Editing Non-Fiction

As Shawn and I have been working through the first draft of my novel, I was working on a first draft of my next non-fiction book. Now Shawn and I will be working through how to use the Story Grid tools and principles to edit non-fiction.

[0:00:00.3] 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.

In this episode we are shifting gears a little bit. I have finished up a first draft of a nonfiction book I’ve been working on a while, and so while I’m on working on the second draft of my novel, Shawn and I are going to work through the story grid techniques and the story grid tools of moving from first to second draft in a nonfiction book as well.

I know a lot of you listening write nonfiction want to write nonfiction. Even for those that are writing fiction, it’s always good to hear about the story grid tools from a different perspective. It’s a great episode. It’s really eye-opening for me, and I think you’re going to love it.

Let’s jump in and get started.


[0:00:58.3] TG: So Shawn, before we dive in to today’s topic I got to tell you something funny. My wife took my oldest son to see Wonder Woman over the weekend. Spoiler alert, if you haven’t watched it, I’m going to spoil a piece of it. She starts texting me halfway through the movie and she’s like, “I’m so mad at you. Your story grid’s crap has ruined movies for me.” I go, “Why?” She’s like, “I knew exactly who is going to die.” I was like, “It was the mentor, wasn’t it?” She’s like, “Yes!”

But when she got home, we were talking about it with my older son and I was like, “But you know why the mentor has to die?” I was able to go into the hero will never know if they can do it on their own if the mentor doesn’t somehow leave their side. They I spoiled Lord of the Rings for my son, because he hasn’t read or seen the movies. I was like, “You know, when Gandalf dies —” He’s like, “Gandalf dies?” I was like, “Well, he comes back.” He’s like, “He comes back?” I said, “Well, you could have read those. They’ve been out.”

Anyway, I just thought that was funny.

[0:02:12.5] SC: That is great. That is the best.

[0:02:13.2] TG: Anyway. What’s been nice is while we were working on moving from the first draft to getting me ready to write the second draft of the novel, I was working on the first draft of a nonfiction book, and this is a book I actually had the concept for over a year ago and I flailed around with it for a year basically until I felt like I actually knew what I was trying to write. It started where I was discussing with somebody The War of Art, Steve Pressfield’s book, and the idea of resistance and overcoming resistance and how I have developed over the years, because 10 years ago or 11 years ago when I first started trying to run my own business and everything, I was so tied up with resistance that I would spend half the day playing video games. The only time I could motivate myself to work is when I was literally out of money. I had a one-year-old at home and my wife wasn’t working as it was a whole thing.

I started recognizing these patterns at the time I didn’t know were resistance, but now I know that’s the name for it, and I started developing a set of tools that would help me overcome resistance, super practical stuff. I wanted to write a book that is basically the how-to manual for overcoming resistance. I worked on that, came out at about 35,000 words. I have it set up into four sections; create space, overcome fear, do the work, and ship the work. Most of the chapters are teaching about a tool.

I thought it would be good as I’m now switching over into writing mode again working on the second draft for the novel of spending some time how do we go from first draft to second draw for nonfiction, because I know we have a lot of nonfiction listeners as well. I thought that we could start working through my manuscript and how do you use these story grid tools for nonfiction in a super practical way.

Yeah, I thought we would just get started. You and I never prepare, decide what we’re going to talk about ahead of time. Where would you start with somebody coming to you with a nonfiction manuscript to start figuring out how to get it to draft two?

[0:04:49.2] SC: The thing about nonfiction and editing in general — We’re going to be doing that editors course in a couple of months. I’ve been preparing all the materials for that sort of week-long intensive class in teaching somebody how to edit from scratch. You hit me in a good place here because I had to really go back and think what do you do at the very beginning of a project when you’re editing it? Like when somebody can’t do a manuscript, what do you do?

Coincidentally, you did hand me the manuscript for this nonfiction project and you’re calling it right now the raw method a couple of weeks ago. I’ll just walk you through what I do when I’m handed a nonfiction manuscript and how I use the story grid to analyze nonfiction. This is going to be kind of fun because it’s going to require a lot of sort of self-examination on your part which is actually a lot of —

[0:05:58.8] TG: It’s fun for you.

[0:06:03.4] SC: A lot of your book is — One of the tools that you talk about in your book is about the necessity to be able to self-examine your own behavior. The editing process when you’re looking at it and you’re editing your own work is really about doing just that, examining what you want to say, how you want to say it, who your target audience is, etc., etc.

The very first thing you have to do when you edit something, and this sounds extremely obvious, but a lot of people sort of race over this first step. The very first step is to read the entire manuscript of the potential client, which sounds kind of obvious. You’re going to read the whole thing. A lot of times, when you’re an editor, you have this tendency to want to get down to brass tacks. You want to go full editor mode before you have an opportunity to actually experience the first read.

