In this week’s episode Tim and I talk about how to establish writing habits. The big takeaway is to write with intent…
To listen, click the play button below, or read the transcript that follows.
[0:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is the show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl. I am a brand new fiction writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works and joining me soon is Shawn Coyne, the creator of the Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid and an editor with 25 plus years of experience and he’s helping me figure out how to tell a story that works.
In this episode, we talk about writing habits. We talk about how writers get their writing done, when they get it done in the day and Shawn even shares a couple behind the scenes stories of writers that the has worked with that were really interesting. We also just dive in a little bit into what a writer’s life looks like and my own fear of creating.
So it’s a great episode. I think you’re really going to love it. Let’s dive in and get started.
[0:00:56] TG: So Shawn, I’m finally going to be able to commit the time to writing that I really want to. I just finished up a big project of work and my promise to myself was after that, I was going to set aside a certain amount of time to write every day or work on my book every day, I guess I should say and so I started that yesterday.
So I am two days in, but I am thinking a lot about writing habits and how people get the writing done and how people get their books done and I would love to get your behind the scenes input on how writers really work because you hear people like Stephen King that say write a thousand words every day and he probably does write every day.
But then, I hear about these authors that have a year and a half book contract and basically they start writing their book three weeks before it’s due. I had a client one time, he told me he’s like, “Tim, you know there’s the deadline that the publisher gives you, but that’s not the real deadline. There’s actually a secret deadline that they don’t want you to know about.
[0:02:00] SC: That’s true.
[0:02:01] TG: He’s like, “But really, that’s not the deadline either,” and he ended up finishing his book three and a half months before it was published than his original deadline was supposed to be nine months or 10 months or something. So I was curious, what have you seen out there as far as good writing habits or bad writing habits or how do authors really work on their books?
[0:02:26] SC: Well, this is a really great question because everyone is different, but I will tell you what I find in my career and all the hundreds of writers I’ve worked with and I will put myself in one of these categories. There are two categories of a writer; there’s the writer who has to physically do it every day or they become impossible to live with.
It’s their reason for being on the planet, and Steve Pressfield is like this guy. Steve doesn’t have any word count that he’s shooting for. What Steve does is that, and I know this because I’ve worked with him for 20 years and we talk every week if not more and basically what he does is, he starts every day with a single intent.
He doesn’t say, “Oh I’ve got to get 500 words done or I’m a bad boy.” He sits down and he has a single intent. So what that intent would be could be anything from, “My intention today is to go through my outline for my next project and to really nail down and not allow myself to accept mediocre, half-assed ideas for a particular major turning point in the story.” That could be one of his intents.
Usually his intents are scene based or multiple scene based, and when I say that and I talk about this a lot and I couldn’t give people this advice enough. I think the way to really laser focus on your work without getting too out of your head is to work on scenes and so when Steve does something, be it non-fiction or fiction, he’s looking at one particular component of a larger whole for that day.
Now, he may be stumped and after five hours of work, he’s out of gas. He sort of goes on the four hour principle, which I think is a very good one and I’ve discovered it myself in my own writing is that you really sort lose gas after four hours and anything that you do after that is almost like wearing a hair shirt of self-flagellation because I think there’s a limit of where you can let your mind and living within your brain, how long you can sustain that.
So that’s the one category of a writer which is sort of like Steve Pressfield. I would say Stephen King who writes every single day, even on Christmas. These are people who need to actively be writing or they feel wrong, they’re physically unhappy. And then the second category of writers is sort of the grinders. Not that Stephen King and Steven Pressfield don’t grind and when I say grind, I mean doing work that it doesn’t feel all that fun but you insist on continuing and pressing through until you finish a particular goal or accomplishment.
So the grinders are people like me who will say to myself, “I have to finish this thousand word post and it can’t be just okay. It has to be very clear and I’m not going to quit.” I give myself Monday, I can write the rough draft, Tuesday I can edit the rough draft, Thursday I have to do my third edit and then I give myself very specific goals and then I can go, and I have done this a lot recently, I can go weeks without writing and what I find is that the longer away I am from it, the more difficult it is to get back into it.
So I think the secret that the real professionals like Stephen King and Steven Pressfield understand is that “use it or lose it”. If you are in the trenches every day maybe it’s not for four hours every day, maybe it’s an hour? But if you’re in there every day, you get into such a rhythm that it’s like anything else. If you’re shooting free throws at a basketball court, the more you do it, if you do it every day, you get a little bit better every day.
