Road Blocks

Happy Ides of March!

In this week’s episode Tim and I talk about how to find the shortest detours around pesky day to day writing road blocks.

To listen, click the play button below, or read the transcript that follows.


[0:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. My name is Tim Grahl, I’m the host and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to write my first novel and make sure it’s a story that actually works. Joining me in a minute is Shawn Coyne, the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and he is the sage that is helping me figure all of this stuff out.


In this episode, we dive into many of the problems that you may be having trying to flush out your very first novel. I’m doing it myself, running into all kinds of roadblocks, trying to figure out everything from character names to how many scenes I need to have in sequence and we talk through all of this stuff plus a lot more in this episode. So it will definitely help you start planning out your story and making sure it works before you spend time writing a 100,000 words on a story that doesn’t work.


So we’re going to jump in and get started.




[0:00:58] TG: So Shawn, I have a lot of things to grill you on this week because I’ve actually been working I think every day in the past week I’ve worked on my book and I’ve hit so many road blocks. Well, first of all I just want to point out that this is hard.


[0:01:16] SC: Yes.


[0:01:17] TG: And maybe this is why I’m an entrepreneur anyways. I always assume, I’m like, “Oh yeah, I got this,” and then you get into it and you’re like, “Oh, this is going to take me 10 years.” But it’s such a weird thing to really sit down and go after this for real. So I finished — so the Harry Potter story grid is up and it’s been neat because every time I’ve logged in because I’ve used it in my daily writing and planning.


Every time I log in somebody is in there looking at it. I can see how many anonymous people, so it’s been neat to have the listeners and they’re watching it and looking at it while I’m looking at it and I’ve actually been working on it while they’ve been looking at it too which has been interesting.


[0:02:01] SC: Yeah.


[0:02:02] TG: So I want to talk a little bit about that and then go into me transitioning that into building my own story. So the first thing is, you know, it’s like I know you know what you’re talking about, right? But to actually see it play out in the real world is like, “Oh Shawn does know what he’s talking about.” ‘Cause when I looked at the story — I was looking at it, my breakdown of Harry Potter.


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has a little over 77,000 words and my scene count was 54 which was right on the number that you say it should have. Then, when I was like, “Okay, well where does the beginning hook start and end?” Well, I know where it starts but where does it end, the middle build and then — I’m already laughing — ending payoff, it was exactly 25%, 50%, 25%, within a couple of percentage points.


[0:03:00] SC: Sure.


[0:03:01] TG: And I’m just like, “Oh, this is how it works,” you know? And seeing it map out like that was just so much different than reading it in the book and you just saying, “Oh this is how it works.” I don’t know. I don’t know why that surprised me but that was the thing that popped into my head, “Oh Shawn does know what he’s talking about.”


[0:03:22] SC: Well, it’s not that I know what I’m talking about. It’s what a lot of other people have been saying for years and hundreds of years and that I sort of discovered and I’ve re-related it to the world. It’s not what I’m saying, it’s just based upon a lot of deep thinking by a lot of really brilliant people and it is — I find myself in exactly the same position that you are Tim.


When I sit down, I always think I’m going to prove myself wrong and I was looking at To Kill a Mockingbird a few months ago and I was like, “I don’t know about this one,” but it does work that way and there are external and internal genres in To Kill A Mockingbird as there are in Harry Potter but that 25-50-25 is a really, really important thing to remember because if you get stuck, you can just say to yourself, “Hey, you know what? It worked for Harry Potter, it worked for Silence of the Lambs, it worked for To Kill a Mockingbird, it worked for all the great big blockbuster movies I’ve ever loved and believed in. So why don’t I just — maybe I don’t fully believe it but let me just try it and see.”


I think we’ve talked before about how Stephen King works and other writers who don’t talk about all the nuts and bolts that I do but you see that their story structure is in the same percentage. That’s through tens of thousands of hours of hard work on their part. So J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, they’ve learned that craft through hard work and diligence and they now, it’s now become such a used muscle in their writing repertoire that they do it without thinking about it anymore. It’s like a jazz musician who knows how to hit the high C without thinking about it anymore.


[0:05:29] TG: Yeah and like intuitively knows when to turn the song.


[0:05:35] SC: Yeah, you could just imagine Stephen King saying, “Okay, now is the time to really put the hammer down. You know, now is the time for my all is lost moment,” and they just do that because they have the feel of the story like somebody who has — like a great golfer who has a feel for the game. They know just the right kind of spin to put on the ball so that it pulls up and goes three feet from the cup and that’s exactly the same thing with writing.


That’s the great mystical element of things that come to you after you do all that blue collar work that you are doing now Tim because these are the moments when you need to be grinding the analysis in your head while you’re at your desk writing. So you’re right, it is hard work. It is going to take a while and it’s going to take a while for you to feel the force when you’re doing the work.


For some people, it takes longer than others, but to know that there is a process that you can use that uses one side of your brain while the other side of the brain is catching up, that’s a great thing to know and you know it and you’re working it.


[0:06:45] TG: Yeah, so that’s been enlightening seeing how somebody that had never heard of you or the story grid wrote a book that was widely popular and it matches what you wrote in the Story Grid because I also found somebody broke down the average word count by chapter when I did the math against that, it was within a 1,000 words.


[0:07:09] SC: Wow.


[0:07:10] TG: I’m like, “What is going on?”


[0:07:13] SC: “Geez, I kind of wish I had done that work.”


