Novel Journey’s Interview with Donald Maass

Author bio: A literary agent in New York, Donald Maass’s agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004) and The Fire in Fiction (2009). He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.

The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great
, by Donald Maass

In his new book, New York literary agent Donald Maass illuminates the techniques of master contemporary novelists. Some authors write powerhouse novels every time. What are they doing differently on the page? Maass not only explains, he shows you how you can right away use the techniques of greatness in your current manuscript.

The Fire in Fiction from the publisher.
The Fire in Fiction from
The Fire in Fiction on

1.) First and foremost, I’d like to thank you for granting Novel Journey this interview. Being a highly sought after agent, I know you are pressed for time.

You’re welcome, we’re having a busy year despite the recession—four books on the NY Times Best Seller list this week.

I’ve read your upcoming release, The Fire in Fiction, and can’t praise it highly enough. Many writing advice books address beginners and cover the basics; yours delves into the elusive skills a writer needs beyond those first steps. Will you tell us about this release and what inspired you to take on the project?

Have you ever been let down by a favourite novelist? You eagerly snap up a new title but, ugh, it’s just plain off. Then there are others who write a great novel every single time. How do they do it? That question intrigues me. It’s the reason I wrote The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great. I wanted to learn, and explain, what those master novelists are doing differently on the page.

2.) One of the elements I loved about The Fire in Fiction was your encouragement to work until the book is right. As writers, we often hear that in order to survive we must be capable of producing one or more books a year—lest we lose our audience and future contracts. But what if it takes an author two to five years to craft a good book?

Writing a great novel at a book-a-year pace is extremely difficult. I watch clients struggle with that challenge. One empowering thing to know is that the bigger the impact a novel has, the longer readers will wait for the next one. Think about it. It was ten years between Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, thirteen years between Catch 22 and Something Happened. Those gaps didn’t hurt sales, but those were great novels.

3.) Tell us the problems you address in your book that often plague the lacklustre manuscripts you see.

You can tell when an author is on auto-pilot. The manuscript gets bogged down. It wanders. It’s low in tension. You skim. Add to that stereotypical characters, predictable plots, cliché-ridden prose, churning exposition, buried dialogue—you get the idea. It is distressing how often manuscripts are like that, even manuscripts from published authors. But The Fire in Fiction is not about what not to do. It is about the techniques that make a novel a masterpiece.

4.) In Fire in Fiction, you address the difference between storytellers and status seekers. Will you give us a quick definition here?

For thirty years I have observed fiction careers. I’ve seen them succeed and fail. The more I see, the more I feel that novelists fall into two broad categories: those whose desire is to be published, and those whose passion is to spin stories. I think of these as status seekers and storytellers.

You can’t tell the difference right away, but over the course of a career it always emerges. Status seekers focus on self-promotion and obsess about the industry. Storytellers ignore that stuff and focus on improving their novels. Guess who succeeds and who fails?

5.) You seem like a straight shooter, someone who believes in the art and craft of fiction and is very vocal about it. You’re known for saying it is what’s between the covers of a book that sells it. You’re accredited with saying that marketing plays a small role in a book’s success and that writers shouldn’t worry about promotion until their fifth or sixth book.

I can’t help but to disagree. I would argue that many of today’s laurelled authors are known because of their first novel. (Jhumpa Lahiri, Lauren Weisberger David Guterson, Alice Sebold, Sue Monk Kidd, Mark Haddon, Nicholas Sparks, Rebecca Well, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, Helen Fielding, Harper Lee, Audrey Niffengger, Geraldine Brooks, Arthur Golden, Charles Frazier, Elizabeth Kostova, Susanna Clarke, etc.)
My theory is that a storytelling author should pursue every bit of marketing and promotion available to start that word of mouth process, rather than hoping some librarian will pluck the book off a dusty shelf someday and discover it’s a gem. It’s a short twelve weeks from being stocked at Barnes and Noble to landing on their bargain bin table. After spending years working on a novel, shouldn’t an author strive to give their story not only the best agent, the best publishers, but also the best marketing?

Sorry, we’re going to disagree on this one. It’s true that many of the novelists you mention above hit big with their first novels. But look closer. Many of those books started out with no promotion at all. Only after sales began to climb did publishers hop on board and begin spending. That accelerated what was already happening. Great stories are the engine. Promotion may be the gasoline but gasoline won’t propel a two-cylinder putt-putt very fast–or push a broken engine very far down the road.I agree that, at the end of the day, stories are engine that runs the machine. No doubt about that.

I did look closer and researched some of the debut novelists mentioned. I chose 8 books, but feel confident I’d find similar results with the other books. In every novel I researched, I show that major outlets (such as: New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Post, Vogue, TIME) featured the novels the same month the book was released, or within a relatively short period of time.

With 200,000+ books published a year, and something like an average of 5,000+ books being featured on a national level—someone was working very hard to gives these books a prominent spot. I even researched The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, which has been hailed as a sleeper success, and found the novel held some of those coveted spotlights. Magazine leads often are pitched up to a year in advance, while nationally recognized newspaper reviews require a 4-6 months lead time. In my experience, those novels have required a publicist touting them in order to have a slim hope of being featured. Nicolas Sparks received a million advance on his first novel, which shows the publisher’s faith in his book. We know that shelf space on the “New Arrival” shelf are paid placement in bookstores, and that the books featured in these outlets are often the ones most easily found.

