Writing Wisdom from Dave Cullen

Several weeks ago I was hanging out with Dave Cullen, author of Columbine (and client of one of my favorite people, agent Betsy Lerner). As I’ve written several times on this blog, I thought Dave’s book was a spectacular achievement, not just because of the story itself but because of the skill with which he wrote it. His book is a terrific example for both fiction and non-fiction writers. Dave shared a few of his secrets of success as a writer, and I wanted to pass them along to you. Hope you enjoy these—I did.

Capturing your ideas: Dave says that first thing in the morning—before you even stand up—you have to jot down those ideas that are floating around your head when you wake up. Literally don’t get out of bed. Keep a journal by your bed and write before your feet hit the floor. Also, keep a pad by the shower, and always carry paper with you.

Becoming a skillful writer: Read, read, read! Dave can list upwards of 100 books he’s read in the narrative non-fiction genre alone. Plus he reads in other genres. He’s honest about which books were great and which he didn’t think much of. He takes notes. He studies the craft and analyzes exactly how other writers accomplish their goals in a book. He also draws heavily from films and song lyrics for ideas about character, pacing, structure, and rhythm. He is a perpetual student of writing, always trying to improve.

Creating powerful characters, part one: Dave says the key is that he treats each of his characters with the utmost respect. In his case, he was dealing with characters who are real people. In order to tell the story, he needed to keep integrity, honesty, and the pursuit of truth at the forefront of his mind. He says this applies to novelists as well. Treat your characters like they’re real. Search deep and wide for their truth.

Creating powerful characters, part two: To get to know each of your main and secondary characters, spend time writing in the first person of each of them. Write their journals. Listen to their music, watch the movies and TV shows they watch. Be them. This is how you can find their deepest truth and convey it faithfully on the page.

Managing a large cast of characters: The book Columbine involves a large number of characters—students, teachers, parents, law enforcement, doctors—but the amazing thing to me is that I never once got confused about characters or lost track of who was who. Dave says the way to achieve this is to introduce each character in a memorable fashion. When they first appear in the book, they must be portrayed in a vivid, visual way that the reader cannot forget.

Don’t bore the reader: Pay attention when you’re writing. If you’re bored, the reader will be too.

Remember who you’re writing for: If you’re writing for publication, never forget that your loyalty is to your reader. No matter how much you love something, you must always go back to your first priority: serving the reader. Make it the best, most powerful and engaging book you can.

Don’t be afraid of editing: Dave went through four major passes of editing (and many more less intense passes) during which he cut 875 pages down to 400. Don’t be so in love with your words that you think they can’t be deleted.

It takes the time it takes: Dave began investigating and writing about the Columbine tragedy on the very day it happened, April 20, 1999. If he had known it would take ten long years for a book to be published, he could have gotten discouraged enough to quit many times along the way. He didn’t know, and he just kept working. Multiple publishers and editors came and went before it finally landed with Jonathan Karp at Twelve. All along, Dave kept working. That’s the spirit it takes. Don’t worry if it’s taking a long time. Sometimes, that’s what’s needed. The most important thing is to get it right.

Those were the most interesting tips I took from Dave, and I think they’re worthwhile considering what an achievement Columbine is. Have you read it yet? It recently came out in trade paperback, so check it out.

Columbine won the Edgar Award, Barnes & Noble’s Discover Award and the Goodreads Choice Award. It was a finalist for the LA Times Book Award, the American Library Association’s Alex Award for young adults, the Audie Award, and the MPIBA Regional Book Award. Columbine appeared on two dozen Best of 2009 lists, including the NY Times, LA Times and Publishers Weekly. It was declared Top Education Book of 2009 and one of the best of the decade by the American School Board Journal.

Columbine on Dave Cullen’s website
Columbine on Amazon

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  3. Dave Cullen on May 7, 2010 at 12:37 PM

    >Interesting example, Timothy. You might draw that conclusion if you only read page 1 of the book. But if you read page one of the endnotes as well, I divulge where many of these interior thoughts come from. I state there that I interviewed him more than 20 times over a nine year period. I have a pretty good idea what's going on in his head, because he told me–and because I interviewed many people close to him and discussed his approach with both him and them ad museum.