[0:07:16] TG: When I did that and I did the math, I actually did that twice because I’m like, “No.” So anyway, that was cool. So then what I wanted to do, this whole idea was I was going to take the framework of Harry Potter to help me flesh out my story because every time I tried to take my idea for my story and build it into a novel, it just fell apart at the seams. It was like trying to catch sand in my hand.


And so what I’ve started doing is I’m actually using Scrivener for this and it’s a really great tool because you can layout things, it looks like little note cards that you’re laying out and so it’s like you’re creating note cards for each scene and then you can write in the synopses for each one and then I created labels that are color coded.


Like a light green is minus the plus, a dark green is plus to plus-plus and then a light red is plus to minus and then minus to double minus is a dark red and I label each of those note cards by which one it is so that I can actually look and see the polarity of each scene.


[0:08:27] SC: Smart.


[0:08:28] TG: Then in the comments for each scene, I’m putting the value shift. So I’m working on that. The first thing is that it feels like you gave me a box of puzzle pieces that don’t fit together and I keep to having cut and reshape and remould to get them to fit together. I’ve had one character in particular that is flip flopped between a bad guy or a good guy three times because I don’t know where to put them.


This is where looking at Harry Potter has been helpful because I’m like, “Okay, I need somebody that’s fulfilling this role.” So it’s like how can I do that and how can I turn it and how can I make sure it’s not like Harry Potter but I fulfilled that same story necessity?” I’m not to the end yet but I feel like what I thought would happen which was mapping out something like Harry Potter would give me the structure to get my story put together is definitely helping in the early stages here because of that. The other thing is — I feel like I’m just blabbing, but I’m hoping someone will get something out of this.


[0:09:41] SC: No, not at all.


[0:09:44] TG: Go ahead.


[0:09:45] SC: Well just to back up a second about the puzzle pieces that you have to shave and mould, what are the things about creating a novel that I don’t go that deeply into if at all in the Story Grid is the notion of the cast of characters and what the point is of specific kinds of characters in your novel.


I think I do write some about this in Story Grid Bonus Material on, which is all for free but here’s the thing, I think there’s something called casting the thriller which is about this very thing and what you’re doing is you’re casting the epic hero’s journey through the prism of Harry Potter.


Now the great thing, one of the great things about Harry Potter is that the characters that are all supporting and all around Harry, they all played practical roles in the hero’s journey. For example, you have the mentor figure, you have the whole series of mentor figures in Harry Potter. Now who is the character that’s sort of like, the one who says, “You’re a wizard Harry?” He’s played — what’s his name again?


[0:11:08] TG: Yeah, Hagrid.


[0:11:10] SC: Hagrid, right.


[0:11:11] TG: And what’s interesting is I noticed this too. I wanted to mention this, I should have made notes because I have all these things I want to talk about because what’s interesting is in book one, Hagrid is the mentor but in the arc of all seven books it’s Dumbledore is the mentor. But in book one, Dumbledore is very much a background character. He only shows up a couple of times to specifically deal with Harry while the rest of the journey is guided by Hagrid.


[0:11:40] SC: That’s fine and the reason why that’s fine is that you have levels of mentorship and whenever you get stuck, just think of your own life. We all have series of mentors, I can think of the saxophone teacher I had in third grade. I can think of the football coach I had in 5th grade and I can think of the professor in the organic chemistry lab when I was in college.


All of those people sort of picked up the baton of mentorship as I got older in my own journey to where I am today and if you think of your protagonist and your lead character in a similar way especially if you’re mapping out something grand like the Lord of the Rings sort of world or Harry Potter, just think of mentor as a spirit, a kind of thing.


And mentors can also be bad guys too. They can be antagonists who teach the lead character about certain things and the only way for the lead character to progress into the magical world, they might have to overcome the mentor figure who could be somebody who’s trying to undermine them for their own evil deeds or whatever.


There’s a great movie from the 70’s called The Eiger Sanction and it was based upon a novel written by a guy names Trevanian that was his pen name. It’s this story of this mountain climber and Clint Eastwood plays the mountain climber in the film and it’s one of those great 70’s thrillers where this hired assassin, this assassin comes out of retirement to do one last job.


So Clint Eastwood plays the assassin and he’s out of shape. He’s in his 50’s now and he has to go climb the Eiger Mountain, which is in Switzerland. And so he has to go find his old climbing partner, he’s going to get him back in shape and the climbing partner is played by this great character actor names George Kennedy who just recently died.


But George Kennedy is this big strapping guy who is six foot five, he takes no crap from anyone and you just fall in love with this character the minute he comes on screen and then of course, he teaches Clint how to get back and he finally goes up the mountain and they’re ready to take this one final shot at this bad guy and of course George Kennedy turns on Clint and he’s about to kill him and drop him off the mountain after he’s led him up there.


He turns his characterization from the mentor figure to the hidden antagonist. So these are things to think about too and this is what I talk about when I talk about innovating story, traditional story structure stuff and often called clichés, right? So that’s what J.K. Rowling did. A lot of times you think like, forgive me all of you out there who are Harry Potter aficionados.


I do not have the depth of knowledge in Harry Potter than I really should but as I recall, there is the character Snape who seems to be this evil figure who ends up being a righteous, good, solid citizen by the end of the series and so that’s a great way and he’s played by Alan Rickman in the movie and Alan Rickman another guy who recently died.


[0:15:16] TG: Yeah.


[0:15:17] SC: He’s just a great character actor. So that’s the other thing to think about when you’re writing novels is to think about all those great character actors that you see on in your favorite movies and television like Mark Rylance who just won the academy award for best supporting actor in Bridge of Spies.


