Writing as Internal Geiger Counter

Still in the lab working up my Story Grid Spreadsheet for The Tipping Point.  Here’s Part Deux of my interview 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 chunk unique was Kristin’s interest in how the writing process brings forth things we never considered before, or pushed down deep because we didn’t want to deal with them.  Even if you never publish a word, writing every day will teach you things you’d never imagine…  There’s magic in the movement from the brain through the fingers and onto the keys.

Kris: Obviously, you changed hats going from editor to author for The Story Grid. What surprised you the most when you were writing The Story Grid? I really enjoyed it. I did read the part where you mentioned on a lark that you would write this to Steven Pressfield and went on from there. What surprised you the most?

Shawn: The thing that is so surprising about writing is you think you know where you’re going when you began. I am one of those people who like to have a roadmap. I like to plan incessantly. I like to give myself checklists of things to do every day. So when I started to write this I thought, “Oh, I know exactly how I’m going to write this. I’m going to sit down and chart out 40 chapters. My first 10 chapters are going to hook the reader into wanting to read more. My next 20 chapters are going to build up the meat and potatoes of my methodology. Then the last 10 chapters are going to be the big payoff. I’m going to give them an example of exactly how this thing is going to work.”

Generally, that’s the way the book works. But to get to that place required a lot of Sturm und Drang, and personal deep thinking, that I didn’t anticipate.

The great thing about writing in and of itself is that when you start a writing project, be it a blog post or a letter to a friend or just writing a recipe down to make pound cake, you think you know where you’re going, and you do generally. I know this is sounding cheesy, but the process of taking what’s in your head, through your body, to your fingertips onto a keyboard and then seeing what comes out really changes and affects. It’s as if that process is changing the way you see the world.

When I started out to write The Story Grid, I thought this is going to be very easy. I’ll do 500 words a day and I’ll knock this thing out in six months. I have to confess I have written things like that before and they worked fine as a ghostwriter, but because this was a personal journey for me, it’s like the culmination of everything I’ve learned over 20+ years. It didn’t work out that way.

I’d start somewhere and then I go somewhere else, and then I would discover a new thing that I hadn’t thought about. Then I had to put that back into my methodology and figure out if that could make sense. When that did work, that would bring up another element.

By the time this was over, it took me a good three-and-a-half years. The Story Grid, which was a fundamental tool that I had using for 20 years, had become very, very precise. I’m still in awe of the end result myself because if you look at one of my very first blog posts on StoryGrid.com, I show the reader The Story Grid I showed Steven Pressfield that I had done, which was sort of like a sine cosine kind of thing. It was the chicken scratchy thing that was kind of interesting. I think it’s pretty neat.

But by the time I finished and you look at the final story grid at the end of the book, you’ll see that is completely different. It’s thematically the same, but it’s a completely different, more precise instrument.

The great thing about writing is it’s a process of self-discovery that is that thing. It is that ethereal thing, that romantic thing, that people love. But you need to learn your craft before that kind of stuff will come to you.

Kris: I don’t want to scare people here as far as you do talk a lot about two different hats. You don’t start out just editing when you’re writing. I think people could look at the book The Story Grid and maybe get that impression.

Shawn: I’m so glad you brought that up because that is really true. Steve Pressfield has a great method, and Steve is a hugely successful, international bestselling writer. His take on The Story Grid is exactly what I would recommend to anyone. I was inspired to take this concept of his called The Foolscap Method, which is one page. One piece of paper. You basically divide into three sections. You have your beginning, your middle, and your end. You answer a bunch of questions. This is before you begin your project. You answer a bunch of fundamental questions – six questions I cover in The Story Grid – and you just write them on that piece of paper.

Then you take a deep breath, you walk around the block, you turn off that guy who’s answering the deep questions and you go into your writing room and say to yourself, “I’ve got a beginning, middle, and end here. I’m going to write my first draft. I’m going to finish with this ending. I know the middle and I know the beginning. Now my job is to do a first draft, and I am going to flat-out write and take whatever the world gives me in my brain with that guide. But I’m not going to edit myself. I’m not going to change my sentences. I’m not going to go back and rewrite what I wrote yesterday.”

The goal of the writing at the beginning is to get a draft, and the draft is whatever it ends up being. It could be 30,000 words. It could be 80,000 words. If it’s a shorter book, it could be 10,000. It could be whatever it is your goal is.

