Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reference Book Review: Writing the Breakout Novel

My professional development objective this year has been to improve my ability to teach our middle school creative writing class.  While reading two YA novels on average per week has been my steady pace, I recently added resource and reference books to my book pile.

This week I read Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel in an attempt to pull something for class.  Read what the writer's read, right?  I combed reading lists of various authors who I have met or established a correspondence with this year--many note which books have helped them.

Writing the Breakout Novel is written by the president of the Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR) and he is also president of his own literary agency in New York City, the Donald Maass Literary Agency.  It is a very succinct tour some of commonly addressed topics by teachers (character, time and place, plot) and it also features some details you may not necessarily drive too deeply within with your creative writers: multiple viewpoints, advanced plot structures, and stakes.  Quite honestly, each chapter should provide something worth exploring in a class of young writing students.

I like the fact that Maass presents each idea directly and then spends a lot of time (space and ink) supporting his observations with strong text choices and examples.  I am always looking for fresh examples from literature which directly demonstrate a teaching point.  You can find plenty of those here.  Actually, most of this book is consumed by Maass showing you directly why x, y, and z work, where they work, and how they work.

I wouldn't say the book is unique.  What I would say is that its strength rests in its clarity and use of extensive examples.  What Maass presents as unique is his perspective--he isn't giving you the brooding writer's point of view or much of an artistic or craft centered spin on any given topic.

Weighing the pros and cons of this book, this is a solid supporting resource for a teacher if you are looking for an insider's opinion on what successful stories have in common and what they do well.  Not quite formula driven...but pretty darn close.  I wouldn't say that this would be a centerpiece of a creative writing teacher's arsenal, but like I said earlier it is a good compliment to your other resources as you build your lessons or self-reflect on what may be missing or in need of change.

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