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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sowing in Hard but Fertile Soil: Following Donald Maass’s Regimen for Breakout Fiction

Some months ago, I reviewed Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. For me, the book was full of insights, encouragement, and challenge. When I purchased Writing the Breakout Novel, my husband grabbed the workbook that went with it and made me get them both. How right he was to do so. I’ve finally sat down and started working through that workbook. If I thought Writing the Breakout Novel was tough, I had no idea the meaning of the word.

Going through Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is like chasing down my brain, beating it half to death, and riffling its unconscious pockets for its darkest secrets, highest ambitions, and most delicate vulnerabilities. It is the most difficult, most labor intensive work I have ever done on any work of fiction, or nonfiction for that matter, and … it is totally worth it.

I still have a long way to go on my current project, a historical urban fantasy set in fifteenth century Germany about a hunter of monsters and malicious legends. It’s been coalescing in my mind for about a year, and now that my what-would-happen-if-Little-Red-Riding-Hood-didn’t-live-happily-ever-after novel is finished, I can turn my full attention to it. With Maass’s techniques, I already have a lot more confidence about this new book than I’ve had with anything else I’ve written, and I am also quite pleased with what I’ve come up with so far.

Let me be blunt, Maass’s techniques are time consuming and really plumb the depths of the creative mind. They are not for the faint of heart. An author really has to be committed to writing a superb novel to take them on. Sure, an author could pick a few of the exercises and would certainly gain some benefit, but Maass recommends doing every single one, all 591 steps. He even has a checklist in the back.

Normally, I’m a perfectionist. It rankles me if I make a mistake or my work is less than fully satisfying. Even I, usually up to the challenge of trying new writing techniques, looked through this workbook and thought, “Do I really want to put myself through this? Do I want to be a successful author that badly?”

The answer for me is “Yes.” At the very least, sensing the possibilities from the exercises I’ve already completed, if I didn’t finish, I would always wonder how much I sold myself short. Not doing my best and shying away from the challenge at hand would haunt me.

I started writing stories in elementary school, started learning about the craft of writing over a decade ago, and dedicated myself to becoming a professional writer in 2004, but until now, I never understood quite how much work that would take. I suppose it is as I have heard many say, if you can’t stop writing, if it torments you to give it up, if no matter what happens, you cannot help yourself, then and only then should you be a writer. The act of creating good fiction is tedious at best and agonizing at worst. It can soar you to the highest euphoria and dump you into the deepest pits of doubt, depression, and self-criticism. It is more a condition than a profession. Fortunately, this condition produces products from which a writer, if he’s very luck and works very hard and never gives up, just might manage to live off the proceeds of. Knowing that, facing the task of applying all 591 steps to my fiction is slightly less daunting.

In the course of going through Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, I have come to one more realization. When I first started looking for an agent, anyone that represented the genres I write in, could sell my work, and didn’t set my teeth on edge seemed totally acceptable. Now, I realize that I want an agent that will push me. I want one that will hold me to a high standard and demand the best I can give. I want him to love my work, yes, but I also never want one who will let me get away with giving less than my best. I know this will probably result in times when I dread feedback, but that’s part of the life and one I am growing more and more ready to welcome. I dream big, and it is encouraging to find an agent out there who expresses as much ambition as I have. I hope that someday soon I will be able to proudly declare that I’ve signed on with someone like that.

As in any fulfilling thing in life, writing takes vast amounts of work and effort. The more we put into it, the more we take out. Like any relationship, any career, or any art, to truly create something satisfying, we must be willing to give our very best and then some.

What have you really thrown yourself into and seen your efforts blossom? What would you like to do this with?

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a lot of work but very rewarding. I am proud of you for how much you give to your committment to be a writer.