If your goal is to write a mystery novel, you should know how long a usual mystery novel is, which is about 60,000 or 80,000 words. Then your goal for that first draft would be to write 60,000 or 80,000 words. Once you have that first draft, then you go to The Story Grid.

The Story Grid will help you inspire that one page, that foolscap list of things you need to get done for your first draft, but you shouldn’t really kill yourself over The Story Grid until you have a draft. Then you can use the principles in The Story Grid to analyze the draft and make it much better. You can take it from a C- to a B and then to a B+, depending on how many drafts you go through it.

It’s important to remember the first draft is the beginning. That is really your start point. Anybody who follows features films or movies knows that shooting 150,000 feet of film is the raw material that they give to the editor in the editing room and he makes the story out of it. That’s the way you should look at writing, too.

Kris: You’ve been at the top New York publishing houses, now co-owner of Black Irish Press. What’s the number one bit of advice that you would give to writers?

Shawn:   Know why you’re in it. If you’re in it to get some sort of ego satisfaction and third-party validation by being published by a major publishing house, that’s okay. At least understand that’s what you want. If that’s what you want, then take the steps necessary to get what you want.

The other thing I’m going to say about that is I used to think, and a lot of people have asked me, “Why didn’t you just take The Story Grid to Little Brown or Random House and have them publish it? If you did, they’d probably put it on the New York Times bestseller list. They’re really powerful.”

That’s a very big possibility that could have happened, but the reason why I didn’t do that was there’s something really to the notion that to give away the information that you’ve accumulated in your life, your career, and in your life’s work to people who are desperate for that information in a crystal clear, easy-to-understand, and reasonable manner is more important than to try and sell 5,000 copies in the first week on sales so you can make the New York Times bestseller list, so that I can tell the checkout lady at the grocery store that I’m a New York Times bestselling author. That means nothing, absolutely nothing.

I can say when I was an editor and as a publisher, I’ve had tons of books that were New York Times bestsellers. Hundreds of millions of copies of stuff that I’ve been involved with I’ve sold. But I get far more satisfaction when somebody says, “You really helped me fix the sticking point I had in my mid-point in my book from that post that you wrote.” That’s far more satisfying to me than a book that I worked on that was on the New York Times bestseller list for 13 weeks. I have to say you probably need to get on the bestseller list at some point just to make you feel like you’ve been there.

My single advice is know why you’re in it. If you’re in it to serve yourself, that’s reasonable. Do what’s necessary to get whatever it is that you need from that experience. In the long run, if you serve other people and you give them the fruits of your knowledge, from your career or your life, and you do it in a way that’s respectful and not exploiting them, that’s going to make you feel much more secure and happy.

The flipside to that is you’re going to find financial stability that way, probably better financial stability than you would by selling your stuff to big publishers.

Kris: Right. I’m hoping The Story Grid becomes a textbook and you can save all of those writers . . .

Shawn: From your lips to God’s ears, Kris.

Kris: I also wanted to ask you, since you’ve been in this book world for a while now, what would you most want people to know about the book world now? I know it’s changing a lot now. It’s a really interesting place now.

Shawn: It is. The thing to remember about major book publishing right now – and this is a crucial element and it’s something that they still have not quite figured out – is the major book publishing companies right now are in the business of hits. They’re in the Hollywood studio model of trying to get the billion-dollar box office sensation. That’s what they call front list in book publishing.

Front list book publishing is really exciting if you’re chosen to be part of that arena, but very few people are chosen for that. Even if you are, chances are, in the long run, you may not have a career.

In book publishing what has become a derogatory term now, is what they used to call the mid-list or genre publishing. That’s where I started out as an editor. I rose to the point where I was in the business of doing the big book and finding those big hits when I moved from St. Martin’s Press, Dell Publishing, all the way Doubleday.

But what was really fun and the most exciting for me was when I was in the mid-list genre business. That was when they would publish a lot of writers in individual genres and test the market to see if they could find and build an audience for a particular writer.

Most of the great writers that we have out today, like Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and James Lee Burke and I’ve had the pleasure to work with those guys over the years, they started there. Robert Crais’s first book was called “The Monkey’s Raincoat”. It was a paperback original published by Bantam Press in 1989. The first print run was probably 5,000 paperback copies and it won the Edgar Award for best original paperback mystery. Then he wrote another one and that one sold maybe 6,000 copies, and on and on and on. Now Crais is the number one New York Times bestseller, but it took him a good ten books before he reached that pinnacle.

