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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Files I Work With

By Steven Pressfield
Published: April 22, 2015

A week from now is the official launch of Shawn’s terrific and much-anticipated new book, The Story Grid. I’m gonna use today’s post to describe one way that I employ Shawn’s principles when I work.

"Wanna know what happens to nosy people? Huh? Huh? They lose their noses."

Right now I’m on the sixth draft of a fiction project. (In other words, NOT the first draft, which goes by completely different rules.) When I start to work each morning I open onscreen five files:

1. The actual draft I’m working on.

2. A file I call Scene By Scene.

3. Culls (meaning everything I’ve cut).

4. A file I call MissingMissingMissing.

5. Conventions of the Genre.

I’ll go into these files in detail in subsequent posts, but let’s talk about #5 now because it comes straight out of The Story Grid.

One of Shawn’s inviolable principles (with which I agree completely) is

The Writer Must Know the Genre She’s Working In—and Must Adhere to its Conventions.

Okay. What does that mean for me as I’m working? The genre I’m working in is the Detective Story. So …

In File #5 above, I have written out my own version of the conventions of a detective story. (I’ll include this document at the end of this post, but don’t quote me on it; it’s just my own demented version.)

I’ll keep this file top-of-mind throughout the drafting process. I’ll refer to it all the time. I’ll tweak it. I’ll add stuff as I think of it, etc.

How did I arrive at this list of conventions? As far as I know, there’s no reference work. So I just looked at a bunch of detective stories (Chinatown, The Big Lebowski, Blade Runner, The Maltese Falcon) and made my own list.

Shawn goes into great detail about genre in The Story Grid. He believes it’s so important that he named his own management company Genre Management. He talks about internal genres and external genres, all kinds of deep stuff.

It’s key to keep in mind, I’ve found, that you and I in our stories are probably working simultaneously in multiple genres. We’ve probably got a Love Story mixed in with our Historical Fiction or Sci-Fi, possibly a Coming Of Age Story, and so forth. We’re gonna have to keep track of all of ‘em, but for now let’s stick with only the Detective Story as an example.

How do I use this list of conventions?

I make it my bible.

For example, in every detective story there’s at least one scene—i.e., a convention—where the private eye (even if he’s “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski) gets the crap beaten out of him by the Bad Guys. Think Jake Gittes getting his nose sliced open in Chinatown, then nearly having his back broken by the farmers in the orange grove, or Harrison Ford getting hammered by replicant Brion Jones in Blade Runner, not to mention the pasting he receives from other replicants Rutger Hauer and even Daryl Hannah.
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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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