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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Macro Resistance and Micro Resistance

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 20, 2017

 

I was having dinner a few nights ago with a young screenwriter and a big-time Hollywood literary agent. The writer was joking that her career had stalled on the “C” list.

A moment from "THEM," 1956. Maybe mutated ants would be better than spiders.

A moment from “THEM,” 1954. Maybe mutated ants would be better than spiders.

“If I had you for a year,” the agent said, “I’d get you high on the ‘A’ list.”

The agent was serious, and a serious discussion followed. Most of the talk centered on the politics of career advancement. When I got home, though, I found my thoughts migrating to the craft aspects.

How would a true, knowledgeable mentor elevate a talented writer’s career? How would he advance it one level or two levels higher? What aspects of craft would he accentuate? What changes would he insist upon?

Step One, I think, would be to really hold the writer’s feet to the fire.

The mentor would make the writer truly accountable to her own talent.

  1. Conception of project.

The young writer comes in with an idea for a movie or a book.

Is the idea good enough?

Is it big enough?

Is it truly original?

Will it attract “A”-level talent? Director? Actors?

The agent/mentor would insist that the writer consider alternatives and variations on the idea. Is Version One the absolute best way to do this? “Okay, the story is about giant spiders invading from Mars. Would crustaceans be better? How about if they came from Venus?”

  1. Execution of story.

In my own days as a screenwriter, my agents (and they were all good) would, with only minor tweaks, pretty much accept the draft I gave them. That was the version they took out and tried to sell.

Looking back, they should have pushed me harder.

I have another friend, a literary agent who runs her own boutique agency, a really good one. She does exactly that with her clients. She sends them back to the drawing board over and over.

Our theoretical mentor should be just as hard on his young, talented writer.

“You’ve told the story as an action adventure from the female scientist’s point of view. Is this the best way? What alternatives have you considered? Why did you reject those?”

  1. Maximization of character drama.

“Have we plumbed the detective’s dilemma deeply enough? He’s in love with the lady scientist but he’s conflicted because he has a pet tarantula at home and he finds himself relating sympathetically to the spiders. How can we deepen this issue and make it play most dramatically in the climax?”

Why, in today’s post, am I asking these questions?

Because they apply 100% to our ongoing (sorry, I can’t stop) series, “Reports from the Trenches.”

In other words, they’re the same questions you and I have to ask ourselves when the first draft of our novel or screenplay goes south.

We need to be our own mentors, our own agents, our own editors.

We have to hold our own feet to the fire.

Have we settled (we must ask ourselves) for the First Level version of our story, of our execution, of our characters? Did we grab the first idea and run with it?

Our mentor/agent/editor would force us to be accountable. He or she would demand that we push on to Level Two and Level Three and beyond.

Which brings me to subject of Resistance.

If I were writing The War of Art again today, I’d add a section on the subject of Micro Resistance.

Macro Resistance is the global kind. It’s the self-sabotage that stops us from doing our work, period.

But many of us have beaten that monster. We can sit down. We can bang out the pages.

But Micro Resistance is sabotaging those pages.

Micro Resistance strikes inside the book or screenplay. We’re working, but we’re not working deeply enough. We’re settling. We’re not pushing the action, we’re not considering enough alternatives, we’re not demanding that scenes and sequences and dramatic relationships extract the last bit of juice from their potential.

Micro Resistance is what’s been kicking my butt on this re-do I’m working on.

Why have I not pushed deeply enough?

Because it’s hard work.

It’s painful.

It’s risky.

I’ve avoided the effort out of fear of failure.

I’ve accepted stuff that a more mentally-tough writer would have rejected.

Resistance, you and I must never forget, is constant and unrelenting.

It fights us in every phrase and every sentence.

It always wants us to settle for the easy, the shallow, the first level.

Do you have that agent, that mentor, that editor who will force you to be true to your talent?

If you do, you’re incredibly lucky.

But you and I need to cultivate that mentor inside our own heads.

We’re the writers. Accountability for our work lies with us.

We have to be that agent/mentor/editor ourselves.

 

(more…)

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“Trenches #1,” Redux

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 13, 2017

[Not sure why, but my instinct tells me to re-run this post (the first in our “Reports from the Trenches” series) today, rather than posting a new one. Sometimes things need to be seen twice. I think this might be one of those times. So … here goes, in its entirety:]

I’m gonna take a break in this series on Villains and instead open up my skull and share what’s going on in my own work right now.

