The Wall

Is there a creative wall?  A place that once you break through, there are large amounts of additional resources to tap on the other side?

The short answer is, Yes.  In this week’s episode of The Story Grid podcast, Tim and I explore this idea further.

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

[0:00:00.4] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a 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 soon is Shawn Coyne, he is the author of the book Story Grid, the creator of the Story Grid and he is an editor with 25 plus years’ experience helping other authors write books that work and become best sellers.

In this episode, we discuss how we can actually write more words. We’re all about getting as many words out as possible, especially during that first draft, we just want to cover the canvas, write as many words as we possibly can. Shawn and I talk about what the wall is, when do we finally reach the wall where we can’t write anymore in a given day, is there a wall or is that all in our mind and I also talk about some specific tactics that I use to write more in less time.

Let’s jump in and get started.


[0:00:59.4] TG: Shawn, I’ve been doing some kind of experimenting with how much I can write in a day and because I’ve always kind of had this sense where I kind of hit a wall and I’m like, “Well that’s, you know, I’m going to just write until I hit a wall,” and then last week, the wall came at like 700 words and I’m like, “Well that’s good enough.”

So what I did, is like, “I’m just going to start the next scene and if I get a hundred or 200 words in, I’m not feeling it, I’ll stop.” But as soon as I kind of push past and got a couple of hundred words in, all of a sudden, everything started flowing again. So then I was like, “I wonder how hard I could push this?” So last Saturday I wrote 6,200 words almost in one sitting. I was on a flight, I had to switch flights and then I wrote the rest there.

So I’m just curious, your take on just that, how much writing can you get done, are these walls just in our head? ‘Cause I’m like, “Dang, 6,000 words in a day, that’s significant if I could do that once a week that would be significant.” But I also haven’t been trying to do this for years. I’m just curious with all the writers you’ve worked with and everything, we talked a little bit a few weeks ago about writing habits but just kind of like getting the words down and hitting the preverbal wall or whatever. What is your experience in there?

[0:02:34.6] SC: That’s a really interesting thematic question because I’ve been thinking about this myself. I was meeting with a couple of friends and we had sort of a campfire the other night and one of my friends was telling me about this guy he knows who was a navy seal. He met the navy seal when he was doing an endurance run called tough mudder, which is kind of like the Spartan race and my friend does it.

[0:03:06.4] TG: Yeah.

[0:03:06.7] SC: Yeah, he does that all the time and he loves doing that stuff and he loves to challenge himself. He was telling me about he had trained so hard to do this tough mudder and he finally got through it and he was exhausted and he said, this other guy just sort of showed up that day and somebody said, “Hey, why don’t you do it too?”

He was like, “Oh okay, he did it and he beat everybody.” My friend over to talk to him and it turns out he was a navy seal and he said, “You hadn’t prepared for this, what’s going on?” He said, “Well, there is a principle that we sort of learn in Navy Seal school,” and I’m probably messing all this up so please if there are navy seals out there, take this with a grain of salt because it’s third party.

I think they would agree with the concept here. The concept that the navy seal told my friend was, we understand because we were put through such drastic training that your brain will tell you that you’re completely shut down after 40% of your effort has been expended. My friend was like, “I really don’t understand what that means.” And he’s like, “Okay, well, for example, if I ask you right now to go over and do pull ups until you can’t do anymore, you’ll probably do between five and eight or 10 or however good a shape you were in.

Then, if I let you rest and I tell you to do some more, maybe you’d be able to do one or two more every 10 minutes and my friend was like yeah, that makes sense. He said well, if I were to tell you that, if we continued that pace, I would be able to get you to do a 110 more if we didn’t worry about time and I gave you as much time as necessary to regain your composure, you probably wouldn’t believe me. He said that’s true. Your brain is constantly trying to reserve your energy stores.

So when it comes to writing, and also this is something I learned from watching that TED talk that your friend Josh — is it Josh Coffman?

[0:05:17.4] TG: Josh Coffman, yup.

[0:05:18.7] SC: He did a great TED talk about the 20 hour rule, how you can become confident if you give 20 hours of dedicated energy to one particular thing and you really crack down and concentrate on it. It was a terrific TED talk and one of the things that Josh said in that talk was, the things in our lives that we think are so difficult are emotional barriers more than they are physical or intellectual barriers.

It’s really our emotional makeup that stops us from really doing those things that we think are impossible. So if you combine those two things and you understand that your brain is really going to shut you down after 40% and it’s going to say to you, “You’re absolutely exhausted, you’re not going to be able to do one more pull up.” But if you give yourself a little bit more time to recover and try another pull up and not accept that. You’ll find that you’re going to be capable of doing far more than you believe.

This is the phenomenon of people who say, fall out of a boat in the middle of the ocean and they survive for 15 days floating on an oar and you say, “How are they capable of doing that?” That’s the thing about human capacity is that we never even really approach our limits. When you hit that wall at 700 words, your brain serious said to you, “Dude, you are toast, there’s nothing more that you can do.” If you believe that and you stop yourself, you’re going to do 700 words that day. You know what? 700 words is not so bad. 700 solid words is a good day’s work.

[0:07:04.0] TG: I didn’t say that it was solid words, they were just words. We don’t know yet if they’re solid.

