How Many Years Does It Take to “Break Out?”

Maass-Writing-the-Breakout-Novel-coverIn 2002 Donald Maass published Writing the Breakout Novel, a book now famous throughout the writing land. I sat in the fifth row, through his all-day workshop in Orange County in 2004, thinking: “This guy scares the bejeezus out of me. I’ll never learn all this.”

I was still a baby writer. He was talking about “tension on every page” and “breakout novels” and honestly, I didn’t know what the hell any of that meant yet.

I hadn’t written enough, read widely enough. Hell, I hadn’t lived bravely enough at that point to grasp what he meant.

“Writing the breakout novel demands a commitment to life. How can you engage readers in your fictional world if you, the author, are not engaged by your own world? To write about life, you must live it. You cannot make readers cry or feel joy until you have wept and exulted yourself.”
— Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

Some people are born knowing how to write. Most of us are not. We have to work and play and learn. We have to write and SUCK at it, and write some more.

I’ve written about Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything. Since math isn’t my strongest skill, let me break that down. If you wrote 8 hours a day, taking into account the various sick days, it would take you FOUR years of solid work to master the craft of writing. 

That means if you’re like me, constantly impatient to “be there already,” you’ve got a looooong wait in front of you.

I’ve never written more than 2-3 hours a day, and I usually take a few days off. That means, if I include the 700 blogs, 71 non-fiction articles, 23 short stories, 9 unfinished novels and 1 book I’ve fully drafted, might be getting somewhere close to “there.” Sometime in the next few years. If I keep working as hard as I am now.

Before, y’all start getting depressed about how long this writing thing takes, or wondering when you’re going to “break out,” ask yourself something:

Have you jumped yet?

Here’s what it means to “jump.”

I don’t love that the video equates success to snazzy cars, but I adore that Harvey tells you to be fearless.

Here’s how “The Donald” puts it:

“In both life and fiction, when people act in ways that are unusual, unexpected, dramatic, decisive, full of consequence, and irreversible, we remember them and talk about them for years. Isn’t that the effect you want to achieve?”
— Donald Maass, The Breakout Novelist

I just spent some time with an amazing infographic from BlinkBox Books examining “the careers of some of the world’s most successful authors. You can sort by first published book, age at breakthrough book, and number of books published.”

It’s extraordinary and extremely revealing to see the impact these novelists have had. Especially those like James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charlotte Brontë, who only wrote five books. That infographic illuminates that quality of fiction and depth of character are what make an author memorable.

That infographic is the reason why I wrote this post. It’s Thoughty Thursday, and I’m thinking it’s time to JUMP! How about you?

What brave moments come to mind, where you jumped with both feet? How did it turn out? What did you learn from it? Enquiring minds LOVE to know about these things here at More Cowbell!

~ Jenny

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm ( Write on!
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38 Responses to How Many Years Does It Take to “Break Out?”

  1. LauraDrake says:

    Yay!!!! Jump on, Girlfriend! I’ll be plodding, in my own tortoise-like way, right after you.
    But, as you know, the method doesn’t matter – it’s the results!

    Got my too-friggin’-tight cheerleader skirt on! I’d jump, but then there’d be an ambulance involved, and all that screaming…

    Let’s just say that I’ve got your back!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. K.B. Owen says:

    Fab post, Jenny! Wow, you’ve written a lot more than I have! I’ve definitely jumped, but I don’t think that parachute has opened yet. Hope I didn’t get a defective one! Helllllllp…… #BashingOnRocks

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amber West says:

    Love the bit about living. I think it can be easy to lock ourselves in a little writers’ cave, obsessing over those “hours” and forget that life inspires – so butt in chair isn’t always the answer. 🙂

    I think I jumped when I decided to publish my first book. And it feels like jumping any time I talk about my writing with others.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Amber! I agree completely (says the girl who hasn’t left the house since Monday). Sometimes we get into our deadlines and our cave. It just works that way. I loved your first book – Ruth Valley Missing, for anyone who missed it.

      How’s that for helping you jump a little? *giggling*


      • Amber West says:

        Hahaha. You’re the best.

        Also, I feel the need to point out that you can still be “living” without leaving the house. Taking care of the kids and projects and work and ALLTHETHINGS are still life.

