Breaking In, Breaking Out, and Just Plain Catching a Break

We all know what breaking in means.  It means selling your first novel or screenplay.  It means breaking in to the business.

Many writers know what the term breaking out means, but few of us care about it – or should care about it – unless we’re already published.  It means emerging from the anonymous sea of published authors for a shot at a regular gig on the bestseller lists, by virtue of writing a Big Book.

Big, as in critically and commercially successful, and in a significant way.  Not “big” as in one of Stephen King’s opus flagranti stories of 1100 or so pages.

When someone suddenly hits a home run after writing several books you’ve never heard of, that book is becomes their break out novel.

The essence of both phenomena is the same.

In both cases the writer separates themselves from the pack with which they have been running. 

The newly published writer gets toasted by her writing group because she just sold her first novel.  She is no longer one of them.  She’s just broken in.

The suddenly famous previously published writer gets their picture in People Magazine because the critics are all-of-a-sudden loving them.  This writer is no longer anonymous, they’ve broken out, and the rules all change at that point. 

At a glance you may think of this as a so-what…tell-me-something-I-can use type of observation.   That is, until you understand a certain aspect of it, something you won’t expect, that you absolutely can and should use, beginning now:

The criteria and standard for both – breaking in and breaking out – are exactly the same.

In other words, the thing Dennis Lehane had to pull off to get Mystic River into Sean Penn’s hands is precisely the same thing that Danielle Girard had to achieve – I know, you’ve probably never heard of her, which is precisely the point – when she sold Savage Art, the first of her five published works.

Or, what I had to pull out of the hat when I sold my first novel in late 1999, Darkness Bound.  Same deal. 

Danielle Girard and I both broke in.  The reason you probably haven’t heard of either of us is that we haven’t yet broken out.

And it isn’t for lack of trying, I’m here to tell you.  And, if you’ve been here a while and are appreciating Storyfix, I hope you agree it isn’t from lack of storytelling knowledge, either.

Which is also an important variable in this mix, because even if you do meet these forthcoming criteria for breaking in and/or breaking out, you’ll still need to catch a break for either of them to happen.

Not all worthy books catch that break.  Sucks, but it’s a fact.

That said, you’ll never catch that break unless you know what it takes for a book to even get in the game at either level.

And I’m about to tell you.

Before I do, though, consider this: how many novelists can you name that have successful careers, but never really get huge, never really make it to the same lunch table with Grisham, Patterson, Nora Roberts, Terry Brooks, Caleb Carr, Harlan Coben, some lady named J.K. Rowling and a long roster of other A-list writers?

That’s what they are – A-list authors – and the thing that they have in common isn’t a discernable superiority of storytelling skill, though they certainly are good enough at what they do to maintain their seat at that particular table. 

No, what they have in common is that they all broke out.   Usually several books down the road after they actually broke in.

And for both of those they had to catch a break.

Once a writer has broken out, once they are famous, the criteria you are about to discover here no longer apply to them.  They simply need to continue to be good, to deliver work that fans expect, and to never (or rarely) deviate noticeable from whatever their branded niche is.

Ask Robert James Waller about that one – his break out novel  — a little thing called The Bridges of Madison County — was as huge as they come.  So were the movie stars who sucked up to him to land their roles in the hit movie.  And yet… when was the last time you saw a Waller novel in anything other than a used book store? 

Sort of like Nicholas Cage after the Oscar.  He’s good.  He’s no DeNiro or DiCaprio, as his breakout performance once promised, but he’s good enough to still get box office.

Nothing is certain in this businss.  All was have to cling to are the principles that will at least get us into the right slush pile.

Can you name Dennis Lehane’s latest novel?  Didn’t think so. 

Why?  Because he deviated.  (The book, published in 2009, is called The Given Day, a historical mainstream character study.)   He wrote it because he could, because he’s Dennis Lehane, which is the only reason it got published. 

Rest assured, he’ll return to the gritty thrillers that have made him the poster boy for break out success with Mystic River, and deservedly so, along with a guy named Dan Brown.

I’ve teased you long enough.

I’ve written here that even if you nail the six core competencies in your story – concept, character, theme, structure, scene construction and writing voice – you may still very well fall short of your goal of selling it.

Because way more than half of the manuscripts submitted these days do precisely that – they’re all just fine in the six core competencies department.

It really depends on how you define the word nail in that context.

If you’re simply good at all six, if you’re simply fine, chances are you won’t break in. 

Janet Evanovich can be fine and sell books, you can’t.

Or if you’ve published and you’re stuck at the lower mid-list and know the feeling of sitting at a book signing with nobody there, and all you’re doing is being fine, rather than the thing that caught a publisher’s eye back in the day, chances are you won’t break out. 

At least until you go to another storytelling level.

That’s how the A-listers are different.  They’ll do okay, they’ll still get their novels in the bookstore window, by simply being good at all six. 

Good, just like you, only they get seriously paid.

To break in…  or break out… you need something better than good.

