The Key Ingredient of a Novel . . .

As I wrote on the WD Forum: Samwise Gamgee or Middle Earth? The simple elegance of Hemingway’s prose or Santiago’s quest for his marlin? Dracula, Transylvania or the book’s letter/diary format?

I’m whipping up the March/April InkWell section of Writer’s Digest magazine right now, and one of the features we run every issue is the Superlatives poll—basically, WD readers voting on a question about something in the writing world.

This issue’s question: In your opinion, if you were forced to pick one, what’s the best ingredient of a solid novel: The plot/premise; the style; the characters or the setting?

Drop by the WD Forum and vote! (There’s no catch, except you have to sign up for the free forum to weigh in.) We print the results every issue, and usually run them alongside one writer’s comments to shed some light on the answers.

Also, if you’re going to be in Cincinnati tonight, stop by the Blue Wisp Jazz Club downtown to see three journalists attempting to make music that doesn’t sound like, um, err, music being played by journalists who have practiced once. The Society of Professional Journalists in Cincinnati is having a battle of the journalist bands, and WD book author/rocker Chuck Sambuchino recruited me for the gig.

Pray for rock n’ roll! (And my guitar, which is currently shivering in fright in the corner of my office, having not performed on stage in years.)

WRITING PROMPT: Taming the Title
Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

Write a vignette from one of these titles:
Apocalypse Forgotten
The Dragon is Not Real.
The Sky Is Lying

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8 thoughts on “The Key Ingredient of a Novel . . .

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  2. Zac

    Martha, as I posted over at your house, it was well worth the field trip, as always.

    Re: The metallic master, do you guys want to know something embarrassing? I, too, bow to our nefarious Robot Guy. You would think I could get a free pass. But, alas… (I make small digital offerings to him from time to time to expedite comments.) On a serious note: Thanks for sticking with the comments, even when our Robot is being especially stubborn and cruel.

    Dorraine, The guitar shivered and was a little wobbly here and there, but in the end, all was terrifying, yet OK. (Although we were defeated in the Battle of the Journalist Bands by a group of University of Cincinnati students!) And thanks for voting and weighing in on the forum, too — dig the Watson ref!

  3. Sara McNulty

    The Sky Is Lying

    A foggy fortress took up residence in the sky. We were standing on the beach at night.
    Was the sea there if we could not see it? Of course. The crash of waves hitting the shore
    was clearly heard, as were the shrieks of seagulls, except we couldn’t make out the distance.
    We stood still, holding hands, and hoping the fog would lift. No human sounds but our own
    shattered the silence. We were the only ones on the beach at midnight. Or so we thought.
    the fogged sky began to open and silver stars emerged from small holes. It was then that we
    took a step forward and bumped into the blanket on which two people were making love.

  4. Dorraine

    Hope that music gig went down the way you wanted, Zac. It takes guts to get up on stage with a shivering guitar.:)

    And must I pick character over plot/premise or setting? Can’t I have them all? I know whine, whine. I’ll stop by and vote.

  5. Martha W

    Zac – this was up for our own interpretation of what vignette meant?? lol! Ergh – I had issues here. I posted this one on my blog too, since technically a vignette is a literary sketch… I included a picture with it – if you’re interested in a field trip –

    Mark – loved the piece. You so need to write that story. And I couldn’t do what I wanted before (*pout*) but it looks really pretty anyway.

    This one is a micro short-story



    Sara looked out to sea that day, wishing the dark red sky meant he was coming home. But the proof still echoed loud and unforgiving in her ears. Those mortars impacted dirt so close to him she could feel the tremors from across the water.

    His last words haunted her heart, “I love you.”

    Now she understood the vacuum of loneliness, the darkness, the pain. Any day now, the commanding officer would be calling or dropping by to deliver the terrible news.

    The sound of large tires crunching old gravel in their– no, her drive signaled an unwanted, uninvited guest. Whoever had arrived managed to do so with as much noise as possible.

    The sound of a backfire jerked her around to watch an old dilapidated school bus begin to pull off. Under the edge of the rattling vehicle she could make out dress blues and shined-up shoes. Trembling, she turned away, covering her face. Wiping the tears and wishes from her cheeks. There was no reserve from which to pull courage… or hope.

    Until he said – “I’m home, baby.”

  6. Mark James

    Apocalypse Forgotten

    How do you tell your kid about the end of the world?

    I tried those special cards they give out at the Last Day Centers, but she kept asking how come they didn’t have shots to save us.

    I didn’t know how to explain that the brew in the last shot was killing us, so I tossed the cards.

    They have it down to a schedule now. It’s weird to watch the news and see those big red letters come up under the announcer, “Countdown information to follow. Please remove your children beyond the sound of this broadcast.”

    That’s a laugh. How do we remove them beyond the little monsters killing us from the inside out?

    I know the answer to that, the real answer, the one nobody wants to hear. Child Killer, they’d call me.

    I wrote to Unleashed Planet, the only website that’s still talking about the Quickening. I got the answer in the mail two weeks ago. The U. S. Mail must be too low tech, slips under the radar.

    At night when I put Chrissie to bed, after she falls asleep, I pull the letter out of my back pocket, read it. My own bedtime story, I guess. It’s been folded so many times, it looks like it should be some fancy Chinese paper thing; or is that Japanese? Doesn’t matter.

    Unleashed Planet’s website is pretty vague, but the letter tells the whole story. Under the paragraph called “Your Loss”, the part that says, “your child will die” is pretty clear.

    I don’t have much time left. I saw the first bruises of the virus on my neck yesterday. I still feel good enough to drive up to the mountains, to the underground lab. But that won’t last.

    Chrissie isn’t sick yet. It takes longer when they’re that young.

    This new vaccine only works on kids under ten. It’s real aggressive, kills the virus and the host. But the letter says that ninety five percent of the time, the host spontaneously revives.

    Five percent chance to die.

    What were her chances if she stayed with me?

    I’m packing her things now. I got her favorite bear. I can’t imagine her waking up without it, even though I know it won’t make a difference.

    I think it’s better to take her when she’s sleeping. That way she won’t know where we’re going. I don’t want her to be scared. I don’t want to remember her like that.

    The letter says I can stay with her, all the way up to the end, but then I have to leave.

    They say when the kids wake up—you know, after—they don’t remember anything, just that they fell asleep.

    She’ll forget me. I’m okay with that.

    I wonder what’s that’s gonna be like, a generation of kids that doesn’t remember when the whole planet was dying.

    I hope they don’t make the same mistakes. I hope they remember something about us, at least how much we loved them. That’s not too much to ask, is it?