You’ll never going to shoot a 100% but you’re going to go from 50% to 60% to 65 and maybe you will get in the upper 80’s after a period of five years, maybe in the 90% but that’s what those kind of writers do is that they say to themselves, “I am a writer.” I think Jeff Owens talks about his too. “I am a writer so I am going to behave like one and my job is to sit down and write for X number of hours a day with a particular intention.” A lot of people — I’m just going to go on a side track here, a sports one.
I had a football coach when I was younger who was a really great coach. He never yelled, he never raised his voice and he would say all the time, “Practice, you always have to have an intention in your practice because you play as you practice.” So if you have an intention when you’re writing or if you have an intention when you’re going to practice say a sand shot if you’re a golfer, you need to say to yourself, “I’m going to hit 25 straight balls from 50 yards out within three feet of the cup or I’m not going to be able to have lunch. Until I do that, I’m not going to have lunch.”
You make little games like this for yourself and you can do the same thing for yourself as a writer. “I’m going to come up with at least 10 different turning points at this one scene before I can have my marshmallow.” That’s the advice that I would give. This isn’t earth shattering advice. It’s really about discipline and intention and just putting your butt in the chair and doing the work and not giving yourself any excuses.
[0:09:00] TG: Yeah, I found that what has worked for me in the past is basically scheduling time that is to work on whatever I currently need to work on. Nothing makes me happier than a fresh to-do list that I can check things off of, it’s kind of strange. So I find when I approach writing like that, you know, “Today I need to check off of my list.”
For instance, the last two days what I have done is finish up the Harry Potter story grid and I just begun to outline some of my own scenes like we talked about last week and started going through some of that stuff but it’s more for me about like, “Okay, I dropped my kids off at a little bit before eight. I can be at the coffee shop by 8 o’clock and I’m going to probably stay there until at least 9:30 and 10 if I can”.
I have this dedicated hour and a half to two hours that maybe the only thing I do and then as long as I am there, I just keep plotting. Wherever I left off yesterday, I just pick back up and move the ball a little bit further down the field. But I find that I don’t write if I don’t have a project. So I am listening to the book, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, have you heard of this book?
[0:10:21] SC: Yes.
[0:10:22] TG: I’m just a huge fan of hers anyway. I love the Eat, Pray, Love, I love her TED Talk about creativity and she’s very much on the kind of woo-woo magical side of creativity. So it’s really fun to hear that take on it, but she talked about in her 20’s of how she just showed up and wrote every day no matter what and I’m just like, “I don’t do anything — I don’t shower every day.”
So the idea that I would do something every single day, I will go through dry periods and then I get projects and those are the projects and then I get really methodical and we’ll work on those every day because I have a project but as soon as that project is done, I have to take a break. I feel strung out if I try to write every day.
[0:11:16] SC: Yeah, I absolutely agree with you on that and I can relate to that and understanding what kind of bear you are is really important, and you and I both have families that we have to take care of and we can’t really shut down the world in the way that other writers can. It sounds like I am making a big fat excuse and I guess maybe to some degree I am, but there is this concept that I’ve been playing on with my head for a long time. It’s this idea of the work-life balance.
What segment of your life are you going to dedicate to your life’s work? Meaning, for writers and for creative people that’s basically living in your head and anybody who knows a writer knows what I am talking about when I say that and that you can be out to dinner with somebody and they’re living in their head. You are having a conversation with them and you know they’re not fully present. They’re sort of nodding along and they are perfectly genial and nice, but you know they’re thinking about something that you just can’t understand what they’re doing.
But what they’re doing is they’re living in their head. They are thinking about, they’re compiling that to-do list in their head. They’re thinking about their intention for their next stage work of writing or at the artist studio or whatever and they’re constantly trying to bring form to a process that is often sporadic and unreliable and scary. So the thing that a lot of creative people do is they live in their mind a lot, creating characters or creating ideas or just going back and forth about, “Oh boy, that wall looks interesting. I wonder what kind of plaster they use for that.”
So a writer that lives in their head, they can’t fully be present with their wife and children sometimes and that’s not good. You need to put that on hold sometimes to actually be engaged with your daughter while she’s practicing the violin and say, “No honey, that was a quarter note and that should have been an eighth note.” You can’t be constantly in your own world thinking about your own shit.
