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Author Interview: Stein on Writing

Deep in the Archives

This is an author interview that I wrote in the 1990s.

Sol Stein penned his first story on telegram blanks, stolen from Western Union. “My father took them from the Grand Central Station,” Stein said, “because we couldn’t afford paper in the depths of the Depression.”

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His first poem was published in a school paper when he was seven. “I wrote my first book when I was 13, and it was published when I was 15,” he said. “When I went to see the publisher, he asked me why my father didn’t come himself.”

Since that time, more than two million copies of Stein’s novels have been sold. Selected by major book clubs, they’re available in 14 languages, including Finnish, Dutch, and Greek.

“If you bury yourself in a Sol Stein book while walking,” one review by The New York Times said, “you’ll walk into a wall.”

Stein’s talents extend even further than his own writing, however. He also founded the publishing house, Stein & Day, ranked by Writer’s Yearbook as the third best publisher in 1985.

His company published the works of the Shah of Iran, British Prime Minister Edward Heath, Steve Allen, F. Lee Bailey, and Desmond Morris.

Another inspiring author published by Stein & Day is Christy Brown, a writer who only had the use of his little toe on this left foot. The award-winning movie, My Left Foot, recounts Brown’s life and his amazing accomplishments.

“If Brown could write, I can’t accept excuses like ‘I don’t have enough time,’ or ‘I can’t make enough money writing,'” Stein said. “Those who have sex find time for it. Those who want to write badly enough always find time for that, too. If anybody or anything can stop you from writing, you may not be a writer.”

You don’t have to travel that writing trail alone, though. Stein’s book, Stein on Writing, will lead you through the journey.

His exercises coax out quality work, earning praise from writers, publishers, and playwrights everywhere. Five-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Elia Kazan, had this to say. “My publisher Sol Stein was my producer and my editor. Sol Stein was my director. Sol saw what I didn’t think possible.”

“How can we prolong Stein’s life?” cried out another reviewer. “Need more, more, more.”

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Stein divides his writing guide into seven sections. The first, called “The Essentials,” entices you to plunge right in, to construct an inviting first paragraph. Stein gives concrete examples of intriguing hooks and instructive examples of the yawners.

He challenges you to “excite the reader’s curiosity, preferably about a character or a relationship.” Review your opening. “Does it convey an interesting personality or an action that we want to know more about?”

He also has this to say. “Can you make your first sentence more intriguing by introducing something unusual, something shocking perhaps, or something that will surprise the reader?”

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Section two starts with a chapter called “Competing with God: Making Fascinating People.” Stein gently but firmly turns you away from the cliched characterization that lists every physical attribute on a person’s body.

Instead, by choosing just the right physical and psychological characteristics, Stein helps you to create lasting characters. His explanation of character markers sparkles.

“The first job of a novelist,” he said, “is to create memorable characters who are more interesting than many one meets in life. Build a story around those characters, so readers will want to spend time with them.”

Stein on Writing then moves on to the clashing of swords: the plot.

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By testing the conflict out on the rounded characters you’ve already created, Stein helps you to avoid unlikely plots. “Can you make it [the plot] surprising by setting up an action and then showing the opposite of what your reader is likely to expect?”

Stein observes how “Beginning fiction writers sometimes hobble themselves with made up sounding stories. The way to avoid superficial fiction is the ‘secret photograph’ technique. Imagine a photo that you wouldn’t want anyone else to see. The usual response is of a moment or event that means a great deal to you. Because of its latent emotional power, the moment contains a reservoir from which you can pull up valuable material that will impact the emotions of the reader.”

In the book, he suggests subtle ways to create suspense and tension, the marrow of good plotting. He offers a method for creating immediate conflicts that’s used by the Playwrights Group of the Actors Studio. Stein jointly created this prestigious group with Tennessee Williams.

Stein insists on fresh dialogue that “beings or heightens an existing conflict . . . stimulates the reader’s curiosity . . . creates tension . . . or builds to a climax.”

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Section three of the book offers suggestions for both fiction and non-fiction writers. “The first job of a non-fiction writer is to convey information in a way that entertains as well as instructs,” Stein said. “That is why I emphasize the use of fictional techniques to enhance non-fiction.”

