Finishing a first draft of anything is a great feeling.
Soon thereafter, though, comes the niggling, nasty, deep, dark panic that what you’ve done is so far from home that it seems pointless to keep thrashing it around. This is a critical moment in every writer’s journey. And as an editor, it’s the moment that is most dangerous for me. I wrote about this in far more detail last Friday for Steven Pressfield’s What it Takes column.
Editors need to navigate this transition (first draft to “What the hell do I do now?”) very carefully. How better could it be to have my friend, business partner, and client Steve Pressfield teach me how to do it with as light a touch as possible?
This episode is all about how to negotiate that moment of exhilaration followed by a rapid emotional crash.
I have to point out once again just how much I admire Tim for sharing his process so openly with everyone. What he is doing is remarkable and courageous. So please refrain from commenting about his draft. No praise and no criticism please. In order for this project (a writer being publicly edited) to work properly, he needs to pretend that he’s just dealing with one S.O.B. not a million.
Let me be that S.O.B. It’s what I do.
You just sit back and listen and read as we move forward. This is an exciting time and a terrifying time for both writer and editor at this stage. We don’t know what we have yet…we have to scratch around to find it.
I promise that you’ll find the next step in our Story Grid Podcast evolution illuminating.
Click below to listen, or read the transcript that follows:
[0:00:00.5] 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, I am struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me in a minute is Shawn Coyne, he is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and he has 25 years experience as an editor and helping authors write best sellers.
In this episode, we discussed the fact that I finally finished the first draft of my novel and we start diving in to what I need to do next. There’s some pretty excruciating parts for me, there’s some very big unknowns in my future and we start walking through what I have to do with my story to start figuring out how to make this something that actually works and is publishable.
So I think it will be good for you to listen along with me as I work through all of this and Shawn gives me some really good advice about where I should start.
Let’s jump in and get started.
[0:00:59.5] TG: Shawn, yesterday at approximately 1:30 PM in the afternoon, I cracked open an adult beverage and celebrated that I finished the first draft of my novel.
[0:01:14.6] SC: Wow. I can’t believe it, that’s impressive. It is not easy to get that done and you can put that thing in a drawer now and say you already wrote a novel. So you’re good, you’re all done.
[0:01:31.0] TG: Yeah well it’s been neat because I’ve written some other fiction before but I always kind of gave out before it was done and even the books I’ve written that are nonfiction they were like around 30,000 words. This is also — because it came in just under 60,000 words and so this is also the longest thing I’ve ever written. So I was excited about that too.
[0:01:53.9] SC: That’s great.
[0:01:55.9] TG: But it’s such an anticlimactic thing because I’m like, type the last phrase and then I sat back and I’m like, “Yeah!” I went and get a beer and drink that and I was like, “All right, back to work,” and just moved on to the next thing on my to do list for the day.
[0:02:14.9] SC: That’s exactly the thing you should do because writing is so — writing chooses you to begin with I think. But most people who are writers are introverts anyway and we all say we want that recognition and we all want that praise and we want people to recognize us, but I really do think that writers, they’re sort of lying to themselves when they say that.
Because I think you are compelled to write, whether you’re depressed or not has nothing to do with it. I think you’re compelled to write and I’ve said this before, because you need to. You need to discover and express whatever it is that you think that you really don’t even know that you think. The way you get it out is through the writing.
There’s a lot of ideas and thoughts and points of view and values and all sorts of things that are inside each and every one of us and it’s the writers who are compelled to the point where they need to physically put words to what’s inside them. So when you do finish a long work, a novel, work of nonfiction, even a blog post and you’re finished with it, it is anticlimactic because you know you haven’t even scratched the surface of what else you have to bubble up.
You’re not in it for, “Oh, here’s my report boss, what do you think?” Having the boss say, “Wery well, very good Tim.” I mean you did that before and your job when you quit it 10 years ago and that obviously did not bring you the satisfaction that you wanted. So I think its fine to say to yourself, “Oh jeez, this is kind of anticlimactic. I already had my beer, now what am I going to do? Oh well I guess I’ll start something else.” That is the right way to go about it.
[0:04:08.2] TG: We’ve talked around this question but I’ve tried to kind of keep it out of my head because I just was supposed to get the first draft done and so now that it’s done, the anxiety I have — I have several pieces of anxiety about it. The first is, I don’t feel like it’s long enough and when I first put in my, how long I wanted to be ahead 80,000 words and we mentioned about a third of the way into the book I realized I wasn’t going to hit that.
The other anxieties I have are just the kind of continuity issues where I have a couple of characters that show up and I kind of introduce you to them and then they kind of disappear from the scene for most of the book. I don’t know if that’s a problem. Then I have just kind of other, kind of going through and making sure all of my threads are tied off at the end pretty well. Then we had talked about needing to go through it and write each scene. So anyway, I have it done, it’s in sitting inside a scrivener all the scenes are written out, now what?
