HOW TO START A NOVEL

How to Start a Novel: A Checklist Posted by Laura DiSilverio

Great opening lines

Consider the following . . .

“All this happened, more or less.”  Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.”  The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

“‘What makes Iago evil?’ some people ask. I never ask.”  Play It as It Lays, Joan Didion

“The snow in the mountains was melting, and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.”  The Secret History, Donna Tartt

“I don’t think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn’t really his fault.”  To the Hilt, Dick Francis

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”  Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

Did these first lines draw you in, make you want to go find the books and read them? Look what a single sentence can do!

No one will deny that a novel’s beginning is key to its success. Some might argue that its ending is even more important, but we’re not here to have that debate. Instead, we’re going to talk about how to start a novel—specifically, how to craft a stellar opening line and great opening paragraphs.

The writer’s goal for page one

Before we can discuss the specifics of how to start a novel, we need to talk about a writer’s goals for a story’s opening paragraph. Your primary goal is to make the reader keep reading. Sounds simple. But we know from our own experiences as readers, that it’s not so simple. How many times have you pulled a book off a library shelf, perhaps intrigued by the cover, read the first line or three, and re-shelved it? Hundreds of times, right? Do you read two or three pages, or an entire chapter while standing in the bookstore? I don’t. If a writer hasn’t snared me by the end of the first paragraph, I don’t pull out my Visa.

What keeps a reader reading?

Books and articles on how to start a novel sometimes list dozens of things that will keep a reader reading. In my experience, they boil down to only two reasons: a compelling character (not necessarily “likable”) and/or getting swept into the action. Both of these hinge on evoking curiosity, making the reader want to know more about the character or find out how the action turns out, and setting up conflict. (There is a special, third way to start your novel, that I’ll discuss at the end.)

How to start a novel with a compelling character

No one technique will snare all readers, but we can make some generalizations. For the purposes of this section, let’s consider the opening paragraph, only three sentences, of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.*

Raise questions.

If your opening line or opening paragraphs raises questions in the reader’s mind, she is more likely to read on to discover the answer. The immediate question Gaiman’s first line brings to mind is “What did Shadow do to end up in prison?” We keep reading, hoping to find out.

Introduce a multi-layered, interesting character.

Shadow’s a big, apparently tough dude in prison, but he’s teaching himself coin tricks, of all things, and he loves his wife. These front-and-center contradictions pique a reader’s interest (and all promise conflict). As a bonus, he’s sympathetic. We tend to be drawn to smart, curious people (teaching himself coin tricks), and people who love their family members, so we’re pre-disposed to like Shadow, even though the first thing we learn about him is that he’s in prison.

How to start a novel with action

In his book The Watchman, Robert Crais opens with the kind of action that keeps a reader reading. (Note: This great opening paragraph is only two sentences.)

The city was hers for a single hour, just the one magic hour, only hers. The morning of the accident, between three and four A.M. when the streets were empty and the angels watched, she flew east on Wilshire Boulevard at eighty miles per hour, never once slowing for the red lights along that stretch called the Miracle Mile, red after red, blowing through lights without even slowing; glittering blue streaks of mascara on her cheeks.*

Engage the reader in the action.

Confess—you don’t want to keep reading this to find out who the woman is as much as to see if she crashes and what happens then. Will she die? Will she kill someone? Crais has roused our curiosity and promised conflict with “the accident” and what we think is an impending crash. Book beginnings like this make us keep reading.

Introduce a character.

Any character. Even when opening with an action sequence, you still need a character. There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story about a screenwriter pitching a producer on his script. The screenwriter describes in great detail an opening sequence featuring a Mercedes speeding down the road, skidding off a cliff, and bursting into flames when it hits bottom. The producer asks: “Yes, but who’s in the car?”

