Powerful Writing Advice from Donald Maass

My writer’s group takes turns leading mini-workshops on aspects of fiction writing. Recently, it was my turn. The subject was upping the stakes in our stories. When I re-read Donald Maass’s chapter on stakes from his outstanding  WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, I was particularly struck by his concluding chapter remarks: “Some say success as an author requires a big ego: I say that it requires a big heart.” He goes on to explain that what we passionately believe in about life and living must guide our efforts: “The moral underpinning of a story is one source of its thematic power, but it does not come from your readers. It comes from you.”

I got chills when I read this and actually felt encouraged about my own work as a young adult writer. While I continue to have so much to learn about the craft of writing, I do know that my work comes from a place of purpose and passion.  As a result of my own personal experiences and the struggles of the teens I’ve worked with, I strongly believe in the importance of encouraging teens to follow their own paths and find folks who unconditionally love and accept them. And when those folks are M-I-A from family and friends, salvation comes from creating new families and communities of support.

As I look around at other writers whose work I really admire, I’m aware of their strong convictions and passion as well. Recently, for example, I’ve been reading POINT GUARD, a middle grade novel by Mike Lupica. The story centers around two best friends, Gus and Cassie. When Cassie makes the boys’ basketball team, Gus has trouble accepting her presence on the previously all-male squad. At the same time, he’s being teased and looked down upon for his Dominican heritage by the mayor’s son, the star center of the team.

POINT GUARD is the latest of several books for young readers penned by Lupica. As a revered sports writer, he loves everything related to sports. But in a recent interview on the Today show, he also spoke of the struggles of his youngest child, a daughter, with gender discrimination and limiting stereotypes. It was clear that he was passionate about this topic, and his commitment to addressing discrimination and prejudice of all types shines through his story.

Now obviously, passion and purpose are not enough to write a good story, and there’s nothing worse than a novel that screams “I’m going to hit you over the head with this message I want to teach you.”

But I have to say Maass really does have it right. Without heart, without passion and principles, what have we got that’s worth writing about? Or sharing with readers?

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