INTERVIEW: Donald Maass, Part 2

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketIf you missed part 1 of our interview with Donald Maass–one of New York’s top agents and president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency–click HERE to catch up, then come on back. In this final segment, we talk about his must-have craft book for writers, Writing the Breakout Novel, how his book and workbook are a dynamic duo, his favorite workbook exercise and a new book in the works.


Part 2: Interview with Donald Maass

Q: We’ve long asserted that Writing the Breakout Novel is THE book to have if you desire to “unbox” as an author. What spawned the idea for this book, and did you feel confident the work would be embraced as it has been?

DM: I wrote Writing the Breakout Novel in response to the changes I noticed in publishing in the Nineties, some of which we discussed earlier. In an industry in which your storytelling has got to start great and get better, how do you do that? What does writing “bigger” actually mean? Partly, too, I wanted to know why certain literary novels, or fantasy novels, or romantic suspense novels, became best sellers when so many similar novels don’t. What makes them different? Well, I found out. And I wrote about the key factors. They’re things like heroic qualities shown right away (what I called “high human value”), high personal stakes as well as public stakes, plot layering and tension all the time.

To answer your second question, it’s gratifying that Writing the Breakout Novel has sold so well. I see it on lists of favorite-books-on-writing alongside other books that I consider classics. It’s used in courses and classes. Best of all has been seeing ideas like “tension on every page” making their way into the vocabulary of the fiction community at large. That’s what I wanted.

Q: Your book was published in 2001. Do you think the prescription for a “breakout” is the same in 2007 as it was then? If you were to re-release the book today, is there anything you’d add to your text?

DM: There’s no “prescription” for a breakout novel. I wish there was! Writing at breakout level means elevating whatever story you are telling in a number of ways. The specific techniques and areas of focus simply are factors that make for good storytelling. My advice isn’t timeless, I’m sure, but I think it’s held up and will continue to for some time.

Q: How do your book and workbook handshake?

DM: They high-five! No, seriously, Writing the Breakout Novel is the theory, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is the practical application. The Workbook contains thirty-some character and story development exercises. They’re not generic writing prompts but techniques that apply directly and immediately to your novel-in-progress. I get quite a bit of thank-you mail telling me how much the Workbook exercises have improved people’s novels. I get copies of published novels that were written with the Breakout techniques. It’s great to see them in action.

Q: How did you decide on the exercises to include in your workbook? Did masses of potential exercises hit your cutting-room floor?

DM: Actually, since the Workbook was published I have developed almost fifty additional exercises. These have come out of the week-long intensive “Writing the Breakout Novel” workshops. At each workshop I ask participants if they have any special areas of concern. I custom-make exercises to address those concerns and over the course of the week we put these new techniques into practice. At a recent workshop, for example, a participant asked, “How can I write better violence?” Excellent question! I devised a way to transform a passage of violence. We tried it out. I’ve got to tell you, the results were chilling, original, visual and gut-grabbing. I was amazed. Workshop participants get the bonus exercises from all the workshops. It’s sort of like going home with a whole additional workbook.

[Note: Bookmark THIS LINK to the Personal Appearances page on Maass’s site, and check back often to learn where he’ll be in 2008.]

Q: I encourage all writers to get WtBN and read it for themselves, but I’d also like to provide everyone with a taste of what your book offers. What’s your favorite exercise, the one you believe offers the most promise?

DM: The absolutely essential exercise that everyone should do, with every novel, is to toss the manuscript pages in the air and collect them again in random order. (The pages must be randomized or this won’t work.) Next, go through the manuscript page-by-page and on each page find one way to add tension. Now, that sounds easy enough but most people are quickly stymied. That is because they do not truly understand what tension means. In dialogue, it means disagreement. In action, it means not physical business but the inner anxiety of the point-of-view character. In exposition, it means ideas in conflict and emotions at war. Study your favorite novelists. If they make you read every word, even while turning pages rapidly, it is because they are deploying tension in a thousand ways to keep you constantly wondering what’s going to happen. Tension all the time is the secret of best selling fiction, regardless of style, genre or category. If it sells big, it’s got tension on every page.

Q: Are there any telltale signs a writer has evolved story conflict enough?

DM: No. There isn’t enough conflict in your story. Sorry.

Q: If the goal is, literally, tension on every page, do you think most stories could (and maybe should) be shortened?

DM: The issue isn’t length. The issue is whether a novel is eventful enough. Virtually all (in manuscript, anyway) are not. That’s partly what I meant by that terse answer just above. I’m telling you what I see, constantly, in submissions: insufficient tension, underdeveloped plots, not enough reason to keep reading.

Q: Here’s a scenario: Writer has drafted out a story but feels something isn’t right. She hasn’t a clue what it is, though. How should she proceed in order to assess what might be missing? Can the manuscript be injected with a bigger vision at this point?

DM: Let me add to your scenario: This writer’s critique group is exclaiming, “This is the best thing you’ve ever written!” Published authors are reading the manuscript and saying, “This should be published, let me give you the name of my agent.” And still this novel is getting rejected with polite brush-offs like, “I didn’t love it enough” or “I know you’ll find a terrific home for this wonderful novel (just not here).” Okay, what’s going on? What do you need to fix when no one can tell you what’s wrong?

Writers caught in this frustrating stage of breaking in need to find a conference at which my wife, independent editor Lisa Rector-Maass, is presenting her workshop “The Third Draft.” She’s an expert on hidden, late-stage story issues. (Maybe you’d like to interview her?)