Part of the reason we keep reading The Watchman is because there’s a woman, and she’s got fanciful ideas about the city, and maybe she’s crying (the mascara on her cheeks). She is by no means compelling (certainly not like Shadow in the earlier example), but she’s there and she’s got the hubris to think of Los Angeles as “hers.” It’s enough, in concert with the action, to make us read on.

How to start a novel with the power of language

I know I said that readers keep reading only if you arouse their curiosity by introducing a compelling character or involving them in action, both of which promise conflict. There is, actually, a third method, less often used because it requires a master’s hand, that I call “the power of language,” that does neither of those things. It can be a descriptive passage, a ruminative nugget of interior dialog, or some other bit of narrative that bowls the reader over with the beauty of the language and the narratorial voice. Consider this opening from Alice Hoffman’s The River King.

The Haddan School was built in 1858 on the sloping banks of the Haddan River, a muddy and precarious location that had proven disastrous from the start. That very first year, when the whole town smelled of cedar shavings, there was a storm of enormous proportions, with winds so strong that dozens of fish were drawn up from the reedy shallows, then lifted above the village in a shining cloud of scales. Torrents of water fell from the sky, and by morning the river had overflowed, leaving the school’s freshly painted white clapboard buildings adrift in a murky sea of duckweed and algae.

There’s no character here, no action. It’s a description of a past storm and its effects. Put like that, it’s not very compelling, is it? The only whiff of present-day conflict lies in “had proven disastrous from the start,” which seems to foreshadow more disaster in the story ahead. But Hoffman’s description, her use of conflict-laden words like “precarious,” “disastrous,” and “torrents,” and that one beautiful image of a shining cloud of scales, reel us in. We want to lose ourselves in this language, in the world Hoffman is creating, and so we keep reading.

You cannot spend too much time getting your first line and opening paragraph right, making them great. Here’s your checklist for how to begin a novel:

Does it raise one or more questions?

Does it promise conflict?

Does it introduce a compelling character?

Does it sweep the reader into the action?

Does it exhibit the power of language?

If you have included one or more of those elements when you are starting your novel, you’ve probably got a great opening paragraph. (If not, you may have veered into some of the classic ways not to start a novel.)

What’s your favorite opening line of all time? Tell us on our Facebook page.

 

LAURA DISILVERIO is the national best-selling and award-winning author of 21 (and counting) novels, including standalone suspense novels and several mystery series. Her teenagers coaxed her into writing a young adult novel, and the result is the dystopian Incubation Trilogy, an Amazon bestseller. She is a past President of Sisters in Crime and a frequent keynote speaker and teacher at writers conferences and events.

 

 

THE IMITATION GAME: Learning How to Be a Copy Cat!

THE IMITATION GAME: Learning How to Be a Copycat!

In Writer’s Digest magazine this month, I was stopped in my tracks, when I saw this article by Karen Krumpak. I thought…What?

But then reading on, I realized that this is what artists do all the time. The apprentice artists are required to copy their “Master’s work” in paintings, watercolor, and pastels. Okay, I thought, but how is copying, word for word, another author’s work going to help me? And is this a good idea? In my effort to understand this “Game”, I read on.

And, I then discovered that this is a practice game to improve writing skills. Great, I thought, I am hooked! It was a relief though, to know I wouldn’t be the only copycat. I was in good company: Jack London, Benjamin Franklin, and Hunter S. Thompson (I honestly don’t know who this man is or was.)

Next step: Learning to Copycat or rather finding a writer I love and want to copy, but, as I found out, this is not as easy as pie…it takes work! Work?? More work??

Okay…I am Game! (pun intended)

Ms. Karen Krumpak, the author of this article, states that “You will learn to have your own Voice and your own Distinctive Style!”  This sounded like magic to me, as I imagined my own Strong voice, and my own Distinctive style!

Or, would I be, “The New Copycat Killer of Words?” (secretly, I wondered if I would finally learn to properly use punctuation, and even learn how to use italics with confidence.) I have a secret love for italics—don’t ask me why, I don’t know. Italics are very pretty to look at, aren’t they?

