Specificity for Non-Fiction Storytelling

How do you tell a great story for non-fiction? I’m used to just stringing facts together, but the great writers can tell a true story just as compellingly as a fiction one.

In this episode, Shawn and I look into how specificity plays a major role in your non-fiction writing.

[0:00:00.3] 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.

In this episode we started off talking a little bit about how it’s going for me with the second draft of the novel and some things around that. Then we keep talking through the rewrite of the introduction of my nonfiction book, but more importantly we talk about just overall specificity and how to tell a great nonfiction story and how it applies to fiction, but also how to do it the right way nonfiction.

I think you’ll really enjoy this, so let’s jump in and get started.


[0:00:56.3] TG: So Shawn, before we look at the rewrite of the introduction of the nonfiction book I’ve been working on, I want to talk a little bit. I’ve been working on the second draft of the novel, and of course I’ve been scared of it, so I was procrastinating it and now and I’m finally working on it again. One of the biggest issues with the first draft was I was rushing everything. In fact, I had Candice — I had my wife Candice read the book. This was a couple of months ago and after the first 10 scenes she’s just like, “The whole thing feels rushed,” and she doesn’t know anything about this stuff. I was like, “Yeah, I know,” because all my scenes were 800 words, 900 words, 700 words, maybe 1,200 words.

On the first scene of the second draft, it was a 3,000-word scene and I was just like, “What is taking so long? Why is this so much easier?” I didn’t even try. I’m just like, “Okay. Here’s what’s going to happen in the scene,” and I started writing. This is what I wanted your take on, is the specificity, because I’ve struggled with — There’s all these things that you tell me and I understand them in kind of a cerebral logical way, but I don’t really — It’s that whole, like, “Yeah, I got that,” and then when I got to do it, I’m like, “I have no idea what to do.”

When we’ve talked about specificity, I’m always kind of like squinting, like, “Okay, I think I got it,” but I’ve always wondered like — I don’t want to just fill the book with facts about the world because then you — Oh! That’s what I’ve struggled with, is like, “Well, how does that work with not saying too much and letting the reader fill in the gaps? How do I be specific but also not overly describe everything?”

The biggest thing that made this easier was we grounded it into New York City. Now I have something, an actual real place that I need to describe because it doesn’t make any sense otherwise, and I fixed a lot of problems that I hadn’t figured out in my head. One of the things was that the people that she was saving at the end of the book, their life actually wasn’t that bad. That’s not good if she’s saving a bunch of people that don’t need saving.

I went back and really set them in a place that is just awful and set them up as basically meth-head cattle. Then I know the building in New York that my first scene is set in. I’m going to the website. I’m looking at actually what you can see from that building in New York and then that ends up in the book and being able to be much more specific about what’s going on. It just allowed me — I’m just like — I felt like I entered the scene the same way where I’m like, “Okay, I got to do this. I got to do this. I got to do this, and I’m going to end up here.” That took 3,000 words instead of 700, or whatever. I haven’t even gotten to — That scene did not even include the first scene of the first draft. I haven’t even gotten to that yet.

Anyway, yeah, I don’t know if I’m asking a question. I just thought I’m finally understanding that balance between being specific but not over-explaining everything. Does that make sense? 

[0:04:48.2] SC: Yes, it does, and it also makes sense that the second draft is going to take quite a few more words than the first. The reason why is that in the first draft we’re searching for the pathway. We’re searching for the right set of plot point. You want to get to the end of the scene as quickly as possible and nail your five fundamentals, your five commandments of storytelling as soon as you can so that you can move on to the next scene. You’re constantly trying to get to the end of the entire novel and you break that down into three big bits and then each of the three big bits you break down into scenes and then you break down — By the time you get to your second draft you realize that a lot of the things that were necessary you had to really fly over. You had to put sort of an intellectual to come in your head, “Oh, I’ll get into the description of where the competition happens later on.”

The specificity, don’t worry about the reader conjuring the world in their own mind and allowing them to have their own creativity. What you want to do is think about — This is what I do when I write. Try and slowdown the pace. Think about the step-by-step progression of a particular scene and then you make editorial choices. You make, “Do I comment on what the protagonist is seeing in this moment during this conversation?” Is that an important detail to put into the story? What time is it? Where are we? What time of year is it? Is it summer, winter, spring or fall? When you read Pride and Prejudice or Silence of the Lambs or any of the other books that we’ve talked about on the show, you see — And if you really keep your mind focused, you’ll see that all of those details of time, place, season are in the work and they’re very, very short little ads to a particular sentence, “As Wednesday turn to Thursday, Jane realized X.” it’s those small little bits and pieces of specificity that really ground the reader and subconsciously their ability to conjure your world takes on their own patina, but you are setting the universe. Will my vision of what the apartment looks like in your dystopian world be the same as somebody else’s? Absolutely not, but it will be very, very similar in spirit and essence.

Specificity is really, really important because if you just say, “He was sitting in a chair.” It requires the reader to create their own chair and then have that person sit in the chair in their mind. Whereas if you say, “A Louis Cator’s chair that was in great distress.” They immediately get that and the person’s already sitting in it. They don’t have to conjure their own world because you specifically laid out the world in which they can create their fantastical universe in their brain.

The specificity allows the reader to allow their brain to use their imagination elsewhere. You don’t want to tax the brain of the reader to do all of the specificity work or they will say, “Ah! This guy is — I can’t understand what he’s describing,” because it just doesn’t make any sense to them. That’s why specificity is so important. Specificity breads universality because each individual person brings their own past present and future to the reading experience and then they impose their worldview on to you story.

This is why storytelling is so great, is that what’s very specific to you is specific in a different way to somebody else, and that’s why some people can get different things out of novels than other people and why my controlling idea for a specific story might be close to someone else’s  but they’re different, and that’s okay. There’s no correct answer. It’s just — You have to thematically know where you’re trying to take your reader and then allow the reader’s own imagination to all the end tables and the mirrors and all the other things into your fictional world. That’s a little vague, but —

[0:09:27.9] TG: No. The other thing I noticed was just because I know where the story is going, when I wrote the first scene of the first draft I hadn’t come up with the numbered yet. Now, I threw — In this new world, the numbered are going to be living down in the subways and the first scene opens with her going through the subways to get where she’s going. I have the person on the end of the radio, one of the other rats, which I’m introducing now too because I need them in the story, start saying like, “Hey —” basically tells an urban legend about a friend of a friend who went down there and those people ate him, but they never say the numbered. They never say anything about them. It just references them.

I started rereading worm, which we’ve talked about and I’ve noticed he weaves story elements that do not happen until much later in the book; names of people, places, different beings in the universe, that I just skipped over when I read it for the first time because I didn’t know what he was referencing. Now, I’m like, “Man! He was telling me things in the first chapter that didn’t payoff for a longtime and I didn’t even know. I’m doing that and I’m — I mentioned, I just have one line in there where she talks about her parents because that’s the theme through the book too. Just having all those decisions already made about the world allows me to just dump all of that into the first scene, an di didn’t have that yet when I wrote the first scene the first time.

Anyway, it was a pleasant surprise where I just kept going and kept going and kept going and I’m like, “Man! This has taken me a while.” Usually, I’m done in 20 minutes on a scene.” Yeah, it felt good. 

[0:11:30.1] SC: Yeah, that’s a good sign The very practical work allows you slowly to build up your ability to imagine different things in the setups and payoffs. This is really the place to start thinking about that, “How I can set up this thing so that this little firecracker is going to go off in 125 pages? You can talk about it.

[0:11:48.9] TG: I think too — I’m trying to remember when I wrote the first draft of the first scene. I think it was 9 or 10 months ago at this point. I’m like a different writer than I was then too. Just overall now, I’m feeling more confident in my writing. It’s been good. I’m now excited about getting through this and going over it. I think you’re going to be right that it’s going to end up being like 100,000 words instead of the 60 that I wrote for the first draft.

[0:12:26.3] SC: Sure. You’re going to end up cutting — You’ll probably have 120,000 and we’ll have to cut.

[0:12:29.9] TG: Hey, that’s a good problem to have compared to what it’s been before, like, “This is too short.” Because we’re going to get into that once I have the beginning hook done here in a week or two, but for now I did my homework. I rewrote the first — The stories in the introduction to the nonfiction book.

To remind everybody, I wrote a first draft of my nonfiction book and I basically wrote a how-to-book and we’ve been working on the fact that I need to write a big idea book and really force me to dig deeper on what I’m trying to say. I landed on this idea of the journey, the emotional journey, basically, that a creative person goes through. Then I identified five different steps.

I wrote an introduction and you wanted me to go back and rewrite at least the first half where I tell some stories and be much more specific and write them as if they were scenes in a novel, basically. I tried to do that. I had a little — I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s any better, basically. I tried to set it up better and run through — I tried to give two different scenarios. One, when I was very first beginning, and then one when I actually had success to set up the book. What did you think of the changes I made?

[0:13:56.6] SC: Overall, I think you’re getting closer and closer to the narrative arc of your big idea book. I say narrative arc because big idea nonfiction has to have an arcing story too it. Meaning it starts some place. It goes someplace else and then it ends up, it pays off in a different place.

Just reading your revision, you’re getting closer and closer to the arc which is everybody thinks that the most difficult thing about being creative is committing to the work, but what happens is after you commit to the work you get way laid by a powerful force that really knocks you on your ass. When you overcome that force, then you think, “Oh, great! Now, I’ve got my shit together and I really know how to create now and now I’m going to do that.”

