How does the Story Grid work with nonfiction?
The transcript, with neat new time signatures, from last week’s Story Grid Podcast reviews the big nonfiction genres and how Story principles improve all forms of nonfiction immeasurably. It’s below. And for those of you who’d like to listen again you can here:
[0:00:01.0] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. My name is Tim Grahl, I’m your host and a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me soon is Shawn Coyne, the creator of Story Grid and then editor with 25 plus years’ experience and I’m peppering him with all my questions about how to become a better writer.
In this episode we talk about how the Story Grid applies to non-fiction. I also write non-fiction at work with a lot of people that write nonfiction. So I’ve been curious how the story grid can help us nonfiction writers become better story tellers as well. I think you’ll learn a lot from this even if you’re a fiction writer, it’s good to hear about this stuff from lots of different angles.
Let’s jump right in and get started.
[0:00:43] TG: Shawn, I want to talk some through how the Story Grid applies in the nonfiction role? Because I know Steve recently came out with the book, the American Jew and that’s about writing nonfiction?
[0:00:58.2] SC: Yes.
[0:01:00.5] TG: And so I thought it would be good to talk about the places that, how does the Story Grid apply to nonfiction because in some cases I can see it like a memoirs or telling a story that you’re kind of pulling ideas out of, then a lot of nonfiction. I’m probably leaning more towards like business books because that’s mostly what I read in a nonfiction world.
I struggle to think like how the Story Grid would apply to something like that. I’m just curious, we can just kind of start high level and drill down just how do you think through the Story Grid when it comes to nonfiction?
[0:01:36.8] SC: Well, the applications of the Story Grid to nonfiction are just extraordinary. If you think of nonfiction, the way I started to think about this is if I had to break down what nonfiction is, what are like the big silos, the big genres of nonfiction, right? When I started thinking about this and this is a good 20 years ago because as an editor, I had to juggle doing two things, I had to publish fiction, which I had to build writers into hopefully bestselling writers who would generate a book each year.
And then on top of that, I would do nonfiction projects and particular specialties and every editor, most editors do a little bit of both. A lot of people do one thing more than another but I was one of those editors who did equal amounts of fiction and nonfiction. Anyway, when I was thinking about how to edit nonfiction and I had to think about what the global genres are of nonfiction. The global genre of fiction, you have your external genre which are horror, love story, performance, mystery crime, all that kind of stuff.
In nonfiction, the way I broke it down was that you have what I call the how to book. What a how to book is basically how you would build an armchair. “How to knit”, “How to change the spark plugs in your car”. Very practical guides that take you from a project where it starts, the middle and the ending of the project. Just to even think of how to in terms of Storygridding, you say to yourself, there’s a beginning, middle and end to every project that you would do as a how to project.
To analyze the individual steps in a how to book, to make sure that they are rationale and they make sense and that they follow a trajectory and they build an argument that is convincing to the reader, that’s in a very important part of understanding whether or not a long form book, “how to book”, is going to work or not. I can talk more about how to stuff much later on but let me just go through all of the global genres in nonfiction to start.
The second one, you have “how to” which is practical stuff, the second one would be academic. Now, academic are sort of, these are very intensely written books for very focused readership. Academic books are text books, your text book on biology if you’re taking a course in college or high school, it’s a big dense thing that is not exactly the most narratively driven book you’ll ever read, right? These are very, very often times dry and boring and pedantic works that you have to struggle through.
[0:04:52.8] TG: That would make me sad if that was the most story driven book anybody’s ever read.
[0:04:58.4] SC: Well, I contend that it doesn’t have to be that way, you don’t have to have an academic book that reads like dirt and the way you can better your academic writing is to understand Story Grid principles because academic writing can be as compelling and interesting as anything else, it all depends on the skill set of the writer, writing the work itself.
Academic writing is traditionally for specialists. These are people who you don’t have to explain atomic theory to discuss organic compounds. Whereas the lay man, they don’t know what atomic theory is, you have to begin with the cell of an atom and the nucleus of an atom with the protons, neutrons and electrons and you have to do a very long explanation of very fundamental rules. Academic writing is for very laser focused professionals.
Now, the third one is now where we’re getting into the world of, the deep world of big book publishing and what we’ve been talking about for the past three months which is traditional books that you would buy in a bookstore that the major publishers would publish or people would self-publish. The third category is what I call “narrative nonfiction”.
