Craft Lesson: Take Modeling Lessons

Craft Lessons

In the early 1800s, an English writer named Charles Caleb Colton published a book of aphorisms, including one still popular today: “Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.” (Added later, “form” rounds out the way we know it today.)

But for those of us trying to become better writers, imitation is more than flattery; it’s a powerful and time-honored way to master the craft. “Numerous writers — Somerset Maugham and Joan Didion come to mind — recall copying long passages verbatim from favorite writers, learning with every line,” says Stephen Koch in “The Modern Library’s Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

Over the years, I’ve learned important lessons by copying out lines, passages, even entire stories by other writers whose work I admire and would like to emulate.

Typing Wall Street Journal features taught me the anatomy of a nut graf, that section of context high up in a story that tells readers what a story is about and why they should read it.

Copying word for word short stories by Larry Woiwode and Alice Adams and passages from novelists Richard Price and Stewart O’Nan taught me a variety of lessons — the evocative power of olfactory details, for instance — about the art of fiction that writers in any form can profit by using.

But a freelance magazine writing experience more than a decade ago made me a believer in a practice I’ve come to call “modeling lessons.”

It was a dream assignment. The Washington Post Magazine asked me to write a profile of the first Vietnamese graduate of West Point. Tam Minh Pham was a young man who marched with the long gray line of cadets in 1974, returning home just in time for the fall of his country and six years of imprisonment. But his American roommate never forgot him and 20 years later marshaled his classmates to cut through bureaucratic red tape and bring their buddy to America for a new life.

It didn’t take much reporting for me to decide that this was a powerful story.

But when I asked my editor about length, I was disappointed when he said to keep it to about 2,000 words because the piece had been slotted as a second feature.

I protested — it was a great cover story, full of drama and detail — but the top editor’s mind apparently was made up.

Fine, I said, but asked for back copies of the magazine and downloaded several others from a database. Back at my desk, I studied several cover pieces, but it wasn’t until I began actually copying them out that I began to understand the magazine’s formula.

As a newspaper reporter, I routinely kept my leads to a single paragraph that if not brief enough would be trimmed by a copy editor less enamored of my words than I.

But as I typed out the Post magazine leads by its cover stars (Peter Perl, Madeleine Blais, David Finkel, Walt Harrington), it was clear the rules were different.

Their leads were several grafs long, narrative scenes that consumed 500-600 words and featured a vivid main character in action in a specific place and time, the classic storytelling structure.

Typically, the nut graf that followed the Post‘s “you are there” close-up openings was, in cinematic terms, a wide-shot. Evelynne Kramer, former editor of The Boston Globe Magazine called it “opening the aperture,” a passage that gave the reader the context and background to satisfy the curiosity piqued by the lead. If the lead showed the story, the nut graf told it. But unlike my 50-75 word newspaper nut grafs, the magazine version was more expansive.

After I’d typed about a half-dozen openings of Post magazine cover stories, I figured I had the formula sussed and was ready to try my own.

In my first interview with Pham, he’d recounted an experience one night in prison that seemed to have all the ingredients of a powerful opening. Bolstered by further reporting and emulating what I’d studied, I crafted a vivid 663-word, eight paragraph lead.

Now I needed to move the camera back and give the reader a firmer grasp on what they were reading and why. I loosened my newspaper writing reins and wrote I wrote another 500 words, the longest nut graf of my life.

I reined myself in after that, trying to keep to the 2,000 word limit, and turned it in. A couple of days later, my editor called: 

You need to make it longer.

Why?

Because it’s going to be the cover piece. (You can read the entire story here.)

The lesson I learned was this: you can discover your own voice by listening to other writers, and one of the best ways to listen is by copying out their words.

This practice horrifies some respected writers and teachers; write your own damn stories, they say. But if we were visual artists, would anyone look askance at visiting a museum to try and copy the paintings to see how accomplished artists used color and shadow and contrast?

I’m not talking about plagiarism. Rather, modeling is copying stories to gain a more intimate understanding of the variety of decisions that writers make to organize material, select language, and shape sentences. 

But now’s a good time for my one caveat about modeling lessons: I always copy the byline at the top of the story just in case I get deluded and confuse my copying with someone else’s writing.

Properly credited, I start copying. 

When something strikes me, I’ll start to record my observations:

Wow, notice how that long sentence is followed by a short, three-word one, stopping me in my tracks to pay attention. Varying sentence length is a good way to affect pace.


Rick Bragg’s quotes are rarely very long: (“I need my morning glory.”) They’re punchy and have the flavor of human speech.


See how Carol McCabe’s leads follow a pattern? (“Cold rain spattered on the sand outside the gray house where Worthe Sutherland and his wife Channie P. Sutherland live.” “The Bicentennial tourists flowed through Paul Revere’s Mall.” “Three trailer trucks growled impatiently as a frail black buggy turned onto Route 340.”) Subject-Verb-Object. Concrete nouns, vivid active verbs. I’ve got to try that.

I believe every writer, including broadcast and online writers, can profit equally from copying successful stories in their medium. They’d do well to study how the other writing elements — audio, video, interactivity — figure in.

Whomever you model, and however you do it, the point is to pay attention to what the writer is doing and what effect it has on you, the reader. Most of all, writing is about impact, and writers need to learn how to make one, using all the tools at their disposal. 

“Do not fear imitation,” says Stephen Koch. “Nobody sensible pursues an imitative style as a long-term goal, but all accomplished writers know that the notion of pure originality is a childish fantasy. Up to a point, imitation is the path to discovery and essential to growth.”

In the end, you must use your own words to become the writer you want to be, but I’ve profited from learning how other writers used theirs. And I hope you can, too.

CRAFT LESSON: Eight steps to better interviewing

Craft Lessons

Every day around the globe, journalists pick up the phone or head out of the newsroom. They meet someone, a stranger or a familiar contact. They take out a notebook or turn on a recording device. And then they perform two simple acts. They ask a question and they listen to the answer. An interview has begun.

Interviewing lies at the heart of journalism. It is the critical path to building an information base that produces a fair, complete and accurate story. Yet too few journalists have ever received education or training in this critical skill. For most reporters, the only way to learn is on the job, mostly through painful trial and error.

How do you walk up to strangers and ask them questions? How do you get people — tight-lipped cops, jargon-spouting experts, everyday folks who aren’t accustomed to being interviewed — to give you useful answers? How do you use quotes effectively in your stories?

Step One: Get smart.

If you want to flop as an interviewer, fail to prepare. All too often, journalists start an interview armed only with a handful of questions scribbled in their notebooks. Take time, however short, to bone up on your subject or the topic you’ll be discussing. When former New York Times reporter Mirta Ojito interviewed experts, “I try to know almost as much as they do about their subject, so it seems we are ‘chatting,’ ” she said. A. J. Liebling, a legendary writer for The New Yorker, landed an interview with notoriously tight-lipped jockey Willie Shoemaker. He opened with a single question: Why do you ride with one stirrup higher than the other? Impressed by Liebling’s knowledge, Shoemaker opened up.

Step Two: Craft your questions.

