I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a book worthy of being recommended. What are the elements that make for a memorable read? I’m convinced there’s no formula. If there were, novels would be cookie cutter versions of one another and they’re certainly not. So what are the elements of a novel that make people talk about it and read other books written by the author?
This is not going to be a blog about “How to Write the Perfect Novel.” Writing workshops, seminars, books on writing – all of those things may help, but unless the basics are there, spending time and money doing those things is lost money. I had a mentor who told me to “Just Do It.” Yeah, but how does one do it? Pen to paper or fingers to computer keys. There’s no secret here, no magic bullet. It’s kind of a ”mind dump.”
So here’s my take on what I think makes for a good novel, and no I don’t have a Ph.D in Literature, although English literature was my major or college. No, what I offer is the experience of many years of voracious reading. An aha moment for me was when I realized I didn’t have to finish a book. There’s a lot of lousy books out there. If I didn’t care what happened to the characters, it was time to go on to another one.
1. Plot. Big surprise! Is it interesting? Does it work for the characters? What’s unique about it? Has attention been spent on the denouement (a fancy word for the resolution of the plot). Think about it – if the characters simply meander to the end of the book and look at the sunset, who cares? But when the characters come together to make something happen in the novel and then there is some resolution of whatever is the pivotal point, that’s denouement and crucial to a good read.
2. Characters. Does the reader even care enough about them to finish the book to see what happens to them? Is the plot appropriate for the characters? What about their dialogue? Is their dialogue compatible with who they are and where they came from? Or is it tortured and way too proper for them? Many of us were taught “proper English,” but the more I write the more I realize if it’s appropriate for a character to use English that’s not proper, then that’s as it should be.I was taught not to start a sentence with “and” or “but” and never use “was because.” But that’s how we often speak and characters would too, so more and more I’m using them. I’m just a few weeks away from publishing Tea Party Teddy, a tell-all California political novel. There are some tough gangster characters in it. Would they use the same dialogue that Teddy, a legislator, would use? Of course not. Characters and their dialogue have to be believable.
3. Setting. Does the setting fit in with the plot and the characters? A Beverly Hills Barbie is probably not going to be very believeable in the jungles of the Amazon in her Jimmy Choo shoes unless there’s been a reason for her to go there. And is the setting believeable as well? Today there’s no excuse for not making a setting believable. It’s all a click away on the Internet. I recall when I was writing Blue Coyote Motel I spent a lot of time looking at maps of various cities to get my streets, directions, hotels, etc. correct. It’s easy. Recently I read a book by a very well-known author and there was a huge error on the first page of the book. The airport given was not correct for the city. I know, because I fly in and out of that airport a lot. In today’s world that’s simply inexcusable and that’s the kind of stuff that makes a reader put the book down. If the author doesn’t care enough (or the editor) to make sure that what is written is correct, why would I want to continue with the book?
4. The Little Things. Attention to detail is huge in a novel. If the protagonist is going to fly from Paris to Los Angeles, the author better make sure that flying time, time zones and extra time for Customs, Immigration, etc. have all been properly accounted for. How often have you read something and the character would have to have been beamed from one place to another to make the times given doable? If one of the characters has brown hair early on in the book, unless there’s been a given reason for it to be another color at the end of the book, it better still be brown.
5. Keeping Track of Characters and Events. I’ve found I need to write down the names of the characters so I can make sure if I refer to one, it’s the correct one. I recently read a book where I thought that the author had written the name of the wrong character and it was very jarring. I went back and found that, yes, he had put in the wrong character’s name, but by then I didn’t care. That was a book I put down. If the author couldn’t keep his own characters straight, why should I try?
6. Lastly, Copyediting. No matter how good the story, the characters, and everything else may be in a novel, if there’s a number of misspelled words or words not used in the right context, it detracts from the story. Spellcheck may help but it can’t differentiate when, for example, their is used for there. Just as irritating, is incorrect punctuation. It, too, detracts from the story. I know a lot of authors, particularly self-published authors, try to save money and do it themselves. It doesn’t work. If you didn’t know not to do the right thing in the first place, you’re not going to spot it now. Another thing to be aware of is that in most cases an editor is NOT a copyeditor. I know of two authors who had editors, but no copyeditors. Mistakes abounded in both books. Even though they eventually fired their editors, they lost a lot of credibility with their readers, if they even finished the books. They relied on the editor to do the copyediting as well. If someone picks up a book and it’s sloppily edited, chances are that person will never read anthing else by the author.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture! Writers, pay attention.! Readers, don’t feel you have to finish the book!
So little time, so many books!