Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Good Novel vs. the Great Novel: Guest Blog--Meredith L. Dias

I am very excited to introduce our guest blogger today. Meredith Dias is a close friend of mine, and I am grateful for the privilege of knowing her. She is an editor for Sourcebooks, Inc., a major independent publisher based in Naperville, Illinois, but, in addition to being an exceptional editor, Meredith is also a fabulous writer. She has had three of her articles published in Random Acts of Malice: The Best of Happy Woman Magazine, a trade paperback anthology of articles satirizing women's magazines and she also wrote the 2007 and 2008 "On This Day" desk calendar for the History Channel and A&E, respectively. However, with her talent and insight I expect to see much more from her in the future. Meredith graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Quinnipiac University in 2003, she is married and has two adorable cats. In her free time she loves reading, promoting cult awareness, hiking, Asian cinema and the Boston Red Sox.

Her first e-book, Periphery, is set to be launched next month and after reading a sneak peek of it, I know that all of you are going to want to read it as well. Her story will emotionally draw you in right from the start, with characters that you won’t soon forget, and I’ll be sure to announce it when the book is available. You won't want to miss it!

The Good Novel vs. the Great Novel
by Meredith L. Dias

When Julie asked me to make a cameo on the Six LDS Writers blog, I was both honored and intimidated. After all, I am neither Mormon nor much of a professional writer yet. However, when my mentor asked me to flash my literary wares on this blog, I decided to go out on a limb and hope for the best!

While discussing the craft of writing with other writers, the question as to what separates a good manuscript from a great one often arises. Millions of us aspire to be America’s next literary legend—the pipe dream is such a common one that I sometimes wonder if The Great American Novel will be the next hot talent show craze on Fox. I try to examine the question from the standpoint of a reader, not a writer: what is it that distinguishes my favorite novels from the ones that bounce painlessly off my grey matter, leaving nothing but a bad taste in my mouth?

For me, the answer lies in how deeply a writer is willing to probe into his characters’ respective psyches. Is the writer presenting a lazy, half-hearted cardboard cutout of a human being, or is he introducing us to someone within whom we see flashes of ourselves? As a reader, I want to feel a character’s ache in her chest as if it were my own, to fall in love with her love interest as deeply as she does. A good writer is able to tell a story about a given dramatis personae, but a great writer weaves an intricate psychological and emotional tapestry that makes us not only empathize with the character, but also care what happens to her.

A good novel adheres to the classical guidelines: continuity, pacing, character development, and smooth transitions. The story is compelling enough to keep the pages turning, and the story is punctuated with enough climactic events to make the ride exciting. However, the great novel appeals to us on a visceral level, calling upon the rawest of emotions and alternately dredging up pain and joy from the deepest hollows of a character’s soul. We feel the pivotal scenes of the story as knots in our stomachs or quickening heartbeats, rather than on a strictly cerebral level. Beyond that, we look up from the page and half expect the character to be sitting there in the room with us, watching with something resembling bemusement as we dive into their most private depths.

I suppose that, at the end of the day, a great novelist is willing to become more emotionally involved with the characters and story. Plot-driven novels will sell copies, and most of us revel in reading them—sometimes in one or two sittings. However, it is the character-driven story that remains with us long after we close the book for the last time. We remember Anna Karenina for her brazen, entitled persona and Eugene Onegin for being the quintessential “superfluous man” in Russian literature. Long after we forget the details of the storyline, we can still feel these characters within us. In some respects, they become part of our own identities, and we find ourselves reciting their noteworthy lines in everyday conversation.

What distinguishes between a good novel and great novel for you? I would love to hear everyone’s input on this.


23 Comments:

At 6/14/2007 12:16 PM, Blogger Marnie Pehrson said...

By Jove, Meredith, I think you've got it. :) I agree... characters that feel real and a book that touches your emotions is the key. There are so many books I've read and said, ''Yes, it was a good story... but it didn't move me.'' I think each of us long to be transformed by a book . . . to become a little more understanding, a little better person for having taken the journey. A book that makes you feel and connect with the characters is the one that does that.

 
At 6/14/2007 12:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exactly! I love a book or film that changes the way I see the world. It's one of the reasons I'm such a diehard Kurosawa fan. ;)

Your post encapsulates what is missing for me in a lot of bestsellers right now. There are certain authors whose characters begin and end with a whimper, like a plane that skids across the runway but never goes airborne. The story is interesting enough to keep me from abandoning ship, but not enough to remember a year from now.

By the way, it's great to "meet" you!

-Meredith

 
At 6/14/2007 12:24 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Meredith,

Thanks for the great blog. Nice to have you join us. I think you are exactly right. I especially like your point about looking up and expecting to see the character.

For me, Stephen King is one of the masters at that. I can't read the stand if I have alergies or a cold, because his Super-flu that wipes out most of the world's population feels that real.

I often find myself thinking that a person I meet or see on TV reminds me of someone, only to realize the "person" they remind me of is the character from a really good--make that great--book.

