Donald Maass: Boundary-Breaking Fiction

Along with all the mountains — no, continents — of praise I have already thrown onto this blog about the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, I have one more. And this is something that shatters that particular boundary, something that needs to reach writers everywhere.

On Saturday, while we enjoyed lunch in the hotel’s elegant ballroom, the man some have called “the Mick Jagger of literary agents” blew us all away with a speech I don’t think anyone in that room will ever forget. Nor can we afford to forget it. Donald Maass, author of the indispensable books for writers Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction, was our keynote speaker for that meal, and spoke of how fiction would change in the twenty-first century.

One of the important points in his address was how the borders between genres are beginning to crumble. The landscape of fiction is starting to blur its own borders. Steampunk is getting blended with science fiction and mystery (Perdido Street Station). Fantasy mingles with alternate history (Temeraire). Horror and urban fantasy meet with teen romance (Twilight). Many of the barriers that kept genre firmly divided are finally breaking down like so many Berlin Walls. Writers are more free to write what they want to write without having to hew to genre conventions.

Another huge issue Maass addressed was that people are still buying books because of two main factors: Word-of-Mouth and In-Store Displays. Some authors, especially if they are self-published, put a truly Herculean effort into trying to convince others to buy their works, slaving away at building social media platforms and trying to market their books like products. And while that is an important part of the business side to writing (and, I think, will take on a larger role in the years to come), I was shocked at the statistics Maass quoted that demonstrate all that effort currently results in less than 2% of overall book sales. Bestseller lists, print newspaper/magazine ads, and book reviews were even more surprising with similarly low numbers. By far, people buy books because they see them in the bookstores (far more titles than you see during an average visit to Amazon), and because their friends recommend the books.

And finally, Maass reminded a room of over 400 writers that the twenty-first century will give us books that will change the world. It can be problematic to call an author “The next Hemingway/Tolkien/Shelley/Doyle,” but there are still plenty of ways a book can affect a generation so powerfully that they become timeless classics. Just look at what’s happened to The Hunger Games. And Maass expressed an inspiring optimism toward the people in that ballroom, saying that we could commit to writing fiction which would still be read and loved a hundred years from now.

The best way for authors to get that kind of recognition is simply this: To write terrific books. The first step of marketing a book is to have a great one in the first place. A difficult task, of course, but it’s essential for lasting success as a writer.

Donald Maass, as a literary agent, is constantly looking for exactly that sort of novel. He wants to see you succeed and excel. So, writers, go forth and create something remarkable. It’s a huge challenge, but at writers conferences you are among friends who can help you achieve it.

4 thoughts on “Donald Maass: Boundary-Breaking Fiction

  1. I LOVE THIS POST! Definitely tweeting this one. It’s encouraging to know that good writing, in and of itself, will be rewarded. But I’ve heard of authors being rejected for lack of social platform. It’s great to develop both, but truly, writing well needs to be our number ONE priority. And here’s looking at the “classics” to come!

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