The Cure for Writer’s Block

Tim and I got stuck working on his Middle Build.

The sticking point reminded me of the ancient Greek poet Archilochus’s famous saying: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Here’s a big thing trick I’ve learned having edited more than 300 books in my career. [I fear doing an accurate tally of the real number of books I’ve edited as it will inevitably lead to my conclusion that I’m on the back nine of my life, so I’ll stick to that favorite number of mine…300.]

When you find yourself thrashing about while working scene by scene (The Story Grid Spreadsheet)…shift to the big picture view of your story and review your big goals. Go as far back to your choice of global genre and talk to yourself through the requirements of the genre/s you’ve chosen and when it would work best in your story to satisfy the obligatory scenes and conventions of those choices.

Alternatively…when you find yourself thrashing about working the big picture (The Foolscap Global Story Grid)…shift to the scene by scene work. Assign yourself a scene to write and write it.  And if you’re inclined, write another and another…perhaps a whole sequence of scenes.  And then look at your scene work and think about what those scenes are trying to tell you about your global story.

I was reminded of this big idea as Tim and I hit a Middle Build wall in the latest The Story Grid Podcast episode.  Tim and I have had a nice string of scenes working together and we pressed into the Middle Build thinking we’d just keep going scene by scene.

But it didn’t work.

It was clear to me (and Tim) that the scenes, while they technically “worked,” felt wrong. They were too generic…they didn’t feel right.

So we pulled back our focus using my Hedgehog trick and decided to consider Tim’s “world” in a much deeper way.  The “world” is what I mean by the story’s SETTING, which Tim and I will get into if far more detail in another episode. 

Tim needed to put a pin in his scenes and refresh his big picture thinking.  Once he has a very clear understanding of his SETTING, he will be able to attack his scene by scene work with far better accuracy and vigor.

This is the value of learning how to be your own editor.  When Tim hits this kind of hurdle in his next novel, I won’t be there for him.  But what he’s learning to do with me here, right now is to “NOT PANIC!”  He’s learning “NOT TO PRESS!”

If the scenes aren’t doing what they should be doing in the future, Tim will know to STOP WRITING SCENES.  Instead, he will PULL BACK THE FOCUS and consider the big picture.  He’ll review the requirements of his genre/s and he’ll look deeply at his Setting (which is a primary convention of his chosen Reality Genre, Fantasy). This global work is what will reinvigorate him when he gets back to the scenes.  This trick will save him thousands upon thousands of words and scenes that he’d end up cutting in a later draft.

And it will kick that nasty creative interloper (RESISTANCE) out of his head and keep him moving.  A good boxer knows when to shift from jabs to the opponent’s noggin to body blows to the ribs.  So does a writer know when to shift from tight focus to big focus.

This Hedgehog Trick is nothing less than a cure for Writer’s Block.

When should he start writing scenes again?

When he exhausts himself dealing with his setting and big picture work and finds himself with “impossible” big story dilemmas.  That’s the signal to get back to the micro work.  The micro work will press him forward, giving the other part of his brain (The big picture thinker or editor) the time to figure out solutions to the big picture problems.

To listen to this week’s episode click the play button or read the transcript that follows.

 

[00:00:00] 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 a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with over 25 plus years’ experience.

 

In this episode, we continue into my middle build but we kind of have to stop and take a step back as we so often do on this show and have me stop writing scenes and actually plan out what my world looks like and do the actual world building part so I can know what these scenes, where these scenes are actually living. So it’s a really good episode that dives into an important topic that we’re all going to need for our novels which is planning out the world that our characters are living in.

 

So I think you really enjoy it, let’s jump in and get started.

 

[EPISODE]

 

 

[00:00:53] TG: So Shawn, I went back and reworked the one scene based on what we talked about last week and then wrote two more and sent them over to you and overall, I’m not thrilled with what I sent you. I felt like every time I tried to wrap my head around what this is supposed to be, I just couldn’t really see much. So I’m interested to hear your feedback. So I sent you the three scenes, and I’ll post those in the show notes, but basically it was a rewrite of the scene I did last week that had some of the things we talked about and then a scene where she kind of had a conversation with the guy in charge and then a scene where she was back in training again. Anyway, what are your thoughts?

 

[00:01:47] SC: Yeah, I think you kind of hit a bit of a wall here and it’s not anything that you can’t overcome, but I was just trying to think before we got on the phone what the best advice is here. So before we get into the scene by scene discussion, I was thinking about, “Well, how should you approach doing a brand new kind of section of your novel?” Because there’s a certain elation and happiness that happens after you finish your bare bones beginning hook. I think the beginning hook was somewhere around 11 scenes.