[0:05:20.6] SC: Well now the thing to do is to take away the coddling of the writer in your own personal mind space and bring out that nasty bastard, the editor. The editor’s job is, and when you’re your own editor and every writer today has to be his own editor, now is the time to give yourself permission to be brutal with yourself. To be brutal doesn’t mean you have to hurt yourself, what it means is that you have to be brutally honest.
You have to start from the beginning and piece together all the scenes that you’ve put together. If there are 60 scenes, you’ve got each one of those scenes on, you can clip them and print them out so each one is separate. Then what you want to do is you go through scene by scene and evaluate those things that we talked about very early on, the five commandments of storytelling and say yourself, “How well did I execute those five elements? Do I have a clear crisis in this scene? Does this scene shift in polarity or is this just an expositional scene that doesn’t go anywhere but I thought I needed to put it in there so that the reader wouldn’t get lost with all the plot shifts?”
If it’s in expositional scene, you’ll soon find that out. If you said to yourself when you were doing your outline, I wanted to shift from life to death, meaning at the beginning of the scene the lead character, one of the secondary character’s life is perfectly stable and by the end, the life is challenged by physically or emotional challenged, then you’re going to have to evaluate whether or not you were successful actually creating that polarity.
But again, these are the scene by scene work that you would want to do. But the global thing to start with, because you can get certainly easily get lost in the weeds quickly if you go scene by scene like I just suggested. But now that I’m talking it through, I remember that really the best thing to do is to evaluate your global inciting incident, your beginning hook, how you brought the reader into this story to begin with and say to yourself, “Is that strong enough? Is that sexy enough? Is that interesting enough to compel them to want to keep reading?”
I’m hoping that you would have done a lot of that work prior to writing a first draft and really did challenge yourself to come up with an inciting incident that was very compelling. Because now, you’re faced with a fact of having 60,000 words and if your inciting incident’s a little flaccid to begin with, then you’ve got some work to do. Then you really need to think through the global story path of your beginning hook to your middle build, to your ending payoff.
So I know I may be talking a little bit in circles here, but let me just go back to the very first thing that you need to do is to ask yourself this very, very simple question. Does the story work? Does the story have a very compelling inciting incident that will get people to want to read it and does it conclude with an inevitable finish but a surprising finish? The ending is actually inevitable given the inciting incident but it’s also surprising.
[0:09:10.1] TG: I get stuck there because I don’t know how to tie those two together.
[0:09:14.0] SC: Okay, let me give you an example, let me give you a quick example but go ahead.
[0:09:18.7] TG: Well let me tell you what I struggle with, it’s like every time that you pointed out to me, you’re like, “This story into this way and it had to because of the beginning here.” I’m like, “Okay, now I see it.” I struggle with that to see that on my own. So I’m worried that my inciting incident isn’t strong enough. But I’m also worried that I don’t know if — I feel like my ending is surprising, I don’t know if it’s inevitable.
[0:09:52.2] SC: Right. Well here’s a trick that’s also very helpful: think of it in the simplest terms that you can think of. For example, The Wizard of Oz, will Dorothy get home? Dorothy is thrown out of her community, she’s into a completely different world, will Dorothy make it home?
The answer to that is, “Yes, Dorothy makes it home.” Is it inevitable that Dorothy is going to make it home? Yeah. When you look at the story, you say to yourself, “Of course Dorothy’s going to have to go home. When I started reading this book, I knew there was some way she was going to have to get home or I’d be tragically disappointed by this story.”
A lot of people make the mistake and they say, “Oh I don’t want to do what everybody else would do and give them the happy tied up, neatly packaged ending.” Okay, if you don’t want to do that then realize that nobody is going to be happy with your story by the end of it. If that’s the choice you want to make then okay, that’s your choice but don’t expect to have a New York Times bestseller. Expect to have a very limited intellectual audience that will really appreciate the fact that you didn’t give in to popular demands.
I would say, The Wizard of Oz accomplishes literary force while also satisfying popular demand and the way that the writer Frank L. Frank Baum — I always mess up his name but I think it L. Frank Baum. He had an inevitable ending to the Wizard of Oz but he did it in a surprising way. What he did is the question of the inciting incident is, will Dorothy get home? The answer to that question is yes, Dorothy gets home and Dorothy gets home by using what she had from the very start of the story, so it’s surprising.
Dorothy goes through this long journey to only to realize that at the very end of the story that what she had at the very beginning of the story was what would bring her home anyway. She got those ruby slippers at the very beginning of the story and all she had to do is click those things three times and say, “There’s no place like home.” She had to will her mind back to home. Forget about the ruby slippers, all Dorothy had to really had to do was wake up because she was in some kind of psychic trance that we discover at the very end of the story.
