[0:00:00.4] 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’m the struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining the shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode Shawn and I talk about a lot of the common miss inside of publishing and the truth that lives on the other side to that. So we both have a unique perspective on how publishing works, and a lot of times the lies that are put out into the world. So I’ve been wanting to do this episode so that we could dive into some of those miss and talk about what’s really going on behind the scenes. I think you’ll enjoy it.
So let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:51.4] TG: Shawn, the topic I wanted to talk about last week to avoid the thing we ended up talking about, I want to actually address this week. We’re talking when we’re together a couple of weeks ago about — The only word I can use for it is the lies out there. I think there is both explicit and implicit lies out there about different things around writing and publishing. So I thought that it would be good for us to talk some about it here.
I think about this a lot when it comes to this whole publishing landscape of both what it takes to become a good writer, what it means to be a good writer, what it means to have recognition of writing, what it means to get published or get your writing out there, and there’s all kinds of misconceptions. Some of them I think are kind of they’re not bad. It’s just misconceptions. Then some of them, there is a lot of push to keep the misconceptions there, because it keeps money flowing in the right direction.
I thought we would just talk about some of our favorites about it and I thought we would just talk with the big one about just some misconceptions around the idea of traditional publishing. What goes into it? When it’s good? When it’s not good? We talked about it a little bit in the past, but I thought it’d be good to revisit it about what are some of the most common beliefs that are not true or myth around publishing. Where would you start with a question like that?
[0:02:32.0] SC: Oh, boy! That’s a Pandora’s box. The biggest myth in my experience with big publishing is people who have no understanding of it think that it’s inherently fair and that it’s impossible for a great not to be picked up by a major publisher. So let me just do a little bit of history here in terms of book publishing in the United States and especially around the globe. Book publishing used to be a very smallish little companies that would usually be run by single editors or publishers who really got into book publishing because they just love books and there were a lot of them.
When I got into the business in the early 90s, there were — I don’t know, like 20 publishing houses where you could apply. They were all independent. So there were 20 of them that you could send your resume to and get an interview to work there or not, but there were 20 opportunity and those 20 publishing companies had all bunch of imprints within them. Let’s say there are 150 imprints. Those 20 houses controlled all 150 imprints. Now, there’s only five places to send your resume if you want to get a job in publishing. It moved from 20 to 5, which is a huge loss of opportunity for people who just want to work in publishing.
Now, those 5 control all 150, if not more of the imprints now. If you are rejected by all five of those major publishing houses as a writer, you’re not going to be published by a major publishing company. You just won’t. The reasons why editors choose to acquire a title or try to acquire a title have very — The quality of the work is so subjective and it’s believed to be so subjective at the major publishing houses and nobody really has a glossary understanding of the different genres. Nobody’s tracking what genres are being properly published into and which are not being — Nobody is really taking any sort of data quantitative view of the industry except in the business department. I’m talking about the editorial department that arguments that say things like, “This might not be your cup of tea, but is the best alternative reality gaming novel being written right now.” Most editors wouldn’t even know what the agent or the writer was talking about. They would go, “I just don’t like video games,” and they would reject it out of hand until something like Ready Player One comes around and then everybody says, “What’s this new genre? Let me get a book in there,” because they recognize that there actually is a market for that.
The point that I’m trying out is the big myth is that if you were rejected by all of the major publishing houses that your book is somehow not worthy of publication, and then you sort of like with your tail between your legs go and self-publish it on Create Space and maybe a few people buy it and maybe they don’t. We all know what’s required for marketing of books today, especially independent projects, is it takes a lot of time and effort. As you say, it’s harder to actually market the book than it is to write it. A lot of people don’t want to deal with that fact. They just want to publish it and get on to their next one.
The big lie for me is people who just sort of think that they’re unworthy of anybody reading their work if one of the imprints at the major five publishing houses doesn’t want to publish them or they can’t get a big high time, big agent. There is a whole series of ridiculous, absurd processes that contribute to this. One day I’ll do some kind of fun graphic to show just how absurd it really is, but that’s the big lie, if Knopf doesn’t want to publish your novel, you were a bad writer. That’s not true.
