Constructive Criticism

What does an editor do when a manuscript arrives that is many iterations away from working?

How can he explain to the writer that the book doesn’t work and that he’ll need to go all the back to step number one to sort out what’s wrong with it and more importantly, how he’ll take the steps necessary to fix it?

Without destroying the writer’s confidence?

Without sending the writer into a pit of depression so deep that he’ll never poke his head out again?

This episode of The Story Grid podcast is my answer to that question.  It’s never an easy thing delivering bad news, but how you do it is an art in and of itself. I’m still learning.

To listen click the play button or read the transcript below.

[0:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl and I am struggling, oh, how I am struggling to write a story that works. Joining me soon is Shawn Coyne. He’s the editor of the book, The Story Grid, the creator of Story Grid and he is walking me through this process of becoming a writer.


In this episode, Shawn gives me feedback on my very first draft of my very first novel and it’s a pretty tough one for me. We walk through some big questions like what is our theme, what is my genre, things that I thought I had already answered but I didn’t. We also talk about some specific things in your first draft that you’ve got to look at and go through before you can call it done and start working on the second draft.


In fact, this week’s homework, I’m not even allowed to write. He gave me other things to do. So I think it’s going to be really helpful for you as you are thinking about your first draft and finishing your book and the kind of big questions you should be asking when you get to that point. So let’s jump in and get started.




[00:01:15.4] TG: So Shawn, I read the book, my book again and I tried to answer your questions the best I could and we can go over that but I just wanted to first hear your first impressions on reading it.


[00:01:29.8] SC: Okay, the first thing I have to say is for years now, I’ve been trying to find somebody who had the courage to go through the process that you’re going through. So the first thing I need to tell you is, what you’re doing takes an extraordinary amount of fortitude, hard work and just cranking it out and doing the best you can each and every step and trying to de-personalize.


The problems that I’m going to talk to you about today is going to be your major, major goal because this is the moment when every editor sort of has a moment when they say to themselves, “How deeply do I want to go on this criticism? What is the best approach to not freak out the writer to the point where they crawl in a hole but also give them some tools necessary to start chipping away at that big blob of clay that they have.”


[00:02:37.7] TG: All right, well let me ask you one question here. So I wrote you into this six months ago before I had written anything and so one of the questions that kept popping in my head was, “I wonder if I had just hired him or I brought my book to him and was interested in hiring him, would he read it and be like, “I can’t even do anything with this” or would you be like, “Yeah, okay. I’ve got something that I can work with here”?”


[00:03:05.4] SC: Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s at the point where I would jump in and say, “Oh I know how to fix this and I know how to work with you,” because that, I think you’re several stages away from soliciting a professional editor’s very minute and detailed advice.


[00:03:25.3] TG: Okay.


[00:03:27.0] SC: So the answer to that question is no. If you would have approached me with this manuscript and said, “Will you consider taking me on as a client?” I would say, “No, I wouldn’t take it on because I wouldn’t be able to bring you to the finish line at a reasonable cost,” but let’s move beyond that for now.


Again, when I started out, one of the things I’ve been looking for over the past say five years is somebody like you. Somebody willing to go through this process step by step in a way that can be public and interesting to other writers that will help them see that they are not the only ones who go through these struggles from draft to draft to draft.


So the first thing that we need to talk about and it’s important to think about, especially after you have a first draft. Now, you’re going to think about these questions before you even structure your story but after you have a first draft, now is a really good time to really hone in on these questions that you may or may not have immediate answers to.


So I know I asked you probably in the last episode to think about genre a lot but I’m going to just take a tiny step back and explain to you why you want to think about genre. The most important thing to understand is that your novel and your story is not just for you. In fact, you are probably the last person that you wrote that story for. You need to discover and think about what you want out of this story and I’m talking commercially as well as creatively. Months ago, we talked about, I think his name is Derek Sivers.


[00:05:29.5] TG: Yeah, Derek Sivers.


[00:05:30.3] SC: Derek Sivers. Okay, now he wrote a great book about business. You have three choices when you start a business. You can either go for fame, or fortune or freedom? Something to that…


[00:05:43.9] TG: That exactly…


[00:05:45.0] SC: Okay, fame, fortune or freedom and I think to use that boiler plate when you’re thinking about your novel or your story or your screenplay or your television series is a good idea too. So now, the chances of you becoming famous on your first novel are pretty slim. The chances of you getting a fortune on your first novel are pretty slim too.


So the freedom element is kind of why people want to become writers in the first place. They want to direct their own lives in a way that they can make enough money to support their family and be creatively satisfied. So in order to bring in that critical mass of dollars, you have to think about the commercial market for your story and the way you do that is to think about genre.


So the reason why I am bringing this up right now is I’ve read the first draft of your book and it is sort of — it dips into many, many different genres that are mutually exclusive and what I mean by that is that some of the genres that you’re playing with, one fan of the thriller isn’t going to be interested in a young female protagonist’s sort of ambitious career trajectory.


The way you’re writing that character and this is not a criticism, it’s just an observation, the way you’re writing your lead character is more in the tradition of another genre, which is called young adult fiction and I don’t think that’s a coincidence because when you started working on this project you used Harry Potter’s world and the trajectory of that story of J.K. Rowling charted as your boiler plate to sort of create this universe of your own story.


So young adult writing has a specific sensibility and it’s different than a straight thriller narrative of say a Michael Crichton. So what you have here is sort of a J.K. Rowling-esque cast of characters and narrative spine attached to a kind of “what if Michael Crichton asked science in the future McGuffin” and it’s in the thriller arena. So that’s not going to work.


So what do you do when you have a situation like that? What you need to do is you have to make some choices and the way you make those choices is back to the Derek Sivers sort of thing. What do you want? Are you fully committed to one particular genre say the Michael Crichton-esque thriller even if it would make more sense to go in the young adult sort of fantastical hero’s journey ark that would be say a trilogy direction?


