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[0:00:00.2] 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. 

You know, I’ve gotten emails from time to time that I should take out the part at the beginning of this intro where it says I’m struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works, because I’ve come a long way. It’s been three years, but I think more than ever, I feel like I have these moments, more than ever where I struggle, and this is one of those episodes where I’m just really struggling with the novel. Where to go next, and if I should even keep working on this thing. 

So I take that to Shawn and he talks me through it, and we come to an interesting place. So let’s jump in and get started. 

[EPISODE]

[0:00:00.2] TG: So Shawn, if you go into the Story Grid archive of episodes, the past few episodes, you will see August 17th, we came out with when is the book done? So that was based on a question from a friend of mine. Then we did one where we talked about Shawn’s dark night of the soul and the project you’re working on. Then we skipped a week and then we talked about how to write a great villain, and we talked about the nature of evil, and that kind of stuff. 

One thing I’m curious if any listeners picked up on is the fact that I was actively coming up with episode ideas that did not involve my own writing. We ended up skipping a week because I was at this point where I just was freaking out about this book. Every time I have tried to work on it for like the past month, everything I wrote, I don’t know how much writing I’ve thrown away. Even, I sent you a couple of scenes, but even those I’m not thrilled with. 

I actually had written you an email. I had written the email and it was sitting in my drafts explaining to you why I needed to trash this book and move on to a new project. I had like come up – I had all the reasons, and I have this really solid idea for another novel and I just had – What I was trying to convince myself was that I had decided that I was not going to let you talk me out of it. 

So I like sat on that and then last week we didn’t record because I was dealing with this, and I just couldn’t deal with it. I knew you were working on your own project. So I’m like, “He won’t care if we miss a week.” 

So at this point now I’m realizing my freaking out about the book is now damaging the podcasts, because we’re missing weeks, because I’m not doing my work. So I just was at the point where I’m like, “I can’t keep working on this book, because it sucks so hard, and it’s going to.” That’s the thing, is I don’t know what to do. 

So I sat on that for a couple days and I started thinking about – Well, because then the thing I thought was, “Okay, maybe I shouldn’t email it to him. Maybe the next episode of the podcast will be I’ll record me letting him know I’m not doing this. That’s why I decided to wait on sending you the email. 

So I started thinking about what I thought you might say and all of the conversation, and I’m like, “I just don’t think he’s going to let me not write this book,” but then I kept having – It was like these, like, how my children get. But it was like, “I’m a grown ass man. He can’t make me write this book if I don’t want to write this book.” 

I did a CrossFit competition a of couple weeks ago and we had to do for workouts in one day, and somewhere between the third and fourth when I overheard one of the competitors be like, “Well, Evan,” which is our coach that runs the whole thing, he’s like, “Well, Evan can’t make us work out. We can just go home.” I’m like, “That’s right.” I’m like thinking about you, I’m like, “Shawn can’t make me write this book.” 

The problem – I’m just kind of going to ramble for a minute here. So the problem I’m really stuck on is I have no idea who my characters are. I just feel like every time I write them, they’re these cardboard cutouts that like when I look at them, they look real, but as soon as I kind of cut my eyes to one side or the other I realize they’re just 2D images. I feel like if you go back and like read through the manuscript, every character is shifting constantly, because I don’t even know who they are. 

I end up feeling like I’m writing what I think they should be based on whatever movie or book I’m currently watching or reading. So I just was like really stuck on what to do next, because I’m looking at these characters, I’m looking at the last set of scenes I wrote and I’m like, “I just don’t even know what they’re going to do next. I have no idea how they should do anything. I don’t know how they would react to any of these things. 

I sat on that for a while and then I went back and I was like, “Okay, let me try one more time to figure out how to break through this before I really hit send on the email or tell Shawn I’m not doing this.” I’m just going to keep going here. So I apologize to everybody that’s listening. 

