Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Book Review:
Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook

Reviewed by Andi Ward
Andi Ward

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook
By Donald Maass

I'll admit right up front, that I've been a fan of Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (referred to as "BN" in this review) since I bought it in April 2001. I am a graduate of the first BN class taught by Holly Lisle. I attended a one-day workshop taught by Maass. Because I am a fan, I had strong expectations of this workbook.

When I first read the BN book, I thought I already did it all. When I read it again, I realized it was full of great advice and pointed out things I desperately needed to deal with. The BN is a good, insightful book.  However, it is not for people who learn little from reading, like myself. Being a kinetic personality, I don't learn through reading, I learn through doing and this book gave me no practical applications of the things discussed. I needed to do something to learn the lessons. I was fortunate enough to get into classes that drove much of these principles home for me. However, not everyone has had my opportunities. If you've been looking for practical experience, as I was, this workbook should satisfy.

Based on the exercises Maass uses in his workshops, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is more than just a rehashing of the BN book with exercises. The three sections are on Character Development, Plot Development and General Story Techniques.  They include new discussions and examples from published works.

The section on character development spends a great deal of time working on your hero, giving him or her many layers of inner conflict, stronger stakes, and larger-than-life qualities, to name a few of the improvements. Maass maintains that antagonists and secondary characters should also have depth and includes discussion exercises for them as well.

The second section is on plot development and goes into conflicts, plot layers, and subplots. It has three chapters on raising tension.

The final section is on general story techniques and covers theme, setting, point of view and even how to write the pitch when you're finished. Each chapter has a series of questions or exercises to help you delve into the subject with your own work.

The average chapter begins with a discussion of the individual idea being presented, usually 3-7 pages. At least one published book will be quoted and analyzed in detail before the exercises begin. I like the fact that Maass constantly goes back to the same works throughout the workbook, showing how a single book can and does incorporate the many different aspects he's discussing. Reading each discussion helps in understanding what the exercises focus on, since the terminology used in the books doesn't always coincide with general usage. It is also important to do the exercises as stated. For instance, in the chapter on Personal Stakes, he asks you to write down everything that makes the situation matter to your hero. Put every idea you can think of on the list before going on to the next step. Every set of exercises also has a further note summarizing the goal, which is a good confirmation of your efforts. At the end is a follow-up exercise to take this lesson to a more extensive level.

The exercises aren't easy by any stretch of the imagination. Many people I've discussed the workbook with have been stumped by the first exercise, which involves naming heroic qualities that you admire. The interesting thing about these exercises is that they require you to dig into your views and, one hopes, be honest with your characters and your story.

The workbook is not for the faint of writing heart. It gives you the instructions to "open the creative vein" and pour it onto the pages of your work. It is for serious writers who want to take a step beyond their present level and move forward with their writing.


Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook 2004 by Donald Maass

Published by Writer's Digest Books

ISBN: 1-58297-263-X