This is one of my favorite episodes. Tim mentioned something he heard from a friend and then off we went…
Click below to listen, or read the transcript that follows:
[0:00:01.1] 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 soon is Shawn Coyne, he is the creator of Story Grid and the author of the book Story Grid and he is an editor with 25 plus years experience and he’s helping me avoid all the common landmines that writers go through early on.
In this episode, we talk about the nuances of learning and becoming a better writer, we talk about lots of different ways that you can become a better writer, the types of deliberate practice you can do and we even dive into the idea of “chicken sexing”. You’re really going to enjoy this episode, it’s a lot of fun and it will help you better practice your art of writing. Let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:56.9] TG: So Shawn, I was hanging out with a friend of mine last week and she was telling me about this “sexing chickens” thing. Have you ever heard of this?
[0:01:07.8] SC: No.
[0:01:08.9] TG: Okay.
[0:01:10.1] SC: I’m a little scared.
[0:01:13.4] TG: No, no, no, it’s not actual — it’s telling the difference between males and females.
[0:01:18.7] SC: Okay.
[0:01:20.1] TG: Inside of the major chicken manufacturer plants or whatever, it’s really expensive for them, because they only want female chickens because they lay the eggs and they provide the meat and all that. All the money, space and time, they put in to raising male chickens is completely wasted. But the problem is, there is no way to look at a baby chicken and be able to tell from the earliest stage whether it’s a boy or a girl.
There’s just no way to do, there’s no conscious way to look at it and look at a checklist or like a diagram and be like, “Okay, that’s a boy, that’s a girl.” So there’s these people that can do it and they do it really fast, they pick one up, I think they actually use — because I have read about this a long time ago, they actually use two hands and they grab one and they look at it, while they’re looking at that one, they’re grabbing another one and they look at it and in a split second, they know whether it’s a boy or a girl.
But they can’t explain how they know, it’s all gut level, there’s no conscious thought into it, it’s all gut level and they just go super-fast. Well the downside of this is how do you teach the next generation of chicken sexers, right? The only way they do it is by basically being an apprentice and the apprentice picks up a chicken and looks at it and immediately says, “Girl.” The mentor is like, “Wrong.” They put it in with the guys and then they pick one up, they said, “Boy.” It’s like, “Wrong.” They put in with the girls and then they pick one up, they say, “Girl” and it’s like, “That is a girl,” and they put in with the girls.
And all the do is they repeat that over and over until the subconscious of the person can tell immediately at a gut level whether or not they’re right. They have an extremely high success rate when they test to see how right they are. This is just interesting as you and I we’re talking earlier this week about teaching, writing and thinking through the process of how I’ve come through and trying to learn writing and how there is some structure you can put around it but there’s also just this level of doing it and then going back and saying nope, that’s bad and don’t do that anymore. Anyway, I just was wondering your thoughts on that?
[0:03:49.4] SC: I think that’s a really revolutionary way of looking at writing instruction and here’s why. What you just said reminded me of something that I just said to my son who wanted to chop wood. He called me at the office and said, “Do you mind if I chop some wood in the backyard? How do I do it?” At the moment I said, “There’s just really no way for me to teach you how to chop wood, you have to sort of figure it out yourself, you have to shift your weight, you have to be careful, you have to know when to accelerate, when to decelerate.”
So I said to him, “Really, the only way for you to learn how to chop wood is for you to do it. You have to start out very carefully and slowly you’ll get more and more confident as you’re doing it. You’re going to miss it a couple of times at the beginning, you’re going to make a mess of the yard, but it’s important for you to learn the skill because we live in Massachusetts and we need firewood.”
So he went out and he did it and guess what? Over the past four days, he’s gotten better and better at it and now I can have a lot of faith in him to be able to go out and chop wood all day. So this brings me to the writing element and it’s the same thing with determining the sexes of chickens I think, in that if you are able to have a moment where you can constantly check in with somebody who has more experience in writing than you do and they can stop you before you make really serious mistakes that can cost you months or years of your life.
I think that’s a really great and effective way of being able to teach something very quickly. So the concept of doing the writing and correcting as you’re going along, as we’ve sort of discovered by accident in this podcast, I think there’s a lot of potential to that. Now, of course the trick is finding the right person to give you advice and having the willpower to beat resistance and actually get the words down.
So if you can sort of attack those two problems and then bring those two people together in a way that is advantageous to both of them, I think you could learn a lot of the skill set required to become a really good writer a lot faster. It’s like your friend Josh and his 20 hour rule. I think you can get those 20 hour rules. I think the trick of Josh’s idea is the concentrated effort of getting those 20 hours effective, to have them be effective practice as opposed to fudging around and making a ton of mistakes that you could correct just much more easily if somebody was standing there and watching you do it.
So I’m glad you brought that up because I think if there was a track in colleges and the think programs where it was much more do, correct, do, correct. As opposed to, “Go write an entire scene, give it to everybody in the room and then in a week we’ll all shit on it and make you feel bad.” I don’t really think that’s very effective.
