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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Making Your Novel Great

I think every writer wants their novel to be considered great by those who read it. Most of us, I would bet, don’t sit down to write a good novel but rather a memorable one that will keep the reader up at night, make them cry, laugh, yell, cheer and turn them into a life long fan that remembers your characters, can quote your lines and help to spread the word to their friends that you are a great writer. 

So what does make a novel great?  I’ve been pondering this more and more lately.  I recently read three novels by three different NYT bestselling authors that I did not consider great.  Personal preference?  Perhaps?  So much in life is, isn’t is?  Some people think Blue Bell chocolate ice cream is great, while others consider Godiva chocolate ice cream to be the best.  The connecting factor to greatness is that both brands contain a key ingredient – chocolate.  The companies may put other ingredients in there, and their process of making the ice cream may differ, but without the chocolate this ice cream would fall flat.

What is the key ingredient in a great romance novel?  Is it the dialogue, the descriptions, the history or the plot line?  I say it is all of these things but there is one element, in my opinion, that any novel chalked full of the previous ingredients would not be great without.  Emotion.  Raw emotion the reader can connect with.

Let me go back to the three books I recently read.  They were good books but were they great?  They did not inspire me to laugh, cry, or stay up late and keep turning pages when I should be in bed.  I will not remember them a year from now, a month from now or even next week.  I even had trouble making myself finish one because I was indifferent to it.  These novels were good enough to get published but, to me, they were not good enough to inspire conversations, be passed along to a friend, or be re-read for the sheer joy of how they made me feel.

Fast forward to this past Sunday afternoon.  I picked up two novels at Barnes and Nobles.  One by Diana Gabaldon, www.DianaGabladon.com, and one by Lisa Kleypas, www.lisakleypas.com.  I started with Ms. Kleypas novel because Ms. Gabaldon’s novel is about four hundred pages longer, and I am saving it for my plane ride to New York.  But I know it will be great.  Ms. Gabaldon is a master of emotion. 

I am not going to tell you which novel I picked up by Ms. Kleypas, I’ll let you try to figure that out for yourself, but I can tell you by page two I was completely, utterly, hooked. Enthralled. Fascinated. I was only going to read a chapter that night. I ended up reading 150 pages, and only went to bed because it was 1:00 in the morning, and I knew I would be having to get up in five hours with my kids.

Ms. Kleypas’ novel that I bought is about a young, high born woman and a lowly, stable boy on the verge of an impossible love.  I don’t want to tell you any more because I don’t want to spoil it for you. 

Ms. Kleypas’ novel packs a punch from the very first line.  “A stable boy wasn’t supposed to speak to an Earl’s daughter, much less climb up to her bedroom window.”  Do you feel the emotions of unfairness, indignation, excitement and wonderment?  What will happen?  How will this love work out? 

Each word we pick when we write our novel needs to be chosen to elicit emotion from our readers.  If you can make your readers care about your character then you have written a GREAT novel, that will be talked about, passed on and probably sit on the NYT bestseller list.  Simple.  Not really. The good news is I think the more you write the better you understand how to draw out emotions from you characters and deliver them to your readers.    

I would love to hear what you think makes a novel great. Do you agree with me?  Is emotion the main ingredient?  If you agree, how do you try and weave emotion into your stories. If you disagree, what do you think is the key ingredient to a novel that will be picked up and read time and time again.

Have a great day,

Julie Johnstone, The Marchioness of Mayhem 


  1. Julie, you always amaze me with your insight. Yes, emotion is the key to it all. Now, I'm pondering how to put more of it into my stories without being melodramatic. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

  2. Thanks for visiting me, Clarissa! Your stories are packed with emotion, so I am sure you have some insight you could pass onto us!

  3. I started reading the Kleypas book you mentioned, but I had to stop after a few chapters because it was TOO emotional. LOL I knew I wouldn't be able to stand going through what the hero was going to endure. I guess I'm just a softie. :)

  4. I agree that emotion is the key ingredient. Some of my most memorable stories have made me laugh and cry - Charlotte's Web, Where the Red Fern Grows, White Oleander, I Know this much is True, Twenties Girl... But, I really want a happy ending these days. :)

  5. Donna,
    Thanks so much for stopping by. Too emotional, huh? Well, in the end, the hero gets his happy ending!

  6. Samantha,

    I love White Oleander and I Know This Much Is True! Booth books deliver powerful, emotional journeys.