You can tell publishing professionals by the questions they ask. Describe your novel to an agent or editor and their first question usually is, “Who’s your publisher?” It’s like asking, “Where are you from?” It doesn’t really matter, it’s just a quick way to tag and feel at ease with someone.
Publishing pros also tend to discuss novels in shorthand. If you were eavesdrop in the Rights Centre at next week’s London Book Fair, the comment you’d probably most often hear as novels are pitched is, “It’s beautifully written,” followed by, “of course.”
Beautifully written. What a nice thing to hear, even more so when it’s your novel that’s being praised.
For me, beautifully written has come to be not just a nice extra (when you get it) but a critical component of high-impact fiction. Commercial storytellers may scoff. Um, have you looked at the best seller list? Yes I have. There’s plenty of plain prose to be found there. But look closer.
Novels that have run for a year or more on the lists are rarely just slick genre fare. They are what the industry calls literary/commercial. (How’s that for precision?) It means fiction that both sells powerfully and is beautifully written.
Um, did you notice the words “for a year or more”? Think about that. Did your last thriller stay on the Times list for six weeks? Does your women’s fiction regularly pop onto the USA Today list? Congrats. But we’re talking a year or more. Maybe there is something to that phrase beautifully written.
Commercial storytellers, and even many literary novelists, mistake that to mean imagery that is deft, observant and fresh. No question, that’s a good thing. But beautifully written isn’t just about imagery. Indeed, one needn’t have a descriptive eye at all to create high impact on the page.
Over my next couple of posts, I’ll be discussing the many ways in which novels can be beautifully written—even when they tell a whacking great story. But let’s start with this technique: creating parallels.
What’s your protagonist’s arc or inner journey? Who else in the story can go through a similar change or transformation? What’s the most dramatic event in your protagonist’s arc? In the analogous event for that other (parallel) character, find one way in which to make that event exactly the same.
What’s your story’s main problem? At how many moments and in how many places can you echo that, even in small ways? Chart it out. Find five or even ten parallels. That’s not too many.
What’s the most important thing you want your readers to get, see or take away from your novel? That’s an important theme. Likely your main character sees it, but how many other characters can come to terms with the same thing? How does each see, resist or process if differently?
High impact doesn’t just mean high sales. It means moving readers’ hearts, shaking their convictions and even changing their world. Strong plot alone can’t do that. A journey by itself is just a trip. To collide with high—and lasting—impact, aim to make your novels beautifully written.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Garry – www.visionandimagination.com