What It Takes

What It Takes

Is “Good Enough” Good Enough?

By Shawn Coyne | Published: July 29, 2016

Oct 11, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner throws a pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning during game one of the 2014 NLCS playoff baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports

Madison Bumgarner, a man with impeccable IF

As many of you already know, over at The Story Grid Podcast, I’ve been serving as newbie fiction writer Tim Grahl’s developmental editor.

We’ve been at it for about nine months now and while Tim had to discard just about everything from his first draft, we’re making steady baby-step progress as he pivots into a new narrative direction.

It has been enormously gratifying to witness how the fundamental story principles that took me so long to understand are beginning to embed themselves into someone deliberately learning the craft.

But it’s a frustrating process too. And that’s no knock on Tim. It’s just the nature of mentoring creative work.

It’s frustrating in the same way it is when you try and teach someone a skill that abides an M + TEn = IF equation.

M stands for mechanics, i.e. the working parts of a thing…for Story it’s II, PC, CR, CL, RE (Inciting Incident, Progressive Complication, Crisis, Climax and Resolution)

TE stands for trial and error

n stands for however many trials and errors an individualized system/organism needs to reach a cathartic success moment.  n could equal from one to infinity.

IF stands for “integrated feeling,” the reproducible biofeedback trigger of the aforementioned cathartic success moment when the body and mind aligns with the universe to produce a moment of purity.

When a golfer picks up his tee knowing her ball is dead center in the fairway or a basketball player knows the 3 pointer is nothing but net milliseconds after the ball leaves his fingertips, the IF is in play.  They experience an integrated feel of the moment, so they don’t have to sweat the result.  They “know” the result before it actually happens. That is called magic and every single one of us has felt that magic at one time or another in one place or another in our lives.

Being a developmental editor is an M + TEn = IF mentoring process…like teaching your son or daughter the best way to throw a baseball with accuracy and speed.

The most reliable mechanical motion is an adaptable (long arm, medium arm, short arm) windmill overhand throw released from the ear.

When I see kids throwing from a three quarter release or a from-the-shoelaces sidearm, it drives me nutso. Even if you forget about the damage it does to young arms (but why would you?), there are just so many ways that a sidearm merry-go-round throw can go wrong.

But an overhand throw perfectly (even imperfectly) executed, is as reliable as an old Maytag washer. No matter if it’s a long arm motion from the outfield, medium from shortstop or a short one from second base.

The reason why it’s difficult to get kids to throw overhand is that young boys and girls just don’t have a lot of trunk strength. And coordinating a full body motion presents a particular challenge to little beings still growing into themselves.

And then there is the deception of visual cues.

Something that on first glance seems to be all about the hand and arm (Come on dad, all I have to do is move my arm… let go of the ball and it flies in the air)…isn’t. Now changing an “obvious” perception into a deep understanding that throwing is all about using the big muscles of the body, not the little ligaments, tests one’s resolve.

Warnings like—if you rely on the little ligaments, stress them too much, they get irreparably damaged. And once they’re damaged, you end up walking away from the game. It will just hurt too much to play—don’t mean much to a kid who can fall off the garage roof, cry, recover and then do it all again five minutes later.

I talk until I’m hoarse, but you can’t really explain a proper overhand throw to someone who hasn’t successfully generated one yet. You just have to keep focused and keep catching their thrown balls until they do.

Now once they do throw a textbook overhand fastball, they can “feel” what you’re talking about and you’re a genius. There’s a Eureka! moment and dad isn’t as big of a grind as they thought he was.

My oldest has worked through the process and he’s now a bigger blowhard about overhand throwing than I am. Together we’re driving the youngest in our family crazy. My daughter is a natural athlete and her n was like 4. But that presents it’s own problems too…when things come too easily, you devalue them.

Again, until the kid executes the overhand himself…feels it…it will be torturous trying to explain it to him. Especially since he’s figured out a way to piece together a herky-jerky motion that for the most part “works.” That is, the ball gets near enough to the target to be playable. It’s not perfect, but it’s not crazy wild either…good enough.

Isn’t good enough okay, dad?

Well, it is, you admit. Until…it isn’t.

The thing is that short-term “good enoughs” diabolically undermine long-term mastery. They’re Resistance’s single celled bacteria, infecting you without you even knowing it.

Which brings me to why there are so few developmental editors working today.

It’s because working with a newbie writer is like teaching a new baseball player how to throw his own brand of fastball.

Let’s back up a minute. What do I mean by a developmental editor?

Well, editors come in four traditional varieties.

