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

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

A Master Class with Shawn

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 19, 2017

 

There’s a term Shawn uses that I had never heard before:

Story nerd.

(He claims proudly to be one himself.)

Seth Godin, me and Shawn at Shawn's STORY GRID event in New York this February

Three amigos. Seth Godin, me and Shawn at Shawn’s STORY GRID event in New York this February.

A story nerd, as I understand it, is someone who loves to get into the geeky details and “inside baseball” mechanics of storytelling. A story nerd knows what a Value Shift is. She’s intimate with concepts like “beats” and “reveals.” She knows the Five Commandments of Storytelling. A story nerd is kinda like a Trekkie except she doesn’t wear Vulcan ears or appear in public dressed as a Klingon.

Me, I’d use a different term:

Professional writer.

Anyway, there were about forty of us story nerds/professional writers gathered in Soho in New York this February for a three-day Story Grid event starring my partner, Shawn Coyne. (If you weren’t there, don’t worry. A 10-hour plus set of tapes will be available soon.)

For three all-day sessions Shawn broke down Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into its constituent elements and put them all back together again.

He was teaching us how to write a love story.

[By the way, you can order Shawn’s paperback breakdown of P&P here.]

Shawn took us through the saga of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Collins, Lydia, and Lady Catherine. He showed us why P&P still sells 400,000 copies a year, 204 years after it was published.PandP cover for Steve

I was there. Seth Godin showed up. We had a great Q&A on Day Three.

And we all came away with notebooks groaning from everything we had learned listening to Shawn.

(Click here for Shawn’s free mini-course on How to Outline a Novel. Or, as he subtitles it, “How to turn a 50,000-word problem into 266 bite-sized challenges.”)

 

In these three lessons [Shawn says] I teach how to tackle a huge problem—figuring out how to write a new novel. By using examples including my inadequacies assembling an above ground pool for my kids, seminal Parkinson’s disease research, and the classic Knock Knock Banana joke, I’ll break down the 50,000-word goal into manageable units of story assembly. To top it off, at the end of the course, I’ll give you a scene-by-scene spreadsheet template to track your progress. Micro-step by micro-step, you’ll build your next novel in 30 days. Plan the work…and then work the plan!

 

But back to Shawn’s New York event.

It was his first. He had never done this before. I flew in for moral support—and because after all these years I remain fascinated by how a big-time editor dissects and analyzes a story, how he assesses what works and what doesn’t work, and how he figures out how to fix it.

I had expected the audience to be young writers, or artists in other fields just starting out. I was wildly wrong. The average age of the attendees was (I’m guessing) around forty. Several were in their sixties. A number were published authors. Everyone I talked to was an honest-to-God story nerd. They were deep into their first or sixth or seventeenth novel. They knew their stuff and they wanted to learn more.

They took the game seriously.

They were in it for keeps.

It was pretty cool to see the desks spread with laptops and notebooks and hear the really smart questions being asked. You could see as Shawn elucidated each storytelling principle that the attending writers were incorporating it on the spot into their own works in progress.

I was doing the same.

I had more than one “Aha!” or “Holy sh*t!” moment when I found myself furiously scribbling notes to myself. “Go back to Chapter X and fix such-and-such.”

As I said, this February get-together was dedicated to the genre of Love Story only. But Shawn is planning a series of such events for all the other genres, including nonfiction. (Yes, the principles of storytelling apply to “true” material too.)

If you’re not yet a subscriber to Shawn’s site, www.storygrid.com, I highly recommend that you sign up ASAP.

And click the link above for his free mini-course on story outlining.

I’ve already clicked it myself.

(more…)

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

You, a Lion

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 12, 2017

 

You were born for adversity. It’s in your DNA as much as it’s in the DNA of a shark or an eagle or a lion.

Our hero

Our hero

You were made for hard times. The species of Homo sapiens has survived and prevailed not because we are faster or stronger than all the competing creatures. Every one of them is better equipped by nature with fangs and claws and wings and fur. Every one is better adapted to hunt, to kill, to survive drought and heat and cold.

Yeah, our race has a better brain. And yes, we figured out the advantages of hanging together into a hunting band. But that’s not what got us to the top of the food chain, and it’s not what undergirds you and me thirty-six months into a 1200-page epic when Con Ed cuts off our power in January in Bensonhurst.

The central tenet of the Professional Mindset is the willing embrace of adversity.

Most people spend their lives avoiding adversity. The pro sees things differently. She understands the inevitability of opposition, of tribulation, of Resistance.

She knows that the gold is always guarded by a dragon.

The pro accepts adversity the way she accepts gravity and the changing of the seasons.

Adversity, she understands, is not just part of life. It is life.

You are a lion.

You are an eagle.

Coded into your genes is that strand of orneriness and mulishness that refuses to quit, that keeps coming back for more. That’s your birthright, sent down to you from those wily hominids who hunted and trekked across the African savannah back when humankind was little more than an appetizer for the dominant predators.

We were hors d’oeuvres.

We were finger food.

How easy must it have been for a saber-tooth tiger to run down a three-foot-six, seventy-pound homunculus who had nothing to protect herself with except a stick and a stone?

Where are those saber-tooths now?

Are you a novelist? A screenwriter? Are you a long-form nonfiction writer, a blogger, a dancer, an actor, a painter, a filmmaker, a video game creator? Then give thanks to that runty, naked, slow little proto-human who bequeathed to us something more valuable that fangs or claws or cheetah-like speed.

She gave us guts.

Forget brains.

Forget adaptability

Forget tribal cohesion or language or the capacity to cooperate.

