What It Takes

What It Takes

Cheat Sheet

By Shawn Coyne | Published: December 18, 2015

Not that long ago I asked an acquaintance to cut an hour out of his day so that I could “run something by him.”

Franklin Leonard, Founder of The Black List, https://blcklst.com/

Franklin Leonard, Founder of The Black List, https://blcklst.com/

It’s important to point out that this acquaintance had a laundry list of accomplishments parallel to my own ambitions. He was a bestselling writer, a bestselling publisher, and a world-renowned speaker paid big bucks for the very hour I asked of him.

He is someone any of us would put in our top five of inwardly powerful people who’d figured out the secrets of how to live an authentic, generous life while also having a nice lifestyle too.

Hey, I wasn’t some slouch either. I had some serious successes and failures behind me as well. I wasn’t some amateur looking for an easy street. I had a fully fleshed out idea and just wanted to get his take on it.

At least that’s what I’d told myself.

You see I was so invested in my own world and my own desires that I couldn’t recognize the serious desperation underneath my ask.

I didn’t really want his “take” on my idea. I mean, “duh.”

What I wanted was for him to give me a cheat sheet. I wanted him to tell me how to attract an audience, and then manipulate that audience to do what I wanted them to do…buy my shit and come back for more.

What were the tricks to do that kind of thing? Obviously, this guy knew how to do that or I wouldn’t be traveling forty five minutes up the Saw Mill River Parkway…

He patiently listened to my idea, which I thought had great potential. Still do.

Hell, here it is. It’s no good sitting on my hard drive:

The Book Black List Pre-Origin Story

So after my thirty-minute spiel about my concept of a “Book Black List” and becoming the publisher dedicated to building one, the powerful acquaintance was quiet for about thirty seconds.

That doesn’t sound all that long a time, but just sit quietly for thirty seconds right now and you’ll see that it’s an eternity between two people.

When he finally spoke, here’s what he said:

“It’s a good idea. With dedication and enough time and money to buy a few breaks, it will work.”

That’s all? That’s it? That’s all this genius had to tell me?

I pushed him a bit… Well, if you were to start up something like that, how would you do it?

“How I would do it isn’t going to help you. I would not build that company because there are other projects in my life that I find more interesting. If this idea consumes you, I say plunge right in…but there is one question I’d ask of yourself before you jump… Why do you want to do it?”

I rattled off the usual “angry young man” responses (even though my youth had been spent tilting at a not too dissimilar windmill)…

  1. To right injustices
  2. To prove that the Gatekeepers are frauds
  3. To expose the soullessness of corporate publishing
  4. To make money in order to do “good”

He nodded and smiled and told me that unfortunately our time was up. As he walked me to the door, we shook hands and he said good luck and all the rest of the stuff you say.

As I stood uncomfortably waiting for the elevator, picking at a cuticle, he oddly stayed in the doorway leaning on the unhinged frame.

The arrival ding came and as I walked into the box I hear him say,

“What if you were given the permission not to have to right injustices or prove anyone wrong or build up a pile of money to do good? What would you do then?”

Posted in What It Takes

31 Responses to “Cheat Sheet”

  1. December 18, 2015 at 6:28 am

    Shawn, this is a terrific, timely post, and the final question is something I’d begun circling around in my mind. The pressure to be and to do is an addiction of sorts. What if I gave up my addiction? What then? This idea is definitely a New Year’s theme for me now. Thanks for that, and Happy New Year, Shawn!

  2. December 18, 2015 at 6:33 am

    Shawn:

    The wisdom and experience of the sage.

    It’s a cliche but so true. We so desperately want to get to the destination that we forget that the journey is the real golden ticket.

    Struggles build character. We need more of that in this world.

    • Mary Doyle
      December 18, 2015 at 7:08 am

      Not a cliche – I couldn’t have said it better myself Jeffrey. The journey is everything, but it’s so hard to keep that at the forefront. Shawn, thank you for a very powerful post!

  3. December 18, 2015 at 6:39 am

    Permission to be soul-less, to have the work-passion of drone with no ambition, unmotivated & disinterested? I would say “No” and walk away. I would rather work in the fires of a personal mission ten years with people I trust and support than make a million disconnected from purpose. In fact, I have done this and the journey has – indeed – been better than the destination, which is the point.

    • December 18, 2015 at 7:37 am

      “…rather work in the fires of a personal mission ten years with people I trust and support than make a million disconnected from purpose.” I’d say you missed the point but got the “message.”

