Cafe Society, Part One

Decades ago, I was required to do two things I didn’t want to do…read and write.


Honore de Balzac. The dude changed my life.

While I didn’t really love either of C. P. Snow’s two cultures, science came much easier to me than the humanities. I liked science because there was usually a definitive right and wrong answer. Plus there is a clear scientific method.  You do this, this and this and you’re either right or wrong. Then you re-jigger and repeat the process depending upon your earlier results. If you work hard enough, you’ll find truth.

And truth is good, even if it’s not what you want to be true. Truth that explains a seeming absurdity? Better still.

I liked the security in being right or wrong. I believed that there were fundamental rules of life, universally acknowledged givens…like well turned phrases in Kris Kristofferson songs “try to tell the truth and stand your ground…” You either abided by them and you were right or you didn’t and you were wrong. Simple.

Science gave my belief system ballast. You can argue all you want, but if you fall out of a plane with no parachute, you’ll fall 32 feet per second per second until you hit the terminal velocity of approximately 135 miles per hour. That’s just true. Someone figured that out and no one could tell him he was full of shit.

As someone from a modest background, I resolved to ride science into a medical degree. I’d do my time in internships and residencies and come out the other side with some sort of surgical skill that would provide for my future family and me. I could take a lawn mower apart and put it back together pretty well.  So setting a broken bone seemed like something I could do well too.

Within my sphere of influence, being a doctor was a definable form of success and noble too. I just needed the GPA and the MCAT scores to get me into Medical School.  The better my scores, the better school I could attend, and the better standing I’d have in society. Easy peasy.

But in order to get into my chosen professional trade school, my schooling required me to take courses from something they called the “core curriculum.”  Undergraduates could select from a Chinese menu of courses that would, in theory, round out their educations. The goal of the university back then wasn’t to rubber stamp the ambitions of eighteen year olds and allow them to only study what would bring them security and material success. See Ross Douthat’s 2005 take on the modern state of the university ( Instead it forced laser focused Horatio Algers to step out of their comfort zones and consider the broader immaterial world. Big picture, outside of primitive “hierarchy of needs” thinking.

I thought the core curriculum was bullshit.

Why did I have to take a course on 19th Century French Literature when my time (and the considerable money I earned sweating my ass off in a foam rubber factory, working buildings and grounds and driving the school’s Zamboni to pay my way through school) would be better spent studying the Krebs cycle?

But the real truth was, I was afraid. More afraid of a stack of books than a “game” that would eventually take my left knee and leave me with a series of concussions I’m having more and more difficulty putting out of my mind. Trying to forget trauma that makes you forget can’t be bad though right? That’s a good sign?

I was afraid of being revealed as stupid.

I was not in any way a fast reader, and I had been successfully hiding a serious deficiency in reading comprehension since elementary school. My head hurt when I read fiction and I could not stop my brain from meandering even within sentences let alone paragraphs, pages, chapters and entire novels. I wasn’t word smart. Why would I be required to reveal that to my contemporaries/rivals?

Science texts and math were something else entirely.  They could be parsed into nugget sized pieces of information—truths that I could stockpile and recall with practiced ease.

But keeping track of characters and their emotional states, their ambitions and flaws and then somehow extrapolating meaning out of their seemingly random and pointless actions was lost on me. The people in stories weren’t even real. I could not understand how a made up being could lead me anywhere but astray.

But rules are rules and I sucked it up and did what was required. I forced myself to read Zola, Maupassant, Flaubert, Stendhal and a bunch of others.  These guys didn’t write novellas either. They wrote big thick epics in tiny type loaded with historical details and scores of characters.  And practically everyone was referred at as Madame or Monsieur whatever their last name was which was referenced only on their first appearance in the story.

I was bitching about it to a friend who knew how to push my buttons one day and she laughed at me and said, “You’re not even reading them in French. How hard could it be?” Years before, she’d overheard my fuddling through the freshman foreign language proficiency oral exam speaking the fractured pigeon French equivalent of an inverse Inspector Clouseau. She was right.  I should shut my mouth and do the work.

Put in my place and out of my element, I resigned myself to concentrate like I never had before and fire as many new synapses in my brain I could muster.

