Are you looking for a great book to help you edit your manuscript? Want to take the reading world by storm? Then check out this review of Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.
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Clark: Welcome to The Book Editor Show, today we are reviewing the book Writing The Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.
If you are ready to move forward with your professional editing, stop by thebookeditorshow.com, we can help you in every stage of your work from pre-production, developmental editing, copy editing to proofreading. Stop by today and let us know how we can help you build a better book.
I’m Clark Chamberlain and it is rumored that when George R.R. Martin couldn’t figure out how to finish his book The Game of Thrones, he took a secret meeting in England with the Earl of Editing and of course his advice was “kill ’em all.” And here he is, my friend and co-host, the Earl of Editing — Peter Turley. Peter, how’s it going today?
Peter: That is a fine title. [laughs] That’s second only to Hand of The King, I think.
Clark: I think it is. I didn’t realize, I just had found out about this so we have a new person to blame for all the deaths in The Game of Thrones series.
Peter: OK, I’ll shoulder some of that then, OK.
Clark: So how’s the week been?
Peter: I mean there’s plenty to go around isn’t there? There’s plenty.
Clark: There is. [laughs] You know you could just take a couple of them, he could have a couple of them.
Peter: Yes, we will share the heat.
It’s been a good week, yes, it’s been a packed week. We were just talking off air, it’s been one of those week where it seems like the dominoes come down one thing after another. It’s kept me busy; it’s been a good week. What about you?
Clark: Also a busy week, where things have kind of fallen apart. I’ve got the Salt Lake Comic Con coming up this week. Yesterday my hotel — I used AirBnB — and they contacted me and they were like — sorry we sold the property and you’re going to have to find a different place — and it’s only a couple of weeks from now.
Everywhere else was booked and so I was trying to find somewhere else that wasn’t too far away. Then they changed my flight on an October conference that I’m going to and that’s not working. So anyway, so it’s been a lot that kind of fixing.
It’s been tough because that makes it difficult when life gets in your way of actually trying to get —
Peter: So rude, isn’t it?
Clark: It is it’s rude, it’s like I make these plans and then they get changed.
Peter: I’ve had so many creative things that needed doing this week and I’ve not had chance to get to them. It’s like — Life, just stop it.
I’m so British sometimes though, when you’re like, “how’s your week been?” and I’m kind of just saying, “terrible, but it’s been a good week.” [laughs]
Clark: [laughs] Always look on sunny side.
Peter: That’s it.
Clark: I just got a huge delivery, 250 of the Hank Hudson and The Anubis books showed up from the printer this week and that’s been cool. Because that’s really going to be the hard push release for that book. Of course you can get it right now on Amazon; you can go there; you can read the first few chapters and if you like it, buy the book; if you hate it buy the book and then give it to someone you hate.
Peter: [laughs] Why not?
Clark: Why not? But it’s fun seeing that stuff come together.
Actually the book that we’re going to be talking about today — I got his workbook. There’s two versions of this; there’s the regular book which is what we’re going to be reviewing and then you can also get a workbook of this. The workbook is what I went through when I was in Iraq when I was working on my first novel and really it taught me a lot about how to make a book that really engages readers. So I’m excited to talk about this one today.
Peter: I think that’s the great thing, it’s not just saying how to — I know we were saying this earlier — how to write your story; it’s how to write a good story, in that commercial sense which engagement is a major factor.
Clark: Donald Maass is a twenty year veteran — he’s a literary agent. So I mean his business is all about being able to find good work that’s going to be able to sell well that’s going to be able to be commercial and be successful. So if that’s your aim — and of course there’s no right or wrong way; if you just like to write for yourself, that’s awesome and we hope to always help you out as well — but if you’re looking to be able to be commercially successful, this is a guy that you should be listening to.
Peter: That’s right there on the jacket — you know what you’re getting with this book, writing the break out novel. You’re not going to pick it up and just look for general writing tips, you are looking for commercial writing tips and it is good that that is obvious from the get go, that you know what you’re getting with this book.
Clark: One of the things you’re going to find in here is at the end of each chapter it goes through a checklist. This is really great that you can be using this in your manuscript. So although this is not specifically written specifically for editing — this one — his workbook is specifically written for editing. You can take this one from any level, whether you’re just starting off your novel or you have one that’s finished, you have a finished manuscript and you want to be able to go through this. This is a really good checklist so you can go through and say — is this working? Is this something that an agent would be interested in? Is this something that’s going to have a place to engage with audiences? — it’s just filled with great information. I know we do reviews on this show, occasionally, but we only review books that we actually like.
Peter: Yes, that is true.
