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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Dude Abides … but in What Genre?

By Steven Pressfield
Published: June 29, 2016

 

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I was talking three weeks ago about the preparatory files I use before plunging in on a first draft. The first file is one I call Foolscap. Here’s the first question I ask myself in that file:

“What’s the genre?”

"She kidnapped herself, man!"

The Dude doing his Philip Marlowe thing

I’m asking, “What kind of book am I writing? Is it a Western? A Love Story? What exactly is the genre of this idea I’m working on?”

I ask this first because it’s the most critical question a writer can ask. And because, once I answer it, I’m halfway home.

At this stage (before the first word of a first draft) I may have only the vaguest notion of what my story is. Maybe I’ve got one character, a few scenes, maybe less than that. I’m groping. I’m like the blind man trying to figure out if he’s working with an elephant.

So I ask first, “What’s the genre?”

Why do I ask this? Because genres have conventions. As soon as I identify the kind of story I’m telling, I automatically have a road map, a blueprint for its shape, its trajectory, and its content.

Consider The Big Lebowski by Joel and Ethan Coen.

I have no idea how the brothers evolved their story but I’ll bet anything they started with “the Dude.” They probably even had Jeff Bridges in mind. My guess is they knew the tone of the movie; they knew it would be zany, wry, deadpan. And they knew the feeling of the scenes they wanted. But I’ll bet that, at first, they weren’t sure exactly what genre, what kind of movie it was. Then …

“OMG, it’s a Private Eye Story! It’s a Detective Movie but instead of a having a hard-bitten Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe type as our hero, we’ll have a lovable, slightly-dim stoner.”

Identifying the genre was the stroke that split the diamond. At one blow, the Coen brothers could see the whole movie.

Why? Again, because genres have conventions. A Private Eye Story has obligatory scenes. Every movie or novel in this genre makes stops at these mandatory stations. The audience would be furious if it didn’t.

Next step for the brothers? Cue up Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon, Farewell My Lovely. Watch them or read them with this thought in mind: “What can we steal? What happens to Jack Nicholson, to Bogie, to Robert Mitchum? Whatever that is, we’ll make it happen to the Dude.”

See what I mean about genre?

Once we know what type of story we’re telling, we’ve got half the struggle licked.

But back to Private Eye Stories. What scenes can we count on? What scenes will be in every tale of a gumshoe-for-hire?

  1. He’ll be approached (usually by a rich person) to take on a case.
  2. Halfway through the story, he’ll be hired by another individual (usually intimately connected to the first rich person) to take on an additional case. Both assignments will involve “finding” somebody or some thing.
  3. The hero will become romantically involved with a beautiful woman, usually his client. This liaison will not go well for the hero.
  4. For sure, our detective will get beaten up. Usually more than once.

 

PHILIP MARLOWE

Moose’s skillet-sized fist hit me. A pool of inky blackness

opened at my feet and I tumbled into it …

 

  1. Our hero will have a sidekick or partner, possibly a Peter Lorre-type. This cohort will inevitably get our hero into trouble.
  2. There will be scenes of betrayal, duplicity and mistaken identity.
  3. There will be red herrings and multiple plot twists.
  4. In the end, our hero will actually solve the crime. He and no one else. He will come out on top but, alas, without the girl (and perhaps without his fee, his business, or his sanity.)

The Coen brothers knew these conventions. They understood that these were the sinew and marrow of the Detective Story genre.

So the Dude gets hired by the Rich Guy (the actual “Big Lebowski”), then hired again by his daughter Maude, played by Julianne Moore, who indeed will seduce him for her own nefarious purposes. Beat-ups? The Dude will get pummeled by goons, attacked in his bathtub by nihilists, have his White Russian drugged by Ben Gazzara, the porn gangster. His buddy John Goodman will get him into all kinds of trouble. Together they will chase down numerous red herrings, but, in the end, it will be the Dude and only the Dude who cracks the case.

