Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Report from the Trenches, #3

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 19, 2017

 

The last two weeks’ posts have gotten a lot of positive response, so apparently they have struck a nerve. I confess though, as I sit down to write today’s Report #3, that I’m not really sure exactly WHAT is proving so helpful. Obviously I want to stay in that vein. So, spitballing a bit, here goes …

There are rules for working with this dude ...

There are rules for working with this dude …

The specific question readers might be asking right about now is, What exactly did Shawn’s notes say? And, How exactly did you, Steve, respond?

  1. The bulk of Shawn’s problem with the manuscript I gave him was that I had violated conventions of the genre I was working in.

The genre, as Shawn identified it, is Redemptive Horror Thriller. The parallel works he cited were The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby.

In other words, a story where the villain is the devil.

How had I violated the conventions of this genre? A lot of ways, but here’s one, verbatim from Shawn’s notes:

 

The trick of this sort of story, though, is to ride out the uncertainty about the true nature of the evil until “all Hell breaks loose.”

So the reader gets off on the “could this really be the devil?” element long enough for them to start to believe and then…you hit them with the irrational and green goo spew like that pivotal scene in THE EXORCIST.

This is what drives the suspense in supernatural horror stories like THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY’S BABY. The protagonists in both of those stories were victims (Father Karras in THE EXORCIST and Rosemary in ROSEMARY’S BABY) and the promise from the positioning of the stories was:

“Yes…this is a supernatural Devil! Story!”

But…

The reader and the viewer of both of those stories needed evidence, a progressive narrative build to the revelation that the devil/supernatural is real and on stage.

Remember that in THE EXORCIST, the girl was taken to all kinds of doctors and had all kinds of tests and all possible explanations were eliminated before they brought in Max Van Sydow as the last resort to save her? That’s when the devil makes himself truly known…when the Exorcist arrives with Karras as his assistant.

 

Any of us as writers would KILL to get such incisive and helpful feedback, wouldn’t we?

It is GREAT to have a really smart editor.

Okay.

How did I respond? What did I take from this?

I could see that Shawn was right. So I read the manuscript over, re-outlining it scene-by-scene, with this objective in mind: How can I spool out the revelation of the villain’s identity, i.e. that he’s the devil, more slowly?

The protagonist of the story is a homicide detective.

Another of Shawn’s notes was that our detective wasn’t doing enough detecting. Clues were falling into his lap. It was too easy for him.

This was another issue I had to address.

I wrote two more fast outline-style passes of the story. One file I called Freewheelin’. The other I named Spitballin’. I wanted to keep loose. I wanted to throw a lot of stuff against the wall and see if anything stuck.

The allied character in the story (allied with the detective) is a female rabbi named Rachel. In the manuscript I sent to Shawn, Rachel knows all the occult backstory and she knows it from the start. She knows all about the devil and what nefarious scheme he is up to. Throughout Act One and Act Two she is trying to convince the detective of this, and he is resisting, refusing to believe.

I decided that that was 100% wrong.

I could respond to Shawn’s notes, I thought, by having the character of Rachel resist the detective. (The detective’s name is Manning.) That would force Manning to do more detective work. It would make him a stronger character, and it would involve the reader more because she could track along with Manning as he worked to unravel the mystery.

Pretty basic stuff, right? But I’ve only been doing this for fifty years, so I’ll give myself a pass on blowing this completely.

Anyway, here is part of the file I sent back to Shawn after having thrashed this stuff out for about four weeks:

 

Rethinking the character of Rachel. I’m going to change her character completely. This will be a HUGE CHANGE because its effects ripple through the whole story.

I’m gonna take your thought re Rachel’s attitude and actions and turn them on their head. Instead of being the person who already knows what’s happening and is trying in every scene to compel Manning to believe in it, we’ll have her FLEEING from Manning, clamming up (she still knows everything but in this new version refuses to tell it), doing everything in her power NOT to tell Manning anything. So he’ll have to do more detective work to find out. We’ll cut the scene where Rachel appears at DivSix and delivers all the goodies about “lamed vav” and “the victims are all Jews.” Manning will find these out on his own.

I spitballed a scene for Shawn. (“The Rebbe” is one of the murder victims. The devil’s human-form name is “Instancer.” “36RM” is short for Thirty-Six Righteous Men, a Jewish legend whose connotations include the End of Days, i.e. extinction of the human race.)

