Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Book review: Writing the Breakout Novel

It’s time for another Best Books in Writing (finally!)

Writing the Breakout Novel, and its companion, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, are two of those books that every writer should read. I’ve heard some flack about how they cover similar ground, and how you only need to read one. Yes, they do hit on similar points. However, both books opened my eyes in two very different ways.

In Breakout, author Donald Maass talks about the hidden threat of being a midlist writer. He explains how the process works, and how midlist authors can save their career – by writing a breakout novel, or bestseller – and how to achieve that far fetched goal.

In Workbook, Maass gathers the key points that make a novel breakout, discusses them, and shows you how to incorporate them in your own writing with some brainstorming exercises.

The difference between Breakout and Workbook is the difference between a lecture and a workshop. If Breakout is a nutritionist, Workbook is a personal trainer.  These books do not teach you how to write a novel. This is not fiction 101; this is about your career as a writer. If you ever wondered how some books become bestsellers while others languish, you need to hear what Maass has to say.


Full title: Writing the Breakout Novel

Author: Donald Maass

List Price: $16.99

Genre: advanced fiction, career writing, publishing

Type: Trade Paperback


A midlist author is someone who has published a few books that have all gotten moderate success. They feel confident and secure, and begin pushing for a larger advance with each new book.  As this is going on, the publisher is getting impatient. They’ve given the author a chance to build a career. But they want to make some real money, and the author is failing to produce.

Maass says that this combined effect often gets the author dropped. And it doesn’t end there – when he tries to publish elsewhere, the author finds his reputation is stained. No one wants to publish a stagnant author. Unless he can wow everyone’s socks off, his career is stunted, or over completely.

To save such a career, Maass says that you need a breakout novel. He defines this as a novel that achieves fast or great success, bestseller status, or high acclaim – anything that “breaks out” from the pack. Maass uses his informal study of breakout fiction to pinpoint how a midlist author can breakout themselves; what will work, and what won’t.

Skeptics may have trouble swallowing all this. For one thing, Maass believes that any writer can have a breakout novel. For another, some of his advice sounds a bit drastic. Tension on every page? Get real. But somehow, Maass’ concepts have a realistic edge to them. His advice is heady, yet energizing and well planned. Implement just a few of his concepts and you may actually start to believe them.

Best piece of advice: The way to write a breakout is by thinking big – big themes, big conflict, big premise. Big thinking produces big results.

Worth the price? Considering that most writing-craft books are closer to twenty dollars than fifteen, this book is immensely worth the price. I will say that concepts can be a lot to grapple with.

My Rating: 4 ½ stars. This book was just shy of excellence.


Full title: Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: Hands-on Help for Making Your Novel Stand Out and Succeed

Author: Donald Maass

List Price: $19.99

Genre: advanced fiction, workbook

Type: Trade Paperback


In Workshop, Maass builds off his previous concepts of what makes a novel break out, and how to develop that in your own writing. He starts out each chapter by discussion a concept, and then ends it with surprisingly effective brainstorming exercises. Here are a few key of Maass’ key points.

Larger than life characters: Create characters that act the way readers long to, but know they never would. Let readers play out their fantasies – have the angry ex-girlfriend punch her ex-boyfriend. Have the burned out father quit his job. Do what readers would never do, and they’ll be compelled to read on.  

Raised stakes: Maass believes that you can always raise the stakes. Make everything vital. If the hero fails, so what? He advises against putting the whole world in jeopardy, because no one connects with the whole world. Instead, make it the protagonist’s family that’s at stake, his moral values, his future. Make it personal.  

Conflict/Tension: This goes hand-in-hand with Maass’ beliefs about raised stakes. He believes that tension on every page is one of the keys of breakout fiction. To get so much tension, he advises that you make characters struggle against themselves. Provide internal obstacles as well as outward ones.

High concept theme: Maass says that every story needs a fire driving it. This comes from theme, and from the author’s passion about that theme. I disagreed with some points, here, but Maass does a good job of explaining how to develop your theme without getting overbearing or preachy.

Gut emotional appeal: This is self-explanatory. If your premise has an instant gut appeal, people are compelled to read it. This gut appeal can keep people reading even when things get slow. 

I found that concepts clicked with me in this book more so than in Breakout, perhaps because of the exercises? While you can implement the concepts at any time of the writing stage, I think the best time would be during early revisions.

Best Piece of Advice: For everything your character wants or does, give them an equally compelling reason why they can’t or won’t.

Worth the price? A resounding “yes.” Workshop is a little more expensive than Breakout, but again, compared to other writing-craft books, Workshop is well worth the price.

My Rating: I have to say that this was my favorite of the two books. 5 stars.


- Creative A


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Angela said...

I love this book. He's as awesome conference speaker, too.

Janet said...

Interesting that you found the workbook to be better. I haven't read (done?) it yet. I did like the book quite a bit. His definition of larger-than-life characters was particularly useful. And the advice on tea-sipping, or the lack thereof.

Creative A said...

Angela, I would love to go to one of his conferences. I actually looked at his schedule, but I'm too busy now anyway.

Janet, I think it may have been because I read it first. And it surprised me, because I don't usually like workbooks, and I never do the exercises. However, these were a little different. Maass didn't tell you to go change this or that; it was all brainstorming, and it got you coming up with your own ideas to improve your manuscript.


Janet said...

OK, now you're tempting me...

Creative A said...


Don't worry. I want it, too.

Terra Dawn said...

Lovely!!! I always need an excuse to go to the bookstore and buy new books (and these look like great excuses!!)

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