Tag Archives: Writing

Thoughts on Do the Work by Steven Pressfield

Do the Work by Steven PressfieldIt’s tough to write about Do the Work by Steven Pressfield without focusing on how the book was published. It’s the second release from the Domino Project, a joint effort between Amazon and Seth Godin. Their first book was Poke the Box by Godin himself, though in Do the Work Godin limits himself to the introduction.

Pressfield is also the author of a slew of successful novels, including Gates of Fire and The Legend of Bagger Vance.  In Do the Work, he revisits the advice from his wonderfully titled War of Art, offering a basic roadmap for tackling creative projects. He focuses on the concept of Resistance–yes, with a capital “R”–and how it can freeze us on the blank page. He writes mostly of writing, but the formula he lays out could equally apply to any entrepreneurial or political endeavor–anything that requires a massive effort to yank a something from the void. The central tenant is that Resistance will show its fangs each step of the way and must be bludgeoned into submission. To do this, we employ the power of stupidity and its other allies. Don’t overthink it. Banish perfectionism from the creative process.

There’s nothing profoundly new here, and the book doesn’t offer as concrete of a plan as it claims. It’s more rough outline, wrapped in a harsh–think drill sergeant–pep talk. It’s also a slim tome. I was able to read it cover to cover on the bus ride to and from work. But I’ll revisit it, once I get stuck and need a firm kick in the butt to get going again. The book reminded me of Unleash the Warrior Within by Richard J. Machowicz, which I strongly suspect Pressfield has read. His references to the Navy SEAL training program seem to have been drawn from Machowicz’s stories. Though this other book goes beyond the pep talk, and offers help with understanding and evaluating priorities.

I picked up the ebook version of Do the Work for free through a sponsorship that the Domino Project received from General Electric. (Only after reading Do the Work did I realize that this is the second book by Pressfield that I’ve read. Gates of Fire, his novel about the battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece, was much beloved at the bookstore where I once worked.) The ebook was briefly priced at $9.99, but for now at least, is free again. It seems to have been designed with the ebook format in mind. The cover–like the first book from the Domino Project–is a single image with no text, perfect for a postage-stamp sized icon. There are chunks of super-sized text throughout the book. And whole pages dedicated to a single–white on black–word.

There’s also a signed, limited edition hardback that comes with a special metal plate–one with a 16th-century style engraving, no less–that’s available for $65. I love to see the Domino Project experimenting with new formats, taking the book beyond just pixels on a screen or bound paper. I suspect this won’t be the last offering from the Domino Project to land on my Kindle.

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Lucas Cranach the Elder and Speed Painting

This blog is getting rather dusty lately, but I have a good excuse, really I do. I’ve been focused on finishing the rough draft of what will be my first novel. I have two other novels in the drawer. Whether they ever see the light of day is far from certain, but if they do, they won’t be the first out of the gate. That spot is reserved for this puppy.

Speed. I’ve been thinking a lot about it and my own scribbles. It seems that the faster I write, the better I write. Short bursts of creative output are key. I’ve also heard this idea debated with the explosion of ebooks. Writers are about to enter a new golden age of pulp. One where fast writers will be far more likely to make a living than slow writers. The pulp writers of the 30s and 40s produced a lot of less than savory tomes, but they also produced the occasional masterpiece. That’s true for all art. A whole lot of fluff, and the occasional gem.

Then I came across the essay “‘… that you paint with wonderful speed’ Virtuosity and Efficiency of the Artistic Practice of Lucas Cranach the Elder” by Gunnar Heydenreich this weekend. It details a myriad of ways in which the Renaissance master, sped up his process. Things like laying down the total composition in a carefully thought out manner to reduce the drying time needed between sessions. Or tracing outlines of figures that would appear across multiple works. Movement and fluidity were the priority:

It was not only the more expensive pigments but also the more refined and lavish painting techniques that were reserved for commissions of greater importance.

Cranach would often take shortcuts, such as painting fur with a double-tipped brush. This technique was apparently never adopted by Albrecht Durer, his less prolific contemporary. Durer did what Renaissance masters are supposed to have done. He painstakingly reproduced each tuft of fur with a single-tipped brush. I’ve always admired how flat, and almost cartoonlike a lot of Cranach’s paintings are, with solid blue or green monochrome backgrounds. I never thought until this essay that this played a role in how the artist was able to make a living from his art. More paintings produced in less time.

