Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Jenny Say What?

A to Z BLOGFEST – Click ‘next’ or ‘surprise me’ button on sidebar for more ‘A to Z’ers

J: Je ne sais quoi

FerrisSo what makes a good novel? Better question, what makes a great novel? An entire industry has sprung up over the years to try to answer that question, or at least to convince the askers that it even can be answered. I have a whole shelf, a long one, dedicated to books about writing. They teach you the craft. They can even give you advice on how to maximize your natural talents. But not one of them can teach you how to make even one person fall in love with your book. And that’s what we want, isn’t it? Sure some people are about the money, or the awards, but ultimately, we all want to be read. We want readers to embrace our writing, to devour our words. We want them to fall in love with our books.

How do we that? By honing our craft? That’s part of it, I guess. A book that can’t convey its message because the author doesn’t understand the fundamentals will be hard to read, much less embrace. But does mastery of craft guarantee undying adoration? No, of course not.

How about plotting, or storytelling? Maybe it’s the slick use of metaphor or irony or even alliteration that takes their breath away. Maybe not. So what is it? What’s the secret formula that can take your book from a pretty good book to a book whose characters people will name their children after?

The answer is, I don’t know what. Like, literally, that’s the answer. The French call it je ne sais quoi, or “I don’t know what”. It refers to a quality that exists but can’t be defined. Millions of teenage girls don’t love with a passion the Twilight series because of the way Stephanie Meyer crafts her sentences or her use of imagery or dramatic irony. They love it because they love it. Are there other YA books out there that are just as good or better? I’m sure there are. But something about Twilight speaks to them the way the others just don’t.

As writers, we spend small fortunes on writing books, we attend conferences hoping the price of admission includes the secret to writing books people love, we agonize over query letters that ultimately mean nothing, since a good query does not necessarily mean a good book, and vice versa. So how are we as writers supposed to not only recognize this elusive something but capture it, giving our books that same immeasurable appeal? Well here’s the answer:

I don’t know.

What I do know is, you should write what you feel, write with passion, write with the writerly equivalent of Vincent Van Gogh, who painted with such fire and passion, it was as though he were leaving his entire being on the canvas, write as though your heart will explode if you don’t. If your voice is strong, if it’s bursting open with fire, people will hear it. Think about craft and structure and “the rules,” but don’t agonize over them. Write a book for you. Empty yourself into it, and people will find it. And they’ll embrace it.

And they might not even know why.


  1. Now isn't that just the truth! Someone once told me to write what I feel. This put me on the road to non-fiction when I wanted to be on fiction. Someday...

  2. If only we could find the answer to that question :)

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  3. If someone figures out the answer, they can bottle it and become millionaires. ;)

  4. Who knows!! and Doreen if you are old enough to write you know a mass of stuff - go for the fiction if that's what you want - you know about emotion, trials, happiness, people, family or not - you know where you live you know how you think - a million stories lie in what you personaly know at this moment - go for it

  5. Great post! Yes, success and what you like has nothing to do with skill and execution on the part of the artist/author sometimes. :) Love the Ferris photo too!