Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Last Report from the Trenches

By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 30, 2017

 

My sense is that maybe it’s time to dial down our “Reports from the Trenches.”

"You picked your feet in Poughkeepsie!"

“You picked your feet in Poughkeepsie!”

The big takeaway of the series actually came in the first week:

 

Even long-time successful writers crash and burn. It happens to me just like it happens to everybody.

 

I hope the follow-up posts have been helpful. But my sense is that we may have reached the point of diminishing returns. The last thing I want to do is bore anybody.

So …

Lemme try to wrap up today with a quick “lessons learned” post.

Aside from the acknowledgment that EVERY WRITER screws up and EVERY ARTIST sometimes has to go back to Square One, I reprise here three tricks of the trade from previous posts in this series.

The object of all three is to GET AT THE STORY, when the story is hiding from us and remains half-buried like a dinosaur fossil.

I’ve been using all three techniques myself throughout the process I’ve been reporting on from the trenches. They all work. They all help.

  1. Go back to conventions of the genre.

If we’re writing The French Connection and the story is stuck, there’s no shame in pulling out “Conventions of the Police Procedural” (ah, if only there were such a book!) and following this precept:

 

 You must have at least one foot chase.

 

Bingo! How about having Popeye Doyle and his partner Cloudy chase a dope dealer through New York’s mean streets—and for a giggle have Popeye (Gene Hackman) wearing a Santa Claus suit? The cops run down the dude in a vacant lot and pin him against a wall.

 

POPEYE

Still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie?

 

DEALER

(scared)

What?

 

POPEYE

Don’t lie to me! You were in Poughkeepsie, you sat down

on the edge of the bed. You took off your shoes and you

picked your feet!

 

DEALER

Whatever you say, man!

 

I know, I know. It’s formula. But it helps. It gives us a great scene. It displays Popeye’s wild and crazy charisma. And when the dealer reveals in the climactic beat that a new shipment of heroin is coming into the city soon, this new scene advances the story.

  1. Go back to Timeless Storytelling Principles.

Zero in on our stalled story. Ask the questions Aristotle (or Shawn) would ask:

What is the theme? Does the hero embody it?

Does the villain embody the counter-theme?

Does every character represent something greater than him or herself?

Do all supporting characters embody aspects of the theme?

Do hero and villain clash in the climax over the issue of the theme?

Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray in "Chinatown"

Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray in “Chinatown”

Yeah, yeah … this stuff is elementary, I know. But out of this exercise can come

 

EVELYN MULWRAY

She’s my sister! She’s my daughter!

 

(The theme: unspeakable evil lies just beneath the placid surface of society, invisible to us all until it is exposed.)

And this:

 

WALSH

Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

 

  1. Give every key character scenes with every other key character.

    Ah! The scene we've been waiting for!

    Ah! The scene we’ve been waiting for!

You won’t keep them all. But explore the possibilities. Speck out a scene (or more) between Tyrion and Cersei, between Sansa Stark and Cersei, between Daenerys and Jon Snow. How about one between the Night King and a dragon? (If one of the characters is dead, don’t let that stop you. Use his or her ghost. Have the character appear in a flashback. Or have the scene happen in a dream.)

To recap:

The three techniques above are some I’ve been using myself during this “Reports from the Trenches” period to bust up the story logjam in my brain.

If one of them produces even one good scene, the technique is a winner. Because that scene may lead to another, or something a character says or does may shed light on their dilemma and open up new scenes and sequences to come.

One last thought before putting this series to bed:

 

Any and all of these techniques can be used when we’re STARTING a story or just working it out in our heads. We don’t have to wait till the tale implodes before using them.

 

Good luck to all of us!

 

 

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

30 Responses to “Last Report from the Trenches”

  1. Mary Doyle
    August 30, 2017 at 5:36 am

    Thanks for a great series and for the terrific stand-alone wrap-up! Can’t wait to see what you do next.

  2. Mark Sabljak
    August 30, 2017 at 6:10 am

    Thanks so much for your hard work on this series. Very inspirational. And while writing on a regular frequency is very hard, please “surprise” us with spontaneous ideas as you observe them.

    Thanks……Mark

    • September 1, 2017 at 10:01 am

      Hi Mark! Sorry if this is a bit strange. Not really sure of another way to connect with writers, and I would love your advice and opinion.

      If you read my post at the bottom of this page, you can see what I’m experiencing. I’m trying to figure out what the misery / anxiety / and difficulty means: does it mean I should give up and try something new? Or stick with the project I’ve been working on for 19 months and see it to completion?

      I’d love your opinion and perspective!

      I’d also love to know if there are any internet forums where people / authors / creatives discuss things like this.

      Thank you and have a wonderful weekend!

      Andy

      • September 1, 2017 at 12:35 pm

        Andy, You can go to the Story Grid Facebook page and click the community section on the left of the page. You’ll find other authors working The Grid as well. Also, Shawn and Tim are doing a training in September (Nashville) to certify Story Grid editors. I believe there are a couple of spots still available. Spend a week with Shawn and Tim and you might be able to better tackle that editing. That’s what you’re doing now, editing. That’s why I’m going. Again, best to you.