[Note: Look for this interview in the near future!]

Q: The dark protagonist is agonized, miserable and distrustful of the world. I’ve read that you’re not a fan of this character. Tell us why.

DM: No, no, I like dark protagonists but there’s a trick to making them appealing. You’ve got to find a way to signal to the reader that this self-loathing, nihilistic downer is nevertheless a human worth caring about. How to do that? That’s the trick. It’s an immediately redeeming quality. Most dark protagonists in manuscripts don’t have that.

Q: “Immediately redeeming quality” makes me think of things like saving a child from a burning building or helping a blind man across the street to locate his missing dog. Is this what you mean? Or can the quality be subtler than that? If so, can you provide a few examples?

DM: This redeeming quality I’m talking about needn’t be big. What’s needed is any small demonstration of strength that tips the reader off that this dark protagonist is really okay underneath. A small act of compassion, humor, self-awareness…any of those may be enough to send the signal. Go back and look at how your favorite dark protagonists are introduced. If you look, I’m pretty sure you find that clue. Without it, why would we keep reading?

Q: Some stories are said to be character driven while others are plot driven. Do you think these categorizations are (as) applicable to a breakout novel?

DM: A breakout novel can be either plot- or character-driven. Doesn’t matter.

Q: I’ve heard you have a book coming out soon called The Fire in Fiction. What inspired you to write it, and what’s it about?

DM: The Fire in Fiction is due from Writers Digest Press in 2009. I’m writing it now. It’s about the passion that puts some novelists at the top of their game not just once but in every book, and how that passion gets on the page. It’s not an inspirational, pep-talk kind of book or a collection of interviews with authors. (Authors often are the worst at explaining their process.) Rather, it’s a practical look at the ways that passion actually is expressed. For example, I’m showing what makes the world of a novel feel vividly real. I have a sub-chapter on “that special summer by the lake” novels, which explains exactly how some novelists make you feel the magic of a particular summer, or one particular lake. There’s a specific technique to it. The book will also include an exercise that any author can do, on any day, to make any scene lift off and soar.

Have you ever read a seventh novel in a mystery series that disappoints, or a hardcover that’s empty inside, or a novel by a favorite author that’s just off? Did you wonder what went wrong? Me too. Conversely, why do some novelists seem to hit it out of the park every single time? How do they do that—in a concrete, word-by-word way? It’s easy to claim passion but what does it really mean to put that on the page? Those practical techniques are what I’m writing about in The Fire in Fiction.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketQ: Disaster strikes and you can grab five books off your shelf. Which do you choose?

DM: This is a situation in which e-books would be handy. Just five? How about five representative client favorites? We Shall Not Sleep by Anne Perry, Illusion by Paula Volsky, Teller of Tales by Daniel Stashower, Denial by Stuart Kaminsky, Fool Moon by Jim Butcher. Hmm, that’s going to get me in trouble!

Q: If people were to come away with one point after this interview, what would you want them to know about taking their work to the next level?

DM: Micro-tension all the time is what keeps readers turning the pages to see what will happen. It’s the big secret. All the big boys and girls use that technique. Why doesn’t everyone else?

Thank you, Donald Maass, for a fantastic interview!


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. Robert Miller says

    The interview was fantastically informative, and I’d like to thank this site and Mr. Maas himself for providing it. He seems like a really passionate and knowledgeable character. As it happens I have a submission with Stephen Barbara right now, and I can only hope he connects with my work as much as I connect with him and his agency. It would be a dream to work with such great people.

  2. says

    Thanks, WU, for posting this interview (both parts). Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back and add tension to every page of my work-in-progress.

  3. M. A. Golla says

    Hm I like the idea of ’52 Pick-Up’ with a 400 page manuscript. I’ll just hand the ream of paper to my kiddo and tell her to have fun–then the work will begin!
    Great interview! I think WTBN is wonderful, though I don’t really relate to the books in the examples, I manage to find relevent example in my own ‘library’ (okay, boxes) of books.

  4. says

    I’ve been trying to make one of his workshops for a year and I can’t seem to make my schedule mesh. Maybe in 2008. I would love to see his appearance and workshop schedule for 2008 (I only found 2007 on his website)

    Great interviews (parts one and two)


  5. says

    Another great interview! I’ve read both WTBNW three times. I have “Raise the Stakes” taped to my monitor screen. I’m going to tape another scrap of paper that says “Tension on every page.”

  6. says

    Great interview! “Tension on every page” I’ve been striving for that in my revisions. I hope to get it right. It’s important to remember it’s not just sexual tension or physical conflict. I’m glad Mr. Maass reminded us that we need to have conflict on many layers.

  7. says

    Super interview, guys. I met Donald at a presentation in Seattle at the Hugo House a few years back, just when he was really getting going with “Breakout.”

    A very nice man, and even smarter than that. He knows what he’s talking about.


  8. says

    Good stuff! Anxious to read more of these.

    I’m not sure how you get a hold of them, but… any thoughts on getting some TV writers?

  9. says

    Excellent advice from a true professional. The thing I love about Donald Maass is how he *gets* what makes a good read, and is able to translate that understanding into both principle and application.

    Keep up the good interviews! Thanks!

  10. Richard says

    Top line agents — from Meredith to Mass — concur and are consistent on these matters. Why do we so resist their advices?