Your Own Worst Enemy

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A few years ago, a very talented line-by-line writer came to me for help.

A publisher I respected had recommended her to me. The publisher believed (rightfully) that the woman had what it took to write bestselling thrillers. The publisher had passed on a number of her books…not because he didn’t find them compelling, but because ultimately they “didn’t work.”
The writer asked me to work with her from first idea to final draft. That is, she wanted to start from scratch…seek my opinion about the right kind of character to feature, the particular genre of thriller that I felt was the most underserved and to basically engineer a new novel from start to finish using The Story Grid.
She could not afford to pay my usual editorial fee, but I too believed in her, so we came to a profit-sharing relationship. We would be business partners, just like a couple of scientists figuring out how to create a new kind of light bulb. I’d done this sort of thing before with narrative nonfiction as well as fiction and while the work requires a multiple year commitment, I’ve never regretted taking it on. I always learn something new.

We got to work.

I walked her through The Story Grid, how I work, etc. and she was over the moon. It turned out that she was as much of a story nerd as I was. She had read and studied many of the same Story experts I had so we spoke the same language. She immediately understood my principles and jumped right in to the process.

We began by both agreeing that she’d write a contemporary thriller that would introduce a brand new series character, a woman with a Jason Bourne-like ignorance of her past. While the external genre was “spy thriller,” the internal genre of the book would be a “disillusionment plot.” (More on this later) Coincidentally, she told me that she had a draft of a book she’d written with a similar character in her closet.

She suggested that we begin with that draft to see if there was anything salvageable from it.

This is when I started to get nervous. But I relented. Maybe the manuscript could give us some direction…never say never, right? Why reinvent something that has already worked?

I read her abandoned book and it had some really great moments. Innovative turns of phrase, some seriously frightening scenes. Overall, it gave me even more confidence in her abilities. But it most certainly did not work. It never paid off the promise of the hook in an inevitable, yet surprising way. She did not disagree.

I ran it through The Story Grid and then we sat down to go through the places where it went off the rails. Weeks later, I thought we had a very clear understanding that the new lead character for our reverse engineering project would not be based on the character from her previous unsold novel. Rather we’d use a few of the scenes from the novel that really worked and perhaps adapt them to suit as major turning points for the new novel. I left her with a working map of about 60 scenes/chapters that included all of the conventions and obligatory scenes of the spy thriller form (more on this later on). I thought the conventions and obligatory scenes that we’d sketched out were uniquely twisted and innovative to a degree that would delight a thriller fan.

I even cold pitched the story, like Hollywood screenwriters do, to a few friends who held very high editorial positions at Big Five publishing houses. These friends had purchased millions of dollars worth of stories from me before, so I knew they had zero interest in humoring me. They wanted me to give them the first crack at the book for their publishing houses, so they were happy to give me quick notes and/or tell me what worked and didn’t work from their point of view. This is what happens at agent/editor lunches sometimes and it’s the only reason I still occasionally have them.
I was now finished with my job as the  “creation editor/agent” and now it was time for my business partner to do hers.
We shook hands and she walked away with the road map to complete the novel.

Keep in mind that it took us a good nine months to get to this point. We debated scene after scene until we both felt it was the best solution we could come up with at the time. Were they turning correctly? Were we mixing up the positive and negative resolutions enough? Did we progressively complicate the Story effectively? Did we pay off the hook?
We both recognized that there would be a very great chance than what we anticipated to work, would need to be completely re-thought after we had a draft in hand, but as a reference guide to write a workable thriller, it was spot on.

She came back six months later with a book far closer to the original manuscript she pulled out of her closet than I thought possible. While scenes were changed, the very problems that made it unworkable a year and a quarter before riddled the narrative. And an obligatory scene—the hero at the mercy of the villain scene, crucial to nail in a thriller—was gone entirely.

I took a deep breath and went through her draft scene by scene again and confronted her about the lack of the crucial obligatory scene.

“Well, I wrote it, but then I didn’t like it, so I cut it,” she said.

I explained that it was fine to do the scene differently, but without it, the book wouldn’t work.

