Pride and Prejudice - The STORY GRID edition - Annotated by SHAWN COYNE




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ARCHIVES OF February, 2014

What It Takes

What It Takes

Boiling Frogs

By Shawn Coyne | Published: February 28, 2014

Here’s another chunk from my slowly evolving book, THE STORY GRID: What Good Editors Know, soon to be published by Black Irish Books.

How does one know when a story isn’t working?


Thomas Harris, a grandmaster Frog Boiler

That is, if you decided to become a literary agent tomorrow, how could you figure out if a story has a chance to be acquired by a publishing company or be optioned for a movie deal? I know. I know. Money isn’t everything. The story may work for the writer’s immediate family or for a select group of kind friends. But that liberal definition of “working” is not what dreams are made of, nor is it capable of providing enough income for a family of five.

I’m talking about the kind of story that will sell for enough money to live for at least two years so that you’ll be able to finance the writing of your next book. That may be $20,000 or $2,000,000 depending upon your standard of living. A story that results in a contract and a check.

After more than ten thousand hours of publishing books, reading submissions and being pitched both fiction and nonfiction, here is just one of the criteria I use to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I simply track the story’s progressive complications…the escalating degrees of conflict that face the protagonist.

How do I do that?

Take this pitch as an example:

An ambitious actor/lawyer/chef/programmer graduates from Julliard/Harvard/Culinary Institute of America/MIT and looks for meaningful work. After months of rejections, the actor/lawyer/chef/programmer decides to take a side job while continuing to look for what will ultimately make him happy.

The inciting incident of the story arrives (at long last) when he gets a part time job as assistant to a casting director/judge/Michelin star restaurateur/editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. As he works for the casting director/judge/Michelin star restaurateur/editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, he is exposed to all of the best new projects in Hollywood/Washington/New York/Silicon Valley and even gets to help out by being a reader during auditions/doing paralegal work/sous cheffing/writing code. The casting director/judge/ Michelin star restaurateur/editor-in-chief of Wired magazine notices his talent and decides to promote him.

By dint of hard work the actor/lawyer/chef/programmer gets the big job the rewards that come with it—status and money. But after a while, the actor/lawyer/chef/programmer grows weary of the big Hollywood grind/legal profession/food work/writing code and decides to go back to his first love, the theater/pro bono work/artisanal cheese making/new app innovation. He then auditions/takes up a cause/makes cheese/devises a new app that no one takes seriously let alone buys into. Until, at last, he gets a small time director/not for profit/cheese monger/software company to take on his life’s work. The performance/cause/cheese debut/app launches, but to little acclaim. The actor/lawyer/chef/programmer loses his shirt on the project, but learns a lot about himself. He decides that his happiness is dependent on his relationships and not the fantasies of finding meaning through work. The End.

And yes, the above is indicative of the kind of material that floods literary agencies and publishing houses. A very talented prose stylist could actually make the above rather entertaining too. And he’d also be able to hide behind a pseudo-genre like “literary slice of life” to boot. But no matter the writerly artifice, this story doesn’t work. It may prove commercially viable depending upon the tenor of the times, but it will never last as a work of art. Let’s assume the writer is not a celebrity or the hottest young thing to come out of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. So extenuating commercial potentialities are not in play here. That is, the literary agent can’t sell the story based on just the identity of the writer. She has to sell it on its story. (more…)

Posted in What It Takes

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“Give Me One Redeeming Moment”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 26, 2014

Did you ever see the movie Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Spike Jonze, and starring Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper? If there has ever been a truer or more devastating depiction of the writer’s self-induced hell (including those by Proust or Stephen King), I haven’t seen it.

The real Robert McKee

In the film there is a fourth vivid character, that of “Robert McKee,” the screenwriting guru, played with scenery-chewing gusto by the brilliant Brian Cox. Of course there really is a Robert McKee (full disclosure: he’s a dear friend) and he really is the teacher-of-writing-and-story par excellence.

Consider this post as a shameless plug for Mr. McKee and his four-day intensive seminars. If you haven’t taken one already, I’m going to try to sell you on doing so—and if you’ve attended before, to consider doing it again.

I’ve taken Bob’s course three times—once in the 80s when I first arrived in Tinseltown, once in the early 2000s when I was losing my way a little in the fiction biz, and again two years ago just for the fun of it. Here’s a look at what the seminar feels like. I say of McKee that he is not just the best teacher of writing I’ve ever seen, but the best teacher of anything.

If you are serious about pursuing a career in any kind of storytelling, you MUST expose yourself to this experience.

When people write to me with story problems or “Where Do I Start” problems or just “Writer Stuck In Purgatory” problems, I say the same thing: “Take McKee’s course.”

Story is an indispensable resource for any artist. It’s a Ph.D. in four days.

Bob’s four-day intensive seminars, Story and Genre, come to New York and Los Angeles in the next few weeks. The L.A. Story class is March 6-9. Details for both here. In recent years McKee has been taking his workshops more and more overseas, to Beijing and Rio and all kinds of far-flung places. So when he does touch down in the States you gotta be alert and jump on the opportunity to see him.

Also if you sign up using WarOfArt (typed just like that, in the box on the registration page that asks if you have a discount code), you’ll get at the seminar a free signed and numbered special edition hardback of The War of Art. Not the paperback but the silver-cover hardback. You can sell it on eBay and defray part of the tuition.

Now, here’s the true gen on McKee’s seminar:

1. It’s great.

Without a doubt McKee’s story class is the best in the world, and McKee is the best in the world. He has created a place at the top of the mountain and there’s nobody up there but him.

2. It’s expensive.

Your bank account will definitely take a hit. But this is your art, your career, your life.

3. It’s intensive.

Navy SEALs have wept at the end of a four-day McKee Intensive. They have begged to go back to Hell Week. (I’m exaggerating slightly). McKee socks it to you all day for four days in a row. Have somebody standing by to drive you home at the end. You’ll be exhausted. (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Ask Me Anything Mondays

Ask Me Anything Mondays

Service or Self?

By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 24, 2014

This week on Ask Me Anything we take a question from Sheri Kleintop. She asks …

In your book, The War of Art, the focus is recognizing and facing Resistance head on. Throughout the ages, women such as Gorgo, Jackie Kennedy and women in every household across the globe have (had) an obligation to nurture, serve and protect their children and spouses. While in the midst of our life of details, how can one go about honoring our obligations while also fighting to maintain our own identity and long term dreams? As a divorced mother, teacher and advocate for our military, service above self has always been my creed.


Posted in Ask Me Anything Mondays
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