on October 16, 2001
In a stormy sea of "how to" books for novelists that are little more than checklists of a particular authors method, Donald Maass provides an interesting and thoughtful island of calm. His goal is not to tell you what is the "right" way to write, but instead to give an overview of what, in his professional opinion, makes a successful novel. As an agent, he focuses not on the process, but on the product. He does not try to steer the reader in a particular direction of style or formula. Rather, he uses dozens of novels as examples of different elements of success.
Maass offers interesting insights into character development, plot, style, and theme as well as how these elements fit together to make a story entertaining. Reading this work, I found interesting and useful insights on every page. If you have been looking over a manuscript, wondering what it is lacking, this book will almost certainly provoke some new ideas. For that reason alone, it is well worth reading.
on June 11, 2001
Most "how-to" books for writers offer at least some tidbits of useful information for the starving writer; Maass' Breakout Novel is a feast. This is a book about how structure, character, plot and theme work together to produce a compelling story. These quintessential elements of storytelling are hard to learn and hard to teach. Thankfully, Maass' writing is lively and his lessons cleverly and memorably illustrated. You'll find yourself muttering again and again "right!" "of course!" and "I get it!" so read this book with pen in hand. I'll bet this month's royalty check you'll be underlining and turning down page corners in no time. That said, you may not need to come back to it often. What you learn from a first reading is likely to stay with you and influence your storytelling for a long time to come.
on July 1, 2003
Although this book has interesting insights about book marketing, its writing advice, if taken seriously, can turn a promising fiction writer into a hack. The breakthrough guidance offered includes creating a premise with "gut emotional appeal" and building a novel around a disaster with "personal stakes so high they become public stakes." This is not an approach for creating breakthrough (or even good) fiction. It's the recipe for a formula novel.
The back flap of the book describes Donald Maass as an author of seventeen novels. However, I can't find any of his novels currently in print. If his breakthrough approach has not worked for him, how can he expect it to work for people who buy this book?
Save your money. This book will not help.
on March 3, 2004
For more than a year I've been wrestling with the details of the story I'm going to novelize, taking all the advice I could get, thinking and rethinking, redrafting. After this much work I had what I considered a good story.
After reading this book I decided to try applying its advice to the design of my story. I wanted to see how it would change the story, and if it brought out the spirit of the story better. I wanted to se if my story would entertain more by applying the book's tenants.
Using the book still required a great deal of creativity, hard work, and thinking through alternatives and refinements, but the results kicked the power of the story up to another level. I am more excited about this story than ever.
I think you need a deep well of talent and quite a bit more theory and knowledge besides what the book preaches to create a "break-out" novel. This book could help beginning authors provided they dip from many other sources and have a good mentor. I believe it would primarily aid authors that already have a background of theory, experience, and talent required for publication. Either way, it's worth having.
Like most good advice, much of it seems obvious. Still, without having the check-list in front of you, along with several examples, and going through the exercises of applying it to your story rigorously, your story may support the obvious only in obvious or weak ways. Going through the exercise forces you to apply this age-old wisdom in the most forceful possible way.
Those who say that this book encourages formulaic story-telling probably don't like the idea of any structure. Some structures, like a cage, inhibit, while others, like a ladder, provide more freedom. This book will force you to think through cob-webbed corners of your story. It will ask questions worth considering. The result is not formulaic, the result is a well-planned dramatic form projected onto a well-organized narrative. The exercise of re-thinking alone is worth it whether or not you accept the book's advice as gospel story truth.
There have only been a couple of other books about story and drama that I have found as useful as this one. Use these ingredients to achieve your break-out:
1. Get a mentor. Get two. Make sure that your mentor is either a published author of work you like or an agent/editor that reads through the slush-pile and critiques work constantly. This is the number one key to success.
2. Study drama. Read about theory. Analyze the greats. Think about the content (not the form, the clever prose and catchy language) of your story, and think about it hard. Revise it endlessly.
3. Get some readers. Naive readers that represent your audience, with no knowledge of dramatic theory or the craft of writing. Let them tell you where they lost interest, how they interpret your story, and how it made them feel and think.
4. Love what you're doing and have fun. Thrive on criticism but learn when to ignore it, that is, when it violates the spirit of your message.
5. Get this book and treat each suggestion as an exercise. It's worth the time and money to make take your story up a notch.
on January 3, 2012
As an aspiring writer and an avid reader, I found this book helpful and interesting. Maass's point is simple: "If you want to write a book that people want to read, follow this advice." I learned a great deal from this book about imbuing my work with more tension and "stakes," using setting to greater advantage, and adjusting pacing -- all very practical matters that I sensed were problematic in my own writing.