So the very simple element of “will Dorothy get home”, sustains the story and the suspense all the way until the end and the ending is surprising and inevitable. Here’s another example: The Fugitive, that great movie based on the television series from the 1960 starring a Harrison Ford. The Fugitive’s inciting incident is, “Man is falsely accused of murder, will he receive justice by the end? Will he be freed by the end of the story?” The inevitable conclusion from that setup in our contemporary world is, “Yes, that man is going to get justice, he will not ever — he’s not going to go to prison for the rest of his life.”
We know that, subconsciously, when we start the beginning of that movie, we know there’s no way Harrison Ford is not going to get out of this jam, right? There’s just no way he’s not going to get out of it. But what sustains us is the progressive complications in the story and the twists and turns of the plot. So by the end, it’s inevitable that he’s going to get away, not only is he going to get justice but the man who is hunting him, Tommy Lee Jones is hunting him, he is going to help him receive justice.
[0:14:01.9] TG: My favorite line for that movie is the, “So get a cane pole and catch the fish that ate him.”
[0:14:13.6] SC: Tommy Lee Jones is just — my favorite line is, “I don’t bargain,” and it’s after he shoots that guy and the guy’s ears are…
[0:14:25.8] TG: Oh yeah. I’ll have to watch that again.
[0:14:30.9] SC: “Can you hear me well? I don’t bargain.” That’s Tommy Lee Jones. It’s such a great movie, it’s one of the best thrillers. For your story, ask yourself, “Do I have a central question that’s very simple? Will my character,” I know your thing’s a super hero thing. “Will my character survive discovering and using her super powers? Will she survive? Will she change?” Anyway, go ahead.
[0:14:59.5] TG: This is where my anxiety just goes through the roof because we mentioned this a couple of weeks ago and I was like, “I can’t think about this because it just throws me off.” So my inciting incident is she gets a job at a new place and she discovers on her way on her first day that, and we’ve talked about this a little bit, but not only has she not escaped the ghost of her brother but she’s been thrust into this world that’s evil that she’s going to have to fight against because there’s lots of bad things going on.
So my change, my inciting incident and how I thrust her out of her normal world is she is finally moving out of her parent’s house, finally getting away and just finally got her first job out of her PhD program. Then she finds out, no, this isn’t just a job, it’s become you’re tangled in your brother’s mess again and it’s extremely dangerous and you have to do this.
[0:16:05.7] SC: Okay, well that’s the inciting incident of The Firm. The Firm is a terrific novel, great movie, well I wouldn’t say great, I would say very good movie with Tom Cruise in it. The inciting incident of The Firm is poor kid graduates from Harvard Law, gets the job that he could not believe he would ever get ever in a million years.
[0:16:30.7] TG: Right, and then the end of that is where he basically outsmarts both the mob and the authorities. It’s been years and years since I read it but it’s like, the whole thing was, he had his own plan that was separate from what the mob wanted and from what the FBI or whoever wanted for him, right?
[0:16:54.3] SC: Yes.
[0:16:55.1] TG: To me, if I remember right, that was the surprising ending was it wasn’t just that he beat the mob, he beat the mob and the FBI.
[0:17:04.0] SC: Yes.
[0:17:05.5] TG: Anyway, so yeah, my thing is at the end she’s able to be the particular — because again, I’m mapping this after Harry Potter and in Harry Potter, in the first book, he doesn’t beat Voldemort in the first book. He beats one aspect of the ultimate evil. So he doesn’t beat the ultimate evil, he beats one aspect of the ultimate evil.
That’s kind of what I went after is like she beats the first hurdle of evil that she faces inside of this company, she beats it at the end. So the inciting incident is the place you’re going is evil, the ultimate conclusion is she beats one aspect of that evil. But in the process, see it’s halfway through that she gets her power. Is that a problem?
[0:18:00.3] SC: Well, I would have to read it to…
[0:18:03.7] TG: All right, well that’s on my list of questions too is like, at what point, because I know people listening, they’re writing their book and they hopefully have an editor. So you’re playing the role of my editor here and so, like when do I give it to you? What work do I need to do between now and giving it to you?
[0:18:26.6] SC: Well, what I would say to that is, you would have to bring together all the things that I’ve taught you already and really put the screws to yourself. Instead of asking me the question, “Is it okay if she doesn’t get her powers by the midpoint?” You’re going to have to ask yourself that question, and you’re going to have to put yourself — what do you basically have to do is play the devil’s advocate. Pretend that you are a reader.
Say to yourself, “Would this bother me?” If somebody handed me their book and they said, “Hey man, Tim, you’re going to love this. It’s a super hero story.” You go, “Great, I love super hero stories, lay it on me.” He hands you the book and you read 20 pages, no super hero powers, you read 30 pages, still no super hero powers. You read 120 pages, no super hero powers. You keep going?
[0:19:37.6] TG: Oh my god.
