Helping Others Become Better Writers

Have you heard the advice that if you want to learn something, teach it?

I think that applies to storytelling too. Now that my writer friends know about the podcast, they often ask my advice on their stories. Pretty quickly I realize where the holes in my knowledge are. This is often what ends up becoming the topic of the next episode.

In this week’s episode, Shawn and I discuss how to help other writers by acting as their editor. At some point all of us will do this for our friends so it’s good to learn the best practices.

[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 it becomes kind of far ranging and random. I submitted to him my first seven scenes of the second draft and kind of steeled myself for an hour of ripping it apart. As you can see pretty quickly, he’s pretty happy with it. We started talking though about the different sides of the brain that you use as a writer that kind of — I don’t know, the kind of intuitive and the thinking brain. He goes deep into it and it’s really helpful as you think about — We talk a lot about switching about the editor brain and the writer brain. We go deep into that and some other different topics.

I hope you enjoy this episode. Let’s jump in and get started.


[0:01:04.3] TG: Shawn, I ended up sending you the first seven scenes from the novel. Backing up, I’ve finished draft of the novel several months ago. We spent a couple of months walking through all the different tools, the Story Grid tools for evaluating a first draft. We spread-sheeted each scene, we did a brainstorm and kind of mind dump on each scene, then we used the hero’s journey, then — I don’t know, a couple of other things. They’re all in the past podcast. You can go see that.

Then we are taking a break and looking at my nonfiction book and now we’re going to work on the second draft of the novel. In the first draft, the beginning hook, the first part of the book, was 11 scenes and about 14,000 words. I sent you seven scenes which is actually only about half of what the beginning hook is going to be and that came to about 13,000 words. I sent you 13,000 words. I just wanted to stop and see if I was on the right track, because I added some scenes, some complete new scenes. I added to some of the scenes and then I just tweaked a couple of scenes and added those in. I’ll post all of those in the show notes at storygrid.com/podcast for anybody that wants to read them. Anyway, I wanted to just see how you thought I was doing so far, I guess.

[0:02:36.4] SC: I thought they were very — One of the first things I thought before we got on the phone to do the podcast. This might be a really brief podcast, because, yeah, there’s a ton of things that you can fix in there. The point of this second draft is really to actually enjoy yourself a little bit more than you do on your first draft. When I say that, what I mean is the first draft, you’re really sort of discovering the story as you’re moving forward. We have a lot of stop and starts when we’re going through scene-by-scene beginning hook, beginning hook, middle build, ending payoff. When we’re working through that, there was a lot of stop and start, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of, “Where is this going? What do I have to get done here?” Now, after you’ve pretty much delivered a very long outline for yourself, now you feel reading the material — What it felt like to me reading it, knowing everything that we’ve done since the start of time, that now it seems like you’re enjoying thinking about interesting ways of complicating the story, getting just in the positions of escalating tension, because you know there are these big mile markers that you have to it. You allow yourself to give a little bit more history about the world, about the specificity of New York City at this time and place.

You allow other characters very, very tertiary small characters come on stage which is a really good idea because you’re giving the story a lot of flesh early on because you know exactly what’s going to happen and move forward. Overall, I thought this was a really, really nice step forward. I think people who read this material now as supposed to have been reading along as you’ve been writing will see the same thing that I do, which is, “Oh my gosh! He’s really taking a giant leap forward. The world is getting more and more specific. Jessie is a character. Her actions and the world that she inhabits are much clearer. It feels as if we’re watching a movie in a way,” which before it didn’t because the reader had to really supply a lot of the background situation, setting, all that stuff. Now, you’re also defining the society in the moment so that the reader understands, “Oh! Okay. There’s absolutely classes and strata of society and Jessie is sort of in the lower-middle class, almost elite, but not really. All in all I thought it was a really strong second draft. 

With that said, obviously you know that you’re going to have to go back and really hone and tighten the line by line because it’s a little choppy here and there and there’s some fizzing at the end of the first scene because you set up kind of this climactic moment that doesn’t really arrive, but that’s okay. You may even combine the first and second so that your first scene shows Jessie in her element. She’s really great in this moment as she’s going through her process to tap into the credits.

I was a little big dubious about your setting in New York in a post-apocalyptic world, but now that I see what your idea was, I think it works. I think the Time Square setting for the shaming works. All in all I thought it was a really good start to your second draft. Also, now that you see that you can take your time, flesh out moments, you’ll see that your novel isn’t going to be 45, 50,000 words. You’re going to approach the word count of what you set out to do, which is a long form trilogy about a post-apocalyptic word using a character who is on the verge of maturity. It’s a maturation plot in dystopian thriller world, and those typically are epic stories. They’re in the hundred thousand word category per book which is probably 400 pages, 384 pages per book. All in all, I think all I can say is keep doing it. Keep writing it. Keep having fun and you’re on the right track. Didn’t expect that, huh? 

[0:07:31.2] TG: Yeah

[0:07:35.5] SC: Let me just say this now about if we can step back and kind of take a big macro view of what we’ve done over the last year two years. We’re almost coming on two years. This two-year process probably seems like to the listeners out there and probably to you that it’s taken a long time. The reality of it is when you’re writing by yourself, when you’re not getting feedback in very quick succession of your writing, the lessons that you’ve learned over this two years take quite a bit longer. You write entire manuscripts to sort of one of the major things that you’ve learned in the two years.

The place you’re at now is a really — It’s very heartening to me as sort of playing the mentor here, because you’re the mentor you never really know if your advice is really going to work. I can sit around and say, “Oh, I can teach anybody how to write,” but until we started this podcast and we went down some blind alleys and we learned that certain things that I thought were easily intuitively, it was easy — I thought it was easy to take my prescription and execute it.

The reality is execution is really difficult, and execution is the thing that sets the want to be writer and the amateur writer apart from the professional writer. The professional writer understands that they can execute an idea and at the end of that execution fail, and yeah, it’s devastating and it’s painful but they also understand, “Okay. Let me get back to square one. What was I trying to set out to do in the first place? How did I not hit the right places to make that work?”

Your second draft here is the next iteration of the professionals sort of learning how to do their craft, because the next time you write your — When you write your next novel you’re going to say to yourself, “Okay, the first draft, I’m not going to kill myself if I don’t know all of the intricacies of my universe yet. What I need to do in this first draft is to really hammer down the major points in the story, and the way I’ll do that is I’ll come up with a global plan with the understanding that, as I’m writing, that global plan is going to change. It might even change so drastically that my original genre choice will change with it.”

That’s terrifying to tell an amateur writer? It’s terrifying — When we started this podcast and if I had said to you, “Tim, the first 18 months that we work will be really — You might have to throw everything out.”

[0:10:42.9] TG: It’s funny because just this — I’ve been doing the artist way morning pages where you write three pages longhand everyday of anything, and this morning, literally this morning, I wrote something along the lines of, “I’m really glad I didn’t know it would take this long when we started, because I don’t think I —” That’s like every project I’ve ever done, is it takes so much longer than I thought, but I feel like I have to think it won’t take long otherwise I would not embark on the journey, because I wrote the first draft that we ended up throwing completely out because, really, the new first draft is like the second draft.  I wrote that spring of 2016 and we’re coming up on the — I’ll have to go back and look, but it was probably around October when I wrote the first scene of the first draft that we actually finished together.

Yeah, I’m just like, “Oh man!” Yeah, anyway, that’s funny you are saying that because this morning I wrote that down of just like, “Man! It’s taken much longer than I thought it would.”

[0:11:54.5] SC: That’s heartening as well as disturbing, because I think a lot of people kind of look at writing in the way you would learn a very skilled craft, like handwork or carpentry or something. The problem is is that you could build something as a carpenter that is sturdy and can work far faster than you can build a story that works, a long storm story that works.

