Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: And Other Tough-Love Truths to Make You a Better Writer - by Steven Pressfield

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t – by Steven Pressfield

How strongly I recommend it: 10/10
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It wasn’t until I got to Hollywood and began writing for the movies that I really started to understand what a story was. So when I went back to novels after that, I had a sound foundation in narrative structure—what makes a story work and what makes it not work.


It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy.
Nobody wants to read your shit.
What’s the answer?
1) Streamline your message. Focus it and pare it down to its simplest, clearest, easiest-to-understand form.
2) Make its expression fun. Or sexy or interesting or scary or informative. Make it so compelling that a person would have to be crazy NOT to read it.
3) Apply that to all forms of writing or art or commerce.
When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer must give him something worthy of his gift to you.
When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you develop empathy.
You acquire the skill that is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs—the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer. You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting? Is it fun or challenging or inventive? Am I giving the reader enough? Is she bored? Is she following where I want to lead her?


Four years into our partnership, I began agitating for more credit. Stan wouldn’t give it to me.
We had a mutual friend named Gregory, who managed writers and directors. One day Gregory said to me, “Steve, lemme take you for a cup of coffee.”
We drove to a deli called Brent’s in the valley.
“Steve,” Gregory began, “you’re a good guy and I like you, but your ego is getting out of hand. I want to talk to you before you wind up doing something you’ll regret.”
The waitress came with Gregory’s Reuben and my pastrami on rye. Around the deli, booths were populated with other Hollywood one-on-one confabs just like ours. Gregory waited until the waitress had set down our plates and departed.
Gregory said he knew I was frustrated. He could see that I felt I was doing all the work and getting none of the credit. He understood that, he said. He didn’t blame me for feeling that way.
Gregory cited three or four screenwriting teams that I was familiar with, two-man teams that were getting work and getting movies made. One I’ll call Mike and Jim. In fact Mike was sitting at another booth in Brent’s Deli right now, by himself, going over some notes.
“Steve, everybody in town knows Mike does all the work in that team. Jim doesn’t even live here. He’s in Madison, Wisconsin, for Christ’s sake. He doesn’t get into town two times a year!”
But, Gregory said, Jim has the name. Jim has had hits on his own. Jim is the star. Mike does the writing, but Jim brings in the jobs.
Gregory was telling me that if I kept agitating with Stanley for more credit, I’d kill the golden goose. He advised me to open my eyes and take a realistic view of my position.
“Steve, you could have the script for Gone with the Wind under your arm, written by you alone. You could take it to every studio in town. You know what would happen?”
I knew.
“But if you took that same script into those same studios, written by Stan and you, you’d be cashing a check for seven figures.
“Stan is the brand,” Gregory continued. “He’s had hits. Stan’s name gets you the meetings. His reputation gets you the work.
“Stan has had two partners before you, Steve, and he’s had hits with both of them. Do you know what that means in this town? It means Stan is perceived as the key element. He’s the variable that consistently produces success.”
Gregory could see he was getting through to me. My pastrami sandwich was sitting untouched.
“Steve, I understand your frustration, and you’re right to feel frustrated. You are busting your ass and you are doing terrific work. But Stan has had hits with partners before you and he’ll have hits with partners after you. The bottom line is this:
“If you want real credit, you have to write a script on your own and have a hit on your own.”


Have you reckoned the two principles in these first few pages?
1)Nobody wants to read your shit.
2)If you want to write and be recognized, you have to do it yourself.
From these twain, all else proceeds.


There’s a phrase in advertising: “pool-outs.” It’s related to “spin-offs” in TV.
What it means is that from a single campaign concept, if it’s strong enough, can come dozens of individual ads and commercials (also known as “executions.”) Each one works as part of the broader concept and each one reinforces the overall theme.
How big is your concept?
Answer: How many pool-outs will it spawn?
Nike started with Michael Jordan and the Air Jordan shoe. The concept was “Buy Nike and you will Be Like Mike.” That was 1984. The concept still drives every ad and TV spot that Nike runs (although now it’s powered by Serena and LeBron and Rory Mcllroy).
Same concept, different executions.


