How to Refine a Manuscript

[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the 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 the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 plus years’ experience. 

In this episode, we take another big step towards finishing up this novel of mine. We’ve been cranking through the hero’s archetypes, we’ve been cranking through grounding the world and reality and now we’re taking some big steps towards actually going through scene by scene and figuring this book out and finishing it up.

It’s a really fun episode for me, I feel really good about it and the direction we’re going and so for those of you that had been following along all these years. Hopefully you’re excited too, to kind of see this thing really start getting tied up and finished up. Anyway, it’s a great episode, I think you really enjoy it, let’s jump in and get started.


[0:01:06.7] TG: Shawn, you gave me my homework last time. First, rewrite the Herold scene with Randy ending payoff with the book, I did that and sent that to you and then it was also to go through the 15 scenes that every book has to have, right? That would be the inciting incident, progressive complication, crisis, climax and resolution for the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff.

I was a little worried about it because you know, every time I look at this book, I find all the holes and so I was like, all right, what am I going to find and – but I ended up feeling like I could – I found them all pretty quickly and so, I just sent that list to you with the scene number. Yeah, let’s just start there.

[0:01:57.7] SC: Sure, okay. The Herold scene, it’s fine, you know, it’s a solid revision and it works. The 15 scene outline, you know, I felt the same way when I looked at it I thought, “Wow, this is all very on target, on the money.” The only scene, now, let me just take a step back and say, your 15 scenes should ideally, now, are there exceptions? Yeah, probably I don’t know any off the top of my head but there probably are exceptions to what I’m about to say.

I think it’s a very good operating principle to make sure that you are satisfying your genre conventions. Now, the 15 scenes should turn, meaning, the value at stake in the scene should turn on the global value of the global genre you’ve chosen. What that basically means is that you’ve chosen to write an action labyrinth story, that’s your global genre. Is there a maturation plot underneath? Yeah, absolutely.

The global genre, the thing that will be on the cover of the book will indicate that this is an action story. Okay, action stories, what value do they turn on?

[0:03:18.6] TG: Life and death.

[0:03:19.3] SC: Life and death, right? Okay. Every single one of your 15 core scenes should turn on that value. I don’t want to go through all 15 scenes because we’ve done it so many times before but I’ll pick out the one scene that I didn’t think turned on the global value and then I will give you some advice about how you might be able to change it so that it does.

[0:03:44.1] TG: Okay.

[0:03:46.6] SC: The only one for me that didn’t turn on life and death was the scene, which is I believe it’s the resolution at the beginning hook of the inciting incident of the middle build? It’s the one where – 

[0:03:59.7] TG: Well, they’re both the same scene but I would say that the resolution is Jesse’s on the transport. At the very beginning of the scene, you’re like, okay, that’s what happens. That kicks us into the middle build and the middle build is that first scene of the middle build same one where she is traveling to and arriving in the capital city.

[0:04:23.0] SC: Right. Okay, in that scene, they were on an airplane and Jesse’s all frigged out because she’s never been on an airplane and Az is on the airplane too and they’re sort of the only two people on the airplane as I recall. Az sort of starts to needle her about the fact that she’s a numbered or head is shaved, what’s she doing on the plane, why is she so nervous and he’s not nervous at all. While it does, I think if you really wanted to be a super specific person, you could say that it does turn on life and death because Jesse’s afraid of being on the plane and she has standard plane phobia.

However, I think you can ratchet up that life and death stakes by actually making the plane actually get attacked, have it spin into some kind of horrific tail spin and the other thing that you can do to add into your old very easily is have sort of, we’ve talked about this other force in the world a number of times but it never sort of comes into the play in the story and that’s the force of sort of these people who were sort of exiled from the faction world.

They’re sort of scavengers out in the very difficult environment outside of the cities. They’re sort of like the characters in Game of Thrones that are outside of the wall, you know? The wall in Westeros. They’re this sort of really frightening force that we don’t want those things to get into the wall, we don’t want them coming into the very delicate order or you know, everyone’s in trouble. They’re sort of these monster-ish. Droid-ish, maybe they’re beings that – have you heard of that phrase, it’s like the convergence of humanity and computer.

They call it the super something, there’s a famous –  you know what I mean?

