The Craft of Non-Fiction

[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 years’ experience.

In this episode, we start off by going over the new draft of the introduction to my book. It becomes about something bigger, it becomes about the craft of nonfiction writing and you know, sometimes, I kind of have an idea of where Shawn’s going with something and you know, what he’s going to call important and then sometimes like in this episode, he really dives into one specific part that to me isn’t the most important thing.

He really points out and shows how it’s the most important thing. It’s a really good episode, I got a lot out of it and it’s helping me see what it means to write nonfiction in a whole new way. We’ll go ahead and jump in and gets started.


[0:01:08.4] TG: Shawn, last week after we talked, I went off to work on my homework because you know, we walked through the conventions and obligatory scenes of the nonfiction big idea book and those are really helpful to get me to look at this from lots of different viewpoints and as we talked, we kind of came across this idea, this thing I wanted to say about, we talked about shame and then as I was working through it again, I think it was just working through the emotional journey that every writer has to go through.

I went back to the Tipping Point like you said and I actually printed out the introduction of Tipping Point and I went through and like wrote with a red pen brackets around each different section, what was notes on what that section was doing in the introduction, how many words were in that section and the percentage of the overall introduction so I could get an idea of what kind of – what percentage of the introduction he was committing to each piece.

Then I sat down and started working on my own, redoing it from this standpoint of what am I trying to say, what am I hoping to help people with and what is the counterintuitive thing that I’m trying to say? I landed on, I believe that the idea that you must suffer for your art is a lie.

That’s one of the things that I want to kind of get out into the world is you don’t have to like sacrifice your life for your art, you don’t have to be depressed for your art, you don’t have to constantly punish yourself physically and mentally in order to succeed.

Then as I wrote it out, I came out with five distinct phases that every creative person goes to along the way towards you know, success both internally and externally in their creative path. Then I wrote, rewrote the introduction from that point of view, it came to about 2,300 words and then I also put together like my theme and some notes on the five parts and I sent you both of those, would love your thoughts.

[0:03:29.8] SC: Okay, first of all, I have to say that I think you made a giant leap forward and you’re getting very close to something very clear and powerful. I’m a little hesitant to start where – of where to start because there’s a bunch of sort of craft issues with the introduction versus really nailing the themes. Why don’t we, instead of me getting into the specifics of trying to fix your introduction so it flows better.

Why don’t we talk about your five stages, your central idea and all that stuff. Let me ask you a couple of questions which I’m going to pull from my standard six question list, that editors have to ask themselves when they’re working on a book. The first question is, what’s the genre? We’ve already established, this is the big idea, nonfiction book, what are the obligatory scenes and conventions of the genre? We did a whole episode last week about what all of those are, I think there are about nine of them.

What is the point of view? That’s the third question. The point of view, all this means is, who is telling this story and why are they telling the story? The point of view is Tim Grahl and why are you telling this story Tim?

[0:04:54.8] TG: I’m telling this story, I think there’s two reasons. One is, I want to debunk the myth that the creative journey has to be painful or excruciating or depressive or overall, that your best work comes from when you’re in a bad place.

The other is, I want to teach how you can go from the beginning of your creative journey which is basically I want to create something to a place where you’ve been successful and you can actually do that in a healthy way and enjoy the process instead of suffering through the process.

That’s my point of view is like, I’ve worked with so many different creative people and of course, you know, I read and study others and like these ones that are – like have suffered or like committed suicide or you know, all of these stories of these great creative people that were also just like horribly unhappy are the ones that are often held up as like the people.

[0:06:03.2] SC: Right.

[0:06:04.1] TG: While I’ve worked with so many wonderfully creative people that are extremely successful and they’re happy and content and create out of a joyful place instead of out of a damaging or harmful or depressive space. I want to show and prove that you can do this in a way that is emotionally healthy and also show people ways that they can do it that are emotionally healthy.

[0:06:31.7] SC: Okay, I just want to take one small step backward and ask you, why the notion of being an artist, being a dark art, meaning you have to go to the depths of your soul and you know, sort of reach an almost feud state of desperation before you can create something great.

Why does that idea bother you so much?

[0:06:56.3] TG: Well one is, I mean, just fundamentally, I think it’s a lie, I think it’s a lie that is perpetuated over and over, it’s also a great excuse for people that aren’t creating. The other is like, I’ve now done it both ways and my best work comes from a good place, not a bad place.

And again, as I watch people, you know, I’ve worked with the artists that are like in and out of rehab and can barely hold their life together and then I’ve worked with the ones that like have a healthy home life or married with kids and you know, they’re just overall happy.

