Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

I've read agent Donald Maass's book, Writing the Breakout Novel, and thought it had some excellent advice for writers. So recently, and since I've got a new story to plot soon, I decided to order WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK, although I am not a huge fan of writing exercises per se. I'd rather use that time for writing my books. But what the heck, thinks I. Why not see if this will offer any new insights as I'm thinking about the book I'm finishing and the one I'm about to start? (And besides, if I order this with THE ROMAN by Mika Waltari, I can get free shipping.)

I have to say, this is very much a workbook. There's an introductory portion to each exercise, and this is where the real "meat" of the advice is, but it's brief. Very brief. Much of the intro/explanations are taken up with examples from published books. This is...okay...but while the original book also uses several examples, I don't remember them taking up so much of the content. To give you an example, in the workbook's chapter on Personal Stakes, the first paragraph and the last paragraph of the intro material are where the basic "how-to" is provided. All the rest of the seven and 1/3 pages is taken up by examples.

That's not to say I didn't get anything out the workbook. I did, although I haven't done any of the exercises. Two things in particular stand out.

One is the best definition of "layers" as it applies to a novel I've ever encountered. To quote: "Subplots are plot lines given to different characters; layers are plot lines given to the same character." In other words, many things should be happening to and going on within, the same character -- that's layering.

The other thing is about setting. I am not one to write a lot of description; that's one reason my stories tend to take place in one locale -- "the stranger rides into town" plot type. I worry about this all the time when I'm writing, and I'm always worried I'm not doing enough. But lo, help has arrived and it's this: think "moments in time." To quote, "...how can you capture the world of the story, and the lives of its characters, in just the right way? ...it is, in part, a matter of selecting individual moments to freeze for the reader."

Whooo, Nelly -- what a concept! Don't worry about having description hither, thither and yon. Pick a few key places and use them as "moments in time" to evoke the setting and time period.

But that's not all -- Maass says you should also "isolate its emotional details from all other moments." How is that character feeling right then, and how is it different from what he or she has felt before or elsewhere?

Now there's something to chew on.

All in all, I would say if you're only going to buy one Donald Maass's books, go for WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. You can work on your writing based on that alone. I'd recommend the workbook if you like writing exercises, or are stuck with the work-in-progress. Some of those exercises could probably help you "jump start" your writing.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to find a few moments in time...


Kimber said...

You know I never really noticed that you don't write a lot of description.

One of these days (when I'm not spending my days doing silly things like figuring out what my $ entry point should be on the lululemon IPO action), I'd pick apart how your novels appear lush in setting with such minimalistic description.

Til then...
Please don't clog the pipes when the sinks draining perfectly fine.

Margaret Moore said...

Really, Kimber? I thought I never had enough. Just goes to show we can be our own worst critic, eh?

Good luck with the IPO!

Michelle Styles said...

I love and adore the workbook. I have read both.
It is a fantastic resource when I am editting or revising my book.
Normally I can't do writing exercises, but I can use his ideas. It works for me.
My favourite exercise is upping the tension on every page one.It is the one I do at the very end before I send my ms off to my editor.
The other one I really liked was the different endings one. How can I make it so alternative endings are not acceptable? Equally how can I make so the characters do fail.
I love the freezing moments in time.
But with anything, it is what you do with the book that counts, rather than the actual words.

CherylStJ said...

However -- get ready to throw tomatoes -- notice that he's not writing fiction that will sell a million copies, he telling *us* how to do it....