The difficulty as an editor is when you read that manuscript for the very first time is to stop yourself from doing what your wife was doing in the movie theater, which was extrapolating forward based upon her knowledge of the story grid and saying to herself, “Oh! The mentor is going to die here,” before it actually happens.

The very first thing you have to do is read the whole manuscript. I’ve read the entire manuscript that you’ve written and after you read the manuscript, you have to let it sit in your brain pan for a while before you can really be good at helping the writer figure out what their problems are and how to fix them.

It’s been about — I don’t know, 10 days since I’ve finished the manuscript and I feel comfortable that we can start talking about what are the next steps for this draft you’ve put here. Now, what do you do? In the book the Story Grid, I lay out — I think it’s like one of the earlier chapters, there’s a chapter called an Editor’s Six Core Questions and this is always where I start after I’ve read the manuscript and let it sit for a while. The very, very first question is what’s the genre? What genre of nonfiction are you trying to write in? Do you have any sense of what the genre of this book is?

[0:08:46.3] TG: The obvious one would be self-help, but I’m not as familiar — When I think of genres for nonfiction, I think of whatever category they’ll go in on Amazon. I would say I’m not overly familiar. I think, okay, there’s business books, there’s memoire, there’s narrative nonfiction. Mine would go in the self-help category, but I feel like the self-help probably has a lot of sub-genres in it as well, but I don’t know for sure.

[0:09:20.8] SC: I would even think at even more global. We’ve talked about this before. I personally have four global nonfiction categories where I start.

[0:09:31.5] TG: That’s in my notes somewhere.

[0:09:34.6] SC: Yeah, it’s easy to forget. That’s why you have to constantly be asking yourself the same question. The four big global nonfiction genres are; academic, which are books that are written for people who already are walking around with a very large body of knowledge. If you’re writing a book about genetics and it’s an academic book, you’re not going to talk about basic Mendelian — Mendel genetics and traits and recessive genes, etc. You’re going to go right to the quick of it and get into the nitty-gritty assuming that your audience already has a ton of knowledge. These academic books are really for professionals. They’re for people who don’t want to know, don’t need any additional reminders about the principles of their chosen field. That’s the first one, academic books. Usually, the academic press is cover academic books.

The second silo is called how-to, in my opinion. How-to are very practical guides that give very simple directions for people to be able to do something. If you want to learn how to plan a garden, then you would buy a really good how-to book on the best way to have the most vegetables per square-foot and then you would do that above ground, square-foot gardening thing and you would read an entire about that and you would be able to apply the knowledge very quickly. How-to is the second nonfiction category for me.

The third one is narrative nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction are those things like autobiographies, biographies, memoires, historical stories, but they’re story-based works of nonfiction. Meaning that narrative nonfiction uses the techniques of the fiction writer only using nonfiction research and fact. Narrative nonfiction are things like Devil in the White City, which is Erik Larson’s book about a serial killer around the Chicago World’s Fair. The Perfect Storm is narrative nonfiction. Some great biographies — Hamilton by Ron Chernow is narrative nonfiction. It’s a biography, but it’s the story of one man with a very large canvas. He also wrote a great book of John D. Rockefeller. He uses the techniques of the fiction writer in order to write a very compelling biography. We have a sense of the fool man based upon a fictional genre that he interlays with the facts of the character or the protagonist.

The fourth one is the one that has really risen in the last, say, 20 years. This is called the big idea work of nonfiction. The big idea work of nonfiction is something like The War of Art. Also, Who Moved my Cheeks? These are nonfiction works that use — Wait for it. All three of the previous categories that I talked about. In a big idea work of nonfiction, the writer uses story. They use the fiction writer’s skill box to really entertain the readers so that they get a full sort of experience; the beginning, middle, and end. There’s a genre in there, a fictional genre that isn’t obvious to the reader but they can feel it and they have certain expectations based upon the choice of the writer. 

[0:13:45.9] TG: This is like the thriller of the nonfiction where it combines other genres.

[0:13:51.4] SC: Yes it is. It’s a very elegant way of writing nonfiction because, generally, big idea books are not all that long. They’re really about getting a lot of information into the smallest unit of a story. Academic books come in the plan big idea because the big idea writer uses academic traditions to support his idea, or her ideas.

[0:14:25.4] TG: This would be like Malcolm Gladwell.

[0:14:27.8] SC: Exactly, and Steve too. Steve Pressfield in The War of Art, he cites Carl Jung, he cites a lot of psychology. He cites mysticism, religion, all sorts of things in The War of Art to backup what he believes to be true. It doesn’t necessarily have to be super-duper, journalistic, incredible, deep research like Malcolm Gladwell. As long as the writer really uses supportive documentary evidence of writers and academics who have come before them to support their theory.