 

DUDE

She kidnapped herself, man!

 

My favorite scene in The Big Lebowski is, sure enough, a genre-specific convention: the moment when the hero, in bed with the Beautiful Client, reveals his own (surprisingly profound and emphatically on-theme) backstory. Remember that moment in Chinatown? Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes is lying back on the pillow, having just made love to Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray. She asks him how he got into the private detective racket and he tells her he used to “work for the District Attorney” (meaning he was a cop) in L.A.’s Chinatown.

 

JAKE GITTES

You can’t always tell what’s going on there. I thought

I was keeping someone from being hurt and actually I

ended up making sure they were hurt.

 

That scene, for sure, was front-of-mind for Joel and Ethan Coen when they put Jeff Bridges in the post-coital sack with Julianne Moore.

 

MAUDE

Tell me about yourself, Jeffrey.

 

DUDE

Not much to tell.

(tokes on a joint)

I was one of the authors of

the Port Huron Statement. The original … not the

compromised second draft. Did you hear of the Seattle Seven?

That was me … uh … Music business briefly … roadie for

Metallica. Speed of Sound tour. Bunch of assholes …

 

Genre conventions are not “formula.” They’re opportunities for tremendous creativity and fun and depth, as the Coen brothers proved in this and a bunch of other movies.

Before you write a word of your first draft, figure out what genre you’re working in. Then bone up on the conventions of that genre and take it from there.
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The Afghan Campaign

No one writes better historical fiction than Steven Pressfield. The Afghan War that was waged by Alexander the Great 2000 years ago is eerily similar to the one that's being fought today. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to better understand what American and Coalition forces are up against in one of history's most tribal and troubled regions.
—Vince Flynn
. . . Steven Pressfield is the finest military writer alive, bar none. I cannot recommend him too highly.
—Stephen Coonts
BUY THE BOOK: Hardcover | Paperback | eBook

The Afghan Campaign re-creates Alexander the Great's invasion of the Afghan kingdoms in 330 B.C., a campaign that eerily foreshadows the tactics, terrors and frustrations of contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here the foe does not meet us in pitched battle, as other armies we have dueled in the past. . . . Even when we defeat him, he will not accept our dominion. He comes back again and again. He hates us with a passion whose depth is exceeded only by his patience and his capacity for suffering.

In words that might have been ripped from today's combat dispatches, The Afghan Campaign brings to life the confrontation between an invading Western army and fierce Eastern warriors determined at all costs to defend their homeland. Narrated by Matthias, an infantryman in Alexander's army, The Afghan Campaign explores the challenges, both military and moral, that Alexander and his soldiers face as they embark on a new type of war and are forced to adapt to the methods of a ruthless foe that employs terror and insurgent tactics, conceals itself among the civilian populace, and recruits women and boys as combatants. As Matthias relates the brutal day-to-day encounters between the two sides, he exposes the human cost borne by a company of men whose code is humanist and secular when they seek to impose their will on a people of deep religiosity, insularity, unbending pride, and a passionate readiness to die for their cause.

The following excerpt is the opening of the book -- the quote at the very start and then the first chapter. We hope to add a few more chapters from the body of the book as the publishing date approaches.

EPIGRAPH

"Do you believe that so many nations accustomed to the name and rule of another, united with us neither by religion, nor customs, nor community of language, have been subdued in the same battle in which they were overcome? It is by your arms alone that they are restrained, not by their dispositions, and those who fear us when we are present, in our absence will be enemies. We are dealing with savage beasts, which lapse of time only can tame, when they are caught and caged, because their own nature cannot tame them ... Accordingly, we must either give up what we have taken, or we must seize what we do not yet hold."

Alexander addressing his troops on the approach
to Afghanistan; Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander

PROLOGUE
A Wedding in Asia

The war is over. Or it will be by sundown tonight, when our lord Alexander takes to wife the Afghan princess Roxane.