 

When we go back after we’ve got a first draft done, we’ll be able to add things and subtract things and tweak and do all kinds of stuff to make it even better but I think you’ve got a really nice, solid thing going there. So how do you get the middle build? And here’s kind of what I think is a good idea. The middle build, and this goes to the discussions we have with Andy Raegan at the University of New Hampshire a couple of months ago, the middle build is emotionally a Cinderella arc and what I mean by that is it rises, it falls, and then it rises again.

 

Emotionally, you want to take your character and take them on a path where they rise, they gain confidence, they’re feeling better, the floor falls out from under them and then they have to rejigger their world view and rise again. If it’s possible to think about the beginning hook out of our minds, let’s try and get that completely out of our minds and say to ourselves, “We’re going to write a novella here.”

 

So, what’s going to be the inciting incident of this smaller unit of story? That way, now it’s not going to have to be as big as the inciting incident for the beginning hook, so that’s one of the things we should think about. What can we think about in terms of this middle build as a beginning, a middle, an end of this middle build section? The other thing about the middle build is that it’s the place where you can expand your world a little bit. You can get in to more detail about the everyday environment of what’s going on. As this is the new movement into the magical world. What your reader is going to want is a very clear understanding of what this magical world looks like, feels like, sounds like, is like, et cetera.

 

So these scenes that you sent me are very much actively moving the character from one event to another event, to another event. That’s really good and I’m not saying that that’s a mistake for you to focus on. But what I do think you need to do is to settle in a little bit like we did, you know that scene when I had you have Jessie talked to 61, and 61 told her some stories about his life and it was a little bit of a slower moving scene? It was a softer kind of movement from being friendless to having a new friend or being accepted as opposed to being not accepted and alienated. I think this is the opportunity here to do a lot of different things.

 

Now, the inciting incident of the story for the middle build is we discussed as being Jessie sort of in the world itself. I think that’s a good idea because, you know, a lot of people who have done those wonderful scenes before where we go on the train or we go on the bus or we sort of transition slowly from the ordinary world to the new magical world. I’m not saying that on further reflection later on, we might want to put one of those scenes in there. But for now, I like the idea of her being locked in this world and her actually doing something in this world.

 

The problem that arises after this first scene is that it comes off as very confusing to the reader. Now that works to an advantage, but it can be a very big disadvantage too. The advantage is that it shocks them into a new kind of reality, a new sensibility. I think that’s a good thing. The problem though is that after you come out of that mystical sort of matrix-like world where Jessie is doing things is all of a sudden she’s into a new thing. There is another sort of pretty big shift of story that happens where she’s called in to the office of the sort of the leader of this training faction and read the riot act. But instead, I think you need to slowly move to that scene instead of bang, bang, bang. So, what could you do, is the question…

 

[00:07:15] TG: Let me stop you there. My concern was not having enough action. Because I was in this mindset of like, “Well, this isn’t action story, I don’t want to bore my reader with a bunch of dialogue or,” — I don’t know, I guess I was trying — so, I’m just moving too fast again.

 

[00:07:39] SC: Yes you are, and you have to remember that you have to do a lot of setting up for future action scenes, and what do I mean by that? The thing about the magical world is you have to somehow integrate a lot of exposition about this mystical world that’s only in Tim Grahl’s brain right now and you have to use that information.

 

If you’re like me, you’ve probably thought about how this world works. What this threshing is all about, who the factions are, where space time and all this stuff happens? That’s information that the reader desperately wants to know. But if you did a chapter that was purely exposition, you would really irritate the reader and they would get very bored very quickly. So, the trick is to somehow figure out scenes that move, that also put in a lot of exposition.

 

[00:08:42] TG: Is this like the scene where you had me instead of them just having coffee and explaining it, they’re actually moving through the world, so you get to see the stuff?

 

[00:08:52] SC: Yes.

 

[00:08:54] TG: Okay.

 

[00:08:55] SC: Yeah. So the way to sort of approach this, and the way I approach it, is to think about something in your own life and in other people’s life, some rite of passage that we all go through and take yourself back to that time and use your own personal experiences in those moments as ammunition to come up with scenes. What do I mean by that? Okay, everybody at one time or another has to leave home and go some place new. It might be college. Now when I went to college, it was sort of, “Here’s your stuff son, bye.” Everybody I knew and loved was gone, and I look in a room and there’s three other guys who just experienced the same thing that I have.

 

It’s this moment when you reinvent yourself. It’s a moment when you realize, “These people know nothing about me. I now have the opportunity to create my own self in a way that I never would have had back home because everybody back home has known me since I was in kindergarten. They’ve known the fights that I’ve been in with my friends. They’ve known how many sports I played, how many awards I’ve had, how many times I got in trouble with the principle. Everybody has a very clear understanding of who I am and what I’m about from the old world.”

 

But when you go to college, it’s this remarkable moment when you realize, “I can be whoever I want. I don’t have to be the jock from high school anymore. Maybe I can find a group of friends who like to play guitar. I could be a guitar playing guy now. Maybe I don’t have to wear this jean jacket anymore. Maybe I can try on a flannel shirt.” It’s these simple little…

 

[00:10:57] TG: You should definitely not wear the jean jacket.

