#241 – What is an Editor Brain vs Writer Brain?


[00:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you level up your craft as a writer. My name is Tim Grahl, and I’m a writer and the behind the scenes guy here at Story Grid. This podcast episode is hosted by Story Grid certified editor Kimberly Kessler, alongside Shawn Coyne, the founder of Story Grid and an editor with over 30 years of experience. 

In this episode, Kim and Shawn discuss the difference between the writing and editing brains. Before we jump in, I want to mention two things you might be interested in. First, I recommend you pick up a copy of Conventions and Obligatory Scenes by your podcast host Kimberly Kessler and Story Grid Publishing Editor-in-Chief Leslie Watts. In this book, Kim and Leslie provide the first comprehensive Story Grid guide to these essential elements of the writer’s craft. They teach writers precisely how each genre’s convention set up critical changes and how obligatory moments pay off those changes to meet readers’ expectations. You can get 20 off Conventions and Obligatory Moments in all of our books at storygrid.com/books with the coupon code PODCAST. 

Lastly, if you listen to this episode and think you might have an editor’s brain, you may want to join us for the next Story Grid Certified Editor training that is coming up this February. This provides in-depth training on how to start and grow your editing business. You can see all of the details at storygrid.com/certification. Okay, that’s all on the announcements, so let me turn it over to Kim and Shawn. 


[00:01:34] KK: Hi, Shawn. 

[00:01:35] SC: Hey, Kim. How are you?

[00:01:36] KK: I’m doing great. My husband came home early from his trip to New York City, so our house is much happier now that he is back. 

[00:01:46] SC: That’s great. 

[00:01:47] KK: He got to do a week of stand-up comedy fun, and then he got to record on the Gotham Stage, and we had all kinds of cool stuff. But then he found a cockroach in his hotel, and so he booked his flight home. He’s here now. 

[00:02:00] SC: New York, it takes and it gives, and it gives and it takes. 

[00:02:03] KK: If you can make it anywhere, right?

[00:02:05] SC: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. 

[00:02:07] KK: So what I wanted to pick your brain about this time is this idea of the editor brain versus the writer brain. This was something that came up during the Trinity Seminar, and it has really like just cracked open a whole new way of thinking and I would say some freedom for myself. I know other editors and writers that were at the seminar really feel the same way. So this idea that we have – There’s different ways of thinking, right? We have the way an editor thinks and the way a writer thinks. Now, we actually can do both things but we can’t do them both at the same time. So I would love for you to just kind of give us sort of an overview of this concept, this top-down thinking and this bottom-up thinking that you brought up at Trinity. 

[00:02:53] SC: Sure. This is going to take a little bit of a build out. So top-down is sort of taking a abstract notion and then shaving it down into its particular parts. So if you were to, say, think about a car, the gestalt of the car would be like it’s a truck. So that would be your top-down processing of that thing that moves on the road. Hey, that’s a truck. Then what you could do is say, “Well, what are the parts of the truck,” and you would say, “Well, it has an engine and it has these things.” You can really boil it down all to its constituent parts, and all those little parts come together, and they create a gestalt, which is a sum larger than the parts. 

So top-down is when you look at a phenomena and you get sort of a global aspect of what that phenomena is. Then you break down that global aspect into its constituent parts. Why? Why would you want to do that? So that you can figure out how to piece those pieces together, such that it will come together and form the global whole in a really dynamic emergent way. That’s where kind of the idea of the sum greater than its parts comes from. It’s when you take a small unit of organized pieces, and they somehow come together to form something greater than the whole. So the easy metaphor I always use is you take some peanut butter, take some chocolate. You put them together and you get a sum greater than the whole, a Reese’s peanut butter cup. 

[00:04:32] KK: Yes. The best creation ever made, yes. 

[00:04:35] SC: Okay. So when we’re looking at a phenomena from the top-down, let’s say we’re looking at the peanut butter cup, we would say, “Wow, check out this thing. I tasted it. It’s amazing. It kind of has these constituent parts in it. There’s chocolate on the outside and there’s peanut butter in the middle. But when you take a bite, you get this perfect balance that is greater than the sum of its parts. So what you would do is you would analyze the chocolate. You would analyze the peanut butter and you would say, “Well, what is the ratio of chocolate to peanut butter in each bite that gives me that certain kind of phenomena, right?” 

[00:05:09] KK: Euphoric feeling, yes. 

[00:05:11] SC: Yeah. Then you would say, “Well, I want to create my own peanut butter cup.” So you would take that information, that scientific analysis of the constituent parts, and you would put them together. Through a process of trial and error, you would finally land on the thing that would be organized and come together to create the essence of the peanut butter cup. So the structure of the thing from the top-down, you would say, “Hey, that’s a peanut butter cup.” Then you would say the organization of it is it’s got constituent parts of, let’s say, 48% chocolate and 52% peanut butter, and there’s a binding material in there called oil or something. 