They both create great work. I’d hate this idea that you have to sacrifice your life in one way or another in order to create art because it’s just not true. I think that it becomes like I said, both an excuse for people but also even more you know, every lie, I think it keeps people from trying to go after it because they feel like they’re not willing to sacrifice all these things that they don’t really have to sacrifice if that makes sense.

[0:08:10.0] SC: Right. I get it, you’re trying to stop people from using the starving soul searching artist as an excuse not to engage their creative spirit.

[0:08:26.0] TG: Yeah, that, or that people see it as the path. Okay, I have to do it this way in order to be a real, truly creative person.

[0:08:35.7] SC: Right. I think there’s this notion that there’s this kind of – I think Jeff Goins writes about it in his latest book, you know, the starving artist myth, I don’t think that’s the name of his title but what is it again?

[0:08:50.7] TG: Real Artists Don’t Starve.

[0:08:52.1] SC: Right, okay. I think that that concept is – people think, the writer’s lifestyle or the artist lifestyle is romantic and romantic meaning, having usually a tragic ending. Your book is to dispel the myth that you have to be a dark soul in order to create anything.

In fact, what you’re saying is, not only is that not true, engaging that part of yourself is dangerous because it exiles you from the rest of humanity, does that make sense?

[0:09:32.3] TG: Yeah, I also feel like asking our artists to be unhealthy for us to get something from them is a bad way as a society, like if I want to back up even more, that’s not a healthy way to look at it. That is not what I want to require of the artist that I love is their soul you know?

[0:09:54.8] SC: Right.

[0:09:56.3] TG: My belief is, you don’t have to require that of them, you don’t have to – I feel like the belief that you can’t create great art and also be happy at the same time, that they’re mutually exclusive is an extremely dangerous lie. So many people believe it.

[0:10:19.1] SC: Yes, it gives people an excuse to be nasty to other people too. You just remember, I remember the kids in high school who decided, I’m going to be really cool and be an artist and then they just ended up being very selfish and you know, taking drugs and doing really stupid things and hurting other people in the name of art which is exactly the opposite of what art is.

Art is about creating something, it’s about changing your world view by self-examination through the creative process, we become, we know ourselves better. I think your big idea is that the creative process is not an inferno of hell, it’s difficult, of course it’s difficult but it can be – you can go through this process in a healthy way that does not require your sobriety or your mental effectiveness.

[0:11:22.3] TG: Yeah, I want to present it as like – it’s hard, much like you know, anything worth doing is hard, that’s okay. But you can enjoy the process, you can enjoy the hardness of it, you know, this is what I try to teach my kids about anything they want to accomplish is like, yes, practicing your piano sucks but you were so happy after your recital when you played this extremely complicated song.

[0:11:52.7] SC: Right.

[0:11:54.3] TG: You can enjoy the hard parts of it without destroying yourself. I think the other thing I want to accomplish is to lay out what is coming for each person but also give them hope that they’ll be able to get through it in a healthy way. That’s why when I lay it out, I’m kind of like okay, you’re going to start here and this is what you’re going to face. Then after you overcome that, you’re going to be at this stage and this is what you’re going to face and here’s how to work through that.

All the way to the end which is you know, to me, the goal is to create from a place where you’re creating for the joy of creating and that is all. That’s like step five for everybody, you know?

[0:12:42.9] SC: Yeah, exactly, I mean, the paradox of what you’re talking about and you talk about it in your new introduction and also in your notes to yourself here. The paradox is that there are these two forces that resistance uses to really pummel you, it’s sort of the universal to the two big punches.

If you’re fighting, you know, resistance in a boxing match and you’re an amateur fighter and you go in there, he’s Mohammad Ali and he’s got two amazing punches, right? He’s got a jab that will sting your right in the face called fear. Fear, stick is constantly stinging you. What you do when you face fear is you want to run away from it.

You want to go back in your corner and you know, get some water and chill out for a while. That makes you run away from the work and the other punch that he has is called shame, the shame, it’s not the shame of that we usually associate with shame which is doing something wrong, I’m morally reprehensible and having society say to us, “you shouldn’t do that, you shouldn’t steal, therefore your shame should be overwhelming to the point where you give yourself up for punishment.”

That’s not the shame we’re talking about, we’re talking about the shame, self-shame. Self-flagellation, the shame of not doing your work. Once you’re in the corner running from fear, not doing your work, then he comes over and he punches you again with shame and the shame is, you got to get back in here dude or you’re a loser, you won’t even get in the ring?