Across the Plain of Sorrows, so named for the multitude of its burial grounds, the camps of the Macedonians sprawl flank-by-flank alongside those of the enemy. There must be half a thousand of the latter, those bivouacs the Afghans call tafiran ("circles"), each housing between fifty and five hundred men. Every tribe and clan from Artacoana to the Jaxartes has trekked in for the celebration, along with vendors and whores in thousands, tailors, seamstresses, acrobats, musicians, fortune tellers. The whole Mack expeditionary force is here, including foreign units, horse and foot. Every captain and corporal parades in his finery, eager for the festivities. Except me and my mates Flag, Boxer, and Little Red. We've still got work to do.

Give Alexander credit. By taking to wife the Afghan princess, he turns his most formidable foe, the warlord Oxyartes, into his father-in-law. No other stunt could have produced victory in this war--or that state of affairs that can plausibly be passed off as victory.

So we shall have peace. I doubt that any cessation of hostilities has been longed for more ardently than this. A campaign that was supposed to take three months has dragged on with unbroken terror and brutality for almost three years. Those of us who came out from home as boys have become first men and then something closer to beasts or devils. The Afghans have suffered worse. Two hundred thousand dead, that's the figure you hear. I believe it. Hardly a village remains in this country that our troops haven't leveled, or a city that we haven't taken apart stone by stone.

So this wedding is much looked forward to. The deal between Alexander and Oxyartes is this: the warlord gives away his daughter and accepts our king as his sovereign. In return Alexander appoints him governor, to rule the country in Alexander's name. This makes Oxyartes the biggest mackerel in Asia, second only to our lord himself. Then we Macks pack up and leave. I don't know who's happier--us to get out or the Afghans to see us go.

I'm getting married tonight myself. Fourteen hundred Macks will be linking with Afghan girls in one collective ceremony. My bride's name is Shinar. It's a long story; I'll tell it as we go along.

My mate Flag dismounts now outside the tent, as I finish arming. He's about forty and the hardest knot I know. He has taught me everything. I would march into hell at his side.

He enters dressed in formal military kit, for the wedding. I indicate his cloak.

"You'll be roasting in that thing."

Flag tugs back one wing. Beneath his left arm, a xiphos sword is strapped to his ribs. He's got an Afghan long-knife lashed along one thigh and throwing-daggers inside both boots. He carries two more weapons in plain view, a ceremonial sword on a baldric and a nine-foot half-pike. These are for show. To give Baz (the name Macks employ for all Afghans) something to fix his eyes on.

Boxer and Little Red have reined outside. In a few moments we'll make our way across the plain to the camp of the Aletai Pactyans. There, I will meet the brother of my bride and pay him off, an indemnity of honor, so he won't murder me and his sister. The price is four years' wages and my best horse.

Such is Afghanistan. Only out here do you have to bribe a brother not to slaughter his own sister. Her crime: being with me.

Of course I suspect treachery. That's what the weapons are for. In a way I'm hoping for it. Otherwise, our own Mack code of philoxenia ("love for the stranger") forbids me to take the life of one of the family I marry into. I'm an idiot for still buying it, but there it is.

Atop the citadel, the crier calls. Two hours past noon. The Persian day starts at sundown. That's when the wedding will take place. Lesser ceremonies have been going on all day. Late afternoon will be the military tattoo. The whole Mack army and all the Afghan clans and tribes will pass in review before Alexander, Roxane and the dignitaries. The big wedding, the royal one, will take place in Chorienes' palace atop the fortress of Bal Teghrib, "Stone Mountain." The mass ceremony, the one where Shinar and I will get tied, takes place outdoors in the new stadium at the foot of the hill. When the weddings are over, the celebrations begin.

"All right," says Flag. "Let's go over this one more time."

Flag is by far our senior. His rank is Flag Sergeant. He has a personal name but I've never heard anyone use it. We just call him by his rank.

