Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Is Donald Maass Worth $99?

By Debby Giusti

Registration for the American Fiction Writers Conference is in progress and many of you have probably signed up for the workshops being offered this year. But what about the early bird session? Literary agent and story-guru Donald Maass is presenting the full-day program. Cost for the event is $99.

With the economy in a downward spiral, money is tight. If you’re like me, the conference takes a big bite out of my writing budget. The Thursday early-bird program adds the workshop fee as well as overnight hotel accommodations to an already hefty bottom line. So, you might be asking, is Maass worth the extra expense?

Shortly after he published WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL in 2001, my Georgia Romance Writers Chapter invited Maass to do a program for our membership. I grabbed a front-row seat and soaked up as much information as I could. Didn’t take long for me to realize the man truly understands story and especially the elements that transform an ordinary read into a best-selling novel. I bought his book, went home and tried to incorporate what I’d learned into my current work-in-progress.

In 2004, 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 have used to take their work to a higher level and exercises to incorporate the lessons learned into a writer’s current manuscript.

Last year, I pulled the workbook off my reference shelf and referred to it in my weekly Craftie Ladies of Suspense blogs ( Here's a sampling of what I learned and shared with my blog readers:

♦Maass encourages writers to push the envelope! Give your hero a one-liner that puts the villain in his place. The I-wish-I'd-said-that factor resonates with readers and makes our heroes and heroines compelling and memorable.

♦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.

♦Maass encourages writers to step outside the box and embrace originality, perhaps peppered with a bit of audacity, to meld bizarre, seemingly non-convergent traits and actions into a memorable character.

♦When we look at each individual page of our manuscript instead of the chapter or scene as a whole, we’re better able to spot opportunities to up the stakes, which may have been missed otherwise.

♦Maass explains that if problems arise from an outside source—meaning they’re not self-imposed internal conflicts—and if the problems continue to escalate, they eventually become what he calls "public" stakes that can touch the reader on a universal level.

♦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 that 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.

♦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, which 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.

♦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 in the first paragraph and craft a 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.

Which brings me to the end of this blog. Maass challenges me to be a better writer, to dig deeper, to stretch and grow and to create stories readers will remember. In my book, that’s worth $99.

Happy writing! Happy reading!

Wishing you abundant blessings,
Debby Giusti

Debby Giusti


Wealthy heiress Eve Townsend is close to death. But before she dies, she has to know: what happened to the daughter she gave up for adoption twenty-four years before? Did she inherit her mother’s life-threatening disease? Medical researcher Pete Worth is ready to find answers by tracking her down. And when he finally locates Meredith Lassiter, he finds her widowed, pregnant and on the run. The loan sharks who killed her husband want her dead…and Pete is the only one standing in their way.

Winner of the 2008 Daphne du Maurier Award for Inspirational Suspense, medical technologist Debby Giusti writes spine-chilling Christian fiction for Steeple Hill. PROTECTING HER CHILD, her fifth book and the second story in her Magnolia Medical series, was released in May. CHRISTMAS PERIL will feature her novella YULE DIE in December, and KILLER HEADLINE will follow in February 2010. Her first three books, NOWHERE TO HIDE, SCARED TO DEATH and MIA: MISSING IN ATLANTA are available in hardcover by Thorndike. In addition to full-length fiction, Debby has written articles for numerous magazines, including Southern Lady, Woman’s World, Our Sunday Visitor, Army and Family. For over twelve years, she served on the editorial advisory board of ADVANCE for Administrators of the Laboratory and wrote extensively on emerging infectious diseases for that magazine. For more information about Debby and her books, visit her web site at:


  1. i will definitely take a late-night snack of strawberry-cheesecake pastry, thank you very much. and i just might leave enough for the rest of you in the morning.

    this post made me super glad i'm registered and paid up for the early bird session. i'll no doubt be purchasing Maass' books at the conference.

    thanks for a great post, debby.

  2. YAY! Glad to be registered for the early bird!

  3. I wish I was going to the conference!!!! But I have settled for reading his books this year. I am just now reading his Fire In Fiction and it is excellent. He uses so many texts of various books to explain what he is talking about and it really helps me see the big picture. Excellent!

  4. The coffee's on and the breakfast bar is loaded with a Southern assortment--cheese grits, biscuits right out of the oven, scrambled eggs and country ham. There's also a basket of pastries for your eating pleasure! Enjoy!

  5. Hi Jennie,
    Get your manuscript ready for the workshop. Maass always fills the day with lots of hands-on exercise. Glad I'll see you there!

  6. Hi Katie,
    Our minds will be exhausted by the end of the day, but we will have learned so much. Glad you signed up for the early-bird special.