[0:19:38.8] SC: I don’t know.
[0:19:41.8] TG: You say you don’t know, but you just answered.
[0:19:43.5] SC: I don’t think you would, I don’t think you would. Now, does that mean that all of the work that you’ve done is worthless? Absolutely not. What it means is that you’ve identified a problem and the hardest part about editing is finding problems and finding the right problems to attack first as opposed to, “Oh boy, I can’t wait to fix that typo in page six.” Because a lot of people love to find those little problems that we find them all the time in comments on the website and comments on the podcast, you say the word like too much, you do this too much and…
[0:20:25.2] TG: I say genre.
[0:20:28.4] SC: You say genre. Absolutely right, I think you would be the first one to say, “You know I probably do say like too much and I probably mispronounce the word genre or whatever.” That really is a tiny problem that really doesn’t matter. What’s important is that we’re attacking the big problems in the podcast and we’re attacking the big problems when we’re dealing with our first draft.
We’re saying to ourselves, “I made some choices here that got me to the end of the first draft and it got me to that celebratory moment of being able to have a beer. Now that I’ve had my beer,” it’s like that great scene in The Godfather when Tom Hagen has to tell Marlon Brando that they shut up Sonny at the turn pike and he’s dead, he’s riddled with bullets and Robert Duval who plays Tom Hagen is sitting in the Don’s den having a glass of grappa and the Don of course is just recovering from being shot himself.
Marlon Brando wanders into the room and tom Hagen played by Robert Duval sitting on the couch and he says “Consigliere, you have something to say to me?” He said, “Yes Don, I wanted to have a drink before I came up to tell you.” He said, “Now you’ve had your drink, tell me what is the problem?”
So now you’ve had your beer, now you have to tell yourself that Sonny is dead on the causeway. It might not be that bad but a problem is a problem and the bigger problems you can face as soon as possible, the better off you’re going to be. You do not want to delay big problems, you want to face those as soon as possible.
[0:22:14.9] TG: Yeah, ‘cause the Frankenstein monster popped in my head when you said that and this morning, I was talking to a buddy of mine and I said, “I finished the first draft,” he’s like, “Can you read it yet?” I’m like, he asked if he could read it and I’m like, well, I don’t really care if he reads it except it feels like, here’s what it feels like, it feels like I’m building a Frankenstein monster and I just dug up all the pieces and they’re just kind of sitting in a basket on the table.
It’s all there, I just have to kind of put it together now and zap it into life. So when you said it’s like laying on the table, I pictured like a dead body lying on the table and now I got to actually do something with it. ‘Cause I do feel like I’ve got a story. Going through everything, planning everything out, I’ve got a story, I’ve got a good arc, it ends well, I feel like I’ve got some really fun scenes in it. I feel like you hate the right people, you like the right people, I’m going to surprise you a couple of times.
But as we’ve talked through the last few weeks, I’ve already thought through like early scenes, I’m like, “That’s not strong enough, that’s not strong enough,” you know the power of 10 thing. What you’re describing now is these bigger problems that will take major, I don’t even know how I would do that.
[0:23:43.3] SC: I’ll give you a simple solution to that problem right now. The solution to that problem is something that the greatest writers in history have used innumerable times and that is playing with time. What you could do is to give the reader a really delicious chocolate covered caramel at the very beginning of the story that gives them the promise of the book and of the genre right upfront so that they know, “Oh boy, okay, this is going to be great.”
Then they settle in and then you can lay on the David Copperfield stuff at the beginning of the story to get you to the climactic point. So what I’m saying is that you could open with the lead character in super hero mode using their super powers, a very tight well delivered scene that is exciting and interesting and innovative and fun. Then that would be sort of the prologue of the book. Then, you can begin with the early days of that character prior to their understanding their super power.
[0:25:07.6] TG: Okay, so again, I always struggle with only a certain percentage of the people listening care about my story but maybe working through this would be helpful. The whole super hero power, the power is when she dies, she comes back and so she feels the pain, she actually dies, but she can come back and the reason I thought this was interesting is it’s such a unusual super power because you don’t want to die.
So the scene where she gets it is basically something happens to her that should have killed her and then she gets hit with something that basically gives her this power and I just elude to it and then what happens is, she come up when she wakes up and she should have been dead, she wakes up in a room just covered in blood and vomit and all kinds of nastiness from when she was dying. But now she wakes up and she’s fine the next morning.
[0:26:13.3] SC: She has to clean up the mess from her death?
[0:26:15.3] TG: Yeah.
[0:26:16.6] SC: Okay, that’s a great opening inciting incident hook prologue scene.
[0:26:20.3] TG: Okay.
[0:26:21.6] SC: The way you would handle that is you want it to be very minimalist and describe the reality of the scene as opposed to the fantastical nature of the scene. What’s interesting about that setup is this. The thing that we all would do, confronted with a McCob scene of grotesquerie filled with intestines and vomit and just really disgusting stuff is we would be repulsed by it.
