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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Learning the Craft

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 22, 2015

If you and I want to be taken seriously as writers, it goes without saying that we have to study the craft. However we do it (read Aristotle, enroll in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, study McKee and Coyne and Stephen King), we must learn the timeless principles of storytelling with the same thoroughness that a brain surgeon applies (we hope) before he starts drilling into our skulls.

Jackson Pollock. That's the fun of it, isn't it?

That’s the craft.

But there’s another, even more important element to this enterprise.

Our craft.

What I mean by “our craft” are those stylistic and storytelling instincts that are unique to you and me alone and that constitute our voice.

Hemingway. Faulkner. Chekhov. Toni Morrison. Tom Wolfe. Each of their styles is unique. Each possesses a perspective that is his or hers alone, and each has a way of telling a story that is unmistakable, one of a kind.

What’s your style? Can you define your voice? Can we pick a sentence out of something you wrote and say of it, “This could only have been written by you?”

If you and I want to take ourselves seriously as writers, we have to ask ourselves not just, “Am I studying the craft?” but “Am I studying my craft?”

I’ve written before in this space about my friend Paul and his struggles coming to grips with his gifts as a writer.

Right out of the gate, Paul had a distinct voice and a strong instinctive style.

1. His characters were dark. Very dark.

2. They were violent. Beyond-Tarantino violent.

3. Paul had no patience with “backstory.” You know the scene(s) that seems to be required in every novel or movie, where the protagonist reveals (or another device is employed to reveal) the “reason why” she or he does what they do? Paul’s instinct has also been to blow those scenes off. He doesn’t care why people do what they do. Or rather, he believes that the untold answer is more powerful than the told.

4. He hates “private moments.” These are scenes (often without dialogue) when the character is alone or in a non-public venue and, by some act or gesture that he or she believes no other human will witness, reveals some key aspect of their character. An estranged lover, for example, may call up on her Smartphone a saved text from her lost love, revealing by this act that she still cares.

Paul hates those moments too. He will never give you one.

5. He refuses to show any of his characters except in their in-action personas.

6. He refuses to “explain” or “ground” any of his characters’ actions.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Paul has instincts as a writer. These instincts are not the craft. But they’re his craft.

If Paul is going to realize his potential as a writer, he has to master both.

(These instincts may be wrong, by the way. They may be crazy or misguided or just plain dumb. But they also may be the seeds of a unique and unforgettable voice.)

Each of us has a natural style, just as Charles Bukowski did, or Eudora Welty or Hunter Thompson or Jean Rhys. Each of us has a view of life that’s ours alone—and an ear for dialogue and a style of storytelling that belongs to no one but us. Again, that’s not the craft. It’s our craft. (more…)

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Atticus Finch 2.0

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 15, 2015

One of the hardest things for a writer to do is to take criticism. Notes. That dreaded memo from your editor that says, “Back to Square One, baby.”

"Scout, remember that you can't make a work of fiction over until you've defeated your own demons of ego, fear, pride, and possessiveness."

So I must give major, major plaudits to Harper Lee for what she did (according to the stories we’re all reading in the Times and elsewhere) after turning in Go Set A Watchman to her editor Tay Hohoff at Lippincott in 1957.

The sensational aspect of the current Mockingbird/Watchman kerfuffle centers on Harper Lee’s radically different characterizations of Atticus Finch in the two books, specifically the less-than-knightly portrait in Go Set A Watchman. How could America’s avatar of decency turn into a racist? Why would Ms. Lee do that? Has the hero of To Kill A Mockingbird been tarnished forever?

To me, that’s not the story at all.

Since Watchman was written before Mockingbird (even though the time period in the book is later), Harper Lee did not “change” Atticus. The characterization in Watchman was the original. It was her first shot. It was Atticus 1.0.

The real story, if you ask me, is that Harper Lee rethought, reconceived, and reconfigured the Atticus of Watchman into the icon of honorableness that he became in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Think of that for a minute from a writer’s point of view. How hard is that to do? I can think of few things that are harder, not just from a practical point of view (the work, the recasting, the reimagining) but from a psychological perspective. How do you manage your emotions? How do you submerge your ego? How do you let go of expectations?

Somehow Harper Lee, God bless her, was able to do all that.

She set aside the manuscript of Watchman (the product of more than two years’ labor) when her editor Tay Hohoff declared it not ready for prime time—and went back to the drawing board.

I would give a lot of money to see Ms. Hohoff’s notes, or the correspondence between her and Ms. Lee, or to listen to a tape of their conversations over the two-plus years it took Ms. Lee to revamp the original story and turn it into To Kill A Mockingbird.

This much we know. Ms. Hohoff advised Ms. Lee to re-set the world of Watchman twenty years earlier. Take the character of Scout from a grown woman and wind her back to a little girl. Tell us the story, not through the eyes of a bitterly disillusioned daughter who had left Maycomb, Alabama and moved to New York City, but from the perspective of an innocent but whip-smart six- to nine-year-old tomboy, still at home, still in awe of her father.

