This post has taken me six years to write.
If I sound defensive, it’s because people keep calling me names.
I get attacked because I write books that sell, and I do it on purpose.
Writing is one of the only professions where people think if you consistently produce high quality work that readers love – and make a living from it – you must be doing something wrong.
Writing is one of the only professions where people think if you consistently produce high quality work that readers love, you must be doing something wrong.
And I get it: most writers never finish their book. They have all these ideas, but are also filled with fear and doubt. For example, here’s a comment I saw recently on Facebook:
What if my book gets bombarded with bad reviews? What if I never make my money back? What if I’m doing everything wrong? What if I embarrass myself? What if I’m just not good enough?
These are not isolated concerns: If you’re determined to write and publish a book, you’re going to be doing lots of new things for the first time. You will make mistakes. Something I learned from the business world and apply to my writing, is to produce quickly so you can fail more: because only by trying and failing a lot can you figure out what actually works.
But the conclusion that anxiety and fear is a normative and unavoidable experience, and the advice to just push through it anyway, is dangerous for two reasons. FIRST, it creates a cult of failure, which leads failed authors to take their poor sales or negative reviews and – instead of getting better – makes them tone-deaf to the market; so they just keep on creating more books that don’t sell, sinking thousands of hours (and dollars) into an expensive and frustrating writing hobby.
SECOND, you can deliberately avoid most of the fear and uncertainty by treating your writing as a business. There’s still a lot to learn, but if you put your readers first and strive to entertain, educate or fascinate them – if you focus on the reading experience instead of the writing experience – you can create books readers love with passion and enthusiasm. It’s still difficult, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying.
These are the basic principles I’ve been teaching authors for the past six years, and almost always, the initial reaction is that I’m “a hack.” That I’m selling out, writing for the “lowest common denominator” – that I can’t have any love of literature or art; that I can’t actually enjoy writing books if I do it for money; that my books can’t actually be any good (even if readers love them and I get hundreds of reviews!) because I didn’t start from a place of pure joy and passion.
Usually, authors need to flounder and struggle for several years, publish a few failed books, go on Facebook and write posts about how they’re “giving up” because they can’t get any traction, and marketing is too hard and overwhelming, and they don’t think they have what it takes to be a full-time writer. Even then, they’re usually looking to pay someone to market their books for them, and completely reject the fundamentally mundane idea that, if you want to sell more books, you must write books that sell.
So in this post, I’m going to approach the topic by starting with Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art – one of the MAIN books writers use to justify their artistic obstinacy (which also justifies the hurtful and misleading myth that writing to market is prostitution). But I’m going to look at ALL of Pressfield’s work, including two other lesser-known titles which actually support my own case, and are fundamental reading to supplement the ideologies in The War of Art.
Finally, rather than arguing for a choice between “Love” or “Money” – I’ll map out an alternative creative process that doesn’t require blind allegiance to an outdated ideology; one that will allow you to create with confidence and earn a living from your creative output (without selling out or giving up your passion).’
I admit it, I’m a hack…
There’s an insightful quote I like from a book called Vampire Girl, which says, “If you want to know the easiest, fastest and best way to get something done, give it to a lazy person.” The reason is, lazy people don’t want to waste time doing things the way they’ve always been done, just because. They’ll go to extraordinary lengths to avoid unnecessary work.
A “hack” is generally a shortcut or cheat. Most writers don’t like the idea of writing quickly, especially if it works.
They self-identify as writers who care about Great Literature even if, or especially if, they can’t get anyone to buy their books.
Anybody who actually makes money writing or (gasp) writes books that sell on purpose is accuses of not being a “real” artist.
I’ve been fighting against this harmful ideology for years, and even got a tattoo in defense of #amwriting because:
- After a decade of being a starving artist, I realized you only deserve to get paid for your work if you provide value
- Like all skills, writing takes practice and dedication, but as you improve it will be faster and easier
- I don’t believe suffering for your art, or failing to be appreciated, makes you a BETTER writer
We’ll take a closer look at these topics later, but for now, it’s enough to know I USED to be a starving artist for many years, before I found a process to do what I love, create works that matters, and build a life of freedom and adventure. And I spend an enormous amount of time building free resources to help others do the same. (That’s why, even though I know I could earn a ton of money just by affirming people’s beliefs, I’d rather help them earn their own money with practical advice).
Writing is hard. If I can find any way to make it easier, so I can publish faster, and earn more money with my writing, that makes my vocation more enjoyable. Unlike “pure artists” who are inspired from within, I deliberately and intentionally write books that readers enjoy, so that I can easily make a living with my writing, without spending all my time book marketing. Because I succeed intentionally, and because I’m lazy and don’t want to suffer or slave or starve for my art and would rather work less and earn more, so I can focus more time on my creative projects, I’m called a hack.
What’s fascinating, and more than a little annoying, is that while Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is well known and beloved among starving artists, less people are familiar with the follow up, Nobody wants to read your shit.
It’s frustrating that, while the first book says authors who consider the market are hacks (and liars and prostitutes) the second book reveals the real reason authors fail: because they’re not putting readers first and writing books that satisfy.
I’m tempted to view the series – which should actually include the co-authored Story Grid – as a creative progression. After all, beginning artists and authors need emotional support and encouragement to actually do the work. From my own experience, both my personal creative development and years spent as a starving artist before realizing you need to make things that matter if you expect to earn a living, but also after having coached thousands of authors, I recognize that most creatives aren’t ready to hear the Tough Love about the markets or the industry before they’ve Finished the Work.
