The Story Grid Diagnostic: What It Is (and Isn’t)

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After you’ve written a book, what’s your next step?

A. announce it on social media
B. call your mother and your annoying older brother and brag (because they ask you about “the book” every year at Thanksgiving while exchanging knowing looks)
C. upload it to Amazon.com
D. throw a lot of money into a pit because that’s what happens after you finish writing a book
E. all of the above

There are more answers to this question than just the few I’ve outlined above, and most of them are absolutely unhelpful. Not only that, but ever since the e-reader became a “thing” and the Self-Publishing Revolution exploded onto the scene, a huge marketplace of advice (some free, some not) and services (often expensive) has appeared, tempting would-be authors with a siren song that goes something like:

– Sign up for this one-month sprint, finish and upload your ebook in thirty days!
– Buy this novel outline template, then just “flesh things out”
– The appalling first draft is normal, here’s a list of editors who will fix everything, just pull out your credit card, it’ll cost you $2997, or $4997, or $9997! Then just upload to Amazon.com and you’re done!

What are you supposed to do when you’ve finally got a manuscript in your hands and you want to see it in print?

Story Grid editors believe that storytelling is a creative art with a learning curve. Some people are further along that curve by virtue of talent, previous experience in complementary fields, or perhaps years of practice. But everyone can get better. And with the various tools and resources out there, you can practice and improve without leaving your desk. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars attending conferences or working on an MFA.

But we’ve got the opposite problem now, where there are so many ways of going about it, so many podcasts, coaches, and video courses, that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to choose.

We believe that the first step to addressing this problem is the Story Grid Diagnostic.

The backstory to the Story Grid Diagnostic

When Shawn Coyne was working as an acquisitions editor at New York publishing houses, he developed a method of determining if something “worked” or “didn’t work.” All editors need to do something like this—after all, they’re inundated with manuscripts! They simply can’t spend days upon days trying to gut-level guess their way through their inbox as it fills with manuscripts and inquiries from agents. Just as you need to finish your book in order to get it out into the world, editors need to make decisions about what to publish. They need to choose books and get them onto the production schedule, or the company won’t sell books, make money, or pay salaries. And did you know that publishing companies tell their editors how much money their titles earned? Or—gasp—LOST? Think for a moment, do YOU want to be that person whose acquisitions are in the red?

So every editor is going to have some way of figuring out which books get the thumbs up and which don’t. What’s special about Shawn’s method is that he systematized it and created a vocabulary around it so that not only could he figure out for himself which manuscripts to buy and which to decline—but he could explain in precise language to writers what needed to be fixed and how. He called his method, “the Story Grid,” and eventually published a book detailing the process (available at all the usual places online, as well as at Black Irish Books).

But it’s a heck of a process. And let’s be real—a top editor like Shawn Coyne doesn’t see first drafts from amateurs. Someone like Shawn only sees manuscripts from trusted agents, and isn’t going to sink a company’s money (and his reputation) into something that is going to take major surgery in order to fix. There are only so many minutes in the year, and you’re going to choose the manuscripts that have the most promise…WHILE NEEDING THE LEAST AMOUNT OF WORK.

Put another way, Shawn and every other top-flight editor is only going to look at manuscripts that have already made some kind of preliminary cut; they have already been vetted in some fashion (whether by going through a reputable agent, or perhaps is the product of an already-known author) and they already “work.” Contrary to what the public may think, editors do not “fix” manuscripts. More precisely, they “enhance” manuscripts that the WRITER has already perfected. You cannot deliver a flawed story to an editor and expect that she is going to take care of all the things that you didn’t. That book is going to hit the circular file, fast (scroll up and take another look at those piles of manuscripts–editors aren’t mean people, but they like to have time for meals and sleep just like anyone else).

On the other hand, Shawn wrote The Story Grid in order to help ALL writers figure out why their stories don’t work, why they don’t sell, and how they can do something about it. He started the podcast with Tim Grahl so that he could explain the principles behind his work, in hopes that even more people could benefit from his years of work in the trenches. The Story Grid isn’t just for people who’ve already made it, who have agents and contracts in New York. It’s for all of us—if we’re willing to do the “blue collar work” necessary.

But then it got better.

Shawn refined and systematized his process of analyzing a manuscript and named it the “Story Grid Diagnostic,” a way of “diagnosing” problems and providing answers, the same way that a doctor diagnoses your arthritic knee (on the minor side) or your diabetes (on the major side). And since Shawn cannot be the one to help every single person who emails him or approaches him at a conference, he trained a small coterie of Story Grid nerds to perform the exact process he goes through when he reads a manuscript.

