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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The #1 Amateur Mistake

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 18, 2015

Woody Guthrie. Unless you are this gentleman, DO NOT knock on Bob Dylan's gate.

My friend Kate used to work for Bob Dylan. Kate told me that every morning the guard out front would find demo tapes from wannabe folk singers and aspiring rockers affixed to Bob’s gate.

I can understand this. I can visualize the solo dude with a Gibson twelve-string on his back, or the young hard-working band in their VW microbus. Maybe they drove all the way from the opposite coast. What a rush! To do the detective work, find out where Bob Dylan lives, then leave your stuff for him to listen to. Maybe he’ll like it! Maybe he’ll give us a call! Would that be all-time classic or what?

But what really happens to those demo tapes? Bob Dylan (and every other artist/writer/filmmaker at that level) pays thousands of dollars a month to a security service. The service’s top priority is to make sure that NOTHING unsolicited gets anywhere near Bob. Each morning the guard collects the demo tapes and throws them unopened into the trash.

Why does the security service do this? First, obviously, to protect Bob Dylan’s time and safety. But equally important, to shield him from a potential plagiarism suit.

Suppose Bob is working on an album right now and one musical theme in it is dum-de-de-DUM? This theme is Bob’s invention entirely. It came to him in a dream; he loves it; he’s been refining it in the studio for weeks.

Now suddenly, affixed to his front gate, is a tape that has a similar musical theme. When Bob’s new album comes out and the band who pinned that tape to Bob’s fence hears it, they may think, “Hey, Dylan ripped us off!”

That’s why Bob and every other serious professional has a lawyer or an assistant or a security service who can simply say, “Mr. Dylan NEVER sees anything sent to him or delivered to him without his permission. We throw it all away. That’s our job.”

The #1 Amateur Mistake is sending material (musical, literary, or otherwise) to a fellow writer/musician/artist without asking his or her permission first.

This happens to me. I get two or three a week. Someone will send me their novel as an attachment in an e-mail. (I haven’t gotten any demo tapes yet.) I am under orders from my attorney NEVER to open those attachments. I must delete them at once.


Posted in Writing Wednesdays

What It Takes

What It Takes

The First Draft

By Shawn Coyne | Published: March 13, 2015

[Join to read more of Shawn’s Stuff]

When you are writing a first draft of anything…a novel, a play, a manual, a grocery store list, take the advice of Satchel Paige.

The inimitable Satchel Paige

“Don’t look back.”

Don’t read over what you’ve written before when you begin your day’s work.  Don’t fix any sentences.  Don’t stop and go research to fill in a blank that you do not have the immediate answer for.  Make it up and fix it later.

Don’t think about anything other than putting what is inside your head onto the page/computer screen.

Of course the first draft is the hardest. That’s why a lot of people stop working after they’ve finished it.


The first draft is the thing that we dream of.  We believe that once we have a full chunk of pages, we will have a book.  Acknowledging that the first draft is the equivalent of a sculptor going down to the quarry to buy a big slab of marble, or a mason buying a skid of bricks and 100 pounds of mortar is a very difficult thing to do.

But alas, the first draft is an end that serves as the beginning of another craft.  Editing.  And editing is not re-writing.  Editing is a process that gives you the work orders for your re-write. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I cannot overemphasize how important it is NOT TO RE-WRITE  your first draft. Until you reach its final two words…THE END. (more…)

Posted in What It Takes

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“You Broke My Heart, Fredo”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 11, 2015

One of my favorite books on writing is Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. Zuckerman is an agent, a writer, a teacher of writing. He has represented Ken Follett, Stephen Hawking, many others.

John Cazale and Al Pacino in "The Godfather II." The closer the characters are to each other, the greater the drama when they act in conflict.

Zuckerman advocates a principle that I’ve used myself many times because it always works.

When one character kills another, and they are strangers to each other, we see such an act as frightening, terrible, maybe even shocking. But when a child murders a parent or vice versa, or a brother slays a brother, such a deed strikes us as much more horrific.

This comes from a chapter titled Tightening Character Relationships. Mr. Zuckerman continues:

Conflict … between characters who have close ties by blood and/or intense relationships … magnifies what’s at stake for the parties on both sides. They may have violent feelings about what’s at issue between them, but a second and usually more potent dimension is added when they care personally about each other.

Zuckerman goes on to cite an (opposite) example from real life. A family from Utah visiting New York City was attacked by a gang of thugs on a subway. The son, defending his mother, was stabbed to death. True crime is usually a hot genre; a number of book proposals were put together, retelling this tragedy.

But no editor thought that these elements would make a saleable book. The story was rejected. It lacked a strong interpersonal connection between perpetrator and victim.

How do I use this insight myself? As I’m working out a story in my head, I’ll ask questions like these:

“The two rivals, Joe and Jim … would the drama be better if they were brothers?”

“What if Janie and Janine had both been lovers of Jackie?”

It sounds formulaic, I know. But it works. It worked for Sophocles. It worked for Shakespeare. It even works in the Bible.

Have you seen The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada? If you haven’t, netflix it at once. The movie stars Tommy Lee Jones (who also directed) Barry Pepper, Melissa Leo, January Jones, and Dwight Yoakam, screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga. It’s terrific.

In the story (bear with me a moment) Barry Pepper, a Border Patrol agent in a flyblown town in west Texas, accidentally kills Melquiades Estrada, played by Julio Cedillo–a Mexican cowboy working for his dear friend, rancher Tommy Lee Jones. Minor characters are Melissa Leo as a sexy truck stop waitress, January Jones as Barry Pepper’s bored-stiff wife, and Dwight Yoakam as the sheriff who couldn’t care less about one dead Mexican.

The short version is that Tommy Lee becomes enraged at the injustice and takes the law into his own hands. He kidnaps Barry, steals the dead body of Melquiades, and takes off with both of them on a cross-border odyssey-rampage whose aim is to inter his friend’s remains with dignity near his home in Mexico. Over the course of several days and hundreds of wilderness miles, an unexpected bond forms between Tommy Lee and Barry. The story ends with these two men who hate each other coming to an odd and very moving understanding.

But there was a problem with this story. The characters, except Tommy Lee and Melquiades, are strangers to each other.

Here’s what the writer Guillermo Arriaga (possibly at Tommy Lee Jones’ urging, I dont know) did to pull the story together.

He wrote a flashback sequence in which Tommy Lee and Melquiades go honky-tonking with two women. One is Melissa Leo, the cafe waitress, with whom Tommy Lee has a thing going; the other is a young lady Melissa has befriended from serving her in the cafe–January Jones, Barry Pepper’s wife. Melquiades winds up sleeping with January Jones. (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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