They don’t want to write books that sell; they want to sell THEIR book. They’ve read too many self-help books that promise “if you just persevere and believe in your art, you’ll be successful, never give up!” so they refuse to consider who is actually going to want to pay for the thing. Until, finally, guided by books like The War of Art, they finally finish the work (yeah!) and then spend a year trying to market it. And almost always, it fails.
Then they get frustrated and depressed and come into Facebook groups like mine asking if they should “just give up” because they’re “no good at this.” And I tell them, every time, that if they want to sell more books, they can choose to write books that readers love, and that this isn’t actually all that hard – it’s a learnable skill – but they must WANT to learn it, and most don’t.
For years I’ve felt like I’m directly contradicting the beliefs instilled in them by books like The War of Art, which is why it’s so frustrating to read Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit because it’s EXACTLY what I’ve been saying. It’s the truth that all successful writers recognize: the success of your book depends almost entirely on conforming to genre expectations.
A lot of writers hate the idea of “rules” or “tropes” and try to avoid them. They want something new and surprising and creative. They want to invent new genres. They want freedom to creatively express themselves – they want to experience Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion.”
That’s why I get comments on my site like this:
“Write books people like; that’s great if you want to write popular fiction or pulp fiction or write for Donald Trump’s campaign. Novels can be a treasure and in themselves; not written to sell or to cheapen to appeal to the common denominator.”
That’s what people believe. That’s why books like the War of Art, which give them permission to do what they want, and define a common enemy (Resistance), are so ravenously popular.
But they’re also inherently dangerous, because they make the path of creation an arduous journey of pain and suffering and disappointment, and it doesn’t have to be! Writing books can be fun and enjoyable, and you can succeed quickly, if you want to.
Everybody says so. Unfortunately, most of the good advice is buried under the more popular stuff, so this article is going to be a LONG examination of Steven Pressfield’s three main books, so I can point out what he’s actually saying, and map out an alternative path to creative excellence.
THE WAR OF ART
“When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for… He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot, what can I make a deal for? He writes what he imagines will play well in the eyes of others. It can pay off, being a hack.”
“Given the depraved state of American culture, a slick dude can make millions being a hack. But even if you succeed, you lose, because you’ve sold out your Muse, and your Muse is you, the best part of yourself, where your finest and only true work comes from.”
“Remember, as artists we don’t know diddly. We’re winging it every day. For us to try to second-guess our Muse the way a hack second-guesses his audience is condescension to heaven. It’s blasphemy and sacrilege.” ―Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
“Remember, as artists we don’t know diddly. We’re winging it every day. For us to try to second-guess our Muse the way a hack second-guesses his audience is condescension to heaven. It’s blasphemy and sacrilege.”
These passages demonstrate the Starving Artist mentality: Steven knows that considering the market is the easy way to be successful (“slick dudes can make millions”) but tells us not to do it, because it’s evil. It’s better to stay poor, unacknowledged, unappreciated, and create work that matters to nobody.
Of course, starving artists don’t believe in starving or suffering: They actually believe this is the way to produce higher quality work, and that only work produced this way will “stand the test of time.” Starving artists also relentlessly market and promote their work, trying to get people to buy it; but it’s awkward and uncomfortable, because they began with the belief that making money is a sign of selling out, and thus creative prostitution or failure.
Some people DO manage to follow their heart and do what they love and listen to their inner muse, and accidentally get lucky. But most don’t. Over 99% in fact. In other words, even though the majority of authors agree with Steven about writing for market, the majority of them write books nobody ever reads.
As Oscar Wilde famous said, “In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” And if you’re writing as a hobby, for personal enjoyment or growth, that’s fine if nobody reads it. But I’ve never met an author like that: every author I’ve ever met has finished a book, and then spent years trying to sell it.
The truth is, when you produce this way (without considering the market) nobody will be interested, and you’ll have to promote the crap out of it, and it still won’t sell. You’ll end up begging people just to take a look for free. In short, The War of Art is idealistic, but unpractical.
Obviously, since the goal of this website is to help artists and authors become functional, independent and successful (so they can stop begging for support and start providing value) I’m irritated by advice of this kind. If you want to read my earlier (and harsher) review of it, read this post: Why The War of Art is Stupid. In it, I argue that it is morally superior to define yourself by your contributions to society and the amount of value you produce (the “Real” artist or author is the one who creates things people enjoy enough to pay for). But we’ll come back to that when we talk about the 3 myths of passion. For now, let me offer a few more passages from The War of Art:
“If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”
“We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause… To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution.”
“The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.” ― Steven Pressfield,
In other words, according to The War of Art, not only should we labor without pay, but this labor must also be as frustrating and painful as possible. (What happened to the “love” or “passion”?) Unfortunately, as I pointed out in a recent post, “How to write a bestselling book without earning any money” since most books lose money, most author’s idea of a successful book launch is breaking even or earning back their advertising expenses… which means the best an author can hope for is to slave away for years, without getting paid for their time, and then just barely break even!
So why is The War of Art so popular?
Because is solves a common problem: procrastination, self-doubt and getting the work done. There are far more people who need help and emotional support with getting the work done, than there are who need help selling the work. HOWEVER, Steven’s ideology of creative Resistance, while it is absolutely helpful as a model for producing the work, is at the same time convincing authors to make work that doesn’t matter (to anybody but themselves) which will inevitably lead to failure.