What kind of loser are you? You’ve got these two big punches that are constantly hitting you, you got fear, shame, fear, shame. You keep going back and forth in them and resistance loves it because he’s just pummeling you back and forth. What you are saying to the artist is, “hey, I’m going to tell you the potential artist is I’m going to tell you, you don’t have to live in that constant battleground of being hit back and forth.”

Those are the first two punches that resistance has. The first thing we need to do is to explain to you what those punches are and how to best combat them. How to get in the ring and duck that fear into your nose. That fear is still going to be coming at you but you have to duck it. To sort of use this really pummel this boxing analogy in, once resistance understands that you’re really good at rope a dope and getting away from his jab and you know, he’s not going to be able to kidney punch you when you’re sitting in the corner having water.

Then he has to come up with some other punches right? The other punches that he comes up with are the other things that you talk about in this book which are winning the round where you think you’re going to get this big relaxing, wonderful, exhilarating thing and you don ‘t.

[0:16:06.2] TG: Yeah.

[0:16:07.0] SC: You just feel like jeez, yeah, that’s kind of – that was nice that I wrote that book and people seem to be engaged by it and yeah, there’s a revenue stream that comes to me and – but, this isn’t the utopia I thought I was going to have when I engaged in this new artistic creative life.

It’s sort of the utopia syndrome which is when we put a goal in front of ourselves and we say, once I make a billion dollars, I’m going to be happy. There are people who have a billion dollars and they’re miserable. Miserable people.

That’s the, is that all there is syndrome, the utopian syndrome comes and smacks you in the face and says, no, there is no moment in your life where you will achieve a utopian nirvana and feel great all the time. I think your book is about sort of laying out the experience.

“Hey, this is what’s going to happen to you on your journey and I am going to give you some tools so that after you know this is what’s going to happen, that you can plan ahead.” It’s almost like the doomsday preppers, right? The people who are worried about the coming whatever. There’s any number of things today that can really scare any of us into thinking it’s time to start stockpiling water.

The doomsday preppers, they’re thinking about, instead of this utopian end point, they’re thinking of a dystopian end point. What they’re doing is they are planning for this dystopian inevitability in such a way that they are thinking about their energy sources, their food sources, their water sources, their minimum viable meals, all that kind of stuff.

What you’re doing is, laying out a utopian prepper for the creative person. What you’re doing is a lot of different things right? They’re all equally important to communicate to the reader as quickly and as clearly as possible.

Right now, it’s still marketing right? It’s still a little bit murky about what it is you’re going to teach these people. It’s a lot closer than it was in your first draft. Now, your first draft had all the micro detail of your vision. Tim’s vision for this book, you really nailed I think the micro and you’ve got all kinds of really terrific stuff and a lot of great advice for the creative person who is facing shame and fear right now.

Basically, all stories, all books are about change, they’re about teaching people how to change their behavior to make their lives more meaningful and that’s what your book is about, is to teach people who want to be creative, how to change their behavior so that the opportunity to be creative will present itself so that once they do, they will find a meaningful experience.

You’re also saying “Hey, be careful now, I’m just going to tell you right up front, when you get to Kansas, there’s going to be a big sort of dip” and Seth Godden wrote a book called The Dip and it’s about that moment in time when things kind of hit the bottom for you.

It’s called the belly of the beast in the hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell and it’s that moment which is just man, “I did all of this work and this is all I got? Was it really worth it?”

Globally, I think you’re really close to a really nice beginning, middle and end for your book, the beginning of your book is explaining the problem, right? It’s explaining the problem in a very compelling, interesting way that your reader, your potential reader is going to read your introduction like we read Malcolm Gladwell – the introduction to The Tipping Point and say tell me more, my gosh, really? You’re going to teach me how to create something that is viral phenomenon that people are going to fall in love with?

Let me know more and what you want at the end of your introduction, your beginning hook is for your reader to go, “my gosh, he just completely explained all of my anxieties about creating stuff. He’s going to teach me how to overcome my reluctance to be creative, tell me more Tim, what’s the next thing I have to know?”

[0:20:58.3] TG: Your introduction obviously is crucial because it’s not only going to tell your reader, it’s going to tell you, Tim, how to structure the rest of the book. I think you’re on the right track but I’m not sure that it’s completely gelling yet.

The other thing that I think that is worth going in to now to talk about is just the nature of your draft of your introduction. What’s really compelling about Gladwell is that he uses little micro stories in order to illustrate his points and then explain what the story meant after he’s told them a really cool story.

