Recently, I was asked to review Donald Maass’ new book, The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction
Writers (Writer’s Digest, March 2011) by his publicist, FSB Associates. I jumped at the chance. I loved his last book, Writing the Breakout Novel, and the title of this new one intrigued me. How timely, with the empowerment of writers by self-publishing (more on Maass’ thoughts on self-pubs later) and digital book sales blowing past traditional offerings. Data shows a slew of new authors emboldened by a successful novel (success being a relative word) who want a career in writing. I wanted Maass’ thoughts on the viability of that as well as how to do it.
For those of you who don’t know Donald Maass, he is a veteran agent, currently the head of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York which represents more than 150 novelists and sells more than 100 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:
- 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.
- 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 know. Maass even includes a section on how to write humor (Chapter 16), explaining how to ban banal with his ‘methods of mirth’–like hyperbole, ironic juxtaposition, being extremely literal, and more.
- Building a Breakout Career, which addresses the nuts of bolts of agents, contracts numbers, and career patterns that work. Most of this material I have not read before though I’ve read many how-to-write books. 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 skip them. Don’t do it in this case. Here are some 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 this book, I now have a massive list of new books I want to read.
Here are some of my favorite parts:
- 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.
I have only one point of disagreement, and it’s the same one I had with his prior book, Writing the Breakout Novel, that (in his words) “the only plan that doesn’t work that well for commercial fiction writers is self-publishing“. I think that depends upon your definition of the words, ‘work that well’.
How about ‘works well enough‘? I believe the e-revolution has empowered writers to take charge of their own careers, to be the captains of their own future. No matter that sales may be smaller than if an agent is involved, sales are there and that means bills are paid. Who out there earns hundreds of thousands of dollars? Most people are middle class. The publishing industry is as much about ebooks, digital readers, self-publishing, as the traditional path through an agent. Though one might question the quality of digital books, self-pub makes it possible for Everyman to write books from his soul, sell them to his niche, and make a living–or have a passionate hobby, not unlike skiing, acting or ballroom dancing. Donald Maass admits “the Kindle e-book reader has let loose pent-up frustrations across the spectrum. Authors see them as salvation. Publishers see them as a vein of ore.”
What do you think?