The first thing is to sort through your personal library for a writer that you would love to imitate.  So, several hours later….I finally made a decision!

I chose a book with 870 pages: THE MISTS OF AVALON.  I figured that after 870 pages…I would really have my own Strong voice and my own Distinctive style! This would be the “Cat’s Meow” (Pun intended)!

This choice was perfect for me with my love of legends, fantasy, fairytales, and most of all, the Magic of Morgan Le Fay, in other words; the magic of a legends, and the magical saga of all the women behind King Arthur’s Throne. Ah Ha!  This is true…there are always women standing behind a man’s throne! (Just to be sure he didn’t forget anything. We women are so helpful.)

Next step: Learn how to be a Sherlock Holmes, but where is my Watson? Well, as Karen Krumpak states, “forcing yourself to impersonate another writer takes off the pressure of writing? Really? What pressure?

Soon, I am told, I will start reading like a writer. But, I do that already…maybe. Normally, I just read, for the pleasure of it. But, if I must, I will.

Soon, states Ms. Krumpak, I will learn to stretch my skills and improve my technique. This better work…if it doesn’t, well, I will have enjoyed immensely, re-reading The Mists of Avalon, just like a real writer reads a book. Good to know!

 

How to Balance Character and Action!

How to Balance Character and Action  by Julie Hyzy

Characters, whether sympathetic or despicable, are the fuel that keep a plot moving. I’m sure you’ve heard many writers—whether plotters or pantsers—compare writing a novel to taking a trip.

Characters are fuel

Whether they start with a detailed road map or simply with an idea and a general direction, writing is likened to driving from one place to another with stops at interesting sites along the way. While that’s a fine analogy, allow me to offer an addendum: Drivers/authors aren’t going to get far without fuel. Compelling characters are what provide the power to keep a story moving. Without them, readers won’t feel an urge to join the journey. In that unfortunate case, even the most exquisitely devised route—with all its fascinating must-see attractions—may never be fully explored. Put another way: Until a reader is emotionally invested in a character, any actions in support of or against that character’s well-being fall flat.

A guy and a truck

Allow me to offer a very basic example: In an opening scene a guy gets run over by a truck.Let’s say the author manages to incorporate a measure of suspense into the story. Our unlucky guy—staring at his cell phone—steps onto the street as a truck barrels around the corner.

A talented author may do a phenomenal job of drawing out the seconds before impact with descriptions of the man, the truck, weather conditions, and time of day. This same author, knowing that details are key to believability, may work hard to depict an accurate accident scene, using, say, three pages of exposition to illustrate the horrific destruction.

After the collision occurs and the guy has been smashed to bits, readers may keep turning pages if they wonder why this guy’s death was important or why the truck didn’t stop. But unless this story comes from a trusted author, readers will only keep turning pages if they care.

In the example above: Do you feel any sadness at the street-crosser’s demise? Do you feel anything at all?

Probably not. It’s hard to truly care about the dead pedestrian yet because we readers know nothing about him yet.

But what if there’s more?  Let’s back up a little.

What if, moments before the poor fellow steps onto the street, he’s on the phone with his pregnant wife who called to tell him she’s gone into labor, that there’s blood everywhere, that she’s called an ambulance? Worried for her and their child, he steps up his pace and swears he’ll meet her at the hospital soon. His car is on the next block. He looks up from his phone to face the oncoming truck.

Now, how do we feel about this character?

While the example above is no one’s idea of a brilliant opener, I’d suggest that the second approach—the one where we learn a little about our soon-to-be-deceased’s family life—provides enough characterization, both for him and for her, to provoke an emotional reaction from the reader. And it does so without slowing the action. I’d argue the characterization adds to it.

In this imaginary tale, if the next scene shifts to the wife at the hospital, we’re immediately invested in her welfare and that of the baby. She’s unaware of her husband’s death but we readers know that the news will be hitting her soon.

