Studying the writing trajectory of successful writers can be fun and also profitable from a lessons learned point of view. Some writers, like Dickens, score a major success early on in their careers and keep flying high, like a shooting star that never seems to fall to earth. From his very first work. Sketches by Boz, our boy Charles struck a chord and rarely rand a false note after that. Then there are one-book wonders like Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird — fabulous stories that have won these authors well-deserved praise and everlasting fame.
But in terms of sheer numbers, there are probably more authors who follow into the slow-building, simmering success category: It takes them a number of false starts and/or not-so-hot books before they hit the big time. Having just picked up a novel called A Place Called Freedom by Ken Follett, I was reminded that this writer of multiple bestsellers had written 10 novels that sank like stones before he wrote Eye of the Needle, his breakthrough book. both in terms of its commercial appeal and literary technique.
In describing how he progressed from also ran to astonishing success, Ken recalls that Eye of the Needle, “was the best story idea I ever had, and I had also reached a breakthrough point in my development as a writer. I planned the book carefully and wrote a detailed outline. I researched the period thoroughly, and I put a lot of detail into the story. It gave the book a feel for the grain of everyday life, something my work had never done before. The richness of detail slows the writing down, but that was what my work needed. My early books were all too brisk and things happened too quickly.”
I like the way Ken dissects his own writing technique here and describes his growth as a writer — and how he changed and deepened the work he was doing to offer readers a richer, more satisfying experience. Ken’s website (ken-follett.com) actually has helpful writing tips under the heading “Master Class,” so you might want to check it out. Write on.