I have looked at many writing books. Normally, I do not find them to be helpful. The majority of them seem to be: “I found it useful to write this way, so you should to” books. All fine and good if you happen to write the same way as that author, but writers approach their work in many different ways. If that author’s style is not yours, such books are really not much use. (They can even be damaging, if you try to replace your natural way of writing with someone else’s style that does not work for you.)
There is a second group of writing books I have found useful. These are books written by someone who has dealt with quite a number of writers – someone who has had plenty of time to discover that what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the next person, such as a teacher or an agent These books can be quite useful, because the author knows what kinds of things are specific to some and what are general to all writers.
(Example: some people do well with outlines. Other people cannot produce a good story if they use an outline. But everyone needs a plot and readable grammar. A good writing instructor knows the difference between these things.)
Interestingly, what this means is that successful authors do not necessarily produce good writing books. Teaching writing is a different skill from entertaining the reader.
By far and away, the best writing book I have ever come across is Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and its accompanying Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.
Donald Maass is an agent. He handles all sorts of books including genre books. He is a presence in the fantasy and science fiction community, a fan as well as a professional.
Maass reads thousands of manuscripts a year. Some are horrible. Some are really good. From among this enormous pile, he has to pick the ones he wishes to represent. Then, he gets to see whether his picks were good – which books go on to become successful and which founder.
The phenomenon of breakout novels intrigued him. A novel is considered to have ‘broken out’ if it sell significantly more copies than expected. This includes a bestseller that comes out of nowhere and a book that was expected to sell five thousand that suddenly sells twenty thousand. Twenty thousand copies is hardly a blockbuster, but it is significantly more sales than five thousand. (“Expected” here usually means that the same authors previous books sold five thousand.)
Maass’s question was: are these breakout books better than other books? Or is it just chance?
He set himself the task of reading 100 breakout novels. The result of his inquire was: yes, he felt the books were better. The novels had better plotting or better characters or something else – or all these things! – that helped this story stand out from the crowd.
Maass then analyzed what he felt made these books better. He organized his observations into a book. He does not tell the reader “do it this way” and “don’t do that” the way most writing manuals do. He just says, “this is what works, and this is a few possible ways you could make use of this observation.”
The result is a wonderful, wonderful book that divides the novel-writing process into some important components: plot, character, stakes, etc. I have found work, both the initial book and the accompanying workbook, which includes exercises, unbelievably helpful. While no book can make your novel into a bestseller, I can say with certainty that my writing is much better because of these books than it would have been!
Whenever I get stuck, I open Maass’s books and page through them. Always, some exercise or piece of advice leaps out at me that perfectly meets the current need of my story, whether its advice on how to increase the stakes of what is going on or an exercise that examines the characters internal reactions in relation to time. His insights cannot tell me what to write, but they give me new insights into how to put my story across, how to heighten the drama or action or pathos, how to bring out character or theme – all sorts of wonderful stuff!
In addition to the books, Maass teaches a Breakout Novel Writing Workshop. I took one such workshop, and I loved it! I recommend it to anyone who might have a chance to take advantage of it. But, overall, I don’t feel that the workshop is as valuable as the books, because the books are always there, always ready to offer that bit of useful insight. The workshop was more geared toward helping improve the particular WIP one had on hand.
This is the end of Part One. Next week, in Part Two, I’ll discuss what Maass actually says and describe my favorite workbook exercise.