Now, narrative nonfiction is story-based and you brought up Steve Pressfield’s book in American Jew which is all about how to construct a narrative nonfiction book. America Jew is the story of Steve writing the book, The Lion’s Gate which was a narrative nonfiction account of the six day war in Israel in 1967. In American Jew, he walks the reader through how we approach that, how we did it. Narrative nonfiction means you use the exact principles of fiction only with fact.
Another great example of narrative nonfiction would be Sea Biscuit. Laura Hill grant us wonderful book about the horse sea biscuit. She used the facts of Sea Biscuit but she told a story about three men in their relationship with that horse. It’s a really terrific book, it reads like a novel but it’s all true, she used all the facts but once she gathered all of her facts, she had to say to herself, “Okay, now I have the facts of Sea Biscuit, how many raced he’d won, who his trainer was, who his owners was, who rode him, who his jockey was. Now, how do I use all these stuff to tell a story that would be interesting?”
And so she had to think about, “Well what is the story about? What’s the controlling idea of this story? What’s the genre of this story in terms of a fictional story? What would it be?” And of course it’s a performance story, it’s a story of winning races. And so she had to walk herself through the principles of fiction while she was generating the outline that she would use the narrative of the nonfiction. That’s why it’s called narrative non-fiction. It’s nonfiction facts told with the novelist’s skill set and story principles.
So Story Gridding narrative nonfiction isn’t just helpful, it’s essential. Storygridding academic work and “how to” work I think will make the works tremendously better and more interesting and more successful but can you write a dry academic tradus on atomic theory and get away with it and sell to a very intense audience that will pay $400 for an academic book? Sure. If you really had the skill set of a great storyteller then you can write a book like Chaos, the James Glick wrote which is really intense science that’s wonderfully told.
Okay, those are the three of the silos we have how to academic and narrative nonfiction. Now, the last silo is what I call the big idea work of nonfiction. Now, what the big idea work of nonfiction is, a lot of business books, the kinds of books that you love in nonfiction, these have one central big idea that the writer tells a story about.
The reason why you want to know Storygridding and Story Grid principles is that the big idea — over at storygrid.com I spent four months analyzing how Malcolm Gladwell put together the tipping point using the Story Grid principles. The reason why I did that is that that book, the tipping point is just a wonderful example of a big idea. It’s one of those things that you can explain to somebody at a coffee or at a cocktail party in 10 seconds.
[0:10:12.8] TG: Yeah.
[0:10:12.8] SC: A lot of people would say, why would I want to read an entire book about it if I can understand it in 10 seconds. The truth is, it’s a really engaging and thoughtful idea. It’s kind of viral in its sensibility and that’s what the book is all about, it’s the viral nature of ideas and thoughts. That big idea is enough that it drives people to say, “Hey, that’s kind of interesting. I’m going to read the first page of the tipping point and see it grabs me. Maybe there’s something more to the tipping point than just the viral nature of ideas and how once you reach a certain point, it tips into a mass adoption.”
One day we don’t — I was reading an article in the New Yorker today about this guy who is running this new studio in Hollywood, I think his name is Adam Fogelson and he was the marketing director of that movie Ted. Now, he makes this terrific statement in this article, its’ by Tad Friend and he says, “One day nobody knew what Ted was. Ted was your strange uncle or Ted was a conference for big ideas. Nobody knew that Ted was also a foul mouth imaginary stuffed animal teddy bear.”
But within four months, around the world, everybody, when you said the word “Ted” to them, they knew immediately that Ted was a Teddy bear and that it was a movie based upon this magical creature. I thought that’s a perfect example of a tipping point of how this man was able to manufacture enough viral ideas that Ted because ubiquitous and that’s the nature of a tipping points are.
Anyway, just back to what the big idea, nonfiction genre is all about and the importance of Storygridding is that Story Grid will take you through the steps necessary to tell a wonderful story that’s much, much deeper and richer and more important than just that cocktail conversation because the tipping point in the book is far more important than that very facile little nugget of information I just threw out there.
The Tipping Point is about things that are very disturbing in our culture and disturbing in our humanity. Now, the reason why people know so much about the tipping point and think they know it so well is because of its viral nature but the book length treatment builds an argument, it has a beginning and it has a middle and it has an end and Malcolm Gladwell, he didn’t lead with his ending payoff.
