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Thursday 19 November 2009

Writing the Breakout Novel - Review

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:

Nik Morton

Tuesday 17 November 2009

A Fistful of Legends - progress report-02

The book complete with cover is with the printer. A proof copy will be sent to me in the next week and after checking for any errors, it will be all systems go and a publication date will be set.

Watch this space...

Friday 13 November 2009

Writing Guide-02 - Beginnings revisited

Last time, I covered beginnings for short stories. They are crucial, because every word has to count in a short story. With a novel, while there's more scope with more words, those first few paragraphs or pages still have to pull the reader in. The methods are no different to those suggested for a short story - create a mystery the reader wants to solve, pose a question that needs answering, immerse the reader in the narrator's or main character's world and mind...

Here are samples from my novels.


THE $300 MAN
‘$300 – that’ll do nicely!’ said Bert Granger as he finished thumbing through the billfold Corbin Molina had been encouraged to hand over. As added persuasion, Bert held a revolver in his other hand.

Here, I'm having fun with the modern phrasing of advertisers and shopkeepers. But there's an immediate threat posed to the main character.

James Thorp eased his sorrel horse to a halt on the outskirts of the small town of Bethesda Falls, which nestled at the base of the mountain’s foothills. He was dressed entirely in black. Black because he was in mourning. Mourning the men he had killed.

I'm not merely describing what Thorp wears, I'm saying that he doesn't relish killing. I'm also providing an image of him on the outskirts of the town where most of the action will take place, setting the scene.

When the stagecoach eased over the brow of the hard-packed road that ran between two massive boulders, the driver Alfred Boddam grinned. Mid-morning and, by God, they were almost two hours early. He gentled the four horses to a stop and applied the brake. One of the passengers enquired gruffly, ‘Driver, why have we stopped?’ But he paid him no mind. From the box he sat looking down over the wide lush valley, a hard callused hand rubbing his chin’s bristles as he admired the view. Nestling on the east of Clearwater Creek was his destination, the town of Bethesda Falls. He chewed his lip, recalling his last visit. Miss Kitty Riley had taken a shine to him with her winsome smile and this time around he fancied pursuing that fine shapely figure of womanhood.

Rather a long intro, but very visual. Alfred is a minor character who bookends the novel. It offers amorous hope for Alfred, so the reader might be wondering if he will get his girl. (The stage holdup happens very soon after this intro, by the way...)

The agent who called himself Mr. Swann entered the Queen’s Hotel bar at 2PM, just as he had promised. In my business I’d met a few spies and all of them were nondescript. After all, to be a good spy, you need to blend in, be unmemorable. Swann just didn’t fit that category, so I wondered if I was wasting my time on this mysterious appointment…

Chapter 1: August, 1968
Six Soviet officers stood on the balcony overlooking St. Wenceslas Square and the definition through the sniper-scope was so good that Tana Standish could detect the black-heads round their noses and the blood-shot eyes that testified to late-night celebrating with alcohol. She had ten 7.5mm rounds, more than enough to kill all of them.

The books in the Tana Standish series always begin with me receiving the latest secret manuscript from an agent. A bit flippant beginning, but also posing a question about the mysterious Mr Swann.

So, chapter one of each of the three Tana Standish novels features Tana or someone else viewing a target through a sniper's scope (see below). But each poses different questions.

We were in our usual booth, where we couldn’t be overheard. ‘We can’t keep on meeting like this,’ I said.

Chapter 1: Friday, September 8

Dressed in his sinister black SAVAK uniform, Captain Hassan Mokhtarian looked every inch the evil man he was. A man who deserved to die. Tana Standish could see him quite clearly through the telescopic sight, even making allowances for the poor light as dusk descended over Tehran and the city’s surrounding mountains, turning the overshadowing snow-capped cone of Mount Damavand a delicate shade of mauve. At least today the city smog didn’t obscure the peak of the volcano which still belched out sulphurous fumes from time to time and killed the odd stray sheep.

Another hosepipe ban loomed. Still, I was glad to be back in stifling grime- and crime-ridden London, even if sweat pooled in the small of my back. Sweat that caused my scars – and there were plenty – to itch.

We know from the blurb that the narrator is a nun who used to be a cop. We're left wondering after this brief intro - why does she have 'plenty' of scars? We know it's London, too.

So, try to create an intriguing or interesting beginning, it just might pull your reader and publisher into your story.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Remembrance Day short story

Born of Joy

‘Sorrow is born of excessive joy’ – Chinese proverb

Quite a few years ago our vicar wrote down on slips of paper the many names of the war dead listed on the memorial plaque in the church. During that Remembrance Sunday service he handed out these slips to the congregation and asked that each recipient remember the named person in their prayers.

Although the paper is hiding somewhere, I have never forgotten the man’s name – Edwin Hamilton.

This very short story is dedicated to him – and to thousands like him.
Lydia Ballard was one hundred-and-six years old but didn’t look a day over seventy-five. Why this should be, she had no idea. She had no Wildean painting in the attic and used to smoke until her fifties – when she saw the sense of stopping. And she still enjoyed a tipple or two.

