[0:00:00.9] 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’m the struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining the shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode we continue down the theme of what we were talking about last week with trying to find the theme of the nonfiction book I’ve been working on. So last week I kind of hidden All is Lost moment, and this is a result of that. I went back and rewrote the introduction based on what we talked about last week and sent it to Shawn, and so this episode is Shawn giving his feedback and answering some more questions about where I go from here. So, I think it’s definitely a helpful episode if you’re struggling with the theme of your book and what you’re trying to say. So, let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:00.5] TG: Shawn, it’s funny, we always record these things and then later I come back and record the intro and outro, and this is our 116th episode. I’ve sent you really shitty writing that we spend an hour tearing apart. We thrown out entire manuscripts on the show. Last week was the first time I almost like cut out a part of the show, because I was like super embarrassed that I like broke down on the show, and I talked to Candice about it and she said I had to leave it in, and that was what I always promised, that like all the dirty stuff stays in. But that was in 2-1/2 years or whatever. That was the first time I almost was like, “Okay. I can’t put that out in the world.”
[0:01:53.2] SC: That’s probably the best thing that ever happened on the entire podcast. Just so you know that if you had done that, it would’ve really screwed up everything.
[0:02:05.0] TG: Well, I was making all these excuses, because it was technically after we had stopped — Because we always say, “Okay. It’s over,” and then we usually talk shop for a second before we get off the phone. So I was like, “Oh! But it was after we actually officially, so I can cut that part.” We always cut that part out. Then, of course, the more I fought it mentally, the more I realize like I kind of do it.
[0:02:31.8] SC: I don’t think the bad part is when you almost broke down. It was when I laughed — I think you probably put me in a bigger [inaudible 0:02:44.7] than yourself.
[0:02:50.2] TG: That’s a good point, though. Yeah, you just — Your soulless, Shawn.
[0:02:54.2] SC: No, but it’s like you either cry or laugh. It’s the only two responses to chaos and pain, is —
[0:03:04.5] TG: My younger son, Max. We realize when he gets scared, he laughs to like stop this fear. So we’ve had to like realize when he starts laughing hysterically like that, he’s actually probably afraid of something and we had to like stop. Yeah. No, I get that.
So I took your feedback and I went back and I actually rewrote it the day after we talked, and then I send it to Candice and she thought it was good. So I let it sit for a few days and I went back and edited it this morning and send it to you, 1,600 words. I’ll put it up in the show notes. I don’t know, I’ve lost count, but it’s like this seven or eight version of the introduction to this book I’ve written at this point. So I sent it to you. You got to read it. What are your thoughts? Did I get any closer to it?
[0:03:57.0] SC: Oh, yeah. It’s exactly what you want, because it’s true, and its raw, and it’s believable, and it’s the equivalent of listening to that moment that I pushed you to last week, which was what was the turning point. What was the thing that pushed you to take up the challenge to say to yourself, “You know what? I’m going to do it.” That line that that you always quote from Steve’s book, “Do it or don’t do it.”
When Steve wrote the War of Art, in that last — I love the last chapter in the book, but that’s really what it comes down to. Do it or don’t do it. You need to make a decision, and if you had decided — You know what? I’m not going to do it. I believe that I will find more happiness pursuing something else while having a job. That would’ve been perfectly reasonable and a perfectly fine decision, but you chose to do it, which meant you weren’t going to quit after you hit this All is Lost moment.
Basically what you had to write was the All is Lost moment that you personally went through that pushed you into the darkness to discover the things that you’re going to share with the reader. So this introduction, and I’ve said it a million times, the introduction to a big idea book is crucial. It’s like the beginning of a movie. If you don’t hook the reader with something very, very visceral that grabs him by the throat and says, “Come with me. I’m going to tell you something that is going to be something that you will remember forever,” and the great movies are, and the great novels are those things that we remember forever.
If you don’t make that promise in the introduction, or prologue, or whatever you want to call it, the beginning hook up your big idea book, then why don’t you just write a how-to book and say, “Here’s how you plant a tree.” The thing is how-to is no longer really a viable piece of intellectual property, and the reason why is that how-to stuff is all over for free on the internet.