One important thing Maass seems to acknowledge is that readers -- and, for that matter, writers -- have many different tastes, interests, and levels of sophistication. He's not a snob; he finds positive things to say about even what one might consider formulaic works, in order to show the reasons for their appeal. So I can't agree with "A Customer," who says that this book is a recipe ONLY for trite, formulaic novels. As Maass suggests, breakout novels can fall into any novelistic category. He does refer to writers like James Patterson, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, etc. -- yet he also gives many, many examples of excellent literary AND genre novels, old and new. Rebecca, A Thousand Acres, To Kill a Mockingbird, Cold Mountain, Lord of the Rings: are these trite or formulaic? I wonder whether "A Customer" was already prepared to dislike Maass's book before even reading it, and so got from it exactly what he or she expected to get.
It was somewhat ironic, I thought, that this book was poorly edited. I noted about a dozen typographical errors (most of them in the latter half of the book), the most cringeworthy being the reference -- I kid you not -- to someone succumbing to "pubic pressure." Also, the index was not exhaustive: some books/authors mentioned in the book appeared in the index, while others didn't.
Overall, though, this book helped me with some technical matters (I hope to get and use his workbook as well, having had it recommended to me by a published writer) as well as giving me some ideas for books I'd like to read and study.
(As an aside, another reviewer said "If Maass is so great, how come I haven't heard of any of his novels?" The back cover says he writes PSEUDONYMOUS novels, which means he doesn't put his own name on his books. That's probably why.)
on February 15, 2004
A multi-published friend of mine said that if you could take just one of Donald Maass' suggestions from this book and implement it, you'd have a much stronger story and a potential blockbuster. I couldn't agree more.
I bought Writing The Breakout Novel after hearing Mr. Maass speak at a national writers conference. I was impressed. As a New York Literary Agent who's written several books himself, Mr. Maass knows the publishing business, but more importantly, he knows and loves stories.
So, what about the book? Well, I read it cover to cover because I couldn't put it down. Now I'm going through it a second time, slowly, trying to assimilate it all -- an impossible task, because this book is full of information. After writing eleven books and reading hundreds of how-to books on writing, nothing much surprises me anymore. And I'll admit, occasionally, the advise in this book seemed obvious -- after someone put it in front of my face and hit me over the head with it. LOL!!
Will it have the same impact on a beginning writer as it did on me and the other multi-published authors I know? I'm not sure. Mr. Maass claims his book is for writers at all levels. So, maybe one of the newer writers out there could check it out and let us know.
on November 13, 2003
Does this book teach you how to write novels and make John Grisham's millions in ten easy lessons? No. Does it have some really good advice for writers who have mastered the basics but still aren't selling? I found some - and I've read a gazillion writing books. Author Ken Follet wrote in the forward for his novel Paper Money - what he calls his "last unsuccessful book" -that after that book tanked he finally 'got it' - and went on to write The Eye of the Needle, probably his most famous book. Donald Maass discusses the errors that keep writers from 'getting it' - and with all the time and dedication writing takes, why would you pass up ANY good advice from a successful agent? I disagree with the complaint about the 'stakes' chapter - if anything, the author says the opposite, that the most important stakes are personal. (Think divorce - when its someone else's its a shame, when its yours we're talking nuclear devestation). Writers spend most of their free time with imaginary people, agents with real people - selling your imaginary people. Do yourself a favor, read both this book and the career novelist. (Unless of course, you just like pain and rejection!!!)
on February 4, 2002
If you're wondering if you should buy this book, I'll ask you one question: Do you want to improve every aspect of your writing, no matter what style or genre you choose to work in? Before you answer, let me tell you about this book...
Donald Maass makes no distinctions between what's literature and what's popular. His goal isn't to get you to write a book *his* way, or James Patterson's way, or John Grisham's way; he lays out the ingredients of a novel that transcends genre and appeals to that craving for a damn good story in all of us. Throughout the book his examples are varied and precise. He illustrates his principles with novel segments from across the board -- mainstream, mystery, science fiction, romance. No writer will feel left out, nor made to feel "their" type of fiction is less important than any other. When it comes to writing a breakout novel, it isn't genre that matters, it is the techniques of superior storytelling that applies to all novels. Mr. Maass's book, "Writing the Breakout Novel," covers those techniques.