 

[00:11:01] SC: You should see pictures of me in college. Yeah, you would absolutely agree. The reason why I bring this up is that if you think about these moments in your own life when you were faced with brand new experience in a whole new world in a whole new place you had integrate, you had to learn, right? You had to learn very quickly, “Oh my gosh, what do I eat? Where’s the cafeteria, who am I going to eat with? Do you think this guys will eat with me? My new roommates, whoever they hell they are? I wonder what they’re about.”

 

What you find is, the first week of college, everybody is so nice. You want to be everybody’s friend because everybody is really welcoming and nice and they’re asking you lots of questions and you’re answering them and you’re asking them questions and it’s a really nice, communal feeling and then at the end, and it’s always usually like freshman week, right? Then at the end of freshman week, the real character of everybody starts to emerge.

 

By the time that first week is over, you’re pretty locked into your microcosm of your school life and guess what usually happens is that you find those other football players, you find those guitar players that you were because you feel comfortable in those worlds. So, this is the moment to sort of reflect on that experience and say to yourself, “What would Jessie experience? She’s just been through so much trauma. Not only that, she’s started to slowly integrate into a community and now she’s ripped out again and, she’s going to a place that she’s very fearful of.”

 

That’s the same thing about college, even though we all talk about how great it’s going to be to go to college, it’s a scary situation because when you go to college, you’re on your own. Nobody’s going to say, “Hey Shawn, did you do your homework tonight?” No one’s going to say, “Hey, you’re bombing this class. If you don’t get an A on this next test, you’re going to get an E.” It starts to become internally your own responsibility.

 

Because this is overall a maturation plot, this is a moment where you can have Jessie sort of facing this situations and slowly, I see that scene that you sent, the second scene where the head of the department comes and says, “You know, you’re not — I’ve seen your potential and you’re not giving us what you have.” That’s the scene that you can wait three or four scenes and build up this other stuff before you get to that place. You can even go another two scenes before 81 shows up or 83 shows up.

 

So, this is kind of — this is the moment where you want to do Cinderella’s rise. What’s great about this is Jessie is terrified of this place, right? So, when she gets there, what she’s going to discover is, “It’s easy man. She thought this place was going to be hard. This place is a joke,” you know what I mean? I remember my first math class in college, for some reason there was some, you know, I had to take some class that was — and I took it and it was so easy and I felt so confident and then the math class after that was when it really hit me, a shovel in the face. But it’s sort of like this warm water integration into this new world.

 

So we want to see like Jessie, just as the guy says in the second scene, we want to see her doing the least amount possible and still winning. So let’s get to practicality. I think if you think of this opening — now remember, you’re going to be doing 20 to 25 scenes in your middle build. You’ve got some room here to really have some fun and to work on the way Jessie deals with other people. Work on, like in your first — in the draft of the book that you wrote previously, there was a lot of really nice moments where you’ve got the rival who is like, “Yeah, you’re going to be terrible at this.”

 

Then the rival has his, you know, the henchmen who go, “Yeah, you’re going to be terrible.” So you could have fun with that sort of predicament and if you treat this as a college experience or a higher institutional learning experience, that would be kind of a cool thing to do. After this first scene, usually what happens in the military or in other places where they train before they go off to a conflict is they have an after action report. They have an after action review of what happened.

 

Like in the FBI, if you go through Quantico training and you do some sort of test, at the end of the test, you all go into a classroom and there’s the professor who stands at the front and goes, “Why did you do that? Why did you do that? What happened here? Explain yourself.” If you’re on a football team, one of the worst experiences you can have when you play football is that the day after the game. Because that’s when the films come in. When the films come in, you have to sit into a dark room and have a coach scream at you for all the mistakes that you made in the previous game. Even if you win the game, they just rake you over the polls.

 

So that is a moment that you could use here and it’s an instructional moment where we can get to know the way the school works, the way this institution works. The people who serve this kids because we also don’t really know right now how great this world is. How much better it is than, you know, living with the numbered in the bunker. She’s got to have, her stuff — somebody’s going to be polishing her shoes. All of her stuff, when you play division one football or something, you go into the locker room and it’s like going in to Caesar’s Palace.

 

They’ve got your uniform there, they’ve got your cleats are perfectly polished, your helmet is sparkling and playing high school football when you had to drag all your crap yourself, it’s this magical moment like, “Wow man, I’m pretty cool.” So I think those are the moments that you can play with here and you know, move her through a day, think about, is there some regimental program like is it navy seal training, what do they do? Or is there some sort of institutional program that trains people for a particular task that has a set of very, you know, like you and I are going to do this Story Grid seminar and what I’m doing is I’m planning that protocol, right?

