The Designated Driver
I’m going to take a break from my series on packaging today to write about what Steve wrote about this past Wednesday. I know you’re Steve Pressfield fans extraordinaire and you probably had your usual “Geez that Pressfield sure knows what he’s talking about” moments a few days back.
But I think his last post is really worth another look. It certainly solidified a lot of my own ideas about the “why of writing” (and the “why of editing” too) into a far stronger internal philosophical fortress.
First some background about how this came to hit me right where I live…
Tim Grahl and I started a podcast dedicated to the principles of The Story Grid in October 2015.
Our premise was: How can an ambitious amateur fiction writer use The Story Grid as a plan of action, a do-it-yourself-manual, a reverse engineering guide…to build their novel from scratch.
So for 28 episodes, Tim has been picking through The Story Grid with me from the point of view of a highly motivated person desiring to support himself and his family writing fiction.
Just a word or two about Tim.
He’s the quintessential master of the “shadow career,” the professional life that parallels real ambition. But one that is not really “all in.” Tim had half his torso inside the primal goo of his innermost desires, but he wasn’t completely submerged.
His shadow career manifested as the founder of a company dedicated to helping writers market their books. First Tim was a “fixer,” an outside contractor for hire that people in the know would recommend as an expensive, but effective fount of knowledge. Tim would spread his secret marketing sauce over a project and get it on bestseller lists. He was a book marketing black hat…a guy behind the scenes who was paid well, but anonymous.
And then Tim decided to expand his market to people who couldn’t afford to pay his soup to nuts behind-the-scenes fees. These people were just like him before he did the due diligence to learn the best book marketing practices. They wanted to learn how to do what he did. By teaching themselves not by just hiring it out. So that they could have a repeatable skill. The capital they’d invest would be skewed to heavy-duty blue collar intellectual labor.
Why not give autodidacts the secret sauce (which really is a methodology that requires sweat labor and a few breaks…like anything else) at a fraction of the cost he was charging Big Five publishing writer/clients?
Both of those iterations of his book-publishing career did well.
Well enough in fact that he could no longer run away from what he really wanted to do with his life—write fiction.
Tim understood that he had to come out of the shadows and do what he knew deep down that he wanted to be doing since he got into this racket. He had to not just talk about it anymore. He had to do it. No matter how traumatic it would prove to be…
So he reached out to me last summer to see if I’d be interested in doing The Story Grid podcast. And when I hemmed and hawed, he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
He would donate his time to the project, run all of the switches to make it work, and basically just call me an hour a week and record it. He did not want anything from me but mentoring. And he’d go public with the entire process too.
What he gets is to ask me whatever he wants about storytelling and solicit specific information about how I would recommend he go about planning and generating a first draft of a novel. What I get is to share all of his struggles with people in similar situations who have no idea of where to begin the work necessary to become a Pro writer. And obviously a vehicle to keep marketing my expensive monster textbook The Story Grid to people just starting out not sure about what it is I’m recommending…
The podcast is free and you can listen to your heart’s desire here.
But it doesn’t matter if you listen to a single episode to get my point about why Steve’s last post was so important.
Okay, so what is my point? I’m getting there. I promise.
The big problem that lurked in the distant future for me (which I did a great job denying to myself) back in October 2015 was this…
What if Tim spends six months or more writing a first draft and then actually finishes it?
What will happen then?
Well, being the industrious and drip…drip…drip worker Tim is, he finished a first draft a couple weeks ago.
Now I was in a terrible position.
If I were to tell Tim;
Congratulations…but look elsewhere for editorial guidance for that first draft. I’m not going to give away my secret sauce, at least not in a podcast. I get paid a king’s ransom as a freelance editor. Instead, let’s do another episode about Inciting Incidents…
I’d certainly be within my rights.
I mean I never told Tim that I’d donate my editorial time to his novel in exchange for his doing all of the drudgery of the podcast. In fact, I keep raising the price of my private editing fees to discourage people from trying to hire me.
For me, it’s as heartbreaking to edit, as it is to write. More so because you don’t have final cut.
