Book Review AND Contest: Writing the Breakout Novel

This week, I’ve been reading Donald Maass’ book Writing the Breakout NovelI just finished skimming through the last few chapters, which provide a sort of overview about some specific plot styles, theme, and a bit about publishing.  Since I’m getting ready to dig into plotting a first draft of my WIP, I was more interested in the material about crafting and writing that draft.

And I got plenty of that in the last few days.  True confession time: I tried to read Maass’ book a couple of years ago, and it just didn’t get me. I was actually annoyed by what I thought he was saying, and frustrated with his perspective that his was the absolutely right way to do things.

When I picked up the book last week, to try again, I felt like someone had substitutedcompletely new, different pages. This time around, I was slapping myself on the forehead, shouting “Duh!” and agreeing with everything Maass says.

I’m pretty sure that, last time, it was me, not the book–where I was with my writing and the project I was working on.

This next book that I’m starting has the potential for all the things Maasstalks about: plausibility, inherent conflict, originality, and gut emotional appeal. It’s the potential part, though, that I’m welcoming Maass’ help with. Because, in the book, he talks not only about how important all these element are, but HOW you can get them into your story. He hands out questions to ask about our books, what to do when we don’t find the answers we want (or any answers at all!), and techniques for basically deepening every piece of your story.

Maass talks about characters and tension and subplots–all the things that, when done well enough, give your story the layers it needs to catch the reader and keep them hooked–to the very end. He shows you why NOT pushing yourself doesn’t work, not for this particular story or for your writing skills.

When I first dipped into this book, I thought Maass’ angle was all on the selling success of the book. Again–what was I reading? He emphasizes over and over again how his advice and information are about the craft, and he’s right. Yes, he thinks following this advice will give a writer more chance of “breaking out,” whether that means selling more copies of a book than ever before, hitting the NY Times bestseller list, or simply succeeding in making an agent love your project. He doesn’t make any guarantees, though, and he wants us to try his techniques because we love writing and because we want to be better at it.

He’s got me pegged.

How about you? I haven’t run a contest yet at this blog, and today seems the place to start.  It’s Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, a time for giving and support. And tomorrow the whole country starts off in a new direction, on a strong, hopeful path. I want to celebrate.

So…leave me a comment about this post, between now and end-of-day Monday, January 26th. I’ll draw a name on Tuesday, and the winner will get their choice–a copy of Writing the Breakout Novel OR Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, also by Maass. I’ll be buying my own copy this week! 🙂


  1. What a great reminder–I’m going to go look at some of the writing books I first dipped into years ago and see if they’ve magically changed. Or if I have. Cheers!


  2. beckylevine says:

    Hey, Martha–good idea! It’s good to know we can still “grow,” but its weird to sew how much! 🙂


  3. Hi Becky,

    I read “The Breakout Novel” about a year ago and loved it. I borrowed my copy from the library and you just reminded me that I haven’t bought my own copy yet. I’m still learning about the craft of fiction so you can’t take my comments too seriously. One thing that sticks out in my mind is that I read Donald’s book after I played with a little writing and after I read a couple of other simple books on writing fiction.

    Another book that I found helpful as a newbie was “The Novel Writer’s Toolkit,” by Bob Mayer. I think it’s out of print, but I have a copy and it’s well worth buying used because Bob does a great job of pointing out and clarifying many key steps for writing fiction.


  4. beckylevine says:

    Hey, Kim–well, don’t buy it yet! You might win. 🙂 I’ve seen the Toolkit book, but haven’t read it–I’ll have to take a look. Thanks!


  5. Terri Thayer says:

    You know I have more than my fair share of writing books, but I do find this one the most useful. The Workbook is full of great exercises. Not writing exercises; I’m allergic to those. But real ways to give your manuscript a boost. This book is the best combination of real world practicality infused with reminders that writing is about passion. And the very best writing is magical.


  6. beckylevine says:

    I think I’m picking up the Workbook tomorrow (I have a coupon!). My plan, which horrifies me at one level, is to hand the workbook to husband, who will take it out to the BANDSAW and give me back separate pages, which I can stick into a binder and ADD TO!

    I think Maass just so knows what he’s talking about–I should have talked some sense into myself the last time I tried to read it!

    Yes, my jealousy level increases about you going to the workshop. But, you know, in that supportive, enthusiastic jealousy kind of way. How big a suitcase are you taking? 🙂


  7. PJ Hoover says:

    Oooh, I’m tempted to run out and buy it right now!
    I totally get what you mean about feeling like it’s an entirely different book than what you read before. I just re-read Self-Editing for fiction writers and was awed by how much more it hit home this time around.
    Great post!


  8. nastassja mills says:

    It’s funny how we can be completely convinced of our attitude or opinion about something and then years later see it through a whole new lens. And yet it feels like you both times. Maybe growing is a process of awakening; a continual revisiting of things we think we’ve seen before. Great blog!


