Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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Writing the breakout novel

A thread on rasfc prompted me to post some notes on Donald Maass's book Writing the Breakout Novel. I thought I might as well copy them here too so I have them as a handy reference.

Maass defines a breakout novel as one that suddenly leaps up in sales, compared to the author's previous books. In fact he says that the first novel a writer sells is very rarely a breakout novel, though it can happen. I would define anghara's Secrets of Jin Shei as an excellent example of a breakout novel.

First a few caveats. Maass is looking at best sellers as examples to emulate. If you feel that best sellers are ipso facto rubbish, this isn't the book for you. He looks at genre and non-genre books but he definitely *isn't* writing for beginners. There is nothing in his book to help the writer who can't do dialogue or needs help with description or can't think up a plot. He assumes you can already do all that reasonably competently, but still you get rejections or, if published, your published novels barely make back the advance. If you can't already turn out a decent story, *don't look at this book*. His suggestions, if applied crudely, will have exactly the opposite affect to the one intended. A writer who is already skilled will be able to pick and choose the bits that will lift their own work to the next level.

At least that's the idea. *g*

I can't cover the whole book in one post, so I thought I'd take a chapter at a time and post my thoughts on what he says.

One thing I do like about him is that he doesn't promote One True Way to write. It doesn't matter whether you plan every plot twist up front or whether you're an organic writer who uncovers the story as you explore the situation and characters, what matters ultimately is the finished product. Also he points out that a nifty premise isn't enough. Maass is an agent and he says he's "received many a dynamite-sounding query letter only to be disappointed by the tinny cap-gun pop of a weak manuscript." The execution has to be up to the task.

One exercise he suggests is to go to your bookshelves and pick your three favourite books. He suggests that if you examine them, you will probably find:

* The book takes you to a world completely different from your own experience or takes you to an area of your familiar world that you don't normally experience intimately. (Setting must be unsafe. If apparently safe and comfortable, you need hidden dangers.)

* The memorable characters in the book are larger than life.

* What happens to the characters is unusual, dramatic and meaningful. This doesn't mean there has to be wars and great events, but the events must have impact.

* The book is about something. They present an outlook. They have a message.

He says that what he looks for in a fully formed premise is 1) plausibility 2) inherent conflict (needs to be strong and difficult to resolve) 3) originality 4) gut emotional appeal.

I think that's probably enough to be going on with. If anyone expresses any interest in this, I'll do more next time I get a moment.
Tags: breaking out

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