Works, Doesn’t Work

How many times have you read this snippet of a book review, either on or in a major newspaper or blog?

This book is badly in need of an editor.

It is not without irony that these sorts of reviews are most often attached to titles that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Rare is the “where was the editor?” decree for a work of meta-fiction from the writer with an M.F. A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Why is that?

Beyond The Emperor’s New Clothes factor many reviewers succumb to via Alfred A. Knopf’s press releases or advance praise from last year’s bright young thing, “Literary” works are given a much wider critical berth than the commercially appealing salted peanuts kind of storytelling.

The reason why is that there is no comprehensive formal education available for learning the essential fundamentals of Story. Let alone how to take those fundamentals and turn them into clear tasks capable of being objectively (or better still subjectively) evaluated. While reviewers–by the very nature of their critical point of view–profess to have such knowledge, most do not.

They just don’t get “works, doesn’t work.”

It’s as if a person alien to the qualities of life, were presented with a live mongoose and a perfectly preserved taxidermy of a mongoose and asked which one is “better.” The stuffed carcass, while perfectly quaffed and “life-like” is impressive. But given a choice of having to look at a dead mongoose stuck to a plank of cedar and a live mongoose in its natural habitat for four hours, which choice would you make? I’ll take the wild thing over the pretty thing every day of the week. Even if it has only one eye, has matted hair, and is unmistakably rabid. Sometimes, especially because it has those immediately recognizable scars and afflictions.

Others say, quite volubly, that they would choose to contemplate the stuffed animal. (I think they’re putting on airs no matter what they say…)

For me, as long as the thing is alive and I have no idea what it’s going to do next, I’m in.

There are plenty of ways to praise or critique a writer’s sentences, or a taxidermist’s fur fluffing for that matter, but few critics are capable of explaining why some novels or histories or narrative nonfictions read like bats out of hell while others put your right to sleep.

It’s also much easier to attack the bestsellers than it is to de-bullshit M.F.A. fiction. When you get right down to it, the “where was the editor” reviews are not really written to shame the bold name writers who know how to spin a wildly intoxicating tale, but are not the best sentence to sentence. They are written to show off how erudite the reviewer is, be it a Wall Street Journal review or the 1123rd amateur review at

The subtext, of course, is that editors aren’t doing their job at the very least…and publishers are idiots at the worst. Why don’t they help the poor Story savants out and teach them how to write a proper sentence? If they did then the collective culture wouldn’t be subjected to such pablum is the ad nauseum refrain.

But, the reality is that editors are doing their jobs. Very well in fact.

You just need to remember one primary tenet of business to understand exactly why this is so. People collect pay when they satisfy their employers. If they keep the machine that signs their bi-weekly paychecks happy (and that requires pumping in a multiple of cash above and beyond one’s salary, benefits and expenses), they get to keep their job. Just like working at a Wells Fargo bank or at Widgets Inc.

Here’ the thing. Editors at publishing houses don’t work for writers.   Or for the beneficence of literary culture.

Editors at the Big Five brand name publishing corporations (Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan) work for multinational corporations. And would you expect General Electric or Apple or Google to keep an employee on if he weren’t pulling his share of the Gross Revenue load? Would you hire someone who did not hold your interests primary? Of course not.

So, if these editors are doing their jobs, how in the world do these books escape the editorial process? Aren’t there conscientious editors in the world who would never let some of the poorly constructed sentences and/or cliché scenes from ever reaching the printed and/or digital page? Isn’t there a way to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and still create art?

How indeed do the cheesy, poorly drawn line-by-line writers escape without being re-written?

The reason why this happens is that a Story either works or doesn’t work. It either engages the reader or it doesn’t. It’s alive or it’s dead, like our mongooses. And the last thing an editor wants to do is kill a living story, no matter how mangy.

And thus, the oath of the professional editor (one dependent on his sustenance from a multinational media conglomerate or on the vagaries of the independent publishing market) is like that of the physician, a Hippocratic one.

First, do no harm!

But there’s a catch. And the catch is the hypocrisy of the business.