Lastly, and this is really, really important. A lot of people kind of forget this about this big idea. Really, the reader at the end of a big idea book has a how-to element too. They have a feeling, like if they could prescriptively use that big idea in their own way. By following the theories and the story of the writer, they can apply the ideas to their own life. There’s a how-to element in big idea too.

Now that you know the four sort of big categories that I use for story grid nonfiction, which category do you think your book is?

[0:16:00.3] TG: How-to.

[0:16:01.7] SC: Okay. Now, how-to is usually very — What’s the word? It has a limited audience. That’s my point.

[0:16:12.3] TG: Do you think it’s a big idea book?

[0:16:15.5] SC: Ultimately, you as the writer have to make that choice. I will say this, when you’re dealing with nonfiction that concerns internal work, meaning not building a shed, or retuning your car, or planning a garden, those are all external how-tos. Those are how-to projects; how to knit a sweater. Those are all really important books, but the audience — that doesn’t mean the book can’t sell a million copies after years, but it’s not going to change somebody internally as it does externally. I know I’m getting a —

[0:17:02.7] TG: What genre would you put the book Getting Things Done or Checklist Manifesto in?

[0:17:11.7] SC: I didn’t read Getting Things Done and I just sort of flew through Checklist Manifesto. Checklist Manifesto I believe is more big idea, because it really brings a lot of story to the table as I recall. I’m just kind of — It’s Gawande, right? He talks about —

[0:17:34.6] TG: Using checklist in hospitals to reduce errors and all that kind of stuff. I guess I look at that as like people read it to learn how to do something specific, but it definitely isn’t a step-by-step how to build a shed type book either.

[0:17:53.4] SC: Exactly, and it’s also — If you look the value it speak in that book, it’s like death, right? Because what he’s saying is that something as mundane and boring and simple and ridiculous and silly as a checklist saves lives. All those things that we — As we get older we start to take for granted, and so we don’t take them for granted anymore, like whenever I go shopping, I definitely go with a shopping list now. When I was younger, I would never. Now, I do, because I know that advertisers and marketers and retailers, they prey upon people who don’t have a shopping list, right? If you don’t have a shopping list, you end up buying it.

The Checklist Manifesto I think was a big idea book because it brought something that is overlooked and it shined a very big torch light on it so that people could understand, “Hey, checklists save lives,” because medical mistakes, believe it or not, kill more people every year than cancer. Kill more people than traffic accidents. It wasn’t until people really started focusing on medical mistakes in a hospital to reduce all those deaths. The way they figured out how to do it was by having checklists because the power structure in a hospital is so ridiculous that nurses wouldn’t feel comfortable asking a doctor, “Hey, did you wash your hands before you came in the room?” It’s really that simple. Anyway, I’m getting off track. I think the Checklist Manifesto is big idea, because it tells a story. 

I think you can feel right now that what I’m suggesting to you is that you need to broaden your view of your book. You need to think of it in a much bigger way because if you don’t, you’ll be trying to sell your book to only those people who bought The War of Art and who can already speak The War of Art language, but what about all those people — A lot of people have bought The War of Art and a lot of people enjoy The War of Art, and a lot of people would love to buy a follow up book that shows them practical steps that they can do every day in order to combat resistance.

What I’m saying is that you’re avoiding a very very large market of people who’ve never read The War of Art, and hopefully if you do your job the right way it won’t matter if anybody has read The War of Art or not because your toolbox is really a way of teaching yourself how to change behavior. These are steps for someone to change their life. Your big genre is big idea because it’s a huge idea to help somebody change their life.

Now, I remember a year or so ago when you started talking to me about this concept of this book, and one of the first things you said to me was, “Hey, Shawn, I don’t have any big ideas.” I’m kind of big idea kind of guy. I’m kind of a guy who accumulates a bunch of knowledge and just sort of takes a lot of good advice and then applies it to my own life, but I don’t have any of the big ideas. I would have never come up with the idea of resistance, so I’m not going to be able to write a big idea book. What I can do is write the proletariat version of The War of Art and give a bunch of how-to ideas.

When you told that, I didn’t correct you because you have to be able to do whatever is necessary in order to create a manuscript. You don’t need me as your friend or editor saying, “Actually, Tim. You are going to write a big idea book and what you have to put in it is the following,” and then what that would have done was it have probably freaked you out, because you would have said to yourself, “Shawn thinks I’m going to be able to write a big idea book, and I can’t. Oh my gosh! Maybe I should just put this on the shelf and not worry about it.”