Clark: So if you’re looking for negative reviews, you’re not going to find them here. We’re not going to show you stuff that’s no good.
Peter: 30 minutes on why we hate something, unless we review Transformers.
Clark: [laughs] We could start doing that.
Peter: Which we could do, that’s a thought.
Clark: We could have a secondary show — The Michael Bay Review Show.
Alright so I wanted to talk… I’ve got a few chapters here marked that I want to talk about a couple ideas in here.
From the first one is the idea of premise. The first thing that he jumps into is, you need to be able to make sure that what you’re building is actually something that’s going to work from the beginning. A couple of the things that he suggests in here, like making sure is that the breakout premise — has plausibility, it’s inherent conflict, originality and gut emotional appeal.
The idea that first that it’s plausible — is this something that can happen — that idea — that you’re going to be able to able to have a first connection with your reader where they are OK with the story. Where they’re like — yes, I’m good with this — and they can suspend enough disbelief to engage in it. If it’s too far fetched, of course they wouldn’t do it.
It also has that inherent conflict; it has it built in, between the characters, between the setting, between the plot conflicts. Everything that comes in here already has amazing conflict.
Originality — now that one there, I think that’s difficult to find something that’s truly unique and original. Everything has already been done before; it’s pieced together. But at the same time, you’re taking something and twisting it, making it a little bit different, making it yours.
Then of course — gut emotional appeal. That’s the one that I talk a lot about in some of the courses I’ve put together and also the research I’ve done. That’s why people read, is because they get connected emotionally
If you’re trying to figure out who your audience is and who you’re writing a book for, you really need to get down into the demographics. You know you’re writing for children or you’re writing for teens or you’re writing for adults. If you’re writing for adults, are you writing to thirty-somethings, forty-somethings? So you really try to figure out what will — as I always say — “punch them in the gut,” that emotional connection that you’re going to find there between the reader and the protagonist and the story.
Peter: Yes and it’s that he tells you that these are the things that you need to do, but he does go into great detail at how you can do this. For example, the originality part which is obviously the hardest of the four I would say — to have an original idea. But he does touch on ways you can go about doing this such as cross genres, mixing two genres together or combining two ideas, collapsing them into one.
He does have some things you can do to try and achieve this, and as many of these things that you can tick, the closer you’re going to get to having something that’s commercially successful. Because as you say — it’s hard to do isn’t it? Especially that one — striving for an original idea — because essentially, is there anything new left out there?
Clark: Exactly. And one of the things he talks about in here is — one of the things you can do with this is the “what if” game.
I’ll just read a quick little section in here and explain the what if.
— Time tested development tool is a way of escalating stakes — and we’ll talk about that in a minute — adding layers to plot and character and opening new thematic dimensions. So where is our story set in ghetto elementary school? Too obvious. Let us do the opposite; give our protagonist advantages that do not, unfortunately, help him towards his goal. Let’s make him white and send him to an exclusive prep school where he has minded teachers, supportive friends and athletic staff that is dedicated to helping him reach his highest potential, but it’s not enough. — because what the set up’s going to be is something completely different.
So you look at you idea and then you try not to make it obvious; you try to switch things up, so that you can try to come up with something different. It’s that whole “what if” — what if we did this instead?
Peter: This is from a later chapter but I think this mentality applies to a lot of his methods.
He says, in regard to when he’s world building, he says — change one thing and then project the implications of that change in as many different ways as you can.
I think it’s like that — what if this happened? What little thing can I change that would ripple through the entire story and have that original edge to it?
Clark: That kind of just leads us right into another chapter. It’s called “Stakes.”
When I was going through the book five years ago for the workbook, this was the one that really connected with me and it stuck with me for a long time. That’s the idea that you’re always raising the stakes. You put your protagonist into trouble and then you ask yourself — how can you make this more difficult?
You start locally with him and her — the protagonist — and say — what are they most connected to? — and if I put one of their family members in danger, that’s going to raise the stakes.
Well what if I make the stakes even bigger in the town that they live in and I make the entire town placed in danger, and how could I raise those stakes more? This is what you do — you keep asking yourself how you can make the situation more and more difficult. Because as we do that throughout the story, that’s going to continually connect with the reader.
I can remember reading Rainbow Sticks by Tom Clancy, and he was trying to represent an elite fighting force that’s made up of the world’s most elite soldiers, and of course you want them to be successful. But they were always so successful that it was a little bit difficult to engage with, because it was like they couldn’t fail in a lot of the earlier parts of the work.
That’s the kind of thing you want to get away from. You want to make sure that you’re always putting more trouble in front of the protagonist and adding to it and not making it obvious. Continually asking — what I can do to raise these stakes?
