I took the dog for a walk the other day. It's winter, here, and it's a much more involved process because of the snow, sleet and cold. I have to put on boots, wear a hat and gloves, and decide whether or not I need multiple layers or just a single coat.
When I walk the dog, that's my thing for the evening, I don't want any other things for me to do. Other than to write.
It's become my habit to write in the evenings, after supper, when the house is relatively calm. Some days I walk the dog earlier in the evening so that not even that hangs over my head. When I'm back, I can put on comfortable clothes, settle into my writing corner, and write.
That's my ideal evening, now. The previous twenty-four years were dominated by family and parenting activities. (I wasn't an effective parent, but I put in the time, which counts for something.)
When I returned home after this particular dog walk the other day, I noticed a sound, like a motor running somewhere in the house. Not loud, mind you. If there was a motor running on the dining room table I'd know right away. No, this was quiet enough to have been outside, like it was in the neighbor's garage.
I removed my winter gear, put things away and was on my way to my writing corner when I once again noticed the sound of a motor running. I checked with my family, "Do you hear that?"
But no one had a great theory on what might be the source.
I walked around the house and noticed it was louder in the corner of our living room. That spot was closest to our neighbor's garage. Then it hit me: that spot is also directly above our sump pump.
I hurried into the basement and of course that was it. The pump was stuck in the pump mode, sucking air. I pulled the plug and lifted the lid and yanked the plug out of the wall. Smoke was wafting from the pump — never a good sign.
Shining a light down into the pit, the first thing I noticed was quite a few ping pong balls gathered at the bottom. With water trickling into the pit, they took float.
Years ago, I indulged my love of ping pong with a table bought on clearance when McSporty's went out of business (can't recall the name of the store, now). My son's high school years were full of noisy games there in the basement, and he quickly out-gunned me. Eventually, the table fell into disuse.
Over the course of those years of enthusiasm, we went through a lot of ping pong balls. I bought them by the dozen, and many are still unaccounted for in the recesses of the basement.
But I know for certain that 17 of them went into the sump pit. And one of those finally got pinned in the float mechanism of the pump to tell it the pit was empty.
A lot of life shares that same symbiotic relationship of ping pong and the sump pump. We chase after some fun activity in our life, thinking that this is great and will sustain us forever. Distracted by so much fun, we neglect the actual things that sustain our life, and possibly even abuse it somehow with the jetsam of enthusiasm.
When I first graduated college, I wanted to become a writer, and worked on that as much as I could. But I also had a decent job, and thought it'd be a way to make something great. At various times over the next two decades, I chased business ideas, startups and learned new things. They all fizzled out, however.
In the meantime, I neglected my writing. I gave up on it a few times, but I've come back to it repeatedly because (I now realize) I have a primal compulsion to entertain, and I specifically love the idea of writing to entertain.
Ten years ago, when I realized I wanted to write more than anything, my creativity pump was throwing smoke from the bottom of an empty pit, and nobody liked what was coming out of it.
Since then I've been trying to rebuild that pump, and I hope that within months, or maybe a couple of years, my creative hose will be gushing with stuff that is nothing but pure gold.
And I promise to work at finding better metaphors for my creative writing.
About three weeks ago, on a quiet Friday evening as Mary and I were contemplating what we might do to occupy ourselves, there was a burbling noise coming from the kitchen, as if the faucet had been left on.
Our son was showering upstairs, and we were pretty sure no one else was in the house. We could also hear the water running in the shower. Then my wife started shouting because there was water spilling out from the kitchen cabinet beneath the sink.
Water spread across the floor.
Water had backed up into the sink and the pipes underneath the sink had come apart at the joints. It seemed that the weight of that water had pushed the pipes apart.
The next ten minutes were a blur, but I jammed a thermos under the pipes to hold them together, stopping the water. The shower upstairs stopped, and water stopped backing into the sink. And we found rags and buckets to mop the floor.
For the next hour, we dragged things out from under the sink and set them in baskets for later disposal decisions. Then the real fun began.
I went to Lowe’s for new pipes and repaired the pipes under the sink (twenty-one years grime and mold weakened the joints).
Experimentation with running water upstairs determined that only the one shower would overflow into the sink. Better still, a sink full of water would drain in about one hour. That meant we could wait until Monday to bring in a plumber.