Now that you have a manuscript though, now I can say to you this is big idea book. This isn’t a how-to book because, again, it’s going to have elements of how-to, isn’t it? How-to is a very big part of the book, but you also are going to need to tell a story, to backup what you’re saying academically, and to bring that how-to element so that the reader, once they finished the book, can start reading in again and making notes about how to apply your toolbox with their own life.

This isn’t the kind of book that I think you anticipated writing which would have been somebody just picking it up in the middle and saying, “Oh, that will help me. I don’t need the rest of the book.” Do you know what I’m saying? 

[0:23:48.9] TG: Yeah. Okay, I can get onboard with that.

[0:23:53.6] SC: Okay. You’re going to write a big idea work of nonfiction that has some conventions and obligatory things that have to be in it, right?

[0:24:04.7] TG: Right. Yeah. Sure.

[0:24:11.6] SC: Because people have certain expectations from a big idea book.

[0:24:15.6] TG: Yeah. I can definitely sense that when I think about the books that I’m reading. 

[0:24:21.7] SC: Right. When Malcolm Gladwell comes out with a new book, you’re expecting him to have a big idea in it. Outliers was a really interesting book that followed up on The Tipping Point, and so was David and Goliath. What Gladwell is really really good at doing is taking conventional ideas and making you see them in a different way.

What do you think the big idea of your book is?

[0:24:53.0] TG: The thing — There’s kind of two things I’ve played around with this. The first is I fundamentally believe anybody can find success in their creative pursuits if they can just learn how to overcome resistance. I don’t think it’s rocket science. I don’t think it’s magic. I don’t think that you get to be picked. I think anybody can find success in their creative pursuits as long as you follow some basic principles of how to pursue them.

That’s, I would say, the belief that I bring into the book is that — I reach the point, and I think I talked about this in one of the chapters, where I either had to decide that I just wasn’t cut out for this and I need to go find something else to do, or that I was cut out for it, the problem is I just don’t currently have the skillset to do what I’m trying to do.

I went with the later and it’s paid off. I think for most people, it’s not about being chosen or special. It’s about just having some basic understanding of how life as a creative works.

The big question I’m asking is — I have the manuscript up here, and I put it in the introduction — I might just do it for memory. It’s basically how do we organize a creative life that allows you to produce and ship great work while staying sane, sober, and free? That’s the question I want to answer, is how do you organize a creative life? How do you produce and ship great work and how do you do it in a way that you don’t lose your sanity, sobriety of freedom?

[0:26:42.9] SC: Okay. I love that. I think it’s great. Now, let’s think about that for a minute though. Is there something that is even — Some idea that’s even broader than that specificity of learning how to be a creative person? What I mean by that is is there an attitude, a belief that is prevalent among the general public that you think is wrong?

[0:27:17.0] TG: Yeah, I think that most people think that the creativity is synonymous with — Oh! What’s the word? With unpredictable, or luck, or magic, or the muse. I think that most of creativity is found in systemizing 95% of your life. I think that the idea that creativity is — Like the idea of the creative that wakes up at 1 in the afternoon because they’re up late drinking and then they like sit down and the muse talks to them with all — I’ve worked with hundreds of creative people, that’s just horse shit. They all live in extremely systematic planned life that makes their creativity — Their success as a creative inevitable.

[0:28:16.8] SC: Got it. Okay. It’s interesting that I mentioned genetics earlier in this discussion. I’m going to back to genetics. Do you believe that the following statement is true? Do you think that the majority of people in — Let’s just limit it to the United States. The majority of people in the United States believe that you’re either born a creative person or you’re not.

[0:28:47.5] TG: Yeah, I believe most people — I would say there’s a big group of people that will say that, that they believe that. Then there’s another large group of people that would say that they don’t believe that, but all of their actions say otherwise.

[0:29:03.1] SC: Exactly.

[0:29:03.7] TG: It’s kind of like how people believe God loves everybody except for them.

[0:29:08.4] SC: That’s exactly right. I think you’re on to something really extraordinary here if you just sort of bring that lens of your camera higher in your elevation of looking at your work. If you take the camera up and you say, “What is the fundamental “truth” that you are trying to debunk in your book? It would be creativity is genetic.” We are told from birth, pretty much from birth, that if we’re not born with a gift, we are not creative. We’re also told as we’ve moved through our schooling system in this country, that we are only as smart as some ridiculous number from an IQ test or from an SAT score, or something like that. We believe and have been told for generation after generation probably since the turn of the century, at the 20th century, from the 1890s to the 1900s, that science and genetics are — They determine how smart we are. Once our number, once our abilities have been evaluated objectively by some sort of random standardized test, then we know where we sit on the hierarchy of humanity. Creative people have been told early on that they’re “gifted”, and so they believe that they have some sort of gift, and other people who don’t score a certain number which absolutely means nothing, by the way. It’s been proven that IQ tests and standardized SAT scores have nothing to do with creativity of intelligence. They come to believe that, “No, I just don’t have what it takes, so I’m just not going to work on being creative.”

