Kitchens, Cars and Coffee


So this residency at SHU we had literary agent Donald Maass as our guest speaker. Aside from being a total fangurl (I want him, bad — erm, as my agent, of course!), I got an immense amount of information from his seminar. He did a very pared down version of his Writing the Breakout Novel workshop. Aside from having decided that as soon as my finances will permit, I'm going to take the full workshop, I also realized that half my novel contains no-no scenes.

In his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (which is fantastic), Maass suggests that all scenes which take place in a kitchen, a car, a shower, etc be cut along with any scenes involving the serving or drinking of coffee or tea as well as the smoking of cigarettes. His reasoning is that these sorts of scenes tend to tone down the tension of the book. I think, in most cases, he's absolutely right. Not all cases, of course. And he acknowledges this himself by giving a couple examples of good scenes in those settings or with those elements. In each, though, there is an element of tension that gets ratcheted up by the scene, rather than toned down. And that, I believe, is his point.

If there is a scene that must absolutely take place in a kitchen, make sure the scene serves the greater purpose of the story: to make the reader want to read on, to make the reader care.
It's all about tension, he says. I daresay, he's right. And that's not just me being a fangurl! 🙂
I'd love to hear what others think about this!

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  • Reply
    Cliff Burns
    January 13, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Pay attention to good agents with reputations like Maass, increasingly they are becoming arbiters of taste as editors are overwhelmed with submissions from every idiot who comes out of a writing workshop or creative writing program and imagines themselves to be the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King (funny enough, few of these people want to be the next Dostoevsky or Flaubert). Landing an agent is almost as hard as landing a publisher–like everything, it’s personal contacts and connections that carry you farther in this world than talent alone…

  • Reply
    January 13, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    I have to agree with you. My understanding of the way publishing has changed in the last 15 or 20 years is that the emphasis is put on relationships between agents and editors as well as the decisions of the marketing department, rather than quality of writing. There’s really no other explanation for some of the dreck that’s out there. Particularly when some of that dreck actually makes the best seller list. *boggle*

    Thanks for the comment!

  • Reply
    Mike Arnzen
    January 14, 2008 at 7:01 am

    Nice blog, V!

    I enjoyed Maass’ lecture a lot, too. His point about tension (or “microtension”) is really a point about conflict, in my view, though it’s conflict that’s saturated into the stuff between the lines. A character can sip tea, puff a cigar, or play with the radio in a car and that CAN imply tension, if done right (say, if done in response to a direct and immediate question).

    So you don’t only have to “cut the fat” to get the tension in there, but also think about the characters’ conflict(s) — the silent and invisible tug of war, “status game” or power struggle going on between characters. When mother and child both say “Leggo my Eggo” it’s not about the waffle.

    — Mike A.

  • Reply
    Heidi Ruby Miller
    January 14, 2008 at 8:01 am


    Nice new blog! I like the look and the musings.


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