He sucks you in at the very beginning of The Tipping Point with a really cute story about Hush Puppies shoes became so popular. Isn’t it interesting, how did these Hush Puppies from being a dormant brand one day to this sensation the next. Then the next little story he tells is about the fall of crime in New York City. How did crime fall off of the cliff in the 1990’s? How did that happen? One year there is 3,000 murders in New York City and the net year there’s 600. That’s a very steep decline.
But the ending payoff of the tipping point is about school shootings, it’s about how suicide is a viral phenomenon. How suicide, when we read about it, we start having suicidal thoughts and how suicide can tip, how school shootings can tip, how aggressive behaviors tip, about the very big dangers of tipping points.
Now, if he started the tipping point with these warnings about school shootings and about the life and death consequences and about mind control and about mass movements of horror, how many people are going to want to read that entire book? Very few right? He had to build an argument with a really exciting, fun beginning hook and then he had to lure his readers into diving into a very rich and complex middle build that goes into psychological portraits and theories and all kinds of very deep thinking for this payoff of the big warning.
The big warning of that book is, we need to work very hard to stop tipping points from happening. Bad tipping points happening are far, far more important to combat than learning how to sell a product and making it a mass adoption. So he lures the reader in at the very beginning of the book to say, “Hey, if you read my whole book, you’re going to learn how to create tipping points for your products.”
So he gives this really big piece of candy at the beginning of the story and says, “If you stick with me here, I’m going to teach you what I’ve learned about tipping points and you can use this information to make your life better, to make it richer, to create things that people will want to buy.” And so people are like, “Wow, great, I’m going to learn the lessons of how to tip,” this is what everybody wants to know, they want lightning in a bottle, they want to know how to do this.
[0:15:50.0] TG: It’s interesting because I think what I was struggling with was the fact that — so narrative nonfiction, that’s kind of a no brainer to me. You’re basically writing a fiction work but using facts. It’s just editing truth so that it tells a good story.
[0:16:09.8] SC: Yes.
[0:16:11.6] TG: The big idea books I think what I was trying to wrap my head around because they’re usually a collection of individual stories. If I think about Seth Godin’s writing.
[0:16:22.2] SC: Yes.
[0:16:23.0] TG: Basically, all he does is just tell stories through his entire books and at the end he’s taught you something. There’s so few actual, “Here’s this nugget of information you should believe now.: If I’m thinking about, “How would I go about doing this? Is it very similar where I’m like, this is where I’m going?” How would you — would you foolscap that out the same way you would a novel like…
[0:16:52.4] SC: Absolutely.
[0:16:54.1] TG: Because again I think when we were a couple of weeks ago when we were doing the Martian and we kind of like, “Okay, well this is,” we had this sign post we put in the road and then we just kind of got to tell that in the entry point where a nonfiction seems much more like I have to fill it in but with individual stories and individual ideas.
[0:17:16.4] SC: That’s exactly true, it’s managing, if you think of those little individual stories as scenes then the whole Story Grid concept will become much simpler for you because when I go through The Tipping Point at storygrid.com, you’ll see and if you look at the spreadsheets and all the things that I did and I do a foolscap Story Grid for The Tipping Point, I do the Story Grid spreadsheet for The Tipping Point and I do the actual Story Grid diagram, that really fun kind of strange sign, cosign curve that I did for Silence of the Lambs.
You’ll see how all these principles work for a big idea nonfiction too. Now, your question about whether or not you should do a foolscap Story Grid and all those things for a big idea, I highly recommend it, and here’s why. What it’s going to do is it’s going to make you think like a story teller. The way a story teller thinks is that they say to themselves, “I need a beginning, middle and an end,” right? “I need a beginning that’s going to hook my reader and say to them and make a promise,” and you do this in your book, Your First 1000 Copies, Tim.
You do it probably intuitively but I read your book and I got out of it. The promise that you made to me was, “Hey, I’m going to teach you the importance of the first thousand people that are going to read your book. Not only that, not only am I going to tell you how important it is to get those people, I’m going to tell you how to reach them, I’m going to tell you how to actually put together a plan, so that you can actually get a thousand people to read your book. And that was a big idea work of nonfiction that also had a lot of how to components to it, so does The Tipping Point. The Tipping Point has a tremendous number of how to components within its story telling.
[0:19:23.6] TG: That’s got to be the first time my book has been compared to anything Gladwell’s done. I have to mark that occasion right there.
