Editor Roundtable: Story Grid Live 2019

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This week, Jarie interviews the rest of the Roundtablers about their experiences at Story Grid Live in Nashville 2019! 

Story Grid is for writers who are serious about their craft, and over the past four or five years, serious writers from all over the world have become involved, through the flagship podcast, the blogs, the online and in-person courses, and even our humble Roundtable podcast. So Shawn and Tim put together Story Grid Live as a kind of weekend mini-conference in the Nashville area.

The idea was to offer a place where writers looking to deepen their storytelling craft could spend two days alongside other amazing writers and storytellers, and learn the latest in Story Grid ideas directly from Shawn and Tim. 

It took place on September 12 and 13, at a hotel in Franklin, Tennessee. 130 Story nerds from all over the world attended, and boy was that hotel overwhelmed by the enthusiastic crowds!

The talks we got to hear were:

  • The Relationship Between Story and Cognitive Science by Shawn Coyne
  • The Phere: One Story Element to Rule Them All by Shawn Coyne
  • The History and Future of Publishing by Tim Grahl

There were breakout scene analysis sessions that some of the Story Grid Certified Editors led, and a few of us gave short talks on Story Grid 101 topics.

1. The four of you each did a talk. Can you tell me what you talked about and how you felt about giving the talk? I know that some of you might even do a bite-size episode for each one. Let’s hope so.

Anne: Six of us from the original certification group are writing the little books that I think are going to be called Story Grid Beats, one for each of the Editor’s Six Core Questions. 

Kim: Yes, like the Black Irish Jabs

Anne: I talked about Question 4: Objects of Desire. Tim was pretty strict about the 20 minute time-limit for each talk. He said he’d get out the cane if we went over! 

Valerie: Yeah, I’m pretty sure that was meant for me. I do enjoy a spotlight.

Anne: I felt sure he was talking about me! There were problems with the recording of the event, so I recorded my talk once I got home, and it’s the Bite Size episode we aired last week, on October 9. I’m hoping some of you others will record yours too!

Writing up a talk about Objects of Desire had the strange effect of making me understand the importance of this seemingly minor editor’s core question. That sounds strange, but stripping the subject down to its simplest, starkest form is just what I resist doing as a writer, and it’s the only way I could really get to the heart of it. 

It bugs writers to hear that their main characters have to operate out of a single want and a single need through the story. It’s so bare-bones! It feels so cold and calculated. And yet when you internalize that simple guideline–which I tried to do in my talk by telling a personal story–it starts to become clear how useful it is, and how much it enriches your storytelling.

Leslie: I talked about point of view and narrative device, which is the topic of the Story Grid Beat I’m working on. Preparing for the talk helped me get very focused on providing something useful and specific for writers. From this work came the insight that POV flows from the narrative device, which is connected to the controlling idea. I’ve used this concept with several clients already, and it’s been really supportive.

Kim: Leslie, the work you’ve done to make sense of POV … has changed my life—and my clients’ lives. I had the privilege of hearing and discussing the topic with you as you prepped, and so Id already had my mind blown by the material but then it just happened all over again during your talk. POV and Narrative Device has gotten short shrift up to this point and I feel like you’ve cracked how to communicate why it’s so essential. It is one of the six Core questions afterall! 

Valerie: I talked about the Beginning, Middle and End of a story. The key point I wanted to get across was that, even though we have all these storytelling principles coming at us, what we need to do as writers is focus on the global structure of the story first. When we realize that stories have three movements, and that each movement has a function, our novels become much easier to write. Of course, running through those movements is a story spine, and each part of the spine also has a function. I’ll be doing a bite-sized episode about it for sure.

Kim: My talk was on Conventions and Obligatory Scenes, which will be a Story Grid Beat that Leslie and I are co-authoring. We want to emphasize that C&OS are not just a List of items to be included, check the box, but an explicit tool that establishes life values and turns those life values across the Story spine. It’s amazing to me how much depth of understanding is available for every story principle, like even concepts we’ve been using for years, whether it’s genre and life values or POV or whatever—taking that intentionally deeper approach just unlocks whole new worlds. Anne, can we get a clip for this?