[0:06:35.6] TG: Yeah. I know what you mean, I’m actually reading Homodeus right now, which is a pretty future of mankind. I get what you’re saying, I don’t know the phrase though.

[0:06:44.5] SC: Yeah, it’s like the guy is in charge of Google’s moon shots I think is the one who coined the phrase. Anyway, it’s this moment when humanity and digital computer force melts. You would have a neural sort of implant that would give you super powers. Maybe these scavenger people are the strange byproducts of that kind of bad idea of trying that, the convergence or something they call it.

Anyway, I’m just throwing ideas out there, not that you have to develop these ideas now but to understand that there is these pack of rabid people who ready and able to destroy the factions and the system. That would add on another layer of stakes when Jesse does undermine the grid at the very end of the book. It’s not just there’s chaos within the walls, the chaos outside of the walls has an opportunity now. It raises the stakes at the very ending of this novel that it’s almost, if you thought it was bad at the beginning of this novel, wait till you see the beginning of the second novel.

Anyway, what you could do in that scene to raise the stakes from life and death is to get those scavenger people to attack the plane in some fashion. You know, one of the things that I remember years ago, I worked on some thrillers by a pilot and they all concerned aviation. One of the things he told me is a big problem are those sort of laser pointers, I go, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Well, it sounds weird but laser pointers, if you were able to sort of pinpoint them into the direction of the cockpit and sort of blind the pilot and copilot and say they were on the descent of the plane, which isn’t normally automatic piloted, you know, they usually turn off the automatic pilot once they get below 10,000 feet on a plane.”

“Now, if you were able to direct that sort of high intensity light into the eyes of the pilots, it could be a nightmare, they could lose their sight at the last second and really, it could cause a major plane crash.” You know, that might be an idea, you know, if these scavengers are sort of lurking around the air terminal at the capital that at the very last minute when they’re about to land, you know, things go haywire and life and death is really at stake in that scene.

It’s a great way of doing a little cheap action scene where it’s not just landing into the capital, it’s like not easy. It’s almost like there’s these pods of security and once they leave New York, they’re under threat, you know, all the way until they get to the capital city because the people in between New York and the capital city are all like these crazy scavenger, weird, droid-ish people. That’s an idea.

[0:10:00.7] TG: Yeah, when I – I think I have some places I can amp that up too as far as like when Jesse first looks out over the city in the opening scene and all the bridges into New York are bombed out, talk more about why that is so that then, when the plane gets attacked, you know, you know who those people are already.

I think you had mentioned with the Ernst thing too, I think he just said a second go about adding more of like the grounding it more in a real world where there’s other things going on that I’ll probably end up exploring more in future titles under this trilogy.

[0:10:45.4] SC: Yeah, it’s also thematically about sort of the fear of the outsider, the fear of the other and you know, I always talk about the thematic elements in the story, which at the very highest level of abstraction are about order and chaos, right? You need to have – the reader needs to understand that there are chaotic forces at play as well as the ordered world. While Marcus and the faction are tyrannical, you know, the paradox is, is the tyranny worth the price versus the fallout from chaotic, you know, the chaotic influx of other forces.

That’s another thing that you’re playing with when you write a story is that you constantly want to be thinking about those two forces at play in the story and you can even get to the character level and say, which level of the spectrum is my character, are they on the force of order and the extreme meaning tyranny or are they on the force of chaos, which is sort of like the trickster character.

The trickster likes a chaotic environment and when things get a little bit too ordered, they like to mess things up a little bit. I don’t think it’s worth going through your characters and thinking about that now because we’ve gone through them so many different times that I think they are on balance consistent and I think you have a pretty much equal side of order and chaos in your characterizations.

I’m glad we went through these last 15 just to confirm that we do have clear demarcations of the five commandments of storytelling in each of the three parts of your novel. We’ve already – the past couple of weeks, we’ve gone through the heroic journey in terms of the archetypes.

The reason why we went through the archetypes was, for me, that’s a very clear way of amping up the stakes in specific scenes. If you have sort of a wishy washy threshold guardian and you go back and you go back and you go, let me amp up that threshold guardian a little bit by the byproduct of doing that increases the actual progressive complication in that specific scene.