That kind of tension—knowing that at any moment her world will come crashing down—is what keeps us turning pages.

Along the way, while the wife shifts from angry to worried, we also learn more about her character. And again, the action hasn’t slowed down one bit.

Conversely, if this same story started with the guy waking up in the morning, taking a shower, going to work, thinking about the baby and having that trigger a memory of his own childhood and playing on the swings and running with his dog, and, and, and… (see also: no action), only the most determined of readers will make it past chapter one.

How can writers effectively balance characterization and action, then, in a way that captivates readers and keeps them engrossed into the wee hours of the night?

Action is the accelerator, but characters provide the power!

According to the title of Christopher Booker’s oft-quoted tome, there exist only seven basic plots. Even if Booker’s estimate is off by several dozen, that still leaves millions of books per story line out there. Whether the story is tragic, comic, follows a protagonist on a quest, or one of the other plots Booker describes, what sets a tale apart is its cast of characters.

Because I believe this so firmly, I subscribe to this notion: While action moves a story forward, it’s the characters that truly drive the plot.

Action is key, and not only in crime fiction. To extend our take-a-trip analogy, action as the accelerator—we step on the gas if we want to get anywhere. When we exert pressure on the gas, our speed increases, just as action pumps a reader’s adrenaline to get those pages turning even faster. As our speed increases, however, we use more fuel. And that’s when we must rely on character power.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, taking time for character internalization during an exciting action scene can serve to intensify your reader’s experience. I’m not talking about slowing the action with a detailed flashback. Slowing the action is not our goal. But taking the time to include a sentence or two—perhaps a mere phrase—not only keeps your reader grounded, it has the potential to deliver buckets of delight.

In a key scene near the end of my new book, Virtual Sabotage, protagonist Kenna Ward doesn’t know if certain individuals in a virtual reality scenario are real or simulations. As she fights for her life, she takes precious seconds to evaluate and then re-evaluate whether to fight for their lives as well. These quick moments bringing the scene’s characters into sharper focus also serve to intensify the action.

Soul-searching

Another concern when balancing characterization and action is keeping your character’s soul in mind. Would he or she take the steps you need them to? Would he or she react the way the plot requires them to? If not, the story won’t work. Characters must follow the rules of their own souls. Plots can change on a whim.

Remember that your characters are always right—about themselves, that is. Try to figure out why they refuse to behave the way you need them to. Is it because you haven’t laid the proper groundwork for this behavior? You haven’t explored a dimension of their personality that a certain action depends on? Maybe that means rewriting a prior scene.

While there are few absolutes in writing, I will defend this as one of them:

Do not ever force your characters to do something against their will.

To clarify: I’m not suggesting that characters can never be encouraged to act against their wills. Putting a gun to your protagonist’s head often serves as ample encouragement. What I’m advocating against is forcing behaviors that don’t make sense and that your characters balk at performing. When an author forces such action from his or her characters, it shows. That author loses credibility. And readers.

Action vs. activity

Don’t confuse action with activity. Action propels the story forward. Activity describes what’s going on. And while well-placed activity can set the groundwork for action (think of the phobias and OCD tendencies of detective Adrian Monk, brought to life by the actor Tony Shalhoub on the TV series, Monk), activity for activity’s sake (filler) risks putting your reader to sleep.

Some of the best examples I’ve found that balance characterization and action come from the late, great Sue Grafton. In her excellent alphabet series, scenes are presented to the reader through Kinsey Millhone’s personal filter. Every one of Kinsey’s wry observations not only delivers sharp detail, it allows us to peer into her soul as well. Pick up a Grafton book to see what I’m talking about. The stories move at such a quick clip you almost don’t realize how well you’ve gotten to know Kinsey along the way.

There are so many complexities about balancing character and action that I’d love to have an afternoon of conversation to dig even deeper into what works, what doesn’t, and why. Next conference, let’s chat! Or let’s talk now on the Career Authors Facebook Page!

