[0:00:00.5] VF: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. My name is Valerie Francis. I’m one of the certified Story Grid editors and I’ll be filling in for Tim today while he continues to work on editing his debut novel, The Threshing. Those of you who regularly follow the show will know that in February 2019, we’re holding another certification training session. If you’re thinking of applying or if you are still wondering why you should bother putting in the effort to learn Story Grid and trust me, it does require effort, this episode is for you.
I’ve been following Shawn Coyne and studying his methods since January 2015. For the past year, I’ve been working with authors, teaching them about the fundamentals of storytelling and helping them become better writers. Of course, as an author myself, I’ve also been applying Shawn’s method to my own work and that has really improved my writing. But one of the things I’ve struggled with is explaining what exactly the Story Grid method is and how it differs from other structural or developmental editing approaches. So I finally managed to get Shawn to sit down with me and talk about it.
Now, we cover a pretty wide canvas. From the origins of Story Grid and the time Shawn sent Steven Pressfield back for page one rewrite to the moment during my editor training when I though Shawn was wrong, only to find out months later that of course, he’d ben right on the money. Okay so now, as Tim says, let’s jump in and get started.
[0:01:34.8] VF: Hello Shawn.
[0:01:36.5] SC: Hi Valerie. Wow, it’s great to hear a different voice.
[0:01:38.9] VF: This is really exciting. Okay, so today we’re going to talk about what it is to be a Story Grid editor and what it means for a writer to have a Story Grid edit done to their work. Even before we get into that, I think we have to take a little step backwards because – I mean, I’ve been doing this for a year and one of the most common questions that I get from writers, even before they tell me about their work in progress is, “Exactly what is a Story Grid edit?” Because they don’t know that there are different types of editing. Especially if you know, if someone is brand new to this industry, they just think an editor is an editor. But there are actually five different types of editors.
So before we get into exactly what ta Story Grid edit is, I wonder if you could just take a minute to explain what the different types of editors are and then which one fits into Story Grid?
[0:02:35.1] SC: I’m just like, my mind is a little bit scrambling because I’m like, “Wow, there are five different kinds of editors?” I guess there are. Okay, let me just tell a little bit of a story to illustrate that this is not an easily answerable or digestible problem. Okay, when I got into book publishing, I assumed and I think everybody who isn’t in book publishing assumes, I assume that there was a structured sort of curriculum that would walk a person through moving from being an assistant to an editor, to actually becoming their own full-fledged editor. I thought that there was a real craft, sort of a process to learn the craft of editing and unfortunately, there isn’t.
What there is instead is an apprenticeship, you know, sort of program where you sit underneath a brilliant, experienced editor from a particular publishing house. I’m talking about traditional New York, big corporation publishing; Random House, St. Martin’s Press, Grand Central Hooks, Harper Collins, the big names that we all know and associate with book publishing form all the way back. So that is not true, it is absolutely not true and it makes sense why it’s not true because the business of book publishing is about, just as the business of General Electric or Hollywood or Google, the business is about profit and there’s nothing wrong with profit. I’m a great believer in profit. I think, you know, of all the systems, capitalism is – it’s very flawed but I think it’s the thing that you know, really motivates people in the best way.
So book publishing is about profit. What an editor’s job is at a book publishing company is really about finding the hits. It’s about looking at a mass of material and being able to train their eye in such a way that they can pick out a hit. Now, a hit is something that the largest group of mass audience will enjoy. So that is sort of how they kind of train you as an editor in the major publishing house is to read a lot. You read a good seven to 10 manuscripts a week, plus, probably dip into another 12 to 15. You’re reading all the time and what that does is it gets you a sense of what the flat line story universe is really all about. Through that apprenticeship, you get pretty good at identifying particular stories that are working versus not working.
Now, the problem that comes in is that there’s no methodology that you learn to sort of figure that out. So it’s as if we’re in the early years of the medical profession. When people would go to a “doctor” and the doctor would say, “Well, your humors are out of balance. So you don’t have enough fire and your water’s a little low,” and you know, traditionally, like now, today we think that’s crazy but at the time, it was really sort of the cutting edge of medical profession. Over time, we got much better at medicine and the problem with book publishing and book editing is that the thing works.
So the big editors at Random House, they’re still doing their job and they’re doing it very well. They’re picking out hits. They’re picking out enough hits to justify their salary and to bring a positive cash flow to their corporation. So from their point of view, nothing is wrong. But for me, when I was in there, I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if there was actually a curriculum that you could use to teach people to identify what works and what doesn’t work faster than hope for the best, read a lot and god bless you, you know?”
That’s where the Story Grid methodology came from. It was an effort for me to take things that didn’t quite work, make them work and hopefully make them work to such degree that a mass audience would be even more, you know, enjoy the work even more. So the Story Grid came out of an effort for me to systematize the process by which an executive editor at Random House has trained their eye to the point 35 years into the game, that they can – I mean, they’re amazing at being able to read a single page and say, “That’s not going to work. Not for me. Isn’t right, no thank you.”
So when you’re a literary agent and you send manuscripts to those really good, well trained eyes, they’ll tell you within an hour, you know? I mean, like, “Nope, that’s not going to work for me.” The question becomes, how did they do that? How did they get to that place where they know that the story isn’t going to work and it’s not worth the investment of the corporation in the work? It’s not black magic that they’ve learned, it’s actually an intuitive craft that they have honed but they haven’t externalized on to a piece of paper for other people to learn that craft.
You kind of have to think, “Well, it makes sense that they’re not telling people how to do the job that they do so well because they might not get a job after that.” But my point was that wouldn’t it be better if people knew the craft then the chances of people being able to get better would be great? So that’s where the Story Grid came. What the traditional sort of story editor at a major publishing house and these are the people who become freelance editors after they leave the corporate fold and a lot of them are massively intelligent, they’re extremely experienced, they know a great story from a terrible story.
What they can do for you is basically tell you, “Your book doesn’t work.” And, they will point out every specific problem that they can figure out from reading your book multiple times. The way the traditional editor works is they will read your manuscript and alongside, they will have a clip board with a legal pad of yellow paper, a foolscap page, you know, pad, next to them and they will write down notes, “Page one, don’t believe this character would do this. A little cheesy, bad cliché here. I’m not really pulled in yet,” and they will do that from page one until page 527. Then they’ll transfer those notes into what is called an editorial letter. The editorial letter, I wrote, you know, hundreds of these when I was in the publishing house before I started using Story Grid terminology.
I had to abide by the standards and conventions of the standard editorial letter for, you know, 20 years. The standard editorial letter goes like this. “Dear Valerie. Thank you so much for sending me your manuscript. I think we have some work to do, however, what I loved about the book was the following,” then there’s you know, six paragraphs about all the things that they were excited about when they initially wanted to acquire a novel. Now, we’re in the stage where your book generally works, but they’re trying to fix that into making it even better.
After the praise to sort of, you know, heat up the warm bath for you before they throw the scolding water on your face, then they’ll say, “What follows are my page by page notes from the work. I hope you can glean some information here that will help you in your next draft. Then it literally begins, “Page one. I didn’t like this, this sentence here is a cliché. Page two,” and it goes all the way and these letters can be 35 to 40 page single spaced.
This is the letter that Steve Pressfield talks about when he talks about the letter he got when I read Tides of War, when he almost jumped off a cliff. Let me just go back to that story because I think that’s pretty illustrative of the process for the traditional editor, writer relationships. This is around 1990. I acquired Gates of Fire and Steve and I started working together in 1996. I think he recently wrote, it was 1998 but I think he wanted to avoid the two years of pain and his mind is sort of erased fact.
[0:11:32.0] VF: I understand that completely.
[0:11:34.6] SC: The entire painful editorial process from two years before we actually published anything together. He sent me Tides of War, I read it, I went page by page and I sent him a 40 page, single spaced letter that identified every single problem in the book. Now, when I say every single problem, I’m talking about macro story problems, meaning, “You didn’t have an inciting incident for your middle build. I didn’t think it was believable.” All the way to, “Using that phrase is a cliché you should change it.”
It ranged from 30,000 foot view criticism to micro, sentence by sentence criticism in one single letter. If you had to abstractly pull out what that letter was, it was literally a point by point description of everything that was wrong with the book, okay? That’s what an editor does, right? At the end of that 40 page, single space letter I wrote to him, I said to myself, “I’ve done a tremendous job. I have just identified every single problem for this writer. Now, all the writer has to do now is go through every single thing that I’ve pointed out and fix it.” Simple, right? Now, it’s like, I’ve now taken the basketball and I’ve thrown it back to the writer. Now, the writer has to take that basketball and fix everything in that problem and then he gets to send a basketball back to me with a new draft that has solved all of those problems.
[0:13:09.3] VF: How did Steve take that?
[0:13:12.1] SC: I’ll get to that in a second.
[0:13:13.0] VF: Okay.
[0:13:14.8] SC: If he can’t solve all those problems, I have a contract that says, “I will give you the chance to solve all the problems that I’ve indicated. If you can’t solve the problems to my satisfaction, then you get to give me all of the money back that I’ve already paid you or my corporation has paid you.” It’s a very contentious, excruciatingly difficult relationship to navigate between he editor and the writer in traditional publishing because the writer wants the editor to like them because if they like them, they’d be less inclined to cancel their contract and force them to pay back the money.
[0:13:51.6] VF: Okay.
[0:13:54.2] SC: So the writer finds themselves in this terrible place where they might not agree with 70% of the editorial comments that the editor has given them. They might not think that they’re a problem and they might have really good explanations of why, what they think our problems aren’t really problems and in fact, they were intentional choices. But if they start to get into a negotiation squabbling negotiation about the editorial comments then that can, you know, really screw up the relationship and then the editor’s like, “I don’t want to work with this pain in the ass, let’s just cancel the contract.”
So let me get back to the question of what Steve did when he got the 40 page letter. What Steve did was what a professional would do and this was over 20 years ago. So he wasn’t the professional he is now, but he still was smart enough to do this thing. What he did is he called me after he got the letter and he said, “Oh my gosh, the work that you put in to this thing is remarkable. I can’t thank you enough. I’ve never seen the quality of analytical and looking at my work in this way and I’m just, I’ve got to confess, I’m awash in terror because I don’t really quite know what to do with it yet. Would it be possible for you to come and spend some time with me so that we can go over this together and figure out some answers to these problems?”
So he didn’t call me and say, “How dare you insult my work?” He said, “I acknowledge that you created the document that pinpoints enumerable problems with my manuscript and I accept that those problems are probably true. However, would you be so kind as to tell me or to help me fix them?” What he basically was saying is, “I need another level of work from you Shawn. I’m not going to be able to digest this and give you back what you want. Could we jump into it together?”
So I did, I flew out there and it was not easy convincing my boss, “Hey, spend $2,000 for me to go to Los Angeles to the Beverly Hills Hilton so that I can go edit this guy who hasn’t really brought in any money to the corporation yet.” But I had a reputation at that point where they were like, “Yeah, I guess it’s a pretty good investment. You know, don’t drink too much and don’t spend too much money but go ahead.” So I spent a week with Steve and we literally went through my 40 page letter, you know, note by note and he would say, “Okay, Here’s the problem that you state here. You’re saying that my genre is not particularly clear. What do you mean by that, Shawn?”