A fantastic character actor and it’s in the characterizations that character actors bring on film and on television that you can really be inspired by because they bring these little tweaks and quirks and weirdness that you just wouldn’t think of first off when you’re creating your own character and so I think we’re getting a little bit off track but the point is that when you’re looking at specific characters in a story, the supporting cast around your protagonist, all of those people need to play a very specific role.


Meaning they need to push your character further down the magical road on their hero’s journey. They either try to push them away from the journey of push them towards it. So when you’re creating characters, remember they have to have a purpose. You just can’t have somebody come on for fun. They need to be doing something to your character to push them to some choice that will move them further down the yellow brick road.


[0:16:43] TG: Yeah, that’s what I struggled with was not knowing what role is needed to be filled.


[0:16:49] SC: Right.


[0:16:50] TG: And that’s where having another story to kind of point those out to me has helped me take this nebulous, “I want this to happen, I kind of want this to happen,” and solidify those down into certain people inside of the book that will each have their own role and I’m not getting much more clear. I’m like, “This is why this person is in the book, this is why this person is in the book, this is where they’re going to take them.”


So I also want to mention, I’ve started — so two tools in particular that you’ve mentioned in earlier episodes that I got to use. One is basically just starting with taking what you’ve heard and just flipping it over and seeing what it would be like to have the opposite. So my story is set where I’ve had this idea for a superhero novel. We went over one of the scenes a couple of weeks ago.


One major change I made is I made it my hero a woman instead of a man. So that was the first thing I did was switch that around just base on your feedback of you need women in your story and when I was trying to figure out who should play the woman in my story and I thought about the hero, I’m like, “Okay, I’m just going to do that. I think that fits.”


The other thing I did was where Hogwarts was the symbol of good, the school and Harry is kind of working for Hogwarts in a way. I am doing the opposite where Jessie, my hero, is basically inside of an evil organization trying to work against it and so what’s that meant is like so many things I kind of have to turn over because now, the things that Harry does in Harry Potter won’t work in my story because she would be helping the evil organization.


And so it’s just been really fun to take like — and I’ve asked myself that question, “Okay here’s what’s happened, what would be the opposite?” So I started there. The other thing is there has to be this kind of world ending device. If this device gets into the wrong hands, all is lost. In Harry Potter, that’s the Sorcerer’s Stone and so I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got to come up with something else because mine is more science fiction-y. And — go ahead.


[0:19:10] SC: Well, what your describing is a very important element in thrillers and crime stories and it’s what they call the MacGuffin and the MacGuffin was coined by Alfred Hitchcock back in the 40’s or 50’s and I think he was on a TV show like Jack Parr, one of those early late night television shows and he was being interviewed.


The interviewer said, “So you mentioned this word MacGuffin, what does it mean?” And Hitchcock said, “The MacGuffin is the thing that the bad guy wants so desperately that he’ll do anything for it.” And then the interviewer said, “Well I’m not sure what that means,” and he said, “Well that’s exactly what the MacGuffin is, it’s the thing that makes complete and total sense to the antagonist that will get them whatever it is that they want.”


So when you’re talking about the Sorcerer’s Stone or you’re talking about the nuclear codes in a thriller — there is a famous story in Hollywood, there was a pitch done back in the 90’s called The Man with the Football and to my knowledge, nobody has solved this riddle but the idea is this: The President of the United States, there’s a man who always trails him. I don’t know if this is true or not but here’s the set up.


There’s always a man who is within reach of the President of the United States and what he has are the codes that will launch a nuclear strike, basically Armageddon and the codes are in a briefcase that are chained to his arm and that brief case is called “football” and so somebody sold a pitch to one of the major Hollywood studios years ago just based on that MacGuffin and it was called The Man with the Football.


To my knowledge, nobody has been able to crack an incredible thriller based upon that concept yet because the MacGuffin bring cliché even though it might be true. So when you’re creating your MacGuffin, you can often become so obsessed with the MacGuffin itself that it becomes too large in the presence in the story and you’ll find yourself constantly trying to explain the MacGuffin. “I want to make sure that my reader understands the MacGuffin.”


[0:21:55] TG: Yeah.


[0:21:56] SC: You know I’ve read so many thrillers when I was acquiring books for major publishing houses that suffered from the explaining the MacGuffin problem and often times, it’s best to introduce the MacGuffin and forget about it and that’s what Hitchcock did all the time. Like some of his great thrillers like North by Northwest. The MacGuffin is microfilmed that’s stuck in some replica, it’s either the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty or something.


[0:22:31] TG: Man, it’s been so long since I’ve seen that movie. I’m trying to remember.


[0:22:34] SC: Right, the MacGuffin really doesn’t matter because what’s really engaging is watching Carrie Grant being just thrown into this maelstrom of misunderstanding and so the bad guy is played by James Mason and he does such a great job and all the wants is that microfilm inside the Statue of Liberty, Chatska.


So Hitchcock is great because what he do is, somebody would mention that’s what they want and that would be the end of it and then it becomes this chase of getting the MacGuffin but the MacGuffin really doesn’t matter. All of these very long winded multi-tiered story about MacGuffins is just to tell you don’t overwhelm yourself with coming up with the perfect MacGuffin.


Think of something that makes sense and use it, introduce it as quickly as you possibly can, get it in the story and then let it go and if you need to fix it later on, if you read your first chapter and you discover, “Oh geez, my MacGuffin is kind of weak,” you can tweak it in a way that can make it more believable but remember, your reader wants to attach to characters and character actions when they’re reading a story.


