[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne, he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book the Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
This coming February, Shawn and I are doing another Story Grid certified editor training. I’ve been getting some stuff ready behind the scenes and I’ll tell you more about it at the end of the episode. It just got me thinking about the origin of Story Grid, how Shawn developed it and how it’s really changing the way editing is done inside of publishing. It got me thinking about what it’s meant for me to have an editor to work with so closely.
It’s a really fun episode, where Shawn explains where Story Grid came from, how he used it to work with authors early on and then what is becoming inside of the publishing world. It’s a really fun episode. Let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:03.5] TG: So Shawn, as I’m working through the spreadsheet of the threshing of the second draft after last week’s amazing episode, I thought it would be good to talk a little bit. I was thinking about what to talk about this week. Then I was thinking about the subtitle of the book Story Grid, what good editors know.
I remember, Story Grid is these set of tools that you can use for all kinds of things; planning your book, editing your book and everything in between. Originally, you developed it to make yourself a better editor. I just wanted to talk a little bit about the editor side of things and a little bit about how Story Grid changes an editor’s viewpoint. When we think about normal editing, whether you’re hiring a freelance editor, or whether you’re getting an editor at a publishing house, versus what it looks like when somebody comes to the table with a tool set like Story Grid. Just talk a little bit about how you developed it and how you feel like it changed the way you approach the work with authors as an editor, because that’s where it all came from.
[0:02:24.0] SC: Okay. The way it really organically developed was I was at a loss like anybody when I started in book publishing. I was very ambitious. I wanted to be Maxwell Perkins. I thought that there was a systematic process akin to learning how to be a great car mechanic, or how to learn how to be a neurosurgeon. I thought that there was an institutional series of steps that would take an ambitious person interested in developing writers and literary works that would teach them how to do that, right?
If you want to learn how to fix your car, you can go to a great technical school and they’ll teach you the first principles of the internal combustion engine, they’ll teach you how to diagnose the rattle in an engine, what’s going on there, what pistons are at – my only point is that I truly believe that there was an internal system within the book publishing world that would teach people how to be editors.
When I got into the world, what I discovered is yes, there is a system, but it’s very impossible to really get a full quantitative look at what it actually means. What I mean by that is that the system is an apprentice system. It’s a system where if you were hired, the luck of the draw about who needs what kind of assistant went. If you’re young 24, 22-year-old person coming into the industry and say one of the premier editors in the business, someone like in my era was Robert Gottlieb.
Say Robert Gottlieb’s assistant is finally, or Sonny Mehta and their assistant has been promoted to junior editor, so now they have to hire a new assistant. If you get lucky and you get hired and Sonny Mehta hires you, guess what? You’re really in pretty good shape, because you’re able to be at the place where you’re watching him do what he does. Or Reagan Arthur who’s a little round. Plenty.
The majority of great editors in publishing are women, by the way. The fact that I brought up Gottlieb and Sonny Mehta does not mean that there aren’t – the majority of them are women. Jennifer Enderlin at St. Martin’s Press is another great editor. There’s so many. It’s hard to just spit them out right now.
Anyway, so it was apprentice system and it all depended on how great of an editor and how much they really cared about helping a young person learn the craft. Okay, so what happened for me is I had a couple of those editors, but then I was so ambitious that I threw myself into the test so quickly that I burned pretty quickly and I got promoted very quickly. That was great, but then I didn’t have the ability to ask questions of these great editors. I worked with a woman named Jackie Farber who was editing Elmore Leonard, [inaudible 0:05:35.6], all these great best-selling writers who wrote all kinds of books, Sara Paretsky, crime fiction, love story, etc.
After I finally got promoted, which was very quick, she now – Jackie hired another assistant, so I had to learn myself. There was no book that said, this is how you edit a book. What I decided to do was study myself and study story and structure. The goal at first was to climb the hierarchy of the publishing world, so that I could become a big-shot editor and get to go out to lunch.
It was a very externally driven thing for me at the time. I’d love to read and I love stories. My goal was to have bestsellers and move up the ladder. Now gradually over time, what I discovered is that I could find these very, very talented writers whose books just didn’t work, right? They would come in. I would read them and I would say –
[0:06:40.5] TG: Real quick, talk about that. What do you mean by talented writer? How could you tell they were talented, whose books don’t work. What does that mean?
