Thursday, 19 November 2009
Writing the Breakout Novel - Review
WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL
Donald Maass, Writer’s Digest Books
Donald Maass, the author, founded his literary agency in 1980 and since then he has represented hundreds of fiction writers. He also sold fourteen novels. So he knows what he’s talking about.
A breakout novel is that rarity that goes beyond a writer’s normal output to scale the heady heights of bestsellerdom. The hard part about writing a novel is not simply getting published, it’s staying published. Many published authors are being dropped simply because their name doesn’t move enough units (books) off the shelves. One way to avoid this is to write a breakout. First novelists can write a breakout too – it breaks away from the pack, in effect, so much of what Maass advocates also applies to first time novelists.
Bigger, better, deeper could be the mantra for the breakout novelist. A useful start: Devise a plausible premise, with inherent conflict within the fictional world you’re creating. Strive for originality – hard, of course, but this can be done by switching gender from the norm, turning to an unexpected slant on a standard theme. The premise and story has to have gut emotional appeal. That’s the depth of characterisation, so the reader feels she is living with the main protagonist and is concerned for the outcome.
Brainstorming has its uses at the beginning, to validate the premise. Will it stand up? Has it got the legs for a full-length book? Jettison the obvious as you examine the ‘what ifs’.
A breakout novel has high personal stakes. These are relevant to the main character; so the writer has to build high human worth, as Maass terms it: the characters espouse such qualities as honesty, integrity, loyalty, kindness, bravery, respect, trust, for example. If any of these ideals are threatened, then there’s conflict. As well as making the stakes personal, try to make them public, so that failure will affect not only the main protagonist but also other worthy and innocent individuals
Remember, he says, that ‘trials and tests are the stuff of character building, of conflict.’ In effect, keep the danger immediate and make the characters suffer.
Place and scene are important too, and often neglected as mere backdrop by new authors. The place where the characters interact may have an effect on them and it can certainly evoke mood and atmosphere. Convey a sense of the time as well as the place. Don’t neglect the details; these add verisimilitude.
Breakout characters are larger-than-life, inevitably, but they shouldn’t be caricatures. Self-belief, strength of purpose, fortitude, going against the flow – these traits signify a larger-than-life character. Deepen the character with inner conflict or a troubled or hidden past. But never ignore humour and wit, either, though it’s probably advisable to ditch the puns! Maass suggests there are two character qualities that leave a deeper, more lasting and powerful impression of a character than any other, and I tend to agree. You’ll have to read the book to find out what they are, though. Villains are characters, too, and should be given due attention to make them rounded, with some redemptive trait.
Plot is not neglected, of course, and he advocates that sequential plotting is not always the best approach; again, I agree: my novel Pain Wears No Mask gained more depth by avoiding a chronological sequential plot. This way, certain past events can be concealed until they have a powerful resonance.
Every book hammers at the fact that the essence of story is conflict. There are different degrees of conflict, but it should be there – even if below the surface. Tension on every page keeps the pages turning. Maas outlines the five basic plot elements. Effective breakout conflict has to be deep, credible, complex and universal enough to be recognised by many readers. Any book is improved if it possesses layers of understanding and meaning. Breakout novels have to possess layered plots.
Viewpoint choice and consistency, forward-moving subplots, narrative pace, voice and endings are all examined and play their crucial part in any book but are essential for a breakout novel.
Whether the story is a novel or a short piece, it will have a theme; even if the writer hasn’t consciously decided upon one! Novels are moral entities, reflecting the morality of the age they’re written in or they’re written about. Theme invariably engages the emotional side and can be strengthened by circumspect use of symbols and a character’s passion. Don’t spell out the theme, however, let it emerge from the story and the characters.
That, briefly, is an overview of a guidebook any serious writer will find of interest. At the end of each chapter is a Breakout checklist and it might pay off to copy down those salient points and refer to them during the development and writing of your novel. They’re guidelines. The story still has to evolve from you over the weeks, months and possibly years. But by following these guidelines, your novel is liable to be a richer, more satisfying and more attractive book for any prospective publisher.
It’s clear that Donald Maass lives and breathes his work, as can be gleaned from two interviews on the web in 2007. You can access them here: