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This week Jeff and Will welcome author and Story Grid certified editor Anne Hawley to the show. Anne has been working with Story Grid creator Shawn Coyne on the very first Masterwork Experiment where her task has been to analyze Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx at the beat level and then use those beats to create a new, fresh story. In the discussion, Anne explains what the Story Grid method is, what it’s been like to work on the Masterwork Experiment and how her writing style has changed as a result.

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Show Notes

Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase.

Show Transcript

Will: What do “Brokeback Mountain,” regency England and story beats have in common? We’re going to find out on this week’s show.

Welcome everyone to the “Big Gay Author Podcast,” the show that invites you to follow along as two writers attempt to make the transition from part-time to full-time authors of gay fiction. I’m your host Will Knauss and with me is my fellow writer and husband, Mr. Jeff Adams.

Jeff: Hello. Everybody. Today is August 24, 2019. We’re so glad you could join us for this week’s show.

Will: Today we have a special episode for you. When we started this show we insisted it was going to be the two of us talking to you, our listeners, every single week.

But we have a special case. We’ve got another fantastic interview for you. We talking to author and editor Anne Hawley. When Anne approached us about being on the show, we could not possibly say no. We are big fans of what Anne is doing, especially what she did this past summer. She was part of something called the “Masterwork Experiment,” which was a series of episodes on the “Story Grid Podcast.” In this interview Anne goes into what the “Masterwork Experiment” was all about and her experience dissecting an important piece of fiction and then, in front of the entire world, attempting to craft her own unique piece of fiction.

It’s remarkably informative and educational and we certainly been enjoying it this past summer. We highly recommend everyone check out the “Story Grid Podcast,” but not before you listen to this interview with Anne Hawley. Shall we get to that?

Jeff: Yes, let’s do it.

Will: We would like to welcome author and editor Anne Hawley to the show. Hi Anne.

Anne: Hi, you guys thanks for having me. This is great.

Will: We are so glad that you could join us today to talk about any number of things. But, specifically before we get started about Anne, you the writer and editor, we want to ask you about who the heck is Shawn Coyne? And what is the Story Grid?

Anne: Yes, good question. Shawn Coyne comes from a long background as an acquiring editor from some of the big New York publishing houses, the ones you’ve heard of like Random House. He spent his career there trying to figure out how to assess stories that were submitted.

He was a fiction editor trying to assess them for when they didn’t seem like they worked. Why didn’t they work? What exactly could be done to fix the novel to make it work. That was his whole quest and the Story Grid is the result of his research into that question.

It is a system for analyzing your story, that you may already have written, to figure out what’s wrong with it and how to correct it according to a very broad but specific set of criteria. So it’s an excellent analytical tool for writers and editors.

Will: Now I personally find the Story Grid both fascinating and utterly overwhelming. I’m interested in what drew you to the Story Grid methodology.

Anne: Well, I came to it the way many people come to it. I had a novel written, “Restraint.” It was running 230,000 words, which people should recognize as being just too long and I knew it was too long. I had no illusions about that, but I didn’t know where to cut it.

And so I took the Story Grid method which involves taking every scene and plotting it out on a spreadsheet and looking at what it does and I found a bunch of scenes that didn’t do anything. I loved them but they didn’t do anything. So the Story Grid method showed me exactly … it’s like putting on night vision glasses like you’ve seen in the movies. You’re scanning the landscape and you can see where the spots are warm, like there’s people, and where there’s cold spots. The cold spots you want to take out. It just reveals the sort of liveliness of each part of your story–the workingness of each part of your story.

So I was able to cut it a hundred thousand words and it still worked as the story that I set out to tell. It’s still the same story. It’s an amazing tool. So that’s how I came to it.

Will: And how did you go on to become a certified Story Grid editor?

Anne: Well, once I proved the method to myself, I was so excited to just get more involved with it and possibly become an editor and help put the word out to other writers. I ended up taking some training with Shawn in person. He gives occasional courses and I have about a hundred hours of in-person classroom training with Shawn to become a Story Grid certified editor, and then there’s some ongoing certification and retraining and stuff that takes place every year.

Will: And once you’ve gone through that training, what is that? I guess what does that certification mean? Is it like a PhD in storytelling?

Anne: Yeah, it kind of is. I would say maybe an MFA. I’m not sure about PhD. For one thing it has nothing whatsoever to do with copy editing or line editing or proofreading or anything like that. I don’t work with clients on that level. That’s a later stage.