    Of course he could be lying and manipulating me, but that would be bad reporting in failing to sniff out a liar. I've never heard it called artistic license to quote a source, or to accept their descriptions of how they approach their job.

    I was actually unclear about what you meant by artistic license and still am. Yes I used storytelling elements used in the novel (plot, character, pacing, dialogue, etc.), and if that's what you mean, I plead guilty to using them but not to license. Those are commonly associated with fiction, but that doesn't make them "fictional."

    If you mean actually presenting fictional (invented) information as fact, no way. And I don't know how you would know whether I were guilty of this without reading the book.

    You say "he narrative non-fiction style, by its nature, introduces some fictional elements and presents them as fact." Really? Most magazine features and many newspaper stories use the narrative non-fiction style. Are they all making stuff up? They are all "taking dramatic license"?

    I covered Columbine for years for magazines (and occasionally newspapers) and applied the same journalistic standards, and many of the same storytelling approaches to both.

  4. Timothy Fish on May 7, 2010 at 9:19 AM

    >Dave and Jennifer,

    The reason I say that Dave takes significant artistic license is because the narrative non-fiction style, by its nature, introduces some fictional elements and presents them as fact. The first example shows up on the very first page. Dave writes, “[Frank DeAngelis] earnestly believed in motivation by candor.” Even if we have a video recording of this assembly, we lack sufficient evidence to say what is going on in his head. Even dialog, if it isn’t recorded verbatim, may imply things that we have insufficient evidence to support.

  5. Dave Cullen on May 7, 2010 at 2:07 AM

    >Looks like I left out one piece of advice: read the book (or watch the movie, listen to the song, look at the painting . . .) before developing an opinion on it.

    I guess I'm one of the few people who didn't realize I was taking significant artistic license. Hahaha.

  6. Dave Cullen on May 7, 2010 at 2:03 AM

    >I'm loving these comments, and learning from them.

    And you've inspired me to do something I've been planning for awhile: do a series on my site with advice for writers. I'm going to expand on these, maybe two at a time.

    Meanwhile, I am glad to see the "If you're bored, the reader will be too" comment struck a chord. Rachelle was diplomatic in leaving out the whole anecdote. On one of the editing passes, my editor, Jon Karp, wrote that three of my subplots were "a total snooze." I gasped. I'd spent months on each one. And I'd also torn nearly 300 pages from the manuscript and was convinced it was all stellar, not sleep-inducing. But then I realized that not only was he right, but all three had bored me writing them. I had left them toward the end, because I didn't want to do them, but felt I had to. Nope. They needed to be mentioned, but not slogged through.

    Which brings me to another key piece of advice: Find a candid editor–preferably two, your agent and your editor.

    I know that's a hard one, but we all have choices along the way. Is she the hottest agent for selling, or really good at editing? Is the advance a little higher from one house, but the other comes with a great editor? You might not have the luxury, but often you do.

    And candor in an editor is highly dependent on you. The first time they critique you (your agent or your editor, or other writing friends), they are watching your response closely, and calibrating their future approach accordingly. If you don't take criticism well, you're not going to get as much. And you'll suffer.

    I sure didn't want Jon to tell me some of my stuff was a total snooze, but I sure benefited from hearing it.

  7. Rachelle on May 6, 2010 at 3:47 PM

    >Jennifer, thanks for this. You're right. And Timothy, thanks for admitting you haven't read the book. I think if you read it, you'd realize that what Jennifer said is true. Dave is a journalist and tries to faithfully render what he comes to understand through indepth research (in this case, 10 years of it). There are definitely some people who vocally disagree with what Dave has written, but my take on the book as I've said many times is that it's an incredible piece of investigative reporting, and an impressive search for a truth that can never be fully known. Dave freely admits this in the book as well.

