Dennis Lehane’s tips for writing success

Small group session on Oct. 23 revealed novelist’s methods

Anne Nickoloff, Arts & Entertainment Editor

“I have a theory that you have 1,000 pages of crap in you,” said author Dennis Lehane, sitting at a table surrounded by students, “and you basically just write the crap out of you.”

Before speaking at the second Writer’s Center Stage event of the year, Lehane met with a group of over 20 Case Western students to talk about his experiences with writing, failure and fear management on Oct. 23. The Q&A session led to many questions, including some about his work as a novelist, his writing for popular television show “The Wire” and his system for developing characters in his realistic novels, including “Mystic River” and “Gone, Baby, Gone.”

Lehane’s approach to writing isn’t typical; he usually goes into writing a book with only three or four plot points planned out (of course, with the exception of the mind-bending novel “Shutter Island”). After around 30 years of writing, he has a quirky sense of putting together stories.

But he was ready to call out young writers who still don’t understand the importance of simply spending time on learning writing skills. “You’re young; you don’t know shit,” he said towards the end of the session.

There was much to learn from his unique approach, and he was willing to share his invaluable instruction. Here are some of Dennis Lehane’s tips for writing success:


1. Failure is a part of the process.

“ Play to your strengths, but once you’ve done that, start challenging yourself,” said Lehane. “Keep doing the things that scare you when you’re writing. You don’t know it ‘til you try it, then you try it and you fail. You are going to fail before you succeed.


2. There are three important keys to story development.

“One: The action should not begin on a Wednesday if Thursday is when it starts. Two: What are the stakes? The audience should know something’s at stake,” Lehane said.

Lehane drew his final suggestion from a past student, and shared it with the small group. “Three: You can never exit a scene with the same energy you entered it. Reversal of expectation is key.”


3. It takes time to be a pro.

“Becoming a master at anything takes 10 years,” said Lehane.

“I wrote my first book to entertain myself, and it took three weeks,” said Lehane. “But, I once took a year to write a short story.”


4. Avoid relationships until you’ve established yourself.

Lehane claims that oftentimes, marriages undergo unneeded stress when an aspiring writer or actor attempts to multitask with a relationships and work.

“Until you’re successful, don’t get married,” he said. “Don’t suck anybody else into it… unless, you know, it’s something like ‘friends with benefits.’”


5. Fear management.

Lehane believes that writing is incredibly revealing, and that can be scary. “You’re about to be as naked as you’ve ever been in front of everybody,” he said. “The final step of the process, once everything has come together… is fear management.”

Though he admits to being very afraid of universal rejection, Lehane believes this fear must be let go to become successful.


Stay tuned for a review of Lehane’s Writer’s Center Stage presentation in this Friday’s edition of The Observer.