[0:07:10.2] SC: When you pressed on, it’s almost as if a trigger in your brain said, “Oh he’s not going to believe that crap.” It’s like the internal resistance in your brain said no, that didn’t work and then you are able to do another thousand or 2,000 or however many you did. There are a lot of people now that are suggesting that, I think it’s like anything else, you can train yourself to do that and you could bang out a lot of words but the trick is to sort of use both sides of your brain.

Are those 5,000 words usable? You know it probably doesn’t really matter if they’re all usable, if you’re able to get in a consistent effort of 5,000 words a day and you can go on a riff of say 30 days for 5,000 words, that’s 150,000 words in a month. That’s two novels in a month. That’s pretty great but you can’t sacrifice quality for quantity and this is where the editorial head comes in to it. What I would suggest is, make use of those 5,000 words that are really helpful. What do I mean by that?

Here’s what I mean. Say you trained yourself and you’re doing your between three and 5,000 words a day. Here is what I suggest you do. Instead of just going from scene to scene to scene to scene — this is by the way, this is sort of for the pro writer, this is somebody who’s had some novels written, whether or not they’re published isn’t really as important as somebody who is capable of going from beginning to middle to end and finish it.

But if you’re able to do three to 5,000 words, what I’d suggest is, think about doing multiple takes on a particular scene. Say you have a scene that is your intention for that day. You’re able to write that scene in 1,500 words and you’ve got a couple of more hours of prime writing in your future. Instead of going onto the next scene and if you have a confidence level. Try and do the exact scene only with a switch. Instead of say writing it from the point of view of one character switched to the other side or come up with a different climax or crisis based upon the same intention of the scene.

Specifically, say you have to write a scene where you’re writing a love story and it’s the scene where the lovers break up and you’ve decided that they’re going to break up at a thanksgiving dinner and they’re going to break up at the dinner table and they’re going to ruin everybody’s meal. I’m just making this up off the top of my head. This sounds kind of like not a bad scene for a romantic comedy. So using that setup, write this scene from the point of view of one of the lovers and then switch it and go to the other side and then maybe write in third person and try and give it from the point of view of say the patriarch of the family or the matriarch of the family or even the dog.

Something interesting that will make you force your creativity to focus on another player. What this is going to do is if you’re going to do this multiple scenes, you’re going to discover really interesting specificity that you can include in your final draft of that scene. You might discover after writing a first draft, hey, this is pretty good but if you do two more using different points of view or switching something up, you’re going to discover even better little nuggets that you can include in your final draft.

My point is that, if your goal is to do 5,000 words a day, try and make those — it’s like somebody hitting a practicing hitting a golf ball or somebody practicing free throw shots. You don’t just keep doing the same thing, you want to hone your craft. Anyway, I’m going on a little bit here but I think it’s absolutely possible to write 5,000 words a day and the only thing that’s stopping people from doing it are family obligations or personal resistance.

[0:11:49.4] TG: Yeah, how would you put that because that sounds more like a second draft action. If I’m in my first draft and I can legitimately write 5,000 words, should I really stop and do a scene over and over because I was kind of in this mode of just get to the end of the story as fast as possible.

[0:12:06.1] SC: No, you’re absolutely right. You should definitely go from — it’s a race. It’s cover the canvas as quickly as you can, get that first draft done and then as you’re exploring and you put the story grid on your first draft and you discover, “Oh boy, my obligatory scene with the hero at the mercy of the villain scene isn’t really that good.” This is a time to use that 5,000 word to try different things, to make that one particular scene better.

So you’re right, you want to fly through that first draft and then what you want to do is step back and put on your editor’s hat. Go through that first draft and be very meticulous about how well you’ve done particular things, what you’re going to discover are all the weaknesses in the story and then you want to prioritize those weaknesses so that you start working at the most critical weakest parts first and then whittle your way down to the line by line things in your 10th draft.

[0:13:09.7] TG: Yeah, I’m really hoping by next episode I’ll be either done or almost done with my first draft because I’m at 39,000 words and I’m really going to see — push and see how many I can write over the next week. I’m still kind of turning where I’ll hit between 55,000 and 60,000 words if I keep at the current pace which I keep doing everything I can not to stress because I keep writing scenes and they’re like a thousand words. They’re within a hundred words of a thousand words. It’s just driving me insane but it’s lie, I keep saying, “Well Shawn said not to worry about it so I’m just going to keep writing.”

[0:13:50.8] SC: No, don’t worry about it.

[0:13:54.6] TG: Man, it’s like I have…

[0:13:57.0] SC: Here’s the thing Tim, nobody cares about your word count except you. Now, you have to remember that all of those things are ways in which your brain is trying to reserve your energy. So you can end up doing a lot of ridiculous work that you’ll end up cutting or you can come up with just a really fluid, fast first draft that’s 55 to 60,000 words and what you’re going to find after you go through the editorial process.

Is that, that was just your clay, you might have to go out and get some more clay at some point but at the beginning, that’s just your ball of clay that you’re going to form into the final product. Really giving yourself all kinds of crap about word count and how long your scenes are going. As long as you are hitting your five commandments of your scenes, your inciting incident is progressively complicating, you have a crisis question that arises, you have a climax where the action answers that question and then you have a resolution, you’ve done your work.

So as long as you have those five elements your scene, I say this all the time, any short story, Baby Shoes for Sale, Never Worn. That’s a full short story in six words or however many words it is, I’m not thinking very clearly right now.