 

I’m planning, what is the best way to get this students integrated into the story grid methodology? And I’m breaking up the time and I’m thinking of when they need to go to the bathroom and when we’re going to have sandwiches. All of these things are very important. Are they going to have time to talk to you are we going to be able to — should we have treats? All of these things are really important because when somebody goes into an atmosphere where it’s very, very intense learning, they need to know there’s a very strict pattern of behavior and things that are required of me, things that I must require of the instructor. All that kind of stuff.

 

This is kind of the fun part for you as somebody who plans, I mean, you’ve had your own conference, you planned your own course work, you’ve done your own courses online. There’s a very — when you plan something you just go, “Then I’ll talk about this.” You don’t. You say, “What’s the best way for this people to absorb my program so that they retain as much information as possible at the very end?” So think about it from the point of view of the faction; “How do I train this young hopeful, unknown, unproven talents? How do I train their natural ability to a place that is, I can call upon it at any time and they’re going to produce the result I want them to produce?”

 

That’s an interesting way of, because everybody can relate to that. Everybody’s been in that experience, no matter the age. If you get a new job, right? Your first job, everybody wants to know, “Well, who am I going to eat with at lunch?” That’s the biggest questions that we face, are the stresses of everyday life. Like, “Where’s the bathroom? Is it okay to take the water out of the refrigerator or do I have to pay for it? Is this soda free? What about the pretzels in the snack room? Can I have those, or no?” Those stupid questions are really important. You get it?

 

[00:20:53] TG: Yeah, I mean, as much as I can get this without actually trying to go do it but. So do you feel like I need to just kind of — so does my very first scene not work as the first scene of the middle build? Do I need to ease this in to this a little bit more?

 

[00:21:10] SC: I don’t think that would hurt and because we don’t know what — in order for us to really understand what she’s doing in the matrix world that she’s plugged into, we need to know what is the mission? What is the test? What is the training mission? So, I was fortunate to work with a very incredible Green Beret and he told me what he have to do to be a Green Beret and it was just — I just could not believe what they had to do. They would just drop them in the middle of nowhere and they would give them an impossible task like, “You need to move 500 pounds of gear over there in 10 minutes,” and they have to figure it out.

 

So anyway, that’s kind of like the fun little bit of research that you can do for this kind of novel is to adapt a really intense regimental program like, there’s the Green Berets, there’s the navy seals, there’s going to a job interview at Google. There’s MIT’s sort of computational, if you want to go into a special program at MIT, you have to pass a lot of interviews and test. I remember when my brother got out of college, he was interviewing for jobs on Wall Street and there is a famous program at Solomon brothers, which is no longer.

 

But Solomon brothers, it was essentially, you had to interview with 36 people over an entire day and the 36th guy would ask you the same question that the first guy did and if you didn’t give the same answer they would say this guy’s inconsistent. We shouldn’t hire him. So it was like this crazy thing. It was all just a sort of like a corporate hazing process. But what’s more interesting is not the hazing process, it’s the process, you know, like in that great movie Full Metal Jacket where the sergeant screaming and all the guys is like, “We are going to teach you. We’re going to strip away your personality and teach you to be a killing machine, and this is the way we’re going to do it.” You watch that first half of Full Metal Jacket and by the end, you’re ready to go fight with those guys yourself.

 

So that’s the kind of thing that could be really cool. Also, another great movie to watch that has this kind of thing is An Officer and a Gentleman with Richard Gere where he wants to be a naval officer and he’s going to naval officer training and he’s got to change his entire personality and who he is and what he does and he’s very, very competent in what he does. But what he has to learn is how to care about the guy next to him. So there are any number of wonderful examples of training programs that you could use and steal and adapt for this one. Enders Game.

 

[00:24:15] TG: Is this where too, I should introduce like the boy and the rival and like start setting up those people as well?

 

[00:24:24] SC: Exactly. Like in your old draft of your book, you did this intuitively with a whole bunch of guys like that. There was that rival, one lab was a rival of the other lab. I mean, go back to that, look at that stuff and see what you can steal and take from that. This could be a process where they train many cells. They could train four people in a cell to operate together. The other thing that you can do is you can have all of this tuff explained in an academic setting.

 

So you can have a character who is like the drill sergeant who comes out and says, “Let me deal with you, let me go over some statistics with you pukes. You all think you’re pretty cool now, you were all townies. If you want to be coders, you got to do this and here, let me show you what happened in the last threshing.” Then you describe some incredible visionary thing that’s on the screen that shows these maneuvers of this people that this kids have no clue how to do. “Now, what went wrong there?” You can do that kind of Socratic dialogue between the instructor and the pupils.

