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Writing 21st Century Fiction: A Sneak Peek

Donald Maass, bestselling author of Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction, now takes an in-depth, comprehensive look at the craft and method of writing 21st century fiction. You might be asking, "What exactly is 21st century fiction?" Read this exclusive sneak peek from Writing 21st Century Fiction to find out:

Change is hard. The future is uncertain. That’s definitely true in book publishing, where new media is rapidly altering the way that books reach readers and the ways in which authors promote them. Yet strangely, many manuscripts we consider at my literary agency feel stuck in centuries past.

Now, a certain amount of derivative material is to be expected. Trends are eternal, as are their inevitable declines. Gumshoe detectives, Gothic romances, sword and sorcery, sagas, glitz and glitter, supernatural horror, cyberpunk, and many other sub-genres drew in novelists and for a while fed them. The same is happening today with urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and dystopian young adult fiction.

What worries me more are manuscripts that employ the pace, narrative patterns, character types, and even themes of past decades. It’s not that flash fiction is the wave of the future, or that we should toss out techniques used by Austen, Dickens, James, Hardy, Verne, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, or Updike to make their novels great. No, but when novels are chained to the past, they cannot speak to the present.

Mechanically mirroring our times isn’t automatically better, of course. For instance, shelves today are crowded with protagonists who are haunted, detached, wry, and lost. Heroes and heroines in the classic mold haven’t vanished, but in our age readers respond well to wounded daughters and paranormal ops. Consequently, they crowd bookstore shelves. They may reflect our sociological makeup, but they’ve become clichés.

The characters who resonate most widely today don’t merely reflect our times, they reflect ourselves. That’s true whether we’re talking about genre fare, historicals, satire, or serious literary stuff. Revealing human truths means transcending tropes, peering into the past with fresh eyes, unearthing all that is hidden, and moving beyond what is easy and comfortable to write what is hard and even painful to face.

Get out of the past. Get over trends. To write high-impact 21st century fiction, you must start by becoming highly personal. Find your voice, yes, but more than that, challenge yourself to be unafraid, independent, open, aware, and true to your own heart. You must become your most authentic self.

The notion of writing fiction that is highly personal and filled with conflict, emotion, and intensity is at the core of Don's book. His approach to fiction writing is one that encompasses both those authors seeking commercial success, as well as those who write for the love of the craft; that is, literary writers.

On one side of the divide are literary novelists, whose bases of operation are MFA programs and literary journals. On the other are commercial storytellers who rally at writers’ conferences, train in genre-specific organizations, and bivouac in an online tent city of blogs. The values of these two nations are very different. They seem to despise each other.

Literary novelists create art. They treasure fine writing and seek to capture the world the way it is, making it alive in the minds of their readers. Critical acclaim is their reward; royalties are a rare byproduct and faintly distasteful. Formulas for writing make them suspicious. True art springs organically from within. Novels are honed through a painful process of draft, critique, and revision. Outlines are prisons. Plot is a dirty word. For literary novelists, writing is a lonely pleasure that must be its own reward.

Commercial storytellers want to spin stories that delight readers. Their novels thrill, scare, and stir through a mastery of craft. Strong common values underlie their fiction. Advances, royalties, and best-seller status are measures of success. (Movie deals are nice, too.) Stories that stretch reality are okay if readers buy in. Outlines may not always work for commercial storytellers, but crucial to success are peer support, industry savvy, and self-promotion. Most of all, writing is a joy. Day jobs are for quitting.

Okay, I exaggerate, but you see my point: There are two philosophies of fiction writing. Each champions different intents, processes, and outcomes. Both can produce good fiction, but when adhered to religiously, neither produce novels that reach a vast and diverse audience.

Whether you take a commercial or literary approach to writing, the philosophy remains the same: In order for fiction to be competitive and respected, one must write high-impact fiction.

Clever twists and turns are only momentarily attention-grabbing. Relentless forward-driving action, high tension, and cliffhangers do serve to keep readers’ eyeballs on the page but don’t necessarily engage their hearts. By the same token, a dutifully rendered reality (reviewers call such writing “closely observed”) may cause readers to catch their breath once in a while but the effect doesn’t last long. Not enough is happening, and when it does it feels underwhelming. How then can commercial novelists construct plots that have true power? How can literary writers conjure events that give their work long-lasting effect?

The answer in all cases is to create events of enormous impact. If an event is external, excavate its inner meaning. If a moment is internal, push it out the door and make it do something large, real, permanent, and hard to miss. Whatever your assignment, you won’t find it easy. It’s not natural to you, since your tendency is to hold back.

Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass is scheduled to release on September 18. Pre-order your copy today!

Writing 21st Century Fiction

Rachel's Pick of the Week

What does it mean to write a 21st century novel? Bestselling author and literary agent Donald Maass explains the fine points of just what this intriguing new storytelling model is – a unique marriage of literary quality with pop fiction appeal – and how it works. Don will push you into thinking beyond genre boundaries, outdated styles and "safety zones" to ways of writing fiction that are personal, unique, and contemporary. This fast-paced lecture comes from one of our most popular presenters and promises to illustrate exactly how to craft fiction for the widest audience—without losing your most discerning readers.

Writing the 21st Century Novel
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