Spotlight: Donald Maass - Evoking a Visceral and Emotional Experience in Readers


We are thrilled to be presenting agent Donald Maass as this month's Spotlight Interview. Don is a veteran literary agent, president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, and author of more than half a dozen writing craft books. 

His seventh and most recent title, THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION: HOW TO WRITE THE STORY BENEATH THE SURFACE, takes you through a comprehensive range of narrative techniques designed to help you provoke deep visceral and emotional experience in readers. 

Don is also an expert writing instructor whose acclaimed workshops and seminars are known for their challenging, high-level content, leading you into a deeper relationship with your work and greater writing success--no matter what your current level of success may be.


This is going to be the sixteenth year you’ve been putting on workshops with Free Expressions, what motivated you to work with them?

Live workshops have a dynamic that the flat page and online PowerPoint cannot achieve. There’s something about time apart in a room of writers that frees creativity. 

In person, I can riff, prompt and engage with writers personally. There’s a feeling of barriers being down, of “the industry” being accessible and open, of the focus being where it belongs: on story. 

Plus, it’s just fun to work with Lorin, Brenda, and the team! 

"It’s important to have time not to meet goals
but to explore the manifold possibilities of story."

What have you learned about conducting workshops over the years? 

Every writer learns differently. You can never tell what will switch on a lightbulb or trigger a story breakthrough. It’s therefore important to approach story craft from a number of angles, stimulating new ideas through a variety of prompts. 

While there’s nothing wrong with daily word count goals, it’s important to have time not to meet goals but to explore the manifold possibilities of story. 

What advice would you give to writers coming to one of your workshops for the first time?

Don’t expect a formula for success, but do expect to assimilate many new ways of deepening your story. 

Expect to write a lot. 

Expect to have fun. 

Expect your brain to hurt. 

That’s all good.


"I realized that plot is only one dimension
of what gives story impact." 


How have your thoughts on fiction craft evolved? 

Once upon a time, I thought only about plot.

Then I realized that plot is only one dimension of what gives story impact. Surprising scenes, micro-tension and manipulating reader expectations are also important. Still later I began to understand how character arcs happen and integrate with the outward plot. 

More recently, I’ve been focusing on areas of storytelling that are not traditional craft topics; for instance, creating a sense of wonder or what produces emotional effect.

The latter is the subject of this new “Emotional Craft” workshop.

What would excite you in a manuscript that came across your inbox RIGHT NOW?

The first impression of a manuscript is created on the first page, so always I value the immediate arrival of a confident storytelling voice, something intriguing and something emotional engaging. 

Beyond that, there is originality and the ability to sustain tension and constant surprise on the page for the length of a novel. What helps achieve those effects is a grasp of plot, scene elements, micro-tension, character arcs, story world, a shifting moral map, and all the other things we learn in workshops. 

And then there is something that is tough to teach but that can perhaps be enabled: an underlying urgency that flows from the author’s own experience.

We shorthand that with the word “passion”, or sometimes “purpose”. As vague as those words are, they are nevertheless part of what sweeps us away when we read.

How is THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION different from your previous books? 

This new book presumes a grasp of all the Breakout essentials. It’s not a recap but an altogether different way of looking at story: through the emotional effect that story produces on readers, and on how that effect is achieved. 

"Readers feel strongly when they are surprised, challenged, inspired, led, misdirected,
and when story connects them to our
greatest values and highest ideals."

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION?

It’s this: What characters feel has little to do with what readers feel. While the question of showing versus telling is not wholly irrelevant, it’s only a small generator of a story’s emotional effect. 

Readers feel strongly when they are surprised, challenged, inspired, led, misdirected, and when story connects them to our greatest values and highest ideals.

Beneath all of that is the writer’s own spirit and emotional journey in creating the story. That more than anything shapes what we’ll feel as we read.

What are you currently reading? 

