Bleeding on the Page and Other Epiphanies

JT Ellison

As promised, I’m going to talk about the epiphany I had during the Donald Maass lecture at RWA a few weeks ago. And with apologies in advance to Mr. Maass, if I get some of what he said wrong, it’s not because of his teaching – he’s a fantastic teacher, and I’d attend anything he wanted to talk about. Some teachers are like that, they can make you look at a grocery list a new way. No, if I get it wrong it’s because I had my wild epiphany during his lecture, one that affected both the real me and the JT me, and I had to stop and really give it some thought.


Let’s go.

Maass’s workshop focused on the turning point of a scene. Now, I hate writing exercises. Really, truly, I rolled my eyes when he said we were going to do one. But I was already so rocked by my first day at RWA that I decided to quit being a snot about it and at least try to play along. So here are my notes.

Donald Maass RWA July 30

The topic is how to make a flat scene come to life. The block quotes are direction from Maass.


What makes a scene transitory and profound? Something changes from the beginning of the scene to the end – what’s the moment of actual change?

Action, words, emotions that identifies the shift.

Think about the Scene’s turning point ten minutes prior:

What’s happening?

Ask the character:

How, Who, What are you right now?

Stop and find out who the character is.

Then go to a moment 10 minutes ahead – ask the same questions:

What is up with you?

How are things?

How has what happened 10 minutes ago changed how you feel?

Do you know you’ve changed?

Do you feel any different?

Is there something you can identify that feels different?

What was the exact moment you knew something had altered in your landscape.

This creates an inner turning point for the scene


Unfolding journey of the character. Reader’s emotional journey – what does it mean for the character?

What is voice?

Sudden epiphany, a shout from inside my head that actually made me tremble. Our Alex was sitting next to me, she probably felt the earth shift.



What is voice? he asks again.

Elusive, we all know that. Sought after, as prized as diamonds. Somewhat like pornography, a little different for everyone, but you know it when you see it. When a story is told is a unique way, when the words sing, the pages turn themselves, and you’re taken to a completely new world, that’s when voice is working.

It’s what we all dream of creating, and how we can look back at our own work a few weeks, months, ever years later and recognize that yes, it’s us, but we don’t remember the exact moment we wrote this. We transcend. We go to another place, into a piece of our brains that not everyone can find, and bleed out onto the page. We tune out the naysayers, the resistance, the blackbirds, and bleed onto the page.

Bleed. Lifesblood. Heartsblood. Soulsblood.

Because what is voice, really? Why is it so elusive? Why do publishing houses pay millions of dollars when they find it?

Voice is simple. It’s your soul. It’s that innermost place, your most private thoughts, fears, joys and loves. It’s the place no one wants to go, consciously at least. But to make a good story great, to make a mediocre character come alive, you have to tap into your soul. You must be honest, and good and true. You must allow your sacrosanct thoughts to leave their writhing nests and spill onto the page.

It’s dangerous, I know. The idea that a stranger could sit down with your book and find a link directly into your greatest shame, or your deepest fear, or your most expectant hope. Your soul is what makes you unique, different from every other creature. Soul is why you can give ten writers the same picture and they’ll all weave you a different tale. Soul is what separates great writers from brilliant ones.

Then I drifted off for a bit, staring at what I wrote, thinking that perhaps, I’ve just cured cancer. Or at least finally, finally figured out how to explain to people why some artists are artists and some people try to be an artist and can’t be.

So I finally tuned back in, and Maass had moved to another exercise. I’m a bit of a convert at this point, so I decide to participate. He asks us to think about a scene we’re working on. I don’t know if y’all recall that I mentioned I’d started my new book a few weeks ago and came to a screeching halt because my opening line came out in first person? Anyway, I’ve finally figured out why that is, and in the construct of Maass’s class, used that opening as my example. Forgive me if this is a bit murky, I’m trying to explain without giving anything away.

The book opens with an email between my main character, Taylor Jackson, and her best friend, Dr. Sam Loughley. For the moment, email is the only way Taylor can truly communicate with the outside world. It’s her lifeline, and she hates that. The email is a reflection of her true self. The words that she and Sam write are much deeper, more meaningful, than she can truly express herself. She’s so good at hiding her emotions, so this incident has forced her to take a trip through her emotions: sorrow, fear, loss, love and remembrance. She can only write about what she’s experiencing at the time, can only write her feelings – obsession, the madness of her words as the emails go out. At the beginning, I can use this to show she’s having doubts about the decision she’s made…

Maass’s voice interrupts my thought process.

When should she throw gasoline on those feelings and light a match?

Voice is more than soul – it’s also intention, and vision. Taylor is afraid, and the readers will see that openly for the first time.

Maass again, his voice a hypnotic lull – and now I’m annoyed with him because he’s interrupting my really cool train of thought, but I stop and listen.

