Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Weekend to Remember

I must confess, sometimes I can be a snob.

The Myth, the Man, the Master
James Scott Bell
Not over silly things, mind you. Well... okay, I can be a coffee snob. But any writer will tell you, coffee is one thing we should not take too lightly. But I digress.

No, I'm talking about being a snob over what I "already" know.

The thing is that if I learned something, if I have experience in the domain, if I feel that I've paid my dues and now I'm a bit of an expert, then I don't want to be treated like a novice. After all, I am an 'expert' now.

I've chronicled my challenge-paved path to writing before, but I think it's worth explaining again. For years (eight to be exact) I fiddled with a manuscript. On-again, off-again, but yes -- eight stinkin' years. And in the end, this manuscript was categorically bad.

It's sobering to admit something like this. But I have always been my best (or worst) critic. Of course, I didn't understand what made it stink. I just knew a bad smell when I sniffed it!

To the rescue: James Scott Bell's book on the craft --  Plot & Structure. I can't properly explain how much it helped me. As I read the pages, I became convinced that he wrote this for me. I had no quota and no goal. Every silly plot twist, flat character, and boring dialogue that you can think of, I was guilty of committing to paper. All of 'em!

So I dove into JSB's book. I like to believe that I became an expert on the material. And the result was that I completed the first draft of Aces in a matter of weeks. 8 years and I produced junk. 12 weeks and I had a complete novel. After I was done revising and editing, I started my second full-length novel, Rocky Peak. Same results.

Therefore I felt like I had it all down. I am the master. "I can probably teach that book," I thought very (very) quietly. Then I saw the posting of the "Seminar" by JSB. In LA, less than 10 miles from me.

Full Disclosure: I thought the seminar was for beginners. NOT me! I got this. I'm D man! What can he possibly team ME?

The reality is that I was struggling with the revisions phase for Rocky Peak. I felt like I was getting close, but something was missing. I couldn't put my finger on what exactly. This is where my snob-like mentality was my biggest obstacle. Once I got off my high-horse, I registered and in that act alone, things started to open up.

Last weekend, June 4th and 5th, I attended Jim's seminar "Novel & Screenplay Intensive." I walk in and there he is. Either he's very tall or I'm really short (okay, keep your opinions to yourself!). And this is when I knew I was in for a great weekend. Jim is a humble man. You would never know that he's a best selling novelist, a talented writer, and an expert teacher of the craft. Because he comes across as if he's still learning, but wants to share what he knows. In the business world -- in the domain of leadership -- we call this type of person a Level-5 leader (as explained in Good to Great by Jim Collins). Mr. Collins says Level-5 Leaders "...display an unusual mix of intense determination and profound humility." This statement personifies James Scott Bell.

A true expert isn't someone that hoards the knowledge, but one who willingly shares the knowledge for the overall improvement of the tribe (in our case, the writing community). And share he did. Some of us at the seminar joked that JSB is like Master Yoda. Although considerably taller, and less green!

One of the wonderful things about seminars is the people you meet. Yes, some were like me: working on getting their first novel published. But then there were others who had already published many novels. These are experts! They make a living writing novels. And they were at the seminar! Learning, taking feverish notes. No, you are never done learning and every novel you write will have its unique challenges. As a writer, I felt transformed and reinvigorated.

The seminar was filled with tools, techniques, and phenomenal examples from novels and movies. What he taught, sunk in. I mean really deep. I can't think of a technique or tool as a theoretical idea anymore. There are examples engrained within me. I do have a very long list of movies that I want to watch now, but that's a personal issue.

I hope that what he taught us will be released in his next craft book because there are nuggets of brilliance there. I don't want to give details about the seminar. So no real spoilers here (okay maybe one!).

At the end of day one, Jim showed us a tool that was worth the price of any seminar, book or on-line workshop he gives. He calls it the "12 Signpost Scenes."

If you've read his Plot & Structure book, or Art of War for Writers, or Revisions & Self-Editing, a lot of the "Scenes" will be familiar. But what he does here is he provides a framework for these critical scenes. The general flow, the main disturbances and "Doorways of No Return" and clearly articulated timeline.

Before you "purists" who write from the seat of your pants get all wound up, this is a simple exercise that helps you identify the big scenes, but just as important, you identify the big GAPS! That's it. You can stop there if you want. But oh, it gets better. I promise you.