But the other side of this is like I feel this enormous pressure, because I feel like this isn’t a book that’s just going – I’m not just going to self-publish this and like tell my friends about it. I have this pressure of like it’s on the podcast, it’s going to be published with us. Then I’ve got you that is like coaching me along the process, that like I don’t want to like not just let you down, but also I feel like my book needs to meet the standards of you and also like all the people listening. There’s probably plenty of people that think like, “Why does Tim get to do this? He sucks. I would take so much better advantage of Shawn, having Shawn as my mentor and editor.” 

All these pressure was just killing me. So what I finally did was I started thinking about – The first thing I did is I start going back through the spreadsheets that I’ve done for Diehard and Harry Potter and just started looking at like, “Well, how did these two books solve the problem I’m in?” which is finishing a big kind of middle build action sequence and needing something on a down turn to get us to the last one of the middle build. Those help me kind of come up with an idea. Then I started thinking through like what I feel like is missing is any kind of emotional grounding of my characters. I’m not writing a James Bond. I’m not writing these novels with characters that don’t change. 

I feel like my characters just have no emotional grounding. So I went back and started thinking about like, “Okay, if I had to pick one emotion that is driving each of my characters, what would it be?” So I started with Jesse, and I thought, “Okay, it’s loneliness,” and then I started thinking through like, “Well, I know what it’s like to be lonely.” I’m not going to deep dive into the last 37 years of my life, but like I know what it’s like to be lonely. What if I just like poured every lonely feeling I’ve ever had into this character and just write her as if she is the embodiment of my own loneliness?

So that’s when I was able to write the second scene I sent you, which I think – Well, we can get into that. So I’m not feeling so despondent and I’m not trying to talk you into not letting – To letting me out of writing the novel, but I’m still pretty unsure of how to go forward, because I just feel like I’m kind of lost in this whole thing. 

I really understand – I think I’m understanding for the first time why people that have been writing for a long time never finish anything, because I really think if it wasn’t for you in this podcast, this sucker would’ve gone in the trash and I would’ve started a new novel. The only reason I’m not doing that is because I have to report to you publicly once a week, mostly once a week. 

So I’m going to stop there and I don’t even have a question. That’s just where I’m at. 

[00:09:00] SC: Well, where you are is a place where every writer finds themselves for every project that stretches their skill. So, essentially what your problem is, is you don’t know what to do when you don’t know what to do. Believe it or not, that’s a phenomenon that everyone faces many times in their lives. Sometimes you face it daily. 

The big problem that we all have is what I call the too much information, problem, and the too much information problem is there’s so much stuff coming at you all the time that, by necessity, you have to divide the world into things that will move me forward in my goals. Things that hold me back from my goals. The biggest pot is called the irrelevant information, things that are completely irrelevant to my goal. 

So often times what happens is that something happens in our lives that we can’t label. We don’t know what it means. It’s an anomaly, and you’ve hit an anomaly. You don’t know what to do, because for some reason the objective fact is that you don’t want to write. That’s just a fact. The fact is, you have no desire, no need to write. 

The immediate answer to that sort of quandary is to say to yourself, “Well, maybe I just don’t want to write this thing. This thing – Let me count the ways how shitty this thing is.” No matter what level of writer you are, you face this problem again and again and again. A couple of weeks ago when I went into my dark night of the soul on the podcast, I was facing the exact same thing that you are facing. I rationalized and reasoned myself into a place where I could pull the pin on the project and say, “Well X, Y, Z,” and then all these other situations. This is the all is lost moment in the writer’s journey, in the artist’s journey that Steve talks about. The all is lost moment is when you realize, “I thought I could do this, but everything that I – All my skills are just failing me, and I got to quit, because I don’t have the skills to make this make sense.” 

So that’s where you are right now. The good news is that you are not the only person to ever experience this. The other good news is that there’s a way out of it, and I’m not saying the way out of it is to press on and finish the book. That’s a decision that you have to make. 

