Talent, Inspiration and Blue Collar Work

Brokeback Mountain on the New Yorker website

Annie Proulx’s prologue (that wasn’t in the New Yorker)

Anne’s Foolscap and Spreadsheet

Anne’s Beat Breakdown

Anne’s Crosswalk Document

Lee Wind’s YA Novel Queer As a Five Dollar Bill

Jeff and Will’s Big Gay Fiction Podcast

Anne Hawley is the author of Restraint, a love story set in 19th Century London. She’s a Story Grid Certified Editor specializing in literary and historical fiction, and is the producer of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable podcast.

[0:00:00.5] AH: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Masterwork Experiment. Before we get started today, I wanted to let listeners know about Story Grid Live, a gathering of writers serious about the craft of story. It’s happening September 13th and 14th, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Story Grid has grown into a movement, followed by tens of thousands of writers from all over the globe who are serious about their craft. This weekend event is going to be full of information, inspiration and expertise along with some food, fun and nerdery with your fellow Story Gridders. Story Grid Live 2019 is the place to be for writers looking to deepen and grow their expertise in the craft of storytelling.

It’s time to step out of your routine, to spend two days alongside other writers and storytellers like you. This is a chance not only to learn, but to connect with other amazing writers. Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl will be presenting along with special guest, Steven Pressfield. I’ll be there and I hope you will too. Ffind out more at storygrid.com/live. That’s storygrid.com/live.

Now, on with our regular introduction. My name is Ann Hawley and I’m an experienced novelist trying to ground my craft more solidly in Story Grid methodology. I have agreed to be the lab rat in the masterwork experiment, which Shawn Coyne is conducting as a test of his latest writing and editing methods.

In the masterwork experiment, Shawn and I have analyzed Brokeback Mountain, down to the beat level. Last week, I went away feeling discouraged by the requirement to kill one of my characters. Many conversations and much soul-searching later, I came up with an outline for a story that I could live with, but it felt like  a Franken story, assembled from somebody else’s parts. I didn’t see any way to give it life. Shawn’s response to this conundrum is a rousing speech on talent, inspiration and the blue-collar work of the writer that’s really the only thing the muse respects and resistance hates.

In this episode, I deliver my outline and my new point of view narrative device and face the task of roughing out a draft in the next three weeks. Please note that there’s a bit more strong language here than you usually find on this podcast. Put on your white coat, safety goggles and earphones if you’re listening around little kids, and step into the laboratory for episode 8 of the masterwork experiment.


[0:02:34.5] AH: Shall we get started with episode 8 of the masterwork experiment?

[0:02:38.2] SC: Sure, sure. Let’s do it.

[0:02:40.6] AH: Today and only two more after this to go, and I have spent the most difficult writing week that I can remember in a long time, struggling with what to do. Now you’ll see that I didn’t really give you a lot of writing this week. I gave you an outline and we can talk about that in a sec. What I struggled and struggled with and I was talking to all of my writer friends and all of my gay friends, a lot of which overlap there, and really fighting this idea that I have to write the same story as Annie Proulx.

Well, after a lot of discussion yesterday, I got this insight about how I could do it in a way that I could live with, right? I sent you that outline. We can talk about it. The problem is, all my anxiety about the project went away when I came up with this notion, this outline that I have and my point of view narrative device. The spark went out of it. It’s like, I don’t care about it. I can do it. I don’t care about it anymore.

I have this feeling that I’m – It’s like, I’m a journey worker, I can build something from the parts that I’ve been given, but it feels lifeless and I feel I’m just taking parts and constructing a story robot, like Franken story. I’m concerned about turning it into a real boy, making it something that I feel that – how do we give it life?

[0:04:05.4] SC: Okay, that’s a really great question and it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for 25 years. I can give you some thoughts about it. I think it really boils down to this two-part global gestalt that we all have when we talk about art, and art being anything from a story, to a statue, to a painting, to how you raise your kids, or how you deal with your partner, whatever.

There’s two schools of thought about it. The first school is that there’s a thing that’s called talent. Talent is this thing, this supernatural touching of one shoulder, or something upon birth, or prior to birth in some supernatural spiritual world, that once you come into yourself as a human being on earth, this “talent” will start to create things. The way it creates things is through something called inspiration.

An inspiration is an irrational force. Meaning, that the artist lets themselves connect with a higher realm of being, and that higher realm of being enters into the embodiment of the person and directs them towards creating a work of art. It’s almost this theory that art comes through the vessel of the artist, but the artist has no control over the inspiration, or the supernatural element that flows through them.

This is this romantic idea that a lot of us were raised with and I think a lot of people today still believe in to some degree. I think there’s some truth to it. I really do, because I think the way things occur to us and the way we get inspired and the way we get passionate is a mystery, right? We don’t understand where those thoughts and ideas that come to us that are what are called insights, we don’t know where the insights come from.

Like the Greeks of your, the concept of the muse is a really cool one, because it gives an identity to a force that is inexplicable. Okay, so that’s one part of the artistic creation mythic model. Now the other part of the inspirational artistic creation is that of the willful workhorse model. This is where no one has any talent and all you have to do is follow particular recipes for art. If you’re able to create a feature list, if you will, of the structural, organizational, foundational structures of particular works of art and then just mimic that structure that you will be able to create a work of art. That is in many ways the description of this masterwork experiment, right?

