BRENDA NOVAK, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, has penned more than 45 novels. A two-time Rita nominee, she's won The National Reader's Choice, The Bookseller's Best, The Bookbuyer's Best and many other awards. She runs an annual online auction for diabetes research every May at brendanovak.com. To date, she’s raised over $2 million.
Ten Things Every Novel Needs
The beautiful thing about any creative endeavor is that there is no one “right” way to accomplish it. Everyone’s imagination works differently, and that’s what provides such great variety in art and literature. Just when someone thinks there’s an easy formula or “recipe” that must be followed if a book is to be “good” or “successful,” some author will invariably break one or more of the “rules” and wind up with a blockbuster. That said, there are certain elements that help to make one story better than another. These are the ten I believe to be most important.
- A great hook. These can be really fun to come up with. I got the idea for THE SECRET SISTER, which was nominated for the prestigious Rita Award, from an episode of Dateline. I was mesmerized as I watched a brother and sister, now adults, talk about the vague memories they had of another child. They were certain that child had been a sibling, but their mother claimed otherwise. They decided to dig deeper, and I was hooked! I wanted to know where that child was and what had happened to her—and why the mother had lied. Then I wanted to write a story that explored the same premise (although my book develops and ends in a completely different way than the incident that inspired it).
- Layered characters. What’s interesting about characters is that they can’t be “too” real, or they will seem fake. I know that’s a paradox, but real people are too inconsistent to make believable characters. On the other hand, flat, two-dimensional characters are unengaging. So finding that middle ground can make all the difference, and that often involves creating characters who are flawed—because that’s what makes them sympathetic.
- Tension. In almost any kind of book it’s tension, created from conflict, that propels a story forward. Without something to conquer, something to overcome, there is no journey, no reason to read on.
- Solid Research. In a way, an author has to be a “jack of all trades.” Although she may have only limited experience with certain things (like the adoption process and what it takes to unravel a closed adoption such as what I wrote about in FINDING OUR FOREVER), it becomes encumbant on her to do enough research to be able to write with authority, which is what makes the book convincing. A single error can throw the reader right out of the story with the thought, “That could never happen!”
- Pacing that fits the style and genre of the book. While a romantic suspense novel might need to move fast, a contemporary romance seems to have a relatively moderate pace and a straight historical novel or a literary novel might be able to withstand even more introspection. Either way, the pacing must be appropriate to the story.
- Chapter/scene hooks. An author who builds her chapters and scenes such that she ends on an an up beat, instead of a sense of denouement, propels her reader into the next chapter—and the next and the next and so on.
- Active writing. Avoiding passive verbs like had, has, was, seemed and looked, and using stronger verbs in their place, will help bring the story alive. We’ve all heard, “Show, don’t tell.” This is part of the same thing. You want your readers to actively experience the story, to live the story, and that won’t happen if you’re standing back, telling them what’s happening from a distance. You need to bring them close in order to ignite their imagination and emotions. Then they will be right there with you, participating in every event.
- Tone. Hold to a sense of mystery as your tale unfolds. I never thought much about tone until I read a book that was light and funny at first (just like what was promised on the cover and blurb), but suddenly turned dark and angry. The change so unexpected and so sudden it nearly gave me whiplash, and it made me slightly angry. I felt like the author had broken her contract with me, the reader, which made me realize that holding fast to the correct tone as a writer is important.
- Unanswered questions. Why is the heroine doing this or that? Will she escape? What will the hero do when he finds out? Are they going to make it? What’s going to happen next? Knowing how much information to convey—and when—is key. Posing such questions will build a sense of urgency that should escalate through the novel to the black moment, making the “big finish” that much more exciting and satisfying.
- Subtext. Sub-text makes everything richer, more intriguing. According to fellow author Alicia Rasley, “A layered conversation is always more interesting than a simple one. Make it obvious that your characters are really saying more than what is on the page. That engages the reader’s thoughts and imagination as they try to puzzle out the subtleties.” I wholeheartedly agree with her!
Special Edition: March 21, 2017
$5.25 U.S.; 224 Pages
The search for her birth mother brought Cora Kelly to the New Horizons Boys Ranch. Getting a job there was easy enough, but confiding in Aiyana, the ranch's owner, that she's really her daughter? Cora's not sure she can do that, not unless she's confident the news will be welcomed. And once she gets to know Elijah Turner—Aiyana's adopted son and ranch manager—that decision becomes even more difficult.
Although Elijah can't deny his deep attraction to Cora, he's always struggled with trust. Anyone with his past would, and there's something about the ranch's newest employee that isn't exactly as it seems. But if the feelings she awakes in his guarded heart are any indication, she might be just what he's long been waiting for.
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