Which book should I write?

[0:00:00.5] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to help 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 struggle to Shawn that I’ve really been going through with my writing of what project should I work on next and feeling all kinds of resistance around the different projects I want to work on. I bring it to him to get his perspective on it, to think about what I should be doing next. I only have so much time to write and so many days I can write. I want to make sure I’m putting it on the right project.

I bring this to him a little sheepishly, because I didn’t do my homework, but also to get his perspective on where I should be putting my time next. For those of you that have ever struggled with what project you should be working on and what you should be writing, I think you’ll get a lot out of this. Let’s jump in and get started.


[0:01:12.4] TG: Shawn, I have to admit that I did not read the book that you told me to read.

[0:01:17.5] SC: Shame on you.

[0:01:18.9] TG: I know. I know. Anyway, we won’t get into that side of my life. Yeah. I’ve had a few people that have read The Threshing now, because I got some early copies. I guess this is a good sign, but the first thing two of the three have said has been, “When can I read the next one?”

I actually have a new personal rule, where I do not start a series, unless it’s already done, because I’ve been caught so many times in this purgatory of waiting for the next book. I’m looking at you, Patrick Rothfuss who’s never going to ever finish the third book in his series. I hate that. Then I got to thinking. I’m like, “Is this new book idea just a distraction from I have no current timeline plans to write the next book? This this is supposed to a trilogy. I leave it a cliffhanger.”

I’m wondering, should I shelf this other idea that we’ve talked about and focus on the next book in The Threshing series? Which then, I got to thinking. I’m like, well lots of – I think having a discussion about the middle story of a trilogy is a really interesting discussion that a lot of people would be interested in, because I always hate – everybody always talks about how Empire Strikes Back, yeah, that’s the second one, right?

[0:02:52.0] SC: Yeah, I think so.

[0:02:53.1] TG: Is the best one. And I hate that movie. I like the first one and the third one. I mean, it’s fine, but it’s just sad and boring. I wonder talking about what makes a good middle one is I’m curious why trilogies are a thing? Why is it not two books, or four books, or six books? There’s so many trilogies. Then what makes a good middle book? Because to me, it’s like looking at a trilogy, you have the beginning hook is the first book, middle build is the second book, ending payoff is the third book. The middle build is always the hardest part to write in a book in the first place.

To me, writing the middle build of a trilogy as a full book is going to be hard, figuring out what the story should be. I guess my question is first, do you think I should just keep going and finish this series before I move on to something else, just so that for my dozens of fans not waiting forever for the next book. I don’t know. Then if that is the direction, having that discussion, just beginning the discussion of what makes a trilogy and everything that goes into the middle book?

[0:04:09.2] SC: Well, there’s a whole lot of strands that you just threw at me. I have a lot of thoughts about all of it. I think the first point I’d like to pull out is the notion of what my opinion is about your creative direction. Should you write the second book and focus on that, instead of going to another content genre arena? It’s not a simple question to answer, because it depends on what hat I’m wearing.

If I were, say your literary agent, I would absolutely do everything in my power to get you to write that second book in the trilogy. In fact, when I sold your trilogy to begin with, I would have sold the whole thing one giant package. The reason why I would do that is because A, the publisher would insist on that, because they wouldn’t want you to follow your muse and go all over the place depending upon your whims, because the publishing business is a business. It’s about positioning a writer in a particular category of product and having them deliver in the domain of that category of product over and over and over again.

This is why John Grisham has pretty much stayed in his lane with an occasional walk outside of it that is never as successful as his primary lane. Publishers know that when a writer who knows a specific genre and is known for a specific genre steps out of that genre, their sales will decrease no matter what.

Working with Steven Pressfield over the years, this is one of the things that he and I have had many, many discussions about. It was almost a breaking point when we initially started working together, because I insisted that he agreed to write a second novel in the war genre and also historical fiction in the Greek, Hellenistic age era, which he reluctantly did at the time, because Steve is primarily driven by his creative forces. That’s why his first novel was a novel about golf and his second novel was a novel about the Battle of Thermopylae; two completely different genres, two completely different positionings that the publisher has to do.

It was never really that big of a question mark to me why Steve’s original publisher, William Morrow, decided not to publish Gates of Fire after they had published The Legend of Bagger Vance, because I’m sure they loved Gates of Fire, but they were like, “Dude. Stay in the lane, brother. You just did a golf novel. Everybody loved it. Let’s get in another golf novel going.”