And this is NOT a normal, necessary or virtuous creative path to embrace.
THE STORY GRID
Story Grid was written by Shawn Coyne, a professional book editor: which means, he’s the guy who takes all that creative ingenuity and turns it into a viable product. There’s a whole bunch of great quotes on what writing actually involves, and why most writers can’t sell manuscripts to agents or publishers. It’s not because the work is too brilliant. It’s because it doesn’t properly fulfill reader expectations; because it doesn’t hit all the essential scenes of a particular genre. It’s disappointing, boring, a let down.
It isn’t artistic purity that forces you to transcend genre expectations; it’s laziness and fear. You want to write a book, great. Do whatever you want. You want to write a book, and get someone to buy it? Better. But many authors seem to want to write books without giving a damn whether anybody appreciates them. Ask yourself:
Who are you writing for – yourself? Why? Isn’t that a little self-centered? Again, that’s fine. Writing can be amazing therapy. Write your book. Exorcise your demons. Heal thyself. But if you want to be a career author, you need to write books that people like to read. This is “selling out” to the “lowest common denominator” (if by that you mean, figuring out who will actually read your book, and caring enough about them to make sure they are satisfied with it, rather than disappointed.)
The really interesting thing about Story Grid (truly, this fascinates me to no end) is that Shawn Coyne is Steven Pressfield’s editor. Steven Pressfield, meanwhile, is the reason most authors think they can just do the work, and that considering the market is “selling out.” Steven calls people who consider the market “hacks” in The War of Art.
But most writers love the War of Art because it tells them to keep writing what they enjoy, even if they’re scared or have doubts or can’t sell… just keep creating! So you get all these authors who have finished their book, and now they’re trying to get published, or find an agent, and they need an amazing editor like Shawn who’s going to straight up tell them, “This book doesn’t work. It isn’t good enough. You didn’t plot it well. It’s unsatisfying. It doesn’t deliver on the promise of the genre.”
And you’ll pay your editor thousands of dollars to tell you those things, and because you’re paying them so much money, you might listen to them. And if you make all the changes and structure your novel right it’ll be so much better and you will have a much greater chance at success.
But it would have been so much easier if you’d have just figured out who you were writing for first, did research on what things people reading that genre like and appreciate (what Shawn calls “Essential Scenes” – like the hero at the whims of the bad guy scene in thrillers).
A Genre is a label that tells the reader/audience what to expect. Genres simply manage audience expectation.
In the old days, the author went into his cave, retreated from civilization, and wrote a book. Then he came back and gave it to an agent, and a publisher. They edited the SHIT out of it. Not only all the typos, redundancies, clumsy sentences, etc – but also the organization. They made it better. They made it salable. A great editor was a proper genius, and knew more about what makes a story work than any living author.
There’s a great movie about this creative war between writers and editors called Genius. I wrote a post about it here.
Traditionally, authors have the ideas, but they don’t usually plot or plan in the mechanical sense that editors are used to. Editors take good ideas and make them amazing books, that readers can actually digest and enjoy. But it doesn’t actually work like that anymore: publishing houses no longer pick up books that “kind of work, but need fixing.” They’ll sign books and mostly just let them run, confident that they’ll sell based on the author’s fame. I’ve heard from several bestselling authors recently that they got a publishing deal because they wanted their book to be edited, to be fixed and improved – but instead the editor just stamped it “good enough” and it went to print.
That’s why Shawn says authors need to be their own editors. Even if you plan on hiring an editor later, you still need to figure out the demands of your genre, and make sure you tick all the right boxes. Learning how to self-edit to make sure your story resonates with people is not selling out. You are making your story better, and that will result in more success. And not to the “lowest common denominator only.”
Maybe you’re writing a dark and tragic literary YA novel about cancer – do you want it to be a flop, or a smashing success? There is already a collective of readers who are eager to enjoy and appreciate your book, but only if you take the time to find out who they are and make sure it satisfies them.
Every writer wants to be read. And the best way to learn whether your Story is reaching people is to tally the number of them willing to part with their hard-earned cash to experience your work.
The only way to write a Story that works is to know exactly what Genre(s) you are exploring and deliver exactly what is required from those Genres.
You must know what your reader is expecting before you can possibly satisfy her. And yes, if you are writing a Story, you must think of your audience. A Story means nothing if it is not experienced. ―Story Grid
“You must know what your reader is expecting before you can possibly satisfy her. And yes, if you are writing a Story, you must think of your audience. A Story means nothing if it is not experienced.”
What I love about Story Grid is the core idea that writing to market means creating better books.
Being a successful author is about writing a book that more people enjoy. Not writing crap to please the undemanding public, but using universal principles to deliberately create a more satisfying reading experience. In other words, writing to market – by being your own editor and making sure you hit genre conventions – will result in a better quality book.
For more on The Story Grid, read this: how to woo your readers.
Before we continue, allow me to confront a few limiting beliefs you might still be clinging to, which are these:
THE 3 MYTHS OF PASSION
- Passion leads to quality.
- Quality leads to value.
- Value and passion cannot coexist.