The best questions are open-ended. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?” These are conversations starters and encourage expansive answers that deliver an abundance of information.

Closed-ended questions are more limited but they have an important purpose. Ask them when you need a direct answer: Did you embezzle the city’s pension fund? Are you a member of the Proud Boys? Closed-ended questions put people on the record.

The worst are conversation stoppers, such as double-barreled (even tripled-barreled) questions. “Why did the campus police use pepper spray on student protesters? Did you give the order?” Double-barreled questions give the subject a choice that allows them to avoid the question they want to ignore and choose the less difficult one.

Craft questions in advance to ensure you ask ones that start conversations rather than halt them in their tracks. Stick to the script, and always ask one question at a time. Don’t be afraid to edit yourself. More than once, I’ve stopped myself in the middle of a double-barreled question and said, “That’s a terrible question. Let me put it another way.”

Step Three: Listen up.

The 1976 movie “All the President’s Men” focuses on two Washington Post reporters investigating corruption in the Nixon White House. At one point, Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, is on the phone with a Nixon fundraiser. Woodward asks how his $25,000 check ended up in the Watergate money trail. It’s a dangerous question, and you see Woodward ask it and then remain silent for several agonizing moments until the man on the other end of the phone finally blurts out incriminating information.

The moral:  Shut your mouth. Wait. People hate silence and rush to fill it. Ask your question. Let them talk. If you have to, count to 10. Make eye contact, smile, nod, but don’t speak. You’ll be amazed at the riches that follow. “Silence opens the door to hearing dialogue, rare and valuable in breaking stories,” says Brady Dennis of The Washington Post.

Step Four: Empathize.

A long-held stereotype about reporters is that they don’t care about people, they just care about getting stories. If you can show sources that you have empathy — some understanding of their plight —- they’re more likely to open up to you. “Interviewing is the modest immediate science of gaining trust, then gaining information,” John Brady wrote in “The Craft of Interviewing.”

“I am a human first,” said Carolyn Mungo, vice president and station manager at WFAA-TV in Dallas. “People have to see that journalists are not just a body behind a microphone. Even if you have five minutes, don’t rush, let them know you care.”

Step Five: Look around.

Good interviewers do more than listen.

“I always try to see people at home,” said Rhode Island freelancer Carol McCabe, who filled her newspaper and magazine feature stories with rich detail gathered during interviews. “I can learn something from where the TV is, whether the set of encyclopedias or bowling trophies is prominently displayed, whether the guy hugs his wife or touches his kids, what clothes he or she wears at home, what’s on the refrigerator door,” McCabe said. Weave these kinds of details for a richer story.

Step Six: Capture how people talk.

The most powerful quotes are short, sometimes just fragments of speech. In a story about a two-car collision that killed two Alabama sisters traveling to visit each other, Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times used simple quotes that illustrated what the Roman orator Cicero called brevity’s “great charm of eloquence.”

“They weren’t fancy women,” said their sister Billie Walker. “They loved good conversation. And sugar biscuits.”

Just 11 words in quotes, yet they speak volumes about the victims.

Don’t use every quote in your notebook to prove you did the interviews. That’s not writing; it’s dictation. Put your bloated quotes on a diet. Quotations, as USAToday’s Kevin Maney once said, should occupy a “place of honor” in a story.

Listen for dialogue, those exchanges between people that illuminate character, drive action, and propel readers forward.

Step Seven: Establish ground rules.

You’ve just finished a great interview — with a cop, a neighbor, a lawyer — and suddenly the source says, “Oh, but that’s all off the record.”

That’s the time to point out that there’s no such thing as retroactive off the record. Make sure the person you’re interviewing knows the score right away.

When a source wants to go off the record, stop and ask, “What do you mean?” Often a source doesn’t know, especially if this is their first interview. Bill Marimow, who won two Pulitzer Prizes exposing police abuses at The Philadelphia Inquirer, would read off the record comments back to his source. Often, he found that many sources changed their minds once they’d heard what they were to be quoted as saying.

Step Eight: Be a lab rat.

Record your interviews. Transcribe the questions as well as the answers. Do you ask more conversation stoppers than starters? Do you step on your subject’s words just as they’re beginning to open up? Do you sound like a caring, interested human being, or a badgering prosecutor? To be the best interviewer you can be, study yourself and let your failures and victories lead you to rich conversations and richer stories.

Craft Lesson: Eight steps to successful revision

Craft Lessons

When I hear the word “revision,” I think:

  1. I failed. I should have gotten it right the first time.
  2. I have no clue how to revise my story.
  3. I don’t have time to revise.
  4. Yippee! I’ve got another chance to make my story shine.

Too many writers would pick 1, 2 or 3 from that list. Many writers equate revision with failure. “If I were more talented,” they think.” I wouldn’t need to revise.”

“My editor’s a sadistic hack” they complain when a story has been sent back for revising. “He wouldn’t know a good story if it hit him in the face.”

Revision has negative connotations because many writers don’t know how to tackle that part of the writing process. It’s a shame because revision is the most important step. All writing is, or should be, revision. “It is at the center of the artist’s life,” Donald M. Murray writes in “The Craft of Revision,” “because through revising we learn what we know, what we know that we didn’t know we knew, what we didn’t know.”

 
When it comes to writing success, it’s the winning choice. Number 4 is the best choice. Successful writers recognize that revision is not failure, but another attempt to make their story better.

“What makes me happy is rewriting … It’s like cleaning house, getting rid of all the junk, getting things in the right order, tightening things up. I like the process of making writing neat.”

Ellen Goodman

For many writers, the problem is number 2 on the list. They don’t know how to revise. They know their story isn’t working, but don’t see a way out.

I know. I’ve been there and so have many of my students.

“I’m at the point in the process where I feel I have utterly failed,” one wrote me.. “(Not only that, I am a talentless hack and a fraud, etc. etc.). I can’t see what is wrong with the draft or how to fix it. Please send help.

I know how you feel, I wrote back, because I’ve been there, more times than I’d like to count, and will probably be in that place many times in the future — in the despairing trough of near-completion

I was able to offer her a solution, one I developed to help me move from draft to revision. It’s an 8-step revision strategy that I came up with as a way to push back the negative feelings I had about my draft.

I know it will sound mechanical and it is — deliberately so. At this point, writers are burned out, stressed. Their confidence has ebbed. I know this state of mind very well, and have learned that resorting to a mechanical process distracts me from my despair and forces my brain to come to my aid. It’s time to ditch the Muse and bring out the toolbox: a printer and a pen.

Writing is a journey that teaches us something new every step we take.

More than anything, revision demands distance. There are two types: temporal and physical. The first is time. When the novelist John Fowles finished a draft, he would put in his desk drawer, sometimes for months. (Try selling that to your editor!)

The other, more realistic approach, is the printout, a physical product separate from the screen where pixelated prose tends to look perfect.

To go the distance on a piece of writing, you need to separate yourself from it enough to see it with the eyes of a reader — a stranger to the text instead of the creator. In fact, you need to stop being the writer for a while and assume the role of reader.

Here’s the way that works for me.

