Daily Smatterings

Books on Craft – Writing the Breakout Novel


Why I suggested Writing the Breakout Novel to my writing group.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass was written in the year 2000, when the number of titles published by traditional publishers per year was much lower than now. The author states in chapter one that over 55,000 titles were published the previous year (1999).

Fifty-five thousand? Boy how times have changed! That doesn’t seem like much to us today.

Indeed, the book industry has seen explosive growth over the past fifteen years. Para Publishing, in their report, “Book Industry Statistics“, cites an article by R.R. Bowker in Publishers Weekly in 2003 as reporting that the total number of titles published in the U.S. 2002 was 150,000.

In 2013, the total number of ISBNs for U.S. self-publishers that year, in print and ebooks combined, was 458,564. Total print books were 302,622, total ebooks were 155,942.

The total production of print books by traditional publishers in the U.S. in 2013 was 304,912 (Source: Bowker’s Self-Publishing Report 2013).

Of course, we’ve all probably seen Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings Report in which he breaks down the percentage of book sales from all publishing types (indie, small or medium publisher, Amazon, Big Five, uncategorized single-author publisher). When I first read it, I was amazed to see that traditionally published books only accounted for about 42% of daily unit sales of genre fiction ebooks.

So what does all that data have to do with writing a “breakout novel”?

The single most important fact we can get from this data is that there are over three quarters of a million new books going out onto the U.S. market alone every year as of right now; and, almost as important, traditionally published books account for a little less than half of those books sold. That means that we indie genre fiction authors have some pretty steep competition! If you’re following the math, it means that we have fourteen times the competition that authors had in the year 1999. Nowadays, not only do we have to compete with traditionally published titles, which have been somewhat “vetted” by agents and editors who supposedly weed out the bad books, but we also have to rise above the mishmosh indie pub slush-pile in order to be discovered by readers.

Bottom line–we need to write very good stories in order to get noticed.

How do we do that? We hone our craft. We write deeper, stronger, and more memorable novels, to paraphrase Maass. We deepen characters, add layers to plot, add conflict to every page, and intensify our themes. This book gives us a guide as to how to do that. No matter how much success we achieve in the end, I think this book will help us learn to craft even better stories.

And there’s the off-chance that it may actually help us write “breakout” stories. I’m willing to take a chance on that.

I liked this particular book for a few reasons.

First, its author is a literary agent with two and a half decades of experience in the book publishing industry at time of writing. He has been personally involved in the development of many books which otherwise would have been mediocre at best, but went on to attain “breakout” status. He knows what works, what qualities are necessary in order to make a book stand out from the crowd.

Second, I liked his straightforward writing style. He is informational and engaging. His examples are relevant and clearly illustrate his point.

Third, I liked his exercises. I believe they have been selected for their immediate usefulness to a writer. I also feel that they are useful to writers of all skill and experience levels, and immediately applicable and implementable.

Do I feel that the entire book is valuable? The answer to that is  “yes, maybe.” The first chapter was written in 2000 and is completely outdated. In fact, some of his predictions about the future of the publishing industry were patently wrong and are highly laughable now, 15 years after publication. Yet even that chapter is instructive to us from the standpoint of giving us information about the elitist attitudes of traditional publishing. Know thy enemy, so to speak.

I highly recommend Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and I am happy to be reading it in a workshop group. I am confident that all writers can gain something useful from reading it and grow their craft as a result.



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