Don Maass worked as an editor at Dell Publishing then shifted over to the role of agent, finally founding the eponymous Donald Maass Literary Agency in 1980, where he and his staff work with such science fiction and fantasy luminaries as Cherie Priest, Jay Lake, Nalo Hopkinson, and Jim Butcher. Happily for us all, Don has taken some time to put pen to paper himself and is responsible for what I think are some of the best books for writers out there. I was so enamored of his 2001 book Writing the Breakout Novel that I wrote a detailed recommendation here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook and have worked hard to apply its lessons to my own writing.
Philip Athans: Please define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.
Don Maass: Fiction that involves magic.
Athans: Please define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.
Maass: Fiction based in science and speculation, particularly (but not necessarily) about the future.
Athans: In your book, Writing the Breakout Novel, you said straight out: “The midlist is in trouble, and this time it is real.” You wrote that in 2001. Ten years later, the publishing business is changing dramatically. Will the e-book, and/or print-on-demand, save the midlist author?
Maass: If anything, e-books make it harder for the “midlist” author. Weak fiction is weaker still in electronic form, where it has less publisher support (if any) and little paper book momentum to build consumer awareness. The Kindle bookstore can be a lonely desert. Ask authors who have self-published in e-book form. Sure, there are a few success stories but precious few.
Athans: Social media is helping authors connect with readers, and making it easier than ever for authors to handle at least some of their own marketing and publicity. What do you think is the one social media source no author can do without (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and do you have any quick advice for how best to use it?
Maass: Unless used properly, social media can be no help at all. You’ve got to know the methods. That said, Twitter seems to me to have the greatest reach.
Athans: In Writing the Breakout Novel you wrote: “If a powerful problem is a novel’s spine, then a powerful theme is its animating spirit.” Is it actually possible to write a novel without a theme? Isn’t the question one of intent, or degree of success in conveying theme?
Maass: It’s certainly possible to have no theme, or a generic one, but it makes for fiction with less impact. Look, writers get confused by this topic of “theme.” They think it means “message.” It can, but more importantly it means that which you want the reader to see and understand. What do you want your reader to think about as they’re reading your novel, or later? That’s your theme.
Athans: Do you read reviews of novels you’ve represented? Have you found any review to be particularly helpful or destructive? Do you encourage the authors you work with to read reviews?
Maass: We read reviews, pull quotes from them, and thank the gods when they’re good. They help. Oddly, I generally don’t find negative reviews all that instructive. Once in a while there’s a helpful point made, but usually not. Whether or not to read reviews is an author’s choice. Some do, some don’t. It’s a matter of temperament.
Athans: What is the most common mistake that aspiring fantasy authors make in their writing?
Maass: Just one? Flat characters, low line-by-line tension, generic story elements, worldbuilding that’s only half finished . . . I could go on. A favorite complaint is magic that’s too easy, costs nothing, is pointlessly illegal, and can be done by only a select few. I mean, really? Nuclear engineering is way more difficult than magic seems to be in most novels, yet in our world there are way more nuclear engineers than mages in a typical fantasy. Economics alone would mean that magic is widely practiced. And where’s the profit motive? Mages in fantasy never (I mean never) seem to get paid!
Athans: What is the most common mistake that inexperienced authors make in their professional lives?
Maass: Rushing. Rushing to get finished, rushing to find an agent and—once under contract—rushing to quit the loathsome day job before the new business is bringing in not just contracts but steady customers (repeat readers).
Athans: Give me some general words of encouragement for the aspiring SF/fantasy author.
Maass: Hard traditional science fiction written for adults has fallen on hard times. But that’s not because people have lost interest in looking ahead and imagining alternate worlds. Look at the explosion of dystopian stories in the YA market. What’s changed is the way we see the future. It’s no longer rocket ships to the stars. But we do see a future for humanity that’s different than our current reality. I suspect that SF that resonates in the next ten years will be essentially sociological, like Vonnegut was in the Sixties.
Fantasy writers have seen readers’ tastes shift decisively toward contemporary urban settings and paranormal characters. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s a trend just like Sword’n’Sorcery once was. Fantasy used to be about quests. Now it’s about slaying (or being) demons. But the genre really is broad and flexible. I don’t know about you, but I’m already looking for the next big thing. What will it be? All I know is that it will be magical.
Athans: Tell us about a few books you’ve represented that are available now and that you’re particularly excited about.
Maass: Coming up are terrific new novels from Jim Butcher (urban fantasy) and Anne Perry (historical mystery). Cherie Priest is doing amazing work in the steampunk vein. Check out exciting new authors like Mary Robinette Kowal, Nnedi Okorafor, Brent Weeks. And that’s just SFF. Horror great Robert McCammon is doing terrific new work like his current novel The Five. Delilah Marvelle is turning the staid historical romance genre on its head with non-traditional characters. There’s always something new. That’s what makes this business exciting.
And I couldn’t agree more. Thanks, Don.