The residential home’s coach trip through the hedgerow lined lanes of Hampshire finished here in Southsea. The council had done the town proud, she thought, the flowers were gorgeous – yellows and reds and bright mauves. Though she felt they had gone mad with the plethora of road-signs.

While the hotels and boarding houses were no longer so imposing or well-cared for, they brought back memories of long ago, when many of these residences had belonged to the rich and powerful, when she had lived here.

Maureen, one of the carers, wasn’t looking, so Lydia slipped behind their group and hid in a shop entrance. An impulse, but she felt drawn. She stood still for a moment to get her breath.

After all these years, she found that the place was garish now. Shops with appalling colour schemes and lacking in the art of window-dressing, which she had excelled in during the 1950s. Her nose twitched – the smells were familiar, of candyfloss and seaweed, of chips and vinegar.

Nostalgia beckoned and she slowly followed some day-trippers along the boardwalk on to the pier. Her dainty feet trod carefully over the timeworn wooden boards.

Two boys were attaching bait to the hooks on their fishing lines. Over to her right was Madam Crystal’s gaudy tent. Lydia smiled, remembering her own visit as an impressionable sixteen-year-old. Then it had been Madame Zara, Palmist Extrordinaire! She had promised Lydia a full happy life with the man she loved.

With a liver-spotted hand she brushed tears from her cheeks, making quite a mess of her thick layer of Max Factor powder.

Out of nowhere an unseasonal fog enveloped the pier. It was eerie and she faintly heard several shrieks and the pounding of retreating feet.

But Lydia was past being afraid. She let go of the handrail and as the damp mist cleared from her eyes and the pier, she recognised him standing there, looking at her. Edwin Hamilton. Still dressed in his smart 1917 Khaki uniform, looking really fetching, bright blue eyes glinting. She had worn her best frock for their last day together.

Of course he had never returned – until now.

Monday 9 November 2009


DO THE BIRDS STILL SING IN HELL? by Horace ‘Jim’ Greasley

Appropriately, I finished reading this book on Remembrance Sunday. Long after I closed it, I’d remember Horace Greasley – and this story is a testament to his mates, those who survived with him but especially the many who succumbed to Nazi and German brutality.

I grew up with the plethora of war books in the 1950s, all of them memorable – Boldness Be My Friend (Richard Pape), The Wooden Horse (Eric Williams), The Great Escape and Escape or Die (Paul Brickhill), The Colditz Story (Pat Reid) and The Naked Island (Russell Braddon) to name a few. This book, a late contender, ranks up there with those classics. A number of those books were written in a novelistic style, but their stories were still true. Ghostwriter Ken Scott has chosen to follow that style of narrative here and it works splendidly with a well-structured and riveting story, penned from the lips of Horace whose arthritic fingers are not capable of writing or typing.

At the outbreak of war, gentlemen’s barber Horace Greasley joined the 2nd/5th Battalion Leicesters and in 1940 he was shipped to France. His combat days were deadly and dangerous but few as they were captured when their sergeant major surrendered rather than fight his way to freedom.

Horace was to spend the rest of the war as a prisoner. Nothing particularly different about that; this kind of story has been related often. But Horace is quite a character, it seems, and he has a mind of his own, and it’s his obstinate stubborn brave approach to his captors that enthrals the reader. Horace doesn’t like bullies and stands up to them – and often he gets a good beating for his trouble.

He suffered a terrible death march, where his comrades fell by the wayside and were despatched with Teutonic efficiency. He made friends with a few good strong men who saved his life more than once, but he’d repay them tenfold as their captivity stretched over the years. Because Horace was a staunch friend.

The privations of prisoner of war camps have been told before, but they need telling again. Each new generation should understand what war means. The inhumanity of warfare is troubling. After the concentration camps of the holocaust were discovered, the cries went up that this must never happen again. Sadly, it has, several times in our living memory.

At his first POW camp, Horace meets Rosa, an attractive Silesian girl acting as interpreter. Before long, the pair enjoy sex, snatching their moments of bliss virtually under the noses of the German guards. Then Horace and his comrades are moved to another camp. Yet Rosa follows and Horace effectively escapes at night, time and again, to prolong their liaison that develops from carnal passion to powerful love. Rosa risks all to help her Englishman and in turn Horace repeatedly puts his life in jeopardy to bring sustenance and even radio parts to his fellow prisoners. Both are made of the stuff of heroes. These are not superficial heroes of entertainment or sport. A hero is someone who knows he or she might die but willingly risks life and limb to help others in the name of love or humanity. The world needs more Horaces and Rosas.

When the classic war stories were published, public sensitivity was different to that of today. Now, Horace’s story contains graphic language, violence and sex, but it comes across as very real. Movingly real. By opening his heart and memory, Horace has found, in modern parlance, a form of closure. But he has done something else, too. He has ensured that his fallen comrades live on.

Footnote: Since I wrote this review, sadly Horace has died (25 December 1918 – 4 February 2010). There is a Wikipedia entry -

If you enjoyed reading this short review, maybe you'll enjoy reading my book of 16 short stories, some of them prize-winners, and many based on true events; indeed, two are about the French resistance in WWII: When the Flowers Are in Bloom by Nik Morton -