Tidbits from The Deck

John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil used to call his NY phone machine from Savannah and read his work aloud.

Gay Talese hung his manuscript on a clothes line and viewed it through binoculars when he needed distance from his writing.

Eudora Welty "cut and pasted" her text using scissors and push pins.

Nelson Algren spent years pretending to look for a mugger so he could eavesdrop at the local police station lineups.

Elizabeth Berg plays a game involving license plates to find out what she is thinking.

Carol Shields meditates on the dictionary to get in the mood to write.

Lawrence Block checks into hotels for 6 week stretches to finish a book.

Leslie Marmon Silko painted a snake on the side of her building to get unblocked.

Maurice Sendak can spend a full year writing a 32 page book.

William Styron wrote Sophies Choice because of a dream.

Robert Olen Butler created a series of short stories improvising on the headlines in a tabloid newspaper.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert does daily affirmations.

Amy Tan listens to movie soundtracks while she works.

Sharon McCrumb creates musical soundtracks for her books.

William Saroyan wore a hat while he wrote.

John Steinbeck started every writing day with a letter while working on East of Eden.

Charles Dickens walked one hour for every hour he wrote.

John Sayles goes swimming when he is stuck.

Douglas Adams takes a bath when he needs inspiration.

Luisah Teisch relies on a kitchen timer she calls Minerva to keep herself motivated.

Locate The Fear

According to Dr. Robert Maurer, professor of psychology at UCLA, fear lies at the center of all great fiction. Every character is afraid of something - of loss, of failure, of success, of being unmasked - and drama is to be found in how each character copes with his/her fears. While one character might be afraid of growing old alone, another might be afraid that some secret of his past will be revealed, and another might harbor the fear that she will turn out to be like her mother.

In order to give your characters depth and your stories dramatic tension you must determine what your characters fear and how they deal with their terror.

Take some time right now to think about someone you know or someone you are currently writing about. You can pick a person you see on the street or a character with whom you are working. What is this person afraid of? Is it fear of being poor or growing fat? Is it fear of being hurt or of hurting another person? Make a list of 10-15 things that a character might be afraid of. If you are writing mysteries or horror, the dangers your characters face might be far more concrete (death, incarceration, dismemberment) than in a literary novel, but in order to give your characters depth you should also be sure that they have ordinary human fears (poverty, loneliness, loss of a loved one).

Think about the ways your characters deal with their fears. Do they face them head on or run away? Do they drown themselves in alchohol or try to forget them through sex? Do they invite trouble into their lives or create safe but dull existences?

Next time you go to the movies explore the fears that motivate each of the characters with your film-going companion. Look at how each person manifested or disguised those fears.

Right now try sketching a short two person scene in which the fears and needs of one character are at odds with the fears and needs of another character - in fact, the fears of one may exacerbate the fears of the other. For example, one person's fear of committment triggers the other's fear of abandonment. Or one person's fear of being conned comes up against the other's fear of being misunderstood. Place your two characters in a setting in which they are doing something physical while carrying on a conversation which illustrates the clash. The physical activity will help demonstrate the dynamics without resorting to obvious dialogue. Moving a heavy peice of furniture, a couple may argue about how to maneuver around a corner or who is to walk backwards. The woman may avoid voicing a real concern about scratching the floor or damaging the paintwork because she does not want to upset her partner. The man may risk back injury to avoid appearing weak.

Your own fears are a valuable source of material. Mystery writer Julie Smith was looking for a new book idea when she realized she needed a worthy adversary for her policewoman heroine, Skip Langdon. She wanted a villain as evil as Conan Doyle's Moriarity or Thomas Harris's Hanibal Lector. She wanted the devil incarnate. Looking back on her past she remembered interviewing the reverend Jim Jones, a man who later caused the death of over 900 people at Jonestown. Being with Jones she experienced the physical sensation of having her "skin crawl." During their initial meeting Jones seemed to know things about Smith that no one else could have known. Only later did she discover that he had ordered his people going through her garbage and watch her house to glean the information he seemed to possess so miraculously. Jones had terrified Smith, but now she could use this encounter to recreate him in her book, The Kindness of Strangers.

Think of someone in your past who has evoked fear in you or in others. Describe what qualities made this person so terrifying. Detail some of the techniques he/she used to intimidate, insinuate or manipulate. Create a scene in which you, or one of your characters, encounter such a person and prevail.


Sue Grafton, creator of the alphabet mystery series (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc) says that, because she sits in front of her computer all day, she has little actual experience of terror. So she looks to her dreams. When she wakes up from a nightmare she catalogues her physical sensations - sweaty palms, thumping heart - and applies them to her heroine, Kinsey Milhone, when she encounters danger.

