Why can’t I finish my book?

[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 Story Grid, the author of the book the Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.

Doing this podcast for me is a little strange, because obviously, it’s in front of a lot of people. Any time I’m talking about something, or discussing my writing, or discussing Story Grid ideas, I’m aware that you are sitting there listening sometime in the future. Sometimes it feels very – it’s hard to hide. This has been one of those weeks where for a few weeks now on the podcast, I’ve been hiding. I always wonder like, “Can they tell? When they’re listening, can they tell that I’m hiding?”

This week, I come clean and I talk about what I’ve been hiding from. I really just talk about why I’m having so much trouble finishing up this book. I’m inches from the finish line and I cannot bring myself to cross. I decided to talk about it and come clean, mainly because I felt I was being very transparent and all of you knew what was going on anyway. It was helpful for me and hopefully as I work through it and ask the questions, it will be helpful for you as well, as you try to finish up your project. Let’s jump in and get started.

Shawn, I’ve been putting this off for a few weeks. This morning as soon as I woke up, I thought I know what I need to talk about on the podcast today. You can probably guess, but I’m going to say it anyway. I’ve been going through the book and I’ve only gotten about halfway through reworking all of the scenes. I bet, I’ve worked on a total of three times in the past eight weeks.

I don’t know. I mean, I’m having some overall, like I feel great about – I was talking to Candace about it last night and I was I like – I feel all of my work right now is tinted in gray. I’m just in that churning out stuff mode, instead of working on new exciting things mode. Every time I sit down to write, I feel – or work on a scene, I just feel it is the most – I don’t know. I just can’t do it. I keep coming up with other things that are more important to work on. Then we set the date for publishing next February, so I’m like, “Eh. I’m not in a hurry.”

Then every time I work on it, I feel it’s harder to work on it. Then there’s one scene, it was the scene where before she burns down the tower, where there’s a gun involved and we decided there can’t be a gun. It took me two or three tries to rewrite that scene in a way that I felt was half decent, without there being a gun. It just feels like – I’m not back to where I was, where I’m like, I don’t want to throw away the novel, which was where I was back six, four, or five months ago, or something. I don’t know. I’m not working on it.

One is I need to admit to the fact that I’m not working on it and that I keep talking about all this other stuff on the podcast, thinking this week I’m actually going to work on it and I’m going to turn something in. Then like, “Oh, I haven’t. We’re going to go over the math of Story Grid this week.”

I don’t really know what do the episode on, other than just start with – I’m just feeling a lot of resistance to it. I keep like, today I’m going to work on it. Oh, wait. I’ve got this other thing that’s more important. That’s where I’m at with the novel right now.

[0:04:17.1] SC: Okay, well it’s not – the good news is that you’re not suffering a unique malady.

[0:04:26.4] TG: That’s good.

[0:04:27.3] SC: Yeah. It’s funny, because I’m in a similar position. I’m working on a book with someone. It got to the point where we – he lives quite a ways away from me, so we decided to meet halfway. We got a third party actually in the room. We sat there for a full day and we had the third party basically grill us a bunch of questions to refocus our energies, to find out those essential things of why we’re doing this thing in the first place.

Sometimes it’s worth considering. It’s breaking your perspective. For example, when you’re a little kid you do things like this and it’s fun, right? Say you’re sitting on your porch and you see your neighbor pushing his lawnmower and you’re just a little kid. You’re goofing around and you go, “I wonder if I can get that guy within the measure between my thumb and my forefinger.” You put up your thumb and your forefinger and you move the thumb and forefinger in a way, so that you can see your next-door neighbor and he’s in between your thumb and forefinger and then you crush him. It’s fun. You think about, “Uh.” In a different world I could just snatch and crush that guy.

It’s funny, but that’s the way you have to approach these moments of being stuck is how can I change my perception the way I’m looking at this problem? First of all, you need to define the problem. The problem that you’re facing is yeah, you’re resistant, you’re reluctant, you’re not motivated, you’re not excited. It’s drudgery work. You’re not waking up in the morning and going, “Oh, I can fix that fourth paragraph in my 23rd scene today.” That’s natural and it makes sense. That’s when resistance as Steve says, this is where it redoubles its efforts, right? Because you’re super close to finishing this project.

[0:06:47.0] TG: I know. That’s what I keep telling myself. I’m like, “Just get it done.”