  8. Jennifer AlLee on May 6, 2010 at 3:39 PM

    >With all due respect, I did read the book, and I have to point out that Dave never claims to know why Eric and Dylan did what they did. Also, the book is not written from the point of view of these two boys. People have said it "reads like fiction" but that's because of the strength and flow of the narrative. The author tells the stories of just about everybody who was involved that terrible day: teachers, injured children, the victims, the parents, etc. It's clear from reading "Columbine" that Dave Cullen did extensive research and interviewing of those involved. I think to say he took "a significant amount of artistic license" is incorrect and misleading.

  9. Timothy Fish on May 6, 2010 at 3:13 PM


    I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know for sure, but based on a few things I’ve read I think there are a few things that I would disagree with. I don’t know of anyone who can legitimately claim to know how much was a result of parenting and how much was a result of genetics. The simple truth is that we are all born sinners. Without good parents, we would destroy each other, but I also know that there are some children that are very stubborn, refusing to obey their parents no matter what techniques they might use. Given the nature of the book, I think most people realize that Dave Cullen is taking a significant amount of artistic license with the book. No matter how many experts look at what happened, I don’t think anyone can no with certainty why to people decided to kill a bunch of people, but the author who writes a book from their point of view must pick a theory and go with it.

  10. Kathryn Magendie on May 6, 2010 at 7:04 AM

    >"Pay attention when you're writing. If you're bored, the reader will be too."

    This is so very true and one of the things I have finally recognized. What some may call "writer's block" sometimes is just good old fashioned "the ms needs liberal use of my delete key before I can go on…"

  11. Amy Sorrells on May 6, 2010 at 6:58 AM

    >This post and the comments are pure awesomeness. Reminds me a lot of James Scott Bell's advice/writing books. You reiterate the most important/beneficial nonfiction writing tool I also use: studying characterization in fiction and movies. What makes them memorable? Succinct? More and more, I think telling a captivating story in nonfiction is as important–if not more–than in fiction. Also, I'm glad I'm not the only one who comes up with ideas in the shower. Problem is, I too often lose them in the rinse cycle. And I've found my hand & forearm, and my husband's blackberry are great note-taking tools.

  12. Steve on May 6, 2010 at 12:43 AM

    >The URL for the Amazon review and commments I gave above dod not paste correctly. It should be as follows:


    This time I have inserted line breaks. To make the link work you will have to stitch the 4 lines shown here into one long line, and paste it int your browser.

    Alternatively, follow the Amazon link to the book page as given in Rachelle's post. The review, by Hugh C. Howey, should be the first shown, and you can click through to the comments.


  13. Steve on May 6, 2010 at 12:24 AM

    >I notice, interestingly, that nobody appears to be questioning the perspective on the Columbine shootings as given in Dave's book.

    I'm not the best one to do this, for although Columbine has been a particular interest of mine, I have not had the opportunity to research it, and I read only excerpts of Dave's book when it first appeareed.

    That being said, a long and supportive customer review which appears on Amazon supports my recollection of Dave's perspective – a perspective which which I am not comfortable.

    The reviewer said, in part:

    "What most impressed me about Cullen's conclusions was his shucking off of the dangerous blank slate theory that causes so much societal grief. To this day most people blame poor parenting on the tragedy of Columbine. The sadness and horror that I feel when thinking about the treatment of Eric and Dylan's parents disgusts me. This injustice is fueled by the poor grasp that the vast majority of people have about human nature. It is a failing that causes harm in thousands of daily ways, and Cullen does his part in dispelling some of these myths. Some people are born with an inability to empathize with the feelings of others."

    The entire review, with comments, several critical, can be found at the URL below:


    Rather than attempt to rebut this viewpoint directly, I will close with my own statement on Columbine, which is in a form intermediate between a poem and a set of possible song lyrics. It expresses my view as well as anything.


    Red Alert! 9-1-1!
    Better get there on the run!
    Life is dying while you wait!
    Might already be too late!