[0:12:25.2] TG: I’ve done a lot of thinking on this and I keep coming back to it’s the type of feedback you get, because if you build something with wood that can’t hold weight, you know that immediately, and I always use the idea because I used to play the guitar a lot. You know immediately when you play the wrong note on a guitar. There is no question. Where with writing — The whole reason I stopped and was like, “I’m afraid this isn’t any good.” One is I didn’t know if what I was doing was any good. I was like, “I’m just going to go ahead and get Shawn to look at it before I plow through another 13,000 words.” Then you’re like, “Okay. It’s good. Keep going,” which is great, except most people don’t have that.

That’s why I think this skill is so hard because it’s really, really hard to know when you’re doing it right or wrong. Even when you’re doing it right, there’s no way to stress test it immediately.

[0:13:29.1] SC: I’m just going to have to disagree a little bit with that statement, because I have to believe that when you wrote this second draft you knew, “Yeah, this works.” You knew that what you just wrote is, yeah, it’s choppy and it’s not perfectly honed, but you knew it worked based upon the outline of the first draft. You knew what your scene had to do and had to accomplish. I think because you’re an evolving writer, you’re not recognizing your advancement in the way that — Now, since I have 25 years’ experience, I know when I write something and I know when it’s working. I don’t necessarily need third party validation anymore to let me know that something has worked.

Now, it still takes me a long time to get to something that works, but I know incrementally that I’ll get there and I know, generally, if I write a draft to something, “Oh, yeah. I’m going to have to completely rewrite this 13, 14 times,” but the skeleton is working.

[0:14:42.0] TG: Yeah. Where I’m at is kind of where I was towards the end of the first draft, which is like I know when I feel pretty confident writing working scenes. It’s knowing that they’re working as sequences or as chunks of the story, because it’s like — Also, that first scene was 3,000 words, and I was like, “Man! Am I just like glutting this thing out now?” Like, “Well, I’m supposed to write more, so here we go.” That’s what makes it harder, is that constant — There is nothing with writing, and that’s what makes writing so great too is that there’s so much license. You can do so much with it, but the downside of that is like if you’re playing a wrong note you don’t necessarily know it as you’re playing the wrong note.

[0:15:37.3] SC: That’s true.

[0:15:37.5] TG: Yeah, I’ve definitely — If I extend the metaphor beyond what it’s probably should be, I definitely have an ear for it now, where I feel good about what I’m writing. I know where the scene is going when I start. I don’t start a scene without kind of having the structure already in my head. Doing the two writing contests for the right practice has been good practice too of trying to cram an entire story into a thousand words. That’s been good. I definitely do feel way more comfortable than at the beginning and knew I felt like I was getting closer, but I was getting nervous. Maybe it was going so well that I was getting nervous.

[0:16:21.5] SC: Right. That’s a good sign.

[0:16:27.7] TG: Okay. I was just going to go on. I guess the next thing is I’ll just go on and finish the beginning hook and then stop and look at it again and see if we’re going the right direction. Is there anything — No feedback. Just keep on going, or is there anything like, “Hey, we’ll keep an eye on this as you keep going.”

[0:16:53.5] SC: No. I don’t want to give you any specific notes, because right now you have a rhythm and it feels just from reading it that you have a real momentum going and it’s almost as if there’s that magical moment that writers talk about and people think this is the way it always is when it feels as if you’re literally watching something in your head and just describing what you’re seeing. Those are the real moments when you’re feeling very empowered.

Personally, when that happens for myself, and one of the ways I try and get into that thinking is to ask myself that question. What would you see if you were watching the character on the screen? It’s not screenwriting, it’s describing the actions of the character in motion.

You start the first scene with Jessie in motion, which is great, and this is where a lot of writers just refuse to do or don’t even understand how to do. What I mean by that is a lot of writers will start their novel or their story with some Dickensian, third person omniscient, setting the scene, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The sun came over the mountain just as the crow dropped down to the field to get the first worm of the,” — Something really, “Oh my gosh! When is this story going to start?”