Imagine doing that yourself. Could you? I’m not sure I could.

What guts. What imagination! The legend (I hope it’s true) says that Ms. Lee was so frustrated at one point in the process that she threw the whole manuscript out the window. Tay Hohoff, on the phone from New York, supposedly talked her into scrambling down to the yard and collecting the book, page by page.

Consider Harper Lee’s achievement from the point of view of Resistance.

We all know how formidable are the demons of self-sabotage. The dragon of Resistance must have been blasting Ms. Lee with the force of a flame thrower.

What, change the time period? Move the whole damn thing back twenty years? Make Scout a six-year-old? Reimagine Atticus? Make the trial of Tom Robinson (only a side-note in Watchman) into the centerpiece of the revised tale?

Recreate the character of Jem (who had already died by the time of Watchman)?

And invent Boo Radley?

Over the years Shawn has told me, from his own experiences as an editor, a number of Writer Destroying Herself horror stories. My blood runs cold each time I hear one because they’re so relatable. So I’ve Been There. So easy to see oneself succumbing to the identical impulses of pride, fear, and self-destruction.

In Shawn’s stories, he’s usually working with a talented young writer. One year. Two years. They block out a novel together. Or, like Tay Hohoff with Harper Lee, the writer submits the completed novel and Shawn takes him or her under his editorial wing. He suggests story changes.

The tragedy? The writer revolts. She assumes a posture of high dudgeon.

She refuses to make the changes.

I’ve been there.

I’ve done it myself.

It’s Resistance. Ego-driven, amateur-hour Resistance. (more…)

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Making A Scene Cut Two Ways

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 8, 2015

I once did a rewrite on a porn flick. The producer wanted to impart a couple of guidelines before I began. We met for breakfast at a coffee shop in Santa Monica. What he told me has proved incredibly useful over the years—in all kinds of writing, including the most literary.

Adam Levine and Keira Knightley in "Begin Again"

“Every skin flick makes the same mistake,” said the producer (who was a thoroughly nice guy, like a suburban soccer dad). “When the movie gets to a sex scene, the story stops dead in its tracks. That’s my first marching order to you, kid: keep the story going through the skin scenes. Make something happen, so we’re not just sitting there watching people screw.”

His second guideline was a corollary of the first. “Always have some separate but related action going on during the sex scenes. If the wife and the pool boy are having sex in the bedroom, throw in something like the husband unexpectedly returning home and walking in the front door. That way we can cut back and forth between the husband and the-wife-and-the-pool-boy and generate suspense. See what I mean? The story doesn’t stop. It stays interesting.”

At that time I was working primarily on action films. I immediately translated the porn producer’s wisdom to that field. Chase scenes. Shoot-outs. Fistfights. The same principles applied.

Keep the story moving even during the action sequences.

Don’t let the movie grind to a halt while we watch Gene Hackman punch out a drug dealer or Steven Seagal chase bad guys down a city street.

I bring this up because I saw a great scene in a movie the other night that I’d like to unpack here today in some detail. The scene brilliantly employed the two principles cited above.

Let’s get into it.

The film was Begin Again starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. Begin Again is from writer-director John Carney, who also did the terrific indie flick Once.

Begin Again is a musical. Not in the Rodgers & Hammerstein sense, where each song overtly carries its share of the story-telling, but more like a record album, where each tune is its own piece and may or may not have anything to do with the story.

In other words, Begin Again faces the same perils as a porn flick or an action movie. There’s a huge risk that the story will come to a grinding halt each time a song is performed.

I’m sure John Carney was excruciatingly aware of this as he was structuring the screenplay. “How,” he was asking himself, “can I make each song work and keep the narrative moving at the same time?”

Here’s the scene I want to tell you about:

Keira Knightley and Adam Levine (of the band Maroon 5 in real life) are boyfriend and girlfriend in the movie. They’re both songwriters and singers. Adam has been out of town for a week. The scene starts with him returning home, to the New York loft he and Keira share.

Kiss kiss, welcome home. It’s evening, do you want some wine? Can I play you a song, Adam asks Keira, that I wrote while I was gone? Yes yes, say Keira. She adores Adam, she wants to support his career—and she loves his music, she wants to hear this new tune. Adam plugs his iPhone into the loft’s sound system, the song comes on, Keira listens.

The story could come to a screeching halt here if this scene had been clumsily conceived. Instead here’s what happens:

The song starts. Adam brings glasses of wine for himself and Keira. They’re standing across from each other at the counter in the kitchen.

Keira listens expectantly. Umm, the song sounds good. Her expression says she likes it.

But for some reason, Adam’s eyes are lowered. He can’t seem to raise his gaze to meet Keira’s.

Keira keeps listening. (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
10 Comments
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