Cranach also dabbled in early publishing. He went so far as to purchase a beechwood forest to increase the profits of his business. His books were bound with beechwood covers, and his paintings were often produced on beechwood of the same size as standard book dimensions of the time. Efficiency of scale. The printing press must have gone a long way to introduce this concept of speed to the early Renaissance. We often hear that we live in fast times now, but the rate at which things acclerate today is nothing compared to how much faster the early part of the 16th century must have felt like compared to all that came before it.

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How to Live on 24 Hours a Day

Arnold Bennett, British Novelist

While reading the remarkable series on changes in publishing by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, I came across her mention of Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999 by Michael Korda. This book deserves a whole post, but for now I’ll let the title speak for it.

This post is about one–just one of what I suspect will be many–gem that I discovered through this book of lists. In 1912, the eighth nonfiction bestseller had a fantastic title: How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett. He was one of many bestselling fiction writers that the book spotlights, though like Fannie Hurst has since fallen into relative obscurity. In addition to fiction, he made a splash with some of the first self help books. This one has just 69 short pages, and is well worth the time.

And according to the book, that is indeed saying something:

Yet it has been said that time is money. That proverb understates the case. Time is a great deal more than money — usually. But though you have the wealth of a cloak-room attendant at the Carlton Hotel, you cannot buy yourself a minute more time than I have, or the cat by the fire has.

Who knew cloak-room attendants were so well paid in 1912? Bennett may be out of time, he died in 1931, but he seems to have made good use of the years he was allotted, at least judging by his prodigious output. One of the things this little book drives home is that we’re far from the first generation to feel that life moves a bit too fast, or that things don’t make quite the same sense they did before. This guy had the industrial revolution, then a world war, then a big old depression to contend with during his lifetime. If he had been granted more time, he would have seen… well, another world war.

Our lives are insanely simple compared to all that, and yes 24 hours a day is plenty. I loved this passage:

The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions. A highly secular commodity, showered upon you in a manner as singular as the commodity itself!

For remark! No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive.

Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity as much as you will, and the supply will never be withheld from you. No mysterious power will say: — “This man is a fool, if not a knave. He does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter.” It is more certain than consols, and payment of income is not affected by Sundays. Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste to-morrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.

The book is now public domain and can be found for free on Google eBookstore and for the Amazon Kindle.

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Permanence of Paper: Letters from Dickens, Burroughs, and Hawthorne

I recently came across the University Archives site, and then promptly got lost in its literary offerings. It’s a testament to the staying power of paper. We’ve all heard about how dastardly ebooks are compared with the paper variety. They aren’t bathtub proof. They don’t have concrete solidity. They don’t smell good.

But eBooks aside, what about e-mail? Has it not already threatened paper? And what about future collectors? Will they horde author e-mails? Aside from the facts that there can be infinite copies of any particular e-mail and that most e-mails don’t live much longer than a few milliseconds, there is something that doesn’t feel nearly as worthy of future attention.

Not like paper.

Check out this remnant from Charles Dickens, where he “begs to inform Mr. Scholl that he spoke to Mr. Scholl’s man” about getting some changes made to the lighting outside his house. I love that Dickens writes of himself in the third person. Though apparently Dickens never did get his new light. Not surprising for someone who scribbled all day, he has terrible handwriting. My suspicion is his letter may have gone unanswered because poor Mr. Scholl (or his man) couldn’t read this note.

Then there’s this letter from Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s typewritten, and on stationary from Tarzana California. I think at one time I knew Tarzan was a comic strip back in its day, but interesting to see how much Burroughs promotes his work. My thinking is he would be doing a fine job on Twitter if he were still writing today.

Going even further back than both of these bits of paper, here’s this one from Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s more of a receipt, than a letter, but a super fancy one which Hawthorne signed while plugging away at his day job. He apparently worked as surveyor in the Salem Custom House, before he was ousted when the Whigs came to power. Even then, getting laid off could often be a boon to the writing life.

Each of these bits of paper undoubtedly survived way past the time their creators ever imagined they would. Will anyone be able to say the same about e-mail a century from now? Maybe. Perhaps none of it is ever really deleted, and historians two hundred years from now will wonder why all the fuss was made over free shipping and low-interest loans.

