Write a Break-In Novel

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

You’ve read Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, right? But if you’re unpublished, it’s too soon to have a breakout novel.

You need a break-in novel.

As an unpublished novelist, you’re in the position of not just having to write good books. You have to write a BREAK-IN book. It’s going to require a mysterious combination of your writing reaching a certain level, the right agent reading it at the right time, the right editor receiving it on a good day, and some magic fairy dust.

Some writers have several completed books, and wonder which one to start submitting first. It’s easy: the one that has the best chance of breaking you in. The one that presents the fewest obstacles to publication. The one in which your writing shines the brightest. The one in which the genre and subject matter are closest to what seems to be selling right now.

Perhaps you’ve got other projects that are closer to your heart, the ones you really want to see published. But they’re not selling for whatever reason. Don’t fret. Once you’ve broken in, there may be opportunity down the road to get those published, especially if you revise and rewrite with your improved writing skills (because the more you write, and work with editors, the better writer you’ll be).

Let’s say you have one project that you feel is your literary masterpiece, and another that’s a historical romance. Which do you think has a better chance of being your break-in novel? Save the literary masterpiece for later when you’ve earned the luxury of a little more freedom.

I have one client who has two completed novels that are simply amazing. They showcase her awesome talent like nobody’s business, and she loves them more than anything she’s ever written. But publishers have concerns about the subject matter and the time period of the novels. The author might end up getting a couple of other novels published first, the ones she’s not as passionate about. Now I’m sure you’re thinking, What a great problem to have. And you’re right, it is a good problem. But it’s been a bit hard emotionally, because she’s so attached to those two novels. However, I keep telling her, the important thing is breaking in. Once she has an established readership, I think we’ll be able to sell those novels no problem.

Writing the break-in novel is similar to writing the breakout novel. You can still use all the information in Donald Maass’s books. If you’re shooting for commercial success, then you’ll need the best writing possible and the fewest obstacles possible. And don’t forget the fairy dust.

So what are you doing to break in?

51 Responses

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  1. Sue Harrison says:

    I’ve had a similar problem with one of my novels. It’s not a break-in novel. The good advice of a great agent really helps, so that as a writer I don’t burn out before I finally come up with the “magic fairy dust” it takes to break in.

    Meanwhile, what I’m doing is writing the next novel! (And that’s so much fun.)

  2. Great advice, Rachelle! I think it can be hard for the unagented author to know that his/her book poses certain obstacles to publication, though. However, I suppose the best path is to submit and if you don’t get any bites after awhile, then try with another novel. 🙂

  3. I learned this concept the hard way. But not all is lost. Just completing novels you love, that you’re willing to edit, re-edit, submit and talk to industry professionals about is practice you’ll need for when you have written that fantastic “break-in” novel.

  4. Sarah Thomas says:

    I think Lindsay’s right on–the problem is being objective enough to know which novel is the break-in one! I’m finding that contests (where you get feedback) and critique groups are great for helping me take a step back and figure that out.

  5. Jeanne says:

    Such good, common sense thoughts here. I guess what I’m doing is working to make my current novel the best that I can, with help from critique partners. I’m reading on blogs to learn craft, as well as to get a feel for what readers are interested in. I plan to finish my current story, then begin another. I’ve been writing down other story ideas as they come to mind. I think my current goal is to grow in the craft of writing so that the stories I write are quality stories.

    Thanks for the reminder that there is a balance between writing for the market and writing the stories of my heart. There’s a balance between the two, and it is possible to get my “heart stories” out there.

    • I loved this whole comment. Don’t you think that our “heart stories” are what shape us to become serious about writing? The desire to tell the best story possible is such a driving force!

    • A lot of good solid advice
      I write or try to every day, working on my novel making sometimes a lot of progress, sometimes not so much. It’s hard to resist writing solely for the market as opposed to writing the story that stirs your heart.

