Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 8)

This entry is part 8 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass


Writers lie. Novelist probably more than others.

When a novelist tells an interviewer that some little idea sparked their creative fires and that they just wrote and wrote until the book was done, they are lying. That little spark might have caused a novelist to reel off fifty pages of playtime, but it didn’t create the book. There was real time and energy put into think out storylines and choosing paths, building (and discarding) characters.

The premise isn’t going to save your book. Like Maass says, “I’ve received many a dynamite-sounding query letter only to be disappointed by the tinny cap-gun pop of a weak manuscript.” However, no premise at all is going to drown your book right from the start.

As you might expect, I’ve got plenty of examples from my own work. To summarize it, think about it like this: if you had 20 seconds to tell someone about your book, what would you say? In business, this is commonly known as an elevator speech. I know that people hate that crap, but without an elevator speech you’re not going to get in the front door.

If you doubt this, go right now to your local chain bookseller, someplace huge with a small staff so that it is unlikely someone will try to help you. Haunt the fiction section for awhile and watch people browsing the books. What do they do?

They look at the cover, sure, but they also read the dust jacket or the back of the book. This is the elevator speech taking place. If they open the book, they either know the author or they’re intrigued by the pitch. From that point, it’s the writing that’s going to get them to buy and the writing that’s going to get them through the book and on to recommending it to their friends, writing about it on their blog, whatever.

But it all starts with the premise.

Still doubt it? Does that sound too commercial for your artistic tastes? Better forget about making money then because this is a business.

Stories that You Love

Okay, this is art after all so it can’t all be business. I put that bit in there to try and toughen myself up because I tend to float away on flights of fancy (ooh, shiny thing!). Flights of fancy are fine though, as long as you remember to run them through the mill.

Maass encourages you too begin by grabbing three books from your shelf that you love. After you have them, he’s going to play with you a bit, trying to get you to join him on that flight of fancy as previously described.

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