SCENE: Immediately after the murder of the Rebbe and the fleeing of Instancer (we’ll keep Manning conscious and still full of fight, even though he has tussled with Instancer), he spots Rachel, outside, lurking. As soon as she sees him, she bolts. A wild French Connection-type chase ensues across Brooklyn at night that takes Manning to an encampment of the dispossessed, into which Rachel flees deeper and deeper, finally diving into a derelict “van down by the river” (obviously hers) that she flees in further, before crashing into an abutment, where Manning and Dewey overtake her, guns drawn. Manning bursts into the van’s living compartment and finds it’s an Obsession Chamber, packed with Rachel’s computer, 36RM files, and, big as life on the wall, a blow-up photo of Instancer.

In other words, “Who the f**k are you? Who is Instancer? And how do you come to have all this shit?”

 

I realize that these notes and these scenes are project-specific and thus may be hard to make sense of, for the reader coming in cold. I’m featuring them in this post, however, in the hope that getting really specific will be the most helpful way to go, even if it’s a bit confusing.

To recap, Shawn’s notes to me made eight major points.

Today’s post touches on just one of them.

But it depicts clearly, I hope, the way an editor thinks, what he’s looking for when evaluating whether a story works or doesn’t (in this case, the writer—me—is guilty of violating the conventions of the genre he’s working in), and how he, the editor, articulates this to his writer.

Of course, you and I, if we don’t have a really good editor, have to do this evaluation on our own. Very hard to do.

The specifics in this post also, I hope, show how a writer responds to his editor’s notes. The big thing to keep in mind, I think, is HOW LONG it took me in this case—a full month.

This is the process.

I’ve gone through it, and so has Shawn, on just about every book we’ve worked on, with each other and with others.

It ain’t easy, and it ain’t pretty.

Next week: more specifics as we continue slogging through the jungle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

22 Responses to “Report from the Trenches, #3”

  1. July 19, 2017 at 6:23 am

    Another great post. I wish I had a Shawn 😉 Have his story grid book. Love hearing your experiences with your writing. It gives me hope. If you still go through all of this then it’s okay if I do. Much appreciated!

    • July 26, 2017 at 11:42 pm

      Shawn will train a small group editors in September,2017. They’ll be more affordable than working directly with Shawn and you’ll finally be able to get your own Certified Story Grid Editor.

  2. July 19, 2017 at 6:26 am

    Steven, remember when Mary Tyler Moore’s show got so popular because she was willing to speak up and to take risks at work? As a single woman at that time in history, she was a pioneer. The public loved her show because they loved her. They didn’t have to understand they admired her vulnerability and her courage. They just loved her. That’s why we love you, too. You are a pioneer in your vulnerability and courage to show up and to share. So we love you. Get used to it!

  3. Mary Doyle
    July 19, 2017 at 6:44 am

    Thanks for another great post in a fantastic series! I already have this book on my “watch” list and can’t wait to read it after it’s “shipped.”

  4. Larry Pass
    July 19, 2017 at 7:12 am

    Great post, Steve
    Question — when you got to work on this point in Shawn’s feedback — after however long you avoided it — did you try to tweak the scenes first, or did you immediately go to the two outline passes? And what was the difference between Freewheelin’ and Spitballin’?

    Some feedback Shawn might not have –a rabbi would have very different take on HaSatan from the common Christian notion of the Devil.

    • July 19, 2017 at 1:04 pm

      I went straight to the outline passes, Larry. Re the titles of the files, they basically mean (to me) the same thing: keep it loose.

  5. Nina
    July 19, 2017 at 7:13 am

    Great post. I am going to want to read this! Respect for how open/vulnerable you dare to be. In my opinion you are really kicking resistance in the butt. Keep up the good work!

  6. Charlotte Rodziewicz
    July 19, 2017 at 7:47 am

    Interesting to note that in the Book of Job, an intertestamental writing, Satan is the “tester.” From the opening, God says that Job is a good and upright man. Satan’s role is to test Job to prove God wrong. I’m looking forward to your book, especially in seeing how the two main characters are tested, how they are “proved.”