What I had to do is go, “Well, the way I look at genre is this way,” and I laid out my global genre theory to Steve and he looked at me in amazement and he said, “Oh my god, yeah, that’s the way I look at things when I write screenplays with my friend Ron Chessette. Yeah, I’m totally locked in, I get it. So what you’re saying is it’s not clear that this is an ancient historical war novel about the Peloponnesian war yet?” “Yes, that’s right.”
That’s what we did and what we did was we sassed out what level of analysis I was criticizing in each note. Instead of him just going note by note and trying to fix everything, what we did is we came up with a hierarchy of problems, right? What’s the point in fixing a cliché phrase on page 512 if you don’t know what your genre is yet? It’s kind of stupid, right? Why would you fix something when the engine isn’t even turning over yet. You wouldn’t fix the air-conditioning in your car if you can’t even get the engine to turn over. What we did is we filtered out, you know, level’s of problems and then we said, “Okay, if we had to break down these levels of problems, what’s the first level that we should fix?”
What we did is we came up with a macro and he said, “You know, one of the things that I do is I like to use a single sheet of foolscap paper to kind of outline what I’m talking about.” “Oh really? I do the same thing, Steve. I call it like my global grid.” He’s like, “Well I call mine the foolscap page.” The two of us sat down and go, “Yeah, I can work that way, yeah, I can work that way too.” Then we mapped out the beginning, the middle, the end of his book and we said, “you know, we got problems in the transition between the beginning and the middle and we really need a better inciting incident here and yeah,” he’s like, “Yeah, I know what an inciting incident is. I took Robert McKee’s course. I understand the global story structure.”
So it turned out that Steve and I shared a vocabulary. We shared the shop talk. Together, we were able to compare and contrast the way we looked at story and what we discovered is that we both understood exactly what the other person was saying and so that is sort of the beginning of Story Grid methodology was in Steve’s apartment in Los Angeles in, you know, 1996 or ’97. Throughout the 20 years of us working together, we would, book by book, we would hone it, right? I would use it with other writers and guess what? The other writer’s book started selling better than their previous books.
I worked on Robert Crais’ series and I worked on a book called LA Requiem and it was sort of the book that took Robert from a really solid good presentation but just not hitting the bestseller list to the bestseller list. It happened and it didn’t happen all the time but what I discovered is that the writers that I used it with, they would really appreciate it because they would level up their craft, they would get better and better.
What the traditional — let me circle back to the original question. What’s the difference between a traditional editor and a Story Grid editor is that the traditional editor is a brilliant problem detector. They will tell you your problems. Now, the Story Grid editor is going to tell you the problems but the other thing that they’re going to tell you is they’re going to help you solve the problems and they’re going to help you solve the problems in the least painful way possible.
So you can either you know, go with a traditional editor and they will tell you everything that’s wrong with your book and then you can try and do what Steve and I did and sort all of those things into categories that you can understand and say, “You know, it would probably be better if I fixed my plot before I started going into my line editing. Let me work on my plot first. So what are all the comments about the trajectory of my plot? Okay, I sorted those over here,” and so all that stuff that the writer used to have to always do by themselves and really not have the confidence that they were doing it in a way that was the best possible method now, Story Grid provides them with a method that they can either do themselves or they can hire a third party expert in the methodology who will do it for them and then they can have a conversation with their Story Grid editor, like Steve and I had a conversation back in 1996.
What Steve and I can say today is that was the beginning of our beautiful friendship. That book that we worked on, Tides of War, if you know, somebody put a gun to my head and maybe Steve, I would say, that’ my favorite book of Steve’s. Now, a lot of people think Gates of Fire is a better novel, I don’t. I think Tides of war is a tremendous work of art that operates on many different levels than Gates of Fire does. It’s not as financially successful as Gates of Fire but, for me, it’s a better novel, it’s a better story.
But I love Gates of Fire too but Tides of War is you know, for me, it’s probably because of the intense work that he and I did that we shared that is contributing to that opinion. But – let me try and figure out what these five different kinds of editors are.
[0:22:20.9] VF: Okay.
[0:22:22.9] SC: The first kind of editor is the copy editor is somebody who comes in and fixes your grammar and your punctuation and makes sure that you’re abiding by the Chicago Manual style and that your work is consistent with general, acceptable English grammatical structure that has been, you know, the standard for 200, 300 years. That’s what a copy editor does. They don’t talk about your story, they’re just fixing poor sentence structure and punctuation. That’s the first kind of editor.
The second kind of editor I believe would be the acquiring editor and what the acquiring editor does is what I described early on; they sort through piles and piles of manuscripts and pick winners. Now, once they pick the “winner”, they pass it along to a story editor and the story editor is the one that is supposed to identify the problems in the work that the acquiring editor has bought. Usually it’s the acquiring editor at the highest level as the publisher. When I was the publisher, I would often buy a project and throw it on my senior editor’s desk and go, “Fix this.”
Then I was done and then if the book worked, I would take all the credit and if it didn’t work, I’d blame the senior editor. That’s the way it worked for me as the traditional publisher. Okay, that’s an acquiring editor, they just pick the winners and then the story editor is the one that pinpoints all of the problems. They’re the ones who do the 40-page, single space letter like the one I just described that I gave to Steve. Okay, now. Then, there’s the line by line editor. Now, the line by line editor is the editor that will help you clean up your pros that it doesn’t sound like a third grader wrote it. They’re going to say, “You had a simple declarative sentence here, you might want to add some propositional phrases so that you balance your literary style.” They help a person develop “their voice”.