It’s an experiment, because we’re testing the concept of blue-collar work/creation, where someone with a will, that would be you, works with somebody who also has a will, that would be me, to pull out the structural, functional organization of a masterwork, which is Brokeback Mountain.

Okay, so let me just take a quick sidestep here and explain something else that’s cool and interesting. I heard this from somebody a long time ago and it’s stuck in my mind and it’s very, very helpful. If I ask you to explain to me what a bird is, chances are you’re going to give me a feature list. You’re going to say, “Well, a bird has two legs, it has wings, it has a beak, it flaps its wings and that’s how it generates enough force to be able to fly into the air. It has baby birds and etc., etc.” You give me a long list of the anatomy and the features of what it is to be a bird.

If I were some scientist, I would say to myself, “Oh, great. Okay, let me go get all these materials. I’ll get some wings. I’ll get some feathers. I’ll get a beak. I’ll get some morphological matter that I can meld together and then all I have to do is put all that stuff together on a tray, throw it up in the air and it will start to fly.” We both know that doesn’t happen, right? Because the feature list neglects to offer an explanation or a way to bring about the gestalt of a bird, which means that super-secret, self-organizational thing, or force within a being that gives it the ability to grow and change.

Okay, so what we do is we have these two bodies of thought. We’ve got the artistry as supernatural phenomena thinkers and then we’ve got the no such thing as talent thinkers who are all about blue-collar work. Now what I suggest is that it’s neither one or the other. It’s akin to science and the humanities coming together in a consilience that provides for all of the missing materials.

The Story Grid sensibility and methodology is obviously skewed to the scientific blue-collar, no talent paradigm. I believe that that’s a great place to start. The reason being that just as we can’t really understand what gives us insight, we don’t really understand what attracts us to particular activities, right? For whatever reason, Anne is attracted to stories.

[0:10:44.2] AH: Yeah. God, help me.

[0:10:46.3] SC: God help you, right? When you were born, you probably heard stories and you’re like, “That’s my thing.” You didn’t pinpointed exactly until you came into yourself and then you were probably like, “You know what? I really want to explore stories. I’m going to have to figure out some way to do that.”

The proclivity to being a story enthusiast was something that you are inherently born with, in your case. Now other people are born with wanting to be a great golfer, or wanting to be the finest engineer. I think each one of us has this clue within us. The way to discover that proclivity is to just think about what you enjoy and what fascinates you. I think in many ways, that’s a supernatural gift. That is your “in my estimation, you are born with that talent.” Now whether or not you can create works of art in your chosen field is really up for the debate and you can do one of two things; you can either sit back and say, “Well, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I’m going to sit here and commune with the universe.” If I’m a “good person,” or the gods are smiling upon me, maybe the muse will descend upon me in some inspirational moment that will allow me to spit out a work of art in a feverish flurry of hard work that’s extremely satisfying. Okay, that’s one way to do it.

The other way to do it is you know what? I’m going to find out the feature list of my desire. What is inside a story? What is the structural functional organizational structure of story? How can I work through that, so that I can start practicing how to create that thing? Perhaps while I’m in the process of working through that analytical and blue-collar work, perhaps as I’m doing that, I may reach some inspiration that comes to me from God knows where. Perhaps, that will allow me to continue on the path that I’ve chosen, which is to write wonderful stories.

That’s my point of view about creation and story creation, is that when we are working, when we are applying our blue-collar ethic to our work, we’re getting in the chair every day, we’re cranking through our words, we’re thinking about our problems, the little things that we have to solve, those are the moments that Steve Pressfield says, when the muse sort of, hey, there’s Anne again. I’m going to check tomorrow and see if she’s there again. Then there she is again. Maybe I got five minutes. Maybe I’ll sit down for a minute and watch what she’s doing. In that five minutes, guess what happens to Anne? Anne enters a flow state.

A flow state is a very scientifically researched and true phenomena, factual phenomena in which a person enters a mindful state, in which they are able to create and solve problems through multiple insights over time in their specific skill sets. It’s that moment when the WNBA player hits the 35 foot jump shot at the end of the game to win the game. She knows, “Just get me the ball. Somebody’s got to get me the ball. I’m going to win the game for us.” 

They give her the ball and guess what? She’s in flow and she hits the shot and they win the game. She’s known it all along, because she’s operating at this level of creativity applying all of the skills that she’s developed over X number of years learning how to play basketball, learning how to dribble, learning how to jump, learning on a pass. All that stuff comes together in this beautiful moment when she is able to solve that pretty much virtually impossible idea of shooting a ball 35 feet through the air through a net to win a game under tremendous pressure.

The flow state is where we all want to become and where we want to be comfortable, because that’s the time when this spiritual force, the muse starts to help us. What does this have to do with the fact that Anne’s lost her mojo for this story? Well, I can only say this. You lost your mojo for a week. You might lose it for a month, who knows? I do know this to be true; if you continue to apply your blue-collar work to the problem at hand, what you will discover is that you will get back that love. I got to say this Anne, when I read your outline and I came up and I read your solution to that narrative device problem, I got goose bumps.

