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Shawn Coyne Explains The Story Grid and Why Every Author Needs It

the story gridShawn Coyne is a twenty-five year book-publishing veteran. He’s edited, published or represented works (in alphabetical order) from Barbara Bush, Dick Butkus, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Brett Favre, Jon Krakauer, David Leadbetter, Alan Lomax, David Mamet, Robert McKee, Matthew Modine, Bill Murray, Joe Namath, Matthew Quirk, Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell, William Safire, Nick Tosches, Betty White, and Don Winslow among many others.

During his years as an editor at the Big Five publishing houses, as an independent publisher, as a literary agent both at a major Hollywood talent agency and as head of Genre Management Inc., and as a bestselling co-writer and ghostwriter, Coyne created a methodology called THE STORY GRID to evaluate, edit and write stories. His goal is to make the work eminently practical…to remind writers that they are not the problem…the problems are the problem.

IndieReader sat down with Shawn to talk about his latest book THE STORY GRID, resistance and not giving up on your story.

Loren Kleinman (LK): Talk about THE STORY GRID. It’s a tool that tells you whether or not your story works. How and why did you come up with this tool? What’s the need?

Shawn Coyne (SC): There’s a glaring omission in writing programs and publishing houses across the United States. And across the world for that matter.

It’s remarkable to me that there is no formal curriculum to teach EDITING.

How does one methodically evaluate a Story? How does one discover the strengths and the weaknesses of a work? And more importantly how does one help the writer take the good stuff and make it great and discover the fatal flaws in his story and fix them?

Sure, there are innumerable forums to learn how to copyedit and proofread…to learn how to make sure that a work’s line-by-line writing is coherent and grammatically correct. That’s not the kind of EDITING I’m talking about.

The kind of EDITING I mean is STORY EDITING, opening up the hood of a Story…detailing and evaluating the internal components…and assessing why the engine sputters or why it’s not even running at all. Or why it has the oomph of a Ferrari for that matter like the book I analyze in the book, Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs.

THE STORY GRID is based on my twenty-five years of experience editing stories. Ultimately, it will teach writers how to become their own editors. And it does so by reducing an entire work to a single sheet of paper…a visual infographic that tells writers exactly where the story is moving along at a nice clip and where it has gone off the rails.

LK: How can THE STORY GRID help authors recognize flaws in their writing? Is the tool a guaranteed path to a successful novel?

SC: THE STORY GRID is a textbook (but with a mini-story about how and why I came to create the methodology so as not to bore anyone to tears) that reminds writers of the Story fundamentals [Genre, Story Structure, Story Form, and Story Unit].

So to begin with, it gives the writer a one-stop source to refresh their craft…like a carpenter’s sourcebook that’s filled with proper leveling techniques, dovetailing, etc. would. It’s a foundational reference book that transitions into a Editing methodology—a specialization of the global craft. It details a three-stage process to test whether or not a particular story is fundamentally sound, which also reveals the strengths and weaknesses therein.

So it’s how to be a carpenter and then how to take those skills and apply them to building a house.

It teaches writers how to create two documents (Stage One and Stage Two) that they will combine (Stage Three) to create a final infographic for their work, THE STORY GRID for their Work.

The first two stages define the MACRO and MICRO of their STORY. They are how to create The Foolscap Global Story Grid and The Story Grid Spreadsheet. These two documents are then combined to give the writer the big picture of their story, the final STORY GRID. They’ll be able to look at this infographic and see where they triumphed and where they failed.

As for a guarantee?

I can only attest to the fact that I’ve used THE STORY GRID to edit and publish over 300 books in my career, with millions of copies sold and with writers whose works have stood the test of time.

If the writer diligently works THE STORY GRID, she will find success.

She will discover any one of the following:

1. The tweaks necessary that will make her book not just satisfy, but enthrall, a literary agent and then an editor at a major publishing house, which will lead to publication at a Big Five publishing house.

2. Or she’ll find that after putting her book through THE STORY GRID that publishing the work independently will be more satisfying. She’ll know her genre and the readers of that genre so well that she’ll be confident that if she can expose her work to that core audience herself, they’ll come back for more. This is the phenomenon that drove discovery of E.L. James and numerous other independently published writers who went on to spectacular Big Five publisher success too.

