That is the paradox of the epidemic: that in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first. – Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
I had an idea for an essay, maybe a book – something that felt like it might be interesting and worth exploring – something that might even interest someone other than myself.
So, of course, I avoided working on it, instead looking around for what other people have done and written about.
Which led me back to Shawn Coyne and his Story Grid, a way to write books that work.
Coyne is all about structure, about a beginning, middle and end and the five thing you need in each one: the inciting incident, the turning point, the crisis, the climax and the resolution.
That’s 15 core scenes needed in every story.
And then, if you’re interested, he takes you through the maths of writing a novel.
The important bits – your book will have 1/4th for the beginning, 1/2 for the middle and 1/4th for the end.
In a 100,000 word book, you should have roughly 50 chapters of 2,000 words each – spread out as in the ratio above.
Now, this is the easy part of Coyne’s work.
Quickly, very quickly indeed, you get into the work of analysis – mapping a structure which becomes larger and larger and more and more intimidating.
This is what Pirsig says about such an approach in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance – “The first thing to be observed about this description is so obvious you have to hold it down or it will drown out every other observation. This is: It is just duller than ditchwater.”
I sometimes wish I was the kind of person that could work with structure the way Coyne does – but I’m not.
Other people are – and for them it is a way that works.
Now, actually, we need to back into the idea of “The Way” from Coyne’s website.
He talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping point during an interview – and the basic thrust of the tipping point is that in many situations thing happen quietly and calmly until suddenly we reach a point where exponential change happens.
His example here is that of flu – you get the virus and it busily grows inside you.
You don’t feel the effects for a while – as the bugs build up in your system.
Then, at a particular instant, the bugs you have overwhelm your body’s defences and they kick in with a response – a fever and the other things that come along with the flu.
All of a sudden you tip from feeling fine to feeling rubbish.
Now, Shawn Coyne was being interviewed by Tim Grahl, the author of Your first 1,000 copies and he seems to be all about strategy – about finding ways to connect with readers and sell your books.
A lot of people are very good at this.
Tim Ferriss, for example, has what he calls the definitive resource list to writing a best selling book.
The way of strategy is about getting to your goal, getting from A to B.
In this world the goal is to be a bestselling author.
Robert Kiyosaki, the author of Rich dad poor dad wrote about an interview where his interviewer was being sniffy about the quality of one of his books.
He pointed out that the cover of his book said “best selling author” and not “best writing author.”
Then you have Annie Dillard, the author of Bird by bird and The writing life, who writes about writing like climbing a long ladder in the dark – climbing step by step until you emerge above the clouds and are hit by the sun.
That sort of work is an act of faith – the kind of faith Lee Child has when each year, on September 1 (it has to be September 1), he sits down to write the first sentence of his next Reacher book, knowing that with no plan, no plot he will work until it’s done in the next 100 days or so.
Then there is the last way, the one used by people like Vladimir Nobokov or Pirsig’s Phaedrus in Lila – the act of writing in fragments.
Nobokov used index cards and Phaedrus used slips of paper – but the essential idea was that words, concepts, writing went on small fragments.
The work started randomly almost, but over time related fragments could be moved together, ordered and somehow, out of the chaos, emerges something coherent and worthwhile.
This is the way of emergence and having left it to the last, I must say it is the one that most appeals to me.
It is the way of bloggers, of plodders – of the people who do a little each day and find that they have created something over time – something they didn’t plan to create but that emerged because of the daily work they did.
The thing that ties all these ways together is the insight that comes with the tipping point – use the way that works for you but work on it every day.
It takes a while before you build up to the point where things tip and exponential change happens.
But that’s how your way will eventually, hopefully, lead to success.