 

Jessie’s arc here, remember, is she’s going to rise and reach a level of really extreme confidence and then something’s going to happen that’s going to knock the wind out of her sails. The other thing you have to remember and you don’t have to do this now but you’ve got to bring this sort of stage by stage and then there’s got to be a crisis. There has to be like, “Okay, we know you’re supposed to be training for 46 weeks but they moved up the threshing. So the threshing is now two years earlier and we’ve got 12 weeks to get ready and you are the front line, you are our front line defense against whatever the other threshing is.”

 

And then you can explain the protocols of the threshing. Where it happens, how it happens, who is you know, who they’re facing, what the rules of the threshing are. So, do you see what I mean? This is the opportunity, this is the meaty middle build where you get to get really wonky and fun and create just your own sort of strange, technocratic, weird, tyrannical government that takes the cream of the crop from the population and manipulates that cream of the crop to do the bidding for them in the future. This is the process by which these kids undergo to become this great threshers, or however you’re going to talk about it.

 

But Jessie, I think, to think of her going to college is a good analogy for these scenes and to think about the moments when you went to college and the stresses that were involved and the alliances you made quickly and then there’s probably some guy across campus who was cooler than everybody else that you didn’t like and he became your rival, or whatever. That’s kind of where you want to get this place because this is kind of what the reader is expecting at this point. They’re expecting her to be going into a program that has very strict rules and there’s a beginning middle and end in the program and she is going to end up being a very integral part of this entire factional defense.

 

[00:28:14] TG: Okay. And so, in this next sequence, I’m really focused on just introducing the world, introducing the players, the allies and enemies and just kind of getting her settled.

 

[00:28:30] SC: Yeah.

 

[00:28:31] TG: And then — so the other thing, I’m kind of struggling with two things here. One thing I was thinking with writing the last few scenes and it’s like, I feel like there’s a couple of things that are a little bland because I’m not sure what to do. So one is, am I making out the faction to be evil enough or good enough? I feel like it’s just a kind of middle of the road. Like they’re not doing anything super crazy except for what they did to her. So that’s one worry I’ve had, and then I’m struggling with how is she approaching this?

 

Like is she going to walk in and think, “Well this is all kind of dumb, it’s way easier than I thought it was.” Because she lived in a vacuum where she didn’t realize how good she was or is she trying to subvert it by like doing the bare minimum? That’s where I was trying to put in that one thing, like trying to tie her fate to somebody else. Because she doesn’t really seem to care so much about herself so we need to tie her fate to somebody else so she will actually get up and do something. Those I’ve been struggling with like…

 

[00:29:48] SC: Well yeah, you have to establish the villain and the victim here. So you do need that victim element where she — remember this is an action story and the hero’s job, the villain gets the action, sets the action in motion at the middle build and it gives rise to the object of desire in the hero. So the good thing about the action story is that these are conventions. The villain raises the specter of a victim and the hero then makes it their mission to protect the victim form the villain.

 

So, you don’t have to escalate. You don’t have to make the villain this sort of mustache twitching person in the — who runs the faction yet but you do have to establish a villain. You actually did this in your first draft of the other book where the rival guy served as the villain to the woman who ran her own lab. So as long as there is — now, Jessie went to the capital so that she could protect the numbered before. So what she’s going to want to know, just like we all know, when we go to college, we know we’re out of there in four years, right? We know what our job is when we go to college.

 

Jessie’s not really sure what her job is. So one of the questions that she’s going to want to have answered is, “When do I get to leave? What do I have to do here to leave?” And a think that you could setup which could be fun is they say, “Well you’ve got to complete this training session and then you graduate.” Then she’ll think, “Graduation means I get to go home,” and then of course it doesn’t. If you gave rise to a victim like the kid that you’ve described in — what’s his name? Justin or something?

 

[00:31:56] TG: Yeah.

 

[00:31:57] SC: If you use him as the person that she has to defend while she’s just muddling through until she graduates, that will work. Because he will serve as the victim, the villain will be the rivals, the rival cell or whatever to, maybe she’s part of a four man team, or a six man team, or whatever and they all have to compete against one another. So there’s a whole bunch of cells, faction cells and she’s assigned. The first day she goes into her, the headquarters of this cell and she sees how incredible it is.

 

There’s all the food they could ever want to eat, there’s televisions you don’t even have to turn on, all you have to do is think. You make it all up, and then she discovers the weakness of one of them. So I’m not trying to write your story for you, but what I am trying to do is to give you the freedom and the room to get Jessie to rise in this middle build and to become competent and to protect somebody and to get a lot of information about this entire world on the page before you bring in the guy that says, “Okay, either you give me everything that you have or Justin goes back to shitsville.”

 

[00:33:31] TG: Can I quote that in the book? This is where like, good reestablishing these things that I feel like you told me a dozen times or probably more if we went back and listened. Because when I hear you say “villain, victim and hero and she’s got to step in”, I hear like, “it has to be a big kind of fight or something” and it can be small where it just establishes that she’s going to put herself in between the victim and the villain.