3. Or, she’ll discover that her book has fatal flaws. She won’t be able to just tweak it. She’ll have to do a page one re-write.

That’s a huge success too in my estimation. It has been my experience that Writing Pros don’t fear failure so much as dreading time waste. THE STORY GRID will tell the writer when to throw in the towel on a WIP and move on. To chock up an unworkable book to experience. To take the lessons learned from the “not ready for prime time” into her next work.

That’s a huge success, one that only the real writer understands.

So yes, I guarantee that THE STORY GRID will lead to success. It will make the writer better. No matter what.

LC: What makes a story work? What are some examples of stories that just “work”?

SC: I’ve had the pleasure to work with master storyteller and Pulitzer Prizewinner David Mamet. I think his definition from his book Bambi Vs. Godzilla explains what makes a story work best. Here it is:

“They start with a simple premise and proceed logically, and inevitably, toward a conclusion both surprising and inevitable.”

Here are some examples from Stage, Page and Screen of Stories that just WORK…

* Long Days Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

The premise is what will happen when all the members of an Irish-American Family get together on Summer Holiday? Oh boy! We know how this is going to end, right? But the ending, while inevitable, is shocking.

* Misery by Stephen King

The premise is “Hack novelist gets saved from sure death by his #1 Fan”.  It’s Stephen King so we know we’re in for some horror. But horror is only the beginning of this rich examination of the dysfunctional relationship between a writer and his audience.

* Gravity written by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron

The premise is that two space station workers get cut off from their space station.  We know that there is no way that Sandra Bullock is going to end up dead at the end of this movie…that just would be too much of a blow to us. So how she ends up not dying is the thing. And boy is it riveting.

LK: How can authors re-envision stories that aren’t working, or that have been left in a drawer somewhere?

SC: THE STORY GRID will remind them of how great Stories are structured, the global form of great Storytelling. Not a formula, form!

While they are reviewing those fundamental principles, the other part of their brains will inevitably start tinkering with the stuff they’ve stuck in the drawer.

This is a crucial reason why THE STORY GRID is such a solid tool.

THE STORY GRID is A LEFT BRAIN experience. As is STORY EDITING. It requires intense ANALYSIS of the structure beneath the Story. And when we are putting all of our focus on ANALYSIS, what happens subconsciously is that our RIGHT BRAIN gets a breather.

The LEFT BRAIN is all about ANALYSIS AND LOGIC. So as we’re really grinding it working through THE STORY GRID, our RIGHT BRAIN has nothing to do.

It doesn’t just sit still. What happens is that the analysis starts to leak into the other hemisphere and the RIGHT BRAIN gets working subconsciously. It starts to tinker.

So when we shut down for the day, stop all of the analytical work from THE STORY GRID, and we go for a walk, or we make a pot of coffee, the RIGHT BRAIN starts handing us ideas to fix our STORY PROBLEMS in our book in the drawer. This is called Inspiration…or the handholding of The Muse. When we work hard on our craft, aid arrives.

The key is to NOT WRITE when you are EDITING. And of course to NOT EDIT when you are WRITING.

LK: How do authors use the grid? What are the benefits, besides seeing whether the story works or not?

SC: THE STORY GRID is extremely practical. You will be given assignments…literally forms you have to fill out like you have to fill out at the DMV or when you meet a new doctor.

Stage One covers the MACRO movements of your Story and is called The Foolscap Global Story Grid, which has about thirty or so questions you need to answer. Some of them are easy. Some of them will make you want to throw your novel out the window. But all of them will make you a better writer.

Stage Two is The Story Grid Spreadsheet which, you guessed it, covers the MICRO movements in your Story. There are about sixteen questions you need to answer in the Spreadsheet for every scene in your Story.

In THE STORY GRID book, I walk the reader through the first two stages (and the third stage that combines the first two) by analyzing Thomas Harris’s brilliant novel The Silence of the Lambs. There are 64 Scenes in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, so I had to answer 1024 questions to complete The Story Grid Spreadsheet.

It’s worth noting too that THE STORY GRID works for Nonfiction too.

I’m now writing about The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. There are 54 Scenes in The Tipping Point. And YES, THE STORY GRID works for NONFICTION too. There are tweaks to the methodology, but great nonfiction obeys the same Story principles that fiction does.