What is a concept?
A concept, in advertising terms, is not just a mindless slogan like “Bring out the Best Foods and bring out the best.” Nor is it a generic, baseless claim like “Gets dentures whiter.”
A concept takes a conventional claim and puts a spin on it.
A concept establishes a frame of reference that is greater than the product itself.
A concept sets the product in a context that makes the viewer behold the product with fresh eyes—and perceive it in a positive, compelling light.
A concept frames (or, more frequently, re-frames) the issue entirely.
One of the seminal concepts in advertising history is Avis Rent a Car’s “We’re #2 so we try harder.”
“We’re #2 so we try harder” turns a negative (“We’re second best and thus inferior”) into a positive (“You’ll get better service from us because we’ll work our butts off to catch #1 Hertz”) by making us look at the issue (“Which is the best company to rent a car from?”) from a whole new angle.
Nike’s sports-hero campaign is a concept.
De Beers’ “A diamond is forever” is a concept.
“If you’re not whitening, you’re yellowing” is a concept.
A good concept makes the audience see your product from a very specific, sympathetic point of view and by its logic (or faux logic) renders all other points of view and all competing products moot and impotent.
Diamonds were once viewed as commodities.


A high-concept movie is a film 1) whose narrative idea can be communicated in ten seconds or less (in other words, the perfect sound bite for an ad or a word-of-mouth recommendation), and 2) as soon as you hear the idea, you can imagine all the cool scenes that are certain to be in the movie (and that you want to see).


It sounds like I’m making fun of the idea of concept. I’m not. Game of Thronesis a concept. Orange Is the New Black is a concept. The Walking Dead is a concept.
Beethoven’s Ninth is a concept.
Guernica is a concept.
Hamlet is a concept.
I believe absolutely in concepts.
At the inception of any project I ask myself, “What is the concept?”
I won’t tackle anything until I know the concept.
Concept works for the loftiest literary stuff there is.


I said to myself, “It’s okay to be the kind of person I am.”
It’s okay to be anxious.
It’s okay to be unable to sleep.
It’s okay to lack self-esteem.
It’s okay to be an introvert, to seek out the quiet corners at a cocktail party, to care about quality, to have your mood be affected by your surroundings.
My role-options in life and career, I realized, were not limited to Businessman, Athlete, and Boneheaded Patriot.
All of a sudden I understood why I was so moody, neurotic, simultaneously paranoid and megalomaniac, mistrustful, uneasy, driven by ambition but paralyzed by guilt about my ambition, horny, obsessive, compulsive, obsessive-compulsive, not to mention shy, withdrawn, and dandruff-ridden.
I was creative.
All creative people were like that!


What the ad person understands that the client does not is that nobody gives a damn about the client or his product.
You, the client, may be in love with your support undergarments. And your support undergarments may in fact be the best support undergarments in the world.
Nobody cares.
That’s the reality of the battlefield you’re waging war on.
What to do if you’re a client?
Back off.
Shut up.
Call in the pros from Dover and let them do their magic.


In the ad biz, you work in two-man teams—a copywriter and an art director. One is responsible for the words, the other for the pictures.
The first art director I was ever paired with was a gentleman my father’s age, a World War II infantry vet named Zoltan Medvecky. Med was a star, a prize-winning pro. He and I had been given an assignment to do an ad for the international division of Chemical Bank.
I was excited because it was the first time I had ever worked with someone who really knew what he was doing (as opposed to the other junior A.D.s I had until then been paired with.) I was primed to watch and learn.
Med said we should work in his office because it was five times bigger than my cubicle and it had a door.
We came up with a headline pretty quickly (actually Med came up with it) and a concept for the visual.
Then Med opened a huge flat file drawer and began poring through magazines and photography books. I asked him what he was doing.
I was shocked. “Stealing? You can’t do that!”
Med thumbed through a dozen books and mags until he came to a year-old issue of LIFE.“Ah,” he said. He had stopped at an editorial piece—a page with one-third white space at the bottom, a single black-and-white grainy photo up top, and a one-line caption beneath the photo.
He stole that layout.
“But, Med, isn’t that cheating?”
“This layout in LIFE,” Med said, “is straight-up reportorial photojournalism. See? A war photo, with the figures underlit and the light source—the late afternoon sun—coming from one side, throwing the other side into dramatic shadow. See how gritty it looks? A real gravitas shot.”
Med showed me how he had tweaked the layout and made it work as an ad. I had to admit, it looked great.
“We’re taking the LIFE photographer’s straight-up look and reconceiving it, borrowing the aspects that possess gravity—and that no one else has used in an ad—to reinforce the impression we want to convey, which implies real-world grit and competence in an overseas setting.”
Med reached across and put his hand on my shoulder.
“Kid, it ain’t stealing if you put a spin on it.”