[0:06:51.2] SC: What it means is that I open up page one. It’s a great opening scene. I’m completely hooked. The inciting incident of the global story is just great. Then my blood starts to pump as an editor. I’m really excited. The next scene isn’t so good. I forgive them, right? Because I think, “That opening scene really showed a lot of potential.” Then the third scene gets worse. The fourth scene, even worse than that. Then it gets into cliché.
Globally, the story doesn’t work. I know what’s going to happen after reading maybe 10,000 words of an 80,000-word manuscript. Guess what? It does happen. It fizzes, right? The global macro story, the 15 core scenes that I talk about all the time, there’s some really good ones. Out of those 15, there’s maybe four that are really well done scenes. The micro scene is extremely engaging. When I’m reading those scenes I go, “Oh, my gosh. I bet this is going to work out great,” and then it didn’t.
At that point, I was extremely frustrated because I’d have to reject the book, right? I would have to say, “No, this isn’t for me. Sorry, it’s not right for our list at this time.” Then the writer would go away and probably would never write another book and there goes a talented person who if they had a mentor who could walk them through some general principles of storytelling, perhaps they could convert their micro-talent into a macro global idea, a macro story that works.
When I say something works, I’m talking about macro. I’m talking about something that immediately pulls you in at the beginning, builds a lot of momentum in the middle and really surprisingly pays off with something unexpected at the end. It’s inevitable, but unexpected. The criminal is found, but the criminal that we thought it was originally is not presumed innocent. There’s a great story. It’s a very standard crime story. Who done it? Our hero, the protagonist is accused of a crime that he does not commit. Throughout the novel, we’re worried about is he going to get convicted and thrown in jail for something that he didn’t do, or maybe he did do it.
The suspense throughout presumed innocent is whether the protagonist actually committed the murder or not? Then by the end of the novel, we understand, “Oh, my gosh. Of course it was blank, because she was blank about his doing X.” I didn’t want to ruin the story for anyone, because it’s a great novel.
That’s an example where Scott Turow who wrote Presumed Innocent is a wonderful micro-writer. His scenes are terrific. If his macro didn’t work and, “Oh, boy. The protagonist ends up to have been the villain all along. He gets convicted at the end and thrown in the slammer,” that macro wouldn’t have worked. The ending wasn’t surprising, but inevitable. It didn’t build the right way. It wasn’t set up the right way.
The fact is is that Turo did deliver the macro and the micro, that’s why it was an immediate huge million copy bestseller, of a story that’s a very similar story since Film Noir in the 1950s. It’s not you have to reinvent a genre, you just have to do it extremely well. I didn’t know any of that stuff back in my late 20s when I was just became a full editor. I had to learn that.
The way I learned that was A, I read all the master works in the genres that I was responsible for so I read Presumed Innocent, because it was my job to be the crime editor at a publishing house. I read all of those. Then I picked apart the obligatory scenes and conventions. I discovered that there were sub-genres.
[0:10:46.9] TG: When you say – because some of the stuff again, I’ve been deep in Story Grid for over three years now, so when I hear obligatory scenes and conventions I’m like, Oh, yeah.” Were those common understood things?
[0:11:02.7] SC: No. They’re not even common and understood today. You wonder why I wrote the Story Grid, it’s because all the things that people who have followed story grid for a while and understand obligatory scenes and conventions, believe it or not, these are not words that are – or concepts that are used all that often at the major publishing houses. You know what? I really can’t say that, because I haven’t been in a major publishing house for over a decade, but my gut and because I know friends who are still there, my gut is that the technicalities and the craft of editing is not “up for discussion” at the major publishing houses.
For good reason, they don’t have time to listen to my theories when I was an editor. They didn’t have time to hear my Story Grid theories. They would’ve say, “Shawn, should we acquire this book or not? Why should we? Why shouldn’t we?” To talk about obligatory and scenes and conventions in a business meeting was stupid, because people’s eyes would glaze over. You think people’s eyes glaze over now when I talk about it.
Think about being in this business situation where people were like, “Shawn, should we buy the book or not? Don’t tell me about whether or not the third act works. I don’t care. Can you fix it?” That’s what it became, right? Could I fix it? How good of a mechanic was I? It occurred to me that if I could take a writer who was great at the micro and work with them on the macro, they could perhaps write a book that work, that could find an audience, that could build a career. That was my business. I was in the business of building careers.