[0:13:52] TG: Yeah, I think this goes — ‘cause I wanted to talk about this too. This comes into that is there are a lot of writers that have actual non-writing, full time jobs and I’m sure you’ve worked with a lot of authors that they’re just getting their book going. What have you seen? For me, up until last year, I had a consultant practice that took up more than a full time job and so when it was time for me to write, I would just get up at 4:30 in the morning and be writing by five and then done by 6 to 6:30 when my kids get up and then my day starts. Is that what you gotta do?
[0:14:37] SC: Yeah, that’s the way I work too when I have a project that I have to get done. That’s how I wrote The Story Grid. I wrote another book with a wonderful writer names Chad Millman about the Pittsburgh Stealers and the Dallas Cowboys and that’s the way I got that done too. So I think there’s a lot to be said for that self-discipline of even just getting the quiet for the four to 5:30 and the great thing about writing in the morning is like working out in the morning. Once you get it done, it’s over and it’s out of your head.
[0:15:12] TG: Yeah, I feel like no matter what I’ve done for the day, my creativity ends at one or 2 o’clock even if I haven’t done anything creative. If I try to sit down and do anything, I’m just like, “ugh” because that’s actually — I did this last spring for about four months and then we moved and then my schedule got all out of whack and then I just switched my schedule back around where I had basically three and a half hours set aside for creative stuff and then I go work out at 11:30.
Then I do business stuff in the afternoon, and I find that’s a really nice break where if I feel like I needed to check my e-mail or feel like I got something to do, it’s like, “No, no, no. I’ll do that this afternoon”, I have my creative time set aside and it’s the first thing I do, otherwise there’s no way that it will get done. If I check my e-mail my day is over. So yeah, it’s interesting. It’s also interesting because I was talking to Joe Konrath, do you know him?
[0:16:18] SC: Oh, I know of him. I haven’t met him but yeah, he’s terrific. He writes his website and he’s one of the first guys to talk about self-publishing in a way that is self-empowering I think.
[0:16:31] TG: Yeah, yeah, so his stuff is great and I was talking to him and he was talking about how his life — because I think I always had this picture of becoming a full time writer is this beautiful glorious, I roll out of bed at 9 o’clock with the sun streaming through my big bay windows and I make my French Press coffee and I sit down at somewhere around 10 o’clock and my writing flows until four in the afternoon and then I kiss my children as they come in from school.
It’s like this kind of magical thing and he’s like, “I have more,” he gets less writing then now that he’s successful and I was listening to, last year, Patrick Rothfuss did a short run podcast with Max Timkey, something like that. Max was one of the creators or the Cards Against Humanity game but Patrick Rothfuss is a very successful fantasy writer and he’s like, “All I do is answer e-mail.”
That’s he’s full time job now is answer e-mail and he has to fight for his writing time way more when he was this nobody and I just think it’s funny as I have worked with so many different authors as well and just seen as they become more successful they end up fighting harder for their writing time than when nobody knew who they were.
[0:18:03] SC: Well that’s true and also, the other thing they always have to keep in mind and this is and this is kind of like another category of writers. The writer who’s writing for, I won’t say the wrong reason but they’re writing for a result. So often times, especially if you are a book agent or a book editor, you will run into people who’ll look at writing as a means to an end.
So they just want to get that book done and they call it their calling card. “Oh, I wrote this book therefore I’m legitimate.” Those kind of writers are often the kind of people who will just do everything in their power to not invest themselves too emotionally in the actual writing of the book and then maybe they’ll do a follow up book later if that can get them say a speaking gig somewhere or whatever.
I guess that’s perfectly valid but I don’t think that those are really the kind of writers we’re talking about especially anybody who has any interest in story grid is somebody who really wants to dive deep into the craft of storytelling and so as anything, if you are a carpenter or a brick layer, the more you do it, the more you practice it, the better you’re going to get.
You’re not thinking about that perfect moment that everything is going to coalesce and come together for you and you’ll have this magical moment like you describe where the light shines through the window and you have the perfect children and that’s what so great about Stephen King’s book Misery is that the lead writer, the writer in the story is fascinated with becoming that big literary figure. He’s sort of like Stephen King in essence.
The lead character of Misery is a writer who writes this very popular sort of quasi romances about a lead character named Misery and he wants to throw that off and write a real book, right? And so he has this great thing that he does when he finishes the book is he has one cigarette and one glass of champagne and then that’s his celebratory moment and then of course, all hell breaks loose when his number one fan finds stranded on a road.