When an ad person comes up with an outstanding idea, she is congratulated with this phrase:
“Great solution.”
In advertising, you think of assignments as “problems.” Your job is to come up with a solution.
Here’s a typical problem:
Our client Samsung’s smartphone is technically superior to Apple’s iPhone 12, but Apple’s hip/nerd/great design/Steve Jobs customer love affair is killing us. How can we turn the tables and make Samsung hip?
Our client, the American Poultry Association, sells six gazillion turkeys on Thanksgiving and none for the whole rest of the year. How can we make turkey into a year-round “go to” meat?
Problems seeking solutions. This is a very powerful way of thinking about the creative process.
Implicit in this point of view is the idea that the answer already exists within the question, that the solution is embedded within the problem.
If your job is to find that solution, the first step is to define the problem.
When we don’t know the theme, we don’t know the Problem.
Art is artifice.


I worked in advertising three separate times, always to save up money to write a novel. Without that cash and that freedom, I would never have been able to pursue the work I loved.



What helped, oddly enough, were my own letters. This was back in the days when people wrote letters. I’d write long ones to my friends. When I’d read them over, fixing typos, I’d stop sometimes and say, “Wow, that sounds like me.”
How do we form ourselves?
By what means do we discover who we are?
The answer for us is the same as it is for characters in fiction. We discover who we are by what we say and what we do. We uncover our nature through action.
I began reading my letters over, slowly and carefully. What state of mind did I enter when I wrote to a friend? Was I “thinking?” Was I “trying?” Was I “writing?”

Maybe there’s a clue there.


A real writer (or artist or entrepreneur) has something to give. She has lived enough and suffered enough and thought deeply enough about her experience to be able to process it into something that is of value to others, even if only as entertainment.
A fake writer (or artist or entrepreneur) is just trying to draw attention to himself. The word “fake” may be too unkind. Let’s say “young” or “evolving.”



If there is a single principle that is indispensable to structuring any kind of narrative, it is this:
Break the piece into three parts—beginning, middle, and end.
Why is three-act structure essential in a movie?
Because a movie (or a play) is experienced by the audience in one continuous block of time. It’s not like a novel or a piece of long-form nonfiction, which may be picked up and put down by the reader multiple times before she finishes. With a movie or a play, the audience enters the theater, settles in for ninety or 120 continuous minutes. You, the writer, have to keep them riveted in their seats for that length of time.
How do you do that?
By hooking them (Act One), building the tension and complications (Act Two), and paying it all off (Act Three).


Lean said, “Every work can be divided into between eight and twelve major sequences.”
This is an alternative to the idea of Three-Act Structure.
Three-Act Structure works great in movies and plays, i.e., works that are experienced by the audience in one ninety- to 120-minute gulp.
But novels aren’t like that. Long-form TV isn’t like that. These forms are taken in by the reader or viewer at intervals, over periods of days, weeks, months. The rhythm of consumption is slower, with less need for pace or momentum.
In addition the reader or viewer tuning in to episode 12 needs a beat or two to bring back to mind everything that happened in episodes 1 to 11.


Genre may be the most important single factor, from a writer’s point of view, both in crafting the work and in attempting to find a market for it.

  • (For the definitive discussion on this subject, read Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid.)
    Why is genre so important for the writer?
    Because every film (and novel and play) falls into a genre, and every genre has its own ironclad, unbreakable rules.


    Here’s the nutshell version:

    1. Hero starts in Ordinary World.
    2. Hero receives Call to Adventure.
    3. Hero rejects Call.
    4. Hero meets Mentor. Mentor gives hero courage to accept Call.
      (If you’re following along, this is Luke on the evaporator farm. Luke finds R2D2, Luke uncorks distress hologram from Princess Leia, Luke takes R2 to Obi-Wan Kenobi.)
    5. Hero crosses Threshold, enters Special World.
    6. Hero encounters enemies and allies, undergoes ordeal that will serve as his Initiation.
    7. Hero confronts Villain, acquires Treasure.
    8. The Road Back. Hero escapes Special World, trying to “get home.”
    9. Villains pursue Hero. Hero must fight/escape again.
    10. Hero returns home with Treasure, reintegrates into Ordinary World, but now as a changed person, thanks to his ordeal and experiences on his journey.

