[0:00:00.1] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
So this is the episode that I’ve been waiting for, which is where I get to tell Shawn that the draft is done, and this isn’t of course the final draft. I have to get feedback from Shawn, and I’ve got to send it to him because I literally finished it right before we recorded this. We have copy editing and lots of work, but I feel like for the first time I finished the draft that will be the book. Again, lots of changes.
I was excited to tell that to Shawn, to talk about it and to just get his feedback on what’s next. Now that this draft is done, what’s the next few months going to look like? I’m excited about that. Hopefully you are too, and I think it will be helpful as you listen in on what he says is going to be coming in the next few weeks and months.
So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:09.8] TG: So Shawn, we always record this a week before it comes out. So it’s the 4th of April. You told me I had to have my draft done by 20th of April, but I finished it this morning.
[0:01:25.7] SC: Wow!
[0:01:25.7] TG: Literally like 10 minutes before we got on the call, I was like writing the last paragraph. So it’s done. I haven’t sent it to you, because I just finished it, but I just have a bunch of questions now of like what to do now. So the first one is I came in at just under 32,000 words and now I’m worried that it’s not long enough. That’s my first question, is like do I need to add to it or is like 32,000 words still like an okay size for a book?
[0:01:57.8] SC: Well, here is my philosophy about word count and a lot of people disagree with this, but I think I’m right. I don’t really care about word count. What is the most important is that people have a cathartic experience reading the book. The War of Art I think is maybe — It’s definitely under 20,000 words. It might be 22, and a lot of people when we first published the War of Art said, “What is this? Some of these paragraphs are only one sentence. I mean, some of these chapters are only one sentence.” That’s kind of the point. We’re trying to eliminate stuff that nobody cares about.
So a 32,000 word book, I would much rather read that and pay $5 extra than to have to read a 500 page book that has 32,000 words of real content in it.
So I don’t really care about the page length, I mean the word count, as long as there’s a beginning, middle and end to the story and it’s a comprehensive arc that provides a cathartic experience. I mean, The Old Man in the Sea, which Scott Hemingway, his Nobel Prize, I think it’s 32,000 words. That’s fine. It’s absolutely fine.
[0:03:12.0] TG: Yeah. It was an interesting thing finishing this, because once we got the introduction right and the theme right and then I wrote the first, I think it was 9,000 words and send it to you and you’re like, “Yup! You’re on the right track.” I just started sprinting. I had one day I did like 3,500 words. A couple of days I did 2,200 words just trying to get it done, because you’re like, “Well, April 20th, we got to have it locked by April 30th. That gives me 10 days to get you feedback back and for you to make changes.”
I’m thinking like, “Yeah, but that’s like you and Steve,” who he’s been writing a little bit longer than me and you guys had been working together a long time. I’m like, “I just want to give myself plenty of time to go back-and-forth with you.”
What was interesting is I have a beginning, I have a middle, I have an end and I even had a middle of my middle build show up at just the right time too. It was very weird writing this because I had — I basically moved all of the first draft into a new script or project in the trashcan so that it wouldn’t be counted in the overall word count. I would just say, “Okay. What happened next? I would pick a tool that I’d written before and then I would just sit there and think about, “Well, how did I learn this? What got me into this?” and I kept going like we talked about before, like, “What painful thing led me to this realization?” and something would always come to me.
In fact like at one point, I was driving in thinking, “Okay. I’m going to work on the book this morning,” and I thought, “I wonder if I’m out of like dark stories. I’m worried that like I opened with the dark story. I have some good dark stories in the beginning. What am I going to do?” I sat down and then I remembered this thing I haven’t thought about in years, and like my hands were shaking as I typed it. I’m like, “I’ve got plenty — I had to start cutting out dark stories.” So it’s done, but I literally haven’t read it. The only pieces I read were like wherever I left off in my last writing session just to kind of know where to pick up in the next one.
Should I spend some time reading back through it and trying to fix things or like find a hole and fix that or should I just send it to you as is?