After you have both of these stages complete, you can create your own STORY GRID for your Story. What THE STORY GRID will show you is exactly where (what specific scene and where in the scheme of the global story it falls) you went wrong. So you know exactly what you’ll need to do to fix it. And you’ll discover when you nailed a scene too and why and how you nailed it so that you can repeat the process.

I created THE STORY GRID methodology to help me become a better editor. I use it myself so that I don’t have to plow through page after page of notes to find out what happened in Scene 40…

I can just look at THE STORY GRID and know that in Scene 40 in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter has just escaped by covering his face with the face of a deal police officer. And I’ll also know that the value of the scene moved from positive (a killer imprisoned) to negative (a killer freed) on the global value of the Story.

There is so much detail in THE STORY GRID infographic that when it is complete, you’ll be able to just scan through it and easily retell the entire novel or nonfiction from start to finish.

LK: How important is it that authors who use the grid, be dedicated to their craft?

SC: It’s indispensable.

The great thing though, is that if you find yourself not wanting to do THE STORY GRID work (and I mean bailing on it completely…not getting frustrated and taking a break after hours of intense work and then getting back to it a day or two later), you’re probably not all that committed to being a writer. I once wanted to be a doctor until I started doing what was necessary to become one and wisely figured out the work wasn’t for me.

It is absolutely fine to try out the writing life. Doesn’t mean you’re a loser if you hate it. If you hate it, then writing work isn’t for you. You’ll find something else. No use beating yourself up about it.

Writing is extraordinarily hard work. It’s likes being a neurosurgeon or a CEO of a billion dollar company. You have to be in it 100% and you have to enjoy the process. You don’t have to enjoy it all the time…sometimes we all need to grind through things to get them done…but you need to be pleased that you have done it.

If you get incredibly excited about the very practical work I lay out in THE STORY GRID, then chances are you are a writer and now you’ve got a leg up on the second part of the writing job…. Editing.

LK: You’ve also worked as a ghost writer. Do you still ghost write? If someone was interested in working with a ghost writer, what should they look for?

SC: I rarely ghost write now. I discovered that I was doing it to hide. The anonymity of it was at first irresistible. I wasn’t putting my name on projects so I lied to myself thinking that the success or failure of the work wouldn’t matter so much to me.

What I discovered is that it mattered even more. If the project was successful (and a lot of them were/are still) then I felt like I’d been not given my “due.” And if it bombed, I felt like I’d not been called out for my failures and that the person who did have their name on it was getting a bad rap.

So I decided a while ago that I needed to put my name on almost everything I write. [I occasionally will help someone with a book proposal these days, but I do not write them in their entirety] I have to take the good and the bad and deal with it just like any other writer does.

If you want to hire a ghost writer, I suggest you read a lot in the field in which you wish to publish. For all of the books/stories you love, check out the acknowledgements. There are probably agents/writers/editors in there that will be able to help you find someone. Chances are that one of them helped out the writer and probably does ghosting on the side.

LK: Tell us about Black Irish Books. Explain the motto and what kinds of authors are you looking for? What can readers expect from Black Irish?

SC: Bestselling writer Steven Pressfield and I started Black Irish Books in 2011. We did it out of desperation. Steve’s novel The Profession was about to be published and we wanted to pull out all of the stops for it. We asked to meet with the publisher (one of the Big Five who’d paid quite a bit of money to publish the book) to go over some marketing ideas that we had. They graciously agreed to hear us out.

This was our thinking:

Steve has a spectacular reputation among military fiction and nonfiction readers, especially among soldiers. So as The Profession was about what it means to be a soldier in many ways, we thought it would be great idea to get the word about the book going by giving away a lot of free copies of the book to soldiers serving in the military. Through Steve’s connections, and his outstanding publicist Callie Oettinger’s connections, we were able to put together a list of about 10,000 soldiers serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the U.S. at the time. And we’d finagled ways to actually get the books into their hands…not just dumping them in a bin of “freebies,” but by having them handed off from one soldier to another.

We presented the idea to Steve’s publisher and while they were very nice about it, they turned us down flat. They thought it was crazy to give away copies of a book to the core market. If they gave 10,000 copies away to the people who were already interested in the subject…who would buy it? We offered to pay for the promotion ourselves, but alas they were unconvinced.