But I think writing habits are just really important and you can be the kind of person like we are, which is project based. Where you say to yourself, “I want to complete this project by X date,” and I always recommend that you give yourself a deadline. And that’s why publishers give writers deadlines because it helps them from getting into this nebulous nitpicky world where nothing is ever good enough and you never finish anything. It’s like people who spend 15 years writing a novel, it’s just they’ve spent too much time on it.
[0:21:18] TG: Yeah, I don’t really, again, I don’t spend that much time on anything. I mean I’m also 34 so I haven’t had 15 years to do anything but yeah, I was talking with a writer last week and she was asking my advice because she’s now over two years into a novel and I’m like, “You’ve got to call it. You’ve got to just call it.” She’s like, “Well, I’ve tried to put deadlines,” — oh this is interesting.
So she’s like, “Well I tried to put deadlines on myself but I never keep them,” and there was this, this is kind of a tangent but people might find this interesting. So five or six years ago, I had done the whole thing where I graduated from college, got super sedentary and gained like a bunch of weight and so I went on this really strict diet for a year and then I ended up losing 50 pounds.
But the way I kept to it is I basically told everybody in my life that I was going on this strict diet. I put it online, I put it out into the world, I told all my friends and I lived in a small town at the time so pretty much every time I went out, I saw people I knew and I basically put myself in a situation where I would be so ashamed that I would stick to the diet, and I did.
I heard this story on a podcast called Radio Lab where these two friends and they both were smokers and they both were big into civil rights. And so anyway, one friend was able to quit smoking but one just couldn’t quit smoking, years and years go by and finally she wrote a check to the Ku Klux Klan, gave it to her friend and said, “If you ever see me smoke a cigarette again, put this check in the mail,” and she never smoke again.
So what I encouraged the writer to do was put something that was so excruciating that if her book was not on sale on Amazon by this day that something so excruciating would happen that she would do it. This kind of like, “Well, you know I want to finish my book by June 1st,” that will never happen but if I don’t know, all the money in your savings account gets sent to the Ku Klux Klan because you didn’t get your book done, I bet you’ll get your book done and out into the world.
[0:23:44] SC: That’s true. That’s true.
[0:23:46] TG: Not that every writer should do that but I’ve done that for two or three things in my life where I’m like, “Okay, I have to reach this goal,” and so I put something out there that is so either shameful or painful. I’ll just do it so I don’t have to experience that shame or pain.
[0:24:05] SC: Well that’s certainly a great strategy. The other thing to think about is when a lot of people get really, really bogged down in first novel-itis. And what I mean by that is that, they just can’t let that first novel go. They’re going to polish that thing until it’s perfect and this is usually the way I’ll judge whether or not a writer is really serious.
Is that sometimes, somebody will send me something that shows great promise, the writing and the ability to craft scenes really good but the story is a mess and there’s just no way to make it work that will be reasonable. So what I will usually suggest to them is, “Okay, you definitely have the ability to write a really strong novel but this one is not it. So here’s my suggestion, put it in a drawer and start a new book.”
And usually what happens is that people who are capable of saying, “You know what? You’re right, that’s what I’m going to do. Can you give me any suggestions on about what a good genre would be for me to explore?” And then we can start having conversations about what they’re interested in, what could be fun for them, what can be an interesting idea.
And the reason I think that people want to hold onto their first novels Tim and anything in general, is that they’re too attached emotionally. Their self is personally involved in the work that it becomes a reflection of themselves in a bad way. It’s almost as if they are narcissistically attached to this thing that they just can’t let go of. Yeah, go ahead.
[0:25:58] TG: I think the other side of that is also because I have seen this in myself when I’ve tried to do it, and I want to talk about how I’ve been feeling lately too, I think it would be helpful. But there’s also this you have this picture of what your life would be like when you’ve reached X or when you finally put that book out into the world like, “My life will now look like this.”
So putting that book out into the world is when at that point, you have this dream that you understand you don’t think you ever reach or you think like, “Oh it will be nice if I got there one day,” or whatever and putting that book out into the world is actually that turning point where you actually have to step into that new world.
[0:26:43] SC: That’s right.
