Story Engineering: Mastering The Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing

Released by Writers Digest Books, February 24, 2011

4.5 Stars on Amazon. 120+ Reviews

Click HERE to read what other noted authors are saying about Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing, by Larry Brooks.

Want a little taste?

Read the Opening Pages below (copyright Larry Brooks, 2011):

Introduction

As a bit of a practicing cynic – due to actually having worked in this business – I’ve found myself asking if the world really needs another book about writing. Another how-to from an author who, frankly and obviously, isn’t exactly a household name. A quick Google reveals there are 2,910,000 available resources on the subject (it also shows 1,660,000 hits on my name, but I’m not kidding myself), many of which I suspect are books. Maybe 2,910,001 won’t make that much difference.

Unless, perhaps, it offers something original, fresh and powerful for writers who are tired of hearing the same old thing delivered in the same old inaccessible way.

I understand guys like Dean Koontz and David Morrell and Stephen King doing it; chances are (here’s that cynic) their publishers suggested it, hoping to cash in on the author’s name. But then I remember, having read a bunch of them myself, that never once have I found a writing book or workshop that cuts to the core issues of the craft in a clear and accessible way, that actually delivers a development model and process based on accepted criteria for effective storytelling. Most teachers eagerly tell you what needs to be done, but few offer anything about how you get it done, step-by-excruciating-ecstatic-step. Mostly they’re about theories, all valid, while delivering less than precise advice. Even Stephen King, an author who I respect, suggests in his book On Writing that once you stumble upon the seed of an idea, you should just sit down and start writing. Yeah, just take off with it and see where it takes you.

Well, I know where that approach takes you: back to the drawing board. Talk about a recipe for a rewrite. Unless you are a master of the form, function and criteria for successful storytelling – and he certainly is – this is a doomed and frankly insane way to begin your story. And yet, it is the default approach for nearly every new writer and a startling percentage of famous ones. But there are so many things wrong with King’s advice that it requires an entire book to counter them. If you’ve tried it, and you remain unpublished – or worse, unfinished – perhaps you already know why.  Mr. King suggesting this as a process is like Tiger Woods recommending that you learn the game golf – and remember, in this metaphor we’re talking about the goal of becoming a professional golfer, because being published is absolutely entering the professional ranks of writers – by picking up a club and just swinging. Good luck with that.

Here’s why it’s insane: those professionals who just start writing their stories from an initial idea do so using an informed sensibility about, and working knowledge of , story architecture.  It pours out of their head in the right order, with specific structural milestones in place.  Newer writers?  Not so much.  It pours out of their head and basically spills all over the place.

Once you get your head around story architecture and the underlying criteria of it, then you, too, can just sit down and start writing  But until then… well, like I said, it’s an insane way to discover your story.

Without the right knowledge, without mastering a formidable list of basics that is rarely talked about coherently, most of us end up being hacks with a dream that never materializes. But the knowledge is out there. In fact it’s here, right in your hands.

Interestingly, there are many books from the screenwriting world that do just what most novel-writing books don’t – they show you what to write, when to write it, what follows what, what should go be where, and why, and the criteria for ensuring your creative choices are effective ones. In other words, how to get it done. A blueprint and a process for something that is overwhelmingly considered – especially by those big name authors – to be a craft that defies blueprinting.

I assure you, they are wrong.

So is this a screenwriting book? It absolutely is if you’re a screenwriter. But it’s intended to apply those same storytelling principles – carefully adapted, revised, reshaped and put into non-screenwriting language – for novelists who heretofore haven’t benefited from the rigid rules of structure and character that apply to screenwriting. Rules, by the way, that actually set screenwriters free to create efficiently, while we novelists are destined to wander a vast landscape of creative choice without the benefit of a single road sign or map. It is that lack of form, function and criteria that makes writing and publishing a good novel so elusive.

Until now.

This book is for writers who have taken all the workshops (or not; it’s also for those who are on Day 1 of their writing journey… you may get to skip the years of pain the rest of us have invested), read all the how-to books and still don’t understand what’s wrong with their writing, and why it doesn’t attract an agent or sell to a publisher.

