Shawn’s Dark Night of the Soul

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[0:00:00.2] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl, and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience. 

So this is kind of a different episode. Shawn and I were talking before we are recording and he was telling me a little bit about something that was going on with the project he was working on, and we decided it was something worth sharing on the podcast, because it gives a little insight into how publishing can work, but also gives a little insight into how Shawn approaches writing projects. What can go wrong with them? What can go right with them? 

Then he even shares a little bit about reaching his own kind of Dark Night of the Soul on a project, which I think is important. Myself included, and probably you, a lot of us don’t think of Shawn as like a mortal person, because he knows so much about story. But nobody gets away with digging into a project and not having something go wrong and facing down whether or not you’re going to actually push through and finish a project. 

Anyway, it’s a really good episode. I hope you enjoy it. So let’s jump in and get started. 

[INTERVIEW]

[00:01:24] TG: So, Shawn, we were just starting this conversation and we decided to just hit the record button and start recording it, because we thought it would be something maybe our listeners would be interested in. Because you’re caught up in this kind of publishing thing that I think will show a lot of what goes on behind-the-scenes, because I remember the first author I worked with was [inaudible 00:01:52], and I remember when he got his publishing contract and not really understanding what any of it was, right? I just thought, “Okay, he’s got a contract. He’s going to deliver the manuscript, and then he’s done,” and that was also back when I thought writing a book was easy. 

Then as I continued working with authors and seeing behind-the-scenes on publishing and what can happen, it was, I guess on one hand I shouldn’t be surprised, because everything’s complicated once you dig into it, but it can get way more nuanced and complicated and egos can get involved and all kinds of stuff. So I thought it grew how I viewed publishing and how it works. 

So just kind of start from the beginning of what you’ve been working on and where it started and we’ll go from. 

[00:02:42] SC: Okay. Well, it’s a little sensitive, because it’s in the middle of a process, but let me put it like this. A friend of mine who’s an agent contacted me about – I guess it’s about 15 to 18 months ago. She had a client who was working on a project and needed someone to ghostwrite. So I don’t really like to do ghost writing anymore, because unless the topic is so fascinating to me and I know I can learn a lot from it. I’ve got a lot of things that I have to do for Story Grid and all that stuff. 

So I don’t really usually do this, but the concept and the idea was so – For whatever reason, and I think everybody can experience this. It was just so freaking interesting. I, without thinking, said, “Yeah, I’m totally into doing that.” 

Then, of course, after I made that commitment –

[00:03:34] TG: And you probably thought it would only take a couple of months. 

[00:03:37] SC: Yeah. I thought, “Oh! Yeah, I’ll bang that thing out. It will be easy.” But I always think it’s so interesting. The things that engage us without us like, “Where did that come from? Where did my proclivity just say yes to something when I’m overwhelmingly busy?” That subject matter was so fascinating to me that I just couldn’t say no. So like, oftentimes I’ll get that feeling and I’ll try and to suppress it, but then eventually it will keep circling back until I say yes to something. 

Anyway, now let’s combine that element with my not excommunication, but I’ve sort of moved away from the big five publishing paradigm. What that means is that it’s best that I do not have day-to-day or month-to-month contact with my past group of colleagues that I knew in the big book publishing arena. 

[00:04:34] TG: Can you explain what the big five are? I don’t think that’s necessarily obvious. 

[00:04:38] SC: Okay. So the big five publishers are the Penguin Random House Group, HarperCollins, which also includes William Morrow. So those are two. The third one is McMillan, which includes a whole bunch of imprints too, like St. Martin’s Press, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux and on and on. So that’s the third one, McMillan. The fourth one is Simon & Schuster, which also has a ton of imprints. Then the fifth one is the Hachette Group, which owns Grand Central publishing, Little Brown and a bunch of other ones. 

[00:05:13] TG: Why are they called the big five?

[00:05:15] SC: Will there’s five of them, and the big five are the ones that we traditionally think of when we think of book publishing. So none of those big publishers own any sort of self-publishing units or it’s all gatekeeper-driven, meaning there are book editor professionals in each one of those corporations that submissions from agents and then they pick from those submissions, the books that they think had the best potential for commercial success, plus the best potential for literary success. 

So it’s a very murky squishy kind of paradigm, which used to run on just the apprenticeship between a young editor and a grizzled, but experienced and intelligent editor who’d been doing the job for years. So it’s almost like the old craft system in olden times, where if you wanted to become a great bricklayer, you would work with the stonemason in town for free as an apprentice, and so you became a really great bricklayer and took over his position, or went out on your own and went to another bricklayer. Does that make sense?

[00:06:35] TG: Yeah. 

[00:06:35] SC: Okay. So that’s system always was inherently difficult for me to navigate, because it’s very much about saying the right thing, looking the right way, having the right friends. Of course, there’re all kinds of other very important things too. But the political nature of establishing yourself in the book publishing, big five book publishing paradigm, seemed paradoxical. So there was always a way to undercut the editor on some level. Either their books weren’t making enough money or their books were too crass and cheesy. 

So as an editor, you were sort of being pushed one way or another. So there was always an opportunity for the power base to undermine the accomplishments of the editor, because, A, they didn’t even write the book. B, if they were having a lot of commercial success, people would say, “Oh, there’s just some cheesy genre editor,” and if they were having a lot of literary success but nobody bought the books really, then they were a financial liability. 

So it basically put the editor, places the editor in a position of great instability, emotional instability and even more painful sometimes is financial instability. If you never know if you’re going to get fired or not based upon your track record, and like I said, they could look at your track record either one of two ways. It’s a difficult profession. So this is why I have great sympathy and empathy for all of my old friends who still work at the major publishing houses. I know what they do is very, very difficult and it’s a hard, hard road to navigate in terms of your emotional stability and your financial wherewithal. 