You successfully move forward and you literally create things, and then you start even getting some success, and it’s at that point most people think that you’ve reached nirvana, where you’ve reached this sort of creative place where everything is great. You know how to make things. When you make things, people react to them and they buy them and you make a living doing it and everything is wonderful.

Your story sort of takes off from that point forward too, because you say, okay, once you hit this place, what you think you were going to get out of this creative process is not what you think it is. In fact, you have a great sense of sadness, loss, shame, and pain and you feel almost really disappointed that all of the things that you thought were going to bring you great happiness don’t.

It’s at that point where you have to take your level, your game up even higher as a creative person in order to overcome that is that all there is feeling. You have to yet again learn some more tools in order to find the natural way of the creative, which is to understand that every project is a new way of finding and discovering something new about yourself. It’s not about making a sale. Sales are great and they’re important, but that’s not why you’re in the game.

What you’re dealing with is a very long sort of creative arc here and what’s important in your introduction is to really tell a compelling story that will hook your reader to such a degree that they say, “That’s exactly right. That’s exactly what’s happened to me,” and they don’t necessarily have to have gone through all five stages that you’re talking about in your book here, but they need to know that this is the same pattern that every creative person goes, that they are not unique when they hit these moments of is that all there is.

Your introduction really needs to actively engage the reader in a story so that they feel as if they are walking with you as you are stumbling through this process. When I read your revision, the first thing that came to me was, “Oh my gosh, he’s rushing this. He’s really flying through everything that’s happened to him very quickly and he’s telling not sort of show telling.” That’s a really bad way of expressing what I mean, but instead of giving your conclusions about what has happened to you in the past, use a narrative device that will be more engaging for the reader, and that is to almost tell the story in real time. What I mean by that is — Let me just read kind of the first paragraph of your revision, and I’ll do it quickly. 

[0:18:05.4] TG: Oh, man! Alright.

[0:18:07.4] SC: This isn’t critical. It is critical.

[0:18:12.5] TG: I’m just thinking, we’ve been doing this almost two years. You’ve never actually read any of my stuff to me. I know it’s out there. I know people are reading it, but I’ve never had to listen to it, so I’m just stealing myself. That’s all.

[0:18:24.1] SC: Okay. Don’t worry about it. We’ll get over it. Your very first sentence is ,”In March of 2006, I finally took the plunge. After a few years of working on my own stuff I decided to quit my job and go out on my own. My first son had just been born two months before and with my wife staying home to care for him fulltime, I decided it would be the best time to quit the job with a steady paycheck and take the leap.” 

Okay, I’m going to stop right there, because those first four sentences are so midi and juicy that I think you’re so rushing it and also you’re not being very specific.

[0:19:08.8] TG: I feel like I’ve had this problem before.

[0:19:11.0] SC: The thing is is that you really want the reader to be grounded quickly and then you slowly walk them through to the crisis. Anyway, here’s kind of what I suggest. What day in March is it? Let’s say it’s March 12th, 2006. That’s your first sentence. It’s March 12, 2006. Immediately, the reader is going to know, “Oh! This is a very specific day. I wonder what meaning that very specific day has to this book.”

Then next sentence would be something like — And I’m making this up, “My son is 52 days old.” That brings in a while other world of thoughts to the reader. Why is this guy talking about his son and the day? He’s only 52 years old? Oh my gosh! That’s a newborn baby.” The next paragraph would be, “My wife, Candice, is with him every single moment. He, as it should be, is her number one priority.” There isn’t any uncertainty about the division of labor in our family. Candice is fulltime at home. I am the breadwinner.”

Right there, you’ve established that you have a brand new baby in your house. It’s spring of 2006, which is 11 years ago, and your wife has made the decision that she’s going to stay home and take care of your son fulltime. You have to bring in all the money. Her son, your son, is now her number one priority. What that means is that you aren’t anymore. When people get married, the only priority that they have is the happiness of their partner. When you have children, the wife has to take care of the child first. Now, that is all reasonable and wonderful and we all understand that fact. When you’re the man in the relationship and your wife has a child, it will throw you out of whack, because all those nights when you came home and your wife says, “How is your day?” or she comes home and you say, “How is your day?” Those days are gone. It’s not about you anymore. You, your job, once you have that child, is — Your primary job is to bring in the money. To take care of your family. Together, you and your wife made that choice.

Right away, I think with a revision to that sort of opener, you’re setting up a situation that every person who would want to read this book can understand. I think the market for your book are for people who are very thoughtful, who understand that there’s something within them that they need to release and it’s a creative effort. They need to create a new company. They need to create a novel. They need to create a work of art. Any number of things. They need to create something from an idea that they have in their head.

One of the things that they’re always saying to themselves is, “If it weren’t for X, Y and Z, I’d create something.” What are the biggest Xs, Ys, and Zs are children, and spouses, and money.

