Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 6)

This entry is part 6 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Donald Maass: Introduction

Maass is crass and direct. This is what I needed more than anything else. Even if I were to continue trying my hand at literary novels (and I’m not), I needed to hear his advice. I needed to take a harsher line with my work.

Donald Maass is an agent but he’s also an author. He’s written seventeen novels. With that kind of volume, his words carry some literal weight.

Can anyone become a great novelist, an author of a body of enduring classics? Perhaps not. Anyway, few do. However, I do know this: Any author who can write a salable novel can also improve, and virtually all writers can write a breakout novel. How do I know? Because it happens all the time. I have seen it happen. So have you.

Now, here is the point where a hack will take off and drip platitudes into your ear. They will tell you that you are a beautiful and special flower. They will, in short, lie.

What I like about Maass is that he doesn’t play nice. He tells you up front that to be successful you need to be willing to work, really work. That is the root of my own problem. I have potential. I am clever and lyrical (self-professed) but I lean on that natural talent far too much. I use my capacity with words to mask what are fatal errors in planning and execution. In short, I’m an amateur, a hobbyist. If I’m ever going to be successful I need to work.

Writing a breakout novel is as much about cultivating an outlook as anything. It is the habit of avoiding the obvious or of covering familiar ground. […]

It is to delve deeper, think harder, revise more, and commit to creating characters and plot that surpass one’s previous accomplishments. It is to say “no” to merely being good enough to be published. It is a commitment to quality. […]

This book is not for those who wish to get rich quick. There is nothing quick about the fiction game. Instead, it is a book for dedicated craftspeople: The kind of folk whose work is so fine and apparently effortless that onlookers call it art.

This sings to me for numerous reasons, but you would be right to ask what the heck I was thinking. Wasn’t this just what I spent 1,000 words telling you I wasn’t going to do? Indeed, it was, but there’s a twist and I hope it will become apparent as we move through the book together.

One last quote though:

Over the years I have noticed that first novels tend to feel small. The scope of the action is often limited. The horizons of the author’s world are limited to a couple of characters. There is nothing wrong with that. It is natural. Strong first novels do get published and can even win acclaim. However, it is difficult for one to make a lasting impact — that is, to grow an audience — by continuing to write at that contained level.

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.

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.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 9)

This entry is part 9 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Breaking Down the Four Facets of the Three Great Novels

After getting all lovey with your favorite books, Maass walks you through the four things that all great novels do to the reader:

1) Transportation to another “place”
2) Falling in love with great characters
3) What happens to the characters is unusual, dramatic, and meaningful
4) The story has an impact on your life

The Little Components of Big Ideas

In order to take an idea and turn it into a breakout premise, an author needs to look at four things (other than the four I just mentioned):

1) Plausibility – Is your story too predictable or too implausible? “Like the best lies, the real whoppers, a breakout premise has a grain of truth.”

2) Inherent Conflict – Does the world of your story have built-in conflict? In other words, does it take place where something is already happening, something other than the story? Suburbs are tough to write about because nothing ever happens (at least on the surface) but a war zone is something else…

3) Originality – What makes your story different? Or, how do you bring the unfamiliar into the world of the familiar? This element of the premise can come aboout through combinations of discrete story elements or by just doing the opposite of what we expect. Sounds simple, I know. Don’t be fooled.

4) Gut Emotional Appeal – Maass asks, “Does your breakout premise make people shiver?” No? Then you’ve got some work to do. I think a good example of a premise that will make you shiver is Mystic River. I started watching the film adaptation and I had to turn it off five minutes in. I’m not squeamish but it was intense and I wasn’t in the mood. You’d better believe that I haven’t forgotten about it though and I’m going to go back to it.

Maass provides several good examples for you to chew on. He also takes you through both a building and brainstorming process to give you the mechanics to create your own breakout premise.


One of the things Maass comes back to over and over again is the concept of a “big book”. A big book isn’t about page count but rather the size of the canvas on which you’ve decided to paint your story.

Think hard. Be honest with yourself. Are the stakes in your current manuscript as high as they can possibly be? Can you define the stakes right now? Can you point to exact pages in which the stakes escalate, locking the protagonist into his course of action with less hope of success than before?

Again, we’re back to the elevator speech which is a good thing because it’s going to keep you focused.

Now, before the literary types get their wigs in a bustle, let me point out that scale is important in all forms of art. Lest you think this doesn’t apply to writing, I offer the example of the poetry of Lawrence Durrell. Maybe you know that Durrell always wanted to be a poet. Maybe you think he was halfway decent. But do you know what T.S. Eliot had to say about his work?

Well, of course, they’re good, but the scale, you know, is rather small.

Can you imagine the crushing blow of a statement like this? Yeah, maybe someone writes it off as petty sniping but when you look at Durrell’s poems you’ll see that Eliot was right. Durrell knew it too and that’s why he left it behind and went for writing novels instead. Some might argue that his scale was still small, but it was definitely broader than the work he was doing in poetry.

I can’t stress how important it is to get your head around this idea. When I read this chapter, the whole problem with my work became clear. (at least the structural problem)

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 10)

This entry is part 10 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Creating High Human Worth

Most writers when asked about this topic will fall back to the old life and death standard. Life and death struggle is the basest way of creating human worth. You ought to consider it as a priori and then go about figuring out how to add some depth lest you fall into the trap of predicability and end up with bored readers who chuck your book across the room (assuming you even get to the point of acquiring readers at all, which seems slim).

For anyone’s life to be worth saving (in fiction), it needs added value. And in the scale of values, nothing is more compelling than high principles and codes of personal conduct. We admire principled people. We try to emulate them. They are the model citizens without which our society would not be civilized.

To put a principled person at risk is to raise the stakes in your story to a high degree. Better still is to test that individual’s principles to the utmost. There is something gripping about the inner struggle to remain loyal to a passionately held belief.

This applies equally to the good as to the wicked. See my article on Extraordinary Popular Delusions by Charles Mackay. There has always been a popular admiration for high-profile thieves. This is because we assume that those thieves abide by a serious code, not our legal code, but that does not make it any less powerful, any less meaningful. In fact, it may make it even more important.