The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass

By Ekta R. Garg

December 18, 2013

A legend in the world of literary agents, Donald Maass has spent years guiding writers to successful careers.  Having written several books to offer aspiring writers advice, Maass collected a major portion of his experience in his book The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers.

(Disclaimer: some of the quotes below are exact; others are my own paraphrasing/condensing of the actual quote.  Any mistakes are mine.)

Much of the advice Maass gives sounds familiar and logical for good writers.  The entire premise behind the book comes down to the fact that writers who write mediocre stories shoot for the familiar and the ordinary ideas.  To be a breakout novelist—that person who keeps readers hanging on every word—it takes discipline, patience, persistence, and a lot of hard work.  He breaks down every area a fiction writer needs to tackle and examine in order to make his/her story stronger.  For example, in Chapter 2 on Stakes, he says:

“If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: raise the stakes.  How can you elevate the stakes on each level regardless of the type of story you are spinning?”

Makes sense, right?  And when Maass puts it in such simple terms, it makes a writer wonder, Why didn’t I think of it that way before?

When it comes to characters, Maass continues with his sage counsel

“Great characters are the key to great fiction.  Great events demand great characters to rise to their challenges.  Quiet stories can’t sparkle when their characters are dull.  Breakout novelists need to create characters who are large, colorful, and engaging, and yet who also feel real.”

Maass gives writers lots of detailed teaching on the areas of writing fiction, but he also provides many big picture ideas writers can note for the future:

“For most authors the way to surprise readers, and themselves, is to embark on a plot that is long, complex, and expandable.”

He also dispels the notion of writing something no one else has ever done before.  Most stories have already been written in one form or the other.  But that doesn’t mean a writer can’t be original in approach.  If a writer remembers to bring the most important tool to his or her writing, the novel will feel like something brand new.

“[O]riginality can only come from what you bring of yourself to your story.  Originality is not a functionality of your novel; it is a quality in you…Do not be afraid of what’s burning in your heart.  When it comes through on the page, you will be a true storyteller.”

This book took me more than two months to read.  It’s full of great information, suggestions, and instruction, but there is so much of all three (and more) that I would have to read a chapter or two and then take some time to absorb what I’d just read and try to orient it in terms of the story I currently have in mind.  I took copious notes and know I will go back to them over and over, but I want to warn other writers to be prepared to do a lot of mental work on your story in addition to any actual outlining or research.  Maass doesn’t let up in any department, and it would certainly be a treat to attend one of his workshops one day.

He also doesn’t hesitate to make writers understand that writing is serious business.  It’s not something to take lightly and certainly not something for the faint of heart.  He doesn’t gloss over any aspect of writing or even the publishing industry by making things sound rosy, but he also doesn’t just metaphorically toss all his papers in the air and say, “Forget it, it’s not worth your time.”  He reminds me of those old-school college professors who doled out compliments in small portions so that when you got one you felt like you had a golden nugget in your hands.

I highly recommend Maass’ book, but be prepared to spend a long time thinking through everything you’re working on in the process.

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