Skip to content

Category: craft essay

Getting the Better of a Protagonist and Vice Versa (newsletter)

It saddened me greatly when my principal muse David Cornwell—aka John le Carré—passed away last December twelfth at 89. By my lights, the Brits should make that date a national day of mourning. Were it not for the spell of the holidaze, I would have said something about it at the time, so please allow me to pay my respects now.

David Cornwell / John le Carré, recent photograph

He was a gifted storyteller. It wasn’t just how scrupulously he constructed his characters and how mercilessly he deconstructed them that I admired; he also kept me guessing about outcomes, so many of them equivocal. As in real life, few of his protagonists triumph, and some don’t make it. Along the way, he tends to adjust the attitude of some and lets others slide into more august or shrunken versions of themselves—until, like George Smiley and Peter Guillam in his 2011 A Legacy of Spies, they leap out of retirement. (Le Carré scholars reckon that Smiley would be a centenarian at the time, having cut his espionage teeth in 1930s Berlin.) Being billeted throughout Central Europe by the Foreign Services through the 1960s and having traveled widely since, Cornwell’s settings bubble with both old- and new-world authenticity.

Leave a Comment

Lights! Camera! Aristotle!

Having written a subversive action novel focusing on the lives and times of a cell of terrorists that some early readers indicated would make a great movie, I gave the project some thought and soon concluded that my story was a natural for film adaptation. It has a simple, linear plot with subplots to spare, featuring appealing, interesting characters, and mostly set in real places I didn’t have to make up, sharply limned in luminous detail.

Suspecting that there was more to writing for movies that I needed to know, I straightaway dove into the turbulent and treacherous waters of screenwriting, only to surface gasping over how ginormous and competitive, how overflowing with talent, copy, and potential productions the screenplay marketplace is. Not to mention the secondary markets for script consultants, synopsizers, agents, contests, how-to books, DVDs, webinars, and software products pawing at you to help you write screenplays that sell. Emerging from my brief and bewildering dip into these waters, it was close-up clear that to navigate a course to celluloid I needed to consult sage practitioners of this elusive art.

Leave a Comment

The Spy Looking over My Shoulder

Learning from John Le Carré

John le Carré at the “Zeit Forum Kultur” in Hamburg on November 10th 2008. CC 3 Attribution: KrimidoedliKr

I owe David Cornwell, a.k.a. John Le Carré, big time. He has led me from the literary wilderness to the promised land of Almost Fit to Print. Without his unbeknownst tutelage, I would never have gotten even this far. This is my humble homage to his humbling genius.

When, nearly three years ago I set out to write a novel about a multi-ethnic leftist international conspiracy from the perps’ point of view, I had urgent motivations but knew nothing about genre. As I spend much more time writing than reading for pleasure, there are a lot of books that might inform mine I’ve managed to miss. Truth be told, my literary tastes gravitate to non-fiction, mostly research material for articles. Over six decades, I doubt I’ve read more than 100 novels that weren’t assigned in some long-ago class. A year could pass before picking up a new one, rarely a thriller. I had but the vaguest idea of how to proceed after conjuring up quirky characters and a wisp of a plot in a land I had never visited. It would have to be a thriller, that much I knew. Having read few but seen a lot of spy movies, I figured I knew enough to do this.

Leave a Comment