Monday, March 26, 2012

Michele Stegman Guest Post: "What makes a book compelling?"

Fellow romance author Michele Stegman graciously agreed to come by this week with the following guest post on a topic we all need, "What Makes a Book Compelling." Here's a bit about Michele: 
"Michele Stegman has loved history all her life.  When she was studying history in graduate school, one of her professors quipped that she put too much romance in her research papers.  She decided to put in more romance and write historical romances.

Her Fortune series is following the adventures of the Fortune family through piracy and war in the 1700’s.
Michele was never interested in writing contemporary novels.  But one day she was driving along, thinking of nothing in particular, when the entire plot for MR. RIGHT'S BABY popped into her head.  She couldn’t stop thinking about it and finally decided it was a book that had to be written."    

When Janet asked me to write about what makes a compelling book for her blog, I had to do some thinking about it! 

The answer to this question is long and complex and certainly can’t be covered in one brief blog!  But here are a few quick observations.

1.  It contains some universal truth.
No matter what that truth is, it must be something we can relate to.  And the more universal the truth, the more people it will appeal to. “Even selfish people can sometimes make great sacrifices for someone else,” or “Wealth does not equal happiness,” or “Mothers will do anything to protect their children,” will appeal to more people than, “It’s nice to have a good car,” or “Being pretty helps make you popular.”

2.  It appeals to something deep within your personal psyche. 
Most of us have a favorite fairy tale.  For many of us, it is Cinderella.  We love stories where the heroine is rescued by a rich, handsome hero.  For me, however, Cinderella was not my favorite.  Mine was Beauty and the Beast.  Even as a very young child, first and second grade, I made friends with the kids no one else liked.  It was as if I could feel their pain.  So when I find a story where the hero is dark and wounded, maybe even a little scary, and the heroine brings him out of himself and heals him, I put it on my “keeper shelf.”    

Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale, and A Rose in Winter by Kathleen Woodiwiss, are my favorites. 

A book with a theme that speaks deeply to you will appeal to you.  Which explains why some people like a particular book and others don’t.   

And books can appeal to you at one time, and not later.  I have read books that I thought were wonderful.  Years later, when I tried to reread them, there was just no appeal there for me.  “Been there, done that.”  I think at the time, that book was just what I needed.  It spoke to some current need that has now been healed or changed.  But there are also books I have loved all my life, like the Beauty and the Beast story.

3.  We can relate to the characters.
The long running cartoon series, The Simpsons, has been so popular because we can all relate so well to the characters.  Even Homer.  We are all selfish and like to “pig out” sometimes.  We have those qualities in us so we can relate.  In Homer, they are exaggerated, but they are in us all.  Many of us, as readers, of course, relate most closely to Lisa.  She has few friends and she is always searching for a place where she can belong.  We relate to these characters because of their faults and weaknesses, not because of their strengths.

It’s hard to relate to heroes and heroines who have no faults.  Their faults don’t have to be awful.  They shouldn’t be criminals or cheats or kick puppies.  But a heroine who has self-doubts or is too over-confident is more appealing than a perfect woman.   Again, we relate to the faults in characters, and not as much to their strengths.

4.  Strong GMC.
If you haven’t read Debra Dixon’s GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict) read it NOW. 

I hate conflict and confrontation.  I don’t like it when people fight.  So I like things to run smoothly for my characters, as well.  WRONG.  Also BORING.  The first couple of books I wrote got letters back from editors saying, “Not enough conflict.”  I thought they meant the hero and heroine had to fight, argue, yell.  Well, no.  I didn’t understand conflict at all. 

Jennifer Crusie said your characters can fight over a teacup, but it really isn’t about the teacup.  What do they really want?  What are they willing to do to get it?  What stands in their way?  That’s conflict!  That’s GMC.

5.  Good writing.
Good writing begins with the very first sentence of the book.  I remember reading the first sentence of Outlander and a shiver went down my spine.  I knew this was going to be a great book.  That first sentence set the tone for the whole book.

When I first started seriously submitting to editors, I hated that they wanted the first three chapters.  I wanted to submit chapters 7, 9, and 12 because they were my best.  That’s where the “good stuff” happened.   Well, duh, I soon realized that the “good stuff” better start with the first sentence because most readers are not going to slog through six chapters of drek to get to the good part.

For the first book I wrote that sold I had a really good scene in mind.  It was going to be the last scene in the book.  But I kept tossing out stuff that came before that scene because I thought, “Well, I don’t want to write this stuff, why would anyone want to read it?”  Finally, that good scene became the very first scene in the book.  I wanted to jump right into the action so the first sentence of that book was, “One loop of the coarse rope that bound Raven Winthrop to the mast of the pirate ship was about her neck chafing cruelly.”

Of course there’s a lot more to good writing than hooking the reader with the first sentence, but this blog is long enough!

Thank you, Janet for hosting me today!

My pleasure! Information about Michele and her books can be found on her website where you can read excerpts from each of her books:

Here is a little blurb about Mr. Right's Baby and links to buy the book:

"He wanted to marry her.  If she knew why, she just might walk away forever."    


Victoria Roder said...

Enjoyed your post Michele. Lots of good tips for us writers.

Jennette Marie Powell said...

But Michele, it IS nice to have a good car! LOL. What a fun eye-opener! I'd have never guessed you struggled with conflict, because all one has to do is read your books to see you've learned it well! Thanks for a fun interview, and thanks to Janet for hosting!

Janet Fox said...

Victoria, Jennette - Thank you both for coming by! Yes, I really like the tips Michele has shared here. My personal fav is the universal truth.

Michele said...

Thanks so much for hosting me today, Janet!

Janet Fox said...

I'm delighted, Michele - it's a great post!