Report from the Trenches, #4


What exactly am I doing as I reconceive/reconstruct/rewrite a project that I’m already eighteen months into, based on some pretty stark “do it over” notes from Shawn?

Dante in a dark wood. "Didn't we pass that same tree half an hour ago?"

Dante in a dark wood. “Didn’t we pass that same tree half an hour ago?”

I mean, what specifically?

What’s the process?

What am I actually doing?

Answer: I’m doing what I should have done the first time.

I’m doing what I’ve told myself to do a hundred times but somehow didn’t do.

I failed to do these things because I was

  1. Lazy
  2. Scared
  3. Because I didn’t think hard enough and didn’t push myself deep enough.

Is this sort of thing new to me?


When I first gave Gates of Fire to my then-agent, Sterling Lord, it was 800 pages long. He said, “I can’t submit this unless you cut 300 pages.” That took me six months. It was hell.

On Tides of War, Shawn sent me back to the drawing board for nine months. That was hell times two.

Even The War of Art had to be chopped up, re-organized, and redone.

The writing biz is like being the mother of fifteen kids. You can’t let yourself get pregnant again until enough time has passed that you forget how painful labor was the last time.

So what exactly am I doing now as I work through the current tear-it-down-and-do-it-again scenario?

I’m going back to fundamentals.

To what I didn’t do well enough the first time.

I’m asking myself the questions all of us writers of fiction (and nonfiction) have to ask and answer:

  1. What genre am I working in?
  2. What are the conventions and obligatory scenes of that genre? Have I hit these in my story? And if not, why not?
  3. What’s the theme? What is this freakin’ thing about?
  4. Who’s the hero? What does the hero want?
  5. Who’s the villain? What does the villain want?
  6. How do the supporting characters represent aspects of the theme?
  7. Who tells the story and to whom? What is the narrative device?
  8. What’s Act One/Act Two/Act Three?
  9. What’s the climax? How does it pay off the theme?

Shawn’s notes have been a huge help because he has pointed out places where my original half-assed answers were wrong.

I wasn’t working in the genre I thought I was working in.

I really couldn’t define the theme.

My conception of the hero was incomplete.

Same, even more so, with the villain.

At least one big supporting character (Rachel, see last week’s post) was working at cross-purposes to the story.

Almost all of these mistakes and omissions and incompletions were the result of me not working hard enough, not pushing hard enough into the unknown.

So …

How am I trying to fix them?

(Again, each project presents different problems, lessons don’t necessarily carry over from one to another, and I may very well screw this one up again.)

Two ways.

First, the architectural decisions, as delineated above. In other words, what we as writers might call our Outline.

Our index cards that we pin to the wall.

The undergirding structural components of the story.

And second, the actual STORY.

Meaning HOW do we actually erect, dress up, and paint all those architectural girders and crossbeams?

What does the hero of this story (Manning, see last week) want? He wants to solve the case, to defeat the villain, to save the world. Okay, I have to ask myself, how does he express this? In what actual scenes? With what actual dialogue? In what actual order?

And, oh yeah I realize, what Manning really wants is to find meaning in his life. How is THAT expressed in the story? Is there a specific scene? The climax? Does someone address this overtly? Who? How? When? Does it come entirely through action without words? How? By whom? When?

The reason I titled my two story files for this re-working “Freewheelin'” and “Spitballin'” is I want to get at these answers by play, not by work.

In the files I’m basically talking to myself. “What would happen if Manning didn’t know X in Chapter Seven, instead of the way I have it now where he does know? What would he do under these new circumstances?”

Then I’m writing scenes.

I’m spitballing sequences.

Ooh, a car chase! That might work. Manning chases Bad Guy X into New Environment Y and, in a twist at the end, the Bad Guy tells him “Q didn’t kill Z, H did.”

I like that.

That’s good.

Let’s keep going.

(In other words, I’m basically writing the whole damn thing over, twisting it this way and that in the hope that it’ll contort itself into what it really wants to be.)

When Shawn applies his Story Grid analysis to a completed manuscript that a writer has submitted to him, he goes scene-by-scene, like a movie or stage director. He asks of each scene, “What is the inciting incident? What are the progressive complications? What’s the climax?” He asks, like an actor, “What does Character X want in this scene? What obstacles stand in her way? What does Character Y want in this scene? Do X and Y clash? Do the scene’s stakes escalate? How has the story advanced, or twisted, from the beginning of this scene to the end?”

