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Breakout Novel

Writing the Breakout Novel

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Take your fiction to the next level!

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.

264 pages, Paperback

First published May 10, 2001

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About the author

Donald Maass

19 books173 followers
Donald Maass is the author of more than 16 novels. He now works as a literary agent, representing dozens of novelists in the SF, fantasy, crime, mystery, romance and thriller categories. He speaks at writer's conferences throughout the country and lives in New York City.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 407 reviews
Profile Image for Patrick.
Author 1 book58 followers
April 25, 2011
WARNING: The plot formulas exposed and lauded in this book can be toxic. May lead to dizziness, fits of cynicism, and paroxysms. Do not take this product if you harbor unrealistic expectations about what sort of books the American book-buying public actually consumes. Do not read if you are offended by the notion that trite, adolescent writing and conventional morality may be the most sellable commodity in today's literary marketplace. Do not take if you are allergic to any of the following:

Michael Crichton
John Grisham
Tom Clancy
Chicken Soup of the Anything

If, after reading, you are seized by the sudden urge to write a highly commercial techno-thriller, take with John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist and E.M Forrester's Aspects of the Novel. If problem persists, write twenty non-rhyming couplets on the intellectual anguish of having to watch Sex in the City then read Shakespeare's Coriolanus.

In short:
A fantastic wake-up call and a manual on how to write crass, highly sellable fiction. Maass effectively and succinctly answers that most nagging of author gripes, how does this garbage get on the best-seller list? He knows his stuff, which is what makes this book so terrifying.
Profile Image for Brent Weeks.
Author 65 books21.3k followers
July 1, 2011
Don is my agent, so let's get that out of the way. However, I heard him speak, and I read this book before I ever signed on with him. One of his questions made me rewrite a book I thought was finished. I'd spent more than a year of my life on that book, and his questions made me spend another nine months at it. That book, The Way of Shadows, hit the New York Times bestseller list. (Low, but #29 is something a lot of writers would kill to hit.) And that's the genius of this book--not that it'll make you a bestseller--but that it will ask you the questions that may take your writing to the next level.

Don Maass understands story in a way few people, even few professionals, do. This book puts the work back in your lap. If you can't or won't see your own flaws, it won't help you. If you can, I think it will.

Best writing book I've read. Period.
Profile Image for Troy Blackford.
Author 23 books2,499 followers
December 28, 2013
In the year 2000, Maass says:

"Middle-eastern terrorists are not likely to attack us. This is an implausible plot for a thriller." (Look me in the eye and repeat that at the end of 2001, Donald.)

"A global financial crisis wouldn't affect people enough to be the topic of a thriller. So what if Wall Street has a bad day, or even a VERY bad day." (I'll check back with you when the unemployment and foreclosure rate is skyrocketing in 2008, Mr. Maass.)

"Conspiracies make a bad topic for a thriller - so too do the so-called 'treasure hunt' stories." (This just a few years before 'The Davinci Code,' which basically combines the two, came out and made millions.)

Then you have the long section on how 'e-readers' will 'never have an effect on the paper publishing business.' People don't want e-readers, Maass sniffs, because 'they don't offer anything superior to reading it on paper.' There will never be a magic revolution wherein authors can skip the publishing houses and directly put their works up for ebooks, so stop wishing for it. I guess in 2000 that felt like a safe thing to think. In 2013, I was reading him make this declaration ON MY KINDLE. So yeah, it was a little hard to take seriously.

I was bothered not just by these types of predictions, which are in some sense understandable. But early in the book, he (a literary agent) talks about a book he got a huge, nearly million dollar advance for, praising it as an example of the kind of book he will help you learn to write. He claims that he read the manuscript and saw a clear turning point where the author was maturing and transcending his earlier work.

Looking at its sales on Amazon in 2013, it has a sales ranking of #1,000,000 (meaning one million books are placing above it) and an average review of 2 1/2 stars out of 5. The author's fans consistently said 'This isn't as good as his prior books.' Admittedly, it's a kind of old book 13 years later, but ranking at the 1,000,000 level is still bad for a professionally published book. If this is the kind of book he's going to teach us to write - hated by the author's fans as a turning point into being worse, and disappointing in sales - well...

