21 Ingredients for a Great Novel #MondayBlogs

I’m a writer, but, as I’ve so often said, I’m more of a reader than a writer, because I admit that I prefer reading to writing.

I’m a great reader, which means I read a lot, much more than most people.

I’ve always read a lot, but in the last three-four years, I’ve been reading between eight and fifteen books a month, depending on weather I’m writing or not. Most of the books I read are kindle ebooks, but I also read some paperbacks and a few audio books a month, too.

I read contemporary fiction, especially independent authors, debut authors and some bestsellers.

I especially enjoy reading psychological thrillers, romantic suspense, crime fiction, paranormal (but not vampires etc.), women’s fiction, Chick lit, historical romance, and contemporary romance.

I finish and review almost every book I start, unless I don’t enjoy it. Reading is a pleasure, and life’s too short to read books that aren’t for me.

As a result of all this reading and reviewing, I’ve decided to write a very personal, and therefore totally subjective, list of ingredients that make a great novel.

Here are my ingredients, in no particular order.

  1. Good editing is basic. I don’t mean random typos, which I may not even notice, I’m talking about grammar, syntax, register, clichés, repeated words, too many dialogue tags, and punctuation.
  2. Not too wordy. I don’t enjoy reading too much information, which adds nothing to the plot or characterisation. I don’t mind an occasional ‘red herring’, but I’m not keen on plots that go all over the place and confuse me.
  3. Good writing, which means it’s pleasant to read. This ties up with the previous points. I really appreciate, clear and precise prose, which gives me the information I need to feel I’m part of the setting and get to know the characters, like Girl in the Ice. 

ice

  1. Short chapters and short paragraphs are easier to read. I’m very busy and sometimes tired, as most readers. I read for a few minutes here and there, often while commuting or travelling, on a lunch break, between chores, at the end of the day, etc. I don’t enjoy rereading long paragraphs to try to understand what the main point is.
  2. Not too long (although it can be part of a series). In general I prefer books between 70 and 80 thousand words, which can be read in a few afternoons or evenings. I don’t mind occasional cliff hangers, as long as part of the story is complete, otherwise I feel frustrated. I don’t mind reading part of a series either, I fact I quite enjoy it, as I’ve become invested in the characters and want to know more about their story, such as The Detective Jack Stratton books. (There are exceptions, by exceptional authors such as Ken Follet. I don’t mind how long his novels are!)

detective-jack-stratton

         6. Not too short (unless it’s a book of short stories). Most short novels I’ve read feel incomplete. I prefer a longer story.

          7. Engaging characters. Characters don’t have to be likeable, in fact I’m attracted to flawed characters, but I need to be interested in what’s happening to them and what they’re doing. Ideally, they need to be having a hard time, and I need to care about how they cope with their issues, such as ‘I Let You Go‘ in which a woman is coping with the results of a tragic accident she was involved in. i-let-you-go

           8. More than one viewpoint. Life isn’t monochrome, and although I have nothing against stories told from one point of view, I prefer at least two distinct voices. It makes the story more complex and I feel as if I have all sides of the argument. One person’s vision or viewpoint is necessarily limited. I love two first person narrators as ‘Gone Girl’.

gone-girl

          9. An overall meaning or message. It’s especially rewarding to read a novel when the events or feelings are part of something bigger than the story itself, for example a universal event, in which we could all experience, such as the overcoming the pain of the loss of a child, or a divorce such as ‘The Ladies Room.’

ladies-room

          10. Surprises or plot twists every 6-10 minutes. Sometimes novels drag because nothing much happens for pages on end. I need things to happen constantly to keep me turning pages. This needn’t big huge plot twists, it can be a change of scene, character, some news, anything that moves the action forward and stops the slow or dragging sensation, like Matt Cairns, Cold Blooded, which wastes none of the reader’s time in this gripping thriller.

