I've been fortunate to sell most of the books I've begun, usually on proposal. Just one died in its early stages; its demise came about when my editor, talking about the plot of the novel, asked "So what?" Ouch. That was a painful moment, but an instructive one.
Like the editor I quoted in my last post, I'm a lover of beautiful prose and well-rounded characters. I love creating voice and setting and atmosphere. Plot, not so much.
It's not that I don't value plot, as a reader. I do! I understand what keeps a reader turning pages. And after my editor asked me that hard question, I've spent much more energy on this issue. It comes down to stakes. What is at stake, and what will happen if the protagonist fails?
Stakes can be big and external, life or death issues. They can be internal and intimate, loss of a love, losing hope. They can reflect political issues or philosophical ones. But they have to be there. There has to be an answer to "So what?"
As a genre fan, I found the new Star Wars trilogy to be the perfect demonstration of this. The characters which were so well established in the old trilogy are vague and ill-defined in the second. There's a tricky race between several alien creatures, buzzing and swooping in competition with each other. So what? The audience doesn't know who these beings are or why the race matters. The special effects are cool, but again . . . so what? Not until the young Anakin (who will one day become the fearsome Darth Vader)goes in search of his long-lost mother, and finds her enslaved and dying, do we have a reason to care what's happening in the movies. And by then, it's too late.
Sadly, Lucas didn't call me to ask for my opinion before he made this film, which was widely panned by both genre and non-genre fans! Imagine the difference in the story if he had started with Anakin and his mother. Our sympathies would be engaged, and there would be an answer to the tough question. "So what?" would be answered by "Revenge." We would care.
Stakes are everything in creating compelling stories. I could have saved myself a lot of time with some of my novels if I'd asked myself the tough question early. I'm still going to write that failed novel, but I have to go deeper with it before I do. I have to figure out why it matters!