        Just life with sweatpants. And unruly hair.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Charlene says:

    I loved the concept of needing to jump, knowing that t some point your parachute WILL open. It’s scary, jumping, really scary, because who knows how damaging some of those injuries you incur during the fall will be? But Steve’s promise that if you never jump, the parachute will never open was a great and inspiring point. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Charlene, it’s the scariest thing ever, I think. Just sending out queries is scary. But we have to. As my crit partners say, if you don’t knock on the doors, you can be assured NONE of them will open.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Jump in! The water is great! And don’t forget to include all the reading time that goes into making a writer a writer. That’s part of it, too. From reading your blog posts, I think you’re a wonderful writer. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. ericjbaker says:

    What do I get for writing 10,000 dopey comments on people’s blogs?


    Liked by 2 people

  7. markbialczak says:

    I broke out when I was 14, but my mommy bought me Stridex, told me to stop touching my acne and stop my whining about it, Jenny. That taught me how to live at least …

    Yeah, the newsoom was like that too, all those fellow journalists banding together to just go for it.

    I don’t write fiction, but I’ve written a lot of stories about life, Jenny, and I feel like I’ll get there. And like Eric says, wow, I hope dopey comments count.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      BAHAHAHA! I didn’t even think of the adolescent kind of breakouts. How funny is that. I like life stories and memoirs a lot, Mark, so DO keep us posted about those. 🙂

      And newsrooms are full of fun characters. I went to Mizzou…trust me, I know!


      • markbialczak says:

        Did you go to Mizzou with my good friend and former colleague Don Cazentre? Though he may have passed through those hallowed classrooms before you, now that I think about the timing …


  8. Oh Jenny, I too feel as though I’m on the precipice and all I have to do is step off. I have 5 completed manuscripts, 1 of them is “there,” and another is close behind. With a little more fine-grained sandpaper those babies will sparkle and be ready to shed some glitter into the book world. All I have to do is – jump.

    Maybe we need to do it together?

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      FIVE completed manuscripts?! Look at you, girlfriend…you’re amazing!! I’d be proud to jump together, but I believe you’re gonna go first, and deserve every moment of success. 🙂


  9. I’ve got three scary “firsts” coming up over the next year and a half. Risky things. I’ll share one of them that I can talk about – I want to self publish a poetry book about famous women (Amelia Earhart, Sylvia Plath, Anne Frank, etc.) I know – who reads poetry these days? And who am I to think I know anything about poetry? I might make a fool of myself. Actually, there’s a high probability I will. But I feel compelled to do it anyway. 🙂

    When I get ready to jump off that cliff I definitely need someone to hold my hand and help me remember that even if I crash and burn I’m all the better for having jumped.

    Ah Jenny, you got me all “thoughty” on Thoughty Tuesday! Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Kelly Byrne says:

    Oh man, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve jumped…and landed on those pesky and very solid rocks down below. But I get up, dust my battered bones off, and climb right back up there to the top of that cliff, because, damn it, I just do not learn! 😉

    Ray Bradbury said, “You’ve got to jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” One of my all time favorite quotes. I’m building my wings and I’m happy to be a part of your journey as you build yours too, Jenny. That is quite an impressive writing resume, lady! I feel downright lazy in comparison. And to have won a writing contest with your first full manuscript? Amazeballs.

    That is all. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I LOVE that Bradbury quote! I’ve seen him speak twice, at the LA Times Festival of Books, and I’m always so impressed by him. He was so passionate about writing, and so giving to other writers.

      I’m in awe of all that jumping you’ve been doing! Most people kind of hang out down in the wilds, all dazed and beat-up for a while.

      And isn’t it funny how we see ourselves? I don’t think I’ve done all that much because I haven’t queried (besides the contests) and I haven’t finished the 9 books. I’m starting to feel better on the article side because I’m starting to be paid for them. There’s the earning part of me that will not feel like a “real writer” until I make some money from it, which is kind of ridiculous, but that’s the feeling that keeps pushing me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Kelly Byrne says:

        Oh I totally know about that earning part. She nags at me every single day! But we are ‘real writers’ because we write. Period. 🙂 I’m super stoked you’re making some coin from the articles. Wahoo!! That’s got to feel great. And it doesn’t even have to be a lot, though it would be nice, right?

        How terrific to hear Ray Bradbury speak. That would be awesome and oh so inspiring I imagine.

        Have you ever heard or seen this series by Ira Glass about creativity? It’s terrific. It gives me hope and keeps me going when I look at my writing and think it’s the worst thing ever written in the history of all bad things ever written. We all need hope. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Jess Witkins says:

    Ohmygosh do I understand how you feel. Wanting to move faster. But I think it will happen when it’s meant to and that my job is to put in the hard work that opens up opportunities for me. Keep writing Jenny!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I guess I jumped with both feet in when I started my blog. Now it’s an all consuming animal that takes up all my extra time! I have a bunch of blog posts still on the backburner. I need a clone to write my blog.


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