A review of my first novel, that stung but really hit home, called my novel a "tale." pointing out that it was a single storyline, even though there was potential for much greater depth.

In trying to improve myself as a writer over the years, I've focused especially hard on creating a true tapestry or storylines and characters.

 
At 6/14/2007 12:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Jeff. It's nice to meet you!

When I write a story, I try to probe as deeply as I can into the character. Even if I'm not ultimately successful in making the reader feel the character on that visceral level, I know that I have done everything in my power to present more than just a two-dimensional impersonation of a human being. Of course, I can sometimes drift into the opposite extreme and saddle a manuscript with too much introspection, but I am working on finding that perfect balance.

Stephen King truly is a master. I have only read "It" and "Pet Sematary," but the character development was so masterful in both novels (particularly "It"). I really should go back and reread them--when I did read them, I was far too young to appreciate some of the intricacies of his prose!

-Meredith

 
At 6/14/2007 12:34 PM, Blogger James Dashner said...

Great post. It just dawned on me what makes a great novel for me. I recently read a book by Stephen King (Bag of Bones), and I remember thinking several times, I wish the characters would just sit around and talk for awhile. I would've kept reading if there'd been a 40 page description of them sitting at dinner.

In fact, there WAS a long scene where they had a barbecue get together, and I was enraptured the whole time. Its purpose was masterful: after all that buildup, something horribly tragic happened that left me stunned.

What's my point? It's all about the characters and plot twists. I want to love the characters and be surprised over and over.

 
At 6/14/2007 12:40 PM, Blogger Marnie Pehrson said...

Great airplane analogy. Makes me wonder if the characters in my current work in progress have achieved lift-off or not. :)

Wonderful "meeting" you as well. Thanks for venturing into "Mormon-land" to teach us a thing or two about great literature. :)

 
At 6/14/2007 12:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, James! It's nice to meet you!

I am a huge fan of plot twists. I always watch M. Night Shalyaman films trying to figure out the twist before the end of the movie (I've only succeeded once, with The Village). The E-book I'm writing right is building toward a plot twist that (I hope) no one sees coming!

There are certain books whose twists have actually felt like a punch in the gut. Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" is one that stands out in particular. As traumatic as it can be when a story blindsides me like that, I still find myself flipping back to the pivotal scene and rereading it for clarity--and even a certain measure of enjoyment.

-Meredith

 
At 6/14/2007 12:57 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

Great blog, Meredith. I was a guest blogger the other week, so I understand the intimidation. But you have wonderful credentials. I look forward hearing more about your upcoming novel. My favorite books are ones that take me to a different time and place. I love historical fiction, but I also love stories about people. When their lives are so much different than mine, I truly learn. I'm fascinated with human nature and all the why's, how's, and what's . . . so you can say that I'm easily addicted to a good book. I definately categorize a great novel as one in which the characters feel like they are breathing onto the page. One of my best friends lived in Naperville for awhile and my husband lived there as a child. Small world.

 
At 6/14/2007 1:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Heather!

I actually don't live in Naperville myself. Sourcebooks has a satellite office in Connecticut (where I live) for their humor, self-help, and gift book imprints. Because I work on a contractual basis, I'm lucky enough to work from home! It's a great arrangement.

I completely agree about characters breathing onto the page. I love reading a book wherein the main character becomes real to me.

Someday, I would love to try my hand at writing an historical fiction, though I fear I might not do very well! History has never been a strong suit of mine, though I certainly could try my hand at writing a Colonial New England story. Hmmm...the gears are turning now!

 
At 6/14/2007 1:17 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Meredith, I read your blog thinking, "Yes, that's it exactly!" I may have to print it out and bronze it. You spoke/wrote so eloquently about what a great novel should do. My latest book (#5) just went to press, and I'm going through a bit of a grieving period, trying to adjust to the fact that my characters are not real. They have never breathed or lived except in my heart and head. I hope my readers will close the book with the same feeling.

 
At 6/14/2007 1:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Annette!

Your book sounds amazing! I would love to read it when it hits the bookstores.

I have felt that same separation anxiety when I finish writing a story. When you feel particularly connected to the character, it can feel like losing a limb!

-Meredith

 
At 6/14/2007 1:33 PM, Blogger Marnie Pehrson said...

I feel like I get to "cheat" a bit since I write historical fiction that usually includes at least one person from my family history. Writing about real people you've known and loved or heard stories about most of your life makes the job easier. :)

My current manuscript (based on a true murder story) has so many characters that the tricky part is making sure that I'm giving enough detail so that each character is 3-dimensional without bogging the reader down with too much information on a secondary character.

Any words of wisdom on that?

 
At 6/14/2007 1:50 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Meredith, you did a superb job of summing up the heart of great fiction--we don't read it, we LIVE it!

