Annie Proulx’s prologue (that wasn’t in the New Yorker)
Anne Hawley is the author of Restraint, a love story set in 19th Century London. She’s a Story Grid Certified Editor specializing in literary and historical fiction, and is the producer of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast.
[0:00:00.5] AH: Hello and welcome to our final day in the lab for the Story Grid Masterwork Experiment. Before we get started today, I want to remind listeners about Story Grid Live, happening September 13th and 14th, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. Story Grid has grown into a movement followed by tens of thousands of writers from all over the globe who are serious about their craft. This live in-person weekend event will be full of inspiration, information and expertise along with some food, fun and nerdery with your fellow Story Gridders. As you’re going to hear from Shawn in this episode, you want to be part of a group like this.
If you’re a writer looking to deepen your expertise in the craft of storytelling, Story Grid Live 2019 is the place to be. Step out of your routine and come spend two days, alongside other writers and storytellers like you. This is a chance not only to learn, but to connect with other amazing writers. Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl will be presenting, along with special guest, Steven Pressfield. I’ll be there and I hope you will too. Find out more at storygrid.com/live. That’s storygrid.com/live.
Now on with the show.
My name is Anne Hawley. For the past nine weeks, I’ve been the lab rat in the masterwork experiment, which Shawn Coyne devised as a test of his latest writing and editing methods. Today, we conclude the experiment. I turn in a rough, a very rough draft and Shawn gives it his benediction as a good start on a fresh and original story. Of course, the big question is what’s next?
I might have meant what do you want me to do next, but for Shawn, the question elicits an inspiring preview of the large vision he and Tim have for the Story Grid universe. There’s space travel involved and a dojo. If you’re like me, you’re going to get images of Yoda and you’re going to feel like Luke Skywalker. Set down your safety glasses, relax in the lounge just outside the lab and join me in the rousing conclusion of the masterwork experiment.
[0:02:06.0] SC: I went through the material you sent me and I think this show should really be about final questions that you have, that you anticipate meeting answers when you’re creating this first draft. You’re absolutely – I think you’re killing it in terms of hitting the beats, thinking through your options and then when you don’t have an answer, you’re being really good about allowing yourself not to have an answer, but to put down your options.
I love the twists that you’ve added, which are going to make the story richer and more plot-driven, the ideas that I see you poking around is having Roberts the headmaster guy be on the down-low, which I think is great. Then how people on the down-low, in that class would take advantage of the underclass. I think all that stuff is really, really good. You’re at about what? 10,000 words right now?
[0:03:11.4] AH: Yup.
[0:03:12.0] SC: Yeah, I could see this going to somewhere between 17 to 25. I would encourage you to let those little things that you want to string in a larger way go, like the notions of the military stuff, perhaps a little bit of that. I understand your point about the gun guy. If we label him the keeper of the guns and a gun doesn’t go off, that’s a little bit of a disappointment. However, you might think about a way to have a gun go off. Who knows?
Don’t say, “No, I’m not going to do that,” because you might hit a place where I see you need a solution to the problem of the young woman who’s going to be the eventual narrator of the story. You had that really nice moment, where Josiah says to her, “I’ll do everything I can to protect you,” knowing that these gentlemen are going to come and try and take advantage of her as they take advantage of Mattie and Josiah too. That could be an opportunity for the accidental firing of a weapon that could save her in some way.
That also could serve the greater narrative device thing. Why would this woman so many years later tell this story to a young person who is being bullied for their obvious gayness? It could be the most courageous person I ever met in my life was gay.
My great point here is that my underlying concern, not knowing whether or not this experiment would work or not was whether or not we would get too locked into the progressive beats and eliminate things that were opportunities, just because they didn’t fit within this global progression. What I’ve discovered and I think you’ve discovered is that it’s actually enabled you to actually have those insightful ideas, while you were abiding by this beat progression.
It would be silly not to take advantage of certain opportunities that come to you in the process of your working through Annie Proulx’s beats, because it’s only going to make this story more and more rich and more enlivened by your subjective point of view and your skill set. I’m really quite – I’m a little bit stunned. It was like, you accidentally drop peanut butter into a vat of chocolate and holy cow, look at this thing that we just stumbled upon.
I think the next step is follow your gut instinct and play around with the opportunities that you have peeled off of the story. The goal is to get you with a draft, a draft of something. Plenty of TKs is fine, then we can start story gridding the draft and saying to ourselves, “Is this in-line with the conventions and obligatory scenes of the love genre? A. Is there a clear escalation and progression of stakes? Is it getting progressively more complicated? Does it make sense that it comes to the rather tragic end that it does without it being hokey and pushed?” Right now, it seems absolutely building to that inevitable moment, when the authentic nature of one of these men is going to end up killing them.