[0:15:35.1] TG: It’s just that I got that. I’m doing pretty good of just sitting down and writing but it’s the analytical thing saying, “It’s supposed to be 80,000 words, 60 scenes, so 1,500 words per scene and you’re not doing 1,500 words per scene so you’re not going to hit 80,000 words,” and it’s like tapping at my head.

[0:15:55.8] SC: Let it tap. You know it’s BS, don’t worry about it. Don’t try and push it away, you’re going to have a thought, everybody has a thought just say okay, there’s that thought again but just keep writing.

[0:16:08.1] TG: Okay. Yeah, it’s been a lot of — I continue to have fun with it and really enjoy the different… my favorite parts are the really violent parts. I just love — I keep looking at my scene list and I’m like, okay, just a few more scenes so I get to really fuck’er up.

It’s been interesting but yeah, I’ve really enjoyed the writing process and like I guess about last week. It’s continued to just make it so much easier to just move to the next scene but that has helped with kind of pushing through those word count barriers. I usually feel that kind of release of like, “Okay, that’s all I’ve got,” at the end of the scene.

Especially when I was on the plane. I promised myself, “I’m just going to write until I literally feel like my eyes are going to fall out of my head,” and so I would get to the end of the scene and I’d feel tired and I’m like, “Okay, I’ll start the next scene and see what happens,” and then I get rolling and I’d feel good, I’d get to the end of that scene, I’m like, “Okay, I’m — just one more scene.”

I just kept doing that. Where I finally was just like, “Okay, I got to stop,” and I looked and it was 6,200 words. It got me thinking, I’m like — but that was also after three days of life not letting me write and I was basically making up for days I couldn’t write. I was, I was thinking, “If I could legitimately average 2,000 words a day, that’s 700,000 words a year. That’s insane.”

This is probably the most consistent I’ve written over a long period of time. I’m trying not to get too excited about it but it’s like, if I could legitimately keep this any kind of pace going like this place of continuing to create a lot of work and keep that going.

[0:18:08.8] SC: Now you know why Stephen King, he doesn’t take many days off like maybe two a year and then even those two days, he lies and he parks anyway. He doesn’t want the mojo to leave. The other thing is remember all those days when you were in high school or college and you had a paper due and you didn’t do any work for month’s, right?

The night before that paper was due or the weekend, you were able to crank out that 10 pager and was it the best work? It was probably as good as you were probably going to do anyway. We have the capacity to do so many different things and writing, it’s willpower. A lot of it is willpower and word counts and not letting yourself off the hook and saying, “Well I’d put in a good day’s work and I’m going to stop now.”

Just saying, “You know what? I’m going to press.” It’s like in basketball when you’re down a few points, you pressed the other team in the back court and you’re able to get a turn over every now and then and score. If you press yourself, sometimes that’s going to happen and other times when you press it’s just, it gives you nothing but irritation and no fun. You got to get in the mojo and ride it when you can. I’m glad that you’re doing it.

[0:19:34.4] TG: Yeah, I want to mention something other that’s really kind of out there but I was talking to a guy about it yesterday and I thought I’d bring it up here. So a year and a half ago, I switched to the Colemak layout of the keyboard. Do you know anything about multiple layouts of your keyboard on your computer?

[0:19:56.9] SC: No, all I know, I learned how to type with QWERTY, that’s all I know.

[0:20:00.9] TG: Yeah. QWERTY, it was basically designed so that type writers wouldn’t jam which is not so much a problem anymore and there’s been this other kind of variations but there is this very mathematical one done called Colemak and so a year and a half ago, I always promised my wife I would not work between Christmas and New Year’s and I would always work between Christmas and New Year’s.

A year and a half ago, I was like okay, I know how I can solve this, I’ve always wanted to switch from QWERTY to Colemak. I switched it on my computer, I popped my keys off and I could type about three words a minute. I didn’t work because I literally couldn’t do anything except practice typing. Well, I track my words per minute before I switched and then I practiced, it took me probably about six months to get to full proficiency but now I trend over 10 words a minute faster than I did on QWERTY.

I was talking to somebody, he’s like, “Well does that really matter?” I’m like, “Right now, if I’m locked in in writing, I can do 1,300 words an hour.” That many words per minute, 10 words per minute, of course I don’t type straight for an hour but if it’s even like 30 minutes an hour, that’s an extra right there, 300 words a minute that I’m typing just with a different keyboard layout.

Just throwing that out there, it was one of the most excruciating learning things I ever went through because I type for a living. I was literally, when I went back to work after New Year’s and I’m trying to email people, I’m typing it like 20 words a minute and it’s taking me forever but over time, I’ve gotten significantly faster than I did with QWERTY which as a writer was worth the investment, is kind of my thinking.

[0:21:55.4] SC: No, it is. Because just think about the main line from your brain to your fingers. If you’re capable of speeding up that process of your thought to your fingers, so significantly, you’ll be able to tap your unconscious in a way that you really aren’t so great at doing. I learned way back literally on a type writer. I started in book publishing when there were only typewriters.

You think I started in 1956, but it was 1991 or 1992 when I started in book publishing, nobody had a computer. We all had to bang out copy on typewriters and we had onion skins and we had white out. Going from that era…

[0:22:48.0] TG: I don’t even know what an onion skin is.