The story structure that Gladwell uses is the same thing as the five commandments of storytelling. When he tells at the very beginning of the introduction of Tipping Point and forgive me if I muddle along here. It’s been a couple of years since I really analyzed it.

But he starts with the Hush Puppy story, right? The Hush Puppy story is, all of a sudden, Hush Puppies became extremely popular. They were on you know, on life support as a shoe company and then all of a sudden, they’re selling hundreds of thousands of these Hush Puppies and they can’t get enough of them. How did that happen?

The inciting incident in the introduction of The Tipping Point is, Hush Puppies have exploded. Why? That is causal inciting incident but we don’t know what the cause is. He uses the mystery of the inciting incident to drive you into the rest of the book. I think as he explains it, what happened was really cool kids in the east village started to wear Hush Puppies ironically.

Once the cool kids in the east village in Manhattan started wearing Hush Puppies, the really cool people in mid-town Manhattan that run the fashion magazines started to notice, then they started putting Hush Puppies into their print ads and advertise.

All of a sudden before we knew it, you’re seeing Hush Puppies all the time, I got to get with some of those Hush Puppies. He basically lays out the entire thesis of the book that there are mavens, influencers, and salesmen who all come together and can push something from obscurity into mass culture.

He does that in a very interesting, fascinating way, in a very short amount of space. Now, the reason why I’m saying this to you is that you don’t do that. You don’t really – you’re not really telling a story, you’re explaining the results of a story, not the story. You know what I mean?

You’re saying, “A few years ago, I felt really terrible and I didn’t know why.” That’s not a bad introduction but then you have to tell the story. Instead of telling the story, you tell the results of the story. Let me try and be more clear, I’m going to pull up your document.

You begin the very first sentence of your introduction is, “It came as a huge shock to me” and that is extremely unspecific. What is “it”? The thing you have to remember is that specificity is your friend. Talking about how long your shoelaces are is kind of interesting. What does the shoelaces have to do with anything?

Malcolm Gladwell using Hush Puppies, what do Hush Puppies have to do with viral stuff? Right? It’s because he’s very specific about the storytelling that it attracts you because it has this inherent – I have no idea where he’s going with this. Then you write, “I was sitting in my office having worked on this project for months and now that it had huge success, there was no joy.” What project?

I know you get into it later but you got to be very specific, very quickly and use – think of what is the inciting incident of my introduction? Something like, I Will Teach You to be Rich was a book that no one had any idea, had any popular – nobody had ever heard – I mean, you could begin, it was like, “nobody had ever heard of Ramit Setti and nobody had ever heard of his book until blank.”

I’m spit balling right now. My point is that you use – suck the reader in with a really compelling inciting incident, story driven thing and then your turning point of that story is going to say “I should have been over the moon happy but the success of this project actually stuck me in the biggest funk of my life.”

Whether or not that’s true, I don’t know. But you need to prune the story. That’s why we call it The Turning Point when the value of the story shifts from one to another. This is the moment when the value begins to shift. The value at the start of your little mini story is, success to failure.

What you believe would bring you happiness, your utopian vision turned out to be dystopian and that, when you’re really super specific, people like me or anybody else who is listening to this, they will say, “my gosh, that’s exactly what happened to me.”

Once that happens and that clicks in the reader’s mind, they’re going to say “my gosh, he just told my story through his story, I wonder what else he has to tell me?” That’s how you hook a reader. By telling your story as specifically as possible because you want them to think about you know, meeting – I’m sorry, I’m mispronouncing his name, is it Ramit?

[0:27:47.8] SC: Ramit. When you met Ramit or when you met Dan Pink or when you started your marketing company, they want to kind of be in the room when you meet those people. I remember, you told me a story and this might be the story to lead with. You told me a story where you had to take Amtrak and you had Dan Pink’s – you were hounding Dan Pink so much that he eventually said, “Okay Tim, I’ve got 45 minutes at 9 AM, you come to my house, we’ll have coffee, you tell me your thing, we’ll take it from there.”

You finally got him to give you 45 minutes or 30 minutes. You had been planning to get Dan Pink to work with him for so long that he finally got the meeting and you’re like, now’s my time. All your preparation, all of your hard work, everything that you had put forth was leading to getting somebody like Dan Pink to take you seriously and he did.