    Three-Act Structure + Hero’s Journey = Story


    The hero’s journey arose, both men speculated, from the accumulated experience of the human race over millions of years. The hero’s journey is like an operating system (or software in an operating system) that each of us receives at birth, hard-wired into our psyches, to help us navigate our passage through life.
    The hero’s journey acts as a template or a user’s manual. It tells us, “This is how things work, how life works. This is the road map to the way your own life will unfold.”
    (Required reading: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces, C.G. Jung’s Two Essays on Analytical Psychology and Symbols of Transformation, and, for the real Movieland nitty-gritty, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.)


    Be groundbreaking, be experimental if you want. But remember, the human psyche is deeply conservative and rigid as a rock.


    The Inciting Incident is the event that makes the story start.
    It may come anywhere between Minute One and Minute Twenty-Five. But it must happen somewhere within Act One.
    It had never occurred to me that a story needed to start.
    I thought it started all by itself.
    And I certainly had never realized that the writer had to consciously craft that specific moment when the story starts.


    In Taken, sex traffickers kidnap Liam Neeson’s daughter. In the moment Liam manages to get on the phone with the kidnappers. He tells them to let her go or else. He is, we realize, a trained killer himself. “I have a very specific set of skills and I’m going to use them to hunt you down and kill you.” The villains wish him “Good luck” and hang up.
    Embedded in this Inciting Incident is the climax of Taken: Liam catches up to the bad guys and … well, you know what happens.
    Anticipation of experiencing the climax is what pulls us, the audience, through the movie. We can’t wait to see Linda Hamilton go toe to toe with the Terminator, or Clint Eastwood shoot it out with Gene Hackman, or Neo and Morpheus blast their way clear of the Matrix.
    If your Climax is not embedded in your Inciting Incident, you don’t have an Inciting Incident.


    This is a principle of storytelling.

    The scarier the monster, the deeper the jeopardy, and the deeper the jeopardy, the more emotion will be produced in the hearts of the audience.
    This works for abstract villains too, like the looming market crash in Margin Call. Once this monster has been introduced, the filmmakers go back to it again and again and every time they do, the story gets tauter and the audience gets sucked in deeper.


    I had been in L.A. for about six years. My eyes had been opened to the principles of storytelling. When I watched a movie now, I studied it. When I read a book, I put it under the microscope.
    In the final scene of Godfather I, as the capos of the Corleone crime family assemble in the office of the for-mer-and-now-deceased godfather (Marlon Brando) to declare their allegiance to the new don, his son Michael (Al Pacino), and one of these captains slowly and deliberately swings the office door closed, shutting out forever Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton) who is looking on from the outer room, we in the audience get it.
    We understand what the office represents, what the capos represent, what Michael represents, what Kay represents, and what the closing door represents.
    It is no accident that all these elements have come together in this culminating image. Each one has been conceived and set up by the filmmakers, scene by scene and moment by moment throughout the movie, with this ultimate convergence in mind.
    Nor is it random (since this is, after all, a motion picture) that all these components are visual and thus require no dialogue to deliver their meaning.
    That’s moviemaking.
    That’s storytelling.


    One of Blake’s principles is Keep It Primal. A great movie, he believes, should be so basic, so soul-grounded, that it could be understood by a caveman.
    In other words, without language. Without dialogue.
    Have you ever watched a movie with the sound off? The great ones stand up completely. High Noon. Seven Samurai. Unforgiven.
    To say, “Keep it primal,” is to say, “Tell the story in pictures.”
    Thinking in pictures forces you to keep the stakes of your story primordial. Wesee the Bad Barons humiliate the Honest Landsmen in Braveheart. Our eyes show us Meryl Streep leaving her husband Dustin Hoffman with their small boy Justin Henry in Kramer vs. Kramer. We see Matt Damon marooned on the red planet inThe Martian.
    Each of these setups evokes primal emotion. They suck us in. They make us root for a specific outcome. And though the dialogue is Oscar-worthy in all of these films, the scenes including the climax play almost as well MOS (without sound).
    Movies are pictures.


    Every trade has its tricks. Here’s one you learn as a writer in Movieland:
    Start at the end.
    Begin with the climax, then work backward to the beginning.
    The Great Gatsby.
    Thelma and Louise.
    The ending dictates the beginning.
    I’m a huge fan of this back-to-front method. It works for anything—novels, plays, new-business pitches, music albums, choreography.
    First figure out where you want to finish.
    Then work backward to set up everything you need to get you there.


