Category Archives: Writing Tips

Gene Wilder’s Brilliant Character Note

Gene Wilder famously asked for one key change to the script of Willy Wonka:

“When I make my first entrance. I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”

When asked why he wanted the change, Wilder replied, “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”



A Manner of Being: Writer’s on Their Mentors

A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentorsedited by Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker, is a collection of essays by writers reflecting on the influence of their mentors (or lack of mentor). Most of the relationships were born in university classrooms, but despite this similarity, the experiences explored in Manner of Being are as varied as the collection of writers from which they’re drawn. The book delivers many lessons–in writing, teaching, life–and the lessons aren’t always delivered by writers (a nanny here, a bookstore owner there). There are some heavy hitters, though. Of the seventy essays, some of the writers represented are Pam Houston, Philip Levine, Mary Gaitskill, Gore Vidal, John Irving, Gordon Lish, Mary Jo Salter. There are also lesser known writers who have wonderfully told tales of their apprenticeships.

Click here for an example essay originally published in The New Yorker: George Saunders on Tobias Wolff.


A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

“Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it ? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we loved ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.”

Franz Kafka in a letter to Oskar Pollak

Observations on First Lines and Voice in Fiction

The opening lines of a novel matter (there are lists, after all, for such things, the “Best First Lines from Novels“). Point of view is set. Characters are introduced. Voice is established. And maybe more, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez notes:

One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.

So what happens when writers cast out those first lines? Where do the words come from? What is the writer looking for? And how does he or she know when they’ve found it? Below are author insights culled mostly from The Paris Review interviews.

John Steinbeck: I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one. It is as though the words were not only indelible but that they spread out like dye in water and color everything around them. A strange and mystic business, writing.

Edna O’Brien: I always have the first line. Even with my very first book, The Country Girls, I went around with this first sentence in my head long before I sat down to write it.

Joseph Heller: My novels begin in a strange way. I don’t begin with a theme or even a character. I begin with a first sentence that is independent of any conscious preparation. Most often nothing comes out of it: a sentence will come to mind that doesn’t lead to a second sentence. Sometimes it will lead to thirty sentences which then come to a dead end.

I was alone on the deck. As I sat there worrying and wondering what to do, one of those first lines suddenly came to mind: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” Immediately, the lines presented a whole explosion of possibilities and choices—characters (working in a corporation), a tone, a mood of anxiety, or insecurity. In that first hour (before someone came along and asked me to go to the beach), I knew the beginning, the ending, most of the middle . . .

Was it the same process of “receiving” a first line with Catch-22?

Just about. I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.” I didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain—he could have been a prison chaplain. But as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind—even most of the particulars . . . the tone, the form, many of the characters, including some I eventually couldn’t use. All of this took place within an hour and a half.

Joan Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

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Shifting the Paradigm of Not Knowing: Writer’s Sweet Spot

The blank white page have your brain constipated? Maybe it’s a good thing. Not knowing where your writing is going can be frustrating, scary, and debilitating, but what if it wasn’t? What if the uneasiness you feel when trying to write something that matters to you is precisely what’s needed to create something of imaginative value?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the positive psychology researcher who has devoted much study on creativity, points out, in the clip above, that in his research, the most successful creative artists don’t start with preconceived ideas.  Trying to understand the problem they are confronted with is what makes them successful.

This is echoed by Jennifer Egan, when, according to Rachel Hodin, she “described the horrifying moment when you are nearing the end of your novel, and you don’t know what’s going to happen to your characters next”:

“How can I not know what’s going to happen when it’s coming up so soon? I am their creator, after all!” But then, she explains, it’s this exact feeling of uncertainty that a writer needs to succeed. Because any of the possible paths you might have in mind for your character are too obvious and should not be employed.

Tim O’Brien notes how the not knowing frustrates a lot of writers, but for him, it’s what propels him forward:

The act of writing for me is largely the act of following sentences and making sentences. And for most people that probably is the time to click off and look at something else, but unfortunately for me, stories grow out of a sentence. For example, the sentence, “This is true,” began one of my stories. I wrote the sentence and had no idea what was true, true in what sense I had no idea. Then I wrote another sentence to follow that: “A buddy in Vietnam named Bob Kiley.” Well, I’m partly discovering and I’m partly just curious about or fascinated about issues of what could be true and what is the character going to say is true, and does this character really mean it? Does he really mean it’s true? And to what degree does this character think it’s true? And how can anybody say “this is true” without a little tongue-in-cheek action going on? So, it’s a discovery, and what I think is one of my better stories grew wholly out of the unplanned, out of a scrap of language.

What I hear: Don’t worry if you feel uneasy.  Relish it.  Be patient.  Give it time.  Expect something good to follow.




Tim O’Brien Documentary, Circa 1990

In search of writers reading their work, I came across this circa 1990 documentary of Tim O’Brien.  It’s really an amazing find, one that I can’t believe I’ve never seen before.

The film, just under 48 minutes, focuses on the stories found in The Things They Carried, how they were written and the inspiration behind them.  It’s a mix of Vietnam footage, Tim with friends he served with, Tim at home writing, Tim being interviewed, Tim reading from his book.  There are other writers talking about his work as well (Phillip Lopate, Carolyn Forche, etc.).

It’s an intimate documentary that takes the viewer into the heart of the writer.

The New Yorker’s Poetry Podcast

I’ve listened to The New Yorker Fiction Podcast for years.  It’s free online and in iTunes.  To hear a story read, and then to be able to sit in with a writer and editor talking about said story–what works and, sometimes, doesn’t work in the story–well, it’s like being in an MFA workshop with guest speakers.  Now the magazine has a Poetry Podcast, started just this past December.  Paul Muldoon, New Yorker poetry editor, offers this description:

The structure of the Poetry Podcast is very simple. Each podcast consists of a conversation between myself and a guest poet. In each, the guest reads not only a poem of hers that has appeared in The New Yorker but also introduces, and reads, a poem by another contributor to the magazine that she particularly admires.