So, back to the question. Do you want to write a novel that people read and tell everyone they know they "just have to buy this book?" No? Okay. It's easy to write a book no one wants to read. You don't need "Writing the Breakout Novel." For everyone else, buy this book, read it from cover to cover. Dare to write a book readers will remember for a lifetime.
on January 8, 2002
Donald Maass would truly like to see fiction writers have the best possible chance to succeed. To this end, he offers intelligent, witty, worldly-wise insight on how to play and hopefully win the fiction game.
But consider this:
A hundred years ago, the French Academy of the Fine Arts issued its manual of rules to be followed by painters who aspired to have their paintings exhibited in its halls. For the paintings to qualify, the subjects and styles had to be strong yet subtle, assertive yet reserved, lofty yet down to earth, rent with conflict and tension yet tranquil and serene in equipoise. They had to challenge but not threaten, urge but not implore, please but not pander. And once a painter had incorporated these qualities into his or her work to the Academy's satisfaction, he or she might cross his or her fingers and hope to be among the elite whose work(s) might be chosen for display.
At that time, the artists who came to be called Impressionists were busy violating many of the Academy's rules. Some of these violations may have been intentional, but many weren't. Monet and Cezanne simply couldn't draw. Renoir's subjects were constantly out of focus. Van Gogh smeared his paints on the canvas largely because he was unable or unwilling able to master the fundamentals of palette composition and also because he couldn't afford to purchase the necessary brushes. And neither Degas nor Lautrec had any illusions about the technical skill of their art. Many of the Impresionists simply weren't very good artists when judged by prevailing standards.
Yet many of us know these names. With the benefit of hindsight, we can applaud or deplore the revolution they brought about in the realm of the visual arts. How many of us, unless we have a particular knowledge of or interest in the art world, are equally familiar with the names Ingres, Gerome, Bougereau and d'Auteil?
How did the public hear of let alone get to view these not very good works by these not very good artists? There were peripheral galleries in which these works were displayed, though they were largely ignored and earned their proprietors few francs for their troubles. And there was a small segment of the art viewing public that, for small sums, purchased these works. These artists, who apparently refused to permit the monopoly of the French Academy to be the lone arbiter of what constituted artistic and commercial worth, sought alternative venues for their work and created support systems to sustain one another through their lives of anonymity and their dismissal, by that same Academy, as vanity painters of vanity paintings.
For some years, many talented filmmakers have eschewed the rules of the blockbuster or "breakout" movie whose primary purpose is to provide movie moguls with homungous box office profits. Instead, they've created a dynamic, independent cinema that flourishes far from the Hollywood studio system and its knockoffs: Sundance, Slamdance, this that and the other kind of dance. The same has happened in music, theater, even the visual arts. Isn't it time that gifted and talented writers, the great majority of whom haven't the ghost of a chance of ever seeing their books in print, due largely to the economics of the publishing monopoly that artificially restricts the production and distribution of literature, isn't it time for them to leave off begging for scraps from the hand that will never feed them and to begin instead to follow the lead of their brother and sister artists in other media and peddle their worthy wares to a hungry and neglected segment of the reading public that books like this encourages them to believe doesn't and, indeed, can't exist?
on August 13, 2001
Everyone would prefer to write a book that sells lots of copies rather than just a few. Therefore Maass' topic is nearly irresistible, but the beginning novelist may not fully understand a lot of what this agent is saying. After all, what is the point of learning how to make the scope of a novel bigger until you've first figured out how to write what is referred to as a small novel? For those who need to learn how to plot, write dialogue, and develop intriguing and sympathetic characters, other books by authors such as Nancy Kress and Jack M. Bickham would be more immediately useful. If, however, you have conquered the basics (whether published or not) and want to learn what to do to move up to the next level, Writing the Breakout Novel is a fantastic book. From setting to character to plot to theme Maass shows examples drawn from a wide variety of breakout books to help writers learn the techniques for creating breakout quality stories. In the introduction, Maass states that he does not believe in magic. Books don't just mysteriously leap onto the best seller lists. He says, "I believe it is possible for a writer to understand, at least in part, the mechanics of the breakout novel and to apply these devices to his writing...Great novels result from their authors' refusal to settle for being 'good.'" Does Maass promise results for every reader of his book? No, but he does say, "Any author who can write a salable novel can also improve, and virtually all writers can write a breakout novel. How do I know? Because it happens all the time." If you'd like it to happen to you, this book can show you how.