What a Top New York Agent Wants: the element of surprise
Sitting down with Don Maass of the famous Donald Maass Literary Agency last week, I wasn’t all that nervous. Probably the lack of sleep and my impending major surgery scheduled for four days later had dulled my need for validation. Or maybe it was because I actually believe in the book I was pitching; I know it’s good. That’s awful to say, so I’m cringing as I write this, but it’s true so I’m writing it.
If you don’t know, Don Maass is one of New York’s top agents (although I found out at the conference he moved to Canada this past year. He can do that sort of thing because his list of clients on Query Tracker is literally pages long). He comes to the Surrey International Writing Conference every year, and I’ve always enjoyed his workshops, but this was the first time I’d pitched to him. His pitch slots are always the first to book.
Anyway, enough about Don. Let’s just say, he’s an extremely successful agent, and any writer would be ecstatic to have him take an interest in their story.
So there I was, pitching my book. It was going well. The concept was “excellent” and the title was “brilliant.” Opening the pages (he prefers to read pages at a pitch), he started reading. He was nodding approvingly and reading at a normal pace, like actually reading!
Then he got to the third page, the inciting incident, and suddenly he started skimming. I could see he wasn’t really reading anymore. What had gone wrong!?
He looked up after finishing the brief, thousand-word chapter of my latest YA work in progress. A book I fondly call ‘my monster book,’ but which is actually titled, “The Square Root of Love.”
I could see it on his face. Bad news. He started off with the compliments. “This is exactly what the markets are looking for. The concept is very commercially viable. Your writing is flawless. I found the voice a bit difficult to get into at first, but the more I read, the more I realized it matched your character perfectly.”
All good things. But there was a ‘but’ and we both knew it.
“But, your character’s reaction to seeing his first monster. It’s predictable. It’s exactly what every kid would do.”
I took a deep breath. Shit. I’d never heard of this ‘criteria’ before.
“I want to read stories with characters who do things that surprise me,” he continued.
I nodded, my chest tight. Of course. That made perfect sense. How had I not heard of this before? I have a minor in creative writing, and enough courses to make a full degree. I’ve written six books.
I know about voice. My character’s voice is strong. I know it.
I know how to write. I’ve worked as a writer professionally for over 10 years.
I know the concept is strong. It struck me one day like a Mack truck: what if the things we don’t want to face actually became monsters that haunt us?
But I’d never heard about the element of surprise. And there it was.
Don continued. “Would you be willing to edit this opening scene? Make his reaction to seeing his first monster something I could never expect? Would you be willing to do that?”
Hell yes. The idea excited me. It thrilled me. “Absolutely,” I said.
“Okay then, rewrite this opening and send it to me.” He grabbed his wallet, took out a card, and slid it across the table.
I left completely shell-shocked. This was big. Not the business card from Don Maass—that’s great—I mean the idea that I needed to surprise my reader. I thought the surprise was the fact that my anxiety riddled sixteen year old MC woke up to a monster in his bedroom.
But no. The surprise the reader wants is the character’s reaction to the monster.
Needless to say, I picked up a copy of “Writing 21st Century Fiction,” by Donald Maass at the conference book fair.
There it was, in black and white:
Strong story events are surprising, emotional, and revealing, and enact permanent change. Weak story events are foreseeable, zipped up, and empty, and leave in place the story’s status quo. …
Plot-driven writers are not necessarily masters of surprise. … Have you ever seen a plot development coming a mile away? Do you ever finish a novel feeling that things turned out exactly as you expected?
I thought so.
A surprising story event counters expectations.pg. 46 Writing 21st Century Fiction, by Donald Maass
Then he gives some questions at the end of the chapter to help you assess and edit your own story:
Look at anything that happens in your manuscript, any event. Assume your reader saw this coming. What would blow your reader’s mind? Great. Do that instead.pg. 70 Writing 21st Century Fiction, by Donald Maass
From Theory to Reality
All of this was stirring and whirling in my mind over the weekend. The conference was amazing, as usual. I floated from workshop to workshop in a happy daze, unable to really pay attention. Possibly this was due to the upcoming surgery taking up at least a quarter of the retail space in my brain, but also because I honestly felt like I’d already gotten my $700 bucks worth from that ten minute pitch session.
Writing would never be the same for me again. I was excited to implement this ‘element of surprise.’
In future books.
But this book? My monster book?
Yes, he’s a successful agent. Yes, he has tons of clients and sales. But could he really know what was right for my story in a ten minute pitch session? Hmmmm….
I didn’t want to pull my novel apart. I’d done that to my last book and wasn’t sure I’d made it better. I knew this book was already solid. And yet… it was Don Maass.
But this ‘element of surprise’ thing—it was all just a theory for me at this point. A fascinating yet terrifying theory.
It wasn’t until last night, while reading a book that shall remain nameless, that it went from theory to reality. The book was gripping. It was a great concept. The writing was quirky and polished. Better than a lot. I could relate to the character. It was all pretty good. But yes, there was something missing and I couldn’t figure out what it was.
Finally, around midnight, in the last scene of the novel, the character did something completely and utterly unexpected. My heart raced. I sat up in my seat. I was no longer reading like a person floating down a lazy river, but like a person on jet skis. My attention skyrocketed. This was good!
And it hit me. Don is right. He’s fucking right.
I thought about my favourite books.
The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed.” The main character, Shevek, a normal man, happily married with children, bumps into an old friend from college. They hadn’t seen each other in years. It was a happy reunion. Then with a subtle twist that stole my breath, the two decide to go off, rent a room and have sex. They’re two men, one of whom is married. In the story, there’s absolutely nothing strange or wrong about what they’ve done.
But as a reader, I was shocked. I had never expected this turn of events. Well, of course, the character’s behaviour reflects the world he lives in, a society where extra-marital and LGBTQIA sexuality has no taboo whatsoever. Mind blown. It was literally that one twist that made me decide to take up my dream to write science fiction again.
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
Another favourite. “The Fault in Our Stars,” by John Green. Amazing book. the voice carries you from the get-go. But it wasn’t until that shocking twist—that Augustus was actually the one who was going to die all along, not Hazel—that the book went from an endearing, quirky love story, to a book that gripped my soul.
I think I could go on and on, and maybe I will when I have time. I’ll try to find some more examples. Feel free to add them to the comments.
So, what now?
Now I am going to rewrite the opening to my book. Today. And I’m going to send it to Donald Maass.
As usual, I will update this piece as I go along.
Here are some links to other resources that you might find useful, on the element of surprise:
- Vera Tobin, a cognitive scientist wrote a book that I’m DEFINITELY going to buy, called The Elements of Surprise. “Tobin shows that building a good plot twist is a complex art that reflects a sophisticated understanding of the human mind.” Part how-to guide, part psychology textbook, and part literary criticism, seems like a winner.
- Possibly more fascinating and immediately helpful is the Harvard University Press page devoted to Vera Tobin’s book, chock-full of resources, including:
- Here is a great essay from Thanet Writers about the various ways we can surprise our readers in our stories, including identity twists, motive, perception and betrayal surprises.
- This essay on Artifice has some excellent examples from movies and books that centre around a surprise.