Wednesday, October 21, 2009

More Maass

By Debby Giusti

When Donald Maass talks about writing, I listen. In September, 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. Here are a few tips Maass shared that day.

“Consistent characters become dull over 400 pages,” Maass said. “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.

“Enemies tell us the truth about ourselves,” says Maass. “If you need more story, empower the antagonist.” Look at the story through his point of view. What steps does he need to take to achieve his own goal? Don’t allow him to lurk. Make him face off against the hero. Add an emotional punch by letting the protagonist realize the antagonist may be right.

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?

Putting on his agent hat, Maass said that most of the problems writers weave into the stories he reads are too easily solved. What causes him to reject a submission? Usually it’s when he finds no immediate reason to care about the characters and a lack of tension within the first two to five pages.

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.

The photo (left) shows Darlene Buchholz (l-r), Donald Maass, Debby and Missy Tippens at the Romance Writers of America Conference.

Happy writing!

Wishing you abundant blessings,
Debby Giusti

Leave a comment and your email for a chance to win a copy of Debby's last book, PROTECTING HER CHILD. Watch for Debby’s next release, CHRISTMAS PERIL, in bookstores December 7.


  1. Hi Debbi:

    I’m a big fan of Donald Maass. Much of his advice in “Writing the Breakout Novel, “ is also applicable to marketing.

    I do have a problem however with the concept of 'moving the story along'.

    For example:

    “Delete interior monolog and incidental action. Bottom line, take out everything that doesn’t move the scene forward.”

    And the idea that it is worth developing the character by doing things that will probably not ‘move the story along'.

    For example:

    “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.”

    Do you consider enriching the reader’s perception of a main character “moving the story along” -- even if the plot has not advanced?

    I just get a little jittery whenever I read about cutting, cutting, and cutting all that copy I sweated bullets to come up with.

    Do you have a method or suggestion on how to maintain a balance between the two?

    I’m happy to hear you have a Christmas book coming out and can’t wait to read it. I’m reading Missy’s and Myra’s Christmas books at this time and enjoying the experience.

    Enjoyed the post, too.


  2. Loved this post. Thanks! :) My characters have been a little too boring and consistent lately, so I'm going to try some of Donald Maass' tips :) I think having my character do something she normally wouldn't, and 'empowering' the enemy is just what my book needs. Can't wait to see what happens ;)

    Oh, and don't enter me into the giveaway. My family already owns a copy of Protecting Her Child :)


  3. Wow, thanks for sharing that! I've been wondering whether to cut some internal narrative from the first chapter of my wip. I think I have my answer now. LOL

  4. Hi Vince,
    When I reread the paragraph about cutting a scene, I had to wonder if I'd misrepresented Maass' info so I went back to my notes and to Fire In Fiction to ensure I had it right. Maass talks about the impact of hard-hitting dialogue -- that ra-ta-tat cadence that pits one character against the other. Certainly lean dialogue wouldn't be needed in each encounter, but to build emotion, to build impact, to build tension cut the excess.

    Maass had us do a few exercises where we wrote a bit of dialogue in our normal style, then without tags or movement or introspection. On the whole, the leaner dialogue was more effective.

    Give it a try, Vince, especially in key scenes where there's high emotion. If it's not your style, then ignore his advice.

    Folks talk a lot about toolboxes these days. Having various writing techniques to pull from our toolboxes is a plus. Tuck the info away. One day you may find it's just what your story needs.

  5. More for Vince,
    Perfect characters aren't compelling, and flawed characters make mistakes. A wrong turn shouldn't slow down the story, but rather reveal another dimension of the protagonist's character, especially if he learns from his mistake. Certainly, errors could be overdone, but a momentary wrong step can build the tension Maass wants to see in the stories he reads.

    Does that help?

  6. Hi Arianna,
    Maass talked about using the antagonist to build up saggy middle scenes. When we look at the story through the villain's eyes, we can discover new ways to cause problems for our protagonist. The villain has a goal to achieve, which should be in direct conflict with the protagonist's objective. Pit them against each other and you've got heightened tension that should move the story forward.

  7. Hi Jessica,
    As you know, that first chapter is so important. Everything I read talks about cutting the initial scene down to the bare bones in order to increase tension and hook the reader. Remember no backstory, although threading in a line or two about a past problem works to build anticipation.

