I’ve been writing all my life.
I started my first novel at 9. (I finished it when I was 33.) I went on to get a degree in literature, wrote a couple more novels and a bunch of stories, took loads of writing workshops, and spent most of my paying career translating technical jargon into English. In short, I’ve put in my 10,000 hours mastering the language, and I think I may claim the title of wordsmith.
So imagine my surprise when I learned that there’s a difference between wordsmithing and storysmithing.
The lesson came late in life and it did not come cheap.
In 2014 I had finished a novel that I wanted to revise. Of course it was “well-written” — there wasn’t an ugly sentence in it. It was filled with powerful emotion rendered in lovely prose. But it was way too long, and something about it–pacing, or something–wasn’t working. I was having no success cutting it down or ramping it up.
So one exciting and damn-the-torpedoes day, I dug into my savings account and hired a professional editor.
In exchange for a considerable reading fee, this editor told me that my novel was well-written, that it was too long, and that it had pacing problems. And that if I gave her some more money she’d be more specific. (Moral of the story: read the contract. Carefully.)
There I was, out a large sum, not rich enough to pony up or try again with another editor, and still without a clue as to how to fix my novel. I felt gullible. I felt stupid. I was completely discouraged. For almost a year, I quit writing altogether.
But one day, a year later, I spent ten more dollars and bought an ebook called The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, and that’s when things finally changed.
During his 25 year career as a developmental editor in big New York publishing, Shawn Coyne devised a method for analyzing and fixing the novels that came across his desk. He calls his method The Story Grid.
Three other novelists and I got together in August 2015 and formed the Super Hardcore Editing Group, or SHEG, with the intention of applying the Story Grid methods to our work.
It’s been amazing.
Using the Story Grid’s genre tools, I discovered that the historical romance I thought I was writing is actually a dramatic historical social saga. Applying the lesson on theme, I saw that my theme was emphatically not Love Conquers All. (More like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want, But If You Try Sometimes…”). My antagonist wasn’t that one guy with the dubious morality, but Society. My protagonist didn’t want hot sexy lovin’ (I mean, there is that): he wanted self-expression.
Plugging my novel into the Story Grid spreadsheet was like training infrared night-vision goggles on it: the cold spots were instantly obvious. Scenes that I thought were lovely and sacrosanct were revealed as useless, and I made instant, almost painless cuts of 30% of my original draft — which, believe me, it needed.
The arc and structure of my story shifted. The pacing picked up. My style and narrative voice changed. Everything changed.
Yes, a lot of SHEG’s work i s mechanical. It’s methodical. It’s non-mystical and un-glamorous and hard. But it’s magical, too, because weirdly, despite all the changes, we’re each still writing the novel we were originally inspired to write. We’re just clearer and more conscious of what that novel is. It’s been like our own four-person MFA in creative writing. Cost? About thirty bucks apiece.
To paraphrase Robert McKee in his great book on screenwriting, Story:
Talent without craft is like fuel without an engine. It burns wildly but accomplishes nothing.
A year ago was wordsmithing my talented way to a brightly burning pile of fuel. Thanks to the Story Grid and SHEG, I’m now building a story engine to put all that hard-won fuel into. The result is a novel that its target audience will enjoy reading: a story that works.