  3. August 30, 2017 at 6:12 am

    Thanks for this series, Steve! Looking forward to the next!

  4. August 30, 2017 at 6:14 am

    Waiting ’til things implode is human nature. Business, marriage, health… and novel writing, apparently. Proactive, preventive measures are brilliant in hindsight, but this series will always stick in my mind as your most realistic, human expression of writing, and of life. Honestly, it was wonderful!

  5. August 30, 2017 at 6:21 am

    way to land the plane, Steve – offering up great techniques from the trenches to harvest and foster.

    cheers and bravo!

  6. August 30, 2017 at 6:21 am

    Great series. Thank you and can’t wait for your next one.

  7. Lyn
    August 30, 2017 at 6:33 am

    What a wonderful series. We all got hooked, suffered through the “all is lost moment” and could deeply relate it to ourselves as writers. Yet, you prevailed and got us to the end with some great takeaway techniques to forge ahead with our own story writing. To hell and back. I agree with Mia — this was real “in the trenches” sharing. Thanks for enabling us to grow and learn from it. Thank you so much!

  8. Judy
    August 30, 2017 at 7:19 am

    Thanks so much for this series, Steve.

    You gave me courage and insight. Perfect writing partners.

  9. Barbara
    August 30, 2017 at 8:01 am

    Thanks, Steve! As always, great series.

  10. August 30, 2017 at 9:00 am

    Eternal appreciation for the encouragement and shepherding from the Scotch Grove Tribe, Msgr P…

  11. Larry Pass
    August 30, 2017 at 10:19 am

    Great series, Steve.
    People always say, “You learn more from your failures than your successes.” I think those people dwell on their failures and don’t examine their successes.
    I have a suggestion for a future series: “If I’d known then…”: an examination of your SUCCESSFUL books and how, if you could go back and rewrite them, how you’d apply your three points to make them better.

    • August 30, 2017 at 11:12 am

      Hmmm, I like that, Larry. Be careful, you may get what you wish for.

      Thanks!

      • September 1, 2017 at 12:23 pm

        I shall wish for this as well. Thank you for all your posts and your willingness to help other writers.

  12. August 30, 2017 at 11:35 am

    Steven, you are never boring! Don’t let that ever trouble you. These posts are great. Thanks for sharing the trenches with us. We know you have our backs and really appreciate it. God bless.

  13. Julie Murphy
    August 30, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    Very valuable series, Steve.

    Your idea of developing the story/plot/characters by involving characters together in a variety of situations was really helpful. Gave me the idea to begin with 3×5 cards with character names, mandatory scenes, conventions, locales, etc. Then shuffle and draw to see who plays out what…like a game of Clue or a Murder Mystery Weekend.

    I learned much from your Reports, and appreciate your candor and generosity sharing your perspective. Thanks, Steve.

    • September 1, 2017 at 10:01 am

      Hi Julie! Sorry if this is a bit strange. Not really sure of another way to connect with writers, and I would love your advice and opinion.

      If you read my post at the bottom of this page, you can see what I’m experiencing. I’m trying to figure out what the misery / anxiety / and difficulty means: does it mean I should give up and try something new? Or stick with the project I’ve been working on for 19 months and see it to completion?

      I’d love your opinion and perspective!

      I’d also love to know if there are any internet forums where people / authors / creatives discuss things like this.

      Thank you and have a wonderful weekend!

      Andy

  14. Nik
    August 30, 2017 at 2:38 pm

    That scene last week on Game of Thrones when Viserion died really got to me. Weird, right? Maybe it’s because I’m an animal person, and see the dragons as innocent animals — regardless of how lethal they are, they’re innocent in the same way a tiger is innocent.

    Or maybe it’s because of the way we were introduced to all three of those dragons seven (!) years ago, as tiny babies, and always figured them as indestructible forces for good as we watched them grow. (Although I have to admit I didn’t notice the dragons at first, not with a nude Emilia Clarke standing there cradling them. “What dragons? I didn’t see any dragons…”)

    Either way, it was a surprisingly emotional moment for a character who didn’t speak, had no agenda, and simply behaved as the creature he was. Good job by the writers and showrunners making us care. Seeing a reanimated Viserion turned to such terrible purpose this week was like twisting the knife.

  15. August 30, 2017 at 2:44 pm

    Thank you, Steve. I like the way you clarify things. It’s all about searching the possibilities and finding the right match up. Keep writing.

  16. Sara Steel
    August 30, 2017 at 4:39 pm
  17. Aster Zhen
    August 30, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    This was a great series and I enjoyed it very much. However I’d ask you not to spoil GoT episodes without warning for those of us who live in the antipodes with few means of (legally) accessing that content. Thank you!

  18. Veleka
    August 30, 2017 at 7:40 pm

    Steve, I wish I was there with you to bounce ideas off of. I wish you were here with me to bounce ideas off of as I work through outlining my magnum opus.

    Meanwhile, thanks for everything you have done for thousands of us writers… maybe millions of us… with your books and your posts like these. They and you are a blessing.

    • September 1, 2017 at 10:00 am

      Hi Veleka! Sorry if this is a bit strange. Not really sure of another way to connect with writers, and I would love your advice and opinion.