Don’t get me wrong, writing a great novel will always be hard, even if you do this way. But for different reasons than before, reasons that nobody can help you conquer or understand but you. Because even if you had the same expert instruction and training as Tiger Woods, chances are you’d still find yourself, at best, vying for the club championship instead of a tour card. Such is the quest for greatness regardless of the game.

This book is the culmination of twenty years of developing and teaching writing workshops, as well as writing novels and screenplays. The process model here is original and completely of my own creation – The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling – yet based on the sum total of everything out there we know about what makes fiction work. Will you have heard some of this before? Certainly, the truth is the truth, I didn’t invent it. Have you seen it presented, organized and put into a context for novelists that suddenly makes the process this clear and accessible? That’s for you to decide, but I’m betting you haven’t.

Now, before you assign that last paragraph to ego, let me tell you why I’m really writing this book. Thousands of people have taken my writing workshops, and not a single attendee has told me the big picture of what I teach doesn’t seem viable. Some pick at a few nits, more than a few arrive with grave doubts, but most leave as excited believers, albeit a bit shocked. Even if you only apply a fraction of this – and frankly, you’ll end up doing it your own way anyhow – you’ll be more efficient and effective as a storyteller. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me – and this is the highest praise I can imagine hearing after a workshop – that this is the best thing they’ve ever heard about writing, even after up to thirty years of workshops, and why the hell hasn’t anyone put it together like this in the past? “Why don’t you write this stuff as a book?” I get that a lot. When you regularly hear such feedback, you begin to believe that there is something of value here for writers who are looking to quantify, analyze, calculate and blueprint the writing muse, and do it without the slightest compromise to their creativity or the childlike delight that comes from making up stories and writing them down.

Also, after years of reading and critiquing unpublished and rejected manuscripts from aspiring writers, I began to see patterns in what those stories lacked. Those patterns aligned perfectly with the Six Core Competencies model, which validated this approach as a viable and perhaps groundbreaking process for writing a novel, as well as writing a screenplay, a play or even a short story. One you are about to experience.

So let the journey begin. Open your mind and park your doubt (and your cynicism) until you find yourself in the thick of this, which not only shows you how to approach the craft of storytelling, but why traditional, random, organic, non-structured approaches are at best chaotic and inefficient, and more likely, ineffective. There is no getting around this truth – successful books written in an organic fashion (like King’s) end up covering the exact same ground, meeting the same precise criteria and eliciting the same enthusiastic reader response as successful books written my way. It’s just that the organic writers are in for a very long, often painful haul, and have absolutely no chance whatsoever of publishing their work without extensive rewrites. And even then, they have to return to the basic criteria in those rewrites to stand a chance.

Unless, of course, you are Stephen King or Tiger Woods. Every avocation has its superstar prodigies, those to whom the work comes easy and the fruits arrive plentifully. The rest of us need a little help.

The Six Core Competencies approach starts with the criteria and the architecture of storytelling and uses it as the basis for narrative. Organic writing starts with narrative and an idea — not necessarily in that order — and uses them as a process to discover (or stumble upon, sometimes by omission) the criteria and the architecture. Either way, you can get there. Or not – which is the definition of an unpublished novel. But some people like to walk, while others like to fly.