[0:06:52.0] SC: Yeah. I mean, that’s important, but also it’s not helpful. It doesn’t really work that way, because you can’t just get something done that has a lot of personal meaning and value to you, right? It’s not like, “Just take the garbage out.” That’s easy to get that done and it’s over with.

An unpleasant task is what you want to get done. This isn’t an unpleasant task. What it’s becoming is this – the psychological barrier is starting to rise. The barrier is – what we need to do is sit on the porch, the metaphorical porch and come up with a new way of looking at the project.

This is what that third party person did for me and my writing partner. He sat in the room and he acted as this vehicle that would help us change our perspective about the project. Now he refused to read any of the material that we had written, because he didn’t really care, right? Nor should he care, because his job and he’s a specialist in doing this, his job is to get people to finish their work.

He has some tools that he uses to get people to finish their work. The first thing he says is what is the objective and what is your overall purpose? Those are weird words, because you go, “Well, isn’t objective and purpose the same thing?” They’re really not. An objective is taking the garbage out, because it’s starting to smell in your kitchen. That’s getting over a task. A purpose is to have a nice home that is – that fortifies everyone who lives there as a place of comfort and safety, so that they feel comfortable and happy and are able to be their best person while they’re in the home. That’s why you have a home. That’s why you take the garbage out. The purpose of having a home is to provide comfort and safety to the people who live there, so that they can achieve their life goals.

For fun, let’s just do this for you. What do you think your global purpose as a person is generally?

[0:09:17.0] TG: In relation to the book, or just as a person?

[0:09:20.7] SC: Just as a person.

[0:09:22.2] TG: Oh, Lord. I don’t know. Well, that’s a really big question.

[0:09:27.8] SC: Well, it is. It’s a very big question, but it’s something – I’m like what? 10 or 15 years older than you are. You don’t necessarily have a perfect answer to that question, nor do I, but I have a general answer to it. I’ll share it with you and see if this is any help for you to form your own thing, because I can’t tell you what your purpose is.

Through the long, hard drudgery of my life and through all the wonderful things in my life, I come down to this single higher value, that whenever I get stuck, I think about this value and what I hold to be the most important thing in my life. That is the dual nature of creation and destruction. When I get stuck and I don’t want to do something, I will think about that. I’ll go, “Well, what is my purpose?” My general purpose, if somebody were to really insist on asking me is at the end of my life, if someone asked me the question, did you leave more here? Did you create more than what you consumed on earth? Do you think you’re in the positive in the creation zone, or do you think you’re in the destruction zone?

That one concept, and my answer to that, my wish, my global purpose and goal in life is to answer yes. I left more than I took. I think that’s the dual nature of reality is that there’s these constant forces. We have order and chaos. Order can be constructive and it can be creative and it can be wonderful, but it also – too much order can be destructive, right? Tyranny. Chaos can be destructive. It can be a tornado that comes out of nowhere that wipes you out. It also can be very creative. It’s about springtime where I live and any day now, all these buds on the top of the trees are going to bloom into leaves, and it happens magically on one day.

You’ll wake up in the morning and you’ll notice something’s a little weird and then you notice, “Oh, my God. The leaves are out.” Chaos, nobody knows what makes that work. Chaos creates too. That’s the 55-year-old view of life from my point of view is can I look at my life at the end and say, “Did I create more than I took?” Meaning destroy, consumed.

When I get stuck, like when I was in that meeting and this man made me actually say this out loud, it was really clarifying to me. It was having my forefinger and my thumb on that person, right? I could say, “Oh, okay. Well, that’s my purpose.” Okay, that’s a pretty cool purpose. I think globally as a humanist, meaning the believing in human beings as forces of creation and goodness generally, that’s the way I define humanism is to believe in the power of the individual human being as capable of creating something that has never existed before.

I think for me, that’s my – if I have a pyramid of value, that’s the thing at the very tip-top. That’s the top, creation-destruction. Knowing that, then I could say, “Well, is my not completing this book, is that contributing to my global purpose or not?” Well, it’s not, right?

Let me come up with my objective. My objective would be then, “Geez, I want to finish this damn book,” because then I’m going to add creative energy into the world, instead of having this thing sitting on my hard drive as this big weight that will go into the ether if I get hit by a truck. It’d be better for me to get it out there, so that if I do get hit by a truck, at least it’s out there before I die.

All right, so that’s good to know. What do you think? Do you think your global purpose on earth is similar to that?

