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

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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Let There be Blood

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 27, 2017

 

I know I keep promising to finish with these “Reports from the Trenches.” But I’m still deeply in the muck and mire myself, and each week brings a fresh insight.

So …

This week’s flash is about blood ties.

Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. No, I won't reveal the spoiler.

Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. How tightly can the writers bind these two characters?

I first learned this trick from a wonderful book called Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. Mr. Zuckerman is Ken Follett’s literary agent and something of a legend in the business. Blockbuster can be heavy going because it presents its case in such detail, but I recommend it highly nonetheless.

Here’s one of the book’s brilliant insights:

 

            Tie your characters as tightly together as possible.

 

What do Zuckerman/Follett mean by this?

They mean if one of your female characters is going to murder one of your male characters, make them husband and wife.

If Luke must duel Darth Vader to the death, make them scion and patriarch. And don’t forget Princess Leia. Throw her into the gene pool too.

Blood ties.

If you can’t bind your characters within the family web, make them lovers.

Make them intimate friends.

Laertes should be Hamlet’s best buddy, and Ophelia should be Laertes’ sister, and Polonius his father. If Hamlet’s mom, the queen, is gonna murder his dad and marry the usurper, let that dastard be Hamlet’s father’s brother.

Game of Thrones works this magic every week.

I’m not a geek for the show (I can’t really tell Daenerys from Cersei or Sansa Stark from Arya), but I know that 99% of GOT’s dramatic power comes from the fact that everybody is related to everybody else. Even the dragons were raised from eggs. They’re members of the family too.

When brother betrays brother, that’s drama.

Wife murders husband.

Best friend seduces best friend’s wife.

The Godfather gave us blood ties across three generations.

The Sopranos played like a family album.

Even Breaking Bad, whose central family was bound primarily by the secrets each member was keeping from every other, was about teacher-student bonds, fellow-criminal bonds, etc.

Which brings me back to this Report from the Trenches.

When our novel crashes and we’re desperately seeking to unearth the core story beneath, Albert Z’s trick can help us disinter that elusive sucker.

Three days ago I took a male and female character who had been unrelated and made them brother and sister.

Wow, did that help!

If you can’t make your characters related by blood, it can be almost as good to give them shared backstories.

Paul Manafort was a partner in Black, Manafort and Stone, powerful Washington lobbyists who represented numerous overseas clients. The Stone in that trio is Roger Stone, the agent provocateur and long-time pal of Donald Trump. Stone’s mentor was Roy Cohn, who was Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel in the Army-McCarthy hearings. Cohn also mentored the young Donald Trump.

See what I mean?

Tie your characters together.

Give them intertwined roots.

For the reader, the fun of the story is unraveling these hidden links.

(more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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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…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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