[0:00:00.2] 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 of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
This episode is kind of a two twofer. So for the first half of the episode we talk a little bit about my nonfiction writing and some decisions I have to make there. I’m working on a second edition of a book, but then that kind of got blown up, and so I was asking Shawn advice about kind of the next steps with some of my how-to writing. So he gave me some really good things to think about. For those of you thinking about writing series or about second edition of books or how you’re structuring thinking about the order of books you’re going to write and so on, I think it would be really helpful.
Then we get into the second half of the episode, we get back into my novel, and I’ve done a lot of work on the beginning hook kind of cleaning it up, getting it ready. So we walked through some of Shawn’s feedback on that, his advice and what I need to keep doing. So it was really good. So, again, this is kind of a twofer episode. Hope you enjoy it. Let’s jump in and get started.
[00:01:24] TG: So Shawn, I finished – We’ve spent the last couple months going through my manuscript, looking at it from all the spreadsheet and the hero’s journey and all that kind of stuff. Then last week we talked about me going through the beginning hook to start weaving it together and trying to get it to a point where we can say the manuscript is now ready to go through the editing – The other editing process or whatever.
So I sent you that, but before we get into that, I have a completely unrelated question for you about my other books. So I wrote my first book, your first 1,000 copies, almost it came out – June will be six years ago, and it was my first book. It was about book marketing. I was a full-time book marketing consultant at the time, and I’ve been wanting to write a second edition of it for years.
So I’ve started writing that and the way that I started writing it is I set up basically two people that are amalgamations of all of my clients and students and that kind of thing, and one is a fiction writer. One is a nonfiction writer, and I have like a full like back story and everything. The basic idea is the book is going to be me coaching them through all of these stuff that I teach people to do for building their platform and marketing.
So over the weekend I was teaching a workshop with some of my students and one of them has been following me since before that book came out. So seven, eight years, and he was like – He’s like, “That sounds like a completely different book,” and he’s a writer and has had some success and he’s like, “Why don’t you just make that a standalone book?” because I told him I’m writing the whole thing from scratch basically.
He’s like, “I would like to hear –” He said, “I liked the first book, because it was this very kind of how-to thing.” He’s like, “But this book sounds like a totally different book that would teach me the same stuff from a different angle.” He’s like, “To me, if you want to do a second edition of your first 1,000 copies, just go through and like clean it up and change it a little bit, but like leave it pretty much the same. Update anything.” He’s like, “And then this should be just a new book and you almost sell them as a package of like two different books.”
So then I started thinking, “Oh! Maybe he should,” because he was like – He’s like, “Just speaking as a fan of yours for a long time,” he’s like, “to me, that would be interesting standalone book. But I still want to be able to reference the original.” He’s like, “And if it’s going to be that different, is it really a second edition or is it a new book?”
So of course that throws me into this existential crisis about what I’m doing with this book, and he kept talking and I just thought, “I’m just going to ask Shawn what he thinks I should do,” because I do want to write this. I feel like it’s an interesting angle on it and it’s what I’ve been thinking for a while would be the second edition. But do you think there is value in just creating another book and going back to the original and just leaving it basically the same, just updating some stories, updating any advice that’s changed since I wrote it six years ago, but pretty much leaving it as is? What are your thoughts on that?
[00:05:03] SC: Well, I have a whole lot of thoughts about all of it. Just to answer the direct question first, yes, your friend is right. In fact, it’s probably three books. You’ve got your first thousand copies is the sort of reference book. Yeah, and he’s right. If you want to go back and clean up sentences and swap out information that has been updated but use the exact same format, the exact same structure so that – I think he’s right. So that’s number one.
The second edition of your first thousand copies should be your first thousand copies updated and enhanced, but using the exact same structure as the first book. So somebody who bought the first edition would buy this book and go, “Oh, yeah. This is exactly the same, except he’s updated everything in its – The pros is a little bit cleaner.” So that’s A.
The second question is, “If you are doing a book where you’re walking somebody through the process,” which just sounds like you are, “and you have two different target audiences, one is fiction writers and one is nonfiction writers?” For my money – And I’ve written a novel, I don’t want to read anything about nonfiction. I don’t want to read any ideas about your marketing for nonfiction, because basically what that’s going to do is it’ll just pop up questions in my head like, “Wow! I wonder if I could apply that to my fiction,” and then it gets all murky when I’m reading it. In fact, I’ll probably get irritated so much that I might even put the book down.
Alright, so I think you’re going to do two little mini books, one for the fiction writer and one for the nonfiction writer. Now, that’s my answer to the direct questions, and as you were talking, a whole bunch of other stuff came to my mind, and it has to do with the global publishing universe, right?
[00:07:28] TG: I did not mean to go that far with it.
[00:07:30] SC: No, it’s good. It’s good, because this speaks to a lot of the background things that we talk about in terms of know what Seth Godin talks about, which is people like us do things like this. That’s Seth Godin’s – If I had to boil down what Seth’s genius is, is that single phrase; people like us do things like this.