And I don’t mean simply good in all six of the core competencies.  I mean really really good, phenomenally good, in one or two of them.

You need to hit one or two of the core competencies out of the park.  To show an editor, and the reading public, something astoundingly compelling, original, provocative, shocking and unforgettable.

Ask Dan Brown how well that works.  Even with a rather unremarkable protagonist, an average writing voice and scenes that are straight out of a writing workshop exercise, he made $300 million on one story, and another $100 million with other books, which were only fine, because of it.

The Davinci Code became the best selling novel of modern times – and, by the way, it was Brown’s break out novel after a handful of earlier books you almost certainly didn’t read until after you read Davinci – precisely because he knocked two of the core competencies to the moon.

His concept and his themes in that story were off-the-charts brilliant. 

Even if they pissed you off.  Perhaps precisely because they did piss off a large percentage of the reading public.

To break in… to break out… you need a concept that in one or two sentences will make a publisher want to write you a check.  That rocks their world.

To break in… to break out… you need a character that comes alive off the page in such a palpable way – think Holden Caulfield and Harry Potter, the latter of which, by the way, had the benefit of a killer concept, as well – that people will send you truck-loads of mail begging for a sequel.

Sequels, by they way, are almost entirely driven by your character, rather than any of the other core competencies.  Harry Potter without Harry, or someone just as interesting, is just another YA. 

Sequels, also by the way, are the consequences of writing a breakout novel.  They won’t publish a Book Two if the first one flops.

To break in… to break out… you need a thematic landscape that leave people breathless and talking at the same time.  Think The Cider House Rules, Indecent Proposal, The Lovely Bones, and just about all the Oprah books.

Simple, right?

Just create something freaking brilliant in the realms of concept, character and theme.

One home run in one core competency, if it’s strong enough, could do it.  Two will get you to the next level.   Three… well, that’s just not realistic, at least at the level we’re talking about.

Do this long enough, project after project, by not settling for stories that don’t deliver the goods against this break in/break out criteria, and you just might catch that break that add you to the A-list.

Or at least, add you to the row upon row of paperbacks at Borders.

One dream come true at a time, right? 

Write on.

Swinging for the concept fences:


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8 Responses to Breaking In, Breaking Out, and Just Plain Catching a Break

  1. Hey Larry, forgive me if this is a dumb question (I”m sick today so my brain is slow), but you have the 6 core competencies: concept, character, theme, structure, scene construction and writing voice.

    Your Story structure book deals with Structure
    Your 3 dimension of Character deals with Character

    Will you come out with individual books dealing with concept, theme, scene construction and writing voice?
    And, when is the 6 core competencies book out?

  2. @Shane — good morning, thanks for showing up. Not a dumb question at all. My 6CC book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Sucessful Writing” comes out next February from Writers Digest Books. I know, a crazy-long lead time. So it goes in New York. Meanwhile, I hadn’t really planned on doing a ebook on any of the others, though I’ll continue to blog about each in more depth. My next ebook is an expansion of an earlier series, “Get Your Bad Self Published,” which may be too hip for about half my audience, so I’m still considering that as a title. Ya think?

    Thanks for all your support here, much appreciated. Hope you feel better. L.

  3. Cool. Reason I asked is I was making flow charts (mind map stuff) of the 6 core competencies so I could wrap my brain around a nice big graphical representation of everything you’ve covered and I didn’t have anything for the other 4 yet.

    That title is bad-ass. Go with it.

  4. Larry.
    I didn’t find FPP it found me.
    Saw the ca. early 80s movie ” Wall Street” last night.

    An ah hah explosion and a half.
    A single sentence of dialogue decided it. ” Yes, Mr Gekko. You have me.” To break bad was decided. Until that moment there were a lot of parts and pieces of story. But, THE STORY started at that moment.

    I looked at my watch. It was right on time. 75% of the movie to go. Wild.

    I am still excited about the find. The rest fell into place, like, well, clock work.

    “Get Your Bad Self Published,” I can’t imagine half your audiance not going with that title. If it’s an ebook. Offer two titles if half the tribe prefers a different feel. 🙂

  5. I agree with most of what you have written but you miss one important factor – the x factor. A break out book will have a factor that is beyond the story and the writing. It is impossible to put your finger on the x factor. The fact that US publishers paid a lot of cash for JK Rowling’s first book, meant that they HAD to make it a success. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code tapped into a of ‘group’ thinking AND was always going to make a cracking film. I could go on…

  6. @Bubblecow — I always hate to push back on a reader who has taken the time to write me, but here goes. I agree completely with what you say, other than you observation that I missed it. Read it again, you’ll see what I mean… or maybe I wasn’t clear. The “X-factor” is, in fact, when one of the six core competencies is astoundingly well conceived and executed. That’s what it takes to break in and to break out, and that’s precisely what the x-factor is… a writing voice that sings and sizzles… a concept nobody has seen before… an iconic character… a theme that redefines life itself… and (perhaps this is the one you meant), a level of integration and execution that is flawless and rare.

    We’re on the same page after all, I believe.