The Designated Driver

The writer's search for a Theme as drunkard's walk.

The writer’s search for a Theme as drunkard’s walk.

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…












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  1. Mary Doyle on April 29, 2016 at 6:09 am

    You really got me with that ending. Dorothy was right all along, but I never really articulated that I’ve been trying to “write myself home.” Thanks so much for that! Tim’s a lucky guy – and a brave one. As for you – well, you’re “The” guy for accepting his invitation to do the podcast series – we are all benefitting more than you can know. As always, thanks Shawn!

  2. Marvin Waschke on April 29, 2016 at 6:21 am

    Early on when Steve started writing on “theme,” I asked how to avoid being “preachy” about themes because I have been put off by authors that, however subtly, use theme as propaganda. Steve has been answering the question in every blog, but I think Shawn gave the definitive answer today.

    I’d like to try to restate an answer myself, to make sure I’ve got it: Themes go bad when authors try to teach their readers with their theme. The true use of theme occurs when authors are offered wisdom from their muse and use their writing to teach themselves.

  3. gwen abitz on April 29, 2016 at 7:09 am

    Always love the CONNECTION that happens for me when I read SP Team Blogs. I remember the radio program THE SHADOW KNOWS when growing up – little did I know, at the time, how such applies to the Journey returning home.

  4. Joel D Canfield on April 29, 2016 at 7:23 am

    I can’t afford to hire you, Shawn, so where do I find someone to be my designated driver?

    “Google” is not the answer. I need someone who knows what you know, right? Someone who knows the Story Grid better than I do, or at least as well, so they can take my drunken ramblings and point out where the problems are.

    Googling “editor” ain’t gonna cut it.

    Will the next phase of the Story Grid podcast take me there?

    The reason I’m asking is because I just got that call, last Sunday. The “your book doesn’t work” call. And for 5 days, I’ve been, emotionally, in the fetal position on the closet floor. Yes, on day one, I considered giving up writing. On day two I considered giving up quality, and just writing for fun. Days three through five, I’ve recovered enough to know I’m not giving up writing. Probably.

    But the person who gave me The News isn’t going to be my designated driver. It’s not their thing.

    I know I’m drunk. I know I shouldn’t drive.

    But I look out at the long line of taxis and I don’t see a single person I know, deep down, I can trust.

    • Shawn Coyne on April 29, 2016 at 9:15 am

      Hi Joel,
      I think the podcasts over the next “however long it takes” to give Tim a comprehensive…What do I do now? series of tasks will help you a lot. We haven’t recorded them yet as we’re taking this one step at a time, but I think you’ll find it sobering.

      As for finding an editor… My thinking (actually Steve Pressfield’s thinking as he was the genius behind this idea) is that the goal of THE STORY GRID is not to make people panicked by the fact that it’s hard to find great editors out there. It’s not to make my body of knowledge all the more powerful and expensive. What it is about (the controlling idea/theme of the thing) is to teach hardworking people like you how to BE YOUR OWN EDITOR.

      And I think you’re probably already far down that road. You’re just in the belly of the beast now. Feel good about that. It means you’re stretching yourself…not accepting work that isn’t your best.

      My gut is that in a week or so, you’ll figure out your global problem (hint hint…it’s all about the theme of the book…once you figure out what that is you can look at everything else through that prism) and your claw your way out of that closet.

      So hang in there. You’re in the ring. You’re fighting. And it’s okay if you need some time in the corner to recover from the last round.

      All the best,

      • Debbie L Kasman on April 29, 2016 at 11:52 am

        Joel, thanks for those great questions. Shawn, thanks for the encouraging answer. I’m absolutely determined to learn this stuff well enough that I can be my own editor. Shawn, I love your ramblings about the power of ten as a means to evaluate a turning point’s reversibility. And I’m so glad you decided to “pay off” the podcasts. This entire journey, from the Story Grid posts to your guest posts in Steve’s blogs to the podcasts with Tim, has been absolutely incredible. I feel so lucky and am very grateful to have found you, Steve, Callie, and Tim. Here’s to your wonderful team!

      • Joel D Canfield on April 29, 2016 at 2:06 pm

        Ah, yes. Understood.

