I did an Instagram “live” a few days ago with the thriller writer Jack Carr. Do you know him? He’s a former Navy SEAL sniper and task force commander, who is a natural-born teller of ripping yarns that grow out of his own experience in the hot political and military spots around the globe.

            We were talking about writing and Jack shared a one-word trick that that I had never thought of before.

            I’ve adopted his practice now completely.

            We were talking about theme. Jack was citing something I had said on a Joe Rogan podcast a few years ago that, Jack said, had helped him tremendously on his first three novels.

            What I said was this:

            I was quoting Robert McKee who, as a young theater director, once got to interview Paddy Chayefsky, the great playwright and novelist and the only three-time solo Oscar winner for original and adapted screenplays (for Marty, The Hospital, and Network.)

            Chayefsky told Robert McKee, “As soon as I figure out the theme of my play, I type it out in a single line and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes onto the page that isn’t on-theme.”

            As soon as I heard that from McKee I incorporated it into my own writing practice. (Only then it was onto my computer screen instead of a typewriter.)

            Now:

            Here’s the twist Jack Carr puts on this idea. He doesn’t write out a multi-word theme statement, like “The rich get away with murder” or “A character’s past catches up with her, no matter how far or hard she flees from it.”

            Jack boils it down to one word.

            ‘Revenge.’ If that’s my theme word, I write it on a Post-it and stick it in the upper right hand corner of my screen. Or ‘Redemption,’ say. Or ‘Love.’

            I immediately decided to do that myself from now on.

            Of course in my head I will know the fuller version. ‘Revenge is a dish better served cold’ or whatever I’ve decided my theme is.

            But I love the concision and simplicity of a one-word statement.

            If you and I are writing The Godfather, for example, our Post-it might say:

            Family.

            If we’re writing The Bridge on the River Kwai, it could be:

            Madness.

            (That word would work pretty well for Moby Dick, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and many others.)

            So … thanks to Paddy Chayefsky and Robert McKee and Jack Carr!

            P.S. At the risk of flogging a friend’s stuff, Jack Carr’s third thriller, Savage Son, just came out. If you like military/hardware/political thrillers, this is textbook, break-it-down-and-study-it, state-of-the-art work. Five stars from a new and rising star in this genre who, I’ve got a feeling, is going to be evolving way, way beyond it.

DO THE WORK

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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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

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.

The-Authentic-Swing

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

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.

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TURNING PRO

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?"

Turning-Pro

26 Comments

  1. Mary Doyle on April 15, 2020 at 8:10 am

    Less is more – love this! A one-word theme is a perfect distillation, so thanks to Jack Carr, and to you for passing this wisdom on to us.

    I hope everyone is holding their own during the shut-down. Be healthy, stay safe, and get lots of writing done!

  2. Evelyn Starr on April 15, 2020 at 8:24 am

    An executive coach introduced me to the notion of using a single word as a theme for my annual goals. Works well there too! Easy to remember, easy to come back to.

  3. Joe Jansen on April 15, 2020 at 8:27 am

    Okay… I went to Amazon to read the first couple pages of Savage Son. Man… it’s better than good. Now on my list.

    Sorry to have missed the IG Live. I would have liked to listen in on that conversation.

    What’s been on my mind is this idea of narrative and “story.” In one of Yuval Noah Harari’s books (maybe Sapiens?), he talks about how so many things we take as objective truths are actually “stories we tell ourselves; stories that everyone agrees to.” So… money is a story we agree to. Paper and ink represents “value” that we can trade for food or shelter or whatever.

    Nations and national boundaries are stories that have evolved and changed over time.

    I think about the story (stories) in which we’re all immersed right now. And if we were to boil the theme down to one word, what would that word be?

    Awakening?
    Collapse?
    Transformation?
    Dissolution?

    Evolution?

    • NovaHammer on April 22, 2020 at 8:24 pm

      Mitosis … cellular division .. penetrating porous lines on a map.

  4. Marcy on April 15, 2020 at 8:28 am

    One word : Cope

  5. Jerad Wolfrum on April 15, 2020 at 8:39 am

    Just snapped me out of a slump. Much appreciated. Thanks for sharing. Semper Fidelis.

  6. Rock on April 15, 2020 at 9:42 am

    Always appreciate the concise guidance from your posts. Thanks!

  7. Marina Goritskaia on April 15, 2020 at 9:57 am

    Thank you. You’ve clarified what a subject is. It is not that obvious in The Artist’s Journey.

  8. Pauline Brin on April 15, 2020 at 10:22 am

    Annotated.

  9. Nancy on April 15, 2020 at 11:21 am

    Believe!

  10. claudia lorber on April 15, 2020 at 11:24 am

    One word for what we’re experiencing now? Shock.

  11. tRenita on April 15, 2020 at 11:37 am

    Evolving
    (my main character discovers a new life narrative through friendship)

  12. Ija Leeqa on April 15, 2020 at 11:48 am

    Ah…
    I’ve been going at my own personal project with the idea of touching on a few single-word motifs. To touch all of them.
    But perhaps, thats what is best to maintain that singular line of focus and bring the writing back.
    Once the Resistance has been overcome, the idea of Discipline and Focus come into play – I tend to go very deep on tangential points to deliver a different message than the original.

