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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


David Cranmer said...

Info I can use. Thanks.

Evan Lewis said...

This a great and inspiring book. He later came out with a companion Workbook, which I bought a few years back and haven't put to use. Your review reminded me to grab it off the shelf and try it out.

I met Maass a few years ago at our local writers conference and attended a couple of his workshops. The man is relentless. Conflict on every page, in every sentence, and if possible in every word. What is the one thing your hero cannot live without? he asks. Find out, and take it away from him!

Nik Morton said...

Some good advice there, Evan, from Maass. Relentless seems to sum up his approach. It seems to work for those lucky enough to get under his agency's wing.

Martin Edwards said...

I agree, this is a first class book, full of good advice.

Unknown said...

Nik, this from a friend of mine based in the states:
"Hi Rob,
There's a Yahoo Group devoted to the book. I joined a few months ago but sorry to say I haven't followed along on this round of exercises. If anyone's interested it's I bought both the book and workbook, love the workbook but not the book, not sure why. Maass often does workshops around the country, mostly connected with romance writer groups. He held one here in Minneapolis a few years ago. I was tempted but chickened out because I'd heard he doesn't hold back on what he thinks about your work and lots of folks leave in tears. On the other hand if he does like your work, represents you, the sky's the limit... the bottom line is he's a top notch agent"

Nik Morton said...

Thanks for that, Rob. Mr Maass seems to be a force to be reckoned with...