So much so that we would probably run screaming from that scene. What could be interesting would be to open up the book with a person who is not repulsed by this at all. This is run of the mill stuff for her. This is — she actually has no emotional reaction to it other than, “Oh boy, I got to clean up my room again. I must have died. I died again, man, now I got to clean up the room. I hate it when I die because then I have to clean up all the crap from my death.” So she’s actually cleaning up her own murder scene. The reader may or may not know that, I would suspect that you would want to hold that information from them.
[0:27:41.9] TG: Right.
[0:27:43.5] SC: She seems to be really has no heart, has no emotional connection to the scene at all, she would almost be cyborg like, a mechanical robotic being that when confronted with this horrific scene, all she thinks of is how to clean it up so that it’s undetectable.
What you would establish in an opening scene like that would be pretty chilling. It would also be interesting to the reader because they would say to themselves, “Wow, I’m not really sure where this is going. This could be the story of a serial killer who is a sociopath or it could be the story of like a Philip K. Dick kind of story where it’s a cyborg who is not really human but artificially intelligent. So it could be a crime story, it could be a science fiction fantasy story or it could be a psychological suspense thriller where the lead character goes through many different kinds of personalities.”
By doing a scene like that, you get a lot for your money. Now, to draw people in, the cover of the book, the package of the book and I know I’m speaking as if this thing has already been published but I think you should think of that too. Because you want to think about who your reader is. What are they going to want if we are packaging and positioning your novel as a super hero thriller, super hero action thriller?
Now, what that means is that the lead protagonist is heroic meaning that she will sacrifice herself for the good of all and it’s a thriller, which means that she becomes the victim of some larger criminal enterprise or antagonist and the action means that you are going to have really over the top, great action scenes throughout the book that one tops the other. It’s like a James Bond. Like James Bond action stories are great to think about because they always open with James Bond in the most incredible action scene that you can imagine.
And by the end of the beginning of a James Bond movie, Roger Moore has skied off a cliff and the parachute opens and you say, “Oh my god, how are they going to top that?” That’s what we think of when we think of action or like the Fast and Furious series which they’re constantly trying to reinvent that and come up with great new action devices or the Iron Man series or whatever. So you know what an action story is.
[0:30:34.2] TG: That’s where I was thinking, while I’ve kind of called this a super hero novel. I’m wondering if it’s more just — I was trying to sit here and remember that one Michael Crichton book where she can control all the nanobots. Jeez, I forgot which one it is.
[0:30:52.6] SC: Micro?
[0:30:53.7] TG: Maybe. I can’t remember. Anyway. Where basically if you look at — so the whole thing is she works for this tech company and they figure out nanobyte technology and the nanobytes kind of take her over. She’s doing all this weird stuff and the whole mystery is like what’s going on? Then at the end you realize like they basically taken her over and our hero has to protect her from that.
So I get — maybe thinking of mine less as a superhero novel and more of like a sci-fi just kind of a straight run of the mill sci-fi, more like Michael Crichton which I felt like what Michael Crichton is always good at is like taking where we are now and looking like 10 years in the future.
Or taking one bit of science and taking it to the end. So the world’s exactly the same as now except this one bit of science is 50 years ahead. Thinking of it more that way than a super hero novel because there’s like nobody flying around in mine, there’s nobody jumping off of buildings, it’s much more like The Firm meets…
[0:32:05.7] SC: Groundhog Day.
[0:32:07.1] TG: Yeah, well it’s like Michael Crichton wrote The Firm. If you take a normal story and you have Stephen King write it, it’s going to have some kind of horror element to it. I’ve read his super normal stuff and it’s still got that kind of — like it always has as super natural element to it.
So I guess I’m thinking more, “Am I writing a thriller that has just a sci-fi element to it than I am trying to write a super hero novel?” Well I guess the question that matters is it changes. Okay, that’s the question I’m asking is like, that’s a different genre which means that changes all kinds of things, right?
[0:32:51.6] SC: It does, and these are the important questions. These are the questions to really bear down on yourself when you’re looking at the first draft and your first editorial vision. Because as an editor, the way I work, I’ve said this a million times and you can never say it enough and I learned this very early on.
The first thing you do as an editor is you read the book and you say to yourself, “Does it work? What is this book? Does it work? Is there a way to package it? Is there a way that I can throw a cover on this thing and do the least amount of work possible and sell a few copies?” Now that’s the sort of commercial editor’s point of view.
But that’s an important point of view to have because if you don’t have that point of view then you never satisfy a reader and you never satisfy the writer and you never understand exactly what you’re doing. So that’s the conversation we’re having right now. Even though I haven’t read your book, the questions that you’re asking me indicate to me that what you have written was inspired by something and you, Tim, have an affinity for the concept of superheroes.
