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

SEARCH

Search

SUBSCRIBE

Subscribe RSS

Subscribe to SPO.

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
19 Comments

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Resistance at the Ph.D. Level

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 12, 2017

 

Continuing our “reports from the trenches,” let me flash back briefly to last week’s post with the aim of setting today’s piece—Report #2—in a relatable time context.

General William Slim in Burma, 1943

General William Slim in Burma, 1943

The plot so far:

April 28, 2017. Shawn sends me his editorial notes on my new manuscript (my Draft #10.)

Same day: I go into shock.

Two weeks later: I summon the courage to read Shawn’s notes again. I succumb to shock a second time (though not quite as badly.)

Three days later: I read ’em one more time. Shock is receding.

Two days after that: I begin to actually grasp what Shawn is trying to communicate.

Fast-forward to today, July 10. I have outlined (new) Draft #11 in detailed, scene-by-scene form. I’m about halfway through the next pass of actually writing it.

Projection into future: Another five weeks to finish Draft #11. Will need at least two more drafts after that. Then send again to Shawn.

Future/future: possibly begin process all over again.

I wrote half-jokingly in last week’s post that this experience has had a heavy Kubler-Ross feel to it.

Alas, it’s true.

For sure I’ve been going through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression. The objective has been to get to the final stage—acceptance.

Acceptance meaning the ability to read Shawn’s notes objectively (or as objectively as possible) and respond to them like a professional, i.e. without ego, without defensiveness, without laziness or short-cut-itis.

The Big, Big Question:

How can I decide which of Shawn’s eight points I agree with and which I don’t?

This is Resistance at the Ph.D. level.

In other words, my ego/self-protectiveness/laziness/pride etc. is rejecting EVERYTHING Shawn is suggesting or proposing. Reading his notes for the first, and even the second time, I literally could not understand them. Not because Shawn hadn’t expressed himself with absolute clarity. He had. But just because the blow was too severe. It was a Mike Tyson shot to the solar plexus.

Yet I knew, in some hazy part of my brain, that Shawn’s notes were right. I trust him absolutely. I’ve seen him be right, over and over. He knows his shit, and he knows my shit.

Shawn’s notes are on the money, I’m certain. At least some of them. Probably most of them.

Problem: How do I come back from the fetal position and shake off that defensive armor of self-protection?

Because Resistance, bank on it, is loving every minute of this.

Resistance wants me to crumble.

Resistance wants me to deny, to dissent, to defend.

How do I defeat this diabolical entity?

Here are two things I did:

  1. I recalled to mind the multiple horror stores that Shawn and other editors have told me over the years about writers self-destructing at precisely this moment in their process. In other words at the moment of semi-completion but not real completion. The moment of I-think-I’ve-nailed-it-but-I-really-haven’t-but-I-can’t-face-the-nightmare-of-having-to-regroup-and-start-again.

These stories will turn your hair white. The poor writer (and I can empathize completely, believe me) goes into shock/denial/defiance/rationalization. He fights back. He scorns his editor’s input. He stomps his feet, he digs in his heels. He refuses to make the changes.

Climax of tale: writer’s book dies, writer is never heard from again.

Okay.

I’m telling myself this. I’m scaring myself straight.

Rally, Steve. Suck it up, baby. Read Shawn’s notes again. Focus. Move back to the 30,000 foot view. Gain perspective.

Which of Shawn’s points do you agree with? Don’t just be tough on yourself, be tough on him. He’s human. He’s fallible. He can be wrong.

Trust your instincts, Steve. This is your book. Only you and your Muse can carry it to completion.

What do you think?

Which points do you agree with?

  1. The second thing I did to help me through this moment was I reminded myself of how it works for novelists and screenwriters in Hollywood.

The system is

 

If Writer #1 can’t lick this script, fire him and bring in Writer #2.

 

I said to myself, “Steve, you’re fired.”

 

Thanks a lot, buddy, you took the story as far as you could. Now step aside. We’re bringing in Steve #2.

 

I told myself, “Steve, you’re hired.”

 

Welcome aboard, Big Guy. Here, read this piece of crap we just got in from Steve #1. Tear it apart if you have to. Just make it work.

 

I became Steve #2. (There may be a Steve #3 and #4 lurking to replace me when I screw the pooch too, but for now let’s put that out of our minds.)

Steve #2 has certain advantages that Steve #1 doesn’t.

First, he starts with a clean slate.

It’s not his fault that this project is all bolloxed up.

He’s the surgeon.

He’s the Fix-it Man.

He’s the pro from Dover.

Steve #2 will come in, sew this mess up, and get it back on his feet.

Sometimes you and I as writers have to play mind games with ourselves. We have to find a way to gain perspective, to seed ourselves with patience. I’m reading a terrific book now called Defeat Into Victory by Field Marshall Viscount William Slim. It’s a true memoir of the war in Burma, 1942-45, against the Japanese. The part of the book I’m reading now is the Defeat part. General Slim and the allies are getting their butts kicked.

The story is fall back, fall back, fall back. Rally, regroup, counterattack, get beaten again.

This is warfare at the Ph.D. level, as my friend Major Jim Gant says. It’s a dead ringer for our struggles as writers, yours and mine, when we receive and must absorb brave, insightful, constructive (but devastating) feedback on our work.

Next week we’ll get into specifics on this process of rallying back. I’m making it up as I go along. I’ll keep reporting to you, as long you think it’s helpful. Lemme know, please. It helps.

P.S. General Slim and his soldiers did stop the bleeding (after first losing all of Burma) and did, eventually, fight back and turn defeat into victory.

 

(more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
49 Comments

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Report from the Trenches, #1

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 5, 2017

 

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…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
156 Comments
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