What Makes a Good Book?

oct2

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A little book update: I’ve been writing this book for a over a year now (a whole year! my god that went fast!) (inconsistently at best, there were more than a few months when I didn’t touch it at all) and have only managed to eke out 65 pages, or 27k-ish words. Only. I know that’s an accomplishment not worth diminishing, but sometimes it feels like nothing instead of something. Why can’t it go faster? Why can’t I get it all out of my head and onto paper? I’m toying with the idea of joining a writing group this winter, for moral support alone. There are fits and starts to this whole process, and then periods of quiet so buzzingly loud it makes you crazy. The silence is the worst. I’ve been sleeping with my notebook and pen in bed next to me, just in case the all-too-frequent midnight burst of inspiration wakes me, and I can capture every word (even if they don’t make sense in the morning).

But I’ve been wondering: what makes a good book? Is it just relatable characters? A believable plot? Flowery prose? There is no universal equation, as everyone wants and expects something different out of the books they read, and it’s why some people love one author but hate another, despite that author’s mainstream popularity. What do you want out of a book? Do you want to recognize something inside of you within those pages? Do you want an escape? A nicely resolved, tied-up-with-a-bow ending? Or is it enough to read something and know someone wrote the very best book they could? Is that enough? Have I worn you out with questions?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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October 2, 2013 / read / watch / LEAVE A COMMENT / 23

23 comments

  • twinsy poo. ok let’s start here – that’s the way it goes for creatives. i mean i am sure there are people that are able to produce work at abnormal levels of frequency, but that’s not normal. feeling like you will never make something again, or write another word, i think that’s how it is. and then there will be this day where you write 20 pages in a weekend. i was going through that for months. i felt so uninspired, i was convinced that i was done. i had no more ideas. then i started working on it everyday, even if that meant i just stared at it for five minutes. after awhile (it took a few weeks) i started working. i am sure in a couple weeks i will going back to feeling like i will have no more ideas ever. i just think we clam up. it’s normal. 65 pages is a lot to write in a year! that’s like 2 short stories.

    okay now the book thing. for me i like a book that moves along. i want to want to turn the page. oh and short chapters. if i ever wrote a book i would make short chapters, people love that & i am one of those people. insight. i love a book that has a lyrical and contemporary sort of insightful prose to it. that bitter poignancy that can grab you in one sentence (entire books like this don’t often move along). but when you are reading and there’s a sentence here and there that really delineates a relationship between or an experience for, or a newfound realization of a character/s – that gets me. i guess in the end plot isn’t always what makes a book for me, characters more so. but when i get a book that has a great plot and characters i get attached to, those are my favorites. do not need tidy endings, but sometimes it’s nice to get one. xoxoxo

    • This is such a thoughtful and eloquent comment, Christine, thank you so much! I think, no, I know I have such grand expectations about every time I sit down to write, and when the words only sputter out I get so frustrated. I always think, “Yep, there you go, you’re done, you’re out of words. The end. Pack it in, loser.” Maybe even the fear of silence is paralyzing me into inaction. I don’t know.

      You’d love “Writing Down the Bones,” if you’re into creativist theory books. The chapters in that book are about a page and a half on average. Perfect bite size nuggets of information. I haven’t even attempted to split the book into chapters yet. I’m working with months, as it is, and hoping some more structure will present itself after that. Thank you so much for all of this advice. Storing it away for when I need encouragement. xo

  • I had to spend some time thinking about this (these) question, and I come back and Christine has said everything I wanted to say. First, about those gaps in productivity. I don’t think they’re really gaps. I think good, hard work happens during those quiet times, but you just can’t see it. You see it on the other side. So be patient and gentle with yourself.

    And for me too, about the novel or the story, pretty much everything she said. Stories that move. That make me what to turn a page. Character driven as much as plot. Details about characters so you can unravel them as the plot moves along. And yes, tidy endings aren’t necessary, but they’re so soothing. Ultimately, I read for escape and pleasure. Life’s too short to do it for hard stuff, so I want to enjoy myself. You’re getting there, duckie. Bird by bird.

    • Thank you, Lauren. I think “you see it on the other side” is super helpful, and especially apropos given your own recent creative struggle, remember? It will happen. I guess I have to keep telling myself that? The frustration just runs so high with something you’re this invested in, you know? You know.

