Writers and Self-Flagellation

I’m in the lab working up my Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Tipping Point this week, so I’ll be featuring a transcript of an interview I did with Kristin Costello for her show “Wellness Talk Radio.”  If you’d like to listen to the interview instead of reading the transcript, you can hear it here.

What made this interview unique to me was Kristin’s interest in the Writer/Editor relationship and of what keeps writers from getting the most out of it.

So here’s the first chunk:

Kris: Thanks for joining us on the program. I’m Kris Costello. What a treat we have to day with us. We have Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid. Shawn Coyne is a 25-year book publishing veteran. He’s worked at the top New York publishing houses. He also has worked in independent publishing recently as co-owner of Black Irish Press with bestselling author Steven Pressfield.

He has been a literary agent at major Hollywood talent agencies and he has created The Story Grid inspired from 25 years in the publishing industry. It’s a fantastic book and a must-have for any aspiring writer or seasoned writer. I’m so pleased to have Shawn with us today.

Shawn: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Kris: You’ve had a long and successful career as an editor working for the top five publishing houses, New York publishing. What was that like?

Shawn: It was a very, very heady experience. I started in publishing back around 1991-1992. Back then, it was before the era of computers or e-books or anything like that. It was growing up in the era of old school book publishing, which was a lot of fun. It was very frightening at the same time. I worked at Dell Publishing for a few years and Dell Publishing was a very large mass market commercial publishing unit that would stock those old dime-store novels that you would find in your drug store when you were growing up. Some of my favorite novels of all time would be published by Dell.

I had the honor of being able to work with an editor who edited Elmore Leonard, among many other people. I had a great experience working with her and her name was Jackie Farber.

Then I moved on to St. Martin’s Press, which is also one of the big five publishers now. When I was at St. Martin’s, I was tasked with starting up a brand new paperback line of crime fiction, which was a wonderful experience for somebody. I was in my mid-20s at that point. I really had to just jump right in and really cover the entire spectrum of crime fiction in a very short amount of time. It was very intimidating, but a lot of fun, too.

After St. Martin’s Press, I went to Doubleday Publishing for about six years. There I had a completely different job. My job at Doubleday was to find those big up-and-coming bestselling novelists. I wasn’t tasked with doing a lot of books. I had to move from, say, publishing 80-100 books per year to eight.

When I did that, I had to find people like Robert Crais to publish, who is a fantastic crime writer. Also, in nonfiction, I did a lot of work with sports and celebrity stuff. I did a book with Bill Murray, which was a lot of fun and a lot of stress.

After that, I decided to start out on my own and build my own publishing company, which was a whole other ball of wax.

Kris: I like that. I like that fun and stress combined. How did you manage to do that?

Shawn: The thing about anything that’s challenging and the thing about things that you love is that if you’re really stretching yourself, you’re going to hit a wall and you’re going to feel a sense of panic. It’s been my experience that the more times you do that, you never get used to it, but at least you’ve been there before.

When I took on more challenging positions in book publishing, I found, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make this next leap.” The thing that always stuck with me was, “Oh boy, you said that the last time.”

When you’re constantly trying to push your limits and discover new ways of looking at the world and looking at your profession, you’re never board. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also stressful. You have to reach that point where you’re comfortable in a little bit of stress and also enjoying the stress at the same time.

Kris: Right. You’re out of your comfort zone, basically.

Shawn: Right.

Kris: You worked for the big five publishers in New York. It seems like out of that came this phenomenal new book that you’ve just put out called The Story Grid. I’m wondering how much of everything that you did over those 20-25+ years in editing are in that book.

Shawn: It’s pretty much everything. I’ll tell you the genesis of the book, which is kind of a good story. When I was at Doubleday, one of the people I published was Steven Pressfield. Steve and I have grown to become very close friends. We’re business partners in Black Irish Books now. One of the first books I did with Steve was a book that he wrote called “Gates of Fire” which is a phenomenal book about the Battle of Thermopylae. It’s historical fiction. It’s a very complicated story, and yet very visceral at the same time.

