“What’s happening with fiction in the twenty-first century?” author/agent Donald Maass asked the writers who turned out for his workshop at this year’s DFW Writers’ Conference. “I started to notice changes a couple of years ago when I looked at the New York Times hardcover bestseller list.”
The names of the authors, primarily of thrillers were, for the most part, familiar. What was different were the numbers indicating how long a book had been on the bestseller list. The numbers generally were small, usually single digits, indicating short durations on the list.
But when he looked at the bestseller list of trade paperbacks, the venue for books first published in hardcover, he found books that had been on the bestseller list “40 weeks, 44 weeks, even 111 weeks.” What he also noticed was that “these books with long legs were books that had been published as literary. Literary fiction selling at bestseller levels?
“Nothing can explain why these books are successful except people are having an amazing reading experience and telling their friends. Buzz doesn’t last two years. It’s the book itself that doing that. I started reading to find out what these books are doing. They’re beautifully written. And they have a great story.”
What does he mean by a great story? It’s not necessarily nonstop action. The prompts he gives us for writing great story include suggestions like “writing the thing you’re afraid to write down because it’s too painful, too scary, too wrong, too inappropriate. What’s the moment when your protagonist says the thing you can’t say? Can you write it that straight, that direct, that undiluted?”
Maass isn’t more than average in height. He’s slightly built, okay looking but no head turner, the kind of guy you’d pass on the street without a second glance. And probably many of us at the workshop, many of you reading this, have read his books--Writing the Breakout Novel (with its companion workbook), The Fire in Fiction, and the newest, Writing 21st Century Fiction. But he’s standing in front of us, so intense he’s electric, pushing us to do these exercises, right now. We write, mostly in notebooks because we’re afraid of running our computer batteries down in a room with limited power outlets. We write about the scary, the painful, the inappropriate.
We do the same for other emotions. “Don’t just name the emotion,” Maass tells us. “Describe the experience of having this emotion.”
He goes on. “Let’s take some of this emotional work we’ve been doing and build an arc, the change a character goes through. How can that transformation, the complete change in a human being infuse the whole story? What is the protagonist’s worst habit, failing, blind spot? Where does this flaw humiliate your character? If you’re got that already, try to make it stronger.
I find the room almost unbearably warm. Others complain it’s too cold. Problems with the thermostat, or symptoms of our own inner turmoil? And wait, we haven’t even gotten to the beautiful writing part.
“Pretty words, lovely images are often what we call beautiful writing,” Maass says. “But there are better ways. Write in it generic words. Now create another event that’s the same thing, but smaller.”
We write more, about locations, time, characters. What does any of this have to do with beautiful writing?
“We’re creating parallels and reversals,” Maass says. “Things that associate in the readers’ minds.” As do symbols. “Go to the climax,” he tells us. “Pick one object there, one thing your protagonist would particularly notice. How many times can you plant this image, this object in this novel?
“It’s not all about lovely imagery. When you give readers a great reading experience, what you’re actually doing it giving extra layers of meaning. When you start writing from a place that’s personal, when you let go of the fear or embrace the fear and let it guide you, you’re writing twenty-first century fiction.”
(Next Monday--about that scary stuff? How about this for scary--I’ll show you the sample query letter I submitted to Maass. And what he said about it, and what I learned.)