[0:16:08.9] AH: Awesome.

[0:16:10.1] SC: I’m like, “She nailed it. That’s exactly it.” Now here could be – I’m not trying to go Sigmund Freud on you, but this might be something for you to consider or think about. I could be completely off the mark, but just take it in and do with it what you wish. Sometimes, what happens when we get a very, very keen, delicious, incredible insight that solves quite a number of our problems, we fall into a pit. That pit is, “Oh, that’s not a problem anymore. These other problems don’t seem that big anymore. I already solved a big problem. Do I really just want to go through the motions of whatever, executing this idea?”

You hit this place and this is where resistance doubles down on your ass. It can kill you, because it’s going to tell you lies. It’s going to sing this song that’s total bullshit to you. It’s going to tell you, “This is really isn’t that good. It’s fine. By the time I get it done, I guess it’ll be okay. Is it really what I want to be doing with my life, is executing this pseudo idea that I’m – Let’s face it, I’m really just basically ripping off Annie Proulx. I guess, whatever I create is really never going to measure up to that anyway,” and on and on and on and on. I’m saying, I’m projecting something onto you that may or may not be true, but the reason I’m doing it is because it happens to me all of the time.

[0:17:59.7] AH: It’s pretty accurate really. You’re pretty accurate there. Yeah.

[0:18:02.8] SC: Okay then. Well, you got to name the monster, so that you can fight the monster. That’s a – excuse the expression, an MF of a monster, because it’s so fucking smart, isn’t it? It’s so rational. It’s so insightful. You really want to start believing it. Guess what it also gets you to do, to stay the same. It gets you to not change yourself at all. You get to be who you always were and it sucks to change. It’s hard.

A lot of the people that you love don’t like you anymore when you change. That’s just the facts. That’s what really hit me in the War of Art is when I was working with Steve on that and he wrote about, “Hey, you know what? Resistance just doesn’t come as a metaphysical force. Resistance comes from external forces too. It comes from your drinking buddies who are mad that you’re not coming out to the bar on Thursday nights because you’re writing.” That stuff can really, really make you stay the same.

It’s a lesson that Steve talks about all the time in the War of Art and he’d be the first one to say, “Man, I succumb to resistance a million times a day, because it’s just so smart and rational and I believe it to be true.” The point I think of this whole resistance idea is that there are forces in physics. There are resistance forces, there are constraints, right? 

If I want to get to the store to buy a jug of milk, there’s a lot of things that are constraining me from doing that. I have to get the car key, I have to get in the car, I have to draw to the – There are these constraints that are trying to keep us from moving forward, from applying energy, from creating causal effects that can change the world. That is this monster that Steve has wisely called resistance.

When we find ourselves in these places where the rational, the reasonable is telling us, “Stop. Don’t do it. This is bullshit. Don’t create this thing, because it’s just crap. It’s just some stupid exercise that who cares?” That’s when you know you’re doing good work. That’s when you know it’s time to double down and kick that monster in the ass, because that is what that monster is doing to you right now. It’s saying, “Anne, this is dumb. This isn’t really a truthful story. 

This is you manufacturing something from a recipe. That’s bullshit Anne. You want to be a real artist. You don’t want to be one of these hack artists,” right? You want to be that person who has this incredible insight that comes from God knows where, and you create this incredible, original thing that nobody has ever seen before and you get the Nobel Prize.

Now I know that’s really going out to the outer limits of it, but that is a force that we all have within us. It’s not a good force. It’s not in it for us to win it. It’s in it to keep us doing nothing, sitting on our ass and not trying, not creating something. When push comes to shove, you got to ask yourself the question, if I listen to this voice, will it aid in the creation of something that has never been done before, or made before, or will it destroy the process by which something original and beautiful could possibly make it into this realm of reality that we call life? 

If it’s the first thing, you got to say, “Oh, cool. Now I know, I’ve got to finish this fucker. I’m just going to plow through it. As this thing is telling me I’m an idiot and stupid for doing it, I know, that means I’m getting closer and closer to something that’s really going to change me, that’s really going to be good for me, that’s really going to make me a better artist.”

Whenever you hear that voice telling you, “Abandon, abandon ship, run away.” That’s just a lying sack of shit trying to stop you from creating something that only Anne can create. I can’t create what you’ve created. I can’t get near it. There’s no way I would have come up with that insight that you came for your narrative device. 

Guess what that insight did? It destroyed all of that bullshit in your head where you said, “Oh, I don’t want to do a story like Annie Proulx, because I think it’s politically incorrect for this and that and the other thing,” and you had really great reasons not to do it. Guess what that narrative device solved? That problem, didn’t it?

That narrative device you came up with solved that problem, because what it lends itself to is saluting and thanking those wonderful people who had the courage to be themselves, who died for that. That is incredible. If you don’t want to do it for you, you got to do it for me. You’ve got to finish this story, because I want to know how you pull it off, because I know it’s going to be great.