Are you — because what you have now is you have some very strong notions of this fantastical universe that I think has a lot of potential and you also have this Crichton-esque McGuffin what if, which is about regeneration, cellular regeneration. And that is very much in the Crichton tradition of hard science that is just twisted a little bit to create a “don’t mess with mother nature” kind of overwriting theme in the storytelling.


The best example for a Crichton-esque story would be Jurassic Park where he brilliantly brought Chaos Theory, biogenetics, genesplicing, archeology, all kinds of wonderful little details from the scientific universe into his fictional world and created this great what if, “What if we were able to take splices of DNA from the historical record of dinosaurs and recreate them and have them grow into contemporary dinosaurs that are stuck on an island and it’s a big theme park?” We all know Jurassic Park.


So what you’ve done in your story is similar in that you’ve created this McGuffin of, “What if we are able to create some sort of biomedical goo that when ingested by a human being give her or him the ability to regenerate themselves after they’ve died?” It’s very much in the Frankenstein sort of Mary Shelly mythos and it’s an interesting idea and I’m not saying it’s not something that you want to keep.


But to take a step back, we do need to think about which central global genre is the right one for you. So my question to you Tim is, what do you want? Do you want to write a trilogy or even more books about this particular rise of this young woman in her global story like a Harry Potter or are you more interested in doing an adult sort of Michael Crichton-esque thriller? Now, I have advice on both directions but it would be good to hear what you’re thinking now.


[00:11:56.1] TG: So why are those mutually exclusive?


[00:12:00.6] SC: Well, here’s the thing: the Harry Potter world is not about science. So if you put in a theme underlying that competes with the thematic progression of a Harry Potter story, it dilutes it to the point where the reader gets confused and the reader is going to say to themselves, not consciously but subconsciously, the reader is going to go, “I don’t get it. What’s going on? What is this? Is this like Harry Potter or is this like Michael Crichton? I don’t get it. I’m getting more and more confused, this doesn’t make any sense. I give up.”


Because you’re trying to do too much with your themes. Now the Harry Potter story is a coming of age story and it has fantastical elements that are engaging and wonderful and the magic and the wizardry and all of that stuff is wonderful detail and specificity that we would all love to have in our brains that we could create from whole cloth. But if you slice back all of that detail, what the Harry Potter story is about is a young person discovering the genius within them and learning how to accept their own personal genius where they came from, express that genius and to share their gifts with the rest of the world.


[00:13:47.8] TG: Okay, so what you’re saying is those things are mutually exclusive because there’s two different themes. So one theme is don’t screw with nature, they’ll screw with you and one theme is the hero’s journey coming of age, finding myself and you can’t write both at the same time.


[00:14:07.1] SC: No, you can have sub-plots about particular…


[00:14:11.9] TG: Well but you have to have one that’s like it.


[00:14:14.5] SC: Overarching, yes.


[00:14:15.9] TG: Yeah and so what you’re saying is mine is like trying to double dip and that doesn’t work.


[00:14:22.3] SC: Yes.


[00:14:23.0] TG: Okay and so you’re asking me what I want.


[00:14:27.5] SC: Yes.


[00:14:27.9] TG: What do I want? So what I wanted to write was a story about, I think the young adult version because I want to write a story about a girl who got this really kind of shitty power that’s not super helpful except for when you die and I wanted to write a long series about her working against this overarching evil.


My one worry is, I don’t want to take out the cursing and I don’t want to take out the violence. I mean if you tell me, “Take out the cursing, take out the violence and then we’ll have something workable,” I mean I’ll do what you’d tell me to do Shawn but you’re asking me what I want, that’s what I want. I want to write the Harry Potter but I don’t want to write it for 14 year olds.


[00:15:22.7] SC: Okay, you’ll notice that the really popular series like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, there’s just as many adults reading those stories to start, they’re adults. It’s a category that is more of a way for publishing to categorize something and get it into a particular genre that they can use to sell.


Young adult does not mean that it doesn’t deal with adult themes. Young adult is simply about the age and sensibility of the writing, the age of the protagonist and the groups of people around the protagonist and the quality of the storytelling is less third person omniscient and more friendly first person free and direct style.


I know that sounds like a gobbledygook to people who haven’t read the Story Grid but essentially, third person omniscient means the god-like voice of the narrator. It’s the voice that we were kind of used to reading Charles Dickens or the classic novels of our youth and it feels as if there’s this omnipresent sort of grandfather or grandmotherly presence that’s telling us from Mount Olympus this wonderful story.


Now the other first person, free and direct style is a way of combining that global storytelling of the grandfather with a first person point of view. So like in Silence of the Lambs, which I talk about in Story Grid, there’s a first person of free and direct style sensibility to that because we’re getting some thoughts that Clarice Starling has throughout the book. So we literally can hear what she’s thinking and read what she’s thinking.


So that’s a way of combining it and this was a new evolution of storytelling which started in the 19th century. Anyway, we don’t have to get into the details of when it started. So my point is, is that you as a young adult writer, there’s only a couple of things that you would have to sort of think about. Now the cursing and the violence as an arm chair psychologist I would say, “I’m wondering why he’s so attached to it?”


[00:17:59.0] TG: Say when I read, those are always my favorite parts and when I was writing, I was really looking forward to the part in the alley where she gets attacked, you know? And this is where I struggle because I want to write something that has the most chance at success and we’ve talked a ton about that and that’s part of why I’m going through this, is I don’t want to write 10 books before I realize I’ve been making the same mistake over and over and this is why nobody reads my writing. But at the same time, where’s the line between giving things up to be quote success for, have a better chance of success and writing what I want to write?


[00:18:44.2] SC: Well, this is the line that you’re facing right now and this is the line that we all face after our first draft because the first draft is the unconscious dumping all kinds of ideas onto the page and the thing that the first novelist often, one of the big mistakes that they make is they get too ambitious.


[00:19:09.2] TG: Did I made that mistake?


[00:19:10.5] SC: I think you did, yeah.


[00:19:11.8] TG: Okay. How was I too ambitious?