1. Hit the print button. The first step in achieving distance is to change the medium. We see words on a page differently than those on my computer screen. A cognitive scientist could probably tell me why, but the fact remains. I find it easier to detect flaws and possible fixes on a printout than when I am staring at the electrons in front of me. Open the draft and hit print.

2. Listen up “The ear is a wonderful editor — and usually a much sharper, smarter and livelier editor than the eye,” says Stephen Koch in “The Modern Library’s Writing Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

Read your story aloud, slowly, or, (my preference), ask someone to read it to you. During the reading, sit on your hands and keep your mouth shut; this means you can’t write on the draft or comment or respond, just listen.

 Koch paints an unforgettable scene in the life of Charles Dickens. His daughter Mamie “was once granted the unique privilege of spending several days reading and resting on a sofa in her father’s very closed-door study while he worked.” Normally, nobody watched Dickens at work, but Mamie had been sick, “was her daddy’s darling,” and promised to keep still.

As a grown woman, Mamie recalled her father, oblivious to her presence, begin “talking rapidly in a low voice.” Even away from his desk, he would “whisper the emerging cadences aloud,” Koch says.

“Take it from the greatest,” Koch advises. “You will hear what’s right and wrong on your page before you see it.”
 
3. Mark up. Read the draft a second time aloud, or silently to yourself, but now every time something strikes you — a criticism, a question, a change — make a check mark at that point in the manuscript. Nothing more. You’re just recording a response to something in your story. It may be something you like, something that confuses you, something you’d change or delete, or move.

By now, your draft is getting messy, but that’s not a bad thing.

The sepia image, below, is a manuscript page written by Honoré_de_Balzac, the prolific 19th-century novelist who helped pioneer literary realism, the precursor of today’ narrative journalism.

Never satisfied with his work, he was still making changes even after he sent them to the printer, which was an expensive proposition. One of his stories reportedly underwent seventeen proofs. It may look like a chicken has had its claws dipped in black ink and sent skittering across that page, but as an inveterate reviser, I find the sight comforting.

4. Countdown. Draw a circle next to every mark you’ve made. Number them. In the right margin, you’ll see an example of the method for a magazine story I was revising.

5. Remind yourself. Beside each number, write down why you flagged that word or passage. You will remember why you made the mark. For example, you might jot down, “cut this,” “check this with source,” “move this up,” “spelling,” “lead” or “kicker?” If the change is easy—deleting a word, correcting spelling, make it. Use arrows or slash marks to guide you.

6. Count up. Number the changes. Guesstimate how long each will take you to deal with each of them and write the number next to it. Five seconds. A minute. A half-hour of reporting. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m trying to make a game of it. Anything to keep me moving past the feelings of dread and despair a draft can inspire.

I love the flowers of afterthought.”

Bernard Malamud



7. Get moving. Place your marked-up draft by your screen. Open up the file and start revising. After every change, hit save (always hit save unless you use Google Docs and it does the job for you). Keep moving. Delete. Add. Cut and paste. X out each circle when you’re done. If you get bogged down on one, just skip over it and move on to the next. Move quickly. You don’t want to lose momentum. You may not be able to solve every problem in this revision. But you may the next time around, or, as I’ve found, the problem has been solved..

8. Rinse and repeat. Once you have gone through the entire list, hit print again. Repeat until you are satisfied, or you have to give up this story to your editor.  While this method is especially helpful for long term stories, there’s no reason you can’t do it on a daily deadline. While this method is especially helpful for long term stories, there’s no reason you can’t do it on a daily deadline, especially when you leave time for revision instead of wasting precious minutes trying to craft the “perfect” lead. On very tight deadlines, I’ve managed to hit print once, read the story over for problems and make changes in 15-20 minutes You don’t have time not to. 

This print, markup and revise method works because it helps furnish the psychic distance needed to address the problem you and many other writers face: I can’t see what is wrong with the draft or how to fix it.

Sometimes we can spot a problem in our writing without immediately knowing the solution. Some problems we may not be able to identify beyond a vague sense that “it’s just not working.” But we owe it to our stories to find out why. We must diagnose first if we have any hope of coming up with a good fix for the problem. And then fix it.

Sometimes we can spot a problem in our writing without immediately knowing the solution. Some problems we may not be able to identify beyond a vague sense that “it’s just not working.” But we owe it to our stories to find out why. We must diagnose first if we have any hope of coming up with a good fix for the problem.

I speak from experience. For many years, I would thrash around, bemoaning my inability to figure out why my story sucked and my powerlessness in coming up with ways to make it better. An experience several years ago with a short story changed my attitude. After producing multiple drafts, I still wasn’t satisfied but didn’t have a clue what was wrong or how to make it better.

I decided to give it one more read, marking up the manuscript whenever anything occurred to me as I read. I didn’t need to do anything more than make a checkmark or circle a sentence because when I read it again I remembered what it was that bothered me. (It was confusing, or repetitive, unclear, stilted, unnecessary) and in most cases I knew what to do about it; (rewrite it, move it, remove it).

When I was done and tallied up the marks I was horrified to see I’d come up with 113 things I thought needed to be fixed. And this for a 11-page story that had already undergone serious revision! (In fact, my wife and another writer friend had already told me to cut it out, stop obsessing, and send it off).

I decided to look at it as an exercise in revision: how long would it take me to make the changes. Okay, so it’s a head game, but at least it’s one I’m playing by myself.

It took me 2 hours and 45 minutes to make the changes. I read the new version aloud and when I got to the end I realized it was still not right. But now I saw, for the very first time, that the story actually ended three paragraphs earlier. I trimmed from the bottom, in the process ending with an exchange of dialogue that captured — and climaxed — the story in a way I’d never seen before. It was later published.

Every story can be a writing workshop, one that teaches us more about the craft. The lesson I learned is that even the most creative activity involves a certain amount of routine, even tedium. The woodworker spends hours hand-sanding a piece of furniture before applying the varnish that makes it gleam like a mirror. It may be tedious, but it’s a vital part of the process.

“Traveler there is no path,” the Spanish poet Antonio Machado says in an unforgettable line. “Paths are made by walking.”

May the writing go well.

Photo by Rebecca Matthews on Unsplash

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Craft Lesson: The Ten Percent Solution

Craft Lessons
Photo by Markus Spiske/unsplash.com


In “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” Stephen King describes a rejection slip he received in 1966 when he was still in high school.

“Not bad but puffy,” the editor wrote. “You need to revise for length.”

The editor provided this formula:

“2nd Draft = 1st draft – 10 %”

It may sound mechanical, but it’s a useful way to trim the fat off your story.

“I wish I could remember who wrote that note…” King writes. “Whoever it was did me a hell of a favor. I copied the formula out on a piece of shirt-cardboard and taped it to the wall beside my typewriter. Good things started to happen for me shortly after. There was no sudden golden flood of magazine sales, but the number of personal notes on the rejection slips went up fast. What the Formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten per cent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing.”

The Oregonian’s multi-award winning narrative writer Tom Hallman is a charter member of what I think of as the Ten Percent Solution Society.

“I really believe in being spare,” Hallman says.