Apart from client manuscripts and submissions, I’m catching up with UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead, UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben H. Winters, A GENTLEMAN OF MOSCOW by Amor Towles, THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB by Genevieve Valentine, THE FIFTH PETAL by Brunonia Barry, to name a few. 

Has anyone read BEHIND HER EYES by Sarah Pinborough?  That one’s coming up on my radar quite a bit lately. 


You can follow Don on his Facebook page and on Twitter as @DonMaass.

All of his books can be found at Amazon.

If you haven't already taken one of his classes, or if you's like to take another, Free Expressions is offering four workshops with Don this year. You don't want to miss out. Whether you're a beginner or a professional, a class with Don is a master class in writing craft.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction - Houston

The Emotional Craft of Fiction - Seattle

The Breakout Novel - Tampa

Story Masters - Toronto

Lorin's War Against Times New Roman - And a New Editor Joins the Team


  • Resources for Writers
  • Second BONI Added Due to Popular Demand!
  • Dedicated Story Development Sessions
  • Rob Sanders Joins the Team
  • Lorin's War Against Times New Roma
  • Dear FreeX
  • Where Are You Writing?



Do you know that Free Expressions can help you on every step of your writing journey? From concept to story development to deep editing, workshops, and more, we're here to help you succeed in 2017.

Personalized Story Development
Editorial Services
Breakout Novel Intensive Workshop - Tampa, Florida
Story Masters Workshop - Toronto, Ontario
Emotional Craft of Fiction Workshop - Houston, Texas & Seattle, WA



Our Hood River BONI sold out so quickly, we decided to offer a second session later this year in Tampa, Florida. If you've never been to a BONI workshop before, come see why so many students think it's the best professional writer's workshop out there. In BONI's sixteen years, the workshop has helped launch many successful writing careers. Limited enrollment, so don't wait to register!

Click here for more information and to sign up! 



Do you have an awesome novel premise
but don’t know where to take it?

Are you stuck in the “mushy middle” of your work
and running out of steam?

Coming soon, an opportunity to win a
free twenty-five minute Story Development Session
with Lorin to help you get unstuck and fired up!

Keep an eye on your inbox! 




We are thrilled to announce that Rob Sanders has joined the Free Expressions team as our picture book editor.

Rob is a published picture book author, elementary school teacher, and writing instructor. He also serves as assistant regional advisor for the Florida chapter of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

His picture books include: COWBOY CHRISTMAS, OUTER SPACE BEDTIME RACE, RUBY ROSE, OFF TO SCHOOL SHE GOES, and the upcoming RODZILLA, among several others to be published in 2017 and 2018.

Each year, Rob coaches hundreds of picture book writers to greater success. We're so happy to bring his skills to our clients!

Contact us to arrange to work with Rob.



[This article is an oldie but goodie from the archives.]

Imagine this: every day, you duck into your office cubicle. You sit in your chair and feel, as you do every day, kind of squished. The arms of the chair dig into you; the seat’s stiff and unyielding; the lumbar support feels like a fist grinding into your delicate coccyx ALL DAY, for hours and hours.

It’s just not a great chair.

And the funny thing is that in those cubicles all around you sit many other chairs—similar to the one you have but a little more generous in proportion, a little more comfortable for long hours of work. In fact, most of them even look better, and your cubicle can always stand a little sprucing, right?

By the way, all of those chairs are available for your use. No one else needs them. So, why is it that day after day after day, you come into that office and sit in that same, uncomfortable, chair? Because it’s there? Because it’s the chair that someone pulled up to your desk before you arrived?

Truly, you’re sitting in a room filled with more comfortable, more attractive chairs, and you’re just going to sit in that same awful chair every single day? Come on!

And that, my friends, is what you’re doing every time you create a document using Times New Roman. You are selecting the squished, uncomfortable chair of fonts. The stingy, mean-spirited, jerk of typefaces. The ruthless—

Okay. Breathe, Lorin. Breeaaaaathe.

