Where Did The Story Grid Come From?

When I began my editorial career at one of the major New York publishing houses, there was no systematic process to learn how to edit a Story. That is, how to read a Story, diagnose its strengths and vulnerabilities, and then help the creator heighten the highs and eliminate the lows.

There was no training program at the publishing houses.

There was no course in college or in graduate school.

You couldn’t sign up for Editing 101.

While there were (and still are) hoity toity finishing schools for recent college grads to matriculate through in order to secure an entry level position in the field, these summer programs are more attuned to the business side of publishing than they are to the art.

The assumption was (and still is) that the capacity to edit a story is a mystical combination of intellectual rigor (one must be well read and well-schooled in comparative literature, the classics etc.) and an intuitive je ne sais quoi (a flawless internal Geiger counter that can magically sort radioactive literary or commercial works from the inert rubble piles where they are hidden).

To learn the editorial craft, one had to apprentice. One would sit in the presence and serve someone who had the magical editorial hand, and by osmosis, the mentor’s skills would pass on to the neophyte. Like a cobbler or a blacksmith, one learned how to do by watching someone else do it well and then applying the lessons from those observations in one’s own work. Under the tutelage of an expert who would re-direct the pupil when he went off course, editors were made. This is the way is has worked for decades, even centuries.

But apprenticeship as vocational training is highly dependent upon the “master” role in the relationship. Just who were these master editors and how did they earn their stripes? It’s worth a look at the traditions of book publishing prior to my entry into the field to pull back the curtain.

Even though women ran the show when I came to the publishing (and for the most part still do), editors were what used to be called “gentlemen,” and book publishing was “a gentleman’s business.” What that used to mean was that books were an avocation for a person of means or of high-minded ambitions. A gentleman wasn’t a person who needed or wanted a “job.” Rather, he was one with the drive and desire to give something back to his culture. To be known as a serious man with a real raison d’etre far beyond the goal of living on earth in the sole pursuit of “making money.”

Book publishing, as far as I understood before entering the profession, was not an occupation for millionaire-minded Vulgarians intent on commodifying art and exploiting writers to best bottom-line effect. Well, that was the mythos of the business anyway…a dusty trade where intellectuals could dip their toes into the muck of commerce, put a few pennies into their trust accounts, and pity the average Joes whether they worked on a factory floor or trading floor. What a dreadful life one must lead to burn his days just chasing money. What of progress and ideas?

I was someone with absolutely no clue of what it was I was supposed to do after getting the requisite education associated with the “gentleman’s” life. My friends ran to Wall Street upon graduation and soon drove shiny new cars on their way to their newly acquired summer houses where they drank crisp perfectly chilled Rose wine and spoke of the “market.” I fitzed and fuddled my way year after year, putting off the safe profession I’d spent years preparing for, while half-heartedly pursuing an “acting” career. But I was really just keeping a roof over my head and pizza in my stomach as a messenger in New York with an occasional windfall as a cheesy print modeling job, wielding tennis rackets or wearing windbreakers in The Daily News Sunday circulars.

I wasn’t alone. Book publishing proved very attractive for those of us who longed to distinguish ourselves outside of the soulless “How much money you got?” hierarchy we believed had come to define the American experience.

Book publishing was old school and cool. Admirable even in a crass culture.

Yeah, I wouldn’t make a ton of money, but I would be part of a community of scholars/realists capable of spinning raw Story straw into a few shavings of gold for their corporate overseer, their writers, and for themselves. Enough gold to live comfortably, too, if not like a Hedge Fund king. I’d not live on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan or fly out of Teterboro in my own G4, but book publishing could provide enough lucre to live in one of the finer suburbs of New Jersey. Westchester County was certainly possible too. As a twenty-six year old editorial assistant, I soon discovered that that’s where the Senior and Executive editors lived. And Publishers even made enough to stay in the city.

All I had to do was learn how to Edit with a capital E. And then hone my skills to razor sharpness and that split level in Manalapan would be mine.

There was only one problem. There was no book called How to Edit. I’d have to figure it out myself.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

6 comments on “Where Did The Story Grid Come From?

  1. One thing we’ve lost a bit, as a society, is the real value of apprenticeship. I’d have loved to sit at the knee of a master (I’d take a journeyman, even) and learn one of many trades, but the only apparent choices were to take school classes (about scoring on tests, not learning real skills) and then be the waterboy until I’d been hazed enough to advance to Gatorade boy.

    Greatest reason to write a book: you want to read it but it doesn’t exist.

  2. Don Sturgill says:

    Good for you, Shawn. Your story elicits such a flow of emotion and memory from my Appalachian coal country childhood … that all I can say is: “Good for you.” A man of principle yet resides on Earth.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      You had me at coal country. I grew up outside of Pittsburgh twenty minutes from Weirton, WVA. Coal, Coke, Slag and Ash are in my blood. I’m Blue Collar through and through. For fun check out http://shop.blackirishbooks.com/blogs/standing-8-count.
      All the best,

  3. Tim says:

    Looking forward to delving more into this Shawn… the Silence of the Lambs Story Grid looks intriguing (and also intimidating!). Definitely would love to know the mechanics of it in more depth. The hero/quest narratives are powerful, this looks to take that to yet another level.

  4. Loving this!

    Found a typo. “This is the way is has worked” – the second ‘is’ should be ‘this.’

  5. The Hero’s Journey and how it works with Story Grid. The characters and scenarios. Also, how to learn from one book to write your own.

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