Pride and Prejudice Without Zombies

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: 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.

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18 Responses to Pride and Prejudice Without Zombies

  1. me says:

    Thank you, I couldn't agree more. I love all your advice.

  2. Rachelle Gardner's Tweet reminds me of the WRITE GREAT FICTION series where they say something like put your character up a tree then throw rocks at him and do everything you can to make being in the tree as difficult as possible then get him out of the tree.

    I think of that often when writing.

  3. Valerie says:

    I'm going right back to throwing rocks at my character right now!

  4. Promise me you won't read Jane Austen right before you read my pages!!! Seriously, great post. I love how you said, "I want there to be a kind of mystery element, a reason to keep reading because I want to know what happens next." Absolutely. When I read, I'm not nearly as interested in the "prose" as I am in the "story."

  5. ChristaCarol says:

    Very good post. And old habit…I may have to borrow the Austen during Christmas break idea.

  6. Kurt Vonnegut said, "Start as close to the end as possible."

    Elmore Leonard said, "Leave out the parts people skip."

    These quotes have helped me keep my WIP in pace with a readers expectations (I hope).

  7. Page by page…what is going to happen next…will she be okay…will she figure out why she is doing this to herself…

    As I dive into my first attempt at writing a YA, I hope my main character, Marrissa, will make you love her, worry about her and wish her success as she travels her path.

  8. It sounds so simple. If only it were. But I keep trying. And trying to improve.

  9. Patti says:

    Great advice. I think it's all in the editing, taking out anything and everything that doesn't help propel the plot.

  10. Ian says:

    Oh my god, I just discovered Jenny's blog. To those out there who might doubt her brilliance, she was awesome/inspiring/cool when I worked on my first book with her when we were young'uns in 1992, and obviously continues to be. Yay!


  11. Great advice and I love that cover! Saw it in the bookshop the other day and reached for it automaticaly…

  12. Rachel Hamm says:

    Pride and Prejudice is the greatest book ever written. It works on so many levels. The plot always moves forward, the characters are alive on the page, and Mr. Darcy is just incredibly yummy!

    Great post, Jenny. I love the comment about putting your character in a tree and throwing rocks at them. I'm definitely going to keep that in mind with my writing from now on!

  13. I'm inclined to agree about thorough plotting and well-developed characters, but it seems that a book like Pride and Prejudice written today wouldn't get the attention it deserves because it would be considered too literary.

    As a lit. fic. writer, it seems all I hear is that literary fiction is a dead end. Though many agents say they love lit. fic., they'll very rarely rep it because there's just not as much money.

    How does one reconcile good plotting and well developed characters with the commercial obsession of today's market?

    Better writers than me are getting a lot of responses that basically say something like: "this is great and all, but could you toss a vampire in there somewhere?"
    As your title reminds us, even this great literary work wasn't interesting to today's readers until someone added zombies.
    -Colin Hill

  14. jennybent says:

    Colin, I actually disagree with you, and that was kind of the point of the post. Jane Austen does still work today, and it didn't take zombies to make that happen–think of all the Jane Austen movies that are constantly coming out for instance–she's still very much in the forefront of our cultural attention and her sales are still very strong. I think her book would absolutely get the attention it deserves if it were published for the first time today, and one of the reasons is that it is a fast-paced read and not at all "too literary." The writing is beautiful and it is a literary novel but it has a very commercial plot as far as I'm concerned.

  15. My fault, I don't think my wording was clear. I meant if she were an unpublished author trying to get started today, she might have gotten discouraged before getting off the ground. We all would have lost out. John Irving said something similar about his own work a few days ago.

    This is probably just my own cynicism, though. I want to believe that the plight of lit fic is because many authors just haven't honed their tools enough yet, as opposed to the idea that the art of literature is completely overshadowed by the business of publishing.

    It's refreshing to hear someone in the business who doesn't necessarily think that publishing and literature got a divorce.
    -Colin Hill

  16. Rule of Thumb.

    I was in a writing workshop led by a well-established popular author who wrote on the chalkboard: "Plot is what happens next."

    I think otherwise. As a rule of thumb when writing fiction, Plot is what happens NOW. On this page, in this sentence.

  17. Ana Patricia says:

    Love your advice! And of course, Jane Austen. I could read Pride and Prejudice over and over again!

  18. JENNIFER says:

    One of the brightest examples, where Austen's wit and skill at social caricature are on in full display is in Northanger Abbey, a cliffhanger, burn-the-oil-lamp well into the night kind of page turner that illustrates, with comic deftness, the high stakes for young ladies of that era in finding a mate. Not to mention that it is indeed a Gothic thriller!

    So, yes, there is a lot to learn from re-reading the classics, but there is also pleasure as well. And that should never be lost in the writing, either.

    And I defy anyone to find a frenemy as cunning or as charming as Isabella Thorpe in any chicklit book thus far!

    Jennifer Leveau