[0:14:01.3] SC: Yeah, I could get onboard with that.

[0:14:03.1] TG: Great. Okay. You believe that at the end of your days, that if someone says, “Hey, Tim. Man. Geez, before you go, I just want to go, wow, the book launch thing was great. The Story Grid was great. Those novels you work – you really worked hard on. Thank you for leaving those. Your sons are really great kids and really nice people, so thank you for changing the world for the better while you were here.”

Then you can go, “Hey, no problem. Thank you.” You leave and wherever you go is wherever you go, but at least you left a little something behind. That’s a pretty great purpose and I think a lot of people getting on with that. If that’s your global purpose, then the problems of scene 27 and act, they don’t really seem that large and they can be problems that are much smaller than they once were.

The fact is is that the creative act requires blue-collar effort 99% of the time. We don’t live in the flow state while we’re creating. We live in it occasionally, which is the carrot the keep sucking us back into putting our ass in the chair. The professional writer and the professional book marketer and the professional editor, they know, “Some days I’m going to be eating a lot of crap and not really feeling that great, but I’m just going to put my nose to the grindstone.” Throughout that day, he started to suss out more of this problem.

Okay, so if your objective is to finish this thing, set a date. Just give yourself a date. I don’t care if you hit the date. Set a date, because setting a date is really important. I think, I gave you a date that you had to get me the manuscript in order to make life reasonably easy to publish this thing next February. I don’t have that date off the top of my head, but you have it somewhere, right?

[0:16:21.4] TG: Yes.

[0:16:22.3] SC: Okay. Do you have any global sense of where it is? What is it? Like August?

[0:16:30.0] TG: I don’t know. I was actually just pulling it up.

[0:16:32.1] SC: Yeah, pull it up now, because now we can laser focus that date into your mind and that’ll be a good start to break this larger problem into two.

[0:16:45.8] TG: Okay, I am almost there. We have February 4th is when we’re publishing it. Wait, this is the money one. I have the wrong one. This is how much it’s going to cost.

[0:16:58.3] SC: You mean how much it’s going to cost us?

[0:17:00.0] TG: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

[0:17:01.6] SC: I’m glad you pulled that one up. Okay, I think I have a mind here too.

[0:17:07.0] TG: Oh, production schedule. Here we go. I had production budget up. Okay.

[0:17:12.5] SC: Oh, okay. I’ve got author delivers manuscript to editor September 3rd, 2019. Is that what you have?

[0:17:18.7] TG: I’m assuming I haven’t changed it. Let’s see. The threshing. Here we go. Author delivers manuscripts, so September 3rd. Yeah. I mean, that gives me April, May, June, July. It give me four and a half months

[0:17:36.6] SC: Okay, great. You have four and a half months. Let’s say what?

[0:17:41.8] TG: I’m thinking like, “Okay, that gives –I don’t even have to work on it to August 23rd.”

[0:17:48.7] SC: Oh. No, no, no, no, no.

[0:17:50.3] TG: See, that’s the problem.

[0:17:51.2] SC: That’s what the amateur does.

[0:17:52.8] TG: Yeah, exactly.

[0:17:54.5] SC: No. The professional is going to do what we’re going to do here and we’re going to figure it out. You have four and a half months and I know that you have some plans to go away at some point. I think you’re going to be away for three or four weeks, right?

[0:18:07.6] TG: Yeah, yeah.

[0:18:08.7] SC: All right, so you got to subtract those from that schedule. Your goal delivering that manuscript September 3rd, 2019 is not to dump a bunch of problems on me, right?

[0:18:23.4] TG: Right.

[0:18:24.0] SC: This is the thing that authors often get confused. It’s not dumping a massive problem on your editor that the manuscript being due to the other. Your goal is to deliver something so great that the editor says, “You know what? I’m just going to stick this thing in production. This thing is ready to go,” right? That way, you obliterate all of that anxiety about, “Oh, my gosh. I wonder what they’re going to think of it? I hope they don’t see that scene that I dashed off at the last minute.”

[0:19:00.5] TG: Because I started on August 23rd.

