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

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!”


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.


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┬áRachel’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

Tides of War

Pressfield has an impressive grasp of military history and an even more impressive ability to convey his passion in print. His battlefield scenes rank with the most convincing ever written—you can almost feel the slash of sword on skin and sense the shattering mix of panic, bravery, blood lust and despair.
—USA Today
While Pressfield excels at portraying battles and naval contests, the whole pivotal era leaps to life under his skilled and exciting pen.
BUY THE BOOK: Hardcover | Paperback | eBook

If history is the biography of extraordinary men, the life of Alcibiades (451—404 B.C.) comprises an indispensable chapter in the chronicle of the Western world. Kinsman of Pericles, protégé of Socrates, Alcibiades was acknowledged the most brilliant and charismatic personality of his day. Plutarch, Plato, and Thucydides have all immortalized him. As the pride of Achilles drove the course of the Trojan War, so Alcibiades' will and ambition set their stamp upon the Peloponnesian War—the twenty-seven-year civil conflagration between the Athenian empire and Sparta and the Peloponnesian league.

As a commander on land and sea, Alcibiades was never defeated. The destinies of Athens and her favored son were inextricably intertwined. Man and city mirrored each other in boldness, ambition, and vulnerability. Allied, they swept from victory to victory. Apart, he guided her foes to glory. Of the spell Alcibiades cast over his contemporaries, Aristophanes wrote that Athens "loves, and hates, and cannot do without him." To the end, their renown and ruin were indissoluble.

Recounted by Alcibiades' captain of marines in a mesmerizing death-row confession, Tides of War is historical fiction at its finest—a multidimensional, flesh-and-blood narration of one of history's pivotal conflicts.

[This excerpt comes about a fifth of the way through the book. Our narrator Polemides ("Child of War," in Greek) is an Athenian soldier, not yet thirty, who, at the time he speaks this piece, has been fighting without letup since his late teens. The Peloponnesian War, which would last twenty-seven years, is at a momentary hiatus known as the Peace of Nicias:]


Under the peace, states favored mercenaries over popularly-drafted troops. Such lives lost did not haunt the politician; their acts could be disavowed when inconvenient; if mercenaries rebelled, you held their pay; and if they were killed you didn't pay them at all.

You have observed the mercenary's life, Jason. Of a year's campaign there totals what, ten days of actual fighting? Boil it down to moments when one stands within hazard's jaws and the tally condenses to minutes. All a man need do is survive that and he's earned another season. Indeed the mercenary holds more in common with the foe, to preserve their lives and livelihoods, than with his own officers, seeking glory. What is glory to the soldier for hire? He prefers survival.

The mercenary never calls himself by that name. If he owns armor and hires out as a heavy infantryman he is a "shield." Javelineers are "darts," archers "bows." A broker, called a pilophoros after his felt cap, will say, "I need 100 shields and 30 bows."

No shield for hire tramps alone. Peril of robbery makes him seek a mate; it's easier to hire on as a pair or even a tetras [four]. There are sites in each city where soldiers congregate seeking employment. In Argos a taverna named The Anthem, in Astacos a brothel called Knucklebones. In Heracleion are two hiring plazas; one beside the dry spring called Opountis, the other on the rise east of the Shrine of the Amazons, called by the locals hyssacopolis, Pussy Town.

The countryside holds sites of custom as well. A chain of bivouacs called "coops" runs from Sounium to Pella. Coop serves as noun and verb. "I need a dozen shields." "Try the Asopus, I saw a mob cooping there." Some sites are little more than dry slopes beside streams; others--one called Tritaeia near Cleonae, another along the Peneus near Elis simply Potamou Campsis, Where The River Bends--are quite commodious, shaded copses with part-time markets, even the rude linen shelters called hourlies, where a soldier packing a woman may obtain an interval of privacy before vacating for the next pair.

Abandoned hunting lodges are favored sites for shields overnighting on the road. One recognizes these haunts from the surrounding slopes, logged down for firewood. An informal but remarkably efficient postal service covered the country then. Soldiers packed letters among their kit, parcels and "sticks" thrust into their fists by wives and lovers or the odd mate encountered on the tramp. Each arrival at a coop would be encircled eagerly while he ran through his packet. If a man heard an absent mate's name called, he took the letter for him, often packing it half a year before at last completing delivery.

Hiring notices, called show rags, were posted at coops and brothels, even upon landmark shade trees or beside favored springs. Learning of work, an entire coop will tramp off, electing their officers on the march. Mercenary rank is less formal than that of a state army. A captain is called by the number of men he brings. He is an "eight" or a "sixteen." Officers are "grade-men" or "pennants," after the service sashes they mount upon their spearpoints, as guidons in assembly and dressing the line. A good officer never lacks for men eager to serve under him, nor a good man for commanders keen to sign him on. You find a crew you can count on and stick with them.

