HPPUB BOOK REVIEW of Donald Maass: Writing the Breakout Novel


Author (or Editor): Maass, Donald with foreword by Anne Perry

Title: Writing the Breakout Novel: Inside Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level

Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher:  Writer’s Digest Books (Cincinnati, Ohio)

Date: 2001

ISBN:  0-89879-995-3

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound, 264 pages, indexed

Relevance to HPPUB: authorship, publishing, free speech

Review: Donald Maass is a literary agent and author of seventeen novels, and has provided in this fresh and blunt book a modern, up-to-date account of fiction publishing and what editors expect today.

I’ve heard older writers and read older books saying that new novelists must prove themselves as technically crafty in storytelling by getting published with “formula fiction” along a straight-line “quicksand” plot skeleton before they will be trusted by readers and therefore editors.  Since I had a steady income all of these years, I refused to play by the rules, instead trying my hand at rather undisciplined esoteric fiction novelists, ignoring the “rules,” and submitting only one (below).

In the modern world of consolidation in the publishing industry and editors very conscious of shareholders, numbers, and the bottom line, mid-list authors are getting squeezed out. So what we have is a game where newer authors and established ones pretty much play by the same rules, and that may be good. Ironically this may turn out to be better for first-time novelists who are very determined to express an original voice.

The straight-line cliffhanger “story” is like this: sympathetic protagonist is in trouble on the very first page, then everything he or she tries leads to deeper trouble, when some unusual opportunity occurs because of a combination of the protagonist’s own character and sometimes external event, and he conquers all and then (maybe) “he lives happily ever after.”  A lot of novels are like this, and seem pretty trite.

So Maass comes along with the concept of the “breakout premise,” which he characterizes succinctly as having “plausibility, inherent conflict, originality and gut emotional appeal.” So usually the premise involves an original combination of circumstances, some of which are deeply land ironically linked to specific problems in the personalities of the characters, and whose development and eventual denouement will say (rather “show”) important insights to the reader. Once you have a breakout premise, a layered plot structure (rather than a simple linear one) becomes more effective.

What matters in a “breakout premise” is having an original combination of problems and characters who must solve them.  So, I would say that Clive Barker’s “Sacrament” starts with a breakout premise: a gay wildlife photographer living a rather macho life is mauled by a polar bear near the Hudson bay and is led on a supernatural journey to solve a mystery that questions his own self-driven nature. Or, let’s say a fashion model is badly burned escaping from the World Trade Center on 9-11-2001. So far, that’s too obvious and “trite.”  But throw in the possibility that on 9-10-2001 (or even 9-11-2000) he got an email that he comes to believe could have come from the terrorists, you might have an interesting setup. Breakout fiction does demand getting beyond public sympathy for, say, an accident or disease victim who goes on to win an athletic event -- it requires unusual problems and original solutions. It is also character-driven.  External (tragic) events are linked to the plot through the individuality of the characters, and topicality and controversy—part of keeping a reader turning pages—may lurk in every paragraph but must always be tied logically to the motives and evolution of the characters.

Maass also briefly discusses the e-publishing “revolution” with the message, don’t count on it.  Fiction generally needs to be physically present in stores to sell. Of course, new novelists may now try on-demand publishing to “get in” for very low cost, but then they must consider whether the public attention they attract could negatively affect their paying careers if the books do not sell (or could find that poor sales set up a negative situation for later if they want to approach a trade publisher—all of this is simply unclear, but it brings up turf and free speech questions).  Sometimes self-published novels (with print runs) do sell big, as with Vince Flynn’s Term Limits.

I have also the classic Writing to Sell, by Scott Meredith, also from Writer’s Digest, the Fourth Edition dating 1995.  And looking at it one can tell that times have changed. There is more emphasis on the integrity of the original story as a skeleton, and Meredith differentiates between plot and “incident.”  The book also takes up non-fiction. I sent my only finished fiction manuscript, Tribunal and Rapture, to his agency in 1988, and, although he “rejected” it he wrote back a very detailed analysis, which I appreciated. (At the time, he would accept full manuscripts. Today most agents accept only partial manuscripts, like a synopsis (whether long or brief is a controversy) and about the first three chapters. There is controversy over reading fees.  For more one agenting, here is a good site: http://www.marksullivanassociates.com/


Related: Vince Flynn, Term Limits; Clive Barker: Sacrament


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