They just sort of iron out the choppy stuff. The line by line editor is the one who does the final pass on the manuscript. That’s the way I structure it. For example, Tim and I are working on The Threshing. Tim is probably in the middle, he’s in the final stages of the story fixing of his novel. Once the story fixing is finished and he has a draft that I would call the working draft, then that working draft would land on my desk as line by line editor and I would go sentence by sentence there and go, “I’m going to have to clean this up a little bit. This is a little choppy.”
You know, it can be very extensive or less extensive based upon basically the success of the writer. Nobody’s really doing line by line edits on Dan Brown because Dan Brown sells 10 million copies. Why would you — or Daniel Steel, why would you mess with their voice, with their pros, with their choices when it works, you don’t. Why would you? Nobody’s really doing that to Stephen King or John Grisham or any of the major big brand name writers, James Patterson.
[0:25:52.9] VF: They’ve got formulas that work.
[0:25:54.7] SC: Yeah, why would you want James Patterson to sound like Jane Austin? You just don’t do that. It’s dumb. Okay, but in the early stages, you do want — I mean, that’s the brilliance of the line editor is understanding the voice, not screwing up the voice but sort of enhancing the voice so that it’s even more unique. It’s a real, real skill. It’s almost more art than full craft. You’ve got to know how to hit a hundred mile an hour fast ball or throw a 95 mile an hour fast ball, but you also need to know the situation of the game as a line editor.
So I used a baseball analogy but it’s sort of like, you’ve got to be at the top of your craft, know everything of story structure and know grammar and know copy editing and then, on top of that, then you sort of have to have an understanding of the art and you go by your instincts when you’re a ling by line editor. You go, “You know what? In my mind, that doesn’t sound so good. So I’m going to fix that,” and you tweak it and it doesn’t interfere with the voice. Like I line edit Steve, right? Steve, yeah Steve will email me back. Now, I don’t have to do a lot, just –
[0:27:11.9] VF: That’s a very interesting point.
[0:27:14.0] SC: Right. But, it’s funny that occasionally, I’ve had to write two or three paragraphs and I’ll shoot it back to him. I go, “Steve, I rewrote this and that and this and I added this.” He’ll accept 70% and he’ll go, “You know, you write almost like better than I write me.” You know, it’s working together after a while, you know, it’s learning the cadences of the voice of the writer and Steve is a really, really – I mean, specific. He does not — I would never presume to rewrite much. It’s usually, “Here’s a draft that I wrote in your voice, fix it.” Then he’ll fix it but he’ll be like, “70% of this works but this isn’t working.” So that’s what ta line editor does.
Now, there’s also, it’s something that I’ve talked about for years and it’s sort of like a combination plate of a studio executive in Hollywood and like a story person and that’s the developmental editor and the developmental editor is someone who works with a writer from the beginning. They will sort of mentor a writer from concept to final manuscript. I’ve developmentally edited 10. The Threshing is the process of taking someone — I mean, I can’t believe I agreed to do it.
[0:28:41.3] VF: You agreed to 10 episodes, didn’t you?
[0:28:43.8] SC: I did, I agreed to 10 episodes and like I can’t leave this poor guy hanging. To think like he’s nailed it now that he’s got his 10 episodes. The whole – the major process of story editing is if you, if you were crazy enough to listen from episode one to episode X, you would see the careful tending of someone’s psyche as they’re learning something brand new. I think if you look at what Tim wrote at the very start of the podcast versus what he’s writing now, you would say, “Holy mackerel, how did that happen?” And it’s, you know, it’s three years. Now, that three years without a mentor, developmental editor, I got to say, I don’t think Tim, it would take Tim 20 years.
[0:29:34.1] VF: Well, I am crazy enough to have listened to every single podcast and one of the reasons I ask this question is because many people know I’m a writer as well as an editor. Now I’m seeing the conversation from both sides and one of the conversations, one of the questions that comes up a lot with writers, especially those who are still in the early stages of their career, “How do I know what kind of editor I need? Is a developmental edit worth it? Maybe all I need is just a proofreader?”
Because there are a lot of – in the Indie world, which is really the only one I know where there’s a school of thought that says, you need to write very quickly and develop a back list very quickly and I hear, you know, in the writing groups that I’m in, authors saying, “Well, I wrote my draft, I sent it to beta readers who also proofread and fixed typos and now I’m going to publish.” Then there’s people like me, way on the other side of the spectrum who is investing in this type of training for myself, professional development for myself and diving deep into story.
So for writers who are listening, probably working on their first or one of their first novels, how do they know if they need a developmental editor or a story editor? How can you determine that for yourself? Is it just a subjective thing, is there some litmus test? Because when I was starting, I didn’t even have the language of works doesn’t work. I was writing on instinct and what my first novel gave me the opportunity to do was develop a list of questions. So at least I knew what I didn’t know, right?
Then when I found Story Grid, you had answers to those questions, which is why I kept following Story Grid. It was wonderful. So for people who were like me and are just writing on instinct, how do you figure out what kind of editing you need and how do you decide to make that investment in yourself, in your development as an artist?
[0:31:38.2] SC: Okay, well, I think it goes to your fundamental nature. Are you an introvert or an extrovert, okay? That’s one element of the equation. But the super macro element of the equation is, you must ask yourself an extremely difficult question and that question is, “Why? Why am I doing it?” There are a couple of answers to that. You know, if you had to sort of split it in to a fork, one way or the other, 50/50, the first answer to the why question would be, “I want to be commercially successful. Meaning, I want to make my writing my living. I want to be a major New York Times bestseller and if not a major New York Times bestseller, I want to live comfortably off of my writing creativity.” That’s one answer. It’s the commercial answer. “I want, for lack of a better word, money. Money equals success.”