What you’re saying is that creativity is a muscle and we are all born with that muscle and some people are told, “Hey, you should really work on developing that muscle and getting stronger.” Others say, “Hey, that muscle is too small, so forget about it. Do something else.”

If you look at the genetic abilities versus the environmental abilities, what you’re saying is that the genetic side is not what you’ve been told your entire life. You are not limited by some ridiculous analysis of your intellectual capability when you were five years old. I think that’s a message that people need to understand, that creativity is not a mystical gift that certain people were born with and other people aren’t. Creativity is human. It’s an element of humanity. Meaning, every single person, if you say human being, has the capacity to be creative, right? 

[0:32:48.8] TG: Right. I guess I feel like that, and maybe it’s just because of the circles I run in, but I feel like that has just been hammered ad nauseum. I tend to assume everybody’s heard that a million times already. Me saying that again is not all that helpful.

[0:33:07.7] SC: I understand that point, but the way you’re going to be different from the people saying it. The way you’re going to write your book is different than the way Steve Pressfield writes his book and the way Elizabeth Gilbert. The way Elizabeth Gilbert writes her book is different than Steve, and Steve is different than Elizabeth, but their message is equally compeling. Brene Brown, that’s another person. Each one of them has a different point of view. Each one of them has a brilliant thing to say and you can read Steven’s book and it doesn’t mean you’re not going to enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert of Brene Brown. You can read all three and get something new out of all three of them.

I would also say that the message in our circle is probably — Yeah, we hear it all the time. That’s because we have selected ourselves to be in an environments that supports that idea. If we truly believe in this idea, then we will have the courage to express this idea in our own way without saying to ourselves, “Everybody knows this. I can’t add anything to this. Who cares?” because that’s actually not true.

What you have written, your manuscript, is completely different than anything Elizabeth Gilbert, or Steve, or Brene Brown would write. It’s very unique. It’s very practical and, in its way, very stoic. It’s finding the toolbox that will allow you to beat down a voice inside of you that tells you that you’re a loser and that everything that you do has been done before and there’s no point in trying. Everybody understands what that voice is. Steve named that voice resistant. It’s a really great metaphor, because now we know the enemy. We know what that enemy is all about and we also know that enemy, it’s full of shit, but we can never — Still, the enemy is truly powerful. It’s a shape-shifter and it can hit us in any number of ways. It still beats Steve Pressfield senseless sometimes. His last post on website was about him facing the resistance of another prerogative.

My point is, yeah, this is a message that people have heard before but you need to understand that your book is about amplifying that message in the Tim Grahl way. If you just say, “Oh, I don’t want to be one of the guys who says everybody has something inside them that they need to work on to get out. It’s so boring.” Well, sorry, that’s what you write. That’s what your book is about. That’s what your book is about. It’s not about getting space. It’s not about getting space. It’s about being creative.

[0:36:28.6] TG: Okay.

[0:36:29.3] SC: Go ahead.

[0:36:30.1] TG: My thing is like 90% of what I read on that topic is super fluffy, and so I’m not interested in writing a 35,000 word book trying to convince you of that thing, that you can be creative and you are creative and you are born creative. My thing is that part would go in the introduction and I’m going to show you how to do this and how this actually works in the real world. That’s the book.

I’m not fighting that idea, because that is the idea I’m bringing to. That is my fundamental belief and all of those things. What I’ve never read before that I want to write is the — I spoke at this conference one time and everybody in there friended me on Facebook and then up to this still, my news feed is full of the pictures of a lake at sunset with an emotional or a motivational statement. I’m so sick of that. Motivational statements aren’t super helpful when I have work to do.

My thing is like what I want to write is let’s assume you have no motivation. Let’s assume you can’t get any work done because you’re so tied upwards resistance. Okay, let’s start there. How do we move from that point, because that’s where most of us start?

Yes, I love that idea and I want to teach from that standpoint, but I’ve always tried to do with my teaching is like I’m not interested in causing your paradigm shift. When I teach book marketing, I’m like, “If you’re an author that thinks book marketing is evil, I’m not here to convince you otherwise. However, if you want to learn book marketing, I can teach you how.”

I’m not writing a book to convince you that you are creative. This is a book for people that already believe that, they just don’t know how to get it out of themselves.

[0:38:44.0] SC: Great. That’s now in your introduction, what you just said. 

[0:38:50.1] TG: I guess not.

