I met Donald Maass in 2001. He was—and still is—a highly esteemed literary agent. At that point in his career, he’d undoubtedly read thousands of manuscripts. Plus, he’d written and published seventeen of his own novels. He was also a sought after conference speaker and, that same year, had penned WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, a hardback how-to that offered, as the cover mentions, “Insider advice for taking your fiction to the next level.”
When my Georgia Romance Writers Chapter invited Maass to do an all-day workshop, I grabbed a front-row seat and soaked up as much information as I could. It didn’t take me long to realize the man understands story and especially the elements that transform an ordinary read into a best-selling novel. I bought his book, then went home and tried to incorporate what I’d learned into my current work-in-progress.
Three years later, Maass published WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK, an easy-to-swallow text with accompanying writing exercises. The workbook offers examples from New York Times bestsellers, straightforward explanations about the processes those authors used to take their work to a higher level and exercises to incorporate the lessons learned into the writer’s manuscript.
Ask any Maass enthusiast, and they’ll probably say that his workbook is the bible, of sorts, for learning the breakout method. I hate to admit that his hardback had languished on the reference shelf in my office. I had picked it up a few times, but never really got “into” the text. The workbook, on the other hand, was easy to digest, and I eagerly devoured the information he provided.
Back in those days, I was blogging with a group of Love Inspired Suspense authors and was always looking for a fresh supply of blog topics. Wednesday was my blog day, and I started posting what I’d learned from Maass’ workbook in weekly installments. They say the best way to learn a subject is to teach it, which proved true for me. As I dug into each lesson and then encapsulated the essence of the various exercises into a short blog segment, I started understanding–and appreciating--his breakout method.
In September 2009, I attended his workshop at the American Christian Fiction Writers Conference and came away with fresh ideas of how to turn a so-so story into a memorable read. Again, I was enthralled by his expertise and the way he challenged those attending his workshop to up their game and write a better book.
Fast forward to a few years ago when I started hosting a writing group in my local area. The folks who take part are writing at different levels in a variety of genres. Some are just getting started. Others have completed manuscripts. A few are published. The number attending the bi-monthly classes fluctuates due to busy schedules, but no matter how few or how many attend on a given evening, enthusiasm and creativity abound. I provide a topic and often use Maass’ exercises to drive home the lesson.
|My local writing group hard at work!|
They are so creative!
If so, here’s a sampling of what I’ve learned and shared with blog readers and writing enthusiasts over the years:
♦To create memorable first lines, Maass suggests taking what we’ve initially written and then shortening it. Perhaps the second sentence would provide a tighter opening. Or combine all the elements from the first paragraph and craft one hard-hitting line that draws the reader into the story. Maass warns against starting with weather, description or setting. Instead lead with a hook that keeps the reader guessing.
♦Equally important are closing lines, which should also be well crafted. Books in a series need to leave the reader hungry for the next release. Stand-alone titles should provide an uplifting resolution or final thought the reader can savor.
♦ Consistent characters become dull over 400 pages so mix things up. Show your protagonist’s less attractive side or take him places he doesn’t want to go.
♦ Determine what the heroine wants, then have her do the exact opposite. Eventually, she’ll recognize her mistake, but that momentary glitch helps her come alive in the reader's mind.
♦ Inner conflict makes a character memorable. Pull him in two different directions and make both choices difficult. What would your character never do or never ask? Have him do that very thing.
♦To improve a scene, cut the fat. Trim the introduction and set-up. Do away with exposition and pare down the dialogue to the essentials. Delete interior monolog and incidental action. Bottom line, take out everything that doesn’t move the scene forward.
♦Include death, self-sacrifice, the giving of cherished gifts, betrayal, farewells or moral choices into your story to deliver a high emotional impact.
♦External turning points need internal turning points as well. How does the character change in each scene? Show him just before something happens as well as a few minutes later. What does he want at the beginning of the scene? How does that differ from what he wants at the end of the scene?
♦As writers, we need to ensure our characters grapple with pertinent issues that strike a chord with those who read our work. So cut the fluff, and zone in on core principles, universal truths and moral dilemmas that engage readers, whether contest judges or editors looking to buy the next bestseller.
♦We all know the antagonist needs to have his or her own GMC (goals, motivation and conflict), but Maass encourages us to go even deeper into the villain’s character. One of the workbook exercises focuses on exploring the bad guy/gal’s sympathetic side. By adding a few details, the reader can see the villain as a multi-dimensional character who may even be likable in some ways. Just as our hero and heroine can be pulled between what they really want/need and what they think they want, if the villain’s good side is in direct opposition to the bad deeds he’s forced to do, that internal struggle can provide a more richly drawn antagonist as well.
|Another photo of my wonderful local|
group of writers!
♦ Just as we describe a sunset or a garden in bloom, so should we detail the impact events have on the inner person. Maass suggests doing “emotional research.” How does a flesh and blood person react to a similar situation in real life? That glimpse of reality will give authenticity to our characters and will resonate with readers.
♦When we provide opportunities for a character to forgive a wrong or put the needs of another before his own, we are elevating that character’s worth. When characters are elevated, readers are elevated as well.
In conclusion, Maass says that most of the problems writers give their characters are too easily solved. What causes him to reject a submission? Usually it’s when he finds no immediate reason to care about the protagonist and/or a lack of tension within the first two to five pages of the manuscript.
|I always provide chocolate for my writing group. Did you|
know chocolate stimulates creativity? Help yourself!
To learn more about Donald Maass’ writing techniques, check out his bestsellers: Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook and Fire in Fiction.
Leave a comment about Donald Maass or a tip or technique you use to enhance a story to be entered in two drawings. Each winner will receive a copy of PLAIN DANGER, and a surprise gift!
Happy writing! Happy reading!
Wishing you abundant blessings,
By Debby Giusti
When Carrie York arrives at the house she inherited from her father in an Amish community, she's shocked to discover a soldier's body on the property. Her neighbor, army special agent Tyler Zimmerman, starts investigating the murder, and Carrie fears it's related to her father's mysterious death. Tyler doesn't trust the pretty speechwriter or the suspicious timing of her arrival—especially since her boss is responsible for his father's death. But when someone attacks Carrie, Tyler insists on protecting her. With his help, will Carrie be able to hold on to her inheritance and her life?
Watch for PLAIN TRUTH, available in September.
By Debby Giusti
AMISH COUNTRY SECRETS
When widowed doctor Ella Jacobsen is attacked and left for dead in her childrens’ clinic, the peace she’s found in Georgia’s Amish country is shattered. Someone is after something in her clinic and wants her out of the way...but what are they looking for? Ella knows only that her life is in the hands of army special agent Zach Swain. Zach can’t resist the vulnerable but headstrong Ella, who stares down danger to care for the people she loves. With one look, the loner soldier goes from investigator to protector. To save Ella, he must uncover the secrets that swirl around the idyllic community. And he needs to do it fast, because Ella is running out of time.
by Debby Giusti
Reissued in a two-in-one with Emma Miller’s MIRIAM’S HEART
Available July 2016