[0:06:55.1] TG: Yeah, I’ve just been reading this book by a woman named Cathy Sierra called Bad Ass, making users awesome. She talks about this a little bit where she talks about deliberate practice, there’s that old thing of practice makes perfect and it’s like well, no, the right kind of practice makes perfect and really most of us aren’t trying to be perfect, we’re just trying to not suck anymore at most skills. In Josh’s book First 20 Hours, he talks about that of like, this whole thing of…
[0:07:29.2] SC: 10,000 hour rule.
[0:07:31.5] TG: Yeah, that Malcolm Gladwell made popular in outliers. It’s like, well yeah, it takes 10,000 hours to be the top five at something in the world. But if you want to just get proficient at something which is a totally different goal, you can usually do that in 20 hours as long as you do the right things in those 20 hours.
That’s what I think was so interesting about the difference between the first scene I gave you and the second scene I gave you and how it was so vastly improved and I think it was because of this idea of deliberate practice in each week I would get all of this feedback before I would write, after I would write, after I would deal with the specific things or I’d hit a wall on Monday and I’m like, “I can just hang in till Wednesday when we record the podcast and then we could talk through it.”
And how that’s been such a helpful thing to kind of train me faster because working with so many writers like I have, I know they get — it’s so easy to spin on the same problem for so long. Or like we’ve talked about, write a hundred thousand words before you realize the whole idea of the story sucked in the first place.
[0:08:46.1] SC: Yeah.
[0:08:47.5] TG: So it’s just been — it was interesting to kind of hear that example and as we continue to constantly play with this idea of how much can you structure and how much do you have to rely on the muse? It’s interesting to think through how that works with writing. I feel like again, the whole thing that makes Story Grid helpful is it keeps, it breaks it down into manageable chunks.
[0:09:13.2] SC: Well that’s a good point and I just want to say this about, I think you really stumbled onto something interesting there is how much do you rely on structure versus how much you rely on the muse? I think that’s a really important thing to bring up because structure and practice and form are the equivalent of Derek Jeter as a short stop, right?
Derek Jeter is probably top three, top five shortstops in major league baseball history. There’s a famous play that he made during one of the World Series run ups. It might have been the World Series or it could have been a league championship series. It seemed effortless. What happened was, I think they were playing Arizona, and he was playing short stop, there was a man on second base and there was a line drive into right field.
It was one of those shallow right field line drives that was definitely a base hit but the right fielder definitely, I think it was Paul O’Neal, definitely had a play at the plate. But for whatever reason, the throw was a little off and Jeter, because he had practiced so much was just going with the flow of the ball and he made this amazing catch and flipped the ball to the catcher and they got the guy on the out and it was a major plan in World Series history.
That’s the moment when the muse came to Derek Jeter, but all of those other plays that he had played throughout his entire career, all those ground balls, all of those cut of plays that he learned when he was four years old with his dad in his backyard, that was the form in the practice that led to that moment when the muse came to him.
I think it’s the same thing with writing and I think we have this magical feeling that, “Oh, all I have to do is get into my chair every day and just wait for the muse to come and hook me up and giving some really great stuff.” The fact is no, you’ve got to be Derek Jeter, you’ve got to be doing those ground balls, you’ve got to be working on those five commandments of storytelling every single day and occasionally, like what happened to you a couple of weeks go when you were really fighting this moment in your story, and again, I don’t know the specifics of your story.
All I know is that you wanted to cram this antagonist down the throat of your story and then there was this revelatory moment to you where you’re like, “Oh my gosh, that’s not my antagonist, that guy’s my antagonist. Oh my gosh.” That’s a moment where you had been grinding and grinding and doing those ground ball pickups and throwing to first when the muse actually did come to you.
So I think there’s also this website called 99% Academy or something and it’s from that quote from Einstein where it’s either Einstein or Picasso or somebody, that “hard work is 99% sweat and 1% inspiration.” I think that the percentage of sweat in terms of learning form and story structure for writers is what we talk about every single week. If you’re lucky and you work hard and you keep working on that craft and you get a proficiency, the muse will start showing up every now and then, which is a wonderful thing but you can never rely on it.
[0:12:40.1] TG: Yeah, and I think that’s what is helpful is that the structure of it almost gives you the space for the muse to show — I don’t know how to put this? I guess I feel like the structure of Story Grid allows you to get to know what to do next because my worry and what I’ve been doing off and on for years is like okay, you hear all of this wonderful platitudes, you hear all these quotes, “Write every day,” and, blah, blah, blah.
I would sit down and I’d write and I’d write and months would go by and I’m like, “This is all crap.” You know like nothing in particular was wrong with any particular one thing but anytime I try to put together a longer version of something or anytime I tried to write a story from scratch, it just all fell apart. And so I felt like it was so kind of up in the air that there was nothing for the muse to kind of come sink its teeth into.