They don’t necessarily have to completely totally buy in to the MacGuffin. Here’s another example. In Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino’s master work. The MacGuffin is that thing inside the back of the trunk. When they open up the trunk and it’s…


[0:24:16] TG: Yeah, the briefcase.


[0:24:17] SC: Yeah, it’s the briefcase, right? We never know what’s in that briefcase. It doesn’t matter and that’s what was so brilliant about Tarantino is that he understood what the MacGuffin was. It made no…


[0:24:30] TG: All that matters is that everybody wants it.


[0:24:32] SC: Exactly.


[0:24:34] TG: What I struggled with, and I’m just going to tell you what I did because now I feel like well maybe I shouldn’t even do this but because I was trying to think of what it should be, what the MacGuffin should be, using your terms and the first thought that popped to my head was weapons grade plutonium and I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s the worst.”


[0:24:59] SC: It might not be the worst. Worse things have happened.


[0:25:05] TG: It’s so cliché right?


[0:25:07] SC: It is cliché but it’s a cliché for a reason, sometimes it just works.


[0:25:13] TG: I don’t know, I could not bring myself to do it.


[0:25:15] SC: Okay, that’s fine.


[0:25:17] TG: So I started doing the thing where I made a list of 15 things.


[0:25:20] SC: Great.


[0:25:21] TG: And so I listed out a bunch, I asked my buddy who’s a big time nerd to help me list out a bunch. He’s just as much as a nerd about this stuff as I am and listed out a bunch of things and we hit like nine, and I think I’ve got what I’m going to do and I don’t think I spent too much time on it. But it was like — oh here, I have my list right here, it was like weapons grade plutonium was the first thing. Another…


[0:25:49] SC: A virus?


[0:25:51] TG: Yeah, that was on there. Again, all these things that I’ve seen a hundred times and that’s what you said would happen is like the first 10 things that come to your mind are all clichés and you have to move past all of those in order to get to something that’s actually useful. So I actually have, in my little notes, I have world ending device, question mark. I have electromagnetic device, selling a nuke to a warlord, some kind of serum that turn soldiers into super soldiers, inter-dimensional wormholes and then the one I think I’ve landed on is something out of Inception, did you see that movie?


[0:26:35] SC: Yes.


[0:26:36] TG: Where basically, the whole thing is can they implant thoughts to change people without them knowing it.


[0:26:43] SC: Yes.


[0:26:43] TG: And so that’s what I’m landing on right now because I have a back story for that but it was interesting to be like, “Okay, I’ve got to stop and do this and just start listing out all kinds of things. So that was one thing, the other thing is how much time it’s been to find good names for my characters.


So here is what I’ve done, and you can tell me if this just a waste of time. So I’ve basically try to think of what’s a defining — what do I want people to know about this person? And then I go and look up names that have that as somewhere in the meaning of the name and that’s where I’m pulling my names from.


[0:27:28] SC: That’s valid. Names are — some of the great series characters in fiction have really cheesy names. Jack Reacher, that’s a good name. It’s not overly thought provoking. A lot of people — you don’t want to get too cute with it.


[0:27:54] TG: So for my character is like the real nerdy, uncomfortable in his own skin character, I went and I searched the hundred scientists that have changed the world and somewhere in the middle of the list, I found this guy names Ernst. His name is…


[0:28:14] SC: Ernst Mayr?


[0:28:15] TG: Yeah and he was this evolutionary biologist that cleaned up some of the Darwin stuff it seems like so I named him Ernst and basically, his parents are both professors and super nerds so of course they named their son Ernst and because that’s one of their favorite scientist but it couldn’t be Einstein. It had to be some kind of a more obscured scientist that they were fans of. So it was like that kind of stuff.


[0:28:45] SC: That’s a good way of doing it. I mean look at Harry Potter. Harry is names after Prince Henry the Fifth. Harry is just a great royal name that of course it’s Henry but Harry was a great British name that has a lot of historical significance to it. I think Ernst is a good name for a character and you’ve already got a built in backstory about that.


I think doing the work that you’re doing in terms of the names is going to be helpful not just to get the name but it’s going to give you a little place to build a character from because just that explanation you made of being named after Ernst Mayr, you can stick that in the book as a little offhanded aside and it adds texture and interesting stuff to the narrative.


[0:29:47] TG: Yeah, I have actually a moment in there where basically they made fun of his name and he’s like, “What can I do? My parents were nerds.”


[0:29:55] SC: Right, yeah.


[0:29:56] TG: What’s been — so I’m 17 scenes in and I have had to stop and go back a hundred times and fix, already. When I was eight scenes, I’m like, “Oh that doesn’t work because of that, and I have to go back and fix that and that doesn’t work because of that.” And then it’s like, “Well, I’ve got to introduce this character but I don’t have a name yet,” so I’ve got to stop and think through a name and then 30 minutes later I’m like, “Why am I still working on this?”


So yesterday, I worked an hour and a half and I know how to lock in. I shut down e-mail, I shut down any chat stuff, I silenced my phone, put on the headphones and I’m locked in for an hour and a half. I got one scene planned. And then this morning I sat down…


[0:30:46] SC: That’s a good day’s work.


[0:30:49] TG: Well, I sat down this morning — what was funny is yesterday afterwards, I was driving and I kept having all this stuff pop into my head and so every stop light, I’m pulling out my notebook and scrolling down notes that are popping into my head because I was still trying to figure out my main character, what angle she should be coming into this as.


