Macro Resistance and Micro Resistance
I was having dinner a few nights ago with a young screenwriter and a big-time Hollywood literary agent. The writer was joking that her career had stalled on the “C” list.
“If I had you for a year,” the agent said, “I’d get you high on the ‘A’ list.”
The agent was serious, and a serious discussion followed. Most of the talk centered on the politics of career advancement. When I got home, though, I found my thoughts migrating to the craft aspects.
How would a true, knowledgeable mentor elevate a talented writer’s career? How would he advance it one level or two levels higher? What aspects of craft would he accentuate? What changes would he insist upon?
Step One, I think, would be to really hold the writer’s feet to the fire.
The mentor would make the writer truly accountable to her own talent.
- Conception of project.
The young writer comes in with an idea for a movie or a book.
Is the idea good enough?
Is it big enough?
Is it truly original?
Will it attract “A”-level talent? Director? Actors?
The agent/mentor would insist that the writer consider alternatives and variations on the idea. Is Version One the absolute best way to do this? “Okay, the story is about giant spiders invading from Mars. Would crustaceans be better? How about if they came from Venus?”
- Execution of story.
In my own days as a screenwriter, my agents (and they were all good) would, with only minor tweaks, pretty much accept the draft I gave them. That was the version they took out and tried to sell.
Looking back, they should have pushed me harder.
I have another friend, a literary agent who runs her own boutique agency, a really good one. She does exactly that with her clients. She sends them back to the drawing board over and over.
Our theoretical mentor should be just as hard on his young, talented writer.
“You’ve told the story as an action adventure from the female scientist’s point of view. Is this the best way? What alternatives have you considered? Why did you reject those?”
- Maximization of character drama.
“Have we plumbed the detective’s dilemma deeply enough? He’s in love with the lady scientist but he’s conflicted because he has a pet tarantula at home and he finds himself relating sympathetically to the spiders. How can we deepen this issue and make it play most dramatically in the climax?”
Why, in today’s post, am I asking these questions?
Because they apply 100% to our ongoing (sorry, I can’t stop) series, “Reports from the Trenches.”
In other words, they’re the same questions you and I have to ask ourselves when the first draft of our novel or screenplay goes south.
We need to be our own mentors, our own agents, our own editors.
We have to hold our own feet to the fire.
Have we settled (we must ask ourselves) for the First Level version of our story, of our execution, of our characters? Did we grab the first idea and run with it?
Our mentor/agent/editor would force us to be accountable. He or she would demand that we push on to Level Two and Level Three and beyond.
Which brings me to subject of Resistance.
If I were writing The War of Art again today, I’d add a section on the subject of Micro Resistance.
Macro Resistance is the global kind. It’s the self-sabotage that stops us from doing our work, period.
But many of us have beaten that monster. We can sit down. We can bang out the pages.
But Micro Resistance is sabotaging those pages.
Micro Resistance strikes inside the book or screenplay. We’re working, but we’re not working deeply enough. We’re settling. We’re not pushing the action, we’re not considering enough alternatives, we’re not demanding that scenes and sequences and dramatic relationships extract the last bit of juice from their potential.
Micro Resistance is what’s been kicking my butt on this re-do I’m working on.
Why have I not pushed deeply enough?
Because it’s hard work.
I’ve avoided the effort out of fear of failure.
I’ve accepted stuff that a more mentally-tough writer would have rejected.
Resistance, you and I must never forget, is constant and unrelenting.
It fights us in every phrase and every sentence.
It always wants us to settle for the easy, the shallow, the first level.
Do you have that agent, that mentor, that editor who will force you to be true to your talent?
If you do, you’re incredibly lucky.
But you and I need to cultivate that mentor inside our own heads.
We’re the writers. Accountability for our work lies with us.
We have to be that agent/mentor/editor ourselves.
This is really helpful. I’ve been tempted to pat myself on the back for showing up every day and doing the work. Resistance is a sneaky devil. I should have known Micro Resistance was keeping me from doing my best work.
Thanks for naming this monster – like Jared, I show up every day, but I’m not making the progress I should be. Now I know.