Cold Blooded 2 (1)

          11. Unexpected big twist right before the end. I love this. When you think everything’s sorted out and there’s another unexpected turn, which makes you sit up. The last 10% is as important as the first 10%, because it’s what will stay in my mind and convince me to buy another book by the writer, such as ‘The Sister’.

sister

          12. Not too many main characters. Two main characters are often enough, although I prefer a few more, but too many can be confusing, unless it’s a complex family or historical drama.

        13. Defined secondary characters. I dislike lifeless secondary characters. All characters in the novel should all come to life, even if their role is secondary. Imagine watching a film where only the protagonists are good actors, but the rest are amateurs. The film wouldn’t be much good, would it? The secondary characters need to support the main characters, and they’re often entertaining and vital for moving the plot forward, like The Photographer’s Wife.

photographers-wife

         14. Concentrating the present-time action (narrator time) in a short period, for example a few days, helps me to focus on the plot, even though back story will also usually be included in flashbacks or conversations, such as The Ventian, which takes place over a weekend in Venice.

venetian

         15. Gradually including back story. The back story is usually necessary for the plot to develop and to get to know the characters, but the way in which it is gradually told will build suspense and add unexpected plot twists.

         16. Surprising angle to an old story. Most plots are familiar. So many stories have been told in so many ways that it’s hard to be original, but when it happens, it’s riveting! For example murder from the dead child’s point of view as in ‘The Lovely Bones’, or telling the story of a millionaire falling in love with a poor girl, set in the early 20th century between a fake medium and a railway baron, as in Baron.

baron

            17. Romance. Love is an important part of everyone’s life, falling in love, staying in love, overcoming relationship crisis, moving on, second chances, are all situations I love to read about, such as The Hollow Heart.

a-hollow-heart

         18. Humour. I enjoy reading comedies, occasionally, but a touch of humour is often enough. A humorous situation or character, lightens the drama, and it makes the story realistic; we all come across witty people, who liven up our daily lives. I love romantic comedies told from the point of view of men, which are often very amusing, such as Emma Chase novels, especially, Sustained.

Sustained cover

        19. Drama. I love reading about events which make me feel strong emotional reactions such as anger, fear, sadness even. I cried at the end of Who We Were Before, but I loved that the writer was able to provoke that emotion.

who-we-were

          20. Extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. I love it when what happens to the characters could happen, or could have happened, to me or people I know. It’s credible so I feel drawn into the story. For example a computer programmer who is targeted by the Russian mafia, as in Kissing my Killer.

Kissing My Killer 600x900

        21. The setting. I love it when the setting or a specific place in the novel becomes as important and unique as the plot or characters, not just the background. This can happen if it’s a city, village, or an idyllic landscape, or country house, such as in ‘Eclipse Lake.

eclipse-lake

Do you agree with (all) of these ingredients?

Can you suggest any other ingredients to include?   

 Let me know, I’d love to hear what you think!

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#SoCS Oct 3/15 Expect the Unexpected

This post was written in response to Linda Hill’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday 

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Great Expectations

On this occasion, Linda’s asked us to let our minds flow on the words expect and unexpected.

I believe these two words describe exactly what readers are looking for, and what authors try their best to incorporate into their writing.

Readers expect to be told a story. Sounds like a simple requirement, and it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for authors to comply! These stories transmit cultural values, and collective or singular experiences, which will ultimately entertain readers.

Readers have many diverse expectations when they read a novel, but there are three elements all readers expect to find in any type of novel, namely, setting, characters and plot.

The story must take place somewhere and sometime, there must be some people involved, and something must happen as the story unfolds.

Authors must make sure they fulfil their readers expectations, but, in order to make the reading experience worthwhile, they must also add unexpected aspects. Twists and turns in the plot, changes in location or time, unexpected reactions in the characters, or new characters to shake the story line.

Readers expect to find settings, characters, and plots in their novels, but they also crave for the unexpected. The unexpected will keep them reading and will make the experience more pleasurable.

If they are reading a romance, for example, they will expect a happy ending, but they want some unexpected events and turns along the way to keep them interested in the final outcome.

If they are reading crime fiction, they will expect the solution at the end, and the more unexpected it is, the more satisfied they will be.