[0:05:31.2] SC: I think just send it to me as is, because the process by which we have created this thing is a series of like — Let me just start at the beginning, because I think it’s important for people to kind of understand how projects develop and the turning points, etc., etc.
So at the very beginning, maybe two years ago you said to me, “I’ve got this great idea for this book, which is really about sort of the practicalities of things that you can do when you are engaged in the War of Art. What Steve did in the War of Art was to really give the big mythical big picture landscape of the world, and it’s sort of like the fools cap page of the creative process so that people who get stuck know that they’re not just stocks, they’re just facing some resistance.
What you said to me is, “Look. I devoured the War of Art. It’s one of my number one books, and what I did is I looked at my own life through the prism of the War of Art and wrote down the things that I actually did to keep myself moving when I was facing a lot of resistance. What do you think about that as a he book?” I said, “That’s a great idea for the book.”
So the next stage that you did is you compiled all of your tools and you wrote them down and you gave very clear explanations of what they were. Then you said, “Here’s my thing,” and I said, “This is just a laundry list of tools. You need to sort of put a narrative arc on this thing so that people will be able to remember the tools in the context of a story.” So over the past year in between working on your novel, we were talking about the big idea nonfiction project.
Just to take a really big superhuman step backwards, that process that I just described was you had sort of this fantastical idea in the right side of your brain. Now the right side of our brains are the places where sort of unconscious collects. So you had this idea that you think explaining how you got through difficult resistance would help other people. So that’s just a generic sort of ball of all kinds of ideas and you threw that in the left side of your brain and you said — The left side of your brain went to work and I said, “I know how to fix this. I’ve got 50 tools that I used to get out of my thing.” So the left side of your brain started organizing the tools in a way that you thought would be coherent and practical, and then you presented me with the process of moving that idea from the right side of your brain into the left and then you wrote 50 tools that were — I don’t know. That might’ve been a 40 or 50,000 word manuscript.
Then I said, “Look. You’ve got to go back to the right side of your brain and tell a story.” So that’s what we’ve been doing, and you kept rewriting the introduction. I kept saying to you, “You have to write a story in the introduction of your book, because you’ve got to hook. You’ve got to hook those people to come in to this world so that they will want to have the energy to move through those 50 tools. Nobody wants to go into a hardware store and inventory tools for 3-1/2 hours, because it’s just not very interesting.” “Here’s a screwdriver. Oh! That’s nice. Here’s a wrench. Okay. This is what you do with the wrench. This is what you do with the screwdriver. Here’s what you do with the saw.” After a good 10 minutes you’d go, “You know what? I’ve got a leave. I’ve got to go get a cup of coffee, because this is driving me crazy.”
So the trick is to use the tools in a story so that people are learning about the tools without knowing they’re learning about the tools. So that was the sticking point, the very rough friction that it took 15 months for you to figure out. When you did figure it out, it made perfect sense, and that was two weeks ago, three weeks ago when you finally said, “Okay. I am going to tell this story of my all is lost moment when things were a mess and how I pulled myself out of that, and I’m going to use that as my hook.”
So once you do that, then the right side of your brain was able to chip away, chip away all those tools and then what you’ve been doing over the last three weeks is taking dictation from the synthesis of the right side of your brain pumping story into the left side of your brain intermingling of the 50 tools with the story. So when you were describing, “Oh! I just took all my tools and I put them in the trash box of my Scrivner file and then I just would go pick through the trash. That would trigger something in me and then I just bang it out.”
What that trash heap was were the tools that you used to overcome obstacles in your own life. So that trigger pushed your right side of the brain to push the story into the left side of your brain, and that’s why it felt — The muse was like, “Yes. This is exactly what you have to do, Tim, and here you go,” and it just flowed out of you.
That’s why I said, “Just send me what you’ve written, because I suspect a lot of the problems we have as writers is discovering our voice,” and a lot of people will say, “Oh! Once you discover your voice, it’s easy,” and that’s kind of true, but what I think happens is that once that synthesis of right side going into the left side and intermingling and spilling out a story that’s very personal, that the voice becomes very clear and it’s as if the voice within you is being expressed without you thinking about it, so you type faster than you think or something like that.