“On every story I’ve ever done, I’ve hard-edited and cut no less than 10 or 15 percent of the story,” he says. “So if it’s a 100-inch story, I always cut out 10 or 15 inches. And that’s before I give it to the editor.”

As Stephen Koch advises in “The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, “If your story is 10 pages long, make it nine pages long. 20 Pages? Make it 18. If your draft is 300 pages long,  knock it down to 270. Do you have a bunch of pages— any bunch of pages— that needs work? They have not been worked on until they have been washed and pre-shrunk in the 10-Percent Solution.”

Likely candidates:

Passive verb constructions. “The mayor is planning” becomes “The mayor plans,” adding energy, saving a word.
 
Modifiers. Search for “ly” to identify weak adverbs. Replace them with verbs that communicate with power and economy. “She knocked lightly” becomes “She tapped.”

Quotes. Most speech is bloated. Trim the fat, leaving the verbatim message, or paraphrase. You’re the writer: Unless your sources can say it better than you, silence them and put it in your own carefully crafted words.

Boredom. Heed Elmore Leonard’s dictum: Cut out the boring parts. Replace bloated description with dialogue. Do you really need that long anecdotal lead or would the nut graf that follows do the job just as well? If your eyes glaze over as you read your draft, be ruthless. Slice and dice.

Showing Off. “Cut phoniness,” Koch says. “There are going to be certain passages that you put in simply in the hope of impressing people… We all have our way of showing off, and they rarely serve us well. When you have identified your own grandiosity, do not be kind.” Georges Simenon, the prolific French mystery writer, made it his mission to cut away “his efforts to impress..” His main job when he rewrote was to… cut every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentences…Cut it.”

Follow Stephen King’s lead and join the Ten Per Cent Solution Society by keeping the formula close at hand as you revise.


Lose a few words but gain many more readers.

Or better yet. Whittle away as close as you can to the formula or beyond for maximum impact.


Lose words.

Gain readers.

CRAFT LESSON: Uncle Oren’s Toolbox and the Value of Over-reporting

Craft Lessons


CRAFT LESSON; Uncle Oren’s Toolbox and the Value of Over-reporting

One summer when Stephen King was a young boy, he helped his Uncle Oren, a carpenter,  repair a screen door on the side of his house. 

“I remember following him with the replacement screen balanced on my head, like a native bearer in a Tarzan movie,” King recalled. Oren meanwhile lugged his toolbox, bulging with tools and weighing in at  nearly 100 pounds, “horsing it along at thigh level.”. 

‘There was a hammer, a saw, the pliers, a couple of sized wrenches and an adjustable; there was a level with that mystic yellow window in the middle, a drill (the various bits were neatly drawered farther down in the depths), and two screwdrivers. Uncle Oren asked me for a screwdriver.”

Wielding the simple tool, Oren speedily removed the eight screws that secured the broken screen and attached the new one. But King was puzzled. He asked his uncle why he’d lugged the toolbox all the way around the house “if all he needed was the screwdriver. He could have carried a screwdriver in the back pocket of his khakis.” 

“Yeah, but Stevie,” he said, bending to grasp the handles, “I didn’t know what else I might find to do once I got out here, did I? It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.”

I thought of this story, which can be found in King’s magisterial memoir “On Writing”  today after a conversation with my friend Stephen Buckley. Stephen has had a distinguished career as a journalist; Washington Post foreign correspondent with postings in East Africa and Brazil, national correspondent and managing editor for the St. Petersburg Times, (now the Tampa Bay Times),dean of The Poynter Institute before returning to Kenya to run the Professional Development Program at the Aga Khan Graduate School of Media and Communications, Nairobi, He is now a media consultant.

When Stephen comes back on his occasional visits to the U.S., we always try to have breakfast at Trip’s, a local diner. It’s a highlight of my year, not just because he’s a wonderful companion, but a reflective practitioner of the craft of writing.

. “I always worry that I don’t have enough material for a story so I overreeport,’ he said on his last visit. “Of course, then I have so much to wade through.”

I stopped him mid-bite.. “You can’t ever overdo it,” I said. ‘You can’t overreport or research too much.  But you can underthink. You can underplan. You can underrevise.”

Writers, my mentor Don Murray taught me, “write best from an overabundance of material.” 

When Murray was a prolific magazine writer, he filled a trash can with the reporting materials he used and if the can was full he—and his editors—were satisfied he had a solid, fully-reported story. But when he needed something else–a quote, a fact, a statistic–and had to scour the bottom of the near empty bucket he knew he was screwed. He’d under-reported.

Over-reporting played an important role in the first draft of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project,” a New York Times Magazine essay about the bitter legacy  of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to America.  Her first draft “was more than twice as long as what ran. There were a lot of examples that did not make it in the final draft. This is part of what makes long-form, deep research really hard. You just have so much information and it’s hard, when you’re so immersed in it, to figure out the most important examples and storytelling points.” The abundance of material, winnowed during revisions, gave the story the authority it needed to make her case. It  won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. 

What Stephen Buckley thought of as overreporting was the crucial accretion of facts, details, scenes, dialogue that made his own stories so memorable. Yes, it’s a hassle, whether you’re researching a book or magazine piece, a feature story or even a deadline news account, to confront a pile of notebooks, screenfuls of interview transcripts, audio recordings and the other research materials that go into effective writing. It can be agony to realize you can only use a fraction of what you collected, 

As Bloomberg Business Magazine writer Bryan Gruley said in a recent interview, when he’s pursuing a feature story, doing the work means “looking at every page of notes, documents, and other materials I’ve gathered in my weeks of research, even though only about 1 percent of what’s there is likely to make it into my story.” 

But that’s where the power of a story comes from. It’s the price writers pay for writing stories that have the  heft of Uncle Oren’s toolbag. It’s what goes into stories that have no holes, that are written with the strength that can come only from over-reporting, 

Craft Lesson: Backstory: Using the story behind the story

Craft Lessons
Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

“We talked all night.” “We looked up and realized the restaurant was empty.”

How often have we heard these descriptions of successful dates, those close, and perhaps apocryphal, encounters when two people reveal their personal histories to each other for the first time?

In the vocabulary of fiction, we would say they’re giving each other their backstory, revealing past actions and influences that shaped their personalities, the way they think and behave. An abusive parent? An inspiring mentor. A serious childhood illness. A painful breakup.

The literary device of backstory establishes what happens before the story that is the main plotline. It’s the information that gives characters and narrative arcs a sense of personal and social history. 

Writers use them to raise the stakes for a character. Can a young mother with a history of drug abuse keep the monkey off her back so she can keep her child from the clutches of a vengeful ex-husband or Child Protective Services?  

A backstory makes a character’s psychological motivations understandable. In Charles Dickens’ “Great  Expectations,” why does the wealthy spinster Miss Havisham always wear her wedding dress even after it’s tattered? Why does she leave the uneaten wedding breakfast and cake untouched on a table? Because in her youth, she was left at the altar, leaving her wounded and cynical. That’s her tragic backstory, and explains why she torments Pip, the protagonist of the novel, and Estella, the orphan she adopted. She had intended to spare her ward from the suffering she endured, but couldn’t resist causing her pain.

