[0:00:00.5] 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 the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.
In this episode, with me coming very close to the end of my second draft. Shawn and I start out discussing what we’re going to do to start analyzing and editing the second draft and then we move in to a bigger question about what we’re trying to accomplish with this podcast and with my writing and what it means to be a writer in today’s world.
It was a fun discussion, I think it’s something you’ll enjoy and so let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:50.3] TG: Shawn, I am this close and I’m putting my fingers really close together to having a finished second draft. I plan on having it to you this week so we’re recording on a Tuesday, I should have it to you by this weekend. Really excited, I’m finished up, kind of the final show down of the threshing and now I’m moving in to the end of the book. I think I only have about four or 5,000 words left.
[0:01:23.5] SC: Wow, great.
[0:01:25.4] TG: I’m really excited, I feel like it’s come together well. I mean, obviously, you know, I don’t know how much will be changed and how much it actually works but I definitely, in the first draft, we just skipped the whole part of the end and so I actually wrote that part at the end and so I actually wrote that part, felt like it came together pretty well, it felt like I had some nice kind of twist and turns in it and ended up where I wanted to end up.
I have like it in my head where I’m going. I think I’ve got it all figured out. I just got to kind of being off the words. I’m really excited about this because we worked on kind of, I mean, it’s editing but kind of, I don’t know what we would call it where you look deeply at a draft through all the different lenses, what would you like analyzed the first draft tot his novel and the summer of 2017 and it is now October of 2018.
It’s taken a minute and I did write a whole other book in there, I wrote Writing Down a Dream in there too but I’m really excited to have what I think is like a draft that’s worth kind of keeping and working on because so much of the first draft got thrown out anyway.
[0:02:46.0] SC: True.
[0:02:48.4] TG: Anyway, that’s my update on my work which I’m really excited about and so now, I’m looking you know, sending you this, you’ve read most of it already so it shouldn’t take you long to kind of read the last eight or 10,000 words, I forget what the last part I sent you was. But then we’ll move in to, well, that’s actually my question is like, what is the next step.
Let’s take a leap and assume the draft is working I guess, we’re not going to have to throw out the middle build. It’s like somewhat working, what’s our first step, second and third step when it comes to figuring out what to do, with this, you know, almost 80,000 words or whatever, it’s ended up being?
[0:03:40.9] SC: Well, I’m glad you brought that up because this is a really squishy kind of question and oftentimes, it depends upon just how fully confident I am as the editor and with the general progression, the macro 30,000 foot view of the story. For our purposes, what I suspect I will do is pull out the 15 scenes that make up the very, you know, macro spine of the story. These are the 15 scenes that I go through at nauseam at the level of your craft course, the big macro, the one I just completed last summer and we’re starting up shortly.
These 15 scenes will give us a sense of are we hitting the right moments in the story according to the global genre. Again, the first thing we’re going to do is say okay, what’s our global genre again? We’ll go, well, it’s an action story with a labyrinth plot which the value at stake is life and death. Great.
What is the prime driver of the life and death? It’s a very analytical, sort of approach and then we’ll look at your beginning hook and we’ll say to ourselves, okay, what is the inciting incident of my beginning hook? Then we’ll pull out that chapter which is usually, in your case, it’s going to probably be the first chapter and then you know, we’ll say, what is, which scene in the beginning hook is the turning point progressive complication scene?
That will be the scene where the value shifts globally in the action story. Because the action story goes on life and death, it will either move toward life or toward death from one of the other pulls on the value spectrum. It’s probably the turning point progressive complication scene is I’m pulling it out of my head because I haven’t read the book in so long. It could be the moment when 61 gets his brain fried when they’re running away.
Jesse realizes that her, not taking on the challenge that is presented to her by going to the threshing school is threatening the lives of the innocent people. That is an active turning point in the story where that will push us in to the crisis of the beginning hook, you know, the crisis of Jesse is the best bad choice or reconcilable good. You know, if I stay here, it’s good for me but it’s bad for everyone else.