[0:26:44] TG: Of like, “I am not a published writer so maybe for me, it’s been so much putting out the work. It’s the fact that I now have to live with what comes after, good or bad. Does that makes sense?
[0:26:56] SC: Yeah, let me just interrupt for a second and say this about what you just said. What you just described in is the hero’s journey. It’s called the refusal of the call. This is the time where the protagonist refuses to leave the ordinary world to go and set off in an adventure into the extraordinary world.
This is why the hero’s journey is such a large part of our culture and the collective unconscious. Is that each one of us has this moments in our lives that if we step back away from our self for two seconds, we can see what exactly we’re doing. So the fact that somebody is afraid of becoming a published novelist because that will change the way they view the world.
That’s perfectly reasonable, that’s fine but you’ve got to do it. You just have to do it anyway because it’s never what you think it’s going to be. It’s not as good and it’s not as bad and you wrote about this a while ago about just this stupidity of the bestseller list stuff.
[0:28:09] TG: Yeah.
[0:28:09] SC: Yeah, just Wall Street Journal bestseller, New York Times bestseller, whatever it is and the book that I was talking about earlier about the Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Stealers, I wrote that with Chad Millman and it hit the Wall Street Journal bestseller list the first week it went on sale and that was probably in the back of my mind for 30 years of my life like, “Someday, I’ll be a big bestselling writer,” and you know what? It was absolutely meaningless. Yeah.
[0:28:41] TG: It’s so funny because writers will say that. It’s like because I’ve actually been like, “You know, what was that like the first time you walked into Barnes & Noble and saw a copy of your book?” They’re like, “I walked into Barnes & Noble, I saw a copy of the book and I thought cool and then my life is exactly the same.”
[0:28:58] SC: Yeah. No, what happens is you go in there and you say, “Nobody has bought my book. It’s in the full stack.”
[0:29:06] TG: “Why are all of them still here?”
[0:29:09] SC: So you just switch your anxiety from one sphere to another and it’s still the same anxiety. It’s just changed. You’re in a different world but you have the same anxiety. You have to keep — Steve Pressfield and I were talking about this the other day and a lot of people always asked me this question, how do you chose the next project?
The thing that you have to do is the thing that scares you most. The thing that you don’t really want to do because it’s terrifying. That’s the thing that you should really throw down on. All the other projects that seemed kind of safe like, “I will do that thing and I will do that little book and be okay and it will be easy to write,” and those are the ones that you should say, “You know, I could probably do that another time. I need to find the thing that’s going to terrify me.”
Because that will push you into getting better. That will push you into leaving your ordinary world into an extraordinary world. So to think of your own life in terms of the hero’s journey is not a bad idea because what it does is it demystifies your own bullshit.
[0:30:27] TG: That’s like the perfect quote.
[0:30:28] SC: Yeah, it’s all these stuff that we worry about constantly like, “Oh if I do that then Jim Smith down at the plant is going to think I’m a dork.” You know what? He doesn’t care. Nobody cares about you really. You need to demystify your own inner anxiety because it’s just holding you back.
So if you can step back and look at your life and say, “Oh my inability to take on that new client is just like Achilles refusing to go fight the Trojan War,” and then you can laugh about it and say, “Oh, well of course I can take on a client. What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? He’s going to be a pain in the ass and then he’ll have to fire me in three months, so what?”
[0:31:15] TG: Yeah, it’s been interesting because as we’ve gone through this podcast, I’ve been writing a lot of one off scenes and I’ve been trying to learn more about the story grid and I’ve read a lot about here. I’ve done all this stuff besides write and so that’s why I had this big project. I’m basically only really busy in my work about two months a year and that was leading up until this last week. So I promised myself it would become my main job would be writing and then everything else comes after.
[0:31:53] SC: That’s a terrifying decision.
[0:31:54] TG: Right and so — well and it’s funny because the first day, of course all of a sudden all these stuff came up and I’m like, “Oh, well I should probably do these other things”. I’m like, “No, no, no I made the promise and if this is the first day I cannot do it on the first day,” but my wife like, Candice was like, “Are you nervous or whatever?”
I’m like, “No, no I feel good,” and then I actually got to where I was going to start and when I got out of the car, it felt like the first day at a new job. I was fidgety and I was nervous and I’m like, “I hope all my coworkers like me,” I don’t know, I don’t have coworkers. I just have all those jitters and I sat down and got what I wanted to get done that day.
