Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 1)

This entry is part 1 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass is one of those books that will hit you in the gut. But like anything that does that to you, this one will eventually wear on your patience because in the end it is you, the author, who needed to get to work. No one can tell you exactly what it is you need to do, but they can show you the way to get there and the questions you might want to ask. In the end, it’s work, hard work and honesty that will set your book apart from the pack. Maass’ voice is a dose of realism in the vast ocean of pretty self-help writing guides.

Is this Book for You?

Are you stuck in a rut? Are you blaming your lack of success on everything but your own writing? This book is for you.

That said, if you are just starting down the path to writing, I don’t think you’ll get all that much from the book except the idea that you can follow a formula and slam out a bestseller. I’m not trying to discourage you, but really there are a lot of nuances in this text that you will only recognize when you’ve spent a lot of hours planning and revising your own work (and studying the works of others).


This is the book that started it all.

A fairly heavy lead-in, I know, but really this is the book that started me down the path to reexamining everything I was doing. After more than fifteen years of scribbling, I thought I knew what the writing game was all about and in a way, I guess I did. I knew one side of the business, the literary side.

Only I wasn’t very good at it, and therein lies the problem.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 2)

This entry is part 2 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Literary Business

Some people who claim to know a thing or two about the business will tell you there is no money in literary publishing. Don’t tell that to all the small presses out there. True, they are not raking it in like the big houses, but theirs is a specialty market. Like all specialty markets, profit is found in building deep relationships with customers. Those customers are readers of course, but also authors and booksellers and reviews. There is an entire underbelly of academic customers in that specialty business as well. The money is there, only the scale is lacking.

I write this little bit to dispel the notion that a literary writer must be some half-shaved lunatic living in a drafty garret, scratching out verse on a bit of butcher’s paper they managed to save. Don’t cry your eyes out for the literary author, they’re doing well enough on their own.

How do I know?

I was one of those literary authors crying their eyes out because I wasn’t making it. I’d written two books, both awful, plodding things with high falutin’ prose and chock-a-block with symbols and intertextuality. Deconstructivist crap. You name it. I’d written stories in the same vein, and of course lots of poetry.

Of all that lot, the poetry was probably the most interesting. While I’m not putting it on display here, I still like to think I have a bit of lyrical talent. Of course, a lot of writers think that about themselves too. They put together a few fancy words and suddenly they’re John Donne. So, to be honest, the poems probably suck too though I’ll never fully admit it.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 3)

This entry is part 3 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

How I Discovered that I Sucked

I’d just spent six months writing a pack of highly stylized stories. People who read these stories, people I trusted, said they were beautiful. I hadn’t submitted anything for years, but on these words of encouragement I sent out the stories. Then I sent them out again. And again. It gets ridiculous after awhile, and I remembered why I stopped sending my stuff out.

I know that there’s nothing like guaranteeing failure by keeping your work all to yourself. You have to send it out again and again. But this perseverance only works if you believe in what you are doing, if you care about it. When I sat down with the latest round of rejection notices, I realized that I cared more about the rejections than I did the work. In fact, I couldn’t hardly remember what the hell I’d even written in those stories.

The Beautiful Boring Turns Ugly

Without bothering to lick another stamp, I took up the stories and I began to read them. It was painful, very painful. Halfway through the first page of the first story, I lost all interest. It was beautiful but boring.

It was like going out on a date with a six-foot blond, someone who might be on the cover of a magazine, certainly not someone you would ever be so lucky to actually date. Then, while you’re just getting cozy, she opens her mouth and nothing comes out. Oh sure, she’s saying something alright. You can hear her. But whatever she’s saying means absolutely nothing because it is god-awful boring.

Sorry to get all Chandleresque here but I like my dames with brains.

My stories, beautiful as they were, had no brains. They were slices of life, vignettes, literary snapshots. It was John Ruskin, painting with words and crap.

Only, on closer inspection, I discovered flaws. Lots of flaws. In fact, so many flaws that I realized my work only looked good. It was awful in fact, and I’d been doing it for years.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 4)

This entry is part 4 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Stages of Failure

It isn’t pretty when you realize that the thing you’ve been doing, oh, all your life, is wrong. The first thing you do is reject the idea out of hand. If you’re a writer, you go to book X by famous writer Y and open at random to page Z. You read aloud the words on page Z and then you deride them mercilessly. Your lip goes into a bit of a sneer and you do your best to convince everyone (who hasn’t had the good sense to flee the room) that you are as good as author Y and that your masterpiece is better by a thousand fold than book X. Then, with a flourish, you tear out page Z and exclaim,

Perforate it, and put it on a roll!

You look like an idiot, but a mildly dangerous idiot, so no one says anything. You take their silence as a tacit agreement with your analysis. You get smug. However, there isn’t much else you can say after that so you put book X back on the shelf and you sit down. You begin to get a little upset at yourself for tearing page Z out. Author Y deserves better.

Accepting Suckage and Moving On

When you accept the fact that you suck at something, especially something as personal as writing, it might take you several tries before you really get it. I tried to quit two years ago, but I was working again in three weeks. Therefore, I knew quitting wasn’t an option.

I spent the next few weeks trying to diagnose my problem. I’m not talking about tearing apart the stories and the prose, but something a few layers up. I wanted to find out why I couldn’t write the stories I was trying to pull off.

What I came to realize is that I was just too damn happy to be a literary artist. I didn’t feel happy at the moment, but I knew that was my default state and whenever I was writing something deep and literary all that joy drained from me. What started as grand and beautiful turned into pain and drudgery.

It was like a chore to write and that didn’t fit in with the kiddo who loved to tell stories.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 5)

This entry is part 5 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

And this led me to Writing the Breakout Novel

So I went to the library. I usually go to the library or the bookstore when I’m feeling down. I like to be surrounded by books even though they remind me of my failures. There is comfort in knowing that someone could do it, and if they could then maybe I could as well.

I went to the writing section to see what kind of support I might find. That’s when I saw Don Maass’ book.

Normally, this kind off book would be right out for me. However, as I was in a funk anyway, I decided to see how the other half lived.

I Love Anne Perry

I’ve never read one of Anne Perry’s books, but I know who she is. When I saw her name on the foreword, I rolled my eyes. How far had I sunk that I would be looking to Anne Perry for advice?

If you can identify with the statement above, pull the stick out of your ass. This is step one. After that, read her foreword to Writing the Breakout Novel

Here is the part that hooked me:

Let me be frank: If you don’t enjoy reading your own work, probably not many other people will either. That was one of my big steps forward.

There are other great points in the foreword. Anne is kind and encouraging. But it was that one harsh word about getting over yourself that I took to heart and helped me to read on.