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Why I’m Saying No to NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMoAs most writerly folks know, today is the first day of NaNoWriMo where scribblers around the world pledge that they’ll get 50,000 words–any words–on the page by the end of the month. Each year when this event kicks off, I think about joining in. Then opt out. With 170,000 participants last year who collectively penned over 2.4 billion words, it’ll do just fine without my meager output.

Here’s my reasons for saying no to NaNoWriMo:

First, I’m about 20,000 words through the rough draft of a novel. The national writing frenzy is all about starting a brand new project, and I don’t want to put my current story aside. It’s at a fragile stage where I’d possibly never pick it back up again. I’ve lost sight of how awesome this idea was when I first started hammering at it. The sheen is gone. While part of me would love to start on a squeaky, new idea, the rest must resist. Also, while I might have this rough draft done by the end of the month, if not that’s okay too. I’m withholding freak-outs until the end of the year.

Second, I’m heading off this weekend for the SCBWI Weekend on the Water retreat at Alderbrook Resort & Spa. Sounds very spiffy. I haven’t been to this before so not sure what to expect, but I’m looking forward to getting some early feedback on the novel that’s underway. It’ll be good to meet some other writers (and illustrators) who focus on kid lit and stretch the writer muscle a bit. Plus, a little time in a beautiful place never hurts.

Finally, and most importantly, I have an appointment with my six-year-old niece to bake an apple pie in Massachusetts. It’s become our annual Thanksgiving tradition. One of the posts I read on NaNoWriMo mentioned how it’s a great excuse to get out of Thanksgiving obligations with the family. A few years back before the nieces and nephews arrived I may have agreed, but now I wouldn’t trade the pie making for any number of words. I figure in another ten years, I can hand off the pie responsibilities entirely. And yes, the crust will be from scratch. The secret is to make it the night before and refrigerate so that it’s easier to roll out.

So, another year with no NaNoWriMo for me. Best of luck to all who are participating, maybe next year I’ll join you…

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Thoughts on the Shitiness of First Drafts

I’m working on the first draft of a novel. I hate first drafts. Short stories are bad enough, but novels are much smaller boats set adrift on bigger seas. Many writers have commented at length on this process, but I’ll put my trust in Hemingway. He summed it up best: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

When I first came across this quote, I thought someone made it up. How could an undisputed writing master utter such profanity? As I continued in my scribble quest, I thought it meant that first drafts need to be tidied up. Kinks must be worked out, language made pretty so that it flows. Though even then, I thought Hemingway resorted to such a  statement due to having imbibed a bit too much the night before.

Many years later, I get it. First drafts are gangly beasts. First drafts pass out on the floor, quivering masses that drool and fart and disgorge fleshy things. In the first draft, a new character will suddenly appear halfway through and act like she’s been in the book all along. The names of places, characters, and things will change, then change again, then change back again. A factory will produce Twinkies in one chapter, heart monitors in a later chapter, and then settle on Chevy Priuses by the end of the book. The main character will set off on his journey, only to be hijacked by his sidekick who demands that he is, in fact, the main character. In first drafts, the end that seems so crystal clear in the beginning, will wither into hilarity before 50 pages are written, not just snuffing out the much celebrated light, but taking the whole tunnel with it.

I always understand how to write a chapter just as soon as I’ve finished writing it. This is the tricky part. The first draft black hole. I now resist the temptation to go back and make things right. Instead, I take notes and move on to the next chapter, which in turn will only reveal its true form once I’ve slogged clear through it. Often, the chapter before or even one much earlier in the book will change with it. Which is why there is never any going back. I’ve tried that before, and produced some very lovely first chapters. Anyone want to buy a first chapter? Cheap.

When I reach the end, the first draft–clunky though it may be–is a thing of beauty. It went from nothing to something, a miniature big bang. First drafts are manuscripts that live across parallel universes. The trick is to get all the way to the end to understand which one belongs in this universe. Only then do I let myself go back and write the far more fulfilling second draft, yanking the remaining bits of the story into this universe.

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Sir Arthur Canon Doyle on Sherlock Holmes and Psychic Matters

I love the raw quality of this video. The audio alone makes it worth ten minutes from your day. Doyle has a wonderful raspy voice and is no slouch in the vocabulary department. He speaks of his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, how the character launched from modest beginnings to become a “monstrous growth.” Then he delves into the “psychic matter” which he found to be a more worthwhile pursuit than literature in his latter years.


Best of all: his interactions with the dog. That’s one happy dog.

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