So anyway, my friend, the agent, she’s fantastic, right? So she convinced me to work with her client who’s also fantastic. I have no anger or difficulties with the front man writer, and she – It’s actually a woman. She is a great name in her particular profession, like top 1% in her profession. So she has institutional knowledge that it’s just off the charts. So I’m so excited to be able to work with her, because she knows so much more than I could ever even go to school for 15 years and still not even get close. 

So she’s not a great writer, and she’s the first one to admit that, but she loves storytelling. So when the two of us got together, it was a match. I’m the guy with the peanut butter. She’s the woman with the chocolate, and together we can make peanut butter, or Reese’s peanut butter cups. 

Okay. So we really synced, right? So together we worked up a proposal, and we loved it, and the agent loved it. So the agent – And this is 15 months ago. The agent went out on the open market, and also we came to an agreement where we would split all the financial rewards from the project 50-50, which is the way I always do things. I agreed that I would not have my name on the book even though I’d be doing a lot of the writing, and that was fine with me too, because I was doing this out of sort of a learning experience projects. Getting the opportunity to learn so much from someone who knows so much more about something than I do was great. 

[00:10:13] TG: Well, and that’s standard in ghostwriting. 

[00:10:15] SC: Oh, yeah. Okay. So 15 months ago, my friend, the agent, she goes out with the project and she doesn’t reveal that I’m involved in this project at all, nor should she, and the project goes out and there’s a lot of interest in it, okay? So pretty much every single – at least one imprint at each of the big five was interested in acquiring the project, which is great, right? So we had five players. So my friend, the agent, had an auction, and for one reason or another, four of those five didn’t show up to the auction even though they said that they were going to play. They gave very legitimate reasons for not coming. One was the publisher intimated to one of the editors that they were – Because it was fall auction, that the budget for that year was getting tight and it would be better if they didn’t buy a big project at this point. So that was one reason, which is perfectly legitimate, and that was told in confidence. I’m not giving away any names here. So nobody is going to get in trouble. But that is a consideration at an imprint, right? 

If you’re at the end of your acquisition budget for the year and a big project comes in and you don’t have the cash to be able to buy it, to acquire it without going to the CEO of the Uber group, then unless the thing is Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, you’re not going to really want to do it, right? Because it’s a nice book, that it used to be called upper-mid list book, meaning it’s not a celebrity, but it’s a person at the top of their field, which would have a core market within that field. So that’s like a built-in platform, so to speak for this kind of project. 

[00:12:09] TG: I mean, that doesn’t seem weird that there’s a budget and they’ve used all the money in the budget. So they can’t pick up another book. I mean, right?

[00:12:18] SC: It doesn’t seem weird, but the sort of the omerta, meaning the code of behavior in traditional book publishing is never ever give away that you are making decisions that are not based purely on the quality of the work.

[00:12:35] TG: Okay. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Now I’m tracking. 

[00:12:39] SC: Because then – Right? Because if you say I’m at the end of my budget, you say that’s basically saying I’m not very powerful. I’m afraid of going over my budget. I am a weak king or a queen. Get it? So you don’t the –

[00:12:53] TG: Yeah. That’s just weird. Most other business is saying, “I have a budget, and I’ve spent all the money in my budget.” It’s like, “Okay. That’s normal.” That’s a thing that happens all the time. 

[00:13:06] SC: But when you’re talking about bidding for art, art that doesn’t have a fixed a value. The value is determined by the marketplace at the acquisition stage, you don’t want agents, big powerful agents, like my friend, to think, “Oh gees! They’re running on a budget money? Wow! You know what? I’m not going to waste my time sending Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography to them, because they don’t even –” You know what I mean? 

So that’s one very big psychological level that the amateur writer who’s just excited to have an agent doesn’t even – It’s not even on the radar. Then the other three people, one or two of them came in with bids that were we just couldn’t do the project, right? Because it wasn’t enough money for my time and the principal’s time. 

So while they did bid, they were pretty much indicating that the level that they saw the project was not at the level that would actually be able to generate the finished project. So those bids were pretty much just – They were thrown out when they came in. The agent wisely called them and said, “Hey look, you’re not in the ballpark. We’re thinking more of X.” They’re like, “Oh! Oh, well, I can’t go there.” So those two were out. 

Basically, to make a long story short, there was one very, very compelling bid that the principal accepted and I accepted too, and so the agent agreed and told the editor, “Hey, congratulations, you won the project.” Here’s another thing that people don’t really know is that when there’s a project and there’s an auction and you bid in the auction and you “win the auction”, then the first question the publisher is going to ask you is, “Who were the other bidders? How much money did other people value this project at?” Right?

[00:15:02] TG: Right, which do you reveal that? 

[00:15:04] SC: The agent is ethically bound. Some agents are swirly, but the agents that I work with, there’s a code of behavior among agents is that, yes, at the end of the auction, not during the auction, but at the end of the auction, you report the actual progression of bids to anyone who asks you. You can’t lie, because if you lie, then nobody will trust. 

[00:15:33] TG: That’s so weird, because I guess I would just say like, “None of your business.” To me, that’s the answer. 

[00:15:40] SC: Well, that is the answer. 

[00:15:40] TG: Because why does it matter? Why does it matter? 

[00:15:43] SC: Well, you can use that answer, but then nobody will want to work with you.

[00:15:48] TG: Why do they care? Okay, yeah. That’s my next question. 

[00:15:51] SC: The reason why is that it’s a very small industry. So if you, say, none of your business, and then the editor finds out that you only submitted it to them and you made up the idea of this auction just to get them to bid and then you refused to admit to the fact that you made up the auction to get them to bed, then they will feel that you are unethical. If you are unethical, your clients are going to get smudged with that unethical character too. 

