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:
- What is the genre?
- What are the obligatory scenes and conventions of that genre?
- What is the point of view?
- What are the objects of desire?
- What is the controlling idea or theme?
- 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 Question; download 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!
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.