6 Writing Techniques I Learned at Storymasters

davidbrunsToday’s guest is David Bruns, the creator of the sci-fi series The Dream Guild Chronicles and one half of the Two Navy Guys and a Novel blog series about co-writing a military thriller. His latest novel is Weapons of Mass Deception, a story of modern-day nuclear terrorism that could be ripped from today’s headlines. David is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and he served six years as a commissioned officer in the nuclear-powered submarine force. After twenty years in the high-tech private sector, he traded in his frequent flyer cards for a career in writing.

Writer Unboxed is about the craft of fiction and my post is about the craft lessons I learned from attending a StoryMasters workshop. I approached WU first because of your connection with Don Maass. My hope is that other writers will be encouraged to use workshops as a way to hone their writing skills.

Connect with David on his blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

6 Writing Techniques I Learned at Storymasters

Sometimes you just need to jump into the deep end of the pool. Take, for example, my New Year’s writing goal to attend a craft workshop. When the opportunity to attend StoryMasters in February came up on my radar screen, I decided to knock out one of my 2015 goals early in the year.

StoryMasters is a 4-day intensive seminar on the craft of writing co-taught by Chris Vogler, James Scott Bell, and Don Maass, all well-respected teachers in the fiction writing community. 

StoryMasters is a 4-day intensive seminar on the craft of writing co-taught by Chris Vogler, James Scott Bell, and Don Maass, all well-respected teachers in the fiction writing community. Using complementary teaching and story-building techniques, the three “masters” each shared an entire day with us. Here’s a sampling of what I learned.

1. Every scene is a transaction. We’re taught to think of scenes as conflict, but Chris Vogler suggested we approach each scene as a deal. Character A wants something from Character B–how will she get it? Deceit? Bribery? Pleading? Then, as any salesman worth his salt will tell you: when you get to “yes,” end the meeting! Don’t let the scene drag on. Bonus tip: cut the last 2-3 lines from your scene to see if you can also end it with an increased sense of “what happens next?”

2. “A story is a conspiracy to teach a lesson.” I liked this Chris Vogler quote so much it now occupies a spot on my wall. Audiences come for the thrills (the external story), but they stay for the moral lesson (the inner journey). Give the people what they want.

3. The Mirror Moment. A few weeks ago, as I was revising my own novel, I had a character that just would not cooperate. A writer friend read the manuscript and pointed out to me that my character lacked a “turning point.” It was true. I had done some great buildup and resolved things at the end, but completely missed the scene where she faces herself and makes the decision to change. In his book, Write Your Novel From the Middle, James Scott Bell makes the argument that the “mirror moment” Continue Reading »


Boundless: Digital Publishing Roundup – Spring Edition

Photo by Michael Dales

Photo by Michael Dales

For many of us, spring marks a new beginning. A period of reinvention. An opportunity to grow. It seems the same can be said of digital publishing. With e-book sales slowing, publishers are experimenting with new retail channels and digital marketing opportunities, while other key players are transforming their business models in hopes of reaching more readers. Here are the latest developments…

Trains, Planes, and…E-books

Publishers are setting their sights on travelers…

Free Kobo E-books Now Available on Southwest Airplanes

Kobo has teamed up with Southwest Airlines to offer free e-books to travelers who want to read digitally…http://bit.ly/1FqoAl8

HarperCollins Takes Flight with JetBlue Ebook Partnership

Back in November, JetBlue rolled out its new in-flight digital content platform, which came equipped with a selection of samples of twenty best-selling ebooks published by HarperCollins…http://bit.ly/1uBmDWV

Amazon Goes Airborne With JetBlue

Amazon is adding one more advantage to the long list of services it already offers its premium customers. So long as they fly with JetBlue, Amazon Prime members will have unlimited access to the airline’s Wi-Fi, allowing them to stream all the Amazon Prime content available to them – for free. This includes thousands of films and TV shows via Amazon Instant Video, more than one million songs, curated playlists and 500,000 eBooks on Kindle’s Owner’s Lending Library… http://bit.ly/1KVnThU

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The Trap of Your Comfort Zone

Image by Kenny Louie

Image by Kenny Louie

I have been thinking a lot about how our comfort zone — that place that FEELS right — is actually a really dangerous place to dwell if you have a vision to create a meaningful body of work. The ideas I have been exploring with writers and creative professionals is whether you need to place yourself outside your comfort zone on a consistent basis in order to find success.(Though, of course, there is no ONE way to find success.)