I returned to the store to investigate power-driven drain snakes, but the one that seemed long enough was $500. I considered opening up the clean out ports but the clerks at the store advised me against it.
Come Monday, the plumber arrived and he brought with him that very same $500 drain snake I saw at the store. One hour later, the plugged pipe cleared, life resumed as before.
I often try to relate these anecdotes to my writing or some other current event. But I’m merely going to leave it as a stark reminder to appreciate the modern amenities of life in the suburbs of America.
Every morning I write in a gratitude journal and give thanks for clean water, hot coffee, and indoor plumbing. These minor domestic disasters are a fun lark in comparison to the challenges some people face.
News about me
I've started my 15th year at the place where I work. The day job. The it's-a-living place where I go. I do like the work and my teammates, so I'm very fortunate.
Life here in Lansing, Michigan is interesting enough. The city has a nice mix of cultural events, restaurants, and clever people doing nice things. Sure there are some a-holes, but that's everywhere.
I first started working in Lansing 33 years ago, and the downtown area had some lunch options, but nothing after five o'clock. It's the State Capitol so after those workers left town, nothing happened. All the action was either in East Lansing or the suburban shopping malls.
Now the downtown has a nice bar crawl, if that's your thing. There are two small theaters, and the Michigan Avenue corridor to East Lansing has plenty going on along the way.
There are multiple film festivals in the area, music festivals, and a strong arts movement.
In spite of that, I haven't been getting out as much as I could because I'm a novelist, and have been hunkering down more and more on my writing during my free time.
Update on my writing
Speaking of novels, you may recall that I finished a thriller last year and asked for some early feedback. I have some feedback, but not all. In spite of that, I'll be forging ahead with revisions. In the meantime, I wrote another novel the past three months. It's a short one, and is really the beginning of a bigger story, but I'll package it up as its own thing later this year.
If you're not a fan of multi-novel stories, my apologies in advance. You can give it a miss, and wait until I bundle them all up into an omnibus edition.
By the time you're reading this, I will likely have started a class on writing satire. It runs for the next month, and I hope to improve my humor and ability to get short pieces published.
You may not know it, but I've been attempting to be funny pretty much all my life, since that moment in second grade when the kids laughed at something I said, and I realized that was a thing: making people laugh.
Books I'm reading or which I read lately
I'm going to leave you with the recent books I've been reading or have read.
In the Woods by Tana French was amazingly good. It was as engrossing as it was emotionally impactful. I really was drawn in and couldn't have put that book aside. I read it as fast as humanly possible (for me, which isn't very fast). She's written about ten like this, so I intend to work very hard to make my writing just as interesting as hers.
The Prone Gunman by Manchette started strong and then got a little worrisome, and then, finally, very worrisome. It's a hard-core crime story with high-paced action. The writing is cool and detached, and that's what helped make it enjoyable. The ending is not what I hoped for, but is truthful.
I'm in the middle of reading A Scanner Darkly, by Phillip K. Dick. It is a bit of a mind bender, as great sci-fi stories are wont to do. I started listening to this (audiobook, obviously) but had trouble following the story, and switched to my kindle. That helped, and now I'm enjoying the characters, and worried for their sake.
I'm going to leave you with one more image, of downtown Lansing, near the Capitol, before Christmas, when a few of us gathered to protest and call for the impeachment of Trump. These protests may not change the world, but they help remind us not to let the world change us. The corruption at the top puts our way of life at risk, and erodes our civil liberties. It's not just a story to be told, but a battle to be fought.
How a Quiet Night Between Holidays Became the Battle Ground Between Me and My Family
The Monday following Thanksgiving, my wife realized that we had an evening in which no one had any plans. Not me, not her, nor our daughter or son. This was a rarity because our children are adults, now, and have lives of their own, and my wife and I keep pretty busy. (Side note: I learned from my father that the secret to a happy marriage is to stay the hell out of the house except to eat or sleep.)
As an amateur writer, an evening without an obligation to attend is one of the greatest windfalls. I struggle to carve out the minimum two hours I demand of myself every evening. With nothing going on for anyone, I looked forward to sitting at my desk in the corner for the entire evening, doing the creative work I love and some of the pragmatic work (planning, admin stuff) needed to move my writing business forward.
So what would we do with our windfall of leisure time?
