Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Maass of Hard Work

Wow! Joanne and Anne, you have raised the bar on blogging! Do I dare to dare?

Think about you wip for a moment. What would happen if you turned your premise around?
Write down some of the ideas for stories you have tucked away. What if you turned them around? What would happen if Cinderella didn’t go to the ball?
One of my ideas, as many of you know, is to write a series of stories, set in various historical periods which are somehow affected by the Second Century BC ring I have. The ring has started its journey with a young soldier in the army of Alexander the Great, right after a battle. He has the ring and is moving forward in his story. At the end of his story, the ring will (somehow) move ahead centuries and be the chief character in another story. That’s pretty straightforward and not nearly as brilliant an idea as I thought it was. It is pretty ordinary really.
What if he and the ring time travel to be in each story? What if every story’s characters were running away from the ring rather than fulfill their destiny through it? What if the ring is evil? What if the soldier is evil and uses the ring to do bad stuff? That’s better. It is original.
My questions above are ‘brainstorming’. In 99.9 per cent of romances, the first round of plot conjuring is pretty predictable. Protaganist has problem, solves problem, gets the girl and you turn the page to read about the author or his/her next book. Brainstorming, alone or in a group, is an eye- widener and a brain strain to do, but this is where novels, that are unusual twists on the same old theme, become novels that break out.
Donald Maass, highly successful author and agent, urges, “Whatever you do, push your premise and plot lines further. Don’t be satisfied with just a good story. Be satisfied only with a story that is original, gut-grabbing, unexpected, layered and complex. In other words, stop working only when your story is great....It will take a lot longer than you think. Keep pushing.”
I wish those were my thoughts, but the fact is, I bought Donald Maas’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook and I am sharing with you some ideas he is urging us to do. It is all to help us break in by breaking out as it were. It is one of those I-can’t-put-it-down books with a strong streak of I-gotta-try but boy, Maass is asking a lot. Brainstorming is but one chapter and look at the change in your thoughts he has brung about already.
His chapter on pitching makes it go from a monumental dragon of a task to a easily manageable kitten of a task. A 450 word novel into a 50 word pitch? Of course. He even does it off the top of his head. See how he does it and you do it too.
In the workbook, he is predictable. (Uh oh. He’s going to get me for that!) in that each chapter has a few pages of commentary, followed by several tasks per chapter. Some chapters have one task; others as many as 48. Anyone who has ever heard him speak knows that he demands tension on every page. That chapter runs to 350 tasks. After you have done that 350 task marathon (putting tension on every page) there are 241 tasks that will make your books unique. Wait until you see the tasks!
Where is your back story? Maass says to look over the first 50 pages of our work and find a scene that describes setting, brings in characters, sets up a situation or is otherwise back history. Take it and put it into your chapter 15. Of course it isn’t apt to fit in your chapter 15. So cut it and paste it wherever you think best, but it MUST be after the middle of the book. Maass thinks back history is unnecessary, but if you must use it, put it where it answers a longstanding question. For instance, my soldier is rebelling against the killing and destroying going on around him. Why? Because he is from a genteel upperclass family and he thought the whole army experience would be a great adventure. He now knows it is a season in Hell. One small incident is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. He snaps and walks away. But I won’t tell you that back story unless I have to and it will be a long way into the book.
Maass is a master writer and he makes it plain that unless we present a story that is original, strong and very well written, we haven’t a chance in the publishing (shark pool) world. His goal isn’t to make us good writers or even better writers. His goal is to make us great writers, and that takes work - lots of very hard work. Is it worth it to you or are you happy as you are?
I like this book - a lot. It is tough. It takes one to a new level of effort. It is impossible not to be changed by it - dramatically - as a writer.
How would your wip work if you turned your premise to the opposite direction? Can you think of three different directions your plot could go? Does easily making pitches come ‘out of their den of iniquity’ and be excellent 50 word pitches appeal to you? Does your wip actually need back story? What does your wip need to ‘break out’ of the humdrum and be one heck of a story?
And what if Cinderella didn’t go to the ball?


Karyn Good said...

Good morning, Connie. Thanks for the reminders and the questions you raise to ask one's self. I have both Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel and the Workbook. I've started the first but than NaNo happened and the holidays and now I must get back to it. But I have a page taped to the wall in my office that states CONFLICT ON EVERY PAGE in huge letters.