[0:23:58.9] AH: Well, I do feel I can pull it off. I mean, I feel I have an outline and I can do it. I just wanted to mention that I was in that it has to be inspired, or I can’t do it phase for many, many years of my life, which is the reason I’ve only ever written three novels, because I’m waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s wonderful when it does. I mean, there’s no question about it. The reason I came to Story Grid was because I wanted to solve that problem. 

The tools that I have gained so far from Story Grid certainly help solve that problem of waiting for inspiration. I’m still a little worried about whether this thing is going to have any life in it, or whether I’m going to feel it has any life in it when I’m done with it.

[0:24:42.8] SC: Well, it’s actually not – I don’t mean to be harsh, but I really don’t care what you think about the life in the story. That’s for me, the reader to – I truly believe, as strange as this sounds because I talk about people applying their will and their – not that I really have much belief in will, but I truly believe that once the art has been created, it’s no longer the creator’s property. I see people go up to Steve and look at him like he’s God, because the stories that he has created in his life have been so meaningful to them that they just can’t believe that this person walks on earth.

Steve is very uncomfortable with it. I think, most people who create stuff are, because deep down, they know, “Hey, I can’t really take credit for this. In fact, your reaction to it was not my intention. The intentions that I had when I wrote the story are often very run-of-the-mill. I needed a paycheck. I needed to hit my deadline where I didn’t get paid. That’s how I came up with that inspiring ending payoff that you think is world-shattering. Please don’t associate me the artist with the work of art that was so meaningful to you.”

They’re not discounting the power of the story, but they’re dissociating themselves from the things life of its own. It’s that thing in the bird that makes it fly, right? We get to borrow that juju, or mystical stuff when we’re in the act of creation. Occasionally, it comes to us and we run to the bank with that stuff. We deposit that as quickly as we possibly can, because we know it could go away. 

Once that work of art has been created, it’s no longer the artist’s property. You’re sort of like, you get to put your name on it and you get to see it go into the world and you kiss it goodbye and you say, “That’s one of my children. God bless you. I hope you live long and prosper.”

You can’t then say, “Well, I really didn’t think there was much life in it. I’m glad you got something out of it, you loser,” right? Because it’s not for you to say. It’s not your deal anymore, right? It’s arrogant to say, “Oh, well I know better than you, because I got insights when I was working real hard that made me create this thing that you think is cool.” Well, that’s nice but really, it wasn’t that big of a deal.

[0:27:37.9] AH: Right. You read it wrong.

[0:27:40.0] SC: Yeah, you read it wrong. Yeah, I didn’t mean that at all. Yeah. I mean, the intersection between the blue-collar work, or the mechanized work, or the Story Grid structural, functional, organizational, analytical work and the mystical gestalt drop-in of insight, bridging between those two worlds is very difficult, but it happens in my estimation far more frequently, it’s the deliberate practice of reaching the flow state.

As writers and storytellers, the way to deliberately practice reaching a flow state requires lots of reading, lots of thinking, lots of analyzing and lots of execution. It’s not just, “Oh, well read these 20 screenplays and then that structural organization will seep into your brain accidentally, then write a screenplay and then all of that stuff will just come to you automatically.” 

No, that’s not how it works. You actually have to apply your analytical scientific reason, and we all have that. You have to apply that to these master works, so that you go, “Oh, wow. Look at the way she did that. Oh, that twist. Look at that.” Then you go, “You know what? I’m going to use this as my boiler plate to get me going. It’s my prime. This is the prime to my creative pump. I’m going to use that and here I go.”

Yeah, bang, bang, bang. Yeah, I don’t know if that works. Oh, I got to solve that problem. Oh, what about that? Yeah, that works. That changes everything though. You know what? It better if I change it that way. You’re making changes in your story that do not align with Brokeback Mountain. However, they align with Anne, and they abide thematically what Brokeback Mountain was all about. That prime created the ability for you to bridge between your analytical mind into this netherworld that provided you insights that helped you create this outline.

Now your outline is only an outline. Until you execute that outline, it’s not really anything yet. It’s a big ball of chaotic potential that gives you direction. You can’t really say there’s no life in your story where there won’t be life in your story, because you haven’t executed it yet. I guarantee you, once you start executing it, you’re going to hit a flow state again. What happens in the flow state is you’ll get insights. When you apply those insights into the story, that’s what gives it the gestalt, that’s what gives it the life, that’s the bird flight that you will inject into a story that you’re concerned has none.

The blue-collar process of just being a workman-like person, who shows up and does her job is the way to create flow. If you don’t show up or you quit, the muse goes, “You know what? I’m going to come back in a year. Let’s let Anne go through her thing and then in a year, I’ll check in on her again.” When I say Anne, I’m saying all of us students. This happens to me all the time. 

You know what? You never get used to it. When it happens, say 20, 30 times in your life, you start to go, “Oh, okay. It’s you again, right? All right, I know what you’re about.” The delay starts to shorten. Something that would upend me for two years started to upend me for a year and a half. Now I can usually pull myself out of something within a week. A week, that’s pretty good. I’ll take a week, as opposed to a year and a half, or two years. That’s where you are in. You’re in that place.