Essentially what he means by that is really, really super – Be super specific about who you’re trying to reach. If you can really focus on those people who really want what you have to offer, then that gives you the opportunity to be innovative, okay?
So I’m just going to take a short sidestep here and talk about when you, Steve, and I, and Kelly were discussing what to do about the Black Irish Bookstore. This is probably 18 months ago. We all sort of –We’re a little bit vague. We weren’t really sure until one point when Steve said, “You know what this story is? This isn’t a store for people who go to Amazon. We’re never going to satisfy people who go to Amazon looking for anything about everything.”
He said, “What this store is about, this is a store for writers and artists only. Those are the only people we really, really identify with, who we really speak to.” So when we redo this bookstore, that’s really got to be the first thing that people say, “A bookstore for writers and artists only.” Right?
So that really landed well with me, and I’m sure it did you and Kelly too, because once he said that, we’re like, “Oh! I totally get it. I know exactly what we are now,” and people like us do things like this. All right. So people like us, meaning you, me, Kelly and Steve, we’re writers and artists fans, right? We want to encourage people and to help them, A, except their chosen path of trying to create something fresh and new, and we want to help them level up their craft as they’re on their journey.
So all the books that we are really featuring and hitting hard on Black Irish Books Bookstore are those titles that help people do that. So now I’m going to take an even sider step here and talk about the jabs. So I don’t know, it must’ve been six years ago. Steve, again, came up with the idea of what he was calling six packs. He said, “A lot of my blog posts for writing Wednesdays, if you put them together in a six pack, they would really target a specific problem for writers and artists.” I said, “Yeah, we should definitely do these six packs,” and he said, “Yes.” Then we both kept looking at each other and saying, “How do we sell these things? What are they? What’s the unique selling proposition?” and it was something from the 1960s advertising world.
But anyway, it eventually dawned on us that the unique selling proposition was these are things you can read in 40 minutes. They’re laser-focused little jabs that fix a problem for you very quickly. So like on our podcast here, you get to ask those jab questions of me, right? Then we spent 40 minutes to an hour, and together we work through the problem and we end up at the end of each podcast with some work for you to continue to do in the week coming.
So that’s what kind of these jabs are, only they’re for the autodidact. Someone who’s sitting at their computer and they see a problem and they go, “I wonder what Pressfield would say about the inciting incident.” “Oh! Here’s his 40-minute thing on it, and it’s really good and it’s really helping me.”
So the jabs are these really great products that are not the traditional sort of Random House “book”. They’re different and they’re directly targeted for writers and artists only. So eventually when I was posing this problem to you and I’m like, “How are we going to sell these jabs?” What you came up with was, “Why don’t you do a subscription, and that way we can pull out the people who really care about Black Irish titles and we can really service them each month with a book. So each month they get a jab that’s a solution to a writers and artists problem.” So that’s what we did, and we launched that and it’s going wonderfully well. I’m very, very pleased with it.
Which only says to me what you’re talking about now, these two books, one for the nonfiction writer and one for the fiction writer, these are marketing problems. Now, our bookstore, the Black Irish Bookstore is for writers and artists only. Now, what problem do writers and artists have once they have a product? They have a problem marketing it, right?
[00:13:05] TG: Right.
[00:13:06] SC: So this could be a really interesting idea, right? So if we were to offer, say, Tim Grahl’s nonfiction writer’s book and Tim Grahl’s fiction writers marketing book and say they’re not 500 pages long. Say they’re very, very intense hundred-page long books, then those could be part of a larger program that’s directed toward our core audience, writers and artists only.
So the first thousand copies is sort of like the textbook from which these other things are going to grow, but nobody wants to read a textbook when they’ve got a problem that they want to solve in an hour, right?I don’t want to pick up Robert McKee’s book to find out what he thinks about the negation of the negation when I need to solve a problem in a scene. Now, will I get to the answer to that by doing that? Yeah, probably, but it’s going to take a long time to go through.
It’s like you’re leaving the level of analysis that you’re really working in in the moment. The scene level of analysis is much different than the global theoretical level of analysis that Robert McKee specializes in. Now, there’s certainly a time and a place for Robert McKee work, but at the time when you’re trying to deal with one specific problem in a scene, that can throw you off. So if you are marketing your novel and you’ve got the novel and you’re like, “What do I do now? I’m not sure I want to read your first thousand copies, because I don’t even want to think about who’s buying my first thousand copies. I just want somebody to say, “This is the first thing that you do when you have a product that’s a work of fiction to begin your marketing program.”