      Post’s like this one keep me working towards my goal of writing my best “heart” story

  6. What am I doing to break in? Hmm. I’m aiming for a time and place that is familiar (as in a comfortable, extremely well selling formula) but with a unique enough twist that will have my readers standing in the aisle of the bookstore and reading the first few pages. Then they’ll tuck that book under their arm and walk right to the counter! One thing I’ve asked of each of my beta readers is if they’d ever heard of the historical event that catapults my main character “from one life into the next” (quoted from the book…). Not one of them had heard of it, but after reading the MS, they each expressed a fascination with the subject ad many had gone and done their own research. That told me that uniqueness factor was there. Many also wondered where I picked up my scene writing skills for some really gruesome stuff. I told them I’ve watched too many Vietnam and WW2 movies.

    Reading what sells extremely well and seeing where the pages ignite the mind and the characters become tear-worthy is a wonderful way to judge one’s own skills. I wrote my MS in such a manner that my beta readers loathed me for what I’d done to my characters and then called me up and thanked me for saving the heroine in the nick of time.

    The agent’s adage that “don’t tell us how much your mother liked the book (she hated it and told me so) and how your friends raved about it (which they did) hobbles the first time writers from feeling the confidence required to go insane and query. It’s like being on a staircase with your baby, you want to go higher to show her off, but the higher you climb, the more frightening it becomes. Breaking in takes alot of guts and talent, some fairy dust, a heck of an idea and if God is calling you, a long obedience in the same direction.

    The words “breaking in” hint at someone kicking the door in. Thankfully I’ve got the power tools to fix the door once I’m inside.(And re-finish it to it’s natural hue.)

    😉

  7. Tiana Smith says:

    Fairy dust! *head desk* Why didn’t I think of that before?? Great reminder Rachelle.

  8. Sarah Grimm says:

    This confirms what I’ve been thinking for the past 2 weeks.

    I got this awesome idea for another book. I started writing and I’m already 40K in. The ideas are pouring on to the page. I had to put aside the fourth book in my four-book series to make room for this one. I love that series, so do my critters and betas, but I was thinking this new one, this one has a greater potential to sell.

    I love calling it a break in novel. I *really* hope it will be!

  9. Great post.

    I’m doing a couple of things, trying to break in.

    I go to several conferences a year and what I hear at those conferences, dictates to me which book I want to work work on and/or pitch.

    I believe where I break in (if I ever manage to break in), will dictate what I write for several years, and my heart’s desire is to write YA girl books for the general market. But I don’t have anything against writing for churched children, and I like my MG boy books a whole lot, too. So I don’t really care where I break in.

    The beauty of this business is that everything comes back around eventually.

  10. Jill Urbach says:

    Great advice, Rachelle. Thank you!

  11. Emily says:

    Yes. I’m finally seeing this is important. I really heart the first novel I’ve written, but have got a lot of positive feedback on my second. So I’ve decided to work on getting that one ready. Maybe I can go back to my first novel someday, but–in the interim–I’m still moving forward.

    Thank you for this. For a while I felt like I was cheating on my first MS. Now I know, I’m just being smart. Right?

  12. Now you’ve really got me thinking, because I have 4 novels in various stages right now. It’s helpful in that sometimes when I get stuck or bored with one, I can move on and feel a renewed spark. But it’s not helpful because it’s distracting and I still haven’t finished one! LOL
    So, I am a real noob when it comes to the publishing world. How does one go about determining what is popular and selling right now. Sure it’s easy to notice the breakouts, and hear about a few books everyone seems to be talking about. But is there a more accurate way to figure it out?

  13. Kate says:

    Wonderful advice…thanks for the reminders…”the best writing possible and the fewest obstacles possible. And don’t forget the fairy dust.”

    My writing group forgot to mention the “fairy dust!” Can we purchase it? Or barter for it? Must one inherit it? Is it a treasure to be discovered? Is it available in a Tweet, on Facebook or LinkedIn? Maybe it’s found on Pinterest?

    Oh dear, oh dear…I’m putting on the kettle for another cup of tea…I need to keep calm and carry on! (And… I’m going to have a word with my writing group!)

  14. Dara says:

    Well, I think I probably write things that aren’t exactly what’s selling right now. For some reason, I like writing about obscure time periods and cultures. I have two WiPs I am working on now: one a historical set in 1890s Japan and another that’s a fantasy with aspects of Indian and Celtic culture (yeah, completely an odd mixture but it makes sense for the story world :))

    I understand the need to write what the market wants in order to break in, but most of the time it’s now what I am passionate about at all and if there’s no passion, there’s no desire to get it done. I figure I am not going to worry about it too much right now as I am still in the early stages on both projects. And if it doesn’t work, I’ll go the e-publishing route. I may not get a lot of readers but if even a handful read my stories, I am happy.

