E.M. Forster says our job as novelists is a simple one: it is all about getting the reader to turn the page. Charles Baxter advises us to take an interesting character and give that character an interesting problem. The great Pinckney Benedict believes the novel will teach the writer how it should be written.
For me--in my limited experience--I can only play around with the words, the setting, the characters until the narrative voice emerges. I have to know how the story needs to be told before I can worry too much about what actually happens, or even who the story happens to. For me, voice is everything.
Yesterday, I broke into my parents' house--they were at the beach and all was quiet there--and spent a day struggling through the first chapter of a new work. It was a sort of wonderful torture, piecing out the very start, finding not just the voice, but the authority of the voice. The power of it that says, yes, I can handle this. I can carry it through. And now, as the writer, my job is simply to follow that voice. To trust it, no matter where it takes me.