My Muse has a troubled relationship with deadlines. The closer I get to some kind of closure with a project, the more it says, “Hey. HEY. Listen to this idea, you’ll really like it.” Sometimes it actually does have good ideas, like now – so with Pitch Wars and other Big Plans on the near horizon, I’ve gone back to the revising board, putting in another round of edits on Project Warhorse. (They’re good edits, I think, because lately I can’t think about anything else!)
One thing I love to revisit in the midst of revision is an exercise found in Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem. He urges aspiring novelists to write a “Magna Carta,” a list of things that personally resonate with you as a reader. The idea is that we should all be writing books we would love to read – the stories we would love to find on a bookstore shelf – and the list serves as a reminder of what makes our literary hearts sing. I find this list hugely helpful when I start getting too wrapped up in thinking about how critique partners or agents will perceive the work, as opposed to writing what I really love and believe in.
Here is my list (sung, I always imagine, in a Julie Andrews voice):
A sense of the mythic. I love stories with a sense of sweeping mythology, an epic history that taints the very air the characters breathe. Obviously not every story is going to have the weight of a Lord of the Rings-sized history, but I want to believe that it lives behind the page.
A flawed but likeable main character. I want my characters to feel like real people – but if they are whiny, negative or self-absorbed, we’re not going to be friends.
Character-driven stories. I’m the kind of girl that zones out during action scenes when I go to the movies. Twisty, thrilling plots are all fine and well, but first and foremost, it needs to be all about the people, and make me feel ALL the feels.
Good worldbuilding. Even if it’s set in the real world, I want to know how the people talk, who you’ll find on a street corner, how the wind tastes. I like fantasy that makes me feel genuinely transported. I love fantasy that makes me feel like the setting is a character, too.
Foreshadowing and symmetry. I’m all about stories with lots of layers woven into each other, full of hints and surprising connections and moments that make me gasp when I eventually realize their significance. This is what separates a reread book from a one-time read for me – I want to discover another pearl every time I dive in.
Complex antagonists. Absolute evil isn’t a concept that much interests me, especially when a book spends lots of page time graphically proving the evilness. (Yeah, we get it, he’s got a thing for blood. Moving on!) I like my villains Game of Thrones style, where everyone is a hero in their own version of events, and even the baddest of bad guys feel just a few circumstances shy of a redemption.
Lyrical language. I don’t want to just hear a story. I wanted to be enchanted by it. My favorite books are usually full of language that feels like an art and not just a tool, quotes I want to write on sticky notes, and passages that make me stop and marvel at the sheer beauty of the words. (Often, the most elegant passages are also the simplest!)
Romantic tension. While I would rather have a romance-free story than one featuring inappropriate, unhealthy, or just plain eye-roll worthy relationships, it’s a definite plus if there’s real chemistry and a possibility of kissing.
Third person POV. Perhaps I’m in the minority here, or a little burnt out after reading a ton of YA, but I’ll take a well-written book in third person over a first person POV any day. I’m fascinated by perspective, and first person gets quickly tiresome if the narrator isn’t someone you love.
Satisfying endings. I don’t want to be depressed by a book, but I’m a sucker for books that leave lingering feelings. Open-ended is good, bittersweet is better, but mostly, I want to feel like everything ends in a way true to the story. (Cliffhangers? We have a love-hate relationship.)
A few other things that make my literary heart happy:
Coming-of-age stories. A touch of magic. Clever humor. Well-chosen or significant names that roll off the tongue. Stories about stories. Ghost stories. Tragic heroes. A sense of foreboding. Badass heroines that are not your stereotypical badass heroine. Swoon-worthy guys named Sean. (Hey, why aren’t there more books with this?) Brevity. (I’m all for epic books, but only if they earn their length. Every word should feel important!)
What ingredients make up your recipe for a good book?