[00:19:14.0] SC: Well, how you were too ambitious is that you’re combining a very, very complex scientific possibility that’s actually not all that off in the realm of future scientific progress. So you’re trying to communicate a very complex scientific McGuffin while also combining that with a hero’s journey of a young woman who’s trying to make her way in the world, who’s got literal ghosts in her past.


Her brother may or may not be dead, her parents are a mess because they believe him to be dead, the story opens in a cemetery where there’s a lot of cryptic things going on. There’s a very dark figure who’s observing her, we’re not really sure who he is. We later discover that he is sort of this figure who’s trying to get her to do something for him. There’s a lot of strands of plot that you’re putting in there very, very quickly.


What gets lost is who is this girl? What is she doing, what does she want? Where is she going, what’s the point? And when that happens, you’re moving forward, you’re constantly moving forward the plot and you lose the strand of character movement narrative trajectory. So we don’t know what this girl is all about. We see her do actions that are extraordinary like she beats up somebody very violently in one of the scenes and it comes out of nowhere. We don’t know where that came from so you haven’t set that behavior up.


So you’re falling into a lot of holes that a first novelist falls into and that they don’t trust the hero’s journey in a way and they don’t give it life and breath in the way that a reader is want to going to take to and I think what you have in this first draft are probably enough plot points to get you through two novels maybe two and a half novels.


So the reason why I wanted to ask you about what your general want is with that, I would recommend to you think about — the other problem that’s in the book is that it’s far too realistic with the sensibility. What I mean by that is that when we get into the story and we’re introduces to this character, it begins in a quasi-fantastical sensibility. It feels as if there’s a young woman who’s in this very undefined space.


Her parents, one is kind of catatonic from the loss of her son, the other is — I think you pulled off the parents in a way that was pretty compelling and convincing generally. I think you can certainly add more specifics to it but I think I got a sense of who those parents were very quickly but I don’t have a sense of who your protagonist is at all. I think there’s a level of you saying what she’s thinking and reiterating what had previously happened without allowing the reader to intuit those things.


See, this is the problem an editor has when they’re first describing and they’re trying to relate the reactions to the novel because there are so many different levels that an editor is reading it on and that’s why I always like to come back and boil it down to, “Okay, let’s a take a giant step back and look at this globally.”


[00:23:22.4] TG: Okay so let me ask you. So you’ve read this thing, what would you say? I’ve got to at least leaned harder on one than the other. What would you say? This story feels more like the young adult hero’s journey coming of age or this story feels more like standalone Michael Crichton don’t screw with nature?


[00:23:46.3] SC: I think you’ll be more successful writing the YA.


[00:23:50.7] TG: Okay.


[00:23:51.2] SC: Generally, thematically, this is what I took from the story: that the theme of this story is about those who can overcome very serious trauma will gain in strength. So this is your lead character’s heroic gift, her genius, is that somehow she has been able to create a world in which she’s able to overcome tremendous amounts of trauma literary death and after she regenerates from that death, she’s even stronger than she was prior to her being killed.


Thematically, that’s kind of compelling. That’s kind of interesting and I haven’t read all of the literature of superhero sensibilities, but I think that’s interesting and unique because it has a lot of mythic qualities to it and when I say “mythic qualities” what I’m talking about our long stories from the past that have been passed down from Native American tribes to their children to frontiersmen telling mythic stories about incredibly, like The Revenant.


Like this incredible trappers who go into the wilderness and somehow survive and they get stronger and there’s also psychologically, it has an external and an internal component to it as well. Now, the external component is obvious. Literally people stabbed and kill her and she regenerates herself because she’s invented this goo that she can eat or inject that basically realigns and regenerates her cells and turns back her heart on and her brain back on.


Not only is she back alive, but she’s stronger than what she was and I think when you get stuck writing, to think about what is going on underneath all of the plot points and what I found compelling about your story was that that’s what I found was going on underneath. So if we want to get woo-woo about this and use talking to Tim’s subconscious while he’s writing and I think we should because it’s interesting.


I think there’s something inside of you, Tim the writer, that’s interested in that concept, in that theme; can a person be subjected to external and internal trauma to the degree that not only can they absorb that trauma but they can use that trauma to become better than they were before. It’s a really solid human fascination because we all go through trauma in our life and sometimes, we think to ourselves, “Oh my gosh if my dog died, I don’t know if I’d ever be to get over it.”


And we lose somebody or we lose a pet or somebody dear to us and we believe that before it happens that there’s no way we’ll be able to move on with our lives when they’re gone especially the older you get, the more difficult it is to think about overcoming certain things. So I like that. I think that’s a really, really interesting theme and I think for you to sort of anthropomorphize into a quality of a super heroic person has some real good mojo going for it.


[00:27:46.4] TG: Okay.


[00:27:47.5] SC: That mojo is more mystical and more interesting as a mystical element than it is as a reality. Because the reality of creating these beings from scientific progress, the Crichton-esque reality of manipulating things to become dinosaurs, I think Crichton made a great choice there and the choice that Crichton made was, “Let’s not bring back Cro-Magnon man.” He made a choice there.


It could have been Jurassic Park and it could have been filmed with Neanderthals, you know? The beings before humanity, but he didn’t do that. He said to himself, “No, I think I’m going to go with dinosaurs because that’s kind of fun. Every kid loves dinosaurs and if I could make the things that kids are fascinated by really scary and I could make it a story about not messing with mother nature, that would be far more effective than bringing back these Neanderthals that start to attack us and slaughter us. That’s not so interesting.”


So when you put in the science in your story, it’s too realistic because I don’t think people want to really confront that. They don’t want to confront immortality and so the immortal stories are myth. So you had the immortality of Dracula, vampires and that’s the myth and the Dracula myth has a lot of rules and you can make it very scientific and interesting because you can do that today because it’s been with us for so long.


People are re-jiggering it, regenerating it in different ways but what you’re doing is creating, I think, a fantastical person that lives in a world that resembles our contemporary world but isn’t really that. That’s why Harry Potter is so great because the sensibility of the world feels very contemporary. We can understand all of that rivalry at the school, at Hogwarts and we can understand the hierarchy of the teachers because it just mimics all of our university experiences and all of our grade school experiences.


