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Top New York Agent Donald Maass visited our local Whatcom Writers & Publishers group.

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The news is out: Donald Maass has opened a West Coast office in our “City of Subdued Excitement,” Bellingham, Washington! Expressing an interest in making connections within our very active, creative community, he appeared as guest speaker at our latest meeting of Whatcom Writers and Publishers. Despite the snowy, icy conditions, a roomful of dedicated writers greeted him enthusiastically.

“Donald Maass founded the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York in 1980. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996),Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004), The Fire in Fiction (2009), The Breakout Novelist (2011) and Writing 21st Century Fiction(2012).  He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.” (From the website )

I’ve followed Mr. Maass’s career for years, and have recommended his excellent craft books to my students and editing clients. I met him briefly at a ThrillerFest conference in New York a few years ago, and was delighted to hear the news that he had moved to the Pacific Northwest to open a local branch of his literary agency. A dynamic speaker, he clearly values the deeper aspects of storytelling and the inner lives of fictional characters. He’s passionate about the importance of heartfelt stories to our culture, and is here to show us how to achieve a true emotional connection with readers. And he has a great sense of humor!

Mr. Maass graciously chatted with several of us as dinner orders were underway, then started his presentation with an update of the state of publishing. I was happy to hear that the outlook for book publishing is more positive than I expected. Apparently the much-hyped “death of the book” is far from a reality, and in fact global literacy rates are quickly rising. The publishing industry is “steady and healthy,” with 675 million print books sold in the U.S. in 2017.  Sales of eBooks, once expected to spell the end of print books, have levelled off from traditional publishing sources.

The numbers of indie-published ebooks continue to expand, with a completely different market approach. Basically, a few indie authors can make big profits if they are very marketing-savvy, but most indie ebooks languish with very low recognition. If I caught the figure correctly, around 4,000 ebook titles are published via Amazon Kindle per month, and most of these titles are lost in the flood. The traditional publishers can still offer much wider distribution and recognition through reviews, placement in bookstores, and advertising. Of course, authors must pass “the gatekeepers” of agents and editors in order to be published traditionally, but Mr. Maass assured us that new authors, by far the majority from outside the “New York scene,” are still being sought and welcomed.

Mr. Maass then proceeded to fire up the room with his discussion of the importance of deep storytelling in fiction, which depends on the development of rich inner lives of characters and connection to important cultural themes. He reminded us that “literary” values do apply to successful commercial fiction. Yes, compelling plot and pacing are important, but a story needs these rich characterizations, inner tensions, and multi-level conflicts in order to really connect emotionally with readers. He feels the separation between “literary” and “genre” is becoming meaningless. “Readers want greater depth now.”

He then challenged us with a few quick writing exercises designed to dig deeper into the background, motivations, fears, and triumphs of our own characters. We experimented with ways to “write around” an emotion such as fear or anger that our characters might be experiencing, in order to avoid such clichés as “his guts twisted in fear.” We can explore all the surroundings and sensations of the character in order to impart that emotion without baldly (and badly) stating it.

We ended on a note of fresh air in our jaded, politically-fraught times, as Donald Maass urged us to consider providing our readers with “moral uplift.” He cited studies showing that deep emotional connection to fiction can make positive changes in the lives of readers. Thank you, Mr. Maass, for a hopeful vision for our times!


You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts at  every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from  is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Chanticleer Global Thriller Grand Prize and the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from another research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. 


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