[0:19:31.7] SC: Good. Put that down on the bulletin board.
[0:19:35.7] TG: That’s right. Shawn said, “As good as Tipping Point”, can I say that?
[0:19:40] SC: That will be on the front cover of your book tomorrow, I can tell.
[0:19:45.4] TG: Would you argue that, because I would say his book Outliers was even a simpler idea, you could just say, “Practice 10,000 hours and become an expert,” that’s the entire book. The success of his books, would you ascribe that to his story telling ability more than like the ideas he’s actually teaching in the book?
[0:20:07.0] SC: Absolutely. The Tipping Point — here, let me just say this, this is not an insult and I write about this, it’s fine, this is in no way, this is a compliment to Malcolm Gladwell, it is not, please, this is not an insult to him. The concept of The Tipping Point was written about in 1956 and it was written about over and over and over again. There was public policy that was started based upon the idea of The Tipping Point in the 1970’s.
There was a housing project in Brooklyn that was built using the principles of The Tipping Point. It was in no way an original thought. It was in no way an original idea, the brilliance of The Tipping Point and the brilliance of Malcolm Gladwell is his ability to bring together so many different sources of things that you would never believe had any connection whatsoever in a compelling story that tells you what the tipping point really means.
Because what the tipping point really means is it’s all about our deepest humanity, what compels us to do what we do? What compels our behavior? Now, if he’s started and his book was about compelling behavior, how to compel your friends to do things that you want them to do, he might have attracted a pretty solid audience but he wouldn’t have gotten the audience that he got by writing The Tipping Point.
The Tipping Point was not an original idea. What is so original and fascinating about The Tipping Point is the approach that Gladwell took in telling that story, he looked at it as a story and you know what he did that was so innovative and I say this over and over again on storygrid.com is that he discarded the fundamental positioning that writers take when they write nonfiction. What do I mean by that?
The narrative device, and I’m getting to narrative device here and how important it is in nonfiction as I talked about a couple of weeks ago about fiction. The narrative device that he takes in The Tipping Point is completely innovative and I’ll tell you why.
Most people when they write a big idea book, they want to come off as really smart. “Hey, look how smart I am, I’m going to tell you a truth. Here it is, let me tell it to you again and here it is again. This is how I learned this. After I did this, this is what I learned.” So it’s pedantic, it’s very on top of the mountain giving a sermon to all the idiots beneath you.
[0:23:08.0] TG: You’re getting peculiarly close to how I write nonfiction.
[0:23:11.1] SC: No, that’s not how you write at all.
[0:23:13.3] TG: Back off a little bit.
[0:23:14.7] SC: That’s really not how you write it and I’ve read your stuff so I’m not saying that to be nice. You don’t write it that way. I think probably the fact that you’ve read a lot of Malcolm Gladwell and a lot of Daniel Pink and you’ve worked with Daniel Pink that you have basically absorbed their narrative device in a way that was unconscious or subconscious.
What is the narrative device? Malcolm Gladwell takes the position of being a nerd who likes to figure things out. He takes us on a trip, he takes us on an adventure, he takes on intellectual adventure about what the tipping point is, why did Hush Puppies become so successful? Why did crime in New York fall?
He’s going to tell us how he came to the conclusions of why those things happened by taking us on a trip, not by preaching at us but walking us from an interview to reading a paper in psychology today to talking to his friends, to talking to one of his friend’s mothers who is really well connected in Chicago.
We feel as if one of our best friends says, “Hey, let’s go on a road trip and figure out why this thing works.” And we go with them and he teaches us these things. It’s not pedantic, it’s an adventure, it’s fun, it’s not boring.
[0:24:39.1] TG: Do you know Ray Bard from Bard press? Do you know that guy?
[0:24:42.8] SC: No I don’t.
[0:24:45.0] TG: Bard Press, it’s this guy that, I met him several years ago, he lives out in the desert like outside of Austin and he only publishes one book a year and it’s almost, I think he has like a 60% success rate of hitting a major best seller list. Just phenomenal and he says he only like to publish one book a year because he likes to take a lot of naps. That’s his, that was his — he’s this really smart guy, he’s very careful about the books he takes on and all these kind of stuff.