A lot of people think that’s good writing, like, “Oh! Well, they’re very alliterative and the phrasing is just so poetic that it will really suck the reader in.” No, it won’t. What sucks the reader is watching someone do something or somebody in a situation that is grave, or challenging, or in the middle of a conversation. That’s what I liked about the start of yours. Jessie, she’s in motion. She’s doing something. She’s on a mission, and you don’t tell the reader what the mission is, you describe what she’s doing.

I think a lot of people have a tendency to lose — They don’t understand how smart the reader is, and the reader is so smart that they’re constantly thinking of what’s going to happen next. The trick is to give them the active moment of the character in motion, understanding that the reader is really intensely following that character and thinking, “What’s she doing? Where is she going? Why is she doing that? Oh, right. Well maybe she’s doing — No, that’s not what she’d doing.” The reader is thinking that intuitively as they’re reading the story. It’s like their front — There’s two ways of thinking. There’s the fast way of thinking which is your intuitive thought, being your first impression of somebody going, “I don’t like that guy,” or, “Oh! She seems really nice.” That intuitive thinking you can’t control. It’s unconscious. It comes from biases, and your personal experience, stories that you know, and it’s a magical thing that is part of being a human being. That’s the first way to think. It’s fast thinking.

The second way you think is exertion thinking. It’s deep thinking, analytical thinking. You’re putting forward energy in order to make all kinds of neural connections in your brain. That’s the second kind of thinking. When you read, you are using the second thinking, the second way of thinking, because you have to concentrate on the words. You have to come up with a comprehension of the sentence. It’s effort, and the more you do it the better you get at it. It’s an effort full process.

As you’re doing the effort full, deep thinking process of reading a story, what’s magical is that that other fast thinker in your brain is working too, and the fast thinker knows all about story structure. It’s the expert story structured nerd in your brain constantly checking the writer to see that they are abiding story structure technique. That fast thinker is sort of this random —

[0:21:32.3] TG: That’s the one that when it’s violated, people don’t like the book, but don’t know why.

[0:21:37.4] SC: Exactly.

[0:21:38.2] TG: You always say, they kind of feel like, “It just doesn’t work.”

[0:21:41.1] SC: Right. Usually, this is the great thing about story and the great thing about reading and the great thing about experiencing great art is that you, the reader, the experiencer of the material, has to put forth some effort. They have to engage — They call it the system two. System one is fast. System two is deep thinking. System one is intuitive thought, gut reactions, blah-blah-blah. All that kind of stuff.

When you say to someone, “Could you read my novel?” They want to go, “No way! I’m not reading your novel.” Why? Because they know they’re going to have to use system two, and system two takes a lot of energy. In fact, they’ve done experiments that when people are — The way they get people to engage in system two is they give them very difficult math problems, like, “What’s 27 x 14?” You can’t intuitively give me an answer to 27 x 14. You have to actually engage system two to solve that problem.

When you ask somebody, “Could you read my book?” You’re saying, “What’s 27 x14?” They don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do it. I’m not speaking like I’m a casting aspersions on people because they don’t want to engage system two. What I’m saying is that every single person on the planet wants to conserve energy, and it takes a lot of energy to engage system. Anyway, they’ve done experiments about this and they’ve actually tracked the blood glucose level of people who are engaging system two. Guess what happens? The glucose level goes down dramatically. It’s almost like running around the block. It takes energy to engage the deep thinking process. This is why nobody wants to read your shit, because it’s going to take energy.

Once that energy is expended, the system one is sort of like your security system. It’s constantly navigating the universe, looking around, “What’s that sound? What’s the dog doing?” When you’ve got system two reading the story and following and picturing, literally, when you read you’re making little images in your brain, and that’s what system two is doing. System one is back there checking. It’s sort of checking the work.

System one is constantly saying, “What’s going to happen? What’s happening? What’s happening? What’s happening? I bet that’s going to — Oh! That’s not going to happen. What’s going to happen next?”