If it is literary fiction they are reading, they may expect a partially unhappy ending, but they will want to discover and be surprised about how or why things do not work out.

The challenge writers face is combining the expected features in a novel with unexpected factors to make the reading experience worthwhile.

When you write a trilogy, as I am writing, readers expect the ending to books one and two to be inconclusive, but they also expect a happy, or at least more satisfactory ending to book three. It is challenging to strike a balance between the expected and the unexpected continuously for over 1,200 pages! It is a bumpy ride for both writers and readers. I am having fun, and I hope my readers are too!

If you are a reader, which unexpected aspects of the novels you read do you look forward to in a novel?

If you are a writer as well as a reader, how to you include the unexpected in your novels?  

If you’d like to read other reflections on these words or take part, follow this link!

Why I love romantic novels with Byronic Heroes

I love reading romantic novels with Byronic heroes, on occasions, because they are emotionally gratifying.

The reader enters an ideal world with young, beautiful, rich, and powerful people, and it all ends well, which is satisfying after a hard day facing the real, sometimes boring, and often ugly world.

There’s a likeable heroine who eventually makes an unlikeable hero, very likeable, leading to a happy ending. What’s there not to like?

There are many novels following this timeless pattern, recurrent in many love stories throughout literature, all of them immensely popular.
Put simply:

1- Bad guy meets good girl.
2.a- Bad guy tries to seduce, dominate and/or spoil good girl, making her bad, too, but he fails because she’s stronger or cleverer, or better, so good conquers evil. Or
2.b- Good girl tries to make bad guy into a good guy.
3- Finally he becomes a good guy and they live HEA (which usually includes marriage and/or children).

This formula has been successful in literature for centuries. It started with Mr. B in Henry Fielding’s Pamela (1740), and can be seen again in  Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (1813), Captain Wentworth, in Persuasion (1817), Rochester, in Jane Eyre (1847), Heathcliff, in Wuthering Heights (1846), Max de Winter, in Rebecca (1938), Edward Cullen in the Twilight Saga (210-2011), Christian Grey, in Fifty Shades of Grey (2011), to name a few of the most well-known.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing the literary quality of any of the previous novels mentioned, I’m merely pointing out that the main romantic plot arc in these novels is almost identical.

This moody, and self-assured, male protagonist, who is finally tamed by the heroine, came to be known as the Byronic hero, named after the English Romantic poet Lord Byron, and described by Lord Macaulay as ‘a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.

Portrait of Lord Byron by George Henry Harlow. Circa 1816.

Byronic heroes are brooding, darkly handsome, and they have a secret, hidden past, which makes them behave antisocially. They are usually worldly, rich, cynical, destructive, and resentful. They have difficulties identifying and even expressing their emotions, and women find them extremely alluring. They are idealized yet flawed characters, who need to be recovered and repaired by the perfect heroine.

Many readers enjoy these novels. I enjoy them, no, I love them. Although I often wonder why I liked them in the first place.

I think it’s because I’d like it to be true. I’d like to believe, even if it’s for a few hours, or minutes, that good can conquer evil, that love can soften resentment, and cure all ills. I want to be optimistic….for a while.

One of my favourite contemporary romance writers is Roberta Pearce. The Value of Vulnerability is the third novel I’ve read by this author who specializes in romantic novels with strong female leads and rich and handsome, alpha males, with HEA endings.

What makes her novels worth reading or different from other similar novels?

Well, I haven’t read all the others, but I’ve read a few, and what makes Roberta Pearce’s novels different is that they are impeccably written, with economical, precise prose, and the characters are well portrayed.

Ford is perfectly depicted from page one. After leaving a girl he’s just slept with, he says;
“You mentioned having difficulty with some finances. Now you have fewer.”
She licked her lips, staring at the scattered hundreds with an expression he had seen dozens of times: greed combined with humiliation, and underwritten with gratitude.
He’s a real baddie, with the usual Byronic defects, and he develops, and grows out of them as the novel progresses, and the reader expects.

The reader’s interest is in discovering who’s going to make him change, and how she’s going to do it.

She is Erin, beautiful, young, intelligent, generous, friendly, loving, and far too good a person for him.

