The Breakout Novel -
A Preview Review
Usually its not a good idea to
write a review of a book before youve read it. Usually. In
this case, Im going to make an exception.
Why? Because Donald
Maasss book Writing The Breakout Novel
(Writers Digest Books; ISBN: 0898799953) is not due in stores until after this
months 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
What is a breakout novel?
Heres what the publishers 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. Shed
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 shed never done before?
The stakes were higher than in any of her previous novels, Maass
told us. Action mattered in a larger sense. Shed tackled something deeper.
Shed enlarged her fiction and reaped the rewards.
How do you know if youre 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. Its
what makes Maass such an excellent and sought-after agent
(and so hard to land!). Ive
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.