[0:07:19.5] TG: What would you say is the truth on the other side of that?
[0:07:23.7] SC: The truth is that there are very few book editors anymore. There used to be a lot more of them. With all the consolidation of the major publishing houses — There used to be 20 publishing houses that, say, carried 15 editors at each of the house. That’s 300 acquiring editor. Now, in consolidation, those 300 acquiring editors are now down to maybe a hundred. Literally, there’s probably a hundred gatekeepers across all the major, because what happens is that, yeah, there’s a bunch imprints at Random House, but there’s only five editors who fill all the slots and all the imprints.
Each one of those imprints used to have 15 editors in them until they were bought by the conglomerate that owned Random House which was bought by the conglomerate that owned Bantam Doubleday Dell which was the conglomerate that owns 17,000 publishing houses around the world, and they have a stranglehold on all English language publishing. That’s the Bertelsmann Corporation, and I used to work there.
When the consolidation happened, fewer and fewer editors are now in the gatekeeper world. Those editors are filling the slots for all of the imprints. You don’t get more than one real great opportunity at each of the major publishing companies. Maybe you get 12. Maybe you get 12 chances, and I’m speaking as an agent and I’m talking about fiction.
When I go out with a novel, I know deep down in my heart of hearts I’ve got 12 chances, and if I can’t get one of those 12 people to say, “Yes, I’ll publish it.” Sometimes you get two or three and then you can have an auction and then the money can go through those. Usually, if I send something out and I don’t get one of 12 people that I know in the back of my mind would be interested in it. I know that I’m not going to be able to get a contract for that fiction writer. That’s why as an agent — Guess what? I’m super selective, because I know all 12 people in my arena and I know, “Oh! That guy is already filled up his list for the next three years. I can’t really submit to him, which means I’m going to have to go to the young editor. The young editor doesn’t really know me all that well. So maybe they’ll try and do a power play and will get back to me and then I’ve got to massage them,” and then you get through all these social ridiculous stupid things.
As I was saying to you the other day, I can email every CEO of the five major conglomerates and they will email me back within 5 to 10 minutes. I’m not kidding. Because I was in the industry with these guys and these women and they know who I am. When I email them, they immediately get back. I have a feeling, even if they didn’t know me, they would get back to me quickly anyway. It’s like the further you go down in the hierarchy, the more people pretend that there are important by not getting back to you.
Like an assistant editor will take a week to get back to me, whereas the CEO will take five minutes. Everything that you believe is actually the opposite. People in the lower ranks think that they need to project that there are super important by not getting back to you quickly. The people at the very top get back to you immediately, because that’s how they got to the top. They were responsive to people. They cared. They wanted to know about the new novel I have coming up, because they want to publish it if they love it. Whereas the editors down below, they’re trying to project power, and they don’t really have much power, but the little power that they do have, they’re going to hang on to it and really wield it with all the strength and urgency that they can muster, because you got to think about, these people are being sold a bill of goods, “Hey, you can join the ranks of the gatekeepers of the entire New York book publishing business,” and everybody is like, “Great. How do I do that?”
The thing is is that we’re not going to pay a living wage. You’re not really going to be able to make a living unless you have a lot of extraordinary success very early on and you keep piling on top of that. You’re going to have to live in maybe an hour and a half train ride away from Manhattan and you’re going to have to get on a bus every morning and then you can tell people that you’re a senior editor or executive editor of our publishing company, but you’re going to have to live really far away. These people are — Where’s the fun in that? Except to say, “Oh, well. Yeah, I saw that thing from super successful agent at the ICM and I thought it was terrible, so I rejected it.” There’s a certain — I am guilty of that myself when I was an editor. I like to say, “Well, yeah. That big agent called me about his book and I just said no.”
Obviously, when you bring up the lies in the book publishing industry, I can go on for hour after hour after hour. The thing is is that it’s very intensely psychologically screwy. When it’s screwy within the publishing houses themselves, you can imagine how that extrapolates when somebody has their book submitted. There’s all kinds of reasons that you will have no control over that can make a book that doesn’t even seem to be in grammatically correct English getting a million-dollar advance, whereas the book that you slaved over for 17 years and finally got a mid-level agent to send into a publishing house, you can’t even get an answer on that book. You’ve been waiting for somebody to even read the thing for a month and a half. My brain is flooding with all these examples that it just bum everybody out.
