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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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