I have on occasion been told that I spend too much time “thinking” about my project or developing the idea and concept by members in my writing group. They explain that it is easy to over-outline or over invest time in world-building (current project is an epic fantasy).
I believe that your insights above are true and that what my writing group peers have pointed out could also be true. That leaves us with a “line” where there can be too much pre-work or not enough pre-work. I envision this as a broad line or a zone between the two.
Do you have any advice/insights on how you tell the difference?
Have you read Shawn Coyne’s Storygrid book? I think this would help you greatly.
I can relate, buddy. My “story” has been “in the works” for roughly two years . . . meaning I have been building it in my head. Oy.
I like how Pressfield wrote this in Report From the Trenches #7:
“At this stage I’m not thinking in scenes or dialog.My thinking is architectural. If we were building a suspension bridge, we’d first establish the footings and the anchoring points on each shore. Then we’d calculate where the towers should go and how much stress the steel could take, etc. In other words, design. We’ll worry about actually building the bridge later.”
I discovered a couple of things about my own process, in relation to reading Pressfield and Coyne:
1. The architectural phase IS important. It’s MY preferred process for creating a story (versus cannonball drafting it all out on paper first, only to revise later). There is validity in your process.
2. I found that “thinking” out my story took longer when I didn’t know what questions to ask myself to make my story work. Pressfield, Coyne, and various craft books have helped identify the questions I need to ask and have answered. The hardest questions I needed to resolve (because I also have a multi-cast of characters) was: whose story am I really trying to tell (this has become the main archway/spine of my story) and what is the main question my story itself is trying to answer (which has led me to my themes and my Hero’s mission).
3. By doing all this “thinking” work (and, make no mistake, I have written things down, too), I am now getting to a point where I can “see” the story at the scene level and I am beginning to work on a detailed outline. The writing will be the easiest part.
4. My point is … be the architect first, if that is the way you best know how to create a story. It may take a while before you are able to outline, but you’ll get there. In the meantime though, keep ping-ponging about, asking (until you are able to answer them) the different questions proposed by the expert writers and editors that will help make your story “work.”
Sorry for the long response. Best wishes to you!
Thank you for the insights and “long” response. The information was valuable and relevant.
I realize now that my question was not clear enough as to what I wanted to ask so i will give it another try.
WHat insight can Steve (or anyone) provide on how to tell when you are “overcooking an idea/story”, “under-developing an idea/story, or have it in good enough shape to begin?
Hi Ken. Me again. Sorry.
First. Let me apologize; I was not very clear in my response.
Second. Your question was superb.
Third. I can relate to your predicament because people tell me the same thing: Write the damn story! Quit thinking it all out in your head! A writer is only a writer when there are actual words on the page! (And lastly…) KISS: Keep it simple, sweetie!
Fourth. The point I was trying to make was this: We can instinctively begin to tell whether or not we are over or under-conceptualizing/outlining, etc. once we really begin to evaluate our story according to the questions of craft that our mentors are identifying for us. At least, this is what I am finding to be true for myself.
There’s a time for freethinking a story out; then there’s a time to take a step back and ask/answer the objective questions about the story. I think the second part of this equation is how you come to measure whether the story is being over-outlined, etc., etc.
Hope that makes sense. And also, I hope to hear more responses from others. 🙂
This was EXACTLY the message I needed to hear this morning as I turned on my computer! Looking beyond the ‘brilliance’ of a first (or second or third) idea is so hard (and even harder if you’re collaborating with someone as there are now two of you who need to apply this).
Thank you, Steven, for your consistent work in encouraging us by defining the difficult and sharing the common enemy to our best work, Resistance.
Is it big enough? That sums it up nicely for me.
Exactly! Resistance is wearing a different face for me at the moment. He’s rushing me, telling me I should be finished my current work-in-progress. But luckily the Muse is on the other shoulder telling me there’s more work to do, deeper depths to delve.
I choose the Muse.
yes, sir. Well-said, with a thought-provoking outline of questions. Circles back to the timeless adage – “to thine own self be true.”
Well said, again. I’ve recently come out of a micro-Resistance episode with my own exercise. We play pickleball at the Y. It is blue-collar tennis. I love it. The games might as well be played in a cage, we truly go after it. But I do not get stronger playing pickleball. I do not get faster playing pickleball. It is a game. A child’s game.
