A How-To for Increasing Book Sales?
I’m probably not the target audience for Donald Maass‘ Writing the Breakout Novel. Sure, there might be tips here that are helpful for the beginning writer, but this is probably more for midlist authors stuck in a rut. And frankly, how many midlist authors are there anyway? A lot, you might say. Well, even if there were ten thousand midlist authors, this would still make for a fairly niche how-to book.
Most writing how-to books are written by writers. What made me pick this book up was that this one was written by an agent. Writers always emphasize the “craft” and on writing a story that you want to tell. An agent on the other hand, well, I was expecting Maass to concentrate on what was saleable from his perspective rather than the ephemeral fantasies flitting about in the head of a would-be novelist. Instead, he basically states that it’s a crapshoot. Agents and publishers don’t really know what will sell, he says, because the breakout novel will have its origins from the word of mouth. And to start that word of mouth, a writer has to write to the best of his ability.
However, that doesn’t prevent Maass from spewing out a formula disguised as tips to good storytelling. So exactly what is Maass’ idea of the anatomy of a breakout novel? Well first, you’ve got to have some sort of “high concept”, a provocative premise that will make people sit up and take notice. Secondly, stakes must be involved. No lulls allowed! There must be tension throughout the whole book! Then of course, there’s believable world building, larger-than-life characters to populate the dramatis personae, plot with non-stop conflict, and then some sort of theme to tie all this together.
Whew. That sounds busy. It makes one want to read something not so action-packed and emotionally thrilling–like the thesaurus. Most of the excerpts from representative breakout novels didn’t strike me as interesting either. Where the heck are all the excitement he’s been expounding about? If they were indicative of those novels as a whole, then I’m really mystified about why some novels break out and others that are more well written aren’t. (Or maybe it’s just an indication that my literary tastes aren’t mainstream.) I don’t really know what to make of Maass’ advice. Maybe it’ll help some people, maybe it won’t. But at least he does make his annoyance with authors who “phone it in” clear.