So if you are going to write nonfiction and you say to yourself, “You know what? I just want to really comprehensive how to about gardening.” Now if you’re the best gardener in the world and you’ve created something brand-new and you have a completely new methodology that is against the tide of what has been done before, like that guy Mel Bartholomew who did the Square Foot Garden. That’s a how-to book, but boy is it revolutionary, right?
I’m not saying those kind how-to books are going to work, but how many times do they come around? How many times are we able to completely revolutionize a particular way of doing something? Very rarely, and usually it’s somebody crazy like me who’s like spent 30 years doing it. Anyway, I think this introduction is perfect. Yeah, you’re going to have to edit it and I’ll have to edit it to too so that we can really clarify and keep the momentum moving from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and also I would leave out that you never cashed the check, because you’re giving a payoff far, far too early. I think you want the reader to say to themselves, “Hey, you know what, so he cashed the check. He bought himself a month. His parents were happy to do it. It was a good thing that he took their help,” and that’s going to be what they assume from this prologue. Then later, maybe in the epilogue, you can say, “By the way, I never did cash that check,” and having that check — Thematically, if you think about your life and your experience as a story — And I always recommend that people think of things in their lives in terms of the structure of a story because that’s what you’re playing out in your own life. But if you look at what happened to you, I think a fundamental need that you, Tim, required before you could gain the resolve to really go deep into the darkness, was you needed your mom and your dad to make a gesture to you that was a gesture of love, that was a gesture of understanding, and support, and care, and you were blessed with two people who really do care about you and really were able to give you that gift when you needed it.
So I don’t want to soft sow. Now, of course, nobody could have done it without you. You had to make that choice yourself, but my point is that we all walk around — And I talked about the gas gauge of needs, and my theory is that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs isn’t really a hierarchy. It’s more of a gas gauge, and that we each have these tanks of need within ourselves that rise and fall depending upon the circumstances of our lives.
So we can all relate to the fact of skipping a couple of meals and then getting home for dinner, and dinner is not ready and your son or daughter says something to you that’s really irritating and you lose your temper. If you had eaten lunch, you wouldn’t have lost your temper, right? So that’s like the most primal example of having a low gas gauge in terms of food, which is your primal sustenance which makes you weak in terms of your temper.
So for you in this moment that you’re describing the prologue, your gas gauge of self-esteem is really at its lowest point. Some people say we do things for a reason and maybe a psychologist would say to you, “Well, you needed to stretch yourself to this breaking point and test really the people in your lives love for you.” It wasn’t just your parents, it was your wife, and it was your son who was just born. They loved you too. I love the scene that you described, because you’re looking at your wife, and what is she doing? She’s making dinner for you and her and your son, and that’s an act of love that we often neglect to acknowledge. Just your writing about that, the theme is, “Look at this guy. He’s got a wife who love him, a kid who loves him and his parents love him. Wow! I hope he really understands that and can get a shit together.” Guess what happens? You do. You do, and I think that’s really a great push into the story of the book, because you’re saying — I love to decipher stuff like this, but what the story is saying to the reader is this, “Hi, I’m Tim. I wanted to become a big shot and start my own thing and find out what I could give to the world, and I hit a brick wall and I was running on fumes, and look at this, I had two sets of family that gave me a gift at my worst possible moment. My wife and son gave me a gift, and my parents gave me a gift. So what I did with that gift from those two sources was to press forward and to get head deep into the darkness and discover and find those things that would get me to a place where I could do what I needed to do on the planet. I went into the darkness and I’m going to share with you the things that I found on my journey,” and that’s a really nice introduction, because what you’re saying is, “Hey, for all of you guys you don’t have a loving family on either side, I do, and I’m going to push their love for me forward and give their love to you, because I came back with a gift. I wouldn’t have been able to find that gift without these people’s love. So if you can see this, I’m going to push forward the gift that they gave to me.”
