Don Maass’ thoughts on Setting as Character

Donald Maass - The Breakout Novelist 2011
Donald Maass – The Breakout Novelist 2011 (Photo credit: jwordsmith)

If you have a chance, catch a workshop by Donald Maass. He’s advice is cutting and he’s funny to boot. Time will tell but I think he’ll turn out to be one of the few writing coaches whose advice will prove to be formative for me. My main take-away from when I heard him earlier this year was to use contrary (unexpected) emotions. Aside from its rather important value of surprising the reader, it’s simply a fantastic way to break through writer’s doldrums: don’t feel like writing a scene? Try it from a different emotional slant.

Writer’s Digest recently posted his advice on setting: treat it like a character. It’s old advice but it is especially useful for a fantasy writer and Don Maass conveys it in his usual effective and engaging way. If you like how he puts things, WD has all his books on sale for $39 (price is all of them together and there’s no shipping) which is a good deal.

Mining the Miners (and Writers)

Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trai...
Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike Gold Rush (I’m the fourth man from the bottom). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a recent visit to the Klondike Gold Rush site in Seattle, I was reminded once again that the people most likely to make a killing in a gold rush are the folks who sell stuff to the miners. The saying in Seattle at the time of the gold rush was that the city-folk sought their fortune “Mining the Miners.”

While there are always a few in a gold rush that find a fortune, nearly everyone else does not. You’d think picking up gold lying on the ground would be more lucrative! Of course, the gold is only lying on the ground for the first lucky few, then it is hard work. I’ve always found gold rushes fascinating and have read a fair amount about them over the years, enough to appreciate why people go and also enough to know that it would be pretty stupid (for me) to join one.

But now I find myself aspiring to be a successful writer. All you have to do is look at the payout of a Dan Brown or a JK Rowling, and the horde of starving writers in the shadows behind them to realize it is another form of gold rush: yes there’s wealth in them thar pages but the average writer isn’t going to find it. I long ago came to terms with that. I like writing for the sake of writing and while I might not do it with the same dedication if there wasn’t some glimmer of at least a modest payout, it’s a better use of my time than a lot of other pursuits.

However, extending the gold rush analogy brings you face-to-face with the people selling writing services. There’s no right or wrong to that, of course. There’s a demand for it and many of the services are quite good. But having recently joined the Writer’s Digest mailing list, I’m now receiving a flood of offers for $90 webinars and the like. It feels… very much like mine-the-writer. I have to hand it to the Writer’s Digest guys, they have a finely tuned sense of what is too much: they manage to slip in just enough interesting blogs along with all the solicitations that I haven’t yet turned it off but I’m close to doing so.

It’s not that I don’t use or don’t like some paid services: there are great workshops and services out there. But a flood of $90 webinars seems over the top. If I did just a fraction of them I’d blow my writer’s budget in three months. I’ve also seen writers spend way too much time taking courses and not actually writing.

In the end, this is just an observation but I’ll confess a little niggling doubt: one of my favorite demotivational posters shows a ship wreck with the caption (paraphrasing from memory): “What if the only purpose to your life is to serve as a warning to others?” Which begs the question, what if the only purpose of my writing is to line the pockets of those mining-the-writers? (Below is a similar poster I found at

Mistakes: what if that ship is my book? Courtesy
Mistakes: what if that ship is my book?