After the “meh” experience reading THE RED AND THE BLACK, Zola’s GERMINAL hit me right in the solar plexus… Jesus, It was like Pittsburgh in the 1970s. At the end of the course I found more truth in the fiction than I did punching a needed chad on my ticket to security, finishing a thesis on DNA repair mechanisms in yeast (“The Characterization of a Saccharomyces cerevisiae DNA Methyltransferase,” not my best title). If you have trouble sleeping, I’ll send a copy your way.

What I didn’t know at the time was how insidious a work of fiction can be. Reading the right novel at the right time will seriously F you up. And I was in for a doozy of a F-ing.

While running innumerable electrophoresis gels inside a one hundred square foot refrigerated cold room (I found out that the specific yeast DNA repair protein I was trying to “characterize” disintegrated at room temperature…but it took six months of doomed experiments to figure that out) I’d pull the final book for my core course out of my thickest winter coat and slog through it.

The book was Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac, the Stephen King of his day. Popular in his time, but recognized as the pro he really was years later.

Here’s the gist of the story…

A mook with ambition from nowheresville heads to the big city to become a writer.

Soon, he faces the inevitable predicament of the artist…should he debase himself and his work just for the security of steady material wealth and status? Or should he follow the path of the ascetic members of a group called the Cenacle (the circle), a collection of intellectuals who value their work and integrity above all else? One group hangs out at the finest restaurants in Paris, the other in dumpy cold-water flats.

But Balzac knew that they were both equally dangerous forces aligned against art.

It’s the classic hero’s journey that Steve has written about, also known as the coming of age Bildungsroman, maturation plot etc.—a character on a mission confronts two seemingly different and opposing forces. The choices he makes or doesn’t make about joining or shunning either group enlighten him. Or not.

I finished the book, wrote an on the nose paper about it and graduated. But what I didn’t know at the time—like my unicellular yeast friends exposed to alkaloids—I was radically changed by reading those 19th Century frogs. (Please forgive the French slur…or not. I refer to myself as a Mick even though I’m American. I use racial slurs as signs of affection…much to my detriment…in many…if not most…instances. Some people laugh my vulgarity off…some think I’m a a-hole. Feel free to have either reaction).

Six years after the “couple of months” I took off to chill before applying to Med School, I was basically living in “a van down by the river.” I had zero interests beyond reading a good book and messengering packages from the World Trade Center to the Upper West Side. But I knew I had to get a life. I had to get off my ass.

I applied for an editorial assistant job in book publishing. I figured that if I could learn how to edit a story, I might one day be able to tell one well too. And the only way to learn how to edit was to work at a publishing house.

In my day, there was no formal academic training to become a book editor. (I don’t think there is now, either. At least not one run by a “learn Chinese in nine days” education corporation.)

It’s pretty absurd that there is no course that teaches aspiring editors the principles of storytelling. How to diagnose a troubled story and offer concrete advice about how to fix the flaws. Or how to even evaluate the success or failure of a particular story.

There is no course that tells editors how to craft compelling copy to position their projects to targeted readers, either. Or even how to target a readership. There is no in depth examination of genre. All of these skills must be self taught or … convincingly faked.

My personal opinion about why there isn’t this kind of training is that there is a necessity for the two cultures to merge in order to provide it. Applying a soupcon of science reveals the anatomy of the storytelling art, but literary people believe in the mysteries of “art” not the formulas of science. So those that do dedicate themselves to analyzing the bones and evolution of Story (like my client and friend Robert McKee) find themselves frequently misunderstood as formula peddlers.

[Nothing could be further from the truth. Bob McKee is an indispensible resource to thousands storytellers around the world.  Trust me, he ain’t in it for the money. As his agent, I often wish he were.]

I believe a great story is very much like a beautiful building. If you don’t know how to wire the walls, lay in the plumbing or construct a waterproof roof, chances are you won’t be a very good architect or contractor. But on the other side of the argument, if you have zero imagination, your building may technically work, but it will have the soul of a self-storage facility.

Same with stories.

There were and still are summer publishing courses that funnel the well educated hail fellows well met into the book world pipeline, but graduates learn little about how the system really works other than general introductions to the core quadrant of departments (editorial, publicity, sales, marketing).  Going to one of them used to be de rigueur for entry level employees. I really don’t know how important they are now.  I’m an old dog in the business, long since exiled from the big six editorial world…self-exiled, but exiled nevertheless.

When I was in the editorial assistant trenches, it took quite a long time for me to get a clear understanding of what a book editor’s professional responsibilities really were. And a number of times, I had to learn them by making painful and humiliating mistakes.