  5. Guy on April 29, 2016 at 7:36 am

    What a great article ! I’ve been listening to the podcast for the last few weeks and I love it. This post summarized a lot of the questions and issues I’ve detected in the process. I’m not a writer, but a fan of great stories and I greatly admire what you’re doing in this podcast. Keep on the good work, and thank you for sharing this with us!

  6. Michael Beverly on April 29, 2016 at 8:37 am

    I find it bizarre that we’d even talk about or expect a first book to become a successful bestseller.

    No other creative endeavor has this expectation.

    “Hey, I’m going to study acting for 28 weeks,,,Ummmm, should I be sad if I’m not on Broadway by the end of summer?”

    “Hey, I bought some golf clubs yesterday, Ummmmm, so in 28 weeks, look for me on the Pro Tour…”

    “I’ve been painting for 28 weeks and so I’m sending some stuff to the Louve and the Met….wish me well…”

    I know why it’s like this…

    Chris Moneymaker syndrome.

    Before the American government decided that American’s weren’t grown-up enough to play internet poker, sites like Poker Stars and Full Tilt were massive success stories.

    Chris Moneymaker played in a small satellite tournament for something like forty bucks. He parlayed that into the biggest possible win in the world, the WSOP tournament in Las Vegas, cashing for 2.5 million in 2003.

    An unknown amateur instantly became the poker world’s biggest celebrity and probably brought several billion dollars into the industry by igniting the imaginations of millions of wanna-be champions.

    The dirty truth is almost nobody makes money playing poker (even the pros go bankrupt all the time) but the amateur-makes-it-big possibility keeps people flocking to the game, just like in the writing world.

    I hope Tim parlays his mentoring into the New York Times best seller lists.

    I love the John Grishman type stories and the millions of dollars that David Baldacci made with his debut novel type stories.

    But what of the thousands of mid-list authors, esp. indies, that are making a hundred grand a year instead of a hundred grand or a million for one book advance?

    According to Hugh Howey’s research, unless a Big Five house can guarantee a writer half a million copies sold, they’d be better off (financially,,,,not talking ego..that’s another story) with the long tail of indie publishing.

    I’m not by any means saying what Tim should do, but it seems like this binary thinking is unfair and incomplete.

    So what if he doesn’t get a publisher?

    What if he fixes the book up the best he can, publishes it himself, follows it up with a few more books in series, buys some FaceBook or Book Bub ads, and has a six figure income by 2018 or 2019?

    Why isn’t that a worthy goal?

    It seems like following the path of thousands of mid-list authors who make a good living makes vastly more sense than trying to become John Updike.

    Ironically, the path to becoming a master is generally through years of practice as Shawn noted in the podcast when he talked about Derek Jeter fielding ground balls at five years old.

    So, why do we talk about Jeter playing little league, high school ball, minor league ball, investing in thousands of hours of practice, and THEN starting for the Yankees, and then after that acknowledgement, turn around and even contemplate the idea that Tim Grahl might have a best seller with his first book?

    If Deter Jeter agreed to train Tim Grahl for 28 weeks would we expect him to start for the Yankees next season?

    I’ve long ago decided that reading Steven King’s On Writing was the worst thing I ever did in my path to learning about this business and this art.

    I think it cost me 2 or 3 years, lost forever, looking for something magical to strike me.

    I’m going to imagine that if Tim Grahl is wildly successful with his first book it will be caustic to many hopeful writers who tune into the podcast and take away the message that to succeed you need something that only the Gods can deliver: an anointed mentor who will show you the way…

    The reality is that anyone can have Shawn as a mentor. I’ve spent countless hours with him over the last year and a half by reading and absorbing the material.

    And writing books. And re-writing and editing my own work.

    Make the New York Times Bestseller list? Me?


    I’ll take a fifty grand a year, hell, I’ll take a twenty grand a year career, for the rest of my life, over a million dollars tomorrow.

    Is Tim’s hope a “million dollars-or-bust” dream? It doesn’t seem like it when I listen to the show.

    If it is, and he succeeds, in a whole 28 weeks, how is that helpful to anyone else?

    And if it’s not, and if he’s willing to put in the Deter Jeter ground-ball-fielding-time, then why on earth would trying to edit and/or fix his first book be helpful to anyone?

    Let him write ten books, then help him.

    • Joel D Canfield on April 29, 2016 at 9:02 am

      This makes me all thinky, dude.

