What is it that defines the Great *insert Nationality* Novel?
What is it that makes a piece of literature stand above all others released at the same time? That makes it better than the literature that has been released previously?
It’s almost a cliché at this point…That we all keep a novel in progress in our drawer, on our hard drive or stashed away in numerous notebooks. We all aspire to write something great, to reach millions of people, to join those other timeless writers whose work is still read today.
But is there any easy way to define what makes a great novel and what makes a mediocre one? Not only that, what makes a novel actually sell today?
It’s sometimes said that there are two different kinds of books written today, the ones who are great literature and those who are bestsellers, the latter category and the writers what end up on the bestseller lists sometimes receive scorn for their writing, that it’s not good enough. That it’s assumed that to be a truly great novel, it must be hard and heavy and not something for the masses. Stephen King is one writer who has in the past received criticism for being just a writer “for the masses” without producing much great art in the process.
As a contrast, there are some writers who don’t even receive much in the way of recognition in their lifetime and only join those “great” names after they die. Herman Melville was one; by the time he passed he had been near forgotten despite some early success and Emily Dickinson another, whose vast volume of work was not even discovered until after she died.
So what kind of novel do you want to write? Do you want to be ne that receives positive reviews from the great literary critics and get talked about in the finer circles or a book that sells millions and ensures that you can comfortably live off of your writing?
To be sure, there are also bestsellers that have also received great reviews, often they might have been picked up by some celebrity who have promoted it and put it in the public’s eye, thus disproving that a fine and grand book does not have to be hard to write.
Often the problem is in the selling of your book and with the way literature is consumed today, a newly published book needs the right kind of promotion, the right kind of exposure if it’s not the kind of book that is the “in vogue” kind of story. As an example, “Fifty Shades of Grey” ensured that those kinds of books received a boost, more books like that received the all clear to be published and amateur writers started self-publishing their stories like mad to some success.
In Sweden it seems the crime novel will never go out of vogue, there are even publishers that focus on that genre and are always on the lookout for the next big name. It’s unfortunate if your style of writing, your chosen genre does not fit within “what’s hot” for publishers at the time, but with some patience you might find that the novel you have hidden away somewhere belongs to a genre that will be the next in thing.
But other than genre, what can make a novel sell, what gives it accolades and what is it that will make people not only read it, but recommend it to their friends and family?
It’s actually a question that has been up for debate countless of times, not only have I asked myself that in my solitary hours, it’s also been part of discussions with friends or on large forums with hundreds of people participating.
Somehow it always tends to boil down to “characters or plot”.
It’s easy to see why characters are important, because without characters to relate to, it doesn’t matter if the plot is interesting. If you don’t care about the characters, why should you want to read about their arduous trek through a zombie infested wasteland?
I’ve seen it written that it’s important how many characters you have, too many and you give your readers too much to keep track off, yet there also seems to be this golden number where there are just enough characters to keep the confusion at a manageable level, yet still keep people reading. Supposedly Agatha Christie employed this, very successfully since her books are still popular to this day. I would argue that The Song of Ice and Fire books, made famous by the Game of Thrones HBO series also employs this tactic. I might not know every character that walks into the spotlight, but I keep on reading.
And let’s not forget keeping your characters well-rounded and interesting, the concept of a “Mary Sue” is infamous among those who have grown up in my generation, as an example of a bad female character. There is a male equivalent, the “Marty Stu”, but he’s not as well-known I feel. But writing a compelling and realistic character is something you learn with time, my early characters could easily be labeled as Sues and Stus and it was only with time and exposure to better character that I learned how to balance my character traits better.
But here’s the other important factor, even if you have a grand cast of characters, with proper back-stories and good chemistry it might not matter if you don’t have a plot that leads anywhere or a story that doesn’t make any sense. I have picked up many a book at the library where I liked the characters presented to me, but the story never really took off until the book began to bore me with its meandering.
It does not seem like a proper answer, but I really do think you need both a good plot and good characters to even have a shot at a good story. There is a reason people work on novels for years…It can take that long to get to know your characters and let them develop properly, then to make sure your plot runt smoothly, not too slow and not too fast. That you have that hook that will ensure that your readers will just keep on turning the page or clicking on the “next page” on their tablets.
And if you worry that your story isn’t original enough? Forget about that. There isn’t a single story today that doesn’t borrow from an earlier work in some way. Many modern fantasy writers borrow from Tolkien, who in turn borrowed from older stories, folktales and Old Norse religions.
Yet, even as I established that it feels like I am missing something, that there is some other secret ingredient that has to be there in a novel for it to be truly great, that turns it into something that everyone will want to own just to show off how cultured they are. Maybe some writers really are born special, with a certain genius, as researchers speculated on in the past. That some people are better at breathing life into their characters and shaping their plots, their stories and their pacing in such a way that everything they publish is a treat to read.
As an aspiring novelist myself I have to hope that this is not the case, that we all carry within us the possibility to produce that great novel with a capital G and N, something that has the potential to amuse and thrill millions of people. Something that will surely be read.
That all we need is practice; practice in writing and practice in reading other books, so we might compare ourselves with them and see where we might need improvement or even where we have succeeded.
I will keep my fingers crossed for all of us, my fellow writers out there.