    Shots are fired in the school
    Bodies on the floor
    Better call emergency
    Don't delay no more


    See the chilren lying dead
    Heaped in disarray
    Who's a victim, who's a killer
    Really hard to say


    Why'd it happpen – Now they ask
    They all want to hear
    Fingers pointing every way
    Except into the mirror


    Those who knew the young men best
    Say parents weren't to blame
    The kids themselves said no one could
    Have guessed their deadly game

    And no one thinks its strange at all
    That from the very start
    Nobody noticed the child's soul
    Hid a killer's heart

    If I would tell a story of a time so long ago
    When parents used to know their children's heart
    Would anyone believe I ever lived in such a world?
    Before the ties of love were torn apart

    Eighteen years a stranger, living in a stranger's house
    Is this the life that we call normal now?
    If you can still remember how to show a child your love
    You'd best begin to show the world how

    Children's blood's a mighty river
    Flowing through this land
    Why won't anybody notice
    Try to understand


  14. Robin on May 5, 2010 at 8:53 PM

    >Great book and great interview!

  15. Alexis Grant on May 5, 2010 at 8:30 PM

    >Great tips. This was on my to-read list, and it just moved up to the top!

  16. Kristin T. (@kt_writes) on May 5, 2010 at 6:38 PM

    >There are so many great ideas and affirmations packed into this post!

    This is at the heart of why being a writer is exciting: "He is a perpetual student of writing, always trying to improve."

    This is sobering and essential: "Pay attention when you're writing. If you're bored, the reader will be too."

    And this tip about managing characters is something I'm going to start implementing right away: "When they first appear in the book, they must be portrayed in a vivid, visual way that the reader cannot forget."

    Thanks Dave and Rachelle.

  17. Rosslyn Elliott on May 5, 2010 at 5:32 PM

    >Rachelle, thanks for featuring Dave.

    Dave, thanks for writing a great book! Rachelle doesn't often rave about books, so after she raved about Columbine, I downloaded it to my Kindle.

    Your work is fantastic–truly worthy of every award it has received. I loved it, even though I usually dislike books about tragic true crimes. Your writing is stunning, and the book is an intelligent, sensitive treatment of a turning point in American culture.

    Please note that I do not know Dave personally and am not a hired reviewing lackey. 🙂

  18. Kelly on May 5, 2010 at 3:28 PM

    >Great post. Thank you!

  19. Kelly Freestone on May 5, 2010 at 1:49 PM

    >This is gold!
    Thanks so much for posting!

  20. Jennifer AlLee on May 5, 2010 at 1:40 PM

    >Thanks so much, Dave & Rachelle! I read Columbine last summer during vacation at my sister's house. The book was engrossing, fascinating, tragic and uplifting all at the same time. I very rarely respond to non-fiction books like I did to this one, but I thought about it long after reading the last page.

    Dave, I love what you say about respecting your characters and introducing them in a memorable way. Great advice. As for having paper available, I've got notebooks all over the house! I've learned that if I don't write my ideas down, they evaporate.

  21. PrairieBren on May 5, 2010 at 1:26 PM

    >Love all the advice, but especially to put a notebook beside my bed. I HAVE to do that. So many ideas come to me in the morning, or when I cannot sleep.

    I also love Dave's advice to remember who you're writing for. When it's just me and the computer, it's easy to get lazy and blah, blah, blah …. at times I need to wake up and realize that some day, people may be reading this stuff I write!! 😉

    Great article. Thanks for sharing.


  22. PrairieBren on May 5, 2010 at 1:26 PM

    >Love all the advice, but especially to put a notebook beside my bed. I HAVE to do that. So many ideas come to me in the morning, or when I cannot sleep.

    I also love Dave's advice to remember who you're writing for. When it's just me and the computer, it's easy to get lazy and blah, blah, blah …. at times I need to wake up and realize that some day, people may be reading this stuff I write!! 😉

    Great article. Thanks for sharing.


  23. Dave Cullen on May 5, 2010 at 12:47 PM

    >Lexcade, I wouldn't feel guilty about the tape recorder. I thought mine would do wonders, but rarely use it either. Transcribing is a monstrosity.

    I find voice-mailing myself helpful sometimes, though, mostly when I wake up at night, or in the car, with brief bits of copy.

    – The phone is always handy when I need it, even while driving or waking at 2 a.m. (I just dial myself and leave a voicemail. I can dial in the dark without getting wide awake.)
    – I know where to find it a week later, and can easily access it.
    – It's fast/easy to jump ahead or rewind 10 seconds at a time.
    – I'm limited to two-minutes, so no monstrous transcribing.