If I leave here, it’s bad for me but if I don’t, it’s even worse for everyone else, it works on both levels and then that would move in to the climax of the beginning hook which, and then, the resolution in the beginning hook. Then, we would do the same thing for the middle build and for the ending payoff.
What we’re looking for in those 15 scenes is A, are they turning on the global action value? Meaning, life and death. Now, if one of those scenes that we pick out turns out to be turning on love or say validation, we’re going to have to look at that scene and say hey, this isn’t turning on the global value shift, this is a critical scene in the story from a macro point of view and if it doesn’t turn on life and death then our reader’s going to get a little bit confused without knowing why. Let’s tweak this scene so that it you know, it complies with the value shift inherent in an action reverence story. That would be the first thing that I would do is you know, I would ask you to pull up the 15 scenes and then we’d walk through them and then we would say, A, is the C working.
B, is it going on the right value shift, C, does it make sense? Is this really that good? Because these are the big moments of your novel, right? These 15 scenes are like almost, they’re the way stations where you know, if you’re going on a trip to Los Angeles from New York, they’re where you stop off for lunch and dinner and breakfast, right?
These are the big moments where the leaders literally hungry for, it’s what’s driving them, you know? If we can get to Pittsburgh, we can have a cheese steak or I missed up Philadelphia and Pittsburgh but you know what I’m saying. If you look at your story in that way, these 15 are the 15 way stations for your reader as they’re moving across the terrain of your story. They’re going to want, those are the real payoff moments in the story for t hem. We got to make sure that they really are good, that they really do innovate and surprise the readers and they’d go, my gosh, I can’t wait to the next rest stop scene.
That would be the first thing, you know, really nail the global macro of the 15 scenes of your say, probably 60 scenes in your book. Then from there, the next thing I would do is check your, have you done the obligatory scenes and conventions of your chosen genre, you know?
Do you have the hero at the mercy of the villain scenes, an action story so you need that? Do you have the convention of the mentor, yeah, you do? We basically go and we would check off to make sure that not just that you have them but where? Like in the Pride and Prejudice story grid schematic that I made, at the very bottom of it, there are all the moments where I’ve ticked off where Jane Austin actually, literally did the obligatory scene and did have the convention. We can say, if somebody ever put a gun to our head, really, where is the mentor scene? You go, well that’s scene 32.
If we had the story grid of your thing, it would have it right at the very bottom and it will highlight mentor. That would be kind of the second level. As you can see, there are multiple levels of analysis in a story that an editor and a writer can work through to really just you know, make sure that they haven’t forgotten anything. It’s like, when they send a car off of the lot at a major car manufacturing, they don’t just like ship it away and sell it.
They test it, right? They test to make sure the ignition’s working, that the exhaust’s working, that the electrical system’s working, that the air conditioning system’s working. That’s what the editing process is going to be for you know, that next level of draft. Now, this is your second draft so we’re hoping, it’s our estimation, that probably 80 to 90% of your 15 scenes are working and if it’s 60, then we’ll deal with it but you’ve gone through a lot to get where you are now and I think it’s going to show in the work that you’re going to present to me that it’s a much better book than it was after the first draft.
If we can just sort of use the toolbox that we already have and then we’ll go through the hero’s journey. You know, is it clear that Jesse is refusing the call to adventure. I think it is pretty clear because she suffers terribly for that. Is it clear that you know, she moves from her ordinary world to an extraordinary world? Yeah, that’s clear. Then you know, we’ll go through whatever – I think they’re like 12 or you know, 14 mile post of the hero’s journey that we talked about, probably a year ago.
We’ll go through those too. It’s not like this magical, mystical experience that you’re going to get next where I wave the wand over your manuscript and you know, all the things to fix are going to immediately, you know, rise to the surface.
[0:12:55.1] TG: I keep waiting for the magical mystical moment. It keeps not coming.
[0:13:02.0] SC: Yeah, here’s a really painful thing and I. you know, I’m hesitant to say it but it’s a work of art, right? We’re working on creating something that has never existed before. It’s a story and a story is a very dynamic, incredibly difficult, you know, thing to really pull together and oftentimes, you can use all the powers of your analytical mind and really tick off every box and be able to defend your story until you’re blue in the face but sometimes, even after all that work, the proof of the pudding when it goes into the marketplace is that it just didn’t connect with people.