So what Rowling did was she made a world that we’re all very familiar with and she added fantastical elements to it and added more rules to it but it all jives with the way our world lives but if she had made it a real thing and Harry Potter literally had a broom that could fly and he created the science behind it and she put all the science inside the book, I don’t think it would have worked.


[00:30:51.4] TG: Okay. Okay, so?


[00:30:54.6] SC: So what you have, the reason why we’re going through this is the decisions and the discussions that we’re having now will allow us to take stock and then start to piece together a plan to revise the novel in a new way so that we can walk down and laser focus on a story arch and a story genre that we can nail. Right now it’s too much of one, it’s too little of the other, we’re not really sure if it’s an adult story or if it’s a young adult story.


And so we have to make choices now to really lock down on who is going to buy and read and go crazy and enjoy this book. Will it be people who love Harry Potter? Will it be people who love the Hunger Games? Will it be people who like Divergent? That is a very large contemporary popular audience right now. The Michael Crichton science thriller is sort of dormant in our culture right now.


[00:32:07.4] TG: Right.


[00:32:08.2] SC: Nobody is really dying to read that novel now. You know why? Because our world is in complete scientific flux. It’s too freaking scary right now to consider what is actually happening because our technology is so over the top moving forward in a way that none of us can fully understand. So it creates a great cultural anxiety about technology right now.


We’re all confronting that. So we don’t want to spend our leisure time considering how horrible the technological things could go wrong. We want to kind of push that away when we’re in our leisure time and we’d rather think about fantastical worlds that are close to our world but not really.


[00:33:00.7] TG: Okay, so say we make the decision, young adult, fantastical, keep the theme of “those who can overcome trauma will gain in strength”. So those decisions are made what’s the next question that we’ve got to answer?


[00:33:17.9] SC: Okay, the next question we have to answer is…


[00:33:20.6] TG: Well let me stop real quick, so thinking about people listening to this who don’t care what my genre is but care about their genre. So what we’re trying to do is really nail down again because we realize last week when we were talking about before you’d even read it that all of sudden, I didn’t know what genre I was writing in. And then of course…


[00:33:42.5] SC: And you were not alone.


[00:33:43.9] TG: Right and what comes out is that it was obvious in the book, that I kept playing around with different genres that don’t necessarily match and so what we’ve got to do to get to draft number two is actually set along a genre and set along a theme, so that then that gives us the micro, not even microscope, but it gives us like the lens to look through to know, “Okay, this has got to be changed, this has got to be thrown out, this actually fits. We can actually start rejiggering now that we know who we’re writing for and what genre it is.” Is that correct?


[00:34:20.0] SC: That’s correct and it also tells us which of the major conventions and obligatory scenes of our core genre has to be played really, really high.


[00:34:30.7] TG: Okay, but if I look at your genres and we actually counted them yesterday in a different conversation, I forgot, it was like 52 different genres or something? None of those say young adult. So is this an action, is this a thriller, is this a man against state action, what are we playing with here?


[00:34:52.5] SC: Well, those are decisions we have to make now. Right now it’s young adult is a category that again, and I mentioned earlier it’s a commercial category that publisher’s use to classify different kinds of stories that are marketed to not just — it’s for an audience that is 14 and above.


[00:35:15.6] TG: Yeah because I know my wife and I know a lot of women that like to read young adult because they know it’s not going to get too bad.


[00:35:24.4] SC: Right.


[00:35:24.9] TG: You know what I mean? So they kind of pick those young adult novels because they want really good stories but they don’t want dinosaurs ripping somebody’s intestines out.


[00:35:34.0] SC: Right.


[00:35:34.9] TG: Okay.


[00:35:35.5] SC: And that’s perfectly reasonable.


[00:35:39.3] TG: Right but that’s how they make their decisions that’s why they go to the young adult’s section because you were saying, “Adults read this too,” and from my guess would be that’s why they’re so popular with adults is that — well it goes back to the whole point of genre is so that people know what they’re getting.


[00:35:57.3] SC: Yes.


[00:35:59.0] TG: Okay.


[00:36:00.1] SC: So this is an external action story and we need to figure out what kind of action story we want to make it.


[00:36:08.8] TG: Well the two I was looking at were, well it was under action epic man against the state and it was either a conspiracy plot which is the hero’s up against an invisible tyrant or a vigilante plot where the hero is up against the criminal organization and I think I’m straddling those two, which is not good either.


[00:36:29.9] SC: Right.


[00:36:30.2] TG: Would you agree with that, that I am straddling those too?


[00:36:33.4] SC: I’m actually turning my book too.


[00:36:35.3] TG: Yeah, it’s page 89.


[00:36:37.3] SC: Okay.


[00:36:37.7] TG: I’ve got it right here.


[00:36:39.7] SC: Thank you. You know, people seem to think that the people who write the books remember what they wrote but not necessarily and keeping 52 genres all perfectly clear in your mind is not exactly easy.


[00:36:52.7] TG: Yeah, I have this page dog eared in my book. I can get right to it.


[00:36:55.9] SC: Now, man against nature stories is it that? Um, no, I don’t think so unless…


[00:37:02.6] TG: Yeah I said man against state.


[00:37:04.4] SC: Man against state.


[00:37:05.3] TG: And it was either conspiracy plot or vigilante plot.


[00:37:09.2] SC: Okay, conspiracy…


[00:37:10.6] TG: Or you can just tell me I’m wrong?


[00:37:13.5] SC: Well no. I mean this is a choice to make. This is the great thing to think about this is the savior plot is where the hero is — okay I’m just going to take a step back. If you want to write multiple books with a character that has a very long arc that could say if somebody put it together, it would be 200,000 words or 250,000 words.


The thing to think about when you’re doing a trilogy is, if you’re going to do that, you’d better go the limit. You’d better go as far to the end of the specific kind of value at the end of that story because nobody wants to read 240,000 words and the climax is whether or not somebody pulls somebody else off of a burning building, you know?