    In 2014, Sentinel/Penguin published my book The Lion’s Gate, about the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. The book was nonfiction. Every person was real, every event actually happened. The nature of the material could not have been more different from that of fiction or of an imagination-based movie.
    Yet I used the exact same principle:
    Start at the end.
    Not only did I start at the end in writing the book, I started at the end in writing the Book Proposal, i.e., the fifty-page document that would be submitted to publishers with the intention of making a deal so that I’d have the money to write the book.
    It worked.
    If you and I know the climax of The Martian (Mark Watney [Matt Damon] gets back safely to earth with a little help from his friends), our task in writing the book/ movie becomes exponentially easier. We just have to come up with escalating obstacles that Mark/Matt (and his allies on Earth and in space) must overcome.


    Working out the structure for the nonfiction The Lion’s Gate, I asked myself the same questions I would have asked had I been pitching the material to Twentieth-Century Fox.
    What’s the genre?
    What’s the theme?
    What’s the climax?
    Who’s the hero?
    Who’s the villain?
    What are the stakes?
    What is the jeopardy?
    Exactly as with writing a screenplay, I started at the end and worked backward.
    Are you a CEO preparing a speech for your stockholders? Write it like a novel or a movie. Use the principles of storytelling.
    Write your Ph.D. dissertation the same way. And your grant proposal. And your plea to your landlord not to raise your rent.
    Stories work.
    Tell it to me as a story.

    57. STAKES

    How high should the stakes be in your story?
    As high as possible.
    High stakes = high emotional involvement by the audience.
    That’s why so many movies are about the end of the world. Invaders from space, pestilence, collision with an asteroid, Zombie Apocalypse.

    58. JEOPARDY

    This is another Tinseltown trope that, dumb as it sounds, works.
    Get your characters in danger as quickly as possible and keep ratcheting up that jeopardy throughout the story.
    The more jeopardy to your characters, the more the audience will care and the more involved they will become.
    Jeopardy and Stakes are twin sides of the same coin.
    Our characters must, with life-and-death desperation, want or need some Thing or Outcome (stakes). Then their hold on, or hope for acquiring that Thing or Outcome must be thrust into grave-and-getting-graver peril (jeopardy).


    The filmmakers don’t share the same assumptions that we Yanks do.
    1) American movies believe in the American Dream.
    American stories start from the ground of freedom and equality. To us, these elements are universal.
    2) American movies believe in cause and effect.
    3) American movies are (with notable exceptions) irony-free.


    “Thou shalt not take the climax out of the hands of the protagonist.”

    What he means (and I agree completely) is, don’t let your hero go passive in the movie’s culminating crisis.
    Don’t be afraid to make your hero suffer. Suffering is drama.
    Give your villain a brilliant speech.  Keep the villain human.



    My friend David Leddick says you can never plan your life because too many imponderables come into play. “You meet someone and you wind up living in another country, speaking a different language.”
    And yet …
    And yet the arc of a career is not entirely random or shaped in the end by factors beyond our comprehension or control. I have felt my whole life that I’ve been on a course and being guided, even though I didn’t know by what.


    I‘m fifty-one years old and my first novel is being published.
    It was easy.
    Because in writing that work, I was bringing to the field of fiction all the principles I had learned in twenty-seven years of working as a writer in other fields, i.e., writing ads, writing movies, writing unpublishable fiction.
    1)Every work must be about something. It must have a theme.
    2)Every work must have a concept, that is, a unique twist or slant or framing device.
    3)Every work must start with an Inciting Incident.
    4)Every work must be divided into three acts (or seven or eight or nine David Lean sequences).
    5)Every character must represent something greater than himself/herself.
    6)The protagonist embodies the theme.
    7)The antagonist personifies the counter-theme.
    8)The protagonist and antagonist clash in the climax around the issue of the theme.
    9)The climax resolves the clash between the theme and the counter-theme.
    I had learned these storytelling skills.
    But other capacities that I had also acquired over the preceding twenty-seven years were even more important.
    These were the skills necessary to conduct oneself as a professional—the inner capacities for managing your emotions, your expectations (of yourself and of the world), and your time.
    1) How to start a project.
    2) How to keep going through the horrible middle.
    3) How to finish.
    4) How to handle rejection.
    5) How to handle success.
    6) How to receive editorial notes.
    7) How to fail and keep going.
    8) How to fail again and keep going.
    9) How to self-motivate, self-validate, self-reinforce.
    10) How to believe in yourself when no one else on the planet shares that belief.
    So … what have we learned about writing fiction the second time around?


