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Friday, September 16, 2011

Review: Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass



If I could only list one word to describe this book, it would be: Epiphany. As I read through Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, founder of Donald Maass Literary Agency, I was struck with a number of epiphanies and am very grateful to Mr. Maass for each and every one.

I have been writing for a number of years. Well, honestly, I’ve been writing since at least 2nd grade, but I’ve seriously pursued it as a career for almost a decade now. In that time, I’ve read a number of books on craft and publishing. No book has offered as much insight as this one.

In recent months, I’ve struggled with the question, “What makes a book stand out from the rest? What brings it from average to best seller?” No one seemed to have a clear answer. I tossed around my own ideas and tried to incorporate the opinions of others, but nothing quite satisfied. Writing the Breakout Novel deals with that question directly. Foolish me left it sitting on my shelves for the better part of a year before picking it up because I wanted something nonfiction.

As I made my way through the book, so many story elements came together that have eluded my grasp for years. Before, I would reach for a concept, my fingers would brush it, and it would evaporate before I could discern its contours, color, and depth. I knew characters needed to be fully realized with deep motives and distinctive personalities. I knew a premise needed to be solid. I knew a good plot consisted of an inciting incident, turning points, a climax, etc. What I failed to grasp was the complexity, depth, and subtly of all these elements. For years, I struggled to put them together, but it was like trying to make a three-dimensional puzzle work on only two dimensions. Mr. Maass came by, tapped me on the shoulder, and whispered in my ear, “Hey, that piece doesn’t lie along that one; it angles above it.” And suddenly, so much became clear.

Now, my head is buzzing with possibilities, and the concepts in Writing the Breakout Novel are still clarifying themselves in my mind. I will certainly go back through the book, for studious combing through its rich principles is necessary for full absorption of them. Fortunately, I also bought—well, my wonderfully supportive husband insisted I buy—Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, which I look forward to using to improve my grasp of breakout level plot structure, character development, themes, and more.

But be warned, Writing the Breakout Novel is not for the faint of heart. Do not attempt it if you are still learning the basics of story, or at least, bring along a couple books dealing with basics too. In a manner that harmonized with my over-achieving soul, Mr. Maass challenges writers not to write a good novel or even a sellable novel. No, he encourages the penning of a great novel, one that takes time, commitment, and struggle to construct just right. If you want an easy way into the publishing world or better achievements as an author, this is not for you, but if you desire a truly satisfying path that has a greater likelihood of long term success, roll up your sleeves, put that extra bit of iron in your will, and try out Mr. Maass’s techniques.

Now, for all I’ve gushed over the novel, I warn, there are a few points to keep in mind. First, the book was published in 2001 before 9/11, if I’m reading some of its claims correctly. Maass posits the idea that terrorists are not an easily plausible threat to include in thrillers because “As sources of potential disaster, they do not inspire visceral fear.” Clearly, that has changed. Mr. Maass also downgrades the impact of the e-book, which I believe has taken over far more of the book market than anyone anticipated.

But whether or not these two details are inaccurate in our current time and despite the fact that Writing the Breakout Novel was published ten years ago, it remains applicable and invaluable to understanding the best of fiction. After all, the basic elements of a fantastic story have not changed, certainly not in the ten years since the book’s release. Maass hits on too many fundamental yet subtle principles for anyone to dismiss.

Thank you to Donald Maass for sharing his many years of wisdom, and if you’re really serious about making it as a fiction author, I highly recommend this book.

What are your favorite writing books? How have they helped you as grow as a writer?

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