Steve being Steve was like, “Well, that really isn’t what I wanted to write. Are you going to publish it or not?” They said, “Well, no.” He had to start over with the new publisher and thank God, I got to read it and got to acquire it.

As a publisher, as an agent, as a professional business person, I would say you would be crazy not to write the second book in the trilogy, which also now, let’s now analyze why I didn’t say that to you. Why didn’t I say, “Tim, what are you doing? Why are you sending me this thing? You got to write the second novel of your trilogy.”

Okay, the reason why is why we created Story Grid Publishing to begin with, because it’s my belief that in order for a writer to level up their craft, to grow, to enjoy the process by which they become a better writer/better person/whatever, that if there is a publishing company that devotes all of its efforts to encourage that leveling up, then the more people who level up, the better the stories will be. That would mean that Story Grid Publishing would have to put its commercial business concerns on the back burner. That when questions would arise about what the writer wanted to do, versus what the writer should do, we would put the work above all else, which means that the writer gets to drive the bus.

If that means that you want to write this one book, because it’s salient to you, that it’s interesting to you, to the point where you want to invest two years, three years. I mean, it took us four years to do The Threshing from scratch. Maybe this next book will take three and a half, right? That’s why I didn’t say no, because Story Grid Publishing is organized such that it’s about the process, not the result. It’s our contention that the more you put the process ahead of result and the more people you bring into your circle, the better the opportunities in the long haul that things become commercially and financially viable over the long-term, the better.

That’s the answer to whether or not you should do the second book in the trilogy or you should do this psychological thriller that you’re excited about doing. Now I’m going to say this thing. The fact that you did not choose to read a current masterwork in the domain of the story that you’re interested in writing, I’m not passing judgment on that, other than that’s useful information for us to talk about.

There’s no point in reading a book as a chore, right? If you say to me, “Shawn, you really need to read this book, because it changed my life.” I might be like, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to read this book.” I would also say, “Tim has said that to me zero times in my life and he’s putting his –he’s being vulnerable by telling me that that’s a book that I should read, so I will read it based upon my relationship to you.” Inevitably, I’ll probably – you sent me a book four months ago. The minute you said, “You should take a look at this,” I bought it and I started reading it. We’ve had discussions about it. We’ve integrated it into our business and cool.

The fact that when I said, “Why don’t we both read this book that is a masterwork in the genre in which you want to explore?” I wasn’t super excited about reading it. However, I was excited enough to get it done and I read it within 24 hours, and you didn’t and you were the writer. I’m not saying you’re a bad person for that. I’m saying, that tells me something about how salient this idea really is too.

It’s a cool idea that I think you like. If it made you stay up an hour later every night to read this book, you weren’t willing to – You’re smart, so you didn’t put it on that hierarchy of importance enough to do it. You’re not a bad person for that. That is information that you need to look at when you’re thinking about things that we’re discussing.

To me, that sounds to me like, “This isn’t like I must write this psychological thriller, or I will feel I didn’t achieve what I’m looking to achieve.” Now let’s move on to the second strand and that second strand was the people who you’ve shared The Threshing with have said to you, “Hey, man. This was good enough that I want to read the next thing. When do you think that’s going to be ready?” That is for you, probably unexpected information.

I think you are not alone. Whenever we write something and we say, “Hey, you wanted to look at this thing that I made?” You’re expecting that people are going to be like, “Oh, God. This is Tim’s thing. I guess I should read a couple of pages.” Then if they go, “Hey, I really like your thing.” You go, “Oh, great. Whew! That’s over with. I’m sure they didn’t read the whole thing, because I’m shit and who cares?”

It was unexpected when people actually said to you, “Hey, I want to know what happens next. Can you let me know when I can read the next thing?” Now you’re like, “Oh, maybe the 10 people who have told me this are actually sincere. Maybe this thing is pretty good.” Now you’re starting to get stronger and you’re starting to figure out that you are capable of telling a story that people enjoy enough to ask you when the next one’s coming.

Now you’re feeling like, “Well, geez. Maybe I should go back to this thing and figure that out.” You’re right. The little book in the trilogy, you read what is it? Is it The Two Towers is the middle book in the Lord of the Ring?

[0:14:22.5] TG: Yeah, yeah.

