Next Meeting

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May 11th- 14 Ways to Find More Writing Time (speakers Liza Garcia & Shirley Jump)
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June 8th- Talking Points - Writing Great Dialogue (speaker Ricko Donovan)
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July 13th- Facts, Rules, and Myths of Book Copyrights (speaker Gary "Dutch" Hinkle)
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Aug 10th- topic pending (speaker Heloise Jones)
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Sept 14th- topic pending (speaker Shana Smith)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Writing the Breakout Novel

Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Writer's Digest Books, 2001.
Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Writer's Digest Books, 2004.

Do you dream of making a living as a novelist, or at least of writing that one smash-hit best seller? Well, forget it. You can’t. That’s the tone many books, web sites, and magazines take. It’s easy to come away feeling that agents don’t want to represent you and that even if one does, no editor will select your manuscript and that even if one does, the publisher will refuse to promote you. It’s a matter of pure chance who gets onto the bestseller list, anyway. Donald Maass says that’s all nonsense.

Breakout novels are books that "vault onto the best-seller lists," and the premise of Writing the Breakout Novel is that, "Breakout novels can be planned." Maass is honest about the long odds that novelists face but he counters honesty with hope: in spite of the lack of advertising and publisher support for most books, word of mouth is "the engine that drives breakouts." He promises that "Virtually all writers can write a breakout novel." He provides eleven chapters of helpful, encouraging advice coupled with analysis of existing breakout novels to help you do exactly that.

The foundation of a breakout novel is its premise. Using several famous novels, Maass identifies depth of setting; unforgettable characters; and unusual, dramatic, and meaningful events as key components of breakout premises. He examines breakout premises in terms of plausibility, inherent conflict, originality, and gut emotional appeal. Finally, he demonstrates how a breakout premise can be developed with a concrete example so compelling that you’ll wish you could find it on a bookstore shelf.

The premise is the foundation on which the other components of a breakout novel are built. Maass explains how to create larger than life characters whom readers will identify with and cheer for, how to select settings that affect the psychology of the novel, and how to weave compelling conflict into every page. He comes nearly full-circle with a discussion of theme. Like a premise, theme is a unifying force that winds through all the novel’s elements, but it does much more than that. It gives the story meaning. If that intimidating thought makes your stomach clench, don’t worry--Maas tells you how to build your theme, step-by-step.

Each chapter ends with a checklist of its most important points, which makes later review easy. He closes with advice on dealing with the publishing industry once you’ve got a finished, polished manuscript. The advice is still relatively current--the book was published in 2001--and is a good start. This is a book you’ll want close at hand whenever you are planning a novel.

But what if you’ve already got a manuscript, either finished or in progress? That’s where the companion Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook comes in. Frequently, workbook companions for how-to books are gimmicks that extract a few extra dollars from readers of the original book without providing new value. Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook is not that kind of workbook.

Where Writing the Breakout Novel helps you plan your novel, the Workbook provides exercises targeted at improving an existing manuscript. Sometimes you're directed to pick a random place in your manuscript. Other exercises ask you to select a central aspect of character, plot, setting, or theme. In each case, Maass prescribes multiple exercises for working with that portion of your novel. You’ll heighten or diminish turning points, change a character's motivation for a single scene, and deepen exposition without bogging the reader down. As you work through the exercises, you’ll recognize how to apply them to other areas of your manuscript, working toward one goal: producing a dynamic novel with breakout potential.

Whenever I feel absolutely miserable about my chances of becoming a published novelist, much less ever making a living at the craft, I turn to Donald Maass for encouragement and advice. These books inspire me to take control of my writing destiny. They deserve a place on every novelist’s bookshelf.

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