Book Review: Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (4/5)

26 Dec

I can’t even remember how long ago it was that someone told me I should read this book. She had just finished an online class and said reading the book would be as useful as this professor and a lot cheaper so I asked for the book and workbook for Christmas. The book was the easy part of this adventure. The workbook will be my real struggle.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Summary from Goodreads:

Maybe you’re a first-time novelist looking for practical guidance. Maybe you’ve already been published, but your latest effort is stuck in mid-list limbo. Whatever the case may be, author and literary agent Donald Maass can show you how to take your prose to the next level and write a breakout novel – one that rises out of obscurity and hits the best-seller lists.

Maass details the elements that all breakout novels share – regardless of genre – then shows you writing techniques that can make your own books stand out and succeed in a crowded marketplace.

You’ll learn to:
establish a powerful and sweeping sense of time and place
weave subplots into the main action for a complex, engrossing story
create larger-than-life characters that step right off the page
explore universal themes that will interest a broad audience of readers
sustain a high degree of narrative tension from start to finish
develop an inspired premise that sets your novel apart from the competition

Then, using examples from the recent works of several best-selling authors – including novelist Anne Perry – Maass illustrates methods for upping the ante in every aspect of your novel writing. You’ll capture the eye of an agent, generate publisher interest and lay the foundation for a promising career.

I was afraid this was going to be a book about how to follow a cookie-cutter pattern to write a book that will sell well. I’m so glad it was not. Maass’s advice is specific yet very general. Raise the stakes. There are many ways to do this. Make your setting well-defined. This is more important for some genres than others. It gave me a lot of ideas for my book without telling me what to do and I liked that.

I liked Maass’s advice about subplots. I realized my subplot grows very weak in the second part of the novel when my main plot is going through a lot of changes. I really need to be sure both plots stay active and interesting throughout the story. Maass’s advice about effective subplots was really good and this was one of my favorite parts of the book.

Donald Maass Image via Writer's Digest

Donald Maass
Image via Writer’s Digest

I thought the final section on theme was a bit repetitive. When Maass talked about picking a premise at the beginning, I felt he implied a lot of this information. Hitting on it again at the end was a down way to end the book to me. I guess my thought process is that if I have an idea for a story, I should know what I’m trying to say with that story. It should be woven into the entire book, not something I think about later. But maybe that’s how I plan a book and some people needed to hear it more than I do.

Maass’s advice seems to be mostly for published authors. I was a bit taken aback at how dismissive he was of writers who have not been published. I figured the book would be about writing a first novel that’s a best seller but I guess Maass recognizes that this rarely happens. Your breakout novel is more likely the second, third, or even later one you write. His point is that the book that is well written will end up selling the most copies so you should strive to be sure every book is well written, not squeezed out to meet a deadline. You have to love what you’ve written.

Writer’s Takeaway: Jeez, this whole book is a Writer’s Takeaway! I guess the notes I made about how I need to improve my characters and plot are my takeaways, but I don’t want to share those here. I really do hope to publish one day and you can hear about that journey when I get there.

A truly helpful book on writing. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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One Response to “Book Review: Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (4/5)”


  1. Writing Check In- April | Taking on a World of Words - April 2, 2019

    […] than plot. I’ll go over that quickly I expect. I have a book to work through after that, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. I read the book that came with a workbook a few years ago and it seems like […]


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