The Iceman Cometh

No Steve, No Ice Rink

No Steve, No Ice Rink

Many moons ago when I worked for “the man,” I’d reached a state of utter burn out. There was absolutely no water left in my creative well. I’d peered into the abyss and fallen in. Even mine own private Resistance had gone on vacation. Even he knew I was toast.

I’d just finished a project with a very high profile celebrity that required an inordinate amount of humility. The celebrity would have none of my rational editor-speak or my insistence on linear storytelling. To make matters worse, the usual tools to enforce my power (really the corporation’s power) over the artist (money and contractual obligations) were useless.

The celebrity (someone with an extremely high I.Q. and an Übermensch sense of self…except when he felt threatened or unsure of himself…which was quite often, fun right?) wisely refused to sign the seven-figure contract I’d negotiated with his agent or accept one penny from the company until he was personally satisfied with the manuscript. He wouldn’t be strong-armed by the publishing machine. God knows he’d verbally agreed to the terms of the deal and had publicly announced his intentions of writing the book, going as far as appearing at the Book Expo convention with much hoopla.

But he simply refused to sign the contract until he was damn good and ready.

You may find it crazy for a publisher to move forward on a book without a signed contract, but publishers often agree to a project, announce it, catalog it, create a cover for it, and set a lock down pub date for it…all the while not having a “signed agreement” in place. It just takes a long time for lawyers to work out the specific language of the contracts and because large sums of money for these projects are at stake, it is very rare for them to go south. Who walks away from a million dollars guaranteed over a “returns clause?” The deals eventually get done long before pub date, checks clear, and all’s well.

Not so in this case.

In fact, two weeks after the book had been published and was on The New York Times bestseller list, I drove to this celebrity’s house, put the paperwork on the hood of my rented car and told him that I’d never ask him for another thing if he’d just sign the damn thing.

Funny that I had to “call in a favor” so that the person in question could be paid more money than I’d made in my career…

The absurdity of the situation did not escape my notice, especially after my reward for keeping the thing alive and actually getting it in print to reach the bestseller list was just getting to keep my job. Oh and a nice bottle of wine.

Here’s the thing:

The place where I was working had just undergone a “regime change.” That’s a nice way of saying that the publisher had been fired and another one had been brought in to right the ship. But what was weird was the “new” publisher turned out to be the previous publisher before the one who had just been fired.


It was a sort of George Steinbrenner/Billy Martin kind of situation where the previous publisher had a few bad seasons and was “promoted” by the corporate hierarchy to a position overseas.  Big Big corporation by the way. He was probably under contract for a lot of money so the corporation shipped him to parts unknown to ride it out until he deposited his final check.

Another publisher (the one who hired me) was brought in to right the listing ship that the previous publisher had left…(now the returning new publisher…).

The publisher who had hired me had taken the company in a more “commercial” direction…meaning more big thrillers etc. on the list…hence my being hired. But she’d had mixed results and she wasn’t a very good schmoozer either. So she was canned (and all editors she’d hired were canned too…with the exception of moi) and the former publisher came back to restore the literary gravitas of the place, while he’d also been tasked with increasing net revenue. No easy feat.  He actually pulled it off.

You can see why being a publisher ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Just as an aside, I liked both publishers. The boss who hired me was an old school brassy force of nature who’d risen from the secretarial pool to the corner office when women were still being called “girls” and my new boss (the guy who used to run the show brought back to run it again) turned out to be a real mensch.

But I had a boss in between myself and the publisher too and let’s just say we had a complicated relationship…more on that in a minute.

So what drove me into the abyss?

While I’m confident the celebrity liked working with me (we’re still distantly friendly), he could have cared less about my “career” or the fact that his failure to deliver the book when he said he would could easily be grounds for my firing. That’s not a criticism either. That’s the right attitude for an artist; serve the art not the peripheral forces demanding attention around the art.

