Can you name a book that you and all your friends agree on? One that is unanimously considered either so brilliant it’s impossible to put down, or so bad it’s impossible to finish? If you can, you’re probably an exception. (Or you have a group of unusually like-minded friends.)
I can’t. Can’t name one book that all my friends agree on.
Over the last decade, I haven’t found it in my book club, nor in my writers’ group. There are books my husband loves and I can’t get through, there are those he can’t believe I bother reading… and I neither confirm nor deny that I handed him Joshilyn Jackson’s “Gods in Alabama” as a test to see whether we were soulmates (fortunately, he loved it as much as I did). What’s more, some books grow on you and some you have to grow into. I didn’t like “The Grapes of Wrath” at twenty, but I did at thirty-five.
So given all the empirical evidence that people’s tastes in books differ, is there a magic formula to calculate the read-worthiness of a book? Probably not, which is why so many literary agencies and book publishers say, “We can’t tell you what we’re looking for, but we’ll know it when we see it”. But guess what? This blog is going to attempt to do just that: define what makes a book good for at least some readers.
What makes a book universally good?
Over the years, I’ve noticed that readers can be classified according to more than just the genre they read:
- There are those who prefer a single narrator telling the story, and they hate switching between character viewpoints.
- There are those who will not read a book if it’s in told in the present tense.
- Modern readers are impatient: grab them within the first paragraph, or lose them forever.
- Surprisingly many readers pay attention to how well a book is written: they may say that they didn’t like the author’s voice, or they found themselves easily distracted from the book world, but what they usually mean is that the language was clumsy.
- Fewer and fewer readers seek out “template” books like traditional romance or traditional cozy mysteries, in which you know exactly what you’re going to get: same story, different names, different hair color. Nowadays, we want new stuff, better stuff, shinier stuff; we want it more frequently and we want it now.
There isn’t much we as authors can do about points 1 or 2: your book will either feature a single viewpoint or multiple points of view, it’ll either have parts written in the present tense or it won’t.
Point 3 seems easy – just start in the right place – although again what that place is will be different for different readers. Consider the opening lines of Lee Child’s thriller “Make Me”: “Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy. It was like trying to wrestle a king-size mattress off a waterbed. So they buried him close to the house.” Compare them to Joshilyn Jackson’s “Gods in Alabama”: “There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus.” The first line in “The fault in our stars” is different yet: “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”
Point 4 (language) can be fixed with a good edit. As long as you are confident about your voice and you know the audience you’re targeting, your style can be whatever you choose. Poetic like that of “The Great Alone”:
That spring, rain fell in great sweeping gusts that rattled the rooftops. Water found its way into the smallest cracks and undermined the sturdiest foundations. Chunks of land that had been steady for generations fell like slag heaps on the roads below, taking houses and cars and swimming pools down with them. Trees fell over, crashed into power lines; electricity was lost. Rivers flooded their banks, washed across yards, ruined homes. People who loved each other snapped and fights erupted as the water rose and the rain continued.
Or fast-paced like in “Serial Wives”:
Her partner, Detective Kath Taipari, cleared her throat. “You ok, Constable?”
“Yes,” Zoey lied.
Zoey stabbed the recording app on her phone. “The victim’s female, in her twenties. No visible traces of blood.” Strangled like the other one, she thought, but that was the medical examiner’s call. “This is the second young woman murdered in K Road this year.” The second prostitute. Again, she wasn’t going to record her assumptions. “As with the previous case, the victim is wearing a white sheet and a fencing mask.”
Point 5 is where “How to Kill Boring Plots”, my course on Savvy Authors, can help. In order to write a book that’s fresh and memorable, you have to dig deep into the very core that’s uniquely you. Before you start writing, ask yourself:
- “What is this story about?”
- “What am I trying to tell my readers?”
- “What am I thinking about now that I’ve finished writing it?”
- “What do I want my audience to remember a month or a year after reading it?”
Lisa Cron said:
It’s never about what happens, it’s about why and how it affects the characters (and therefore the reader).
Check out Yvonne’s new class right here at SavvyAuthors starting Monday, May 6!