It ain’t pretty.

Joe and Willy, from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Mauldin

Joe and Willy, from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Mauldin

I’m offering this post in the hope that an account of my specific struggles at this moment will be helpful to other writers and artists who are dealing with the same mishegoss, i.e. craziness, or have in the past, or will in the future.

Here’s the story:

Eighteen months ago I had an idea for a new fiction piece. I did what I always do at such moments: I put it together in abbreviated (Foolscap) form—theme, concept, hero and villain, Act One/Act Two/Act Three, climax—and sent it to Shawn.

He loved it.

I plunged in.

Cut to fifteen months later. I sent the finished manuscript (Draft #10) to Shawn.

He hated it.

I’m overstating, but not by much.

Shawn sent me back a 15-page, single-spaced file titled “Edit letter to Steve.” That was April 28, about ten weeks ago.

Every writer who is reading this, I feel certain, has had this identical experience. Myself, I’ve been through it probably fifty times over the years, for novels, for screenplays, for everything.

Here was my emotional experience upon reading Shawn’s notes:

  1. I went into shock.

It was a Kubler-Ross experience. Shawn’s notes started out positively. He told me the things he liked about the manuscript. I knew what was coming, though.

When I hit the “bad part,” my brain went into full vapor lock. It was like the scene in the pilot of Breaking Bad when the doctor tells Bryan Cranston he’s got inoperable lung cancer. The physician’s lips are moving but no sound is coming through.

Here’s the e-mail I sent back to Shawn:

Pard, I just read your notes and as usually happens, I’m kinda overwhelmed. As you suggest, I’ll have to re-read a bunch of times and chew this all over.

MAJOR, MAJOR THANKS for the effort and skill you put into that memo. Wow.

I’m gonna sit with this for a while.

Can you read between the lines of that note? That is major shell shock.

  1. I put Shawn’s notes away and didn’t look at them for two weeks.

In some corner of my psyche I knew Shawn was right. I knew the manuscript was a trainwreck and I would have to rethink it from Square One and start again.

I couldn’t face that possibility.

The only response I could muster in the moment was to put Shawn’s notes aside and let my unconscious deal with them.

Meanwhile I put myself to work on other projects, including a bunch of Writing Wednesdays posts. But a part of me was thinking, How dare I write anything ‘instructional’ when, after fifty years of doing this stuff, I still can’t get it right myself?

There’s a name for that kind of thinking.

It’s called Resistance.

I knew it. I knew that this was a serious gut-check moment. I had screwed up. I had failed to do all the things I’d been preaching to others.

  1. After two weeks I took Shawn’s notes out and sat down with them. I told myself, Read them through one time, looking only for stuff you can agree with.

I did.

If Shawn’s notes made eight points, I found I could accept two.

Okay.

That’s a start.

I wrote this to Shawn:

Pard, gimme another two weeks to convince myself that your ideas are really mine. Then I’ll get back to you and we can talk.

  1. Three days later, I read Shawn’s notes again.

This time I found four things to agree with.

That was progress. For the first time I spied a glimmer of daylight.

  1. Two days later I began thinking of one of Shawn’s ideas as if I had come up with it myself.

Yeah, it’s my idea. Let’s rock it!

(I knew of course that the idea was Shawn’s. But at last, forward motion was occurring. I had passed beyond the Denial Stage.)

I’ll continue this Report From the Trenches next week. I don’t want this post to run too long and get boring.

The two Big Takeaways from today:

First, how lucky any of us is if we have a friend or editor or fellow writer (or even a spouse) who has the talent and the guts to give us true, objective feedback.

I’d be absolutely lost without Shawn.

And second, what a thermonuclear dose of Resistance we experience when faced with the hard truth about something we’ve written that truly sucks.

Our response to this moment, I believe, is what separates the pros from the amateurs. An amateur at this juncture will fold. She’ll balk, she’ll become defensive, she’ll dig in her heels and refuse to alter her work. I can’t tell you how close I came to doing exactly that.

The pro somehow finds the strength to bite the bullet. The process is not photogenic. It’s a bloodbath.

