The First Five Minutes With Donald Maass

By: Stacey Purcell

One of my all time favorite books is Shanna by Kathleen Woodiwiss. I know it’s a blast from the past, but it was the first time that I “lived” a book alongside the characters. (If you haven’t read it, and like historicals, I highly recommend you escape to a quiet room with this novel!) Shanna was given to me by a friend of mine when I was in tenth grade and I remember reading it in coatrooms, bathrooms, copy rooms- anywhere I could sneak a few pages while I was working at Halliburton for the summer in Singapore. It was excruciating to put my characters down and re-join the real world.

What was it about this book that so entranced me and has forced me to buy several newer editions because mine simply fell apart after so many years of re-reading? (I still have my original copy too!) If you asked me this question last week, I would have given you a different answer. I’ve been Maassified.


This past weekend I attended Story Masters with Donald Maass, Chris Vogler, and James Scott Bell. The rock stars of the writing world! For three days, it was like standing under Niagara Falls trying to capture the torrent of water with a teaspoon-my brain.

I would have said the reason that I love Kathleen Woodiwiss’ book so much was because it was a great story that spans two different countries set in an unstable time. While that is true, it’s not the main reason. So what is it that brings readers into a story, love the characters and makes us sorry when it’s time to leave? It’s all about the emotions.

Donald Maass said that, as writers, we need to open an emotional landscape and in order to do that we need to open ourselves to emotions. Don’t be content to use the primary colored emotions. Ex. Anger, bliss, happy, scared etc. Readers don’t see these. They are so common, so overused; they’ve lost their true meaning.

So how do we do that? Through a series of questions that you ask of yourself.

Had to use this image again- it's so perfect!

  1. What is the feeling you’re most afraid of putting down on the page? What is so personal to you that you’ve only told a few people this truth about yourself? What is the joy that is so perfect, you can see it, but are afraid to feel it? What do you think people would do if you told them? Rejection? Laugh at you? Write it down.
  2. What aspect of this feeling is most fearful? Silly? Ridiculous? Terrifying? Write it down.
  3. Where are you when you experience this emotion? Does it come up on you slowly, building in intensity? Does it blindside you with no warning at all? Is it a constant in your life? Do you never get away from it? Write it down.

This is your emotion. This is authentic and personal only to you. No one else will feel this exact feeling or experience it in the same way that you do. No one else will have the specific reasons for having this emotion- you own this. Now, when in your story does your protagonist have this specific feeling? When can you give your character this emotion? Write it down.

Was this difficult for you? Do you feel resistance from within yourself? This is a good thing. Donald Maass says, “Resistance is your friend.” It is your barometer that points you to where you need to go with your story. This emotion that you wrote down is so nuanced, so detailed, so connected to you- in other words, it is authentic. It is exactly what you need because it will make your readers feel. They will live inside the emotional landscape that you paint because you have used yourself.

**A piece of advice- If you ever want to send your manuscript to Donald Maass, don’t ever, ever, ever, use “gut wrenching”. He HATES it!!

28 Responses to The First Five Minutes With Donald Maass

  1. Linda Pennell says:

    Great post, Jenn! Thanks for sharing some of what you learned with those of us who could not attend. Maybe next time!


  2. Linda Pennell says:

    I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet…… STACEY, I meant STACEY!!!!! Great post, STACEY!!!


  3. Hi Linda- HAHAHA I can’t do anything before my cup of tea in the morning! I’m glad you like the post. What a weekend it was with all that talent! Whew! I’m still processing through the information.


  4. Sarah Andre says:

    Ohhhh, Shanna. Wow, that brought back memories of teen years in a Maine summer camp–avidly reading with a flashlight until the wee hours! A thrilling story for someone who barely had a clue about the intricacies of relationships (and unfortunately reinforced the “no means yes” message.)

    I agree with Maass and his emotional take. I wait until I’m really angry with my husband for something and then sit down and write the black moment between h/h. TMI??

    Nice blog, Stacey


  5. Never too much TMI!!! I hadn’t thought about doing that- what a great idea HAHAHAHA

    I taught a creative writing class today for high schoolers and used some of the information and exercises on them. You should have seen their faces when I asked them to write down the emotion they would be the most afraid of to put down on paper. They thought I was going to make them read it aloud!! After I assred them, it wouldn’t be read, they wrote like crazy…..wonder just what did get written today…hmmmmmmm


  6. LOved this post & those writing resources, Jennifer. Do you write your character emotions as immediate 1st person present tense thoughts, moment by moment? That’s what makes this concept work. You don’t TELL emotion like this:

    “Dammit.” Bob’s face flared with anger. He strode toward her quaking form.

    Sue would have run but couldn’t bring her legs to move. She wondered what he’d do.

    Bob stopped so closely she could feel the heat of his breath as he glared down at her. She feared he’d rip her head off.

    Bob almost winced, his features barely flinching from lips to eyes. “I told you that man is a bastard.” He grabbed her shoulders and slammed his mouth down over hers.

    I write something similar (SHOW emotion line-by-line):

    “Dammit.” Bob’s face flared with anger with each of his swift strides eating up the gray linoleum between him and my quaking form.

    Move legs. Move. What is he going to do to me?

    He stopped so closely the heat of his breath scorched my cheeks with the flames in his glare.

    He is going to rip my head off.

    Bob almost winced, his features barely flinching from lips to piercing blue eyes. “I told you that man is a bastard.”