[0:22:20.5] TG: Yeah, and money.

[0:22:22.0] SC: Just to continue this line of thought, I jotted this down and we can put it in the show notes. The next suggestion for this story is to get you into work that day, March 12, 2006. I’m at work. At 9:17 a.m., after my first cup of coffee, I walked to my supervisor’s office and tapped on his open door, “Is this a bad time?” He clears me to come on it. I’m tendering my resignation.”

You move from; I’ve got this huge responsibility now and then you transition to; I just resigned from my job. This is going to create narrative momentum for you because your reader is going to say, “What? They guy just quit his job.” When you wrote it earlier, you said the same thing but you told reader, “Oh, I quit my job because I —” You were sort of saying it in kind of a funny fun way, “Hey, I knew I had a kid at home and — Oh! Really good time to quit your job.” Instead, you’re actually bringing them into the office and they’re witnessing you make a huge mistake or seemingly huge.

Do you see what I mean about specificity? The specificity is take advantage of taking the reader by the hand and walking them through an experience that is going to be very close to home.

[0:23:51.0] TG: I’ve just never done that with nonfiction. All of my nonfiction is just like; first, this, then this, then this, then this. Okay. Now, go do that.”

[0:24:01.2] SC: This is the art of bringing pathos to nonfiction. It’s telling a story with fact. The fact is is that you did resign. You did have to knock on your boss’s door. You did have to physically resign from your job. You didn’t just not show up to work one day, because then that would have ruined your reputation. That would have hurt your employer who gave you a job when you need one.

This is what I mean about slowly building into — What you’re doing is setting up a really nice turning point for your nonfiction. The turning point, we can get to in a second. Let me just go on with what I wrote, because I just jotted this down. After I’m tendering my resignation, now you pullback and now you say — Now you explain kind of your reason. You open up with setting the scene and a little bit of scene work, then that’s done in 8 sentences. It’s not like you have to do a full scene here. You basically explain your decision now.

Now, I’ll read what I wrote. Now, I’m not especially courageous, and Candice is certainly no it is. How did we come to the decision that the best time for me to leave our only source of income, my 9 to 5, steady-Eddy job, doing what I had trained four years in college to master was less than two months after having our first child. What it came down to was this. You’ve pulled them in and then you said, “Look. I understand this doesn’t make sense that I just quit my job,” because you’re in a partnership. You didn’t just quit your job without telling your wife. You and your wife had a discussion and she said, “Okay. I support you. Go for it.”

Then you wrote the next thing, which is going to speak to the heart of why they’re buying your book in the first place. What it came down to was this. The stress pain and, yes, shame of not doing what I knew I could do, creating Tim Grahl’s stuff, marketing that stuff and earning a living selling that stuff had reached intolerable levels. I’ve been miserable for years. Not gringe-like miserable. More of a dejected, “It’s me. I’m not doing what I should be doing,” kind of general malaise. Candice finally lost her patience and told me that if I didn’t bet on myself now when our son was an infant requiring constant supervision, but no school tuition. I never would. Then you explain further.

Now, before I resigned, I did what reasonable people do. I got my proverbial ducks in a row. I negotiated a partner deal with my church in exchange for my designing and web mastering website for the congregation, they’d let me use an old cleaned out closet as my office rent free. With our savings I had plenty time of time to get my new business up and running and also spend more time at home. I had massive motivation. My family depended upon my success. A backlog of great ideas ready to implement. Some terrific leads to get the business off the ground as well as committed clients and practically zero overhead. Do you know where this is heading? Yes. Complete disaster.

What you want to do is tell them a little story about their worst fear. Their biggest fear is that they commit to doing something creative. They get all their ducks in a row and then it all flows apart. What you want to do in your global thesis, your global big idea is, “I’m going to teach you how to be creative without torturing yourself to the point of losing your sanity or your sobriety.” That’s generally your big idea. You’re going to give people a toolbox that they can use to do things that will make them creative, that will allow them to live the creative life.

The first thing that you want to do in your introduction is give them kind of the worst case scenario, or the best case scenario. In this instance, I would recommend giving them the worst case scenario. What happens when you have a loving wife, a new child, some savings, confidence, ideas, clients and you quit your 9 to 5 job to start your own business? It’s a disaster. It didn’t work out, but what’s great is that you wouldn’t have been able to write the shameless creative if you didn’t figure out how to fix that problem, right?

[0:28:36.5] TG: Yeah. Do you want to keep going? I have a couple of questions.