What has been neat to watch as I’ve worked on my first draft is I did all this work on the structure ahead of time and it’s allowed me to actually keep moving and keep showing up for work and doing the next scene and I’ve had this little moments of brilliance along the way. Actually set me up for success where I felt like the muse had something to work with instead of my kind of floundering around hoping I landed on something.
[0:14:13.2] SC: Yeah. We’ve talked about this before too, but the Story Grid methodology was invented by myself using concepts that are universally held by people, everybody from Aristotle, to Robert McKee, to Kurt Vonnegut, to Stephen King, to Steven Pressfield, to Anne Lamott to — all of the things that are in the story grid aren’t brand new ideas that I came up with. What it is was a methodology for me as an editor to help a writer make their books better and their stories better as quickly as possible.
The methodology is about getting down to brass tacks as soon as soon as humanly possible and to fix those problems as quickly as possible. I was under a lot of pressure as an editor to get those books into production. I was paying a lot of money, I wasn’t but the company was and that was the acquiring editor.I was acquiring books for quite a substantial amount of money and we needed to get that money back.
So I couldn’t really be, “Oh let’s sit and contemplate the tea leaves and hope for the best that the muse comes to you and fixes this problem for you.” Instead I need to say, “Hey, your obligatory scene in the mid-point is not working. It’s really flat and we need to fix that. What can we do to fix it? Let’s think about some solutions. Here is an idea, how about this? How about this?” And guess what? After 15 or 20 minute conversation between the two of us, the writer and I, we would figure out a solution.
The reason why I’m saying all of this is that all of that work that I use to build this machine for editors, I never really fully understood and realized how it could be reverse engineered for writers so that you could bring all of the Story Grid methodology to the table before you even create the book itself.
So this process and I know we’re coming up on almost half a year of doing this, this process has really helped me as an editor see just how we can use the concepts to help writers who are just starting out to get those 20 hours of really fruitful practice that Josh talks about in his 20 hour —what’s his book called again? I keep forgetting.
[0:16:44.3] TG: The First 20 Hours.
[0:16:45.4] SC: The First 20 Hours. What Josh’s point was, I don’t know who knows so much about Josh but Josh is sort of one of this guys who does a deep dive into anything that excites him. He went through all of this research and he came up with this concept that you can become proficient at something not world class but proficient at it within 20 hours of concerted practice and he wrote a terrific book called 20 Hour Rule, right?
[0:17:16.6] TG: The First 20 Hours.
[0:17:17.8] SC: Okay, see? I’m absolutely ruining any plug for his book because I keep forgetting the title. Anyway, the point is that the Story Grid book give you what’s necessary to practice in those 20 hours and then you can take those 20 hours and eventually invest 10,000 and then become Doug Delilo if you want.
[0:17:41.5] TG: So I want to go back to your example of Derek Jeter, you were talking about the ground balls and practicing, practicing, practicing. It’s like, what would you say for a writer is that early deliberate practice they could be doing?
[0:17:56.9] SC: I think it’s this. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, I think the most fundamental unit of story that is the most important to master is the scene. The scene as I define it is, and I’m just going to give some very boiler plate rules here because I think rules are very helpful when you’re starting out to learn something.
A scene is a 1,500 word piece of story that has an inciting incident, has at least one or two progressive complications, it raises a crisis question that has a climax action and a resolution. If you’re doing ground ball kind of work as a writer and say you’re in between projects and you’re not really sure what you want to do next or you haven’t done anything before and you want to become a writer. What — my advice to start as a writer would be to have some fun writing scenes.
I think I had mentioned this a while ago but some of the scenes to think about doing are those classic obligatory scenes that we all know immediately. What do I mean by that? Here’s a couple of them: in a love story, there’s always a scene where the lovers meet. In Hollywood they call it the meet cute moment in a romantic comedy. And these are the scenes that we all have heard and seen and read a million times before.
You know, a guy walks into a coffee shop, he’s ordering a coffee, there’s this irritating woman behind him and spills her latte all over his back, he gets a third degree burn, he has to go to the hospital, she ends up being the admitting nurse in the hospital and there’s sort of like the moment when they meet cute. That’s one kind of scene that you could give yourself as a task.
How am I going to create a situation where — or in that classic movie Brokeback mountain, you have the two lovers who end up being two men, they’re cowboys and they meet, not cute but they meet and they really don’t like each other all that much because they both have to work on this — they have to take care of the sheep and the mountains and it’s terrible and neither one of them really like each other too much.
So to think about another obligatory scene outside of the love convention would be say the hero at the mercy of the villain scene, I talk about this a lot and this is the moment when the hero is dead to rights. The villain in a thriller or in a crime story and a horror story an action story. The villain who’s entire goal throughout the story has been to get this moment where they’ve got the hero on the ropes.
There’s no way that the hero is going to get out of the situation. This is the classic moments in Bruce Willis movies or old Mel Gibson movies or where they’re chained up and they got the electric cattle prod and they’re just going to torment them and so there’s a scene, how do you innovate that scene?
