Welcome to the Bite Size Edition of the Editor Roundtable Podcast. Here on the Roundtable we’re dedicated to helping you become a better writer, following the Story Grid method developed by Shawn Coyne. In these episodes we bring you some shorter solo articles and interviews on topics that interest us as writers.
In this episode, Valerie Francis and Leslie Watts discuss why you need a masterwork.
Why Do You Need a Masterwork?
Leslie: I think there is some confusion about writing stories because the mechanics of writing—putting words and sentences on the page—is something we know how to do, and we’ve all read stories, so it should be easy to write a story. But it’s not because there’s more to it than putting sentences on the page. The way people usually explain this is that some people are gifted and some people are not. That misconception isn’t all that useful. Some skills come more easily to some writers than others, but really, the process is not that different from learning to perform other complicated processes that involve objective and subjective elements.
In any other context when you want to do something you don’t yet know how to do, you seek instruction or a mentor, and masterworks are one form of mentor you need along the way. So why do you need a mentor? You need help from someone who is further along the path. The best way to learn from writers, unless you have a direct and personal connection with them, is to study their work.
Honestly, the way I see it now, I’d ask why wouldn’t you need a masterwork? Stories create a conversation about human life and experience, and if you want to contribute to that conversation, you need to understand what’s being said.
Valerie: I get so many questions from writers asking whether they can do this or that, or how a particular story principle works and the answers to all these questions can be found in masterworks. The best way to understand how stories work is to study stories. Look at how other writers have approached their craft, see what works and what doesn’t, how they created certain effects or used different principles.
The simple answer to “Can I do this?” or “Can I do that?” is always yes. The real question is should you do it. At Story Grid, we can teach you what the different storytelling principles are, but you still need to see them in action and there’s absolutely no other way to do that than by studying stories.
What is a Masterwork?
Leslie: A Masterwork is an excellent example of a story you want to model. If we break that down, understand it’s not a “mediocre-work.” If you had your choice of mentors, would you choose someone who’s OK or someone who is a master? You should choose a masterwork for your global or secondary genres, sales category, but also for narrative device or other elements of the story, so for any aspect of content or technique.
Valerie: You make some really good points here, Leslie. We can study excellent examples of particular genres; for example, Pride and Prejudice is a masterwork for a love story. But, there might be one particular story principle we want to understand better, so we can find great examples of those principles and study them. In the thriller I’m working on now, I’ve identified thirteen story principles (so far) that I want to understand better, and I’ve got multiple examples (books and films) for each principle to study.
This is exactly what we’re doing on the podcast now. This season I’m want to study Forces of Antagonism; that’s the story principle I’m studying. I’ll have twelve examples to study here on the podcast, plus the other books, tv shows and films that I’m studying on my own.
How Do You Find a Masterwork?
Leslie: Of course you have to read a lot, you might kiss a lot of frogs before you find the right masterworks. If you can’t find a book that’s like the story you want to write, read more books, think more abstractly about what’s happening in your story and in potential masterworks.
Valerie: If you think there aren’t any books out there like yours, in the millions of titles that have been published, you’re wrong. It’s just that simple. First of all, you’ve simply got to consume stories widely and deeply. If you’re serious about being a professional writer, that’s part of the deal.
But you’ve also got to understand what we mean when we’re talking about masterworks. We’re not suggesting a cookie-cutter approach to novel-writing. In fact, we’re talking about exactly the opposite! When people tell me that they can’t find a book like theirs, either they’re not well-read enough, or they’re looking for a book that is a carbon copy of what they’re writing. Nobody wants a carbon copy. Nobody.
What we all want, readers and writers alike, is innovation. There’s absolutely no way you can innovate unless you know what’s already out there.
Innovation is hard work. If your goal is to earn a living as an author, and build a viable career, then you’ve got to be prepared to do that work. Otherwise, people aren’t going to keep reading your books and you’ll be forced to play algorithm roulette, and hope for the best.
Let’s talk about the BBC series Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Sherlock Holmes is one of the most popular characters in literature. There have been so many different adaptations of Conan Doyle’s stories that it’s ridiculous. The only way that Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt could innovate it was to know exactly what had been done already.
Another great example is Harry Potter. It’s not an original story; not by a long shot. It’s a standard hero’s journey format. It’s King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. Rowling borrowed from everybody and created something wonderfully fresh from it. It’s got references to Greek and Norse Mythology, countless classic stories; it’s a hodge-podge of everything that came before it. As Shawn pointed out in our last training session, The Golden Snitch is Jung’s concept of chaos!