I may be getting carried away. It’s just that it’s an awful font, and if we’re not vigilant, if we don’t pick up arms NOW and fight for greater aesthetics and readability, then we’ll be stuck using this miscreant font for the rest of our days.

So, what’s wrong with it? Well, first and foremost, it’s an overly proportional font, which means it gives only as much space to each letter as each letter requires, rather than giving some of the slimmer fonts a little room to breathe. I mean, why punish poor “l” because it doesn’t need the same space as its more voluptuous compatriots?

Secondly, it’s just a little bit smaller (height wise) at standard twelve points than other twelve point fonts. Which makes it harder on the eyes. Which creates at least a subliminal crankiness (or a fully LIMINAL one, in my case) on the part of agents, editors, and readers.

A standard manuscript page should have somewhere in the neighborhood of about 250 words. A standard page typed in Times New Roman has about 6,853 words.

No really. Check it yourself.

And then join me, brothers and sisters of the word, in fighting the good fight. Select another twelve-point serif font to become YOUR standard. How about a nice Bookman? Or Georgia? New Century? Palatino?? Any of these are better, easier on the eyes, more readable. And just a click away!

So, kick off the shackles of font servitude and make a new selection! Go get yourself a new chair and toss that old, uncomfortable seat right into the office incinerator.

We’ll both be glad you did.



I'm seeing a trend for including less description in writing. For example, characters are breaking into a house. Instead of describing the house and the break-in, you start immediately with them getting to the safe. Unless they're somehow obstructed or confronted, you go immediately to the next action.

My personal preference is for description. But I'm seeing some people say "Get rid of it." Thoughts?

Thanks so much for the question!

In my mind, this has a great deal to do with two things: tension and intimate versus authorial point of view. And really, the two are closely enough aligned that I'll deal with them in package form.

The reason you might be noticing a trend is that it parallels a trend in publishing toward closer viewpoints that reflect, deeply, the psyches and experiences of our protagonists and other viewpoint characters.

Even a relatively static description can be made tense via the viewpoint character's feelings of ambiguity or apprehension in approaching the place. Description can and should reflect that character's state of mind, as well as reflect the viewpoint character's goals for the scene.

In other words, a static description with little emotional content and motivational drive comes across as flat. A description that lets us into the character' state of mind and keeps us in touch with what's at stake in the moment will tend to grip the reader.

So, if a character is viewing the house with a desire to figure out the best way to break in and get to the safe, that description will have more life and purpose. If a person is returning to or arriving at a place that has some emotional significance, that description will also be livelier. If there's some strange, discordant detail in the scene, something that creates uncertainty, that will also elevate the description.

Painting a picture with no emotional content, even if the words are exquisite, doesn't do much for many contemporary readers. We need description to do double or triple duty now, with one of its main objectives to be moving the story along and keeping us rooted in the viewpoint character's consciousness.

Hope that helps!

Send all your questions to: 



This month Michalea Moore shares her sunporch writing space with us. 


Send a picture to and we’ll feature it here! 

Client Spotlight: Katherine Longshore - Writing the Book of Her Heart

Katherine Longshore is the author of four published Yound Adult novels, GILT, TARNISHED, BRAZEN, and MANOR OF SECRETS. She has been a writer since she first learned how to hold a pencil. After graduating college, her plan was to travel the world and write. Forever.

Four years, six continents and countless pairs of shoes later, she went to England for two weeks, stayed five years in a little town in the county of Kent within spitting distance of Hever Castle -- the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. She lives and writes in California with her husband, two children and a sun-worshiping dog.

As a successful author of multiple novels, what does it feel like when you send a book out into the world? Have the feelings changed from when your first book was published?

I think I’m probably a little more jaded—my excitement is now tempered more by the knowledge that the industry is fickle and subjective and for a person like me, almost impossible to track. But I do still get that feeling that’s like a cross between jumping off a roof and starting to fly. There’s a great rush of fear, but also a wonderful sense of possibility to it.