What I can do is sort of throw some of the information that’s swirling around your brain into the irrelevant file for you, because let’s just think about – I call this levels of analysis. There are so many different ways to look at something just objectively. You can look at an object and measure it, and weigh it, and you can look at its molecular structure. You can look at it from a hundred yards away. There’s so many levels of analysis of a particular object, that if you try and analyze the object from 19 different ways, it’s going to be a mess, because your focus is just constantly shifting dimensions. 

So the levels of analysis problem, the way I look at it in terms of story grid information – And by the way, I understand the story grid methodology is too much information for a lot of people. That’s true, because the art of storytelling operates on many, many different levels. So one of the things that I’m working through now in terms of my story grid sort of development is being clear about using one specific level at one specific time for one specific purpose. While you’re doing that, don’t get distracted by the other levels. 

So when you start talking about, “Well, I realize that my characters have no emotional valence. Nobody can understand their emotional stuff.” So that’s one thing to look at. That’s a level of analysis. That’s the pathos. How effective is the pathos in my story? So yeah, you can really pick that apart. You can go nuts on that. 

But I will tell you about pathos though, is that the magic of storytelling is, is that the reader brings pathos to the experience. So what that means is that when we try and embody a particular emotional valence in one character, whether or not the reader is going to actually lock in with that, is the probability of that isn’t very high. 

So the trick is to like not worry about the emotional reactions of readers that you will never know based upon the story that you haven’t finished when you haven’t finished it. So I would put the emotional valence of your characters in the irrelevant box for now and just say to yourself, “I’m going to pick that apart later. Right now, my problem is I don’t know how to solve the problem of finishing this book.” 

That problem is you intuitively understood, “You know what? I’m going to go back to my masterworks. What are the things that inspired me to write this piece of shit to begin with?” right? “What are that things that I adore that I cannot get enough of that are really cool? Why don’t look at the way those writers who obviously they suffered like I suffered, how did they fix their problem? If I can abstractly pick out how they fix the problem, then I can use that as a guide for solving the problem that I’m facing.” 

So going back to Diehard and looking at the last test for John McClane before the big finale, the end of the middle build, that ends on a down. How did that work and how did it work for X other novel? That’s a way of constructively trying to solve a problem, and a lot of people would say, “Well, you’re not writing. That’s not writing. That’s just analyzing somebody else’s stuff.” So you’re basically distracting yourself from the writing. 

I would say writing requires different skills at different times, and you need to have a global editorial vision as much as the writing piece by piece each day. So the problem that people face as writers is that they think if they are not literally banging out 500 or 5,000 words a day, that they’re not doing anything. The truth is, is that it’s uncomfortable when you call yourself a writer when you’re not producing words. But writers are much more than just the words. Writers or editors. Writers have vision. 

So it requires time to allow the vision to come. We can scream and shout and jump up and down and say, “It’s just not coming. It’s just not coming.” We can do that forever and we can throw away work that has a lot of merit that your book is really, really coming together, Tim. That’s a fact. That’s an objective fact from a third party who is very, very critical. That’s what I do. It’s not right yet. It’s not perfect yet, but you were taking really some serious levels up in your craft. 

Unfortunately, when we do that, it’s like lifting weights. Once you up the weight, your muscles start to scream, because they are growing and it hurts, but because you’ve lifted weights before, “Oh, this is that moment that I feel the pain. I’m familiar with this pain.” So you put that in the irrelevant category in your mind. Guess what happens? You stop thinking about the pain and you’re able to function the rest of the day and you go, “Oh! Right, I’m sore.” Right? When you sit down at the end of the day you go, “Oh, that’s right. I’m sore.” 

But during the day as you’re creating your micro-actions and goals, you’re not distracted by the pain because your brain turns that pain thing off. So the problem that you’re facing is the problem of what to do when I don’t know what to do, and here’s what to do when you don’t know what to do. You take part in yourself and you say to yourself, “Oh, you know what? I’m 37-years-old. I’ve been faced with the problem of not knowing what to do before, and shit, I figured it out eventually. I eventually figured out how to start my own business. I know what I’m doing. I can figure this one out too.” 