That is thematically a wonderful invitation because, honestly, a lot of people have to go at it alone, and they don’t have people writing them checks to cover their mortgage because they got in trouble. I’m not denigrating the position that you’re in. We all find that. I’ve certainly been in that position myself and there have been people who have graciously helped me in my lowest moments too, and I have nothing but thanks for them. But some people don’t get that, and I think this introduction is a way of bringing in those people who couldn’t say, “Well, I didn’t have someone to write me a check when I was in trouble,” and your answer to that could be, “Yeah. Well, I did, and here’s all of the things I learned because of that check, and you can get it for the low price of whatever this paperback is,” and that’s why we buy books anyway. I mean, the value transfer in books is so high that it’s worth. I’m a publishing guy, but stories and nonfiction literally change our lives for the better. In fact, the price of a paperback book is crazy, or e-books even cheaper.
Anyway, this is all to say that I pushed you to the edge of an emotional trauma and you delivered, because there’s an old saying that the things that we want to find are in the last place we want to look. I think Jung say that. Yeah, Carl Jung said that. That guy was pretty smart.
[0:14:24.2] TG: Yeah, I like Jung a lot. I mean, yeah, because I kept wanting to make it about — Well, first, I tried to write a how-to book, and so last summer you didn’t let me get away with that. Then I wanted to running to write about like the moment when I quit my job, but then it just felt like it wasn’t working. So, I mean, you continuing to like hold my feet to the fire and not let me get away with not writing about what I’m supposed to be writing about. I mean, I know we’re on Story Grid. I know you’re on this call with me, but like this is where I see the importance of a really good editor, because there are editors that will take whatever you send them and fix the grammatical errors and tell you that this seems a little soft and have you like fix that. Then there’re editors like you that are like, “This isn’t good enough yet. Go try again.”
Waiting patiently until I finally can get to the place where I am willing to look at the thing that I don’t know that I’m avoiding looking at or however you want to say. So I just appreciate like how — Because like there’s so many times I would go home and I tell Candice, I’m like, “Well, I sent Shawn what I wrote and he said it wasn’t good enough yet and to try again.”
But when I reread that scene this morning, I’m like — I knew when I sent it to you, I’m like, “I got it this time,” like I knew. Of course, we got to fix it and clean it up a little bit, but I’m like, “I got it. This is it. This is what I was supposed to write.”
Sometimes I send you stuff that I’m not sure. Sometimes I send you stuff that I know probably isn’t good enough, but I’m trying to get away with something. Then in this case it was like I nailed it. So I was really happy with it. I feel like it’s a good beginning to the book. But really it does stretch me, because I’m just like, “I don’t know if I want to put this story out in the world.” But then I go back to like Stephen King and everybody else who says like, “You have to tell the truth,” and I think my definition of truth has just had to shift, because I had the definition of truth almost like a science textbook. Like it’s true that 2+2 = 4. I mean, that’s math. But it’s true that if you mix these chemicals you’ll get this to happen.
This is a different kind of truth where I’m having to say what I really am supposed to say. I mean, it’s hard to put into words what I mean, but it’s like it’s just a different type of truth. It’s a really digging down into what I’m supposed to say even when I really, really don’t want to say it.
[0:17:27.1] SC: You’re absolutely right. There are two ways of looking at the world, and they’re slowly coming together, and the one way is the science way. That is the world is a material place that can be measured. It’s a place in which we can come up with formulas and algorithms and we can create technologies that can make our lives better, etc., etc.
So that’s a really important part of the world. Often times, people who are on that side of the equation denigrate the other side, and the other side of the world are people who believe in the things that are not visible, and these are people who believe in art in the humanities. It divides along those two lines in universities and in the greater world, and the people who believe in the humanities believe that there are very deeply rooted myths that travel across all people, from the Tutsis , to the Pashtuns, to the Americans, to the British, and these deep myths have to constantly be reiterated.
Now, myth doesn’t mean — A lot of people have the misconception that myth means, “Oh, it’s a made up story that’s not true.” No. Myth is the deep spiritual truth passed along from generation to generation. So you and I — I don’t even know how many podcasts we’ve done on the heroes journey, and Steve’s doing a great series now from a book that he’s working on called The Artist’s Journey over stephenpressfield.com, and what those two things are, the hero’s journey and the artist’s journey, those are representations serve the global structures of these ancient myths.
