A Master Class with Shawn


There’s a term Shawn uses that I had never heard before:

Story nerd.

(He claims proudly to be one himself.)

Seth Godin, me and Shawn at Shawn's STORY GRID event in New York this February

Three amigos. Seth Godin, me and Shawn at Shawn’s STORY GRID event in New York this February.

A story nerd, as I understand it, is someone who loves to get into the geeky details and “inside baseball” mechanics of storytelling. A story nerd knows what a Value Shift is. She’s intimate with concepts like “beats” and “reveals.” She knows the Five Commandments of Storytelling. A story nerd is kinda like a Trekkie except she doesn’t wear Vulcan ears or appear in public dressed as a Klingon.

Me, I’d use a different term:

Professional writer.

Anyway, there were about forty of us story nerds/professional writers gathered in Soho in New York this February for a three-day Story Grid event starring my partner, Shawn Coyne. (If you weren’t there, don’t worry. A 10-hour plus set of tapes will be available soon.)

For three all-day sessions Shawn broke down Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into its constituent elements and put them all back together again.

He was teaching us how to write a love story.

[By the way, you can order Shawn’s paperback breakdown of P&P here.]

Shawn took us through the saga of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Collins, Lydia, and Lady Catherine. He showed us why P&P still sells 400,000 copies a year, 204 years after it was published.PandP cover for Steve

I was there. Seth Godin showed up. We had a great Q&A on Day Three.

And we all came away with notebooks groaning from everything we had learned listening to Shawn.

(Click here for Shawn’s free mini-course on How to Outline a Novel. Or, as he subtitles it, “How to turn a 50,000-word problem into 266 bite-sized challenges.”)


In these three lessons [Shawn says] I teach how to tackle a huge problem—figuring out how to write a new novel. By using examples including my inadequacies assembling an above ground pool for my kids, seminal Parkinson’s disease research, and the classic Knock Knock Banana joke, I’ll break down the 50,000-word goal into manageable units of story assembly. To top it off, at the end of the course, I’ll give you a scene-by-scene spreadsheet template to track your progress. Micro-step by micro-step, you’ll build your next novel in 30 days. Plan the work…and then work the plan!


But back to Shawn’s New York event.

It was his first. He had never done this before. I flew in for moral support—and because after all these years I remain fascinated by how a big-time editor dissects and analyzes a story, how he assesses what works and what doesn’t work, and how he figures out how to fix it.

I had expected the audience to be young writers, or artists in other fields just starting out. I was wildly wrong. The average age of the attendees was (I’m guessing) around forty. Several were in their sixties. A number were published authors. Everyone I talked to was an honest-to-God story nerd. They were deep into their first or sixth or seventeenth novel. They knew their stuff and they wanted to learn more.

They took the game seriously.

They were in it for keeps.

It was pretty cool to see the desks spread with laptops and notebooks and hear the really smart questions being asked. You could see as Shawn elucidated each storytelling principle that the attending writers were incorporating it on the spot into their own works in progress.

I was doing the same.

I had more than one “Aha!” or “Holy sh*t!” moment when I found myself furiously scribbling notes to myself. “Go back to Chapter X and fix such-and-such.”

As I said, this February get-together was dedicated to the genre of Love Story only. But Shawn is planning a series of such events for all the other genres, including nonfiction. (Yes, the principles of storytelling apply to “true” material too.)

If you’re not yet a subscriber to Shawn’s site, www.storygrid.com, I highly recommend that you sign up ASAP.

And click the link above for his free mini-course on story outlining.

I’ve already clicked it myself.


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

do the work book banner 1


A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Debbie L Kasman on April 19, 2017 at 6:17 am

    Thank you, Steve and Shawn! Can’t wait to download the resources!

  2. Mary Doyle on April 19, 2017 at 6:30 am

    Wow, Christmas in April! Thanks so much – just bought the book and downloaded Lesson 1!

  3. Melany Franklin on April 19, 2017 at 6:31 am

    Feel so lucky to have been there! Shawn is a fabulous teacher and so wise. A successful author friend just finished the Storygrid and announced that it has changed her life. She wishes she could go back and “fix” a few things in her soon to be published memoir and can’t wait to apply it to all future writing. I feel the same.

  4. Kent Faver on April 19, 2017 at 6:34 am

    I’m not sure if Shawn learned how to give so generously from Steve – but I am so grateful for you both. Congrats on the new book Shawn – I hope it sells a million copies.

  5. Brian Nelson on April 19, 2017 at 7:21 am

    I want to echo Kent. The generosity modeled by the Black Irish Books team is taught in each blog, video, product release. The lessons are cover much more than writing. I see how to be a better me here. Thank you.

  6. Nik on April 19, 2017 at 8:32 am

    Maybe it’s just that I’m dense (actually, it’s less of a maybe and more of a probably) but I still don’t understand how the story grid differs from a point by point summary of a book and things like character motivation.

    Even after checking out Shawn’s site I’m still fuzzy on what the difference is. (Also, Shawn, any chance you can provide a larger scan of that second Pride and Prejudice graphic? It’s too small to make out the text.)

    As for being a story nerd, over the years I’ve found myself getting more critical of TV and movies, and more appreciative when things really work in a story. That’s something to be grateful for, even if it makes it difficult to shut off that critical view and just enjoy a story for what it is.

    I’ve found Game of Thrones to be a clinic in efficient and clever storytelling. The showrunners have taken source material so dense that everyone thought it was impossible to adapt, and not only have they done a magnificent job, they’ve managed to improve it in many ways through the necessity of telling a tight story. Don’t get me wrong, I love the novels, and I understand the difference in medium allows for tangents and indulgences, but the showrunners often come up with ways to streamline scenes and storylines in truly elegant ways, preserving the feel and impact while reshaping the material to shine in a long-form serial TV format.

    Often, while watching other shows (ahem, The Walking Dead), I get the strong sense that the writers really don’t know what to do with certain characters, or it becomes apparent that they’re stretching the material to align with a predetermined episode count.

    And on a somewhat unrelated note, Steve, have you considered posting about dialog? That’s one area where I’ve been really trying to improve, and it’s not easy to find good advice.


  7. Jay Cadmus on April 19, 2017 at 10:01 am

    You folks are awesome! Responding to Tim Grahl yesterday; reading Seth’s post this morning; and, your wrap-up. Are you in my head? Teach me!

  8. Lorene Albers on April 19, 2017 at 1:15 pm

    I signed up for your free mini course…. however, I cannot believe that you misspelled “receive”!!

    Just sayin’……

  9. Lorene Albers on April 19, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    Sorry, pressed the ‘send’ button too hastily. Here you are:

    Enter Your Email Address to Immediately Recieve Lesson 1

  10. Tom on April 19, 2017 at 3:10 pm

    Email with link to audio has never arrived in my mailbox.
    I have tried twice with no success
    Please help

  11. Cindy on April 20, 2017 at 4:25 am

    I have not received the email with the audio link either. Is there a step I missed somehow?

  12. Elizabeth Rose on April 23, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    Steve – it was a wonderful course–so glad I attended. Great to meet you and I was inspired by your as well as Shawn’s teaching.

    Grateful for you generous spirit.

  13. Troy B Kechely on April 25, 2017 at 7:48 am

    This blog was the first time I had heard of Story Grid and was pleased to know that the methods I struggled to develop when writing my first novel, though somewhat rough, were inline with that taught in Story Grid. Without question, this blog and the many contributors to it, has helped my growth as a writer in immeasurable ways. Thank you.

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