So are there agents who were – Are they dark figures who manipulate the system to the best advantage? Yes, there are. Just like there are bad players and anything. Depending upon how good and ruth – “good”, but how ruthless they are about getting really high power clients is how much the publishers will put up with them. So if there’s a really ruthless agent who’s just really good at sweet talking big powerful people to sign with them and they offered those big powerful people’s projects to the publishers, and the publishers know that those powerful people’s projects are going to sell, they’ll play with the ruthless agent even though they don’t like it. 

[00:17:12] TG: Yeah, I know one of those ruthless agents. Honestly, like if I was in the market for an agent, she would be the first one that I would call, because she’s known for being ruthless, but she’s also – Like I was talking to an editor at one of the big five one time, and I was working with one of the clients of this agent. I said, “Yeah, you might be getting a call from this agent, because they’re about to go to market with the proposal,” and he’s like, “Oh, I’m not bidding on that book.” I was like, “Oh, why?” He goes, “Because people think that the agent is magical, because she’s had so many clients that have had huge successful books that they overbid on any book that she brings to the table,” because they think she’s like magical at finding the perfect books. 

It was just interesting. So the proposal – The bidding even has to do with not even just the author or their platform or the proposal, but also the agent is bringing it to the table. 

[00:18:15] SC: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. There are – I know some great agents who are not ruthless. Meaning, they don’t use the black arts and lie. Yeah. But they’re great. [inaudible 00:18:27] –

[00:18:27] TG: I think of ruthless of like, “I’ll do whatever it takes to get my client the best deal.” 

[00:18:33] SC: Well, no. They won’t do whatever it takes. They’ll do the best business practices that are ethically sound to do – They’ll spent seven months editing the proposal. My friend who represented the project that I’m talking about, she’s one of those agents, right? So she spent six months going back and forth with us on the proposal to make sure that she believed that it would answer all the questions that the editors wanted answered and would be exciting for them to bid. Guess what? She was right. 

So she did this great job, and so the editor, after she won the auction, she asked my friend, “Who were the other bidders?” So my friend, the agent, explained to her, “Well, we had a couple that came in that were just not even in the realm of possibilities. So I explained to them that this wasn’t good and that it wasn’t going to work. Then there was one with extenuating circumstances couldn’t come, and then another for X-reason. So it turned out that you were the only bidder that reached the level that would make this project work.” So at that point, my friend, the agent, said she feel just the complete collapse of excitement for the project from the winning editor. 

[00:19:53] TG: Right, which is why I would guess that you wouldn’t tell, because there’s only – You can only stay neutral or go down. If they’re happy they won and there was a big war for it and they won the book, they’re like, “Great, we won the book,” or something like what you just said, which they’re like, “Oh, shit. We overpaid for this book.” 

[00:20:14] SC: Right, exactly. That’s exactly the way that they felt. Not only that, it wasn’t something that they could just sort of sweep under the carpet. They had to go explain the situation to the publisher who authorized them to spend that amount of money on the project. 

Now, from my agent’s point of view, what she did was absolutely correct. That’s why I worked with her as supposed to other people who might’ve fudged it and made up a lie, because there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life and in business, is that the truth isn’t just the best option. It’s the only option, because once you start manipulating the truth and fudging, it’s just all you do is spend your time trying to remember what you said the X-person and what you said to Y-person. So it’s just easier to just have an ethical, truthful, full disclosure. You don’t offer full disclosure unless you’re asked specifics. You climb down the ladder based upon the demands of the inquisitor. 

Anyway, so the editor at this point, they put on a brave face. They say, “Okay. Well, we’re committed to the project.” There are a few things though from the proposal that I think they need to tweak, and that’s a red flag. That’s like – And my agent was like, “Oh, yeah. Really? Well, okay. So what would those be?” Then she started saying things that didn’t really make much sense, and the agent wisely said, “You know what? I’m just the agent here. Why don’t you have lunch with the principal and then you can talk about what your vision for the project is and see if you can come to terms with what their vision is and your vision.” So that’s what happened. 

So the principal, the writer that I’m ghosting with had lunch with her agent, or with her editor. Then her editor started telling her things that were a little bit difficult to understand, things like, “I wanted to be purely empirically based and also have lots of stories in it,” which is like –

[00:22:27] TG: Opposite. 

[00:22:28] SC: Right, or like she would say, “I kind of want it to be like the tipping point meets big magic,” or like, really, really brilliant works of nonfiction that don’t – You can’t see the Venn diagram of them really coming together unless it’s somebody’s fantastical idea. If it’s their fantastical idea, that’s cool. Just lay out the micro steps of what it is that you think will make the fantastical idea happen. That’s the problem with editors today, is that they have plenty of fantastical ideas, but they’re not very good, nor did they had the facility in my opinion to micro detail how to take their fantasy and bring it forth on the page. It gives them this leverage, this hammer so to speak, to constantly say, “No, that’s not what I meant.” Well, you asked for empirical Gladwell-esk things matched with Z, and here’s how I did that and here’s why I did that. “Oh! Well, yeah. It just didn’t work for me.” But can you see my reasoning of what you asked for I’ve delivered? “No, I can’t, because your thing just doesn’t work.” Okay. So that was sort of the very big red flag at the beginning. 

[00:23:46] TG: I’m getting anxious just hearing you relay the story. 