You see the way one becomes a book editor is through apprenticeship. And like blacksmiths or cobblers, editors who’ve managed to build a career for themselves and have their own specialty have mixed feelings about training their ambitious young assistants in their area of expertise.

This is because there are a fixed number of editors at every house. You don’t need two editors covering the same arena. You just want the “best.” That kind of situation, when it rarely arises, devolves quickly into a bake-off of sorts between the two editors. The loser is quietly let go or decides publishing just isn’t for them.

With the absorption and contraction of imprints and independent publishing companies in the past twenty years, there are far fewer editors in total today than when I came up in 1992.  The only way an assistant becomes an editor is if a higher up gets poached to take a position at another house (the only way to get a meaningful bump in salary too) or if someone gets fired.

So the paranoia of growing you own private Eve Harrington is real. Consequently, neglecting editorial assistants is not unheard of. In fact, some people think it’s kind of what you’re supposed to do. Why train your replacement?

I was fortunate not to be neglected and I learned a great deal from my bosses. That’s not to say that they intervened when I fell on my ass. But I think that felt it was important I fell on my ass without their intervention. Looking back, I think they were right. Others though—very talented and dedicated people—weren’t so lucky.

My naïve plan to find out the book editor rules and then play by them and move on up the ladder though was quickly frustrated. The truth was that my “on the surface” assumptions about book publishing when I entered the profession had little to do with what was really critical to getting ahead.

And what proved critical to getting ahead…Balzac wrote about from 1837 through 1843. It’s taken me twenty years to finally figure that out. The guy knew his shit.


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  1. Sonja on September 7, 2012 at 9:58 am


    This is fantastic!

    I loved reading this–your take on books, life and most of all your personal adventures through the publishing world. I always learn something.


  2. Basilis on September 8, 2012 at 6:22 am

    So, the right way of thinking to know when you are at the “right” part of sth you do.

    And when you are not, how to make it to the “right” part…

    Which can be developed further as a skill not only by your efforts, but with some inspiration from the right novel at the right time.

    (That perhaps can turn you the right writer, at the right moment, at the right publisher…)

    I’m waiting for the next part of the article. Perhaps it’s the right one to make me think more “right” for my future plans.
    I like this blend of life-experiences-conclusions- on the publication field and how the rest of us can think about it and use it in a world that there is no black and white decisions nor correct or wrong.

  3. Patrick on September 12, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    Shawn…great stuff–thank you and Steven. I too lived the double life of Krebs cycle and literature in college as a premed English major… having my most fun in a children’s fiction writing class the same semester I slugged out a tooth puller of a orgo paper on “The Hunsdiecker Reaction-Silver Salts at Play.” The contrast could not have been more obvious. Now some 15 years later (what?!) I played by the rules, am a pediatric neurologist who–guess what–felt more alive at Robert Mckee’s seminar in NY this Spring than I have in years…(you call that guy Bob?)…

    I know things are getting serious when during a recent brain mapping I’m having more fun explaining to the patient the influence of Joseph Campbell’s hero journey on Star Wars than zapping his brain to make his fingers move and speech arrest. Maybe I should go read Balzac…

    • Shawn Coyne on September 12, 2012 at 8:02 pm


      Truth is, I didn’t have what it takes to do what you do. A hard fall.

      I teared up with regret when you described that brain mapping…Jesus, if only I had that gift? Art, beauty and care all wrapped up into one…

      Whatever it is that you’ve chosen to do, or what’s chosen you to do…is the answer in and of itself. I just hope to God I have someone like you taking care of my little boy or girl if they need help. A doctor who cares enough to talk about Star Wars to calm a little guy or girl out of the reality of having their brained zapped is doing work that Bob and I could only dream of doing.

      And yeah, Bob is as black irish as I am, hard in a crowd, but soft at the center. The perfect guy to have a glass of wine or beer with. Like Steve. Uncompromising. I believe that STORIES live at the blood/brain barrier. Seems like you do too being there so often. Maybe we aren’t wrong.

      Who knows you may write a book about the important work you do someday to boot! A book’s nice, but the work is more important.

      Thanks for your comment. It really made my day…and made me jealous too. Balzac I’m sure would agree. Art is nice, saving a young life…off the charts.