As the writer, you want to trust that your reader’s system is firing on all circuits and that that system one is going to constantly be checking your structural work. This is why we want to innovate our scenes. We want to give readers something that they haven’t seen before, because when you do that, it’s called narrative drive. Then they go, “Oh my gosh! This writer is awesome. I have never seen this scene before. I wonder what’s going to happen next.”

This is what writing is all about, is surprising the reader. But, what Mamet says, “A story is a surprising conclusion, but inevitable” The inevitable part comes from abiding story structure. Fast thinker, the fast thinker in your brain at the end of the story is going to go, “Oh my gosh! That was incredible, because the ending here I see was absolutely inevitable from start of this story, but I didn’t see it coming. It surprised me. Wow! I want to read the guy’s next book.”

What you’re doing now in the second draft just to get back to what our work is today, what you’re doing in the second draft is you’re trusting your reader’s system one. You are just giving them just the facts: She moved here. She did this. That happened. This is happening now. This is the way the world looks. This is the way New York City is. If you don’t do this you get that. You’re telling the reader, “As we’re watching the character move through the universe, the rules of the universe at the same time as we’re watching here, and it’s worked —”

[0:26:14.5] TG: Okay. Yeah, because there is that point — I’m reading a book now where it did the thing where it opens with this whole explanation of where the world’s at right now, and it —

[0:26:25.1] SC: Don’t you hate that?

[0:26:26.5] TG: It’s funny because I catch that stuff now. In the past, I think when I read those I was just kind of like, “Okay. Okay. Let’s get through this so we can get to the book.” Now I’m like, “Why didn’t he just kind of let me know that as we went along?”

Anyway, but then in the second scene I do stop and explain a bunch of the world, because I got to a point where I’m like, “If I try to get this in, it’s going to seem super hoaky, because nobody in this story will actually discuss this, because they all already know it.”

What I tried to do is put it in a — What I pictured was like kind of the way I think about Trump being president right now. It’s been a while now, and I still catch myself thinking back through everything that’s happened. I think about when he got elected, and I think about when he got sworn in, and I think about the myriad of things that have happened since then. Every time something new comes in and it kind of strikes me again that he’s our president, I kind of rewind and rollback through that really quick in my head. You know what I mean? Not consciously, it’s just kind of what I do.

That’s where I tried to kind of fit it in is she was worried that she started thinking about the laws of whether or not she’s allowed to be out and that kind of fell into telling about the world. That way I could fit it in. It wasn’t the first thing you read, but it is a bunch of stuff that you’re going to need to know to make sense of what’s about to happen. That’s how I went about trying to fit in all of these stuff that I couldn’t naturally fit into the story, if that makes sense.

[0:28:13.7] SC: I think it’s okay. After you suck the reader in, to drop in little things like that every now and then is okay. In fact, it gives them a moment of — On the flipside, you don’t want to be doing action, action, action, action, following, following, following, following, because it’s exhausting. I recently saw the movie Dunkirk, which I had great hopes for.

[0:28:42.4] TG: Oh no. I haven’t seen it yet.

[0:28:43.6] SC: Okay. Well then I’ll stop talking about it. I’ll speak in generality. Sometimes when we’re creating story, we think that action, action, action is the ultimate expression of storytelling, and it is, but you need moments of slowness. You need to modulate the storytelling in much the same way that a composer modulates a symphony. You have to have counterpoints of slowness and one on one conversations as well as the big moment in the middle of Time Square. Because we did go through the Story Grid spreadsheet, which shows you, “Oh my gosh! I’ve got nine scenes in a row that are set with a thousand people. That’s not going to work, because I’m going to exhaust my reader. I need to make the conflict personal, extra personal, internal. I need to flip-flop.” One of the easy ways to figure that out is to count how many characters are in the scene. Likewise, you don’t want a bunch of scenes where there’s only two people sitting around drinking coffee. That’s not going to work either.