The second answer is, “I’m not sure. I want money but I’m compelled. I’m compelled by something that I don’t really understand at all and I’m very curious about this compulsion within me that I’d like to pursue it with a very serious focus. It doesn’t necessarily mean I am going to quit my job and run away from the circus and all of that but it means my why is about there is something inside of me that is pointing me in this direction and I want to really take it seriously because I just have a feeling that it’s something that I should be doing.
So you’ve got the why of money and the why of internal compulsion or, I don’t even know if that is the right word. So the fundamental question is, “Why are we doing this?” and the two answers that are easy to come up with are money or internal need. So it doesn’t mean that if you are in pursuit of money you don’t have an internal need or if you have internal need, you don’t have pursuit of money. But I always say, “You need to identify the line and the line is given a final choice, which choice do you make?” It is the best bad choice or they are reconcilable good choice, right?
[0:34:00.1] VF: Right.
[0:34:00.8] SC: It is the crisis. It is the crisis of your life. My crisis is I want to write for money or for myself. Okay, so if you have to choose one of those, you have to choose. Choose one. It is okay, just choose one. Okay, so let’s say you choose money. Perfectly valid choice. Absolutely perfectly valid and I am not saying that you can’t become a great artist if you choose money as your primary choice at the beginning. So let’s just go down that road.
You choose money. So like any really intelligent person you would say to yourself, “If I want to make money as a writer, how would I do it? What are the first principles of making money as a writer?” and there are plenty of people in the Internet and in marketing programs and at writer’s conferences that will say to you, “I will tell you the first principles of making money as a writer and the answers to those questions are volume of work, series characters, and manipulation of Internet algorithms.”
So they’re not talking about the creation of the art. They are talking about, it’s like that Steve Martin joke, you know I can teach you how to make a million dollars and not pay taxes. First, make a million dollars. Second, say I forgot and he doesn’t really get into how to make the million dollars part. So they don’t get into how they actually write the book. They say, “Write series characters, write 5,000 words a day, don’t be precious, get your crap done,” and that is a really good message in that. But it also can go off the rails especially when the algorithms keep getting more and more refined and it is going to become more and more difficult to get people to give your book a try.
[0:35:51.8] VF: It is also totally outside our control.
[0:35:53.7] SC: Well it is almost like at the beginning of the new technology, at the beginning of a new business, a new thing what you find is that there are arbitrage moments. So for example, everything starts out — a new technology starts out as a bell curve, right? And that what’s The Long Tail was about, which was written about 10 years ago or 15 years ago maybe it is not that long but it is Internet time, which seems like that.
Okay so at the beginning of the new technology, the bell curve rules. What the bell curve is that the barriers to entry are wide open and anybody can get in there and even if you have zero expertise you can make a little bit of money because it is a very wide curve. Now over time, what happens is the bell curve starts to shrink and it becomes a Pareto curve and the Pareto curve is 80% of all volume goes to 20%. So this is why we have Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook. There’s one more come to think of it.
And the reason why those major corporations dominate now is because the bell curve of the Internet became the Pareto principle. So if you look at this in terms of books, the eBook revolution in 2007 opened up a gigantic bell curve. So all those people who never had an access to the marketplace now did. So guess what happens? There was an insatiable appetite for new stories that just was never being satisfied because the major publishers they only eaked out a certain number of books per year and people who didn’t read didn’t even pay attention to what the big publishers were doing because they never published anything they were interested in.
So guess what happens is that the big Internet 2007 eBook rush opens by Amazon. They open up the gates, there were no algorithms, no restraints. So what you found were these people who couldn’t be published traditionally by the major publishers decided I am going to get on this gold rush. They were the first ones at California. They were able to bang out book after book after book in a series character that did wildly successful business while the stories themselves weren’t all that well told, but they were something fresh and new. So a lot of these people became pretty known commodities after a while and eventually they would either be picked up by the major publishers or they would retire with a lot of money and be happy about it.
So as the Internet and eBooks have gotten older and older and older, what you are finding is that bell curve is starting to squeeze and so it becomes more and more difficult to squeeze out dollars from the eBook world and that’s why people go to writers conferences to hear from experts who tell them how to manipulate their publishing schedules, their covers, their offers. You know, “Give this one for 99 cents and then bang, 48 hours, do a $2.99 release on,” — You know they are all these formulas that these people are obsessively plugging through and guess what? They work for about a month and then they’ve got to come up with a new gimmick because the Amazon algorithm or the Google or whatever algorithm, guess what? They start to figure out what the other people – it is an arbitrage game, right?
So that’s what the money side of being a writer can lead to. You end up, like I recently spoke at a writer’s conference and they asked me to speak for five years in a row and I keep saying no because I don’t really enjoy doing that. But eventually I said, “You know what? I’ve got to open up my world a little bit. Let me do it.” So I go and there’s I guess a thousand published writers who are all making a living writing and my boring presentation was like how to level up your craft, you know? How to bust your ass to make your story a little bit better and guess what? I have the smallest room and next door to me was someone who was an algorithm expert and I had 25 people in my thing and there were 500 people next door.
I said to myself, “That’s okay because these 25 people have a better probability of success over time, like if you look at is as graph than the 500 people next door who were just trying to make their nut their month. You know, they are trying to manipulate the algorithm and get out another nine books this year so that — because two years ago they could publish six books to make enough money. Now you have to publish nine, and you get what I am saying?
[0:40:47.0] VF: Yes completely.
