Spreadsheeting the First Draft

[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the 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 the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 plus years’ experience.

In this episode, we continue working through the first draft and looking at what it takes to move from a first draft to a second draft. I’ve never done this before and it’s been a really interesting process. I don’t know what I was picturing but it was not this.

It’s been really fun to work with Shawn through this and I feel like this is where Story Grid really shines because it gives you the systematic way to move beyond your first draft right? Anybody can just bang out a first draft of something, how do you get that first draft to something that’s actually working and you’re ready to publish.

I’m excited to be diving into this part of this part of the process and I think you’re really going to enjoy this episode and especially the episodes that are coming as we continue to take this first draft and turn it into something that’s working.

Let’s dive in and get started.


[0:01:18.5] TG: So Shawn, I started working through the spreadsheet and have been surprised at what a slog it is to get through this. I kept thinking like, I’m going to sit down and bang out 10 scenes and an hour later I’ve got like four scenes that I’ve worked through.

I’m through, I’m going to put the link to the spreadsheet in the show notes because it’s on the Google drive thing. What I did is I got the spreadsheet on one tab and the to do list on the other tab and I’m through scene 25 and I have 66 “to do” items or “brain storm” items or whatever. Just like the amount of just sitting, staring at the screen, thinking about like all this stuff. I’m having fun because it’s fun to come up with new ideas but then it’s just like a slog.

[0:02:21.2] SC: It is a slog and that’s what the Story Grid spreadsheet is meant to be, it’s meant to be a very micro and meticulous thoughtful examination of the choices that you’ve made as a writer and when you do it, when you have a first draft, I quickly went through your spreadsheet and your notes, your to do list and I think this is spot on what you want to do as your own editor.

Because what you’ve done in your to do list notes is to really evaluate each scene from a very objective point of view. You’re not looking at this scenes and saying, “Oh that scene’s bad, this is terrible.” Instead, you’re saying, “Okay, well what works here, yeah, that works but what could I do to make it better?”

The notes that you have are very spot on and I also noticed that you’ve asked yourself a bunch of questions in the notes. Things like do I want to change or be more specific about the world in which the people who are plugged in live? That’s a great question, that’s a great question, that’s a question that when you answer it is going to effect every other choice that you make later on in each of the other scenes.

It’s supposed to be a slog, so good. It’s not the kind of thing that you want to hire an editor to do for you. Because the editor is going to—it’s just like anybody else and the editor’s a human being and what they’re going to want to do is do the least amount of work for the most financial reward, right? They want to do the critical mass of work that will get you the client satisfied, but they don’t want to do much more than that. Because then, they’re starting to burn their own value in order to help you.

So you, as the purchaser of an editor’s time, you only get a certain amount of their capacity, you understand that, right? It’s like anything else.

[0:04:52.1] TG: Right, yeah. I mean, I’ve been a consultant before, I know how that goes.

[0:04:56.5] SC: Yeah, exactly. You want to make the client satisfied but you don’t want to overdo it so that you can’t take on another client. Service businesses are about managing time and managing resources. You want to give the appropriate amount of value for the appropriate amount of compensation. Editors are service business contractors. They are giving you their brain and their thoughts and their ideas and their analysis and depending upon how much they’re charging you. You’re only going to get so much.

But, if you hire yourself as an editor first, you’re giving everything that you have. You’re coming up with every idea and you’re writing down every single idea. An editor is probably going to give maybe one idea every three scenes and you’ll be happy with that.

[0:05:58.5] TG: Yeah, seen one’s fine. Yeah, it’s been interesting because you know, reading it again, right, I haven’t read it straight through since I wrote it, so that’s been interesting and then there’s been entire parts that I’m like, oh yeah, I completely forgot about that. Like one little thing was, I did this pretty, for me, long explanation of like the table that she’s put on and the straps that are done around her and all this contraptions and then I never put that in another scene.

At the very end, she’s not strapped down at all. I’m like, “Oh well, I don’t remember writing that.” Yeah, it feels kind of like you know, when your kids are a baby and you’re like changing the diapers and you’re making the food and you’re like trying to get their clothes on and it’s all this really just shitty work.

[0:06:59.4] SC: Right.

