Monthly Archives: September 2011

Why My Workshops are “Slightly Disturbing”

Sometimes the universe backhands us into paying attention.  When it doesn’t dislocate a jaw, that’s a good thing.  More than most, writers need to pay attention to stuff like this.

Especially when you recognize truth in the sting.

This morning a valued reader asked me if I was okay.  He noticed that my “voice” was a bit limp lately.  I have to agree.  The rant that defines me has been muted lately.

Maybe I’m overbooked. 

I have five active freelance projects – as in, for pay – that compete with my Storyfix mindshare and challenge my focus, which in order to eat I must divide equally.

Maybe I’m temporarily dry.  Five hundred-plus posts, four writing books and a few thousand one-off emails and critiques in 27 months tend to bleed the available blood from one’s forehead.

It could be that when I write about what I sell – my coaching, my books, the new Storyfix Peer Review page, my workshops – rather than simply gushing out for free what I believe to be true and urgent about craft, I get just a little timid. 

I know why, too.  Because I hate hubris.  And I sometimes stand accused.    

Notice I used the word urgent just now.

I’m referring to the tools and liberating truths that await the hungry writer.  To the casting aside of misunderstanding, time-wasting, naivete, outdated modalities, wheel-spinning and comfort zones that hold us back.

So many reject the prevailing and proven universal storytelling truths, some because they don’t fully understand them, some because they challenge their existing writing paradigms.  The soft-edged, muse-driven, brandy and a crackling fire sensibility of it all, which feels good and romantic and is the way some of your favorite writers describe what they do.

Bullshit.  They’re as confused and clueless and scared and then, when it finally works, gratified and stoked as the rest of us.  There’s a reason so many authors disappear after one success (three words: Oprah Book Club), or “wait” a decade before another book bearing their name comes along.

They didn’t walk away.  They didn’t take a 10-year vacation.  They disappear because writing an effective, commercially-viable, artistically-worthy, reader enticing story is freaking hard.  And the publishing end – either traditionally or via the new digital venues – is a stacked house of cards that defies all odds and logic.

Those warm fuzzy paradigms may or may not be working.  Either way, it’s imperative that our limiting beliefs are thrown into the abyss of our naïveté.  Hence, my urgency when I write about them.

And sometimes I have to rant, to stand up and yell, to make that point.

This isn’t planners versus pantsers.  Write your story however you need to write it.  But don’t turn a blind eye to what’s true about the story itself, however you get there.  That’s non-negotiable.

And that’s the point so many writers miss.

Disturbed yet?  I hope so.

It’s not hubris.  It’s passion. 

For storytelling.  For enlightened, empowered process.  For excellence.  Mine and yours.   

This difference is this: with hubris the energy is inward focused, seeking validation.  With passion it pours out with hope, sometimes doused in flames, sometimes smoldering in a quiet, intimate truth.

I did a radio interview yesterday to help promote a workshop I’m giving this weekend. 

The host, who had done his homework, asked why I refer to my workshops as slightly disturbing.   Which I do.  Proudly.  Accurately.

Because I’m passionate about this stuff.

If you’ve seen me at a workshop, it’s like an evangelist crossed with an anxious father with a dash of Vince Lombardi turned stand-up comic, all of it whipping the crowd into a creative frenzy like this was a national political convention, minus the self-congratulatory baloney.  Sweat and constant motion and loud volume and repetitive table pounding ensue.

But that’s not the disturbing part

What’s disturbing for some writers is that the craft of writing, in context to a stated desire to do it professionally, is a highly analogous pursuit.  It’s very much like athletics.  It has elements of the arts compromised by the constraints of business.  It requires the discipline of a surgeon and the whimsy of a lyricist.  The boldness of a Michael Connelly and the deft touch of a Jonathan Franzen.

None of that is an accident of muse meeting free time. 

We like to think of writing as something unique, even spiritual, when in fact it runs on the same fuel of relational and karmic and emotional physics that anything else does. 