There’s also that underlying element of men like these enabled the world to be the way it is today, without these authentic men being themselves and acting with courage and with authenticity, the likelihood that we would be in the place that we are now is pretty slim. It’s a really nice homage and a thank you to the people who came before us, who had the courage to be who they are.
I think that might have been one of your early concerns about the stories that you didn’t want it to become one of those oh, the gay guy has to die at the end of the story, because that’s the way these stories work. I’d rather it not be so much about that, than the dignity of gay people in the past. I’ll stop talking now and see if you have any questions.
[0:08:08.9] AH: Well, a couple of things you said, I just wanted to underscore that because of I think probably just my personality type, I’m a perfectionist, I guess. In this process, the first six weeks we spent analyzing Brokeback Mountain. I was having a ball, right? I just get out my microscope and I start breaking it down to little tiny pieces. Then when I started to write, I found that at first to be a stumbling block, because I kept getting lost in the weeds trying to think, “Okay, how can I match this beat exactly?”
It took me a couple of weeks of writing to start to change what I was calling the beats, the names that I gave them to abstract that down further, so that when I use that list of beats as my outline, it didn’t have cowboy references in it and didn’t have – make them more abstract and more universal, so that it freed me up to change things. The example is the beat where Ennis just blows off Alma, because Jack has returned and they’re just like, “I’m just going to ignore you and we’re going to run off to the motel.” I had to think okay, neither of my guys is ever going to have a wife to do that to. How do I fix that? I realized, “Oh, I can use the little scullery maid for that.” I can have Josiah sort of betray her. There it was. That freed me from what I was overly constraining myself to match.
[0:09:32.0] SC: Yeah, yeah. That’s a really good point, because the trick is to pull the high-resolution beat analysis and move it up a level of the abstraction, so it becomes not a wife, but someone that they’re responsible to, or for in that moment. If Josiah is there and he needs to help the scullery maid, she stands in for the wife, even though it’s not a literal wife. Yeah, great.
[0:10:02.6] AH: I do have a question. For the sake of the experiment, I do want to account for every beat that I identified in Brokeback Mountain just for the record. Some of them, I can replicate really exactly. Some I’m going to have to alter and some I’m going to have to throw away, but I want to at the end of this, I want to be able to present here all the beats in Brokeback Mountain and then like no, yes, I did this one, I changed this one, I decided to discard this one. Does that say – I mean, am I wasting my time, or should I for the sake of the experiment and public interest should I continue?
[0:10:35.3] SC: Well, you and I have talked about this off the record as I’ve talked about it with a number of Story Grid people. Story Grid has to find – I’m calling it a performance space arena for all of our people who are leveling up, right? It’s wonderful to have the safe garden dojo, where we can all go and compare notes and bang out this grammar and making it more and more specific and high-resolution and God knows, we all absolutely adore that process. There is a day when you got to lead the dojo. You got to leave the confines of the place, where you’re learning. You’ve got to leave university and you’ve got to go outside of the world.
Tim and I have been planning for years, what is this performance space? What does it look like? What’s the point of it? Why should Story Grid create some performance space? We haven’t figured it all out, but one of the things we did figure out is the performance space needs to help those who are still in the dojo. What I mean by that is if we could actually create a place where all of the titles, all the books that are released in this performance world, this publishing house to be more specific, so if we create this publishing house, all of the titles that that publishing house releases, wouldn’t it be nice if we could explain to people why we published them? What was our methodology? How did we come to the conclusion that this story is ready for primetime?
Not that the writer is ready for primetime, but the story is ready for primetime. Because I think a lot of us writers never think that we are ready. If you can separate the artist from the art and we can all look at the work, look at the story itself as its own thing, then we’ll be all more confident in releasing it into the world, because we can’t hold on to it for the rest of our lives. I promise, I’m going to answer your question about whether or not you should do that in a second. I’m getting there. That’s my ending payoff of this diatribe.
One of the elements is how can we explain to people why we publish what we published? One of the concepts that we have is having these annotated guides to the titles that we published that explain the writer, the creator’s point of view and the decisions that she made when she came to lock this thing down.