Usually, these archetypes appear in those 15 pivotal scenes, right? That we just went through. The scene we just talked about is Az as threshold guardian. Now, you’ve already amped him up as threshold guardian. Now you’re going to add another layer of stakes, meaning, this third party scavenger forest that tries to destroy the plane on the way in.

A scene that was probably operating fine, you know, maybe a four on a scale of one to 10, it was a four. Now, with these additions, it moves from a four to like a 6.5, maybe a seven. That’s pretty good to push your reader into the trials of the middle build that are coming up in a way that’s interesting. We’re not expecting the transport plane to take Jesse from the ordinary world to the extraordinary world to come under attack.

When it does, you’re like, “Holy cow.” You know, the reader is not expecting an attack in the barely landing. They’re just expecting, here’s this scene, one of the character goes from the ordinary world to the extraordinary world and then bang, my gosh, she might die in this plane attack and then that way you’re adding narrative velocity to the story in an unexpected way in a scene that could devolve into, here’s that scene, right.

This is that scene where the thing happens. I think we’re at a place right now where it’s time to sort of go to your micro notes that you’ve been compiling over the past couple of weeks or months, that note section scene by scene, it’s not time to sort of like s tart with scene one, go through scene one and add in all the things or subtract the things that are in your notes.

This is literally like now, we’re getting into, not quite line editing yet but content, micro content editing scene by scene. What I want you to do now and it’s probably going to be a lot faster than you think it will be is to go from scene one and just start moving forward and consulting your notes and going, right, I want to add that thing about that thing here.

I want to take that out because that isn’t consistent with the changes that we’ve made so it’s basically a lot of sort of house keeping with the scenes. It’s content housekeeping, it’s not line by line rewriting. That’s the very last thing we’re going to do. Now, you’re at a place where I think you’ve got a solid draft too.

You’re right now at the end of draft two even though you’ve done probably 10 drafts. This is the place where you know, it’s the place that you want to fix everything in terms of the content to make sure that it’s consistent, to make sure that everything is lining up, you might say to yourself, “Boy, I’m going to have to switch this scene, I’m going to have to add because I’ve got meeting after meeting,” or you might be like, “Yeah, this is falling, I’m moving from two-person scene to 20 person scene, back to a two to a three, to a five or whatever.”

But you want to really look at the continuity and to make sure you’re mixing things up and this is kind of the place where you make sure that your content is consistent throughout and you drop in little Easter eggs and setups for later payoffs, you might have something that pays off that you don’t, like what you were saying about the explaining the blown up bridges in Manhattan like that’s a set up that will pay off when that scene comes where they’re landing at the capital. The reader is going to go, “Oh right, yeah that must be the people who blew up the bridges in Manhattan” right? So that set up is going to pay off. So that’s really the next step and the step after that we know I’ll have to think about. 

Usually once the writer is happy with the consistency and continuity of the story telling then that’s the time you would give it to a line editor and then the line editor, it’s not a copy editor it’s a line editor and what a line editor will do is that they will go sentence by sentence and they will tweak your sentences, fix them, try to make things more consistent to clarify your voice and then this is a situation where you’ll have track changes on your word document or whatever software you are using. 

So that the writer can see what the editor did and then after the editor gets done with that that is probably going to take depending upon the editor two to three weeks for them to literally go through your book sentence by sentence and then after they’re done with that then they would ship it back to you and then you would go through what they did and accept and or edit things that they did until you would come to a place at the end of that process that Steve Pressfield and I call locked manuscript. 

[0:18:36.3] TG: Right, yeah I remember you did this for Running Down a Dream for me. 

[0:18:40.8] SC: Oh right, yeah. I’ve done it so many times. I forget what I’ve done. 

[0:18:44.5] TG: Yeah. I do have a couple of questions about going through the manuscript this time. So I already have a couple in my notes but I find a scene that needs to be completely rewritten. Is this the time to just go ahead and stop and rewrite it? 

[0:18:59.6] SC: I think so. 

[0:19:00.3] TG: Okay and then the other is like we’ve talked a lot about over the years about the power of ten and amping things up and I think about that the scene that we just talked about of like, “Oh that would be really nice to amp it up to add some life and death in there. Should I be looking to do that as well of how could I, what’s this turning on, is there a way to turn it from a four to a six? Should I be looking at that now? 

I mean it sounds like when I finish this, I should have a book ready to go basically. So now is the time to make all the final changes that I want to make to it. 

