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« How to Have a Story Master In Your Court | Main | How to Be a Story Master by Literary Agent Donald Maass »

How Writers Learn to be Story Masters by James Scott Bell

From Diane, Pitch U Founder:

This week is devoted to the 4-day workshop, Story Masters, of which James Scott Bell most certainly is one! 

As you know, I’m on a personal mission to tell the world about Story Masters so that Houston, TX becomes the destination for Awesome Workshops.  (I’m a simple writer with simple world-domination goals.)

So far this week, we’ve spoken with Donald Maass about How to Be a Story Master

James Scott Bell Kicks Story Butt

JSB crop JAMES SCOTT BELL is the bestselling author of Deceived, Try Dying, Watch Your Back and several other thrillers. Writing under the name K. Bennett, he is also the author of the Mallory Caine zombie legal thriller series. The first title, Pay Me in Flesh, is now available wherever books are sold.

Jim served as fiction columnist for Writer's Digest magazine, to which he frequently contributes, and has written three bestselling craft books for Writers Digest, including the #1 writing book of the decade, Plot & Structure.

First, Tell Us About Story Masters…

Story Masters Cropped

Diane: This is the debut of Story Masters. How did it come about?

Jim: I was asked by my agent and fellow Writer's Digest Books author, Don Maass, if I'd like to participate with him and Chris Vogler on this program. It took my half a second to say Yes. I greatly admire Don and Chris as teachers of the craft and was honored to be included.

Diane: What is your part of the Story Master’s experience?

Jim: We each bring our own approaches, which will be hugely beneficial for the writers who attend. Because we each have some unique insights but also many areas of overlap.

But because we each have our own way to view those commonalities, the attendees will get them deeply ingrained. It will be like a triple shot of espresso as opposed to a single cup of drip.

My expertise is plot and structure, and translating the most important concepts into usable techniques. I came up with a system I call LOCK (Lead, Objective, Confrontation and Knock out) that has proved extremely valuable to writers over the years.

It guarantees a solid novel every time out. Then the author is free to add those things that elevate the story to the next level and lets the original voice roam free.

How Writers Learn to be Story Masters

Diane: What do you like about teaching writers?

Jim: I'd been told in college that writers are born, not made. That you either had it or you didn't. I did not get any coaching in the actual craft of writing and got frustrated not being able to pull of what I wanted to pull off.

When I woke up a decade later needing to try again, I found you could actually learn if you were dogged and persistent and wrote constantly. When I discovered that I got so juiced I had to start helping other writers.

I teach them what I wish I'd been taught back in college.

I've had dozens of people pass through my workshops over the years who have gone on to be published. But this one stands out. I was at a conference and after lunch saw a woman sitting off by herself, looking rather sad.

I went over to ask her what the problem was. Here eyes teared up and she said she looked around at all the writers there and wondered if she had a chance, if she was good enough, if this was all just too much of a long shot.

I grabbed a napkin and drew a pyramid diagram. I divided the pyramid into six sections. Inside the pyramid are writers, I explained, with each section representing a different level of achievement.

The bottom, where most of the people are, is the realm of the “want to.” Or “I think I have a book inside me.” But outside of some scribblings, maybe a short story or two, perhaps an unfinished novel, these people never move on to the next level…

…which is where people like you are (I told her). Those who actually try to learn something about writing. Who buy writing books, go to conferences, take classes…and write.

Above that is the level for those who actually finish a full length novel. This is a great place to be. This is where real writers come from.

The next level holds those who write another novel, because the first one is probably going to be rejected. They do this because they are novelists, not just someone who happened to write a novel.

Next are those who get published. Above that those who are published multiple times.

Sitting on top of the pyramid is a Wheel of Fortune. This is where the breakout hits come from. The wheel goes around and lands on a book like Cold Mountain. Or The Da Vinci Code. Or Harry Potter.

No one can control this. No one know how to guarantee a hit, or it would be done every time out.

Your job, I told the young writer, is to keep moving up the pyramid. Each level presents its own challenges, so concentrate on those. As you move up, you’ll notice there are fewer people, not more. People drop out of the pyramid all the time. But if you work hard, you might get a novel on the wheel, and that’s as far as you can go on your own. After that it’s not up to you anymore.

The conference went on and I forgot all about this incident.

A couple of years later I bumped into her at another conference. She told me that this conversation and the diagram had a profound effect on her, and that she was going to keep going, and was finishing her first novel.

Two years after that she wrote to tell me she had landed a book deal. She is now a published author.

Back to  Story Masters…

Diane: How should writers prepare in order to get the most out of it?

Jim: This is all new to me as well! All I can say is, come prepared to take a lot of notes. I'm sure there will be ample opportunity to ask questions as well. I don't know what the schedule holds yet, but I will be around in the evenings.

Diane: Will there be groovy handouts?

Jim: There will be some handouts. The groovy part will be decided by the recipients!

One of my favorite exercises is the "chair through the window." Imagine your Lead alone in a room with a big bay window. Now she picks up a chair and throws it through the glass. What would make her do that? Write for five minutes and justify the action.

More about Jim:

Jim attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver. He graduated with honors from the University of Southern California law school, and has written over 300 articles and numerous books for the legal profession.

A former trial lawyer, Jim now writes and speaks full time. He lives in Los Angeles. His website is

You can follow him at

And you can find him blogging at the Kill Zone.

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