Think of all the things a piece of fiction must have. Who can ever get it all right? For example, we’re told to excel at plot, character, setting, point of view, dialog, backstory, conflict, pacing, and style. If it’s science fiction, add cool science ideas and scope. This list is long and demanding.
The good news is that a novel doesn’t have to have everything right. Remember Randall Jarrell’s wonderful line: “A novel is a narrative of a certain length with something wrong with it.” So here is Kay’s Rule of Imperfection: You don’t have to have do everything supremely well. And the corollary: Since you can’t be sure what in your novel will be supremely well done, you have to try to do it all.
So where does this circular argument leave us? Well, for starters, we can look at our strengths and capitalize on them. Don’t try for profound if you are blind to character. You might write, for example, The Da Vinci Code. If you can’t do plot but are superb with tone and mood, you might write, for example, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell. If you are pretty good at plot but not great, but you nail characters every time, you could have written Abercrombie’s brilliant Before They Are Hanged.
Still not certain what to concentrate on? OK, I’ll go out on a limb and give you my true, no-holds-barred-real advice. Here are the biggest things I think a novel a should have.
Originality. Publishers look for an exciting premise. It doesn’t have to be brilliant, but it does have to shine! Don’t short change your writing with a weak or warmed-over concept. Keep digging until you find an intriguing premise. Think Diana Gabaldon, Outlander series; Kathleen Goonen, Queen City Jazz. Not every premise can be as original as: “Dinosaur DNA retrieved from amber.” But don’t settle for plain.
Vivid Environment. One of the worst mistakes beginners make is a bland setting. This is a real crime in science fiction, of course, but true for every story. For heaven’s sake, take us somewhere interesting–such as the offices of a high-powered law firm or a small town in the 1950s. In science fiction especially, a sense of wonder–grounded in vivid detail–is a sure win.
Fascinating Lead Character. We’ve head this a million times. At least give your lead both an admirable strength and a nagging handicap. Too much strength and we’ve got a cardboard character. With too much weakness, no charisma. If you don’t give them a special ability, give them a driving desire. For a lovely balance of strength and weakness see Justina Robson’s Lila in Keeping it Real.
Conflict or Tension on Every Page. Focus your story around a problem. Out of problems arise conflict. To deepen the conflict sufficiently, make sure something terribly important is at stake. You don’t need meaningless action to tart up scenes, but you do at least need sustained and escalating tension. That’s a high bar. Aim high.
You may not come anywhere near to doing these four things supremely well. But readers will love a novel with two of these great strengths. Give them four (your own four or mine) and you’re playing with aces.