In the real world, if she were my daughter, or a friend, I’d say, ‘keep away, he’s no good’, but this isn’t the real world. I’m escaping from reality. It’s a romantic novel, and I know it will be all right in the end. I keep turning the pages impatiently, and I know there will be ups and downs, twists and turns, but I know I won’t suffer…too much, because it will have a happy ending.

Why do I recommend it? Because it’s well written, the characters are authentic, the story is beautiful, and it’s a welcome break from a real, hard day!

Which books should writers read?

Writers need to read beyond our comfort zone, and branch out to embrace genres and styles we don’t normally approach, because otherwise we run the risk of becoming self-absorbed.

Reading works we wouldn’t normally consider widens our perspective, improves our style, and opens windows to other ways of telling different kinds of stories.

We need to reach out synchronically, to contemporary works, and diachronically, to works of other literary periods, in order to know what’s happening now, and what has been happening for centuries, in the literary world.

Last week I read three wonderful books, and I’m more than half way through a fourth, and although I’ll be reviewing each one separately, I’d like to share my general reflections with you, first, and explain how each book has helped me grow as a writer.

I started off by rereading a classic, which I make a point of doing regularly. They offer us so much intellectually and emotionally that we cannot ignore them.

Classics hold the origin and the substance of our language and thought, reading and rereading them is mandatory for all readers, writers and reviewers.

We are part of a literary heritage which we should honour and add to, by producing works which contribute to the quality and continuity of literature as a means of both describing and reinterpreting our world.

Persuasion, by Jane Austen, has always been one of my favourites, although sadly, this rereading (which will not be the last) has revealed some flaws, it still holds a special place in my literary heart.

 

When I finished Persuasion, I chanced to find a debut novel by Ellen Quinn, on Twitter. I looked at the blurb, a Regency Romance, so I thought it would be an ideal complement to Persuasion. I skimmed over the first pages on Amazon, and was convinced to give it a go. When I started reading, in depth, I couldn’t put it down!

Reading both novels consecutively has given me plenty of food for thought about what constitutes a good novel, by 21st century standards, and how this conception has progressed over the last two centuries.

I enjoyed the challenge of reflecting on the similarities and differences between both these novels, and how these differences reveal who we are, and how we read and write, today, and how we did so two centuries ago.

I myself am writing a neo Victorian trilogy, so it also helped me reflect upon the similarities and differences between these successive historical periods, Regency and Victorian. The stiff Victorian clothing, aimed at covering every inch of the female body, contrasted starkly with Regency clothing which revealed a major portion of ladies breasts, as Ms. Quinn reminds us:

‘He wanted to groan as he took in the gown’s low neckline that barely encased her ample breasts.’

This would never happen in Victorian social events, because ladies breasts would be well-preserved from male eyes with plenty of silk, gauze, lacing, or other material.

I was able to ponder on this through Ms Quinn’s novel. Jane Austen, of course, had no idea how fashions were going to change, and wasn’t prone to describing clothes in detail, why should she? Her readers knew what they were wearing!

The new Victorian fashions were aimed at curbing sexual desire, promiscuity, and the liberal ideas represented in women’s attire, as well as promoting a renewed religious fervor.

I also thought long and hard on why The Seduction of Lady Phoebe  was such a great read, and Persuasion, this time, proved to be more of a struggle.

This led me to analyze what makes a good novel, for contemporary readers, but that will be the subject of another post.

The third novel I read is another debut novel, Death on a Red Canvas Chair by one of my new virtual writer friends and blogging sisters, Noelle Granger . Noelle has taught me how important it is to have a thorough plot with plenty of twists and turns, and how including the author’s valuable knowledge and expertise increases authenticity and interest.

The novel I am reading at the moment is the disturbing, yet beautiful, The Death of Bees,  another brilliant debut novel, by Lisa O’Donnell,  which was recommended and gifted to me by my best friend, Anna, a few months ago. I was not disappointed by Ms O’Donnell’s multiple narrators and tight hold on the surprising narrative.