A healthy battle rhythm is to go do the work (weights, running/sprinting/Crossfitish type exercise), then go down and play.
There is a profound difference between being ‘active’ and training.
When I allow myself to only be active, other components of my life get sloppy as well. For me, Resistance must be beaten in all areas of my life. Once I’ve opened the door to sloth, it takes over other areas as well. Like you wrote in ‘War of Art’, implacable.
I am still amazed at its tenacity. When I do speed work, either running or in a pool–as I’m recovering, sucking air like a fool, my mind says, “This is enough. You’ve done enough. Stop. You won’t recover in 20 seconds, you need more time…”
That goes on and on and on each interval, but the irony is that I do recover-enough-in 20 seconds to push off of the wall. 1000s of iterations, and Resistance is still lying to me.
Love your thoughts here, Brian. I totally agree. When I’m on top of my physical training, my writing practice flourishes too. It’s all linked, the common enemy is Resistance, in its myriad forms.
Keep training, Keep battling.
I’m not a writer, I’m a longarm quilter — but I find the principles Steven writes about can be applied in any career field — so I read everything he writes that I can get my hands on. I was so motivated by your sentence, “There is a profound difference between being ‘active’ and training”, that I printed it in large letters to hang in my quilting studio. I have been processing ways to take my business to the next level, and your thought jumped off the page for me. It turns out that it is the missing key to the lock I am holding in my hand. Thank you for that!!! Thanks, Steven, for inspiring us all — directly — on in this case — indirectly!
Steve, I think you’ve just found the topic of your next non-fiction book. “How to knock down Resistance when you have it on the ropes.”
War of Art was my go-to weapon starting out, but I love how you put it here:
“Resistance, you and I must never forget, is constant and unrelenting. It fights us in every phrase and every sentence.”
I now need to learn how to beat Resistance on a micro level…
By the way, I’ve been studying your writing style in-depth, even re-typed War of Art word by word. Not trying to sound self-promotional here, but if you ever have 20minutes and are curious, I spoke about how I studied you and other writers like Christopher Nolan, and Strunk+White on my podcast. Just search for “One Christopher Nolan Scene Taught Me All I Know About Great Writing” on your fav podcast app.
Loving the updates from the trenches, keep ’em coming!
Thanks. You are describing the having to grow up part… the “how to be a professional” picture gets clearer.
For me, the key to holding my feet to the fire is to keep reading good works. As I read for example Joyce Maynard’s “At Home in the World” I keep learning. It is a memoir of a writer at 60 looking back to her 18-year-old self living with 53-year-old J. D. Salinger. Not only is her writing honed to perfection, but her story is one that in its detail is universal. The story of adoring, wanting to be loved, and being rejected by ones hero is universal on many levels.
By telling stories we are recreating the world. Do it right.
“No plan survives the enemy.”
–Helmuth von Moltke, the elder
Thanks, Steve. Great build on Friday’s post.
Our collective consciousness is filled images and stories of the macro-micro paradigm…Man escapes wild beasts to be stung by an insect in a cave… Man practices zazen for 20-years with little progress when another who’s been in koan practice for 20-years sits his first time and becomes enlightened.
Doing the work may not always look like progress, and sometimes it takes years to be an overnight success.
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
The “trick” as far as I’ve experienced it so far is having those agents look at your material in the first place if you’re an unknown. I’ve been to Hollywood pitch fests and got them laughing, but no banana.
Steven, you’re correct. I think we all develop our own micro resistance strategies and sitting at the desk doesn’t mean we’re creating quality work. Sometimes we push through our blockades (writer’hs block) and unintentionally create subpar prose during the process. I have developed a process to check myself and it forces me to look at the words and fix those problems. I format my work in progress into an ePub file as I go along, I read it on my various devices and it’s easy for me to identify the sections of ‘bad writing’ which I highlight and then go back to the manuscript and fix. I repeat this process dozens of times, and for me it works. If discover weak transitions, missed opportunities for character growth, etc. Thank you for pushing us to be relentless, and encouraging us to go back and fix things. ???