But if I bailed on Tim’s first draft, wouldn’t I completely disappoint all of the people who’ve invested 28 hours of their listening life to my ramblings about the power of ten as a means to evaluate a turning point’s reversibility?
Anticipating my horror at coming to this obvious irreconcilable goods crisis question “Do I help him if it doesn’t directly help me?” every single week before we went live, Tim told me not to sweat it if I didn’t want to read his stuff.
Which gave me a great sigh of relief. I’d agree and reiterate that it was best that I didn’t read his story.
I mean it could be terrible, right?
What would I tell him then?
But then like every storyteller who lies to himself that he doesn’t really need to payoff something he set up in his beginning hook if he doesn’t want to, I had to face facts.
And the facts were these:
Using the “amateur gets professional help” set-up hook to lure listeners to The Story Grid podcast and then denying payoff of the deep knowledge I have about how to confront story problems (no matter how big or small) is a shitty thing to do.
So I decided that I had to read Tim’s first draft and I had to give it to him straight no matter what…
And like 99.999 percent of first drafts, I discovered that Tim’s first draft doesn’t work. The episode when I tell him that truth airs next week.
I can’t tell you how difficult it is for an editor to explain to a writer why his first draft is nowhere near ready for prime time without destroying his confidence. And even in extreme cases his will to live…
When I was less confident in my work, there were numerous times my showing off my story knowledge to prove how great an editor I was had the worst possible effect on the writer on the other end of the phone. They’d abandon the book…or had me fired from the project. Back then I thought that they “couldn’t handle the truth.” Now I know I had a lousy bedside manner and I was the one who couldn’t handle the truth: I was overcompensating for my lack of self-confidence by being a didactic ass.
Being an editor is like being a sober friend dealing with someone who has had too much to drink.
You don’t want to his feelings or insult him (an almost inevitability), but you need to let him know that he is in no way capable of driving his own car. He’s intoxicated. (And finishing a first draft of anything is absolutely intoxicating).
The drunk (writer) needs someone else to take the wheel and get him safe and soundly home. Once he gets his equilibrium back, he can drive himself, but now he needs a designated driver.
That’s what an editor is: the designated driver who calmly lets the writer know that everything isn’t what it appears to be to him…but he has in no way made an ass out of himself either. Things aren’t so wonderful, but no one thinks the first draft writer is an idiot for thinking so. So don’t beat yourself up…just take some time to recover your sobriety and then take another look at the thing.
What in the hell does this have to do with Steve’s post from Wednesday?
It made my job telling Tim that his first draft isn’t working a lot easier.
Because Tim has a clearly identifiable THEME in his first draft.
And what that means is that Tim’s muse/unconscious spoke to him. He has the most precious of things a story requires…a central controlling idea. And it came directly from his drip…drip…drip work writing that first draft.
That theme is a gift from the Gods rewarding Tim for setting aside his shadow career and determinedly getting in the ring with his internal Resistance.
Will Tim be successful bringing that theme forward in a way that is catnip compelling to a large audience dedicated to a particular genre?
Will Tim’s first novel get him a big advance from one of the Big Five?
Can I magically transform his work and eventually Tim himself (like Henry Higgins did for Eliza Doolittle or Andy Warhol did for Nico and The Velvet Underground) into a bestselling writing titan at one of the Big Five publishing companies?
Will The Story Grid be the thing that will get the credit for Tim’s spectacular rise?
Will Tim’s novel hit a bestseller list? Will The Story Grid too?
As Steve so clearly stated in his last post, those pulse racing questions are the furies unleashed from the diabolical realm of Resistance.
What matters is that Tim is in the ring and that he’s engaging with his muse. His inner voice is speaking to him and he’s opened up the channel and is listening.
That’s all that matters.
All of that other crap is pointless. Not just pointless, it’s dangerous. It distracts you from the truth of yourself. Which is all any of us need.
So when in doubt…cling to your THEME.
If you haven’t figured your THEME out yet, find a designated editorial driver to help you find it.
That’s what Steve’s post meant to me. He succinctly pointed out what is now obvious…
THEME is just another word for…
That place we all really want to go…