“That’s not true, I read THE LATEST BESTSELLING THRILLER BY BESTSELLING AUTHOR X and he didn’t have that scene…why do I have to?

So here’s when I knew this project would never come to fruition. I now knew the reason why this very talented writer kept getting to the one-yard line and was never able to score a touchdown—a working thriller. Instead of dedicating herself to nailing the form of the thriller/story, she decided that she was above it. She wanted the fruits of the labor (bestsellerdom) more than the labor itself (writing a brilliant and innovative hero at the mercy of the villain scene no matter if the book was published or not). She wanted to be a bestselling thriller writer so badly, that she decided that doing what BESTSELLING THRILLER WRITERS did was more important than abiding by centuries old Story form.

In her mind, conventions and obligatory scenes were all well and good but because a BESTSELLING THRILLER WRITER was able to ignore one or two in his novel and still become a bestseller, she felt she must do that too. No matter how hard I tried to explain that she couldn’t copy what a BESTSELLING THRILLER WRITER did and get the same result, she refused to change her mind. Over and over again, I told her that there was no Formula, just Form.
Her argument of course was that if a BESTSELLING THRILLER WRITER was able to break the conventions of the form, she should be able to too.

Here’s a hard thing to grasp and I’m sure I’ll go to my grave trying to explain it. Just because a book becomes a bestseller, it doesn’t make it something to emulate. There are myriad of reasons why some books become bestsellers and still don’t work as Stories (See The Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon). Sometimes, there’s just a hunger for a particular kind of book (Vampires, Zombies, BDSM novels) based on some ephemeral need in humanity’s collective unconscious that drive sales. Trying to write one of those books that get swept up in the tide or even, the ultimate for some, a book seen as the cause of the tide is folly. It’s like selling your house and putting all of your money on number 7 at the roulette table because you have a feeling #7 is going to hit!

Chasing the vagaries of the bestseller list (believing in formula and not form) is the mark of the amateur. That’s putting the by-product of the Story (money, fame, etc.) ahead of the Story itself. Your contempt for form and lust for formula may even give you what you want. You write the next huge thing that makes you hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now what? That kind of writing is equivalent to winning a lottery.

Why not just play the lottery?

The truth is that I don’t think my business partner really had contempt for Story form, I think it scared her. She had the stuff to write a terrific Story that played off of century old themes, but to do so requires adherence to fundamentals. Not formulaic rules. Despite all of their desire to live by their own lone wolf ways, ironically what amateur writers really want is a recipe. And certainty. And guarantees.

Form scares the big bestselling writers too. That’s why they often do write books that do not abide the obligatory scenes and conventions of their genres. But just because they have a wide audience of people who will buy whatever they write and make those books bestsellers, does not mean that they wrote a story that worked.

In our desire to be unique and powerful, creative people become their own worst enemies. To abide by “rules” seems antithetical to why we’re artists in the first place. So when presented with things that look like rules (form) we unconsciously rebel. We resist it with everything we have. And even when we talk ourselves off of the “I’m not going to write that scene because it’s stupid” cliff, it’s really hard to actually see the form for what it really is—an opportunity. Form gives you the place to throw down your best stuff.

Take the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene. It’s been done to death. Try not picturing Bruce Willis or Liam Neeson chained to a pipe and being tortured when you hear “hero at the mercy of the villain.” How do you not write that set up? But instead, innovate it and still deliver the form?

Thomas Harris did it in The Silence of the Lambs. He didn’t run away from it. Instead, he probably wrote two hundred versions of it and none of them worked. He probably didn’t really figure it out until his tenth draft. What’s important to remember is that he didn’t quit until his thriller WORKED. And working means abiding conventions and obligatory scenes of genres.

The writer/business partner and I never did get on the same page about her thriller and we parted ways. Unfortunately, it’s five years later and she still hasn’t been able to get a publisher to take her on. I think about her every day and have faith that she will one day set aside her Resistance to form and create something remarkable.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

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Shawn Coyne

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the ’70s and the Fight For America’s Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.