Your Worst Nightmare!

Last weekend, I attended “MWA University,” a day-long series of lectures by published novelists covering all aspects of the art of writing the mystery novel. For $50, you can’t go wrong.

Jess Lourey talked about how to grow an idea into a fully developed novel

Laura DiSilverio discussed dramatic structure and plot. Are we still using Aristotle’s three-act structure? Does the Hero’s Journey still reign supreme?

Daniel Stashower gave a hilarious talk about setting and description, with some excellent examples, and some truly horrid ones too.

Hallie Ephron described her process for rewriting – that excruciating period where you recognize that your first draft is crap and you must devise ways to fix it.

Hank Ryan talked about the writing life – how she deals with a writing schedule, solitude, frustration, rejection, self-doubt, etc.

And Reed Farrel Coleman spoke about character and dialogue.

They were all great, needless to say, but Reed Coleman’s remarks left me with goosebumps. As I told him in an email afterward, (borrowing some lyrics from Bob Dylan) “every one of them words rang true/and glowed like burning coal.”

Coleman is well known for the richness of his characterization in the 14 novels and countless short stories he’s published. How does he do it? In his words, it’s Zen-like. To explain, he described an exchange he’d had with one of his writing students at Hofstra University. The student had written the ubiquitous novel scene: a guy ordering a drink from a bartender. It was lifeless, flat. He asked the student, “What is the bartender’s worst fear?”

Why would we know or care? He’s a bartender. His only purpose is to serve a drink, maybe have a brief exchange, and he’s gone. The bartender is a bit player. Knowing his worst fear does not “move the story forward,” in the parlance of the expert. This misses the point entirely, Coleman says.

Coleman maintains that the success of characterization comes from the writer’s feeling what is in the heart and soul of every character, no matter how small. It doesn’t matter whether that feeling ever transmits from the heart to the fingertips, it only matters that the writer feels it. In that, what the writer feels will transmit to the telling of the story.

He asked all of us: What is your worst fear? What is the one secret you have that is so dark, so bad, that you would be mortified if anyone discovered it? We all have them, he maintained. And those secrets and fears propel us in unknown or unpredictable ways. The connection between these secret thoughts and our actions may not be overt, or even perceptible. But they are a part of our character, and they are therefore available to become part of our fictional characters.

So, back to the bartender. What is his worst fear? Maybe he is afraid he will lose his job because he hits the bar vodka when no one’s looking. He’s an alcoholic. The reader doesn’t need to know this for any reason relevant to the story, so there will be no attempt to explain this. But when the scene is written, perhaps the protagonist watches the bartender put the glass in front of him, and notices a slight tremor in the hand, and then broken capillaries in the cheeks or nose.

Now the bartender is much more than a server of drink. He is a broken, fragile man. There is tragedy in the air. The scene now has a texture and dimension it lacked before.

When I studied literature and creative writing at the University of Vermont (way back in the 1970’s), I did a semester-long independent study on Ernest Hemingway. That exposed me to what he referred to as “The Thing Left Out.” As he explained in an essay published posthumously in A Moveable Feast, he deleted “the real end [of “Out of Season”] which was that the man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” This theory has since come to be known also as the “Iceberg Theory.” As he puts it, “[t]he test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.”

I think this is what we do when we understand our characters as deeply as we (hopefully) understand ourselves, except that in Hemingway’s case, he did it consciously, as the employment of a device, whereas Reed Coleman would have it occur organically, subconsciously.

The reason this gave me goosebumps is that as soon as he asked about the bartender’s worst fears, I so clearly understood what he was saying, and I realized it was what I had always done, purely intuitively, without really being conscious of it or knowing what the heck I was doing or why. NOTE: I’m not saying I do this right, or that it works in every case – just that it happens.

Coleman observed another tangent to this phenomenon that tied it rather neatly together. Speaking of bartenders and writers, he asked why it was that so many great writers were drunks. Perhaps it was at least in part because they, having the unusual insight into the darkest fears of the human psyche (through their own perverse thoughts), resorted to alcohol to both access the terror and to dull the resultant pain.

But that’s the subject of another essay.


  1. I have to keep it simple, to avoid writing nightmares My goal is always to write things that I would want to read. Sometimes, I go overboard. I overthink everything and reference materials in my mind, without stating those details, to the readers. Even my closest friends have difficulty understanding what I’ve written. A friend once asked me to explain a paragraph in one of my posts. Off the top of my head, I gave him a verbal bibliography. The books I referenced could not be physically carried by the average man.As I listed the references, I quoted the relevant passages, from memory. Until I do that, I risk being dismissed as a loon.

  2. I agree. All the sessions were fantastic, but this is the one I have talked to the most writers about (both people who were there and were not) since the workshop. Really amazing and I think it will help me a great deal (if I can figure out how to get it on the page).

  3. Thought – provoking article, Peter, thanks.
    As for the last part, I think there is a thin line, like a tight rope, between creativity and madness, and writers tiptoe gingerly along it, wobbling a lot along the way.

  4. Tangential but still wanted to comment. I know it’s writers in this joint but painters can empathise. There is an absolutely stunning exhibition in London of Lucian Freud’s paintings. There is such extraordinary depth to his work and you feel you know those people. And this, of course, is done entirely without words.

  5. Access the terror and mute the pain. I can definitely see that. I agree that going to where the fear is is how we mine our best writing. Thanks for sharing what sounds like a terrific experience at MWA.

  6. Just catching up on your blog. I love your thoughts on what to omit. It’s the first time I think I’ve learned something important from a blog – I’m probably guilty of too much stuff in, and not enough out.

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