  9. beckylevine says:

    PJ–be patient. You might win! I’m going to have to take another look at Self-Editing–I remember reading that years ago, and it’s still on my shelf.


  10. beckylevine says:

    Natassja–It’s good to see that my writing (or understanding, anyway) has progressed. Wouldn’t it be nice to get there faster, though?! 🙂


  11. Vivian says:

    I keep hearing good things about these books. Right now I’m re-reading a couple of plotting books — Plot & Structure and Blockbuster Plots.

    Glad you like the book!


  12. Lizanne says:

    “When the student is ready – the teacher will come.” — Wayne Dyer [ who was probably quoting somebody else ]

    You weren’t ‘ready’ the first time you read the book =)

    BTW Nice blog over here =)


  13. beckylevine says:

    Vivian–I love both those books. I actually critique with Martha Alderson–I can’t wait to tell her you’re RE-reading her book. 🙂


  14. beckylevine says:

    Lizanne–you’re right. I needed to be ready. Thanks for coming over to this blog!


  15. Cool. I ordered a copy of the book but if I win, I’d love the workbook.


  16. Andra M. says:

    Contest? Did someone say contest?

    Heck even without the possibility of winning a copy, you sold me on it.

    It is funny how a book doesn’t do anything for you one day, but swallows you up the next.

    I should revisit some of my writing books that didn’t seem helpful at the time. Thanks for the idea.


  17. beckylevine says:

    Liza Lee–Yeah, I thought some people might already have the book. I’m off to get my workbook today. Good luck!


  18. beckylevine says:

    Andra–I don’t usually keep books that don’t work for me, but this one has such a reputation (and I didn’t get very far in the first time!) that I still had it. VERY happy! 🙂


  19. Shawna says:

    I have to agree with a prior post, regardless of whether I win, I’m buying that book. You sold it. I know when I first began this journey, I assumed writing was a talent. It is, but it’s also a craft. Here’s to honing that craft!


  20. Sherrie says:

    I haven’t read the book, so I’d love to win it from you. And I keep hearing about that Self-Editing book. I’m going to have to buy and read both of them since they come so highly recommended!


  21. STurner says:

    Thanks for the tip.

    I am always looking for new (good) references.


  22. beckylevine says:

    Hey, Sherrie–Good luck on the contest! I need to put the Self-Editing book back on my to-read list, too.


  23. beckylevine says:

    STurner–I hope you like it. Thanks for stopping by.


  24. beckylevine says:

    Shawna–it IS a craft. There’s a muse in there somewhere, and hard work, and definitely luck–but it is something we can learn about and work to improve. Thank goodness!


  25. Diane Kisich Davis says:

    Sounds like something I should check out. Thanks for writing about it! –Diane


  26. beckylevine says:

    Hey, Diane–

    Thanks for stopping by! It’s a good book. It’s got some pretty direct questions that I think we can all ask ourselves as we write, even if we don’t always have instant answers. 🙂


  27. free2cr8 says:

    Great post Becky and thanks for running this contest. Maass’ book sounds like a must-have especially since I’m working on my first novel. As far as the self-editing book I have it and read it last year (way before before I started to write this book). It’s great and packed with helpful tidbits. Hey, I think it’s time for me to reread it!


  28. beckylevine says:


    Glad you liked the post. I think Maass’ has some very helpful stuff! So many books, though, to read AND reread! Hopefully, this one will be a good one for you. 🙂


  29. Mary Beth says:

    Since signing up for this website last December I have seen your face a lot on the blogs. I guess I want to say thanks for being here and writing. I haven’t got either of these books. I do have quite a stack of writing books and magazines though and enjoy…as you say.., “dipping” into them often.


  30. beckylevine says:

    Mary Beth,

    That’s so nice–I’m really glad you like the blog. I worry sometimes that I show up TOO often, but I think people want to come back to a blog & have something new…At least I HOPE that’s true. 🙂

    Good luck on the contest! And with your writing.


  31. Hi Becky,

    Great contest! I haven’t read that book. I got a writing book for Christmas (name escapes me now) and haven’t read that yet. I look forward to some down time when I’m done meeting deadlines so I can spend time focused on reading about the craft.


  32. beckylevine says:


    I tend to not get enough of these books read, but wanting to review them here is giving me a nice excuse. Plus, I’m just digging into a new project, so it seemed like a good time! 🙂


  33. serenityjknutson says:

    Well, it’s too bad I did not see this earlier in the week. Your contest sounds like fun! Do you suppose people in other professions read as much on their craft as we writers do? If only I could get myself to spend as much time writing as I do reading about writing…



  34. beckylevine says:

    Serenity–you’re not too late. You’re officially entered! Glad to contribute to the reading about writing habit!


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