Review: Writing the Breakout Novel

This week at the PLC we’re reviewing books on writing. As I am always looking for an excuse to read yet more books on writing, I picked up a copy of Writing the Breakout Novel, by veteran literary agent Donald Maass. I’ve heard about this book a lot, and one of the reasons it gets mentioned in writerly circles is that there are some controversial pieces of information in the book. The good thing about controversial statements is that they make one think.

It is true, Writing the Breakout Novel is not for the faint of heart. If you’re looking for a mental hug, look elsewhere. Maass states early in the book that he would actively discourage would-be writers. WtBN is also not a zippy read, not in the sense that Maass is boring, he is persuasive and engaging, but in the sense that he is challenging. I found if I actually thought about the words in front of my eyeballs, it might take me ten minutes or more to make it through one page. That is a crazy-slow read for me.

However if you don’t care about mental cuddles and are willing to dedicate your brainpower towards understanding the elements that make a novel a blockbuster, if you want to understand WHY books like Jurassic Park, or The Notebook, or Along Came A Spider, or The Bridges of Madison County blow up so HUGE, even if you don’t LIKE those books, Maass is your guy.

Consider this: it’s not about whether megapopular writers like John Grisham are hacks, it’s about WHY people gobble up their books, and if you think the answer is “because people have no taste,” guess what? You’re being a snob.

Me, I’d rather be a thief. Why dismiss guys like Grisham when you could steal their tricks? I’d take a little of that thunder meself, pleaseandthankyou. And this is the purpose of WtBN.

Maass breaks down the basics of a novel- how to make characters that feel real, why plot IS tension, why one should bother (or not bother) with multiple points of view, and so on. However, among this standard-issue advice, Maass cheerfully lobs the occasional bomb.

For example, in the chapter titled “Contemporary Plot Techniques,” Maass writes that the “aftermath” scene where “a hero digests what has just happened to him and settles on his next step” is “an outdated technique,” because it drains tension.

At that point, I put down the book and thought for a while. Cut out the rest scenes? That’s some heresy, bub. I do get what he’s saying, in the sense that a scene where a character just rehashes recent events, maybe does a little wallowing and has a cup of tea, is boring.  But having your hero consider the complications of the horrible thing that is happening and contemplating his desperate options (or lack thereof) can boost overall tension, and ratchet up a deceptively quiet scene while building character at the same time.

Having decided this for myself, I pick up the book, read on through the next paragraph, and find Maass recommends doing exactly this through exposition. So what is the difference between a Maass-recommended “expository” scene and a pooh-poohed “aftermath” scene? Is there one? Does it really matter if it’s all internal or if we get a grounding cup of Twinings along with our deepening dilemmas? Does it? Or is Maass messing with my head just to get me to think about what a good “rest scene” should do? (Hint: Not rest at all.) I don’t know. But I’m sure as hell going to think about it.

All in all, I would recommend Writing the Breakout Novel to those who have been writing for some time and are not afraid to challenge themselves, even if it stings. Personally, I have dog-eared at least half a dozen pages for further contemplation, and also gotten an idea for a new short story. WtBN is certainly one of the most useful writing books I have read, and has a secure home on my reference shelf.

I give Writing the Breakout Novel 4 stars, and the relationship status of it’s complicated.