Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 7)

This entry is part 7 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Why Write the Breakout Novel

This is the come-to-Jesus talk chapter that all young novelists should read. Here, Maass tells it like you think it is and then shows you how it really is.

The chapter opens by trying to breakdown your rosy perceptions of yourself and your work. Maass trots out all those fears you think you’ve done a good job at hiding and let’s you know that, “No, you really should be afraid of these things. They are going to be your undoing.” I recognized a lot of myself here and learning to come to grips with those doubts is a critical part of moving forward.

The Truth About Book Publishing

In this section of the book, Maass puts it down in black and white: It is getting harder to make it as an author.

There are a lot of factors. Publishing houses are consolidating, book prices are up and sales are down. People are doing other things with their leisure time. And now (in 2007) I would add that the whole concept of leisure time has changed with the continued convergence of the Internet and all forms of traditional media.

With increased pressure on sales and profitability and increased competition among authors, it is tough to get published and even tougher to stay published.

That second part is the most important thing to me. I need this to be my career. I have a career already. It’s a good one too, but it isn’t the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. Coming to my studio and working is what gets me out of bed. Writing is not what I want to do, it’s what I need to do (a quote from Anne Perry’s foreword).

The Truth About Authors

“There’s always room at the top.”

You could summarize this section of the book with that old truism, but do you know what it means? Coming from a highly competitive corporate environment I can tell you that it isn’t a welcoming phrase. It’s encouraging the hungry; it’s like feeding the bears.

Room at the top means that you’d better stay on top of your game because someone is always gunning for your ass. This is the one little section of the book where Maass soft-pedals to the truth. He sort of backs into it by giving example of formerly hot-shot authors who are resting on their laurels and think they’re not getting their due:

When I get a 911 call from a novelist in crisis, the first thing I hear are the authors bragging points. Then come tales of negligence, errors and disappointments suffered at the hands of his agent and publisher. Through all that I murmur sympathetically. Finally, a new manuscript is offered. That is when I get interested. At last, I think, a chance to diagnose what really has gone wrong: the author’s own writing.

Before Maass jumps in though, he puts up a few myths of success:

A Big Advance Equals Fame
An Editor Will Make Your Novel Shine
Promotion is the Key
The E-Revolution

All of these things, all of them, distract the author from the real problem: crappy writing. I can understand the reason for the obsession. Most people don’t want to look under the hood and find out what is really wrong. They want to blame others for what are essentially product issues. Poor marketing can screw any product, but knowing a little about the trade it seems like problems with the product are more likely to be the root cause in a fall-off in sales.

In other words, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

From this point forward, Maass is going to drive you (or me in this case) towards examining the product itself from all angles.

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