But we were having this discussion one and we were kind of lumping together. Malcolm Gladwell, Freakonomics. These types of books and he’s like, what did he say? I’m going to probably butcher what he actually said because this was years ago. He’s like, “They’re not academic books, they’re not books that people read to learn something, they’re actually entertainment books. You read them because they’re entertaining and you happen to learn something along the way.”
Freakonomics, what I like about Freakonomics is, Malcolm Gladwell’s just got this he can dive into the academia and then he can tell a good story. And what I like about Chip and Dan Heath or Steve Levitt and Steven Dubner is that they kind of split the job right? One of them is the academic and then one of them is a great story teller and they kind of combine forces to put together this great book.
Where in Freakonomics they compare cheating and sumo wrestling to teachers that cheat on academic scores or standardized testing. They pull out this idea but it’s actually just entertaining to hear about sumo wrestlers cheating.
[0:26:31.0] SC: Yeah, it’s all economic behavioral theory. Yeah, it’s wonderful. I would argue that we learn through story and that’s so funny because in The Tipping Point, Gladwell writes about that very thing that they were these decades of educational theorist believe that children, and to this day a lot of people believe this, that children are not very sophisticated. We can’t expect them to follow a narrative very well.
So give them really tiny little things and a lot of explosive stuff and have an animal there every now and then but don’t give them a narrative story because they’ll just get confused. Actual opposite is true. Children learn through story and narrative and the reason why they turn their attention elsewhere is when the story telling is terrible and it doesn’t make any sense anymore.
Children are our best way of seeing whether or not our stories are any good or not because they’re going to turn their attention elsewhere if you’re not telling them a very good story or if it doesn’t make sense or if it’s irrational. They’re willing to suspend their disbelief, they’re willing to go with you as long as you have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Now, at the very beginning of a child’s development, you don’t even need the beginning, the middle and the end so much as you need a really good beginning. Anyway, I’m digressing. The point that you were making and your friend made, I love that idea that he lives in the desert and publishes one book a year, I want to talk to him, is that the entertainment is not superfluous, it’s not like an extra added treat.
It’s not the prize included in the popcorn as Seth Godin would say. It’s the thing, that’s how we learn. All of that other stuff means nothing if we can’t wrap our story around it, this is how people learn organic chemistry, you know they have to think of some kind of story for all the gobble di goop to make sense.
[0:28:51.3] TG: There’s all these stories of Einstein like the way that he figured out all of these things is he’d come up with some kind of thought experiment. I think one of them was like an elevator dropping or something and this is how he would come up with these super complex ideas in sciences. It was started with some kind of story that he was like, okay, what if this happened?
[0:29:15.0] SC: Yeah, like the trains at the train station when you’re sitting on the platform at a train station and the other train starts to move, you think you’re moving.
[0:29:22.2] TG: Yeah.
[0:29:21.9] SC: Einstein was like well, that’s weird. I wonder why that is. He came up with a theory of relativity, pretty smart. Anyway.
[0:29:30.2] TG: I’m going to take a really big left turn here because when you brought up kids, I live in Nashville, I met this guy, he’s a writer and Murfreesboro which is about 45 minutes away and he’s been working on this children’s books. They’re just really good, we got to know each other because he sent copies of his books to my son and so we’re talking through how he wrote his book and I just have to share it because it’s just as absolutely fascinating.
What he did is first thing he did is he went out and he read a bunch of books in his space. He wants to write something for the middle grade year. It’s like first, second, third, fourth grade. He read like The Magic Treehouse series and he read like a bunch of those series, The Wimpy Kid all that kind of stuff and he made notes on like what showed up in every one of them. What I’m realizing now is he was making notes of…
[0:30:34] SC: He Story Grid it.
[0:30:25] TG: Yeah. He was making notes of the obligatory scenes and the characters, what kind of characters are in it. Just like you always say in crime, the detective and you can’t have a crime novel without a detective and that kind of stuff. Then he wrote this story. He counted the words in the book, he counted the words in all these books so he knew about how long these types of books were and so then he wrote his first draft.
And then this is where it gets even more interesting. He goes into — because at the time I think his son was in second grade. He goes into this school and reads it to his class and while he’s reading it, he’s taking notes on when he loses them. Then he asked them at different points if they were confused at all, and if they were, he would ask them what confused them and he take notes.
He did that, he sat in and did that and like first, second, third and fourth grade classes and he went back and changed the book based on that feedback. Kept doing that until when he would read it, he would have their attention all the way through and they were asking for the next book at the end.
