[0:00:00.2] 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 Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode, I bring a question to Shawn that I think a lot of writers deal with. A friend of mine reached out to me. He’s been working on his book a while and he was wondering when to know that the book is done. Is there a certain Story Grid tool, or is there a time that you know, and just all of those things of he’s been working on this a while. When it is time to release the book? So I bring this question to Shawn and he had some really good insight on this. So I think you’ll really enjoy this episode. So let’s jump in and get started.
[00:00:55] TG: So Shawn, I was talking with a friend of mine the other day and it just reminded me how odd lively kind of coming into writing fiction has been, where I had dabbled for years without taking it seriously at all. Then when I decided to take it seriously is when you and I started this podcast. So most of my learning how to write fiction and failing and flailing has been alongside you, or I guess you’ve been alongside me as I’ve wandered around.
So it’s interesting, because I’ve never really felt alone in it, which is weird, right? That’s an anomaly if you look out into the world of writers trying to learn how to write fiction and all the obligatory, so thankful for that and gratitude and all of that. But I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and he’s been working on this book for a while and he’s like, “I don’t know if it’s ready yet.” I said, “Okay.” I said, “Well –”. So I started asking him all kinds of questions, and this is where I feel like people think that I know what I’m talking about now, because we’re doing this.
So I just was kind of trying to channel my inner Shawn and talk to him about, “Well, what are you trying to do? Where are you at with the book? What have you gotten to?” I encouraged him, I said, “Well, you could go back to the episodes from last year where I finished my first draft, and Shawn kind of walks through a lot of different ways to look at your draft to see if it’s ready.” He goes, “Well –” He’s like, “I feel like it’s ready, as I got done a lot of that. I’ve spreadsheet it.” He’s like, “I have an editor that feels like it’s ready, but now I’m just worried about it coming out and I’m afraid I am missing something.”
Of course, there’s all kinds of thing to talk about resistance around that. We can get into that too. I’m just thinking like if I’m a writer who’s sitting on a manuscript and I want to self-publish, right? So I don’t want to go through all the rigmarole of finding an agent and all of that, and I think he’s in a similar boat of other people where he hasn’t had a ton of money to put into it. So he’s kind of jumped around editors, you know? He’s used an editor that helped him out for free for a while, then he paid one a little bit, and then another one was like, “Well, let me look at it,” who like write screenplays, but understands – So it’s kind of this piecemeal of help.
I was struggling because in one hand you have – And this is where I tend to land, is just put it out in the world and see what happens. It doesn’t really matter. I’d rather ship to not ship. I’d rather put something out and see if it works. Also understanding that this book is not the totality of your career. You have lots to write. At the same time he’s like, “I wanted to be the best that I can make it and not put something out, that if I just spent another month on it systematically doing something, I could fix major problems in it.
So I was just wondering after I got off the phone with him, I was thinking I’m sure there’s tons of people that listen to podcasts that are in a similar boat, where they’re basically on their own. Maybe they have some writer friends. Maybe they have – They connected with other people that love the Story Grid and they’re kind of helping each other out, but they’re pretty much just on their own. Do you have advice for what they should do when they’re looking at this manuscript and figuring out what to do next?
[00:04:43] SC: Well, believe it or not, the editor faces the same dilemma, and there are projects in my past that, for whatever reason, the time was now. I had to publish them. I had to push them through production. I had to deliver them to the publishing house, or back to the client. Everybody’s expectations were, “We’ve got to get this thing into the marketplace. Let’s not dillydally and make sure that every last scene is perfectly tooled. Does that thing work?” “Yes.” “Well, then let’s move forward.”
So those in those instances, it’s a difficult thing to live with. But on the other hand, if you don’t put anything in the marketplace, there’s no revenue, there’s no value coming back for all the strain and hard work that you put into the manuscript to begin with. So there is this – Let me just make it all about me for a minute. There’s this – I always talk about, is there some sort of ideal vision of the perfectly executed story?