 

[00:34:06] SC: Remember, it’s progressive complications. That’s really what we’re talking about, and what progressive complications mean is that they slowly escalate. So you have a tendency to go from zero to 150 miles an hour. If you can think of these little speed bumps that escalate and slowly the onion is peeled further and further back and we see that, making it up, but maybe there comes a critical moment where she — it’s going to be probably at her bottom fall — when she reveals her specialness. She reveals that she doesn’t die in the game and she think she’s hit rock bottom but that’s when, “Oh my gosh, here she is, let’s get her.”

 

That’s when the real evil comes in, and remember, you want this to be a believable system and nobody rises, nobody evil rises without having some good explanations. So there’s going to be some really good explanations about why these children are being trained to fight, why the threshing happens, why it’s necessary that there’s such a hierarchy of society. So that these are basically building to the speech and praise of the villain later on. I’m sure you haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but the movie Network has the greatest speech and praise of the villain probably ever. But that is sort of what you’re building to. So it’s progressively moving up the pyramid of complication and evil until the real tyrant emerges.

 

[00:36:08] TG: Okay. So I think too here, one thing I failed to do is just really think hard about what this world looks like. You know, I just jumped into writing the next scenes instead of figuring out — it’s so hard to know when to stop and plan and when to just write the next scene and hope that it comes to you.

 

[00:36:29] SC: Right.

 

[00:36:30] TG: Because as you were talking about like, “Is it like this or is it like this? Or maybe this happens?” I’m like, “I don’t know any of that.”

 

[00:36:40] SC: Don’t you know you’re not supposed to tell me that? You’re supposed to go, “Oh, yes, of course. I’ve got this all worked out. You should see the spread sheets I have up on my wall. But for me, this is kind of the fun part because you, Tim, get to create this utopia/dystopia in any way you want and you can think about, “Well jeez, wouldn’t it be cool to meld what Rasputin did in the Tsar’s reign with what the Watergate break in guys did?” Or whatever. It’s kind of a fun way of building the rules of this world and it also — what’s great about it is that when you do this, you’re going to discover that there’s a lot of really good reasons why the faction does what it does.

 

Because if you think about this big society that they’re trying to control, how do you control masses of people? How do you keep people in line to do their work? How do you assign the work? How do you get the things done that you need to get done? How do you defend the country or the nation, or whatever it is, against a rival nation? How did this happen? Why do they have this threshing? There’s a lot of fun answers that you can think about for that. To me, this threshing seems like a great way to get rid of the smartest people in society so that you can maintain control.

 

So if you let all the — if you pick off the smartest people in society and you train them to kill one another then you can maintain your iron grip on everybody else. Because if everybody else watches all the people who seem to be the smartest and the best get picked and then never come back, they’re not going to want to be so smart. So they’re going to be docile, little citizens and they’re going to do what they’re told and they’re going to want to have their credits on their video machines. This could be part of the speech of that the villain gives later on. This is just, think about it, what are we supposed to do?

 

We have to maintain the population control, there’s only so much food for everybody, everybody’s down to the bare minimum of sustenance because our planet’s a mess and we only have limited food. So what we do have unlimited supply of is fantasy. We have to give fantasy to the people so that they stay docile and that they are happy with the little food that we give them and then anybody who questions whatever it is that we need to get done, we have them kill each other. Simple.

 

[00:39:31] TG: Should the next thing I work on, is basically just sketching out the rules and what’s going on in this world and why it’s going on and the faction’s point of view and the people’s point of view and just fleshing that out before I try to write anything else?

 

[00:39:51] SC: I would do that because you’re reaching the point now where this is where Jessie gets indoctrinated into the big machine. She’s going to be given a crash course in her role in this world. Her role is to die for the faction. So this whole process of her going to become a coder and all that stuff is a way to get her to die for her “country”, or whatever. So you need to know how they’re going to do that. What psychological manipulations will they use to get a 12 year old to do what they want her to do?

 

The other thing that you have to remember, and I write a lot about this in the Silence of the Lambs Story Grid book, is that when you are young and you’re just starting out and you’re starting out on a job or you’re in college, you believe in the system. You believed in it. So you take it at face value. “Oh, I’m supposed to get A’s here. Okay, what do I have to do to get my A so that when I have all of my A’s racked up then I can get into a good medical school and then I can get A’s in medical school and then I get my MD and then I become a doctor and then I play golf every Wednesday afternoon. How do I do that?”

 

So you believed in the system, so part of the arc of Jessie, part of the arc of maturation is reaching a point of disillusionment with the system. The disillusionment plot is usually, you know, it’s sort of the adult maturation plot in my theory. It’s sort of when adults have to change their world view, understanding that they way that they thought things were isn’t really the way it works. So that was a very long winded answer to your question but I think taking the time to sketch out, what is — if you had to write a 20 page mini history of the rise of the faction and where it came from, how would you do that?

