Thursday, July 21, 2011

What Makes a Book Good?

Have you ever read reviews or had people recommend books, and then you read them and can't understand what all the fuss is about? What works for one reader might not work for another. And there's nothing wrong with that—that's why there are so many different books!

While I was in Los Angeles, I had time to hook up with a friend from high school. We discussed reading and writing, and we got started discussing the male-female thing. He'd read books by a well-known female mystery author, and he said he rushed through all the "emotional" stuff because he wasn't interested in that. He wanted the "mystery" stuff, not all the "feeling" stuff.

I recently read two "out of my normal genre" books in anticipating of attending a book club meeting. I'll be interested in seeing how the book club works, especially since the woman who invited me stressed that they served a delicious breakfast rather than extolling the brilliance of the book discussions. I've never joined one before, since they remind me too much of assigned reading in high school.

One of the books I read would, by today's standards, probably be considered poor writing. But it was a memoir written by someone born just after the Civil War, who had very little formal education. The publisher had opted to leave the manuscript virtually intact rather than edit it for spelling or grammar.

However, I managed to get beyond that almost immediately, because the character was fascinating. And since a lot of the book took place near where we now live, it was even more fascinating to think about how she either walked or rode in open wagons along routes we drive by car now. And how long it must have taken to get from one place to another. Where we drive for about 25 minutes to our Sunday morning breakfast café would have taken her the better part of a full day.

The other book was "literary" fiction, and beautifully written. But it bored me to the point where if I hadn't finished before I had to return it to the library, I wouldn't have minded. I almost stopped reading after 30 pages. Why didn't I like the book despite the quality of the writing? For the most part, because I didn't care about the characters. The pacing was slow, and the author had a tendency to use names that started with "A" so I kept getting the characters mixed up.

As far as books I've chosen to read—I'm finding other things that pull me out of the story. In one, the author spends way too much time on description for my taste, especially at the beginning, where I'm trying to figure out what the story is going to be about. Show me the conflict, not the sunsets. To me, description needs to be integrated into the story, not bring it to a halt while the author shows me around.

In another, as I tried to analyze why it didn’t work, since the character had plenty of conflict, and everything that "belongs" in a mystery was there, I decided it was primarily because the character was too self-centered and whiny. My reaction was more, "shut up and get over it" rather than, "oh, I feel your pain." I did check one of the major websites for readers, and I noted that when someone gave the book a 3 star review (out of 5), the protagonist's behavior and attitude were usually mentioned as the detracting factors. Others didn't seem to mind, focusing more on the mystery plot. Same book, different readers, different reactions.

I remind myself of this every time I get an email that says one of my books has just been reviewed! And of course, I'm thrilled when they're like this one.

Tomorrow, we're going to the Badlands of South Dakota with Jason. I was going to post pictures of my trip to LA, but copy edits got in the way. I'll try for next week. But I REALLY want your pictures!


Jan Morrison said...

Reading a book is a two person thing. The writer and the reader. What's good for me one day (something light or predictable if my life is chaos, something subtle and writerly if everything else is going well) might be bad for me another. I love diversity in everything. Mexican cuisine one night, Indian the next. Life is a cabaret!

Terry Odell said...

Jan, that sounds like the Samuel Johnson quote on my NOOKcolor cover: "A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it."

Diversity in reading is great, although I can find books I like and don't like in just about any genre.

Hart Johnson said...

I have a hard time with a book where I am not deep enough in a character's head--I want to KNOW somebody if I am reading about them. If I just wanted to watch, I'd watch television. And I agree with you on description completely. Especially physical descriptions--less is more. I want my imagination engaged, and if the description is too much or conflicts, it doesn't really work for me.

I've definitely read books like both you describe, and it is very much for character reasons. An excellent plot can carry characters, but it has to be STELLAR where interesting characters can carry most stories.

Terry Odell said...

Hart - I totally agree. Good characters can carry a mediocre plot, but it doesn't work the other way. Even a good plot with mediocre characters is a hard sell for me.

Debbie said...

I can like a book based on either strong characters and/or quality of writing. Just tell me a great story. Doesn't necessarily have to have a strong plot, just enough to hang the story on.

Former agent Nathan Bransford once said that writers should read popular books to see if they can identify what is connecting with readers. Just saying "The DaVinci Code sucks" doesn't do us any good. We need to find what it is about the book (pacing, the action keeps going, people like Langford, cool premise, romantic settings, etc.) that makes readers love it.

It's hard, but when I'm 20 or so pages into a best seller that I'm not enjoying, I remember what he said and keep going.

Terry Odell said...

Debbie - a speaker at a conference said that "you could drop a piano on any of the characters in the DaVinci Code and it wouldn't matter. That book was the example used in so many of the workshops that year with many authors saying "Wish I'd thought of it, because I could have written a GOOD book." The book was used as the exception to the rule that it's about characters.

I do try to figure out why I like or don't like a book -- I think it helps the creative process.

Anonymous said...

1) A voice I want to soak in
2) A last page that comes too soon and leaves me wanting more more more
3) a character I find fascinating
4) a high concept story that hangs together and leaves me asking questions
In that order.
Good reading!
Karen Lin

M.E. said...

Deep POV is vital to keeping my interest as a reader. If I do not care about the characters, I don't want to go through the plot with them. Though I used to force myself to finish books I did not like, I no longer do so. I simply toss it after the 20 page mark if the story does not "grab" me.

Calisa Rhose said...

For me it depends on the individual author what constitutes as a good book. There are certain authors that pull me into the entire story and there are those who hold me by a single character. It's how these books are written that make me stay for the long ride.

I'd be very interested to know the civil war memoir title and author. Good luck with the book club.

Terry Odell said...

Karin - Great list, although I'd probably put your #3 as my #1.

M>E. - someone said that you should subtract your age from 100, and that's how many pages you should give the author.

Calisa - Daughter of a Pioneer, by Atlanta Georgia Thompson

Vonnie Hughes said...

Terry, I like a book that doesn't dot the i's and cross the t's right at the beginning. I suffer from a crit group who keep on at me about doing this. I never read books that do this, and I don't want to write books that do it.

I'm not talking about an over-convoluted plot, just one where there are too many explanations made as if the reader were was untelligent.

And I love a good story without too many twists just to spin out the pages.

Romance - yes, a little, but please, no heroes and heroines in a clinch as a bridge falls on top of them.

Yup. I'm picky.

Terry Odell said...

Vonnie - knowing how to take what works and ignore what doesn't from a crit group is part of the process. Sounds like you know what you like. (And I'm with you on those contrived sex scenes.)

Liz Flaherty said...

As long as the writer's voice is speaking to me, I will like the book. It is a taller order than it sounds, because if I'm reading it just because the plot's good or the protagonists are the stuff dreams are made of, I'm probably not hearing the author's voice and reading can become almost work.

Good thing we don't all like the same voice.

Terry Odell said...

Liz - voice is one of those intangibles that develop as a writer learns more of the craft. But it's there, and yes, what resonates for one reader might not work for another.

Carol Marlene Smith said...

One can never totally understand how two people can read the same thing and come away with such different viewpoints.
However, that is why there are so many books available.
You have a nice blog here, and I also can't decide what genre I want to write. Each story that develops in my head is what it is, so I continue to write whatever happens, be it romance, mystery, literary, or humour. I like the freedom of not being boxed in by any particular genre. Keep up the good work here.