I want to read that, because your voice — What I often do as an editor is go, “Oh my gosh! This is all over the place. It’s not making sense. This is a strange syntax. Let me just fix all these up,” and then I start typing and re-triggering and then it reads as if there’s like somebody who knows language very well, fixing somebody’s stream of consciousness writing, and the perfect place is when the stream of consciousness has its own almost music to it so that an editor like me reads it and goes, “Not sure I’d use that word that way there, but it works. Next sentence. Not sure I’d ended like that, and then before I know it, I’m just reading the thing and go, “Oh my gosh! I forgot to edit the book. Let me go back and go through it again.” That’s when I knew — No. That’s not to say I didn’t tweak some of the stuff that you sent me before, but it wasn’t like, “Oh my gosh! I have to completely rewrite Tim’s thing. He’s not getting it.” So I forgot what the original question was, but I hope I answered it.
[0:12:53.8] TG: Well, you answered it. It was basically do I just export and send it to you or do I need to go back through and do some work before I send it your way? So I feel, like I told you before, I usually know when I’m sending you something that’s not there yet, but I don’t know what to do. When I’m sending you something that’s like, “Yeah, I nailed it. I got it,” and that’s what I feel like with this, is like the books there, we’ll have some work to do over the next month, but I know it’s there.
So I’m moving into the part of the project mentally where I feel very comfortable, which is just a shit load of to do’s. So one of those has been — We have the title, which is running down a dream and we’ve done an initial cover of it, and it’s similar to the other black Irish books of Steve’s of the War of Art and do the work where it’s block lettering with kind of one image as a representation, and we came up with sneakers, something like old kind of used sneakers, and I’ve been wanting to try out something like a trophy, and old trophy, a little Buddha statue, and then what was the other one? Oh! A roadmap.
So I used this service I found five years ago called PickFu, where you can basically pit things together like do A-B testing. So I was like, “Okay. Which book would you read?” and I was like, “This one or this one?” and I had different pictures. The sneakers won out, which I’m upset about because I really wanted the Buddha, but we both knew it wasn’t going to work, but now I have data to back it up.
But then you had also sent me an email week or so ago saying maybe I should have like the check in there, the check that my parents sent me that I talked about in the introduction. I was worried that like if we’re going to do something that’s symbolic, shouldn’t it be something that’s part of the payoff of the book instead of the beginning hook? So I was just wondering like, “Do you think we should just stick with the sneakers because the data is kind of moving that way anyway, or should we look at this idea of using a check there instead?”
[0:15:01.3] SC: This is a really one of those questions that a publisher. I’m going to sort of put it on my publisher hat now. A publisher has to think about the cover and the title and the subtitle in a completely different way than the writer does, and the reason why is because it’s sort of like this great line that Steve used to tell me when he worked in advertising, is that they would have — A client would come in, they would finally get the business, and the client would come in with the new product and they would tell all the advertising people in the room what it was, why it’s so great and how important it was to the company, and they would all nod. Then the client would leave the building and then the head of the advertising department would look at everybody and go, “Now how do we sell this piece of shit?” It kind of like the crass attitude that you have to take when you’re a publisher, like what’s going to work best? What are we trying to accomplish? What is the mission here?
So when we came up with the title, Running Down a Dream, the mission was we need to reach people who have a dream, right? What is a dream? A dream is a fantasy of a future that is better than the present. That’s what a dream it. I have a dream that one day __. So what we’re basically saying is this is the process by which you move from a place that is not ideal right now to a place that you consider more ideal in the future. We’re going to use the metaphor of running.
