CategoryStory Grid

Book review: November Road – Lou Berney

Finding the book

I came to Lou Berney’s November Road as a result of Don Winslow’s recommendation. Publishing veteran, Shawn Coyne (who trained me as a Story Grid editor) has worked with Don, an acclaimed writer. All that is to confirm that we can come to read books or writers we’ve never heard of through a circuitous but rewarding route. But having one great writer recommend another, is a sure-fire way to set up a reader to enjoy a genre that they both write in.


For those understanding genre, November Road is a nuanced thriller more than it is a crime story. So don’t think you’ve got a mystery where the core event is the exposure of the criminal. We know who the bad guys are in this story and, arguably, which bad guy heads the table of tyranny. The global value of November Road is Life and Death where the ‘hero’, Frank Guidry, is at the mercy of the villain more than once. Berney makes the love story sub plot work well with the thriller but only Guidry has a true understanding of the stakes at risk in the relationship.

Who’s Frank Guidry

As the story’s protagonist, Frank Guidry, starts out as a bit of a selfish prick wheedling his way into the life of Charlotte Roy and her two girls. In a way, both are on the run, although Charlotte’s choice is a deliberate ‘breakfree’ from her alcoholic husband who is more dependent on her than she is on what little he brings to the family. Frank’s on the run because after JFK’s assassination, he knows things detrimental to his survival. Charlotte and her girls are a useful cover for Frank to buy the time necessary to set up a new life and identity for himself. He has the sense to know that those after him will be looking for a guy on his own. He doesn’t expect to fall in love.

Despite that selfishness and the fact that Frank has a history of using others to get along in life, he has needs that we all identify with – the necessities of life, love and esteem. Berney writes him so well we can all root for him because we know what he wants and what he needs.

Does he change?

On the run across a changing landscape his travels serve as a symbol of his personal change. Even though his physical movement is to ensure survival, his unbidden need is to find a way to be a more human version of himself, something he never thought necessary or possible. In story terms, he begins to understand he has something to offer someone other than himself and something beyond venality. This gives us a third genre – a morality/redemption story. Ironically, it’s that quality of redemption that puts Frank on a collision course greater than those trying to kill him. A course that requires an inevitable ‘best bad choice’ and one that none of us ever want to face.

Who will like this story and why?

To simply classify November Road as historical fiction would be to sell this story short in many ways. It delivers not only a suspenseful, riveting read, but is a powerful and eloquently told story that had me thinking about themes in life that transcend the 1960s period in which it is set: survival, the price of love, self-discovery, the tough decisions in parenting and second chances. For that reason, I believe it appeals to a very broad range of readers. Coping with crime being brought to the page is a requirement for your non crime reader although it’s not overdone. Most of the time, the tension-fuled threat is greater than the reality. Even the most gratuitous act of violence in this story, while a horrific injustice, has an understandable context.

Pick up and read a copy. Amazon link here:

You won’t be disappointed.

Story Grid – am I certifiable or just certified?

Some will think so. Certainly, a certified nerd when it comes to story analysis.

Late February, I went to Nashville, Tennessee for a Story Grid Workshop run by Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl. I stayed here

Actually, a lot better than that inside.

(Norman) Bates Motel??? Actually a lot better inside!

Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl

Shawn is a twenty-five year book publishing veteran and wrote the book – The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know.

He and Tim put together a regular Story Grid podcast where, according to Tim, he’s the, “struggling writer learning how to write a book that works.”

Tim’s expertise is in marketing and in the post lunch sessions at the week-long workshop he shared that expertise and addressed what it takes to market an online editing business.

The workshop

We got to analyse dozens of scenes, songs, and movies for the various components that constitute scenes that work . Do you remember the song Copacabana sung by Barry Manilow and written by Manilow, Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman? That was one of the cold scene/song analyses we had to do each day: see it, hear, it, analyse it to answer these questions:

1) What are the characters literally doing?  – Attending the Copacabana.