It’s all just a dance between cause and effect.  Nothing more.  But we get to add the music.

Seeking success in writing by going to a workshop is very much like attending a personal growth seminar. 

At least that’s how I see it, so it’s how I teach it. 

Success – either experientially or in terms of outcome – is very much a product of how one thinks.  How intentions translate into action.  How much one notices and then translates the truths and forces behind human emotion and action into dramatic narrative infused with tension and consequences.

That’s a whole writing seminar in one sentence, by the way.

Thought plus energy plus intention plus discipline and perseverance

That’s the formula.  In writing and in life.

And as such, writing becomes life.

As least for me.  My middle linebacking days are over.  My 97 mph fastball didn’t get me out of the minor leagues.  My career in a suit and tie was a joke.

All because of how I thought at the time.  With writing, applying the lessons of those failures, how I think is now aligned with the things the universe is trying to tell us.  Sometimes with that whack upside the head.

I don’t lay claim to success.  But I wear the uniform of the pursuer.  I’m in the race.

Yeah, we’ll talk about story ideas and dramatic tension and story architecture at my workshops.  We’ll play nice with all the aesthetic nuances of craft and the unconditional patience required when one looks around the room and beholds the diversity of styles, limiting beliefs and experiences that define the group.

That’s part of it, too.  Not everyone is a cage fighter or a lover. 

But sooner or later we’re gonna link this thing called storytelling to the physics of life itself.  We’re gonna push and test boundaries and suggest there are possibilities beyond what your college creative writer teacher or your critique groups or Stephen King in On Writing told you.

Don’t listen to Stephen King, by the way.  He’s way better than the rest of us, and his world view and process paradigm have little to do with our reality.  And, his books pretty much suck lately because, well, they violate the very principles and parameters the rest of us are stuck with.

The disturbing part will call you out. 

If it pushes you back, then perhaps the avocation is bigger than you are.   Maybe your comfort zone is just that.  Maybe a few decades of apprenticeship is your idea of a good time.

Or maybe you just don’t like middle linebackers.

But if it lights you on fire, if that peek behind the curtain of awareness fills your mind with flashing images and the bright light of possibilities, if you can’t wait to get back to a keyboard and see what happens with this newly empowered tool chest and mindset…

… then welcome to writing.  Serious writing.  Welcome to life. 

Step into the fear, embrace the Higher Truths that have been there all along, waiting for you to wake up to them and plug them into your subconscious mind.


My apologies if that disturbs you in the wrong way. 

And my congratulations if you get it.

I am giving four workshops in the next five weeks.  You can read about how to attend two of them at the bottom of the previous post.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

Storyfixing… Explained

Check out the new Peer Review submission from Lake Lopez, the first 5000 words of his novel, “Sinister.”  Who could resist that title?  Please check it out and gift him with your feedback.

If you’d like to post your own work on the Storyfix Peer Review Page, and then stand naked in the harsh light of evaluation from your peers (who feel your pain and your excitement), click HERE.

If you’d like to read and critique other submissions, click HERE.  Please do.  These writers have put it out there, let’s give them a return on their time, money and anxiety.  Because we are them.


This morning I received an email from a Storyfix reader requesting information about my “storyfixing” services.  This is my response, offered here because I’ve made some shifts in emphasis and pricing.  And… I’m available.

I “analyze” stories in all their iterative forms.  Meaning, I read and coach story ideas, summaries, treatments, elevator pitches and outlines… and I also analyze complete manuscripts (drafts).  My fee depends on the length of your submission.  Frankly, the deliverable output from this — my “coaching document” — can be as lengthy for a submitted 20-page treatment as it is for an entire draft of a novel or screenplay, since I’m analyzing and coaching the very same elements within them.  That’s why the fee isn’t mathmatically linear, but rather, the sum of several variables in the process.
In my view, the earlier in the story development this coaching/storyfixing interaction takes place, the better.  It’s more efficient for the writer to find and fix a weakness at the development stage (as in, within a treatment or even at the idea phase) than after it’s all been executed.  Makes sense, right? 