So that’s what I think your book would directly solve. That’s the problem people have that you can solve for them in a very direct way that isn’t going to cost them five hours of deep concentrated thinking. More like an hour of intense no note taking, “Oh! This is what I do.” Because that’s what I did when I read the first thousand copies five years ago or six years ago. I wanted to start storygrid.com and I’m like, “How the hell do I start this thing?” and then I found you and I’m like – And I read your book and then I saw that you offered a quickie audio course that would walk me from point A to point B and I would have a website at the end of it and I’m like, “I’ll try it. I don’t how to do it,” and I literally listened to all of your things. I did everything you said, and within two weeks I had storygrid.com up. I had scheduled all my blog posts, and that’s how it began.
So I think you can do the exact same thing in a small book for the fiction writer and the nonfiction writer and they will help people, and you never know, it might sell even more copies of your ground work, which is your first thousand copies. So we can have a publishing discussion offline about how to market these stuff later, but I think if you think of that, let’s not worry about the traditional model of book publishing, which is it’s got to be 225 pages at least. I’ve got to be able to put it up on Amazon. I’ve got to be able to do all that stuff now.
Now, yeah, you can do that, but wouldn’t it be interesting to have a place where writers and artists can come and they’re getting stuff that nobody else can get only from this particular laser-focused book publishing company. So I know that’s a very long answer to a pretty simple question, but I think you do need to think about what the purpose of the books are in the first place. Who do you want to reach? These are all marketing questions that you will make your readers consider themselves.
So I think that’s a really good plan and I think your friend was right. Those are – I think they’re two books, because I don’t want to read what a fiction writer’s going to do if I’m a nonfiction writer. Do you get it?
[00:17:44] TG: Right. So one of the things that I’ve seen –A friend of mine, Honoree Corder, has – She got started writing books, because she ended up as a single mom, and so she wrote this book about being a single mom – I’m going to butcher this probably a bit. But then she started writing like the single mom’s guide to dating again, or the single mom’s guide to staying fit, or whatever. So it became a series
So should it be something like that where like I have your first 1,000 copies and then it’s – I mean, we don’t have to call it your first 1,000 copies, but it’s like for fiction writers, for business book writers, for this. Is that kind of what you’re talking about?
[00:18:31] SC: That’s a marketing decision that can be made later.
[00:18:33] TG: Oh, okay.
[00:18:34] SC: There’s pluses and minuses to that. When you reference the groundwork in the titles of the sequels, often what happens is that you sell a fraction of the global number of the first thousand copies right? So that’s not good, because these two books, you don’t have to read your first thousand copies to get the goods. So what you want to do in my estimation is publish them as standalone products and you reference the groundwork in those books so that they know, “Oh! If I want to dig deeper, I can just go buy this other book. But for now, I just want to get this damn thing published. I’ll just follow this directive.”
So if you have a 10 million or a 5 million copy selling book, like you are a badass, then you are a badass at money? Yeah. You want to do that, because you want to reference the brand. But when you’re not selling at that level of notoriety, every single title that you published, you want to draw more people into the global universe, and the global universe we’re working on is advice and inspiration for writers and artists only.
Now, we all know everybody is a writer and an artist deep down, but until people actually say to themselves, “You know, I really want to be a writer. I really want to be an artist, an artist certainly means being an entrepreneur as well as someone who paints or dances.” So by having a very clear universe to attract the right person at the right time is critical. It’s Seth Godin 101. So your books certainly lock into really good sound advice for writers and artists. So when you’re planning additional books, the key is to make each book its own unique thing, but of a family of titles.
[00:21:02] TG: So, I mean, this would be like – Okay. Well, looking at what you already have, you have the War of Art, you have Turning Pro, you have, Nobody Wants To Read Your Shit, you have Do The Work. So it would’ve been a huge mistake to make that the War of Art For Pros, or the War of Art for This, right? Is that kind of what you’re referring to do?
[00:21:23] SC: Yeah. In fact, when Steve and I were doing Turning Pro, I had a conversation with Seth and he said, “Whatever you do, don’t put ‘The Wart of Art’ in your title.” So he’s the guru for a reason. I asked him that exact question and I’m like, “Yeah, but aren’t people from the War of Art going to be –” He’s like, “Yeah, they will, but you’ll also turn off anybody who hasn’t read the War of Art. So don’t do that.” He was right.
[00:21:49] TG: Okay. Okay. Again, this is independent of the novel. So if I was just asking you advice about what I should work on next, should it be go back, clean it up, get the second edition of your first 1,000 copies out and then start working on whatever, what we’ll tentatively call your first 1,000 copies for fiction, or whatever.
[00:22:14] SC: Well, that’s – Again, it’s marketing and publishing question, right? So how critical is it that people don’t see any typos in your first thousand copies and that there are a couple of websites that are updated? Probably not that critical right now. How difficult is that work? It’s irritating, but it’s not conceptually difficult work. So I would say put the easy stuff on the back burner. It’s like Steve always says, “Move the piano first,” right?
When he was a struggling guy in New York and he had to work for a moving company, that’s what the smart old-seasoned mover would say to the guys, “Okay. First thing we’re going to do is move the piano, because the piano is 1,500 pounds,” and once the guys got that down into the truck, everything else is easy. So it seems to me like you’re piano right now are those two books. So just pick one of them. Probably you want to do the nonfiction one first, because, yeah, that’s moving a piano, but it’s right in your sweet spot.
