Book Review: The Breakout Novelist

Recently, I was asked to review Donald Maass’ book, The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction

breakout novelist

Writers (Writer’s Digest, March 2011) by his publicist, FSB Associates. I jumped at the chance. I loved his prior book, Writing the Breakout Novel, and the title of this new one intrigued me. How timely, with the empowerment of writers by self-publishing (more on Maass’ thoughts on self-pubs later) and digital book sales blowing past traditional offerings. Data shows a slew of new authors emboldened by a successful novel (success being a relative word) who want a career in writing. I wanted Maass’ thoughts on the viability of that as well as how to do it.

For those of you who don’t know Donald Maass, he is a veteran agent, currently the head of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York which represents more than 150 novelists and sells more than 100 novels every year to publishers in America and overseas. By his own count, he receives annually about 7500 query letters, partial manuscripts, and completed novels–99.9% of which disappoint him. This amazing statistic must be the inspiration behind his new book. The authors, he declares, are not incompetent, merely not in command of their technique. This book provides the tools to change that.

It’s organized into three parts:

  1. Mastering Breakout Basics–how-to-write fundamentals, including exercises for the wanna-be breakout novelist. That’s right, homework. There are no shortcuts, but there are quicker ways to do it and he shares those.
  2. Achieving Breakout Greatness–factors that vault an author to success. This includes a singular voice, tension all the time, hyper-reality, scenes that can’t be cut. If you think you know those concepts, you don’t know. Maass even includes a section on how to write humor (Chapter 16), explaining how to ban banal with his ‘methods of mirth’–like hyperbole, ironic juxtaposition, being extremely literal, and more.
  3. Building a Breakout Career, which addresses the nuts of bolts of agents, contracts numbers, and career patterns that work. Most of this material I have not read before though I’ve read many how-to-write books. His chapter on Numbers, Numbers, Numbers is fundamental to moving beyond the one great novel we-all have inside of us to a successful career. He itemizes:
    • What Breaking Out means
    • When to write full time and how to do that
    • How to build an audience (word of mouth is prominent)
    • What distracts you from writing (lectures, short story anthologies–these he considers ‘distractions’ from the real work of writing a novel)
    • How to create your voice
    • The life cycle of a career writer

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Book Review: The Guns of Retribution by Icy Sedgwick

The Guns of RetributionMy name is Virginia Diaz and as this is my introductory post here at Today’s Author, I’d just like to say howdy and tell you something about myself. I, like many others who read and write for Today’s Author, was that kid–you know, the one who read incessantly, voraciously, and also kinda non-stop once she had found the true value of reading wasn’t that she passed the test or got praise from her teachers and parents, but that it was a place all her own–in fact, millions of places, zillions of places, an infinite multi-verse to which she could escape and have adventures both romantic and strange. That was me–is still me–is us, I think.

Yeah, I know you already know about the value of the shared word–you’re here aren’t you? But, how did we get here to that exceptional love of reading? Each of us, of course, had her or his own journey. As far as I can remember, mine began with an adventurous kids’ book about the famous Money Pit on Oak Island which ignited my imagination like nothing I had read before ever had. I was about 10 or 11 years old and the exact title and author’s name escapes me, but the experience of reading it remains decades later. Before that, I wasn’t at all likely to pick up a “boy’s book” like a treasure hunting adventure, but since then, well considering how that one book had changed my view of reading, limiting myself from any genre seemed silly.

Not only am I one who loves reading and has a love-hate for writing (you know what I mean if you’ve ever had writer’s block) but I really love to pull the storytelling apart like a clock and see what makes it tick–and talk about it–man, I love to discuss why a particular set of words works well or doesn’t work at all.

And so, I come around to what my main focus here at Today’s Author will be: Book Reviews. In keeping with the spirit of this site’s purpose to encourage new and independent writers, I will be focusing mainly on self-published authors and small presses. (If this is you and you’d like me to consider reviewing your work here at Today’s Author, make contact in the comments.)

As I previously wrote, I will read just about anything–even “boys’ books” like westerns, so today I’ll be reviewing Icy Sedgwick’s just re-released novella western The Guns of Retribution (Beat to a Pulp, 2013). The Guns of Retribution is a story of one Grey O’Donnell, a tragic hero of the old west whose fatal flaw seems to be that, while he can bring justice for others through his wits, determination, and quick shooting, those victories come at great personal cost to Grey. For Grey, no good deed goes unpunished and nearly every truth told or act of common decency is paid back with betrayal and deceit–it’s awesome! Okay, it’s not awesome for Grey or for anyone who he cares about for they also feel the brunt of his misfortune, but as a metaphor for how capricious fate can be, and how we puny humans can do little to truly influence our fate and change our lives for the better, it’s awesome.

One of the other strengths of the book is Sedgwick’s deft handling of description. As a reader I have always found heavy-handed description to be hugely distracting and sometimes even enough to put me off a book (I really don’t need to know what the characters had for dinner for three paragraphs, you know?). The description in The Guns of Retribution is sprinkled between the action and throughout the dialogue so smoothly that the reader hardly notices that it is description and it sure as shootin’ doesn’t pull one out of the narrative, but instead allows the reader’s mind’s eye to fill in the blanks. In a tale meant to move fast and take no prisoners (okay there are like half a dozen people taken prisoner, but that’s not the point) the author still manages to create a full, lush world populated by the old familiar archetypes of the genre given new liveliness and deeper motivations.

The one real criticism I do have is that while Sedgwick’s female characters ring true in both words and actions, they rarely get a chance to interact with each other. The femme fatal, Madeline Beaufontaine, is a near perfect characterization of that well used trope–she is sexy bad news and we know it from the moment we meet her. She also has a sister, the lovely Violet, who keeps the town of Sandwater’s only inn and puts herself squarely on Grey’s side through her actions. However, all the reader gets to know about their relationship is what others–mostly male characters–tell us. As I read I kept waiting for the scene when those very opposite sisters would interact, but it never happened. Cocheta, an Apache woman from Grey’s past, gives voice to her entire tribe and has a hand in the resolution of the main plot, but her sole interaction with another female character is to hold her daughter’s hand in the background of a scene. Certainly, the author should be credited for creating well rounded women, but as a reader I would have loved for her to go another step farther and let us have some more interaction between the womenfolk.

I have heard rumors of an upcoming sequel and I am very much looking forward to more adventures with Grey O’Donnell in the cruel, dry world that Icy Sedgwick has built. And, if I had my wish, Grey would meet up with his own version of Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley to give the world of The Guns of Retribution an even more well-rounded feel.