By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 9, 2014
[“The Book I’ve Been Avoiding Writing” (a.k.a. “Three Years of Writing and 40+ Years of Thinking About The Lion’s Gate“) is a mini-series about the writing of my new book, The Lion’s Gate. Thanks for tuning in as it runs Mondays and Fridays over the next few weeks.]
Why am I here in Israel, interviewing veterans of the Six Day War in-person? Why not write the book based entirely on research? That’s how I wrote Gates of Fire and six other novels.
It worked then. Why won’t it work now?
That is a great question and the answer is absolutely critical.
I have a trick for starting any book. I learned it from my old friend Norm Stahl, who told me once over lunch at Joe Allen’s in New York City:
“Steve, God made a single sheet of foolscap paper to be exactly the right length to hold the outline of an entire novel.”
What Norm meant was, “Hey, Writer! Before you plunge in wildly and write the wrong book (or the right book in the wrong way), stop and organize the project in your mind so that you know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. And make the damn thing fit on one page so you can see it all at one glance.”
Well, I’m not smart enough to do this by myself so I called my friend, partner, and editor Shawn Coyne.
The first question I asked Shawn was, “Should I write this book like I did Gates of Fire, as historical fiction?”
In other words, write it based on historical fact but using invented characters (or invented characters based on real people) and invented incidents (or real incidents fictionalized to fit into an imposed narrative).
“No, no, no,” Shawn said without hesitation. “You can’t do that. It would be a disaster.”
“The Six Day War happened only forty-five years ago. There are thousands and thousands of people who remember it vividly, who fought in it, who lived and died with its suspense and drama day-by-day. You can’t make up a story for them. They want what really happened. If you give them anything else, they’ll be furious at you. And they’ll be right.”
Hmm. That makes sense.
“Steve, think about Black Hawk Down. That’s what this book is. It’s narrative non-fiction. It’s like a novel in that it’s told as a story. But the characters are real and the events actually happened.”
In the foolscap method, you ask yourself three primary questions:
1. What’s the theme of my story?
2. What are its Act One, Act Two, Act Three?
3. What is the narrative device?
Shawn is giving me the answer to #3.
This story can’t be told using the conventions of historical fiction because it’s too close to the present. Readers won’t trust its reality. They’ll think it’s phony, it’s made up.
It has to be told using the real people who participated in the real events. That’s what will give it power, authority, and authenticity.
Shawn is right.
“Thank you, man. You just saved this whole freakin’ project.”
So that’s why I’m here in Israel. That’s why I’m tape-recording hours and hours of what really happened. I have to. It’s the only way this story will work.
You need help in this racket. You need smart friends. You need to pause before you begin and ask the thorny fundamental questions.
If I had been on my own, without Shawn to advise me, I would have answered #3 wrong. I would have plunged in, wasted every second of my time, and the project would have been dead on arrival.
My own instincts were not good enough. I was wrong. My gut gave me a bad answer.
But here’s the killer question: how do you know when to listen? What if your spouse, your mentor, the leader of your writing group … what if they steer you wrong? What if they tell you turn left, when the road you want goes right?
I don’t know.
I don’t know the answer to that.
There’s a story, apocryphal I’m sure, about James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway in Paris. Or maybe it’s Joyce and Ezra Pound. I’ve heard it both ways.
Anyway, Joyce has just finished the first draft of Ulysses. The stack of pages is so enormous he has to carry in to Hemingway’s place in three trips. “Will you read this for me, Hem? I’m so close to it, I don’t know what the hell to do with the damn thing.”
“No problem, Jim. Come back in a month.”
“Thanks, bro. You are the man!” And Joyce heads home.
Hemingway’s apartment is tiny. He has no space big enough to put the massive manuscript, so he (or perhaps his wife Hadley) stacks it in four stages on four steps of the stairs. There it sits.
Joyce returns in a month. Of course Hemingway hasn’t read a page. All he can do, mortified and too ashamed to acknowledge his dereliction, is scoop the pages up into one big pile and give them back to Joyce, meanwhile praising Joyce’s work to the skies. The only problem is, as Hemingway is gathering the pages from the stair steps, he forgets which order he set the stacks down in.
As soon as Joyce leaves, Hemingway realizes his mistake. “Oh my God, I gave him the stacks out of order. I gave him the manuscript with Part Two where Part One was supposed to be!”
Next day Hemingway is sitting at a table in the Closerie des Lilas, when he sees Joyce approaching on the sidewalk outside. He tries to duck out the back door before Joyce sees him, but he’s too slow. Joyce stomps in, catches Hemingway’s arm, and spins him around.
“Hem, I love the way you edited the piece. The new start is sensational. Putting Part Two ahead of Part One—I should’ve begun it that way all along. Here, sit down, lemme buy you another drink … ”
We all need help. Nobody does it alone.