He said, okay, get on the train. You get on the train and all you did on that train from the minute you got in the train was to review over and over again what you were going to say in those 45 minutes and you got there and you sat down with him and you said to yourself, “You know what? I don’t know if this is going to work but I’m just going to do it” and you sat there and you drew graphs for him and you talked and he couldn’t a word in and I think Ed’s wife is there and she was looking at you like you’re a mad man and then you finished and he said, “Okay, let’s do it. Let’s do it all” and that was not what you were expecting him to say.

You were expecting him to say, “You know what Tim this is really interesting. Let me take it under consideration. Let me talk to my wife here and we’ll get back to you in a few days” and then you said that when he committed in the room, you got a yes in the room. You were really happy until you got back from the train and then you’re like, “Oh shit now I’ve got to do all this work”. So something like that is very specific because we are walking with you.

We were going to the train, we’re on the phone call, we’re in the email loop, we’re drinking the coffee with Dan Pink, you tell all the things that are really fascinating about Dan Pink, where he came from. This is a guy that you want to be in business with. He’s the dream client because you know, blah-blah-blah.

[0:30:16.6] TG: Yeah, I was thinking about when you were saying that because I have also been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast and I keep thinking like he’s so good at the way that he describes the people that he’s talking to and a different thing that I thought was in Stephen King’s On Writing in the epilogue, he tells the story of getting hit by the van.

[0:30:43.2] SC: Oh right, oh man yeah.

[0:30:45.6] TG: And you remember how he talks about how he was lying on the side of the road and the guy that hit him, when he woke up the guy that hit him was just sitting there with his cane across his legs. He was describing him and he could have been a character out of one of his books the way that he described him. So I think that’s what’s missing from the stories I’m telling in my non-fiction is that I am not telling them as if they were fiction, you are writing them in the same way.

[0:31:18.0] SC: That’s exactly right and the thing to remember about telling a story is that take your time. Take your time. You don’t have to get –

[0:31:29.2] TG: You’re giving me the same advice. It’s just like I should know this by now.

[0:31:34.7] SC: No, no I mean I do the same thing and usually what I’ll do is my first draft is so basically pummeled down all of the turning points of the story and I say, “And then this happened then this happened and this happened” and then I’ll take a step back and then I’ll take the first event and I’ll craft something that uses that event as the story event for a 900 word piece and you really get down – I mean with Stephen King you are mentioning that thing in his book.

That immediately went right back into my brain and I remembered that piece so clearly because he always takes his time. Stephen King can set up like no one. He takes his time, he unpeels the banana very slowly and usually what will happen is you’ll write something very expansive that’s a very intricate movement and then you can cut – then you cut it to the bone. When you cut it to the bone, you end up with it’s almost like coffee that sits in the pot for nine hours because you have forgotten to turn it off.

And then you have that really rich thick tar at the bottom and that rich tar it is the equivalent for the reader of this intense incredible story in 500 words. That’s Gladwell, that’s Stephen King, Michael Lewis can really do that too. Fantastic non-fiction writer who wrote Money Ball, Liar’s Poker and on and on and on. Michael Lewis is one of the great craft’s people at work today and you can just read. When you read Michael Lewis it feels like as he’s telling you, he’s literary talking to you.

He’s telling you a story so well that you feel as if he’s sitting across from you and you’re listening. You are not even reading. You are listening and the trick to doing that is draft after draft after draft after draft during a very intense detailed long thing and then slowly you boil it down so that each sentence has a really important telling detail that gives a vision to the reader. So anyway, simply that’s what you want to lead with in your introduction.

And the great thing is that you have a million of those stories because you’re a creative person. You have done a million projects and being a marketing person is a creative thing too. A lot of people think, “Oh well that is my business stuff and it’s not really that creative.” Really? No, getting the big client is a creative process. You have to make a plan to get the client. You don’t just wing it. If you get 45 minutes with Dan Pink, you’re not going to wing it.

You are not going to go there and say, “Hey I really like your stuff. I’d really like to work with you. I could do a lot of good stuff for you.” No. You tell him specifically what your plan is. This is the mistake that a lot of people make is that they worry, “Oh well if I go in and I give him my best stuff then they’ll just steal it and do it themselves” but the exact opposite is true because when you are very specific and you lay out a plan. Anybody can have a plan. Executing the plan is the hard part but laying out a great plan is really important and that’s storytelling anyway.

[0:35:25.7] TG: Okay, so do you have more feedback beyond the opening story or is that so important that it kind of threaded after that?

