Surrey International Writer’s Conference – Don Maass workshop

Joe’s Post #117

IMG_6034Don Maass workshop: “Creating a World Readers Want To Live In”

Is there a workshop ‘reveal’ etiquette?

How much can I reveal without violating the sacred writer/mentor code? Is there even such a thing?

Oh, hell, I dunno. If it were me and I gave good information, I’d say repeat it to anyone who’ll listen and repeat is often.

So here I go.

First off, if you’ve never been to a Don Maass workshop as a writer, you’ve missed out on something amazing. It’s not to diminish in any way the other workshops or presenters at SiWC, but Don (can I call him Don?) is a master of making you think.

How does it do it, the clever bugger?

He sets up an idea, a different way of thinking about as aspect of writing and then rapid fires questions at you like he’s interrogating you at the border about your bag that smells like you got into a fight with a skunk.

This year, I couldn’t hit his master class, but I hear from Silk it was amazing. Emotion trumps everything. I would have loved to be there, but couldn’t make it. However, I could make his ‘Creating A World’ talk.

So, I brought my glue, my coloured pens and fancy paper to draw up landmasses, add rivers and put in dragons somewhere. But that’s not what this was about.

As he put it, that’s location. He wanted us to make worlds people want to live in.

But how, dammit, how do we do that?

First, ask yourself, why do you want to live in another world? What is it about that world that makes you long to be there? Is there depth beyond the description?

In essence, how does a place FEEL? And the way we get to the feel of a place is through our character’s eyes.

Dammit, feelings, again!

He had many suggestions on how to make a world have depth, to get to those feelings, but here are 3…

What do they eat?

What is wonderful about that world?

What is the history, the legends of the world?

But all of this, ALL must be seen through your protagonist’s eyes. How do they experience the world. Go beyond the 5 senses (that we’re all taught to include in our writing) and live in the skin of the protagonist. How do they FEEL about what they see, they hear, they smell, they taste, they touch and how does it affect them?

That creates depth. That creates a world we want to live in.

My brain caught fire as I was peppered with questions like what do they eat at weddings, what’s your protagonist’s favourite food, what does he hate, what does he love, what’s a treat, what has he always wanted but could never have, what’s comfort food, what’s his childhood food, what does he love to drink, what’s breakfast, lunch, a snack, a secret snack, dinner…?

Then, THEN Don throws something at you that can really take your story to the next level. Something like, what does your protagonist hate to eat? Can there be someone in the story who loves it? Can your protagonist come to love that thing at the end of the story?


Now imagine this going on for 90 min, give or take, and imagine examples and class feedback and lots of nose blowing (Ok, hey, I had a cold!!!).

game of thronesOk, so let’s take this idea for a test drive. Game of Thrones. What about food? Hell, there are cookbooks on the food!

What about how characters experience the world? OMG, every character, all ten thousand of them, experience a place differently. Does Geoffrey, the little psycho, see King’s Landing the same as Tyrion? Does the Hound have the same experience as Arya Stark?

What about history, legend? Do they all not live in a world where every city, every family (even the trees), have history?

You bet!

Now, is there a novel that you love, a world that you would like to visit? Does it go beyond description of places? Do you experience the place? Food? History? What’s wonderful about the world?

That’s the kind of world you want to create, right?

I gotta tell you, I went home wanting to write. Needing to write. To get that world out of my head and onto the page. To make my world another character.

Don Maass lit my brain on fire.

And how cool is that?




17 thoughts on “Surrey International Writer’s Conference – Don Maass workshop

    • Ha! Yes, drinking from a firehose indeed! A lot of what he says (or asks) has to be digested (dammit, I’m mixing metaphors, but you get my drift.) What was the best part of his master class, Wendy?

      • The best part of the master class… tough question! This one was about The Emotional Landscape of Fiction (or similar), which is the approximate title of his upcoming book (oh great, another one for my already-groaning craft shelf), and he used great examples of how to clue the reader in to emotion using behaviour and dialogue. That seems obvious, I know, but he talked about different approaches for story situations that are already emotionally charged (i.e., mourning a death, fleeing danger, the birth of a long-awaited baby) versus those where the emotions are less intuitive to the reader. He gave the example of a story by Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”, in which the situation (which is not fully explained but can be intuited) is emotionally charged and the dialogue is calm, civil, and sometimes dispassionate.

  1. Bev–Don teaches retreat workshops across the country during the rest of the year. There will be one this coming April in Hood River, Oregon, not that far away, right? Can go to and see the details.

  2. Terrific take-away from this workshop Joe! As Don said, he’s not a hand-out or a white board guy … he talks, you think (and write). And he talks fast enough that I’m always damn glad I can type, like, 100 wpm. I’d never make it through if I was taking notes by hand!

    • Joe, I’m not sure what you mean by east–are you in Canada? Free Expressions sponsors Donald Maass Break-Out Novel and Master Craft workshops and retreats. You can sign up to receive newsletters at The next “eastern” workshop that involves him but is not the week-long retreat is “Story Masters” workshop with Christopher Vogler, James Scott Bell, and Donald Maass on Feb 5-8, 2015, Charleston, SC. Free Expressions is a company begun by book editor Lorin Oberweger. She decided to become the organizer of retreats and workshops for Don, and then has been building on that base to draw and feature other celebrities in the instruction field.

      • I’m Jerry, Elizabeth, and am in New Joizey. East of me is the churning cloud of pigeons roiling over the NYC dump. I’ll sign up for the newsletter (thanks for that), but am not inclined to go that far south wit my #@^&in’ Joizey accent and Joizey plates. My short term memory is slipping, but my long term memory is not fond of the land of Y’All.

      • Sorry for the name confusion–I saw the ‘Joe’ and didn’t look to see the sender. Oops. I have Joizey relatives. I always bring a translation device when I visit.

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