Writing the Breakout Novel

Posted on: October 19, 2009
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Written by Donald Maas

Reviewed by Rocky Reichman



That is the best word to describe the advice this books offers. Dozens of books on writing choke the marketplace today, but few are as valuable as this. Writing the Breakout Novel is a gem in the pile of rocks. The author, Donald Maass, is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, a well known New York firm that sells over a hundred novels a year to publishers. He is also president of AAR, the Association of Authors’ Representatives. Which is why it is no wonder this book breaks out from the typical books on novel writing. Maass’ book is about strategy, not just writing style or cliché advice. “Vary your sentence lengths. Limit your adjectives.” Maass analyzes why books break out, and shows readers how to improve their writing to do the same.

This review will cover a sampling of the best advice offered in Writing the Breakout Novel.

Marketing. What sells books? Book tours? Giant advertisements in The New York Times Book Review? Not really. While they may help, they are not the way of selling books. Maass explains that good writing is what sells novels. Good word of mouth. The ticket to bestsellerdom is writing great fiction and exciting stories that readers love so much they recommend them to their friends.

Engaging readers. Maass suggests introducing the conflict of the story as early as possible in order to reel readers in.

Open up yourself. Show readers who you truly are. Only then can you truly project your views, values, thoughts and ideas onto the pages of your novel. To truly create a breakout novel, Maass advises writers to write from their heart. Write what they really feel, deep down inside. Do not be afraid to reveal yourself to readers.

Tension. There must be tension on every single page. Otherwise, readers will lose interest at the first low point of your novel and give up on it. Tension keeps readers stuck to the page. Waiting to find out what happens next. Wondering why this character did this, or what this plot change will mean for the rest of the story. Maass also advises making the first pages of your book full of tension as well. After all, readers would never get to chapter two if the first did not engage them.

Characters. Make your characters sympathetic, suggests Maass. People that anyone can relate to. Give them a moral code. And a conflict. Before hurtling them too far into the story, give readers a reason to care about them. Both their physical survival and mental well being. And make them dynamic. Let them live the dreams that normal people cannot live. Here’s your chance to make a character do something that you normally wouldn’t dare doing. Like punching your totalitarian boss in the face. Or “telling them off.” You’ll think of something.

Subplots, points of view. Breakout novels contain multiple points of view but keep subplots to a minimum. Maass advises that writers make sure their additional points of view add a new perspective or layer to your story. If their only purpose will be to repeat what has already happened with your protagonist, then it is better to cut them out.

Stakes. There are two kinds of stakes, says Maass. Public stakes and private stakes. Public stakes are the issues and consequences affecting everyone in the book’s setting, whether it be as small as just one family or as large as the entire world. Private stakes is what your protagonist alone has to lose, whether it be his moral code, money, girlfriend or sanity. (Actually, the last too may go together well!)

Why? This is the question Maass wants you ready for. Why should readers care what happens to your character or the public? The solution? Make them care. By creating sympathetic characters that anyone can relate to. By constantly raising the stakes of your story, both public and private.

Plot. Surprise readers. Do the unexpected. Be unpredictable. Do the opposite of what readers would expect. Then you will surprise–and delight—them. Want to save a supporting character? Kill him off instead. Does your protagonist have a moral dilemma: kill or lose something valuable to him? Turn him into a bloody killer. (Excuse my english). Make your plot unconventional.

Themes. Novels need themes, says Maass. They make the story more powerful. Everyone has beliefs and strong opinions, says Maass. Bestselling novels are passionate about the themes they write about. They have strong opinions. So should you, says Maass. Analyze what you feel strongly about, some injustice in the world, and use your novel as a sounding board to tackle that issues head on. The fire in your own heart will fuel the flames in the characters of your novel.

Showing your theme, not telling it. Avoid saying the themes outright . Instead, let the reader see your theme and your characters’ values through their actions and feelings.

Maas also includes a short piece about Advance Plot Structure for various genres. Not every genre, however. The author is humble and instead refers readers to the multitude of other books written on these topics.

Writing the Breakout Novel is not just for beginning writers. It is also recommended—highly recommended—to published novelists as well. All writers can benefit from the knowledge inside this book. Because, as Maass astutely points out, just because you get your first novel published does not mean your job is done. Even career novelists suffer falling sales. The solution is to keep writing fiction that people enjoy. Writing the breakout novel.

This book is heavily researched. Maass quotes classic as well as contemporary authors in an effort to balance the book with examples from both older and modern fiction. The advice he presents also resonates deeply with the Novel Dynamics techniques used by Business Brainiac. And Donald Maass is certainly the perfect person for writing this type of book. Writing the Breakout Novel will make readers—and by readers, I mean writers—smarter about how they write. It will force them to analyze how they write. And how they can turn ordinary novels into breakout novels.


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