[0:40:48.8] SC: So those people aren’t going to hire any editors other than copy editors, proofreaders and that’s totally fine with me and I think sometimes the act of constantly writing you can’t help get better. It is sort of like if you are constantly practicing running a sprint for 90 feet over and over again but you don’t know anything about running mechanics or the kinetic chain or anything like that, the chances are you’re probably going to hit a plateau and you’re never going to get faster.
But sometimes, occasionally a person their body sort of realigns and they do get faster. Now if you compare that person with someone else who is really analyzed the first principles of running mechanics and has really analyzed how Usain Bolt goes so fast and they figure out, “Oh my gosh, it really is about force per step and number. If I can increase my numbers of steps and push off more I’ll go faster and if I can manipulate my blog.
If they level up their craft in terms of running a sprint they are going to go faster than the person who is just running over and over again without really knowing what they’re doing. But occasionally that person who is running over and over again really starts to learn things and what happens, Valerie, is that that person who is dedicated to just doing it for money they discover the money is not enough for them anymore. They are not getting what they want.
They have all the money that they thought that they would possibly need and it’s still not making them happy but they still want to write and then they say to themselves, “What if I can get a little bit better in this writing thing? Maybe this writing, there is more to it than just making my $100,000 a year. Yeah, I seemingly can make it now. Now I am kind of – this is boring. What am I going to do next? But you know what? I still love to write. Maybe if it tried a different genre. Maybe if I tried something else?”
And those are the people who start to start to move further and they start to cross that border into the compulsion of internal desire to become a serious writer one who is — and when I say serious writer, it doesn’t mean you are writing the great American novel. It means someone who is really diving into their particular genre and saying, “How can I write a better book? Is it possible to write a better book than Pride and Prejudice? I wonder if I can write a love story better than that. I wonder if I can get even close to it? I wonder if I can write a horror novel better than Frankenstein?” Those are the people who are like, “Oh Story Grid, let me check that out.” Because that’s what they are about? They’re about master works, looking at the master works using those as inspiration to innovate the genre even better and to get a little bit better each time I write a book. So if I am writing 5,000 words a day maybe I can turn down the volume and concentrate or maybe a thousand, maybe one scene a day and then maybe I could spend a day or two analyzing the scene and then the fourth day do a rewrite and see if I can even notch it up a little bit better.
That is what we’re all about and that’s what developmental editing is about. It is sort of ratcheting up the level of craft incrementally so that you are not – it is like lifting weights, right? You don’t go from zero pounds to a hundred and fifty pound bench press in three months. It is like an incremental and then you also hit plateaus, right? I know that you exercise, you know what I am talking about.
[0:44:29.7] VF: Yes, absolutely.
[0:44:30.9] SC: So progress is not a linear path. It is a lot of bumps and falls. So the original question is, how do I know that I am ready to hire an editor? It is really ask yourself that one question and say to yourself, “Am I in this for the money? Okay yeah, I am in it for the money. Can I write 5,000 words a day? Yeah, I can do that. Can I do nine books a year? Yeah I can do that.”
Well, what I say to you is God bless. Go with God, go do it and you know what? You are going to probably become a better writer just through repetition and hard work. Blue collar work is never going to be bad for you.
[0:45:06.0] VF: And a lot of writing is blue collar work. You know, 90% of it maybe 95. When people come to editors, instinctually they know that the story that came out on the page is not the one that was in their head. So they know there’s work to do. But receiving feedback can be really difficult, especially if we’ve spent years of our life toiling on the story, we become very attached to our writing.
So sometimes, writers go to editors looking for feedback but really just wanting validation that what they have written is really good and you said something, I don’t know if it was during our training or maybe it was one of the podcast episodes. I don’t remember. You said “The writer is not the problem. The problem is the problem,” and that was a light bulb moment for me because it separates the person from the art.
So what advice would you have for a writer who is listening to this who knows that they need to level up, they know that the work that they have produced is not the story that was in their head and they are trying to figure out how to make that happen? Yet they take the feedback very personally and they may not even be aware that that’s what happening but the reaction is, “This is my art. You can’t change — I am not changing my art,” and of course, Story Grid is all about diving deep into the story and saying, “Well you don’t have an inciting incident. The inciting incident of the middle build needs work.”
So for a writer who is feeling defensive about receiving feedback, what advice would you have for that person?
[0:46:44.5] SC: Well, I think you already answered the question and that you have to disassociate from the work in a way that is – Steve always says something like this happened recently where I told him he had to basically go back to page one rewrite and he said in the first three days he was ready to jump on a plane and come kill me and he just didn’t want to hear it and he recognized that and he said, “Look I am emotionally incapable of dealing with this right now. I am too pissed off. So my feelings are hurt, I busted my ass and all this guy does is criticize me. I don’t want to deal with this.”
So instead of acting on that impulse, he decided to let his body metabolize it and what that meant was he probably went and worked on something else or he went to the gym or he went for a walk or he went on a vacation. You know, he did something that allowed him to just get it out of his mind and then he went back to it later. And then the next step is that he said to himself, “Look, I have to acknowledge that Steve number one, you are a really great guy. You really brought this first draft to a completion, God bless you. You’re fired,” and then he says to himself, “Steve number two, you’re hired. Now Steve number two, come in here and fix all this shit Steve number one left,” and it is exactly the Hollywood mentality, right? The screenplay comes in, it’s no good, they hire somebody else to come fix it.
So Steve is like his own Hollywood boss and so if you can play those little games with yourself they really work because then you can say, “You know what? You’re a really nice guy, Shawn and you did the best that you could and you should be proud of yourself. Now I am giving you the freedom to not deal with this anymore. So goodbye,” and then you go, “Shawn number two, all right you’re the editor. You know what the hell you’re doing. Now go in there and fix this piece of shit.”
And that will allow you to start to separate yourself from your work then eventually you will go, “Hey Shawn, nice first draft. You know what? I’m going to have to call in an editor to see how well you did. But you know I really want to thank you for doing that,” and then you bring in a Story Grid editor and then they come and they give you the truth and say, “Here are all your problems.” They are not saying, “You’re an idiot you can’t write.” They are saying, “Hey, here are the problems with your book. Let us work through them one by one.”
And instead of me working in the wrong end of the problem, we’re going to stop and start at the top and you know we are going to have some difficult conversations and you know what happened on that page one rewrite with Steve is that I said to him, “Steve, hey buddy you need to choose the genre,” and you know what he did? He said, “Holy shit, you’re right. I was lazy. I thought I was a pro. I thought I didn’t have to literally choose a genre. I mean, isn’t that amateur hour, choosing your genre? Ooh I am going to write a mystery novel,” and you know what he said? “That was a major problem.”
So we went back to first principles of story and said, “What kind of story do you want to write?” and he decided he wanted to write a horror story. “Okay, what are the master works that are in the arena that I admire that I would say that I would be incredibly happy to have my book compared to?” “They would be Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcists.” “Oh okay, so what are the qualities of those two master works that so compelling that brought people to the theater or to the book?” And then he walked himself through Story Grid first principles. He talked himself off of the ledge and guess what? The side effect was he got pretty excited again about his work because he could say, “Oh, that’s over there it might work over here. Oh you know what? I might not have to throw that out. I can tweak that a little bit,” and that’s what an editor-author relationship can be within your own psyche.
So the more you can do that for yourself and I am an introvert, right? So when I created the Story Grid methodology, no I did not call up Robert McKee and ask him to have coffee. I didn’t. I did not call up David Manner. I did not do those things. What I did is I went, “Who knows the most about story? Robert McKee. All right, I am going to read that book. Okay I read the book. I am going to go to his conference, then I go to his conference. I took my notes. Okay, here are the principles that I absolutely wholeheartedly agree with. He makes perfect sense, here’s everything. Now how do I make that prescriptive for me? I am not really sure. Let me explore, what about Aristotle? What about Robert Friedman?
So an introvert is an autodidact. They are, for better or for worse, they don’t like to show that they don’t know everything. So they go out and they plumb the depths of literature and they start to piece together their own world view. So if you’re a writer and you’re not really that excited about hearing somebody criticize your work with a methodology that you fully don’t understand yet, what I suggest is, you know what? You become your editor, you read the Story Grid. You read Robert Mckee. You put all those principles to task in something that you love. Say you love The English Patient as your novel, well go and Story Grid the English Patient. Learn your craft, learn the editor’s craft, and then maybe you’ll look at your novel in a different way.
You probably will and then eventually you’re going to say, “You know what? I’d like to just sort of bat this around with somebody who knows the same shit that I know. Oh who knows? Oh Story Grid editors.” So if I have a conversation about progressive complications. They are going to be like, “Well yeah, here’s an example from X master work in the thing that you plot,” right? They have the same language, the same methodology. They’re one of the people, you know? So that is what – I am sure, let me ask you this question Valerie since I have been answering so many.
[0:52:35.4] VF: Okay.
[0:52:36.0] SC: All right, so what is the major thing that I told you was going to happen when I did the certification course about editing for you that you thought I was lying about that you didn’t think was true and did you find it to be true or false? Do you know what I mean?
[0:52:52.8] VF: There was one point in particular. Now most of, with the exception of this one point, everything else that you tell me I just accept it true because you have 30 years’ experience and I have one. So I am just going to go with it and as we do stories on the round table podcast, this happens to me and I know it happens to the others as well because we talk about it. As we study a story every week, we’ll discover an element that we think, “Oh look this is what Sean was talking about. None of us really knew it. We couldn’t come up with an example of it. We just accepted it as true or we put it in our list of things that we want to investigate further. Oh this is why you want to show don’t tell,” that kind of stuff.
There was one point that during our training that I thought, “Well I don’t know, Shawn. Okay, but I don’t know if I agree with that point” and it is when you said that, “For first time novelists, the first novel is a memoir of some degree. Sometimes it’s explicitly a memoir, other times it’s inspired by an event in the author’s life and I thought, “Well,” you know I was thinking back to my first novel and I thought, “Well I didn’t do that so I am not sure.” Yeah, this is my maturation plot as an author, okay? So many lessons to learn.
[0:54:09.9] SC: Well, that’s okay. I mean, we talked about this on our weekly call the other day is that what drives us to write is that we want to figure out what our story is about, our own story, right?
[0:54:21.2] VF: Yeah absolutely.
[0:54:22.4] SC: Yeah and so we may use protagonists and other things to sort of start picking at our own story and so those who are compelled to write, that first thing that they write is it could be about anthropomorphic animals or aliens or something. But deep down, it is dealing with a very unsolved issue in your own story, right? So that is what I think is so wonderful about writing is that you’re your own analyst without even really knowing it.
So the very intuitive strange part of your brain, which is the right hemisphere, is constantly cycling through your experiences and the collective unconscious of experiences of everything that you have ever read, watched, listened to. So all the stories, the sum total of the stories that you have consumed in your life mixes with your own unsettled, weird kind of not really sure why the hell I am doing that thing and then that process is almost this little nudge. It is a little poke internally in you as a writer that says, “You should write. You should write. You should write,” and then you sit down and you’re like, “I don’t know what to write?” and then you start with like, “He was a poor boy in a foreign land,” you know?
[0:55:52.3] VF: That’s right.
