Spotlight: Donald Maass - Evoking a Visceral and Emotional Experience in Readers

 
 

We are thrilled to be presenting agent Donald Maass as this month's Spotlight Interview. Don is a veteran literary agent, president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, and author of more than half a dozen writing craft books. 

His seventh and most recent title, THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION: HOW TO WRITE THE STORY BENEATH THE SURFACE, takes you through a comprehensive range of narrative techniques designed to help you provoke deep visceral and emotional experience in readers. 

Don is also an expert writing instructor whose acclaimed workshops and seminars are known for their challenging, high-level content, leading you into a deeper relationship with your work and greater writing success--no matter what your current level of success may be.

 

This is going to be the sixteenth year you’ve been putting on workshops with Free Expressions, what motivated you to work with them?

Live workshops have a dynamic that the flat page and online PowerPoint cannot achieve. There’s something about time apart in a room of writers that frees creativity. 

In person, I can riff, prompt and engage with writers personally. There’s a feeling of barriers being down, of “the industry” being accessible and open, of the focus being where it belongs: on story. 

Plus, it’s just fun to work with Lorin, Brenda, and the team! 


"It’s important to have time not to meet goals
but to explore the manifold possibilities of story."


What have you learned about conducting workshops over the years? 

Every writer learns differently. You can never tell what will switch on a lightbulb or trigger a story breakthrough. It’s therefore important to approach story craft from a number of angles, stimulating new ideas through a variety of prompts. 

While there’s nothing wrong with daily word count goals, it’s important to have time not to meet goals but to explore the manifold possibilities of story. 


What advice would you give to writers coming to one of your workshops for the first time?

Don’t expect a formula for success, but do expect to assimilate many new ways of deepening your story. 

Expect to write a lot. 

Expect to have fun. 

Expect your brain to hurt. 

That’s all good.

 

"I realized that plot is only one dimension
of what gives story impact." 

 

How have your thoughts on fiction craft evolved? 

Once upon a time, I thought only about plot.

Then I realized that plot is only one dimension of what gives story impact. Surprising scenes, micro-tension and manipulating reader expectations are also important. Still later I began to understand how character arcs happen and integrate with the outward plot. 

More recently, I’ve been focusing on areas of storytelling that are not traditional craft topics; for instance, creating a sense of wonder or what produces emotional effect.

The latter is the subject of this new “Emotional Craft” workshop.


What would excite you in a manuscript that came across your inbox RIGHT NOW?

The first impression of a manuscript is created on the first page, so always I value the immediate arrival of a confident storytelling voice, something intriguing and something emotional engaging. 

Beyond that, there is originality and the ability to sustain tension and constant surprise on the page for the length of a novel. What helps achieve those effects is a grasp of plot, scene elements, micro-tension, character arcs, story world, a shifting moral map, and all the other things we learn in workshops. 

And then there is something that is tough to teach but that can perhaps be enabled: an underlying urgency that flows from the author’s own experience.

We shorthand that with the word “passion”, or sometimes “purpose”. As vague as those words are, they are nevertheless part of what sweeps us away when we read.


How is THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION different from your previous books? 

This new book presumes a grasp of all the Breakout essentials. It’s not a recap but an altogether different way of looking at story: through the emotional effect that story produces on readers, and on how that effect is achieved. 


"Readers feel strongly when they are surprised, challenged, inspired, led, misdirected,
and when story connects them to our
greatest values and highest ideals."


What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION?

It’s this: What characters feel has little to do with what readers feel. While the question of showing versus telling is not wholly irrelevant, it’s only a small generator of a story’s emotional effect. 

Readers feel strongly when they are surprised, challenged, inspired, led, misdirected, and when story connects them to our greatest values and highest ideals.

Beneath all of that is the writer’s own spirit and emotional journey in creating the story. That more than anything shapes what we’ll feel as we read.


What are you currently reading? 

Apart from client manuscripts and submissions, I’m catching up with UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead, UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben H. Winters, A GENTLEMAN OF MOSCOW by Amor Towles, THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB by Genevieve Valentine, THE FIFTH PETAL by Brunonia Barry, to name a few. 

Has anyone read BEHIND HER EYES by Sarah Pinborough?  That one’s coming up on my radar quite a bit lately. 

 

You can follow Don on his Facebook page and on Twitter as @DonMaass.

All of his books can be found at Amazon.

If you haven't already taken one of his classes, or if you's like to take another, Free Expressions is offering four workshops with Don this year. You don't want to miss out. Whether you're a beginner or a professional, a class with Don is a master class in writing craft.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction - Houston

The Emotional Craft of Fiction - Seattle

The Breakout Novel - Tampa

Story Masters - Toronto