The SinCNE Workshop with Donald Maass by Barbara Ross

 “The story is already inside you. The tools are just to get to it. It’s all there.”

Donald Maass

 For seven and a half hours on April 14, 2012, Donald Maass provided 106 SinCNE members and their guests, with tool after tool after tool to help them get to their stories.

Part motivational speaker, part master craftsman, part shrink to the writer and part shrink to the characters, Maass pushed the mystery authors assembled in the ballroom at the Dedham Hilton to work harder, dig deeper, think more, feel more and commit it all to the page. “In your next draft, put it in, put it down,” he urged. “The harder it is, the more you need to do it.”

Cautioning against the “genre box,” of easy emotions, predictable plot and cardboard characters,” Maass stated that “most characters in most manuscripts do not feel passionately enough.”

What is it your protagonist has sworn not to do?

What is the one thing she hopes never to experience?”

What is the worst thing?

And having done it, what does your protagonist now let go of? What has she been holding inside that can now come out? What is the explosion?

Asked about writing a series and “putting a character through the wringer every time,” Maass answered, “Put something sharp and painful in every book. You don’t need to save, you need to spend. There will always be more in your bag of tricks. By the time you write the next book, you will know more than you knew before.”

Asked about breaking faith with reader expectations (the famous kill the cat question), Maass stated, “Most of you do not need less drama, less turmoil and fewer upset readers, you need more.”

“When questions, doubt and uneasiness are created in the mind of the reader, the reader most read more.”

Personally, I came away from the workshop revved up and exhausted, brimming with ideas for my work in progress, and freaked out about my ability to implement them. But as Maass said, the ideas are big, but they get implemented in tiny ways page by page.

How was it for all of you?


About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. The most recent is Stowed Away. The seventh, Steamed Open, will be released in December 2018. You can visit her website at
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11 Responses to The SinCNE Workshop with Donald Maass by Barbara Ross

  1. Nancy Gardner says:

    Amazing workshop, Barb. I’m in the processing of creating an action plan from what I learned. The neatest thing was how he managed to structure the day in such a way that each one of us went away with an individualized action plan.

  2. “We must open ourselves to what is true, painful, shameful and even inappropriate.” Maass handed out prompts that had me picking at the scabs of my characters revealing their “contrasting and conflicting emotions.” I found this workshop incredibly helfpful and left with so many ideas, my head was pounding.

  3. patremick says:

    I really, really want to believe that the story is already inside me — and I just need to get to it!! Great report on a great workshop!! Thanks to SinCNE for this opportunity!

  4. edithmaxwell says:

    Oh, yeah! He was both inspiring and concrete. I’m just itching for the peace and time to dig into my ms. with Maass’ recommendations. Perhaps tomorrow on a plane…

  5. I’m still reeling, and trying to process everything Maass said so that I can figure out how to use it. One thing in particular stands out (amidst the suggested carnage where we torture our characters): I realized that the protagonist in my WIP has been too passive–reactive rather than proactive. She’s been buffeted by the Dire Circumstances and Awful Events for three books, and wandered around saying,”Who? What? Why me? Oh, thank you for helping me.” And I’m tired of it. It’s time for her to step up and take charge of her own life–starting with revealing one particularly painful part of her past, that even I didn’t know about. It’s liberating for both of us!

  6. So sorry I couldn’t be there. Sounds like it was a wonderful workshop and besides that, I missed you all!

  7. Excellent summary, Barb! For me it was an incredibly intense experience! Spent the next couple of days typing out 26 pages (on both sides) of furiously scribbled notes. Was pleased to realize that in the past I’ve done some of the hard things he suggested. Yes, I actually did kill a cat (in Murder at Plimoth), and my editor objected, but let me keep provided I re-wrote to make clear the cat died “in the line of duty” protecting his owner, one of my favorite characters, who I also killed off. A reader wrote me she was sorry I did, but understood why I had to. And now I’ve got to gear up and do all this hard stuff again in my current ms. It’s daunting, but also exhilarating!

  8. Lisa Jackson says:

    It was a fabulous day and I’m glad I had my laptop because even typing quickly I wasn’t able to capture it all. Great, great exercises to really get down into the story. I was blown away by how much can truly be done on a single scene. And it was especially helpful that he rephrased the questions that we needed to answer. He could have left something like “What is it your protag fears the most?” as it was, but instead he kept rewording and that’s what helped me the most – not all questions popped in regard to my characters, but the more questions Donald through out, eventually I had some start clicking for me.

    I’m seeing my manuscript in a whole new light – can’t wait to ‘toss the pages’ in the air and edit them that way! 🙂

  9. barbaraross says:

    I loved the way he treated us all like professionals. There were people in the room who were newbies all the way to multi-published and several teachers of writing. His baseline assumption was that we were intelligent people and good writers who were motivated to write a better book.

  10. Kat Fast says:

    “Spend, don’t save!” ( I underlined this one three times. What am I saving it for?) He made us dig down into ourselves and into our characters. I loved the way he turned his questions upside down and asked them as second time: What does your protagonist want the most? What’s the opposite? Could she want both? Then he’d spin it sideways, and ask the question a third time.

    All the way through, he stressed opposites, conflicting emotions, the extremes that are needed in order to feel redemption and catharsis at the end. Surprise your reader, play games with their heads, and then weave the pieces together so that the pieces create a larger whole.

    BTW, It was even worse: He said to “Kill the kitten.”

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