In his book Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass talks about novels that are truly moving and memorable. He says, “A truly big book is a perfect blend of inspired premise, larger-than-life characters, high-stakes story, deeply felt themes, vivid setting and much more.” Thinking about my middle grade mystery novel The Light on the Hill, which I wrote ten years ago and I am now trying to edit, it points out some of what’s wrong.
Inspired premise – I just don’t know. There’s a ghost who looks just like the main character, trapped in reliving the nightmare of her death and asks for her Emma’s help. Original? Inspired? I’m not sure.
Larger-than-life characters – No, my characters are fairly simple. Perhaps even a little one dimensional. Well, maybe a bit quirky. Jane is the scientific, precocious type at age 11. Micah is hyper but a nice guy. Emma is the girl next door – straight blong hair, big blue eyes, kind of short. Pretty, but normal. How do I elevate her? She’s self aware and sensitive – more so than many girls her age. Self possessed and directed, thoughtful – but larger than life? No. How do I elevate them?
High stakes story – Well, Emma feels linked to the ghost and is very worried about her but she doesn’t stand to really lose anything if she doesn’t help her. That’s definitely a problem.
Deeply felt themes – Family secrets. An excellent theme but do I communicate it effectively?
Vivid setting – I think this is actually my strong point. My writing group confirmed my thinking that I needed to cut 1/3 to 1/2 of what I had in the first chapter, but now I’m worried that I’ll be cutting out my setting. Do I need to cut or add more to make it more compelling?
And much more – Yikes! What more am I missing?
I could abandon it as an early attempt, which I’ve learnd a lot since simply through writing more. But I don’t want to abandon it, I want to take this draft and turn it into what I always wanted it to be – that deeply moving and memorable book for kids that fires their imagination. I love the idea and I want to write a sequel, maybe even a third. I’m just not ready to give up on it.