SHE CAN TELL A STORY,. BUT CAN SHE WRITE A SENTENCE?
One of the best posts I've read on the internet for ages is Sarah Ditum's "Y'know, for kids", looking at the mixed critical response to JK Rowling's new adult book, The Casual Vacancy. While the entire article, which is about the perception that "Things intended for and marketed to adults" are better than those for children, is a fabulous read, one sentence particularly stood out. "Sure, Rowling can tell a story, said Anthony McGowan on the Today Programme yesterday, but can she really write a sentence? – as if plotting were some low-rent trick and the real artists of literature were putting more effort into crafting their gem-like and subtly revealing descriptions of kitchen tables."
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS...
It got me thinking - what IS the most important part of a novel for me? Does the plot outweigh the prose? Where do the voice, the characters, the dialogue and the location fit in? I've just started The Casual Vacancy myself. I'm hooked, but can see where McGowan's coming from - I'm not finding the prose to be anything special. However, I'm really enjoying it because the characters are so wonderful, and I think that's always been Rowling's strongest point for me. In the Harry Potter series, I thought that Snape, Neville, Luna, and several others were absolutely wonderful, alongside the main trio, of course, and I was desperate to find out what happened to everyone. Add in a great grasp of plotting, and it's easy to see why the books have thrilled so many readers.
I decided to try and break things down and identify a few books which I think are particularly good at each of these aspects, and work out my own personal order of importance.
When I took to Twitter and asked for people's opinions on this topic, Annabelle from Read Write And Read Some More said "Great characters make the story and make the reader more engaged and involved. We root for them to win" and Anna Scott of Anna Scott Jots said "If I can't engage with the characters, then it's a deal breaker for me, no matter how clever the plot." I'd agree with both - I have to find at least some of the characters really likeable, and worth rooting for. For me, that's the key thing.
Examples: Pushing The Limits by Katie McGarry - I'm absolutely thrilled that I've got a mini-interview with Katie on supporting characters later this week, because I think Pushing The Limits has got some of the best supporting characters I've read in years. They're all brilliantly described, with their own realistic motivations and everything they do seems to follow on from this.
The Monstrumologist series by Rick Yancey - I'm hoping to write a guest post for Word For Teens on the title character from this stunning series, so will keep my praise brief here. Dr Pellinore Warthrop is surely one of the greatest creations of the last decade, a brilliant but egotistical man who has a fierce drive to fight against the monsters he sees but is prone to overconfidence which can be dangerous. Narrator Will Henry, Warthrop's young apprentice, is just as brilliantly portrayed, and the dynamic between the pair is superb.
The Dragon's Path series by Daniel Abraham - Sneaking an adult fantasy in here because I can't resist plugging it wherever possible. Abraham's epic fantasy series is wonderful because it has so many characters who appear to be archetypes - a renowned hero jaded by fighting, a court baron protecting his king, a studious young son of a noble house and an orphaned girl disguising herself as a boy - but Abraham plays with convention and none of them are what you'd expect.
For me, a really strong voice can make an otherwise average book worth reading, or push an otherwise good book to 'must read' status. I think the books with a great narrative voice tend to stay with me a long time, as well. YA author Nansi Kunze makes a case for this being the most important element, saying "That's a tough one! I'm going to go for voice, though. It's what really makes an MS unique (& stand out from the slush pile!)."
Examples: Big Woo by Susie Day - I generally think 'less is more' when you're doing internet speak, and quotes like "eeeee sekrit crush" and "Neverneedinganumbrellagirl to the rescue" would usually have me slamming the book shut. They didn't, in this case, because the voice of the book is absolutely perfect. Serafina is a wonderful character who Susie has brought to life brilliantly, and the lolspeak and so on are completely right for her.
The Anti-Prom by Abby McDonald - I picked this one up just by chance, because I thought it sounded fun. I was completely blown away by it because McDonald captures the three voices of her trio of narrators so beautifully. Bad girl Jolene, popular Bliss, and near-invisible Meg are all superb here.
Gossip Girl by Cecily Von Ziegesar - CVZ gets away with fairly weak characters in the first few books of this series because of the snarky narration which practically drips with money. From the early line "Our **** still stinks but you can't smell it because the bathroom is sprayed hourly by the maid with a refreshing scent made exclusively for us by French perfumers" right until the end, I devoured this one.
This is the next most important thing for me. Live Otherwise said on Twitter that this was the most important because it's "Rare that you can have any of the others worth spending time with without that." I can think of a few with plots I'd describe as so-so but characters than are so fabulous I'd read them again and again, but for the most part I agree this is really important.
Examples: Harry Potter series by JK Rowling - I loved the last book, in particular, because it answered all of the questions and tied up all of the loose ends without ever feeling like it was JUST doing that. Looking back to the earlier books I was stunned by how far in advance JKR had plotted stuff.
The Bonehill Curse by Jon Mayhew - Any of Mayhew's loosely-linked Victorian trilogy could fit in here, as his plots are always fiendishly brilliant. This is my favourite, though, as it's unpredictable, has great action scenes, and a superb ending.
Billie Templar's War by Ellie Irving - Irving follows up the really good For The Record with an even better sophomore novel here. The story of Billie, trying to create a military tattoo to attract the Queen to her village so Billie can ask her to bring Billie's dad back from the war, is fabulous, and the ending is perfect.
I have to be honest, I very rarely get drawn into a book by the prose. I'm much more interested in the people in it and the plot. On the rare occasions I do find the prose in a book particlarly brilliant, though, it does tend to stick in my mind really firmly.
Examples: The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson - WOW. I cried my eyes out reading this. Partly that's down to the wonderful storyline and characters, but it's helped by the superb writing.
Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley - Gorgeous, gorgeous, GORGEOUS! The most lyrical YA book I've read for ages - possibly ever.
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald - Another adult one. It has three of my favourite quotes of all time, with the last paragraph being perhaps the greatest paragraph ever written, at least in my opinion.
Setting, for me, isn't particularly important normally. If the above elements are weak, a great setting would still never really interest me. If all of the above elements are strong, though, a particularly good setting CAN lift something onto my 'favourites' list.
Examples: A Witch in Winter by Ruth Warburton - A brilliant book (as is sequel A Witch in Love) - with a stunningly described setting in Winter. Warburton captures this British coastal town - the kind of place where people whose parents had been in the village for half a century would still be described as 'offcomers' - wonderfully.
Wereworld by Curtis Jobling - The best fantasy world for ages, Lyssia is an example of stunning world-building. Both in the creation of the Werelords and the political intrigue in the Seven Kingdoms, Jobling has done an outstanding job.
Paper Towns by John Green - If high school is in a world of its own in many ways, the last few weeks of high school are on another planet. Green is pitch perfect in capturing the unique atmosphere of this time in his third book.
In the end, though, the very best books have all of these ingredients. Author Ruth Warburton perhaps summed it up best by saying "if one element isn't working, it ruins the lot. It's like a cake." Clarifying, she said "obviously writers usually have strengths in one or more areas but if one element is really truly absent/appalling then you notice it to the exclusion of all the virtues, in my opinion."
What do you think? What's the most important element to you? Are there any other ingredients of a wonderful novel that I've missed? Let me know in the comments!