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Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Writing Retreat with Donald Maass! by DL Larson

Every time I take a writing class I feel I don't know a thing about writing. Someone changed the rules and everyone knew but me.

Once talking to other writers, I realized I was not alone with this feeling. Writing is a changing creature and if one expects to succeed, one must keep evolving too. Editors and publishers want a stronger, more involved story for readers. I believe all writers want this as well. We want our readers to become engaged with the story and characters. We want the reader to connect immediately with the protagonist.

We need to write the truth. If we don't give the reader the truth, what is the purpose of writing? We need to give the reader some deeper level of truth that resonates a connection with the characters. Truth moves us. Mr. Maass asked the class to write something from our life that would never be in our novel. He shared that this experience would most likely be something painful, hurtful or fearful. And much too personal to share. Then he told us ~ find a place in your story for your character to say that truth. When there is nothing left to lose, the truth comes out.

Another exercise was to write about a new experience we had. I wrote about my daughter having an emergency c-section. I hemorrhaged with each of my births and never quite got over that fear. I had already experienced a deep fear when my grandson was born too early. The fear nearly overwhelmed me. All turned out well and we were ever thankful for little Colton. Then it felt as if history repeated itself when my daughter had her son, Van. Except this time, the fear was for my daughter, her baby was fine. She was not. An eternity passed while we waited. Finally the doctor approached us. I couldn't breathe. My husband and I wilted against each other when our daughter was wheeled past us. I couldn't take my eyes off of her. Then I heard the doctor. Our daughter would be fine.

Mr. Maass told us to forget about safe writing. He asked if there was some place we could put our new experience in our WIP. I smiled, because I already have. So I have done something right after all!

Another topic we discussed was the saggy middle of the story. Many writers neglect this part of their story. It's an important part of any novel and needs attention just as the beginning and end. The middle needs to have surprises and twists. The POV character is going through experiences. These experiences need to be not only truthful, but self-awareness needs to evolve through whatever fear, abandonment, puzzlement the protagonist is involved in. The inner journey the character struggles with is changing and we as writers need to reveal this in new ways.

Here's an example: Her guts twisted in agony.  Delete that. In its place write the experience of the emotion so the reader's gut twists instead. Have the reader experience something they were not expecting. The intention is to stir up the inner emotions of the reader, not the character. Micro tension best describes this procedure. Tight emotions revealed on the page capture the readers empathy and they want to read more. They won't skim through the paragraphs waiting for more action. They will want to read every sentence. Neon emotions don't work. Writers need to give the reader the experience of the emotion they want to share.

We covered so many other topics in this workshop, I hope to share more with you another time. But I will leave you with a questionnaire to ask your POV character:

  • What does your protagonist most want?
  • What does he/she want to avoid at all costs?
  • What does he/she want to accomplish, no matter what?
  • What is the one thing he/she needs to become?
  • Who is the one person your POV character will never trust?
  • Who is the person your POV character trusts the most?
Whatever your answers may be, make the opposite come true in your story. Easy success is boring. Give your readers the challenging ride they deserve. Creating obstacles raises the stakes for your character and enhances the reading level of your audience. Writing your character out of a mess they've created is what good writing is all about.

Good Luck!
Til next time ~


PS: for those interested: Donald Maass has writing books to help you develop your writing skills. The one he used for our class: Writing 21st Century Fiction.

Donald Maass
Donald Maass Literary Agency


  1. It sounds like a great conference. I love it when I return home and my head is just buzzing with everything I learned. Thanks for sharing your experience. And for the questions. A great way to direct your thoughts...and then turn them upside down to create tension and conflict.

  2. Yes, he's amazing! A great learning experience!

  3. Hopefully I can apply some of what I learned. And hopefully I can share a bit more of his workshop. Thanks for stopping by!