Oh, one more thing. You should know that my first published novel, DARKNESS BOUND, sold to a major New York publisher on the very first submission, with virtually no changes or rewrites required, and that it went on to be a USA Today bestseller. How? Certainly not because I’m the next Stephen King, a fact history has proven to be true. Rather, because it was designed and written according to the principles of The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling. And it took only eight weeks to write. I’m just sayin’.

~~~~

Interview with Joanna Penn about Story Engineering

To order STORY ENGINEERING: MASTERING THE SIX CORE COMPETENCIES OF SUCCESSFUL WRITING via Amazon.com…

84 Responses to Story Engineering: Mastering The Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing

  1. Phil

    I’m going through a phase of reading screenwriting books. Presently reading Kal Bashir’s excellent 2000+ stage Hero’s Journey And Transformation Through A New World / State, which is engrossing. Will read yours afterwards and compare. Like the new website design.

  2. Hey Larry, love your book & website! Has helped me so much cuz I can’t plot my way out of a paper bag. I drew up a graphical representation of how I see the layout and am using it in my novels and my writing classes. My students go “aha!” when they see it. You’ve nailed it and thank you so much for your insight. Keep it up, I’m still ironing out the details in my novels and learning as I read and reread your book. Thanks so much, Alley.

  3. @Alley — good to hear, and thanks for the kind words. I’ll keep going if you will, who knows where this’ll lead us. Thanks again — L.

  4. terrific interview. love the clarity. got so much from it and can’t wait to receive “story engineering” in the mail :) thank you!

    :)
    jeanne

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  9. I’ve found Joanna’s podcasts to be right on the money, as a new novelist. This interview with Larry caught my attention when I discovered his website this evening, after viewing the movie “The Help”. His approach to deconstructing the novel the movie was based on is where I’m headed next on Storyfix, just as soon as I finish writing this post. I’ve seen the “Story Engineering” book for sale at several websites. Now, I know to purchase a copy for my collection. I engineered my first novel “Ramon” around the principles of mythic structure Christopher Vogler addresses in “The Writer’s Journey”. Before I begin my next novel, I plan to study Larry’s approach to “Story Engineering” to “optimize” each scene. I could totally relate to the points he made in this interview–very meaty analysis and processing of story structure prior to fleshing out a new novel. Larry, thanks for sharing your experience and insight for writers who want to play the game at the pro level.

  10. Christine Lind

    Larry,

    I have to write and tell you what Story Engineering means to me. I’m a novice writer (I hate that phrase) and I’ve taken many classes on writing. INSTINCTIVELY I knew I had to structure my stories. I did a good job, though, with drafting – but it takes an entire ream of paper to get to it! I just knew there had to be a way to structure professionally (not just an outline on cards either).

    So I’m sitting at my computer and an email pops up from Writers Digest. It reads: Engineer Your Story. And I FOUND YOU. Saints be praised and thank you Lord! There is answered prayer!

    You have given me the instruction that I need to do what I already knew inside. None of my classes taught me this (and so I did it myself – alone, thinking this is how a novice has to do it – thinking maybe some day I’ll be a professional and not have to try and structure on large pieces of art paper so I could visually see my story! -not knowing what else to do – full of shame that I had to structure my stories!). I even wrote on a chalk board for one short story so I wouldn’t go insane.

    One question: Does this come in a manual type of book with papers I could tear out, etc? I have downloaded the book, and I need something tactile to work with. I could buy the book, but that’s still too small.

    God bless you – and thank you, thank you, thank you. I think I now have a chance of winning the lottery. Not with luck, but with skill and structure.

    PS. My husband builds high-end (there’s architecture with these kind of houses) homes, and maybe that’s how I knew my story needed structure. Or maybe I’m just talented.

    Christine Lind

  11. Alberto

    Good stuff, Larry. Love the analogies, this book is brilliant. Looking forward to your next one, “In Search of Story”. Keep doing what you’re doing, it’s all good.

  12. Gisele Thomson

    Hello — I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for taking the time to think through and put together the book “Story Engineering”. Loving writing since I was young, but redirected to the business of adult learning for all kinds of reasons (e.g., feed my family, lack of confidence), and now returning to writing, I’ve been seeking out strategies and approaches to help me accelerate my learning and production. I wanted to avoid spending five years or so spinning drafts to just get the hang of the craft. I don’t have that kind of time to spend. Four kids to feed. An overdue, and much delayed start to the business of writing. Other goals and priorities, as well. The principles you discuss resonate with me, and I enjoyed your cajoling humor to shake up the reader that pantsing is the long way to blueprinting. And your promise of minor draft edits is very compelling, assuming one sticks to the competencies you discussed. Thank God I don’t have to go that route anymore!!!