    I need to relook the first scene in my current WIP and do some cutting as well. Usually on the first draft I include a bit of backstory as if I need to prove to myself that I know what has happened. Then on rewrites, I take out as much as I can. Remember RUE -- resist the urge to explain!

  8. We've been working so hard I failed to mention the coffee's ready. Help yourself!

    The breakfast bar includes scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns and biscuits as well as low-fat blueberry muffins, pecan coffee cake, fruit, yogurt, croissants and, of course, grits! Enjoy!

  9. Good morning, Debby! Thanks for sharing tidbits from the Donald Maass workshop. Great stuff! Though I like internal monolog. I know it can be overdone, but I love a front row seat as the h/h reel from events turning their world upside down.

    His point that the problems in most of the stories he sees are too easily solved is incentive to take another look at the conflict in my wip. Stories need a book-length conflict and if it's too easily solved, it won't hold up until I type The End.

    The breakfast bar is amazing and way too tempting. Wouldn't you know I'm watching calories this morning. Maybe I'll just watch them make the journey from my plate to my mouth. :-)


  10. Thanks Debby. Great post this morning. I bought Maass's workbook at the ACFW conference. Great resource!

    Making a trip by the breakfast bar, then I'm off to work.

    Y'all have fun!

  11. Okay, I soooo loved the Donald Maass day at the conference. Wow, he's a great speaker, and knows his stuff. I've been having fun applying his techniques to my stories. Great post!!

  12. Hi Debbi,
    It's always nice to open up to your smiling face. A very sincere one coming from a caring and warm heart.
    It was a pleasure to meet you in person in Denver and thank you for your gracious support.

    I think this first Maass book could be read every six months to discover new or be reminded of previous hints that will improve our writing. Like many other 'how to' books, I need to go back, time and again to absorb what I couldn't the first time.

    I'm happy to get a new little nugget each read-through. (it's like coming out of the forest and taking a good look at your trees).

    Have a great day everyone. It's my birthday and I insist you all go out and have a pumpkin donut or muffin. Thank God for the little things in life that make us happy.

  13. Hi Janet,
    I like internal monologue as well. And it works in romance. Of course, Maass focuses on breakout novels that have to zing! He did speak highly of category books and encouraged us to try his techniques in those stories as well.

    Too much introspection can slow the story, although when peppered in at the right time, that internal POV provides great character insight.

    I guess like everything, we need to pick and choose what we use. But Maass is a great teacher, and I always come away from his workshops with fresh ideas for my stories.

  14. Hi Pam,
    Fire In Fiction is great, isn't it? Maass presents info in a way even I can understand! :)

  15. Hey Lynn,
    If you stop back again, be sure to comment on the Maass techniques you're using in your writing. There was so much info that day, bet you picked up lots of ideas that never occurred to me.

  16. Debra!!!


    Enjoy the day!!! Pumpkin cake and cupcakes will arrive in Seekerville this afternoon in your honor.

    Loved meeting you at ACFW. You're a doll!!!

  17. Sorry to say I'll be away from the blog until later in the day. Had thought I'd have Internet access this morning and early afternoon, but the place where I have to be just had their service go down. If the glitch can be worked out, I'll be back in an hour or so. Otherwise, I'll catch up when I return home this afternoon.

    Sorry for the inconvenience!

    Have a great day!

  18. Mornin' Debby, Wow Donald Maass and a breakfast bar. What a way to start the day. I love his workshop. And as Debra says, every time you read his book you glean something else.

    Your books are already exciting and full of punch so I can hardly wait to see what you do with this new info.

    Loved the photos. Thanks again Debby.

    Happy birthday Debra.

  19. Debby! You and me both love Donald Maass! I was so thrilled to be able to sit through his workshop. I was taking notes and drinking in every word. I think he's a genius.

    Loved seeing your pretty, smiling face this morning! Like a ray of sunshine.

  20. I've known for a while now that my WIP isn't beating up on the hero/heroine enough.

    I apologize for that now, here, before you all and promise to go devote myself to character abuse immediately.

    I do so like people to be happy and get along well.

    Right now, I'm thinking of a kidnapping..........

  21. Wow, what a happy and beautiful smile. Since almost everything I write is based on my life there are lots and lots of moments that I want to move forward and get rid of the same old conflict. But there might be a life analogy in your post for me. One of the little sayings taht help me in my personal life is "you can only be a victim once...after that you become a volunteer." Often I read books and I think that phrase in relationship to one of the characters and I want them to move on....find a new path...go a different direction.

  22. Hi Debbi,

    Thanks for sharing the info you gleaned from the Donald Maass workshop.

    I must say that I like internal introspection. I think the key is not to have six paragraphs in a row of it. Maybe it should be handled with a light touch like backstory?

    RRossZediker at yahoo dot com

  23. Debster.

    Love the pic. Totally awesome, chickie.

    Donald Maass.

    The only book I have. Not like Maass puts that on his cover, "Only book owned by RLH" (although someday he MIGHT be coerced into doing just that, LOL!!) but I got that book as a gift from an editor (aha... not-so-secret-message THERE!!!!) back in the day, and it's wonderful.

    In my never-as-humble-as-it-should-be opinion, it's the only book needed.


    Except for those of every other Seeker guest who has EVER PUBLISHED a writing book, LOL!!!

    (disclaimer necessitated to not make enemies)

    Love the coffee. Passing on cookies. I'ts time for my 4 week Atkins pre-emptive strike, preparing for holiday over-eating.

    But I've got some luscious beef stick here. :)


  24. Hi Debby!
    I think I understood this... : S but since I'm only home(and able to leave this comment at this time of day!) because I have croup...I'm not positive. I'll be honest lol! I only got out of bed about 1/2 hours ago because I have to take Robutussin with codine and it kind of knocks me out!
    So, in conclusion, I think I understood what you're talking about : P

  25. I love Maass's lectures. Helped me a great deal. Probably enough to get me selling. I had the privilege of attending a workshop with him and talking to him personally when in grad school.

    My problem with advice to trim is that people trim too much and end up with talking heads and no sensory detail. That can make a scene as flat and uninvolved as one with too much. Finding the balance is difficult. What I think Maass is doing is giving us the extreme, knowing we can't help but put in just a little of this here and a little of that there. Less is definitely more. None is definitely--nothing.

  26. Great post. Recently received a copy of Fire in Fiction. There's a lot there that I need to learn.

    Please remove me from the book drawing. Thanks.

  27. Hi Sandra,
    Enjoy breakfast! Thanks for the kind words about my stories.

    Good news. I'm at my destination and the Internet is working! Yay!!! Hope it stays on.

  28. Hi Melanie--you sweet thing! :)

    So what did you learn from the workshop that you've used in your writing? I took 50 pages of notes, including ideas for my WIP.

  29. Thanks, Debby, for this great tutorial on Donald Maass' tips. Your post is a great example of why I love stopping by here every day. Good, practical tips and lots of encouragement from encouraging and down-to-earth people like yourself!

  30. Man, by the time I finished this workshop at the conference, my brain was the consistency of toasted marshmallow.

    I love his concepts, and I love how you've distilled some of them here.

  31. Mary,
    Your characters face lots of problems -- especially the women! Remember the heroine who fell out of a second-story window then lived in a cave with a man she didn't know along with all his unruly sons? That spelled TROUBLE to me!

    But Maass' comment does give me pause. How can I enhance my character's struggle?

  32. Debby -- wonderful post, ESPECIALLY since I did NOT take the Donald Maas seminar, which I am starting to regret. But I am a big fan of his "Writing the Breakout Novel" Workbook, which I love.

    Anyway, thanks for giving me some of the highlights of his seminar -- SOOO appreciate that!


  33. Debby, I used the Maass workshop as a brainstorming session for my next book. I also got a few ideas on how to improve my newly finished book. I felt like I came home with my new book practically all mapped out in my brain, especially my hero, who I wasn't really clear about. It was great.

    I love using the Breakout Novel Workbook, but I always get too excited about writing my book to actually finish going through the whole workbook.

  34. Jenny,
    Love your quote about being a victim only once! Something writers need to remember so their characters don't come off seeming too stupid to live! A mistake I often made early in my writing journey. Now I try to create strong heroines, although the villains are even stronger.

    Good luck with your book.

  35. Hi Debby:

    I like what Maass says and I think I am implementing much of it in my WIP. However, I do have a difference in philosophy in that I believe there is more to the story than the story itself; that is, there is more than just moving the story along.

    What is even more important is the totality of the reading experience. As such, sometimes it is helpful to stop and smell the metaphorical roses.