[0:07:02.2] TG: If you hired a nanny to do that, you would miss so much, right? None of it is fun but yet it’s the part that you look back on with fondness somehow. That’s kind of what I was feeling the same thing of like, none of this is super fun to go through this and just churn through it and come up with ideas.

Yeah, if I gave this to somebody else, I feel like it would no longer be mine. Once I have the book the way I want it, I can bring an editor in to fix all this stuff that’s actually broken but right now, it’s still just— it’s not even— I don’t know, it’s not even what it’s going to be yet if that makes sense.

[0:07:45.1] SC: No, it does make sense. I think your analogy about having a young child is a very apt one and doing the work to tend to a young thing is exactly the kind of work that you’re doing now. And yeah, you’re right, it’s not fun but every now and then, I see in your notes something— the muse speaks to you and you come up with a really interesting idea.

For example, in one of the early scenes, you say, “Should I consider placing the people who are working for credits, in a large metropolis as supposed to this sort of vague-ish small town-ish sensibility that’s presently in the book?”

Most people would freak out at that kind of change but because this first draft that we’ve written is very much at the embryonic stage, you can certainly go back and get that stuff in there, do a couple of tweaks and before you know it, the world has completely shifted.

[0:08:59.0] TG: Yeah, I really like that idea honestly. The more I’ve thought about it, because I just kind of put it down but you know, right now in real time, more and more people are moving to bigger cities and outlying and then I was thinking like, if there is limited resources, it’s always better to batch those resources into smaller places. Anyway, I like that idea and it does, it completely changes it.

[0:09:28.0] SC: But in a good way.

[0:09:30.0] TG: Yeah, I also remember like when I was writing at the beginning, I was super tentative about being specific about anything because I didn’t really know what I was writing and you know, nine months ago I was a different writer than I am now.

Now going back through it, I feel more confident of like okay, I have a story, now how can I make it better by being more specific. I put in my— I kept like putting in my notes, I rush the scene, I rush the scene and then finally I wrote down, I’m not going to say it anymore, just assume all the scenes are rushed and then the next scene I’m like, “Okay, I rush this scene too.”

There’s so many places I’m already seeing of like, I always keep thinking of one time I was asking you about how you make these scenes longer, what do you put in here, if you’re just getting the person from point A to point B, that doesn’t take 1,500 words and you talked about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or whatever the original book was called and how you put in all of this fanciful stuff that readers love, to really ground the world.

As I’m reading through it, I see how it was just like rushing all of that for lots of different reasons.

[0:10:50.9] SC: I would say that the reasons why, I encouraged you to rush it. There’s a reason why I encourage you to rush it and it goes to again, I always say Steve Presfield but it’s very apt here, it goes to resistance and what resistance has two main sort of thrusts that hurt the writer or the creative person, and the first one is to sort of— it’s self-talk that is very negative.

“I’ll never be able to do that,” “Ah, jeez, this is terrible, I should just quit.” The negative self-talk, we all immediately recognizes as resistance but here’s the thing. Once you start to get some writing momentum, resistance starts to kick into another gear and instead of saying to you, “Oh this is never going to work,” it starts saying to you, “You really need to spend more time developing this idea in chapter three. Because what you’re writing is just so unspecific that nobody’s going to care.”

What happens is that your writing pace and your momentum to get to the finish line gets really sucked out. You lose the gas and you lose the momentum and you start going into so much detail that you lose the force from the trees and you never finish the book.

The thing that I tried to get across to you as you were writing this first draft it was, don’t’ worry about word count, just get your scenes done, get to the end as fast as you can. Because you needed to get— you needed to birth the first draft and now you can go back and think about all of those things that we just glossed over.

And a lot of times I would get comments on the Story Grid website or you know, in the comments on the podcast that, “What about this? What about that Shawn? You’re completely avoiding this, what about character development and what about this and that?”

It’s my thinking that it’s far more important to get that first draft down than it is to start obsessing about the minutia of the craft. Now we’re going to really— I mean, you’re in for a lot of craft talk and a lot of work but now, you’ve got some confidence and you know, hey, I’ve got a first draft done, I made choices, I was able to construct 60 odd scenes that have the five commandments, some are better than others, some, I’m going to have to tweak them and I’m going to have to make them better. I’m going to have to analyze them in a big global hole as well as the minutia of the story grid spreadsheet.