Alas, my wife scheduled a photo shoot for the family. We hadn’t had a portrait done in about twelve years, and it seemed over due. In fact, one could argue it might be the last chance for a family portrait for another dozen years, what with the disparity of schedules and the onslaught of time.
I agreed. Family activities are one of the few things I allow to encroach on my writing time.
We chose JC Penney “portrait studios” because they’re cheap, they had an opening, and they accept pets. Huzzah and three cheers for the photographer because the first to arrive, our daughter, was a full ten minutes late. Had she canceled us, it would have been my fault.
When the appointment was made, I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t realize it was JC Penney “portrait studios.” I somehow thought it was a studio on the other side of Lansing and sent my son that address. I arrived on time but to the wrong place, and had to re-route our son.
The photographer, a young lady, exuded chill. (I’m not sure one really exudes “chill,” so much as offers the vibe of chill, and you are free to notice or not.) She liked dogs. She often photographed children and I think had come to prefer animals to babies for getting the money shot.
To sit for a portrait is surreal, as you must be painfully aware that you are sitting for a portrait while painfully attempting to look natural. The only people exempt from this are hand and foot models. No matter what they think of their hands or feet, their faces are not in the picture, so they can make all manner of uncomfortable faces, and it’s only minimally expressed in their farthest appendages.
We had chosen dark outfits and this was a sound strategy. I’m not a big fan of the family photos with everybody dressed in matching pajamas, or in sports fan garb or, my least favorite, western costumes.
Am I a Writer or the Father of a Family?
I’m both, alas, and the push and pull between those two realities can cause me stress. Part of me wants to schedule hard blocks of time for my writing that are inviolate. But doing so means I might miss something that happens with my family, and that’s just not how I want to live. Let’s face it, if the only thing I ever wanted to do was write, I would have abandoned my family years ago.
But I’m not. So I scramble to find time. Just like the time I found to write this.
Last week was a kick in the stomach reminder about harsh weather. We got around eight inches of snow in brutally cold fashion. It doesn't help with the days growing shorter. Harsh weather messes with your mood, and it's for real.
I'm tempted to think of escapist strategies at such times. Wouldn't it be nice to have a place in Florida? Should we sneak off to Arizona? (Am I the sort of Boomer with enough discretionary money to do such things? Not really, but I have good credit.)
But there's a much healthier way to deal with harsh reality
Tough problems have to be dealt with directly. Escaping (or ignoring) the problem only worsens the situation. The solution might take an indirect route, but your mind, and your heart and your spirit will be stronger for confronting the problem.
In my case, I cleaned out enough of my garage to park a single car in it. That may seem a bit ridiculous, but it opens up enough driveway space that I can shovel when the snow falls.
I also took my snow blower to the shop for repair. It's not a big honking thing, but it's enough to help me when the worst snow falls.
I picked up the leaves before the storm, put away my rake, and stationed shovels at all the doors so I could dig my way out of the garage, the side door, and the back door.
Finally, I bought a new pair of water proof shoes. I've worn half-assed boots for fifteen years and decided that having dry, warm feet might help me deal with winter. I found a pair on clearance and I love them.
I'm not looking forward to winter, but I'm not afraid of it either.
I spent this past week trying to get my act together. My writing act. Namely, I'm working on more of the shorter pieces I had been writing before I tackled the novel over the summer.
I've worked on my content strategy for several years, but never implemented it. I know a few things about the topic, taking courses and reading books, and using it at my day job. Like the cobblers barefoot children, I never did it for myself.
In my defense, the cornerstone of my strategy is to write novels that people love and share. Everything else depends on that. So I'm laying the ground work, and you'll see an upsurge of shorter, entertaining or enlightening stuff.
In a not-so-subtle call back to dealing with problems directly, and dealing with harsh reality, I'm doing what I can to be a Climate Changeling. I'm composting, added insulation to our house, and installed high-efficiency furnace, hot water heater, and A/C.
Really, I should just get rid of the A/C. I'm considering installing a green-house pit garden. My next car will have a battery, and I'm going to commute to work on a scooter. (As long as my credit holds out.)
I'm certainly not looking to escape anywhere because there's no where else to go. We all need to do what we can without looking away. It's painful, but we've wandered into hell. We need to keep walking.