[0:32:37] SC: Well that’s why the intention is so important for your day because once you start having those feelings, you can step back and say, “Oh wait a minute, what am I doing again? Oh, my intention is I have to write that obligatory scene that I promise myself for act two. So that’s what I’m going to write today.” Or, “I’m going to come up with a really great final climax for my entire story.”
Like we talked about a couple of weeks ago, a lot of times when you’re just setting off on a new project, a novel or even a big idea non-fiction work, what you want to do is start at the end. What do you want to leave people with? The feeling that you want them to have after they finished your book, what exhilaration do you want them to have? How could you craft that final climactic moment in a way that will just drop them to their knees and sobbing?
So to think of it in that terms and if you have that intention on your first day of going in to write, who knows if you’re going to crack it or not but you’re going to start plumbing the depths of your head with a very, very strong intention. You’re going to say to yourself, “Well, what are my favorite novels, how did they end? How did One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest end? Oh my gosh, that’s right. Oh, that was horrifying but also so sad and so beautiful at the same time. Maybe there is something I could use,” and we talk about this a couple of weeks ago with the Harry Potter stuff.
What are the things that really struck you as a reader or a viewer that just grabbed you by the guts and ripped you so hard that you just will never forget them because chances are, those moments really affected other people too. So in those early days of your first intention of your new project, think about what’s the big thing you want people to walk away with? What’s the big climactic moment or what’s the theme of the thing that you want to talk about?
Because that way, all the other baloney that you worry about whether or not you’re going to get your thousand words done or if anybody is going to respect you now that you’re not doing what everybody else is doing or whether or not you’re not doing the right thing for your family because you’re taking these two hours away from work. You can go on and on and that’s stuff just clutters through everybody’s mind all the time. You’re not alone.
Just get a really strong intention and again, we were talking about deadlines, a phrase that I like to use a lot is, “Plan the work and then work the plan”. Plan all of your intentions over a period of say six months. From first idea to the end of your first draft and then also, give yourself permission to write lousy stuff because you will. Everybody does.
[0:35:52] TG: Not me. You know it’s been interesting, yeah with that, what I’ve always said is “There’s nothing that will kill productivity like ambiguity.” So just sitting down and not knowing what you’re supposed to be doing is the worst or probably even worse is sitting down with the to-do of writing a book.
[0:36:14] SC: Right.
[0:36:15] TG: You don’t know where to start so I try to set it up where how I finish every day is knowing where I’m going to start the next day, just so I can immediately sit down and start working because I found if I sit down and have to think about what I’m supposed to be working on, I get sidetracked and then all of a sudden, I feel like I need to research a little bit more on Wikipedia.
But it’s interesting now that I am setting the time aside and I am actually going to crack down and do this and honestly, doing this podcast has helped because I’m like, “At some point, they’re going to figure out I’m not actually writing all that much and so I should probably start writing and then I’ll have stuff to ask Shawn about on the next podcast episode.”
I was curious though, now I just wanted to do a reality TV thing here where I’m just curious are there any horror stories you could share about writers like not getting their work done or getting stuck and it taking eight months to breakthrough? Again, I heard about that writer that they had their 10 months to get the book done or whatever and they started three weeks before it was due and finished it and turned it in. I’m just curious, what are those kind of things that you’ve run into?
[0:37:40] SC: Well, I’ll give you a very cryptic story that may or may not be true. You decide okay?
[0:37:50] TG: All right.
[0:37:52] SC: So years ago, I was an editor at a major publishing house and it was my job to bring in big bestselling books. Books that would be able to go out at a level of at least 100,000 copies shipped in the first — and that’s a lot of copies even though it doesn’t sound a lot when you think about movies.
100,000 copies equates to about $1.2 million of revenue right out the door. So because I was doing this big books, I only had to do between six and eight books a year but when you have that much volume invested in each one, if a book gets behind schedule and you are not delivering one of the big titles on time, it can really screw up the entire publishing house because they’re projecting their revenue based upon these books that have to be published at a certain time.
So your friend is saying that there’s the deadline and then there’s the deadline and then there’s the deadline and then there’s the real deadline, that’s absolutely true. Because what publishers have learned over the years is that writers are tremendously unreliable and they always miss their deadlines or a lot of them miss their deadlines.
