In addition to working through the exercises in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, I’m re-reading the sections in the book that relate to the assignments.

The current objective is to create characters that are larger-than-life. Chapter 1 of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook starts off in a seemingly easy manner. Name a personal hero. Well, that’s simple. If you’re a reader of this blog, you know how much I admire Alvah Bessie. If you’re new and are following this latest folly and don’t know who he is, you can read about him here.

I mentioned three of Alvah’s heroic qualities:

“What speaks to me about Alvah was his persistence to keep true to his radical idealism, his loyalty to the Marxist cause, and to his comrades. He fought Franco’s Nationalists in Spain as a volunteer of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Later, he stood up to HUAC, refusing to name names that ultimately led to dire consequences: Contempt of Congress and incarceration at the Texarkana Federal Penitentiary.  In spite of the hardships of the blacklist, and his struggles to find work, he continued to write non-stop. Alvah believed in fighting with the pen for what was just and telling the hard truth about our political leaders and government. ”

So—my protagonist, Corinne Sand, is loyal to her cause and fellow travelers, and persistent in getting her message out. That’s all very nice, but none of these qualities shows when she makes her first appearance.

I’m waffling a bit because it’s all shown indirectly—told by other characters in the story. The challenge is to show some of these qualities when she first appears. Serendipitously, this happens to be a chapter that needs an overhaul (again).

After thinking some ideas through, and with my notes in hand, I have a better notion of how I can work in these qualities and change the pace of the story.

Lastly, Maass asks, prior to the climactic scene, to find six points, in a small way, in which the protagonist can demonstrate heroic qualities. Thankfully, most of the action occurs in the latter middle part of Part 2 and in Part 3 where I can pinpoint them.

Lessons learned:

  • Think larger-than-life character.
  • Introduce traits early on in the story.
  • Show readers why they should like and admire this character.

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As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ll be working through the various exercises in Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakthrough Novel Workbook. Because I am anxious to start,  I have mentally adjusted of how to approach this rewrite. I want to make sure that I follow his suggestions to the letter. So no short-cuts. No getting impatient with the process.

Before I booted the laptop, I sat down with my blackberry shake and read the introduction. Maass writes about the changes in the publishing industry (the workbook was published in 2004, so we know of the tremendous shifts in traditional and self-publishing, not to mention the growth of e-books).

He recommends that we read the actual book that inspired the workbook and digest the concepts like inner conflict, personal stakes, plot weaving and so forth.

Below (along with my comments) is what stood out for me in this introduction. I felt as if he were speaking to me.

Writing a breakout novel is the hardest work you will ever do. But it can be done, and done by anyone with basic fiction writing skills and the patience and determination to take his fiction all the way to the highest level of achievement.

Well, now, that’s encouraging. I found this interesting because there have been so many times I’ve questioned whether I had it in me to write a stellar story.

The workbook has many exercises, and I can vouch that when Don taught his workshop at the Writer Unboxed Unconference, I felt overwhelmed. Plus I wondered whether any of this would work with Julius. This is what he says about genres:

It does not matter what type of novel you are writing: literary, mainstream, fantasy, romance, historical, or whatever. The techniques of breakout fiction are universal. The cross genre lines. They will tend to make a novel longer, though not necessarily. Stay open to what the exercises give you. If you feel overwhelmed, take a break.

When I first looked at the questions in the workbook, I scanned them and mentally answered them. Back then I was impatient, but I wasn’t open to making major changes. And with that came the crashing middle far too many times. Take note of this:

Do not rush. You are about to expand your mind and open the possibilities in your current novel. Let them sink in, collide with each other, multiply and dance…Above all aim high. Do not be satisfied with two or three positive changes for your novel; not even ten, twenty, or thirty. I expect the exercises in this book will give you not just scores, but hundreds of new ideas. Use them all.

There’s a long section in the workbook concerning tension and how much to include.  Maass writes that there’s never too much tension. In fact, 80 percent of the novels his agency rejects isn’t because of too much tension, but too little. When working through this long section of exercises, there might come a point you want to give up and walk away. Maass writes:

“Resist the impulse to quit early. Do it all. Writing a breakout novel is a journey, an awakening, an education. Get the full benefit….Give yourself the space you need to achieve true mastery…It takes time.”

Time. Patience. Do it all. I hear the bell ringing. Off to class and start Part One: Character Development.

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Sticking With It

by RS on August 13, 2015

In late June, I rejoined the Internet Writing Workshop’s Novel List to have part one of Julius critiqued. So far, I’ve submitted eight chapters, and the comments have been positive.

Sometimes I get questions about the story that seem obvious to me. My first impression is the reader missed the point—because it’s right there in black and white—but I promised myself to not get frustrated and not allow ego get in the way.

For example, yesterday I received a critique peppered with questions from a reader. This crit was a bit harsh, and I felt she didn’t get it. I realized later on—in spite of what I thought was to the point writing—it wasn’t clear to the reader. So it’s time to rework it again and again until I get it right, and my reader can say to me “Aha, now I get what you’re conveying here.”

While I submit my work, I’m also reading books on the craft of writing. I’m being choosy with what I have in my vast collection, but I decided to tackle Donald Maass’s The Breakout Novel Workbook because I see some of the problems I keep running into in Julius.

I should mention I have a love-hate relationship with many of these books. There are moments I think, “Eureka! A breakthrough” only to discover I’m still missing a crucial element within the story.

I admit I get frustrated with much of what I read in many of these books. I end up writing it my way, but I also know if I want to finish this story I should make an effort to become proficient in the art of story-telling.

In some ways, it’s back to school. Instead of rushing through the exercises—as I have a tendency to do—I plan to take my time and make Julius as solid as possible.

For those of you interested in the process and who haven’t read  Don’s book, Writing the Breakout Novel, give it a looksy. In the meantime,  I’ll report on my progress. Maybe you can learn with me while I stumble around.

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