[00:23:50] SC: Yes, because, meanwhile, I’m not a disinterested observer. I’m not Mr. dying for a job ghost writer who never had a job before, who’s never written a book before, who doesn’t know – Who hasn’t published 400 books. Who doesn’t know every single player – I know the editor. I know she has a lot of great qualities, and one of her great qualities is to be razor-sharp critically, but she provides very little procedural methodology to fix her critical judgment. You know what I mean? She can rip anything apart, and this is what most editors are really good at doing in the big five. Go to any editorial board meeting, which is the meeting they have at all of the imprints when they debate whether or not something is worthy to be published, and you will find the most tightly tuned reasonable rational arguments about how shitty something is that you will ever want to hear in your life. 

If you turn it around and ask them, “I understand that you find a problem with that. Do you have any thoughts about how to make that problem be solved?” Then you get a lot of, “Hey, I’m just an editor here. I’m not the writer. That’s for the writer to solve,” right?” So that never really sat well with me, obviously. 

So anyway, being this old grizzled veteran watching this play from afar, I know how this play is going to end, right? Even my friend, the agent – You know what? Her job is done at that point. So she’s just like, “Hey, man. It’s now your problem, Shawn. I’m here to collect missions,” right? I was an agent. I’d totally agree with that, like, “Hey, my problem anymore. Just deliver the freaking book,” right? 

Okay. This story has a very interesting payoff. So let me keep plowing forward. I hope it’s not too boring. So the principal writer has lunch with her editor. The two of them go over this fantastical idea that her editor has for revising the proposal that she had already agreed to pay a substantial sum of money for, and now it’s time when the author and the editor, after having their meeting lunch, shake hands and then they don’t talk to each other for another year generally. So you go away. The writer goes away for a year, writes the book that she believes the editor asked for, and then she delivers the book a year later, and then the editor gets to evaluate whether or not she delivered on what she wanted. 

But because my principal is a very, very nice person and is in a new environment operating under different rules than she’s used to, she instead says to her editor, “Let me know if you have any more thoughts.” Right? Don’t do that. It’s like if I could be a ghost and whisper in her ear when she was having this lunch, I would’ve been like, “What are you doing? Please just get out. Just finish the crème brûlée and get the hell out of the restaurant.” That is your goal. In fact, don’t even order dessert. Just finish the coffee and get out. 

All right. Also, one of the reasons why she is such a wonderful person and brilliant, is that she’s interested, right? She’s interested in the world. She’s interested in writing. She’s interesting in book publishing. I haven’t written a book before, so could you mind if we check in every few months to make sure that I’m on the right track? Bang! Red flag number two. You never want to do that, because as everyone knows, when you’re writing a project, you are very susceptible to criticism. Not just – I mean, the criticism, the internal criticism is overwhelming. It’s so overwhelming that oftentimes you have to break what you’re doing, walk around for three hours outside, go to an amusement park, take your kids snowboarding. Just anything to get the hell away from the thing for a while, because you’re undermining yourself to the point where you just want to quit. 

So you never want to add additional external adversarial resistance against you and actually solicit it. So when the principal told me that she had agreed to deliver check-ins with her editor, I was – I didn’t know what to say other than, “Oh boy! This isn’t going to end well.” 

So let’s fast-forward. We had several check-ins where the same thing kept occurring. The principal would tell me what happened in the meeting between her and her editor. She told me the comments that the editor made, and then we worked to incorporate the comments into a new material that did not move away from our global conception of the idea. So were trying to maintain our global understanding of what we’re trying to do and then add these sort of micro thematic levels within that global macro that the editor wanted. 

[00:29:18] TG: Now, at this point, does the editor know that there’s a ghostwriter involved?

[00:29:23] SC: No, and that’s okay. Again, remember when I said the agent is required to answer the editor’s questions truthfully, right? You don’t want to say, “Oh, the principal is afraid of writing her first book. So she’s hired this person that you’ll never meet and never know who’s actually going to be doing a lot of the writing.” Because the editor doesn’t give a hoot. They just want a great book. They don’t care about the side agreement that the principal made. It’s like hiring a marketing person. They don’t want to meet the marketing person after – Like how many editors have you met when you were marketing someone’s book? Very few I would suspect, because the client hired you, not the editor, and the editor could care less about Tim Grahl, right? Not that they dislike you, but it’s not like they want–

[00:30:12] TG: Yeah. Yeah. 

[00:30:12] SC: Yeah. 

[00:30:14] TG: They have enough to do. 

[00:30:14] SC: Right. Exactly. 

[00:30:15] TG: I just was interested to see all the players and how it’s –

[00:30:18] SC: Yeah, of course. 

[00:30:20] TG: So she comes back to you and says, “I just had a meeting with the editor, and here’s what they told me that I should do on the book,” but she’s got to pass it to you, because you’re the one writing the book. 

[00:30:32] SC: Well, yeah. I mean, we’re both writing it, but I’m the story guy. So I’m plotting out the three act structure and blah-blah, all the stuff I talk about all the time, and this is what attracted the principal to me in the first place. So she’s happy to let the story guy drive the construction of the story, and she’s like one of the smart people who’s really accomplished in her field that when she knows she’s an amateur, she goes, “Oh, where is the best person who can do this,” and then I’ll just do what they tell me to do. That’s the relationship we have. 

Anyway, so we did that. We did that once. We did that twice. Then I got a call. The reason why bring this up now is that the manuscript is due contractually in the New Year. So it’s really rapidly coming up. In the New Year, that’s the moment when the editor supposed to evaluate whether or not the book is what she acquired. 

So now also remember that there’s this lingering discontent about winning the auction and having to tell her publisher that the – So from the publisher’s point of view, if she had to put an emotional valence on the project I’m talking about from the start, it’s going to be negative, right? Because they bid on something. They probably overbid on it. Who knows whether or not this book is going to work? The proof is in the pudding, but gees, I’m not really dying to read this thing after I got taken at the marketplace level, right? 

[00:32:01] TG: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. 