Julie Hyzy is the New York Times bestselling and Anthony Award-winning author of the standalone thriller, VIRTUAL SABOTAGE (October 23, 2018, Calexia Press), the White House Chef mystery series, the Manor of Murder mystery series and the Alex St. James mystery series

A Halloween Poem: The Witch of His Dreams!

THE WITCH OF HIS DREAMS

She comes to him at Midnight,

The Witch of his Dreams,

Her eyes a forest green,

Her hair, dark and long,

Her voice, a sweet magic,

Calling out his name,

He could not help but watch her,

Dance among the flowers,

Beneath a waxing moon,

She whirls and cast her spells,

Upon him,

A haunting chant she sings,

And soars into his soul,

On gossamer wings,

She whispers things he longs to hear,

Of secret longings in his ear,

She enchants him with delights,

Though she must fly into the night,

She tells him of her love,

And casts her spells upon him,

To love him evermore,

Though never shall she return,

For she was only ever,

The Witch of His Dreams.

Composed by K. D. Dowdall October 2017

Top 10 Reasons Your Book Will Sell: An Agent’s Checklist Posted by Paula Munier

 

Writers are always asking me how I decide to sign new clients—why this writer with this project, and not that writer with that project. As an agent, my primary job is to sell my clients’ work. Ergo, I sign writers whose work I think I can sell. And remember, we agents work on commission, so I don’t make any money until I sell the work. I can’t afford to take on a project, however wonderful the project and/or however wonderful the writer, if I don’t think I can sell it. Literally.

How do I know if I can sell it? It’s more art than science.

And God knows there are no guarantees in this business. That said, there are certain criteria that can help me predict what may work in today’s tough marketplace:

  1. I totally LOVE LOVE LOVE the work.
  2. I can pitch the story in 50 words or less.

In other words: It’s based on a high-concept (or at least unique) idea written by the writer born to write it. As in:

Everlasting Nora is a middle-grade novel about 12-year-old Nora, forced to live in Manila’s Cemetery City after her home burns down in the fire that takes her father. When her mother goes missing, Nora must find her—before it’s too late. A heartwarming debut by Filipino-American Marie Miranda Cruz.

  1. Readers will fall in love with the protagonist, just like I did.

Give me Bosch, Bridget Jones, Harry Potter, Stephanie Plum, Atticus Finch, Everlasting Nora.

  1. The story is written in a distinct and engaging voice.

Think Alice Hoffman, J. D. Salinger, Maya Angelou, Anne Lamott, David Sedaris, Isabel Allende, Pat Conroy, Roxane Gay, Sue Grafton, Lee Child.

  1. The story falls within a known genre.

Which means that: a) I know where it fits on the shelf; b) I can reference good comparable titles within that genre; and c) The publisher will know how to sell it.

  1. The protagonist drives the action from beginning to end.

Imagine your story as a film—would the A-list actor you want to play your hero agree to take the role? Hint: He’d have to do all the good bits, that is, take down the bad guy, get the girl, save the baby/world/universe.

  1. The structure is sound.

The plot works. The heroine’s dramatic arc is in place. The writer has remembered that: The first page sells the book. The last page sells the next book.

  1. The writer has a strong idea for a second standalone or the second in the series, whichever applies—and is already working on it.

The writer is in this for the long haul.

  1. The writer is professional, cooperative, and collaborative.

The writer understands that editing is part of the process—from my notes to the acquisition editor’s notes and beyond. Resistance is futile.

  1. The writer is prepared to make the transition from writer to author.

Notably: The writer is an active participant in his/her writing community, and is willing and able to do the promotion work required to publish successfully in the 21st century.

How’d you do? Are you ten for ten? Let’s discuss on Facebook.

Paula Munier

PAULA MUNIER is a Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary Services. She boasts broad experience creating and marketing exceptional content in all formats across all markets for such media giants as WGBH, Disney, Fidelity, Gannett, Greenspun Media Group, F+W, and Quayside. A dedicated writing teacher, Paula is a popular speaker and lecturer at writing conferences, workshops, and retreats both online and on-site across the USA.