Why Would You Look Outside Your Global Genre for a Masterwork?
Valerie: YES!! Innovation, innovation, innovation!
Let me circle back to my comment about algorithm roulette for a minute. I come from the indie author world, and I hear a lot of conversation about different ways to hack the system. The latest is that writers are taking the names of famous authors and adding a middle initial. So for example, there’s a horror writer who has taken the pseudonym Stephen A. King. Like, come on. Another strategy is all about keeping book prices low; a writer recently told me that if I charged more than $0.49 for a novel it wouldn’t sell.
If you know anything about marketing, you know these kinds of things will never work. Not for publishing. Not for any other industry.
If you don’t know anything about marketing, may I recommend you get This Is Marketing by Seth Godin, or take The Marketing Seminar, also given by Seth. The man knows how to market and one of the things he says is ‘ideas that spread, win’—of course, he’s talking about word of mouth. For a book to become a bestseller, or even to sell consistently in quantities that will create a viable income, readers have got to tell their friends about it.
Unless you innovate your storytelling, no one will talk about your book. You can’t innovate unless you study what has come before. And the things that have come before, and that have endured, are known as masterworks.
It’s our jobs, as professional writers, to understand how stories work and to tell them to the best of our ability. Just because we can read a book doesn’t mean we can write one, not without studying.
What Do You Do With Your Masterwork(s)?
Leslie: You need to study them, take them apart, look at the decisions the writer made Read like a writer and editor, not a casual reader. For your primary masterwork, read it, not just once but several times. Take it apart and inspect the ingredients and the way they work together. Use Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid Guide to Pride and Prejudice or his breakdown of The Silence of the Lambs in The Story Grid as guides to show you how to analyze stories. Look at the decisions each writer of your chosen masterworks has made and ask yourself, why, given all the options that are available, might they have chosen to do it this way? Read other similar stories closely and see what they have in common and how they are different. Then you come back to your masterwork and read it again with these insights to deepen your understanding.
Ultimately, it depends on how you intend to use it and what you need from it.
The Masterwork Experiment
Shawn Coyne and Anne Hawley conducted the Masterwork Experiment on the flagship Story Grid Podcast last summer. They analyzed Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” to use as a model for Anne’s short story. They took it down to the beat level, the micro units of story that make up scenes, and Anne allowed those beats to inform her choices for her own story. It was a process of looking closely at the ingredients, the order they were introduced, and the writer’s choices and then asking, what’s that like in my story, for my character, for my setting?
To be clear, we’re not talking about formula or copying another writer’s work, it’s about understanding what makes a great story great and finding your own expression of it. Figure out what you want to study and why and find an example.
Another example: I have a client who was trying to decide on narrative device and POV for his story. To figure that out, we reviewed the openings of ten to fifteen novels to find the right combination of POV and tense.
Valerie: Here’s the thing: most people are not willing to do this work. It’s time consuming. I get it. But if you’re one of those who will put in the time and effort to study, your work is going to stand out from the crowd. Your readers will start recommending your book to other people.
One of the things I needed to do for my thriller (Immortal), was figure out how to tell a story with multiple, interwoven, storylines. It took me several months to find a story that was similar to the idea I had in mind. Although I’m not duplicating what Margaret Atwood did in The Blind Assassin, I’m looking at what she did and how she did it, and then I’ll apply the lessons I learned to my book. The Blind Assassin fits the bill of a masterwork because it’s been a perennial seller since its publication in 2000, it won the Booker Prize and was nominated for several others including The Governor General’s award.
Valerie: I guess for me, the key takeaway is that as writers, we’ve got to be willing to put in the time to do the study. We all want to jump right in and get writing (I’m guilty of that myself), and of course there’s a balance between the study and the writing. I mean, if we only study all the time and don’t write anything, that’s not helpful either. So in my opinion, what we’ve got to do is get into the habit of studying story principles and then practice applying them to our work. We can study through courses obviously, but studying masterworks is another crucial way to learn.
Leslie: If you’re writing a novel and you don’t have a masterwork, get on that! And don’t be afraid to make mistakes, either in choosing a masterwork or in how you analyze it. You’re going to make mistakes and your analysis will change over time (as it should when you’re leveling up).
Join us next week for a full length episode when Kim looks at story beginnings in Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. Why not give it a read and follow along with us?