Now you can start thinking about the specificity of each scene and the world. You know, I wrote something a long time ago. Specificity begets universality. That’s something that people have a hard time grasping. The more specific you are in your story, the specific clothes somebody’s wearing, the specific place they’re in.

The specific place they’re in, the specific timing, the more universal it is to the reader. This is why To Kill a Mockingbird is so universal, it’s a universal story at least in the United States that speaks to anybody who reads it is moved tremendously by the book.

It’s because it’s so specific. It’s set in a small town in Alabama, it’s told from the point of view of a five year old girl who is precocious and because it’s so on the money in terms of those very specific choices, we picture it in our minds, it’s almost as if our minds are playing the movie as we’re reading it.

This is why some of the great— those great specific novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, Silence of the Lambs, The Wizard of Oz. They were so specific that the movie almost follows the very, the novel, almost to the letter. Now is the time to make all those notes about making it specific later. What you’ll see in your chapter by chapter notes and what I gleaned was that your muse, you’re listening now. You’re listening to ideas from yourself whereas before you were obsessed with just finishing. I’ll stick this in your face again but throughout the process of doing this first draft. You kept worrying about your word count, you kept freaking out. You’re like, “I don’t k now. This is only going to be 50,000 words,” and I kept saying to you, “Don’t worry about it because the word count is going to come and I wouldn’t be surprised if this goes over 100,000 words by the time you’re done.”

[0:16:31.7] TG: Yeah, I was thinking that today because I’ve already put in my notes too, I’m going to need to add a couple of scenes in the beginning. If we keep these things in the story, I got to ground them in the beginning hook and they’re not even there and so I’ve got to figure out a way to do— all this different stuff and I’ve liked too of like, I’ve gone super specific where I’m like okay, this particular thing needs to be fixed and I’ve tried to zoom out too.

Do I want to— because a couple of places I thought, what if I just completely flipped this over and look at it from a different perspective, would that make it more interesting right? Yeah, I’ve enjoyed those parts for sure, it’s just much slower than I thought it would be. I’m used to just sitting down and churning stuff out and I’m like, I keep— like I said, the amount of time just staring at my screen, not typing anything, just thinking is just long.

I do have a couple of specific questions that I’m running into. I added a column to the spreadsheet because you have the turning point, that one’s already in there and I went back and reread the chapter in Story Grid about turning on action or revelation and how you don’t want to have too many of one or the other in a row.

I added a column for turns on action or revelation. I kind of got stuck, I didn’t overthink it but I was like, I don’t know which of this it is. If somebody makes a decision, is that action or revelation?

[0:18:20.4] SC: An action is when a choice is made based upon something that happens in that moment.

[0:18:30.7] TG: There is a scene I have in the first severing where Jessie gets caught by two of the other coders and they’re going to just go ahead and get rid of her and she is trying to convince them that they should keep her alive and then it comes down to the point where they have to decide, are we going to keep her or not and they decide to keep her, right?

That’s a decision. I had to put that down, that’s an action? Okay.

[0:18:58.3] SC: A revelation…

[0:18:58.8] TG: Revelation is when new information is given.

[0:19:03.3] SC: Yes.

[0:19:04.6] TG: Right? In the scene where Jessie meets the real president for the first time and it’s in his office which when reading back through so far that’s been one of my favorite scenes, it’s also, it’s scene 24 that I put this in my notes too. Scene 24, it’s the first scene that was over 1,500 words but I’m not going to obsess about word count but I still wrote it down.

Anyway, there’s this whole buildup and then at the very end, he lets her know, if you don’t fall in line, I’m going to hurt Ernst and Alex. That would be a revelation because he’s giving her information, right?

[0:19:46.8] SC: Yes. He’s revealing that another way to look at it is revelation is a reveal of information that the character does not have. She does not understand at that moment that this man has the power and is capable of using it for negative consequences to her friends.

That’s also how they always say that character is action. That revelation is also an active way of establishing the president’s character. What kind of person hurts somebody else if he doesn’t get what he wants form a third party? That’s a despot, that’s a tyrant. That’s someone who says, if you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to hurt your sister. That’s a really terrible, negative person.

