Sunday, April 21, 2013

Lessons from Donald Maass

When, after a lifetime of saying ‘someday’, I finally started writing a little less than two years ago, I assumed I knew all there was to know about writing. After all, I was a voracious reader, was a few credits shy of an English minor in college, and wrote regularly as part of my profession, so surely I knew all I needed to know to start writing novels. I will pause here for a moment for you to catch your breath after all that loud, choking laughter. Okay, it didn’t take me long to find out how much I did NOT know.

The education goes on…and on…and on. I’m finally wise enough to know I will never know everything there is to know about this craft. But when I look at where I was 20 months ago, and where I am now, I feel a certain satisfaction. And a lot of terror. Satisfaction because I know some of the terminology, know some of the rules, and have a vague sense of what it is I am supposed to be striving for. Terror because the amount I don’t know, and more importantly what I can’t yet do to my satisfaction, is overwhelming.

So I attend workshops. I read books on the craft. I talk to people who know far more than I do. And recently I was extremely fortunate to get to attend a workshop that is already transforming the way I write, and the way I look at my writing. I got to attend a day-long workshop given by the impressive—okay, a little intimidating—Donald Maass. The topic: Writing 21st Century Fiction. I took voluminous notes. I soaked up every word he said. I tried to do my best on the exercises, but felt my skills woefully lacking. He taught us about using secondary emotions, and conflicting emotions to write characters who are more layered and authentic. We learned about using our own shames, secrets, and regrets in order to write more dramatic and bigger stories—aka stories that would be considered ‘literary.’

When I got home I wasted no time ordering two of his books: “Writing 21stCentury Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling”, and “Writingthe Breakout Novel”. Since I had just attended the workshop based on the 21st century book I decided to start there, but soon decided I should have started with the Breakout book. Setting aside the 21st century I dove into Breakout, highlighter in hand.

I’m only half way through, mostly because I’m reading it so carefully. But I have to say most of the highlighting so far has been in the chapters on ‘Stakes’ and ‘Characters’. My writing has had a sad dearth of compelling stakes in the past. Public Service Announcement coming up. IF YOU ARE A NEW WRITER THIS IS THE BOOK ON CRAFT YOU SHOULD READ FIRST. [I also highly recommend Jerry Cleaver’s Immediate Fiction—which is an excellent starting point for the newbie writer.] Maass advises on how to write larger than life characters, how to sustain the tension that keeps the reader reading, and how to layer the plot—all of which make a more interesting, compelling novel and one that has a better chance of interesting agents and editors.

So if I’m reading how to WRITE a breakout novel, I thought it might be a good idea to also, hand in hand, READ a current breakout novel. The word of mouth novel I keep hearing about is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, so I started reading it a couple of days ago. And lo and behold, Flynn has done everything Maass writes about in Breakout Novel. Reading the two concurrently is proving to be a great craft lesson, and one I recommend.

The Fledgling Writer’s education continues. And the Fledgling Writer is making some changes in her life that I’ll share next time. In fact, there are several things I’d like to write about in the coming weeks so please watch this space. I’ll try to actually keep up on the blog posts!

Happy Writing!