  24. Dave Cullen on May 5, 2010 at 12:42 PM

    >Girl With One Eye:

    I hear two things I love in your comment:

    1) Ideas come when you're engaged in another routine activity. For me it's usually walks and bike rides, and often the shower. Regardless, it means the ideas are percolating in there: you're engaged with your material.

    2. You're aware of your pattern.

    I hope you have used #2 to take advantage of it. You've got to pull over and write them down. You can be two minutes later. Tell them something came up at work. If you are serious about your writing, it did. This is your work, and it was something important. You might also plan extra time in your trips, knowing work might come up.

  25. Dave Cullen on May 5, 2010 at 12:37 PM

    >Rachelle, you take amazing notes. (Or have a memory for detail that makes me envious.) Really nice job getting my ideas down, and organizing them. I am going to have to steal this, and use it in my seminars.

    A few more thoughts on carrying paper:

    It's essential to a writer. (Pens are easier, and there is always one around. Paper is harder.) Most people are resistant to shoving a notepad in their pocket all the time, and don't do it. Me, too.

    So I just tear off a notebook paper, fold it into quarters and shove that in the pocket of every pair of pants, coat, jacket, backpack. It stays there until I use it, or do laundry. I never leave home without at least one sheet.

    (This also gives me eight little notebook-sized quadrants to write on. I number them as I go, so I can keep the order straight.)

    If I find myself without, here are tips for finding paper:

    – at the gym, the front desk has a stack of those pink phone-msg pads, which they let me use at will. The backside is completely blank.

    – any coffee shop, Wendy's, pawn shop–any place with a cash register–can scroll a blank strip of paper off the visa machine or cash register for you. I do it all the time in a bind, and have never had a clerk resist.

    (I just say I desperately need a scrap to write on, could they run some off the visa machine. They hold one button for ten seconds, it costs a fraction of a cent and they don't need to ring anything up.)

    Larger point: unless you are hiking the Gobi desert, there is always paper around. You just have to ask.

    But why put yourself in a position to have to ask?

  26. Timothy Fish on May 5, 2010 at 12:00 PM

    >I never have any great ideas before I get out of bed in the morning. I’m usually too busy trying to figure out how many times I’ve hit the snooze button, finding the light switch and hunting for my glasses, all of which is required for me to do before I can even consider writing something down. I do, however, come up with a few ideas while I’m trying to drift off to sleep at night.

    There was that one time when I came up with this great idea for a book in the shower. If someone else wants to write it, I can guarantee you that it will make you a lot of money. Unfortunately, I mistook my notepad for a wash cloth.

    I’m honest about which books I think are great and which I don’t think much of too. It’s amazing how many of those have my name on the front cover.

  27. Laura Marcella on May 5, 2010 at 11:28 AM

    >These are all great tips. Dave seems like an extremely dedicated writer, which is something I think we all strive to be!

    I agree that writing first thing in the morning is beneficial, especially if you have vivid dreams. I recently started writing Morning Pages when I wake up. It's a recommended strategy from Julia Cameron (you can read about it in her novels The Artist's Way and The Right to Write). Morning Pages have helped me sort through ideas and discover solutions to my plot problems!

  28. T. Anne on May 5, 2010 at 11:13 AM

    >Very interesting. You've earned all your accolades. Thank you for the great tips.

  29. Lauren on May 5, 2010 at 10:44 AM

    >I love his advice on bringing the truth of the character out. In so many words, I never really thought of it specifically in that way as conveying their truth. I tend to be a very literal person, unfortunately, so this is good advice to keep in mind while writing. I'll have to check out Columbine now. I'm trying to read more non-fiction work to expand my reading genres. You picked out some great tips! 🙂

  30. Ee Leen Lee on May 5, 2010 at 10:23 AM

    >'It takes the time it takes'
    I love that line because its true, you can't rush

  31. Girl with One Eye on May 5, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    >In the car driving my ideas hit, like an avalanche usually. I love his advice, especially portraying your characters "in a vivid, visual way that the reader cannot forget."