I was publishing people like Ian Rankin, when he had published one or two books in the UK. Reagan Arthur and I mentioned her earlier. Reagan Arthur was at St. Martin’s Press at the same time I was. She fell in love with Ian Rankin’s books. She was publishing them in hardcover. I had a paperback line of crime, so she came down at stairs because I was beneath her and said, “Would you consider doing this in paperback?”
I read the book and I loved it. I said, “Sure, but his hardcover sales track record is not very good.” She goes, “Why do you think I want you to put him into paperback?” Because he could build an audience if he gets the right number of people to read him. She was right. I published Ian Rankin’s books and paperback, this is John Rebus crime stories and now he’s a huge bestseller in the UK and in the United States.
Now that didn’t happen overnight. That took 10 years. Similarly, somebody like Harlan Coben. I discovered him when I was at Dell Publishing. I published him in paperback, it took him five books to reach the bestseller list. That’s five to six years. I don’t know, and probably he probably wrote seven novels before he even got his first one published.
My point was if I become a very good editor, I can help people become better writers and then they can get more readers and book by book by book, they can eventually have a career. If they have a career, I have a career. The Story Grid principles came out of a very practical problem. The problem was how do I make people who have real talent and real ability and help them become writers that can write books that work?
I have to give a hat tip Seth Godin, who when I was talking to him about the Story Grid years before I wrote it, he’s – he looked at me and he said, “You know what? The subtitle of that book should be is ‘What good editors know’, because that is what good editors know. Whether or not they know my particular terminology, they know when the thing doesn’t work. Sonny Mehta doesn’t use and Reagan Arthur does not use Story Grid principles when they edit a book, but they will say to the writer, “This scene doesn’t work, because it doesn’t set up your payoff. Your payoff can be a little bit better.”
Now they’re talking in generalities and they’re helping their writers scene-by-scene, but it’s all goes to the same story principles that we all learned the hard way. There are some books that I’ve published that I absolutely adored, knowing full well that there were some idiosyncrasies and some things that could not practically work in the marketplace. Every single time, the marketplace agreed and the book didn’t work.
[0:15:48.5] TG: Can you give me an example of that, what you mean by that?
[0:15:51.9] SC: Well, oftentimes we can be seduced by the artists, or the creative voice’s vision. For example, say I was editing a crime story where the ending came out of nowhere and it seemed like a Deus Ex Machina. Meaning, there was no setup and all of a sudden they go, “The butler did it.” There hadn’t been any build-up to revealing that the butler could have actually even been a suspect.
I would say that to a writer, “Hey, you know what? This comes off as not quite believable.” Then they would give me a very elaborate reason that was very, very intelligent that made sense, that – usually, the grounding for the decision was, “I didn’t want to write another cliché. I didn’t want to abide something that I thought was tired and old and stale.” What I’ve done was – and they would usually say, “The keen reader, the reader really paying attention would understand that that would be feasible.”
When you fall into the intellectual shenanigans of not telling a good story the right way, that’s when you can know that very few people are really going to adopt that book. This is why really high-end meta fiction literature, like super intelligent big word meta psychological analysis, like this is why Ulysses, James Joyce’s work. Is it brilliant? Sure. Can you read it? Not really. Because it’s so brilliant, it’s not all that accessible.
Is it a cool concept to write a brilliant novel all set in one day from one person’s point of view, from their interior psychological consciousness? Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. Did he pull it off? Yes, he did. Is it the thing that now we’re getting into critical theory, but that’s my point is that my job was to be commercially-driven, right? Even though I published some “masterpieces” that actually didn’t sell all that well, for me I had failed the writer, because I think there is a place where you can be brilliant and extremely accessible. I guess that is my goal with Story Grid.
My goal with Story Grid is to level up people’s craft, so that their micro-storytelling is extraordinarily well done and that they take each scene extremely seriously and work to make them as good as they possibly can be, but that the macro story still is popcorn engaging. I’m trying to really impress upon commercial fiction writers the payoff of leveling up craft. You don’t have to write Ulysses to be a genius. I think some of the –
For me, a novel like Tequila Mockingbird, a very extremely engaging, can’t put it down read, that literally changed the world more than any political rally or anything in this country, that novel was so brilliantly achieved and done that it changed the world, in such a way that it doesn’t matter what your education is. If you’re just learning how to read and you’re starting – like my young daughter is a nutty reader. She reads everything, right? When she read that, it changed her life and she was seven-years-old or whatever.