I was lazy the first time through this story.

I winged it too much.

I didn’t think hard enough.

I didn’t ask and answer all the questions I had to.

I settled for scenes and sequences that I felt in my bones weren’t working, or weren’t working well enough.

It’s hard to go back and do what you didn’t do the first time. It’s like you’re in a dark forest and you’ve just walked past the same tree for the third time.

Are we getting anywhere?

Or are we just getting more lost?

Nobody said this shit was easy.


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Sylvester on July 26, 2017 at 3:21 am

    Another great post in this series.

    What I see, what is now really also important, is that you tell yourself, that everytihng what you did so far is alright. Means also you are alright. All that brought you to this point.

    You had to make all this mistakes. It is tough to love yourself for all that, but this is now also very important. Forgive yourself for all the mistakes you made so far in the battle. You are badly wounded, not only because of your mistakes, also because your enemy is bigger than you thought. First step in healing is, that you forgive yourself, then you can embrace everything what happened and make it your own.

    Healing can take place.

    Now you have a chance to win the battle, now you are correcting all your mistakes and start using the the tools of the enemy against him. You are feeding of the enemy. You make him your coach. Now you are going to win the battle.

    What a great experience. Since 2010 I am reading your posts, besides Seth Godins. You both are my life coaches.

    So far I thought writing is a hobby for me and a great tool for my business. Slowly I get that it is most likely the vocation of my life I am looking for since I was 21 years old. Now I am 56. I am curious!!!

  2. bob jones on July 26, 2017 at 6:15 am

    I will happily buy and read this new book, whatever it is, when it’s ready, but what I really want to read are the other 600 pages you cut from Gates of Fire!

  3. Alex Cespedes on July 26, 2017 at 6:37 am

    This following sentence HIT THE MARK for me:

    “each project presents different problems, lessons don’t necessarily carry over from one to another, and I may very well screw this one up again.”

    I have a reporter-style podcast with new episodes each week, and each week –as I’m putting it together– it’s almost like I forget the fundamentals. Each episode comes cloaked with its own set of problems. Each week, I must fall and get up like it’s the first time.

    • Brian Nelson on July 26, 2017 at 7:48 am

      I agree. The learning is always new, what worked before doesn’t produce the same results. I just subscribed to your podcast.
      We are in year seven of producing a race to raise money for our non-profit. It is hard but fun.
      Registration closes Sunday, and our numbers are off from last year. Kelly and I are desperately trying new approaches to get the word out. I even posted a video here last week, which makes me cringe like I’m trying to sell a Viagra knock-off to people I trust.

      We changed our message/intent for our race. Doubt is creeping in every pore. Was I wrong to change? The fact is that when we decided to build our event on theme of connection/unity via shared struggle, my internal tumblers all fell into place.

      The truth is that this message is very personal to me, so I feel naked before the Gods–and am nervous about others’ reactions. Terrifying. What if everyone rejects it, and (how my ego takes it) in turn rejects me?

      We may take a step back to move forward, but my stomach is in knots. I tell myself that we are simply naming what everyone knows below the surface, and is truly what makes athletic events so rewarding…but what if no one agrees?

      The old methods are not working, new lessons. Can I learn them in time to change the arc of registrations this week? Maybe.

      This place helps.

      • Alex Cespedes on August 2, 2017 at 9:39 am

        Thanks for the support and solidarity, Brian. I totally understand the struggle with event planning/execution. It’s a longshot, but I might be able to make a useful introduction to someone that might help your cause going forward. If/when you see this, please reach out to me at the email on my website and I’ll connect you.

        Either way, best of luck. Keep fighting the good fight, it’s always a different type of beast.

    • Christine on July 26, 2017 at 10:44 pm

      Yes. A thousand times yes. And this applies equally well to technical engineering reports that I write. The genre is the same, but the devil is in the details. Thank you to both Steve and Alex for sharing their experiences.

      • Alex Cespedes on August 2, 2017 at 9:42 am

        Thank you for your words, Christine. The details are EVERYTHING. As they say, “if it were easy, it wouldn’t be valuable.”

  4. Mia Sherwood Landau on July 26, 2017 at 6:38 am

    Week after week, post after post I have to remind myself you’re writing about writing, not actual life.

  5. Mary Doyle on July 26, 2017 at 6:40 am

    Steve I have been devouring every post on this site for several years now, but this series hits home in a special way – thank you so much for this!