[0:14:22.8] SC: Yeah, it’s like you get through that and you’re like, “Oh, man. I can’t wait to read the third.” It’s like, great. It’s really good and it’s not a disappointing experience and it’s amazing, but you still are waiting for the ending payoff. Yes, the middle book in a five-part series, seven-part series, three-part series is always difficult.

I’d be willing to talk about the problems of the middle build in this episode, but I don’t want to just say let’s forget about the psychological thriller, if you really want to do that book and you just really seriously wanted to read the contemporary master/worker and you just never got around to it. You have to answer that question yourself.

[0:15:21.9] TG: Well, so one of the things was starting a new project completely, like having nothing to do with The Threshing was definitely a way for me to be – It patting myself against nobody, against The Threshing sucking and the idea that anybody would want to read the second book is not going to ever happen.

Then when I get asked again, it was not a statistically significant amount of people. The first couple people that read it, their first question was like, “Okay, what?” Then one of them was like, “Okay, I need to know more about Jesse’s powers.” You got to go deeper into that. She’s listing off things I have to do in the next book. I’m like, “Well, this is a good sign that yeah, it’s a good sign.”

Then I was like, well, maybe have I just been avoiding the idea of writing the next book, because I’m assuming the first one sucks and don’t really want to continue a story that sucks. Well, I could make excuses about why I didn’t read the book. The truth is I didn’t read it. I got other things done, which I feel bad that now you read it.

[0:16:39.9] SC: Oh, no. It’s not ideal to me to read a book.

[0:16:43.8] TG: I got other things done. It’s that thing of when people tell me they’re too busy for something I’m like, “Did you watch any TV in the last week?” Now I’m torn, because part of me has liked this idea of this story and flushing it out seems interesting. On the other hand, I have this renewed sense. I found myself thinking a lot. I wonder what’s going to happen next in The Threshing. I wonder, where will you pick up the story? What’s going to be – Who is she going to lose in this book? What is she going to do? What’s going to be the big conflict? I’m wondering all of those things, where I haven’t even put any mental energy into the psychological thriller.

[0:17:26.9] SC: Right.

[0:17:28.2] TG: Because I feel when I talk about how I’m waiting for the next book in series and I don’t start series anymore until they’re already done, I feel a little bit like a cliché, kind of well, I got to support the fans. I don’t want to leave them waiting. For my again, whenever my kids asked me if I’m famous, I’m like, “I’m known by dozens of people.” They’re like, “Dad, I’m known by dozens of people.” I’m like, “Exactly.”

I do worry about never finishing it. Now I have a better idea of waiting into a project is quite the commitment. This isn’t something I’ll knock out in the next three and a half months. If I had to choose right now, I would choose writing the second book in the trilogy.

[0:18:19.5] SC: Well, there’s an alternative process that might be worth considering too. I would actually recommend this one. This one is the way I organize my work day is that I have difficult things I have to do. Then I have things that are less difficult and then I have things that are fun. Fun for whatever or however I define fun.

My day begins with the difficult things. That’s usually writing and editing stuff that is super, super important to me. Then I move into things that are less difficult that have to be done, like accounting and all that stuff. Then lastly, I’ll do something like play baseball with my kids, or do some yard work, something that’s a little bit more fun and there’s no stress involved in it.

I think there’s a way as a writer to do projects and trick yourself with the following strategy, is that you’ve already done some preliminary work on the psychological thriller. It’s a fun idea. No massive amount of urgency to it. Then you’ve got this thing that’s probably more urgent, which is book two in The Threshing series. I wouldn’t focus on any one of them, I would do both.

When you get flushed out with The Threshing, you go over to the other thing and you goof around a little bit. I’m not saying you do nine hours a day, four and a half and four and a half. I’m saying, start with the important project first, the one that you think is the priority, which would be The Threshing book two. Then when you start to find yourself getting exhausted working through those problems, if you still feel like, “I’d to tool around and fudge around with that psychological thing for a while,” then you do that for a little while. If you don’t, then you don’t.

You always have this option to play, to play in another genre, play as a writer as opposed to write as a writer. The notion of play in writing, it’s why we want to become writers because when we get into the flow of writing, it’s extraordinarily playful, imaginative, we’re in a flow state, it’s awesome. That’s what drives us to wanting to be writers in the first place. Then once we become professional writers, then we start to say, “I’m going to put my ass in this chair. No matter what, I’m going to grind out my stuff,” and you got to do that. That’s what a pro does.