[0:19:42.2] SC: Yeah, I would absolutely keep in mind the stakes of each scene and a lot of the progression of the storytelling and the narrative drive we baked into it by focusing on these 15 must have scene and those ones they’re operating at a very high value stake because they’re life and death stakes. So the scenes that come before them and after them, the only thing I would caution against is worrying about well the stakes are a little bit low here. 

I think you want to trust your sort of, for lack of a better word gut or instinct on how and what level the scene is because like a scene in a daytime drama on TV, I don’t even know if they have those anymore. We used to call them soap operas. In soap opera television they have a formula and the formula is escalate the stakes in every possible turn so that we can push people to commercial with a high heart rate and then when they go to the commercial with the high heart rate, the effectiveness of the commercial would be much stronger because they’d be jazzed up about what’s going on in the story. 

So that’s why you have these very long shots of people having emotional reactions in soap opera is that they’re trying to get the viewer to really engage in the story so that they can sell more products in between the commercials. So soap operas have what they call mellow dramatic effects and melodrama is when you raise the stakes artificially in order to get the blood of the audience going. Now in a 30 minute soap opera on television, you can play those games and not sort of – 

Because it is almost like a guilty pleasure for the viewer at that point, they know what genre of melodrama soap opera is. What you don’t want to do is bring that to the table another genre and there’s a possibility of like everybody wants to do well on the task right? And storytelling I have discovered over the years that a lot of people want the answer key to story grid questions. So they’ll say, “Well Sean could you do a story grid answered key for To Kill a Mockingbird? So that I can make sure that I am reading it the right way.” 

And my response is always no and the reason why I don’t want to do answer keys is that the beauty of story is that it’s a subjective experience that sends the reader or the viewer tumbling down their own personal experiences. So what might seem like story turning on a betrayal might not be that way for other people and so it doesn’t – like I tell the story about when we were doing the love story conference a couple of years ago and Seth Godin and Steve came at the end and we had a nice round table. 

And I told a little story and Seth said something like, “Well Sean I don’t think it was as dramatic as all that” and he was goofing around but the point for me from that moment was no, it wasn’t that dramatic for Seth but for me it was and that doesn’t mean that Seth’s wrong or I am wrong, we both had different experiences from the same interaction. So Seth wasn’t right, I wasn’t being a histrionic weirdo from taking away with big moment from a meeting I had with him five years ago. 

That wasn’t true, what I experienced was absolutely real and an important moment in my life. To Seth, it was just another coffee with a guy in another cup of tea with a guy asking me on that. 

[0:23:59.0] TG: Just one more life changing moment for Seth, yeah. 

[0:24:00.7] SC: Yeah. 

[0:24:02.3] TG: It’s like I do them every day. 

[0:24:04.3] SC: Dude, I just gave you the simplest advice, I don’t know what you’re plating me as this guru. I just told you to get your act together but for me, I was like, “Oh my gosh that’s what I needed to hear” so that’s why I don’t give answer keys to stuff and I don’t like giving answer keys to stuff because what we need to do as writers and storytellers is to start feeling comfortable with our abilities to evaluate a story based upon our own subjective experiences. 

So when I say to you, “Go through your manuscript” and if it doesn’t feel like it is quite right, it probably isn’t for you so then tweak it. If it does feel like, “Yeah that feels like I am on the money and it is working great” then don’t mess with it and eventually you’re going to have this internal story Geiger calendar where like this is what – just to talk a little bit about line editing right? Now line editing is another one of those skills similar to what I just describe. 

Now when I line edit someone’s work, I trust myself. I say to myself, “I have a good feel for the way Tim writes. I know what Tim’s voice sounds like and sometimes, he’ll make a bad analogy or a bad metaphor or his sentences are choppy here and I can fiddle with his stuff that will maintain Tim’s voice but clean up the pros so that it is more fluid” right? So I can do that for you because I’ve worked with you for three and a half four years, right. 

Steve, I can do that for Steve and usually when I edit somebody’s work, I’ve read their manuscript so many freaking times and I have done so many spreadsheets that I as an editor who worked for 30 years feel confident in my ability to rewrite their sentences and feel confident that they’re going to be close to what that writer would do anyway but I never had the final pen on a book, right? So when I line edited Running Down a Dream, I sent it to you and you took about 80% of what I wrote. 