So that was a big turnoff to me as well. Donald Maass and the book's readers both agreed this highly-touted novel was a turning point. The problem? The guy promising to teach you to write like this thought it was where the author became brilliant, and the readers thought it was where he ceased to write engaging fiction. A bit of a problem if the premise of THIS book is 'learn to write better selling, better reading fiction.'

Also, if you like successful thrillers/scifi/horror books, be prepared to be insulted throughout. The author takes for granted that his readers hate successful books with speculative elements, so when he discusses the book 'Jurassic Park,' pointing out all the ways in which its themes and characters embody the virtues he is discussing in this book (and really, he does seem to understand JP and makes a good case for it being a weightier book than it gets credit for) he follows it up with 'What's that you say? You don't like Jurassic Park? Let me talk about a different book then,' and then proceeds to discuss a book about a teenage girl being raised by a single father in a small town. Which is fine, but the unspoken implication is 'Now, since everybody reading this book hates Jurassic Park, let's see how a REAL book does this.'

I would much rather learn to write Jurassic Park than a Hallmark made for TV movie-in-print.

Still, despite the many elements which proved grating for me, this is a useful book on writing. It just seemed many times longer to me than it actually was because so much of it happened to rub me the wrong way. It wouldn't have that effect on many people, so don't be too turned off. Its good points are still worth looking into.

CONS: The track record of this guy's predictions in 2000 is laughable with the hindsight of a 2013 reading. All the books he champions that were not yet released at the time of writing did terribly. Only in his analysis of books that had already proven themselves in 2000 did he prove accurate. This kind of undermines his whole thesis in a lot of ways.

He doesn't have a healthy respect for much genre fiction, particularly horror (which he said died out in the 80's) and that can cause a lot of 'friction' between the reader and the book depending on what type of author you are.

Also, it might be a lesser point, but SPOILERS to other works ABOUND in this book. He'll happily describe the story arc to novel after entire novel, even parenthetically throwing in the content of the last page even if it doesn't matter. "Up through the very final pages, we as readers are left wondering 'Does she or doesn't she?' (She does.)" This isn't always welcome.

PROS: Has some decent, universally applicable advice. One of his best bits of advice, often repeated, is that 'many other books have been written on [insert writing topic.] Perhaps you should read those.' Maybe that's advice you can follow without bothering to plunk down $9.99 for this book.
Profile Image for Meena Fairoak.
3 reviews
May 25, 2012
As an aspiring novelist, a friend gave me this book thinking I would like it.

I didn't.

First the pros: On one hand, the book gives a few basic pointers about storytelling and the publishing industry. The book offers a few interesting extract from novels. And maybe . . . maybe, you might like this book if you were a complete newbie.

But . . .

On the other hand, the author claims to have found the "magic formula" to write a hit book. And this is where everything goes wrong. The author of this book is an agent; not a novelist.

There's no magic formula; or, as some other reviewers have already mentioned, the author would be a successful novelist himself. And he's not.

Reading this book made me cringed more than once. Repeatedly, the author sounds arrogant/pompous; and gives horrible advice as if it were the gospel of truth.

The chapter on "E-Revolution" comes to mind. Talking about e-readers, the author suggests it's a fad "they stand little chance of replacing traditional paper books," he says.

Yep, tell that to Amanda Hockings. This is so wrong, and it's almost comical to read today. This book was written in 2001, and it shows.

I found this book to be very condescending as well. There is this overarching tone in the book implying "I know better than you."

I suggest you discover instead On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. A much better volume on the craft of writing by someone who's actually qualified to talk about it; and who does it in a way that will inspire you.
Profile Image for J. Aleksandr Wootton.
Author 5 books130 followers
February 11, 2019
Maas' title is corny. It's so corny that I might never have ordered it in the first place if I hadn't won a gift certificate to Writers' Digest books. It sounds like a writing hack's how-to book; I assure you, it's anything but.

First off, Maas is a top literary agent in New York. He is also the author of quite a few pseudonymous novels (14 as of 2001, probably more now but since I don't know what his pseudonym is I can't check). He's made a successful career out of his studies on this topic, and what he's written is not so much how to write a "breakout" novel as it is "how to write a novel worth reading."