      Congrats!

  4. December 18, 2015 at 6:43 am

    Shawn, this is powerful stuff. I read it just as I was listening to Pachelbel’s Canon in D, thinking “What I would give to create something as soul lifting as this piece of music…”
    The need for relief from the strains, stresses and injustices in this world is without limit. The grind will never cease, just shift in form, no matter what we do. A moment’s peace and joy is worth working for.

  5. Bob Jones
    December 18, 2015 at 7:38 am

    “…rather work in the fires of a personal mission ten years with people I trust and support than make a million disconnected from purpose.”
    I’d say you missed the point but got the message!

    Congrats!

    BH

  6. Bob Jones
    December 18, 2015 at 7:39 am

    Sorry for double post. Meant only to reply to Mr. Farges

  7. Patrick Brown
    December 18, 2015 at 7:50 am

    So…what are you going to do? Your pre-origin story was gripping. Could you develop this into a thriller? The book black list (I have no clue by the way) seems like it would take an enormous, life-consuming passion to pull off, but you just may be the guy to do it. The how badly do you want it question rears its head once again and the WHY.

    (This is the comments part I inevitably bring it back to me). I still have a comment reply from you up on my bulletin board at work. It’s a reply to your Balzac post, where I questioned my possible “shadow career” in pediatric epilepsy, while my ramshackle attempts at children’s fiction advance at a about a chapter a month pace(ridiculous). Am I fooling myself with this writing dream? How can somebody have 10 times as many books on writing craft as book chapters?

    Two sentences you wrote in your reply encourage me often (in both efforts)and may apply back to you-“whatever it is you’ve chosen to do or has chosen you to do…is the answer in and of itself.”
    And also, “A book’s nice, but the work is more important.”

    Stripping aside items #1-4 (except maybe #4…it’s nice to a tasty duck burger when you want) what is the work, now, that’s calling you?

  8. Andrine
    December 18, 2015 at 8:30 am

    Great post! Following one’s inner voice is what a writer does and this translates to any chosen project. I write for me and if it benefits others great. Thank you.

  9. December 18, 2015 at 8:31 am

    Hah! Just started looking at this for myself.
    What if I didn’t need to be the hero?
    Karpman’s drama triangle: rescuer, victim, persecutor. It starts with early childhood family dynamics. For myself, 50 years later, still trapped in trying to be the hero.
    What if I gave up trying to prove myself and save someone else? What if I stopped tilting at the windmills?

    • December 18, 2015 at 9:18 am

      Bingo, Teddy. That’s my situation, too, and I’m finally catching wind of how the “hero” pattern keeps reasserting itself in different contexts. The desire to “save something” is so compelling and also creates a rush of energy that is hard to resist. It’s also led to burnout on more than a few occasions. Perhaps it’s the work of a lifetime to gradually extricate oneself from that triangle.

    • December 18, 2015 at 9:36 am

      me too me too

      A few weeks ago Best Beloved and I pulled the plug on a handful of things I was doing for the wrong reasons.

      And yesterday, I finished the mystery I’ve been working on. With a dozen more in my head.

      This is what I do because it lights me up, not because it makes me a hero. I don’t wanna be a hero. Not anymore.

  10. December 18, 2015 at 8:32 am

    My greatest challenge this year has been that of listening to my soul-voice, however faint or loud, without slipping into proving mode. Some times I slip, sometimes I don’t. But it’s the listening that gets me back to firm ground, whether that ground is as the sage or the student.

  11. December 18, 2015 at 8:46 am

    This post is so timely for me. I’ve been wrestling with these questions:

    What is your brand as a writer?
    Who is your ideal reader?

    Which comes down to: Why would that ideal reader want to read your work?

    And oh, the noble goals pop up.

    But this…giving yourself permission to let go of those goals and just do what you’re passionate about doing, is such a relief. I don’t need to push that refrigerator up the mountain anymore.

    Perhaps we magnetize the ideal reader, or customer, or audience, just by doing what we’re passionate about doing, without trying to make it about saving someone else. Hmm. Food for thought.

  12. Chris Lesley
    December 18, 2015 at 8:51 am

    I think C. S. Lewis said something like this, that we write not to change the world, but ourselves. We speak the words we most need to hear. I wonder if we most convincingly beat Resistance when our Muse’s voice becomes so much louder than the world’s background noise that we can no longer ignore it. $0.02.

