Is there such a thing as the perfect novel? And, if so, how does one go about writing it?
Once we’ve thought about it, I think most of us would agree that that the answer to the first question is an indisputable no. Perfection in art is unequivocally subjective. What one reader hails as perfection, another will throw across the room in disgust. As readers, our preferred reading experiences span the gamut from cuddly, reaffirming romances to gritty, life-challenging noir. And that’s awesome. A world without variety would leave us authors with very little of interest to write about.
But, inherent in this subjectivity, we also find the answer to our second question. Because the perfect novel will never exist, authors have lots of room in which to play around and find their niches. Therefore, the question isn’t so much “how to write the perfect novel” as it is “how to write my perfect novel.”
A line of encouragement from literary agent Scott Edelstein has informed my writing for years now. In his book, 100 Things Every Writer Needs to Know, he said “If you’re ever at a loss as to what to write about, ask yourself to imagine the one story, essay, poem, or book that you’d most like to read. Then write it.”
Too often, we allow ourselves to be inhibited by the expectations (real or imagined) of other people. What if the literati look down their noses because you write romance? What if the neighbors are scandalized because you write horror? What if secular readers scoff at your Christian elements? Such fretting can not only spiral into procrastination, it can also prevent us from writing our stories.
I have to write the stories God has given me. I understand and respect the great responsibility I have as an entertainer, but I also have to keep reminding myself that I can’t please everyone. As historian Studs Terkel put it, “Just about every book contains something that someone objects to.” Ultimately, all authors have to write primarily for themselves. If we can please just that one person, chances are we’ll be able to please a few others (maybe a whole lot of others) along the way.
So what is your perfect novel? That’s something nobody can say except you. Examine your favorite novels and movies for elements that particularly grabbed you. Battle scenes? Romance? Humorous dialogue? Plot twists? Sad endings? Happy endings? Chances are the story elements that are important to you are already showing up in your work. But if you can single them out on purpose and identify them, you can strengthen them and make them more intrinsic to your stories.
What about story devices toward which you're ambivalent? Maybe you just stuck that romantic subplot into your fantasy story because you felt that’s what readers would expect. But you’re not trying to write what readers expect, remember? Expected, often, is bad. So break the mold, go with your gut, follow your own inclinations. Don’t conform to standards simply for conformity’s sake. You’re not trying to be the next Dean Koontz; you trying to be the one and only you.
I admit it’s plenty difficult to drown out both the critics and the fans. With every person who reads my work and comments on it, I am forced to fight to keep their opinions from encroaching onto my own vision for my stories. Not, of course, that I don’t consider and deeply appreciate the guidance and thoughts of others (see “Putting Your Ego in Your Back Pocket”). But, ultimately, I have to make my own choices for my work, uninfluenced by others. I can’t sit hunched over my keyboard every day, poking out a word or two, and wondering if my readers will applaud or jeer.
Bestselling novelist Sloan Wilson said it perhaps as well as anyone: “A writer cannot choose his audience; he can only be himself and let his audience choose him.”
Don’t worry about what the world considers the perfect novel. Write your perfect novel, and let the world come to you.
Story by K.M. Weiland