Category Archives: turning pro

The Workshop You’ve Been Waiting For… the Workshop You Can’t Afford to Miss

A Personal Invitation to the Ultimate Novel Intensive Workshop—a writing event that will change your life!


Learning to write a story, specifically a novel, is a lot like life. There is all manner of theory, approach and professed truth out there for the taking, with more than a few loud evangelists for each and every point of view.

Success in writing a novel, like success in living a life, depends on and eternally proves just a handful of universal principles, many of which can be spun in multiple ways toward the same outcome.  The Golden Rule, for example, is one of them.  Winners never quit, that’s usually true.  Success is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. With all due respect to Mr. Einstein, that’s not often the case when it comes to writers and their stories.  Because history is littered with – and the hallowed halls of workshops venues are full of – writers who have been willing to work hard for years, even decades, in quest of the holy grail.

Which is… what, precisely? 

In spite of what the latest rash of self-publishing gurus will tell you, there is only one thing a writer has complete control over.  And that, my friends, is your story.  While there are many ways to reach the moment when you write “The End” and pop a beer, just as there are infinite ways to screw it up before you reach that milestone, what happens after that is the very antithesis of a sure thing, no matter what “proven marketing strategy” you sign up for.

So What Does Work?

The upside is this: you can put yourself into good fortune’s way when it comes to being successful as a writer. And the way of doing that is by being in complete control over what appears on your pages.

You need a story that soars. Mediocrity, even when it means you write every bit as well as the author who is signing at your nearest Barnes & Noble, or the piling on to a trend will never get you there.  Ask any breakout author if they were working on the idea that made them famous several years before a single reader heard about it.

What are you working on now . . . how will that play two years from now?  How can you even know if what you’re doing will be competitive, now or then?

From the moment you type “The End” onto a draft that in all likelihood will get rewritten several more times, much of what comes next is totally out of your control.  All the Facebook friends, tweets and blog tours or podcast interviews in the world will not make your book successful if the story itself doesn’t rise to deliver a reading experience that is rare and precious.

And that, dear writing peer, is the hardest thing of all to pull off.

How do you write a story that really works?

Most workshops talk about how to write a novel, which is a discussion that is as much about process as it is anything else. This workshop will teach you what a novel must look like, how it should read – the specific elements and essences and criteria that, when a story works, is there every time.

Writing well is merely a pre-requisite.

Good writing gets rejected every day, by the terabyte full.  But excellent storytelling, that’s a different thing altogether. Rare, yet learnable.  Quantifiable.  Blueprintable.  Repeatable.  Reliable.  And known to and practiced by only a small percentage of writers who, in the truest essence of the phrase, know what the hell they are doing.

I read an interview in last month’s Writer’s Digest Magazine about a bestselling author who says, almost proudly, that she begins each book with the cold fear that she has no idea what she’s doing, or how she did it before, and is certain she cannot do it again.  I read famous authors all the time who literally brag about not having a clue how their story will end as they start writing it, which is no different than a doctor saying they have no idea what an appendix is even as they cut you open to find one.

This is the state of much of the writing conversation out there.  It glorifies ignorance in the name of art, as if the blind grace of a higher power or the thinly guised hubris of being brilliant is the thing that has blessed their story with power and resonance.

Let’s Get Down To The Reality of It.

Are you ready to separate your self from the writing herd?  Then join me, and story planner, Jennifer Blanchard for this unprecedented workshop intensive, that will unmask the mystery of good story telling and set you on the road to being a successful novelist.  Here are the details:

Your Story On Steroids: A 4-Day Novel Development Intensive:

April 3rd through April 7th, at the Benson Hotel in Portland, Oregon. You are guaranteed four days unlike anything you’ve ever attended, that will exceed your highest expectations. Jennifer is, like me, a novelist, a story coach and a blogger in the fiction space. She’s someone who found her writing life irrevocably changed when she first encountered the principles that we will share with you at this workshop.

It won’t be a lecture and it won’t be a yawn, either.  It will be a participative, interactive exercise with you, for you, and all about your current work in progress. I’ll be using real-life examples from known bestsellers and even real-life failures to shine a light upon what works, what doesn’t, and most importantly of all, why.

I rarely get to spend this amount of time teaching a workshop. Your Story on Steroids is going to be like getting a mini MFA, because craft has never been this accessible, this clear and this applicable.  You will walk out of the final session a different writer, an empowered writer, as someone who realizes they are on the other side of ignorance, confusion and blind hope.