I like to fantasize about that. I like to fantasize about; if I were given – Someone, God came down and said, “Look, I’m going to give you the opportunity to stop time, Shawn.” What you can do is here’s that manuscript that you really like and you see great potential in it. What I’m going to do is give you the opportunity to stop time so that you can work on this thing as long as you would like until you feel it’s the best you could possibly make it, and then you can press this button again and then time will start up again, and then you can put it in the marketplace.” Because that’s really what we’re talking about here, right? We’re talking about the value of a person’s time and their creative vision, and how much time do we have to create as many possible things in this world that we can before our time is up?
I don’t mean to be like dark or anything, it’s just a fact. When you’re a little kid, you learn that people die. You don’t really take it in. But as you get older, it becomes more and more real. So it’s funny, because this question has come up for me personally, and I was in the car yesterday with my oldest son and I was joking around. I said, “Look, I think I have about 20 more years. I got 20 more very productive years before empirical knowledge tells me that my brain is probably going to start sort of winding down.”
It’s probably longer than that, but I had to pull a number. So I was thinking I’m going to be 54. 20 years, 74. I got probably 20 projects. Maybe more if I can work with other people who are doing projects and give them advice without having to do all the legwork.
Anyway, so if you think of your creative journey in that way, it really focuses your energy, right? So if you’re 20 five-year-old person, you been working on a novel, say, for three years. You have friends who have read the novel. You’ve gone through the process that you described and you’re having a difficult time pulling the trigger. My advice is pull the trigger. Do it.
You’re 25. You could even be 35, 40. The reason why is that it’s like that thing that you always talk about that Elizabeth Gilbert says, which I think is spot on, which is that you have to act as if your creative life is the most important thing in the universe, because it is. But you also have to remember that it’s not that important. It’s not that precious. That’s the thing that people have trouble with, is the binary nature of experience, right? You’ve got things that can mean one thing in the exact opposite at the exact same time. Creative work is binary in nature. It’s the most important thing in the universe. If people are not creatively manipulating the world for the better, then everything falls apart.
So the act of creation is the work of the hero. It’s the exploratory hero who goes into the unknown, into the darkness. Comes back with a whole bunch of stuff that they have to unpack and think through, and they start doing that. They start creating something, and occasionally they have to go back into the unknown to get a missing part. Then they do that and they come back, and eventually – And it sounds like your friend has gone back and forth into the unknown a lot and he’s getting a little tired of going into that unknown looking for the micro part that can make the Swiss watch work a little bit better and a little bit more elegant way.
Once you start to get fatigued, it could be one of two things. A, you’re just sick of the thing and you want to get it over with. That is a really viable and realistic and valuable emotional experience. There is truth in that. You could be really rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. Who know? So that’s the one thing.
The other part is like, “But I’m shooting for a really high goal here. I’m really shooting for –” and this is the goal I always talk about, which is the goal of the creative person, whether they want to really acknowledge it to themselves or not. If you really got them, you gave them a couple of drinks, right? You got them in a safe space and they knew you were not to ruin their life and you weren’t undermining them and you literally ask them a question, “Hey, why are you doing this?” What’s the point for you? What’s the big payoff for you?”
I think after that sort of loosening up of the tong and the thoughts and the suppression of amygdala, they will say, “I want to leave something behind. I want something that tells the rest of the world, for as long as possible, who I was, what I cared about and what is important to me. It’s either a work of fiction. It’s a work of nonfiction. It’s a screenplay. It’s a movie. It’s a piece of music. It’s a sculpture. It’s a brand new distribution method for automotive parts. All that stuff is incredibly creative and difficult work.
So if that is the ideal situation, to create something that lives longer than you do, then yeah, you’re going to have that moment like, “You know what? I want to give it another round. I want to do that. I want to do that.”
So the question is you have to balance the binary nature of your experience, right? If you have 45 years of creative ideas and ability to hone your craft in front of you, you know what? Don’t take your crap so seriously. You know what? There’s nothing wrong with banging out a really fun genre of thing that has no internal genre, that’s all about the monster that comes to the town. That’s awesome. Do it. That’s what the Martian is. It’s a really, really well done story about external stress and how we can overcome external challenges.