  6. Makowski on July 26, 2017 at 6:40 am

    Steve…off topic but…could you write regarding Jordan Spieth’s performance in the British Open on Sunday? Did you see it? It was like the “War of Art” acted out.From the first shot in the long grass where he says “That’s crap!” And his caddie says “Get over it…” but not convincingly…to the worst drive of the tournament on 13? I thought…he’s done…he will never be able to come back from this. He’ll never win another major. He melted down in front of our eyes.
    How was he able to fight off the demons and go -5 in the last 5 holes. How did he fight off resistance? If you could write on this it would be appreciated.

  7. Don Kennedy on July 26, 2017 at 7:19 am

    I love that you’re telling us your thoughts – they are our thoughts.

  8. Troy B. Kechely on July 26, 2017 at 7:23 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your sharing of your process and struggles is beyond helpful and I am deeply appreciative for it. It is encouraging to know that the struggles I went through on my first two novels were not unique to me and to learn more of the art of writing from someone like yourself has helped my efforts on my third book immensely. Thank you.

  9. Brian Nelson on July 26, 2017 at 7:59 am

    This is gold. Recently I’ve reflected on some of the different roles in my life, and how what is important now wasn’t even in my subconscious 10-15 years ago. Who knows what hats I’ll wear in another 10 years.

    Your works of fiction are truly gifts to the world…but I am curious if you are ever surprised by the response/reward this newer role of ‘writer/artist/entrepreneur mentor’ plays in your life?

    I would argue that “War of Art” may have more impact in the world than any of your own works of fiction. Does this surprise you?

    Did you write War of Art to get it out of you, and then realized it may help others? Not that building Black Irish Books could have succeeded by happenstance, but I wonder is a ‘possible hobby/side-gig’ has now become a life itself.

    One thing I do know, is this is my favorite place on the web. I am so grateful for your efforts.

  10. Kwin Peterson on July 26, 2017 at 8:04 am


    It seems like you didn’t used to talk publicly about a project while you were still wrestling with the muse on it. Thank you for taking the risk; this series has been amazing.

  11. Dick Yaeger on July 26, 2017 at 9:34 am

    I’d give anything to read the original 800 pages of “Gates of Fire.”

  12. Michael McDonnell on July 26, 2017 at 10:38 am

    This is gold. Thanks for taking us through it. It’s Resistance antidote. For you and for us. For today. Thanks again!

  13. Elisabeth on July 26, 2017 at 10:44 am

    Amen, great post.

  14. Adam on July 26, 2017 at 11:05 am


    You are such an inspiration and your posts are a treasure to me and, I’m sure, many others. Thank you for taking the time to include us in your process. It is so incredibly helpful.

  15. Cindy on July 26, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    Frighteningly like my own infernal writig process. To the brink of despair most times.
    At least I’m not alone.
    I’ve been looking at story structure like the symmetry of shells or even like those Russian dolls. Each part a reflection, refraction, fractal of the whole.
    One way I’ve found to help me with plot is to simply realize the plot is the story & the story is what: how you show it. Plot is how you show what the story is. Well, it helps me!!
    Thank you for reporting from the trenches.

  16. Tina Goodman on July 26, 2017 at 2:39 pm

    Why are you writing this novel?

  17. Julia Murphy on July 26, 2017 at 8:56 pm

    Dante is an apropos image…and set me humming Loreena McKennitt all day.

    Thank you for reminding me that rules are the speed limit of our audience–and necessary for them to keep up with our art. I oft go rogue…and now, me thinks, not in a good way…thanks for holding the mirror. I know I’ll now be happier with my results.

    Thanks, Steve.

  18. Curtis on July 27, 2017 at 9:32 pm

    “..reconceive/reconstruct/rewrite..” That alone got real close to sounding an awful lot like, ” starting over.” My take away. Sometimes you think you have an idea when what you have is a hunch, some characters with cool names wandering in and out of your mind and a decent imagination for developing and coupling scenes around that hunch. Scary. What I hear. Sometimes, riding the river than runs through it is not enough.

  19. Veleka on July 27, 2017 at 10:47 pm

    I, too, appreciate your sharing your process, Steve. Reading this made me realize why I want another collaborator. The two I had before acted as my North Stars. Just to know I had to show them what I had done kept me on purpose.

    Wishing you all success with this. Looking forward to reading it when it comes. Right now reading “The Authentic Swing.” Profound.

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