 

How would you, like we have in the United States, we have three branches of government; we have the executive branch, we have congress, and we have the supreme court. So there’s a very, very hierarchal structure of the United States government as there are in most other governments around the world. How can you, Tim, create something similar to that that would make sense?

 

[00:42:34] TG: So I’m thinking of like Tolkien here and how much he planned, how much he built the world that never actually made it into the book but informed consistently the decisions he made throughout the story.

 

[00:42:52] SC: Yeah, and it’s George Lucas did that too. How many years that he sit around with probably clay models of Obi Wan Kenobi I his back yard? Probably a lot.

 

[00:43:06] TG: Yeah. So, basically I need to think about the history and the rise of the faction, I need to think about like the threshing and what that really is, I need to think about how they’re controlling the population, what’s really going on behind the scenes, who’s in charge at the very top. Probably I need to think too some more about just the overall technology that’s in play and where that came from. You know, I’m starting to lean towards the idea that the threshing and the fight against other factions is all a myth, kind of like in the 1984. Wait, is that the name of the book?

 

[00:43:51] SC: 1984, yeah, that’s — yeah.

 

[00:43:54] TG: Where they’re like bombing their own people so that they would have somebody for them to fight against. Am I remembering that right? It’s been a little while since I read that.

 

[00:44:03] SC: Well, that’s very much such a disturbing story of — it’s big brother, it’s similar in a lot of ways to your stuff. But it’s a very — it’s about two people who fall in love and then they discover that they were setup to fall in love so that they would betray one another because love is the one thing that can destroy big brother and it’s a really horrifying interrogation scenes and it’s very…

 

[00:44:31] TG: Yeah with the…

 

[00:44:32] SC: Yeah, it’s an internal, more of an internal story that has a lot of, like I think big brother does report on the terror and the bombings and all that stuff, but we never go to the battlefield because it’s really about these two people who come together in a loving relationship and how that love is deformed and destroyed and made to be a tool of the tyranny.

 

It’s so dark that I would not — I think my gut is that when you’re doing this sort of 12 year old journey, the threshing has to be a real thing. Because what you’re going to do, if you write a book that has a 12 year old protagonist, you must assume that you’re going to have 10 year olds reading it at one point. 10 year olds don’t like irony all that much. If you promise them that there’s going to be ice cream on Saturday and there’s not ice cream but there’s a fruit salad, they don’t like that. They want the ice cream.

 

So if you’re promising a big threshing conflagration where Jessie has to fight her way out of something and you don’t deliver that, that’s not going to be cool. So I would think about how can you get — is there a story in history that you can rip off, and when I say rip off, I’m just saying that would inspire you?

 

[00:45:58] TG: That is a nicer way to put it.

 

[00:46:00] SC: Yeah. Like, you know, the Spartacus story where there’s the one guy who has to fight so many different people, is there — Joan of Arc could be one where the French armies were getting clobbered until she showed up. Something like that, and model the threshing sort of tactical war on something in history. Like you bring up Tolkien; Tolkien, he was around during World War I and that stuff was just horrifying and it was a war to end all wars because there was so much death and destruction and blood and the trench warfare, it felt as if people were literally going into middle earth to save themselves. World War I was horrifying with the mustard gas and so he was obviously inspired by World War I for the magical worlds that he created. Don’t try and…

 

[00:47:04] TG: So, I don’t get too fancy is what you’re saying? Like, tell the story but doing it in a completely new and surprising way?

 

[00:47:15] SC: Yeah. It’s as simple as that. No, what I am saying is that, don’t try and create something whole cloth. Fantasy and science fiction are in many — they’re commentaries on prior historical events that could come back and haunt us in many ways. So use the historical record as inspiration for your — like for instance Planet of the Apes, one of the great science fiction movies of all time with Charlton Heston. That came out I think in 1967, 1968 and it was all about this dystopian world where man had been superseded by apes.

 

So apes were smarter than we were and they controlled the world and this astronaut lands on the planet and then all these apes are controlling this thing and he doesn’t know what to do and he’s held captive, he’s enslaved. The ending of the movie is so great because we understand the irony of that. But that was a movie about the historical, you know, “if you enslave people, you will eventually be enslaved yourself”. I don’t want to get too deep about it but science fiction and fantasy and this kind of story and this dystopian world that you’re creating, this are sort of fun action stories that do have very strong roots in the historical record.

 

So when you create something whole cloth, you’re really aren’t because we all have so many stories stuck in our heads. But if you can think of something specific like the Battle of Thermopile or the Battle of Marathon or Verdun or something where one person had a major effect on a particular battle, or war, or something, then you can use that story in a way to inspire your for the other one, the one that you’re making up.

 

[00:49:26] TG: Well, the other approach is using it as a way to look at something that’s going on in society and then take that to its natural conclusion and almost like a warning.

