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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