But, that’s okay. As long as you’ve really put through every effort that you can. Now, I know a lot of people out there and I spoke to a bunch of people at a recent conference I was attending. A lot of people, you know, they make a really good argument and they say look, come on Shawn, at what point are you going to let poor Tim finish his book, you know? Put him through the sky through murder.
His book sounds pretty good, I’m sure it’s, you know, it’s reasonably okay and that certain people will enjoy it and what makes you this big, nasty, figure that keeps grinding him through this process. Look, I don’t have any problem with someone reaching the moment where they say, you know what? I’ve done enough, I’ve worked as hard as I can on this, no moss, got to move on and I think it’s ready for the marketplace and let’s put it out there.
I have no problem with that. But my job as an editor is to follow the lead of the writer and to not BS them. If they say, “Hey, do you think if we went through another round we could tweak this a little bit better?” I’m going to say yes. Now, at some point, I would say to them, the book is the book and it’s ready to go. We can go through a few more drafts and we could probably make the line by line, micro riding syntax read better.
We might be able to elevate the suspense of particular scenes but it’s there. Moving it from a 78%, I’m just making that up, to a 79%, what is the effective return on investment of psychic pain to do that. Is it going to increase reader’s emotional attachment to the story in any real way? No. Okay, then it’s time to let it go.
[0:15:59.0] TG: I look at this as like, you know, the opening line of the podcast is always, it’s like, I’m a struggling writer, trying to learn how to tell a story that works. For me, this isn’t about, I’m not a struggling writer trying to get a book out into the world, you know? The whole point of this process is not necessarily to finish a book, it’s to get better at telling a story. You know, when I look at the difference between the writing of your first 1,000 copies that I came out, it was six years ago and then running down your dream, it’s night and day because I’ve gone through this long, horrible, terrible process.
You know, when people say, well, you know, let’s wrap it up and send it out, I’m like, well, sure, but the point is not to – I’m not churning on the threshing, trying to write the perfect book that I know will sell. I am churning on the threshing so that everything that I write after the threshing will be better and I just was telling people when I was working and running data dream is like my job is to just keep working on until Shawn says it’s good enough and I feel like we have a similar idea of what good enough is but you have a more clear picture of when you see it and so yeah, I don’t have any doubt I could be on part three of the trilogy already.
If I was just like, “Hey that’s good enough let’s ship it and go,” but part of the process of churning on this is so that every future book will be better. I mean we got a question one time from somebody that was like in this world where authors are releasing a book once a quarter or once every two months, is it really worth working on a book for that long?” And my point was the whole, if you work on a book for that long every other book you write forever will be better.
It’s kind of like several years ago when I switched from the QWERTY keyboard layout to the Colemak keyboard layout. It was this long period of excruciating pain of not being able to type but now, I type an average of ten words a minute faster for the rest of my life.
[0:18:31.1] SC: Right.
[0:18:31.7] TG: And that’s how I see this. It’s like sure, it is taking two or three years to get this book out but my assumption is I will be a better storyteller for the rest of my life and so that is how I view it. It is much bigger for me than just finishing a book and publishing it. It is more about going through this process with a book makes me hopefully a better writer for the rest of my life.
[0:19:02.1] SC: Well you know it also is about defining the value that you appreciate the most, right? So defining worth, what’s it worth to you Tim for doing that? Now a lot of people define value and worth monetarily and yeah, sure money is great and I would be nowhere without it but at some point you’ve got to say to yourself, “Okay am I doing this just to get more money?” I mean really? Am I going through this hell and dredging up a lot of difficult experiences in my own personal history in order to bring them to the table to a fictional world?