    • Aaron C on May 3, 2016 at 10:34 am

      Fantastic stuff… Perspective is everything, huh? Thanks for the reminder…

  7. Patrick Brown on April 29, 2016 at 9:04 am

    Shawn, thanks for doing what you do. I love the reference to shadow careers (Parker Palmer, David Whyte introduced me to the concept)and I’ve chimed in before about finally taking my desire to write fiction seriously after fifteen years of medical training and practice. Your beside manner analogy is spot on. I think of my writing group, my 39 year-old rookie self among six accomplished women in their fifties and sixties, our teacher, nearing eighty, having taught a Newberry winner and countless others, now encouraging me through my very first rough draft. So much hope for me, so much fragility! Thankfully, her bedside manner is exquisite. Still I literally tremble after reading a chapter to the group, hopeful for some bit of affirmation.

    Just yesterday I had a patient, a tiny 16 month-old with a rare genetic disorder, one of 19 known cases worldwide. I hadn’t seen the family in a few months and I swooped in with a fresh article in hand “ahead of press” to show them that two kids in the UK had her same seizure type. Lost in the science, I saw their vacant looks and quickly shut up, sat down and asked how they were doing. Close call. Easy to get caught up trying to showboat (insecurely) our knowledge (story/medical) and miss the whole point of who we are trying to help.

    Question. How would you recommend a first time first drafter to “write to find out what we are writing about/write behind our backs” for the first draft at least, yet utilize the story grid approach as well.

    thanks and keep it up,

  8. Tony levelle on April 29, 2016 at 9:19 am

    Absolutely fascinating! And useful. I love the designated driver idea. Exactly right. Also love the podcast with its honesty and hard-won advice on writing.

    • Tony levelle on April 29, 2016 at 9:41 am

      PS Now I have to download Tim’s first draft, read it, and analyze using Story Grid techniques before next weeks podcast. I will compare my analysis with your take in the next podcast. What an oportunity!

      PPS Since no one can be their own designated driver, i guess learning to storygrid my own stuff would be called taking a cab. Or in my case maybe crawling home on hands and knees and sleeping behind occasional dumpster…

  9. Tony levelle on April 29, 2016 at 9:43 am

    Heres link to Tims draft

  10. Linda on April 29, 2016 at 10:50 am

    Hi Tim, maybe some other writers have already suggested this :
    Re super powers revealed issue – what if she experiences them early I , enough that the reader knows she’s special, but she doubts them and Ior denies them out of fear.
    Live your conversations. Learning tons

  11. Tony levelle on April 29, 2016 at 11:19 am

    Loving this idea of ‘designated driver’

    Learning Story Grid would be like putting cab fare, cab company phone number and an address in an envelope before going on a bender.

  12. Mia Sherwood Landau on April 29, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    Oh, wow, more incredibly powerful stuff, especially stopping and listening to the podcast before commenting. The podcast is priceless, and really helps me understand where I am in the process of writing as self-discovery.

    Being my own editor is sort of like being my own therapist. I can’t become too harsh and critical or I won’t come back for more, which means Resistance wins. I have to motivate myself to understand and to act.

    Years ago I sat in a chair, facing another empty chair, where I envisioned my 5-years-older-self seated. We had quite a conversation, and in fact, she’s never really left me. She’s always there, having a more mature reaction whenever I need some guidance. Think I’ll use her as my editor now. Can’t hurt…

  13. Aaron C on May 3, 2016 at 10:32 am

    Been reading through the comments, and I the whole notion of “be your own editor” has come up so many times in a couple classes I’ve taken and “process of writing” books I’ve read. It’s tough to be your own editor when you’re “drunk,” but I can’t thank Shawn and Tim enough for what they’re doing. I’m working on a project that’s kind of a unofficially sanctioned “derivative work,” which means theme has been decided for me already, but I’ve had to keep it in mind as I write, even though I’m not sure where I’m going. I’m trying to trust I’ll get there at the end. Not exactly what Story Grid teaches, but I have no other way to do it unfortunately. So I’m trying to apply the lessons learned to what I can do, and leave the rest to the gods.

    I won’t be setting aside my shadow career anytime soon doing it, but I can definitely feel myself getting closer, and that’s all due to Pressfield’s posts, books, and Shawn’s Story Grid. So again, many thanks.

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