Working “literarily” and working “commercially” can be two very different things. A Story can take the reader through expertly crafted sentences with innovative metaphors that would be the envy of Proust. Technically, its sentence-by-sentence craftsmanship is beyond reproach. And perhaps there are many novels that are honed to line-by-line perfection through a dynamic relationship between writer and a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence editor. But for all of the minutiae skill of these novels, the Story may have absolutely no narrative drive.

This book may “work” literarily, but in no way does it work as a Story. These books are the equivalent of our perfect taxidermy mongooses.

This is not to say that these well tended corpses can’t sell a lot of copies and become bestsellers through the forces of the previously mentioned The Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon…If everyone says it’s great, it must be great even though I can’t get past page 9.

And there are some editors expert at finding these properties that today’s Emperor’s Court will lavish praise upon and make the work that year’s must read…or that is, must buy. But as there are fewer and fewer trusted arbiters of genius in the media these days (there are only a handful of newspapers that even review books anymore), it’s getting more and more difficult to sell copies of a book based purely on its literary cache.

Mind you, there are writers who take on a project knowing that they are more interested in fluffing fur than caretaking a wild beast. For them, a success is defined almost academically. That is, they know they are experimenting with technique and know that getting the attention of like-minded intellectuals is their preferred goal…not necessarily The New York Times bestseller list. They’re pushing the boundaries of form intentionally and understand that when they make that decision will inherently limit their audience.

They’re pros though and thus, they’re cool with it.

Knowing exactly what it is you are doing is the key to managing market expectations.

And making a conscious decision about your project as best fits your goals for that single project is crucial to managing your own private expectations. I think it doubtful that James Joyce thought he’d make a killing writing Finnegan’s Wake or that Samuel Beckett put down a deposit for a beach house while he was writing Waiting for Godot. They knew what they were doing—breaking Story form and taking the chance that the project would die in their desk drawer.

You better believe they knew Story form, though before they chose to deviate from it. Just as Beethoven knew symphonic structure before he pumped it full of steroids with his Ninth Symphony. Those form breaks were so well constructed that they pushed Story structure’s edges out further, giving birth to the stream of consciousness novel and theater of the absurd.

On the other end of the spectrum, a writer’s prose that wouldn’t challenge an eight-year-old’s vocabulary or ability to follow a sentence can be impossible to stop reading. And when one finishes that book, it’s most often disingenuous for the reader to say that he wasn’t satisfied. He may have quibbles, but he read the whole thing to the very last word. Though it will not end up in the pantheon of Western civilization, that’s a Story that abides form.  It works.

So what’s the bottom line here?

Learn the form. Master the form. Then if you want to try and write the next Gravity’s Rainbow, knock yourself out.

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.

22 comments on “Works, Doesn’t Work

  1. Jeremy says:

    Shawn, this made me think of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I put off reading it for a long time because I kept hearing, “Get through the first 100 pages and it really gets good.”
    I didn’t want to slog through 100 pages before finding out if I’d like it or not.
    But I eventually did, and loved the book–even those first 100 pages. I’m glad the editor didn’t cut them out in order to get to the “good part” more quickly.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Jeremy,
      Exactly correct. It takes more courage for an editor not to rip out a faulty, but functional, story organ as it does to perform major surgery. The key thing an editor must remember is that the book is not his. It’s the writers. But when you are the writer…wouldn’t you prefer to have your book’s first 100 pages a bit more…shall we say…on point?
      This is why I think teaching writers how to be editors is a great way to improve storytelling in general.

      1. Jeremy says:

        Agree 100%. I hope any writers still clinging to the “I just want to write and let someone else handle the rest (editing, marketing, etc.)” will come around and see the value in what you’re providing.

    2. Marty says:

      I agree. I am a voracious reader. Once on my Facebook page, for a lark, I started clicking on books I have read. Once I got to over 1000 my finger got tired. Of course this goes back to when I first learned to read. About 14,000 books minimum later, so much Kindle so little time, both fiction and non-fiction, every genre, I do not have the time nor patience to read a bad book past the first chapter. I could not get past the first few pages of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Even though I bought all 3 books in the series, trusting the hype. I gave them to my library.

      I am grateful I bought your “Story Grid” book. Your book defined the essence of storytelling. It helps me stay on track when writing. Keeps me honest to the tale. Thank you so much.