[0:38:51.2] SC: Right. The next question on my six question editors core questions is what’s the point of view, and you just explained to me what the point of view is based upon your reaction to the arena that you’re working in is fluffy. It’s motivational lines from beautiful lakes.

[0:39:16.6] TG: That’s what I’m trying to do is bring some concreteness to this very fluffy world.

[0:39:22.5] SC: Right. This is the promise that you need to make your reader very very early on in your story, in your book. This is the beginning hook of your book. This doesn’t necessarily mean the beginning hook of your book has to be 25% of your entire book. We’re in a different arena here, and if you look at the tipping point, Malcolm Gladwell’s beginning hook is probably the forward and introduction to his book and his ending payoff is the last chapter and epilogue. He’s operating sort of in a 10-80-10 perspective, and that’s kind of a good idea in a big idea book is — You know what? People who buy big idea books, they want to know who you are, who is Tim Grahl, and why do I care about what he has to tell me, and what does he have to tell me? What’s his point of view?

In your beginning hook of your book, you have to say something like — You could begin the book with something like, “Have you ever heard this before? A guy drinks himself into his stupor, wakes up the next day, has a difficult time having breakfast. Sits down at 1 o’clock and then writes 25,000 words of inspiring prose.” Just say that’s bullshit, or the fluffy — Just put forth what you just explained to me that you want to — This book, if you don’t believe you’re creative, if you think that it’s just not in you, please quit this book back down and don’t buy it, because I am not going to spend any time telling you that you’re a special snowflake, because , you know what? Everybody is. Everybody has the capacity to be creative. The end. It’s just fact. If you want to hear and read the research about our inability to put a number on human intelligence, this isn’t the book to tell you that. Trust me, that is the truth.

This is what you have to say to the reader so that they go, “Oh! Okay, I get it. He’s right. Yeah.” Then you have to move forward. Now, how did I go about coming up with this idea that I need to find practical ways that will get my ass in a chair to do my work? Well, I did this, and I did that. You can see where this story — The story element, the narrative element of your book needs to come through to, right? Because you want the reader to know who you are, who Tim Grahl is.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Tim Grahl who takes care of his kids, or the Tim Grahl that goes on date night. This is the professional Tim Grahl. This is the guy who said, “If you’re a writer and you don’t believe in marketing, God bless you. See you later.” That’s your attitude, and that’s a really good attitude, and that’s my attitude now too and it’s taken me a while to get the attitude that if you don’t believe in story structure, if you don’t believe in the five commandments that I talk about, God bless you. See you later. I’m not interested in convincing you any longer.

I’ve got a book. If you’re not convinced by my book and the millions of words that I’ve written and the hundreds of hours of podcast, God bless you. Go find somebody else, but don’t bother me anymore. If you have an interest in what I know, then come on in. I’ll tell you what I know. I’ll give you everything I have.

You have to bring that point of view. It’s sort of like when I was writing The Story Grid and I showed the manuscript to Steve, the first thing Steve said was, “Tell us why you’re writing the book, because what if nobody knows who you are, Shawn, and nobody did know who I am and they probably don’t know now either.”

He told me, “You’ve got to put a story in your how-to book. You’ve got to say why you’re writing the book,” and that’s the first thing I do in the book. I say, “Nobody teaches editing, and it’s a big mystery. I want to teach you what I’ve learned, and I’ve had to learn myself.” That’s a good idea to think about when you’re writing a big idea book, is you need to introduce very early on. You’ve got to hook the reader on your big idea. You have to blatantly state is, “My big idea is this. Number one; you are creative. Two; you are battling a demon who’s stopping you from doing your creative work. Number three; drinking and not being sober is no way to beat an enemy. No one wins when they’re drunk or takes drugs. You’re very vulnerable when you’re intoxicated. You’re not going to beat anyone when you’re intoxicated. Get rid of the notion that drinking or taking drugs is going to help you beat a monster. It’s not going to happen.”

Give a really — This is the great thing that I think that Steve did in The War of Art is that he gave a lot of lists. Here’s what resistance does. Here is what it looks like. Here are the elements of resistance that are here to knock you on your ass. You don’t have to do that because Steve already did it. What you want to let people know is, “My name is Tim Grahl and this is what I believe. I believe everybody is creative. I believe this,” so that the point of view of your idea — Then you want to culminate the big payoff, which is your big idea. I believe that if you follow what I have to tell you in this book, that you will be able to create something that you are very proud of. Whether or not it makes a dollar, anybody buys it or you’re going to be able to quit your job, I have no idea. You, personally, will be proud of the work that you accomplish, and you will respect yourself the amount of work that you had to do to accomplish it. That’s all you can give people, is a plan to help them respect themselves more by creating something from an internal life.