[00:38:12.5] TG: Right.


[00:38:13.4] SC: They want to go to the end of the line and the end of the line for an action story is the fate worse than death and the fate worse than death is when after you die, your children, your grandchildren, your grandchildren’s children are stained with your name until the end of time. Or it’s living the life that is so extraordinarily painful that you can barely — it’s being a life lived in damnation, is knowing, is living with the guilt and a self-loathing that is impossible to overcome. So the fate worse than death, if you’re going to write an action story and it’s going to be a long one and it’s not a James Bond episodic adventure where he takes on the villain of the week, you’ve got to go to the end of the line.


So I know we’re only talking about the first book in a proposed trilogy here. So you have to think like, “At the climax of my global story, the climax of the third book, the very, very end of this story is going to be a doozy. It’s going to be after all of these hard work, there is this incredible climax where my hero has to confront a villain that we cannot even imagine how powerful that villain is,” and it’s not to say that you have to absolutely solve that problem before you write the first book but you have to seed your brain with that and J.K. Rowling absolutely did that.


[0:40:05.3] TG: Yeah, my plan was at the end, she actually gets to the point where she destroys the guy running the organization and the organization.


[0:40:18.4] SC: Right. The only thing about the organization, now, to think about — all right, so the epic man against the state idea I think is a solid one for a trilogy of books that is young adult in nature. So at this point, you have to think about the conspiracy element to focus on the conspiracy plot I think is a mistake for YA.


[0:40:47.6] TG: Okay.


[0:40:48.5] SC: Because conspiracies are very much an adult infatuation, adults are thinking about conspiracies all the time. The JFK conspiracy and the 9/11 conspiracies and all those theories and all that stuff, they’re very much — people get so sucked into them but it’s kind of an adult thing that you get really excited about small details. Kids in mythic stories are not really about conspiracies so much as they are about global good versus evil.


[0:41:28.2] TG: The Hunger Games, would that be the rebound plot or like the savior plot?


[0:41:34.4] SC: Yeah, these get a little fuzzy. It’s a young hero overthrowing tyranny, the tyranny of the state and that was a great trilogy and the lead character was fantastic and Suzanne Collins who wrote it came up with that great mishmash between fantastical world and historical.


There’s a historical element in the American sensibility to that story too. I think another thing to think about is the corporation that you describe in the book is far too obviously evil, right? There seems to be no good in that thing. You’d call it the Direct Corp. or something.


[0:42:32.0] TG: Right.


[0:42:32.4] SC: That is another mistake that a first time novelist will make is that they don’t — but it’s not really that bad of a mistake in a first draft because you need to establish the antagonist, you need to establish the darkness really solidly and you have done that. Now the question remains, the question now is, “Okay, I’ve created a really dark corporation that is behind a lot of horrible things, is that innovative? Is that unique? Can I twist that? Can I play with that idea in a way to make it more unique so that it’s not,” — nobody trusts corporations anymore, it’s not 1952, we don’t believe that the corporations are out for our best interests, we don’t think that corporations are the American way. We have great…


[0:43:31.7] TG: Right. So it’s a little too obvious.


[0:43:34.8] SC: Yeah, it’s kind of “on the nose”, as they say.


[0:43:36.8] TG: Okay.


[0:43:37.4] SC: So it’s obviously there. So is there another social instrument, and it could be fantastical, that could be more grey in nature? Like the great thing about Hogwarts is that it’s about magical experiences, it’s about magic and there’s dark magic and there’s good magic but there is both, right?


[0:44:09.0] TG: Right.


[0:44:09.6] SC: To have a place that only has bad seems unrealistic. So if you can add a level of good to the bad and that there are good people in there as well as bad people in there and you’ll be adding a level of ambiguity that will really interest the reader because nothing is either good or bad, none of us are either good or bad. Even Donald Trump has good qualities.


[0:44:40.8] TG: Would you like to name them?


[0:44:43.5] SC: I bet he has very good hygiene.


[0:44:49.7] TG: Okay, so what I got to do because we got to kind of bring this home to something. If we’re playing around with — so we’re focusing on young adult, we’ve got our theme, I feel like we’re kind of shifting around some of the action genres but they’re all under man against state. What is my next thing to do? I’m all about “give me what to do for the next week”.


Okay, the thing’s a mess and I’ve got this kind of mess and we’re trying to figure out what the thing is and we’re getting closer to what the thing’s supposed to be. What do I do? I got to imagine, this is where people stop because I really want to stop and not do this anymore. But it sounds like you don’t feel like this is a throw it in the garbage and start over with something new thing?


[0:45:54.9] SC: No.


[0:45:55.7] TG: Okay, and you can tell me that and I’ll do it. I’ve wasted more time on less ambitious things.


[0:46:04.3] SC: No, because what this draft has given you is it’s given you a theme and it’s probably a theme that you didn’t know intellectually, but the theme, follow the theme. It’s sort of like that great line in All the President’s Men, “Follow the money”. You’ll find out that the president is corrupted, you bring down the government. When you’re writing, follow that theme and the theme, what is really important now is to really nail down the theme in a way that is crystal clear.


There is a section in story grid about the controlling idea/theme. I think it’s only called the controlling idea. That chapter is all about nailing in one sentence what the controlling — it’s page 136 and that chapter, I want you to reread it and I want you to come up with a single sentence that clearly states your controlling idea theme. That is what we will use to rebuild this story and the scenes that you have done for this story, some of them I admire. You have the hero at the mercy of the villain scene, you have a number of the conventions in the obligatory scenes that are necessary for the action story already baked in to what you’ve done.


Now, I think they need work and I think they’re going to evolve but the very good news is that what you were able to do in this draft was to get direction and the direction we need to use are north star for our story is going to be nailing down the controlling idea theme. What I want you to do is read through that chapter again and come up with that one sentence that will be our controlling idea theme, and then we can use that to create a protagonist in our antagonist social creation, the corporation or whatever it is that we decide to have, we can make those things be on the theme, you know what I’m saying?