[0:22:50.9] SC: Oh okay, well an onion skin is something that you would use to make a photocopy. So if you wanted to do multiple copies of something, you would have onion skin behind or in front of your regular piece of paper and the onion skin would pick up the impression as well. You would basically make two copies as you were typing one. This is like when photocopying machines…

[0:23:21.6] TG: Oh interesting. Tell me more about the past.

[0:23:21.9] SC: No, I mean — yeah, it was really, really something. You would literally, all business happened over the phone, there was no email. So things weren’t as fast and the art department would bring along, you know, they would bring a huge piece of cardboard called a mechanical that would have the art work on it and you would literally write on the mechanical and again there would be a big piece of onion skin on top.

Anyway, so going from that point of really analog work pace to the digital pace. I can type so much faster because I had to learn how to type on such a primitive machine but I can’t even imagine switching my typing thing but I’m considering it because that’s substantial.

[0:24:16.7] TG: I feel like it. You’re always thinking faster than your fingers can go and being able to write faster has been helpful. Although it was funny because I’d literally can’t type on a QWERTY keyboard anymore. Which 99.9% of the time doesn’t matter because I’m always on my own computer, but I switched gyms a couple of weeks ago.

The guy was like, “Oh so, what do you do?” I’m like, “Oh, I’m a writer.” “Oh, okay.” He’s like, “Well here’s the screen, go ahead and fill out your information,” and I looked down and it’s a QWERTY keyboard so I was typing with two fingers like typing out my name. He’s like, keeps looking at looking at me and looking out. I know he’s thinking, he just told me he was a writer, what in the world.

I was like, almost started to try to explain it but the answer was so incredibly nerdy that I’m like, you know what? I’m just going to let this go.

[0:25:14.0] SC: That’s funny.

[0:25:17.1] TG: Yeah, I’m just trying to — I’m really taking the hard, getting that first draft out as fast as possible and there’s a little bit of pressure because we can’t really talk about the editing process until I’m done with the book. I feel a little bit of pressure of like, I need it for a strap so we have something to talk about each week. I’m really trying to just do everything I can to fast track this first draft and get it out and just have it so I can stop and go back and just start doing the kind of story grid editing process on it.

[0:25:51.9] SC: That will be great. A lot of the questions I’ve been getting recently is all about genre stuff. The fact that your genre is a very primal one, it’s action story with super heroes and maybe I don’t even know, I haven’t read any of your stories. It will be, it should be really fascinating to be able to read it and then we can go hopefully scene by scene and figure out the obligatory scenes and conventions of that genre, the super hero genre.

I think a lot of people want to know more about that. I’m happy to do that and I think it will be really fun to be able to show you and everybody who is listening how an editor actually — what they do when they get a manuscript.

[0:26:44.9] TG: Yeah, because I’ve thought of like, “Maybe I should send Shawn a little bit of it?” And I’m like, “Well, the first time I showed him a scene, he pretty much tore it apart and the second time, he said it was better but full of cliché’s I’m like, my psyche cannot take that right now. I’m just going to wait till I’m done before I show you anything.”

[0:27:04.8] SC: Good choice.

[0:27:07.1] TG: One obligatory scene in the super hero genre, especially the first story is like the transformation story. How did this person go from a normal…

[0:27:17.4] SC: The gift.

[0:27:17.7] TG: Unless it’s Superman, you got to figure out — even if it’s batman, you always get the story of his parents dying and then something happening that kind of triggers his revenge. But then you have like like Spiderman, it’s always like, he somehow gets caught in a lab, and a radioactive spider bites him. So I thought through that pretty heavily of, “Okay, what’s my scene where the hero has that happen?”

Try to come up with something interesting and something. This will be interesting because the idea I had was maybe I shouldn’t be talking about this? I’m going to do it anyway. Maybe a little cliché but I really tried to — because I wrote it after we talked about the Power of Tin. That was probably the first significantly violent part of the story where there’s lots of blood, there’s lots of vomit and she basically dies.

So I tried to, while I was riding that, if I want people reading this to just cringe and just maybe if you don’t like blood, get sick to your stomach a little bit. I just can’t kept thinking, “What is the worst version of this happening? What is just the absolute worst?” I just kept cranking it up as much as I could. I haven’t read it but I just had a ball writing it because I really was in each of these things, just trying to see how could I make this just as horrific as possible?

[0:28:53.7] SC: The thing — let’s just talk one minute about what is the super hero story actually, what’s it about? I’ve been thinking about this a little bit. I think it’s this.

[0:29:07.0] TG: You’re asking this on like a bigger scale?

[0:29:10.7] SC: Yeah, I want to…

[0:29:12.2] TG: You’re not asking what mine is about?

[0:29:14.1] SC: No, I meant, globally. What’s the global theme, we’re always worried about theme and we’ve talked about it a lot but what’s the global theme of a super hero story? I’ve been thinking about this a lot and here’s what I’ve come up with.

A super hero story is about an individual person discovering a gift within themselves that makes them unique. It is their job to discover what that gift is and then to use that gift to defend what they believe is of value in this world. If you think about that, that’s really a great theme because it speaks to each and every one of us at the deepest level.

I think we all are searching for that thing that we’re supposed to do on this earth. I don’t mean to get metaphysical here but it’s kind of once you discover the particular gift or the thing that you’re supposed to be here to do, then you have to make the choice to express that gift in a way that will defend and promote the things that you believe in most. What you value most.