      That last piece of advice? Bird by bird? Made me well up a little bit. Sometimes it’s so easy to forget it’s feather by feather and not forrest by forrest. I think I was beating myself up because I have all these complex (to me) characters and I’m worried that’s not enough? There isn’t enough balance? It’s hard to describe. Thank you for taking some time to answer! xo

  • Characters I care about, who are believable (flawed). I like books where there is a strong focus on the characters and their relationships, and also some interesting moral questions in the plot. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, anything by John Irving. I read for escapism, to experience someone else’s life, and maybe learn something from that experience.

    • Thank you, Nicole! I shamefully have never read the books you’ve mentioned, how embarrassing is that? I take it from your reference of them they are ones I should read. Characters and their relationships is where I am now. It’s the most fun part for me, realizing these interesting people. I had a moment in Paris earlier this year when I walked down the street where on the main character works and it felt, at any moment, that this person I’d concocted would magically appear on the street in front of me. Thats the level of devotion I want to aim for with this project, in all parts. It’s tough! Thank you so much for answering, I really appreciate all the food for thought you’ve given me! xo

  • I enjoy a book with a few characters you feel like you want to know – going through strenuous circumstances and seeing how they respond, even when it’s not favorable. I also highly enjoy non-linear sidebars and slowly revealing character development rather than lumping it together. It’s similar to the way you come to understand a person.

    I don’t think stories need to be tidied up neatly. It’s much more real when you agonize over a character who just can’t seem to get it right and never will (my first thought is Kavalier from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay)

    • That’s a really good point, Anna. You can’t give everything away up front, despite the urge to fully flush out the characters in one broad stroke. Ha, can you imagine meeting someone for the first time and having them spend 45 minutes telling you everything about themselves? There’s an old writing adage called “show, don’t tell” which is basically what you described: bits of who these characters are appear as they move through the plot, in how they react to situations and other characters. Thank you for giving me some insight!

      Thank you for reminding me about Kavalier and Clay! I first read that years ago and would love to pick it up again. xo

  • the books i love most are the ones that, once they’ve ended, i feel like i’ve lost my best friend… does that make sense?

    • Oh, absolutely, Sue. The last book to make me feel that was “An Object of Beauty” by Steve Martin. I honest to god hugged it when I was finished. xo

  • i think 27k words is a huge accomplishment, as well as for sticking with something and not abandoning it for a year! i too was thinking about joining a writing group that meets every wednesday at my library.. but i am actually a little nervous to go… as far as what makes a good book, for me it’s all about character development. i think that’s why i fell in love with harry potter because at a young age i fell in love with the characters. i got to know so many things about them even though it wasn’t written in first person.

    • Thank you, Yelle! I guess word-count aside I can be pretty proud of sticking to this for as long as I have. It’s one of the only times a story has “stuck” the way this one has for me. I should take that as a sign. I’m glad you mentioned Harry Potter. In terms of character development, I’m hard pressed to think of a series where every character, major and minor was as fully realized as those. The interesting thing about that is her follow up novel, “A Casual Vacancy”, was SO character heavy that the plot was almost non-existent (and it wasn’t a particularly interesting one, either). It’s clearly a fine balance.

      And you should absolutely join that writers group! Maybe if we agree to join one it will motivate the other? What do you think? xo

  • Definitely join the writing group! The girl who sits next to me at work is part of a writing group and she gets such a boost after reading out a chapter that is well-received by her fellow writers.

    I’ve read some of her book and was pleasantly surprised at just how compellingly good it was! I don’t doubt that your prose is too, Erin. x

    • But that’s the thing, what if that boost never happens because nothing I present to the group is well received?? Imagine the opposite of that boost: self-doubt! I may never write again. (I know, I know, I need a thicker skin when it comes to receiving criticism, haha).

