|My son eating black beans & rice on his 1st birthday|
Suspense, it’s something I like in a book. No, I demand it. Pompeii positively erupts with suspense. My own manuscript has a good dose of it, at least I hope it does. And of course, we wannabe writers write books like the ones we want to read ourselves. So what else, besides suspense, does Pompeii have that makes it possibly the most perfect book in the world? (Sorry, repeating myself again.) What’s the formula?
The perfect-book formula is something like a recipe: it’s one of many and not everyone is going to like it. I still don’t understand how my husband never likes polenta, no matter how much I jazz it up. But he likes reading Stephen King. I actually do not like the taste of milk chocolate, no matter how crazy that may seem to some. But I loved Salt: A World History. We are all different, thank goodness.
With that in mind, I’d still like to share with you with my own perfect-book recipe, with the first being the main ingredient and the last needed in the smallest proportion, but still – like a sprinkling of black pepper – important for the whole. And because I like Mexican and Italian dishes, which traditionally have a small number of ingredients, I’ve limited myself to the bare essentials and left out other pleasant little garnishes, like humor. Which I’ve never really liked much anyway.
1. Real characters – Really, without good character development, you don’t even have a book. But I don’t always need to like the protagonist: extra-hot chilli may irritate and sting, but I’ll still go back for seconds.
2. Suspense – I need a reason to read. I need to be hungry to eat. I’m lumping pace and flow along with suspense here, as they seem to go hand in hand. But this doesn’t mean I like action-packed thrillers or science fiction. On the contrary. Although I do love the odd volcanic eruption or storm out at sea, I’m most impressed by books that hold my interest even when nothing much happens at all. That’s an art.
3. True story / Solid research – I’m willing to overlook a lot of faults for a true story or book that teaches me something about the world or its history. If I don’t end up loving the way a book was written, it’s nice to know I haven’t wasted my time reading something utterly made up. There are many simply-written and unpretentious memoirs out there, for example, that tell stories that are impossible to forget and leave you feeling inspired. Just plain black beans and rice, no toppings: satisfying in a very primal way.
4. Beautiful language – I’d like to say I was a fancy enough writer to put this first on my list, but it would be a lie. Without good characters, a reason to read, and some sort of educational or inspirational component, then all you have is a pretty little rhyme. Who cares if the dish looks good if it doesn’t taste good? And yet, when beautiful language is combined – in just the right proportion – with the other ingredients…mmm, that’s where the magic occurs. And if you get too used to that subtle complexity of French cuisine, you may never go back to rice and beans. Because you have known true love. Because you have seen the green ray of sunlight over the horizon. Because you have seen angels.
5. Dialogue – At the risk of looking like a fool, I’ve had to add this to my list. Because, honestly, if I flip through a new book and see those thick black chunks of paragraphs uninterrupted by indentations and quotation marks, it’s scary and overwhelming. Like those complex Thai dishes that you know are probably going to taste great, but the list of ingredients is so long that you are sure at least one of them is going to trigger a migraine, a miscarriage or a previously unknown allergy.
6. Satisfying ending – Dessert. You don’t need it, but you want it so badly. Don’t pretend that you don’t.
This is a very subjective list, even though I know deep down that I’m right. So how about you? What is your perfect-book formula, in ranking order?