So what you do when you don’t know what to do is to rely upon your subjective experience of your past – The past in your life and say, “I’m a lot of things, but I’m not really someone who just throws in the towel. So I might throw in the towel. I might make that decision, but I’m not going to make that decision now. So let me think through what the problem is that I’m facing, this anomaly that I can’t figure it out. Oh, gees! Maybe I’m getting a little bit nervous because the deadline is approaching,” right? Because the deadline is there for a reason. It’s two really, really push you to the finish line. I was facing a deadline panic moment a couple of weeks ago and I’m still facing it, but the deadline is a purpose. It’s purposeful and it’s a really good thing. 

Now, will the world fall apart if Tim doesn’t publish his novel that he’s been working on for a hundred weeks on the podcast? No, absolutely not. It’s likely Elizabeth Gilbert. When she says, “You’ve got to realize that the work you’re doing is the most important thing in the universe, and also at the same time it isn’t important at all,” right? It’s two things at the same time. It’s the most important thing in the cosmos and it’s irrelevant. Really, in the long scheme of things, everything that we do – If you take the right level of analysis, it’s not that freaking important, right? 

So somewhere between the most important thing in the world and it’s not that important is where you need to live. So once you realize, “Shawn is not going to stop being my friend if I don’t finish the book,” because it’s true. I’m not. I’ve been around the block. I’ve been with a lot of writers over my career and I know guys who had thrown stuff away, and I can respect that. Sometimes you have to throw it away, or you put in a drawer and maybe in three years you come back to it. 

See, what the thing you’re doing is that once we get nervous about a deadline, we really, really try and find every excuse imaginable to free us from the discomfort of facing the problem of not knowing what to do. So what you do you is you attack it at every level of information that you have, and you have a lot of story information that will allow you to attack this thing on so many different levels. 

So, just personally in the project I’m working on, what I’ve discovered is that when – I write during the during the morning for a good four or five hours and then I feel good at the end of it. I feel like, “Hey, man. This is coming along. I’m beating this thing.” 

Then around three hours before I go to bed at night, the other part of my brain starts ripping it apart, “Oh, man! That stuff that you wrote this morning is not good dude. It is indecipherable. You are making no sense. You got to rip that thing out. You got to take it out. It’s no good. It’s no good.” 

So it’s like the morning is my right brain being very creative and coming up with vision, and the night is my left brain starting to beat it down. So what I do in that moment as I go, “You know what? I’m not going to cut it out now. Tomorrow I’ll look at it again, and if it needs to be cut at that point, then I will,” and that will get me through the night so I can sleep, and then the next morning I wake up and I look at it and I go, “I’m just going to leave it there until this afternoon.” So you just have to play little mind games with yourself in that way, because you’re going to drive yourself crazy. 

So the bottom line for me is; Congratulations. This book means a lot to you, and it’s hard. It’s difficult, and there is a deadline looming. There is a deadline looming. When I said to you in December, we got to publish Running Down a Dream. It didn’t even have a title at that point. I said, “You got to finish this, Tim. Can you get it done by February?” You were like, “[inaudible 00:22:37] I don’t know.” But you did. Didn’t you? That’s only a few months ago. 

So you beat this I don’t know what to do problem with Running Down a Dream and you’ve done it with other projects that you’ve done in your life. So take heart in the fact that you’re able to defeat the I don’t know what to do problem and you’ve defeated it before. So subjectively, you have the skills necessary to beat this problem. The objective factual problems of your book are absolutely solvable. You are not the problem. The problem is the problem. So just fix the problem. You don’t have to fix you. You’re perfectly operable. You know what you’re doing. No, you can’t fix nine different things in one creative act. You’re not going to fix emotional valence and plot problems at the same time. 