The question I am exploring is this: Is your comfort zone a trap?

I’m going to look at this from three different stages of one’s writing career:

  1. Writing
  2. Publishing
  3. Developing an audience

Okay, let’s dig in…

Writing and Comfort

Let’s start with the writing process. This week, I taught a workshop to 5th graders at PS 123 in Harlem on ‘How to become an author.’ We talked about the phases of publishing (more on that below), but first I talked to them about the process of writing.

Me (right) with the students:

The students working:

The first example I gave was the book I am writing, and I showed them my 80,000-word draft, pointing out that it is both:

  • An astounding achievement that required a lot of hard work.
  • Total garbage that still requires months of research, and several more rounds of intense editing, including hiring an outside editor.

When I was at the school a few weeks prior, running a career workshop, one of the teachers pulled me aside afterward and thanked me for talking about the value of the revision process. He said that the kids feel that their first draft is their FINAL draft.

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Flog a Pro: would you turn this bestselling author’s first page?


Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

The challenge: does this narrative compel you to turn the page?

Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—some reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.

A First-page Checklist—Protagonist

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Caveat: a strong first-person voice with the right content can raise powerful story questions and create page turns without doing all of the above. A recent submission worked wonderfully well and didn’t deal with five of the things in the checklist.

This novel was number one on the New York Times trade hardcover fiction bestseller list for May 13, 2015. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Do you think it’s compelling? Reminder: “compelling” is much different than “interesting”—it means that you are irresistibly urged to turn the page by what you’ve read. Following are what would be the first 17 manuscript lines of Chapter 1.

Skye and Henry stood on a corner of Union Square on a fading San Francisco afternoon in early June, the occasional odor of popcorn swirling through, trying to busk up a few dollars. Skye saw the devil go by in his black ’85 T-top, crooked smile, ponytail, twisty little braids in his beard. His skinny blond girlfriend sat beside him, tats running across her bare shoulders like grapevines, front teeth filed to tiny sharp points. Skye turned away, a chill running down her back.

Henry was strumming on a fifty-dollar acoustic guitar he’d bought at a pawnshop. Skye played her harmonica and kept time with a half tambourine strapped to one foot, jangling out into the evening, doing their version of “St. James Infirmary,” Henry banging between chords and struggling through,

“When I die, bury me in a high-top Stetson hat . . .”

He did not sound like any kind of black blues singer from the Mississippi Delta. He sounded like a white punk from Johnson City, Texas, which he was.

• • •

SKYE WAS STOCKY with high cheekbones and green eyes. She wore an earth-colored loose knit wrap over a sixties olive-drab army shirt, corporal’s stripes still on the sleeves, and gray cargo pants over combat boots. Her hair was apricot-colored and tangled, with a scraggly (snip)

My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
Continue Reading »


False Summits–and How to Get to the Top Anyway

harrybinghamToday’s guest is Harry Bingham, the (British) author of the Fiona Griffiths crime series, which has been critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. He also runs a couple of outfits, The Writers’ Workshop & Agent Hunter, that offer a variety of help and advice to new writers. Harry lives in Oxfordshire, England. He’s married and he and his wife are, this summer, expecting their second set of twins. They’re not terrified at all.

I’ve had over a dozen books published by some of the world’s biggest publishers. Some of those experiences have been wonderful, while others have been . . . not so great. I want to help other writers have the best possible experience of publication.

Connect with Harry on his blog and on Twitter.

False Summits–and How to Get to the Top Anyway

If you’ve ever hiked any distance in the mountains, you’ll know how elusive that final summit can feel. The loom of the mountain always shields your view, so your near horizon is filled with a crest which, as you approach, melts away into a new horizon, a new crest, another draining slog upwards. Never mind the actual ascent: that succession of false summits is wearying in itself. An inducement to despair.

If you know anything of what I’m talking about, you’ll also have a good sense of the life of an author. You want to write a novel? OK. That’s a tough gig, but you do what you have to do. You write away until you have a hundred thousand words of half-decent prose. Only then – whoops! – another summit looms. Gotta edit and correct and rewrite, till that half-decent prose becomes almost flawless.