Read this if you need help looking at the problem without flinching:
The StoryGrid, by Shawn Coyne, is meant for editors to help them fix stories that have already been written. By mastering the principles it presents on good storytelling, you can design a better story. What's cool for me is that I'm starting to believe I know how to do it.
I'm not 100% convinced I know how, but I'm getting there. I'm like at 78% convinced. This article will not help you design a better story. This article will explain how I'm using StoryGrid principles in my story design efforts. I hope this will encourage and inspire you to design a better story yourself.
How we learn StoryGrid is how we learn anything
Learning to write a compelling story is not easy. The StoryGrid gives you a way to improve your storytelling skills but, like any new skill, it takes time to master. First, you must attempt something you haven't done before, make mistakes, get coaching, and practice.
You can't read the book over a weekend and up your craft by Monday. In fact, there is so much to think about that your writing may suffer until your brain has time to process everything.
It took me three weeks to read the book because I studied and pondered its lessons. I paced the house, thinking about how the points he made applied to other stories I'd read or written.
The book uses Silence of the Lambs as its case study, so I then read that book so I could experience what was discussed in detail, and feel how it worked as story.
Only then did I attempt to put to use the StoryGrid lessons in my own writing. It was a five week interruption from my writing but it felt like progress because I was ready to take a baby step forward in the right direction.
How to learn anything
Here is review of the learning process, applicable to everything in life:
Specifically, you must go beyond your comfort zone and stretch yourself, attempting things you haven't done before
Attempt new skills consciously, as if experimenting, and slowly, noticing everything that's involved
Get a coach or feedback on what you're attempting, either in the technique or the result
Practice intensely, focusing on the new skills
Get good rest to allow your brain to reinforce the neural paths you're blazing with myelin
Continue practicing, with feedback, to make the skill second nature
That's all there is to it, but you have to accept it will take an unknown amount of time to truly master new skills. It depends on the quality of your coaching, the intensity of your training, and your ability to rest and recover.
How to use StoryGrid
Like all great, modern story theories, StoryGrid is a simple formula that works like a Mad-Lib. Fill in some names and locations, and there you have your story outline, ready to be written by an artificial intelligence taught by machine learning.
It's not that simple to use StoryGrid. Shawn Coyne, the author, mentions more than once that it's not really meant for story design. Rather, he built it for editors to figure out how to fix stories.
What I've been doing the past year is develop a portion of the story, and then using StoryGrid principles to decide if it's not quite right, and how to fix it if it ain't.
With the novel I just completed (third draft), I wrote about 50,000 words and turned to StoryGrid to fix it. With that first draft, I felt in my bones it was not right. After a week of struggle, I had a much better design, and a way to rip out chunks of that first draft that weren't serving the story, and identified what I needed instead.
With the second draft, again I turned to StoryGrid to help me identify scenes without goals or stakes, pacing problems, and whether or not the theme was being served by each scene. It was brutally hard, but it got me to a solid third draft of 87,000 words. Let's say you're starting from scratch. Here's how to use StoryGrid.
Start with a story seed
I'm currently working on the first draft of a novel that I thought of ten years ago. Ten.
I was doing a brainstorming exercise, came up with 100 story ideas, and whittled those down to five stories worth pursuing. This was one of them, but I never got around to writing it. Something was missing.
Back then, I couldn't describe the story beyond the premise description which was, roughly, "A scientist charged with conducting genetic experiments on herds of human beings violates his oath and the law by falling in love with one of his subjects." What I couldn't figure out was how to setup this story, how to build the tension, and what was the big payoff at the end.
When you study StoryGrid, the concept of setup, build and payoff for every scene, every act, and the entire story, is repeated. What I realize now is that, for the past thirty years, I've been pretty bad at the setup, build, and payoff of novel-length stories. My novels were "a bunch of stuff happens to some guy" and then I would wrap it up.
I swear to god, two of my novels pretty much ended like the shrugging emoji: ¯_(ツ)_/¯
With this current story, the bunch of stuff I had in mind was so distasteful to me that I couldn't even approach the story for nine years. So it sat there until I took the time to work out who was the scientist, with whom did he fall in love, and how did that progress. Once I did that, I realized the scientist thing wasn't going to work, and the story transformed. I found different characters with more at stake who could deliver the story I wanted to tell. It was quite thrilling, actually, to see how this new story emerged.
Find your genre
Practicing setup, build and payoff is absolutely the most useful thing I've gotten out of StoryGrid. But the way he has documented genre, and broken it down, completely blew my mind.
Outside of StoryGrid, the term "genre" is used loosely (romance, sci-fi, action), and sub-genres seem to emerge from out of the void (psychological thrillers, caper movies, dystopian sci-fi). Trying to think about genre was, for me, like walking into an anatomy lesson where all the bones of the human body are being described. I kind of know what femurs and ribs are, but when the other 279 bones are brought into the discussion, my eyes glaze over.
I was faking my knowledge of genre all these years.
In StoryGrid, genre is laid out in a chart and divided by content, style, and other categories. This allows you to figure out the external goal, internal goal, and how you'll tell the story.
Importance of Genre
I used to be a genre snob, thinking that writing in a genre was no better than being a pulp-fiction hack. Oh, how I was wrong.
Writing to genre allows you to meet the audience half-way with your storytelling. Everybody picking up your book has a set of expectations. Right or wrong, they have them, and those expectations matter to those readers. If you ignore the expectations of your genre, you'll disappoint your readers, and you are the big loser in that exchange.
StoryGrid and Genre
In Shawn Coyne's book, he goes deep on one (and only one) genre: serial-killer thriller. As the obligatory scenes and conventions of the genre are described, it makes perfect sense. It doesn't feel cheap at all. It feels complete. When I finished reading StoryGrid, I wanted to know about many other genres. But that was going to take a lot of hard work.
Recently, the StoryGrid certified consultants have been publishing articles on storygrid.com about all the other genres. Put together, they're the missing chapter of the book. Read them, and suddenly almost every story you've ever read before in your life makes a little more sense.
Back to your story
Once you decide what genre your story fits into, study the conventions and obligatory scenes. Then, adapt your story to fit it. Again, this is not formula, and you can't use boilerplate to tell the story.
As with happened to me and my story, you may need to change your characters to fit the genre. You may need to lose some and add others. This is your creativity being called upon to design the story. You aren't just filling in a formula.
Use your creativity to find unique ways that your characters in your setting can fit the pattern (even if those obligatory scenes are "out of order") and you'll have overcome a huge hurdle in finding an audience for your story.
Choose the POV and Narrative Device
The other critical component of a story's design is the point of view from which the story will be (mostly) told, along with the narrative device employed.
These were missing from the story idea I had, but once I'd began using StoryGrid to organize my thoughts about the story, I could try various characters out as the POV. What I realized is that the initial protagonist didn't have enough at stake in the story (things were going to go her way) and it would be harder to build empathy for her. From that realization came a younger sister of that first choice. She would by more sympathetic. Telling the story from her POV would allow me to tug at emotional heartstrings.
Given that, I decided I'd use a subjective third-person point of view, allowing me to share that characters thoughts in a way that would match the readers story knowledge, thus pulling the reader into the story through that character.
Create the Foolscap Global Story Grid for the story
Given all the stuff we just discussed, you can then create the cornerstone design artifact for your story: the Foolscap Global Story Grid.
The Foolscap Global Story Grid is one-page summary that spells out:
Genre for your story
The setup, build and payoff of the entire story
This is a lot tougher than it sounds because you have to have a complete vision for your story. It's all too easy to toss in a bunch of stuff happens type events, fooling yourself into believing you have it figured out.
How to get better at creating Foolscap Global Story Grids for your stories
I'd attempted four of the Foolscaps on my other stories before working on this current story, and I thought I had it right. But I was wrong.
One of the suggestions I heard at the StoryGrid Live conference was to practice creating Foolscaps on stories you already know. I did six of them and suddenly my confidence soared. It became easier to spot the turning points in acts one, two and three that mattered.
With that confidence, I refined the Foolscap for my current story, and I feel much better that, once I'm done writing the first draft, I'll be able to edit and revise, and realize the vision I had for this story ten years ago.
Guess what? That was the easy part
If you've written a novel-length story before, you know the hard part awaits you. 50-80,000 words ain't for the feint of heart. It's one thing to type that many words.
It's entirely another to get the correct 80,000 words in the correct order. Using StoryGrid, I'm much more confident I'll figure out that problem.