Tag Archives: Donald Maass

Book Review: “Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling,” By Donald Maass

Someday soon, I will write a post listing my favorite books on the craft of fiction, but one that is near the top of my list is literary agent Donald Maass’s classic, Writing the Breakout Novel. Maass followed that up with The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great. His latest work, Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, focuses on what it takes to write high-impact fiction in today’s genre-driven age.

Maass decided to write the book after he noticed commercial, genre fiction dominated The New York Times’ best-seller list for hardcovers (as expected), but the trade paperback list featured literary fiction. His conclusion was that a new kind of fiction was emerging and that the best 21st Century fiction combined proven commercial story-telling techniques with high impact literary writing that exhibited powerful themes and emotions.

In an interview on the popular blog, Writer Unboxed, Maass discussed what the book is about. “It’s about the death of genre, or more accurately the liberation from genre boxes—including the “literary” box. It’s about creating fiction that’s powerful, free and uniquely your own. It’s about how we change the world,” Maass said.

Read the Writer Unboxed Interview with Donald Maass

One of the major lessons Maass imparts to writers is the need to dig deep into their own emotions to create high-impact characters and stories. “The characters who resonate most widely today don’t merely reflect our times, they reflect ourselves. That’s true whether we’re talking about genre fare, historicals, satire, or serious literary stuff,” he writes. “Revealing human truths means transcending tropes, peering into the past with fresh eyes, unearthing all that is hidden, and moving beyond what is easy and comfortable to write what is hard and even painful to face.

“Get out of the past. Get over trends. To write high-impact 21st century fiction, you must start by becoming highly personal. Find your voice, yes, but more than that, challenge yourself to be unafraid, independent, open, aware, and true to your own heart. You must become your most authentic self.”

Maass urges writers to consider carefully their characters’ inner and outer journeys. These journeys are different, but inter-connected. Each chapter ends with a series of questions and advice specific to character and story.

Action and tension are important to sustain the reader’s interest, but Maass urges writers to consider impact.  He writes, “Clever twists and turns are only momentarily attention-grabbing. Relentless forward-driving action, high tension, and cliffhangers do serve to keep readers’ eyeballs on the page but don’t necessarily engage their hearts. By the same token, a dutifully rendered reality (reviewers call such writing “closely observed”) may cause readers to catch their breath once in a while but the effect doesn’t last long. Not enough is happening, and when it does it feels underwhelming. How then can commercial novelists construct plots that have true power? How can literary writers conjure events that give their work long-lasting effect?

“The answer in all cases is to create events of enormous impact. If an event is external, excavate its inner meaning. If a moment is internal, push it out the door and make it do something large, real, permanent, and hard to miss. Whatever your assignment, you won’t find it easy. It’s not natural to you, since your tendency is to hold back.”

If you are a novice writer, I recommend first reading, “Writing the Breakout Novel” before tackling this book. If you are an experienced writer, I highly recommend this book.

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Books Read in 2012

Stephen King, in his classic craft of fiction memoir, On Writing, urges all writers to read widely. Writers must take the time to read across all genres to understand and grasp the basics of storytelling and character development. I set a goal to read 25 books a year. This year I read 26 books. I try to read a mix of popular fiction, classics, some nonfiction, and a few craft of fiction books. Sometimes I will choose to read a book to help me with what I am writing at the time. For instance, when I am having trouble exploring complex relationships in my story, I will turn to an author who is adept at doing that.

Here is my list of books read in 2012:

Broken Irish by Edward J. Delaney

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield

Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling by Donald Maass

Family Graces by Kathryn Magendie

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Canada by Richard Ford

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

The Bone Blade Girl by A.D. Bloom

Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers

The Last Will of Moira Leahy by Therese Walsh

Secret Graces by Kathryn Magendie

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

To the Lifeboats by Jamie Beckett

Defending Jacob, by William Landay

Writer’s Conference Guide: Getting the Most of Your Time and Money by Bob Mayer and Jennifer Talty

In my next post, I will write about my favorite book of 2012.

 

 

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Mega-popular Series: What Are the Secrets?

I just finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and it got me thinking. This was one of three wildly popular series, a group that also includes the Harry Potter books and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. The Harry Potter books are the best-selling series in history and the Millennium and Hunger Games trilogies have sold tens of millions each.

Writers dream of writing a series like these and publishers crave them, but what made these books in particular succeed on such a large scale when other series have enjoyed just modest success? Was it the characters? The setting? The story? It was all of these factors and more. Here are my thoughts on why these three series achieved such staggering success:

Powerful premises. A young boy who is treated cruelly by his step-parents discovers one day he is a wizard—and not just any wizard, but The Chosen One. A young girl who is abused as a child ends up in a psychiatric hospital, left to suffer more abuse, until one day a guardian ad litem takes up her case. Another teen-age girl volunteers for the hunger games, facing almost certain death, to spare her younger sister the same fate. How could one not want to delve into such books?