So when you say, “I felt good about this story because it’s true,” that you’re absolutely right, and the reason why it’s true is that it mirrors the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is really deep, deep stuff. When you’re talking about quitting your job, it’s kind of fuzzy because you think like, “Yeah! That’s a hero’s journey. That’s when I accept the call,” but no. You hadn’t really accepted the call then, because we don’t accept the call and the challenge to go into the wilderness into the darkness into places that we’ve never been into the unknown, into chaos.
We don’t accept that challenge until we hit a place where we either do it or we don’t do it. When we do it, then we’re all in. Then we say, “I’m taking my walking stick and I’m heading right into the woods and I’m not coming out until I figure this out. I’m going to get some knowledge in that darkness and I’m going to bring back that knowledge no matter what, even if it kills me. I’m going to fight the dragon and take the gold.” We’re all Bilbo Baggins in that moment, and that’s why The Hobbit rings so deeply to us, because that’s what we do when we start a new company. That’s what we do when we start a new project. We go into the darkness without having any answers, and say, “We’re going to work until we can figure something out and bring it back.”
That is truths. That is the way we get better. That’s the way society gets better. That’s the way we come to understand our place in the universe better, is when people take up the calling out of real necessity. You must hit an All Is Lost moment before — I’ve had plenty of All is Lost moments, trust me, and so has anybody else. Every single person on the planet reaches a moment when they say to themselves, “This is horrible. I don’t know what to do. I really don’t know what to do. It’s not working. Nothing is working out for me. It seems strange. I feel like I’m a victim. I just want to crawl in a hole. I’m going to close the bathroom door and I’m going to sit on the toilet and I’m going to try and get a hold of myself, but I have to release something out of my body first,” so you cry, and that absolutely makes sense.
Then after you’ve had your cry, then you go, “All right. There. Okay, I feel a little bit better. Now, what am I going to do? I’ve got a couple of options. They’re both best bad choices. Neither one of them is a good choice.” Nobody wants to go back to their job and beg for their job back, and nobody wants to go into the darkness. I’ve done both in my life. We all have, and I’ve gone back to things that I didn’t want to do, because I was so destroyed and beaten down, but I had a family I had to take care of. So I had to get a job working for someone else, when I did my own boss for almost 10 years, and that wasn’t easy, but you know what? I had to take stock on myself and say, “I am in no emotional place to start going through the darkness again. I’ve got to regroup. I’ve got to trade my value at 10%. I’m going to get 10% of my value, but I’m going to get a health insurance and I’ll be able to pay my bills.”
Then later on I was able to summon up the courage to do the other thing. It’s not a do it or don’t do it, and don’t do it is an okay choice sometimes. It is. You’ve done that yourself. You know it.
[0:23:07.1] TG: Yeah.
[0:23:07.8] SC: Yeah. So if you say you’re a coward, don’t think you’re a coward if you don’t do something, because you take stock in yourself, “You know what? I can’t go into the woods. My shield is broken and I don’t have any swords. So I got to go back into the hut and wait it out for a while until I’m better equipped.”
So that’s why the introduction to your story works, because we all had been there and we all will say, “This guy is not bullshitting me. This guy just told me a deep truth in his life that he didn’t want to share because this book is important to him. Whatever he has to share after this must have some good stuff behind it, because he’s already told me that he was at his lowest point when he went in to find this information. So, kudos. Now all you have to do is rewrite the rest of the book.
[0:24:05.1] TG: I mean, that’s my next question. So in this intro I tried to weave in the marathon kind of metaphor that we’ve talked about using in the book. I also tried to weave in — Well, in the last paragraph, I drop a hint to the ending pay off. You said I needed that.
[0:24:24.4] SC: Yeah, that was good. That was really good. I did notice that. Mentioning that you’re broken is really important.
[0:24:30.7] TG: Yeah. I mean, I just started there. Now I’m wondering what I’m weaving through the other chapters right. So I’m still happy with the overall structure of the book. I’m happy with the sections, the content that I’m teaching, but I’m wondering what exactly I’m weaving through. So am I telling a chronological story of how I went from place A to place B? Am I making kind of each chapter standalone, but it all fits together? Can you talk me through, now that I feel like the theme is wrapped, now we’ve got it.