Maas knows that what drives book sales is word-of-mouth recommendations... but what inspires word-of-mouth? Read his book to see how well your book will do, and what needs to change to make it better. I can't recommend Writing the Breakout Novel highly enough to aspiring novelists.

In fact I think I'll make a habit of re-reading it every time I'm about to start working on a new novel myself.
Profile Image for Melissa Stacy.
Author 5 books196 followers
April 23, 2018
As a writers' manual on storytelling craft, this 2001 publication by author (and successful literary agent) Donald Maass, "Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level," remains one of my favorites.

I first read this book in 2004 or 2005, and came across it again this year (2018) at my library's fundraising sale. I bought a very notated, very worn hardback copy and reread it, finding as much truth in these pages as I did as an aspiring writer more than a decade ago.

I have kept track of Donald Maass over the years. I also enjoy reading his posts about writing craft on the website Writer Unboxed, where he is a frequent contributor. I would love to meet him at a writers' conference or other such literary event. He has so much wisdom and industry expertise about how and why stories work. It honestly saddens me that so many people have given this book such scathing reviews here on Goodreads. There are plenty of craft books on the market, but very few are as good as this one.

The bones of what makes a good story are all here: raising stakes, transformation, resolution. All the big plot elements are broken down into the simplest language. So are thornier subjects, like theme and voice. Donald Maass knows the market, and what readers crave from their books, and he knows how to distill that knowledge into the fewest words possible.

I have learned some uglier truths about publishing since the first time I read this book, truths Donald Maass doesn't ever mention. And I don't blame him for it -- he probably was unaware of such things, then and now.

But those truths are still there. Most people who aspire to call themselves authors come from a particular socioeconomic background, and the publishing market favors stories told from the viewpoint of that particular socioeconomic background. The market also favors stories that feature people from bad circumstances falling on hard times through their own poor choices and/or addictions, and then overcoming their internal demons rather than facing or changing external forces of oppression. White savior tales remain as popular as they ever were for a reason. So do popular tropes like the Magical Negro character, which has morphed into another popular trope of "diversity checkboxing" to soothe the sting of a modified/slightly exoticized white savior tale on an audience that claims to be progressive and #woke/aware of oppression.

Donald Maass doesn't speak to these things. But all of that hegemonic discourse exists in novels: in the stories that are chosen for publication, and certainly in the stories that become "breakout novels" that sell well in the marketplace.

Privilege does not like to be seen, or heard. Privilege definitely does not want to be changed. As a white, able-bodied, upper-middle class, neurotypical, heterosexual man, Donald Maass has found success in an industry that seeks to reward what he is and how he thinks. None of that, however, means that his wisdom about the craft of storytelling isn't useful or true. Quite the opposite. I love this book, and highly recommend it to any novelist.

But there are a great many truths I would add to these pages, if I could. For aspiring "breakout novel" authors, there are a lot of ugly things that should be taken into consideration before writing "for the market," or writing a book that might perform well in the market. Donald Maass is a member of the inner circle, so he can't speak to those things. For any aspiring "breakout" novelist who was born and raised in the same inner circle, sharing those truths would also be unnecessary. Those truths are often a birthright, inherited through the osmosis of one's upbringing. For people outside of the circle, the worldview of the publishing industry and successful novelists must be learned, as the mores and codes of conduct of any different class in society must be learned.

Donald Maass did not write an ethnography book about the publishing industry; he was simply focused on the craft of storytelling, as if writing exists in a void beyond the strictures of culture and power. That is the void that most books about writing exist in; as if stories are not the most powerful form of the hegemony, but some kind of artistic pursuit that finds success based solely on merit.

But I digress. As a book about storytelling, the information about plot, characters, setting, and other basic elements of structure presented in this book are as solid and useful now as they were when Donald Maass first published this book.

Five full stars. This is a great read.
Profile Image for Jane Stewart.
2,462 reviews838 followers
July 18, 2012
2 stars for generalities, not enough specifics. 4 stars for some good ideas that are probably found in most writing books.