It’s not Andy – What’s his name again? Andy – who wrote the book.
[00:12:50] TG: Weir.
[00:12:51] SC: Andy Weir, right. He says he’s the first one to say that, like, “Hey, man. I write for fun. I’m not here to win the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel prize. I’m here to write stuff that I enjoy.” So there’s nothing wrong with that. Occasionally, the forces of the universe align when you’re writing that kind of thing, and you do create an immortal work of fiction. I would say probably a lot of the greats, like probably Pride and Prejudice was like that, and Frankenstein was like that.
So the big emotional turmoil involved with creative work is when to let the baby out. When to push child out of the house, and there’s no easy answer to that. So just back to my own Sterman Drang, I’m thinking, “I got 20 years left. What if God were to give me unlimited time? What processes would I use? How would I take advantage of that magic button?” It’s such a fun little game to play with yourself. It’s almost like another friend of mine, and I have this game we play called eccentric billionaire, right?
The game of eccentric billionaire is saving money is not an option. I live in a small town that has this old incredible railroad tracks that haven’t been used for – I don’t know, 80 years? It used to bring these beautiful sort of trains into the small town, and people from Manhattan and from Boston could take the train from the central station and go to this place where I live, and they could get off the train and be there in two hours, and it was this beautiful – Those old trains that we think about when terms of the – Like the café car, where there’s waiters who are bringing you nice hot cups of coffee. It would just be a great experience. That’s what I said to him, is like, “I would take my billion dollars and I would go and I would buy all the land around those tracks and I would find these old incredible railroads, cars, and I would bring that service back online knowing very well that there’s no way I would ever turn a profit on it.
The reason why I would do it is because it would make people re-experience life from another past century in a charming wonderful way. So it actually, instead of trying to get there as fast as you possibly can, you actually enjoy – It’s like all those great novels, like Murder on the Orient Express. It’s like the beauty of the passage from one place to another and actually looking at the environment.
So eccentric billionaire is a great game. The other game is stop time game. So if I were given the stop time game, I have a whole level and I write these down, like ladders on a – Like rungs on a ladder, and the way I define each of the rungs on the ladder in terms of story is the different levels of analysis of a story. Because stories can be looked at in two ways, right? They’re a binary experience. You can look at them objectively, and objectively means the five commandments of storytelling. Whether or not there’s a turning point, all that Story Grid terminology that’s on the graph.
Those are great, because what they allow is for you to get a handle on something that is so crazily subjective too that you can start to build your universe without having to worry about if your character is sympathetic or not, or whether there’s enough colors in your midpoint. All those things that editors say, or publisher say, or agents say to reject your book that you have no idea what to do with. Those are the things you want to discard and get off the table when you’re using Story Grid methodology, because that’s really the killer application of Story Grid methodology, is that it makes something subjective objective for a very, very good purpose, which is using the abstractions of great stories from the past and applying those principles of the things that all the great stories in the past have in common to your story.
Okay. So that’s one level of abstraction, the five commandments of storytelling abstraction. That’s a great one. I suspect your friend has probably gone through that one and probably has done his spreadsheet and look to make sure that everything is – Continuity is right and that the characters, the scene makeups of the characters in the story go from 2, to 12, to 6, to 2, to – Right? So he’s got all kinds of really great different shifts of number of people in a scene, different kinds of scenes, different block, different time periods. Td then there are the other levels of abstraction to evaluate a story, and there’s genre, right? There is the obligatory scenes and conventions of the genre. You say to yourself, “Okay. Well, I’ve chosen this genre and it’s very clear. Did I comply with the abstractions of scenes in this genre that are shared by all the best stories?” Those are what obligatory scenes and conventions are, right?
If you were to take all the top 30 novels of any one particular genre just by some popular, right? You got a million people in the United States who are science fiction and fantasy. Let’s say fantasy freaks, right? So they read it all, and that you said, “I need your top 30 list,” and those million people did it diligently. They send in their 30 choices of the best fantasy novels they’ve ever read, and then you compare those million 30 point entries and you pull out a database that are shared, right?