    I never wrote anything good until I stopped trying to write the truth. I never had any real fun either.
    Truth is not the truth.
    Fiction is the truth.
    The conventional truism is “Write what you know.” But something mysterious and wonderful happens when we write what we don’t know. The Muse enters the arena. Stuff comes out of us from a very deep source.
    Where is it coming from? The “unconscious”? The “field of potentiality”?
    I don’t know.
    But I’ve had the same experience over and over. When I write something that really happened, people read it and say, “Sounds like bullshit.”
    When I pull something completely out of thin air, I hear, “Wow, that was so real!”


    Narrative device asks four questions:
    1) Who tells the story? Through whose eyes (or from what point of view) do we see the characters and the action?
    2) How does he/she tell it? In real time? In memory? In a series of letters? As a voice from beyond the grave?
    3) What tone does the narrator employ? Loopy like Mark Watney in The Martian? Wry and knowing like Binx Boiling in The Moviegoer? Elegiac like Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa?
    4) To whom is the story told? Directly to us, the readers? To another character? Should our serial killer address himself to the detective who has just arrested him? To his sainted mother who believes he’s innocent? To the judge who’s about to sentence him to the electric chair?
    These questions are make-or-break. If we get our narrative device right, the story will tell itself.
    Here’s one principle that has helped me:
    Narrative device must work on-theme.


    How do we handle the length of time and the degree of dedication that are required to complete any long-term, multi-year project?
    The following chapters detail principles that have worked for me.


    Writing a novel is like crossing the continent in a prairie schooner.
    You, the pioneer, must master the art of delayed gratification. You have to break the trek down in your mind into mini-treks whose distance and demands your sanity can handle.
    Can you do a first draft in three months?
    Too daunting? How about a rough sketch in three weeks?
    Still too scary? Maybe a rough-rough in seven days?
    Remember, the enemy in an endurance enterprise is not time.
    The enemy is Resistance.
    Resistance will use time against you. It will try to overawe you with the magnitude of the task and the mass of days, weeks, and months necessary to complete it.
    But when we think in blocks of time, we acquire patience. We break down that overwhelming transcontinental trek into doable daily or weekly transits. Drive our Conestoga wagon two thousand miles from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon? No way!
    But we can make it to Topeka in ten days and from there to Fort Riley in another twelve.


    I‘ll do between ten and fifteen drafts of every book I write. Most writers do.
    This is a positive, not a negative.
    If I screw up Draft #1, I’ll attack it again in Draft #2.
    Thinking in multiple drafts takes the pressure off. We’re not trying to build Rome in one day.
    Thinking in multiple drafts is a corollary of thinking in blocks of time. If we know we’re going to do fifteen drafts before we’re done, we don’t panic when Draft #6 is still a mess.
    “Relax, we’ve got nine more tries to make it work.”
    The great thing about writing (as opposed to climbing Mt. Everest or raising children or going to war) is the work sits still.
    What we did yesterday stays intact on the page, where we can rethink it, revise it, rework it tomorrow.


    Screenwriters start at the end. They solve the story’s climax first. Then they work backward. They layer in all the foundational material that the climax needs to deliver its emotional and thematic wallop.
    This is a powerful skill to have when you move from starting your stuff with
    and instead begin with



    Theme is not the same as concept.
    A concept is external. It frames the material and makes us look at every element of that material from a specific point of view.
    A theme is internal. When we strip away all elements of plot, character and dialogue, what remains is theme.
    The concept of The Sopranos is “Let’s take a gangster and send him to a shrink. When he whacks somebody, he feels guilty about it. We’ll show a crime boss suffering internally.”
    That’s a terrific concept. Other than Analyze This, which treated this idea differently, it had never been done before.
    That’s the concept of The Sopranos.
    The theme is “All of us are crazy in the same way. A gangster’s inner turmoil is exactly the same as that of every other affluent suburbanite with a family and a job. The only difference is our protagonist regularly kills people.”
    It’s possible for you and me to write a 1,000-page novel and have no idea what its theme is. I’ve done it more than once.
    But if we can’t articulate it, we have to have an ironclad unconscious instinct for what it is.
    From the first day I start to think about an idea for a novel, I ask myself, “What is this damn thing about?”
    When I can answer that, I’ve got to key to every scene and every chapter.