Think back to a terrifying moment in your life - a car accident, a walk down an unlit street, a situation in which you were almost caught doing something wrong - and describe the physical sensations you experienced. Write down the thoughts that went through your head at the time. Record any delayed reactions you had as well.

Children's book author Maurice Sendak uses the fears of childhood as the basis for much of his writing. He says the monsters of Where the Wild Things Are are really his old Jewish relatives who delighted in pinching his cheeks and declaring their desire to "eat him up" when he was a child. In Yiddish unruly children are often referred to as "vilde chayas," which means wild animals.

Take a few minutes to think about something that terrified you when you were little. Write from a child's point of view.

Read Aloud

Late one night in Savannah, Georgia, as John Berendt struggled with a difficult piece of writing, he found himself reaching for the telephone. It was to late to call any friends so he dialed his Manhattan apartment. When the machine answered he read into the phone, hung up and then hit redial. Hearing his words echoing back across 3000 miles, Berendt suddenly understood how to improve them. In fact, the act of reading into the phone had caused him to spontaneously correct for rhythm and flow. Berendt continued this long distance relationship throughout the writing of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (a book that would spend over three years on The New York Times bestseller list.)

For many writers, reading aloud has been an essential step in the creative process. Tennessee Williams vocalized as he wrote. Kingsley Amis waited until the end of the day and read his work to his wife. Truman Capote put his writing aside for weeks, even months and then read it aloud to friends.

"I pace," says Allan Gurganus, author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All . "I live alone and my neighbors think I have a very active and busy apartment. But all the voices are me and mine or us and ours..." Gurganus reads everything he writes aloud 30 or 40 times before publication because "there's a kind of ear music that operates as an editorial principle on the page...a rhythmic synchronicity which sets up in [the reader's] biological chemistry to pull them into the fiction and create a kind of heartbeat on the page."

Critical care nurse Echo Heron used reading aloud to anticipate and avoid criticism of what was to become her best-selling memoir, Intensive Care. After completing each draft she would close the curtains, assume a British accent and read to an imaginary audience made up of people she wanted to impress. Fear of negative reactions forced her to automatically correct poor grammar and sloppy thinking. New lines erupted spontaneously as she realized the need to furnish missing concepts.

Right now, choose a piece of writing to read out loud. If your work is on the computer be sure to print it up instead of reading off the screen. Don't be embarrassed if it sounds a bit awkward, reading aloud will help improve the flow. You might, like Echo Heron, adopt a foreign accent or assume a new persona to create distance and avoid self consciousness. Or you can follow novelist Elizabeth Berg's example and tape record your reading, then lie down - in the bath or on the sofa - and listen to the replay. You might read to a friend over the telephone or use a neighbor as a sounding board. Keep a pencil handy since you'll want to mark down any spontaneous changes you make as you read.

To gain critical distance you can also have a friend read your work aloud to you. If you are working on a play or a screenplay invite several friends over to help you hear what works and what can be improved. Be clear that what they are reading is a work in progress and not something to be judged as complete.


"Verbalizing is one of the best critical procedures," said novelist Robertson Davies. "If you meet with a passage in a book that seems to you to be, in some way, dubious or false, try reading it aloud and your doubts will be settled. The trick of argument or falsity of emphasis will declare itself to your ear, when it seems to be deceiving your eye."

Davies recommends that you read good literature out loud, or at least slowly enough to verbalize every word. "When you are reading," he says "you cannot save time, but you can diminish your pleasure by trying to do so." You can also miss the subtleties that make great writing great. Reading slowly you sensitize your ear and thus automatically work to achieve more depth, nuance and precision.

For over 25 years my mother has been stimulating her intellect as a volunteer reader with Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. She has learned about new developments in psychology, sociology, even grammar. In college I earned extra money by reading texts onto tape for a blind classmate. Not only did I make a new friend, but through this process I was able to absorb the material much more efficiently.

Open a favorite book and let the sounds of the text inspire you. Read to a child, a lover, a pet. Savor the texture of the words in your mouth and share your pleasure with another.

Use reading aloud as a way to jump start your own writing. Let the rhythm and the texture of the work carry you to the point where you are ready to let your own words flow onto paper. Then write for ten minutes.

And remember, whenever you are writing dialogue, take John Steinbeck's advice: "say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech."

The Observation Deck | Author Naomi Epel | Writers Dreaming

Naomi Recommends | Home Page

Order The Observation Deck