Every now and then, “Ah, that’s exhausting,” and you start to lose the thread of why you wanted to be a writer in the first place. I suggest having these playful fun side projects that you can use, because one day you’re going to be like, “I’m blocked. I can’t think another second about how to solve that point of no return in my middle build novel and my second book and my thing. I’m going to do my morning work on the psychological thriller and just have fun. Write some fun scenes.”

Doing both is going to be really helpful to you, because it’s going to reduce the pressure on the psychological thriller, which will probably unearth a lot of different fun things in your own ideas and mine. Then on the other side, you’re going to be a professional writer. You’re going to work through that second book. That’s what I suggest you do. Don’t say, “I’m only going to work on this no matter what.” Give yourself the leeway to go back and forth as you feel appropriate. Does that make sense?

[0:22:23.0] TG: Yeah. I guess I hadn’t thought having two open projects at a time would be a smart thing.

[0:22:29.0] SC: It might not be for you, right? You might be like, “No, I can’t handle this. I’m just going to focus on the other.” That’s totally cool. Right now, I’ve got about seven or eight open projects. Guess what happens? I start working on one of them and I start banging out some good sentences and then a light bulb goes off in my head about another project. I make a note on a piece of paper and then when I finish that day’s work on that one specific project, then as the last thing, I go to the other project and inject the note and the idea that I just generated while I was working on something else into the other project. Guess what happens, is that these seven projects are one’s 500 words, one’s 3,000. They all have varying levels of – I mean, we talked about this on our weekly business call.

I’m like, “Well, I’m 90% done on this. I’ve got 70% of this. An idea occurred to me about doing this other thing.” I know in the back of your mind you’re like, “I don’t even really care, Shawn. Just get the things done. I don’t even want to hear this.” For me, that seems to work for me. It might not work for you, but what I do find is that insights come to me when I’ve super-duper, micro-focusing on one specific project, the other side of my brain sometimes will throw things across the chasm that are applicable to other projects.

Instead of throwing those out and saying, “No, I must focus on this.” I make a note and then I put it in the other thing. Then when I have to do that other thing, I’ve got fuel already there with all kinds of ideas that I go, “All right, that happened to me when I was writing that book about the action story. This is more about the micro-technology is involved in the five commandments, whatever.” That helps me.

That might not work for you, but I think generally as a cognitive – my understanding of the cognitive processes of insight generation is that when you are doing a parallel problem-solving project with another one that has a similar domain of problem that you have insights about the other project as you’re working. I know this is a little bit abstract, but that’s actually how our brains come up with these bridge neural connections, is that these things start to – the electrons flow, the neurotransmitters flow and somehow it sparks something somewhere else and a new connection is made. That is because you’re working in a parallel domain.

If you’re writing fiction and one is a contemporary psychological thriller about someone who’s resentful and then you’re also writing a science fiction fantasy novel, the second in the trilogy, about a society that has been flushed into chaos, guess what happens is that when you start trying to come up with characters who are resentful, stuff from your psychological thriller is going to be very, very helpful in solving those problems and vice-versa.

I’m going on way too long about this, but I think it’s a worthwhile experiment for you to open up your mind in such a way that you allow yourself to treat each project as the play for the other one. It’s a good mind trick.

[0:26:41.4] TG: How does that – because to me what that could turn into is never shipping anything, because I’m always like, “Oh, I’ve got this new other thing I want to work on. And I’ll come back to this one when I’m stuck on this other one.” I guess, that’s been that would be my worry on that is just spinning up new projects and not shipping anything.

[0:27:04.8] SC: Well, have you ever shipped?

[0:27:06.4] TG: Well, yeah.

[0:27:07.2] SC: So you have. So you have a consistent record of your capability of meeting deadlines and shipping things over what? 20 years? 30 years?

[0:27:20.7] TG: 30. I’m 38. Yeah, 20 years.

[0:27:24.3] SC: Well, you’re in school. Yeah. You got a ship in school. I think worrying about not shipping when you’ve shipped before is resistance.

[0:27:40.8] TG: Okay. Yeah.