I think it would be wonderful if you continue do that and do include those explanations. You know what? This beat was perfect for Brokeback Mountain, but I tried to really mangle it into my story and for the following reasons, it just never clicked. That would be something, because then it can illustrate to all of us story nerds in the world who care, I’m not saying there’s 15 million of them. Maybe there’s 10,000 of them. Who knows? If those people were able to pick up a book that you have written about the book that you wrote and you explain, “Hey, this began as an experiment. One of my all-time favorite stories was Brokeback Mountain, so here’s what we did. Here’s how I took that beat structure and I moved it over here and then I discovered some of those beats weren’t really appropriate for my story, so that’s why I cut them.”
I think that’s a very valuable document. One of the first things if you ever go to a book signing, then there’s Stephen King there, or Steven Pressfield, or Nora Roberts and the questions that were always asked are where do you get your ideas? How do you figure this thing out? These books, these kinds of projects would answer those very questions in very specific language that is all within the grammar of Story Grid, so that more and more people can come to Story Grid without any loaded expectations about some magic fairy dust that we have that will be sprinkled on their work and all of a sudden, they’ll have something that’s remarkable.
In this experiment, I think the truth of the Story Grid methodology has really played out. It’s a process, right? The editor and the writer work together as a team. The editor is not the know-it-all, they’re not the one to say no or yes. It’s a sounding board in order for the writer and the editor to help the story come to life in the best way possible.
Now the writer is the creator, but the editor is the midwife. They’re the ones who help out. They don’t birth the story, but they’re the ones to coach, to say, “Well, let’s do this, let’s try that, that’s not quite working.” That’s the answer to that question is by all means, please do that document.
[0:15:46.7] AH: Okay. It’s already underway.]
[0:15:49.2] SC: Great.
[0:15:49.5] AH: That’s good. We do get on the Roundtable Podcast, we get questions from listeners quite often, where the expectation seems to be you’re just going to hand us the key.
[0:15:59.1] SC: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[0:16:00.7] AH: I’m going to be able to turn this key and my story will just suddenly magically become a bestseller, or at least bestseller riveting quality. We always come back to the process and how much study it takes. You got to train your sights on something. You got to work at it a little bit. It was, I view these questioners pretty sympathetically, because I felt the same way when I came to this. “I do this spreadsheet. I put my novel on the spreadsheet and it’s going to solve – I mean, instantly all my problems are going to be solved.” No, it doesn’t work that way. That’s just the first step.
[0:16:32.9] SC: Yeah, it’s really picking apart all of the little strands and separating the strands into their categories of problem. Once you have the categories of problem, then you have to fix each of the categories. You have to understand what the overarching category is. It’s a very complex process. You and I have talked before about the concept of combinatorial explosiveness. I can’t think of a more explosive universe in terms of just possibility and potential than the story world, because if you just say to yourself, “Well, let’s say we have to write 60 scenes, or in your case, you’re probably going to end up with what? 15 to 20 scenes in this story.”
[0:17:15.1] AH: Yeah, something like that.
[0:17:16.7] SC: Okay. That’s the number of hurdles that you have to get over before you can write the end. Then you have to think about how many options you have for each one of those scenes. Now before, we were looking at Brokeback Mountain, those were infinite.
[0:17:32.8] AH: Right, exactly.
[0:17:33.8] SC: Infinity to the 20th power is a pretty big number. That is the story problem and it’s also the story opportunity. That’s why everyone knows I can create something that has never been created before, because the universe of story is so massive. It’s so much larger than our galaxy, our solar system. Everything that we know about the size of space itself is dwarfed by the size of the story universe. It’s no wonder, all of us need a little place to land every now and then, our little spacecraft, to hang out with other travelers and say, “Hey, did anybody see that asteroid over there? What am I supposed to make of that?” That’s my big metaphor for what the Story Grid is about.
You have that little planet that’s the garden dojo, where everybody can land and compare notes and make the practices and the processes more specific and more helpful. Then you got to get off that island. You got to get off that planet. Creating this other planet where people can perform, without all of the loaded-in stuff about big New York publishing and self-publishing and Kindles and Amazons and how many reader pages you’re getting. If we could put that stuff aside, because that’s all marketing, that’s all about the commercial marketplace and God knows, it’s an important thing, but it’s not about why everybody’s doing what they’re doing. Nobody sets out to become a writer to become rich and famous. Yeah, deep down they’re like, “Yeah, wouldn’t it be nice if I did become that?” It’s a compulsion. There’s nothing that you can run away from that won’t lead back to writing, won’t lead back to storytelling.