[0:28:40.6] SC: No. Let’s stop there, because this is a way of — The first thing you have to do is really just suck in that reader, and the way to suck in a reader with the self-help book is to explain to them, “I have experienced what you are experiencing right now.” The best way to do that is to tell them a very specific story of a moment in your life that you stared down the problems that they’re staring down. Now, what that will create, they will be — That creates your writer’s ethos. They will say, “This guy has been where I am.” You can have all the marketing success that you want, and bestsellers, or blah-blah-blah, but if you don’t tell them this dark moment of the soul that you’ve stared down like they are, they’re going to say, “This is just another blowhard guy with a bunch of tips that isn’t really going to work for me, because he didn’t have a kid. He didn’t have a wife. He didn’t have —” You’re basically saying, “Dude, I had it all on my back and I blew it. I blew it.” The subtext to that is, “I’m going to tell you how I got out of it so that you don’t blow it either.” That builds a real sympathy for you as the writer.

One of the things that Steve Pressfield does so great in the War of Art, the first paragraph of the War of Art is he tells you what he does every day, “I wake up. I got into my office. I pull on my boots. I make sure I’ve got my computer. I’ve got my coffee now.” He tells you this supposedly magical life of a writer. Guess what? It’s like going into a coalmine, making sure your pick works and that you have the right jeans on and then you’re ready to — You’re doing some hazardous work, but you’re ready to get going.

He pulls the curtain away from the magical writer’s life where you’re sitting in a café jotting down notes drinking espresso. No. That’s not the way it is. Other people can relate to the blue collar lifestyle because that’s usually what we’re doing in our every day jobs. For you, I think you need to express to people you’re a guy who had a job, you had a family and all of that great stuff wasn’t enough for you and you had to do your own thing. Even when you have the support of your wife, even when you have the support of your little baby boy, even when you have the support of your parents, it’s still failed. You still hit rock bottom. Anyway, go ahead and ask your question.

[0:31:13.6] TG: Okay. My first question is what if I don’t know the specifics as specific as you’re saying. I have no idea what day in March it was. 

[0:31:24.7] SC: Make it up.

[0:31:25.9] TG: Okay. I struggle with, yeah, making it up.

[0:31:32.1] SC: Look. Here’s the thing. Steve always says this about fiction. Fiction is truth, and what he means by that is that in order for fiction to work it has to have a universal truth underneath it. Nonfiction is an argument. When you’re trying to make a great argument, if you can use really great storytelling, that’s supports your argument to a degree that is just far better than anything else. This is why narrative fiction is such a huge category today. People don’t want to read the facts about things. They want the truth.

[0:32:12.9] TG: They want alternative facts. I’m sorry, I just had to.

[0:32:18.1] SC: They want to know the meaning and the truth underneath them. Do you know the specific day exactly when you resigned from your first job? No. Do you generally know what month it is? Yeah. Do you generally know what year? Yeah. Do you generally know how you did it? Maybe you did not knock on the office. Maybe you caught him in the break room and you pull him aside. I know how you did it, but whatever way you did it, you just need to get that beat down you quit as quickly as you possibly can. That’s why I tried to do in three sentences. It doesn’t matter if it’s absolutely accurate, and people can throw me in the river for saying that, but it’s true. The thing about memoir, a lot of people debate whether or not a specific thing happened at a very specific time. I’m all for truthfulness, but its effect of the events on the soul that matters more than the event itself.

[0:33:27.1] TG: Okay. Next question is I’ve felt like — I’m trying to turn it on. I made this great leap that you dream about and then you I failed and here’s what it felt like.

[0:33:41.8] SC: You’re describing the first stage of the jury, right?

[0:33:44.3] TG: Right. Then I like the second story I tell too, which we can talk about the specifics — Whatever — Specificity. I said it right three times. That’s all I can do. Where I then fast forward in time and tell the story of being successful and then still, and then the turn is I’m still not any happier than I was when I was failing, because that to me is the most surprising part of the story is you will become successful and you will no more happier.

[0:34:23.5] SC: Okay. Remember how I always talk about how a story has to have a turn. You have to turn the story in an innovative, a surprising but believable way. It’s the David Mamet quote. The first part of your introduction is going to turn because you’re telling a story at the very beginning about how you left the corporate world and you were perfectly prepared for it. You have the support of your loving wife and your parents. You had plans, you had clients, you had free rent. You had figured it all out. Got all your ducks in a row as people always say and it didn’t work.

People are expecting you to then say, “Guess what happened next folks after some really nose to the grindstone hard work and hitting the calls and doing a lot of marketing at local venues and having coffee with old colleagues, I bootstrap this company into a —” No. You’re saying, “No. I bond. I screwed up so much.” You don’t have to be specific in this because you can save that for later when you pick up the story later on when you’re going through phase one. Then you want to do a transition, right? You want to do a transitional paragraph or two to get to the next stage.

Here’s what I suggest. Here’s what I wrote. Okay, let me just take off where I left off. Do you know where this is heading? Yes. Complete disaster. Obviously, when I say yes, complete disaster, they’re going to be thinking the opposite. They’re going to think, “Yes, I got a foothold.” Why is it that when we do everything “right”, meaning we save our pennies and solved it with our loved ones and get indispensible advice, plan our escape perfectly and then actually pull the cord and set out on our journey to self-actualization and personal fulfillment, we fall hard.

