Ulysses S. Grant’s advice for writers

You never know when you are going hear or read something unrelated to writing that gives you renewed focus on putting your story into words on the page. An odd example surfaced in a writing workshop recently.

In our Longer Projects Workshop with author Sandi Kahn Shelton the other week, my colleague Bo Huhn read a passage of dialogue from his novel-in-progress. Bo’s protagonist is talking with his son, who is a Marine on the front lines in Afghanistan. The men are discussing military strategy, and the son tells his father about a lesson Ulysses S. Grant learned the first time he led men into battle in the Civil War.

According to the character of the son in Bo’s book, Grant’s Union soldiers won their initial skirmish with the Confederates on the western shore of the Mississippi River and then began celebrating and looting. Reinforced with troops from across the river, the Confederates regrouped and counterattacked, forcing Grant and his men into retreat. The experience taught Grant—Bo’s character says—that whether one is winning or losing, there always comes a point when you have an urge to back off, but you must never give in to that impulse, even when you are doing well. Instead, in Bo’s character’s words, “pound ahead.”

Bo’s character was talking about the Battle of Belmont. It took place in Missouri in 1861. After their initial success, Grant’s troops were, in his words, “demoralized from their victory.” Later, commenting about the art of war, Grant wrote, “Strike [the enemy] as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”

For many first-time book writers, completing your story is a nearly insurmountable challenge. You can come out of a workshop session euphoric about the reception your work has received, or discouraged about how much revision you need to do to make it better. You can take satisfaction in how the pages piling are up, but remain daunted by how many remain unwritten and how the whole story is holding together. The optimism/pessimism oscillations can prove such a stubborn enemy on a long piece of writing that you just want to step away for a while.

But don’t let your wavering deter you from your ultimate objective. For Grant, the ultimate objective was winning the Civil War. For you, me and all writers hoping to one day publish first novels, mystery author Laura Lippman sums the objective up succinctly in a list of advice on her website—“Step # 1: Finish the damn book.”

When I heard Bo’s characters talking about U.S. Grant, I thought of Lippman’s advice. Put the two together and you have a simple formula for achieving your objective.

Pound ahead on your story by continuing to pound on the computer keys, and you’ll finish the damn book.—Alex McNab

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Published in: on October 28, 2010 at 3:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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