I’m one of those editors, and what I’d like to do in this week’s “Fundamental Fridays” article is to address some of the most common questions I get from writers who contact me about manuscript evaluations. Some are Story Grid fans and understand the process, but haven’t yet figured out where the Diagnostic itself fits into their plans for their books. Others have never heard of Story Grid, and think that I’m the Comma Police; they want me to find all the misplaced modifiers and dangling participles, typos and auto-correct fails. I’m hoping that this post will help both Story Grid fans and writers who are new to Story Grid by clarifying the exact process that Shawn taught the Story Grid editors to use in order to evaluate a manuscript. We’re doing exactly what he does, and we believe that this is the best way to not only diagnose a manuscript, but to give a writer actionable advice that will help him or her to move forward.

If you’ve got a manuscript and you’d like the closest thing to Shawn Coyne’s direct assessment of your manuscript, I’ll give you the link right here: The Story Grid Diagnostic

You can also contact any of our nineteen fabulous editors personally through their links on the main Editing Services page. But if you’re still wondering what on earth a Story Grid Diagnostic is and isn’t, read on!

The Elements of the Diagnostic

First of all, your editor will read the entire book. This is important; if you pitch your story at a writer conference, the editor or agent will not request the entire manuscript. In fact, even if you convince an editor or agent with the brilliance of your first three chapters that she should read the entire book, there’s no guarantee that this will happen. The minute he is bored or distracted, he will stop reading. Our editors, however, will read the entire book, with great love and respect for the work you poured into it.

Then the editor will use a tool that Shawn calls the “Six Core Question Analysis.” It starts with the question, “What is the global genre?” The second step is to ask, “What are the conventions and obligatory scenes of that genre?” You may think you’ve written a crime story, but do you have a crime? Are you sure? You may think you’ve written a thriller, but do you have a villain? Are you sure? You may think you’ve written a love story, but do you have a love triangle? Are you sure?

Third, the editor will examine the narrative device that you have chosen. Who is your narrator? How are you telling your story? Is it working? Is it consistent?

Fourth, we look at the wants and needs of your main character. If you examine the wants and needs of your protagonist, you should see the global genre reflected very clearly. Often, this isn’t the case, and when the writer is having a problem with global genre (such as, “my book is kind of a romantic suspense novel,” or “my book doesn’t fit into crime exactly, it’s kind of worldview but it starts with a murder, so maybe it’s really a thriller?”), this wants and needs analysis clarifies the question beautifully for the writer.

Fifth, we refine the controlling idea or theme of the story into a single sentence if we can (and if we can’t, we discuss this with the writer), and sixth, boil the entire story down into a beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff. Again, if we don’t see these three sections clearly in the manuscript, we talk this through with the writer.

Here are the pieces of the Six Core Question Analysis once more, just to recap:

  1. What is the genre?
  2. What are the obligatory scenes and conventions of that genre?
  3. What is the point of view?
  4. What are the objects of desire?
  5. What is the controlling idea or theme?
  6. What are the beginning hook, the middle build, and the ending payoff?

Shawn wrote up a description of the Six Core Question Analysis (otherwise known as “the Foolscap Global Story Grid” for those of you who’ve read The Story Grid) as a blog post here. Story Grid Editor Kim Kessler wrote a great Fundamental Fridays article on “Vetting Your Book Idea,” where she talks about the ways in which you can test-drive an idea before spending months or years trying to make it work. In it she’s got a great description of the Six Core Question Analysis as a tool to figure out whether an idea is worth working on. Also, Story Grid Editor Valerie Francis has a fun, slightly (slightly!) tongue-in-cheek treatment of the Six Core Question Analysis in her article, Genre in Writing: the Most Important Questiondownload her PDF document where she uses the Six Core Question Analysis on her own article and see if you can guess what genre her article is in!

I feel that the most important part of the Diagnostic is the fact that we enthusiastically read through the entire book. But the second most important part is the one-hour phone consultation. We not only have an extensive one-on-one with the writer, but we record the call so that the writer doesn’t have to take notes or worry about remembering everything we talked about. We go through the “six questions” analysis and answer any questions that the writer may have…about anything at all!

Story Grid Diagnostics include a Story Grid Spreadsheet of your first five scenes.