  32. Rachel on May 5, 2010 at 8:18 AM

    >Oh, I meant to get that book and I got distracted by another one. It's back on the list. Great post!

  33. MJR on May 5, 2010 at 7:58 AM

    >great advice! I like his idea of jotting things down in the morning even before you get up, and about introducing characters in a memorable way.

    I have read COLUMBINE and highly recommend it–he dispels so many of the popular misconceptions about the tragedy. I read the book in about 24 hours–couldn't put it down.

  34. Jason on May 5, 2010 at 7:46 AM

    >…another one of those blood-sucking Cullens!

    🙂 Sorry I couldn't resist…

    Anyway, I totally agree with the "don't be in love with your words" advice. I edited my MG manuscript from 74K to 65K words, and now after another edit it's sitting right at 59K. But it's never been more readable. Great advice…

  35. Wendy Paine Miller on May 5, 2010 at 7:03 AM

    >Such wisdom here. Thanks Dave & Rachelle.
    ~ Wendy

  36. Timothy Fish on May 5, 2010 at 6:58 AM

    >Glad to see he agrees with me on so much. As for characters, I think most novelists see their characters as quite real (within limits). As for doing the stuff my characters do, I can’t go for that one. Some of my characters are involved in some stuff that I ought not to be involved in. For example, I have a character who is a high-tech peeping tom.

    I’m glad to see that he believes we are writing for the reader. I don’t know how many times I’ve said that and had people disagree with me, as if the we’re selling ourselves out if we change what we write based on the reader.

  37. Heather Sunseri on May 5, 2010 at 6:40 AM

    >I love these tips, Rachelle! I love how much Dave does to get to know his characters. There's a lot in this post. I think I'll read this one again. Thanks for sharing.

  38. M. J. Macie on May 5, 2010 at 6:15 AM

    >love this article. I found that in the afternoon, and especially at bedtime, if I totally relax, ideas come and I quickly write them down.

    Like Dave, I treat my characters as though they are real because in my mind they are real. And I love his advice about describing new characters he introduces in a memorable fashion.

    Finally, he is right that we must always remember we are writing for the reader, our loyal audience.

  39. Lisa Jordan on May 5, 2010 at 5:59 AM

    >Excellent post! I've gotten a couple of story ideas by writing down my thoughts as soon as I've awoken. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  40. India Drummond on May 5, 2010 at 5:35 AM

    >Great post… especially the thoughts about characters. Very helpful thoughts!

  41. Sandy at God Speaks Today on May 5, 2010 at 5:31 AM

    >I definitely need to jot my ideas down first thing. I always think they will come flooding back to me when I sit down at the computer…they rarely do.


  42. Jessica Nelson on May 5, 2010 at 5:05 AM

    >Great tips. Thanks for sharing them!

  43. cassandrajade on May 5, 2010 at 4:58 AM

    >Thanks for sharing this great advice. It is always great to read what is working for other people.

    Excellent post.

  44. Ellen Brickley on May 5, 2010 at 4:07 AM

    >Excellent post, Rachelle. I can't agree enough with carrying paper everywhere!

    Also, Columbine is a brilliant read, I highly recommend it.

  45. Sharon A. Lavy on May 5, 2010 at 3:18 AM

    >Thanks for passing on this information, Rachelle.

  46. Aimee LS on May 5, 2010 at 2:43 AM

    >I'm an American who lives in New Zealand and has followed the Columbine story since April 1999. I ordered the book weeks ago and it still hasn't arrived… 🙁

    Thanks for these tips from someone I already admire despite having read his 'free' material!

  47. lexcade on May 5, 2010 at 1:52 AM

    >such great advice, rachelle. thanks for posting it! the first idea is excellent, and definitely a life-saver. i keep paper around at all times, in totally random places. my mother bought me a tape recorder a while back (which i haven't used and feel guilty for) so that could be another route.

    i agree about treating the characters with respect. it takes everyone to tell a story, and in that aspect, even the villain deserves respect. in our minds, they're real people, and it takes loving and respecting them to bring them to life.