[0:27:42.2] SC: Right? Subjectively, you know when the shit hits the fan, you’re going to deliver. When I go, “Tim, I screwed up. Can you fix this thing for me?” You don’t go, “Well, I don’t know because I’m playing with this other thing and I don’t really want to prioritize that right now.” No, you don’t say that. You go, “Yeah, I’ll take care of that today,” and you do and you ship it and it’s done.

I think a lot of us are really, really amazing shippers and we get our stuff done all the time in multiple domains. When your kid has to be at school at a specific time, we literally ship him from home to school at that time every single day. When we go, “Well, I just worry that I’m not going to be.” You know what? Worry about something else. Come on.

[0:28:28.8] TG: Okay. Looking at my main writing gig is working on the second book of The Threshing, while also giving myself permission to bail and work on this other one from time to time, as I’m either inspired, or I’m frustrated with The Threshing and just need something to clear the pallet, that seems to be the advice you’re giving me. Am I saying that right?

[0:28:54.3] SC: Yeah.

[0:28:54.8] TG: Okay. Let’s talk just a little bit. If we don’t get to anything else today, that’s fine. Could you talk a little bit about the trilogy set up? I’ve wondered this before I was writing is why is a trilogy so popular? Obviously, there’s series that go longer, but the trilogy seems to be the mainstay. It’s either one book, or three. It’s not two or four. Is it because it’s the beginning hook, middle build, ending pay off just showing up in that form? Or why the trilogy over other things?

[0:29:33.8] SC: Well, I think it’s the process by which we – a trilogy is just an expanded single novel. The thing about storytelling that is just so remarkable to me is that it’s a very, very complicated technology, psycho-technology of the mind, that’s sole purpose is to basically encourage people to learn. The way it does that is it mimics and mirrors the natural complexity of the world in such a way that it feels “real.”

The reason why trilogies and odd-numbered multi-part things I think are so endemic is that there is the notion of every individual that life is linear and story reflects that desire for life to be linear and that there’s a beginning, middle and end and that once you reach the end, then you move on to something else. The past is the past and we’ll let it go.

That’s our desire, our unconscious desire is to have a certain outcome in everyday events in our lives. When we all set goals in our minds and make plans we say, “We’re going to get that house. We’re going to have a couple of kids. We’re going to live in a nice community. We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that.” Then once all of those goals have been attained, then I hit a place of “happiness.” In this world of happiness, I am content. Nothing seems to get me down and I’m constantly in this Nirvana of contentment.

Now when you lay it out like that, we can all agree that’s not the way the world is. It’s not even close to that. Because what happens is we set goals and when we attain those goals, we discover that we are not content. “Oh, geez. That didn’t work. Oh, man. I guess I have to get a bigger house. That’s it. Bigger house with a better garage and then I will be content, because then I will have storage space for all this other stuff that I bought along the way.”

I do have a point here. The point is that the reason why people like these beginning, middles and ends is because it allows us to attain, to acquire half. We get to have things when we understand that there are causes that bring effects. The cause of working 40 hours a week brings the effect of me being able to pay for the house and to have my kids. That seems to be a linear deal.

Now that’s the having mode. It’s a mode of existing to attain things, to have things. That’s a really, really big part of life and I’m not trying to denigrate it, or make fun of it, because you got to have things. You got to have air, water, shelter, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. There’s another side of existence and that side is called becoming. It’s the being mode. What are you becoming? Who are you? What is your essence?

Heidegger was a very complicated person, but he did have this cool idea that most things that we categorized, we can say they have an essence, like a chair. It’s the thing in which you sit to relieve yourself. A chair has an essence, a material essence that we can all agree upon. Birds; birds make music and they fly. That’s their essence. The one animal on this planet that doesn’t seem to have a single essence is a human being.

We can’t say every single person has this essence, because every single one of us is unique. What that means is that each one of us are “existentially confused.” It’s a state of being that we all inhabit. We’re not really sure. It’s like, you’re not really sure if you’re a writer, even though you’ve written a lot of things. “I’m not really sure if I’m a writer, even though I’ve written a lot of things.” The evidence suggests that we are writers, but yet we’re still not sure, right?

We’re still not sure if I’m really a good father. Am I really a good husband, or am I just playing the part of a good husband, right? That whole section of reality and it is real. It is no joke. That section is an existential mode called the becoming mode. If we confuse the having mode and the being mode, the becoming mode and we think, “If I buy the big house, I’m a good father.” Then, “Ooh, wait a minute.” That’s called existential confusion. Acquiring something does not make you be something.

