Friday, April 16, 2010

What Makes a Novel Great?

We'd like to thank everyone who submitted an entry to our Audience with an Agent Contest. We look forward to reading the more than 50 entries we received. Finalists will be announced May 15.
Ariel started our conversation this week about an author's responsibility to care for his or her readers. Patti closed the circle between reader and writer by encouraging readers to contact authors who have touched them with their writing, and gave us a few examples of her own. When you consider it can take a year or more to write a manuscript, and another year or more beyond that for the manuscript to become a published work, a word of appreciation from a satisfied reader is most welcome. I certainly appreciate notes from readers, and reply to every one I receive. The emergence of the internet has made it easier than ever to contact an author. I sent my first email to a novelist about 10 years ago and was thrilled to receive a reply. I still make it a point to contact authors whose books I especially like.
If there's one author of antiquity whom I'd have loved to correspond with, it would be the one and only Charles Dickens. I've been a fan for years. One of the best gifts I ever received was given to me by my husband a number of years ago. It's a set of prints of original sketches from the covers of six of Dickens' novels, signed by his great grandson. They hang on the wall of my office where I write, ever an inspiration.
As always, we received a number of interesting comments from our readers this week. One in particular brought up the question of what constitutes a great book. What standard is employed and who's the judge? The point was made that while publication is a great achievement, it doesn't equate to greatness. I couldn't agree more. I'll go a step further and say that even a book that reaches the height of success isn't a sign of its greatness. Plenty of poorly written books have become best sellers. Yes, plenty. A few months ago I began reading a book that was all the rage at the time. I had to see for myself what all the hubbub was about. From page one I had to force myself to keep reading, which I did only because I was determined to get to the end. But halfway through I literally tossed the book across the room in disgust, because that best seller was anything but great. By the same token, the lack of success a book achieves is not an indication of a book's mediocrity.
How a reader feels about any published work is purely subjective, but there are ways to objectively judge the quality of a book. Obviously, the story must be engaging -- which can arguably be subjective, I know. Characters must be three dimensional, even in plot-driven fiction, and plots must be well constructed, even in character-driven fiction. You can't use trickery to make up for a weak plot. Notice I didn't say there can't be surprises, but there mustn't be contrivances. Word choice matters. A writer should invest in the time necessary to select the best word to convey the correct meaning. Every time. There's no excuse for lazy writing. Whether every loose end is tied up or not, a reader should never feel cheated when she gets to the final page. I read a novel a few years ago by John Grisham -- an author I usually enjoy. But when I got to the last page I actually said out loud, "What? Did you run out of paper?" I felt like Grisham had hit a brick wall, and had taken me along for the ride.
An author asks a lot of a reader, first that they invest their money in the book, then their time. It should be worth the reader's investment in every regard. That is one sure way of keeping a reader coming back to that author's written word. What constitutes greatness in a novel for you? Have you ever gone against the tide of popularity with a given title?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I love that you tossed the book across the room. An example of how invested we get in what we read.

I call a book great when the characters remain with me weeks, months, sometimes years after I've read it. The message or theme sticks. The words and descriptions in the book are like chocolate for my brain (Peace Like a River).

Wonderful question to think about.
~ Wendy

Laura Frantz said...

Great post. As a new author I'm often bewildered by what sells and is perceived as a good book. Thanks for addressing this difficult subject with honesty and grace. And yes, reader mail is truly a wonderful plus to this often crazy writing life!

Katie Ganshert said...

What a great post! Best wishes to all the entrants in your contest!

I LOVE when authors reply when I send them an email. And if the book captivated me, then I almost always write a note. Because as a writer myself, I hope to recieve the same encouragement. :)

What makes a good book is a hard question to answer! Sometimes, it's the characters, or the writing...sometimes it's an engaging storyline. Or a killer romance between two characters. For example, Twilight. Lots of writers criticize it for its writing or the cliches or the characters....but even so, Meyers obviously did something right. The girl has captivated millions.

Nicole said...

I think the answer varies considerably between those who read AND write and those who read without writing.

Writers can be quick to criticize the technical aspects of books, being distracted by what they consider to be "poorly written". Some readers don't even notice the technical aspects: it's all about story as was noted here in a previous post.

I've spent the majority of the past 30 years in Christian fiction, more intensely since I wrote my first novel. The quality (from a writer's standpoint) has increased dramatically in recent years both in the technical aspects and the originality of story concepts. I think Frank Peretti was a major pioneer and player in this.

For me, "greatness" is achieved in unique (and by that I don't necessarily mean quirky) three-dimensional characters who resonate with passion in stories with profound or meaningful concepts. (Redeeming Love, The Oath, Demon . . . a memoir, The Passion of Mary-Margaret to name just a few.)

Right now I'm reading the secular novelist Vince Flynn. I absolutely love his books because of his hero Mitch Rapp. Incredible protagonist. Poignant subject. Fascinating stories. Decent writing while breaking a few "rules" which quite frankly I enjoy.

I guess "great" for me must "have it all" according to what appeals to me.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Yes! I often don't understand why the "big" books are so great and the more obscure books are completely missed.

A book is great to me when I can't put it down. When I look away and hear the author's voice in my head. When I care about the outcome of the characters.

Have a great weekend!

Laura S. said...

For me, characters carry a novel. I want a compelling plot, too, but a novel is great to me when I care about the characters as if they were real. But some books I love other people might think are so-so and vice versa. What makes a novel great really depends on the reader and their preferences.

Really nice post!

Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

I agree totally that "bestseller" doesn't equate to "great book." John Grisham may still be a bestseller, but I haven't read a book of his in years because after a few, they all sounded the same to me. Other books that I love are a long ways from the bestseller list. I've heard that the Harry Potter series has lots of grammatical errors, but got marketed like crazy so has been very popular. I'd say controversy sold The DaVinci Code, because it was (in terms of research and accuracy) one of the worst books I've read. Still, it's an interesting question to ask. :)

Terri Tiffany said...

Good post! I hate it when the ending leaves me thinking too what a waste. I want to be entertained not feel let down.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, everyone, for a good discussion. We love hearing from you.

Samantha Bennett said...

Great post! For me, a great book is one I want to read all night long, and one that sticks with me years later. :)