Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed . ~ 2 Timothy 2:15

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Writing the Breakout Novel

When I first decided to try my hand at writing a novel, I was at the St. Davids Christian Writers Conference. The year was 2005.* Although writing fiction had been a lifelong dream, I'd been afraid of stepping out of my comfort zone and that I didn't have what it takes (mostly the latter). Well, you don't know unless you try, right? So I asked for recommendations for some good how-to-write-a-novel books. I was at a writers conference--the best place to be to ask and receive good, solid writing advice.

Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel was highly recommended, so as soon as I got home, I ordered it online, along with the accompanying workbook. The person who recommended it to me preferred the workbook, but I read the book first--and loved it. It's one of those books you highlight, underline, scribble in, and use up a whole packet of sticky notes to make it easier to get to the pages that have material you want to remember.

Now, you don't have to purchase and read and pore over and study and memorize every how-to-write book there is. You just have to find one that inspires you and teaches you--one that you absorb like a sponge. How to Write the Breakout Novel promises to help you "take your fiction to the next level." It did for me. Considering I started at level zero--all I had was a desire and an idea. Today I have two completed (not-yet-published) novels, and ideas--solid ideas--for two historical trilogies and a contemporary stand alone. I'll be delving into Maass's book and workbook again.

Maass writes in a straightforward style that gets straight to the point. He uses lots of examples to show you what he means (show-don't-tell), and he challenges you to take these concepts and apply them to your work-in-progress.

The book contains 11 chapters, plus an introduction. He deals with story premise, stakes, time and place, characters, plot, contemporary plot techniques, multiple viewpoints, subplots, pace, voice, endings, advanced plot structures, and theme. The final chapter is appropriately titled, "Breaking Out." Everything you need to know about writing a novel in one, 264-page book.

From the back cover:
Maass details the elements that all breakout novels share--regardless of genre--then shows you writing techniques that can make your books stand out and succeed in a crowded marketplace. You'll learn to:
  • establish a powerful and sweeping sense of time and place
  • weave subplots into the main action for a complex, engrossing story
  • create larger-than-life characters that step right off the page
  • explore universal themes that will interest a broad audience of readers
  • sustain a high degree of narrative tension from start to finish
  • develop an inspired premise that sets your novel apart from the competition
OK, you say, this is all written to get you to buy the book. True, but consider this: my first novel went to committee at four publishing houses--before I'd gotten an agent. And you know how hard it is these days just to get an agent. Sure, I got a lot of "nos"--that's par for the writing course. But for a first novel, it has a good track record. And it opened the door for my second novel: An editor from a major Christian publishing house who liked the first novel is working with me on the second.

The workbook is divided into three sections: Character Development, Plot Development, and General Story Techniques. Appendix A helps you to outline your novel, and Appendix B is a follow-up work checklist. use the workbook after you've written your first draft. (Read the book before you write the first draft.)

Investing in books to build your professional library is as vital to your writing as watering, feeding, and cultivating your garden. Writing the Breakout Novel and the accompanying workbook are two you definitely want in your library. 

*Click here to find out what else happened at that conference by reading my friend and fellow Novel Bud Melanie's Rigney's blog on her new website. And while you're there, do explore her new site. It's soooo Melanie!