For me, the struggle is far from over. I’ve got weeks and weeks to go before I’m out of the woods and, even then, I may have to repeat this regrouping yet again.

[NOTE TO READER: Shall I continue these “reports from the trenches?” I worry that this stuff is too personal, too specific. Is it boring? Write in, friends, and tell me to stop if this isn’t helpful.

I’ll listen.]

(more…)

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

How Writers Screw Up, Part One

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 6, 2017

 

For part of my time in Hollywood, I worked with a partner. I called him “Stanley” in Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t so I’ll continue that protocol here.

Chris Cooper won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role in Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation"

Chris Cooper won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role in Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation”

Stanley was an established writer. He had been the force behind two big hits. I was the junior member of the team.

Stanley was also a major sci-fi enthusiast. He had read all the magazines, the short stories, the novels, the collections. One of the ways Stanley developed movie projects (he was a producer too) was to option a short story or novella by, say, Philip K. Dick and then adapt the piece as a screenplay.

 

Sci-fi short stories and novels [Stanley used to say] almost never work in the form in which we find them and acquire them. They’re part-stories. They’re half-stories.

 

This reality was a giant plus in Stanley’s eyes, because it meant he could option these pieces for peanuts, whip them into shape, and sell them as movies.

Stanley made me read a raft of these sci-fi works.

 

See how they all stop halfway through? The writer will have come up with a brilliant premise, like the idea of “replicants” and “blade runners” or the concept of erasing or implanting memories. But they almost never take the idea to a dramatic conclusion. They stop at Act One.

Or they’ll come up with fantastic heroes but without the right villains. There’s no theme. There’s no climax. There’s no third act.

 

Stanley didn’t fault these sci-fi writers. He was in awe of them just for their gift for coming up with such wild-and-crazy premises.

In Stanley’s view it was our job—the screenwriters who would adapt these novellas and short stories—to finish the work that the original writer had started.

Our job was to save her.

To make her stuff work

Have you seen Adaptation, written by the great screenwriter Charlie Kaufman? The movie is not science fiction but the problem its writing presents is exactly what we’re talking about here. The adapting screenwriter, “Charlie Kaufman,” accepts an assignment to write a script based on a Susan Orlean article in the New Yorker. The piece is about orchids.

In other words, there’s no readily apparent movie there.

The adapting writer, “Charlie Kaufman,” has to come up with a hero, a villain, an Act One, Act Two, Act Three.

If you haven’t seen the movie, Netflix it. It’s hysterical, with great performances by Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper.

But back to what we were talking about.

Why am I bringing this subject up?

What’s the point of exploring half-stories and part-stories?

Because that is exactly the problem you and I have when we write a novel and it crashes halfway through.

[Sorry, you guys. I promised last week I would stop writing these “Reports From The Trenches,” but I’ve had a few more ideas since then so I’m gonna keep going for another week or two.]

What I’m trying to say is that when you and I write a draft of a novel and the damn thing DOESN’T WORK, we find ourselves in the same position as Stanley after he options a Philip K. Dick short story or Charlie Kaufman when he signs a contract to adapt a magazine piece about flowers.

Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman and Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean

Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman and Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean

We are stuck with a half-story.

The only difference is we did it ourselves.

We didn’t have to acquire the half-story from another writer; we banged the sucker out all by ourselves.

Again, why am I beating this nearly-extinct horse?

Because before you and I can chart our course for Tahiti, we have to know WHERE WE ARE EMBARKING FROM.

This challenge is, as I observed earlier in this series, “writing at the Ph.D. level” and “overcoming Resistance at the Ph.D. level.”

Our assignment, yours and mine as we stand over the smoldering wreckage of our half-story/half-novel, is to

  1. Acquire objectivity about the material
  2. Detach ourselves emotionally from our own prior work
  3. Mentally regroup, so that we can summon our courage
  4. Open our minds to every new and fresh story possibility
  5. Start again from Square One.

Can we do it?

Will we fold?

Is the challenge too daunting?

Are we too attached to our original (half) story to let it go?

Lemme rephrase what I said about Ph.D.s.

This isn’t about a distinction between academic levels.

This is about the difference between being a professional and being an amateur.

We may have thought, you and I, when we started out in this business (I use that word deliberately, in contrast to “art”) that it was easy.

It ain’t.

(more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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