So now I need to stretch that thread through the rest of the book. So I’m curious how I should go about doing that? Because when we had that talk with Steve a few months ago he told me that like he always feels like he’s going to have to throw out the whole book and write it again, and that’s usually when he’s about 85% done. He’s like, “I’m always close.”
You’ve told me, like the contents there, we just got to make it all fit together. Yeah, I’d like your thoughts on how I now take this theme that I feel like it’s been in this gaseous state for months and months and it’s now finally formed into a solid, like I can wrap my hands around it now, and now I need to put it in the rest of the book. So what are your thoughts on how best to do that?
[0:26:06.1] SC: Well, the first thing is that you don’t necessarily have to hammer — And in fact I would recommend that you don’t hammer home the whole marathon running thing. I think thematically it’s going to be, “People get it. They know what running down a dream means. It means you’re busting your ass to get where you need to be.”
What I would suggest is that you think about it in stages, and for each section you write a little bit of the personal history. Not a ton, but just remind the people that you’re taking them on a journey. Like the first section after this killer introduction would be, “So I’ve made the commitment that I’m going to push this until the end, and my thinking at this point was what are the first principles that I’m going to need to make this work? What are the first things I’m going to have to do?”
First thing you’re going to have to do is get some money in the bank so you can pay your bills. So it’s like that thing that you and I talk about every now and then, where freedom, financial freedom is about time. How much time do you have before the grains of money running out? So people who are the working poor are people who are worried about whether or not there’s going to be food on the table tomorrow, and then the more and more capital you have in the bank, the longer out you can plan. So if you’re worried about food tomorrow, then you can’t really plan about next week until you take care of tomorrow. If you’re good until the end of the month, then we can plan till the end of the month, and so on and so on.
So I think that’s a first principle that you could use to transition into the acquisition of these tools and it will be a great way for you to recategorize the tools based upon first principles. So the first thing you’re going to talk about; how do I stop the blood flow.
[0:28:12.2] TG: The tourniquet.
[0:28:13.5] SC: Yeah. How do I stop it so that I can hit next month’s payments? So then you would look at all your tools, and I think you have like 50 odd tools and say, “Which of these tools will help do that?” And that’s probably already in there, and then the next thing you would say is, “Okay. I bought myself two more months,” and then the next stage would be, “How do I think about a year? How do I think about five years? What am I going to need to do to blah-blah-blah?” Divide it into that notion of first principle, “I’m going to be more successful the more capital I have to plan.” Like, “My projects can become worn more interesting the longer I have time to plan.”
So the first thing is you want to get a bunch of clients quickly so that you can make quick money and you’re going to deliver more value to them than what they’re paying so that they will recommend you to other people. I’m just making it up I make it.
[0:29:14.5] TG: I mean, because this isn’t a business book, right? This isn’t a how to start a business book. It’s a how to pursue your dream, which your dream may have less to do with money in the short term. Like my friend who has a great job that gives him health benefits and a good paycheck and a lot of freedom and then he’s pursuing his dream on the side. His is not as dramatic as mine was, but at the same time he’s only finally making progress in his 40s when he’s wanted to do this for a long time.
I want to help that person just like your helping me learn how to become a better writer in two or three years instead of 10 or 20. But I think I understand what you’re saying. I mean, I’ve already kind of reordered the book, but I think this will give me a little more clarity on like, “First, you’ve got to do this. Okay. Now we’re going to move into this, and now once you get that taken care of, it’s that whole —
[0:30:15.7] SC: How do you plan a project, really, is what it’s about. Your project could be to start a business, but you can’t start planning a project until you carve out some time.
[0:30:29.7] TG: Yeah. That’s the first part of my book, is basically how to move from not doing anything to doing something in very practical ways. Because I think of the whole thing is whenever you solve your number one problem, your number two problem gets a promotion. So what I’ve realized is that once you solve your not creating problem and you’re actually creating something, it highlights the next problem on the list, which is you suck at this.