A few months later, our son was twice his size but we were completely out of money. I shamefully called my parents and asked for help so I wouldn’t miss our mortgage pay. What happened? How did I manage to snap out of it? That’s the first part of this book. What happened next was even weirder. You’re not going to tell them in the very early introduction the payoff yet. You want them to read your whole book, but you do promise there is a first stage, and I’m going to really tell you how I snapped that in this horrible hole that I was in. What happened to me next is even weirder, and that’s when you tell flash forward X-years. I’m having a wonderful beer with a friend of mine where everything is great. I just have all these success. My mortgage payments are on time. I’ve got a nice new car. The kids are doing great and I’m miserable. What’s going on with that?

What you’re doing this is you’re setting up success and then twisting it into a failure. Your earlier one was setting up failure, setting up a really big leap that’s good for you and then turning it into a failure. You know what I mean? You’re flip-flopping the storytelling so that what the reader is expecting you to say is the opposite. 

[0:37:39.2] TG: The thing I want to drive home about the first story, because this is where, to me, the shame comes in, is like I had set everything up for success and it wasn’t a meteor coming from the sky that sunk me. It wasn’t that unexpected things arose that sunk me. It was because I screwed up and I couldn’t follow through on what I need to do.

I was even just talking to my wife about this, to Candice about this this last week while we’re on vacation and I was like, “That’s always my fear,” is like if something happens, if the stock market crashes or something out of the blue comes in and just sinks me. It’s like, “Whatever, man.” I can’t plan for that, but it’s me screwing up. Me making the wrong decisions. Me playing video games half day instead of — That is what I want to drive home the point, is it wasn’t because unexpected things happen. It was because I didn’t do what I needed to do. That’s where all the shame came from. That’s the whole thing, is like —

[0:38:50.7] SC: You were afraid and then you were shameful and it was a great — One supports the other. When you fear, you don’t do. When you don’t do, you’re shameful for not doing. What I suggest is that you set up that payoff and then the final four paragraphs of your introduction are the answers to these five stages that you go through. You would make that point that you just said, “Guess what? It was all my own fault. I played video games all day. I burned through our savings because I was in fear. I was afraid.”

Then the next part you say, “I was miserable because I thought that there is a golden moment when all your dreams come true.” It was difficult to understand that that’s just not the case.

You use all the answers to these five dilemmas as your global payoff at the end of your introduction which is really going to get the reader excited about pushing through to go into your middle build which is going to delineate each one of these five stages in very specific ways and also give the tools necessary to defeat the enemy. You also have to divine the enemy at the final payoff of your introduction. You can blame yourself. Yeah, sure, but it’s not the real Tim. It’s the resistance Tim that’s to blame, because the real Tim is the guy who did do the work, right? That is the real Tim. The Tim that didn’t do the work and is fearful and is shamed, that’s the shadow Tim who doesn’t want you to do anything. That’s Steve’s resistance.

I think the last time we talk, we talked about the primary assault weapons of resistance for the amateur; our fear and shame. It jabs with fear and it body blows with shame. Before you know it, you’re sitting on your stool at the ring side and you’re not fighting anymore. What the pro learns is the way you fight fear and shame is X, and you’ve got a whole set of tools to help fight fear and shame. Then once you start having success and things start turning around for you, then guess what else happens? Oh! Is that all there is? That’s the second stage. That’s where the pro — A lot of people never get beyond that stage, especially like the big New York Times bestselling writers or famous actors or whatever? They’re constantly worried that the next part is not coming or the next book isn’t going to be good or nobody is going to care about them or Star Magazine isn’t going to have them on the cover anymore. That’s the, “Oh my God! I keep moving my goals, or I’m going to realize that what I thought was going to happen isn’t going to happen.”

[0:41:50.3] TG: Yeah. To me, that’s the promise of the book, is that you’ll be able to get past the place where you are successful and still not happy. That’s the big goal. Most of the people I’ve worked with that are super successful are like rudely unhappy and more success — The more their successful, the worse it gets.

[0:42:11.1] SC: Yes. I consider myself one of those people. Tim, don’t forget about your market now. The market for your book is, really, you do not want to squeeze out the person who aspires to be creative.

[0:42:27.0] TG: I kind of line out the five places on the journey, and I kind of look at them as — I kind of think of them as like a train ride, and you can get off at any stop and just sit there for as long as you want, or you can keep moving. Most people get off long before the final destination.

Am I writing a book for just the people at the beginning? To me, the thing is like the people at the beginning, I want them to not be surprised about the third phase. Then the people in the third phase, I want to be like — They’re like, “That’s me.” 

