WRITING HIGH IMPACT FICTION: DONALD MAASS
Lately, I’ve been going through a ‘books on writing’ craze. First it was ‘The First Five Pages,’ by Noah Lukeman, then it was ‘Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict,’ Cheryl St. John, and now it’s ‘Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling,’ by Donald Maass.
Donald Maass, for those of you who don’t know, is an NYC based literary agent—he proudly recently moved from Manhattan to the nice part of Brooklyn—and is, sort of, a literary genius. He wrote such writing classics as: ‘Writing the Breakout Novel,’ ‘The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers,’ ‘The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make your Novel Great,’ and others. He is, in a word, pertinent. In terms of writing and writers, that is.
Maass’s goal in writing his books is to try to make aspiring authors understand how the industry works, how to craft wonderful, important books, and what clichés and pit holes to invariably avoid. His guides are helpful, relevant, and informative.
His point in ‘Writing 21st Century Fiction,’ is that there seems to be this divide within modern American writing (the industry and the trade). The divide erupts between the two schools of thought in writing nowadays: New York Publishing, and MFA Academia. Chad Harbach—author of ‘The Art of Fielding’ and editor of ‘N plus 1’—compiled and edited a book of prose and interviews on this subject titled ‘MFA VS NYC.’ Anyway, the divide is within these two groups and furthermore seems to say to writers: You can either sell your soul to the devil and write that non-literary trash we call ‘commercial fiction’ or you can condemn yourself to a life of desperation, resentment and poverty and be a ‘literary’ writer.
This appears to be the dominant school of writerly thought in 2014. But Maass tries to carefully disabuse us of this notion. He says:
“As you can see, when writing fiction with high impact, there’s no subject matter too taboo, no character too eccentric, no emotional content too intense, no themes too difficult. It’s all in how you handle it. What overcomes all objections are characters who compel, stories that grip, and writing that amazes.”
His point above is that, there is, believe it or not, a middle ground between the two schools of thought. Maass points out that, often, he’ll receive manuscripts that clearly have been tailored one direction or the other, whether it’s the commercial writer trying to cater directly to the agent, or the literary writer snobbily waxing intellectual, essentially thumbing their nose at the publishing world, condemning it as sick and oppressive.
The point is, according to Maass, if you want to write great books and stay true to yourself as a writer, as well as reach a large potential audience, you have to let go of your preconceptions either way and simply write the best book you can. This is what he refers to as ‘high impact fiction’; that which has the highest impact on readers.
When you are too careful and restraining yourself as a writer, worries about what an agent or publisher might think are essentially holding you back. Maass pushes you to write the strongest book you can, regardless of how taboo, how dark, how odd, how difficult. The best books, he argues, are the ones where the author pulls no punches; where they, as David Corbett would say, swing for the fences. They go all the way; no backing down. High impact writers, Maass explains, simply sit down and write their book, not worrying about what agents might want, the current industry trends (because trends, always, will fade), or what happens to be selling well at the moment. Instead, they just write their book. The strongest, most powerful book they can. And then, after doing their agent homework, they submit tirelessly, until they find the right agent. And the right agent is out there, if you keep at it.
Here’s another part of the book: “I encourage all novelists to ignore status games, get over envy, and remember what makes us write fiction in the first place: the desire to tell the stories in our hearts, capture all that makes our existence grand, rattle readers’ presumptions, affirm our common values, shine a light on our age, and spin tales both utterly unique and universally loved.”
That says it all, right? Again we come back to the previous mantra of: Write what you know, as Hemingway famously said. Write what you DON’T know, too, but do it well. Write from the heart, from True North. Write from your soul. Write because you have to and not because you’re trying to make money and impress people. Write with everything you’ve got, and do it hard. Take risks and send it out to lots of agents, after you’ve self edited and sent it to other readers and rewritten and redrafted and hired a pro editor and revised, rewritten, etc. The whole point of writing, I think, is to have a forum for expressing ourselves through the written word, as artists, like the painter paints, the sculptor sculps, the drawer draws. We ARE artists.
So, as Maass suggests, get on the bandwagon of high impact fiction writing. Toss out the old, raggedy notion that you’re either a literary writer or a commercial one. That you’re either an NYC writer or an academic one. Just write the best book you can and then decide later what you want to do with it. The majority of agents—NYC or otherwise—seek books that walk that fine line between commercial and literary. Maass argues in the beginning of ‘Writing 21st Century Fiction’ that the writing industry is, strangely, and contrary to what people might assume, starting to actually trend towards more literary-minded fiction. Maass mentions a few novels: ‘Water for Elephants,’ ‘The Help,’ ‘Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,’ ‘Cutting for Stone,’ etc. These are literary novels, and they’ve sold well internationally.
There are writers who primarily write for a living and exist within the realm of plot—Stephen King, Lee Child, Robert Dugoni—and then there are those who write for the sheer love of the craft. Probably, there is a mixture between both and it’s not that black and white. But the point remains the same: Our sphere is changing in the writing world, and more and more writers are combining the two. So next time, when you’re feeling fed up with the industry, with agents and submissions and rejections and New York publishing, just remember Maass’s words, think of high impact fiction, and forget all that crap. Just write your book. Worry about who will pick it up later. All you have to do is be the artist. And hire a book editor, like me.
“You said it. Let’s edit.”
***I am a developmental book editor. If you have a novel or memoir, I’d love to take a look. Due to clientele at the moment and in the near future, my fastest turnaround right now is July/August 2015 but I can sneak people in if a client drops out, which does sometimes happen for a variety of practical reasons. My rates and other info about my editing can be found under ‘Editing Services.’ Send me a query and the first chapter as an attachment to: firstname.lastname@example.org. I do offer a one-time-only free sample edit. I look forward to seeing your work!
***Please take a minute to check out and perhaps buy (for 66 cents) one of my published short stories at Alfie Dog Press (click here). I appreciate the support! I have pasted part of a story below. If you like it, please buy it and/or another one on the site. Cheers!
Tightrope Going to Mexico was a bad idea, and deep down both of us knew it. But the great thing about my roommate was that every time I came up with a bad idea, I could count on him to be on board. My brain was always concocting thrilling plans in which the only person I could include was Hilly. No one else would be crazy enough to walk that tightrope with me. They’d be too jaded to see the adventure of it, or too nervous to take the risk. No, when these ideas came to me in the night, it was dear old Hilly whose face I saw. And that's how it came to be that I woke up in the early morning San Diego fog proclaiming, “Hey, Hilly…ok man…I got this great dig, ya see. You and I…” “Yeeeeessss…” he interrupted, drawing out the “e.” “Listen Hill, listen. You and I…we’re gonna go to good ole MEX-I-CO, Baaaby!!!” Hilly sat perplexed, his eyes unreadable, registering somewhere between indifference and exuberance — as if the plan was a no-brainer. Of course we’d go to Mexico; we lived in San Diego, thirty minutes from the border. Living at the gateway to a foreign land, a land where anything might happen, well, it was gonna go down at some point, right? It was just a matter of one of us deciding it was time. We both knew it would be me. After breakfast we headed for the bus that would take us to good ‘ole Mexico. We paid the fare and headed for the seats farthest in the rear, as we had done our entire high school careers and probably would do for the rest of our lives. Hilly looked good. I looked good. The world looked good. Mexico, the idea of it — both of us in it for the next twenty-four hours — made life seem more exciting in some childish way, how you felt as a kid getting in the car with your parents for a road trip. (To buy the full story please go to Alfie Dog Press.)