I work at an earlier stage either developing a story idea based on what the author says they are trying to tell or they have a manuscript and I have a process, this sort of official Story Grid process for diagnosing a manuscript like I did with my own and saying here’s the extraneous stuff. Here is where your missing key scenes. Here’s what needs to be fixed to make this story work and by working we mean a story that the reader picks up and keeps turning the pages because they don’t get bored. They don’t get lost. They don’t get disappointed. They stick with the story.

Jeff: You were recently the lab rat, if you will, for a project that happened on the “Story Grid Podcast.” You worked alongside Shawn to break down “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx and then you had the task of using those story beats to create a new story. Tell us a little bit about that process and how you got involved in taking that on.

Anne: Because I was working with Shawn as a student of his, I had sent him my novel “Restraint”, which he very kindly read. THe tagline for “Restraint” was “Pride and Prejudice” meets “Brokeback Mountain” because it is a gay love story set in the regency. He took that idea and he has been developing this new methodology called the Masterwork Method or the Masterwork Experiment and he invited me, because of that book that I had sent him, to break down “Brokeback Mountain” into its beats and then use my regency era knowledge and historical research to build a new story around it. He picked me because he had already read what I had written and he knew that he wanted to work with an experienced novelist who was stuck in writing, who needed a new technique to get going again and to find out whether it’s possible to copy a Masterwork and still come up with something original.

Will: I think the concept was really fascinating Shawn has been doing the “Story Grid Podcast” for quite a while and then all of a sudden kind of out of nowhere. It’s like hey, let’s try this other thing. I thought the concept for the Masterwork Experiment was fascinating and as you and Shawn started to break down “Brokeback Mountain” it was, of course, quite educational to see the way that Annie Proulx uses so few words, but is able to convey so very much in such a short story. It was quite remarkable. So I thought it was, of course, educational. But then there was the second part of the experiment where you had to take those story beats and create your own story.

I was like, I think this is interesting, but I’m not sure it’s going to work. How is it not going to end up being just like a piece of fan fiction? What did you feel after you spent so many episodes with Shawn going over the story and then you were given this roadmap to create your own piece of fiction? What was that like?

Anne: It’s really weird. It’s a totally new experience for me. I was encouraged by the fact that as I identified these beats and then sat down and looked at them in the context of this vision that I have of regency England, and this particular landscape, and this particular manor house where my servant class characters live and work, I could feel this original material coming out .

You know, it’s true that Annie Proulx’s prose is incredibly distilled and part of me was like do I have to copy her style and Shawn said no. This is not about style or voice. You have your own style and your own voice. That’s where the originality is–the unique, personal voice and style of the writer. In my case, I’ve been writing a long time, fifty something years, and I’ve got a command of the language and I can write a sentence. This is not about learning from Annie Proulx how to write a sentence. The idea is you find a beat and then you abstract it and give it an abstract name.

Let me give you an example. There’s a scene in “Brokeback Mountain” where Ennis, who is one of the two lovers, is freezing his buns off out in the cold. He and Jack are camped up on the mountain. They have not yet become lovers and Jack says “come into the tent where it’s warm, you know, don’t be an idiot .”

When I abstracted that, this beat type is something like forced to share a bed or there’s only one bed. You’ve all seen that scene elsewhere. It’s very, very popular in fanfiction. You’ve seen it before and you realize, oh I can build something with this. I can make something different with this.

The scene type itself is not unique. It’s part of literature. You’ve seen it in other places and this happens over and over again as you analyze the beats. You realize oh, that’s just like the scene in such-and-such that I’ve read or movie that I’ve seen.

And you start to realize that beat level is not original. Those beats are always being repurposed and reused and redressed. It’s like putting new costumes on them and they go out on stage in a different play.

Jeff: If I recall correctly, you identified some eighty beats across the eleven thousand-ish word manuscript. Are you re-using all of those beats or now do you get to pick and choose? I can’t figure out how to use this bead so I’m not going to use it.

Anne: We started on the assumption that I would use them all and in order but with the understanding that as my own story developed the order was going to change because the circumstances of the story itself are so different–it’s a hundred and fifty years earlier in a different culture.

So Shawn gave me permission within the confines of this experiment to change the sequence. To change the nature of some of the beats if I needed to tell the story that I wanted to tell. I can also skip some, not many, if I find some that I just can’t repurpose in the regency period or for the type of story that my characters are telling me to tell, which characters tend to do. Then I have permission to leave some of them out. However, at the end of the process, I do have to account for them all. I think I identified 83 beats and I have to be able to say this one’s in my story, this one got changed, this one got moved, and this one I judiciously decided to leave out.