Tim and I and all of the Story Grid editors have been from the very start, we’ve been thinking about this for three years. I think Tim and I are close to laying out the ground rules of what this plan is going to be like, and I’m super excited about it. You and I at the very start of this experiment, we had an understanding and I hope we still do, that hey, this is a thing that would be perfect for that planet. This is what that planet would be all about. Someone who’s dedicated to the craft, who’s interested in trying new things, who’s not afraid to change, give something a try, goes on an experiment.
The results of that experiment would be really cool to be able to release into the world in such a way that all of the reasons why you wrote the story from the first are embedded in the work itself. I didn’t really mean to get here and start talking about this mythical planet I want to go, but why not? It’s an experiment. I’m allowed to say whatever the hell I want.
[0:20:50.6] AH: One of the questions I definitely wanted to ask you was where are we heading and what kinds of things should people who listen to the podcast be looking for next? You have anything to say about that?
[0:21:01.2] SC: Yeah. I mean, 2020 is going to prove to be a very big initiative. Tim and I have – Tim Grahl who’s a super integral partner of mine in Story Grid, it just would not be anywhere near it is without Tim driving the controls and operations. He’s just really amazing at that. I also love the fact that we worked for four years together on a creative project that you can really test someone when you have to work with them creatively, because how they react to the setbacks, inevitable setbacks and how you react to them, those really have to come in-line together to work in a way that you don’t end up destroying anything.
We had this nice four-year incubation period where he’s written a novel, I’m in the processes of doing a final line edit on the novel. I think it’s really wonderful, the novel that he wrote. I think it’s absolutely in the goal state that he always dreamed of writing. That’s going to be one of our first books that is going to appear on this planet. The Story Grid publishing operation will launch in 2020. It’s not just going to be novels or fiction, although that’s going to be a really important part of it, we’re also all about bringing more people into the dojo.
Those ideas that I talked about earlier about having annotated guides to not only the masterworks, like Brokeback Mountain, which I’m hoping you would consider putting together for us.
[0:22:45.4] AH: It’s about half-written already.
[0:22:47.9] SC: Okay. We would have a guide to Brokeback Mountain, a masterwork written by Anne Hawley. Then we would also have what we’re calling Story Grid contenders. Story Grid contenders are stories that were inspired by the masterworks. That would be written by you too and it would explain the choices that you made in creating your work of fiction. That’s the concept and of course, fiction is a long incubation period. We have no interest in jamming anything out just because we have to fill a slot.
A lot of our titles in the Story Grid publishing universe are going to be very much about the Story Grid methodology. We were inspired by Steven Pressfield’s JAB program, so we want to offer very specific advice for a very specific Story Grid problems. We’ll have little books about that and we’ll have global psycho-technology tools. Our friend Rochelle is writing one of those.
The next iteration is taking it out of, “Oh, Story Grid, that’s Shawn and Tim’s thing.” I love that. I love being associated with it. I love having my name associated with it, but the real purpose of the Story Grid is to bring in more story nerds and the story nerds need to have a place to throw down. They need a place where they can confidently put something into the world, knowing that the publisher has their back and is really about what they’re about. That’s generally the idea of this operation. We’re going to launch that in 2020. We’ll certainly have more and more information about this.
Tim and I are thinking about doing a series about publishing our views about it, why we’re doing what we’re doing, how we see it, where we think it’s going. I’m excited about that, because I’ve always said since I started 27 years ago in traditional publishing, I always said I have a white whale. The white whale I’m chasing is how do you get people to really deeply commit to fiction? Meaning, they’re excited about it. They’re ready to read it. They’re dying to read more. It’s been a really difficult problem to solve, because as we all know, there are multiple publishing houses, they all publish fiction, some of their fiction titles work and some of them don’t. We don’t really know why they chose the titles, etc.
This quandary, this problem has been circulating in my mind for 27 years. I always thought, who reads the most? If you hadn’t really boil it down, who’s going to be the people who read the most? Well, people who are writers, or aspiring writers. Those are people who just love to read. Okay, so that’s a pretty cool core market. Now what if you were able to give them works in their specific genres that they love a lot and explain to them why we’re publishing what we’re publishing? Explain to them the method behind the madness. That would be an interesting idea, because then they’ll be drawn to the story because they like to read. Secondly, there’ll be an undertone of desire to read that book, because they might be able to learn something from it. They might be able to learn something for their own craft and technique.