So those would be your organizational parts, but the essence, the function of the peanut butter cup is to be a peanut butter cup taste in your mouth. So what you have there is I just went through an Aristotelian kind of structure function and organization. The structure is a peanut butter cup, the organization is peanut butter and chocolate, and the essence is the peanut butter cupness of that experience. 

[00:06:19] KK: Peanut butter cupness, new favorite Shawn-coined term. 

[00:06:23] SC: So the editor is very much in that realm. They’re looking at things top down and they’re saying to themselves, “Okay, I’ve got this.” Let’s call it a genre. It’s this certain kind of story. It’s a peanut butter cup kind of story. So let me figure out what the constituent parts of that peanut butter cup story is, and then I can help the writer reorganize the pieces of it so that it can emerge into the function of what that genre is all about. Now, okay, so that’s the editor’s mind. It’s looking from a gestalt, meaning the whole. Then it’s delineating the pieces that make up the whole. That’s top-down. 

All right, bottom up is different bottom-up is different. Bottom-up is when you don’t quite have the whole yet. You have a goal state of the whole but you don’t know quite how to put it all together yet. So what you would do is you – Let’s say you’re a writer and you want to write a crime story but you’ve never written a prime story before. So what you do is you go to an editor or to a source that says, “These are the following things you need in a crime story.” So you lay them out in the list, and those are your organizational pieces. You’ve got these conventions and obligatory moments. You’ve got these values that you need to embed. You’ve got these things called scenes. You’ve got these things called beats. You’ve got all of this stuff. It’s a very, very long list. 

That leaves you kind of like a little bit handcuffed because you don’t know which level of this peanut butter cup should I start. Should I start at the outline thing? Yeah, I can do that and I’ll do the macro outline. Okay, great. Well, I’ve got a macro outline, but nobody wants to read a macro outline. It’s not going to excite, intrigue, or bring them the catharsis, right? So then you go, “Okay. Well, I guess what’s the next level I could do?” Well, this is the thing that we’re doing now at Story Grid, which I think is extraordinarily exciting, is that we’re bottom-upping now. What bottom-upping is is that the things that you need to do to generate text, the things you need to do to write. 

So what I’ve always said, I’ve sort of lost over it because the biggest problem that I noticed in story, prior to now, was that people really didn’t have a gestalt understanding of even what a story was. They had no conception of genre. They didn’t know that there were categories and kinds and values and all that. So I really had to lay out the big macro gestalt of what story was before I could get down to the quantum level of construction of story from the ground up. We’re at that place. 

The Trinity Seminar, I’m glad you brought it up, that’s where I introduced the next iteration of Story Grid, which is really the bottom-up process, which is the practical techniques that you use to generate story. So what are those? Well, at very bottom, the fundamental unit of story that I’ve always said is the scene. So if you cannot write a scene, you’re not going to be able to write 60 consecutive scenes that build to excitement intriguing climax, right? So if you can’t execute a single scene, you’re not going to be able to execute 60 of them. 

The fundamental skill – Again, what we want to do when we’re learning something new is define the fundamental skills that we need so that we can build those skills up into capacities, and then build those capacities up into competencies and then eventually into an overall structural functional organization that makes sense. All right, so the fundamental skill, what’s that? Well, it’s construction of a scene. Okay, cool. Well, how do we do that? Well, this is bottom-up, right? So what we want to think about when we’re thinking about the bottom-up is, well, what’s a story again? Well a story is a simulation of reality. Okay, so what is the fundamental kind of unit of reality? Oh, boy. Well, I guess that would be something like something happens, and we have to deal with it. 

[00:10:41] KK: Yes. So much happenings and so much dealings. 

[00:10:43] SC: Yeah. Just to be a little BF skinner here, what we get are stimulus. We get stimulus from the sun. Let’s say we go outside, and it’s very sunny. Well, the stimulus of the sun is very – It hurts our eyes, so what do we do? We get a pair of sunglasses to respond to that stimulus. Now, we’re not thinking about the stimulus anymore because we’ve metabolized that problem. So at the very bottom of a story, at the very bottom of a scene is stimulus. Something happens that we didn’t expect. 

[00:11:17] KK: So it’s like a stimulus response is like cause and effect. There’s something that happens, and then someone else responds to it. I mean, is it –

[00:11:27] SC: Yeah, essentially. 

[00:11:28] KK: I guess the stimulus response is different than cause and effect. 

[00:11:31] SC: It isn’t. Yeah, let’s just use that. I mean, I don’t want to get too technical about it but I will say that if you think of – Let’s just take a step back and think of the following thing. Let’s pretend that there’s a circle, and there’s things that are inside the circle and things that are outside the circle. So the perimeter of the circle would be sort of like the boundary between what’s outside the circle and what’s inside the circle. So the boundary is kind of this really cool cellular wall kind of thing. If we think of our body as kind of that circle, that’s kind of an interesting idea. 

