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S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013


"Sometimes the story tells you what it's about." -Christopher Volger

I attended a transformative writing workshop called Story Masters last week, given by Christopher Vogler, Donald Maass, and James Scott Bell. If you were following my Facebook posts, you would think I was on some kind of intense, mystical retreat for four days. 

You would not be wrong.

These master storytellers and teachers make their money from their workshops and books (as well as their writing/agenting/screenwriting/general awesomeness), so I'm not going to detail the things that I learned in the workshop. Instead, I'm going to give away some of the Story Gods' works and write about the impact these workshop had on me, my story, and my emotional state.

Emotional Wrenching
There was tremendous utility in the practical storytelling techniques and tools the Story Masters presented (all of which you'll find in their various books - some I'm giving away, but you should really add all of their works to your library). But 
Chris, Don, and JSB (yes, he gets initials; that's just how I think of him) don't just complement each other in their presentations - they clearly enjoy working together, playing off each other, and bring an incredibly warm energy to the room that allows you to open up and reach inside for all that story potential just waiting to come out.

Which is precisely their intention. This isn't a dry lecture or a team of Story Gods laying down the divine command from above. These Story Shaman are intent on helping you break down your resistance and tap into your personal power as a storyteller. And looking around the room, I was far from the only one crying, laughing, gasping, and generally having OhMyFreakingGod breakthroughs.

It was practically a story revivalist meeting.

(I exaggerate. But only because conveying the energy of the experience is challenging my powers of evocation.)

A Love Letter to My Novel
The moment JSB announced this exercise, I knew I was in trouble. Because the story I was working on was already causing great tides of emotion in me... and that was before I showed up at the workshop. But I wanted to share, just to give you a feel of the mood in that room:

Dear Legacy,
You are brave for the topics you tackle. You shine with an honest, aching heart, showing the world your naked pain and ambition and love. You win my heart with that stuff! You make me want to help you grow - to be the best novel you can be. One worthy of all your best ambitions and your truly, deeply, good heart. Love, Me

And then, as if that wasn't mush enough, he asked us to write our novel's love letter to us...

Dear Sue,
I really wish you would take the time to make me rich with all those details that are awesome. Make me better than that other novel you wrote. Make people love me. I want to be the kind of novel that changes people's hearts, moves their minds, and makes them horrified and fascinated and trembling with thoughts of the future. Love, Legacy

Shields Are Down, Captain!
That was just a tiny sample of the emotional stuff that would wrench a better story out of us. 

The thing that surprised me most was how little resistance I had to the entire process. As if my emotional shields were down, and I was taking friendly fire with not so much as a flak jacket. I sensed a lot more resistance in some of my compatriots, especially my writer-friends not so far along in their journeys. It was fascinating, because I saw my earlier-writer-self in their looks of panic and angst and "wait... what? I can't do that!" moments. 

In the past, when breakthroughs pounded on my head, wanting to bang their way in, I'd fought them every step of the way. Whereas now, I was open and excited and sweeping in the new ideas. Still, there was one tiny moment when Resistance came to visit. These are my notes during that exercise:
I'M FEELING RESISTANCE. I'm having a hard time picturing this.

Even in the midst of the Resistance Assault, I was able to identify it as such. Examine it for a moment. Next in my notes came Donald Maass' words...

When you're stuck it means you're close to a breakthrough. 

Those words  - GO THERE -  were the magic that unstuck me. Because I knew every word he was saying was true. The next lines in my notes were some breakthrough ones, the kind that will bring a whole new level of depth to that part of my story.

As we finished up the exercise and took a break, one of my new writer-friends turned to me and said, "How are you feeling about this idea? The one where he's saying our character has to think and say and do the one thing she would never do?"

I'm still bouncing in my seat with the enervation of reaching the other side of the Resistance. "It's fantastic, isn't it? Brilliant. Totally blows the whole thing wide open..." Only then do I break through the happy fog to realize my exuberance is just amping up her anxiety. "How do you feel about it?" I ask.

"Well, I can't see how my character would ever do that, you know? I mean, it goes against everything she believes in. She's really strong and has a tremendous sense of justice and..."

I stop her. "Of course. She's a great character! Otherwise, you wouldn't love her, right?"

She nods.

"But there has to be some small moment, when she's really low, where she just has a moment of weakness. Is there some point like that in the novel? Some scene where she's just at her absolute lowest?"

She nods again. Still frowning.

"What if, in her darkest moment," I say, "just for that small amount of time, she's tempted to chuck it all and say to hell with it... that doesn't make her bad. It simply makes her human. Someone we can understand. Maybe she doesn't go through with it. Maybe something triggers her, reminds her of her true, deep, core values. And she pulls back, doubles down, and is even more committed to her cause."

Her eyes are wide and she's nodding. (Note: I know nothing about her story. I'm totally making all of this up.)

"She's gone to that dark place because she's human and vulnerable... and we love her even more when she comes out the other side, even more righteous and sure. Because she can't be that sure, unless she's faced her doubts and conquered them. Right?"

Suddenly she looks relieved, and I know that look. I know that feeling. It's the one you get when you were afraid your story was hopelessly broken, but you battled through the Resistance, took a leap of faith... and found your way to the other side, where your story was even stronger than before.

Just like your protagonist.

Art is Life. Life is Art.

And now you can win the tools to be the architect of your own transformation below...

Open Internationally!*

*wherever Book Depository ships for free, may incur local tariffs for international shipping


  1. I signed up to win them, but I may go buy the new books by Maass and JLB... I mean seriously? How could you not? :) Glad you had such an awesome experience. This is definitely on my to-do list!!

  2. Sounds amazing, Sue! Thanks for the opportunity to win these books. At least 2 out of 3 of them are on my wishlist already. :)

  3. Great giveaway. I have none of these books. I swear by Maass and Bells as it is and recommend them all the time.I have some of their older books on writing.

    Glad you enjoyed the course. I've always wondered about Story Masters. I took a master class with D. Maass at a writing conference. He does a great presentation, so it must have been great with 3 of these guys.

  4. Awesome. You definitely have to take your characters to the edge and sometimes beyond to get a truly dynamic story. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. A truly timely post for me! I read it just before my writing session this morning, and found myself seeing places in my draft where I had played it safe, not pushing the boundaries for my story and my characters. Remedying that immediately...

  6. You are enabling my writing book addiction. This is a good thing.

  7. You're just killing me! Not being able to go at the last minute was terrible. :( I'm so glad you had a great experience there.

  8. Oh man that sounds like a writer's dream spa of creativity. I really need to get to one of those. I've read some of their books over and over and have breakthrus every time. Just brill!