[0:35:41.6] SC: It’s really important that if you nail the opening story and it resonates, then what you’re going to decide, the one hesitancy I have is how far you want to take this book because just dealing with shame and fear is a pretty big slice of the pie. To go into the “Is all there is?” syndrome, that is going to be, “Yeah it will probably work” because you are – okay this is getting more and more clear to me as we talk about it.

But it seems to me that the problem that creative people have and those – I mean people who want to be more creative, the problem that they have is that they hit that dip, that, “Is that all there is?” thing, right? And they say to themselves, “You know I don’t like going there. I don’t like that moment when I’ve really busted my ass and the thing has actually worked and it doesn’t give me the satisfaction that I really wanted. I don’t like that feeling”.

“So you know what? I’m not going to stick and get in there anymore. Everything that I have is going perfectly well. Why am I going to stick my neck out again to do another project so that at the end of it, I can feel bad that it’s not as great as I thought it would be.” I think that’s what stops people. I think a lot of people have been creative in their life and they have reached some level of success but it doesn’t give them the peace and hope and happiness that they initially thought it would.

So your book is like, “Hey dude, you are not unique. This is what happens to everybody and so I am initially going to tell you the story of how it happened to me and how I was in the dumps because it didn’t work out in the way I thought it would and how I overcame that” and then the big payoff at the end of your book is the more creative efforts that you do, the less disturbing it is that you don’t feel completely fulfilled.

It makes sense at the end of your projects to be a little bit sad because that process is over. You’ve got a new project ahead. It doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth going through it. It just means you are a little bit sad. It’s like when you go to summer camp, when you meet new friends and you leave and you’re sad. It doesn’t mean that wasn’t worth going to summer camp and meeting new people. It just meant that you are a little sad because you are transitioning into a new project, a new thing.

[0:38:30.6] TG: Well what I feel like I’ve seen is through my own stuff and working with other people is like when you are at level one, you think, “If I can just get to level two” and then once you’re at level two, you think, “Well if I could just get to level three” and then what happens is you eventually get to the top and you realize there’s no more levels and I still don’t have it. So where do I go from here? And my favorite story of that is Elizabeth Gilbert with her book, Eat Pray Love.

And she did this fantastic TED Talk where she talks about trying to create again, after writing a book like no other work that she ever does will probably ever come close to selling or having the success of Eat Pray Love. So how do you continue to create? And I had that moment, you know? I had that moment where I woke up a couple of years ago one morning and realized I had everything I ever wanted but I was 34. It’s like, “Okay, well I don’t want to stop”.

[0:39:37.3] SC: Well you should keep that to yourself then Tim, yeah.

[0:39:40.4] TG: Well but see, that’s the thing and we even talk about people who publicly tell a different story than what’s really going on because they want people to think like, “Oh they are still in the slog” or “Oh they’re the struggling artist still” and even Michelangelo did that where he on purpose told the story that he was a starving artist when he wasn’t. In today’s money he’s a millionaire and Jeff tells that story in Real Artists Don’t Starve.

And so reaching the point where you have everything you want is you can get there and then you have to keep going and so what’s it look like to even move passed that? And so I think what I like and what I want to do is show that road map so that in each place it’s not surprising and you know what to do with the place that you’re at because everybody thinks, “If I just get my first publishing deal then I will have made it” and you’ll get that.

You’ll go out for drinks with your friends and then you’ll come home and then now what? And so it is that like you were saying, it’s not that utopian thing but it is a constant succession of those that are different and to me, each level has it’s own surprises like when people think of “I just start writing, I’ll feel fulfilled” but then they realize, they go back and read it and their writing sucks and they’re like, “Well now what do I do?” because this is awful.

So yeah and again, my belief is you can do this in a way where it’s an enjoyable process. It’s not a painful process. It’s not a depressing process. It is just the process and if you bring in a healthy expectation and healthy practices, you can actually enjoy even the parts that are sucky. They can be part of the enjoyment of the process. You know, I was talking to my friend about how we’re going to have self-driving cars in the next 10 to 20 years or whatever.

And we were joking around like, “How old do my kids have to be before I can let them Uber to school without me having to drive them” and we are just joking because coming up in a couple of weeks here when now my kids are going to be in different schools. So I’ve got a 20 minute drive to one school then a 20 minute drive to the other school, then a 20 minute drive back into town to my office. So I’ve got an hour in the car every morning.

And I spent most of my adult life in a place where I was three minutes from my office and that was the only place I ever went. So we were laughing about it and then we’re actually, “Well could we get like a carpool thing and all these kind of stuff because I hate sitting in the car and I hate driving” but then I’m like, “Yeah but that’s where I have the conversations with my kids that I don’t have anywhere else” and that’s where we play stupid car games or we listen to Jim Gaffigan, the comedian.