An Interview With Judy Rumsey Bullard, Book Cover Designer, This Saturday, October 20th!

 

 

 

 

 

As writers and authors, we know or should know, the importance of creating a book cover that shines. The cover should also represent as much as possible what the novel is all about. On October 20th, 2018, I will be interviewing Judy Rumsey Bullard, a very talented Book Cover Designer, who will talk to us about Book Cover Designing. She will be displaying 6 more of her great designs, and will talk to us about what it takes to be a successful Book Cover Designer! Here are three Book Cover designs that she designed for three of my novels and I love each one!

 

Critical Thinking: The 5 Factors that Earn 5 Star Reviews!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An excerpt from: Paul Goat Allen | March 12, 2018, Writer’s Digest. Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.

Novelists live and die by reviews yet uncovering what garners a gushing ovation or blistering takedown is often a mystery. A professional critic lays out what it takes to earn five-star book reviews. For two decades I’d been working as a freelance genre fiction book critic for outlets such as BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and the Chicago Tribune. After sharing my credentials with the group, some of the writers began telling stories about mediocre or bad reviews they’d received at different points in their careers from one or more of the companies I’d listed.

As a reviewer, not much has changed since then. I enjoy all genres and have reviewed thousands of titles in hundreds of sub-genres ranging from apocalyptic fiction to zombie erotica. (Yes, there’s such thing as zombie erotica.) In the end, genre categorization matters little to me—it’s all about the story. With that in mind, I decided to formalize a universal framework through which I process and analyze my various reading experiences. While there are undoubtedly specific narrative elements I look for in-particular-genres (pacing and tension level in thrillers, for example), there’s a pyramid of qualities—a Hierarchy of Needs, if you will—that I seek in every story. While highly simplified, it’s this structure that dictates whether I give a book a positive or negative review.

These five criteria will not only provide a glimpse into how a veteran book reviewer dissects and evaluates a novel but, hopefully, make you look at your writing in a different light. See for yourself: Does your work-in-progress have what it takes to earn a positive review?

The Book Reviewer’s Hierarchy of Needs: How to Earn Five-Star Book Reviews

  1. Readability

A book’s degree of readability is the base layer of my reviewer’s pyramid, and the foundation for any good story. The quality of a novel—narrative clarity, narrative fluidity, having a coherent storyline—is directly related to the number of times I put that book down. Some are so bad, so poorly written, that I struggle to get through a single paragraph without wanting to walk away. Others have such a fl uid plot that I find it virtually impossible to stop reading—Tad Williams’ The Witchwood Crown and Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass being two such examples of utterly readable, page-turning novels.

I’ve read a lot of “unputdownable” books over the last few decades, and the vast majority of these all have something in common beyond a clear and fluid narrative: The stories have noticeably strong chapter beginnings and endings. It’s a small thing, but a great way to compel readers to keep reading. How can you put a book down when every chapter begins and ends with a cliffhanger sequence, bombshell plot twist or powerful statement? When I consistently find these elements in a novel, I know the author fully understands the significance of readability.

Conversely, novels that aren’t as readable—that are poorly written with awkward sentence structure, a confusing storyline, weak chapter beginnings and endings—are almost asking to be tossed aside. This may sound obvious, but if you can’t compel a reader to read your story, then you need to focus more on your craft before penning another book.

  1. Immersion

I define immersion as the ability for me, the reader, to not only lose myself in a novel (I call these “stay-up-all-night-till-your-eyes-bleed” reads) but to experience the story intimately, living vicariously through the characters. This trick is accomplished through a continued focus on setting, rich description and atmospherics. I don’t want to experience the story as a detached viewer looking down at what’s happening—I want to feel like I’m in the story.