You just need to, when these things start to surface for you, you got to put a label on them and go, “Oh, that’s the bullshit guy. That’s the bullshit guy. Hi. How you doing? You can hang out here for a week and then you got to go. You know what? I’m going to do something else for a week and then I’m coming back to my stuff. Your ass is out of here by then.” 

That works, because you can talk yourself through through self-examination of why you’re resisting. Why am I resisting this process? Is the process stupid? Well, let me think. I don’t think Shawn’s stupid. I don’t think the Story Grid is stupid. In the two, three years I’ve been doing it, it’s been helpful. Maybe it’s not perfect, but chances are there’s a good probability that it actually might be helpful.

Should I go to the end of the line with this thing, or not? Well, the probability that it might be helpful is pretty good. The probability of it not being helpful isn’t as good as the probability of it being good. Just as a rational human being, I Anne, I’m just going to take it to the end of line and see what happens. If at the end of the line I’ve created something that I’m not very proud of, I can put that in my I’m not very proud of this, but it was important to write anyway drawer. That’s what I think about the problem.

[0:33:34.3] AH: Okay. Now that was inspiring. Do we want to look at the outline I have in mind, or the point of view narrative device that I’ve come up with? How should we proceed here?

[0:33:51.2] SC: Yeah, I’d like to, because I think you need to hear just how insightful and interesting this is, because you need to hear it from a third party that you respect, telling you that you’re on the right track. Why don’t you just give me the general highlights of your global outline? Now the way we left the story the last time is that Matthew and Josiah, is it – yeah, Josiah, right?

[0:34:18.3] AH: Mm-hmm.

[0:34:18.8] SC: Okay. They have been given the task of taking the hunting horses to the master’s prime hunting spot somewhere in the highlands or somewhere. They’ve gotten on the coach and have set out on that journey. That’s where we are. Then what you did in your outline is you went a little step by step general ideas about what happens next. Why don’t you walk me through what happens next?

[0:34:50.0] AH: Okay, well in trying to follow generally the outline of Brokeback Mountain, I needed to have them run into problems with the job, right? They have trouble on the job. My thinking is that thematically, I want to change the dirt and earth equation with Ennis and the lightning and fire equation with Jack, to water with Mattie and air was, I’m going to say the other two of the four medieval elements there. Josie’s more air and Mattie is more water, okay?

What that does is on the way, I want them to encounter a flood, or a flooding river that causes the horses – one of the horses to be somewhat damaged. I didn’t want to have the horse killed, because then probably, Josiah would also be killed. We weren’t quite ready for that this early in the story. The horse is worth way more than Josiah to these people.

They encounter floods and they’re stopping along the way. This is not wilderness, so I’m having them go – having very little money that they’ve been given to make this journey. They have to stop at low taverns and places to sleep along the way. It’s about a three-week journey with the way they’re traveling.

Eventually, their travels get them to a place where they can be alone together, forced to share a bed, right? We have to get that scene. They become intimate. When they arrive at their destination, they continue their intimacy. This is like a hunting lodge that the rich guy owns. They continue their intimacy, but they have to be very secret about it. One of the difficulties that I’m facing is the timeline of Brokeback Mountain is more than 20 years, and I’m not able to find a way to make my timeline that long, so I’m thinking a much shorter overall timeline and I haven’t worked that out yet.

[0:36:36.8] SC: Let me just jump in there. A couple of things that I love and some thoughts that may or may not be helpful, what I love is in the outline that you had sent me, there’s this mention that in these lower level ins, it was just a big bed, right? If there are four guys, four guys would take the big bed and all four of them would sleep nose-to-tail, or whatever it is. It reminded me of in Moby Dick.

[0:37:04.0] AH: Yeah, exactly. Right? Yeah.

[0:37:06.7] SC: I always love that scene, because he has to sleep with Queequeg. Ishmael has to sleep with Queequeg and it’s this coming in together of the civilized person with the “natural world and the unnatural world” together in one bed. The notion of these two guys, yeah, and it’s just a matter of course. I also love that the first couple of times, they have to sleep with some third party stranger, which is really uncomfortable and strange. That’s the beauty of the choice of time period that you’re using. I think you could really make a lot of hay with all those details. I’m sure you will.

The thing about the elapsing of time, I don’t want to jump too far ahead, but you do mention later on just – you had written a bunch of little insightful ideas that might work, was this notion that the two lovers discover each other, they fall in love, the lightning strikes, there’s no question that these guys are locked spiritually in every possible way. 

They’re at the hunting lodge. They have to sneak off. They successfully do it. Then you mentioned that maybe, the lord of the manor of sorts or whoever it is, he takes on the Joe Aguirre role and perhaps, he catches them without them having the knowledge that he’s caught them.

At that point, then you could have this natural break and you do suggest that later on. Then you mention, like maybe Mattie comes with that guy every year and Josiah loses his position. He ends up being caretaker of the hunting lodge in the off-seasons, or whatever. Over a period of time, Mattie and Josiah could actually see each other, because Mattie accompanies other hunting parties to that lodge every year or so. It’s almost the Jack Twist and Ennis camping trips that happen seasonally. That could be an idea.