[0:43:10.9] SC: Yes. No. Of course. You do understand that your five stages correspond to the five levels of storytelling. The inciting incident of your book is for the person who makes the commandment to create something. The progressive complication is when you fail the first couple of times and you start getting some momentum and things are going okay. Then the crisis arises when you reach the point where you think you should be happy. The crisis is, “Oh my gosh! I’ve got one of two choices. I’ve got a best bad choice decision. I either keep making stuff and pursuing this nirvana of happiness that one day appear to me, or I have to recognize that the fruits of the labor are not really that important. It’s the labor.”

The crisis moment is best bad choice. Do I believe in the standard more is more and more is better, and I think we have to go after more and I’m a failure if I don’t make more, or is the process the point and not the product? That’s the crisis. That’s why you’re really — I think we identify that really well and I think it’s a really compelling moment for your book, because not many people talk about this. I can’t think really of many — Elizabeth Gilbert does, but it’s sort of a tangential moment that are in other people’s work that aren’t the primary apex of the storytelling.

[0:44:49.6] TG: Because most of the people doing this haven’t reached it.

[0:44:53.1] SC: That’s right.

[0:44:52.8] TG: They’re still just as miserable as everybody else.

[0:44:55.6] SC: That’s right. They think the next one is going to be. I got to do better than Star Wars.

[0:44:59.5] TG: Okay. I have another kind of bigger question that I was struggling with as I wrote this. When I read about like — If we’re thinking big idea books, there are — Let’s say, in my mind there’s two ends of this spectrum. One is anecdotal stories that the author is just kind of pulling out of their experience and their head. I would put the — The War of Art was — from my perspective, I could be wrong. It wasn’t like Steve went out and did research and interviews for six months or a year to write this book. It all came from his own experience mainly, and then stories he had, like the one about Hitler and the painting. Then on the other end of that spectrum is Malcolm Gladwell. There’s zero Malcolm Gladwell in that book and 100% interview and research-based in general. Those are those two ends of the spectrum.

I’m struggling with, “Okay, do I need to — Should I be going on the hunt for stories? Should I be looking to hire a research assistant so I can — I don’t see myself doing three years of interviews to write this book, but do I need stronger supporting stories in research than my own anecdotal, who I’ve worked with in my own story?” I’m struggling with like, “Okay, is just me sharing my experience enough for this with my own kind of like no science-based research behind this thing other than, “Here, this. I’ve seen this. I’ve seen this. I’ve seen this.” Where do you think — Also, when Steve wrote the War of Art he had a few years on me as far as his experience. Where do you think —  Am I like sometimes I tend to ask questions that I don’t need to be asking yet? What do you think about that? 

[0:47:03.0] SC: I think you’re correct about that, but I’ll answer it anyway. I think the arena that you’re in has scads and scads of research already done that’s easily pull-upable. Behavioral psychology is one of the most fecund sources of these little anecdotal bits that will support your tool base. Your tool base is fundamentally and psychology extremely strong, because you can use behavioral psychology to support your ideas.

It’s literally like, “Well, gees! I haven’t dropped in any psychological research here or an interview or something in about two or three tools.” Let me drop one in here. Then you pepper in 5 to 10 of them in the entire book, which isn’t going to take you all that long to do. You don’t have to be Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell is a — He loves the intrepid journalist point of view, and that sort of — It’s not like he’s hiding behind it, but that’s his authorial voice. He wants to be the guy who you hang out for the day and he tells you this incredible story of how he discovered the best way to get people to do things quickly and he’ll support it with all the people that he talk to.

Whereas Steve is more of the guy who’ll be like, “Let me tell you a story about when I was in the Marines. We had this old gunnery sergeant.” You think to yourself, “Oh, right. Yeah. Steve is telling me something personal and Malcolm Gladwell is telling me something that he dug up in a library. They’re just two different ways of building an argument. If Steve were trying to be Malcolm Gladwell, it wouldn’t work. If Malcolm Gladwell is trying to be Steve, it probably wouldn’t work either.

They discovered that sweet spot of their authorial voice, and I think you will too. I think you do in your marketing book, you’re like straightforward marketing guy, “Hey, if you don’t trust my system, no sweat. All I know is that it’s worked for me and I’m confident it’ll work for you too.” Then you lay out your system. You say what you do and it’s all very authoritative and easy going and it’s not heavy lifting. What you’re doing in this book which is a little bit different in the stretch for you is you’re bring in personal experience to place a context over very prescriptive tools that you view to get you through this very difficult five-step journey. Well, you’re like anybody else. You get stuck and you fallback and it’s all well and good to say just producing it is good in and of itself and it’s rewarding. If you don’t make up a living at it, then you’re going to have to do something else to pay the bills.