Some people love the next piece of the Diagnostic, which is the Story Grid Spreadsheet of the first five scenes. If you are already a confirmed Story Grid nerd, you know why this is so valuable. If you are a Story Grid newcomer, let me explain. Shawn’s book, The Story Grid, is an in-depth treatment of his method of analysis, which involves a massive Story Grid Spreadsheet. Now, the Diagnostic does not include a complete spreadsheet. Why? For two reasons. First of all, most manuscripts aren’t ready for it. And second, the best way for a writer to revise a manuscript is to create a Story Grid Spreadsheet on his or her own. We will do the first five scenes for you so that you can see how it’s done. You can use this spreadsheet as a template and continue to fill it out, if you wish. Most of the time, writers discover that they have missing scenes, irrelevant scenes, or scenes that aren’t actually working as scenes. You do NOT want to create a Story Grid Spreadsheet where you spend many hours analyzing scenes that don’t work or that will be cut. But we show you how it’s done, so that when you’re ready, you can do it yourself. This exercise will teach you more about good writing and how to structure a novel than any passive reading of blog posts will ever do.

Included with all of this is an editorial letter where we tell you what to do next. Yes, we give you direction so that you aren’t headed into your rewrite blind. In addition, we offer recommendations of books to read in your genre and other resources, such as cheat sheets and recommendations for further reading.

What the Story Grid Diagnostic is not

A line edit. Line editors get into the actual scenes of your manuscript; they will recommend that you cut, correct, or enhance your scenes so that you are communicating the story in a way that makes sense and reads naturally. They’ll do things like caution you on all those extra adverbs, combine sentences for better flow, advise you on transitions, and highlight words that you may be repeating or overusing. In addition, if you aren’t crystal clear in your meaning, or if you are repetitive, a line edit will force you to clarify your writing. Line edits, when taken seriously and with deliberation, will teach you to write better. If you work with an editor at the level of the sentence, beat, and scene, you will improve the quality of your writing going forward. Line edits happen earlier in the process than, say, copy edits, but the Story Grid Diagnostic is not a line edit. The line edit happens after you have a manuscript that works.

A copy edit. Copy editors go even deeper, into spelling, punctuation, and grammar. They work off a style guide—the Chicago Manual, for example—and are looking for absolute consistency at a level that is even more “micro” than what the line editor does. They will check to see that you haven’t contradicted yourself by describing the protagonist differently in different parts of the book. They’ll also ask questions about facts that may need to be validated before you publish. Copy edits don’t happen until the book is finished and all the line edits are done. It’s the last step before the proofread. And the Story Grid Diagnostic is not a copy edit.

A developmental edit. Are Story Grid Editors “developmental editors?” Yes. However, the Diagnostic itself is not a developmental edit, in the sense that it examines the manuscript that you have, not the manuscript that you “could” have. It is like going to the gym and having the trainer put you through a fitness test in order to see where you are. After the fitness test, she can then recommend a course of action based on your goals—and the course of action would be the metaphorical equivalent to developmental editing. The Diagnostic is the fitness test. Developmental editing is what you do with the results of the fitness test. If you would like an editor to give you regular feedback and advice on your writing, you want a developmental editor. The Story Grid Editors do work one-on-one with writers in order to bring their manuscripts up to snuff; it’s often a good idea to have a Diagnostic done first, but sometimes a writer isn’t ready for that step. Have a look at our editor list and reach out to a few of us. We offer free consultations, and if we are fully booked or if there is another editor with the type of expertise that you need, we’ll be sure to find the right person for you.

The Only Edit You’ll Ever Need. There is a perception that after writing a first draft, one needs to “hire an editor,” and that this single act is all the writer needs to do in order to be published. I think this misperception is out there because prominent writers often talk about sending their work “out to the editor” and then getting it back, all marked up, before doing revisions, followed by the upload to Amazon.com or submission to one’s publisher in New York. While this seems like an attractive and doable workflow, for most writers, it’s just not realistic. It is highly unlikely that a manuscript will only need a single pass by an editor in order to kickstart revisions that will pass muster. The truth is that manuscripts usually go through many revisions, and might need another pair of eyes after each one. The Diagnostic is the first step of this process, but definitely not the only edit you’ll ever need.

A template. The Diagnostic is not a fill-in-the blanks service. It takes a month, and it takes a ton of work. We don’t have a library of pre-written Diagnostics. We write each one individually and pour our hearts into them.

A way for Tim and Shawn to get rich. When you purchase a Diagnostic, you are working individually with an independent editor, not with Story Grid itself. We have been trained by Shawn and can reach out to him (and each other) with questions about our work, but we work for ourselves. The Diagnostic is not a gimmick, and it’s not a way to “monetize” the Story Grid method. It’s a tool that we believe in as editors in the trenches, and we use it because we believe it’s the best way to consistently and thoroughly put manuscripts through their paces and to give the best advice as to next steps.

