Stephen McCauley: How I Write

The author provides insight into writing humor, developing characters, and more about his writing process.

Stephen McCauley
Stephen McCauley. Photo by Sharona Jacobs

Novelist Stephen McCauley is the author of seven novels, including several best-sellers and three books that were made into feature films. His most recent novel, My Ex-Life, is about the reconnection of David, a gay man, and Julie, his straight ex-wife. All of McCauley’s books showcase the author’s observational and witty writing. “I’ve always been more drawn to the novel,” says McCauley. “I like the longer sweep of time and the larger cast of characters.” In addition to his work as an author, McCauley is the co-director of the creative writing program at Brandeis University and has been teaching for more than 30 years. He is now working on his next book, tentatively titled Disappointing Friends.

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Character development

Minor characters usually appear complete, which is to say, I generally know as much about them as I need to know immediately. (In that sense, they’re like one-night stands. You don’t really need to know where they went to school and how much they make.) By the end, I try to find some redemption or deeper understanding for all my characters, including the minor ones. Some twist. The main characters develop slowly and change significantly depending on their actions. It’s always fun when, in the writing process, a character does something you weren’t expecting, and you see a side of them you didn’t know existed. In My Ex-Life, David’s kindness and desire to help his ex-wife and her daughter evolved as the book went on. I didn’t plan it.

Humor

I think humor has always been a defense mechanism for me. And for everyone in my family. In that sense, it comes naturally and is loaded with the serious side of what’s behind it, what the characters are defending against. In My Ex-Life, it’s loneliness and fear of repeating mistakes. Writing a line that has some truth in it about people and behavior (that’s essential) and is also funny usually takes a while. I’m a compulsive reviser. Word choices make a difference. (“Is Buffalo funnier than Rochester?” and that kind of thing.) The only advice I have is “don’t force it.” Nothing is more awkward or unfunny than a forced joke. I’m sure I have many in my own work, by the way.

Dialogue 

Characters in novels rarely speak the way we speak in daily life. Thankfully! In that sense, realism isn’t super real. The key, I think, is to establish a voice for each character and to hear it in your head. Reading aloud helps, too. Many years ago, I had an editor who changed a couple words of a character’s dialogue. When I read the lines, they didn’t ring true to me for that character. It’s always most interesting when a character is saying one thing and meaning another.

Writing routine

It varies a lot, depending on where I am in the writing process. If I’m not at the library or café before 11 a.m., my day is pretty much shot. I like to work long days for a few weeks, then take some time off. Early in the process, I have a certain number of pages I aim for. I write longhand, so word counts are not possible.

On whether good writing can be taught

I think everyone can learn to be a better writer. As a teacher, my goal is to help students become better at their craft. “Good” is something for someone else to judge.

 

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.