Forewarned is forearmed. It’s important to realise that your job isn’t only about writing, and your job doesn’t finish once you get that book deal.

And then you have to get a literary agent. And then you have to get a publisher. And perhaps, just possibly, you win an advance large enough to mean you don’t also have to haul garbage, or wait tables, or (horrors!) do anything else which is, like, an actual job.

And that has to be it, right? Manuscript, check. Agent, check. Advance, check. Plus, in this fantasy of ours, a big publisher ready to blast you into the stratosphere. No more false summits, surely. This is, this has to be, the very top.

Grumbles in Paradise

Well, yes. In theory. Only it’s no secret that my own experiences with publishers have been somewhat mixed, and you don’t have to hang around with authors for long to realise that plenty of them feel likewise. Indeed, when Jane Friedman and I surveyed more than 800 authors to find out what they thought of the firms that published them, we got a true measure of what authors actually think. Continue Reading »


Bombing Through It


Back in the nineties, before social networking or even blogs had been invented, I belonged to a chat list for published writers.  You carried on a slow conversation with like-minded people by sending e-mails to a central server, which then sent them out to all members of the list.  Tom Clancy, another list member, used to give a piece of advice to writers who were stuck at various stages of the writing process: “Just write the damned book.”

I think of that advice whenever potential clients ask me to read over the first few chapters of their work in progress, to make sure they’re “on the right track.”  They don’t seem to realize that there is no track.  When you write your first draft, you lay the tracks as you go.  As you follow your story, you may find out that a minor character moves to the center of the action, or that a plot twist you’ve been building toward for a hundred pages just won’t work.  Or your story may simply transform into something else as you write it.  In its original draft, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was magical realism, with Simon having genuine mystical visions and sacrificing himself willingly at the end.

The process is a little different if you work from a detailed outline, but not much.  True, you do have an idea of where you’re going when you actually begin writing.  But some of the creativity and surprise – the getting to know the story and characters – that other writers experience with the first draft, you get with the outline.  And no matter how detailed your outline might be, you should still treat it more as a guide than a rulebook.  The actual process of getting the story down on paper has a unique intimacy and particularity.  Stories are organic.  You’ve got to let them grow as you write, even if you’ve already built a trellis.

Still, the problem those clients are looking to me to solve is real — a lot of writers get lost in the middle of their first draft.  One reason may be a lack of confidence and drive.  I find it’s usually second novels that I’m asked to keep on track.  Many writers enter the field because they’re burning to tell a particular story.  But after the first novel is done and they launch into the second one, they often lack the passion for the story that got them through the first novel.  After The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan began and abandoned seven different second novels — at one point breaking out in hives — before writing The Kitchen God’s Wife.

You can also trip up on your first draft by focusing on the mechanics of writing – like the beginning writer who recently complained on the Writer Unboxed Facebook site that, whenever she read a how-to-write book, she felt like she was going about it wrong.  It’s easy to get so obsessed with the technical details – how you’re managing your micro-tension, if you’re giving your readers enough physical description to imagine the scene, whether your antagonist is sufficiently balanced or your dialogue is pithy enough – that you can’t find your story.  You’re like the centipede who was asked which leg she lifted first when she walked – and never walked again.

On the other hand, not having a firm enough grasp of the basic skills of storytelling can also run a first draft into the ground.  If your descriptions are inept, then your locations will never take on reality.  Flaws in your management of point of view can keep your characters from coming to life.  So what you’re writing may feel flabby, impotent, just plain wrong, which makes it hard to keep going.

So how do you thread the needle between being aware of the mechanics of writing and ignoring them enough to focus on your characters? Continue Reading »


Lean Writer, Fat Word Count? Engineering Your Environment for Default Success

fruitIt is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good premise must be in want of a functioning brain with which to execute it. Said brain is best nourished by blood pumped by a healthy heart contained within a healthy body, yes? Unfortunately, we Westerners live in an environment which discourages activity and encourages overeating. Indeed, some have gone so far as it label it “toxic”. The result? More than 70% of us are losing the battle to stay trim and fit.

On WU we’ve had several conversations about staying active and reducing sitting time. (Don’t Take Author Obesity Sitting Down and Becoming a Stand-up Writer.) That’s excellent. Unfortunately, it’s also insufficient. It takes me 15 minutes to consume a grande Carmel Macchiato with soy milk, but 1 hour and 10 minutes of brisk walking to work it off.