    To make the protagonist a star, make the theme and concept a star.
    In other words, the star power of the role of Huck Finn comes from the scale and moral weight of the book’s concept and theme.
    Huck is the protagonist. He embodies the theme. He is the personification of the theme.
    Because the theme is profound and powerful and the concept brilliant and effective, Huck as their human vehicle is jam-packed with emotion and power and moral authority.
    He’s a star.
    In other words, the power of the protagonist derives directly from the power of the theme and the concept.
    Who cares if we as novelists don’t have the luxury of casting George Clooney or Cate Blanchett?
    We can create a starring role by writing it.



    A three-act structure, nor an immediately apparent crisis/climax/resolution.
    Yet I wrote both of them as if they did, and it worked.
    If you want your factual history or memoir, your grant proposal or dissertation or TED talk to be powerful and engaging and to hold the reader and audience’s attention, you must organize your material (even though it’s technically not a story and not fiction) as if it were a story and as if it were fiction.


    Let’s start by reviewing the universal principles of storytelling. (This is really a distillation of everything we’ve learned so far from advertising, fiction, and filmmaking.)
    1) Every story must have a concept. It must put a unique and original spin, twist or framing device upon the material.
    2) Every story must be about something. It must have a theme.
    3) Every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Act One, Act Two, Act Three.
    4) Every story must have a hero.
    5) Every story must have a villain.
    6) Every story must start with an Inciting Incident, embedded within which is the story’s climax.
    7) Every story must escalate through Act Two in terms of energy, stakes, complication and significance/meaning as it progresses.
    8) Every story must build to a climax centered around a clash between the hero and the villain that pays off everything that came before and that pays it off on-theme.
    There is nothing about any of these principles that cannot be applied to nonfiction, including your presentation on geraniums to the Master Gardening class.


    Start with theme.
    Before we do anything else, let’s decide what the story is about.
    Why do we want to write about this subject? What grabs us about Grandma Julia’s story? Do we just want to brag about our family? Or is there some issue buried here that we believe is powerful, compelling, significant?
    Find that issue.

    Break it down into a single sentence. —— Make our hero embody the theme. Cut everything that is not on-theme. —–



    We can “play” the scene like a teaser or a flashback recurrently in Julia’s memory. It can haunt her, torment her.  Identify a villain. (Remember, it can be inside Julia’s head.)



    How can a voice establish authority?
    1)It can come pre-loaded by reputation in the field, like Stephen King’s in On Writing or Twyla Tharp’s in The Creative Habit.
    2)It can speak with the backing of extensive academic research, as Susan Cain did in Quiet.
    3)It can cite its own professional or academic credentials, like Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz or Dr. Gupta.
    4)Or its record of sales and success, like Tony Robbins or Eckhart Tolle.
    5)The voice in self-help can establish credibility via its TV or web show, its podcast, its blog, its YouTube channel, its number of followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or by its dominating presence in social media.
    Look how much credibility a gal named K got from a single sex tape. I’m serious. In that specific field, a flash of homemade porn established authority. It set the bar.
    6)The hardest and maybe the best way to establish authority is through the quality and integrity of the voice itself.
    Nature cannot be tricked or cheated. She will give up to you the object of your struggles only after you have paid her price.
    Here we fallback on the lessons of advertising, movies, fiction, and nonfiction.
    Narrative device.
    If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.
    Done right, a voice can convey unchallengeable authority, supported by nothing but its own ring of truth.
    Of all the people you will know in a lifetime, you are the only one you will never leave or lose. To the question of your life, you are the only answer.
    Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich and Jo Coudert in Advice from a Failureare using the same principles as J.D. Salinger did in The Catcher in the Rye.


    The hook, Shawn decided, was the chapters describing what I called “Resistance,” i.e., the invisible negative force of self-sabotage that all writers (and creative people in all fields) face.
    Why was this the Hook?
    Because when the reader moved through these chapters, Shawn felt certain, she would be thinking, “OMG, I experience that same negative force when I sit down to write! Pressfield is describing my inner world, my interior struggle. I have never thought of that force as ‘Resistance,’ but the term rings absolutely true. That’s the diabolical foe that’s been screwing me up for years!”
    The reader is hooked in this case not by a story, e.g., a murder mystery or a spy thriller, but by her shared experience (with me, the writer of the book) of an internal monster that has wreaked havoc on her artistic life but that until now she could never quite put her finger on.
    Finishing this section (the Hook), the reader naturally wants to know more. “Where did this negative force of Resistance come from? What is its nature? How can I fight it and overcome it?”
    Shawn collated a second stack of chapters.
    He thought of this as the Build.
    He titled this pile, from its content, “Turning Pro.” These chapters were my answer to the question, “How do we overcome Resistance?”
    If the Hook in The War of Art is, “Here’s the problem” …
    If the Build is, “Here’s the solution” …

    Then the Payoff is, “Ms. Writer, your role in this timeless, epic struggle is noble, valorous, and necessary. Heed the calling of your heart. Stand and go forth.”