2. Community is a big part of the Story Grid Universe. How have you seen the community evolve over the last couple of years? Any particular insights into how to build a stronger community?

Anne: My first exposure to the community was the one where the five of us met: the two-day Love Story workshop in New York City back in February 2017. It was the first time I began to feel that I’d found my people. I think there were about 35 people there, and it was primarily for writers. It formed the basis of a Facebook group, but we hadn’t had time to get to know each other, and the Facebook group alone wasn’t enough to feel real connection or community. 

When the first Editor Certification course came up, I signed on so fast it made my bank account spin! There, in Nashville a couple of years ago, with you guys and the rest of the Original Nineteen, that was when I knew I had found my people. 

But it was the second Editor training, last winter, where I got so inspired by Shawn’s vision that I got a tattoo in commemoration. It’s the Egyptian goddess of writing with a big ball of chaos over her head.

Kim: I love your tattoo, Anne. My film friends and I were just talking about this. One of them was talking about making an intentional effort (there’s that word again!) to participate and contribute to our local film community. And he asked me about our Story Grid community—specifically about FB groups vs Slack groups—and what I said was that the Best community experiences to me are when people self select to be there. When it’s distinct enough that it’s not for everyone, so some people opt out, because then those who opt in are totally in, and the quality of the community is just that much higher. A room of SG nerds is hard to beat. 

Valerie: For people who can make it to Story Grid Live, it’s an amazing place to start becoming active in the existing community, or beginning to build a community of your own. But what about the people who can’t easily travel to Nashville? You can always take one of the online Story Grid courses; both Ground Your Craft and Level Up Your Craft have community discussion boards. Or, you can introduce the Story Grid method to your own local writing group. 

Leslie: The Story Grid Community has grown, and Shawn and Tim have been thoughtful about the way they’ve gone about it. What I mean is everything they create–from the flagship podcast and online courses to the certified editor training and Story Grid Live–aligns with their values and vision. It’s not about gaming the system or finding shortcuts. It’s really about helping writers write a better story this time and an even better one next time. In my experience, this is rare. And because everything they do is consistent with this, writers can tell immediately if this is a good fit for them. 

3. Do you think that seeing people In Real Life (IRL) is a requirement to build a strong community

Leslie: I would hate to say it’s a requirement because I know writers who aren’t able to travel find ways to participate in the community. But I think this is a wonderful way to make personal connections with other writers. Having a dedicated time and space for talking and thinking about story with like-minded folks is a real boost. To anyone who is trying to find a right-fit community, I would say, keep trying. I had to kiss a lot of frogs, so to speak, on the way to finding my tribe.

Valerie: Hmm, “requirement” is an interesting word – it might depend on the person to be honest. For me, it’s essential. I’m an extrovert and I just love these events. The energy in the room was incredible. I met one woman who’d been working as an editor for years, and she told me that she’d never seen a group of writers so animated before. People were talking, laughing, sharing stories, talking about their novels and Shawn’s method…it was amazing. 

I think being part of a community is essential. And for anyone who’s really serious about improving their understanding of story, it’s important to be as active in the community as possible.  Story Grid is different; it’s a totally different approach to the craft. There’s nothing like the Story Grid Live event for meeting other people who are into this. That’s one of the reasons I went to the Love Story Workshop back in February 2017 — and I met all of you there and we’ve been studying together pretty much ever since. I would never have the level of understanding that I do now if it wasn’t for this group. 

Jarie: I remember it fondly. I almost didn’t make it due to the snowstorm. If I recall, most of us got delayed. I know my Jet Blue flight got canceled and I had to switch to Virgin. 

Anne: And then there was Hurricane Irma for the first Editor Certification training. Turned out to be nothing much as far inland as Nashville, but there was some fingernail-biting.

Real-life meetings certainly help cement relationships, but as Leslie says, it would be wrong to say that there’s no way to connect except by flying to distant cities and paying for lodging. The five of us are pretty far-flung, and just getting on a call together every week, with a clear intention to study story structure, has built and reinforced our little study group. 

It takes some guts, I think, to commit to meeting up online through Skype or Zoom with people you haven’t met in person, but to my mind, a video call is a valid way to connect. Forming an editing group with other Story Gridders, or a study group like we’ve done here, is within the reach of most people, and it’s a great idea. My own editing group never meets in person, and at least one of us has never met the others in person. We’ve been going strong for four years.