Even if you don’t really want to take the red pill and fall into the Story Grid universe, you can at least – you can sample, right? If you really want to know how Story Grid – how we would analyze Brokeback Mountain, hey, we’ve got a book for that. If you want to know how we’re going to do the Hobbit, yeah, we’re going to have a book for that. It’s not all or nothing. It’s just let’s reel focus on the work. Let’s all of us just put our mind to the process of making the work as good as we possibly can and together, helping each other so that maybe incrementally with each new publication, each of our works in the future will just be a little bit better. The better the stories, the better people are enlightened, because stories are about change. They’re all about how can we change our behavior in order to navigate the world in a better way?
If you have really great stories, cautionary stories and prescriptive stories that can enlighten people about alternative pathways of behavior, that can make their lives a little bit better and that’s the deep down truth of fiction. The fiction is true, it’s meta true, it’s true across time. Nonfiction is factually based. Anyway, I don’t want to get into the ontology of fiction and nonfiction right now.
Anyway, as you can tell I’m very excited about it. You and I and all the story good editors have been talking about this. We’ve been picking apart how it would work the best way for a good two and a half years now. It’s now time to throw down, get the thing out there and let’s go. Let’s get it together.
[0:28:06.9] AH: Well, I was honored and pleased to have been invited to this experiment in the first place. After what you just said, I feel like, wow, I am super humbled by my position here of being the first one on the planet. I love that. Tim is going to be there first, but I feel very, very honored about this.
[0:28:25.1] SC: Oh, well. You earned it, Anne. We’re nothing if not pragmatic, if we didn’t think you were ready, we wouldn’t have asked you.
[0:28:32.1] AH: Well, thank you. What should I expect going forward? I am going to get to the end of my draft and finish shoveling sand into this sandbox, which is what this drafting process has felt like. I’m not building anything yet. I’m just assembling building materials. That’s what it feels like. In the ongoing editorial relationship, tell me a little bit about what I should expect.
[0:28:55.6] SC: As an editor, what I always one is just give me a draft. My experience doing developmental editing has been in the past about a 50/50 proposition. What I mean by that is 50% of the titles that I would work through would be published by a major publishing company and the other 50% would not be. They would just not fit within that paradigm. That’s another reason why I’m starting the Story Grid publishing operation. It’s not that the titles weren’t ready for primetime, it’s just that for whatever reason, that had nothing to do with the quality of the work. They just were not acquired. That’s one of the things I don’t like about book publishing.
I’m not mad at major publishers, or the editors there. It’s just there’s a lot of different domains of decision that all have to align before a title can be acquired. Unfortunately, I think the quality and the genre elements of it are really low on the totem pole. I want to pull those all the way to the top and let the other ones filter down. Anyway, after I have a draft, the way I work as an editor is this isn’t going to surprise anyone. I’m going to go through the six core questions again.
I’m going to say, what is the genre that Anne is shooting for? You would write love story. We would go through that. Then we would go through the foolscap page and we would say, well has she abided by the conventions and obligatory scenes that we know right now? I’m not saying that all of our theories and all of our feature lists of genres are perfect. That’s part of the process too is continuing to work on them and tweaking them. Rochelle and I had a discussion about the proof of love scene not too long ago, because she thought maybe we should refresh that idea. That’s the point of Story Grid. It’s not for someone to go, “No.” Okay, I’m getting off topic.
The next thing is we do the foolscap page. We would look at the global macro. Has it abided? Because this is an experiment, the next stage after that for me is I would do the spreadsheet, which you’ve probably already created. I would review your spreadsheet and I would say, did Anne actually do what she said she was going to do? If she didn’t do what she said she was going to do, does she have a good reason why? All that means is that we’ll look at the beat by beat again and say, did Anne nail that beat, or is it a little fuzzy? Can we tweak the beat to be a little bit more clear, so that it abides the general beat structure of Brokeback Mountain? Okay, so that would be step number two, or step number three.
Then step number four would be a line edit. I think a lot of people get confused and they think line editing is the sum total of editing. For me, it’s 500 grit sandpaper on the manuscript. A line edit would mean, I would go through it, I would make changes and I would have track changes on. I would make the changes that I think would be best for the manuscript and then that document goes to you. Then you’re the writer and you will go through my changes and you would go, “Hey, yeah. Not a bad idea. I love that word. Yes.” Or you would go, “No, I like mine better. No, thank you.” That’s how you would go through the line edit.