That’s what where the Story Grid evolved too. It used to be, when I started out, it used to be a very cynical, for lack of a better word, formulaic, diagnostic thing where I could take a writer with potential and smash them into a genre that could sell 10,000 copies that would make money on the bottom line for my profit and loss report for a corporation, that would eventually if I had enough of those would get me a bigger salary and a bigger office. That’s how it started.
Now it’s really to the place where my vision is and I’ve said this so hubristically so many times before, is to help people create a thing that lives longer than they do. That’s truly I mean, what I think is really the great thing about stories is that they live, so they can be immortal. Our great stories, the Odyssey, the Iliad, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, all of these great classic myths, those things are hundreds and hundreds and thousands of years old. Pride and Prejudice. Those are novels and stories that were written not for a very small intellectual audience that is getting a PhD in critical studies at Harvard. No, they were written for the man who runs the newspaper store at Harvard.
They were the ones that everyone can absolutely become absorbed by and they end up changing their lives. They change their worldview. They helped them during circumstances that are very difficult to navigate. Anyone who’s read Tequila Mockingbird is so fully cognizant of the silliness and ridiculous nature and absurdity of judging people by the color of their skin, that it doesn’t make any sense, right? Because you’ve been so changed by that novel that you would – it’s a fait accompli, that you just can’t think that way anymore. That is the brilliance of the story.
As editors, the payoff for an editor and the reason why I’m so strident about making my material really talk about editing, as opposed to, “Hey, I’ll teach you how to be a better writer,” and you will be, “Let me teach you how to write.” It’s more like, “Let me teach you how to edit yourself,” because if you are capable of understanding the grand ideas behind store and you’re capable of understanding the macro and the micro of storytelling, not only can you help yourself but you can help others.
In fact, you’re actually end up being extraordinarily helpful to people who are in the same game that you are. In fact, you’re usually a better editor of other people than you are of yourself. The more times you use the tools as a craftsman to help other people, the better your own writing craft becomes by-product. Every single piece of copy that’s written at a publishing house is written by an editor. Editors are great writers. The sales copy, they don’t hire professional advertising people to write sales copy for books. No. That is the editor’s job. The editors have to write all the time tip sheets and sales copy and flap copy and catalog copy and sales copy, all kinds of copy. That’s a lot of years’ time is spent writing. Editors become really good writers, because they have to constantly be churning out copy, as well as understanding the whole concept of hook and payoff and build and all that stuff.
[0:23:43.5] TG: Can you talk a little bit more about how your work was – you looked at developing a writer over a long period of time. It sounded like you’ve done that with lots of writers, where you would acquire their first or second book and then keep being their editor for a long time in helping them change over time. Could you talk a little bit about what that process was like? Because it sounds like the first book does, you help them get it to a point where you could publish it. It did okay. Then the next book was maybe better and found a bigger market and so on and so forth. Could you talk a little bit about what that process was like for you?
[0:24:26.5] SC: Conceptually, the way it would work is I would just be a fountain of bad ideas and sometimes the bad ideas would goose the writer into coming up with a concept that they hadn’t quite thought of before, that would bring a new dimension to their work. As an example, years ago as I was working with a great crime writer named Robert Crais. He was at a crossroads in his career and he was doing very well, but he really wanted to take another leap.
He sent my publisher Steve Rubin a manuscript, his agent did and Steve shared it with me. Then Bob and I started working together. The concept of the manuscript was fantastic, but it was a step out of what he had done before. He had a character who was very intelligent, very funny, wisecracking, he was a private detective, but this new novel that he had written was quite a bit darker. It really focused on the sidekick character to the detective, a guy named Joe Pike.
We talked about it for a long time and eventually, we came to the place where I said to him, what you need here is some third-person admission. You need to get out of your first-person point of view and get a wider, wider angle. He took that to heart and boy, did he run with that idea and he wrote a novel called LA Requiem, which was really wonderful.
