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What It Takes

What It Takes

What the Dog Saw: Pitching and Receiving

By Callie Oettinger
Published: September 26, 2014


I’ve been on the pitching and receiving end of books and films, as a publicist sharing information and as an editor and/or writer receiving and deciding what to do with that information.

Personal value is the common thread. As both a publicist and an editor/writer, you have to find the elements of value. What is of interest on the surface and what is of interest if you dive deeper—and how can they be pulled out?

A good example of this process resides in the following from Malcolm Gladwell, on how he finds a story:

You don’t start at the top if you want to find the story. You start in the middle, because it’s the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world.

If a book is a corporation/organization/you name it, what represents the “people in the middle” who drive the book? Find that and you’ll find the personal value that appeals to readers, editors/writers, and so on.

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Does Somebody Know Something?

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 1, 2014

Continuing on last Wednesday’s subject of Nobody Knows Nothing:

Maxwell Perkins, who edited Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.

Somebody has to know something. We can’t all be flying blind. It’s unacceptable for us to throw up our hands on the topic of our art and our livelihood.

But who is that someone?

In the book biz, that individual is called an editor.

“Editor” is probably the least understood profession on the planet, short of “movie producer.”

No one knows what an editor does. Does she spell-check your manuscript? Organize your book tour? Is it her job to get you on Oprah? Make sure that your book gets reviewed by The New York Times?

Or is she more like a story guru and diagnostician? Can she help make your novel work? Can she analyze its plot structure? Shed light on characterization? Can she identify the parts that aren’t working? Can she tell you how to fix them?  Can she do for you what Maxwell Perkins did for Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe?

I got lucky about twenty years ago—career-making lucky—when a young editor at Doubleday bought my manuscript, Gates of Fire. I got lucky because that editor was Shawn Coyne. I’ve been riding his coattails ever since.

A great editor does all of the things listed above. But how? How does she learn her trade?

There is no such thing as Editors’ School. Harvard doesn’t offer a Ph.D. in Editing. Random House doesn’t teach it, and neither does Twentieth-Century Fox. As for freelancers, I’ve never met one who was worth diddly, and 90% of “real” editors are equally as useless. In many cases, they’re actually harmful. Their advice won’t help you; it’ll screw you up.

Again, this is not to knock editors. It’s just to restate that Nobody Knows Nothing (except a very rare few.)

How do those few learn their trade? Basically they teach themselves. They fall in love with Story and they set themselves the task of deciphering its mysteries. They read Aristotle’s Poetics. They study Shakespeare and Turgenev and Tarantino. They plumb obscure texts, they participate in seminars. And they read and read and read.

They ask themselves, “Why does Story X work and Story Y doesn’t?” What does The Godfather have in common with Oedipus Rex? Is there a trick? Is there a secret? How did Shakespeare do it over and over? What does Stephen King know that the rest of us don’t?

Great editors like Shawn develop systems. They evolve philosophies. They borrow principles from professional students/teachers of story structure. They steal tidbits from their own writers and from others. And they invent their own. Like scientists, they develop hypotheses and they test them against reality.

Shawn has a system that he calls the Story Grid. It took him twenty-plus years to work out. [For a preview, sign up for his work-in-progress site,] When you give him a manuscript he says, “Lemme put the Grid on it.” He showed me the diagram once for Silence of the Lambs. It blew my mind. I thought I was looking at brain surgery. “You mean there are that many moving parts?”
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Posted in Writing Wednesdays | 10 Comments

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Nobody Knows Nothing, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 24, 2014

We were talking last week about how hard it is to evaluate material, particularly your own.

Not even Quentin Tarantino knows everything.

How do you tell if your new novel, your start-up, your Cuban-Chinese restaurant is any good? Who can tell you? Whose judgment can you trust?

In the literary/movie field, entire industries have evolved to respond to this need. Robert McKee (full disclosure: my friend) has established himself, among others, as the guru of Story Structure. A vocabulary, from Bob and other analysts, has spread through every studio and production company. “Inciting Incident,” “Second Act Turning Point,” “All Is Lost moment” are phrases that every script reader and development exec knows by heart.

Why? Because they help bring order out of chaos. They shed light on the mysteries of story. Is this book/screenplay working? Why? If something’s wrong, what is it? And how do we fix it?

Story analysis is the industry’s attempt at a diagnostic instrument. Is it art? Is it science? Is it bullshit?

Should you, the writer, study this stuff? Should you craft your stories to suit the guidelines and principles of “story structure?” Will the exercise inhibit you? Will it make you self-conscious, over-analytical? Will it reduce your work to formula?

Should you remain ignorant?

Are you a genius?

Does your gift set you beyond the need to know the principles of your craft?

Here’s my answer in two questions:

1. Who has bent the rules more successfully over the past twenty years than Quentin Tatantino?

2. Who understands the rules better than Quentin Tarantino?

I’m a believer in knowing the rules. You have to be familiar with the vocabulary. You have to understand the conventions of the genre you’re working in, even if (particularly if) it’s a genre that you yourself have just invented.

And yet …
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Posted in Writing Wednesdays | 8 Comments
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