  7. Debby, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is my favorite writing craft book! I've used mine a lot.

    I only wish I could go to the conference this year. :-( I'd love to take Maass's workshop. *sniff sniff*

  8. Hi, Debby. Just finished your latest book.
    Love it.

    Protecting her Child. You've got all of this in here. I loved the twist on the villain. I seriously never saw it coming. Excellent, just amazing really how you worked that and gave me a really great AH-AH!! moment.

    I even loved your disease. You're really good at this writing business.


    Can't wait for the conference.

  9. Hey, Deb, great blog today, my friend, and soooo very true!!

    I credit Maas's Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook with shaping up my heroine in A Passion Most Pure. Several judges complained that she was "whiny" before Maas got a hold of me (or I got a hold of him!), and once I applied some of his concepts, BOOM! Faith O'Connor fleshed out before my eyes ... and hopefully the readers'too!


  10. Hello Debby:

    If they sell tapes of the Maass session, would you please post the details soon after the workshop?


  11. I'm not attending, but I think Maass provides some of the most inspirational and helpful advice in the business.

  12. Sherrinda,
    Thanks for letting us know about Maass' new book, FIRE IN FICTION. I'll be sure to pick up a copy.

    The man's a genius!

    We'll miss you at ACFW.

  13. Hi Melanie,
    Maass gave a weekend long workshop in Jacksonville year before last. I wanted to go but couldn't fit it into my schedule. Hopefully, he'll be returning to the Southeast in the not too distant future. Tell the Huntsville HOD chapter to bring him in for a day workshop! Missy and I will drive over for it.

  14. Hi Mary,
    Thanks so much for your kind words about Protecting Her Child. I always hold my breath when a new book is out, wondering how it will be received. It's like oh-my-gosh-maybe-I-got-it-all-wrong!

    After reading your comment, I'm breathing again. Thanks!

  15. Mmm ... grits. They are a sentimental favorite since those were one of DD's first "grown up" foods.

    You all are making a case for getting coplies of Mr. Maass' books.

  16. Julie,
    Nice to know Maass works for you as well. I bet you're snowed under with deadlines, but if you log back on, tell us some of the techniques you felt made the difference in your writing.

    That's goes for everyone. Share any of the Maass tips you use when writing. My mind always buzzes with his concept of incorporating UNIVERSAL TRUTHS into each story. I'm trying to give the readers value along with the story, something they can save and savor.

    Jodi Picoult does that for me. Her books are packed with universal truths that always ring true.

  17. Hi Debby! I took the Donald Maas class in south Florida last year and it was well worth every penny. I learned so much!

    Protecting Her Child is wonderful. If you haven't already done so, go out and buy it now!

  18. Hi Vince,
    I bet Maass' workshop won't be taped, but as I mentioned in a comment earlier, he does give workshops throughout the country.

    His workbook is fantastic. Very easy to understand, and the exercises are similar to what he does in each of his in-person events. Think about investing in the workbook. I bought my copy for $19.99 -- a good deal!

  19. Hi Fawn,
    You and I agree on Maass. He knows his stuff. Another guru who we're blessed to have at this year's ACFW conference is Margie Lawson. I want her brain too! :)

  20. Hi Ann,
    Love those grits! Before I was published, I wrote a story set in CA. I had lived in the middle of the Mojave Desert for two years and thought I knew the area.

    I had my characters order grits at a roadside diner. critique partners kept saying a CA diner wouldn't serve grits! One of my cps brought in a menu from the Bun Boy in Baker, CA, to prove the point. No grits!

    Now, you ask, why did my cp have a menu from the Bun Boy? That's another story. Maybe one she should tell.

    Anyone been to the Bun Boy in Baker? It's advertised throughout the High Desert.

  21. Hi Cara,
    Thanks for the plug for PHC! :)

    So you saw Maass in Jacksonville? From what I heard, he included some new tips and techniques in that event. I'm hoping he'll add the new stuff to the ACFW workshop as well.

    What was the best thing you learned from him?

    BTW, Cara is our own Seeker Golden Heart finalist. If you're at the RWA conference this year, be sure to give Cara a shout-out when her story is announced!

  22. I guess this is confession time.

    I've never read Donald Maas. In fact I've never read a book on writing except Stephen King's "On Writing" and that was after I was published.
    And mostly what I got from King was a sense that he was agreeing with what I knew. Which was a good feeling.

    I have studied though. On-line classes through ACFW. Critique groups. Contest critiques.

    For me though, the best 'study' comes from writing. Actually doing it. Putting the words on paper, trying to do better and apply what I know the very best possible way.

    I know, I know, I need to get some writing books. No one has to tell me. But I'm so BUSY!

  23. I'm registered and so glad Debby's plugging this. Writing the Breakout Novel and the Workbook have helped my writing tremendously when applied.

