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Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling in Modern Fiction [Paperback]

Donald Maass
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

16 Oct 2012

Capture the minds, hearts, and imaginations of 21st century readers!

Whether you're a commercial storyteller or a literary novelist, whether your goal is to write a best-selling novel or captivate readers with a satisfying, beautifully written story, the key to success is the same: high-impact fiction. Writing 21st Century Fiction will help you write a novel for today's readers and market, filled with rich characters, compelling plots, and resonant themes. Author and literary agent Donald Maass shows you how to:

  • Create fiction that transcends genre, conjures characters who look and feel more "real" than real people, and shows readers the work around them in new ways.
  • Infuse every page with an electric current of emotional appeal and micro-tension.
  • Harness the power of parallels, symbols, metaphors, and more to illuminate your novel in a lasting way.
  • Develop a personalized method of writing that works for you.
With an arsenal of thought-provoking prompts and questions, plus plenty of examples from best-selling titles, Writing 21st Century Fiction will strip away your preconceived notions about writing in today's world and give you the essential tools you need to create fiction that will leave both readers and critics in awe.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Writer's Digest Books (16 Oct 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1599634007
  • ISBN-13: 978-1599634005
  • Product Dimensions: 22.6 x 15.9 x 1.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 431,696 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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\It might be argued that every literary agent knows a thing or two about story. But having authored several must-have nooks on the craft of writing...we think it's an indelible truth that literary agent...Donald Maass is an authority figure on the topic.\" --"Writer Unboxed""

About the Author

Donald Maass heads the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York City, which represents more than 150 novelists and sells more than 150 novels every year to publishers in America and overseas. He is a past president of the Association of Authors Representatives, Inc., and is the author of several books of interest to fiction writers, including Writing the Breakout Novel, The Fire in Fiction, and The Breakout Novelist (all from Writer's Digest Books).

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A writing masterclass 3 Feb 2013
By fluffy
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I must have read a dozen books on writing and the ones by Donald Maass stand out as being the most inspirational and influential. The author is a literary agent in the US and seems to have his finger on the pulse of what sells and why. It's a unique standpoint, as others in the trade seem unable to define why some novels `break out' and others don't. By `breakout', he means novels by unknown or small-time authors that hit the bestseller lists based largely on word-of-mouth. He has a passion for dissecting the appeal of recent breakout bestsellers and how the rest of us can bring out similar qualities in our own writing.

Because he's American, it's based on his experience of the US market but what resonates with fiction readers in the US often follows for the UK. And some of his examples of good writing are from UK authors such as Chris Cleve. If it sounds like the book is just about producing commercial fiction, it's not, it's about making your writing as good as it can be whatever your genre, partly through emotional resonance, which should be relevant to even the most literary of writers. Each chapter finishes with an extensive list of questions and prompts to challenge you to improve your own writing.

If you haven't read any of his books, I'd suggest starting with Writing the Breakout Novel, followed by the Breakout Novel Workbook. After that, the law of diminishing returns kicks in but I still found this one very useful to keep the inspiration going. I was going to read The Fire in Fiction but it wasn't available on Kindle so I went for this one instead. As this is his most recent book, it covers more recent examples of breakout novels.

Don't read this book if you're looking for a conventional how-to-write guide. But if you have an open mind and are prepared to be challenged to take your writing to the next level, you might want to read everything of his you can get your hands on.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This volume is a follow-on to Maas's previous works on the requirements of modern fiction. Well written, highly specific, and filled with examples from currently successful authors, this is a useful addition to any writer's 'how-to' library.

Maas runs a successful literary agency. He is admittedly sick to death of wading through dull, derivative and badly written manuscripts. The text of each of his chapters are highly useful and will benefit writers of varying experience levels. The thrust of his argument is that modern writers need to break out of the conventions of the fiction of the last twenty years. He feels that these conventions have become straitjackets, particularly for aspiring novelists who think they have to follow rules to be published. In my view, he is entirely correct.