      • Patrick on September 26, 2012 at 1:39 pm


        Thanks for your reply a few weeks ago. Timely and meaningful. I will have to put it up there with an email I received from Abraham Verghese (one of my doc-writer heroes) years ago during residency. I was training in Houston and he was working in San Antonio at the time. I asked for his advice on taking time off to get an MFA and to my surprise and delight the guy emailed me back. I’ll never forget his opening, “Patrick-seriously consider depression. I remember feeling abject despair during my own residency…make no major decisions now.” It’s so funny looking back how right he was, even as a stranger.

        Thanks for reminding me that doing the work I’ve been given is a gift not to be taken for granted. I needed hear that. And yes, a book would be great someday…for now…gotta get back to work.

  4. Jeff on September 14, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    Awesome post, Shawn,

    I always thought the reason book editing was taught through apprenticeship vs. formal instruction was because it was like Chicken Sexing — the people who CAN do it, can’t really explain it, but if you watch them do it, and operate under their guidance, you can sort of pick it up by osmosis, even though, once you can do it, you’ll be no more able to explain it to someone else than they were. That sort of thing.

    Is there anything to that, or is it mostly just that people are loathe to demistify art, and equally reticent to advance future competitors/replacements?

    • Shawn Coyne on September 16, 2012 at 6:10 am

      Hi Jeff,

      I think editing is just like any other art. That is you need to understand the overall structure of the form…a comedy, a thriller, a mystery, narrative nonfiction, biography etc….before you can analyze someone’s work.

      It’s like writing music, if you don’t understand how Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, etc. came to the previous form, perfected it and then took it somewhere else how could you help a young composer crack a sonata?

      Of course I learned at the knee of my bosses, but (and I hope they’re not reading this) I don’t know that they understood the formal structures of the works they were commenting on all the time. When I asked questions like…”why is it that the ending just falls flat?” I never really got a formal explanation. Until I pursued an education outside of the publishing business in terms of STORY did I come to understand what is necessary to satisfy a reader of a particular genre.

      What was also helpful is that one of the very first books I edited was THE WEEKEND NOVELIST by Robert Ray. I had to do some serious research to help Robert out of some structural jams and we had to have a number of “let’s boil it down to the essence” kind of talks about storytelling.

      All of that does not mean that there is a formula, rather a form. Beethoven didn’t just sit down and write the Eroica, the 5th and ultimately the genre buster 9th Symphony without perfecting the traditional four movement symphonic form.

      The first job of being an editor (not the business job, but the creative job) is to understand what kind of story the writer wants to tell and then figure out how successful the writer was complying with the forms of the genre. If you write a love story and the lovers never face an opposing force to their being together…you don’t have a love story. You have a failed story.

      So the editor must go through a book and figure out how well the writer has complied with the genre and explain clearly to the writer why a particular plot point, scene, characterization etc. isn’t working.

      The art of editing comes after he/she has learned how to effectively figure out and convey the problems in a story. Only then will the editor be able to actually offer solutions to the problems. Have you thought about doing this here? Instead of here? That action scene isn’t working…it’s cliche and done to death. Why not try this?

      I have a particular system that I use to do this that I call THE GRID. I’ll write it up one day and put it out through Black Irish. That’s my next writing project.

      The writer doesn’t always use what an editor suggests, but it gets the writer outside of the pain of putting down the first draft and focuses them on the problem. As Steve always says THE PROBLEM IS THE PROBLEM…WORK THE PROBLEM…Don’t cry in your beer if your story isn’t working. Work the problem. An editor figures out what the problems are so the writer can work them.

      Editors must learn forms to tell writers what the problems are. Then the great ones can tell the writers how they might fix them.

      Thanks for your interest in this stuff Jeff. Now I know I need to get THE GRID together!

      All the best,

      • Jeff on September 18, 2012 at 8:58 pm

        Awesome, awesome, awesome. Thanks so much for the reply, Shawn! Love it.

  5. real jobs on November 16, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    Is this why the only opposition to the theory of evolution comes from religious leaders and other people who make money from selling religion and spirituality to gullible people, because if gullible people weren’t gullible anymore, then these guys would have to contribute to society the way the rest of us do; with real jobs?

  6. Pandora Ketcher on November 18, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Nice post, truly thanks for your hard work. Keep it up!

  7. escortslondon on November 18, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    There is certainly a great deal to know about this topic. I love all of the points you have made.

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