This is what I think the super hero stories are always about. You can look at Spiderman. Spiderman’s about “with great power comes great responsibility”. Batman, he’s a vigilante to bring justice to the world. So super hero stories are all at their core these thematic transformation stories of a person who discovers their gift, embraces their gift and then expresses the gift to defend and promote the values and the beliefs that they hold dear.

[0:31:27.8] TG: I feel like that’s interesting you put it that way because it is like… because Peter Parker and Spiderman is kind of the typical do good, he never worries about going bad in most cases. Where he’s like the goody two shoes super hero where like batman is always on the edge of just flipping over and being a villain himself.

[0:31:51.7] SC: Right.

[0:31:52.0] TG: But they both have that this particular opportunity and power I guess that they used to protect what they think is most important. That’s interesting.

[0:32:05.2] SC: It also speaks to the hero’s journey because the hero’s journey is about the protagonist having a call that they have to go out of the ordinary world into the extraordinary world and return with knowledge and a gift for their contemporaries. So the super hero story really expresses that in a very external way. Somebody gets bitten prior to Spiderman becoming Spiderman, he’s just a nerdy kind of high school kid who people kind of make fun of.

Then once he’s bitten by the spider, his powers starts to come to him and he has to leave the ordinary world and into the extraordinary world to express and to deliver justice to society. The super hero story, a lot of people make fun of them but they’re very primal because they do directly lock in to Joseph’s Cannibal’s Hero’s Journey in a way that is very easy to track.

Whenever you get stuck in a super hero story, you need to think about what’s the gift? How did they come to — this is where there obligatory scenes and conventions come in is you have to think about those critical moments in the hero’s journey as they relate to your specific genre. The moment when they leave the ordinary world to the extraordinary world will be the scene when they discover their power. That scene needs to be a critical obligatory scene that will transition your story from ordinary to extraordinary and usually it’s going to come at the end of the beginning hook of your story. Is that close?

[0:34:06.0] TG: This is why we can’t talk about this. No, because mine’s like in the middle of the middle build.

[0:34:10.4] SC: Well, that’s okay too. It depends. Every story has its own rhythms and cadences. The fact that I’m telling you the conventional place where you would put it, that’s my job is to know structural rules so that you will learn about them and you can make a decision based for example on Rocky, the movie. I know I bring this up a lot but it’s really an important thing.

We have 20 minutes of movie before anything really happens. It’s just Rocky living his life in this really low down way. There’s a lot of foreshadowing and setup that goes on in that 20 minutes but you don’t get the big end of the beginning hook is when the inciting incident of the entire Rocky story is when Apollo Creed says, let’s give the bum a chance.

Let’s take this bum and he’ll get to fight me. That doesn’t happen until — I’m saying 20 to 25 minutes into the film. The fact that your transitional moment where your character recognizes her power doesn’t happen until the middle build, it may be fine. It may absolutely be fine. Don’t freak out.

[0:35:30.8] TG: Interesting your take on it because — yeah I’m not currently freaking out but we’ll see later because the way I structured it was that the move from the ordinary world to the extraordinary world had nothing to do with the power, it had to do with her getting pulled into this new place.

In that place is where all the bad stuff happens and she doesn’t really even face her power until the end of the book. Most like it happens and she can’t really explain what’s going on but she keeps trying to act like it’s not there and part of the…

[0:36:11.9] SC: That’s fine, that’s denying the call.

[0:36:14.8] TG: Yeah, part of the ending payoff is when she has to finally face what happened to escape the final all is lost moment, she has to use what happened if that makes sense.

[0:36:29.8] SC: Yeah it does and that could work, it could work. A lot of times when you’re writing a multi book, epic story, what you do is, especially in trilogies, what a trilogy of novels are three separate books that represent the beginning hook, the middle build and the ending page of the global story. Like the Star Wars Trilogy, before the new movies, that was very much in that tradition.

[0:37:04.0] TG: Yeah. So it’s been, again it’s that overarching just like I setup the story and now I’ve got to write it and it will be that part of going back and systematically going through it and seeing what works and what doesn’t. Maybe that will be when I reach my dark night of the soul.

I had lunch with a friend of mine and she’s about finished with her first novel and it’s funny because I was telling her about Story Grid, we hadn’t talked in a while so I was telling her about Story Grid and the podcast and everything. She’s like, “Why do you need anything but on writing to learn how to write?” And I’m like, “Well because I don’t like Stephen King’s whole start writing and the story will find you. I’ve tried that, it doesn’t work.” She’s like, “I can’t write any other way.”

I’m like, “I don’t know, it just doesn’t work for me.” I remember trying to write these stories from scratch and it was like I would just end up lost in the woods somewhere. She was like, cause I kind of had gotten to the point where I just believe Stephen King just does it because he does it automatically. It was just interesting to talk to another beginner writer that she’s like, “Every time I try plot out my story, I couldn’t do anything. I just had to start writing.” It’s just interesting that different takes that people take on this stuff because that would never work for me. Ever, ever, ever work for me.

[0:38:44.0] SC: Yeah, I say god bless her and I hope a lot of people feel that way and I’m going to sort of press down my initial reaction to that which is, “Oh, okay. Let me know in six months how you’re feeling.” But then again, what do I know? All I know is the craft that I’ve learned that that has worked for me and some people don’t embrace my very analytical process. It’s absolutely fine to reject what I say because a lot of people — it’s like some actors are just naturally gifted.