Before I do bum everybody out, you’ve got to remember the great, wonderful moment, we really are living it. It used to be once you were rejected by the major publishing houses, forget it. Nobody would consider self-publishing or using a vanity press to get their book out there, because the only way people were exposed to books were in bookstores. What’s great today is like you don’t need to get into Barnes and Nobles to be exposed to people, because you can go to Create Space or any of the other online self-publishing companies, you can get your book into the biggest marketplace for books in the world, which is Amazon, and if you do your own marketing and you do your own thing, you can build your own audience. That’s hard too, but at least there is that opportunity.
There wasn’t only 10 years ago. Remember, the Kindle is really the thing that made online publishing possible. The Kindle was released in 2007. How quickly do we forget that prior to 2007 that publishing industry is so locked down and closed that you could never even — You would have to get struck by lightning for your book to be read by anybody.
[0:15:22.0] TG: Yeah. That’s where like you would basically — From what I understand, and correct me if I’m wrong, you get the manuscript, if you can get an agent, they take it out. If it gets rejected, like you’re done. That manuscript goes back in the drawer. You start over for two years trying to come up with a manuscript you think will be good enough to get out in the world.
[0:15:44.7] SC: That’s correct. There is no — An agent will laugh in your face if you say, “Well, from all these rejection letters, it seems that most of the editors felt that I was a good writer, but that the ending just didn’t pay off. So why don’t I just revise the ending and then we’ll send it back to them.” “Oh! Oh! Oh, you naïve little fool.” Those rejection letters are just to be nice, and no editor has any interest in reading the revision of a book that they’ve already rejected ever. Please. Never darken the door again until you have a new novel that’s possibly publishable. You’re absolutely right. You have to throw that book away. You have to let it go or self-publish it. Do not believe that you can revise your novel and send it back to an editor who’s already rejected it, because an agent who does that will never get that editor on the phone again or returning their email.
[0:16:52.4] TG: I want to talk about one of my favorite myths out there. I’ll mention again kind of what I do for a living so that people understand where I’m coming from, because I don’t talk about it too much. I’ve been in the book marketing world for about a decade and help people figure out how to build their platforms and market their books. So I have a unique perspective on publishing, because I didn’t come into publishing, like New York publishing. I worked with authors. A lot of people ask, “Okay. Who hires you? Does the publishing house hire you or does the author hire you?” I’m like, “The publishing house never hires me. They see it as the author’s responsibility to sell their book, and so they’re not going to invest in that in most cases.”
For me, this was a big eye-opening experience. I was working with this author, and leading up to the book they were doing all kinds of really interesting things to promote the book, and they were like doing a lot of email marketing. They were doing a lot of just kind of guerrilla marketing. They were doing some things that were kind of shady about what they were doing to really promote their book in a hard-core way. They were doing a lot of stuff. They were spending money with publicists. They were spending money with freelancers. They were hiring me. They were doing all of these kind of stuff. When the book came out, it did really, really well. They sell a bunch of copies. Hits a bestseller list, and I wanted to interview the author to talk about the marketing that the author was doing.
My whole business is basically going out, trying all kinds of ideas about book marketing and then teaching what I learned in the process. Any time something happens, I like to peel back what’s really going on, because most of the time it’s like an iceberg principle, where so what you can actually see that’s happening is only a tiny percentage of what’s actually moving books. Most of the time, what it takes to moving books is all kinds of things that’s extremely opaque and not even bad things. It’s just this is how you do it behind-the-scenes. The only thing you can see is like social media and then everything else you can’t see.
I was like, “Okay. I would love to talk about like what you did to promote the book. Would you be up for this?” The author was like, “Yeah! Yeah! I’d love to do that.”
I get them on the phone and I ask a question, I said, “Okay. Tell me little bit about what you do, what you did to promote this book.” The author was like, “Well, I really try to write the best book I can, and I just put it out in the world and I just hope that it would find an audience, and sure enough it did and I just kind of got lucky.”