Authors who resist the idea of writing to market usually believe that passion leads to quality – they if they don’t love what they’re doing, they won’t enjoy it, and readers will be able to feel the difference. They also assume that if they DO enjoy it, the quality will be better. Usually, these authors focus on sentence structure and word choice, enjoy playing with sounds and letters, but refuse to conform to banal or restrictive devices like genre conventions or story architecture.
Unfortunately, this means that the majority of authors are writing books that are not enjoyable to read. They don’t hook attention or emotion. The stories go nowhere. The characters are unlikable. There’s not enough tension or conflict. You can really love writing and still write terrible books. You can be a beautiful writer and still write terrible books. If you can’t keep readers reading, and they finish the book without feeling satisfied (or worse, they’re angry they wasted their time) – you are not writing better quality books. Quality is a skill, and it can be learned.
However, it’s also a mistake to assume that better quality equals more value. This is what I’ve called the cardinal sin of self-publishing: believing that all readers will appreciate a better-written book (for example: “Twilight sucks, but people love vampires. So I’m going to write a GOOD vampire book.”) If you can’t understand what makes a book popular, or worse, if you condescend to readers by thinking they simply don’t know any better and will appreciate your “better” book, you’re setting yourself up for failure. People rarely read for a challenge; they read for entertainment or an escape. They want story not writing – so your “better writing” can often make a book less valuable, because it’s not what people want.
Finally, authors says things like “well, I could never write a vampire novel, because I’d hate it and be miserable.” The good news is, you don’t have to write to market or write in genres you don’t like. However, you also don’t have to love what you do to make money from it (writing is one of the only professions where passion is part of the job description). At the same time, just because you write to market, doesn’t exclude fun or passion. There are lots of things you can write, and plenty of topics or genres to succeed in. But:
A) You must satisfy the audience and understand why they read that genre
B) Your earnings will always be directly limited by the size of that audience.
Generally, these discussions lead to some form of compromise, where you’re 1/2 doing what you want to do, and 1/2 doing what the market wants you to do. This is NOT what I’m recommending. If you only conform to 1/2 of genre expectations, readers will only like your book 50% as much as their other favorite books. For me, it’s a difference of providing value to one vs. many: I can 1/2 satisfy myself + 1/2 satisfy tens of thousands of readers; but it’s not that much fun to get three star reviews that say “meh, this was just OK.”
I want to 110% satisfy readers. I want my books to be their favorite books of all time. This is my goal; this is how I know I’m improving; this is what my aim as a writer is; this is also (luckily for me) how you make a living with your writing. And Steven Pressfield thinks so too.
In his latest book, he writes:
There’s a mantra that real writers know but wannabe writers don’t. And the secret phrase is this:
“NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T.”
“Recognizing this painful truth is the first step in the writer’s transformation from amateur to professional.”
“When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you develop empathy. You acquire the skill that is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs—the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer. You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting? Is it fun or challenging or inventive? Am I giving the reader enough? Is she bored? Is she following where I want to lead her?” ―Steven Pressfield, Nobody wants to read your shit
“There’s a mantra that real writers know but wannabe writers don’t. And the secret phrase is this: NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T. Recognizing this painful truth is the first step in the writer’s transformation from amateur to professional.”
In Nobody Wants to Read your Shit Steven reveals that he’s a “writer-writer” – because he produces lots of words. He admits, again and again, that when he worked with partners, for a long time his partners were perceived as the more valuable one even if he was doing the work. But producing lots of words is not the value! Making those words MEANINGFUL is the value.
Steven’s approach in The War of Art makes sense, in the full context of his personal biography. After Steven typed “The End” on his first novel, it was ten more years before he got the first check for something he’d written and ten more years after that before a novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was actually published.
Steven mentions how, when he made it to Lose Angeles, he starved for 5 years writing screenplays. When he was told a movie script has three acts, he thought “What formulaic bullshit! I’m not going to be a slave to that!” But then admits he was wrong, and that the three act structure is inherent in ALL good storytelling. “Euripides worked in three acts, so did Shakespeare. Do you know something they don’t?”
“Genre may be the most important single factor, from a writer’s point of view, both in crafting the work and in attempting to find a market for it. Why is genre so important for the writer? Becuase every film (and novel and play) falls into a genre, and every genre has its own ironclad, unbreakable rules.”
“The writer must know what genre he is working in and the conventions of that genre, just as the bridge builder must understand the science of foundational integrity and the means of mitigating stress on strung steel.”
He goes on to claim that genre conventions are universal and mandatory, and stem from a hero’s journey.
“Why can’t we as storytellers ‘be creative’ and simply violate these conventions? Because each of these (and every other convention in every other genre) is a station in that genre’s version of the hero’s journey. And the human psyche takes in and evaluates every narrative it sees or hears according to how closely that narrative comports to the beats and structure of the hero’s journey. Be groundbreaking, be experimental if you want. But remember, the human psyche is deeply conservative and rigid as a rock.”
What follow is all excellent stuff about the necessary features of story.
- What’s the genre?
- What’s the theme?
- What’s the climax?
- Who’s the hero?
- Who’s the villain?
- What are the stakes?
- What is the jeopardy?
Steven explains the inciting incident, the climax, the “all is lost” scene, the epiphanal moment, the villain speech. After failing for 20 years, Steven wrote Baggar Vance, followed by 2 more novels, and it was easy. He asks himself, “WTF? What happened?” and answers:
Because in writing that work, I was bringing to the field of fiction all the principles I had learned in twenty-seven years of working as a writer in other fields, i.e., writing ads, writing movies, writing unpublishable fiction.