“the past perfect tense and its evil facilitator, the word “had” will always rob a scene of its vital immediacy. Even though we need to learn about events that have already happened, (the author) keeps the action always in the present. It has more impact that way.” (p.143)

Maass encourages combining roles, “as in the lifelong friend who is also a doctor, or the ex-spouse who is also a tennis partner.” (p.127)

“Most of us do not for very long tolerate people who make us feel frustrated, sad, hopeless or depressed - not in life, not in books.” (p. 105)

“Every protagonist needs a torturous need, a consuming fear, an aching regret, a visible dream, a passionate longing, an inescapable ambition, an exquisite lust, an inner lack, a fatal weakness, an unavoidable obligation, an iron instinct, an irresistible plan, a noble ideal, an undying hope...whatever it is that in the end propels him beyond the boundaries that confine the rest of us and brings about fulfilling change.” (p.77)

“qualities that we ordinarily associate with greatness: vision, insight, high intelligence, leadership, accomplishment, wisdom, to name a few. If you were to construct a character that embodied all of those qualities, however, you would wind up with someone about whom it is not very interesting to read. Why? Because there is nothing left to discover, nothing unresolved, about such a paragon. Accomplishment already accomplished does not hold our attention. Striving to attain the impossible, though, is a struggle from which we cannot take our eyes. Do you watch the Olympics on TV? Who does not? Do you still care what happens to the bronze medal winner a month or two after the closing ceremony? No? Who does?” p.110)

Maass considers Jennifer Crusie’s “Tell Me Lies” a breakout novel. I gave it 1 star. At one point I was so angry I wanted to throw the book. I did not like it for two reasons. (1) heroine stupidity. The heroine did at least five stupid things. One of them was seeing a murder weapon, touching it, and putting her fingerprints on it. (2) The heroine lied too much. The lies were not interesting or entertaining. They made me dislike her.

So, what did Maass like about “Tell Me Lies?” The following which was too general and not specific enough. Maddie’s new boyfriend is an accountant. “Crusie chooses that profession for her hero not only to give him conflicting sides, but to enhance her theme of accountability...Crusie uses high moments and death...has a number of interconnected plot layers...The fun of the novel, though, lies in the middle. It is the sexual heat between Maddie and C.L., as well as Maddie’s larger-than-life outlook that brings the story to breakout level. The plot layers help. So do the many distinctive characters and their interwoven destinies.” (p. 221)

Maass’ comments? I wasn’t feeling them. I’ve read 12 Crusie books. I gave 5 stars to three of them. But this book got 1 star. I have a hard time using this book as a standard for other authors.

Maass has an exercise for the author to determine theme. Ok, so the author figures out the theme, then what? Maass doesn’t say what to do with it or why a theme is necessary. I believe Stephen King does not use themes when planning what to write because he does not plan his plots. Following is a quote from Stephen King’s book “On Writing.” “I plot as little as possible. Plotting and the spontaneity of real creation are not compatible. Situation comes first and then watch what happens as the characters try to work themselves out of it. Most of the time the outcome is something I never expected.”.

Personally, I don’t like artificial cliff-hangers at the end of scenes. Maass names some popular authors who use cliff-hangers and then says “Cliff-hangers may be clunky, but can all these authors be wrong about them? Clearly not. ..False success at the end of a scene also suggests a coming disaster. Readers are wise to certain authorial tricks. A rise is likely to precipitate a fall.” (p.193) I don’t understand those last three sentences stated together this way. Instead of clarifying, the next sentence after these is about another subject. It’s the following.

“What if you have no idea about your novel’s pacing? Do not worry. You cannot go too far wrong if your focal character is strong, your central conflict is clear and established early, and the main plotline always strides forward and is rarely more than a scene or two away. Work with solid plot fundamentals in this way and your story probably will maintain its drive of its own accord.” (p.193) These phrases sound good, but they are not specific enough.

Maass mentions a book. “What ties it together is not plot, but a powerful framework provided by a young woman’s yearning.” (p.223) My thought: How does an author know if she has a “powerful framework?”

“Breakout novelists are willing to experiment, reverse direction, throw out large chunks of manuscript, add length... in short, do whatever it takes to wrestle the many interwoven elements of a large-scale novel into shape....Breakout novels sprawl. If not long, they generally are lavish in other ways: depth of character, setting detail, theme and so on.” (p.225) How does this tell an author what they need to do? It sounds like they need an editor to tell them what to throw, add, etc.