  7. July 19, 2017 at 8:19 am

    Well, you’re on a California roll Steven! If you’re wondering why these latest posts are waking us up, here’s how it occurs for me — you’re at your best when you show us your dirty underwear. Uh, okay, maybe don’t go THAT far — but what I mean is you’re showing us that you’re not perfect at ALL, that despite your vast experience, (and “success”) writing a damn-good story is a process fraught with all kinds of unseen twists and turns, obstacles and antagonists of our own making. Often, it’s grueling. Exhausting. Confusing. Terrifying. But if we hang in there long enough, and accept “what’s what,” it’s also one of the most super effin’ rewarding experiences throughout human time.

  8. July 19, 2017 at 9:18 am

    This is great stuff! Always helpful when you bring in specifics about the project, makes the concepts very tangible even if we’re unaware of the story. And speaking of the story: murder, the devil, religion, clues, Brooklyn– it has all the elements of a real blockbuster!

    Looking forward to buying a few copies for myself and friends when it comes out.

  9. Dick Yaeger
    July 19, 2017 at 10:19 am

    VERY valuable, Steve. Oh that we all had Shawn-likes looking over our shoulders as we struggle to create. Most of us financially manage with volunteer beta-readers and critique groups to gain insight into reader reaction. Useful, of course, but you’ve forced me to consider whether that approach over-focuses on the inner details of the story at the expense of the necessary global perspective you’ve described here. Thanks as always.

    Lastly, a quantum genre-leap into “Redemptive Horror Thriller.” Wow! Can’t wait. I bet Manning is a former Marine.

    • July 26, 2017 at 11:43 pm

      Shawn will train a small group editors in September,2017. They’ll be more affordable than working directly with Shawn and you’ll finally be able to get your own Certified Story Grid Editor.

  10. Tina
    July 19, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    A movie that is relevant to your book are FALLEN (Denzel Washington) because there is a detective who wants to get information from a nun about a demon. Also, the t.v. series called GRIMM because there is a police man who is fighting strange creature/people and hunts down a woman (his aunt) and finds her old motor home filled with information and weapons that help him with his battle against the animal people.
    I would love to have a partner as smart as yours!

  11. July 19, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    This is very useful. I appreciate your willingness to give us a look at how the sausage is made.

  12. Rachel
    July 19, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    Thanks so much for these insights, Steve. Extraordinarily helpful to see that these sorts of struggles are actually an unavoidable – and universal – part of the writing process!

  13. July 20, 2017 at 3:29 am

    Wow. Wow. Wow.
    So, so grateful for this glimpse into the inner workings. How wonderful that you and Shawn have each other and have such an open and trusting relationship.

    Even though I have no Shawn, I can still use your previously described device of splitting into a new self. I think I’ll call her Shawnette.

    • July 26, 2017 at 11:46 pm

      Shawn is training a small group editors in September,2017. They’ll be more affordable than working directly with Shawn and you could have your own Certified Story Grid Editor.

  14. July 20, 2017 at 11:39 am

    The true key to the horror in “The Exorcist” is that you couldn’t see the monster – the Devil. We could hear it and see it, and we in the audience definitely knew it was there. But the characters in the book and on the screen were oblivious to it; trying to make sense of the madness rampaging around them. Remember, the mother thought the scratching sounds were rats in the attic. When one of her housekeepers proved otherwise, more signs soon arose revealing that something was awry. Yet everyone remained clueless. The doctors had some inclination of demonic possession, but as medical professionals, they just couldn’t bring themselves to say it out loud.

    That’s what made it all so scary. The readers and the viewers knew full well what was happening, and it’s almost as if we wanted to lunge forward to grab the mother and yell, “You dumbass! Can’t you see your daughter is possessed?!”

    True horror keeps the monster hidden at first and may not even reveal it all. But it often makes the reader wonder if it’s even really there, or if someone’s mind is just messed up.

  15. July 20, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    I love seeing behind the scenes and this example is especially helpful for me (with my own supernatural horror MS in the works). Thanks Mister.

  16. Julie Murphy
    July 20, 2017 at 4:35 pm

    For WHAT it’s worth. . .
    Old World cartographers would note at the edge of their maps: beyond here there be dragons. Reading your chronicles of going off-map remind me I’m in good company as I go beyond my known world. You help me want to be braver.

    You do realize you’re no longer just writing a novel, right? The next installment in the Turning Pro series might just come from this parallel processing.

  17. Jim Gant
    July 24, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    Steve and Shawn!

    I am loving ‘Reports from the Trenches’…Great stuff. Very insightful.

    Keep it coming!

    Strength and Honor,

    Jim