      If you read my post at the bottom of this page, you can see what I’m experiencing. I’m trying to figure out what the misery / anxiety / and difficulty means: does it mean I should give up and try something new? Or stick with the project I’ve been working on for 19 months and see it to completion?

      I’d love your opinion and perspective!

      I’d also love to know if there are any internet forums where people / authors / creatives discuss things like this.

      Thank you and have a wonderful weekend!

      Andy

  19. August 31, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    Hi everyone! First off, thank you Steven for your work. I’ve read all your self help books more than thrice, and they are my Bibles, my wilderness maps with well-worn edges, and the pieces I look at after a hard day’s work and riiiiight before I drift off to bed, with Resistance waiting for me at the bottom of the staircase, hovering over tomorrow’s huevos racheros.

    This is my first post on this forum. I post today because I want to see if an experience I am having is shared by anyone else.

    I’m 19 months into writing a book about law school. I’m on draft #12, and have gone back to square one more times than I can count. It’s been a harrowing process, what with being a lawyer, and English major and someone who fancied himself a decent writer, to see draft #10 be such complete horse shit. Emphasis on shit.

    I wanted to see if anyone else experiences intense anxiety, physically manifested, right around their heart / chest area, throughout this creative process. I’ve battled anxiety and depression for a while, and man, nothing has kicked off this physical manifestation of anxiety like deciding to stick with it, be stubborn and (gulp) try to turn pro?

    Everything in me wants to give up. Everything in me wants to say, “if it hurts this bad, or causes this much pain, or it’s taking this long to get a cohesive story down, time to try another book.” My therapist even told me to consider writing about something else.

    But something in me, let’s be honest, something in me despite all my tendencies to quit everything early, is continuing to put ass in chair and pen to pad. I’m in the doldrums. And yet I wake up again and again and again and try to bring this idea home from the heavens onto my laptop screen.

    But my chest feels like there’s an Anvil on it, I’m 19 months in and I thought i would be fucking John Grisham by now, and I just want to know if anyone else feels this way, this exact way, with the tightness of the chest, or other physical manifestation of anxiety.

    I want to know if I should try to read my misery, your pain as an indication that I’m on the wrong path and bail…or if I should keep going. I’m just having trouble knowing what to do with my intense, intense emotions.

    Thank you to anyone that reads this. Steven, thanks again for all you have done for us artists, or people like me who pound the Lenovo till something, anything comes out.

    I’d love to know if there are author forums, or if anyone wants to correspond with me, I’m happy to give my email.

    Thanks!

    Andy

    • September 1, 2017 at 12:21 pm

      Andy, You’re not alone. Resistance wants to kick your ass. I’ve been in a similar situation, specifically with the goal of finishing a book. I hear you saying this story is important to you. When you ask the question,”should I give up?” I ask, “could you give up?” If a story keeps bubbling over your soul, maybe you can’t and the question answers itself. You will either withstand the pain of being a pro writer/editor and keep going or you’ll quit and withstand the pain of disappointing the muse and your more analytical goals/self. So do you want to close the project and suffer or do you want to succeed in your manuscript solutions through suffering? Sounds like it’s time to cowboy up. On the other hand, writing is a bitch and it’s hard and it’s thankless in fame and fortune. It’s sucks your time away that could be spent on other things. It could be that you have a manuscript that is unworkable and you need to move on. I doubt it because this story resonates with you and it has required of you to finish. My guess is that’s why resistance is working so hard against it. And I bet you have something very important to learn about pushing through resistance/anxiety/feelings through the process of completing this book. Consider using that analytical side of you to set goals set stone. And as an intellectual, please don’t forget that part of going pro is asking for, and accepting, help from the right sources. Maybe you need to hire a developmental editor? Maybe you need to join a well-vetted critique group (caution here). Best of luck and hard work to you.

      • September 1, 2017 at 3:59 pm

        Thank you so much Racehlle, really, thank you.
        I will join the group!
        Why did you caution against the well vetted critique group?
        Thank you for all your heart felt sympathizing and energizing.
        Andy

        • amy
          September 3, 2017 at 6:22 pm

          Hi Andy,

          Well-said Rachelle. I just wanted to share a little something, Andy. I am 42 and have never had anything published. I have always wanted to write a fiction novel, but am only now beginning to actually do such a thing. What I realized over the course of following Pressfield and Coyne — and after reading a few more books on craft — was that NOT TRULY KNOWING STORY STRUCTURE has been what’s holding me back. You can have the passion and an “idea” and a “character,” etc., but if you don’t know HOW to put it all together in the way you KNOW it CAN be put together, you’ll get frustrated and want to quit. Maybe your frustration and depression is coming from a place related to how you are building your story, in which case, the tips and tricks — if you truly try to incorporate them into your process — that Pressfield, Coyne, and others have so kindly offered up might help you find the footing you seek. I have an “overactive” heart rate at times too, but I credit it to too much sugar in my coffee, LOL. But it could be passion too. Best wishes!

          • September 12, 2017 at 11:12 am

            Love it. Thank you. I really really appreciate it!