Together, we were coming up with a million titles that just never really clicked until I was thinking about Tom Petty and a bunch of his work after he died, and I remember that song Running Down a Dream, and it’s a great song and I said — A lot of the great titles out there have already been — Somebody else has already come up with them. The great thing about titles is that you can’t copyright a title. You can reuse it and it seems so thematically on the money that I suggested it to you and you liked it too. I think running down a dream implies a process. It implies hard work and it implies sweat and it doesn’t say like, “Taking a warm bath and thinking about a dream.” It says running down a drink, right?
Okay. So that’s good. I think the title is good but, again, when you’re a publisher, you just have to keep thinking this. It’s like a rune, like one of those things. What is my purpose? What am I doing? You ask yourself constantly and you always try and find an argument against it. Okay, so then the next thing is what kind of image do we put on here? One of the very first principles of graphic design that Chip Kidd, who’s a great designer, he tells people this all the time. Don’t have a stop sign on a book and have stopped in the title, because you’re just reinforcing something that is already clearly stated in the title.
To have running shoes is sort of like, “I don’t know. We have running down a dream and then we have running shoes.” Isn’t that really sledgehammer this whole concept of running?” I kind of feel like maybe it is. Then I start saying to myself, “Well, what’s the alternative thing?” Yeah, we could do a Buddha, because we contemplate ourselves and then we go for what we want. That could work. We could do a roadmap, which means like coming up with a plan and then executing it. We could come up with a trophy. All those things that you tried are interesting and it’s a good idea that you went and saw what people’s reactions to those were, because we want to know how people initially, their initial gut reaction to the cover is a very, very important thing.
So the fact that the running shoes despite the title still won, to me it sounds like it’s probably okay. Sometimes we need the sledgehammer. Sorry Chip Kidd, but sometimes we do need the sledgehammer, and especially when you are dealing with creativity, which often gets into the realm of beautiful flowers and contemplative things and things that are not really specific. A lot of titles for books on creativity are strong, but then the imagery is very sort of soft and contemplative. The point that we’re trying to make with your book is that the creative process, once you plan the dream, you have the vision, then it really becomes executing a series of actions to move you from the unbearable present to the very nice future.
So having the running shoes is specific. It’s very specific. If you don’t read the title, you see running shoes and you go, “Oh! This is about working hard. This is about going on a run, and these shoes are worn out. So this is about somebody who goes on a lot of runs. So I’d like that image.
Now, another thing occurred to me while I was reading the first 10,000 words of your book a couple of weeks ago that also put up a little bug in my ear. The right side of my brain started clicking. It was the concept of the check, because I think the concept of the check is a very, very important one for you to bring up in your book, and the reason why is that often times — You and I, I know you’re going to relate to this, because when you are the kind of practical person who comes up with some sort of method or series of steps in order to move from the unbearable present to the much better future, a lot of people when they hear of this, they say the first reaction is, “Oh! That won’t work for me because of X, Y, and Z.”
So your methodology will only work for people who have black hair, have Irish dissent and live in the eastern United States. So that’s not going to work for me, because I have blonde hair and I live in Scandinavia. It’s all I can do to say, like, “Let me explain something to you. You have to create your own methods, and I created this method because you might find a lot of things that will be helpful in your creating your own method.” Will this perfectly work for you all the time? No, but what it will show you is the process by which you make a method. Not necessarily the method itself, but the process by which you think about your future.
So when I read about your check and this wonderful gift that your parents gave you, and you’re very lucky to have parents like you do, when you were in your all is lost moment and you couldn’t pay your mortgage, you called them and said, “Hey, I’ve really hit it and I’m in deep crap. Can you help me out?” and they sent you a check.
So you could just deposit that check and get yourself out of a big, big problem very quickly or you could say, “You know what? Let me see if I can solve this problem myself and I’ll hold on to this check. Maybe I can use this check later on when I can’t solve it, but let me at least try and solve the problem.”
So the check became this lifeline to you. This thing, that was the last best gasp at saving your dignity. You didn’t want to burn it up quickly. T the check became this thing where you’re like, “Do I want to burn up my check? No. I think I can last another three days and I’ll work really hard for three days and then I’ll ask myself if I have to burn up the check again and maybe I won’t have to.”
