By Cheryl Bolen
Writing the Breakout Novel
Writer’s Digest Books
If I were asked to recommend one book to a beginning novelist, it
would not be Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel .
Maass, a New York literary agent the past three decades, wrote the
book to help published novelists who want to break out of midlist
mediocrity. Therefore, Maass’s book is predicated on the assumption that
its readers have already mastered the elements of crafting a novel. That
is not to say he does not touch on characterization, point of view, plot
structures, and other aspects of novel writing, but his thrust here is
on writing the "bigger" book.
"A truly big book," Maass writes, "is a perfect blend of inspired
premise, larger-than-life characters, high-stakes story, deeply felt
themes, vivid setting and much more."
The four keys to an inspired premise, Maass says, are plausibility,
inherent conflict, originality, and gut emotional appeal.
"Great novelists push themselves to find original turns of phrase,
extra levels of feeling, unusual depths of character, plots that veer in
unexpected directions," Maass writes.
A good story, he says, is unpredictable.
Often that breakout book breaks away from the pack because of its
high stakes. The outcome of the book affects more people than just the
protagonist or the administration of justice.
High stakes don’t have to be saving the world. They can be as simple
as the hero staking his parents’ life savings on the achievement of his
Maass asks, "Your protagonist wants to [insert goal here], but if he
is not successful, so what?"
Maass suggests the author ask herself what would be most devastating
personally, then build the novel around that.
The best novels dovetail the personal stakes with the public stakes
to create a compelling, satisfying read.
Even novels with high stakes can fail, though, because of weak theme,
overly familiar plot, or stereotypical characters.
Maass recommends the author determine what is the worst thing that
can happen to her characters, then make it even worse. "Make you
characters suffer," is Maass’s mantra, as evidenced in the following
from his book:
"Who is the one ally your protagonist cannot afford to lose? Kill
him. What is the one article of faith sacred to your protagonist?
Undermine it. How much time does your protagonist have to solve the main
problem? Shorten it."
Discomfort demands attention. Books that put the main characters in
discomfort are the books readers cannot put down.
Breaking out of Category Romance
Maass said many romance writers who wish to break out of the category
market mistakenly think longer books with more point-of-view characters
make for a bigger book. "Romance writers who want to break out need to
throw their fantasies into high gear," he said. Breakout characters need
to do and say things the author would never say or do.
Jennifer Crusie’s 1999 breakout novel, Tell Me Lies, illustrates how
to write a romance with mainstream elements that demand it reach a wider
audience, thus becoming a breakout novel. These elements include
layering several story lines, unique characters, and blistering,
atypical sex scenes.
Can a beginning author "break out"? Rarely. "The novel," Maass says,
"is a vastly complicated art form that takes years to master."
The breadth of Maass’s own reading provides many examples to
illustrate his points. His broad, eclectic taste in books, his 30 years
in publishing and the fact that he has authored 14 pseudonymous novels
himself make him uniquely qualified to pen the brilliant Writing the
Breakout Novel. This volume definitely earned its place on my skimpy
This article was first published in
In Print, January 2008.