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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Why the Raiders Suck

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 15, 2014

Readers who follow this blog will have already guessed what today’s post is going to be about:

Personal culture.

Gruden

Jon Gruden. Could Chucky turn Al Davis' franchise around?

The Oakland Raiders are an example of an institutional culture. The Raiders are the poster child for a losing culture. No matter what players the Raiders draft or acquire in free agency, no matter what coach they hire or what new quarterback they install, they still stink. (Yes, I am a Raiders fan.) The losing culture is so entrenched and so powerful that it cannot be overcome. At least not yet. (Jon Gruden, are you listening?)

But let’s get back to ourselves as artists and entrepreneurs. We too have cultures.

Internal personal cultures.

These cultures are identical to institutional cultures except they’re one-person versions, and they exist entirely within our own heads.

Like institutional cultures these personal cultures consist of our histories; our records of success or failure; our assumptions about ourselves and the world; our expectations, fears, and hopes; our methodologies, our skills, and so forth.

One element is common however to all cultures, personal and institutional.

That element is Resistance.

Cultures evolve in response to Resistance.

Successful cultures overcome Resistance. Unsuccessful cultures are overcome by Resistance.

Where do cultures come from?

We breathe them in from birth—our national culture, our religious culture, our ethnic culture. These form our baseline. Over these, specific and unique organizational and personal cultures become overlain.

If you were born and raised in the American consumer society you have already, whether you realize it or not, imbibed and internalized an extremely insidious, pernicious, and toxic personal culture.

Where did this Toxic Culture come from?  From well-meaning parents and positively-intentioned teachers, from traditional role models such as Congress, the President, the Supreme Court (stop me if you’ve heard this before). This toxic culture consists of consumerism, conformity, faux “liberation” and the affectation of self-conscious “irony,” from the values implicit in the prescription of Adderal and Ritalin; from political correctness; gangsta and wannabe-gangsta self-conception and presentation; from “self-esteem;” narcissism, shallowness, laziness, lack of work ethic, pursuit of external stimulation; from entitlement, worship of celebrity, instant gratification, nerd culture, self-indulgence, flight from adversity, pursuit of third-party validation, etc.

This is the mass culture that you and I inhale from movies, TV, pop music, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It’s the sea we swim in. We can see it no more than a flounder can see the Pacific Ocean.

This culture has to go. It must be eradicated by you and me and replaced, component by component, by an internally-originated, self-generated and self-approved personal culture. (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
36 Comments

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Becoming Our Own Editors

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 8, 2014

Last Wednesday’s post ended with this:

Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in "The Way We Were"

The writer these days has to be her own editor. It’s tough, but true.

You and I have to learn the craft, whether we want to or not.

Writers today have to be their own editors because it’s so hard to find a real editor, meaning someone who understands story structure and can help the writer whip her work into ready-for-prime-time shape. The breed has become extinct, alas, at most publishing houses (or those who carry the title of editor and have the chops are so busy with material acquisition, marketing, and internal politics that they don’t have time to sit down and work with their writers in the old-school, Maxwell-Perkins, hands-on manner.)

It’s probably a good thing that we writers have to be our own editors. After all, who if not us should be responsible for the shape of our work?

But how do we become our own editors? What skills do we need? Where can we acquire these skills?

The editor’s primary creative contribution—i.e.,the skill that you and I need to master—is this:

The editor understands narrative structure. He knows what makes a story work. He understands genre. He knows that every story falls into a genre, and that every genre has conventions. He knows what those conventions are, and he understands how to use them.

Have you taken Robert McKee’s class in Story Structure? Take it. Take his class in Love Story. Take his class in Thriller. Whatever he’s teaching, take it.

Read Stephen King’s On Writing.

Read writers’ blogs.

Read Shawn’s blog here on Fridays and at www.storygrid.com.

Read everything you can on the subject of story structure and story analysis.

Keep reading. Keep watching movies. Learn the skill of editing the same way editors learn it. Study stuff that works (and stuff that doesn’t) and ask yourself, “How did the writer do that? How did she achieve this power, this emotion, this meaning?”

When you and I find a book or movie that we love, we have to read it and watch it over and over. Take notes. Ingest it. Pick it apart page by page and frame by frame till we understand how it works as well as the writer or filmmaker who created it.

Shawn’s concept of the Story Grid wasn’t handed to him on a platter. He figured it out on his own by reading and thinking and reading and thinking some more after that.

Can you analyze Hamlet?

Can you break down Blade Runner or The Usual Suspects or Taken 2? (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
17 Comments

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Does Somebody Know Something?

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 1, 2014

Continuing on last Wednesday’s subject of Nobody Knows Nothing:

Maxwell Perkins, who edited Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.

Somebody has to know something. We can’t all be flying blind. It’s unacceptable for us to throw up our hands on the topic of our art and our livelihood.

But who is that someone?

In the book biz, that individual is called an editor.

“Editor” is probably the least understood profession on the planet, short of “movie producer.”

No one knows what an editor does. Does she spell-check your manuscript? Organize your book tour? Is it her job to get you on Oprah? Make sure that your book gets reviewed by The New York Times?

Or is she more like a story guru and diagnostician? Can she help make your novel work? Can she analyze its plot structure? Shed light on characterization? Can she identify the parts that aren’t working? Can she tell you how to fix them?  Can she do for you what Maxwell Perkins did for Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe?

I got lucky about twenty years ago—career-making lucky—when a young editor at Doubleday bought my manuscript, Gates of Fire. I got lucky because that editor was Shawn Coyne. I’ve been riding his coattails ever since.

A great editor does all of the things listed above. But how? How does she learn her trade?

There is no such thing as Editors’ School. Harvard doesn’t offer a Ph.D. in Editing. Random House doesn’t teach it, and neither does Twentieth-Century Fox. As for freelancers, I’ve never met one who was worth diddly, and 90% of “real” editors are equally as useless. In many cases, they’re actually harmful. Their advice won’t help you; it’ll screw you up.

Again, this is not to knock editors. It’s just to restate that Nobody Knows Nothing (except a very rare few.)

How do those few learn their trade? Basically they teach themselves. They fall in love with Story and they set themselves the task of deciphering its mysteries. They read Aristotle’s Poetics. They study Shakespeare and Turgenev and Tarantino. They plumb obscure texts, they participate in seminars. And they read and read and read.

They ask themselves, “Why does Story X work and Story Y doesn’t?” What does The Godfather have in common with Oedipus Rex? Is there a trick? Is there a secret? How did Shakespeare do it over and over? What does Stephen King know that the rest of us don’t?

Great editors like Shawn develop systems. They evolve philosophies. They borrow principles from professional students/teachers of story structure. They steal tidbits from their own writers and from others. And they invent their own. Like scientists, they develop hypotheses and they test them against reality.

Shawn has a system that he calls the Story Grid. It took him twenty-plus years to work out. [For a preview, sign up for his work-in-progress site, www.storygrid.com.] When you give him a manuscript he says, “Lemme put the Grid on it.” He showed me the diagram once for Silence of the Lambs. It blew my mind. I thought I was looking at brain surgery. “You mean there are that many moving parts?” (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
13 Comments
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