That’s where later in the book when I seek it, one of the things that I thought was brilliant about Harry Potter is how she dropped in clues that you would never pick up until the very end and you’re like, “Oh my gosh she’s been telling me this the whole book. I should have known this was the bad guy instead of Snape.” I hit this point, I’m like, “Wait, I didn’t established that yet,” so I’ve got to go back through my scenes and reestablish something earlier on.


[0:31:37] SC: Yeah, that’s a system. It’s called setting up and paying off. Now, I will say one thing, don’t be afraid to put a TK in your book.


[0:31:49] TG: What’s that?


[0:31:50] SC: To come, it’s the copy editor’s mark, it means to come. Like for instance, when you’re designing the book and you haven’t done the copyright page, you write TK, copyright page TK, which means it’s going to come later. So to write TK when you don’t know a specific name, that’s the ice cream work in writing, you know what I mean?


[0:32:19] TG: What?


[0:32:20] SC: Well, there are certain things about writing that are easier than others and one of them is to do obsessive research and to obsess over minute details that will get you out of the flow of creating your inciting incidence, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolutions because a lot of times, it’s far more fun to go look up the 15 most famous scientist of all time to come up with a name than it is to crack that crisis question, you know?


So often time, if you find yourself constantly being distracted by the minutia of the story and wanting to go back and fix things all the time, that’s a signal. That’s called resistance and what you are doing…


[0:33:16] TG: Well, but there’s got to be a level of like…


[0:33:20] SC: Of what?


[0:33:22] TG: I don’t know because once I pick the name, I could keep moving forward. That wasn’t the end of my work and I don’t know.


[0:33:32] SC: No, I understand.


[0:33:33] TG: For me it’s like, that’s the work of the variety is figuring out — I guess I am trying to find there’s a middle ground there stopping to do something is fine as long as it’s not avoiding what you’re actually supposed to be doing.


[0:33:48] SC: Well yes and these are the things that are very specific to the writer. Some people would find what I just described as resistance and I’m sort of one of them because the real difficult work is in just getting a scene that works and then once it works, making it work better and if you’re concentrating on the minutia and the technicalities of writing like names of characters and what kind of breakfast they had that morning and what flavor of smoothies is their favorite.


Yeah, you’re not really doing much, you’re just sort of fiddling in the wind whereas coming up with a situation where your lead character is in mortal danger that is not a cliché and they have to pull out some sort of super heroic feat of brain power to get themselves out of this situation that nobody has read before, now that’s a problem. That’s a problem that you’re going to have to fix that is really difficult.


When I say that’s ice cream work, I’m not being derogatory about it. I think ice cream work is really fun and important. But what I suggest is sometimes, what you should do is save the ice cream work for when you’re dry. So say you’re really grinding it one day and you’ve got 300 TK’s of some character’s name. You’re grinding and you’re not being able to really get into the flow, use that ice cream time to work on that problem then so that you’re not blowing your entire day by not getting anything done.


[0:35:53] TG: As we were talking, have you heard of The Pomodoro Technique?


[0:35:57] SC: No. It’s a tomato, right?


[0:36:00] TG: Yeah, it’s a productivity thing where you basically — I use it when I need to churn through very well defined to do’s. It’s useless for writing because it will just break your flow but for things like I’ve got to answer these three e-mails, put these four things on my website, e-mail my accountant, I would be certain and very well defined.


It’s a really great productivity thing because I forgot exactly but it’s 20 minutes on, five minutes off. You basically get a set amount of time to work and then you get a break and then a set amount of time to work and you get a break. As you’re saying that, what I may start doing is like setting a timer on something.


When I hit something like that and say, “Okay, I got 10 minutes to make a decision or move on,” and that will force me — ‘cause the truth is the name doesn’t matter all that much as long as it doesn’t suck, it’s fine and so I can come up with something that doesn’t suck in 10 minutes. I can also come up with something that doesn’t suck in an hour and a half.


[0:37:06] SC: That’s well put, thats well put, yeah.


[0:37:09] TG: I wanted to run another thing by you here. Again, I’m using this as my structure and my problem is, is that right now — so what I’ve done with the Harry Potter is I’ve added a summary sheet to that spreadsheet where I basically say, “Okay, scenes two, three, four accomplish X and then scenes five through 12, accomplish this.” And so it’s basically how each scene you write a summary.


[0:37:37] SC: Those are sequences, yeah.


[0:37:38] TG: Okay, that’s right yeah. Okay, you’ve written about this. So yeah. So I’m basically, trying to find those sequences and then I’m mapping that. So I am basically taking the scenes, locating the sequences and moving those to another sheet so I can keep track of that and what I found is, I am currently 10 scenes behind where I should be according the Harry Potter story grid.


I’m on scene 17 but what I just accomplished in scene 17 was accomplished in scene 27 in Harry Potter so I’m basically 15,000 words behind where I should be. Is that something I should worry about now or is that something I should worry about later?


[0:38:23] SC: No, don’t worry about that.


[0:38:25] TG: Okay because it’s really bothering me.


[0:38:29] SC: Well, I love numbers and I love analytical approaches to things, but when you start grinding and worrying about word count, within limits, the fact that you’re 10 scenes behind it doesn’t concern me that much because what you might find in draft two are little places where you can do mini-scenes that will better establish and further refine shifts in polarity from one place to another.


You might find, like J.K. Rowling did a great job of establishing the ordinary world before she took you to Hogwarts and you might find that you can do something like that later on with a little mini scene that you can fill in. It’s been my experience that if you are really, really disciplined about accomplishing specific goals in the least amount of words, it’s far better to do that than to waste five scenes to get from “boy meets girl, the boy really likes girl”.