Peter: He talks about a few different types of stakes, like the public stakes, personal stakes and escalating the stakes.
An interesting one for me when I read this which has kind of stuck is he says — we always think we when we’re considering raising the stakes because this is a known thing in the writing community and editing community. How can I raise the stakes? That’s a question we’ve probably all asked.
But I think a great one is then he says — OK, so how am I going to raise the stakes? And then when would be the worst time to raise the stakes?
So not only how can it be worse, but when can it be worse? It’s always just nudging it that little step further. Obviously, you don’t go from your situation to then how it’s going to be bad. It can be hard to just have that great idea.
So I think taking those baby steps and being like — how can it be a little bit worse? — and then — OK, so then what would make that worse? — and then — if I did this at a different point or a different time, would that make it a little bit worse and constantly piling something on a little bit at a time?
Clark: Let’s take a look at Harry Potter for example. If we immediately have him fighting Quirrell at the beginning of the book, we’re not shaping that properly; we’re not adding those elements in. Instead, the book is really set up.
The first problems he has is with his family, and the next problems he has is with school, and then the next problems he has is with fighting the troll. All these types of things move along and each one becomes a bigger obstacle to overcome, and of course coming at the worse possible times.
Peter: I love how well you know the plot events of that story. [laughs]
Clark: I’ve been secretly working on the first book, on a little project with it to go through and say what works in Harry Potter, and by chapter and by chapter, and why. [laughs] So I’ve been really into it the last few months.
Peter: Is this just a personal project?
Clark: It’s a personal project right now because I can’t figure out the commercial aspect of it, because I don’t have permission to talk about it on that big of a deal. So I’m trying to figure it all out.
Let me read just a little piece from Stakes, and I like this one because he says —
— Your own stakes, making your reader care is first and foremost a matter of ensuring that you, the author care. A key question to ask yourself is this — why am I writing this novel? –and then a second necessary question is the following — if I stopped writing this novel, why would that matter?
— If the answer to that second question is — I won’t get published — or — I will have wasted my time — or worst of all — I will have missed my deadline and forfeit my delivery advance — then you are writing your novel for the wrong reasons. It likely lacks fire; some essential driving force is missing; your convictions are weak. Building them up is a matter of building up your beliefs. Some say success as an author requires a big ego; I say that it requires a big heart.
So I love the idea that even we as authors, need to look at why it is that we are writing. Why does it matter and where are our stakes involved in the work that we’re doing.
Peter: Because, not only are we writing a powerful story because it means a lot to us, but we are injecting personal values and beliefs into that story that people are going to relate to and engage with. That’s what drives a story that gets shared. He talks a lot about the importance of — one of the major factors of a breakout novel is shareability and word of mouth.
It is the fact that the story means something to us, first and foremost as a writer and as a person, and that way we can kind of ensure that it’s going to mean something hopefully to someone else.
Clark: If you listen to a lot of Indie podcasts right now on Indie Publishing, even in the “old guard” publishing community as well, the idea of “writing to market” — that’s a term that gets tossed around a lot and that may be a little confusing.
Because we say — well do I want to write something that I care about or do I want to write something that sells? — and the idea of writing to market is taking analysis right now of what’s popular and writing that, and that’s not what I want to talk about.
I do want to talk about writing something that I care about and also has the ability to sell. This book is going to help you figure that out, because you can have something that you’re passionate about and have something that you care about and you can put your heart into. This is going to help you figure out how you can tweak the little parts, the little pieces that are going to have the most engagement with the reader and be able to be a sellable product.
Peter: I was thinking as I was looking through and reading the book that it’s the ingredients of a breakout novel — isn’t it? — that you can take as a bit of a recipe and apply to a story that you care about.
Clark: Jumping forward to Characters — this is one of the real big things — we can have a plot that’s really exciting and has big explosions and time bombs and all this kind of stuff that’s going to be happening, but that’s not really the thing that’s going to be shared; that’s not the thing that’s going to emotionally connect. We want to talk a lot about characters and he’s got a great section on characters.
One of the ones that really I’m interested in is the idea that we have depth of character not only for our protagonists and our heroes but we have depth of character for our antagonists, that our villains have multiple sides that we can identify with as well while still being able to hate them.
Peter: George R.R. Martin — to back to him — says a lot about this, doesn’t he? That everyone’s a shade of gray.
In this book Donald Maass says —
— When writing characters try to consider what’s extraordinary in the ordinary.