I got home that first night and prepared my 3x5 cards for the "12 Signpost Scenes." And you know what? The problem that I faced with Rocky Peak suddenly became clear. There it was! I made that one correction, then the pieces magically started to fall into place. It was magic. It is magic. And Jim Scott Bell is a master magician of the craft.

I am a better writer as a result of this seminar. I have met other great writers. And I am in awe of JSB.

Now, if you don't mind, I have revisions to work on.

Fight the good fight!


  1. JSB *is* very tall, lol. Wonderful post, Ara, and as a confirmed Panster, I can attest that the 12 Signpost scenes are for everybody, plotters and pansters alike. Next time I draft, I will try using them to plan before I begin, something unheard of for me. For the moment - they are doing wonders for my revision. Yep. Magic.

  2. Kerry, thank you for your comment AND confirming that I am not *too* vertically challenged :) It was great to meet you there and be part of the *first* group to receive JSB's new seminar. That makes us fairly awesome, no?

  3. I'm so jealous, I love James Scott Bell. (I also enjoyed Good to Great when I read it a few years ago, thanks for the reminder.) That motivation, reinvigoration, and new ideas is the same reason I attend my annual romance writer conferences. Last year I came home energized and with a lot of new writer friends.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and good luck with Rocky Peak!

  4. Wow! JSB seminar, wish I could have gone. I've read both of his editing books (Plot & Structure and Revision & Self-Editing). They've been re-read more than once and will probably be reviewed again with a new colored highlighter.

    Highlighters, jealousy and editing books aside, I agree that the 12 Signposts are immensely helpful, not only when beginning a novel, but when editing (as sometimes when re-writing you need to pull out the core of the story again).

    Keep up the great posts and good luck editing Rocky Peak! :)

  5. Gwen: Thank you for being jealous of me. For once, I have something that others can be jealous of :) By the way, you are not only attending RWA, but you're also the 2011 Golden Heart Romantic Suspense Finalist! (Did you like how I slid that in there?) One of these years, I'll attend the RWA. I will be one of five men there... if you don't count the security team :) But at least I'll have one friend there!

    Ava: I think our copies of P&S + R&SE are equally worn. I even bought a kindle version of P&S because... well... just because! If he is anywhere near you, be sure to attend. You will walk away with a living-breathing version of the books!

    Thank you both for wishing me luck with Rocky Peak. I am LOVING how the revisions are moving the novel in a new and exciting direction. I hope to be able to share it with you one day.

  6. First of all, I must back you up on being a coffee snob. I'm pretty picky with my orders.

    I understand what you mean, though. I taught for three years and then (unwillingly) had to go to another district. I never thought I was an expert, but I hated being treated like someone who just rolled out of his college graduation. I learned plenty in my three years, and I think I had a good handle on what I was doing.

    HOWEVER, when it comes to writing, I recognize I have and will always have much to learn. Some days, my revisions put me in tears. I know something is missing, but I don't know how to fix it. I don't want to walk away because I feel that fuels procrastination. It's tough. Like you, I'm my own worst critic.

    It's great to hear you had such a positive experience. I definitely think these situations help, as they provide knowledge AND motivation. Sometimes, attending writing events pumps us up to go home and tackle our work - and miraculously, things suddenly click into place.

  7. Thanks, Paul. I think there's power when we realize that we're not alone. We're not the first to struggle, and won't be the last. But more importantly, we see that the breakthrough is there, waiting to be discovered. Little tricks, tips and ideas help bring the solution to the surface. And then in one fantastic moment, you hear the clicking of the gears, and that's when energy, like fuel, runs through the veins. We just got to keep at it. Those who keep their butts in the chair make it through. Thanks again and best of luck!

  8. This is ridiculously inspirational. I'm a really fast writer too (my editor jokes about my "writing binges"). My problem is that I procrastinate wildly between those binges ... but after reading this, I realize that if I committed to putting my butt in the chair, I could have this first draft done so quickly and move on to revision (my favorite part).

    Thanks so so much for this post!

  9. Hi Lauren, you just made my day. "Ridiculously inspirational" will now be my new favorite phrase. I agree 100% with you--revisions are my favorite part too. With each finished story, it has been the revision phase that has transformed the story into something that I am proud of.

    During this love affair, when I found myself wanting to slow it down, take one night off, or whatever, I kept on reminding myself, if I keep it up, the sooner I can get to the revision phase. And the sooner I can share it with others. In the end, you can't revise what isn't finished. And I can't pitch what isn't polished.

    "Butt in the Chair" -- we should create a support group :)

    Again, thank you for your comment -- I am grateful.


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