It’s like a shitty thing to sit in the car for an hour every morning but at the same time, it’s an enjoyable thing and I think that’s how we can approach each of these processes where I see so many artists suffering for their work and it just doesn’t have to be that way.

[0:43:09.4] SC: Well that’s absolutely true and all of the psychological research which has been abundant over the past 20 years, the key element to changing your behavior is environmental change. Change your environment and you will change your behavior. If your environment is filled with candy and you want to stop eating candy, you’re in trouble, right? It’s that simple. Just don’t have any candy in your house and chances are you are not going to go eating a candy.

Because then, you’ll have to get in the car and go buy it and who wants to do that? That’s what I think is so wonderful about your project is that you give very practical specific prescriptive advice about changing your environment to change your behavior and that is right on the money in terms of the scientific literature and it won’t be difficult for you to back up all the things that you prescribe in your book. The tricky part is to make the prescriptive advice.

The changing your environment part interesting to the reader. This could be a typical how-to book where you give the how-to, “How Tim Grahl changed his behavior by changing his environment” and for what that is, that’s okay. What could be really even better is to explain why people are feeling this way, why they need to change their behavior, why it’s important to create, why it will give them greater meaning in their life and not for the reasons that they think it will.

That will be your ironic ending. The payoff of your book is not shipping and getting a check from New York Times bestseller from your publishing company. That’s nice but the payoff is the work itself. It’s to understand that what you want and what you need are two completely different things. What every human being needs to do is create, that is why you are here whether you are creating a plan to fix the plumbing in your house or creating a sculpture, it’s the same part of the soul that works in all of those cases.

So your book is about, “Hey don’t do it for the want. Do it for the need because guess what? We all need to create. It is not magical. It is part of being a human being. Don’t deny that part of yourself”.

[0:46:02.5] TG: So where do I go. You have given me some specific advice about the specifity of my stories and rewriting some of those. Where do you feel like I’m at with the overall plan and structure for the book? Because that’s a bigger thing there too.

[0:46:22.7] SC: The planning and structure of the book is coming along but I don’t think it is going to be razor sharp to you until you nail the opening story and it doesn’t have to be – I’m talking about the Tim on the train, the story of how you through fighting this horrible monster of fear and shame, staying away from the video games, throwing away the console and actually getting in there every day and getting pummeled by fear and shame and yet doing the work anyway.

You are gritting your teeth and fighting it out, you eventually got the point where you got the opportunity to land a whale for your business and here you were and you landed the whale and my gosh, you know it was going to be exhilarating because you finally beat the shit out of resistance and you got what you wanted. You got the number one New York Times bestselling business writer to say that you were worthy and that he wanted your advice.

Holy crap! And then you’re like, “Yeah, whatever” and so at the end of that story you say to everybody whose reading this book, “So how did I get over that? Well it wasn’t easy. It took me another 10 years or another five years to figure out why I felt like crap. Yeah, you know what? Instead I tried to find other things that would bring me happiness and guess what? I had the same feeling at the end of that too. So the reason why I’m writing this book is to explain to you”.

“I used to think it was just me. I always was the loser who couldn’t enjoy my own success and here I was, just this fraud guy who couldn’t even enjoy his life. I’ve set these goals, I’ve reached the goals and then I couldn’t even enjoy it. What was the point? And then I realize after doing this over and over again and being with all these other people who told me the same thing, holy crap, this is just the way it is. Maybe if I looked at this process in a different way, I could actually enjoy it.”

“Maybe I didn’t have to be a miserable bastard. Maybe I actually could enjoy the creative process” right? So underneath that story is your theme. You don’t have to blatantly say to the reader, “Hey you don’t have to be a miserable bastard to be creative” you tell the story of how you became a miserable bastard, you didn’t like that feeling and so what you did is you changed your behavior so that you no longer felt that way.

Now you understand the creative process in a way that doesn’t bring you into a pit of despair. When you finish a project, you know you’re going to feel bad because you’ve experienced that before. It’s like Winston Churchill told everybody in Britain, “Hey guys we’re up against it. We’re going to lose a lot of people and we might even lose our country but you know what? We will never surrender.” And you know what people did?

They said, “Alright I’m in” they didn’t say, “Oh we’re going to beat Hitler and it’s just going to take some time and you know, if we do it…” And he said, “You know what? We could very well be destroyed because nobody is coming to help us and we’re the only ones standing up against this bastard but you know what? We’re not going to surrender because that’s not what we do. We don’t surrender. We’re going to fight to the last man and the last child and the last woman on this beautiful island that we call home”.

