I’m currently sweating over the third draft of my first novel, tentatively titled The Core Listeners.
I started this novel with no particular plot or story in mind, just an idea for an exciting scene and an intriguing character. I also started it en medias res, in the middle of the action. As you can imagine, this gave me two large problems right off the bat. Although I managed to weave in my backstory and complete two cohesive drafts, with plot intact, I kept feeling that something was missing.
The book felt like “a lightweight.” I don’t mean in mood or tone, I mean in power. I’d describe my current draft as “a nice little adventure story.” Yep, I’ve got compelling, interesting characters. A story that makes sense. Exciting scenes. A wee bit of romance. A creepy antagonist. A cool climax. A nice resolution. Perhaps that’s good enough for a first novel.
But speaking not as a professional novelist (which I’m not) but as a professional editor and critiquer (which I am), I know full well that something is still missing. And I really want to find it!
You know those books that you put down one night to go to bed, and weeks later you realize you never finished it? It just wasn’t all that compelling? I don’t want my novel to be one of those.
You know those books that you’d describe as enjoyable, but you barely remember them the next day? I don’t want to write one of those. Just okay is not okay. Is okay okay for you? Or do you want better? Or perhaps I’ve set my sights too high. (It wouldn’t be the first time.)
When I finished the second draft, I had the novel critiqued, hoping my critiquer could point out the missing ingredient. Guess what? She did!
“Very important for the protag to have a visible plot goal right from the start. (Oops!) The initial disturbance of her in danger and running from the guards is only a situation, not her long-term goal for the book. Bring this out so the reader knows what she wants and needs to do.”
Even if a novel has no particular theme (good vs. evil, love conquers all, etc.), there needs to be a specific challenge that the protagonist must meet, a specific goal, something to be learned, some decision to be made, something deeper and more compelling than just a string of events. Otherwise, the story rambles. Readers lose interest.
Obviously, in a mystery it’s all about solving the crime. In a romance, it’s all about do they or don’t they get together or live happily ever after. What is it in my fun little adventure story? Just having adventures doesn’t cut it, although there certainly are plenty of them.
What is it that my protagonist really wants? What’s her challenge? What does she need to learn? What’s driving her? Originally I had her with a mysterious destiny, hiding a secret. Yes, cliched to the max, I know. I took all that out. Especially since I myself had no idea of her destiny, and her so called secret wasn’t all that secret and certainly not worth giving her life for. Now she has no more mysterious a destiny than you or I.
So what does she have? Determining her overriding challenge is my challenge.
I think I’ve finally sorted it out, and now my challenge is to integrate this idea more clearly into the book. Yeow! Perhaps if I’d been clearer about it when I started, I wouldn’t have this situation now. Or perhaps, being my first novel, all I could do is write it the way I wrote it, learning all the way through.
Any authors out there? What’s your take on all of this? Do you start your novels with a particular premise or theme? How do you weave it in? Does it bother you if you get to the end and there wasn’t one?
What about you readers? If you think about your favorite books, can you immediately identify the theme or the hero’s challenge?
I’d love to hear your feedback!