Because a lot of people will drag out a sequence beyond anybody’s reasonable interest. So those are the times when you get a lot of shoe leather and shoe leather are those scenes where somebody writes about how somebody walked across the floor to turn the knob on the door to open it to reveal the long lost brother of Kate Meckersham or whatever.


What all of that exposition is, is worthless. Nobody wants to read about somebody walking across a floor and some scenes that you put in, you will discover are completely worthless and beside the point. So write lean, you can always pad later.


[0:40:38] TG: See I guess that’s what’s worried me because in On Writing, Stephen King says, “Second draft equals first draft minus 10%,” or something. And so, if my first draft only gets me to 50,000 words, I’m in trouble, right?


[0:40:58] SC: No, you’re not in trouble.


[0:40:59] TG: Or are there writers that do it the opposite where they write it too lean and go back and fill it out?


[0:41:04] SC: Yes, I write about it in Story Grid, who does this? Starts with an outline very short and keeps broadening it and broadening it and broadening it. A famous writer —- Ken Follett.


[0:41:17] TG: Oh that’s funny. I’m in the middle of reading the Blockbuster novel, what was it?


[0:41:22] SC: Oh, Al Zuckerman’s book, yeah. He writes all about the man of St. Petersburg and how he went from…


[0:41:28] TG: Yeah, Eye of the Needle.


[0:41:29] SC: Yeah and Ken Follett is a terrific writer who’s really good at maintaining the interest of the reader and there’s somebody who starts sort of with the one page or a concept and slowly expands it until he’s got an outline of 200 pages and then he’s got his outline that tells him everything he needs to do and then he goes and he pads it with all kinds of wonderful exposition and when he’s done with that, he’s got an epic novel of 500 pages. So that’s a perfectly valid way of working.


[0:42:02] TG: Okay.


[0:42:03] SC: Stephen King is not somebody who has trouble generating words. He’d be the first one to tell you.


[0:42:11] TG: Yeah.


[0:42:12] SC: His job, what he does is he finds the difficult part ripping all the stuff that he doesn’t need in there.


[0:42:19] TG: Okay because my whole goal with this is I want to create something where I’m done with my outline, I sit down. I finish my outline on Friday, so Monday morning I sit down and all I have to do is generate 1,500 words that does scene one and then the next day, all I got to do is 1,500 words to do scene two. My whole thing in this is I have to create something where I create items that can be done in one session.


[0:42:56] SC: Yes.


[0:42:57] TG: And what’s worried me is — and I guess I’ve said this, this is a little bit of that whole like “no plan survives first contact with the enemy” where like no matter how much time I spend of my outline, it’s going to fall apart when I actually start writing it.


[0:43:15] SC: It may or it may not, you don’t really know yet. What I think will happen is that you’re going to have a really great plan and you’re going to start working and just so many incredible interesting tangential ideas are going to occur to you that they’re not going to completely destroy your outline.


What they will do is they will broaden your focus. That sounds oxymoronic but it’s not really. They’re going to broaden your ability to be more specific and you’re going to discover things that are mystically wonderful and it sounds silly and woo-woo and Shawn’s crazy and all this junk about the muse is just baloney, but it’s kind of true.


[0:44:08] TG: No, I think I mentioned this last week, I’ve read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and she firmly believes it is actually real Hogwarts style magic like the muse and ideas.


[0:44:22] SC: So does Steve, yeah, so does Steve Russell.


[0:44:25] TG: Yeah and so I’m more from a Christian point of view and so I kind of have to meld all this together into like, is it intuitive, is it like the Holy Spirit dropping something into my brain?


[0:44:39] SC: That works.


[0:44:40] TG: Is it some ancient spirit that’s following me around throwing things at me? But I’ve already picked up on those things in my other work, before writing this novel. Learn to trust — and that’s why I’ve been, like I was saying, I have my notebook with me at all times so when something drops in my head, I immediately write it down because I know I’ll lose it.


[0:45:05] SC: Right.


[0:45:06] TG: Elizabeth Gilbert tells this crazy story of this poet who would hear the poems coming over the landscape almost like a storm and when she would hear it coming, she would take off running for the house so she could get a pen and a paper and write it down as the poem came through her.


The one time the poem came through her and she reached out, she got it to the pen too late but she reached out and grabbed the poem, pulled it back into her and transcribed the poem exactly perfect, word for word but backwards.


[0:45:41] SC: Wow.


[0:45:42] TG: And I’m just like, “Uh, okay?” But I understand that feeling of get it down…


[0:45:52] SC: Well, we all do.


[0:45:53] TG: …when it hits me or it’s just gone forever. So I’ve already had those moments as I’ve tried to piece together the story of all of a sudden it drops in my head. I’m like, “Oh okay, that’s it, that’s what I would try to solve.”


[0:46:04] SC: Well, isn’t it interesting Tim that all of these moments are starting to happen to when you’re working hard?


[0:46:12] TG: Yeah.


[0:46:13] SC: When you’re not working hard and when you’re daydreaming and you’re not laying down the story grid baloney and Shawn’s crazy and all these idea about 25%-50%-25% and sequences and scenes and polarity shifts and all of this junk that I talk about, when you’re not doing that, you don’t get many of those mystical moments.


But when you are grinding it and you are thinking and you are structuring it and you are studying a master work and you are appreciating the craft in a way that you never have before, you’re being flooded and Steve Pressfield talks about this and Elizabeth Gilbert and a number of other people that are immensely talented but more importantly, hardworking artists.