That inspired that nation to do something extraordinary. There’s a movie on now that I can’t wait to see about Dunkirk which is when we talk about the belly of the beast, the entire British Army and Navy was cornered. And ordinary British citizens got on their fishing boats and they went and they got their soldiers and they brought them home. They saved the free world. So my point is that Churchill told them the truth. “We are in a fight, we are going to suffer. Get ready guys, I’m going to be leading the charge. Come with me.” And they all did.

And what you are saying to people who want to be creative, it’s going to be hard guys but you know what? Enjoy it too. You are going to feel bad at the end of a creative process, no matter if you got $5 million or nobody read your book, you’re going to feel bad because guess what? You finished something and now you have to create something else and there’s always a dip and you are going to feel it. Now that you know that when you hit that dip it’s not going to hurt as much.

Because you are going to go, “Yeah, yeah Tim told me about this” so that’s what you need in that introduction and then after you get it done, your five stages and all that stuff will even be able to sort itself out even better. It will flow a lot more naturally based upon the story that you tell because what you’re going to end up doing is you’ll find little moments in your personal story that you can use to invigorate each section of your middle build.

This is a great thing about the big idea book is that what you do is you boil down your coffee at the very beginning and you have instead of a 25% hook, you have a 10% hook, then you have an 80% middle build which is the meat and potatoes of your prescriptive plan and it’s a progressive meat and potatoes. It’s not just get a can of oil, buy a lawn mower, check the spark plug. It’s a progressive build right? And your climax, you’re all is lost moment is right at the moment of success.

And it’s ironic of course and then your ending payoff is, “Guess what? Start the next book.” Steve Pressfield has a great story in the War of Art, where he had a mentor, Steve was living in his van down by the river. He would go see his mentor every day and show him is pages and he finally finished his novel and he showed his mentor. He said, “Look I have finally finished!” and the mentor says, “Hey congratulations, start the next one right now”.

Because he knew that dip, he wanted Steve to understand fight the dip by starting something before you finish something else. That’s another trick. Having multiple projects at different stages of development like right now, we have been working on your novel for two years right? But now that your novel, you are doing your rewrite, you’re not quitting or creating after you’ve finished your novel and you wisely said to yourself, “I want to do this non-fiction thing too”.

“Should I wait until I finish my novel before I do that?” No, you started working on that too and you can go back and forth between them and that’s another way to beat the shit out of resistance is to sucker punch them when they think you’re working on another project and go to another one. So the bottom line to your question is what you need to do is really focus on that introductory story. It’s your story. It’s extremely specific, it’s not vague.

When you say, “I play video games all day” I want to know what kind of video game you play. Was it World of Warcraft or what? Was it Pacman? I don’t know what video game you’re playing, be specific. You are blowing up some gawk or whatever, I don’t even know what video game. I always stayed away from them because I knew I would get addicted to them so I never played them but I want to know that, you know? I want you to set the scene for me, show me what you do.

I mean did you lock your office door and say, “I’m in a meeting. I can’t, hold all my calls” you know? What did you do? How did you sneak away, how did you hide it from your wife? How did you hide it from your kids? That’s interesting stuff, people want to know that. They can understand the moment when you set your alarm for 2:00 in the morning so you can go downstairs and raid the refrigerator you know? Some people do that and it’s shameful and you feel terrible when you’re doing it but it’s also –

You know it gives you a little thrill by not doing your work, you are thumbing your nose at what you’re supposed to be doing, okay? Do you know what you are going to do?

[0:55:18.1] TG: Okay, yeah. I feel comfortable with what I’ve got to do next. So I’ll rewrite that again because it really sounds like and talking to other friends of mine that had been working on their books recently, the big thing in non-fiction is to nail the introduction because then you know what the rest of the book is. So I’ll continue.

[0:55:41.6] SC: Well there’s a reason why book publishers will commission non-fiction but they won’t commission fiction unless you are a bestselling writer because you can write a proposal and a proposal will tell you what the book is going to be in a very specific way and the publisher feels confident that if the person can write a great proposal, that they could probably write the book.

[0:56:04.4] TG: Okay, well I will get to work on that and then we will reconvene.

[0:56:08.5] SC: Okay.


[0:56:09.2] 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 like the introduction to the book that I wrote along with some of the other notes that we discussed in this episode, all of that is at storygrid.com/podcast. If you’d 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.