The difficulty comes at the end of each chapter. Maas posits '21st Century Tools' to help writers overcome the problems he sees. These tools are good at making the writer think about what he/she is writing, but they are difficult to actually make use of when writing a novel. Example: 'Find a quiet, emotional moment. Is it artfully written, delicate, subtle, nuanced, and precise? Congrats. Make it enormous: a tidal wave, an attack, a life-altering earthquake.' Easy to see what he wants you to consider, but if you do what he says, your writing will no longer be quiet, nuanced, subtle or anything else you intended.

Maas makes several good points. In all of his guidelines he emphasizes the need for tension, not just the huge moments when the detective confronts the killer, but throughout the writing. In the past there was a lot of emphasis on detailed description, evocative setting, deep psychological characterization.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  49 reviews
51 of 53 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Slightly Disappointed 12 Oct 2012
By Chryse Wymer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Donald Maass's book The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great changed the way I wrote so completely that I pre-ordered this one.

While I do think Maass offers some exercises that are helpful enough to make this book "above average" and reading it is wonderfully inspirational, this book rehashes a great deal of material from his other works. If you've not read The Fire in Fiction, this might be a better place to start because it reads like The Fire in Fiction Lite, in my view. Maass gives entire chapters on The Inner Journey and The Outer Journey...subjects he has covered quite well for me. I understood this in Fire, that every turning point in a story has an inner and outer component.

In Chapter 3 Levels of Story, again, he repeats himself. He tells us that tension comes from conflicting emotions. Well, yes, I read that in Fire in Fiction and employed it. The concept of plot layers? Yep, read that in Breakout Workbook. There's not much new here except that Writer's Digest Books must have changed their editor from a trained monkey to an actual human being. The editing was quite good, and there are a few helpful exercises. However, if I could only buy one book by Donald Maass, I would make it The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers. It reads like an amalgamation of all his amazing genius from, if not a master writer (still wonder what his pen name is), then at least a master mentor to a great number of writers.

If it takes you a little time to pick up on key concepts, then this is a great start. Otherwise, if you read and picked up on the important bits in Maass's other books, this one isn't really all that necessary.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A lot of Questions, You Come Up With the Answers 1 Jan 2013
By Drew Samson - Published on Amazon.com
I'll start off by saying that this book greatly reminds me of "How to Write a Damn Good Novel" by James N. Frey. While it's not as simplistic, and straightforward, it often espouses the same (useful) advice. "21st Century Fiction" is not, however, something that will tell you how to create literature or the next great American novel. It's telling you what sells, how people think, and how to impact your readers. The book is filled with guidance and questions, lots of 'em to steer you in the right direction. It is a very useful book to have. However, I have to point out that it is similar to Donald Maas' previous book "Writing the Break Out Novel." (Which I own as well.) It's nothing completely new, but this book, that is "21st Century Fiction," is the one I prefer. And I am certain that you, as a beginning writer, or even seasoned writer, will derive great value from it.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars High-Impact Tools for Writing 21st Century Fiction 21 Oct 2012
By C. J. Singh - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Reviewed by C. J. Singh (Berkeley, CA)


In the opening chapter, Donald Maass introduces his book's basic premise: In the 21st century "high-impact novels utilize what is best about literary and commercial fictions," transcending the dichotomy (pages 2-3). Maass equates "high-impact" with a novel's inclusion on the New York Times bestseller list: the longer it stays on the list, the higher its impact.

The second chapter's title "The Death of Genre" proclaims assimilation of commercial or genre fiction into literary fiction: "A curious phenomenon has arisen in recent years. It's the appearance of genre fiction so well written that it attains a status and recognition usually reserved for literary works" (page 13). As examples, he cites Robert Stone's "Damascus Gate" -- literary and thriller; and Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Union"--literary and murder mystery.