I just think that’s so powerful. When I think of great characters or characters that have stuck in my mind, they have been — to go back to Harry Potter — a relatively ordinary person. But it’s the things that make him extraordinary from his ordinary… His courage and his love for his friends — it’s not necessarily his ability with the wand or his magical prowess, because the greatest wizard really, it’s whats extraordinary in his normality that really grabs us, because it becomes something that we can strive for and again make that connection personally to us. Obviously it’s hard to connect to an all-powerful wizard but you can connect to an ordinary person plucked from their day to day life and then becomes extraordinary.
Clark: Yes, exactly.
The characters — that’s where you’re really at — we have characters with our protagonist, that they still have issues that we can identify with, the problems in life, but then they’re overcoming them.
I think that’s one of the things that we want most of all as humans, as ourselves when we look at ourselves, is that we do want to be overcoming these things, and that’s why we turn to stuff like great books. Because maybe we don’t have the power to do that in our own life, but we want to read about that because it’s excites us and it engages us in a way that maybe we’re not able to do on our own right now in life, and that’s some of that real power — story is power, here — and that you can get into with this and that’s that complex relationship with the characters.
One of the cool things that you can do that he talks about in this book is building the cast of characters.
Right now it’s really popular having multiple points of view and that — the idea of the “gray” right? — that you don’t put that in there, and I’d followed his advice on this with Another Day Another Name. I’ve got four main characters that you go between and really, they all have their little bit of gray side on them and you’re not sure who the bad guy and the good guy is, and it’s fun to be able to put that stuff before an audience and let them make the decisions and let them connect with the characters and figure out what they believe.
Peter: Yes. I like that you’re touching on the viewpoints there and there’s a bit in the book where he says that the multiple viewpoints are currently so popular because it’s so representative of modern day life, and he says that our lives intersect, interact and overlap. That’s mirrored in having sub-plots and multiple viewpoints, and it lends this sense of connectivity that we do have in our everyday life.
He also says — to kind of go back to the characters — he says, I just want to quote this because it’s just a great line, he says —
— Accomplishments already accomplished doesn’t hold our attention but striving to attain the impossible, though, is a struggle from which we can’t take our eyes.
I think it really resonates that having these characters that reflect our lives; they interact and they overlap, and it’s an ordinary person struggling to attain the impossible. That snapshot and the character that makes you think of is the really powerful — I don’t want to say “tool” or “technique” and cheapen it and say use this as a trick — but that just stuck in my mind as soon as I read that.
Clark: You could look as these things as tricks and stuff like that, but it really at the end of the day they’re not; they’re not tricks. It’s really how we connect.
I did two and a half years worth of research into trying to figure out how to sell novels and along that journey was trying to figure out how to get people to read. It’s amazing how it’s just inherent; it’s in our nature to be interested in story, and the stories that we connect with the most are the ones that have emotional connection to what we’ve been through.
So that’s why when I talk about that, it’s so easy to write a novel for middle grade, because I’m writing to nine, ten, eleven year old kids. So I can look — what do nine, ten, eleven year olds go through? What are their emotional triggers that they’re having happen to them in their life?
It’s really easy to look at that and say — yes, they have a problem with trying to feel where they are in life and maybe people don’t notice them and they want to have friendships and they want to have adventure — so you can do these different things that will connect with them emotionally, and you have those in your book and it’s going to do that.
So let’s take that and move it forward to someone in their thirties. So a person in their thirties — what have they gone through in life? They’ve probably finished college; they’ve gotten started into working; maybe they’ve had that first job; maybe they’ve had that second job. They’ve certainly have experienced love and probably have lost love.
So you start looking at what life experiences those people have gone through and that you can grab them from that and move forward. That’s not a trick. It’s just knowing who your audience is, and trying to make an emotional connection with them.
This is going to help you be able to do that and try to figure out what are those things with characters that do it, what are those things with sub-plots, that are going to be able to really sit there and connect with them on an emotional level?
Peter: That’s so true. He says that we choose books based on our values. That’s kind of like what you’re saying there, Clark, that people are probably going to reach for books that they can relate to, and there’s a character that kind of represents them or what they believe in or what they’ve been through, because it gives you a mold to fit around, and it can also show you what lies just on the edge of your ability. What can we strive for and what can we do if we push ourselves perhaps as far as this character is going to? Or what troubles can we endure and come out the other side of?
That to me, is the power of story, that it gives us a mold, that we can then try to fit into, and we can see what can be possible, right on the edge of our existence.
Clark: It’s been reading things like this, it’s been reading the professional papers into why we read that really has excited me and gotten me passionate about storytelling.
Because — and this is not in the book; this is my own stuff — we as authors, we hold a ton of power. Do you really realize just how much power you have as an author, how much power you have to connect with a reader? Because once you have that emotional connection, once they’re connected, you have the ability to share new ideas that maybe that person hasn’t even thought of before, and to be able to begin to change how their point of view fits, you have so much power.
