I know I’ve mentioned before how I love to listen to Barbara DeMarco-Barrett‘s Writers on Writing podcasts when I’m doing the dishes, or sitting in an airport, or driving long distances. During this last long bout of travel (the last for a bit, I pray!), I enjoyed a number, but one in particular stood out for me: an interview with NY literary agent Donald Maass. I’ve read Donald Maass‘ book Writing the Breakout Novel—and I wish I had it here with me now in my office in Mexico, because there are a number of interesting things he has to say in it.


Before writing the book, Maass made a systematic study of the novels that made the NYT bestseller list, wishing to identify what it was about a novel that made it outstandingly popular. I’m not attempting to be a Danielle Steels or Stephenie Meyer, but I do appreciate insights into what makes a story compulsively addictive. I like when a book has me deeply hooked: I love it … and that’s what I’m after.

Two things stood out in this particular interview for me:

One, that a compelling main character should be deeply conflicted right from the start: he or she must want two things that cannot co-exist.

The other thing he had to say that gave me thought was not so much about writing as about promotion: his belief that promotion and publicity isn’t what sells a book, that what sells a book is the book itself. I’d like to believe that, but I’m not convinced. I don’t think it’s an accident that the Josephine B. Trilogy sold very well in the countries that invested a great deal in promotion (and conversely).