  15. Ike L. Obidike says:

    I learnt a great deal writing my just completed debut, Shifting Sands. I advise any unpublished writer to spend some reasonable time rewriting his first manuscript, even if he eventually locks it away in his drawer on completion.

    On completion, you would have achieved something fulfilling tangible and it brings with it a euphoria you never enjoyed before. The constant rewrites also sharpens your writing skill and prepares you for the next one which might become your debut novel. The second one, no doubt is easier then to write.

  16. Dale Rogers says:

    Since I don’t always know what’s selling at the moment, I try to match each of my works with the agent who seems best suited for it.

  17. I have two books I’m working on. One has a narrower target audience than the other. I’ve heard that sometimes this is better in that it allows the marketing to be more focused. Can anyone tell me if that is really the case?

    • This absolutely CAN be true, but it’s a fine balance. You want a targeted audience rather than trying to sell your book to the whole world. But you don’t want your audience to be so niche that it’s too small for a publisher to be interested.

  18. This is such a great post, Rachelle. In order to break in I switched genres, and not in a small way. I went from writing women’s fiction to writing for children. The women’s novel is still very much where my heart is. I was just looking at it yesterday. I’m finding more success in writing for children, and perhaps I am stronger there and that’s why it works. I don’t know. I only know I’ll revisit the women’s novel again and get it ready at some point.

  19. Eva Ulian says:

    I can’t get an agent interested in my nuns, priests and a murder in between novels so I am writing a “break-in” novel, completely different subject…

  20. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming. Eventually I’ll get to Sydney, I KNOW I will. As long as the words are spilling, there’s got to be a break-in novel somewhere in this hullabaloo all over my desk.

    Rejection? Ha! I laugh in the face of rejection! And I write some more. And more.

  21. I think I read somewhere that the best way to break into the publishing industry today would be to write a Vampire, Amish inspired, romance! 🙂 My plan of attack is to read as much as I can in the genre I want to break into, know what’s popular and figure out how I can come in with a new or fresh approach and then find some of that fairy dust to sprinkle all over it and voila!

  22. Josh C. says:

    I’m trying to “break-in” to the short story market right now. I have one novel in surgery right now and another awaiting anesthesia, intense labor pains with the third, and pounding out short stories as often as I can. When I begin submitting novels to agents (probably a couple of years away from that, at least) I want to have a few handy. This would, unless I’m way off base, demonstrate to the agent that I’ve been at it a while and committed to it. Also, I would like to have some publishing creds to go along with the submissions. That’s where short stories come in. Shows not only that I’ve been published, but I also have experience working with editors (most publications I’ve submitted to indicate they almost always have editorial suggestions before accepting a story). I haven’t had a story accepted yet, but have recently received a few personalized rejections (with details, WHAT?!?!?!?) so maybe I’m getting close to that first step of many. I hope that I can be published in several magazines/e-zines several times before I begin submitting my novels. It may not work out that way, but it seems like a good plan to me right now. I’m taking baby steps and trying to remember the wisdom of the tortoise.

  23. Lisa says:

    Maybe this is another question for another post, but does anyone have advice for not getting discouraged. I’m experiencing a week where it feels as thought the fairy dust will never materialize. I never pursued my dream to write because it seems so impractical and also difficult to make it as a writer. My heart for it never stopped and I just couldn’t ignore it any longer. Every step of the way has been so daunting as someone starting out with out impressive credentials.

  24. Great advice! Thank you, Rachelle!

  25. Miranda says:

    Hi Rachelle,
    Love your post! Found it really helpful. I can testify (I mean as reader) that building a readership before publishing your ‘literary masterpiece’ is the smarter choice. I’ve become an avid reader of some authors so much I could read anything they wrote. Please I’d like to know, what exactly do you mean by ‘obstacles to publishing’?