Is that the harder they work, the more genius comes to them. I think what you’re experiencing is that initial wonderful moment of incredible energy that happens when we embark on a great new vision or project and you’ve got to ride that wave because there’s going to be a lot of obstacles ahead for you.


So now is the time to really embrace those moments that come to you and writing everything down is a great idea and setting aside and planning your work as diligently and as specifically as you can, which you are doing is a great thing to do because you’re going to have that stuff when the shit hits the fan later on and it will. Prepare yourself.


[0:47:56] TG: So how long should this outline take me?


[0:47:59] SC: It depends really. I mean think what you need to do is to have the courage to have a general outline not something that is 65 scenes perfectly outlined with everything that you need to do.


[0:48:17] TG: Okay, that’s what I’ve been trying to do.


[0:48:19] SC: But that’s okay. That’s okay too. I’m not saying that that’s absolutely wrong because that’s probably what I would do too and the reason why I would do that is because I don’t have the faith that Steven Pressfield and Elizabeth Gilbert have and maybe that’s a failing, maybe it’s not a failing but it’s just the truth.


So I know who I am and I know what works for me and what works for me is a football coach screaming in my ear to do 10 more pushups or I’m not going to get my water break, right? I think you’re similar so it’s okay to say to yourself, “I know what works for me. I’m going to plan my 75 scenes. Okay, so let me say I’m going to plan three scenes for my hour and a half work a day. How many days of work will get me to that 70 scenes?


And then work it that way and you’re going to work it out on a calendar and you’re going to hit your marks and by the end of that time, you’re going to have 73 scenes done because that’s what you do. Then once you have the 73 scenes done, you say to yourself, “Okay, today is the first day of my draft for scene one,” and then you go through scene one and then you do your 73 days of drafting your scene. That’s a perfectly smart and valid way.


And guess what’s going to happen? When you’re in the car, somebody is going to whisper in your ear, “Hey, in scene 63, instead of having the guy do that, have them do that,” and then you’re going to write it down and when you get to scene 63, you’re going to go, “What? Didn’t I have an idea about that?” And you’ll find it in your notebook and you’ll change your scene and you’re still going to be touched by the muse and all that great stuff but you’re going to control it in a way that makes you more comfortable.




[0:50:18] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. Now, if you are interested in looking more deeply into my story and my process, I have put up two resources on our website. The first is the “Foolscap Global Story Grid”, that one page outline you do for your story when you’re first planning it out and I’ve also kicked out the first 17 scenes I have planned out on my story as well.


So of course, all of this will change overtime and it’s not very good, but if you want to follow along with my process, I put both of those up at under the notes for this episode, Episode 21 so you can see those there. Also, I’ve mentioned that I have the entire Harry Potter story grid I worked on. That is up under as well. The link is under Episode 20.


So all of that is at If you want more story grid, you can see all of that at Make sure you buy the book, make sure you sign up for the e-mail newsletter. There’s a lot that Shawn is doing that doesn’t make it into this podcast and you don’t want to miss that. So make sure you do that as well.


Thanks as always for sharing this with your friends, telling your writer friends about it, share it in your group, share it anywhere that you talked to other writers. We love doing this show, we love being able to do it without advertising or anything like that. So anyway you can help us spread the word, we really appreciate it.


So thanks as always for listening, and we will see you next week.


10 comments on “Road Blocks

  1. Good stuff, guys! I sometimes dream entire chapters while I’m sleeping, not outlines but chapters that have been fully written. I read them in my sleep and, of course, I can’t remember a single word when I wake up but my writing always flows easily the next morning. I’m now at the point where I can remember phrases from the dream chapters which is very cool. I also dreamed part of the title of my first book. It’s not woo woo. It’s very real stuff. The harder I work on writing, the more stuff I get in my dreams. Meditation helps, too. So does being out in nature. Einstein played his violin, went for daily walks, and listened to classical music in order to “tap in.” He totally got this stuff. That’s why he said the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We’ve got it backward in our world. Kids lose their innate intuitive abilities as they progress through the traditional school system. I wrote about Einstein and all this intuitive stuff in my first book.

    1. Patrick Maher says:

      Thanks Debbie, I just stole the Einstein insight for my grand-daughter who is just starting out on her writing career. It goes sweetly in context with Jerome Kern’s ideas that writers are small band of brothers and sisters on whom nothing is lost. That idea came out of puddling around in the pool of ‘write what you know,’ and all that means.

      1. Patrick Maher says:

        Stern, not Kern. Shapely Fiction. Bloomin’ reflexes… Silly me.

    2. You’re not alone, Debbie! Same things work for my writing life, too.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    This is such great a great series guys! I know I’m doing something right because the muse is whispering to me every day (the single most valued app on my phone is the voice recorder, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to capture the ideas when they come). As always, thanks!

  3. Michael Beverly says:

    It’s very interesting to listen to Tim’s struggles.

    What comes to my mind is how different everyone writes.

    For instance, I cannot write everyday. I cannot do the pomodoro method (or any other “method”) for that matter.

    I write a one page outline, usually in a day, and then write the entire rough draft in 10 days (novella) or 21 days (novel).

    I think some people are spring rains and some people are tornadoes.

    After writing a rough draft I struggle with editing and how horrible I am and the realization that I should get into a burlap sack with some rocks and pretend I’m an unwanted litter of cats….

    That process takes months.