Jeff: Were you surprised to find eighty three beats in such a short story? It’s a really high number to me.

Anne: Beats can be identified at different levels? I was working at the really microscopic level. Every change in the text is a beat or can be a beat. I was a little surprised that it went as high as eighty three. When I had gotten through just the prologue, which is only 200 words, and Shawn identified it as a beat and I found eight beats inside of it I realized I just have this microscope on. I see the really small parts.

Jeff: Do you think it was good to work on that level and not the higher level that Shawn was on?

Anne: I think it took both of those levels to do the experiment. I find when I’m working with an editing client that I sound just like Shawn. I’m talking about the hidden meaning and blah blah blah and the writer is like but but but what about the beats? What about this little sentence that I wrote here? There are two different ways of thinking. There’s the editor hat and the writer hat. For this experiment, I had the writer hat on and Shawn was my editor.

Jeff: What did you learn by breaking a story down this way? As you said, you’re an experienced novelist and writer, you’re a Story Grid certified editor, but my impression is you learned a lot that might change the way you approach writing in the future.

Anne: Oh, absolutely. It already is changing it. The biggest thing I learned is that I am not dependent on the muse coming down and striking me with an inspiration, and I have to wait for that before I can write, and the myth that I must be entirely original. Breaking away from those two things, it just cracks open the box of writing for me.

I think there are a lot of writers out there who already just naturally work in that sort of workman-like way. I’m just going to sit down. I have a story to tell, I need to just get through it. I have never been able to approach that level of just plain elbow grease craftsmanship. This experiment has taught me that yes I can. Here’s what it takes. And yes, I can abandon that myth of originality and muse-based inspiration and just do the work.

Jeff: Shawn had a really–I think it was in episode eight–I was almost going to say speech but that’s not quite right. He had an amazing talk about inspiration and talent and the work. I really think all writers could do with hearing it because it was fascinating.

Anne: Yeah. It was a great pep talk. It was just wonderful. I hope everyone will go and listen to episode eight just to hear that.

Will: That particular episode, which is actually episode number 174 of the “Story Grid Podcast,” I personally refer to that as the ass-kicking inspiration episode.

Anne: That’s exactly what I went away feeling like, oh my God, I can. Yes, coach. Yes, coach. I’m in. I’m gonna play. It was that type of Saint Crispin’s Day sort of speech. That was really inspiring.

Will: Yeah. It was really an interesting and informative episode because in the context of the Masterwork Experiment at that point you had gone through all of “Brokeback Mountain” and you were kind of at the beginning point of working through the story beats for your own story. In that particular episode you kind of overcame a story obstacle. You come up with something new and original but then you sort of confided into Shawn that once you’ve figured that out, it sort of let the air out of your tires. You weren’t particularly inspired anymore. And then Shawn went on basically a 30 minute pep talk about that it’s not about feeling inspired. It’s about the blue collar, getting your hands in there, getting them dirty and doing the work. It was kind of remarkable.

Anne: It was great and just transformative for me. It’s not that I’ve never heard him talk about that sort of thing before. I have. But, being in the hot seat and you know on the spot on the podcast. Boy, did I take it in. It just changed everything about how I sit down to write now?

Will: There were a couple of episodes where Shawn actually read your draft aloud on the podcast. Did you know he was going to do that?

Anne: I did have a warning that that was going to happen. It was a little unnerving but not nearly as unnerving as actually going to a bookstore and reading a few pages of one of my novels in front of judgmental people whose eyes are on you. The podcast format, for one thing, it’s not live. It was a couple of weeks between when he did that reading and when listeners actually heard it. The bigger thing is that I know Shawn. I trust him. He is not he’s not a picky critic. He is a professional creative editor and I knew he wasn’t going to pick me apart at some little, petty level. So I felt pretty comfortable.

Jeff: You have another aspect that’s going on in full public view because as we’re airing this episode, you’re still writing the draft from the Masterwork Experiment. People can come online and see you do that.

Anne: Yes they can if they are curious and they are welcome to. I always work in Google Docs, which I have a link to on my website that people can click on and watch me work if I happen to be in the fishbowl that at that moment. If your listeners would like to come in and watch, they can find the link at an I made a landing page just for your listeners and if they go there they’ll find a link to the working document.

They may find me in it. I usually work in the mornings in Pacific time. And if you see me in there working drop me a little note and say hi. I’d love to hear from you.

Jeff: And it’s going to be interesting for the authors going in, who may perhaps visit more than once, to watch how the story evolves from this mid- to late-August standpoint. When do you anticipate the first draft being done?