The fiction one, yeah, you’ve worked for fiction writers before, but you probably have a little bit more to learn about that, and – Hey, guess what? You’ve written a novel that you’re going to have to figure out how to market too. So maybe that one would be the second one to work on.
But eventually you might want to – So I think this is probably the smartest – One of the smartest things Steve and I ever did was we had 12 of these six packs ready to go about three years ago. Ready to go, meaning Steve had put them together. He’d rewritten them. I edited them. They were ready to go, but we didn’t have a publishing plan for them yet. So guess what we didn’t do? We didn’t publish them until we figured out that critical piece of information that you brought to the table. You know what? These are subscription things. These aren’t like things that charge for $20 on Amazon. These are really important things only for a specific audience. So let’s get some really great subscribers who understand how great these things are and build it that way, and that was exactly the right publishing decision.
So I think ideally you would want to publish all three of these things at the same time and offer some kind of deal, like get all three books for X-dollars, or buy three – You know how it works. I mean, you’re the marketing guy.
[00:24:58] TG: Well, yeah. I mean, but it’s important – I need the reflection, because my job just grew from writing one book to writing two new books and fixing a third. While that may be the right decision, I’m not going to naturally decide that’s what I should do. So we all need that reflection – Because honestly, I have no memory of telling you that we should do the jabs as a subscription. I mean, it sounds like something I would say, but I have no memory of that. Honestly, that happens more often than not with like, “Well, you told me this.” I’m like, “I guess that sounds like something I would say. I have no memory of it.” So the smarter it is, the more it sounds like something I would say.
Yeah. As you say it, I’m like, “No, that’s the right decision,” but when I stared down the –
[00:25:52] SC: Don’t think of these things as these monster books projects. I think that’s what really undermines a lot of people’s effort. Just think of them like these are going to be as long as they need to be. But the great advantage that I’m going to bring to the table is to keep out all the crap that nobody cares about. I’m not going to fill this thing with a bunch of crap. I’m just going to give a very, very as simple 10,000 words.
Now, a book is usually 60,000 words, if not more. So say to yourself, “You know what? I’ve got 10,000, 15,000 words to write this book, to write this project.” Don’t even call it a book.
[00:26:35] TG: It’s just a long blog post.
[00:26:36] SC: So you’re not writing three books. You’re writing half of one.
[00:26:40] TG: Okay. So I mean, this is now – I should’ve known that this would turn into its own conversation. So now I’m looking at – So your first 1,000 copies took me like over a year to write even though actual writing time was probably 60 days. I wrote Book Launch Blueprint in 30 days and just published it. Then Running Down a Dream took me two years to finish writing because of all of the emotional angst and upheaval trying to find what I was trying to say.
So what I was setting out to do with this book was like use the storytelling I’ve learned between Running Down a Dream and then the novel and basically this podcast to kind of weave these prose of these writers that are going through all these stuff, but that would take me 30,000. Should I just like – Are you saying, “Tim, don’t do that. Just imagine a writer who’s got their first fantasy novel. They don’t know what to do. Just tell them what to do,” like that’s the book. “First, you do this. Second, you do this. Third, you do this now. Now, go.” Is that what you’re saying?
[00:28:06] SC: Yeah.
[00:28:07] TG: Okay. I was trying to get fancy, and I guess I don’t need to get fancy with this.
[00:28:11] SC: No. I mean, the only fancy part is to like give them things that they’re going to face, right? So it’s guaranteed that you’re going to get a lot of people who never respond to you. I’m just going to tell you that right up front, right? So you want to like tell them the dips that they’re going to have along the way as well as, “Here’s the best practices of book marketing for fiction.” But you don’t have to get into a specific story about it. I think this is very much a polemical sort of –
[00:28:51] TG: I don’t know what that word means.
[00:28:52] SC: Oh, it means like somebody who knows everything and tell someone. It’s like when you work for a mechanic, he’s going to say, “The way you fix the carburetors like this.” He’s not going to go, “Well, what do you think about the gunk in the carburetor? Do you think –” He’s just going to say, “This is the way you fix it. Now, do it,” right? That’s a polemic.
[00:29:13] TG: Okay.
[00:29:14] SC: So, yeah. I think these are two – And it does mean that you have to take a nasty edge to it. Like I just did, but it’s just, “Look, I have experience. Here’s my wisdom and here’s the way to do it for the least amount of stress for the biggest payoff.”