Between our two minds, because the key thing is the editor should take great pains not to mess with the lyrical sensibility of the writer. Your voice is your voice. I can’t write in your voice. I can mimic some voices, but I’ll never write in your voice. It doesn’t mean that sometimes you wouldn’t like some help on a synonym, or a different sentence structure, right? That is really the process. This process after you have your first draft can take anywhere from depending upon my schedule and your schedule, two to six months.
Then we get to the place that Steven Pressfield and I love and it’s called locked manuscript. Locked manuscript is when we both shake hands and say, it’s time for the baby to be put into the world.
[0:33:25.6] AH: Stop fiddling with it.
[0:33:27.4] SC: That’s right. We locked down and say, “We’re going to live with this. We’re not going to fiddle with it any longer.” Then it goes to copy editing, goes to design and then all of my publisher toolbox comes out. I would work with our creative director who creates our covers, a wonderful man named Derick Tsai and in Los Angeles, he has a company called Magnus Rex; wonderful designer. Does great work. He’s got all kinds of people who work with him. I’ll explain it. I’ll give him the manuscript. He’ll read the manuscript. He’ll come up with some ideas. Then we’ll settle on a cover.
Thankfully, the guides are going to have uniform covers, like Steve’s JABs, so we’re not going to have to reinvent the wheel every time we do a contender or a masterwork. For each individual, unique piece of fiction, yes, it’s going to have its own unique cover, it’s going to have its own unique design, it’s going to be very specific to genre, it’s going to say love story to people, it’s going all of those things that you would expect from a really great publisher marketing the book properly. That’s the service that we’ll do too.
Right now, I’ve got it scheduled for a distant date in 2020. If we finish it early, we can think about changing that. Those are generally the steps and you as the writer would certainly be consulted all along the way. If I send you a cover and it’s just horrible, I mean, you don’t have to say, “Shawn it’s horrible.” You’d go –
[0:35:08.7] AH: I’ll try not to.
[0:35:09.4] SC: You know what? I’m sorry, for whatever reason, I just don’t agree with you and it’s just not going to work for me. Then I will make a very strong argument why you might be incorrect.
[0:35:24.2] AH: I have no sense of book cover design. I do not begin to understand book covers.
[0:35:29.7] SC: Well, the good news is that we’re going to publish Tim’s novel, The Threshing. We have an amazing cover for it. Tim saw one. He saw a sketch of it and he was like, “Yep, that’s it. Great. Thanks.”
[0:35:42.5] AH: Cool.
[0:35:43.4] SC: It’s because Derick’s a pro. I mean, he had his own advertising agency, worked for Honda. He knows how to package things, but he’s also with a massive story nerd too.
[0:35:54.8] AH: Oh, cool.
[0:35:55.4] SC: Yeah. He’s a great writer. I mean, that’s how we got him is he was into Steve’s work and then he met me through Steve and he designs Steve’s stuff. It’s great. That’s generally the overarching process of taking your time, thinking through clearly a publication. That’s why we’re here.
The difficult thing to swallow and to understand is that we can do all of those things really well and be very intentional and really make choices that we’re all very comfortable with and we’re all happy with. The problem is after we’re done, we have to let it go. It’s not to say that we’re not going to tell people about it, it’s just that you can’t read your reviews. You got to let the thing live its own life and you can’t be so concerned with the results; the commercial results, the marketplace results of the book. That is really, really hard. To this day, it’s very hard.
I say that all the time, but occasionally I’ll look at my reviews and I’ll get really upset. I’m only human. Everybody is. That’s something we’ll all work on together. The more people who were following the same process that you follow, I think the more comfortable everybody’s going to be like, “Oh, this is the way we do it over at Story Grid publishing. We bust our ass for the work. We do everything possible to make it appeal to its core readership, its genre lovers and then we let the thing live its life.”
Our goal, I say this all the time is if you can expose it to 10,000 people who are inclined to enjoy that story, then you’re done, because those 10,000, it’s going to be enough to generate enough word-of-mouth. If it’s working to the satisfaction of the audience, then it’s going to have a life. If it doesn’t, well we can write another book.
[0:37:58.8] AH: That to me – to me personally as a writer, that last thing you said is the big revelation here, because I’ve been a half-assed writer all my life. The idea that, “Oh, I can just write another book,” seemed impossible to me, because I had to wait for inspiration to strike and it didn’t strike. This whole process of being able to say, “I want to write a book like that,” and then how to do that has been like, “Yeah, after this one’s done, I can write another one.” I’m already thinking about it. I’ve already found a masterwork. The possibility that yes, I could write another one after this and another one after that was never a real possibility for me before.
