An Author's Site for Writers: StevenPressfield.com by Joe Jansen
Barbara Shoup recently shared Tina Jordan’s New York Times article about the websites of bestselling authors on Facebook. Publishers usually insist, Jordan says, that their novelists maintain a web presence. So she visited the sites of the current bestselling novelists and reported back on the most interesting thing about each one.
We writers might hope to find a few tools or useful tips from these successful novelists. Many of these sites, however, provide not much more than Q&A responses to overworked questions like “Where do your ideas come from?” or “How do you do research?” I couldn’t find any insights into the hard-hitting questions like “Is it better to write with a pen or a pencil?”
One novelist advises the aspiring writer to “read frequently” and “write daily.” Yep, good advice. Another author site shares an essay on lessons learned from a 20-year career in journalism. It was a good essay, when it was first presented at a talk in 2001. What have you done for me lately, mister?
Other sites offer the novelist’s movie reviews, what’s on their music playlists, or favorite pet photos. One author’s site gives descriptive statistics on the incidence of cuss words in his 16 novels. If you want detailed analytics, you can scroll down for line graphs on the frequency of “damns” or “shits” per 1000 words. Not sure how that’s going to help your writing, but it’s there if you need a baseline.
Sure, we can poke fun at frivolous content. But the point seems to be that the novelist is just trying to meet publishers’ demands without cutting too deeply into their writing time. I get it, I do. Time is precious. Novelist Tim O’Brien can’t even be bothered to put on pants when he’s working.
But as writers, do these sites give us tools or insights we can use?
Let me point you to an author site that contains zero fluff and more tools than Home Depot. Let me tell you about Steven Pressfield, and then I’ll tell you what his web site gives us as writers.
WHO IS THIS GUY?
If you’re a moviegoer, you might recognize the film based on Steven Pressfield's first novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance. IMDB will tell you it’s a sports drama. But Bagger is actually a war story from Hindu scripture, only masquerading as a golf story.
In The Bhagavad Gita, the warrior-archer Arjuna (Rannulph “R” Junah) loses his nerve in battle. The deity Bhagavan (Bagger Vance) appears disguised as Arjuna’s lowly charioteer (Junah’s caddy), to help him rediscover his path as warrior and hero – his authentic self.
Pressfield followed Bagger Vance with novels of historical fiction, many of them set in early Greece. Titles like Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae and The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great depict the timeless principles of military leadership so authentically that they’re included in the academic curricula at West Point and the US Naval Academy. His novels appear consistently on the "recommended reading lists” of US Marine Commandants, the Defense Intelligence Agency, US European Command, and of individual generals who post such lists. Passages like this one illustrate why:
“You are the commanders, your men will look to you and act as you do. Let no officer keep to himself or his brother officers, but circulate daylong among his men. Let them see you and see you unafraid. Where there is work to do, turn your hand to it first; the men will follow. Some of you, I see, have erected tents. Strike them at once. We will all sleep as I do, in the open. Keep your men busy. If there is no work, make it up, for when soldiers have time to talk, their talk turns to fear. Action, on the other hand, produces the appetite for more action.”
-- Gates of Fire, the Spartan Leonidas to his officers in preparation for battle at Thermopylae, 480 BC
His other novels feature the female warriors we call the Amazons in 1250 BC, commandos of the Long-Range Desert Group in World War II North Africa, and mercenaries in a near-future thriller where military contractors have replaced national armies.
Pressfield has authored as many nonfiction titles as he has fiction. The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War is a narrative of courage under fire as the State of Israel fought to survive in 1967.
His 2011 The Warrior Ethos draws on stories of leadership and courage from Herodotus and Plutarch and Thucydides and Homer. Pressfield printed 20,000 copies at his own expense and distributed them to any active duty military unit or veterans group that wanted them. His publicist and business partner Callie Oettinger even provided 100 copies to a guy like me, to share with fellow veterans at the company where I worked.
Pressfield is respected as much for his books on the creative process as he is the military fiction and nonfiction. Titles like Do the Work, Turning Pro, and The Authentic Swing, examine the struggles and pain of creativity and finding your authentic voice. His widely read The War of Art (a play on the title of Sun Tzu's classic) is a navigational aid for understanding Resistance and procrastination and self-doubt, and a map for busting through. Jay McInerney thinks enough of The War of Art to put his endorsement on the cover, and story-structure master Robert McKee wrote the book’s forward.