So the great thing about that scene is that the hero has to outsmart or outmuscle the villain in order to get out of the situation. So what you want to do is setup a situation that you can’t really figure out how the guy is going to get out of it and then figure out how the guy’s going to get out of it. Anyway, there’s a million of those. So the scene is really the integral part of learning how to write I think.
[0:21:48.0] TG: Yeah, and do you think it would be good practice to take those scenes and other books and movies that exist and rewrite your own version of those, almost like fan fiction of those, would that be a good place to — ‘cause I was thinking like, “Well that sounds good but now I got to create like characters and I got to figure out the back story.” But would picking die hard and the here at the mercy of the villain scene, would that be like okay? I’m going to write three versions of that in different ways.
[0:22:18.4] SC: that’s a great idea, that’s a great idea to give you yourself the freedom to play with characters and settings that you’re already very familiar with. Star Wars scene. The moment when Darth Vader has Luke on the ropes and he reveals that he’s his father, maybe there’s a different way to structure that scene? Anything that you absolutely adore as a writer.
The scene in To Kill a Mocking Bird, there’s this wonderful scene in To Kill a Mocking Bird where it’s a revelatory moment for the protagonist of this story which is Scout and I’m going to talk about this scene that is brilliantly filmed in the movie because I think a lot of people have seen the movie as well as read the book.
But there’s a moment in the movie when her father Atticus is worried about the guy who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman, a black guy and he’s in jail and the father Atticus is worried that the local guys who are going to get together and do vigilante justice and rip him out of the cell and he’s not going to get a trial and it’s going to be fair and they’re going to do terrible things to him.
He decides, he’s going to go down to the jail house and he’s going to sit there and he’s going to protect the guy and not let that happen. He’s sitting there and I’m going to start to — this book in this movie is so good that even when you describe a scene, and this is the brilliance of it, you get choked up because it goes right to the heart of the matter.
[0:23:54.9] TG: Yeah.
[0:23:55.6] SC: It really goes to the theme and Atticus Finch, he is the theme of that story, he is the heart and soul of that story. So he’s there and he’s protecting I think his name is Jim or John Robinson and so he’s out there and he’s talking to him, he’s like, “Don’t worry about it, I’m just going to hang here, I’m going to read my book tonight and I’m going to make sure nothing happens.”
Of course the guys come up to lynch and they’re like, “Get out of the way Atticus, we’re going to have our own justice.” This is the moment when Scout and Jim, Atticus’ son and daughter show up, and they were this little kids, right? They don’t know what’s going on, they don’t understand rape or falsely accused or anything. They just know that there’s these guys that are always very nice to them were going to hurt somebody and it doesn’t make any sense.
So Scout says to the one, “Hey there Mr. Jones, how are you doing?” The guy’s kind of humiliated because here he is with a pitch fork and a flame thing and he’s going to do this violence and this little kid calls him out and says, “Hey it’s me, it’s Scout.” He was showing the humanity here. Like, “Hey, we’re all human beings here, what are you doing? You’re going to hurt somebody and you don’t have any authority, this is wrong.” So that’s the moment where you have this brilliant scene, I don’t know how you could do better than that.
[0:25:21.1] TG: I know, you’re picking quite the one to rewrite you know.
[0:25:24.1] SC: I’m also saying, all of those moments when we say, “Oh Coyne and his stupid, I’m going to write a scene,” and I think your suggestion like if you get stuck and you can’t setup your own what if for your own scene. Go and use other people’s work and rewrite it in a way that could be interesting to you and give yourself that challenge. And if you practice that, if you do those ground balls, you’re eventually going to start coming up with your own inciting incidents and progressive complications and all the other things.
But I think the point that you’re making Tim, whether you knew it or not is that the best way is to look at the work of the masters, the people that have really affected you as a reader and be inspired by their particular scenes and then try and work within that world that you love already. You’ll find it’s a much easier way of giving yourself a day’s work of intention and to be able to practice working on your scenes at the same time.
[0:26:30.0] TG: Yeah, I think when we were talking about what my first work will be after the first draft. That’s where I start to get nervous because anytime I’ve tried to come up with — I wrote the scene the way I saw the scene and I’m really worried that I’m going to have trouble coming up with three different versions of a scene that needs work, does that make sense?
[0:26:55.4] SC: Yeah, sure. Yeah it very may well be difficult but it’s difficult to raise a child too. Women give birth to children and it’s an impossible situation if you think about it. I mean they do it every single day and men do really difficult things too. So I don’t worry about the hard work. The hard work, you know how to do hard work. We all know how to do hard work because we wouldn’t be where we are if we hadn’t done it before.
So is it going to be hard to come up with three completely different versions of a scene that you have already written? Yeah, it probably will and it may take you a couple of day’s work to figure that out. But if you can increase the drama and the effectiveness of your scene and you can raise at a level or two levels and you do that through every scene in your book, the amount of work that that will require will be so far exceeded by the quality of the writing and the betterment of the story that you’ll just be like, “Oh well I’ll be happy to put in that work.”