“My dear!” she tells Pip, “Believe this: when she first came, I meant to save her from misery like my own. At first I meant no more. But as she grew, and promised to be very beautiful, I gradually did worse, and with my praises, and with my jewels, and with my teachings, and with this figure of myself always before her a warning to back and point my lessons, I stole her heart away and put ice in its place.”  

Backstories are critical elements in a novel or screenplay although they should not dominate the front story which make up the scenes and exposition of the main action.

A back story has two purposes,” writer Jessica Morrell says in her article, “What Backstory Can Do For Your Story.” “A character’s backstory comprises all the data of his history, revealing how he became who he is, and why he acts as he does and thinks as he thinks. It also reveals influences of an era, family history, and world events (such as wars) that affect the story and its inhabitants.”

The writer needs to know each character’s backstory, even though they may reveal only a small percentage. Lives are long. Just as people don’t tell a new friend or lover every single thing about themselves during a first meeting, the effective writer parcels out the backstory judiciously rather than cramming them all in flashbacks that tear the reader from the main story that has grabbed their attention in the first place.

There are a variety of ways to introduce backstory, including flashbacks, exposition, dialogue, direct narration and a character’s recollections. Whatever method you choose, avoid dumping background information on the story all at once.

“The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting,” Stephen King writes in “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.”

“Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest,” King says. “Life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.”

When Ernest Hemingway talked about the fact that only one-eighth of an iceberg shows above the water, he was describing a theory of omission that represents a form of backstory. In his short story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” the backstory is that the couple sitting drinking wine as they wait for a train are discussing an abortion without ever saying the word. The original  “Star Wars” movie and its first two sequels contain preconceived backstories that were later developed into prequels. Even its minor characters have backstories.

 Other backstories are a form of foreshadowing. Early in the movie, “The Silence of the Lambs,” which hews closely to Thomas Harris’ novel, agent Starling, played by Jodi Foster, sees a lineup of the gruesome photos of serial killer Buffalo Bill’s victims.

“Thus, when Catherine, the senator’s daughter, is captured,”  Morell notes, “we’re aware of the gruesome torments that await her. Further, because backstory reveals that Buffalo Bill keeps his victims alive for a certain number of days, the stakes are increased because time is running out for Catherine. When Starling confronts Bill in the climax of the novel, the backstory heightens the suspense.”

Backstories reveal characters motivations as these examples in “Backstory: The Importance of What Isn’t Told” by novelist K.M. Weiland demonstrate. 

  • The inability to measure up to his younger brother, which fuels Peter Wiggin’s anger and ambition (the “Ender’s Shadow” series by Orson Scott Card)
  • The long-harbored guilt for brutal war crimes, which impels Benjamin Martin to avoid war (the movie “The Patriot”).
  • The long years of loneliness which influenced John Barratt to accept the compulsory swapping of roles with his French lookalike (“The Scapegoat” by Daphne du Maurier).

As you compose your novel or screenplay and develop your characters, you have to know their backstory. Study the backstories in classic novels like Fyodor Dosteovsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” about Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, an impoverished law student who murders an elderly money lender. ShowTime’s “Dexter” uses flashbacks to reveal how a serial killer with a twisted ethical compass is born. Dickens launches “David Copperfield” with backstory. The backstory of the “Harry Potter” series is the murder of Harry’s parents by the dark wizard Lord Voldemort. Reread your favorite novels and study films to identify the back story, their purpose and the methods the writer used to develop and present them. to the reader

As you start work on your own story, it’s crucial to answer a ton of questions about your characters to make sure you understand who they are and where they came from. Here’s one of the most comprehensive that I’ve found. It’s long, but essential if you hope to write a story that raises the stakes for its characters, furnishes psychological realism and above all, make readers understand how and why your characters behave as they do. Backstory has many purposes in the creation of realistic characters. The most important is that it helps readers care about them.  

Rituals to Write By

Craft Lessons
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I’d heard the story many times, but I still couldn’t believe it.

Let’s face it, it sounded a little strange.

Gay Talese, the acclaimed narrative writer, a pioneer of New Journalism, pinned his manuscript pages to the wall of his office. 

He then walked across the room to his desk. On it rested a pair of binoculars.

 He picked them up and trained them on his pages to study them word by word.

Or so the story went.

Bizarre. Perhaps. But it seems to have worked.

Talese is the author of books and magazine articles that set the standard for narrative writing. One of them, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” famously demonstrated how you could write a profile without actually interviewing the subject.

Talese wouldn’t be the first writer to turn to a ritual, quasi-religious behavior.

Rita Dove, the former U. S. Poet Laureate, wrote by hand, standing up at a lectern with a candlestick on it. She wrote at the end of the day. She lit the candle and as the burning tallow began to flicker on the page, she began to compose.

When John Steinbeck was writing his classic novel ‘East of Eden,” he started each day by writing a letter to his editor Pascal “Pat” Covici.” By his side sat twelve round pencils sent spinning twice a day through an electric sharpener, each sharpened tip enough to last a page. 

Gail Godwin, the novelist (“A Mother and Two Daughters,” Grief Cottage“) and essayist, lights two different kinds of incense. Godwin relies on other totems: crisp new legal pads and new No. 2 pencils with erasers that don’t leave red smears.

Rituals, if these acclaimed writers demonstrate, matter to writers. They are part of their process, almost religious-like gestures designed it seems to summon the Muse.

Allure of rituals

The rituals of successful writers hold a special allure for those trying to emulate their success. 

Over the years, I’ve collected many examples. Unfortunately, many are unattributed. They may be apocryphal, their authenticity dubious.

But I’ve seen a picture of Rita Dove standing at her desk with the lighted candle glowing.

On the Internet, I found an image of a notebook page that James Joyce marked up with red crayons.

In her slim but rich and meticulously researched book, “Odd Type Writers:

From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors,” Celia Blue Johnson does a remarkably thorough job documenting the rituals, working habits and environments of nearly 200 writers from Diane Ackerman to W.B. Yeats.

James Joyce wrote in bed wearing a long white coat and used crayons to mark up his notebooks (in the picture below, he chose red and green ) for “Ulysses.”

Truman Capote, author of the legendary “In Cold Blood,” insisted on leaving three–only three– cigarette butts in his ashtray. Honoré de Balzac, the 19th-century novelist, gulped dozens of cups of strong coffee every day–the exact amount is in question–to keep him going. The French writer Colette couldn’t pick up her pen before picking the fleas off her cat. Whatever works, I guess.

James Joyce, notebook for “Ulysses

Some, like poet Robert Frost, could only write by night, Johnson recounts. As an aspiring fiction writer, J.D. Salinger huddled under his bedsheets at night, and “with the aid of a flashlight he began writing stories,” his editor William Maxwell recalled. William Faulkner wrote “As I Lay Dying” in just six weeks, churning out his novel during the night shift at the power plant where he worked. 

Others, like Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf trekked for miles in the countryside finding energy and inspiration along the way. Later in the modern age, the airplane became the favorite place of composition for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Margaret Atwood. 