    Great post, Debby!


  24. Mary,
    So you and Stephen King think alike? I knew it! :)

    No, really, that does say alot! Good for you. Maybe you should think about writing a book on writing! :)

    What's the best writing tip you would give someone? already said writing. You're so right. We learn when we write. I was just thinking earlier today about what I've learned from the continuity book two, I'm writing, which is KILLER HEADLINE, out in FEB 2010. I've increased the danger the heroine's in. More attraction between hero and heroine. And I've had to meld my story with the stories the other five authors are writing. I've pulled out my hair at times. But I've learned so much.

    As I told hubby this AM, stringing the words together is becoming easier. Now I can spend more time fine-tuning what my characters need to reveal.

  25. Hi Cheryl,
    Glad you're a Maass devotee, as well. Any idea how many folks are scheduled to take his workshop? Bet it'll be a full house.

  26. Oh yeah! I totally signed up for the Donald Maass early bird at ACFW. It's going to be great.

    Thanks for the post. I liked your summaries.

  27. Good idea, Debby! I need to start attending the HOD meetings first, though! It always seems like I don't have enough time.

    The thing I love about Maass's Workbook is that it makes me think and helps me come up with neat twists and deeper characterization.

  28. Hi Debby! I actually got to read and post today!
    Another great blog as usual and I always get great info here. I still haven't bought the Maass workbook, but it's on the 'to buy' list.
    The only conference I have plans for this year is M&M. It will be my first and I'm really looking forward to it.
    And of course I will pass along the info on Maass for a possible future workshop. We have Leslie Wainger scheduled for this year's workshop in September. It's going to be held in Huntsville this year and not at our normal location. We've outgrown the other one, but that's a nice problem to have. So if you and Missy aren't busy in September..... :)

    BTW - I missed meeting Melanie at the luncheon!

    Have a great day!

  29. I remember sooooooooo vividly, back before I was published, when I was just writing to entertain myself since no one else seemed interested in my stinking books. I'd finish a book then I'd sit there, hands poised over the key board, ready to type my first line of a new book...and think...

    "Remember everything you know. Remember everything you've learned. Explosive beginning. Show don't tell. POV." I'd just run through it. Instead of weeping over the unpublished state of the books I have finished, I'd try to make this next one the very best I was capable of.

    When I see someone unhappy with one finished book they cannot get published I always say, "Start a new book. Make it the best ever. Don't make it harder on yourself by picking a genre that's a tough sell."

    And when all else fails...shoot somebody. your book of course. :)

  30. Hi Debby, So glad you plugged Donald Maas's workshop. After taking his workshop, I started winning contests. Some of my published friends took his workshop and started appearing the the Best Seller list. Bring your wip with you because everything you learn you apply right on the spot to your own work. Its awesome.

    So glad to hear so many of you are signed up. I'm looking forward to meeting you all at the conference. The way time is flying, September is going to be here before you know it.

    Thanks for the yummy Southern breakfast, Debby.

  31. Next best thing for me - my critique partner signed up for the early bird! I get to pick her brain and she can use her skills on my WIP too. good deal, huh?

    I was here before the food.
    Any biscuits left? I passed on the muffins yesterday but biscuits? never.

    And, Debby . . . I have a road trip photo of the BunBoy sign. Good memories.

    Thanks for stirring up some more conference excitement.

  32. Hi Lynn,
    See you at the early-bird session. I'll be the one trying to take notes on every word Maass says. :)

  33. Melanie, you mentioned Maass makes you think of "neat twists and deeper characterization." Great comment. He always talks about going deeper whether it's the character's conflict or motivation or what makes the antagonist tick. He also talks about throwing everything into the air and seeing where the pieces land to find unusal twists to the story.

  34. Hi Sherry,
    So good to see you in Seekerville. Sorry, I should have gotten you and Melanie together at the HOD luncheon.

    Leslie Wainger will be a great speaker. I've got her book, WRITING A ROMANCE NOVEL FOR DUMMIES. Executive editor of HQ Books, of course she'd know her stuff.

    Missy and I just might be able to make it to the workshop. You know I love Huntsville and the great HOD crowd.

  35. Ah, Mary, no wonder I like you so much. We both enjoy shooting people! As you mentioned, only in our books, of course.

    Yes, yes, yes!!! If there's a fast way to publication, IMHO, it's write five or six books. Boom! Boom! Boom! By the time you type The End on the last manuscript, you'll know enough to sell.

    Again, just my humble opinion.

  36. Hi Sandra!
    Moving from mid-list to bestseller! Now that's a big plug for the Maass workshop. So some of the gals in your local chapter hit the big time after hearing what he had to say? Fantastic! And you noticed improvement in your own work? Excellent!!!