However, the dichotomy flourishes in MFA programs in American universities. "Literary fiction differs from genre fiction fundamentally in the fact that the former is character-driven, the latter plot-driven....Many, perhaps most, teachers of fiction writing do not accept manuscripts in genre." That's a quote from Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (8th Edition), the most widely used textbook in fiction-writing courses. (See my review on amazon.) This dichotomy first arose from early twentieth century modernist and mid-century postmodernist literary movements. Recently, the excesses of postmodernism have led to a reaction for which literary theorists have not yet found a label and are calling it post-postmodernist literary works. (See my note at the end of this review for a brief exposition of these movements.)

Maass's subsequent chapters present tools for writing high-impact fiction. Some of these tools are similar to those in his earlier books such as The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques. (See my review on amazon.). Can this book be comprehended without reading his earlier books on craft? Yes.

The third chapter, "The Inner Journey," presents excerpts from several novels such as Joshilyn Jackson's "gods in Alabama," published in 2005, and Jamie Ford's "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet," published in 2009. Can these excerpts be understood without having read the novels? Yes. Maass skillfully presents synopses of each novel excerpted.

The fourth chapter, "The Outer Journey," focuses on plot, citing excerpts from Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," published in 2005, and Abraham Verghese's "Cutting for Stone," published in 2009.

The fifth chapter, "Standout Characters" cites examples from Markus Zasuk's "The Book Thief," published in 2005 and Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs," published in 2009. Also Abraham Verghese's "Cutting for Stone," cited in the previous chapter, underscoring high-impact novel's requirement of both plot- and character-driven writing.

The sixth chapter, "The Three Levels of Story," focuses on subplots, citing detailed examples of Pamela Morsi's "Red's Hot Honky-Tonk Bar," published in 2009, and Kate Morton's "The Forgotten Garden," published in 2009. This chapter also discusses strong endings, citing J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," published in 2007.

The seventh chapter, "Beautiful Writing," cites many examples, including Kathryn Socket's "The Help," published in 2009; Daniel Depp's "Losers Town" (2009); and George R. R. Martin's "A Feast for Crows,"(2005).

In the eighth chapter, "The 21st Century Novelist," Maass writes, "You no doubt have noticed my contempt for the three Rs of inactive literary writing: reaction, reflection, and remembering." He cites an excerpt from Helen Simonson's "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," replete with three Rs and does have underlying tension. Will this chapter's title become the title of Maass's next book?

Thanks to Maass's persuasive comments and synopses, I have added five novels to my "must read asap" list: Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs'; Helen Simpson's "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand"; Jamie Ford's "The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet"; Markus Zusak's "The Book Thief"; Tatiana de Rosnay's "Sarah's Key."

Five-star book.


[The following is an appendix to the above review. The origin of literary modernism goes back to at least the early twentieth century. In a 1924 essay, Virginia Woolf wrote: "On or about December 1910 human character changed." She was referring to an art exhibition titled "Manet and the Post-impressionists" that included paintings by Cezanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, as well as younger post-impressionists such as Picasso and Matisse. Inspired by this movement in visual arts, fiction that's planned to be different from traditional forms of the past, came to be created and later called modernist. The term is applied to the experimental and avant-garde writings of the early 20th century. Its techniques include: aesthetic self-consciousness and extreme subjectivity leading to unreliable narrators; stream of consciousness; interior monologue; nonlinear chronology. Modernist novelists writing in English include Joseph Conrad, James Joyce of Ulysses, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner.

Literary postmodernism arose after World War II. It's characterized by ironic parody, inter-textuality, the foregrounding of the process of its own creation, and the rejection of "grand narratives." Postmodernist novelists writing in English include: James Joyce of Finnegan's Wake, Vladimir Nabokov of Pale Fire, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo.

Some aspects of postmodernism have led to negative reactions such as from James Wood, currently Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, who introduced the term "hysterical realism" as his denigration. Others have suggested post-postmodernism. Why not simply "21st Century Fiction."]
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Refreshing read 7 May 2013
By K. Kalfayan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques For Exceptional Storytelling
Donald Maass. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 2012.

Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques For Exceptional Storytelling by Donald Maass presents aspiring authors with ways to write the next best seller. These techniques share something in common, in most cases Maass wants authors to go against their instincts. These writing techniques, in spite of sharing this characteristic, are not formulaic. Mass uses best seller examples and pits them against each other to show subtle nuances that set books apart. "It might seem impossible for any author to break through the wall of popularity erected by Stephanie Mayer's Twilight series, but Lauren Kate's Fallen series did so" (79). He explains that Twilight's supernatural romance was juxtaposed by the suffering of the main characters. In Fallen the suffering is actually a product of the tragic relationship itself, making for a more complex and interesting relationship. Tips like these give the prospective writer an opportunity to consider the best technique for their novel.
Writing 21st Century Fiction is organized really well. After each chapter Maass does a review of key points. This is especially useful for skimming or going back to look up various techniques. Despite the fact that the book is largely formulaic, Mass still manages to present interesting information in each section of his book. This is because each section closely dissects the nature of successful novels buy their parts. Chapters central themes are things like "Death Of Genre" or "The Inner Journey" each section offers new ideas that should help 21st novels overcome cliché and expectation.
Chapters 3 and 4 both deal with character development in different ways. Chapter 3"The Inner Journey" talks about emotional character arcs. Maass suggests thinking about how shocking discoveries in our personal life have affected us these same things can be applied to the novel. "...our deepest search is for meaning. Is it too much to send your characters on the same search? No. The quest for meaning is the ultimate inner journey" (35). The majority of the book reads in this fashion. Mass asks these big questions in the hope that his reader will not only draw meaningful conclusions but start thinking about their story from fresh perspectives. The following chapter talks about the actions these personal changes spur for the character. "Strong story events are surprising, emotional, and revealing, and enact permanent change. Weak story events are foreseeable, zipped up, and empty, and leave in place the story's status quo... It needn't be that way" (46). Your character's inner and outer changes should be as strong and drastic as possible. Many of Maass' suggestions are phrased in this nature of extreme contrast.
Rather than telling the potential writer how every technique should pan out, Mass nudges one to try these techniques for themselves. The book was a refreshing read. These techniques are not explicitly for the "big seller" they can work in all facets of writing because they are designed to push writers out of their confront zones. I would recommend Writing 21st Century Fiction to anyone who was working to augment their personal writing.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Pathway to Best Seller Territory 27 Jun 2014
By Paul - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Being a novelist, you automatically open yourself up to endless criticism – positive or negative. Everyone has a point of view, everyone has an opinion, everyone comes from a different place, has a different spectrum of associations, different likes and dislikes, different expectations. The odds of anyone seeing eye to eye with you on how your story is crafted is a little less likely than finding a needle in a haystack. So, what is there left to bind a reader, reviewer, agent to your story without generating adverse criticism? As Donald Maass would say, “brilliance” – an instinctive, profound understanding of what makes people tick. In a nutshell this is what his Writing 21st Century Fiction is all about. If you can absorb the plethora of insights that machine-gun you through the pages, and implement them with the aid of the writing tools provided, you will, in time, with a little bit of magic, and a boat load of blood, sweat and tears, meet the demands of 21st century story telling and write a great, page-turning, best selling novel. Hope springs eternal.

That said, bear in mind that Writing 21st Century Fiction follows a series of perceptive and inspirational writing books by Donald Maass. Most particularly, his The Breakout Novelist is a compilation of the best of his works prior to Writing 21st Century Fiction, which ramps his instruction up a notch. However, if you have already read the former, the latter is not so essential (there is considerable overlap in instruction) but rather the icing on the cake. Personally, though, I value the extra dimension of instruction on high impact writing that is at the core of this work. You probably will too, and at the same time welcome the additional benefit from any repetition – especially if the best seller list beckons.
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