I do know that you probably – you need that break moment, where Josiah has to run away into the armed forces, which I think is a great idea. Anyway, that’s one way to do time. Or you could do it another way. I’m just repeating an idea that you had in the outline itself, but it could work for you. Don’t roll that out.

[0:39:46.4] AH: I can stretch it out a little, but I can’t stretch the army life to 20 years, just historically. That’s not going to work. I’m going to have him gone for something like three or four years to the Iberian Peninsula.

[0:39:58.3] SC: That’s perfect. That’s perfect.

[0:40:01.0] AH: Then when he comes back, instead of the postcard marked ‘deceased’, he’s going to read, or have read to him rather, because he’s illiterate, a newspaper article. This is historical. I have one that I can actually use, that describes  the execution by the state for the crime of sodomy of his dear beloved, Matthew.

[0:40:21.9] SC: Here’s an idea that you can throw out if you don’t like. Okay, so Josiah comes back from war and he’s really, really shattered in all ways. He says to himself, “The only thing that’s really going to make my life better is to be with Mattie.” He shows up, right, at the house. Who is there, but that asshole lord who broke them apart, right? He goes, “Hey, so who you looking for there, buddy?” “I was just wondering if Master Mattie’s here.” Then the lord, because this is what nasty, horrible people do, will read him the article.

[0:41:02.9] AH: Yeah, that would be good.

[0:41:04.5] SC: So that he can feed off of his complete destruction. That is the torment of antagonistic forces that is, you can actually show. I mean, I find it in myself. Sometimes, I love delivering bad news, because you get this – this is a secret thrill like, “Yeah, how are you going to handle that shit?”

[0:41:35.9] AH: Now I know something about you, Shawn. I didn’t hope you for.

[0:41:39.9] SC: Yes, you do.

[0:41:41.2] AH: Oh, dear.

[0:41:44.9] SC: Yeah, be careful. Be careful. I’m an unreliable narrator. No, I’m just kidding. Anyway, that’s a thought. It’s probably on the nose. You probably will throw it away, or it could work. Who knows? Anyway, so you see how it can get exciting when you start, like you put these chess pieces on the board and then it’s fun to move them around and see what might be able to happen. It’s all about setups and payoffs, right? 

If you set up this super-duper antagonistic force like Joe Aguirre, like Annie Proulx, wisely she doesn’t need to bring him back, but it might serve as a solution for you, because there’s no postcard that’s going to be delivered, right? You have to fix the deceased postcard problem in your story, because there’s no way Josiah is going to get a postcard, because they just didn’t even have an address at that point.

[0:42:40.9] AH: Right, right. He can’t read and they couldn’t even afford the postage. In those days, the recipient paid the postage and all kinds of reasons why that couldn’t happen. Also, I wanted to take away the individual, unknown gang of guys, the homophobic murder guys, right? Put that on the state, because it was a capital crime. That also limits the historical time period.

I have to triangulate on this, because the last execution for sodomy happened X year, whatever, or earlier than you might imagine. Thank, God. They stopped doing it. I have to fit that in with the war. I have some historical stuff that I have to sort out.

[0:43:23.0] SC: The other way around that is just a false accusation of some other crime that is just complete crap.

[0:43:28.9] AH: Oh, I can do that, but one of the parameters was some form of hate crime.

[0:43:35.7] SC: Well, the only reason why Ennis knows that Jack was killed in a hate crime was because he sussed it out in his own mind, right? Because the news that was delivered to him was Jack – it was an accident, he was changing his tire, somebody hit his car while he was changing the tire, which crushed him and caused a big mess. That’s just a big convoluted story for a lie, because he was disfigured brutally by a gang of men hitting him with a tire iron.

You could use that same idea, where the lord reads the thing about Mattie being hanged for some crime. Then he says something, “Well, we both know that Mattie was never a thief.” That could trigger in Josiah, “Oh, my God. They killed him because of who he was.” That could be a solution to it, where it’s a wink-wink, nod-nod with lord goes, “I remember you, Josiah. I remember, you and Mattie were pretty good buddies up in the barn. Let me tell you what happened to Mattie. I have this article. Let me read it to you.” I’m really making bad dialogue.  That’s okay. The first draft always sucks.

Then he could read the article. Then as it’s sinking in that his beloved is dead, then the guy can really stick in the knife and say, “You and I both know that Mattie wasn’t hung for that. I mean, you and I both know he was never a thief, or he was never that person.” Then he kicks him out of the house. That could be a solution, or not.

Obviously, what we’re dealing with is these really nice payoffs in ways that are not the same as Brokeback Mountain, right? My point is that by using Brokeback Mountain to crime the creative pump, here you go, here Anne went and came up with all of these really interesting twists and solutions that are not exactly the same as Brokeback Mountain. I suspect by the time you’re done with this, a lot of people will read this story and won’t have – won’t even make a connection to Brokeback Mountain.

[0:45:53.5] AH: Well, that would be something. I should mention too, that for people who were reading along with what I’ve posted so far, I had a prologue scene where Mattie seems to own a house in a farm and is rescuing cabbages, all that’s out the window. That’s pretty typical actually in my experience of writing. You start with things like that and then some things just go out the window.