[0:19:02.4] SC: Right. If you subtract those three weeks from the four-and-a-half months, now you’ve got something like three and a half months. You know where I’m going with this. You plot out – Get up at whatever time you get up. I think you get up like me, around 5:00 or 5:30. Then you go, “You know what? I’ve got to get the kids ready at 7:00.” From 5:30 to 6:15, I’m going to work on scene 27 on Monday. On Tuesday, I’m going to work on scene 28. It’s literally, the great thing about having a rough draft, a really good solid rough draft, because I’m going through this right now is that I discover on each day when I sit down to do the work and I start going through the words, “Hey, the idiot who wrote this wasn’t that bad. This isn’t as terrible as I thought it was.”

In fact, what you end up doing is clarifying the messaging, clarifying the themes and adding really good transitional interstitial tissue that will increase the narrative velocity of the story. It’s not all that exciting though. You can have moments of, “Oh, that’s pretty good.” You’re not going to feel – you’re going to feel like you’re working at a landscape designer. That’s what you got to do. You got to say to yourself, “Look, I’m a pro. I’ve been working on this thing for three years. I’m going to finish it. My purpose is to get this thing out. It’s going to be out in February. It’s going to be the best I possibly can make it. I’m just going to set aside the time every day. I’m going to put it in my calendar and I’m not going to hit the snooze button. I’m going to get there and I’m going to get it done.” You’re going to get it done and it’s going to be by the time you deliver that in September, you’re going to feel really good about it.

While you’re doing that, I’m going to be working on, thinking about the cover, about the design. You never know, I might be able to show you some cover images, or thoughts before you’re even done, which is going to give you an even better picture of what the finish line is going to look like. You’re not going to magically feel a new man on September 3rd, but you’re going to feel better. You’re going to feel you’ve added something to the world that wasn’t there before. Also September 3rd is almost, what is it? Four years of the podcast by then?

[0:21:41.3] TG: It’ll be right at four years. Yup.

[0:21:42.9] SC: Yeah. That’s a pretty – from zero to finish novel, that is published within four years and three months, that’s a pretty good track record. I wish I could give you a more magical formula for feeling better about yourself while you’re doing the work, but it’s just like, “Quit whining and just get your ass up and do the 45 minutes a day.”

[0:22:09.3] TG: If you read this version and you’re like, “This is unpublishable,” you’ll tell me. You won’t let me put something out into the world that’s not ready, just because now I have a schedule.

[0:22:23.2] SC: Okay. All right, that is just –

[0:22:25.2] TG: You see what I’m asking now?

[0:22:27.0] SC: Yeah, that’s just silly.

[0:22:30.2] TG: I don’t feel like that’s silly.

[0:22:32.7] SC: Well, of course I am. It’s been four years, right? Have I lied to you in four years?

[0:22:38.2] TG: No.

[0:22:40.1] SC: Okay. You are going to execute the plan that we put in place. Now the probability of you executing the plan at perfect 100% is pretty low, but the probability of you blowing everything and destroying what we’ve already created is super low, like almost impossible. I think the last time we talked about your book, I was very encouraging and I said, “Look, you’ve got a plan. The world that you’re creating is much richer than it was before. Keep going. Enjoy adding more elements to each scene that conform with your new vision of what this world looks like. You’re doing great.”

When you do deliver it to me, I have the probability that I’m going to say this is unpublishable, it’s much lower than ever before. You’re going back to old Tim. You’re thinking the way old Tim thinks. The way old Tim thinks is, “Oh, I hope I’m doing well. Let me wait for the third party to tell me whether I’m good enough or not.” You know deep down that you’ve put in the work. Before we got on the phone, you were talking about having a conversation with somebody and you were explaining to me what their story was and you were like, “The guy didn’t really know what a genre was.”

In the back of my mind I’m like, “I wonder if he knows what the genre is.” Then you were like, “It was obviously a performance genre.” I was like, “Yeah, he knows this stuff backwards and forwards now.” What you’re starting to do and I’m actually writing about this in this new book with this side project, is what you’re doing is you’re tumbling down the subjective past. The way we navigate the world is that in the present moment, we plan for a future that’s better than what we think we’re living presently, and it’s informed by our past.

What you’re doing now is you’re planning for a future that you want to be better than the present, which is the future time September 3rd, 2019 when you send me the manuscript. You’re planning for that time, but you’re being informed by your past. You’re not listening to the past three and a half years, you’re listening to the past 33 years before that, right? The 33 years before that, you probably always thought, “I’m never going to make it as a writer. This whole fiction idea is ridiculous. There’s something that’s driving me to do it. I’m going to have to just surrender to it, but I know deep down I’m never really going to finish it and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, right?” All that crap.