One of the early drafts Steve had sent me, I let it slip. I said to him, “Don’t worry about it, Steve. I’ll just throw the grid on it and I’ll be able to get back to you in a couple of weeks.”

He said, “What are you talking about? What’s this grid you’re talking about?”

What the grid is and what it was then and what it’s evolved to be is a method for looking at storytelling from a very analytical point of view, to look at stories and make it as practical as possible so that you’re not worried about whether or not you’re emotionally turning a reader’s head at any one moment. Instead, you’re learning about the nuts and bolts of what it takes to tell a story structurally.

It’s the equivalent of a CT scan of somebody who’s going into the hospital or checking the blood work to see how somebody’s health is ability going and doing. The Story Grid takes the temperature of the health of the individual story. It’s something I developed over a period of working at the big five publishers and working independently and editing hundreds of books and reading about the fundamentals of storytelling, everybody from Aristotle and Plato, to Robert McKee and George Friedman and George Polti, a whole slew of people who examined the fundamental story structure of storytelling.

It’s based upon thousands of years of smarter people than I sussing out exactly how a story is well-told and then applying that to how to tell a long-form story in fiction.

Kris: It’s fascinating to me just the way you also got it so visually oriented, so you can really look at this and visualize a story and how to create it, how to organize it.

Shawn: That was a crucial thing for me as an editor. One of the things I would often do is say to myself, “I have to make a note of that, that the writer had accomplished a particular story point at a particular time.” In my head, I would say, “I think that was around chapter 17 that Thomas Harris had done a certain thing in ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’”

Over time, I said to myself, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if I could just have a visual graph that would show exactly the movements of each of the scenes in the novel and the moments when very, very large moments in the story happen? If I could track that and see it visually, then I wouldn’t have to keep making all these notes in my head about one particular scene. I would just be able to look at something visual and say that’s where the story moves from desperation to all-is-lost moment.”

That’s one of the things that I love about The Story Grid is it makes everything extremely visual. Something that’s very literal, wordy, and difficult to explain in terms of writing, when you see it visually, you say to yourself, “Oh, okay. I get it now. That’s the point of no return. That’s when the hero loses his way in getting his objective desire. Oh, I get it.”

I love the visual element of it. It’s the thing that writers really respond to. Instead of me giving them a whole slew of notes, I can show them this graph and they’ll say, “Oh, I see. I didn’t do that thing. Now I know what I have to do to fix it.”

Kris: Since you bring up the writer, what are some of the most challenging things that have happened to you when working with writers as an editor?

Shawn: One of the most challenging things when you’re an editor is when you can see that the writer is tumbling down the vortex of self-flagellation. What I mean by that is they have worked so hard and so diligently on a particular work, be it nonfiction or fiction, that they lose their ability to evaluate their work objectively.

If I say to them, “Hey, I think you need to fix this particular scene because it’s not working,” or, “You’re not proving that particular point that you brought up at the very start of your essay,” instead of them saying, “Oh, okay, that’s like a faulty shower in my bathroom that I need to prepare,” and it’s very practical. You know how to repair a shower. Instead of doing that, they say, “Oh, I am the worst writer ever. I’m never going to be able to be successful. This is further proof of my inability to learn anything. I’m terrible, blah, blah, blah.” They can’t get out of it.

No matter how hard I try to explain to them, “Hey, you’re not the problem. You’re the genius who actually had the time and temerity and put forth the effort to create this amazing work. You’ve got the work here. You’ve done that. You’re a genius. Now figure out what you need to do to fix it and take yourself out of the equation. Look at it like you’re building a house. No carpenter, no architect, and nobody in any building art would say to themselves they’re a terrible carpenter because they made a bad right angle. No, what they do is they take out the piece that they made a mistake on and they fix it.” That’s exactly what the writer needs to say to themselves repeatedly. They’re not the problem. The problems are the problem. Just find your problems and make a list of your problems, go step-by-step and fix them. Take yourself and your vanity and your ego and all that stuff and put it aside.