[00:29:30] TG: Okay. Okay. That sounds good. Okay. So we’ve talked about that. Let’s put that to rest. So I sent you the beginning hook. I had gone back through, and I was a little surprised by how much work went into it. I guess it was just the amount of time it took, because I kept having to like go back, which when I’m writing, I really try not to go back and fix anything. I really try to just keep pushing forward, where this is a completely different type of chore. So it was like I get to the third scene and be like, “Oh, right! I forgot about that. I need to go weave that back into the first scene,” or I’d make a note, because I won’t know what to do in this scene until I get to the seventh or eighth scene and then I make that decision, then I got to come back and fix it here, and I really enjoyed it. It was just –I thought I would just kind of blow through it in like a couple of hours, and it took a little longer, especially in the first few scenes when it was obvious when I wrote them that I didn’t know what the story was going to be. Then as I got a little further along, I was able to like move a little faster, because it was more done.
But anyway, I sent you that. I think it’s 13 scenes was the beginning hook. So it’s from the opening story, to Jesse getting caught stealing, to her getting sent to the numbered, to her kind of getting kicked out of the numbered, which is then when she gets pushed into the new world. So edited those, sent them off to you a couple of days ago. Did you get a chance to look through them?
[00:31:13] SC: Well, I confess. I only had time to read about the first third of it, but I can give you some feedback that you’ll probably like.
[00:31:21] TG: Oh, good. I like that – Yeah.
[00:31:24] SC: Well, it’s just the work that you’re doing here is what people usually think of when they say, “Oh! I’m going to sit down and just start writing a book,” and what I mean by that is that the confidence that you have that comes off in the narration, there’s so much confidence in it. Meaning, the reader can’t help but sort of fall into the spell, and the reason why is that there’s so many little microbe details that set the scene, set the world, and they’re all little bits and pieces that you’ve dropped in that are super engaging, right?
So the way you’ve changed how there’s a social structure in this world, and you know what? You fix that by having levels of society. So the people at the top of the skyscrapers are the elites, and then the people at the lower levels are like the field hands. So as you describe that and explain it in may be a phrase of one sentence, that comes off as so convincing to the reader, because it seems as if the narrator is so fully knowledgeable about this world that they can offhandedly throw things into the mix, which is buy them immediately.
So The Altar, for example, like you have this really nice bit where the elites have an altar to the reapers, and there’s a candle and there’s some food and there’s the statue, and when you read it – When I read it I’m like, “Wow! That’s really good. That’s really good,” because you’re firmly establishing – And you also have like an offhanded phrase that says, “Very few of the elites really believed in the religious value of the altar, but they did it anyway because they knew it looked good.” That’s a really good throw-off line. Like people are doing what’s necessary to survive within the game system of the world that you’ve created
So the fact that there’re these low levels of plug-ins and there’s higher levels of plug-ins, that makes sense, right? Because I saw that movie the other night, The Green Book, and there’s this great scene where this brilliant black piano player is doing this tour in the south and he has to use the restroom and it goes to the host of this party and says – He’s about to enter the bathroom and the man stops him and says, “Oh! If you need the facilities, they’re outside,” and he points to the bathroom and it’s this horrific privy out in the middle of the yard, and that’s true back then, because it was just such a horrific society that there were different facilities for different kinds of people, and that’s what you’re presenting in your story, right? There’s a different kind of plug-in for the people who are on the lower levels of society than there are for the people who were in the mansions, and that makes sense, because that is traditionally the way society is run. That’s all in the first chapter of your book.
So when you have that level of detail and you can’t have that level of detail until you figure out your story is, right? So all these months and years of us working through the global story and slowly, slowly, slowly level by level by level finally getting to this place where your imagination can run wild. You know what’s going to happen. You know what these people are all about. You know where it’s set. You know the structure of New York City. You know all of these stuff that now you can bring to the table. So it’s really exciting to hear that as you’re writing, you come up with a new thing and you go, “Oh! I got to put that in, but I got to go back to the first chapter to drop in the set up for the payoff later.”
So you’re adding levels of believability to your story that are so good that when people start to read this, they’re going to be like, “Wow! This is just like 1984 meets the Hunger Games, meets Dawn of the Dead.” They’ll start to be like, “I wonder where this is going. Is this going to be a horror story, a science fiction story? What is this about?”
So all of those things that you’re playing with are really adding so much wonderful flesh to the story that was really – I didn’t have any time all week, and I just started this morning about 30 minutes before we were going to talk, and I burned through the first four scenes, and the way you set up the way the rats live, they’ve got their own hole, it’s over here, and Balem is sort this ethereal presence who gives them the right codes, and the codes are going to be – The codes change every month. All that stuff makes total sense. When Jesse gets caught by the mayor, we understand what he’s about. He needs to get her into the threshing. So he’s going to threaten her, and when she refuses, he doesn’t know quite sure what to do, because – So all of these stuff is – We don’t know why Jesse is refusing it.
So the revelation that the reason why she’s refusing it is because she knows that her brother died winning the threshing. That’s a payoff, right? So what you’re doing accidentally is the reader’s going to be like, “Why doesn’t she go to the threshing?” and then you can pay it off by her saying, “I’ll tell you why I didn’t go to the threshing, because my brother went there and I have never heard from him since. I don’t want to disappear. I don’t want to – Basically, he’s dead. He went and he died. I don’t want to die.” That’s a pretty good reason, right?
