Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What makes a good book a good book

Brian over at Don't Sweat the Technique approached me about writing a post on what makes a good book to a reviewer.  I'm not a professional reviewer, just a chick that loves to read.  At any rate, I took a stab at it and my thoughts are below.

Though what makes a good book is really subjective, I’d have to say the basis of a good book is well-developed story lines; fleshed out characters; unpredictable plots; descriptive imagery and fluid writing.  Not sure what I mean?  Let’s explore a little further and I’ll give you examples of books in which authors get it right.

1) Well-Developed Story Lines
I want to know that the author has taken the time to think the story all the way through to the end.  Don’t draw me so deep into the book that I’m staying up past my bedtime to finish it, then drop me off a cliff with no warning at the end!  That’s not to say that every story needs to be nice and neatly wrapped with a bow at the ending, but I shouldn’t get a feeling that your editor told you that you only needed to write 200 pages and you quit at page 199. Finish that story.

On the other hand, don’t give me fluff. There are a million ways to say the same thing. Don’t try them all out in one book.

And please remember what part of the story you’ve already told. There’s nothing worse than feeling like I’m stuck in the movie Groundhog Day because the author keeps rehashing the same scene.

Example: Room by Emma Donoghue, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

2) Fleshed-out Characters
If you want me to like, love, hate your characters, you’ve got to tell me who they are. I’m more likely to keep reading and cheering (or booing) for characters if I feel like I know them.

Circle back to the character that you made me like in chapter three and never spoke of again beyond chapter four. What purpose did he/she serve? If she was important enough to add to your storyline initially, why wasn’t she important later?

Get me emotionally invested in your characters and I’m yours forever. However, if they’re forgettable, trust me, so is your book.

Example: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, The Stand by Stephen King.

3) Unpredictable Plots
Readers love twists, turns and what not. If I already know how the story is going to end, why should I bother to read it? We read as an escape from our day to day routine.  Life is, generally, predictable. Plots should not be.

Example: This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park, The Sport of the Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar  

4) Descriptive Imagery
Unless I’m reviewing a kid’s book, there are no pictures included. The author should write in such a way that I can envision what characters look like. A really well written book will not only allow me to see the character, but hear them as well.  And if the setting for the story is magnificent/gritty/etc., I should be able to feel that from what the author has written.

Example: The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber, The Last Empress by Anchee Min

5) Fluid writing
 Journalist and author Norman Cousins once said, “Words have to be crafted, not sprayed.  They need to be fitted together with infinite care.”  

One of the reasons J. California Cooper is my favorite author is that reading her writing is like curling up on my Granny’s lap and listening to her tell a story. Cooper doesn’t get extra fancy with her words.  She simply tells the story in a relatable, conversational, sitting on the back porch kind of way. Her storyline, her characters, her words and her imagery flow together in such a way that when the book has ended, you find yourself wishing she’d give you just one more chapter.

In contrast, some authors write so choppily that you may find yourself seasick a few chapters in. Bumpy writing will have me ready to jump ship in a heartbeat. The goal should always be to tell a story in such a way that the reader doesn’t want it to end.

Example: Some People, Some Other Place by J. California Cooper, 32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter

I don’t have a degree in English or a MFA in Creative Writing; I’m simply a reader. But if these basic elements are included, I can almost guarantee that I’ll give a book a five star rating.

What makes a good book a good book for you?

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