The Donald Maass Experience

DonWU reader and friend Richard Mabry recently participated in one of Don Maass’s well-known and highly sought after workshops. We asked that if he took any notes or jotted any impressions, that he consider sharing them with us. Happily for us, he agreed.

Thanks for being here, Richard! The floor is yours.


If you’re not a writer, you may never have heard of Donald Maass. He’s a respected literary agent whose books, Writing The Breakout Novel and The Fire In Fiction, are must-reads for any novelist wanting to take his writing to the next level. This past week, over 300 members of the American Christian Fiction Writers gathered before their annual meeting in Denver to attend a day-long seminar presented by Maass. I was one of that group, and I thought I’d share my impressions of the day.

Now most writers have an innate respect of agents. After all, they’re the gatekeepers to editors and publishers. Nowadays, it’s pretty well understood that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a writer to get his or her work before an editor, much less get it published, without going through an agent. Add to that respect-a respect that sometimes borders on fear-the fact that Maass isn’t just a literary agent, he’s a New York agent, and the attendee’s pulse quickens a bit. Then, when Maass entered the room dressed entirely in black, a fashionable stubble highlighting a severely neutral expression, those of us sitting in the front rows began to rethink our decision. Suppose he calls on us? Will we have to read something from our work-in-progress (the “WIP” we all talk about)? And will he tear it apart?

But he quickly put us at ease, making a few jokes about how hard it would be for a New Yorker to control his vocabulary in front of an audience of Christian writers. I’d come to listen, but I was quickly drawn in, entering into the brief writing exercises he gave us, marveling at how simple they seemed once he pointed them out, yet how much they added to the depth of understanding I had about my characters and plots. Rewrite a paragraph from the viewpoint of the antagonist, instead of the protagonist? Why didn’t I think of that? Rewrite a bit of dialogue in “rat-a-tat” fashion-short, sharp exchanges? Now I see the meat of what’s being communicated. And on it went.

audienceWe were there for eight hours, interrupted only for a couple of brief breaks and a hurried 45-minute lunch. My attention span is usually not nearly that long, but Maass kept me and the rest of the writers in the room under his spell as he showed us how to plumb the depths of plot and character. He urged us to take our “what if” scenario-what’s the worst that can happen if the hero doesn’t achieve his goal?-and make it worse…and worse…and worse still.

I had the opportunity to speak with Maass a couple of times, and found him to be quite nice. During the breaks, he answered questions from attendees too shy to voice them during the session. He smiled. He chatted. He was nothing like I pictured a New York agent. And he was good. Very good.

Would I spend the time and money again? You bet. If you have the opportunity to attend one of his seminars, by all means, do so. Your writing will never be the same. Thanks, Donald Maass. Hope we made a good impression on you. You certainly made a good one on us.



  1. says

    I’m a fan of Donald Maass myself. I read his book Writing the Breakout Novel. Excellent advice. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of The Fire in Fiction. I read an excerpt from it in Writer’s Digest recently.

    Thanks for this post.

    Dawn Herring
    JournalWriter Freelance
    Be Refreshed!

  2. says

    I have Writing the Breakout Novel and the workbook, and since then I’ve become a fan of Donald Maass, as those are the most practical and useful writing craft books I’ve come across. I can only imagine how much better his workshop would have been.
    .-= Lost Wanderer´s last blog ..A Hobby to Replace a Hobby =-.

  3. says

    Maybe it was jetlag or the altitude. I came away a tad disappointed. Yes, yes, yes, he did toss pearls of absolute wisdom at us, and I, too, wondered why I hadn’t thought of that before. But perhaps I expected too much from a legendary New York agent. I found some of the day a bit repetitious. Just make it more, more, do it some more. I’m struggling with beginnings and endings right now. I wanted help with that. Perhaps I just need to impliment what he said before I fully realize its value. He gave us plenty to chew on. His presence was lowkey and compassionate. I appreciate the honor to have him at the conference and I am grateful for the time with him.

  4. says

    Teri and the rest of the WU group–Thanks for letting me share your stage by posting my impressions from the workshop. What Maass primarily made me do was take my writing a step deeper–deeper in character motivation, deeper in plot, deeper in the “what if it doesn’t happen” scenario. Catherine, I’m sorry you were even a bit disappointed, but maybe as the ideas Maass threw at us take hold you’ll find a way to apply them to beginnings and endings. I know that I already have.
    And thanks to each of you who dropped by to leave a comment. I appreciate it.

  5. says

    Great to have your impressions here to share with WU readers, Richard. As I mentioned to you before, Donald Maass is a regular at our Surrey Int’l Writers’ Conferences and I can confirm everything you’ve said about him. He’s knowledgeable, personable, and so very, very good at what he does. I can’t stress enough how valuable reading his books and attending his seminars have been for me.