Since this is a blog about writing well, let’s discuss what differentiates a good book from a bad book. I’ll start with what I look for in a good book: a great story, great characters, and great writing.
I like a story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been, or introduces an imaginative idea, or makes me think about something in a new way. Not only must the story be good, but the characters must be interesting–ALL the characters, not just the main one or two. These should be characters who I’d love to meet (or avoid), I want to cheer for (or boo), have an interesting perspective and whose head I enjoy being in.
I want the writing itself to be a part of my enjoyment: vivid descriptions that aren’t overdone, appropriate use of vocabulary, and unexpected turns of phrases and memorable lines. Do I find myself wishing I’d written that instead of telling myself that I can write better than that?
After the book is over, can I say that I enjoyed the journey and want to read more from this author? Did I like the world the author presented so much that I’m going to miss it and the characters? Or was I so disappointed that I am glad that painful book is over and I vow never to read another book by this author?
Good and bad are frequently tied to our personal tastes and prejudices. In one workshop I took under award-winning sci-fi writer Nancy Kress, she said that to judge writing properly, we have to learn to separate good and bad writing from what we like and don’t like. My wife recently started I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. She stopped after fifty pages or so because she didn’t like it and his writing style. At the same time, she acknowledged that the writing itself was good. It was a good book, just not one she liked.
A good book is one we not only enjoyed reading, but also one we’d recommend. Our ultimate goal as writers is to satisfy our readers AND get them to recommend our book to their friends. I’ve enjoyed a few badly written books simply because the story was interesting enough and I wanted to know how it ended, but they were not books I recommended.
Another factor that differentiates good and bad books is how they stand the test of time. Some of the classics of literature would have little chance of seeing publication today. Times and tastes change. I’ve heard it said that Hemingway, writing today, would never have made it past a few short stories. The Great Gatsby is widely acclaimed as a masterpiece of literature. I didn’t especially care for it. Yet it endures because it tells the story of the times it was written in. H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, although brilliantly conceived and a fitting commentary on the social Darwinist thinking if its time, is really a mediocre novel from a writing standpoint. I’ve read it twice, at different points in my life, to confirm this. But I love the story it tells. The fact that it has been made into a movie several times (even if not all of the film making efforts were spectacular) attests to the timeless of the story itself.
How can we apply these principles to our own writing? For one, even though reading tastes change, certain principles do not, and those are the ones I listed as key parts of a good book: good story, good characters, good writing. How does your story measure up? Consider the following points, which we’ll explore in future blogs.
–Does your story begin in the right place, when something important is about to happen? Or is your opening droning on with pages and pages of description and backstory that you’re convinced the reader absolutely MUST know first in order to understand what’s going on later?
–Does your story have something significant to say? Or is it just another detective story, another romance, another aliens-invade-earth, another someone trying to kill someone, another hostage who will die if the hero doesn’t figure out how to save her in time? There’s nothing wrong with any of these story ideas, but the key is to make yours stand out from the crowd.
–Why should your readers be interested in the story? I’ve seen many new writers believe that a story important to them will be important to their readers because it’s based on the writer’s personal experiences, when in truth it’s only meaningful to the writer and boring to everyone else.
–Are ALL of your characters interesting? One of the criticisms leveled at The DaVinci Code is that the main character in particular (Robert Langdon) has little personality and seems to exist solely to solve the various puzzles. In contrast, the classic detectives of literature (such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot) were good at solving puzzles, but they also had personality quirks that made them interesting and lovable to readers.
–Does your writing sound as if an intelligent person wrote it, or does it sound as if it was written by a C-student in high school? One shortcoming in a lot of self-published work (aside from frequent poor editing) is that the writing sounds amateurish–or at best it’s weak.
Your goal as a writer should be to turn out not only books that people will read and enjoy once, but ones they’ll remember and keep on their bookshelves to read again. I think it’s a fair to say that many–if not most–of the novels written today will be forgotten ten or twenty years from now. If you don’t want your book to be one of them, make sure it has something to be remembered for: an innovative story with memorable characters that’s told well through great writing.
Joe Konrath has repeatedly said that the best way to become a successful author is to write great books. In future blogs we’ll explore ways to help you do that. In the meantime, try this exercise. Make a list of some (or all) of the books you’ve read in the past year or past few years. How many of them really stand out? How many of them would you want to read again? Can you remember the story well enough to tell someone about it without consulting the cover blurb?
Then look at your own book. Will someone who reads it remember it years later as a good book, instead of for how bad it was? I’ve read more than a few of the latter. Make sure those books are all written by other authors, not by you.