The reason why I say that is that I didn’t do anything magical, other than to give Bob the freedom to consider a new idea. It’s difficult when you’ve had success doing one thing to branch out and try something that could end up blowing up in your face. Then from that point forward, we did a couple of more books that were standalone thrillers that I loved, and eventually I left Doubleday and I think Bob did too. I think he’s at Putnam now.
That was really as an editor, one of the really great fun things to do is to say because as the editor, you look at the – there’s a great quote from Walker Percy and the quote is, ‘The wounded man has a better view of the battle than those still fighting’. I always loved that idea, where once you are outside of the battle, you can give a new perspective to a writer. The writer is literally in the trenches fighting a war, an internal war to create his or her next novel, or next story.
The editor’s role is to be the outsider who knows the global strategies involved in the war and can pipe in with advice. Maybe you want to move seven paces down that way and try this, in order to solve that problem. That’s how Story Grid tools evolved is that sometimes I can say to somebody, “You really need to think about the progressive complication turning point in that scene, because it’s really not on – it’s not on the value at stake that you’ve presented and seen.” They look at me glazed over.
Then I have to pull out another tool and I would say something like, “Well, I don’t think that character would do that thing, because they were brought up a different way.” Maybe you should approach and think about that character’s motivations to do that thing from the point of view of the experience they had in chapter seven.” It depends upon the writer and the Story Grid toolbox is – I’m constantly trying to add more, little analytical tools and levels of analysis to make those problems easier for the individual writer to digest.
Yes, the problems are the problems and they’re not the fault of the writer, but sometimes the writer has a way of thinking that is different than the editor. That’s why I’ve had plenty of projects where I’ve edited them. I never really got in sync with the writer and the writer and I parted ways and the writer found another editor who could speak their language, so to speak. It’s not that you’re building yourself to be an infallible source of story gold, but what you’re doing is you’re learning many different techniques to solve specific problems that arise all the time.
The problem of the middle build is going to happen every single time you write a novel, every single time you tell a story. Knowing well, what do I know about the hero’s journey? Well, there are trials in the middle. That’s a huge win for a writer. I’m going to have three escalating problems in the middle that my protagonist is going to have to deal with. Ah, that’s at least three scenes, right? Then that way, knowing these levels of analysis and saying the middle build is a problem, how can I solve the middle build? Well, what does the hero’s journey say about the middle build? Then you get the answer, “Oh, I should have a series of trials in an extraordinary world for my protagonists to have to contend with.”
[0:30:14.4] TG: Yeah, well I was just thinking that that’s one of those specific things you could say is if you’re reading a middle build and something’s not working, and even if the writer knows something’s not working, you could come in and say, “Well, according to the hero’s journey, you’re supposed to have three trials and I can only find two.” Now, it’s a specific job to work on.
[0:30:35.9] SC: Right. Or the trials are not escalating in importance, right? They’re not getting progressively more. That’s my levels of 10 tool; have the writer analyze each one of those trials and say if you had to put it on a scale of one to 10 and 10 being completely life-changing irreversible and one being totally reversible and it doesn’t matter, what would you evaluate that scene being? Then usually what they find is that they’ve written a 3, a 3 and a 4. You say, “Well, I don’t think the stakes are all that high, if it’s not an irreversible change.”
These are the things that I can always – it’s like this big fat tool belt that I have. When I read something and if something isn’t working, I can try a different tool. The tools are usually specific to the writer. Some writers like some tools, some like different ones. Brings up the question, a lot of people always say things like, “Well, aren’t you just giving a formula?” No, I’m not. I’m giving you a global concept.
It’s like building a bench, right? There are all kinds of different kinds of ways to build a bench. Any material, different materials, different paints, different cushions, different all kinds of things. The formula to build a specific bench for a story, it really doesn’t exist. Thank God, because each person has to bring a level of subjective truth to the story that I can’t provide for them. For example in your novel, you struggled quite a long time to even understand why you were writing the thing in the first place and what it was really about. What was the controlling idea of your story? You didn’t really figure that out, until last week, right? It took you three years.
I think, I’m hoping that understanding the different levels of analyzing your story and thinking it through, enabled you to be more aware of your everyday life, in such a way that a stranger that you didn’t know gave you a piece of information that turned out to be a turning point for your own story. Now years ago, you probably may not have even listened to what she had said at the moment.