I’m sitting there thinking, I’m like, “Wait a second.” So I said, “Well, but didn’t you do like some stuff with email marketing?” He goes, “Well, a little bit, but pretty much I just tried to write the best book I can an put it out in the world and it just found an audience and it just kind of found an audience and lo and behold it sell a lot —”
[0:20:27.5] SC: Yeah, it was simply a word of mouth thing, where the book was just so extraordinarily good that people couldn’t help pressing it into the hands of other people.
[0:20:39.1] TG: Yeah. This is an author that — He’s very much like indoctrinated into like the New York world and very earnest. There’s all kinds of stuff going on there, but that was when I finally realize like it’s not just the fact that like people, the publishing works this way and there’s only 12 different people that you can promote so that you can get to picture book two and all these stuff. Also, on the public side, everybody — Not everybody, but a lot of people actively lie about what is really going on, because they want to look as if like, “Oh, it’s just all about the writing and about the art,” and they want everybody to just feel like they’re such amazing author that they found this audience and then everybody just thinks they’re an amazing author.
What’s really going on behind the scenes is that they’re doing all of these stuff to actually promote the book and some of it gets really, really shady. I talked about this, I have this really long like 3,500 word article about how the New York Times and Wall Street Journal is, and there’s all these like really sorted things that goes on behind the sales of people forcing their book sales even though it has nothing to do with whether or not the book is any good.
That was the moment when I — This was years ago now, but that I realized like, “Oh my gosh! People are actually lying about this,” and there was another on the same level, there’s another author. I know a lot of people that do like podcasts in the space and I work a lot in the business book world, so I know a lot of people. Several of my friends that run like podcasts about — Like business podcast, what this famous online person was reaching out to these podcasts and was offering to be on the podcast if the podcaster bought 50 copies of their book.
The podcaster was supposed to pony-up — What is it?
[0:23:02.1] SC: A thousand bucks probably.
[0:23:02.9] TG: Yeah, a thousand bucks for the — Whatever. The great honor of having this author on their podcast, and what they were doing is taking these 50 books and going out and getting them counted as individual book sales so that would it would put them on the bestseller list. This is just one of many thing this author was doing behind the scenes to take these book orders, and then I call it book laundering, where you take this bulk order that would normally get kicked out of the system by Wall Street Journal and New York Times and then turning it into individual sales. Actually, the company results sources, one of the ones that does this and they get really mad at me because I call it book laundering, although I just can’t tell much of a difference, because you take 30 books sales, you run them through the system and you get clean book sales. Besides the fact that it’s not technically illegal, it sounds a lot like laundering.
The author did all of these stuff, got on the New York Times list and then the author wrote this blog post about how to hit the New York Times bestseller list. If you Google like stuff around that, it will top up, it will pop-up in the first 10 or 20 results. The entire blog post is a — Okay. I’m sorry not to use that F-word too much on this show. It’s a complete disaster. It’s a complete lie.
He listed out, “Okay, I did this. I did this. I did this,” and it’s true. He did do those things, but that only accounted for probably 5% to 10% of the actual book sales that put them on the bestseller list. What happens is, is that authors read this article and they think he’s telling the truth, “Okay. If I do these three things, I actually have a shot of selling a bunch of copies of my book,” and then they go and do it and it doesn’t work and they think something is wrong with them and they don’t realize they’re actually being lied to.
This is what was just so surprising to me as I got like deeper into the world. It’s not just this kind of like — I feel like there’s two sides. There’s the side of like you can’t even kind of break into the industry and then the people that are in the industry are actively lying just to keep their credit. They want to be seen as a certain way, and so they put all of these misinformation out into the world that is just not true, and that’s been one of the biggest things for me is to see that happen and what’s really going on, and that it’s just a complete myth. Now, if you ask authors, most of them will say, “I just tried to write the best book I can and I just happen to sell a bunch of copies.” Behind the scenes, that’s not actually what’s going on.
[0:25:55.1] SC: Well, that . I would also agree with that and I also think that in terms of like the big literary prizes, right? This might be a little controversial for everyone, but what the hell.