And the other 20%, we didn’t have a fight about it. You just said, “Oh Sean fixed this sentence in a way that doesn’t sound like me but I get why he fixed it. Let me fix it in my way and then that will be it” and so we didn’t have this knocked down drag out fight over my line edits. You accepted 80%, you didn’t accept 20% but you fixed the 20% that you didn’t accept in a way that made the fluidity of the writing and the storytelling as close to what you were envisioning as possible. 

[0:26:50.2] TG: Yeah, I remember like that was such a – I really enjoyed that process of just like there is so many times in that where I’m like, “Yep that is what I was trying to say and I couldn’t figure out how to say it” you know? So I am just going to start working on that. So maybe I’ll go through the insighting incident or not that, the beginning hook, the first 14 scenes or so. Clean those up, send those to you, see how we’re doing, maybe check in and then I’ll keep trucking along but I’m excited.

This is the point I was looking forward to getting, I like doing this kind of work on it because I have already done a little bit. 

[0:27:29.6] SC: Yeah, you’re polishing the statue now. You’re not chipping away with a big chisel. You know you’ve got – it is no longer a hunk of marble but it is not a polished statue yet. You’ve got the statue. It is in front of you but there is chips and all kinds of things that you need to polish and hone and so yeah, this is a fun part where you know the detailed work of like – it is like after you wash your car and then you are now doing the detailing. 

[0:27:58.8] TG: Yeah and this is the first time I feel like I have the book, you know going through because when I went through the hero’s journey moments, we had already talked about those so many times I think all of them were already in the book but going through the archetypes – I keep being surprised by things I should already know but one of those things was just like for the first time I felt like I knew who my characters were you know? 

And so identifying Ernst as the trickster, now I am really excited to go back through and make his character much more fluid and much more consistent because now I know who he is and the same thing with so many of the story decisions we made that we didn’t make until we were half or two thirds of the way through this manuscript. So I get to go back and make and smooth all of those out. So it has been – I have been excited to get to this point where I feel like the book works. 

I’ve got all the things and again, I just think about the more that we have gone through these things, I think how do people do this without story grid? I don’t understand because it’s like there was no way for me to figure out what was wrong with my characters until we looked at it through the archetypes or that we looked at it through the 15 scenes or we looked at it through what stakes and is the internal genre or the external genre of like filling out the spreadsheet. 

And like, “Shit that scene does absolutely nothing” that’s why it is only 500 words, you know? So it’s just been – I feel like much more confident going into this because we have gone through it. You know I just can’t imagine trying to wait into 70,000 words and think, “Okay now I am going to fix some stuff” instead of like, “Okay we go through it once fixing these things. We go through second time fixing these things” and by the time I get to this point so many things are in place. I’m just smoothing out those wrinkles.

[0:30:02.9] SC: Yeah and knowing how the story ends for everyone now will allow you to set up things that you weren’t able to do before because you really don’t know how the story ended and what role every one of your characters was playing until you finally locked it down and now yeah, this extra couple of irritating steps to just review, review, review through different levels of analysis, it is going to make this part fun and I mean if you want to polish sentences while you’re doing it I say go ahead and do it. 

Because what you’re going to enjoy is knowing, “Oh man this thing has a real engine now. I know it works.” You don’t know it is going to be a bestseller. You don’t know if 10 people will like it but you know you had a goal you set out to achieve the goal and you’re close to finishing the goal and now you get to put on your beret and act like Hemingway in the café and act like a big cheese like, “Yeah, you know I am working on my novel now” because you have a novel now, right? Before you didn’t have shit. 

[0:31:16.1] TG: That’s right. All right, well I’ll get to work. 

[0:31:17.5] SC: Okay.


[0:31:19.2] 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 have been following along, you know that next month we are doing a brand new Story Grid Editor Certification Course. It is a really great thing if you wanted to really deep dive into story grid or become a story grid certified editor, this is something you should look at. 

We literally have two spots left as of this recording. So if this is something you are interested in, make sure you go to stroygrid.com/cert. Fill out the application and let us know you’re interested and we will follow up. 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 Apple Podcast and leaving a rating and review. Thanks for subscribing.



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.