  13. December 18, 2015 at 8:58 am

    Only one question for you: what did you do?

  14. Dave Newton
    December 18, 2015 at 10:13 am

    Another gut-bullseye, Shawn. Time to take a walk through my karma garden and weed, again.

  15. Dorothy Seeger
    December 18, 2015 at 11:05 am

    I am a horrible helper. Thank you, Shawn, for this reminder that doing good is not the point. I don’t need to “help” anyone but myself in writing my story.

  16. Tina Goodman
    December 18, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    What did you do next? Does it have anything to do with The Story Grid blog and Black Irish books?

  17. Skipper Hammond
    December 18, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    Is it possible that your agent’s description of the indi publishing route is biased by his role in the process and what he fears might be happening to that role?

  18. December 18, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    BAM! Holy shit that one smacked me right between the eyes! I am still seeing stars from the impact.

    This year (2015) was a big challenge. Most of what I believe and the values that guided me the last four or five decades are under attack. I was handed a mirror and a magnifier and given instruction to look carefully and consider what I see.

    So, that is my task for now, maybe for the next year. The question was posed “What will you be when you grow up?”

    At this moment, I have no idea. The roles I carried all those decades are now done. The release reminds me of the time I finished graduate school and all those 100-hour weeks. The vacuum suck when that pressure went away was palpable.

    “What if you were given the permission not to have to right injustices or prove anyone wrong or build up a pile of money to do good? What would you do then?”

    Sometimes I think the answer is to just be and give life the opportunity to reveal something. Sometimes I think that a proactive approach is required. Sometimes I wish someone would just tell me what to do.

    The latter ain’t happening and I would no longer trust someone else’s words in that regard.

    So, I guess I get to figure it out. That, friends, will be my task for 2016. And then, it will be time to execute.

    But, I think that maybe, just maybe… “What if you were given the permission not to have to right injustices or prove anyone wrong or build up a pile of money to do good? What would you do then?”

    • Marvin Waschke
      December 19, 2015 at 10:33 am

      I think I know what you mean Ruminator. I retired two years ago. Fortunately, I had a contract for a book and I could switch from writing evenings and weekends to full time, but I still felt the suck. I attribute the suck to resistance. For nearly a year, I hid in my study and did nothing. Then the resistance broke and I changed. I realized that the answer to it all was to write the book. Just write the book. I was writing the book because I was writing the book.

      That may be begging the question, but it allows no excuses. I have a contract now for another book. I’m making about 0.001% of my previous salary, but I’m writing the book. With more practice, I might push it up to 0.01%. And I’m writing the book. I agree with Shawn, at some point you have to give up all the reasons and do what moves you.

  19. December 18, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    So the bald-headed guru strikes again. And this is why I have rejected that clarifying question that people sometimes ask, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Because with enough uphill refrigerator pushing, I usually end up succeeding but spent at the top of the hill, not to the applause from the person I was I was trying to impress, but simply to the feeble beating of my own very tired heart. So the question I ask now is, “What would you do if you didn’t have to prove anything to anyone?” The answers have been odd but my own. My answer to “Why?” is “Because I want to.”

  20. Judy Potocki
    December 19, 2015 at 3:32 am

    What a ride — heartbreaking at the end. I’m aware of the similarity of your story to that of the screenwriter who finally earns an agent who sends out his work on spec, full of sound and fury, only to be met with the eventual silence of, “We need a built-in audience — (meaning a screenplay BASED on a best-selling novel) in order to commit,” or, “Sorry, this breaks our heart, but our slate is full.”

    That’s the lop-sided war that the amazing Franklin Leonard sought to even up a bit in the writer’s favor when he founded The Black List, as you know. What an admirable and worthy effort — and man. The Black List has resulted in scores of heartful screenplays getting a second chance — and many of them finally being purchased, produced and released as movies that have enriched the lives of millions of viewers. Not to mention the lives of their initial creators, the screenwriters.

    The latest Black List is out. “Go Into the Story” (gointothestory.com) is the official blog of The Black List (The blog itself is created and written by equally heroic friend-of-writers Scott Myers). You can scan the latest list and read the loglines of these amazing screenplays by checking out the Dec. 15 post, “2015 Black List: Final.”

    Creating a Book Black List would earn a star in Heaven for its creator, just as (I’m almost positive) it has done for Mr. Leonard. In the spirit of universal synergy, “May the Force be with you…”

  21. December 19, 2015 at 4:53 am

    Thank you Shawn

    Your writing was well received, and well done…

  22. Garry
    December 19, 2015 at 6:23 am

    Brilliant post Shawn! Thanks for your generosity.

