Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass may be just what I needed at this point in my writing development. Strunk and White's book was immensely useful long ago, but I'm long past the basic grammar and style advice they provide. Stephen King's On Writing and Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird were both good books, but were more morale-building than craft-oriented. Walter Dean Myers's writing book had a lot of good information, but I think his description of his writing methods are too particular to his own preferred way of working to be generally applicable.
Maass, who runs a pretty successful agency in New York (I think it's successful--I've certainly heard of many of the authors he represents), presents his views of the difference between novels that never make it out of manuscript, or are published but don't sell well, and the novel that earns its author higher sales, critical accolades, and a career boost. In his opinion it's not a matter of some authors getting a bigger advertising push from the publisher, or adhering to a certain formula, or even sheer luck. Maass believes the difference between a run-of-the-mill novel and a "breakout novel" is largely a matter of scale.
He makes a fairly convincing presentation, and while I don't want to give it all away, there are a couple of his points I'd like to mention. One is about character--the characters in a breakout novel are self-aware, and larger-than-life. They are self-aware in that they review their own moods, motivations, etc., in their mind, wondering if they're making the right choices. In other words, they're complicated. Nevertheless, they are also larger-than-life in that they do things a regular person wouldn't. They say things out loud most real people would keep inside, they make tough moral choices most wouldn't have the guts to, they plunge headlong into danger. Strangely, it's these qualities that make readers identify with them, for they crystallize attributes we all have, if not to the same degree.
He also talks about stakes, and how breakout novels have high stakes. That doesn't necessarily mean that the world is always about to be destroyed--it means that whatever has personal value to the characters is threatened. For instance, if a character might lose his job--so what? People lose their jobs all the time. But a character who might lose the business empire he's built up from nothing--those are high stakes.
Maass describes unpublished manuscripts and early-career novels as "feeling small." Parts of his book tells an author how to complicate things with sub-plots, deepen setting, heighten conflict, etc. But I think his larger message is not just that things should be complicated not for their own sake, but because it better illuminates the themes of the book.
I'm not sure Writing the Breakout Novel would be as useful to a first-time novelist, although it certainly couldn't hurt! But any writer who has one or more novel manuscripts under the belt already would find this book to be thought-provoking, even eye-opening. I'm definitely going to recommend this at the next meeting of my writers' group.