What I’m saying to you is the plot problems are the problems. The emotional problems, you can’t fix. You have to have faith that the reader brings their own subjective lives to the story. So they will provide a lot of the emotional valences in your characters. 

I talked to Steve about this all the time. I’ll say, “Steve, when you created this character, what were you thinking about the fact that he’s the perfect embodiment of courage?” He’s like, “I didn’t think that at all. I just needed to finish the book. I don’t know what the theme of my book is until you tell me what it is.” Because Steve operates really on that right brain arena in a very courageous way that he doesn’t know – I’ve mentioned what I said about my left brain attacking me at night to him the other day and he goes, “Oh, man, I don’t have that problem.” I go, “You’re kidding.” He goes, “No, I’m just so freaking exhausted at the end of the day. I can’t even think straight.” 

That’s what Steve does. He goes into that netherworld and he doesn’t do a lot of left brain thinking until he’s got a draft, but it took him 25 years to learn that still. 

[00:24:47] TG: Yeah, because that’s like all I do. 

[00:24:49] SC: Right. I don’t have that skill. Well, that’s not true. That’s not true. Anyway, we’re getting off topic here. Let’s get to the writing, the two chapters that you sent me. They’re the follow-up chapters after Jesse has sort of pulled that really smart maneuver where she promotes the fact that Randy is alive to the World Wide Web, which puts Marcus in a very difficult situation that he can’t just kill Randy now or Jesse, because he has to support the public fiction that Randy is a hero, and that Marcus is the one who freed him from his enslavement. So the two chapters that you sent me, they’re perfectly workable scenes. 

[00:25:35] TG: Are you just saying that because of him having a hard time?

[00:25:37] SC: No, I’m not. I’m not. 

[00:25:39] TG: Okay. 

[00:25:40] SC: Honestly, I suspected that you were going through a thing, but when you’re a professional, and you are a professional, you don’t need another professional to beat you up, right? I know you’re beating yourself up. Why do I have to add my words to the chorus? 

Now, if you’re an amateur and you’re not doing your work because you’re afraid of it, then sometimes the professional has to point that out to you, like, “Sorry, dude. You got to write the 500 words every day, and if you don’t then you’re not a pro,” but the pro understands sometimes the vision isn’t there. The words aren’t – They’re not coming. What I suspect is that you are writing, but you’re just not writing the Jesse story. You’re writing marketing copy and you’re writing – You’re writing, man. You’re writing every single day. You’re a pro. This one thing has hit a roadblock because of the impending deadline. Maybe we should make that a real deadline so that you can actually have a calendar and you can –

[00:26:41] TG: Oh, God!

[00:26:42] SC: No. That’s why publishers put deadlines in contracts, because it’s a really good tool to get a draft, because you got to turn in the draft on this day. If you don’t turn in the draft on that day, then you have broken your promise. What’s the value that we all have about ourselves is that there’s one thing I don’t do, is I don’t break a promise lightly. This is what you’re building up all these arguments about how having to break a promise, because you don’t break a promise lightly, right? It’s only under a complete duress that you will break a promise. 

Now, the paradoxical thing – I have this thing with the word irony now, where I’m never really sure if I’m using it correctly. I’m not really completely –

[00:27:31] TG: I have words like that, that I just avoid, like bi-monthly. 

[00:27:35] SC: Yeah! Is that twice a month or every two months? So paradoxically, the promise that we make to ourselves when we agree to a deadline has nothing to do with the authority figure that we think we’re promising. We’re promising ourselves. We’re promising ourselves that we will commit to doing something very difficult by a specific day, and that is called setting a goal. If there’s one thing about human beings that really makes us very potent and competent beings, the most potent and competent beings on the planet, is our ability to set a goal and get it. Because once you have a goal, you can’t help but focus on hitting the mark. That’s what a deadline is. It’s a goal and a promise that you say to yourself, “I am going to have 80,000 words by X-day, and those words will tell a coherent story. It’s not going to be perfect probably, but it will be coherent. 