That’s going back to one of the things in here, where he was saying — why are you writing a book? What do you want to do? You can choose to write a book that’s just going to be popular and sell well, which is great, or you can write a book that’s going to be popular and sell well and have meaning at the end of it and connect with something, and have an ability to change things socially that are going on, to make a point in the world. You just slip it in; you don’t slap people in the face with it. You just put it in there and let them make the decision at the end.
Peter: I was initially a little apprehensive when I went into this book and the Forward and the Introduction does go quite in depth as to why write the breakout novel. He talks a lot about the industry, and speculates — I think this was early 2000s — speculates on the e-book and things like that.
At that point I was a little put off. But he was just making a case as to why it’s helpful to have a breakout novel. But then as it really gets into this stuff, it really gets to what you’re saying there, Clark, into the heart of it, into just how powerful it is to have a story. I think you’re right; I think that using these techniques that he outlines in these chapters, you can bring your message to the world, and you can bring it through a breakout novel to a wider audience, which after all, is what we want.
We don’t want to write a book with a great message that just reaches one person. It’s still going to mean something to you, but…
Clark: You’re not going to break out. And that whole idea is that you’re going to be able to build a large audience from being able to write a book like this.
Thousands and thousands and thousands of books are being published every day now, through the miracle of e-books. So really, what we’re talking about — if you’ve ever taken a communication class — is that we have a lot of noise. How is it that you’re going to be able to get your message from yourself to your audience, through all of this noise. The noise that I’m talking about right now is the thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of books that are coming out every single week.
You’re going to be able to do that by getting to one person, one reader that really gets engaged with it and they help spread the word and they tell someone else about it and they read it. That’s why it matters to put stuff in here that is really going to connect with audiences.
Overall, this book is just fantastic. It’s going to help you be able to do that. It’s going to help you be able to create great characters, great plot, great theme, and it’s going to show you different things that you can go through your manuscript right now, to be able to trim down, maybe cut out altogether, maybe an element that you haven’t added in and you should really take a look at it and ask yourself if that element’s going to help. Because when you can get something that really connects with an audience, that’s going to help you build your platform and engage with more people.
Peter: I meant to say earlier — it’s not just speculation. He’s 20 year in the industry, or something like that. But also, the book itself is absolutely littered with examples, extracts from novels, first lines, examples, examples in every day life of some of the situations he talks about. He does back a lot of this stuff up with time-tested examples. They are in every chapter, basically. So he does outline it; he does really get into the nitty-gritty, and then shows you that — this has happened and this is where it’s happened and you can take a look and — you can see how it’s done right before.
Clark: I think that — I don’t know if it’s in this one or if it was in the workbook — but he lists 100 breakout novels from different genres that he’s taken from.
That’s a great place that you can go for a reference. If you’re trying to write the next breakout sci-fi book, take a look what other ones have done and really connected well with audiences. That should be some of your research material out there, especially when you’re in that editing phase, to make sure that you’re hitting those notes right.
Peter: I didn’t see that in this one.
Clark: I think that it is in the workbook.
Peter: Have not worked through that, but that sounds awesome.
Clark: You can probably also find that online — I don’t know for sure — but if I can find it, I will put it in there in the show notes, so that you can have access to those breakout books.
Coming up to the end here. I just want to put my seal of approval on this. This is definitely — this and the workbook — are ones that you should be reading and that you should working through, taking a look at at least once as you go through your manuscript.
It’s just awesome. It’s just really solid advice in this book.
Peter: Again, as we were discussing this before, it’s one of the most reflective of the industry as it stands today, of writing style as it stands today. It’s modern; it’s up to date, and it’s comprehensive.
Clark: So if you haven’t had a chance to take a look at it, please do.
If you’re in that manuscript level, I would definitely recommend you just pick up the workbook one, because it will go through and it’s going to ask you questions that you’re going to fill out, that — does your manuscript have this in it? If this is the elements you’re looking for, what could you do to raise the stakes? — and it’s just going to be really helpful for you as you’re going through that, and it’s giving you the checklist to make sure that you’re hitting the notes right, and having all the elements of a great breakout novel.
Do you have anything else to add for the show, before we wrap this up here?
We could go on, because it’s a big book, and as I said, it’s full of so much good stuff. But you just… Why spoil it? Pick it up for yourselves; grab a copy; it has to be on your shelf.
Clark: Definitely has to.
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I’m Clark Chamberlain, and for my co-host Peter Turley, keep writing, keep learning, and build a better book.