Remember that this was a “big book” for the company too. It would drive a lot of revenue into the coffers just before the end of the fiscal year. My inner Sammy Glick knew that if I could get this thing together, I’d earn a lot of respect from my bosses and maybe I could become one someday soon myself…. So I kept making promises.

“Sure it’s going great! Don’t worry!”

“Book’s due to the printer next week? Oh don’t sweat it, we’re just doing some little interstitial tinkering.”

“You absolutely need by Friday? Sure, no problem!”

I worked three days and nights straight…didn’t leave the office…and stayed up all night long the night before the book was due on press with the celebrity and his equally suffering co-author to hit the deadline.  But we did make it and we did sell a lot of copies.

So after that wild ride, I should have been over the moon happy with the success of the project, right? I should have been energized to jump back into the fray and push that old rock up the hill a little more right?

Instead, I wanted to crawl into a shallow hole, cover myself with soft, handmade quilts and sleep for seven and a half months.

About a week after I’d gotten the celebrity to sign the contract, he called me and asked me if I wanted to hang out and play golf. He’d fallen into a bit of a depression himself after the whole thing too and like freed hostages surrounded by people who just didn’t get what they’d been through, he wanted to have a mini-reunion. To laugh it all out of our systems.

So I went to see my immediate boss just to let him know I’d be taking off the rest of the day to hit the links with the celebrity. You know to decompress?

He did me a great favor that day by refusing to grant my request for the afternoon off.

I realize today (not at the time of course as I was blinded by Black Irish rage-fury that thankfully I was able to suppress before I expressed it) that my boss did what he had to do. It wasn’t personal.

The corporation that employed me at its discretion and of which my boss was its immediate representative wouldn’t benefit from my playing golf with the celebrity now. Before the guy signed the contract? Sure. But now that he had, the corporation had already realized whatever profit it would get out of that relationship. Time to move on.

What the corporation needed from me now, and let’s not forget who paid me, was to plow into the next project. Not wallow in the past.

If my boss were to approve my 18 holes of downtime, he’d be sending a dangerous message to me and to my fellow employees. That message would be that rewards and favor will come to editors who take wild risks, make promises they shouldn’t, and put the company in compromising positions. I was guilty of all of those sins.

That is not a good business model for a corporation. The whole thing could have easily blown up spectacularly. I was lucky it didn’t. I shouldn’t be rewarded for doing such a thing. I needed to be warned not to stretch so thinly. To take the smallest risks necessary for the most monetary gain. Not big ones… And so I was.

So what does this have to do with the photo of the skating rink?

Not so long ago (I confess I’m still in the midst of it) I faced another burn out. This time I called my business partner and told him all about it. How I’m finding myself physically resisting the plunge into the next thing. How I need to get the Hell away from Story Story Story for a while. That I need to do something else with my hands for fun that has nothing to do with Editing or Writing or Teaching etc.

Now, this business partner is known for his defining the very concept of artistic “Resistance.” He’s known for kicking people in the ass, for putting forth that it is through grinding hard work and only for the work’s sake that will we ever be touched with muse-inspiration. That excuses are Resistance’s furies. Isn’t the mother of all excuses “I’m burned out?”  Good luck getting this guy’s sympathy.

And keep in mind that this new “corporation” is a two-guy only operation. When one peters out, the other is left holding the bag. There aren’t any side businesses or autonomous imprints in the company that are going to pick up the wastrel’s slack.

After I rang off from that dreaded call, I had the energy to plan and build an ice skating rink for my kids. From scratch. I can still hear the snickers from the guys at Home Depot when I told them what I was going to do with “all that lumber.” I lifted every board, strung all the lights, and turned every screw. And not once did I think about inciting incidents, progressive complications, crisis, climax or resolution.

That’s what the photo is, a moment at the end of last night’s ice time, just after I poured a nice new sheet.

There’s no denying that change require loss. Walking away from an esteemed branded institution that enables rubbing elbows with celebrities is a surefire way NOT to get your calls returned.  But your kids will trade that loss for a skating rink any day of the week.

The only problem for me is that I skate as well as I golf.


