Structure Series #1: First Things First, or Donald Maass Strikes Again

I get ahead of myself sometimes. I’m sure you don’t, but I do. I get excited, I get distracted, I get confused, and often I get out of my depth. I’m probably about to do all of those things spectacularly.

I’m about to commence a series of posts about story structure, the holy grail of the writers’ toolbox. My writers’ group assigned ourselves some homework for the summer: to research some plotting techniques and ideas, and bring them back in the fall to share. I’ve got piles of notes on the subject, so this is my excuse to bring it all together and really make sense of it for myself, and for everyone else. I thought it would be a kind of fun exercise, helpful for organizing my own thoughts and whatnot, but as a blog series I worry that I will jumble things in an order incoherent to anyone outside of my amusement park of a head. I’ve started a few times, saved my draft, and then realized that I needed to start elsewhere. Interestingly, this is how my novel has gone as well. Thankfully, much like my novel, I think I’ve found the comfortable place where I feel good about my starting point.

Before we embark on any matters of craft, especially such an all-encompassing topic as structure, a note is needed on balance. Structure is great, and necessary, but I am one who can get all caught up in things, and allow them free reign at the expense of all other goodness in life.  I suspect we all are a little. We get carried away. Swept up in the moment. We lose sight of the forest, and carve up one gorgeous tree until it is so weak and mangled it goes into shock and we have nothing. It topples the whole forest like a lead domino with an ax to grind.

In the spirit of putting each tree into its proper place in the forest, and nurturing a healthy, thriving storybook wood, I would encourage any and all aspiring authors to pick up one of Donald Maass‘s books before tackling any major overhauls of their manuscript. No one wants to take up a baton and run like mad with it, only to reach the finish line and find out they were running the track backwards. The art and craft of writing is full of necessary waysides and beautiful oases, but any one fish blown out of its contextual waters can muddy (or otherwise nastify) the whole pool.

Enough metaphors, although I could probably liken the whole process to chicken coop politics if I spent enough time here watching my rooster woo his long lost bride on her first day back from mothering quarantine. Just give me a minute…

I just finished milking Writing 21st Century Fiction. Mining might be a better term. I took a long time to go through it, highlighting extensively, trying my best to absorb the idyllic writer’s mentality through sheer willpower and osmosis. I could have read it in a day or two, but I wanted to make it last, so I guess milking might be the correct word after all.

Donald Maass steps up to the plate as always to offer exactly what authors need to hear. Need I remind you, he is one of the largest names in publishing, so knows his stuff. But more important than publishability, he gives us the tools to write – really write – what we want to write, with every ounce of creativity and passion that we want to deliver to our pages. Even if you have no publishing aspirations, his words will ring true and deep. If writing is a journey of self-exploration for you and nothing more, if it is your pie-in-the-sky career-goal, or if it is merely a hobby to fill the years, you will be more fulfilled by your writing – and your writing will be more fulfilled by you – if you take the time to get to know Donald Maass. A small excerpt from a chapter on the inner journey, on putting emotions into print in such a way that they jump off at the reader and attack:

Deep stuff. Painful feelings. Beautiful Material! One of the joys of writing 21st century fiction is the permission it gives you to feel deeply and wide. Your task is to tune yourself to the frequency where honest emotions come through with a crackle and hiss. It can be hard to find them amid the blast of the powerful-but-familiar emotional playlists crowding the dial.

Writing 21st Century Fiction is a collection of sound writing (and life) advice, serious spoilers (as he cracks open novels to reveal their guts), and an exploding arsenal to put it all into practice. At the end of each chapter he throws out a laundry list of tips and ideas to spark your story, fan the flame, and tend it all the way til morning. They’re not the typical bullet-point wrap-ups that hit the high points of the chapters again, in case you missed them, but 5-8 packed pages each (no kidding) of solid ideas you can use now. Like:

What person matters most to your protagonist? Deepen that commitment three times. Then force a breach. Ruin that relationship. What’s lost? What’s gained? Repair – or not.

What’s your protagonist keeping from himself, and who sees that before your protagonist does?

Find a point where your protagonist has reactive feelings. Turn them into action.

Find a small, passing moment in your manuscript. What big meaning does your protagonist see in it? Add that.

Pick anything that happens in your story. Create another event that’s like it, or mirrors it. Add it.

As I read each and every chapter, and each and every chapter-closing idea-storm, I could see myself using 50% of the material in my own manuscript. Here, there, everywhere, I could strengthen my story with his tiny little proddings. Another 25% slapped me in the face with unthinkable challenges that I knew would transform my writing, if only I had the courage to give them a shot. Those are pretty good numbers methinks. There was very little between the covers that just plain did not apply to me, and I suspect most writers of fiction who are really looking to improve would have to say the same.

Most important of all, Donald Maass consistently challenges writers to find who they really are and stay true to it – the only foolproof way to high-impact fiction. Of course there are always times and places that we need to get outside our comfort zones, but in the end, we need to be solidly rooted in who we are as writers, concreted in, guy-wired out, confident in what we have to say. Conforming to the status quo of acceptable writing, contorting ourselves into others’ boxes, is never the way to success, on the shelves or in our hearts.

While Maass mentions little to nothing of structure itself, he has the best all-around approach to writing fiction I’ve seen. He keeps the art in context with the artist, reminds me of why I am writing, and gives me courage to mine for gems that help me, while leaving all else in a cloud of dust.

So before you jump on any bandwagon to improve your writing, take a pitstop with Donald and get a real grip on what is important in your writing.

Obligatory balance lecture complete, and our journey into story structure can begin… next time…

To view a chronological listing of the posts in this series, continue below:

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