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Writing The Breakout Novel - 
A Preview Review

By Robin Catesby

2001, Robin Catesby 

Usually it’s not a good idea to write a review of a book before you’ve read it.   Usually.  In this case, I’m going to make an exception.  Why?  Because Donald Maass’s book Writing The Breakout Novel (Writers Digest Books; ISBN: 0898799953) is not due in stores until after this month’s deadline but I know already what I want to say about it.  Three words, first off: Buy this book! 

Now for the details: Back in April, I had the great fortune to attend a weekend writing conference run by Oregon Writers Colony - a terrific local organization that sponsors superb workshops from such excellent teachers as James N. Frey, Bruce Holland Rogers and Rita Gallagher.  For our spring conference, OWC brought out New York literary agent Donald Maass.

Maass is not only a fine agent (his clients include Anne Perry, Nalo Hopkinson and James Patterson), he is also the author of 17 novels, of the excellent book The Career Novelist (Heinemann, ISBN: 0435086936) and he is currently the president of the AAR (Association of Authors Representatives.)  As we all learned that weekend, he is a superb and inspiring teacher to boot.  

What is a “breakout novel”?  Here’s what the publisher’s book description says:  “A breakout novel is one that rises out of its category -- such as literary fiction, mystery, romance, or thriller -- and hits the bestseller lists.”  Often a breakout novel will come as a complete surprise.  Anne Perry had one of these.  She’d published a number of mystery novels over the years, then suddenly on her ninth, sales shot up.  Word of mouth kicked in and like magic, she had a breakout novel.   Was this by accident?  Some fluke in the publishing world?  Or was it something within the novel -- something Anne Perry had accomplished with this one that she’d never done before?   “The stakes were higher than in any of her previous novels,” Maass told us.  Action mattered in a larger sense.  She’d tackled something deeper.  She’d “enlarged her fiction and reaped the rewards.” 

How do you know if you’re on course for a breakout novel?  Here are a few things Maass says makes a breakout premise.

Credibility -- what happens could happen to any of us.  We want to feel that a story could be real. 

 Inherent conflict -- a place or profession that has conflict already built into it. 

 Originality -- including a reversal of what we expect, a new angle on an old story, or a combination of two elements that normally would be in two different stories. 

 Last but certainly not least, gut emotional appeal. 

After our introductory session, we dove into the hands-on nitty gritty of it -- a series of exercises designed to make us explore our novels, to get us thinking about them on a deeper level.   We made lists of scene motivations and then flip-flopped them, writing from last motivation first; we defined and explored character qualities for our protagonists; we wrote moments of realization; and we found unexpected ways to weave our plots and subplots together.  In brief, we were all set on the path toward writing our own breakout novel.  

As Maass told us at the workshop, the breakout novel is not necessarily a one-time career event, but a way of looking at fiction: delve deeper, think harder, revise more.  Say no to merely being good enough to be published. Commit to quality. 

The commitment to quality was clear throughout the workshop.  It’s what makes Maass such an excellent and sought-after agent  (and so hard to land!).  I’ve no doubt that if Writing The Breakout Novel is anything like this superb workshop, inspired and energized novelists will soon be breaking out all over.