One sees the same faces again and again in the profession. They all make the rounds. I ran into Telamon twice, on a ferry out of Patrae and at a coop on the Alpheus, before signing on with him the first fight at Tanagra. Few use their real names. Nicknames and eponyma, war names, abound. Macedonians, "macks," make up the main of the soldiery, hazel-eyed and orange-haired. I never served with a unit that didn't have a "Big Red," a "Little Red" and a gang in between.

No man unblooded or unvouched for is taken on for pay. He must serve free, and none shares food or fire till he has held his ground in a fight. Later on the rallying square, the grade-man approaches. "When did you last draw wages?" "Never yet, sir." The officer takes his name and slips him a coin or two. "Start tomorrow." That's it. He's in.

Discipline too is less ceremonious among the breed for hire. In Boeotia, the first scrape under Telamon, one of our number deserted in the assault. Astonishingly this rogue was waiting in camp when we returned, wearing a shit-eater and crossing toward Telamon, spooling an alibi. Without breaking stride our captain ran him through with his nine-footer, with such force that the iron shot forth, two hands' worth, from between the man's shoulder blades. In the instant the fellow lingered, impaled upon Telamon's shaft, our chief aired his edge and hacked him off at the neck. Still without a word he stripped corpse and kit, casting its contents to the whores and sutlers' boys, leaving nothing but a naked and dishonored carcass. I chanced to be standing next to an Athenian shield we called Rabbit. He turned to me deadpan: "Point taken."

The rhythm of the mercenary's life is a narcotic, as the passion of the whoremonger or gambler, which careers the shield for hire, if he answers truly to that name, collaterally pursues. Its currents efface all that went before and all that will come after. First, and beyond all, fatigue. The infantrymen breathes exhaustion night and day. It has set up housekeeping in his bones. Even in a gale at sea the soldier, returned from retching over the rail, drops to the planks and corks off with ease, beard buried in the bilges.

Second stands boredom and third hunger. The soldier is footweary. He treks, ever upon the march, advancing toward some object which draws near only to be superseded by another, equally bereft of merit or meaning. The earth endures beneath his tread, and he himself stands ready to drop upon it, if not in death then exhaustion. The soldier never sees the landscape, only the burthened back of the man trudging in column before him.

Fluids dominate the soldier's life. Water, which he must have or die. Sweat which drips from his brow and drains in runnels down his ribcage. Wine which he requires at march's end and battle's commencement. Vomit and piss. Semen. He never runs out of that. The penultimate, blood, and beyond that, tears.

The soldier lives on dreams and never tires of reciting them. He yearns for sweetheart and home, yet returns to the front with joy and never narrates his time apart.

Spear and sword, the manuals tell us, are the weapons of the infantryman. This is erroneous. Pick and shovel are his province, hoe and mattock, lever and crowbar; these and the mortarman's hod, the forester's axe and, beyond all, the quarryman's basket, that ubiquitous artifact the rookie learns to cobble on site of reeds or faggots. And get her to set aright, my fellow, tumpline upon the brow, bowl across the shoulders with no knot to gouge the flesh, for when she is laden with rubble and stone to the measure of half your weight, you must hump her. Up that ladder, see? To where the forms of timber await to receive the fill that will become the wall that will encircle the city, whose battlements we will scale and tear down and set up all over again.

The soldier is a farmer. He knows how to shape the earth. He is a carpenter; he erects ramparts and palisades. A miner, he digs trenches and tunnels; a mason, he chisels a road from a sheer face of stone. The soldier is a physician who performs surgery without anesthetic, a priest who inters the dead without psalm. He is a philosopher who plumbs the mysteries of existence, a linguist who pronounces "pussy" in a dozen tongues. He is an architect and a demolition man, a fire brigadier and an incendiary. He is a beast who dwells in the dirt, a worm, owning a mouth and an anus and aught but appetite in between.

The soldier looks upon horrors and affects to stand indifferent to them. He steps, oblivious, over corpses in the road and flops to wolf his gruel upon stones painted black with blood. He imbibes tales that would bleach the mane of Hades and tops them with his own, laughing, then turns about and donates his last obol to a displaced dame or urchin he will never see again except cursing him from a wall or rooftop, hurling down tiles and stones to cleave his skull.

