The Guardian article and subsequent twitter frenzy over the idea that some writers are famous for the wrong book had me thinking about what a breakout book really is. The Guardian argues that many authors’ most well-known books are hardly their best, so why did those breakout commercially while, for example, their first book did not?
There are two elements to this conversation. Firstly, what is a breakout book and is there a formula? Unfortunately, no. But, there are many puzzle pieces that when assembled correctly can provide a great foundation to a novel. This, mixed with talent and a great voice, can breakout. Secondly, what happens when your first novel isn’t a breakout book? Where do you go from there?
Part 1: The Puzzle Pieces of Breaking Out
High Stakes: What is at stake for your characters? What do they stand to lose if something goes wrong? The biggest mistake is leaving your characters unchallenged in the face of adversity. Push them off the diving board to see if they can swim. Give them the traits and audacity to overcome or succumb to the trials of the world you create for them. Recognize their strengths or limitations in the context of the novel while thinking of what your audience is looking for and how they will feel if they do or don’t achieve the ambitions of the story you have crafted.
Characters that move us: The best characters provide a looking glass for readers. When you see a character reflected back at you that you connect with, that you relate to, that you find yourself caring about the high stakes in their fictional life, that you never want to leave when the book is done, then the writer has accomplished this.
Setting that the reader wants to spend time in: Novels are escapism and entertainment so when you create a world that takes the reader away from the present and they want to stay there (it can evoke different emotions like curiosity, envy, fixation, yearning, or suspense) they will feel so attached and never put the book down.
An understanding for pace: Pace is hard to teach. It’s the natural ability to recognize and rectify the ebbs and flows of your sentences, paragraphs and chapters in relation to the plot direction as a whole. Many manuscripts that come into my inbox fall apart here. This also relates back to knowing where to stop and start your novel. Pace moves the plot and moves the reader to feel invested in the outcome of the events. The seamlessness of a plot paced correctly results in readers physically unable to put down the book.
Themes that move a reader: You can write a great novel with the aforementioned puzzle pieces, but the themes have to resonate with an audience. The biggest challenge in a writer’s career is making the mental shift from writing for yourself to writing for a market. Pick themes that your market feels connected to and that speak to them. This will build such a strong connection between authors and their audience.
Lastly, albeit the most controversial, you must have a story to tell and talent: This is not to dissuade potential writers, but be realistic in their talent. To breakout you need to feel the ultimate inclination that you can and will write the book of your career.
Part 2: What happens when my first book isn’t my ‘breakout book’?
As the Guardian article suggests, many very successful and famous authors’ most commercially successful book wasn’t their first. This underscores the sentiment that it takes effort, dedication to the craft, and a great author/agent relationship to overcome the hurdles of early publication track records and a budding career in fiction. If your agent still believes in you and you still believe in your ability to write a breakout book recognize that this is all part of the frustration and joys of a literary career. Don’t give up! Your breakout book is as close as the next page of your WIP.
Additional Resource: Donald Maass Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook
Quote: Paul Sweeney