The reason, I’m getting back to the answer of why people like trilogies. The reason why people trilogies is that in our genes, if we did not acquire water, if we did not acquire food, we died. Our genetic material really makes it important that we have essential things to survive. The way in which we evolved was to learn cause and effect. If I do this, I get to eat. “Oh, my gosh. It works. I’m going to keep doing that.” If I do this, I get that. This having cause and effect relationship is extraordinarily important to the evolution of life.

It’s no wonder we get confused, because the becoming mode, the being mode is much more internal. It’s much more about how we find meaning on the planet. Trilogies are popular, because they lock into our belief system that having will get us contentment. Now the really, really good stories constantly undermine that bullshit, because it’s bullshit. You cannot buy a car that will make you cool. You cannot get love by buying something.

When you look at things as having, you look at them as inanimate material objects. To become, we cannot look at ourselves as machines that if we just put the proper inputs into our machine, the output will be contentment. The middle part of a trilogy is very difficult, because you’re negotiating this landscape that is similar to reality. Because the middle build doesn’t really have a beginning and end, does it? It has a beginning, middle and end, but the implication is that we didn’t get there without something happening before and we are not finished at the end of it.

This is why it’s a difficult thing to craft, because people’s inherent desire is to have a very reasonable cause and effect having formula for knowledge or truth. Does that make sense, or is this all too way too abstract?

[0:39:02.3] TG: It’s pretty abstract. It makes sense. And then thinking through – so with the middle build, what you’re saying, or with the middle book is just – Are you saying that because it doesn’t build to an ultimate conclusion, that’s what makes it so hard?

[0:39:18.7] SC: Yeah. It’s like watching great series television. Those series creators, those writers, those storytellers, every single episode that they create is a middle build. It’s really, really difficult. I’ve been watching Better Call Saul, spin-off series from Vince Gilligan. That spin-off from Breaking Bad. The skill, the way they’re crafting this story, I know that they don’t know the ending, but what they’re doing is they’re living in this consistently built complex reality that is based upon Breaking Bad. Whenever they get confused they say, “What’s this world like again? What year is it?” Then they craft these unexpected events that what would happen if Jimmy McGill does this? How would that happen? What would go from there?

They craft these hour-long, beautiful pieces of story that have their own beginning, middle and end, but we know when that story starts there’s a super-duper long previous history. We also know at the end of the episode, things are going to happen that we have no idea in the future are going to happen.

You can craft, I think using the techniques of really fantastic long-series television creators and thinking about how they craft these episodes would be helpful in doing the middle book build in a trilogy. The thing about the middle build in general and this is a new Story Grid tool that I’ve been really playing with for six months. It’s the notion, I’m now breaking the middle build into two pieces. The reason why I’m doing that is that the structure of complex systems, there’s this whole – probably it’s been around for about 50, 60 years. It’s called systems thinking, systems theory. It’s a super-duper, the highest abstraction level of looking at the world that you possibly could imagine.

Essentially, there’s this really great YouTube video by a guy named Dave Snowden. I think I’ve mentioned it before and it’s called the Cynefin Framework. C-Y-N-E-F-I-N. It breaks the world into different kinds of systems. There’s the order system and there’s the chaos system. That used to be the paradigm when things in the mythic structure of the world weren’t so complex.

At the very beginning of the Homo sapiens time, just getting something to eat and finding a mate were huge problems. There were order and chaos. Were you going to be able to make that happen or not? Overtime, order and chaos came together in this really interesting thing that systems thinkers think is the actual reality of the natural world, all the way from the Big Bang to the present. That’s called complexity.

What you find in chaos theory is that within the chaotic random movements, there are these really remarkable systems that seem to be ordered and fractal, the fractal phenomena, the butterfly effect. That’s out of chaos theory. Complexity is this mishmash of order and chaos. That we believe, systems thinkers is the actual order of the natural world. There’s no linearity to it, but there are patterns.

The concept of exponential growth lives in complexity. Compound interest lives in complexity. The nature of connected networks lives in complexity. Now order is divided into complicated order and obvious order. What I’ve just described is four domains. There’s the ordered complicated system, the ordered obvious system, chaos and complexity.

It’s my theory that story mirrors the process by which one navigates through those four terrains. The beginning hook is about a protagonist who has a complicated world view. That complicated world view works. It works for them. They seem to think that they’ve got an asymmetrical relationship with the rest of the natural world, such that they are capable of having their primal needs met and they can pull one over on everybody else. They’re doing okay.