The past three and a half years, you have factually changed that story, because you did the work necessary A, to even find Story Grid and find me. Then you insinuated yourself into my life to the point where I’m giving you all this advice, right? Not only are you getting the advice, you’re taking the advice. The stuff that you wrote three and a half years ago was terrible. It did not – I’m saying that in a nice way, because everybody starts terribly.

James Joyce started as a terrible writer, so did Stephen King. All right, so good for you, you started like everybody else started, terribly. You weren’t very good. In three and a half years, you have changed your Tim as writer story. Your own personal story has changed in three and a half years so dramatically that you still have difficulty accepting the truth, the factual truth of that change.

What you’re doing is you’re tumbling back into the 33 plus years of worrying that you’re not good enough, when you ask me, “You’re going to tell me the truth if it sucks, right? That we won’t publish it,” right? Because you k now I always tell you the truth. I give you my truth, which is informed by my past, which is hundreds and hundreds of books published, thousands and thousands read.

The probability of you turning in something that I’m going to say, “We’re not going to publish this, Tim, and you’ve been kidding yourself for four years,” is ridiculously low. I understand the subconscious of you wanting to believe that, but come on, you have to know consciously that the probability of me telling you that this thing is terrible and we’re not going to publish it in September is really low, right?

[0:27:36.7] TG: Yeah. I mean, I know. I just have this – I just have these things where I think about all these people that have listened to this podcast for now, it’ll be four years. Then they read the book and they’re like “Really? This is it?”

[0:27:54.2] SC: Yeah, yeah. That’s going to happen. Yeah, that’s going to happen.

[0:27:57.6] TG: That’s just where – you insist –

[0:28:00.8] SC: Yeah. Sorry, your book is not for everyone, right? A lot of people are going to say, “This was terrible. I didn’t like it. I thought it was stupid. I mean, look at some of the reviews from the Story Grid on Amazon.” They say things like, “This guy is an idiot. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One, he needed an editor. Ha, ha, ha,” right? I’ve had those reviews.

Every time I read them, I feel terrible. Every time I read them I go, “Oh, man. I didn’t reach that person.” Then I start saying, “Well, don’t they know I put 30 years of heart –” They don’t care. I did not reach them. Next. Then 80% of the views, 80% are people who go, “This is the best story structure.” I’m not trying to top my [inaudible 0:28:50.9]. I’m just saying the factual information is you can’t please everyone. Yes, it’s going to happen to you. Yes, people are going to say all kinds of horribly, nasty things about how you were an idiot for spending all this time, blah, blah, blah and your book sucks and neither, who cares.

Because guess what? There are going to be a plenty of people who will go, “Wow ,this is better than I couldn’t even possibly have imagined. This guy has written a story that I love. I can’t wait for the next one.” My gut feeling is that you’re going to have a probability of success of reaching those people that really enjoy the book that you write and satisfy them at a very highly probable level, because you’ve used the Story Grid to guide you.

You know what conventions and obligatory scenes that they’re looking for in a labyrinth action story, with a maturation plot underneath in a dystopian world, and you’re delivering that to them, in a unique way that nobody else has done before. You’re creating a work that has never been alive before on the planet. Inspired by the masters of the people who’ve come before you. That’s called creating, right? You’re inspired by the beauty and art of work that has come before you. You use that as inspiration to guide you in your own creation and you do the best you can. That’s called being a professional.

What’s also called being a professional is saying to yourself, “Yeah, I can read all the bad reviews until I’m blue in the face. I can really enjoy feeling terrible about myself.” You  know what? The fact is I got 79% five-star reviews. 79% five-star reviews for me, you know what? That’s pretty big win. That’s going to motivate me to write something else. That’s what’s going to happen for you and you just have to – you have to shrug off the people that you can’t reach. Their own resistance is the only thing that’s motivating a person to write a terribly, nasty review that is unhelpful and not even signing their name to it. What person does that? Is that the person you really care about anyway? They won’t even put their name on the review.

The average person reads a review with nobody’s name on it and they go, “Oh, I’ll just discount that crap. That’s stupid. What idiot spends that amount of time writing a review and doesn’t put their name on it? That’s not a person I want in my life. I’m not going to take advice from them.”

[0:31:51.1] TG: Okay, I can do this.

[0:31:54.3] SC: Yeah, you will. You totally will.


[0:31:56.9] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in this 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 the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcast and leaving a rating and review.

Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.



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.