If I had to pinpoint the one thing that writers notoriously do, it’s they self-sabotage. As an editor, I can tell them what the problems are, I can be a cheerleader, but I can’t be the one to fix their book for them. They actually have to do that themselves.

Kris: That’s interesting. I noticed after so many years of interviewing bestselling writers, I can now look at a book and almost immediately get a feel for what’s working and what’s not. It’s interesting to me how many writers that you work with when you actually give them that feedback are able to take that feedback and run with it. What’s your feel for that? What’s that been like for you?

Shawn: That’s a really good point. As I was just saying, the problem is they let their egos run rampant. Once a writer reaches a certain level of commercial success, the publishing company that publishes that writer demands less and less of them editorially. That’s unfortunate, but it makes sense, too.

It’s like if you’ve found somebody who has created something that’s extremely popular and the next book you’re pretty much guaranteed that the same audience is going to come to that book expecting the same thing, and if they don’t get exactly what they want but it’s close, they’ll still buy it and they’re not going to complain.

What happens is that you find these very, very successful writers who, on their seventh, eighth, ninth book they start to check out. This has happened in my career with a number of bestselling writers that I worked with. If somebody says to them, “I really think you need to pump up that climax in your third act,” they’ll look at me and say, “Oh, well when have you sold 17 million copies of a book?” I can’t argue with that.

If I didn’t have the backup of the publisher behind me saying, “If you don’t fix that, we’re going to have trouble publishing your book . . .” And that’s rarely going to happen, because it’s a business first and foremost. If you could publish a blank book and sell a million copies, you would as a major publisher because they’re corporations.

That was one of the things that was an indication. The tea leaves were saying to me back in the late 1990s big publishing is fantastic and everything and there’s a lot of ego gratification about being a big editor at a big publishing house, but when those kinds of things started to happen more and more often to me, that’s when I said to myself, “You really should find a different route of doing what you love without having to placate egos and not say what you think and temper your behavior.”

Kris: Right. You answered my next question, which was why Black Irish Press?

Shawn: Well, that’s a funny story, too. After I left big publishing, I did have an independent company myself for about seven years called Rugged Land Books, which had a lot of successes but it was also faced with the culture of big five publishes. This was pre e-book, too. I was about ten years ahead of my time. The stress level of Rugged Land really took it out of me until the point where I just said I think it’s time for me to try something new.

That’s when I started working again really intensively with Steven Pressfield. Together, when I was at Rugged Land, I published “The War of Art” which is Steve’s classic book about resistance and creating things as artists.

I think this was around 2005 or so, or 2007. Steve and I started working closer and closer together. At one point, “The War of Art” had come up for renewal in paperback. I said to Steve, “Just for fun, we should just not review the paperback license with Hachette and publish it ourselves.”

He said, “Yeah, why not?”

I said, “Let’s do it for a lark.”

Then he said, “Well, we need to have a name for this publishing company.”

I was like, “Whatever. It doesn’t matter.”

Steve came up with the name Black Irish Books, which I think is fantastic. The etymology of it is I have a tendency when I would go into the major publishers with Steve in marketing meetings to not lose my cool, but get a little bit frustrated and show a little bit of my black Irish anger. I thought it was really funny when he said, “We should call it Black Irish Books and we’ll have a boxing glove as our logo.” I thought you can’t really argue with that.

Kris: That’s great. You have to, being Irish. You don’t have a choice there.

Shawn: Thank you. I agree.

Kris: I want to hear a little more, since you’ve had so much experience working with authors over the years, what are some of the most common mistakes that you see beginning authors make?