Something unexpected happens to that character. Guess what happens then? They have to be flushed into an obvious order, which would be a movement from their ordinary world into an extraordinary world that is seemingly perfectly, obviously ordered. The only problem is is that this protagonist doesn’t really quite know that order yet.

For example, it’s like your character Jesse moves from her ordinary world in New York City. She has a complicated worldview that seems to be working for her. She’s a really good hacker. She gets the credits when she needs them. Things are going okay and then something unexpected happens. At the end of the beginning hook, she is forced to because she has to make a best bad choice, she will be cast out of the group and exiled from her existence, which will threaten her life. Or she will do a deed for the group, such that she can return to the ordinary world, she gets flushed into this extraordinary world, right? It’s the world of the training center in the magical world that she has to get in on the plane to go to. That middle build that you crafted for The Threshing begins then; the movement from the protagonist into this extraordinary, strange world that has rules, that the character really hasn’t figured out yet, but everybody else has.

Then after progressive complications, unexpected events, you reach a point of no return. That’s the moment when Jesse freaks out in the second severing. That point of no return is so traumatic that we as the reader know that she is never going to be the same person as she is again, because she can no longer use her worldview to solve her problems. Now she’s helpless. That point of no return is the demarcation point between this obvious rule-based order into chaos. She doesn’t know what’s up, what’s down, what to do about it.

That third quadrant is about chaos and how she navigates that chaotic world. It’s important to note that she’s not the only one navigating a chaotic world, so is everyone else. The entire culture in that system is in chaos. The bad guy doesn’t quite know what to do. Her brother doesn’t quite know what to do. Her teammates don’t quite know what to do. Everybody’s wait and see how this plays out.

Then eventually, she has a worldview shift. She changes the way she views the world. By the end, all is lost of that third quadrant. She resolves, “Well, the only thing to do is to go in there and see what happens.” That movement, so when she goes into the threshing, her attitude is, “I’m going to take it as it comes.” She doesn’t have an ideology. She doesn’t really have a plan. She just is going to take it as it comes and respond to the unexpected events that happened to her in real-time and trust herself that she will be able to handle it.” That’s what you do in a complex system.

You can’t walk into a complex system and have a cause-and-effect relationship with what’s going to happen. You can’t control a complex system. All you can do is do little experiments. You’re going to poke the system, sense what happens, what the output of that is and respond. If when you poke the system and it comes back negative, you don’t do that anymore. You do these – they’re called safe to fail experiments.

That whole ending payoff of your novel is about Jesse participating in this threshing event and sensing and responding in real-time to a complex environment and believing in her heart that whatever they throw at her, she’s going to be able to figure out. Guess what that is? That’s called living in the moment. That’s being mindful of your environment, responding to it in real time. That’s how we can best navigate difficult, complex things. We don’t go in with an ideology that says, “Oh, if they say that, I’m going to say that.” No. We don’t believe in one single idea, that’s an ideology. No. Instead, we believe in responding as optimally as possible to the circumstances of unexpected events that occur in real-time. That’s a very complicated idea, but not really.

It’s like the Super Bowl was recent – it just passed. When a player starts to do that, like the – I forget his name, Patrick Mahones, I think. He is the quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs. For three and a half quarters, he wasn’t responding to the complex environment in such a way that he was being – it was working. In those last three drives, he was. He was living in the moment, responding to all the incredible amounts of stimuli flowing into his brain and responding. His other guys, he was participating with the other 10 players. This is why we love watching sporting events. We’re watching a team of people participating together in discovering and reaching a goal that is beautiful to watch.

That’s what Jesse is doing in the ending payoff of your first novel. She gets the whole kitchen sink is thrown at her. At the end of your book, they ask her, “Well, what are we going to do next?” She says wisely, “I don’t know,” because she doesn’t know yet. How does she know? She has to learn how to respond to what comes next.

These four quadrants, the complicated world that shifts into the obvious order, that shifts into chaos and then back up to complexity, now in your second novel you’ve got to push her from the complexity of the ending of The Threshing into a situation where she’s back where she started in book one, which is the complicated realm.

[0:52:19.0] TG: Okay.

[0:52:19.7] SC: You see how this is a spiral? She moves from one quadrant to another and it’s like a corkscrew.