Am I doing that just to get a few more dollars in the bank account? Now if you are doing that then yeah, I’d probably agree, yeah bang them out man. You know just keep banging them out and work through the algorithms necessary to get the most exposure or to get people to give your book a try, etcetera-etcetera-etcetera but I think what that eventually does to you is it devalues the creative experience and for me, a lot of people have said to me, “Why don’t you just go from city to city and do your story grid introductory course over and over and over again?
And really from the marketing and get more people say that you’re the smartest editor of all time and you’re invaluable and blah-blah-blah why don’t you do that? Because you’ll obviously make far more money than you do sitting, reading all the crap that I read to get better at this storygrid stuff.” And the answer to that question always for me is that I just don’t value that thing.
Because for me, it is not to sound cheesy but it’s the exploratory journey of saying, “You know I am not really quite sure about that idea that I presented about the obligatory scene in the coming of age story or the maturation plot. So maybe I should look at Erikson’s psychological explorations.” I just made that up but that’s what gives me my thrill. What other disciplinary worlds can I explore that will influence and make my story grid stuff even more universal?
And I would rather go to that place instead of that’s worth more to me than the dollar values associated with the traveling Story Grid road show and I think –
[0:22:09.6] TG: I am trying to picture what that would be.
[0:22:12.9] SC: You know a lot of people are like, “Well you’re not doing more people a service for that,” meaning like I could help other people, more people doing the roadshow than me with my head stuck in a book where I live, you know what’s the point of that and that is a very good argument. Even if I were giving away, if I were say independently wealthy and just going from town to town and doing these seminars for free at the local library and maybe six people in the local community use the story grid.
And become better storytellers, that would be far more worthy of my time than me exploring more psychological stuff and I would say maybe, that is a pretty good argument but I value my own intellectual exploration more than the money or the community service and I think and I don’t want to put words in your mouth but I think for you there is a certain, for lack of a better work, sacredness to your engagement with storytelling that supersedes things like churning more on your list of people who follow you kind of stuff.
And so I don’t think that what really nailed it for me in my assumption that that is true for you is when you went in to throw in the towel about six weeks ago, right? So you were willing to walk away from two years of hard work without realizing a penny because you would hit a creative wall. Now that isn’t someone who’s writing to make money. That is someone who is writing to explore something within themselves that is extremely difficult to pinpoint.
And so the fact that it is probably going to end up being three years, maybe three and a half years before this novel ever hits the light of day and you and I can scream to the rooftops until we’re course and who knows how many people will enjoy and buy the book and we can’t really do anything about that. That’s not really within our power, we can give it the best possible shot that we know how and the this thing, this book it’s a certain thing at that point and it has to live its own life.
And like sending your child away to go to college, you have to say goodbye, good luck, I have done everything I can I hope things work out well for you but I think if you are worried about monetizing your time writing stories, you’re probably haven’t hit the place where you’re doing it for the value of the creative act yet. I am not saying that is never going to happen for you, maybe it won’t that is okay too. You know there are some great stories that come from people who aren’t grinded.
I think that that is a magical thing and I just don’t know how to create that magic other than working through my analytical process to help people become better writers. So it’s what I know, it is what I think you value and you think is worthy and that is why we are doing what we’re doing and does a get crazy, does it get ridiculous? Sure but anything worthwhile gets crazy and ridiculous.
[0:25:47.9] TG: Yeah, it’s interesting a long time ago I read this article about how writing isn’t a job and shouldn’t be a job and I mean obviously that is a big controversial topic but I have found it super helpful to not look at my writing as a job as something that I get paid to do and so any money that comes in as a result of my writing is just like, “Oh bonus,” you know? And so I have strived to create income like I have a job that creates income for me.
So that my writing never has pressure because the pressure on my writing, I feel like right now is to get better at writing and to keep moving, right? So it is not so much I’ve got to publish, it’s not so much I’ve got to make money so I can pay the bills because I have talked with the authors that churn out books so they could get the next advance because they need that next advance in order to pay their bills and it becomes this kind of scary cycle and you know it was interesting. I was listening to – I can never say his name, who is the guy that wrote Fight Club?
[0:27:10.2] SC: Chuck Palahniuk.