Anne: I have to get a first draft to Shawn by September 30th, and then he will go through an editing process with me on it. We expect to publish it under his Story Grid Editions imprint and his publishing company in December of 2020.

So we’ve got a little over a year to really pull it all together. It will be a little book, a little slim volume. It will have an original art cover and everything. There will also be an e-book and hopefully also an audiobook.

Jeff: That’s very cool. Of course, it would be thin because I mean “Brokeback Mountain”… We’ve got the hardback version and it’s the thinnest hardback I think I’ve ever seen.

Anne: Sean did give me permission to exceed the word count because I’m a wordier writer and because the historical language and setup requires maybe a few more words.

Jeff: I think did I hear you say in the podcast that you were thinking maybe it’ll end up in the 17 to 20 range.

Anne: He gave me permission to go as high as 25 so I might take him up on that. I tend to run a little bit long.

Jeff: What do you think authors can learn by breaking down a story in the way that you did with “Brokeback Mountain?”

Anne: It is a fascinating exercise in understanding how the sausage gets made. I would suggest that it will ruin a beloved story. It takes the enchantment out. If you have a story that you’ve loved reading over and over again and you start analyzing it at this level, you do start to see what it’s made of. It’s like opening up the back of an old-fashioned watch and examining all the little gears and springs and stuff. Literally figuring out what makes it tick. What you come back with is this treasure trove of specific scene types and beat types that you can repurpose and use.

I think of it like you’re creating this deck of prompt cards. When you’re stuck in your writing and pick a card, any card turn, one up and it might be a bathing scene or a conversation over a meal. Could you use one of those where you’re stuck right now? What about a drunk scene? How about friends meeting for coffee? That’s a scene type. What about are good guys are watching the enemy approach from a distance? Another scene type. Different kind of story, but it might work for you.

And that’s the use. You come back with this bag of tricks.

Jeff: Are there some stories that lend themselves better to this than others? Or really I could just take any story that I want and start slicing, dicing and analyzing?

Anne: I think it’s pretty genre agnostic. Any story that has a plot will be revealing to anyone who wants to do this breakdown. I would say definitely stick with shorter works because like we talked about I found 83 beats in this skinny little novella. You tackle anything longer than that, you’re going to lose your mind.

You could do maybe two or three key chapters in your favorite novel to get you started, but I would suggest starting with a short story or a novella.

Jeff: Do you envision using this technique on the next thing you’re working on?

Anne: I absolutely do. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine not using it now that I know about it. My next project is a new novel, completely different realm of novel, and I’m going to have to find the Masterwork or Masterworks that I can break apart and look for pieces. I haven’t quite found that yet.

Jeff: And that actually, as you said that, made me think of what you just hit on. You could take beats from several different areas and put those together and create the new. Instead of just using the skeleton of one story to create one story, take a few skeletons and almost Frankenstein them if you will.

Anne: Frankenstein them together, exactly. Once I get to an understanding of what kind of story I’m telling at its heart then I can look for more than one Masterwork that tells the same kind of story. I love a forbidden love story. That’s what my next one is going to be primarily but I have a couple of real good examples of that type of story that I can look at to see how the author leveraged these parts. And then I have part of my next novel has some occult elements–occult and cult elements–so I can find stories about cult leaders or something.

I haven’t worked it all out yet. But, yes, you can certainly meld more than one story that’s representative of the kind of story you’re trying to tell.

Jeff: That’s just… I’m utterly fascinated by the…

Anne: Me too. Yeah, it’s completely… It’s just it’s new and different.

Will: Now for our listeners that just simply cannot get enough Story Grid analyzing, aside from the Story Grid Podcast you are also part of the Story Grid Editors Roundtable. Can you explain a little bit about what that show is all about?

Anne: Yeah, there are five of us. We are the original certified Story Grid editors, the first five who went through the whole set of courses. We decided to get together and form a study group to learn the method and, once we got going, we thought this is pretty good stuff.

So we started making a podcast. We take either a movie, typically a movie but we’ve started to move into novels, every week and we break it down and analyze it according to Story Grid principles. We’re looking at larger areas of story structure and we do a little podcast where we reveal what we understood about the structure. We’re on about our 85th episode now. We drop a new episode every Wednesday. It’s a lot of fun.

Jeff: Have you ruined a movie for yourself because of the podcast?

Anne: Yeah, probably. One that got ruined for me was “Thelma and Louise.” Great movie. I mean it’s not ruined. I still love the movie. Don’t get me wrong. But when you start looking at it, you realize the whole middle build, the second act, is kind of floppy. What I found was that you walk out of the theater after that movie all excited because the ending is just so damn stunning. But when you start to analyze that middle build, they could have done a little better. It’s funny. You just start to see little flaws. Everything is flawed. I have yet to see a perfect movie.