    Where your approach resonates with me in particular is related to my experience with the framework of instructional design principles in the training world, also known as ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, Evaluation). These are key phases to iterate through when designing learning solutions/interventions to address an organization’s performance issues. In a lot of ways, the six competencies you present remind me of this ADDIE framework – something to guide me and hang my work around, to guide me to more efficiently produce effective, on-target products. And just as it is with the learning business, developing classroom, e-learning, blended learning or whatever else learning solution, further study of specific techniques and skills is required to execute on the specifics of those products. And so, in this sense, my growing library of technical books on scene writing, dialogue, character development, etc, are not a loss, but rather a gain to help me master the finer elements within this larger framework.

    I have found other authors helpful along the way (Truby, Maass, Kress, Bickman), but I really appreciate the simplicity and pragmatism of the model you espouse – especially with respect to the four parts, and their distinct roles. This has made a significant difference in helping me get my blueprint written down. I’m not quite ready yet to launch the writing phase of my work yet, but I feel that reading your book has saved me a great deal of time in the long run. I look forward to continuing to apply it, bit by bit, as I continue to work through my prep work.

    Sincerely, Gisèle Thomson

  13. tom

    Dear Larry
    I am currently reading “The writer’s journey” and your “Story Engineering”. On page 6 of “The writer’s journey” is a comparison sheet mapping the writer’s journey with Campbell’s “The hero with a thousand faces”.
    Question: Do you have a comparison available how your 4 parts and major milestones map to the 17 stages of the monomyth?
    many thanks in advance
    cheers
    Tom

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  15. Bubba Joe Aintwright

    You got the shit, man. :-) Where I come from, that’s one of the highest compliments you can get or give.

    Your book, “Story Engineering,” is helping me make the transition from song parodies to fiction. Before I could ever write a good song parody, I had to learn lyric structure–so I know the importance of structure in writing. And I was struggling with fiction (story) structure until I found your book. A true Godsend indeed!

    Thank you, Larry. You have made a difference in this writer’s life.

    Bubba Joe :-)

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  17. Kerry Boytzun

    Great book, Larry! As for someone trained in NLP (think Tony Robbins) and such, the way you look at story & character fits into the inner psychology of an individual.

    I suspect that MUCH of a “Panster’s” resistance to your book comes subconsciously–as a warning that one reading it will have to face their own issues (3 dimensions of character; one’s own “Story” or LACK of in their personal life). Lots of people talk a good game about their own issues but don’t change diddly squat about their life (3rd character dimension). Nor has their life story ever been taken control of–hence they’re still sitting back from where they started after school graduation endless years later. Panster’s live their life without inner focus on their specific issues–and how they’re really to blame for their decisions or lack of them. We all get dealt our cards, and how we decide to play them–or not–makes our life worth living…or not.

    I’m not finished your book yet, but am wondering if you or anyone has made any diagrams or pictures of these 6 core competencies. As in some kind of project management flow-chart. People learn well with visual diagrams that show, for example, character development or character arc running parallel with story structure. If nobody has written one of these, then I will draw up my own. Keeps me on track and something to throw the darts at.

    Mind Mapping applications are free and can create this kind of a chart or map. Check out:
    Freeplane (some say better than FreeMind):
    http://freeplane.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

    FreeMind
    http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

    What is mind map:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_map

    Thanks,

    Kerry Boytzun

  18. Heidi

    Hey Larry,

    I am reading your story engineerinh book right now. Just wondering if you have any plans for a companion workbook, similar to “What Color is Your Parachute” from the 80’s? I found your checklist on another site, but there is no room to write in answers.

    Love the book so far! Cheers, Heidi from Canada.

  19. Sebastian

    Hey Larry,

    I found your blog last night, while I was looking for a new TV show to consume. Google listed it in the results because you had posted this article called “Watch and Learn: 10 Television Shows for Writers”. I watched your interview with Joanna Penn because I was curious about your six core competencies. Also because the number reminded me of a contemporary of Alexander the Great and Plato as well as something I learned about ‘tragedy’ in a literature class a few years back.