Main characters who rise above bleak, harrowing circumstances and overcome incredible odds. Harry Potter must face the most powerful evil wizard, Lord Voldemort. Katniss Everdeen must defeat 23 rivals, including a possible lover. Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander (never could figure out which one was the main character) must surmount destroyed reputations and organized crime syndicates backed by a secret state police.

Highly imaginative and detailed settings. Hogwarts is described in wonderful, minute detail, a beautiful and scary place. There is nothing beautiful about the nation of Panem in the Hunger Games. Sweden is a real place, but the land described by Larsson doesn’t fit the tired stereotypes of a place featuring gorgeous blonde women, and people buying Ikea furniture and driving Volvos.

Complex and intriguing stories with ever-changing plot lines and growing stakes. Each series features stakes that are (paraphrasing the words of Donald Maass from his book, Writing the Breakout Novel) both personal and public. Public stakes impact large groups of people, nations or the entire world. Personal stakes impact one or more characters, but they are profound enough that the reader cares deeply what happens to the character.

Empathy. All three authors create a sense of empathy in their characters. Didn’t you feel like you knew Harry, Ron and Hermione intimately by the end of the Harry Potter series? Readers badly wanted to see Lisbeth and Katniss survive and thrive.

Themes that matter. Overcoming abuse and neglect, starvation, exploitation of women, violence against women—these three series cover important themes. These authors dealt with big subjects within the context of page-turning stories.

Extraordinarily gifted authors. J.K. Rowling is a story-teller almost without peer. Larsson was a renowned journalist in Sweden who managed to write three novels while working fulltime for a cutting-edge magazine and Collins was an established author even before she wrote her series.

These three authors have given the rest of us a dream to which to aspire. It’s not about the riches their books have generated. It’s about the work itself. Its popularity speaks for itself.

Why do you think these series have succeeded on such a large scale?

 

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Guest Post on Writer Unboxed

It was an honor to be selected for a guest post on the popular blog, Writer Unboxed. My post was featured on July 7. Started by two writers, Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton, who wanted to share their journey as they each wrote their first novel, Writer Unboxed features a diverse group of contributors, ranging from agent Donald Maass to former publisher Jane Friedman. Make Writer Unboxed one of your favorites. It is a fantastic blog. Check out my post on writer’s block:

Read my post on Writer Unboxed

 

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Break the Rules at Your Own Risk

A couple of bloggers recently posted essays about the need for writers to be flexible in adhering to some of the rules of the craft of fiction. These posts raise a key question: when is it acceptable for writers to break the rules?

Anna Elliot, in a post on Writer Unboxed, put it this way: “When I’m wrestling with plot, I don’t consciously follow any of the ‘approved’ basic plot structures.

“I suppose I’d have to say that in my own writing I tend to rely on something closer to basic, gut-level instinct. I try to dig deep into what makes my characters unique, what exactly about them made me so intrigued with them, so determined to tell their story. And then…instinct takes over.”

Writers should read every good craft book they can. Some of the best are: Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, On Writing by Stephen King, Write Away by Elizabeth George, and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Before they can break the rules, writers must understand them. Writers must know the various types of structures, character development, theme, tone, setting, and plotting.

Which rules should writers consider breaking?

Structure. Writers can select from a number of tried-and-true structures: three-act story, hero’s quest, journey. They’re popular because they work, but these structures may not be appropriate for the story you are writing. Examples of award-winning novels with unusual structures include Jennifer Eagan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Eagan’s novel is a series of loosely related short stories with some common characters and a thematic thread that runs through the work. Niffenegger’s novel features a non-linear narrative and a main character who travels through time. It’s at first a little confusing, but the story quickly grabs the reader.

Characters. Does the narrator always have to be the main character? In William Stryon’s Sophie’s Choice, the narrator, Stingo, is not the character who undergoes the most dramatic change; he is the reliable lens through whom the story of Sophie and Nathan is told. This can work, but it’s a risky strategy.

Narrative point-of-view: Some stories have multiple point-of-view characters. This is usually done because the author needs to tell specific scenes from a specific character’s point-of-view, or when there is a complex plot involving multiple characters. Some stories alternate between first and third person. I’m not a fan of this technique, but it can work.

Genre-crossing. Some stories just don’t fit into one genre. Agents and publishers advise against mixing genres in the same story and for good reason. It’s difficult to market a book that doesn’t fall within a single, defined genre. But your story may not fit into one genre. That shouldn’t stop a writer from writing the story she needs to write.

Which rules should writers never break?

Grammar, sentence structure. Some people are fans of incomplete sentences. Use them sparingly, for dramatic effect. Bad grammar in dialogue is okay, but not in a narrative, unless it’s part of a character’s tone.

Character development. The main character must be complex, interesting and a person for whom the reader can make an emotional connection. Writers should never strive for flat, one-dimensional characters.