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Maryam! xo

  • oh, that’s some tricky questions. I like relate-able characters. something has to speak to me. I can also do away with plot and/or character if the language is beautiful and it’s a book more about ideas or concepts. sometimes I like books to escape in. I don’t want to diminish the skill necessary to write them, but my escapist books (often sci-fi or fantasy) are never among the books I get really excited about in the long run. seems like I need to get something more out of something I consider a good book. but what it is, I don’t know…

    • Thank you, Petra. Relatable characters seem to be the most oft repeated preference so far. I’m happy about that, because that’s really where my focus has been so far this past year. I can understand why you can’t put your finger on what exactly draws you to a specific book, it’s hard to narrow it down to one simple answer. Books are so much more complex than that! Thank you for trying, it’s given me a lot to think about! xo

  • I’ve been thinking through this and after reading the comments above, it seems as though, unsurprisingly, everyone has something different that designates something as a good book in his or her own eyes. A good book to me is one that has dynamic characters, paints a picture in your head, and makes you feel. It has an original setting, adventure, and conflict. So pretty much a sum of all the components of great books anywhere everywhere. I know that’s not helpful.

    Here’s another go – this sounds dumb but a good book is like a well-made sandwich. One part of the sandwich (let’s say the lettuce) could not be stellar for the entire sandwich to still be tasty. But when you start having multiple sub-par parts (bread / cheese / etc), the sandwich starts failing. Also, the sandwich could be composed of a combination of very different ingredients that you never thought would go well together but after that first bite, strangely enough, it works.

    I’m going to have to continue to give this one more thought. But now, off to get some sandwiches.

    • Thank you Rooth. As someone who reads as much as you do, I really value your insight into my little conundrum, haha. And you’re right, everyone’s answers have varied, but it’s been really really interesting to see what everyone says, what everyone likes. You were helpful! I think the sandwich metaphor is helpful, and I’d even extend it to cooking. All the basic ingredients, characters, plot, conflict, are all available, it’s just the balance of how much you throw in the pan. Heavy-handed one one (or bad bread/cheese, like you said) can ruin the whole dish.

      And dammit now I’m hungry, haha. xo

      • Totally right. There are definitely some books out there that don’t have the ingredients that I would find in a good book but somehow, it works and that’s really cool as well.

  • wow I can’t believe you’ve been writing that for a year! you need to finish it already! (kidding). (Not Americanism).
    A good book to me is either or both of two things: It is so gripping that I forget to eat (Ruth Rendell, Agatha Christie, Gillian Flynn, Conan Doyle spring to mind), or it is a book that I don’t necessarily enjoy reading, but stays with me forever and I can’t stop thinking about after. Jay McInerney’s The Good Life and Douglas Kennedy’s Pursuit of Happiness are two of those for me. Both set in New York. Hmmm….

    • Thanks, Annie! Books you get lost in or that won’t get lost from your memory, eh? Two really good observations. Though what if a book stays with you for the wrong reasons? That’s a problem I had with Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” The ending of that book made me so uncomfortable and I genuinely hated all the characters that I wish there was an option for brain bleach. Does the fact that it’s still with me make it a good book inherently? Interesting discussion topics, thanks Bird! xo

  • What makes a good book? Wow, what a great question. I had to really give this some thought. As you mentioned, it’s subjective. For me, engrossing and complex characters: ones that aren’t entirely likeable or entirely repulsive (because that’s too predictable). I love characters that grapple with internal conflict and come out the other side having learned something, especially about themselves or humanity. However, they don’t need to come out the other side perfectly polished, and I don’t need any clear-cut moral messages. Subtlety and nuance go a long way for me (think: The Great Gatsby). Jhumpa Lahiri, Khaled Hosseini, and Jonathan Franzen are a few current authors that I really enjoy. As a bonus, I wouldn’t be mad if the book made me cry and/or laugh out loud somewhere along the ride. I do love it when a book moves me in some way.
    Second to that is the plot. A great plot that makes you feel like you’ve just lived another life and, yes, one that compels you to hug the book at its conclusion makes for a perfect book every time.
    Given all the intricacies that are involved in a book, your 27k words are nothing to sneeze at. In fact, it’s an accomplishment you should feel very proud of. I hope you’re celebrating milestones along the way. xo

    • These are some really strong points, Theresa, thank you! It’s a blend of elements, it seems, which I figured. Characters are the most important piece of the puzzle, but they’ll fall flat without a good plot or background. I hear you. I love Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Franzen, too! I read Freedom last year and man, that is one intense set of characters, all fully flushed out and complex. I didn’t love the plot as much as I’d wanted to, but that book still stuck with me because of the characters.
      Thank you for the encouragement, it’s so sweet! Once I break the 30k milestone (or even 50k one day!) I think I’ll celebrate with some confetti, haha. xo