[0:46:13.1] SC: Oh, absolutely. I’ll let you keep going, because I think the narrative device will help you really book in this story in a very good way.

[0:46:23.9] AH: Well, what I thought a lot about was that one thing that happened is even servants had servants in those days. There’s a huge servant class. I’m thinking that during the time that Mattie and Josiah are working at the hunting lodge, there’s a young girl, very young girl that you get as young as 11 or 12-years-old who’d be like a kitchen maid, or scullery maid, just maid of all work type of person, and they’re kind to her.

Many, many years later this girl is now an old woman. In my heart, I like to believe she’s a lesbian and she has noticed that some nephew, or young boy that she has at some familiar association with is making eyes at other boys, and so she’s telling him the story of Matthew and Josiah and that they managed to find a way to love each other and that it’s probably okay for you too, if you’re careful. Unfortunately, there does have to be this message of if you’re careful. What I’m thinking is this is a story told by an LGBTQ person to an LGBTQ person. I think that’s really important.

[0:47:34.2] SC: Yeah, I think it’s wonderful. It’s one of those stories that provides the next generation the understanding that things, it’s not easy, but we are making little tiny strides. To have that hopeful controlling idea underneath this tragedy is a really, really great idea, because the trick in love story is when it ends tragically with one of the lovers dying, it’s often very difficult for readers to take away anything deeper and meaning than the loss of a love. Having that, I think really works.

It becomes part of a tradition of respecting the variety of mankind, or womankind, or person kind through all eras, to really, really start to establish that this is not a new-ish phenomenon. This is humanity and we need to tell the stories of that sector of humanity, so that people feel more connected.

[0:48:48.3] AH: I was listening to an episode of the Big Gay Fiction Podcast the other day and they had a guest by the name of Lee Wind, who has written a novel called Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill. A novel about a young boy who discovers that in a Lincoln Museum, that Abraham Lincoln may in fact have had a male lover and wrote passionate love letters to him, which is actually historically factual. 

In this way, this young boy in modern times is given a reason to connect with an entire history that what he is is nothing new, and that very respectable and famous people shared this state of nature with him. Then almost sounds great. I haven’t read it yet.

Then this author has also gone on to work on a nonfiction history of all these various famous people in history who there are at least – there is at least some evidence were gay, or lesbian, or in some gender non-conforming state, or something like that. He’s doing that work, right? He feels that it’s still needed, right? We’re in modern times. I live in Portland, Oregon. I mean, we pretend we don’t need any of this, because we’re so liberal, right? It’s still needed.

[0:49:59.2] SC: Oh, yeah. It can speak of I was raised Irish Catholic and our heroes are people like George Bernard Shaw and –

[0:50:13.2] AH: Oscar Wilde?

[0:50:14.3] SC: Oscar Wilde, right? It was just this incredible, like something doesn’t quite fit here. The thing being taught at church and then the people we read at home are a little wonky. Yeah, that’s really cool. I’d love the fact that all of this revisionist history that we live inside of in times that can blind us, for to have people come along and go, “Hey, let’s really unearth some stuff that people have tried to push under the rug.” I think that’s really cool and that sounds like a really cool novel too.

[0:50:53.6] AH: Yeah, I’m going to read it. I thought I’d give him a little plug here, because I thought he sounded so interesting, and then all of it sounds important. My plan for the next two episodes is to start writing scenes based on this outline and see what happens. Would you agree that’s a good plan to go forward with?

[0:51:14.1] SC: Yes, without a question.

[0:51:16.0] AH: Okay. I will start doing that. I actually feel I could write some of these scenes. Our conversation has helped me a great deal and I feel I can get to work.

[0:51:25.6] SC: Good. Good. I’m glad it helped a little. Just keep plugging. Just don’t listen to that voice.

[0:51:33.1] AH: I will keep plugging and I’ll get back to you next week with something we can read.

[0:51:38.0] SC: Okay, great. Thanks, Anne.

[0:51:39.3] AH: Thanks, Shawn. Bye-bye.


[0:51:41.7] AH: That’s a wrap for episode 8 of the masterwork experiment. You’ll find links to all my working documents and to Lee Wind’s novel, Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill, in the show notes. 

For everything Story Grid related, visit storygrid.com. If you’d like to learn more about me and my writing and editing work, you’ll find me at annehawley.net. That’s A-N-N-E-H-A-W-L-E-Y.net, where I’m posting my draft scenes, complete with TKs and temporary character names. You can check all that out on my blog.

You can also find me every Wednesday on the Editor Roundtable Podcast, where I team up with four of my fellow Story Grid certified editors to analyze the story structure of a novel, or a movie every week.

To support the podcast, tell other authors about us and leave us a rating and review. Join us again next week for the penultimate episode of the experiment, when I change my beginning hook and hopefully make some inroads into my middle build.

Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.



[1:15:10.8] 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.