Here’s a handy sheet describing the various types of editors here: SG Editors Guide-3.

After the Diagnostic: What Next?

Let me back up and say it again: Shawn wrote The Story Grid in order to share his process with EVERYONE, not just the top-flight authors who are lucky enough to have him as an editor. The Story Grid Diagnostic does a specific thing, and it does it extremely well. All writers need a “diagnostic” SOMETHING to happen on their manuscript at some point, just like our doctors look at our cholesterol and blood sugar levels. But if you try to shoehorn the Diagnostic into a box where it doesn’t fit, you may not be availing yourself of the fact that with the Diagnostic, you are getting Shawn Coyne by proxy, via one of his Story Grid editors, without necessarily needing to have an agent, or necessarily needing to already be a successful author. And after the Diagnostic, you then get to choose the tools that will best help you to move forward, with a lot more targeted information than if you had to flounder about in the massive marketplace of writer products.

Perhaps you will dive into your next draft on your own, with the guidance of the Six Core Question Analysis to help you. Perhaps you will hire a developmental editor, either from among our nineteen or from elsewhere. Perhaps you will take a class on scene-writing because you notice on your Story Grid Spreadsheet that your first five scenes aren’t “moving.” You’ll know what you “need” versus what you merely “want.”

 

All of the Story Grid editors are independent editors and we all have different interests and enthusiasms. We have among our nineteen editors a ghostwriter, a specialist in non-fiction, multi-published/award-winning authors, a filmmaker, a movie industry veteran, an M.D., an M.B.A., an attorney, and more. We chat regularly and hash out story questions; we bring both Tim and Shawn into those conversations and enjoy every minute! We’re a community, and we believe in the power of story, the value of the Story Grid framework, and in the ability of all writers to get better with hard work. When you listen to the guys on the podcast “spitballing” and trying to figure out the best way to showcase a villain or the right genre to apply to the latest hit movie—that’s Story Grid, but now there are more than just two Story Grid nerds, so that YOU can get the same evaluation of your work that Shawn gives Tim every week. We’re super excited to see what you bring us, and believe deeply in the power of the Diagnostic to give you the information you need so that you can level up your writing game.

About the Author

Maya Rushing Walker is a novelist and a certified Story Grid editor who works out of her 1700s farmhouse in northern New England. In her past life, she has been a banker and a diplomat, and has lived in a number of far-flung destinations, such as Cairo, Tunisia, and Jerusalem. Visit her website at www.mayarushingwalker.com to see what she's up to in her multicultural adventures in fiction, or her romance novelist pen name site, www.cassandraausten.com. Maya studied international economics at Georgetown University and earned a masters from Harvard, where she studied medieval Japanese history. She has homeschooled four kids, all of whom got athlete genes from somewhere in the family tree, but not from her.
Comments (13)
Author Maya Rushing Walker

13 Comments

D.K. Fynn says:

“You may think you’ve written a love story, but do you have a love triangle? Are you sure?”

The two questions that precede this one (about writing a crime fiction and a thriller) imply that you should have what the question is asking.

So, I was curious to read this question, which seems to imply that, for a love story, there needs to be a love triangle.

I did a search, and found a Story Grid podcast transcript in which, indeed, Shawn says there should be a third-party rival “who is trying to get the attentions of one or more of the lovers in the story.”

Interesting. I don’t have that in my current WIP.

And that’s the value of knowing the conventions and obligatory scenes of your genre.

This has been very good, informative reading, and I do look forward to working with a Story Grid editor one day.

Reply
Maya Rushing Walker says:

I wondered if anyone was going to ask me about this line–good job on thoughtful reading! Yes, one of the conventions of the love story is that there is a “third party” involved. I specifically mentioned this in the article because we all know that a love story has at least two parties, but many writers don’t realize that you actually need THREE parties in order to really make the story work. I went back to look at a couple of old love story manuscripts of mine, and while I seemed to have “organically” placed a third party into the manuscripts, they were merely low-level background characters. I hadn’t exactly “violated” the love story convention, but a reader probably would have felt vague dissatisfaction at the end of these stories, because the stakes were not as high as they could have been. And one of the best ways to up the stakes in a story about relationships is to create conflict with another character. Good luck with your WIP! This is hard work, but this is how you make a good story, great!

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Roy Johnson says:

Could the ‘third party’ be any obstacle, like a job offer taking one person away from the other, a trip, a dying relative, etc.?