He rehearses us in blocking moves. What's critical is that Shinar's brother and his two cousins not escape. They can't be allowed to break away or survive with wounds. Our blows must be fatal. These three are Shinar's last male kin. No others stand under the obligation of nangwali, the Afghan code of honor, to see that "justice" is done. Brother and cousins slain, we can buy our way out of the crime. Money will patch it up. But these three must go down.

I am grateful to my comrades. This is serious peril that they undergo for my sake. I'd do the same for them, and they know it. They'll be embarrassed if I express gratitude overtly. When it's over, if we're all alive, I'll get each of them a woman or a horse.

"All I can say," says Little Red as we finish our preparations, "is this is a hell of a way to warm up for a wedding."

As my mates and I cinch up, my bride appears in the portal. She will bathe now and, assisted by her bridesmaids, perform the karahal, the Pactyan purification rite. No male may witness this. She meets my eye. "When will you go, Matthias?"

"Now."

A groom brings my horse. My mates have already mounted.

The Afghan farewell is tel badir, "With God's care." Shinar signs this to me. I sign back. Flag's heels tap his pony. "Now or never."

We're off. To perform, if we must, one final murder; then get the hell out of this country.

"No one writes better historical fiction than Steven Pressfield. The Afghan War that was waged by Alexander the Great 2000 years ago is eerily similar to the one that's being fought today. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to better understand what American and Coalition forces are up against in one of history's most tribal and troubled regions."
—Vince Flynn
" . . . Steven Pressfield is the finest military writer alive, bar none. I cannot recommend him too highly."
—Stephen Coonts
" . . . gripping . . . a vivid, compelling tale . . . superbly constructed, briskly paced, and dramatically engaging. [The] possibility of retaining one's inner innocence while surrounded by horror may explain the enormous popularity of Pressfield's work among the rank-and-file soldiers of the American military. Matthias [the infantryman-protagonist of The Afghan Campaign] holds out to the reader the central promise that every soldier wants to believe: not only will you survive and grow in the crucible of the battlefield, you will emerge with your peacetime decency and goodness intact."
—Claremont Review of Books

A Random House Interview with the Author

RH: Why this subject? What hooked you about this particular war and these particular combatants?
SP: The book I wrote before this was The Virtues of War, about Alexander the Great. There's a chapter called "Badlands" that describes the campaign in Afghanistan. As I was researching it, it hit me with tremendous force: this war is exactly like the war our troops are fighting today in Iraq. Same tactics, same pattern of conflict, same West versus East dynamics.

I said to myself, This is the next book. I gotta expand this to book length.

RH: In other words, it was the contemporary parallels that hooked you.
SP: Historical fiction is a funny animal. Because it's set in the past, it seems to be about another era. (Same with science fiction, which is set in the future.) But you can get at issues in historical fiction and sci-fi -- and hit the reader with greater power -- than you can using a contemporary or topical approach.

RH: Why?
SP: Because the reader gets to participate. He gets to make the connections himself. Can I cite an example from my own stuff?

RH: Please do.
SP: My first historical novel was Gates of Fire, about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. When I was writing it, I thought to myself: Nobody's gonna be interested in this except me and a few historians and scholars; mainstream readers won't even be able to pronounce the name, let alone care about this obscure battle fought between nations that no longer even exist.

To my amazement, when the book came out, I started getting letters from Marines in Iraq, from Special Ops guys in Afghanistan, from cops and firefighters and hostage-rescue guys. Passionate letters, saying these warriors, the Spartans, are just like us! In other words, these contemporary readers made all the connections effortlessly and automatically. They could relate completely to the warrior ethos of the Spartans. The book went straight onto the Commandant's Reading List; it became part of the course work at Annapolis and West Point; the Marine Corps included it in various curriculums. 2nd Bn, Sixth Marines even calls themselves "the Spartans." When I speak at military bases, at West Point or Quantico or Lejeune or Pendleton, these contemporary warriors read themselves into the past absolutely. And it's even more powerful because it's a metaphor. That was a real lesson to me.