I think realistic characters are one of the reasons the Harry Potter books are so popular. Harry didn't set out to be anyone special. He's not trying to be a hero. He just wants to be liked, to have friends, to do well in school--goals we can easily relate to. But when danger arises, he meets the challenge with courage and determination--just like we secretly hope we would under similar circumstances. He's not a buffed-up superhero in a cape. He's a kid who struggles--and triumphs.

 
At 6/14/2007 1:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's such a great question, Marnie, and not one for which I have a ready answer! The best advice I can give is to use a lot of non-verbal cues. Sometimes, body language can tell more about a character than actual introspection (which, obviously, isn't an option here since the story isn't being told from these characters' points of view). When these characters are engaging in dialogue with others, what are their facial expressions? What sort of tone are they using when they speak? Are there any nonverbal cues--like sweating (to suggest fear), eye-darting (to suggest dishonesty), or crossed arms (to suggest insecurity)?

That's the best advice I can give! I find that it's a really good way not only to flesh out secondary characters, but also to give dialogue a bit more substance.

-Meredith

 
At 6/14/2007 1:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Stephanie!

Believe it or not, I have never experienced Harry Potter--in print or on the silver screen! Many of my friends keep telling me what I'm missing, so I really ought to give the saga a try.

I love your comment about "living" great fiction, because it's exactly what happens when a story strikes a chord with us. As for characterization, I think that your description of Harry Potter sums it up: we want three-dimensional characters facing real challenges in spite of real flaws. I confess that I'm tempted to close a book with protagonists who are too "lily-white" and villains who are too "evil." Humanity consists of the good and the bad, after all, and a character seems woefully incomplete if lacking one or the other.

-Meredith

 
At 6/14/2007 2:05 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

The books I've been enjoying lately are a cross between regular genre fiction and literary fiction -- not so literary that I can't understand them :) and yet literary enough that the author is allowed to go off on little tangents that straight formula doesn't allow for. Two recent favorites have been "Peace Like a River" by Leif Enger and "Light on Snow" by Anita Shreeve. We really get into the characters' heads in these books and I loved it.

 
At 6/14/2007 2:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Tristi!

I really love Anita Shreve's books. They are literary page-turners--a perfect combination, if you ask me! I also love books that deviate from the "straight formula" and take risks. It's yet another component that makes good fiction great!

Did you read "Fortune's Rocks" by Anita Shreve? I loved that one in particular, though I ended up sympathizing with the man more than the woman! Perhaps because he ultimately lost more?

 
At 6/14/2007 4:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This really is great insight and a wonderful summary. I think we should do a class on this very thing at our next Writers Conference. I think too many writers are lazy about developing characters ... and when they do, they're not real enough. I read a commentary recently about the Spiderman movies, and why they've done so much better than other Superhero offerings. The main reason boiled down to the fact that he's so much easier to relate to than a billionaire or a mutant or someone from another planet. He's just a regular joe from across town, with the typical combination of flaws and graces. Thanks for the post. I'll be thinking more about good vs. great as I pen the next Greatest American Novel. -BJ Rowley

 
At 6/14/2007 4:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the Spider Man movies for that very reason, BJ! Even Harry, the heir to his father's fortune, was three-dimensional. Sure, he did things that were abominable, but we knew why he did them. Establishing clear and defined motivation is also half the battle when crafting both heroes and villains. Sam Raimi really took the time to develop each of the main characters very carefully.

-Meredith

 
At 6/14/2007 6:57 PM, Blogger Josi said...

It's the why that makes all the difference. Having clear character motivations so that even when the character does something the reader would never do (Harry is a great example) the reader understands why it's done. Nothing pulls me out of a story faster than thinking "She/he/they would never do that" if that thought enters my mind, then the cardinal sin has been committed--I was reminded this is fiction.

Great blog Meredith and good luck with your book!

 
At 6/14/2007 7:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, Josi!

The motivations are so crucial to the character's development. I couldn't have said it better myself. If the writer doesn't have a firm grasp on what motivates the character, we are left with the worst kind of "Why?" imaginable: being so detached from the character that, try as you may to derive some kind of motive from the story, you're left wondering why on earth he/she behaves a certain way. You almost can't say that the person is acting out of character, because the character was never clearly enough defined to begin with!

-Meredith

 
At 6/14/2007 7:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, too, am neither a Mormon nor a published author, but this comment is being placed by request of the two parties concerned with its creation. For starters, let's just say that I know the blogger better than anyone else on this planet and I can say, without bias, that she is one of the finest working in her craft today. Her succinct, albeit illuminating, explanation of what she believes differentiates a great novel from a run-of-the-mill one should be taken to heart for potential authors or fiction readers alike.
I have the utmost confidence in her success and know that her penchant for writing characters with soul and substance will raise her above the ordinary millieu of novel authors. I cannot wait to read her completed work and I feel glad (and maybe a little snobbish) knowing that I will be one of the first to experience it. All the best!

 
At 7/06/2007 1:27 PM, Blogger Emily said...

Yay, Mer! :-) Love you!

 

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