Editing is almost becoming even more hyper aware of your own life. The better an editor you become, the more perceptive and the more attention you give to the actual moments of your life, which is it’s amazing. It allows you to look at something in a completely different way and apply a Eureka moment in your mind directly to a work of art.
Steve Pressfield always talks about, and I absolutely agree with him on this, is that there’s two levels of reality; there’s the reality that we live in and then there’s a higher realm. The higher realm is it’s filled with whatever you want to call it; the collective unconscious, muse, spirits, ghosts, angels, whatever you want to call them, but I do believe that it’s the place where we get the Eureka moment.
For whatever reason, your training allowed you to hear that woman at that dinner party, give you the core idea behind the novel that you’ve been working on for three years. I think that’s magic. I really do. I really believe in that concept. I think the way to get more and more of those things to come to you is to apply more and more of your critical thinking to why stories work, why structure can lead you to an epiphany.
The structure is a tool to lead you to moments, like the moment that you had at that dinner party. Editing is the course that you can use to have more epiphanies in your life. That’s why I am so strident about the word ‘editor’. I think the word editor, it’s a really important craft that nobody really knows much about, except the editors who do the work all the time. When they have a beer they can go, “Yeah, so it was obvious. It was just the third act problem and they needed to zig when they should have zagged on their payoff.” The other go, “Yeah, yeah. I don’t know how many times I’ve said that to my people I’ve worked with too.”
I think the more people who can understand how to give that advice, the better our stories will be. If you’re a writer, learning the editor’s craft will make your life so much easier. The reason why is that then, you will have the language and the vocabulary to boil these problems that sometimes takes 45 minutes to go over into a five-second discussion. Yeah, your progressive complication didn’t work there. Okay, next. If you share the same language as your editor, you can fly through and really fix a lot of problems very quickly and constantly level up and get better and better and better with each draft.
[0:36:01.6] TG: Yeah, I think that’s been one of the most fascinating parts of this process is now when you get to the end of the book and you finish the last page and then the next page is the acknowledgments and there’s always like, thanks to my editor and it’s always this really nice statement. I was like, “Okay,” but I never really understood. Because I think about people talk about how the writer’s room of a TV show, there’s 10 people in the room and they’re all bantering on different things, where the writer is off on their own trying to come up with these ideas.
What you’re describing here and what I’ve experienced with you too is this different thing where there is the back-and-forth. There is this feedback on what you’re doing and where your work is and how you can make it better, that I just had no idea was what was going on behind the scenes. It just seems so strange, I guess. Because when you think about a movie, the producer who pretty – a lot of times just funded it. They just wrote the check and then you have the director. Everybody gets their say, the big players in the movie right at the beginning in big bold letters.
They even promote it as this movie is by the director that did these other movies. This movie is by the person that did, that wrote the screenplay for these other movies. With books, it’s just like, this guy wrote the book.
[0:37:32.2] SC: Right. Editors have had their own particular sensibilities too. I mean, I think one of the great failures of the major publishers is to give the editors credit, because if you knew the editors of – so many editors have published really amazing books in a similar theme. Steve talks about this in the artist journey, where the artist – if you go through the record catalogue of somebody like Bruce Springsteen, or the Rolling Stones, or Joni Mitchell, or whatever, you can see this really cool progression of thematic movement.
They’re exploring a particular sensibility. It’s the same thing for editors. If you you’re able to track the books that they’re editing over time, then you can see the editor’s vision and what they’re wrestling with. There are particular novels that I’m attracted to and stories that other editors aren’t. If you looked at what I’ve edited over the years, you would see a portrait of me. I think there is a real art and craft in the editing process itself, and that’s part of why I started the Story Grid, because there’s no language that gives them the credit that they really deserve.
[0:38:47.2] TG: Well, and I think too if I – especially if we think about independent editors, I think inside of publishing, there’s pressures on editors to have so many books in a period of time, in a genre and all that. I think about there’s – I’m making assumptions here, but I’m assuming there’s this – not just the sensibility of how they mold the project, but it’s also the projects they’re even willing to work on. That’s what movies play against is like in theory, this director could pick whatever they wanted, and because they picked this movie, you should go see it, because they only pick these types of movies.