[00:32:03] SC: So in the end another’s point of view, she’s got to be thinking about, “Well, my publisher doesn’t really like this project. I’m a little unsure of it myself. I don’t know if I can get support in the sales department, marketing department and publicity departments when I actually have to launch this thing in-house before we publish it.” So if this thing weren’t going to meet my editorial standards, that might solve some problems, because then I can just sort of cancel the contract and then the problem can go away. 

[00:32:36] TG: Can they do that?

[00:32:38] SC: Yes. 

[00:32:38] TG: Wait. Wait. Wait. So even if you deliver the manuscripts after the first of the year when it’s due and all of that kind of stuff, they can still, at that point, call off the contract even though you’ve done everything you said you were going to do?

[00:32:53] SC: That’s correct. 

[00:32:54] TG: Is that in the contract? What does that clause look like? 

[00:32:56] SC: It’s in the contract. It’s the delivery and acceptance clause. 

[00:33:02] TG: What is this? What’s like the shorthand version of what it says?

[00:33:04] SC: It means that the contractual terms are completely cancelable. That’s not even the right word. They can cancel the contract, meaning they can say that the manuscript that the writer delivered is not up to the standards of the publishing house. Because it is not up to the standards of the publishing house, they will not be publishing the book. Not only will they not be publishing the book, but all money that was received to write the book by the writer, the advance against royalties in the future, up to that point. So usually you get on signing money when you do a contract, right? 

So the on signing money the writer uses in order to finance them being able to take off 8 months or 10 months to write the damn thing. So they spend all of the money writing the thing. they deliver the thing, and then the heart is in the throat forever, because the editor then at that point, what they can do, is they can say, “Look, I have major problems with this manuscript. It’s not what I acquired. Remember all those fantastical things I told you to put in here? They’re not in the here. Because they’re not in here, I deem this book unacceptable. Therefore, we will not be publishing your book as we previously agreed to, and you have to pay us back all of the money that we’ve paid you.” That my friend is the deep, painful truth of the paradigm of big publishing, is that even when, even when you get the great agent, you get the great deal, you ask for help, you’re told what you need to do. You do everything possible to give them what they’ve asked for, they can reject the book, not publish the book, and then you’ve got a cough up the money that you spent to write the book. 

[00:34:57] TG: How often does this happen? 

[00:34:59] SC: It’s the negation of the negation, as Robert McKee would say. How often does it happen? 

[00:35:05] TG: Yeah. 

[00:35:06] SC: More often than you would want to know, and there’s a probability of rejection, that is like a great–

[00:35:12] TG: Greater than zero. 

[00:35:13] SC: It is – Yeah, much greater than zero. The probability increases with the amount of money advanced. So if you win the big auction and you get a $2 million advance and you still have to write the book, if everyone still isn’t talking about that proposal in a year and a half after you’ve taken the write the book, that’s a possibility. 

Now, I am not saying that the people in the major publishing houses are these nasty people who are manipulating writers and are out to get you, and if they feel like they’ve made a mistake, they’re just going to dump, not accept your project. That is not true, and I do not think that – And this is the only way I can see the universe without losing my mind and getting resentful and angry. I have to operate under the assumption that everyone is playing their cards truthfully, and that’s the best way to navigate the world. It doesn’t mean that you’re a sucker. It just keeps you from falling into the resentment; everybody’s out to get me. Nothing is worthwhile. There’s no meaning in the world, you know, pit. 

Because there are malevolent forces out there and it’s possible that this editor consciously made the decision, “I’m just going to gaslight this woman in her projects so that by the time she delivers it, I’ll have plausible deniability and say, “Look, I talked to you four times, lady. I told you four times what I wanted. I wanted Moby Dick mixed with the tipping point with an underbelly of big magic. Guess what? Is it that? It’s not that, is it?” Right? 

So it’s this subjective part of the business that can destroy people who are working objectively towards creating something worthwhile. This is the thing that really can – It’s like the whale can come in and just swallow you whole. This is why I think the system is not quite right. I think this system needs to be rebooted in a more objective and meritocracy where there are standards of excellence that can be pulled out of things in an objective way. That’s with the Story Grid is. It’s an objective way of evaluating subjective part. 

[00:37:41] TG: Yeah. I mean, again, most of the vast majority of people I meet and have worked with in publishing are wonderful, great people. It’s mostly working inside a system that is broken and having trouble with the current times. If you started a publishing house today with no backlist and tried to run it the way they’re running the big five, it would go out of business so fast, because it’s the backlist that keeps them in business and keeps them going. When I talked to authors and they’re like, “Well, if it’s so bad, how are they staying in business?” I always say, because every time somebody buys a copy of the Lord of the rings, a publisher makes money. 

, it’s just so interesting to me, because even in that, the fact that you’re – Because that’s speaking out of both sides of the mouth, because they say when you ask, “Well, why do you give advances and all that?” It’s so that the author can take the time off to write the book. In fact, like I knew, I worked with people that were like journalists at the New York Times that they would take their advance and take a leave of absence from work to write the book and they would use advanced to pay for that time. 

[00:38:57] SC: For food. 

[00:38:59] TG: Yeah. So the idea that then at the end, like to me it’s unethical to even have that possibility. Like I could see – Because you get the advance payment. I mean, it shifts around, but it’s usually like a third on delivery manuscript and a third on pub date. So it’s like I could see them canceling the other two–

[00:39:18] SC: [inaudible 00:39:19] quarters now. Yeah, it’s quarter. 

[00:39:21] TG: Oh, okay. Well, I could see them canceling the future payments, but like making you pay back the money that they gave you and said this is so that you can go write the book and take time off work. That just blows my mind. 

[00:39:33] SC: That phrase is not in the contract, Tim. 

