Writing Workshop: Novel Writing Prompts from Donald Maass


When life intervenes, writing can compete hard for our hours. Especially if a day job or kids cry for our attention, we can have days we wish writing had its own demanding boss screaming, “Write! Write!”

nephele_tempestThanks to her March Madness Challenge, we can all pretend agent Nephele Tempest of the Knight Agency is that stern boss. Or encouraging one.

Tempest’s challenge is to make time to write every day. She supplements this with homework and “circuit training” — which began with a challenge to compile a list of at least a dozen writing prompts. This is why bosses are fab: if you asked me, I’d say I don’t like prompts. Too work-out-ish. Let me just write.

Donald Maass

Donald Maass

But Tempest says, “Gather prompts,” and I am suddenly reminded that agent Donald Maass has been tweeting a thought-provoking series of novel prompts, one per week, since 2011. In March, Maass’s agency website shared at least 50 of the 101 prompts he had tweeted at the release of his Writing 21st Century Fiction, a to kick a good WIP into “breakout novel” shape. (The list of prompts is no longer on the site. Look for other links below.)

Here are some of the prompts from Maass’s list that challenge my thinking with my WIP.  Please follow the link to his agency website for the whole list or find more recent prompts in his feed on Twitter at @DonMaass . Update 6/2013: the list has been removed from the site, but Maass does tweet occasional prompts from his book, using the hashtag #21stCenturyTuesday.

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  1. “What’s the worst thing your MC does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more.” Thinking to myself: the death MC caused. Hurt his mother, his brother, himself. But what about his younger siblings, his mother’s family? What about his son? Did his mother have a best friend who never forgave him for it?  Hmm.
  2. What’s the most selfless thing your MC does? What good change or effect does that have on someone unexpected? Add that in.” Curious in the absence of this. Who in my WIP is selfless? Would it be more revealing if they were selfless than if their motivation were more immediate?
  3. “Find any violence in your ms. Delete any shock, fear or horror. Replace with two *conflicting* emotions that are less obvious.” I like this, as writing violence can be as challenging as writing sex: for literary fiction, you need the effect of the thing, and I’m curious about this challenge for getting further from the obvious.
  4. “What should your readers most see, understand or be angry about? At what story moment will that happen? Heighten it in two ways.” Mulling (which is why prompts are great): have I been clear enough with this?
  5. “What does a sidekick or secondary character see about your MC that your MC denies? Force a showdown over it.” My MC would have a heart attack over this one. It is a key point to the story: the fact his best friend knew his error all along. But, hmm. There’s never been a showdown, and that intrigues me.
  6. “Over what does your MC disagree with his/her boss or mentor? When does the boss/mentor prove to be right?” While my MC is focused on ways his father mentored him, a small conflict as prompted with his boss (a minor character) could be perfect diversion to expose a clearer image of how the world sees my MC.
  7. “Find a small hurt someone suffers. What’s the big principle or hidden injustice it represents? Stir your MC to anger over it.”  My WIP opens with a small hurt that engages the reader. The injustice is clear as it leaves a little boy without a father. It’s that last bit that lights a flare: I’ve never let my MC know about it.  How would he react?
  8. “What’s the worst thing that happens to your MC? Work backwards. Make it something your MC has spent a lifetime avoiding.” Yup. This is key to MC’s internal conflict. Lifetime of avoiding wills his fear in.
  9. “What secret is your MC keeping? Who is keeping one *from* your MC? Spill the truth at the worst possible time.” I’m debating a story thread I added last fall — knowing it is strong, but weighing if it takes power away from the MC’s story. This question is key as I decide if there should be another secret in play or not.
  10. “What does your MC know about people that no one else does? Create 3 moments when he/she spots that in others.” Roonan: everyone is hiding. Or he thinks everyone is hiding, or sees what everyone is hiding. (Which may be true, but reveals more his animal state of having lived in hiding.)
  11. “Find a small passing moment in your manuscript. What big meaning does your MC see in it? Add that.” Like the one before, these are intriguing as they provoke: what does the MC see that no one else does? What a great way to reveal inner conflict.
  12. “Give your MC passionate feelings about something trivial: e.g., cappuccino, bowling, argyle socks. Write his/her rant. Add it.” I just think this one’s funny.
  13. “Your MC’s worst quality: let him/her struggle with it, provoke it 3 times, make it cost something big, then allow change.” Use this one to evaluate where his worst quality is revealed, where this might incite more. And the love interest’s worst quality?
  14. Who in your story has an ironclad, unshakable belief? Shatter or reverse it by the story’s end. Force him to rebuild.”  Yup.  Reversed.  Shattered. Time to rebuild.
  15. “What principle guides your MC? At what moment is it most tested? When does it fail? Put it into action three times.” Roonan: to stay out of the violence. Secondarily, he had to protect his younger brother and sister. In protecting or helping vulnerable people, he backs into violence.
  16. “Find a corner, crossroads or dark object in your story. Invest it with eeriness, unknown portent or dread. Go there three times.” There are guns in the book, but a vintage motorcycle and bag of locks would be the dark object. Or is there something else?
  17. “What does your antagonist believe in? Who else shares those values? Why are they actually right? When does your MC see that too?” If anything, this challenges me to wonder: am I too quick for MC to agree with antagonist?
  18. “What’s the worst thing your antagonist must do? Make it against his/her principles. Make it unthinkable. Then make it imperative.” Thinking… External antagonist? Wondering if there is a place for this. But also, how about internal antagonist? Have I directly confronted this? Is this what compels his mistakes?
  19. “What does your protagonist most want? How is it truly something that everyone wants? Explain & add.” I’ve written about this before (here). My character wants the same happiness he thought his parents had. Writing needed might include those directions: “explain & add.”
  20. “In your climactic scene, what are 3 details of place that only your MC would notice? Cut more obvious details, replace with these.” Intriguing challenge.
  21. “During a big dramatic event, what’s one small thing your POV character realizes will never change or never be the same again?” My immediate thought is a smaller detail, not the obvious change.
  22. “Cut 100 words from your last 3 pages.You have 5 minutes. Fail? Penalty: cut 200 words.” We all love-hate this one.
  23. “What’s a moment when everything could change? Pause. Explore. What does it feel like to be weightless?” This tweet provoked a transformative emotional response in a crucial moment in my WIP when I came across it last fall.