Environment matters to many writers. Marcel Proust famously lined the bedroom where he wrote with corkboard to keep out the noise and heavy curtains to blank light that might distract him from composing the classic, “Remembrance of Things Past.” Maya Angelou rented hotel rooms to write in. By her bed, “a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, “Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray and a Bible.”

“A room is far more than four walls. a ceiling, and a door. It’s a place where a writer can embrace, and even harness, her or his own idiosyncracies. In the solitude of a room, a writer’s creativity manifests not only on the page, but also in unique work habits.”

Celia Blue Johnson

I’ve been thumbing through Johnson’s book with great pleasure. It’s replete with fascinating examples demonstrating that “writers are a very quirky bunch,” sometimes bordering on the obsessive.

The Covid-19 Pandemic has altered the usual working spots for many writers, as author and teacher Matt Tullis found in this fascinating piece for Nieman Storyboard.

If you’d like to learn the rituals of some of your favorite writers, I recommend Johnson’s book, (I got a used copy off Amazon for under nine dollars. If you’d like to save some money, Maria Popova over at the inestimable Brain Pickings blog has already done a great service summarizing Johnson’s findings beyond the ones I’ve listed here.)

How writing rituals help

Tools matter. For the prolific French writer, Alexandre Dumas could only write poetry on yellow paper, pink for articles, blue for novels. Eudora Welty revised with scissors and pins–”straight pins, hat pins, corsage pins and needles-“-rather than paste. Langston Hughes wrote his letters in bright-green ink, Rudyard Kipling jet black.

To non-writers, these behaviors must smack of obsessive-compulsive disorder. To those of us struggling every day to create something worthwhile, they can be the difference between a productive day or one that ends in despair. Writers are fascinated by rituals, I believe, because they think if they mimic the routines of successful predecessors they might be able to achieve the same.

What may seem like ridiculous behavior to the non-writer, I recognize as actions with rational goals. They:

  • Help writers get in the frame to write.
  • Alleviate anxiety that prompts writer’s block, starting writing or procrastination, inability to get in the chair in the first place. 
  • Focus on the mundane as a way to set aside intrusions.
  • Provide a routine to keep a writer on track

Of course, not everyone believes in rituals. Isaac Asimov, with over 500 published books to his name, dismissed the idea as “ridiculous.”

“My only ritual is to sit close enough to the typewriters so that the fingers touch the keys.”

Gay Talese by David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons

I own a treasured paperback copy of Gay Talese’s first book, the 1961 collection, “Fame and Obscurity: A Book about New York, a Bridge and Celebrities on the Edge.” To call it dog-eared is a vast understatement; the cover hangs by a few threads. I carried it with me to a writing conference years ago where I knew my idol was speaking. During a break, I managed to get not only Talese’s autograph, but to confirm, from his own mouth, that he had indeed reviewed his manuscript pages with binoculars.

I was so awestruck that I neglected to ask an obvious question: why? 

But if I had to guess, I think he would have answered, “Because it worked.”


May the writing go well,

Photograph by Filios Sazeides courtesy of unsplash.com

Bookbag: The value of not writing

Craft Lessons

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Mike Tinnion/unsplash

I want to make a sacrilegious argument. If you want to be a better writer, don’t write. At least, not for a while. 

How can that be? How can you improve if you’re not consistently practicing your craft, day in and day out?

If you’re like me, every day that passes without a word, a line, a paragraph written, seems like a day wasted. It brings to mind the French writer Simone de Beavuoir’s observation that I recently quoted: “A day in which I don’t write leaves a taste of ashes.” Not to mention that the motto at the end of my newsletters is “Never a day without a line.”

But there’s also something to be said, some writers argue, for letting the well of creativity fill up again after you’ve finished a story. 

Whether you’re writing full time or on the side, as many do, fallow periods may be just what you need, these writers say. Journalists and freelancers dependent on constant output may not have this option, of course, but they can take mini-breaks if they intelligently manage their time.

There’s an agricultural analogy that supports the argument of not writing. For a while at least. 

It’s not uncommon for farmers to plow their fields some seasons, but leave them unsown in order to restore their fertility.

The notion is reassuring because I’m suffering from an on-and-off spell of writer’s block. The days when I work productively on a fiction project are sadly outnumbered by those where I’ll do anything else. Incessant checking of my Twitter feed is a diverting substitute. Days have slipped by without my fingers touching the keyboard, except for producing my newsletters. The fog of self-doubt lifts some days, but even then my word count has amounted to just a few lines or scribbled phrases in my daybook.

As writers, we agonize over writer’s block, that occupational curse that holds our words at bay. But in “Maybe the Secret to Writing is Not Writing,” a provocative essay for Lit Hub I stumbled upon the other day, Kate Angus makes a persuasive case for taking a break. 

“These days I’ve come to believe that it’s natural for many of us to go through periods when we put words to the page and times when we can’t. Maybe we can accept that we aren’t blocked at all,” she writes, “and that resting might just be part of our process.”

That’s what Roy Peter Clark, the influential writing teacher and my former colleague at The Poynter Institute, has been saying for decades. He turns the notion of procrastination on its head by urging writers to eschew negative self-talk when the writing machine spins to a halt.

 “Turn your little quirks into something productive,” Clark says in “Writing Tools,” his best-selling guidebook. “Call it rehearsal or preparation or planning.” 

It’s a potent solution, one that removes the stigma of writer’s block, replacing it with something positive. 

Clark’s got a point. Your mind doesn’t shut off when you’re not writing. You’re still observing, an actor rehearsing a role, watching people and soaking up insights into the human condition — the subject matter of all great literature. Your mind still teems with story ideas, echoes with dialogue and creates possible characters. Like police officers, the writer is never really off-duty.

Angus quotes poet t’ai freedom ford (cq), who says there are “large swaths when I’m not actually writing, but I am doing lots of things to stimulate my muses and so I count it as writing. In that way, I don’t really believe in writer’s block, because when I consider the elements of my process, I’m most always writing (even if it’s only in my head).”

There are some who take the merits of not writing even further.

Ada Limón

Poet Ada Limón feels ‘like there should be a permission slip for writers. Something you can sign for someone that says, ‘You don’t always have to write,’” she says in the essay. “You have permission to just be in the world and grieve and laugh and live and do your damn laundry. Writing comes when it comes, and it’s not the most important thing. You and all the little nuisances and nuances of life are what matter most. Don’t miss this gorgeous mess by always trying to make sense of it all.”

Taking a break isn’t without its risks. Ceasing regular writing may make it difficult to restart the habit. 

Part of my problem is that I put aside my project while I finished a long short story besides my regular compendia of writing advice. I found it hard to regain my momentum, especially in the times of trouble we’re all living through. It’s hard not to be distracted and depressed by the steady drumbeat of tragic news, the pressures of pandemic and the gnawing uncertainty of life under quarantine even if, like me, you’ve been lucky enough to be spared personal loss. For those who haven’t please accept my deepest sympathies.

To deal with the fact that I’m writing less than I want or should, I’m reading more. 