He then lists all the writing rules he’s accidentally internalized.
- Every work must be about something. It must have a theme.
- Every work must have a concept, that is, a unique twist or slant or framing device.
- Every work must start with an inciting incident.
- Every work must be divided into three acts (or seven or eight or nine David Lead sequences).
- Every character must represent something greater than himself.
- The protagonist embodies the theme.
- The antagonist personifies the counter-theme.
- The protagonist and antagonist clash in the climax around the issue of the theme.
- The climax resolves the clash between the theme and the counter theme.
The most revealing part of this revelation is the complete lack of Resistance – that “universal principle” Steven says is always present; because creative work is supposed to be a fight, a challenge. But once Steven finally embraced story architecture, he says “to my amazement, the tale poured out of me. fifty-one years old and my first novel is being published. It was easy.” The reason? Because, he’d spent twenty-seven years learning story-telling skills, as well as personal management skills like “how to self-motivate, self-validate and self-reinforce.”
The other interesting piece is here is that Steven admits you need to “master the material” – which means, once you’ve found a story, you have to defeat it.
“By enlisting the principles of story-telling and the conventions of the genre. You have to tame your story and domesticate it. You have to render it fit for human consumption. Writerly self-indulgence ends here. Now we must serve the reader.
This is pretty similar to a Stephen King quote I like: “The only things that can teach writing are reading, writing and the semi-domestication of one’s muse.” And I love everything about what Steven is saying in Nobody Wants to Read your Shit. I agree with it 100%, and it’s a super introduction to writing emotionally satisfying fiction. What I hate about it, is that it seems to directly contradict everything Steven said earlier in The War of Art, and the author makes no apologies or explanations.
Wait a second! “Domesticate” the muse? Serving the reader? Genre conventions?
How is this different from asking what the market is looking for – being a “hack”?
Here’s my hypothesis: the artist Steven thinks the value is the in raw material. Even though he knows he needs an editor like Shawn Coyne to make the work fit for consumption, he’s now acknowledging that things would be a lot easier if the author would do this deliberately, rather than waiting for an editor to fix it for him later. But in actual practice, I’m not sure Steven has ever learned how to do this.
Which is why there are two sides to Steven Pressfield (just like there are two sides to all of us).
Hemingway famously said, “write drunk, edit sober.”
Because each of us has an inner artist that just wants to create; a child, a novice, an idealist. But we each also have a rational, adult brain – our inner editor. Due to Steven’s idealism, he has to believe that art only has value if it begins with the creative muse; and that this must be universally true, even though in actual fact, as he admits in The War of Art, it is easy for a “hack” to make millions.
In other words, making money with art is hard, because someone has to edit that shit and turn it into a product; whereas, making money on purpose is easy if you begin with the intention to serve readers – something that Steven, along with most artists, finds offensive, but is universally born out by the marketplace.
I would strenuously counter that the intention of the creator is not what creates the value of the work.
The value is how many people enjoy the work enough to pay for it. This is the real conflict Steven Pressfield has spent a life wrestling with, though he seems, finally, to be admitting that as creatives, “Nobody wants to read your shit. We cannot give our readers ore. We must give them gold.”
And it all starts with story.
“What are the universal structural elements of all stories?
This is the shape any story must take. A beginning that grabs the listener. A middle that escalates in tension, suspense, stakes, excitement. And an ending that brings it all home with a bang.
Towards the end of the book, Steven admits something striking: that “The War of Art” was a hot mess until his editor, Shawn Coyne got his hands on it.
“I can brag about this one because I had nothing to do with it. All the genius was supplied by Shawn Coyne, who edited and published (and titled) the book. I delivered to Shawn a pile of pages. The pile was about the me-against-myself battle that’s fought inside the skull of any novelist. I called it “The Writer’s Life.”
“Shawn said, ‘Lemme think about this.” Then he did what any terrific editor would do. He made that pile of pages into a story. What specifically did Shawn do? First, he spread the chapters out onto the floor. Then he organized them into three sections.”
Act One, Act Two, Act Three.
“If the Hook in The War of Art is, “Here’s the problem”… If the Build is, “Here’s the solution”… Then the Payoff is, “Ms. Writer, your role in this timeless, epic struggle is noble, valorous, and necessary. Heed the calling of your heart. Stand and go forth.”
Here’s the problem…
The War of Art is a work of fiction; it resonates with people, and they self-identify. Telling people their failure is not their fault, and focusing their energy on an external villain, can be empowering. It can absolutely help creatives overcome fear and doubt and do more work.
But it absolutely will not make that work more valuable, more marketable, or more successful!
It’s also a self-defeating cycle. If you believe fear, doubt, rejection and suffering is a normal part of the process, and if you believe you should “heed the calling of your heart” and just keep writing, no matter how much failure or rejection you receive, then you’re likely to continue suffering for your art deliberately, because you think you’re doing it right. Even though, as Steven Pressfield and Shawn Coyne collectively insist, there are universal, unskippable rules to storytelling, without which any project will fail.
Someone shared this in my Facebook group recently, and we had a good discussion about it. It’s important to keep the confidence, even when you feel like nothing is working, because the first draft is always terrible. However: if nobody likes what you’re doing, don’t keep doing it! And if you don’t at least enjoy the process, why continue?