Shawn: Here’s the big, big problem with beginning writers. It’s a sensitive subject because, for whatever reason, a lot of people think that they can just write a novel on a lark. There’s a funny story about Margaret Atwood. I think she was at a writer’s conference and a really talented neurosurgeon had come up to her and he was saying to her, “You’re such a masterful writer. Wow. I admire your work so much. I’m a neuro-scientist. I’m going to retire in about five years and I’m thinking I’m going to write a novel after I retire. What do you think about that?”

Margaret Atwood said to him, “Well, I think that’s a really, really great idea. In fact, can I ask your advice? Because I’m thinking of stopping writing after my next novel and I’m thinking of becoming a neuro-scientist. How would I do that?”

I think that is the attitude a lot of people have about writing is it’s this creative, being touched by the Gods and given stories in your brain that you can just bang out on a typewriter (or computer now). The fact is you have to study. You have to read. You have to understand story structure and the fundamentals of storytelling in exactly the same way that a neuro-scientist has to learn about neurons and neurotransmitters and the biology, all that stuff.

It’s very similar. There’s a discipline to writing that’s not very romantic. It’s hard work. It’s like learning to be a master bricklayer or any of the great arts of working with your hands. You get nicked up a lot. You get hurt. It’s painful. You spend a lot of time alone. A lot of amateur writers don’t really want to hear about that and they just want you to give them the toolbox and the secrets and let them go and build something from scratch.

The way amateur writers can get better and better and better, you know what they have to do? They have to read. They have to read and read and read and read in the genres that they’re most interested in.

If you want to write a novel like Stephen King, you’d better read all of Stephen King. Why not learn from the master himself? He’s giving you a beautiful lesson book after book after book. If you want to be a terrific narrative nonfiction writer, why not read Erik Larson or John Krakauer or the wonderful woman who wrote “Seabiscuit”, Laura Hillenbrand; who also wrote “Unbroken”?

Those are the things that I would recommend to people who want to be writers. Hey, it’s totally cool if you want to be a writer and I’m not knocking the neurosurgeon who wants to. He can very well learn the art, but it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour rule for writing just as it is for anything else.

Kris: They might want to read The Story Grid. I’m so glad that it came my way because I’ve always thought I might want to be writer, and I certainly have written a lot over the years. Boy, I got that book and I thought, “Kris, you’ve got a lot more studying to do.”

Shawn: Well, you can make it fun. That would be the one thing that would make me the happiest, if it would just ground people and let them know anybody can become a writer. Anybody who applies themselves and does the amount of work necessary can be a very fine writer. Will they be unforgotten for the rest of time, who knows? It’s a craft. I compare it to bricklaying. I compare it to carpentry. It requires that kind of discipline.

The thing is if you love to lay bricks, if you love to build things, and if you love to write, it’s going to be a joy. It’s going to be stressful, painful, and irritating, too, but the joys will always outweigh the labor. The labor is really where you need to get your sustenance, not the results of the labor.

Kris: What a gift this would be to have this as the first text in any high school or college creative writing class. Boy, I tell you, 30 years ago when I was doing that whole thing, that would’ve changed many things.

Shawn: That’s one of the reasons why I wrote it, Kris. As you asked at the very beginning, when I started in book publishing, there was no class I could take to learn how to edit. There was no text. There was nothing that taught me how to discern whether a story worked or didn’t work, or how to help somebody who was having trouble or how to fix something or how to make something even better. I had to learn it all myself. I spent a lot of time doing it because it’s my love. It’s what I love to do. I’m not complaining that I had to work hard because I enjoyed it.

Back when I told Steve about The Story Grid, he said, “You need to write this book because there’s nothing like it out there. There’s no editing course that any person can take.” Unfortunately, if you go to an MFA program across the country, the process is basically you write something, you hand it to 15 of your colleagues and a teacher; and then the next week everybody rips it to shreds and makes you feel terrible without giving you any practical advice about how to make your work better. I think there’s a big problem with that.