    Thanks Mr. P!

  13. John Clarkson on April 15, 2020 at 12:01 pm

    Way back when I published my first novel, I ended up using a one-word description as a kind of survival technique. Back then, (early 90s) I didn’t know much at all about writing a novel, publishing, agents, etc. But I soon found out after the book came out people would ALWAYS ask me, “What’s it about?”

    Time and time again I would see eyes glaze over as I tried to come up with the answer. I learned quickly the answer does NOT start with: “It’s about a X, who Y happens to, so he has to Z…..” I only intuitively knew about theme. But people kept asking me andI kept answering the question. (It’s fortunate that a lot of people cared enough to ask me. In those days, publishing and distribution were totally different than now. You had a shot at a much wider audience.) Kept boiling it down. Understood that telling them a shorter and shorter version of the story was the wrong way to go. I can still remember how effective it was when I finally boiled it down to one word. People would nod. The light would go on in their eyes. “What’s it about?” “Revenge”. Yes, same word that Messers Pressfield and Carr used. And by the way, getting it down to one word works for all creative products. Playwrights, photographers, painters, dancers…

  14. Heather Burton on April 15, 2020 at 5:25 pm

    In an effort to learn fast (I’m aging faster and have a lot I’d like to say…) I’ve subscribed to probably 50 writing blogs over the past 3 years, intending to glean hard.

    I only read yours and one other because they are the only two I look forward to.

    This article is why: relevant.

    • Tracy Altheide on April 15, 2020 at 9:47 pm

      Agreed! My Feedly has become unruly, but Steven’s blob makes the top tier.

  15. Rich Jungkuntz on April 15, 2020 at 5:57 pm

    Of course it all began with Homer* and the opening words—in Greek—to his two great epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey**: “Rage” and “Man.”

    *If not by Homer, then by someone with the same name.
    ** It’s true that the alphabet may have been created in order to write them down and thus to read them (Barry Powell).

  16. Lisa Best on April 15, 2020 at 6:55 pm

    Concise is the only way. Themes drove me crazy as a designer. But 1 word just makes sense.

    As usual, thank you!

    Lisa

  17. Tracy Altheide on April 15, 2020 at 9:43 pm

    First, thank you Steven, and Paddy Chayefsky and Robert McKee and Jack Carr.

    Second, after reading your post, I applied this to a blog post today, and it helped. I’ll test it again this week. A small, but practical example of how your helping writers out there. 🙂

  18. Apostolis Alexopoulos on April 16, 2020 at 2:38 am

    Thank you mr. Steven,

    when I hear about posting a word or a phrase on my laptop while writing, that energy inside me tells me that it will totally be in vain. In my gut also, having written many posts in the past, I feel “oh theres nothing to it”. But now i thought, why not try it? Im correcting and collecting these days instead of writing the next chapter, so I can try another version: Post that word up there and see if it works with corrections and refinements too. 😉 So the rest four hours or so of my todays work I will have it hanging there and see what happens. Im thinking of writing down the purpose of the book in whole instead of the theme of a chapter or something similar.

  19. Joe Ciccarone on April 16, 2020 at 4:32 am

    One word. Wow! The magic of simplicity. Thank you Steve for sharing these ideas with us each week. So helpful. Rock on…

  20. Dog with Blog on April 16, 2020 at 5:21 am

    Amazing!

    Something so simple, yet so profound, gotta try it, the next time I write 🙂

  21. Bill Sinclair on April 16, 2020 at 5:44 pm

    What’s the novel about?
    Or, rather, what do I, its author, think its about?
    In a word — Belief.
    The novel tests and plays with notions of credulity and credence — what we choose, or not choose, to believe — what we choose to embrace and what we choose to discount because it doesn’t fit with our worldview.

    Do you believe someone can find anything with a couple of rods, hazel twigs or a pendulum?
    Do you believe that a key factor in the race to re-balance our climate will be found in a university laboratory?
    Do you believe certain self-interests wilfully and regularly sabotage scientific advances and suppress the truth of their complicity in murder?

    Heavensfield — available in most online bookstores December 2020.

  22. Jurgen Strack on April 17, 2020 at 2:53 am

    Love it, Steven! 🙂
    Writing a debut novel and play on the same theme, so your one-word trick is helping me kill two birds with one stone.
    Thank You.

  23. Chris on April 20, 2020 at 7:00 am

    More than a month ago I submitted my latest manuscript to every agent in “the book” but have not moved on to publishers who accept unrepresented works, so I came here to get my ass in gear.

    Today, I strike out to the publishers – 5 a days until the list is exhausted – and I am also now on deadline to write the next manuscript, regardless of whether anyone will read it.

  24. REBELLICCA on April 21, 2020 at 1:46 am

    This is a wonderful idea!

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