I was just — I would love your take on that from somebody who has edited and worked with so many different books. To me, “Oh, that’s how you’re supposed to do it!” Something like that. It would be hard to do that with an 80,000 word manuscript and you can’t make people sit down for however many hours and read it. What are your thoughts on that? How does that hit you?
[0:32:01.4] SC: That hits me right in my sweet spot because I make a recommendation, I don’t know if I make it in the book or not but I’m pretty sure I’ve made it on the website a million times. This is the recommendation: Is to do exactly what your friend just did. Don’t make somebody read 80,000 words, of course not. Go out to coffee and go through the 15 major plot points of your story and tell the story to your friend and buy them a coffee.
[0:32:30.6] TG: We did talk about that.
[0:32:31.7] SC: Yeah. Because that will tell you, so what your friend did, he intuitively — like Malcolm Gladwell, the Story Grid is not, I just sort of put a name and a methodology around an intuitive thing that…
[0:32:52.1] TG: Yeah, it’s like Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”. It already existed, he just gave everything names.
[0:32:57.7] SC: Exactly. What your friend did was what I did and what took me 25 years to do. I did it from the point of view of an editor, he did it form the point of view of a writer, having access to second, third, fourth graders is incredible opportunity that he took advantage of and he’s learning, he’s getting better I suspect with every book that he writes.
He’s going to need to make fewer and fewer trips to that elementary school because he’s going to learn all of those things that are in the Story Grid intuitively. What do I mean by that? I would bet a lot of money that what he’s learning are polarity shifts and scenes. He’s learning those moments in his story when his scenes aren’t turning because the kids look out the window and they think about Jim and they think about dessert at lunch time.
He sees that in their eyes and he says, “I lost them, I have to change this,” and the way he changed that story is he made the polarity shift much stronger and much more recognizable. Children, they don’t go that much — they don’t understand irony, they don’t understand subtlety.
If you want to test your major plot points, I tell my kids stories every now and then because they demand it and I always have a panic attack because they say, ”Dad, tell us a story.” Then I have to invent something and that’s how I learn how to tell a better story. They’ll go, I don’t know, that wasn’t as good as when the kid’s feet were burned by the fire. I’ll understand, that was a very dramatic moment that cause that was antagonism, there was a dragon that shot fire at the kid’s feet.
That is very clear scene at the beginning of the scene, the kid’s feet are not on fire, at the end of the scene, they are. Those are really simple principles but you can’t learn them often enough. Anyway, that is a really wonderful story that you told about your friend. Because of all these principles that he’s already learned, I suspect he’s not going to need to have a day job much longer.
[0:35:16.2] TG: Yeah, it’s interesting, I can’t give his name because I don’t know how much of this he actually would want public but yeah, he just actually picked up an agent and he’s got like huge interest from a major publisher and it looks like it’s all going to go through.
It’s now been a year, over a year since he first contacted me and sent the books for my son and my son loved them and this was another thing is he created a — I forgot, it’s basically like a kid’s editing team and with his fourth book, he sent just a laser printed copy to my son — this was when I lived in Virginia. He sent it to him with a page with four or five questions on it.
What was confusing, did you enjoy the book, was there any place you didn’t like. There was a place in the book that my son found confusing, he didn’t understand what happened and he changed that part of the book based on his feedback. I just think it was like, I don’t know, he’s one of these guys that’s like, “How else would you do it?” I’m like, “Well, nobody else is doing that so…” I just think it is that.
[0:36:26.3] SC: Well, he’s got a level of fearlessness that a lot of us don’t have. This is stuff that is the internal struggle that all writers and creative people have and your friend doesn’t suffer from. That is the fear of, “I didn’t get this. This is so stupid. Duh, why did you write that?”
He doesn’t have that fear. If he hears that comment, he doesn’t crawl into a hole and think he’s a terrible writer. Part of becoming a professional writer is to build a thicker and thicker skin and share. You write about this in your book, you need to share more and more of what you create in order to make it better and you have to share in the moments when you know it’s not perfect.
You know there’s problems with it. You can’t sit in your little cubicle and polish your stuff until its perfect and then show it to the world and then everybody will think you’re a genius. No, it doesn’t work that way. The way it works is that you have guts, you have courage. Like you did when you showed that scene that you wrote, that you knew wasn’t the best thing you ever wrote but you had the courage to show it and everybody who listened to the podcast admired you for that.