Now you may have an affinity to the concept of superheroes and you may have injected that sort of conceptual element into your idea of the story, but whether or not this is exactly a superhero novel is up for grabs in this early conversation, this early editorial conversation. ‘Cause what you have right now is, as you had said, a bunch of body parts on a table or it could be a big mound of clay that you need to sculpt in some way.
You’ve got 60 scenes or however many scenes that you wrote and they’re all in an order that is — you can mesh around and you can play with it and you can try different things but you have pieces of the puzzle that you can shave and mold. So if you decide, “Hey, I’m not really even sure, what’s a superhero novel again? Oh okay, well superhero novels, I’m thinking of Batman, I’m thinking of Iron Man, I’m thinking of Spider-Man, I’m thinking of a combination between like a big action suspense thing like a James Bond with an internal genre like a revelation plot or a coming of age story.
What would be the thing that would most resemble the thing that I’ve written? How would I position my story so that it would sell the most copies right now as if I didn’t change anything? Would you call this an internal Firm-like thriller? Could this be a supernatural thriller?” What I say by that is, Harry Potter, the series is very much about coming to terms — it’s a coming of age story. It has many facets to it and the great thing that J.K. Rowling did is that she made Harry the reluctant wizard.
Meaning, he had to embrace this “otherness” of himself that he really didn’t want to embrace but he had to. He had to come to terms with his wizardry. So he’s like a normal every day kid, like all of us can relate to and part of the process of reading the Harry Potter books is learning, is watching him acclimate to his core self. So that’s again a hero’s journey theme and it’s a great theme that you should have in your story.
Now, action stories don’t necessarily require that hero’s journey as much as a coming of age story would. I’m just piecing together some thoughts based upon what you’re telling me and what you have is a protagonist who is a Lazarus figure, somebody who can come back from the dead, she doesn’t know why, but she starts to acclimated to the fact that she can do it. So it seems to me that kind of story, there’s a lot of different stories across many different genres that uses that same thematic thing.
One of them would be the reluctant vampire story or the reluctant werewolf story or the reluctant wizard where the character discovers something unique about themselves that they need to integrate inside their own psyche. That story is much more internal than it’s not to say that you don’t have a lot of external influences on it. But it is not like James Bond going to hunt down the guy who has the nuclear warhead.
So what that means is that you wouldn’t have to have the three to four big action set pieces inside your story to satisfy the action crowd. If you were going to position that book as more of an internal coming of age, long arc epic story. Like Lord of the Rings has a lot of great big action set sequences but it also has a lot of internal stuff going on too. So these are all the questions that you need to think about when you’re staring down that first draft. “What do I ultimately want this thing to be?”
Now you asked yourself that question when you started working on the book and you wrote a first draft based upon some answers to that question, which was really important. Now you have to go deeper, now you have to say, “I had the intention of creating a superhero novel.” Now, what came out doesn’t really seem to be a superhero novel right now.
[0:39:06.2] TG: Yeah, and I’m really trying hard not to freak out right now. You’re telling me that it’s not…
[0:39:11.7] SC: This is part of the fun.
[0:39:12.0] TG: Okay, because I’m like, “Oh crap, I wrote the wrong book or something.”
[0:39:16.9] SC: No you didn’t. You could not write the wrong book. What you did, and this is what we were talking about earlier about what writers do. What writers do is they are compelled, and artist of all flags, they are compelled to sort of dive into this ethereal vortex within themselves and put in the work to type words that come from some mysterious place inside of themselves. At the end of that process, they have something that they have to make heads or tails of at the end of it.
Now, in order to get that clay out of your insides, you had to, because you’re like me, you’re an analytical person, you like to have control, you want to control the process, so you went through the Story Grid to come up with some questions to answer so that you would help yourself be able to generate this 60,000 words worth of clay.
Now, now that you have what you produced, now you have to be kind to the process that gave you that 60,000 words and say to yourself — what I’m saying is that, as much as it’s easy to go down the road of, “I’m an idiot, so I didn’t do anything that I intended to do, this is not what I wanted, I wanted to come out with something that I could sell to Hollywood tomorrow like Iron Man or I can sell to Marvel Comics or DC Comics and they would give me a million dollars, and I didn’t produce that.”
So instead of doing that, what you need to say to yourself is, “Wow, what’s this? What is this? This is kind of neat. Nobody else wrote this but me. What is this telling me? What are the themes in this thing that I didn’t’ even recognize when I was writing? What is this really about?” And Steve Pressfield and I have been working together for 20 years and I’ll tell you this.
There are books that Steve Pressfield who has made a living as a writer for 30, 40 years. He gives them to me and he doesn’t really know what they’re about and I’ll read them and I’ll go, “Steve, this is what this story is about. This is about X, Y and Z, this is about this and that and the other thing.” He’ll sit on the other line in the phone and go, “What? Really?”
