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10 Tips from The Breakout Novelist

breakout novelistDonald Maass’ book, The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers (Writer’s Digest, March 2011), is a worthy sequel to his prior how-to-write books–Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction (2009).. How timely, with self-publishing  the choice of not just new writers, but seasoned ones. I wanted Maass’ thoughts on the viability of going it alone as well as how to do it.

For those of you who don’t know Donald Maass, he is a veteran agent, currently head of Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York which represents more than 150 novelists and sells more than 150 novels every year to publishers in America and overseas. By his own count, he receives annually about 7500 query letters, partial manuscripts, and completed novels–99.9% of which disappoint him. This amazing statistic must be the inspiration behind his new book. The authors, he declares, are not incompetent, merely not in command of their technique. This book provides the tools to change that.

It’s organized into three parts:

  1. Mastering Breakout Basics--how-to-write fundamentals, including exercises for the wanna-be breakout novelist. That’s right, homework. There are no shortcuts, but there are quicker ways to do it and he shares those.
  2. Achieving Breakout Greatness–factors that vault an author to success. This includes a singular voice, tension all the time, hyper-reality, scenes that can’t be cut. If you think you know those concepts, you don’t. Maass even includes a section on how to write humor (Chapter 16), explaining how to ban banal with ‘methods of mirth’–hyperbole, ironic juxtaposition, being extremely literal, and more.
  3. Building a Breakout Career, which addresses the nuts of bolts of agents, contracts numbers, and career patterns that work. His chapter on Numbers, Numbers, Numbers is fundamental to moving beyond the one great novel we-all have inside of us to a successful career. He itemizes:
    • What Breaking Out means
    • When to write full time and how to do that
    • How to build an audience (word of mouth is prominent)

    • What distracts you from writing (lectures, short story anthologies–these he considers ‘distractions’ from the real work of writing a novel)
    • How to create your voice
    • The life cycle of a career writer

But don’t skip the introduction. I know–we often do. Agents even recommend against prologues and introductions because so many readers ignore them. Not in this case. Here are snippets:

  • I’m looking for writers who can write one great book after another. Commercial novelists frequently feel pressure to manage that feat of strength…
  • Intuitive novelists often have markers: moments and scenes that they know must be in the book.
  • …the three primary levels on which novels always must be working: plot, individual scene, and line-by-line–the level that I call micro-tension
  • The journey can be outward or inward and, in fact, is best when it is both.
  • …novel has a tension deficit disorder.
  • If your fiction is great, then your agent will return your calls.

Donald Maass admits parts of this book are taken from his earlier books–good writing skills don’t change. These concepts are presented with passages from successful novels to show (not tell) the point. They cover every genre–memoir, literary fiction, thriller–with not just what’s right, but how a good section can go wrong. Thanks to Donald, I now have a massive list of new books I want to read.

Here are ten tips I’ll remember as I write my novels:

  • A breakout premise…must have the energy of a uranium isotope…
  • Formative reading experiences stay with us, like comfort food
  • No breakout novel leaves us feeling neutral
  • Every protagonist needs a torturous need, a consuming fear, an aching regret, a visible dream, a passionate longing, an inescapable ambition, an exquisite lust, an inner lack, a fatal weakness, an unavoidable obligation, an iron instinct, an irresistible plan, a noble idea, an undying hope…
  • If you truly wish to write the breakout novel, commit yourself to characters who are strong.
  • …as in the oft-attempted-but-rarely-successful ‘comic relief sub-plot’…
  • Breakout novelists hold [backstory] back for just the right moment…
  • If your heroine and her sidekick are standing still, it ought to be because they disagree.
  • One problem that can keep a novel from breaking out is a failure to draw a clear line between good and bad.
  • There is also the decline of editing–fiercely denied by publishers,but widely reported by readers…
  • …many [authors] begin their climb with no support whatsoever from their publishers.
  • Two other factors can work against building an audience: jumping genres and changing publishers.
  • …chain stores today only sell 30 percent of trade titles. Online retailers now account for 20 percent of trade sales.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to authors who wish to make a career of writing, making money doing what they love. Isn’t that the American Dream? As much as a chicken in every pot, don’t we all want paying our bills and loving our job not to be an oxymoron? Donald Maass provides the toolkit. You must provide the energy.

More tips from how-to-write authors:

13 Tips from Evan Marshall

Top 10 Tips for Writers in 2013

38 Tips from Digital Publishing Conference




Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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16 thoughts on “10 Tips from The Breakout Novelist

  1. Jacqui This book sounds good I love the term….. line-by-line–the level that I call micro-tension. It sounds like a fantastic book for my collection. Thank you.

  2. This does sound interesting, and I’m glad I came across this post. I was also wondering, do you have a shortlist of some of the best books to read around the craft of writing? So stuff that looks at writing stories in general, from short fiction to long ones. I’m struggling to find a list but I think I may be looking in the wrong areas!

    • Here’s my list–http://worddreams.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/30-essential-books-for-every-writer/–from a few years ago. As I look at it, I realize it’s missing a few essentials–like how to self-pub. No aspiring author wants to be unschooled on that topic. You’ve inspired me to update this.

      Coming soon!

  3. Pingback: 36 Essential Books for Every Writer | WordDreams...

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