Subjective Truth, Editors and Resistance, #2

In my last post I wrote about how editors’ primary jobs are to deliver objective truth to their writers.

If the writer hasn’t specifically outlined and delivered step-by-step instructions in his proposed How-To book, the editor tells the writer that their choice of Genre requires them to do so.

The editor then proposes changes to the work that’s On The Page in order to best comply with the writer’s stated intentions that are again already On The Page. If it’s a How-To Take Charge of Your Finances kind of book, the editor suggests that the writer move one piece of material and put it elsewhere.

                  Teach them how to literally balance their checkbook before you tell them about cash flow…

She suggests that the writer consider adding additional material, perhaps photographs or line drawings, to better instruct the potential reader.

Delivering objective truth is empowering.

The editor can’t help but feel smug when she’s able to point out all of the things that the writer failed to do. And giving the writer a clear suggestion about how to construct a better persuasive argument requires creative role-playing too. The editor has to think about the “reader,” the final arbiter of the project’s merit and direct the writer to best meet potential reader expectations.

Editors who do this work are invaluable.

Steve’s last post was about some of the very specific objective truths I laid out for him with his latest fiction project.

I have six core questions that I ask myself over and over again when I work on a project. And yes, I use these same questions for nonfiction too.

Whenever I get confused about what it is I’m trying to explain to the writer about their work, I go back to these questions. They tell me specifically where the writer went off track and help me put myself in the shoes of potential readers of the story. How can I help the writer meet the expectations of the reader, but also create something immensely personal and unique?

And because I’ve built an entire editing method around these fundamental story structure questions, they serve as a common language to use when I communicate with an exhausted writer.

Here they are:

What’s the Genre?

What are the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes of the Genre?

What’s the Point of View/Narrative Device?

What are the global objects of desire?

What is the Controlling Idea/Theme?

What is the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff of the global story?

Seems pretty straightforward right?

Just ask these questions, write down the answers and share the results with the writer.

So what am I talking about when I talk about the role Resistance plays in the editorial life?

This is the realm of Subjective Truth.

This is the soft underbelly of an editor’s brain, the place where Resistance sinks his teeth into time and time again. These are the truths that Resistance will tell an editor to withhold. These are the things that could rub the writer the wrong way…the things that could really piss them off to the point where the relationship irreparably fractures.

Specifically, subjective truth concerns questions number four and number five: What are the global objects of desire? and What is the Controlling Idea/Theme?

Because the answers to these two questions are never literally expressed to the reader in a work of fiction (they are Off the Page) an editor who decides to explore potential answers to them and share those answers with the writer has to shed his smug “know it all” objective truth giving cloak and become vulnerable.

And no one likes to be vulnerable.

Here’s a little story from the Love Story Event that Tim Grahl and I ran last February about the difference between objective and subjective truth.

Steve came to the event and agreed to do a couple of hours at the end about the Inner War of writing/creating. He told our friend Seth Godin about it and Seth agreed to come too.

So one of the questions someone put forth to all of us was something about how we pick our projects.

When it was my turn to answer, I told a story about a day years ago when I was in a serious funk. Looking for something meaningful to do with my life, I came up with a pretty cool idea about starting a publishing house dedicated to spotlighting the “heartbreakers” that literary agents couldn’t find a home for. It was a concept akin to Franklin Leonard’s Black List in Hollywood…the best books that publishing houses didn’t “get” chosen by the best literary agents who desperately tried to place them.

I was excited about the idea but afraid it would fail. And if it failed, I would fail. So I asked Seth for a half hour of his time so I could pitch him the idea. He’d then tell me if it would be something that could work. Having his approval was important to me and I remember being very nervous about his response. If he didn’t like it, maybe he would think I was stupid.

I went through my big speech. Seth listened and thought about it for about 15 seconds (that’s a long time in a one on one meeting). He said he thought it could work. I’d have to get buy-in from literary agents and there’d be a challenge of re-positioning the stuff so it didn’t seem like warmed over dregs from the rejection pile, but that it was doable.

That’s it.

And then he said “what else?”

I didn’t have anything else. I’d booked a half hour and only had one idea to talk about.

And then as I told this story at the conference I talked about all of the things that ran through my head after that experience…very personal truths about my ego and my unquenchable thirst for third party validation etc. etc.

And then Seth piped in to lighten up the moment with something like “Geez Shawn…it wasn’t that dramatic.”

And that was objectively true. For Seth and anyone else who could have witnessed the exchange it was just another meeting between two guys drinking tea.

But the subjective truth of that meeting was, for me, extraordinary. The experience was akin to the bargaining stage in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Change Curve, you know the one right before depression and the all is lost moment? I had to reevaluate the way I looked at work and at projects in general. My whole book blacklist idea was a bargaining stage for me to avoid changing my worldview.