Our stubby little ancestor left us not just the ability to endure adversity, but the capacity to thrive under conditions of adversity.

The famous Ernest Shackleton newspaper ad for the Antarctic expedition of 1913 has been cited a million times, I know. Still it stirs our grubby Neanderthal hearts:

 

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in event of success.

 

To the professional, the field is adversity.

Inside and out, she looks and sees opposition. She sees difficulty, hardship, tribulation. She sees Resistance.

She accepts it.

Her mindset is not, How do I avoid adversity? Her mindset is, What is my plan to deal with adversity and overcome it? What’s my objective? What are my resources? What’s my attitude?

The professional faced with tribulation takes a deep breath and offers a prayer of thanks to her hairy, near-sighted, bow-legged foremother of the savanna for the gift of grit and tenacity and fortitude.

She is an artist.

She is a lion.

 

(more…)

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Surviving in the Desert

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 5, 2017

 

A few years ago I wrote a book called Killing Rommel. Killing Rommel is a novel set during WWII in the North Africa campaign. Its heroes are the men of the Long Range Desert Group, a true historical British commando unit that fought behind the lines against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the German Afrika Korps.

Kiwis and Brits of the Long Range Desert Group

Kiwis and Brits of the Long Range Desert Group

The first time I heard the name Long Range Desert Group, I fell in love with it. I said to myself, “I don’t know what this is, but I gotta write a book about it.”

“Long Range.” Way cooler that Short Range.

Even better: “Long Range Desert.” Somebody was going out into the Tall Sand a long, long way.

And “Long Range Desert Group?” It didn’t sound typically military to me. It sounded like a tech start-up.

The LRDG, it turned out, smacked more of a civilian outfit than an over-organized, rigorously-disciplined military team. The trucks they drove were Chevy “30-hundredweights,” bought from civvie dealerships in Cairo. Discipline was slack. Improvisation was the order of the day.

Why did I love this subject?

Because it reminded me of the writer’s life.

The men of the LRDG had a mission. Their charge was to leave civilization behind and advance alone into the unknown. Once out there, they could call on no one for aid or rescue. They were on their own, with nothing to assure their success except what they brought with them.

That’s you and me. That’s the writer’s life.

The desert is a metaphor for the creative sphere that you and I operate in. The desert is beautiful. It’s remote, it’s odd, it’s strange. Only a special few dare to enter.

The desert contains secrets. It’s mysterious; it seems barren but it’s actually teeming with life if you know where to look.

The "sand sea" of the Libyan desert

The “sand sea” of the Libyan desert

The desert is reality stripped to its essentials. It’s pure. It’s geometric. Its landscape of dunes and wadis (dry rivercourses) has been shaped by nothing but the elemental forces of wind, water, and time.

The desert is cruel. It will cook you, freeze you, drown you. Worse, the desert is indifferent. Its sand will drift over your corpse in minutes. It will forget you as if you never existed.

That’s our world, yours and mine. It’s the dimension we enter every day, seeking our Muse.

What about enemies?

The desert holds two—the external foe (in the case of the Long Range Desert Group, the enemy was the Afrika Korps) and the internal adversary, the men’s own fears and Resistance.

Think about it. Your truck breaks down five hundred miles from civilization. By noon, external temperature will hit 130 Fahrenheit. Can you keep your head? Can you improvise a fix for your cracked engine block? Can you stretch twenty gallons of fuel to carry you home?

That’s you and me at page 183 in our novel. That’s us in the middle at Act Two.

What I love too about the Long Range Desert Group (and why it fits into this series on the Professional Mindset) as that it was—and had to be, by the nature of its mission and the grounds over which it operated—self-contained.

Into the beds of those Chevy trucks the men of the LRDG loaded fuel, water, rations, radio gear, weapons, ammunition, spare parts. Into nooks and crannies they wedged their bedding and clothing, their tea and tins of bully beef. Like sailors they brought rum, in porcelain demijohns jars labeled S.R.D. (for Service Reserve Depot) that they translated as “Seldom Reaches Destination.”

A ceramic or porcelain demijohn held one Imperial gallon (4.5 liters) of rum.

A ceramic or porcelain demijohn held one Imperial gallon (4.5 liters) of rum.

That’s you and me too. The essence of our artistic/entrepreneurial life is that it is and must be self-contained.

We and we alone must decide what we will work on, and how, for how long, under what conditions, with what ambitions and aspirations. We have to master the art of self-evaluation. Is our idea good? Good enough to give two years of our lives to?

When our vehicle founders in the Sand Sea, what resources can we call on within ourselves? The cavalry isn’t coming. It’s up to us and us alone.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Long Range Desert Group was the type of men it sought for its ranks. The LRDG never lacked for volunteers. Out of one application-round of 800 men, it selected twelve.

Most of the men in the Long Range Desert Group were Kiwis. New Zealanders. They were farmers and stockmen, mechanics and farm appraisers. Their age was roughly ten years older than regular line troops. Most were married and had children. No few owned and worked farms and ranches of considerable size.

They were mature men (alas, no women went into the desert in that era, though that almost certainly would be different today) whose primary emotional characteristics were resourcefulness, level-headedness, self-composure, patience, the ability to work in close quarters with others, the capacity to endure adversity and even to thrive on it, and, not least, the possession of a sense of humor.

In other words they weren’t blood-and-guts man-killers. (Okay, some were.) They were cool customers, possessed of grit and savvy, who could embark on a mission whose hazard was such that saner heads would call it absolutely nuts—and see that mission through, no matter what .

Isn’t it interesting that those are the same qualities you and I need, to survive in our own inner deserts?

(more…)

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