[00:38:00] TG: Yeah.
[00:38:00] SC: So it’s really coming along well, and I don’t want to give you too much confidence, but what I do want to say is that don’t – This is the time. This is the time to really get into the weeds. So before was not the right time. When you didn’t know what the ending payoff of your global story was, don’t freak out about the kind of plugs that are on the heads of people. That doesn’t matter. In fact, you can get so overwhelmed with the weeds when you don’t have those big macro problems figured out that you’ll stall out, you’ll burn out all of your inspiration.
Now, you’ve got this big – Well, you know what’s coming next. So you can set it up in ways that you never could’ve before. So I encourage you to take your time, because every little detail that you’re adding, every little nuance is only making the world fresher and – Yeah, are there elements of The Hunger Games in here? Yeah, definitely. Are there elements of 1984? Yeah, definitely; Orwell.
So it’s a really cool – Are there elements of Ready Player One? Yeah. It’s neat, because that’s what a lot of people talk about today. They go, “Oh! You should really do a mixed genre book.” When you say that do a mixed genre book, it’s confusing, because you can’t really bring the mixed genre level to the work until you’ve settled on your core story. You know this is an action labyrinth story with a maturation plot underneath, and it has to, because this is a book for young readers. So if you didn’t have the maturation plot, it really wouldn’t lock into the marketplace genre in which it would be categorized.
So do you have any questions for me? I think just keep flying, keep going.
[00:40:11] TG: Okay. No, it felt good and, yeah, I was able to add some of that stuff in because of some of the decisions we’ve made. So I wanted the kind of reaper thing to be a theocracy, and I haven’t figured all of that out yet, but you kind of made it sound like that would be like a book two situation anyway to really flesh it out. But I have this scene in my head from the Three Musketeers, the one with Kiefer Sutherland from like the 90s.
I remember watching it and the cardinal is the bad guy, right? The guy that’s in charge. He’s that great actor. I forgot his name. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. He’s the bad guy in the movie and I remember thinking when I was little, like little. I don’t know how old I was. But when I was young and watching it, like, “Wait! He’s in charge of the church, but he doesn’t even believe it.” All he did was use it for the power that it gave him, and that’s a lot of what the Catholic Church was back when they ruled everything.
So I was thinking like, “Okay. So for them to be at the elite level, they have to show some kind of deference to this theocracy whether they believe it or not,” because that’s how they maintain their power.
Yeah, it’s been – I’ve really enjoyed this part. It’s been really fun to kind of weave it all through and to start thinking, “Well, this is where we’re going so I can set it up here,” and to have like – Because I had like – I was interchanging characters, because Marcus was – The President Marcus was in the beginning hook a ton when I first wrote it, and then we realized in the middle build if it’s a labyrinth plot, Marcus can’t even know she exists until she caused some trouble in the middle build. So I had to pull him completely out, but I’d already decided like, “Well, the mayor is part of this resistance movement and like his role is to get Jesse there. So when she says no, it’s super frustrating, but not for the reason the reader thinks at that moment.”
[00:42:29] SC: That’s right.
[00:42:30] TG: They think he’s frustrated, because he’s like, “Okay, I need to get her there and then like I’m done,” and then she won’t go, and he’s like, “Okay. Now, what?” So he ends up putting her through this process, because he’s like balancing, “I’m the mayor and I have responsibilities so that I keep up pretense. So I can’t just let this girl go,” because he kind of put himself in a bad situation, because he could’ve just like gone to her secretly and like invited her into the threshing, but he wanted to create the situation where she would say yes.
So he caught her, there’re guards, but now it’s on record and he can’t just let her go. So now he has to punish her when that is the opposite of what he’s interested in doing. Anyway, I don’t know. I just had a lot of fun with it thinking about all the different kind of things that are playing in this now.
[00:43:28] SC: Well, it’s also great too, that he threatens her with execution, and she’s so smart. She goes, “Well, you can’t execute me, because I’m 12,” and you had to be 13, which is great because it shows this is a girl who thinks very clearly and is very fast on her toes. So later on when she does these remarkable things very quickly at the last second, it’s believable, because in the third chapter she did the exact same thing to the mayor of the city. So he thinks he’s cornering her like an adult, “Now, young lady, you will –” and she’s like, “Well, you can’t do it, because the law says you can’t, and you’re the mayor. So what are you going to do now?”
It’s a really nice moment, because it shows just what potential she has as a hero, and it’s great, because you never want to have a scene where the hero goes, “Oh! You’re right. Oh! But I can’t do it. No, I won’t do it.” Instead, she’s sort of like, “This guy can’t execute me,” as he’s threatening her, you can kind of think while you’re reading it, like she’s sitting there going, “There’s no way this guy can execute me. What is he thinking? I’m stupid? I don’t know the laws? Okay, smart guy. Oh, really? You’re going to execute me? Well, you can’t.” “Oh, right! That’s right. Drats!” Oh! It’s great.