Half a dozen times with the macks of our coop we trekked through the pass at Thermopylae. Tourists, we trooped the Wall and dug for Persian bronzeheads on the hillock where the Three Hundred made their immortal stand. What would they think, these knights of yore, to behold war as we fought it? Not Hellene against barbarian in defense of sacred soil, but Greek against Greek out of partisanship and zealotry. Not army to army, man to man, but party against party, father against son, and bring the kids and Mom to sling a stone or slice a throat. What would these heroes of old think of civil conflagration in the streets of Corcyra, when the democrats surrounded four hundred aristoi [nobles] within the temple of Hera, lured them forth with sacred oaths, then slaughtered them before their infants' eyes? Or the massacre of 600 in the same city, when the demos walled their foes within a hostelry, tore off the roof and rained death with brick and stone, that the immured wretches in despair slew themselves by driving into their throats the very arrows they were being shot down with and hanged themselves with the straps of the bedstands? What would they make of the fate of Melos or Scione, when the order came from Athens to slaughter all males and sell the women and children for slaves? How would they countenance their own countrymen's massacre of the men of Hysiae, or their conduct in the siege of Plataea, when the sons of Leonidas put to their captives one query only--"What service have you performed for Sparta?"--then butchered them to the last man?

I had a woman in those years, of Troezen originally, though when she was drunk she claimed to be from Salamis. Her name was Eunice, Fair Victory. She had been the camp wife of my mate, a captain-of-eight named Automedon who died, not of wounds, but a tooth of all things, infected. Eunice came into my bed that same night. "You should not be with whores." Quick as that she became my woman.

In what ways was she different from my bride Phoebe? Do you care, Jason? I'll tell you anyway.

As my dear bride was a blossom grown within the cloistered court, this dame Eunice was a shoot sprung upon the storm. This flower grew wild. She was the kind of woman you could leave with a comrade and she wouldn't fuck him behind your back. You'd return and they'd be laughing together, she cooking him something, and when he took his leave he'd tug you aside. "If you catch iron, I'll look out for her." The supreme compliment.

Eunice was wise. When she ploughed you, her ankles set alongside your ears and her fingers clamped you hard at the ribs. You felt her greed for you and your seed and even though you knew she'd move on to the next man with as little ceremony as she'd crossed to you, you couldn't complain. There was an integrity to it.

We were in Thrace one year under contract to Athens, raiding villages to support the fleet. The enterprise was preposterous; forty men would trek three days into the hills and come back with a single starving sheep. The wild tribes defended their flocks on horseback, with painted faces and magic symbols plastered on the flanks of their runt ponies. It was like warfare from an era antecedent to bronze, a thousand generations before Troy. To stumble back alive to camp, without even a fly for shelter, and roll atop one's woman on the steppe ... this was not all bad.

The soldier's life is primordial; surrendered to it he reverts to a state not just preliterate but prehistoric. That is its appeal.

I had slain my sister Meri.

My edge had opened her throat.

What remained for me but to wander, as far as war could bear me, to tramp upon the earth and bleed on it and dare it to enfold me beneath its mantle? Of course it didn't. Why? Had I become so without worth that I would live forever?

"On every page are color, splendor, sorrow, the unforgiving details of battle, daily life, and the fighter's lot . . . Pressfield produces an even greater spectacle—and, in its honest, incremental way, an even greater heart-tugger—than in his acclaimed tale of the battle of Thermopylae, Gates of Fire. Unabashedly brilliant, epic, intelligent, and moving."
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"The very qualities that distinguish Ridley Scott's Gladiator are here in greater concentration . . . It is nigh unbeatable."
"Every inch the equal of its predecessor."
—Publishing News
"Pressfield serves up not just hair-raising battle scenes . . . but many moments of valor and cowardice, lust and bawdy humor . . . even more impressive, he delivers a nuanced portrait of ancient Athens."
"Astounding, historically accurate tale . . . Pressfield is a master storyteller, especially adept in his graphic and embracing descriptions of the land and naval battles, political intrigues and colorful personalities, which come together in an intense and credible portrait of war-torn Greece."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"[Pressfield] continues to excel in depth of research, humanization of antiquity, and power of description."
—The Los Angeles Times
"Pressfield's attention to historical detail is exquisite . . . this novel will remain with the reader long after the final chapter is finished."
—Library Journal
"While Pressfield excels at portraying battles and naval contests, the whole pivotal era leaps to life under his skilled and exciting pen."
"It's a painful tale to read, but that very pain is testimony to Pressfield's ability to make us feel and believe in his re-creation of the Greek world. Like all great historical fiction, he does not alter the facts, but merely illuminates them with enlightened speculation. Pressfield ends his story with a reminder that his story is fiction, not history. It's a necessary reminder. After living in his world for 400 pages, it's difficult to believe it's not the real thing."
—The Herald-Sun (North Carolina)
"Pressfield has an impressive graps of military history and an even more impressive ability to convey his passion in print. His battlefield scenes rank with the most convincing ever written—you can almost feel the slash of sword on skin and sense the shattering mix of panic, bravery, blood lust and despair."
—USA Today
"When I read the incredible Gates of Fire, I thought that I would never see another book of such calibre. I was wrong. Steven Pressfield has done it again . . . A treasure and a joy to behold."
—Westminster (England) Independent
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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
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