Three Story Skills that Self-Published Novelists Need

Three Story Skills that Self-Published Novelists Need
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.

© 2011 Donald Maass, author of The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers

Author Bio

Donald Maass, author of The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writersheads 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


  1. I really enjoyed this story skills post.

    "I really don't care about your main character." Yikies! *Hand clutches chest* That would hurt. ;)

    I've heard 'characters need to have flaws' a million times, but suggesting our characters notice things others don't is fresh! I like that. We all want the characters we create to be unique and memorable and this is one way to do just that.


  2. "A surprising emotional landscape can be built by working with secondary, less obvious feelings." Fabulous point--said beautifully. A brief, informative post. Just what I look for. :)

    Happy Writing!

  3. Donald Maass is amazing. Thanks for posting this.

  4. Just wanna share everything I write if you'll lemme share everything we write in Heaven. God blessa youse -Fr. Sarducci, ol SNL


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