[00:39:36] TG: Well, yeah. I know. But like that’s what–

[00:39:37] SC: It’s an implied. It’s an implied. 

[00:39:39] TG: Right. Right. 

[00:39:40] SC: Yeah. 

[00:39:40] TG: Oh, that’s so fascinating. 

[00:39:42] SC: All right. So I haven’t even gotten to the inciting incident of my panic situation and emotional breakdown of probably 47 hours ago. 

[00:39:52] TG: I thought we had finished the story. 

[00:39:54] SC: Oh. No. No. No. No. No. 

[00:39:57] TG: Okay. 

[00:39:58] SC: We’re at like the middle build. It’s sort of – Okay. So let’s talk about what happened a couple of days ago. It’s probably a week ago. So I got a call from my agents who said, “Are you sitting down?” I said, “Oh geez! Yeah. Okay. What’s going on?” Now, meanwhile I’ve been working all summer on this project with the principal and we’re making really good progress. We sent the editor some pages – I don’t know, about four or five months ago. Didn’t really hear anything. I took that as, “Okay. Well, maybe they’re busy and they haven’t gotten to them yet, but we still need to deliver this book at the beginning of 2019.” So full steam ahead for me, full steam ahead for the principal, and we’re making some really cool progress. I’m a very critical person, and I think the work that we’re doing is pretty cool. 

Anyway. So the agent calls me the other day, it was probably about a week ago, and she says to me, “Look, I just got off the phone with the editor of the project, and she’s finally taken a look at the pages and she’s not happy at all. She thinks that it’s wildly off course, that it’s boring, that there are things in there that just aren’t all that cool, and it’s nothing like she had told the principal to deliver to her in their previous two or three conversations.” 

So the agent then goes on to say, “Look, the editor is going to be sending a negative email to the principal, and I wanted you to know that it’s my professional opinion, Shawn, and we’ve worked together for 15 years, that this is the prelude to disaster. So you need to emotionally prepare yourself that come next February, all that money that you would’ve been paid,” because the deal I made with the principal, because I’m pretty confident in my ability to write stories, the deal I made was 50-50 partners, right? So that means we split the advance 50-50. We split the liabilities 50-50 too. You don’t just get the cake without some of the difficulties, right? 

So the agent basically let me know there’s probably a 90% chance that no matter how much work you do, that this project has been deemed flushable, and the work that has been done to create a paper trail to support that it’s flushable is well, well-document. What I mean by that is that, look, if a publisher says that your book is unacceptable and they demand the money back and they cancel the contract, you can sue them. The grounds for suing is saying, “I did deliver what they asked, but they’re lying and they’re saying that I haven’t. That’s kind of the argument that you make. 

So you’re sort of arguing that the publisher is being – There’s perfidy at play, that the publisher is lying. 

[00:43:10] TG: I don’t know what that word means. 

[00:43:11] SC: Perfidy means malevolent lying. I’m a victim of perfidy. Somebody once said that to me, and I wanted to jump off a bridge, because I was – One of the agent is a perfidy. Anyway, at the time, 25 years ago. Anyway. 

[00:43:28] TG: If somebody said that to me, I wouldn’t know what to do, because I didn’t know if they were saying something mean or not. 

[00:43:34] SC: I thought it was kind of brilliant, because it was sort of like out of an Elizabethan – Or no, like Charles Dickens story. Like you could just see like the magistrate saying, “I’m a victim of perfidy, sir.” Anyway, that’s the only ground you really have to stand on. Then the publisher can basically rely upon 350 years of this clause, right? They can save this acceptance clause is really important, because if we can’t determine whether or not a project is acceptable to our own standards, then a free press is then suppressed, because then the government can come and say, “We have the following standards for art, and as long as you meet these standards, you have to publish them.” So it’s like one of these really good clauses in a contract that’s really makes a lot of sense in terms of liberty and what Western civilization is based upon, which is freewill to a degree. But it can be subverted and it can end up hurting people if someone chooses to act without conscience or even unconsciously act in the negative. 

So anyway, after I got this news, I know this book. It’s sort of like – It’s like a story when the hero – I’m not putting myself in the hero position, but maybe I should. When the hero knows they’re getting it, right? It’s sort of like the guys in Thermopylae. They go to fight there and they know they’re going to die, right? There’s no way they’re going to survive. 

I’m now in a position of finishing a project that I know will die. So that–

[00:45:19] TG: Yeah. I mean, that was my next question, of like do you keep going? I mean, do you finish the book knowing that it’s going to be torpedoed, or do you – 

[00:45:28] SC: That’s right? What is the answer to that question? 

[00:45:29] TG: If you don’t finish it in – I don’t know. 

[00:45:33] SC: I’ll tell you what happened. I’ll tell you what happened. All right. Obviously, I fell into a pit of despair, because, A, I’m just arrogant enough to believe that the work that I write has merit and value to it. Objectively, I can say that the probability that the thing that I wrote and delivered with the principal to that editor was damn good, because I put it under the methodology that I trust, that, “Well, I won’t tell whether or not everybody loves something.” It is sound foundational story structure that I know is compelling, and I felt very proud of the work that was delivered that the editor found wildly off the mark and bad. 

So I have 25 years of experience writing. So when someone says what I delivered that I thought was sound foundational good stuff is “wildly off the mark”, I would have to say that my objective opinion is sound. So I can’t imagine what it would be like for my principal, right? Because she doesn’t have 25 years of storytelling experience. She’s going upon in relying upon my expertise to say that it’s good. 

But what she does have is the ability to read the material, right? She read the material before it went to the editor, and she loved it, and she said, “Oh my gosh! This is fantastic. This is better than I could’ve imagined. I’m so happy we’re working together. Great. Okay.” 