Has your writing process changed between books? What do you do now as a writer that you didn’t or wouldn’t have done before?

My writing process has changed with every single book!  

When I started out, I just sat down with an idea and wrote. That book taught me how to revise. After that, I tried to plan a little more, but I struggle with outlines and structure, and sometimes get in my own way when I start to think I need to know everything before I start Chapter One.

Sometimes, I do character exercises, but sometimes the characters just leap onto the page fully-formed. Sometimes, I make a SAVE THE CAT! beat sheet and sometimes I outline by drawing a baseball diamond illustrating the points of the Hero’s Journey.

The one thing I do now that I never did before is to listen to whatever process feels right for this book. I used to think I had to follow one type of outline or follow one (or all) given advice. I realize more now that books are like kids—very individual.


"I realize more now that books are like kids—very individual."


You wrote an article on your blog about writing a logline for your new project. For all your fans eagerly awaiting the release of your next novel, what project are you currently working on?

Ah, the logline! It used to be my biggest bête noir. But now I see it as a great tool for distilling an idea before I even start to write. 

At the moment, I’m developing an idea for something very new to me—a novel for adults. It will be dual storylines, set in the past and present and linked by a distinctive setting. Perhaps I’m being overly ambitious, but I want to explore themes of faith and loneliness and what it means to belong.

What do you consider your biggest writing success right now, at this very moment?

Honestly? The book that never sold.

After writing four historical novels about girls and royalty, I decided I wanted to do something completely different. So I wrote a contemporary novel about a boy with a murky past who tries to escape it by jumping on a freight train heading out of town. Dirt and dumpster diving and finding friends where you least expect them.

This book took me so far out of myself and into such wonderfully creative waters. It stretched me and challenged me as a person and an artist.  It gave me insight and strengthened my compassion. So even though it isn’t likely ever to be on a bookstore shelf, I think of it as my greatest success to date.   

What are the highlights of working with Lorin on book editing? How would you describe its overall effect on your professional/creative trajectory? 

I find it difficult even to try to condense my thoughts into a few bullet points.

To say that Lorin has helped me comprehensively and transcendentally would be an understatement. I can see her fingerprints even on the books she hasn’t read because she gets me thinking about those essential questions and searching for the surprising answers. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of “this is the way this book is supposed to be”. 

Working with Lorin shows you that there are many more possibilities.


"Rejection sucks. For me, the indifferent “no, thanks” can be so much more painful and creatively disabling than the crazy crackers Goodreads diatribe review."


You wrote intimately on your blog about having written the Book of Your Heart and how it wasn’t picked up for publication. What advice would you give new writers about rejection?

Rejection sucks. For me, the indifferent “no, thanks” can be so much more painful and creatively disabling than the crazy crackers Goodreads diatribe review.

I think the best advice I can give is this: Feel it.

Let that grief wash over you and even knock you down. For a day. Sometimes, you may need more time. Sometimes less. But let yourself feel it. Then get back to work.

We are creative people, my friends. We are artists. This is what we do.  A big fat resoundingly indifferent no from the industry can’t change that.  One book—even the Book of Your Heart—is just one book. There are many more where that came from.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given that's helped you as a writer?

Just write.

What outside hobbies or interests feed your writing?

History. Travel. Music. Dancing. People watching. A great cappuccino.


  • Currently reading:
    FIRST IMPRESSIONS by Charlie Lovett.
  • If you could enter the world of any novel, which would it be?Harry Potter’s Hogwarts—but only Book 1.
  • Do you write to music, or do you prefer silence?
    Silence.  I even find instrumental music distracting.
  • Are you a coffee, tea, or booze-fueled writer?
    Dark chocolate and coffee.  Sometimes mixed together.  And if a revision is going really, really badly, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Red Vines.  But never mixed together.

You can follow Katherine on her Facebook page and on Twitter as @KALongshore. You can also read her blog and contact her through her website, Links to purchasing all of her books can be found on her website