That’s where the Story Grid stuff and all the minutia and all your retaining crap that I tell people that they should do, that’s where it really becomes handy, because right now we’re not talking — What’s funny is that at the beginning of this conversation you were saying, “Well, I wrote a first draft and then I don’t really remember what we did.” That’s good, because that’s stuff has now become sort of in the deep recesses of your conscious. When you’re going through it I’m sure you really didn’t enjoy doing the Story Grid graph or doing the hero’s journey or dictating all of the conventions and obligatory scenes that you needed in each scene or writing down the 500 to-do-list that you had to do for your book.

The reason why you did that after your first draft before you started writing your second draft is because you’ve logged all of that stuff deep in your neural networks of your brain so that as you, as the writer, you’re doing system two thinking as you’re writing. You’re deeply engrossed in the hard work. You’re expending a lot of calories as you’re writing the second draft.

Likewise, as the writer, your system one is firing on all kinds of other different levels that you have preprogrammed with in that editorial process. All of that little smattering of details that you literally wrote down on a spreadsheet, you went through all these irritating stuff that I said you needed to do, and you did do it, all of that stuff is not just on a spreadsheet, it’s in your brain now. That’s what system one uses to help you and check yourself as you’re using your system as you’re writing the second draft. I know this is a little meta and wonky, but it’s absolutely proven in behavioral psychology, neurology, all that stuff.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were really the people who brought all these stuff together. If you haven’t read Thinking Fast and Slow, I can’t recommend it more highly. It can be a bit wonky, but when you really apply what they talk about in terms of fast and slow thinking to the writing process, it’s revelatory, because it just — Really, it shows both the analytical side of the brain, which is the editor’s side and intuitive gut side of the brain, which is your writer’s side of the brain. It really —

[0:32:57.7] TG: It reminds me of a conversation we had a while ago, because one of our listeners asked, he’s self-publishing his book and he’s seeing these authors that are turning out a book a month or a book a quarter and they’re making more money because they have more products on the shelf. He said, “At some point, is it worth me spending two years of my life on one manuscript when I’m trying to make money on my writing and I want to turn this out?”

We kind of landed on this is not a moral decision here, just do whatever you want. My feedback to him was, “If you take the time to do this once, really dig in once, it will change the rest of your writing.” Taking the tie to step through each of these tools, I’m hoping will make in the future easier on me and will make everything I write in the future easier. That’s where I kind of —

[0:34:05.2] SC: It’s not going to make it necessarily easier. What it will make it is better.

[0:34:10.9] TG: Okay. Yeah, that’s true.

[0:34:15.1] SC: Because if you didn’t do the work necessary — The difference between your first draft scene and the first scene of your second draft is day and night. The amount of detail specificity set ups that you’re going to payoff much later on in the manuscript. You know you’re going to pay them off. You take your time. We get a sense of who this girl is just through her actions. You don’t say, “She was the kind of girl who didn’t like to do things at a slow pace.” No. Instead of walking up the stairs, she jogs up stairs. Even when her companion says, “Don’t waste all your energy jogging up the stairs. You have time.” She jogs, because she wants to get her work done. She is in a hurry. She wants something. She’s not sure quite what yet, but she’s after something. The reader intuits that by her actions, not by you, the writer, saying, “Jessie was the kind of girl who wanted to go after things. I’m really saddened by the loss of her brother years ago. Jessie decided that it would be best for her to join the resistance against big brother.” You don’t write that. Nobody wants to read that. They want to see that. They want to feel that. They want to piece it together themselves. They want that intuitive part of their brain to do that work for them.

[0:35:49.5] TG: At this point I’m trying if this would be helpful to ask. There’s a couple of things that I did that was fun. One is Belem makes an appearance in the first scene for a total, I think, of like eight words. Then he’ll be in it later. I’ve established the rat. You kept referring when we’re going through the first draft that note she left and I’m like, “I have nobody that she left the note for.” Where now I do, and now I got a whole group of people I’m going to be able to bring in the ending payoff to help her. There’s that and then I’m trying to establishing her family relationship from scene one too where she talks about her family and she wants to go home and that kind of stuff early on.