So anyway, here is the situation. I had a book by a big, big, big writer and he was late and it was such a problem because the fiscal year ended on June 30th as I recall and his book was scheduled to be our huge summer blockbuster release. So what happened was, he turned in a manuscript that was really, it was hard to even call it a manuscript.
We were about four weeks out from having to have the book to the printer, which means it had to be copy edited, it had to be proofread, it had to be designed, it had to be all that stuff. So three or four levels of six sigma evaluation before it actually went to the printer. So my publisher didn’t say to me specifically “rewrite the book” but when you’re under a lot of pressure — so basically what I did was I got on a plane and I went to the writer’s house and we sat down and we rewrote the entire book in a period of 10 days.
[0:40:28] TG: Oh my gosh.
[0:40:30] SC: And a lot of my writing is in that book to this day and we made the deadline and everything worked out but I wish I could say that didn’t happen very often but that happened at least four or five times in my career and it eventually got to the point where I said to myself — now a lot of editors would not do what I did, and I’m not trying to pat myself on the back.
I think it was a tremendous act of hubris for me to do that but what it did say to me and what I did realize is that if I’m rewriting other people’s books, I should at least go out and write one of my own. And that was one of the reasons why I decided to leave corporate publishing and to be more of an independent writer/agent/editor, whatever the hell it is that I call myself.
Because you cannot rescue people from their choices and obviously what happened was the book did okay and he just rolled it over into the next project and it was the same thing that happened after I left the company on his next book and the editor who took my job just didn’t rewrite this guy’s book for him and now the guy doesn’t have a career and he blew up his life and that was his own choice. I was sort of like the codependent to the alcoholic, to the writer.
[0:42:00] TG: “I could save you.”
[0:42:03] SC: Yeah and there’s a psychological problem with doing that kind of thing over and over again which I realized that my hero’s journey at that point was, it was far easier for me to be the guy behind the guy that nobody knows without taking any of the credit or any of the criticism. I was a coward for not wanting to share in the credit or the criticism.
So we started the program talking about writer’s habits and I think one of the first things you have to do as a writer is to accept the good and the bad and make sure it’s all on yourself. It’s all your work and yes, be inspired by the masters, use their structures to inspire you to come up with innovations to particular genres.
Don’t be afraid of being inspired of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and coming up with a similar dramatic climax to your story, but it’s important to really own every word that you write. So these people who avoid deadlines and the writers who are afraid of being criticized or not making the bestseller list or whatever, they’ve got things, they’ve got shit they’ve got to work out for themselves psychologically.
[0:43:24] TG: Yeah.
[0:43:26] SC: Yeah, don’t let your own little peccadillos stop you from doing the work that you should be doing because nobody becomes a writer for fun. They don’t. They’re compelled to do it.
[0:43:39] TG: Yeah, I always say there’s a whole lot other less masochistic ways to make money than writing. But yeah, I’ve been really enjoying, like I mentioned a few minutes ago, that Big Magic book which I highly recommend. I’m actually going to have my kids listen to it, I’m going to do that mainly because I have always — I don’t know whether I got this from my parents or just being raised in America or whatever but that creativity is like, “Oh, well that’s cute. And if you’ve got nothing else to do with your time, sure, go after something like that.”
And so it’s even been hard for me to step into this and to say out loud that I want to write fiction because it feels like wholly unproductive and useless in a lot of ways. She talks about how you have to hold two competing thoughts in your head at all times. One is, “This is the most important work I can be doing and this is also completely useless,” because that is the only way to save yourself from either going off the deep end because you feel like every word is the end of your life or not taking it seriously.
She says it much more beautifully that I do, but it’s been hard for me to one, even admit — because what set me on this whole path back last summer that started this podcast, ended up having me talk to you and start this podcast was a friend of mine. I was talking to him about what I wanted to work on next and he was finally like, “You want to write fiction?”
I’m like, “Well yeah, but I don’t know” and he’s like, “Well, why don’t you just do it?” And I’m like, “Well, I don’t know that I can be successful at that.” So it’s been a big strain for me and even setting this time aside has been like — my wife finally said, “Look, your business has done well. You don’t have to do anything productive for the next three to six months,” she’s like, “Write, just do it.”
I’m like, “Really? At 8 o’clock in the morning when everybody else is going to work I’m going to actually sit down and come up with this superhero novel?” and she’s like, “Yeah.” And still, even as I say it out loud, I get embarrassed honestly is the only word to use. I feel like people are going to look at me and be like, “Oh that’s how you use your time?”