On theme is crucial to connecting to the emotional core of a reader. If you’re really strongly on theme and it’s one theme all the time, in different iterations, that will provide great narrative drive and it will attach the reader to what you’re writing. Right now, as I said, you made some classic first novelist mistakes, which is you wrote kind of two different books into one, you have too much. Your realism should not be realism, this should be more fantastical. The back story of the character’s a little vague and foggy, we’re not really sure where this thing is going but you have a theme and that’s great.


[0:49:25.5] TG: Okay. I’m going to ask kind of a couple other random questions that may be getting the car before the horse. But I was just curious about a few things. Like you said, I had two to two and a half novels crammed into one and this has been my problem. I’ve known this problem from past writing I’ve done where my problem is, if I took out one and a half pieces or whatever, my thing would be like 25,000 words long or whatever.


My issue is, am I moving too fast, am I not just putting enough back story in? Am I not drawing things out? I don’t know, I’m just kind of stuck on — because we talked about before, I feel like I’m writing too fast, I’m just going, I’m getting to the end too fast. I don’t know what I was trying to write 80,000 words and in like 56 – 57,000, I don’t’ know what those missing 22,000 words should be.


[0:50:29.0] SC: Okay, well they’ll become pretty obvious but I’ll tell you this, I’ll answer these questions with nothing but the truth.


[0:50:37.2] TG: Okay. Yeah, don’t lie to me, we’re too far. We’re too far into this.


[0:50:41.8] SC: Okay, where it will come from is in establishing that magical hero’s journey. What do I mean by that? Think about a story, I’m just going to pull one out, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. What’s the story of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? Kid gets a golden ticket to go to this famous chocolate factory and goes on an adventure inside the factory without knowing that Willy Wonka is actually testing each one of these kids to see which one is going to get his factory when he dies. That’s the story. I just said the entire story in a couple of sentences.


So how did Roald Dahl fill in all those words? What he did is he began with Charlie Bucket who is the lead characters, ordinary world. Who is Charlie Bucket and where did he come from? And so the first beginning hook of that story is this wonderful little story about Charlie Bucket and his family and they live in this really kind of dingy apartment, the grandparents never get out of bed and he longs for, like every other kid in town, he longs to be special but he knows he’s not, he’s a lower class kid and for his birthday, he gets a chocolate bar. He can afford — his parents have all scrounged their money together and his grandparents to buy him a chocolate bar.


That’s the inciting incident, right? He gets a chocolate bar, guess what happens? There’s no golden ticket in that chocolate bar. But somehow, and I forget the rest of the story. Somehow he does get a chocolate bar. The reason why I’m saying is that there’s a little progressive complication in the middle of the beginning hook. The end of the beginning hook of Charlie and the chocolate factory is, he gets the golden ticket, he gets to go in the factory. Then what happens? We get to go to the factory with Charlie Bucket and his grandpa and we get to stand outside the gate with Charlie Bucket.


They get to see all these weird people and all of those weird people adds thematic weight to the story. Every single person in that story adds thematic weight. Charlie Bucket is a genius, he’s got gifts that Willy Wonka needs to keep that factory Willy Wonka-ish. So we get to experience who Charlie Bucket is in the transition from his ordinary world of being just a low class kid in the middle of London to getting to go to this incredible chocolate factory. Then the middle build is all about establishing the unbelievable nature of that chocolate factory.


So we get to go on all this adventures inside the chocolate factory with Charlie and all these other people who won the golden tickets who are all Jungian archetypical features of little children who are horrible. So the reason why I’m explaining this to you Tim is that you need to get a little wind into the storytelling. The wind comes from voice and point of view and Steve Pressfield told me, he struggled for year after year and he wrote first novel after first novel that nobody wanted to publish and then he gave up on novels and he went to Hollywood and became a screen writer and then one day a voice came to him.


It was the voice of this older gentleman doctor in the south who told this golf story to him and so what Steve said is, “Once I got the voice, once I got the point of view and I knew my theme, the book wrote itself,” and he let that story teller inside of him put the wind in the story. You have created a first draft that is extremely analytical and well-designed but it doesn’t work. It’s because I don’t think the storyteller voiced has evolved yet for you, that’s going to help you with that story and I can sit here and say you got to do 10,000 words of the ordinary world and I guarantee you, knowing you, you’ll go out and you write 10,000 words about an ordinary world. But it might not be organically told if you know what I mean.


[0:55:23.9] TG: Yeah.


[0:55:25.2] SC: It’s like when you have little kids and the kids are like, “Daddy, tell me a story,” and you’re in the car and they put you on the spot and you have no choice but to make — “Tell me a story about a princess,” and you have to start coming up with something about a princess and you say, “Once upon a time long, long ago, there was a princess who needed a pair of shoes.” And off you go, right?


[0:55:49.7] TG: Right.


[0:55:52.2] SC: it probably doesn’t end up that great but little kids don’t care. But my point is that you’re going to get a voice as we work through this, you’ve got a big thing of clay and there’s a voice inside of you, it might be a character that you don’t even know yet, it might be the voice of Ernst, it might be the voice of another player who you haven’t even invented, who is telling the story of the miraculous Jessie Black and how she came to control the Tyrell Corporation, I don’t know? I’m making it up.


[0:56:27.8] TG: yeah.


[0:56:28.9] SC: That voice once you sort of — there might be somebody that you remember when you’re a little kid, I think I told this story before about Greg Daniels and how he came up with the Beavis and Butthead voice. Greg Daniels is…


[0:56:41.5] TG: Yeah.


[0:56:42.0] SC: I mean, great story.


[0:56:43.5] TG: Yeah, we’ve talked about that before.


[0:56:44.9] SC: Yeah, some guy in his high school used to laugh in a funny way and he was like, “Oh, that’s my Beavis, or that’s Butthead,” whichever it was and once he had that and once that was in his brain, he could just rattle off and go. I think that’s going to come to it, it hasn’t come to you yet. Don’t panic, it will.


[0:57:05.2] TG: Okay.


