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Take Five: Donald Maass and The Emotional Craft of Fiction

Today we have the honor of introducing you to Writer Unboxed esteemed contributor Donald Maass’s latest work on writing how-to, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface. [1] This book is available to all writers who want to take their story game to the next level December 30, 2016.

Donald Maass founded the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York in 1980. His agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas.  He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004), The Fire in Fiction (2009) , The Breakout Novelist (2011), Writing 21st Century Fiction (2012), and The Emotional Craft of Fiction (2016).  He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.

For more information on some of the best writing craft books out there (in our humble opinion), please visit here [2].

Donald Maass has cordially agreed to join us today for an interview regarding his latest book on the craft of writing fiction. Thank you for your time and constant teaching, Don!

Q1: Can you introduce us to The Emotional Craft of Fiction and tell us how it’s unique in today’s market?

Authors imagine that their novels are having a strong emotional effect on readers. That’s not always true. A thirty-second TV commercial can move us more than three hundred pages of a manuscript. The Emotional Craft of Fiction examines what actually causes readers to have an emotional response.

Psychological research into that question has surprising answers.   For instance, fiction writers assume that readers will feel what their characters do. They don’t. Readers instead react: weighing, judging, comparing and creating, moment by moment, their own emotional journey.

That in turn has important implications for the crafting of the emotional effect of a story. “Showing” versus “telling” is mostly irrelevant, though I do show how each works effectively, or not. More critical are methods such as building an emotional world, catching readers by surprise with third level emotions, emotional scene goals, shifts from tension to energy, cascading change, and the hidden current that pulls us through a story even more strongly than plot.

In fact, plot itself can be seen not as circumstances changing but as emotional opportunities. The author’s own emotional journey in the process of writing also plays in. In The Emotional Craft of Fiction I show how to employ all of that through techniques that I call “emotional mastery”.

Q2: Why this book now? How have industry changes affected the way you approach the craft of writing?

I undertook this new book of fiction craft for the simple reason that in reading manuscripts, I often find myself not feeling very much. I wanted to understand why some highly dramatic stories can leave me indifferent while other, even quieter, novels can stir outrage or make me reach for a tissue.

There’s no question that changes in publishing and retailing have changed not only how books are distributed but how they can be written. High price points for hardcovers and trade paperbacks have made consumers more demanding. They want from fiction not just a fast-moving storyline but an immersive experience.

That in turn demands that fiction writers craft stories that are eventful, meaningful, beautifully written and highly moving. Plot can constitute a novel, but plot by itself is unlikely to build such an experience.

In workshops, the new methods of emotional craft have proven, I find, to be the dimension that lifts highly accomplished manuscripts from publishable to compelling. Story heart can grow weak in the long slog of revision, but using emotional craft makes it beat strongly once again.

Q3: How does The Emotional Craft of Fiction complement your previous books on craft?

Writing the Breakout Novel illuminates what makes a novel feel big. The Fire in Fiction breaks down what causes us to proclaim that a given novel is “great”.

Writing 21st Century Fiction springs off a long-term merging of literary and commercial intents, showing how novels can be both powerful stories and beautifully written.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction is, for me, the missing key to crafting timeless fiction. The classics and favorite novels that we love become that way not because of the stories they tell, but because of the experience we had. Every novel, potentially, is such an experience and this new book offers the tools.

Q4: Can you share an excerpt with us?

(Among other things, I discuss the handling of emotional minutia and how to make small emotional moments feel big. Here’s part of that discussion…)

“In life, what we feel moment by moment matters greatly to us but little to others. To us, our days are full of high drama, ups, downs, and stomach-plunging swings. Naturally you don’t expect others to take your feelings as seriously as you do, yet on the page you’re asking readers to do just that: to be rapt and fascinated by your characters’ every tiny mood swing.

“That won’t be the case until you make the emotional minutia of your characters’ lives worth your readers’ time. A monotonous pattern of action-reaction will not do that. It’s what I call churning, or the recycling of feelings that readers have already felt. It’s easy stuff to skim. To get readers fully engaged in emotional minutia requires, again, catching readers by surprise.

“When characters struggle with their feelings, readers must referee. They seek to resolve characters’ inner conflicts. They render judgments. The same is true when characters feel the unexpected. Readers hold an instant inner debate, one of which they are largely unaware but which nevertheless causes them to assess. Would I feel like that too? That assessment is the effect you are going for.”

Q5: What else can we look forward to seeing from you?

I’ll be leading several live workshops on the emotional craft of fiction this year. There’s more information here [3]. Beyond that, you can find me here on Writer Unboxed on the first Wednesday of every month with new posts on the craft of fiction.



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].