I would think the same thing is true of editors of like you’ve talked about on here. You’re not just editing whatever comes across your desk, because somebody writes you a paycheck. It’s more like, “Am I interested in the project? Is this something that’s I think I can actually have an impact on? Is this a type of writer I enjoy working with?” It’s not just the sensibility of the I guess, crafting the project. It’s also which projects you even take on anyway.
[0:39:53.4] SC: Yeah, yeah. That’s an important thing to learn too as an editor is what specific genres are you really attracted to? How can you find the writers and the best fit? The really great thing about the story grid experience for me has been just the pure focus on story. Just what is it? How is it work? What are the genres? I don’t agree with you there. I agree with you in this. At least, there is now a very clear discussion about principles that have been in play for since people could talk.
There is no unfortunately – I mean, and this is a great opportunity, but there is no degree in editing. There is no college you can go to, there is no online institute that it’s really – Story Grid is for me, it’s this this place to introduce people to the way of life of being an editor. I think it’s a very fulfilling experience to be able to work with people on stories that are theirs and yet, you can help them. It’s almost not psychotherapy, but it is two people facing a problem that together, they’re much better at solving them one person alone.
When you learn the craft as a writer to be an editor for other people, you can help other people solve their story problems. Then when you head back to your own work, your work is so fully informed by that experience that you don’t make the mistakes that the people that you’ve worked with do. You don’t even contemplate them, because by fixing somebody else’s broken pipe, you don’t put in the plumbing where it’ll break.
That’s the experience that I found is that the writers who have worked in the Story Grid arena with me, their writing just takes very large leaps forward, by understanding how other people are facing difficult problems and helping them solve it. Then coming back to their work, they’re less intimidated by the problem than they would have been in the first place, and so they’re able to at the very least not run away from their desk in horror.
[0:42:22.6] TG: Yeah. Yeah, because I think sometimes about – because how long have you been working with Steve Pressfield?
[0:42:27.9] SC: 24 years, maybe.
[0:42:30.5] TG: I just think about – because it sounds like you’ve worked with lots of writers over several books, but you’ve worked with him the longest. When you look back over all the work he’s produced, I mean, there must be some satisfaction there about just getting to be involved. Because, I think sometimes – coming back to my world of marketing, I think about how satisfying it is to have my own following and to have my own impact on the world. At the same time for years, I got to dabble and I got to have a much larger impact than I ever have on my own, because I’ve gotten to be involved with so many different people’s platforms and getting so much work out into the world.
Even when I look at writers who I haven’t worked with a long time and I see them launching a new book, or doing something new on their platform, even when it’s without me, I know that there’s still a piece of me in that work. That’s just satisfying to feel not only do I put my own work out, but I get to be a part of other people’s work too. I’m sure it’s the same for an editor.
[0:43:35.1] SC: Well yeah. I feel that my DNA is in every single book that I ever worked on. I said this to Steve before and he doesn’t believe it, but I get as emotionally involved in the commercial performance of a title as the author does. I almost feel physically ill when I read a bad review of a book that I’ve edited, or – and that’s because you can’t help but care when you are applying and giving ideas that are coming out of a mystical place.
Whenever you give advice, or point out a problem and then offer a possible solution, you are stepping into the unknown heroically. Editors are doing that along with the writer. It’s almost as if the writer just needs someone to say, “Hey, I’m heading in into the darkness by throwing out this really stupid idea to you.” Then they say to themselves, “Oh, at least my ideas isn’t going to be as stupid as Shawn’s. Now I can try my own.”
It gives the writer the ability to have the freedom to just explore the unknown. Now just in terms of Steve, I think Steve is a great example in that I told this story a million times before, but when we first started working together, I insisted that he locked himself into a genre. I said, I will acquire your novel, at the time it was called Thermopylae, if you agree to do another novel in this same universe. Meaning, classical Greek historical fiction.
The first thing he said to me was, “No. There’s absolutely no way I’m going to be jammed into that world.” I had to withdraw the offer, because it was contingent upon him doing what I said. Then about two days later, he called me back and said, “I’ve thought about it and I’ve got an idea in my drawer that’s in your arena. Would you consider me doing a novel based upon Alcibiades, who is a famous Peloponnesian war figure?”
That’s what started our beautiful friendship, because at first, he didn’t want to go into a realm. He didn’t want to be pointed in the direction that I was pointing him. He’s following the muse. He’s not following Shawn Coyne. When I said that, he got his hackles up. Then because he’s a professional, he went back and he said, “I wonder if my muse has already given me something that is in the realm that he’s talking about,” because he has a file of ideas that come to him.