There’s this paradox of coming to terms with being a marketer and a seller of your own creative work as well as doing the creative work, I think the focus of this book is about being creative, reaching these milestones, recognizing the milestones. Letting people understand, “Hey, you had a success? It’s okay that you don’t feel so great about it. In fact, that’s a good sign. It means that you’re on this path and you have reached a point where you understand that what you thought was going to make you happy isn’t the thing, so now you have to deal with it.”

To answer your question again, no, I don’t think you need 35,000 pieces of footnotes to stick at the back of your book to support your method. I think you can use anecdotal information from your own life and well-inserted behavioral research from people like Hahnemann and [inaudible 0:51:10.2] and on and on. It’s been a growth industry over the last few years, the behavioral psychology theorists and books.

[0:51:21.1] TG: Yeah, I’ve worked with a bunch of them too.

[0:51:23.3] SC: Yeah. That’s the other thing. You’ve worked with a lot of people who can comment on this and you can make a phone call and get a nice quote in 10 minutes. It’s not going to kill you.

[0:51:33.3] TG: Where do you — Should I just take another crack at this introduction? Because what it feels like too is that I need to figure out how to tell these stories because I have to do it for the rest of the book. Is taking another crack at this introduction the way I should go? 

[0:51:49.9] SC: I think so. I think you want to — Give yourself an assignment. How can I relate this story in an active way that the reader will feel like they’re actually standing on my shoulder as I’m going through these processes? They’re the guy at the bar next to you when you’re celebrating and not celebrating. 

[0:52:07.6] TG: Yeah. That was what was hard, because when I’m writing fiction, if I run into a problem I just make something new up. I’m like, “Oh! Well, I need this to happen,” so “Oh! This is a rule in the world.” I was struggling with like — I think this has been good. I’m going to take another crack at it. 

[0:52:28.6] SC: Think of it in terms of inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis climax and resolution. The inciting incident of the beginning of your introduction is the inciting incident —

[0:52:39.8] TG: The decision.

[0:52:40.6] SC: Yeah. It’s like you are going to resign from your job and live off of your own creative work. That’s a decision that you make. One of the decisions you make when you want to tell that story is how can I engage the reader so that if they can relate to what decision I had to make. When you say that it’s March 2006, you’re giving a very specific time. You’re at a crossroads in your life. You just had a son. Think of it in terms of the complications leading to a crisis, the climax, and then the resolution. The resolution of your decision to quit your job and be creative, the resolution of that was a big, fat failure, and that is a payoff that the reader isn’t going to see coming, because most people don’t like to tell stories about when they screwed up.

The next one is you’re telling a story of how great and successful you were, and the resolution is, “I’m miserable.” That’s also counterintuitive. Remember, I always say, big ideas, you want to play with counterintuitive notions? If you can lead in your introduction what your bunch of counterintuitive notions, it’s great, because then it’s really mysterious and engaging to the reader.

Whenever you start a story and you set up the reader to believe it’s going to have a happy ending, make it have a sad ending. Whenever you start a story when it seems like everything is going to be terrible, have a happy —

[0:54:16.2] TG: That’s why I need to really — The progressive complications of the first story is everything I did to set up for success.

[0:54:24.6] SC: Yeah.

[0:54:25.6] TG: Okay. That clicked, because then I twisted at the end with, “And I failed.” Then the next story is the progressive complications is just taking off success after success after success. I had a six-month time span — Six years of whatever or struggling and then the twist is, “And I still was just as miserable as ever. In fact, more so.” 

[0:54:56.6] SC: More so. I like the way you sort of — If you did it sort of like — You know how we always have a calendar and we stick in a date, like, “Deadline. Got to have that done. Got to have that done. Got to have that done.” Then when you hit the deadlines, you go, “Oh, right. I hit the deadline. Who cares?”

If you structure your got to have a number one New York Times bestseller, that’s important for my business. Bang! Done it. Got to get more clients. Bang! Got it. Got to get more — All that stuff, and then if you go, “Check. Check. Check. Check.” Miserable. Even deeper misery than I ever experienced when I had to call my parents and ask for my mortgage money.

In fact, I’d kind of like to go back to that time when I called my parents for the mortgage money, because then all of these success would have been in my future. Yeah. Exactly. It’s that thing I always talk about, value shift in the scene. You want to start one way and end another. If you start your story telling the reader it’s going to have a happy ending, you got to turn that mother and tell it’s a bad ending at the end and then the reader is going to go, “Whoa! I thought — Oh my gosh! What’s going to happen next?”

You constantly want to push those valences; happy-sad, sad-happy, happy-sad, or life-death, death-life. Play off of the value that’s at stake. The value at stake in your book is meaning of creativity. Does creativity provide meaning or success or both? Which one — What is the value of creativity? That’s really the deep, deep question, and your reader is going to buy your book because you’re going to tell them how to be financially successful being creative. What they’re going to get at the end is the financial success is really not why you should be creating.


[0:56:55.6] 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 the show and by visiting us on iTunes 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.



The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.