    Back to what we learned in advertising:
    Every ad must have a concept.
    And what we learned in Hollywood:
    Every movie must have a concept.
    In fiction:
    Every novel must have a concept.
    And nonfiction:
    Every work of nonfiction must have a concept.
    The concept in The War of Art is “Forget Time Management and Motivational Pep Talks and tips about How to Aim High, Persevere, and Succeed. Instead let’s dig beneath everything and state straight-out what all of us know but have never dared say:
    There is an Evil Force that is constantly defeating us as artists and bringing to naught all of our dreams. Let’s name that force, accept it as our enemy, and figure out how to overcome it.


    In the end I decided:
    1)The character had to talk straight.
    2)He had to be as tough with the reader as I am with myself.
    3)He had to establish authority via his own experience as a writer. This experience had to include enough success to be credible and enough failure to be relatable.
    4)The character had to speak to the reader peer to peer. I wanted to talk as if I were addressing myself, both because I wanted to respect the reader and because I believed that this tone was the one that the reader would respect.
    5)Toward that end, the character would offer no “tips” or “exercises.” The issue, I believed, was too important to trivialize.
    6)The character had to be totally candid, particularly about his own weaknesses and failures. Not so as to be “likeable,” but to encourage the equally-fallible reader and to make him or her feel that they are not alone in their struggle.
    7)The character had to truly and passionately believe in the worthiness of the artist’s calling—that of all artists and all creative types—and believe with equal conviction in the supreme value of art itself.
    Fortunately, that’s pretty much who I am and what I believe. Once I got the rhythm and the tone, everything flowed seamlessly.
    My conclusion:
    Narrative device is supremely important in self-help. You, the writer, are the reader. The reader will hear you and listen to you only to the extent that she knows you know what you’re talking about and that you are there only to help.



    The #1 question that writers ask themselves: “I’ve got a million ideas. How do I know which one to work on?”
    Answer: Write your White Whale.
    Which idea, of all those swimming inside your brain, are you compelled to pursue the way Ahab was driven to hunt Moby Dick?
    Here’s how you know—you’re scared to death of it.
    It’s good to be scared. You should be scared. Mediocre ideas never elevate the heart rate. Great ones make you break out in a sweat.
    The final image of Moby Dick is one of the most powerful and compelling ever, not just as the climax to a story, an adventure, a tragedy, but as a metaphor for the artist’s calling and his endlessly-repeated, never-ending struggle. Do you remember the scene?
    That’s the writer’s life in a nutshell.
    But I would invert Melville’s concept. I don’t think you hate the whale.
    I think you love it.
    The whale is your unwritten book, your unsung song, your calling as an artist. You die grappling with this thing, lashed to it, battling it even as it takes you under.
    But your death is not a mortal death. You die instead the artist’s death, which leads to resurrection in a higher, nobler form and recruits you to the next hunt, the next chase, the pursuit of the next Thing You Love.
    Is there a White Whale out there for you? There is or you wouldn’t be reading this book.
    You’ll know that whale by these qualities:
    Its accomplishment will seem beyond your resources. Your pursuit of it will bear you into waters where no one before you has sailed. To hunt this beast will require everything you’ve got.
    You may have started, like me, as a junior Mad Man, scripting jingles for canine kibble. There’s nothing wrong with that. You may have prostituted your talent, sold out to the Man. I have, a thousand times.
    It doesn’t matter. I forgive you and I forgive myself. Each incarnation is an apprenticeship, if you live it that way.
    Are you slaving now in some sell-out job? Are you living a Shadow Career instead of your real calling?
    It’s okay. It’s all part of the journey.
    What you learn in Wrong Career #1 will serve you in Off-Key Career #2 and in Out-of-Kilter Career #3, and the wisdom you acquire in #1, #2, and #3 will form the foundation of Real Calling #4 (or #5 or #6 or however long it takes.)