But though I’m an introvert, I agree with Valerie that nothing quite comes up to the experience of being in the room where it happens, with all the other people who are enthusiastic about it.

There are some great opportunities coming up in 2020 too: one for big idea nonfiction writers, one on the Heroic Journey and fantasy stories, and a third editor certification training. People can check them all out at https://storygrid.com/university.

Kim: yeah I think any chance to meet with your core humans in person is so valuable. There’s nothing quite like it. And SG events are amazing but what’s great is that’s something we can make happen outside of those official events. We’ve done several PNW meet ups and that has been great. Even doing Video chats is so valuable. Anything to connect to the real live humans behind the typed words in a forum. 

4. How is it to see the people who listen to the podcast live and in person?

Anne: When I was registering at the hotel the evening before the event began, a fellow guest at the front desk gave me a friendly smile and a hello, which I returned, a bit confused. Then he said, “I recognize that voice. You’re Anne from the Roundtable!” We introduced ourselves–Hi Fred!–but it’s very odd to be recognized in person by voice alone.

Valerie: I had the same experience, Anne! Now, I was really tired because I’d been traveling all night and hadn’t slept. So, I’m not sure if I made any sense, but it was so much fun to meet some of the people who listen to the show.

Leslie: What was most gratifying to me was to hear how valuable the Roundtable is as a resource for writers. We know that actively studying stories is useful to us and helps us in our work as editors and writers, and we have a great time doing it, but it’s wonderful to hear how other writers are benefiting too, and gaining confidence to study the stories they’re most interested in. 

Kim: Yes, and I always try to reiterate that we started as a study group. We are still a study group! We’ve just modified our POV/Narrative device 🙂 our audience isn’t just ourselves and each other, it’s the SG community as a whole. But digging in at this level is available to anyone—which is one of the most amazing things about SG—So much amazing content is available for free online.

4. What questions did attendees ask you?

Leslie: Lots of questions! But my favorite ones were about Narrative Device. During my talk I invited writers to tell me about the narrative device for their stories, and lots of people shared fantastic ideas, things I never would have thought of. There were a lot of creative writers in that room. 

Valerie: Oh my God, all kinds of stuff! People wanted to know how to find the right editor to work with — and if any of you listening have that same question, you can check out the biographies of the certified editors on the Story Grid website. Or, go to the editing services page on the site and fill in one of the forms. They come to me (because I help Shawn and Tim with some administrative work) and I’ll match you with an editor. 

There were also lots of people asking how those of us here on the podcast know so much about story and, honestly, it’s no secret. We’ve made it a priority. We’ve invested significant time and money because we’ve all decided that it’s important. So, we studied with Shawn and we study together, and we practice the skills in a very deliberate way. I mean, we do a story every week together, plus then we study other films and novels on our own time. If we can do it, anyone can do it.

Several people asked me about my productivity and writing process too. That kind of caught me off guard because I didn’t think those kinds of details would be interesting to anyone. It’s one of the reasons I started the Inner Circle actually. So if this is something you’d like to hear more about, go to valeriefrancis.ca/innercircle. 

Anne: Story Grid people are so passionate about the work of writing and editing better stories, I’ve forgotten the many questions they had for me. I do remember people coming up to me with suggestions and requests for movies or books they’d like the Roundtable to cover. 

We always answer those requests by sincerely urging the requester to try doing the analysis themselves. Read the novel, watch the film, and take a crack at filling out a Global Foolscap worksheet for it. It’s hard at first, but it gets easier, and there’s absolutely no substitute for it if you want to learn the craft.

I got a lot of questions and feedback about the Masterwork Experiment on the flagship podcast–that was the ten-episode run Shawn and I did together this past summer, analyzing Brokeback Mountain so I could use its beat structure to write a new story of my own. 

A lot of people wanted to know what it was like to be so “brave” or “vulnerable” in working publicly with Shawn, and I was all, “Huh? It wasn’t that brave–we just sat and talked for an hour every week for ten weeks, and nobody else was there!” It’s easy to be vulnerable and brave when the audience doesn’t come in till two or three weeks later. But I’m glad it seemed that way to people. 