      I read “Gates of Fire” loved it, could not put it down. Looking forward to more by Pressfield. I cancelled cable so I could read more since I am writing 6-8 hours a day. Loved your video, very good explanation of how the “Story Grid” works. I forgive typos when I read other people’s work, life’s too short to nitpick.

  2. Thanks, Shawn.

    I wonder if there are other factors at play in the world of non-fiction with similar potential for complaining that a book needed editing. I would think that instead of Story, a non-fiction book needs to make a coherent case. It seems like, in non-fiction, the size of an author’s platform can outweigh his or her ability to craft a coherent book.

    I’ve read a couple bestsellers that were clearly compiled from blog posts. It was the writers’s huge platforms, as built partly by their blogs, that made the books possible. But in neither case were these books woven into a coherent whole. The editor got the thing to press and to success, but it doesn’t look edited.

    The thing these books had going for them besides platform was that they were driven by helpful insights.

    Helpful insight + big platform = success, quite apart from skill at the craft?

    Those of us with smaller platforms have to have helpful insights, for sure, but I suspect we also have to work harder at the writer’s craft if we want to have our books see the light of day.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Gary,
      Here’s the thing about nonfiction. There are a bunch of kinds of nonfiction.

      There’s prescriptive nonfiction…which will be the genre of THE STORY GRID…in which the book promises to teach the reader a skill. Diet books etc.

      There’s narrative nonfiction…which are book like THE PERFECT STORM or BLACK HAWK DOWN or Steve’s THE LION’S GATE. Narrative nonfiction is STORY BASED. Exactly the stuff I’m talking about with THE STORY GRID. There’s a beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff to these nonfiction stories in exactly the same way that there are for novels.

      There’s the PLATFORM Book that you describe too, which could really be a compilation of posts from the source all in one place, like a collection of pieces from a popular newspaper or magazine writer. I think those are fine as long as the buyer/reader knows what they’re getting. They’re getting popcorn pieces that have no promise of a BH, MB or EP (Beginning hook, middle build, or ending payoff).

      Lastly, there are “Big Think” nonfiction like Peter Thiel’s recent book ZERO TO ONE and Walter Isaacson’s new book THE INNOVATORS. In these books, the writer has a “big idea” that they want to argue. The way they do that best is through Story. That is they use stories to illustrate their points. Thiel uses the creation and selling story of PAYPAL to argue against the current theories about start ups to great effect.

      The bottom line is that no matter what kind of book you write, if you are able to tell compelling stories with BH’s MB’s and EP’s throughout or even just one great one (like A CIVIL ACTION) you are going to get your message across.

      I even argue that the best prescriptive nonfiction uses the principles of Story to keep the reader reading. A great prescriptive nonfiction book will keep you turning pages by constantly promising and delivering fresh concepts from page to page using compelling mini-stories to back them up.

      All the best,

      1. Ava Brenner says:

        THANKS!! for your response on non-fiction writing. I just found your site and was hoping/wondering how I could make practical use of it with my “big think” non-fiction book. Looking forward to learning from you.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Ava,
          Well, big think nonfiction using stories to support the overall thesis has a name. And its name is Malcolm Gladwell. My advice would be to sit down with THE TIPPING POINT and go page by page and see how he artfully hooks the reader, then builds suspense in the middle, and pays off his ideas at the end. The beginning hook of a story (what is called The Inciting Incident) makes a promise to the reader… If it’s a big idea book, the promise is “I’ve studied this thing for a long time and conventional wisdom about it is absolutely wrong…I’ll tell you why that is by the end of the book.” And then the middle part of the book are case studies that are as fascinating (and hopefully) as unconventional as you could imagine. Again, Gladwell is the master at this. Check out Outliers where he makes the assertion that your time of birth and luck are far more influential in your ability to attain “success” than hard work. He makes this idea clear with deep research about law firms and birth rates etc. That’s his middle build. The ending payoff is a reiteration of sorts of your central idea. Big Idea books, of course, are not all that long. The good ones anyway. Driving an entire book with one central idea takes a lot of ingenuity and an impeccable ability to keep the reader interested. You do that by using stories. No other way around it. So if you know how to tell a great story and you have a case study that could be adapted into story form, you’re well on your way.