Steve and I think just the opposite about marketing.

We think that it’s more difficult to give something away for FREE than it is to actually hammer them into buying it. The reason being that with so many things FREE today and with FREE being used as a bait and switch since the dawn of man, when you say FREE, you immediately turn on the suspicions of your audience.

They suspect you’re bullshitting them in order to shake them down later. I always think of Arthur Murray dance lessons…First three FREE!

Anyway, we believe that if you can overcome that suspicion (and the only way to do that is to offer something so cool and interesting to a core market that the nerds in that market can’t help but accept it) and if you can do it to a large enough audience (10,000 is our gut number), then if the book/product is great…and you don’t exploit the relationship…those 10,000 will become evangelists for the book/project over time.

No they aren’t going to run up and down the street telling everyone to buy your book the second they finish it…but when asked for a recommendation by a friend…they’ll definitely spread the word. If it’s good.

This is a boring marketing strategy because it requires patience and faith.

It requires patience because FREE won’t put you on The New York Times Bestseller list…even though it will build a backlist bestseller that sells year after year after year. And it requires faith in the book/product. Faith that all of the hard work and sacrifice you put into creating the thing will make the book/product spectacular enough for one person to recommend it to another.

I don’t think this is a newsflash, but the Big Five publishers aren’t in the business of PATIENCE AND FAITH. In their defense, no other corporation is either. They want instant success to make the people who pay for everything happy. If the book goes on to become a backlist bestseller (those are the things that do actually pay for everything by the way, not the frontlist) great, but what they want right now is a New York Times Bestseller. And FREE ain’t gonna give them that.

So after Steve and I cried in our beer for a while about how no one understood us, we decided to start our own company. One that is about PATIENCE AND FAITH. That company is Black Irish Books.

That’s nice and everything, but PATIENCE AND FAITH (plus FREE) is a marketing strategy. It’s not a founding principle for a business. Steve and I needed to think very clearly about WHY we wanted to start this thing. Which makes you face some other fundamental questions.

What is it that we would love to have our old pals (or better yet, our competitors) say about us when we are six feet under?  That we had a bunch of bestsellers?  Or that our books helped people fighting internal battles?

Now Steve and I have worked together since I edited Steve’s classic novel about the Spartans at Thermopylae, Gates of Fire, when I was at Doubleday in 1996. We went on to work on The War of Art together too when I had my own publishing company in the oughts’ (Rugged Land Books).

After Rugged Land burned to the ground and I had to rebuild my career, Steve called and we joined forces again. I started representing him as his agent and manager around 2009.

So walking it back to find out the WHY of Black Irish wasn’t that hard.

the war of artHands down the book that defines Black Irish Books is The War of Art. It’s all about Resistance…how to fight the inner war against that dark prince inside all of us. The chattering monkey that tells us not to put ourselves at risk…not to dare speak up…not to do what we were put on earth to do.

So we got the rights back to The War of Art and Steve named the company Black Irish Entertainment. He did so because of my heritage and my tendency to completely lose my temper at times…to fight for the right to make mistakes and be bullheaded. I think his thinking was that we should encourage others to have my sort of “damn the torpedoes” attitude when it comes to the inner battle. I’ve mellowed since then…thank God.

So we came up with GET IN THE RING as our motto and got a friend to create the Black Irish boxing glove as our logo.

And here’s another key decision we’ve made. After working with some amazing other writers (Our dear friends David Danelo, David Feherty, Jim Gant, David Leddick, Jason Riley, Giora Romm and Patrick Van Horne) Steve and I have decided to focus on Pressfield/Coyne projects from here on out. That is, we’re only going to publish stuff we write ourselves.

We are PATIENCE AND FAITH publishers and we just do not want to (nor can we) compete with those other publishers angling for instant bestsellers. And the last thing we’d want to do is keep other writers from getting on the list. There is nothing wrong with gunning for an instant bestseller. It’s just not our thing.

LK: What’s the Lunch Pail Manifesto? Why is it important? And what’s your favorite line and why?

SC: When Steve and I were putting together ideas about how to best get the message across about his book TURNING PRO, I wrote down the Lunch Pail Manifesto and we put a lunch pail and thermos on the cover to cement the message in our heads…if only ours.