This Is The Most Important Workshop You Will Ever Attend.

Are you ready to be the writer who now has a real shot at creating the most powerful thing a writer can claim – a story that really works? If artfully rendering a story in ways that lesser writers will never understand, and few writers ever command is your goal, then this is the workshop you have been waiting for! This is the new and glorious hope for your writing dreams.

One more thing.  Remember those principles of life that apply to writing, as well?  Here’s another one: you have to choose in.

Here’s how: is the sign-up site for this event.

It also offers more specific descriptions of what will be covered.

I hope I get to see you in Portland in April.

Here are a few more reasons to give this serious consideration:

When was the last time you attended a workshop that was truly interactive, allowing you to work 0n – not just listen to some instructor telling you how they did it – YOUR story, in real time, in direct response to prompts and criteria that will take your story to the next level?

When was the last time you attended a workshop that wasn’t just 90 minutes, but 3.5 full days of guided experience across the full spectrum of the story development process?

When was the last time someone explained the full body of thought on structure AND character, regardless of your process?

When was the last time you got to ask anything and everything you need to ask about storytelling, in the company of like-minded writers?

When was the last time you listened to instructors who won’t quit before you have fully and functionally assimilated the information being dispensed?

Go HERE to read more specific reasons you need to join us in Portland in early April.

This is an opportunity to change your writing life.  And that is a priceless outcome.


Filed under turning pro

Beware the Under-Cooked Story Concept

“I see this a lot.”

I’m a little wary of opening with that, but I have to confess, it’s the first thing that keeps popping into my head when I want to address – again – the recurring and story-killing issue of writers using an undercooked “concept” as their opening point of reference for their story.

Story ideas that aren’t really concepts at all.

I write about this issue… a lot.

Because I do see this… a lot.

In fact, I’ve analyzed six story plans in the last 24 hours, and four of them suffer from this conceptual short-selling.  To an extent that the story itself won’t be publishable until the writer understands how they’ve tanked the story before it even gets underway, simply by virtue of trying to write it without a compelling concept.

The Questionnaire I use in my story coaching work asks the writer to define their “concept” in two different ways, and then again, in several more that reference the concept to see how it will actually show up and play out in the story.

Get this wrong, and the story tanks.  Or at best, the drafting process becomes a search for a stronger concept, which, without a vision for an outcome, is a tough way to proceed.  Especially when the writer isn’t even aware that they’ve created this labyrinth of dramatic options, most paths leading nowhere.

Without a strong concept a story becomes episodic. 

An examination of a life through a character.  A look at theme by simply seeing it in various forms.  A shifting focus from one source of dramatic tension to something else entirely, episode by episode, without a baseline core story driven by a conceptual proposition driving it all.

You rarely see these in bookstores.  Almost every published story has a core, conceptually-driven dramatic narrative.  A specific hero’s quest.  And yet, among the unpublished this remains an unspoken benchmark, smothered in reviews that focus on other things and writing teachers who take this for granted in introducing authors to the craft.

It’s so much more fun to talk about writing novels that transport us to other places, explore important issues, live another vivid life.  But that is only one of the six realms of story physics – vicarious experience – leaving five others un-addressed and seamlessly integrated, like the heart beating inside a lovable puppy, to the untrained student eye.

Weekly television shows get away with it.

It’s why they’re called episodes.

Perhaps that’s the seductive problem… we think we can package “The Good Wife” or “Girls” into novel.  A story “about” a woman working in a law firm.  A story of three girls trying to make it in New York.  The “adventures of Carrie in “Sex in the City.”  But you can’t leave it at that.  On TV these character-driven “soft” stories deliver on and pay off on a concept every single week.  If/when they become a full length feature (or a novel), there will be a singular dramatic question driving it.

Rent the “Sex in the City” DVD, you’ll see that Carrie and the girls have a specific mission and quest, a hero’s path, with a specific goal.  A concept.  (Big dumps Carrie as a result of the advice of pals – that’s a specific problem… this isn’t “the adventures of Carrie in New York,” this is a concept, driven by a dramatic question: will Carrie win back the affection of Big before he moves on?)

Episodic storytelling in a novel – the outcome of conceptually under-cooked story ideas – is almost always a deal killer in print.

A Baseline Awareness

I’m blown away at how many writers – beginners and advanced, even published – don’t get what a concept is, and what it means to a story.

Everybody seems to think they have an answer to the question: “What is your story’s concept?”… and yet, what I see are actually more like ideas that have yet to evolve into a concept… themes that are mistaken for a concept… character snapshots that are mistaken for concept.