Are you starting to come around to what the big idea book is about and the fact that you can actually write one? 

[0:47:02.7] TG: Yeah, because what you’re basically doing is reflecting back to me things I already believe and just saying, “This is —” A year ago — I’ve come a long way in the last year anyway. But a year ago, if I thought, “I got to write a big idea book.” I’m like, “I’m not Malcolm Gladwell. I can’t do that, so let’s move on with my life.”

Yeah, I feel like coming — I’m basically just brining my perspective on the world and going to show you why it exists and how you can be a part of that too.

[0:47:37.4] SC: Exactly. That’s exactly right. I’m not really doing this. The questions that I’m asking you are the things that lead you to answer these questions. The questions help you self-examine, to figure out what it is that you’re trying to accomplish here.

The third question is what’s the point of view, which we’ve been talking for the last couple of minutes. The fourth question; what are the objects of desire? What do you want people to take away from this book and what do you need people to take away from this book?

[0:48:16.9] TG: All right. What did you say number three was that we’ve already discussed?

[0:48:20.8] SC: What’s the point of view.

[0:48:23.2] TG: I thought that was number two.

[0:48:25.5] SC: Number two is what are the conventions and obligatory scenes of your chosen genre?

[0:48:32.0] TG: Okay.

[0:48:33.2] SC: We didn’t get too deeply into the conventions and obligatory scenes of big idea, but anybody who’s interested in that can look at storygrid.com and go to my analysis of the tipping point, and if you just read all those posts that’s in sequential order. I cover all these up that we’re talking about now. I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of conventions and obligatory scenes of the big idea book so early. I just want you to recognize that there are conventions and obligatory scenes for nonfiction too.

[0:49:14.1] TG: Objects of desire. Is this the objects of desire that I’m helping the reader fulfill for themselves? What are their desires that they’re bringing to this book?

[0:49:29.4] SC: No. This is what you as the writer want. Nonfiction is really about positioning yourself as somebody who stands up on a milk crate in the middle of the park and says, “Everybody, come over here. I have to tell you something.” It’s sort of like the Mark Anthony speech in Caesar, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when he says, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I have not come here to praise Caesar, but to bury him.” This is after they murder him.

Mark Anthony isn’t there to bury Caesar. He’s there to get these people to take out the guys who killed Caesar. He has a very clear intention, but in order to get to the people to listen to him he has to tell them what they want to hear first before he can change their mind. This is very much the rhetorical approach of the big idea nonfiction writer, is you must look at it as if you were preparing a speech that you will delivery in Carnegie Hall to the most influential people in the world, or you’re giving a TED Talk, or you’re doing something where your goal is to convince somebody that what they believe is wrong, and that what you are going to tell them, you’re going to tell them what’s wrong with what they believe and how to change it. 

[0:51:13.2] TG: Okay. I would say my objects of desire are, one, to bring concreteness to a very fluffy industry or space. The other thing I want people to believe, change their belief on is that creativity is not hard in the way that they think it’s hard. It’s much more hard in the way that digging a ditch is hard, verse this kind of philosophical yearning that seems like we have to go through. I feel like — Those are two things I want to do.

The other is I really really want people to be able to move past whatever is blocking from doing their creative work. Most of it has to do with it’s not because something is wrong with you or it’s not because something — You’re not good enough or it’s not because you don’t have the right tools. It’s mostly because you don’t really understand what’s going on inside of you.

I believe that if you can basically see what’s going on inside of you, your behavior automatically changes. It’s not a violent process either where you’re constantly forcing yourself to do things you don’t want to do or you hate or scared of or whatever.

My goal is — Really, what I want to do is take 25 year old Tim and convince him, it doesn’t have to be this hard. You’re not entering something that you don’t have the ability to do or you’re not good enough to do or you’re waiting around for the right moment to do. It’s mostly like, “Let’s follow some very simple steps that will put you in a place where you’re automatically doing the work that you want to need to do. 

[0:53:23.8] SC: Yeah. That’s well put. If you look at it from the 25 year old Tim point of view, what the 25 year old Tim wants is creative success. He wants the fruits of the labor. These are the — We all want these. We all want to be number one in the New York Times bestseller list. We all want to have our movie and sun dance or we want all of those bells and whistles and tasty gigs that come with that kind of third party validation. That’s what the 25 year old Tim wants.

Now, what does the 25 year old Tim really need? He needs the truth, right? Needs the truth.

[0:54:17.5] TG: He needs to know lots of things. 

