My friends and I were talking about some of our all-time favorite books. What I found interesting was how much we disagreed. An author one of us loved, another person might not bother to finish. And the very thing that elevated a book for one of us was the same thing someone else considered a flaw. That made me wonder. What are the essentials for a good book?
At my writers’ club, I used to cringe when a person said, “This isn’t really something I read, so I’m not sure how to critique it.” The qualifier used to bother me, but not any more. I’ve learned to take very seriously what type of book a person’s writing. Because, let’s face it, each genre offers an implicit promise to deliver certain things to its readers.
One of my friends writes Regency historicals and another writes historical romances, and a lot of times when they read at Scribes, they get the comment, “There’s so much description. Does it really matter if her gloves have buttons on them or if her gown is silk?” And the answer is yes. Historicals aren’t just about characters and plot, they’re about a time period. Readers want to be transported to that part of history with its mannerisms and social nuances. Part of why I enjoyed Pamela West’s Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper was due to the realistic view of how miserable life was for the lower classes during Queen Victoria’s rule. Caleb Carr achieved the same gritty feeling in The Alienist–showing the beginning of psychology in detective work. And Barbara Hambly’s Fever Season depicts a New Orleans riddled with diseases during flood seasons and a social stratum that teeters in a delicate balance between whites, slaves, and freed blacks. I read those books because of great story lines and wonderful characters, along with eloquent writing, but the historical settings added to my reading pleasure. And yes, details matter. They whisk me from my living room to a past that, in those books, I’m glad isn’t mine.
Writers–myself included–often bemoan novels being lumped into genres, and heaven help you if you cross one or two. But the truth is, when a reader picks up a contemporary romance, that’s what he wants. He wants boy meets girl, obstacles keep them apart, and then boy wins girl. He wants a happy ending. My friend Ann writes women’s fiction/romance, and that’s why she chose it. She wants to feel good when she finishes a book–the one she’s writing or the one she’s reading.
To me, every genre, even literary, comes with certain expectations. And a writer strives to meet them. So…what is the essential for a good book? I think part of it depends on what kind of novel/genre you’re writing. Every book needs a great story line: a hook, a problem, and a goal to fix it. It needs characters we care about. We don’t have to like them, but they have to hold our attention. A novel needs clarity, so that we don’t stumble and jerk our way through the plot, and it needs a voice that we want to hear. It needs tension and pacing with no sags that lose our interest. But I’ve read novels with plot holes that a truck could drive through, characters that I’d like to knock on the side of the head, and pacing that stops and starts in fits, and I still liked the books. Why? Each novel delivered what I picked up that book to find.
I’m a Martha Grimes fan, but one of her books–I can’t remember which one–had a roundabout plot that made me too dizzy to even try to follow along. Usually, in a mystery, that would make me put it on a shelf and move on. But the characters were so eccentric, the clues so bizarre, I kept turning the pages. And if it’s true, that the end of a book makes you go out and buy the next one, Grimes did something right, because I did just that. Still, a mystery has to have something to solve, a few clues to add up, some kind of detective–be it amateur or pro–or I might as well read some other genre. There are all kinds of mysteries, and each comes with its own special spin. P.I.s have a certain attitude, a flavor that’s completely different from a cozy. Thrillers have the “ticking clock,” and women in jeopardy have…well, women pitted against some evil foe. I have to admit, I can be had by a good woman in jeopardy book as long as the woman doesn’t do contrived, stupid things to up the tension. When I have to yell, “Don’t go in the basement,” the author’s lost me.
Horror has to scare you or make you squirm. Fantasy has to whisk you to some new setting with different rules than we have now. The author has to make that world come alive and establish rules that are consistent with what she’s created. Dystopian plops us in a future world after a disaster has changed mankind or society or both.
Anyway, reading and writing are subjective. When I pick up a book, I want to like it. I think most readers feel the same. When I love it, I consider it a bonus. But when I choose a novel, I’m looking for something specific–humor, a puzzle, a scare, or a happy ever after, and I feel gypped if the writer doesn’t deliver.
What stops you when you’re reading a book or disappoints you?
By the way, if you like serdoms and myths, I have a new novella (short, 40 page read) online now:)