The litmus test for this is easy. If I become so engaged with a book that I lose track of time—if I glance at the clock and hours have passed by—you’ve succeeded in drawing me fully into your read. Writers who are absolute immersion masters (think Cherie Priest, Justin Cronin, Charlaine Harris) are so good at captivating description that weeks, months and oftentimes years after reading their novels I can still vividly recall specific scenes.

This layer is where many writers stumble, and here’s why: While they may excel at world-building and meticulous description at the beginning of a novel, once the action and adventure ramps up, they not only lose focus but completely ignore description altogether. I’ve seen this happen countless times in every genre: rich description for the first 100 pages or so, then almost nothing in the final 200. It’s called literary escapism for a reason. If I can’t lose myself in a read—from beginning to end—then I haven’t fully escaped. Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View

  1. Character Depth and/or Plot Intricacy

Three-dimensional, interesting and identifiable characters bring emotional connectivity and intensity to the read. If your readers aren’t emotionally invested in your characters, then the narrative impact of your story is inevitably going to be negatively impacted. Emotions wield power. If you can bring your readers to tears, make them laugh out loud or scare them to the point of checking under the bed, then you’ve succeeded on some level.

Creating authentic characters to whom readers can relate is a solid achievement—but an obvious word of warning: Stay clear of clichés and stereotypes. Overused conventions—like the Chosen One in fantasy who is consistently a white male, or the emotionally damaged billionaire entrepreneur in erotic fiction who needs to sexually dominate his love interest—even if brilliantly rendered, will underwhelm and disappoint more than a few readers (and reviewers).

Now, the reason I include an “and/or” between character development and plot intricacy is because, in some rare cases (particularly in mainstream thrillers), a novel with an impressively knotty storyline can still succeed with relatively cardboard characters.

Which is why plot intricacy is key: Why read a novel where you can accurately predict what’s going to happen after a few chapters? (I do that quite often. After reading the first chapter or two, I’ll jot down a prediction in my notes. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve guessed the ending correctly.) I just finished reviewing a brilliant historical mystery for Publishers Weekly that was filled with so many plot twists I was left guessing until the last few pages. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a fantasy or a thriller or a romance—the plot has to be intricate enough to keep your reader simultaneously engaged and a bit off balance.

  1. Originality and Innovation

This one ties in with embracing originality, be it atypical characters or unconventional story structure. So many books out there today are built upon unoriginal, rehashed, derivative storylines. I read a lot. And I get bored easily, especially when reading the same basic story arc again and again. My advice? Don’t play it safe. Write a story that you’ve never read before. In a 2016 Goodreads interview I conducted with fantasy novelist Michael J. Sullivan, author of Age of Myth, he said,

“It doesn’t matter if it’s been done before. It just matters if it’s being done well now.”

I love that quote. Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be re-envisioned or reimagined but be innovative—put a new twist on an old mythos, turn a stereotype on its head. Have the courage to be creative!

  1. Thematic Profundity

In the introduction to the 2006 reissue of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1960 Hugo Award–winning classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Mary Doria Russell writes, “You’ll be different when you finish it.” That’s my hope for every novel I pick up—that within the story there will be a kind of spiritual and/or existential wisdom, a kind of revelation or insight that will change the way I look at myself and the world around me.

A novel that holds this kind of thematic power—as well as the other elements in the Hierarchy of Needs—will get a starred review from me every time. Stories, no matter the genre, have the power to change lives. Novels like Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We have irrevocably changed who I am. After all, that’s the ultimate goal, right? To write a commercially successful and critically acclaimed novel that is both entertaining and enlightening.

Evaluating a novel is a cumulative process. Those with masterful character development but zero immersion will still receive a poor review, for example, while a thematically profound read with excruciatingly bad readability will receive a terrible review.

May this Hierarchy of Needs not only make you more aware of how your writing is experienced by readers—and jaded book reviewers like myself—but also offer up a few invaluable insights that can be used to improve your craft. Who knows, maybe my next starred review will be yours.

Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.