So you pull up the top 30 of the top 30 of a million people, and there you have 30 “popular subjectively determined masterworks”. That’s just called data collection and filtering. It’s not crazy scientific thinking. It’s data collection and filtering based upon popularity. The reason why you want to do it on popularity, because you’re trying to evaluate the subjective of individuals across population. So you got your 30 masterworks.
Then what you do is you Story Grid all of them, right? You look at the objective five commandments of storytelling. You do all the events, all the Story Grid gobbledygook. That’s a pain. You do it for all 30 of them, and you’ve got 30 books that had, say, 112 scenes each, and then you compare all those 12 scenes and you say, “All of these 30, 112 scene projects, do any of these 112 scenes among these 30 works have anything in common?” Guess what you find? You find maybe 10, 10 scenes that are common, and you go, “Oh! Those must be the obligatory scenes of that genre. I should probably have those, because if 30 of the greatest novels of masterworks that share the same scene from a million people who chose them, there must be something to that. There must be something to the emotional resonance of that particular scene that makes sense universally. At least universally in the fantasy world, right?
Then you got your obligatory scenes and you got your conventions, and then you take those things, which I’ve dedicated my life into pulling those things out so that people know what they are, and so of the Story Grid editors. You go to the Story Grid site, you see all the secrets of the blank genre blog posts. I suggest you read them, because they’re doing a lot of work for you for free. Anyway, then you analyze your work according to that level of abstraction. You go up that rung of the ladder.
Yeah, I could go through each one of these rungs of the levels of abstraction, and in fact I’m starting to catalog all that stuff. It’s what I’ve been doing for a couple of years now, but that’s what I do. If God came down and gave me a button that said I could stop time and not age and just crank on books that I see a lot of potential in that I know need a lot of work. But I don’t get that privilege, nor does anyone. I can’t stop time.
But what is important to take away here is that at some point in your life, at some point in your creative life, it’s a good idea to have these considerations in mind and say to yourself, “You know what? I’ve published five books. The first one did all right. Second one bummed. Third one bummed. Fourth one hit pretty well. I’m practically surviving on the income from that fourth one. The fifth one is sort of in the middle. So I got a Pareto distribution on my creative work.
What’s a Pareto distribution? Well, a Pareto distribution is that old thing that 20% provides 80%. So any business person knows this. 20% of the products that you put into the marketplace deliver 80% of the revenue. It’s one of the laws of nature that no matter how you want to manipulate it, that’s the way it works.
So say you write 10 novels, your top two novels are going to bring in 80% of your revenue. We like to think, “Oh, I’ll just keep repeating that top two performance all the time.” Then each one of my books would be a monster.” No. It’s not the way it works. Creative work falls on the Pareto distribution just as –
[00:23:28] TG: Everything else.
[00:23:29] SC: Everything else, because you know what? Creativity is a Pareto distribution. So creativity – We might not defined the new floor mop as all that creative, but it is. It’s a creative process to come up with the Swiffer, right? And who came up with the Swiffer blew the doors off of the regular mop.
Knowing about the Pareto distribution should really help people, because what it says is it goes back to Elizabeth Gilbert’s thing, what you’re doing is so precious, but the product of what you do shouldn’t be treated as gold. It’s once you’re done with it, you could let it go and let it live its life. The Pareto distribution guarantees a pretty bad outcome to most things. So accept that. Don’t stop creating because, “Oh, boy. 80% of my stuff doesn’t go over very well.” Well, 80% of Michelangelo’s stuff didn’t go over very well either. How many times – How many things did that guy did that nobody knows about? We just know his Pareto distribution of the Pieta and the Sistine Chapel.
Anyway, so the effort put in will not exactly ever meet the outcome of what you put in. But the more effort you put in, the more you learn, right? That’s basically what – The older you get, the more you understand just how satisfying it is to learn something new.