I was a failed actor and I was around so many extremely talented actors that it was depressing because I wanted every little trick and craft book I could find that would make me be half believable on stage and then some other people would just go on stage and your jaw would drop because all you wanted to do was watch them the entire time and they were completely believable. It seemed as if they did know, none of the work that I was struggling with.

I think there’s probably a similar situation in every craft. There are some editors who don’t have any system like what I have and they’re very talented and they get the job done and they help their writers and they would poo poo what I say and they say I’m a crank and that’s absolutely fine. So your friend, I hope that she is one of those people who does have that extraordinary gift. But I will also say this, if she ever finds that the gift is failing her, understanding story structure and craft will be immeasurably helpful to her.

Here’s the thing that I always say to people, “Do no harm.” It’s not going to hurt you to understand the structure of storytelling and the history of all the people far smarter than I am who from Aristotle to Robert McKee who have battled this stuff and have come down with some really great tools to help you as you’re moving along in your work in progress.

Some people attack me and say, “I just don’t get it. I sit down and I write and this great story comes out.” I say, “God bless you, good for you. You probably don’t need my stuff but if you find yourself struggling and having difficulty figuring out what’s not working in your book then I’d suggest looking at these tools and this craft. It’s going to help, I promise.”

[0:41:49.5] TG: So what is your advice — so assume I can actually finish this first draft over the next week, we can have like, what is your advice about what to do with the draft? Should I put it in a drawer, the preverbal drawer for a month or should I — what’s going to be my first step after it’s done?

[0:42:13.6] SC: The first step would be to — I wouldn’t put it in a drawer. I think certain people would do that and take a week or so to chill out before they dive in to the editing but the first step that I always do when I read a book is I read it and then I know generally whether it works or it doesn’t work and usually if it works then I’ll have a general sense of where it could be better.

That’s not very helpful. After I read it, what I’ll do is I’ll get a stapler and I’ll staple together all of this things and go scene by scene and I’ll analyze each scene and say to myself, “Okay, what happened here? What was the core event of the scene? Did it move from positive value to a negative value or negative to positive or negative to double negative or positive to double positive? Did it have an inciting incident? What was the inciting incident? What was the degree of reversibility of the turning point?”

I can really start to narrowly focus, it’s like focusing on microscope and I would do that scene by scene and I would say to myself, “Okay, what’s the main genre here? What’s the external genre, is there an internal genre? What are the obligatory scenes and conventions of the external genre that this writer chose to write in? What are the obligatory scenes and conventions of the internal genre?”

And I’ll write those down and I’ll say, “Did he deliver on each of these things that should be in this book?” And then I’ll check them off. Yeah, that’s scene 17, could be a little bit better. There’s a million things to do and we can do that but to talk about it now is probably less helpful than to actually do it when you have a draft.

[0:44:04.6] TG: Yeah, I guess I had this thought that the first thing I should do is go back and fix things that are broken in a kind of more global sense. We talked a bit about characters that you don’t use enough or realizing like, “Oh, I didn’t connect these two dots from the beginning to the end of the book.” I was thinking kind of fixing kind of global issues that I already knew about and diving into…

[0:44:30.8] SC: Those aren’t global issues.

[0:44:32.7] TG: Really?

[0:44:33.5] SC: You’re talking about continuity problems and I always say continuity problems until much later.

[0:44:41.1] TG: Really?

[0:44:42.0] SC: Yeah, the reason why is this. The thing that you have to deliver, just fundamentally is a great hook and then you have to be able to jettison that reader and surprise them into waiting deep into the depths of your middle build and keep surprising them and keep making them promises that this is going to really pay off. Hang in there.

You have to pay it off at the very end. That’s simply what a story is, it’s like a really good joke. You got to hook them, you got to keep them interested and then you’ve got to surprise them with an inevitable conclusion that will make them very exciting, it will give them a catharsis ideally.

[0:45:31.1] TG: Two days ago I finished 11/22/63 and the whole book, I kept thinking, voices in my head now, I kept thinking like, “Okay, what’s the inevitable end to this story?” I kept flip flopping, I couldn’t make a decision. Once I got to the end, I was like, “This is the only way it could have ever ended.” It’s funny you say that catharsis. There’s books I cry in and all this kind of stuff but this was the first one.

I read the entire — it’s a long book, a thousand pages or something. I read the final word and I sat there for about five seconds and I just started solving. It was like, I read the whole book with a dry eye. It was something about — he just ended it so perfectly and I was like so happy and sad at the same time and I’m like, he is just, I was like this perfect ending to it. It was funny when you said catharsis because that’s exactly what it was. I was fine, I was fine, I was a complete wreck.

[0:46:39.4] SC: Those are the things you really need to focus on in your editing from the very start. Here’s the trap that a lot of people get in to is, “Hey, you know, it’s not so hard to fix a continuity problem. One of my characters is only in one scene. I know, I’ll pop him into six other scenes and I’ll make those choices and there they are, and oh, I can check that off.”

But that’s not going to do you any good if you had a weak hook. If your payoff is just sort of blah, and this goes back to what we started talking about at the very beginning of this podcast about what can I use 5,000 words a day for? After you’ve banged out your first draft and you’re capable of doing 5,000 words a day, this is where the 5,000 words a day can really payoff is in not allowing yourself to accept that first draft scene because if you do, it’s not going to be as good as it can be.