    Everyone off the Seekerville Island after ACFW this year!!!

  37. Hey, Deb! A Bun Boy photo? How cool is that. I bet no one believed me earlier when I said the place is well known in the Mojave Desert.

  38. BTW, I just looked at the front of my hardcover, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, that Maass autographed at the first workshop I attended. He wrote: Raise the stakes!!!

    That sums it up! He teaches writers how to raise the stakes and sell big because of it.

  39. Afternoon! It's wonderful to be on the same side of the ocean as all of you for the summer. And I'm just a tiny bit sleep-deprived from the 34-hours of travel. :)

    Debbi, Thanks for letting me know about two great books I'm eager to read. And one's a novel that incorporates the writing techniques of Maas' book. Great way to learn!

    'Up the Stakes'--I'm going for it! What a great excuse to delve even deeper into characters and plots I love and not be discouraged by the fact I'm rewriting 'again'!

  40. Just read Monday and Tuesday’s blogs. Talk about the perfect setup for getting info today on ‘how to’ write those great motivations and anticipatory events!

    Cheryl—Awesome blog. I’ve been realizing how much it helps me to write logically if I formulate the deeper motivations for the character’s actions and reactions. It’s especially challenging with more complex characters, but those are the people we really relate to, aren’t they?

    Missy—Great pivotal moments to remember! With multi-layered motivations for my characters, now I can build great AEs’. What a blessing that you shared your own insights as well as those from dear friends.

    Thanks to you as well, Vince and Julie!

    I’m copying these blogs for reference!

  41. I am really looking forward to this workshop...but I'll be the one in the corner behind the potted palm, soaking everything up and hoping NOBODY calls on me. :)

  42. Hi Ayrian,
    We love folks who like coming to Seekerville. Thanks for the kudos for Cheryl and Missy. They're fantastic writers!

  43. Erica,
    Shall we sit together? Let's have a Seeker reunion sometime during the conference for all those you are regulars!!!

  44. Hey, gals, I'm late to the party but I brought late night decaf lattes laced with caramel and Ghirardelli dark chocolate syrup.

    Oh mylanta, so yummy!

    And I saw Cheryl's post yesterday but had to catch a plane and couldn't type fast enough...

    Great points, Cheryl. Strong and dynamic. Not like that's a surprise, girlfriend!

    And Deb.

    Anne Goldsmith sent me a copy of "Writing the Breakout Novel" alongside the gentle rejection note she sent me from Tyndale a few years back.

    But what a nice thing to do. It is the only writing book I own.

    Now you might think that says A LOT considering my unpublished status, but I disagree...

    It's a great book which is WHY it's still on my shelf. I love a person that can make quick, concise, memorable points that make sense to my creative side. That's not easy, is it?

    So I love the book, but like Mary, I'm old school.

    I write.

    And write.

    And write some more, which I think is a good move. Once someone grabs you, you've got a backlist of wonderful or could-be wonderful stuff to draw from. That's huge in this industry.

    Hit with a splash, not a skim.

    Deb, thanks for posting this. ACFW has worked really hard to put together a great conference, as always, and to have DM there and Debbie Macomber (I SO want to be her. Really. Truly. Tea shop and all. And dagnabbit, I intend to do it!!!!)

    Oh mylanta, that's the place to be in September, people. And who doesn't love a trip to the Rockies?????

    Hey, got some fresh fudge here, all kinds. Maple. Cherry. Chocolate. Chocolate almond, chocolate pecan, chocoalte marble marshmallow.


    Dig in for late night fun, guys.


  45. Hey, gorgeous picture of you Debby!!!

  46. Hi Ruthy,
    Looking forward to seeing you at ACFW!!! And, yes, can't wait to hear Debbie M. speak as well as Donald Maass. I almost wrote THE Donald. Of course, that would be Trump. But Maass is THE Donald of writing, isn't he?

  47. Hi Tina,
    Thanks for noticing my new photo. :)

  48. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by! Hope to see you at the early-bird session or at ACFW or at some other conference in the future. If not, then we'll chat again online.

    You're part of our Seeker family!

    Happy writing!

  49. I have been avidly reading craft books. I own Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, an excellent book. Because Maas' books have been so highly recommended through ACFW writers, I thought I might order them. First I decided I would look at them, though, because the public library had them. I was shocked by his "Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook." One reason I read and write Christian fiction is because I do not want to be subjected to profanity. He also cites material that is soft-core porn. This is not CBA-friendly. As I saw all these positive comments I really wondered who had actually read his books? I feel quite sure that my copy of his workbook has not been tampered with to include objectionable material. So, no, I definitely would not pay to hear him nor will I buy his books.

  50. I am so there, Debby, and I can't wait to see YOU in Denver!