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Take Five: Donald Maass on His New Book, “Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling”

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Therese here. It might be argued that every good literary agent knows a thing or two about story. But having authored several must-have books on the craft of writing–including The Fire in Fiction, The Breakout Novelist, and the book that busted many a writer out of the box, Writing the Breakout Novel–we think it’s an indelible truth that literary agent [2] and longtime WU contributor Donald Maass is an authority figure on the topic.

He has a new book out this month from Writer’s Digest Books: Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.

What makes this book stand apart from the rest? We’re glad he’s with us today to answer that and more.

Tell us a little about your new book, Writing 21st Century Fiction.

Don: It’s about the biggest long term trend (for writers) in our century: the merging of commercial and literary fiction.  Now, that’s not to say that one hundred years from now crime writers won’t write mysteries or literary novelists won’t explore the human condition.  Novels become powerful, though, when they simultaneously tell great stories and tell them beautifully.

Why this book, why now? Did industry changes affect the way you approached this book?

Don: The idea sprang directly from an observation about the New York Times Best Sellers List.  In recent years the hardcover list has been populated much as you would expect, by thrillers and brand name authors.  What’s changed is that those novels make the list for only a few weeks.

By contrast, the trade paperback list is dominated by fiction categorized as literary but which in certain cases has run on the list for one year, two years or more.  Excuse me?  Literary fiction selling at blockbuster levels while thrillers pop up briefly then disappear?

That interested me.  I began to analyze why this so-called literary fiction has commercial legs, and also to find out why genre novelists who bring literary art to their stories sell noticeably better than many others in their categories.

The result is Writing 21st Century Fiction.  It’s about the death of genre, or more accurately the liberation from genre boxes—including the “literary” box.  It’s about creating fiction that’s powerful, free and uniquely your own.  It’s about how we change the world.

How is Writing 21st Century Fiction different from your former craft books for writers (all of which are on my keeper shelf)? What distinguishes it from other craft books on the market today?

Don: There’s a great chasm dividing the nation of fiction writers.  On one side are the literary writers, on the other are commercial storytellers.  Generally speaking they don’t meet, talk, share the same values or even work the same way.

Each side has something the other needs, but how do you talk with literary writers about that dirty word “plot”, and how do you open up storytellers to beautiful writing when they sneer as they try to get to the bank?

You don’t.  Writing 21st Century Fiction is different.  For commercial storytellers I break down the construction of inner journeys, open a map to emotional landscapes, show how to write personally and more.  For literary writers I show how to push premise, turn inner states into meaningful external events, lay out the hierarchy of externalizations and more.

For all fiction writers I help identify both the writer you are, the writer you’re not, and how to compensate.  I go beyond the flash of beautiful imagery (pretty words) to show that beautiful writing is a great deal more.  It’s a set of techniques that all novelists can use no matter what their values, intent, way of working or story style.

The book includes 380 “21st Century Tools” to help get you there.

Can you share an excerpt with us?

Is fiction a dying art form?  It’s easy imagine so but the truth is that fiction is no more dying than movies or newspapers.  The business has changed, sure, but readers still buy certain novels in big numbers.

Not all novels, though.  21st Century book consumers support what’s important to them.  To infuse a novel with a significance that speaks to many requires, paradoxically, that you ignore what the public wants and focus instead on what matters to you.  High impact fiction is highly personal.

E.M. Forster wisely advised only connect, but what is it that creates a deep and lasting sense of connection with readers?  You would think that story archetypes, everyman characters and easy-to-read prose would do it.  Actually, it’s the opposite.  High impact 21st Century fiction is built on unique voices, uncommon characters and tales that can only be told by one particular author.  They’re suis generis.

What’s next for you?

Don: My publisher, Writers Digest Books, has suggested a second edition of Writing the Breakout Novel.  I think that’s a good idea but it may be a little while before I tackle it.  Business at my literary agency is hopping and the new landscape of publishing is full of exciting strategies that are keeping us busy.  I’m also enjoying being a new dad and hanging out here at Writer Unboxed.  It’s a great community.

It wouldn’t be the same without you, Don. Thanks for all you bring to WU.

Readers, you can learn more about Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling here [3]. Write on!

About [4]

Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between Therese Walsh [5] and Kathleen Bolton [6] in 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~50 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. In 2014, the first Writer Unboxed UnConference (part UNtraditional conference, part intensive craft event, part networking affair) [7] was held in Salem, MA. Learn more about our 2019 event, ESCAPE TO WuNDERLAND, on Eventbrite. [8] In 2016, the Writer Unboxed team published a book with Writer's Digest. AUTHOR IN PROGRESS: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It Really Takes to Get Published [9] has been well-received by readers who seek help in overcoming the hurdles faced at every step of the novel-writing process--from setting goals, researching, and drafting to giving and receiving critiques, polishing prose, and seeking publication. James Scott Bell has said of the guide, "Nourishment for the writer's soul and motivation for the writer's heart." You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter [10], and join our thriving Facebook community [11].