One of the reasons why they don’t do anything else is because there really isn’t a methodology to teach people how to do this kind of stuff. I’ll be the first one to say I don’t have the talent of a Jonathan Franzen. Jonathan Franzen knows the material and The Story Grid as well as I do, probably better. I would also say that I think I probably would be able to communicate The Story Grid material better than Jonathan Franzen.

Imagine a situation where you had a teacher who is an amazing writer like Jonathan Franzen with a tool like The Story Grid. I think that would be a really unbeatable combination because it combines the analytical and the creative and gives equal weight. Right now, the weight is too much on the ethereal muses descending upon you and you write a masterpiece.

Kris: That is interesting how it’s somewhat specific to the writing career. That certainly doesn’t happen in the visual arts. No one would expect you to be able to put together a video and edit it without lots of training and things like that.

Shawn: That’s right. It’s kind of shocking. A lot of people, usually business people, will ask me questions like, “What problem did you write The Story Grid to solve?” I always think that’s pretty interesting question because they’re looking at it from the point of view of marketing and advertising. If we had to make an ad, what problem would we say that people have that The Story Grid will solve?

The problem is how to make your writing better without destroying yourself. It’s the practical knowledge that is very, very easy to understand. Applying the knowledge is difficult, but the knowledge itself is fundamental math and fundamental language. It’s not difficult to understand the concepts of storytelling. Applying those concepts isn’t difficult either. It’s just knowing the arena, knowing the things that are necessary, and then going and accomplishing those goals.

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

11 comments on “Writers and Self-Flagellation

  1. I can hear and read the same ideas over and over again when it comes to this stuff, Shawn, and I still learn something new every time. It’s all about the 10,000 hours, I guess, and the complexity of the work. Thanks for sharing the interview.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    I agree with Debbie — hearing some of this again comes at a time when I really needed to hear it. I’ve tried to be easier on myself over time, but old habits die hard. As always, thanks! Great post!

  3. Doug Walsh says:

    Fantastic interview, Shawn. Thanks for sharing!

  4. andrew lubin says:

    “They have to read and read and read.” Absolutely! When I’m brain-locked, I pull out “Gates,” “Bagger” or Robert Leckie or James Brady and then I can visualize the scene and how I want to say it.

  5. jennifer orton says:

    Bored not board.

  6. Tina Goodman says:

    That Margaret Atwood story was fantastic!

  7. As an actual neurosurgeon/neuroscientist who published my first book last year (No Place to Hide, Zondervan/HarperCollins), this interview hit it on the head. It’s exactly what happened to me. I talked to an agent (Kathryn Helmers of Creative Trust) and said, “I have this great book idea.” She read it, and said, “Go learn to write like you learned to operate and then try again. It’s a craft you have to learn.”

    And so I spent two years reading and studying everything I could have found.

    Nothing in all of that work approached the power of Story Grid.

    You’re doing a great thing here Shawn.


  8. Patrick Maher says:

    Try this short five minute insight into Gingko.
    Watch it right through.
    It might help – ‘structure-wise’.

  9. Patrick Maher says:

    This is probably a better portal to Gingko:

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks Patrick. I’ll check it out!

  10. Herbert Exner says:

    I just listened to the great interview

    I picK: “fun and stress”

    It’s about the two-sidedness of risk. Risk of life, work, marketing, writing…investing. Opportunity vs danger. Work hard (run fast…) enough to have fun, but not so hard (so fast) that you suffer from a mental instability (an injury)…

    Because of its two-sidedeness risk can be optimized. Surprisingly enough, (even in finance) only a few understand this bigger picture of risk…think how you can make opportunities and danger a positive contribution.

    And this is what you do, IMO, with The Story Grid in the large and applying the 5 commandments to Big Idea Nonfiction in the small.

    You explain the tools that give your work a differential advantage…

    It’s amazing. You draw a bigger picture of marketing (editor’s work): engagement.

    I’m not a writer, not an editor…but I learn so much. Thanks again…I can’t get “enough”.

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