RH: What are the contemporary parallels in The Afghan Campaign?
SP: It's an absolute prototype for the wars we're fighting today in the Middle East -- and for the conflicts we're likely to get involved in, in other places, for the rest of this century.

RH: Can you elaborate?
SP: When Alexander invaded the Afghan kingdoms in 330 B.C., his army was the lone superpower of its day, fresh from the conquest of the Persian Empire, the mightiest in history. Alexander was the consummate Westerner. His tutor was Aristotle, literally, which is about as Western as it gets. And he was at the peak of his power and self-confidence. Just like us before we invaded Iraq. Alexander believed he'd pacify this primitive place, this motley collection of tribes, in one summer. Instead he was stuck there for three long, brutal years. Longer in combat time than it took him to knock off the entire Persian empire.

RH: He underestimated how hard it would be.
SP: Exactly! He had a huge technological edge. His guys were the toughest, best-trained, best-equipped fighters the world had ever seen. He thought they'd be greeted like liberators. And they were, for about two minutes. Then the enemy found a new way to fight. More massacres of Macedonian troops happened in those three years than in all of Alexander and his father's Philip's other campaigns combined. Alexander simply didn't have an answer for the enemy's tactics. His guys were getting killed in greater numbers even than in huge conventional battles of the past, and he -- the supreme military genius in history, with unlimited wealth and arms at his disposal -- couldn't figure out how to overcome it.

RH: What was the problem?
SP: His army, just like ours, was designed to fight stand-up, head-banging conventional battles. And it was invincible at that. But the enemy in this new campaign wouldn't face him in a straight-up fight. They used guerrilla tactics, insurgency tactics. They used terror. Massacres. Their combatants hid among the civilian population. They used villages and tribal communities to conceal themselves; they got supplied and protected by civilians. They employed cross-border sanctuaries. Fighters flooded in from adjacent territories. They dispersed their forces across the entire region and wouldn't let Alexander come to grips with them. Wherever Alexander wasn't, that's where they'd hit. And they had a spectacular guerrilla commander, named Spitamenes, who fought Alexander to a standstill.

RH: Was this Islamic?
SP: That's the fascinating thing: it was pre-Islamic and pre-Christian. Yet the dynamics of the clash were exactly like what we see today. I mean the "feel" of it. You could beam one of Alexander's infantrymen into the present and he'd say, "Holy shit, nothing's changed! This is just the way it was!" The same essence of East versus West. Rational versus emotional. Technological versus primitive.

And most important of all, "national" versus tribal.

RH: I know you have a theory about Islam and tribalism.
SP: I do. I think the genius of Islam is that it incorporates tribalism and gives it a medium in which to flourish in the contemporary world.

And I believe that the essence of the enemy we're fighting today is not religious but tribal. It's tribalism expressed in religious terms. But underneath it all, it's tribalism.

RH: What is tribalism? And what does it mean for our guys today fighting it?
SP: That's what The Afghan Campaign is trying to get at. This interview has been a little misleading so far, in that it sounds like Alexander is the primary character in this book. He isn't. The book is told from the point of view of a young infantryman in Alexander's army. It's an on-the-ground perspective, as this young guy arrives in the war and starts to realize what he's gotten himself into. He relates to the enemy -- civilians and combatants -- as individuals. He has to because he deals with them every day, up-close and personal. And the primary characteristic that they possess (and that makes them so alien and hard to understand) is that they're tribal. They see the world through tribal eyes. They fight like tribesmen have always fought. And they're as stubborn and defiant and implacable and cunning and duplicitous and cruel and formidable as tribal fighters have always been.

RH: When you say "tribe" and "tribal," I'm not sure what you mean. Can you give me an example?
SP: Think Geronimo. These guys are Apaches, in the past and the present. The enemy that Alexander was fighting (and that our guys are fighting today) has more in common with the Sicilian Mafia or with a prison gang of Bloods or Crips than with a conventional enemy like the Russians or any "national" foe.