Yeah, that’s been fun too, is now that I know where I’m going, I actually know what to put in these scenes. Where when I go back and read the first couple of scenes I was so tentative to put anything in besides just whatever is happening.

[0:36:50.6] SC: Which was the right the choice. That was the right choice. Yeah.

[0:36:54.1] TG: Before we finish you explained what the goal of the first draft is. What would you say is the goal of the second draft?

[0:37:02.2] SC: The goal of the second draft is to address all of the things that you did in the editorial process between first and second drafts. What you’re going to do is, right now, you’re firing on your writer brain. I don’t want you to go and check your work now, right? What I want you to do is just keep writing. At the end of the second draft it’s probably going to be — It could be twice the size as the first draft because all that stuff you preprogrammed fast thinking brain by doing all of that intensive deep thinking in the editorial process, the Story Grid spreadsheet, the foolscap page, the Story Grid, the hero’s journey checklist, the obligatory scenes, all that stuff. You are sort of putting that in without really thinking about it right now because you’ve already preprogrammed that in the editorial process.

The second draft is dumping all the editorial tasks into a draft. After you have the second draft, that’s the purpose of it. The second draft is sort of really a nice big blob of almost there. The third draft is — Between the second and the third draft is checking, “Oh, did I do that? Oh, let me go back and look at all my notes from the first draft and check my second draft based upon those notes. Did I do that? Yes. Yes. Yes. No. No, got to fix that. Yes. Did I do that in the second scene? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. No. Got to put that.” You wheel down your tasks, because you’re going to forget some, you’re going to miss some. It’s okay. No problem. You’ll get it in the next draft.

[0:38:59.9] TG: Yeah. It’s also been super helpful as I’ve gone through of, one, I already have notes on things that need to be fixed, but I was a little worried about what it would be like trying to weave in the parts from this draft that work, and it’s just that thing where I haven’t done it before. It was pretty simple. I would like read through them like, “Oh! This giant chunk here works just fine and it almost feels like —” I’m like, “I just got to change the beginning of that chunk to weave in to what I’ve written up to that point and then change the end to weave in to whatever is next,” but I was able to use big chunks from I would say everything — I had two complete new scenes, but including those I would say only about half of it I wrote from scratch. The rest I was just pulling in from my first draft, because I’m like, “Oh! I remember this part works, so I can keep this.” Where I was kind of like, “Oh! I’ll just rewrite the whole thing.” I haven’t had to do that, which is been nice.

[0:39:55.7] SC: Yeah, what you end up doing is really doing a lot of transitional work where you see a patch of stuff that works and then coming up with a unique way of transitioning from one place to another. It’s those transitional moments that give the fluidity of the reading experience to the reader. Yeah, your first draft is choppy as hell because you’re sort of — They’re very rough cuts, and the second draft you start to really do the transitions very well. The third draft, they get better, and the fourth draft and all subsequent drafts after that is really about the language, the way it sounds in your brain, fixing sentences, really doing all that kind of writer release stuff that really makes the thing sing. Yeah, I think — I’m very heartened by it. I think, yeah, you’re going to hit roadblocks, it’s very nice to see — This is what professional writers do. Professional writers understand the first draft is really — It’s not for anyone’s eyes. It’s just them banging out something and they’re following a hunch and they know they had to get to California, but they’re going to go wherever they need to go. They’ll go to Texas if they have to to get to California. They’re not worrying about it.

The second draft after they’ve gone through the editorial process and really thought about what they wrote, that’s the thing. The editing process between first draft and second draft is crucial, because it makes you think about what you wrote. It makes you examine what you wrote, because we don’t know a lot of times of what we’re writing when we’re writing it. We need to step back after we’ve written and say, “What is this about again?”

Steve Pressfield is doing a great thing on his site going through his process now, and he’s writing a new novel. I handed him editorial notes that made him want to kill me. Now he’s coming out of the woods. He’s in the trenches. He’s fighting a fight. This happens with Steve. Steve, he’s one of the great writers right now working.