[0:25:55.1] TG: Nobody listens to this.
[0:26:10.2] SC: No, they don’t. For example, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize Award, The Man Booker Prize, all these big literary awards, if you track them over the previous 5 or 10 years, what you’ll discover is that they are — Nobody really reads them. The sales of the books are very low and a lot of the winners are literary sort of heroes among people who have English degrees from Ivy League universities. All the people who inhabit the gatekeeper places in the New York book publishing companies, they perpetrate this “literary culture” that has the same people winning these prizes over and over and over again.
One of the things that was always difficult for me when I was inside was I would ask some of these big literary editors, “What is it that makes that person win that prize all the time.” “Oh! The pro is just transplendent in its vivacity, and the eloquence of their use of alliteration is enough,” and I still don’t understand what they were talking about, because when you start reading these books, you can’t understand what’s going on.
Again, I’m generalizing. There are probably a lot of titles that I would enjoy, but it’s gotten to the point from me that I will just run away from anybody who goes, “Oh! It’s going to be shortlisted for the Booker prize.” What that says to me is this is like some Oxford professor’s student who went to the Iowa Writers Workshop, got their MFA, got a big agent and a book that doesn’t work, hornswoggled some editor at a major house and they pushed it through, because the sister of the brother is — Any number of ideas.
I think it’s absolutely cool that we’re seeing more voices come in to these award ceremonies, but I also think, really, not one novel by a contemporary writer that anybody else — Like Stephen King would never be nominated for any of these awards no matter when he’s writing more literary novel, like 1963. Anyway, even the awards — You can’t trust the award as being true. A lot of these things, they’ll say, “Oh! It sold 100,000 copies,” when no, it didn’t. It sold less than 5,000. Even with the big prize, less than 5,000 people in our country in the United States even bought the thing, and those who bought it, maybe 10% read it.
[0:29:22.3] TG: Are they like finagling the numbers or are they just straight up lying, because that’s we weird?
[0:29:29.7] SC: They will just be very vague about, “Well, how many copies —””Oh! It’s a major, major bestseller in all of the independent stores.” Which how do you argue that? Sometimes a bestseller in an independent bookstore is three copies. If you have a book signing there and sell nine, you’re a hero.
The whole literally prize thing is specious too, and I think what this all boils down to is you have to think about why you’re writing your story to begin with. What’s the point? Yeah, everybody would love to have a bestseller, but it’s those books that are evergreen perennials, like Ryan Holiday’s recent book about perennial sellers. Those with magical books that writers and publishers and people who really care about things, that’s what they should be thinking about. Let’s not waste and burn through all of our cognitive energy to get on the list for a week or two weeks. Why are we wasting all that time? Instead, why don’t we spread out our cognitive energy and say, “Hey, I had an idea the other day about how this book in our backlist could reach the evangelical market?” “I’ve got a friend who knows the pastor of this church and they’ve agreed to read it. So why don’t we get it to them and then maybe they’ll like it,” and if you take a slow burn and really think about the content of the book and why it matters and why it could change somebody, then those are the long term goals of getting a book to become a perennial bestseller or a story.
I’ve written about this a million times, but think about that magical 10,000 number. How can we get to the right 10,000 people who would really appreciate this book? If once we get to those 10,000, let’s let it simmer. Let’s let it take on its own life. If it doesn’t, well we’ve got another book coming up next month. Instead of, “Let’s burn all of our energy trying to get on the New York Times bestseller list, which is gamable anyway.” What are other lies that you think are pervasive?
[0:32:07.5] TG: I want talk a little bit about the publishing industry from a perspective that’s, I don’t want to turn this into a bitch fest about how the publishing world works and look at it from the fact of like remember that publishing is a business and they are trying to make money and their job is to be as profitable as possible. If you approach it like that — Now, a lot of times, and I see the articles or the talking inside the industry about like how publishing is trying to like be this shining light of literature in this dark, dark world of self-publishing and all these kind of stuff. If you just kind of push that aside and assume that you’re business trying to make as much money as possible, and if you approach it with that, all of a sudden it becomes less anxiety-driven and less kind of disappointing.