Don’t fret about work that is on the horizon. This is one of the things that everybody always does. We say, “Oh, I don’t know if I can be a doctor because then I’m going to have to go to medical school and I’m going to have to take all those classes. I just don’t know if I can do that work.” But people become doctors every day.
[0:28:24.6] TG: Yeah, it’s just interesting because I’ve’ been, well first of all, I definitely did not get as much — we talked about writing a lot more than we could and I’ve realized. If I sit down and write, I can write, it’s life that gets in the way. I had big plans this morning to get up a little before five and get a good hour in before I started my day because I knew my morning would be weird and lo and behold my 10 year old wakes up vomiting all over the floor at 3 AM and then he does it again 45 minutes later. So I sleep right through the alarm, that whole thing I’m like, “Well, didn’t get anything done today.”
[0:29:06.7] SC: Here’s the thing Tim. I bet in the future, if not in this book, you will have a scene where a guy is awakened and I think this is what really great writers do is they say, “Okay, I’m going to file that one away,” because that’s a pretty good inciting incident if you think about it, being awake in the middle of the night, you don’t know what’s going on, you hear your son scream for help and usually nine times out of 10, they had a bad nightmare and they roll over and go back to sleep. In this one instance, it’s even larger. Progressively complicated.
[0:29:43.7] TG: That’s right, that’s true. Actually, I was thinking because a guy I know wrote a novel that is extremely — it’s self-published, he sold hundreds of thousands of copies of it but it was to teach this certain way of doing IT which…
[0:30:02.3] SC: Oh, I’ve heard about that book.
[0:30:03.8] TG: The Phoenix Project?
[0:30:04.8] SC: Yeah.
[0:30:06.4] TG: Oh, I helped launch that book. I’m in the acknowledgements actually if you look in the book, it’s pretty cool.
[0:30:11.4] SC: Oh I never read the acknowledgements.
[0:30:13.1] TG: Yeah, nobody does. Anyway, it’s about information, a novel teaching dev ops which is a segment of information technology. I’m hearing this guy talking about the book I’m like.
[0:30:28.9] SC: There’s no way.
[0:30:31.9] TG: Like, “How are you ever going to get” — it’s become super popular and I was like, “You know, I should write” — I wonder if I could come up with a compelling novel about writing your first novel and to do a novelized version of the last, I don’t know if it’s been interesting enough. But when you said that about like the kid throwing up, I don’t know, that popped in my head.
[0:30:53.7] SC: Did you ever see the movie Adaptation, that Charlie Kaufman movie? Oh it’s this wonderful movie about this character named Charlene Kaufman. In the film, it’s all about how he has decided that he’s going to adapt this brilliant book called The Orchid Thief by a woman named Susan Orlean, into a movie. It becomes very meta and it’s hilarious and in fact, there’s a scene where a character playing Robert McKee actually gives this guy advice.
It’s very funny and it really is about the creative process and how undermining and difficult it can really be. That is funny about — another example of somebody who sort of took your real world life and made it extremely popular, a fiction is Michael Crichton. Michael Crichton was a doctor, he was at Harvard Medical School and he was paying his way through school and he was a pretty good writer and so one of the ways he put himself to medical school was writing these sort of dime store novels, 40 or 50,000 words that he would bang out in a weekend or a week.
He would sell them to popey paperback houses when they would publish these kinds of things that we would find in a drugstore on summer vacation and pay 50 cents for it. He was doing this, he put himself through college and then eventually he decided to write on his own. His first novel under his own real name was The Andromeda Strain which was about this great what if using the reality of medical technology and the idea was what if an extra-terrestrial virus landed on the planet, how would we deal with that?
So he used that to show and he used all of his personal experiences working in medicine to write this great thriller and he used that as a way to inspire him book after book and he wrote some really great thriller. I mean he wrote Jurassic Park. He’s amazing.
[0:33:01.2] TG: Growing up he was my favorite, one of my all time favorite books was Sphere. I felt like that had one of the best endings of any book I’ve ever read. I just love the ending of that book. Did you read that one?
[0:33:13.8] SC: I didn’t, that’s someone where the thing lands in the middle of the ocean and…
[0:33:18.6] TG: It appears in the middle of the ocean. It’s a very different thing, okay?
[0:33:23.8] SC: Okay.
[0:33:26.8] TG: Yeah. Oh man, now I’m going to have to read it again. Yeah, my copy of that when I was a kid, it sat open because I read it so many times, I could no longer sat close it sat, it was like half open.
[0:33:39.4] SC: Right.
[0:33:40.1] TG: I’ve read it so many times. Yeah, I have no idea how we got there.
[0:33:45.8] SC: The dev ops guy.
[0:33:49.1] TG: Oh yeah. So it’s interesting. So I told you that one idea I had about a novel because I had an IT in computer science background when I went to school before and I had this idea of could you totally screw up somebody’s life remotely, just like your next door neighbor? And I think I mentioned that on a previous show and I got that idea because it was like Stephen King talks about this in On Writing, we need to get some kind of promotional kickback for how many times we mentioned this book. Or at least I do. You’re doing fine.