I was reading Gates of Fire the other day again and I was just like, “Holy guacamole! This is a great book,” and he’s facing this now, but Steve is a great writer. He’s not going to settle for 5,000 words a day and bang out crap and send it to Kindle. I’m not denigrating people who do that, because they do think that even that process is making them better. This intense two-year tutorial that you’re taking now with me has elevated your writing from — I don’t even know if this sentence is grammatically correct to — 

[0:43:06.7] TG: Every once in a while you go back and reread that first scene I sent you where they were on the boat.

[0:43:12.3] SC: Oh my God! What’s funny is I’m preparing for the course that we’re going to give in September. The real deep dark truth is that editors see so much stuff that is completely unworkable. As an editor, you must prepare yourself for beginning at the beginning with every client, every project, and that’s not making fun of people and their first drafts. It’s just the way it is. It’s a very, very difficult skill to learn, and when you’re an editor you soon recognize the people not through the initial work, but the subsequent work that they bring to you. Whether or not they listen to you, whether or not they’re interested in the structural process and learning about genre and learning about all of the things that we talk about here. If they’re just like, “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. How do I fix this scene? How do I fix this book? You kind of know — The jury is out on whether or not they’re really ever going to finish a manuscript that’s publishable. Sure, they can throw it on Kindle and maybe a few people will buy it, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

It’s perfectly okay to start from a position of not knowing all that much about writing and doing your best and being not sure. That’s absolutely fine. The trick for the editor is recognizing, “Okay, this is somebody I can work with,” and you have nice little stages of walking them forward. I didn’t say to you when you sent me that first scene, “Tim, what is this? There’s no protagonist in this thing. I don’t know what this — This is just a string of sentences set on a boat. What’s going on?” I didn’t say that to you, right?

One of the things that an editor has to learn, and this is a basic tool for any human being, is to have some compassion and some empathy and just say, “How can I best encourage this person without blowing smoke up their ass?” The way to do that is to talk about a shared love. The shared love is writing, right? Don’t talk about all the lousy things that the writer is doing. This is my opinion. Talk about the things that you both love, which are great pieces of writing. Use great writing to help them learn. Talk about — This is why a lot of people are like, “Why don’t you ever do just a hatched job, just destroy somebody’s story from first sentence to last. I don’t think you learn much from that other than the person who’s doing the hatched job showing off of how much they know. You learn by looking at master works, looking at who nailed a scene beyond description. When you can pull in a fellow writer-reader and say, “Hey, check out chapter 15 of Gates of Fire,” and let’s talk about that next week.

Then you can share a language, because just the enthusiasm of the brilliance of that scene is enough. That scene weaves in third person omniscient, tons of exposition, all kinds. It’s the scene where in Steve books it’s about the Battle of Thermopylae, and it’s the scene where they tell them, “Hey, you’re going to the gates. You’re going to the gates of fire. You’re going to a mountain pass where you’re going to see three million Persians, and they’re going to have to get through that pass, and we’re only going to send 300 of you there to stop them for as long as possible. Yeah, it’s a suicide mission.” How did Steve do that scene? It’s brilliant. It’s brilliant, because the scene is about a guy who’s so upset not because he’s going, but he’s not going, and that is a brilliant way of showing just how beautiful sacrifice can be.

One of the major heroes of this novel, Steve decided, “You know what? When they learn that they’re going to the gates to fight the Persians, he’s going to be left out, and it’s going to devastate him. Not just him, but his wife and his kids.” That is a moment where you go, “Oh my gosh! Oh! How did he think of that?” How did he make it so that a Person would be upset that they don’t get to go commit suicide with their brothers in arms against the Persians?”

If you read chapter 15 of Gates of Fire you’ll figure it out. You’ll go, “Oh, my gosh! It’s so master. I didn’t even notice. It makes perfect sense.” That’s what you need to do with amateur writers, is to bring them into the beauty of the universe of the writing and not hammer them so much about the mistakes they’ve made. Tell them what the great ones do. Show them the structure of the great ones and then slowly walk them through the structure of their own work.


[0:48:42.2] 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.