Today’s guest is Shawn Coyne–a twenty-five year book-publishing veteran. He’s edited, published or represented works from Michael Connelly, Robert McKee, Bill Murray, Joe Namath, Steven Pressfield, Jerry Rice, Betty White, and many others.
During his years as an editor at the Big Five publishing houses, as an independent publisher, as a literary agent both at a major Hollywood talent agency and as head of Genre Management Inc., and as a bestselling co-writer and ghostwriter, he created a methodology called The Story Grid to evaluate, edit and write stories. His goal is to make the work eminently practical…to remind writers that they are not the problem…the problems are the problem. His book isn’t yet available but it will be soon. Watch this space — StoryGrid.com — to stay on top of the book’s release. Word has it that it should be out mid-April or so.
Shawn comes to us today through a two-thumbs-up recommendation from one of our own, Jan O’Hara. “Two thumbs up” might be a clam, by the way. Read on and find out. And learn more about Shawn and The Story Grid on his website.
Of Clams & Editors
One of the things I love about professional cultures is their idiosyncratic insider language.
Football coaches pepper their speech with phrases like dime backs, wildcats, and now more than ever, thanks to Bill Belichick, tackle eligible.
Contractors speak of plumb lines, narrowbacks, and 220s.
Buildings and Grounds men, i.e. New England college custodians (a fraternity of which I was proudly a member) prefer not to slop out hoppers (toilets), but would rather spend the day in some form of bucket (seats on top of riding mowers or inside delivery trucks). One of my old colleagues was so adept at angling driving assignments we referred to him simply as “Buckets.” So much so that to this day I don’t remember his Christian name.
And if a B&G man has to “ring out the mop,” while there is a trip to the rest room involved, there is no requirement that an actual mop be in hand… During an evening’s after hours imbibing of beer with the fellas, young B&G guys figure out this turn of phrase pretty quickly.
By far my favorite insider-ism amongst professional writers is “clams.”
I first heard of “the clam” from a friend of mine who worked in the writers’ room for a big successful TV show in the 1990s. She got in the room in the first place with a hall of fame worthy performance in chutzpadik.
She had the audacity to write an entire episode for this huge show on spec and then took it all the way to the end of the line when she overnighted the script to the executive producer. A cousin knew an agent who knew the doorman at the exec’s building etc.
The guy actually read her spec, loved it and called her in. One rule still reigns…if you have the writing chops, you’ll find work. Guaranteed.
When she went into the writers’ room to meet the rest of the scribes, she felt like she’d walked into a support group at the JCC on Manhattan’s upper west side. She’d found her creative home. And the executive producer filled out his roster with an indispensible craftsman.
The way the writers’ room worked was this:
Each summer all of the writers flew to Los Angeles and camped out for a few weeks together to write up that entire year’s series bible. The bible would be the overarching story for the twenty odd episodes for that year. So all of the characters in the show would be analyzed and put through their paces and the group would sketch out beginnings, middles, and ends for all twenty episodes. And then the executive producer would divide up the episodes and each writer was responsible for writing up the first drafts for two or three episodes each for the season. He wrote first drafts too!
When the show went into production, the script was passed out to all of the writers in the room and together they edited it to perfection before the cameras rolled.
This group of writers was spectacular and absolutely supportive of one another. While I’m sure there was some pettiness and jealousy among them, when they went into the room all of that crap was put aside. What mattered was the work. But that didn’t mean they beat each other up.
Instead they tried to tactfully express that perhaps a line or two in a particular script was not perfect quite yet. The phrase they all used to describe lines that had entered the popular culture and had subsequently worn out their welcome was that the line was “a clam.”
Here are some examples of clams.
“That went well.” This is a tagline that usually happens just after something goes horribly wrong.
“You had me at hello.” It was great one time…in Cameron Crowe’s Jerry McGuire.
“Too much information.” Who knows where this came from, but it’s time for us to stop repeating it.
“…Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Ah Seinfeld… Can’t we please let the last century of brilliance from Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David rest? They’re still writing great stuff now…let’s focus on that.
The derivation of the term “clam” came from two television producers on the show Murphy Brown in 1992…Peter Tolan and Michael Patrick King. Click here for a really fun story on the coining of the term from The New York Times.
Anyway, my friend used to tell a story about how she’d unwittingly written a clam in one of her drafts. The other writers had certainly done the same thing in their pasts, so all of them were a bit reluctant to call her on it.
So they were saying things like…
Ummm. Maybe we should take another look at that line on page six…?
I’m not sure about that line either. For some reason I think it may be a bit too…uh… familiar?
And because it was like 4 o’clock in the morning and my friend’s ability to manage her emotions had left her hours before, she lost it.
OKAY! OKAY! IT’S A FUCKING CLAM! JUST SAY IT!
They all nodded and then together they came up with a unique and better line.
I love that story.
The writers’ room and the methods by which long form, episodic television is made are a great way to think about how to edit your novel or narrative nonfiction. The only difference is that your own private writers’ room requires just a quorum of one.
Writing the first draft of your work is great. Congratulations! Getting that 80,000 or 100,0000 words on paper is an outstanding accomplishment.
But, having a first draft for a professional writer is the equivalent of Michelangelo finally managing to get a two thousand pound block of marble into his studio.
Once you have a first draft, it’s time to give the sensitive and delicate writer within you a vacation. Let her go to the Bahamas. She’s earned the trip.
But now, you must unleash that critical beast within you, your inner editor. You’ve got to hammer away at that rock.
You’ve probably been told a million times not to beat up on your poor writer self, not to fix your work until you get to the very end. And that’s true!
But now you’ve literally typed THE END.
So now is the time to stop bullshitting yourself. You must have the courage to call out all of the clams in your writing. This is what pros do.
What is required of you is to pull all of your inner analytical forces together and take stock of what is actually inside that hunk of marble you slogged into your studio.
You have to EDIT your book now.
But couldn’t you just hire someone else to do it?
Sure, but why pay someone to tell you what you already know?
You know that there is a bunch of soft, gooey stuff in your book. You know you fudged some scenes to get to the end of a story sequence. You know that you didn’t payoff the setup in your third scene in the thirtieth scene the exact way you wanted to.
What you need is a methodology to help you focus. You need to think from the outside/in.
Here’s my deal.
I’m a twenty-five year veteran of book publishing. I made my bones at the Big Five publishing houses as an acquisitions editor. I run a publishing company now, Black Irish Books, with bestselling author Steven Pressfield (The War of Art etc.) and I’ve ghostwritten a number of bestselling books (fiction and nonfiction).
I’ve personally edited hundreds of books and proposals and represented big million dollar deals as an agent. Hang in there…this isn’t about me. I’m just letting you know that I’m a grizzled vet, not Joe Schmoe from Kokomo with an idea.
I’ve spent my entire career studying Storytelling from a very analytical point of view and I’ve combined everything I’ve learned into an editorial methodology and philosophy that I call The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know.
It will be in book form soon, and I’d love you to buy it, but it’s okay if you don’t.
What’s not okay is to settle for clams.
Here is why I spent decades compiling and then three years writing what editors know into actual prescriptive words:
Stories are the most important things we humans can create.
I’ve read so many clams in my career that I’ve made it my mission to teach writers how to get them out of their work before an agent or an editor or an actual reader experiences them. It’s important work.
So if you want to get rid of your clams, go to www.storygrid.com. It’s free and you’ll get everything you need there. You’ll learn how to become the best editor you’ll ever need.
Time to out yourselves. Are there clams in your writing? What are they?