 

[00:49:42] SC: Oh absolutely

 

[00:49:42] TG: I mean, that’s how a lot of stories are too.

 

[00:49:45] SC: Yeah, absolutely and you’re absolutely playing with that theme. You’re playing with the theme of our insatiable desire to be entertained and how corporations and governments have figured out, “As long as we give major — we have a 60 inch screen,” — I read an article the other day and the headline of the article was “Three TV’s and No Food”. It was the story of a family that couldn’t afford food, but somehow was able to keep the TV’s on. That struck me as interesting.

 

[00:50:21] TG: That’s the word for it.

 

[00:50:22] SC: So, I mean, that’s why I think your book has some real nice stuff going for it because it’s talking about things that make us uncomfortable and nobody feels comfortable if they ever tallied up how much time they’re in front of a screen during a day, they wouldn’t like that number.

 

[00:50:43] TG: Okay. So I will work on that and put that in some kind of form for you to look at and for us to go over next week.

 

[00:50:52] SC: Great.

 

[END OF EPISODE]

 

[00:50:53] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast.

 

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5 comments on “The Cure for Writer’s Block

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    This was a helpful discussion for my own setting – looking forward to hearing more about this – as always, thanks!

  2. Paul Worthington says:

    Coincidentally, the message after this one linked to a very relevant quote from Da Vinci:

    http://zenpencils.com/comic/davinci/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+zenpencils+%28Zen+Pencils%29

    …sounds similar to this ‘hedgehog’ method.

  3. Your words here, Shawn: “The problem that arises after this first scene is that it comes off as very confusing to the reader.”

    Struck home…

    After an amazing launch, and frankly making some decent money, my LitRPG sci-fi/fantasy started getting hammered with lots of 1 and 2 star reviews.

    What sort of happened: The core readership “gets” the genre, and they sent it into the best selling list for cyberpunk.

    Sci-fi readers picked it up. They got lost, didn’t understand the genre, and hated the book. And some of the reviews were viscous… lol… But, I’m actually very grateful for the whole process. The idea of “re-writing” really hit home, and I’m having fun, believe it or not, fixing this thing, which I un-published it two days ago.

    Major re-writes are in progress. I will re-publish in 6-8 weeks. Isn’t it cool that e-publishing allows this?

    Well, Tim has you telling him about the problems…

    I had several hundred paying customers… And I’m not sure which process, ultimately is more painful, but man, the lesson really really hit home.

    By confusing readers, and drawing in so much harsh criticism, I had to accept that my rush (and arrogance) cost me five or ten grand this month. Those kind of lessons really sink in. I’m stubborn, what can I say?

    But in the end, I’ll make it better, and ultimately accomplish what I set out to do: produce a book that readers enjoy and are happy they bought. I’ll get the money back in the end. More importantly, I’ll be a better writer, which, um, kind of leads to the same thing.

  4. Karen Collum says:

    Hi guys! Totally love your work. Just wanted to let you know that since discovering The Story Grid in September, my writing has gone to the next level and I have you both to thank!

    I’m a published picture book author but have got a dozen or more first drafts of novels on my computer. It always felt like the stories were missing something but I had no idea what! And on those occasions when I had a somewhat decent first draft, I’d start the editing process and have zero clue whether I was making the thing better or worse. I went to editing courses and even did a year-long intensive, and while all of it gave me bits and pieces that were helpful, I didn’t ever find a comprehensive approach that worked for me.

    Well, since September I have binged on all the podcast episodes as well as purchased the book and everything has just fallen into place! I now know how to work out if a scene isn’t working and have the tools and skills to fix it.

    And today I finished writing my NaNoWriMo novel, which is a middle grade man vs wild adventure story. The Story Grid has kept me on task and focussed and has given me so much clarity about the purpose of each scene as I write. I write in Scrivener, so have used the Story Grid elements on the dashboard view of my scenes so I can see exactly where my BH/MB/EP transitions happen, along with tracking value shifts and polarity changes as I go. I particularly love that I get direction from knowing which part of the story this scene needs to be (inciting incident, complication etc) BUT I have total freedom within that to go with the flow and follow plot bunnies wherever they might lead. It’s the perfect combination of plotting & pantsing for me. And because at the end of each scene I fill in my little index card at the front with the Story Grid details, I have to be clear on what has changed for my characters and what has been at stake in that scene.

    So, safe to say, I’m a huge fan! Thank you, thank you, thank you. For the first time in my life I actually feel like not only do I have a quality first draft, but I also have the toolkit I need to go through the editing process and make something that is reasonable into something fantastic.

    Thanks again!

  5. Tina says:

    What will happen during the threshing? I’ll have to wait to find out.
    The Threshing might make a good title for this novel. Or, maybe it sounds too much like a Shirley Jackson story.

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