9 Breakout Tips from Donald Maass

I have a huge bookshelf of self-help books for writing. If I get stuck, I roll my chair around to face my floor-to-ceiling shelves and explore tips from Donald Maass, Bob Mayer, Strunk and White, or James Frey on my problem-du-jour. These books are a wealth of information and take a long time to digest. I thought I’d take a few of my favorites and distill their highlights.

Literary agent Donald Maass is also the author of more than sixteen novels. I must admit, I’ve read none of those but have devoured his thoughts on how to write. I’ve reviewed both Writing the Breakout Novel (Writers Digest Books 2001) and The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for the Career Fiction Writer. These next nine tips are a distillation of both:

  •  When novelists whose previous work merely has been admired suddenly have books vault onto the best-seller lists or even achieve a large jump in sales, publishing people say they have ‘broken out’.
  • I first came to my conviction that the techniques of breakout storytelling can be learned around the moment that I first met one of my best clients…
  • Writing the breakout novel is… the habit of avoiding the obvious or of covering familiar ground, and instead reinforcing the conviction that one’s views, experience, observation of character and passion for chosen story premises can be magnified and pushed so one’s novels achieve new levels of impact and new degrees of originality
  • To survive in today’s book publishing industry, it is not good enough just to get published (as true today as ten years ago when Maass first wrote those words)
  • Most authors commit to story premises instinctively. Their gut tells them this is the one. There is nothing wrong with that, except the gut can sometimes be mistaken. It cannot hurt to subject your breakout premise to a little scrutiny.
  • The key ingredients I look for in a fully formed breakout premise are 1) plausibility, 2) inherent conflict, 3) originality, and 4) gut emotional appeal.
  • If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes
  • Relegate setting to the backseat or make it the chassis on which everything else rides, but do not ignore it.
  • …if you do not have a moment of unexpected tragedy or grace in your novel, …consider where you might put it in

What’s your favorite how-to-write tip? Share it in comments.

–published first on Today’s Author


Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the upcoming Born in a Treacherous Time. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

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4 thoughts on “9 Breakout Tips from Donald Maass

  1. Donald Maass should be on every writer’s bookshelf – after they’ve read it twice. You pointed out some of the brightest gems, Jacqui, and you reminded me to re-read the book now.

  2. Good stuff. How have I missed this guy before?

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