From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think science fiction and fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the SF/fantasy author, so worth looking for.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001)

In the fall of 2007 I travelled to New York on behalf of Wizards of the Coast to conduct what they call a “deskside tour.” This is where a publicist sets up meetings with reporters, and the person with something to sell (in this case me, selling the ill-fated Wizards of the Coast Discoveries imprint) goes from office to office making himself available for short interviews that hopefully turn into articles. I talked with people from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and a few others. But my days were far from full and not wanting to just hang around Manhattan by myself for a few days, I set up some of my own meetings with agents of my acquaintance, essentially doing the same thing, but letting them know what I was looking for for the new imprint, and just generally touching base and saying hi.

One of the agents I sat down with was Donald Maass of the eponymous literary agency. We had a nice discussion and he handed me a copy of his own book, Writing the Breakout Novel (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001), which I took home with me and put on a shelf in my cubicle in Renton, with every intention of reading it. If I liked it, I would have made it one of the selections in our editing team’s “Book Club,” which I think I’ve blogged about before.

Alas, I never did get around to reading it, due to a list of lame excuses, and when I was summarily dismissed from WotC, I took the book with me along with the rest of my personal effects in a couple of cardboard boxes I scrounged up on my way out of the office forever.

Fast forward about seven months and I’m getting to the end of a long and difficult writing process, working on an urban fantasy novel that has occasionally stymied me. And there was Writing the Breakout Novel right there on my shelf, at home now, staring back at me, inviting me to let it help. I was stuck. I needed help. I answered the invitation.

And boy, am I glad I did.

Though my urban fantasy novel is not actually finished yet, much less published, and the jury’s still out as to whether or not it’s gong to be my “breakout novel,” the clearly articulated, no-nonsense advice between the covers of Don’s book has got me unstuck, and conjured up a to do list for the first edit that I know will make my book better. Why? Because it’s made me excited to write it, desperate to finish it, because I know what was tripping me up now. I figured out, with this book’s help, what I was missing, but that I couldn’t see having gotten wrapped up in the minutiae of the writing process. Writing the Breakout Novel helped me take a step or two back and clearly identify what I knew was wrong but couldn’t put my finger on, and helped me figure out how to fix it. And not to make the book formulaic or artificially “commercial,” but by making it readable, entertaining, concise . . . positive changes.

That’s a tall order: Help authors write good books that people will want to read, without trying to conjure up some kind of one-from-column-A, two-from-column-B formula, or limit their creativity in any way. I’ll admit, I feared that sort of formulaic approach, the sort of thing that really turned me off of train wrecks like Robert McKee’s Story. Late in the book, Maass writes: “. . . a ‘good’ story is one that in unpredictable. It is tough to build surprises and hold readers in thrall when following a strict formula.”

The inspirational words begin with a foreword by best-selling author Anne Perry, who writes:

I remember attending a lecture given by Don a year or two ago where he asked his audience of writers why they bought books. Almost all of us admitted it was either because we already knew the author’s work or because someone had recommended it. In other words, it had nothing to do with publisher, jacket, promotion, reviews or any of the other things outside the content of the book itself. Considerable discussion was distilled to a singe fact: You are in control of your success or failure. If you write a book people want to read—a story that grips; characters that people care about, identify with, are interested in—your book will sell. Your destiny is in your own hands.

That’s good news.

It sure is! And I touched on that myself in a previous post here about the nature of success from a writer’s perspective.

As you might imagine with the book beginning with input from a non-genre author, Writing the Breakout Novel is hardly limited in its scope to any one genre. Maass’s advice is equally applicable to writers of fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, thrillers, and so on, and detailed examples are drawn from a wide spectrum of fiction. The fact is that a good story, well told, shares similarities in approach and content though the setting (genre) may be wildly different. In other words, buy my book to learn about fantasy and SF worldbuilding, and Don’s to learn about fiction writing.

To begin the discussion Maass defines a breakout novel, suffers a bit over the apparent death of the midlist author, but then reiterates the point made by Anne Perry, which is, essentially, that talent will out.

If you’ve read The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, you’ll remember me advising you to approach the writing process by asking questions. Maass does the same, in the section entitled “Brainstorming the Breakout Premise”: “Notice, too, our frequent application of the question ‘What if?’ ”

But where I really stood up and took notice was in Chapter Three: Stakes.

I’ve long been aware of this idea, but there was something in the way that Don Maass articulated it that pulled a switch in my brain in regards to my current projects and really blasted it wide open for me. The chapter begins with this sentence: “If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.”

I took this advice, even though it’ll mean lots more writing even after I finish my first (rough) draft, but now I can’t imagine the book any other way. Again, I knew it was missing something—maybe a lot of somethings—and this was it. A vital question was left unanswered: So what?

I’ve scanned a couple pages from the little notebook I’m using for this urban fantasy novel. Beware of possible spoilers, and don’t worry if none of it make sense. You haven’t read the book yet, because I haven’t finished writing it, but I wanted you all to see inside the process, see how direct it can be, how I’ve translated advice directly from Writing the Breakout Novel. I hope you’ll do the same with this book—and my own.