In the world of the story, ask yourself:

What makes me angry?

What are the rest of us not seeing?

What must they understand or see?

What is the question no one is asking?

What’s the puzzle/issue with no solution?

What’s the most dangerous thing?

And now?

Powerless, she’s powerless, and that creates a great conflict.

What pisses you off? What is not right?

Indignation! But does that work for Taylor?

Where is the unexpected grace?

That’s easy, the grounds she’s inhabiting, the setting. The colors, the weather, the animals, the walks, the farm, the garden, the deer – but the comfort is the antagonist as well.

What needs saving? Appreciated? Loved?

Daisies on the grass…Taylor’s peace is an escape from her prison

When can this be expressed the most dramatically?

At this I stop and giggle, pulled from my lull. Why, on page 150, of course, because we’ve hit the mid-point. I rub Alex’s elbow to share my cleverness and we share a knowing laugh. Every Murderati knows what the midpoint is by now…

Who can feel the opposite and challenge?

That’s Sam. Hurt by Taylor.

What about a bad day at the keyboard?

Fear. Self-loathing. Fear. But what exactly is the fear?

Can you experience what they’re experiencing?

And that’s when I’m yanked from my story and into my own head. Fear is what I face every day when I sit down to write. Fear, and I’m not good at allowing myself to experience it. And for this book to work I’m going to have to drop some of MY walls to allow Taylor to experience what she needs to in order for the story to unfold properly.

Cue a moment of sheer, unadulterated REAL fear – will I be able to do that? I don’t like experiencing extreme emotions. I must, must, must not let that stop me.

I have a feeling this book might be cathartic. It better be, or I’ll end up drooling in a corner because I’ve let in all the worry and scary stuff.

We’re done now, and I’m sorry to see the class end. I imagine a week at Donald Maass’s hands would be enlightening. Frightening. And so, so helpful.

Go through the block quotes above. Imagine a scene you’re having trouble with. Hear a soft, gentle voice asking you these questions, and see if you can have an epiphany of your own.

This may be second nature to many of you already, and I know I already do many of the pieces of this exercise unconsciously, but having the ideas presented in this way did result in a new way of thinking for me. I’m going to have to put Donald Maass in my acknowledgments, because he allowed me to see what I had to do to make my story work.

What about you? Am I even close? Or does this all sound nutso? And have you had any good epiphanies, internal or external, lately?

Wine of the Week: Cantina Calpantena Corvina Torre del Falasco 2008 (Super yummy, thick and meaty)

On a very happy side note, ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS releases in the UK today! Click here for more info.

19 thoughts on “Bleeding on the Page and Other Epiphanies

  1. Chuck

    Hi JT:

    At the beach with the wife and kids (ages 1 and 3). Definitely NOT a vacation…but I love it just the same. 🙂

    I really needed this blog today. My WIP has been rocking along until the last 10k words. As I applied Maass's questions to the last several sections, I realized what was wrong. Select…delete! I added 2k back this morning and it seemed much better, much more appropriate. MANY THANKS!

  2. pari noskin taichert

    There is so much here. Thank you for the words, the perspective.

    I'm doing something different right now, writing a YA that comes from a character developed in another book. I've found myself backing off sometimes from the emotion my character feels because it's so real and I'm hesitant to put it on the page (Can you say, "Editor?" or "Adult" or "Public relations and perception?"). Those are some of my bugaboos.

    One of the biggest lessons I'm learning on this journey of giving myself the freedom to explore what I WANT to write is that I have to tap in deeper.

    And it's scary. It's also exhilarating.

    I'm not sure I'm putting my soul on the page . . . don't know. But I'm getting closer.

  3. Dudley Forster

    Great post, I am saving all of this. It's going in my writer resource box. As for an epiphany I’m not sure this constitutes one but last Saturday I was working on closing a scene and was dumb struck, Brief background, in the opening Chance, one of my two protags, is found standing over a body but no one seems to see him etc…until the second protag, homicide detective, who can see ghost helps him over the initial shock. They have this whole dialogue about him being dead and about ghosts., Chance seems to be dealing with being dead and wants to help. Sam, second protag, tells him no, he needs time and space to cope. I was going to end the scene there but it felt all wrong. I should know more about Chance, not the gooey ghost stuff but the inside stuff

    So I rewrote and added a couple of paragraphs showing all the things Chance has lost and as a ghost he will be reminded of them every day. After the revisions and additions Chance has his own epiphany. “It dawned on him what life as a ghost meant. You can see it all, get close to it, hell stand right in the middle of it, but you can never touch it and no one can ever reach out and touch you.”

    Without really thinking it through I had recreated Tantalus. Of all the Greek stories I find this one to be the most terrible. Now a major force of Act 1 is Chance finding away to escape the ghost's version of Tantalus’ prison. As for getting out, there are lots of exercises Chance can use. Did you know that a ghost can have sex so hot and steamy the words melt off the page? Yeah, me neither till I wrote the outline to that scene.