[0:38:42.2] SC: Well, you’re not alone in that. I fall prey to the same stuff, because everything is so much about results today. You meet somebody at a coffee bar and they ask you what you do and you go, “You’re a writer.” They go, “Is there anything I might have read?” You’re like, “Oh, Christ. Probably not, but that doesn’t mean my work is worthless.” Obviously, they’re not trying to make you feel bad. It’s such a loaded question, because like, “You know what? Probably not. You probably wouldn’t like anything I wrote, but I’m a writer nevertheless.”
If you look at it from the other point and you say, “Well, the results aren’t going to give me mass adulation.” That’s really off the table. Because even people who sell multi-million copies of stories, it doesn’t really work for them. That’s why Stephen King, he just keeps writing new books, right? Because that’s what he is. He’s a storyteller. He’s not a bestselling writer, he’s a storyteller, so that’s what he does.
[0:39:47.1] AH: Although, he is also a bestselling writer in a very big way.
[0:39:50.4] SC: Of course. That’s beside the point. I think especially in his life now, he does not identify with that all that much, because he probably did live that bestselling writer life and it didn’t really result in the best things for him. If you read his book on writing, you’ll understand that. It’s like, “Hey, man. All it did was bring me a bunch of addictions and self-doubt.” What I understood is – and thank God, he had his wife and his family. “No, I’m a writer. I’m a storyteller. The rest has to take care of itself. Forget about it.”
That is the truth. The truth is you are not the writer of one book. You are an author creating a body of work as Steve says. It’s a body of work. Each work that you bring into the world, each project isn’t just for commercial consumption. It actually tells you something about yourself. Why am I attracted to this story? This is interesting. Why? Why do I keep coming back to it? Steve always says that. Steve is the sweetest guy in the world. He’s a Pacific person, but he’s attracted to war and he writes great war novels. He’s written other kinds of novels too. He’s always asking himself, “Why am I attracted to this story?” Isn’t this interesting?
He’s discovering, it’s a Socratic process of self-revelation by writing these works too. That’s why the work is the most important, right? The harder we concentrate on the work, the more we learn about ourselves. The more of a body of work that we can generate, the better we will come to know who we are, why we’re here and what we have to leave here.
[0:41:36.1] AH: Yeah. I’m going to cut this out, because I have nothing to say to that. This is really good. That’s some good shit there, Shawn.
[0:41:47.9] SC: That’s good. It’s seemingly a very simple concept. When you think about it and you talk with other people about it, you can all nod your head. You go, “Yeah. Yeah, that’s really it, isn’t it?” We get lost in the, “I wonder if I can get an agent. I wonder if that agent will like my author photo. I wonder if the publisher and the agent are friends.” Before you know it, you’re worried about that thing you said on the 9th phone call with the editor at tor. You just get washed down this big vortex of shit that doesn’t matter.
It’s difficult, because a publishing house has to have revenue. You can’t have this utopian place, where everybody sings Kumbaya, everybody’s encouraging, we publish everyone’s work, everyone gets to perform. Nope, you can’t do that, because it devalues the leveling up process. Because if people aren’t leveling up, they’re not challenging themselves, they’re not changing, they’re not doing the work, sorry kids, come back another day, because yet you’re not ready for primetime.
You have to embed a hierarchy of value and the hierarchy of value that we’re embedding is the quality of the work. How are we judging the quality of the work? Well, we’ve got this thing. It’s a methodology that analyzes works and compares them to the masterworks of the genre. It’s called the Story Grid. All of us study it. We all contribute to it. We all try to make it a little bit better every time we look at something. That’s how we judge the quality. If your scenes aren’t turning 85% of the time in your manuscript, hey, you’re not even close to ready, right? It’s just a fact. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It doesn’t mean you’re a loser. It just means, hey man, you got to put a little bit more work in. That’s all.
We’re judging you, but what we’re saying, we’re not judging your character, we’re judging your work. Hey, what you produced isn’t ready yet. We love you. Come on back. Let’s walk through it. We can’t publish people just because they want to be published. They need to do the work. They need to level up. They need to get better. They need to produce work that’s worthy. It’s got to be worthy, because if things are published that we can’t say, this is why we think this is worthy. Check out this spreadsheet. Look at the way this shit turns. Look at the global value at stake moving. Look at the Story Grid. Look at the foolscap page. Look at the six core questions, and on and on and on.