[0:34:25.5] SC: He needs a lot of help.
[0:34:30.4] TG: Yeah. So where he talked about, if you’re into science fiction, but you’re a plumber for a living, write about being a plumber on a spaceship.
[0:34:37.7] SC: Right.
[0:34:38.9] TG: Then you’re that specificity that we talk about all the time. It’s going to be there already because you don’t have to go out and do the research, you’ve already done all the research, it’s just sitting in your head. And so how that’s another good place to start and that’s what I’ve run in to and the one I’m currently writing is I already know, I’ve got to go out and talk to somebody that’s an actual scientist because there’s all these things I talk about where I’m like, “Well this is surely not how they would actually talk about this. Because I don’t know anything about it.”
Starting with something where you already know the world, you already either know the technology or you know the processes or you know the behind the scenes. In theory gives you that specificity so your writing will be much more real.
[0:35:25.0] SC: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Tangentially what’s kind of funny is there’s only a few sort of iron clad rules in book publishing when you’re acquiring a book. One of them is never ever acquire a book that is set in a world of book publishing.
[0:35:47.9] TG: Why?
[0:35:48.6] SC: It’s just book editors and people in book publishing think that their lives are so fascinating and so interesting and the reality is, most people don’t. They just think it’s kind of whatever, it’s not as exciting as being a CIA analyst or professional dancer or something. But people in publishing, it’s like the siren call, Oh this one day, this great novel about book publishing will come around and…”
[0:36:18.3] TG: “We’ll finally convince everybody that what we do is not boring.”
[0:36:21.6] SC: Exactly. I think I never did publish a book about book publishing but I know a lot of my friends who have and there are some really good books about it but it’s — so the tangential argument to write about science fiction from the point of view of a plumber, the other one is that when you know something extraordinarily well, and I think I’ve discovered this doing this podcast, you often completely just go right over the most fundamental elements of your knowledge.
So what I mean by that is, say you’re a plumber and you know you have to use it particular kind of solder on the joint of the elbow of a piece of pipe and you don’t talk about that in your story then people won’t understand it as well as if you had to go out and do the research to find out what that fundamental thing is. So if you’re bringing a creative energy to the research and really figuring out how to best explain something in the smallest, shortest amount of words, often times, that is an advantage over somebody who is a specialist.
We’ve all been to the doctor and we’ve all asked him their opinion about a specific element that we have and they’ll go, “We’ll run a CBC and then we’ll see what happens,” and we have no idea what they’re talking about because we’ve glossed over all the fundamental knowledge that they should be sharing with us but they just don’t have the time to do that.
[0:38:04.8] TG: Yeah. I’ve read this thing one time, a guy was talking about how before — so his books are thrillers, and before he writes about any particular gun, he goes out and shoots that gun so that when he talks about shooting the gun in the book, he doesn’t talk about…
[0:38:23.8] SC: He doesn’t fake it.
[0:38:24.9] TG: Yeah, he’s not like just making it up. He knows how the gun recoils, he knows how the shell ejects, he knows all of the stuff and that was his recommendation to writers is like if you can actually go do anything that is talked about in your book like go and do it so that you know it at a gut level, you’re not just making it up.
[0:38:46.9] SC: The other thing that it’ll do is once you experience it, what you’ll discover are ways to solve writing problems. For example, somebody who has fired a particular kind of handgun and they’re going to use the handgun in the hero at the mercy of the villain scene, if they know that the handgun by talking to the guy at the gun range often it ejects the cartridge in a strange way which ends up jamming the barrel of the gun. They can use that information writing, or if it’s very, it’s off a hair or something.
Doing that research can actually help you solve and innovate your scenes in a way that you would have never known before. That’s also another reason why to take that day or two to experience what you’re writing about if you can do it, that won’t get you killed.
[0:39:43.5] TG: Yeah, I was just thinking, because we just, my wife and I just re-watched one of the Sherlock episodes with Benedict Cumberbatch, I don’t know how to say his name. Side note here. One of the reviews of this show on iTunes was this glowing review about the show and it’s great or whatever. It said, the last part was like, “However, I smile every time that Tim says genre,” and he said, he spelled it John-ra.
I got in this huge conversation with my wife last night because I’m like, “How else do you say it?” She’s like, “I don’t know so,” we’re looking it up and she’s like, “Wait, how do you say it?” “John-ra”. She’s like, “Go, it’s genre.”
[0:40:27.6] SC: Yeah, genre.
[0:40:28.6] TG: I’m like, “What? No it’s not,” and she’s like, this is from the same man that the first time I visited the city I called it Tucson, Arizona. She’s like, anyway just side note, English language sucks especially when you’re teaching it to children. So I’m not going to change, so for all of you cringing when I say genre, I’m going to actually make it worse and really amp it up.
[0:40:56.8] SC: It will be your catch phrase.