  1. Copyeditors…these are people who learn all of the rules of grammar/spelling etc. They mark up a story using industry standard shorthand and correct all of the technical errors. Without copyeditors the world would be a mess. Our ability to clearly communicate with one another would erode. We’d live in Emoji-land…essentially hell. Copyeditors are simply indispensable and we all need to bow down to them.
  2. Acquisition Editors…these people discern what literary properties can be best packaged and sold as commodities. They buy and then pass on the rest of the editorial work to someone else. Publishers are great examples of acquisition editors. They’ll buy a book from a big agent. And then hand it to a senior editor to “clean up.” If the book works, it was all because of the publisher’s great nose. If it tanks, the senior editor screwed it up with her wonky meddling…
  3. Line by Line/Style Editors…these are editors who plod sentence by sentence through a manuscript to make sure that the voice and style are consistent. These are the disciples of Strunk and White. They take the purple out of the prose.  They’re the micro.
  4. Story Editors…these are people who point out story glitches. They take a global point of view and explain to the writer which of his plot points aren’t working and/or when and if the writer is nailing or flubbling the obligatory scenes/conventions and/or expectations of the targeted readership. They’re the macro.

These four kinds of editors make up 99.99 percent of the profession.

The variety the Big Five publishers care most about is, of course, the acquisition editor. The reason being that you can easily evaluate how effective an acquisition editor is by his financial track record. An editor who picks winners will rise in the hierarchy even if they can’t do any of the other stuff.

And sadly, no matter how talented an editor is as a line-by-line connoisseur or story tinkerer, if his personal Profit/Loss report is in the red…he just won’t make it in New York. We remember Maxwell Perkins because of the commercial success of his writers as much as we do his editorial genius. In fact if his crew of writers were just well reviewed Nobel prize winners without tens of millions of copies sold…Perkins would be as anonymous as every other editor you never heard of.

Quick, who edited Nadine Gordimer?

So what’s a developmental editor and why are they so rare a breed?

These are people who work with writers from idea to final draft. They provide story advice and guidance throughout the writing process.

To beat my metaphor to death, they teach fresh writing arms how to throw original overhand fastball narratives.

DEs explain what to do in a particular scene and then they watch the writer execute the scene (like watching a little leaguer throwing from second base to first base). DEs then evaluate the scene (throw) and advise the writer about how an adjustment could help him lock in to his own private natural narrative motion (his own voice).

DEs explain the mechanics and show the writer how the pros have done it before, but until the writer puts it together himself in his own unique way…all the DE can do is look at his practice, evaluate his result and tell him “that’s not it…try this instead…nope, still not it…try it this way…a little better…but not quite there yet…etc. etc. etc.”

M + TEn = IF

The thing is that new writers, like little leaguers, often use herky-jerky motions to move their narrative balls.

Yes, the obvious cues (clichés) they’ve picked up by copying other writers without putting their own unique spin on a scene can oftentimes work. But while the scene may be “good enough,” the writer who hopes to string a slew of those things together to make an entire book work…is not preparing himself for the best chance of success.

It’s the equivalent of relying on ligaments instead of the big body muscles to create a reliable strike.

Can you throw junk for nine full innings and win? A teeny tiny group of people in the Majors can. Most, though, can’t. They need perfectly executed fastballs.

So the DE’s job is difficult.

The writer just wants to get the ball near the plate, good enough, and he’ll piece together something any which way to deliver something that works.

If the DE does not have the wherewithal and dedication to insist that the writer cut the shortcuts and develop his big muscles (his craft) and he goes along with the good enoughs, the writer’s writing ligaments will be permanently damaged. So damaged that the act of writing will begin to hurt so much that he’ll eventually just quit doing it.

I think pro writers understand what I’m trying to describe here.

They know the difference between their fastballs that snap right on the inside corner of the strike zone, knee level, and their off-speed junk that they use to knock a reader off balance. So much so that they’ll be the first one’s to tell you about the scenes they three quartered or side-armed just to mix it up or just to get the damn thing finished.

Keep in mind, that I’m not criticizing off-speed junk. You need to be able to throw that stuff too.

But the hard part is learning how to unleash one’s own private overhand fastball. That’s what the best developmental editors teach writers…how to discover and then unleash their best stuff.

Again and again and again.

And once a writer has that integrated feeling, she doesn’t need a DE anymore…

Posted in What It Takes

18 Responses to “Is “Good Enough” Good Enough?”

  1. July 29, 2016 at 12:57 am

    Being Australian, I don’t get any of the baseball stuff but I get the message.
    Where can I find one of these illusive DEs? Feel free to apply at my website, if you are one. :)
    Can I teach myself these skills over time or do I realistically need an impartial objective opinion to make real improvements ?