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  1. Mary Doyle on January 22, 2016 at 4:30 am

    Thanks for sharing this story Shawn! IMHO, your former boss would have been smart to send you out for that 18 holes and then sat down to have a talk with a somewhat refreshed editor about smart vs. dumb risk-taking. Aren’t you glad to now be with the guy who tells you to go build an ice rink for the kids? He knows it will get the gears going again and lead you back to the work.

  2. Michael West on January 22, 2016 at 6:17 am

    Is that foto ups down?

  3. Justin Fike on January 22, 2016 at 6:21 am

    Great post Shawn. I’m curious whether you’ve ever read The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Shwartz? It’s a fabulous book by two former coach/consultants to pro athletes who transferred their insights to the larger sphere of Doing the Work in any arena. It was pretty life-changing for me, and does a great job of articulating the dynamics that underlie the need for recharge you’re describing here. Might be worth a read sometime.

    As always, thanks for the honest peak behind the curtain.

  4. Michael Matthews on January 22, 2016 at 6:33 am

    Great ice rink. But does displaying it upside down mean it’s a distress signal?

    • Michael Matthews on January 22, 2016 at 12:19 pm

      OK, it’s fixed. Sorry. Compulsive copy editor.

  5. Todd Syswerda on January 22, 2016 at 6:35 am

    Shawn, I’ve been listening to your podcasts during my commute this past week and, when I read this post through that filter, I HAVE to thank you for expressing and keeping the truly important things important. It’s easy to be so engrossed in the projects that you are never present with your family, even while you are in the same room.
    Thank you for sharing your insights with so many!

  6. Joe Tye on January 22, 2016 at 6:36 am

    The building of that ice rink is a more eloquent story than anything plotted out in your wonderful book The Story Grid.

  7. @MorgynStar on January 22, 2016 at 6:37 am

    Shawn, grass always greener? Here, we think of you as Superman and you prove you’re Clark. Which makes the super part more amazing.

  8. Jack Price on January 22, 2016 at 7:12 am

    Shawn, I can’t tell you how important your story grid work is and how much it means to me. It has unlocked doors I thought were forever shut. Glad you got to build your rink. Sorry you had to. Jack

  9. Sean Crawford on January 22, 2016 at 7:24 am

    Shawn, you tell the story so well, complete with wine bottle, that I just had to reach for my own glass of wine…
    I’ve just had breakfast, after coming off a night shift, and after a nap with my alarm set I am going off to my writing group. So yes, a productive life means balance means wine and getting to work.

    Thank you for sharing.

  10. Mia Sherwood Landau on January 22, 2016 at 7:42 am

    Oh, Shawn, this post revives my sanity. Knowing the battle rages for everybody (you and Steve are ice-rink refreshing in your candor) and truly never ends for any of us is weirdly motivating today. Thanks for that. And thanks for the fledgling foolscap paper on my desk today. It’s happening because of you guys, no doubt about it. It’s painful and wonderful at the same time, like any birth. My ice rink is my herb garden…

  11. Joanna on January 22, 2016 at 7:48 am

    “Instead, I wanted to crawl into a shallow hole, cover myself with soft, handmade quilts and sleep for seven and a half months.”

    Oh man. This made me laugh so hard! Thanks, Shawn.

  12. Debbie L Kasman on January 22, 2016 at 8:19 am

    In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Shawn, you are completing/have completed a heroine’s journey.

    The Heroine’s Journey is not about becoming a hero like the traditional version of the story. It’s about recovering from the damage caused by chasing success in today’s world.

    You’ve figured out that the boons of success are illusory but you had to descend to the dark feminine to figure that out (the shallow hole, the soft, handmade quilts and the desire for a seven and a half month sleep.)

    The Heroine’s Journey is perilous and downright challenging but the end result is incredible. You stop living your life for material purposes and you start living in order to make a difference. That’s exactly what you are doing with your life now.

    Your life is a classic morality redemption story with McKee’s controlling idea: the compulsive pursuit of contemporary values will destroy you but if you see truth and throw away your obsession, you can redeem yourself.

