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? 


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on January 29, 2012, in Sunday My Prints Will Come, Writer's Digest Conference 2012, writing business and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the book referral! I’ve been trying to get an agent for, well, ever. Haha thanks again!

  2. Thanks for the book referrals, Emmie! Great post, as always.

  3. I loved, loved, loved Breakout Novel. Definitely one I’ll go to again and again. I love Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering too.

  4. I want to read your book already. Thanks for the top advice, I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed here so it’s good to have someone shine a light on where to start.
    Ps Love vampires!!!!! And I’m a therapist so I am your target audience, I believe!

    • Hahahaha, perfect!

      I definitely recommend Michael Larsen’s book. If you’re just getting started, I also recommend getting a copy of the Guide to Literary Agents that Writer’s Digest puts out every year. It’s a good reference to have on hand — still use other media to research the agents you want to query, but it’s a great starting point.

  5. Yes, Breakout Novel was incredible. I definitely thought through some things I hadn’t before. Excellent choices on the Must Read list!! Need to go look for that agent book!

  6. Thanks! And how wonderful you found your agent after reading this book.

    What MS of yours is your agent sending out? (Sorry if you’ve already explained this.)

    • I don’t actually have an agent yet, but I’m querying. 🙂

      What I’m working on is an adult urban fantasy trilogy — the first two are done and the third is almost there.

      • Woops, I misread this, “The next query I sent out got me my agent.”

        Querying is a nerve-racking thing (hoping you are good enough for an agent to pick you above the other masses that are disregarded).

        Good luck and let me know if you ever want to guest post on my blog. 😀

      • I would love to guest post! You can contact me at emmiemears (at) gmail (dot) com if you want, and we can chat about topics. Would you be interested in doing a guest post for mine?

  7. Oh yummy, I really do love great recommendations from other writers who have weeded through the mire of writing books and pulled out the gems. I love all things Donald Maass. (And how cool that you saw him speak. Alas…someday.) On Writing, by Stephen King is one of my absolute favorites, as well. And of course, our girl Kristen Lamb! Have you read her two books? I’m right now reading “Are you there Blog, It’s me Writer”, and next will read “We are Not Alone, The Writers Guide to Social Media,” I’m just about finished with the first and it is excellent!

  8. Trish Loye Elliott

    Great post, Emmie!! I too am at the querying stage. Thanks for the book recommendation. I will definitely look it. I would definitely recommend Save The Cat! for story structure. It’s a screenwriting book but absolutely brilliant.

  9. This is a great list. Thank you.

  10. I loved Writing the Breakout Novel. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is another excellent resource. Love love love anything James Scott Bell writes.

  11. Great post! I completely agree with all of your book recommendations. I have all of them except the last one – will definitely look into it. I agree with Kourtney above that Noah Lukeman’s books are gems, too. I also adored Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott.

  12. Don Maass’s Breakout Novel books are great. I have the companion workbook too–I used it to help plot out my current novel. Another great resource is Jim Butcher’s blog (author of the Dresden Files).

    He doesn’t post on it much, but he lays out exactly how he looks at story and plotting and what it takes to put together great fiction that’ll also sell well.

    • Awesome! Thanks!

      Yeah, I have been using the book (along with Plot and Structure) in my revisions. Oddly enough, my novel fit into the mythic structure pretty well, but I think Act 1 is too long. I’m going to do some more cutting and see where it takes me.

  13. Great recommendations. I am also in the early stage of querying and feeling anxious about sending a query out unless I know a lot about an agent. More out doesn’t mean more positive response. I will read the Larsen book.

    Btw, I write literary fiction but I don’t look down on genre fiction at all. I admit that I mostly read literary but when I do read a mystery or romance or fantasy book, I’m often impressed by the writing and engaged by the plot. I look forward to getting a chance to read yours as soon as that ideal agent and publisher (for your books) come through.

    • Thanks!

      I think the main thing in any type of fiction writing is to keep things engaging and well-written regardless of the audience you’re writing for. I strive to do that, and I hope I succeed. 🙂

      I know a lot of people who write literary don’t look down on genre fiction…but some do, and it makes me sad. 😦 I belonged to a writing group once where all of us who wrote genre got ripped to shreds every time we shared anything — ended up splitting off and starting our own party where we could nurse our wounds, haha.

  14. This is a wonderful, information packed post. I’ve added your suggestions to my (far-too-long) reading list. Thanks.

  15. Loved this post Emmie. Very informative and I will be adding some new books to my list now. Thank you. I’m in the midst of writing the third book in my trilogy. But I think it might be time to take a step back and get heavy with the edits in the first book. Really get it ready to go. I’ve been letting the first two books sit while I’ve continued to write forward.

  16. Excellent list, Emmie. On Writing is one of my favourites. I’m way behind in catching up with blogs … gotta dash to your next one! Good luck with the queries and we will all be waiting for updates.

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