    I think writers who create comedy understand this intuitively. Other writers who write to what I call the ‘reading experience’ do this as well. I can remember a Nora Roberts story where the heroine is making coffee in her small Irish cottage. Nora describes how the stove and coffee pot differed from the heroine’s American counterparts. She also indicated how the coffee smelled so much richer that the heroine took notice of it. This didn’t move the story along; she was just making coffee for a guest. But I really enjoyed reading this. I still remember the experience.

    As far as cutting copy, I’m talking about well thought out third and fourth draft copy. I’ll cut a first draft to ribbons. The idea that ‘less is more’ is more or less, less than meets the eye. (Is this some kind of Greek Anaphobic usage?)

    And thanks, I appreciate you providing two answers to my post. This is a subject that is very close to my view of writing.


  36. Rose,
    Good point about too much introspection. I agree. Maass was talking about specific high-tension scenes where the focus needed to be on the conflict between the characters. He also mentioned tightening was one way to change a ho-hum scene into one that was more hard hitting. Does that help?

  37. Ruthy,
    Now I've got a trivia question about you, as in what's the one writing book Ruthy owns. We need a Seekerville Trivia Challenge. Where's Tina?

    So cute, petite, figure-like-a-teenager Ruth is on Atkins? No way!!!

    Thanks, but I'll pass on the beef stick! :)

  38. Hannah,
    Sorry you're not feeling well today. Get back to bed and rest! Hope you're better soon.

  39. This was an awesome post, The Seekers is the BEST classroom in the world, you ladies have educated us better than any school! Thank you so much for being so dedicated you are so blessed. Milissa


  40. Lol Debby! Actually, I am taking advantage of my time and working on scholarships and college applications today : / No fun, but has to be done!

  41. Hannah, you rock, chica!

    Go get 'em, kid. I like your backbone.


  42. Thanks Ruthy!

    I've almost completed 2 scholarships today. You won't believe of them...there are 3 "short answer" essays of 150 words and 4 "long answer" essays of 500 words! Ughhhhh! That's only ONE scholarship too! I wouldn't want to be the one to read all of these applications : P

  43. Laurie,
    I tried to comment on your message earlier but the Internet went out. Sorry. Now I'm home and stayin' put for the entire evening.

    How exciting to attend a Maass workshop when in grad school. Was he invited in by your university or college?

    I agree that Maass gives us an ideal (you called it an extreme) to work toward. Each of us will take his suggestions and make them work in our own writing, if we so choose. I like lean prose and so his advice resonates with me. A very lyrical writer might feel differently.

    You're right, that too lean falls flat, and heavy prose turns readers off as well.

  44. Hi Walt,
    Love your photo!!! Looks very professional.

    Hope the reason you said you didn't want to be included in the drawing was because you already have a copy of my book. Okay, I know you do, but others might not. Didn't want anyone to think your comment was negative! :)

  45. Hi Mary Bailey!!! We're glad you stop by Seekerville each day. It sure would be lonely if no one wanted to chat. The days I post are fun ... feels like I'm at a party. Plus, there are always new friends to meet online! Glad you're one of them.

  46. Hi Erica,
    The Maass workshop was a full day, wasn't it? Then the ACFW Conference officially began right after the workshop ended. Of course, the Seekers had to meet later that night. No wonder I came home from Denver happy but exhausted!

  47. I'd love to be entered for the book giveaway; I'm loving that you have a Christmas book coming out.

    I have heard of Donald Maass but that is as far as it goes. It is nice to have someone out there to share the things they've learnt.

  48. Hi Julie,
    Maass was great, but I know you had a marvelous tour of Denver that day, which sounded like so much fun!

  49. Good for you, Melanie! I was just starting a new story so the workshop helped me as well.

    When Maass throws out ideas and then challenges the group to work on their own stories, my creativity is freed, and ideas I never would have thought up on my own spring to mind.

    Now if only I can incorporate a portion of the fresh ideas he helped unleash into my WIP!!!

    You're right, Melanie. When I go through the workbook on my own, I never am as creative as when I'm listening to Maass in one of his workshops. As I mentioned earlier, IMHO, the man's a genius when it comes to story.

  50. Vince,
    You always provide such thoughtful comments. I'm not sure what Nora was trying to do with the coffee scene, perhaps showing how the heroine's life had changed since she'd moved to the UK? The dark, rich scent of the coffee...could that have brought the rugged strength of the hero to mind?

