2013 Book #3 – Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass

So why has it taken me so long to read and post a book report about this book when the last book report was weeks ago? Well, it’s because this is one of the most juicy, rich, thought-provoking books on the writing craft that I’ve read in a long time! It was excellent. It also made me cringe and roll my eyes a couple of times. Why? I’ll tell you….


But I’ll only tell you a little bit at a time, because there was so much in this book that I need to read it again. And again. And then talk about each chapter individually. I’ll start out with telling you why every writer should read it.

We all want to write a breakout novel. Donald Maass starts off by talking about the saggy pitfalls that writers can fall into. This slumpiness is possible if you’re a beginning writer who is just trying to construct a novel-length story for the first time or if you’re a midlist author piddling along in your career. In fact, it’s kind of geared more towards midlist authors who have a few publishing credits but are looking around wondering “What the heck happened? I published. I should be flying high, shouldn’t I?”

Granted, the book was written in 2000, well before the publishing industry changed (which I’ll get to in a second), but the assumptions that Maass starts out with about why a writer isn’t selling the way they hoped they would fits across the board for everyone attempting to make something of this crazy-competitive business. He’s honest, he’s upfront, and he doesn’t keep any secrets or pull any punches.

Maass says – and I agree with him – that if your novels aren’t selling the way you want them too, it’s not your publishing mode, it’s not your agent, it’s not the amount of money your publisher (or yourself) is spending on promotions … it’s the book. He has a lot of experience as one of the industry’s top agents, and even though it would be tempting to think that he’s being arrogant with what he says, he’s also right. He’s candid about addressing the common issues of banality that he sees come through is doors every day. Fortunately, he has suggestions about how to fix them!

I’m going to write about his brilliant advice and wisdom on premise, stakes, characters, plots of every conceivable kind, and theme in other blog posts. Each of the chapters he wrote on these subjects are gold nuggets unto themselves. What I want to talk about in this blog post – and the questions I would like to ask him personally – are about the statements he makes that have clearly been rendered obsolete by the changes publishing has undergone.

Yes, I snickered a little when Maass went on quiet specifically about how he didn’t believe the digital revolution was going to amount to anything, how it was just a blip, and how things in the publishing industry wouldn’t see the kind of change that some voices were predicting. I think it’s safe to say that he was dead wrong on that one.

The fact of the matter is, the digital revolution did happen and it was a massive game-changer. Every year, every quarter really, we hear more statistics about eReader usage and about how brick-and-mortar stores are closing or in danger of closing. That’s more than just a blip. And I, for one, am eternally grateful about the advent of self-publishing as a legitimate means of making a name for yourself as a writer. I love the process of self-publishing, I’ve only briefly and half-heartedly flirted with the idea of attempting the traditional route, and yet my sales to date have met what I hear a first-time author can reasonably expect as an advance. Digital revolution? Yep. It happened.

Which leads me to…

In the final chapter of the book, Maass talks about query letters. He states that you should mention your publishing credits, unless they are self-published works. He states that when he sees that someone has self-published on a query letter it immediately turns him off.

Well, I haven’t asked him (although I’m thinking of emailing him about it), but I bet he’s changed his tune on that one. However, I’m predicting that what he would say is that you should only mention your self-publishing credits if you have juicy sales numbers to report with them. We self-publishers are a legitimate part of the market these days. In the last two years since I started publishing I have felt a definite shift in the attitude towards writers like me. In fact, organizations like the Romance Writers of America have now opened the highest level of membership, the Published Author’s Network (or PAN) to self-published writers who have sold over a certain dollar amount on a single title. (Incidentally, I now qualify for PAN, I just need to get around to filling out the application). And more and more writer’s organizations with prestigious awards are adding categories for self-published books. (A RITA Award category for self-published novels? Can I dream of that?)

So there you have it. Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass goes high up on my list of craft books for writers who are serious about the craft. I also bought the workbook that comes along with the book, but I haven’t had a chance to dive into it yet. I need to read another novel first….


3 thoughts on “2013 Book #3 – Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass

  1. I bought a copy of the (in digital format, btw)… Guess I should get around to reading it… I just have so much fiction to get through, too!

    • I know that feeling! I have a huge pile of books I need to read and not nearly enough time to read them. But this was a keeper of a craft book!

      • Excellent. I’ll bump it up my list. I do rather enjoy Brent Weeks’ works, too, and he is a Donald Maass client. Gives a little credibility!

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