Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What I Learned From Donald Maass

© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved

It’s rare to see hundreds of familiar and not so familiar authors in one gathering, but this week, Indianapolis, the capital of Indiana, an hour’s drive from my home, was humming with a host of talent. This was the first time I attended Bouchercon, the largest mystery writers’ conference in the U.S. that ran from October 14 – October 18. I had a ball talking with old friends and meeting new ones. I especially enjoyed sitting in and listening to a few panel discussions led by Lee Childs, Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Thomas H. Cook, and Sara Paretsky to name only a few. A full list of the attendees is listed on this site

For me, the experience began on October 14, at the Sisters in Crime writing workshop presented by literary agent Donald Maass and author of, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, THE CAREER NOVELIST, and his latest, THE FIRE IN FICTION. This, without question, was where I needed to be at this particular point in my writing career. I expected him to be knowledgeable and full of the experience I needed to hear. I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed. What I didn’t expect was to see how down to earth, humorous, and totally approachable the man is.

His four-hour presentation focused on the work in progress and how to turn a first draft into a breakout novel. Since I’d just finished the first draft of my next book, I was anxious and totally ready to soak in his wisdom. One of the things he honed in on were the main characters of a book; the protagonist and antagonist. To understand and turn these characters into 3-D personas, he suggested digging deep into our own personalities (or someone we admire) —likes and dislikes, positive and negatives, the contrary traits that makes a person interesting. What makes your blood boil or makes you laugh? We were instructed to write phrase that incorporates these contrasts and decided if it would fit into our book. The point of the exercise was to create internal tension. In essence, you can have all the thunder and lightening or action packed scenes you want, but the kind of tension that makes the reader turn a page is the internal struggles we give our characters.

Here’s an example of a paragraph from my first chapter (first draft) where I tried to apply this concept. See what you think. In this scene, Rhonie Lude is visiting an elderly lady who has been a friend for some years. When the friend asks about one of Rhonie’s past lovers, Rhonie replies:

Original paragraph:

“He’s gone, remember?” I didn’t want to spell out the gory details of Paul’s parting again. I was surprised that she didn’t remember—she’d struggled with it for days. How could she forget my disgust over her meddling? Our affair had been over longer than it lasted. I kept reminding myself that some things were best forgotten, but if I couldn’t convince myself, what made me think she’d believe me now. Gone was all she needed to know.

Revised paragraph:

“He’s gone, remember?” The sound of Paul’s name made me rush to my feet and take three steps in the opposite direction. I didn’t want to spell out the gory details of his parting again. After all, it’d been two of years—what good would it do to bring it up now? Today, the look in her eyes matched the innocent sweetness in her voice. How could I bring myself to argue the point? She was my friend, my mentor and I’d forgiven her much over the years, but Paul wasn't one of them. She'd played us like a couple of puppets—telling him things, putting words in my mouth. How could she forget my disgust over her meddling? Why dredge it up from that place where hurtful memories are conveniently stored, but never completely forgotten? I cleared my throat of the urge to cry and stared at the dreary blank wall across the room. No, some things were best left alone. For now, gone was all she needed to know.

One of the things Maass suggested doing was to read the pages of our manuscripts in random order—no, actually what he said was to take the manuscript out of the notebook and toss the pages in the air, let them land on the floor, and read one page at a time in random order. Then, find one place on each page were you can insert internal tension.

The key messages I walked away with from this workshop were:
  1. The internal struggle must be fundamentally personal.

  2. Raise the stakes for your character. Keep asking, if this is a bad situation, what would make it worse?

  3. You can't rush the writing. Making changes to the manuscript isn't easy. It could mean added 20-30 more pages. It could mean cutting out your favorite scene. The question is, what will get you there (published) sooner? Getting it done sooner or getting it done right?

I'm shooting for "right" so am reading every sentence, every paragraph in this book starting with chapter one and will find a way to push the tension button. By the way, I bought his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. Guess how he signed it? "Tension on every page!"

About the Author
Marta Stephens writes crime mystery/suspense. Her books are available online at familiar shops such as all the Amazons, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and Powells. Other locations include, but are not limited to those listed on her website.

THE DEVIL CAN WAIT (2008) Bronze Medal Finalist, 2009 IPPY Awards Top Ten, 2008 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery).
SILENCED CRY (2007) Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book Festival
Top Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery).


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thank you, Marta! For those of us who couldn't attend, this is a gift! I loved hearing about the conference and especially Donald Maass's advice! And your new deeper characterizations of Dotty and Rhonie's relationship add great flavor and ... yes, tension... to the work! Keep it up!

Laura Eliza said...

This was just what I needed to hear/read right now, thank you! The adding of tension is something I have always enjoyed doing, but everywhere I read mentions keeping the focus on the action, the dialog, the external. To see such a dramatic difference in someone's writing when tension is added was quite helpful, as well as edifying.

Thank you.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Thank you so much for sharing this seminar with me, Marta. Your generosity is so inspiring.

Marta Stephens said...

Thanks Aaron and Peanut.

Another thing he mentioned was that the worst time in one's life is the best time in one's life. In other words, what has been learned, what has changed, in which direction has that one worst moment taken us? He gave the example of a man who sees his doctor.

Bad: The man finds out he has cancer.
Worse: The cancer is spreading.
Even worse: It's inoperable.

What's next for this man? Does he re-evaluate his values. What wrong does he want to right? What change for the good happened that wouldn't have happened without that experience? Those are the types of questions we need to ask both of the protag and antag.

Kim Smith said...

wooo this is goooood stuff, Marta. I am waiting with tapping foot for his writing the breakout novel book. you make me wanna get the workbook too!

Anonymous said...


Thank you for sharing this. Your new version turned out great. Good luck with this new book.

Marta Stephens said...

Happy editing, everyone! :)

s.w. vaughn said...

Ha! I'm so glad you got to meet Don. He's a great guy (everybody at the agency is fantastic!!).

See, that toss-the-pages-in-the-air thing ... oh, how absolutely shocked everyone was when I took his Breakout seminar years ago, and he said we should do that. Crazy! Random! And ultimately Hard Work!

But I actually went home and did it. And MAN, did it ever help. It was hard, but the results were so worth it. His workbook is full of great stuff.

Since I'm with the Maass agency now, I'd say it works. :-)