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.


More >>

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
18 Comments

ADDITIONAL READING » ON WRITING

Additional Reading: On Writing

Bambi versus Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business

by Mamet, David

Technically this isn’t a book about writing. It’s about Tinseltown and David Mamet’s love-hate relationship with it. But, along with Mamet’s witty and cantankerous evisceration of show biz, Bambi vs. Godzilla delivers masterly and extremely useful insights on getting movies made, surviving criticism, paying the rent and in general surviving Hollywood while retaining some scrap of sanity and integrity. Mamet is not just any writer. When he takes on a subject, you get it in context succeeding context—commercial, aesthetic, moral, ethical, legal, Talmudic, Tantric and Vedic. It’s like reading Thucydides if he’d loaded his stuff into a ’65 Mustang and split for the Coast.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing

by Phillips, Larry W.

Papa never actually sat down and wrote a book about writing. Rather, editor Larry Phillips has compiled 140 pages of hard-core Hemingwayisms from the author’s books, stories, and letters. Great material, particularly the fragments of correspondence to Scott Fitzgerald.

First Five Pages, The

by Lukeman, Noah

As an agent and editor, Noah Lukeman read thousands of manuscripts from aspiring writers. He got to where he could tell in the first five pages if a submission was worth his time. In this gem of a book, he tells you the most common mistakes writers make—and how to eradicate them from your manuscript.

How To Be Inspired

by Williams, Nick

A no-nonsense how-to manual and psych-yourself-up kit, for those of us who sometimes need a swift kick in the butt to get us going.

Journal of a Novel

by Steinbeck, John

When he was writing East of Eden, Steinbeck kept a journal—just a few pages each morning, which he’d scribble as a kind of warm-up before turning to the actual manuscript. Fascinating insights into the writer’s life, inside and outside the covers of a book.

Robert McKee’s Story Seminar

by McKee, Robert

I always say that McKee is not only the best teacher of writing I’ve ever seen, but the best teacher of anything. I’ve taken this three-day intensive course twice—and I’ll take it again. Yes, McKee has been spoofed (in the movie Adaptation) and lionized (in a New Yorker profile.) But that’s because he’s the best. Full disclosure: McKee and I are friends. McKee wrote the foreword for The War of Art. McKee teaches this class in cities all over the U.S. and Europe, even as far away as Israel and Singapore.

Story

by McKee, Robert

This is the book that goes with Robert McKee’s Story Seminar. Terrific for writers in all media, but take the “live” McKee first. You’ll get more out of the book if you’ve heard the man deliver his stuff in-person.

Three Uses of the Knife

by Mamet, David

Sign up for first look access.

Enter your email to get free access to every new thing I do.

No spam, I promise!

Gates of Fire
The War of Art
The Knowledge
Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t
The Authentic Swing
The Lion's Gate
Turning Pro
The Profession
The Warrior Ethos
Do The Work
Tides of War
The Afghan Campaign
The Virtues of War
Killing Rommel
Last of the Amazons
The Legend of Bagger Vance
Additional Reading
Video Blog