[0:40:59.3] TG: Yeah. At the beginning of the episode when Watson first meets Sherlock, Sherlock’s in like beating this dead body with like a whip or something so he can study how the body bruises over certain period of time. As we were just talking, there’s a lot of stabbing in my book. I wonder if there’s some scenario that I could stab something. Like a body or something, I wonder — have you ever dealt with a writer that’s actually gone and done something like that?
[0:41:33.7] SC: Yes, I worked with Robert Crais who is fantastic crime writer. He wrote a book that I edited years ago called Demolition Angel and it was about a woman who investigated suspicious sort of bomb squad events. What he did, and he does this all the time, and I worked with Michael Connelly years ago too. What they do is they just call some people at LAPD because they both live in LA and then they spend a good week or so hanging out at the bomb squad offices and talking to guys who have taken bombs apart and all that stuff.
So one of the advantages of being a bestselling writer is you can make that phone call and have it returned. But another thing that you could think about doing, with the way the world is now and the legal stuff about everything, is that it might be more difficult to have that kind of experience than it used to be.
[0:42:35.0] TG: Well I wonder if there is like a medical school in Nashville that I could get in and stick something into some cadavers or something and just see what it’s like?
[0:42:45.5] SC: Yeah or email somebody and say, what kind of fruit do you think would best represent a fleshy part of the torso? I don’t know?
[0:42:58.0] TG: I know on Myth Busters they always use pigs.
[0:43:00.9] SC: Right, you could go to a slaughter house.
[0:43:03.3] TG: Oh man.
[0:43:05.2] SC: We should all probably go to slaughter houses to see how it works. I’m not kidding.
[0:43:11.4] TG: Okay, I’m making a note of this, I’m actually going to try this.
[0:43:14.1] SC: Yeah, go see if you can learn how to separate chickens too.
[0:43:18.4] TG: Yeah. Well I used to have chickens and the lady that helped me kind of get started, she’s like, “Yeah, when they get to a certain age, you can slaughter them and eat them.” I’m like, “Mine are just going to go into retirement because I’m not all about killing some chickens.” But I wonder if I could stomach stabbing something that was already dead? I don’t know about killing something.
[0:43:41.0] SC: It will be an experience I’m sure.
[0:43:42.7] TG: All right. I have my homework for the week. So I want to jump to a completely different subject before the end of the episode. Much more on the industry money side of things. I have a friend of mine who just got an offer on his third book and the offer was $100,000 book advance. Now, this is a business book author. I think his first advance was like five or $10,000. His second was $60 and now his third is a hundred.
I remember a while ago I was talking with an editor and she was like, “All right, let me tell you how this works.” She’s like, “This is how it works when we sit down and decide who gets what input on marketing money.” She’s like, “We split every group up into A, B and C list authors. Or books, A, B, and C books that are coming out in the fall. She’s like, “We have the A list that get basically 80, 90% of our marketing budget, the B list who get the other 10 or 20% and then the C list are on their own. Well first of all is that your experience as well?
[0:44:53.4] SC: Yes, you have to think about the business of book publishing and the very, very bottom line is that those projects that the publisher has invested the most money in at the very start of the process are those projects that they have to make work. If you were to open up a lemonade stand and you were going to offer lemonade and you are also going to offer orange juice and lime juice and they were all at varying qualities. The lemons that you paid the most money for, you would up price the cost of the lemonade.
The way it works in book publishing is that if you spend $100,000 on a book to acquire the rights and $100,000 doesn’t mean it’s an advance against the potential sale of the book. Because every book contract with a major publisher or even minor publishers is a partnership. So all of the money that comes in is divided into certain kind of trenches and the publisher gets most of it and then the writer gets the rest of it. This is after costs.
So the writer will get an advance against their share of the potential amount of money in the future, and it’s guaranteed. So that means that the writer doesn’t have to pay back the $100,000 even if the amount of money that book brings in is say $10,000. The publisher is on the hook for the loss of $90,000 plus all production costs for that particular book.
[0:46:50.0] TG: But they make their money back, they make that hundred thousand back long before the author earns out because they’re taking such a big cut right?
[0:46:59.5] SC: Yes.
[0:47:00.2] TG: Okay. My question is, because that’s what I’ve heard too. I’ve had writers tell me they push for the biggest possible advance, hardest possible, not so much to get the money upfront but because the more that the publisher is on the hook for with them, the more the publisher will put in when the time comes to actually push that book.
[0:47:25.2] SC: That’s correct.
[0:47:27.9] TG: I was talking about business books but could you give rough numbers or are there rough numbers of like, “Okay, if your advance was in this range, you’re in the A category. If your advance is in this range, you’re in the B category, everything else, you’re on C category.” Are there ranges that kind of go across the publishers?
[0:47:50.1] SC: Okay so for the big publishers, I would do the following categories. Anything over $500,000 will be sort of that A list we’ve got our backs against the wall and we had to make this work. Anything between 100,000 and 500,000 will be, this is a book that we have a great confidence in. Usually they could be like the second or third book of somebody who already has a track record.