    • August 3, 2016 at 11:41 am

      Good and GREAT developmental editors aren’t that hard to find. Steven does a nice job here describing how “un-formulaic” the writer’s journey truly is. Ask for testimonials. Don’t hire based on pricing alone (highest or lowest). I’m a ghostwriter and DE, and take a more hands-on approach than most (that is, writing and rewriting to show my authors how it’s done). Like any profession, there are standards the pros know to follow — and then there’s that special twist unique to each writing warrior.

  2. Mary Doyle
    July 29, 2016 at 5:42 am

    Baseball and equations tend to make me go cross-eyed, but I’ve been following you long enough to get the point here. Like Tim, I had to throw just about everything out and start over, but I never would have figured that out if it wasn’t for you, Story Grid and Steve Pressfield. Thanks for making “good enough” not good enough.

  3. July 29, 2016 at 6:28 am

    What a brilliant metaphor, Shawn!

    As a story editor and occasional developmental editor for my clients, I’m often faced with the Chuck Knoblauch dilemma:

    “The writer just wants to get the ball near the plate, good enough, and he’ll piece together something any which way to deliver something that works.”

    Those are the toughest times for me. Because I have to tell someone with loads of talent that she can’t get by on that alone. Like your daughter, the natural athlete, I’ve got to figure out ways to say, “You’ve got it inside you. Now dig deeper and put in on the page.”

  4. Lore
    July 29, 2016 at 6:54 am

    Great post, thank you… and wouldn’t it just be precious a if every writer could afford to hire a DE.

  5. Tim Murphy
    July 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

    Ah, Shawn, a beautiful post. Baseball offers such endless metaphors, for writing and for life.

    Keep them coming, coach.

  6. July 29, 2016 at 7:33 am

    I’m curious, for a writer that has an audience and isn’t writing a traditional book, but is instead writing a public chapter-by-chapter story and releasing as he goes, what is the best way to learn the overhand throw?

    Are the tools in Story Grid not really applicable to something like that?

  7. July 29, 2016 at 7:55 am

    Thank you Shawn. Inspiring and challenging.

  8. Michael Beverly
    July 29, 2016 at 8:10 am

    Shawn, let’s take this metaphor deeper.

    Tiger Woods, Kobe, Nolan Ryan, Michael Jordan, these guys were born with something that cannot be taught, learned, acquired, AND they got their 10,000 hours in early.

    Wayne Gretzky was ice skating in his back yard as a child, getting his 10,000 hours before he went to the first grade, this family built him a skating rink (as I seem to recall you did once yourself).

    Whatever that magical gift was/is, luck, god, serendipity, whatever, neither Tim nor me, nor anyone else here has it (or ever will). Mozart had two things: the right genes and a family that gave him 10,000 hours before he was three feet tall.

    It’s impossible to be Steven King starting as an adult, he was getting his 10,000 hours in when he was a child.

    I write this not to be negative, but as a way to look at reality: Some things cannot be changed.

    Some skills and gifts must be programmed into a growing brain, those of us reading this can learn to speak French, but we all know that it will take us much more effort and pain than it would a 5 year old to learn the same skill.

    We also know that a child could learn Chinese and English (and speak them like natives) but we never could.

    I wonder, because I know my last few questions spoke to this very issue.

    Am I damaging myself by writing romantica (essentially middle class housewife porn)?

    Am I destroying tendons by writing fast and not changing things in an action-adventure sci-fi story that is designed to apply to fans?

    Am I selling out?

    I do struggle with these issues.

    When I was an oil painter (and a damn good one, trained by a master) I read the biography of another painter who was studying painting as a young boy in some Italian museum, getting in his 10,000 hours before he lost his virginity.

    I wept because I was 40.

    I gave up painting. I knew I could never be him. I could never go back.

    There is a reason that the best way to become a professional baseball player or an actor in Hollywood is to be born to certain types of parents (actors and baseball players).

    Now I’m 50.

    I can’t be a pro musician. I can’t be a pro painter. I’ll never play in the NBA (I never could have, even if I had played a million hours).

    But I can write.

    Can I write well enough to be a pro?

    I think so.

    I deeply respect you and I’m conflicted here because I want to be a professional and I want to be the best I can be and I don’t want to give up (and I cannot, I’d sooner die).

    Did Andy Weir study writing? I don’t think so. Was his success luck? Fate? The gods? I don’t know.

    I can’t bother with anomalies.

    Do I respect the art? God, yes. I believe writing has and will change the world.

    Do I need to eat? Yeah, it kind of works that way as well.

    I wonder if the indie authors I want to emulate, those who pump out 12 books a year and make good livings, I wonder if they are forever spoiled from creating greatness?

    You seem to insinuating that.

    I see why, and I don’t necessarily disagree with you. We become what we train to become, generally speaking, it’s like in that movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, when the master tells the mother to keep the kid out of the park so he cannot play speed chess.

    But the kid loves speed chess, the mother says.

    But it’ll ruin him, the master says.

    Uggggggg.

    Anyway, thank you for addressing this issue, really, I’m torn, but in a good way.

    • Shawn Coyne
      July 29, 2016 at 9:59 am

      Michael,
      A couple of writers named Shakespeare and Dickens did both…they hit deadlines, but didn’t settle for as good as the last one…
      So can you. All you have to do is keep pushing yourself on each scene…just a bit better and more thoughtful with each one. Keep shipping your books and creating. But with each piece of work don’t allow yourself to settle for “as good as the last one…” You’ll be fine. Just keep writing and working the craft.
      Shawn

      • July 29, 2016 at 10:24 am

        I love Michael’s question and your answer, Shawn. One of my greatest writing challenges emotionally the past year (and one that put me in a 5-month-long deep black hole I just crawled out of.)

        When you say “Keep shipping your books” are you suggesting (I hope) that as long as each book we produce is our best at that moment (and, truly, “good enough” for now) we don’t need to wait until we’ve ground out 42 trunk novels so we can release Gates of Fire or The Big Sleep as our “first novel”?

        • Shawn Coyne
          July 29, 2016 at 10:40 am

          Exactly Joel. Push yourself to the edge of your knowledge and smile at what you’ve created. Ship it. And start the next one with the intention of doing a little be better. That’s it.

    • Jeffrey L Taylor
      July 29, 2016 at 1:55 pm

      10,000 hours is 40 hours a week, 5 days a week for 5 years. If you start now, you’ll be very good in a year or two. If you continue, you’ll be an expert a few years after that. At this point you can grandfather in a few thousands hours probably. I’m going full time now. I’ve been part time for twenty years. I’m 65. I expect to be an expert before I die. You can have a professional attitude long before you sell your first piece. Go for it. Be sure to take vacations too.

  9. Tony levelle
    July 29, 2016 at 8:32 am

    Shawn is describing the process that all world-class coaches use to create extraordinary performers.

    A friend of mine is a concert pianist. Her description of what her mentor/coach put her through is similar. Endless, painstaking, frustrating focus on doing the few really critical things perfectly.

    Until Shawn created Story Grid no one had identified these essentials for fiction so concisely clearly and pragmatically.

    Mastering the art of fiction without a mentor/coach is probably possible. But I suspect it takes a degree of obsessiveness and genius that is extremely rare.

    I am just thankful for the book and the podcasts. They allow me to ‘stand on the shoulders’ of genius and reach higher than otherwise possible.

    Shawn has identified the few critical skills a writer needs to internalize to perform at high level. The obsessiveness and ‘doing it over and over until you get it right’ is up to me.

    As always: Thanks for Story Grid!

  10. July 29, 2016 at 11:12 am

    Shawn, I listen to all the podcasts religiously. I applaud what you are doing for the writing world. It’s obvious you don’t have to take your valuable time to offer your insights and yet you do. Thank you. Pure genius.

  11. Christine W
    July 30, 2016 at 6:39 am

    What I LOVE about your whole project is there is zero time spent on what so much of writing instruction and advice deals with: realistic dialog, apt metaphors, show don’t tell, line editing, blah blah blah. I am now seeing that that micro level stuff should be one’s last concern. I also now see why so many poorly written books (at least on the micro level) go on to become best sellers: the story works. It’s like writing with a little “w” is like knowing how to play the piano, but Writing is knowing how to compose a song. This may seem obvious, but I see now that I’ve confused the two in my own work many times. So thanks!

  12. August 2, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    I appreciate this. The power and value of experience, which only comes from doing – and learning. The difference between understanding (I get it) and knowing (the ah-ha moment, when I really get it). I also appreciate the explanation of the different kinds of editors. I never had a developmental editor, so I had to learn the developmental process on my own, committing far too many errors on the way. But I would like to give a shout-out to two editors who, though they never bought a story from me, taught me a lot with a few words and took the time to write those words of constructive criticism: Lester del Rey and George Scithers. And even though I don’t write much SF&F these days – I’ve switched to the mystery genre – the lessons they taught endure. And Tim’s lucky to have you. As is Steven.

  13. Carl Blackburn
    August 4, 2016 at 8:10 am

    Thank you Shawn for all of the insight into writing. A suggestion for your formula in the context of writing:
    SM + TE(n) = ISF
    Story Mechanics + Trial & Error x How many times it takes = Internal Story Feeling
    All the best!