    /Garry

  23. December 19, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    Great blog post and great story, Shawn. But you’ve missed another huge opportunity that exists in your telling of this story.

    There are self published authors that didn’t work for years on a website and email list.

    They’ve written niche genre series about 10 books deep.

    They give the first one away for free, and sell the next nine for between 2.99 and 5.99, leaning towards the low end.

    I’ve run the numbers for a couple, if you want, check out the series called “Jet” that series is bringing in $500 a day easy. Also a fantasy writer (Lindsey Buroker) that I ran the numbers on is doing 2-300K a year easy.

    Both of these self published authors put about 2 years in before they were self reliant and about 3-4 before becoming pretty wealthy.

    Scott, the guy that writes the Jet series, lives in Mexico, so basically he’s a king.

    Anyway, it’s another viable path between giving up and spending 1-2 years blogging and another 1 or 2 trying to write a million dollar property.

    I do love the idea behind a publisher doing what you’ve written in that story.

    And lo and behold, it’s already being done….

    Amazon’s Thomas and Mercer.

    Basically they can take any book rejected by a big publisher, as long as it’s somewhat okay, and publish it for very little.

    Take the book The Short Drop, first time author, gets an agent, the agent sells to Thomas and Mercer, who put it in Kindle First.

    Bam, the guys a bestseller and is already hitting the best seller list with his pre-sale numbers on book 2.

    • Sonja
      December 20, 2015 at 2:06 pm

      I found this comment fascinating, inspiring and terrifying. (I still battle a lot of resistance); but thanks for the information.

      I don’t write for the fame or glory, but it would be nice to make a living and have a niche audience, and continue to tell stories.

      Loved the article, Shawn.

  24. December 19, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    Monkeys in a lab will solve a puzzle more quickly without a reward than with one. People in psychology labs are the same. And when the reward is removed, the test subjects whose motivation is switched from intrinsic puzzle fun to the extrinsic reward, money, will lose the desire to solve puzzles when the reward is removed – unlike the control subjects (with no money involved) who continue working on puzzles for fun.

    But parents know this. Ask your drummer son if he wants to take drum lessons. Heck, no. Lessons would ruin everything. The artificial reward replacing his love for drumming would be his new struggle to avoid doing poorly at the next lesson: avoidance of fear.

    This is roughly the same thing that money and fame introduce to writers, an artificial megadose of hope and fear.

    Intrinsic reward is a better motivator than an artificial substitute such as money. This is science and common sense tapping on our shoulders.

    Ever wonder why Steven Pressfield cautions us against writing for money and becoming “prostitutes” (his unfortunate word choice) while he works with Shawn Coyne, an editor at the top of the league of people helping writers succeed commercially?

    It’s not that Pressfield is a hypocrite or a writer who accidentally makes piles of money while ignoring the central commercial point: writing what readers want. No, he appreciates Shawn’s help and genius as much as the rest of us.

    It’s that he realizes at gut level that a writer will lose inspiration and interest if the natural enjoyment that causes monkeys to solve puzzles is replaced by some arbitrary reward like money.

    Pressfield’s “muse” would feel disrespected if he allowed anything to disrupt the natural internal positive feedback loop between writing and pleasure. Remember, “Resistance” for him is all about “sitting down to write,” not about the process of writing, once it’s begun.

    Writers face an interesting piece of cognitive dissonance here.

    Shawn’s article seems to says, “Writers should forget artificial rewards (including money) and write for the pure joy of writing.”

    The linked document, “The Book Black List,” assumes that writing for money is not a problem at all, the problem is the soulless unfairness of gatekeepers.

    Both are true, yet they contradict one another if black-and-white thinking prevails.

    I suspect that there’s a bell curve of artificial motivation, such that each person’s muse (or subconscious mind) is somewhat unique in how much monetary hope-fear motivation it can tolerate before she says, “You know what? Writing isn’t my thing anymore. Let’s drag the drums out of the attic.”

  25. December 20, 2015 at 9:58 pm

    Good reminder, that I’m never stuck with the possibilities I create .. . I’m free to put something down that I created, that I was committee to if it doesn’t serve me anymore.

    A question a mentor asked me a few weeks ago as I was looking at taking on a big (gulp) challenge for 2016.

    Who would you be if you had no past to tell you who you are?

    Game on.