Late last fall I finished a second draft of my memoir about moving to the newly minted Slovak Republic when I was seventeen and all the adventures, both linguistic and romantic, that befell me there. Then it was time to let the book lie fallow for awhile—since, you know, I had other things going on at the time, like getting used to living in Japan and all. Since then the book’s been farmed out to a handful of trusted readers for feedback, and next month I plan to launch into the third edit, which hopefully will bring it to a place ready to seek publication. Eeek!
The idea of a fallow period is a bit misleading, though, because in this time between edits I have made a marvelous discovery that—I do not exaggerate—has changed my life. It is The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne and the companion podcast he does with Tim Grahl (whose Book Launch Show podcast is also awesome).
First, an embarrassing admission: this is actually the second time I’ve discovered The Story Grid, which just goes to show that if the life-changing thing comes along when you’re not ready for it, life doesn’t actually change. (Apply this wisdom to your own life as appropriate.) I read a library copy a couple years ago and thought it was really cool, but for whatever reason was not in a place to implement its strategy.
Then this past November I had about drained my podcast queue dry and was casting around for something new, so I looked for writing-related podcasts. There are zillions of them, and most of them bored me so I quickly moved on. Then I got to the Story Grid Podcast and frankly binged on approximately 150 episodes. I was so disappointed when I caught up to the present that I bought the book, read, marked, and inwardly digested its contents, and life will never be the same! Or at least writing.
Now, why this gush of praise? Assuredly there are other great writing books out there (though Strunk & White is not one of them). Stephen King’s On Writing is a fantastic account of the existential side of writing: what it means to be a person who writes and all the emotions that go with it. A neglected classic is John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, which I re-read every few years, as the wisest exploration I know of the philosophical and moral issues involved in creating stories. On the nonfiction side, the one and only book you will ever need is Clear and Simple as the Truth by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner, which teaches the craft of writing simple but not simplistic prose.
Craft is the key issue here. Until The Story Grid I had never before found a book that so successfully captures, analyzes, and explains the craft of writing a story. Craft means a skill that is acquired by learning from the masters and putting in the time and effort to gain it for oneself. Overcoming your existential demons is one thing (and actually, Shawn Coyne is pretty good on that, too), but you could be totally demon-free and still not have the slightest idea how to suck your reader in, keep her hooked, and deliver her a satisfying, heart-filling, mind-blowing ending.
Coyne’s approach to gaining the skill of writing starts with genre. It may seem a surprising choice, until you grasp his definition: genre is the management of reader expectations. If you pick up a thriller, you don’t want a minute exploration of every shade of emotion in a sleepy coastal town—or a cat detective—or a tragic, nihilistic ending that convinces you life is meaningless; you want rip-roaring action that turns personal and ends in a skin-of-your-teeth triumph. And if you settle down with a steamy romance, you don’t want smooth, effortless growth toward interpersonal unity amidst dispassionate discussions of politics; you want sturm, drang, at least one rival and at least one break-up. Knowing the kind of story you’re reading (and therefore writing) is the key.
And this is the thing about genre: it follows a pattern. Coyne calls them “conventions.” Way too many aspiring writers dismiss them as “clichés.” (I may have been one of these at one time.) For me, one of the most enlightening aspects of the book and the podcast was the distinction between conventions and clichés. The former keep you firmly anchored in your genre, set up expectations, and deliver on them. If you have ever read a book and shrugged at the end with the thought, “That didn’t really work,” or “Why didn’t the characters…?” it’s because the author failed to deliver on the conventions of the genre.
But this is different from a cliché: a cliché is when you’ve seen it coming a mile away, have read/seen/heard it a thousand times before, and are bored and disappointed at the end. Not because it didn’t work, but because it wasn’t interesting. A great book observes the conventions but avoids clichés… which is why writing a great story is such hard work!
And this is just to dip a toe into the ocean of wisdom in the Story Grid method. Writers who are in it whole-hog can use Coyne’s Story Grid spreadsheet method to map out in minute detail every single scene, character, event, value shift, etc. of their work, whether a short story or a whole novel. The Story Grid itself contains the spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs, and Coyne has since published spreadsheets of other iconic works, such as Pride and Prejudice. I was so intrigued by the method that I did a spreadsheet of the Gospel of Mark! It was incredibly illuminating on both the literary and the theological level. (Sign up for my Theology and a Recipe newsletter at the bottom of this page and you’ll get to see it in my next issue, on “Reading the Gospel of Mark Like a Novel.”)
So to get back to the memoir: next month the plan is to spreadsheet the entire book. The reason I decided to write this memoir at all, in fact, is that once I retrieved my letters from that year (thank you, Colleen!) and read them through, I was astounded to discover that I had lived through “an Aristotelian arc,” as I put it to myself at the time. In other words, a complete story took place over the course of that year, from the Inciting Incident through the Middle Build to the Ending Payoff. Who actually gets to live out a perfect story form, contained in one single year, no less? Now with the Story Grid method I understand the gift I was given even better. I’m excited to perfect it using Coyne’s brilliant tools and share it with you before too much longer.