By John May
When I first started writing a novel a few years back, I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in Seattle, Washington. The session I remember the most (thanks partially to good notes but mostly to content) was a Panel Discussion involving seven prominent agents and editors who dealt with all types of adult fiction. Someone asked the panel, “What’s THE number one thing that would entice you to represent or publish a fiction novel.” I was surprised when they all agreed they wanted the same thing, no exceptions:
Page-turners-—novels that compel the reader to read.
Naturally, the next question was, “What makes a novel a page-turner?” Here, it got even more surprising. I was certain there would be lots of different answers and that the answers would tend to vary based on category. After all, what works for science fiction can’t possibly work for a literary novel and vice-versa, right? Wrong. After much vigorous brainstorming, the panel came up with one consensus answer they felt applied across all adult fiction types:
In the typical page-turner, the reader experiences a story presented in a competent, suspenseful, and entertaining manner about interesting, strong characters who have important, clear goals and who must overcome significant resistance to their vigorous efforts to achieve those goals.
As part of the process, each of the individual attributes (experiences, story, competent, etc.) in the definition was discussed and defined precisely by the panel. The exact words and definitions are important— alternatives for each word were considered and discarded. For example, the reader is not “told a story,” she “experiences a story presented,” which is a very different animal.
In addition to exact wording, the panel felt strongly that all the many listed attributes should be present, not just a majority. They felt that if even one were missing, the likelihood the book would be a page-turner went down dramatically. And, with each additional missed attribute, come further dramatic drops in page-turner potential.
The above page-turner description was accepted unanimously by the panel but not by the audience. Some of the aspiring literary novelists felt it was “write-by-numbers” and that no one had the right to tell them how to achieve their artistic vision. The panel’s response to this went something like, “You’re correct. No one can tell you how to write. You only have to write this way if you want us to spend the time and money it takes to get you published.” The panel did admit there have been exceptions, but held they were few and far between. The odds of publication success (getting published and selling well) are enormously tilted in favor of the type of page-turner described.
Many of the attribute definitions and their subtle nuances are not self-evident. I’m thinking the next few times I’m up to bat in Blog Town, I’ll go over the definition in detail, discuss what each of the attributes meant to the panel and go over the nuances we discussed. I think there are some surprises here.