    No two voices are the same. Some are terse, some more verbose, yet each can find a home with certain readers. That being said, on whole, contemporary fiction is going "lite." We're a sound-bite generation (or is that sound-byte?), and we want everything right now. For some, that carries over into the stories they read.

  51. Hi Milissa,
    Thanks for your sweet comment. You're entered in the drawing. Glad you're enjoying the Seeker posts. We love everyone who stops by and leaves a comment!!! :)

    We love other people, too! We've a very friendly group. Can't you tell?

  52. Hannah,
    Bet your scholarship applications with shine!!! Keep us posted when you start hearing back from colleges and scholarship boards.

  53. Robynl,

    You're in the drawing!!! Good luck and hope you enjoy the story, if you win.

  54. Interesting post. Please enter me.

  55. Hey

    Hi Debby,
    Wasn't Donald Maas lucky to be surrounded by all you beautiful women in that picture?
    I haven't looked at my notes yet since I came home from conference. And no matter what I learn from Maas the thing that always pops into my head is, "How can I make this situation worse?" :) That's one of the hardest things I've had to get past in my writing. Being a counselor I hate to see people suffer, but thanks to Donald Maas I've become really good at making those characters experience some really awful situations.
    It was so nice to see you this year!

  56. Hi April,
    You're in! :)
    Thanks for stopping by Seekerville!

  57. Hi Jill,
    Seeing you at ACFW warmed my heart!!! It had been too long.

    Oh, Jill, I can hear Maass say, "How can you make it worse?" You're so right. As I create story lines, I do wonder how I can increase the problems and enhance the tension. Yes, "making it worse" is the essence of the Donald Maass technique for writing a breakout novel!!!

  58. Great reminders, Debby!

    So easy to say; so difficult to do. It's difficult to throw the kitchen sink at your characters when you're too tired to dodge the faucet. But you have to. Donald Maass is right. Predictable is boring.

    Thanks for the pep talk, Debby! I don't think you can ever get too much Maass : )

  59. Hi Audra,
    Thanks for stopping by this evening!!! Bet you're cold in Denver!!!

    So good seeing you at ACFW!!!

  60. Thank you so much for the information and recap Debby.
    You really hit on some good points!

    Janet Kerr

  61. Hi Janet,
    Thanks for stopping by Seekerville this evening. Have a great night!

  62. Hi Debby:

    I looked all over eHarlequin for “Christmas Peril” and could not find it. Then I found it as a dual novel with a story by Margaret Daley (a local Tulsa author.) BTW, “Christmas Peril” can be download at eHarlequin on November 1st!: )

    Also,in the eBook version, marketing needs to put your name next to Margaret’s on the headline under the picture of the book. The search engine will not pick up words on book covers. That's why I did not find you right away.

    I’d love to win your book but I really need the big type of eBooks. So I’d rather someone else have my chance to win.

    Thanks for all your thoughtful comments today. You also do a wonderful job as a host.


  63. Vince,
    Thanks for the heads up about the ebook. Interesting that it can be downloaded so early. The actual book won't go on sale until Dec 7.

    Yes, CHRISTMAS PERIL is a two-in-one -- two holiday stories. Merry Mayhem is by Margaret Daley, a writer I admire greatly. The other is, of course, my story, Yule Die. It was an honor being paired with Margaret, and fun to write a short suspense with a Christmas theme.

    Have a great night, Vince, and thanks for all your comments. We're so glad you're part of our Seeker blogspot!!!

  64. Wow. I've got to get that book! Thanks so much for sharing your notes with us! What a help! =)

  65. Awwww thanks Debbi! I hope so! Lol...

    Don't worry I'll be sure to let you all know! You'll be one of the places at the very top of my list!
    I'm applying to:
    Colby Sawyer

    None are due quite yet. The first is due by November 15, so I'm busy!

  66. Loved this refresher, Debby!! Thanks for sharing!


  67. Very good post. Perfection is pretty to look at, but is it really involving? If we don't spend much time with people who are "perfect" in real life, will we spend our reading time with the same type of characters? Imperfections can be endearing, and conflict holds interest.

    gcwhiskas at aol dot com

  68. I enjoyed the Maass seminar as well and have been scanning my notes in the past few weeks as I've been rewriting a novel that was requested.

    There's definitely more confict than there used to be!

    I'd love to read this novel.

    Email: valerie at valeriecomer dot com