I love the idea of your story and the ring 'traveling' across centuries and affecting lives in each one. And I've recently become a huge fan of brainstorming in a group. Good luck with your story and I can't wait to hear more about it.

Vince said...

Hi Connie:

You did a great job with this post.

I’m a big fan of Donald Maass but remember he is teaching you how to write one kind of book. Most great literature would not pass his test for greatness. He is really not telling you how to be a great writer but rather how to be great at getting your book published in today’s market. So it is very important to listen to him, if you are witting the kind of book he’s talking about.

Along these lines, if you want to think the opposite of your theme, that is, ‘what if Cinderella didn’t go to the ball’, then think the opposite of Maass, “what if I created reader interest without tension on every page?’ – how would I go about doing this? Wouldn’t that make my book stand out in a world of tension-driven sameness? Think outside the box.

I like your time travel ideas. A ring is good. However, as a man, I’d suggest a dagger with strange Etruscan inscriptions (no one can translate) and a mysterious jewel in the handle that glows at times. I’d make it one of the daggers that stabbed Caesar.

A dagger is inherently dangerous. Perhaps someone famous could be stabbed at each ‘time-stop’ changing the course of history. Perhaps someone was ‘scheduled’ to be stabbed but it was prevented and history remains what we know it as today.

I just love time travel stories. Thinking the opposite is very good advice for stimulating creative ideas. If you write that time travel story, I’d love to read it. Thanks.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

If Cinderella didn't go to the ball, perhaps she would have gone on to a small but successful career as a beekeeper, or a beet farm, yeah.

This is a lot of good advice for shaking a writer out of their comfort zones. I do agree with Vince that the advice, of course, is for a certain type of novel, and worth taking with other perspectives in mind. We want to stick to our own ideas, rather than conform to someone else's. I can see how Maass's ideas create easy potential for high concept work though. If you take a cliche concept and give it a sharp twist (such as Cinderella not going to the ball) it provides a really easy-to-phrase hook and concept summary.

The potential problem is that if everything start sounding like high concept pitches (It's like Pride and Prejudice, but with zombies. It's Rapunzel in a NY highrise, etc) then that exact quality of twisting around the concept can backfire.

Not that I'm undercutting any of what you said, Connie. Just emphasizing that it's up to the individual think critically about their decisions and why they're making them, and never just change something because we're 'supposed to.'

As for twists in my own wip, I never had it going the other way to begin with, but I suppose you could say it's a bit of inverting the ol fairy tale hero/damsel trope... except that really doesn't encompass much of the story at large. Probably a good thing too, it'd be a damn thin story if all it was trying to do was be contrary.

connie said...

Morning Karyn,
I hopped like a flea through the workbook and I have to reread both the book and the workbook. But, short as it is, February is the longest month for me so between bouts at the computer, I hope to do some reading.
Thanks for your interest in the ring story.
Have a great time with BIAW. It really is something to look forward to and January the too-darn-cold is a great time for it. Beginning of the year too. Looking forward to it

connie said...

Hello Vince,
You have brought me down to earth with your comments. I hadn't thought about Maass talking about one kind of book. I will bear it in mind when I reread the book.

What if there wasn't tension on every page. I have found it 'artificial' going back in a work and trying to make tension where I hadn't put any before. I will have to think on it. I think a book without tension on any page would not work but leaving some pages alone sounds workable. I don't think that none on any page would be a good idea.

Your idea of a dagger doesn't appeal just now. The ring has more flexibility. Besides, whenever I look at the ring I wonder where it has been. (I actually wear the ring I am working with).
I love time travel too but I am not anxious to have an ancient Scottish laird pop in. Besides, he would no doubt freeze his knees and I would have to stay up night after night bringing him out of his fever (as is usual in a laird type romance). He would only wake up to notice I am 68 and promptly leave. All that missed writing time!
Thanks for your comments and ideas. You have given me some things to ponder

Jana Richards said...

Hi Connie,
I'm a big fan of Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel and Workbook as well. I agree, there is a lot of information in the workbook and a lot of work!

I've been trying to think outside the box in my plotting, and not settle for the first thing I think of. In one of his exercises I believe Maass asks the writer to come up with 10 scenarios for what happens next. Sometimes it's the craziest or most unlikely thing that turns out to be just what the story needs to give it that something extra.

