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.
Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent