Writing = Discipline

Writing = discipline, Big Red Car? Tell me more.

Big Red Car here on a lovely Monday morning, waiting for the painters to show up. House getting painted, not the Big Red Car. Alas.

So, The Boss is doing some writing. He’s been a writer for a long time, but now he’s out of the closet. Had a few things published and is working hard.

Learned it takes about five years to find one’s voice and to find a focus which is worthy of one’s talent. You have to become a story teller.

JLM Storyteller hand lettered logo

But, here’s the big thing — writing requires discipline and there is both art and science to it.

Subject matter

You have to write about what you know. The Boss knows some stuff. He grew up on Army posts, went to military school. Served in the Army overseas. His first published story dealt with … wait for it … the military.

He writes about a lot of different things, but the military is one he knows.

He built high rise office buildings, built a few companies — so he writes about complex business undertakings with a focus on entrepreneurial endeavors.

Through his Wisdom of the Campfire CEO advisory business, he gets to meet and advise lots of startup CEOs.

Logo RED no background copy

The Boss has written a series of stories about a legendary venture capitalist, Henry E Cates, The Gray Haired Eminence. The cover is from a different story than the one I’m going to share with you today.

GHE Not My Circus Not My Monkeys Hank Cates Stories cover color

One of The Boss’s writing group critics said the term “Gray Haired Eminence” was trite and a cliche. Hmmm. The series is a set of stories which demonstrate themes relevant to growing into a CEO at a startup. Like all stories, somewhere deep within there is a truth.

Here’s a story which is at that stage where it is going to the editors. I wanted you to see it because maybe I’ll show it to you again when it’s finished to see if you can detect the changes. Read the story and tell me what you think. See if you can spot the theme.

Pulling the Plug, a Hank Cates Story

Seat of the pants v structure

The first lesson one confronts is whether to outline a story or to run with it. There are arguments on both sides. The Boss is an outliner, not a pantser (seat of the pants).

If you’re an outliner, you lay out the plot, the characters, the setting, the time period, the conflicts, the bad guys, the climax, and the denouement. Grossly simplified, but close.

You want to create characters who are more interesting than people you meet in the line at the grocery. The bad ones have to be real, real, real bad. Hannibal Lector bad.

The heroes, these days, have flaws. No more John Wayne riding into the sunset on his horse, with the loyal dog having won the heart of the pretty girl. That is over. Now, our heroes are momentarily heroic and live an otherwise flawed life.

The conflicts have to be a series of disasters for your protagonist. Every time she gets clear, she gets thrown back into the briar patch.


Never, ever, ever let your family read your stories. Too much profanity. Sex? People have sex? Who wants to read about a venture capitalist?

You will go to writer’s groups and they will savage your stories. So much so, you will want to go to a restaurant supply store and buy an ice pick to deal with their tires.

Then, you find the right/write group and it clicks. You want this savagery.  You need this savagery. You cannot live without this savagery.

You want this criticism because you have blind spots and a fresh set of eyes will locate them. [Still want to ice pick their tires, but you have grown beyond that.]


When you write, you will self-edit — rewrite — every story five times before you think you have a First Draft. Haha. Sorry, it’s true.

You write it. You edit it on the screen. You print it. You read it and edit it with a red pen. You do it again. It is a continuous process.

The Boss uses a piece of software called ProWritingAid which for $40 will find your excessive use of adverbs, sticky sentences, overly repeated words, grammar mistakes, and other identifiable flaws. It is cheating, but it works.

After you go to your writers’ groups, you will make more revisions.

Then you will send it to a professional editor who will make up to three developmental edits. After you receive each one, you will revise the story again and resubmit it.

When your editor says you are through the developmental edit, you will receive a copy edit, and a proofread.

Then you have something to work with. Only then. Until then, you have warm clay looking for a furnace to harden itself up in.

A week later, the story having marinated in a plastic bag filled with Italian dressing, you will read the story and find a new crop of weeds.

You will read that same story a year later,  and you will revise it further.


Getting a story published is like begging at a street corner with a hand lettered cardboard sign. The first acceptance The Boss received came in the company of thirty-three rejections.

You will find out there are a million journals out there — none of whom need your story to fill their pages, but you submit (byzantine, arcane and different submittal rules for each pub) and wait for the rejection notes.

The rejections come on pre-printed, chain saw cut forms. “Not what we’re looking for.”

Every 50th one has a comment: “Great story, but we received six unicorn stories this month. Well written. Loved the surprise ending. Keep it up.”

You can exist for another month on that note.

Then, you get an acceptance and think, “Holy shit, I’m a writer.”

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Have a nice damn week, y’all!cropped-LTFD-illust_300.png






11 thoughts on “Writing = Discipline

  1. Hey BRC: Tell the Boss thanks for the Pro Writing Aid recommendation. I just tried it, made a pretty good two-paragraph document dance and sing.

  2. On the criticisms from other writers:

    I’d try to take that only from clearly the best sources, well supported, rarely, in small doses, with lots of salt.


    (1) To me, writing as in English literature, fiction, Belle Lettre, is an old effort in civilization that used to be considered among the best of civilization and best uses of human intelligence but since the rise of mathematics and mathematical physics is seen as inferior and seriously outdated, still with some value and potential but needing some new approaches and values.

    (2) Bluntly, to me, Shakespeare belongs on the scrap heap of history; I hate Shakespeare if only because his literature is so highly praised, I was force fed that stuff for years in school, yet it’s rarely clear to me just what the heck he is claiming to be true and, even if find some claims, the quality of the evidence totally sucks. Now for communicating solid information we do much better in math, physical science, medical science, engineering, law, and finance; in these fields we are able to write solid material, but the belle lettre community is still back with Shakespeare.

    (3) There have been claims that English literature, especially Shakespeare, is good for learning about people. My view is no: That old literature actually was not very good, and there is much better material today, especially from the clinical psychology profession.

    (4) I believe that writers should learn from the past of literature and then strike out on their own to do well with the new and better approaches and values.

    (5) Maybe the attraction of stories is as in the common definition of art as “the communication, interpretation of human experience, emotion” but in particular gives the reader not useful information but maybe just vicarious, escapist, fantasy, emotional experience entertainment (VEFEEE).

    (6) For one approach to new and better values, I would hope that some of literature would also communicate some serious, solid, rationally well supported, useful information, more like an essay than the literature of the past. For such writing, stories might serve as supporting examples, e.g., case studies, for the information to be presented. In addition, the information being communicated, its points, and the rational support should all be clear and explicit. E.g., a reader should not be left to guess what the points were or to find in the writing lessons that apply to them whether the author had such lessons in mind or not. More generally, it should be clear what the heck information the author is trying to communicate and just why the lessons are credible and likely true.

    For the PDF, the words in the paragraphs do not flow when the Adobe reader magnifies the text. For reading on my screen, I like fonts sizes about 180% instead of the default 100%, and that means that there can be only about 50 characters per line instead of the 93 or so characters per line there now.

    For the story, there is

    “The other side has the votes. We don’t. Simple math.”

    Well, there’s more math: If put up a bridge, need to know, in advance, from math, etc. that the darned thing will stand, for, say, 100 years. Don’t want any doubt about that.

    More generally, in serious projects, e.g., ones with significant investments of time, money, and effort, right at the first and throughout want some darned solid evidence that the project will be successful.

    We wanted that for the Empire State Building, Hoover Dam, Torch (the landing in North Africa), Overlord (the landing in Normandy), the Manhattan Project, the B-36 for bombing Japan (including with the A-bomb), the H-bomb, the B-52, Rickover’s nuclear submarines, the SR-71, GPS, …, Gulf War I, etc.

    Sometimes the planning was bad: The Titanic, responding to the stock market crash of 1929, the landing at Anzio, the landing at Salerno, Operation Market Garden, Viet Nam, Gulf War II.

    There was a reason Market Garden was a failure — it was Monty’s show. There was a reason Monty’s successes were from long planning and overwhelming force — if in the morning he spent less than an hour tying his shoe laces, his boots would fall off before noon. Monty planned Market Garden in a hurry — yup, failure.

    For serious projects, planning is darned serious stuff. We need solid planning.

    Any project can run into unpredictable, exogenous interruptions, natural disasters, etc., but good plans should be able to withstand quite a lot of such exogenous stuff. E.g., Overlord encountered some severe weather in the English Channel; apparently Bradley didn’t do nearly enough to Omaha Beach before landing; Monty was terribly slow getting past Caen; the Normandy hedgerow country was tough and needed the carpet bombing of Cobra; Patton wanted to close the eastern end of the Falaise pocket but was not permitted to; still Overlord was successful.

    That Ghost Rider failed might mean that there was poor planning.

    Trying to make something new, good, and real usually means have to construct something in spite of flawed people, supplies, vendors, tools, etc. — generally win against perversity.

    He hated appearing weak

    Being weak versus strong is next to irrelevant: Being as strong as you wish, there was no way Powers was going to be successful in that U-2 flight. The pilots who later were successful with the SR-71 (which never got shot down) flights were likely no stronger than Powers. The difference was that the U-2 was not fast enough to outrun Soviet missiles and the SR-71 was. And the speed of the SR-71 was due to the design of the airframe by Kelly Johnson, the use of titanium to withstand the heat of air friction at Mach 3.0, and some special engines from a Florida group of Pratt and Whitney. The engines were turbojets until about Mach 2.5 at which time they became ram jets that generated less internal heat and had better fuel economy. Indeed, the Soviets had their MIG-25 able to keep up with the SR-71 except they were using just turbojet engines that at Mach 3.0 or so quickly overheated.

    Okay, maybe

    “Sure, the shock is over,” Pete replied, leaning back in his chair pretending to relax. “I just want to get it done.”

    is some character development?


    When he left, a large of his life would remain.

    might be better with “large part”.


    <blockquote“Get me drunk enough tonight, cowboy, and I’ll show you a good time,

    in my values, serious people just never “get drunk”. Being drunk is self-destructive, like deliberately cutting oneself with a knife.


    Entrepreneurs would commit murder to spend time with Hank Cates, an uber successful venture capitalist and a hard man with whom to arrange an audience.

    I’m not sure there is anywhere in the US a VC any good entrepreneur should respect or be eager to walk across a street to meet except just for a big check on really good terms. As far as I can see, the VCs are never great entrepreneurs and are rarely very good ones. Indeed, if Cates were really good, then Ghost Rider would have been successful and not shut down.

    I know; the $10 K deal for the IP might be a genius move, but company building is not supposed to be the Phoenix business.


    “Cheer up,” Hank said. “Nobody’s dead and nobody has cancer.”

    Good way to look at it. Hank is being made to look much brighter than Pete.


    The apology was the final defeat, the broken sword of surrender.

    sure, Pete messed up, but even the Pats do that occasionally. It doesn’t have to be a “broken sword” situation.

    But it looks like Pete was spending money too fast. That can be okay and maybe even a smart move, but in that case do need to have the equity funders on board with this approach.

    If the equity funders want to start the business with nickels and dimes instead of handfuls of stacks of $100 bills, then Pete needed to stay with the nickels and dimes approach.


    Pete arrived on Nantucket depressed. Obsessing on the failure of Ghost Rider did not diminish his funk. Long pre-dawn walks by himself left him feeling isolated. The low lying sea fog was a perfect match for his mood.

    Uh, Pete, baby, that’s the wrong approach. It can be like the proof of a math theorem: It’s possible to get the proof correct, solid, rock solid, and to do this all alone, and there all alone know with near certainty that it’s rock solid.

    Then you have a solid proof. Then, how you feel, good, bad, proud, weak, ashamed, arrogant, meek, some emperor, walk on water in warm weather, etc. all matters not at all. All that matters is that the proof is correct.

    Then, with that proof correct, no one alive, at least no competent mathematician will, can shoot it down.

    Just a correct proof can be most of a publication or maybe even a patent and, if you can connect it to things real, can be the crucial, core secret sauce of something to shoot down missiles or have a very successful startup.

    Or, with enough math, physics, engineering, etc., can know that the connecting rods will hold at 10,000 RPM and 7000 HP for 4 seconds for a quarter mile, the wings will hold in a many 9G turns, the ship will withstand the sea state, the building will withstand the hurricane winds, etc., and all of that can be as certain as that math proof well before the fact, just from paper, just from one guy, alone, no shave, no bath, and low on canned soup in the kitchen. And it can all be checked with high reliability. What some history major from Williams College, some guy with just inherited wealth, some guy who could never pass calculus, some newsie, etc. all matter from at most only a little down to not at all.

    If you are going to do a bungee jump off a bridge, then you want to be darned sure the rope will hold; with just routine methods you can be sure; then go ahead and jump and don’t worry. The worry doesn’t help; knowing that the rope will hold does.

    To be sure something like Overlord will work is much more difficult, but it’s possible to be fairly sure about that also. Same for Gulf War I: Schwarzkopf had some darned good planning; Saddam lost many tens of thousands; Schwarzkopf lost fewer than 300 total. Schwarzkopf knew very well just what he was doing; Saddam didn’t have a clue.


    I did this to myself. I’m smarter than this.

    come ON Pete: At least get yourself up to the level of project planning with “Measure twice. Saw once.”.


    for scouring you stupidity off the web.

    might be better with “scouring your stupidity”.


    “Abbie, let me dive in and swim toward France and just keep going. I pissed away millions of dollars of other people’s money. What a fucking loser I am.”

    Not necessarily: If the equity funders want to swing for the fences, go for $10 billion, then the $4.5 million is chump change, small stuff, where the possible waste of opening a NYC office is prudent because you don’t want to open that office too late.

    A lot of it, Pete, was just communications: Were you in nickel and dime mode or handfuls of stacks of $100s mode? You and the equity funders needed to agree on that — you didn’t agree. Communications problem.


    Pete exercised every day, brutally testing—punishing—his body seeking the solace of hard-earned pain and sleep.

    Pete seems to be taking stupid pills again: Punishing the body is dumb, dumb-de-dumb dumb stupid dumb. With such punishment, can break something that can’t be replaced or repaired. Dumb.

    Pete is coming off as less than the brightest bulb on the tree.

    Uh, Pete, can you hear me? Wiggle your toes? See my hand and count the fingers I’m holding up? Stand? Walk? Add a column of numbers? Okay, then, Pete, we have to agree, you are not dead yet. Maybe some bullets came within 6 inches of your head, but still they missed just as well if they were 20 feet off.

    If what you do in the future is good, then mostly what you did in the past, good or bad, won’t matter much. Pete, looks like you are ready to do good now, right?


    “I’m throwing the IP from Ghost Rider into the company. You can start from there,” Hank said. “I’ll show you how to run a startup and how to take it to the pay window. You ready to learn?”

    Maybe Hank can provide enough leadership to Pete to make even Pete successful.

    I have to doubt that Gates, Page, Brin, Bezos, Viterbi got much valuable tutoring from their Board members, but in principle such a thing should be possible.

    E.g., IIRC Page and Brin had Doerr, right? And Doerr was, IIRC, something like

    Ideas are easy, plentiful, and worthless. Execution is difficult, rare, and everything.

    Okay, John, all we need to cure cancer is an idea — since they are easy, may we have just one such, soon, please?

    John, bad ideas are easy, plentiful, and worthless. Good ideas are difficult, rare, and a lot if not quite everything. John, they pass out patents and Nobel prizes for good ideas — since you believe that ideas are easy, how many Nobel prizes do you have? John, a good idea is most of what is needed for a good STEM field Ph.D., and you have one of those, right?

    John, given a bad idea, sure, execution is difficult, rare, and everything. But given a good idea, execution should be routine and low risk.

    John, if at Hoover Dam, execution were difficult, rare, and everything, then the project would be risky, too risky to put at risk many downstream people if the dam filled and then burst. John, the execution of Hoover Dam had to be ROUTINE.

    Hopefully Hank and John are very different.


    Dear God, please reward my darling with the fruits of his labor. Please, God. He’s trying so hard. Tell me what I can do to help.

    Yup, she’s a good wife. Too many wives would grab the kids, rush out the door, jump in the SUV, and drive to they aren’t sure where, to somewhere, maybe to their sister’s, back to Mommy, etc. For a wife from a wealthy family, with her parents having contempt for her husband, she’d likely head home. They’d get a high end divorce lawyer, end the marriage, and then she’s start going with her girlfriends to bars.

    Pete’s got one thing going for him: He found a good wife.

    The company occupied cubes in a concrete-floored warehouse,

    Likely darned GOOD! And if not an old warehouse, then maybe an old factory or shopping mall.

    Likely just dirt cheap; lots of space; solid floors able to take any load for, say, a server farm; likely good plumbing for the rest rooms and a kitchenette; likely enough electrical power to drive, say, punch presses and a dozen arc welding robots and, thus, plenty of electrical power for Pete’s startup. No issue about cosmetics, e.g., can run power and signal cables on overhead runways.

    Likely lots of parking, and when get some positive cash flow treat everyone to awnings over the parking spots; keep off spring rains, hot summer sun, and winter snows.

    The development seems slow — wire frame, coding, debugging, alpha test, beta test. With a small team, they should be able to skip or coalesce some of that. E.g., with the “accountability”, when a bug is found, look at who wrote, desk checked, unit tested, documented (complete with just what the heck that piece of the code is supposed to do, with the assumptions and boundaries very clear, etc.), and signed the code and scowl at them. With a good team with good management, there shouldn’t be a lot of bugs.

    Yes, for what they were doing crawling the Web, it can be the case that the guys writing the code to parse the data actually do not have solid specifications of what code to write. Why? Because no telling what the heck data is out there, data that violates the HTTP, HTTPS, HTML, HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, PDF, etc. syntax. So, to get some of the bugs out, might need some trial and error with a lot of real data to get the parsing, etc. just right.

    product was being tucked into it debutante gown.

    Seem to need “its debutante gown”.


    The week before the launch, marketing had a list of twelve thousand prospective disciples.

    these days likely a key part of the marketing for launch is to have a lot of virality with roles for Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.

    If at the beginning of Ghost Rider the goal had been a $2 billion company, as IPO, M&A, or whatever, anytime within years, then the original investors gave up way too soon, the $4.5 million Pete spent was chump change, and Pete didn’t spend the money too fast. Indeed, having working, functioning sales offices in NYC, SF, etc. might have resulted in even faster growth than Silent Night got and an even better offer from Google.

    Uh, 2 billion over 4.5 million is 2 thousand over 4.5 or

    2000 / 4.5 = 444

    So, if there was just one chance in 444 that Ghost Rider could have gotten a $2 billion exit at all soon, then the $4.5 million was not too much.

    That with Ghost Rider Pete spent the $4.5 million and still went to market with a sick product is a bad sign. Or, sure, Pete was spending money too fast, but have to remember also his product quality sucked!

    Ghost Rider was in progress for 3 years? Gee, that’s $1.5 million a year to pay for the lawyers, the BoD expenses, the offices, business insurance, Internet connections, office utilities, computers, the servers to crawl the Web, office furniture, travel, recruiting, salaries and benefits, etc. That doesn’t leave much for salaries and benefits for the staff; maybe everyone including Pete was working cheap in which case maybe he did partly have a “lean” organization.

    Still, of course, have to be careful when spending money.

    Nice story. Nice ending.

  3. Good advice. I spend most of mh day teaching writing, and what’s said here agrees with most of what I’ve experienced and read. I’ll pass this along to my students this fall. I may add one of your Scribd stories to my summer online intro to fiction course if it’s ok with you.

  4. This is the exact truth of it. I had one poem that I sent out over 100 times, over the course of 10 years (back in the day when simultaneous submissions were not allowed) before it got published. I also was part of a women’s writer’s group that had one woman who was such a bitch I wanted to ice pick her eyes out. Man, the good old days.

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