Pride and Prejudice - The STORY GRID edition - Annotated by SHAWN COYNE

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.


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Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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ADDITIONAL READING » WARFARE: ANCIENT AND MODERN

Additional Reading: Ancient and Modern Warfare

Accidental Guerilla, The

by Kilcullen, David

Alamein to Zem Zem

by Douglas, Keith

Douglas was a poet fresh out of Oxford who served (and was killed) with the armoured forces under Montgomery, when the British finally overcame Rommel after years of being out-ranged, out-gunned and out-generaled. Douglas’ keen and jaundiced eye misses little. This isn’t the most polished book, but it is immediate and authentic as hell.

Art of War, The

by Sun Tzu

Attacks

by Rommel, Erwin

This is from the Desert Fox—before he became the Desert Fox. Rommel recounts his experiences as a young infantry officer in World War I. Studied to this day by our Army and Marines, this book gives new meaning to the phrase “balls of steel.”

Best and the Brightest, The

by Halberstam, David

Blood Stripes

by Danelo, David

Blood Stripes is Danelo’s account of infantry actions fought by Marines in Fallujah and Husaybah in 2004, recounted from the point of view of NCOs he knew and fought alongside. Great stuff!

Boyd: the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

by Coram, Robert

Fascinating true saga of the misunderstood genius who introduced the concept of Maneuver Warfare to the contemporary armed services—and paid the price.

Bravo Two Zero

by McNab, Andy

Ripping, high-testosterone (and true) yarn of a British SAS patrol dropped behind the lines during the first Gulf War. Told by its leader, the most-decorated soldier in the British Army, as of his discharge in 1993.

Brazen Chariots

by Crisp, Robert

A bit hard to find, but worth it if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to fight tank battles in the North African desert. Terrific first-person non-fiction, about the British Seventh Armoured Division dueling Rommel and the Afrika Korps in WWII. What I love about books like these is not just the “ripping yarn” aspect or the vivid details or the sense of absolute authenticity and authority, all of which are here in spades, but the feeling you get for the man himself. Both this book and the one by Cyril Joly (Crisp and Joly were friends) let you into the minds and hearts of these tremendously admirable, flesh-and-blood humans, with their senses of humor, despair—everything.

Desert War, The

by Moorehead, Alan

Simply indispensable. Classic stuff by the Aussie war correspondent who could scribble a note on a cocktail napkin and make it fascinating. See also his African Trilogy.

Eastern Approaches

by Maclean, Fitzroy

You would think, being a novelist, that I would like to read novels. But I much prefer memoirs. I love the characters of the writers, particularly when they’re not professionals. Fitzroy Maclean was stuck in the Foreign Service on the brink of WWII and wanted to go to war; the only way the government would let him was if he became a Member of Parliament. So he did. It gets better from there, including desert service with the SAS and all kinds of mad adventures in the Balkans, the Orient, Afghanistan.

Forgotten Soldier, The

by Sajer, Guy

Possibly the best book to come out of World War II. Horrific, ghastly, true-life memoir of a young German infantryman and his kamaraden as they fall back, back, back against the unstoppable tide of the Russian Army, from 1943–1945.

Lost Victories

by von Manstein, Field Marshal Erich

Another classic. The same story as told in The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer, but from the opposite end of the food chain: the supreme German brass. Von Manstein’s private confrontations with Hitler are alone worth the price of the book.

No True Glory

by West, Bing

On War

by von Clausewitz, Carl

One Bullet Away

by Fick, Nathaniel

The Iraq War by a Dartmouth-educated Recon Marine who was in the first wave into Baghdad. Lean, vivid, fair-minded, by a born writer from whom we will be hearing much more.

One Tribe at a Time

by Gant, Jim

The “One Tribe At A Time” series on “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” launched at the end of September 2009, with an excerpt from Major Jim Gant’s paper of the same name. In the following weeks, more excerpts were pulled and discussed, with Jim’s “One Tribe At A Time” released in full about four weeks later. The discussion of Jim’s paper spread from there, and went viral among the policy and military communities in particular.

Sand, Wind and War

by Bagnold, Ralph

The founder of WWII’s legendary Long Range Desert Group tells his life story, including all kinds of interesting and unexpected dimensions (his sister wrote National Velvet), including the tale of his landmark scientific paper, “The Physics of Blown Sand.”

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

by Lawrence, T.E.

Sling and the Stone, The

by Hammes, Thomas X.

Am I favoring Marines? Not without cause, with this outstanding contemporary introduction to the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare, the kind of post-guerrilla conflict our troops are fighting now—and are likely to keep fighting for decades to come.

Small Wars Journal

by Small Wars Foundation

Strongest Tribe, The

by West, Bing

Take These Men

by Joly, Lt. Col. Cyril

You’ll have to go way back in the stacks to find this one, but again, it’s worth the trip. Vividly told and superbly detailed account of the British in North Africa, from 1940 to 1942, fighting first the Italians and then Rommel and Panzerarmee Afrika. I love these self-effacing Englishmen, who in real-life performed prodigies of courage and endurance, and yet recount the tale with understated yet passionate brilliance. Like Brazen Chariots, you read this book and wish you could shake hands with the author and say, “Thank you.”

To War with Whitaker: Wartime Diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly, 1939–45

by Ranfurly, Hermione

When Lt. The Honourable Dan Ranfurly went off to war, his wife Hermione followed. (So did Whitaker, Dan’s faithful valet.) Young Lady Ranfurly, whose only marketable skill was a fair hand at the typewriter, talked her way into various clerical and embassy jobs in Cairo and the Middle East, while her young officer husband fought in the desert, got captured by the Afrika Korps, etc. There’s not a dollop of sex in this book, yet it remains one of the great documents of romance, just because of all the hell Hermione goes through to be within a hundred miles of her beloved Dan. When at last they rush into each other’s arms for a fleeting moment on a railway platform and she writes, “Happiness is being together,” there wasn’t a dry eye in my house.

Unforgiving Minute, The

by Mullaney, Craig

We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young

by Moore, Lt. Gen. Harold G. and Joseph Galloway

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