And, I’m sure there are people who are like, “That was so dumb, I don’t know why he wrote that stupid scene.”
[0:37:53.9] TG: I was one of those.
[0:37:54.6] SC: Who cares. Of course you are but who cares about those people, they’re never going to get it anyway, don’t worry about them. You got to work for the people who care and that’s a really difficult thing to understand. You’re never going to please everyone. I personally, every time someone criticizes or says something that I write or say is stupid, it hurts. It just does, it hurts Steve Pressfield, it hurts anybody, it hurts Quentin Tarantino.
[0:38:29.1] TG: Yeah.
[0:38:30.9] SC: it hurts Howard Stern, it hurts all these people that we think are, “OH well, they’re super stars so who cares, they don’t…”
[0:38:38.2] TG: It’s interesting because I’ve worked with a lot of well-known writes and that are living the dream that everybody else looks, all the other writers look up to. That’s what I want one day, I’m like, every one of them, it varies how they externalize it and how much it really weighs on them but every one of them have those fears of this is the book where everybody’s going to realize I’m a fraud.
[0:39:04.6] SC: Of course.
[0:39:05.2] TG: Or this is the one that’s just going to tank and my publisher is going to ask for their money back and all these kind of stuff. This is the one, it’s always like compressing a spring. When they’re six months out, it’s nice and loose and open and it just gets tightening and I don’t know how many couple of weeks before the books comes out just talking people off the ledge conversations I’ve had.
It’s so funny watching that as somebody that was like, you have everything that most people want and you just have the same fear. What I’ve seen is, because I have that same thing. I just released the book and I’ve had… I’m approaching 12,000 people download it and I’ve been getting — it’s the most popular thing I’ve ever done, I’m getting emails and all this kind of…
Every single email that people are like, I love this book, really? I still have that no, this one’s going to suck and people are going to realize I’m a fraud and all that. All I’ve done is learn to kind of like, I put it in a box and I put it on the shelf and every once in a while I open the box and I look at it but I’ve learned to kind of like, just put it over here and okay, late at night when I’m drinking something adult. I can open that box and pet whatever’s in there. When I go to work I just got to do my work.
[0:40:29.0] SC: Yeah, the courage of sharing imperfect things is it’s a muscle that you have to develop and it never — anybody who lifts weights or goes to the gym, it’s never easy.
[0:40:45.1] TG: You never could lift all the weights you know?
[0:40:49.7] SC: It always hurts, you’re just not going to get away with going to the gym because that’s the definition of stressing yourself. You have to stress your body and you have to stress your mind and your ability to deal with negative stuff from other people.
[0:41:07.8] TG: I’ve only published, finished and published two books, both nonfiction. You have helped finish and finish your own like hundreds of books. This is a good conversation, I’m sure people are interested in is how do you know when a book’s done? Because you know there’s that “old saying of like a book has never done or finished, it’s just abandoned.”
[0:41:29.9] SC: That’s true, there are probably as not a time where I didn’t think another round or another tweak would have helped. When a book is done is it’s on the spreadsheet, that’s how I know, the first thing that I write about in the Story Grid book itself is what an editor does. Now, the first thing an editor does is they read the manuscript like anybody else. Just from that first read, they know whether or not the story works or doesn’t work.
Now, if the story works, they know, sort of intuitively, “Hey, if I just jam this thing through production and got it out, it would probably do fine. If I spent — it’s sort of like that diminishing returns thing that you have to go through in your entire, in your own mind. Now, as an editor at a publishing house and you’re being paid a salary to bring in bestselling works and not just bring them in, you’ve got to edit them and get them out the door as soon as possible because that money has been sitting out waiting to be recouped for the advances that are out there and when I was in major publishing, I was behind books where they were seven figure advances involved.
When there’s a million dollars out the door waiting to come back in when that book arrives, my publisher isn’t really all that interested in making sure that scene seven in act three is as perfect as it possibly could be. He’s looking at me to say, or she’s looking at me and to say, is it a go? Can we print this puppy? Are we going at me to say, IS get people angry about how bad this book is or they’re going to be satisfied, give me that answer now.”
The answer to that question when I was an editor and the answer to the question when I’m a writer are two completely different things.
