The Breakout Novelist With Donald Maass

Recently, I interviewed literary agent Donald Maass about his latest book for authors, The Breakout Novelist. We talk about a breakout premise, how to make readers care about your characters, how to use micro-tension as well as literary/commercial writing and much more to make your book the best it can be. I also ask a cheeky question about Kindle author success.

Video, audio and text highlights below. We did have a few technical issues but overall, it’s packed with great info for writers!

Here’s the audio version in mp3 format if you prefer to download and listen => DonaldMaass.mp3

In the video we discuss:

  • About the book, the Breakout Novelist. Pro novelists can get stuck while they are writing and the book was written to help them. It’s aimed at helping them during the process and fix problems as they turn up.
  • On the breakout premise. The premise drives the story events so you need to start with a strong one. A breakout premise demands that things happen e.g. journeying home and reconciling with Mom after a number of years vs/ journeying home but character is a policewoman and Mom is accused of murder. This gives inherent conflict and demands that story events happen.
  • On micro-tension. It’s not a function of plot and story events are not just plot or scene goals. Example given is A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. Man is waiting on the train station platform for pages but it is still riveting reading. The man is inwardly conflicted and that is described in fine nuance.
  • How can writers make sure a reader will care about their character? As a default position, they won’t care.  You need to make the character themselves care and then the reader is affected. The more reasons you give the character to care, the more the reader will become involved.
  • What makes an impact in the first few pages? A reader needs a strong reason to care about this character. A quality needs to be present, like an aspect of heroism or something that opens a window into the character. Heroic characters almost need to be a touch flawed. Dark protagonists need to be seeking redemption, some way to change and become more human. We need a reason to hope. It’s also important to keep the reader engaged every line and every page – that doesn’t happen very often!
  • On literary/commercial – what does that mean? Example, Like Water for Elephants. Commercial storytellers need to embrace all the tools of good fiction, about structuring the books for strong themes, symbols etc. Literary writers need to think about external events that can be seen and heard and dramatized. It’s about making strong story events but well written.
  • On the author’s voice. Most often it is the point of view character’s voice that we are reading about on the page. We’re into the head of the character and how they perceive things that is distinctive. What makes your character unique.
  • Why the author’s best champion is themselves. Authors do have to promote themselves now. This is a truism. But being your own champion is not just about marketing and building a relationship with fans. You also have to be a champion of your own writing, be your own best critic and cheerleader. No one will push your story deeper than you will. It’s up to you to mine everything you can in order to fulfill the story potential.
  • The 5 book threshold. Pre-published writers think the first book is it and you’ve made it but that’s not true. The ultimate customer is a reader and for them to find you it needs to be a career. On average it takes about 5 books for a critical mass of readers to build up. Getting published is a milestone but it’s not the end. Word of mouth is the main mechanism by which books sell. People buy books from people they have heard of. If readers try a new author, it mostly happens because someone has convinced them to buy it. It takes time to work and works better the more books you have, the more readers you have.
  • On the Kindle authors. Agents can’t avoid hearing from Kindle authors. Is this a valid route to recognition? Most Kindle sales are pretty small. They are people who break through this way but it’s pretty rare. Agents are looking for a compelling story regardless of how it is published or if it is a manuscript. If it’s a great story, it’s probably doing well. What makes sales is the same thing – great storytelling. It rewards people for writing a manuscript but perhaps not taking it far enough to make it great. But if you write a good story, you can sell it. Write a great story first – that’s the most important thing.

You can find Donald at the Maass Agency and his book on or Writer’s Digest store. You can also follow Donald on Twitter @DonMaass

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  1. says

    Great interview as always. I love Donald’s books. My favourite is the Breakout workbook. If you have an editable manuscript it really makes you think about what you are writing. I’d recommend that book to any writer wanting to improve their writing. I’d love the Kindle version of this book but I may wait until the price drops a little first.

  2. says

    Excellent interview, Joanna. My main takeaway from Mr. Maass was “Write a Great Story!” Good things happen when you do that.

    I’d like to suggest a ‘semi-regular’ video interview with agents and/or authors like Mr. Maass and perhaps focus on a few key questions that you can ask each guest. In particular ask them about authors voice, compelling characters, the all important first page, and perhaps what they see as a key to ‘success’ (however they choose to define that) as a writer. Then we fans of your blog can learn from a wide variety of guests about these important subjects.

    • says

      Hi Chris, thanks for the feedback – if you look back over the last 4 months, you’ll find I have been doing video interviews at least weekly, sometimes I have audiopodcasted these but often have done them as standalones as this one.
      You can see them all easily on YouTube here
      or just scroll back through the blog.
      Thanks, Joanna

      • says

        Thanks, Joanna,

        I’m new to your blog and haven’t searched the archives yet. My mistake. Will do that and thanks again for bringing us the movers and shakers in the writing world.


  3. says

    Joanna, I loved the interview. Donald was a great resource for me when I wrote my novels. You’re interview was almost like listening to you interview a friend, even though we have never met. I owe a lot to him because of what he taught me.


  1. […] (and see) author, speaker, and business consultant Joanna Penn interview literary agent and author Donald Maas about his latest book for authors, The Breakout Novelist, on […]

  2. […] I’ve been an avid reader almost all of my life, but it wasn’t until 2008, during a long deployment to the Persian Gulf with the U. S. Navy that I finally decided to stop procrastinating and write the novel that I’d been putting off for at least two decades. I purchased books on how to write novels, how to develop a plot, books on style, and dialogue. I took several on-line writing courses. In other words I tried to learn as much about our craft as I could before I wrote the first word. That done, I pronounced myself ready to write, what I hoped to be my “breakout novel,” from the book Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. […]

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