Then there’re some very particular things to do to get better at something and then you realize, “Oh, I’m better, but nobody cares.” So that’s kind of how I’ve structured the book.
[0:31:20.0] SC: Basically, yeah, my suggestion is pepper in little narrative checkpoints to explain to the reader your emotional state as you’re moving and you’re rational thinking as you’re moving through the acquisition of tools. It’s like what John McClane did in Die Hard, right? Once he got that bag tools after the accidental death of the terrorist who was attacking him, once he got those totals, then he looks at the tools and he goes, “What can I do with this stuff? What is my ultimate goal? How am I going to accomplish my ultimate goal?”
It’s basically explaining to the reader your thought process as you were going through this stuff and then saying how you invented, created, stole, use somebody else’s tool to get you through to the next problem. You’re constantly moving — Here’s my first problem. I’m going to solve. Second problem is now number one, and they’re all getting promotions. You want the reader to go, “Shit! I could do that. Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah. Okay.” So that by the end of your big middle build, which is the meat and potatoes of your book, they’re going to say, “Oh my gosh! I totally get it. Now I know exactly the tools and the steps that I’m going to need to take to plan my dream and then to work the plan of my dream,” and then you’re going to hit him with that big ending payoff, which is, “Once you get your dream, you discover — I guess it’s okay. It’s not what I thought it was.” That’s okay. That’s a good sign. It means that you just have to go back into the woods.
[0:33:04.5] TG: All right. Are we done? I mean, is that the episode, you think? I don’t know what to ask next.
[0:33:08.5] SC: I think so. Yeah.
[0:33:10.1] TG: Is there anything else that you think would be helpful to talk about?
[0:33:13.5] SC: No. Again, I think, Steve was right when he said after you solve the big moment of truth that you have to deliver very early on for the reader, then the rest your stuff you’re like, “Oh, yeah. I see where all these pieces fit now.” So, yeah, I think you’re 85% done and you’re going to find the work very self-explanatory as you move through it. I don’t see you having to write another 50,000 words. Probably write another 3,000 words and then there’ll be 500 words here and there and it’ll start to flow for you and you’ll feel like, “Oh, now I know what to do. Yeah, that, and then that, and then that.”
[0:33:53.7] TG: Right.
[0:33:54.5] SC: And you already locked in your ending payoff too, right? So just to review how this process has gone with your big idea project, is that when we first started, you had a bunch of tools that you didn’t know what to do with only that they were helpful to you in achieving independence, and you wanted to share those tools with other people. So you wanted to do a how to book. I talked you out of that, because what’s another book filled with tools? People want a story. They want to relate to the person who’s telling them the story and they want some meaning. They want to know, “Oh! What I’m experiencing, is it weird? This is what this other guy did too.”
After you figure that out, then we had to come up with the concept. What’s the concept? So that took a long time and you finally came up with this concept and you and I were beating on it and beating on it and then we meet with Steve, and Steve is like, “That’s a great concept, but that’s your ending payoff. Don’t lead with that.” We’re like, “Oh my god! You’re right. That’s right. Steve is right.”
Then you were back to ground zero but you’ve felt like, “I’ve got my ending payoff now, but now I don’t know how to start this thing.” So you let that percolate for a while, and then three months later you’re like, “I can’t percolate any longer. Let me get this over with.” Then over the past couple of weeks, now you’ve solved your beginning hook. Now the thing that you always had was the middle built, and it’s ironic that you had 50% of your book done before you even wrote it. Now you’ve got the other two pieces that if you didn’t solve your book would’ve been just another blog post on whatever — 10 steps to a better blah. All those things that you click and go, “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” So now you get the whole deal, I think.
[0:35:55.6] TG: Yeah, and that’s what’s been so continues to surprise me how little of the work is the typing of words. That has become the easy part. Once I know what I’m writing, I can churn out the words. It’s just spinning and spinning and spinning, trying to find out what I’m trying to say.
Okay. Well, I’ll get to work on going back through the middle build, and then we’ll go from there.
[0:36:24.7] SC: Okay.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:36:25.9] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. for everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the story grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you’d like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcast and leaving a reading and review.
Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.