[0:43:32.3] TG: Yeah, because I’m thinking there’s probably a lot of self-published authors listening which means, because when you’re with a traditional publisher, your editor is kind of like the project manager, they’re kind of like pushing to author to get it done, they’re setting g the deadlines, they’re saying I’m getting yelled at upstairs, I need to get this book out. When you’re self-published, you have hired an editor to work for you.
It kind of flips over where, where kind of like well, I work for you so I’m doing what you need to do. I felt like that with my first book, the second book I just put a really hard deadline, it’s got to be out the door by this day and so I pushed it. I’m thinking it’s not done, it needs a rewrite, all that kind of stuff.
[0:44:16.0] SC: Of courses you do, if you didn’t you wouldn’t care about what you’re doing.
[0:44:20.8] TG: That second one, the first one, what I finally did is I had put together a handful of early readers that I trusted and by that, what I tell people that read my stuff is, “I would rather hear it from you than a random person on Amazon after they bought it.” So I assembled a team of people that would tell me the brutal honesty about my book and when they said it was done, I stopped and I published it. That’s how I decided, I took the decision making of whether it was done off of my plate because I would never let it go.
[0:44:57.5] SC: That’s a strategy, I’ll tell you what I do.
[0:45:00.8] TG: Okay, because you’re the same way, when you write, you don’t have somebody like pound to you to make it done.
[0:45:06.0] SC: Well, yes and no. Steve Pressfield is my partner, my business partner and he’s my editor. Steve is a writer too so I edit Steve stuff and Steve edits my stuff and when Steve says, “Hey, you might want to take a look at this, he’s never mean in his edits and I’m never mean to him, I’m probably meaner to him than he is to me but Steve is the one who will say, “Hey, it’s good to go as far as I’m concerned. Now it’s up to you.”
I would have taken another year and polish the hell out of the Story Grid book just to save myself from negativity but the truth is, the content in the book is what people want. The eloquence of the story telling within the Story Grid is kind of secondary. Now on the Story Grid, a lot of people ask me, “Well what’s the genre of the Story Grid? Did you Story Grid The Story Grid?” “Yes I did, I did do it. But I didn’t go crazy over it.”
The reason why is, if you read The Story Grid, there’s a beginning hook there, I tell you what I’m going to tell you at the very beginning and I hook you so that you will get through that big meaty middle build that are all the story foundational principles that can become really, really intense and sometimes confusing and sometimes overwhelming but I needed to hook the reader and say, “If you get through this book and if you are able to absorb the principles within this book, you will become your own editor, you will be able to evaluate your own work like a professional editor could.”
There are a lot of editors out there who do not know the principles in the Story Grid. And a lot of them make good livings by saying things like, “I think your character was a little soft,” or, “I didn’t find the ending to pay off in the way that I was hoping.” That is not good advice. There are a lot of people and a lot of them are well intentioned, I’m not saying that they’re evil mustache trolling takers of money, a lot of them are well intentioned but they’re not professional editors.
There are people in professional publishing at the major publishing houses who I don’t know the story principles. A lot of them. By learning this stuff and I’m not here to sell The Story Grid as a book, you can read all of this stuff for free at storygrid.com. If you’re broke, I get it, I was broke when I started in publishing and that’s why I wrote The Story Grid, it’s for people who want to learn this stuff and want to invest their intellectual capital in learning this who may or may not have the money to buy the $35 book or the eBook or whatever and that’s why you can get all of this content for free on storygrid.com.
I’m not here to push my $35 book. I am here to say that all of the stuff that’s in that book is crucial information that you need to know if you want to become a better writer. Now, the question is, when did I know when that book was done? It’s when all of that information I thought was clear and maybe not perfectly told and well told. I’m brutal, I’m a brutal self-editor and I could spend the next four years making that stuff sound better but it’s not going to deliver anything more to people than a better reading experience.
And you’re not buying The Story Grid for a reading experience. If the reading experience is pleasant, then that’s a bonus for you. That’s how I evaluated when the book was done, when I nailed all of the principles that had to be told and I told it in a way that I felt comfortable people would find engaging.
[END OF INTERViEW}
[0:49:16.1] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. As always, to get more story grid, you can go to storygrid.com, sign up for the newsletter, read the blog post, there’s so much information there to help you become a better writer. Along with that, you can go to storygrid.com/podcast to see all the past episodes, along with notes and downloads and everything we talk about in each episode.
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