[0:52:30.0] TG: Yeah, because I’ll have to put her back through that same process. Yeah.

[0:52:34.1] SC: I mean, that is thematically what they mean by the hero’s journey. It’s looking at the heroic journey more in terms of the cognitive processes necessary in order to best navigate complexity. Complexity is defined as non-linearity that does have embedded patterns within it that Homo sapiens are remarkably incredibly attuned to. What we do is we discover these patterns inside the complexity of the natural environment. We pull them out of that complex system and then what we can do is figure out how to do cause and effect technologies from those complex environments.

I want to wrap this up, but just think about online book marketing. When online book marketing first started, a few people and I think you were one of them, you were definitely one of them, there were a few people who noticed that there was a pattern. If you were capable of creating a subscription list of people who cared about your writing, then you could talk to them directly and increase the probability of them purchasing your work, so the cause could create an effect. If you could cause yourself to have a subscription list of subscribers, you could affect an end result of more book sales.

At the very beginning, this asymmetric power, meaning people like you who understood that pattern and were able to roll out that patterning for your clients, it increased the sales for your clients. They said, “This guy has special sauce.” Now what happens is over time, that innovation gets weaponized. Meaning, other people noticed that Tim Grahl has figured out this formula, so they go and they read everything that Tim Grahl has done and they figure out what he did and then they do it too. Then they add on a little bit more umph.

Soon, the cause of getting more book sales doesn’t return as highly as it did initially, because more and more people are learning that technology. The asymmetry of your expertise over other people starts to get a little bit diminished. What that causes you to do is to go back into the complex universe, figure out a new thread and then put that one. You’re leveling up your professional ability to market books online and then other people are starting to steal your technology and use it to help other people.

What eventually happens is that everybody understands that technology and the cause and the effect no longer is obvious. Then some people just quit and they fall into chaos, until another person rises and acquires a new skill that can innovate that book marketing online system.

You can use this movement from complicated order to obvious order to chaos to complexity and back again on multiple domains of analysis, so that you can start to make sense of the world when I’m sure there are people today who have hundreds of thousands of subscribers who say, “Yeah, man. A few years ago, this was amazing. I would be able to send out three e-mails and the return on that e-mail offer was extraordinary. Today I got to send out 20, right?”

It’s not that people haven’t done it the right way, it’s just that the technology starts to slowly erode, until it no longer works. The cause and the effect lose their fecundity. Guess what I’ve described, that’s technological innovation. Homo sapiens at the very beginning of our cognitive revolution about 70,000 years ago, what made us so powerful was our capability to use projectile weapons. We could figure out how to put a little piece of bone, like a sharp piece of bone on a reed and be able to throw that from far away and kill things without getting damaged by having to fight one-on-one with an animal, or a Neanderthal.

That projectile weapon of the reed with the sharp bone tip on it, over time became a nuclear warhead. It’s the same technology. It’s the same abstract idea. I’m going to be safe over here and I’m going to launch something elsewhere that will take out the people that I don’t want around me.

If you look at the rise of technologies over time, you can see this. The cause and effect become more and more – it grows ever more powerful. When you’re telling a story, that’s the cycle of how your character grows through their power and through their existential understanding of who they are. They have to keep breaking their worldview to expand it to become more powerful, which makes them have to break their worldview again. You see, it’s a cycle that is ever repeating. There’s no beginning, middle and end because none of us until the day we die, really truly know who we are, but we try really hard to figure it out.

We have a good sense of it. We self-actualize. We find the domains that give us the most meaning and we work as hard as we possibly can in those domains to leave something behind that could be helpful to other people after we die. Even in that last moment, I’m sure most people are still like “Hey, I don’t know what happens next. What’s going on? Here I am. I’m at the end of my life. Nobody gets out of this thing alive. How is this going to end?”

A story does have an ending and that’s – it makes us feel a little bit better. Maybe there’s a good thing at the end of this thing. That’s why you have these really, really deep structures that we’re really aligned with. The middle build of a story is difficult, because it’s a movement from the breakdown of a cause-and-effect thing that we take for granted and it no longer works, which pushes us into chaos.

When all the things that we think are going to work don’t work anymore, that means everything’s random. Randomness is chaotic. We don’t know up and down or left and right. Things just happen.


[1:00:07.2] 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.

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The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.