The last two novels are set in contemporary New England, and Scotland, respectively. They are in no way related to anything I write, yet they have valuable lessons for me as a writer. Noelle has reminded me to tighten my plots, and keep the reader on her toes, while Lisa has taught me that traumatic events can be told with humour and feeling.

The four books have decisive, determined, and brave heroines, who easily bond with the reader. The first three heroines are good at what they do and lead relatively successful lives, and The Death of Bees, well, all the characters are flawed, perhaps too flawed to be likeable.

Reading these books has helped me realize I am attracted to imperfect characters who struggle with their weaknesses. Happy endings are satisfactory, but deep down, they make me feel there’s something missing or unfinished in the narrative.

Reading widely and critically helps me understand why I write the way I do, and it helps me identify what I want to achieve through my stories and characters.

How do I want my readers to feel? Satisfied? Happy? Challenged? Upset?

What do I want my readers to think about? Love? Happiness? The meaning of life, or lack of it?

I’m still exploring what kind of a writer I am, but reading other works helps me understand my own writing style, what I want to accomplish, and how I can get there.

What kind of novels help you grow as a writer?

 

P.S.

A special mention to Irene Waters, who contributed to the motivation to write this post, as a result of our exchange of comments on this subject recently. Check out her inspiring blog Reflections and Nightmares.

 

Reading Fiction, Brain Function, Cognitive Growth, and Jane Eyre

Do you think reading has any positive effects, apart from being a pleasurable experience?

Do you think reading a novel or poetry can improve your minds?

Whether you do or not, do you have any proof?

Many of us believe that reading for pleasure is beneficial to adults and children, but what evidence do we have that this is true?

This article will offer some objective evidence to support the value and importance of reading fiction.

First of all, let’s imagine a ten-year-old girl who has read the following three books: Bewick’s History of British Birds,Goldsmith’s History of Rome, and Gulliver’s Travels, as well as her Bible, at least, would you say she had a bright future?

My last post, The Books Jane Eyre Read. Part One: At Gateshead Hall.  is about the books young Jane had read by such an early age, and how they affected her personality, and related to her life experiences.

If she continued reading, which she did, could we conclude she’d grow up to be a very clever woman? Yes?

Gullivers_travelsroman historyBeitish birds

Read on for proof.

A study by neuroscientists published in December 2013 in the Scientific Journal, Brain Connectivity, has concluded that reading a novel can improve brain function on a variety of levels.

Interviewed in Psychology Today, Dr. Berns, one of the researchers, considers, “Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person.” So his motivation was to carry out his theory and “understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

Professor Berns, and some colleagues at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, used brain scanning to investigate how reading a book affects our brains, and found that becoming engrossed in a novel enhances connectivity in the brain, and improves brain function.

The 19 volunteers’ brains were scanned each morning following the nightly reading assignment, and then again daily for five days after they had finished the book. Each morning before their scan, the participants completed a quiz about the chapter and their feelings. The final five days the volunteers had daily scans again without any quizzes or reading, in order to assess lasting effects.

Reading fiction increases empathy, enabling the reader to put themselves in another person’s shoes, and understand their behavior. It also increases language function. These effects were seen to last at least five days after reading Pompeii by Robert Harris over nine nights. (Imagine what it could do for those of us who read more than a book a week!).

Small Bookshelf

Some of my current and all-time favourites

Last year, A UK Institute of Education  published the results of a longitudinal study, started in 1970, which found that children who read for pleasure made more progress in maths, vocabulary, and spelling, between the ages of 10 and 16, than those who rarely read.

The study also showed that Children who were read to regularly by their parents at age 5 performed better in all three tests at age 16 than those who were not helped in this way.

Another longitudinal study published by researchers at the University of Berkley, California, and the University of Ontario, ‘What reading does for the mind’, concludes that lifelong reading habits are strong predictors of a wide range of cognitive abilities, which are accumulated over time —spiraling either upward or downward, depending on whether they read or not.

We now have solid evidence to support the cognitive benefits of reading, for our young Jane Eyre, and anyone else who loves reading.

Read on…