Lessons from a Story Masters Survivor

Katherine Longshore 6 Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Do you ever have one of those writing moments when you have an inspiration to make the story better?  And you know it will work?  And you can picture the scene exactly in your head, as if watching it scroll out before you on film?  And you know it will be a bucketload of work, but it doesn’t matter because it’s exactly what your novel needs?

Have you ever had that happen several times in the course of a day?  And more over the course of a single weekend?  This is what the Story Masters workshop did for me.

I arrived in the conference room the first day of the Story Masters workshop, primed and ready to work.  I had my little red notebook.  I had my laptop.  I had a cup of coffee.  I sat at a table with some of the best writing friends a person can have.  And then Donald Maass began to talk.

Maass is a charismatic speaker.  At first glance, he looks a bit like Simon Cowell, but imagine if Simon got up in front of the Idol contestants and pumped them full of the tools and brain fever they needed to improve their voices, their stage presence and their enthusiasm.  Can’t picture it?  Well, try harder, because that’s Donald Maass.

As Donna pointed out yesterday, what he asked of us wasn’t easy. Imagine answering all of those questions that Donna mentioned yesterday. Picture yourself with your arm around your notebook, trying to hide these horrible, black, internal things from some of the writers you admire most in the world.  Yeah.  That.  All in the first hour.

But after wringing us out emotionally, he had us turn all that over to our characters.  Because, as he so eloquently put it, it’s the emotions that engage us as readers and connect us to the characters.  Why wouldn’t you write from the deepest emotional well you’ve got?

We had a whole day of this.  With a short break for lunch.  Maass fired question after question at us, sparking possibilities and epiphanies with every one.  After a while, I felt like all I could do was write down the questions, because my brain was so mushy I couldn’t even begin to conjure a response.

At some point in the afternoon, Maass suggested the possibility of a scene.  One in which your protagonist is rendered speechless.  I realized quite proudly that I had already done that in Book 2. I sat back, satisfied that I had finally done something right.  But then he asked, “What is the first thing your character says?  And the next?  And the next?” And more possibilities bubbled up.  And then he stopped.

“Imagine your character saying all these things,” he said after a moment. “Now.  Think hard.  Is she saying them to the person she’s supposed to be saying them to?”


“Why not?”

Because he’s not there.

“Is he not there?  Why not?  And if not, can he be there?”


So much for my self-satisfaction.  But when I picture the scene now, it seems more complete.  And makes the subsequent scenes more complete.  I just have to write it.

Donald Maass demands nothing less than the hardest work from the writers he reaches out to.  Yes, a little like Simon Cowell.  But nicer.  And more inspiring.

I have a lot of work ahead of me in my revision of Book 2.  But what I learned from Donald Maass, James Scott Bell and Christopher Vogler will only serve to make it better.  And Book 3.  And, if I am so lucky, all the books that follow. 

I had already read the books.  And some of what I heard in Texas was repetition of what I’d already read.  But that didn’t matter.  I learned it a different way.  I will apply it with a different mindset.  We, as writers, are never finished learning our craft.  There is always something we can do to improve, to change things up a little, to add beauty and strength and that special quality that compels a reader to turn the page.  Finish the chapter.  Reach the end. 

And ask for more.


I can't wait to read the books and see how you applied the new tools! And the old tools.

Wish I could have been in Texas with y'all. (Yeah, I did that on purpose. I'm a dork.)

Oh. Um. For the record, I don't think all people in Texas say "y'all." Sorry, Texas, if it sounded that way. Like I said. I'm a dork.

You capture that day...no, the weekend...perfectly. Great post!

Thanks, y'all! Hey, look, Beth, I'm a dork, too.

Beth, as a Texan born and raised, y'all can be dorks anytime :)

Katherine, Donna. Thank you. We could start a blog and call it the YA('ll) Dorks.

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