I started with listing the three things that were at stake in my story, and took a moment to honestly audit them. I found myself weak on the second problem, and will be thinking about that as I finish the book.

I had started the list of necessary additional scenes before reading Writing the Breakout Novel, but that list grew as I read the book. I kept my notebook at hand and you can see I’ve even noted specific page numbers, intending to go back and re-read, re-think, and re-apply those lessons.

All the stuff about the relationship between Cleo and Coy are meant to raise the personal stakes of their relationship. A key plot point is that the villain uses Coy to get to Cleo—I needed to raise the stakes on that relationship so that when the villain does something bad to Coy, when Cleo realizes he’s been horribly killed and it’s as much her fault as the villain’s, I’m not leaving readers asking, “So what?” Those two words will kill the whole book.

I’d also like to point out the notes on top of notes: “very early on” crossed out and replaced with the note: “NO! LATER:” And the reminder: “discovered by Marcus in Lara’s books,” which actually strengthens an existing scene while simultaneously strengthening the later scene devised to strengthen the villain’s motivation.

See how notes can take on a life all their own?

In the chapter on Time and Place, I was taken by the props he threw out to us SF/fantasy scribes:

As our colleagues in science fiction and fantasy have shown us, building the breakout time and place starts with the principle that the world of the novel is composed of much more than description of the landscape and rooms. It is milieu, period, fashion, ideas, human outlook, historical moment, spiritual mood and more. It is capturing not only place but people in an environment; not only history but humans changing in their era. Description is the least of it. Bringing people alive in a place and time that are alive is the essence of it.

His advice regarding characters goes beyond the obvious. Though his advice to make your heroes admirable and your villains motivated is clearly stated and universal, there are deeper levels to plumb: “A great character,” he writes in chapter five, “is one that not only deepens our understanding of ourselves but that opens to us ranges of potential, a riot of passionate response to the problems of existence.”

He then goes on to point out the vital importance of the qualities of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Authors are cautioned to get to know and to like their heroes: “It is hard to write someone you don’t know, harder still if you do not care for them. Eliminate characters whom you do not regard with warmth, to whom you are not drawn. The coldness you feel toward them will show in your writing.” This goes some way to helping answer that question: “Who cares?” If you don’t care about your characters, who else will?

Throughout the book, I actually highlighted sentences and paragraphs, wrote notes in the margins, and in general studied it, and I suggest you do the same.

For instance, on page 143 in the chapter on plot, I highlighted: “. . . the past perfect tense and its evil facilitator, the word “had,” will always rob a scene of its vital immediacy.” Then I wrote in the margin: “HE’S RIGHT! Actually do a S->R for “had” in Cleo to clean this up.” S->R is my shorthand for search-and-replace, and “Cleo” is sort of a nickname for my urban fantasy: the name of the principal protagonist. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this advice, of course, and as an editor have spent many an hour removing it from manuscripts, in some cases exposing authors to that term, past perfect, for the first time. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t done it myself. I make a wide range of mistakes in my own writing that I used to complain about in other authors’ manuscripts. It’s why everyone needs an editor, and no one is so perfectly practiced that he can’t read a book like Writing the Breakout Novel and apply lessons old and new to his current project.

Another note I made in the margin is next to the section entitled “Becoming Passionate” in chapter ten. Maass recommends this exercise in which you imagine you have been imprisoned by a brutally repressive regime, all your notes and manuscripts have been destroyed, and you’re awaiting execution. “You have time and paper to type out only one scene from your novel . . . which one is it that you begin to type?” I wrote “ACTUALLY DO THIS EXERCISE” in the margin, reminded myself in the notes above, and I will do it. It will be the subject of another post to come.

He personalizes theme in a way I found fascinating. I love this paragraph:

Having something to say means having something for one’s characters to say. Think of some main characters of some of the last century’s best-selling novels and series: Travis McGee, Howard Roark, Scarlett O’Hara, George Smiley and so on. They are not diffident, deferential people. They are principled, opinionated and passionate. They do not sit on the sidelines. They act. Their inner fire fires us—as well as the sales of their author’s books. Their beliefs inspire, their opinions linger in our mind and mingle with our own.

I recommend not only that you read this book as soon as possible, but that you actually buy and keep a copy. Read it again when you’re well into a manuscript and get stuck or find your enthusiasm for the story flagging. Read it again immediately after finishing your first rough draft, but before your first round of edits. Remind yourself that you can find the heart of your story and characters and that if you do, readers will respond.


—Philip Athans




About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  3. Kevin Doucet says:

    Fantastic, can’t wait to get this book. Another good book I am reading right now is called “Spunk & Bite” about how to enliven up your writing. Thank you for having this blog. I have just recently decided to take all the ideas I have had in my head and commit them to paper. Your blog is fantastic and a great help.

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