According to Steven, The concept in War of Art is: “Forget Time Management and Motivational Pep Talks and Tips about How to Aim High, Persevere and Succeed. Instead let’s dig beneath everything and state straight-out what all of us know but have never dared say:
“There is an Evil Force that is constantly defeating us artists and bringing to naught all of our dreams. Let’s name that force, accept it as our enemy, and figure out how to overcome it.”
But Resistance isn’t why artists fail. They fail because they’re making shit nobody wants, that doesn’t matter – and, thanks to Steven, they’re doing it deliberately. Because, also according to Steven, if you put readers first, if you focus on the market and what people actually want to read, then you’re a hack. Even though, also according to Steven, his success only came after he internalized story architecture, and once he did, found writing novels to be easy.
Resistance is a neat concept, and it is a part of the process to some extent. Writing novels is hard. We all get stuck in the middle. It does take work ethic and persistence. It does help to externalize the threat and turn guilt or self-doubt into an imaginary battle. But after the work is finished, whatever motivational anchors you used to self-motivate are no longer the issue, because readers don’t give a shit about how or why you overcame your personal struggles; they care about the work itself. Does it interest them, hold their attention, hook, sustain and satisfy?
For almost all the books out there, the answer is NO, because most authors are still avoiding all the basic storytelling principles which Steven conveniently forgot to add into his most popular book (and unfortunately hid under an “edgy” title that probably doesn’t resonate with his target audience.) Which means, it’s people like me, who actually work with authors, as an editor, cover designer and book marketer, who has to say “congrats on finishing, but nobody is going to buy this mess, because you ignored the basics of story architecture.”
Even more distressing, Steven ends what is otherwise one of the best books on writing and craft I’ve ever read – he really nails the essential, fundamental aspects of commercial fiction – and resorts back to his idealistic UnTruths about Resistance:
“There is a Devil. Resistance is real. Self-sabotage is a fact. Radiating off the blank page, the empty canvas, the unexposed can of film is a force of relentless, merciless, protean evil that makes the Emperor Ming look like your sweet aunt Edna. That’s Reality #1. Anyone who tells you different is a liar.”
Reality #2 is that there is a Muse, “an active, creative, self-organizing, self-perpetuating, infinitely diverse and yet cohesive, governed by laws that are not beyond the grasp and ken of human understanding. We’re believing that the universe has a gift it is holding specifically for us and that, if we can learn to make ourselves available to it, it will deliver this gift into our hands. Believe me, this is true.”
Simplified: Steven doesn’t know how he writes books. It’s completely beyond him. It’s a mystery. All you can do is fight Resistance and open yourself up to the Muse. Oh, and… by the way… spend twenty-seven years studying ad copy, script writing and story architecture, which is absolutely fundamental, yet somehow not the most important thing to keep in mind. Why this focus on belief and faith? Because the reality of creative success does not support the theory.
In actual fact, 95% of the time, professional creatives (who actually earn a living) are the people deliberately creating content to satisfy the market: (yet somehow, according to Steven, they’re all doing it wrong).
It is not true that people who study the market and write books that sell are hacks.
It is not true that people who listen to the muse write better, higher quality or more successful fiction.
It IS true that it’s FAR easier to create work that sells if you do it on purpose.
It’s also true that if you choose to write reader-centric, tightly plotted fiction or nonfiction, in a hungry market, after having studied the audience, most of the fear, doubt and Resistance vanishes, because you KNOW your audience is going to love it; you know it’s going to earn money; you know it’ll be easier and faster to write, so you can get it out there and start the next one.
Steven ends the book with a final bit of really bad advice:
“The #1 question that writers ask themselves: “I’ve got a million ideas. How do I know which one to work on?” Answer: Write your White Whale. Which idea, of all those swimming inside your brain, are you compelled to pursue the way Ahab was driven to hunt Moby Dick? Here’s how you know – you’re scared to death of it. It’s good to be scared. You should be scared. Mediocre ideas never elevate heart rate. Great ones make you break out in a sweat. The final image of Moby Dick is one of the most powerful and compelling ever, not just as the climax to a story, an adventure, a tragedy, but as a metaphor for the artist’s calling and his endlessly repeated, never ending struggle.”
“The whale is your unwritten book, your unsung song, your calling as an artist. You die grappling with this thing, lashed to it, battling it even as it takes you under. But your death is not a mortal death. You die instead an artist’s death, which leads to resurrection in a higher, nobler form and recruits you to the next hunt, the next chase, the pursuit of the next Thing You Love.”
And then, confusingly, he ends with this:
“If it’s our soul we’re talking about (rather than just What We Write), then our passage through the varying discipines of this life, if we’re truly paying attention, is an education in editing out the ego, in stepping away from our fear and self-concern and aspirations for recognition, for material rewards, and for earthly payoffs, until we move into the realm of the gift, where what we offer is for the reader’s good and not for our own. Want me to read your shit? Do that and I will.”
The Realm of The Gift
It’s better to provide value than to ask for handouts.
Wouldn’t you rather get paid because readers love your books, instead of because they pity you for being a starving artist? In other words, wouldn’t you rather write books readers LOVE, instead of books nobody enjoys? Wouldn’t you rather get rave reviews and testimonials from readers, instead of negative reviews that the book was boring or they quit reading halfway through?