Revelation is also when Randy reveals himself to Jessie. The revelation is that he’s alive and he’s been in prison and he’s figured out a way to communicate with her. Now, in terms of— I do pick out revelation and action, the differences and the turning points— I just didn’t give it a separate column, I would just put it under turning point, I would put action and then the thing.

It’s perfectly cool to add another column because then you can just scroll exactly and see how are your scenes turning and I see you have a lot of action turns but you got to remember, at the beginning of your story, especially in a thriller or an action story, your scenes are going to turn on action, right?

Because we don’t know anything yet and if you start turning scenes on revelations, it doesn’t work because it sounds cheesy like, it’s as if somebody comes in and says, “Your brother’s in prison.” Jessie, your brother’s in prison in scene two. Would ruin the story because you’re like what? It’s too early to know that.

[0:22:15.9] TG: Yeah, I’m pretty happy actually, I’m pretty happy with my spread. I’ve got more action than revelation but they’re like peppered back and forth pretty well, there is like one where I have four runs of revelation that I thought might be a problem but overall— again, I know that’s— I’m not overly concerned about that right now because I know we’re going to be messing with all of this scenes. I’m not changing— I’ve even stopped fixing typos since you told me that last week. I’m literally not touching the scenes, I’m just making notes on everything.

That’s one of the things I’ve been pleasantly surprised is both the polarity shift and turning on action versus revelation seem to have a nice kind of rhythm to it. I’m not like six scenes of one or the other.

[0:23:07.8] SC: Right.

[0:23:08.1] TG: I’ve had a couple of scenes where like I’ve had a real trouble figuring out where it turned or like if it— I think it turned here but it just is way too soft. There is like several points in my notes where I’m like, you know, I really got to drive this home so that when it turns, we can see that or like I really got to drive this point home so that later when— because again, this early in the book, I was really soft, I didn’t know who was going to do what and what they’re going to end up doing and so I wrote that way of like “hedge in my bets” constantly.

Now that I know how all the characters are going to end up at the end, I can come back and be like, okay, I really need to hammer home this point and I really need to hammer home this point.

I saw in my writing that Alex, every time he cares for Jessie, it’s outward. He’s protecting her against other people and he tells other people what he thinks about her. Where Ernst is all directed at her. Where he is caring for her directly and he tells her how he feels about her, right?

I’m like, that’s kind of a nice juxtaposition between her friends is like one is all outward, showboat, caring and I made notes of where I can up that in different scenes too.

Yeah, it’s been fun to look at it from this viewpoint and go scene by scene like this. I think I had another question, let me see here. Yeah, I mean, there’s just a lot of stuff about, I don’t know if we’re going to keep Balum, like I’ve got to work him in in different places so I think my longest note is in regards to him and what kind of role he’s playing and you know, what he wants and just trying to dump everything that comes into my head into the spreadsheet so we can make decisions later.

[0:25:09.9] SC: Yeah, that’s exactly the purpose of this first round of editing is to do exactly that. Just pile on as many questions and ideas into a to do list that you can. I also like the way you put, each question is separate. You’re not just having a one run on paragraph for each chapter. You’re literally, each one has its own little box.

[0:25:42.5] TG: Okay.

[0:25:42.9] SC: Which is great. Because what’s going to happen the next stage which we’ll get into after you’ve done sort of this vomiting of ideas and analysis of possibility, is to look at a couple of things. You know, I hesitate to go into it now because I think it’s great you’re in a great place right now to be really anal retentive about each and every scene and each and every problem or opportunity that— to take it to the next level of analysis too soon could just confuse you.

I’m a great believer in really choosing a particular focus and staying with that particular thought. You know, psychologist an psychiatrist have done a lot of research and the notion that you can do more than one thing at once is a lie. There’s no such thing as multitasking.

Every time you change your point of view form micro to macro or macro to micro, there’s a pause that you literally have to rejigger and reboot your brain. If you keep going back and forth, and back and forth, what happens is you get exhausted and you’re incapable of doing either operation with any great clarity.