In the hierarchy of lifestyle medicine, this is why diet is proclaimed king to exercise’s queen.

Hope for Science-based, Simple Solutions

We all know that diets don’t work. We can talk about the science of this in another post, but willpower is a finite and easily exhausted resource. Turns out it takes as little as 15 minutes of mental effort to diminish the brain’s supply of glucose, thus undermining the part of the brain which weighs the desires of our future self against the present-day temptation.

Nor does it help to frame food choices as a moral decision (i.e. apples = good, chocolate bars = bad). If we do, it’s not long before we:

1) brew an outright home-grown rebellion or
2) deal with the Healthy Halo Effect—having made the morally superior choice to eat a salad, we feel entitled to eat the burger and cookie, thus consuming more calories than we would have otherwise done, all while living in denial about the outcome.

So if white-knuckling doesn’t work, and morality-based decisions backfire, what can move us forward?

If only it was possible to tweak our environment so that healthful food choices could be made by default. If only there was a research team dedicated to disseminating science-based recommendations on how to mindlessly reduce caloric intake on an incremental basis.

Happily, there is such a group. But before we pay them a quick visit, care to take a brief quiz on your food-environment literacy?


  1. The maximum size of my dinner plate should be ___ inches.
  2. Assuming two glasses have the same volumetric capacity, which shape encourages me to pour less liquid: short and wide, or tall and skinny?
  3. What object should be given a prominent place on my kitchen counter?
  4. True or false: When asked to estimate the calories contained within a specific meal, heavy participants are less accurate than their skinnier counterparts?
  5. In a kitchen designed to facilitate slimness, the freezer will be in which position on the fridge: top, side, or bottom?
  6. My fridge should contain no more than ___  juices or soft drinks (diet or regular) or energy drinks in single-serving containers.
  7. On average we control what percent of our family’s nutrition?
  8. What item should be placed in the front center of a breakfast cupboard?
  9. True or false: When it comes to measuring out food portions, food researchers and professional cooks—the experts—are able to compensate for cues like bowl size, spoon size, etc.

What Is in the Drinking Water of Upstate New York?

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It’s Important to Give Back: Q&A with Brenda Novak

brendanovakToday we are excited to have a Q&A with New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Brenda Novak, author of more than fifty books, including This Heart of Mine. A four-time Rita nominee, she has won many awards, including the National Reader’s Choice, the Bookseller’s Best, the Book Buyer’s Best, the Daphne, and the Holt Medallion.

Brenda also runs various fundraisers for diabetes research. To date, she’s raised $2.4 million.

Since my son was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of five, I’ve been compelled to do something to help him and all people who are fighting a similar battle. Every year, I orchestrate a big fundraiser. This year, I’ve curated three box sets, Sweet Dreams, Sweet Talk, and Sweet Seduction, that I’m selling to raise money for research.

Connect with Brenda on her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

It’s Important to Give Back: Q&A with Brenda Novak

Q: How did you come up with the idea—fundraising for diabetes—in the first place? 

A: My youngest son was diagnosed with Type 1 at five years old. When that happened, I knew enough about the disease to realize that he’d need constant care and that care wouldn’t be comfortable for him. But I didn’t realize the number of terrible side effects that go hand-in-hand with this dreaded disease. I don’t think a lot of people are familiar with that aspect (I had a friend tell me, right after he was diagnosed, that it wouldn’t be a big deal—I just had to give him insulin). Once I knew what my son was up against, I decided I was going to do all I could to protect him—to fight back in an effort to improve my son’s life and the lives of all those who are suffering as he is. So for ten years I ran Brenda Novak’s Annual Online Auction for Diabetes Research at brendanovak.com, through which I raised (with the help of all those who supported me) $2.4 million. 

Q: What made you turn the focus from an auction to a book sale?

A: With nearly 2,000 items being auctioned off every year, my annual auctions were big events. They had a lot of moving parts and required a great deal of coordination—not to mention that it wasn’t always easy to go back to my friends and associates, year after year, to ask them to donate an item I could put up for bid. Now that the digital age has come into its own, other options—options that require much less time yet have just as much or more potential—are now available to me.