    • Miranda, obstacles to getting published include anything that takes your book outside of the “sweet spot” of what the editors are looking for. So: unpopular genre, word count too high or low, subject matter that could be off-putting, previous books with really low sales… the list goes on. Basically, anything that gives them a reason to say no.

  26. Missy says:

    Great information to know!
    I have just started to discover that I love writing. I’ve just started to think about sitting down and “maybe” trying to write a book of some sort. But I have no CLUE how to go about it.

  27. Dana McNeely says:

    Thanks, Rachel. You’re right, there are so many aspects to writing and placing a book that it is a blessing to have someone riding shotgun during the journey.

  28. I think it’s funny/scary how you manage to answer my questions and point me in the right direction. Where are you hiding in my house?! 😉 Seriously, though, I too have my Baby (Babies, as it’s a series) that I love. But, like a passionate mother, I want the best home for it to grow up in. What does this mean? Research. Study. Re-writes. Edits. (Rinse and repeat –twice or more), and then the journey for agents, the scary query letters, synopsis from the soul, etc.

    Thanks for the post, Rachelle. I needed that today. (Now I’m off to find that magic fairy dust…do you suppose it’s pretending to be a dust bunny?)

  29. Fleur Ferris says:

    I hope I am writing my break-in novel now. I have almost completed the first draft and an agent has agreed to read it. Small steps! This novel is my fifth and performed well in the nextbigauthor.com competition. As did my fourth novel. They are still climbing the charts as they continue to get good reviews. I’ve been working so hard for the past 12 months and have done everything possible to make myself, as a professional writer, and my work attractive to publishers. The topic of the fifth novel was chosen because it fits nicely into a genre and therefore easier to market. Fingers crossed that novel number is five is my break-in novel. Good luck to everyone else with the same goal. I love the saying, when you are climbing to the top, turn around and pull someone up with you. A few professionals in the publishing industry have helped me out lately. I’m so appreciative of this.

  30. Brad Huebert says:

    Rachel, thanks for this. The wisdom revealed in that turn of phrase, breaking in, is very helpful.

  31. Lianne Simon says:

    Great post, as usual.

    My approach differs a little. God has put a subject on my heart that most Christian publishers won’t risk. If I write something more commercially viable, it may be accepted by an agent and sold to a publisher, but without my heart in it, the public may not buy it. And if they did, I’m not certain how much I’d care. So, I’m working on the quality of my writing and trusting the good Lord. He gave me the desire; He’ll give me the rest as well. And, if not, then I shall be content to have written my best.

  32. It’s taken me so long to fill in the ‘required fields’ that I’ve forgotten what I wanted to say!! Oh – wait. There’s a wonderful jazz song called ‘Midnight Sun’ which includes stuff about stardust.

  33. John Pearce says:

    It’s possible that your client’s problem is the publishers, not the books. Has she considered independent publishing to avoid the gatekeeper? She’s going to have to do 99% of the marketing herself, so the odds are she will find at least as wide a readership in the indie world unless she lucks out and finds a publisher who will support her (which it appears from your post she will not).

  34. Yvette Carol says:

    Rachelle…you made me laugh out loud with the unexpected addition of ‘fairy dust’ at the end of that paragraph!! Good touch. I hear it is a bit like that. Although I hear from the yet-to-be-published side of the desk, to be clear. What I’ve been doing to get closer to breaking-in is to work on my craft. I’ve been cruising the net for suitable courses. I’ve been following writing blogs (such as this great site). In short, I keep my eyes and ears open. The course I just finished showed me that my first book (circulating publishers at present) is actually not ready yet. I tried rewriting parts of it for my assignments and made huge improvements every time. So now it’s back to the drawing board for yet another rewrite of the whole thing! Then I aim to submit it again but this time to an online competition. Fingers crossed I get to break in this year 🙂
    Yvette Carol

  35. A.W. Parsons says:

    Great post! Thanks for the advice and the idea of “table-ing” a beloved MS for a later time. I think that’s the best thing a writer can take away: have multiple eggs in multiple baskets, maybe have some lovely cheeses, some crackers, yummy chocies….wait. Am I talking about writing or thinking about lunch already? 😉 But srsly, the best advice for me is: Keep working. Keep writing. When you finish, start something new. Cheers!

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