Black Beauty

Black Beauty (1877), first edition, by Anna Sewell

I’m just starting to read Black Beauty, the third of three novels that I chose to analyze for my project to become a certified Story Grid Editor.

This might sound strange but I think I’m more afraid to read this book than I was to read Stephen King’s Carrie, the first of the three novels that I tackled as part of my certification project. Though I loved Black Beauty when I was a kid and count it among those books that most shaped who I am as an adult, I admit that I am dreading the scenes in which horses suffer and die from neglect and abuse.

Maybe I am more tenderhearted now than I was at age eight, when I first read Anna Sewell’s novel.

Or maybe the fact that I remember these scenes well enough to dread them testifies to the power of a well-written story. Maybe it shows that the stories we absorb as children can affect us deeply.

I’ve definitely been thinking, as I embark on rereading this book and analyzing it, that we Gen-X’ers (and the Boomers before us) “cut our teeth” on stories that were G-rated at the time – such as Bambi, such as Old Yeller – that would be considered much too harsh to earn even a PG-13 today.

Though it’s now marketed as “YA” (a novel for young-adults a.k.a kids), Sewell wanted adult-adults to read Black Beauty with its frank depictions of what horses suffer due to deliberate cruelty or mistreatment rooted in ignorance. Sewell hoped that she might persuade these readers to appreciate horses as thinking and feeling creatures who deserved to be treated with kindness instead of being worked to death like four-legged machines.

Sewell certainly succeeded in her mission. In its time, the novel sparked changes in English law regarding the treatment of horses; and in our time, it is regarded as one of the most influential texts on the worldwide social movements to prevent animal cruelty. For that reason, and to deepen my skills as an editor, I will read on…

Escaping into the Alternate Reality of Red, White & Royal Blue

In my last post, I wrote about how I’d read both The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne and Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, and that I was interested in doing a story grid analysis of McQuiston’s novel. Well, in a bad-news-good-news twist, I have had to switch tracks.

I applied to and was accepted into The Story Grid Editor Certification course that begins on September, 14! I am beyond excited! The prep work for the course is considerable, so I’ve been concentrating on that instead of analyzing RW&RB.

However, I want to say that though I came to the book as a skeptic, I finished it as a fan. I LOVED the novel, as did my writers group. We’re a tough crowd and rarely agree on anything but we all agreed that McQuiston’s debut novel is worthy of the writer’s highest compliment, “I’m so envious! I wish I’d written that!”

You can read my review of Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston on goodreads.

I (Finally) Read The Story Grid

The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

“When the pupil is ready, the Master will appear.”

– often attributed incorrectly to Buddah or Lao Tse Tsu but probably from Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical movement

Metaphorical Squirrels

Has this ever happened to you? A well-read friend gushes to you about a book that has cracked open their worldview, changing forever how they see SO MANY THINGS! And you think, “Yeah, I’ll put that on the to-read list.” But then you just kind of don’t because you forgot or you got wrapped up in another amazing book or, I don’t know -squirrel! – you were just distracted?

About two years ago, a member of my writers group recommended that we all read Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid. She explained that he offered a really helpful blueprint for how to structure any story. She also shared with us this really cool infographic that Coyne designed, which can help a writer (or an editor) determine what specific genre a story inhabits.

I respect this fellow writer so much for her astute grasp of story structure and her surgically helpful critiques; so, when she suggests a book, I write that sh*t down. I remember writing “The Story Grid” in my notebook. I remember that I LOVED the infographic Genre’s Five Leaf Clover .

So, why didn’t I run right out and buy The Story Grid, then?

Er, squirrel?

I vaguely recall that the group was wearing more grooves in that well-worn debate about the value of pantsing or planning when it came to writing the first draft of a long work, such as a novel or memoir. At the time, I was working on a first draft of a memoir and pantsing it. So, maybe I thought that this “structure” book just wasn’t for me.