“In contemporary stories of breakout caliber, a sense of the historical moment is also captured. What makes our time - this very moment in history - similar to or different from any other? As I am sure you can anticipate, the answer once again lies in your characters’ perceptions of these things.” (p. 88)

“Your characters live in an era, but which one? And in what stage of its life? Find the moments in the story that delineate that distinction, detail them from a prevailing point of view, and you will be on your way to enhancing your novel with a sense of the times.” (p. 91) “breakout novelists employ many approaches to setting, but all have one element in common: detail. A setting cannot live unless it is observed in its pieces and particulars. A place is the sum of its parts. The emotions that it evokes are most effective when they are specific, better still, when they are unique.” (p. 97)

Book length: 260 pages. Swearing language: none. Sexual content: none. Copyright: 2001. Genre: nonfiction, how to write.

For excellent books on the craft of writing consider the following. I gave 5 stars to both of them.
Stein on Writing: A Master Editor shares His Craft, Techniques, and Strategies by Sol Stein
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Profile Image for Kristyn.
375 reviews19 followers
August 14, 2013
There are obvious reasons why adding this title is embarrassing.

But, the book is not what you think.

Maass is a writer and agent with several decades of experience, and he uses that to explain why some books work and some don't. He analyzes both commercial and literary fiction. He's basically interested in any book that reaches a wide audience and why, regardless of its categorization.

This book worked for me because it coalesced a year's worth of reading, writing, taking apart books, and workshops on structure, novel, and plot. Maass goes over how to create compelling characters, plot and subplot, theme, etc.

Also, I'd like to address some easy misconceptions and points other reviewers have made. Maass is not discounting hard work. He's not saying a person can spit out a novel in a month. He acknowledges that novel writing requires practice and years of work. This book doesn't contain formulas, either. However, Maass does show how a successful (career) novelist must write many books. He tracks several novelist's careers and demonstrates how they build audiences usually after amassing a body of work. He argues for writing an excellent book and another and another and another and so on. So for the rare authors who are able to live off of writing, they haven't done it with the first book; they've spent years writing books before they're able to retire from their day jobs and devote themselves to full-time writing.
Profile Image for G.H. Eckel.
Author 2 books135 followers
June 24, 2019
1. The writing in this book is marvelous. By that, I mean the style is smooth, sophisticated and flowing. It makes me guess that the craft of writing must really be valued at Donald Maass's literary agency. (Yay!) 2. The level of literary knowledge is off the charts. Donald pulls in so many examples from so many novels, it'll make you dizzy.

I've read a million how-t0-write-a-novel books. Most are in the ra-ra, I-already-knew-that category. This one was more. The biggest thing I took away from this book was the importance of the main character. Certainly, high concept and flawless writing are important, but mostly we remember the character. At least, more so than the story and writing. We remember Jack Reacher, Bosch, Katnis Everdeen, and Harry Potter even more than all of the events in a novel we experienced with them.

If you read this and his other books, his premise is that writing a breakaway novel is not luck, it's a result of excellent craft. That puts the power of being a successful author squarely in the hands of the author. I don't entirely agree with the premise but it's a powerful place to start from.
Profile Image for Kari J..
Author 3 books25 followers
March 30, 2010

I’m still a few pages from being done with Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel and WOW.

For YEARS, I have been looking for what I consider the “perfect” writing book. And every time I go to a bookstore, I find yet another book on writing (or some aspect) I find to be utterly indispensible. I must have them.

I’m not going to talk about how many writing books I have. Let’s just say… A few.

However, there are only a few books I would recommend to people. A lot of the books I’ve purchased are… Well, they tend to repeat the same things over and over again. Just in different ways.

This one does not. In fact, Writing the Breakout Novel has a TON of information you don’t see in other writing books. Why? I have no idea–but this information feels more like the information I have tried to find.

This is a MUST READ for any writer–fiction or nonfiction.

Donald Maass is a literary agent–yes, one of those people we all would love to have represent us. In fact, he represents some of the big names in the industry: Robert McCammon, Anne Perry, Elizabeth Bear… You can find a list of his clients on his webpage.

And this book is a book EVERY writer needs to have on his/her shelf.

Maass takes a look at “breakout novels”–the novels that get their author’s names about–and dissects them for their unique attributes. What makes a novel great? This book tells you what this agent thinks using examples from contemporary works as well as his own years of experience reading submission after submission.