So telling someone else about subjective truth puts the storyteller in a very vulnerable position. It opens you up to “Geez it wasn’t that dramatic” rejoinders.

You have to do it anyway.

When editors personally extrapolate truths that come to them after reading a writer’s work and then decide to share those subjective truths with the writer, they have to beat Resistance to do so.

What if what I think isn’t the intention of the writer?

What if the writer thinks that I’m trying to tell them what to write?

What if he finds my ideas so stupid and ridiculous that he loses faith in my intellectual capabilities?

Instead, Resistance says to just tell the writer that you don’t have a clear understanding of the objects of desire and the controlling idea of the thing and leave it at that. Let them plumb the depths of subjective truth and figure it out. Why should you risk pissing them off?  Keep on that smug “know it all” cloak and let the writer sort that shit out.

The reason why the editor has to push herself to reveal her subjective truths about what could be behind the words on the page for the writer is that it will make the work better.

And that’s why the editor is there in the first place.  To serve the work.

The writer will undoubtedly disagree with the editor’s wild extrapolations about what his book is really about and what it serves in the grander scheme of humanity, but those ideas will loosen the writer’s inner muse. It will serve as a little icepick that chips away at the inner truths locked within the writer’s psyche. The ones that the work is there to express.

Remember that the editor is there to serve the work.

An editor’s objective truth tells the writer what to fix in their draft.

An editor’s subjective truth inspires the writer how to fix his draft.

Expressing subjective truth requires courage.


Because you have to intuit what the writer’s controlling idea is when it is not necessarily clear yet to the writer!

So you’re basically putting forth an idea that may or may not be obvious to the writer himself.

And you have to not only put forth what you think that idea is but also then explain why it’s not rising to the surface and how to remedy that failure.

Huh? How is that possible?

A writer, especially the professional writer, knows that they need to trust, for lack of a better term, his “muse.”

That is, they have to map out a story with very general destination points. They plan a cross-country trip from Portland Maine to Portland Oregon and simply figure out the states that they’ll consider driving through on the way. This is Steve’s Foolscap Method.

So if they want to get off the Pennsylvania Turnpike and head south for a while as they write, they allow for that possibility. They assume the muse is in the car with them and that if she tells them to take an exit, they will.

What often happens though, especially when the work is a serious internal exploration, is that the writer will be oblivious to why the muse made them go through Weirton, West Virginia when a straighter path would have taken them through Steubenville, Ohio.

The editor must have the courage to not just explain to them where they went off track, but why they did.

Now telling a writer that the manuscript that they’ve sent you is on the surface a story about pushing the devil back down in his hole, but is really about how each and every one of us struggles to find meaning in our lives, ain’t easy.

Resistance rears its ugly mug to the editor in these moments of reflection.

–What right do you have to tell a writer what they’re thinking subconsciously?

–Who made you such an expert? You’ve never written a novel yourself…

–What if they tell you to F-off?

–What are you going to do when you lose your business partner because of your ham-handed attempts to tell him what he means when he’s writing?

And on and on.

But again, I have to serve the work first and worry about what Steve thinks about me personally second.

Steve understands what it takes for me to put this stuff out there.

This is why we work so well together.

He knows my insides are ripping themselves apart the second I hit send on that email with the Edit Letter to Steve attached.

So what does he do with this knowledge?

Even though he’d love to punch me in the solar plexus and tell me I have no idea of what I’m talking about?

He sends me this email a few hours after I send him my letter.

Pard, I just read your notes and as usually happens, I’m kinda overwhelmed. As you suggest, I’ll have to re-read a bunch of times and chew this all over.

MAJOR, MAJOR THANKS for the effort and skill you put into that memo. Wow.

I’m gonna sit with this for a while.

How great is that?

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  1. Mary Doyle on July 21, 2017 at 5:39 am

    About as great as it gets! Thanks Shawn!

  2. Richard on July 21, 2017 at 6:23 am

    Your unwavering commitment to the truth (in everything that you, and Steve, do) really is inspiring. It’s so rare for me to hear this level of candour in my day to day life, and I wish I did – it’s so refreshingly raw.

    I agree 100% with Mary – this post is about as great as it gets. I’ve been reading this site for years now, and all the posts here are always so life-affirming for me (and I’m not even a writer). Thank you, as always.

  3. Alex Cespedes on July 21, 2017 at 6:25 am

    Great perspective, Shawn. It shows that Resistance is at play for EVERYONE, not just the writers. It’s comforting for writers to know that we’re not the only ones risking it all when words go on a page

  4. Mia Sherwood Landau on July 21, 2017 at 7:01 am

    Shawn, my husband has one of those smug “know it all” objective truth giving cloaks, too. He’s older than you, but hasn’t exactly learned how and when to shed it. The picture you’ve put in our minds with that image will serve us all, in many aspects of our lives. Thank you for helping us see it’s like the opposite of Superman slipping into his hero cape. It’s capeless VulnerableMan (or woman) to the rescue instead. Wow, I love it. This exploration and demonstration of vulnerability is priceless, really.