[0:27:12.4] TG: That guy, he did an interview, I can’t remember if I miss it on the podcast but he did an interview on the Joe Rogan podcast which was really good it’s just FYI for those listening. It is hard to listen to, there is some really nasty stories in it but otherwise –
[0:27:30.0] SC: Yeah, listened to it after you recommended it and I was like sometimes my jaw was on the ground a couple of times because I couldn’t believe the stories he told but they were just shocking for a purpose not just to be shocking.
[0:27:44.7] TG: Right, so which sets a whole other realization that I had listening to the podcast is what he does with his writing but he talked about how his agencies person or something, basically this guy stole a bunch of money from him and a bunch of other famous writers and all of a sudden, he was in this place where he had had money for a really long time and now, there was no money because it had been stolen and he had this really interesting perspective on it.
That thought was really healthy and he talked a lot about it but the thing that stood out to me was like it almost allowed him to go back to writing because to have some pressure on his writing in a good way because all of a sudden the money was freed up like he didn’t – I don’t know maybe I am contradicting myself. He had to go back to the page and write faster because he was out of money but it forced him to do the things he’d been wanting to do for a while is how I read it.
And so when I think about the right kind of pressure on writing is like, I want to keep moving and one of the things I love about this podcast is, this is a highly public accountability system that I keep moving. It doesn’t take long for it to become clear that I am not doing anything. If I don’t do anything for a while and so right now the idea of putting monetary pressure on my writing just seems I feel like it would kill what I am trying to do.
[0:29:23.1] SC: Well I think the professional in Palahniuk’s case, I think the point he was making was, “Hey man I’m a professional writer and I’ve got the skillset that is available to me after decades of hard work that allows me to write stories that are very compelling. So the only reason why I was not doing that more often was because I’ve got my trip to Tahiti planned and I am just going to chill out,” but what he was saying I think is that there was a great gift to him. I mean obviously it is not a gift but to lose a paradox.
[0:30:10.6] TG: I don’t know I think he almost talked about it from that perspective.
[0:30:14.4] SC: He did say it was a gift but I think he was pounding the points more than really necessary because he was speaking to an audience, the people who would probably say that’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. So he really wanted to nail it but anyway, the point is that once the wolf was out the door, now he could no longer say, “Oh should I write that one story I had in mind?” Now it was like, “Shit I’d better get that thing done or I am not going to be able to eat next month.”
So that pressure for the professional, a monetary pressure for a professional can actually lead to create a vigor. Now what I think is difficult is when you haven’t really had the confidence yet in your skill so you are pretty much still an amateur and I am not trying to grade you in any way but you are still in the absolutely peak.
[0:31:13.2] TG: I would say I am solidly in the amateur arena, yeah.
[0:31:16.6] SC: Okay, so as an amateur you should not be worried about financial return on your material. Once you reach a place where you say to yourself, “Hey, you know what? I haven’t been able to – my little side gig is now bringing in enough to pay the rent. Oh man I am a professional,” and it’s not like this ding-ding-ding bell. You come to realize this at some point. In my own professional life I have realized, “Oh I don’t have to do that anymore. I’ve got enough revenue coming in from X.”
My professional life, my previous amateur avocation has now become a livable wage and that’s a wonderful feeling but when you are creating and you are using your creative energies, it’s like Quincy Jones saying, “When money comes into the room, God leaves the room,” you know? Except when you are a super-duper professional. I mean I would put that as a caveat but only in the singular case, meaning if you are a lone artist creating your own stuff. When you become commitified, it can become very crass.
You know it is again, it is hard to really draw a very distinct clear line here because every person knows the line for themselves but I would say because those people who aren’t banging out the book every two months, they are professionals, right? They are making enough money for them to sustain their lives. The only problem I have with that is that if it degrades the creative process for them and they start to say, “Oh shit I’ve got to bang out another book, let me think, it is a hot dog story,” or whatever it is.
Then it can get hairy but it is all within the soul of the creator. Yeah so we all know when we are selling out and we all know when we’re not. So just try not to lie to yourself about it.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:33:25.8] 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.
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