So think of this. We’ve got this circle that surrounds our being, and things come through the circle that enter our internal being. So those things are stuff like food and water and air and all kinds of cool stuff. What happens is when the food comes through across the boundary, the internal parts inside of our circle take that food, and they convert it into energy so that all the processes inside the circle continue to operate. What I just described there and then what happens is that the food is processed into energy, and the energy is used to move the circle in and around the world. So it motorizes choices of the circle. Then it also exports those choices as responses to the inputs of energy. 

It’s a really cool thing. You have an input into a system, and then you have an output from the system. The input is what is called stimulus, and then the output is response, and what happens inside that circle is kind of in cybernetic theory. It’s called the black box. That dynamical system where you have an input, it’s processed, and then there’s an output. Guess what happens. The output just doesn’t fizz into nothingness, right? It goes back into the arena, into the environment in which that circle is living. Then the external part of that arena processes the response and sends back another input. So you get this really cool bio feedback loop where the responses of the circle become the inputs to the arena. Then the arena stimulates based upon that input and responds with a stimulus inside the circle again. 

It’s this really cool dynamical system that has causes and effects in it, right? So there’s a continuity because, guess what happens, there’s before the input and after the input, right? The cause could be the input into the system. The system generates a series of possibility of choices based upon the input, and then it outputs one of those choices. Then that output is the effect of the cause of the input. Does that make sense?

[00:14:46] KK: Yeah. Then that output is going to lead to more effects in the larger –

[00:14:52] SC: That’s right. 

[00:14:53] KK: The larger circle. So what I just thought of, and this is kind of out of nowhere, but I was just wondering if just this idea of inputs and outputs and cause and effect, and it becomes like you’re saying of this biofeedback loop, and of course, we’re talking about stories ultimately. So I was wondering all of a sudden if like an arch plot, an arc plot – You know what I mean, that one versus like a mini plot. I was just wondering if almost like arc plots have a much tighter biofeedback loop that create the cause and effect all the way from beginning to end, and almost like mini plots are you can’t necessarily see the cause and effect as obviously. They’re almost like happening in smaller circles, like almost like linearly, like next to each other but not necessarily directly affecting one another. I don’t know if that makes sense. 

[00:15:45] SC: No. I know where you’re going with that, and that makes sense. The arc plot generally is about a single protagonist, right? So it’s a single circle. An arc plot is about the transformation of the internal processes of that circle from one way of processing the energy into another one. So the arc plot concerns the transformation of a single circle. The mini plot, however, is a bunch of circles, and each of those circles, they almost represent different domains of a larger circle. I know this is very abstract, but it’s sort of like a mini plot society novel, right? You would have a cast of characters of – 

Let’s say it’s the Fellowship of the Ring, right? Or it’s The Lord of the Rings. Now, what we have in The Lord of the Rings is we have like six or seven characters that embody certain psychic representations of a greater whole, which is actually part of Frodo. So the beauty of The Lord of the Rings is we have this simultaneous art plot of Frodo and Sam. Sam is really the heroic – Well, anyway, I don’t want to get into a deep analysis of The Lord of the Rings, other than say that you have –

[00:17:02] KK:  Yes, you do. Don’t lie. 

[00:17:05] SC:  What you have is this really cool situation where what Tolkien did is that he combined an arc and a mini. So the mini plot representations are all the supplemental sub characters in the fellowship. Then Frodo and Sam are sort of this really cool kind of luminary shadow combo that serves as a single unit for the whole. But the arc plot, mini plot concept is a very meta concept, right? 

Here’s kind of like one of the things you mentioned to me before we got on the call is that you personally, Kim, have a tendency to go up the stack and to top-down a lot of stuff. So you have a very strong abstract editorial mind, right? What you just did is representative of what you said to me earlier because what you did is I was talking about the micro scene, and you took the micro scene, and you went all the way to the top of the stack, and you said, “Oh.” An arc plot for an entire novel would be something like this, right?

[00:18:06] KK: Yes. That is exactly what happens to me all the time. 

[00:18:10] SC: Right. So it’s not to say that what you did – It’s incredibly insightful, and it brings so many wonderful conclusions and ideas. But as a generating engine to create words on the page, it can become a burden. 

00:18:25 KK: Yes. Like the ring around my neck. You’re right. It is. 

[00:18:29] SC: Yeah.


[00:18:32] KK: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. If your heart is set on telling an internal genre story but is struggling with how to get it on the page, I invite you to connect with me for a free consult at kimberkessler.com. That’s K-I-M-B-E-R-K-E-S-S-L-E-R.com. For everything Story Grid-related, check out storygrid.com, and make sure to pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. Also, make sure you go to storygrid.com/books to see all the titles that we’ve released through Story Grid Publishing. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you’d like to reach out to us directly, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcasts and leaving a rating and review. Thanks so much for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We’ll see you next week.



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