Q: You decided on boxed sets—three of them. What was your thinking behind this choice? Continue Reading »


Awesome Combo! The 10 Keys to Writing Killer Fight Scenes

HfHWarning: Hacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.

Story is driven by conflict and action. This, of course, does not necessarily mean fisticuffs and car chases. But it should. If books weren’t meant to have lots of violence, then they wouldn’t have coined such a high-fallutin’ literary word like “defenestrate” to mean “chuck somebody out a window.” Here are the steps you’ll need to add some punch to your fight scenes.

Wisecracks are standard in the curricula in most martial arts, so make sure your character uses them when showing off what she’s learned.

Before We Begin

First, how about giving me a high-five for that “add some punch” segue right there? Was that on point or what?

Get Fired Up!

To write a proper fight scene, you need to be in a fightin’ frame of mind. Queue up Guile’s Theme from Street Fighter II to set the mood. (Side note: I’m listening to Guile’s Theme as I write this column. It’s the soundtrack to everything I write. Sonic boom!)


Those three months of karate you took after school in fifth grade are finally about to pay off! Learning a martial art is the culmination of years of practice, discipline, and hard work. If you had that kind of work ethic, you’d have already finished writing this book by now. When it comes to turning your hero into a martial artiste, here are some basics:

  • Wisecracks are standard in the curricula in most martial arts, so make sure your character uses them when showing off what she’s learned.
  • When in doubt, just imply that your hero knows ALL martial arts. How or where your hero found the time to learn them all while getting straight As in school, raising her kid brother by herself, and inventing a time machine is beside the point.
  • If you don’t know enough details about any particular martial art, just make up your own. The Spinny Flip Kick is a common move for a black belt in flip fighting. That’s the martial art my characters use in my WIP, Flip Fighting.

Continue Reading »


The Dreaded Training Debate: What If It Can’t Be Taught?

Image - iStockphoto: User2547783c_812

Image – iStockphoto: User2547783c_812

No, this is not about talent vs. skill.

Let’s just set that aside for today, shall we? There’s no need to engage the ineffable this time.

“Like toadstools,” one seasoned observer called it in a note to me recently — this sudden proliferation of “author services,” especially the ones there to teach you, instruct you, train you. They’re everywhere, these kitchen-sink companies, and many of them seem to be peddling (or claiming they do) parts of the job we’re not even sure can be taught.

Provocations image by Liam Walsh

Provocations image by Liam Walsh

Today’s provocation is about this booming industry on all sides of us. And about expectations in a tight market. Expectations that it can all be learned.

It’s prompted by a recent column at The Bookseller in London from the literary agent who writes for us there from time to time as “Agent Orange.” As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not fond of this use of a pseudonym. But I have verified that this is a prominent, working agent on the UK scene. We’ve spoken about this. And he or she writes (very well) under that pen name because she or he fears retaliation. The industry might strike back.

In Vanity fair?, Agent Orange is, as usual, supportive of writers. (After all, the job is to advocate, negotiate, and agitate for them, he or she is a literary agent.) But those many, damp-eyed, Kleenex-clutching “never been a better time to be a writer!” people among us — and they do love that exclamation point — might be heard gasping with alarm at Agent Orange’s opener:

On the face of it, it is paradoxical that while it’s never been easier for authors to get their books into print, there has never been a worse time to be an author.

The explanation for what she or he means:

Author earnings are down and the number of writers able to make a living out of their work is at an all-time low. But perhaps that is because there have never been so many people making money off writers.

There has never been a worse time to be an author. — Agent Orange

Granted, there are opposing viewpoints we respect here. Hugh Howey and “Data Guy,” for example, have issued their sixth quarterly Author Earnings report. They’re focused on proving that a career in self-published ebooks is viable, remember. And they again see what they interpret as ample evidence to support their promotion of this route as a worthwhile alternative to traditional publishing, writing:

What does this report show? Higher ebook prices from publishers continue to erode their market share of ebook sales. Drastically. When you read industry reports on the health of ebook sales, keep in mind that these reports are discussing a mere 14% of the ebooks that show up on Amazon’s bestseller lists. That’s it. Indie ebooks account for 26%. Daily unit sales of self-published titles are now greater than the Big 5 publishers, combined. And indie authors are taking home more earnings from readers every day than those same authors, combined.

Some of us, however, are detecting a tonal shift in the independent sector’s palaver overall. Continue Reading »