He pulled out this file and in that file was a piece of paper that said, “The Michael Jordan of ancient Greece was Alcibiades.” Literally it said that. When he called me he goes, “Look, I’ve got this piece of paper in my file and it says, ‘The Michael Jordan of ancient Greece was Alcibiades.’ At the time, Michael Jordan was at the pinnacle of his career. Would that interest you?” I’m like, “Yeah.”
That was a way by which he was able to live within the commercial realm that I was pressing on him, while also being true to a higher realm. That’s to his credit and I think a good editor will push the writer in the opposite direction in which they want to go. That gooses them into reconsidering their worldview. “Oh, but I’m a X writer. I only write regency romances. I can’t write a contemporary thriller love story set in at the Pentagon. I can’t do that thing.” Well, why not?
If an editor says, “I’d be interested in seeing that from you, because I think you could do that.” That allows an a writer to have the freedom to dip their toe into the black unknown and know that somebody is standing behind them, willing to help them out when they get lost.
[0:47:39.6] TG: Yeah. One of my favorite things that I’ve heard from you and Steve is I think this was relatively recent too. He had written a draft, sent it to you and you’d sit in just pages and pages of notes about how it didn’t work, or whatever. He’s like, “Give me a few days.” Then he wrote back, “I’ve successfully turned all of your ideas into my ideas.”
[0:48:03.8] SC: Yeah, that’s literally the critical process. Where the writer has to absorb – it’s not that Steve ever agrees with – he probably agrees with 61% of what I tell him. He needs to basically metabolize the thinking of the writer and then convert it to Steven, Stevie’s. I think that’s the way it works for a really good relationship between a writer and – like you and I in over the past three years, I’ve given you a million ideas that didn’t work. I’ve spouted off on theories and things that you just – you’re like, “Yeah, yeah. I’m not going to use that,” but it pushed you into, “Well, maybe I do need to think about that.” Then you came up with your own thing. That’s the role. That’s the role of the editor.
[0:48:49.5] TG: Yeah. I’ve experienced that so many times with you for sure. There’s times where you’re talking and giving me this idea and about halfway through, I completely check out because I found what I was looking for. You were goading me in all these directions and then I’m like, “Oh, I think that’s it.”
Yeah, and I just can’t – When I think about – I mean, the reference I always like to make is Stephen King’s on writing when he talks about just the years and years that he was just writing by himself, because all he was doing was collecting rejections. All he could hope for was one sentence scribbled, right? I think the most famous one is his second draft equals first draft, minus 10%, or something like that. It was like that. He’s like, “That one thing helped me so much.” I’m like, “Oh, my God. You’re having to do this forever by yourself, that one sentence changes things.”
Yeah, I just can’t – for me, I feel again, my progression has just gone so fast because I’ve been able to have that shorter feedback loop and I’m not just creating in a vacuum and having an editor to work with along the way that’s just made all the difference.
[0:50:07.2] SC: Well, yeah. I mean, and you also took a really difficult path in that well, difficult and not difficult, in that you didn’t have to publish four books. I mean, in three years you could have set, published four books that didn’t work and you could have undergone a lot of pain and then you could have reached a point where you are now, but you didn’t have to go through the four books worth of pain and effort and all the marketing and all that. Then seeing the glazed expressions in your friends’ eyes when you made them by the book and they hated it and they don’t want to tell you.
[0:50:44.4] TG: Oh, geez.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:50:44.9] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the story grid podcast. I mentioned at the beginning that I would tell you a little bit more about the Story Grid editor certification program. We’re holding another training this coming February. If this is something you think you may be interested in, you can find out more by visiting our website, going to storygrid.com/cert. That’s C-E-R-T for certification. This is something you may be interested in learning more about, about becoming a Story Grid certified editor.
This is the way to do it. We don’t hold these trainings very often. It’s really intense. It’s a really great way to dive deep, deep into Story Grid. It’s in-person here in Nashville and it’s coming up this February. If this is something you may be interested in, you can go read a little bit more about it and fill out the application at storygrid.com/cert. Again, that’s /C-E-R-T.
As always, for everything Story Grid related, you can 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 like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.
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