So setting that goal and hitting it, it’s just what we do. It’s what we’re here for. When you have a goal, your emotional valence, the way you feel, depends upon how close you are to attaining the goal. The paradoxical thing is the closer you get to the goal, the more emotional pain you suffer. 

[00:29:09] TG: I know. I feel like it should be the opposite. 

[00:29:12] SC: It’s not. With the looming deadline, I call it the brain 1.0. A lot of people call that the lizard brain or the reptile brain, which connotes sort of like this primorial ooze that has no – That isn’t really all that intelligent. It’s just an emotional firing mechanism based upon desire. But for me, I call it brain 1.0, and I have great respect for it, because it fires fear. When we aren’t getting – We’re not making sufficient progress, it gives us more fear. 

Now, if we don’t get off our ass and make progress, guess what it does? It sends more fear. So the only way to beat back the fear signaling is to put your brain 2.0 into overdrive and work the problem. You just work the problem. What’s the problem I’m solving today? The problem solving today is to do a scene that has the five commandments of storytelling and moves my plot from here to here. That’s my problem today and that’s the problem I will solve today. 

Guess what happens? Once you focus on the micro-goal, fear starts to fade. It’s like you don’t feel the muscle pain when you have to walk your dog around the block after you’ve worked out the day before, because you’re walking your dog and your muscles are moving and they’re getting rid of the pain as you’re doing the walking. It’s the same thing with setting micro-goals that will build to a mid-level, and then your final goal. 

So let’s set a deadline of March 1. No. Let’s set a deadline of February 1. You’re going to have a draft of this book done by February 1, and that’s what you’re going to do. So after you get off the call today, you’re going to look on your calendar and you’re going to calculate how many weeks that is and then you’re going to use all those really good skills that you’re very good at and you’re comfortable, which are the analytical tools. 

So you’ll use the left side of your brain to prepare goal-generated plan to finish this book, and then what you can do is each day you will say, “My problem for today to solve is this. I need to write one scene that does this,” and that’s the problem you solve that day, and you stop thinking about emotional valences. You just start getting your scenes done. Because you can write a scene. You know how to write a scene. You’ve written a million of them. So you’re going to do that. That’s something you know how to do. 

So what you do when you don’t know what to do is to do the things that you’ve done before that you’re very good at with directed purpose. So the really good news here is that I’m not lying to you when I say that the scenes that you sent me are fine. They’re not great, but what they are doing is you are – They’re the interstitial tissue between a couple of big moments in your story. You haven’t done the third severing scene yet. You already have a pretty good – You have the climactic moment where she uses her brain to figure out how to win that game. I remember that from the first draft. Your first severing is not – I mean, this third severing problem isn’t that huge. You’ve already solved the crisis of the scene and you have the climactic moment when she turns the tables. 

What I also like about the third severing is that your zigging when the reader is going to expect to zag. Meaning, it’s not a bloody battle scene. It’s an intellectual combat scene. So you’ve built – Like these two scenes that you’ve just written have some violence in them, right? So reader is going to think, “Oh my gosh! This severing, this third severing, it’s just going to be a bloodbath. Holy cow!” Then when you get to it, you’re zigging and sagging, you’re surprising the reader by delivering a different kind of combat in that final severing scene and it works, man. It works. So I’m tempted to make this deadline January 1 thinking now about what you already have. 

[00:33:38] TG: Let’s do that. 

[00:33:39] SC: Okay. 

[00:33:40] TG: Well, it’s funny as you are talking, you’re like – And I know it’s from your experience, but I’m like, “Oh my God, he’s been reading my mind,” because what I kept telling myself was, “Okay, Running Down a Dream is going to come out and then I got to – I’m going to I get that thing out and then I’m going to like turn through the threshing and just finish it up.” 