About the Author

Valerie Francis is a Certified Story Grid Editor and best-selling author of both women’s and children’s fiction. She’s been a Story Grid junkie since 2015 and became a certified editor so that she can help fellow authors, in all genres, become better storytellers. To learn more, visit valeriefrancis.ca
Comments (11)
Author Valerie Francis


lewspeare says:

Hi Valeria and Anne. Anne, I was listening to this in the car on the way home from work. You are so amazing. I’m really looking forward to meeting you in Nashville at the conference; you’re kind of a hero to me. Shawn, more like a god, really. I know you’re just two human beings, but damn. I’m about as far from a crying-type guy as you can get, but the first third of this podcast, I literally almost couldn’t keep driving. I didn’t pull over, but I should have, for safety’s sake. Man. What Shawn was saying to you, there, summarized so many years and years of my writing life, in such a succinct way, that I was literally overwhelmed and immobilized by the encouragement he was giving you, and the words themselves. Thanks to you and Shawn for doing such meaningful work! It was like the two of you were staring into my soul, and I was embarrassed that you knew me so well. Keep up the good work! This Broke-Back-Mountain-thing is going in an impressive direction. I’m really looking forward to the final two episodes.


I made a point of letting Shawn know he should come over here and look at this comment (because I’m not sure reading comments is a normal part of his routine). I’m honored and thrilled to have asked the question that elicited that amazing speech from him. I felt very much as you did, hearing it live.

Thank you for letting us know!

lewspeare says:

Thanks, Anne. I’m sure, after while, all the podcast work just turns into a big talking quiche, and the hard work is somewhat hidden behind the scenes. But don’t forget how many people are on the other side of that mike. Sensitive, caring people. Many, I suspect, are too ungrateful to ever tell you, though. I’ve been writing a long, long time with a pin-head’s worth of success. 99% of my circle of influence, which is small, I think of as being lucky to write their name on the ground using a stick, and honestly, I feel alone a lot. I’ve been married for a long time, too, and I have forced my wife to listen to the Lewis-podcast so long about these things that she has a major in English, whether she knows it or not. She’s the only woman I have ever loved, but when I start talking about how much fun it is to walk on the moon, she’s much more interested in walking around Target. These podcasts are such a blessing to me. Thanks again for doing such a great job!

julekucera says:

Like Lew, Shawn’s encouragement to Anne had me in tears. I downloaded the podcast for easy access to encouragement and for these words most of all: “You hit this place and this is where resistance doubles down on your ass. It can kill you, because it’s going to tell you lies.”

lewspeare says:

Thanks, Jule. I knew it wasn’t just me. I had a good day a t work, so no leftover angst, etc. Just good stuff from Shaw and Anne…


Wasn’t that great?

I mean, it’s not as if I don’t know The War of Art almost by heart, right? But what a gift, to hear that core message, live, in Shawn’s own voice. It changed everything for me. I’m so glad it meant as much to you, too.

Jule Kucera says:

Anne, you’re right! It’s not so much that the words were new, it was hearing the words in Shawn’s voice and the conviction with which he said them. A righteous gift.

lizalex54 says:

Thank you so much, Anne and Shawn…what a masterclass that was!! A great example of how one person’s willingness to express vulnerability (kudos, Anne!) benefits us all. That episode is the perfect antidote to those inevitable times when that lying monster within taunts us with its deceptive whisperings. For which I am deeply grateful to you both.

I am LOVING this entire masterwork experiment and, like Shawn, believe sincerely that you–Anne–have the talent, determination, indeed sheer genius, to see this through to the end. Can’t wait for the next stunning installment 🙂


Thank you Liz! Only two more to go, and part of me will be sorry to have the experiment end (though of course it will continue offline as I revise my story according to editorial guidance from Shawn–how lucky am I for that?), but in a way it’ll be a relief to be off the hook of recording a new episode every week.

Episode 8 and Shawn’s great speech are still holding the monster at bay for me. That level of motivation and inspiration doesn’t come along every day, and I’m trying to make the best of it.

Lovelace Cook says:

OMG, Anne! Your solution with the narrator is a brilliant device. You inspire me with your courage in undertaking the experiment! Shawn is remarkable. I glean so much from the two of you – Shawn’s depth and breadth of knowledge inform us (and occasionally overwhelm – I listen at least twice to the podcasts to absorb the lessons) as a master but encourages us to question. At times it feels as if I’m immersed in a modern-day Lyceum.

You are a skilled writer with a deep understanding of craft and the ability to put your talent into action. Through the podcasts (the Masterwork Experiment, the Story Grid Podcasts & the Story Grid Editor Roundtable Podcasts), I continue to find editing solutions to the problems in my WIP. I’m indebted to you, Shawn & Tim, and I have to include Steve Pressfield, for your generosity. The Story Grid Editors are awesome (thanks, Valerie for these posts.)

All the comments already acknowledge Shawn’s encouragement – what a gift! I have yet to memorize The War of Art, but I read well-marked passages from Steve’s book daily. I can’t wait to attend Story Grid Live in Nashville next month. Thank you all again.


Hi Lovelace. That shift in POV narrative device really cracked this thing open for me–AND added a character, who served a story purpose…the unfolding continues to amaze me.

I have to listen several times myself to absorb the information–once while recording, once while editing, and at least once as a listener. The richness of what Shawn has to offer, week after week, is remarkable. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this all my life!

Thanks for your kind words.


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