The secret to making a living as a writer is writing books readers love. And you can do it.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad advice out there telling you otherwise: that it’s better to write an Inspired book you’re Passionate about, because it’s somehow a gift to the Universe, EVEN IF nobody buys it, reads it or enjoys it.
Steven’s books – like most quality nonfiction – focus on overcoming one core problem. They also, like most quality nonfiction, help readers take action by getting them to believe in one big thing. The problem, is that EACH COMPONENT is crucial to success. And unfortunately, the reading order is critical.
PROBLEM: Fear of failure. SOLUTION: Fight Resistance.
PROBLEM: Actual failure. SOLUTION: Story Telling and Plotting.
Most creative people will read The War of Art and feel justified and vindicated in creating what THEY want to write, what THEY enjoy, what THEY are passionate about. Until, decades later, and still unsuccessful, they’ll finally “give up” or “sell out” and start making stuff that sells (and still consider themselves a “failure” EVEN IF they’re successful because Steven told them they’re prostitutes for writing things the market enjoys.)
This is NOT a healthy method of creative production, and it’s not even TRUTHFUL: because, as Steven says, if you want people to read your shit you absolutely must use universal principles of story architecture.
Steven’s methodology looks like this.
Choosing passion >> failing for decades until you learn basic plotting and craft >> Fighting Resistance and finishing the work >> hiring an amazing editor who fixes your shit and turns it into a marketable product = Success.
Somewhere in there, you also need to focus on your readers, but it’s difficult to place, because Steven says it’s vitally necessary, but also a form of creative prostitution. Actually, according to Jonathan Field’s book Uncertainty, Steven privately confessed “if he truly believed a project had zero commercial appeal, he’d have to weigh it pretty seriously, especially because in his mind, each new book is a two-to three-year commitment.”
Still, Steven remains committed to the ideal, where monetary success is an afterthought: finishing the work is the most important thing. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. There’s also a huge battle with Resistance, because you’re choosing to do what YOU want (Passion) and aren’t sure if the market will enjoy it.
The inaccurate assumption that writing for money or writing to the demands of the market is selling out, leads to years of writing “unpublishable” books. My strategy is a bit different.
Start with the reader >> basic plotting and craft >> Success!
I can write books much faster, without dealing with Resistance, because I know what my readers enjoy and how to satisfy them, and I plot and structure my books well from the beginning. Unlike Steven, I don’t NEED an editor to fix my broken shit and make it marketable. I publish cheap, self-edit, and make sure readers love my books before investing more.
It’s not the perfect system, but it’s better than buying into a $20,000 publishing package that promises you a six-figure income and a “writing coach” that helps you finish a book nobody wants to read. Not everyone can afford to spend 3 to 10 years writing a book, invest in professional editing and book design, and then also try and figure out book marketing and promotion. (And yet, there are TONS of predatory author services, scams and gurus who take advantage of writerly dreams who promise big results anyway). It’s criminal that authors are being induced to take out debt or borrow money to publish their books, when you could do it yourself for free.
But even though my creative process appears diametrically opposed to the ideology in The War of Art, it’s actually not that far off. I agree with Steven 100% that writing is a gift, that only has value when shared: the realm of the gift, where what we offer is for the reader’s good and not for our own.
And I agree that the WAY to do this is by “By enlisting the principles of story-telling and the conventions of the genre. You have to tame your story and domesticate it. You have to render it fit for human consumption. Writerly self-indulgence ends here. Now we must serve the reader.”
I disagree in only two minor points.
First, because of the success of The War of Art and Steven’s Battle Cry against Resistance, almost all writers feel empowered to follow their Passion and IGNORE the two absolutely crucial steps: putting readers first and writing stories they love!
Second, because of Steven’s belief in muse and inspiration, he urges readers to ignore the market and Do What They Love; this sets up a false dichotomy between Passion and Profit, such that if you intend to write books that sell, you’re “selling” out. Even if it’s easier. Even if you can make good money quickly. Even if readers love it. It’s still not “Pure Art.”
The consequence of all of this, is that writers – like the early Steven – stubbornly throw off narrative structure or genre expectations (even though everyone agrees they are crucial) and also feel justified and righteous in their failure.
Since Steven has already conditioned readers to view creative production as either Pure Art or Prostitution, when I tell people to “write books that sell” people reject it on principle – even though my steps on how to write books that sell are nearly identical to Steven’s actual guide to writing commercial fiction.
Steven believes in Universal Principles and suffering for Art, but let me ask this:
If the Muse is really whispering insights it hopes you’ll share with the world, do you think the Muse wants your message to fail? Do you think the Muse wants you to write a book nobody reads or enjoys?
Conversely, if the Muse DOES want you to write books readers love, that change the world, what would that look like? How would you measure your influence and impact? If the Muse gives you a quest, how do you know when you’ve succeeded and to what degree?
If you believe in the Muse, you have a responsibility to make the message successful.
How do you do that? Using universal story telling principles and putting readers first.
Luckily, there’s an easy way to measure whether or not your quest succeeds; also luckily, there’s easy easy way to succeed on purpose.
Put readers first >> know what they want and give it to them >> use Universal storytelling principles to make sure it resonates >> SUCCESS (measured by financial gain)
If you do it this way, not only is the Resistance much more manageable, but the success of your project is far more likely to succeed: and rather than begging friends and family to “support” you; people will happily pay for everything you write.