    At least, that’s the way I see it based on the things you’ve taught me. I hope you don’t mind me saying so. I recognize it because I’m on the same journey and that’s what I’m writing about now with lots of help from you.

    It takes great courage to do what you are doing, Shawn, and to walk away from all the things you’ve given up.

    If you ever feel discouraged just remember the Dalai Lama’s definition of success: Judge your success by what you have to give up in order to achieve it.

    By completing a heroine’s journey, you are achieving your true destiny but you had to go through all the other crap in order to get there.

    Thanks for bleeding on the pages and for leading by example.

    You are a shining light in a very dark world.


    • Shawn Coyne on January 22, 2016 at 8:59 am

      Aw Shucks Debbie!

      Your very kind response reminds me of the BIG REVEAL of Steve’s macho book GATES OF FIRE.

      The Spartan King Leonidas does not choose the 300 Warriors he takes with him to die at Thermopylae for their courage or toughness…he chooses them for the women they will leave behind. The 300 women are the strongest in Sparta…capable of losing their beloveds for the betterment of all. When their husbands and sons lie dead on the battlefield…they will carry on with stoicism and fortitude, setting the example for the rest of Greece to beat back the invading Persians.

      I agree with you and Steve that real courage is not inherently male. It’s female and to seek comfort underground is to commune with Persephone, the most courageous of all.

      • Debbie L Kasman on January 22, 2016 at 10:04 am

        Wow! You and Steve so get it. My hat is off to you both.

      • Joel D Canfield on January 22, 2016 at 11:42 am

        That choice, basing who goes and who stays by their women, was one of the most powerful parts of the book for me.

        Reminded me of Éowyn’s plight in LOTR. I suspect she ate orc liver for breakfast.

  13. Erika Viktor on January 22, 2016 at 9:08 am

    What if the ice rink was your most important life’s work and you thought it was just you taking a break from your important life work?

  14. Jeff Korhan on January 22, 2016 at 9:10 am

    Top to bottom, that is an awesome story! What a range of emotions I experienced.

    Nicely done.

  15. Paul C on January 22, 2016 at 10:08 am

    That’s a very nice rink of dreams, reminds me of Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. Our ice rink was made at the public golf course which might be the reason a lot of golf swings look like slap shots.

    • Robin on January 22, 2016 at 10:28 am

      If you build it, they will skate?

  16. Joel D Canfield on January 22, 2016 at 11:44 am

    I recently soft-closed two of our three companies so I could write instead of chasing money.

    It was terrifying, right up until the second after we decided. Then, it was exultation and joy.

    I sleep better these days.

    I hope you’re sleeping better, Shawn.

    • Michael Beverly on January 22, 2016 at 1:58 pm

      Joel,,,lately my skating rink has been the forum at The Story Grid.

      I think there is value in just going nuts with a project that takes you away somewhere.

      Perhaps this is why some grown men own train sets?

      Anyway, just what are the conventions & obligatory scenes of a maturation family saga long form historical novel with the sub-genres: sports, building ice rinks, and dog training?

      Never mind, I’m on it.

  17. Donna McGuigan on January 23, 2016 at 8:06 am

    Incredible, Shawn. Thank you for sharing and for all you do. You’ve made an incredible difference in this writer’s life…and I know in many others.

  18. Andrew Lubin on January 23, 2016 at 11:09 am

    Shawn- Your boss set the right tone. In today’s kumbaya world of participation awards and group hugs,people need to roger-up and do the work for which they’re being paid. Or they can slink off and whimper.

    Maybe job was the training ground for the ice rink- it never occurred to you that you couldn’t do it- well done!

  19. M. Talmage Moorehead on January 24, 2016 at 11:27 pm

    I can relate to your experience, Shawn. I burned out on pathology and turned to writing fiction. Being an editor in the big leagues sounds like it carries the same level of unforeseen stress as medicine… being responsible for important things that are beyond anyone’s control. Glad you got out. Brave and wise on your part.

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