[0:57:06.5] SC: But the way to get to that voice is to think about that central question, “What is my story really about?” You have the answer to that in this draft. So you should be really happy and I know you want to quit but what you’ve come up with is really kind of cool. It’s a really great theme that we all want to embrace. “If you can overcome trauma, it will make you stronger. You have to understand the traumatic experiences are going to challenge you but once you defeat them and you change based upon that trauma, you are a stronger person.”


Everybody today, what they want to do is run away from risk, they want to run away from trauma, they want to run away from the bad things and our entire society is built upon running away from things that are difficult. So what your story is about is “run towards the difficulty because the difficulty is going to make you stronger and once you’re stronger, you’re going to even be better than what you were before”. That is a great theme.




[0:58:13.2] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. As always you can see everything Story Grid at All of the podcast notes and past episodes are at and again in last week’s episode, I posted up the first draft of my books so if you want to take a look at that, that is still there. I wouldn’t blame you and would kind of thank you if you didn’t but it’s there if you want to take a look.


Thanks as always for continuing to share the s how and leave reviews on iTunes, those reviews keep growing and we are thankful for each and every one of them. As always, we just want to thank you for continuing to listen to these episodes. It means a lot to me and Shawn, we love doing this podcast and we love that you’re out there listening.


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



20 comments on “Constructive Criticism

  1. Totally awesome! Again! Don’t give up, Tim. Celebrate that you have your theme (that in itself is an accomplishment) and keep moving forward!

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks so much for letting the rest of us sit in on your editorial conference! Tim, you’re not the only one benefiting from Shawn’s expertise – as always, thanks.

  3. My life has a BS and an AS.

    The before Shawn (and to be fair: the War of Art) I was in this position of struggling to even understand what I didn’t understand. I didn’t know what I couldn’t know.

    The after Shawn moment of enlightenment came when I realized that to learn to know what I didn’t understand I would have to actually do the process.

    The moment of enlightenment for me was analogous to Tim’s realization/question/light bulb moment where he realizes he was too ambitious.

    “Okay. How was I too ambitious?” He asked Shawn.

    Well, of course Shawn answered him, but I’d like to add something I’ve noticed.

    Last month I went to a writers workshop. My first one ever.

    The teacher/coach asked the group (about 30 people) how many wanted to become a writers (professional novelists).

    The entire group raised their hands. Okay, fair enough, I thought. Why else pay a bunch of money to come?

    Then I noticed something: Nobody save maybe one guy knew who Shawn Coyne was.

    Now there are a ton of writing books out there. The market has many craft and “how-to” books and a gadzillion people with blogs. I get that.

    I haven’t read them all, but you’d be hard pressed to name a book or writer of craft books who has some following and fame that I haven’t even heard of.

    When I talked to people, I realized something strange.

    People didn’t have a list of stuff they recommended, nor a list of great books in their own genre that they’d gush about telling me.

    Heck, one guy even wanted to know if I thought it was important to read a lot.

    So, what is too ambitious to me?

    Two things:

    One, expecting to be a professional without a college-like studying of the profession. If you haven’t read at least a portion of guys from Swain, Bickham, Block, Frey, Zuckerman, Lukeman, Synder, McKee, Pressfield, Coyne, Zinsser, as well as at least a sampling of the many current writer/coaches: Story Engineering, Blueprinting, Snowflaking, Outlining from the middle, without pants, and so on and so forth (there’s a ton knowledge out there, I’m not saying a student needs 50 teachers–and it’s probably counter-productive at some point) then what are you really saying?

    You believe you can try out for the Rams because you’re a fan of Monday Night Football?

    It’s magical thinking.

    Two, this idea that first novels should be something special or that they need to be. Or that you should spend two years on them even.

    As Tim realized when he asked how he’d been too ambitious, I realized myself at some point about a year and a half ago.

    Why not write an “easy” book?

    A straight forward genre book with well-defined OS&Cs?

    A book I didn’t care about?

    A book that was like a cadaver that a medical student could carve up?

    To me, that was freedom.

    I cannot become a seven-year old with a football-loving father and join a Pee-Wee league (nor can I change the fact that I’m short and don’t have an athletic body) so I don’t dream about becoming John Elway.

    But imagine that I was seven years old, and I did dream of becoming John Elway…..or at least a starting wide receiver or corner back.

    And I told you I had no desire to play in the Pee-Wee league.

    “I’m going to try out for the Rams,” I would say in this fantasy.

    “What? You don’t think you need to join the Pee-Wee league and then play high school ball? You don’t think you need to get signed into a good program in the NCAA? You’re going straight to the Rams?”

    “Yeah. Why not?”

    1. augustina says:

      At least the people attended a writing workshop. That is a good place to start.

    2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this. They’re very helpful to people like me. Although I’ve read over 60 how-to books on writing fiction, I need to read more fiction. I also need to finish the “first draft” I’m working on and write something simpler, less meandering and more in harmony with some genre. I’ve been at this for decades and I’m still not clear on what genre I’m writing – sf or ya.

      I like the concept of choosing between fortune, fame and freedom. But the surprising part to me was to hear Shawn say that choosing freedom (which I have) still means you need to write what the readers want. I thought it would be “write for your own enjoyment” which is what I do. I guess I need to figure out how to write the kind of stuff I’m excited about, but in a way that readers will find interesting. I’m going now to reread pages 136-139 of “The Story Grid.”

      Thanks again for sharing your insight on the people at that writer’s conference. Fascinating!

  4. Laurel Holman says:

    I just wanted to say to Tim that you are doing GREAT and I don’t want you to get discouraged. Keep going. Seeing you struggle and keep going anyway is very inspiring to the rest of us who are struggling to write and struggling to find the resolve and motivation to keep at it too. GREAT JOB, both of you!

  5. Alicia says:

    Tim you’re so brave! Congrats on moving forward! Shawn thank you for sharing your expertise and insights.

  6. Tony Levelle says:

    I made all the mistakes in my first draft that Tim made (and a few more!)…

    So it was a godsend to hear a pro editor take time to analyze a first novel, first draft.