I grew up in Pittsburgh during the peak and then the rapid decline of the U.S. Steel Industry. There is a deep blue-collar ethos from that city that Steve and I share. It’s basically…Stop bitching and do the work…learn your trade, get better every day, don’t showboat, help the other guy out if he needs it, and be proud of the fact that what you make will last.

That’s what the Manifesto is about and it’s what TURNING PRO and all of Black Irish Books are about.  Here it is again…

The Lunch Pail Manifesto

1. We must find the work that brings our lives meaning.

2. We must strive to make our work purposeful, truthful, and authentic, a pure offering to our Muse and fellow human beings.

3. We must wage a lifelong war with Resistance and accept that instant gratification is an oxymoron.

4. We must not speak of our work with false modesty or braggadocio.

5. We must not debase our work for short-term gain nor elevate it above its rightful station to inflate our ego.

6. We must not covet the fruits of our work, or the fruits of others’ work.

7. We must respect others’ work and offer aid to fellow professional laborers.

8. We must accept that our work will never be perfect.

9. We must accept that our work will never be without merit.

10. We must accept that our work will never cease.

My favorite line is the one that I struggle with most. Like anyone else, I long for recognition and praise and when someone in my arena gets it and I don’t, I despair. This is why number six is so important to me. It reminds me that the work is all you have and to enjoy the gift I’ve been given to have the ability to produce my work.

LK: Do you believe inspiration is for amateurs? Why or why not?

SC: Inspiration is wonderful. For pros and amateurs alike.

What’s better than to enjoy a work of art and be inspired? It’s a communication between the artist and the witness to his/her art that transcends time. Think about the perfect stone wall in Florence Italy… Let’s say you’ve been touring the countryside and you’re exhausted and you need a place to rest. You sit down on some incredible wall and relax. The man who made it hundreds of years ago has brought you comfort. Inspired you with his art. Awesome. That’s why we’re here to enjoy the world and be inspired by others’ creations.

The trick though is not to wait for that perfect moment to get going in your own work. The guy who made that wall wasn’t inspired every day. There were days when he had a fight with his wife in the morning or one of his kids was sick or his father in law was giving him a hard time. But he showed up and he did his work. And because he did, he passed on something to us.

So remember that stone mason when you don’t want to get it going. Pick up your tools and do it anyway.

LK: Do you think the literary landscape looks bleak? What can authors expect in the next five years?

SC: I think we’re living in the most exciting period of literary history.

Imagine this. Once upon a time, a writer had a pencil, a pen, some paper, and if she were lucky an expensive typewriter. She’d write longhand for months and then she’d have to type up her work and then somehow get it to a literary agent. The literary agent would take months to read and respond. If the agent believed in the book, she’d start submitting it to publishers one at a time. Each publisher would take months too. And on and on.

From final draft to finding an audience took years…if she were lucky to chosen as worthy by a very small list of tastemakers. Today, a writer can speak directly to her readers and publish as often or as little as she wishes, whenever she wishes.

In the next five years, younger writers who do not have the cultural attachment to Big Publishing—they did not grow up with the stigma that “self-publishing” entails to my old fogie generation—will become a serious force in the industry. They will make their own communities and will make it “cool” to work outside of the traditional model in a way we cannot fathom today.

LK: What does tenacity have to do with it?

SC: Tenacity to me implies that there’s a certain final destination and/or end zone of accomplishment. I don’t think that’s true.

Have you ever given everything you had and then been triumphant? You actually got what you wanted? How’d you feel after you got it? Blah, right? It seemed like it was a hollow victory…you had to find another goal and quick or you’d fall right into a downer, right? Rewards never live up to their promise.

What to do?  I go back to number six on the Lunch Pail Manifesto as a guiding principle…the work is what matters, not the fruits of the work. It’s straight out of the Bhagavad Gita. I certainly wasn’t smart enough to figure it out.

As long as you’re putting in your best effort and avoiding [as best you can] the pettiness of bestseller lists, you’ll be okay. Finish your project. Start a new one the next day…repeat. There are no “ends” just new beginnings.

LK: Totally jealous you got to work with Steven Pressfield. Are you a War of Art believer? Do you believe in resistance?

SC: I edited and published The War of Art. I couldn’t believe in it more. And Resistance kept me from finishing this interview three days ago… Kept trying to make it “perfect.”