I’m savoring the acclaimed “Collected Short Stories of John Cheever,” 61 stories by the 20th-century master stylist called the “Chekhov of the suburbs.” Rarely does a page go by when I’m not copying out phrases, sentences or whole paragraphs to cherish, learn from and try to imitate. Reading generates writing. It amounts to a slow re-entry. I recommend it highly. 

I may not generate hundreds of words at a stretch right now, but on walks with my dog, Leo, or by myself, I’ve been trying out scenes and staging imaginary plot points. They circulate in the back of my mind where I hope they will grow into something potent. 

After reading Angus’s essay, I’ve been trying not to beat myself up if I deviate from my writing schedule, even though I still fear I’ll lose velocity and, heaven forfend, give up. 

In the meantime, I’m learning to trust my subconscious. And I think it’s paying off. In recent days, I have found myself writing again, feeling excitement and energy rather than despair and inertia. The other morning I woke and couldn’t wait to start writing. I soon hit my daily word count and then nearly doubled it. And for the first time in a long time, I liked what I saw. Even a short break had topped off the tank of my creativity. 

I think Angus and Limón make a valid point. Eventually, that farmer who lets his field go fallow for a season or more will plant again. With the soil replenished by time and the cattle and horses who graze upon it, the crop will be greater, richer. Who’s to say that won’t be the case if you set aside your writing, to soak in the “gorgeous mess” of life? You’ll have a wealth of material to draw on when you return to your desk and the chance for a harvest far greater than what came before.

Five ways to build memorable characters

Craft Lessons
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

What makes a character unforgettable? A classic novel provides a handful of critical answers

A distant husband, father to two flighty children. A businessman with dubious ethics. A Loyal friend. A man who longs for a life with greater meaning than an existence he finds increasingly empty.

He could be someone’s father, uncle, husband, brother, a memorably flawed human being. 

But he is actually a character, George F. Babbit, a figment of a writer’s imagination, in this case, that of Sinclair Lewis, who wrote a series of closely-observed satirical novels that won him the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes.

I first read his 1922 novel, “Babbitt” in high school and have returned to it many times since. It’s been literature as comfort food. “Babbit” is nearly a century old and admittedly outdated in many, ways, but it remains a classic of literary realism.

Although he wrote fiction, Lewis brought to his novels a journalist’s attention to detail while researching his novels. From it, I learned many things, about style and satire and America in the early 20th century.

But most of all, Babbit teaches valuable lessons on how to create a believable character, so vivid that I can tell you, even though I haven’t cracked its pages in several years, what happens to him over the course of several months that constitute the novel’s trajectory. How he: 

  • embraces a boosterish, patriotic and xenophobic middle-class business community 
  • gleefully rips of clients and his employees
  • Ignores and cheats on his long-suffering wife
  • comes to doubt and ultimately doubt his beliefs and existence; 
  • engages in a misguided and humiliating affair and then, chastened by ostracism, renews his tragic allegiance to his culture and community. 

How did Lewis create a narcissistic character that lingers so deeply in the mind? And what can writers of fiction and narrative nonfiction learn from his methods that they can bring to their own stories? 

How did Lewis manage to create a character, on one hand, an odious human being, while at the same time, as English novelist Hugh Walpole wrote, “without extenuating one of his follies, his sentimentalities, his snobbishness, his lies and his meannesses, he has made him of common clay with ourselves.” Babbitt, the man and the novel, are a triumph of the imagination and the writerly gifts of his creator.


Strong characters are a mosaic of many features. Here are five principal ways, with examples from my Kindle edition of “Babbitt”, that Lewis relies on to create a believable figure. (You can read the book for free courtesy of Project Gutenberg.)

  1. Physical description
  2. Status details
  3. Dialogue
  4. Action
  5. Primary goal

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION

What a character looks like creates a mental picture in the reader’s eye. Otherwise, he is a cipher. Lewis introduces Babbit in the opening pages as he sleeps:

He was forty-six years old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay. His large head was pink, his brown hair thin and dry. His face was babyish in slumber, despite his wrinkles and the red spectacle-dents on the slopes of his nose. He was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads, and the unroughened hand which lay helpless upon the khaki-colored blanket was slightly puffy. He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic; 

What does my character look like, sound like, smell like? Will readers be able to visualize him or her?

STATUS DETAILS

Status details are realistic and revelatory items that bring characters to life in fiction and creative nonfiction. In The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe defines status details as:

“the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behavior toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene. Symbolic of what? Symbolic, generally, of people’s status life, using that term in the broad sense of the entire pattern and behavior and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be. The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose. It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature.”

For Babbit, the details are the contents of his pockets, totems of his career and station in life. 

He was earnest about these objects. They were of eternal importance, like baseball or the Republican Party. They included a fountain pen and a silver pencil (always lacking a supply of new leads) which belonged in the righthand upper vest pocket. Without them he would have felt naked. On his watch-chain were a gold penknife, silver cigar-cutter, seven keys (the use of two of which he had forgotten), and incidentally a good watch. Depending from the chain was a large, yellowish elk’s-tooth-proclamation of his membership in the Brotherly and Protective Order of Elks. Most significant of all was his loose-leaf pocket note-book, that modern and efficient note-book which contained the addresses of people whom he had forgotten, prudent memoranda of postal money-orders which had reached their destinations months ago, stamps which had lost their mucilage, clippings of verses by T. Cholmondeley Frink and of the newspaper editorials from which Babbitt got his opinions and his polysyllables, notes to be sure and do things which he did not intend to do,

…But he had no cigarette-case. No one had ever happened to give him one, so he hadn’t the habit, and people who carried cigarette-cases he regarded as effeminate.

What status details are evident in my character’s life; from the car she drives to the contents of his wallet? What do they reveal about her?

Cover of French edition

DIALOGUE

How people speak to others and past them and to themselves within scenes reveals their character. In this exchange with his wife, we hear the kind of blustery monologue that characterizes Babbitt’s solipsistic personality and witness a Man Child on full display.

“I feel kind of punk this morning,” he said. “I think I had too much dinner last evening. You oughtn’t to serve those heavy banana fritters.” 

“But you asked me to have some.”

“I know, but—I tell you, when a fellow gets past forty he has to look after his digestion. There’s a lot of fellows that don’t take proper care of themselves. I tell you at forty a man’s a fool or his doctor—I mean, his own doctor. Folks don’t give enough attention to this matter of dieting. Now I think—Course a man ought to have a good meal after the day’s work, but it would be a good thing for both of us if we took lighter lunches.” 

“But Georgie, here at home I always do have a light lunch.” 

“Mean to imply I make a hog of myself, eating down-town? Yes, sure! You’d have a swell time if you had to eat the truck that new steward hands out to us at the Athletic Club! But I certainly do feel out of sorts, this morning. Funny, got a pain down here on the left side—but no, that wouldn’t be appendicitis, would it? Last night, when I was driving over to Verg Gunch’s, I felt a pain in my stomach, too. Right here it was—kind of a sharp shooting pain. I—Where’d that dime go to? Why don’t you serve more prunes at breakfast? Of course I eat an apple every evening—an apple a day keeps the doctor away—but still, you ought to have more prunes, and not all these fancy doodads.” 