    So, this morning then, I looked for Aristotle’s Poetics on my bookshelf. And there it was: the six elements of every tragedy (Section I, Part VI). You probably knew that. So, it is more for those people who call your view formulaic. The knowledge is around for over two thousand years, and I think it is great you brought it back to our time.

    I have not read your book, yet, but it is already clear to me why it is so different from so many / (maybe even) all other books out there. With the exception of Aristotle’s Poetics, of course. Even though, I assume, your book is probably much more accessible to most modern readers.

    “Story Engineering” is about the essential nature of writing a story. Who can argue with that? Probably only ‘real’ artists, who just have no place for notions like nature, essence and structure. Thank you so much for this blog, Larry! Great stuff.

    Cheers,

    Sebastian from Germany

  20. Glenn

    Larry,
    Bought the book, Kindle version, and absolutely love it. I’ve got a twin monitor setup and keep your book open on one while I write on the other. Any chance you’re going to put it out for Nook? My co-writer is a Nooker and I need (need) her to read this, if for no other reason than to have concrete definitions of otherwise generic terms (idea, concept, premise, theme) while we banter back and forth on our way to success.
    Thanks of website, too – great stuff.
    Glenn

  21. I carry this book like a talisman. To do planning for nanowrimo, I actually got 4 boxes, real boxes, and started organizing all the pieces of my novel into a box. This book made more sense to me as a writer than just about anything else I had read on structure and organization. And I have read HUNDREDS of books on writing.

  22. Larry,
    Love the website! Looking forward to Story Engineering and Story Physics.

    I may have missed it already…how about some sort of autographed copies
    contest/giveaway?

    Soaking up your content…

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  24. Poll Mak

    Hi Larry

    Thank you for taking the time to write Story Engineering. I purchased the ebook version and slowly making my way through it. There is a lot of thinking about my own writing process and mistakes I make, while reading your book. As an unpublished writer still finding his way/style of writing I find your book most helpful with getting the fundamentals down before starting a story. With all story creations, it makes it easier to know where you are going, why you are going there and of course how to get there, metaphorically speaking.

    Question: Do you have any work sheets that a writer can use to fill out which encompass the six competencies. (Or is that in another book perhaps? I can’t find them.) I am thinking of making my own forms as an outline/guide to make sure my story passes all six competencies as I Plan, Outline and Write.

    Also from the video interview, I think you have a great voice and I would love to purchase the Story Engineering audio book that you are making, so that I can listen to your wisdom over and over. (Steven Pressfield has his writing wisdom Books in Audio. LoL no pressure) I do not think you have an audio book version of Story Engineering, but I will forward a check right now if you are.
    I experience most books in audio, while at the Gym, multitasking and commuting and I have listen to Steven Pressfield books over and over many times soaking up his lessons about Resistance and Turning Pro. Perhaps I could do the same with the Story Engineering Audio book one day.

    Many Thanks and keep writing…

    Kind Regards
    Poll

  25. Perry Hurtt

    Hey Larry, just wanted to take a second to say thanks for Story Engineering. Bought and devoured the book, then went back and studied it. Then devoured it again, studied it again and am now applying it to my mess of a story.

    I’ve been writing my whole life, completely unpublished, never a dime in the coffer due to my writing…and I’ve been strangely OK with that. I just love to write. I’m a Corporate America type so I make my spending money elsewhere. I’m currently working on a novel that I *thought* I was close to finishing until I read your book, damn you all to hell! Now I realize there are a lot of story structure pieces I’ve missed, misplaced, skimmed over or just completely neglected. I’ve put together a beat sheet (based on your recommendation) and am breaking my story into scenes (based on your recommendation) and found that, as mentioned previously, it was a mess. What I have now identified as my First Plot Point came about 5% into the story…in fact, I think it melded with my hook. My first pinch point was about 7%. My Second plot point was at about 80%. The tent poles were not supporting the tent.

    Still, I think the premise and concept are sound. There is a strong theme running through it that is becoming stronger as I flesh it out. The characters are, I think, engaging and interesting. The protagonist’s mission, and the underlying result of that mission, is something most people can relate to and will have a strong interest in. Overall, I think I have a good story there and I just need to erect it with the tent poles in the right places. So, with that thought in mind I wanted to send a big ‘Thanks’ your way for enlightening me (and apparently a lot of others) about the underlying story structure that is obviously critical and yet seemingly never discussed anywhere else.

    Thanks again!

    Perry