Then again, most people approach me with “finished work.”  That’s a tough one, sometimes, because if they’re “finished” they usually, naturally, think it’s really good, which can mean they’re really looking for affirmation, rather than constructive feedback.  The latter can sting a bit (I try to be gentle, but clear), but it’s what they’re paying for, and it’s what I deliver. 

I also affirm, and joyously so, when I see something well crafted on the page.  I’ve sent several writers directly to the world of agents and publishers because their work was spectacularly ready.
Another thing you should know… I don’t just criticize.  I try to add value. 

I offer up solutions to problems and pitch you on creative alternatives that I believe will make a story better.  Sometimes there’ s a middle ground between the identification of a weakness and simply a better idea (IMO) for that moment or element in the story, and those boundaries tend to blur in the process. 

The whole interaction is like I’ve read the book and we’re sitting over a mocha at Starbucks for an hour so so, kicking ideas and feedback around interactively.
I apply and juxtapose my story development model — “The Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” (also the title of my book) as the standard and benchmark for everything I comment on.  I actually scan for all six core competencies and their component parts to ensure that the story is fully robust.  When one is missing, misused, misplaced or misunderstood, that’s what I call out in my coaching document.  And that’s why the document can get lengthy sometimes. 

I also offer feedback in a less structured way, as well… sometimes all six core competencies can be in place and the story is still flat, so I try to help fix that with fresh and/or evolved creative thinking.  My most rewarding experiences have been when I offer up an idea and it hits home.  Like, “have you considering telling this in first person rather than omnicient third?” and then support the idea with strategic rationale, and have the writer say, “whoa, dude, never thought of that, I see it now… genius!” 

No, not genius, just a process of “optimization.”

That’s the target.  Every story is nothing other than a bucket full of ideas.  Too often they are short-changed, incomplete or not as compelling as they could be. 

The goal is “optimization” as much as it is triage.
I do any type of “storyfixing” in terms of genre, though I will say I’m less enthusiastic about fantasy, science fiction and hard literature (stories that aspire to a Nobel prize, rather than a huge commercial impact).  My favorite projects are thrillers, mysteries, adult contemporary, historical, romance and everything in between. 
I can send you sample “coaching documents” if you’d like.
As for fees… I’m changing my pricing structure.  Frankly, in my effort to make this service accessible in this economy, I’ve been doing it on the cheap, and it’s breaking the bank on this end.  My new pricing is still cheap, compartively, and for the same reason.  For a full manuscript my base fee is $1500 (more if the book exceeds 450 pages).  For treatments I charge by the length, with a base fee of $300, more if the document is longer.  I’m hoping to focus on (attract) the developmental documents (high level concepts, treatments, outlines, etc.), but let me be clear, I’m still in the business of doing whole manuscripts.

Hope this answers your questions.  Let me know if you need further info.

Have a project you want critiqued from a Six Core Competencies point of view?  Let’s talk. 

Are you in a workshop state of mind?

I’m presenting a two-part, one day workshop for the Southern Oregon Willamette Writers on Saturday, October 1, in Medford, Oregon.  Contact Phil Messina for more information at

I’m also doing a massive, slightly disturbing two-day workshop for the Oregon Writers Colony — going deep into the Six Core Competencies story development model — on Oct. 29 and 30.  Click HERE for more info on this one.  There are folks coming in from all over the country for this career-juicing experience, hope you can join us.  Space is limited, so take action soon.


Click HERE to see the online version (with the printer’s pitch… sorry) of my new business card.  Has a new logo design, too, which will soon make its way into the banner for this website.

What it doesn’t show is the back of the card, which is just the logo and my new tagline, which represents my writing, my teaching, my relationships.. and my life:

Mission-driven.  Passion-infused.


Filed under other cool stuff