"It isn't enough to be very good - it needs to be unputdownable."
I didn't know what to say to this. It was true that I hadn't put the manuscript down for the last eighteen months, but that was hardly the same thing.
Later on, when I discussed the book with an agent, the U word came up again, except this time it was pretty clear I didn't have it. Not yet, anyway.
So what is this elusive magical quality, this mental equivalent of printing a novel on fly paper? I'm still not sure I have the full answer, but let me outline what I know so far as regards my own book (which it should be noted is a horror/comedy/thriller):
- It has to be consistently brilliant:
Well, this is pretty good advice for anyone writing a novel, but the unputdownable book has to lull a reader into their trance-like state and keep them in it all the way through. Uneven patches, jarring word use, unbelievable situations - all these things break the reader's suspension of disbelief and send them hunting for other problems in the text. Yes, you can surprise - absolutely, in fact - but plot twists should draw the reader further into the story, not push them away.
- Engage the reader on an emotional level:
Ok, I'm halfway through this blog post and wondering if I'm just teaching you to suck eggs here! Anyway, it's vital that the reader identifies with the main character(s) and gets sucked into the book to the level that their own feelings and those of the character start to intertwine. I guess this goes back to the classic "show, don't tell" - though maybe more like "feel, don't think".
- The tension needs to build throughout the story:
In other words, never give the reader or the characters time to breathe. There should be clear dramatic tension from the very start and a through line that extends to the end of the story. The situation should get more and more serious for the characters and not be resolved until the climax. My plot originally had a rather loosey-goosey feel and several sections where the main character sat around feeling bored. Again, this all sounds like obvious stuff to fix, but I needed someone else to point this out.
- Raise the stakes:
This is the part that I'm still having most trouble with, because I'm not sure how quickly to do this and to what level. Initially, I was writing the book as part of a series, so I deliberately made it more modest in scope to give me somewhere to go in later volumes. This resulted in a bit of a muted climax with minimal resolution. I've now pumped things up, but I'm getting comments that there still isn't enough at stake in the opening chapters. How far do you go with this? Should I start with the Big Bang and work up to a final scene where God fights Satan for possession of man's immortal soul? I think this harks back to point 1, as well - how far can you raise the stakes without sacrificing believability?
- Have cliffhangers:
How could I not do this? I constantly ended my chapters by nicely resolving the tension in the scene. Even when I was trying to build tension in my rewrite, my chapter ends were still not doing their job. The simple solution? Just move the end of the chapter about 50 words back and then resolve the immediate situation at the start of the next one (but keep the central tension building!) If a reader is going to put down a book, they're most likely to do it at a chapter break, so don't let them go!
So many questions! I appreciate any answers you might have in the comments section...