I can cite just one single example to bring it into reality, and this is the one I use all the time, is that if the publishers cannot say that they are just trying to publish good work, because it was just a few years ago that they published a book of selfies from Kardashian. I forgot her first name. A traditional publishing house published a book of selfies by one of the Kardashians, and nobody in their right mind would think, “Oh! They’re upholding true literature in the United States.” No. They know that they’re going to sell a lot of copies of that book and they’re going to make money.
I’ve seen the same thing when I’ve been working with authors of a lot of times the publisher wants to know first what your platform is and if you have a good platform, and all a platform means is you have a way to sell your book. Then they might be interested in your book. There are lots of authors that can get a great book deal or a good book deal with a publisher, because they have a platform. Then like you said, just because you’re good writer does not necessarily mean you will get publishing deal, because they know that if you don’t have a platform, they don’t really have a platform either, so there is no plan to actually sell this book, and so they know they’re going to lose money, even if it’s a great well-written book. If you can’t convince them that you’re actually able to sell 10,000 copies of your own book, then they’re not going to publish it, because, guess what, they’re in their business for the reason. They’re not in business to hold up some ideal of literature. They’re in business to make money.
Yes, there’s other things that go involved in that, but I feel like if you back up and instead of looking at this — It’s is kind of this grown-up thing of realizing like you kind of realize that Santa Claus isn’t real. There’s this level of like when you let it go, there’s this like, “I feel better that I’m not believing a lie anymore, but somewhere along the line I lost something.”
I’m a writer too and there’s still this part of me that’s like, “Man! That’d be really cool one day to walk into a bookstore and see my book and to like be listed on the New York Times bestseller list. Even though I know better than most people in the world what a cesspool that is, I still kind of want to it. Like when I’m thinking about the book I’m working on, I start like thinking how I can manufacture the launch to get myself on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list. I know it doesn’t matter, but it does matter.
I think a lot of times it’s like letting go of this beautiful world where I work really hard on my craft and the publishing world recognizes that and takes a risk on my writing. It just doesn’t work like that anymore. Realizing like they’re a business and I need to approach it in a much more ruthless, logical way of, “This is a business, and if this is what I want, I’m going to have to jump through these hoops to make it happen.” All the sudden everything calms down where it is not this huge disappointment. It’s much more methodical. That’s the other myth I think is this letting go of this ideal of what we want publishing to be and it’s just not that anymore. That’s okay, because they’re a business and they’re dealing with the same kind of economic pressures of every other business. So they’re not — If they worried about protecting great literature, they would probably just go out of business. They’re fighting to stay in business like everybody else. I’ve found that that letting go of that myth — Again, it’s like I don’t hate them for it. I just try to be realistic about it.
[0:37:24.3] SC: I think you really nailed the paradox of the entire situation, and the paradox is this; if you have a platform capable of selling your book to a level of 10,000 units, which is profitable in terms of paperback, e-book is marginal costs. If you have a platform and you’re confident, then you can sell 10,000 units on your own and you’d go to a publisher. They’ll say, “Yeah. We would love to publish it, but we’ll only pay you 1/10 of what you would receive if you published it yourself, but you will be able to tell people that you were published by a real publishing house.” You have to ask yourself, “Is that trade worth it?” For some people, it is worth it. If it’s your first novel and you’ve been working on it for a long time and they’re offering something that will give you — If you always had a dream of being published by Doubleday or Penguin and they say, “We will do that.” Then just go with your eyes and your blinders off knowing that they’re going to put their colophon on your cover, or not.
Stephen King doesn’t need anybody to publish him, but he doesn’t want to deal with it. He likes tradition traditional way things work, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not going to debate that with him. I think it’s great for him.
[0:39:09.1] TG: He’s doing okay.
[0:39:09.8] SC: Yeah. He’s doing find. I think your point is a really good one. Take the blinders off. They’re not a magical place. They’re not going to make your dreams come true. What they can do is give you validation. They are selling validation for a price, and the price is for you to deliver an audience, because they don’t have a platform. Nobody knows who Penguin is. Who is Penguin? It’s just a little thing on a book spine. Nobody knows the people who work there. Nobody knows what their plans are. They don’t know the brand other than the colophon, and there’s probably only two colophons, maybe three. There’s the seed sower of Simon & Schuster, maybe. There’s a little house of Random House. There’s the penguin. Maybe if you really press it, there is the dog, the borzoi of Knopf. But everything else is kind of like, “I don’t know what that is.”
