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Rules of writing from an international best seller

Famous spy novelist John le Carré shares his writing tips with 60 Minutes, including how he avoids "fuzzy endings" and why he makes verbs do all the work

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Author John le Carré, left, and 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft look over a manuscript

CBS News

David Cornwell is possibly one of the least known best-selling authors in the world. His novels tell tales of espionage and betrayal, thrilling millions of readers who know him by his pen name, John le Carré.  

Cornwell rarely gives television interviews, but on the heels of his latest book, "A Legacy of Spies," Cornwell agreed to speak with 60 Minutes.

"We jumped at the opportunity," says 60 Minutes producer Michael Gavshon, who had been angling to interview Cornwell for more than 15 years. "I've always found him to be the most compelling and insightful writer."

When the 60 Minutes team first met Cornwell, he was in the final editing stages of "A Legacy of Spies." The plan was to spend a few hours at his home in South West England. Instead, the 60 Minutes team spent an entire day there, listening to his stories and gleaning a few writing tips along the way.

"In the end, it's ironing the stuff, getting out anything that's extraneous," Cornwell tells Steve Kroft in the clip above, pointing to a draft of his novel that's covered in notes.

"I don't use adjectives if I can possibly get away with it," Cornwell says. "I try to make the verb do the work."

Like many authors, Cornwell writes what he knows. His tales of espionage are inspired by his time in British intelligence agencies, and the details of the endeavors come from his own lengthy research trips abroad. He keeps meticulous notebooks when he travels, immediately writing down the sights, sounds, and smells of each new location.

In the clip above, he shows Kroft the travel notebooks he kept in Kenya and Sudan for his novel "The Constant Gardner."

"This is the stuff then that I bring back here to this room, masses and masses of it, the memories, the observations, things like color, smell," Cornwell says.

The most important observations, he notes, are his first impressions, when his senses are still shocked by newness and not dulled by experience.

"Get them down on paper and bring them back here," he says, "and then they're at your elbow."

When Cornwell begins a novel, he knows he must get his reader's attention with the opening lines. To do that, he jumps into the action straightaway, then uses flashbacks to explain how his characters got there.

He also takes a cue from Alfred Hitchcock: Put the bomb under the bed.

While Cornwell feels his plots are "terribly elementary," he acknowledges his novels center around elaborate themes. Once he's figured out a novel's theme, the next most important element of a John le Carré book is its ending.

"How do we get out of this? What will the reader feel? What will a person in the cinema feel as they walk out, as the reader puts down the book?" Cornwell asks himself. "[I]t doesn't have to be a happy end, but it has to be a logically convincing end. And that is the satisfaction which I believe I owe the reader."

Cornwell begins writing around 7:30 a.m., allowing only the day's news to intrude before he gets to work in his writing studio. Everything else must wait.

In the clip above, he tells Kroft that this routine developed when he worked as an intelligence officer, writing novels before his workdays began.

"It was sort of stealing time in those early mornings," he says, "and it was a very strange period, those first three novels, because I was not only writing them in privacy, so to speak, I was writing them conscious that I must not reveal that I was in the intelligence business."

Lastly, Kroft asked Cornwell if he ever gets writer's block. Yes, Cornwell admits, he does. But to him, writing is like exercise: Do it every day even when you don't want to.

"I absolutely will not say I can't write today, therefore I'm not writing," he tells Kroft. "I go to my desk. And quite often, if you really press yourself, you get decent stuff out of yourself at the end of it."

The videos above were produced and edited by Will Croxton.