[00:44:59] TG: Again, that like corners him, because now he’s like – It weakens him, because –
[00:45:06] SC: That’s what conflict is, right? I always say this to people, “You got to have conflict in the scene.” Well, how do you create that? Well, if you boil it down to the following, one character wants one thing, the other character wants something else, and then they start to sort of fight verbally to see who wins. So that’s exactly what you’re doing in this scene, and if there’s no like counterpunching, like Jesse did, then it doesn’t ring true, because when we’re in sort of a verbal confrontation with someone, oftentimes they come back with something that we didn’t anticipate, and then we have to regroup and counter their argument. So that’s interesting to watch, and it’s fascinating. A lot of people don’t like conflict for that very reason, because it forces you into a situation where you have to react quickly, make a decision and then act on that decision in microseconds, and that requires a lot of energy and a lot of cognitive energy.
So in scenes, stories boil down those conflicts into really tight packages called scene, and the scenes build on one to the other to the other to the other until the stakes escalate to a place of massive crisis, life or death in an action story, of course. So the value at stake is about these small little conflicts that escalate into this massive global undermining of the order of the world.
So by the end of your novel, you need to – By the end of the novel, you need to reach that place, but you need to do it convincingly. So each micro scene has to be convincing. I mean, can you get away with some cheesy scenes every now and then? Yeah. But wouldn’t it be nice to think of it, like, “I’m going to do my damnedest to make each of my scenes have conflicts that are interesting and turn and there’s great back-and-forth, and then by the time I get to my final, the tension I’ve generated will be so high that the payoff of my story will actually bring catharsis in my reader,” and catharsis is an emotional experience that makes you feel as if you’ve just been through something extraordinary.
So when you go to a great play on Broadway or you see an amazing movie or you read an incredible book, at the end of that experience, it feels as if you’ve experienced the exact thing that was on stage, and that is a catharsis. And so that’s why people come out of the theater like, “Oh my word! I’m exhausted. We got to go out and get something to eat,” or “I got to go get a drink, because I can’t handle it,” right?
[00:48:24] TG: Yeah.
[00:48:25] SC: And it all starts with the micro scene. So these conflicts and these different wants and needs of your characters have to be on stage and they have to be boiled down, and that scene works. It works really well, because she’s counter fighting, he’s panicked. You can tell he’s in a panic. He thought this is going to be easy. He’s kind of arrogant at the beginning of the confrontation, and then she’s scared at the beginning and then she gained some courage and fights back, and then neither one of them “win” at the end. Do they?
[00:49:04] TG: Right. Yeah, he didn’t get what he wanted, but she’s not in a good position.
[00:49:09] SC: Yeah, and neither did she. She doesn’t want to be shamed. So, great work. Keep going. It’s going to be a fun line edit when you’re done. I love the idea, these reapers as a theocracy, because thematically, for me, the idea of the theocracy is a really good one, because what are the things that I think is a big major problem in contemporary society, is the lack of belief system. Globally, the power of religious affiliation has really been falling at the wayside for the past decades.
So what that has created is a giant hole of unknown belief. So if you were raised as I was raised and you were raised in a Christian home, from the time we were young, we were indoctrinated into this certain way of viewing the world and we were indoctrinated into a belief system and a value system that for however it panned out had a core solid foundation, which was the belief in love and the belief in sacrifice, and to believe in a greater good and doing your part to reach a greater good. So that’s generally the Christian ethos, and I’m certainly generalizing. But I think at its best, it’s about love, it’s about creation, and it’s about sacrificing in order to create.
Okay. So that’s what you and I were raised with. And guess what? I don’t go to church anymore. I don’t really believe in the doctrines of a lot of the church teachings, but that stuff still sticks with me. I still believe it. So I basically have this belief system that started from my youth and it works for me, and I’m okay with it, and I think that’s a pretty darn good belief system.
All right. So what if you were raised, as many, many generations today are, without that and you were born and your parents never took you to the church? They never said there’re these things that you should believe that are really important so that we can all get along. So none of those values are sort of been passed on to you from your youth. What happens is that you have a difficulty believing in anything and you just sort of like, “I’m not really sure. Am I supposed to try and get rich? Because that seems to be good, or am I supposed to – How does one be “good” in this world?”
So I think there’re a many, many generations of people on the planet today do not have a core belief system. They don’t have a hierarchy of values. Now, what that makes for is vulnerability by someone who can offer them that. If someone were to come along and say, “I’ve got the answers. I know all. Come follow me and I will teach you the ways of humanity and the way things should be.” People are susceptible to that. They’re looking for it.
