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What makes a novel good? I used to ask myself that question every time my English teacher assigned yet another reading list. A few of the classic novels felt to me like slogging through mud. What we like to read says a lot about who we are and the reason we’re reading in the first place. When the reading is a dreaded assignment that will lead to a test, the book is already huffing uphill before the first page.
On a hot summer day in a shady porch swing, many want to read something purely entertaining. Here, the reader reveals what he or she longs to experience vicariously, if not in real life—for example, romance, adventure, fantasy, or fright. Some readers want to be challenged—perhaps by a complicated alternative world or a tangle of clues or steamy, heart-pounding sex. Some readers want a long, long book so they can languish in the pretend world for days on end. Others want a fast read—something to gobble up like potato chips, leaving them wanting to do it all again. Entertainment is primarily about escape. I had a friend who could read a romance novel per day. Her real life wasn’t lovely.
One basic requirement I have for a novel is that it be well written. Because I’ve always loved the music that language can be, a poorly crafted book is like a song sung off-key to me—the basic parts are there, but the experience is painful. I want the sentences to flow, the rhythm to rise and fall, until I am entranced into the thoughts and emotions of the characters. The description of the explosion in the beginning of The Gold Finch took the reader into the event in every detail. Afterward, I wondered if my hearing might be damaged.
Genre books are books that follow a basic pattern. The mystery is solved. The love is realized. The evil lord is vanquished or subdued. I once attempted to write genre romance and was given a set of guidelines by a popular book line—by what page the heroine must have encountered her leading man, by what page they must have sex, etc. People who read genre books have particular expectations. They want to know what’s coming (to an extent). Readers who pick up a Christian romance, for example, want to know that their standards of language and behavior will not be violated. No bad surprises.
Sometimes, I want a novel that feeds me—makes me laugh and cry. These novels aren’t always easy to read, but by the end, I feel like I’ve grown. I have fresh thoughts, new perspectives. As with exercise, when I’m done I’m glad I went. The novel I’ve written (Death Lost Dominion) is like that. Unlike the many plots that use rape to intensify the action, my novel moves ahead with characters who need to find value in the aftermath. It’s about living after surviving. I hope you’ll find the journey worthwhile.
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