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Dissecting THE SUN, RAILROAD and LITTLE FIRES

an image of an open book with a fountain pen balanced on top
Photo by Max Pixel, CC0

Be impressed with your Writer Unboxed Breakout Novel Dissection Group. In our last round of discussions, we dissected not one, but three novels. All at once. We were trying something new, just this once, and there’s a good reason why.

If you have been following posts from the dissection group, you know that four times a year we ask members to nominate a recent novel they’d want to discuss in order to understand the mechanics that led to its breakout success. From half a dozen nominees, members vote to select the one novel we’ll dissect.

Members of the dissection group are writers (and readers) of all genres. Thus, we’ve ended up dissecting novels from nearly every genre: sci fi, dystopian, literary, women’s, historical, young adult, humor, thriller…

The range has been satisfying. Don Maass’s writings on breakout fiction – on which our group bases its dissections – recognize that the craft underlying breakouts applies across genre. In Writing 21st Century Fiction, he underscores that high-impact fiction merges both character- and plot-driven craft, propelling breakout success. And a frequent observation after dissections is how much participants gain from discussing novels in genres outside their typical reading or writing tastes.

Still… going into last year, the moderators and members of the group expressed a greater push for diversity. The democracy of picking one book often left stellar second and third choices. And – as much as we’d seen some range in author and main character diversity – we noticed that those near-misses would have included greater diversity in gender, race and culture.

So in July, we tried an experiment. Rather than reading only one top vote, we culled a poll from all of those near-misses, and then dissected the top three, which yielded this amazing list:

  • Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad
  • Nicole Yoon’s The Sun Is Also A Star
  • Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere

Warning: If you haven’t read the novel(s), know that SPOILERS MAY BE PRESENT in shared excerpts here or on the Facebook discussion.

Three books, one discussion.

Before you panic on behalf of our participants: members only had to read one of the books to participate (although our group is full of avid readers, so many had read two or all three of the books). We provided guidelines and summaries to keep things clear.

There are lots of reasons why this was a successful experiment. It allowed us to get to three books that had repeatedly been suggested by participants, where we might only have gotten to one or have missed these titles altogether. Sometimes we’ve lost participation when people were disappointed a great book wasn’t chosen — and we were legitimately stoked to be more inclusive with more choices.

And, from a craft perspective, it allowed us to compare side by side the ways each writer attempted (or ignored) aspects of breakout fiction. As we all know from workshop discussions, those kind of comparisons can lead to fresh insights.

Threads of Breakout Characteristics

Our group uses a set of questions – approximately six per day for a week – derived from Don Maass’s advice in Writing the Breakout Novel. From the dozens of insights participants shared, here are a few highlights that stood out:

  • The Sun is Also a Star is a young adult novel that portrays a brief romance that takes place in New York City in a single day, while the main character is fighting to overturn her family’s impending deportation. Our dissection participants recognized it as a new twist on an old idea: star-crossed teen love is a familiar theme, yet was entirely new for their love to be doomed because the main character discovered she was in the country illegally. Beyond this, participants commented on the power of the author’s voice and choice of a structural format that almost seemed to break all the rules. Yoon is surprising in the way she jumps into the heads of seeming minor characters, such as the TSA screener at the airport — participants commented on how this startling choice created a sense of the whole city’s involvement in the teens’ plight. Likewise, Yoon’s choice to use extremely short chapters created a structure that felt modern as if it paralleled the brevity of the ways we talk in social media, texting, etc. That clean brevity was a strength in creating this author’s fresh voice.
  • The Underground Railroad is a Pulitzer prize-winning historic novel depicting a woman’s escape from slavery in the south. Whitehead’s rich voice and narrative give the character’s life an immediacy that stood out in our discussions. Railroad also stood out as being a novel with a high concept, gut emotional appeal, and definitely a new twist on an old idea. On a literal level, Whitehead’s research and vivid depiction added new understanding to what has been written about this period in history. More dramatically, he creates a new effect — with breakout impact — through the fantasy element of depicting the Underground Railroad as a actual railway, with both metaphorical and physical implications. The emotional effect of Whitehead’s writing and high impact theme were a major factor in this novel’s breakout.
  • Little Fires Everywhere was interesting in discussions as it was clearly a breakout from bestselling rankings (a New York Times hardcover bestseller for more than 40 weeks at the time of our discussion, and the most-rated book on Goodreads published in 2017), but was quieter in our discussions of “high concept” elements. Readers responded strongly to development of character and quality of writing. Fires stood out on the days we discussed symbols, particularly in names and in the details of one character’s art work. Dissectors identified a new premise in the way Ng explored nontypical family structures and revealed unspoken wealth conflicts within an affluent American suburb. The symbolism, plot effect or high concept of the “little fires” themselves, our dissectors were divided on. Discussion also considered the impact of marketing, as we do in with some breakouts.

Since our discussions are usually months apart, it was unique for us to be able to compare books side by side. If you are interested, you can read the full discussion in the Facebook group.

But… Not BND’s New Modus Operandi

Spoiler: multi-novel dissections won’t be our new norm.

While participants found the mixed dissection high-paced or interesting, we also had feedback that it complicated some aspects of discussion or left participants feeling left out when discussions focused on books they hadn’t read.

So, while we will continue to be open to experimentation, we will be back to reading one book for our next dissection in October, when we’ll dissect The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Peel Society .

What are your thoughts? Join in the comments to let us know that you thought about this discussion or other recent reads that struck you as a breakout success. Are there certain breakout characteristics that make books more appealing to you? Do you consider these characteristics in your own writing?

Want to join in WU’s next Breakout Novel Dissection? Find our group on Facebook.

About Elissa Field

Elissa Field is a writer, freelance editor, and educator, who splits time between Connecticut and South Florida, with her two sons. She is currently teaching ancient world history at a school for the arts, while finishing a novel. She is a frequent advocate for diverse literature, and supportive of fellow writers.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.