Now the major publishers want you to be on the bestseller list on your first novel. Even if you make it, not that writers make it in their first novel, if their second novel doesn’t do better or if they fall off the list, the publisher is kind of like, “Well, thank you, but you’re too expensive now and we’d like to give somebody else a chance, so good luck to you.”

Where does that leave the big writer at that point? It leaves them actually in a place that’s pretty great, which is finding your own audience and publishing to your own fans, finding your fans and communicating with them in a way that is respectful and giving.

When The Story Grid was coming together, I said to myself I can either try and jam this book out and tempt everybody with little snippets of it from now until eternity and hope that they’ll buy it or I could just give it away.

The big thing today is not getting people to buy your book so much it is to get them to read it, to get them to actually spend the time and emotional energy necessary to get through a book. It’s a big commitment today. Be respectful of that commitment.

When I started The Story Grid website, I said I’m going to give this away, because if people are enjoying it and they like it, they’re going to recommend it to somebody else. The thing about Story Grid and about theory and methodology is it’s always nice to have a finished product anyway. If they really like it and it’s good enough, maybe they’ll buy the e-book. If they like the e-book, they might the paperback. Who knows?

The first step is to engage people in a way that keeps them motivated and interested in what you have to say.

Kris: The Story Grid is one of those books I can tell. I have lots of books here, obviously, but it is one of those books where you need the hard copy of it and you need it up on the shelf. It’s funny that way. I can see that already with that book. It’s very interesting.

Shawn: Good. I think big publishing and electronic publishing and independent publishing today are two different worlds. They’re both valid, but you should choose which one you want and make a commitment to either one.

Kris: The era of the gatekeepers is swiftly going away. There are so many opportunities to reach your audience directly now.

I’ve heard rumor that you may be doing a conference in L.A. or New York. Is that true?

Shawn: Steve and I have been approached by conference organizers a number of times and we’ve always said no. It’s just not something that we would want to do. We have considered doing something, but we haven’t figured out what that would be. If we do something, it’s not going to be your standard conference. I’m not even sure we’re going to do it right now. It gives me great hesitation. I know it does Steve, too.

There is nothing really as strong as a personal connection one-on-one, everybody in the flesh in a room. The trick is to be able to satisfy what people want out of that experience without feeling like I’m a master of ceremonies in a circus, if that makes any sense.

Kris: Right. I think just being able to ask you questions would be a great start.

Shawn: Maybe we should just have a Q&A day and people can come. We’ll film it and give it away. That’s not a bad idea.

Kris: There you go. I like that idea. I want to thank you so much for joining us today on Wellness Talk.

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.

8 comments on “Writing as Internal Geiger Counter

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Terrific interview Shawn – thanks for sharing it with us. I was glad to read your thoughts on the writing process of The Story Grid, and how much of it was different from what you expected? Cheesy? No. Magic? Definitely!

  2. Doug Walsh says:

    Excellent! Thanks for spelling out the state of traditional publishing and the “business of hits.”

  3. I write to find out what I believe. Took me 40 years to realize it, but that’s always been my why.

    Thanks for introducing me to the work of Robert Crais. Binging on Elvis and Pike the past few months. I’ll be sad when I catch up and have a wait a year between books like everyone else does.

    Confession: gridding the book I’m almost done with feels overwhelming, like hey I’ve already got 3 years in this book (2.5 years of it drawer time, but still) and I just want to be done.

  4. Rick Ranson says:

    While I work on book number five, I’m reading The Story Grid. I could have saved myself a lot of angst and editors’ bills by reading The Story Grid first.

    1. Patrick Maher says:

      Got that in one. Absolutely agree. You should put that up on the Amazon site for The Story Grid, Rick. It is brief, elegant and exactly true and verifiable.

  5. Patrick Maher says:

    The tight and perfectly expressed comment about Robert Crais says it all. That para is loaded and is, itself, the core of a book. Hint!
    Thanks Shawn. Just thanks.

  6. I love people who can commit to say they aren’t exactly sure of where
    they are going and what they will do, I find that instability a great resource and an interesting aspect of what may happen exists. It is If I may add, a substance for great creativity and I thank the story-grid for it.

  7. Shawn, It was great talking with you and really great to have you on the show. Appreciate you posting the transcripts on your Site. Beautiful book, really enjoying it and the inspiration it provides. Thank you!

Leave a Comment