This kind of echoes what Gail Sher said in her wonderful little book, One Continuous Mistake: “Write on the same subject every day for two weeks. Revisiting the same subject day after day will force you to exhaust stale, inauthentic, spurious thought patterns and dare you to enter places of subtler, more “fringe” knowle4dge.”
Wait, “lady scientists”? How about “scientists”? Otherwise an excellent article.
Isn’t lack of depth a global civilizational problem?
Because it’s certainly mine too. There is never too much depth, only too little.
So well put. I’m glad we’re still in the trenches together. I just happened to finish reading Ego is the Enemy a day earlier (a book that I believe author Ryan Holiday acknowledges you in). I’d venture to say that ego and resistance are kissing cousins. A good mentor probably disregards the need to coddle the ego and sees the page for what it is, engaging or lacking. I know I’m guilty of micro resistance, and I’ll do anything to convince myself “it’s fine, no will notice.” But damn, my monkey-mind notices and nags me, it’s nagging me now more than ever, 65,000 words in. My trench question is: during the first draft, is it better to engage the micro resistance, or plod on? Thanks again for sharing!
I’m gonna be honest, you’ve gotten so abstract that I’m not sure it’s helpful. There’s a thing called micro resistance that we didn’t really know much about until now and the way we defeat it is…making our stuff better? Making sure we make sure our stuff is better?
What does that mean? Don’t we strive for that all the time? Just good enough doesn’t sell books or screenplays. (Well, maybe screenplays…)
Sometimes I feel bad that I don’t agree with the others, but I’m not going to sit here and tell you week after week that your blog posts changed my life or helped me in some incredibly profound way, because then I’m just smooching your behind. Some posts really make me think, like the bits you did maybe two months back about asking professionals for their time, and approaching people the right way when you’re asking them to share that most precious resource. Some of Callie’s posts are also brutally honest in an excellent way.
But I’m not sure how I would apply any of this stuff to my work. And if I can’t, that’s cool. Not every piece of advice works for every writer. But in a way this is like watching your favorite baseball player in the middle of a 5 for 57 slump, and he’s trying to reinvent his whole batting stance instead of fixing the ever so slight mechanical issue that’s hampering his swing. Or her swing, for the pedants who get upset if gendered pronouns aren’t distributed equally like olives on a pizza meant for North Korea’s Dear Leader. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/16/north-korea-pizza)
Choke up on the bat, dude! You’re SP, you bash 40 homers a year and you knock in 120 RBI with a .300 batting average. Or if you prefer your analogies in basketball, you break opponent’s ankles with your lightning-quick crossover and drive to the hoop like the Iceman with his sweet 70s finger roll.
Or not. Maybe I’m reading this wrong and should’ve told you this blog post was exactly what I needed to hear, right in this moment, and it’s fundamentally changed the way I write as a pro. But I don’t think you want to hear that. I certainly wouldn’t.
Discourse is a good thing. Sometimes we receive more values clarification through disagreement than in agreement.
I’m curious to know where you think art comes from. For me, I see it coming forth from an aperture we control through being open or closed to the flow of it.
I think the term Turning Pro is a good way to see opening that aperture, and giving into Resistance as constricting it.
What about you?
I don’t think anyone will be offended if the blog posts don’t or haven’t “changed your life.” As with any blog, the blog is a peak into someone else’s take on subjects familiar to all. 100% of the content will NOT resonate with 100% of its readers 100% of the time. But there WILL be times when someone else’s thought process on a subject will help a reader/writer better understand themselves and their own approach to their work, even if the ideas set down are set down using “abstract” concepts.
Personally, I appreciate Pressfield taking the time to explain his own POV on the whole writing a book thing. Baby steps . . . a lightbulb moment here . . . a moment to pause and think about something there . . . it all adds up to a sort of retraining of the brain — but you can take the bits, or leave them, at the pace you want. There’s an overall result to be had. To me, this blog post was a reminder, summed up in this way: one form of resistance is mental — it’s when we settle for the knee-jerk responses of cliched thinking. So dare to delve deeper and demand excellence of your characters, your plotline, your setting, etc. Simple concept . . . but one worth being reminded about via an encouraging post!
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