So I kept kind of like putting it further and further out, and then when I like sat down, I was just – With the deadline. That’s what it was, is like I knew the deadline was coming. So I’m like, “Okay, I got plenty of time. As soon as this is over, I can sit down to work on it.” Then once that excuse disappeared, I was left with no excuses but still not wanting to work on it. 

[00:34:21] SC: Which is that’s absolutely reasonable and fine. You didn’t need me to tell you all the things that I just told you, because as Steve says, he faces this stuff all the time too. What he means by the professional self-validating is that the anomaly that arises you, you need to label it. So once you label something, you can recognize it again. 

So the anomaly that we’re talking about, and an anomaly is something that happens that you didn’t expect to happen, right? That’s what an anomaly is. So when we make our plans with a goal generation, and you were talking earlier about, “Yeah, I was going to finish Running Down a Dream and then I was going to crank out the rest of the threshing the second I finished up my work promoting Running Down the Dream. That was my plan.” Right. Okay. So that was your expectation. 

So what happened is the anomaly that arose for you was you were expecting to start work, and when you sat down to start work, you didn’t work. So the one day you didn’t work when you expected to work probably started to turn into two days, into the three days, into the four days, and the anomaly, which was this tiny little thing started getting larger and larger and larger until it became so large that you just said, “Oh my gosh! Forget it. I can’t defeat that bolder. That thing is bearing down on me. It’s going to crush me, and Shawn is probably standing on top of that screaming at me to get this boulder fixed. Well, I’m a man. Damn it! I don’t have to do things I don’t want to do.” 

Okay. So name the anomaly. Once you experience the anomaly, don’t run away from it. I mean, if you had sat down the day after you skipped and said, “Oh well, I don’t want to work. That’s unexpected. So let me just fight that thing now. Let me just assign myself a micro-task and then I can beat that thing.” No, you didn’t do that, because you had other things that can distract you. 

So the anomaly, Steve calls it the belly of the beast. It’s sort of you get swallowed by the boulder. The anomaly swallows you and you’re inside that thing, and you got to fight your way out of it. So knowing, “Oh, probably three months, or two months, or a week, or maybe the day before my book is due, I’m going to get swallowed by a beast, and it’s going to cause me to panic. It’s going to cause me to say that my book is a piece of shit and nobody will like it. It’s going to cause me to get very angry at everyone around me, because they don’t know what I’m going through. That’s what this beast is going to do to me.”

So every time I start a project, I go, “There is a beast that’s going to eat me right very close to my deadline.” So what I do is I say, “Oh, I’m just going to work, work and work and that beast is not going to kill me. It’s not going to swallow me,” and every time I get swallowed by the beast. Every time I freak out a little bit and then I have to walk back and go, “Oh my gosh! This is the beat. I just gotten eaten by – Look, the beast beat me again. It somehow swallowed me without me knowing it, and here I am doing all the things that I warned myself about at the beginning of the project, and then I’m able to just press forward.” 

The way I press forward is I self-validate. I say to myself, “Shawn, you have published over 400 books. I don’t even know how many I’ve written of those, because I had to do a lot of doctoring in my life, but I have faced this demon, this animal 400 times and somehow I was able to kill 400 beasts. Do you think I can kill one more? Just one more? Do you think that’s possible after you killed 400?” Now, you’ve probably killed 400 of your own, Tim. 

So that self-validation, it’s not like, “Oh, I’m greatest thing ever.” It’s just like, “I have been able to solve this problem 400 times before. Why don’t I go with the probability that a person capable of solving a problem that – And the problem is I don’t know what to do when I don’t know what to do. I’ve solved that problem 400 times. Maybe I will be able to solve this one. I think I can. I think the chances are, the probability is, is that I will be able to solve this problem. Then you say to yourself, “How did I solve these other problems? Oh, right. I went back to the source material that inspired me to write this damn thing in the first place and I looked at how that was structured.” 