And then years went by…

  • I decided that I wasn’t ready to write a memoir, at last not the one I had started. Maybe I lost heart while pantsing my way through that first draft because I didn’t have a clear enough understanding of what I wanted the finished book to be.
  • I watched as two other members of my writers group were frustrated by how challenging it was to draft, revise, and publish their novels – despite the fact they are phenomenally talented and driven writers.
  • I talked with a book editor who, when I asked what books she would recommend, gushed about Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid.

“Okay, okay,” I told the universe, “I’ll read The Story Grid!”

To keep myself from being distracted by metaphorical squirrels midway through the book, I vowed to read it in one siting while on a camping trip.

For-Real Squirrels!

It was easier than I anticipated to stay focused on the book – despite actual squirrels scampering at my feet . In fact, I sunburned my feet pretty badly during that long, sunny day of reading and I didn’t even notice.

What Is This Story Grid You Speak Of?

To synopsize (super-synopsize), Coyne’s theory is that a story should:

  • Embody a specific genre; the story should clearly represent the conventions of said genre while still being fresh and surprising in its execution and details.
  • Any story of any genre should have three parts: a beginning hook, a middle build, and an ending that pays off on all the promises raised by the first two parts.
  • The ratios of these parts should be approximately 25/50/25.
  • Each part should have its own internal story structure of hook, build, pay-off.
  • Each scene should have a similar structure.

Why I Recommend The Story Grid

Looking at this list, I think what Coyne has done is to take thousands of years of thinking, writing, and talking about story – from millennia of oral story-telling traditions to Aristotle’s definition of the perfect tragedy structure to modern day MFA and film school curricula etc. etc. – and then distill them down to a highly quaffable essence.

Also, he’s included some sweet infographics and outlining tools to help you apply this distilled knowledge effectively! See, this book DID rock my worldview and it is awesome and I highly recommend it to you, when you are ready to meet this master!!

A Thrilling Read

I think Coyne made an incredibly wise choice to use the thriller, Silence of the Lambs, as an example text. In The Story Grid, Coyne steps the reader through the story of FBI agent Clarice Starling taking down serial killer Buffalo Bill. Scene by scene, chapter by chapter, section by section, Coyne explains (shows, really) how author Thomas Harris structured and crafted the novel to be a compelling and memorable story.

In applying his theory to this thriller, Coyne made The Story Grid a thrilling read. I was perched on the edge of my camping chair, eager to see 1) how Coyne would walk his talk and 2) what would happen NEXT for Clarice Starling as she tried to catch one serial killer while trying to keep another one from breaching the inner sanctum of her mind.

I was completely sucked into Coyne’s analysis of the plot/structure of Silence of the Lambs, even though I’d already seen the movie. (Full disclosure, seeing the movie scarred me for life so deeply that I’m not sure I can ever handle reading the novel. But Coyne perhaps also banked on the fact that even if readers of The Story Grid hadn’t read the Harris novel, they would have seen the popular movie.)

Cannibalized Livers Versus Broken Hearts

My big question right now is how well will it work to use The Story Grid to analyze the love story novel that my writers group has next on our discussion agenda? Can I do to Red, White & Royal Blue what Coyne did to Silence of the Lambs?

When the stakes are broken hearts instead of cannibalized livers, does the theory apply equally as well?

Stay tuned for more…

Check it Out!

So excited to share this with you all! My good friend Deborah Thompson wrote this beautiful book, Pretzel, Houdini & Olive, about how dogs can be our closest companions during times of grief. The book is heartfelt and poignant, of course, but is also sometimes laugh-out-loud funny – like life itself. I worked with her to create her site where you can pre-order the book. Check it out!

Language Truly is Your Superpower!

Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

Did you know that by the time you finished losing your baby teeth, you’d already acquired language-using super powers that literally no other human being on the planet had done – or will do – in exactly the same way? In this LinkedIn article, I explain how language truly is a human super power.