You’re going to be at 20% of your capacity instead of — you’re not even going to reach 40%. What I’m saying is that. Look at those climactic moments of the beginning hook, the middle build and the ending payoff and ask yourself. Where are you going to find those? You’re going to find those in the conventions and obligatory scenes of your genre.

Find and check those to make sure that they’re really innovative and interesting because those are the things that your genre readers are really going to be looking out for. If I read a mystery and the big reveal of the killer isn’t so great, I’m going to be mad. I’m going to be like, I just read 60,000 words and the killer turns out to be the butler. Are you kidding me? The butler? I can’t tell you how many books end like that. So don’t allow that.

That’s got to be your first task when you’re editing is you’ve got to really press yourself to make sure that the beginning hook and the first thing is, are you hooking them? Are you paying them off? What’s your beginning hook? The beginning hook of 11/22/63 is, there is a portal that a guy can go back and maybe stop the Kennedy assassination. That’s a really good hit hook, right?

[0:49:02.9] TG: Yeah, yeah.

[0:49:03.4] SC: The ending payoff is, what happens? I know, he didn’t stop the Kennedy assassination but you never know, like Quentin Tarantino killed Hitler.

[0:49:13.8] TG: I don’t want to talk about it.

[0:49:15.5] SC: Okay.

[0:49:16.0] TG: Yeah, that was a good one.

[0:49:18.1] SC: Yeah, Quentin Tarantino killed Hitler in Inglorious Bastards and it worked.

[0:49:23.5] TG: Yeah.

[0:49:24.2] SC: Because he knew what his genre was. He knew what his genre was. It was not realism. Quentin Tarantino does not deal in realism, especially in Jango Unchained and Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Bastards. That is not realism, it’s a fantastical Tarantino world. He’s created his own Tarantino genre by mashing up all kinds of stuff.

I can get in to Tarantino until I’m blue in the face. The guy is a genius and if the reason why is, if you want to ask somebody about a genre convention, if you can get Tarantino on a phone and ask him any genre and his conventions, he’ll tell you because he knows them all, he plays with them and he makes them and he makes them so innovative and interesting and each and every one of his films. I don’t love every single film he makes but each on, you’re just going to have to like, you go for the ride and you’re like, “Wow, I can’t believe he did that.”

[0:50:26.1] TG: I have said, now, I haven’t seen Hateful Eight yet. I will say, he’s gotten soft because again I don’t know what happened in Hateful Eight but all of his recent movies, the good guy wins. Jango Unchained, Inglorious Bastards like name them off, like his early movies, I could barely stomach, and I didn’t like them. But everybody dies and ends up just in horrible situations and I like his newer ones because I’m like, “Okay, the good guy’s going to win. All of this horrible stuff is going to happen.”

[0:51:04.0] SC: Yeah, he was dealing with some serious social issues, it’s slavery and the holocaust and Hitler. You can’t have the bad guys win those.

[0:51:14.7] TG: Well I wouldn’t put a past him.

[0:51:16.2] SC: Yeah, that’s true.

[0:51:17.9] TG: It’s interesting because as you were saying, as you were talking about hitting those obligatory scenes I’m like, “What was it that set me up to be so devastated at the end of 11/22/63?” I can’t pinpoint, the book is just so long, it’s hard because he kind of goes off on this tangents really well. I never got bored but anyway, are those the ones that you would say, if you go back and you look at the obligatory scenes, you look at the hook and the payoff, that’s where he’s setting you up to have that moment at the end of the book?

[0:51:55.5] SC: Yeah.

[0:51:58.5] TG: That’s what I’m thinking of, “Okay, I have a general feeling of what I want my reader to be feeling at the end of the book and where I want to get them.” I’m just struggling with have I done the job to get them to that point yet? Do they they care about the…

[0:52:14.2] SC: No, I guarantee, you have not done the job yet. You have not done the job but that’s okay. You have to accept the fact that your first draft is not going to get the job done. It’s perfectly reasonable. I mean nobody has written a perfect first draft that delivers on all cylinders. Nobody. The trick is, understanding that you’re not going to deliver everything in the first draft but also understanding that you’re going to have the tools and the analytical know how necessary to fix what’s broken. Not just fix what’s broken, it’s really difficult to even not identify what is broken.

[0:53:01.5] TG: That’s my biggest worry. I feel like…

[0:53:04.5] SC: Oh I’ll tell you what’s…

[0:53:08.4] TG: That’s good to know. Yeah, I was just — I told you about realizing, I had the wrong antagonist. I like all this stuff immediately dropped into place once the muse told me who the antagonist was. Then starting to like, as every scene he shows up and now I’m like turning up the dial. Again, thinking back to Harry Potter and it’s like, she went so far into making you just hate Snape. Because she was setting him up as like the patsy.

He ended up not being the bad guy, even in the first novel and then ultimately. But it was just like, I can see where again this is where maybe you can pull some strings Shawn and get JK Rowling on the phone with me. But I’d be interested to see, like did she after her first draft go back and say, “Where can I make the reader hate Snape even more? Where can I really turn up that dial so by the end of it, everybody hates him and just knows he’s the bad guy? That way, my twist at the end” — because the more you hate Snape and look at him, the more surprised you are by the twist ending.

[0:54:18.8] SC: Right.

[0:54:20.3] TG: So I’m just starting to think about those things as I continue to write the first draft of making sure, I’m trying to turn those right dials to make sure everybody’s looking the way they’re looking and feeling the way I want them to feel so at the end I will hit him exactly how I want to hit him.