The lies are — You’re right. The business is like any other. There are lies in every single business, and the professional starts to understand that and thinks about what’s going work for them. How can they take something that they’ve created, and with honor give it its best opportunity to find an audience. If it takes 10 years to find the best-selling audience, that’s actually better than a one week New York Times bestseller, because that means it’s going to last longer and longer and longer.
[0:40:56.2] TG: I want to mention one more before we wrap up this episode, and this is one that — I think it’s the whole basis of what we do here, and that is that you can actually become a better writer. Even if we — As much as I love Stephen King and his book on writing. I’ve read it like 12 times. There’s even a place and there were he says like, “Okay. If you’re like a bad writer, you can become a middling writer, and if you’re a middling writer, you can come a little bit better, but you can’t turn a bad writer into a good writer.”
I’m just like, “Well, I just don’t think that’s true.” I think that everything is practice, and we’ve talked about this ad nauseam, but like I think it is about you can learn to become a better writer. It’s a skill, just like anything else, and if you apply yourself, learn the fundamentals of storytelling and story grid, you can become a better writer. I know I’ve seen this with my own writing. I’ve seen this with other writers. Of course, like you’ve seen that with writers as they become better over time too.
[0:42:09.5] SC: Well, I think the big point, and I think we need to disassociate our own person from the work sometimes. When somebody says, “You can’t become a better writer.” I don’t really know how to answer that. What I do know is that you can take a manuscripts, a piece of work that is at a level one or a two, meaning is not working. The scenes aren’t working and you can figure out why, and you can ratchet that workup from something that doesn’t work to something that works and gets better and then you can look at the global genre and the arena it’s living in and compare it to other things. You can bring the level of work higher and higher and higher.
Does that mean the next time you run a manuscript, it’s going to be a four, because you brought one manuscript for a one to a four? No. What it does give you is the toolbox necessary to do that over and over and over. It’s a repeatable craft. It’s like somebody who really knows how to cut a board properly or to etch or sketch of paint.
It doesn’t mean that you’re going to paint a masterpiece each time, but it means that you can improve the work. You can see what’s wrong with it. You can fix it. The more times you do that, the better equipped you are to write that masterpiece, to come up with that story, that one in a million story that’s within you. You’re going to write a lot of stuff. That is okay, and it gets a little bit better. Then one day you’re going to write something okay and write something that becomes really great at the top of the genre. I completely disagree that you can’t teach writing. You can absolutely teach the craft of storytelling.
Once you master the craft of storytelling, it’s a matter of time before you can move your manuscripts from levels of twos and threes up to fives, and the more you read, the more you understand your marketplace, the more you separate yourself from your work and say, “This is my work. It has problems. Let me find out what the problems are. I’ll fix the problems, and then it’ll be better.” Instead of, “This is me and it’s terrible, and so I’m terrible.”
Separate yourself from your work and say, “Hey, this is like what we’ve talked about last week, Tim. Your work is not flawed in the way that you thought it was. What you were doing last week was you were personally in turmoil. It didn’t mean that your work was in turmoil. It meant that you were in turmoil. You needed to step back and say, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Is this really not working?” No. It is working. “So why am I freaking out? Oh! It’s because I’m in the middle of the book now.”
You always freak out in the middle of the book. “Oh, right. Okay. Let me look at the problems again. Let me keep fixing and stop worrying and stop self-sabotaging,” and that’s what it is. It’s all about doing the work, evaluating the work with really, really strong tools, and then fixing the problems in the work so that the work gets better.
You as a writer, yeah, you’re going to start writing books that work in their first draft after six of them, but it’s going to take some time, and it doesn’t mean that the things is going to perfect. You’re just going to keep ratcheting and cranking away and getting better and better and better.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:45:57.3] 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’d like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on iTunes and leaving a rating and review.
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