Well, that was one of the things that always drove me crazy when I was at the major publishing houses and I would publish a novel that I thought was fantastic. Now obviously, everybody doesn’t think everything’s fantastic. I would go to lunch with someone, like an agent and they go, “Well, tell me what you’ve published.” I’d be like, “Hey, I published XY and Z.” They go, “I didn’t really care for Z.” I would take it very personally, because I’d be like, “What do you mean you didn’t care for Z?” This is why I had a very limited window of time in that world. “What do you mean you didn’t care?” They’re like, “Well, it just didn’t work for me.” I’m like, “Okay, how didn’t it work for you?” Then I get into this big thing and then I would realize they didn’t really have a system of evaluating the work. They did, it was an internal intuitive system and there’s nothing wrong with having that, but it bothered me that I was in a profession that professed to be publishing works of quality, but nobody could define quality with any resolution.
We define quality with high-resolution, that’s our thing. You can disagree with our definitions of quality. You can disagree with micro-elements of the Story Grid and come on in, disagree. Tell us what you think. Tell us how to make it better, right? It’s not this didactic thing where the Oracle of Delphi is going to declare whether or not a book is published and worthy of being published. No, it’s a system. That’s what I love.
It’s our crazy idea. Here’s our crazy idea. What if everyone worked very hard and dedicated themselves to the quality of the work as we define quality? If we kept on doing that and if we brought more and more people into the dojo, maybe we would create enough revenue that people would benefit from publishing with Story Grid. They would make money doing it. Story Grid would get enough money to keep publishing, to keep hiring brilliant artists, like Derick to create beautiful covers, hiring wonderful copy editors, like my friend Amanda to do the copy editing, hiring spring to do the interior design.
Yeah, you need revenue buying all kinds of stuff that we all enjoy. Great, we love it. That’s the overall concept of this new thing that thankfully, we have Anne and you’re like, “You know what? I’m taking a flier on it. Don’t really know what the hell Shawn were talking about with this experiment, but they haven’t led me astray so far. When they’ve made a mistake they said, ‘Hey, Anne. I think I might have been wrong there,’ and we fix it.” I think that you’re serving as a guinea pig is so much proof to the larger world that anything I could say that it’s just been a pleasure working with you, Anne. I have no doubt that when we’re done with this project, we’re going to both be very proud of it, even if it’s just my family and your family are the only people who buy the book. I don’t think that’s going to be true, but we have to say that to ourselves. If the results of this book mean we got a 123 eBook sales to Tanzania, that’s enough for me. It is.
[0:48:01.7] AH: Yeah. It is for me too, seriously. I’m at a point in my life where it’s not – I’m not hoping to build a living earning career off my writing. It would be great if something like that happened, but the philosophy of telling a good story well and changing a little something in the world with it is really all I want to do.
[0:48:26.3] SC: Well, great. We’re on the same page.
[0:48:28.1] AH: Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Well Shawn, this has been an absolutely amazing journey for me. I feel it’s just beginning. I’ve got a long way to go yet down the road. I am going to get my finished draft to you as soon as I can and I’ll be blogging about it, if people are interested. I’ll probably put something on the Story Grid blog about it, so that people can follow along that process. Unless, you have any objection to that?
[0:48:56.9] SC: No, not at all.
[0:48:58.5] AH: Okay. I feel I’m ready to lift off from planet dojo and aim for planet performance here. I’m going to go get on that.
[0:49:10.0] SC: Oh, that sounds great.
[0:49:11.6] AH: All right. Thank you, Shawn.
[0:49:12.9] SC: Thank you, Anne.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:49:15.4] AH: That is a final wrap for the masterwork experiment. I now enter the exciting phase of having my work edited by Shawn Coyne; a process I will be writing about in my own blog. In the show notes, you’ll find links to all my working documents, notably the manuscript itself, so have a look at that. You never know, you may catch me laboriously weaving my web of words in real-time.
For everything Story Grid related, visit storygrid.com. If you’d like to learn more about me and my writing and editing work, you’ll find me at annehawley.net. You can also catch me every Wednesday on the Editor Roundtable Podcast, where I team up with four of my fellow Story Grid certified editors to analyze the story structure of a movie or a novel every week.
To support the podcast, tell other authors about us and leave us a rating and review. Well, Tim and Shawn will be back next time with the first of several episodes dissecting the state of the publishing world and their ideas for changing it. It’s going to be a fascinating discussion, so be sure to keep us in your podcast feed.
Thanks for joining me on my masterwork experiment journey. It’s been amazing.