Tension and conflict: Boredom and tranquility are never a good substitute for tension and conflict, which are essential for propelling the story forward.

Clarity. As a reader, I don’t want to work to figure out where the story is in terms of time and place. Unclear, muddled writing and overly complicated plots will cause me to put down a book every time.

Anna Elliot’s advises writers to read all genres and “with a critical eye. Try to peel back the story to its bones and understand why the author made the choices they did. Identify what worked for you in the story and what didn’t.”

While writers can bend some rules, they should always be mindful of them. Writers can experiment during the drafting process, but when it comes to the editing process, get those craft books out.

What kind of rules should writers break? What are the rules that should never be broken?

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I’d Like My Stakes Well Done, Please

One of the reasons Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy became such a runaway international bestseller was his uncanny ability to raise the stakes throughout the three-book series. In an interview published in the November/December 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, bestselling author Ken Follett put it this way: “There’s a rule of thumb that says every four to six pages the story should turn. If you leave it longer than that, people start to get bored. If it’s shorter than that, it’s too frenetic.” Larsson did a masterful job of that. Pick up any of the three books and every four or five pages, something happens that quickens the reader’s heartbeat.

Stakes don’t have to be large. The fate of the world doesn’t have to hinge on every plot twist. Stakes do have to create tension. They have to matter to the reader. Agent Donald Maass, in another Writer’s Digest article, talked about three types of stakes: personal, ultimate and public. The type of stakes an author chooses to employ will depend on the genre. In a mystery, the stakes are obvious. Someone has committed a crime and it’s up to the main character to solve it. In a spy thriller, the fate of the world might rest with a character who must stop the bad guys from destroying the planet. In a family saga, the stakes are more personal, often involving an inner conflict or a battle of wills between two characters.

Here are some common mistakes a writer might make in developing stakes:

  • A relationship between two characters develops too fast, sucking all the tension and uncertainty out of the story. This could work in a romance when the main character wins the heart of her man, and then loses him. She then embarks on a quest to get him back, but a quick resolution will wreck the suspense.
  • The initial stakes are too high, leaving the writer with nowhere to go. If the main character is involved in a fierce firefight on page one and one thousand people die in the first chapter, how does the writer top that? A rising body count won’t do it.
  • Surprise twists that the writer fails to  tie to the central conflict or to the story as a whole. Surprises are an essential element in building suspense, but the consequences that arise out of the surprise twist must be consistent with the story.
  • Giving away too much information too soon. The best writers hold something back. They don’t drop a giant info dump that tells the reader everything she needs to know about the protagonist on page 2 of the story. They parse information, often withholding important details until just the right moment.
  • Relentless action. The reader needs to take a breath. Watch a suspenseful movie. There’s always a pause, a lull in the action, because the viewer cannot process nonstop action.

One of the best techniques for raising the stakes is to put the main character through a series of ever-more-difficult challenges. The character must summon an inner strength she never knew she had to overcome these stakes. When the stakes are significant and the main character struggles heroically or must make a difficult choice, the reader feels satisfaction.

Think of stakes as the engine that drives your story. When you feel your story lagging, raise the stakes.

What are the best examples of novels where the author skillfully raises the stakes?

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My 2011 Reading List

You’ve read this before. Aspiring fiction writers should read widely across all genres. This will give the novice writer a better understanding of the craft of fiction. I believe new writers cannot improve their own writing unless they read quality fiction. It also gives all writers an appreciation for great literature.

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. I try to sprinkle in some non-fiction books in addition to the fiction books I read. Once in a while, I re-read a classic, as I did this year with To Kill a Mockingbird. I also make an effort to read e-books by new authors, as I did this year with Victorine Lieszke’s Not What She Seems and A.D. Bloom’s Bring Me the Head of the Buddha. Full disclosure: Aaron Bloom is a fellow member of the West Hartford CT Fiction Writers’ Group and a very talented writer.

Here is a list of books read this year:

Fiction

The Adults, by Alison Espach

The Red Thread, by Ann Hood

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Burritos and Gasoline, by Jamie Beckett

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

Faith, by Jennifer Haigh

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Whiskey Sour, by JA Konrath

Not What She Seems, by Victorine Lieszke

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Eagan

Lethal Experiment, by John Locke

Baker Towers, by Jennifer Haigh

Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

Who Do You Love, by Jean Thompson

The One That I Want, by Allison Winn Scotch

Solar, by Ian McEwan

Bring Me the Head of the Buddha, by A.D. Bloom

Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Innocent, by Scott Turow

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

The Broker, by John Grisham

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

While I Was Gone, by Sue Miller

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Good Mother, by Sue Miller

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

Non-fiction

Life, by Keith Richards

Decision Points, by George W. Bush

Decoded, by Jay-Z

Professional Development

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Mass

Write Away, by Elizabeth George

Later this week, I will reveal my favorite book of 2011.

How many books did you read in 2011? Which one did you enjoy the most and why?

 

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