[0:41:46.2] TG: Well I just think it’s funny as we’ve said this as we’ve talked, I realize for basically the first 15 years of my reading life, all I would consume every Grisham and Michael Crichton novel I could get my hands on. It’s like…
[0:42:02] SC: That says a lot.
[0:42:05.2] TG: As we talk about, as I explained it, “Oh it’s like The Firm,” and I’m like, “Oh. Well that’s not what I meant to write.” You know? I just find that — and of course as we talked about it more, if I look at it as a super hero thing, it’s kind of lame, it’s not a great super hero thing.
[0:42:23.5] SC: You don’t know that yet.
[0:42:26.7] TG: Okay, I want to go back to my first question so I have a week until we talk again and I have blocked out times of work on this. Give me the three things I’m supposed to do over the next week.
[0:42:42.0] SC: Put aside the foolscap global story grid that you did before you wrote it. Put that aside. Put aside all of the scene outline that you did before you wrote the book. Don’t even look at them. Instead, what I want you to do is look at your story in the way that I would look at your story, the way somebody who has no idea what this book is about would look at it.
I know that will be hard but use some of the concepts that we talked about in this episode. What is happening? What is happening in this story? Where does it start, where does it go, how does it end? Really? Those simple terms. Where does this start, where does it go, and how does it end?
To lay out the beginning hook, of course those all translate into the beginning hook, the middle build, and the ending payoff. And be very, very honest with yourself and look at it and say, “Well, it kind of starts out a little bit slow where somebody gets a new job.” And look at this way, don’t look at it specifically, I want you to do it very globally.
[0:44:01.9] TG: Real quick…
[0:44:03.2] SC: Go ahead.
[0:44:04.2] TG: Do I need to reread it before I do this or am I just doing it for memory of writing it?
[0:44:09.0] SC: I would re-read it.
[0:44:10.6] TG: Okay.
[0:44:12.4] SC: Try and boil it down into as few sentences as you possibly can. Boil it down into its essence. What actually happens in the book, what actually happens? “Woman gets a job, discovers company corrupt, decides to cause the company to be investigated, confronts the antagonist running the company, defeats the antagonist, company is indicted and in trouble.” I just made that up.
Something that simple, that would be what actually happens. Then underneath that, you want to think about what happens to the character, how is my protagonist moving from unconsciousness, to consciousness, to action? How does she discover the special thing about her? How does she use that knowledge to outflank the antagonist? How would I categorize this global story? If I had to put a cover on this story, what would the cover look like? What would the title of this thing be to attract the most readers without disappointing them? The other thing that you should do is send me a copy.
Now, that is going to be — most people are not going to be able to do that, they’re not going to be able to ask somebody who gets paid quite a bit of money to do this kind of thing but we’ve done this podcast for half a year and I think it would be like a story, people come to this podcast to hear editorial advice so if I bag out and say, “Well Tim, you’re on your own editorially now,” that wouldn’t be cool. So I’ll take a look at your novel and we’ll have a very global discussion, at least about the beginning hook next time we talk.
[0:46:14.2] TG: Okay. I do think that’s helpful because people who are working with editors and I think hearing you give feedback will help them understand what kind of things they should be hearing from their editor. If they’re not hearing the right kinds of questions or right kind of feedback, maybe they should be looking for another editor. But I think hearing an interaction will be good.
Okay so I wrote all that down, I’ll send you a copy. I’ll also post a copy of the first draft on the show notes at Storygrid.com/podcast on one condition, that nobody listening gives me any feedback. Like I don’t want to hear anything. If you want to read it, it’s going to be there but you’re not allowed to tell me anything about it yet because I can’t get a thousand people telling me what they think of the story right now.
So tight now, my biggest anxiety is coming from — because I know how, just talking to you, going through initial stages like how important knowing your genre is and so the fact that my genre is now up in the air is really stressing me out. Because I feel like even these questions, it’s like if I wrote this genre then these parts will be right and these parts will need to be fixed but if I’m in this other genre, then these parts…
[0:47:36.7] SC: That’s right, that’s why you really have to make some really strong concrete choices to solve the problems that are arising in the book right now because you can manipulate the material you’ve already written to serve just about any genre that you want. You can pull things up, you can pull them back, but you need to know what you’re going for.
Who is your audience? The thing that really drives me crazy is when writers say, “Oh I don’t write for any particular reader, I write for myself and to hell with it.” I think that’s a disservice and I think it’s also a way of self-deception because what you’re doing is you’re hiding from being empathetic to other people.
Understanding genre is not, it’s a great tool, there’s nothing — I mean you don’t think Michael Crichton and John Grisham understands genre or Stephen King? Stephen King can write in so many different genres because he loves every single one. He can write love stories that are fantastic inside horror stories. That’s because he knows the genre. So there’s no shame in understanding the genres. In fact, it’s going to make you a better writer.