[0:55:53.1] SC: And then you’re like, “Oh my God this is great!” and then you put it in the drawer because you lose steam at some point and you’re like, “Ah that is not going to work!” and then accidentally you’ll pull it out in five years and you’ll go, “Oh my gosh this is so on the nose about the fact that I was applying for that loan for my new house and so that’s what’s – I mean, what you’ll find is that the professional writer at some point they cross this line. They go, “Oh man now I know what it is all about. I am writing to figure out my own shit and I am using story structure and the collective unconscious as a means to figure out my own shit and so any dollar that comes into my bank account by me sitting here and constructing these wild fantasies to figure out my own shit is magic.
[0:56:47.9] VF: There is one question that I keep getting and that is, “why do you need five commandments, why do you have to do all these stuff?” And the reason all these story principles are story principles is because these things happen in life and this is exactly what you’re saying, stories are our way of dealing with situations in life and working through them and figuring out how do we behave, how do we not behave?
In order for the story to resonate with the audience, the reader, the viewer, it is got to have these elements. If we look at any interaction we have with people in our lives, the five commandments unfold in every scene and once we start to see them, we can’t un-see them. My daughter is 15 and she also likes to write. She texted me from a party she went to the other day. A friend of hers has a crush on the popular boy, thought she didn’t have a chance and then at the party the boy looked at her friend in a certain way and Avery texted me and said, “Mom I just saw a turning point.” So they are everywhere, right? My daughter is suitably brainwashed now.
[0:57:59.7] SC: Yeah, you know, I told you a while back I was working on a project and it was a neuroscience project. So I had to do a lot of deep research about the way neurotransmitters work and the way we actually behave neurochemically. You know, it was no great lack of thrill when I discovered that the five commandments are basically the neurochemical chain that occurs when something that we don’t know was going to happen happens.
So basically solving the problem of, “What do you do when you don’t know what to do?” and our brains the way we handle those kinds of situations are structured like a story. So like your daughter was saying, you know, her friend the inciting incident was she was attracted to a guy at school and the progressive complication was he didn’t even look at her twice. So that was a real downer but then she probably put herself in his arena more and more.
So eventually he started recognizing her and then your daughter went to the party with her friend and I don’t know what happens at your daughters parties but he probably had a beer and she probably saw her and his limbic system was like, “Look at their girl. There is that girl you always see,” and he was thinking, “Wow, I never… yeah that is somebody I’d be interested in,” and so the crisis then at that point for him and for her was, “What are we going to do about this?” You know, and then we got a whole story here. I mean this is like Twilight.
[0:59:34.6] VF: Yeah that’s right.
[0:59:37.3] SC: You know the reason why it is so – I mean just hearing your daughter’s story was compelling to me. Because I want to know what happens. I want to know what happens with those two. Because part of me is like, “Oh she should never ever approach that guy because he’s going to take advantage of her,” and then another part of me was like, “That boy shouldn’t get close to her because she doesn’t really know who he is,” and so all of these things start to come into our minds as third party observers just hearing the story that it does so much work for the writer that if you just abide the neurochemical stages of storytelling and you really, really focus on them and make them crystal clear, the subjective reader or the subjective viewer will fill in so much of the stuff that you don’t have to really do much work at all.
If you really focus on, “This happens then that happens then this happens then that happens and that and then that leads to this and this and this,” and if you just construct it using this great tools then it is remarkable what other people bring to your story that you would never ever even consider and then you get to become this genius storyteller when you’re really just minding your P’s and Q’s and being very, very specific about what you want to accomplish, what the point of your story is and how you’re going to get from A to B and B to C and these are the principles that Story Grid are all about.
It is about teaching people this way of looking at stories so that we can tell better stories and that your daughter could write that short scene and it would probably floor everybody in her English class and she could just use like kangaroos, you know? So that’s what a writer does and obvious that your daughter is a writer because she wouldn’t have even consciously observed that happening if she wasn’t clued into the structure of how the world works. Well, that is great to hear.
[1:01:47.6] VF: Yeah, this is the type of thing that Story Grid does for writers. It opens up a story in a whole new way. It gives you a whole new lens to view your craft and the story itself. I mean look, I drank the Cool Aid long ago. So you know I am all in, it is fine. Basically the thing that I want to let people know if they get frustrated with Story Grid because it is heavy. You’ve got to work to understand this stuff. It is not going to come without effort. You’ve got to study.
But if you are willing to put in the work and you are willing to study then it is like having the secret decoder ring to figure out how the heck you go from “I just want to write stories” to the end of a story, a book or short story or novella that works, that pleases the artists, and that the artists can have pride in but that also is entertaining and that resonates with the audience with whoever reads it. If that’s you, if you are listening to this podcast and that sounds like you, you’re someone who wants to level up your craft. You are really interested in becoming a better writer then you are in the right place. Story Grid is for you.
[1:03:07.7] SC: Wow, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks Valerie.
[1:03:10.8] VF: And on that note, I’d better go do my writing for the day. Thank you so much, Shawn.
[1:03:18.5] SC: Me too. Oh thank you, Valerie.
[1:03:19.6] VF: Bye.
[1:03:20.3] SC: Buh-bye.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[1:03:21.0] VF: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. If you are interested in attending the certification training that’s coming up in February, go to storygrid.com/cert and fill out an application. I’ll be there along with at least six other editors from the first session we did in 2017. We’re all coming back for the opportunity to study directly with Shawn Coyne so that we can continue to level up our craft.
He’s been teasing us that he’s got all kinds of new material in this session. So I cannot wait to find out what this is. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up to the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe, including the fundamental Friday’s posts. Just saying.
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. As always, 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 Podcasts and leaving a rating and review.
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