Too often they are under-cooked.  Writers are describing the stage, without opening a conceptual door to a drama that will unfold upon it.

So let me be clear. 

An “idea” is not inherently a concept.  Not until it transcends the simplicity of a singular arena or theme or character, and moves toward the unspooling of conflict-driven dramatic tension.

Too often the writer answers this instead: “What is your story about?”  That’s not necessarily a concept, either.  Let’s look at a bestseller to help (no pun) illustrate.

What is “The Help” about?

Three African-American maids in the south.  Yes, it is about that.  But is that a concept?  No.  It’s an idea.  A starting point.  Could go anywhere.  And that’s the problem… when a writer begins with something this vague, it often does go anywhere, several places, either at once or in sequence… and the story ends up being about some combination of nothing and everything.  Such stories become an episodic “The Adventures of So-And-So,” which, like any other story, isn’t an effective novel until that becomes much more conceptual.

Racial prejudice in the South.  Yes, it is.  But is that a concept?  No.  Not yet.  This is more theme than concept.   Could be anything, most likely a series of rather unconnected stuff happening to the characters.

A book project between a young and wealthy writer that requires  the participation of the black maids being oppressed by their white employers in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi.  Now this is a concept.  Because it describes more than what the story is about, it opens the door to a dramatic question.


Notice that the first two answers – an idea, and a theme – do not pose a dramatic question.  And that the much stronger answer, the one that really is a concept, does.  “Will Skeeter enlist the help of the maids to finish her book, or will they accept the status quo, thus derailing Skeeters dream and keeping themselves in bondage?”

It’s about, at a conceptual level, Skeeter’s book, her quest… not the theme or the setting.  The themes emerge from that concept.  They almost always do.

And thus, we discover the bar you’re reaching for: what is the dramatic question that naturally and compellingly springs forth from your conceptual starting place?

As an exercise, answer the question right now: what is the concept for your story?

This becomes a powerful acid test for your story concept.  Remember, concept arises from the potential range of the idea… and a dramatic question emerges from that concept.

From there, the dramatic question leads to the definition of a hero’s goal and quest… and in turn to the identification of an obstacle to that quest… and then the stakes of that quest… and then, the sequence of that quest.

No dramatic question, no story.   No conflict arising from it, no stakes… no story.

No conflict-driven hero’s quest, a singular problem to solve and/or goal to strive fore… no story.  It really boils down to that.

Or, if you have a whole list of dramatic questions without priority or hierarchy – the determination of a core story – then you risk an episodic “adventures of…” story model.

And you better be Jonathan Franzen to pull that off.

If you do know the dramatic question and the core story it leads to, because the concept has already put it out there, then you are in conceptual territory.

But if you don’t know… if there are a whole bunch of potential dramatic questions at hand (which puts you at risk of exploring them all, which will almost certainly kill your story through episodic storytelling)… then chances are you are still at Square One, staring at what is really an idea or a theme that is not yet imbued with concept.

And, you’ll either realize now or later, you’re not ready to write the story yet.

Another Acid Test

Ask, in context to your concept: what is my hero’s core story goal… what opposes it… why… and what is at stake?

Don’t be confused, your novel or screenplay can and even should be about multiple facets of the hero’s experience.  But don’t confuse any of it with the core story.  In successful novels there is always a core hero’s quest, something to achieve and/or survive, in the form of a problem to solve, a goal to reach, or some combination of both… with an antagonist (bad guy, or opposing force) blocking that path.

Keep asking the right questions about your concept. 

What dramatic question does it pose?  What hero’s quest emerges from it?  What opposes the hero on that path?  What are the stakes?

A great idea can take you to these.  For some, the writing of drafts is a path toward discovering these answers.  Whatever works for you.

The most important thing is your awareness of these questions, and the ultimate need for answers.

The sooner you know what the concept of your story is, an answer that resides well above and beyond your idea, arena or theme, the closer you’ll be to actually bringing it alive on the page.


Sometimes another set of eyes – schooled eyes – can be just the ticket to help put you over the top on this, perhaps the most important storytelling variable of all.

Click HERE to see if your story concept is at this level yet… or not.

Click HERE to see if the plan for your story’s narrative results in a compelling core story, well told… or not.


Click HERE to see an excerpt from the film “Adaptation” (2002), on this very subject. (WARNING: do NOT click if f-word language offends you.) 








Filed under turning pro