    The working title of the book is GHOST OF A CHANCE and it probably wont ever see past the bottom of a drawer, but i am learning a lot writing it so the next one will be better.

  4. Debbie

    Inner voice: would you say that that's the answer to the post about getting out of your own way…the place where writing just happens like stream of consciousness, and there are no critics, no puddlegulm sitting on your head, shoulder? My epiphany came at the strangest time. I wrote my first MS without an outline (Alex has since enlightened me to the errors of my folly) and kept wondering when the characters would finish telling me their story. Early on in the writing process, a character who wasn't in the story (backstory) handed me a diary. When I handed it to a character as I neared the end, and reread the scene I said, 'OMG, I'm finished'! NOt exactly an epiphany but liberating none the less.

  5. JT Ellison

    Alex, I'm surprised I didn't singe your arm hair. Thank you for taking me to Maass's class.

    Chuck, I can't wait to get back into mine and apply it as well. Try to have fun at the beach.. just a little bit. : )

    Louise, I left a bunch of stuff out – it's bizarre how it manifests physically. That's when I know I've discovered something for myself, you know?

    Alafair, thank you, and you're welcome!

    Cornelia, thank you. But I think you already know that – your books personify this to me.

    Zoë, thank you. And thanks for being there while I signed the first batches.

    Pari, I am so fascinated by the journey you're on. It like the advice they give about writing sex when your parents are still alive, you have to write like they don't matter, their opinion, their ideals, their view of you – none of that matters. Not to mention our own inner editors holding us back. I'm not sure I can pull it off completely, but I know every book I write batters down the walls to my soul a little bit more. I will fairly ooze onto the page with this one ; )

    Dudley, that sounds like a book I'd like to read. Get it finished and start submitting. Chance's awesome epiphany really spoke to me.

  6. JT Ellison

    Debbie, I don't outline either, though my later books are more organized when I start them. But yes, I think this is your subconscious finding a way to tell you to get the hell out of the way. I thought this would be a nice companion piece to Dusty's.

  7. Judy Wirzberger

    I love it when people discover Maass. I was there when Nancy Pickard heard him and said, "I wish I would have known this books ago." His writing wisdom rivals Soloman, his teaching Plato's (I bet since I wasn't there on either occasion). His words sit in our brains and we, like the oyster, produce pearls, ours are on pages.

    Thanks, JT, with memories of a rainy night at M is for Mystery.

  8. toni mcgee causey

    I have to agree, he's a fantastic teacher. I only got to hear 1/2 of his lecture last year and then I had to dash out for a meeting… but there's something about the way he asks those things that sets off the epiphanies. I'd love to be able to take a longer workshop.

    The soul-voice epiphany — exactly. That's what I reached for (unwittingly) with this book, and it continues to scare the hell out of me. In a good way.

  9. Allison Davis

    Good articulation of a problem. When I'm stuck in my story, it's usually because I am being safe. I keep a couple quotes around to remind me: "What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story." F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    And Michael Chabon: "Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction, and the marvelous liberation that ca result when they are revealed. If a writer doesn't give away secrets, his own or those of the people he loves, if he doesn't court disapproval, reproach and general wrath, whether of friends, family or party apparatchiks,… the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth."

    Ok the latter quote is a bit harsh but sometimes we play it too safe in the writing and I have to remember to be more vulnerable with myself and the character.

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    My feelings: If a book isn't cathartic it probably isn't worth writing. If you don't open your soul then there's nothing to put between the pages. If you're not challenging yourself, facing your fears, showing your vulnerability…well, you might as well just throw a bucket of letters on a canvas.

  11. JB Lynn

    Awesome post. I used the Maas Breakout Novel workbook for my last manuscript and was finally able to tap into my voice, so I completely understand your epiphany. Enjoy the feeling!

    Congrats on your UK release!

  12. Nancy Laughlin

    " I imagine a week at Donald Maass’s hands would be enlightening. Frightening. And so, so helpful."

    I can attest to the truth in this. I've been to three of Donald's 6 day intensives, his High Tension workshop and a one-day Fire In Fiction workshop, and I've learned something new each time. He is truly brilliant, blunt, terrifying and incredibly insightful. In part I think its the way he keeps rephrasing the question until it rings true for just about everyone.

    Every time I leave one of his classes, my story has changed and grown and become so much more.

    Congratulations on the epiphany, JT, and on finding Don.

  13. Jill James

    JT, I'm loving your Taylor Jackson books. She is a wonderful character. I went to a one-day workshop for Donald Maass. He is amazing. That workshop was worth every penny I paid for that day. It was like a light shined from above and said, "This will work. You can do this. You can write better."

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