Perhaps we could agree in the middle? That there are two fairly distinctive paths—those who are either gifted (or worked hard to prefect their craft beforehand) and stand a greater chance of being launched from the get go, and those who gradually grow book by book and build their audience slowly until they are ready for a bigger push around book 5 or 6? Why does media get excited about a novel? What starts the bandwagon rolling? Publisher hype? That’s a prod, obviously, but media far more often than not take a pass. What gets them excited is the same thing that gets word of mouth going: a great story. It all comes back to that. Up and down the ladder it all starts there.

6.) You don’t address word count in your book—in fact you even use an example of how John Case took over a hundred pages to set up his thriller. A writer may realize the importance of building up certain types of stories, but how can an unpublished writer pitch their book with a word count that is higher than 100-125K?

You don’t hear editors complaining about word count when a novel is a powerhouse. That said, let’s admit that a book longer than 125K words is pretty long. There are pricing problems. You can run into resistance from chain buyers, particularly for a debut author. Very long books can also present binding problems. If you are a first time novelist, you have to ask whether your novel truly justifies more than 125K words. Quite honestly, most first novels do not.

7.) Your agency has one of the highest reputations in the industry. What do you feel sets you apart?

Gosh, thanks. We specialize in fiction. Developing fiction careers is our specialty. Many agencies say they do that, but some are mainly focused on deals. We take a more strategic approach. Fiction careers build over a number of books. Keeping things moving steadily, staying with one publisher, growing an audience with consistent storytelling and reliable publishing…those are the things that work. It requires patience. It’s not as exciting as announcing an auction every day, but long term it yields the best results.

8.) Success is said to change everyone its visits. How would those close to you say it has changed you?

I think I’ve gathered a good deal of helpful experience. I know where the problems lie in fiction careers. I have more confidence now because I understand how many writing and publishing problems can be solved. On the down side, I am busier. I am also less patient with lousy and lazy novel writing. That, truly, is the root of most career problems. It’s why I write books like The Fire in Fiction. So much frustration and angst on the part of fiction writers can be avoided.

Oh wait, sorry, your question was about those close to me. How would they say I’ve changed? I’m happier, more relaxed. I don’t stress as much. And hey, I still weight what I did in college. That hasn’t changed–it’s just more of a struggle.

9.) Agents are always telling their clients that networking at writers’ conferences can’t be stressed enough. Do you agree and if so why?

I don’t agree. There are highly successful authors who never attend conferences. On the other hand, conferences can be a great place to learn. For developing fiction writers they can be a boost. Plus, it’s nice to hang around other writers. But please don’t think that networking at conferences is the same thing as building an audience. It’s not. It can’t be. Even if you networked your tush off at a conference every other weekend, you couldn’t begin to win the number of fans that it will take to make you successful.

10.) There’s a lot of confusion about what exactly entitles a book to be called a bestseller. Will you define when an author or publisher can claim that status?

“Bestseller” is starting to sound over-used, isn’t it? One tiny little blip one week on the USA Today list and wham! “Bestselling author” is plastered on the paperback. But let’s be generous. Getting on the extended New York Times Best Seller List still means you are selling a lot of books.

But what, technically, qualifies? Who knows? I care about claiming the status only as it relates to packaging. It helps some authors to proclaim the status—but also hurts others. It doesn’t help, say, to over-hype literary fiction. In general, I feel that this whole business of becoming a “best seller”, whatever that means today, is a distraction. How many readers come back for your every new book? And why do they love your fiction? That’s a better focus.

11.) What should newcomers strive to learn about the publishing industry before they enter the arena?

Learning the landscape is good. What is an independent editor vs. an acquiring editor? Where does an agent fit in the process? There is a procedure to querying editors and agents that’s basic. Newbie novelists need to know that stuff.

12.) Walk us through your average day?

You’re kidding. Average? Every day is different. Okay, certain things always are happening. Writing pitches. Making marketing plans. Submissions. Contracts and collecting payments. (We process hundreds of contract every year.) Tons of e-mail. Inquiries from producers and screenwriters about film rights. This week we worked on our Rights List for the London Book Fair. Queries and manuscripts, including up to 500 e-mail queries a week.

We’re pretty organized, but good grief I’m getting a headache just thinking about it all. Next question?

13.) If you could take your present-day knowledge and counsel yourself when you first entered this business, what would say?

That’s an excellent question. I’m going to give you a brutally honest answer. This will not make me look good, but if I could travel back in time and give advice to my young agent self it would be this: Don’t take on so many mid-career crisis cases. There’s a reason things are going wrong for them. Take on only great fiction. An author with a fantastic debut novel has a better chance of a strong career than a published author with bad writing habits and a chip on his shoulder.

14.) Will you name a few clichés you could live without ever seeing again?

“Unruly hair.” “As if on cue…”

15.) Often, when writers sign with an agent, they’ve only met them in passing or never had a face to face meeting. Will you tell our readers what are some good ways to get to know your new agent better without appearing pushy or desperate?

No one’s going to take my advice on this because early on, the need for contact and validation is huge. All I can advise is, take it easy. A successful career takes more than one book and more than one year. You’ve got time. Let the process be the natural framework for getting better acquainted.

16.) Advice for aspiring novelists or parting words?

As you know, I teach advanced fiction workshops all over the country. But if I could teach only one thing, it would be the technique I call “micro-tension”. That’s the line-by-line tension that keeps a reader constantly wondering what will happen—not in the story, but in the next few seconds.

How is micro-tension done? Ah, you can find out by reading……The Fire in Fiction. (Wait a minute, that was self-promotion…shoot.)

Thanks, Jessica.