Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Great Stories, Beautifully Written

As you may know, Donald Maass ("It's Don. Please don't call me Mr. Maass; that's my father.") is a literary agent with many years of experience and many successes. He's also a funny guy and a good speaker. Like your favorite college professor, he can make a long lecture easy and entertaining.

He opened this workshop with the following question: Why do some books spend 50, 111, 149 weeks on bestsellers lists, and others only 2-8 weeks? (And some never get there at all.) Good question! I want to know that too!

His answer is simple; the writers who sell the longest are the ones that offer their readers the best emotional connections to their characters. Over and over, they "dig" and "drill" into their characters' back-stories and personalities, and into their (the writers') own lives, to pull out "true, hard, passionate, real" emotions and experiences, then share them on the the page.

In my notes I wrote: "if you are scared by or stirred by what you write, that's good, because it will feel that way to your reader, too," and, "lightly impactful, slightly passionate works don't pierce through the common to make a difference."

How do you, the writer, accomplish this? If you're like me, you thought you were doing that already. The rest of the workshop was a series of exercises to help us learn to do this very thing. But never fear: there are, he says, 380 prompts in his book to help you figure that out if you can't make it to a workshop.

Here is the first series of (agonizing) prompts he took us through. If you want to follow along, write down your answers to these questions as you read. Don't read ahead...do the work!

1. What is the one emotion/thing/event you never, ever want to write about?
2. How does your main character feel about this?
3. Was that in your manuscript before now?
4. If yes, good. If no, why not?

To the fourth question I am proud to say I was able to answer "partly." I knew my character was afraid of getting involved with new men, but I didn't really know why. In just a few minutes, answering those four pesky questions, I found out what was wrong.

My character misjudged a former boyfriend so badly (he was a completely self-centered jerk, which her family pointed out to her after he left) that she doesn't trust herself with men anymore. I knew she'd been shaken up, but I hadn't realized that she thought the whole humiliating experience was her fault; she thought he was great and had left her because she wasn't. She figures she's too head-blind to be trusted with a relationship ever again.

I'm so glad that I'm not done writing this book. (I needed to know these things! How could I have missed them?) I have many wonderful new ways to "dig" and "drill" into my characters' emotions and make them shine and crackle like "fireworks."

Don concluded with this; he believes "the concept of genre is dying-- and he wants it to." He hopes there will just be "great stories, beautifully written."

I have to disagree with this in one small respect. I love a good love story (with kissing), and I will always want to know there's a romance in there before I read a new book. But I knew what he meant. Great stories, beautifully written, are my goal, too.

So, I must recommend this workshop, or, since he doesn't travel every day of the year, I must recommend this book. You'll have to be willing to scare yourself, though, by writing about the things that move you most, giving your characters those feelings and shaking things up, good or bad. If you can do that, if I can do that, maybe we can be great storytellers, writing books people want to buy and read (and therefore on the NYT Bestseller's lists) for years to come.

For more info about the Donald Maass Litereary Agency, including his clients, books, and workshops, you can go here. This workshop was set up by RCRW and was based on his newest book, Writing 21st Century Fiction.


Deborah Wright said...

Great post! You really touched on the heart of the workshop, I think.

I'm so glad we had the opportunity to attend!

Genene Valleau, writing as Genie Gabriel said...

I very much like "great stories, beautifully written," because I've struggled for a long time trying to come up with a label for my stories. Nothing quite fit.

I went to one of his workshops a very long time ago and learned so much! Sounds like it's time to get his book and learn more.

Thanks for the overview!

Meggan McQuaid said...

Genie, check to be sure there are no copyright issues first!

Genene Valleau, writing as Genie Gabriel said...

LOL, Meggan! You're so right. But my comment was misleading. What I meant to say is I look forward to the day when genres fade away and we just have "great stories, beautifully written."

However, I also agree with your point that readers still need some way to know what kind of story they are picking up. I really don't want to read a story without a happy ending. :)