He tells us what ideas that beginning novelists like to use and then proceeds to tell us why it usually doesn’t work. He gives us alternatives to these ideas as well as showing when they actually MIGHT work and how successful authors used them.

The examples Maass uses are from many different types of novels including both genre and literary fiction. Yep, there are spoilers for the books–but we’re not really reading for pleasure, are we? I’m making a list of the books and categorizing them into books I want to read in order to study what the author has done. I probably won’t read them all, but the ones that stand out for me, I’ll be all over.

Maass has also published a workbook to compliment this book. It includes examples as well as exercises to incorporate Maass’s ideas and thoughts into your novel. I’ll be using this and The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great to work on making my current WIP better than ever. I’ll probably use it also to go back and help flesh out my NaNoWriMo novel from 2008 as well.

I’m also a graduate of Holly Lisle’s How to Think Sideways class as well as her How to Revise Your Novel class. I think Maass’s work will be a substantial source of information to help me along my journey.

I’m glad I bought this book–and I’ll be using it MUCH more than most of my others.
Profile Image for Adrian Alvarez.
489 reviews37 followers
May 12, 2011
God, this book was irritating. Every time I read a "this is how you write" book by a non-writer I swear I'll never do it again. Then I end up doing it again because someone will swear "oh this one is different." Nope. Not different. Exactly the same, actually. 260 pages of selling (in this case he's selling the phrase "breakout novel") and about 1 or 2 useful ideas. Nothing new, mind you, just useful to be reminded of them. I suppose actually reading a good novel could have reminded me of those ideas too. In fact, you know what? The time I spent reading this really annoying guy would have been much better spent reading a good novel.

Don't buy this book. If you really want to learn something about story crafting and you really, really think you can gain something more than you would from just reading and writing and sharing your work, at least read a "this is how you write" book written by a writer who's work you respect.
Profile Image for Amy  Eller Lewis.
140 reviews10 followers
September 4, 2011
I read based on Marissa Meyer's review, but was skeptical, as I am with most Books About Writing. But this is, without a doubt, one of the only writing books that gives actual *information* on writing a novel that is not obvious ("Novels are made of Scenes!"), condescending ("My advice to new writers? Don't do it.") or just so you-are-a-special-and-unique-snowflake that it turns me off. Donald Maass, a Publishing Veteran, does not think you are a special and unique snowflake. But your book needs to be. He uses concrete advice and examples (verbs in his sentences, as Dr. Phil would say) that are applicable to writing across all genres. And yet he doesn't seem to be putting across a "tried and true" formula that you can just plug in and have a bestseller. And I can't argue with his main point: "Want to be a bestselling writer? Write a better a book."

I don't recommend this for shiny, new beginners, as his tone my put you into a panic and you may feel overwhelmed. If you still need some hand holding, if you still need to be told "believe in yourself", you're not there yet. Neither would this be of much use to those writing experimental novels (but I'm not sure experimental novelists are trying to "break out"). But for those of you who are serious about writing commercial fiction, and taking your career as a writer seriously, this is a good point of reference
Profile Image for Celina.
67 reviews2 followers
May 15, 2013
I read Gardner's On Becoming A Novelist at the same time I was reading this book. No contest: Gardner's book was authoritative and inspiring. The advice given in Writing The Breakout Novel was contrived, hollow, and in some instances simply cringe-worthy in comparison. If you're an aspiring writer looking for solid, truthful instruction on how to craft a novel, stick with Gardner (or Stephen King's On Writing, or James V. Smith...there are better options). If you're curious as to what a literary agent does and looks for, then this is the book for you. This book is genuinely helpful in that regard: it peels back the curtain of how the publishing side works, which in the end, makes it easier to build into your novel the things for which agents look.
Profile Image for Roman Kurys.
Author 2 books26 followers
March 18, 2018
This was a solid book.

Once I got past the fact that the author is a pompous ass that is. His tone and attitude throughout the book made me cringe numerous times. It’s not that he was not right in stating his point, it was how he stated it that rubbed me the wrong way.

Now with that out of the way this book has a lot of good advice, especially towards the end where Maas talks about agents and gives a general insight into publishing industry. For me, the last few chapters is what made the book. Those were pure 5 stars. The rest felt like a really long sales pitch of sorts.