[0:48:57.8] TG: Yeah, that’s where I’m at is like, “Okay, if I’m at a crossroads and one road is say a super hero novel and one road is more of a techno thriller that completely changes which parts I amp up and which parts I scale back.” Well just one example would be in a super hero novel, all the science is pretty fuzzy, right? Just gamma rays right that did everything. In a techno thriller, the science reads as if it’s almost hard science. When you read Jurassic Park…
[0:49:28.5] SC: It’s a documentary, yeah.
[0:49:29.6] TG: Yeah, you think, “Oh you can do this, you can just extract it out of the sap and you’ve got a dinosaur.” Just that one genre decision makes a decision on how deep into the science I’ve got to go. I mean is that kind of what — that’s what we’re talking about, right?
[0:49:47.3] SC: Yes.
[0:49:48.1] TG: So if you have a love story that’s this type of love story versus love story that’s this type of love story, that will cause you as — because as we talk about, you’re like, “Okay, you got to go back through and you got to do the power of 10 and amp up this part, amp down that part.” I’m like, “Well as my genre is up in the air, all of a sudden, I have no idea which parts I’m supposed to amp up and amp down.”
[0:50:10.6]SC: That’s right, that’s why I talk back when I started going down that road, I stopped myself and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m assuming something that may or may not be true right now and I haven’t read the book.”
[0:50:22.7] TG: Yeah, okay.
[0:50:24.0] SC: I need to read the book and say — because the other great quality that an editor can bring to a writer is a writer can’t see their subconscious at play on the page the way a really good editor can. I’m very good at reading underneath the tea leaves. I’m mixing metaphors here but I can read the subtext in a way that you would never be able to read.
I’m not patting myself on my back, this is something that I’ve worked on as a career choice is to learn how to do that. To read, I’m going to be able to see which sort of road would be best for you based upon the material that I read. The way I’ll do that is if your science is more sort of mythology, meaning you’re creating a myth and a backstory and an origin story to generate the…
[0:51:27.3] TG: This is killing me. I get what you’re saying, I’m just — I think it’s hilarious that I just wrote something and I have to take it to somebody and be like, “Can you tell me what I just wrote?”
[0:51:37.3] SC: Yeah.
[0:51:39.3] TG: It’s just, I don’t know how to feel about that.
[0:51:41.7] SC: You should feel lucky.
[0:51:47.2] TG: I think it’s really good. A lot of the feedback we’ve gotten on the show is that the stuff I’m voicing is the stuff that’s going on in people’s heads. This is probably the most anxiety I felt is getting to the end and then realizing, I kept joking but I did believe it. If I just plan enough, I won’t have to deal with any of this stuff. Then to get to the end and realize, I don’t even know what genre, which is like the first thing you say you have to figure out it’s like, “Oh my gosh.”
[0:52:18.6] SC: Remember that way, way back, like five or six episodes ago, I said, there’s a moment in a writer’s life where they reach the belly of the beast and the belly of the beast is when you realize, “Oh wow, I’m completely out of my zone here, there’s no way I can overcome this problem. There is just no way I could have anticipated that this would have happened to me. So now all bets are off, I don’t know if I can really do this.”
That’s kind of what you’re facing right now, you’ve busted your butt to do this first draft and you felt very confident that you had created something that you could tweak a little bit, maybe four or five more drafts, tweak and get all those typos out of it and you would have something that people would enjoy. The truth is, you don’t. And I haven’t even read it, but I’m that confident.
[0:53:15.9] TG: All right, well so that’s — I have my homework, so I’m going to send it to you, I’m going to reread it myself and try to boil it down to sentences, talk about what happens to the character inside and out, figure out my category and maybe next week we’ll compare notes.
[0:53:32.7] SC: Okay, sounds good.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:53:34.6] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. As I mentioned the entire first draft of my book is available at Storygrid.com/podcast, it’s in the notes for this episode. Now, I’ve been reading it and I have to say, I’ve really wanted to go back and delete the part of the episode where I said I would actually post this because there’s so many embarrassing things in this first draft of just little things like misspellings, other things like I completely forgot parts of my story. So wrote myself into corners.
So it’s pretty bad and once again, I am going to post it but my one rule is that you cannot give me any feedback, good or bad. I don’t want to hear any of it. So don’t send it to me on Twitter or email or anything. I got to just focus on this next part. If you want to read it, its’ there, if you don’t, your life is probably better off without it.
Anyway, if you want anything else Story Grid, you can go to Storygrid.com, sign up for the newsletter, read the back post, read the transcripts for these episodes if you ever miss anything, it’s all there at Storygrid.com. Thanks as always for continuing to share it with your writer friends, the more that you share it, the more we know it’s actually helpful for you.
Thanks as always for continuing to listen, we love sharing this with you and I look forward to seeing you next week.