Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Donald Maass: Listening to Your Gut and Other Postscripts to the 2012 Conference by Laura E. Reeve

Donald Maass is the founder of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, an agency for professional novelists. His pioneering work and writing about the development of fiction careers has made DMLA a leading agency for fiction writers. Together, the DMLA agents represent more than 150 novelists and sell more than 100 novels every year to leading publishers in the U.S. and overseas. Donald is the author of The Career Novelist, Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, and The Fire in Fiction. He is a past president of the Association of Authors' Representatives, Inc. (AAR).

Your theme this conference has been about fiction in the 21st century and how, in order to stand out in today's abundance of entertainment, we must write 'page-turners.' In that vein, can you summarize the main issues you see with submissions?

Two problems are universal and they're not genre-specific. I see these problems from beginning writers as well as published authors. First, there's no reason to particularly care about the protagonist when we meet them. Second, there's a lack of line-by-line micro-tension.

When you start reading a manuscript with these problems, you can say the opening is slow or there's too much backstory or it's starting in the wrong place. You can tell the writer to tighten it up or cut material, which can be useful advice. But there are plenty of books that start slow, start with backstory, start with "arriving in town," and they work. Why? What's the difference? Well, it's because there's tension.

You use the term 'micro-tension' to describe line-by-line tension within a manuscript. What is micro-tension and how can it be built?

Micro-tension is the unease that you create in the mind of the reader. You build a mild state of anxiety and the only way the reader can relieve this feeling is to read the next line on the page. So think of a manuscript as a chain of tension followed by tension...

"Tension" sounds drastic, but it can be simmering under the surface, it can be questions raised or false confidence, it can be so many different things. The Fire in Fiction contains an entire discussion (Chapter 8) on building tension and how it works--how a writer can make a riveting passage when absolutely nothing is happening.

The foundation to creating tension is the point-of-view character, whether writing in 1st-person or 3rd-person narrative. The reader experiences a scene through the point-of-view character's senses, mind, and heart. To build tension, the writer works with the conflicting and contrasting emotions within this character. Whether writing action, exposition, interior monologue, or dialogue, you create discord, unbalance, or uncertainty within that character. In dialogue, you build friction or struggle--something between characters. When you do all of this consistently, line by line, you get a page-turner. You get a book that people can't stop reading.

You gave us a great exercise for increasing the micro-tension in our manuscripts during "Writing 21st Century Fiction."

Once you understand the principles of micro-tension, toss up your manuscript page by page and let it fall about. Get those pages mixed up. After your manuscript is in random order, go through and find a way to add micro-tension on each page, at least once.

What I forgot to mention during the workshop was the reason you can't read your pages in order. You'll get into the flow of your story, you'll start enjoying the rich conflict and tension that's in your mind but, unfortunately, not on the page. It's important to look at each page outside of its context and concentrate upon it in isolation.

Once you understand micro-tension and start to practice it, it'll get easier. You'll find that you're putting it into your first drafts. You'll feel dissatisfied when there's not enough tension in your writing.

I saw dismayed faces, particularly when you gave us extensive exercises for our manuscripts. This leads to the next subject: time, which isn't on any novelist's side. Today's blatant message is that the successful writer is a fast writer. Self-publishing proponents say the more titles you put out there, the better, and traditional publishers want faster deliveries from their authors. But is there a tradeoff between speed and quality?

There are boot camps that teach writers how to get out of their own way. And, if you do get out of your own way, you can write at amazing speeds and it can be liberating. NaNoWriMo (National Novel-writing Month) can prove you can get a lot of words out--not necessarily good words in the best order--but that's good to know. Particularly when you're starting out; you need to learn that your writing doesn't have to be slow, painful, or laborious. That said, first drafts are rarely the best draft.

Most writers find their own rhythm and speed. Commercial writers are under pressure to produce at a book-a-year pace. But it's hard to produce a high impact, multi-layered, thematically rich, beautifully-written novel every year like clockwork, considering you've got other things to do like proof your last book, attend signings, and have a life of some kind.

So I do believe there are tradeoffs between speed and quality. I think, on balance, most writers don't take enough time with their fiction, particularly early on in their careers. I would recommend that most writers, even those who are further along and published, spend more time in revision. 

Another theme in your workshops is don't submit your manuscript too early. Are there ways to avoid this pitfall?

If you're a first-time novelist, you are going to submit your manuscript too early. That is a guarantee. You'll learn the hard way, like everyone else, that your manuscript is not ready yet. I think I've given up trying to talk people out of that...

At this point, Donald looks pensive. He picks up the thread again:

What's seems more dangerous and damaging... If the period of time grows too long, if the frustration grows too great, the option becomes self-publishing. We used to call it "vanity publishing." Now it's called self-publishing, but it's the same thing. It means seeing the work in book form, which is validating in a way. "I made a book" is a nice feeling to have. But did I make a good book? Did I make this book the best it could be? Almost always, the answer is no.

But how do you know when your manuscript is really ready?

Most writers have a gut instinct they're not listening to. Professional authors who have been at it for a while learn to trust their gut. Even when they can't articulate what's at issue with their manuscript, they know when something's wrong and they're willing to tear out whole sections.

George R. R. Martin did that when writing one of his novels for the A Song of Ice and Fire series. He was five years between books, his fans were screaming, his editor was tearing her hair out, he was 180 pages into his manuscript and realized he'd made a wrong turn. And, even though this was a bestselling series and he was under tremendous pressure to produce a manuscript, he threw it all out and started over. That was a gutsy and hard thing to do.

He threw out the whole thing?

Yes, he started over. So it's said and I believe it. That's a professional attitude. That's listening to your gut and knowing when you have to do better.

Donald emphasizes his next sentence:

If you aim to be published, you're going to submit too soon. If you aim to be great, you're going to start listening to your gut.

I couldn't have asked for a better conclusion. I think I speak for all the Pikes Peak Writers in thanking Donald for his 2012 presentations--they were both illuminating and instructive. We hope to see him at many more PPW Conferences.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a manuscript to edit.

About the Writer:  Laura E. Reeve is the author of the Major Ariane Kedros Novels from Roc. In the interest of full disclosure: Laura's agent, Jennifer Jackson, is Vice President of DMLA. Even so, Laura was still intimidated by the prospect of her first interview, ever, being with Donald Maass. Luckily for her, Donald's personable and easy to interview. Laura's web site can be found at

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