[00:25:06] TG: So one of the things that my buddy said that I thought was interesting, and I wanted to get your take on it. Because, again, I tried to answer him for my amateur perspective, is he’s like, “I just want to make sure I don’t look like an idiot when I put this out.” I thought that was interesting, because –
[00:25:26] SC: That’s your job.
[00:25:28] TG: What do you mean? To look like an idiot?
[00:25:30] SC: Yeah, the fool. The fool archetype, meaning the fool character in stories for the last 10,000 years, however long stories have been around. So probably Gilgamesh was the first – Whatever. That was the first longform novel. Who knows? The fool is an archetypical character, right? It’s the Shakespeare fool who comes out and goes – He’s the Jester. He’s the one who makes the jokes.
Now, the fool is a very interesting character, because if you’re afraid of being the fool, you don’t ever – Let me just back up. The fool full character is always revealed as the one speaking truth. The fool is the one who brings, who goes into the unknown and brings back the troops. So in order to venture into the unknown – Now Steve Pressfield wrote about this in – I think it was in Do The Work. Yeah, and so many people have gotten so much shit about it. It’s funny to me.
But one of the things that Steve writes in Do The Work is he says, “Here’s a list of the stupidest people ever,” and it’s like Charles Lindbergh, Winston Churchill, Amelia Earhart, right? These people would seem stupid, right? Lindbergh – I’m just going to use Lindbergh as an example. I know his politics were terrible and he was an anti-Semite and a bad guy. But his external behavior of deciding that he was going to be the first guy to fly a plane across the Atlantic Ocean and land in Paris, The Spirit of St. Louis, that’s just a stupid idea, right? Nobody had ever, ever accomplished that. People had tried and probably died trying to accomplish that, same thing with the Wright brothers.
But guess what? He was willing and prepared to play the fool, right? So he was willing to take on the role of being the fool and stupid for trying something so audacious that nobody had ever done it before. He was willing to venture into the darkness of the unknown and behave according to the culture as foolish. What happened? He succeeded. Then, guess what? He’s no longer the fool.
Now, it doesn’t happen all the time, according to the Pareto distribution, that when we decide to act foolish and try and do something creative, which is a foolish act, right? It’s foolish to believe that you can go into the darkness and pull anything out of the darkness, because there’s just darkness out there. There’re negative forces and there’re positive forces. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing. It’s crazy, right? So you got to be an idiot to leave the campfire, but the idiot who leaves the campfire is the one who finds the lake with the water that can save everybody, or she gets eaten by the monster, or he gets eaten by the monster.
So the foolish archetype is the pre-stage to the heroic exploratory hero, and this is what Carl Jung so artfully and brilliantly put forth a century ago. But the fool – So your friend worried about being the fool. He shouldn’t worry about being the fool, because he’s right on the money. Because, guess what? He probably will look like a fool. That’s okay. You’re supposed to look like a fool.
Have you ever tried to play tennis for the very first time? You look like an idiot, right? You have no idea what you’re doing. Anything that you try to do – Your friend, Josh Kaufman. I think he wrote a great book about it, like The 20-Hour rule, right? It’s like you start something and you’re an idiot for at least 20 hours before you get the smallest amount of return. So if you want to learn how to play the guitar, it’s 20 hours before you don’t sound like stupid.
So your friend worried about being the fool. I would say to him, “Good! That’s a great sign. That’s excellent. That means it’s time to publish your book.” Because that’s the rule you have to play first before you get to be the hero. If you play that role enough, someday the hero will come 2 out of 8 times, 2 out of 10 times. So that’s a 20% chance. So say to yourself, “Okay, I’m going to work as hard as I can get better with each progressive work of art that I create, and I’m going to do it 10 times, and then I’m going to quit. But I’m going to give everything I have all 10 times.”