A book that I think it was very well constructed was Dan Pink’s book; Drive. So it was simplistically structured, but perfectly readable, well-written, straightforward. So when I faced the problem recently, I was in an airport and I’m like, “There’s Dan Pink’s book. I’m going to buy that again and just go through it.” I’m like, “Oh! He opened up with X. Maybe I should open up my book with X. Good idea. So thanks, Dan.” 

But that’s what you do. You go, “What’s the book that I like that worked that I could steal from?” Now, I’m not stealing anything from Dan Pink. I’m inspired by his work, right? So that’s why he wrote that book, was to inspire people. So he gets a karmic jolt of positive feeling whether or not he knows it or not. That’s why we do what we do, is to create things that can be innovative and help other people. 

So you’re going to solve this problem, because you’re going to divide the problem. You’re going to cut it into tiny little pieces. That beast, you’ve got a sword and you’re going to cut your way out of that stomach and then you’re going to cut the shit out of that beast into tiny little pieces, and each piece you’re going to assign a date, and each piece will be a problem. “Problem today that I must solve is X,” and then you solve it, and if you’re feeling good and you got an extra piece that you can take care of, then maybe you start it on that one and then the next day you’ve got a little bit of head start, but break them into little pieces. Don’t try and kill a beast one-on-one. Cut it up into little tiny bits. Then you’re going to make your deadline. When you have more panic moment, you’re like, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! I cut this beast up already. Let me look at my pieces again,” because the pieces are going to work. I’ve got a really good analytical mind that is anal-retentive that I’ve broken this thing up into really easy bite-size pieces that I can fix. 

But I think the best thing to do right now is not to stress about writing scenes. So what you should do is look at the January 1 deadline, come up with how many days that you have until that deadline arises, and then subtract how many scenes you need to write. Just come up with a plan basically. Cut the problem. Yeah, cut the problem into small pieces as you can and think about the quality of the scenes that you need to create. 

So the big scene, the big bastard scene is the climax of the ending payoff, that scene. Then you need the resolution scene, which you sort of already have. That’s when Jesse realizes that she’s just tumbled the world from order into chaos and now everybody’s looking for her to fix the problem and she doesn’t know what to do so. 

So paradoxically, Jesse is facing the same problem you’re facing at the end of the book. So look at the 15 scene structure that I just went through in the level up your craft and say, “Which of these 15 scenes do I need to really hammer out?” and then come up with your interstitial scenes, sequences, etc., and just plan out a plan of action without solving each and every scene. Don’t worry about emotional valence of your characters. That’s something that we can address or think about later on. It’s a worthy problem to consider, but not now. Figure out the plot. Figure out the structure. Deliver the structure and then we can go through other levels. We can check the hero’s journey. We can check the five commandments of every scene. There’re a million tools that Story Grid provides for you to check various levels of analysis. So that’s my suggestion for your homework, is to come up with a plan. 

[00:43:23] TG: Okay. All right. Deep breath, I can do this. No, I appreciate it. I feel less overwhelmed. So yeah, I can do this. All right. I will do that and I will deliver that for our next call. 

[00:43:37] SC: Great. 

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:43:38] 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 to show and by visiting us on Apple Podcast 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. 

[END]

About the Author

The co-host of the Story Grid Podcast and amateur writer.
Comments (1)
Author Tim Grahl

One Comment

Nancy J Nagler says:

This was wonderful! I was seeing Tim starting to get his head above water even before Shawn started.

I sure know about the ‘overwhelming beast’! I was getting grumpy about my two times a week volunteer medical transcription I do. “All the same! So many! etc.” Then the realization, that you two have reminded me of, I’ve done this for 16 years! Over 12,000 times! I guess I can do 10 more over the weekend.

Now to figure out how to clean my house that way. I haven’t done a thorough house cleaning very many times in my life. Haven’t needed to. Now I do. I’ll figure it out.

Thanks

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