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Maya Rushing Walker says:

Hi Roy! Love stories need a “love triangle,” but yes, you could have a non-human third party. Here’s the catch, though. The point of the love story is in its Core Event–the “proof of love” scene. There are lots of stories where there is a love story embedded in the story but the Core Event is something else, like a life-or-death moment (think Hunger Games–which actually does have a love triangle, but the core event is not about the love story, it’s about survival). The person who chooses the dying relative would gain a lot of sympathy from the reader, but it would be a pretty sad love story and the “proof of love” would be quite different from that of the person who chooses the lover and NOT the dying relative. Both of these options are really interesting, and my only caution would be to look to the Core Event as you plan your story, if you are sure that the Love Story genre is your genre of choice. You’d need to build toward a climax that makes sense and is convincing. I would think really hard about whether the dying relative or job offer was truly “irreconcilable” in the way a third person would be–much of the time we can negotiate our way out of a bad set of choices, but you can’t negotiate your way out of choosing between two lovers! So I do think it can be pulled off, but it needs to be done with a lot of setup work so that when you arrive at the Core Event, your reader is ready for a moment of choice that doesn’t involve a person, and is still wrestling with the Core Emotion of love.

Reply
Rachelle Ramirez says:

Hello, D.K. You don’t have to wait to work with a Certified Story Grid Editor. Maya and all the CSGE’s offer free thirty minute consultation calls for writers. If you get stuck in your WIP, at any point, you can contact your chosen editor directly. Best of luck with that WIP.

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Sam says:

Well now I’m just embarassed because I sent in an enquiry about editing a couple of days ago and it feels like this article – which arrived in my Inbox the next day – was written just for me. #NeedsMoreWork (on the pitch) would be my assessment. Which is exactly what I’m going to do before I come back to you again. Thanks for the education.

Reply
Maya Rushing Walker says:

No need for embarrassment at all! If you’ve got a manuscript or a partial manuscript, congratulations! You are way ahead of most people right there! I hope that the article helps you to find your way through the massive amount of internet knowledge so that you can figure out what you need and where you can get it. Everyone at Story Grid is cheering for you! Let us know how we can help, either by signing up for a free call or by commenting on our posts (we always answer!). We love what we do!

Reply
Sam says:

Thank you, Maya. I’ll be back in touch for sure. Thanks for a really helpful article.

Reply
Maya Rushing Walker says:

Sandra, I’ve tried lots of approaches, and Shawn’s method has worked best for me, not only because of the method itself, but because the underlying message is compassionate: you CAN get better. You CAN do this. Your story CAN work. A lot of other methods have a not-so-hidden “smirk” in them. Not Shawn’s. And the Diagnostic is democratic. It will help the beginner, and it helps Steven Pressfield. I like that. I hope everyone out there is making progress, and if not–you can get better!

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

Thank you for sharing this much needed post. “A way for Tim and Shawn to get rich” isn’t an angle I’d considered as a rebuking of editing services. But now I can imagine writers everywhere saying it. Writers might be interested in learning that Tim and Shawn make NO money on the editing services they invest in on this site and directly with us Certified Story Grid Editors. Shawn and Tim invest their time in us so we can can invest our time in other writers. It’s part of their plan to help as many writers as they reasonably can. It’s a great way to build a tribe, support community, and invest in stories.

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Maya Rushing Walker says:

Thanks so much for jumping in, Rachelle! I know that my first reaction to internet courses and “you too can be published” tracts is suspicion. It’s not often that I find people I really trust, via the internet! Shawn and Tim are the real deal. I feel extremely lucky to have connected with the entire Story Grid community. As you said, the plan is to help as many writers as possible, and to inspire people to put in the work, because it’s worth it.

Reply
Anne Hawley says:

I’ll weigh in here. Maya might have more. The obstacles you describe seem like they fall more into the “Opposing Forces” convention. That convention usually refers to things like family values or societal norms, but *could* be coincidental externals.

Something to consider, though: the presence of a third person often serves to prove (to the reader and to one or the other of the lovers) that there’s been competition for this love, or that one lover has already chosen the other over the merits of this third person. It’s almost like an economic transaction. If there’s zero competition for either lover’s love, does that love really have any value? What distinguishes that love from everybody in the whole wide world?

In other external genre stories, the Antagonist (which is very often the role of the third person in the triangle) wants what the Protagonist wants. The Antagonist is in the story to mirror the Protagonist–they’re often very much alike, except for that one important difference. In a Love story, it might be the third person in the triangle who opens the other lover’s eyes to that one important quality. The third person fulfills a very dynamic role in a good love story.

Reply

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