He gives a lot of examples from Anne Perry, who writes in a genre I’d never touch, so that made me feel a bit turned off. He seems to dislike Jurassic Park (which he singles out to point out some writing examples in one of the chapters) and genre fiction in general, especially horror. As someone who reads genre fiction almost exclusively that stance was yet another turn off.

There is also a part where he outright dismisses digital ebook way of reading. I laughed out loud at that because I was reading his book on my iPad, just like I’m writing his review on iPad as well. As a matter of fact I have ebook companions for almost every book I own because it’s just convenient. He feels ebooks are something’s g to stay away from and self publishing is a root of all evil. Everyone’s allowed an opinion, of curse, I just did not agree at all, once again.

Plenty of times I thought:”But he’s a successful NYC big time agent. How can he be wrong?” At some point I realized he is not wrong. He is just not my cup of tea. His taste, his style and his preferences all differ from my own so much, I was just having a hard time taking his rants seriously.

He might be right in the end, having seen many break out book, so maybe I just have to settle that my taste is not a break out taste.

When I write my stories, it is be for me. It’s a story, which I, myself love, first and foremost. There are a lot of gems sparkling through all the grime here, once I learned how to look for them, so all things considered, I feel 3 stars is a fair rating.

As far as recommendation goes, I suggest you skip this one and read Stephen King “On Writing” instead. You’re welcome! :)

Roman “Ragnar”
Profile Image for Chris Dietzel.
Author 26 books399 followers
February 16, 2021
As a book on writing, I much preferred On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, and others. But this one gives you insight from an agent's perspective, which can be valuable. One thing Maass repeatedly does, however, is ruin endings of various books for no reason. Even when it's not in the chapter dealing with resolution, he tells readers how various books end, so only read this if you've already read any book he discusses.

On a side note, an unfortunate aspect of this book is how amazingly incorrect much of his insight turned out. Some examples:

- Terrorist attacks in the U.S. don't make for good plots because it's too unrealistic. (9/11 happened months after this was published)
- The ebook revolution is not going to be a thing. (It was a thing and happened shortly after he wrote this)
- Financial collapse doesn't make for a good story because even if Wall St has a bad day, who really cares. (The global financial collapse happened a couple years later and created stories that inspired a ton of modern fiction).

167 reviews1 follower
April 15, 2009
This is the type of book I was looking for years ago when I started writing: no formulas or perks, just honest to goodness information on how to make your writing stand out. From plot to characterization to layering, this book covers it all with checklists at the end of each chapter to make sure you caught everything, or to refer to as you write your next novel.
Profile Image for Jenny Baker.
1,254 reviews195 followers
October 23, 2022
It's packed with helpful techniques and examples from over 50 books. There aren't any magic formulas, but you'll learn new strategies that will help you to become a better writer. It'll also teach you how to be a more insightful reader. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for R.A. Watt.
Author 1 book21 followers
March 22, 2019
Poor title and cover? Yes.

But I still thoroughly enjoyed this book on writing. I think maybe the extreme of the creative and literary community might be offended at some of the ideas he puts forth, but I thought it was a great read. It puts that touch on what you can't quite place your finger on when it comes to what sells.

Is he wanting you to win literary awards? No. And he makes no bones about it. He's one of the most successful agents in the industry...so he might actually know a thing or two about what sells. What sells big. And if you don't like that idea...then don't buy it.

Was it perfect? No, but I recommend it to new writers, struggling, or some that just can't quite 'break out'. It might help, it might not, but it can't hurt.

I also loved On Writing by Stephen King as well as Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. I feel if you are a fan of those you will get something out of this book, plus for the most part, it was a fairly entertaining read.
Profile Image for Jane.
Author 10 books805 followers
December 30, 2013
Where I got the book: purchased at a conference.

There's a lot of solid advice in Maass's book, so as books aimed at encouraging/guiding writers go, it's not all that bad. BUT hoo boy, it's looking a bit dated. When you start by telling your audience that e-readers will never take off and that the way to success is still going to look pretty much the same in ten years' time, a new edition is definitely in order.

And most of his examples seem to date from the 80s and 90s. He REALLY likes Anne Perry, who writes the foreword to the book (I guess she really likes him back) and examples of her genius abound.

