Daily Archives: January 29, 2012

The Breakout

Don’t worry, gentle viewers. I don’t mean acne.

I thought about including a picture here, but I thought I would spare you the imagery of that. Most of us have lived through it.

I just finished reading Donald Maass’s book, Writing the Breakout Novel. If you are a writer who wants to hone your craft, do yourself a favor and go pick it up. Since Sunday is my writing blog day (Suuuundaaaaay, My Prints Will Coooome…), I thought it might be nice to take you for a little tour of Don’s book as well as sprinkle a few other breadcrumbs for you to find other books like it that will catapult your writing (and querying) to the next level.

I picked up this book at the recommendation of Kristen Lamb. Her blog often contains invaluable resources for writers, as well as a batch of humor and blowfish. (Don’t Eat the Butt.) I also got to see Don speak last weekend in New York, and as his session ended, I glowed like a little Glow Worm (even wriggled a little), because he gave me some of the best news I’ve had in a while about writing.

Somehow they made worms cute. This one looks like it's about to ask you to tango.

You know what he said? He said that 21st century readers want books with engaging, gripping plots driven by fully-realized, multidimensional characters. I write genre fiction. I love genre fiction. I think that it has a lot of merit for a myriad of reasons. If you write literary and hate genre, fine — I have a safe-haven for all the genre writers right here.

That said, it’s been literary books topping and dominating the bestseller lists lately. I’m talking months and months at a time — Water for Elephants, The Lovely Bonesbooks like that. Fantasy has jumped up there. The theme of the aughties (2000-2010) was breaking the rules. The rules for most of the tail end of the 20th century were: thrillers, romance, and suspense. Those are the books that stuck up there. That’s all changing. Blame the recession.

So how do you write a book with an exciting plot and engrossing characters? Read Don Maass’s book. You’re welcome. In all seriousness, here’s a teaser.

Think of a big impact scene in your book.

What is your protagonist feeling? What is her primary emotion? Write it down.

Is that emotion one of the Biggies? Fear? Guilt? Shame? Anger? Joy? Cross it out.

Think of about five or six secondary emotions your character might be feeling. Write them down.

Anxiety? Resentment? Frustration? Confidence? Bluster? What if your character is feeling shamed and frustrated? Guilty but confident? Afraid and blustery? Do you see how adding a secondary emotion adds dimension and focus to what is going on inside your character’s mind? Do you see where you can plunk something like that in your novel? Do it. I guarantee it will make your character more sympathetic and the scene deeper.

The face of publishing is changing quickly. How writers manage their careers has evolved as well — as has the way new writers break into publishing. If you’re like me and have the goal “book on shelf,” you probably still want to go the traditional route.

Move over, Scott! All your shelf are belong to me!

Starting the querying process is a bit daunting. I’m trying to decide if I want to frame my rejections or pop them on a railroad spike like Stephen King. Or Mod-Podge them into a collage. Decisions, decisions. The good news is, I feel sort of prepared for the process. It’s the satisfaction of knowing my homework is done when the teacher calls on me. The satisfaction of knowing not to write my query letter like this:

Catherine Agent
Non-Fiction Only Agency
345 New York Ave
New York, NY 10011

Dear Mr. Agent,

Are you looking to represent the next Stephen King? Well, look no further! My fiction novel blows The Shining out of the water and will rocket to the top of the bestseller lists. You better call Paramount right now and keep them in the loop, because they won’t want to miss out on making my fiction novel into a blockbuster thriller!

I can’t tell you about my book, because you’ll steal my idea. But it’s good. So good you’ll stay up all night reading it after it’s published. Make sure you send the advance to the right address — no less than seven figures!

Congratulations on finding me!

Your humble servant,

Jackass McAsserson

enc. NOTHING! You’ll steal it if I enclose anything!


Thaaaaaat’ll work.

As exaggerated and absurd as that letter is, I have this withering little feeling that any agents who trip and fall onto this blog post might facepalm themselves right into a headdesk because it triggers some sort of post-trauma they acquired reading queries exactly like that.

Advice to other writers: don’t do that. That = bad.


Whether you think your novel has breakout caliber (again, not acne) or think it will punt every current bestseller into oblivion is moot. And saying anything like that to agents is enough to have them position your query on a friendly patch of grass and punt it into oblivion.

Without further ado, here are some books that you should make your bible:

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell

On Writing by Stephen King

Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Page Morrell

We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, by Kristen Lamb

And the Holy Grail of all who quest for an agent:

How to Get a Literary Agent by Michael Larsen

A note about that last book — I first bought it because the first review on Amazon said something like this:

I queried agents for about eight months with no success before buying this book. I took the next six months to implement everything Larsen suggests. The next query I sent out got me my agent.

I believe it. Not only does the book explain in detail what agents look for, their thought processes, and their day-to-day activities, but it goes into some overviews of the publishing business that are pure gold. Do yourself a favor and read this book. I’ve read it three times, and I’m probably going to give it another go today.

What resources are your favorite go-to manuals? What querying mistakes have you made? 

%d bloggers like this: