The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

Foolscapping “The Lion’s Gate”

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.

Hussein

King Hussein of Jordan fields questions from the international press on the third morning of the Six Day War.

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.”

“Really?”

“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.

Posted in The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

15 Responses to “Foolscapping “The Lion’s Gate””

  1. Basilis
    May 9, 2014 at 3:21 am

    😀 Always something new and interesting!

  2. Mary Doyle
    May 9, 2014 at 5:11 am

    Indeed, how do you know when to listen? I’ve resisted joining any type of critique group based on your warnings Steve, instead opting to find that one person to trust to give me feedback. I’ve come to the conclusion that this person will appear when the time is right; the Muse has been so generous that I’m going to keep my eyes and ears open and trust in her.

    Thanks for continuing to share the process of this book.

    • May 9, 2014 at 6:30 am

      Mary, I’ve learned the answer to that the long hard way. Ask yourself a few questions.

      Does the advisor understand your goal in writing? Do they understand you?

      Do they care about your project, as opposed to simply having a financial or intellectual stake? If they’re offering advice to show you they’re smart, or if it’s a paid position based more on money than mutual trust, that’s a red flag. Nothing wrong with getting paid, but it has to be backed with love.

      Do you believe they have the technical expertise to offer this advice? Not “are they smarter than you” but if they say “Make it first person” do they have a clue about why and how? A voracious reader might be as qualified as a writing coach in some instances.

      Do they have a history of giving good insightful advice, or just a history of giving lots of advice?

      Did you ask for advice, or did they volunteer? Unsolicited advice is probably wrong. Reluctantly supplied advice from a trusted advisor who doesn’t want to hurt yor feelings but who gives in to your pestering should get careful consideration.

      If you believe they have your best interests at heart and have some level of competence, listen carefully, ask questions, envision outcomes based on your way and their way, and then listen to your gut, your intuition, your unconscious.

      Feed your brain all this data, and listen to its answer.

      • Mary Doyle
        May 9, 2014 at 6:44 am

        Joel thank you so much for taking the time to share these questions with me – I really appreciate it! Be well…Mary

      • May 9, 2014 at 12:47 pm

        Joel – excellent, timely tips. I’ve taught writing, mentored, edited, critiqued. Knowing what I know I clam up more and more telling anyone what I’m writing. I’ve narrowed it to one person who I must admit is telling me what to write. She knows my philosophy of non-collaboration, and I already knew she does otherwise with her own. I’m on the fence because her helpful feedback is invaluable, but the mind-pollution “I see this” “I think you should” is distracting. Wah!

        Writing is at times the loneliest thing I’ve ever done, and I love being alone. Thanks again for the reminders. Love, Sharon

        p.s.: There are times when sharing your writing far and wide is good and necessary and I do so with say, anthology or blog pieces. I’ve been at this a long time and every project has it’s moods. YMMV.

  3. May 9, 2014 at 7:20 am

    I liked the advice about putting entire plot onto one page.

  4. Paul C
    May 9, 2014 at 8:14 am

    I was surprised with Shawn’s reaction, considering all the great war novels, including Hemingway’s. I know you’ve written that you like to keep secret your next project but someone should smack Shawn over the head with one of those Black Irish boxing gloves if he hasn’t asked you to consider doing both with your research- Lion’s Gate and a big novel about Israel and the Middle East. I’ve started reading Lion’s Gate. All the material for major and minor characters, including American, British, Russian Jews, Arabs, would be one heck of a bookend to Gates of Fire.

    • May 10, 2014 at 2:28 pm

      Hmm,

      • May 15, 2014 at 5:44 pm

        There have been novel’s about the 6 Day War. (Herman Wouk’s The Hope covers Israel’s history from 1948-1967, for instance.) I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been a few in Hebrew.

        But if there can be novels about Vietnam, why not the 6 Day War? Still, Shawn’s instinct was correct – because he knows you so well. You described him as your “friend, partner, and editor.” I think that answers “here’s the killer question: how do you know when to listen?” If your friend, partner and editor don’t see what you missed, or confirm what you’ve seen, something’s wrong with the writer-project-audience connection.

        I think a novel of the Six-Day War would be very different than your other novels. But then, isn’t every novel?

  5. May 9, 2014 at 8:20 am

    I think the muse has two jobs. First to tell you what to write and second what to rewrite. Sometimes when a critique partner speaks, sometimes they are doing so for the muse and you can pretty much spot her when that happens. Other times they are doing it for resistance–and that manifests in the form of being threatened by you or the work, not understanding the work, not wanting to take the time to think in-depth and a number of other reasons.

    PS-I received my advance copy of Lion’s Gate yesterday from Callie as well as some other goodies and it felt like Christmas! I’m reading it this weekend.

  6. May 9, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Dear Steve,
    I’m holed up in Las Vegas on a writing binge, however I do go to bookstores in the evening. I haven’t even been to the High Roller, the world’s biggest Ferris wheel that opened recently!

    The Barnes & Noble in Henderson finally brought a copy of your book out from the back, after I visited twice asking where it was. The Lake Mead/Rainbow store had it on their “New Releases” table last night; I made sure to prop it for visibility.

    I’d begun reading a sample and bookstore copies, and my very own arrived today. You are my dessert each day for hacking away at my own fools cap.

    Most of my crappy, unpublishable novels have been written stream-of-consciousness. I loved the diversions of research, side notes, and writing about how hard it was. I usually knew the end, then the beginning, then tried to fill in. We all know: the middle is where Hell’s flames burn hottest.

    I’m determined to fools cap this sucker; I have scenes, dialogues, descriptions. But this time I want to do it differently; an outline is too banal even for me – Virgo.

    I agree with you that “theme” is the method. Thanks for continuing with us in the trenches, and I remain fascinated by your process with Shawn. Love, Sharon

  7. May 10, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    I’ve been foolscaping for a while, although, I call it chunking. For me it’s about working backwards. I get the emotional impact that I want to express and then work backwards to build up to this final overall expression by leading readers up to it. Each section, I write what impact I want at that point. I’ve done this for years for articles, press releases and features. It’s longer fiction I’m finding challenging right now, especially the second draft phase. Wouldn’t dare show it to anyone, even the most trusted friend. Fiction is far more personal than anything I’ve ever written – it reveals so much about the writer…..and I’m still a wimp.

  8. May 10, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    I don’t think it’s about avoiding writing a particular book, more to do with it’s all been leading to writing a particular book. If we all continued doing what we feel comfortable with, we’d stagnate.

    Thanks for these posts Steve, and the great advice from your fab community here, they’re driving me forward :-)

  9. May 15, 2014 at 5:48 pm

    The title of the post piqued my curiosity. (Of course, I’m always curious to read what you write.) Foolscapping a non-fiction (narrative or otherwise) – how is that done?

    Now I know. Thanks!

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