Three Story Skills that Self-Published Novelists Need



Hello boys and girls, I would like to present today’s guest post from one of the best writing-advice-givers out there, author-agent Donald Maass.

By Donald Maass
Author of The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers

Here are three things that glib, hasty or form declines from New York aren’t telling you.The solutions can help you whether you are seeking a major imprint or going it alone:

I was able to begin skimming your novel almost right away. Ouch. That’s not the effect you want. The antidote is a high level of line-by-line tension, what I call “micro-tension.”

Here’s how it works: When every paragraph, if not every line, of your novel creates in the reader’s mind a worry, question, apprehension or even a mild disease, the reader will unconsciously seek to relieve that tension. The result? The reader zips to the next line.

Constant micro-tension results in what is paradoxically termed a page-turner. You’d think that would mean quickly skimmed but it means the opposite: a novel in which you are unable to stop reading every word.

I really don’t care about your main character. Double ouch. How can that be when your main character is so real, passionate and ultimately heroic?

There’s a trick that top novelists use, which is in the opening pages showing why this character matters. The trick’s a little different depending on the type of protagonist you’ve got. For the everyman or everywoman type, the secret is to demonstrate — even in a small way — a quality of strength, a minor heroism.

For already heroic protagonists, the secret is to show one way in which they’re human like anyone else. Dark protagonists need to express one way in which they’d like to change, to be more normal. That hint of the redemption-to-come can signal to readers that this tormented character is worth their time.

Too many clichés! A long parade of familiar phrases and purple emotions can start to pound in a reader’s brain like a migraine headache.

Fresh language and imagery starts with looking at the world in the unique way that your character would. What does your character notice that no one else does? What details stand out for him or her?

A surprising emotional landscape can be built by working with secondary, less obvious feelings. Think of it this way: If a character’s predominant emotion at any given moment is big and universal, then the reader probably has already felt it. Explore feelings that are less apparent.

There’s a lot more to great fiction, obviously, but the three big areas for improvement above will put your novels ahead of the pack.

Donald Maass, author of The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers heads the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York City, which represents more than 150 novelists and sells more than 100 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.
For more information please visit and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter .

Mar 29, 2011

8 comments · Add Yours

I feel that Donald’s tips are touching upon issues that are much too vast and complex to summarize in such short paragraphs. They involve essentially re-writing a manuscript (an eventual necessity of course); to suggest such things in this way seems flippant and less-than-helpful.

Working micro-tension into every line? Establishing a main character’s weight an importance in the opening pages? These are things even seasoned writers can have a hard time achieving. Avoid cliches? Of course I want my prose to sound original!

I just feel this was less a meaningful blog post, and just a chance to plug his book and website.


I think you might feel differently if you were reading ‘The Breakout Novelist’ (TBN). Each writer chooses their own coach. I think Maass has a pretty strong following. Full length novels are some writers passion, comic strips are anothers’. But, frankly the members of my writing circle won’t shut up about how great Maass is, and how helpful his tips have been to their writing. That’s why I sprung for TBN.

If you’re comfortable with your own style – and it sells (if that’s your main objective), then fair enough. It will be fun to check your stuff out, The Wizard of Quippley looks…interesting. And, being the antagonist is a great way to plug your work.


Adam : I finished The Fire in Fiction by Maass a few weeks back, and these three are mentioned (if only indirectly) in it. I find them all very useful, not only in revising, but also in the original draft, especially the ‘micro-tension’. If you can put tension in every line, that’s great, but I think the point is that there should be tension as much as possible, getting to your reader to read (and that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do, right?) and be unable to stop doing so.
It might be hard, but the more you can do it, the more gripping your story becomes.

Donald Maass : Thanks for the great (guest) post.


While I agree w/ Adam these tips need more time and effort than this post night suggest, I’m more curious as to why the title is targeted toward self-published novelists. To my thinking, even traditional writers need these things. Maybe you meant the self-published writers, having no editor, especially need to be aware. Which is why I am no big fan of self-publishing, especially for beginning writers. I’m aware this is an explosive topic at the moment.



In the very opening of this post, Donald wrote that this is useful for self-publishing novelist as well as those seeking a major imprint. I would assume that the post is directed for self-published novelists, because while agented writers definitely need these, those very agents or editors might be able to help them out (of course it’s a problem for writers who do not yet have agents), but when you are self-publishing, you are on your own and therefore have much more work to do to make sure your book compares with the quality of traditional route writers.


Donald does go more in depth on these points in his books, especially his Breakout Novel Workbook, which I find enormously helpful when I’m writing or revising a book.

I think if you’re going to self-pub, you have to pony up and pay for a professional editor, hands down. I also know from traditionally publishing for over ten years, sometimes the editors there are overworked. They are shooting for “good enough,” not “keep revising until it’s fantastic.” They’ve got schedules to keep, late writers to juggle and herd, sales and marketing to wrestle with. They’re not going to work your book line by line.

Self-publishing (which I’m circling with interest, gearing up to dip my toes in) already has a bad perception. The chief among them: they’re not edited, they’re riddled with typos… they’re self-indulgent acts of delusion from talentless hacks. I think that’s an overreaction, but as a result self-pubs have to work twice as hard to prove themselves.

Doing what Donald suggests is a way to get past the stereotypes. I think that every self-pub needs to take the need to aim higher to heart.


Thanks for sharing this advice, Donald. I think I have understood intuitively the three techniques that you mentioned. I mean, I have certainly caught that disease and been unable to put down a book. But it’s good to know what’s happening underneath the hood so I can implement those techniques in my own writing with more intentionality. I hope to read your advice again on Tribal Writer.


Thanks for these succinct tips, Donald and Justine. I’m sure the cliche thing is pretty obvious as a hint, though the cliches themselves are never quite so obligingly obvious when analysing your own writing. I hadn’t thought of the skimming thing before. I catch myself doing it as a reader sometimes, and the older I get the less I want to waste my time on reading books where only every third line seems worth paying attention to.

I think that’s something worth learning — mindfulness about those cues we have as readers that something’s not working, and figuring out how to hear the cues when we’re writing as well.


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