  5. Meg on July 21, 2017 at 7:22 am

    Thank you for this. It’s heartening to experience blokes such as yourselves who have already put in the 10,000 hours still struggling with Resistance, and keeping on honouring the Muse…
    The candor is refreshing and keeps me coming back for more.
    Hats off to you both and what you represent.

  6. Tony Levelle on July 21, 2017 at 7:40 am

    Useful stuff Shawn.

    I’m working with a new editor, and it’s helpful to me to understand what a good editor goes through in presenting his honest evaluation of a manuscript.

    Finding an editor who has a) skill and b) courage to present both the objective and subjective truth about a manuscript is extremely difficult.

    I believe you are a lucky guy to have found Stephen, and vice versa.


    • Tony Levelle on July 21, 2017 at 7:43 am

      spelling “Steven” not “Stephen.” Grrrr…

  7. Susan on July 21, 2017 at 7:52 am

    I just love you guys!

  8. Margaret on July 21, 2017 at 9:09 am

    This whole conversation has been so rich for me.

    Thank you!

  9. Kelly Griffiths on July 21, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    I hope I find an editor like yours. Many thanks that you’re both willing to share the process. It seems the editor who ends up taking my book, the advice he gives/doesn’t give, can impact my book on a techtonic level. Yikes! Learning…

  10. Brian Nelson on July 21, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    Dear Shawn, et al,
    This “In the Trenches” back and forth, with Callie popping in her visceral post last week is why this is my favorite place on the internet.

    This team models more than professional work, you model relationships, life, humor, horror, despair, connection…kind of a ‘all you need to know, you can find here’ place to read.

    The community is great, I get as much from the posts as I do from the original blog.

    I don’t write yet. I direct a race for our animal rescue. We have changed the theme from one of ‘are you tough enough’ to something different–something that I didn’t understand was probably my core value until recently.

    I hope I don’t break any convention, but I’m going to post our video for our race below. I’ve thought about this video for almost 2 years, and here is the result. I’m 95% satisfied–but also wanna vomit when I think of someone watching it.

    I put it here because I think this is the most honest place available to share.
    Have a great weekend.

    • Veleka on July 21, 2017 at 3:31 pm

      Brian, I left a message on your YouTube link.

      • Brian Nelson on July 24, 2017 at 11:00 am

        I saw, thank you for your kind words. We are social media Luddites, and didn’t think to check comments on YouTube. I am deeply pleased that you enjoyed the video!

  11. Veleka on July 21, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    Shawn, the reason your article is a keeper for me is I pray some day I’ll have you or an editor as brave and honest as you to edit my story. You rang every one of my bells and gave me both inspiration and hope. Thank you for putting your truth out there to help us do the same. ♥

    • Rachelle Ramirez on July 26, 2017 at 11:36 pm

      Good news: Shawn will train and certify a small and select group of Story Grid Editors in September of 2017. They will be more affordable than working directly with Shawn. You will finally be able to get your own Story Grid Editor.

  12. Julie Murphy on July 21, 2017 at 10:02 pm

    How can I ever again look at my unedited work and pretend it’s as good as it might have been? I’m glad this has left me with more questions than answers.

    I’m curious how to apply this approach to songwriting…three-minute novels you can dance to.

    And also, how and when to break the Genre rules so they work with the story and not against it.

    I’ll keep chewing on this until your next installment. Thanks.

  13. MichaelWeigo on July 21, 2017 at 10:31 pm
  14. Anne Hawley on July 22, 2017 at 9:10 am

    Shawn, it was ideas like these, told in this personal and powerful way, that prompted that spontaneous and prolonged standing ovation we gave you at the end of the New York workshop.

    And since I’m one of the lucky few coming to learn at your feet again in Nashville, I’m thrilled at the prospect of learning more in this vein.

    Brilliant. Thank you.

  15. Larry Pass on July 26, 2017 at 11:30 am

    “Editors who do this work are invaluable.”
    Shawn, in your experience, how many editors do it?

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  17. Herbert William on July 31, 2017 at 7:25 pm

    OFF TOPIC: Hello Shawn, Steven,hello for all people of the tribe.

    A little off topic here: There’s a free book about history and war, pragmatism and philosophy on Amazon, the author is Sebastian Marshall, the name of the book is Pragma.

    The book is well written and make our brain cells turn on. A must try.

    The book is free for the next 24 hours from now I guess.

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