So I think your friend has probably given it everything that he has for this first work, because he’s – Here’s how you can tell. Someone who’s committed and amateur who says something like, “I want to become a writer.” Okay. Okay, amateur. You know what you have to do as an amateur is the first thing you have to do is say, “I don’t know anything about what I want to do. I’m completely clueless. So I’m a full, and I’m going to accept that I’m an idiot, because I am. I just don’t know anything.” It’s like, “I don’t know anything about astrophysics. So, huh, what should I do? Should I – Okay. I know what I’ll do. I’ll find somebody who knows a lot about astrophysics and then I’ll ask them to teach me astrophysics,” right? You write about this all the time so brilliantly, Tim.
All right. So what happens then? You somehow get the attention of somebody who knows astrophysics very well and then they say, “Okay, I’ll help you out. This is what you got to do. The first thing you have to do is X,” and X sounds really stupid. It sounds like the stupidest idea of all time. “What? I got to do X? Are you kidding me?”
Okay. So if you say that to the expert astrophysics woman and you say, “I don’t want to do X. That’s sounds stupid.” Guess what she’ll do? She’ll say, “Get out of here! Get out of my life, you ignorant amateur. You’re never going anywhere if that’s your attitude.” Then the amateur goes, “I knew she was a fraud,” or the amateur goes –
[00:31:56] TG: I’ve heard that.
[00:31:57] SC: Right? Or the amateur goes, “You know what? You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m going to go do X and I’m going to look as stupid as I possibly can for as long as you tell me to look stupid. Okay, I’m going to do it.”
So the amateur, what does she do, or he do? The amateur gives up their will. What they do is they say, “I am not an expert in this field and it’s my job to shut up and do what’s required. I’m going to be the slave of my mentor, because my mentor I have to trust isn’t going to waste her time teaching me astrophysics if she’s not getting something out of it too. So I’m not going to debate what she tells me to do until ever.”
So that’s what’s an amateur does, right? Who wants to become an expert? Eventually, the amateur slowly absorbs the craft and the rules of astrophysics to a place that they start to come naturally to them and they’re able to live within the world of the astrophysics in a way that they never ever thought that they would ever in their potential. Eventually, after they have the rules of the game of astrophysics completely understood, not completely understood, but they got a firm grasp of them. I don’t know everything about story, but I have a firm grasp of the five commandments of storytelling. I have firm global conception of genre. I have a firm conception of micro editing and macro editing. I’ve got an understanding of the hero’s journey. I’ve got an understanding of Aristotelian three-act structure. I’ve got an understanding of internal genres from Friedman, right? I got a whole bunch of tools that I have dedicated my life to learn it.
I don’t know everything, but once I have the structural understanding of the global idea of the realm of territory that I am interested in, then I’m able to say, “What if this rule didn’t mean that, but meant that? Then I can sort of transform and transition into a mentor role and a way of innovating the things that are – Yeah, I can put pieces together from the chocolate factory with the peanut butter factory and come up with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. That’s what someone who has craft who has dedicated and been an amateur for decades can start to do. That’s how I came up with the Story Grid methodology. I took objective thinking, sort of a rational scientific method and I applied that to my understanding of subjective understanding, and there, lo and behold, you bring the subjective with the objective and you meld them. You get a methodology that can actually help both binary natures of storytelling.
So just to go back to your friend is an amateur. He’s worried about looking like a fool, and what the advice I think you need to give him is, “Look, you’ve gone through three stages. That’s a pretty good – You’ve done the Story Grid stuff. You asked an editor for a freebie, which is a bad idea, but you did, and you got pretty good freebie advice from somebody who probably has a good intuitive sense of story. So there’s probably some – There’s probably 80% bad advice, 20% good advice from that editor. Then you actually paid an editor and you probably got something like another 20% of good advice. So you’ve gone three stages of editing through your work and now you’re at a crossroads where you say, “I know it can be better, but I don’t really want to invest any more time in craft. I’m sick of this story. I’m sick of it all, and we’ll put it out there then and work on the next project and learn more craft for that project, because if you have a new project, new interesting territory, a new place to explore in the woods, that’s going to motivate you much more to learn more craft than it is picking over the same scab for eight years.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:36:09] 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 would 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 to show and by visiting us on Apple Podcast and leaving a rating and review.
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