Is Donald Maass worth $99?

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By Debby Giusti

Registration for the American Fiction Writers Conference is in progress and many of you have probably signed up for the workshops being offered this year. But what about the early bird session? Literary agent and story-guru Donald Maass is presenting the full-day program. Cost for the event is $99.

With the economy in a downward spiral, money is tight. If you’re like me, the conference takes a big bite out of my writing budget. The Thursday early-bird program adds the workshop fee as well as overnight hotel accommodations to an already hefty bottom line. So, you might be asking, is Maass worth the extra expense?

Shortly after he published WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL in 2001, my Georgia Romance Writers Chapter invited Maass to do a program for our membership. I grabbed a front-row seat and soaked up as much information as I could. Didn’t take long for me to realize the man truly understands story and especially the elements that transform an ordinary read into a best-selling novel. I bought his book, went home and tried to incorporate what I’d learned into my current work-in-progress.

In 2004, Maass published WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK. An easy-to-swallow text with accompanying writing exercises, the workbook offers examples from New York Times bestsellers, straightforward explanations about the processes those authors have used to take their work to a higher level and exercises to incorporate the lessons learned into a writer’s current manuscript.

Last year, I pulled the workbook off my reference shelf and referred to it in my weekly Craftie Ladies of Suspense blogs ( Here’s a sampling of what I learned and shared with my blog readers:

Maass encourages writers to push the envelope! Give your hero a one-liner that puts the villain in his place. The I-wish-I’d-said-that factor resonates with readers and makes our heroes and heroines compelling and memorable.

As writers, we need to ensure our characters grapple with pertinent issues that strike a chord with those who read our work. So cut the fluff and zone in on core principles, universal truths and moral dilemmas that engage readers, whether contest judges or editors looking to buy the next bestseller.

Maass encourages writers to step outside the box and embrace originality, perhaps peppered with a bit of audacity, to meld bizarre, seemingly non-convergent traits and actions into a memorable character.

When we look at each individual page of our manuscript instead of the chapter or scene as a whole, we’re better able to spot opportunities to up the stakes, which may have been missed otherwise.

Maass explains that if problems arise from an outside source—meaning they’re not self-imposed internal conflicts—and if the problems continue to escalate, they eventually become what he calls “public” stakes that can touch the reader on a universal level.

We all know the antagonist needs to have his or her own GMC (goals, motivation and conflict), but Maass encourages us to go even deeper into the villain’s character. One of the workbook exercises focuses on exploring the bad guy/gal’s sympathetic side. By adding a few details, the reader can see the villain as a multi-dimensional character that may even be likable in some ways. Just as our hero and heroine can be pulled between what they really want/need and what they think they want, if the villain’s good side is in direct opposition to the bad deeds he’s forced to do, that internal struggle can provide a more richly drawn antagonist as well.

Just as we describe a sunset or a garden in bloom, so should we detail the impact events have on the inner person. Maass suggests doing “emotional research.” How does a flesh and blood person react to a similar situation in real life? That glimpse of reality will give authenticity to our characters, which will resonate with readers.

When we provide opportunities for a character to forgive a wrong or put the needs of another before his own, we are elevating that character’s worth. When characters are elevated, readers are elevated as well.

To create memorable first lines, Maass suggests taking what we’ve initially written and then shortening it. Perhaps the second sentence would provide a tighter opening. Or combine all the elements in the first paragraph and craft a hard-hitting line that draws the reader into the story. Maass warns against starting with weather, description or setting. Instead lead with a hook that keeps the reader guessing.

Equally important are closing lines, which should also be well crafted. Books in a series need to leave the reader hungry for the next release. Stand-alone titles should provide an uplifting resolution or final thought the reader can savor.

Which brings me to the end of this blog. Maass challenges me to be a better writer, to dig deeper, to stretch and grow and to create stories readers will remember. In my book, that’s worth $99.

Happy writing! Happy reading!

Wishing you abundant blessings,
Debby Giusti
PROTECTING HER CHILD, Debby’s fifth Steeple Hill Love Inspired Suspense, is available now.

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