    Have listened to this episode 3 times. One of the most useful.

    “Follow the theme.”

    Thank you Tim and Shawn!

    1. Thanks, Tim and Shawn, for a landmark podcast. And thanks, Tony for letting me know I’m not the only one who’ll be going over it multiple times.
      Still not quite finished my first draft, I’ve been struggling with the one-sentence takeaway aka theme, and also whether my cherished protagonist fits my target market / proposed genre.
      After a year plus on this list while working away of a number of first drafts as I also learn to write, I think I finally may be ready to benefit from owning the book. Before it would have been hiring an Olympic swimming coach while strolling around my wading pool.

  7. augustina says:

    Perhaps Tim’s book can be categorized as New Adult rather than Young Adult? (The protag is just starting out in the world, correct?) He can include more cussing and fighting in New Adult.

  8. Thank you, Tim, for hanging in there. A ton of people now owe you big time, myself included, for giving us our first glimpse into the actual nuts and bolts of the real-editor process, a world that most of us might never have seen without your guts, determination and your ability to grow stronger after taking tough, but invaluable constructive criticism. In the last episode you said you didn’t know how to feel, and Shawn said you should feel lucky. Absolutely true. I totally agree, but I also think you should feel proud of what you’re doing to help the rest of us. Really proud! You’re doing something heroic in the real world.

    And thank you, Shawn. If I ever make it as an indie writer, it will be largely because of you and your insightful work.

  9. Annamarie says:

    that was superb, last time I almost gee up, saying to myself, make up your mind, how can you be helped if you don’t know what you want, that goes for me too.

  10. Cathin Cade says:

    That has been so-o-o helpful. I have a first draft (well… some parts have been rewritten a zillion times and others have barely been re-read). I’ve known something was wrong without knowing exactly what or why (I can’t afford professional help; I’ve retired from remunerative toil).
    I follow the podcasts but must admit to not having read Tim’s first draft. However, apart from the plot, the theme, the characters, etc, Shawn might have been talking about my first novel attempt in that session.
    Although I’m still not sure what I’m doing, I believe I can now point myself in a direction that might take me somewhere. Many thanks for all the work that must go into this series

  11. Beth says:

    There aren’t enough superlatives to describe my gratitude for this series (and especially this episode). The timing of all of this for me–as Steven says, do the work and the Muse shows up. Beyond grateful to Shawn and Tim. Almost done with my own YA fantasy, three years later. Have direction and a way to break through blocks now by solving problems using Shawn’s golden advice to go back to the foundation.

  12. Dave Hallowell says:

    Really helpful session. I’d love to have this kind of review at the “Foolscap and Synopsis” stage – before investing in lots of writing. I’m getting going on a thriller, feeling good about strong twists, good obligatory scenes (and others) planned.
    Shawn, I know it’s not cheap – wouldn’t expect it to be – but is there a way to engage your review at that level?
    Thanks so much for all the super-helpful resources.

    1. We do have a forum where you can engage story nerds for feedback (we recently put up a “public writing” section for exactly this purpose).
      It’s new, and none of us are professional editors like Shawn, BUT….unless you’re already a published professional writer, its probably more efficient to start with peer review prior to seeking out expensive guys.

      1. Dave Hallowell says:

        Thanks, Michael — that sounds perfect. I hadn’t seen that resource, but I’ll tune in right away.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Dave,
      I’m afraid I don’t provide that service. My gut is that if I did do that, people would be very very angry if they took all of my advice and yet alas the book didn’t work. There’s an old saying about the arrow and the Sioux warrior. No matter how perfectly calibrated the arrow in his arsenal…it requires his skill to make the thing fly.
      I’m not saying I’d never do that, but I haven’t figured out a way that made sense. I suggest you continue following along with Tim’s trial by fire with my editorial guidance and see if you can’t pick up a tip or two. The price is far more reasonable than I would charge.
      All the best,

  13. Elisabeth says:

    Thanks for sharing Tim. I have a question for Shawn.

    The story should develop and stay on target with the main theme topic. Everything else is irrelevant and should be tossed – I get that. I do wonder about the secondary characters. Each have their own voice & story thread, like for example Snipe in HP. We do see things that relate to him alone. They don’t mean anything until the end.

    So my question is – are all things not relating to the main theme truly not necessary? Should some side trips be allowed if they are important to a secondary character?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Elisabeth,
      Well, yes of course. You can drop in secondary and tertiary plot developments with your secondary characters that are seemingly “off theme.” But those digressions need to “pay off” on theme at story climax. This is the way one creaate inevitable and yet surprising shockers at the end of your story…
      There’s an entire book that could be written on Story Casting, but the big takeaway is to remember that all of your secondary characters (and I don’t mean to make you panic, but you asked the question so I should answer it) should be viewed as physical manifestations of your protagonists inner fears/strengths/weaknesses etc. They poke and prod and make the protagonist act throughout the story and they can do that so effectively because the protagonist has those qualities herself in their subconscious. The protagonist is the sun and all of the secondary and tertiary characters are planets around that sun.
      I’m not an HP expert, but just as an example, Hagrid (the big friendly powerful figure who tells Harry he’s a wizard) is the physical manifestation of Harry’s inner power. He literally tells Harry he’s a wizard and Harry can’t help but believe him. If you were to drive yourself crazy and look at all of the characters in HP or Mad Men or Breaking Bad or The Great Gatsby, you’d be able to identify elements of the lead protagonist’s inner self embodied in each of the tangential players.
      The trick is NOT TO FREAK OUT ABOUT THIS STUFF. The divine storyteller within all of us does this work for us. As you write more and more and try different projects, you’ll discover that this stuff takes care of itself. If, however, you’re just starting out and you can’t figure out why people just don’t “like” one of the characters in your story, you should think about that character in relation to the protagonist. Does the protagonist share something with that character? Chances are if your readers aren’t digging a character, it’s because there is a disconnect between the two.
      Hope that helps

Leave a Comment