[0:46:06] SC: Well I don’t think embarrassed is quite the right word and I think everybody goes through the same thing who creates, who decides to — essentially what an artist does is that he pulls something out of his brain and he gives it life on earth. So the things that come, the novels and the stories and the architectures and sculptures, these all come from somebody’s brain and to talk about it is impossible until you’ve actually done it.
So this is one of the things that takes a lot of courage is to talk about the process as you are in the midst of creating something and I’ll tell you 99.9% of writers and sculptors and artists, the last thing they want to talk about is the process. They’ll talk about craft but they don’t really want to talk about the process of combining craft with that very ephemeral and mystical element of what’s going on inside our heads and our brains.
Are we self-contained units that aren’t attached to any other form of consciousness and where are we getting these ideas? It’s a frightening concept and it’s when a lot of people just say, “I don’t want to deal with that. I just want to do what I do and hope for the best.”
So the fact is that you are exploring art on two different levels. The one level is craft, which means structuring and figuring out the concepts of story and the form of story and that’s extraordinarily important thing to understand but you’re also now, what you’re now coming up against is that stuff that Steve Pressfield writes about in the War of Art, when Elizabeth Gilbert writes about in Big Magic and what she talks about, and what Brené Brown talks about and it’s all about having that courage to look like an idiot and there’s nothing wrong.
Nobody really does think you’re an idiot Tim and when they do say things or they give you that look like, “Oh boy, Tim’s going to write a novel. What an idiot. There’s no way he’s going to do that.” What they are actually voicing is complete awe of you because they would never consider doing that and it takes a lot of courage to come out and say, “I’m going to explore this and I’m going to do my best and I’m going to do everything I can to learn it but I don’t know that I’m going to be able to write a great thing. I don’t know that I’m going to be successful but I’m going to do it anyway.”
And that is what artists do every single day of their lives. When they go to sit down, they have an intention at work, they don’t know if they’re going to be successful, they don’t know if their intention is going to be realized every single day and 90 times out a 100, it usually isn’t and that’s what makes the work so hard and what it makes it so wonderful when it works.
[0:49:20] TG: Why do people do this?
[0:49:23] SC: Because it’s the most important thing that we do to communicate with ourselves. Think about a novel that was written 150 years — think about reading Moby Dick. That book has a lot of difficult language in that book. You read that book today. It’s still great. It’s still amazing. Read Pride and Prejudice. It’s an amazing story, it’s incredible writing. Those people are immortal because they’ve created works of art that travel through centuries and time.
Now whether or not you or I will ever be able to do that is beside the point but trying is important because you are put on earth to do something and something inside of you is saying that you’re supposed to write fiction. You think you’re silly for wanting to do that. You’re not silly at all because fiction is really important. Stories are so important. I read about it all the time. Stories are what we use to help us learn behavior. We’re inspired by stories, we get warned off by behavior, bad behaviors from stories.
So storytelling and writing and art are what makes us human. They’re the most important things that we do and art can be defined, anything from designing the iPhone to a great short story or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work. That guy is 200 years dead and we’re still talking about him. That’s a pretty cool idea and he would probably be the first one to say, “You know I really got lucky. I have no idea when I wrote The Scarlet Letter that anybody would care about it in 2015” but it’s still being taught in every elementary and junior high school across the country.
[0:51:07] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. If you didn’t know already, every Tuesday we post the transcript to the previous episode of the podcast at Storygrid.com. So if there’s a portion on the show that you want to go back and reference but you don’t want to listen to the whole thing, you can get the transcript right there at Storygrid.com. It’s posted every Tuesday after the episode.
From there, make sure you sign up for the e-mail newsletter. That’s where Sean sends out all his latest stuff and if you haven’t already, make sure you pick up a copy of the book, Story Grid. As always, thank you for your comments and feedback. If you want to reach out to us, you can do that on Twitter @storygrid. You can ask questions, leave comments, let us know what you think of the show.
Make sure you tell a friend about Story Grid. The only reason we do this is to help writers, as you’ve noticed there’s no advertising. We don’t make money off of this. It’s something that Shawn and I just enjoy doing to give back to the writing community and help you become a better writer. So any help you can give us to spread the word to other writers, your writing group, your Facebook group, whatever it is, it really means a lot to us, it helps us keep going and creating more episodes.
So thanks as always for listening, and we will see you next week.