[0:54:38.5] SC: Well good, that’s great stuff to keep in mind but also remember, don’t edit while you’re writing. If you were so concentrated on the editing when you were writing, you wouldn’t have switched the antagonist because you would have been constantly trying to prove yourself right and not open to a different direction that your unconscious was pushing you toward and identifying that direction and going with it was absolutely the right choice.

So it’s this delicate balance, it’s not really a balance when you’re writing your first draft, you always need to sort of just follow your words, follow your unconscious and if it says, “You’re going to make this turn,” all of a sudden, a bomb’s going to go off in your book and you’re going to say, “I don’t want a bomb to go off in my book. Just let the bomb go off and then try and figure out how to fix it.”

[0:55:32.3] TG: All right, all right.


[0:55:35.3] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For all things Story Grid, you can go to, sign up for the newsletter, read the transcripts of this show, there’s lots of resources there, you don’t want to miss any of that. Along with that, we have all of the past episodes and show notes at

If you’re interested at all in learning how to type in the Colemak layout that I mentioned in this episode, I have a link to the system that I used to learn how to type in Colemak. Again, switching from QWERTY to Colemak was mentally excruciating, it was really hard to learn, it took me about four weeks so I could type it any kind of normal speed and actually start getting things done.

But over the following months, I actually ended up increasing my overall typing rate. Now I can type a whole lot faster. Actually just this morning, I was able to type 1,400 words in an hour. I highly recommend it if you want to give it a try, it’s really hard but it’s one of those things that you do once and it really helps you for the rest of your life. So you can check that out in the show notes at

As always, thanks so much for listening to the show, sharing it with your friends, leaving reviews, our iTunes reviews continue to go up and every single one of them I read, and I really appreciate. So thanks so much for your support of the show and we will see you next week.

8 comments on “The Wall

  1. Annamarie says:

    Thanks guys, love listening to you and realise that my “problems” are mostly the same, you are pros and I am only a beginner,( apart from the tories I tell myself ) so I must have chance after all. L&B A

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Checking in here late today – just finished listening – as always, a great discussion! (Haven’t thought of onion skin or Wite-out in years Shawn – bad memories from my secretarial years in the 1970’s — LOL.)

  3. Peter Templar says:

    This is a scintillating conversation. So very helpful. Where were you two when I was fifteen and knew everything and needed you? I must admit though I just don’t understand the phrase, “Cause I’m like. or “I’m like”. What is it a simile for? What are you saying? Surely it’s not too much for writer to say, “I felt.” or whatever it is you are saying. I know this will be deleted in the interests of keeping the site positive and warm and friendly. But this is positive and warm and friendly. It is just asking that an attempt is made to find a writerly alternative to, “Cause I’m like” or “I’m like.” This is all so erudite except for this ten year old school-kid phrase that peppers it.

  4. augustina says:

    Instead of switching to Colemak, can you write your novel faster if you use a voice typing device? You know, the thing that types what you say. You could have it type as fast as you can speak, hopefully.

    1. Marvin Waschke says:

      My experience with voice has not been good. After an hour or so of voice typing, my throat is sore and I am sick of hearing my own voice. Your experience may be better. Last I heard, the free voice recognition software with Windows is better than the ones you can buy, so it is easy to try it out, if you have Windows. I understand the tool is there, but it is hard to find.

  5. Helen Powel says:

    Dear Shawn Coyne, dear Tim Grahl, from the other side of the ocean (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) I stumbled on this website by accident, got the book and now I listen to the podcast every Tuesdaynight while doing the dishes after a maybe less productive day. You address all the struggles I am dealing with as a writer and you and your podcasts feel like a true lifeline. Thank you!

  6. Marvin Waschke says:

    I switched to Dvorak about twenty years ago and have not looked back. I had badly injured my left shoulder and elbow when a minivan hit the bike I was riding. I had surgery and I couldn’t work for several weeks. Before the accident, I had been thinking about learning Dvorak, a keyboard layout that has been around longer than Colemak. As far as I can see, they were designed with similar goals. I don’t think Colemak was available then. I decided to give Dvorak a try.

    At the time, I was about mid-career as a hard-charging computer programmer and my hands had begun to go bad: carpal tunnel, wrist tendinitis, ulnar nerve entrapment, and other things I have forgotten. They had quit asking my name at the hand therapy clinic.

    I learned Dvorak using several free tools on the Internet. Switching the keyboard layout to and from Dvorak on Windows is easy. I had lots of incentive to learn because I soon discovered that I could type longer using Dvorak before the pain got me down. When I went back to work, my hands were less sore and continued to improve. My typing speed also improved, but I have no idea how much. I am not a speed typist.

    The upshot is this: Dvorak kept me going at a point when I was afraid I would have to switch careers. Colemak may be as good or better; I don’t know. But if you have hand issues, think about moving off qwerty. As Tim says, it is not easy, but, frankly, I curse the day qwerty was invented.

  7. Mike says:

    My issue is with the flat style keyboard. It forces your hands and arms into unnatural positions and slows down the typing process. It also causes more fatigue in my experience.

    I have a Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard. I can type 5 times faster
    (OK maybe I’m exaggerating a little) than the regular flat type. It took me long enough to learn QWERTY, I don’t have the desire or energy it would take to learn a totally new layout.

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