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  27. Larry,

    I found Story Engineering just before sending my final manuscript to the publisher, and I’m so glad I did. Your book gave me a helicopter view of storytelling and flew me high above my own work; a vantage point that helped me see in a flash what needed to be done. Based on your advice, I reopened my manuscript and wrote in a more dramatic twist at the first plot point, throwing my main character into danger and chaos at the critical moment. I’m in the process of writing my second novel using Story Engineering extensively, as a builder uses a blueprint.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom. I’m looking forward to reading Story Physics!

    Grant

  28. Varina Suellen Plonski

    Larry,
    I have bookshelf upon bookshelf of books about writing, books I have accumulated over decades while I tried to find the time and energy to actually write something besides song lyrics and poetry. I could happily give them away or use them as supports for more shelves, because I found your Story Engineering book. (Wish I could remember where I saw the reference. It may have been one of the emails I receive from Writer’s Digest…) I went through more than a dozen highlighters and two steno notebooks reading it through and making notes. Your book has already improved my writing a hundredfold, with no exaggeration at all in that statement! Your section on characterization helped me fix so many plot holes and other problems that I never realized were there, and gave me ideas that I would never have thought of otherwise.
    Wish I’d found it before I started writing, but for sure the rewrite will be a lot easier now that I have. I have recommended your book to everyone I know who looks even vaguely interested when I say I’m a writer, and I know I’ll be recommending it more in future. Thank you so much for the clearest explanations and best examples of anything I’ve seen. You are the BEST!

  29. Marlene Anderson

    Larry,
    Purchased Story Engineering and I can’t thank you enough for creating a ‘how to’ manual to get a story on-track. Among the dozen writing books I’ve purchased, yours is at the top of the list for tools that are actually useful. I’ve applied the principles and what a difference it makes. One thing I did not see addressed is how the major plot points occur when there are two protagonists whose stories interweave. They share the first plot point at 25% but circumstances separate them and my story follows separate story lines with individual POV chapters and they finally come together near the end. Presumably the same principles apply yet for two as for one. Yet, I wonder, does a story need to have one dominant protagonist and it’s only the structure of that storyline that you worry about.

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  32. L.J.

    I literally just put down this book, and I’ve learned quite a bit. Story structure was always something that eluded me, and it was a real eye-opener to have the concepts laid out so clearly and unequivocally. The final chapter was inspirational, and I’ll keep both your instructions and your encouragements with me as I keep working on the story inside me.

    That said, I’d like to point out a few parts that I think detracted from the experience, so that you could correct them if you wish for possible future updates of the book. Story Engineering is (deservedly) popular and well-reviewed, and I think it would be worth it to make it even better.

    First, in Chapter 22, you mentioned the movie Thelma & Louise and described the inciting incident of the film as, in part, “two women shoot and kill a guy they’ve met in a bar but who comes on too strong.” I was confused by this passage because my memory was, and I confirmed it with a re-viewing, that the character in question had tried to rape Thelma. This is considerably more than simply coming on too strong, and I think you might have misremembered the movie or misphrased what you intended.

    Second, in Chapter 36 you gave the example of a guy trying to get back the woman who dumped him. I found the way the situation was conceptualized to be disturbing–specifically, that the romantic interest is an antagonist to overcome, and that her disinterest is an antagonistic force. The story example is set up as though her rejection were a personal affront to him rather than the dissolution of a consensual relationship she has every right to leave. Aside from the creepy implications, at least one of my friends found it incomprehensible–why would the protagonist WANT to be with a woman who treated him like a disposable commodity?

    Third, this is a comparatively minor issue but it was frequent enough to be noticeable: There were violations of subject-verb agreement every once in a while, as in the following examples: “New weight and dramatic tension has been added.” (Chapter 34) “Context and dramatic tension … are what makes your scenes work.” (Chapter 40)

    And while I’m at it, in Chapter 6: By “ancestors of Christ” you probably meant “descendants.” Also in this part from Chapter 40, “separate, discreet, yet dramatically connected scenes,” I believe you meant “discrete” and not “discreet.” Although I like the idea of scenes being discreet, no doubt about it.

    So once again, I enjoyed the book and will put your lessons to good use. Thanks for the time and energy you’ve put into it, and I hope my comments will be of use in future editions.

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