If anybody would like to follow my progress on finishing my Brokeback Mountain-based story, or even peek at my working draft, you can do that at annehawley.net/masterwork/ 

Kim: questions about editor certification, lots of people interested in next year’s certification Sep 2020. And for me another rewarding thing was being asked about my own writing and being prompted (forced) to talk about—share the details and have people be really interested in it. That is always so encouraging to me. My own storytelling is really important to me and it’s easy to set it aside for other work, so getting to share about it is always helpful for me. And then of course during Breakout sessions for live scene analysis—so fun!  

5. If you could summarize the event in only one sentence, what would it be?

Leslie: We’re here for the meaningful work of writing a better story, one that is more entertaining and enlightening than the last one.  

Anne: It was totally worth the trip and I can’t wait till next year! I’ve never been a part of something so energizing and inspiring. That’s two sentences. Oh well.

Valerie: It’s a chance for people who are passionate about story to get together. We’ve got a particular brand of “story nerdery” and it’s just incredible to spend a few days talking about the craft with other people who care about it as much as we do.

Kim: the hype is real! There is nothing quite as powerful as humans gathered for a single purpose. When we do, we experience the physical and the metaphysical, and in SG world that is some pretty powerful shit. Science and art, objective and subjective truth, explicit and implicit learning, there’s nothing like it.

6. What one thing would you have liked to see more of at the event?

Valerie: Coffee. Wait, that’s probably not what you meant, right?

Jarie: Ha. Well, good coffee is important.

Anne: There’s coffee, and then there’s good coffee. But what I would have liked more of was time! There just wasn’t time to speak to everyone, or get to know newcomers. I connected with a few, but the crowd was overwhelming, and the two days were so packed with great stuff. It’s intense, so I’m not sure I could have survived another day, but another day’s worth of time would have been great.

Valerie: Yes, more time would have been wonderful. It all went by so quickly and Anne, like you, I didn’t get a chance to speak to everyone I would have liked to speak to.

7. Any ah-ha moments or take-a-way nuggets that blew you away?

Leslie: Too many to share here, the one that was most fun was Shawn’s calculation that there are more potential story combinations than there are atoms in the universe. And in all of that chaos, we can study stories to find patterns, organize those patterns into systems, so we can use them to write better stories. On the surface, that doesn’t sound very creative, but to me, it’s all about reading deeply, figuring out what makes the stories that resonate with you work, and sharing our individual take on human experience.  

Valerie: Ah, yes. Stories are combinatorially explosive! 

I just get a kick out of hearing Shawn talk about story. His mind works so differently from mine…I don’t know where he comes up with some of this stuff, but it sure is interesting. Seriously, who else would come up with A Genre-Based Periodic Table of Pheres? Not me, that’s for sure!

Anne: And of course, that’s P-H-E-R-E phere. I love that he did the math on that, too, to support the notion of a near infinite number of possible story combinations. What a nerd! 

Shawn’s been developing his vision of a revolutionary publishing model for a couple of years now. I was blown away by it when he first introduced it, at the first Editor Certification training. But the vision has grown and evolved, and it’s even more exciting now. He envisions a kind of walled garden system, where writers who want to tell better stories learn the Story Grid craft, and then, if they and an affiliated editor can show that the writer’s work meets all the requirements of its genres, there will be a path to publication. The idea is that if you see Story Grid Publications on a book cover, it will be a guarantee of a solid, entertaining, absorbing story.

He talked a little about it towards the end of the Masterwork Experiment. He called the training ground a “dojo” and then–in a lovely mixed metaphor–said once the writer has been trained, the Story Grid world will also provide a performance space, which is to say the publishing arm–and that the student in the dojo will take off in a rocketship for Planet Performance. 

Kim: Story nerds really are the best and SG are the cream of the crop. There is nothing like a room full of SG folks. Not a single ego at play on the room, just genuine connection. And Shawn and Tim set the tone for that. My major ah-ha was how grateful and crazy lucky I am to get to be a part of this Story Grid Universe!

Anne: Hear, hear!

 If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.

Join us next time as Jarie takes us back to that 70s staple,  Love Story for his final look at…love stories! Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.