My advice to any writer wondering whether to get this book is to check it out from the library. Next time I'm tempted into buying a craft book at a conference, remind me to check the publication date.
Profile Image for Mandy.
214 reviews5 followers
April 6, 2013
This was a great book. Yes, you can learn a lot by constant writing and that is important. It is also important though to continue learning through other means too. I thought this book had a lot of positive advice and points that can help you with writing a good novel. It is good to get information from people who have dealt with published authors. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is writing even if you don't follow everything written in its pages. I believe it gives you a lot to at least think about on how to improve your story and any good writer wants to be able to improve their writing.
Profile Image for Oganalp Canatan.
Author 3 books11 followers
January 8, 2018
A must read for anyone in the writing business. Not only book writing, but scenario writers for games and movies can learn a lot from the system taught as well. Maass is an industry giant, so heeding his words is not a bad practice.

That said, the book shows its age, especially when talking about self-publications and e-books. There is, after all, a thing called “Kindle” that pretty much changed the game. Certain examples like terrorism, economic problems as plot structures and themes are also terribly out of date, and somewhat inaccurate.
Profile Image for Solange.
Author 4 books39 followers
April 28, 2015
I found the organization and content of this book workable and usable. It was a very fast read, well broken out. So if I was having a problem with plot I could just go to that chapter, no funny names for things. I really recommend thins and the book "Story" which is a much denser reading for aspiring authors.
Profile Image for Dean Fox.
Author 8 books60 followers
July 5, 2020
This is the book that I find most people recommend by this author, although I found "The Fire and Fiction" and "The Emotional Craft of Fiction" to be more helpful to me personally.

One by one, I've been buying all of Donald Maass' books on writing. I find useful insights to incorporate in my own writing on virtually every page of his work.
Profile Image for Anna Staniszewski.
Author 26 books302 followers
January 14, 2010
This is one of the best craft books I've read. I loved the specific examples he used to show how to take your novel to the next level. I think I'm going to have to reread it to make sure it's all sunk in.
Profile Image for P.D. Martin.
Author 17 books137 followers
July 22, 2012
Fantastic book for all aspiring authors AND those of us already published, too :)

Was reading it while writing a first draft and I made changes to the plot and character based on some of Maass's tips!

Profile Image for Christina McDonald.
Author 9 books2,378 followers
October 15, 2019
A well-structured book on the craft of writing that will help authors take their writing to the next level. Not that it will make you a NY Times bestselling author, but it asks detailed questions that will help you re-examine your writing and re-frame your work.

A practical guide for authors at any stage.
Profile Image for Kyle.
Author 1 book4 followers
December 18, 2020
Big topics for me to focus on as I write my next manuscript. Let’s see if I can focus on some of the topics for my coming submissions to my critique group. Definitely going to be referring to this frequently!
Profile Image for Brightness.
271 reviews65 followers
August 23, 2015
Maas doesn't really say anything that isn't reiterated in countless other books on the subject of writing. He does use a lot of examples of published literature to illustrate his points and he seems to be more versed on the subject of thrillers and crime novels than any other genre of fiction.

The book itself is broken down into easy categories covered by separate chapters - Premise, Pace, Setting, Character, Subplots, Viewpoints, Themes, etc. I found some chapters to be more thought provoking than others.

It was published in 2001 and the publishing industry has changed quite a bit since then with the advent of ebooks and ease of self-publishing, not to mention the ebbs and flows of what is hot and what is not. Keep that in mind as you read.

Otherwise, Maas does have a lot of experience in the field of publishing and I think it's good to know ahead of time what will grab an agent/editor's attention and make your book a sellable work of fiction.
Profile Image for Tammie McElligott.
55 reviews12 followers
October 2, 2007
This book caught my attention because the author Donald Maass worked with James Patterson whose books I enjoy.

Like a Patterson book this writing book moves quickly and is full of fresh advice for the writer just starting out or that writer who has been published but sort of stuck in the mid-list.

Maass talks about going big and uses examples from classics and modern day bestsellers and points at what exactly worked in those novels and how to use them in your own.

Sense of time, pace, tension and larger than life characters that stay with a reader are gone over in detail.

I enjoyed his examples of modern day works and how to find a theme that would strike a cord with most readers.
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