          1. Ava Brenner says:

            so generous a comment…thank you

          2. Hey Shawn,

            Have you read SMARTCUTS yet by Shane Snow? He does this about as artfully as Gladwell and has drawn much comparison to the latter.

            Snow has nine chapters that illustrate his “big idea”, and every single one of them weaves together multiple stories using the story grid. You get an EP at the end of every single chapter, and it’s thrilling to read! (Even if sometimes you know what’s coming.)

          3. Shawn Coyne says:

            Hi Aaron,
            Thanks for joining. I haven’t but it sounds great. I love that kind of stuff. I’m on it.
            All the best,

      2. Shawn, Thank you! A very very helpful analysis. I’m working hard to use stories in non-fiction in this way. Sometimes it is natural, sometimes not. I need to hone the skill, and your description gives me an excellent roadmap.

  3. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks for the reminder that Story should strive to be compelling instead of prettified. I really enjoyed this post but have to confess that I was thrown into pseudo-post-traumatic shock by the last paragraph’s reference to Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s been almost forty years since I read that book as an undergraduate lit major (full disclosure, had it not been assigned for a class I never would have finished it). It was the brilliant new novel of the day and I was pulled in by the hype until I started reading it. What I remember now is not the book itself, but the experience of grappling with it, and how much I doubted myself as a reader and fledgling writer while slogging through what felt impenetrable and distant, never engaging me in its story. I think that the lesson here is that writers can acquire important clues about “works, doesn’t work” from their experience as readers. Looking forward to future posts!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I hear you Mary. We’re cut from the same cloth. I didn’t get that one either.

  4. Erika Viktor says:

    Check it out! A cool new blog and all these shiny posts that I get to read all morning while drinking my tea! Happy day!

    And as a person who can’t write a pretty sentence to save her life, I am so very glad to hear that my more recent Honey-Boo-Boo style is more commercial than my grad-school compositions entitled “The Opalescent Fury of a Half Eaten Pizza” and “Three is the Color of Blue’s Wanderlust.” I shall now shred those and use them to line the mongoose cages.

    Speaking of, as a breeder of mongeese (a hobby and yes, that is the right plural, look it up) I have often thought of the stuffed vs. live dilemma. My solution: alive for awhile then stuff. I am a grey thinker that way. But we should also ask: what do the mongeese want? This question will surely deepen the simile.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Erika,
      Thanks so much for the gift of immortality! Load off of my mind. And good to know about mongeese too. Thanks for reading and I hope to be of some help.
      All the best,

    2. Erika, you were clearly attempting to write song titles for Tangerine Dream. Do you know anything about playing electronic keyboards? Perhaps you have a future in technoprog.

      1. Erika Viktor says:

        Well–you know about my band. Someday we are going to be small! We’re big now and its a heavy burden.

  5. Walter Trauth says:

    Wow. Lotta stuff here. Good stuff. Great stuff probably but I’m not qualified to judge it. I’m subscribed, looking forward to more and hoping to get qualified. Thank you.

  6. “Even if it has only one eye, has matted hair, and is unmistakably rabid.”

    I laughed out loud.

    I have scratchy vinyl albums which blow the sparkly CD versions away.

    The “live or . . . ” question works for music, as well, where there is an obvious answer.

    Asimov’s foundation trilogy worked. His endless extension of it, not so much. Ditto Ender’s Game. Heart worked; head failed.

    Did Dick Francis change western literature? I think not. Does he still provide endless hours of joyful vicarious escapist experience? Like few others, he does.

    So here’s the question: will the Story Grid help us refine our “works/doesn’t work” radar?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:


  7. Jeff says:

    Great post, Shawn. All I could think of after reading this was Flannery O’Connor’s many quotes on writing, but especially this one:

    “One of the most common and sadest spectacles is that of a person of really fine sensibility and acute psychological perception trying to write fiction by using these qualities alone. This type of writer will put down one intensely emotional or keenly perceptive sentence after the other, and the result will be complete dullness. The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shoudln’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.” — Flannery O’Connor in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”

    I think the fur fluffers can keep their “literary” works. I’ll take a living breathing story that works, even if — especially if — it’s a bit dusty and dirty.

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