Interview: Agent Donald Maass

By Posted in - Randomness on November 23rd, 2009 0 Comments

Don Maass

I was delighted when Donald Maass, NY agent and president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency stopped by my chat room recently to answer a few questions for some of his recent workshop graduates. Here’s a summary of the Q & A session:

Do you feel 3rd person is too distancing for today’s readers?

Donald Maass: No, but “intimate” third person point of view is increasingly common. It’s third person, but we see and feel only through the eyes and mind of the POV character. For instance: “Lia felt her face flush” rather than “her face turned red”. See?

Is it okay to telescope from omniscient to 3rd and back out again?

Donald Maass: Yes, you can move in and out of close (intimate) third person. It’s entirely a matter of choice and what’s comfortable. My observation, though, is that contemporary writers and readers like a more intimate POV. Romance novels are written almost entirely that way. Thrillers less so, but nevertheless, sometimes.

Phew! I’ve had some critiques that say it is a POV switch.

Donald Maass: Well, it is, sort of. The trick is to move seamlessly in and out. For instance, start in object third, then when the POV character first speaks, thereafter slip into intimate third.

In modern fiction, what makes a story more suited to either first or third person? And, how resistant are publishers to a story told in mixed first and third?

Donald Maass: No-one is resistant to first/third combinations, or even past/present tense switches. Both are common today. What is important is to establish the pattern early in the manuscript. It’s important to condition your reader to whatever storytelling pattern you’re going to follow.

How soon do you need to establish a switch in POV?

Donald Maass: Good question. It’s a tough balance because you want to both anchor the reader in the antagonist’s POV, but also let ‘em know you’ll be switching. Overall, I kind of think the best pattern is to start with the protagonist, switch within 30 pages to someone else, so we know what to expect. So many novels start with a different POV, such as the villain. But the first person we meet on the page, we generally try to bond with. It’s like a duckling opening its eyes for the first time…

During your Breakout Novel Intensive workshop, you said you didn’t care what order the scenes are in, only about the tension inside each scene. Did you mean that only as a working model for writers while they are finishing the draft, or did you mean the narrative isn’t important, only the scenes?

Donald Maass: Of course overall plot is important, yet writers stress too much over ’structure’ and too little over intra-scene tension. What is ’structure’ in a non-genre novel? There isn’t one. There are only a long collection of events – some mundane, some dramatic. Wringing maximum drama out of the mundane stuff is crucial – and that means sharpening scenes. Also, most non-genre novels need more big dramatic events. Precisely where they go in the manuscript isn’t as important as that they be there to begin with.

Do editors edit much? Like suggest where scenes might be better situated?

Donald Maass: Yes, the good ones. But that kind of structural editing is increasingly rare. I mean, I’m talking about in-house, acquiring editors.

Would you say agents are doing more editing than in the past?

Donald Maass: Oh, definitely. How much varies, but it’s commonplace.

When you suggest that writers consider over-lapping tension, does that refer to the scene as a little story, or tension on every page, or both?

Donald Maass: Well, both. A scene enacts a change – that’s a mini-story. But to get through even an eight page scene, to make every word essential reading, you need line-by-line tension. So, I guess in a way you’re thinking/writing on three levels at once: macro plot, scene mini-story, and micro-tension.

Does that density of tension come with second drafts, or should writers try to get it in the first draft?

Donald Maass: Man, I’d work on micro-tension all the time. Save work in subsequent drafts.

Is micro-tension the same as ‘tension on every page’?

Donald Maass: Yes. Last night I went to a tribute service for John Updike, great event, his widow and family were there. They played an interview… Updike said that what he writes about is the tension between what one wants, and what is. It’s the modern dilemma. It preoccupied him.

Has anyone else hit a point now or in the past where you couldn’t tell if the changes you were making were good or disastrous? I’ve hit a point where I have no feel for it at all. I suspect I liked the chapter the way it was too much and am resistant to making the suggested changes though I’ve tried to make them. I’ve tried setting my writing aside and looking with fresh eyes, but it hasn’t helped. Ideas on how to get past this?

Donald Maass: Outside readers are needed, critique partners or groups who are at your level or beyond. Professional athletes have coaches. Actors have directors. Rock groups have (for recording) producers and (for performances) musical directors. Why do writers think they can, or even should, go it alone? I don’t get that.

How do you balance how much science you can squeeze into a science fiction book without losing the reader, and conversely, how much is necessary to shore up believability?

Donald Maass: Tough balance to strike. Many hard science writers err on the side of science; the human side of their stories suffer. On the other hand, lightweight SF hardly feels SF (SF on TV often has this shortcoming, I think). To hit the right balance, reread the masters: Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Phillip Jose Farmer, etc. They got it right. Read their work with different colored highlighters in hand. Check out how much ‘pure science’ they insert. It’s probably way less than you think. The same issue goes for writers of forensic thrillers, say.

Do you have some exercises in your new non-fiction writing guide, “FIRE IN FICTION”, to illustrate how to make improbable premises believable?

Donald Maass: Yes! The book is out May 6th, 2009 (hint-hint).

Would you agree or disagree that the idea of tension on every page or micro-tension perhaps means that in all aspects of the scene – the characters, inside and out, the setting, the dialogue and interaction, in the small details and the large ones, even in the exposition, that the reader senses or sees that there is something wrong, off kilter, dysfunctional even and this creates a constant multilayered discomfort or tension that the reader wants resolved and so they read on?

Donald Maass: I agree, that’s exactly it.

How important is the ending? Should you leave the person with a) a profound question; b) a great quote; c) the end of an arc; d) a restatement of the theme; e) all or none of the above.

Donald Maass: What an ending needs above all is a sense of resolution: calm, trouble over, things back to normal (even if a little bit different). They can be poetic or ordinary, a flag flapping in the breeze, or just walking away hand-in-hand. Whatever. Follow your gut. We notice endings mostly when they are annoying; which is to say, they don’t provide a sense of resolution.

Sounds like you’re saying we need to pay as much attention to the last line as the first.

DonaldMaass: You’ve got novels on your shelves? Read the last 25 pages. Every novel is different and needs a different note on which to end. A memorable one is great, of course, but do SOMETHING deliberate.

Any last words on plot?

Donald Maass: My wife Lisa and I were saying the other night, the problem with most plots is that they aren’t bold enough. Updike killed a baby in his first novel. Great scene. Everyone remembers it. A drunk mother drops her in a full bathtub and takes too long lifting her out.

Well, time’s up, and I know you have places to go and people to see. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to chat with us!

Donald Maass: You’re welcome. Bye, all!

(Donald Maass is the author of WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK, and his new book, FIRE IN FICTION – available at bookstores everywhere!)

To attend one of workshops Don teaches check out the Free-Expressions website for dates and locations @

Check out his agency’s website

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