RH: Tell us about nangwali.
SP: Nangwali is an Afghan tribal code of honor. Its tenets are nang, pride; badal: revenge, and melmastia, hospitality. But it could be any tribal code from any era of history. They all share those precepts, whether it's the Lakota Sioux or a tribe of head-hunters from the Amazon. You can't fight a tribe like you fight a nation.

RH: What's the difference?
SP: The tribe is primitive. It has evolved out of the hunting band mentality. Its fundamental imperative is survival. The tribe's mindset is that of warrior pride. That's why the tribe subjugates women and limits their role to physical labor and child-bearing. In the tribe, women are nothing. Warrior pride is all. The tribe has an admirable sense of justice within the tribe, but none at all outside. Non-tribesmen are infidels, gentiles, devils. Tribes are notoriously and hideously cruel to captives. Beheadings on video ... that's nothing compared to what tribes all over the world have always done. The tribe values cohesiveness far above individual freedom. It despises individual freedom. The tribe picks a leader and follows him no matter what. That's its code. That's how it survives. The tribe respects power. Saddam Hussein understood this.

RH: What about democracy and freedom? What are their chances in contemporary Iraq?
SP: In my view, zero. The tribe will never accept individual freedom. The only way Western-style democracy will take root in the Middle East, in my opinion, is if societies are broken down to absolute zero and built up from scratch, and even then it won't work. It'll never happen. The tribal memory is thousands of years. It's ineradicable. When you see photos on the news of Iraqi or Afghan men and women showing off their ink-stained fingers from the voting booth, that's not democracy. Their tribal leader told them how to vote and that's what they've done.

RH: If this is true, if we really are fighting a predominantly tribal enemy today, what can we learn from Alexander? How did Alexander overcome them?
SP: If we could beam Alexander into this room and ask him that question, I think he would laugh. He would say, "Beat them? I barely got out of there in one piece -- and I had to use every trick in the book to do it!"

RH: What tricks did he use?
SP: First, he pounded the hell out of the enemy militarily. Worse than anything a contemporary army would dare. He leveled cities, depopulated entire regions. And it still didn't work. Tribal fighters are united on the deepest levels to the land. They would rather die than yield. Still, Alexander softened them up a little by wiping out so many of them. He at least made their lives so miserable that they were, on some level, amenable to an understanding.

Second, he denied them sanctuary. He closed the borders. He burned out all their regions of supply. He established strong garrison towns. And he used his vast wealth (gained from acquiring the treasury of the Persian empire) to enlist many of them in his own army for pay. In other words, he bought the country. In the end, he even killed his rival, Spitamenes. And the amazing thing is this still didn't win the war for him.

RH: What did?
SP: Alexander's supreme stroke was political: he married the daughter of his worst enemy.

RH: Roxane.
SP: She was the daughter of Oxyartes, the most powerful warlord of the foe. The key to fighting tribal enemies is their warrior pride. Imagine you're facing Geronimo or Crazy Horse and you want to reach an accommodation. You have to show tremendous respect, you have to understand the passion and implacability of tribal pride. It's not one aspect, it's everything. You have to give the enemy a credible way to convince his people that he won, that he beat you. Otherwise his own people will eat him alive.

That's what Alexander did. He brought in Oxyartes and treated him with great honor. What could be more honorable, after all, than joining the families in marriage? Oxyartes was no longer Alexander's enemy, he was his father-in-law. He sat next to him at the seat of honor and rode at his side in public before the troops. His grandchildren, when they came, would be of Alexander's blood and, as his heirs, would one day rule the world. That was a deal Oxyartes' pride could accept--and that his people could accept.

It worked. Alexander and Roxane were married in a spectacular ceremonial wedding, to which all combatants of both sides were invited and feted with great gifts and clemency. Then Alexander packed up and got the hell out of there.

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