Donald Maass and the Breakout Novel

I first heard about Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass in a notice from Amazon, but dismissed the book, reasoning that writing a novel is hard enough without the added burden of trying to invent the next Harry Potter.

Later, a friend in one of my critique groups recommended the book and passed around his copy. I found it interesting enough to order and  give a quick read, but it wasn’t until a few months later that I really started to pay attention.   In that time, my friend’s fiction improved so dramatically that I gave the book a second reading and ordered its companion, the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

As a literary agent for 25 years, and the author of 14 novels (under pseudonyms), Maass knows the publishing industry. In the Breakout Novel introduction, he says good enough is not good enough anymore: “the midlist has been in crisis since I was a green editorial assistant in 1977. Its demise has been pronounced many times. I never believed it…until now.”

The reasons he cites pale beside the experience of another critique group friend, author of ten published biographies for children.  She passed around a rejection letter she had received from an editor for a novel she recently submitted:  I loved your story.  I stayed up late to finish it.  Unfortunately, I do not think it has the qualities that will allow it to break out.

It’s not hopeless, according to Maass, and as a matter of fact, we not simply pawns at the mercy of the publishing industry, or demographics, or new technologies spinning out of control.  In a 2007 interview, Maass insists that “99% of success is in the manuscript.  Everything else flows from that.”  Not that he claims that anything about it is easy.

One of Maass’ motives in writing these books was to explore why some novels, regardless of genre, are dramatically successful and others are not.  What are the qualities of those stories we come back to read and reread?  The ones we can’t wait to share with our friends?

I actually prefer the Breakout Novel Workbook, since it breaks the humongous task of creating “cut above” fiction into manageable chunks. Here is one from the second part of that interview, an exercise he presents at his fiction seminars, which are clearly not for beginners, but for those who actually have a manuscript in hand and want to take it to “the next level:”

Maass: The absolutely essential exercise that everyone should do, with every novel, is to toss the manuscript pages in the air and collect them again in random order. (The pages must be randomized or this won’t work.) Next, go through the manuscript page-by-page and on each page find one way to add tension. Now, that sounds easy enough but most people are quickly stymied. That is because they do not truly understand what tension means. In dialogue, it means disagreement. In action, it means not physical business but the inner anxiety of the point-of-view character. In exposition, it means ideas in conflict and emotions at war. Study your favorite novelists. If they make you read every word, even while turning pages rapidly, it is because they are deploying tension in a thousand ways to keep you constantly wondering what’s going to happen. Tension all the time is the secret of best selling fiction, regardless of style, genre or category. If it sells big, it’s got tension on every page.

One page at a time – the same way any writing is going to happen.  I got hooked on the Workbook in the first exercise, which starts with the importance of a character we can identify with and care about.  From Winnie the Pooh on, the books in my life that have mattered have all had living characters that shaped my imagination and personality. How does that come about?

Who are your heroes? What are their special qualities? How can your own fictional characters manifest those qualities? These are the first exercises in the workbook, and…hey, I can do that!

For anyone writing fiction, in any genre, I seriously recommend that you take a look at both of these books.

2 thoughts on “Donald Maass and the Breakout Novel

  1. Hi Morgan,

    Thank you for recommending these books by Donald Maass. Although my genre is nonfiction, I will recommend these books to others writing fiction.

    You may be interested to know that Donald Maasss is giving a workshop on February 21, 2011, in San Francisco. Here’s the workshop description:
    1. Micro-Tension: The Secret of the Best Sellers with Superstar Literary Agent Donald Maass
    This workshop has been given to rave reviews throughout North America by the man who wrote the book (and workbook) on writing the novel that will
    break you out of the pack. In the course of two decades Mr. Maass has
    arrived at a number of definite and highly perceptive conclusions on
    just what the differences are between an ordinary, pedestrian but
    enjoyable novel and an ostensibly similar work that catapults the book
    and its author into an entirely new plane of literary success.

    The workshop is one of the post-conference sessions of the 2011 San Francisco Writers Conference (SFWC) and you can get more details here:

    Please let others know of this opportunity to meet and learn from Donald Maass.

    Best wishes with your writing journey!


    Margie Yee Webb
    California Writers Club, Sacramento Branch
    “Serving the Greater Sacramento Region”

    Author of Cat Mulan’s Mindful Musings:
    Insight and Inspiration for a Wonderful Life
    Expected Publication: February 2011


  2. Pingback: What Is Tension? | The First Gates

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