be convincing. That is what I feel I owe to the reader. “

Tip 5: Start writing by 7: 30 a.m.


Tip5: Writing routine

01: 30

Cornwell began writing around 7: 30 a.m., allowing only the day’s news to intrude before he got to work in his writing studio. All other things had to wait.

In the video clip, he explained to Kroft how this routine was developed while he was an intelligence officer. He used it to write novels in his spare time before his day began.

“It was kind of stealing my time in those early mornings,” said he. “And it was very strange, those three novels, because not only was I writing them in private, but I also knew that they were confidential and that I had to keep them secret that I was working in intelligence. “

Lastly, Kroft asked Cornwell if he ever got writer’s block. Cornwell said yes. Cornwell said that writing was like exercising: You should do it daily, even if you don’t feel like doing so.

” He assured Kroft that he would not lie to you and say that he couldn’t write. I go to my desk. You will often find that you can get some decent work out of yourself if you put your mind to it. “

The videos above were originally published on September 17, 2017. Michael H. Gavshon produced the broadcast story and David M. Levine edited it by Daniel J. Glucksman. Will Croxton produced and edited the Overtime videos.

(c) 2021 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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