The check became, for me, when I was reading your think, this really important totem of, “You know what? It’s not that bad. I still have power within me so that I don’t have to use this magic bullet. So I’m just going to keep my magic bullet.”
So the check became a symbol to me of the order that your parents gave you as a little boy. They made a pact with you. They said, “Tim, we will always be there for you. You know what? You’re going to hit some real roadblocks in your life. You’re going to stumble in some real chaotic times. You’re going to really have a lot of self-doubt. What we want you to know is that we will always be there for you. So you’ve got that. Put that in your backpack and off you go. Go to college. Go get married. Have your own kids.”
So you called them on that and you said, “Mom and dad, remember that thing where you said you would always be there for me? Well, I’m going to test you. I need you now,” and they came through. Then you looked at that check and you said to yourself, “Do I want to burn up that goodwill now? Because they’re okay if I do. Maybe I don’t have to.” The check becomes this really great symbol of everybody is born with a gift. That check was the gift within you and you didn’t want to burn it up.
So these all stumbles back to how do we sell this piece of shit? What I’m saying is let’s sell authenticity. Authenticity is one of those things that is a rare commodity. It’s very freaking valuable today, because everybody sells out very quickly. So if we can establish authenticity in the packaging and we deliver authenticity in the narrative, boy, wouldn’t that be something?
But here’s where it can get sticky. Does the check misread the title? Running Down a Dream and a check on the cover? It’s interesting. Yeah, but it doesn’t make much sense until you read the book. So the only alternative is to change the title to match the check and push this moment and hope that people say, “What is that check on this cover? Isn’t that interesting?” or do we go sledgehammer? And here’s where I came out. I’m sorry this is a long monologue, but I think it’s important because for all those aspiring publishers out there, these are the conversations you have to have internally with yourself all the time, because they will tell you probably your best chance at reaching the greatest number of people.
So here’s another sort of thing that you always say. Here’s like a little publishing trick, is when you have a literary novel, meaning the line by line writing is very florid and beautiful and incredibly well-crafted, but it’s sort of internal story about someone changing. It’s somebody like the accidental — Anne Tyler. She writes really, really well. Her line by line stuff is terrific. Oftentimes what you do with a writer like that is you give them a commercial look. So you zig when the reader thinks it’s a zag, and that will appeal to a broader market, because she’s a great storyteller if you give it a commercial cover, and a commercial cover means big type small image, let it go. A literary novel is often these very elliptical beautiful, women in veils and all kinds of strange sort of ethereal imagery, and a commercial title is a gun on the cover with death by gun. That’s really sledgehammer imagery. So you often try and package literary as commercial, and commercial is literary.
So like a John Grisham novel after seven huge bestsellers, he wrote a book called I think The Painted House, which was more of a sort of a coming-of-age story, and it gave it sort of more of a literary feel. Anyway, so the reason why I bring that up is that your book, it’s not like 50 things to do to get better at what you’re doing. It’s now become a story. It’s more literary in a sense.
So if we have a literary cover matching a literary story, it could not work. Also, the market for yours needs to be told what this is as soon as possible. This is all a very long-winded way of saying is that I think we have the right cover.
[0:28:00.3] TG: With the sneakers.
[0:28:01.5] SC: With the sneakers. Yes.
[0:28:02.9] TG: Okay. I’m happy with that. I definitely don’t want to change the title. I love the title. When I told Ryan Holliday the title, he was like, “Oh! That’s a fucking great title.” I’m like — I felt like I could’ve been like projecting into it so he didn’t say this, but I think I sensed just a tiny bit of jealousy on his part, which was a really good sign for me.
Yeah, I’m happy with that. My thing with these sorts of things is when I’m getting squarely up in my head, I just trust the data and I just tested it to several hundred random people that read one or more books a month. They told me the sneakers was the way to go, which is what I need. I need a bunch of people that don’t know me, don’t know the book to like what they see. So I’m happy with that. We can put that to bed.