[0:54:21.7] SC: His meaning. Meaning. He needs to know that the creative process is meaningful. It has nothing to do with Tastykakes and Sun Dance Film Festival. Creative process brings meaning to life. We learn about ourselves when we create something. We learn that life has meaning, that it’s beautiful, that there’s something worth living for. There is nothing better than creating something that you are proud of, or even not proud of. As long as you try and you work hard and you deliver that lousy, shitty first draft, you have created something meaningful. It doesn’t mean it’s perfect. It doesn’t mean that you can’t use your craft to make it better, but it’s meaningful.

What people wants in our society today is meaning. It’s very difficult to find meaning in our culture today. What you are offering in your book is a way for people to have meaning in their life. That’s pretty damn important, right? The way you are offering meaning goes back millennia. It’s about work. It’s about the Bhagavad Gita. We are entitled to our labor, but not the fruits of our labor. That’s what the Bhagavad Gita is all about. We are entitled to work, but the fruits of the work are not ours, and that is very meaningful and it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever until you create something and it fails. You know what? I’ve created so many things that have failed, but I’m still proud of them. I still go, “You know what? At least I tried.” Yeah, that didn’t work out. No. Yeah, it didn’t work out, but I least I tried and I learned something and it brought meaning to my life.

We remember our failure far more than our successes because they are more meaningful to us. They were the moment when we had to change who we were. Your book is about you telling people that what they want they can have, but not in the way they think that they want it. You’re going to say — And that is the payoff of your book. The ending payoff of your book is that the process, the creative process is meaningful and it is more important than — It’s important to ship your work. It’s important to do your work. It’s important for all those things, because if you don’t ship your work, nobody sees your work.

The big payoff your book, I think, is to let people know, “Hey, guess what? I told you at the beginning of this book that I was going to teach you how to create something that you can ship, and I did do that.” Guess what? The paradox is after you ship it, it’s no longer yours. You get the meaning but you don’t get the money. The money comes. Keep your mouth shut and you thank God. You don’t do it because of the money. You keep your mouth shut and you thank God that somebody was interested enough in what you had to say and was moved by it, but they parted with money. They gave their value for their value, but you can’t control that. All you can control is trying the next project.

The discussion we’re having now is really an important step for nonfiction big idea. It’s a huge step, because what it does is it clarifies your intentions and why you’re writing the book, not just for you, but for other people.

Now, let’s just get to the last question and we’re going to have to stop. 

[0:58:53.8] TG: What was question number five?

[0:58:56.0] SC: Question number five is what is the controlling idea theme, and that’s something that we’ve been talking about probably since the beginning in this conversation. It’s important to ask that question specifically and to write down what your controlling idea theme is. Remember, what you have to do in a controlling idea theme is to express the changing value plus the cost. What that means is that creativity triumphs when we blank. Creativity triumphs when we engage with a hundred percent of spirit in the labor of the work with no investment in the financial payoff, the fruits of the labor. That’s a jumbly sentence, but that’s kind of what I think we’ve come to for your controlling idea.

[0:59:58.0] TG: Okay. I’ll work from that too.

[0:59:59.1] SC: Yeah. That’s a good thing to know. What you’re going to do in your introduction in your beginning hook is tell them that, “Hey, guess what? By the time you’re done with this book, I hope you understand this. That’s what Malcolm Gladwell does at the beginning of the Tipping Point. Things tip. Little things have big, big consequences. By the time you’re done with this book, you’re going to understand that little things cause big events. That’s the Tipping Piont’s promise. You have to make a promise too in your beginning hook.

Now, the very last question is what’s the beginning hook, the middle build and the ending payoff? Those are the six questions that an editor is going to talk about with their client after they had time to let the work sort of percolate in their brain. They read the entire manuscript, they give it sometimes for them to think about, to let their subconscious work on it and then a week, 10 days later, they have a conversation with the client and they go over these six questions. That’s the first step to editing nonfiction. 

[1:01:19.8] TG: Okay. What’s my next step? Is it to actually — Even though we’ve talked about all these, should I go through an actually write down all my answers to this?

[1:01:28.4] SC: Yes.

[1:01:29.0] TG: Okay.

[1:01:30.4] SC: Take as much time. Write a paragraph, two paragraphs, or write on sentence. There’s no rule on how to answer these questions. It’s been my experience that the more you think about them and the more effort you put in to really rolling around in these ideas, the more clarity you’ll have going into your next draft. 

[1:01:58.1] TG: Okay. You would say that’s what this is missing. The book is —

[1:02:04.5] SC: No. It’s missing a lot of other things too that we can talk about next week.

[1:02:10.6] TG: All right. Okay. I can’t think about that, so I’m going to work on this. Okay. I’ll work on this and get this out to you and then we will continue to talk next week.

[1:02:25.3] SC: Yes. 


[1:02:25.5] 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 would 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 iTunes and leaving a rating and review.

Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.



The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.