I always think, stay focused on either the micro or the macro and when you get completely obliterated and you can’t do one or the other and you get stomped, then you step back, you change and you switch to the other thing. Right now what you’re doing is the micro and the micro in Story Grid spread sheeting is right, it’s very meticulous and it can feel like a real slog and it takes 20 times longer than you think it will.

[0:28:03.2] TG: Yeah, it was funny because I was talking to one of the people that came to our workshop about it and she was like, “Well how long is this taking you?” I was like, “Probably like three hours to get to this point,” and then like I was working on it and I look back and I’m like, “I’ve been sitting here for an hour and 15 minutes working on this, I’ve gotten through four scenes.”

I’m like, “Oh God, this is taking way longer than I thought it was taking.” Yeah, it’s one of those — it feels, it’s grinding but it feels good, it’s like a good grind, you know? It feels like I’m accomplishing something because I’m getting to look at it in a way that I wouldn’t be able to see it if I didn’t do this.

[0:28:48.3] SC: Well, this is exactly the thing I go through when I Story Grid spreadsheet, pride and prejudice or I’m working on the Wizard of Oz now and it’s only a 40,000 word novel, the original Wizard of Oz and I can get through maybe, I actually stopped myself after doing three to four a day.

I usually say to myself, “Okay, I’m going to block out an hour and a half and I set an alarm on my iPhone and I’m going to stop after I do an hour and a half of this intense work.” I usually can do three to four scenes in that amount of time, because what I’m doing is not just doing the spreadsheet but I’m picking out the inciting incident, the progressive complications, the crisis, the climax and the resolution in each and every scene so that— I’m a great believer in checking my own work and all of my theories aren’t so great if they don’t hold up by looking at some of the classic literature.

Also, the Wizard of Oz is probably one of the best examples of the hero’s journey that you’re going to come across. I’m going to do a Story Grid edition of the Wizard of Oz and I hope to have that up soon and so people can check it out.

You know, I don’t like doing it either and you know, a lot of people freak out when they hear how much I charge as a freelance editor and the reason why I charge so much is because it really sucks the life out of you. When you’re doing this meticulous work, you can’t help but have a lot of thoughts about it.

Why did Baum do that that way? Why did he choose a scarecrow? How did he come up with the idea of the lion and the tin man and the scarecrow? What are those in terms of psychological theory?

All this stuff, why did he choose a young girl? Who is the wizard of Oz, what does he want? Why are this people wearing green tinted glasses? All of those questions come to me when I’m story gridding a book and when you’re story gridding your own, that is gold man, that is the stuff, this is a way to get the muse to talk to you — is by doing this blue collar, soggy, marine and the hinterland work.

So, you know, keep going.

[0:31:35.7] TG: All right. I’m going to try to finish this up because I’m a few scenes away from halfway done so I’m going to try to finish this up by next week so that we can move on to whatever’s next and keep going here because, again, I feel good about being able to move into a new realm just for the listener’s sake. As we were getting towards the end of my book there I’m like man, we got to do something new or this is — we are going to lose everybody.

No, I’m excited and this is — I feel like too, you know, as I’ve learned Story Grid, obviously has made my writing better but I feel like this is the point I wanted to get, to really put this stuff you teach into practice of taking a first draft and turning it into something that really works.

This is the part I’ve been excited about is to really see — because there was so much stuff out there about how to write a great story, right? There’s all kinds of books, all kinds of systems, all kinds of courses which, some are a few are good and most of them suck. None of them teach you how to take what you’ve created and turn it into something better.

That’s what I’m excited to dig in to this part because I already, like I’ve put in my notes, I’ve already come up with things that I think are going to make it a lot more interesting. You know, if we do end up like setting the beginning hook in an aversion of New York City, that’s way more interesting than nondescript town, you know?

[0:33:21.0] SC: Exactly.

[0:33:24.2] TG: Anyway, I’m excited about it and so I’m going to try to get this done and then we’ll go from there next week.

[0:33:31.5] SC: Sounds good.


[0:33:32.5] 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.

Also, in the show notes for this episode and last week’s episode, there’s a link to the Google Spreadsheet if you want to follow along as I spreadsheet out the book and see where I’m at and all my notes and everything. All of that is online for you to see. The link is 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

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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.