So the next thing is — So I’m going to send you the — I’m going to send you the manuscript, and I think in a different episode we’ll talk about some more of the publishing stuff about like thinking through blurbs, thinking through design, thinking through website, thinking through positioning and how we’re going to launch and all that kind of stuff. For now, we have till the end of this month to get this book locked so we can publish it on time in July.
So what is the next few weeks going to look like as far as — I’m going to send you this manuscript. What’s going to happen between sending you the manuscript and then locking the manuscript?
[0:29:35.9] SC: Well, I suspect it will take me probably a good 10 to 15 hours to get through and give you my notes. Oftentimes if the book is in pretty good shape, I’ll just do track changes so that you can see my line edits. Usually what happens — I’ll tell you what happens with Steve, is when he sends me — Like I edited his books a couple weeks ago and he sent me what you’re sending me now, and then it took me about — I guess it was about a week or a week and half to get him back a file. That was my cut, slashes moves, all that stuff, and then he took another two days accepting changes, changing my changes and then he essentially locked the book. Then once he locked the book, he sent it to me. I looked through it. It was perfect. Then I emailed our handy-dandy copy editor, who’s a terrific copy editor in Texas named Amanda Brown.
So Amanda, I said, “Do you have time on your schedule?” and now she’s copyediting the book. I did tell her that another one was going to be on her way shortly. So after you and I lock it, it will go to Amanda to copyedit. What she will do is fix all the mistakes that you and I both missed, and there will be a lot of them. Trust me. Even when she’s done, when it goes — Okay, so after the copyediting process, It will go back to you, and she’ll have some questions for you, like, “Is this exactly what you wanted to say? I did this. Is this okay?” and then you’ll go through the — She’ll probably have 100 queries within the text for you to answer.
Then once you finish that and lock that and accept all the changes, then it will go to an interior designer. That process usually takes between 2 to 3 weeks to get all of it locked, then the designer will come up with a generic design. They’ll come up with their own design based upon sort of the black Irish sensibility which we’ve established, which sort of meets that Wart of Art kind of feel where you have chapter title in bold and then the text and then etc., etc.
Then after the design has been approved, then it goes back to Amanda to proofread it. She goes through it again, finds all the mistakes again, fixes all the mistakes. They go back to you again. This is called second pass, and then you will go through that to make sure that those are okay. Then it’s really locked. Then you go through the process of converting it to e-book files. Once you actually have a locked copyedited manuscript, then you can begin doing the audio files, which you will read this book yourself. I’ve got a big old spreadsheet that I’ll send you that has all these stages, but it really is a matter of locking down these moments and these hurdles.
[0:32:44.2] TG: At which version would you feel comfortable of me printing 100 copies so I can start sending it out to people that I want to get help promoting the book?
[0:32:55.6] SC: After copyediting, I would do that. Sometimes at the major houses when you’re trying to crash a book, you’ll even just bind up a manuscripts and then you’d put a note on the front of the manuscript, of the bound manuscript saying, “This is an uncorrected proof. Please check back if you quote anything from the book,” and then you can send those copies out. I would probably prefer that you wait until Amanda gets her very smart hands on it so we don’t make any stupid mistakes that people will call you on.
[0:33:29.3] TG: Like the first pass or the final pass?
[0:33:31.8] SC: The first pass.
[0:33:32.9] TG: Okay. So then I could print out 100 and I could just put on the cove the same thing of like of uncorrected proof even though it’s had one pass, but it’s not the final version.
[0:33:43.9] SC: Yes, exactly. You’ll find people who — When you run your own publishing house, you’ll find so many helpful people who will point out every copyediting mistake, every typo and they feel like, “Boy! You’re really unprofessional. You have a typo in here.” The reality is, is that yes, everything has a typo in it somewhere, and anyone who dedicates the life to finding the typos, I say, God bless you because you’re not leading a very meaningful life.
[0:34:18.3] TG: All right. I’ll get this to you and then we’ll get cranking on it.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:34:23.4] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you 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. 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, 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 Podcast and leaving a reading and review.
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