So her point of view, her subjective read of the work that I did collaborating with her was, “Hey, this is A+ material.” My understanding is that it’s A+ plus material and it came back with an E grade. Now I’m also assuming that the editor is not a bad person. So I’m going to assume – I think this is a sound thing to put forth, that the editor doesn’t consciously know that they’re torpedoing the project, that the editor is honestly and faithfully explaining to the writer what they subjectively want out of this work and the editor is not seeing that work in the material that was sent to her. 

Okay, so what do you do then? Per subjective point of view, which is honest and not malevolent, is that it is wildly off the mark. My subjective point of view and my principal subjective point of view is that it’s fantastic. So knowing that the work that we’re doing were very happy with and confident and also knowing that it’s going to be rejected eventually. It’s not going to be published by this big five corporation. What do I do? Do I quit and just move on with my life? I’d do another project, that I’ve got plenty of projects. I don’t lack for things that I want to do, or–

[00:48:30] TG: Oh, yeah, and I got work for you to do too. 

[00:48:32] SC: That’s right. That’s right. So that’s a pretty good argument, like, “You know what, Shawn? Hey, things happen. Move forward. It’s okay.” The principal, she doesn’t need the money. She’s doing this out of a drive to transform herself into a writer and an expert that can communicate some really interesting things to a broad audience. So she’s stretching herself, but she doesn’t – Her profession is wildly successful. She doesn’t need the money. It’s not a material value that she needs out of this. 

If we have to pay back the advances again to destroy our financial standing. No. It’s going to hurt. I don’t like it. I’d certainly don’t want to – I’ve already spent that money. They’re baseballs and baseball bats and nets that I bought with that money that now I’m going to have to find another way to pay for it. 

So here I was in my turmoil. What I did is I shut down. I fell into a pit, and what I did instead was my kids needed new beds, because they’re growing like weeds. So I went to IKEA and I bought some new bunkbeds. I put in the car, and if you want something to distract you from deep intellectual thought, put together some IKEA bunkbeds, because it’ll take you seven hours of pain that uses a completely different part of your brain. 

All right. So that’s what I did. I worked myself into a lather. Physically, I did all that work. I went for a walk. I talked to my wife about it. She told me to calm down. Don’t worry about it. We’re going to figure it out. I’m sure what you wrote was great, because she’s smart enough never to read anything that I write. Then I went to bed. 

So last night, I woke up. Now, I hate people who tell their dreams. I really do, because a lot of them are just boring. But I’m not a dreamer. I don’t dreamed that much, and I think that’s – I don’t know what that means. Other than that, I just don’t do it that much. 

So when I do dream things, it’s pretty rare. What Carl Jung says about dreams is that the dreams are your unconscious trying to tell you something, but the unconscious uses symbolic stuff instead of direct messages, like, “Shawn, finish the book. That’s not what your unconscious is going to tell you.” 

So the dream is a representation in Carl Jung’s view, and I believe him, that that’s the unconscious part of your brain that’s trying to tell you something that you don’t really want to come to terms with or you don’t know yet. 

So here’s the dream, it’s contemporary life. I’m an editor. I’ve got my book, The Story Grid in my hand and I’m excited. What happens is I’m on my way to my old job. Now, my old job was being an editor at a big five publishing house. I’m on my way to my old job, because I’ve had a conversation with the woman who runs the publishing company a little while back. This is like set up information. This is so great about dreams, because all of these stuff was obvious to me while I was experiencing the dream. In this conversation, I understood from her that I would be welcomed back into the fold of the publishing house and that my first day should be the day of the editorial meeting, where all the editor sit around a grand table and talk about projects and whether or not the publishing house should require them. 

So because I’m a little nervous, I’ve got the book that I wrote about what it means to be an editor with me. It’s almost like my security blanket. I climb for some reason, I’ve got to climb a lot of stairs to get to this meeting, and the building that I worked in 20 years ago was a famous building that was an old sort of 19th-century building that was a big high-rise at the times. Kind of like the Woolworth Building in Manhattan, but not that one. 

Anyway. So it has these old sort of circular almost DNA kind of spirals that are the stairs. So I’m walking up this DNAs spiral of stairs to go to this meeting. I’m a little late and I’m a little worried about it, and I’m seeing people that I haven’t seen in a long time on the stairs and they’re giving me sort of sideways glances like, “What’s he doing back here? Isn’t this weird.” 

So I make it all the way to the 18th floor, and I get to where the meeting is, and I go into the room and I noticed that all the chairs are filled, right? So there’s no space. Nobody has made a new chair for me to sit at the editor’s table. 

So I’m having like an internal dialogue with myself and I say, “Don’t take it seriously. She probably forgot that you’re coming today. As soon as she sees you, she’ll get a chair for you. So just sit over here in the back and chill out. Everything’s going to be okay.” 

So I have that internal dialogue with myself in the dream, which is awesome. So I sit down and then out of the corner a guy with a very familiar face, he’s probably an amalgamation of all of the friends that I’ve had in book publishing for years, comes to me and says, “Hey, we’re going to get three more card tables to add to the table. Can you help me set them up?” And he’s really friendly. I go, “Yeah, sure.” 

So together we set up these card tables. I’ve put my book down to help set up the card tables. So it’s sort of sitting on the floor. Now, as we set the final card table, I turned to go take a place at one of the seats in these new card tables and they’re all filled again. People have come in and they filled those spots at the editor’s table. And then I looked down the long, long table and I see my old publisher, whose the woman that I believe had invited me back into the fold, and she’s talking to the CEO of the publishing company, who’s the figure that I remember as the patriarch of the entire thing. They’re sort of looking at me every now and then and whispering, and I’m about to walk up and give them my best smile and handshake and say thank you for having me back. 

