Purple Prose + Writing

On My Writerly Bookshelf—and exercise

If I were to pick one book that’s made an epic change in my writing in the past few months, I’d have to go with Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass.

Like everyone else, I’d heard how awesome his workshops are, and how great his Writing the Breakout Novel book is, so I borrow the book (not the workbook) from the library—and was disappointed. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. What I wanted was something to help me translate the stuff in the book into my novel. Was that too much to ask for?

Apparently not. The workbook is now part of an intensive workout my WIP is currently undergoing. And so far, it’s definitely been worth it.

But as the word “workout” implies, it’s not easy. There are times when you’re going to be sweating. Times when you’re tempted to skip portions of it. But as Donald says in his workbook, “The investment of time to complete this work is huge . . . but then your ambition is huge, too, isn’t it? I thought so.”

The workbook is divided into three general topics (character development, plot development, and general story techniques). These are further divided into 34 chapters (total). Although I’ve been using the workbook during revisions, a number of chapters are perfect for planning your novel. The section on plot development ties in nicely with the plotting book, Save the Cat.

Each chapter has a brief explanation with examples taken from novels, followed by a series of steps to help you improve this aspect of your book (see example below). While I didn’t find the examples very helpful, the exercises are definitely priceless. Now I see why his workshops are so popular.

Are you ready to try one of them out?

In chapter six (Character Turnabouts and Surprises), Donald asks you to:

1. Pick a scene from your novel with your protagonist. Actually you can do this with any scene, even if the protagonist isn’t the POV character. And in my opinion, you should. Okay, now write down what her main action is in the scene. What is she trying to accomplish, obtain, or avoid?

2. Write a list of the reasons why your protagonist is doing what she is doing. Write down as many of her motive as you can. You’re not supposed to look at the next step until you are finished—according to Donald. But I know that’s not going to happen right now (you’ve got other blogs to check out), so let’s continue.

3. Circle the last reason on your list.

4. Rewrite your opening of the scene, only this time, send you protagonist into action (or avoidance) for the reason you circled.

Now, if you’re like most writers, the first reason you wrote down will be the same one used in your novel. According to Donald, this is often the easiest choice. The first one that popped to mind when you were planning or writing the scene. And the one that made sense and felt the safest. “But safe choices make a scene predictable. Reversing motives shakes up a scene. It makes its course less expected, yet no less logical since the action still comes from your character’s true, deep motives.”

I tried this out and was instantly I was sold on the exercise. As Donald points out, the beginning of your scene might be perfect the way it is. But there will be scenes that are stronger with the new beginning. Try it out. See for yourself.

So do I think the workbook is worth it? Hell yes. If my copy went missing, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a replacement. It’s that good.

Question: Is there a writerly book you couldn’t live without?

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On My Writerly Bookshelf—and exercise + Writing