    What was all the fuss about? I told him Jack was a bastard. I told him I couldn’t stand even looking into his eyes when he told me to make coffee. That women were only good for screwing and making coffee. “I’m not arguing.”

    He grabbed my shoulders and slammed his mouth down over hers.

    ***This is an example of the internalization I’m harping about in my SHOW DON’T TELL posts at my blog. If anyone is curious, check the posts out at

    Anytime I find something online about SHOW DON’T TELL, I try to leave a link to my discussions. Thanks again for the post! Loved it!


  7. Hi Skhye- this is Stacey—not Jenn. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your entry with us. You definitely “show” the emotions. Good job!! I’ll head over to your blog after dinner tonight.


  8. Sorry, the screen flinched so much, I didn’t catch that last “hers” to switch to mine. 🙂


  9. jbrayweber says:

    GREAT post, Stacey!! The torrent that is DM is certainly worth trying to capture, even a teaspoon at a time. 🙂

    Skhye! I loved, loved the way you brought out all that emotion. You’re definitely showing! LOL!


  10. Thank you very much Ms. Weber- that means a lot coming from you. I’ve always thought you write great articles! Capturing all the information he threw out there was just a warm up to the following two days with Chris Vogler and James Scott Bell. Wow- what a treat Story Masters was.


  11. Kristen says:

    Damn! If only I had a husband who made me angry… I wonder where I could find one… hehehehe

    Great. Now gut wrenching’s wrecked for me. I’m taking a writing class from Les Edgerton who hates the ‘single tear’ and I swear to God now in every book I see, it may as well be highlighted.


  12. jbrayweber says:

    My anguish for you, Kristen, not having a husband that makes clenched your fists with rage can be summed up in the single tear spilling down my cheek.


  13. My gut is wrenched by the very thought!!


  14. I’m sure there’s a few folks right here that would give you there husbands for awhile!
    I’m sure Rhonda is right when she tells us to not worry about their pet peeves, but the two examples here really are sooooooo overused and rather meaningless.


  15. Tess says:

    Emotion is the name of the game! Great post, Stacey!


  16. Thanks so much for stopping by, Tess. It means a lot to me.


  17. Thanks so much for sharing what you learned in the class. I think you’re right — it’s those books that make me FEEL like I’m right there with the characters that keep me reading. I get invested and can’t put the book down!


  18. I love love love it when I get swept up in a book and the outside world ceases to exist! That’s the whole reason for being a reader, right?!?! It’s those emotions that get us. If we can learn how to go beyond primary colored emotions and dig deeper for more nuances and unique ways to show them, we’ll all be much better writers.


  19. Nina Cordoba says:

    Great post Stacey. Oh, and Stacey and Kristen, if you start collecting editor/agent pet peeves and banning them from your writing, you’ll soon be paralyzed. They all have numerous pet peeves and they’re all different words/phrases that don’t bother most readers.


  20. Thanks so much Ms. Cordoba!
    That’s a really good point about editor/agent pet peeves. Good writing is good writing and if you put in a pet peeve of theirs, it shouldn’t stop them from signing you. If it does, you wouldn’t want to be with them anyway!!


  21. What a great blog! Thanks for sharing this with us. Woodiwiss’ book “A Rose In Winter” was the first one I read, and like you, I fell in love and I’ve read it so many times I destroy the book. lol Thanks for bringing back memories… lol

    Oh, and Kristen. If you want a husband to be angry with, you can have mine for a week. Yeah, that’s all it will take… 🙂



  22. I’m so glad you enjoyed the blog! It was an amazing conference and my mind is still kinda numb!
    I’ve since read almost all of Kathleen Woodiwiss’ books and love them all. She had such a talent for bringing those people and places alive. I remember, I even started writing in my journal in that type of language- with lots of nays and formalized writing. I cringe in embarrassment when I re-read them!!


  23. Donna Hole says:

    Thanks for the post Stacey. I like getting conference advice for free 🙂

    Seriously though, I’m a character driven writer and these tidbits help me ensure I write authentic, empathetic characters.



  24. I’m learning how to be more character driven and not rely so much on the action. I write suspense, but want it to be with characters that you really love…..or hate. I was so impressed by the quality of information that I learned at their conference. There will be another one next year- save your pennies- it’s money well spent!!!! Lorin Oberweger organizes the workshops and has other fabulous writers’ get togethers. Check it out!!


  25. Great post Stacey.

    The Story Masters workshop was a creative powerhouse. The Donald is so good, always. Using his techniques, definitely gets the “gut-wrenching” feelings on the page w/o using the hated words.

    I thought Vogler’s writer’s journey wheel and Bell’s LOCK system were powerful additions for my writer’s toolkit too.

    Now to work though Donald’s questions for the opening I’m revising. I’m sure Maass’ Agency isn’t the only one where the gut-wrenching word is a turn off.

    Thanks for sharing.


  26. Hi JUdythe- The Story Masters’ conference was mind blowing! I only covered Donald’s opening act here, but we had the rest of the day with him and then 2 more days with other icons in the writing world- AMAZING!!!


  27. Hi Stacey,
    I loved this post. D. Maass advice always gets my brain waves a flutter. I went to one of his workshops once where he made us write down what our characters were feeling before and after a scene we were having trouble with. That turned into the gold for the WIP instead of what I’d written. Thanks for another tip for working the emotion!


  28. Going to his workshops are always a good thing for any writer at any stage. My manuscript always takes a turn for the better when it’s been “Maassified”!!! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. thanks for stopping by.


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