[0:48:23.5] TG: Like my example?
[0:48:25.0] SC: Right, if your guy has a track record then they’re giving him a little bit of a raise on advance but they know the dollar volume that he’s brought in with his previous books will probably be consistent and they’re hoping better on his third book. This is why you hear a lot about first time novelists, getting a million dollars, not a lot but it becomes major news when a first novelist gets a million dollars for his first novel or two million dollars for his first novel and everybody goes, “Oh my gosh, how could they give a million dollars to a first novelist?” The reason why is that they have no sales track record.
[0:49:11.1] TG: That was my question. What would prompt that? I mean you’ve done that probably.
[0:49:16.5] SC: Yeah.
[0:49:15.7] TG: What prompts that?
[0:49:18.6] SC: It’s the confidence that the publisher has in their ability to get the message out that this is a book that will be very entertaining and will be the kind of book that everybody’s going to read. It’s usually high concept property and when I say “high concept” I mean it’s an idea like Jurassic park. That is the perfect high concept book. All you have to say is dinosaur park goes crazy and you get it and you’re like, “Oh I know, I definitely want to read that book because that sounds pretty cool.”
That would be a high concept project that if it’s a first novelist, all the major publishers will say to themselves, “Jeez, I could lock on to this property and build a bestselling writer right from book one. Everybody gets very excited about that because you don’t have to put that much work in. If you make that first book work and it’s a series character, the thinking is, the second book’s going to work, the third book’s going to work et cetera.
But usually what happens is that the first book of a million dollar contract doesn’t work at a million dollar level. You have a lot of first novelist who get these big deals who have trouble getting a contract even after publishing their second book or third book because if their sales don’t go up, the publisher loses patience and invests on trying to hit a home run with somebody else.
[0:50:48.6] TG: Oh that’s interesting.
[0:50:49.9] SC: There’s a positive and a negative to everything. The positive is, you get a million dollars, the negative is, that does not guarantee that you will have a career. It guarantees that you’re going to have at least one or two books published and after that, good luck. Where as in the olden days, you can build a career like people I mentioned earlier, Robert Crais Michael Connelly, these are guys who started out probably at $5,000 advances for original paper back original books.
Or maybe $20,000 advance? But the publishers stuck with them book after book and they gave them a little raise and they promoted a little bit more and usually these are the genre writers that you can get to the genre audience in a way that you can’t with sort of the big literary book that you’re not really sure who the audience is.
But anyway, just to get back to your initial question about the trenches, the different levels of commitment that a publisher is going to make is that anybody under $100,000 advance, the publisher is either, I don’t mean this to be facetious or nasty, they’re doing what they call filling out the list. But they know that the book’s even going to work or it’s not but it’s all going to be on the author.
So if that’s fiction, if you’re talking about fiction and you can get a long term deal as a fiction writer for say — I don’t think they do these kind of deals anymore but if they did, I would probably recommend somebody try it. If you were able to get a deal for five books for $250,000 and you can make and budget your life around the next five years of your life writing a book a year, that would be a really interesting paradigm for a major publisher and an up and coming writer.
So that the writer can develop over time without having the wolf at the door and the publisher doesn’t have so much stress that they have to make back a million dollars on the first two books. That they can actually do what they used to do which is build a career so that by book six, somebody like Harlene Cohen another guy I worked with. He didn’t have a New York Times bestseller until his sixth book. Same thing with Crais and Connelly and James Lee Burk and Janet Avonovitch and Nora Roberts and you can go on and on. There really are, no matter what a publisher’s going to say to you, no publisher is going to say, “Oh you’re on the we cross our fingers, throw it on the wall and see what happens kind of writer.”
[0:53:28.5] TG: Right. Right, but I think but that’s exactly what happens, that’s not what they’re going to tell you before you sign at any point but it was interesting to me because again my friend who just got this contract, he’s like, “Well where does that put me?” “I don’t really know and so I thought it would be interesting to hear from you on where those levels are because I’ve also worked with the authors that got the seven figure advance and it’s like everything we asked when we ask for the publisher to do stuff, they’re like, “Yes.” And so it was just interesting but it’s just interesting how that works but it’s also knowing a head of time that just because $25,000 is life changing money to you does not mean the publisher is going to think of that as a big deal that they need to really invest in.
[0:54:20.4] SC: That’s correct. Because we should do a couple of episodes about this kind of stuff because I know it really well and I have some very strong opinions about it and I think the major publishers are really terrific for certain things. Not so great for other things. I’ll be really mystical about that statement and let it sit like that.
[0:54:49.6] TG: All right. All right well we’ll do that in some upcoming episodes.
[0:54:54.4] SC: Okay.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:54:55.5] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid, you can see that at Storygrid.com. Make sure you go there, sign up for the email newsletter. Make sure you don’t miss anything that Shawn is coming out with. Also, if you’ve missed any past episodes or you want to refer to any of the show notes and links that we put in on a weekly basis, you can go to storygrid.com/podcast.
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