    The spring rain people probably have less damage than the tornado people. But I will say this: sometimes in the damage and carnage, brilliance happens. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

    I read Zuckerman’s book, (not based on Eye of the Needle, by the way) and it’s interesting how Follett writes his outline, then adjusts it, tweaks it, and then writes the rough draft. The outline is a mini-story.

    I think I prefer blending the plotter and pantster in that stage.

    So……in a fit of depression I bought and consumed the novel Red Dragon, I wanted to know if maybe Tom Harris struggled, suffered, or even if he sucked a little bit (once upon a time).

    I know he jumped the shark with Hannibal, but that’s only because he sold out for money, which I totally get. I don’t respect it, but I get it.

    Anyway, Red Dragon has some flaws that Harris removed (whether consciously or unconsciously, who knows) from SOTL.

    One of the biggest things I noticed is the difference between my empathy and concern for Starling as opposed to Graham.

    Oh, so I think I’m going to try and write about this more on the forum because I think it’s a good way to see the evolution of a fantastic story series.

    Very interesting note: Harris claims in the foreword that he didn’t know he was going to include Lector in SOTL until after he started writing it. I find that hard to believe myself, but if true (and why would he lie) it means that a major talent was blind to what would become of the most fascinating characters in modern literature.


    Oh,,,one other point, TK is rarely (if ever) found in any word, so it makes searching for it in Scrivener easy and less likely to be missed.

  4. Michael Beverly says:

    I found this:

    “Writing the first draft of your work is great. Congratulations! Getting that 80,000 or 100,0000 words on paper is an outstanding accomplishment.

    But, having a first draft for a professional writer is the equivalent of Michelangelo finally managing to get a two thousand pound block of marble into his studio.”

    This really resonated with me.


  5. Michael Beverly says:

    I just listened to this again.

    Apparent conflicting advice:

    A. Shawn explains how he notices a writer with a messed up story and tells said writer to tackle something else (implication: something the writer can handle). This is the sign of a pro: He/she can let go of the pet and move on, writing to ability instead of because of an emotional attachment.

    B. Shawn recommends facing the thing that you fear the most.

    Perhaps item B is meant only for pros, but since this is a podcast for newbies, I was a bit confused about it.

    Unless he meant it in the general sense.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      If you look at writing as both a inside/out (the writer’s process of stopping self sabotage and figuring out what is most important for him/her to write about) and an outside/in (the writer uses the craft of Storytelling…all this Story Grid stuff…as a tool to keep himself/herself in track when the internal stuff gets overwhelming) then my statements don’t conflict. A. is all about using Story Grid principles to keep writing when you hit a seemingly impossible wall. And B. is about what kind of global story to attempt in the first place. Go for the thing inside that you fear the most. If you’re not sure you are capable of writing that coming of age story inside a super hero action plot…that’s the one to invest in. Not the mystery that you know you can pull off. Hope that helps.

  6. Michael Beverly says:

    Thanks Shawn,

    Yes, that’s helpful.

    I guess I’m still kicking against this statement a bit:

    “Not the mystery that you know you can pull off.”

    For instance: Tim started off wanting to write a multiple person POV horror/crime/thriller in a locked room situation.

    Anyone with a bit of experience knows right off the bat this is a horrible idea (I’d advised someone on the forum about this issue before I listened to your podcast about it and it sounds like I was mimicking you).

    But it’s doable, in the hands of a master.

    So when you write:

    “If you’re not sure you are capable of writing that coming of age story inside a super hero action plot…that’s the one to invest in.”

    It seems like bad advice to 99% of your audience.

    They need to be writing the easy stuff first.

    Not to bore anyone with a long winded anecdote, but here’s my example:

    I got about 40,000 words into an urban fantasy novel (book 1 of a series) based upon my love of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.

    In a wonderfully lucky draw, I found Jim’s sister who was taking on some small developmental editing jobs and she read and critiqued the first three chapters.

    Her notes convinced me to drop this project (for now, not forever) because I was biting off more than I could chew. Sorry for that cheesy cliche. I was over my head. Trying to bat against Nolan Ryan. Etc.

    As you may recall, last January, well 2015, after spending a few months studying your blog, I decided to write an “easy” book, a basic thriller. A women-in-danger, political thriller (I’d thought erotica too, at the time, because it was a throw-away project).

    In any case, that thriller became a huge stepping stone for me.

    It was easy to write, fast, I wrote it in 21 days. I struggled for months with editing and proof reading, but not my point is that it was easy.

    While I’ve received some wonderful reviews from book reviewers (who I sought out for that purpose) that’s not even the point here.

    If it had remained a throw-away project, I’d still be singing the same tune.

    When I read comments from some of your readers (and Steven’s too) where they are agonizing about this WIP they’ve been struggling with for 2 years…..Oh god…

    Since your advice here is supposed to be for all these newbies and beginners (the whole point of Tim Grahl’s thing) I would suggest that the advice: “Go for the thing that you fear the most” should be tempered with: Write 3 or 4 easy novels (or novellas) first.

    Maybe 10.

    That “mystery you know you can pull off” is the training ground.

    When I was studying to be an oil painter my teacher (an old school master who believed he was Ivan Aivazovsky reincarnated) started me off painting the most simple seascapes you could imagine.

    A simple sky.
    A simple wave.
    A simple beach.

    One of these tiny “monkey-see-monkey-do” paintings of his sold at Lahaina Galleries for $10,000. Even simple things, done brilliantly, are great art.

    Of course I looked at Albert Bierstadt’s work and wanted to paint a 3′ by 5′ epic Hudson River School type master work…

    Nope,,,paint another couple hundred little simple basic paintings first…

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