A Recipe for Writing the Breakout Novel

What is a breakout novel?

Read on as Agent Sarah Davies (of Greenhouse Literary) shares her opinion of what makes a breakout novel and the five secret ingredients that will make your novel a success. She shared the following information at the 2009 SCBWI LA Conference. So if you want to be the next “it-author” take a cue or two from Ms. Davies.

The breakout novel is the novel that will change a writer’s career. It is the novel that everyone is talking about. It has buzz. Publishers make 90% of their revenue from the breakout novels which represent only 10% of the books they publish. The breakout novel makes the money and makes the space for other novels to survive and flourish.


1) Your Work Must Be Unique!

  • Your work must have an inspired concept. Know your market, and then forget it – write from inside you.  “If there is a story you want to read that doesn’t exist, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison
  • 80% of the submissions Davis receives are what she calls “common stories.” These are stories about the paranormal, school bullies, outcast girls, soft coming of age stories, domestic stories. You need to stand out! A quality concept is very important to Davies.
  • What is your USP – Unique Selling Point? Don’t start to write until you have an astoundingly clear and clever idea. A couple of sentences is all an agent or editor or sales rep has to sell a book. Know your USP. Examples of some good attention-getting USP’s are: “A boy tries to rescue an elephant in Africa.” Or the book Princess for Hire – the title says it all. Think big! Be prepared to research! Think past your small world.
  • Concept is not enough. You must have the writing to back up your concept. Devil’s Kiss by Sarwat Chadda is a good example of a marketable idea that also has the ability to show off the author’s dark writing. 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher is another example where the story of a girl’s suicide is transformed into a thriller, and has the writing to back it up.

2) You Must Have Larger Than Life Characters!

  • Create vivid, true, leap-off-the-page-and-into-our-hearts-and-minds characters! You need to know your characters so well that you aren’t explaining them as you go along. Show not tell! Beware of the information dump.
  • “What I like in a good author is not what he/she says, but what he/she whispers.” (unknown source). Don’t explain everything. Whisper. Check out the book The Other Side of Blue by Valerie Patterson, as this is a good example of this point.
  • Description’s sole purpose is to reveal character.
  • Character is revealed by conflict and dilemma. All of these things will move us toward the revelation at the end of the book.
  • Listen to real conversations. You will realize that 90% of conversation is completely self-interested. The external conversation in your story must reflect the internal life of your character.

3) Your Story Must Have High Stakes!

  • You must always build and build and build tension in your story. Build to your story climax. Davies suggests outlining so that you know where you are going and then you can figure out how to build to the climax.
  • What are the stakes of your story? In Devil’s Kiss the stakes are love vs. the world, as the character discovers the person she loves is also the person she must destroy.  The Other Side of Blue is an inward story with the stakes of “internal death” emotionally. One of the most extraordinary books Davies has read lately is Tender Morsels which contemplates the effects of a world without evil, and what are the true consequences of such a world.
  • Always know what your characters stand to win or lose.

4) Your Story Must Have a Deeply Felt Theme.

  • What is the unique moral or spiritual element of your story? This is not a moral at the end of the story. Don’t moralize or force a story to say what you want it to. What is the humanity that this story reveals? You need something that will be deeply felt. What does your story teach us about what it means to be human? What are we left with after the book is finished?
  • Examples of deeply felt themes: 13 Reasons Why shows us that a multitude of small things can deeply affect other people. Even the smallest thing can be gigantic. It also tells us that sometimes there is nothing we can do to save somebody. In Devil’s Kiss we take away the knowledge that one must do what is right even at our own peril or risk, because if we did not do it we would not be able to live with ourselves. The Others Side of Blue is a story about hope.
  • “The best books teach us more about ourselves than about our characters.” (unknown source).

5) Your Story Must Have a Vivid Setting.

  • Create a setting that is imbued with emotion. Create a setting that becomes a character in and of itself. In Pullman’s The Golden Compass this is Oxford. In The Devil’s Kiss this is London.

6) Additional Sixth Secret – Voice!

  • Be a musician with your voice! Be aware of language. Develop an ear for language and find the music that is under it. Find the cadence.

  • Voice should be silvery and luminous.

Additional Comments by Sarah Davies:

  • The movie Slumdog Millionaire is a good example of all of the above points put into a movie. Watch it.
  • “Story is created by the revelation of the internal and the external.” (unknown source).
  • “There is more reward in fighting through the pain of revision than giving up and starting something new.” – Sarah Davies (Her writers put in months and sometimes years into revisions).

A Bit About Sarah Davis and Her Agency:

  • Sarah Davies (pronounced Davis) is the owner of Greenhouse Literary Agency.
  • Originally from England she moved to Washington DC to get married, and to start her agency.
  • She wishes to make her stamp on the industry with Greenhouse.
  • She represents Middle Grade through YA Writers. However, if you decide to diversify later in your career she will still represent you.
  • She receives about 150 queries per week. She is looking for the gold nugget that will shine through the slush.
  • She is passionate about changing lives and making writers dreams come true.
  • Sarah Davies is looking for a spark – something that makes her sit up in her chair. It needs to have a clear voice, and a descent plot. She will help you with the plot, but you must know the voice.
  • Davies is a lover of language. Language are her jewels.
  • To submit check out her website, as well as read her blog (there is a specific blog entry about submission). Don’t trust hard copy printed information – always check online.

Sarah Davies is an agent at Greenhouse Literary, who represents and manages the careers of authors writing fiction for children, from young chapter-book series through middle grade novels to sophisticated teen fiction. Her clients include: Sarwat Chadda, Jon Mayhew, Harriet Goodwin,Valerie Patterson, among others.

3 thoughts on “A Recipe for Writing the Breakout Novel

  1. All very good points. What happens, though, when your deeply felt story, characters, and setting are so different and deceptively simple that agents and publishers really can’t read them intelligently?

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