“The last time I had prunes you didn’t eat them.” 

“Well, I didn’t feel like eating ’em, I suppose. Matter of fact, I think I did eat some of ’em. Anyway—I tell you it’s mighty important to—I was saying to Verg Gunch, just last evening, most people don’t take sufficient care of their diges—

 His speech also reveals his cultural and social influences in the manly but cartoonish banter with his friends over lunch at the Zenith Athletic Club. 

“Oh, boy! Some head! That was a regular party you threw, Verg! Hope you haven’t forgotten I took that last cute little jack-pot!” Babbitt bellowed. (He was three feet from Gunch.)

It unveils his needs and desires in his pathetic attempts to woo a neighbor at a dinner party.

“Anybody ever tell you your hands are awful pretty?”

What does my character talk like? What does the way he talks to others reveal about him or her?

ACTION

Babbit is a series of set pieces, built on scenes that show Babbit in action. A boisterous lunch at his club. A boozy convention with a disastrous visit to a brothel. A fishing trip in the Canadian woods with his best friend, the reticent and artistic Paul Riesling. A bitter labor dispute in which he inadvisedly takes the side of the workers. His dealings with real estate clients. His brief love affair with a widow and his involvement with her alcohol-sodden friends. They show Babbit’s likes and dislikes, his interactions with other characters and his goals in life. 

How do my characters behave? How do their actions drive the plot and reflect the theme? 

PRIMARY GOAL

More than anything, Babbit wants to belong, to be part of a community that embraces and admires him even as he desires another life that enables him to be free of his family, his companions and his work. But even when he rebels, his actions and those of others thwart those desires. He cheats on his wife only to feel trapped by that illicit relationship as he is in his sexless marriage. He befriends a Socialist in a labor dispute, betraying his class in a final act of rebellion which causes his friends and fellow Boosters to reject him. It is only after his wife falls seriously ill that his friends rally round him. Defeated, he rejoins their company, rejecting his dream life. The tragedy is complete.

What does my character want more than anything in life? Wealth? Respect? Victory? Love? 

That goal will play into everything we learn about the character.

I could have chosen other examples from my bookshelves and among the movies I’ve seen with equally memorable characters. 

The quirky obsessed comic industry creators in Michael Chabon’s best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.”

Feisty Erin Brockovich in the eponymous Academy Award-winning film about a lowly legal clerk who takes down a polluting corporation. 

Mitchell Stephens, the haunted lawyer in Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter,” a novel set in a small town reeling from a school bus accident that has killed most of its children.

The brutally up-and-down boxer Floyd Patterson in Gay Talese’s classic profile, “The Loser.” 

John Updike’s “Rabbit,” a series of 20th-century novels about a car salesman whose realistic approach and themes echo the life of Babbit.

For that matter, I could have chosen from Lewis’ other novels: “Main Street,” his breakthrough novel about an idealistic young woman suffocated in a narrow-minded village; “Arrowsmith,” about an idealistic scientist,” or “Elmer Gantry,” which eviscerated a huckster evangelist. All are triumphs.

But I chose Babbit,  not only because I am so familiar with him, but because I wanted to know why he is so unforgettable so that I can develop characters as memorable as those Lewis created.

Since writers read twice—once to enjoy, the other learn—dissecting one of your favorite books or stories as I did can be a valuable exercise. If you want to create a memorable character, study how one is made. 

Craft Query: Who are the most memorable characters you have encountered in fiction or nonfiction and what made them linger in your mind.?

May the writing go well!

..

Sedentary hunters

Craft Lessons

“Every morning between 9 and 12 I go to my room and sit before a piece of paper,” said the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, whose famous works include the novel “Wise Blood” and the story collection “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” “Many times I just sit for 3 hours with no ideas coming to me. But I know one thing: if an idea those come between 9 and 12, I am there ready for it.”

There is only one way I know to get the writing down: be there.. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, or not feeling great (major illnesses and surgery excepting), writing gets done when the writer  is in the chair. More than one of the writers I’ve interviewed recently for this publication have emphasized this. Award-winning mystery writer Bruce DeSilva said, “My years in journalism taught me that writing is a job—something you do whether or not you feel like it. You do not wait to be inspired. You do not search for your muse. You just plant your ass in your chair and write.” It’s how he’s published five novels. 

When Bryan Gruley pursues a nonfiction story in  his day job as a feature writer for 

Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, “doing the work means, for instance, looking at every page of notes, documents, and other materials I’ve gathered in my weeks of research, even though only about 1 percent of what’s there is likely to make it into my story,” he told me. “As a novelist, doing the work is more about sitting at my laptop every morning and putting words to digital paper. Whether it’s 300 or 500 or 1,000 words a day, if I keep doing the work, I know I’ll eventually have enough in front of me that I can begin to see my way to the middle of a book and, finally, an end. I’ve heard writers say, “That story just wrote itself.” If only.” Gruley just published his third crime thriller.

Some days the words will come in a flood. On others, it’s like pulling teeth. While many writers establish a word count and refuse to get up from their desk until they hit it, I don’t think that’s necessary. There have been days where I look up and realize I have written 500-plus words. Stephen King’s word count is 2,000 words, but for me, those two pages are good enough, even though I realize I will have to revise them. Then there are the miserable ones where I have been lucky to eke out a few dozen. But as long as I haven’t missed a day, I am content. Writing every day, or whatever schedule you set, is a promise we make. In a previous life as a newspaper reporter, I had no choice. When deadline came, I couldn’t tell my editor, “Sorry, Boss, the well just ran dry today.” 

In retirement, I have the luxury to put some of those demands aside. For the most part. My blog and newsletter need constant feeding. When I am writing as a contributor to Nieman Storyboard, which celebrates narrative writing, I have to produce a story, whether I am inspired or not. Nothing focuses the mind like a clock ticking toward deadline. You write and hope what you wrote hits the mark. 

 I usually circle the subject at first, convinced I have nothing to say. Then an idea for a lead comes to me. I write it down whether or not I think it’s any good. I need that opening to, in the words of John McPhee, “to shine a flashlight into the story down into the whole piece.”

After that, I start throwing paragraphs up on the screen. I lower my standards. I count the words. I hazard an ending. I let it sit for a day or two. Then I begin rewriting, a word here, a sentence there, shift paragraphs around, until it finally takes shape. It’s a process fraught with uncertainty. Each time I start, I fear this will be the time it won’t work. But it seems to, so I try to remind myself of that. “If you keep working,” sculptor Alexander Calder said, “inspirations will come.” I tell you this in hopes that it might bring you comfort when you face this self-doubt. If you keep at it, it will come. 

“Writers are sedentary hunters,” said writing teacher Donald M. Murray. “We sit in our chairs, and like a hunter in a duck blind, must wait, sometimes in the cold, until our prey comes into sight.” Sitting in his chair every day, Murray produced more than a dozen books, and scores of When your prey comes into sight, are you there, ready for it?