But what about Passion?
The hangup most authors have about my method, is they say things like “well I could never write what’s popular.”
Or “But then writing would just be a job – if I just wanted a paycheck, there are easier ways to make money.”
This is based on the idea that writing to market must be soul destroying work, with no passion or joy.
This is a lie.
The creative struggle is challenging and rewarding, no matter what you write.
If you’re an artist or creative, you can find joy in your work.
But which do you think is more fun: successfully completing a book that nobody likes, doesn’t get reviews and earns no money?
Or successfully completing a book that sells itself and readers can’t wait to share with friends?
Which do you think is more rewarding?
The false dichotomy is that you MUST choose between passion and profit, and either being with profit or begin with passion. But actually, when you put readers first, it gives you more confidence to finish the work, which lets you finish better work more quickly. It also helps alleviate the financial concerns, so you’re free to focus on your best work without worrying about monetary reward.
Readers First >> Universal Storytelling Principles >> Fascination and Play (Surprise and Delight) >> Your Best Work
This isn’t “selling out”. And it’s not “compromising your creative integrity.” Those are excuses.
This isn’t about “cashing in on the market” or “writing crap to hit trends.”
This is about having MORE fun and writing BETTER books, and avoiding Resistance entirely. Not only can you write better books faster, by removing most of the fear and doubt, you’ll also by able to earn a living as a writer so that you can write more books.
A. You’ll be using universal story telling principles which give your project structure and
B. you’ll be intentionally writing books you KNOW readers are going to love
Steven says it takes two years to write a book; and as we’ve seen, that’s him handing off a complete mess to an editor to make consumable. This is the creative war between artist and editor, but you can skip 90% of the conflict by putting your editor first.
Focus on story first, plotting first, and benefits to the reader FIRST. Focus on creating something amazing that THEY will love to read. THEN you can use your creativity and passion to write your best book ever. But I’ll tell you a secret: once you get rid of resistance, fear and doubt, it’s much easier and much faster to write books – and when you’re finished, you won’t need to spend thousands on an editor to “fix” it for you or “make it consumable.”
You’ll remove 90% of the floundering and writer’s block and guilt and procrastination. I’m not saying it will be easy – writing a book is ALWAYS a creative struggle, and every body gets stuck in the middle. That’s part of the process. But you can get stuck with awareness, and still enjoy the process, and still listen to the Muse.
Here’s another secret: The Muse doesn’t have just one idea for you – the Muse helps you solve problems. The Muse fills in the gaps. If you start on a project, the Muse delights in helping you finish it, and it CAN seem miraculous as ideas appear out of thin air. But I promise this delightful process is completely the same now matter what type of books you’re writing. It’s UP TO YOU whether you want to put readers first, and provide them a story they love, or hide in what Steven calls writerly self-indulgence.
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” —Louis L’Amour.
Nobody cares about you or your book
You can make them care, by teaching them, by building a relationship, but it’s long and hard work, and ultimately a little manipulative; always steering the conversation back to your project. Trying to get THEM to like what YOU want to make. It’s a lot of work.
I don’t like work, I’m a lazy hack, remember?
It’s so much easier to write books readers actually want.
It’s not that hard actually. You can use k-lytics or KDProcket to figure out what readers are looking for. I usually examine the top 20 bestsellers in my genre and read the reviews, to see what readers loved or hated about them. I figure out the common plot elements, and I try to write a book that will give readers the experience they love, in a new and fresh way.
The trick is overconforming to genre expectations. Give them what they want, what they’re familiar with first, get them to trust you.
Quantity leads to quality
A common limiting belief I encounter everyday is that intention matters more than production. In other words, the reasons and motivations behind the work are more important than the work itself. Authors who believe in writing slowly and writing “real” literature usually believe their work will be better quality, and therefore, that it “deserves” to succeed more than some “hack” who is only writing for money.
But imagine you were making a table. Your first one would be pretty terrible, no matter how passionate you were. Passion is important, but repetition, practice and experience is what develops skill. Some people say it takes a million words to learn how to write. And polishing up a manuscript for 10 years doesn’t make it better, it creates a messy pile of crap.
Just like professional carpenters get better with experience, so too are professional writers able to write BETTER and FASTER with experience (if you’re not getting better and faster with each book you write, you’re doing something wrong). My first book took me ten years. My third took me eight months. Now I can write a clean novel in under 3 months (and it’ll be way better than the slower ones!)
EDIT: I also made a video recently though about how you should be choosing to challenge yourself, instead of writing what’s comfortable. Writing shouldn’t just be fun and easy and effortless; especially if you’re trying to get better and improve your craft. Just like a weightlifter, you need to constantly up the resistance so your muscles keep growing. But you should still be growing in skill and confidence, and your writing should be getting objectively better, as long as you have some kind of external goals or system of validation (book reviews and earnings are good indicators).
B) most artists and authors are frustrated, full of fear and doubt, not selling anything or building an audience, and – thanks to Steven – still believe they’re doing it RIGHT.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
One of the best books I’ve read on the creative process, writing books and overcoming fear of failure… there are a couple quotes from this book I adore so much I’ve memorized, including:
“A good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never” and
“Perfectionism is just fear in high heels.”
- Story and Plot from Masters
- Nobody wants to read your shit
- The Plot Dot
- Plot Perfect
- The Story Fix
- Story Grid
- Write From the Middle
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I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.