Updated Summer 2013 — Here are several resources for learn more from Maass:

Hey! Want an opportunity to read Maass’s book, work on your manuscript and trade notes with a fab writing group? My friends at Wordsmith Studio have selected Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel for our book chats on Twitter, starting July 1, 2013 at 9 pm EST. We’ll discuss the book at chats July through September, using Twitter chat-tag, #wschat.

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What prompts or other writing inspiration do you use to start your work? Do you avoid prompts or welcome them? Have you posted your own prompts before? Feel free to share your link or favorite prompts in the comments.

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15 Comments

Filed under Novel Writing, Writing Character, Writing Prompt, Writing workshop

15 responses to “Writing Workshop: Novel Writing Prompts from Donald Maass

  1. Great prompts! Thanks for making me aware of them!

    • elissa field

      Thanks, B! I was so glad that Nephele Tempest’s March Madness Challenge reminded me to look for them. With 101 great prompts, these 23 were just a sampling. Thanks for commenting – glad to see you here!

  2. I love Don Maass! Have all his books :) Will have to take a closer look at the agency’s site and his collection of tweeted wisdom. Thanks for this timely reminder as I’m heading into my next revision.

    • elissa field

      That’s great to hear, Melanie. I haven’t bought his books, but met him at a conference years ago and he was always so clear-visioned with his advice. His prompts really get me thinking. Thanks for commenting – it’s great to see you here, as always!

  3. This is great, Elissa! I’m working on revising and polishing my WIP, and these prompts will definitely help- although I must admit, some of them intimidate me. Thanks for sharing!

    • elissa field

      Julia, I couldn’t have said it better. I love that they are intended for challenging us when we’re at that point where we have a ms that holds together, and challenge to take it that extra measure. Not every challenge has to be used, but I like how they get you thinking. Thanks for commenting.

  4. claudsy

    Thanks so much for posting this, Elissa. I’ve bookmarked it for later study and use. While I was reading through it, Each item clicked in my head in reference to the novel I’m working on at the moment. This will definitely come in handy. I couldn’t have asked for a more timely addition to my writing process than this.

    (y) to you for the help.

    • elissa field

      Claudsy, that’s great. You can tell from the brief comments I made to each of the prompts, I felt the same way. If you use any of the prompts and blog about it, be sure to leave us link here to see how it worked for you. Good luck with your WIP, and thanks for commenting.

      • claudsy

        Thanks, Elissa. I’ll try–with my poor sieve of a memory–to remember to link back if I use one or more. They actually did spark some ideas that I’ll use. I’m just not sure yet whether that will be before or after I finish the first draft.

  5. Thanks for sharing these. I usually ignore anything with the word “prompts” because they’re so unrelated to what I’m writing and they take time. But these look really useful, especially when I’m getting a little stalled.

    • elissa field

      That’s what I thought too, Beth. I think of prompts as something for when you have nothing else to say — but these are specifically directed to intensify thinking, for someone already well underway. Thanks for commenting – it’s nice to see you here.

  6. I like Maass’s latest book–Writing 21st Century Fiction. At the end of each chapter, he offers thought-provoking questions and *more* prompts than you could ever use! Plus, the book is spot-on with advice about writing *now*, making a book that will sell, hopefully. Maass contends that the “new” successful novel is one that blends the best of genre and literary fiction. In other words, it’s beautifully written but it has a compelling plot. Check Maass’s book out, if you haven’t already. I think it’s a must-read.

  7. Donald Maass is so great. I have sat on his workshops and chatted with him at the Surrey Writers’ Conference. You’ve reminded me that I should go through my conference notes and see what other gems he spoke! Meanwhile, these are excellent ways to get me thinking of ways to improve my current WIP which is in a bit of a rut. Thanks!

  8. elissa field

    Reblogged this on elissa lauren field and commented:

    This has been a popular post — and is one of my favorites, as Donald Maass’s novel writing prompts have been so consistently valuable to inspire powerful conflict and character. I’ve revisited the links, updated and added resources. I hope it’s as helpful to you as it’s been to others — especially during wordsprints on Twitter throughout the month.

  9. Pingback: Writing Craft and Community | Susi Lovell

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