Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

You may be wondering why I am reviewing the supplement to Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass instead of the actual book.  I'll tell you why.  Because it's awesome.  Writing the Breakout Novel is great too but if your book buying budget is limited, just buy the workbook.  There is no subsitute for learning a concept and then immediately putting it into practice with your own manuscript.

Here are some of Maass's lessons that stuck with me most:
  • Your characters aren't allowed to drink tea,  take showers, or drive cars. 
Okay, not exactly.  Here it is as explained by Maass, "...cut scenes set in kitchens or living rooms or cars driving from one place to another, or that involve drinking tea or coffee or taking showers or baths..."  He goes on to say that this particular exercise always prompts the most debate in his workshop.  That's not surprising.  It sounds ridiculous.  Maass is not being literal, you can have these things in your book, but there better be a darn good reason.  His point is that inexperienced authors often feel the need to give readers a play by play of what their characters do.  If your character is at home in one scene decides to go to the park the next day, it is okay for your next scene to start at the park.  We assume the character woke up, ate breakfast, and drove their car to the park.  You don't have to tell us.

What I love about this lesson is that is seems so crazy, you will definitely remember it.  Now everytime I read a book I notice these things.  Do you have any idea how often they drink tea in Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches?  It's a great book, but there is really a lot of tea drinking.  Don't get me started on the wine.  That leads me to the unpublished author's cardinal rule - Brilliant, bestselling authors can get away with things you can't.  Just accept it and move on.

  • Have your characters act out of character.
Maass instructs the reader to think of the one thing your character would never do and then find a place in the story for them to do exactly that.  I love that one.  It's so insane it's genius.

  • Tension on every page.
That one doesn't need too much explation.  It's simple and easy to remember.  I often find myself spot checking pages for tension.  Of course, Maass suggests checking every page for tension.

  • Put your characters in such perilous situations that success seems unlikely or even impossible.
After reading this one, I started to notice this everywhere in popular books, film, and even television.  My favorite example is Harry Potter.  Take the climax of book 4, Harry, a fourteen year old without any special talent is stranded alone in a graveyard with the most powerful dark wizard in history and an army of his followers.  Voldemort wants him dead.  Would Harry get out of that alive?  Absolutely not.

If I could ask Maass one follow up question it would be this.  Okay, so I've raised stakes, added complications, and put my character in an impossible situation they can't possibly get out of. do I get them out?  Assuming you want your story to be a little bit more upbeat than a Greek tragedy, you have to find a way to uncomplicate your complications in a plausible way.

Of course, plausbility is subjective.  Back to my Harry Potter example.  How did he get out?  Well, his wand and Voldemort's wand had twin cores and when they try to duel with them they just connect with a stream of light and all the people Voldemort has killed tumble out and help Harry.  Now is that not the most ridiculous thing you've ever heard?  Don't get me wrong, I love the Harry Potter series, probably more than a grown woman should, but it does sound crazy.  Yet when I first read it, I didn't throw it the book down and say, "That could never happen!", I stayed glued to every word.  Why?  Well, in my opinion it worked for three reasons:

  1. J.K. Rowling created such a believable and living world.  She had been teaching us about magic with authority for four novels, so we trusted her.
  2. She set it up beforehand.  Earlier in the book, she established the twin cores.  This is critical for any ending that borders on unbelievable.  Ease the reader in with subtle clues. 
  3. See cardinal rule above.  ;)
In conclusion, read Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass immediately.  And if you have any more advice about how to resolve the terrible situations you put your characters in, please share!!


  1. Sharon, I'm sold! I told myself not to buy any more writing books, but I think I will now! The points you/he made are great. Thanks for the post :)

  2. Thanks Gwen! I'm glad you enjoyed it. By the way, I just read your blog. I love the running and writing combo! I am a runner too. I've done a few marathons and am training for a half in January. Good luck in San Diego!