2) What is the essential action of what the characters are doing in this scene? Lola is a seducer – she titilates to earn her living.

3) What life value has changed for one or more of the characters in this scene? (Life value is an essential component in all stories and is typically dependent on genre so different genre have different life values). In this case, for Tony it is the value of Life-Death. For Lola it is Hope – Despair. All scenes need to ‘turn’ on some emotional value for them to ‘work’.

4) What is the inciting incident of the scene? Lola does the merengue and the cha-cha.

5) What is a progressive complication in the scene? (something that happens following the inciting incident – may be positive or negative). Tony and Lola fall in love.

6) What is the progressive complication that causes a character to address a crisis question? (Also known as the progressive complication turning point). When Lola finished, Rico called her over and went ‘a bit far.’

7) What is the crisis of the scene? Does Lola run from Rico and risk losing her job? If she stays she gets paid but manhandled. A crisis is a question for the character to answer. It’s is called that because the character isn’t choosing between tea or coffee, or between vanilla and chocolate. They are faced with choosing between 2 bad options or irreconcilable goods. They can have the good of one thing but not the other. It’s a question where the character does not immediately know what to do because there’s no single obvious answer.

8) What is the climax of the scene? (the answer to the crisis question) ‘Tony sailed across the bar’ (to intervene), there’s a fight between him and Rico.

9) What is the resolution of the scene? There’s a shot and Tony dies and Lola, thirty years on, never recovers.

It was a hell of a week. I went to Thrillerfest 3 years ago, attended great classes and I still have contact with a couple of people. This was different. Yes, it was smaller (about 30 of us) and more intimate and participative. We had pre course work, and new analysis work to do every day so our work was well structured, unlike Thrillerfest where we could choose what we wanted and attend passively.

Story Grid Questions

In Nashville, we had a common belief –  that we wanted to know for ourselves or to help others, how a story is organised across multiple levels. The answer to this question helps answer how to best mesmerize a reader/viewer/listener  – to transport them into another realm of consciousness from their everyday existence. In simple terms, how do we manipulate the pieces of a story to deliver the most potent form of that story. Become the shaman’s shaman.

Core Story Grid Premise

Although there are twelve forms of global genre that guide the writer to meet a reader’s needs, marketing classifications, i.e. what bookshelf labels might say, are not genre. If you say you write science fiction, epic fantasy, historical fiction, and other words that attempt to describe the nature of the fiction, Story Grid editors will work with that setting. But they will help writers identify what is needed to translate from marketing to story genre. For example, sci-fi is often an Action or a Society global genre. Each of those, like all genre, have elements of story that are unique to contributing whether a story works or not. Genre requirements help writers move from stuck to unstuck, move from big picture requirements to scene requirements and vice versa.

Is Story Grid just a new formula – i.e. if you do this, then you’ll get that?

No. Not even close.

Is it a pathway to master the form of storytelling? Absolutely.

Is it a variation on the old 3 Act structure? You can have as many acts as you want. But all stories that work have a beginning hook, a middle build and an ending payoff. Each of those structures has its own set of requirements to meet before a story will work.

How do I start thinking like a Story Grid editor?

Have a look at questions, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 above. These questions are applied to every unit of the story from scene, sequence (of scenes), act and the whole story itself.

Can you be a great editor without Story Grid?

Of course. I have a great editor not versed in Story Grid. Anna Rogers is one of NZ’s best. She has taught me a huge amount about writing. I know of others too who are highly regarded. What makes Story Grid so good, is it makes the implicit learning of skilled editors who’ve built their craft over decades, explicit to others who haven’t.  Once you know how something works, you can work with it and innovate.

In the next post, I’m going to show you a core deliverable of the Story Grid Editor’s work that I’ve completed for certification and apply it to two different masterworks and a lesser known, but superbly written work of a New Zealand literary writer.

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