So in your novel, the fact that the future powerbase is a theocracy, that also has very strong socialistic and it’s like a mix of theocracy, capitalism and communism all in one, because the global sensibility of it is very much 1984, which is a commentary on socialism and communism to the tyrannical level, where there’s constant surveillance, everybody’s afraid of being found out. It’s a nightmare, and capitalism is –The capitalist nightmare is there’re many people, there’re very few people who have all the money and all the power and everybody else is out.
So you’ve got the theocracy, which is also playing with these two global political systems of the 20th century at play here, and I think it gives you a lot of meat to play with in the second end of the third book to talk about that kind of stuff. But I think it was a really good choice to have a system in which people have to sacrifice to a belief system in order to thrive.
[00:54:08] TG: Yeah. It’s interesting, because I’m just coming at it from a different perspective, of course, but like because I have been reading this book Sapiens and then the follow-up books, the Homo Deus and 21 lessons for the 21st Century, all by the same guy. I, over the last couple years, have dealt with coming out of the religious background and dealing with mostly from – I’m still in this space where I’m mostly angry about it. So I see so much of the bad, and people make really good arguments for the vast majority of the atrocities that humans have done to each other have been in the name of religion.
So I think of it as this – Oh! And this goes back to – Who wrote 1984? I’m blanking.
[00:55:06] SC: George Orwell.
[00:55:07] TG: Yeah. So he wrote Animal Farm too, right?
[00:55:11] SC: Yeah.
[00:55:12] TG: Yeah. So he wrote this book about writing, and forgot the name of it, but one of the things he says in it is that all his best writing was when he started out angry about something, and then he would spin a story encapsulating all of that anger. So that’s where 1984 came from. That’s were Animal Farm came from and so on.
So as I’ve been going through this personal religious and belief crisis for the last two years as I’ve worked on this, and so to me this book has become a way for me to work out what happens when religions are in charge? Because, again, in history when religions are in charge, it’s not good for most people, and then you have this weird thing where the people in charge don’t actually believe it, but the they have to profess it in order to maintain the power structure.
So that is something that when I kind of landed on that of this is what it’s going to be, because also I feel like when the shit hits the fan is when people start looking to religions to give them answers. So I feel like it would be a natural thing that when the shit hit the fan and the burning, all of the – Like the origin story of the book of all the stuff that went bad, like it would be natural for the people to put their trust in something else and to put into the trust of a religion who would then step in and take over the power. So that’s kind of the angle I’m coming at, is mostly it’s going to just be an evil entity in my book. So that’s a lot of what I’ve been dealing with the last couple of years.
So as you talk about all the good that can come from it, like everything in me is like, “No,” like only bad, even though I know logically that’s not true. That’s not where – I’m not able to have that perspective yet.
[00:57:20] SC: I understand. It’s the big macro question about order and chaos. So order can be really great and it could be really terrible. Chaos can be wonderfully enlightening and amazing and also massively destructive. So you can see the beautiful waterfall is an act of chaotic creation and so is a hurricane, and in order, you have wonderful communities of people who help each other, and then you also have tyranny.
So while I understand your point where I was – I was coming from the point of view of the theocracy as a place of when done at its core, having a core message of good. But yeah, of course there’s – Yeah. I mean, how many tens of millions of people have died in the pursuit of in the name of “God”? That’s just fact.
So theocracy as a political system is absolutely bad. It’s not a place that – It’s about conformity and – Well, I don’t want to get into a political discussion, but that’s the difficulty we face on the planet, right? Is like ideologies are, by definition, only tell half of the story. They don’t allow for the rebel, the individual who fights against whatever core belief the ideology is espousing.
So ideology in and of itself is a very, very dangerous thing. Theocracy is an ideology, so is communism, so is capitalism, so is patriarchy, whatever, but there are good – The trains run on time. I don’t even know if that’s true, but that’s what they used to say about Mussolini, like, “Well, he’s not a really good guy, but geez! The trains are running on time.”
So there are positive things that come out of negative ideologies and vice versa. So, it’s fun. I mean, what’s interesting is that if you had gone purely with a capitalist or communist sort of political system that the reapers were perpetuating, people might have felt a little stale. But because you went for the theocracy, for me, that’s interesting, because it’s not what we would think would happen. We wouldn’t think that there would be some new religious movement that would come evolve after in a dystopia.
[01:00:12] TG: Well, and I did think about it from the standpoint of like there is no religious undertone, like there’s no religion in the Hunger Games, or The Matrix or Ready Player One. So it’s also a way for me to set the book apart and doesn’t – Reduces the amount of like, “Oh! It’s just like this book over here.”
[01:00:33] SC: Yeah, good choice.
[01:00:34] TG: So, okay. Well, I will keep working and we’ll go from there okay.
[01:00:39] SC: Okay. Thanks, Tim.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[01:00:41] 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’re still interested in becoming a Story Grid certified editor, we have exactly one more spot available for the training that will be happening at the end of February. So if you are interested in this, make sure you go to storygrid.com/cert to fill out the application and let us know that you’re interested.
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