Behind me, her assistant, who I remember deeply in my mind, was a really nice person, whispers to me and goes, “Shawn! Shawn!” I turned around and I go, “Oh, yes. Hi. How are you? I’s good to see you.” She says, “I hate to tell you this, but Sally didn’t mean that you could come back here. She just meant that she would – If you ever wanted to have a drink sometime, she’d be open to have a drink with you.” Now my face flushes and I’m completely freaked out, like I’m making an ass out of myself.

So I go, and here’s the interesting part. I leave the Story Grid book there. Okay. I’m just going to throw that out. I leave and I’m having like a panic attack, like we all do. Like everybody is in there laughing like, “Look at this old fool who came and thought he could come back into the fold. There’s no way he’s going to come back here. All the chairs are filled, Coyne. Forget it. It’s over. You’re a loser,” right? What do I do? I have to descend 18 flights of stairs to get the F out of the building, and I’m really like, I got to get out of here. I’ve got to get out of here. I got to get some air. I got to get out of here.” 

I’m panicking and I’m running down the stairs and then the stairs start to morph into these sort of Victorian, like the old Victorian rooms, and that I had to walk through this room and go through this door and this other door, and I’m descending further and further, deeper and deeper down into further depth. Okay?

Finally, I’m really panicking at this point, and I noticed that the next room that I enter is an old-style English pub, right? And the pub is attached to the publishing building, which I think is weird. I go through the pub and I get to the door to get out into the air and the freshness in life, right? The door has one of those – Those emergency alarm push bar systems. So if you push the bar, the alarms of the entire building are going to go off. So I had this moment, “Of my God! This is the only exit. If I push this door open, all the alarms are going to go off and I’m going to make an even bigger ass out of myself disturbing the editorial meeting that’s going on without me, because I’m a loser.” Then I just say, “You know what? I got to get out here. I got to do it.”

As I’m putting my hand on the push bar, this woman comes down from the stairwell outside through the window of the door that I can see and she has one of those security cards, right? And the security card – and just as I’m pushing it, she flashes the security card on the machine that clicks the door open without the alarm going off. I get out of the door. She gets in and then I climb out from the pit of the pub, like a sunken patio, and then there’re these cobblestones up to the street level. Once I get up to the street level, I see it’s daylight. The skies are clear and I wake up. 

So what I take from that – So I was puzzling upon this all day and I was saying to myself, “What was that dream about? This is weird,” right? What the conclusion I came to was, A, this is the last project I can ever do associated with the big five publishing house. I’ve overstayed my welcome. I am no longer wanted or needed at big publishing functions. That’s number one. So my brain is telling me like, “You can’t work at the big five anymore, buddy. You’re out. It’s not a bad thing that you’re out. In fact, it’s a great thing that you’re out. Guess what happened? Once you rose back into the street, the light of day was there. You’re no longer in the pit of despair of climbing down from this really strange thing that used to be your life. Now you’re outside.” 

The other thing that I thought was fascinating was I left the Story Grid in the building. So what did that mean? It meant to me that I can’t rely upon past things that I’ve done. That I have to go out into the light and look and explore and find new things that will sustain me. Yes, it’s terrifying to be out alone in the open with, but the skies are clear and I don’t have to deal with any of the anxieties that were in that building anymore. I got out and I didn’t set off any alarms. It was almost as if I got a free pass to get the hell out of there. 

That’s why what that dream told me he was, “Finish the freaking project, Shawn. Stop thinking you’re so important, and that this is this big tragedy that the book’s probably going to get rejected. So what? You’re out in the open. You’re exploring new territory. You’re working with somebody you really respect that you can learn a lot from. Please don’t be an idiot. Don’t fall into the way that old publishing works. Look at it in a new fresh way. Keep working and don’t worry about what they’re going to think when you deliver the book. Because you know what they’re going to think. They’re going to think it’s sucks. So what? 

If I don’t think it sucks and the person I’m working with doesn’t think it sucks, that’s all that matters, doesn’t it? You know what? If the book is great as I think it will be, I’ll figure out something. We’ll will work it out. People are going to be able to read this book. I don’t need, nor does the principal need a big five publisher to say we’re worth. It’s not. They really don’t provide that much of a service anymore other than critical evaluation and to just some psychological baloney that really has nothing to do with the creation of art, because the book is the important thing. The creative act is the process by which I will find the meaning. 

It’s not whether or not the editor had lunch with her and blah-blah. Who cares? It’s the creative process is the final thing, whether or not it’s the 20% of the Pareto principle that become successful, or the 80% that sort of falls into oblivion. I can’t control that. Who cares? All I can control is keep showing up for work. Deliver the book and be happy that I am able to even do that. So that’s why I’m going to finish the book. Now as you can probably tell, it’s very clear to me, and the outside world isn’t really bothering me as much as it did. Now, I still had to fight the demons of finishing the book, but I think it’s probably going to be a lot easier than I thought it would be three days ago. 

[END OF INTERVIEW]

[01:01:37] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about to show and by visiting us on Apple Podcast and leaving a rating and review. 

Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week. 

[END]

About the Author

The co-host of the Story Grid Podcast and amateur writer.
Comments (2)
Author Tim Grahl

2 Comments

Lissa Johnston says:

If I ever had any thoughts of returning to the grind of traditional publishing, this episode confirmed that I don’t have the temperament for it. Shawn, you are very generous with your comments about the editor in this story. Not knowing this person and just hearing the facts as you related them, my first thought was that the editor planned to ditch the project as soon as she learned about the details of the auction. She knew she had an inexperienced author and knew it would be a snap to have a few meetings, make a few suggestions, and document them in order to weasel out of the deal. A cautionary tale, indeed. Good job working through it and good luck getting it finished and published elsewhere.

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