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.