Jeff: If you ever see one, please do let us know what that is.

Anne: Probably the one that we looked at that came the closest to a perfect story structure, perfectly executed was “The King’s Speech.” Absolutely, brilliantly constructed brilliantly written movie.

Will: Now before we wrap up this interview, you’ve got some live events coming up. There’s Story Grid Live in September. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about that too?

Anne: Yeah, it’s a two-day gathering of people who love Story Grid, writers and editors. It’s in Nashville, Tennessee. You can find out more about it at

We’re all going to be there and there will be presentations from Shawn Coyne and also Tim Grahl, who is kind of his partner in crime and more on the business and book launch side of the question. They’re going to have special guests Steven Pressfield talking about his approach to writing and resistance. Some of us are also going to do short breakout sessions. I’ll be doing one on objects of desire in fiction.

It will be food, fun, lots of story nerdery. I don’t know how many people were going to expect but the last one of these I went to it was a big crowd–noisy, rambunctious and loads of fun. It’s really fun.

Jeff: And then you also have an event coming up in early 2020 with From Writer to Author. What’s that one all about?

Anne: Yes. We’re very excited about that. I have a little company called Pages and Platforms that I run with my fellow Story Grid certified editor Rachelle Ramirez, and also a certified book launch coach Sue Campbell, who is a genius. The three of us are putting together a workshop that’s going to help writers learn to pitch their material, to position it in the marketplace, how to write their back cover blurb, how to go from having written a manuscript to being a professional author in the world. It’s going to be three days in Portland, Oregon at the end of January beginning of February. It’s going to be a lot of fun and of limited enrollment.

I think we only have room for 12 people at the Kennedy School Historic Hotel in beautiful, Portland, Oregon in the dead of winter. People can find out more about that at our website and you will find all the information there

Jeff: Fantastic, now where can authors keep up with you online with what you’re doing next with your novels, with the Story Grid Masterwork Experiment and everything else you’ve got.

Anne: I’m on Twitter from time to time at AnneHawley. And I have a website at where listeners can subscribe to get a free chapter of my novel “Restraint” every day in your inbox, get updates on the Masterwork Experiment and follow my writing process. And then there’s the Editor Roundtable Podcast, which you can find on your favorite podcast feed every Wednesday new episode.

Jeff: Fantastic. Well, Anne, thank you so much for coming and sharing what you’re doing with the Masterwork Experiment and everything else. We can’t wait to see how that story fleshes itself out as you get ready to publish it in 2020.

Anne: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been such a pleasure. I love your show, and I just feel really honored to be on it. Thank you very much.

Jeff: Thanks again to Anne for coming and giving us all that wonderful information. I was fascinated by the “Masterwork Experiment.” Talking with her in the interview. I can envision, as I start to write or attempt to write romantic suspense in the coming months, breaking down some works by Layla Reyne, Max Walker and Gregory Ashe to see how those books that I love so much tick. What makes them work from that point of view because I really enjoy Gwen Hayes’s “Romancing the Beats” for romance stories, but I don’t know of a book that dissects romantic suspense in the same way. So I might just do some dissection of my own.

Will: Dissect away.

Now before we go just a quick reminder. If you’re interested in the “Masterwork Experiment” go to the “Story Grid Podcast” and check out episodes 167 through 176.

Jeff: Yes, and if you want to see Anne at work as he mentioned, you can see the current draft of her story at

Will: That will do it for now everyone. If you’d like the links to anything we discussed this past week, simply go to the show notes page for this episode at On the shownotes page you’ll also find the links to our individual websites and social media including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Jeff: And speaking of Twitter, you can follow us at BigGayAuthor where we’ll share things during the week the catch our attention. Be sure to subscribe to this show so you never miss an episode. We’re available on all the major podcast outlets and you’ll find links to those on our website.

Will: This past week was Ray Bradbury’s birthday. The grandmaster would have been 99 years old and if there was ever a human being on this planet who loved stories and storytelling more than Ray, I don’t know who it is. So I wanted to close out this week’s show with a few quotes from Bradbury. The first is, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” If those aren’t words of wisdom for these times that we’re living in I don’t know what is.

Also he’s remembered for saying, “You fail only if you stop writing.”

So, what will you create in the next seven days?

Thank you everyone for listening. We hope you’ll join us again next week.

And at the advice of Ray Bradbury, everyone please keep writing.