Ken Follett: 'Tell a good story from your heart'
Best-selling author Ken Follett tells Savera R Someshwar what it takes to be an author and offers tips to aspiring writers! Read on
Remember the story of the spider that kept trying till he succeeded?
Best-selling Ken Follett has a similar history. Though his first 10 books brought in much needed money, it was only with his eleventh book, Eye Of The Needle, that he finally learnt to write a bestseller.
Follett, though, was not content with writing thrillers that sold millions of copies; at the age of 37, he took a literary leap of faith and penned Pillars Of The Earth, which remains his best-selling work.
The billionaire author -- whose books have sold more than 116 million copies across the world (not counting the pirated versions) and who, with $20 million, comes in at number five on Forbes magazine's Top Ten Richest Authors list -- has a few tips to offer Get Ahead readers:
You have a section on your website called Masterclass aimed at budding authors. But if you had to cull just one tip, what would it be?
Tell a good story; tell it from your heart.
The basic elements of a good story are completely universal. If you write about love, hatred, revenge, growing up, getting married, having children, killing your enemies -- people all over the world understand it.
The reader must react emotionally. His heart must beat faster; he must shed tears or be angry or scared about what's going to happen to the hero. Only then is it a great story.
Readers are basically the same all over the world. They're interested in love, hatred, battles, marriage, romance and making or losing money.
Image: Ken Follett
'You cannot just wait for inspiration to strike'
In the age of instant gratification provided by television and the Internet, what can a writer do to keep his reader hooked?
Well, I have to say television is great. TV drama is often brilliantly written and constructed.
When I am thinking about what subject to write on next and I'm talking with my publishers and editors and agents, I often say we book writers have to give people something they can't get on television.
As writers, we have to develop that because I want you to turn that TV off and sit down with a book for a couple of hours. So I have to give you something in the book that's better that what is available on television.
The one thing that books can give us is depth of understanding; this is something that television does not give us.
How can a budding author deal with writer's block?
You cannot just wait for inspiration to strike; if you are serious about writing, you have to discipline yourself to write every day.
I start my writing day at 7 am and end at 5 pm. I give myself a holiday on Sundays.
Even when I am on tour, I try to write whenever I get the time. Once I open my laptop, I am no longer at the airport lounge; I'm right in the middle of the Spanish war!
Image: Child Ken Follett (holding the star)
'Researching is much easier than writing'
How do you relate to technology?
Oh, I love it. It's great to be able to take your laptop along so that you can work wherever you are.
And Google Search is great. Instead of walking up to library shelf -- incidentally, that's where I work, in my library -- I can just search for the information I want to verify online.
It's become so much easier and so much faster.
To what extent do you edit your books? How much was edited out of your latest book, Fall Of Giants?
I don't usually cut much. When I rewrite, I usually add things; I add more details about how people feel about an event.
Um... I'm just trying to think... There was a chapter set in Buffalo about Gus Dewar who meets Rosa Hellman, the editor of The Anarchist newspaper and uncovers a scandal It was quite a nice chapter but it delayed the story from really getting going. So those 30 pages went right out.
But that's unusual. Most of the time I'm usually adding things.
Do you think we'll see that chapter online at some point?
(Laughs) I doubt it.
As a special treat?
That's an idea. Hmm I don't know. I'll have to think about that.
What part of writing do you enjoy the most?
The research is always good fun. Writers always like the research process; it is much easier than writing. You just have to go around asking people questions. And people are always so nice and tell you everything that they know.
And then, I like writing the outline. I like planning it because you can do anything. You can change a character from a male to a female. Take a character out. Change the love story to a sad story. You can do anything without rewriting a hundred pages. So I really like outlining.
Image: Ken Follett
'Now I'm much wiser'
You took a huge leap of faith when you moved from writing racy best-selling thrillers like Eye Of The Needle, The Key To Rebecca and Lie Down with Lions to writing Pillars Of The Earth, which is historical fiction.
Well, I started writing that book when I was 36 and young men think they can do anything. I was no different.
Do you still feel that way?
No, I'm much wiser (laughs).
But if you are a creative artiste and you want to do something good, there is always that element of risk.
Even Fall of Giants is somewhat different from anything I have done before. There is always an element of risk, yes. It is always a bit of a leap into the unknown.
Image: Young Ken Follett at his desk