SO WHAT ABOUT HIS WEBSITE?
While other authors might share a FAQ or an essay, Pressfield has been posting his “Writing Wednesdays” column on his site every week for nearly 10 years. In essays with titles like “Lawrence of Arabia’s Motorcycle” or “Give Your Villain a Great Villain Speech” or “The Female Carries the Mystery,” he shares his insights on story structure and battling creative demons and understanding deep archetypes and the hero’s journey. He pulls examples from films we’ve seen and books we’ve read and helps us shine some light on the things that are right in front of us, waiting for us to see them for ourselves.
He’s honest about his own creative battles, and how having a raft of published work does NOT exempt a writer from struggles with the demons of Resistance. In his “Report From the Trenches” series, he’ll share what it was like to send a draft manuscript to his editor Shawn Coyne. He'll be up-front about the gut-twisting despair, the “Kubler-Ross experience,” of getting Shawn's response – 15 single-spaced pages that detailed everything that was NOT working with this manuscript.
(Seth Godin, Steven Pressfield, and Shawn Coyne from the Story Grid workshop - used by permission)
Writers can also find author’s sites that give them what they need: tools and insights into archetypes, narrative structure, and what makes a story work.
Do you sometimes feel lost as a writer? Overwhelmed, fearful, or plagued with the dread of inadequacy? Pressfield doesn’t hold your hand, but he lets you know you’re not alone. In his columns, he addresses “us writers.” He brings you and me into his foxhole and speaks to us as equals. He offers encouragement and insight to any of us willing to “put our asses where our hearts want to be” and “do the work.”
In “Writing Wednesdays,” he'll go so far as to serialize a forthcoming work of non-fiction in its entirety – just because he wants you to have it. I refer to the 2018 title, The Artist's Journey: The Wake of the Hero's Journey and the Lifelong Pursuit of Meaning.
His readers are likely to purchase a hard copy for their shelves, never mind they’ve been gifted a chapter a week. Me? I’ve bought and given away as many of his books as I’ve got on my shelves.
Then you have his business partners Callie Oettinger and Shawn Coyne, publicist and editor, respectively. Callie and Shawn divvy up Friday’s “What It Takes” column. In posts like “Hemingway Did Not Non-Summit,” Callie encourages us not to just "hold meetings at base camp" and TALK about summiting (stopping with the workshops and writing seminars). She says: “Climb the mountain. Don’t stop at the base. Your words are your oxygen.”
When Shawn takes his turn at “What It Takes,” his columns draw on his 25 years of publishing experience, editing or representing authors like James Lee Burke, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, David Mamet, Robert McKee – and Steven Pressfield.
Shawn’s own site is a treasure chest of resources for writers. You’ll find sheets that break down The Silence of the Lambs and Pride and Prejudice scene-by-scene according to his “Story Grid” methodology. He deconstructs each scene’s word count, the main action, the value shift, and other structural detail. It’s like X-ray vision for the writer who wants to see clearly into what makes a story work.
His site’s Resources tab offers his Editor’s Roundtable podcast: discussions among professional editors on the genre conventions and story structure for films like “Get Out,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Adaptation.” The site offers other podcasts, articles, and a free five-part Story Grid course. You’ll find premium resources and online classes, as well as contract professional editing services.
There’s certainly demand for web sites that help readers get to know their favorite authors: trivia, recipes, or what music the author can’t live without.
Steve will tell you that stories exist out there in some near dimension, waiting to be born into this world, with the Muse as a midwife. We can be part of it, those of us willing to put our asses where our hearts want to be, those of us willing to do the work.
Find it all at stevenpressfield.com.
Joe Jansen’s work has appeared in Arts Indiana Magazine, Shore Magazine, Muzzle Blasts, Muzzleloader, and American Rifleman. As an editor at IDG Books, he edited over 60 titles in the “…For Dummies” reference series and was a contributing author to PCs for Kids & Parents. You can find him at joejansen.blogspot.com.