I had coffee the other day with an editor from the Penguin Classics group and she handed me the most gorgeous version of Pride and Prejudice with a cover designed by Ruben Toledo. Check it out: http://www.amazon.com/Pride-Prejudice-Penguin-Classics-Deluxe/dp/0143105426/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1257271485&sr=8-1 The amazon page doesn’t do it justice; it really does look amazing.
Well, of course, then I had to start reading it. Jane Austen is my very favorite author and for a few years running I read all her works every year over Christmas break, but I’d fallen out of that habit. And what a pleasure to be reminded all over again why I absolutely love this book–the writing, the characters, the dialogue. But this time I’ve noted something else about it. I’m reading so many manuscripts these days looking for new clients that I bring a new perspective to this book, which is: damn, if this book just isn’t FULL of plot. I think many of us (me included) tend to think of the classics as slow-moving, ornately written, focusing on character as opposed to plot. But reading Austen reminds me that beyond Austen, plenty of classic literature has fast-paced, rip-roaring adventure, edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff. And reading Austen makes me realize very clearly what’s missing in a lot of the manuscripts I’m reading these days.
Which (finally) brings me to the point. I am reading so many beautifully written novels whose descriptions in the query sound fantastic–full of plot and intrigue. But when I sit down to read said novels, I find myself reading page after page of description and conversation with no real movement forward in terms of plot. I’ve said it before: start your story, don’t set up your story. From right around page one, I want to be plunked down in the middle of intrigue. I’m not saying write a mystery, but I am saying that I want there to be a kind of mystery element, a reason to keep reading because I want to know what happens next. Let your book pose a question almost from page one: will Annabelle find her father? Who is the mysterious character following Bob? What is the story behind the family bible with significant words blacked out? Will Jane find love (and more importantly marriage) with Bingley? What is the story behind the Wickham-Darcy feud? Will Lydia be rescued in time?
Even the most character-driven novels, in my opinion, work because you love the character so much that you want to see what happens to them next. Will they get the promotion, fall in love, get the girl, lose the weight, find their dog? There’s still a question being posed and you keep reading to get the answer.
As I write, Rachelle Gardner just tweeted the following:
“A good plot is about disturbance to characters’ inner and outer lives.” ~@JamesScottBell
I think that sums it up perfectly.