Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Guideline to Great

My approach to writing novels so far has been a bit like stabbing in the moonlight: I've had an inkling of what I'm doing, an idea, organization, some skill, but no real plan aside from finishing a novel. Of course, I always plan for my novels to be instant New York Times bestsellers that launch my career in a J.K. Rowling/Stephanie Meyer/Suzanne Collins sort of way, but aside from that, my general plan has been to write something I find entertaining.

As far as a plan goes, it's a good one. In fact, I think it's key to producing a good novel. No, make that a great novel. I doubt Rowling or Meyer or Collins were bored by their own tales. There's something about an author who loves her characters, who writes from that place of love and enthusiasm, that comes through in the end result.

However, I think there's so much more to the art of writing a novel. So I've been taking a serious look at the novels I love—what works in them, what I love about them, what I wish I could change about them. It's research that every agent, editor, and author will tell you to do, and it's one I've done in an osmosis sort of way until now. This time, I've been deliberate in my research.

I've come up with a list of what I consider essential for a good story. It's a list that will be sitting beside me when I do the edits on Faye and it will be a list that I reference as I outline my next novel.

In no particular order:
  • a strong female lead (yes, I like novels with male protagonists, but I doubt I'll ever write one) who has some key flaws to make her interesting
  • a protagonist who is tested, has her buttons pushed, and who is forced to deal with issues/problems she'd rather not
  • conflict that tests the protagonist but doesn't break her, or if it breaks her, the break is temporary, mendable, especially with the help of friends or learned inner strength
  • conflict that puts the protagonist in situations that help define her character 
  • a cast of characters I might want for friends or who I at least enjoy seeing as friends of the protagonist
  • friends who assist the protagonist when the going gets tough
  • a happy, uplifting, good-conquers-evil ending
  • magic or mysticism and/or a unique world, even if it's this one from an angle I'm not familiar with
  • adventure: physical conflict as well as inner conflict
  • humor
  • if the novel is in a series, I adore when jokes, themes, and secondary story lines are carried across the series to make the characters feel like old friends and like I'm someone on the inside with them, someone in the know
  • love
  • animals
  • something new
In some ways, it's a standard list (especially the first four points), but there are components that make me tick that others probably don't care about. For instance, half of the reason I enjoyed Tangled was because of the horse's antics. Nothing's better than a fun animal in a story. Same for Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels and the dog, Bob. Same for the Robin D. Owens novels and all the Fam animals in them.

Creating this list has opened my eyes: several of the novels I've written don't have almost half of the bullet points. Or if they do, the elements are weak. I've definitely pinpointed areas to strengthen in Faye and in my next novel!

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