Like Karyn, I'm a big fan of brainstorming and it's great fun to do with writing friends. You feed off each other's ideas and come up with things you might never have thought of on your own.


connie said...


Beet farm? She'd undoubtedly mess the dress.

Your comments are farsighted as usual!

The easy part referred to his way of preparing a pitch. The rest of his ideasare a challenge for the most part.

Turning everything around isn't reasonable, as you say - although working out the concept of Rapunzel climbing down from her NY apt. using her own braids would be quite something (assuming she doesn't cut them off).

Turning everything around to see how it would work has given me a shake up though. One chapter of my proposed book is better for it.

The ability to stick with my own ideas, despite what I am told, is a natural for me, having had considerable experience in dealing with an older brother. In fact, I can be as rigid as a Grenadier Guard with a bee on his nose. But, as you say, it would be a thin book if only to be contrary.

I will use his brainstorming ideas as tools to examine and even write, but like Frank Sinatra -'I'll do it my way' for the most part.

But, I still think it is required reading - at least for me. I have to admit though, my blog was book report, not a critical look. Our blogs are terrific for making us re-examine our thoughts as a result of considering the comments. On mt wall, I'd best write, THIMK!

Janet said...

Great post, Connie - generating lots of discussion, which is always a good thing.

I've read Maass' book, but skimmed over the exercises (shocking, I know). His theory of tension on every page reminds us all that we want to write a 'page-turner' - one of those books that people read and can't put down! Pages and pages of backstory, description, or setting does not do that - important, but not in excess. I like the idea of leaving backstory out of the first three chapters - get the reader hooked, asking question, then introduce them to the reasons behind the character motivation/action. The goal is to move the plot forward in an entertaining and compelling way.

Good luck with your story - don't second guess yourself so much that you don't write it!

connie said...

Hi Jana,

You are past my 'oh wow! period' and into the workbook. It would be interesting to compare notes when we are done.

I'd love for us to have a brainstorming session at one of our meetings. Or, better yet, have one of our own on Messenger (except I still can't get into my messenger. Their box insisting I must sign up for the paid one won't go away). Anyone know how that to get rid of that box?)

connie said...

Morning Janet,

Are you through having some really stinking weather Down East?

"Second Guess Myself' ought to be my motto. However, as crisis after crisis has loomed over the years, it is actually (said with a deep sigh) "What were the options again?" Of course there is only one: plunge in and get it over with.

Weaving bits and pieces of backstory throughout the book will be a challenge, but that is what I am going to try.

I think writing a page-turner-can't-put-it-down book can be accomplished without tension on every page. I prefer the odd lull. On the other hand, I want to have to see what happens next. That is why, if I read a pocket book, I read it all in one day. If it merits it, I will go back and reread it at a slower pace.

Everyone is provoking some interesting ideas to discuss today and most days in fact. That's why I am completely hooked on our site.

Helena said...

Conn-eeee, I wanted something easy to comment on today!!!!!!!!!

(In other words, some days it's just comfier to stay in the box!)

However, ever since I poured out my guts in November (NaNoWriMo), I have been trying to think of how to do exactly what Maass talks about. I know my story needs twists and turns, and lots more page-turning elements. Believe it or not, I have a notion that time travel, at least in my character's head, might play some part in that.

I'm so glad you dropped this bomb on me (in spite of my screech at the beginning). It's all about turning a fairly ordinary story into something extraordinary. And if I can pull it off, you will have been one of the catalysts. You're welcome!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Connie, I think the best approach for all this information is 'tools in the toolbox'. It's all part of the arsenal we put together to help with excellent storytelling. If we need a shake-up or need a fresh approach, this is a great tool to pull out, but if we're already confident in a premise, we need to be careful not to second guess ourselves :) Don't take a hammer to something that needs a light sanding.

connie said...

Firt I have to get the lumber (premise)out before before I can get into any shaping or reshaping.
I like my premise but I have one helluva lot of work to do. It may be my opus posthumous hilarious

connie said...

You can't screech at me! You introduced me to Maass in the first place!

I will have to crawl into a quiet place and consider all the ideas people have given here and a reread of the workbook - chapters in order this time.

You are right. We have to aim for extraordinary. If I am catalystic, as opposed to catastrophic for your work, I will be quite happy to have been of service.