The chapter titles in this section sum up the contents well: “Amphetamines for Speeding up Pace” and “Liposuctioning Flab” are just two of them. Section four focuses strictly on non-fiction, with a thought-provoking chapter called “Guts: The Decisive Ingredients.”

The next section, “Literary Values in Fiction and Nonfiction,” emphasizes what Stein called “particularity,” which is a “detail that individualizes.” Instead of calling a smile “fake,” for example, Stein calls the smile an “implant.”

The last two sections of the book provide revision techniques and places to head for additional help.

Stein on Writing is only the latest success in a long line of professional accomplishments for Stein. The author of nine novels, another non-fiction book, and two plays, Stein was also the originators and general editor of an early line of trade paperbacks.

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He co-founded the Mid-Century Book Society, a successful book club for the educated reader. He served as a consultant for various publishers, and he lectured on writing at several colleges, earning a Distinguished Instructor Award for 1992.

He created a sales promotion campaign that caused the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York to run out of bottles for the first time in history.

Stein has appeared on the Today Show, the Tonight Show, the Larry King Show, the David Frost Program and major interview shows in Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Hartford, Boston, New York, Paris, and London.

He’s listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, and Who’s Who in Entertainment.

Stein has also created an award-winning software program called WritePro that guides people through the often treacherous process of writing. According to Stein, when using WritePro, you can’t get writer’s block.

Steve Bass, president of the Pasadena IBM Users Group said the following about this software in the Pasadena Star-News. “I don’t think I’m exaggerating if I tell you WritePro is perfect for everyone who has to–or wants to–write. The program is easy to install. It’s automatic and friendly, includes step-by-step lessons, each taking you further along the road to making dialogue come alive, creating expressive characters, devising and fleshing our plots, building beginnings that hook the reader and using the computer to do my absolute favorite, ‘flab editing.’ The program’s style is supportive and, without much brain strain, offers results you can see almost immediately.”

Stein believes that instruction by computer is wonderful. “Those programs are designed to pass on the techniques developed by thousands of writers, so newcomers don’t have to lose years of life reinventing the wheel,” he said. “I cherish the letters from writers who attribute getting their first work published as a result of what they learned.”

Stein continues by saying how, “When I edited such writers as James Baldwin, Jack Higgins, Elia Kazan, and others, it had to be face to face. Now, through the advent of computers, I can settle in to guide writers as they anywhere in the world.”

Stein believes it’s the responsibility of each writer to do the best job possible every time. “Top of the head writing and hackwork tends to destroy talent, the most precious possession a writer has,” he said. “A writer is not responsible for the fate of Bosnia or the world, but writers seem to have had more lasting influence on what each generation passes on to the next than any other profession. That makes each writer on a small scale responsible for the culture inherited by our children.”

He is also convinced that books will continue to be a staple in our culture. “We can read them at our own pace any time and anywhere, and there are so many thousands to choose from.”

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Stein is still adding to that number. He is writing his tenth novel, White Tribes, using the same characters at in The Magician, his novel that sold more than one million copies.

“I’m also writing a memoir called Passing for Normal,” he said. “And I just finished writing a computer program called WritePro for Business. Many business men and women are terrified of writing. Their letters, memos, and reports sound like forms instead of human communication. It’s exciting to see how the business beta testers are responding enthusiastically to a vehicle that enables them to writer effective letters.”

Stein has seen many changes in the publishing industry. “Book publishing has changed dramatically in my lifetime from a vocation for people who loved books to a business like the movies or any other business. Yet, I still meet young editors who thrive on finding and guiding a new work.”

Stein’s daughter Elizabeth is that type of editor at Simon and Schuster. “I’m immensely proud of Elizabeth,” he said. “She has worked on several fine books recently that have made page one of The New York Times Book Review and national bestsellers lists. Discovering or enhancing the work of talent is still a remarkable vocation.”

Note: Sol Stein died at the age of 92. Here is a tribute to his incredible talent and influence, published in The New York Times.

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